Who Writes the Songs?

I write the songs that make the whole world sing.
I write the songs of love and special things.
I write the songs that make the young girls cry.
I write the songs, I write the songs.

No doubt that the Barry Manilow tune is now playing in the heads of most readers.{{1}}    But who “writes the songs” in the larger sense of the term?  Who and what determine how we look at the world, what you might call our ‘political narrative’?

We know this matters. Time and again research has shown the power of preconceptions over conclusions and decisions. If people are led to believe that a particular artist’s work is masterful or a certain composer’s music is sophisticated, that’s what most people are likely to see and hear.  When a teacher is told that her students have low potential, those kids somehow end up performing poorly; conversely, if the teacher is told the students are gifted, that’s how they do in class.  That’s the influence of the narrative.

What I find intriguing is the power of the current narrative about public education, which goes this way: “Effective teachers are the cornerstone of quality education, and, because so many of our public schools are failing today, it stands to reason that our schools must have a surfeit of ineffective teachers. Ergo, to reform education, we must drive out those bad teachers and replace them with quality teachers who will produce higher scores on standardized tests.”

Once one accepts that narrative, it makes sense to evaluate and fire teachers based on student test scores.  Accept that narrative, and it’s logical for the federal government to award millions of “Race to the Top” dollars to states which agree to evaluate teachers based on test scores.

When I wrote about the public narrative about education just three years ago, the two sides were engaged in a fierce battle, and the outcome was still in doubt.

“On one side in this battle is a cadre of prominent superintendents and wealthy hedge fund managers.  Led {{2}} by former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, 15 leading school superintendents issued a 1379-word manifesto in October 2010 asserting that the difficulty of removing incompetent teachers ‘has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.’

This side believes in charter schools, Teach for America, and paying teachers based on their students’ test scores.  Publicly pushing this ‘free market’ line is a powerful trio: Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for ‘Superman’ movie; NBC’s semi-journalistic exercise, Education Nation; and Oprah Winfrey.  And if one movie isn’t enough, this side also has The Lottery in the wings.

It has identified the villains: bad teachers and the evil unions that protect them, particularly Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.

The other side is clearly outnumbered: The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the two teacher unions; many teachers and some Democrats.  Its villains are No Child Left Behind and its narrow focus on bubble test scores in reading and math. This side’s far weaker megaphone is wielded by historian Diane Ravitch, a former Bush education policy-maker turned apostate.{{3}}

No longer. Now those in what I named the “Better People” camp rule. Their view has become the lens the world is viewed through, ‘the new normal.’ Of course, teachers will be judged{{4}} by their students’ test scores–and perhaps fired if scores aren’t high enough.  It’s ‘the new normal’ to accept that we are losing the education race to most of the rest of the world. It’s ‘the new normal’ to set a ‘college for everyone’ goal. And it’s ‘the new normal’ to support universal early childhood education, even if that means school-like conditions for three- and four-year olds.

Diane Ravitch argues in “Reign of Error” that our schools are not failing, and I don’t intend to repeat her arguments here.

What I am interested in are the consequences of accepting this narrative. Of course, it makes life simpler, even black-and-white. Unfortunately, the current narrative has, from my perspective, at least SIX negative consequences.

1) MORE TESTING.  I’ve given up trying to count how many days are given over either to testing or to test-prep in what are called ‘the testing grades.’  Standardized testing used to begin in third grade, but now we are seeing the downward push for testing in second and even first grades. And while I hate giving free publicity to anyone who’s seeking to make money from our testing obsession, I have to provide at least one example of wretched excess, so here it is: http://www.ixl.com/math/pre-k Some teachers have developed practice tests for kindergarteners, to get them ready for their future.

2) TEACHERS BEING JUDGED BY SCORES OF STUDENTS THEY DO NOT TEACH.  That’s right. It’s now possible for a teacher to be rated based on the test results of kids she or he has never seen, let alone taught!  There’s no standardized testing regimen for physical education, music and other ‘fringe’ subjects, but ‘fairness’ demands that all teachers be judged by test scores…and so that’s happening.  The alternative, by this logic, is to create standardized tests for those subjects–and that’s happening too.  The adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ comes to mind.

3). A NARROWER FOCUS. The ‘narrowing’ of the curriculum to emphasize the tested subjects has been going on for some time now. Equally disturbing is the concentration on ‘on the bubble’ students who are close to meeting the standard that will keep their school from being disciplined.  Those two steps make school less interesting for everyone, but particularly for gifted students, who, because they are already certain to meet the (low) benchmark, don’t get the stimulation that their giftedness requires.

4) MORE ANSWERS, LESS INQUIRY.  Bubble tests are blunt instruments that require correct answers and little else.  But true learning is messy, uneven and often quite sophisticated.  Getting things wrong–failure–is a large part of genuine education, but the value of making mistakes and learning from them is what today’s narrative does not recognize.  The disease of perfectionism is contagious and insidious.  The admissions committees of some elective colleges eliminate candidates who earned a C in one subject in 9th grade. And why not? They have thousands of applicants with straight A’s all through high school!  Parents hover, ready to complain—or even sue–if their child gets a low grade.  In some classes students who dare to say ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I don’t know’ are mocked by their classmates (even though they themselves are equally uncertain).

The focus on getting the right answer at all costs–as opposed to asking questions and learning to cope with ambiguity–is an especially dangerous outcome today, because our kids swim in the Internet’s 24-hour sea of information and data.  But ‘information’ can be partial, misleading or wrong. Because not all information is true, young people need to develop the skills that enable them to sift through the flood of information and separate truth from half-truth and falsehood.  They need to be, in the jargon, ‘critical thinkers,’ but the best way to develop those ‘habits of mind’{{5}} is through trial-and-error.  They learn from making mistakes–preferably in the ‘safe’ environment of a classroom.

Our test-score-driven system is, inevitably, an answer-driven system.  Students are rewarded for regurgitating the correct answers.  Teachers encourage that because their livelihoods depend on enough students getting enough correct answers. Some parents encourage it because they want their children to qualify for a top college.

5) “TEACH ME, OR YOU’LL GET FIRED”  That’s what some high school students told their teachers in Washington, DC, a few years ago, according to those teachers.  I have since heard similar tales from other teachers. These are examples of a system turned upside down.  Apparently those students have absorbed the narrative–it’s all about the teacher–and interpreted it to mean that, while they have no responsibilities, they do possess the power to get people fired. All they have to do is flunk.

6) MORE CHEATING. You know these awful stories: Atlanta, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio; Austin, Texas; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, DC.  And on and on…..

Not everyone accepts the narrative, of course.  Paul Tough has written convincingly about the importance of ‘grit,’ a quality that some value above straight A’s on a report card. Some politicians–California’s Jerry Brown comes to mind–want to limit the frequency and number of standardized tests.  A few hundred public schools are actually led by teachers, and in those schools testing counts for less. Hundreds of school boards in Texas have taken a stand against excessive high stakes testing, and last year some teachers in Seattle flat out refused to administer one standardized test they found to be egregiously irrelevant.  Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and others have called for a moratorium on high stakes testing to judge teachers while the new Common Core National Standards are rolled out, on the assumption (thus far correct) that the new tests will result in lower scores.

How can the narrative be changed?  One crucial step is to identify those who benefit from the current one.  That means following the money.  Are there significant interests who actually benefit from failure?  They need to be called out.

A second step is to persuade those on the sidelines that their long-term interests are being damaged by the current narrative.  And since 75-80% of households do not have school-age children, that’s a big group.  Those folks need to understand that answer-based (“regurgitation”) education is not keeping America competitive.  They need to know that using high-stakes testing to hold teachers ‘accountable’ is a not a proven strategy but a gamble that could do lasting harm to public education.

The third step is peace talks.  This suggestion comes out of a conversation I had with Kent McGuire of the Southern Education Fund and Jerry Weast, the former Superintendent of Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, recently.{{6}} Weast and McGuire believe that it is in the best interests of warring parties to come to the table, because, even though they disagree bitterly on a raft of ‘adult’ issues, they have a common enemy, failure.

Nobody wants our children to fail. Weast and McGuire believe that should be enough to bring people together.

Peace talks wouldn’t be easy. The warring parties would have to agree on a definition of ‘success,’ for one thing.  For that to happen, they would first have to agree to focus exclusively on young people.  Discard everything else….tenure, evaluating teachers, class size, pay scales, merit pay and all the other adult issues.

The unions, the school boards, the charter school folks, the schools of education, the superintendents, the state leaders, Teach for America, and everyone else would have to agree to decide what ‘success’ in education means.

One rule for a successful marriage is to fight only about the thing you are fighting about. No fair bringing up the mother-in-law or the no-good drunk of a brother-in-law.  And no fair bringing up the fight you had last month either.

To change the narrative, we must decide what we want our young people to be able to do and become once they leave school.  And we must keep arguing about that–and only that–until some resolution is reached. Having that argument would certainly be a better use of our energy than the demonizing ‘blame game’ that is now going on.

The complex definition of success that would emerge could become the new narrative.  I think it’s time for a new song.  Who’s ready and willing to help write it?


[[1]]1. And it’s probably going to keep on playing in your head for the rest of the work day. Sorry about that. By the way, Barry Manilow did not write the song. Bruce Johnson did![[1]]

[[2]]2. If I were writing that paragraph today, I would add names: Paul Tudor Jones and the Robin Hood Foundation, Whitney Tilson and other hedge fund powerhouses, Tim Daly and others at The New Teacher Project, and some major foundations, and others.[[2]]

[[3]]3. The Influence of Teachers (Page 6)[[3]]

[[4]]4. The distinguished emeritus UCLA professor James Popham laid out very clearly why standardized test scores are not adequate for judging students, let alone teachers, in this well-argued piece from 1999.[[4]]

[[5]]5. The great Deborah Meier’s wonderful phrase[[5]]

[[6]]6. The occasion was a Board meeting of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, DC, whose Board I have just joined. IEL will be observing its 50th Anniversary next year.  While I am new to the Board, IEL was my first non-teaching job, after I finished graduate school, back in the fall of 1973.[[6]]

29 thoughts on “Who Writes the Songs?

  1. John,
    This is an excellent essay. I appreciate that your first step is to follow the money, and I look forward to your journalistic efforts in that direction. There is no shortage of unreported stories.

    I wonder about peace talks. In any conflict, it seems as if before there is any chance to have serious peace talks, there needs to be a recognition that negotiation is required for forward progress to occur. If the dismissive remarks of the Secretary of Education are any indication, there has yet to be a recognition on the part of those driving Common Core and other reform onitiatives that there is anything seriously wrong. And the spigot of money for the promotion of these policies remains wide open.

    Many of us have been attempting dialogue for years now, and would be happy to find someone with real power willing to listen. But so far, we are still getting the deaf ear.


  2. Soldiers are not judged by winning wars and doctors are not but how many people they cure
    . They are judged on their job performance not on the results. Teachers are now judged on results, not as they as used to be judged on job performance. This has a occurred for political reasons. The culture at this time has been turned against government and unions. The culture has also foisted the private sector and competition as the answer to our ills. And finally like sports did you reach the bottom line and win. Well for teachers their bottom line is test sucess. It will ruin the teaching profession and education in our country


  3. Quoting: “Nobody wants our children to fail. Weast and McGuire believe that should be enough to bring people together.” Risking outrage from those thinking, “Not again!” I’ll promote my notion of Local Education Communities or LECs (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2013/02/local_education_communities.html).

    Not expecting any more interest that previously, I’ll offer my other suggestion: As some schools are apparently doing, do nothing in the way of preparing for the dreaded tests; of course, time will be lost administering the required tests. But use the rest of the time facilitating effective learning as teachers believe should be done. Since resulting scores will outpace those with test prep and since students will learn, how can anyone complain??? NOTE: I’m NOT advocating a return to pre-standardized testing approaches; the best research-based approaches need to be adapted.

    By the way, if administrators or school boards are nervous about defying mandates, the LECs are a perfect way to build community support!!! BUT these need to be properly done.


  4. P.S. Following the money will lead to government “mandaters” and most especially both entrepreneurial philanthropists as well as corporate leaches.


  5. I am actually surprised – not astonished, just surprised – that, once again, you don’t cite portfolios and other ancillary evidence (eg., attendance, dropout rates, timeliness, etc.) as alternatives and/or as supplements to test scores usually, often or always used (or abused) to mitigate the worst effects of this early 20th century bubble test mendacity. In the era of “big data” for education to focus on the little data tests alone produce is not only stupid but exceptional. And you – whose agency sponsored a key portfolio pilot with Arnold Packer for Kellogg – ought to know better.



    • Joe
      I do know better, honest. But I also knew I could count on you, for one thing, and also knew that the piece was already long for a blog. One of my editors urged me to make it even shorter, which I tried to do.
      But my goal is to get a dialogue going, and I (once again) appreciate your assistance.


  6. John – Thank you for a very thoughtful essay.

    While I will agree that testing is a far from perfect system, I do believe we need to bear in mind two things, if we are to go forward with “peace talks” – which I believe is the only viable way forward in the long run:

    1) There is a tendency to ascribe a nefarious motive to those who have largely behind this movement, which I do not think is logical nor supported by any evidence. Keep in mind that it is a very bipartisan movement – this is not your typical red-state/blue-state policy difference.

    2) Perhaps more important, what we never seem to hear from the (largely teacher establishment side) is – what is their solution to making the schools more successful? They are against testing. Fine. But what are they FOR that is different from the pre-testing status quo – a system under which poor outcomes led to the rise of the reform movement?

    Thanks again for promoting the dialogue.


    • Joe,
      This is an important contribution. Everyone is against failure, of course. Everyone probably ought to delineate what they are FOR, as you say. And ‘failure’ has to be defined, but in child/youth terms, not adult terms.


      • What are teacher for? Here is what I know and experience daily as a teacher.
        For years teachers were told to only use curriculum that has been researched and proven effective. Common Core Curriculum has not been research proven but is being forced onto teachers in state after state. Our text books do not align with the Common Core and there is no plan to purchase curriculum materials therefore teachers must find, create, or buy their own materials and chapter tests in order to teach the Common Core goals. We are being evaluated on a system in which we are not getting the tools to teach. School districts would like teachers to use technology instead of textbooks but there is too little support when the printers won’t work, or the internet is down just when the website was needed, or the program isn’t loaded on all the computers, or when we have to share the computers with ten other classes. Teachers are given too few tools and support. What this whole process fails to address is that children are human. We cannot treat them like a factory product. Not every child will respond to the same educational program. One test will not show you what they know. I have never seen so many kids with test anxiety as I have the past three years. Teachers need a repertoire of strategies and programs and the freedom to taylor them to the needs of each child. You only build a successful repertoire of teaching strategies when you are an experienced, supported, educated teacher. You do not get that by overly evaluating an employee or over testing the students of that teacher.
        I work in a state with a Secretary of Education (designate) who does not have the credentials to hold the position and has not been confirmed by our legislature. I have 19 years of experience, a masters degree in special education, and I am Nationally Board Certified but my voice does not get heard at our state level. Teachers do not get heard, we are seen as the problem. I teach gifted students at a school that has had some of the highest test scores in the state for the past seven years. Yet our school grade has gone from an A to a B to a C because we have 25% of students in the Advanced range (you can go no higher which means you cannot show growth). We have around 8 students in the bottom catagory and they all have learning disabilities. So we cannot show growth and get assigned a letter grade of C. We expect to get a D next year.Since I do not have my own classroom with test scores, my evaluation is based on the school grade. I am required to be evaluated an excessive 3 times formally and 3 times informally (which creates nearly the same amount of paperwork) per year. We just compete one round of evaluation when the next begins. The state Public Education Department (PED) has been changing the evaluation system every few days since school started four months ago. What professions get evaluated that often and by constantly changing criteria? My school is showing success in teaching students but not one person from the PED or the state government comes to our school to see what we are doing that is working.
        It is always surprising how few people have heard of the United States of ALEC report by Bill Moyers (Google it!). So many of the “reforms” come from that document yet we don’t discuss it. Our state legislature and teachers union proposed a balanced and more fair teacher evaluation system but our govenor vetoed it in favor of the ALEC version we now suffer under. This is ALL about the money that can be made off of public education by selling programs, tests, curriculum, and evaluation systems (our state paid 1.8 million dollars and they could not get me, as a teacher of the gifted, onto the system until some time in late October. There was not enough thought put into all the support people in a school who are not classroom teachers. Our democracy is threated by this attack on public education designed to allow more corporations to profit off of the education of our children.
        What do I support?
        I support being evaluated on my work using a fair system that I can understand. I support being evaluated by my peers, not by someone who has not been trained to be an educator. I believe in given struggling teachers the support they need and if they cannot improve then help them leave the teaching profession. I believe in being provided the tools I need to do my job. I believe that I know my students and should be allowed to select the program that will best serve their education. I believe that my evaluation should be on the work I do and should be based on the students I serve. I support keeping the arts, critical thinking, and creative problem solving in our curriculum because that is the only way we will be competitive in the world (not by eliminating every subject except reading and math). I believe that many of us are working our hearts out to be the best teacher we can be for our students and all we hear is how bad teachers are. I believe we are accountable but you will not get real results until you address poverty, abuse, and hunger in our country.


    • Well, many of our schools do not suck. As it has been pointed out, Asian Americans and white american students place within the top ten on international tests.
      What are their schools doing?
      What can be done to bring those things over to the minority and poor students?


  7. Hi, John,

    So agree with you. My husband has been writing a different song for thirteen years in his comic strip, Mr. Fitz. If you haven’t looked at it recently, please check out http://www.mr.fitz.com or visit his FB page at Mr.Fitz Comic Strips.


      • John, my wife posted this back in November (we both follow your posts), but I just stumbled across your reply. I could indeed use some help making my audience grow. If you could mention, feature, or even briefly mention Mr. Fitz somewhere, I’d appreciate it. As a full time educator doing a full-time comic strip on the side, I sometimes grow discouraged, both by the way education is going these days, and the pressures to standardize my teaching, and by the fact that more people haven’t picked up on my comic strip, though I do it, really as a gift to all teachers.

        If you haven’t seen it, check out my the weeks-long series I did about teacher depression. It made Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/07/24/a-teacher-gets-depressed-a-real-story-in-comics/

        I’d love to talk to you at some point, if you’d be willing.

        David Lee Finkle, aka Mr. Fitz


  8. America has moved beyond the industrial model in business and industry, why can’t we move past it in our public education system. Standardized testing creates a wonderful assembly line for our students. Plug them in and they come out like a smooth running ford model T.

    Fortunately our children are not machines or computers. Each one is coming into our schools with unique, personal and individually processed parts. Each has to be treated as an individual in his or her learning. Requiring teachers to use pre-recorded, proscribed curriculum takes the learning out of the teachers hands and puts it on an assembly line.

    Unfortunately much of our education system has not progressed beyond mass production. In everyday classrooms we still group students for reading instruction, we teach mass lessons in math, we structure essay writing into five paragraphs, and we group students in classes according to age. Many of our students don’t fit into the category we place them into.

    I have wondered about the student who is not social and isn’t comfortable in the group activities he is required to participate in. His experience is school does not recognize where he is coming from, and what it takes to make him a learner. Interestingly, when he leaves school, society allows him to become who he is. He can drive a trailer truck across country and not socialize for days, and be very successful.

    If we are going to succeed in providing a true learning experience for our students, we have to recognize the end of the industrial revolution, and start the evolution of the individual.


  9. John,

    Thank you for your excellent piece. Two points for your consideration.

    Elliot Washor and I attempted in our recent book, Leaving to Learn, to create a simple image of success by describing a community college graduate during a job interview. I believe creating such images, identifying the competencies on display, and thinking, “How might we design a school that graduates all its students for similar success”? is a good way to start.

    A common technique in debating/negotiating is to backtrack to a point of agreement and then go forward. This process usually reveals unstated assumptions that the debaters make. Then you can deal with those assumptions. My dilemma is that few people on either side of an issue are willing to go back and question their assumptions, chief among them their assumptions about learners and learning and schools and schooling. Your suggestions point the way.


    • Thanks for this useful suggestion. backtracking would be a useful exercise. The process must require a skilled moderator (shrink?). I wonder if we could get people to come to the table. It would have to be a ‘safe’ place, free from taping and note-taking and recriminations. Interesting to think about this…


  10. Thank you, John. Civil discourse between dissenters promotes growth. It allows us to discover that we are diametrically opposed points on the same circle … and that the circle is more important than our “points”.


  11. I’m glad to see this, John!

    However, when you consider that politicians omitting teachers from the table actually goes back to 1989, when Bush I convened the first “Education Summit” and invited no educators, teachers have every reason to be skeptical of any “meeting of the minds” and no good reason to be the ones to make the first move.

    The link you provided to “practice tests for kindergarteners, to get them ready for their future” actually goes to tests for kids in PreK. Ugh!


  12. I think there is a fallacy in what you are proposing, or if you prefer, what Weast and Maguire are proposing.

    How can we agree to a definition of success when we do not even agree on a definition of the purpose of public schools?

    When the frame is still in terms of international comparisons/competitiveness, you have effectively already defined the outcome because of the measures being used, be they PISA/TIMMS type tests or measurements of economic vitality in a country.

    Let’s take the latter.

    How much of our problem is because unlike most other countries to whom we are compared
    – we have a much higher degree of childhood poverty
    – we have increasing rather than decreasing economic inequity
    – we have government policies that starve public functions (cut taxes) and transfer resources into private hands in a way that does not benefit either the society or the economy

    Why should any of this be put upon schools/teachers is beyond me.

    You also ignore the deliberate attempt to undercut teachers unions in order to allow the likes of those behind things like ALEC to continue the downward pressure on wages and benefits so they can gather ever more money and power to themselves, and to hell with anyone else.

    There is a real attack on public institutions, which quite frankly does not care if they are successful.

    There has been an undercutting of civic education because an enlightened and active citizenry would be a serious obstacle to the direction some people want to take this country. That is also why they are seeking to disenfranchise those who might vote into power people who would oppose what they seek to do.

    Public schools are the canary in the coal mine. As they are being started and killed, American democracy is dying along with them.


    • Would you object to bringing the parties to the conflict to the table, in an effort to figure out what they do agree on? How could that be harmful? I wrote about the importance of identifying areas of agreement. And being in the same room and being required to listen to others are early steps toward some degree of understanding and a beginning step toward ending the demonization….
      Mark Shields told me at breakfast over a year ago that, if he were in charge, he would have Congress be in session continuously for several months, 7 days a week. That way, he said, the Tea Party members would not be able to fly in to DC on Tuesday morning and leave Thursday night. They would have to spend time, and sooner or later they would spend some of that time with the men and women who disagree with them politically–the people they have been demonizing. They’d discover that their opponents have children and grandchildren, some common hopes for America, and so on. As Mark said, that’s how it used to be when Reagan was President. He and Tip O’Neill, a proud Democrat, would meet for dinner and a drink or go to the theatre together.
      Do you, from the left, believe that the folks on the right (Whitney Tilson, Joe Williams and Michelle Rhee, for example) are bad, even evil human beings?
      It’s much easier to live in a world populated by heroes and villains, but neither term applies to most of us. We are more alike than we are different, and most of us–left, right and middle–would prefer to drive out of education the people who are unscrupulous and greedy. I’d like to see a genuine effort to find points of understanding.


      • Thank you, John. This is the America that I came of age in. I was just out of college when Reagan was elected. I was a proud member of the “Reagan revolution”. But I also appreciated substantive, positive dialogue between the parties, as you describe above. That is what we have to get back to if we are going to solve some of these macro-policy problems that we have, education included.


      • First, I do not believe either Rhee or Tilson belongs in a dialog. Both have a track record of outright attacks upon those who disagree with them.

        As far as the politics in DC, I have seen it up close for a number of years, in part because I am fairly close to a number of House Democrats, including Members of the committee with oversight on education. One senior member of that committee told me a few years ago that the senior members on both sides of the aisle did not believe anything Duncan told them. I would suggest that disfunction – including the anger of House Members that Race to the Top was imposed without input from the relevant House and Senate Committees – is of far greater importance than whether Anthony Cody and I sit down with people from Gates Foundation or DFER.

        FWIW – I have attended a fundraiser sponsored by DFER for a then House Member who was a personal friend. I found most of them willing to dialog. I have NOT seent that in anything from Tilson, or from the people who run DFER on a day to day basis.

        As for Rhee, she was given an opportunity to have a dialog with Diane Ravitch at a public forum. At first she insisted upon a second, and Ravitch agreed. Then she insisted upon having a third. Again Ravitch agreed, and recruited her backups, one of whom was Pasi Sahlberg. Whether that was the reason I do not know but Rhee has now backed out, claiming she could not obtain a third.

        Sticking with Rhee – John, you as much as anyone have exposed the falsity of her record in DC. Do you really think she would enter a forum where she could be challenged on that – as well as with the truth of her performance as a teacher in Baltimore, which retired DC teacher Guy Brandenberg was able to reconstruct?

        Should our discourse on politics and education be more civil? Of course, but why should I expect a civil discourse from someone who demonizes teachers and teacher unions? Why should I expect a civil discourse from someone whose starting point is the dismantling of public education and replacing it with charters or outright privatization? Next you will tell me I should sit down with Jay Greene, who still insists public schools should be subject to tests and punitive sanctions associated with them but now says schools of “choice” should be exempt from such tests>

        So long as the framing is of HOW tests should be used (including for evaluating teachers) rather than WHETHER they should be used, there is not a neutral framing that allows for constructive discussion. Surely you know that.

        You and I have had a similar exchange in the past, when you emailed me to ask why the leadership of the Save Our Schools March declined the opportunity to meet with Roberto at the White House on the day BEFORE the march, and I explained to you why we rejected that offer, even as we made clear we were willing to meet with WH people after the March and conference. They wanted to co-opt us.

        Anthony has engaged with Gates Foundation – he can describe his experience to you.

        I have had my share of engagement with people who differ from me on educational issues, most fairly civil, a few where outright hostility has been expressed because I was a union rep, because I challenge the idea of using student results on tests to evaluate teachers (even though my students usually do quite well).

        I start with this – any such discussions need to have as a minimum that those engaging are not on record rejecting totally the positions of the others, and that there is a willingness to have an open discussion of what should be the purpose of public schools.

        Since I do not believe their PRIMARY purpose is economic, I am not interested in engaging with those who are unwilling to listen to other points of view on that.

        And by the way, as you well know, I do not think schools are all peachy. Were it up to me I would completely redesign them. But what I would not do is start with the assumption that tests are the end all and be all, be they international comparisons, Common Core related, or state tests. And thus I consider it a waste of time to engage with those who are inflexible when it comes to their insisting upon tests. I see no positive results from such a discussion, not when there are far better ways of evaluating both students and teachers.


      • John, Mark Leibovich, author of “This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America’s Gilded Capital,” described in an encore show on Moyers and Company tonight how it’s basically a scam that folks in DC from opposite sides of the aisle are polarized adversaries.

        Leibovich said, they are “a determinedly bipartisan team when there is money to be made.” If that’s not alarming, he also said that, “ultimately, the business of Washington relies on things not getting done. And this is a bipartisan imperative. If a tax reform bill passed tomorrow, if an immigration bill passed tomorrow, that’s tens of billions of dollars in consulting, lobbying, messaging fees that are not going to be paid out.”

        Yep, bipartisan crony capitalism and disaster capitalism are alive and well in the “Gilded Capital” today –so virtually no one ever leaves there anymore. See http://billmoyers.com/episode/encore-americas-gilded-capital/


  13. A reader of this blog pointed out to me that Professor Howard Gardner praised Diane Ravitch’s new book “Reign of Error” thusly: “American educational reformers have fashioned a narrative that has become so pervasive that it has effectively silenced alternative accounts. In this courageous book Diane Ravitch persuasively challenges both the narrative’s presentation and analysis of data and its underlying value system.”

    I do not recall reading Howard’s blurb for the book, but I have read the book and may well have read the endorsement as well. As I indicated, my inspiration for writing about the need for a new narrative was a dinner conversation at the Institute for Educational Leadership last week, where we talked about the conflicting world views or narratives. I am happy to credit my friend Howard for the insight.

    My point, however, is that we need to bring the warring camps together, not substitute one narrative for another.


    • John, the issue is that because only one narrative was being imposed we needed to push back at that to get others to realize that there was NOT agreement on the framing of discussions about education.

      As Diane makes clear in her book, because she was asked to offer an alternative to what she criticizes, she did so, after taking apart the basis for what is a FALSE narrative about American schools.


    • Berliner and Biddle called out the “false message” in their 1996 book, “The Manufactured Crisis.” Diane referred to the “false narrative” in “Reign of Error,” but she had written about it on Twitter and her blog even before she wrote the book.

      We are dealing with a 30 year old false narrative, dating back to the 1983 publication of, “A Nation at Risk.” Millions of lives have been scarred by that and you propose that it be replaced with nothing –just talk?

      So, will the negotiation table be shaped in a triangle or what?


  14. Let’s remember that students with learning disabilities have not been educated well by the U.S. “sort students by birth year” education system. Education before NCLB RTTT was not what it neededto be. NCLB RTTT has just made things worse. The system has been and still is flawed.


  15. Perhaps a tangent…the mention of NCLB-RTTT above, as always, elicits an almost visceral response from me which, for whatever reason, I feel compelled to unburden. I see in RTTT a continuation of a destructive narrative–that our children are not doing well (That’s one–at least partial) because educators are just not trying hard enough, (That’s the main one.) and third: “You can’t just continue to throw money at Education!” Ha! Continue?
    I’ve listened to Arne on television many times, and met him recently on his way through Santa Fe on his bus tour. Unlike the executors of NCLB, whose true purpose was to gut Free and Appropriate Public Education for All, I have no doubt he is sincere in his desire to do good for Education. Like too many “reformers,” though, he is deaf to the realities real educators wish to share with him. I brought up REAL Bilingual Education as a focus needed for our large ELL population; I know he had other things on his mind, but he had no response at all to my comments about it. I hate to think it, but he seemed completely disinterested.
    RTTT? A competition to fund our sadly underfunded system? About six years ago, NM had an extensive study conducted. Determined that every year, we are underfunded by $350 million. Factoring in the funding deficit since the ’08 crash, I estimate at least $500 m. by now.
    I propose a new narrative: Yes, all educators need to learn new techniques to BUILD UPON, not obliterate their already professional skills, because our students present each year with greater and greater needs that completely blanket everything we try to teach. The needs are created by the political, racial and economic negativity in our country, the oversaturation and financing of testing, test prep, & curriculum conglomerates instead of creative teaching, the need to constantly spend public and private dollars to upgrade planned-obsolescence, the lack of support for all configurations of the family…and on and on… These are what create our At-Risk children, almost all students in one way or another, and they need help dealing with the more basic Maslovian needs before the higher can be approached.


  16. John, while the bloggers blaze, there are examples of district and charter educators across the United States who are working with and learning from each other. There are examples of educators who understand the value of carefully developed public school options, whether within district or charter. There are people working hard in district & chartered public schools to promote multiple forms of assessment.

    Such people often don’t take time to blast away at each other on blogs. But they are there. Terrific work is going on while – sometimes collaborative work. Such work often does not attract attention, but some of us are trying to help recognize, encourage and honor it.



    Thanks for encouraging people to listen to and learn from each other.
    IEL might want to convene some of these folks and help gain greater visibility for these efforts.


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