The Pioneer Spirit

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(Full disclosure: The longer I work as an education reporter, the more skeptical and more bandwagon-adverse I am. And I am in my 38th year on the beat….so read on at your peril.)

A clever ad for Xerox a few years ago showed an executive at his desk listening to a succession of pitches from unseen salesmen, all of whom ended their pitch by saying “It’s almost as good as a Xerox.” As the last salesman began his windup, the (by now exasperated) executive interrupted, “I know, I know, ‘it’s almost as good as a Xerox,’” to which the salesman responded, “No, sir, it IS a Xerox.”

That old ad popped into my head the other day as I was listening to folks extolling the virtues of ‘blended learning’ and ‘the Common Core,’ two hot-button issues in education these days. Everybody in education seems to be on board for one or the other, often both, but I can’t help likening them to those earnest, well-meaning men pushing a product that is ‘almost as good as…..’

Recently I visited a school that was supposedly practicing ‘blended learning,’ but what I mostly saw was 6th graders tethered to their computers. They weren’t being lectured to by a teacher in the front of the room; instead they were reacting to the prompts of whoever designed the software they were using. There was nothing ‘self-directed’ about what they were doing, as far as I could tell. Instead, their ‘teacher’ was some team of software engineers somewhere, and the kids were — paradoxically — passively reacting. It may have looked like active learning, but there was nothing remotely creative about it.

Later the principal and chief academic officer explained how the school was using ‘blended learning’ as its path to achieving ‘the Common Core’ standards.

Is Common Core the answer? Well, that all depends on asking the right questions.

Let me unpack that. “Blended learning” is defined as schooling that is both brick and click, some combination of school-based education and online education, with the implication that the two are interrelated in significant ways so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Note, however, that there is absolutely nothing in that definition that is evaluative in any way, and so ‘blended learning’ could be what I saw that day: half the day on the computer, half the day in teacher-directed activity.

For an analogy, think about the term ‘restaurant.’ What does that tell you about the food served there? Nothing. Even ‘French restaurant’ says nothing about the quality of the (French) food on the menu.

So let’s not get all gooey-eyed when educators tell you they are practicing blended learning in their schools. Before you jump on that bandwagon, ask how the brick and clicks are integrated. Ask how much time students are spending on computers. Ask what they do on those computers. Ask, ask, ask….and ask some more.

Now to the “Common Core’ bandwagon. The highly-touted ‘Common Core’ standards spell out, often in great detail, what children are expected to be able to do at various points in their schooling. These standards — adopted by nearly every state — are very specific and purportedly ‘higher’ than what now exists. We can agree that standards are good, and that higher standards better than low ones, but let’s take a second look.

What I fear is that these specific standards, intended to be the floor, will somehow become the ceiling. These benchmarks have the potential to calcify our already rigid, age-segregated system, at a time when flexibility is essential. In his brilliant book, The One World Schoolhouse, Sal Khan writes, “At a time when unprecedented change demands unprecedented flexibility, conventional education continues to be brittle.” He adds that the educational establishment seems “oddly blind (or tragically resistant) to readily available technology-based solutions.”

As I have argued elsewhere, age segregation has harmful effects on children, although it is of course convenient for the adults. The now-conventional wisdom of the Common Core will, I fear, harden the attitudes and practices of our ‘brittle’ system and keep kids segregated by age.

Too much of education is about consumption and regurgitation when it ought to be about production. Kids need to be encouraged to ask more and more questions. They need to learn how to sort through the flood of information that engulfs them, to separate wheat from chaff. If students can meet Common Core standards by spitting back answers, we’re making matters worse, not better.

On the flip side: Well-designed blended learning invites and allows kids to soar. But when a 6th grader soars past 6th, 7th and 8th grade math Common Core standards, she must be celebrated, not held back, ostracized or shamed in any way.

Despite the crowded bandwagon for blended learning and the Common Core, these men and women are often called ‘pioneers.’ But are they really pioneers? According to dictionary definitions, pioneers are “men and women who venture into unknown territory to settle, or who open up new areas of thought, research or development.”

It seems to me that rather than being true pioneers, many of these educators are simply looking for faster and more efficient ways to get to the same old destination.

Folks who care ought to be knee-deep in the struggle over measurements. We need to measure what matters, which to me means opposing those support our current ‘One Size Fits All’ approach to schooling, even when they have wrapped themselves in the glowing robes of blended learning and the Common Core.


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Thanking Teachers

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The bumper sticker “If you can read this, thank a teacher” is a clever way of reminding us that teachers deserve our thanks. I agree and wish I had taken the time to thank Mr. Sullivan, my high school English teacher many years ago. He taught me that I had some ability and convinced me — after a long struggle — that it would be disgraceful, even sinful, to waste whatever talent I possessed.

I happened to mention my regret to one of my colleagues, producer Cat (neé Cathlin) McGrath, and a day or two later she shared a story with me. She had gone home that night determined to thank her special teacher, Mr. Roberts, who taught her in fourth grade. Through an internet search she learned that he is now a school superintendent in a Chicago suburb and that he had earned three advanced degrees, including his doctorate from Teachers College in New York City. Cat wrote to tell him that she still had a book he gave her, Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, The Places You’ll Go,” signed with a lovely inscription. In her e-mail thank you note she told Mr. Roberts that she often read it to her young daughter.

It's so easy to reach out and say thanks to one of your favorite teachers. If you do, tweet us @lmtv and tell us how it went.

He responded immediately, as follows:

Dear Cathlin,

I cannot begin to tell you how much your note means to me! Arlene (my wife) and I have thought of you often over the years. We exchanged Christmas Cards with your parents for a while and always asked about your exploits! It is difficult to think of how many years have passed since that 4th grade experience; but I remember you, and a good number of your classmates, as though it was yesterday! What a kind, caring, and intelligent group! Oh! don’t let me forget to say an energetic group as well – your class was a handful; but in the nicest way.

I am so happy to hear you have a daughter; and I can just picture you reading to her! We have a 7-year-old granddaughter and she loves to have her Grammy read to her. Again, thank you so much – you made my day! Please keep in touch and pass our best wishes along to your parents.

Al Roberts

So go ahead, dear readers, make your most important teacher’s day by reaching out to say thanks….

Cat’s story got me energized, and so I sent a note around (via Twitter) about thanking teachers. Anthony Cody, a Board-certified teacher I have gotten to know over the years, responded with his own story, one that demonstrates the impact that teachers have on our lives, not necessarily because they taught us math or science or English, but because they connected with us when we needed it most.

Here’s Anthony’s story:

About eight years ago I saw a news story on TV about a teacher doing amazing things with Shakespeare. The name of the teacher ran by, and I thought perhaps it was Harvey Sadoff, my 5th grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary in Berkeley, from the year 1968. I hunted for his name online, and found I had been mistaken about the person on the news — it was not my teacher. But I did find a Dr. Harvey Sadoff working as a principal at an elementary school in North Carolina. I emailed him a note, and it was my old teacher.
Once I knew it was him, I sent him a longer note with some of my memories and things I appreciated. As as teacher, he was funny and self-effacing, and he allowed the class to adopt a stray dog that wandered onto the playground one day. Back then it seemed like a big deal to know the teacher’s first name, and “Harvey” seemed just right when we discussed what to name the dog. We were not sure how Mr. Sadoff would take it when we told him the dog’s new name, but he just smiled. We took turns taking it home on the weekend, hoping the principal would not find out and banish it. After a month or so, we were found out, and the dog had to go.
I corresponded a bit with Mr. Sadoff, sharing how I had followed his lead and become a teacher myself. Then he sent a note that said that had been his last day as principal. He had cancer and was retiring mid-year because the treatment was making him weak. A few months later I got a note from his wife saying he had passed away.
I cannot remember much about what Mr. Sadoff taught me in terms of reading or math. But I remember his kindness and acceptance, and that was what I needed when I was nine years old. And that was what I tried to bring to my classroom every day.

It’s your turn, folks. Please make the effort. And, if you are so inclined, please share what develops.


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Education Nation: Year Three

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For those in the NY area: John will be speaking live with Merryl Tisch, the Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, on October 24th at the JCC in Manhattan (Upper West Side). You can purchase tickets here.


NBC News put on its third iteration of Education Nation earlier this week and did an even better job this year. I suppose that could be considered faint praise, because year one was pretty bad and year two was only fair-to-middling. I’d give the 2012 version a B or maybe a B- for “performance,” but NBC News deserves an A for effort, because no one else is even attempting to create a national dialogue about what has to be recognized as our country’s greatest challenge.

For those who weren’t there or following events online, on NBC, MSNBC or CNBC, here’s some basic information:

Three days of activities, including a couple of “Town Hall” meetings, dinner with General Colin Powell, interviews with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Governor Romney, the President on video, three former Secretaries of Education and the current Secretary; the premiere of “Won’t Back Down,” and dozens of short and generally tightly focused panel discussions.

A superb venue: the elegant New York Public Library.

Hundreds of eager and capable folks there to make sure we got to the right places.

In short, Education Nation is now a “must attend” event for wonks like me, and a lot of us were there.

I imagine many more were watching on the various NBC networks, and we ought to give them credit for such blanket coverage, almost always live. It was, as veteran newsman Tom Brokaw said, “NBC’s version of a moonshot.”

(And, as a sad commentary, this might turn out to be the most air time the two candidates spend talking about education, so we should thank NBC News for that as well.)

Biggest disappointment: No session on cheating. That’s a glaring omission, because there’s a lot of it these days — by students, teachers and administrators. We explored this in a piece for PBS last spring:

I didn’t get to everything because of my own production demands, but I was on hand for about three-fifths of the program. From what others told me, I was in the audience for the best and the worst of the program.

Easily the best: “True Grit,” subtitled ‘Can You Teach Character?” Brian Williams did a superb job of orchestrating a lively and informative conversation with Carol Dweck of Stanford, Angela Duckworth of Penn, the writer Paul Tough and columnist David Brooks. That’s well worth your time (click the link above).

Just Awful: “The New Standard: The Common Core in the Classroom.” It was jargony, often incomprehensible and sometimes just plain stupid. One of the cheerleaders on the panel told us that, with the Common Core, a teacher will now be able to devote attention to a child who is falling behind. Hey, d’oh, that’s what all good teachers have always done.

But that session, bad as it was, brought into view a flaw in Education Nation’s design: it is too much cheerleading, not enough inquiry. I think a lot of the audience wanted the moderator, Rehema Ellis, to ask tough questions about the Common Core, but the only tough question came from an audience member who identified himself as a parent and a school board member. He told of hearing a presentation about the Common Core by New York Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky that, he said, was ‘incomprehensible.’ However, no one on the panel proceeded to make it comprehensible. Instead, we heard that the Common Core would make schools better, more rigorous, blah blah blah.

The focus of this year’s Education Nation was on “Solutions,” and there was a lot of talk about our international rankings and our high dropout rate, the implication being that those were the “Problems” that were being addressed. But rankings and dropouts are “Symptoms,” not problems, just as a high fever is symptomatic. What is causing so many students to drop out without graduating? Why are other nations doing better than our kids on international tests?

In some way it’s kind of silly for NBC News to devote three days to “Solutions” without first making more of an effort to identify the underlying problems.

For some, of course, the “Problem” was teacher unions. That view was pushed hardest on Sunday, when Education Nation celebrated the new parent-trigger film “Won’t Back Down” and hosted a discussion about the role of Parents that featured just one (largely silent) parent and two panelists, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, who are far better known for their hostility to unions than for parenting.

The elephant in the room at Education Nation (and in the public education sphere) is poverty and the ability of schools to ameliorate its effects. Everyone acknowledged that we are living in a time of unprecedented childhood poverty, but no one — not one person — was angry or embarrassed about it. In fact, everyone seemed to accept poverty as an unchangeable reality (even though it’s changing — by getting worse).

Many speakers touted “Great Schools” and “Great Teachers” as the solution to poverty, which is laughable on its face. Maybe they are one way out for some children, but the solution? Spare me.

Year 4 is coming next fall. What will that hold?

For me, a revealing moment came during Governor Romney’s presentation. He spoke with justifiable pride about Massachusetts’ educational accomplishments during his tenure there. He described a meeting with teachers that was being filmed. He asked teachers if they could tell which children were likely to succeed and, if so, how. He said the teachers told him they couldn’t speak freely with the camera rolling, so he banished the film crew. Then, he said, the teachers told him that they could easily identify the likely dropouts just by noting which parents came to “Back to School” night. If parents showed up, those kids were likely to do well. If no parents bothered to attend, then those kids were probably going to be failing students.

That was tantamount to saying that what they did as teachers didn’t make a difference, and I found the Governor’s lack of reaction striking. If some teachers said that to me and I were in a leadership position, I would have gotten upset. I would have told them that we have come to a fork in the road here. “We have to figure out how to change your attitude, or you have to find work elsewhere, because we cannot have teachers who accept that reality. We need teachers who will redouble their efforts to change that kid’s trajectory, and if there are things you need from me to enable you to make that difference, tell me now.”

Think about it: What those teachers were telling Governor Romney was that, as far as they were concerned, schools and teaching don’t make a difference!

But perhaps they don’t. In fact, the unspoken subtext and unexamined contradiction throughout all the talk at Education Nation and elsewhere is the shameful truth of the close correlation between a child’s zip code/parental wealth AND his or her life outcomes. What that reveals is that, for most kids, education apparently does NOT make a significant difference. Schools do NOT change most lives significantly. Why don’t we talk about that? Is that too depressing?

If we just created more “Great Schools” and found more “Great Teachers,” would that actually solve the problems of poverty? Shouldn’t that question be on the table?

If it is true that most schools fail to change lives, why is that so? Is it because too many teachers think the way those teachers Governor Romney described? Or could it be because we are so obsessed with metrics that we haven’t taken the time to figure out what schools are supposed to be doing? (I think it’s the latter.)

Some politicians, usually Republicans, want school funding to be portable so that, for example, a poor kid in Stamford, CT, could travel on a bus for 20 minutes to the wealthy town of Darien, where the schools are strong, or take their dollars to private or parochial schools. Their belief is that the competition would force the lousy inner-city Stamford schools to improve.

This is all talk because it glosses over competing interests. “The nation” may — in the abstract — want poor kids to have the chance to go to great schools, but parents in Darien and other wealthy towns don’t want the Stamford kids in their schools. They believe that they have earned the right to better schools by working hard and moving up the ladder.

Education Nation is a great platform for digging into these complexities. But that would require a willingness to tolerate uncertainty, ambiguity and contradictions.

Brian Williams ended this year’s Education Nation by announcing that there would be a fourth one a year from now. I would love it if next year’s event were not so rigidly structured. Perhaps the organizers could include two “Wild Card” or “TBA” sessions and wait until the last minute to decide what topics would be explored. Welcome the challenge of unanswered questions and the likelihood of leaving us with even more questions.

NBC News and Education Nation are providing a real service to us all. I am writing and thinking about these complex issues because of the sparks provided by Education Nation, and I am sure that I am not alone. Thank you, NBC News.

PS: Speaking of thank you notes, I urge you to think back and remember the teacher who changed your life—and sit down right now and write her or him a thank you note.


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Five Truths

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On Tuesday I received the highest honor of my professional life, the McGraw Prize in Education. The list of those who have been honored includes men and women I have reported on and admire: Ted Sizer, Jim Comer, Governor Richard Riley, Governor Jim Hunt and many more.

The black tie gala was held at the New York Public Library, and 14 members of my immediate family were on hand to help celebrate. There was a short video profile to open:

After the video, I spoke briefly. My topic was “Five Things I Know to be True about Education” (after 38 years of reporting).

Below is what I said Tuesday night. I apologize for the caps, as I posted from the draft on my computer. I’m told that McGraw-Hill Companies will have video of all the honorees speaking posted online soon; when that happens, we’ll also embed the speech here.

HOW APPROPRIATE THAT WE ARE CELEBRATING TONIGHT IN ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREAT PUBLIC LIBRARIES, BECAUSE I GREW UP IN A LIBRARY FAMILY, IN A SMALL TOWN IN CONNECTICUT. THE PUBLIC LIBRARY WAS PART OF OUR LIVES, AS MY SIBLINGS, MARTY, HATTIE, AND ROB CAN ATTEST. WE MADE LOTS OF VISITS AS KIDS. OUR MOM DEVOURED BOOKS. NO SURPRISE THAT MY SISTER MARTY BECAME A LIBRARIAN IN THAT SAME SMALL TOWN IN CONNECTICUT.

MORE THAN ONCE, MARTY TOLD ME ABOUT A STORY THAT I SHOULD DO FOR NPR OR, LATER, THE NEWSHOUR. THERE WAS THIS ONE MAN, SHE SAID, WHO REGULARLY VISITED HER LIBRARY, A MAN WHO WAS GALLANT, GRACIOUS, GENEROUS AND UNFAILINGLY POLITE. HE WAS, SHE SAID, HER FAVORITE PATRON.

“WHY IS THAT A STORY,” I ASKED HER? “WHAT’S SO NEWSWORTHY ABOUT THAT?”

The 2012 honorees pose together.

WELL, SHE SAID, THIS MAN IS IN A POSITION TO HAVE ANY BOOK HE WANTED BROUGHT TO HIM. HE DIDN’T HAVE TO GO TO A PUBLIC LIBRARY AND TAKE OUT BOOKS, BECAUSE HE HAD HIS OWN PUBLISHING COMPANY, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD. AND YET HE COMES TO THE LIBRARY ALL THE TIME.

I’M SURE YOU’VE FIGURED OUT BY NOW THAT I’M TALKING ABOUT THE PUBLIC LIBRARY IN DARIEN, CONNECTICUT, AND THAT SPECIAL PATRON WAS, OF COURSE, HAROLD W. MCGRAW, JR, THE MAN WHOSE LIFE WE HONOR TONIGHT.

AND I GUESS THE APPLE DOESN’T FALL FAR FROM THE TREE, BECAUSE THE MCGRAW FAMILY HAS CONTINUED HIS TRADITION OF GENEROSITY.

MARTY, YOU WERE RIGHT. I SHOULD HAVE DONE THAT STORY.

CHANGING GEARS: BY RECOGNIZING THE WORK OF THIS PARTICULAR EDUCATION REPORTER, YOU ARE ALSO HONORING EDUCATION REPORTERS AND EDUCATION REPORTING. ACKNOWLEDGING ITS IMPORTANCE IN THE COMPLEX WORLD OF EDUCATION. ON BEHALF OF THE 300 OR SO PRACTICING EDUCATION REPORTERS, THANK YOU.

YOU MAY NOT KNOW IT, BUT YOU ARE ALSO HONORING DOZENS AND DOZENS OF MY COLLEAGUES AT LEARNING MATTERS AND THE NEWSHOUR. TELEVISION IS A TEAM SPORT, BUT — BECAUSE I AM THE ONE PEOPLE SEE ON THE BROADCAST — I RECEIVE FAR TOO MUCH CREDIT. I HAVE WORKED CLOSELY WITH SOME AMAZINGLY TALENTED MEN AND WOMEN OVER THE PAST 38 YEARS. THEY’VE MADE ME LOOK GOOD, BETTER THAN I DESERVE, AND THEY HAVE ALSO KEPT ME FROM MORE THAN ONE DISASTER. THERE ARE TOO MANY TO THANK BY NAME HERE TONIGHT, BUT I WOULD BE REMISS IF I DID NOT MENTION JIM LEHRER, ROBIN MACNEIL, NEWSHOUR EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS LINDA WINSLOW AND LES CRYSTAL, AND MY LONGTIME COLLEAGUES JOHN TULENKO AND MICHAEL JOSELOFF.

TWO FOUNDATIONS HAVE BEEN WONDERFULLY CONSISTENT AND GENEROUS SUPPORTERS OF LEARNING MATTERS OVER THE YEARS, AND BOTH ARE REPRESENTED HERE TONIGHT. BARBARA CHOW IS THE HEAD OF EDUCATION FOR THE HEWLETT FOUNDATION, AND WILL MILLER IS PRESIDENT OF THE WALLACE FOUNDATION. MY SINCERE THANKS TO THEM BOTH.

MY WIFE, JOAN LONERGAN, HAS BEEN A ROCK AND A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION. THANK YOU, JOAN.

I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT, AFTER 38 YEARS OF REPORTING, I KNOW TO BE TRUE. QUICKLY, HERE ARE FIVE TRUTHS. (THERE ARE MORE, OF COURSE, BUT FOR THAT YOU WILL HAVE TO WAIT FOR MY BOOK, IF I EVER FINISH IT.)

TRUTH #1. “IT TAKES A VILLAGE….” MOST SCHOOL PEOPLE TRY TO DO IT ALL, BUT THEY CANNOT. TEACHERS SEEM TO BE BORN WITH A “PUT ME IN, COACH” ATTITUDE, BUT I THINK IT’S TIME FOR OTHER AGENCIES IN SOCIETY TO PULL THEIR WEIGHT. “IT TAKES A VILLAGE….”

TRUTH #2. “TRUST BUT VERIFY:” TIME WAS, WE TRUSTED TEACHERS. THAT WAS WHEN OPPORTUNITIES FOR WOMEN WERE VERY LIMITED, AND SO THE TEACHING FORCE INCLUDED HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF IMMENSELY TALENTED WOMEN. WE TRUSTED THEM, OCCASIONALLY MORE THAN WE SHOULD HAVE.

THE WORLD HAS CHANGED. TODAY, AND LUCKILY FOR THEM AND US, MANY OF THOSE WOMEN ARE DOCTORS, LAWYERS, BUSINESS LEADERS, POLITICIANS AND MORE. SOME ARE STILL IN THE CLASSROOM, OF COURSE, BUT IT’S DEMONSTRABLY TRUE THAT THE ENTERING QUALIFICATIONS OF TEACHERS ARE NOT AS IMPRESSIVE.

HOWEVER, OUR SOCIETY HAS SWUNG CRAZILY TO A POINT WHERE WE DON’T TRUST TEACHERS AT ALL. NOW IT’S ALL ABOUT VERIFICATION.

RONALD REAGAN WASN’T TALKING ABOUT EDUCATION WHEN HE SAID, ‘TRUST BUT VERIFY.’ HE WAS TALKING ABOUT THE SOVIET UNION. BUT HIS WISDOM APPLIES TO EDUCATION. WE NEED TO FIND BALANCE. WE NEED TO DEVELOP TRUST, FAITH IN THE MEN AND WOMEN WHO TEACH OUR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN. AND WE NEED TO WORK WITH THEM TO DEVELOP SENSIBLE AND RELIABLE MEASURES OF EFFECTIVENESS. ‘TRUST BUT VERIFY.’

TRUTH #3. THE QUESTION THAT I LISTEN FOR WHEN TALKING WITH EDUCATORS (THE QUESTION I WANT TO HEAR THEM ASK) IS, “HOW ARE YOU INTELLIGENT?” TOO OFTEN, HOWEVER, I HEAR THE PEOPLE IN CHARGE ASKING, IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, “HOW INTELLIGENT ARE YOU?” THOSE WHO ASK “HOW ARE YOU INTELLIGENT?” ARE PROCEEDING FROM A HEALTH MODEL, BUILDING ON STRENGTHS. “HOW ARE YOU INTELLIGENT?”

TRUTH #4: “MEASURE WHAT COUNTS,” INSTEAD OF BEING SATISFIED WITH SIMPLY COUNTING WHAT’S EASY TO MEASURE. THE MCGRAW PRIZE AND ALL THAT IT STANDS FOR IS A PLATFORM AND AN OPPORTUNITY FOR US, AS A PEOPLE, TO TALK ABOUT WHAT MATTERS. WHAT DO WE WANT OUR CHILDREN TO BE, AND TO BE ABLE TO DO? THE BUSINESS OF SCHOOLS AND TEACHERS IS NOT LIMITED TO TEACHING READING AND WRITING AND ‘RITHMETIC. THE SCHOOL’S PRIMARY FUNCTION IS TO HELP GROW ADULTS. “MEASURE WHAT COUNTS.”

FINALLY, TRUTH #5. “WE ARE WHAT WE REPEATEDLY DO.” THAT IS THE WISDOM OF ARISTOTLE, WHO ADDED: “EXCELLENCE, THEN, IS NOT AN ACT BUT A HABIT.”

LET ME PUT THAT IN THE VERNACULAR OF YOUTH. “WE ARE, YOU KNOW, LIKE WHAT WE, LIKE, REPEATEDLY DO. SO, YOU KNOW, EXCELLENCE IS NOT LIKE AN ACT, BUT, LIKE, A HABIT. YOU KNOW?”

I PUT ARISTOTLE IN THE VERNACULAR NOT TO MOCK YOUNG PEOPLE, EVEN THOUGH I HAVE, LIKE A LOT OF YOU, COMPLAINED ABOUT HOW CASUALLY, EVEN INARTICULATELY THEY SPEAK. MANY DON’T WRITE WELL, MANY DON’T SEEM TO READ AT ALL. AND A LOT OF US HAVE HAD THAT AWFUL ENCOUNTER WITH A KID AT A CHECKOUT COUNTER WHO CANNOT MAKE CHANGE.

BUT, REMEMBER THIS: ARISTOTLE’S WISDOM — WE ARE WHAT WE REPEATEDLY DO — APPLIES TO OUR CHILDREN. SO LET’S ASK THE CENTRAL QUESTION: WHAT DO THEY REPEATEDLY DO IN OUR SCHOOLS?

YOU MAY WANT TO GO LOOK FOR YOURSELVES, BUT I CAN TELL YOU WHAT YOU’LL SEE. YOU WILL SEE THREE ACTIVITIES, OVER AND OVER AND OVER:

1. INANE REGURGITATION OF ANSWERS. TOO MANY OF OUR SCHOOLS ARE ‘ANSWER FACTORIES,’ BUT THIS FAST CHANGING WORLD NEEDS CITIZENS WHO CAN FORMULATE QUESTIONS, CAN SIFT THROUGH THE FLOOD OF INFORMATION THAT ENGULFS THEM, 24/7. FORMULATE QUESTIONS THAT HELP THEM DISTINGUISH BETWEEN WHEAT AND CHAFF.

2. TEST PREPARATION.
A. PRACTICING FILLING IN BUBBLES,
B. STRATEGIES FOR ELIMINATING OBVIOUSLY WRONG ANSWERS AS A PRELUDE TO GUESSING THE BEST FROM THOSE THAT REMAIN.
C. WRITING THREE-SENTENCE ANSWERS TO A ‘PROMPT’ AND MAKING SURE THAT THEY REPEAT THE PROMPT IN THEIR THREE-SENTENCE ANSWER. DOES ANYONE HERE BELIEVE THAT CONSTITUTES GOOD WRITING? WHO WOULD HIRE THOSE GRADUATES?

3. TEST-TAKING. AMERICAN KIDS ARE THE MOST TESTED IN THE WORLD.

THAT IS WHAT THEY REPEATEDLY DO. NO WONDER THEY ARE SLOPPY AND INARTICULATE IN THEIR SPEAKING, WRITING, ET CETERA. WE DON’T ASK THEM TO DO MORE. IT’S ON US.

IF WE WANT YOUNG PEOPLE TO BECOME CITIZENS WHO THINK AND SPEAK CLEARLY, WHO READ WITH UNDERSTANDING, AND WHO WRITE THOUGHTFULLY AND PERSUASIVELY, THEN THAT IS WHAT THEY SHOULD BE DOING — REPEATEDLY — IN SCHOOL.

TO ASK LESS OF THEM IS TO DEPRIVE THEM OF THEIR BIRTHRIGHT. IT IS ALSO A THREAT TO OUR DEMOCRACY.

IT’S NOT ABOUT UNIONS, CHARTER SCHOOLS, USING TEST SCORES TO EVALUATE TEACHERS, MERIT PAY, CLASS SIZE, OR ANY OF THOSE OTHER HOT BUTTON ISSUES. THOSE ARE SKIRMISHES AND DISTRACTIONS THAT DIVIDE US.

IT’S ABOUT WHAT IS HAPPENING IN SCHOOLS, HOUR AFTER HOUR, DAY IN AND DAY OUT. THAT SHOULD BE THE ISSUE THAT UNITES US.

THE MCGRAW PRIZE HONORS MEN AND WOMEN LIKE YVONNE CHAN, FREEMAN HRABOWSKI, LARRY ROSENSTOCK, JIM COMER, SAL KHAN, TIM DALY, ARELIA ROZMAN AND OTHERS WHO SHAPE THE DEBATE (AND ONE WHO TRIES TO REPORT ON IT). THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY WE MUST NOT PASS UP.

I SAY, “STOP CURSING THE DARKNESS. LIGHT CANDLES INSTEAD.”

IT’S LONG PAST TIME FOR PREDICTING THE DELUGE. LET’S BUILD ARKS INSTEAD.

I THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART FOR THIS HONOR…AND HOPE TO PROVE WORTHY OF IT.


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Blended Learning, But To What End?

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One high point of an interesting week was a meeting of The Philanthropy Roundtable, where a few hundred people were wrapping their heads around “Blended Learning,” the latest and most promising next new thing in education. Most in the audience were funders focused on education, and, judging from their body language and comments, most were sold on the idea.

Quickly, blended learning is some mix of traditional classroom instruction (which in itself varies considerably) and instruction mediated by technology. The latter can be one student with a tablet or laptop, or small groups of kids working together on devices.

The best known practitioner of what everyone at the meeting shorthanded to ‘blended’ is Salman Khan, whose Khan Academy is serving 5 million unique users every month, and about 15,000 classrooms were using Mr. Khan’s lessons as part of their regular instruction. His inspiring story, already told on 60 Minutes and in Time Magazine, will be widely available next month when his book, The One World Schoolhouse, comes out. And on Tuesday he will receive the McGraw Prize in Education, arguably the field’s most prestigious honor.

I am inclined to be a fan of blended learning because I have watched kids at work, and the contrast between what happens in too many classrooms and what blended learning makes possible is striking.

For blended learning, to soar, teachers cannot be controlling the action, and they don’t have to. They aren’t walking away, of course, but they are mentoring and monitoring and coaching, and sometimes instructing. This article speaks to that point.

However, my enthusiasm is tempered by three fears; you can call them ‘concerns’ if you like. They involve faddishness, greed, and limited vision.

Here's the general methodology behind blended learning. How sustainable is the model?

Faddishness: I worry that blended learning will be increasingly vague and undefined as it grows in popularity. Right now almost everyone in education seems to be waving the blended flag, saying “We’re doing blended learning,” even if they don’t have a clue. At the Philanthropy Roundtable meeting a number of very savvy people, including Dave Levin of KIPP, emphasized that blended learning begins with, and relies upon, skilled teachers. So be skeptical when you hear educators endorse blended learning; ask a lot of questions.

Greed: The faddishness is an open invitation to hucksters, who can sense when educators are desperate to prove they are au courant. Technology is big business, and I can just hear the marketing guys pitching their products as ‘perfect’ for blended learning, blah blah blah. See Dave Levin’s comment above — it begins with teachers and teaching.

Limited Vision: My biggest fear is that blended learning is going to turn out to be just another crash and burn disappointment. This will happen unless its adherents also participate in a serious conversation about the goals of schooling. Right now it seems to me that blended learning is being used to get to the same old benchmarks, just faster and more individually. But those benchmarks — basically bubble tests — are limited and limiting.

Defenders of using blended learning to get to the accepted benchmarks say, in effect, “First things first. Let us get our low performing children to pass reading and math tests, and then we will let them loose.” But those goals — truth be told — are of dubious value. Why go there?

The potential of blended learning is vast, perhaps unlimited. Why not use it to find other pathways to a larger set of skills that includes literacy and numeracy? I’ve seen too many classrooms where the focus on basic skills is of such intensity that achieving them has become both the floor and the ceiling. This piece we did for PBS NewsHour comes to mind:

I think there’s an analogy with charter schools here. The charter school movement, which I have been following since the historic meeting at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1988, has been generally disappointing — most charter schools do no better than traditional schools — for three reasons. Eerily similar reasons: Greed, deception and limited vision. We know about for-profit charter groups cutting corners and paying multi-million dollar salaries to their bosses; that’s greed at work. As for deception, we know how some politicians supported (and support) charter schools as a first step toward their goal of dismantling public education, leading them to create rules that allow just about anyone to give and/or receive a charter. In some places it’s almost impossible to lose a charter, short of a felony conviction.

But it’s the limited vision in the charter world that disturbs me most. As I see it, the charter school movement has fallen into the test score obsession that entangles regular public schools. That was not the dreamers’ vision — they wanted charter schools to take risks, to try stuff and then share what works and doesn’t work with traditional public schools.

I fear that blended learning is going to fall into this trap. I believe that those who champion blended learning must be showing the rest of us how it allows students to travel new roads and reach new destinations, while their teachers ensure that they are also writing clearly, calculating accurately, et cetera.

Education needs to “measure what counts,” and the blended learning community has to be part of that conversation about what really matters.

Most classrooms and schools are outmoded ‘answer factories,’ and regurgitation is not a skill that is marketable. Kids today are growing up in a sea of information, 24/7, and schools must be helping them formulate questions, encouraging them to dig deep, to prepare them for a world which values the ability to formulate questions and then find answers to those questions. Who is going to hire young people skilled at regurgitation?

Of course, blended learning can turn out better workers for those answer factories, but what a waste that would be. But if its advocates limit their vision to merely producing kids who do well on standardized tests, blended learning will end up being yet another disappointment, and we will all lose.


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Poverty’s Evil Twin

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In this deeply polarized nation, I have found something that unites Republicans and Democrats: neither party talks about poverty, despite our current epidemic of child poverty and its consequences for the life chances of millions of children. From what this political junkie has seen and heard, both parties have studiously avoided talking about it at their respective conventions. Democrats in Charlotte talked incessantly about ‘the middle class,’ while in Tampa the Republicans gave off a distinctive vibe: “If you are successful, you did it yourself. If you are poor, you messed up. Not our problem.”

Poverty is on my mind, however. As readers of this blog know, in an otherwise inspirational profile of a forward-looking summer program in Providence, RI, we inadvertently conflated race and poverty in the opening 45 seconds. The opening visuals conveyed the message that poor people were black and that well-off people were white. That inaccuracy — the number of whites in poverty is actually larger than the number of Blacks and Hispanics — has been edited to present an accurate picture, but I haven’t gotten over how easily I made that mistake. It was a teachable moment for me, a chance to grow.

I have been reading a lot about poverty and have come to believe that the problem of poverty has an evil twin, greed. We cannot solve one in isolation.

Poverty, as one reader pointed out, is complex, because it is distributed unevenly. Although poverty is not Black or Hispanic or any other color, proportionally many more Black and Hispanic children live in poverty than do white kids.

Close to 30 million students are in poverty in modern America.

Black, American Indian, and Hispanic children under 18 represent 38% of all children but more than half — 54% — of low income children. They are more than twice as likely to live in a low-income household compared to white and Asian children.

Consider these numbers, from the National Center for Children in Poverty:

31 percent of white children – 12.1 million – live in low-income families.
64 percent of black children – 6.5 million – live in low-income families.
31 percent of Asian children – 1.0 million – live in low-income families.
63 percent of American Indian children – 0.4 million – live in low-income families.
43 percent of children of some other race – 1.3 million – live in low-income families.
63 percent of Hispanic children – 10.7 million – live in low-income families.

Perhaps you are now doing what I did when I read those numbers — adding them up. It comes to 30 million children of all colors.

That’s the national disgrace, millions of children growing up in poverty. It’s an epidemic, and professional politicians ought to be embarrassed by their failure to address the issue at their conventions.

It turns out there is poverty, and then there is ‘deep poverty.’ In a brilliant article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine a few weeks ago, Paul Tough examined President Obama’s record on this issue through the lens of Roseland, a high poverty area in his hometown of Chicago. Mr. Tough draws a sharp distinction between ‘deep poverty’ and normal (shallow?) poverty and shows just how difficult it has proven to be to ameliorate the former. Children in ‘deep poverty’ — their family income is 50% below the poverty line — tend to go to what William Julius Wilson calls ‘truly disadvantaged schools,’ further tipping the scales against them.

And in 2010 one in ten American children was living in deep poverty. That’s about 7,000,000 kids who don’t get to go to preschool, who are likely to be developmentally disabled and who will go to school hungry. To quote from Mr. Tough’s piece:

Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists can now explain how early stress and trauma disrupt the healthy growth of the prefrontal cortex; how the absence of strong and supportive relationships with stable adults inhibits a child’s development of a crucial set of cognitive skills called executive functions. In fact, though, you don’t need a neuroscientist to explain the effects of a childhood spent in deep poverty. Your average kindergarten teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood can tell you: children who grow up in especially difficult circumstances are much more likely to have trouble controlling their impulses in school, getting along with classmates and following instructions.

Mr. Tough doesn’t propose solutions, although he does quote Valerie Jarrett, perhaps the President’s closest advisor. Ms. Jarrett said that the President was proposing inclusive approaches that benefited all citizens economically, not just one specific group (the poor).

“I think our chances for successfully helping people move from poverty to the middle class is greater if everyone understands why it is in their best interest that these paths of opportunity are available for everyone,” she told him. “We try to talk about this in a way where everyone understands why it is in their self-interest.”

That approach, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” strikes me as doomed to fail as long as greed rules. And, make no mistake, greed is in the saddle. Over the last 30 years, the salary of the typical CEO has increased 127 times faster than workers’ salaries.

To put this in perspective, the average Fortune 500 chief executive is paid 380 times more than the average worker. In 1982, the ratio stood at 42:1.

Most Boards apparently set their CEO’s salary based on comparisons with those of other CEO’s, not with the company’s own workers. And that means that scant consideration is given to the effect of that inflated salary on employee morale, loyalty, effectiveness and turnover.

It’s not just CEOs. A shrinking percentage of our population controls a growing percentage of our national wealth. In fact, the gap is as great today as it was just prior to the Great Depression. Today the wealthiest 1% control about 40% of our wealth. Those in the bottom 80% control less than 7% of the nation’s wealth. Those in poverty aren’t even on the chart.

The starting point for the CEO-worker comparison was 30 years ago, just after the Presidencies of Nixon, Ford and Carter. We weren’t Socialists then (and never have been). Thirty years ago was when the worldview of our newly-inaugurated President, Ronald Reagan, began to dominate Washington and the country. It was later summed up, without much exaggeration, by Gordon Gecko in a popular movie: “Greed is good.”

One of Reagan’s predecessors saw the world differently. “We have always known that heedless self interest was bad morals, we now know that it is bad economics,” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I have no quarrel with a CEO earning a lot more than the average worker, but 380 times more! How much money does one person need? How much is one person worth?

Why not return to sensible capitalism and recognize the value of the team? It doesn’t have to be 42:1. Go ahead and pay the CEO 100 times what Mr. or Ms. Average Worker makes. The boss gets $5,000,000 if the average Joe or Joan earns $50,000. Want to pay the boss $6,000,000? Then boost the average salary to $60,000.

That would be a genuine rising tide, one with widespread benefits, because we know that, while rich people tend to squirrel away money, middle class people spend it.

And if we backed away from greed, we would be more open to recognizing the scourge of poverty and the long term threat it poses to our nation. If we were genuinely disgusted by greed and not merely embarrassed by it, our hearts would not be so hard, and our intuitive generosity would rise to the surface.

We cannot solve the problems of poverty, whatever its colors, without tackling its evil twin, greed.


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A Polarized Education System

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Polarization has come to public education, big time. If it persists, at the end of the day we all are going to lose.

As the political campaign heats up, public education is caught in a direct crossfire. Here’s one example from the run up to the Republican convention:

While the fact that quite a few countries outscore our children on international tests is reason for genuine concern, I think we ought to be even more disturbed about some other numbers, such as:

  • Half our kids get no early education;
  • 22% of our children live in poverty, and
  • 25% have a chronic health condition like asthma or obesity.

These numbers and more are from The Center for American Progress report, “The Competition that Really Matters,” about American, Chinese and Indian investments in education.

A second report, this one from Share our Strength, documents the extent of, and damage done by, childhood hunger. It found that 60% of K-8th grade teachers say that their students “regularly come to school hungry because they aren’t getting enough to eat at home.” If you’ve ever taught, you know that is impossible to get through to children whose stomachs are growling or who are energy-deprived.

How are we polarized about education? Let me count the ways, seven in all.

1. We are polarized about accountability. We have gone from an excess of trust of teachers to an obsessive concern with verification. Right now the verifiers are in the saddle, and test scores rule. One consequence of the mania over test results has been widespread cheating by adults, who are breaking the rules (and no doubt their own moral code) to try to save their jobs. How did we get to such a position, where our leaders mistrust teachers? We need balance when it comes to holding teachers accountable: “Trust but Verify.”

Lost in all this is student accountability. We ought to be concerned about assessing student learning, and not just by simple bubble tests. That’s the discussion we are not having, perhaps because we are so polarized.

2. We are polarized about achievement. The achievement gap is real. In some places a gap of three years in achievement between whites and (wait for it) Asian-American students. We must do something about this. Why don’t we eliminate recess for white kids and replace it with drill and practice and test-prep? That’s what we do for (to) black and brown kids, isn’t it?

3. We are polarized about how schools should be run. The argument is between freedom (charter schools) versus what is called “command and control,” top down management. As I have learned from spending a lot of time in New Orleans since Katrina and the flooding, even an all-charter district has to have a serious system of oversight in place to make sure that charter schools don’t play fast and loose with the system (turning away special needs children or suspending tough-to-educate kids just before the state tests are given). Washington, DC, has embraced charter schools but has also expanded its central office by adding people whose job it is to watch and evaluate teachers. Is that working? That argument is raging.

4. We are polarized about the power of school/the limits of school. Some regularly attack schools for overreaching and for failure, while others expect schools to feed, clothe and attend to health issues (such as eye exams). Is it a school’s job to solve social problems, problems that the larger society doesn’t seem willing to tackle?

And when teachers step up to the plate, why do we reward them with vicious attacks?

5. We seem to be polarized about the role of technology. In my experience, educators generally use technology to manage data and people. That is, for control. A much smaller number uses it to invite kids to create, to let kids soar (or move at a slower pace, if that’s appropriate). Some use it for control; some for learning.

Kids may be digital natives, but that does not mean they are digital citizens. Helping them become citizens is an adult function, and we ought to be able to come to agreement on that point.

6. We are polarized about the job of teaching. In “The Influence of Teachers,” I write about how some are saying we can solve education’s problems by recruiting better people into our classrooms, while others say we must make teaching a better job. On the ‘better people’ side are Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and some big foundations, and their attacks on tenure and seniority have been successful in changing policies in more than a handful of cities and states.

On the other side are Diane Ravitch, the teacher unions and many teachers.

What is the role of school in 2012? What do we hope to have our students achieve?

I once thought this ongoing battle was irrelevant but now understand that it damages kids. My solution is twofold: 1) Ignore the battle insofar as it’s humanly possible but at the same time 2) elevate the profession. We must make it harder to become a teacher but easier to be one. Raise the entry standards but make the job more professional and enjoyable.

7. We are polarized about assessment. Companies like Pearson are getting rich while we blather and battle. They step into the vacuum and measure everything that’s measurable. We should be measuring what counts, instead of counting whatever we are able to measure.

Our school and political leaders ask, “Can kids read?” but they and we must also be asking, “Do kids read?”

Are are we also polarized about the purposes of public education? I am not sure whether we are polarized, indifferent or excluded from the conversation, but we have a real problem. The goal of school is to help grow American citizens. Four key words: help, grow, American, citizen. Think about those words:

Help: Schools are junior partners in education. They are to help families, the principal educators.

Grow: It’s a process, sometimes two steps forward, one back. Education is akin to a family business, not a publicly traded stock company that lives and dies by quarterly reports.

American: E Pluribus Unum. We are Americans, first and foremost.

Citizen: Let’s put some flesh on that term. What do we want our children to be as adults? Good parents and neighbors, thoughtful voters, reliable workers? What else?

Let me be clear about one thing: The solution to this epidemic of polarization does not necessarily lie in the middle between the two poles. Sometimes one position is correct, or largely correct. Sometimes people’s strongly held convictions are just plain wrong. While we must ‘reason together’ and work everything out, I do not believe that ‘Let’s compromise and meet in the middle’ is a rule to live by.

So are we hopelessly polarized, or are we suffering from fatigue? I think many of us are just tired, worn out from listening to the rants and negativity. We are tired because — at least since the publication of ‘A Nation At Risk’ in 1983 — we have been working hard to change schools, and children’s lives.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle told us. If we complain all the time but do nothing to change the situation, that’s who we are: whiners.

But — and this is the important point — children become what they repeatedly do. So if our kids spend an inordinate amount of time practicing to take tests, and taking tests and more tests, what will they be like as adults?

Will they be avid readers? Articulate speakers? Good writers? I don’t think so.

One part of the solution is strong, thoughtful leadership, but I don’t think we should wait around for that to emerge.

We need to get beyond polarization and figure out what we agree on. Do we agree that children should learn to write well? We know that the only way to learn that skill is by writing and rewriting, guided by someone who is knowledgeable. If we value good writing, we ought to be insisting children write and rewrite all through school.

Do we, like, want our children to, you know, be able to speak clearly, persuasively and articulately? The road requires practice, practice, practice.

The way to develop readers is by reading, not by practicing to pass reading tests.

Once again, we are what we repeatedly do. Here is the essential second half of Aristotle’s observation: “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Want change? Maybe we need to stop pointing fingers at others and look in the mirror.


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An Apology

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I owe our PBS NewsHour audience an apology, and, although I know that this blog will reach only a fraction of that audience, it’s the best I can do. In our NewsHour report about a summer program in Providence, RI, on Monday, we inadvertently conflated race and poverty, an egregious error on our part.

This is some of the filming we did in Providence.

The piece begins with language about how summer highlights social and economic inequalities in our society. To wit, well-off children get to travel, go to museums, go to camp, et cetera, while children in poverty hang out with little or nothing to do. The result is what educators call ‘summer learning loss’ and a widening of ‘the achievement gap.’

That’s all true. What we did wrong was to show only white children in the travel-camp-museum part, and only black and Hispanic children in the poverty/learning loss/achievement gap section.

That is just plain wrong. Most of the children in poverty in America are white, and this country has a substantial middle- and upper middle-class black and Hispanic population.

The error was pointed out by Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor and author of “Bowling Alone,” in a strongly worded letter that he sent to Paul Solman, the NewsHour economics correspondent who is a friend of Dr. Putnam’s (and mine). Paul made certain that Dr. Putnam’s letter got to the right party, me.

Here is part of that letter, reprinted with his permission:

The unambiguous subtext (of your report): Poverty in America is exclusively about race. That is factually wrong, as your fellow editors surely know. … Indeed, most poor kids in America (including most poor kids who are harmed by the summer break, the nominal subject of the story) are white, but you’d never ever guess that from the Newshour story. A deep, deep cultural problem in America-and the biggest single obstacle to addressing these issues in our politics-is the fallacious racialization of poverty. Newshour should be fighting to overcome that racist fallacy, but last night’s program reinforced it. I don’t use the emotion-laden term “racist” lightly, but the segment was racist-unintentionally racist, no doubt, but just as racist as if it were a program about miscreant bankers that depicted only bankers who were stereotypically Jewish. The producers could have found examples of poor white kids who are harmed by the summer break, and many examples of summer programs addressing that problem that serve all races. (Indeed, there is a great one right here in Jaffrey, NH, 95% of whose kids are white.) But your editorial colleagues chose to highlight a racially homogenous program and thus, through negligence, to reinforce a deeply misleading stereotype. Whatever the intent, the visual subtext of this segment was: ‘Virtually all poor kids who need summer help are non-white.’ That is racist nonsense.

It’s clear that our presentation was misleading, wrong and uninformed, but was it ‘racist nonsense,’ as Professor Putnam said? I asked two prominent African American educators whom I have gotten to know over the years. Here’s what Linda Darling Hammond said:

I think it’s helpful to point out the demographics of poverty if you can, but I don’t think it’s racist to report on what’s happening for poor black and brown kids in Providence. It is still true that poverty is disproportionate in these communities.

And Dr. James Comer:

Racist or not, it is good reporting to provide a correct context — that race and poverty are not inextricably linked and that more children in poverty are white. The absence of context contributes to the collective unconscious belief among many that all Blacks are poor because of their performance. This contributes (for example) to the White store clerk who told me that I could not afford a camera that was expensive in his mind but not in mine; or the Black clerk who did not show my wife her best hats until requested.

During the week, Professor Putnam and I exchanged emails, and in a second letter he wrote, “I recognize that you are a serious professional, and that Newshour is not the only media outlet that commits this error. The trope that equates poverty with race lies deep in our culture and is therefore embedded in all our minds, mine as well as yours. You are a victim of that trope, not its creator. But that does not lessen the damage that your program has done, unintentionally, to the very cause you were admirably seeking to promote. With sensitivity to the pervasive misperception, instead of fostering it, Newshour could help overcome this crucial, irrational impediment to effective action against class disadvantage in America.”

Professor Putnam also called my attention to Martin Gilens’ work “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media,” as well as Gilens’ 1999 book “Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Policy.” In both publications, Gilens documents the prevalence of images of black urban poor in coverage of poverty.

I responded, in part: “We have spent a lot of time today talking about our process and how we missed what is now obvious. One problem was that …. (we) never thrashed it through face-to-face, as we should have. End of the day, however, I did not catch it, and I should have. We see now that we should have opened the piece with visuals of privileged white, black and brown kids engaged in stimulating activities. Then we should have segued to visuals of impoverished white, black and brown kids. We could also have made the point about the distribution of poverty in our language as well, but first we should have gotten the visuals right.”

That’s what we are now doing. Sometime in the next week, we will have the revised piece up on our website and YouTube Channel.

We learned a great deal from this experience. I am grateful to Professor Putnam for taking us to the woodshed and I apologize to our audience.


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Stop Your Whining

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“The college graduates we hire can’t even write a clear paragraph.”

“Kids today don’t read.”

“The freshmen coming onto campus today don’t know how to express themselves. They’re inarticulate.”

I hear at least one of those complaints — and sometimes all three — at every public appearance I make. These adults are saying that young people today can’t write, can’t speak, and don’t read. A few of the complainers blame technology, but eventually most point fingers at teachers and the schools.

I used to just listen — but no more. From now on my response is going to be, “Stop your whining. You need to find out what’s really going on. Then, if you really care, do something about it.”

I will tell them this: if they want college graduates who can write well, they have to get involved in public education. Go to their public schools — starting in elementary schools — and find out how much (or how little) writing, reading and speaking kids are doing — and why.

If you want to be good at something, you need two things: instruction and practice. The only way for kids to learn to write well is by writing, rewriting, and rewriting again. They become better readers only if they read. They can learn to speak well by speaking often, with some direction, some coaching. It’s no different from how children learn to play a musical instrument well or make jump shots consistently: Practice, Practice, Practice.

Ask teachers about reading. How often do kids get to read for pleasure? (They should, you know.)

Ask them about public speaking. Are children encouraged to speak in public to their classes? Are they taught how to address a group: eye contact, and so forth? (They should be, you know.)

Here’s what you are going to find out when you dig a bit into what goes on in schools today. You will discover that teachers don’t have time to develop speaking skills in their students, don’t have time to let kids ‘read for pleasure,’ and don’t have time for rewriting papers.

Public education has been quantified and diminished, and the numbers that count are, of course, test scores. Therefore, teachers are expected to teach their students how to take and pass tests. (And they know they might lose their jobs if their kids don’t bubble well.)

There’s no time, teachers and principals will tell you, for writing and rewriting, for reading, or for public speaking.

If you want visual proof, watch our piece about the school in the Bronx where the first graders were reading competently and confidently but the fourth graders couldn’t pass the state reading tests. The joy had been squeezed and scared out of them, by the incessant test pressure and test prep:

Aristotle told us a long time ago that “We are what we repeatedly do.” Take that to heart and insist on lots of writing, reading and argumentation in our schools.

The rest of the quote is noteworthy and relevant: “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

And so, Mr. and Mrs. Citizen, stop complaining. Stop attacking public education and criticizing teachers. Teachers are doing what they are told to do, not what they know is right.

If you want young people who can write fluently and speak clearly and who are inclined to read for pleasure and elucidation, you must look to the people who tell teachers what to do. Want change? You have to look to the School Board, and you have to look to politicians, and to your neighbors.

And you have to look in the mirror.


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Remembering Justin Morrill

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Does the name Justin Smith Morrill ring a bell? Perhaps not, although I am sure you know about the Morrill Act, which President Lincoln signed into law 150 years ago. That legislation created the nation’s land grant universities and remains one of the most significant pieces of federal education legislation in our history. (That short list also includes the G.I. Bill, the National Defense Education Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Pell Grant legislation.)

U.S. Representative Morrill, who never attended college, actually pushed the legislation through Congress in 1858, but President Buchanan vetoed it in 1859. Lincoln had a better grasp of the future and signed it into law in on July 2, 1862.

Mr. Morrill, responding to the power of the industrial revolution, was convinced that America’s future depended upon education — but not just the classical liberal arts curriculum offered in most colleges and universities. His legislation called for education to be ‘accessible to all,’ especially to working men, and to focus on practical agriculture, science and engineering.

Here’s part of what he wrote in support of his Act:

We have schools to teach the art of man slaying and to make masters of “deep-throated engines” of war; and shall we not have schools to teach men the way to feed, clothe, and enlighten the great brotherhood of man? It is just on the part of statesmen and legislators, just on the part of other learned professions, that they should aid to elevate the class upon whom they lean for support, and upon whom they depend for their audience.”

He went on: “Pass this measure and we shall have done:
Something to enable the farmer to raise two blades of grass instead of one;
Something for every owner of land;
Something for all who desire to own land;
Something for cheap scientific education;
Something for every man who loves intelligence and not ignorance;
Something to induce the father’s sons and daughters to settle and duster around the old homesteads;
Something to remove the last vestige of pauperism from our land;
Something to obtain higher prices for all sorts of agricultural productions; and
Something to increase the loveliness of the American landscape.

Morrill’s Act only envisioned the creation of a land grant institution in every state, but today the US has 110 of these colleges and universities, including 31 Native American colleges and most Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Almost all are public, although both Cornell and MIT began as land grant institutions and retain that designation.

These 110 institutions now enroll 1.8 million students.

The University of New Hampshire has seen a 41.3 percent slash in its funding.

Each state received land (30,000 acres for each Representative and Senator a state sent to Congress) and money to build these institutions, because Morrill wanted to provide a “sure and perpetual foundation” for higher education.

I am thinking about Justin Morrill because, in just a few days, a group will gather in Morrill’s hometown of Strafford, Vermont, to celebrate the Morrill Act and to contemplate the future of higher education. The symposium includes James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, and U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. I’ve been asked to provide a reporter’s perspective.

Now about those two phrases in bold, ‘sure and perpetual foundation’ and ‘accessible to all.’ The economic situation of much of higher education is perilous, and that includes land grant institutions. Ohio State, the third largest of our land grant universities, now receives less than 15% of its funding from Ohio, and that amount is being cut another 11.8%. New Hampshire has cut its appropriation to the University of New Hampshire by an astonishing 41.3%. Perhaps because it’s the home of Justin Morrill, Vermont has cut its funding for the University of Vermont by only 6.4%.

That’s a shaky foundation, not a ‘sure and perpetual’ one.

“Accessible to all” is increasingly problematic. The maximum Pell Grant is just $5,550, but the cost of one year at the aforementioned University of New Hampshire is now $26,186 (tuition, fees, room and board). That’s for a resident — add $10K for out-of-state students.

It’s over $20,000 at Ohio State for residents, and nearly $36,000 for out-of-state residents.

And in Justin Morrill’s home state, a year at UVM costs residents $28,463 and out-of-staters $49,135.

“Accessible for all?” I don’t think so.

Certainly Justin Morrill should be proud of what his law has accomplished. Millions of Americans have been educated at these institutions, and research done there has benefited agriculture, medicine, science, education and beyond.

But what lies ahead is the issue…


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