5 Ways to Change the Status Quo: Interview with Phillip Kovacs

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).

The Interview

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?

The More things ChangeIt 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?

Bill GatesThose 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.

Go on…

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.

18 thoughts on “5 Ways to Change the Status Quo: Interview with Phillip Kovacs

  1. These are wonderful ideas, even if not new. My only concern is the assumption that a person who performs well on a job for three years as a characterization of the criterion for tenure. In California, you have two years to make a decision. In fact, you have one academic year and three months because the decision must be made before Christmas break to get recommendations to the school board by the first board meeting in January to get out the notices by the statutory date of March 1. Even then, classroom visits often must be scheduled in advance by union agreement (“contrived and show and tell”), and the shortage of teachers means that many are hired who just go through the motions in a barely satisfactory way. There is a better way which would consist of a longer probationary, teacher development, mentoring, and nurturing period and higher salaries that would attract a larger pool of potential talent in this calling. But, that would take too much space to describe here.


  2. I’m not at all sure that common standards and innovation have to be at odds. Yes, one of the central tensions in education these days is the tension between standardization and personalization. But do standards have to be a straightjacket? We certainly need to improve–or even fundamentally rethink–our current assessment regimes, but can we really have confidence that we’re achieving vigor without some set of standards by which to judge that notion? How will we know that some students aren’t getting an education that’s vigorous in name only?


  3. Henry, I wish I could go back and amend the comment regarding tenure. I think that after the first tenure decision a teacher should have to “re-up” every 5 years…

    Claus, as they are developing now, standards are straightjacket. The assumption that someone has a fix on what every 13 year old must know to live a happy and rewarding life terrifies me. We can know that some students aren’t getting an education that’s vigorous in name only by going in and looking at what they are doing. Are the students persistent? Are they engaged? Are they producing quality work? Are they asking and answering difficult questions? These are questions that should be “standard” for all developing adults.


  4. The whole concept of NCLB was ludicrous from the beginning; who could believe that every school house in the country needs the same thing? And while I’m at it I think merit pay for teachers is a mistake. The teachers who work in the barrios, where the kids don’t show up and the parents don’t care, don’t stand a chance. Ultimately the system will be adjusted so that all teachers get merit pay, no matter what. As usual nothing will have been accomplished. Let the parents run the schools. They are the ones who needs should be addressed; not some flunky in Washingon.


  5. I’ve cringed for years now upon hearing leaders in our schools equate classroom “rigor” with meaningful, authentic learning. I can’t help but think of “rigor mortis” every time I hear it.


  6. Vigor! Thank you for enlightning me! I especially love the student and teacher portfolios posted on websites. The 5 point rating system is tremendous! Bravo!


  7. First, kudoes on having Philip on here. He is someone with whom I have worked (I was one in that group a few years back), he is passionate, capable of bringing a diverse and committed group of people to Atlanta on a weekend in order to try to find ways of saving and reviving public schools.

    Where I think I disagree is that I am not certain the public school as currently designed is worth saving, and I say that as one who teaches in a public high school.

    But before we get around to redesigning public schools, I think we have a more serious problem. We have never come close to agreement on the purpose of public schools. Absent an understanding of what we want them to do, how we tweak issues like tenure, accountability and the like are almost pointless.

    I suspect we will not get uniform agreement, and some of what we want will be at cross purposes. Which in itself argues for a diversity of models, to meet the varying needs of students, hopes of parents, and the like.

    What I think many of those I know would agree upon is that the direction education policy is being driven by Duncan in the administration, by the money folks like Gates and Broad, and by organizations like Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools is not going to meet the needs of most of our schools and most of students.

    John, you should reach out to the Teacher Leaders Network group – disclosure, I am a member – a group of outstanding and articulate teachers that includes the likes of former NTOYs and State TOY. Claus knows about us, and periodically invites us over to his blog. And you should also talk with Barnett Berry, the driving force behind that effort.



  8. Empirical observation: good schools (the ones that prepare kids to have a future as citizens and employees) prepare kids to pass basic skills tests (among other things). Tests like the ones in use in CA and many other states test an important subset of what students need to know and be able to do. I agree that some eduators over-do it and teach little except what’s required to pass a test like this. But that’s a bad educator. Why aren’t you arguing that schools need to do MORE than prep kids to pass these tests? Do you really believe that there are many kids who are well-prepared for citizenship & employment who can’t pass these tests?


  9. David, I have not been a fan of merit pay as it is currently defined. I do know that some teachers are better than others, regardless of the schools they teach in. There must be some way to reward these teachers above and beyond the feeling we get when we help children make meaningful change in their lives. I am open to suggestions…

    As for putting parents in control of schools, I support that to an extent, but needs beyond theirs are being met no? For example, the community has a stake in the education of its children, as does a state or nation that purports to uphold democratic values…and though I’m not happy with the analogy, I’ll use it anyway: would you have patients in run hospitals?


  10. Philip, I agree that we should be looking at whether students are persistent, engaged, producing excellent work, and answering and asking tough questions. I believe this will require a big overhaul of our assessment strategies.

    But will everyone recognize quality and learning when they see it? Will everyone have comparable visions of quality? Can we be confident that the education of low-income children will be animated by the same vision of vigor that animates the education of wealthy children?

    You mention that standards “as they are developing now” are a straightjacket. Is there an alternative vision of standards you would more readily support?


  11. I like the emphasis on higher level thinking, not rote learning, and publicly visible portfolios of student and faculty work make great sense for lots of reasons. Open and fresh are good words for education.

    I think the abuse delivered to the concept of rigor is a bit overstated; spare me dictionary definitions, that’s the approach you find on standardized tests. I think the term is used wisely by people who would like to move beyond the culture epitomized by the ubiquitous phrase “good job.” I teach in the tertiary layer, and even the most student-centered and enlightened instructors face a staggering challenge in the heterogeneity of our population of students. There are many, many students who are well-meaning but simply underprepared. It used to be called social passing and is not new, but that practice generates a need for remedial or developmental courses that we simply can’t meet. I don’t care about the term rigor, but let’s address the issue rather than make puns about descriptions of dead bodies. Call it what you want, but let’s focus on having a cumulative system of education that moves students along with some intellectual competence that is demonstrated publicly. The results right now are pretty mixed in public higher education.


  12. Great interview, John, with lots of great points.
    As someone noted, the differences between standards and standardization when including innovation.
    Except for core knowledge, maybe – but probably not, there is NO place for standardization in education if we’re seeking learning for long term retention and preparation for a meaningful career and personal life.
    Standards that inhibit innovation are not standards but disguised standardization.
    I suspect the concerns about innovation are really concerns about classroom / student control and the fear that generates in many educators.
    And, by the way, encouraging innovation by educators AND groups of students is I would argue the best approach to working with students at all levels of capability – including the underprepared.


  13. Okay, a good deal to reply to here, and I’ll do my best to address each issue.

    I want to begin by thanking you for taking the time to reply, the vigorous discussion shows me where my weaknesses are and ultimately helps me strengthen (or perhaps abandon) my ideas.

    1. Ken, thank you for the kind words. I’m not sure I think we should keep the high schools we have now, though they do serve some students well. We recently conducted a learner centered experiment in a local high school and it went very well, so there is room for innovative practices in schools. Your larger point regarding the ends of education stands, and I’ll point you back to my #2.

    2. Bill, you ask “Do you really believe that there are many kids who are well-prepared for citizenship & employment who can’t pass these tests?” My answer NO! And I AM most certainly arguing that schools need to do more teach students to pass simple tests. I am not against testing, as I teach undergraduates and graduates and test both, but I test them in a number of ways far above and beyond simple recall tests, which are the bulk of what most systems use. I’d ask students to act as good citizens and competent employees (I worked at McDonalds when I was 14 and haven’t stopped working since) and if they can do both, in addition to becoming experts on various topics, why bother outsourcing their assessment to Pearson, ETS, or McGraw Hill?

    3. Dan, I think I have to respectfully disagree. I will argue here that it is the overuse of the term rigor that has created the heterogeneity that you decry. I understand that there are well meaning college students who can’t write, believe me. But the social promotion we both want ended is another issue all together. I’m speaking to a lack of engagement in the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of students in the name of increasing rigor. If students were more engaged with their work, they’d be far more likely to be better at that work, some choice is necessary in our current age.

    Now I agree with you 100% when you write “let’s focus on having a cumulative system of education that moves students along with some intellectual competence that is demonstrated publicly.” INDEED! Why not ask students to publicly demonstrate what they have learned over the course of the year at the end of each school year? Similar to a dissertation defense, but far less boring.

    4. Claus, you ask “But will everyone recognize quality and learning when they see it? Will everyone have comparable visions of quality? Can we be confident that the education of low-income children will be animated by the same vision of vigor that animates the education of wealthy children?”

    The short answer is NO, and I’ll point you to two texts that undergird my answer. The first is The Giver by Lowis Lowry and the second is John Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty. One of the beautiful things about this country is diversity. To survive/thrive, diversity requires a certain freedom of expression that will result in competing visions of quality. Competing visions are fine though, provided that both wealthy and poor children engage in meaningful work, determined as such through a similar process described above. Why not encourage members of the community to come in and see what, exactly, is being done in schools? Why not take the millions paid to a few test companies and spend it on assessment teams that would go from school to school looking, asking, watching, and reporting? Will it be perfect? NO. But it will be far more meaningful than the simple metrics we rely on now to determine if a school is passing or failing.

    Think about it this way. It is possible to go to a football game (sorry folks, SEC fan here) and know the outcome by simply staring at the scoreboard, but what a sorry way to “experience” the game. The way we use tests is strikingly similar. We can say this school is doing better than the other, but the tests don’t tell us why. To understand why you have to watch the game.

    Thank you all for the critique; it is an honor to spend time with such renowned teachers!


  14. An architect of NCLB wrote me privately to express his disdain for the interview’s contents. I urged the writer to post, but nothing so far.
    No one has written on this post about the social engineering aspect of what’s going on, although one person wrote me to recommend Scott’s book, “Seeing Like a State.” I haven’t read the book but have since read reviews and analysis, and what I read makes sense.
    All this social engineering, whether by conservatives or liberals, gives me a case of the wobblies. We need a vigorous debate about why we have schools, what we want all children to be able to do, and so on. It’s not enough to speak about what we want for our own kids, because that mixes in our own parental responsibility. Let’s argue about what all adults should be able to do and contribute to a healthy society? And then we have to agree to only use approaches that we’d be willing to have our own children go through (that is, no harsh drill and kill for poor kids–unless we’d put our own children through that). That’s the debate we don’t have.


  15. John. I love your summing it up–every single word of it. And, yes, indeed, it’s time we discuss the public purposes, the public good, that is served by the public education of our children–not just mine or yours. Then we can debate the alignment between ends and means. And yes, alas, right and left have a sorry history of “engineering” other people’s lives–the ignorant masses. Thanks, John, and thanks, Philip. Deborah Meier


  16. I enjoyed the interview and read evry single post with great interest. I guess the only thing that I would add is that we really do have to take a critical look at how schooling exists right now. I hear much talk about 21st century schools and 21st century skills. Yet the way schooling works really hasn’t been revised in a century, as they still operate on an agrarian cycle and many jobs that remain on our soil are of the service sector variety. I agree that we have to change the tenure system, if only because generationally it doesn’t work anymore. Merit pay is not an option, but we must nbe willing to explore other ways to compensate teachers,and increase the prestige of the profession. And talking about leaving behind the salary schedule in favor of something different–innovative even–is a good thing. And a long time in coming.


  17. Your words so well describe so much I have taken issue with as a parent and urban educator. Studies of change and innovation that I have seen all require empowering the individual and guiding teams with goals rather than strict benchmark objectives. Self-determination is a key ingredient of motivation, innovation and happiness, and needs to exist at all levels, including the student level.

    Let me get into testing related specifics in an underperforming urban elementary school that I experience as a trickle down from NCLB. While doing our best to differentiate, top-down initiatives in my district are causing us to teach and test grade level curriculum to students who can’t access it. It is simply developmentally inappropriate to be testing students outside their zone of proximal development. With my school’s new interim data tests, purchased at great cost from a new industry born to serve the need to meet unrealistic AYP goals, we keep fully informed of exactly where our students need work. Yet these same low-performing students are further demoralized by these tests that are too hard for them. The data on very low students tells me little. As many of these students get extra time to complete the tests because of their IEPs, a lot of instructional time is lost. The result is a student who is further along on the path toward dropping out. Who wants to be somewhere where they are failing?

    Mr. Kovacs has a very clear historical view of the role of education in our society. This statement stands out: “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.” I also believe that standardizing what we must know will limit our knowledge base and cause us to lose the knowledge bases reaped from our diversity and world history that is now so easy to access and share.


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