Friday, May 30, 2014

Linda McSpadden McNeil

with Mirror by Jaume Plensa
Dr Linda McSpadden McNeil is the Director of the Center for Education at Rice University and a Rice Education professor. A curriculum theorist and analyst of school structure and reform, she has written extensively on teaching and learning in urban schools, on school organization and on education policy and standardization.  Her writings are widely cited scholarly publications and national media. In 1988, she co-founded the Center for Education to support research and teacher enhancement programs to address the persistent problems of inequity and uneven quality in urban schools.  She and her colleagues in the Center for Education have for twenty-five years designed, created, funded, and operated programs to retrain urban teachers in their subject fields and in children’s learning and cultures. She has two daughters.

What’s your story, Linda?
I am a teacher, my mother was a teacher, and my grandmother was a teacher in one-room schoolhouses, so teaching is in my bones. Now I teach Rice students to become teachers, but originally I was a high school English teacher and that has led to all my current work. 

I was a high school teacher in a district that had taken twenty years to desegregate its schools. I quickly realized an incredible tension between what they wanted kids to learn and what they didn't want them to know. I thought they had hired me to be the best teacher I could be, to be like the teachers who had inspired me to teach.  A cohort of us in the English department had that same vision for the kids and yet we were being told, “Don't teach Black poetry – that’s political.” I learned then what I've come to call the tension between knowledge access and knowledge control.

When I had the opportunity to pursue a PhD at the University of Wisconsin, I began with the questions I had faced as a teacher: “What counts as school knowledge?  What factors shape the ways schools make knowledge accessible – or inaccessible – to kids? Whose knowledge is of most worth?”  These questions took me into classrooms for long stints of ethnographic research, looking first at the interactions of teachers and kids and then into the school setting itself.  

I observed the dynamic between the teachers and the students, seeing what kinds of questions were being asked, and what was being left out.  This kind of research came naturally to me because I inadvertently became an ethnographer at a very young age.  My dad’s work as an Amoco engineer of the generation that drilled the West Texas oil fields caused us to move frequently.  As the new kid at five different elementary schools, I always began by observing:  who might be a new best friend, which teacher would be kind and interesting.  My experiences, from being a child in some very remote schools to being a teacher who was being told by the administration what not to teach, converged in my doctoral studies and my first book, Contradictions of Control: School Structure and School Knowledge.

I arrived in Houston just as standardization was being imposed on schools, first from the district level, then from the state and, now, nationally.  Suddenly, the curriculum was not being shaped by the teachers in the classroom, but by “the system.”  Teachers were no longer valued as curriculum developers.  Because I was already doing research in classrooms, I was one of the first witnesses to the harm standardization was doing to the quality of schooling.  As multiple-choice standardized tests started to drive what could be taught, I documented huge curricular losses as the tested subjects were watered down into multiple-choice formats, particularly math, reading and writing in those early years. Other subjects were set aside, or their teachers made to replace lessons in the arts, physical fitness and science with test prep drills for math or reading.  Teachers were being forced to dump complex writing assignments, the reading of novels, lab experiments, field trips to arts performances and coastal estuaries, as well as lessons related to the cultures of their students, to drill on the generic content of tests that would be scored by computers.

That was the beginning of twenty years of “school reform” in Texas which has brought us the very top-down, centralized, standardized form of schooling most people look on as a testing system. The testing is really just the tip of the iceberg. The test scores are indicators in a management compliance system that ties everything from students’ graduation to teacher’s pay, administrators’ bonuses and even the closing of a neighborhood school, to scores on a computer-scored test.

I never thought I would be studying standardized testing.  But even as that first wave of testing came in, it became clear that the big investments in “education reform” would not be for perpetually underfunded schools or scholarships to recruit young people into teaching. The financial – and political – investment would be in the testing system. Despite all the research to the contrary, despite reports from teachers and child development experts, none of the arguments on behalf of children could be heard above the domineering voice of the testing industry. Testing companies have lobbyists; third grade children don’t.

I believe, however, that it’s up to all of us to do everything we can to create the professional, political and moral space in which good teachers can make magical things happen every day for the children in their classrooms.  It was this belief that prompted the two strands of work I’ve been doing.

The first was to create the Center for Education, with programs in support of teachers’ development. And the second was to embark on a series of research studies that could inform not only educators, but also parents and policy makers, about the impact of the standardized accountability system on children and schools. 

Even before the testing became so ubiquitous, my colleagues and I were very concerned about the anti-teacher climate in the press and in politics. We were, after all, preparing bright, dedicated Rice students to teach and we wanted them in schools hospitable to knowledgeable, caring teachers.  So Ronald Sass, now an emeritus scientist professor, and I created the Center for Education to be a base for teacher development. We had generous funding and incredibly wise advice from Maconda Brown O’Connor, our first board president.  A trustee of the Brown Foundation, she was a social worker who counseled boys in juvenile detention.  As she helped the boys connect back to their schools, she could see the ways schools could be nurturing or could exclude these youth as “problem kids.”  To Maconda, every child had promise, and her support of our work came from her own sense of urgency that all teachers needed support to be able to help all kids thrive.  She was a “practical visionary” whose lessons continue to teach us.

Our idea was not to give quick Saturday teacher workshops. All of our programs were long-haul, addressing serious deficiencies in the schools. A key example is science.  Very few middle grade science teachers had been science majors in college, and even fewer had ways of connecting with the city’s extraordinary scientists.  We created a teaching laboratory in an urban middle school where teachers came for an intensive year of study and exploration with scientists from Rice and industry, learning how to engage their students in the questions and ‘aha’ moments that make science so powerful.   We had financial support from individuals, corporations, local foundations, the National Science Foundation and ultimately the school district itself.  And now, after so many years, the “Model Lab” science teachers continue to be valued leaders. And out of that original lab, new programs were created first for high school teachers, then elementary teachers, as well as on-line curricular resources for science inquiry across the grades.

The School Writing Project addressed the persistent low quality of children’s writing nationally and locally – a problem made worse by multiple-choice test drills and formulaic writing required by the state.  The School Writing Project brought small groups of teachers together in intimate seminars to work on their own writing as well as the teaching of writing and sharing samples of their students’ work.  Over the years, these seminars branched into specialized discussions of teaching English language learners and of integrating the teaching of writing with the other creative arts.  Many teachers have told us that they have remained in teaching, and remained in urban schools, because of the professional community they found in School Writing Project.

The focus of these programs, and others such as Asia Outreach, created by Rice history professor Richard Smith, and our early childhood programs, has always been on empowering teachers.  We have worked to make teachers more knowledgeable about their own subjects and the many ways children learn, and about the cultures of the children in their classrooms.  We don’t just advocate for “teacher professionalism” in the abstract, but support teachers to make their teaching engaging and their classrooms places of inquiry and equity.  Our research in schools has informed our work with teachers. And, maybe even more important, we have learned from teachers what we should be investigating in our research.

Our research is the other “half” of the Center’s mission:  studying what is taught in schools, who is being well-served or underserved by our schools, and what factors in the community and in the policy arena are shaping children’s education.  When I began studying what is taught – or not taught – in schools,   those were classroom studies with me as the solo researcher.  What I found in classrooms led me to take a hard look at the administrative practices in schools and the policies controlling them.  For these larger studies, I’ve had the great benefit of working with smart colleagues who share my vision of research in the public interest. Our research looks a bit like a set of concentric circles:  from classrooms, to systemic problems such as dropouts, to democratic schooling itself. 

After being in classrooms documenting the curriculum losses – what I think of as the “real learning” – under standardization, we looked at where this was coming from.  This got us into policy analysis. Our next finding was even more disturbing. We discovered that schools were triaging out of school the students they saw as weak, those they saw as putting the school’s scores in danger, and they were doing so in ways that were technically legal. 

It was from teachers and principals we knew well that we learned the real story behind the “drop out problem.”  The myth of the standardized accountability system was that it would raise academic standards and close the racial “achievement gap” in Texas schools.  But as we spent more time in schools, particularly in high poverty, urban high schools, we saw that the huge dropout rate – more than 100,000 kids each year from Texas high schools! – was not a separate problem from the testing system.  The gap, in fact, was widening.

As the state’s system of accountability became ‘high stakes’ for administrators, directly tying their job contracts and pay bonuses to the test scores of the kids in their schools, they began to triage out of school those students whose scores were likely to lower the school’s accountability ratings.  These students came disproportionately from African American, Hispanic, immigrant and high-poverty communities.  Students literally came to be seen as “assets” or “liabilities” to the school ratings, with the “liabilities” triaged out prior to taking the test. 

Many schools were reporting dropout rates as low as 2% or 3%, yet when those same schools had one thousand entering freshmen, with only 350 of those students end up in the senior graduating class, you have to ask questions. My colleagues and I started noticing that the school ratings were higher if the dropout numbers were also up. The greater the number of low-achieving kids dropping out, the higher the school’s test score rating. Frankly, it took us a long time to figure out how to write about this because it shows that our state’s education system actually rewards principals who “lose” kids. 

In the end, we never had to make the accusation that principals were deliberately triaging weaker kids out – the principals did it for us. They told us they felt caught and but felt the system left them little choice.  We designed a study to find out if these schools were exceptions, or if this represented a pattern that could explain the thousands of kids being “lost” from our high schools. We were able to show, by race and grade level, how the “losses” of students enhanced their schools’ ratings—and those bonuses. We published our findings as Avoidable Losses in a peer-reviewed on-line journal.  It has had almost 20,000 hits and been used by parent advocacy groups, teachers, and legislators organizing against the high stakes testing system.

Having documented the losses of both high quality curriculum content and of students under standardized accountability, my research team and I are now studying and writing about the threat this system poses to democratic, public education itself.  The test score numbers generated by the standardized tests mask old inequities and create new ones. Low scores are being used to justify closing neighborhood schools and shifting taxpayer dollars to charter chains and others who would destroy the public’s schools.  There are political and for-profit forces working together to replace this essential democratic institution with a market of privately owned, but tax-payer funded, “schools.”  This push to de-democratize schools is important to understand because the public’s schools are a vital venue for maintaining a voice for democracy itself.   This is the book we are currently working on and we hope it becomes more than just bearing witness to this anti-democratic-schooling movement.  We hope it helps foster an even stronger public discussion already underway about re-claiming the billions of testing dollars for classrooms and high quality instruction in the public’s schools.

My original research question, “What is shaping our kids’ access to knowledge and to ways of learning in schools?” has led me into amazing classrooms where kids are thriving and into the current policy fray that frankly seems hostile to children.  I couldn’t be more grateful for the teachers and colleagues who keep reminding me why we need to keep asking these questions.

What is your Houston story?
I’ve been in Houston for thirty years.  I was born in California and grew up in the oil fields of West Texas before we moved to Tulsa.  Although my dad became Amoco’s international corrosion expert, he was the kind of engineer who was a real craftsman and didn’t easily fit any organization chart. I think I inherited that sense of craft from my dad and from my grandparents, and I carried it into what I think about teaching. 

Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
My two daughters – one is a psychiatrist and the other is a veterinarian who does international public health work. They are both just amazing – funny, smart generous, caring – and always inspiring me.

The greatest influence on my work here has to be Maconda Brown O’Connor, who was fierce and more than a little angry about what was happening to children and youth in the justice system and in some of our schools. Maconda’s idea was that if you sit in a place of privilege like this university, with a base from which to work on problems, then you have no excuse not to. And if one thing doesn’t work, try something else.  She helped us create the Center for Education and also created the Greater Houston Collaborative for Children, an organization of advocacy for young children. She was not shy about giving advice, nor hesitant to give support.

Here at Rice, there is Neal Lane.  Neal is a scientist. He was our provost in the early years of our work and one of those rare people who is just so wise. 

I’m also inspired by people whose courage seems to them to be just common sense.  Our friend Joe Elder in Wisconsin, who as a Quaker peace negotiator took desperately needed cardiology equipment to the hospitals in Hanoi while US bombs were dropping on the city.  The young people who ten years ago started No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes to provide relief for immigrants in peril of dying in the Arizona desert.   The Black teachers who were assigned to integrate that white high school where I first taught, and in doing so became my teacher as well.    My professors at UW-Madison who asked important questions about education and power and tolerated my decision to do the messy and inefficient research in classrooms . This question is bringing to mind how many people I am grateful for – people I need to thank more often!

What advice would you give to someone new to the education system?
Find kindred spirits.  Find people who value what you value.  I tell my students to seek out other teachers who care deeply about the kids and who are willing to try things and to share ideas with you.  I’ve given that advice to my students and to my daughters as they start new jobs.  The same holds for kids starting out in a new school – and for parents as they build a common cause with other parents.  Sometimes it might be someone you work with very closely, or it might be colleagues around the country who are struggling with similar issues and situations, as we are now seeing in the movement to undo the harm of standardized schooling and get back to focusing on kids and learning.  Institutions are always in flux and the world is so chaotic right now that kindred spirits both anchor and energize us.

The countryside near Linda's cabin
in New Mexico
How do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
Through my daughters and through my friends, particularly those friends who have been in our lives so long that we are a part of each other’s stories.   

In terms of place, we are fortunate to have a small cabin in the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico.  It is in a remote area my parents took us to when I was a little girl.  It’s on a narrow dirt road with few neighbors.  Once we’re up there, it’s all sweatshirts and jeans and rain on the tin roof, hiking, fishing, or just watching the hummingbirds.  It is our family’s spiritual home.  As poet Wendell Berry says, it’s that one place that we have to know over many years and know by a particular tree or shifts in the stream to be fully alive on this earth.

What is your happy place in Houston?
The homes of good friends and my porch swing on a spring evening at dusk, when the night herons and other birds are coming “home.”

The Rothko Chapel and Menil complex are both energizing and restorative.  Think about the time period in which John and Dominique de Menil started bringing all of these things together in one of the most competitive, materialistic cities in the world. They were saying to Houston, “What about human rights?  What about the spirit? How can we bridge our differences?” I had the honor of meeting Mrs de Menil on two occasions. I don’t think she really felt what they were doing was courageous.  Yet they created this extraordinary Chapel so that Houston would not lack a sacred space dedicated to human rights, to social justice, to collective envisioning. Just amazing.  And it was a Rothko Chapel Oscar Romero Human Rights event that introduced me to Dolores Huerta, whom I was honored to host in my home, another of the inspirers in my life.

What is your favorite restaurant?
One of the greatest gifts of Houston is that we don’t have to decide!  It’s wonderful that the fourth largest US city has so much that is local.  We can shop at a locally owned dress shop, and a local hardware store where they can answer every question, and we can eat food from all over the world in restaurants owned by families who brought their grandma’s recipes to our neighborhood.   Just about any local Mexican restaurant is my favorite!

What is your Houston secret?
People who have never been here think that it’s going to be rather desolate but end up surprised at how lovely many parts of the city are – especially the trees.  And although the reputation is oil and gas and real estate, or space and medicine, the real Houston is in the mix of people who are from literally everywhere. And if I have a secret, it’s probably that I eavesdrop to try to improve my Spanish!

What would you change about Houston?
Houston is already a truly international city.  The children of this city and the families coming into the city are the changing face of America.  That makes it even more important for us to get education right, to get children’s health care right. Houston should be competing with Seattle in the race to bump up the minimum wage.

We are now the most diverse city in the US, which is certainly something to celebrate.  But I am concerned that diversity without equity is not progress.  Diversity without equitable political and economic power is not yet democracy. While I love all the international restaurants and hearing all the different languages on the street, I am starting to think that people are looking at diversity as an exotic accessory rather than “This is who we are now.”  Everyone is talking about how fabulous diversity is, but few seem to be thinking aloud about the growing concentrations of wealth and poverty, about what diversity means for the city’s infrastructure, for mass transit into all the parts of the city, cleaning up the superfund pollution sites and creating parks everywhere. The possibilities are endless if diversity can enact a new political imagination.

And in the schools, although diversity should be a great asset to connect all our children with the global community, we still sometimes hear that distinction between educating “our kids,” and “other people’s children,” suggesting that we will not make the same investment in some children’s education. 

Houston has the chance to become a very robust international city because everything here is truly globalized.   We have a chance to gain a real understanding of the world by learning from the human connections within our city’s communities.

Linda was nominated as an Inspiring Houston Woman by Pansy Gee.

For more information about Linda’s work at the Rice Center for Education and for her publications, visit the Center's website.

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