A New Song for Michelle Rhee?

A few years ago, people were singing “Michelle, My belle, these are words that go together well.”

Today people are singing a different tune, “Should she stay, or should she go?”

Now that Adrian Fenty has lost his bid for a second term, the education world is buzzing about the fate of Michelle Rhee, his outspoken schools chancellor.  Ms. Rhee has become a national figure, much beloved by many outside the district.  At home, however, she is a lightning rod and a polarizing personality.  In her 3+ years she has closed nearly two-dozen schools, fired more than 15% of her central office staff, and let over 100 teachers go for inadequate performance.

Michelle Rhee and Adrian FentyWhile many say that Ms. Rhee has made long overdue changes in a dysfunctional system, others—including both the local and national teachers unions—have campaigned to get rid of her and, by extension, some of the changes she has made.  By some reports, the unions spent over $100,000 to defeat Mr. Fenty and, by extension, Ms. Rhee and her policies.

What about Michelle Rhee herself?  Would she want to stay on and report to Fenty’s probable successor, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray? Continue reading

Schools and Cyberbullying

In late June Jan Hoffman of the New York Times explored the tough issue of cyberbullying and the schools. She led her provocative piece with an anecdote about parents asking their 6th grade daughter’s principal to intervene in a particularly difficult situation involving abusive and sexually suggestive email from a boy. They didn’t want to involve the police, and they knew the boy’s parents socially. The principal’s response was cut and dried: “This occurred out of school, on a weekend. We can’t discipline him.”

CyberbullingAt first I thought that was a legalistic, hair-splitting response—until I read about a principal who did get involved, was subsequently sued by the angry parent of the offending child, and lost. That’s horrifying, but it’s the reality.

My takeaway, however, is not that schools are right to split hairs and decline to get involved. Instead, I think we need some redefinition, some fresh thinking.

Continue reading

Writing ‘Below C Level’

In my work for PBS NewsHour over the past three years, I am most often asked two very specific questions: “Is Jim Lehrer ever going to retire?” And “What is your personal opinion of Michelle Rhee? Do you like her and what she’s doing in Washington?”

Below C LevelTo the first question my answer is always the same. ‘I hope not.” Of course I never answer the second question when I am asked, because it’s our job to report what we see happening, not express opinions or pass judgment. I do, however, have some thoughts on the subject, which you will find in Chapter 9 of Below C Level, pages 81-105. Yes, it takes 24 pages.

I spent five and one-half years writing Below C Level. The first drafts of many of the chapters were written on an airplane—I haven’t watched an in-flight movie for years—because my work takes me to distant places, and I have been living on the West Coast for the past eight years.

But, looking back with the first copy of Below C Level on the desk next to me now, I realize that the first five years were a walk in the park, relatively speaking. The last six months were without question the hardest part of the journey. During that time I rewrote every one of the 37 chapters. Once rewritten, it then had to find a place in the structure of the book, or go into the circular file. Continue reading

Summer reading

Well, it’s finally here, the proof copy of Below C Level. I looked it over and then went on line to give my approval. That one keystroke made the book available immediately.

Below C LevelAnd if you want to be the first in your neighborhood to have a copy, please visit the Below C Level website or purchase it online directly at www.createspace.com/3422460.

When you do that, you will be getting a pretty good read and also helping Learning Matters–because I am donating most of the royalties to the company.

What’s in the book, you ask? Well, It’s 432 pages before you even get to the index, 37 chapters covering everything from pre-school through higher education.

A wry friend suggested that, if I wanted to sell a lot of books, I should just write about all the people I’ve interviewed over the past 34 years. An option, he said, was to tell the truth about them. I’ve actually followed his advice (including the option); the index is 11 pages of mostly names. Continue reading

Teacher Seniority – Excerpt from Below C Level

This is an excerpt from Chapter 22 of my forthcoming book, Below C Level. For this post I have removed the footnotes.

Chapter 22 Excerpt

Where seniority rules, new teachers are likely to suffer. They are often assigned to the least desirable schools, given the “worst” classes, the most preparations and the additional assignments nobody else wants. But here’s a radical thought: Seniority, at least in its most rigid forms, hurts veteran teachers, too.

SeniorityIt’s not difficult to find administrators who dislike the rigidities of seniority. When I asked an assistant principal how his elementary school went about hiring teachers, he answered wryly: “You want to know how we fill vacancies? We don’t. A day or two before school opens, someone shows up with some paperwork and says, ‘I’m your new fourth-grade teacher. Where’s my classroom?’ And we take the paperwork and point to the empty room.”

His distaste was palpable. Continue reading

We Have a Winner!

With 174 votes counted, the Below C Level book cover contest results are in and I’m happy to share with you the cover that so many of you helped me select.

Below C Level book coverThe design is by Caitlin Colvin, a sophomore at Castilleja, the girls school in Palo Alto, California. Caitlin modified the design, per suggestions from me and many of you. Notice the subtle handwriting on the slightly crumpled essay as well as the warmer font.

I am still wrestling with the subtitle and invite you to weigh in if you have an opinion. My own three finalists are:
1, the current one: “Why it pays to be average in public education–and what we can do about it.”

2:  “How public education encourages mediocrity–and what we can do about it”
3: “How public education rewards mediocrity–and what we can do about it”

The last phrase is essential, because the book includes solutions, suggestions and portraits of success.

I would have been more than happy to have either of the other two cover designs on Below C Level. #1 is the work of Lillian Xie, who is a junior at Palo Alto High School. She’s an accomplished pianist, a reporter for the high school newspaper (one of the best in the nation), and a superb artist. #2, the clever play on ‘sea’ and ‘C’, was created by a design team of two Castilleja students, Emily Hayflick, ’11 and Camille Stroe, ’12.

I am making a few final edits on the book itself, all 38 chapters, and expect to send it off to Amazon’s publishing division later this week. It should be available for pre-ordering in just a couple of weeks and in your hands not long after that.

Again, thanks for your participation and guidance in helping me choose a cover. It was interesting and fun to read all of your comments and suggestions!

Below C Level – An Excerpt

Some of you have asked me for information about Below C Level, my new book. Here’s a sample from one chapter, the one about what I call the ‘convenient lies’ we tell ourselves about public education. (I have removed the footnotes from this excerpt, but they’re in the book.)

At least three forces washed away the hard-won gains that “A Nation at Risk” produced, and they have created the perilous situation we now find ourselves in:

• An ambitious but misguided federal law.
• An MBA-like “bottom-line” mentality.
• Parsimonious behavior.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 began with bipartisan optimism. In language that resonates today, the new president from Texas decried “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and declared that unless all groups of students at a school made progress, the entire school would be found deficient.

Unfortunately, for the most part NCLB has not worked. I have spent hundreds of days in schools since the law’s passage and have witnessed principals and teachers focusing on getting as many students as possible over the NCLB “basic” bar: a laughably low standard in most states. The kids “on the bubble” get the attention, while brighter ones must fend for themselves.

Did NCLB produce genuinely high standards? From what I’ve seen and reported, NCLB has driven down standards, dumbed down the curriculum, suffocated programs for talented students, and driven away many of our best teachers. Moreover, it has actually led to an increase in school dropouts, as some educators “encourage” low-performing students to try their luck elsewhere.

The MBA mentality is also at fault here. Schools seem to have abandoned their mission of preparing skilled and competent individuals to face a complex world with confidence. Instead, many schools focus on bubble test scores. “Drill often” replaces teaching and learning. As the “challenge-based learning” project notes, “Students today have instant access to information through technology and the web, manage their own acquisition of knowledge through informal learning, and have progressed beyond consumers of content to become producers and publishers. As a result, traditional teaching and learning methods are becoming less effective at engaging students and motivating them to achieve.” That’s a polite way of saying that many of our brightest kids are bored to tears.

Money is the third cause of failure. The conventional wisdom, that education spending has been going up for years, is wrong. While the dollar amount increased from $100 billion in 1985 to about $500 billion in 2001, and is continuing to rise with President Obama’s latest additions to the education budget, our effort – as a portion of our Gross Domestic Product and overall government spending – has declined significantly. According to the Office of Management and Budget, in 1980 we devoted 9 percent of GDP to education; in 2001, it was less than 5 percent. And according to the OECD, after five years it was just 5.5 percent in 2006.

We are not trying harder!

I am not arguing that education dollars are well spent, because often they are not. And we clearly have to do more with what we have now, in these difficult times.

In case you are interested, teachers are actually worse off today.

In 1991, the average teacher made slightly more than the average college graduate; in 2008, the median annual wage for K-12 teachers was between $47,100 and $51,180, with the lowest 10 percent earning between $30,970 and $34,280, and the top 10 percent earning $75,190 to $80,970, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average starting salary for a 2010 graduate with a bachelor’s degree, estimated to be down this year due to the economy, is $48,351, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Compared with their international counterparts, U.S. teachers fare worse. A 2007 OECD study found that a primary school teacher in America with 15 years of experience earned a ratio of about 96 percent of the country’s GDP per capita; primary teachers with similar experience in other OECD countries typically earned 117 percent of their country’s GDP per capita, with teachers in Korea earning the highest (221 percent).

But nothing illustrates our parsimony as powerfully as our spending on testing. According to policy analysts at Education Sector, in 2006 we spent just 15 cents of every $100 on NCLB tests. Cheap tests, the tail wagging the dog, are the principal cause of education’s decline into rote tedium.

Those cheap tests actually mask the severity of the problem, because young children can be drilled to pass them. They are drilled, and they do pass. That is, fourth-grade scores generally seem to suggest improvements in competency in reading and, up through 2007, math, but those gains are illusory; they begin to disappear as early as fifth and sixth grades and are often gone by eighth grade. By their sophomore and junior years in high school, many of our students have actually regressed.

It’s my considered opinion that most of the early gains are not real but are actually a mirage, created by teaching a narrow curriculum and by teaching students how to pass the tests. In the name of getting enough passing test scores to meet NCLB’s requirements, many schools are stifling student creativity and curiosity and drowning children’s desire to learn.

The implications for our economy are frightening. “Over the past thirty years, the modern workplace has radically changed, and the demands on those making the transition from the classroom to the workforce continue to rise,” notes the Alliance for Excellent Education. “Students from Birmingham and Boston no longer compete against each other for jobs; instead, their rivals are well-educated students from Sydney and Singapore. But as globalization has progressed, American educational progress has stagnated. Today, the United States’ high school graduation rate ranks near the bottom among developed nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And on virtually every international assessment of academic proficiency, American secondary school students’ performance varies from mediocre to poor. Given that human capital is a prerequisite for success in the global economy, U.S. economic competitiveness is unsustainable with poorly prepared students feeding into the workforce.”

And we are failing those most in need. The gaps in opportunity, expectations and outcomes between rich and poor, and white and non-white, are increasing.

Strong measures are needed to save public education. NCLB (under a new name) will eventually be reauthorized by Congress, which, unfortunately, shows few signs of having learned that Washington cannot run public education.

The Congress and President Obama are attempting to enable excellence by providing money to allow consortia of states to develop common standards and tests. (And yes, I do agree that we need accountability and good tests.)

But I believe that Congress must also provide more funds and tax breaks to encourage our best and brightest to become teachers. It could provide additional tax breaks for those willing to teach math and science or in economically impacted areas. Economists suggest that, while these changes would not have strong effects, the symbolic significance – showing that the United States values teaching – would be powerful.

America needs a wake-up call – because right now, in terms of convenient lies, we’re telling ourselves some real whoppers.

The first truth we must face is that we are a ticking time bomb. Nearly one in four American high school students will leave school without a diploma. About 1.2 million students drop out each year (that’s between 6,000 and 7,000 American children every school day or one every 26 seconds), and close to 50 percent of Hispanic and African- American students do not finish high school on time.

These dropout rates significantly impact the health of our economy. Observing that our country’s “achievement gap” is similar to sustaining “a permanent national recession,” McKinsey & Company estimated that if academic performance by minorities had equaled that of white students in 1998, America’s 2009 GDP would have been between 2 to 4 percent higher (a difference of $310 billion to $525 billion, according to their calculations).

“In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity — it is a prerequisite,” said President Obama in February 2009, addressing the House and Senate. Citing the high dropout rate in our country and adding that only about half of American students have a college diploma, the president called this a “prescription for economic decline because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.” He added: “And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself; it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American.”

Just 20 years ago, the United States was home to the most college graduates on the planet; today we rank 15th out of 29 countries compared in “Measuring Up 2008,” which notes that “the U.S. adult population ages 35 and older still ranks among the world leaders in the percentage who have college degrees – reflecting the educational progress of earlier times. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, however, the U.S. population has slipped to 10th in the percentage who have an associate degree or higher.”

Compared with other countries, our students’ performance in math and science is falling behind; one study even showed American eighth-graders tied with students in third-world Zimbabwe in mathematics.

Our economy will lose billions over the life of our “dropout nation,” and as America moves from a manufacturing-based economy to a globalized service- and technology-based economy, our schools are not producing a well-enough educated work force to handle jobs that will keep the country clicking.

Educationally, we are the equivalent of a vinyl LP in an iPod world.

America has a history of surviving crises, of course. Think of the Morrill Act after the Civil War; the GI Bill after World War II; the National Defense Education Act after Sputnik; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency; and the waves of education reform that followed “A Nation at Risk” in 1983.

Today the stakes are higher, and our response has to be faster and stronger. If the $100-plus billion stimulus package (and any subsequent bailout packages that Congress might provide) turn out to have allowed schools to just keep on doing what they’ve been doing, then we will have merely postponed the day of reckoning.

The tone of the rest of the book is not like this, of course, because part of my goal is to identify solutions, which I endeavor to do, but it is important to face up to the fact that our system is prone to accept mediocrity—and that’s what must change!

Judging the Cover of a Book

“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” it’s often said, but can you and will you be the judge for the cover for my new book? A short time ago I asked students at two California schools, Palo Alto High School and Castilleja, to help create the cover for my new book, Below C Level: Why It Pays to be Average in Public Education (and what WE can do about it).

The students submitted dozens of possibilities, and I have selected three finalists—for your consideration. Understand that these are drafts and can be changed, so I am NOT asking for an up-or-down vote but for your preference AND your suggestions as to how to improve the eventual winner.

Here they are. Please submit your vote and suggestions to the blog itself, so we can post your views. Continue reading