If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’ve been interviewing a lot of folks who are well known in education, Debbie Meier, Margaret Spellings, Diane Ravitch, Pat Callan and others. Many readers have posted comments, which I read with interest. Sometimes I wonder about the writers, and sometimes I reach out.
This post came from my interest in one reader’s comments to my recent post on innovation in schools. His name is Philip Kovacs, and he’s a former high school English teacher who now teaches would-be teachers at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. I also know that he has a PhD in Educational Policy Studies, a 6 month-old son, and some strong convictions about public education. (The latter is the focus of the interview, although the proud new Dad manages to work his son into the conversation a couple of times).
So tell me what you believe, and why.
In my dissertation I argue for keeping public schools public, but after four years working with local public schools, I’m open to alternatives. I am now working on starting a project-based lab school.
How did you find Learning Matters?
It was research into the Gates Foundation that brought me to your website in the first place. The Foundation funds an unbelievable number of projects, some of which argue against one another, though the larger of the funded organizations agree on key points, none of which, in my humble opinion, are very innovative. I do not, for the record, think Bill Gates is controlling your content!
I am now editing a book about the Gates Foundation’s involvement in educational reform. I am 100% sure that the edited volume is going to anger the educational “right” and “left.”
You sound as if you want to anger both ends of the spectrum.
I guess I do, now that you mention it. Three years ago I helped about 30 scholars, teachers, and other concerned individuals create and post a petition calling for an end to No Child Left Behind. While I am listed as the author, it was a collaborative effort with me acting as editor. That document has 16 points, all of which remain irrefutably true, though I’ve changed my position on at least two points, and in retrospect I regret some of the wording.
When I posted the petition, I was attacked from the left and right. NEA leadership sent out a memo telling its 3 million members not to sign, and from the other side I was called misguided at best and an anarchist at worst. I can’t tell you how many people called me naive.
I just thought, and in fact continue to think, that NCLB is bad policy. I think I’ll get the last laugh on this one. At the very least the name will be changed, though I am not sure how much of a victory that is.
You can see the petition and read the signatures and comments here: http://www.petitiononline.com/1teacher/petition.html.
The comments from teachers and principals are quite powerful. There are also comments that are misguided and flat out strange. I think NCLB is an easy target for all sorts of educational ills. Deservedly so in many cases, but not so much in others.
My blog post about innovation in education touched a nerve, mostly because you feel that I missed an obvious contradiction, the notion of ‘top down innovation.’ So tell me more about that.
I’m not upset about your blog post, but I am stunned when the President and his Secretary of Education discuss ‘innovation’ and ‘national standards’ in the same breath. I’m equally shocked when business leaders such as Bill Gates engage in the same behavior. Does anyone believe that Gates would where he is today if he had been forced to do the same thing as his competitors every step of the way?
Those pursuing innovation in education through top-down mandates (success will be judged by scores on standardized tests alone regardless of whether or not you are a public or charter school) should look to history to see how top-down micromanagement has worked elsewhere.
They might begin by looking at the number of Russian automobiles on the market, the amount of Nobel Prize winners from North Korea, or more generally at the amount of innovation that has come from any centralized government over the past 200 years.
With respect to the current administration and the most influential philanthropist on the planet, I have faith that both are acting in what they believe to be the best interests of the country and its children. That doesn’t, however, make their calls for innovation and standardization any less wrong-headed. And let me be clear, asking states to create more charter schools and then forcing all of those “laboratories of innovation” to use the same limited metric for judging success is wrong-headed, plain and simple.
So let’s pretend (or hope) that the political and corporate leaders interested in reforming our public schools are reading this right now. What would you tell them?
Of course I would commend them for wanting innovation, and then I’d suggest five ways to truly change status-quo schooling.
#1. Replace the word “rigor” with “vigor.” Seriously. I have a 6-month-old son, and the last thing I want more of in his education is rigor. I mean, look at the definition:
- strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people.
- the full or extreme severity of laws, rules, etc.
- severity of living conditions; hardship; austerity: the rigor of wartime existence.
- a severe or harsh act, circumstance, etc.
- scrupulous or inflexible accuracy or adherence: the logical rigor of mathematics.
- severity of weather or climate or an instance of this: the rigors of winter.
- Pathology. a sudden coldness, as that preceding certain fevers; chill.
- Physiology. a state of rigidity in muscle tissues during which they are unable to respond to stimuli due to the coagulation of muscle protein.
- Obsolete. stiffness or rigidity.
Contrast that with the meaning of vigor:
- active strength or force.
- healthy physical or mental energy or power; vitality.
- energetic activity; energy; intensity: The economic recovery has given the country a new vigor.
- force of healthy growth in any living matter or organism, as a plant.
- active or effective force, esp. legal validity.
Language matters, and the words we use to describe education speak volumes about the type of education we’re giving children. I want my son, and all children, to have educational experiences that require active strength, healthy power, and energetic activity, not an education that is harsh, severe, inflexible, or obsolete. Asking states to create more charter schools and then requiring those charter schools to adhere to standardized educative models guarantees rigor at the expense of vigor and that’s nothing parents or business leaders want.
No argument from me on that. My friend Debbie Meier often derides ‘rigorous’ by bringing up rigor mortis, not what we want in schools! So what is suggestion #2?
Make sure the “ends” of education are in line with the means. As we replace obsolete schooling with schooling that is active and flexible, we should remember that we educate children for more than jobs. We live in a democratic republic, and our country will neither be democratic nor a republic without citizens who have the skills and capacities necessary to maintain both. There is no reason to expect that, after years of “memorize and regurgitate” schooling, children will become the critical and engaged adults necessary to keep this country a beacon of hope beyond the realm of economics.
History shows that great countries fall more often from internal collapse than from external threat, and reducing education to job training is a recipe for internal collapse. Towards a more robust democratic social order, schools must encourage responsibility more than accountability and reward individuality more than standardization, as democracy thrives on individuals acting as responsible members of diverse communities. Standardizing educational experiences for all students and expecting them to become innovators is an invitation for student and social failure.
And number 3?
We must teach and encourage responsibility from students. To do this, we need to respect, listen to, and honor the student to the greatest extent possible. Every child brings something unique into the classroom. We need an educational policy that supports and recognizes the individual. That does not mean letting Sally do whatever she wants every day she comes to school. But if she is going to spend six hours a day working on what adults ask her to work on, then she should have at least one hour a day to work on something she loves. At the end of the year, she should be responsible for presenting her work to her peers, teachers, and members of the community. The next year, she should be asked to inquire further, ask more difficult questions, or learn more intricate skills, as required by the topic of her choice.
The results should be placed on a website maintained by the student as soon as she/he is able to do so. A web-based portfolio can and should replace the report card, which, in its current form, dates back to at least the 1830s. If doctors still relied on tools from that point in time, they’d be applying leeches. A website would allow any interested or invested individual to see exactly how a child is developing and growing without the use of any standardized test. A district moving from standardized assessment to individualized measurement of a child’s development and growth will save money and have a far more robust system for tracking teaching and learning…I’d ask teachers to keep similar online portfolios (see below).
I’m beginning to feel like Ed McMahon, but what’s next?
Use tests less frequently and make them more meaningful. The tests we use now—end of year exams, the SAT, the NAEP—are instruments for measuring recall and not higher order thinking. They are even less useful for determining whether or not children are acting intelligently.
We should teach towards and assess the degree to which our children are resilient, prescient, persevere when tasks get difficult, control impulses, are flexible thinkers, strive for accuracy, pose problems and find answers, apply past knowledge to new situations, take risks based on calculations, and are willing to offer controversial alternatives to difficult situations based on personal and group research.
These are the skills and capacities necessary to maintain a healthy democratic republic as well as an edge in an increasingly competitive global market place. There is not a single standardized test now in use capable of measuring any of the above. This means we need highly qualified, highly effective teachers to develop and employ a range of assessment tools in order to track the development of such skills.
And what’s last? Number 5?
We need to reform tenure. I suggest using a 5-point system to determine teacher promotion. There is no reason that a person who performs well on a job for three years should be guaranteed the job for 30, but at the same time, we should find a way to protect and reward great teachers. Rather than relying solely on standardized test scores, we should use data from five sources. These include 1) the teacher himself, via a webpage similar to the ones created by and for students; 2) the teacher’s peers, as most teachers know who is doing what and how well; 3) the teacher’s administrators; 4) student reviews, because if we don’t trust students to vote on good teachers there’s no sense in giving them the right to vote at 18; and 5) a robust sampling of student work.
The unions are right to oppose to merit pay based solely on test scores, which we know correlate directly with socioeconomic status. Basing pay on test scores alone will result in the best teachers going to the wealthiest school districts, something that is arguably already occurring. A 5-point data collection system would allow teachers in any district to show clearly how well they are (or are not) doing. The teachers doing the best work should receive more money. Those doing enough to get by should receive invitations to leave.
No offense, but these are fairly simple innovations, and not particularly new either.
Maybe so, but they are light years beyond the standardized educational experiences being pushed by the administration and most business leaders. Innovation will not thrive in our schools until we give those schools the freedom and support to innovate. Keeping in mind the five suggestions above, I believe that public and chartered schools can help produce children who become adults that maintain our country in a state of integrity and usefulness, socially, economically and politically.