Education Predictions for 2012

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What can we expect in the world of public education in 2012? (For a good review of what happened in 2011, check out this link.) I’ll start by considering three nagging questions.

1. Will this be the year that some school districts say ‘No mas!” to No Child Left Behind’s harsh rules?

2. Will we have that long-awaited national conversation about the goals of public education?

3. And will political leaders rise up against the excesses of for-profit education, so effectively documented in the New York Times (December 13, 2011), where we learned that the school superintendent of one for-profit charter chain that enrolls 94,000 students is paid $5,000,000 a year? (By contrast, Dennis Walcott, who is responsible for over one million New York City public school students, earns $213,000 a year.)

Sadly, I fear that the answer to those three questions is NO, NO and NO. Professional educators — who are generally reactors, not actors — will be busy trying to keep up with the latest new new thing (this year it’s the Common Core). I don’t expect rebellious behavior from superintendents and school boards, no matter how much they claim to be chafing under NCLB. Expect instead a further narrowing of the curriculum, more testing, larger classes, and the continued heroic behavior of most teachers under difficult circumstances.

Because this is an election year, the politics of public education are even crazier than usual, meaning that serious debate over the federal role in education won’t occur in 2012. Republicans are running against the very existence of the federal Department of Education, not debating subtleties of achievement measures. Not only is there zero chance of a national dialogue, the probability that anything useful will happen in the re-authorization of NCLB is pretty slim, unless it happens very early this year.

And because money talks in education, the for-profit crowd seems likely to continue its creeping expansion. A few more exposés like Stephanie Saul’s wonderful New York Times piece (linked above) won’t be enough to make us care about what amounts to the selling of other people’s children.

Classroom
What will happen here in 2012?

However, I can imagine four and perhaps five hopeful scenarios for 2012. In ascending order of importance (my judgement call), they are ‘Growth in Home Schooling,’ ‘Shutting Down Failing Charter Schools,’ ‘Board/Union Cooperation,’ ‘Whole School Evaluation,’ and ‘Blended Learning.’

I think it’s safe to predict more Home Schooling, fueled by a stagnant economy, policies that allow home-school students to participate in some school activities, and parental dissatisfaction with public education’s relentless focus on math and reading. Parents want more for their kids, and, if one parent can’t find a paying job outside the home, why not teach your own?

A larger number of failing charter schools will be closed in 2012. It’s happening now in California, New Orleans and Washington, DC. While the stated reason is often financial, as Andy Rotherham wryly notes, that’s how they got Al Capone. What that means: it’s easier to prove financial mismanagement than educational malpractice, but they often go hand in hand. If the non-profit public charter movement gets its act together and both raises and adheres to high standards, there’s no stopping this movement in 2012.

Board/Union Cooperation is not some dream scenario. It’s happening because the Race to the Top competition got the two sides talking, because the Gates Foundation and the U. S. Department are putting dollars behind it, and because quite a few leaders on both sides of the table are reading the tea leaves. Union leaders are well aware of the threat posed by charter schools, which do not have to unionize. Whether there’s pressure on school boards to stop their meddling is an open question, but there’s a trend toward decentralization that could grow. It’s not just Hillsborough, Florida, folks. This could be big in 2012. Maybe we will see shorter contracts that leave more decisions in the hands of the people in the school, instead of dictates from on high.

Whole School Evaluation is a sleeper for 2012 because all the public attention has been directed toward measuring the effectiveness of individual teachers (often so the ineffective ones can be removed). But quietly and behind the scenes, a few leaders have recognized that evaluating every teacher individually would entail testing every subject in every grade — and that’s both illogical and insane!

Concrete plans are being developed and implemented that use multiple measures to draw conclusions about how much or how little the entire school is progressing. And when a school rises, everyone involved — including office staff, custodians, attendance officers and the like — stand to benefit. Washington, DC, which has been in the spotlight (and sometimes the cross hairs) for its controversial “Impact” system, uses what seems like a sensible Whole School Evaluation approach. Esther Wojcicki and I wrote an op-ed, “Trust but Verify”, on this subject a few months ago, if you’d like to know more about how it could work.

But my personal pick in 2012 is Blended Learning, an idea whose time has certainly come. Sal Khan and the Khan Academy are the most visible (and most successful) manifestation, but I hear that forward-thinking educators in many districts are recognizing that, while kids are going to be in schools, there is no reason they cannot be connected with students across the district, the state, the nation and the world. What’s more, the traditional ‘stop signs’ of 8th grade, 9th grade, 10th grade and so forth are now meaningless. If a child can use technology to help her move through three years of math in one, she should be encouraged to dig deep and move at her own pace. And when a child needs a year-and-a-half to get through Algebra, that’s fine too.

There are plenty of hurdles to the widespread acceptance of Blended Learning, chief among them being habit and tradition. Teachers are going to need help with this, because they haven’t been trained or encouraged to ‘let go’ of control, and, frankly, Blended Learning can make life difficult for the adults in charge. After all, it requires close personal attention to individual kids, instead of the usual practice of grouping kids by their age. In this approach, learning is a two-way street that demands exploration and always entails failure. No doubt some are going to try to co-opt Blended Learning either to make money from it or to cut the labor force (teachers), but, all that aside, Blended Learning is my bet for education’s big winner in 2012.

So, there you have my predictions/hopes for 2012. What are yours?

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A new idea: shared poetry

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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.

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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.

Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow online video, and that has made all the difference in education.

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.

What do you say?

Do we need better parents?

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If we want our children to perform better academically, we need “better parents.” That’s what Tom Friedman wrote, perhaps ironically, on November 19 in the New York Times. The column provoked hundreds of readers to comment, and those comments provide insights into just how far apart we are as a nation, at least when it comes to public education.

Friedman cites an OECD study that reveals that “Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all.” (My use of the verb ‘reveals’ is my effort at irony, in case you are wondering.)

Friedman cites another study, “Back to School,” from the American School Board Journal, which says that, when parents are involved in children’s learning, the kids do better. “Monitoring homework; making sure children get to school; rewarding their efforts and talking up the idea of going to college. These parent actions are linked to better attendance, grades, test scores, and preparation for college,” the study reports. It adds that these things matters more than attending PTA meetings, volunteering in classrooms, or helping raise money for the school.

There is a certain “Duh” factor — yes, involved parents make a difference in their children’s education — but what struck me was the heat and intensity of the responses, some of which I am excerpting below.

A few readers responded to Mr. Friedman’s comments about ‘better parents’ by changing the subject and preaching about the need for ‘better teachers.’

Janet of Salt Lake City was an early responder who wrote, in part: We need to place the responsibility for teaching squarely where it lies — on the teachers. A great teacher can teach anything to any child. Rather than wishing to turn every parent into the perfect parent, a goal that can’t be achieved, we need to provide the training and salaries that will attract the best and the brightest of our college graduates into a career in public education.

Moreover, suggested another respondent from Salt Lake City, SThomas: It’s the fault of the schools that parents aren’t involved. He wrote, in part: Unfortunately, most of these uninvolved parents were educated in the same school systems that are now failing our children, so naturally they lack the kinds of skill sets needed to instill in their children a thirst for learning. And it’s a vicious cycle: these same parents will then go on to elect next year’s school board members who will determine next year’s under-performing curriculum when compared to the rest of the world, thus setting up their children for failure in an ever-changing world.

Many readers attacked Janet, often in a ‘what planet are you living on?’ vein.

Persam1197 of NY was pretty typical: Janet, you said: ‘The public school system of every community has the responsibility to teach every student, regardless of the quality of the home life.’ I agree wholeheartedly, and that’s why placing the burden and responsibility of squarely on teachers as you suggest is misguided. It takes a village to raise a child, and, until our communities accept responsibility for our children, expect more of the same.

Parents
Do mom and dad need to improve?

Predictably, teachers — like Malcolm in Pennsylvania — responded defensively to the being criticized. I have taught in public schools for more than 20 years, in an inner city and in a rural setting. I wouldn’t mind being held highly accountable for achievement in children I see for 150 hours a year (50 minutes a day for 180 days) if the parents who are responsible for them the other 8,610 hours out of the year were also held highly accountable. “Accountable” means more than showing up for a 10-minute parent conference once a year.

A more common response, however, was supportive of Mr. Friedman’s point, often with hand-wringing. Here’s what Judy C of Phoenix wrote:

It goes without saying that when parents are actively involved in their children’s education, the children do better. Unfortunately, for many reasons, a lot of parents are uninvolved, and the raising of the child is essentially left up to the school. Sure, there’s nothing better than a good teacher; but really, a child’s primary, and most important, educator is his or her parent. Parents need to step up.

Don Myers of Connecticut agreed: How the parent respects learning is the key to how the child perceives and respects learning. Learning is a 24/7 deal not just limited to the school and related activities. We treat the school with disdain and with no more respect than we do the baby sitter.

Dale, a former teacher in Idaho, suggested that parents actively instill anti-school attitudes in their children: Many students regard school and their teachers as adversaries.

Jim G in DC agreed: Hostility toward education does not come from the great teacher. It comes from the parent, or from the lack of a parent. We must break the cycle of poor student performance in economically disadvantaged homes, and we cannot expect the preschoolers in those homes to do the fixing. The parents must change.

Which prompted a question from Josh Hill in Connecticut:

Sure, but how do you improve the parents?

If the challenge is to improve parents, whose job would that be?

Susan of Eastern Washington noted that “Parents often do not acknowledge that they, and not any school, are ultimately responsible for their children’s educations.”

Why is this happening? Do parents not know they are responsible, are they aware but incapable, or are they willfully ignoring their responsibilities to their children in their mindless pursuit of money and status? (Those were all popular explanations, by the way.)

None of the comments I read addressed what to me is a critical issue, and that is a false distinction between ‘education’ and ‘schooling,’ a distinction that I believe has been perpetuated and reinforced by many educators. That is, too many educators act as if they are in charge, a kind of “Leave your children — and your tax dollars — at the schoolhouse door, and don’t bother us.”

(Many superintendents and principals then set up ‘parent involvement committees’ and other patronizing activities that actually reinforce the barriers between parents and schools. It’s like saying ‘yes, we will let you be involved in your children’s education, but only through channels and by serving on committees.’ No wonder so many parents are fed up with educators!)

So what’s to be done? Ken of Hobe Sound (FL) suggested that “One powerful change a parent from an at-risk family can apply to transform their child’s defeatist approach to school is to become very involved in their student’s education on a daily basis.”

Bingo! But how can that happen? Mr. Friedman quotes from his conversation with Andres Schleicher of OECD:

“Just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring. It is something every parent can do, no matter what their education level or social background.”

Sure, every parent can do that if they know they’re supposed to, but I believe that schools and teachers can actually make that happen, organically and naturally, with a carefully designed curriculum in the early grades that continues up through secondary school.

I have written about this elsewhere but here’s a short summary: beginning in kindergarten, teachers should create ‘homework’ that involves the parents or guardians of their students. It can be as simple as asking Mom or Dad about their favorite movie for the first-grader’s ‘show and tell’ the next day. Early writing assignments can be on family-connected topics: What was Mom’s favorite food growing up, and why? What was the first trip Dad or Grandma took? Why is XX your favorite (athlete, actress, political leader)? And so on. And this is not a one-off but a routine, at least once every week.

This works for math as well, with shopping and cooking and anything else that involves numbers.

When ‘homework’ is organic, the families cannot help but ‘fulfil their responsibilities, but not in an ‘eat your peas’ way. Parents will want to see what their children write, and what the teacher writes on the paper. More connections emerge.

I am thankful that we live in a country where we can speak freely, but in public education the ‘them versus us’ approach isn’t working. We all can and must get better, but finger pointing won’t get us there.

Moving the chair, at Penn State and in education

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John’s book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon.

The latest example of failed leadership — what I call ‘moving the chair,’ an analogy I’ll explain in one second — comes from Pennsylvania State University. This is a tragic story of sex abuse that apparently went unchecked for years, despite the fact that a fair number of university leaders — including President Graham Spanier and legendary football coach Joe Paterno — knew of the situation.

“Moving the chair” is my analogy for what lousy, ineffective leaders do when faced with a tough decision. Envision a man sitting in his living room watching football on a large flat-screen TV when, suddenly and unexpectedly, water begins dropping on his head. He has a problem: he’s getting wet. He ‘solves’ the problem by moving the chair, and maybe also getting a pot from the kitchen to catch the water drops.

Obviously, the football fan has failed to define the problem, perhaps willfully — because it was a good game, or because he’s lazy, or because it’s a rented house, or whatever. He’s willing to limit the immediate damage, a short-term ‘solution’ that lets him watch the game.

It seems pretty clear that Penn State leaders didn’t want to disrupt their games either, because football is a huge business in Happy Valley, where Coach Paterno is revered and the economic benefits run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

For too long we have simply ‘moved the chair’ in public education, often congratulating ourselves for having solved the problem. Here’s what I mean:

Our so-called cures for whatever is wrong in education don’t work because we haven’t diagnosed the problem correctly. Too many influential people think the problem is abysmal test scores, and those folks then design ‘cures’ with the purpose of raising the scores.

(Unfortunately, it is possible to raise test scores with malleable third and fourth graders, and so the ‘cure’ seems to be working. It’s a mirage, as the inevitable drop in scores in 8th grade and beyond demonstrates. Older kids are not so easy to manipulate. What that means is that the ‘learning’ shown in 4th grade was not genuine, more akin to sleight-of-hand than the deep learning that we should want for our children.)

Spanier and Paterno
Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno, the president and head football coach at Penn State, seem to have simply moved the chair.

Diagnosing the problem requires strong leadership, courage, and an informed electorate.

I believe that our fixation on tests and test scores is responsible for our having lost sight of the aims of education. What is the purpose of school? How about this?

“Schools and teachers are helping to raise adults.” Their job is not, contrary to conventional view to ‘teach children,’ because that’s too narrow an aim.

But if I am right and the job is growing adults, then we need to think about what sort of adults we want children — our own and others’ — to become.

Our founding fathers possessed great wisdom, and many today are fond of quoting Jefferson. However, I call your attention to James Madison, who wrote:

“… A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

To me, as a journalist, that means putting the best possible information in front of the public, trusting it to act wisely and in its own interests. But the public also relies on leaders (like Madison and Jefferson) to do the right thing, to identify problems and possible solutions, and to have the courage to face unpleasant choices instead of running from them.

How often in education do leaders ‘move the chair’ instead of doing the right thing? For that matter, how often do politicians and policy makers go to the heart of the problem, instead of settling for the quick and superficial analysis? It’s a lot easier to focus on quick fixes that are not disruptive of ‘the way we have always done it.’

I’m not sure that courage is rewarded — and challenging the status quo, even when it represents mediocrity, is often a sure fire way to short circuit one’s career.

This is, however, not an academic discussion, because policies based on flawed logic do substantial harm to children and youth, to teachers and administrators, and to the nation’s faith in public education.

What will it take to transform schools so that their essential question, asked about each student, becomes “How are you intelligent?” instead of the ubiquitous “How intelligent are you?”

And what can you do to make it happen?

Energizing the 80

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John’s book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon.

So, here’s the question: are the arts a core subject, or a frill? Of course, just about everyone says the former, because that’s a motherhood/apple pie kind of question. But suppose instead of listening to what folks say, we watch what they are doing? What then do we conclude? Are the arts alive and well in our schools? If not, what can be done about it?

In the last week or two I have been immersed in the arts, first at the annual gala of Americans for the Arts, held at Cipriani in New York on October 17th — and then, a few days later, over a long lunch with the dynamic Director of Education at Lincoln Center, Kati Koerner. (If you don’t know Americans for the Arts, you should. It’s a fantastic organization that encourages and supports the arts and artists in just about every aspect of life, but particularly for the young.)

My lunch with Kati Koerner and Lincoln Center Board member Allison Blinken triggered memories of my own high school teaching back in the late 1960s, specifically of the role the arts played in the best teaching I ever did. My high school was rigidly tracked, and as a new teacher I was assigned the ‘4’ level kids, the ones most veteran teachers didn’t want to be bothered with. I was team-teaching with a new History teacher, and we were struggling to connect. One day she said, “Let’s have them write a play.” “Why not,” I probably responded. “Nothing else is working.”

And that’s what we did. We invited the kids to come up with a plot (with a beginning, middle and end), some characters, dialogue, the whole nine yards. To say they ran with it is an understatement. Before long they had come up with a plot: misunderstood and disrespected students (resembling guess who?) were accused of shoplifting by a local merchant. They were innocent, of course, but no one believed them. Somehow (I don’t remember the details), the merchant discovered that the real thieves were the football captain and the head cheerleader.

Hamlet

As our students’ excitement grew, the idea of actually staging the play emerged, and that snowballed. In the end, they built two sets (the store and their own hangout), got the props and costumes, rehearsed and rehearsed — and then staged the play for the rest of the high school. They were heroes around the school (maybe not to the kids in the top tracks!).

So I know what most of you know — the arts turn kids on, motivate them to excel, and all the rest.

Inspired by my lunch and the Americans for the Arts celebration, I then read “Reinvesting in the Arts,” the call to action issued this spring by the President’s Council on the Arts and Humanities.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from that report, the first about the need, the second about the current situation.

At this moment in our nation’s history, there is great urgency around major transformation
in America’s schools. Persistently high dropout rates (reaching 50% or more in some areas) are evidence that many schools are no longer able to engage and motivate their students. Students who do graduate from high school are increasingly the products of narrowed curricula, lacking the creative and critical thinking skills needed for success in post-secondary education and the workforce. In such a climate, the outcomes associated with arts education –– which include increased academic achievement, school engagement, and creative thinking –– have become increasingly important. Decades of research show strong and consistent links between high-quality arts education and a wide range of impressive educational outcomes.

At the same time, due to budget constraints and emphasis on the subjects of high stakes testing, arts instruction in schools is on a downward trend. Just when they need it most, the classroom tasks and tools that could best reach and inspire these students –– art, music, movement and performing –– are less available to them. Sadly, this is especially true for students from lower-income schools, where analyses show that access to the arts in schools is disproportionately absent.

In other words, things could hardly be worse.

The President’s Commission makes five recommendations:

  • collaborate more;
  • do a better job of teaching would-be teachers about the arts;
  • bring more artists into the schools;
  • educate policy makers; and
  • use measures besides those damn bubble tests to prove that the arts make a difference.

I would sum those five up in a bumper sticker: (IM)PROVE ARTS EDUCATION. That is, make arts education better, and find better measures of its value.

Those five recommendations are fine as far as they go, but I don’t think that’s enough to win the day. I think the key can be captured in a different bumper sticker: “ENERGIZE THE 80”

“THE 80” are the 80 or so percent are the households that do NOT have children in schools, because we know that only about 20 percent of American homes have school-age children. (It’s 23 or 24 percent in some places, and lower in others, so I landed on 80.) The 80 percent are men and women of all ages and races with at least one thing in common: they do not have daily contact with students. They don’t know how terrific our young people are. They don’t know that the vast majority of our youth are eager to do work of value.

If we find ways to put our students and the 80 percent together, the latter could be the arts’ secret weapon, supporting, speaking up and voting for arts programs in schools.

The best way to energize the 80 percent is to get them involved. Here are a few ways. I am sure you will have more.

Students could create a photo gallery of the residents of their apartment building or their street, portraits posted on the web for all to see and talk about.

Art students could sketch portraits of business storefronts, or workers and bosses, also to be posted on the web.

Or imagine a school’s jazz quintet performing at a community center with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county — simultaneously on Skype — which is no problem as long as the schools are within 750 or so miles of each other, roughly the speed of sound (any farther creates a sound lag and bad music).

A video team could interview adults in a senior citizen center around a chosen theme (best job, favorite trip, et cetera), to be edited into a short video for the web. They could produce short biographies of ordinary citizens — thus learning all sorts of valuable skills like clear writing, teamwork and meeting deadlines in the process.

Music and drama students could rehearse and then present their productions at retirement homes and senior centers — but with a twist: involve some of the adults in the process (a small part in the play, a role in selecting the music, and so on).

Koerner’s Lincoln Center Shakespeare Project (the password is Hamlet) offers another possibility. In that project, middle school students recite passages from Hamlet. It’s compelling and fun. Now take that concept and invite local businessmen and women to recite lines from Hamlet, then weave it into a production that everyone can watch on the web. They could go down my block and ask the woman who runs the bake shop, Mr. Young at the dry cleaner’s, the hardware store guy, and so forth.

The end game here is to have the 80 percent buzzing about what’s happening in their schools. ‘Their schools,’ not ‘the schools.’ Have them saying, “Wow, I didn’t know the kids were doing things like that in school.”

And, of course, have them saying, “Did you see me in Hamlet?”

An Energized 80 could overwhelm the small group of folks who make the rules for schools, a group that seems to be dominated by narrow concerns over bubble test scores.

What do you think? Can we ENERGIZE THE 80 and, in so doing, rescue our kids from boredom and our current system of educational neglect?

Get out the blender, kids

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

I think I have just glimpsed the future, or at least what could be the future, of public education. I’m talking about the effective use of today’s technology to enhance learning, or what insiders are calling ‘blended education.’ Michael Horn, a co-author of Disrupting Class, provided a definition: Blended learning is any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.

Some, including Michael Horn and his colleagues at Innosight, are predicting that by 2019 50% or more of high school classes will be delivered online, a staggering concept until you consider that in 2007 only one million students were taking courses online, and today four million are. ‘Virtual classes’ qualify as blended learning, because most of those kids are enrolled in traditional high schools.

That’s a growth industry: Just a few years ago only eight states allowed virtual courses or schools; today, nearly 40 states allow it — and a few require students to take at least one virtual class. The best-known virtual school, Florida’s Virtual High School, now enrolls over 100,000 students.

I spent Tuesday watching and listening, first at a school in Mountain View, California, where sixth graders were using iPads to work through mathematical lessons, a curriculum created by Sal Khan and his colleagues at the Khan Academy. Some were working together, some were online, some were doing paper-and-pencil problems, while the teacher monitored their progress on her own iPad or helped kids who asked for assistance. These teachers did not seem to be either ‘the sage on the sage’ or ‘the guide on the side’, as the jargon has it. In fact, one teacher likened herself to ‘an education designer.’ The image of a conductor came into my mind — of an orchestra and a train.

Someone else compared teachers in blended learning situations to today’s doctors, who do not sit by the side of their patients until they recover. Instead, much of the care is provided by nurses (classroom aides), and the doctor is called in only as needed.

Loaded onto the sixth graders’ tablets was a curriculum that covers math well into high school, well over 200 ‘lessons’ that the teacher admitted she herself had not completed. Think about that for a minute — and contrast it with today’s approach, where sixth graders and their teachers have a ‘Sixth Grade Math Book’ as their starting and stopping places.

iPad
Can a 'blended learning' approach help save American education?

This approach — again, blended learning — has no such borders or border guards, meaning that kids in 6th grade can move on up. (The curriculum includes lots of ‘refresher’ points, we were told, to insure against ‘learning and forgetting.’)

Later that day the group of about 30 journalists convened at Google to hear from school leaders about their own embrace of technology. Karen Cator, who is Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s chief advisor on technology, told us that it was time for the US to ‘ratchet up.’

“It’s an inflection point,” the former Apple executive said, because our children are digital natives, because most teachers are now using technology in the own personal lives, and because we all recognize that our schools are failing too many kids.

That said, Cator and others acknowledge that major obstacles stand in the way of widespread adoption of blended learning. One is textbooks, which are, as noted above, divided by grades. Textbooks reflect our slavish devotion to ‘seat time’ as the measure of accomplishment — fifth graders have to spend one year doing fifth grade stuff, and so on. Another obstacle: school funding and graduation credit hours are based on ‘seat time,’ not competency — except in Florida’s Virtual School, where state funding only arrives after a student completes a course successfully. That means that schools don’t have a strong incentive to allow kids to move along at their own pace.

This new educational world of ‘high tech’ will demand ‘high teach,’ former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise noted. Places that train teachers need a major overhaul, and that could be the weak link in the chain.

Today’s bubble tests are a gigantic barrier, because they are ‘dumbed down’ and are not likely to reward those who move ahead. One school leader told us that, before his state tests, he had to ‘ratchet back’ his 9th graders, because most of them were doing 11th grade math. What a message to send to students!

It’s an absurd situation, said ex-Governor Wise.

“We spend about $10,000 a year on each student but trust evaluation to a $5 instrument.” He spends $200-300 a year ‘evaluating’ his $15,000 car. When he said that, I saw heads nodding in agreement.

We also have a long tradition of using schools as a sorting mechanism to identify those who are ‘college material’ and weed out those who are not. That has to change.

And blended learning faces another challenge: because we all went to school, we are experts and know how school is ‘supposed to be.’

Quite by chance, I had spent part of the previous day talking education with a friend who works in an entirely different field. When I told him about the next day’s ‘blended learning’ agenda, he laughed. “My son did that 18 years ago,” he said and proceeded to tell me the story of his 7th grader who, stuck with an uninspiring math teacher, signed up with a new program at Stanford, EPGY, for ‘education program for gifted youth.’ Via computer and with occasional meetings on the Stanford campus, the young man moved through math classes and levels at his own pace. By senior year in high school he was taking advanced calculus at Stanford. There is no new thing under the sun, it’s fair to say, but today’s students should not have to search outside the schools for opportunities to learn. It’s time for them to step up — or fade into obsolesence.

The pendulum swings, and choices await

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

(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.’

Pendulum
... and so the pendulum continues to swing...

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?

My bet is, we can. What do you think?

Six premises, seven ideas for better teacher training

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

At the Twitter Town Hall with Education Secretary Arne Duncan (related: the full transcript of that dialogue is online) on August 24, he promised some new initiatives regarding schools of education. In the hope that the suggestion box is still open, I have a suggestion — not for the Secretary but for schools and colleges of education.

Full disclosure: I do write as a graduate of one (Harvard) and a Trustee of another (Teachers College at Columbia University), but nothing I say should be construed as either representing those institutions or having their stamp of approval.

Regarding both undergraduate and graduate schools of education, I begin with six premises so the reader knows where I am coming from.

Premise No. 1: The world of teaching has to change — and is slowly changing. Despite the harsh attacks on the profession by too many shrill voices, others are working to improve pay and working conditions. When these changes take effect, the exodus from the profession will slow down. That will change the economics of training, simply because the system will not need as many new teachers. Right now, too many schools and colleges of education resemble diploma mills that actually benefit from the churn in the profession. That’s a disgrace, and the leading colleges and schools of education must be working for teachers. Teaching and learning cannot be beholden to ‘the three Ts’ — companies that sell technology, tests and textbooks — or anyone else.

Premise No. 2: Schools of education are an endangered species. Somewhere around 1,400 institutions now prepare teachers, and that’s about twice as many as we will need in the future, because the profession is changing — even the best are at risk if they don’t adapt.

Premise No. 3: The old way of paying teachers — based on years of service and graduate credits — is dying, with only the date of death yet to be decided. That means the end of a ‘cash cow’ for the schools and colleges of education that now get a lot of cash from teachers who take a course here and there to get a pay boost. Moreover, no reputable school of education can afford to be seen as hanging on to this way of doing business just because it’s currently profitable. In some districts, contracts are being negotiated that ‘front-load’ the rewards, a practice in countries and regions that are now outperforming the United States.

Premise No. 4: Today most schools of education, especially graduate schools with their subject-specific ‘silos’ and tenure-driven organization, are insufficiently nimble to survive and prosper. They are constructed around tenured professors, a small tenure track, and lots and lots of adjunct (part-time) teachers. Leadership must challenge this structure, but not head on. Instead, schools and colleges of education should create an alternative path in addition to the tenure track and adjunct appointments.

Premise No. 5: Schools and colleges of education don’t do enough to develop brand loyalty among their graduates. Most students enroll in order to have their tickets punched and not much more. They may leave with loyalty to their ‘silo’ or their professors, but they have not been sufficiently changed or challenged by the experience in ways that make them loyal graduates (and contributors, as donation records reveal). That can be changed.

Premise No. 6: The time to change is now. Soon many ‘baby boomer’ teachers will be retiring and need to be replaced. The new generation will be digital natives, of course, but they must also be drawn into the profession because it promises opportunities to make a difference (not to ‘raise achievement’ or some other mechanistic formulation). Higher pay will help, but of greater value to teachers are opportunities to collaborate, to develop curriculum and to grow professionally. Colleges and schools of education need to take the lead in attracting this new breed, but they cannot do this by merely making cosmetic changes.

Enough of premises and preaching. Time for specifics.

Training
There are numerous ways in which our current model of teacher training could be more effective.

I suggest a seven-part strategy.

1. “Agents of change and inspiration:” Visits to the campus by people like Sir Ken Robinson and Tim Brown of IDEO, who will spend a week (at the very least) in close contact with students. For this series to be meaningful, the graduate school must host at least five of these thought leaders every year. Each of these bright lights will be paid handsomely for their week and will be expected to be enthusiastic and responsive. This is the epitome and exemplar of “Nimble.”

2. Taking on tenure: A significant number of five-year contracts for men and women who want to do cutting edge work at the intersection of teaching and policy and don’t care about tenure and the accompanying restrictions of that track (publish or perish, do research and so on). While this won’t end tenure, it will reduce the institution’s dependence on tenure and adjunct faculty, which has budget and pedagogical implications. It will also attract a new breed of teacher.

3. A new course for students: A required one-year course for all students, to be recreated each year by leading faculty (including some of the five-year folks in No. 2 above). One year this course (call it something like “The Heart of the Matter”) might focus on neuroscience and the brain, the next year on schooling’s public purpose, and so on. It will be cutting edge. Every education student must take this, but the small group seminars will be arranged randomly and not by department, so that students with different interests are forced to work together. Part of the curriculum will be lectures by the Agents of Change and Inspiration, above. This is not a dreaded ‘core course’ in the History of Education. Instead, it will be new every year, and it will be up to the President or Dean to select the men and women who will work together to create this course. To be chosen will become a badge of honor among faculty. If this is done well, this course will change the thinking and perspective of students (and create the kind of loyalty that, eventually, will be reflected in annual giving).

4. Engagement: All of the school’s graduates must be invited to share in this new curriculum electronically. They will be able to ‘attend’ the lectures by the likes of Sir Ken and others on line. Because these will be scheduled in advance, everyone will be able to submit questions electronically.

5. Necessary changes: Teacher training must change, because the world of education has changed. Prospective teachers must spend more time in real classrooms, working with capable teachers who themselves are not locked into ‘direct instruction’ but who practice collaborative teaching. Since we tend to do what was done to us, future teachers must be taught in ways other than direct instruction. Eliminate lectures on the importance of not lecturing! The job of the teacher of the future is more complex, but their focus will on formulating questions, helping students separate wheat from chaff. Those who train teachers must themselves change. One step would be for their classes to meet AT the public schools where the education students are doing their practicum. And — to repeat myself — much, much more training of the fledgling teachers must occur in real schools!

6. Evaluation: What school districts do now is inadequate, but it’s not enough to be cursing that darkness. Schools and colleges of education need to be in the forefront of developing complex measures of student learning and teacher effectiveness. Teach for America ‘walks back the cat’ to see how well its teachers do. Why can’t schools of education do this?

7. Payment: Because the old way of paying teachers is dying, graduate schools of education must get out in front on this issue as well. They should be able to say “Because you are attending our graduate school, you will be a BETTER teacher, and therefore will make more money under the new system.”

May the nimble and deserving survive and prosper. To the rest, adios, sayonara, farewell.

Editor’s Note: If you live around the New York City area and would like to see John in conversation with Eva Moskowitz and Dave Levin on September 21, click here for tickets.

An ‘act of war?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we are doing it to ourselves.

I am curious to know your thoughts.

David Brooks, Diane Ravitch, and the education wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a sample:

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks’ money line follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to your responses.