Schools Cannot Do It Alone

The familiar cliché turns up in a lot of conversations with educators. Normally the emphasis is on the last word, rarely on the fourth. But I believe that “it” is the key word.

I’ll get to it in a minute.

You may have noticed that President Barack Obama all but ignored K-12 education in his State of the Union speech. He made one direct reference to K-12 (to higher graduation rates). He devoted a lot of time to his proposal to make community college free, which is a non-starter for Republicans, and to expanding high-quality early childhood programs, but nary a word about the current effort to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now called No Child Left Behind.

He stayed away from the Common Core National Standards, a wise idea given that the Administration maintains that it’s a state initiative, and the forthcoming Common Core tests, a genuine third rail nowadays. He used to tout ‘Race to the Top,’ the initiative that led many states, desperate for dollars, to line up behind higher standards (read “Common Core”), more charter schools, better information, and test-based accountability, but none of that {{1}} crossed his lips in this year’s State of the Union.

Based on that speech, what is the President’s “it” that schools do, alone or in concert? Graduate as many students as possible, I guess.

Here in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo is taking a page out of the playbook that the President seemed to abandon last night. He is promising more test-based accountability, more charter schools, and more effective ways of getting rid of ineffective teachers. Some observers believe he has his eye on the White House, which makes others think he’s out of touch with what’s going on in schools and society.

I’m not convinced that the Governor actually has a vision of “it,” though he seems to be convinced that ineffective teachers, obstructionist unions and lead-footed bureaucracies are keeping schools from doing whatever it is they are supposed to be doing.

Now about that cliché, “Schools cannot do it alone.” Most people don’t believe schools should operate alone. Many believe that parents are a child’s primary educators, while others expect parents to participate in their children’s education. Others maintain that it takes a village to educate its children, meaning that education is better when meaningful social services are coordinated and when businesses and community groups pitch in.

Which brings me back to the fourth word and the purpose of schools. Just what is the “it” that schools are supposed to do? Rarely do we examine that question, settling instead for canned phrases like ‘get all children ready to learn,’ ‘educate the whole child,’ and ‘ensure that students are college and career ready.’

For some, the “it” is represented by higher test scores. Get those, and that’s proof that schools have done “it.” For others, increasing the high school graduation rate is evidence that schools have done their job–That was the President’s evidence in his State of the Union speech. Others believe “it” means doing better on international comparisons like PISA, or improving scores on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

You may have read “Among the Disrupted” in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. This powerful and disturbing essay by Leon Wieseltier is not about schools. Rather, he attacks the role that data-gathering plays in our culture, but much of what he wrote is pertinent to the role schools could play.

Especially these lines (emphasis added): “Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost-unimaginable capabilities of the new technology. The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past.”

Mr. Wieseltier has identified, for me anyway, the vital “it” that ought to be the purpose of our schools. They must be organized to help young people distinguish between knowledge and information. Teachers must help students formulate questions and then search for answers to those questions. Schools must prove Mr. Wieseltier wrong.

Think of it this way: young people swim in a 24/7 stream of data. In that world of information-overload, how are young people to know what’s true? Only by challenging, asking questions, doubting and digging. And they ought to be doing that in their classrooms, guided by skillful teachers who are comfortable with giving students greater control over their own learning.

Technology floods our world with information, but the human brain can develop ways of weighing and sorting information to separate the wheat from the chaff. (It should go without saying that we need to encourage–and model–choosing the wheat!)

Some schools do this. “What do you know?” the great educator Deborah Meier would ask of students, “And how do you know that you know it?” I imagine that at Sidwell Friends School, where the Obama daughters are students, the “it” of education moved away from regurgitation and toward inquiry a long time ago–and perhaps that’s why the Obamas chose it for their daughters .

But the Administration’s education policies are reinforcing an unimaginative vision of education, a business model with a bottom line of standardized tests results. Ironically, many forward-thinking business leaders have discarded that narrow view and instead support schools that graduate students who can think critically, make sense out of contradictory information, and work well with people of every age, race, gender, religion and sexual identity.

Unlike its rhyming barnyard relative, “it” does not just happen. These are choices we make, choices that matter.


[[1]]1. One can imagine Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his people sending over suggestions for the speech…and the White House throwing them away as fast as they come in.  After all, these policies, particularly the effort to punish teachers for low student test scores, seriously dampened enthusiasm for Obama and Democrats in the recent elections.[[1]]

9 thoughts on “Schools Cannot Do It Alone

  1. “For some, the “it” is represented by higher test scores.” It depends on what you mean by “higher test scores.” If you mean Scantron test then I would say no. Academic achievement is every skill. If the test is more authentic, for example an AP Spanish test then I would say yes. In an AP Spanish test you have to read two articles and listen to a radio report and then synthesis this in an essay. You have to listen to questions and respond orally. Then you have many other comprehension questions and grammar questions and cultural questions (that is about 50% of tests). I have no problem with standardized testing. In fact the more they are authentic (requiring writing for example) they better they are. But they do not represent 1% of what a school should be doing. And believe me -I speak as a classroom teacher with more than 25 years experience- test prep kills learning and love of learning. We need to teach basic skills and information. But as I tell my students I cannot do all the work. They have to do much of it themselves. I can only show them a way -my way- which is as good as others and better than most. One thing I show is a real enthusiasm for language, literature and history. I am a bilingual teacher and teach English to English learners and Sheltered Social Studies to English learners. I have had some success. A lot of my success is that in my own quizzes and test I NEVER give a multiple choice test. Never. I only use them (reluctantly) to practice for state tests. But if it were up to me they would be forbidden by law. I have seen too much zoning out and random answering without any attempt at reading and understanding. And I will make a point I have made many times. On a typical multiple choice test 75% of the information is false. So students who only read these become more stupid. Think about it. Why would we want student to concentrate on false information?


  2. John, since 1971, the St. Paul Open School (now called Open World) has been requiring students to demonstrate a wide variety of skills/knowledge prior to graduation. This is a district school. Minnesota New Country in Henderson and Avalon in ST. Paul are just two of many charters that have adopted a competency approach to graduation that requires demonstration of a broad array of skills.

    You mentioned Deborah Meier. The first school she helped create, Central Park East, has a similar portfolio approach to graduation.

    Perhaps you could feature some of these schools in a future blog. Thanks for considering this.


    • Thank you very much. Be wonderful if communities would come together to argue/discuss the “IT” of education, and how to get there.
      We are close to completing a film about the role of technology in schools–and one thing I know for sure is that when schools either ignore technology’s promise or attempt to channel it to get higher test scores, kids rebel. The technology is value-free, but it’s also ubiquitous and will be used. Whether it’s used for good or ill is largely up to us.


      • We cannot escape technology. But we have to be smart and disciplined as to how we use it is the classroom. And I agree entirely: channeling technology merely to squeeze higher test numbers out of the kids is idiotic.


  3. There are some public schools that get “it” right but unfortunately, schools are only as good as the captain at the helm of the ship.
    These are scary times because of the huge number of U.S. children who grow up in poverty and attend sub standard schools. They are scary times because standardized test scores are used to judge success or failure. And the final results? Kids are losers, no one is happy!
    Why are people who know nothing about education and child development making the decisions about how to run a school system?
    Why should a family have to pony up forty thousand a year in tuition to be sure their child has access to an environment that will cultivate critical thinking?
    I really don’t get “it” ….


  4. “It” is a generic word, all inclusive. The same is true with the word “children.” Let’s move “it” away from “children”. We should be educating Charlie, Susan, Thomas and Allie. Each one is an individual with personal experience, development, emotional needs, and support. Today we lump them all together in “it”.

    By lumping “it” we are forcing students to try to learn things they all don’t need to know at that time. For instance, in third grade it is common for students to memorize the times tables. At eight and nine years old these students have almost no use for that rote memorization. They might need to understand that 3+3+3+3=12, but to memorize, no. This point was brought home to me when I told a parent that her very smart daughter was having a difficult time learning the times tables. She told me, “Don’t worry, when she needs to know them she will learn them.” How true, and not just for the “very smart” child.

    There has been a lot of research done on how the brain works and learns. For instance, when something knew has been introduced to be learned our brain needs some time to assimilate the new with the old. In our system we too often run this new learning right into the next new learning, the brain then has to decide, without time, to figure out which new info is important to retain. It is usually the latest, so the former is tucked away, dismissed. We need to pay more attention to “it” of research.

    It seems to me the teacher’s job is to make sure every student is a successful learner, not a successful test taker, multiplication table reciter, or even a phonetic expert.
    If we continue with the current “it” we will definitely be leaving some students behind.


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