With testing, where do we go from here?

http://www.facebook.com/plugins/likebox.php?href=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Flearningmatters&width=292&colorscheme=light&show_faces=false&stream=false&header=true&height=62

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?

Advertisements

Who’s the most influential educator in America?

http://www.facebook.com/plugins/likebox.php?href=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Flearningmatters&width=292&colorscheme=light&show_faces=false&stream=false&header=true&height=62

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

A month or so ago, I speculated about the most influential person in American education — then two weeks ago I expanded upon those musings in a feature for the New York Daily News. In both columns I put forth four nominees — Wendy Kopp, Big Bird, Arne Duncan and Joel Klein — and chose Joel for his remarkable network of eleven protégés now influencing what happens in schools and classrooms around the nation.

I was attacked for my choice by people who feel that his influence has been negative, or even destructive. Few seemed to notice that I neither praised nor condemned the former Chancellor’s policies. No one challenged that he changed New York City schools in dramatic ways — nor could they. Remember that before mayoral control, New York City had 32 separate districts, quite a few of them known as jobs programs for cronies with little regard for student outcomes. There was little sense of urgency about actually educating large numbers of children, and the central office at 110 Livingston Street was a nightmare. Joel changed all that.

But there were other reactions, including a few “How could you leave off….?” letters.

So, without asking Joel, I am reopening the discussion and adding several nominees. The new names are:

  • Diane Ravitch, the former Bush education official who has become NCLB’s fiercest critic
  • Howard Gardner of Multiple Intelligences fame, whose writings have influenced thousands of teachers
  • E. D. Hirsch, Jr., the inspiration behind Core Knowledge, whose elementary school curriculum is — for me anyway — a bright shining light.

From the original list, ‘Big Bird’ is, of course, a stand-in for Sesame Street , Joan Ganz Cooney, the Muppets and The Electric Company. Add two men we have lost — Fred Rogers and Jim Henson — as you consider your vote. Just think how many American children have been positively influenced by this team!

Would you vote for Arne Duncan as Most Influential Educator in America?

Arne Duncan might deserve more votes if he continues to press Congress on NCLB, which he now threatens to do by granting waivers.

When you consider Wendy Kopp, realize she’s a serious contender — and not just for the 9,000 Teach for America corps members who will be teaching in some of our toughest schools this fall. I invite you to review some of the names of people who have come through TFA in its 20 years on the scene and remain influential:

That list doesn’t mention a large handful of Teachers of the Year, and about 15% of the principals in Oakland. What’s more, she and TFA are a case study at the Harvard Business School, an honor that has so far escaped Joel, Arne and Big Bird.

Before you cast your vote, let me add a wild card, which I am calling the “Roberto/Robert team. ” They are two mostly invisible hands within the Obama Administration — hands that may not wash each other. Roberto J. Rodríguez serves in the White House Domestic Policy Council as Special Assistant to President Obama for Education. Previously, he was Chief Education Counsel to United States Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA). In this capacity, he managed the Committee’s Democratic education strategy for legislation addressing early childhood education, elementary and secondary education, higher education, and adult education. As for Robert Gordon at OMB, the Washington Post described him thusly: “Gordon will tackle the task of finding wasted cash in the financials of the nation. Education and labor are his specialties; he has written extensively on the impact of the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) bill, and has worked in the New York City Department of Education … Gordon has been an advocate for changing teacher-tenure rules in public schools, modifying NCLB and increasing efforts to fight crime.”

This raises the possibility that Roberto proposes from the White House and Robert vetoes from his desk at OMB, saying, ‘We can’t afford that.” Does that make them a force for stasis, for gridlock? Does that disqualify them? Your call.

So there are the new nominees for “Most Influential Educator in America.”

Vote here, vote early and vote often.

The play’s the thing

http://www.facebook.com/plugins/likebox.php?href=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Flearningmatters&width=292&colorscheme=light&show_faces=false&stream=false&header=true&height=62

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


How did you get through high school? If you are at all like me, your extra-curricular activities were the best part of the deal. The fun stuff — often what we worked hardest on — didn’t really count as far as many of the adults were concerned, but it kept us sane.

I bring this up because the Yale School of Music asked me to talk to 50 of the country’s best public school music teachers earlier this month. Perhaps foolishly, I accepted the invitation — but then had to figure out what I (not a musician) could say that might make sense to them. That got me thinking about the centrality of school’s ‘non-essential’ activities like music. And then I remembered how another ‘non-essential’ activity — drama — had rescued my own teaching. Here’s part of what I had to say:


You are music educators, but because I don’t have the bona fides to talk to musicians, I will try to say something worthwhile about education. But what? Well, Last week I arrived at a recording session early, before my producer got there. The sound engineer and I had some time to talk, and he asked me what I was working on. I told him that I had been invited to speak to some of the nation’s best music teachers and was grappling with the challenge — what to say.

‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Thank them for me.’

What do you mean, I asked?

‘Well, I wouldn’t have made it through high school or college if it hadn’t been for my music teachers.’

Tell me more, I said.

‘I played an instrument, but that wasn’t what made it matter. In music, the rewards are right there for the taking. You work with others and are only as good as the group. But you can get better — and know you are getting better — by practicing. In other classes, the rewards are external and symbolic (letter grades) but not in music.’

So, from 40-something Richard Fairbanks, thank you. I am certain there are hundreds of thousands of Richard Fairbankses out there, adults who survived school — and later prospered — because of you.

From me, congratulations. I am proud to be here with you.

I have read your biographies, and all I can say is ‘wow.’

Why teachers matter….

I think schools are teetering on the edge of a cliff marked ‘obsolescence.’ In my new book, I argue that two of the three reasons for having schools no longer apply. Now I realize there’s a fourth reason, one that involves you.

Here’s the story: I taught high school in New York in the mid-60s right after graduating from college. I write about that experience in The Influence of Teachers. One story I didn’t write about in the book I’d like to tell now, because it’s about how we turned to the arts — even then officially a non-essential activity — to energize our class. Looking back, I think it was the best teaching I ever did.

As a rookie teacher in a rigidly tracked school, I was not allowed anywhere near the kids who were on track to go to college. They were the ‘ones’ and the ‘twos.’ Instead, I was given five classes of ‘threes,’ the borderline kids that no one really cared very much about. They were Italian-Americans or working class Jews, with one or two Hispanics. For one class I was assigned to team-teach with an older Social Studies teacher named Patty Ecker (she was perhaps 24!). We struggled to interest the kids in the two subjects, without much success, until one day Patty said, “Let’s have them write a play.”

John Merrow teaching in 1966
John Merrow teaches at Paul D. Schreiber HS in Port Washington, NY in 1966.

Bingo! We told them that they had to come up with a story, explained plots, talked about ‘beginning, middle, end’ and all that stuff. They could decide on characters, action, plot, and so on. Once they realized that they had a blank slate, they took off.

Maybe predictably, the main characters of their play were tough but misunderstood teenagers, kids the adults looked down on because their hair was slicked back and they wore leather — girls and boys alike.

The plot involved shoplifting from a store in town. Cigarettes, maybe. The owner accused the greasers, of course, and I think the football captain actually fingered them.

You can guess the plot twist pretty easily. The goody-two-shoes guy and his perfect girlfriend were the thieves, and so on.

Word spread that Miss Ecker’s and Mr. Merrow’s class was writing a play and acting it out in class. Which we were. Kids would say their lines, and other kids would critique. Is that what Rocco would say? Is that how Vinnie would say it?

As enthusiasm built, someone suggested actually staging the play in the auditorium. That meant building at least two sets, because some of the action took place in a kid’s garage, some in an official office, maybe the principal’s, maybe the police chief’s — I don’t remember. They scrounged up props, including one kid’s chopped and lowered and louvered hot rod, if I remember correctly. Costumes. The whole nine yards.

For Patty and me, it was heaven. We were having — for the first time — the kinds of experiences that you have enjoyed throughout your careers, because we had engaged our kids in real work that both respected them and challenged them.

We had kids enthusiastically writing and rewriting. We heard from parents who had never been in touch with the school before. I remember a lovely letter I got from Joe Levy’s mother. Written in a loopy scrawl with a couple of minor mistakes, that letter touched me as very little has since, because she said that her Joey had been ready to drop out because he hated school but now he was jumping out of bed, eager to go.

When they put on the play one afternoon, those kids became heroes to a pretty sizable segment of the school, the large group of students who are barely visible to the adults. Their play stood up to the in-crowd, but that was only a small part of their triumph. They had flexed their creative muscles, something that hardly ever happens for most kids in “curricular” stuff.

Why these classes and activities are ever called ‘extra curricular’ is beyond me.

What we discovered, quite by accident, is something you know in your core: kids are not afraid of work, not if it’s work of value. Some teachers believe, incorrectly, that they can improve a student’s self-esteem with words and other easy expressions of praise (like high grades) even though the student isn’t doing the best work that he or she can. You know that accomplishment is the foundation of self-esteem. Students know when they’re doing their best, and they know when they’re being allowed to cut corners. They may grumble that their teachers are expecting too much, but good teachers know enough not to listen to that particular complaint.

So how do we save ‘extra curricular’ program like art and drama and music? I don’t believe that special pleading (“Save The Arts”) will work. We need a national conversation about our children, and I challenge you to help lead that.

(That’s my bumper sticker for you: DON’T PLEAD. LEAD.)

We have to ask a number of questions: What do we want our children (grandchildren, in my case) to be able to do? What kinds of people do we want them to grow up to become? What values matter? Are test scores a valid surrogate measure of our hopes for children, our own and those of others?

Then ask how we get there? Ask what the role of the school is? Ask what kinds of programs help kids grow in those directions?

If we ask those questions and if citizens and business leaders and politicians answer them honestly, the inevitable conclusion has to be that the arts in all their forms are fundamental, as important as — maybe more important than — the so-called basics.

When that day arrives, when we finally get our priorities right — and I believe we will — I hope you will be magnanimous and keep English and math and history on the list of ‘basics.’

But if you don’t, I will understand completely.

Again, my congratulations on your richly deserved honor, and thank you for the privilege of speaking with you today.



Does any of that ring a bell for you? What on earth can we do to get the people in charge to wake up to the importance of art, music, drama, journalism and even recess? They’re all being cut in the name of ‘academic rigor.’ And that insane policy is hurting children and youth everywhere.

A speech I’d like to hear

http://www.facebook.com/plugins/likebox.php?href=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Flearningmatters&width=292&colorscheme=light&show_faces=false&stream=false&header=true&height=62

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!

Test question — can you spell ‘blackmail?’

http://www.facebook.com/plugins/likebox.php?href=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Flearningmatters&width=292&colorscheme=light&show_faces=false&stream=false&header=true&height=62

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

If memory serves, years ago a group of students at a California high school deliberately filled in incorrect answers on a test the state used to evaluate its schools, thereby guaranteeing that the school would sink in the rankings. They were upset because the principal failed to bow to their demand for a smoking area or some similar privilege.

Whether the principal was right or wrong is immaterial. What matters is that the state had put him in that position by creating a test whose results meant nothing to those being tested — but could lead to cash bonuses for schools doing well.

Students at other high schools apparently went to their principals and offered to do really well in return for privileges. Not sure how that turned out.

In 2006, according to California reporter John Fensterwald, students at a charter school in San Jose protested the dismissal of a couple of popular teachers by sabotaging a state test. The school’s score on the all-important Academic Progress Index dropped 203 points, from 731 to 528.

What brings that to mind is the news that New York City is going to spend at least $25 million to create tests whose scores will, they hope, allow them to judge teachers (not students).

As Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said to the New York Times, “How do you create an additional assessment that is actually going to strengthen instructional practice, rather than divert time away from instruction?”

That, he added, “is what we set out to solve.”

From my vantage point, there is so much wrong with this thinking as to be laughable — although maybe Dr. Polakow-Suransky (by all accounts a brilliant man) is being logical given that the legislature passed a law last year that requires districts to find ways to rate teachers on a scale from ‘highly effective’ to ‘ineffective.’ The legislature was doing Washington’s bidding, to help the state win the Race to the Top competition, so perhaps the madness starts in the Congress and the White House.

But madness it is, because New York City will be piling more tests on top of those already being administered. The Times reports that, if the plan is carried out, high school students could end up taking as many as eight additional tests a year, because, after all, not everyone teaches math or language arts. As spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz said in an email, “Some of the things that need to be determined are how are we going to ‘test’ students in art classes…students in Physical education… students in Spanish.”

There will be more tests for elementary and middle school students as well.

Now about the blackmail: When New York City rolls out the test exams next year in 100 or so schools, how long before some savvy students let teachers know that they know what’s going on — and are willing to try their best if the teacher will agree to (fill in your own answer here).

Reporters have to be salivating at the prospect of some really juicy stories emerging from this idiotic policy. If it weren’t so stupid, I would be really pumped too.

According to the Times article, sample tests were given in 11 schools this spring, but no one told the students what the deal was. Good luck with keeping that a secret as the tests spread to other schools.

And in fact, Dr. Polakow-Suransky urged full disclosure. “I don’t think it should be a secret that part of how teachers are evaluated is how kids’ learning goes on in their class,” he said.

Bubble Test

(Perhaps I should say ‘if the tests spread,’ because spokeswoman Ravitz says they have only put out the RFP but “haven’t made decisions.”)

Doesn’t anybody have the courage to challenge this slavish devotion to standardized testing (mostly bubble tests, by the way)? Students in New York City finished taking their ‘end of the year’ state test in mid-May, but school itself doesn’t get out until the end of June. For kids (and for the policy types in their comfortable offices), the tests are everything. Teachers, of course, have to hold their students’ interest for another six weeks or so.

Dr. Polakow-Suransky said the challenge was to create an additional assessment that will ‘strengthen instruction.’

I say he ought to examine the premise of the law and challenge it, because the goal ought to be to strengthen teaching and learning. This entire exercise strikes me as a ‘gotcha game’ whose outcome will undermine the teaching profession, increase disrespect among students for schooling, and take time away from teaching and learning. It will, however, allow students to strengthen their bargaining and blackmailing skills.

Assessments can strengthen instruction, of course. Frequent school-based tests in math, for example, can pinpoint which teachers are having difficulty getting certain concepts across; they can then learn different approaches from their more successful peers. That’s not ‘gotcha’ testing but sensible assessment with an immediate feedback loop.

I write about many of these issues in my book, The Influence of Teachers. A lot of our problems in public education stem from a dearth of respect. We don’t respect students’ intelligence; hence we focus on the lowest common denominator in skills. We don’t respect teachers, which is why we turn to standardized testing as the be-all and end-all of evaluation. I’m not sure we even respect learning itself.

Nor do we expect very much from our kids, frankly. Imagine setting the bar for reading at third grade, when most first graders are fully capable of learning to read and learning to enjoy reading?

But enough of this rant. The questions are:

How do we raise expectations?

How do we get beyond the insult of ‘the basics’?

How do we wean ourselves away from our addiction to more and more standardized testing?

The floor is open for suggestions (I’ve done the ranting).

The international divide

http://www.facebook.com/plugins/likebox.php?href=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Flearningmatters&width=292&colorscheme=light&show_faces=false&stream=false&header=true&height=62

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

Is it possible that the US has been heading in the wrong direction for most of the 30 years it has been focused on school reform? That’s the conclusion a reader of “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” would be hard pressed not to draw. The paper, written largely by Marc Tucker of the National Center for Education and the Economy, contrasts the approaches taken by five high performing (but quite different) entities — Toronto, Japan, Finland, Shanghai and Singapore — with what we have been doing here.

You can read the paper here.

Continue reading

E.D. Hirsch, Mike Smith and Linda Katz offer insights on reading development

If journalism is history’s first rough draft, then perhaps blogs like this one are journalism’s notes and outline. For me, this blog continues to be a wonderful learning opportunity, largely because of thoughtful readers who question my assumptions and provide me with information I have either forgotten or never seen.

In the few days since I posted my thoughts about early reading, I have received several (welcome) wake-up calls from E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (of Core Knowledge fame), Marshall ‘Mike’ Smith (former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton), and Linda Katz (Director of the Children’s Literacy Initiative in Philadelphia).

Continue reading

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading helps with a national crisis

I am currently in Washington, DC attending the kick-off of what is being called “The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading,” a three-day event focused on an issue constantly growing in importance. Its organizers, led by the irrepressible Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, initially expected to attract between 50 and 70 participants; more than 200 of us signed up, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who will deliver the closing address on Tuesday.

Because we are now editing a piece for PBS NewsHour about what is often called ‘the vocabulary gap’ that develops in the first three years of life, I am especially aware of the need for public action.  We know that about 75 percent of the children who aren’t reading competently and confidently by the end of third grade will never catch up.

No mistake: This is a crisis!

Continue reading

REQUIRED READING: 6 Titles Not To Be Missed

February is a great month for books about education, with very readable releases from John Seely Brown, Richard Whitmire, Ron Dietel, Alexander Russo, Gene Maeroff and one of Peg and Gris Merrow’s sons. It’s a short month, so you might not have time to read them all before March 1, but I hope you will give at least some of them a try. Below are my somewhat biased reviews of some notable titles.

For those who are looking forward to what schooling might become, “A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Flux” is essential reading. While I don’t know co-author Douglas Thomas, I assure you that John Seely Brown is a deep thinker whose interests encompass just about everything. He’s one of the smartest people I know. To give you a taste of their thinking, here are a couple of quotes from the book. “We propose reversing the order of things. What if, for example, questions were more important than answers? What if the key to learning were not the application of techniques but their invention? What if students were asking questions about things that really mattered to them?” And “The ability to play may be the single most important skill to develop for the twenty-first century.” Amen to that, I say.

“A New Culture of Learning” turns school on its head, which the authors say is essential because the world our kids live in is already upside down. In short, play is the new work, and questions are the new answers. The book, which is short and punchy, is only available on Amazon. (Full disclosure: I blurbed this book.)

Richard Whitmire is an engaging writer and a fine story teller. Marry those talents with a charismatic subject, which Whitmire has done, and the result is a terrific read. “The Bee Eater” is a semi-authorized biography of Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of the Washington, DC schools. As some readers may know, we followed Rhee for 3 years  on PBS NewsHour (the 12 resulting episodes are viewable online). Whitmire, a friend and colleague over many years, essentially shadowed Michelle Rhee for months, and the result is an insightful portrait of a bold, courageous but flawed leader.“The Bee Eater” is published by Wiley.

Ready for a break, for a romp? Pick up Ronald Dietel’s biting spoof, “The Perfect Test.” It’s a dystopian vision of a world gone crazy, a science fiction portrait of the future that often comes wickedly close to where we are now. “The Perfect Test” will make you laugh, but it will also make you mad and make you think. (Full disclosure: Ron has generously signed over the royalties to the Education Writers Association and Learning Matters, my non-profit company.)

With all these books, I worry that Alexander Russo’s  will get lost in the shuffle, and I hope that does not happen. “Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors” is the gritty story of an unlikely attempt to fix a broken Los Angeles high school, Locke High School in South Central L.A. Alexander, also a friend and colleague, seems to have had complete access to the process, and the result is an engaging story with several complex characters, including Green Dot founder Steve Barr. (Full disclosure: I also blurbed this book.)“Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors” is published by Jossey-Bass.

“School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy” is the latest book from the tireless Gene Maeroff, the veteran New York Times reporter turned scholar. This is a dense but rewarding book, enlivened by stories of Gene’s own experience as a member of the school board in his home town of Edison, New Jersey. It’s not ‘tales out of school’ but a serious examination of the past and future of school boards. Given all the bad stuff that’s being written about school boards lately, this book is a necessary balance.“School Boards in America”, which is Gene’s 14th book, is published by Palgrave MacMillan.

And finally, I come to “The Influence of Teachers,” a book that comes out in a few days on Amazon. Neither Peg nor Gris Merrow, the author’s parents, are here to tell you to buy the book, but others are speaking up. Here’s a sample:

“Terrific” – Jim Lehrer

“Invaluable” – Marian Wright Edelman, Children’s Defense Fund

“Important and enjoyable, warm and thoughtful” Former US Secretary of Education Richard C. Riley

“Passionate, persuasive, and eminently readable” Chris Cerf, co-creator of ‘Between the Lions’ and recipient of the 2010 McGraw Prize in Education

“A book that will move you to tears and to action” Tony Marx, incoming President of the New York Public Library and current President of Amherst College

“If only there were more John Merrows!” E.D. Hirsch, Jr., founder of Core Knowledge and author of Cultural Literacy

By now you have figured out that I wrote “The Influence of Teachers,” which LM Books published on Amazon. It’s available on February 15th, although you can put in your order right now, by clicking this link. (All of the proceeds go directly to Learning Matters.)

Happy reading…

On Teachers: Let’s Stop Bashing and Get Proactive

Last week in this space I wondered why the President had singled out for high praise a school in Denver where the teachers had taken on their own union to get work rules relaxed. Was he, I asked, sending a not-very-subtle message to teacher unions, “Put kids’ interests first. Stop with the trade union behavior”?

I asked Peter Cunningham, the Department’s uber-capable Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach, how that particular school was selected. He responded in an email that he had had nothing to do with it.

So if it wasn’t the Department of Education, then who? The likely suspects are on the President’s White House staff or in the Office of Management and Budget. Perhaps someone is off the reservation.

Or perhaps a speechwriter didn’t perform due diligence. That happens.

Or maybe eager staffers who work for Colorado Senator Michael Bennet (former Denver Superintendent of Schools) did their job—promoted their boss—effectively. (We saw the Senator and others from Colorado give their own standing ovation at that point in the speech.)

I wish the President had singled out a successful school that also models what many of us would like to see everywhere: teachers and their unions working with management to give kids maximum opportunities to learn. That would have been a great lesson for his audience, and it would have helped tamp down the teacher-bashing and teacher-union bashing. Instead, he added fuel to their fire, which is already hot and getting hotter, as more governors go after tenure and seniority.

But what matters more right now is what the Department and others are actually doing. Lots, it turns out. For instance, later this month the Department will host 150 school districts (in Denver!) for two days about ‘labor management collaboration.’ In the press release, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is quoted as saying, “Union leaders and administrators across the country are finding new ways to work together to focus on student success. The leaders from these 150 districts are committed to bold reforms and are showing the country what is possible when adults come together, particularly in tough times, to do the right thing for kids.”

This event is sponsored by the two teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators and the Council of the Great City Schools. That is, just about everyone.
The Ford Foundation is picking up this tab, according to the press release. Elsewhere, the Gates Foundation is putting serious dollars behind collaborative efforts in Hillsborough, Florida and other districts.

The skeptic in me wonders about two phrases the Secretary uses: ‘bold reforms’ and ‘student success.’ If by the latter he means higher test scores, this meeting won’t amount to much. If by ‘bold reforms,’ he means ‘turnaround specialists’ and other half-hearted changes, the meeting will probably be a waste of time.

I hope he (and Peter Cunningham) insist that everyone prepare for the meeting by reading or re-reading the two most recent surveys of teachers done by Met Life and Scholastic/Gates Foundation. Use those documents as the foundation, and something great could come out of these two days in February.

Stopping teacher bashing is not enough. Nor is “better communication” between labor and management. What’s needed is a proactive effort to make teaching a better job.

NB: “Better Job” does NOT mean shorter hours or higher pay, if you trust what the teachers themselves say. What they want, according to MetLife and Scholastic/Gates, are opportunities to collaborate, involvement in curriculum, trust and respect.