Living the 1970s dream: A lesson in critical thinking

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My parents’ home, circa 1979.

Are Americans’ lives getting worse? Or does it just seem that way?

One of our core responsibilities as high school teachers is to help our students develop critical thinking skills, learn to question assumptions and challenge “common sense”.

It’s something we humans are bad at — as a rule — for all sorts of complex psychological reasons. We’re much too easily influenced by what other people say, and we tend to seek information that supports our biases.

Still, we can and must do better. As teachers, we need to incorporate critical thinking into all of our lessons.

What got me thinking about this challenge this week was a quote in this New York Times story. The mayor of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, stated what many believe to be true of our economy today: People are working similar jobs to what their parents did but are not able to maintain the same lifestyle.”

This is taken as a given in our political discourse, that our standard of living has fallen from our parents’ generation. It’s practically part of our national mythology. It wasn’t questioned in the article.

But has our standard of living really fallen?

Every year, I explain to my econ students what life was really like for my family in the 1970s (and for typical American families in the 1950s), but it would be interesting to take that lesson one step further.

This year, I’m going to have them calculate: What would it cost to replicate my parents’ (or better yet, their grandparents’) standard of living today?

Do today’s households really need to work two jobs to do it?

Let’s start with a few basic facts — facts we seem to have collectively forgotten.

When my dad was my age (50), it was 1979. Here are a few things you might remember about that time, if you grew up in a similarly middle class, college-educated family in the 1970s. Let’s take off the rose-colored glasses.

  • We had no computer or internet
  • We had no videogame system
  • We had no stereo system, just a simple record player
  • We had no cell phones
  • We had one house phone, with no fancy features (like call waiting)
  • We had one TV, but no cable (and no fancy surround sound)
  • We had no central air conditioning
  • We had no microwave
  • We had one car, a late model Chevy Impala with broken AC
  • Our house, which seemed large at the time, was 1900 square feet
  • My brother and I played rec league sports — we had no “traveling teams”
  • We ate basic ’70s meals, meaning no fancy produce — never heard of kiwi or cilantro — and usually ground beef or chicken, not steak or fish. (I didn’t know you could buy spinach fresh! And organics?? Forget it!)
  • We rarely ate out, even at McDonald’s, and it was a BIG DEAL when we did
  • We only used long distance to call our grandparents
  • We went to the mall once a year to buy a handful of new clothes; the rest of my clothes were hand-me-downs (and no designer stuff)
  • Our vacations were once a year, always by car, and usually to a rented cabin on a lake
  • We thought we were living large when we got a color TV and a dishwasher

So what would it cost to live at my parents’ standard of living now?

I ran the calculations, based on buying their house at its current market value (about $500,000) with 20% down, buying a new Chevy Impala, and budgeting $800 a month for groceries (for a family of four). And yes, I included property taxes, heating bills and basic health insurance.

My best estimate: It would require a pre-tax income of around $60,000 a year. Yes, despite the huge increase in housing costs: $60,000 a year.

That’s just $1000 more than household median income in this country, meaning the typical American household could probably afford my parents’ 1970s lifestyle.

And they could afford it on much less in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where you can buy a 1900 square foot house for about $70,000 (Zillow).

So why are we so convinced that our standard of living has fallen?

I think it’s because we are simply incapable of making these kinds of comparisons on a casual basis. We can’t fathom what it would be like to live without the conveniences (and extravagances) we have today.

No cable TV? No cell phone? Are you asking us to go back to the Dark Ages?

If we’re going to have honest dialog about our economic problems and potential solutions, we need to acknowledge that the typical American standard of living has improved dramatically, at least in terms of “stuff,” compared to our parents’ generation. It’s our expectations that have changed.

We’ll be doing our students a service if we help them learn to ask these kinds of questions and seek the supporting facts for themselves, rather than just accepting what people assume to be true. Hopefully, they’ll find it interesting too.

*This article originally stated that $60,000 was individual median income. It is household median income.

 

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Overwhelmed by exceptions

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Cartoon from http://theprocessconsultant.com/ 

If you’re not a teacher, it’s easy to think a teacher’s job is three things:

  • Design and deliver effective lessons
  • Check students’ understanding through daily work, and
  • Evaluate tests and various sort of papers, like essays and lab reports.

But that’s just the easy part.

Our job is really about managing ambiguity, trying to address the dozens of small and large requests that come at us every day, the stuff that no one else ever sees.

Our job requires striking a balance between what society expects of our schools (rigorous standards, high achievement, instilling a good work ethic, etc.) and what parents and students ask of us (exceptions, accommodations, forgiveness, etc.)

For example:

Student A suffered a serious concussion and cannot access online materials, watch videos, read the textbook, or come to class. Can you help him catch up on his work?

Student B isn’t comfortable speaking up in class. Please do not call on her or expect her to participate in discussion. If a speech is required, please give her an alternate assignment.

Student C is anxious about writing free-response questions in a school setting. Can he do them all at home?

Student D does not do well with group work. Please assign her only individual work.

Student E cannot manage calendars or timelines. Can you talk to him individually each time an assignment is due?

I don’t mean to sound negative — it is what it is. Our students are, in fact, individuals with different needs, capacities and concerns. And while some of these requests are unreasonable, some are perfectly reasonable. No one with a concussion should be watching videos.

What I want non-teachers to understand is that the exceptions themselves command the bulk of our attention many days, and they often drive our decision-making.

Any teacher reading this is thinking, “duh” or “I’ve got better examples than that.”

But non-teachers are often surprised by this. They see the other side — the workplace side — and think it’s obvious we should hold firm and just say no. Won’t our students need to be able to write under pressure, work in groups, manage calendars, etc. in the real world? Aren’t we concerned that our graduates will need remediation when they go to college or work? How can we make so many exceptions?

They don’t realize that when the pressure is on, and no one is supporting you, the easiest response to an exception request is yes, yes, yes.

I’ve been thinking about this balancing act all week, after reading the thought-provoking New York Times article about rising anxiety in teens. Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist and expert on anxiety, is quoted explaining that sometimes our willingness to accommodate makes things worse for our teens.

She said: “Kids are being given some really dangerous messages these days about the fact that they can’t handle being triggered, that they shouldn’t have to bear witness to anything that makes them uncomfortable and that their external environments should bend to and accommodate their needs.”

She’s talking specifically about anxiety, but this could be true for many of our parent/student requests. When a student is struggling, it’s tempting just to make things easier or more accessible for them. The problem is — we may be doing them a disservice in the long run.

If I exempt a student from speaking in class because speaking is too much for him, how will he ever master this skill? If I don’t expect a student to work with classmates, how will they function in a workplace with teams? How will they navigate in college without these supports? 

Unfortunately, many parents and students are in crisis mode, and these concerns are just not on the table for discussion. And as mere teachers — not psychologists, not psychics — how can we be sure there is any long-term harm?

I know we are not going to turn the tide on this issue right now, but I would like to see us start focusing on long-term issues of student learning and mastery of critical skills, rather than on short-term fixes that help students “pass” a class. We need to help students overcome their barriers and develop their skills, not just be accommodated.

If we are serious about educating students to be responsible citizens, thoughtful problem-solvers, and well-prepared workers, we have to keep that as our True North. And every time we are asked to make exceptions and exemptions, we have to stop and ask how these are serving our students for life — not just for now.

 

Kids can learn online, but they often don’t

canstockphoto19146585Is Khan Academy or Crash Course (or something like it) going to drive public schools out of business?

Online competition has already dominated our traditional ways of doing almost everything –planning vacations, looking for jobs, watching TV, playing games, meeting dates, talking to friends, consuming news. Just ask my former colleagues in the newspaper business.

It seems like a no-brainer that online access to most of human knowledge is going to put teachers out of work as well.

But I don’t think so, at least not any time soon.

Both of the high school classes I’m teaching right now are hybrids – meaning, the students do the majority of their work online. In both of them, too many students suffer from an inability to keep themselves on track.

Every week, I pull aside students during our face-to-face meetings to remind them about missing (and upcoming) work, which is clearly listed on the class calendar. Every week, I send out email blasts, call parents, talk to deans, leave blanks in the grade book.

Ultimately, all (or nearly all) of these students will successfully complete these classes, but it will take a large amount of prodding and handholding.

Why? Because most high school students just don’t have the maturity or motivation yet to organize and pursue their own learning. If they did, they could master almost any subject from the comfort of their home already — without us.

To be fair, when I’ve taught all-online courses to adults, the completion problem is even worse. Many never finish at all – and never explain why.

Most of us, it seems, have trouble sticking with the discipline of completing an academic course on our own. We like to dabble; we like to find answers to immediate questions (what is the speed of light?) or find DIY solutions (how can I remove wallpaper?) but when it comes to mastering a challenging subject like intro-level microeconomics, it’s just too hard to keep ourselves on task.

This shouldn’t really be surprising. We are social creatures, and we learn best in a social context. Our relationships with our teachers are a large part of our motivation – they are the ones who spark our interest, who make us care, who give us real feedback about our progress, who help us overcome challenges. (Teachers — this is our advantage, so we need to make the most of it.)

Without a real human being deeply invested in our learning, we just don’t care quite as much.

Khan Academy – and dozens of other tech startups like it – may have great content and increasingly clever and engaging presentations, but until they have a way to connect students with other human beings who care deeply about them, I don’t think our jobs are going anywhere.

Are we ready for student speech?

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“Do you think high school students have the same right to free speech as adults?”

This warmup question, which I used for years as an introduction to teaching Tinker v. Des Moines to my Civil Liberties classes, sparked a heated discussion among teachers at a workshop I led earlier this week.

No issue is more on teachers’ minds right now – as we head back to school — than how to deal with the fallout of Charlottesville and the increasing exposure of neo-Nazi and white supremacist speech in our public spaces.

What do we do if a student shows up in class displaying a swastika?

What about a Confederate flag?

How can we facilitate conversation in social studies class, when one student’s “political” opinion is that other students don’t belong here?

How do we require tolerance and sensitivity toward other students, when parents might accuse us of a “liberal agenda”?

There are no easy answers. I’ve always believed student speech in public schools deserved broad protection and that we benefit from talking to people whose opinions are different from our own — rather than silencing them — but I’ve never been in a situation like this.

I’ve spent countless hours over the past 20 years explicitly teaching teenagers how to have civil conversations about sensitive topics like abortion and same-sex marriage and religion, but I’ve never had to deal with a student claiming a free speech right to express hatred. For the most part, until now, social norms were enough to stop them.

What do we do? How do we treat student speech in this new climate? I think Tinker is exactly where we should start.

When we immerse students in the facts of that particular case, which involved high school students (Mary Beth and John Tinker pictured, plus three others) wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War in 1965, we give them the opportunity to engage in a valuable meta-conversation about the power of speech itself. It forces them to step back from the highly charged public shouting match and think.

In my lesson, students are arbitrarily assigned to represent the Tinkers or the Des Moines public school district, and each side is provided with enough facts and court precedents to make effective points. They have 10 minutes to prepare, 3 minutes to argue, and 2 minutes to rebut (which, of course, requires listening to the other side).

In that short time, students quickly realize that the issue is much more complicated than “It’s my right to say what I want!” They realize they have to consider the school’s obligation to protect all students and promote education, the potential disruption speech can cause, and the responsibility that comes with a speaker’s rights.

When we read the court’s opinion – the second part of the lesson — they also realize that a school isn’t the same as a public park or street, that what is acceptable in one venue (what we see on TV) isn’t necessarily OK at school – no matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on. These are important starting points for shaping our discussion norms in class.

As we head back to school this fall, we need to make our classrooms safe places for students to discuss ideas, but we also need to make them safe places for all of our students to be. It’s going to be difficult to achieve both these goals, especially in schools with diverse student bodies.

We need to be ready.

My lesson on Tinker v. Des Moines will be distributed to NeverBore.org subscribers tomorrow. If you’re interested, go to NeverBore.org and sign up.

A solution – or a new problem?

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Yesterday, I received an email from “R” saying a parent was requesting that I join 55 other teachers at my school who are “already using Remind.”

This struck me as odd. Was the request really from a parent? (“R” came with no last name or email address.) Are parents demanding this, or is it clever marketing? Will it become an expectation at my school?

I know about Remind. It’s not a scam. It’s a relatively new app that makes it easy for teachers to text reminders to parents and students about upcoming assignments and tests – as well as text specific parents when their kids are struggling. It’s a smash hit in the ed tech world.

A few months ago, I heard an NPR report explaining how student attendance, assignment completion and even test scores improved in trial high-poverty schools when they used Remind. I don’t remember the details, but my overall impression was favorable.

Remind seemed to work – where websites, online access to grades and other forms of communication did not – because it did not require email or internet access, which many of the families did not have. That makes sense.

But what about in schools where students and parents do have email and internet access? Is there really an added benefit when kids and parents can already access this information with a few keystrokes? I’m already using gradebook-generated email, Gmail, a Moodle site, postcards, letters, phone calls and, of course, face-to-face conversations to communicate with families.

I can already hear the groundswell of support: Why shouldn’t we also use Remind? What could possibly be wrong with over-communicating? If there’s even a chance it will help, why not?

That sentiment is persuasive, and yet… I believe there is a real risk in over-supporting our kids.

Last weekend I had a long conversation with a friend who is a college professor; she was lamenting the number of college freshmen she sees crash and burn when the high school supports are removed. The more we do for them, she says, the less they learn to do for themselves. Eventually, that is a problem. An expensive one, when it means failing college classes.

I’m not denying that teenagers need help with organization, assignment tracking and so forth. Of course they do. What I am saying that we need to teach them these organizational skills, rather than just taking over and bypassing this learning opportunity.

When I was in high school, I learned how to record assignments and test dates in a planner. I also learned to write especially important stuff on my left hand. Today, kids can still do that. Or they can set up a Google calendar with reminders for themselves. Or they can check online class calendars. Or text a friend. Or check their class Facebook group. Or snap a picture of the assignment board.

Instead, we keep creating ever more passive mechanisms to allow them to get through high school without having to organize themselves. I think that’s a bad idea.

At some point in the next few weeks, I’ll have to make a decision about whether to use Remind. The easy choice will be to say yes – because, honestly, why fight it?

But I think we need to proceed with caution. We have to figure out how to ease our teenagers off of these supports as they move through high school, not just create more of them.

Maybe freshmen need this, but by the time they graduate, students don’t need Remind. What they do need is a system to “remind” themselves. And they will never create one if we keep doing it for them.

A cynical take on the value of school

canstockphoto40542858Last week, a Slate.com article on a new technology to track mental engagement (Pay Attention!) raised the issue of boredom in school, quoting this stat: “82 percent of U.S. high school students report being sometimes or often bored in class.”

Like me, the writer Mary Mann (also the author of Yawn: Adventures in Boredom) clearly finds this disturbing. So does the researcher, Dr. Hasan Ayaz, who is using spectroscopy to identify and prevent student boredom at the neurological level.

The commenters on the article… not so much. Here’s what they had to say:

“So?”

“Learning to handle boredom is an invaluable skill.”

“I couldn’t agree more. In fact, it’s one reason I think public school is useful: kids learn to navigate boredom.”

Wow, that is depressing. Here’s another one:

“School is boring for the most part, that’s just the way it is.”

The conversation also touched on what’s important to learn in school, what’s not important, who’s responsible for boring curriculum and other issues, but the general consensus was: Who cares if school is boring? Work isn’t fun, and life isn’t fun. They might as well find out early.

When people bash on the very idea that learning could be engaging, it makes me sad for them. What kind of education did they have that left them so cynical? Why was it so removed from anything that mattered to them?

Work can be fun. Or at least it can be interesting and engaging and better than just reading social media and watching reality TV, which would leave me feeling brain-dead and exhausted. Meaningful work can give you a sense of purpose. Same with school.

We need to start there — and fight the idea that school is merely training for a monotonous life.

 

Like so much that’s worth learning, trade is complicated

tradeTeachers spend a lot of time trying to break down difficult concepts and make them easier for our students to digest, but what about when the truth is just complicated?

How can we combat the crisis of oversimplification in this country and get our kids to muddle around in complexity?

This weekend, I taught my last session of “Preparing to Teaching High School Economics” with a group of 10 Minnesota teachers who are new to econ this year. I decided to start the day by talking about trade, which basically feels like a four-letter word these days. (I wouldn’t blame them for skipping it altogether, though it would be a shame.)

I drew a simple supply and demand graph for them, showing the U.S. sugar market without any trade, then we opened the market and saw how lower world prices would affect both U.S. consumers (happy!!) and U.S. producers (very angry).

One by one, we worked through all of the implications. Who does trade help? Who is hurt? Why do the producers lobby their legislators, while consumers do not? How would a 20% tariff on Mexican imports affect American households?

Or what if you’re a low-cost country, like China, and trade means more exports rather than imports? How does that impact Chinese workers, who produce a lot of stuff (like toys, T-shirts and electronics parts) that they can’t afford to buy?

At the end of our discussion, one of the teachers asked: “So can we just leave it like that? Point out the good and the bad and not answer it for them?”

Continue reading “Like so much that’s worth learning, trade is complicated”

‘Flush with funds’ sounds nice

My school district spends about $13,000/student each year. President Trump’s children went to private schools that cost $30,000-$50,000. Baron’s elementary school in New York charges $47,000 per student this year.

So I wonder what our president means when he says our public schools are “flush with funds”?

I wonder what it would be like to work someplace that was, actually, flush with funds.

Compared to schools in Arizona, which get about $7,000 per student, we are relatively flush here in Minnesota. My classes might be jammed with 35 kids each, but at least I have updated textbooks and pretty reliable technology (Smartboard, Wi-fi network, Chromebooks) — and although I have to buy some of my own supplies, I don’t have to pay for my own ink or copies.

Also, teachers are paid a liveable wage, if not enough to entice the top college grads. On average, Minnesota public school teachers get about $60,000 a year, which is close to median for a college-educated American. (Yeah, I know we get summers off, but most of us work about 60 hours a week in the school year, so it still comes out to about $25/hour pre-tax.)

Still, if our school district had three times as much money per student? (Maybe we could have federal vouchers that size?)

For one thing, we could cut those class sizes down to 15 kids. It’s not that I can’t teach 35 kids at a time — my students excel each year on the AP Micro, AP Macro and AP Psych tests — but it definitely limits how much writing and public speaking practice our kids get. 

We could also offer our kids a lot more support. Our high school does what it can to help struggling students, like scheduling a free hour once a week where they can meet with teachers, but mostly we rely on them to “get it.” Imagine having the time to individually tutor struggling students on a regular basis?

We could hire people to deal with more of the non-teaching duties, too, like making calls and fixing technology when it (inevitably) breaks down. I dream of having an assistant who could handle paperwork!

I’d also love to have funds to be able to buy new programs when I learn about them — like MobLab interactive simulation games for economics. Not an option on our budget.

Compared to a lot of public schools out there, we’re doing pretty well on $13,000/student. Both of my kids went to my public school, and they were quite well prepared for college.

But $47,000 per student — a sum our legislators would never agree to — sounds pretty amazing. Now that would be a school system flush with funds.

Learning history in the present

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Women marched peacefully on Saturday to demonstrate pride and autonomy — and to let President Trump know they won’t stand for any rollback of women’s rights.

Or, women marched and destroyed property Saturday to whine about losing the election.

Or, women marched Saturday as dupes of outside forces, including radical Islam.

Which version do you believe?

I believe #1. Most of my friends were at marches Saturday — in St. Paul, in Washington, D.C., in Seattle, in Philadelphia, in Wichita, in New York — and I trust their perspective. I would have joined them if I hadn’t been sick all week, because I’m concerned about women’s rights (and human rights) under the new regime.

Like many women, I was appalled by the video last fall, revealing how Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women, and I don’t like that he wishes Time’s “Person of the Year” was still “Man of the Year.” Like many women, I’m also worried about serious policy issues like women’s health care and access to contraceptives.

But I know people who genuinely believe versions 2 and 3, based on their personal views, their news sources, and their interpretation of current events. I was, frankly, startled to read their perspectives on Facebook.

I have a completely different viewpoint, which is why this event strikes me as a perfect opportunity for a history lesson.

Last fall, at the NCSS conference, I attended a great session on how eyewitness experiences become history. Whose story gets told? Why is that story told? And what is lost?

In the session, the instructor asked us to write down on paper what we had done that morning, word for word. What we ate, where we went, who we talked to, what we had learned in other sessions.

Then he proceeded to destroy most of our stories, telling us ¼ were destroyed in a flood, ¼ were destroyed by an invasion, another ¼ were suppressed by a new government. On and on, until one or two perspectives on the day remained for posterity.

It was a fascinating way to think about history. How do we know what living through the Plague was really like? Or slavery? Or the Civil War? Or the Vietnam War? Only by the accounts of those who were there (and lived to tell). For most events in human history, very few accounts survive.

Continue reading “Learning history in the present”

The elusive promise of ‘choice’

School-choice advocates are cheering the nomination of Betsy DeVos to head Trump’s Department of Education, while public school proponents are worried about what her leadership would mean for the future of public education.

What is it about charter schools and voucher systems, which DeVos unabashedly supports, that makes them so divisive?

Why do many conservatives believe so strongly in them, while many liberals fear and oppose them? I find this issue fascinating, since so many teachers I know have worked in public, private and charter schools. Every year, someone I know is moving from charter to public, public to private, private back to public and so on.

If many of the same teachers are cycling through this revolving door of schools, what makes any kind of school any different? Why prefer one system over the other?

For conservatives, it comes down to incentives. They want vouchers and charter schools because they believe more choices will lead to better schools, like more competition leads to better cars. Administrators and teachers will have to up their game to attract students.

For liberals, there are multiple issues: Who will look out for the underserved students, the ones whose parents won’t apply for vouchers or enroll them in the best charters? And what would deregulation do to the hard-won gains in teachers’ contracts, like livable wages (in some states)?

There is evidence that school competition leads to better outcomes for students, especially in places like New Orleans, where a citywide system of charters is clearly outperforming the pre-Katrina public school district.

But there is also evidence of charter schools that operate without oversight, take tax dollars without producing results, and shut down mid-year leaving students and teachers stranded.

Is there a way to harness the beneficial forces of competition, while learning lessons from the experiments that have failed? Can we have the best of both worlds?

In the best-case scenario, competition can promote innovation, which can be shared with all schools. The structure of charter schools encourages experimentation — they are not tradition-bound, so they can immerse kids in music or the environment or civic activism or humanities. (Their biggest failing, in fact, is that they mostly mimic traditional public schools, but with longer days and stricter discipline.)

But in order to make the competition fair, we need to ensure that traditional public schools have a level playing field with these new contenders.

First, let’s make sure that all schools receiving tax dollars accept any and all students — regardless of race, gender, income or disability. If vouchers do not cover the whole tuition, the school needs to waive the rest for low-income or special ed students who apply.

Second, let’s make sure that all schools receiving tax dollars administer the same assessments to their students, so we can judge their performance apples to apples.

Third, let’s free public schools from some of their bureaucracy, while adding enough accountability to charters to make sure they’re not fly-by-night schemes.

School choice and traditional public schools have co-existed for decades already. Let’s try to pull the best from both systems, rather than trying to promote one at the expense of the other. Then both sides can have something to cheer about.