What are you thankful for in education?

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In a recent tweet, I wondered aloud about what we should be thankful for in education (a similar discussion happened before Thanksgiving on the Learning Matters website). I got a variety of responses, including:

  • Students who are hungry to learn;
  • Parents and other family members who work in concert with teachers to support effective learning;
  • Growing collaboration between School Boards and Unions, often made possible by foundation grants;
  • Teacher collaboratives, like Barnett Berry’s Teacher Leader Network and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards;
  • A rich and broad variety of well-written blogs that assist in solving problems;
  • Research and documentation of pedagogy and materials that have a positive impact on learning; and
  • The Internet itself, which allows teachers to connect and support each other.

That’s a nice list. However, although I am basically a ‘glass half-full’ personality, it’s hard to be cheerful given what we are doing in public education. While I was in California last week, a friend in Palo Alto told me that his daughter was one of 40 students in her high school math class, one of 38 in her history class. In Palo Alto, one of the state’s richest communities! Our 2005 documentary history of California education, “First to Worst,” is due for a sequel, “First to Burst.”

Or take the U.S. Department of Education. It seems to me that the push for higher standards, the emphasis on early education, and the support for developing common tests are all positive. But, with its other hand, the Department is supporting more cheap and dumbed-down testing when it encourages grading teachers based on bubble test scores. Now, I know someone will tell me that I am misrepresenting Arne Duncan and send me quotes from his speeches, but I think we are past listening to what’s being said, and into actually watching what’s being done.

Thankful
What should inspire this reaction in education?

I would be happier if the Department supported policies that rewarded entire schools, not individual teachers, because education is a team sport. After all, federal legislation punishes entire schools for not making ‘adequate yearly progress.’ So why not create some carrots to go along with the stick? How about ‘OYP’ for ‘Outstanding Yearly Progress?’

In California last week at a 1-day meeting about “next generation” assessments, I was struck by the richness of what’s being developed in New York, Ohio, California and elsewhere. In these approaches, project-based learning leads to complex and comprehensive assessments. The logic is clear: kids will dig deep into subjects, and the assessment that follows will respect their efforts. In this (future) world, simple bubble tests will be trumped by assessments that are also learning experiences.

Right now, however, bubble tests rule. Teachers spend as much as one-sixth of their time getting kids ready for the test, administering the test and test makeups, or going over the test. Imagine that: 30 out of 180 days on testing stuff, days that could be spent on learning and teaching. New York State just announced plans to expand testing, so that third graders will now take a 3-hour reading test, and Washington, DC, has announced its intention to give standardized exams to second graders!

We won’t get to a brighter future until we figure out ways to turn our backs on the idiocy of the current system–while keeping our focus on achievement and accountability.


A final note of thanks: Learning Matters has received a challenge grant that will give us $100,000 if we can raise $100,000. Right now we are about $40,000 shy of the goal. If you want to help, click here. Invest $20 or $100 or an amount of your choice, and I promise you will get that back tenfold in quality reporting.

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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?

Is teaching a team sport?

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

I had an interesting conversation with Barnett Berry, the lead author of Teaching 2030, earlier this week. We covered the waterfront: how teaching has changed and is changing, whether schools of education were up the the challenges facing them, why so many teachers leave, and so on. You will have to wait for our PBS NewsHour piece — it’s in a quiz format, by the way — and the accompanying podcast to find out what the brilliant Mr. Berry believes, because right now I want to explore his final comment, over coffee after the cameras had been turned off.

“Teaching is a team sport,” he opined before rushing off to a meeting, leaving me wondering.

Is it? Who says so? And if it is, why are so many politicians and state governments rushing to support ways of measuring individual teachers?

And what’s a ‘team sport’ anyway?

Well, baseball is a team sport. We watched the Cardinals perform the near-impossible, and we saw that nearly everyone in a Cardinal uniform contributed to the team’s climb from 10.5 games out in late August to win the wild card spot on the last day of the season, upset two heavily favored teams to win the National League pennant and then overcome impossible odds to win the World Series. No one who saw it will forget Game Six, when the Cards were twice within one strike of losing it all to the Texas Rangers. Twice they rallied to tie, later winning on David Freese’s 11th inning walk-off home run. Freese won the series MVP award, but his teammates put him in the position to succeed.

Case closed: Baseball is a team sport, but with individual statistics and individual honors.

Now, what about teaching? That’s a tougher argument for at least six reasons.

World Series
Baseball is clearly a team sport, as the Cardinals evidenced throughout the summer and fall. But is teaching?

The “egg crate” architecture of most schools does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport: Individual classrooms resemble cartons, isolated from each other.

The typical school schedule does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport. Most American public school teachers spent almost all of their school time in their classrooms, which means they have very little time to work as a team.

The language of education does not support the notion. Occasionally a couple of teachers will ‘team teach,’ which implies that the rest of the staff is not team-teaching! That is, you are only on a team when you are actually working in the same classroom with another teacher.

Nor does the evaluation of teachers support the notion that teaching is a team sport. It’s all done on an individual basis, with the possible exception of few rating points being given for ‘contribution to the school environment’ or something like that. In my experience, when an administrator praises a teacher for being ‘a team player,’ he means that the teacher doesn’t make waves.

The governance of most schools contradicts the notion that teaching is a team sport. Often it’s ‘labor versus management,’ with teachers punching a time clock twice a day. That’s a far cry from the St. Louis Cardinals, where manager Tony LaRussa had such trust in Albert Pujols that he let him call a hit-and-run play on his own. LaRussa was in charge, but he occasionally deferred to his coaches and his players. He left a pitcher in the game, for instance, after consulting with the catcher, who told him the pitcher had another inning in him (turned out to be wrong, but that’s not the point).

Finally, the emerging pay structure for teachers flies in the face of the idea that teaching is a team sport. The hot issue is some form of ‘merit pay’ based on the academic performance of the individual teacher, whether it’s ‘value-added’ test scores or good old standardized test scores. The policy makers who are supporting these schemes are paying scant attention to the implications (test all students in all subjects!); the fact that with high student turnover, a kid might have three different teachers in one year; or to the evidence indicating that merit pay doesn’t work.

In some places, if teachers are on a team, it’s probably their local union team, but not the PS 112 team or the Mather Middle School team.

I’m afraid my friend Barnett is letting the wish be the father of the thought. He wants teaching to be widely recognized as a team sport, which it is in the best schools. In those schools, teachers have time to meet and discuss individual students, to plan curriculum, to develop both short- and long-term goals. They have time to breathe. They work as a team and hold each other accountable. Yes, each school has the equivalent of Tony LaRussa, the manager, but he or she is not ‘management’ and the teachers ‘labor.’ They all have their eyes on the prize.

I believe that most teachers want to play a team sport. They prefer to work together and to have big hopes, dreams and goals for their school and all its students. One of my strong memories from my own high school teaching in the late 1960s was the joy of working with other English teachers, even to the point of swapping classes for a few weeks so each of us could teach a play or a poet we felt particularly well-qualified to teach.

So here’s my pitch: Teaching should be recognized as a team sport, and education as a team activity. The ‘team’ is the school, and everyone in the school is on the team, including secretarial staff and custodians. Education’s ‘won-loss’ record is more complicated than baseball’s and should include academic measures, teacher and student attendance, teacher and student turnover, community involvement, and more. (I wrote about this recently in ‘Trust but Verify’ and invite you to revisit that blog post).

And just as the Cardinal team divided the World Series loot into individual shares, so too could merit pay be divvied up when the team achieves its agreed-upon goals. Cardinal players, coaches, equipment managers et cetera shared the rewards. In this system, teachers, administrators, counselors, secretaries and custodians would all share the rewards.

But, going back to the St. Louis Cardinals, here’s the critical point: Notice that in writing about them, I described what the team did over a two-month period, not on one day or in one hour. I showed you the movie, not a snapshot.

Snapshots don’t help much in baseball or in education. In Game 3, Albert Pujols hit three home runs, had five hits for 14 total base and drove in five runs. A great snapshot that is actually very misleading, because he had a disappointing World Series overall.

Pujols also made a key fielding misplay in the series; suppose instead the snapshot had been taken in that game? It would have been just as misleading, but the movie reveals just how valuable he was to the Cardinals.

Because education now relies on snapshots — one score on one test on that one big day — and because so much of schooling tilts against the team sport concept, we have miles to go before anyone can confidently assert that teaching is a team sport.

I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

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?

Do you want your kids on THAT bus?

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John’s book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon; you can learn more about it at the book’s official website, or, if interested in buying copies for your class or discussion group, you can consult this page.

Imagine it’s early morning, 20 minutes or so after the school bus was expected. You are waiting with your children when an old yellow clunker — belching smoke, with its rear emergency door hanging open — weaves toward you. The driver, a pint of whiskey in one hand, yells out an apology: “Sorry about being late. The damn thing keeps stalling on me.” Before you can say anything, he adds, “I know this ain’t the prettiest or the safest looking bus, but it’s the best we got. Hop right in, kids.” Then he grins and says, “Don’t worry. You won’t be late for school. I’ll put the pedal to the metal and get this baby rolling.”

Of course you wouldn’t let your child board the bus. Instead, you would snap photos with your phone, post them on Facebook, and begin organizing a campaign to fire the drunk driver — and the leaders who were so cavalier about your child’s physical safety. You’d probably organize a boycott of that bus and keep your child home, rather than risk his or her safety.

So then why do parents accept educational practices that put the educational health and safety of their children at risk? I am talking about how schools go about measuring academic progress: how they test.

Bus
If you saw this clunker rolling towards your child, would you let him or her board? Probably not -- but in some other ways, you already do.

I can’t begin to count the number of conversations I have had with educators over the years about testing, conversations that always seem to begin something like this: “I know about the problems with testing, and I personally hate them, but that’s the system — and we have to have accountability.”

The superintendent of a big city system said that to me earlier this week with a slightly different twist: it’s the public that is “test score crazy,” she said, and, even though we educators know the tests are horribly flawed, we have to give the public what it wants.

In other words, put your kids on that bus….

How is this approach to schooling flawed? Let me count the ways….

1. A narrowed curriculum: Jack Jennings and his Center for Education Policy, among others, have reported on the narrowing of the curriculum, with ‘frills’ like art, music, journalism et al being eliminated or drastically reduced so that adults could focus on reading and math, the stuff being tested under No Child Left Behind.

2. Goodbye, gifted programs: Early in the reign of NCLB, we reported for PBS Newshour on the shrinking of programs for gifted kids, another response to the drive for higher test scores.

3. Hello, drilling: The ‘drive’ for better scores often means mind-numbing drills, especially in schools full of low-income children.

4. Wasting time: Educators like to talk about ‘time on task,’ their term for spending class time on academics. But someone ought to talk about ‘time on test’ because I am hearing awful stories about how some teachers spend up to 20 percent of their time either preparing for the tests or giving the tests.

Twenty percent! That’s one day a week, folks, and it’s time that your children don’t get back.

5. ‘Cheap, cheap, cheap,’ said the little bird: Tests aren’t bad, but cheap tests are, and our schools rely on cheap tests. In Florida, I am told that the FCAT tests costs about $20 per child. So Florida spends just over $10,000 per pupil and one fifth of one percent of that amount assessing the impact of its investment. How cheap is that? How stupid is that?

Let’s compare the way we assess kids to how we test our cars. I drive a used 2002 Toyota 4Runner that cost $12,000 a few years ago, and I spend at least $400 a year assessing it. That’s just over three percent, folks, to ‘test and measure’ my car. (The entire process took just one day of the year, not one day of every week.)

I will bet that every one of you who owns a car spends a like amount, meaning that, on some level, we care more about our cars than our children.

So who’s ultimately to blame for the testing mess? Bottom line, who has the power to put their kid on that bus, or not? Isn’t it time for parents to demand better for their children, especially since nobody else is willing to challenge a system that almost everyone agrees is inaccurate and damaging?


On a different note, some of you may know that we’ve been working on a documentary about New Orleans schools after Katrina. We now have a trailer for that documentary online, and you can watch it right here:

Definitely feel free to send it around to friends and colleagues — for more information on when the doc will be finished and where to see it, join our mailing list.

An ‘act of war?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we are doing it to ourselves.

I am curious to know your thoughts.

The ‘alien structure’ of education, and other thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can this marriage be saved?

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

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

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

With preschool education, we talk the talk — but don’t walk the walk

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Every American toddler should have the opportunity to attend a high-quality, free preschool.  Whether they go or not would be up to their parents or guardians, of course, but the opportunity should be there. We now know that most brain growth occurs before a child reaches kindergarten age. It is a fact that most American parents are working outside the home. Our economic competitors are already providing this opportunity for their 4-year-olds (and often their 3-year-olds), a fact that has implications for our economic health.

It’s not that we haven’t made a stab at creating preschool programs. Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” created Head Start back in 1965, but I would say (tongue firmly in cheek) that Head Start is a “failure.” The federal preschool program for 4-year-olds was supposed to level the playing field for poor children, and it has not done that.

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Now more than ever, we must speak up for teachers

American public education remains front and center, which is mostly good news.  Let me start this ‘news summary’ in Washington, DC, where President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are calling for fundamental changes in the law known as No Child Left Behind, the Bush Administration’s version of Title One of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

No Child Left Behind

I doubt you could find more than a handful of educators who like NCLB these days, but whether anyone in the nation’s capital will be able to agree on what a new version should call for is highly questionable.

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