A Kind of Slavery, But With Term Limits

The first Merrow to come to America was a Scots highlander named Henry who survived the battle of Dunbar, was taken prisoner by Oliver Cromwell’s forces and shipped to Boston around 1650 where he was sold, at age 25 or 26, into indentured servitude. The term of his service was seven years. The purchase price was 12 pounds.

Henry was for all intents and purposes a slave, but with a huge difference: he knew that he would become a free man on a specific contractual date. He might even gain his freedom before that date if he saved enough. But in either case, each day he worked brought him closer to his freedom.

school exitIs it too over-the-top to propose that this is akin to America’s high schools today? Students are certainly not slaves, but at times they are a bit like indentured servants, who, if they put in their seat-time for a set number of days and years, will receive diplomas and be done with schooling. They will be free.

Back to Henry Merrow; he served out his  term and became a free man. He eventually married and moved to Reading, Massachusetts,  where he raised an impressively large family and prospered. His is a success story, but I find myself wondering if some indentured servants simply became fed up with the system and ran away before their terms were up.

It sure happens a lot today in our schools. Continue reading

Unlearning Bad Science

The annual reports of the so-so performance in science by American students on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) cause hand wringing, but I worry that the news will lead to more testing. I believe that would make matters worse, because more testing would inevitably lead to more rote teaching of the material that lends itself to multiple-choice questions. It could lead to dumbing down the science curriculum, which will drive competent teachers either to distraction or to other occupations. Junk Science by Bill Keaggy

The big picture isn’t much brighter, what with some school districts embracing “creation science” as deserving of equal billing with evolution.

All of this is obscuring what may be a greater challenge – unlearning bad science.

A few years ago I watched a teacher at Cary Academy in North Carolina ask his science students which organism had the most chromosomes per cell: mosquitoes, corn, broad beans, cats or humans? The kids picked humans, which is correct, because we have 46 chromosomes, while cats have 38 and mosquitoes only 6. Then the teacher expanded the list to include horses, chickens, goldfish and potatoes. Once again, his students confidently chose their own species. At that point he told them that even potatoes, with 48 chromosomes, beat us humans, and goldfish had 104 chromosomes, more than twice as many as humans.

The students were stunned (as they are every year). How could they be less evolved than a potato? Or a horse? Continue reading

What’s Ahead in 2010

If you don’t mind, I feel like patting my colleagues on the back this week–in public.  Here are three reasons:

#1.  Last week the PBS NewsHour aired our piece about what the federal government is calling the Race to the Top, the $4.35 billion competition for education dollars.  It aired the night 40 states and the District of Columbia filed their applications.

#2.  We’re rolling out a bonus web video and two podcasts that feature a lot more information about the Race. This bonus video with Race director Joanne Weiss (below) will give you a better sense of the woman Arne Duncan hired to run the huge grant program.  In one podcast, you hear Colorado’s Lieutenant Governor Barbara O’Brien try to persuade teachers and other locals that more state and federal involvement is a good thing.  Finally, representatives from Maryland and Delaware and Weiss herself talk about one of the elephants in the room, the Gates Foundation and its $250K grants to some—but not all—states competing for Race to the Top dollars.


#3.  And we are also releasing parts five and six of our 7-part series about Teach for America.
These are short video profiles of rookie teachers in New Orleans, vivid pictures of the highs and lows of what it’s like to be on the front lines in urban education—with barely two months of preparation.  (There’s also an 8th part, an interview with TFA founder Wendy Kopp.)


That’s 12 (TWELVE) separate productions in the space of a few weeks.  Sounds like the work of a small army, doesn’t it?
But there are only nine of us at Learning Matters

Watch the credit roll for a news program or a documentary sometime.  If you can, count the names as they scroll by.  Quite a few, aren’t there?

Our work continues.  We’re planning another segment about the Race to the Top, looking at the judging process and digging into the skepticism coming from right and left.  I’m in New Orleans now with two colleagues, working on the next installment of our series about this city’s attempt to rebuild its schools, under the leadership of Paul Vallas.

These are remarkable times in American public education. The federal government’s role grows ever larger, economic pressures on schools seem to increase weekly, and foreign competition is a growing threat.  In these circumstances, schools can be forgiven for battening down the hatches in hopes of surviving the storm.  It’s perfectly understandable—but it’s probably bad strategy.

Holding onto the old ways almost never works. It hasn’t worked for newspapers, it isn’t working in journalism, and it probably won’t in public education either.

But what will emerge?  Is Race to the Top just the breath of new energy that’s required in public education, or is it a last gasp, akin to breeding better, faster horses for the Pony Express?

We’ll do our best to report these stories for you.

Race to the Top: A New “Diet” for Schools?

To understand the Race to the Top, think of Education Secretary Arne Duncan as a diet doctor and public education systems as obese, out of shape individuals in need of a better nutrition program.  But here’s the catch: state-controlled school systems are not Secretary Duncan’s children. They are independent adults, and ‘Dr. Duncan’ can’t just order them to eat better and work out regularly. He has to cajole and entice them into behavior that he is certain is in their best interest.  And so he’s offering rewards ($4.35 billion) to those who come up with the best ‘diet’ of education reforms.Arne Duncan

Make no mistake about the educational shape our schools are in—it’s bad!  More than one million students drop out of school every year, costing the economy billions of dollars. International comparisons are downright embarrassing.  Only 1.3 percent of our 15-year-olds scored at the highest level of mathematical proficiency, putting us 24th out of 30 nations participating in PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment.  By contrast, 9.1 percent of Korean and 6 percent of Czech 15-year-olds scored at the highest level.

Duncan believes he knows how states can shape up.  For openers, they have to step on a reliable scale.  In education, that means a transparent data system that tracks students’ progress throughout their school years, and it means common standards, so that everyone is using the same weight measures.  (Today each state chooses its tests and decides what constitutes passing.)

His plan for better nutrition, educationally speaking, includes a diet of charter schools, publicly funded but independently run institutions.

Losing weight requires more than better food.  Serious dieters also work out sensibly, focusing on the parts of the body that need attention.  In the gym, one might use the Stairmaster to tone up the legs and thighs and free weights to develop upper body strength; in education, that means putting the best teachers in the lowest performing schools.  It means paying the best teachers more money.

Another key to getting in shape is getting rid of bad habits, whether it’s smoking, snacking or eating a big dessert just before bedtime.  The bad habit that education’s diet doctor wants eliminated is the failing school.  Duncan wants states to close down their persistently bad schools, perhaps as many as 5,000 of them across the country, and reopen them only when there’s a serious plan for improvement.

Most states have just submitted their ‘diets’ to Washington, which will review them and decide which deserve a big reward. This spring some states could receive as much as $700 million.

But winners won’t get the money all at once.  Duncan plans to monitor their ‘diets’ over the next several years and will dole out the money only to states that stick to their promised education reforms.

Will Arne Duncan’s nutrition plan, his ‘Race to the Top,’ be successful?  Will school systems across the country lose weight and get in better (educational) shape?  If it does, it will be the exception to the rule, because, as nearly all of us know from personal experience, most diets fail.

Two Years of Michelle Rhee and More in 2010

All this week the PBS NewsHour is broadcasting slightly-edited chapters of our coverage of the troubled public schools in Washington DC.  Put another way, it’s a Michelle Rhee Film Festival.Michelle Rhee

We’ve been following the efforts of this dynamic young leader since she took office in June 2007.  When I read about her appointment that spring, I called her up, introduced myself, and invited her out to dinner. Our senior producer, Murrey Jacobson, joined us, and I made a pitch: “We’d like to chronicle your efforts on the NewsHour. What do you say?”

Her immediate reaction was notable for its candor: Continue reading

5 Ways to Change the Status Quo: Interview with Phillip Kovacs

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’ve been interviewing a lot of folks who are well known in education, Debbie Meier, Margaret Spellings, Diane Ravitch, Pat Callan and others. Many readers have posted comments, which I read with interest. Sometimes I wonder about the writers, and sometimes I reach out.

This post came from my interest in one reader’s comments to my recent post on innovation in schools.  His name is Philip Kovacs, and he’s a former high school English teacher who now teaches would-be teachers at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. I also know that he has a PhD in Educational Policy Studies, a 6 month-old son, and some strong convictions about public education. (The latter is the focus of the interview, although the proud new Dad manages to work his son into the conversation a couple of times).

The Interview

So tell me what you believe, and why.

In my dissertation I argue for keeping public schools public, but after four years working with local public schools, I’m open to alternatives. I am now working on starting a project-based lab school.

How did you find Learning Matters?

The More things ChangeIt was research into the Gates Foundation that brought me to your website in the first place. The Foundation funds an unbelievable number of projects, some of which argue against one another, though the larger of the funded organizations agree on key points, none of which, in my humble opinion, are very innovative. I do not, for the record, think Bill Gates is controlling your content!

I am now editing a book about the Gates Foundation’s involvement in educational reform. I am 100% sure that the edited volume is going to anger the educational “right” and “left.”

You sound as if you want to anger both ends of the spectrum.

I guess I do, now that you mention it. Three years ago I helped about 30 scholars, teachers, and other concerned individuals create and post a petition calling for an end to No Child Left Behind. Continue reading

The Future of Higher Ed: An Interview with Pat Callan

Formally, he’s Patrick M. Callan, but everyone calls him Pat, whether they are praising him for creating and sustaining the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, or taking his name in vain when “Measuring Up,” the report card on higher education that the Center publishes every two years, comes out.

Patrick M. CallanIf you watched our documentary, Declining by Degrees, you know what Pat looks like. And you may have heard him on a couple of our podcasts. Now you can read him, in this interview.

Yes, Pat has been around for a while and has served with distinction on the California Higher Education Policy Center, the California Postsecondary Education Commission, the Washington State Council for Postsecondary Education, the Montana Commission on Postsecondary Education and the Education Commission of the States.

He’s a force to be reckoned with and shows little sign of slowing down.

The Interview

Let’s begin with higher education and the recession. I know that your organization has tightened its belt, and we certainly have done that at Learning Matters.  What about higher education generally?

There has been belt tightening and much of it has been difficult and painful.  But remember, John–colleges and states can pass significant portions of their financial problems along to their consumers—students and families.

That’s certainly happening in California now. A 32% increase has sparked angry protests on many UC and Cal State campuses. Did you see this coming, and does this spell the end of California’s Master Plan for higher education, its promise of a low cost education for all able citizens?

The current round of cuts, tuition increases, and enrollment reductions are shaping up to be the most severe, particularly with the severity of economic hardship Californians are experiencing, but it’s very consistent with the way California handles budgetary problems—the default position is pass as much of the pain as possible along to students and families.

Remember the history, John. In 1960 California became the first state—in fact, the first government anywhere in the world—to commit itself to provide higher education access to every adult who was motivated and could benefit from it.  But that commitment, in what was called the Master Plan, has eroded substantially over the last three decades.  In each recession since the early 1980s, California has raised tuition substantially and turned thousands of students away from college.  For example, in the recession of the early 1990s, California reduced public higher education enrollments by 230,000 students.  In the dot-com recession early in this decade, enrollment was cut by 150,000 students.  Each time this has happened, some higher education and political leaders and many in the media have proclaimed that an unprecedented breach of the Master Plan has occurred.

I look around my office and see everyone working much harder, but I haven’t heard of college faculty teaching an extra course per semester, or anything like that.  Am I missing something?

There have been increases in faculty teaching, due primarily to larger classes.  But there’s been little in the way of systematic efforts to improve productivity in ways that don’t undermine educational quality and are on a scale large enough to have an impact on access and affordability.  Continue reading

The Road Not Traveled: Tracking Charter Schools Movement

On the back page of Education Week this week is my essay about charter schools, including a trip down memory lane back to the meeting in Minnesota in 1988 where the dream took shape. I hope all of you will go over to Ed Week’s website to read it (subscription required), but, before you do, bear with me because the ground keeps shifting under this movement, even as many things remain the same.

I’d like to raise two issues: 1) quality control and 2) persistent opposition.

Charter Schools & The Roads Diverging

For one thing, the Obama Administration is embracing charter schools (or ‘chartered schools’) with great enthusiasm. Now, it’s true that Education Secretary Arne Duncan adds a qualification, saying that they support ‘good charter schools,’ but that strikes me as, for the moment anyway, an empty distinction, largely because of an absence of ways of measuring quality.

It’s true that egregiously bad charters get shut down, but mediocre ones keep plugging along, doing just as much damage to kids as mediocre public schools. But what the charter school proponents don’t seem to realize is that these mediocre institutions are also damaging ‘the movement.’ I’ve heard them (and you know who you are!) say that mediocre public schools aren’t punished, as if that justifies not closing mediocre charter schools! It doesn’t, precisely because the charter school advocates are claiming to be different.

I think that charter schools risk becoming like schools of education if they aren’t careful. How many of the 1400 or so schools and colleges of education are excellent? Continue reading

Better Late than Never: WISE Awards Report Back

**We ran into some snafus with live posting, so some of my report backs didn’t make it up.  I think you’ll enjoy them anyway, so here’s one from the WISE Awards ceremony held on the second day of the conference.**

Here in Doha at WISE, the World Innovation Summit for Education, six groups were recognized for innovation, sustainability or pluralism. I managed to snag interviews with five winners.  Martin Burt’s project in Paraguay, ‘the Self Sufficient School,’ seeks to enable the poor to make a living while living on the land. As he told me, “Experts talk about ‘eliminating poverty,’ but that’s too abstract. I’m talking about putting money in the hands of the poor, money they have earned.”


I had a lively conversation with Joyce Dongotey-Padi of Ghana, whose project, known as WANE (Widows Alliance Network), aims to emancipate Ghanaian widows from the social, cultural and economic deprivation brought about by the prejudices they face because of their status. Ms. Dongotey-Padi is not a widow herself but was moved to act when a neighbor and friend became widowed and found herself virtually helpless and penniless.

I also talked with the Executive Director of Curriki, Dr. Barbara (Bobbi) Kurshan, and soon will put up an interview with her colleague Peter Levy.  Curriki’s name comes from ‘Curriculum’ and Wikipedia’ and is meant to suggest free, user generated curriculum for teachers.  Pretty neat stuff that is deservedly catching on and now has about 100,000 participants, almost all of them teachers.


The project to educate girls and women in India, Nanhi Kali, caught my attention.  It began in 1996 but didn’t really take off until recently.  It now reaches 52,000 girls across 8 states in India, up from just 1700 girls in 2002.  Its stated goal is to reach 100,000 girls by the end of this year, but its real goal is to change the social attitudes that devalue girls and women.  Ms. Sheetal Mehta was at WISE representing the project, and her energy and optimism jump off the screen.

Unfortunately I did not get to talk with representatives of the two other projects but both are worth your attention.  Escuela Nueva in rural Colombia uses collaborative learning to transform the traditional classroom and promote entrepreneurial skills. It was initiated in 1975 in rural Colombia in response to endemic educational problems like high dropout rates, weak school-community relationships, ineffective teacher training and the lack of children’s learning materials.

The second one I missed is a successful distance learning project in the Amazon forest, where many small towns and villages are accessible only by boat.  It was launched in 2007 by the Secretariat of Education and Learning Quality of Amazonas State and today transmits live classes via a two-way videoconference link to 25,000 students in 300 secondary schools and 700 classrooms, throughout the 62 county districts. A teacher is also located in each classroom to support local activities.

The awards were formally presented at the gala Tuesday night by Her Royal Highness Sheika Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned.  Each project received $20,000.   The first WISE Awards attracted 500 entries, and I was told that the judges could have honored many more projects than they did, so expect an even bigger splash next year.

Better Late Than Never: Report Back from Day 1 in Qatar

**We ran into some snafus with live posting, so some of my report backs didn’t make it up.  I think you’ll enjoy them anyway, so here’s one from the first day of the conference.**

About 1000 delegates from more than 120 countries are represented here in Doha, Qatar, at WISE, the World Innovation Summit for Education. Plans are to make this an annual event, and it’s backed by the Qatar Foundation and the prestige of Her Royal Highness, Sheika Mozah, the wife of the Emir. She opened the 3-day meeting with a rousing call for innovation in education.

WISEShe reminded us that more than 75 million school-age children are not in school and that nearly 800 million adults cannot read or write. And she sounded a theme that is of profound importance: the education gender gap is wide and growing, because discrimination against women and girls is deeply entrenched.

The need for innovation is clear, because business as usual means accepting severe teacher shortages, funding deficits and low completion rates. Can this conference energize at least some of the participants to work for significant change?

For this stranger,a lesson on arrival had to do with pronunciation of Qatar. I’ve always said ‘ka-TAR’ but they say ‘cotter’, as in cotter pin. The second lesson: This is a new country intent on leaping into the 21st century: Construction cranes everywhere, and what they have already put up is impressive. Google ‘Education City, Qatar’ and see for yourself.

About 50 journalists are here, and the organizers have ‘quarantined’ us at a hotel miles and miles from the meeting hotel, the Ritz. We are downtown, where life happens, and we have a 30-40 minute bus ride morning and night that gives us a chance to see some of Doha. Those ensconced at the Ritz are out on a peninsula, miles from anything else. They do get the famous Ritz chocolate chip cookies, however.

After Sheika Mozah’s speech, we were talked at, about the importance of innovation in education. Why is it that the pedagogy never changes? Does someone believe that’s the best way to communicate?