To save our schools, wear sunblock and bring ideas

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

I won’t be reporting from Saturday’s Save Our Schools March and Rally because my young granddaughters (and their parents) are visiting from Barcelona, but it’s likely that PBS NewsHour will have a presence there. The rally and march are being organized by teachers from across the country — and has attracted promises to attend from numerous big names in the field, as well as endorsements from Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch and others. I regret missing the event, because I expect I would recognize a lot of people there. I wish everyone well.

I have a question, however. The acronym, SOS, is catchy and convenient — the internationally recognized cry for help. But what are protestors hoping to save our schools FROM? And, just as important, what are they FOR?

The March and Rally begins at noon on Saturday, July 30 at the Washington, D.C. ellipse.

I am one of those middle-of-the-road guys who is concerned about the polarization of public education. I see an ever widening gap, with “We must trust teachers” on one side and “We must verify with high stakes testing because we don’t trust teachers” on the other. I think Ronald Reagan — no hero to liberals — got it right when he said, “Trust but verify.” He was talking about the Soviet Union, but I think the concept applies to public education. How we get to that sensible middle, where we trust teachers but also have a valid and reliable way of measuring progress, is the challenge that I see facing us.

So please go to the rally ready to argue for specific changes in schools — not just ‘holistic education’ and the like, but specifics.

Here’s one: Barnett Berry of the Teacher Leadership Network suggested to me the other day that principals ought to be teaching part of the time. “Principal” was once an adjective, we both recalled, as in ‘principal teacher.’ That one step would free teachers to develop their leadership skills, a useful move in the right direction.

Here’s another: after the levees broke and effectively destroyed New Orleans’ lousy school system, the organization that was created to rebuild was pointedly called “New Schools for New Orleans,” a name designed to make the point that no one wanted to go back to the status quo. Whether you agree with the direction they’ve taken or not, the purpose was to move forward.

So, my protesting friends, on Saturday put on plenty of sunblock, wear floppy hats, drink lots of water, and please bring suggestions that will make schools better.

Post your thoughts here, if you will.

47 thoughts on “To save our schools, wear sunblock and bring ideas

  1. the status quo is in fact the so-called “reform” movement, at least since 1983 with A Nation At Risk, followed by Goals 2000, followed by No Child Left Behind, followed by Race to the Top, followed by The Blueprint.

    Let’s be clear. Many have been pushing charters although the CREDO study run by Margaret Raymond showed clearly that charters perform no better, and somewhat worse, than traditional public schools. And that is without even taking into account how some charter schools can exclude the harder to educate – SPED and ELL.

    Many in the reform movement want more tests, more “rigor,” all more of the same of what we have been doing and which has not been working.

    Meanwhile they ignore things like decreasing test score (the only measure some will consider) performance as a result of increasing unemployment, so that merely imposing more tests does not solve the need to change how we educate our children, including those from poorer economic backgrounds, be they in rural areas or inner cities.

    Let’s be clear. The four principles on which Save Our Schools was organized, do not presume that schools do not need change. We know they do. What they do not need is to have corporations and those that seek to profit at the public trough or those who are seeking to undermine support for public schools drive the agenda without the voices of parents, teachers, and people in the communities being included in the discussion.

    I am a teacher. I am on the Executive Committee of Save Our Schools. Not to brag, but to put in context my role – I am an award winning teacher, being the 2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher for the district in which I teach, which has more than 8,000 teachers. My participation in Save Our Schools is to try to make a positive difference for the students we teach – mine, and those in public schools everywhere.

    Maybe that is why this effort is endorsed by university faculties, teachers unions, school boards associations, parent groups, civil rights groups, community activists, and more.

    Please go to our website, to which John provides a link at the top of his piece. See who is endorsing us, and speaking to us. See the principles around which we organized.

    And know this – the March on Saturday is a key event. It is preceded by a conference, and followed by a Congress in which we will plan for the future. The March is the beginning.

    We welcome your support, if you can show up, or if you wish to donate to help both the March and the ongoing efforts.


    • Leonie,
      I have a question about the mission statement for Parents Across America. How should the organization respond to research showing that students are more engaged and learn better when they study things that they are interested in and are not in an environment where they are largely powerless? Since public education as an institution requires social efficiency to operate, students in a school environment must be kept powerless about what they can learn and the environment they inhabit. To the best of my understanding, you cannot support both the concept of school as it exists and research-based actions. Is Parents Across America is courageous enough to confront this problem?


      • While I cannot speak for Leonie, I have to tell you teachers are powerless too in this regard. We have no input regarding curriculum and if we are ordered to follow a mandated program, we have to do it. When I started teaching 30 years ago, teachers could tap into students’ interest.

        As for charters, many do not invest in student interests. They follow a “direct-instruction” curriculum and in some schools, teachers are not allowed to deviate. One such charter in New Orleans is a perfect example. This organization runs the school like a military academy–Read this: The culture section is proud that these students walk in straight line and can only use the bathrooms at certain intervals. Teachers have the same bulletin boards. btw, NOLA charters are under investigation but Merrow left that bit of information out of his post. So much for “moving forward”.


      • Cevin,
        You pose your question to PAA as an either/or, but happily there are other options. Students do not have to be kept powerless for a public school to function effectively. Also, there are many examples in our country of public schools in which students are engaged (and you’re right they do learn better that way). These examples already exist, the challenge is to get more of them. Can find some at the Public School Insights website of the Learning First Alliance; also some good examples at Edutopia.


      • Cevin, that’s a really good comment and thanks for raising it because I know a lot of people think the same thing. Short answer: yes, you can do both! Teachers diversify their lessons in many, many ways to capture students’ interest. There are different methods to deliver content that sometimes grasp individuals’ attention (using a wide variety of ways to present material as well as a wide variety of ways students can interact with the material and show their understanding). With the exception of those few draconian school systems where every teacher of a certain grade/subject must be on page x on day y, the standards or objectives we work from in the classroom leave a lot to interpretation. I am constantly scouring the news for stories that apply to my standards and are current events that will pique my students curiosity, then let them choose what they want to work on. This empowers them to take ownership of their education, and they always rise to the challenge! It certainly is doable within the framework of public education – I could not teach any other way.


      • Thank you for taking my serious question seriously. I suspect my standards of powerlessness differs from others because I use the same measure that I would personally desire. Diversification and sustaining interest are certainly nice, but that can be done with prisoners as well. Power over students is established in numerous ways. First and foremost, students are required to be in school under threat of violence. Second, they have few civil rights. Third, there is no system of justice in place where students’ voices are respected and acknowledged that transcends the power strata that the institution designs. Fourth, the whole system of grading creates an abusive power relationship that pervades and corrupts ever action and thought that takes place in a classroom. These are just a handful off the top of my head. I would never voluntarily accept those conditions because they are an assault to my dignity. Students, while they are minors, still have an inate understanding of these issues even if some can’t articulate this. I would be eager to see the school that addresses these issues. I suspect that many which are being praised as being exemplary still fall short of meeting these pathetically fundamental basic needs. We need to hold institutions accountable to real standards of human dignity. Anything less is abusive and the self-deception is nauseating.


      • I also sent you a reply yesterday to explain to you how powerless teachers are in this regard due to the pressure of test prep, but as of now my comment is still awaiting moderation. I also sent you links to a NOLA charter called Renew school so you can see for yourself how it is run in a very restricted fashion where all teachers must follow the same script, and students must line up straight when walking the halls. I also sent you a link to the investigation into some NOLA charters now taking place–including abuse charges. Maybe they will allow this comment to go through since I am leaving out the links. btw, Merrow in his replies avoids the ideas put forth. He still wants to use VAM which btw has been proven to be faulty as a means of verifying results. Yet he offers no other alternatives because he himself is pushing the testing agenda.


    • There should be no mistake that there are parents, community members, and taxpayers across the nation, irrespective of ideology, who have serious concerns about education reform initiatives. To call this teacher organized only ignores a reality.


  2. I’ll be at the march this weekend and you can be sure that I checked out what SOS is standing for before I decided to go. Their guiding principles are right on their website. Equitable funding and developing varied assessments for high-stakes decisions are two key issues I will personally be supporting.

    Guiding Principles

    For the future of our children, we demand:

    Equitable funding for all public school communities
    – Equitable funding across all public schools and school systems
    – Full public funding of family and community support services
    – Full funding for 21st century school and neighborhood libraries
    – An end to economically and racially re-segregated schools
    – An end to high stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation

    The use of multiple and varied assessments to evaluate students, teachers, and schools
    – An end to pay per test performance for teachers and administrators
    – An end to public school closures based upon test performance
    – Teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policies

    Educator and civic community leadership in drafting new ESEA legislation
    – Federal support for local school programs free of punitive and competitive funding
    – An end to political and corporate control of curriculum, instruction and assessment decisions for teachers and administrators
    – Curriculum developed for and by local school communities

    Support for teacher and student access to a wide-range of instructional programs and technologies
    – Well-rounded education that develops every student’s intellectual, creative, and physical potential
    – Opportunities for multicultural/multilingual curriculum for all students
    – Small class sizes that foster caring, democratic learning communities


    • I don’t see anything about the ability to truly meet the child where they are when they come into the school…until you do this schools will not move all students forward…state have equitable funding thanks to Title I (what percent of these funds are mismanaged?), small class sizes have shown not to work for all but I bet they work for those students that do not enter school like the middle and upper middle class kids ready to learn…I don’t see anything about eliminating pacing, I don’t see anything about ability grouping, algebra and geometry for those that can in 7th and 8th grade…I don’t see anything that hasn’t already been tried and hasn’t worked….kids need to be met where they are in particular those coming from poverty that do not have the help at home to learn social skills, colors, letters, numbers, how to sit still, hygenie, etc…until these schools are mastered…


  3. Yes I plan to bring sunscreen, water, and hopefully a very comfortable pair of shoes. But instead of evaluating teachers with one high-stakes test, let’s talk about the students who need our help–the ones that come into a 4th-grade classroom in September with poor comprehension and writing skills, and by January are able to read and understand a simple chapter book and write a coherent writing piece. Their reading, writing and even their spelling improved. That’s a pretty significant achievement and anyone examining their portfolios would agree, yet they do not pass that one standardized test. In NYC the standardized ELA used to be administered in January and math in February. Using the 40% or in some cases 50% of a teacher’s evaluation based on testing, the teacher would be judged ineffective. Even now with these tests being administered in Spring, it would still be difficult for these students to pass. The student and teacher are now penalized for the progress they made. And the bottom line should be the progress, not the score.

    There are ways to measure teacher’s effectiveness that’s both fair and balanced. One Maryland community (Montgomery) found a better way to evaluate teachers, and it worked. Yet the state of Maryland voted to use testing as a major base for evaluating teachers, and sadly Montgomery will be forced to follow suit. It would have been nice is someone like you or better yet Duncan went to examine the Montgomery system. Michael Winerip of the NYTimes did and found it to be successful. “In the 11 years since PAR began, the panels have voted to fire 200 teachers, and 300 more have left rather than go through the PAR process, said Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the Montgomery County system, which enrolls 145,000 students, one-third of them from low-income families. In the 10 years before PAR, he said, five teachers were fired. “It took three to five years to build the trust to get PAR in place,” he explained. “Teachers had to see we weren’t playing gotcha.” ”

    Of course when your only agenda is not about helping public schools, their teachers and their students.but promote charters (like the ones now unraveling in New Orleans), this march would not be something reformers find worthy. This march wasn’t started by the unions but by teachers, parents and students, and maybe that’s what reformers find most upsetting–a grassroots movement where Weingarten, Gates, Rhee and Oprah aren’t the stars and people with better ideas–like the teachers and parents, but are never part of the discussion.

    So maybe you can take a day to bring your grandchildren with you so that they can see the passion of these individuals to SOS–Save Our Schools from those who believe there is only one (unfair) way to “verify” teachers and schools.


  4. My organization, FairTest, also endorsed Save Our Schools. True, in time more specifics are needed, but the most fundamental task is to save our schools from the education ‘deformers’ who have decided that tests (the standards don’t really matter except for the tests) and punishments are the core of a ‘solution’ to the very real problem that too many students do leave school not having learned enough to be effective citizens. It is a destructive ‘solution.’

    Finland, by contrast, decided to build a system based on having high-quality teachers who would be prepared well (not a BA and short training course, a la TFA), engage in ongoing shared professional learning, and be largely in charge of the shape of schooling. They have brief national standards, but those are not imposed through tests. Finland does far better than the US, which chose a disastrous detour through testland. Finland also has a child poverty rate under 5% while the US is now well over 20%. Finland is more homogeneous, but has growing numbers of immigrant students (15% if memory serves) with 43 different languages. But of course US poverty is an ‘excuse’ to the deformers, who have managed to simultaneously promote damaging education ideas while deflecting attention from massive poverty.

    There are many reasons why the basic framework, the paradigm, of federal and state laws and policies must be changed – I use the US failures and Finnish success simply to highlight how a different approach has produced markedly different results, though the underlying social structures and poverty also matter.

    Still, schools should do as well as they can with the resources they have. Which raises the issue of those specifics you asked for, John. The Forum on Educational Accountability (, which I chair, has developed many specifics, from a 2-page summary for ESEA reauthorization to detailed legislative language. The Forum for Education and Democracy has a rich range of good ideas. And that’s just for federal policy – there are many more applicable to curriculum, instruction, assessment, public reporting and accountability, as well as good ideas addressing the well-being of the whole child.

    The problem is not an absence of concrete ideas, it is that the dominance of test-and-punish either makes the good ideas impossible to implement or turns them into their opposite (e.g., ‘formative assessment’ becomes an endless array of centrally-controlled mini-tests). So, the frame must change for real positive practices to flourish, while pointing to good practices, in the US and internationally, should help us with the re-framing as well as provide benefits to students lucky enough to be in a school or program that manages to do well — despite the so-called “accountability” system.


  5. I know there are plenty of good ideas out there. What I worry about is clouds of rhetoric that is largely against this and anti-that. If that happens, then you won’t have accomplished much, I fear.
    I hope people talk about legitimate ways of verifying achievement, because too often this group is perceived as ‘anti-accountability.’


    • It has been an uphill battle to get attention to “legitimate ways of verifying achievement.”We at FairTest have been pushing this in general and with lots of concrete specifics for a long time now. (See esp materials at FEA also promotes concrete ideas, such as in our assessment report. They don’t reduce to soundbites all that well – that is part of the problem, but not the only one. But the point of good assessment is mainly how it fits with and supports strong schooling.

      The other thing about SOS is that the march is understood not as an end, but an important early step. Pushing for ways to improve schools not only oppose destructive ideas, is now and will be a part of the effort. Those interested can also look on the SOS website at the many workshops that will be part of the conference –

      But it remains also essential to explain why our schools are indeed under attack.


    • Hi, John,

      Those who attend the March will hear many positive ideas from people who want to ditch the status quo and really improve our schools. We will have the greatest of all education experts: not hedge fund managers and foundation gurus, but teachers, school leaders, and parents. To make improvement, you must first stop doing the wrong things, so it is necessary to name those wrong things: test-based accountability (aka high-stakes testing), rewards and punishments for test scores, privatization, and de-professionalization. For more on why these strategies dont work, see the National Research Council report on incentives and test-based accountability.

      Yes, there is much to be done: expanding high-quality early childhood education so children arrive in school ready to learn, making medical care free for poor pregnant women to reduce learning disabilities associated with low birth weight, assuring that every child has a full and rich curriculum (including the arts), changing assessments to demonstrations of knowledge and skills rather than test taking skills. I could go on but you get the point. We should abandon the crass behaviorism of the status quo (which Ken Bernstein described) and emphasize love of learning and readiness to learn and raising standards for entry into the profession.

      Diane Ravitch


      • You need to include poor quality teacher training, accepting lower achieving students into teaching schools, evaluate the value of an undergraduate degree in teaching (no longer needed), the list goes on…oh yeah, your role in the mess we find ourselves today…


      • Hi Diane,

        I admire your work, and support the broad agenda on the SOS web site. However, I think John is right, the rhetoric is frustrating. Your two first sentences are exactly the type of language that I believe John is trying to identify as such.

        I worked in a traditional public school for years before moving to a public-charter last year (out of frustration with status quo teacher attitudes and impotent leadership), and I found all of the things that you wish for in education. And we’re a title one school that operates a full-inclusion model with more IEP students than state and local averages.

        Our school was given money by Bill Gates early on so that we could share our best practices with people around the world, and we do (this is not operational money). Yet the traditional schools in the area have no interest in what we’re doing, even though kids love it and it works. We have visitors from Israel and China who furiously take notes, while school leaders across the street sit around.

        While they may complain and get angry about high stakes accountability and the “teacher-bashers” as SOS adherents call them, their pulse for powerful change in education was a flatline when I came into teaching, and remains so today. (As a side note, my students also received money from Bill Gates when I was in a traditional school…yet I never got flack for it then)

        Again, I admire your work and agree with SOS, but find it difficult not to be frustrated by the rhetoric…can you please lead the charge for a more nuanced, research based, thoughtful conversation?


    • It has been an uphill battle to get attention to “legitimate ways of verifying achievement.”We at FairTest have been pushing this in general and with lots of concrete specifics for a long time now. (See esp materials at FEA also promotes concrete ideas, such as in our assessment report. They don’t reduce to soundbites all that well – that is part of the problem, but not the only one. But the point of good assessment is mainly how it fits with and supports strong schooling.

      The other thing about SOS is that the march is understood not as an end, but an important early step. Pushing for ways to improve schools not only oppose destructive ideas, is now and will be a part of the effort. Those interested can also look on the SOS website at the many workshops that will be part of the conference –

      But it remains also essential to explain why our schools are indeed under attack, and how it is that attacks can parade as ‘reforms.’


    • Did you not read my reply regarding Montgomery?? Pretty accurate way to verify w/o depending on one standardized test. Hopefully you also read the Winerip piece entitled “When the Numbers Lie”. It chronicled a dedicated and highly effective teacher, but the stats didn’t show her dedication and the progress her students made (by a point of a percent) and she was denied tenure despite a glowing referral from her principal. We will lose many great teachers using just one test.

      I think you know teachers do not want anyone lacking in the classrooms, and we have called for other means of evaluations including peer review. NYS originally offered a good plan until Cuomo changed the 20% to 40%. No wonder many principals are involved in cheating scandals around the country. These percentages are unrealistic knowing that every child has a different learning rate and are not widgets. And, why praise the NOLA charters when they are now under investigation?


  6. John,

    As someone who criticized the Broader, Bolder Approach group to be more specific on accountability some years ago, I understand your hesitation… but since BBA published an Accountability Paper back in 2009, one I think is pretty specific and sensible, your criticism here looks as if it was tossed out without remembering the proposal from 2 years ago. So what do you think about the BBA accountability paper?

    Yes, I’m tossing your request for specificity back at you: a number of folks either organizing or attending the SOS March have already done the work you think they haven’t.


    P.S. Do I need to apply a small virtual shin kick for the oxymoronic “back to the status quo”? That was PAINFUL.


  7. I also will be marching in DC on the 30th. I am a former urban educator now getting my doctorate in teacher education, and I currently work as a teacher educator with an urban teacher preparation program that is situated in Newark, NJ, and is a partnership between Newark Public Schools and Montclair State. Unfortunately, John, we do often talk about education on an ideological level rather than in practical terms–this is an indication of the giant divide between the two sides of the educational debate, which also happens to span political party lines. But politics aside, I think a major issue with replacing “rhetoric” with concrete solutions in large-sacle discussions is that the United States is too diverse in its student population and consequently, its student needs, for one-size-fits-all practices, when you are talking at the national level. This to me speaks to one of the main points on the SOS agenda: localizing educational policy and curricular decisions to the local level.

    In response to your point about the educational left being “anti-accountability,” we do advocate for performance-based accountability for teachers and localized accountability measures for students. However, these measures cannot necessarily be boiled down to “hard numbers” for national consumption and comparison, and so they are dismissed by the right. Again, this is an ideological conflict between the two groups. On the one hand, testing advocates want all children tested and rated as successful or failing, despite the validity of tests or inequity of academic resources children have had access to. On the other hand, we believe that it is not only dehumanizing but unethical to reduce a child to a test score that may be essentially meaningless, and so it will be much more fruitful to assess a child locally and use that assessment to drive local instruction, rather than slap a label on that child/school. Likewise in the case of teacher evaluation, the conservative reformers believe that using a complicated statistical measure that connects teachers to their students’ test scores (Value-Added Modeling) which does not have the capability to recognize contextual factors such as the high absentee rates and mobility index in urban/high poverty areas, and has a margin of error of between 30-50%, should be used because “it’s better than what we’ve got.” Those “anti-accountability” lefters (and please forgive my sarcasm here because I just can’t seem to help myself) would prefer to evaluate teachers based on their practices and on student outcomes in a localized setting, rather than base tenure, pay, and dismissal decisions based on what is most likely a meaningless number (because of that 30-50 point margin of error).

    “Accountable” is a good, solid word. I like the idea of students, teachers, and schools being held accountable for their work. I like the idea of programs that credential teachers being held accountable for their work as well–both university based programs and the many, many alternate programs that are cropping up courtesy of the backlash against “traditional” teacher education. But accountability does not have to be expressed in positivistic terms. There is no such thing as a neutral number–each test score has a story behind it. Until we can put aside our fascination with positivism and reducing children to inhuman numbers, we cannot really improve our educational system. Education is a fundamentally human endeavor, and we need to bring our accountability practices back into that realm.


    • Bravo to this thread, including Diane’s comment. Again, I’d love to see your side work with “Trust but Verify” as a framework. The right does not trust teachers, only numbers, but how does one make them see the importance of the left side of that equation, trust?


  8. John,
    There are ways we can and should verify that teachers and other adults in our public schools are providing the best possible service to our children; much better ways than the clumsy and ill-fitting systems we are using right now. I too expect to hear more serious and thoughtful ideas on how we can move public education forward when I attend the SOS Rally this weekend. Many such ideas have already been discussed in teach-in webinars sponsored by SOS prior to this weekend, and I fully expect that to continue after the march as well.

    By the way, also this weekend in DC, the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards will be having its conference. Highly accomplished teachers from across the nation gathering to look at issues of improving teaching and learning. Many of us will be moving between these two events. As you know, NBCTs have been touted by people all across the edreform spectrum as examples of high quality teaching…and rightfully so. NBPTS is also putting out some important information for state/local policymakers on how to develop truly effective teacher evaluation systems, and how to tell the difference between student achievement and student learning.

    The juxtaposition of these two events provides a wonderful opportunity for those policymakers in DC who really want to hear from the experts what does, does not, will, or will not work to improve public education. If I were the ED, I’d have all staff out with ears open, taking notes. Same goes for the education staff of every Congressperson.

    Hope you enjoy the visit with your children and grands.


    • What is the Department’s position? Is it sending people to learn, watch, monitor, or whatever? Anybody know?


      • Myth alert!

        For more than 30 years, I’ve be a fan, supporter and advocate of quality early childhood programs for low income, limited English speaking and students with some form of disability. (See 1985 National Governors Association report, Time for Results, for which I served as staff coordinator).

        However, among the myths that Ravitch and some others promote is the idea that we need early childhood programs so that students enter kindergarten “ready to learn.” As she wrote above, the country should be “expanding high-quality early childhood education so children arrive in school ready to learn…”

        Sorry, but children are BORN “ready to learn.” They need encouragement and assistance, but they are “ready to learn.” As recent studies on the Chicago age 3-grade 3 programs show, we need strong early childhood programs and we need to change the way many schools work with young people and their families.

        But it is far easier to lay blame on students, families, politicians, hedge fund operators and others outside schools to acknowledge that we need many things, including a willingness to improve the way adults work with young people (and thanks to Ken Bernstein) for ackowledging that.


  9. Both Joe Nathan and Diane Ravitch know better than to argue here, when there are bigger stakes on the table. Certainly everybody is “ready to learn” and, just as certainly, pre-school, Head Start and other early education models enhance that readiness. My advice is that, rather than quibble, focus on common strategies that are simple but with huge impact.

    I personally like John’s Reagan citation, since my favorite tactic is to argue for electronic portfolios – the perfect antibody to the testing virus, and the “trust but verify” solution. But there are plenty of others, from teaching kids to ask better questions to project-based options, to “open ended unstructured questions” to highly involved community service, peer education, and external mentors – by outsiders or, with older kids, to outsiders like the elders. Whatever works should be celebrated, not argued. And stuff “works” when kids go eagerly to school, when they brag about their products, and when they work well with others, parents, and across the lines of class, language, culture, sex and age. It is not worth arguing the fine points when there are so few great issues at stake.


  10. Actually, I don’t think it’s a quibble re “ready to learn.”. There are many educators quite willing to point to kids and families as the real problems. In a number of state legislatures and sometimes in response to what John wrote, I’ve heard/read some educators insist that not much schools can be done unless every youngster has great early childhood education, poverty is eliminated, great medical is available for all, etc. etc. There’s a lot denial about the positive impact that great schools and educators can have.

    As for the “electronic portfolio” as a “perfect antibody to the testing virus,” please give examples of what you regard as an electronic portfolio that eliminates the need to do other testing. Having worked for 40 years in and with schools that used the portfolio approach as part of graduation requirements, I have seen their value as part of an overall approach. It’s a bit like saying we don’t need to use a written (now mostly on computer) test of knowledge in addition to a road test, as part of whether people are ready for a driver’s license. I think both have value.


  11. Thanks, Joe, for reminding me – and I know its rare from your other work – that educators so frequently fear paradox that they force decisions into either/or catastrophes. The real value of portfolios is to enhance and enrich, as well as to qualify and mitigate findings from other metrics – like tests. They are the antibody to quick and superficial judgments, and give meaning and gravity to decisions – best by kids themselves – to favor certain activities over others. They do not erase the value of tests, but, rather, give meaning to the numbers.

    Regarding portfolios themselves, my strong preference is for portfolios that follow general templates to ask students to show how they, themselves, see their skills’ growth and applications. Most specifically, I favor portfolios using templates like this one (, by an extraordinary teacher working with two very extraordinary students. They apply Arnold Packer’s “soft skills” as rubrics with which they encourage students to organize evidence of how well they can show their “responsibility,” “teamwork,” “inquiry,” “listening,” and others of the skills developed and clarified by Packer’s SCANS Commission in the 1990’s, and updated through his Verified Resume project for the Kellogg Foundation last year.

    To pick up on your excellent analogy, standardized tests show how well students know the manuals; standard portfolios show how well they use the manuals; and these “soft skills” rubrics show how well they actually drive, plot reasonable routes, and reach destinations safe, secure, and creatively. A typical portfolio is a road test, useful but limited. One of these Packer portfolios from Somerville actually shows how well they understood the process of getting there. I strongly commend “Vanessa’s Take” – a short video linked to that template, made by some students about why and how the portfolio works for them. This is the perfect evidence that so much escapes standard tests, and how easily those tests can gain meaning with just a little context.


  12. This is an interesting thread of conversation. No mud slinging or calling anyone names. Kudos, John, for getting this started in such a thoughtful way — you’re the best.

    A comment, question and challenge for the people on this thread.

    Comment: If I understand them correctly, Katie and others here are pretty much arguing for local control. Local teachers (and parents and administrators) need to find measures that make sense for their school and community and they need to explore the “story” of test scores beyond the top-level number. Here’s the problem: Thanks to equity lawsuits and other factors, the control of FUNDING for public schools is now primarily in the hands of states. You can’t have your accountabilty system designed to answer to locals while the state is in charge of the money. The “granularity” of these systems have to be aligned. Or are you saying that the money can still come from the state and they should just trust the locals to come up with an accountabilty system that works for them?

    Question: I used to be a teacher and my observation at that time was that, for the most part, students who scored poorly on standardized tests were not well-prepared for anything. They were not prepared for citizenship or to make a living. They didn’t know much and could not do much.There were some exceptions, but not many. Do you agree?

    And finally, a challenge. I run, the mother of all Web sites reporting test scores (and parent opinion and other information) to parents. We reach 1/3 of all American households in a given year. We are very open to experiments to develop and demonstrate alternative forms of public accountability. We are open to experiments at the district or state level. I’d love to come up with ways to shed deeper light on things like: 1) the quality of curriculum at a school (as Diane Ravitch pointed out) 2) the degree of student engagement and committment to learning at a school; 3) Students ability with regard to “higher order” skills like synthesis; 4) the quality of teaching at a school; 5) the quality of arts programs that students are exposed to. We’d love partners in this endeavor. We’d try to come up with (reasonably) reliable and valid measures and then we’ll publish them on GreatSchools for all to see. Any takers?

    BTW, I think this project has the potential to lead to more common cause between the the opposing camps in education today. If everyone could agree on a common set of metrics by which to measure the quality of schools (at least in one city or state) then we could focus our attention on how to create more schools that score highly rather than yelling and screaming at each other.

    Bill Jackson
    CEO and Founder, GreatSchools


    • to Joe Nathan and others, “Ready to learn” is the term misguided educators use. “Ready for school” is what’s in their heads, I suspect, but using the former does reveal a bad mindset, in my view.
      Bill is right that we know a lot about good schools and metrics. Good things happen when we focus on what we want for children, ours and those of others.
      I have be privately berated for not mentioning all the good work that has gone into planning this event. My response is to say that I am concerned about the rhetoric that speakers will use to attack the ‘other side.’ That will get the headlines, widen the gulf, and so on. Americans love a contest/conflict, and so do reporters.
      Esther Wojcicki and I have written an op-ed that proposes a different way, our stab at a ‘trust but verify’ approach. We sent it off to a prominent newspaper but haven’t heard anything. (so it may show up here next week!)


  13. The Learning Record, which is more than a portfolio as it is also a structured means for assembling evidence of student learning in the class, not only provides rich information about the student for the student herself, her parents, and the next year’s teacher. It enables the compilation of summary evidence, the basis for ‘trust but verify’ (a term I’ve been using for a decade or so). Simply put, moderation (re-scoring) enables checking on teacher evaluations/judgments, which can be done on a sampling basis. The LR demonstrated high re-score reliability, and the real validity vastly exceeds any one-shot test. (For more info, see

    Strong, well-structured portfolio systems make testing largely irrelevant, except perhaps as a form of checking on the system – low stakes, infrequent, perhaps using sampling. They also could be complemented by a school quality review system, the core for accountability in New Zealand, England (where standardized testing is in decline due to parent and teacher resistance) and The Netherlands.

    Together, these would produce a system in which academic learning (including ‘soft skills’) is documented through real work that is spot-checked; tests are used as a supplemental check; and SQRs enable more comprehensive evaluation of schools. This is the core of a proposal FairTest and our allies have been struggling for in MA for more than a decade (for a summary explanation, see – with links to somewhat more detailed explanations). We could add such useful tools as surveys of students, teachers, parents about the quality and climate of the school.

    Unfortunately, it is hard to make headway against the testing mania, belief in centralized control and disbelief that teachers can do their jobs well (despite the evidence that in other nations showing strong and improving results, the heart of the story is preparing and trusting teachers).


  14. Take Back our Schools, What Would that Look Like?

    School systems are systems, and they are bound by their systemness. Devotion to standards, measurable outcomes, public accountability are necessary cornerstones of a public system committed to serving all the people. Arguments about the shape of those cornerstones are distractions from conversations by parents and teachers in the business of taking back schools to serve the needs of each individual child. Adults who care about children need to
    give to the system what is the system’s and to the child what is the child’s.

    In my Children’s Bill of Rights being respected as a human being means being treated as if you are already—by age 5—an experienced author, storyteller, researcher, problem-solver, inventor, scientist, artist, athlete, friend and collaborator. This is what it means to be human. A child has a right to have one or more adults take responsibility to help with that. If more than one adult, then they absolutely have to work together.

    Therefore, the focus of all parents and teachers should be what it naturally is, and that is to create the conditions which will to bring out, develop, discipline, and focus these natural tendencies to learn and to engage in the never-ending job making something of themselves in the world. That is the essence of the Socratic Oath of an educator. Academic disciplines are built-in necessities—not only for the school system, but also for leading a productive life. However, they must be taught in the context of a community of learners with the core assumption that we are all engaged in naturally meaningful and joyful activity.

    Parents and teachers, unite. Stop talking about the needs of the system, and empower parents and teachers to do what their integrity requires: do whatever it takes to bring out the best in each individual child. Make sure that the humans working with individual children are working for them, and not following some systemic mandate. Our Socratic oath requires it.


  15. My views are such that, though I was invited to speak this weekend, I declined. Having spent 30 years at this I come to the conclusion that until and unless teachers treat students with greater intellectual respect, nothing will change. Until and unless school is defiend as talent development and not a march through The Valued Past, we will fail. School is boring for many if not most. When was the last time you folks shadowed students for a day? It is a grim experience. It is endlessly easy to blame Others, those Outsider bada guys. But from where I sit, the problem isa Pogo problem: I have met the enemy; it is us.

    Let me speak a blunt truth: few teachers truly understand their job at a deep level. Every workshop we do, we ask teachers to write their own Mission statement; few can do it. They are so drawn to cover content instead of using content to engage minds that even the best schools are nowhere near as good as they should be. The students who succeed are those
    who trust adults and delay gratification.

    And please, Monty, stop blaming it all on tests. The same behavior exists in private schools and in colleges. And as i wrote last year in Ed Leadership after studying all of MCAS items in math and ELA for the past few years I come to the bitter conclusion that state tests are much better than local tests – the only valid way to explain the gap between local grades and state test scores, BTW.

    The unions? Don’t get me started. I have been at dozens of meetings and workshops where ‘work to rule’ means that people leave at 4 pm on the dot no matter what was happening. I have seen unions veto policies that would have been harder work for teachers but better for kids. I have never seen teachers go on strike for kids. I have seen grievances filed over educational policies that good teachers instituted.

    I think I know a few things about test prep. It is a FAILED response, a TIMID response, an UNIMAGINATIVE response to one’s obligations. It has nothing to do with what tests actually fdemand. I have seen no evidence that teaching must worsen for test scores to rise; I only know that mediocre teachers and principals BELIEVE this. In fact the best teaching occurs in good schools where teachers know what good teaching is and do it. Do you see the most or least test prep in the finest schools? The test prep argument is an utter red herring, showing the bankruptcy of educators. My work in curriculum and assessment reform has always shown that local control of learning and assessment is the determining factor in whether a school is good or not. Well, of course! In good schools there are people who know what good teaching, learning, and assessment looks like; and that strong leadership is needed to make it happen.

    Until and unless students are given a better shake in terms of an engaging and empowering curriculum classroom by classroom, schools will continue to under serve our kids. That has nothing at all to do with federal or state policy. And we have only a few years to get this right: video games and online learning are knocking at the door, with more engaging, mastery-based experiences that are teaching all kids that learning can be fun and not make you feel stupid.

    The only way John’s pleas for a sensible middle can be achieved is if educators finally get honest and say – mea culpa; school is more boring and ineffective than it needs to be, so let’s get our own house in order before the outsiders forcer us to do dumb things with their crude policy levers. Had unions and other groups lobbied hard for alternatives to current policy we also might not be in this mess. But for 25 years the educational establishment has just lobbied hard to complain about what it doesn’t like. Washington works the old fashioned way: write the laws and give them to legislators. When was the last time all the key players got together and did that?


    • Good one, Grant. Thank you, again. ” teachers treat students with greater intellectual respect,”
      ” school is defined as talent development and not a march through” material.

      Is teaching following procedures or doing what it takes to bring out the best in each student?
      We all recognize this as a rhetorical question, and yet, the vast majority get back to following procedures.
      A professional knows the procedures, but tests his or her value on the wellbeing of the client.


    • I hear with gratitude what you say, and with sadness. After 22 years trying to raise standards in my NYC vocational high school, implementing curriculum, getting a Masters in Curriculum & Instruction, attending your workshops, aligning and mapping and designing backwards alone in my commercial art shop and being viewed as a troublemaker by less industrious or uninformed colleagues, even winning an age discrimination suit against the DOE (I was denied the opportunity for some assessment writing for a curriculum I wrote to certify my program at the school), without assistance from the Union (I would not leave at 4 pm), I left the classroom. The school I left is tanking. New charters are filing some of the classrooms (including my own after 19 years there). My former students keep me posted on Facebook. I am reinventing myself for some other education career away from the mainstream, but lament deeply the lost opportunities and students’ potentials that were missed by the inability of the adults in and around the system to address the “teaching moment” one day at a time, to make the school day exciting and challenging and meaningful for the kids. What an incredible and pathetic loss. How much better if we would design with the end in mind for all of us with the BIG QUESTIONS in mind. Thank you, sincerely, for your efforts. I recently heard a teacher say that she loved teaching with Understanding by Design. Hope springs eternally. Diana Lee Friedline


  16. Thanks to Grant for refreshing insight and honesty.
    Thanks to John for agreeing that the term “ready to learn” is misguided.
    Thanks to Joe B and Bill J for their thoughtful note and suggestions. I’ll be following up with both.


  17. So glad to see Grant, John, Diane, and others be honest and thoughtful about what is happening in schools public and private. The system was set up for failure especially if students are to be able to compete globally or even locally. The world is changing and we are leaving most of our students behind. I know college graduates from Ivy League schools who cannot find work. I see urban students dropping out at a higher rate than ever before. This is a national emergency. Teachers usually go into the profession to make a difference. How do you find the right people to be teachers?

    Each child, teacher, college students is unique. What about creating an IEP for each students and teacher? Let’s form small groups of students who have an advisor to help them collect evidence of their learning. A great model is the Reggio Emilia Approach for preschool where the student is the center of the learning experience. Teachers are observers, mentors, advisors. Start early collecting evidence of learning, reflect on it, encourage feedback, taking risks, learning from failure, and trying again. Is this possible in today’s schools?

    I am asked to help schools write strategic plans, visions, mission statements, etc. Like Grant wrote – teachers have trouble designing a vision of what schools can look like. Actually who knows now. They can dream, but they have no power to make change. That’s why they’re marching. There are some amazing teachers. I know. I see them. But they are caught in a system that won’t let them shine.

    Higher Ed also needs some shaking up. We’re in the middle of a revolution but we not sure what we’re fighting for. Do we want to look like Finland? If so, students don’t start school until they are 7, they stay with one teacher for six years, and assessment does not rely on test scores alone.

    What if we don’t pin hole students by age group? What if we help students and teachers unpack the standards to fit around topics they are interested in? What about bringing inquiry, creativity, and innovation to learning? How about focusing on learning?


  18. I have admired Grant Wiggins work for a long time, and this is another example of why.

    As a teacher: Ouch! You are right; we DO need to get our professional house in order–holding ourselves and each other more accountable for actually teaching. We also need to support those in places where they are actually restricted or hindered from true teaching.

    If we are going to take the moral high road in education reform, we have to do it by leading by example in our classrooms.

    However, the other things to which the teachers and parents involved in SOS point are also critical to address. There’s enough blame and hard work to go around, and all sections of the society need to step up and take their share.


  19. I have certainly learned a lot in the last two years or so about public policy, systems thinking and what is happening in the greater world of education outside of my teeny, isolated Kindergarten classroom.

    I continue to do so, but here is what I see as of now. I’m sure I will grow more in another year.

    I see a world in flux. It’s changing. Everywhere. Education is not unique. There is no need to point fingers of failure and blame at teachers, techniques or outmoded methods. Winter turns to spring whether you like it or not, and hating on January doesn’t make May come any sooner. It’s changing. Very simple. Enjoy it.

    Blamers often have difficulty seeing how quickly it actually is happening. They complain of cold in April, but can’t see that we are, as a world, jarringly still emerging from the Victorian era. It doesn’t happen overnight and yet the speed and subtlety is stunning.

    I admire Diane Ravitch’s forward thinking and her fight to help us see the impact of the blame game on teachers and our public spaces as we move into this new era.

    It is scary and sad to think so many believe themselves experts on education simply because they attended the eighth grade and watched “To Sir, With Love”.

    The greater challenge to those in charge is to communicate, understand and foster the slow process and subtle changes of learning. If you can only “trust teachers” to spend 8 hours a day with children and not her expertise on learning, well, that says more about you in my book. Personally, I can only work where there is freedom and trust in my skill as a teacher and where I am respected as a serious professional.

    It has been sad for me to see the disparity of freedom I have compared to my friends who teach in some public schools. Notably, Kindergarten teachers in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they are required to write every standard on the board and be at that point at 10:07 or write pages upon pages of lesson plans when I haven’t written a formal one in six years and will eagerly ditch the 10:07 math lesson to follow up on Josie’s “Show and Tell” she just can’t stop telling.

    Leaders have tied up teachers in such webs of accountability, it is often difficult for us to see outside. The job of teaching is messy. I make at least three mistakes a day. Also moments of incommunicable glory no one sees. To do it “neatly” means you aren’t doing it. We work with actual people. Small people, and lots of them.

    It makes me sad to hear corporate “edreformers” saying things like “Duncan gave Iowa a kick in the pants” @tvanderark in their cutesy corporate ways. Kicks in pants are not a way I’d begin to foster a community of learners.

    Continuously trying to scale rules and policy versus foster genuine communities of learning has had long lasting negative impact on teachers, students and society.

    Arguments re teaching methods, rubrics vs portfolios vs standard tests all strike me as silly in this time of tremendous flux. Accountability, rubrics, *yawn*, a or b, we don’t care, we are too busy doing it- the process of learning. Stop getting in my way, you are interrupting. Humble yourself, hedge funder, it’s time to get down and get schooled. Hate me now, thank me later. Teachers are used to it.

    As an avid independent, lifelong learner, the importance of imposed assessments of my learning have long faded away. A Kindergartner doesn’t care what your rubric says either. They tell you they are learning each day when they simply love coming to school.


  20. The greater part of Diane Ravitch’s power as a spokesperson comes not from the policy prescriptions she puts forward (as informed and reasonable as they are) but from her perspective as an historian.
    I think of that now due to atmosphere of almost hopeless circularity that seems to inform current education discussion.
    In other words, it is not merely a trivial matter that democratic principles have been undermined routinely wherever the current reforms have taken hold.
    In still other words, it is not just that NCLB or “Putting Children First” or “Race To the Top” are ill-conceived (which they are) it is that those who might undo them have unilaterally disarmed themselves and surrendered too much control to willful politicians looking for an issue.
    One summary idea that I take from Ravitch’s “Great School Wars”, “Left Back” and “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” is that debates of education have not been resolved by reasoned discussion so much as by political muscle. It is not as if all policies are equal just that many will do just fine. But to cut off meaningful debate is a prescription for half-baked ideas running amok.
    It is only when I married that I learned that discussion often brings unimagined benefits. 1 plus 1 equals 3.


  21. AHJ is looking for partner sites in the medicine field. AHJ is a medicine web site with a significant library of high quality medical videos. We are seeking partners who may be interested in writing guest articles to our site. . Come contact us at our contact form on our web site.


  22. Zune and iPod: Most people compare the Zune to the Touch, but after seeing how slim and surprisingly small and light it is, I consider it to be a rather unique hybrid that combines qualities of both the Touch and the Nano. It’s very colorful and lovely OLED screen is slightly smaller than the touch screen, but the player itself feels quite a bit smaller and lighter. It weighs about 2/3 as much, and is noticeably smaller in width and height, while being just a hair thicker.


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