How Strong Is Education Reporting?

I had the distinct honor and privilege of serving as a judge for the Education Writers Association’s annual reporting awards contest, and I want to tell you that I was blown away by the quality of the reporting.  The awards will be presented at EWA’s 71st annual National Conference in Los Angeles in a few days, but you can find the names of the finalists here.  Look at the list and pick a few at random to read, watch, or listen to. I predict you will be impressed.

Alexander Russo, who has established himself as a roving gadfly/critic/analyst of education reporting, has criticized the awards for pieces that are not found on the list, apparently because they were not entered in the first place.   While that approach may be of value, I think it’s far more important to consider the stories that, as far as I can tell, education reporters are not telling, chief among them being the faux retreat from ‘school reform’ by its staunch supporters.

Here’s the story that shouldn’t be ignored: The proponents of disastrous ‘school reform,’ which has given us 20+ years of ‘test and punish’ & such, are now positioning themselves as voices of common sense.  Exhibit A is this recent Washington Post column by two former Secretaries of Education, Arne Duncan and Margaret Spellings.  One guided the Department under George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” and other created the infamous “Race to the Top” program.

Their breath-taking chutzpah begins with the title of the piece: What ails education? ‘An absence of vision, a failure of will and politics.’   But their opening sentence actually tops it: “We have long benefited from a broad coalition that has advanced bold action to improve America’s education system.”

Just exactly who are the WE that have benefited from the ‘bold action’ that the Secretaries refer to?  It’s far easier to identify those who have NOT benefited from “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top.”  Let’s start with students, because their performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which everyone agrees is education’s ‘gold standard,’ has basically been flat for the 20+ years of Bush and Obama.  Next on the list are teachers, whose salaries and morale have declined over the years of increasing reliance on multiple-choice testing and ‘test-and-punish’ policies.  Collateral damage has been done to the occupation of teaching, which has lost prestige and now fails to attract enough candidates to fill our classrooms with qualified instructors.

So that’s–literally–millions of students and teachers who have NOT benefited from the ‘broad coalition’ that Duncan and Spellings are so proud of.

So let’s try to figure out who benefited. Here are five:  Testing companies (whose profits have climbed an estimated 5000%), those ideologues intent on fracturing public education to satisfy their political agenda, profiteers who are riding the charter school bandwagon (whether for-profit or not-for-profit, because that’s become a distinction without a difference), and–surprise–the two former United States Secretaries of Education. One now leads the University of North Carolina higher education system, and the other is one of three Managing Partners of The Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’ very wealthy and active education venture.

By the way, the financial costs of standardized testing are difficult to compute.  A 2012 study of 44 states came up with $1.7 billion, or about $65 per child, but that number leaves out teacher time devoted to test-prep and administration, as well as the money spent on processing, transfer, and reporting. What’s more, the study covered only grades 3-9, and high school students take lots of those tests.  We do know that testing companies’ profits have skyrocketed over the past several decades–during which time teacher salaries have declined, as noted above.

But it’s not just Duncan and Spellings who are intent on reinventing themselves. The 74, Campbell Brown’s faux-journalistic web-based enterprise, the ever-present Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (whose ‘reinvention’ I poked fun at recently), Tom Toch and his DC-based think tank (whose shoddy analysis of Washington DC schools I dissected not long ago) , and the right-leaning Fordham Foundation.

The latter has published a few articles about the failure of ‘school reform’–without taking any responsibility for its role in encouraging those disastrous policies over more than two decades.   Here’s an interesting bit from one of them, “Reformer, Heal Thyself,” by Max Eden: “Why is it that “accountability”-minded technocratic reforms can’t practice what they preach?  Perhaps it has something to do with the sociological structure of the reform movement, which is largely defined by a series of circular, self-congratulatory confabulations. Reformers create hero narratives and invest their own social capital and status in the status of their supposed heroes. A threat to the reputation of “transformational” leaders is a threat to the reputation of the entire movement. It’s far easier to look the other way and keep doing the same old thing.”

I write about the ‘reformers’ at some length in my new book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”  It will come as no surprise that Arne Duncan, Margaret Spellings, Rick Hess, Tom Toch, Campbell Brown, Checker Finn, Mike Petrilli, and others in the ‘school reform’ cabal are high on the list of people we need to be rescued from.

Using the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, as a bete noire, which is what Duncan and Spellings are doing, is a convenient cover for not taking responsibility for the damage done by the past 20+ years of ‘school reform.’  Their call for a new coalition–which they seem willing to lead–deserves analysis by thoughtful reporters.

And, to end where I began, we are blessed to have a ton of really good reporters out there today.  Congratulations to all those being honored by EWA.

Now, don’t stop.

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If You Could Make ONE change….

“If YOU had the power to make ONE major change in American public education immediately, what would you choose to do?”

I posed the question to my dinner companions, three authors and one editor.  But before I tell you how they answered the question, please take a minute to decide what you would do.  (and I urge you to post your answer below.)

OK, time’s up.

Let me set the scene: five adults, three white men and two African-American women, all of us left-leaning. Four writers and one editor.  Late in the evening, after good food and several bottles of wine, I posed the question.

The man I would describe as the group’s traditional liberal was the first to respond: ‘I would double our spending on education.”  Pressed to explain, he pointed out that most states had either cut spending or had failed to bring it back to pre-‘Great Recession’ levels, which has led to huge class sizes and cuts in programs that used to be considered essential, such as art and music, as well as the elimination of field trips and other opportunities.

One of the women ran with that idea, saying that she would increase spending selectively to achieve equity. “Not equal spending,” she said, “but equitable spending, so that we spend what’s necessary for each child to have a fair chance at succeeding.”  (The public–and some reporters–often equate the two terms, equity and equality, but they mean very different things.  An equitable system levels the playing field, which by definition will require spending more on some children.

Here’s a quick explanation from the Education Trust: “Yes, making sure all students have equal access to resources is an important goal. All students should have the resources necessary for a high-quality education. But the truth remains that some students need more to get there.Here’s where equity comes in. The students who are furthest behind — most often low-income students and students of color — require more of those resources to catch up…”

equity

With that explanation is this helpful graphic: three boys of differing heights are trying to peer over a fence that’s too tall for any of them to see over.  Treat them equally, and all get the same size box to stand on, even though that doesn’t guarantee that all three can see over the fence.  An equitable solution gives each kid whatever size box is necessary to allow him to see over the fence.  With equity, all kids  are standing on different size boxes but have the same view.

The other woman in the group then spoke up.  “High quality free universal pre-school for all three- and four-year-olds.  That’s what I would do if I had the power to make one change,” she said.  “Early education sets the stage,” she added, “but not lots of instruction, because that would kill it.”

The writer I would describe as the most radical in the group then chimed in.  “More money is a great idea, and so are equity and universal pre-school,” he said, “But I would want to do something that would make society commit to quality education.”  He paused. “If I had the power, I would require every state to pledge to support the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because it states that education is a fundamental human right.  That would move the needle.”

Later that evening I looked up the 1948 document, which has been translated into more than 500 languages.  Sure enough, Article 26 states:

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
At that point everyone turned to me, and, even though I am much more comfortable asking questions than answering them, I plunged ahead. “I would eliminate standardized testing.”

Everyone seemed shocked.  Including me.  Never before had I expressed that thought. To the contrary, like most critics of testing, I have always argued for ‘multiple measures’ that included–but minimized the importance of–standardized, machine-scored ‘bubble’ tests.

“Get rid of them completely,” one asked?  “Yes,” I said, “because about 75% of what they do is destructive: dumbing down the curriculum, making school a pressure-cooker, equating a person’s worth with his or her scores, falsely evaluating teacher quality based on a single number, and so on.”

I continued.  “Maybe about 25% of what they do is worth-while, but, if we got rid of them completely, we would be forced to develop alternative ways of assessing learning, and we could come up with approaches that weren’t inherently destructive.”

Some of you reading this are thinking that I am throwing the baby out with the bath water, as the cliché goes.  I disagree.  I am throwing out the dirty bath water and the bar of soap, and we can always buy some more soap to clean the baby with. I am actually saving the baby!!

For the rest of the evening we went back and forth. Yes, it was an exercise in fantasy, because none of our five proposals has a chance of being adopted tomorrow.

But at least two of these bold ideas–more money and ending standardized testing–are actually alive and well. Because of the ‘wildfire’ teacher walkouts in at least five states, public spending at the state level is increasing in Arizona, West Virginia, Colorado, and elsewhere.  And the push to limit standardized testing continues, as the continuing success of the Opt-Out movement testifies. Ironically, as I was writing this, Diane Ravitch’s wonderful blog came across my screen. In today’s edition she posts a powerful column by Chris Churchill of the Albany Times Union, in which he argues for eliminating standardized testing.  Here’s part of what he has to say:

As far as I can tell, the only beneficiaries are the big bureaucracies that want more control over classrooms and the big corporations that provide the tests.

The tests certainly haven’t benefited our kids, who, in many districts, are getting shorter recesses so teachers can spend more time in service to the looming tests. Or who, as many parents can attest, view testing days with anxiety and dread.

If the tests were just tests, they might be relatively harmless. But they epitomize something bigger: The madness that applies a production mentality to education. Everything can be neatly quantified, yes siree, not to mention automated, regulated and homogenized!

But children aren’t widgets and schools aren’t factories. You can’t measure the success of a classroom with data points. Standardized testing tells us nothing important about how children experience school.

You may read the rest of his piece here.

So, what is your dream?  If you were granted the power, what big change would you make?

“The air is humming, and something great is coming”

Walking home by myself a few nights ago, I felt like singing.  Because it was late and the sidewalks were deserted, I wasn’t risking embarrassment. So, what the heck, I broke into song.  The song pretty much chose me.

“Could be
Who knows
There’s something due any day
I will know right away, soon as it shows”

My exuberance was triggered by the eloquent high school students I had met at the 25th Anniversary celebration of EL Education, which you may know as Expeditionary Learning. More than 150 schools have embraced EL, and its open source curriculum is being used in thousands more schools. Detroit, arguably the nation’s worst school system, has just embraced EL, and that could be its first step upward.  But, for me, that evening was representative of something that is happening in schools and statehouses and public squares across America.

“Could it be? yes it could
something’ s coming, something good”

Something is definitely coming. It feels like a great awakening of what it means to be an American, the recognition of what it will take for our country to live up to its promises, and a surprising determination to take control, to act.  I believe this started with Black Lives Matter, and was followed by the Women’s March one day after the inauguration of Donald Trump. Then came #MeToo, followed by #Never Again, led by students from Parkland High School.  Recently, we have seen teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Minnesota, and elsewhere say, in effect, “No Mas!”  What all of these phenomena have in common is their insistence upon RESPECTAnd if these powerful movements join forces, they will become unstoppable…..and our country will be the better for it.

Let’s not forget the latest NAEP results, showing more flat-lining and a widening achievement gap. This news seems to be convincing a growing number of people that ‘test-and-punish’ was stupid and dangerous policy.

“I got a feeling there’s a miracle due, gonna come true coming to me”

I felt it when I visited several Urban Assembly High Schools.  This network of 21 schools in New York City (and now in LA) is another occasion for hope.

“There’s something due any day
I will know right away, soon as it shows”

Good things are happening in other places too, like Barnett Berry’s network of teacher-run schools, the Coalition for Community Schools (meeting in Baltimore in early May), and the important work being done by Ted Kolderie, Curtis Johnson, and Joe Graba and their Education/Evolving project.

“It may come cannonballing down from the sky, gleaming its eye bright as a rose
Who knows, it’s only just out of reach, down the block on a beach under a tree”

Of course there’s plenty of depressing stuff going in on public education: A US Secretary of Education who is hostile to public education, the proliferation of profiteers in the ‘Charter World’ and on-line education, the resegregation of public education, and the intentional underfunding of schools in dozens of states.  But if we continue to work together, those obstacles can be thrown aside.  

“The air is humming and something great is coming
Who knows
It’s only just out of reach, down the block on a beach, maybe tonight”

The song is, of course, Something’s Coming, from West Side Story.  You can listen to it here. 

That’s really all I have to say.  Whether you agree or disagree, please post your thoughts below.

And if you would like to know more about EL Education and Urban Assemblies, please keep reading:

This passage about EL Education is taken from my new book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education:

Paul Tough, the author of How Children Succeed, is a fan of Expeditionary Learning.  “The central premise of EL Schools is that character is built not through lectures or direct instruction from teachers but through the experience of persevering as students confront challenging academic work.”  In his article in The Atlantic, he described the inner workings:

Classrooms at EL schools are by design much more engaging and interactive than classrooms in most other American public schools. They are full of student discussions and group activities large and small; teachers guide the conversation, but they spend considerably less time lecturing than most other public-school teachers do.

EL students complete a lot of rigorous and demanding long-term projects, often going through extensive and repeated revisions based on critiques from teachers and peers. They frequently work on these projects in collaborative groups, and many projects conclude with students giving a presentation in front of the class, the school, or even a community group. In addition, students are responsible, whenever possible, for assessing themselves; two or three times a year, at report-card time, parents or other family members come to the school for meetings known as student-led conferences, in which students as young as 5 narrate for their parents and teachers their achievements and struggles over the past semester.

However, the best way to fully grasp what Expeditionary Learning entails is to go on an expedition, which is what my former colleague at the PBS NewsHour, John Tulenko, did. John followed a group of 8th graders in Portland, Maine, over four months as they worked to invent a labor-saving device for the home. It remains one of my favorite NewsHour pieces, and I urge you to click and watch. It may be the best 8 minutes and 51 seconds you’ll ever spend.

Now, about my second reason for singing:  Richard Kahan, the founder of Urban Assemblies, spent 35 years in public service and private real estate; then in 1990 he decided that he hadn’t made enough of a difference, and so he turned to education.  Most people who take this road do what is logical and easy: they start with kindergarten and first grade!  Not Richard! He started HIGH SCHOOLS, meaning that he would be working with kids who had already experienced 8-10 years of traditional public schools.  

Urban Assembly High Schools focus on professions, are open enrollment with no admissions criteria, are traditional public schools (not charter schools), and embrace Social and Emotional Learning.  A few examples: The School for Law, Government, and Justice, The Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, The Bronx Academy of Letters, the Gateway School for Technology, The Maker Academy, the Media High School, and the Harbor School.  I have recently visited three of them and have been impressed by the students and the teachers.  

 

“Could it be? yes it could
something’ s coming something good
if I can wait
Something’s coming I don’t know what it is but it is gonna be great”

RICK HESS & HIS 3Rs NATIONAL TOUR

“Bon jour. Zis is ze American Enterprise Institute. How may I be of service?”  

Her voice was young and unmistakably French.  She pronounced the second ‘a’ in American softly, and the ‘i’ as a long ‘e.’  And ‘Service’ came out ‘sair-vees.’ Listening to her, every part of my body sprang to attention, if you get my drift.

I wish to speak to Rick Hess, I said. I don’t know him well enough to have his direct number, which is why I had called the general number of the right-leaning DC think tank. He had recently co-authored a sort of mea culpa for his enthusiastic support of supposed school reforms in Washington, DC.   I say ‘sort of’ because of how Rick buried his own role well down in the 7th paragraph.   “Lots of self-styled “reformers” had good reason to observe DCPS through rose-tinted glasses. A wealth of advocates, funders, consultants, researchers, and friends had a rooting interest in DCPS’s success — and had every incentive to focus on the good news. This includes the senior author of this piece, who counted many DCPS leaders as friends of long standing — and who wrote admiringly about some of their efforts.” (emphasis added)

“I am sorry, but Monsieur Hess has left for a national speaking tour,” she said, almost sadly.

I knew he had a tour scheduled, because he ended his ‘apology’ article by suggesting that he is the guy who can set things right: “It’s time for the reformers, funders, and pundits to ask ourselves how we’ve contributed to a culture that’s heavy on cheerleading and light on skepticism — and how to find a better balance going forward.”   

I told the young woman that I had the press release in my hand and had hoped to talk with him before he left.  I asked her whether he was going to apologize for being wrong about the so-called ‘school reforms’ in Washington, DC?

“Mais non. Monsieur Hess is going to be explaining why everyone of importance got it wrong about Washington. And zen he will explain how to get it right.”

Hearing that upset me. I told her that a lot of us, including USA Today, Guy Brandenburg, Diane Ravitch, Mary Levy, the Washington City Paper, local politician Mark Simon, and me, got it right about DC. I told her that we have been saying for years that Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson were perpetrating a fraud.

“Zen, monsieur,” she said with a provocative giggle, “You must not be of importance, because Monsieur Rick explained it to me very clearly.”

Tell me about the tour, I said. I see from the press release that The Four Seasons is the tour’s official hotel, NetJet the official airline, and Uber the official means of transportation.  Will Rick be visiting schools?

“Oh, I don’t zink so,” she said. “Monsieur Rick, he does not like to be with noisy children. He prefers to talk to old people in auditoriums.”

Will anyone else be appearing with Rick, I wanted to know?  After all, lots of important people were wrong about DC: Arne Duncan, Checker Finn, Richard Whitmire, Campbell Brown, Katherine Bradley, Tom Toch, Andy Rotherham, Mike Petrilli, Whitney Tilson, Kati Haycock, the Washington Post, some major foundations, and others.  

“Mais non. Monsieur Rick likes the stage to himself.”

In my mind’s eye I visualized Rick in the role of the late Reverend Billy Graham, urging Arne and the others to come forward to receive absolution.  With some difficulty I put that image aside and asked the young woman whether she had helped schedule his appearances.

“Oui, oui.  In ze office We call it Monsieur Rick’s ‘Three Rs Tour.’”

Three?  One R must be for ‘Rehabilitation,’ because his cheerleading did some serious damage to his reputation.  If Rick is actually admitting that he was wrong, the second R could stand for ‘Redemption.’  What does the third R stand for, I asked?  

“It’s–how do you say it–near ze end of my tongue.”

I pictured the tip of her tongue.  Rejuvenation?

“No, zat is not it. I don’t know your word, but it has something (which she pronounced as zum zing) to do with Euros, dollars.”

Remuneration?

“Ah oui, zat means making money, no?”

I suddenly understood the sentence in small print at the bottom of the press release: ‘No portion of the proceeds of this speaking tour will be donated to local public schools, because Mr. Hess believes they should be locally controlled and funded.’

Au revoir, monsieur.”

And she was gone…..

For a copy of the press release, dated 4/1/18, and complete information about Mr. Hess’s tour, including times, places, and reservations for premium seating and general admission, visit: https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11174

 

To My Fan Base: I am Physically & Financially Fine

First of all, thanks again to the thousands of you who voiced their concerns over my near-death experience last February.  I am fully recovered and expecting to once again bike my age on June 14th.

Many of my loyal followers have also expressed their worries about my financial health. Come on now.  Just because I spent 45 years working in non-profit public institutions (PBS, NPR, a public high school, a public Black college, and a publicly funded federal penitentiary), please don’t assume that I don’t know how to make money.  Please, do not be concerned.  In the early 1990’s I left the NewsHour and worked for The Discovery Channel for four or five months…. and during that brief period I soaked up all there is to know about capitalism and making big bucks.

Six years ago I got serious about high finance and decided to leave PBS to work in the prison industry.   Are you wondering why prisons? Because I realized that I could make a killing in that business. It’s a world I know first-hand, based on my two years as an instructor in a federal penitentiary in the late 1960’s.  However, my serious flirtation with the world of easy money led to a personal plea from the President of PBS that I remain with the NewsHour.  I did so.

However, I didn’t lose my zeal for making a few more dollars. On this very day in 2015, I joined the Board of Directors of Pearson, a gig that pays handsomely.  I would have been paid far more than the pittance I was earning at the NewsHour, but, after a very brief stay on the Pearson Board, I gave up the position, largely because of a barrage of complaints about so-called “conflicts of interest”  from colleagues at the NewsHour and–disappointingly–from many of you in my fan base.

Retiring from the NewsHour in late 2015 finally set me free from all that pressure. Finally I could act as I wished, impervious to pressure from others.  And so I set up my own for-profit College Admissions Consulting Agency (CACA).  CACA enables me to share with aspiring high school juniors and seniors the strategies and (perfectly legal) ‘tricks’ that will get them into America’s top colleges. On the advice of my lawyers and because of on-going litigation, I cannot release more about CACA. However, I am confident that I will prevail in court once all the facts come out.

I can reveal this much: As I testified in open court, I was merely being facetious (or maybe ironic) when I suggested that getting a ‘Swarthmore’ or ‘Cornell’ tattoo would improve my clients’ chances of getting into those colleges.  I am pretty sure I said ‘temporary tattoo‘ in our conversations, and obviously I wish I had used that adjective in my emails, which have, unfortunately, been entered into evidence.

But what on earth is the matter with kids today?!?  I never expected them to take me seriously.   Unfortunately, the one who got the Cornell tattoo on his back was denied admission.  However, I was able to get him into Grinnell.  Naturally, I paid to have the tattoo altered, and–as long as you don’t look too closely–it’s pretty convincing.  The Swarthmore candidate was also rejected and is now–unfortunately–attending Kenyon, a real challenge for a tattoo artist.

While I have wiped CACA from my resumé and flushed it from my memory bank, I learned a lot from the experience.  Basically, I now understand that I shouldn’t have opened a business that required personal contact with young people, something I never enjoyed or was very good at.

My next profit-making venture (and this time I am hoping to actually make a profit or at least enough to cover my legal fees!) is also in higher education. This brilliant idea takes advantage of the preference in admissions that colleges give to young people who have completed interesting and challenging internships.  But this time my work won’t require contact with young people or their parents, and the young people won’t have to go to work anywhere.  These “Virtual Internships” will be done entirely over the internet, with no face-to-face contact.  I will be the broker, using my rolodex of contacts built up over the years. Students won’t have to spend months applying for internships, because I will arrange everything for them.  They will ‘intern’ from their high school campuses or their homes, doing research if it’s needed….and they will never have to fetch coffee!  Participating organizations receive favorable publicity and a generous tax break under Section 326, Article 34, Paragraph 8 of the Omnibus Tax Bill just passed by Congress.  Ambitious students will be able to complete as many as a dozen ‘Virtual Internships’ at once.  Just imagine how the admissions folks at Cornell, Swarthmore, Harvard and other top colleges will react when they receive an application boasting of internships with (for example) Amazon, the ACLU, the ASPCA, NASA, PEN, MAGA, Planned Parenthood, and UNICEF!

Business starts tomorrow, April 2!  My first call will be to a fellow Dartmouth College graduate, Laura Ingraham of Fox News.  I want to ask her how she feels about taking on high school students.  While I don’t know her personally, I figure our Big Green connection will be enough to get me in the door.

If you know of any high school students who might want a pile of internships on their application to college, please give them my email address.  No phone calls, please.

 

What’s the FIRST Step?

“Mr. Merrow, you want us to take 12 steps, but which one comes first? Which one is the most important?”

I have been asked those questions a few times after talking about my new book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education“. In some respects it’s like being asked which of your children you love the most–i.e., unanswerable.  And so I usually respond by answering a different question: “Which step will be the simplest to take?”

And the answer to my own question is “Measure What Matters.”  It is simple because all we have to do is decide what we care about, what we want our children to be able to do–and want to to–as adults.

But I have to add that, while it may be a simple step to take, it will not be easy.  It requires a community dialogue involving not just parents and educators but also community members who do not have kids in schools (and that will be about 75% of households!). And many communities are deeply polarized about Trump, guns, abortion, and other aspects of the culture wars.

Let me suggest starting with an obvious straw man: “We don’t need to change a thing IF everyone is OK with teaching children to fill in bubbles on machine-scored tests and regurgitate the material they’ve been spoon-fed.  However, if we want our kids to be able to read with understanding, speak persuasively, understand numbers and science, appreciate the arts, work well with others, and respect their own bodies, then we need to have a conversation.”

Now you have everyone agreeing that schools can be improved.  Next ask whether we want our kids to die from Diabetes and its complications.  The question is, of course, rhetorical: Nobody wants that. However, the facts are downright scary. Obesity often leads to Diabetes, and an astonishing 18.5% of American youth ages 2-19 are obese (5.6% are severely obese).

Why? Too much fast food and too little exercise.

Not enough exercise?  Schools could address the latter by providing recess, but most do not. Students in Texas, for example, get on average 20 minutes of recess per week, a decline of over an hour since 2001. (2001 was the year No Child Left Behind became law, by the way.)  “According to the World Health Organization, children need 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity, and a daily recess can play an integral part in meeting that goal. Unfortunately, for students who are not given daily recess, achieving this goal can be much more difficult.”

And so one out of five kids is obese, obesity often leads to Type 2 Diabetes, and Diabetes often means other serious health issues like loss of vision, and early death (Diabetes and its complications kill about 200,000 of us every year).  Ergo, preventing obesity will in nearly all cases prevent Type 2 Diabetes.  As the experts put it, “Studies have found that lifestyle changes and small amounts of weight loss in the range of 5-10% can prevent or delay the development of type 2 diabetes among high-risk adults. Lifestyle interventions including diet and moderate to intense physical activity (such as walking for 150 minutes per week) were used in these studies to produce small amounts of weight loss. The development of diabetes was reduced by 40% to 60% during these studies, which lasted three to six years. Preventing weight gain, increasing activity levels and working toward small amounts of weight loss if you are overweight can have a big impact on the likelihood that you will develop diabetes in the future. Thus far, weight management is the best thing you can do to prevent the development of diabetes.”

And so, because we don’t want our kids to become diabetic, schools must have recess. (And you might point out here that many schools eliminated recess in order to devote more time to test-prep.) But recess won’t come back unless we measure it!  So, instead of only asking for test scores, let’s also ask, “How many hours of recess do students have each week, and in how many separate segments?”  Principals are smart; they’ll figure out that ZERO is a bad answer, and that higher numbers are better.

But if we don’t ask, if we don’t demand measurement, it will not happen!

Look to other countries for a better way: As the USPlay Coalition explains, “Japanese children get 10-20 minute breaks between 45-minute lessons or five-minute breaks and a long lunch. Finnish and Turkish children have 15 minutes to play after each 45 minutes of work. Ugandan students have an eight-hour school day, but they have a half hour of play in the morning, one hour for lunch and play, and 1.5 hours of activity time (sports, music, art, free-choice playtime) in the afternoon.”

Congratulations.  You have your first point of agreement, of what must be measured.  Now what else do you value, and how can those be measured?

Are art, music, and drama important?  Then measure the hours of opportunity students have to pursue them.

What about academics?  Are test scores important? Fine, but please remember that the academic health of a school can be determined by testing a well-drawn sample of students. Not all students need to be tested every year, as long as teachers are deeply involved in assessing student progress. (That’s another step in my book, by the way.)

Suppose we decide that schools are better when kids don’t have lots of substitute teachers.  Let’s measure teacher attendance.  Now suppose a particular school scores badly on that metric. I believe the reaction ought to be “Why?” and not “Gotcha!” because the absences could be a symptom of larger problems.

This is not hypothetical, because teacher attendance is a serious problem in many places, particularly in urban schools. As the Chicago Tribune reported in November 2016, “Across Illinois, 23.5 percent of public school teachers are absent more than 10 days in the school year. That’s almost 1 in 4 teachers statewide who aren’t in the classroom, according to data made public by the state for the first time in the annual Illinois Report Card, a compilation of data that paints a broad picture of schools.”  The schools with the best attendance rates had the fewest low-income students and the most white students.

Again, bear in mind that outcomes like this are symptoms, revealing deeper problems that must be addressed. Punishing teachers for their absenteeism won’t solve the problem, but we should be measuring, not waiting for reporters to break the story after the fact.

Does student attendance matter?  Teacher turnover?  Measure them!

We probably can agree that mental agility is as important as physical, and so the curriculum must be challenging. Note that I am not arguing for ‘rigor.’ In fact, I eschew the noun and the adjective ‘rigorous’ when talking about schools, and I don’t trust educators who use those words. If you want to know why, look them up in the dictionary.

Or just do this word association test. “When I say ‘rigor,’ you think of _____?”  Mortis, right?  Rigor Mortis!  That’s not what we want for children.

But students must be challenged, because, citing Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  Unfortunately, for most students the higher up one goes in school, the duller it gets.  Don’t believe me?  Read on.

This sample problem was created by the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh to help high school math teachers “close the math achievement gap.”

Jack shot a deer that weighed 321 pounds. Tom shot a deer that weighed 289 pounds. How much more did Jack’s deer weigh than Tom’s deer?

Basic subtraction for high school students?

A second example comes from TeacherVision, part of Pearson, the giant testing company:

Linda is paddling upstream in a canoe. She can travel 2 miles upstream in 45 minutes. After this strenuous exercise she must rest for 15 minutes. While she is resting, the canoe floats downstream ½ mile. How long will it take Linda to travel 8 miles upstream in this manner?

It’s an awful question.  Some students will be distracted by Linda’s cluelessness and will wonder how long it will take her to figure out that she should grab hold of a branch while she’s resting in order to keep from floating back down the river. What’s the not-so-subtle subtext? That girls don’t belong in canoes? That girls are dumb?

I found my third question–this one multiple choice–on a high school math test in Oregon:

There are 6 snakes in a certain valley. The population doubles every year. In how many years will there be 96 snakes?

  1. 3
  2. 4
  3. 8

These three high school math problems require simple numeracy at most. With enough practice—note I did not say critical thinking—just about anyone can solve undemanding problems like these–and consequently feel confident of their ability.

School is supposed to be preparation for life, but spending time on problems like these is like trying to become an excellent basketball player by shooting free throws all day long. To be good at basketball, players must work on all aspects of the game: jump shots, dribbling, throwing chest and bounce passes, positioning for rebounds, running the pick-and-roll, and, occasionally, practicing free throws.

Both basketball and life are about rhythm and motion, teamwork and individual play, offense and defense. Like life, the pace of the game can slow down or become frenetic. Basketball requires thinking fast, shifting roles, and having your teammates’ backs. Successful players know when to shoot and when to pass. As in life, failure is part of the game. Even the greatest players miss more than half of their shots, and some (even Michael Jordan!) are cut from their high school teams. And life doesn’t give us many free throw opportunities. If school is supposed to be preparation for life, why are American high school students being asked to count on their fingers? This sort of trivial work is the educational equivalent of shooting free throws.

My fourth example, a Common Core National Standards question for eighth graders in New York State, must have been written by an advocate of ‘rigor.’

Triangle ABC was rotated 90° clockwise. Then it underwent a dilation centered at the origin with a scale factor of 4. Triangle A′B′C′ is the resulting image. What parts of A′B′C′ are congruent to the corresponding parts of the original triangle? Explain your reasoning.

This problem represents the “brave new world” of education’s Common Core, national standards adopted at one point by nearly every state and the District of Columbia.  The hope is that the curriculum will challenge and engage students. Reading that prose, are you feeling engaged? Imagine how eighth graders might feel. If the first three problems are the educational equivalent of practicing free throws, then solving problems like this one is akin to spending basketball practice taking trick shots, like hook shots from the half court line—another way not to become good at the sport.

If schools stick with undemanding curricula and boring questions, our kids will be stuck at the free throw line, practicing something they will rarely be called upon to do in real life. If (under the flag of greater rigor) we ditch those boring questions in favor of triangles and other lifeless questions, schools will turn off the very kids they are trying to reach: the 99 percent who are not destined to become mathematicians.

We’re debating what we value, and it’s clear the people in charge value what is easy for them to test.  We have to keep our focus on children, on challenging them because they will become what they repeatedly do.

Here’s a question that challenges students by respecting their intelligence. This was given to fifteen-year-olds around the world on a test known as PISA (Programme in International Student Assessment):

 Mount Fuji is a famous dormant volcano in Japan. The Gotemba walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometers (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 p.m.

Toshi estimates that he can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometers per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times.

Using Toshi’s estimated speeds, what is the latest time he can begin his walk so that he can return by 8 p.m.?

Note that this is not a multiple-choice question. To get the correct answer, students have to perform a number of calculations. The correct answer (11 a.m.) was provided by 55 percent of the Shanghai fifteen-year-olds but just 9 percent of the U.S. students.

Ironically, the PISA results revealed that American kids score high in confidence in mathematical ability, despite underperforming their peers in most other countries. I wonder if their misplaced confidence is the result of too many problems like the one about the snakes.

If we are determined to measure what matters, we have to make school challenging and interesting.  As I argue in “Addicted to Reform,” it’s time for us to create schools in which students are the workers and knowledge the product.  That means abandoning the factory model in which teachers are the workers and students their products.

“Measure What Matters” fits easily on a bumper sticker. Get yours now–and get the conversation going in your community.

If you would like to know about the other 11 steps or what American Public Education needs to be rescued from, please pick up a copy of Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education (The New Press, 2017).

 

 

 

Secretary DeVos Needs an Education

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos needs to get out of the office more.  Her lack of awareness of American public schools is embarrassing, although apparently not to her.

She made a surprise visit to Marjorie Douglas Stoneman High School in Florida, the scene of the Valentine’s Day slaughter of 17 students and teachers, this week. The Secretary had a quick walking tour of the murder scene, then met briefly with some students.  Student reporters say she took no questions, but her PR people claim that she answered ‘several.’  She then held a press conference for reporters, which she abruptly terminated, walking off in mid-question after taking only 8 questions.

“She wasn’t informative or helpful at all. It’s nice that she came to give us condolences, but we are so done with thoughts and prayers. We want action,” Senior Kyra Parrow said. “She didn’t come to inform us or talk about how we are going to fix this issue; she just came to say that she came. That disappoints me.”

In other words, she bypassed an opportunity to listen, watch and learn.

Even more disturbing are her tweets about public education.  Consider the one below, posted March 6th.

Does this look familiar? Students lined up in rows. A teacher in front of a blackboard. Sit down; don’t talk; eyes up front. Wait for the bell. Walk to the next class. Everything about our lives has moved beyond the industrial era. But American education largely hasn’t.

Apparently the photo on the right is stock footage, not something she has seen herself but merely an image that conforms to her preconceptions and prejudices.

Now, who is willing to try to educate the Secretary?  Well, I wish she had been with me in the schools I visited in southern Ohio and the South Bronx in New York City in the last week or so.  I did not see a single classroom where the kids were sitting in rows, quietly listening to a lecturing teacher.  And two of the four schools were a lovely rainbow of colors, not the racially uniform classrooms in DeVos’s two photos.

Start with PS1 in the South Bronx, a K-5 school  with mostly low income students that we profiled for the PBS NewsHour in 2011  If you watch that piece, you will see most first graders at PS1 reading competently.  At PS1 I asked the first graders to close their eyes while I wrote a nonsensical sentence on the blackboard, something  like “The blue pancake went swimming in the lake and ate a frog.”  Then I asked the kids to read it aloud. If they snickered, that was clear evidence that they were comprehending, not merely decoding.  (Believe me, they laughed.  You’ll get a kick out of their critiques of my ‘story.’)

However, most 4th graders at PS1 cannot pass reading tests. Yes, tough home issues may be partially responsible, but teachers and Principal Jorge Perdomo are convinced that test anxiety paralyzes kids and teachers alike.  The same 4th graders who failed the reading tests were perfectly comfortable reading–and explaining–new passages to me.  I’d like Secretary DeVos to see the impact that tests have on children.

If Secretary DeVos were to visit PS1 today, she would see and feel the joy. She would see up-to-date technology and kids (nearly all of them black and brown) working independently and in groups. Moreover, using her smart phone’s bar code app, the Secretary could watch short videos of PS1 students making very impressive public speeches on a variety of topics.  While standardized test scores have not gone up significantly because test anxiety is still the order of the day, Principal Perdomo and his faculty are working hard to reduce test anxiety.  The tyranny of testing should be part of DeVos’s takeaway.

I’d love for the Secretary to meet the students at Dayton Early College Academy in Dayton, Ohio, which I visited last week.  I believe she would be impressed by their firm handshakes and clear, well-articulated narratives of their own personal stories.  DECA is a pretty close to a ‘last chance’ school, filled with kids who had not been successful elsewhere, and yet here they are earning HS and college credits at the same time.  I asked students why they were at DECA, and every one of them gave full credit to “Mom.”

Not far from Dayton is Yellow Springs, a progressive, integrated oasis in Republican Ohio. In both the combined high school and middle school and in Mills Lawn elementary school, project-based learning (or PBL) is the order of the day, and the projects that I saw will knock your socks off.  I realize now that I should have been taking photos, but I was having too much fun, listening and asking questions.  For example, second graders were writing and recording songs to help them memorize their times tables; they performed the ‘7 Times’ song for me, and I had the tune bouncing around in my head for hours.

To survey the community about its pressing needs, fourth graders first built a portable kiosk, which they set up downtown and proceeded to interview Yellow Springs residents.  When ‘affordable housing’ ranked at or near the top, the students began studying the issue: how many square feet should a home be, how should it be laid out, and how much would it cost to build?  Then they proceeded to design homes. I saw the nearly-finished model and heard some students practicing their presentations–which they will make to the town council.  That’s fourth grade, Secretary DeVos. 

High school art students have also embraced project-based learning.  This semester the students have chosen to try to capture, with empathy, in their sketches and paintings the essence of mental illnesses.  Read that sentence again!  They’ve consulted with local experts and national resources, and they have interviewed adults who suffer from depression, anxiety, et cetera. The work I saw moved me to tears, and I would like to think that Secretary DeVos would also be deeply moved.

If you have read my book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education (reviewed here), you know that I am a supporter of project-based learning because, done well, it entails knowledge creation.  With PBL, students are the workers, and their products are genuine knowledge.

Either Secretary DeVos believes that most public schools are boring, lock-step institutions, or she wants the general public to accept that untruth so she can undermine the institution.

Which is it? Despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary, I hold out that hope that the Secretary is uninformed and willing to learn.  I guarantee that the good folks at PS1, DECA, Mills Lawn Elementary, and Yellow Springs High School would jump at the opportunity to introduce her to the richness and variety of American public education.

 

What Nearly Dying Taught Me

I AM CELEBRATING THE ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF MY NEAR-DEATH. HERE’S WHERE I WAS ONE YEAR AGO. THAT’S ME IN THE LOWER RIGHT CORNER.  AT THAT MOMENT, MY BLOOD PRESSURE HAD DROPPED TO 68 OVER 34, WHICH IS WHEN ONE’S VITAL ORGANS START FAILING.

HOSPITAL2
HERE’S THE BACKSTORY:  THE NIGHT BEFORE–AND FOUR DAYS AFTER A BOTCHED PROSTATE BIOPSY–I WENT INTO VIOLENT CONVULSIONS, FOLLOWED BY PROJECTILE VOMITING.  IT TURNS OUT I HAD A MASSIVE, LIFE-THREATENING SEPSIS INFECTION.
HOSPITAL1

(Hospital photos by Joan Lonergan)

DURING MY WEEK IN THE HOSPITAL, I GOT TO KNOW MOST OF THE 20 OR SO PEOPLE ON THE MEDICAL TEAM.   THREE  OF THE NURSES WERE FROM THE PHILIPPINES. ONE UROLOGIST WAS FROM EASTERN EUROPE, ANOTHER FROM SRI LANKA.  FOUR OF THE MEDICAL ASSISTANTS WERE AFRICAN-AMERICAN, AND TWO WERE HISPANICS.  

ONCE RELEASED FROM THE HOSPITAL, I SPENT TWO WEEKS AT HOME, INJECTING MYSELF WITH POWERFUL ANTIBIOTICS.

INJECTIONS
THE EXPERIENCE TAUGHT ME THREE LESSONS.  

THE FIRST WAS PERSONAL: JOHN, GET A NEW UROLOGIST!  I DID.

THE SECOND LESSON IS FOR EVERY MAN WHOSE DOCTOR RECOMMENDS A PROSTATE BIOPSY. BEFORE YOU LET ANYONE POKE OR SNIP, INSIST ON AN MRI. THAT PROCESS PRODUCES IMAGES THAT REVEAL ANY ABSCESSES OR LESIONS ON YOUR PROSTATE GLAND.  IF THERE ARE NONE, YOU’RE OK.

THE THIRD LESSON IS FOR EVERYONE: THE DIVERSE MEDICAL TEAM THAT SAVED MY LIFE–THAT’S AMERICA IN 20 OR 25 YEARS, BECAUSE THAT’S WHEN OUR ENTIRE COUNTRY WILL BECOME ‘MAJORITY MINORITY.’

FOR PROOF, JUST LOOK AT OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS, WHICH BECAME  ‘MAJORITY MINORITY’ IN 2014.   

stock-photo-portrait-of-smiling-little-school-kids-in-school-corridor-259319342

AFTER THEY GRADUATE, THESE 51 MILLION KIDS ARE GOING TO BECOME THE VETERINARIANS TAKING CARE OF OUR PETS, THE AIRLINE MECHANICS MAINTAINING THE PLANES WE FLY ON, THE AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS DECIDING WHETHER THE RUNWAY IS CLEAR, THE CPA’S PREPARING OUR TAX RETURNS, THE POLICE AND FIREFIGHTERS IN OUR COMMUNITIES, AND THE TEACHERS OF OUR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN.

BECAUSE I WAS A REPORTER FOR A LONG TIME, ALLOW ME A FOLLOW UP QUESTION: ARE OUR ‘MAJORITY MINORITY’ PUBLIC SCHOOLS DOING A GOOD JOB OF EDUCATING THE KIDS WHO WILL ONE DAY PLAY IMPORTANT PARTS IN OUR LIVES?

SHORT ANSWER, UNFORTUNATELY, IS NO.  PUBLIC SCHOOLS ARE MORE SEGREGATED THAN EVER, BY BOTH RACE AND INCOME.  BECAUSE OF ‘NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND’ AND THE BUSH AND OBAMA ADMINISTRATIONS’ OBSESSION WITH TEST SCORES, MOST POOR KIDS NOW SPEND AT LEAST ONE MONTH PRACTICING TAKING TESTS– DESPITE CLEAR EVIDENCE THAT TEST PREP PRODUCES LOWER TEST SCORES.

LOW INCOME CHILDREN ALSO ATTEND SCHOOLS WITH FEWER EXTRA-CURRICULAR ACTIVITIES AND HAVE LESS EXPOSURE TO SCIENCE, ART AND MUSIC.  SOME HIGH POVERTY SCHOOLS ACTUALLY ELIMINATED RECESS…TO ALLOW MORE TIME TO PRACTICE TEST-TAKING.

DURING THESE YEARS, FAR TOO MANY  EDUCATORS CHANGED TEST SCORES AND FALSIFIED GRADUATION RECORDS–TO MAKE THEMSELVES LOOK GOOD.   IN DOING SO, THEY DEPRIVED THEIR STUDENTS OF A DECENT EDUCATION.

BASICALLY, THIS APPROACH HAS FAILED. FOR TWENTY YEARS TEST SCORES HAVE BEEN LARGELY FLAT, AND THE GAPS BETWEEN RACIAL AND ECONOMIC GROUPS HAVE EITHER GOTTEN LARGER OR REMAINED THE SAME.

BY BREAKING TESTING’S STRANGLEHOLD ON PUBLIC EDUCATION, WE MIGHT JUST  SAVE OURSELVES, BECAUSE, BELIEVE IT OR NOT, 35 PERCENT OF THE JOB GROWTH SINCE 2007 HAS BEEN IN HEALTHCARE.  THAT FIELD INCLUDES 13 OF THE 20 FASTEST GROWING PROFESSIONS.

THAT MEANS THAT A LOT OF THOSE PUBLIC SCHOOL KIDS ARE GOING TO BECOME OUR DOCTORS AND NURSES, OUR ANESTHESIOLOGISTS AND X-RAY TECHNICIANS, AND OUR MEDICAL ATTENDANTS.

I AM HEALTHY NOW AND WAKE UP SAYING ‘GOOD MORNING, GOD,’ INSTEAD OF ‘GOOD GOD, MORNING.’  I TRY TO TREAT EACH DAY AS A GIFT.

GUGGENHEIM PIXON THIS IMPORTANT ANNIVERSARY, I SAY AGAIN THAT IT’S TIME TO STOP TREATING KIDS AS DATA POINTS OR WORRYING ABOUT HOW NEATLY THEY FILL IN BUBBLES ON A TEST.   THESE KIDS MAY SOMEDAY BE SAVING YOUR LIFE, OR THE LIFE OF A LOVED ONE, WHICH MEANS THAT IT’S IN YOUR PERSONAL INTEREST TO SEE THAT THEY HAVE THE SAME EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES YOU WANT FOR YOUR OWN CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN.

 

“EDUCATIONAL ANOREXIA & BULIMIA” IN WASHINGTON, DC, AND ELSEWHERE

Campbell’s Law teaches us that, when too much pressure is placed on a single measurement, that measurement inevitably becomes corrupted to the point of being useless.  A straightforward analogy is to physical health.  An individual who worries only about weight is a strong candidate for anorexia and bulimia. On the other hand, the person who pays attention to muscle and skin tone, flexibility, endurance, a balanced diet, daily exercise, and personal appearance–as well as weight–is NOT a candidate for an eating disorder.

The same principle applies to education: When a system values (and measures) many aspects of schooling, such as the amount of art and music, the time devoted to recess, student attendance, teacher attendance, teacher turnover, and academic achievement, the school and its students, teachers and staff are likely to be ‘balanced.’   When only test scores or graduation rates matter, bad things are guaranteed to happen.

Evidence of educational anorexia and bulimia isn’t hard to find.  The absence of art, music, science, and recess is one clear sign. Lots of test-prep is another clear indicator. Rallies for ‘higher test scores’ is strong evidence.  At home, check on your child’s anxiety level. Stomach aches before the days of standardized testing?  Trouble sleeping? It’s all right there in front of us.

Under Washington DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (2007-2010), all that counted was test scores, and before long adults began cheating, knowing that their jobs depended on raising scores.  Under her successor, Kaya Henderson (2010-2016), raising graduation rates became the Holy Grail, and we now know what transpired: hundreds of seniors–one third of the graduating class–were given diplomas even though they had been skipping school regularly or had otherwise not followed the rules.  Her successor as Chancellor, Antwan Wilson, not only failed to monitor and correct that situation; he also broke his own rules and illegally transferred his daughter into a selective high school, bypassing the lottery. 

It’s impossible not to conclude that Washington has been sold a bill of goods by ‘reformers’ like Rhee, Henderson and others. That narrative has been widely accepted and spread by the pundit class and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  The evidence, presented here, only proves that ‘more of the same’ is akin to adding ponies to the pony express team. More speed perhaps, but the stagecoach is still going to arrive days later than the planes, trucks, and trains.

The reaction to the DC fiasco has been revealing.  Those on the far right, including current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, have expressed outrage. DeVos has called for an FBI investigation and for more ‘school choice.’  That’s also been the call from The Manhattan Institute, which claims “The only thing that’s actually worked in Washington, D.C., has been school choice.”  Frankly, these guys and gals will do anything they can to undermine public education.

The defenders of the status quo of ‘school reform,’ notably former reporter-turned-pundit Thomas Toch, have issued a familiar warning: “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water” and attacking–apparently without irony–pundits.  Tom and I exchanged views last year in The Washington Monthly, and in his current piece he continues to sidestep or ignore the bad stuff, such as the revolving door for principals, the swollen central office bureaucracy, and the widening racial and economic achievement gaps. Toch is not alone: Democrats for Education Reform, another cheerleader for what I call ‘test-and-punish’ education, is worried.  These guys and gals refuse to consider the possibility that a ‘school reform’ which reduces students and teachers to data points simply cannot produce significant numbers of capable, well-rounded, well-adjusted young people.

However, with the forced resignation of Chancellor Wilson, Mayor Muriel Bowser and the City Council can demonstrate they are serious about opportunities for all children. The First Step, I suggest, should be a citywide dialogue about the purposes of schooling.  What do the citizens (and not just parents) of Washington value?  

          Test-taking?  

          The ability to read, reason, argue persuasively,  and compute?

          The ability and willingness to work with others?  

          Familiarity with democratic values?  

         The ability to pose questions and search for answers?

         Good physical health and nutrition habits?  

         An understanding of art and music?  

         Intellectual curiosity and a high tolerance for ambiguity?

Whatever the answers, those are what must be measured.  So that’s Step One: measure what we value, instead of just valuing what we now (cheaply) measure.  Creating programs that emphasize and teach these concepts and values will cure the ‘educational anorexia’ that now characterizes the DC schools.

Step Two, in my opinion, is to allow and encourage educators to ask a different question about each child.  Right now school systems look at every student and ask ‘How Smart Is She/He?’ (and formulate their answer based on test scores, appearance, economic status, race, and bias).  Students are then sorted in two basic groups, winners and losers.

Educators need to ask a very different question, “How Is This Child Intelligent?”  Every child has strengths, and today’s technologies allow educators to assess and then build on those strengths and interests.  That’s what most parents–and a few hundred public schools–do.

I have some knowledge of the Washington public school system…and a deep concern for DC’s students. I write this as a former DC resident whose three children attended Washington public schools (Oyster, Alice Deal, and Woodrow Wilson) and as a long-time Education Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; in the latter capacity, I chronicled Michelle Rhee’s time as Chancellor (12 reports over 3 years) and later produced “The Education of Michelle Rhee” for the PBS series, “Frontline.”  Unfortunately, it was only AFTER the Frontline broadcast that I obtained the memo that reveals the extent of Rhee’s and Henderson’s knowledge of the widespread erasures.  And because Rhee and Henderson effectively controlled the investigations of the cheating (and hired Cavern, infamous for stumbling over clues without seeing them), nothing came of those efforts either.  I also produced two long-form documentaries about the teaching of reading in several DC elementary schools.   

With Wilson’s resignation, Washington has a genuine opportunity to rethink and ‘reset.’ In Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” I argue that superficial reform efforts have been doing serious damage to children, to the teaching profession, and to public support for schools. Ironically, my two central examples of superficial reform, the push to raise standardized test scores and the drive to raise graduation rates, have played out—with disastrous results—in Washington.  I talked about this with Jeffrey Brown of the NewsHour in October.

Anorexia and Bulimia are literal killers, plain and simple.  While Educational anorexia and bulimia do not literally kill our children, they snuff out curiosity and the desire to learn.  Kids graduate in a weakened condition, ill-prepared for life in a complex society, easy prey for charlatans at every level from the White House on down.

 

 

 

 

 

Graduation Rates & “School Reform” Fraud

The emperor has no clothes, and it’s high time that everyone acknowledged that. Proof positive is Washington, DC, long the favorite of the ‘school reform’ crowd, which offered it as evidence that test-based reforms that rewarded teachers for high student scores (and fired those with low scores) was the magic bullet for turning around troubled urban school districts.

But now we know that about one-third of recent DC high school graduates–900 students– had no business receiving diplomas, and that they marched across the stage last Spring because some adults changed their grades or pushed them through the farce known as ‘credit recovery,’ in which students can receive credit for a semester by spending a few hours over a week’s time in front of a computer.

The reliable Catherine Gewertz of Education Week provides a through (and thoroughly depressing) account of the DC story, which she expands to include data from DC teachers:  “In a survey of 616 District of Columbia teachers conducted after the scandal broke, 47 percent said they’d felt pressured or coerced into giving grades that didn’t accurately reflect what students had learned. Among high school teachers, that number rose to 60 percent. More than 2 in 10 said that their student grades or attendance data had been changed by someone else after teachers submitted them.”

The DC story was initially reported by Kate McGee of WAMU for NPR. That led to an investigation by the DC City Council and action by Mayor Muriel Bowser.

If you have read “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” you have read about Arne Duncan’s “Raise the Graduation Rate” effort, which is prime example of phony reform (along with W’s earlier “Raise the Test Scores” campaign).  Both superficial reforms proved to be malignant in their impact upon students, teachers, and schools.  Students were lied to about their proficiency, administrators and teachers cheated, school curricula were debased, standards were lowered, and confidence in public schools dropped.

The response to the graduation scandal from members of the ‘school reform’ establishment (which includes Republicans and Democrats) has been to blame “a few bad apples” for misbehaving. Wrong, wrong, wrong! This outcome was inevitable and entirely predictable, because this always happens when a system puts all its eggs in one basket.  Too much pressure on a single metric renders that metric unreliable and untrustworthy.  But Education Establishment figures from the (right leaning) American Enterprise Institute and the (left leaning) Center for American Progress call for greater accountability, more early intervention for kids who do poorly on tests, and so forth. No one questions the wisdom of the test-based system, as far as I can see.

By the way, if you think I feel strongly about this, check out this opinion piece, also from Education Week.

How did the graduation scam continue for so long under the leadership of Chancellor Kaya Henderson? You will recall that Henderson succeeded the controversial Michelle Rhee, who came to DC in 2007 and left in 2010.  Henderson, Rhee’s deputy and closest friend, was routinely described in the media as “A kinder, gentler Rhee.”  Unfortunately, people focused on the adjectives, “kinder” and “gentler”and felt relieved to be free of Rhee’s sturm und drang.  Suffering from “Rhee fatigue,” everyone apparently ignored the central point of the description:  Henderson=Rhee.

Sadly, the current DC Chancellor, Antwan Wilson, has not moved quickly to take control. Perhaps this is because he–just like Rhee, Henderson, and many other school leaders–is on record as a supporter of what I call the ‘test-and-punish’ approach to education.

So, end of the day, it’s not really about the people but about a school system that is inadequate for the 21st Century.  We simply don’t have enough kids to sort them into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ at an early age.  Our schools now look at each kid and ask, “How smart is this child?” (often getting their answer from tests, but also from appearance, income level, and race).  Instead, schools should be asking an ethically, morally and socially appropriate question, “How is this child intelligent?”  Building on strengths and interests is the right starting place.

When administrators and teachers change student scores so they can pass, the adults are lying to the students, telling them they are proficient and denying them the remedial help they were entitled to. We will never know how many lives were blighted, and those kids may never catch up.  In Atlanta educators went to jail, but in most other cheating scandals, no adults suffered.

The DC system can identify the 900+ students who received phony diplomas, but what comes next? Should those diplomas be recalled, and the students compensated with additional instruction?  Surely the kids shouldn’t be punished, but neither should they be allowed to keep their diplomas.  The principal of one DC high school has been reassigned, but that doesn’t begin to get to the heart of the problem.

The rot starts at the top, but Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson are long gone from Washington.  And, more importantly, they are not the top.  They were just opportunistically riding the wave.

It doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of energy looking back and casting blame.  We ought to reject test-based reform as the harmful fraud that it is.  That’s the right starting place.

(Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education is available at your local bookseller and on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)