Running in Place?

I wrote the paragraphs below nearly five years ago. Besides changing a few names, how much revision is needed to make the observations accurate in mid-2015? Perhaps we haven’t been running in place, but I am convinced that we are fighting the wrong battle in the last war.

“Microfiche,” the 14-year-old asked, staring at the machines tucked away in the New York Public Library? “What’s microfiche?”

How many people under age 30 could explain it? Her question is a powerful reminder of how technology has turned learning on its head. Just a few years ago, libraries and schools were the places that stored knowledge—on microfiche, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and in the heads of the adults in charge. We had to go there to gain access to that knowledge.

Not any more. Today knowledge and information are everywhere, 24/7, thanks to the Internet. Unless libraries have been closed because of budget cuts, they have adapted to this new world. Most have become multi-purpose centers with Internet access that distribute books, audio books and DVD’s. Librarians encourage patrons to ask questions, because they need to keep the public coming through their doors.

By contrast, schools remain a monopoly, places where children are expected to answer questions, by filling in the bubbles or blanks and by speaking up when called upon.

Providing access to knowledge, one of three historical justifications for schools, no longer applies in the usual sense. Of course, children need teachers to help them learn to read and master numbers, but, beyond that, a new approach is required. More about that later.

A second justification, socialization, has also been turned on its head by technology. Today’s kids don’t need school for socialization in the usual sense of learning to get along with their peers in the building. Why? Because there are Apps for that, dozens of them, including Facebook, FarmVille, MySpace and so on, and so ‘socialization’ takes on new meanings when kids routinely text with ‘friends they’ve never met’ across the continent or an ocean. Again, schools must adapt to this new reality.

Only custodial care, the third historical justification for school, remains unchanged. Parents still need places to send their children to keep them safe. So does the larger society, which has rejected child labor and does not want kids on the streets.

But when schools provide only custodial care and a marginal education that denies technology’s reach and power, young people walk away, as at least 6,000 do every school day, for an annual dropout total of over 1 million.

And, unfortunately, some of those who remain in marginal schools will find themselves in danger, because the youthful energy that ought to be devoted to meaningful learning will inevitably be released, somewhere. Often it comes out in bullying, cyberbullying and other forms of child abuse by children. That is, marginal education often produces dangerous schools.

Unfortunately, those in charge of public education have not been paying attention to these seismic changes. Instead they are warring over teacher competence, test scores, merit pay and union rules, issues that are fundamentally irrelevant to the world children live in.

Who are these warriors?

On one side in this battle is a cadre of prominent superintendents and wealthy hedge fund managers. Led by New York’s Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, 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. …….

But what’s most striking about this bitter battle is its irrelevance. The adults in charge are fighting the last war, and whoever wins doesn’t really matter to the millions of young people now being denied on a daily basis the learning opportunities that modern technology affords.

Our young people should be learning how to deal with the flood of information that surrounds them. They need guidance separating wheat from chaff. They need help formulating questions, and they need to develop the habit of seeking answers, not regurgitating them. They should be going to schools that expect them to discover, build, and cooperate.

Instead, most of them are stuck in institutions that expect them to memorize the periodic table, the names of 50 state capitals and the major rivers of the United States.

That’s what I wrote five years ago. Since that time, Diane Ravitch’s megaphone has proved to have an astounding reach {{1}}, and Dr. Ravitch herself has only grown stronger, despite a serious knee injury and the normal physical challenges that age brings. Joel Klein has moved on, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” has been thoroughly discredited as a propaganda film with staged scenes, “Education Nation” has been shelved, MySpace has disappeared, and the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top” has supplanted “No Child Left Behind” as the left’s federal whipping boy.

When I wrote those words in 2010, the Common Core State Standards existed on a drawing board. Today, they’re under attack by critics from left, right and center. The catalyst for the current battle was the CC testing now being administered. The ensuing “Opt Out” movement seems likely to lead to cuts in the number and frequency of standardized testing.

Just being opposed to ‘excessive testing’ is not enough, but, unfortunately, very few educators are addressing the fundamental irrelevance of schools, which was my point five years ago.

This rebellion will lead to less regurgitation, but no one who cares about the future of our democracy should be satisfied with that small step. It’s time for schools to enter the 21st Century, which, in my view, means embracing both “blended learning” and “project-based learning.”

We will always have schools, where working parents will send their kids. Beyond that, everything has to change. Young people’s bodies may be within a building, but their brains should be engaged with students across town, in other cities and around the globe. Young people can and should be doing real work. Discovering, not parroting.

Do any of the declared or likely presidential candidates get this? Any governors or mayors? Educational leaders?


[[1]]1. As of today, her blog has had 20,244,461 page views.[[1]]

6 thoughts on “Running in Place?

  1. John,

    as you well know project-based learning is an old concept, one strongly emphasized by John Dewey among others. There is no reason whatsoever that we need mass-produced tests for us to be able to determine the effectiveness of student learning, as anyone who has chosen to use PBL can attest.

    Perhaps you might consider doing a piece on TV on the work flowing from the George Lucas Educational Foundation, which at this point might be the foremost promoter of PBL around. Or perhaps you can look at those schools in New York that were at least for a while allowed to base their instruction on PBL, and to use performance assessment as the primary means of evaluation.

    There is lots of evidence of how well this works. Too bad our emphasis on tests produced by for-profit entities like Pearson and ostensibly non-profit like ETS have been allowed to push out what could have been a far more productive use of PBL.


  2. You are still right on target John. I designed and implemented the Milwaukee Village School back in 1995 and, for 3 years, we put the focus on real learning, in the community, Exhibitions on a regular basis where kids demonstrated learning, no letter grades, no grade levels and on and on. And we had a full public school with union. So it can be done. And the superintendent who brought us through the bureaucracy that didn’t allow such schools was no other than Dr. Howard Fuller.

    There were no charters and no choice available at that time but we wouldn’t have gone that direction anyway. The union was a strong supporter and protected our teachers allowing them to be creative without risk of losing their jobs, or mine.

    Of course the test driven fiasco along with self serving egotists drove us out of business after Dr. Fuller and Bob Jasna, who followed him into the Superintendents seat left. So I retired only to dive head first into fighting the battle.

    As the fiasco of testing continued and strengthened the battle raged with opposing sides as you suggest. But the question remains, what about the kids?

    The two sides are so polarized that the kids are the ones left behind. Now civil rights groups leap into the breach. And rightly so. They want accountability so are against opt out while the other side wants to wipe out the test and there they stand.

    The time has come for a sensible conversation focusing on the agenda of children. To the civil rights groups I say there are other, more realistic ways to provide accountability. To the opposing faction I say, just saying no to the test accomplishes nothing and gives a self serving impression.

    The time has come to brainstorm common core and come up with the agenda of children. If not now, when?


  3. The only ones that might get it are the teachers and nobody asks them, or even listens to them when they speak. Maybe the opt-out movement will bring some teachers into the dialog. Maybe it already has and teachers are encouraging parents to opt-out, but not loudly for fear of losing their jobs.


  4. I recently attended an event at an elementary school in Brooklyn where 100% of the students were Title I. I took a quick look at the language of Title I and concluded we have been running in place a lot longer than 5 years. Language in the act included many familiar words: accountability, standards, assessments, etc.

    One can only wonder why there has been so little change, so little accountability. A cynic might suggest we have what we want. Those in power at the top don’t want a threat from those below them. While we talk of the needs of a technology based economy, we still need people to till the fields and clean up after us.

    IF we agree that all children can learn AND that an educated populace is a social good then we should further agree to provide the necessary human and financial resources to reach that goal.
    We need to enact policies and incentives to achieve those goals (hopefully we have learned that threats and punishments are not useful in this regard).

    There will be arguments about whether a teacher-centered approach or a child-centered approach is better. There will be arguments about how to assess whether the children are learning, to test or not to test and how and what to test. And more debate over standards and skills etc.

    What is needed are incentives to promote what we want. We need useful remedies to address failure to meet the goals or even make progress towards them. Arguments about which approach to education and assessment is better are mere details (a good solution is one which meets the goal and there are many paths to success) in building lasting improvement in education and learning and moving forward instead of being stuck in the muck.


  5. Hi John,

    Excellent, sober description of how schools, and the teachers within them, are stuck in place, babysitting, fighting school violence and stagnant competence. (One might say decreasing competence, but I suspect that the same number of competent students finish school every year as a percentage of overall population. Just that school now attempts, and still fails, to educate a larger percentage of the youth population.)

    You write, “We will always have schools, where working parents will send their kids. Beyond that, everything has to change. Young people’s bodies may be within a building, but their brains should be engaged with students across town, in other cities and around the globe. Young people can and should be doing real work.” But in today’s world, as long as “young people’s bodies [are kept] within a [school] building,” they will never “be doing real work”. And thus not learning in what has proven to be the 21st century’s most exciting and effective learning environment.

    It is not in school that “everything has to change”, but around schooling. You hint at the last time that happened: the institution of child labor laws. A century ago, at the peak of industrialization, leaders decided that society would be best served by removing youth from competing with their parents in the workforce, and instead educating them in a separate (also industrialized) learning environment — the school.

    But as you have succinctly described, the world has changed. And due to that change, classroom/school building compulsory education for children, separate in space, time, and goals from the paid employment and continuing education of their working parents, has become not difficult, but virtually impossible. Not just leaders, but all of us, as adults now in a freer society, must revisit our economic, social, and parental responsibilities. And then we need leaders to focus and channel those efforts through government and industry to society. Paraphrasing your closing line, I would ask: Do any of the declared or likely presidential candidates get this? Any governors or mayors? Industrial leaders?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s