Why We Have Schools

What do schools produce? And who are the workers in schools? The familiar answers to those old questions are 1) “Teachers are the workers,” and 2) “Their job is to turn out capable graduates.”

Both answers are wrong for the 21st Century. In 21st Century schools, students must be the workers, and their work product must be knowledge. Teachers play a vital role, of course, but as docents/conductors/managers/coaches/guides….and learners.

In 21st Century schools, students do work that matters to them and engages them in the moment. They are not assigned tasks that ‘will help them later in life’ or that supposedly ‘will be important when they are in college.’ No hollow assurances or deferred gratification, but genuinely valuable work instead.

In the course of doing work that matters, they also acquire skills they will need to navigate life successfully, such as writing and speaking clearly and persuasively, manipulating numbers, formulating questions, and working with others.{{1}}

Most of our schools haven’t gotten the memo, unfortunately. They practice ‘regurgitation education’ where students memorize the state capitals, the elements, the great rivers of the world and how Congress enacts legislation. {{2}}

Choosing the work in a 21st Century school is a collaborative process led by adults. In other words, kids don’t get to do whatever they feel like doing (or not doing). The work has to be directed toward serious learning goals, and it has to be challenging. {{3}}

One day last week I watched a (public) high school science teacher work with 12th graders setting up a project in their “Science and Society” class: Teams would design toys for an infant or toddler that would facilitate brain growth and stimulation. Each team could choose the age they were designing for, but their work would have to be based on neuroscience. Once they designed the toy, their next job would be to create an advertising campaign for their product.

Smiles all around from the workers, even though this would not be a walk in the park.

Over the next few weeks they will produce designs and plans for new toys….and in the process they will sharpen and grow a valuable skill set that will help make them successful adults.

What’s particularly interesting is that the project does not have a ‘right’ answer. In creating the assignment, the teacher didn’t have a ‘recipe’ in mind or a specific outcome for the project, although the learning goals were clear.{{4}} But he’s on the journey with his students, trusting them to take responsibility for their learning, even as he monitors their progress and helps whenever necessary.

Are we as a nation moving to create schools like that one? Sadly, no. We aren’t ‘rethinking’ schools. Instead we are ‘reforming’ them to improve test scores, close achievement gaps, lower the dropout rate and beat Finland.

I think that’s the wrong direction, but change is in the air.

The backlash against excessive testing, which seems to be growing stronger, now threatens to sweep away the Common Core State Standards and the Smarter Balanced and PAARC tests that have been designed for it.

The establishment is fighting back. This from the President last Wednesday:

I have directed Education Secretary Arne Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools. {{5}}

Two pillars of the establishment, the Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools issued a joint statement of concern that acknowledged that some students are taking too many tests and that something had to be done about it.

That general view was soon echoed by the Center for American Progress, Chiefs for Change, and others.

Secretary Duncan soon issued his own statement:

Educators, parents, and policy makers need to know how much students are learning; that’s why thoughtful assessment of student learning and student growth, including annual assessments, is a vital part of progress in education. Assessments must be of high quality, and must make good use of educators’ and students’ time. Yet in some places, tests – and preparation for them – are dominating the calendar and culture of schools and causing undue stress for students and educators. I welcome the action announced today by state and district leaders, which will bring new energy and focus to improving assessment of student learning. My Department will support that effort.

The gist of these “Yes but” messages seems to be “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Which some translate as “We need testing to determine how our teachers are performing.”

Secretary Duncan followed with his own op-ed in the Washington Post, which begins by suggesting that test scores tell him how his children are doing: “As a parent, I want to know how my children are progressing in school each year. The more I know, the more I can help them build upon their strengths and interests and work on their weaknesses. The more I know, the better I can reinforce at home each night the hard work of their teachers during the school day.”

Just one paragraph later, he writes, “Parents have a right to know how much their children are learning; teachers, schools and districts need to know how students are progressing; and policymakers must know where students are excelling, improving and struggling.” The gist: scores are being used to help students do better.

As I read it, the Secretary’s op-ed skirts the issue on the table: the use of scores to punish {{6}} teachers. That policy, and the consequences for education of excessive amount of testing, are what many people are concerned about.

I think the establishment is either fighting the last war or, worse yet, deliberately refusing to confront the inherent contradiction of trying to build a better education system without including teachers in the design process.

President Obama’s statement focused on ‘the effort to improve assessment,’ which would seem to mean ‘better tests,’ but what protesters want, right now, are fewer tests and backing away from what’s called ‘test-based accountability.’ {{7}}

And the protesters also want a serious conversation about the purposes of schooling.

Not talk about ‘school reform’ but a serious effort at ‘rethinking’ schooling’s purpose.

The Secretary’s and the President’s comments notwithstanding, this is not Washington’s issue. All it can do at this point is back off, because it’s too late in the President’s second term for this Administration to take leadership. However, small states (Delaware or Vermont, for example) or somewhat larger ones (Colorado, Tennessee, Washington or Oregon, perhaps) could decide to own this issue. Wouldn’t that be interesting (and refreshing)?

The first question for any statewide conversation is “What do we want our children to become and be able to do when they are adults?”

Then comes the hard but important work of creating more {{8}} schools that will help them get there.


[[1]]1. 21st-century skills include “interpersonal” skills (complex communication, social skills, teamwork, cultural sensitivity, dealing with diversity); “personal” skills (self-management, time management, self-development, self-regulation, adaptability, executive functioning); and the “cognitive” skills of non-routine problem solving, critical thinking, systems thinking.[[1]]

[[2]]2. For an eye-opening look at what high school is really like, please read Grant Wiggins’ blog post, written by a veteran teacher who shadowed a student for one day:  Then read this to discover the identity of the author. As of this writing, about 650,000 people have read the article, so read and share please.[[2]]

[[3]]3. But not ‘rigorous’ please, because that word ought to be anathema to anyone who’s serious about learning.[[3]]

[[4]]4. Specific scientific knowledge, testing hypotheses, using the internet to search for information, collaboration, et cetera.[[4]]

[[5]]5. Notice that the word ‘test’ does not appear anywhere in his statement.  That’s becoming a toxic word because of its association with bubble-testing. Apparently ‘assessment’ remains safe to use because it connotes sophisticated, even individualized ways of measuring learning.  Chiefs for Change also avoid ‘test’ and ‘tests’ in their statement, opting for ‘assessment.’ [[5]]

[[6]]6. You may find that word judgemental, but I would argue that it is accurate. Scores aren’t being used to reward teachers, just to ‘evaluate’ them.  Keep in mind that most everywhere else tests are used to diagnose student progress, not teacher performance.  That is what they were designed for. [[6]]

[[7]]7. That’s not all they want. Here’s a report from a publication on the left: http://truth-out.org/news/item/26851-the-movement-for-public-education-at-a-crossroads [[7]]

[[8]]8. ‘More’ is the operative word, because these schools exist.[[8]]

12 thoughts on “Why We Have Schools

  1. John,

    This column is right on. And while the testing controversy grabs most of the headlines, the role of the teacher, which is changing in the ways you describe, is the key strategic change. I’m going to send you, via email, a speech that the president should give — and not in DC but in the state capitol of some state.




      • Here it is:

        President Barack Obama

        Like many of you, I am tired of seeing session after session of Congress come and go, with an assortment of bills and many speeches about how critical it is to get all our kids ready for college and careers. A few bills become law. But terrible achievement gaps remain.

        I see all sorts of conferences devoted to gaps, and not only to a racial and income achievement gap, but a serious gap at the top as well, in what the world demands compared with what most students are prepared to do.

        What’s emerged in recent years is a clear tendency to cast blame for these persistently inadequate results. And teachers are bearing the brunt of it. We hear calls to end tenure, to stiffen accountability, to tie teachers’ pay to test score results. The teacher unions are fighting back. I don’t blame them.

        Here’s why. For as long as I can remember, the “deal” that we’ve had with teachers was: We won’t give you much authority over the school; but we also won’t ultimately hold you accountable for results. If the students don’t succeed, at least you tried. Some will do well; others won’t. That’s life. And of course those of you who didn’t do well will still get paid the same as the best teacher in the school.

        No one was ever that blunt about it, but that was the ‘deal.’

        But recently it seems like the “deal” has shifted to: We still won’t give you real authority over what matters in school; but now we are going to hold you accountable for results. We’re going to test your students on reading and math at the end of each year and tie part of your evaluation (and eventually your pay) to those results.

        Ladies and gentlemen, please name for me any profession you know where people going along with a deal like this – no real authority over your work but total responsibility for results. Plumbers and electricians have a better deal than that. People trust them to know what to do to get the job done. Certainly most people in the leading professions – attorneys, accountants, architects, consultants – work in a reasonable balance of professional control over their work and responsibility for results. In most of these professions, people hired by the professionals do the administrative work.

        So, today I am challenging states and local school boards to offer teachers a “new deal.” We’ll give you real authority over what matters in school – how resources are used, what learning strategies are adopted, how time and space and equipment are used, everything that matters. In return, you give us the accountability for results that all of us want.

        This new deal is rooted in the belief that we can “trust the teachers.” Think about it. Who else knows the students? Who else confronts every day the wide variation in initial proficiency kids show up in class with? Who else can find a way to treat students as individuals and tap their core motivation to learn?

        Some might recoil at the seemingly radical notion of teachers being in charge of schools. That’s nuts. The first teacher-powered schools (see http://www.teacherpowered.org) started in Minnesota in the early 1990s and have now spread around the country. The original one, New Country School in rural Henderson, is probably the most visited school in the United States, year after year.

        What goes on today in most school districts is a far cry from teachers in charge. Increasingly I hear that teachers are told what to do, how to do, and when to do just about every day of every week. It’s no mystery to me what nearly half of new teachers quit the profession in the first five years of service.

        But, Mr. President, you say, what makes you think that teachers would actually take this new deal?

        Well, for a long time, no one knew. But I am encouraged by seeing the startling results of a recent national survey of teachers conducted by the respected east coast-based Widmeyer firm. This survey showed a huge majority of teachers interested in working in a school in which they were professionally in charge. 78 percent of teachers said that teachers running schools was a good or great idea. 85 percent of the public agreed. 25 percent were ready to do it tomorrow.

        I am further encouraged by the research captured in the 2013 book Trusting Teachers With School Success – What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots. Sampling teacher-run schools around the United States, the authors found that teachers, when they are really in charge, quickly find ways to personalize the learning experience; they create environments that motivate students to take more responsibility for their own learning; they make effective use of digital technology; they get results. I also noted that schools run by teachers have the lowest turnover rates of any school category.

        So, let’s find out. I am challenging our teachers today to let us know whether they will take this new deal.

        I am asking school boards to be partners in this new deal, to say “yes” if a group of teachers steps forward to take responsibility for a school. If not the only way, it’s the best way to get the accountability we say we want so desperately.

        It’s time to trust the teachers.


      • Yes, this will be the true reform of the future: fully professional teachers who are in charge of their own schools.


  2. John,

    Do we even have agreement as to the purpose of public schools? For some involved in “reform” it seems to be a vehicle to transfer taxpayer dollars to their pockets with as little oversight or transparency as possible. Not sure how that benefits either the students or society as large.

    For others it seems to be to create a large and compliant workforce without having to pay for training them but shifting that burden on to others

    If we continue to define and measure education by economic terms we are missing the real point, which should be the empowering of our students to follow their own dreams, enabling them to discover how to do life-long learning, and preparing them for FULL (not just economic) participation in the society outside of K-12 education.

    When we have people who do not even believe we should teach students how to think critically, to question authority, etc., then the model of school and “teaching” they will seek will be very alien to the ideals I and most of the good educators I know are willing to do.


    • We don’t have agreement about schooling’s purposes, but, if we could have a large public conversation, the greedy folks would be outed, and I believe that most Americans would be upset and angry.

      You know about Baker Mitchell in North Carolina, and the large amounts of money his charter schools are taking out of the public budget, I assume? What he’s doing there is perfectly legal, but I do not believe that many citizens would approve, if they were aware. Shame on them, if they do not object.


      • well aware of what is going in NC. My good friend Jeff Bryant is based in NC and keeps a lot of us informed. As to the corruption of charters, I once had an interesting conversation because sitting next to me in a Starbucks was Dennis Bakke of Imagine Charter Schools and when he found out I was a teacher he actually tried to recruit me. Fat chance.

        It is hard for ordinary citizens to find out what is going on with charters – for one thing, they have won a number of lawsuits claiming they are NOT public entities and thus do not have to be transparent with their finances. Then we can go back to how they serve as cash cows for hedge funds, how their operators pay themselves more than urban superintendents with tens of thousands of students receive, and while they may be officially “non-profit” they hire for profit entities they control which drains most of the money away from real educational purposes.

        There is a reason Al Shanker turned on the idea that he and Ray Budde had proposed.

        You probably understand this as well as anyone, given your presence at was what I believe was the first meeting/conference on charters.


      • Shanker proposed something which he knew already was happening in New York City and many other districts: that teachers with permission of their district & union would be allowed to create new district options. This was packaged as something new – but it wasn’t.

        As a teacher who helped create a new district option in St Paul in 1971, I saw some of the same opposition to a district option that I see today to charters.

        Yes, there are some in the charter movement who have ripped off the public. That’s horrible.

        But there are some in teacher unions and the districts who have done the same. Unfortunately there’s little acknowledgement of this by some strong district advocates.

        As to the purposes of schools: Public Schools should be about helping young people identify interests, accomplish more than they thought possible, and help young people believe they can should improve the world. Those things should be part of public education. I do think public schools also should help students develop skills that will allow them to obtain a job…or perhaps start their own non-profit or for-profit business.


  3. It seems a bit time wasting to comment since nothing continues to happen, but I’ll comment anyway. Our public education system is based on the industrial model. Every child has to be fit into the perfect box. As s/he moves down the conveyor belt each part added has to be the same, and perfectly constructed (re: the teachers responsibility.) This might work for General Motors, well, maybe not, given the number of recent recalls, but it does not work for our students, our children. Our children are all different, come from different backgrounds and learn at different developmental rates, we cannot expect each child to be the perfected student at any given time. Yet that is exactly what our public education system has been about, forever, and testing is just the latest iteration.

    If there is going to be effective discussion about the way we educate we have to get beyond this “plug-in” concept. Students must be viewed as individuals and permitted, no expected, to learn at their own rate, to take responsibility for their own learn (with guidance), in other words, to become totally engaged in their own learning.

    As an early childhood teacher I know that children, when they enter school, are totally into learning. You can’t turn them off. Unfortunately, by probably third grade, some of them have had “school” learning turned off. By sixth grade, the beat goes on. These students have been turned off by the system of expectations which do not fit their personal learning style. This testing regimen merely intensifies this educational box.

    We, especially those without teaching experience, are too enarmored of the industrial/business model. Any discussion of the learning process has to be removed from the automobile.


  4. When you think about how classroom teachers have been left out of this “reform” movement, you can see how ludicrous it is.

    There will never be authentic reform without the involvement and leadership of the classroom teacher.


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