Education Nation IV

What to make of “Education Nation,” which took over the magnificent New York Public Library for two days earlier this week and focused a great deal of national attention on a topic most of us care about?   In all, Education Nation consisted of 29 separate segments{{1}}, generally organized around the theme “What It Takes.”  I made it to 15 in person{{2}} and watched three more online.

If you are doing the math, you’ve figured out that cramming all those sessions into two days means they had to be short because this was an event made for television and the web.  And from what I saw online, it worked very well.

Education Nation has come a long way since the first one in 2010, which old NBC hands remember as “Evacuation Nation,” because a torrential downpour and windstorm forced everyone to flee Rockefeller Center for the halls of NBC’s headquarters.

These two days had some highlights and surprises.  I thought at least two stars emerged: Delaware Governor Jack Markell, who spoke forcefully about the importance of early education, and Joshua Starr, the Superintendent of Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, who argued persuasively for multiple measures to assess both students and teachers.

The best sessions involved some give-and-take among opposing views. In one entitled “A Reality Check on Testing,” Randi Weingarten of the AFT, former Louisiana State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, New York Chancellor Dennis Walcott and the aforementioned Josh Starr disagreed, often eloquently. It helped that the session was skillfully moderated by Rehema Ellis, NBC’s reliable Chief Education Correspondent.  Weingarten told the audience about a new study of test prep (.pdf), contrasting how much time two different districts devote to getting their kids ready to take standardized tests.  Some in the audience gasped when she presented the figures: In one district, students in grades 6-11 spent 100 or more hours on test prep, the equivalent of nearly one month of school. In another district, students in grades 3-8 spent 80 hours on test prep, the equivalent of 16 days of school.  But that was the last time that issue surfaced, unfortunately.

Some sessions were content-rich, particularly the presentation by Professor Caroline Hoxby of Stanford about “Opportunity, Meritocracy and Access to Higher Education.”

She taught what Education Nation called–appropriately–a “Master Class” that showed just how many talented but poor kids fall through the cracks–and what can be done about it.

However, that was as close as Education Nation came to confronting the elephant in the room, poverty.  The disgraceful fact that nearly a quarter of American children are growing up poor simply wasn’t on the agenda, although Marian Wright Edelman, Freeman Hrabowski and John Deasy, the Los Angeles Superintendent, raised the issue during their panels.

Instead, Education Nation focused on getting parents involved, using technology to improve learning, urging students to live healthier lives, and praising students who had overcome their difficult circumstances.  It struck me as a bit like praising people for getting out of a burning building–but not calling the fire department.

In truth, many of the sessions were closer to show-and-tell infomercials than to probing journalism.  The worst offender was “Personalized Learning,” where four panelists{{3}} sang the praises of technology with nary a dissenting word or hint of skepticism.

The tone of “Education Nation” was generally pretty chummy, with very little wave-making. For example, I thought the usually reliable Brian Williams let former Florida Governor Jeb Bush off the hook in their one-on-one conversation. He began with a tough question: “Do we test our kids too much?”  Mr. Bush acted as if he had been asked “Do we need testing?” and went into a polished riff about how “you can’t become a doctor without taking tests, and you can’t get in the military without taking and passing tests,” and so on.  His “life is tough, so stop whining” routine plays well with crowds, but that was not what Brian Williams asked, and I wished he had insisted that the former Governor answer the original question.   Governor Bush also boasted about his state’s approach to high-stakes testing, the FCAT, which has been riddled with problems, and closed with a gratuitous slam on teacher unions.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan got kid gloves treatment from Matt Lauer when he appeared via satellite, so I guess that was the event’s M.O.

Four authors{{4}} participated in the 2-day event, but not Diane Ravitch, whose book, “Reign of Error,” may be outselling the other four books combined.  Her absence infuriated her supporters even more when they realized that one of the authors at Education Nation was a Hollywood screenwriter/film producer and another a first-time author.

Why wasn’t Dr. Ravitch there?  That depends on whom you ask.  A spokesman for Education Nation said that she was sent the general invitation asking her to hold the dates because, he said, “We had her here last year and wanted her here again.”  Later, he said, they asked her to be on a panel, and she declined.

I emailed Diane for her side of the story and got back this explanation:

I received an invitation to sit in the audience.

I received a second invitation to sit in the audience.

Then the list of speakers and panelists was published.

I was not invited.

I heard that many people complained–not me–that I was not invited.

Three days after the list of speakers was announced, I got a call from a producer asking if I would serve on a panel where they had an opening.

I said that they had already published their A list and I wasn’t on it. I don’t like the idea of being an afterthought. I also found it offensive that their A list was heavily weighted with CEOs and right wing governors.

I said no thank you.

So it is true that I was not invited. And true that when they reacted to pressure and invited me, I turned them down.

Here’s the irony: The media room distributed a 5-page fact sheet (.pdf) about the state of American education, including these bold points:


Where else could you find that kind of positive information?  (Answer: “Reign of Error”)

Wouldn’t it have been valuable to debate whether these improvements are occurring because of the accountability movement–or in spite of it?  And who better to argue one side of that than Dr. Ravitch?

Many accuse “Education Nation” of tilting to the right and blame Pearson, Exxon-Mobil and the University of Phoenix, three of its five lead sponsors.  That’s not my problem.  My issue with the enterprise is that its tone is almost relentlessly positive, focusing on ‘What It Takes’ but then failing to ask tough follow-up questions like ‘What Stands in the Way?’ or ‘Who Benefits from Failure?’ or any other questions whose answers might afflict the comfortable.

Because Education Nation is purporting to show America that we know ‘What It Takes’ to succeed, then someone must ask logical follow up questions like ‘Why Aren’t We Doing It?’

But, that criticism aside, NBC deserves great praise for the venture, which is, after all, a work in progress. More than any other education conference, Education Nation has the potential to move the needle.  The event has become education’s Super Bowl, which is why I’m already looking forward to attending “Education Nation V” next year.{{5}}


[[1]] 1. Plus three Innovation Competition segments and a bunch of breaks.[[1]]

[[2]] 2. I was part of the final event, a gaggle of journalists ably moderated by Chelsea Clinton.  The panel (Jane Williams, Andy Rotherham, and Rehema Ellis were the other three) was a last-minute addition when the government shutdown prevented the First Lady from making a ‘surprise’ appearance.[[2]]

[[3]]3. Joel Klein of Amplify, Jose Ferreira of Knewton, Diane Tavenner of Summit (Charter) Public Schools and Joel Rose of New Classrooms Innovation Partners.[[3]]

[[4]]4. Amanda Ripley (The Smartest Kids in the World), Anne Henderson (Beyond the Bake Sale), Alison Stewart (First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School) and M. Night Shyamalan (I Got Schooled).[[4]]

[[5]]5. If I am invited……[[5]]

Valuing Teachers

How do we–the collective we–feel about teachers? The granddaddy of all surveys about public education is The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. It established the brand in 1984 and has, to this observer anyway, become better,deeper and more nuanced over time. {{1}}

There are other education surveys, of course.{{2}} The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Scholastic produce an important survey of 40,000 US teachers they call “Primary Sources.”

And every year Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa survey registered US voters on their attitudes toward public education.

Surveys can be misleading or wrong; much depends on the quality of the process, the reliability of the sample and the way the questions are phrased, but, that said, it’s worth surveying the surveys, especially now that there’s a new kid in town, an international (21 countries) survey of public attitudes toward teachers and teaching [.pdf].

The Varkey GEMS{{3}} Foundation reports that it surveyed 1000 representative adults in each of 21 countries{{4}} including the United States. A major conclusion drawn by the Foundation, which is based in the United Kingdom, is that teaching is not held in high enough esteem. “Unless teaching is valued culturally, then the incentive of better pay will not be enough,” the introduction notes, adding: “There are many fictional representations of heroic doctors saving lives on television — from Grey’s Anatomy to ER and House — but hardly any equivalent stories of teachers turning lives around. Every year International Nurses’ Day is celebrated in the UK with a service in Westminster Abbey. President Reagan introduced National Nurses’ Day in the US, which is an opportunity for the media to highlight the achievements of nurses. However, the equivalent in education, World Teachers’ Day, is mostly ignored. We need to think harder, push further, and dream bigger, if we are to find ways of truly celebrating the ‘noble’ profession.”

But the finding that jumps off the page is the overwhelming support for pay-for-performance.

If you don’t have time to go through the document, I offer this review of the highlights regarding teacher status, pay and respect; the role of unions; and that always-interesting question, “Would you want your child to become a teacher?”

STATUS: Teaching ranked 7th of 14 professions across the 21 nations, highest in China, where teachers are most often likened to doctors, and lowest in Israel. In the US, teachers are seen as culturally similar to librarians. These findings struck Andreas Schleicher, the guiding light behind PISA, as questionable because, as he notes in his lukewarm introduction to the survey, Finland ranked 13th {{5}} in public status, while Greece ranked 2nd despite its poor academic performance on PISA. In fact, public status was often inversely correlated with academic performance. Go figure. (See Fig. 11 [.pdf])

TRUST: As the PDK/Gallup survey also reported, teachers are generally trusted. Across the 21 countries, the average “trust” score for teachers was 6.3 out of 10, and no country scored below 5. Finland and Brazil score highest in this category, while Israel, South Korea, Egypt and Japan are the least trusting of teachers.

PAY: Respondents in most countries think teachers should be paid more, but many adults have no clue about how much they actually earn. Respondents in the US are a great example. They think that teachers make about $36,000 a year but believe they should paid about $40,000. However, the true average salary, the study says, is $46,000. This falls in the category of “If they only knew…..”

PAY-FOR-PERFORMANCE: In a section that is unrelated to the actual survey, the Varkey GEMS report links PISA scores and teacher pay, and reports that there is little or no correlation between the two. In other words, right now most teachers are not paid according to their students’ performance. That sets up what follows.

The report poses a question: “Should teachers be rewarded in pay according to their pupils’ results?” That elicited an overwhelmingly positive answer in every country. The US was one of eight countries where 80% of respondents said “Yes.{{6}} That’s higher than I’ve seen in other surveys, but, if the question was actually phrased that way without any discussion of the complexities of the issue, how else could it have turned out?

Scroll down to the bottom, and you can read the actual questions. Here’s how the “Pay for Performance” approval numbers were produced, not by a direct question but by this list.

Q11 To what extent do you agree or disagree with each of
the following statements?
A. Being an effective teacher requires rigorous training
B. It is too easy to become a teacher
C. The quality of teachers is too variable
D. Pupils respect teachers
E. The teachers in my children’s school are respected
by their pupils
F. Teachers work hard
G. Teachers should be rewarded in pay according to
their pupils’ results
H. Teachers should be rewarded in pay for the effort
they put into their job

Unfortunately the survey does not report how the public feels about pay for effort, or whether people believe that teachers work hard. And wouldn’t you like to know if most people feel it’s too easy to become a teacher?

UNIONS: Do unions have too much influence? The results are mixed, but the interpretation is fascinating. Here’s the relevant passage: “Interestingly, some of the countries with the most recent history of teacher union unrest and direct action, such as Japan, Greece, France and the US, have the highest proportions of people who think teacher unions have too much influence. In contrast, the Czech Republic, China, Egypt and Turkey have the lowest number of people who suggest that teachers unions have too much influence. It is also these countries where teacher unions have played a less important political role.”

They seem to be telling us “The less people know about teacher unions, the more they like them.” And its converse: ”The more they know about unions, the less they like them.” I wonder whether that passage reveals more about the survey’s funders and designers than about the survey results.

To me, the money questions are the personal ones, such as “Would you want your child to be a public school teacher?” According to the survey, only ⅓ of US respondents would ‘probably encourage’ or ‘definitely encourage’ their child to become a teacher. Still, that’s higher than in 14 other countries. At the bottom are Israel, Portugal and Japan, but supposedly only 20% of Finnish adults would encourage their child to teach. Parents in China, South Korea, Turkey and Egypt are most likely to give encouragement to children to become teachers.

Surveys like this one are broad-brush at best. As for this particular study, I am reluctant to place much trust in its conclusions, because I suspect the folks in charge began with some biases about teacher pay and the role of unions.

The nitty-gritty requires a fine-tuned instrument. I want to know whether the chef eats in his or her own restaurant. Do teachers and administrators enroll their own children{{7}} in the schools they work in? If the answers are in the negative, then I would choose another restaurant for my family and would want my grandchildren in some other school.

[[1]]1. I learned recently that the parent company, Met Life, is seriously contemplating abandoning the survey. I hope that’s not true because it really has branded Met Life as a serious and socially-concerned company.[[1]]

[[2]]2. When the US government reopens for business, go here. ‎[[2]]

[[3]]3. Varkey GEMS seem to have some skin in the game. From the company website: “GEMS Education is the largest kindergarten to grade 12 private education provider in the world.” and “GEMS Education is an international K-12 education company that owns and operates high performing schools. It also offers consulting services to both the public and private sectors. For over 50 years, GEMS Education has provided high quality education to hundreds of thousands of children around the world.
GEMS has a global network of award winning schools which provide high quality holistic education to more than 142,000 students from 151 countries. It employs over 11,000 education professionals, specialists and staff. GEMS has a world class leadership team that combines business and education expertise from around the globe.
The GEMS Education school model is unique in the world because it offers a broad range of curricula across a range of tuition fees making private education more accessible to the broader community. GEMS Education also supports Governments’ education reform agenda by working with Ministries of Education to lift school performance and improve the standards and expertise in government schools across the globe.”[[3]]

[[4]]4. This was not the normal face-to-face or telephone survey but instead a computer-based process. That process was cheaper and more efficient (only 4 weeks), the survey report explains.[[4]]

[[5]]5. Every other report I have come across says that teachers and teaching in Finland are highly respected.[[5]]

[[6]]6. In Egypt the figure was over 90%, while in Israel, China, Brazil and New Zealand the figure was over 80%. The Czech Republic and Finland hit an even 80%. Portugal and Turkey were in the high 70s.[[6]]

[[7]]7. I just returned from a school where virtually all the teachers with school-age children enroll their children there. Watch for it on the NewsHour soon.[[7]]

Do We Need More Heroes?

The words ‘hero’, ‘heroic’ and ‘heroism’ are overused in America. Think, for example, how often those words are tossed around in reports about athletics, as if running with a football and dunking a basketball were acts of heroism.  People talk about ‘everyday heroes,’ as if doing your job every day–even a tough job like teaching in the inner city–was heroic behavior.{{1}}

We need to be more discerning in our use of those words.  We shouldn’t be so quick to crown people as heroes, because doing so dilutes the meaning of heroism.

Deep down, a lot of people realize this.  I say this because nowadays the word ‘genuine’ is often attached to the word, as in “She’s a genuine hero.”

Most of us will never–knock wood–know if we have what it takes to be a hero.  We will never face a raging fire, roaring flood waters, or a crazed gunman and have to make a split-second, life-or-death decision.

The teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary Schools–those who lived and those who lost their lives–are heroes.  They exemplify the best in the education profession, and they remind us of how good and strong people can be.

Those were my words on Saturday night in Washington while presenting an award from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences to the teachers of Newtown. I have no doubt about their heroism. When they were tested, they responded heroically.

But I also have no doubt that we toss around that word, hero, far too easily. For example, Ted Cruz, the US Senator from Texas, is a hero to some on the extreme right because of his strident opposition to Obamacare.  Over on the left, Diane Ravitch is a hero to those who share her views on what is happening in public education.  Since when does taking a strong public stand qualify as an act of heroism?  Call them ‘crusaders’ or ‘principled leaders’ or some other term of approval if you wish, but not heroes.

I believe many people are uncomfortable with the way ‘hero’ is used.  Here’s my reasoning: When a noun needs modifiers, it’s a clear signal that the word has lost its original meaning. Take ‘politician’ as an example.  This word is rarely unadorned these days. Someone is a ‘thoughtful politician,’  ‘unconventional politician’ ‘not your typical politician,’ ‘a well-respected politician,’ or (shudder) ‘an honest politician.’  Enough said.

I think that is what has happened with ‘hero.’  Because of our culture of excess and a glut of ‘heroes,’ the noun is routinely modified.  We have ‘genuine heroes,’ ‘everyday heroes,’ ‘unassuming heroes,’ ‘hero worship’ and–of course–’Super heroes.’

So I am wondering how many of us have (genuine) heroes in our lives.  Do you?  Are there living people you identify as your heroes?  The only person who comes easily to my mind is Nelson Mandela.

An older friend told me that he didn’t have any living heroes, and he doubted whether most people did these days, because of the 24-hour news cycle and the power of the internet to allow everyone to dig up dirt on anyone of prominence.  No one can keep their feet of clay (or their sex tape) hidden for long, he said.

Some say we need more heroes in our lives, but I am more comfortable with “role model” than with ‘hero.’  There’s a long list of role models whose positions, behavior or humanity I wish to emulate.  I respect and admire these men and women, even though I know they are not perfect human beings.

Perhaps I am just getting crotchety as I get older, but I would like to see us tone down our language.  I am pretty certain that the same people who idolize Ted Cruz or Diane Ravitch are equally vehement in their disdain for anyone who dares to disagree with their hero (and them).  These people inhabit a comic book world without ambiguity where heroes require villains.  Our society makes it easy to live in a black-and-white world without nuances–you can watch either Fox or MSNBC, but not both!

Unfortunately, the hero/villain polarization can cause us to lose sight of all the good, decent (and flawed) people who are trying to make the world a better place.  Polarization not only doesn’t move the ball forward; it’s a step backward.

In his speech accepting the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education Tuesday night, Dave Levin of KIPP reminded us that fixing public education was “messy” work.  Extreme positions weren’t effective, he told us.  “Should we use test scores to assess students and teachers?” he asked?  “Yes,” he said, “but we have to have lots of other measures as well.”  He called it “the messy middle” where the work is hard and the job is never done.

I know what Levin is talking about.  My colleagues and I spent 6 ½ long years documenting the struggle to rebuild New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina and the flooding.  On October 22, “Rebirth,” our 1-hour film will premiere nationwide on Netflix (and will be live-streamed for 24 months in nine languages).  I am sure it will inflame those on the extremes, both left and right, because it fails to either completely endorse what is happening there or to condemn it outright.  It’s that “messy middle” that Dave Levin was talking about.

There are no silver bullets, Levin said, and I agree.  Moreover, searching for them, like hero-worship, is a waste of precious time and energy.


[[1]]1. CNN has an annual competition for the Top 10 unknown everyday heroes of the year.  The winners for 2013 will be revealed on October 10th.[[1]]

A Heartbreaking – And Preventable – Death

The official records note Rebecca Sedwick’s death as a suicide.  There’s no disputing that the 12-year-old jumped to her death from an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland, Florida, on September 9, but what happened to her requires new terminology.  Perhaps we should call it “peer-icide” or “peer-slaughter” to convey what killed Rebecca, who had been “absolutely terrorized on social media” by 15 middle school girls for over a year, according to the Sheriff of Polk County, Grady Judd.

Preventing tragedies like this requires more than vigilance by parents and educators. Anti-bullying campaigns can’t hurt, but unless schools are proactive in their use of technology so that the energies of young people are engaged in meaningful ways, idle hands (and thumbs) will continue to do the devil’s work.

‘Mean girls’ are not a new phenomenon.  What is new and frightening are the weapons at their disposal, an array of apps that allow users to post and send messages anonymously.  Rebecca’s mother singled out, Kik Messenger and Voxer as three the girls had used to send messages like “You’re ugly,” “Can U die please?” and “Why are you still alive?”

Rebecca is one of the youngest children to die in what is reported to be a growing number of victims of cyberbullying.  About 20 percent of young people have been victimized, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, a clearinghouse of information on cyberbullying. About 15 percent of teens admit that they have bullied or ridiculed others on social media, photo-sharing and other websites, according to the Center.

“It’s now 24-7. It’s not just something you can escape after the school day,” Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, told the Orlando Sentinel

Rebecca and her mother, Tricia Norman, fought back.  Ms. Norman told the New York Times that she closed down Rebecca’s Facebook page and monitored her cellphone use.  She changed the cellphone number and kept tabs on her social media footprint.  Rebecca changed schools, and, for a while, her life seemed to have turned around.  Then she began using the new Apps, setting off a new round of cyberbullying.  (Apparently her original ‘offense’ was showing interest in a boy that one of the other girls liked.)

“I don’t want parents to wait for a tragedy to have those conversations,” Cherie Benjoseph, Co-Founder of Boca Raton-based KidSafe Foundation, Inc told WPTV. “We’re all still pretty naive on many levels,” she said. “We’re all still crossing our fingers and hoping it doesn’t happen to our children.”

Benjoseph said that Sedwick’s suicide should be a wake-up call to all parents to demand to know what their their kids are really doing online. Keeping computers and phones out of a child’s bedroom is another good move, she says, because what teens do online must not be off-limits to parents. “Our children sometimes lead double lives,” she said.

It probably makes sense to have certain ‘device-free’ times at home, especially at meal times.  It’s difficult to know what’s going on in your children’s life if they are always looking at screens.

Bedrooms should be device-free.  I know parents who’ve placed a basket at the foot of the stairs, and everyone (including the adults) is required to leave their phones in the basket when they head upstairs to bed.  The phones recharge downstairs, the humans upstairs.  Computers and tablets belong in common spaces, not in bedrooms.

Getting all parents to adopt sensible policies and practices is unrealistic, particularly in a time when a lot of parents seem to negotiate every decision with their children, no matter how young they may be.  But even if all parents were to adopt these practices, little will change unless the schools do the right thing.

Schools are where most children are, and adults there can set the tone and–more importantly–determine what kids do with their devices. I often hear adults describing today’s young people as ‘digital natives,’ usually with a tone of resignation or acceptance: “They are so far ahead of us, but we can turn to them for help,” is the general message I hear.

That kind of thinking smacks of abdication of adult responsibility. Yes, most young people know more than we adults because the fast-changing world of modern technology is alien to us, wildly different from the one we grew up in. But being a ‘digital native’ is not the same as being a ‘digital citizen.’ Young people have always needed ethical guidance and the security of rules and boundaries. That’s truer now because apps like, Kik Messenger and Voxer allow kids to ‘go nuclear’ without fear of being identified.  Kids who spend hours every day on their devices are unlikely to develop empathy for others, and it’s a lack of empathy that seems to fuel cyberbullying.

Photo Credit: Susan Landmann

Some experts say that kids spend ninety percent of their tech time consuming, and perhaps one percent doing creative work.  If that’s accurate–texting, playing Angry Birds and Grand Theft Auto, linking up on Facebook and Google Circles, sexting and cyberbullying 90 percent of the time–then we adults should be ashamed.

Unless, of course, we are equally guilty of obsessing over our devices.

A central function of schools is what’s often called ‘socialization.’  It might be more useful to substitute ‘developing empathy’ for ‘socialization.’  As Catherine Steiner-Adair notes in her new book, The Big Disconnect, “Empathy might seem a ‘soft’ skill when compared to reading, writing, and math, but it is actually a neurological phenomenon as well as a soulful one,” adding “The development of empathy comes from direct experience…”

Cathy Davidson of Duke says much the same thing: “The brain is what it does.”

Both are echoing the timeless wisdom of Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do.”

In my experience,  the education community uses technology 90 percent of its time to control, and perhaps 10 percent to create.  I mean ‘control’ broadly, everything from keeping the school’s master schedule, monitoring attendance and grades, tracking teacher performance, and imparting the knowledge we believe kids need to have.  That’s the complete opposite of what should be happening.

Because an important purpose of school is to help ‘grow adults,’ then the creative use of technology — by adults and young people — must be ramped up dramatically.

Students ought to be using today’s technologies to create knowledge and to find answers to important questions. If they aren’t doing that, then those idle hands and thumbs will be doing the devil’s work, as those girls in South Florida were doing.

Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7. You and I went to school because that’s where the knowledge was stored. That was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. They need to be able to formulate good questions–because computers have all the answers.

Here are a few ways to harness technology and foster creativity.

1 Every middle school science class could have its own hand-held air quality monitor (under $200). Students could take air quality measurements three times a day, chart the readings, share the information in real time with every other middle school science class in the city, region or state, and scour the data for consistencies and anomalies. That’s creating knowledge out of the flood of information, and it’s real work, not ‘homework.

2. Students could use their smart phones’ cameras to map their own neighborhoods, documenting (for example) the number of trash cans on street corners. That information could be plotted and shared city-wide, and the data could be examined for patterns and anomalies. Are there more trash cans in wealthy areas? If so, ask the Mayor, the Department of Sanitation and the City Council for an explanation. Again, students will be turning information into knowledge. (I wrote about this in more detail here.)

3. Why not measure water quality? A hand-held monitor/tester of Ph costs under $100, and the instrument that tests conductivity (ion levels, which relates to purity) is available for under $100. Turbidity — how cloudy the water is — is important to measure as well, and that can be done with an inexpensive instrument and a formula. Students could also measure the speed of the current and keep track of detritus. Then share all the data with other science classes around the city, region and state. Everyone could dig into the information looking for patterns. If one river’s water seems relatively pure until it passes point X, students could endeavor to find out why.

Work like this is, well, real work. Students are creating knowledge; they are designing projects and seeing them through from beginning to end. These projects have to meet real-world standards because the results are in public view.

(The rest of the curriculum ought to be designed to engage learners, of course.  Project-based learning makes sense to me, if the projects are genuine explorations of meaningful topics.  Working together toward real goals is one avenue to developing empathy.  And I think it goes without saying that educators need to pay more attention to the social and emotional needs of students.  I’ve been in schools which set aside a period a day for the school equivalent of a hospital’s grand rounds: everyone who has Rasheed or Anita in class has the opportunity to talk about how those individual kids are doing–and not just in subject matter mastery.)

When schools do these things, young people will be learning (or reinforcing) real-world skills that will help them once they move out of school. They’re working together, they are gathering, assimilating and analyzing data, they are learning how to present what they are learning, and so on. They will be working with numbers and writing persuasive reports. No doubt some will be speaking publicly about their findings. This is career-track stuff, 180 degrees different from the ‘regurgitation education’ that is the hallmark of most education today.

And it’s a zero-sum game: The hours they spend on projects like these are hours they cannot spend consuming technology. And because they are using technology to create, they will not be bored–and will be less likely to use technology’s power negatively.  Stronger in their own sense of self, they will probably be less likely to feel the need to cyber-bully others.  Had Rebecca Sedwick’s schools taken this approach, she might be alive today.

We cannot wish today’s powerful technology away or keep it out of our children’s hands.  It’s naive to think that anti-bullying campaigns and posters will be sufficient.

Technology, which is value-free, can be used for good or ill. How it is used in schools depends in large part on us.

No More Rhee

I am done reporting about Michelle Rhee. For one thing, there are many education stories of greater national significance to cover. But I have also been advised by trusted friends to get off the Rhee story because, as one said, “It’s beginning to look like a vendetta, and some people say you are ‘picking on poor Michelle.’”

Another friend believes I’ve become obsessed. That stopped me in my tracks. Was I like Carrie, the heroine of “Homeland”? Think of the opening sequence of the series, where she (Claire Danes) is obsessing over having missed warning signs before 9/11. Her supervisor, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), attempts to reassure her by saying “We all missed something,” and she blurts out, “I’m not everyone.”

I guess I do feel a bit like Carrie. I had unprecedented access to Rhee during her Chancellorship, and I missed some warning signs that all was not legitimate. I was not skeptical enough back then, and my failure then partially explains my desire to get it right this time.

But there’s more to my ‘obsession.’ Once producer Mike Joseloff, researcher Catherine Rentz and I began tugging on threads during our Frontline investigation, the enterprise took on a life of its own. Learning that “the truth is out there” fueled my determination to uncover it. In the Cub Scouts we were taught that “cheaters never win, and winners never cheat,” and I’ve never completely lost that naive optimism, despite lots of evidence to the contrary.

If you have followed the story, you know that we did not get Dr. Sandy Sanford’s confidential memo in time to include it in the Frontline program. The memo (.pdf) showed up on my desk in a plain white envelope a few weeks later and proved to be ‘the smoking gun’ that showed just how much Rhee knew about the erasures–and made her failure to investigate all the more revealing about her educational priorities.

We reported on Frontline about the inadequacy of the DC Inspector General’s investigation into the widespread erasures–but not on the other investigations that Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, regularly cite as ‘proof’ that they have been exonerated. So of course I then looked into those and discovered that they were superficial in nature and/or largely controlled by Rhee.

The Atlanta scandal was running on a parallel track, and so contrasting the two newspapers’ treatment was a natural story to follow. It was sad and disappointing to see how the Washington Post’s editorial pages have functioned as a cheerleader for Rhee, but facts are facts.

The refusal of Washington DC’s Mayor and the City Council to dig into this story also fueled my determination to get it out, particularly because the schools in DC are worse today by almost every conceivable measure. The leader of this ‘see no evil’ crowd has been Councilmember David Catania, who, as head of the education subcommittee, has made it clear that he has no interest in ‘digging up the past.’

Another factor in my obsession with getting at the truth was an “off the record” conversation with a top leader in DC who was in a position to intervene early but apparently lacked the courage. That same person had similar “off the record” conversations with at least two other reporters, giving them damning information that they were unable to use publicly. I can’t and won’t identify that individual, although I wish I could.

Our Frontline program introduced a whistle-blower, principal Adell Cothorne, to a national audience. I wrote about her in my blog, feeling that readers ought to know more about her courageous stand. As I reported, she gave up her DCPS principalship and opened a bakery, a loss to public education (and a huge salary cut for her). Well, I am happy to tell you that Adell Cothorne is back where she belongs, in education. She’s working with the great Catherine Snow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in a project called SERP for “Strategic Education Research Partnership.” This work keeps her in schools, working with teachers, principals, district staff and students, as she helps implement a vocabulary building program for kids in 4th-8th grade. She is also a member of the Leadership Faculty for ASCD, providing professional development for current and aspiring administrators. Her new beginning is a well-deserved happy ending.

People often asked me how I feel about Michelle Rhee. She was great fun to cover, because she’s bright and confident and tireless. She was a great interview, candid and forthright (at least until she hired a slick PR person, Anita Dunn, to shape her image and teach her political tricks of the trade). As Rhee’s biographer, Richard Whitmire, told Frontline, Rhee is “a zealot.” As she told me, she does not look back and reflect; she does not have any regrets because she’s too busy moving forward. She lives in a black-and-white world. I don’t think she’s a cheater, but it’s clear that she failed a fundamental test of leadership when confronted with strong evidence that adults on her watch cheated.

But Michelle Rhee is not the point of all this. What matters much more is what she failed to accomplish in Washington. She espoused a certain approach to reforming failing schools, a path that she and her successor have followed for six years, and that approach has not worked. That’s the central point: Rhee’s “scorched earth” approach of fear, intimidation and reliance on standardized tests scores to judge (and fire) teachers and principals does not lead to improved schools, educational opportunities, graduation rates or any of the other goals that she presumably embraces.

Full disclosure: I am still trying to get copies of the emails between Sandy Sanford and his immediate supervisor, Erin McGoldrick, using the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). For over a year now, DCPS has managed to avoid finding any electronic communication between them, except for his invoices. It has been a comedy of errors: DCPS has entered incorrect search terms and even a wrong email address–and then reported (surprise!) that it could not find any communications. We’ve appealed each time, and each time the Mayor’s General Counsel has told DCPS to search again. If the Mayor’s General Counsel were to do more than chide DCPS, perhaps we would get their emails, and that might shed more light on the situation. If that happens, I will be back on the story.

And if another insider were to come forward with more information about the cover-up, I would return to the story.

But as of now, I’m back on the education beat where I belong.

Back to School – What Lies Ahead?

Education’s numbers are impressive. More than 50 million children are safely enrolled in public schools as you read this. Another 5.2 million are attending private schools, and an estimated 1.5 million are being homeschooled.

We will spend close to $600 billion on public education this year, roughly $11,800 per child. What are we getting for the money? In her new book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch argues that most of our public schools are better than they have ever been. As you may also have heard, however, Amanda Ripley in The Smartest Kids in the World argues that our schools are not measuring up, not when compared to schools in other countries.{{1}}

Dueling arguments aside, I think this school year is going to bring into bold relief some disconnects between and among various interest groups in education, starting with the Common Core. Inside schools, everyone is talking about the Common Core National Standards, the math and English standards developed outside of Washington, DC and adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. However, outside of schools, most American voters–62%–say that they have never even heard of it! That’s one of the findings of the annual Gallup/PDK poll on education released two weeks ago. In fact, 55% of parents of school-age children say they haven’t heard of it! And most of those who recognize the term say they don’t really understand it, meaning that this highly-touted reform embraced by policy makers has a tough hill to climb.

In fact, if the Gallup/PDK poll is to be believed, the American public is not particularly happy with the nation’s education policy makers’ support for more standardized testing and for using student test scores to judge teachers and principals. The gulf between the two groups is wide: for example, the public has changed its mind about how test results are used, but policy makers have not. In 2012 52% of the public said it was a good idea to use test scores to evaluate teachers, but one year later only 41% say it makes sense. That’s a huge change. Are policy makers listening?

Gallup/PDK asked whether more testing is helping or hurting education. Again there’s been a major shift. In 2012 only 28% said more testing was hurting education; that number jumped to 36% this year. Today only 22% believe that testing is making education better, a drop of six percentile points.

Policy makers may be wringing their hands about the deplorable state of public education, but in 2013 parents and the public gave local schools their highest grades ever, with 53% giving their local school, the one they presumably know the most about, either an A or a B. (As they do every year, respondents gave schools across the country a grade of C or lower.)

The poll reports that 70% oppose vouchers, a huge increase over the 55% who opposed vouchers in 2012. Support for public charter schools remained consistently high, with about two-thirds supporting them.

The most striking disconnect between parents/general public and policymakers is in the area of teachers. Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that most policy makers do not trust teachers, and that starts at the top. The federal government’s “Race to the Top” requires states to evaluate teachers based on test scores if they want federal “Race” dollars or a waiver from No Child Left Behind. Some states have jumped on that bandwagon with alacrity, most recently Tennessee, which has created a system much like that imposed upon Washington, DC’s public schools by former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.{{2}}

In sharp contrast, the Gallup/PDK poll reports that more than 70% of Americans have trust and confidence in the women and men who teach in public schools. And the percentage is even higher for Americans under the age of 40.

Who are our teachers? One of every 100 Americans is a public school teacher, 3.3 million in all. The average teacher will earn $56,000 this year, which–adjusted for inflation–is only 3% more than the average teacher earned 22 years ago, in 1991!

The poll suggests to me that the ongoing ‘war on teachers’{{3}} may have taken a critical turn in the teachers’ favor, in the hearts and minds of parents and other adult Americans.

The challenge now is to change the way the folks at the top think and behave, because public policies based on mistrust are counter-productive and seem to be driving good people out of the classroom.

That exodus we can measure through exit interviews. What we cannot keep track of is the number of talented young people who pick up on the more or less ‘official’ denigration of the profession and come to the conclusion that teaching is not for them.


[[1]]1. Later this month I will review both books.[[1]]

[[2]]2. I have reported at length about the flaws in that approach.[[2]]

[[3]]3. I write about it in The Influence of Teachers.[[3]]

Criticizing Common Core Coverage

In the business of journalism, criticism is part of the deal. We are taken to task for leaving out important parts of the story or for getting the facts wrong, and sometimes we get criticized for not doing the story that the viewer wanted to see. That’s the preface to the question of this piece: “Was our 2-part report on the Common Core national standards an infomercial,” as one viewer charges? That was the harshest criticism leveled at us (as far as I am aware), but two other viewers wrote to say that we missed important parts of the story. The harshest critique came from Jamie Gass of the Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts-based, right-leaning think tank that opposes the Common Core.

This piece really seems like an infomercial for Common Core that doesn’t provide any opposing view or criticism of either the academic quality of the Common Core, the legal issues (three federal law explicitly prohibit the federal govt from funding, validating, or directing national standards, tests or curricula), or the costs to states/districts. For three years, Pioneer Institute has done nationally recognized research on all these topics.

This is an interesting segment, John, I’m just not sure this is actually what I would call journalism.

(Mr. Gass to the contrary, the Common Core was not developed by the federal government and is not curriculum. Washington has played and is playing a major role, of course. We reported all of that.)

I responded to Mr. Gass as follows:

I respectfully disagree but take your point. The politics of the Common Core deserves its own segment, and it’s one we are planning. As you are aware, it’s a moving target, with some strong opposition from left and right.
My own personal view, which won’t be in any piece, is that the CC may calcify age-grading–ironically and perhaps tragically at the very time when technology allows true individualization.
The cooler aspects of the CC such as collaboration, speaking persuasively and the like, cannot be tested by machines, meaning the system will have to trust teachers. But it’s designed to be in part a “gotcha” system (as we pointed out), which is beyond paradox. A genuine contradiction.
We trust the intelligence of our audience to recognize, for example, the strong hand of Washington in the CC.
Thanks for writing and for all the good work Pioneer does. It’s solid and interesting and very often invaluable.

The civilized back-and-forth continued, in Mr. Gass’ response:

As you may know, our opposition has turned on the lower academic quality of Common Core, as well as cost and legality.
I’m not sure I’d characterize our opposition to Common Core as “political,” but primarily educational and legal. After all, there are three federal laws that explicitly forbids the federal government from funding, directing, or validating national standards, tests or curricula. Two of these three laws were signed into law by LBJ and President Carter. These are federal laws, not a list of political recommendations to be obeyed or disobeyed based on whim or convenience.
And we’ve done the first, most thorough, and only non-Gates funded evaluations of Common Core’s standards lower academic quality against high standard states, including MA, IN, TX, MN, and CA. Merely giving Common Core proponents unchecked and unanswered air time for their views doesn’t really serve the public interest or a robust public exchange of ideas.

It seems to me that Mr. Gass wanted us to produce a very different piece, one that debated the wisdom of the path that public education is on. (For his view.) Our view is that the debate, while important, is a different level of the story. That’s the upper atmosphere, but our intention was to give the audience a picture of what Common Core teaching can look like at ground level, in classrooms. You cannot get that in the Wall Street Journal or anywhere else in print, and I don’t think you will see it on other television news programs. And we wanted you to hear from teachers and students, not policy makers and their critics.

In Part Two we dug deep into testing issues, exposing how the federal government’s own stipulation may well doom the enterprise to failure, because the ‘new’ skills the Common Core emphasizes–like speaking persuasively and working collaboratively–simply cannot be assessed by machines. And the Feds want data that can be used to evaluate (and perhaps fire) adults, because, deep down, the folks at the top apparently don’t trust teachers.

We obviously did not produce the report that Mr. Gass wants to see, about the politics of the Common Core. At some point, I am sure we will.

Two other critics, one an economist and the other a lawyer, clearly thought we should have explored the new standards in more depth, instead of focusing on the ‘new’ skills like working collaboratively. The lawyer focused on the English Language Arts standards: “If you look at the first grade curriculum, it is ridiculous. Someone thinks they are PhDs.”

I agree with her, for what it’s worth. They are cumbersome and, to this former English teacher, horribly overwritten. Read them yourself and let me know if you can get through them without nodding off.

The economist took us to task, gently, for not exploring the complexity, not to say pomposity, of the new national Mathematics standards. He wrote: “Enjoyed your piece on the Common core on the PBS NewsHour last night and will watch tonight’s show. You might find it interesting to look at the standards themselves.”

(We did look at them, honest.)

He then provided a sample 3-part problem which he said is for 11th graders and was taken from an official document explaining the Common Core (.pdf).{{1}}

“Give me 8 sheep and then we will have an equal number” said one shepherd to another.
“No, you give me 8 sheep, and then I will have twice as many as you” replied another shepherd.

First the student must solve the problem: 1) How many sheep did each shepherd have to start with?
And then: 2) Write an equation or inequality that has (a) no real solutions; (b) infinite numbers of real solutions; and (c) exactly one real solution.
Finally: 3) Solve an equation of the form f(x) = c for a simple function f that has an inverse and write an expression for the inverse. For example, f(x) =2 x3 for x > 0 or f(x) = (x+1)/(x–1) for x ≠ 1.

The economist added wryly, “Being able to solve these problems would, undoubtedly, be nice. Unfortunately, facing this kind of problem encourages a great many college freshman to enquire about how little math they can take and still graduate and many graduates to state that they hated the subject.”

The criticism notwithstanding, I believe that our pieces were balanced and fair. Our reporting about the effort to develop tests broke new ground. But our coverage was not thorough because we did not air the debate about the complexity of the standards or the legal challenges, and we did not give airtime to those on the left and right who oppose the Common Core.

Frankly, that’s asking too much of two reports of perhaps 13 minutes in total air time.

My personal concern–which you should not expect to see or hear from me on the NewsHour–is that these national standards, even if higher and deeper, may be a step in the wrong direction because they may make it harder to individualize learning opportunities. Today’s technologies allow kids to soar–or fly lower and slower where that’s appropriate, but a rigid interpretation of the national standards–”This is where you are supposed to be”–will merely repeat education’s common failing of mindlessly aiming at the middle. That would be a tragedy.


[[1]]I could not find the problem at this link. In a subsequent email he wrote, ‘they seem to have eliminated the sample problems.’[[1]]

“What Kind of Fool Am I?” Tony Bennett

It was the other Tony Bennett who sang that song, of course. But former Indiana and Florida state superintendent Tony Bennett probably ought to be asking himself that question.  As Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press reported, Mr. Bennett manipulated his own school grading system so that a favorite charter school–run by a major financial supporter of his–got a grade of A instead of the C that it deserved.

“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett emailed his Chief of Staff (who now is Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist).  All this went down less than a year ago, just before Bennett was voted out of office.  He was immediately hired to head Florida’s public schools, a position he just vacated after LoBianco reported his secret manipulations.

The blogosphere has been going wild, and those on the left are positively salivating. Mr. Bennett is the driving force behind Chiefs for Change, the right-leaning group of state superintendents of education.  That group’s name has morphed into “Cheats for Change,” “Chiefs for (Grade) Change,” “Cheating Chiefs for Change,” and on and on.  They see this as another skirmish in the on-going battle being waged over/against public education and are hoping that this fiasco will help more people see the folly of demonizing teachers and traditional public schools.  That’s their ‘big picture,’ and they may be seeing things correctly, but let’s look more closely at what happened in Indiana.

Mr. Bennett screwed up on several fronts.  He changed the rules for a charter school but did not act to help some traditional public schools in essentially the same situation.  He did everything in secret, apparently forgetting that, as an elected public servant, his official business was neither secret nor private.  And, judging from his language, he was motivated by ego (he had promised the school’s founder, Christel DeHaan, an A!) and his fervently-held privatization ideology.

It’s not a stretch to call this behavior hypocritical.  Mr. Bennett was happy to be known as Mr. Accountability–until his own accountability system turned around and bit him in the butt.  Then, rather than eating a helping of crow and facing up to possibility that he might have created a lousy system, Mr. Accountability cheated.  Pride goeth before a fall.

But what about Mr. Bennett’s ‘accountability work’?  How trustworthy was it?  Matt DiCarlo of the Shanker Institute examined Mr. Bennett’s school grading system and found out that poverty, not quality, was the chief determinant of a school’s grade. “Almost 85 percent of the schools with the lowest poverty rates receive an A or B, and virtually none gets a D or F,” he wrote.  More than half of the schools with the highest percentages of kids living in poverty received “an F or D, compared with about 22 percent across all schools.”

I am reminded of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” particularly its Seventh Commandment. That final commandment originally read ‘All Animals Are Equal.” However, by the end of the allegory it has morphed into “All Animals Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others.”  Rules are for other people, Mr. Bennett?

It’s unclear whether what happened in Indiana amounts to a “Paying for Grades” scandal.  Ms. DeHaan, a major supporter of Republican causes, donated $130,000 to Mr. Bennett’s campaigns, and apparently an additional $15,000 after the grade change.

(By the way, how about a shout-out for the Freedom of Information Act, a tool which allows reporters like LoBianco access to documents. Where would we be without FOIA?  Where would our democracy be?)

Another intrepid reporter, Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star, has written extensively about the charter school in question, Christel House. After visiting it, he reported that it is in fact a darn good school.  Elliott writes about how educators there have gone the extra mile to see that students have transportation–a huge issue in poor communities.

So to summarize: A good school gets a bad grade, as do some traditional public schools. In response, the state superintendent bends the rules in secret, rather than air out the problems inherent in his own approach to grading schools.  Mr. Bennett is a flawed human being, but so are we all. And so let’s not keep the focus on him.  Let’s look instead at the idea of grading schools.

We need an accountability system, but it must measure quality and effort, not poverty or some characteristics than an ideologue might love or hate.  It’s probably too much to insist on a single letter grade; students get marks in English, Social Studies, Algebra and so forth–why shouldn’t a school get multiple grades?

Now ask yourself what a school should be graded on. How important are scores on bubble tests?  How much should graduation rates count?  Attendance and truancy?

What else counts? How about ‘hours of recess per week’ and ‘hours of art and music’ and ‘time devoted to project-based learning’ (more is better)?  How about counting ‘hours spent on test-prep” and ‘teacher turnover,’ where less is better?

We need to measure what we value when it comes to public education.  In public, Mr. Bennett, in public.

And what kind of fools are we if we fail to see what happened in Indiana as a wake-up call?

A Story About Michelle Rhee That No One Will Print

Michelle Rhee lobbies across the country for greater test-based accountability and changes in teacher tenure rules.  She often appears on television and in newspapers, commenting on a great range of education issues.  Easily America’s best-known education activist, she is always introduced as the former Chancellor of the public schools in Washington, DC, the woman who took on a corrupt and failing system and shook it up. The rest of the story is rarely mentioned.

The op-ed below has been rejected{{1}} by four newspapers, three of them national publications. One editor’s rejection note said that Michelle Rhee was not a national story.


Today, too many of America’s children are not getting the quality education they need and deserve. StudentsFirst is helping to change that with common sense reforms that help make sure all students have great schools and great teachers. (StudentsFirst press release, emphasis added)

Michelle Rhee created StudentsFirst after leaving her post as Chancellor of Washington, DC’s Public Schools in the fall of 2010. She announced her intentions on “Oprah” that December: to fix America’s schools by enrolling one million members and raising one billion dollars.{{2}}

Easily America’s most visible education activist, she has been crisscrossing the country lobbying for change and donating money to candidates whose policies she supports. StudentsFirst claims to have helped pass 110 ‘student-centered policies’ in 18 states.

Because Ms. Rhee is trying to persuade the rest of the country to do as she did in Washington, it’s worth asking what her ‘common sense reforms’ accomplished when she had free rein to do as she wished.

She was definitely in charge. Her boss, a popular new mayor, told his Cabinet that trying to block his Chancellor was a firing offense.  The business community, a public fed up with school failure, and the editorial pages of The Washington Post were enthusiastic supporters. Moreover, she had virtually no opposition: the local school board had been abolished when the Mayor took over, and the teachers union, reeling from its own financial scandals, had an untested rookie president. She knew how lucky she was.

I’m living what I think education reformers and parents throughout this country have long hoped for, which is, somebody will just come in and do the things that they felt was in the best interest of children and everything else be damned. (Interview, fall 2007)

She lived that dream for 40 months.  She opened schools on time, added social workers, beefed up art, music and physical education, and dramatically expanded preschool programs.  The latter may represent her greatest success, because children who began their schooling in the expanded preschool program tend to do well on the system’s standardized test in later years.

Ms. Rhee made her school principals sign written guarantees of test score increases. It was “Produce or Else” for teachers too. In her new system, up to 50% of a teacher’s rating was based on test scores, allowing her to fire teachers who didn’t measure up, regardless of tenure.  To date, nearly 600 teachers have been fired, most because of poor performance ratings. She also cut freely elsewhere–closing more than two-dozen schools and firing 15% of her central office staff and 90 principals.

When Ms. Rhee departed in October 2010, her deputy, Kaya Henderson, took over. She has stayed the course for the most part, although test scores now make up–at most–35% of a teacher’s rating score.

Some of the bloom came off the rose in March 2011 when USA Today reported on a rash of ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures on standardized tests and the Chancellor’s reluctance to investigate.  With subsequent tightened test security, Rhee’s dramatic test scores gains have all but disappeared. Consider Aiton Elementary: The year before Ms. Rhee arrived, 18% of Aiton students scored proficient in math and 31% in reading. Scores soared to nearly 60% on her watch, but by 2012 both reading and math scores had plunged more than 40 percentile points.

But it’s not just the test scores that have gone down. Six years after Michelle Rhee rode into town, the public schools seem to be worse off by almost every conceivable measure.

For teachers, DCPS has become a revolving door. Half of all newly hired teachers (both rookies and experienced teachers) leave within two years; by contrast, the national average is understood to be between three and five years. Veterans haven’t stuck around either. After just two years of Rhee’s reforms, 33% of all teachers on the payroll departed; after 4 years, 52% left.

It has been a revolving door for principals as well.  Ms. Rhee appointed 91 principals in her three years as chancellor, 39 of whom no longer held those jobs in August 2010. Some chose to leave; others, on one-year contracts, were fired for not producing quickly enough.  Several schools are reported to have had three principals in three years.

Child psychiatrists have long known that, to succeed, children need stability.  Because many of the District’s children face multiple stresses at home and in their neighborhoods, schools are often that rock. However, in Ms. Rhee’s tumultuous reign, thousands of students attended schools where teachers and principals were essentially interchangeable parts, a situation that must have contributed to the instability rather than alleviating it.

Although Ms. Rhee removed about 100 central office personnel in her first year, the central office today is considerably larger, with more administrators per teachers than any of the districts surrounding DC.  In fact, the surrounding districts reduced their central office staff, while DC’s grew.  The greatest growth in DCPS over the years has been in the number of central office employees making $100,000 or more per year, from 35 when she arrived to 99 at last count.

Per pupil expenditures have gone up sharply, from $13,830 per student to $17,574, an increase of 27%, compared to 10% inflation in the Washington-Baltimore region. So have teacher salaries; DC teachers now earn on average more than their counterparts in nearby districts in Virginia and Maryland.

Enrollment declined on Ms. Rhee’s watch and has continued under Ms. Henderson, as families continue to enroll their children in charter schools or move to the suburbs.  The year before she arrived, DCPS had 52,191 students. In school year 2012-13 it enrolled about 45,000, a loss of roughly 13%.

Even students who have remained seem to be voting with their feet, because truancy in DC is a “crisis” situation, and Washington’s high school graduation rate is the lowest in the nation.  The truancy epidemic may be the most telling data point of all, because if young people in this economy are not going to school, something is very wrong. They are not skipping school to work–because there are no jobs for unskilled youth.

Ms. Rhee and her admirers point to increases on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam given every two years to a sample of students under the tightest possible security.  And while NAEP scores did go up, they rose in roughly the same amount as they had under her two immediate predecessors, and Washington remains at or near the bottom on that national measure.

The most disturbing effect of Ms. Rhee’s reform effort is the widening gap in academic performance between low-income and upper-income students, a meaningful statistic in Washington, where race and income are highly correlated.  On the most recent NAEP test (2011) only about 10% of low-income students in grades 4 and 8 scored ‘proficient’ in reading and math. Since 2007, the performance gap has increased by 29 percentile points in 8th grade reading, by 44 in 4th grade reading, by 45 in 8th grade math, and by 72 in 4th grade math. Although these numbers are also influenced by changes in high- and low-income populations, the gaps are so extreme that is seems clear that low-income students, most of them African-American, generally did not fare well during Ms. Rhee’s time in Washington.

English Language Learners in Washington’s schools are also struggling. Title III of ESEA requires progress on three distinct measures: progress, attainment and what ‘No Child Left Behind’ calls ‘adequate yearly progress.’  DC failed on two out of three last year.

DC doesn’t fare well in national comparisons either.  Between 2005 and 2011, black 8th graders in large urban districts gained five points in reading, while their DCPS counterparts lost two points, according to a study by the DC Institute of Public Policy released this spring. Between 2005 and 2011 in large, urban districts, Hispanic eighth-graders gained six points in reading (from 243 to 249), black eighth-graders gained five points (from 240 to 245), and white eighth-graders gained three points (from 270 to 273). In District of Columbia Public Schools, however, Hispanic eighth-graders’ scores fell 15 points (from 247 to 232), black eighth-graders’ scores fell two points (from 233 to 231), and white eighth-graders’ scores fell 13 points (from 303 to 290).

The states that have adopted her approach, and others now being lobbied, might want to make their own data-driven decisions.

That’s the op-ed you didn’t get to read elsewhere.  Perhaps you will share it with friends, colleagues and any editors you might be acquainted with.

The 2012-13 DC-CAS results, which were released on Tuesday, are being celebrated by Mayor Vincent and Chancellor Henderson as evidence that the reforms are working.

Roughly 50% of DC students are now scoring at a ‘proficient’ level, a significant improvement over 2007, the year before Rhee arrived; however, a closer examination of the data suggests that the increase may be largely attributable to changes in the socio-economic status of the student body and to growth in charter school enrollment (now over 40%).  (The data [.pdf])

For example, take a look at the individual schools plagued by excessively high ‘wrong to right’ erasures rates on the DC-CAS during Rhee’s tenure: At Aiton, the school referenced in the unpublished op-ed, DC-CAS scores went down again, from 19.1% in 2012 to 15.9% in 2013.  That composite math/reading score is below Aiton’s performance level before Rhee’s appointment.

At Noyes Education Campus, the epicenter of the erasure scandal, scores continued to decline, from 32.4% to 29.8%.

Ron Brown Middle School declined from 27.1% to 24.7%;

Shaw’s scores fell from 32.3% to 28.6%;

Garrison Elementary dropped an astonishing 15.9 percentile points, from 47.8% to 31.9%;

And at Dunbar High School, once the District’s flagship high school, DC-CAS scores went from 23.7% to 17.3%.  Most of those high school students have probably been in the DC schools for their entire academic careers, and, as they prepare to leave school for the adult world, only 17.3% are ‘proficient’ in reading and math. And DC’s graduation rate remains at the bottom nationally, while dropout and truancy rates remain unacceptably high.

Spin it as energetically as they wish, Mayor Gray, Chancellor Henderson and former Chancellor Rhee cannot run from these numbers.

School failure in the Nation’s Capital is national news. Covering up failure is also a national story.  Urging other states and districts to “do as we did in Washington” is rank hypocrisy.


[[1]]1. There seems to be a pattern.  Earlier this year, a meticulously researched and painstakingly footnoted exposé called “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” was rejected by a national magazine and two national newspapers.  I suspect the mainstream media is ignoring this version of the Michelle Rhee story because it doesn’t fit the popular narrative of school reform, which asserts that extraordinary “Produce or Else” pressure on principals and teachers is the best way to improve schools.[[1]]

[[2]]2. She seems to have fallen well short.  Last year she raised just over $28 million.  Students First doesn’t release membership numbers but is rumored to count anyone who responds to prompts on its website as a ‘member.’[[2]]

The Business of Schools Is…..?

Please take this forced-choice, 2-question test before continuing.

1. The primary business of public schools is to produce:

A. Educated students
B. Knowledge

2. Which more accurately describes the structure of public schools?

A. Teachers are ‘labor,’ and administrators are ‘management’
B. Students are ‘labor,’ and teachers are ‘management’

My hunch is that many of you selected ‘A’ as the better answer to both questions. After all, that’s the traditional model of school in which teachers teach and students learn. That is often known, pejoratively, as ‘the factory model’ in which teachers, the workers, teach facts and figures to students, who emerge from this assembly line after 12 years as ‘educated.’

Would most American businessmen and women select ‘A’ as the correct answers?

Probably, and therein lies the great paradox, or perhaps the confounding contradiction: Unhappy with the current system, American business devotes energy and money trying to ‘reform’ it. Someone needs to tell them that what they are doing is akin to buying faster ponies for the pony express. Faster ponies won’t get the mail delivered on time, and ‘reformed’ schools won’t provide the workforce that business needs.

(Nor will ‘reformed’ schools produce the healthy citizenry our nation needs, which means that business is on our side. They just don’t realize it–yet.)

Here’s what we know: Public school graduates do not possess the skills and capabilities that matter most to the CEOs of GE, duPont, Xerox, Amazon, JPMorgan/Chase and about 100 other leading companies. As a consequence, American companies are having difficulty finding the skilled workers they need. By some estimates at least 40% of corporations are leaving positions unfilled or are exporting the jobs they cannot fill at home. At a meeting of The Business Council in Chicago in May, duPont CEO Ellen J. Kullman spoke of having to screen over 600 résumés to find a few candidates worth interviewing (let alone hiring).

What does business value? For nine out of ten CEOs, the essential skills and capabilities are ‘work ethic,’ ‘teamwork,’ ‘decision making,’ ‘critical thinking,’ and ‘computer literacy.’ That’s according to a survey of 134 CEOs done by The Business Council and the Conference Board, whose ranks include most of America’s corporations. (101 CEOs responded.) Aristotle taught us that ‘we are what we repeatedly do.’ Applying that lesson to schools is simple enough: students ought to be engaged in activities that teach or reinforce those desired skills.

Unfortunately, these five skills are not taught in America’s classrooms. In fact, of the nine most valued skills, only two–‘basic reading and math’ and ‘writing and communications’–are school subjects. (The CEOs ranked them 6th and 7th.)

How well do the schools teach those two skills? Not very, the CEOs report. Asked to rate the capability of their current workforce, just 23% rated it as ‘very capable’ in basic reading and math; the ‘very capable’ rating for writing and communication drops to 15.5%.

In other words, schools are not emphasizing most of the skills businesses need, and the ones that school do stress–reading, math, writing and communication–they are not teaching effectively.

Why don’t our schools teach what business wants? It’s not as if American business hasn’t been involved in, and generally supportive of, public education at the local and national levels. The problem lies in the (now outdated) perception that teachers are the workers and students their product. That view must be scrapped before matters improve.

Here’s a brief history: In the last part of the 20th century, “school-business partnerships” were in vogue. These locally driven efforts often involved volunteers from businesses helping out in the schools, while their companies donated equipment and materials. When “partnerships” fell out of favor–probably because the results weren’t clear–they were often replaced by internship programs that put young people into ‘the world of work.’

Today many business leaders–impatient for results–support charter schools or charter school organizations like KIPP. Others put their prestige and dollars behind Teach for America, College Track, the Posse Foundation and other tightly focused programs.

The imprint of business is clearly visible at the national level. Although only two business leaders and one small businessman (a dentist) served on the 18-member commission that produced “A National at Risk” in 1983, its language and message could easily have been written by the US Chamber of Commerce. Its warning–our schools were ‘drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity’–sparked the school reform movement that continues today.

And while the first President Bush hosted the inaugural National Summit on Education in 1989, business soon took over. Summits #2 and #3 were convened by IBM CEO Louis V. Gerstner at IBM headquarters in Armonk, NY, with President Clinton an invited guest. These meetings and subsequent National Commissions coalesced around a central theme: the schools’ failure to produce enough high-caliber graduates was threatening our country’s economic leadership.

To business’ way of thinking, graduates were ‘product’ in a straightforward factory model paradigm: teachers were given raw material–kids–to turn into productive, capable young adults. In that factory model, teachers are the workers, so it’s not surprising that business leaders–management by definition–have not been natural allies of teacher unions.

If schools are going to improve dramatically, everyone–but especially the business community–needs to realize is that the old ‘factory model’ paradigm is no longer valid. Because of the information revolution, students–not teachers—must be the work force. They must become ‘knowledge workers,’ and their ‘product’ is knowledge.

In this new paradigm, teachers are now part of management, a concept that some people may have difficulty dealing with.

Here’s one way to understand what has changed. Before the internet era, schools served three primary functions: they (along with libraries) were the repository of knowledge–kids had to go there because that’s where knowledge was stored. Schools also socialized children–that’s where boys and girls, Catholics, Jews and Protestants, Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans got to know each other. And, of course, schools provided custodial care so parents could work.

Today only #3 is unchanged–working parents still need a safe place to leave their children. But schools are no longer ‘the repository of knowledge,’ because today’s children swim in a sea of information, 24/7. However, ‘information’ is not knowledge, and so in this new paradigm our schools have a new duty and challenge: they must help teach young people how to sift through the flood of information and determine what is true. That’s the ‘work’ that students–now knowledge workers–must be doing, formulating questions and finding their answers. Unfortunately, our outmoded schools are little more than ‘answer factories’ where students regurgitate (often on bubble tests) what they have been told.

As for socialization, it’s not an exaggeration to say that kids have access to hundreds of apps that serve that purpose. It’s like pen pals on steroids. So ‘socialization’ takes on new meaning with our children, who are, in the popular lexicon, ‘digital natives.’ Today schools need educators who understand that their job is to transform these digital natives into digital citizens, not an insignificant distinction. These young digital citizens can use technology to create knowledge–their work. But when they are not encouraged and allowed to do this, many will–out of boredom or malice–use the dazzling variety of tools we call ‘social media’ to harass and abuse the most vulnerable among them.

If we allow schools to be regurgitation factories where students are mere product; if we judge teachers simply based on the test scores of their ‘product;’ and if we allow schools to ignore the awesome potential of technology, then we will have schools where the brightest students are bored and the most vulnerable are bullied.

In this new paradigm, where students are knowledge workers, what should schools look like? Recall Aristotle’s lesson: “We are what we repeatedly do.” If we do not want adults who do little more than regurgitate, then they should not do that day after day after day in classrooms. Instead, they must be developing the skills and capabilities that we want them to have as adults. It’s a tall order: Students must master the ‘basic skills of numeracy, reading and writing and the ‘new basics’ that include speaking persuasively, listening carefully and critically, working collaboratively, and the use of modern technology.

While this new paradigm, students as ‘knowledge workers,’ can be seen in hundreds of schools, the fact is we have nearly 100,000 public schools. We are a long way from the tipping point. Are we moving, educationally speaking, in the right direction?

We might be. America has embarked on a huge national experiment called the Common Core, a set of common standards for math and English embraced by all but five states. This moment of seminal change offers an opportunity for American business to speak up and demand a ‘common core’ where students repeatedly do what will serve them in good stead as adult citizens, parents and workers.

No one needs to create a curriculum out of whole cloth to teach decision-making, teamwork, a strong work ethic, communication and critical thinking. Those skills are fundamental to most extra-curricular activities: playing sports, working in theatrical productions, playing in a musical group, and producing the school newspaper, radio or TV program or yearbook. In those activities (let’s get smart and call them ‘co-curricular’), students are clearly the workers, and their work products are tangible.

That new/old thinking–”We are what we repeatedly do”–can transform public education, make school much more interesting and challenging for students, reverse that rising tide of mediocrity….and cure American business’ persistent headache.