Trust, but verify

John’s book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon; you can learn more about it at the book’s official website, or, if interested in buying copies for your class or discussion group, you can consult this page.

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee; it was co-authored by John and Learning Matters Board Chair Esther Wojcicki.

Two Californians, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, may yet save American public education. The first is the late Ronald Reagan. The Democrat is Darrell Steinberg, a state senator from Sacramento who is very much alive.

Public education is on life support. America’s students routinely score in the bottom half on international tests, 7,000 students drop out every school day, a half-dozen large school systems have cheating scandals on their hands, and our schools are teetering on the edge of obsolescence in today’s technology-driven society.

The heart of the problem is a near-total lack of trust, which is why we bring up former President Reagan and his phrase, “Trust but verify.” He was referring to the Soviet Union and nuclear weapons, but that essential combination is what’s required in education.

Years ago we trusted teachers but had no system for verification; today, however, trust has virtually disappeared, and education is about verifying — using scores on standardized tests. Neither extreme works. The challenge is to gain the middle ground.

Ronald Reagan
A comment that Ronald Reagan made with regards to the Soviet Union could also be a potential turning point for American public education.

When teaching was one of the few jobs open to competent women, classrooms were staffed by smart, responsible and caring women, women who would probably be attorneys or executives today.

When a changing economy opened doors for women, our schools suffered. The teaching force changed, and trust gradually eroded as we learned the hard way that trust alone did not produce results. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin came in 2003, when a high school valedictorian in New Orleans failed the math portion of the state’s graduation test five times.

By then we were well into the test-intensive era of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that requires all children to be achieving at a basic level by 2014. Today, public education is all about verifying, and states are falling over themselves to rate teachers according to their students’ test scores. Washington, D.C., led the way, but now about 30 states require the evaluation of teachers based on test scores.

It didn’t take a genius to predict what would happen when jobs became dependent on one test score. Cheating scandals have erupted in dozens of places, with Atlanta’s public schools taking the crown for most egregious.

But if neither trust nor verifying alone works, what would the middle ground, “trust but verify,” look like?

Valid, reliable measures of accountability are essential. We need a high-stakes test, but it cannot be the whole ball of wax. Because testing kids in every subject — including art and music — just so their teachers can be rated is an idiotic notion, we recommend that the unit of measurement be the school, not individual teachers.

Enter Steinberg and his legislation, Senate Bill 547, which has passed the Legislature and been sent to the governor. While it would use test scores to evaluate schools, it insists upon multiple measures, including graduation rates and college/career readiness. Moreover, it would open the door for other factors, such as classes in the arts, to be used when judging schools.

We think that no school should be allowed to stay open if most of its students cannot pass the state’s tests. But we also think that no school should be allowed to focus only on those tests, because that leads to “drill-and-kill” and dumbing down of the curriculum.

Trust but verify. The state’s high-stakes tests are the means of verifying. As for trust, we think Steinberg’s bill’s insistence on multiple measures can be interpreted to mean: Trust each community to create the kinds of school programs it wants for its children, instead of a school board or Sacramento making the rules.

A community might choose:

  • Significant programs in art, drama, journalism and music.
  • A community service requirement.
  • Project-based learning.
  • Competence in a second language.
  • At least 30 minutes of recess daily.
  • Honors recognition for academic excellence.
  • Technology to teach students to collaborate.
  • Teacher-made tests to regularly measure student progress.
  • Uniforms for all students.
  • Economic and racial diversity.
  • Early college opportunities for advanced students.

Give a community one point for each vibrant program it establishes. For argument’s sake, let’s say a school must get at least 10 points to stay open. However, merely having some or all of these programs would not be enough to earn a “passing grade” for a school, because every school must also earn points by doing well on the high-stakes test and demonstrating that its graduates are capable of moving on. That’s the verification side of the equation.

Give three points if 60 percent of kids score basic or above; four points if 75 percent reach that level; and five points for a score of 85 percent or above.

The idea is to establish multiple priorities and provide a program that is valuable to the community. A school couldn’t just “drill and kill” to pass the test, because it wouldn’t earn enough points to stay open. Nor could it just have a host of wonderful programs that make everyone feel good, because passing the state test and preparing graduates for their future are also requirements.

Trust the community to decide what kinds of programs it wants for its children, but look to the high-stakes test results and the college/career readiness results for proof that the community’s trust is justified — or, in worst cases, evidence that changes must be made.

Like the federal government, we endorse verifying the progress of a school, not its teachers. We trust teachers and administrators to see that everyone is pulling their weight or to do something about those who are not.

SB 547 represents the best hope for revitalizing public education, even though it doesn’t go as far as we would like regarding the role of the community. Steinberg’s bill leaves too many details to the state Department of Education and the State Board of Education. Our hope is that the powers-that-be at the state level will seize this opportunity to relax the reins and trust communities to do right by their children.

Only by coming together to address what we want for all our children can we hope to lower the temperature in education — and begin to catch up with other industrialized societies.

2 thoughts on “Trust, but verify

  1. This sounds like a great model — and something that really has bipartisan appeal. That’s crucial in today’s economy.

    I wonder, too, if there might be provisions for alternatives to testing at the high-school level, such as IB, which is quite comprehensive (as it requires creativity, action, and service, not just academics, to get the IB diploma). A large percentage of students passing that program might be a better indication of college-ready than testing.


  2. John – you might want to read, or re-read, Walter Karp’s article in the June issue of Harper’s Magazine entitled “Why Johnny can’t think”.

    Karp’s discussion of “the politics of bad schooling”, as observed by Goodlad, Lightfoot, Sizer, Boyer, Bunzel, Ravitch, and the Nation at Risk report, provides a window into a different notion of needed school “reform” that’s worth reconsidering in the context of your proposition.

    American public education, and therefore America, in a bigger mess than a committee, even if includes Bill Gates, is remotely likely to get us out of.

    Too bad.

    Now what?

    Ronn Robinson
    Mercer Island, WA


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