Schools Do Need A Weatherman

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

So sang Bob Dylan in “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but the public schools are in desperate need of a weatherman, someone to point out that they are moving in the wrong direction. I grant that K-12 education is tougher and more complex than higher education, but that’s no excuse for what’s going on. It seems to me that most of the world is moving one way — and American K-12 education the other.

Some parts of higher education have figured out which way the wind is blowing and are moving aggressively to adapt to a changing world. Tamar Lewin of the New York Times provided a solid overview of the rapid expansion of massive open online courses (MOOCs) recently. The eye-opener was Stanford’s free artificial intelligence course last year; it attracted 160,00 students from 190 countries.

Today many of the nation’s leading universities are involved in one or more of the online learning efforts, pioneered by MIT and Harvard several years ago. Here’s a partial list: Duke, Johns Hopkins, Cal Tech, Michigan, Princeton and Rice. Richard DeMillo, the director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech, told The Times, “This is the tsunami.”

Tastes great! Less filling!

Many questions remain unanswered: How will students receive credit? How much will courses cost? What’s to prevent cheating? However, lots of smart people are working on those problems now, and institutions like Western Governors University, which is entirely on line, have carved out a trail.

The MOOC phenomenon — the prospect of millions of students studying online — threatens much of traditional higher education, particularly the less prestigious but nonetheless very expensive private colleges. Expect a shake-up even as opportunities expand for millions.

Higher education has huge advantages over K-12. It’s voluntary, and its clients are adults. Elementary and secondary schools must provide custodial care, and they are charged with the complex task of helping grow adults, in addition to teaching reading, math and other essential skills. ‘E pluribus unum’ is not part of the mandate at the University of Bridgeport or Yale, while learning to be a citizen is assumed to be part of the public school curriculum.

So what’s going on in K-12 education? Well, it is jumping feet first into the Common Core, an approach that accelerates schools on the path that they have been on since “A Nation at Risk” in 1983: higher standards and a more ‘rigorous’ curriculum.

The federal government has invested millions into developing ‘better’ tests, but they are also more expensive, which means that many states are supposed to spend additional millions on testing.

What’s more, the Common Core will eventually expand testing into the lower grades and more subjects. This will benefit Pearson and other testing companies and keep the test-makers employed, but the money will have to come from somewhere else in the budget, because no new education dollars are available. That’s likely to mean larger classes and cuts in ‘frills’ like PE and the arts. Or schools may continue to use cheap tests, which will not be aligned with the Common Core. That will mean disappointing test scores, more public disillusionment with schools, and so on.

The old Miller Lite TV Ad campaign keeps running through my head. These were funny faux debates, where one person would say “Tastes Great,” and the other would disagree by shouting, “Less Filling.” In my nightmare, we are going to end up with young people who “Test Great” but whose knowledge is “Less Filling.”

Joel Klein has a perceptive column in Time Magazine this week, cautioning against complacency. He’s upset because some people are cheering small upticks in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and I agree. I would go further to suggest that the basic flat-line scores of the past 40 or so years on NAEP are strong evidence that our approach to ‘School Reform’ has been and is fundamentally flawed. Wrong-headed. And leading us seriously astray.

It’s not too late to change direction. In nearly 40 years of reporting about education, I have seen FOUR programs that work well. Happily, they are not mutually exclusive. Two are elementary school programs, one is pre-school, and the fourth high school.

This is what I would do if I were in charge: every elementary school would adopt James Comer’s approach, meaning that all the adults would be trained in child development and would be able to provide the nurturing and supportive environment that is found in successful families. At the program’s height, about 1,000 Comer Schools were operating around the nation, giving poor children the supports they need to be successful. You can read more about Comer Schools here. Jim Comer, an MD and a Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale, is nearly 78, and his schools have been saving children since 1968.

The second program that would co-exist in all elementary schools, if I had my way, is E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge. The Core Knowledge curriculum prescribes roughly half of what every child should study, leaving the rest to the local and state authorities. Don Hirsch, now in his 80’s, recognized back in the 1970’s that, for all children to have a fair chance at succeeding in life, all must have a common ‘vocabulary’ of knowledge. All kids must be exposed to the rich ‘curriculum’ that middle and upper class children acquire at home.

I find it revealing that neither Dr. Comer nor Professor Hirsch is a professional educator. Perhaps education is too important to be left to educators, after all. Don was the classic mild-mannered Professor of English at the University of Virginia when he had his epiphany.

(Full disclosure: I consider both men to be friends, although our friendship grew out of my admiration for their programs, which I first met as a reporter.)

Quality pre-school is such a no-brainer that I am baffled by our national failure to insist on programs. We know that poor children start school years behind their affluent peers, and we know that well-planned programs close those gaps. Presidents regularly talk the talk, but that’s as far as it goes. I’ve seen really good programs in Chicago, France and Spain, but there are plenty of other examples.

Here’s a piece we did for PBS NewsHour in April 2011:

Is money for pre-school the issue? If so, then my fourth change can help with that. Early College High School is another long-overdue change. Everyone knows that American high schools aren’t working for most kids, who put in the required seat time so they can be with their friends, participate in extracurricular activities, and get that piece of paper. Where high school students can begin their college (or technical) education early, good things happen. We reported on this recently for the PBS, but this is not unique to south Texas.

About 10% of high school students are taking college courses in Minnesota, New York and elsewhere. I would open up “early college” to anyone who’s motivated, because it’s a win-win all around.

Eventually, in this approach, senior year will disappear, and perhaps junior year as well, as education becomes seamless. The savings should be used for pre-school programs.

I don’t foresee MOOC’s in high school, but technology must be pervasive. Kids will still be coming to buildings, but their studies should take them outside the walls. Students in Berlin — Germany, Connecticut and New Hampshire — could be working together on projects. Columbus, Georgia, and Columbus, Ohio-you get the idea. Young musicians in different towns could be practicing together on Skype. And so on.

My four changes won’t solve the problems of poverty, poor nutrition, substandard housing and inadequate health care, but they will open doors for more children, doors that I believe our current approach is closing.

We should be asking “Who Benefits?” when the wind blows as it does. I see a lot of so-called experts making a decent living ‘turning around’ schools, and the test-makers must be smiling all the way to the bank. However, teachers aren’t benefitting from the pressure to raise test scores or be fired. Students learn the cruelest lesson of all: at the end of the day, they are test scores, numbers to be manipulated.

“Tests Great, Less Filling” is not a campaign we should get behind.

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25 thoughts on “Schools Do Need A Weatherman

  1. Great, great post. I became a believer in Comer’s approach, even though I was looking at it from a high school perspective. I was representing the union and we put a huge effort into it, but the pendelum swung and a true-believer in the Broad data-driven approach pulled the plug. I’m hopeful that something similar, now led by Robert Balfanz can be tried in middle school. This week’s Frontline has opened eyes around here.

    I’ve always wondered what the gold-plated Common Core and the MET’s “teacher quality” efforts could do that Core Knowledge and National Board Certification couldn’t do, at a fraction of the cost. And the early college idea is one of those rare policies that are win-win-win-win-win, with no down side that I can see.


    • Thanks, John
      Please do what you can to get others to read and think about this. It really is time to stop tinkering…


  2. I was wondering the same thing as John Thompson about Core Knowledge and National Board; maybe those didn’t have the right backing or PR.

    As a dual enrollment instructor, I’ve seen how beneficial early college can be for many students. A recent reports at Inside Higher Ed indicates that students, particularly minority students, who start in dual enrollment programs are more likely to continue on into a four college and stay there.

    However, access to early college and dual enrollment varies greatly, and is still dependent in many places on use of college admisison test scores, which raises another set of problems. Still, it is a move, I think, in the right direction towards a seamless educational experience based on each student’s ability and readiness.


  3. “and we know that well-planned programs close those gaps.”

    Oh we do? Uh, what’s your reference on that? Oh no, please tell me it’s not that old Abcedarian Project? That was a weird one-off and no one I know who has been involved with the data up close thinks it should be taken very seriously.

    Certainly the statement you made is a reasonable *hypothesis* but saying we know that, is naive.



  4. FYI, the most recent careful assessment of “well-planned programs” in the UK just came out last week:

    Click to access DFE-RR220.pdf

    and the bottom line is that there was “no impact was found on any of the child outcomes measured”. Families loved being in the programs, but they didn’t do anything like what you say we “know” these programs do.

    Where do you get these urban folktales that you recycle on your blog? Education is held back by lack of understanding and care about evidence, and you seem to be part of the problem, Mr. Merrow.



    • The Chicago pre-school program provided strong evidence that a well-planned pre-school program closed gaps, got kids ready for school, et cetera. That was run with the schools, in the schools, and funded by the system. Our NewsHour story last year was not about that program but about a smaller and more expensive approach that also works to level the playing field. I am not referencing Abcedarian.
      Not sure where you are coming from on this. Are you saying it’s hopeless? Lisbeth Schorr also wrote about programs that work, although when she returned five or so years later, the programs were gone or going away.
      The problem is commitment, in my view. What is your analysis, leaving out the name-calling?


      • Low SES kids benefit from ANY decent preschool, pretty much. Well-planned not as important as well-staffed and accessible/affordable.

        Low SES kids need background knowledge they don’t get at home. Ergo a high-quality preschool program will help them. So would higher SES though.

        If we are going to address SES in the schools, which is what you and Rhee and Canada all want to do, we need to provide early childhood education.

        If we chose to reduce and ameliorate the effects of poverty on these kids, well, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

        And I am still concerned about your revelation that your favorite programs were thought up by non-educators–who are educators. It’s not rocket science to realize that kids need a decent start in life.


      • The two were able to think outside the box, which most professional educators do not seem to do, or perhaps they can think outside the box but are constrained in their ability to move the system in big ways. Hirsh and Comer have managed to move systems in impressive ways.
        You seem to be taking it personally that I am not endorsing ‘reforms’ created by professional educators. What do you endorse?


      • Good grief, this is a debate that the High Scope Foundation more or less settled decades ago. The reason why this country ignores pre-school education is that pre-schoolers are either poor or so carefully cherished that their parents won’t risk a common school-like environment. That leaves the poor trapped in nowhereland and the rich – or even barely rich – “separate and unequal.” Leadership in social services would raise these questions, last raised under LBJ, since they are, again, new to those who ignore children.

        I do think your blend of Hirsch and Comer is a little like oil and water, since my evidence of “common core” are “core standards,” and that’s quite opposite to the empowerment of the model you’re suggesting, but I’ll accept that Hirsch is more humane than his followers. My lingering reservation is that I don’t see any core as more meaningful than the social core of learning-what-you-need-from-others, rather like Olin College’s view of pre-requisites. That is still a “common core” of communication between peers and with teachers, which is the heart of the 19th century curriculum anyway.

        And, finally, Early College High School is an inevitable outcome of more and better MOOC’s, no matter what schools do. It is hard to imagine a typical high school denying “credit” for college level achievements documented by the colleges themselves. I do caution you about the JFF model of ECHS, however, since, for 20 years they were based here in Somerville and for all that time they ignored the multicultural school just down the street. There is a certain problem with “innovators” when their standards exclude their own neighbors.


      • Constraints, as you mention is passing in your comment but not the article, are surely part of the problem, as you well know.

        It would be nice for you to amend the article. As it is now, you are teacher-bashing, something I have accused you of many times.


  5. You lost me at Core Knowledge. Early in the post you state, “It seems to me that most of the world is moving one way — and American K-12 education the other.” Core Knowledge is part of the other.

    I have written and rewritten a paragraph here about 4 times… Simply, Core Knowledge is not the solution. All schools having CK will not ‘fix’ the problem. Our schools need to be rethought. Learning and education have massive potential to become transformational spaces for young people. We don’t need a program, we need a profession.


    • Not sure why you feel so strongly about (against) Core Knowledge. Have you been in those schools? I fear you are letting the best be the enemy of the good.
      All I am saying is that, in nearly 40 years on the job, I have seen some programs that seem to be very effective without being either totally top down or reliant on the power of a strong personality.
      I am looking for road maps, not a driver or a remote-controlled vehicle


  6. Curious John what you think of the drastic (for me at least) reform ideas – for example in the recent Cooperative Catalyst posting, one linked to the notion of interdependence. Also, a term I’ve only recently learned, unschooling, is – in its best form (my words…) in some ways similar. Still unclear for me but important for my continuing consideration, hence this submission.


  7. Two readers have written me privately to object to my saying that NAEP scores and other measures have been essentially flat. I responded to them directly, of course, but here’s more on that point. I appreciate their comment but stand by what I wrote.

    While math scores are up between 1990 and today, the only huge gain is in 4th grade, and we know that 4th graders can be trained to pass tests. If those gains were truly powerful, why aren’t they being matched in 8th and 12th grades?

    4th grade reading was at 217 in 1992 and 221 last time out. 8th reading was 260 in 1992, 264 today, and 12th reading was 292 in 1992 and stands at 298 today. That’s what I mean by essentially flat.

    Science is grim. 147 to 151 for 4th graders between 1996 and 2005. a flat 149 for 8th graders, and a decline from 150 to 147 for 12th graders. That’s flat, if we are being kind.

    And we are not talking about students being proficient but at basic levels. My point is that we have been tinkering, sometimes with good effects (as in the Clinton years) and sometimes with lousy results (NCLB). But it’s tinkering…and we need to do more.



  8. THANK YOU for this extraordinarily cogent and important think-through, John. We will add to its visibility through our University Seminar, with appreciation for your unremitting service to learning.


  9. Funny how you all debate which program is better based on this or that anecdote or impression.

    In a serious field like medicine, the only thing that is really trusted is a study that has a randomized design and strong outcome measures.

    In my earlier comment I asked John Merrow to give me a reference to show that strong preschool could “close those gaps.” [namely gaps in academic achievement between different groups]

    Merrow blew this request off with the vague statement “The Chicago pre-school program provided strong evidence that a well-planned pre-school program closed gaps”

    Does he have a reference to an actual published article that reports a randomized study of some pre-school program? If so where is the reference or link?

    See I think he is just blowing smoke, because no study has ever looked at academic achievement gaps and found an intervention that got rid of them.

    You Ed people need to get past this sort of casual hot-air style of discussing and begin to understand more about research designs and about how hard it is to really establish efficacy in this imperfect world. You like this, you are impressed with that–who the heck cares? The only thing that matters is what can be seriously shown to work.

    There is a new book by Willingham on this topic–you should all have a look…



    • I assumed too much, that you would know of this study by Reynolds, et al, so here’s the citation:

      I have also seen the program at work, and I am inclined to trust my own eyes AND research.

      You probably are aware of just how difficult it is to do randomized trials in education, with real live children, but this study seems to hold up.


  10. Thanks for the reference. I read the study. It is interesting and does provide some evidence that high quality preschool has some educaitonal and health benefits. However:

    1. There is no evidence at all for what you originally stated, that preschool can “close the [educational] gaps”. They didn’t find any differences in outcomes by race, period. So there was no finding of a gap-closing here.

    2. More generally, the positive effects emphasized in the study are small. E.g., “high school completion (81.5% versus 75.1%; P= 0.007)” Very statistically significant, which just means a low probability that the result is just random noise-but the size of the effect is only a 6.4% change. Nothing to sneeze at, but very modest. It would be nice to see a comparative cost-benefit analysis of these results–I think there might be other interventions that would provide a better return on investment in low-performing communities.

    3. Finally, to get technical, this is a complex “quasi-experimental” design in which schools rather than students were randomly assigned. I worry that there may be opportunities for investigator bias when you have complex statistical adjustment of the kind this design requires. Note that pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to use designs like this in satisfying FDA requirements. So even the modest results (which do not close any gaps, as you claimed) should probably be viewed with a little grain of salt. What you really want to see what effect preschools (or other interventions like this) is a study where a big group of people are allowed to apply for the intervention, then you pick people by lottery to get the intervention, and then you follow up on everybody. This is not as clean as that.


  11. I just don’t follow your logic here. Do you dispute that a warm, supportive environment is conducive to growth? Are you against high quality early childhood education because no perfect study has been conducted? This seems like more than your allowing the best to be the enemy of the good, but I can’t figure out your thinking. What is it that you want?


  12. I feel that good informal educational efforts need to be included in this mix as well. Alexander’s work at Johns Hopkins shows very clearly what can be accomplished – especially with regard to those gaps. And of course I want to throw in my local Education Community concept once again. As my late mentor-from-afar, Stephen Covey, argued, better alternatives to local issues are best developed and dealt with by motivated, engaged participants.

    I have concerns about the early college high school. If I knew that accurate assessments of learning were done (NOT standardized tests). AND if the alternative courses eliminated to add the early college courses don’t shortchange the K-12 curriculum. I don’t know enough about the often lesser requirements (including some calls to eliminate 12th grade) to decide how I feel about this. I do know that many of the first-year students in my seminar course wish they had challenged themselves beyond graduation courses. This challenge could of course come from early college courses beyond AP courses and college co-op courses. BUT AGAIN, only if such efforts don’t shortchange the K-12 curriculum based upon CCSS and NGSS.


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