A speech I’d like to hear

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

This is a speech I hope Arne Duncan will give one day. I don’t necessarily expect you to write a FULL SPEECH back in the comments, but I’d love to know the issues you hope the Secretary will touch on in major future addresses.


With my basketball playing limited recently because of my schedule and a nagging injury, I have been thinking about the sport and its similarities to education. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Some of you may know that I am comfortable on the court. I played a lot as a kid, was team co-captain at Harvard and then competed in an Australian pro league. I still play regularly and have been on the team that has won three national Three on Three titles in the past few years.

I know something about education too — maybe even more than my critics would have you believe. I grew up in my mom’s early childhood program, and I was CEO of CPS (Chicago Public Schools) for seven years.

What I have come to realize is that we are focusing too much on test scores — to the detriment of real learning. That’s like a basketball coach paying attention only to wins and losses while neglecting the fundamentals of the game.

Here’s what I mean. In basketball you compete to win, of course, but you play and practice a heck of a lot more than you actually compete in games against other teams. And that’s what should happen in school, if you think of big high-stakes tests as those competitive games.

In both, of course the scores matter, because winning is better than losing, but think about how you get those good scores in basketball. It’s not by practicing ‘winning.’ No, it’s by working on the elements that make up the game: passing, foul shots, jump shots, rebounding, diving for loose balls, defending, and so on.

When teachers devote a lot of time to practicing test taking, they are going down the wrong path. That’s like trying to practice ‘winning’ when they should be working on the essentials of the subject, the elements of ‘victory.’ Teachers should be helping with the academic equivalent of rebounding, passing, defending and so on. If you’re an English teacher, your students should be reading, writing, rewriting and arguing their points, and so on. As E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has noted, “If we want our children to do well on reading tests, they should be reading — not practicing taking reading tests.”

Friends who have been around Washington longer than I point out that, ever since No Child Left Behind, we have gotten away from the essentials of learning and focused instead on high stakes tests. We used to give high stakes tests just three times — in 4th, 8th and 12th grades — but now, because of NCLB, schools are required give them every year. In my basketball analogy, that’s like sending teams out to play in tournaments all the time, without giving them time to get game-ready.

Want an example? Take Connecticut, which had invested a fair amount of money to develop some pretty good (largely non-bubble) tests that were going to be given every other year, until the previous administration made it stop, effectively saying, ‘Test every year or lose your federal dollars.’ Connecticut fought back but lost the battle. Washington forced it to throw out its much better tests and replace them with cheap, off-the-shelf bubble tests.

And so, from now on, our policy will be to encourage more of the basketball equivalent of practicing the elements of excellence. I urge teachers to translate ‘rebounding, passing, defending, foul shots, three pointers, et cetera’ into their academic counterparts in their particular subjects, and concentrate their efforts there. When a coach does that, winning takes care of itself. If we do that in our classrooms, winning — doing well on accepted measures — will also take care of itself.

The Department will do its part by granting waivers from some of No Child Left Behind’s rules, to states that apply and qualify. But it’s up to ordinary Americans to get involved, to help figure out what we want for our children.

Thank you.


What do you want to hear from Arne Duncan? Seriously!

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23 thoughts on “A speech I’d like to hear

  1. John, the biggest concern is not his speeches but his practice, which contradicts the (rare) speeches with anything educationally sound in them. As for the metaphor: the tests are more like just taking foul shots – not the ‘real’ game. To treat them as the game is to misunderstand what limited measures of what kids know and can do the tests really are. A real game involves all its elements, just as education should. That’s what we need assessment information on.

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    • My complaint is the basketball court itself – not the practice or the game. If the goal of society is simply to produce players that take orders from coaches who take orders from owners, and the players are not allowed to do anything other than play basketball and are punished for thinking about anything other than what is taught by the coach, then testing is just one of many tools for control. If it isn’t testing, another medium of control would prevail.

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    • Great point. I could have put words in the Secretary’s mouth about how the games themselves are not life and should not be confused with same. They do matter, however, just as measures of academic accomplishment matter.

      Anyway, I was hoping that the analogy would prompt critical thinking like this, so thank you.

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  2. Well done! I love how you’ve used the sports metaphor. Your last statement is so important…in order to express what we think needs to be done, we need to be invited into the conversation, or at the very least, be listened to when we express our concerns. Right now we’re ignored and marginalized, and Professor Diane Ravitch was demonized by Duncan and his minions for telling the truth.

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  3. John, I think that your analogy is improved if the preparation for the season involved lots of off-the-field or -court learning of terminology, play diagraming, etc. with virtually no actual playing. I have a small poster in my office about learning to play baseball. The people new to baseball would “book / classroom” learn baseball’s history, its terminology, its recordholders, the physical layout of the field, the theories of offense and defense, etc. and after almost everyone quit, the ones remaining might actually go on the field to try playing – IF they had enough players.

    Similarly in education, factual learning goes far beyond core knowledge at the expense of application of that knowledge (most likely memorized rather than learned) to realistic and effective problem solving.

    I would ask the Secretary to defect on where, when, and how he learned that core knowledge and those skills that has enabled his successes in his life. Believing that didn’t happen in the schools and pedagogy of today being mandated by the government, I’d like him to speak to changes in education that government can encourage that WILL truly help to prepare students for successful lives such as he’s enjoying. Today’s mandates do the very best to insure poor preparation for success and that is tragic!

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  4. “But it’s up to ordinary Americans to get involved, to help figure out what we want for our children.”

    Yes, and it’s up to the Secretary, and the President, to raise the level of discourse about education. We ordinary Americans should be thinking and talking not about test scores but about why public education is critical to our democracy.

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  5. Great analysis…the relationship between practice and “the game” and, by implication the nature of the “game”(in education, as the tests are presently constructed, is it worth “winning”?

    The only thing I would change is the next to last sentence and make it a paragraph or two. Great analysis leading to a promise to grant waivers is too weak. I would suggest something like the following:
    “Therefore, I am going to do all in my power to help cause three things to happen with respect to school accountability and testing and two things to happen with student accountability and testing. With respect to school accountability: 1) create much better assessment instruments that truly reveal what we want students to know and be able to do; 2) have the school as the accountability unit of measurement not the individual classroom/teacher (the team is so important to success in the school-good teachers help weaker teachers and the latter are pleased to accept it); 3) test every year but have performance aggregation over two or three years determine school “success” for accountability purposes (smoothing peaks and valleys, allowing time for instructional adjustment based on data analysis).

    While continuing to support individual student accountability, I want to do two things: 1) ensure that no one test nor any one kind of test determines high stakes for an individual child. Multiple opportunities and assessment strategies, including teacher judgement, should be used together for those purposes. 2) until the educators in an individual school have demonstrated they can succeed with a significant majority of each disaggregated group of children in their school, district/state/national tests should not be used to impose negative consequences on students (such as non-promotion/non-graduation).”

    If Duncan simply offers waivers, it leaves the impression that an important response to the current flaws in the system is either to throw out testing…go back to that golden era when we served all kids well before NCLB (please note the sarcasm) or more euphemistically, provide waivers (go back without really going back because we can do that more easily politically). We all want the practice of education to be as you describe it, John. Jettisoning testing either by waivers or by going back to a time before NCLB when kids of color, English Language learner, kids with disabilities and poor kids were hidden behind averages (if they were still in school at all) won’t get it done. If he says we must do this hard complex stuff while we’re working on the right way to do it, that’s fine, but there are too many who think high stakes testing is the problem. it isn’t. The problems…discrimination, bad administering and teaching, low respect for education, etc are the problems…harder to get at than just testing.

    Thanks for continuing to do such a great job of posing the hard issues in accessible ways.

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    • David –

      I was very interested to read your response and appreciated the thoughtfulness of your accountability recommendations. I am hoping that you might speak further to the second student-level accountability recommendation that you made. I agree that non-promotion can be, in many ways, a negative consequence for a student. However, as an educator who was involved with literacy remediation for many years, I am concerned about the common practice of promoting students who lack fundamental skills on to grades and teachers with less and less knowledge of how to teach those skills, let alone the time to do so. (Please note that I do not mean to insult teacher knowledge, but rather to point out that a sixth grade teacher is rarely trained to teach students the mechanics of reading the same way a second grade teacher is. I assume that the point holds true for math, but I try to speak to those areas with which I am most familiar.)

      I have also worked in high schools that are not “drop-out factories,” but “credit mills”, which can result in twelfth-grade students reading at second grade levels. In my experience, inappropriate promotion can hold as many, if not more, negative consequences for students whose opportunities to gain the mechanics decrease each year. That type of situation also places a very high burden on teachers: differentiating instruction becomes exponentially more difficult as the ability span of one’s students increases.

      Do you have any thoughts as to alternatives for supporting both students and teachers
      that minimize the negative consequences with regard to issues around promotion?

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  6. Children belong to parents! Parents are the 1st teachers of each of their children. Parents must be an integral part of the education and skill development of their children and MUST be involved in every school plan. When a parent enrolls their child in any school, public or private, there should be a contract that the parents sign describing the parents’ obligation in helping their child receive the best educational experiences their child can get and the role the parents and child must play to ensure that happening. The parties to this contract include the school and the child’s teachers so everyone is on the same side of the table in the best interest of the child.

    The difference in quality of education…. school vs school and country vs country…. is in the ATTUTUDE of the participants and that comes with the child from their home. Parents from other countries help to positively influence their children’s attitudes about studying, home work, going to school, staying focused and having respect for teachers and the students around them. All parents whose children are enrolled in schools in the United States must adhere to these contract terms so their children don’t negatively affect the quality of education that other children are seeking to achieve.

    It’s time for the education community, students and parents to be responsible, accountable, commit to this relationahip and stop blaming and trying to transfer this responsibility to others.

    This is the missing link in “NO CHILD, PARENT or TEACHER LEFT BEHIND!”

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    • John, any comparison is fraught with limits. In the basketball analogy, I would suggest that those responsible for the game define carefully and clearly the abilities of the coach you want for the players. What is the training of the coach is as important to the outcome as the talents, skills, and involvement of the players. My point is that the coach needs to know the basics, the fundamentals about everything that is going to go into making the game played as it should be played, not only shooting, passing, and defense, but also the multitude of little things about defense and offense and about motivation. Teachers, too, need to know a great deal about reading and good literature, about writing (especially important as writing brings clarity to the mind), about science, about math, about languages, and about history. Too many teachers, especially in elementary education courses, have had only a smattering, if any, courses in math and science, and frequently these are only elementary level courses. I am appalled when I read the transcripts of many of the applying teachers just out of college. Little wonder our young girls and boys specialize in recess as that is what many of their teachers specialized in for four years while in college.

      Gordon E. Bondurant

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      • This is exactly the sort of response I was hoping for, that someone as smart and experienced as you would take the analogy and run with it. You are right about the need for strong coaches, and given what we know about how teachers are chosen in
        Finland, South Korea, et alia, this is food for thought.

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      • You said: I am appalled when I read the transcripts of many of the applying teachers just out of college.
        Research shows that most 70% of education programs accept any applicant that applies. I am appalled by that fact. How can we have the “best and brightest” from our teachers when anyone with any kind of aptitude is accepted into the teaching programs?

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  7. I read your birthday wish with interest, John. It reminded me of the antithesis of your premise — an incident that occurred to me in the summer of 1959. My family had just moved to a Chicago suburb, and I had reluctantly resigned myself to the fact that I would have to attend college at the University of Illinois in Champaign, rather than one of the several Ivy League colleges that had accepted me. Even if I had been able to generate a full scholarship, the living expenses would have prohibited my staying in New England. So with my tongue firmly inserted in my cheek, I took the entrance exams for the U of I. With my wonderful Taft platform, I was able to do unusually well (on their scoring system) … except for English Composition. We had quite successfully imbued most of us at The Kind Firm Moulder with an ability to write effectively. In fact, my actual composition received an A-, because of one sentence error, which was a mistake on the part of the scorer having interpreted a period as a semicolon (the exam was handwritten in those days). But the mechanical part (the part that could have been equated to all the practice and technique learned on the basketball court) was a total failure because I could not satisfactorily diagram a sentence. The result was that I was placed in Remedial English (in which I was able to maintain a 4.0 grade average across three semesters).

    Here’s a case of the mechanics — the component testing (or playbook learning) — being inconsequential to the final result. Just the opposite of your basketball analogy. The purpose of the ability to recite chapter and verse of the playbook was to produce superior performance on the court in realtime. The original purpose of learning rote grammer was to enable us to compose winning sentences. I think I had that stuff in Junior High School. I could not remember the play numbers, but I could execute the plays in realtime as they unfolded in front of me, resulting in cogent and understandable rhetoric. Thus, in learning, perhaps we should de-emphasize the practice and pop quizes in favor of placing more weight on the final exams. Some standardization, I suppose, is necessary to provide a barometer of performance against a national norm. But we have simply created a testing medium in this country that can be studied or trained for, as Olympic athletes train for competition. What will be the end result of individuals like Iowa’s Shawn Johnson? A socially and stunted glamorpuss who fits in with shallow greedy contemporaries? Will balance beam backflips make her a good psychologist or dietician? But I digress.

    I guess the training aspect of education needs a yardstick, but not to measure prescribed moves. True education must be able to work in real life. Remember Mark Twain’s observation that he tried “not to let book learning stand in the way of his education”? (Note the order of the punctuation marks.) So, I agree with what you are saying, but I pause to ruminate over the mechanics. Is there a way we can creatively test the final product of education and other areas as well? Essay questions in everyting but math? Is LeBron James a hideous example of the blending of all the above concepts?

    S.

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  8. When I read the remarks made, I marvel at the literary content and forms of expression used. As one who have taught high school English, I am reminded how little today’s students value or understand the power of the written word. Our society refuses to acknowledge the significance of the home environment in laying the foundation for reading and setting an example for the importance and value of education for the sake of knowledge. They are all kinds of gaming systems in the homes of children but books and reading? It is not stressed enough and our children have no real use for the written or spoken word because it’s not deemed important from the home. Teachers are being used as the scapegoat, blaming all of the ills of the schools on the teacher when the teacher can only work with what comes through the door and what each child beings with them from home.
    I would like to see Arne Duncan discuss how testing and learning are two different concepts. They entwine but the are not the same. One can learn many things and testing doesn’t measure all that is learned. I am constantly saying; “If we want to see how students perform on tests and measure they abilities, we should teach them test taking strategies in order to maximize the results.” It is known that students can have test anxiety, can get confused about how to approach a test, have little respect for the test-taking process and blow it of by filling in bubbles to a pattern of their choosing, but I don’t hear anyone saying anything about how that affects the outcomes of the test results when those who understand testing knows it has an adverse affect on the outcome. And I would like to hear Arne Duncan address that in a future speech. I would also like to hear him acknowledge the significance of smaller classrooms and act upon the conversation with measures that ensure all children in the States receive a smaller class size of no more than 18 per class for grades k-7

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  9. “The Department will do its part by granting waivers from some of No Child Left Behind’s rules, to states that apply and qualify.”

    I would end that sentence with a period after rules and strike out that bribe part. What is it about this administration, with its bribery m.o.? I believe he called it “incentivize” – which is doublespeak for bribe or manipulation.

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  10. I too would love to hear that speech. It expresses my feelings exactly. What I would add is that many students are motivated in school only because of one subject or activity that they like, whether it is music, art, sports, or wood-shop. The more we lose programs like that, the more we create an environment where non-academically oriented students feel like losers and end up dropping out because school equals failure. This idea that middle and high school should be structured only for students going to a four-year college is wrong. President Obama talks on a regular basis about community college and high school programs that train students who want to work with their hands. Bring back business math for students who won’t need Geometry to do their jobs! As a school librarian, I would also like to hear him acknowledge that libraries are needed in schools to promote reading. I’ve heard so many stories about money being cut for libraries so more funds are available to improve reading test scores!

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    • My blog next week is about the value of the so-called ‘extra curricular’ stuff, activities that got an awful lot of us through school. Please stay tuned. I sometimes think this nation is going bonkers

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  11. First of all, I apologize for the very late reply to this particular blog, but it only came to my attention very recently. I have 3 reactions: (1) I think John’s analogy is excellent since, indeed, FAR, FAR too many schools I enter and teachers I talk with are spending precious “practice time” on strategies to “win the game” vs basic game skills and understanding of how the various elements meld into a usable (playable) game that can be brought into use many times over a course of years vs. only prepping for the one high-stakes (tournament) game. (2) I think John Bennett makes an excellent point when he suggests that we ask Secretary Duncan where he learned his game skills since it clearly was not in today’s classroom, but if not, then how could he possible be so well prepared as he obviously has been for success. Could it be that teachers and schools who educated him spent time with him on essential game skills and didn’t worry about the “winner take all, win/lose, pass/fail, tournament game” as the primary measure of his success? NOTE FROM EDITORS: the remainder of this comment was deemed to be an over-the-line attack on a previous comment in this thread. As such, it has been removed.

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  12. I have a colleague who told me how her elementary school son been losing sleep because his teacher told him that ‘she needed him to get a 4 (the highest score–ED) on the state test.’

    Just think about that, and about what led the teacher to say that. It’s appalling…

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  13. As Secretary of Education, I forgot the wisdom of coach John Wooten, “be quick, but don’t hurry.” I forgot that schooling is a team sport and went along with the risky, one-man-team mentality of “reformers” like Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and Joel Klein. “Reformers” want schools to perpetually run a full court press. They want schools to double team every problem, while also running a zone. They demand a high-risk, up-tempo offense, but without allowing for turnovers.

    I was swayed by the billionaires and the “teacher quality” craze. I knew that we could not train every teacher to be a superstar. We have all seen the movies about heroic educators and sports stars whose charisma allowed them to soar to superhuman heights. But having actually been on the court, and having grown up watching my mother educate kids, I knew they were just movies. We do not need “one man teams,” whether they are superstar teachers, administrators, or federal overseers with the narcissistic game plan of “Whatever It Takes!” Championship teaching must be sustained over a long season, and a long career, and the team’s game plan must respect that reality.

    John Merrow reminds me of a truism in sports. If you invest your practice time in perfecting complicated offensive and defensive schemes, and I coach the fundamentals, my simpler system will whip your x’s and o’s. Razzle dazzle plays make for nice highlight films, but victory is achieved by reducing unforced turnovers. Trick plays have their place, but championships are won by those who are fundamentally sound. During my administration, we have gambled billions of dollars on high-risk computerized “innovations,” and they are not putting points on the board.

    I forgot another first rule of teaching — that fear is a terrible thing. For instance, coaches call timeouts to turn up the heat on the opponent’s free throw shooter so he will miss the shot. Increasing anxiety is never a strategy for getting your own team to play better. Winning teams play under control, or as we say in sports, they play “within themselves.” But, I gambled on high-maintenance managers like Rhee and Klein, who want to impose their high-pressure system on everyone.

    Al McGuire had a term for players who did not show the proper respect for the team sport. They were “just waltzing it.” I now know that I have spent too much time with “reformers” who are just waltzing it. They want to micromanage educators, but without bothering to learn how the game is played. Because they have spent so little time on the actual court, they do not have respect for the game. They have never experienced the joy or the camaraderie of a team effort.

    I have wasted too much time with the armchair coaches and their virtual basketball and educational toys. It is time to get back on the pine with real players; real sweat and pain; and share with players the real love for the contest. Its time to get back into the game, with real practitioners, and let the sports trivia aficionados take care of the stats.

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  14. John,

    Love the basketball analogy. Maybe if Arne Duncan would include an analogy in his next speech which helps to portray his vision for education, I can better understand his goal. The primary goal of encouraging charter schools over public schools is not a fix all when only a portion of charter schools experience real success. The current mandate of high stakes testing will only yield teaching to the test at best and cheating at worst. In an case, our children lose. Maybe Arne’s analogy would display the massive holes in his current approach.

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