What changed? How, in just ten months, did Mr. Willoughby go from being a trustworthy source to an inept hack in the eyes of the Post? The answer is painfully obvious: Back then, the Post was defending Michelle Rhee, which it has shown time and again that it will do at all costs and in the face of clearly contradictory evidence.
This is what the Post wrote in April 2013: “Several investigations have been conducted into student testing by the public school system. All – including inquiries by the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. Education Department’s inspector general with the participation of the U.S. attorney – concluded that no widespread cheating occurred.” (emphasis added)
As the Post knew (and as we had reported in detail on Frontline), the Inspector General conducted a slipshod inquiry that doesn’t really deserve to be called an ‘investigation.’ Despite evidence of widespread ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures in over half of DC’s public schools, Mr. Willoughby spent 17 months–more than 500 days– ‘investigating’ one school. In that time he interviewed just 34 people! However, the Post’s editorial writers chose to overlook his inept work–a performance that would unquestionably have gotten a Post reporter sacked. It chose instead to cite Mr. Willoughby’s work as evidence that no cheating occurred.
Now, however, the Post is “shocked, shocked” to discover that the same Mr. Willoughby has done sloppy investigative work. A February 16th Post editorial about questionable ethical behavior by some DC officials charges that Mr. Willoughby ‘glossed over’ the matter and has ‘shown an inability to grapple with these issues in a serious way.’ (emphases added)
The Post editorial further criticizes Mr. Willoughby for producing a 3-page report, in contrast with the 27-page report written by ethics officials who have fewer resources but “have demonstrated a vigor and muscle that is strangely lacking in the work of the inspector general.” Those words could easily have been written about his work regarding the erasures, of course.
At one point last year I analyzed the editorial coverage of cheating scandals in two major US newspapers, the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. It’s a sad story because the Post was once one of America’s great newspapers. While the Atlanta editorial page vigorously pursued the truth despite the embarrassment to the city, the Washington Post has never wavered from its initial 100% commitment to Michelle Rhee’s approach to ‘fixing’ the schools.
Here’s part of what I wrote: “When “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” revealed the existence of Dr. Sanford’s secret memo, with its clear implications that Chancellor Rhee’s own school principals might have done the erasing, the Post called it ‘old news,’ echoing Rhee and current Chancellor Kaya Henderson. ”
The slavish devotion of the Post’s Editorial Page to the false narrative that Michelle Rhee transformed DC schools must embarrass the reporters at the Post. And to its credit, Washington Post journalists continue to produce outstanding reportage. Witness its receiving THREE of one of journalism’s most treasured prizes, the George Polk Award, this year, as just one example.
The Post’s editorial closes by asking for Mr. Willoughby’s head: “Mr. Willoughby’s term expires in May; we hope the mayor and council take that opportunity to give the office a good hard look and give the public the watchdog it needs.”
I was brought up to believe that a newspaper’s editorial page is also supposed to “give the public the watchdog it needs.” I am truly sorry the Washington Post isn’t fulfilling that role where the city’s public schools are concerned.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that producer Mike Joseloff, researcher Catherine Rentz and I made hundreds of phone calls to teachers and principals at schools with high erasures rates (with answers almost always changed from ‘wrong’ to ‘right’) on the District’s standardized test, the DC-CAS, and to those in Michelle Rhee’s central office. Many of those we called either hung up the phone, said ‘no comment,’ or ask to go ‘off-the-record.’ I think some changed their phone numbers, and a few managed to disappear from sight.
Why the code of silence? One person explained that she wouldn’t be able to find work in education if she spoke out—and then hung up. Others told much the same story.
So let me tell you more about Adell Cothorne, in her own words.
“I grew up in poverty. I’m a minority, of course, (laughs). (And the daughter of a) teenage mother. So I absolutely understand the value of a strong public school education. It will take you places you’ve never been before.”
Education enabled Adell Cothorne to rise from those unpromising circumstances, and she ended up as an Assistant Principal in Montgomery County, Maryland. For those unfamiliar with the Washington, DC, area, Montgomery County is a wealthy suburb of the Capital with excellent ‘Blue Ribbon’ public schools. It’s one of the top-ranked school districts in the nation.
Her idealism burned brightly, and so she applied for a job in Washington, largely, she told Frontline, because of her admiration for Michelle Rhee.
“I still have the Time Magazine with Michelle Rhee on the cover,” Cothorne told Frontline. “I had been following her for a while, and I admired what I saw on the media and the news. And so to have the opportunity to dialogue and sit across from her and then have her say to me, you know, ‘It’s not a matter of when you’re coming to D.C., but where I’m going to put you,’ that was absolute confirmation for me. And I was over the top.”
Rhee installed Cothorne as principal of Noyes Education Campus, a ‘Blue Ribbon’ school that had achieved remarkable gains on the DC-CAS in previous years. In October Cothorne met again with the Chancellor, one-on-one, to discuss her plans for the year. (Rhee’s practice was to meet with every principal to get their written guarantees.)
She told Frontline that meeting, which took place early in school year 2010-2011. “You are to ‘goal set.’ You are to tell her, you know, ‘I will raise math scores by 5%. I will raise reading scores by 6%.’ And so, yes, she and I had that conversation. And I said to her in early October, ‘I’m very comfortable with a 6% gain in math and a 7% gain in reading.’”
JOHN MERROW: But … if you make the commitment for 6%, 7%, is it understood that if you don’t make it you are not going to be around?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes.
JOHN MERROW: Produce or else?
ADELL COTHORNE: She– yes, she said that to me. Yes.
JOHN MERROW: She said–
ADELL COTHORNE: In a joking fashion, absolutely joking fashion, but she did say, ‘You know, Cothorne, if you don’t make this, don’t be upset if you get a pink slip.’ Those were her words to me. In a joking manner.
JOHN MERROW: Did you take it as a joke?
ADELL COTHORNE: No. (LAUGH) That’s my livelihood. No I did not.
Even as she was making that commitment, Cothorne knew she had a problem. What she had already seen in her new school did not jibe with the test scores that had been recorded. Here’s what she told Frontline:
“As any good administrator should, I visited classrooms and just made my presence known, (and) noticed a disconnect for myself and what was going on in the classroom. The level of instruction, because I’ve worked at Blue Ribbon Schools before, so the level of instruction that I know is needed for a Blue Ribbon School, I was not seeing on a daily ongoing basis. … There’s these huge disconnects. They’re struggling academically. Yet the data that I have been given is showing great gains. But what I see with my own eyes on a daily basis is not a true picture of great gains.”
I asked her to tell me more.
ADELL COTHORNE: Well, for instruction, I saw students who were struggling to read, which is absolutely what does not happen in a Blue Ribbon School. And did not coincide or line up with the data that I had been given as the new principal. I just really saw a lack of instruction across the board. There were only very few instances where I could go into a classroom and feel comfortable that instruction was going on and kids were learning. Wholesale, that was not happening at my school.
JOHN MERROW: It must’ve been upsetting.
ADELL COTHORNE: It was upsetting and it was a little nerve-wracking because I knew (LAUGH) it was my responsibility to raise the achievement of that school.
Her predecessor, Wayne Ryan had led Noyes with great success. In fact, Rhee had promoted him to her central office largely because of his school’s success on the DC-CAS. In 2007, for example, only 44.14% of Noyes’ students had scored at a proficient level in reading, but under Ryan’s leadership that number nearly doubled, to 84.21%, in just two years. Math scores had also nearly doubled, from 34.24% to 62.79.
What Cothorne did not know was that an awful lot of answers had been changed from ‘wrong’ to right,’ on DC-CAS answer sheets from Noyes–and in nearly half of Rhee’s other schools. At Noyes 75% of the classrooms were flagged for high erasure rates. (This problem began in Rhee’s first year, and she learned of it early in her second year. She had been urged to investigate the 2007-2008 erasures but did not, as the film details.)
Cothorne told Frontline that she inadvertently discovered a possible explanation for the discrepancy between the high test scores and the students’ daily performance: Adults were changing answers on the tests. She had stayed late one night and heard noises coming from one classroom.
“So I walked into the room and I saw three staff members. There were test books everywhere, over 200 test books spread out on desks, spread out on tables. One staff member was sitting at a desk and had an eraser. And then there were two other staff members at a round table and they had test books out in front of them.
And one staff member said to me, in a light-hearted sort of way, ‘Oh, Principal, I can’t believe this kid drew a spider on the test and I have to erase it.’ … That was a little strange to me. I mean, the whole situation of all of these test books, over 200 test books being spread out in this room after school hours with three staff members. It’s not the way a testing situation is supposed to happen.”
This was not an isolated incident, Cothorne told Frontline.
JOHN MERROW: Were there any other indications?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes.
JOHN MERROW: Of– that– teachers or staff members were behaving inappropriately on testing situations?
ADELL COTHORNE: Oh, in testing situations. Yes. … I personally walked into two different classrooms and saw two separate teachers giving instruction, trying to frontload students with information while test books are open and out. So I saw that with my own eyes.
That created a crisis for Cothorne. She felt compelled to report the incident, but her immediate supervisor was Wayne Ryan, her predecessor at Noyes. How could she call him up and accuse his former colleagues of erasing answers, without implying that he may have been part of the scheme? In the end, she told Frontline, she called someone else, who, she says, told her ‘not to worry’ but that was the last she heard from him.
She also told Frontline that one administrator summoned her to his office. She would not reveal his identity but told Frontlne about the conversation.
ADELL COTHORNE: When I was meeting with this higher up– the statement was made to me, ‘You don’t respect the legacy that has been built at Noyes.’ Once again, I processed, and looked at the person and said, ‘Could you repeat that?’ The person again moved closer and said, ‘You don’t respect the legacy that has been built at Noyes.’ And I answered with, ‘You know, I thought I was doing a very good job of looking at instruction and giving support.’ And the person just kind of smirked and set back.
JOHN MERROW: And how did you interpret that?
ADELL COTHORNE: “Be quiet.” That was my interpretation.
(Cothorne would not tell Frontline the name of that administrator, but in court documents that were unsealed the day before our broadcast she names Wayne Ryan as the individual. He was, of course, her predecessor at Noyes and the person she reported to directly at DCPS. Back in May 2011, Cothorne filed a ‘whistleblower’ action with the US Department of Education alleging widespread cheating and, therefore, fraudulent awards of federal funding. However, on the afternoon before our broadcast the Department of Education’s Inspector General reported that she had not found cheating by adults and therefore the Department of Justice would not pursue Cothorne’s case. Her full complaint can be found here (.pdf). In it she names the DCPS officials she says she spoke to. We have not be able to contact those men, and DCPS claims it has no records of phone calls from Cothorne. Cothorne’s attorney says that one call was made on Cothorne’s cell phone and that she has supporting documentation.)
At Noyes, however, she was in charge of the building itself. I asked her to talk about the coming DC-CAS. Here’s our conversation:
JOHN MERROW: You, as principal of the school, had something to say about the DC-CAS and security. And did you do anything to make sure that DC-CAS would be a secure test?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes. So I did speak with downtown, and– on a regular basis, after I witnessed what I saw earlier in the year, I had ongoing conversations with downtown. “Don’t forget, when DC-CAS comes around, I need extra, you know, monitors. I need some other people besides my staff in the building to ensure that everything is okay.”
And at that point, downtown was more willing to help because the USA Today article had come out, and so Noyes had gotten lots of publicity about an erasure scandal. So when CAS came around in 2011, I did have two extra people from downtown to help monitor to– the test, and then I had another two extra people who helped with, you know, having the test checked in to make sure all the tests came in. We had locks changed on doors so that myself and my assistant principal were the only two people that had the key to the room to get in to testing. No one– the test coordinator did not have it. No one else had the keys.
JOHN MERROW: So are you convinced that that DC-CAS in the spring of your year there, that that was a secure test?
ADELL COTHORNE: I would honestly say that was a secure test.
JOHN MERROW: So you– you’re certain there were no erasures on that test?
ADELL COTHORNE: Now, I cannot be certain because I did not stay at the school 24 hours (LAUGH) a day. But while I was there, and what I saw, I do think it was a secure test.
With heightened security, Noyes’ DC-CAS scores dropped 52 points in reading (from 84.21% in 2009 to 32.40%) and 34 points in math (from 62.79% to 28.17%). In fact, in 2010-2011 Noyes performed below its 2007, pre-Rhee, level.
JOHN MERROW: How do you explain the drop?
ADELL COTHORNE: Those were the true test scores.
JOHN MERROW: I’m sorry?
ADELL COTHORNE: Those were the true test scores, in my opinion. Those were what the students in that school actually were able to produce.
Take note, readers. The decline at Noyes was not an exception among ‘high erasure’ schools. At the 14 schools with erasure rates of 50% or higher, scores declined at 12, often precipitously, after security was tightened. For example, reading scores at Aiton fell from 58.43% in 2007-2008 to 20.80%; in math from 57.87% to 16%. Reading scores at Raymond went from 70% to 42.44%, while its math score dropped from 68% to 45.71%.
By the time the 2010-2011 DC-CAS was administered, everyone knew of the widespread erasures, thanks to USA Today’s brilliant and thorough investigation. Rhee was gone by then, but, under public pressure, Rhee’s successor asked DC’s Inspector General to investigate. He began at Noyes, where he had little success. Cothorne told Frontline, “At first, they tried to interview staff members after school, but then staff members would find a reason not to be interviewed.”
JOHN MERROW: Why would teachers play cat and mouse?
ADELL COTHORNE: That would be speculation, but I guess they had something that they didn’t want to be forthcoming.
Of course, Cothorne expected to be questioned. After all, she had filed a complaint, and Noyes was the epicenter of the story.
JOHN MERROW: Were you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: No, I was not.
JOHN MERROW: Why weren’t you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: Again, my speculation, they didn’t want to hear what I had to say.
The Inspector General spent 17 months but investigated only one school, Noyes. Oddly, he did not examine data from 2007-2008, the year with the largest number of erasures but looked only at Rhee’s second and third years. At Noyes, the IG finally managed to interview 32 school personnel–but not Cothorne–and 23 parents. He reported finding a number of problems with test security but on the issue of Noyes personnel erasing answer sheets, “investigators found no evidence to corroborate these allegations.”
The Inspector General would not agree to an interview with Frontline.
Linda Mathews, the lawyer/journalist who supervised the USA Today investigation, told Frontline that , if one of her reporters had submitted a report like the one compiled by DC’s Inspector General, “I’d fire him on the spot.”
I asked Cothorne if she understood why an administrator or teacher might be tempted to cheat?
ADELL COTHORNE: Absolutely.
JOHN MERROW: Explain.
ADELL COTHORNE: Pressure. There’s pressure from central office to raise test scores. And that pressure is given to principals. And it is very clearly explained to you, not only in D.C., but many other school systems, your job is tied to test scores. Increase test scores. Period.
JOHN MERROW: Did you think there were people who, you know, outside of school, above the school, who knew something was wrong and maybe didn’t want to know?
ADELL COTHORNE: Not that they didn’t want to know, they wanted to keep their jobs. So I think that they knew, and, you know, because of the economic times that we’re in, decided to go along.
JOHN MERROW: Do you think that was widespread?
ADELL COTHORNE: In my opinion, yes.
I ask you to pay special attention to the next section of this piece.
Playing Devil’s Advocate, I suggested that changing a few answers was a victimless crime. She nearly jumped from her chair.
ADELL COTHORNE: No, it’s not a victimless crime. There are many victims. There are thousands of victims. It’s the students that are the victims.
JOHN MERROW: How?
ADELL COTHORNE: Someone is putting forth a picture that you are able to do something that you have no capability of doing. And so you keep moving to these different levels and the next person’s saying, “Oh, Janie can read on a fifth grade level and she can do fifth grade math.”
And Janie gets into your sixth grade middle school class, Janie can’t read, ‘See the dog run down the street.’ Janie can’t do the math. And so Janie becomes frustrated, because you are putting these sixth grade expectations on her and she has first grade ability. So then what happens to Janie? She waits her time, and when she’s 16 she’s out.
Although Cothorne became disillusioned with Michelle Rhee, she suggested that the problem went beyond the Chancellor. To Cothorne, Rhee was swept up in the national obsession with test scores everywhere, created by the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law.
She described it in these words: “(I)nstruction shuts down in February because you have to do test prep from February until the test. So instruction in many districts was already shaky in the beginning, and now you’re basically shutting down all instruction in February to do all of this test prep. Because for many administrators and many school districts, it’s as important to make sure that kid knows how to take the test than it is, ‘Did they truly learn the content?’ “
Because Cothorne is also the mother of a young child, she also sees education from a parent’s perspective. She talked about that in our interview.
ADELL COTHORNE: My frustration as a parent is that education as a whole has lost the ability of students to be natural learners. No Child Left Behind has put in the caveat that every kid must get it by Tuesday at 2:00, and if you have an IEP, we’ll give you until 2:15. But at 2:15 we’re moving on.
And you’ve got to get it. So children who need a little more processing time, children who may be able to give you the idea, but they have to write a song about it, or they have to create a picture about, (but) … when the rubber meets the road, it’s not about differentiation at the end of the day. That teacher is judged on, ‘What scores did those children get on that test?’
And that test doesn’t look at, ‘Could you sing the information?’ or ‘Could you create a poem?’ It looks at, ‘Could you write a short essay and could you bubble in the right answer?’ So that has been the focus. How do they pass that test? Not ‘Did they learn anything?’ but ‘Are they able to pass numerous tests?’ Because we test all year long.
Adell Cothorne, a dedicated educator who was completing work on her doctorate, resigned her principalship and gave up a reported annual salary of roughly $130,000. She has opened up a bakery, “Cooks ‘n Cakes,” in Ellicott City, Maryland, surely a gamble in these difficult economic times.
I hope it’s a rousing success. When you stop by (to buy), please congratulate her on her courage.
If you live in or around NYC, John will be appearing in conversation with Randi Weingarten — the topic is “Unions and the Future Of Our Schools” — on Wednesday, December 14. Click here for tickets and info.
Stop reading right now If you are a strong ‘back to basics,’ no-frills education person, because this column is about as far away as humanly possible from your notions of what should be happening in schools.
However, if you teach in high school or middle school — or if you are worried about the narrowing of the curriculum — please stay with me.
In a given month, between 30,000 and 40,000 people read this blog; I am hoping that at least a few of you are HS or MS teachers who are committed to the arts. Or perhaps non-teachers who share that enthusiasm and are in a position to help.
In a recent post about the threats to the arts in the schools, I suggested that we needed to ‘energize the 80,’ my shorthand for the need to get the 80% or so of households without school-age children involved in supporting public education.
A lot of you liked the idea, which was gratifying for a day or two — but now it’s time to do it. Or rather, for students to do it. I envision a squad of middle school or high school students, armed with a decent video camera, going door to door and persuading apartment owners and shopkeepers to look into the camera and recite poetry. A couple of lines each, to be edited together, with the speakers identified on the screen.
(For fun, we will get a couple of recognizable people — think pro sports stars, like Derek Jeter — to contribute as well)
There’s just one rule: the students must recruit adults who do not have school-age children. They are members of the 80 percent that have to be energized in support of the arts.
I ask you to imagine watching the video described below on YouTube (I’ve used characters from my Manhattan neighborhood, but you should picture folks from your world):
Mrs. Andrews in Apartment 9B:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
Mr. Young of Mr. Young’s Cleaners:
To die, to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to …
Kimberly Wong in Apartment 17C:
… ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream …
Augie Ramos at the Deli:
… ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause – there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
Angela Packer at Equinox Gym:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office …
Jacob Epstein of Epstein Jewelers:
… and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?
Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees:
Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Fifth grader teacher Alice Gotteswold:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought …
Richie O’Connor, 201 East 79th doorman:
… and enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
This could obviously be done for an assortment of literary elements.
You can be certain every one of those performers will be boasting about their roles and urging others to watch. And, even more important, they will be shaking their heads in amazement at what school kids are doing these days. They will now be the schools’ advocates.
Shakespeare can be intimidating, but because everyone can relate to passion, I’d suggest the kids bring along Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Vicki Hennigan, florist:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
Archie Samuels, counterman at Wrap ‘n Run:
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
Victor Reynoso, 235 East 79th doorman:
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
Peggy Sydak, age 83, in Apartment 21B:
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
And Robert Frost is a natural. Here I would break apart the verses, divide them among performers.
Alfonso Gonfriddo, postal carrier:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler …
Amanda Morales, office manager:
… long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth …
Joan Zrodowski, businesswoman:
… then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear …
Ted Bauer, web site developer:
… Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same …
Jerry Flanigan, owner of 81st Street Hardware:
… and both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Joe Quinlan, salesman:
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
The kids will quickly figure out the importance of videotaping each performer reading lines from several different poems, with multiple takes of each reading. They will figure out that doing it well will not be easy, but this is the real world, and their work product will be up there for all to see, up against lots of other student productions. A little competition is a good thing, particularly when it’s team competition.
I have stressed that these videos will build support for the arts, but it’s just as important to point out that the process will teach valuable lessons to the students. In addition to the obvious ‘soft skill’ of working on a team with a real world product, producing these videos will add to their skill set, because they are going to have to persuade the adults to relax, persuade them to ‘do it again’ quite a few times, stroke their fragile egos when they mess up (which will happen a lot), and generally persuade them to take their minds off the camera — even as they are looking into the lens.
School will be more valuable and interesting, and the enthusiasm will rub off and carry over into other aspects of their school experience. They will be become better and more discerning consumers of education precisely because they are now producers.
As they search for talent, and as they edit on their computers, I am sure that some of these young producers will start to take some chances, let their imaginations run free.
Perhaps they will have the dry cleaner saying “Out, damned spot.’
Or the local watch repair guy reciting ‘To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time…’
How about some pre-schoolers on the playground intoning “When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning or in rain? When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won?”
Just don’t ask the school principal to intone ‘it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’
I understand that at least two school groups have begun working on this. That’s a start, but this is a big country with a lot of bored school kids out there, kids with drive, brains and energy.
Learning Matters will create a dedicated channel on YouTube, and we’ll try to get the big arts groups behind this.
Long ago the novelist E. M. Forster told us what matters. ‘Only connect,’ he wrote, getting it right.
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.
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.
“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:
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.”
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.”
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.
(See more of the interview with Emily Feistritzer on this topic here.)
Time was, this country had about 130,000 school districts; today we have somewhere around 14,000. The pendulum has swung toward centralization.
No question that the pendulum swings. Not all that long ago about the only beers you could buy were Budweiser, Miller and Coors, but today you can choose from among thousands of microbrews. And that’s just the pendulum swinging back to the days before the Coors/Miller/Budweiser ‘beeropoly’ because in an earlier day, your parents could buy Schiltz, Schaefer, Piels, et cetera.
When I was a kid, there were thousands and thousands of radio stations; today Clear Channel owns about 1250 stations and dominates the market. But perhaps not for long, because the internet makes it possible for anyone to have his own ‘radio station.’
Time was, the only way you could become a teacher was to go to a normal school, later called schools and colleges of education. Not any more, thanks to Wendy Kopp and Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, Troops for Teachers and a host of other alternative certification programs.
I could go on, because consolidation and expansion have occurred and are occurring in television, the music recording industry, health care and a ton of other industries.
It must be clear by now that I am not one of those who feels the sky is falling in because of monopoly or near-monopoly conditions. The strength of this country is our stubborn insistence on both change and independence. Take the consolidation of school districts as an example. Yes, the number of districts has dropped by close to 90 percent, but many of those districts are now experiencing their own mini-revolts, in the form of charter schools, which can actually resemble a school board — largely free of central regulation but accountable for results. Take New Orleans, where 70 percent of students are in charter schools. Is that one district, or 40+?
Did I mention textbooks and testing, where Pearson and McGraw-Hill now rule the roost? Their domination upsets a lot of observers, who fear and resent what mass testing seems to be doing to our children’s learning.
But that too will change in time. In fact, when I read that more families are home-schooling these days, I wonder if we are now seeing the beginning of change, because I have no doubt that a major motivation for some families is to escape the ‘cookie cutter’ schooling that they feel the testing regime imposes on schools.
When the Secretary of Education says, as he did in his Twitter Town Hall, that any more than 10 days spent on testing and test-prep was a cause for concern, that could be a sign that the times will soon be a-changin’.
And as McGraw-Hill and Pearson are well aware, school systems are moving away from textbooks and embracing the iPad and other tablets.
That the pendulum swings is undeniable. Whether the arc is toward equality, fairness, opportunity and justice is largely up to us.
The wild card in education today is emerging Common Core standards, which inevitably will lead to pressures for national testing. This pendulum is swinging strongly toward centralization. So the question is “Can we have high national standards without narrowly prescribing the single path that schools must follow to get there?” Can we ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ in our schools?
For the first time in my life, I am channeling Sarah Palin — specifically, her complaints about what she calls ‘the lamestream media.’ I feel like a victim, even though I was merely in the audience for an old fashioned “Town Hall” that was reported on by The Washington Post. By contrast, a few days later I was the interviewer in a two-person “Town Hall” on Twitter (the interviewee was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), an event that went directly to its audience without interpretation by the media. It pains me to confront the frailties of my profession, but that’s what’s on my mind.
The old-fashioned event — about education and race — was a slam-dunk winner from Day One. It had everything going for it: (1) It was organized by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates and his capable team at the DuBois Institute at Harvard; (2) The moderator was the incomparable Charlayne Hunter-Gault; and (3) It had cast of heavyweights: Dr. James Comer, Diane Ravitch, Michelle Rhee and Professor Angel Harris of Princeton. Even the title of the event was reassuring: “The Education Gap” — not “The Achievement Gap” — a choice revealed that the organizers understood the complexity of the issue. This was certain to be substantive.
Substantive yes, but limited in its reach. About 400 people filled the historic Whaling Church in Edgartown (on Martha’s Vineyard) on August 18th, and, while it’s possible that a few people tweeted about the conversation as it was going on, it was a closed loop. One of these days the entire session will be posted on the DuBois Institute website, but you’ll have to wade through the full two hours; it apparently won’t be searchable or divided into segments.
Wonderfully substantive for those in attendance, close to inaccessible for the rest of the world.
Here’s just part of what we learned: A child born in poverty (black or white) has a 10% chance of getting to college, and our poverty rate eclipses that of other industrialized nations. By graduation day, there’s a 4-year skills gap between black and white graduates — and that does not factor in those who drop out. We also lock up more of our citizens than other countries, and the black/white incarceration ratio is 8:1. Angel Harris of Princeton spoke persuasively about the depth of the ‘Education Gap’ and the public’s failure to grasp that. Because we don’t get it, he asserted, we grasp at ‘silver bullets’ and ‘magical cures’ instead of hunkering down and committing to long term solutions.
He provided a great example: the ‘silver bullet’ of parental involvement. Be careful what you wish for, he said, because there are different forms of involvement. When black parents get involved, they are more likely to be negative and punitive, and that doesn’t help the teacher get through to the child. In addition, Harris says that parental engagement only explains very small percentage of the education gap, while parent education and income explain 25% of the gap.
Dr. James Comer, the Yale physician whose ‘Comer Schools’ are beacons of hope, brought the crowd to life with his eloquent explanation of why and how so many schools for poor children fail. It is, he asserted, largely because teachers and administrators do not understand child development and the needs of children. Time was, Comer told the audience, when most families were able to meet their children’s developmental needs, but today, with about 35% of children living in poverty, the schools and teachers are overwhelmed. And, to make matters worse, schools of education do not prepare teachers to understand, let alone meet, developmental needs, Comer said.
Diane Ravitch sounded some familiar themes: Poverty is the key here. Small classes make a difference. She bemoaned that, because of No Child Left Behind and its testing requirements, schools are eliminating art, music, PE and “all the stuff that keeps kids coming to school.” And she suggested that we take some of the billions we spend on testing and spend it on early childhood education instead.
Michelle Rhee, who was directly or indirectly criticized as a proponent of ‘accountability,’ agreed that schools cannot ‘cure’ poverty. However, she said, teachers do make a difference. Society needs a sense of urgency and cannot afford to give demonstrably poor teachers years to improve.
Rhee and Ravitch agreed that society must be ‘aspirational.’ The attitude “I’ve got mine, so who cares about anyone else?” will bring the nation down.
In short, the two hours was filled with light, with occasional heat. Unfortunately, for these messages to get beyond the 400 or so who were in the audience, it fell to the media to report what happened.
And that’s my problem because a Washington Post reporter filed a piece that made the afternoon sound like a polite disagreement between Rhee and Ravitch, who are well-known for their antagonism. Not a word about Comer, Harris or Hunter-Gault or about the substance of the session.
My hunch is that the reporter arrived expecting fireworks between Rhee and Ravitch, well-known as antagonists — and when no food fight took place, the reporter made that the story: they were polite.
Criticizing the Post reporter is not my central point. I am wondering now just how often we journalists fail to get beyond our preconceptions about people and events. I write about this in my book, The Influence of Teachers, specifically about the irrelevant ‘war’ going on now about teachers and teaching. The latest example of reporters getting it wrong, in my opinion, is Steven Brill, who devotes 400+ pages to the ‘war’ without ever questioning his own premises.
Is there a better way to reach the public? Are ‘social media’ operations, such as Twitter, the answer? Can substance — like the Edgartown meeting — be conveyed in ‘tweets’ of 140 characters or less?
That brings me to my second “Town Meeting,” which took place on Twitter on August 24. And it’s probably wrong to use the past tense, because it’s all still up there for anyone who’s interested. Here’s how it worked: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and I (the interviewer) sat in his conference room. He responded to my questions, while, off to one side, two aides translated everything into ‘tweets.’. The video was live and is now archived in case anyone wants to check the accuracy of the tweets against what was actually said.
Just over 1, 200 people ‘tuned in’ to watch the live feed, but the 68,000 followers of the Department’s Twitter feed (@usedgov) ‘followed’ the Town Meeting on Twitter. Many thousands more follow @askarne and other Twitter feeds, and so the audience must have been well over 100,000. Hundreds of followers added their own tweets, commenting on the Secretary’s answers or my questions, or just venting about the administration. Some tweets were subsequently re-tweeted, keeping the conversation going.
The run-up to the Twitter Town Hall is also noteworthy, because the Department and I both solicited questions. About 100 came to me directly, generally thoughtful and well-written. The Department received many more, which it passed along to me. I chose the questions without any prior review by the Department.
Was Arne Duncan’s Twitter Town Hall substantive, by which I mean ‘did it have the potential to change viewpoints and expand perspectives?’ By itself, no, but the re-tweets and the comments and its archived presence taken together feel ‘substantial’ — to me anyway.
What about the Town Hall on Race and Education? Could its substance have been captured and conveyed on Twitter? I doubt it, but I feel strongly that those who are committed to the old-fashioned approach must adapt so millions, not just a fortunate few, can benefit. Sessions like that can be fed live on the web and then later segmented and indexed so that visitors can pick and choose from a menu, rather than having to watch it all. (And they can tweet their favorites to their Twitter followers.)
I am not trying to talk myself or any other journalist out of a job. For openers, I wouldn’t trust a “Town Hall” with a politician if the interviewer were anyone other than a qualified reporter. However, I think a healthy skepticism about most reporting is warranted, unless and until you develop a trust in the reporter and his/her outlet.
But social media is the future. And, while there’s now a clear a trade-off between substance and immediacy, the challenge is to embrace Twitter and other social media to increase their depth. That’s the future.
Please imagine this scenario: While walking in the park, you see someone famous ahead of you. This person is berating his dog, yelling at it, slapping it and then giving the poor whimpering dog a hard kick or two. Before you can intervene, the person drags the dog away.
I ask you, would you ever be able to read about or even think about that person — let’s say he’s running for office or donating millions to charity — without that image coming into your mind?
I think something like that happened to Steven Brill, the lawyer/writer who broke the story of New York City’s infamous ‘Rubber Room,’ where teachers that no principal would hire were stashed — and paid — while awaiting arbitration. In that New Yorker article, Brill painted an unforgettable picture of hundreds of adults wasting their days (including a middle school teacher making $85,000 a year who brought in a beach lounge chair). In the piece, Brill correctly identifies the problem: a union contract that establishes procedures for dismissal that are so complex as to make firing even the most incompetent teacher impossible. It’s a good guy-bad guy story, with the teachers union being Brill’s villain (even though someone sat on the opposite side of the table and agreed to those provisions).
I use that word, ‘unforgettable,’ advisedly, because it seems that the experience colors just about every page of his new book, the very readable Class Warfare.
I’ve now read all the white papers and commission reports. I’ve learned all the policy wonk acronyms, and logged hours with everyone from teacher trainees, to the secretary of education, to Weingarten and Ravitch. Yet after all of that it still seems as uncomplicated as it did when I saw my first Rubber Roomer with his head resting on a card table. I mean no disrespect to all the dedicated people who are the “experts” in education policy, but for me the problem and its root causes still seem as undebatable as the practice of paying that guy to sleep for three or four years.
That’s a shame, because the story is more nuanced and ultimately more interesting, as Brill finally acknowledges in his final chapter, which is roughly 180 degrees different in tone from the rest of the book.
In the body of Class Warfare, teacher unions are the villains — the ‘education deformists’ — and a handful of (mostly) Democrats who challenge them are the heroes. He blithely labels people and organizations as anti- or pro-reform. So, for example, the Washington Post’s blog, “The Answer Sheet” is identified as “an anti-education reform blog.” (Brill’s tunnel vision was also discussed in detail in Sara Mosle’s Aug. 18 review of the book for The New York Times ).
Even worse is his treatment of the movie “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” a badly-slanted film that distorts the reality of public education, praising charter schools despite their muddy record of success and ignoring successful traditional public schools. He explains away the millions of dollars the filmmakers received from large foundations, suggesting that since all that money came in after the fact, it did not influence the message and the filmmakers are not hypocrites or worse.
But he has no trouble implying that one of his villains, Diane Ravitch, is for sale. In a short chapter about Ravitch, he comes very close to saying that she changed her views to accommodate those who pay her speaking fees.
But Brill, a tough man who does see the big picture, does not seem to be able to criticize his heroes directly — those ideas, he puts in footnotes (two in particular about Wendy Kopp, one about Michelle Rhee and the Gates Foundation).
His heroes are Eva Moskowitz of Harlem Success Charter Schools, Jon Schnur, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and a few others in that camp. Never once does he take on school boards, although it seems to me they bear equal responsibility for our having a system that puts adult interests ahead of those of children.
It’s not a book to read in one gulp, largely because of his format — dozens and dozens of chapters that are only three or four pages in length. Each chapter ends with the transitional equivalent of “meanwhile, back at the ranch” that becomes a distraction after a while.
However, there’s a lot to like about the book — including his inside stuff about Race to the Top. I have to admit that those sections made me professionally jealous, because we had negotiated access to the Race process for our video crew with Assistant Secretary Peter Cunningham, approved by his boss, Arne Duncan, until the Department’s lawyers vetoed it.
I think all wonks will enjoy Class Warfare. It might ruin the book for you, but I’d suggest reading the last chapter first.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?