A Polarized Education System


Polarization has come to public education, big time. If it persists, at the end of the day we all are going to lose.

As the political campaign heats up, public education is caught in a direct crossfire. Here’s one example from the run up to the Republican convention:

While the fact that quite a few countries outscore our children on international tests is reason for genuine concern, I think we ought to be even more disturbed about some other numbers, such as:

  • Half our kids get no early education;
  • 22% of our children live in poverty, and
  • 25% have a chronic health condition like asthma or obesity.

These numbers and more are from The Center for American Progress report, “The Competition that Really Matters,” about American, Chinese and Indian investments in education.

A second report, this one from Share our Strength, documents the extent of, and damage done by, childhood hunger. It found that 60% of K-8th grade teachers say that their students “regularly come to school hungry because they aren’t getting enough to eat at home.” If you’ve ever taught, you know that is impossible to get through to children whose stomachs are growling or who are energy-deprived.

How are we polarized about education? Let me count the ways, seven in all.

1. We are polarized about accountability. We have gone from an excess of trust of teachers to an obsessive concern with verification. Right now the verifiers are in the saddle, and test scores rule. One consequence of the mania over test results has been widespread cheating by adults, who are breaking the rules (and no doubt their own moral code) to try to save their jobs. How did we get to such a position, where our leaders mistrust teachers? We need balance when it comes to holding teachers accountable: “Trust but Verify.”

Lost in all this is student accountability. We ought to be concerned about assessing student learning, and not just by simple bubble tests. That’s the discussion we are not having, perhaps because we are so polarized.

2. We are polarized about achievement. The achievement gap is real. In some places a gap of three years in achievement between whites and (wait for it) Asian-American students. We must do something about this. Why don’t we eliminate recess for white kids and replace it with drill and practice and test-prep? That’s what we do for (to) black and brown kids, isn’t it?

3. We are polarized about how schools should be run. The argument is between freedom (charter schools) versus what is called “command and control,” top down management. As I have learned from spending a lot of time in New Orleans since Katrina and the flooding, even an all-charter district has to have a serious system of oversight in place to make sure that charter schools don’t play fast and loose with the system (turning away special needs children or suspending tough-to-educate kids just before the state tests are given). Washington, DC, has embraced charter schools but has also expanded its central office by adding people whose job it is to watch and evaluate teachers. Is that working? That argument is raging.

4. We are polarized about the power of school/the limits of school. Some regularly attack schools for overreaching and for failure, while others expect schools to feed, clothe and attend to health issues (such as eye exams). Is it a school’s job to solve social problems, problems that the larger society doesn’t seem willing to tackle?

And when teachers step up to the plate, why do we reward them with vicious attacks?

5. We seem to be polarized about the role of technology. In my experience, educators generally use technology to manage data and people. That is, for control. A much smaller number uses it to invite kids to create, to let kids soar (or move at a slower pace, if that’s appropriate). Some use it for control; some for learning.

Kids may be digital natives, but that does not mean they are digital citizens. Helping them become citizens is an adult function, and we ought to be able to come to agreement on that point.

6. We are polarized about the job of teaching. In “The Influence of Teachers,” I write about how some are saying we can solve education’s problems by recruiting better people into our classrooms, while others say we must make teaching a better job. On the ‘better people’ side are Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and some big foundations, and their attacks on tenure and seniority have been successful in changing policies in more than a handful of cities and states.

On the other side are Diane Ravitch, the teacher unions and many teachers.

What is the role of school in 2012? What do we hope to have our students achieve?

I once thought this ongoing battle was irrelevant but now understand that it damages kids. My solution is twofold: 1) Ignore the battle insofar as it’s humanly possible but at the same time 2) elevate the profession. We must make it harder to become a teacher but easier to be one. Raise the entry standards but make the job more professional and enjoyable.

7. We are polarized about assessment. Companies like Pearson are getting rich while we blather and battle. They step into the vacuum and measure everything that’s measurable. We should be measuring what counts, instead of counting whatever we are able to measure.

Our school and political leaders ask, “Can kids read?” but they and we must also be asking, “Do kids read?”

Are are we also polarized about the purposes of public education? I am not sure whether we are polarized, indifferent or excluded from the conversation, but we have a real problem. The goal of school is to help grow American citizens. Four key words: help, grow, American, citizen. Think about those words:

Help: Schools are junior partners in education. They are to help families, the principal educators.

Grow: It’s a process, sometimes two steps forward, one back. Education is akin to a family business, not a publicly traded stock company that lives and dies by quarterly reports.

American: E Pluribus Unum. We are Americans, first and foremost.

Citizen: Let’s put some flesh on that term. What do we want our children to be as adults? Good parents and neighbors, thoughtful voters, reliable workers? What else?

Let me be clear about one thing: The solution to this epidemic of polarization does not necessarily lie in the middle between the two poles. Sometimes one position is correct, or largely correct. Sometimes people’s strongly held convictions are just plain wrong. While we must ‘reason together’ and work everything out, I do not believe that ‘Let’s compromise and meet in the middle’ is a rule to live by.

So are we hopelessly polarized, or are we suffering from fatigue? I think many of us are just tired, worn out from listening to the rants and negativity. We are tired because — at least since the publication of ‘A Nation At Risk’ in 1983 — we have been working hard to change schools, and children’s lives.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle told us. If we complain all the time but do nothing to change the situation, that’s who we are: whiners.

But — and this is the important point — children become what they repeatedly do. So if our kids spend an inordinate amount of time practicing to take tests, and taking tests and more tests, what will they be like as adults?

Will they be avid readers? Articulate speakers? Good writers? I don’t think so.

One part of the solution is strong, thoughtful leadership, but I don’t think we should wait around for that to emerge.

We need to get beyond polarization and figure out what we agree on. Do we agree that children should learn to write well? We know that the only way to learn that skill is by writing and rewriting, guided by someone who is knowledgeable. If we value good writing, we ought to be insisting children write and rewrite all through school.

Do we, like, want our children to, you know, be able to speak clearly, persuasively and articulately? The road requires practice, practice, practice.

The way to develop readers is by reading, not by practicing to pass reading tests.

Once again, we are what we repeatedly do. Here is the essential second half of Aristotle’s observation: “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Want change? Maybe we need to stop pointing fingers at others and look in the mirror.

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16 thoughts on “A Polarized Education System

  1. John says, “quite a few countries outscore our children on international tests”

    False, unless you only look at the aggregated scores, which is what all teacher-bashers do.

    Dr. Michael Marder has disaggregated them and the data indicate America’s affluent kids score top on Earth. ( http://uteachweb.cns.utexas.edu/Marder/Visualizations ) Our poor kids don’t. Amazing. Or predictable.

    Enough with the erroneous information, John. Let readers know we are bifurcated based on SES and it’s our low SES kids who score poorly. Our affluent kids are #1 in the world; they beat Finland.

    Your inability to blame society for failing the least among us perpetuates the polarization because you neglect to shed light on the root cause of our problem–disparity and poverty. Period.

    It’s not about teachers or the profession. It’s about society’s failure to care for the least among us.


    • Did you even bother to read beyond “While the fact that quite a few countries outscore our children on international tests is reason for genuine concern…” before going off?

      It’s a free country and you are of course free to rant without reading carefully, but I think we would move the ball forward if you stopped and took a deep breath once in a while.


      • Welp, I suppose somebody had to demonstrate the polarization you are talking about, eh?

        Reading carefully is one of those habits our schools need to have students developing…


    • Dr. Michael Marder may have drawn that conclusion from his disaggregation of the data – but an Article in The Atlantic discussing the results of Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist, came to an entirely different conculsion. They ranked American states side by side with foreign nations based on results from the math portion of the PISA.

      “How would our states do if we looked just at the white kids performing at high levels—kids who are not, generally speaking, subject to language barriers or racial discrimination? Or if we looked just at kids with at least one college-educated parent?

      As it turned out, even these relatively privileged students do not compete favorably with average students in other well-off countries. On a percentage basis, New York state has fewer high performers among white kids than Poland has among kids overall. In Illinois, the percentage of kids with a college-educated parent who are highly skilled at math is lower than the percentage of such kids among all students in Iceland, France, Estonia, and Sweden.”

      Links to appropriate articles can be found in my blog post on the topic: http://knowledgeworks.org/worldoflearning/shanghai/


      • So I looked at your links. You cite Hanushek’s study as refuting Marder’s disaggregation study. Hanushek looks at the scores of US white students compared to the scores of other nations. This study assumes that there are no white children in poverty. In fact, out of the 23% of children who are in poverty, 10% ( almost half) are white! So therefore, that study does not refute Marder’s study that the main player in our average rating in international comparison is the role of poverty. Our childhood poverty rate is beat only by Mexico among “wealthier” nations according to UNICEF.


      • The study assumes no such thing! It simply seeks to prove or disprove the claim that US scores are lower because we educate all of our children and other nations in the comparison do not. Data does not support that assertion – no matter which way you slice it.


  2. Great stuff, John. Thanks.

    I believe TFT is correct in one way and incorrect in another. He’s correct that our affluent kids do well on these assessments and poor kids don’t. But he’s incorrect if he thinks that isn’t also true elsewhere around the world.

    Mel Riddile at NASSP has disaggregated the US data by poverty level and treated each poverty group in the US as its own “nation” — i.e, poverty below 10%; poverty from 1–20% etc. He then took PISA results matched each of these individual US “nations” with countries with comparable poverty rates. The results? At each poverty level, the United States led the world.



  3. You make a good point, John, with the “help”. Teachers help families. Poverty is a huge barrier, but not insurmountable. I have seen too any poor families with parent (mothers, usually who are single) fight like heck for their kid’s education. They told their kids that education was their ticket out of poverty. The result? The kids succeeded in school and usually went off to college on scholarship. Parents matter and what parents say is important matters. We need somebody (a president, perhaps?) to stand up and place a good bit (not all) of the responsibility for education with the family.


  4. From my perch here in the Deep South, gazing across the national edreform landscape, I’d say your analysis is spot on, John.

    Too many people appear stuck in these binary, either/or arguments over education, many of which are fallacious because on some of these issues there are more than two options we could consider. More disturbing to me is that despite having many more mediums for social interaction, as a society we seem less capable of having thoughtful, civil, discussions of all the various aspects of these issues.

    On that note, have you been watching the discussion between representatives from the Gates Foundation and Anthony Cody on their respective blogs over the past month? On the one hand, it’s an example of trying to build communication across some of the polarities; on the other, it’s been an example of just how hard that will be to accomplish, even among those who want to do so.


  5. While I agree with your case, it’s hardly complete. There’s more, because your scope is mostly k-12, and even more grievous systemic problems are post-secondary. There, the very system of instruction, curriculum, and assessment we know of as college is trapped between an even more ruthless and overt chaos of public, private and for-profit alternatives and more extreme network of fiscal corruption and financial class barriers. As colleges raise costs (because, unlike k-12, they can), they close out options to thousands of an increasingly Dickensian generation taught by life and internet resources that “college isn’t for me.” As “college” loses attraction, that same generation does a “work around” recognizing that information is important in career and life.

    Facing this Scylla of class and Charybdis of curricular chaos smart kids compete for Peter Thiel’s money to become the anti-collegiate successors of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, while their peers submit to the “rigors” of a fragmented panoply of pre-professional skills or the pastiche of residual liberal education. It’s hard to tell whether this churn of postsecondary postures is a death rattle or institutional birth pangs.

    In any case, like your k-12 polarities, beyond the valley of the high school diploma lies the crumbling range of opportunities in no less jeopardy of bi-polar disorder.


  6. John, this is a particularly thoughtful piece. Your choices of areas of deep polarization are correct in my view. A major contribution is your observation that the answer is NOT to choose a middle ground, necessarily, in each instance, but to look several layers down to nuanced difference between the extremes.

    Example: I don’t think the real issue is too much testing or too little testing or even “practicing” for the test or “teaching to the test”. A more fundamental problem is the nature of the assessment strategies/instruments/practices we use; our historical “bubble” tests are disconnected from important knowledge and skills. We use the ones we do largely because they are cheap to administer, grade and report. We should develop and use assessment strategies/instruments/practices designed to assess learning/skill/knowledge habits (your very good word) we value. We should then scaffold different habit levels as indications of improvement. These fundamentally different strategies/instruments/practices, measuring stages and levels of their development, would require students to practice them incessantly, teachers to teach to them every day, and they would not be susceptible to cheating. In addition, the approach would set the stage for a huge staff development benefit for teachers and administrators as they learned to use them.

    There are similar examples of how to attack each of the polarization areas.

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtfulness.


  7. John, this is a very solid list.. I would add one more.

    * We are polarized (maybe hypocritical is a better word?) about the role of parents in education.

    Everyone on all sides have their talking points and rhetorical cues about the need for “more parent involvement,” but when we try to spell this out in detail or policy, folks have very different ideas about the kinds of involvement, the extent/frequency, and the proper cooperation lines with teachers and school leaders.

    The “school choice” issue highlights our current disputes about the parental role.

    If we want more parents to get engaged and involved, we need to give them real power “in the education system.” They need negotiating chops with teachers, administrators, etc.

    The only way we can do give them this power is by affording parents the easiest path possible for moving their student out of a classroom/school/district.

    Right now American school parents in the public education system are basically dependent on the good will, cooperation, and pro-active energy (or lack thereof) of teachers, administrators, etc. But if things go wrong, we (school parents) have no leverage whatsoever.

    My family is fortunate right now to be in a school district with a HIGHLY responsive teacherforce, school leaders, and education culture generally. But for those who are not in this setting, and where vouchers/ESAs/scholarships/charters are not accessible, what is their recourse and leverage to opt out of a deteriorating situation, or deflating education culture?


    Among the current generation of politicians and pundits, educational choice is a polarizing issue, and is at its core a “role of parents” issue, and imho, this needs to be on your fine list..


  8. “Are are we also polarized about the purposes of public education?”

    Yes, I do believe that many of the big fights in education reform comes down to differing beliefs about the purpose of education. Is it about “social justice”, using the schools as tools to reduce inequality of outcomes? Or is it about helping each individual student maximize his/her own potential? Is it okay for a rising tide to lift all boats? Or do we want to see a leveling, even if that is attained by holding back certain students from what they could potentially achieve?

    I don’t see how the two sides can be reconciled in this…


    • I agree with Crimson Wife – defining the purpose of education is at the core.True democratization of education means that any child, regardless of income, ethnicity, gender or beliefs is given an equal opportunity to learn something they didn’t already know every day. Can we honestly say we are doing that in our schools today?


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