Something’s Coming (Something Good)

“Something there is that doesn’t love more bubble tests
And students bubbling and learning how to bubble
When they might be making robots or reading Frost….”
When I adapted Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” earlier this year, I was aware of the growing resentment among parents, teachers and students toward machine-scored tests and test-prep. However, I had no idea that it would–pardon the pun–bubble to the top with such energy.

That said, some of what looks like support for reduced testing may turn out to be something quite different.  What people say is not as important as what they do!

A lot has been happening.  In late August the Lee County (FL) School Board voted, 3-2, to opt out of the state’s testing program, in what one Board member called ‘an act of civil disobedience.’  For six days Lee County, the 37th largest school district in the US with 85, 000 students, was the epicenter of the ‘too much testing’ movement, but on August 27th the Board reversed itself, again by a 3-2 vote.  The School Superintendent had expressed grave concern about the possible penalties, financial and otherwise, that Florida might impose if Lee County boycotted the state tests, and that apparently was enough to push one Board member, Mary Fisher, to change her vote.

For a list of what Florida could do to penalize boycotting districts, click here.

Robert Schaeffer, the Public Education Director of the anti-testing organization FairTest, has lived in Lee County for 15 years. By email I asked Bob what had just happened there. After acknowledging that he has been collaborating with the protestors, he added{{1}}:

“As expected, given the announcement that one member had reversed her position in the face of a massive, disinformation campaign by the Superintendent, the Lee County School Board just voted 3-2 to override its previous decision. However, four of the five board members spoke out against “test misuse and overuse” as well as “the punitive use of standardized exams.”  The two Board members who opposed the original motion (allegedly due to the lack of an implementation plan) pledged to take their concerns to a meeting of the Florida School Boards Association, which is holding a statewide conference beginning tonight, and one threatened a lawsuit against unfunded state testing mandates.
“After the vote, several Board members said that there would be a public workshop next week to discuss how to move forward to reduce testing overkill, and two members pledged that they would make implementation motions at the Tuesday night, September 9 regular Board meeting.The hundreds of parents, teachers, students and taxpayers who packed the room viewed the decision as a temporary tactical setback, not a long-term defeat, for the assessment reform movement.”

The Palm Beach County Schools are reported to be flirting with a possible boycott.

If something like this can happen in Florida, an epicenter of what is called ‘test-based accountability,’ then the rest of the country ought to be paying attention.

It’s not just Florida, of course.  This spring as many as 80% of students in some New York City public schools were opted out of standardized testing by their parents.

The Superintendent of Schools in Colorado Springs, Colorado, says he wants to test randomized samples of students to gather data about school effectiveness, which would reduce the number of bubble tests that all students now have to take.

More than half of the school boards in Texas supported a resolution calling upon the State Board of Education to reduce the number and significance of bubble tests.  That was two years ago, and the Texas Legislature got the message. It passed a bill drastically reducing the number of standardized tests required for graduation, and Governor Rick Perry signed the bill into law in June 2013.

The rebellion may be spreading to New Mexico, where concern about computerized testing is growing.

In Vermont the State Board of Education has called upon the United States Congress to get its act together and do something about No Child Left Behind, which expired in 2007 but remains the law of the land as long as Congress fails to act.  “The motivating force behind the statement is that there is too much testing,” State Board member William Mathis told the Rutland Herald. “Teachers are complaining about it. Parents are complaining about it. We’re just running from one test to the next. It’s tedious, and it’s not the best use of taxpayers’ money.”

But it would be a mistake to assume that every expression of concern is genuine.  In Rhode Island, where students have been protesting over-testing, State Superintendent Deborah Gist{{2}} seems to be taking a stand on the issue.  According to the Providence Journal’s Linda Borg, Gist and Katherine E. Sipala, president of the Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Association, have created what they call “The Assessment Project” to study the issue.

Their letter to local superintendents reads, in part:
“Over the past year or more, many of us have heard from some students, teachers, and parents who expressed their concerns about over-testing in our schools. We share their concerns, and we want to take action on this matter. None of us wants to test students too much, and each of us can consider ways to streamline the assessment process, to eliminate assessments that do not advance teaching and learning, and to ensure that we use assessments to help us make good decisions about instruction. If assessments do not give us information that informs instruction, we should not administer those assessments.”

To this observer, Gist and Sipala’s message is hardly newsworthy. Rather than a call to action, it’s seems to be a politically safe call for ‘more study.’

I have noticed that those who are upset about testing are being careful to avoid coming across as ‘anti-testing.’ Instead, they say that they are protesting ‘over-testing’ or ‘too much testing,’ which is a far cry from being opposed to all testing.  Language matters, and if their voices are to be heard, they have to fight the ‘anti-testing’ label that some supporters of the status quo will try to stick on them.

Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk provided this thoughtful overview recently, pointing out how No Child Left Behind still hangs over every state and school district that has not been granted a waiver by the Secretary of Education.

In late August Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in with his own call for a 1-year moratorium (which the NEA called ‘common sense’).

It’s possible that Mr. Gates and Secretary Duncan were motivated by their desire to save the Common Core National Standards, which are under increasing attack from both the right and the left. Perhaps they are now wishing they had taken the time to disentangle the Common Core and the laudable idea of higher standards from the accountability mess and its roots in ‘the business model of education’ that both support.{{3}}

As the lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote in “Something’s Coming,”
Something’s coming, something good
If I can wait
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is
But it is gonna be great{{4}}.

Will the “something” that’s coming to the world of bubble testing be good?  Is what lies ahead “gonna be great,” or will there be lots of words but little action?  Who knows?  That’s not up to reporters; that’s in the hands of parents and concerned citizens, educators and activists—and the politicians who listen to them.

By the way, you may read the rest of ‘Mending School” here.

If you would like to own your own copy of the fully annotated, four-color, 24″ x 36″ wall poster, simply click here or send your tax-deductible contribution to Learning Matters, 127 West 26th Street, Suite 1200, NY NY 10001.

Oh, I sent the “Mending School” poster to Secretary Duncan, gratis, and I am sending one to Deborah Gist in Rhode Island.

[[1]]1. He sent virtually the same message to Diane Ravitch. [[1]]
[[2]]2. Full disclosure regarding my own relationship with Deborah Gist. She was State Superintendent when Michelle Rhee was Chancellor, and it was her office that detected the unusual patterns of ‘wrong to right’ erasures that strongly suggested cheating. Instead of taking direct action, Gist exchanged memoranda with Rhee for months, during which time Gist applied for and got the Rhode Island job. Because I believed then–and still believe–that the public ought to know Gist’s version of those machinations, I begged her to speak to me on the record. She refused. When Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst, rated state education programs, Rhode Island received the top score, which some interpreted as Rhee’s way of thanking Gist for her silence. [[2]]
[[3]]3.It’s also possible that Secretary Duncan’s friends and handlers in the White House have realized they need the votes of teachers in the midterm elections, just two months away.[[3]]
[[4]]4.As most of you no doubt know, “Something’s Coming” is a love song of joyous anticipation from “West Side Story.” More here.[[4]]

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Arne Duncan’s Moment of Truth

As two powerful forces collide at this moment in educational history, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has an opportunity to make a mid-course correction that could save public education. The first powerful force is the Common Core and the accompanying tests that are being ‘rolled out’ in classrooms around the country.  The epidemic of cheating on standardized tests is the other threat that must be understood and addressed.

Think of these two forces as mighty rivers, separate until now–but converging.

Dealing with the Common Core is going to require restraint on the Secretary’s part, it seems to me. Adopted by all but five states, the Common Core raises standards and expectations, surely a good thing.  However, it is also scaring a lot of politicians and educators.  Some are upset at the idea of change because fear of the unknown is par for the course, others suspect a federal takeover of education, and some think it’s a good idea being done badly.

Mr. Duncan’s official position is that the Common Core is not Washington’s doing, but everyone knows that federal dollars have supported its development and growth–it wouldn’t have happened without Washington.  As protests{{1}} grow, Mr. Duncan might be wise to keep relatively quiet and let others defend it, lest his support be taken as evidence that the Common Core really is that ‘federal takeover’ the critics fear.

But the arrival of the Common Core has created an opportunity for Mr. Duncan to speak out about the epidemic of cheating.  FairTest, an organization that is strongly opposed to over-reliance on standardized testing, has compiled a list of states and districts where cheating (most often by adults) has come to light.

It identifies 38 states (most recently Iowa) and the District of Columbia (I have written about the latter.)

Secretary Duncan has previously said that the solution to this problem is tighter security, a position he took with me in a conversation after the Atlanta scandal became public. That might have been an appropriate response back then, but it is woefully inadequate today.  Calling for increased security to solve today’s situation reminds me of that old fable, ‘The Boy at the Dike.’ You may remember the boy trying vain to plug holes and running out of fingers.  Something more is going on here, and I think we should expect our Secretary of Education to help us grapple with this.

The challenge for the Secretary is that his own federal policy is at least partially responsible for what’s going on now. By insisting that student performance on standardized tests be an important part of teacher evaluation, Mr. Duncan and his “Race to the Top” have helped change the game.  But it’s a game without clear rules besides “Produce or Else.”  Surely he, as an athlete, must know that competition without rules leads to chaos.

Secretary Duncan has, wittingly and unwittingly, allied himself with the “Produce or Else” approach favored by Michelle Rhee {{2}}, Beverly Hall {{3}} and other school leaders, apparently without clearly thinking through what “Produce” means.  As a consequence, standardized tests have become a wedge (or a weapon) for administrators in their relations with teachers, a ‘them against us’ approach that is souring public education.

When I was a kid and when my now-grown children were kids, tests were designed and used to assess student performance and make judgements about school quality.  Now, however, tests are all about holding teachers and principals ‘accountable.’  We have lost our way, and the cheating epidemic is the clearest sign of that.  Principals and teachers know that their livelihood depends on rising test scores, and so the curriculum has been narrowed; adult energy is focused on the so-called ‘cusp kids’ who are just a few points shy of making it over the bar; music, theatre, and field trips have disappeared; children are objects to be manipulated, not living, breathing human beings with individual needs, strengths and weaknesses; and morally weak adults are cheating.

Here’s the rub: Cheating is not the problem that must be addressed. It is the most visible and disturbing symptom of the disease, but the disease itself is our excessive reliance on high stakes testing.

The Common Core tests represent an opportunity to cure the disease, and the Secretary should seize the opportunity. These new tests are supposed to reveal student strengths and weaknesses; their results should provide insights into what teachers need to do to help their charges learn.  But if we continue with our “Get Tough” policies and use scores to reward and punish teachers, the Common Core is doomed, it seems to me.

The Secretary could proclaim a new day in testing and assessment–actually a return to the old days when we trusted teachers. He could seek consensus on what “Produce” actually means, which would be the first step to moving us beyond hyper-testing.  Most of the teachers I have known over 39 years of reporting on education are not afraid of accountability.  They need to be part of the conversation, however.

Why not bring together {{4}} several dozen thoughtful teachers? (Barnett Berry’s Teacher Leader Network would be a great place to recruit.)  Invite the two teacher union leaders and some savvy principals and superintendents (I’d pick some names from David Kirp’s excellent new book, “Improbable Scholars.”)  I suggest inviting Bill Gates, because he now says that education needs an accountability system that has the support of teachers, and because he is a smart man.  Let these men and women–at least half of them classroom teachers–discuss and argue until they reach a consensus on what it is we want schools to “produce” and how that–and the adults in charge–should be assessed.

The ball, Mr. Secretary, is in your court.

—————-

[[1]]1. The anger seems to be directed against high stakes testing, not the Common Core tests.  Randi Weingarten has called for a one-year moratorium.  Around the nation some parents are organizing to withdraw their children on testing days; some teachers in the northwest have refused to participate, and many school districts in Texas are petitioning their state legislature to ban high stakes testing. But that is my point: this moment of transition is a perfect opportunity to revisit what we are doing.

The Common Core tests have come and gone in New York City.  I spent an afternoon with some 8th graders in Brooklyn last week, hearing their thoughts about the new tests they had just taken. Every single student wished for more time, but most did not seem fazed by the supposedly tougher requirements.  The English Language Arts exam required them to read and write about several non-fiction passages, which most of these bright kids found boring. “Who wants to read about robot soccer players or the intelligence of crows,” one kid asked scornfully?  English Language Learners who have taken the tests may have had a very different experience.[[1]]

[[2]]2. The DC schools are worse off today by every measure I can think of. See my blog post. And Secretary Duncan has made no secret of his admiration for Michelle Rhee, even to the point of electioneering. The Washington Post’s Bill Turque reported, “if any doubt remained about where the Obama Administration’s sympathies are in the District primary, they were eliminated at a morning photo op that preceded the official RTTT announcement.” Duncan’s announcement of the grant on the eve of the election had “the unmistakable feel of a Fenty campaign stop,” as Duncan joined the embattled mayor and his controversial chancellor in a walk with children wearing Fenty campaign stickers. Asked if he was taking sides in the Democratic primary, Duncan said of Fenty, “I’m a big fan.”  When the new mayor, Vincent Gray, took over, Duncan urged him to keep Rhee on as chancellor, but Gray wisely let her go. Duncan then reportedly urged Gray to promote Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s Deputy Chancellor.  (Cited in David Safier’s blog)[[2]]

[[3]]3. Dr. Hall and 34 other Atlanta educators have been indicted and are awaiting trial, and Atlanta remains the epicenter of our cheating universe.[[3]]

[[4]]4.  Peter Cunningham, Secretary Duncan’s erstwhile Assistant Secretary for Communications, reminds me that the Secretary has been an active participant in Project Respect and has met personally with hundreds of the roughly 5,000 teachers the Department has met with since taking office.[[4]]

Education Predictions for 2012

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What can we expect in the world of public education in 2012? (For a good review of what happened in 2011, check out this link.) I’ll start by considering three nagging questions.

1. Will this be the year that some school districts say ‘No mas!” to No Child Left Behind’s harsh rules?

2. Will we have that long-awaited national conversation about the goals of public education?

3. And will political leaders rise up against the excesses of for-profit education, so effectively documented in the New York Times (December 13, 2011), where we learned that the school superintendent of one for-profit charter chain that enrolls 94,000 students is paid $5,000,000 a year? (By contrast, Dennis Walcott, who is responsible for over one million New York City public school students, earns $213,000 a year.)

Sadly, I fear that the answer to those three questions is NO, NO and NO. Professional educators — who are generally reactors, not actors — will be busy trying to keep up with the latest new new thing (this year it’s the Common Core). I don’t expect rebellious behavior from superintendents and school boards, no matter how much they claim to be chafing under NCLB. Expect instead a further narrowing of the curriculum, more testing, larger classes, and the continued heroic behavior of most teachers under difficult circumstances.

Because this is an election year, the politics of public education are even crazier than usual, meaning that serious debate over the federal role in education won’t occur in 2012. Republicans are running against the very existence of the federal Department of Education, not debating subtleties of achievement measures. Not only is there zero chance of a national dialogue, the probability that anything useful will happen in the re-authorization of NCLB is pretty slim, unless it happens very early this year.

And because money talks in education, the for-profit crowd seems likely to continue its creeping expansion. A few more exposés like Stephanie Saul’s wonderful New York Times piece (linked above) won’t be enough to make us care about what amounts to the selling of other people’s children.

Classroom
What will happen here in 2012?

However, I can imagine four and perhaps five hopeful scenarios for 2012. In ascending order of importance (my judgement call), they are ‘Growth in Home Schooling,’ ‘Shutting Down Failing Charter Schools,’ ‘Board/Union Cooperation,’ ‘Whole School Evaluation,’ and ‘Blended Learning.’

I think it’s safe to predict more Home Schooling, fueled by a stagnant economy, policies that allow home-school students to participate in some school activities, and parental dissatisfaction with public education’s relentless focus on math and reading. Parents want more for their kids, and, if one parent can’t find a paying job outside the home, why not teach your own?

A larger number of failing charter schools will be closed in 2012. It’s happening now in California, New Orleans and Washington, DC. While the stated reason is often financial, as Andy Rotherham wryly notes, that’s how they got Al Capone. What that means: it’s easier to prove financial mismanagement than educational malpractice, but they often go hand in hand. If the non-profit public charter movement gets its act together and both raises and adheres to high standards, there’s no stopping this movement in 2012.

Board/Union Cooperation is not some dream scenario. It’s happening because the Race to the Top competition got the two sides talking, because the Gates Foundation and the U. S. Department are putting dollars behind it, and because quite a few leaders on both sides of the table are reading the tea leaves. Union leaders are well aware of the threat posed by charter schools, which do not have to unionize. Whether there’s pressure on school boards to stop their meddling is an open question, but there’s a trend toward decentralization that could grow. It’s not just Hillsborough, Florida, folks. This could be big in 2012. Maybe we will see shorter contracts that leave more decisions in the hands of the people in the school, instead of dictates from on high.

Whole School Evaluation is a sleeper for 2012 because all the public attention has been directed toward measuring the effectiveness of individual teachers (often so the ineffective ones can be removed). But quietly and behind the scenes, a few leaders have recognized that evaluating every teacher individually would entail testing every subject in every grade — and that’s both illogical and insane!

Concrete plans are being developed and implemented that use multiple measures to draw conclusions about how much or how little the entire school is progressing. And when a school rises, everyone involved — including office staff, custodians, attendance officers and the like — stand to benefit. Washington, DC, which has been in the spotlight (and sometimes the cross hairs) for its controversial “Impact” system, uses what seems like a sensible Whole School Evaluation approach. Esther Wojcicki and I wrote an op-ed, “Trust but Verify”, on this subject a few months ago, if you’d like to know more about how it could work.

But my personal pick in 2012 is Blended Learning, an idea whose time has certainly come. Sal Khan and the Khan Academy are the most visible (and most successful) manifestation, but I hear that forward-thinking educators in many districts are recognizing that, while kids are going to be in schools, there is no reason they cannot be connected with students across the district, the state, the nation and the world. What’s more, the traditional ‘stop signs’ of 8th grade, 9th grade, 10th grade and so forth are now meaningless. If a child can use technology to help her move through three years of math in one, she should be encouraged to dig deep and move at her own pace. And when a child needs a year-and-a-half to get through Algebra, that’s fine too.

There are plenty of hurdles to the widespread acceptance of Blended Learning, chief among them being habit and tradition. Teachers are going to need help with this, because they haven’t been trained or encouraged to ‘let go’ of control, and, frankly, Blended Learning can make life difficult for the adults in charge. After all, it requires close personal attention to individual kids, instead of the usual practice of grouping kids by their age. In this approach, learning is a two-way street that demands exploration and always entails failure. No doubt some are going to try to co-opt Blended Learning either to make money from it or to cut the labor force (teachers), but, all that aside, Blended Learning is my bet for education’s big winner in 2012.

So, there you have my predictions/hopes for 2012. What are yours?

What are you thankful for in education?

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In a recent tweet, I wondered aloud about what we should be thankful for in education (a similar discussion happened before Thanksgiving on the Learning Matters website). I got a variety of responses, including:

  • Students who are hungry to learn;
  • Parents and other family members who work in concert with teachers to support effective learning;
  • Growing collaboration between School Boards and Unions, often made possible by foundation grants;
  • Teacher collaboratives, like Barnett Berry’s Teacher Leader Network and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards;
  • A rich and broad variety of well-written blogs that assist in solving problems;
  • Research and documentation of pedagogy and materials that have a positive impact on learning; and
  • The Internet itself, which allows teachers to connect and support each other.

That’s a nice list. However, although I am basically a ‘glass half-full’ personality, it’s hard to be cheerful given what we are doing in public education. While I was in California last week, a friend in Palo Alto told me that his daughter was one of 40 students in her high school math class, one of 38 in her history class. In Palo Alto, one of the state’s richest communities! Our 2005 documentary history of California education, “First to Worst,” is due for a sequel, “First to Burst.”

Or take the U.S. Department of Education. It seems to me that the push for higher standards, the emphasis on early education, and the support for developing common tests are all positive. But, with its other hand, the Department is supporting more cheap and dumbed-down testing when it encourages grading teachers based on bubble test scores. Now, I know someone will tell me that I am misrepresenting Arne Duncan and send me quotes from his speeches, but I think we are past listening to what’s being said, and into actually watching what’s being done.

Thankful
What should inspire this reaction in education?

I would be happier if the Department supported policies that rewarded entire schools, not individual teachers, because education is a team sport. After all, federal legislation punishes entire schools for not making ‘adequate yearly progress.’ So why not create some carrots to go along with the stick? How about ‘OYP’ for ‘Outstanding Yearly Progress?’

In California last week at a 1-day meeting about “next generation” assessments, I was struck by the richness of what’s being developed in New York, Ohio, California and elsewhere. In these approaches, project-based learning leads to complex and comprehensive assessments. The logic is clear: kids will dig deep into subjects, and the assessment that follows will respect their efforts. In this (future) world, simple bubble tests will be trumped by assessments that are also learning experiences.

Right now, however, bubble tests rule. Teachers spend as much as one-sixth of their time getting kids ready for the test, administering the test and test makeups, or going over the test. Imagine that: 30 out of 180 days on testing stuff, days that could be spent on learning and teaching. New York State just announced plans to expand testing, so that third graders will now take a 3-hour reading test, and Washington, DC, has announced its intention to give standardized exams to second graders!

We won’t get to a brighter future until we figure out ways to turn our backs on the idiocy of the current system–while keeping our focus on achievement and accountability.


A final note of thanks: Learning Matters has received a challenge grant that will give us $100,000 if we can raise $100,000. Right now we are about $40,000 shy of the goal. If you want to help, click here. Invest $20 or $100 or an amount of your choice, and I promise you will get that back tenfold in quality reporting.

Questioning the conventional wisdom

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The phrase “conventional wisdom” is often an oxymoron, at least in education. At a bare minimum, conventional wisdom ought to be questioned. Which is what I propose to do here about ‘Time on Task’ and the new Common Core standards.

‘Time On Task’ is a concept educators love to talk about. It often goes this way: someone asks about extending the school day and/or the school year, prompting this response: “Good idea, because more time on task produces academic gains.”

Odds are good that what comes next is an emphatic statement about the importance of quality time on task — which strikes me as akin to supporting motherhood and apple pie.

Everyone nods approvingly at this conventional wisdom.

But they have it backwards. It’s not ‘quality time’ that matters so much. It’s ‘quality tasks.’ Anyone who’s spent much time in high school lately knows that much of what goes on there is mind-numbing. It’s the tasks, not the time, that ought to take precedence.

You may have read my earlier comments about creating knowledge, so I won’t rehash them here, except to say that teachers have remarkable opportunities to work with young people on tasks that build their skills and knowledge, tasks that challenge their creativity, and tasks that help them sort through the flood of information that surrounds them 24/7 and turn it into knowledge.

So it’s not ‘quality time on task’ that we should be talking about. Instead, it’s ‘Time on Quality Tasks.’ See that the tasks are meaningful, and we won’t have to worry about time — most students will want to complete quality tasks.

The second example of conventional wisdom that ought to be scrutinized involves the Common Core (national) standards for math and English, which have now been endorsed/adopted by 45 states. Bandwagons in general scare me, and the Common Core bandwagon is moving at high speed, endorsed not just by most states but also by teacher unions and many other education associations. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and I talked about it at our Twitter Town Hall this past Monday, and he was lavish in his praise, while taking extreme care to point out that the federal government had not written these standards.

(However, his Department of Education has thrown a lot of money at this and also made acceptance of ‘higher standards’ one of the four requirements for qualifying for its “Race to the Top” competition. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

STOP Sign
Is this a sign that our children should be seeing year-to-year?

The Common Core will be a game-changer, the Secretary asserted. Perhaps they will be, but I have to wonder how many people have actually read them? (The PDFs, available for download at the site linked in the first paragraph above, are quite lengthy.)

One thing is clear: What we have now in public education is unacceptable. It’s a hodgepodge of standards, many quite low because of the ‘dumbing down’ effects of No Child Left Behind. As Robert Rothman makes clear in his valuable new book, Something in Common, America has been wrestling with this issue for years. So I am not arguing for the status quo. However, I am afraid that we are missing an opportunity to re-examine our 19th Century approach to school organization. Let me explain.

Because I taught English in high school and college at the beginning of my career, I have been poking around in the ELA standards (English Language Arts). They are very detailed, by year, and ‘strand’ and category. So be prepared to crack the code, ‘Rl.5.4,’ ‘Rl.9.10.10,’ and so on.

On the subject of ‘Range of reading and level of text complexity,’ by the end of the year, fifth graders are expected to “read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.”

Before you say ‘huh’, read on.

In that same category, this is what’s expected of 9th graders: “By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9–10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.”

“Scaffolding” is educational jargon. Think building blocks. First you learn to add and subtract, then you build on that scaffold and learn to multiply and divide, that sort of thing. An awful lot of learning does NOT occur that way, but that’s probably beside the point here.

Leaving aside the mind-numbing jargon that makes my eyes glaze over, I have a serious issue with the Common Core and the conventional wisdom that these detailed national standards are just what we need. They are pouring concrete around our antiquated, age-segregated approach to learning. Just when modern technologies allow students to move at individual and different speeds, the Common Core standards seem to set in concrete the notions of 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade, and so on.

I worry that these markers will become stop signs, just as the grade demarcations now operate. Not long ago I heard a school principal complain that he had to tell his 9th graders to ‘motor down’ to get ready for the 9th grade test — because they were doing 11th grade math. All they will get credit for, naturally, is the 9th grade. Isn’t “Slow Down!” a horrible lesson about the irrationality of the world for those young people to absorb?

Schools work around age segregation by creating programs for ‘the gifted,’ which allow precocious 9-year-olds to do work that’s usually for older kids. Sometimes kids skip a grade, but no one seems to question age- and grade-segregation.

I want to be clear here. I am not arguing for ‘fewer standards,’ something the writers seemed to have anticipated, because they write, “It is important to recognize that ‘fewer standards’ are no substitute for focused standards. Achieving “fewer standards” would be easy to do by resorting to broad, general statements. Instead, these Standards aim for clarity and specificity.”

‘Specificity’ they’ve achieved, but ‘clarity?’ Re-read the excerpts quoted above.

I have a suggestion. Rather than perpetuate grade-based learning, could we set standards for age groups? Standards for children ages 6-10 that say, ‘This is what every 10-year-old is expected to be able to do.’ Standards for kids ages 11-14 that say ‘This is what every 14-year-old is expected to be able to do.’ And graduation standards for those ages 15-18: ‘This is what every HS senior is expected to be able to do before getting a diploma.’ Then our system could actually be learner-centered.

Is that a pipe dream? What do you think?

Do you want your kids on THAT bus?

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John’s book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon; you can learn more about it at the book’s official website, or, if interested in buying copies for your class or discussion group, you can consult this page.

Imagine it’s early morning, 20 minutes or so after the school bus was expected. You are waiting with your children when an old yellow clunker — belching smoke, with its rear emergency door hanging open — weaves toward you. The driver, a pint of whiskey in one hand, yells out an apology: “Sorry about being late. The damn thing keeps stalling on me.” Before you can say anything, he adds, “I know this ain’t the prettiest or the safest looking bus, but it’s the best we got. Hop right in, kids.” Then he grins and says, “Don’t worry. You won’t be late for school. I’ll put the pedal to the metal and get this baby rolling.”

Of course you wouldn’t let your child board the bus. Instead, you would snap photos with your phone, post them on Facebook, and begin organizing a campaign to fire the drunk driver — and the leaders who were so cavalier about your child’s physical safety. You’d probably organize a boycott of that bus and keep your child home, rather than risk his or her safety.

So then why do parents accept educational practices that put the educational health and safety of their children at risk? I am talking about how schools go about measuring academic progress: how they test.

Bus
If you saw this clunker rolling towards your child, would you let him or her board? Probably not -- but in some other ways, you already do.

I can’t begin to count the number of conversations I have had with educators over the years about testing, conversations that always seem to begin something like this: “I know about the problems with testing, and I personally hate them, but that’s the system — and we have to have accountability.”

The superintendent of a big city system said that to me earlier this week with a slightly different twist: it’s the public that is “test score crazy,” she said, and, even though we educators know the tests are horribly flawed, we have to give the public what it wants.

In other words, put your kids on that bus….

How is this approach to schooling flawed? Let me count the ways….

1. A narrowed curriculum: Jack Jennings and his Center for Education Policy, among others, have reported on the narrowing of the curriculum, with ‘frills’ like art, music, journalism et al being eliminated or drastically reduced so that adults could focus on reading and math, the stuff being tested under No Child Left Behind.

2. Goodbye, gifted programs: Early in the reign of NCLB, we reported for PBS Newshour on the shrinking of programs for gifted kids, another response to the drive for higher test scores.

3. Hello, drilling: The ‘drive’ for better scores often means mind-numbing drills, especially in schools full of low-income children.

4. Wasting time: Educators like to talk about ‘time on task,’ their term for spending class time on academics. But someone ought to talk about ‘time on test’ because I am hearing awful stories about how some teachers spend up to 20 percent of their time either preparing for the tests or giving the tests.

Twenty percent! That’s one day a week, folks, and it’s time that your children don’t get back.

5. ‘Cheap, cheap, cheap,’ said the little bird: Tests aren’t bad, but cheap tests are, and our schools rely on cheap tests. In Florida, I am told that the FCAT tests costs about $20 per child. So Florida spends just over $10,000 per pupil and one fifth of one percent of that amount assessing the impact of its investment. How cheap is that? How stupid is that?

Let’s compare the way we assess kids to how we test our cars. I drive a used 2002 Toyota 4Runner that cost $12,000 a few years ago, and I spend at least $400 a year assessing it. That’s just over three percent, folks, to ‘test and measure’ my car. (The entire process took just one day of the year, not one day of every week.)

I will bet that every one of you who owns a car spends a like amount, meaning that, on some level, we care more about our cars than our children.

So who’s ultimately to blame for the testing mess? Bottom line, who has the power to put their kid on that bus, or not? Isn’t it time for parents to demand better for their children, especially since nobody else is willing to challenge a system that almost everyone agrees is inaccurate and damaging?


On a different note, some of you may know that we’ve been working on a documentary about New Orleans schools after Katrina. We now have a trailer for that documentary online, and you can watch it right here:

Definitely feel free to send it around to friends and colleagues — for more information on when the doc will be finished and where to see it, join our mailing list.

Honoring teachers — again?

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John’s book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon; you can learn more about it at the book’s official website, or, if interested in buying copies for your class or discussion group, you can consult this page.

Would you believe that tomorrow we are expected to put aside our own important work and honor teachers? That’s right, we’re supposed to drop everything and pay homage to those lazy, overpaid, spoiled, money-grubbing, summer-vacationing, ‘we’ve-got-tenure-and-you-don’t’ incompetents.

That’s because Wednesday, October 5th, is “World Teachers’ Day,” an occasion recognized by more than 100 countries around the world. But it’s also “Teacher Day” on Thursday, October 6th, the following day, in Sri Lanka.

In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that every day of the year is “Teacher Day” somewhere in the world.

Teachers have October locked up, that’s for sure. Beside this Wednesday’s celebration for those 100 countries and Sri Lanka’s on Thursday, Australia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Brazil, Poland, Chile, Ukraine and New Zealand all have chosen an October day to celebrate their teachers. In Ukraine, students give their teachers chocolate! (You and I work hard. Does anyone give us chocolate?)

Teachers
All over the world, teachers receive gifts on various appreciation days -- but what should be making of the overall dialogue on the profession?

Here in the USA we have at least two Teacher Days and an entire Teacher Week. The first full week of May is “Teacher Appreciation Week,” with that particular Tuesday being designated as “Teacher Appreciation Day.” This official celebration is apparently the result of hard work by the National Education Association and the National PTA. Massachusetts celebrates its own “Teachers’ Day,” the first Sunday in June.

February 28th is a good day for teachers in the Middle East. That’s when 12 countries celebrate: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Oman.

Because we were asleep at the switch, we have already missed India’s “Teacher Day” (September 5), China’s and Hong Kong’s (September 10th), Brunei’s celebration on September 23, Taiwan’s (September 28) and Singapore’s (first Friday of the month). India makes a teacher’s cushy job even easier because on that day senior students take over the responsibility for teaching.

The only month that does NOT have a “Teachers Day” to call its own is, predictably, August. June has four (Bolivia, El Salvador, Hungary, and Guatemala), March has five (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Albania, Lebanon, and Iraq), but the merry month of May tops them both, with six country celebrations: Iran, Bhutan, Jamaica, Malaysia, Mexico, and Colombia.

Teachers really live the life of Riley in Vietnam. November 20th is set aside to allow students “to express their respect to their teacher. Students begin preparing a week in advance, and many classes usually prepare literature and art to welcome teachers’ day, while other students prepare foods and flowers for the parties held at their schools. Students usually visit their teachers at their homes to offer flowers and small gifts, or organize trips with their teachers and classmates. Former students also pay respect to their former teachers on this day.”

To be serious for a moment, what are we to make of all these celebrations honoring teachers? While I am all for honoring those men and women, I hope the respect neither begins nor ends on that particular day. Somehow I keep thinking of Jon Stewart’s wry comment at the end of February when he noted that, now that Black History Month was over, we could get back to White History Year.

I have a modest proposal. In addition to the celebrations, how about a concerted effort to end the dishonoring of teachers and teaching? I’m talking about the Fox News commentators who rattle on about overpaid teachers; those school principals who treat teachers as interchangeable parts; union reps who bargain for rigid and bizarre work rules that hamstring dedicated teachers and administrators alike; curriculum designers who labor to create ‘teacher-proof’ curricula; education school leaders with low standards and undemanding programs; cheap-shot politicians and so on. I am sure that there are a few million teachers who would like to see any of them try to do for just one day what teachers do every day of the school year.

Me, I would give anything to capture that on film. We could call the ensuing television program “Real Hypocrites in Classroom 203” or maybe “America’s Got Bozos.”

Thanks, teachers. Enjoy the day — and the career.

Some thoughts on Education Nation

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon; you can also check out a Sacramento Bee editorial he co-authored with Esther Wojcicki, the Learning Matters Board Chair.

Although I left before the final event — an appearance by former President Bill Clinton — I was on hand for almost everything else, and I am comfortable declaring Education Nation 2011 a success, a 180-degree turn from last year’s disappointment.

Last year, education wonks will remember that Education Nation was badly tilted in favor of charter schools and against unions and the ‘bad teachers’ they protect. It was as if everyone running the show drank the Kool-Aid poured by “Waiting for ‘Superman’”, Davis Guggenheim’s well-made but fundamentally-flawed movie.

Not this year. Balance was the order of the day. Both union presidents and lots of regular public school teachers got ample stage time. Because NBC’s talent pool is deep, lots of good questions were asked.

For me, the absolute hit of the two days was the 65 minutes on Monday morning devoted to “Brain Power: Why Early Learning Matters.” We were treated to four snappy, insightful and short presentations by professors from the University of Washington, UC Berkeley and Harvard, after which NBC’s chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, presided over a lively discussion about the educational implications of what we had just seen and experienced.

This hit home with many audience members because much of it was new and because the pedagogy modeled what all of us are arguing for in today’s schools.

But there was other good stuff: Brian Williams herding a panel of ten (10!) governors, Tom Brokaw talking with Sal Khan and Arne Duncan, Williams again with an examination of inequality (“What’s in a Zip Code?”), and David Gregory refereeing a debate between Diane Ravitch and Geoffrey Canada.

Secretary Duncan was everywhere, taking questions gracefully and speaking earnestly about education as ‘the civil rights issue of our time.’

At least 271 people labored to make Education Nation run seamlessly, which they did with a smile. Hats off to them.

And Education Nation is also a great opportunity to see and be seen. I had a dozen or more stimulating conversations and left with four or five really good story ideas for PBS NewsHour.

And so, I think it’s fair to say that Education Nation is close to achieving that lofty ‘must attend’ status, no small feat for an enterprise that stumbled so badly out of the gate and is only two years old.

Is Education Nation all talk, or mostly talk, or will good things happen because of these conversations? I don’t know, but in defense of education and Education Nation, I don’t believe that comparable events are being held around health care, energy and transportation, to name just three other issues of great importance.

Now to the tough part — and here I have a choice between being nice and being not-so-nice. For once, I choose the former. And so I am couching my critique in the form of a proposal for next year’s Education Nation, instead of complaining about missed opportunities.

Next year, NBC’s journalists must tackle two of the elephants in the room. One is the obstacles to innovation. The second is the problem inherent in overemphasizing ‘innovation.’

Start with obstacles: In an early morning session on Monday, Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation spoke eloquently about the possibilities of blended learning. Kids, she said, could now explore and advance at their own pace in many subjects. And she’s right. We know that students using the Khan Academy math program (which I watched in action in a school in Mountain View, CA, last week) can move through three, four or five ‘grade levels’ in math without ever being aware of how rapidly they are moving — because there are no “Stop, you have reached the end of 5th grade!” signs.

So far so good, but, unfortunately for those fast-moving kids, current ‘seat time’ and course credit rules mean that a student earns just one year of credit no matter how many levels he or she actually moves up. In fact, that kid’s teacher is probably going to have to tell him to slow down, which is a terrible message to send.

Education Nation
In its second year, Education Nation is close to 'must-attend' status.

But that issue wasn’t addressed, and, until it is, lots of wonderful innovations are going to rust on the sidelines. I mentioned this to Tom Brokaw, and he got it right away, connecting it to the one-room school that his mother had attended. There, he said, the teacher had to let kids move at their own pace because she was responsible for six or seven grades. Perhaps that proves that there is no new thing under the sun. The point is learning can be ‘customized’ in theory, but it won’t happen in practice until the system loosens its rules on ‘seat time.’

A few educators told me that some schools and districts are experimenting with approaches that judge students based on competency, instead of weeks of seat time, and that’s good news. Next year NBC ought to make this a centerpiece and show us how and where it’s being done — and what problems this new approach creates.

My second issue is deeper, and that’s all the enthusiasm for ‘innovation.’ I say, “Enough already.” Please give equal time to ‘imitation.’ We have lots of good schools and good programs and good teachers, stuff that can and should be copied.

Notice that I am not saying ‘replicate’ or ‘go to scale.’ Those fancy terms are part of the problem, frankly, because they scare away folks — or they become an excuse for not doing anything. Educators can rationalize that they don’t have support for ‘innovation’ and don’t have the apparatus for ‘going to scale’ and ‘replication,’ and that’s why they aren’t doing anything out of the ordinary.

Sorry, those excuses don’t cut it any longer. Just imitate. It’s easy to do, and it doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, headline-grabbing stuff. Here’s an example: KIPP kindergarten teachers explain to their kids why they are going to walk in a line and why they are expected to be quiet in the halls. Lots of regular teachers just tell the kids to line up and be quiet. The first way is respectful and creates shared responsibility, while the second seems likely to create behavior problems down the road.

Teachers who copy that are not ‘endorsing’ KIPP or sleeping with the enemy. They are just doing something that works.

I strongly believe that education needs a new narrative to replace the current one (‘honor teachers’), which replaced last year’s narrative (‘charter schools are good, unions are bad’).

I suggest a narrative that is tougher on schools but also closer to reality. It’s this: “For as long as anyone can remember, there has been close to a 1:1 correlation between parental income and educational outcomes, whether the parents were rich, poor or somewhere in between. On one level, that seems to mean that schools basically do not matter. Only money talks.

“However, we know that’s not true because we have in front of our eyes hundreds of examples of schools and teachers that do change lives.

“So do not be mad about schooling’s failure to dramatically improve the lives of all 15 million children living in poverty. Instead, imitate the successful places, people and practices. Find out what’s keeping educators from imitating success. Eliminate the obstacles and — here’s where you should get mad — get rid of the educators who refuse to be copy-cats.”

Congratulations, NBC, for sparking a national conversation that will be ongoing. I hope you will invite me back next year.

Get out the blender, kids

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

I think I have just glimpsed the future, or at least what could be the future, of public education. I’m talking about the effective use of today’s technology to enhance learning, or what insiders are calling ‘blended education.’ Michael Horn, a co-author of Disrupting Class, provided a definition: Blended learning is any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.

Some, including Michael Horn and his colleagues at Innosight, are predicting that by 2019 50% or more of high school classes will be delivered online, a staggering concept until you consider that in 2007 only one million students were taking courses online, and today four million are. ‘Virtual classes’ qualify as blended learning, because most of those kids are enrolled in traditional high schools.

That’s a growth industry: Just a few years ago only eight states allowed virtual courses or schools; today, nearly 40 states allow it — and a few require students to take at least one virtual class. The best-known virtual school, Florida’s Virtual High School, now enrolls over 100,000 students.

I spent Tuesday watching and listening, first at a school in Mountain View, California, where sixth graders were using iPads to work through mathematical lessons, a curriculum created by Sal Khan and his colleagues at the Khan Academy. Some were working together, some were online, some were doing paper-and-pencil problems, while the teacher monitored their progress on her own iPad or helped kids who asked for assistance. These teachers did not seem to be either ‘the sage on the sage’ or ‘the guide on the side’, as the jargon has it. In fact, one teacher likened herself to ‘an education designer.’ The image of a conductor came into my mind — of an orchestra and a train.

Someone else compared teachers in blended learning situations to today’s doctors, who do not sit by the side of their patients until they recover. Instead, much of the care is provided by nurses (classroom aides), and the doctor is called in only as needed.

Loaded onto the sixth graders’ tablets was a curriculum that covers math well into high school, well over 200 ‘lessons’ that the teacher admitted she herself had not completed. Think about that for a minute — and contrast it with today’s approach, where sixth graders and their teachers have a ‘Sixth Grade Math Book’ as their starting and stopping places.

iPad
Can a 'blended learning' approach help save American education?

This approach — again, blended learning — has no such borders or border guards, meaning that kids in 6th grade can move on up. (The curriculum includes lots of ‘refresher’ points, we were told, to insure against ‘learning and forgetting.’)

Later that day the group of about 30 journalists convened at Google to hear from school leaders about their own embrace of technology. Karen Cator, who is Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s chief advisor on technology, told us that it was time for the US to ‘ratchet up.’

“It’s an inflection point,” the former Apple executive said, because our children are digital natives, because most teachers are now using technology in the own personal lives, and because we all recognize that our schools are failing too many kids.

That said, Cator and others acknowledge that major obstacles stand in the way of widespread adoption of blended learning. One is textbooks, which are, as noted above, divided by grades. Textbooks reflect our slavish devotion to ‘seat time’ as the measure of accomplishment — fifth graders have to spend one year doing fifth grade stuff, and so on. Another obstacle: school funding and graduation credit hours are based on ‘seat time,’ not competency — except in Florida’s Virtual School, where state funding only arrives after a student completes a course successfully. That means that schools don’t have a strong incentive to allow kids to move along at their own pace.

This new educational world of ‘high tech’ will demand ‘high teach,’ former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise noted. Places that train teachers need a major overhaul, and that could be the weak link in the chain.

Today’s bubble tests are a gigantic barrier, because they are ‘dumbed down’ and are not likely to reward those who move ahead. One school leader told us that, before his state tests, he had to ‘ratchet back’ his 9th graders, because most of them were doing 11th grade math. What a message to send to students!

It’s an absurd situation, said ex-Governor Wise.

“We spend about $10,000 a year on each student but trust evaluation to a $5 instrument.” He spends $200-300 a year ‘evaluating’ his $15,000 car. When he said that, I saw heads nodding in agreement.

We also have a long tradition of using schools as a sorting mechanism to identify those who are ‘college material’ and weed out those who are not. That has to change.

And blended learning faces another challenge: because we all went to school, we are experts and know how school is ‘supposed to be.’

Quite by chance, I had spent part of the previous day talking education with a friend who works in an entirely different field. When I told him about the next day’s ‘blended learning’ agenda, he laughed. “My son did that 18 years ago,” he said and proceeded to tell me the story of his 7th grader who, stuck with an uninspiring math teacher, signed up with a new program at Stanford, EPGY, for ‘education program for gifted youth.’ Via computer and with occasional meetings on the Stanford campus, the young man moved through math classes and levels at his own pace. By senior year in high school he was taking advanced calculus at Stanford. There is no new thing under the sun, it’s fair to say, but today’s students should not have to search outside the schools for opportunities to learn. It’s time for them to step up — or fade into obsolesence.

The intersection of technology and test scores

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

“In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores” blared the headline in New York Times on September 4th. The paper’s editors decided that the top-of-the-fold story on Page 1 also warranted two full pages inside, plus four color photos and a graph. That’s a huge part of the news hole on any day, but particularly on Sunday, when circulation is at its highest.

The long piece is worth reading, but at the end of the day what stood out for me was what the article failed to take note of: the unimaginative uses of the technology, essentially digital versions of routine stuff: One teacher gave a true-false quiz but handed out wireless clickers for students to record their answers. In other classes, kids were playing a math game (“Alien Addition”) and an interactive spelling game, while other students were videotaping a skit that they could as easily have simply performed for the class.

In none of the examples presented were teachers using the technology to burst the boundaries of their classroom to connect with students in other cities, or even elsewhere in their district. None were using the Internet to do original research. I’ve written about this before, and Learning Matters producer John Tulenko helped craft a great piece related to the topic:

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It seemed to be all about entertainment or delivering more efficiently what the adults had decided the kids need to know, rather than allowing and encouraging students to follow their own interests — at least occasionally. I fault the reporter for not drawing that distinction and for not pressing the adults who are spending all this money on the paucity of imagination.

But my real point is that the Times reporter could — and should — have written a very different story:

“Schools spend billions on technology but use it to do the same old stuff in more entertaining ways!”

Why is this happening, the reporter could have asked? Is it because teachers don’t understand the technology’s power, or because they want to make sure the kids learn what the adults have decided they must learn — or because they are ruled by fear of low test scores?

Running throughout the article is a constant refrain about the limitations of test scores. Adult after adult complained that “Test scores were not an adequate measure of the value of technology” but then went on to say, in effect, “Well, that’s what we have to live by.”

Tech
Why is technology being used in rote ways?

That really gets my dander up. They are endorsing spending billions on technology — it’s not their money — and they complain about the tyranny of bubble tests, even while their pedagogy is focused on test scores.

If they understood what today’s technology can do, and if they were enabling their teachers to go there, and if scores were still stagnant, that would be a story. (But the story might now be about how inappropriate bubble tests are to measure this new learning.)

Something must be done. The Times reports that school systems spent $1.89 billion on software in 2010 and perhaps five times that amount on hardware. That’s real money, especially at a time when school districts are going to four-day weeks, cutting art and music, eliminating Advanced Placement classes, and making other draconian cuts.

And then this expensive technology is used in woefully unimaginative ways!

Establishing a ratio of dollars for training to dollars for software and hardware is not the answer, because there aren’t sufficient incentives for teachers to try new approaches — at least not as long as their main job is to get those test scores up.

To find the solution, go back to the whining mentioned above, the constant complaints about the lack of adequate measures.

That brings me to a conversation I had last week with a leader in the reform movement. I asked his thoughts about the erasure scandals in Atlanta, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and elsewhere. He said it was a wake-up call and a clear message that we need better security. “Since those scores count for so much,” he said, “systems have to do a better job of protecting the tests.”

He’s not alone. A few days ago a panel of experts in New York recommended tighter security, including giving all tests on the same day and requiring proctors to certify that they have been trained in ‘security procedures.’

Wrong, guys! That barn door is off the hinges and the the horse is long gone. As long as adults’ jobs and students’ promotions and graduations are determined by test scores, there will be cheating. Students can use wireless devices to share answers, for example, while ‘fully certified’ proctors can still nudge nudge wink wink their way around the room, helping students pass.

We ought to be searching for multiple measures of academic progress, measures that are valid, reliable and reasonably affordable.

Who should be doing the searching? Wonderful as the U. S. Department of Education’s i3 ‘innovation’ grant program sounded, it was never set up to support risky investments of the sort I think will be required. It bet on such ‘innovations’ as Teach for America and KIPP, and that’s fine, but what’s needed here is some real risk-taking.

I have three candidates:

1. The companies now making megabucks on testing, Pearson and McGraw-Hill, ought to be protecting their revenue stream by finding better ways.

2. Apple, Microsoft, Dell and others hawking their products have a strong interest in public evidence of the power of technology.

But the best candidate might be the New Schools Venture Fund, who I think are the brightest folks on the block. That organization has never been shy about taking chances, probably because it exemplifies the spirit of its founder, John Doerr. In the Venture Capitalist world, only a small percentage of investments hit a home run, and the NSVF gets that. It’s putting dollars behind a number of new approaches to teacher training, for example, in the expectation that some of them will be a distinct improvement on the current approach — while others will fall short.

(I don’t know how NSVF finances work, but maybe Apple, McGraw-Hill, et alia should be making large donations to that organization?)

We need that venture capitalist mentality and approach to the world of measurement. So what if most of the schemes don’t pan out, as long as we emerge with a few that actually work?

This matters because right now school systems have almost no incentive to trust technology — because they don’t know how it will affect those test scores.

Look, educators are excessively literal and overly reactive. They haven’t gotten where they are by taking chances, so don’t expect them to take the lead now. Society has been telling them that we want good reading scores (we haven’t said, “we want kids who love to read,” just good reading scores). So why are we surprised when they drill kids on reading tests?

Bottom line: schools will never realize the power of technology until they get out from under our current way of holding them accountable. We need accountability, but what we are now doing is stifling learning and teaching. It’s making public education worse, not better.