CHANGE THE CONVERSATION

There are four identifiable groups in the sphere of public education: 1) The “Devosians,” 2) the ‘School Reformers,’ 3) those who aren’t involved at all, and 4) the progressives.

1) In power now are ‘The DeVosians,” supporters of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her campaign to redefine ‘public education’  to include every type of school known to man–plus home schooling.  Her unstated but obvious goal is to undercut the institution of public education and the 100,000 schools that educate over 90% of our children.  The Secretary is in favor of vouchers and ‘choice,’ but, even though she has all sorts of power, the data consistently undercut her belief system. Unfortunately, facts don’t matter to true believers like Secretary DeVos.

2) The ‘School Reform’ crowd ruled the roost during both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations, and their legacy is nothing to be proud of: declining test scores, widespread rigging of both achievement and graduation data, an exodus of teachers from the field, and a dramatic reduction among young people in interest in becoming teachers.  Despite all this, the School Reform crowd continues to offer itself as the best alternative to Betsy DeVos.  These are the folks who have reduced our children to data points.  Keep that in mind when they ask for another opportunity!

Careful readers of my 2017 book, ‘Addicted to Reform,’ may recall footnote 26, which reads in part, “…even when the reform crowd acknowledges past missteps, it asks for just one more chance to get it right. For example, the American Enterprise Institute talks the talk but then proceeds to put forth the same old stuff: more choice, less regulation and so on.”)

3)  Those who are not focused on these struggles are easily the largest group of all. At most, only 25% of households have school-age children, and most of the 75% pay little attention to education issues.  They are the key to real change, in my opinion.

4) And finally, the progressives, a group I belong to.  Like Betsy DeVos, we want real change. Unlike the Secretary, however, we believe in public schools.

How about you?  Deep down, are you a progressive?  Ask yourself these simple questions.

1) Do you want your child or grandchild to be in schools where the adults look at each kid and wonder “How Smart Is This Child?”—and then sort them accordingly?

2) Or would you choose a school where the adults ask a different question, “How Is This Child Smart?”

3) Do you want your children or grandchildren to repeat what they have been told, or would you like them to discover things on their own, guided by the teacher?

If you opted for discovery over sorting, then you are an education progressive.  Welcome!  Now let’s get to work on creating a genuine paradigm shift. For that to occur, at least three things have to happen.  One, we need to reject the language of ‘school reformers’ in favor of a more precise vocabulary.  Two, we need to change the conversation from hackneyed terms like “learning for all” to more dynamic language like “discovery” or “knowledge production.” And, three, we must get outside our own echo chamber and engage with the 75% of the population that does not have a direct stake in schooling.

Right now, the group I and others refer to as “School Reformers” are controlling the dialogue, with most of the education press following along.  When they talk about ‘Closing the Achievement Gap,’ the value of ‘standardized tests,’ and the importance of a ‘rigorous curriculum,’ the misleading and dangerous assumptions behind their assertions are rarely scrutinized.

Time for scrutiny:  Let’s start with ‘rigorous’ and ‘rigor,’ favorite words used by ‘reformers’ and their ilk.  Progressives must never use those two words.  And I mean never!  Here’s a quick word association test.  Please complete this phrase: ‘Rigor…..’   The word you came up with was ‘mortis,’ right?

Rigorous means strictseveresternstringenttoughharshrigidrelentlessunsparing, inflexibledraconianintransigentuncompromisingexacting, and stiff.   Why would anyone who cares about children want that for them?   Progressives want a curriculum that is challenging, not ‘rigorous.’  End of story.

Now consider standardized tests, which ‘reformers’ insist are essential.  That term is shorthand for machine-scored, multiple-choice tests, the ones whose results arrive at schools in the summer, many months after the kids have taken them and far too late for teachers to be able to use the results to help their students.

These tests are fundamentally useless!  We want children to develop skills and abilities like speaking persuasively and working with others, and these cannot be measured by a multiple-choice test.  In most schools today, students spend lots of time on test prep–time they could spend working together, debating issues, researching and rewriting papers, et cetera.

Most teachers know how destructive these tests and all that surrounds them can be. Teachers across New York state are cited at length in a new report, The Tyranny of Testing.  Here’s what one elementary grade teacher wrote: “After working for a month with the students to practice test-taking skills, they had to put into action everything they have learned. Well, it was a flop. The passages were very difficult and the questions were difficult for many to understand. I had to dry tears, and honestly lie to them that everything would be ok. It wasn’t ok. They all worked from 9 am until 2:15. Some were not even done then. Talk about making a struggling reader feel worthless. Students were upset and angry — angry to think that they might get in trouble for not doing well. Day two was much too long at each grade level. My third graders who struggle typing just quit working.”

Note that she had spent one month–about 15% of the school year–practicing ‘test-taking skills,’ no doubt mandated by her system.

By the way, these machine-scored, multiple choice tests are actually NOT standardized, a term which means that all students take them under the same (I.E., standardized) conditions.  Children with special needs get extra time, as they should, but so do many thousands of other children because their parents have used their influence and money to buy extra time for their children.   All they need is a doctor’s written recommendation and, presto, an extra hour or two.

I say that we should support standardized tests only when all children take them under these two standardized conditions: with a full stomach and in a comfortable, well-lighted room.

As for machine-scored, multiple-choice tests, let’s support only those whose results are available within a week or two!  That would eliminate most of these tests–and save school districts millions of dollars.

Next, the Achievement Gap.  Those who are obsessed with ‘school reform’ go on and on about the “achievement gap” and are ignoring (perhaps deliberately) the real truth: Most schools have four education gaps: opportunity, expectations, leadership, and outcomes.

  1. Ours is a land of unequal educational opportunity. The opportunity gap in education is a sad fact.
  2. Too many adults have low expectations for some students, particularly students of color or those from low-income families.
  3. We also have a leadership gap, born of trivial quarrels among leaders who should be encouraging public dialogue about the purposes of schooling: what we want our children to be able to do, how they can learn those skills, and how those skills can be measured fairly and accurately.
  4. The widely publicized outcomes gap—that is, the notorious achievement gap—is the inevitable consequence of the first three gaps in opportunity, expectations, and leadership. Focusing almost exclusively on outcomes is counterproductive and is largely responsible for the intimidating task now before us.

Suppose we discussed the achievement gap this way: “In math, Asian Americans outperform whites by more than 15 points. We have to something about that to close the Asian-white achievement gap. So let’s eliminate recess, physical education, art, and music for middle- and upper-middle-class white kids and substitute drilling and more drilling until they catch up.”

Just imagine the reaction in suburban white America! But replacing recess with drill, eliminating “frills” such as the arts, and turning kindergarten into teaching and testing time is what ‘school reformers’ have been and are doing to poor kids.

There’s also an “affection gap,” which you can read about in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education (The New Press, 2017.

Changing the language is the first step.  Next, we must adopt and project a dynamic vision of schooling.  The language of ‘school reform’ generally suggests that knowledge is poured into the heads of students by their teachers. That passive model simply does not describe the ways in which humans acquire knowledge.  Instead of talking about ‘a year of learning,’ let’s talk about “A Year of Producing Knowledge” or “A Year of Discovery.”  When the focus is on a child’s interests and abilities, the teacher is no longer the dispenser of knowledge and fount of wisdom but an enabler, a coach, and a guide.  Now the student becomes the worker, and the product is knowledge.  That overturns the current paradigm, in which teachers are the workers, and students their product.

And the all-important third step: The problem with the truism “It takes a village to raise a child” is that most villagers have no direct connection to children or to the schools they go to. However, these villagers–people in households without a strong connection to public education–hold the future of public schools in their hands. They vote on school budgets, and so their opinions of schools, teachers, and students matter. Not only do older folks vote in greater numbers than younger people, but the gap is increasing. According to the Census Bureau, “the turnout rate among 18- to 24-year olds fell to 41.2 percent in 2012 from 48.5 percent in 2008. The turnout rates of adults ages 65 and older rose—to 71.9 percent in 2012 from 70.3 percent in 2008.”

For these reasons, progressives must develop and adopt strategies to win the support of those without a direct connection to schools. It’s not enough for good things to be happening in schools; the “outsiders” need to be supportive. And the best way to make that happen is to get them involved.

It will be difficult for many educators to take this step because they have grown accustomed to a system that says, in effect, “Drop the children and the money at the schoolhouse door, and leave the rest to us.” That approach won’t work anymore, if it ever did.

(I’ll wager many readers can remember when a firefighter came to class and talked about the job, or maybe it was a police officer. In younger grades, teachers often ask parents to come and talk about their jobs. That’s a common way of “connecting with the community,” in edu-speak. In many school districts, businesses are invited to “adopt” a school and donate stuff they don’t need. My children’s elementary school had lots of pretty useless crap lying around, the largess of some neighborhood businesses. Do those strategies work? In a word, no!

The outside world, meaning ordinary taxpayers and the business community, may have grown comfortable with being kept at arm’s length.  But that’s what has to change . . . and determined educators can do this by meeting the outsiders where they are.  Here are a few ways:

** Students can create a photo gallery of local residents and then post portraits on the Web for all to see and talk about.

**Art students can sketch portraits of business storefronts, workers, and bosses, also to be posted on the Web.

**The school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers and then post the video on the Web.

**A video team can interview adults in senior citizen centers and workplaces, focusing on common themes: First movie they remember seeing, best job, favorite foods, most memorable trip, et cetera). These can be edited into short videos and posted on the web.  Just one criterion for interviews: the subjects must not be connected to schools.

Producing these works will teach students all sorts of valuable skills, including clear writing, teamwork, and meeting deadlines.   For students, school will be more valuable and interesting, and their enthusiasm will rub off and carry over into other aspects of their school experience. They will be become better and more discerning consumers of education precisely because they are now producers.

The fun—and the rewards—begin when these productions are posted on the school’s YouTube channel (and perhaps broadcast on local news). That’s when all of these adults—chosen because they do not have kids in school—start talking about the film, sharing the link, and pulling out their smartphones and showing it to friends and customers. They’ll be saying, “Did you know what they’re doing in school these days? Sure makes me wish I could go to school all over again.”

That’s how to turn outsiders into eager insiders.

It’s a safe bet that neither ‘The DeVosians’ nor the ‘School Reformers’ are going to embrace what I am suggesting, but progressives should.

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13 thoughts on “CHANGE THE CONVERSATION

  1. John – thank you for this. What you are pointing to in the last few paragraphs is the re-kindling of community. The idea that we as a society don’t outsource our children to professionals in the education system, but rather see ourselves and our communities as the places inside of which young people are taught what it means to be a citizen, a neighbor, a friend, a professional, a contributor – the list goes on. The challenge, of course, is that this entails learning to BE in a whole different way with those around us. And there is nothing easy about that. No magic bullet, no tech-based solution, no entrepreneurial solution. It requires intentionality, time, patience – and produces the rewards of a sense of belonging, purpose, fulfillment. So the question appears to be: will we be brave enough to accept the invitation to engage? And how do we enroll others to join us?

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  2. There is another important group – parents. They tend to be less dogmatic and simply want the best possible school for their kids – be that public, charter or private.

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  3. Agree with Yuri and I’d add add two other groups

    1. Students – increasingly mobilizing around the country. However, imho we are not doing nearly enough with service learning: combining classroom work, analysis of community issues and constructive action to help solve problems. Lots of reasons for not enough service learning, but I’ll just mention it in this post. As John knows, I’ve been a promoter of service learning for more than 40 years.

    2. Reduce expectations, eliminate public school options other than what local districts offer and give schools more money: A number of people are in this group. They insist schools can not do much by themselves to change the life chances of students from low income communities and they believe schools should receive lots more money. There is a lot of financial support behind this idea.

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  4. “. . . these cannot be measured by a multiple-choice test.”

    Nothing is ever “measured” by a multiple choice test. Now can those tests be used to help evaluate and assess the students? I guess if one doesn’t mind using completely invalid and unreliable* standardized tests.

    The TESTS MEASURE NOTHING, quite literally when you realize what is actually happening with them. Richard Phelps, a staunch standardized test proponent (he has written at least two books defending the standardized testing malpractices) in the introduction to “Correcting Fallacies About Educational and Psychological Testing” unwittingly lets the cat out of the bag with this statement:

    “Physical tests, such as those conducted by engineers, can be standardized, of course [why of course of course], but in this volume, we focus on the measurement of latent (i.e., nonobservable) mental, and not physical, traits.” [my addition] (notice how he is trying to assert by proximity that educational standardized testing and the testing done by engineers are basically the same, in other words a “truly scientific endeavor”)

    Now since there is no agreement on a standard unit of learning, there is no exemplar of that standard unit and there is no measuring device calibrated against said non-existent standard unit, how is it possible to “measure the nonobservable”?

    THE TESTS MEASURE NOTHING for how is it possible to “measure” the nonobservable with a non-existing measuring device that is not calibrated against a non-existing standard unit of learning?????
    PURE LOGICAL INSANITY!

    *To understand those invalidities (and therefore unreliability of the tests) see Noel Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” found at: http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/577/700

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  5. While I agree with your call to action, I fear that it will not be enough. Two things I’ve witnessed over my 29 year career as a public school superintendent and six+ years as a blogger: first, those who control the debate in the media will expropriate any meaningful terminology and make it into a hackneyed phrase; and second, engaging the disengaged may require those of us seeking change to consider expropriating the arguments of the Devosians and reformers that our schools are failing.

    To illustrate my first point, one need only recall that in the early 1990s if one favored “reform”, they supported the ideas about schooling advanced by Ted Sizer and other educators who favored student-centered approaches that are very much like those “progressive” ideas in this post. A “reformer” in that era also favored racial and economic de-segregation, funding equity, and more spending on public education. At some point the Democrats joined the Republicans in reaching a consensus that “throwing money” at the problem and dealing with thorny problems like race and economic disparity was unnecessary and that the Technology Gods would provide a more efficient (and less politically inhospitable) means of addressing the high-minded ideals of civil rights leaders in the 1960s and early 1970s. This effort to address “the soft bigotry of low expectations” was called “reform” by the technocrats who saw an opportunity to profit from the data-driven direction schools would head and especially by those who saw the potential for an emerging market when public schools inevitably failed to meet the standards.

    In order to gain the attention of the disinterested and ultimately win their hearts and minds, I fear progressive will need to accept the argument that schools are failing but offer a different and persuasive rationale WHY this is the case. As a progressive, I find it very easy to make the case that our current paradigm IS failing children. By emphasizing sorting and selecting over unifying and edifying we are creating the alienated children who see their only means of achieving power is to isolate themselves and engage in video games where they can control imaginary worlds. We are creating a world where “success” is determined by seemingly precise mathematical algorithms and not by “sloppy” metrics like the ability to get along with others or empathizing with others. And here’s the worst part: we are telling children who attend underfunded public schools that do poorly on standardized tests that they must accept a world where they live in austerity while those who attend well funded public schools that are successful on tests live in a world where “frills” like recess, drama, music, and the arts are a given. In short, getting the disinterested off the sidelines may require progressives to show the general public that the world we have now is the result of the world we created when we decided to determine “success” by test scores.

    https://wp.me/p25b7q-29Q

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    • You and I are very much in agreement. May I respectfully request that you take a look at my book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” which expands upon the argument that you put forth? I write in the introduction that our sorting system is at least partially responsible for the election of Donald Trump…..

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      • I will read it! I am deeply concerned that our “hardening” of schools is effectively training the next generation to live under totalitarian rule in the same way that our sorting mechanisms trained us to accept the economic divisions that I find contrary to the principles of democracy. I believe those of us who are progressive minded need to quickly identify some actions that will compel parents and voters to reject the notion that more good guys with guns and more invasive technology will solve the problem of school shootings.

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  6. John:

    I fully agree with your call to change the conversation. But I find a determinism in your typology of DeVosians, Reformers, Progressives, and Others that likely impedes dialogue and implicitly accepts a reform assumption that, I suspect, you’d otherwise reject.

    The country has suffered through two-plus decades of education reform based on a theory of change that assumes COMPETING interests. Within this worldview, the interests of parents and students, teachers and their unions, superintendents and administrators, school board and elected officials, employers and taxpayers are different and largely fixed. Reformers sought to weaken the “wrong” interests in order to realize more of the “right” interests. The approach invited distrust and engendered dislike. It fueled acrimonious political battles that gave us extreme policies reflecting the winner’s interests.

    Your typology, I fear, seems to deliver only more of the same. You define opposing groups, describe their fixed and competing interests, and provide a litmus test for Progressives. If I read you right, you’re recommending more political battles, but this time with Progressives in greater numbers and scoring more wins. This accepts the very reform assumption that has led to so much counter-productive hostility, and I suspect won’t generate meaningfully different outcomes from what we’ve had to date.

    Might there be a different approach?

    Every group assumes its interests are the right ones and, in a society as diverse as ours, not all interests will ever align. Pluralist politics remains our best, albeit imperfect, way to democratically determine which interests will be served at a given moment. But we still have a choice. We can choose how to conduct our politics and what we assume about others and their interests. Rather than accept the immutability of competing interests, we could seek to identify, expand, and build on COMMON interests.

    By way of example, let’s take the targets of your ire. I agree that “rigor” is a lousy word that connotes many things that I don’t want for my children or others’. But if we seek what we may have in common with educators who use the word, and try to understand why they use the word, perhaps we’d find that they use it to object to low and inequitable expectations. Might not their rigorous be your “challenging”?

    As for multiple choice standardized tests, we are again in agreement. Their shortcomings are legion and well documented. But it strikes me that many of your objections are to the quality of the exams, how they are administered, and the outsized place they have in the life of schools and not, necessarily, to the idea that we should ask students to demonstrate what they’ve learned, and for these demonstrations to meet the same challenging expectations regardless of race or class. If we can agree, conceptually, on the value of verifying (and celebrating!) what students achieve, how might the different groups work together to build better systems that verify which interests have been served and which haven’t?

    Finally, I suspect that many across your groups already agree with your exposition of the opportunity, expectations, leadership, and outcome gaps. I find it a useful way to understand what is in a school’s control—and therefore within educator’s responsibility to address, and what is outside of a school’s control—in which case educators are part of and can serve to mobilize the community which bears the responsibility.

    Continuing down the list of some of the most contested issues, I think we’d find common interests on which we could build. Standards were championed by their early advocates to establish equitable expectations. State tests provided much needed evidence to increase financial support. Charter schools were first popularized by Al Shanker and the teachers union as a vehicle for teacher professionalism and innovation, and community charters are recasting their movement as one of civil society rather than the market. Even vouchers have a forgotten history on the progressive left.

    If we paused to think together and creatively about these issues, with a generous spirit to the views of others, might we not achieve more lasting and productive change? And restore some solidarity within the fractured education community? As it stands, the squabbling and name-calling among your “25%” hardly present an engaging vision around which the “75%” should engage and rally.

    I bear no illusions that finding common interests is easy. It isn’t, particularly given what little trust or respect extends across the competing groups. But perhaps there is enough doubt, after a decade with little to show for it, and enough fatigue, to give us all sufficient pause to take a risk and give it a try.

    How do we get started? One source of guidance is from the Pragmatist philosophers. Although Dewey’s greatest influence on education was, arguably, pedagogical (specifically his views on the importance of experiential learning) he and contemporary Pragmatists teach an even greater lesson on how to think—together, in a community of thinkers—about our theories, with the value of a theory judged by its practical effects. Rather than only focusing the Pragmatist lens on pedagogy, we can use it to examine, and improve, our politics.

    The philosopher Richard Bernstein explains how. Although commenting on “the ideological battles” within philosophy in the late 1980s, the relevance to our educational battles is apparent. Noting that disagreements were “beginning to seem remote and irrelevant,” Bernstein saw “encouraging signs of the emergence of a new [Pragmatic] ethos.” This ethos:

    “places new responsibilities upon each of us” to take “our own fallibility seriously—resolving that however much we are committed to our own styles of thinking, we are willing to listen to others without denying or suppressing the otherness of the other… What makes this task so difficult and unstable is the growing realization that there are no uncontested rules or procedures ‘which will tell us how rational agreement can be reached on what would settle the issue on every point where statements seem to conflict.’… [I]t is always a task to seek out commonalities and points of difference and conflict. The achievement of a ‘we’—where ‘we’ are locked in argument with others—is a fragile and temporary achievement that can always be ruptured by unexpected contingencies. Conflict and disagreement are unavoidable in our pluralistic situation… What matters, however, is how we respond to conflict. The response that the pragmatists call for is a dialogical response where we genuinely seek to achieve a mutual reciprocal understanding—an understanding that does not preclude disagreement… Here one begins with the assumption that the other has something to say to us and to contribute to our understanding. The initial task is to grasp the other’s position in the strongest possible light. One must always attempt to be responsive to what the other is saying and showing. This requires imagination, sensitivity, and perfecting [interpretive] skills. There is a play, a to-and-fro- movement in dialogical encounters, a seeking for a common ground in which we can understand our differences… One does not seek to score a point by exploiting the other’s weaknesses; rather one seeks to strengthen the other’s arguments as much as possible so as to render it plausible.” (From Pragmatism: A Reader, Louis Menand, Ed., 1997.)

    Bernstein continued, “The time has come to heal the wounds of these ideological battles… The fact is that our situation is pluralistic. But the question becomes how are we to respond to this pluralism… In this situation, the pragmatic legacy is particularly relevant, in particular the call to nurture the type of community and solidarity… based on mutual respect, where we are willing to risk our own prejudgments, and open to listening and learning from others, and we respond to others with responsiveness and responsibility.”

    We could just as easily apply Bernstein’s prescription to our electoral politics, where it is desperately needed. We can at least teach these dialogical and deliberative norms to the next generation of leaders and citizens by modelling them in our own education politics. As Ted and Nancy Sizer observed, the students are watching.

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    • Jonathan Gyurko, I agree and love your framing and analysis. As a parent of public school kids, I want more practical solutions and less acrimony. manichaeasm or ideological purity.

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