No More Petitions!

Like December 7, 1941 or September 11, Friday, December 14, 2012 is a day that will now live in infamy. The awful images are seared into our brains: A young man in combat fatigues approaching Sandy Hook Elementary School carrying an assault weapon, breaking in and shooting two adults who tried to stop him, and then executing 20 young children, spraying hundreds of bullets into their bodies, and murdering their teachers as well.

What happens next?

In the wake of the massacre of children in Newtown, some citizens are signing petitions like this one:

Our second amendment rights are long overdue a reevaluation. How many more senseless and entirely PREVENTABLE shootings have to occur before we do something about Gun Control. As a citizen and constituent of this great country, I am asking that you take a firm stand and make a positive change by restricting access to guns and saving lives. I don’t have a gun. I don’t want a gun. I don’t need a gun. But somehow the guns always wind up in the hands of people crazy enough to use them irresponsibly and dangerously. This HAS TO BE STOPPED.

With all due respect, high-sounding petitions like this are meaningless. Why anyone wanting a new reality would sign it baffles me. This is not ‘action,’ just a way to feel good about ‘having done something.’ (I am not against petitions per se, just vacuous ones.)

Another response is even more baffling: Arm the educators. The headliner for this foolishness has been former Secretary of Education William Bennett, who made the suggestion on Meet the Press. Mr. Bennett has become a poster child for right-wing blather, but apparently his titles from his former life are still enough to get him air time on distinguished programs like Meet the Press, and probably lots of high-paying speaking gigs as well.

The AFT’s Randi Weingarten was on the Meet the Press panel with Mr. Bennett. Here’s her response: “Schools have to be safe sanctuaries. And so we need to actually stop this routine view that just having more guns will actually make people safer. So we are opposed to having in a safe sanctuary like an elementary school, having someone who has access to guns.”

We all know a moment like this could happen again, and soon. So ... what's the next step to prevent that?

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA) has promised to introduce legislation to ban assault weapons, and that’s a start, but the bill she described on television would ban them retroactively. Sorry, but that’s not enough.

And her bill also would exempt over 900 weapons. Not good enough, Senator.

(It’s worth reading the transcript of the entire program, and I suggest paying close attention to what New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg had to say.)

Here’s my view: Assault weapons must be banned, pure and simple. No weapon that holds more than 10 bullets should be legal. No automatic or semi-automatic weapons. Period, end of sentence, full stop. These are not for hunting. They are for killing people.

Possession of these weapons must be outlawed. Although Mr. Bennett said it couldn’t be retroactive, I think it has to be. A new law might establish provisions for monetary rewards for turning them in, but they must be taken out of circulation.

We have acted against proven dangers in the past: asbestos wasn’t just banned in new buildings when we learned that it causes cancer; where it had been installed, it had to be removed. However, we have also waffled in the face of proven dangers, with tobacco being the best example I can think of now. So this will be a test of our determination and political will.

The debate has been joined, and even some pro-gun politicians are sounding reasonable. That has me worried, because I fear they are saying what’s expedient in order to survive politically.

America has too many guns, and it shouldn’t take a massacre to wake us up to this fact. We have children murdering children with handguns, something we experienced in New Orleans during the filming of Rebirth: New Orleans. On my last trip there this spring, one of the kids in the film, 14-year-old Christine Marcelin, was murdered by some other kids, apparently fearful that she might have information they didn’t want the authorities to know. So they grabbed her as she was leaving school and killed her in cold blood.

We must make it harder to own a gun, at least as difficult as it is to get a driver’s license. We are the laughingstock of the world, and we are terrifying our own children.

We should demand strong leadership, not just words, from our President.

We should expect organizations that purport to care for children to take the lead: the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National School Boards Association, the Chief State School Officers, the Council of the Great City Schools, Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, Jonah Edelman’s Stand for Children, and the National PTA.

If these groups stand on the sidelines, we must call them out for hypocrisy.

It’s time for people who care about this country and our children to become single-issue voters, just like the NRA zealots. Make it clear that you will actively oppose candidates who are not fighting — and voting — for a complete ban on assault weapons, semi-automatic and automatic and for a sensible training and licensing procedure for all guns. Fight for candidates who will take on the NRA zealots and the pro-gun lobby.

Anything less will dishonor the memory of those innocent children and the brave educators who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday.

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Deeper Learning

John is currently attempting to raise money to complete a documentary film about the rise of the charter school in New Orleans. If you’d like to help him with this goal, please visit this site.

In a blog posted on Edutopia in 2011, George Lucas, the filmmaker and education activist, wrote: “Recently on, we published observations from 8th graders about what they believe creates an engaging learning experience. Their answers were straightforward and definitive: project-based learning, technology, and an enthusiastic teacher. I couldn’t agree more.”

That’s the big three: project-based learning, technology and enthusiastic teachers. To put it another way, that’s the Holy Grail of education that all good teachers (including Indiana Jones) aspire to.

What I find fascinating about that accurate observation is that, if push came to shove, the magic could happen with just one of the three elements in the classroom: the technology. The enthusiastic teacher could be somewhere else, connected to the students through technology. That’s certainly not ideal, but it’s certainly possible.

Let me go farther out on the limb and assert that at least some of the other participants in the project-based learning could and should be scattered across the globe. Now that we have technology that does not respect walls or require face-to-face contact, we would be foolish not to take advantage of it.

And that’s my fear — namely, that adults will create some stupid requirement that all three elements — enthusiastic teacher, project participants and technology — must be contained within and limited to one classroom.

When the goal is deeper learning, having those three elements is pretty close to being essential. Right now we are looking for outstanding examples of deeper learning, stories we can tell our PBS NewsHour audience that will make them wish they could be kids in school again.

Please share your suggestions here. Or write me directly if you want your story to be a secret (which makes no sense, of course, because you’re telling me and you know that I have never been able to keep a secret!)

Thanks. We look forward to hearing your ideas.

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Bobby or Brittne?

I have no doubt that, when you watch our upcoming documentary “Rebirth: New Orleans,” (an extended cut trailer is embedded above) you are going to fall in love with some of the people (particularly the kids) in the film. You may find yourself rooting for the young principal of a charter high school, hoping that he will see the light. Or you’ll be crossing your fingers that Daniel, Kady and Colleston, the three young teachers from Teach for America, will not only survive — but prosper.

Who knows: you might find yourself yelling at the screen because you empathize with the frustration of a parent with a special needs child, or cheering with the mom of a KIPP student who finally gets it.

But it’s my bet that Bobby Calvin and Brittne Jackson will grab your heartstrings. Both are struggling but trying to connect, while also trying to cope with tough circumstances. Brittne has failed one part of the high school graduation exam five times. She is 19 and working three jobs, but determined to get her high school diploma. Will she make it? Can one teacher make a difference?

When you meet Bobby, an engaging young man with a smile that lights up the room, he’s on the verge of being suspended or expelled from New Orlean’s top performing charter high school. He can’t seem to get with the program, meaning he’s always violating the school’s very (very) strict dress code and code of behavior. The school’s principal brings in a ‘tough love’ team to try to help, but it doesn’t seem to work.

The Future Is Now -- for New Orleans, and for the completion of our film. Please consider donating today.

I won’t tell you how these stories come out, because of course we want you to watch the film. “Rebirth: New Orleans” has been a labor of love. It’s six years of videotaping — remember our series on Paul Vallas for PBS NewsHour? — now being condensed into one hour.

We’re in the home stretch now, and I hope you will help us get to the finish line. We’ve set up a Kickstarter project to raise $50,000 towards completion of the film; so far, we’re about 31 percent of the way there (the deadline to raise the money is December 30). I’d like to thank everyone who’s donated so far — and I will thank, personally, in letters being mailed soon — but for now, if you have the time during the holiday season, please consider contributing to helping us finish this important story.

Thank you — and if you have any questions about the film or its messages, please leave remarks in the comments. I’ll do my best to respond to each and every one.

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Honoring The Civil Rights Movement

Remember that popular song whose lyrics celebrate ignorance?

“Don’t know much about history, don’t know much geography…?”

In the end, what matters to the young man in the song is getting the girl.

But is it important is it that we, and those who follow us, know and respect the past? If history matters to you, then please read on. The words were penned by Jim Loewen, the historian and writer of a wonderful book, Lies My Teacher Told Me.

If you find yourself with money to give this holiday season, Tougaloo College is a worthy recipient.

(S)ome good folks are working on funding a “Mississippi Civil Rights Movement Chair” at Tougaloo College. As you may know, Tougaloo played an important and unique role in the Movement itself, and this offer might be of interest to you.

Tougaloo is a small predominantly black college located at the edge of Jackson, MS. During the civil rights movement, most black colleges took a “hands off” role, especially those under state control but many private schools as well. Not Tougaloo. Even at the risk of its survival, Tougaloo backed its students when they got arrested, provided space for groups to meet, invited speakers whom white Mississippi deemed controversial if not subversive, and retained and promoted faculty members who campaigned for an end to racial segregation. At the time, these were very courageous, dangerous, and radical actions.

Tougaloo admitted Joyce Ladner and her sister, for example, when Jackson State expelled them for participating in civil rights movement activities. Joyce went on to become an award-winning sociologist and the first female president of Howard University. In her words, “Perhaps no other college in the South played as central a role in the Movement as Tougaloo. Founded over a century ago, Tougaloo was always a leader in human rights. It provided a liberal education to black students not found anywhere else in the state. In 1961, it found itself at the forefront when the “Tougaloo Nine‟ students staged the first sit-in in Mississippi at the then all-white Jackson Public Library.

Tougaloo hosted civil rights activists from the Freedom Riders in 1961 to the Meredith March in 1966. Prominent leaders and ordinary citizens found safe haven at Tougaloo, which was called “an oasis of freedom” because it was the only place where integrated groups could gather. Prominent individuals such as Ralph Bunche, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokeley Carmichael, Fannie Lou Hamer, Julian Bond, Joan Baez, and Congressman John Lewis spoke at its historic Woodworth Chapel. Students, faculty, and staff were arrested for protesting racial discrimination at segregated white churches, the city auditorium, and were beaten at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter. We students routinely conducted voter registration drives across the state, a boycott against Jackson businesses, and some of us were deeply involved with SNCC, COFO, and the Freedom Democratic Party.”

Now, some private individuals with the support of the college have undertaken a campaign to endow a “Mississippi Civil Rights Movement Chair” at Tougaloo. In Ladner’s words, “It will be the College’s first endowed chair and the first such chair in Mississippi devoted to the Civil Rights Movement.” She goes on to say, “Tougaloo paid a heavy price for its involvement. It was dubbed “Cancer College” by whites, and the Mississippi State Legislature attempted to revoke its charter.” To this day, Tougaloo is not able to draw on the economic elite of Mississippi for the kind of support that many other colleges get from their areas and states. That’s one reason this campaign is so important.

An endowed chair will make a huge difference at Tougaloo, both by funding an important faculty position and also by improving campus morale. I am helping with this campaign because I feel that a dollar given to Tougaloo goes further, compared to any other college. …

Tougaloo … does more with less than any other college I know. Even with its limited financial resources, it still offers a fine education. In Ladner’s words, “It was at Tougaloo that I learned the importance of using knowledge to promote social change. Professors at Tougaloo encouraged us to explore languages, the decolonization on the African continent, participate in Crossroads Africa, join the Peace Corps, and apply for graduate and professional schools. Tougaloo students continue to enter graduate, medical, and law schools in disproportionate numbers compared to its peer institutions.”

This professorship will allow the college, again quoting Ladner, “to bring to the campus the kind of nationally known scholar the students deserve the right to have as part of their education. Such a professor will be a role model for faculty colleagues as well as students. This endowed chair will help retain an impressive faculty member or to recruit a nationally renowned professor who will provide distinction to the College. This chair will also enable the College to continue its proud tradition as a leader in the struggle for human rights, as a continuing legacy.”

Today, all that many young people in Mississippi know of the civil rights movement is “Martin Luther King Jr.” And he played only a minor role in Mississippi! Simply establishing a Mississippi Civil Rights Movement Chair will honor and remember a great cause, a magnificent campaign.”

I do not know Professor Loewen, just his book. I learned of the proposed Endowed Chair from Richard Rothstein, the brilliant education analyst and writer when he sent a mailing to those on his list. It struck a chord with me, because I spent two wonderful years teaching English at Virginia State College, another HBCU, in the late 1960’s and know how those institutions, their faculty, and their students battle the odds.

I went online to donate but found that process frustrating. I did speak with someone in the development office who told me that they ‘had a long way to go’ toward the goal of $2 million.

If you wish to donate, send checks made out to “Tougaloo College,” with the “for” blank saying “Civil Rights Chair,” to Tougaloo College, Office of Institutional Advancement, 500 W. County Line Rd., Tougaloo, MS, 39174.

Whether you are in a position to donate or not, please share this message with like-minded people who care about civil rights and justice for all.

Right about now most of us are looking for ways to reduce our tax obligations, and all gifts are fully tax-deductible. So you will feel good, while doing good for others and for your own bottom line.

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Happy Thanksgiving, Football Fans

For a lot of Americans, Thanksgiving is a time for reflection. But since Thanksgiving now means football games, maybe it’s worth reflecting on the damage that America’s new national pastime is doing. I don’t mean the concussions, dementia and early deaths the sport is causing, because that’s already well-documented. Instead, I have more subtle issues in mind, issues that reveal how deeply ‘big time football’ has invaded our way of thinking and is — from my perspective — corrupting higher education. I want to examine, in this space, the expansion of the Big Ten from 12 to 14 universities, last Sunday’s report about big time football on 60 Minutes, and the firing of Cal football coach Jeff Tedford.

The entire rationale for the expansion of the Big Ten (and every other athletic conference) is money. The Big Ten hasn’t had just 10 teams since 1993. This week it added Maryland (from the Atlantic Coast Conference) and Rutgers (from the Big East). Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney made no bones about his reasoning: ‘demographics,’ by which he means viewers, which means television money.

What I find most amazing is how nobody even blinks an eye, let alone expresses outrage, at WHO is making these announcements and decisions: it’s the sports guy! There’s no pretense whatsoever that these decisions, affecting entire universities, have anything at all to do with what is ostensibly the purpose of a university. It’s all about the money.

Perhaps that explains the absence of the university presidents; maybe they are embarrassed. Let’s hope so.

Here’s another example: On Sunday 60 Minutes devoted about one-third of its hour to big time football, focusing on Michigan and Alabama. While the piece did acknowledge that only about 20 of the 125 major college football programs actually operate in the black, it then proceeded to ignore the losers. Rutgers, we know from other reports, has been losing $25 million a year, not exactly chump change. What other university programs has it taken money from in order to balance the books? How many academic programs have been gutted at Rutgers, and at the other universities whose football programs lose money?

(By the way, that estimate of 20 programs in the black is higher than any I have seen. I suspect it is closer to 5, perhaps 10.)

We learned that the Alabama coach, Nick Saban, makes $5 million a year. Although one athlete acknowledged that playing football was ‘a full time job,’ Armen Keteyian — the correspondent for the piece — did not report on the paltry piece of Michigan’s and Alabama’s millions that go to the players, euphemistically referred to as ‘scholar-athletes.’ They get 1-year renewable athletic scholarships for four years, and that’s it. But, as my colleague John Tulenko reported, players in big-time programs are sometimes urged to take a minimal academic load, one that doesn’t lead to graduating in four years. Why? Because too much study time takes away from practicing and playing, which is their ‘full time job.’ When they use up their eligibility, players are often discarded Only then do these ‘student-athletes’ discover that they are perhaps two years worth of credits shy of graduating, because their coaches had not been overly concerned about the ‘student’ part of the equation.

Why do you think Jeff Tedford was ultimately fired at Cal?

Instead, the piece took a ‘gee whiz’ tone about how the athletic directors look to squeeze every dollar out of the program, selling jerseys and every other imaginable tchotchke. That was journalism that did not meet 60 Minutes’ high standards, in my view.

So what to make of Cal’s firing the most successful football coach in its long history? Was he fired because his team was losing too many games, or because graduation rates went down?

When Jeff Tedford was hired in 2001, Cal was awful (1-10) and the university had been found guilty of academic fraud for awarding academic credits to two players for courses they hadn’t taken. The football team’s graduation rate was below 50% — at a university whose overall graduation rate was around 90%.

Tedford put in place an ambitious academic plan: tutoring, attendance checks, individual meetings every week with every player to discuss academics, and more. In effect, Tedford turned his assistant coaches into de facto academic advisors. He even suspended at least one player for one game for cutting classes.

It worked. In 2009, 71% of Cal varsity players graduated within the 6-year window used by the NCAA to rate schools. That was a 48% increase over the rate when Tedford took the job. At the time, physics professor Robert Jacobsen, who also serves on Cal’s athletic admissions committee, told a reporter, “Tedford has changed the way the football players look at being student-athletes. One of the things he’s done is kept people in school. They don’t just leave when they’re done playing. They stay and get their degrees.”

67% of Cal’s African-American players (the majority of Cal’s roster) graduated–20 points higher than the major college average and two points higher than Cal’s overall graduation rate for black male students.

That was in 2009, just three years ago.

And the team started winning under Tedford: A Pac-12 championship, eight consecutive winning seasons, eight bowl games in 11 years, more wins than any coach in Cal history, and lots of national attention. His teams also managed to defeat Stanford, winning ‘The Axe’ for Cal.

But in 2010, Cal had its first losing season under Coach Tedford, going 5-7 and being blown out by Stanford. It rebounded to 7-5 in 2011 but lost ‘The Axe’ to Stanford again.

And this season was ugly. Cal lost to Stanford for the third straight time, fell to 3-9, and was blown out in its last two games by a combined score of 121-31.

Meanwhile, graduation rates fell. They now are back in the 50% range, about where they were when Tedford was hired.

Some say he got the axe for not winning ‘The Axe,’ but that’s not how the athletic director presented the story, although she did bring Stanford into the conversation. “As hard as it has been to watch our student-athletes struggle on the field, the team’s continuing decline in academic performance is of great concern,” Athletic Director Sandy Barbour wrote in announcing her decision. “As recent NCAA data show, Cal football is now last in the Pac-12 in terms of the team’s graduation rate: 48% compared to Stanford’s conference-leading 90%.”

So apparently Cal couldn’t stand losing to Stanford on the field and in the classroom.

Does anyone believe that Tedford would have been canned if the team had continued winning? If the Golden Bears had been beating Stanford and going to bowl games, he would have been called on the carpet about graduation rates, warned and urged to improve, but would he have been fired? I doubt it.

We have a point of comparison on the Berkeley campus, the men’s varsity basketball team. Over the past four years, that team has won 91 games and lost only 47. But the team sports a graduation success rate of only 33 percent. That is the lowest in the Pac-12 and sixth-lowest among all major basketball programs!

How was the basketball coach treated? Last year Athletic Director Barbour gave him a contract extension.

But even if Coach Tedford was fired because his players weren’t graduating, that one example doesn’t change the big picture. First you have to show me a pattern of winning football coaches being fired for low graduation rates. Until then, I maintain that big time college football is about winning and money, with the young men’s academic performance way down on the priority list.

And the shame of big time sports calling the shots at our major universities continues, unexamined and unquestioned. Not something to be thankful for, today or any other day.

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Schools Matter

Maybe it takes a crisis to remind us of what should be obvious — and certainly that was my own take-away from the PBS NewsHour report about the elementary school in Belmar, New Jersey, that my colleagues John Tulenko and David Wald produced. In that short and powerful segment, you saw (and felt) just how important schools are to their communities. You can watch the segment here:

Watching those teachers and the assistant principal delivering food and blankets to stricken families, and later welcoming them into the school (still without power) and feeding them was deeply moving. And if you were not touched when assistant principal Lisa Hannah related her conversation with one child — “A little girl, when we opened up the school for lunch today, she’s walking in the dark because the lights were not on. She said, ‘oh, I’m so happy to be back at school. I feel so safe” — I think you need a heart transplant.

The kids got books too because, as assistant principal Hannah told John and David, she’s always looking for ways to “sneak in a little bit of education.”

Here's a shot from inside the Belmar school cafeteria. You can watch the entire PBS piece on this page.

We live in a time of widespread criticism of teachers and administrators. Of course, all educators fall short some of the time — but so do doctors, nurses, lawyers, cops, and storekeepers (and even journalists!). Some teachers fail more often than that, and a few simply can’t cut it and don’t belong in classrooms, but the vast majority of the teachers I have observed in 38 years as a reporter are hardworking and dedicated. They want to succeed.

Teachers play multiple roles, and, as we saw in John and David’s piece, sometimes they volunteer for additional duty that goes beyond the call. We know that the typical teacher spends a lot of her (or his) own money on school stuff. And as John once reported from Green Bay, Wisconsin, schools and teachers also step up to care for homeless kids:

The trend now is use scores on standardized tests as the measure of a teacher’s value, and it’s popular to say that teachers are the key to student learning. “Outstanding teachers give kids the skills and knowledge they need to escape poverty,” and so on. To my ears, some of the people who say this are blowing their own brand of smoke, trying to put one over on us. As I see it, they are setting up most teachers (and public schools) to fail, because, while that recipe works for a few kids, poverty is a separate problem that those ‘supporters’ are happy to ignore. We have a growing income gap that ought to embarrass all Americans, and the people who put it on teachers to solve poverty ought to be ashamed of themselves. They are, at the end of the day, no friends of the teaching profession.

And you know who you are….

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Guest Post: Obama Won, Now What?

Editor’s Note: This post is not written by John; it’s written by Sam Chaltain, a DC-based writer and education activist. Check it out and see what you think. Feel free to comment as always. John’s writings should return next week in this space.

It’s official. The President has been re-elected.

Now what?

When it comes to public education, I suggest that we start by recognizing that Race to the Top was well intentioned — but ultimately out of step with a transformational vision of where American schooling needs to go.

Yes, we need better ways to improve teacher quality and capacity; no, we can’t do it by doubling down on what we currently measure. Yes, we need to find a way to ensure equity across all schools; no, we can’t do it by ignoring the ways in which schools are inequitably funded and resourced. And yes, we need to ensure that every young person is prepared to be successful in life by the time they graduate; and no, we can’t do it by continuing to assume that the goal of schooling is a discrete set of content knowledge just when the new Industrial Revolution is removing all the barriers from knowledge acquisition and accelerating the need for an essential set of life skills and habits.

The definition of leadership I offered in American Schools is the ability to balance often competing concepts: a distant vision (“One day . . .”) and an up-close focus on the immediate mission (“Every day . . .”). Whether it’s a school or a Fortune 500 company, a great organization will see, nurture and respond to both mission and vision in everything it does. Focus only on the latter, and you are solving only practical and immediate problems. Concentrate only on the aspirational goals, and you probably aren’t getting much done. That’s the tension. That’s the art.

In Obama’s first term, the mission and the vision were in synch with each other — but hopelessly out of synch with the reality of the world we live in. The Administration moved forward with education policies that addressed the obvious problems (poor achievement, high dropout rates, high teacher turnover), but — in my view — these were driven by an outmoded vision, how to succeed in an Industrial-era system that no longer serves our interests.

What about the vision and the mission for his second term? I’d suggest three:

1. Vision (“One day, every teacher in America will be a special education teacher.”); Mission (“Every day, every school and teacher preparation program will work to deepen its capacity to prepare teachers for the 21st century classroom and its emphasis on greater personalization and customization.”)
Every child is unique, so why not give every child an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)? We can do that without the current stigma attached to the IEP. Finland is instructive here. By investing deeply in the capacity of its teachers to diagnose and address the individual needs of children, Finland helped ensure that, in effect, every kid ended up in Special Ed. This removed the stigma, so much so that by the time they reach 16, almost every child in Finland will have received some sort of additional learning support. We could do the same. President Obama can’t require traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs from overhauling what they do, but he can certainly put public pressure on them to do so. And individual schools and districts can certainly shape their own professional development calendars with an eye toward that long-term vision, and a step toward the short-term goal of equipping teachers to become more fluent in the full range of student needs.

2. Vision (“One day, every child will be equipped to use his or her mind well and in the service of a more just and harmonious society.”); Mission (“Every day, every school and classroom will identify, and assess, the skills and habits it believes its graduates will need in order to use their minds well and in the service of a more just and harmonious society.”)
It’s time for teachers to stop defining themselves as passive victims of the policies of No Child Left Behind. Instead, let’s copy those teachers who have identified and piloted better, more balanced ways to assess student learning and growth. The New York Performance Standards Consortium has been doing this with great results. Individual schools like The Blue School in New York City or Mission Hill School in Boston have been doing it. And forward-thinking districts like Montgomery County in Maryland are exploring ways to do it more.

What are the rest of us waiting for?

President Obama was, of course, once a professor. What will he continue to do for teachers and education in his second term?

The future of learning is one in which content knowledge stops being seen as the end but is instead understood as the means by which we develop and master essential skills and habits — the real goal — that will help us navigate the challenges and opportunities of work, life and global citizenship. This future will require us to do more than merely give lip service to the skills we value; it will demand that we find ways to concretely track and support each child’s path to mastery, while maintaining our awareness and appreciation for the nonlinearity of learning and of human development. And the good news is the art and science of teaching and learning are not mutually exclusive. We can do this. In fact, many have already begun.

3. Vision (“One day, it will be universally agreed-upon that education in America is a public good, not a private commodity.”); Mission (“Every day, every policymaker and decision-maker will repeat this vow: whatever the most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children.”)
In America, we hold two definitions of freedom in creative tension: the first is the capitalistic definition, in which freedom means choice and consumption; the second is the democratic definition, in which freedom means conscience and compassion.

This will never change; our challenge will always be to manage the tension between the two in ways that serve both. But it’s foolish to unleash choice and consumption in American public education and expect that it will deepen our capacity to exercise conscience and compassion. We can either see education as a private commodity or as a public good. And we must choose.

That doesn’t mean we need to get rid of charter schools or choice; in fact, almost every great school I’ve visited has become great in part because it had greater freedom to chart its own path. But investments in school choice need to be proactively made in light of the original vision of charter schools. Let’s stop pretending that schools with smaller class sizes, better-trained teachers, and richer learning options are only appealing or viable for the families of the wealthy or the well located. Simply put, a great learning environment is challenging, relevant, engaging, supportive, and experiential — no matter who the kids are, and no matter where the community is located.

If I were in charge, those would be my marching orders.

What do you think?

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Given A Choice…

Given the choice, would you rather be productive or happy? I remember posing that question to six high school students from independent schools in and around New York City, 15 or so years ago. To a boy and girl, all said they would rather be happy. Being a New Englander to the core, I was surprised, even shocked. In the conversation that followed, I argued that the main road to happiness went through productivity. I don’t think I convinced any of the kids.

What’s your answer?

Here’s another forced choice: Which is of greater importance, the quality of the teacher or the work that students are expected to do? And while you ponder that, let me go back to the first question, because I now believe I know why those young people answered the way they did.

Frank McCourt had an idea about the true purposes of schooling from his days at Stuyvesant.

They didn’t choose ‘happiness’ because they were spoiled and overprivileged (although some were). Nor did they opt for ‘happiness’ because of their youth. Rather, I think they simply weren’t capable of understanding the question because their life experience — especially their schooling — hadn’t allowed them to experience the joys of being productive. I was asking them to choose between something they knew, happiness, and something that was foreign to them, and so of course they went with the known concept.

In the vast majority of schools, including theirs, students don’t experience the hard, often painful but ultimately satisfying work of creating real products; instead they most often give back to their teachers the answers that are expected. That’s what’s rewarded, and kids are smart enough to get with the program. They have been taught to follow the that road leads to a better college, a better job, and a comfortable existence.

When I interviewed Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes, back in 2000, the issue of expectations came up. Here’s part of what he said:

One parent in my 18 years at Stuyvesant (High School), one parent said to me, “Is my son enjoying school?” And I was up to say “I think he is.” Only one. Because the rest say, “Oh God, is he doing his work? I’m worrying about his PSATs and his SATs and his application to Yale and Cornell ” and the rest of it.
And that forced me to think about what the hell was I doing in this classroom? And then I had to say to myself “Well, it sounds banal, but you’re doing it for freedom. To go from fear to freedom, because we all suffer from some kind of fear. To have the kids think for themselves and not to be afraid to think for themselves. But they’re discouraged from thinking for themselves because they’re told all the time “the test, the test, the test.” We don’t, in any Socratic way, pursue wisdom. And I think that’s what it’s all about. The pursuit of wisdom.

How does one successfully make the journey from fear to freedom? Only by confronting fears, trying, falling short, and getting up and trying again. Being able to point to something of significance and say or think, “I did that” or “We did that” is liberating.

The one arena where students are expected to fail and learn and try again — and the only places where students regularly create and produce real work — are the so-called extra-curricular activities like sports, theatre, music, art and journalism. Whether it’s shooting free throws or trying to achieve perspective in a sketch, failure and second effort are assumed. When a kid flubs a line on stage or double faults, she’s expected to suck it up and try again. Coaches are there to help kids get better, and everyone understands the rewards of hard work. And it’s real work, with a product: a newspaper, a successful musical or a strong team effort on the court.

That’s why so many kids are willing to work as hard as they do in their extra-curricular activities. For some kids, that’s their main reason for coming to school!

Can schools figure out ways to incorporate the attributes and demands of extra-curricular activities into the regular curriculum? I hope so.

To my second question: What’s more important, the quality of the teacher or the work that students are expected to do? The conventional wisdom puts teacher quality at the top of the pyramid, of course, and everyone has heard about the research that seems to suggest that having outstanding teachers three years in a row is life-changing.

I don’t buy it . Teachers matter, but I think the work matters more. If we designed schools so that students were challenged to create knowledge, instead of regurgitating, we would see kids soar — even if they had average teachers. And today’s technologies allow young people to connect with just about anyone, anywhere. I have written about this in The Influence of Teachers and in a few blog posts over the past year and so won’t rehash those arguments here.

But I hope we will, after the election, begin a serious conversation about what we’d like our young people to grow up to be. Recall the wisdom of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do.” If we want our youth to be productive and happy adults, then we must create opportunities for them — now, while they are in school — to enjoy the joys of genuine productivity.

Your thoughts?

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The First Step

If you had the power to make one change in public education right now, what would it be? I’m not talking about some sort of magic wand fantasy, so suggestions like “End Poverty” are not appropriate. What I am looking for are changes that could be made.

When Michele Norris of NPR asked that question this week, it got me thinking, and I hope it will stimulate your thinking as well. I left the panel discussion, posted the question on Twitter, asked a few friends, gathered my own thoughts, and then put together this short piece.

The panel that Michele was moderating was titled ‘How All Children Succeed.’ It was organized by TurnAround and JPMorgan/Chase and featured Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed,” TurnAround CEO Pamela Cantor, Scott Palmer of Education Counsel, and KIPP co-founder Dave Levin.

Dave Levin had the simplest — and perhaps the most profound — suggestion. “Change the sign,” he said. He reminded us that virtually every school has signs trumpeting a familiar slogan, “All Children Can Learn.” That should come down, Dave said, and be replaced by signs reading “All Will Learn.” Not ‘can’ but ‘will,’ reflecting a new determination and responsibility. And ‘all’ means ‘all,’ he said, including the adults! Changing the sign was, for Dave, an important first step toward changing the way adults in schools approach their jobs.

My change is similar to Dave’s. I would have adults change their fundamental question. Stop asking “How intelligent are you?” and ask instead, “How are you intelligent?” Changing that mindset would (could) lead to vastly different schools. School could become places where children are encouraged to find and follow their passion. An end to ‘one size fits all’ education.

Paul Tough was one of the panelists on NPR's discussion that helped inspire this post.

Along that line another necessary change — the importance of connecting — emerged in the discussion. Kids growing up in low income environments face stresses that well-off children can’t begin to imagine, and we know that children who are severely stressed simply cannot focus on learning. We also know that all children need the love and support of some adults. “It doesn’t have to be the parent,” Pam Cantor said, “But it has to come from someone.” I was reminded of E.M. Forster’s cry from the heart, “Only Connect.”

For her ‘one change right now,’ Pam Cantor suggested that all teachers reach out to parents with positive comments. That resonated with me because I saw my daughter Elise doing it a dozen or more years ago when she was teaching in a middle school in Harlem. Nearly all of her kids were Hispanic, and she made a point of calling their parents early in the year and praising their children — in fluent Spanish — for something they had done in class. With a few kids, she admitted, it was a stretch to find something worth cheering about, but she felt that it was absolutely critical that the parents’ first contact with their child’s teacher be a positive one. That’s also what Pam stressed. She pointed out that school was rarely a positive experience, suggesting that schools failed them, not the other way around. “We need to break that pattern, teacher by teacher.”

Paul Tough encouraged home visits by teachers when kids are older but recommended earlier connections (I noticed that he didn’t say ‘interventions’) of the type done by Ounce of Prevention in Chicago. The earlier the better, he seemed to be saying, a view echoed by Scott Palmer. That’s not ‘government meddling’ but help that most families are hungry for. Dave Levin echoed that: “We can’t let a vocal minority scare us away from helping the majority, when we know they want help.”

One Twitter follower focused on teaching: “Ease 1st year teachers into the classroom with reduced teaching load combined with support, prof development, peer observations.”

Another didn’t need anywhere near her 140 characters: “End High Stakes Testing!” was all she wrote. Aristotle, who wrote “We are what we repeatedly do,” might well agree.

Paul Tough spoke thoughtfully about the challenge of helping children learn to manage adversity and failure. Too often, he said, well-off parents want to keep their kids from ever falling down, even though it is only by falling down that one learns to get up and try again. Conversely, poor kids have so much adversity in their lives that what they need is more protection, more encouragement. (You ought to read his book, if you haven’t done so).

The conversation naturally expanded to cover other ways schools could be changed so that all children can succeed. On one significant point there was complete agreement: this country needs to make a long-term commitment to children, meaning a serious effort to help parents of infants and toddlers. “We need to make a 20-year commitment,” Dave Levin said.

One prominent American couple actually has the power to make one change that would reshape public education. I am referring to Edy and Eli Broad. Earlier this week I attended the annual Broad Prize festivities honoring the nation’s most outstanding urban school system. After being a runner-up for four years, Miami-Dade finally won, based on its remarkable accomplishments in raising achievement scores among Latino and Black students. That’s certainly notable, of course. But suppose that the Mr. and Mrs. Broad decided to emphasize — big time — two additional criteria: the vibrancy of the arts programs and the effectiveness of the social/emotional programs? Suppose school systems, eager to win the national acclaim and the $1,000,000 in college scholarship money, knew that they had to get serious about attending to the needs of the whole child if they wanted the judges to view them as contenders for the Broad Prize? Suppose systems knew that, if they weren’t providing opportunities in the arts, the judges would turn their backs?

You know darn well what would happen: The arts would come back to life. Counseling, mentoring and supporting would be center-stage, where they belong. And schools would be happier places for young people.

So here’s the burning question: If you could make one change right now, what would it be? Perhaps if enough of us put forth ideas, we may end up with a workable list of 10 or 20 changes that could be made now. Then we’d be on to something.

I look forward to your responses.

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Obama, Romney and Education

Are there great differences between the presidential candidates on education? What would a Romney presidency mean? A second Obama term?

Unfortunately (from my point of view), education has not been front-and-center in the campaign. Perhaps the low point came in the second debate when both men endorsed education as an antidote to the proliferation of assault weapons. Talk about bizarre!

Neither man was asked about No Child Left Behind, easily the most intrusive federal education effort in our history. They weren’t asked about the seemingly inexorable move toward national education standards; the growing body of evidence about the importance of early education; or the coming teacher shortage, to mention just a few of the pressing issues Americans might have been interested in hearing about.

In the second debate, the President recited how he’d changed the rules on student loans, taking bankers out of the equation and thus saving borrowers millions of dollars. The number of students receiving Pell Grants has grown, from about 7 million to 11 million, another point in his favor. Governor Romney boasted that Massachusetts ranked No. 1 in the nation on his watch. (I wrote a little about that in May.)

The night before the second debate, Columbia’s Teachers College hosted a debate between the candidates’ education advisors. There, a genuine difference emerged: one candidate would sharply restrict the federal role to data-gathering and promoting variety and choice for parents, while the other candidate apparently believes that the federal government should do what’s necessary, with no apparent limit to federal authority.

Both positions are a little scary, frankly.

Speaking for President Obama was Jon Schnur, a longtime political operative working in the education sphere. Governor Romney was represented by Phil Handy, co-chair of the candidate’s higher education advisory committee who has held top education positions in Florida and the U. S. Department of Education’s research wing.

Which one would be better for our students and our schools between now and 2016?

Mr. Schnur praised the Administration’s “Race to the Top” campaign for its impact on school reform. He touted the expansion of the “RttT” concept to include school districts and providers of early childhood education.

He noted that the Common Core was not federal but was instead a voluntary partnership among states. Washington was ‘seeding’ the effort, which he said was the proper federal role. And he praised the Administration for its pragmatic response to gridlock and the failure to amend the widely-discredited No Child Left Behind Act. The Administration, he reminded us, has granted waivers to 35 states, with more in the offing. That was genuine leadership, he suggested.

In response, Mr. Handy pointed out that Washington was still making the rules, because only states that jumped through Washington’s hoops got waivers. That, he said, was the issue: who knows best?

We learned from Mr. Handy that Governor Romney favors a return to an amended No Child Left Behind, largely on the philosophical grounds that states know better. He also would put bankers back into the student loan equation, again for a philosophical reason: competition produces better results.

Mr. Handy did say that a Romney administration would honor the long-standing commitment to underprivileged children and those with special needs, but he rejected out of hand the Obama Administration’s efforts to circumvent No Child Left Behind by issuing waivers. He warned that the ‘waived’ states would begin playing fast and loose with the rules, citing announcements from several states (including his own state of Florida) that they were establishing separate standards for different groups of students (IE, one passing grade for whites, another for blacks).

“We will nullify those (waivers) on the first day in office,” he told me after the debate.

In sum, the choice seems clear. A second Obama term would continue the expansion of the federal role in education, but Romney Administration would back off.

While I believe the former, I am skeptical of the latter. I expect that the winner, whoever it is, will continue to expand the federal role in public education. After all, George W. Bush arrived in Washington as a “states’ rights” guy, and look what he did (albeit with Democratic help). Something in the air down there must make men and women think that they know best. Or maybe that’s what happens to people when they suddenly have power.

The most heartening development in public education that I have seen in 38 years on the job has been what’s happened in New Orleans since Katrina and the flooding. A key to that success has been the willingness to cede power to others, to acknowledge that what they’ve been doing hasn’t worked.

We’re finishing our film, which we are calling “Rebirth: New Orleans” now. I believe you will want to watch it, and I certainly hope that our next President, whoever it may be, will pay attention.

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