The Best and Worst of Times

With apologies to Charles Dickens, “It is the best of times (to be an education reporter); but it is the worst of times (to be in a classroom).”

Why a field day for reporters? Let me count the ways: The ‘war’ that I wrote about in The Influence of Teachers in 2011 is far hotter today. Michelle Rhee and her non-profit advocacy organization, Students First, have been instrumental in persuading 25 states to use test scores to evaluate teachers. She also wants restrictions on collective bargaining and teacher tenure.

Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice have declared a national emergency in public education and have called for more “rigor,” a term I tend to associate with death (rigor mortis).

The other side is punching back. Diane Ravitch, the most prominent opponent of privatization, Rhee, Klein at alia, has formed a new organization, The Network for Public Education, which will, its press release says, “give voice to the millions of parents, educators, and other citizens who are fed up with corporate-style reform.” The organization’s treasurer is the less-well-known activist Anthony Cody, a passionate and eloquent defender of his chosen profession.

Echoing Rhee’s organization, which evaluates states according to their adherence to her principles, The Network for Public Education says it intends to evaluate political candidates based on their positions on charter schools, excessive reliance on standardized testing and the like.

There’s more: The Common Core has become–depending on one’s perspective–either an unstoppable bandwagon or a runaway freight train.

Education’s money spigot is attracting attention from those who would sell schools the latest technology and siphon off some of the money–and those who would privatize the entire enterprise and make away with all the dough. What a great story!

No Child Left Behind is still hanging around, although Education Secretary Arne Duncan seems to have replaced its onerous restrictions for his own set of rules. He’s granting waivers to states (and now to Districts) that will agree to do things his Administration’s way.

Some thought the lesson of No Child Left Behind was that Washington–regardless of political party–wasn’t equipped to run public education. We know who did not learn that lesson.

That’s the big picture. The contradictions make things even more fascinating. We know that 75% of young people ages 17-24 don’t even qualify to take the test to get into the military because they haven’t finished high school, have criminal records or are physically unfit. But 25% of those who qualify to take the test cannot get a passing grade. a few cannot find ‘X’ in the equation 2 + X = 4, but many more apparently lack the so-called softer skills: being able to gather and make sense of data, work with others and communicate effectively. The business community has the same complaint. So what would many in the business community and the military suggest be done to produce more graduates who measure up? Do they want the ‘rigor’ that those on the right are clamoring for, or would they endorse ‘deeper learning’ and more self-directed, project-based learning? A good story to report, for sure.

So it’s the best of times for reporters, who have hundreds of great stories demanding to be told. However, I believe it’s probably the worst of times for those in classrooms, by which I mean both teachers and students.

Start with teachers: We continue to be test-obsessed, but with a twist. Tests used to be used to evaluate students, but now teachers and administrators have their heads on the block. The people in charge seem clueless. By putting all their eggs in the bubble test basket, they are making a mistake that basic social science warns against. “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” That’s Campbell’s Law, formulated in 1976 by esteemed social scientist Donald Campbell (1916-1976) .

Applied to education, it might go this way: “If you base nearly everything on one test, expect some principals and teachers to cheat.”

Sadly, some have. Atlanta remains the poster child, of course, but scandals have emerged in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore and Houston, not to mention a number of states.

It’s tough to be a teacher in Washington, DC, a district I know fairly well, both as a former parent of students there and as a reporter who has covered the District pretty carefully. Six years after Michelle Rhee was given a blank check to ‘fix’ the schools, classrooms seem to have become a revolving door for teachers. Half of all newly hired teachers (rookies and experienced teachers) leave within two years; by contrast, the national average is said to be between three and five years.

Is it the worst of times for students? Graduation rates are up, which at least proves more students are hanging in. They may be going to school because they know that there aren’t jobs for dropouts or because they want to hang with their friends, but being in school has to count for something.

I think these aren’t good times for kids, because their school experience is increasingly irrelevant to their needs and to the realities of the world outside of school. They are growing up surrounded by–saturated by–information. Because of the internet, they swim in a sea of information, 24/7/365. They ought to be in classrooms where they can learn to sift through that flood and determine what is true–because ‘information’ is not knowledge. They ought to be learning how to ask good questions, but most often they are expected to regurgitate answers.

They ought to be practicing production–making stuff and gathering information–but instead their habits of consumption are encouraged.

Come to think of it, it may be the worst of times for reporters, because we have to watch this tedium from the sidelines, instead of shouting to the kids, “Wake up! Playing games on your phone and killing time will not solve this problem. Demand more from your teachers, not less!”

14 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Times

  1. If we give them the choice to go to other schools, especially schools significantly different from our cheap-test-obsessed state schools, they’ll be in a position to be more demanding; but as long as they are subjected to the monopolies of their selfish local school districts, more concerned with protecting their jobs than with serving their students, the students and their families are in a very weak position to be more demanding. It is possible they could become more demanding through voting, but establishment politicians are throwing around so much money these days in elections outside of their own jurisdictions as to corrupt our basic democracy and turn it into a plutocracy; in more comfortable suburbs, families are generally satisfied with what they have, and won’t demand more until they feel the pain of their children, when it will be too late; and in our ghettos, the people are so deeply turned off by their leaders and what remains of our democratic process that they’ve long since checked out; so without radical political change, the voting booths also won’t save our government education system.


  2. John – You mention Campbell’s law and discuss corruption, but you did not discuss the second part of the law “the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” I just returned from my school’s staff meeting where there was heated debate on whether we should teach to the test to improve student scores on one very specific type of question that requires a specific type of “test-only” writing structure. Many argued that we are doing a disservice to students by wasting their time, teaching them how to be successful on this type of problem, when we all believe it is not relevant to their lives as learners. Others felt pulled to be responsive to the dictates of the state’s test (especially since in the near future our jobs will depend upon it.)

    This is just one example, but everyday my colleagues and I are having to consider whether our decisions are based upon what we truly believe is in students’ best interest or whether our decisions are distorted by standardized testing. Whether such distortions result in us changing the way we work with children, or with colleagues, or how we respond to parents; those of us in the trenches understand the nitty-gritty of how our work is influenced by ill-conceived policy – it sure ain’t pretty.


    • Liz, it’s a powerful and painful example. I spent tonight in discussion about school violence. Newtown was the starting point, of course, but I tried to take the conversation in the direction you are talking about. A good friend and veteran teacher, just retired, talked about how he had worked with pretty low level kids and taught them how to pass tests AND about the hypocrisy of the system. He taught them solid analytical skills, the ones they used to pass the test and could use in lots of genuinely productive ways too. He discovered that they were learning a lot outside of school by watching the History Channel or the Discovery Channel, a habit they apparently developed because of the candid conversations they had in class about ‘the system.’ Of course, my friend is a lefty and these are kids r


      • … who are routinely left behind and otherwise ignored. Might not be able to teach that way in the suburbs, where questioning the system is not necessarily looked upon favorably….


  3. Great summary of where we are. Now, how do we go forward? I tend to think of it as much like other “rights” movements: Until a certain level of understanding is developed, the powers that be control the narrative, and can throw words like ‘rigor’ and ‘standards’ around with abandon. For that other understanding to develop you need the people who go out on the streets (DC and Wisconsin in ’11 tomorrow students in Denver…) people whose lives are deeply affected who take the chance and stand their ground (NY principals, Texas and Maryland superintendents, Seattle high school teachers, parents who opt their children out) and yes, reporters who bring their stories to light and explain the context (the list is long, and you are on it but it needs to get even longer). We are not at the beginning of the struggle, and I’m guessing we are not at the tipping point yet, but one measure I use is the report I get from Fairtest about how many articles critical of current policies were in the press that week. Since I started following them several years ago, the number has grown tremendously.


  4. A hundred years ago Henry Ford designed the assembly line to produce a new automobile every fifteen minutes, each car being exactly the same. That design is exactly what Common Core and standized testing is trying to do to our education system; only it will take about twelve years to build the model, not fifteen minutes. Children are not automobiles. Each one is different from the beginning. To expect each to learn the same material at the same pace flies in the face of all research on child development, and how the brain works. A standards test at the end of a period does not reflect actual learning. At best it only measures what had be memorized, not what had be learned. This is especailly true if the Common Core and standards have been designed by professionals in the testing business. Rhee and other advocate organizations for testing, for both students and teacher effectiveness, are supporting the private testing industry. Is the industry supporting their organizations?

    While I don’t particularly like the current movement toward for-profit charter schools, perhaps the way to move away from the current Common Core assembly-line would be to have every public school become a charter school. That is, each school district would establish a team of teachers, parents, students, and others to design the school’s curriculum, evaluation, and assessment practices. Why stiffle creative learning in public schools and allow it in spin-offs. If a school tries something and it doesn’t work, the next year’s team will adjust.

    Our political system in this country has be bought by commercial giants, can we stop that from happening in education?


      • Boston’s pilot schools are a good example of this happening without teachers being ‘left behind’ by eviscerating unions as is the case with many charters. My tiny district in California is another way to go: in a district with a bit over 300 students there are three elementary programs to choose from, all developed as a result of parent input and a school board that listens. The staff is unionized, most were hired by a team of administrators, teachers and parents to teach in a particular program.


  5. I am a teacher in a low-income school in the foothills of Appalachia. Every day I try to teach kids that have little to no parental guidance. Commonly, students report sleeping only a couple hours a night or are hungry because they came to school with an empty stomach. I hear so much negativity toward teachers and public schools these days that it seems teachers and the public education system have become the scapegoats for the maladies of our broader society. Why does the discussion about student achievement and drop-out rates not call into question the parents that are ultimately responsible for their children?


    • Mary, because most of these parents are victims of systems imposed by self serving plutocrats too, and yes, I did say victims. Poverty and the cyclical havoc it wreaks and the near impossible ways to escape it are to blame.


  6. DC teacher here. It’s getting worse each year and feels like a noose tightening. Most of the kids and even more parents love my teaching style. The principal, however, bashes me for not being more Core and data-driven. Not sure how long I can last even if I wanted to.


  7. Graduation rates and grades are up because our data experts found that kids who failed classes in middle school had a high drop out rate. Hard to believe people get paid to tell us things like that. So, going against the truism that correlation is not causation, we pass everyone, lower standards, give bogus credit recovery, and voila, graduation rates go up. So we managed to pass out more meaningless pieces of paper than before–that is not a reason for celebration.

    Could you provide a citation that shows that “We know that 75% of young people ages 17-24 don’t even qualify to take the test to get into the military because they haven’t finished high school, have criminal records or are physically unfit.”

    Having been in the military, and having lived in reality, I find those numbers extremely hard to believe. Even in the low performing, inner city schools where I’ve worked, the number would have been MUCH lower than 75%.


  8. Re: “Education’s money spigot is attracting attention from those who would sell schools the latest technology and siphon off some of the money.” So, vendors who provide schools with goods and services should do it for free? Or is it the latest technology you object to? Schools should get the stuff that’s out of date?


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