An ‘act of war?’

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

The news that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is willing to give waivers to states struggling to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been greeted with a sigh of relief in lots of places. He calls the law ‘a slow motion train wreck’ while bemoaning the failure of Congress to write a new version of the law, which actually expired in 2007.

Whether the ‘relief’ will be anything more than a Band-Aid remains to be seen, because the Secretary and Domestic Policy Advisor Melody Barnes made it clear that, to get waivers, states will have to meet certain federal expectations regarding charter schools, the evaluation of teachers, and the acceptance of common core standards. The Feds are not backing away from intense federal involvement in public education and may in fact be ratcheting up.

Even so, I don’t see the Secretary or anyone in the Administration examining what strikes me as the root of the problem: NCLB’s demands for more and more testing in reading and math.

Here’s what I have come to believe: we test too much in reading and math, and that narrow focus means schools are not teaching other basic subjects like history. A 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy (PDF), a middle-of-the-road organization, found that “approximately 62% of school districts increased the amount of time spent in elementary schools on English language arts and or math, while 44% of districts cut time on science, social studies, art and music, physical education, lunch or recess.”

What’s more, I believe that an unintended consequence of focusing on reading test scores is that many kids end up detesting reading.

NCLB
What should we be focusing on to make sure that no child is truly left behind?

Start with reading: When 83 percent of ALL of our low-income third graders, whatever their color or ethnic origin, cannot read competently or confidently, our country has a reading crisis. And because we know that 75 percent of those who are behind grade level at the end of third grade are unlikely to ever catch up, it’s a crisis that demands action now.

But what exactly is the crisis? Do we teach reading incorrectly? Badly? Are educators still fighting the reading wars over whole language versus phonics? While the correct answer to all three questions is probably a qualified yes, it is our emphasis on passing reading tests that is the most significant piece of the problem.

I don’t question the test scores: they are what they are, but what they reveal is how well the kids did on the reading test, and not much else. I say that because I have confidence in my own observations over recent years, and I have seen and heard low-income FIRST graders reading competently and confidently — in schools where the fourth graders score poorly on reading tests.

They can and do read in first grade, but by fourth grade they cannot pass a reading test. And my conversations with a few of them suggest that they basically don’t like to read:

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I know that the plural of anecdote is not data, but here’s my hypothesis: Popular curricula — no doubt created in response to NCLB — emphasize (and drill in) the skills of reading in ways that actively teach children to dislike or even detest reading itself, because the goal is high scores on reading tests, not ‘a nation of readers’. The net result is children who can read but basically hate it. They don’t do well on reading tests because they instinctively rebel against being treated as little more than numbers; they aren’t allowed to read for pleasure but instead are drilled in ‘identifying the main idea’ and so on.

As E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has observed on many occasions, if we want children to pass reading tests, they should read, and read, and read.

Perhaps you are rolling your eyes: “Here Merrow goes again, blaming tests,” you may be thinking, but that’s not the point. Tests don’t kill curiosity; it’s the constant testing and the primacy of tests that turns kids off.

NCLB is the villain of the story. Since NCLB became law in 2002, the amount of standardized bubble testing has doubled, according to Marshall ‘Mike’ Smith, former US Undersecretary of Education — and other observers.

Schools do not teach what isn’t going to be tested, and they do a bad job of teaching a subject when all that matters is the test score. Treat a human being as little more than a number, and the results are predictable.

Because state-wide testing is essentially limited to math and reading (with a smattering of science now), those subjects are highlighted, while other important subjects — like history — are sidelined. What is the effect of this policy? We can answer that because we have a reliable national test in other subjects, including history. Witness the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP): Just 17 percent of 8th graders scored at a proficient or higher level (which was an increase over 2006!!). In the 4th and 12th grades, history repeated itself, with no statistically significant changes since the last analysis: Only 12 percent of seniors and 20 percent of 4th graders reached proficiency. How bad is our students’ understanding of history? Over half of all 12th graders scored below the ‘basic’ level.

The apparent outcome of this national policy: citizens who do not know much about history and are unlikely to pick up a book (where they might learn some history).

To echo “A Nation at Risk” (1983), if a foreign power had done this to us, we’d consider it an act of war.

But we are doing it to ourselves.

I am curious to know your thoughts.

The ‘alien structure’ of education, and other thoughts

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

I am reading a collection of essays called “I Used to Think … and Now I Think,” which is billed as reflections by leading reformers on how they themselves have changed over the years. The essays I’ve read so far make me think about testing, cheating, the ‘Save our Schools’ rally in Washington, DC, and the approaching school year.

In her essay, Deborah Meier reflects on “how utterly alien” the basic structure of school is to “normal human learning.” We saw that when we reported for PBS Newshour on P.S. 1 in the South Bronx, where first graders were reading competently but fourth graders were failing the reading test. A reasonable person would have to conclude that, to borrow Debbie’s phrase, the ‘structure of school’ was conspiring against the joy of learning. That is, from second grade on, the emphasis is on testing reading, not reading itself.

In his essay, Marshall (Mike) Smith reflects on the rise in testing, which he says has nearly doubled during the years of No Child Left Behind.

Today the ‘structure of school’ includes ever more testing, this time with high stakes for teachers and administrators, who stand to lose their jobs if scores don’t go up. Under Michelle Rhee, Washington D.C. led the way in ‘holding teachers accountable,’ but now about 30 states have laws that connect test scores and adult evaluation.

Given the high stakes for adults, many predicted a wave of cheating, and that seems to be occurring: Washington, New Jersey, Baltimore, Houston, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Atlanta is the poster child: nearly half the schools and 178 adults implicated, with confessions from about 80 teachers and administrators already recorded. What makes Atlanta unique is the investigation — which was done by an outside group, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

In every other place I am familiar with, the investigations were directly or indirectly controlled by the adults in charge of the schools. Even Atlanta’s first ‘investigation’ — which turned up no problems — was done by insiders.

In a few days, PBS Newshour will air our report on Atlanta, focusing on the children who were cheated. That’s a perspective that’s been missing from much of the reporting.

Speaking of Atlanta, “I Used to Think…” includes an essay by recently departed Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall. In eight largely self-serving pages, Dr. Hall celebrates her accomplishments. She tells us that it took her three years to bring the school system under her direct control and “to institutionalize strong ethics requirements limiting the school board’s direct involvement with the day-to-day operations of the system.” (The added emphasis was mine.) Since the Georgia Bureau of Investigation report traces the cheating right to the superintendent’s desk, the sentence resonates with irony.

Dr. Hall has denied any knowledge of or involvement in cheating. During her tenure, she received nearly $600,000 in bonuses. How much of that was for raising test scores (fraudulently) is unclear, but the Board wants to ‘claw back’ those dollars.

I worry that the ‘lesson’ of these cheating scandals will be missed and instead districts will spend time and money on protection and detection. Indeed, New York State announced yesterday that it was investing in new detection systems.

In this age of accountability, testing is punitive. That’s the bottom line, and that’s what must be addressed, but we can’t abandon testing or accountability.

Matt Damon
Matt Damon appeared at the Save Our Schools rally in Washington, D.C. last weekend -- was he the main reason for subsequent media coverage?

The Save our Schools event in Washington was hoping to call attention to the damage that our testing frenzy is doing. What did it accomplish? From one perspective, it was a bust. The organizers predicted a crowd of between 5,000 and 10,000, but head-counters from Education Week said 3,000 tops. While it got coverage on local outlets and in the Washington Post, most of the reporting can be explained in two words: Matt Damon. His star power drew media attention.

The speeches that I have read or watched on YouTube did little to move the ball forward. Organizers met with Education Secretary Arne Duncan — whose resignation they later called for. I have it from reliable sources that they turned down the opportunity to meet with Roberto Rodriguez, the President’s education advisor and a man whose power may be equal to Duncan’s, because they wanted an audience with the President.

What was the tone of the gathering? A good friend who attended the rally wrote me afterwards about ‘the corporate reactionaries,’ noting:

They are dead set on imposing a business model on our pedagogical practices … Bashing unions, demanding the end of tenure, collective bargaining, seniority, and headstrong pushing the cheap and deeply flawed metric as The only valid measure of academic achievement. John, you well know that the new so-called education consultants, and the huge mega-billionaire and corporate testing and assessment industry is all about profits! … They want to take the public out of all decision-making. They want to privatize as much as they can! …. They are determined to destroy all that we built, and all our good works that are proven successful, and to dismiss and devalue and degrade our greatest achievements.

But are the ‘bad guys’ all on one side? In Newark, New Jersey, a well-meaning ‘reform’ is being scuttled by a union contract (also signed by a school board) that prevents schools from replacing ineffective teachers. The Wall Street Journal describes in detail how failing schools simply shuffled ineffective teachers — ’you take my five, and I will take your five’ — because the contract guarantees jobs to tenured teachers. That outrage adds more fuel to the fire for those who see unions as the source of education’s problems.

And, come to think of it, when unions behave as classic trade unions bent on protecting their members at all costs, they are a huge part of the problem.

One change that must happen if public education is to survive: unions must become professional, not trade, organizations.

On my blog last week the respected educator Grant Wiggins posted a long and thoughtful response that some of you may have missed. I hope you will jump back a week and read it in its entirety. Here’s one paragraph:

Until and unless school is defined as talent development and not a march through The Valued Past, we will fail. School is boring for many if not most. When was the last time you folks shadowed students for a day? It is a grim experience. It is endlessly easy to blame Others, those Outsider bad guys. But from where I sit, the problem is a Pogo problem: I have met the enemy; it is us.

It’s in the vein of ‘physician, heal thyself.’ At the rally and elsewhere, my progressive friends have been so busy attacking their bad guys that they have lost sight of what drew them into teaching in the first place.

In my post last week, I recalled Ronald Reagan’s “Trust but verify” commandment. That prompted Grant to write:

The only way John’s pleas for a sensible middle can be achieved is if educators finally get honest and say, “mea culpa; school is more boring and ineffective than it needs to be, so let’s get our own house in order before the outsiders force us to do dumb things with their crude policy levers.

Had unions and other groups lobbied hard for alternatives to current policy we also might not be in this mess. But for 25 years the educational establishment has just lobbied hard to complain about what it doesn’t like. Washington works the old fashioned way: write the laws and give them to legislators. When was the last time all the key players got together and did that?

I don’t know if we need to get together, but I do know that testing’s critics need to think about accountability, the ‘verify’ part of Reagan’s formula, because Americans won’t accept either extreme, and by not adequately addressing that issue, the progressives are leaving the field to the verifiers.

We are a few weeks away from the reopening of schools across the country. This fall will be different because of the harsh economy, but kids will still arrive on that first day full of hope and optimism, just as they do every year. Somehow they manage to convince themselves that ‘this year will be different.’

Most often, that’s not the case. The ‘unnatural structure of school’ sorts children into groups of “A kids,’ ‘B kids’ and (for most) ‘C kids.’ That structure works against good teaching and deep learning. For children, September, not April, is ‘the cruelest month.’

I believe that teachers can make a difference this year if they band together to focus on what kids need. They may need to make common cause with parents, instead of being distant. They may need to tell taxpayers just how much of their money is being wasted on excessive testing. They may need to inform their union leaders that they are going to violate the contract and work late or meet with administrators or parents after school.

Above all, they have to be pro-child, and pro-learning, not anti-this or anti-that.

To save our schools, wear sunblock and bring ideas

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

I won’t be reporting from Saturday’s Save Our Schools March and Rally because my young granddaughters (and their parents) are visiting from Barcelona, but it’s likely that PBS NewsHour will have a presence there. The rally and march are being organized by teachers from across the country — and has attracted promises to attend from numerous big names in the field, as well as endorsements from Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch and others. I regret missing the event, because I expect I would recognize a lot of people there. I wish everyone well.

I have a question, however. The acronym, SOS, is catchy and convenient — the internationally recognized cry for help. But what are protestors hoping to save our schools FROM? And, just as important, what are they FOR?

Ellipse
The March and Rally begins at noon on Saturday, July 30 at the Washington, D.C. ellipse.

I am one of those middle-of-the-road guys who is concerned about the polarization of public education. I see an ever widening gap, with “We must trust teachers” on one side and “We must verify with high stakes testing because we don’t trust teachers” on the other. I think Ronald Reagan — no hero to liberals — got it right when he said, “Trust but verify.” He was talking about the Soviet Union, but I think the concept applies to public education. How we get to that sensible middle, where we trust teachers but also have a valid and reliable way of measuring progress, is the challenge that I see facing us.

So please go to the rally ready to argue for specific changes in schools — not just ‘holistic education’ and the like, but specifics.

Here’s one: Barnett Berry of the Teacher Leadership Network suggested to me the other day that principals ought to be teaching part of the time. “Principal” was once an adjective, we both recalled, as in ‘principal teacher.’ That one step would free teachers to develop their leadership skills, a useful move in the right direction.

Here’s another: after the levees broke and effectively destroyed New Orleans’ lousy school system, the organization that was created to rebuild was pointedly called “New Schools for New Orleans,” a name designed to make the point that no one wanted to go back to the status quo. Whether you agree with the direction they’ve taken or not, the purpose was to move forward.

So, my protesting friends, on Saturday put on plenty of sunblock, wear floppy hats, drink lots of water, and please bring suggestions that will make schools better.

Post your thoughts here, if you will.

With testing, where do we go from here?

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

Forget cheating on tests for a minute and think about the concept of ‘teaching to the test.’ Just what does that mean? The usual line (which I have used myself) goes something like this: “It’s OK if it’s a good test,” and that may be correct. Unfortunately, most of the tests that I have seen are not ‘good’ tests.

Think about teaching students to write, and then testing their skills. Clear writing is important. Employers want to hire people who can write clearly, accurately and well — but learning to write takes time and requires rewriting and more rewriting, under the guidance of a good teacher. There are no shortcuts. However, our obsession with numbers subverts both teaching and learning. Teachers are told that their students must be able to pass bubble tests and write a lot of short so-called essays (usually one or two paragraphs!) There’s no time for reflection or rewriting.

Instead, students are drilled in the ‘constructed response’ process: write a declarative statement and then add three or four details to support a statement, such as: “I always use sun block when I go to the beach.” And so they follow the formula they’ve been given and produce something like: “I always wear sun block when I go to the beach because too much sun can cause cancer, and because too much sun will make me all wrinkled when I get old, and because cancer can kill you. My mother makes me use sun block too.”

That ‘essay’ would get a passing score because the student supported his statement in four ways. The teacher (or machine?) grading the ‘essay’ could simply count the supporting reasons. Everybody — teachers, principal, superintendent and school board — would pat themselves on the back, but is Microsoft, GE or Hilton likely to offer someone who’s been trained to write that way a job?

That’s what we are doing to our children. It’s only slightly hyperbolic to say that we are lying to our kids.

Cracking down on cheaters — which we should do — won’t fix our problem. Think about it this way: You are sitting in your living room when drops of water begin falling on your head. Clearly, you have a problem. If you move your chair, have you solved it? After all, you no longer have water falling on your head.

Bubble Test
Tests aren't going away. But where do we go now?

Of course not, because the problem persists, although now the water is falling on your living room rug. Suppose you get a large pot and place it where it can catch the falling water? Have you solved the problem? Of course not, because you still have a leak somewhere.

You get the point. I think it’s time for those of us who are attacking bubble testing and the intense pressure to ‘produce’ to back off and ask, “Where do we go from here?”

Unfortunately, we haven’t asked and answered that question in the past. Subverting the testing system is an old story that we don’t seem to learn much from. Remember Austin, Texas, where most of the school board was implicated in test score deception? How about that small town in Connecticut with its ‘miraculous’ test score gains a few years ago? Not miracles, just plain old cheating.

Sometimes the system aids and abets the deception, as in Florida, where a loophole in the state law allowed districts to counsel low-performing students to drop out to go into GED programs. By law, the districts didn’t have to count these kids as dropouts as long as they suggested the GED alternative, no matter that no one had to follow up to see if the kids actually enrolled.

How about the so-called ‘Texas Miracle” that turned out to be the ‘Texas Mirage?’ Houston had great test scores, and Superintendent Rod Paige eventually became U.S. Secretary of Education. Then we learned that an inordinate number of low-performing 8th graders were simply being held back, often for more than one year, because high-stakes testing didn’t begin until 9th grade. Some find the seeds of No Child Left Behind in that misadventure.

Atlanta may actually be the proverbial tip of the cheating iceberg because evidence that suggests major cheating has also occurred in D.C., Pennsylvania, Florida, Houston, Baltimore, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Some consultants, test security companies and even the test makers themselves are licking their chops right now, expecting to make a lot of money designing what they will claim will be better defenses against cheating, because ‘firewalls,’ ‘fail-safe’ steps, ‘erasure detection software’, and other ‘technical fixes’ are a big part of the conversation. In fact, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

“The technical fix is very simple, and they need to put that in place. The job for a new superintendent coming in after a crisis is to rebuild public confidence with absolute integrity, transparency.”

I respectfully disagree, because cheating is not the real problem; it’s a symptom of a larger problem, and the solution is not simple. Not by a long shot.

The problem in Atlanta, in D.C., and wherever else cheating is occurring proves Campbell’s Law, which states “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Live by the test, die by the test.

We rely too heavily on the scores of relatively simple (and relatively cheap) machine-scored ‘bubble’ tests as the measure of educational accomplishment, and that invites deception, cheating and criminal behavior.

So where do we go from here? Well, we aren’t going to ‘get rid of testing,’ that’s for sure. Anyone who wants to throw out that bath water ought to recall the New Orleans high school valedictorian that could not pass the Louisiana state graduation test, despite being given multiple opportunities!

Nor is it enough to endorse “multiple measures” of achievement. It’s more complicated. We have to ask ourselves what we want young people to be able to do upon graduation and figure out how to teach and encourage those behaviors. Then — and only then — do we figure out ways to measure them.

What if we were to ask large employers like Michael Dell, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, Carol Bartz of Yahoo, the heads of Hilton, Hyatt, Avis and Hertz, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, Steve Jobs, Jeffrey Immelt of GE, the provosts of some major universities, top advertising agencies and so on what they look for in potential employees? What would they say?

Or maybe you hire people for your company. What do you look for?

Life is not all about work, of course, so we ought to ask what we want our youth to be: good parents, concerned citizens, informed voters, discerning consumers, and so on.

Then let’s figure out what sort of school-based experiences teach or sharpen those skills and attributes. My hunch is that group activities and project-based learning will figure prominently. I think we will be reminded of the truth of the late Ted Sizer’s observation that “Less is more.”

Tests drive public education right now. But what should be driving the enterprise are agreed-upon goals that come from the real world.

Where do we go from here? That’s up to us, isn’t it?

David Brooks, Diane Ravitch, and the education wars

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

Last week in this space, I speculated about the most influential educator in America. Although I put forth more than a half dozen names, most respondents ‘voted’ for Diane Ravitch, the historian/policymaker/apostate whose book, The Death and Life of the Great American Public School, is a best seller.

Her landslide victory is not particularly surprising, because she is a Five Star General in the ongoing education wars; her badly outgunned army includes the two teachers unions, Linda Darling-Hammond and a lot of teachers.

The opposing side includes Brian Williams and NBC’s Education Nation, Oprah Winfrey, Teach for America, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, charter school supporters, Waiting for Superman and a lot of powerful business and financial leaders.

Add to that list David Brooks, the influential columnist for the New York Times. That’s particularly disappointing, because the normally perceptive Brooks seems to have swallowed a questionable argument hook, line and sinker.

At stake in this struggle is nothing less than the direction of public education. (I write about this war extensively in The Influence of Teachers and won’t rehash the arguments here.)

Just a few days after Ravitch clinched the election on this blog, Brooks took her to task in harsh terms on the op-ed pages of the Times.

Here’s a sample:

She picks and chooses what studies to cite, even beyond the normal standards of people who are trying to make a point. She has come to adopt the party-line view of the most change-averse elements of the teachers’ unions: There is no education crisis. Poverty is the real issue, not bad schools. We don’t need fundamental reform; we mainly need to give teachers more money and job security.

Brooks acknowledges that Ravitch highlights a fundamental tension in education — teaching is humane, while testing is mechanistic — but then accuses her of simply wanting to eliminate testing and accountability.

Diane Ravitch
Is Diane Ravitch vs. David Brooks truly good for the future of public education?

Having accused Ravitch of intellectual dishonesty, Brooks seems to walk down that same path, with the help of a foil, Whitney Tilson, whom he identifies for his readers as ‘the education blogger.’ That’s the same Whitney Tilson who was a founding member of Teach for America and who now serves on the Board of KIPP New York, the same Whitney Tilson who supports Democrats for Education Reform and who was a major player in the campaign of rumor and innuendo to discredit Linda Darling-Hammond when she was being considered for Secretary of Education. That Whitney Tilson! Even he must have been surprised to be labeled merely as ‘the education blogger.’

Brooks approvingly passes along Tilson’s observations about test-obsessed schools like KIPP (!) and the Harlem Success Schools, places where students are far more likely to participate in chess, dance and drama than do their counterparts in regular public schools.

Brooks’ money line follows:

The places where the corrosive testing incentives have had their worst effect are not in the schools associated with the reformers. They are in the schools the reformers haven’t touched. These are the mediocre schools without strong leaders and without vibrant missions.

In Brooks’ view, Ravitch is simply wrong. “Ravitch thinks the solution is to get rid of the tests,” he writes. “But that way just leads to lethargy and perpetual mediocrity. The real answer is to keep the tests and the accountability but make sure every school has a clear sense of mission, an outstanding principal and an invigorating moral culture that hits you when you walk in the door.”

Brooks’ conclusion — if a school teaches to the test, it’s the fault of the leaders, not of the test — may follow logically from his premises, but it’s a house of cards, and not just because Ravitch is being painted unfairly. The flaw lies in Brooks (or Tilson’s) failure to examine the dominant default model of public education today, which is precisely Ravitch’s point: test scores rule. Yes, inspired leaders can trump that thinking, and kids lucky enough to attend one of those schools may well emerge as more than a score.

It’s true, as Wendy Kopp of Teach for America asserts, that more winning schools are opening every year, and a body of evidence proves that strong leaders, talented teachers, a powerful sense of mission and coherent curricula like Core Knowledge make a difference. However, the evidence suggests that their success also requires superhuman effort that produces a high burnout rate among teachers and school leaders.

Is this a model for genuine and widespread reform? Let’s look at the numbers. We have about 100,000 public schools. Perhaps 5,000 or maybe even 10,000 are defying the odds. At that rate, how long will it take? Where will the thousands and thousands of inspired leaders and teachers come from?

Why do Brooks and others defend a system in which success seems to require superhuman effort? To be blunt, our ‘answer factory’ approach to education is outmoded and counter-productive in a world that technology has transformed, and continues to transform at an unimaginable rate. What is needed is a major rethinking of the structure of school — a recasting of the basic operating model.

Pitting Ravitch against Tilson makes for a readable column in the hands of a gifted writer like David Brooks. While I regret his unfair treatment of Ravitch, she has proven time and time again that she can take care of herself. What bothers me more is that Brooks and most observers are missing the larger point.

Which is this: Our public schools are the equivalent of yesterday’s pony express. Just as a faster pony express would not be sufficient to deliver the mail today, the “faster horses” that reforms like KIPP, Teach for America and charter schools represent are not in themselves adequate for our 50 million school-age children, nor will they ever be.

I have some thoughts about what truly transformed schools would look like, and I imagine you do as well. Some of these schools already exist, others perhaps only in your imagination. Please share your thoughts on what to do next, not just on how to end this counterproductive ‘education war’ but also on how to proceed positively.

I look forward to your responses.

A speech I’d like to hear

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

This is a speech I hope Arne Duncan will give one day. I don’t necessarily expect you to write a FULL SPEECH back in the comments, but I’d love to know the issues you hope the Secretary will touch on in major future addresses.


With my basketball playing limited recently because of my schedule and a nagging injury, I have been thinking about the sport and its similarities to education. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Some of you may know that I am comfortable on the court. I played a lot as a kid, was team co-captain at Harvard and then competed in an Australian pro league. I still play regularly and have been on the team that has won three national Three on Three titles in the past few years.

I know something about education too — maybe even more than my critics would have you believe. I grew up in my mom’s early childhood program, and I was CEO of CPS (Chicago Public Schools) for seven years.

What I have come to realize is that we are focusing too much on test scores — to the detriment of real learning. That’s like a basketball coach paying attention only to wins and losses while neglecting the fundamentals of the game.

Here’s what I mean. In basketball you compete to win, of course, but you play and practice a heck of a lot more than you actually compete in games against other teams. And that’s what should happen in school, if you think of big high-stakes tests as those competitive games.

In both, of course the scores matter, because winning is better than losing, but think about how you get those good scores in basketball. It’s not by practicing ‘winning.’ No, it’s by working on the elements that make up the game: passing, foul shots, jump shots, rebounding, diving for loose balls, defending, and so on.

When teachers devote a lot of time to practicing test taking, they are going down the wrong path. That’s like trying to practice ‘winning’ when they should be working on the essentials of the subject, the elements of ‘victory.’ Teachers should be helping with the academic equivalent of rebounding, passing, defending and so on. If you’re an English teacher, your students should be reading, writing, rewriting and arguing their points, and so on. As E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has noted, “If we want our children to do well on reading tests, they should be reading — not practicing taking reading tests.”

Friends who have been around Washington longer than I point out that, ever since No Child Left Behind, we have gotten away from the essentials of learning and focused instead on high stakes tests. We used to give high stakes tests just three times — in 4th, 8th and 12th grades — but now, because of NCLB, schools are required give them every year. In my basketball analogy, that’s like sending teams out to play in tournaments all the time, without giving them time to get game-ready.

Want an example? Take Connecticut, which had invested a fair amount of money to develop some pretty good (largely non-bubble) tests that were going to be given every other year, until the previous administration made it stop, effectively saying, ‘Test every year or lose your federal dollars.’ Connecticut fought back but lost the battle. Washington forced it to throw out its much better tests and replace them with cheap, off-the-shelf bubble tests.

And so, from now on, our policy will be to encourage more of the basketball equivalent of practicing the elements of excellence. I urge teachers to translate ‘rebounding, passing, defending, foul shots, three pointers, et cetera’ into their academic counterparts in their particular subjects, and concentrate their efforts there. When a coach does that, winning takes care of itself. If we do that in our classrooms, winning — doing well on accepted measures — will also take care of itself.

The Department will do its part by granting waivers from some of No Child Left Behind’s rules, to states that apply and qualify. But it’s up to ordinary Americans to get involved, to help figure out what we want for our children.

Thank you.


What do you want to hear from Arne Duncan? Seriously!

Can this marriage be saved?

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

With all the attention on marriages these days (the Royal Wedding, Newt Gingrich and wife No. 3, Mitch Daniels and his happy remarriage to his ex, and so on) shouldn’t we be paying more attention to one very troubled marriage: the one between the American public and our teachers?

No doubt it’s troubled, but can this marriage be saved? Continue reading