Be careful what you wish for

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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.

I have a simple request for my left and right-wing friends: “Be Careful What You Wish For.” Here’s why I say that. I know right-wingers who lust for vouchers, and I know left-wingers who live for the day when all children will have ‘individualized education plans,’ a la those in special education.

The latest call for vouchers comes from the Republican Governor of Pennsylvania (whom I do not know), but let’s imagine how vouchers might work. Suppose that the voucher (basically a check that parents could take to the school of their choice for their child’s education) was actually worth enough to buy a decent education, say $12,000. Just imagine how quickly that would attract scoundrels, scalawags and crooks, all posing as committed educators. Even cheap vouchers will attract an odd crowd, men and women who feel a calling to do some God’s work. And, unfortunately, there will be no shortage of parents who will drink the Kool-Aid (which is more of a comment about how bad some public schools are than it is about the parents’ gullibility).

And since the right-wingers want vouchers to be valid currency at religious schools, expect a flood of new schools — and maybe some new religions too.

But that’s actually not my big worry. We live in a society that protects religious freedom, and so all sorts of already-established religious institutions will be eligible for voucher-paid students. Be ready for a church school that teaches snake-worship, because those churches exist.

But you also should be ready to see an Islamic madras open in a neighborhood near you, perhaps one that preaches that Islam rejects violence and suicide bombers — or perhaps preaching and teaching that America is the source of evil in the world.

You voucher supporters don’t get to apply a litmus test here. Hand out the vouchers and get out of the way: that’s the way it will work.

Be Careful
As John says...

(Milwaukee voucher advocate Howard Fuller told me that his city has avoided those religious traps by having strict rules for participants, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Milwaukee’s low dollar figure — about $6,000 — has a lot to do with the non-participation of zealots. Double the money, and they will come.)

As I say, “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

Now to my left-wing friends and their desire for ‘individualized education plans’ for all children, an idealized vision of schools that focus on the needs of each child. An end to cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all education.

Wake up, folks, and take a clear-eyed look at Special Education, the birthplace of the IEP. For every IEP that has actually worked out, I am willing to wager that an equal number are in some sort of litigation. I say that because special education has turned into a cottage industry for lawyers, who have discovered that school districts are bureaucratic nightmares, often unable to walk and chew gum at the same time. So when a district cannot meet the precise specifications of an IEP, bingo: a lawsuit, which often leads to private school for the kid.

So if my left-leaning friends got their way and we had IEPs for all, that ‘cottage industry’ of lawyers would be transformed into a ‘mansion industry.’ But I doubt if very many others would benefit, including the kids.

As I say, “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

The fascination with panaceas afflicts left and right. I stand pretty much square in the middle, as do, I suspect, many of you. So here’s what I would like to suggest: A new narrative for our conversations about public education.

Right now our conversations and debates focus either on teachers (“Do we have enough good ones, and how can we get rid of the bad ones?”) or on accountability (“We know that test scores are flawed, but they’re the best we have, and we have to have accountability, don’t we?”). The ‘teacher’ narrative is demeaning to the profession, for openers. The ‘accountability’ narrative ultimately justifies the status quo of cheap tests, a dumbed-down curriculum and, often, widespread cheating.

The narrative I propose addresses education’s inconvenient truth.

Which is this: “There is close to a 1:1 correlation between parental income and educational outcomes, whether the parents are rich, poor, or somewhere in between. Kids with rich parents do well in our education system, and kids with poor parents do poorly. On one level, that seems to mean that schools basically do not matter. Only money talks.”

“However, we know that’s not true because we have in front of our eyes hundreds of examples of schools and teachers that do change lives.”

“So do not be mad about schooling’s failure to dramatically improve the lives of all 15 million children living in poverty. Instead, let’s insist that our schools imitate the successful places, people and practices. We should demand to know what’s keeping educators from imitating success. Eliminate the obstacles and — here’s where you should get mad — get rid of the educators who refuse to be copy-cats.”

If you saw our PBS NewsHour piece this week about schools in rural America, you know that the challenges facing schools are growing. With unprecedented numbers of children in poverty (a growing number of them homeless), public schools will be forced to step up to the plate even more than usual.

And so, ignoring my own advice, here’s what I wish for: We abandon the search for magic bullets and instead copy what successful schools — and successful networks of schools — are doing.

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The intersection of technology and test scores

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

“In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores” blared the headline in New York Times on September 4th. The paper’s editors decided that the top-of-the-fold story on Page 1 also warranted two full pages inside, plus four color photos and a graph. That’s a huge part of the news hole on any day, but particularly on Sunday, when circulation is at its highest.

The long piece is worth reading, but at the end of the day what stood out for me was what the article failed to take note of: the unimaginative uses of the technology, essentially digital versions of routine stuff: One teacher gave a true-false quiz but handed out wireless clickers for students to record their answers. In other classes, kids were playing a math game (“Alien Addition”) and an interactive spelling game, while other students were videotaping a skit that they could as easily have simply performed for the class.

In none of the examples presented were teachers using the technology to burst the boundaries of their classroom to connect with students in other cities, or even elsewhere in their district. None were using the Internet to do original research. I’ve written about this before, and Learning Matters producer John Tulenko helped craft a great piece related to the topic:

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It seemed to be all about entertainment or delivering more efficiently what the adults had decided the kids need to know, rather than allowing and encouraging students to follow their own interests — at least occasionally. I fault the reporter for not drawing that distinction and for not pressing the adults who are spending all this money on the paucity of imagination.

But my real point is that the Times reporter could — and should — have written a very different story:

“Schools spend billions on technology but use it to do the same old stuff in more entertaining ways!”

Why is this happening, the reporter could have asked? Is it because teachers don’t understand the technology’s power, or because they want to make sure the kids learn what the adults have decided they must learn — or because they are ruled by fear of low test scores?

Running throughout the article is a constant refrain about the limitations of test scores. Adult after adult complained that “Test scores were not an adequate measure of the value of technology” but then went on to say, in effect, “Well, that’s what we have to live by.”

Tech
Why is technology being used in rote ways?

That really gets my dander up. They are endorsing spending billions on technology — it’s not their money — and they complain about the tyranny of bubble tests, even while their pedagogy is focused on test scores.

If they understood what today’s technology can do, and if they were enabling their teachers to go there, and if scores were still stagnant, that would be a story. (But the story might now be about how inappropriate bubble tests are to measure this new learning.)

Something must be done. The Times reports that school systems spent $1.89 billion on software in 2010 and perhaps five times that amount on hardware. That’s real money, especially at a time when school districts are going to four-day weeks, cutting art and music, eliminating Advanced Placement classes, and making other draconian cuts.

And then this expensive technology is used in woefully unimaginative ways!

Establishing a ratio of dollars for training to dollars for software and hardware is not the answer, because there aren’t sufficient incentives for teachers to try new approaches — at least not as long as their main job is to get those test scores up.

To find the solution, go back to the whining mentioned above, the constant complaints about the lack of adequate measures.

That brings me to a conversation I had last week with a leader in the reform movement. I asked his thoughts about the erasure scandals in Atlanta, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and elsewhere. He said it was a wake-up call and a clear message that we need better security. “Since those scores count for so much,” he said, “systems have to do a better job of protecting the tests.”

He’s not alone. A few days ago a panel of experts in New York recommended tighter security, including giving all tests on the same day and requiring proctors to certify that they have been trained in ‘security procedures.’

Wrong, guys! That barn door is off the hinges and the the horse is long gone. As long as adults’ jobs and students’ promotions and graduations are determined by test scores, there will be cheating. Students can use wireless devices to share answers, for example, while ‘fully certified’ proctors can still nudge nudge wink wink their way around the room, helping students pass.

We ought to be searching for multiple measures of academic progress, measures that are valid, reliable and reasonably affordable.

Who should be doing the searching? Wonderful as the U. S. Department of Education’s i3 ‘innovation’ grant program sounded, it was never set up to support risky investments of the sort I think will be required. It bet on such ‘innovations’ as Teach for America and KIPP, and that’s fine, but what’s needed here is some real risk-taking.

I have three candidates:

1. The companies now making megabucks on testing, Pearson and McGraw-Hill, ought to be protecting their revenue stream by finding better ways.

2. Apple, Microsoft, Dell and others hawking their products have a strong interest in public evidence of the power of technology.

But the best candidate might be the New Schools Venture Fund, who I think are the brightest folks on the block. That organization has never been shy about taking chances, probably because it exemplifies the spirit of its founder, John Doerr. In the Venture Capitalist world, only a small percentage of investments hit a home run, and the NSVF gets that. It’s putting dollars behind a number of new approaches to teacher training, for example, in the expectation that some of them will be a distinct improvement on the current approach — while others will fall short.

(I don’t know how NSVF finances work, but maybe Apple, McGraw-Hill, et alia should be making large donations to that organization?)

We need that venture capitalist mentality and approach to the world of measurement. So what if most of the schemes don’t pan out, as long as we emerge with a few that actually work?

This matters because right now school systems have almost no incentive to trust technology — because they don’t know how it will affect those test scores.

Look, educators are excessively literal and overly reactive. They haven’t gotten where they are by taking chances, so don’t expect them to take the lead now. Society has been telling them that we want good reading scores (we haven’t said, “we want kids who love to read,” just good reading scores). So why are we surprised when they drill kids on reading tests?

Bottom line: schools will never realize the power of technology until they get out from under our current way of holding them accountable. We need accountability, but what we are now doing is stifling learning and teaching. It’s making public education worse, not better.

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?

Two Town Halls, and a peek into the future

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

For the first time in my life, I am channeling Sarah Palin — specifically, her complaints about what she calls ‘the lamestream media.’ I feel like a victim, even though I was merely in the audience for an old fashioned “Town Hall” that was reported on by The Washington Post. By contrast, a few days later I was the interviewer in a two-person “Town Hall” on Twitter (the interviewee was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), an event that went directly to its audience without interpretation by the media. It pains me to confront the frailties of my profession, but that’s what’s on my mind.

The old-fashioned event — about education and race — was a slam-dunk winner from Day One. It had everything going for it: (1) It was organized by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates and his capable team at the DuBois Institute at Harvard; (2) The moderator was the incomparable Charlayne Hunter-Gault; and (3) It had cast of heavyweights: Dr. James Comer, Diane Ravitch, Michelle Rhee and Professor Angel Harris of Princeton. Even the title of the event was reassuring: “The Education Gap” — not “The Achievement Gap” — a choice revealed that the organizers understood the complexity of the issue. This was certain to be substantive.

Substantive yes, but limited in its reach. About 400 people filled the historic Whaling Church in Edgartown (on Martha’s Vineyard) on August 18th, and, while it’s possible that a few people tweeted about the conversation as it was going on, it was a closed loop. One of these days the entire session will be posted on the DuBois Institute website, but you’ll have to wade through the full two hours; it apparently won’t be searchable or divided into segments.

Wonderfully substantive for those in attendance, close to inaccessible for the rest of the world.

Here’s just part of what we learned: A child born in poverty (black or white) has a 10% chance of getting to college, and our poverty rate eclipses that of other industrialized nations. By graduation day, there’s a 4-year skills gap between black and white graduates — and that does not factor in those who drop out. We also lock up more of our citizens than other countries, and the black/white incarceration ratio is 8:1. Angel Harris of Princeton spoke persuasively about the depth of the ‘Education Gap’ and the public’s failure to grasp that. Because we don’t get it, he asserted, we grasp at ‘silver bullets’ and ‘magical cures’ instead of hunkering down and committing to long term solutions.

He provided a great example: the ‘silver bullet’ of parental involvement. Be careful what you wish for, he said, because there are different forms of involvement. When black parents get involved, they are more likely to be negative and punitive, and that doesn’t help the teacher get through to the child. In addition, Harris says that parental engagement only explains very small percentage of the education gap, while parent education and income explain 25% of the gap.

Dr. James Comer, the Yale physician whose ‘Comer Schools’ are beacons of hope, brought the crowd to life with his eloquent explanation of why and how so many schools for poor children fail. It is, he asserted, largely because teachers and administrators do not understand child development and the needs of children. Time was, Comer told the audience, when most families were able to meet their children’s developmental needs, but today, with about 35% of children living in poverty, the schools and teachers are overwhelmed. And, to make matters worse, schools of education do not prepare teachers to understand, let alone meet, developmental needs, Comer said.

Diane Ravitch sounded some familiar themes: Poverty is the key here. Small classes make a difference. She bemoaned that, because of No Child Left Behind and its testing requirements, schools are eliminating art, music, PE and “all the stuff that keeps kids coming to school.” And she suggested that we take some of the billions we spend on testing and spend it on early childhood education instead.

John Merrow and Arne Duncan at the Twitter Town Hall on August 24, 2011.

Michelle Rhee, who was directly or indirectly criticized as a proponent of ‘accountability,’ agreed that schools cannot ‘cure’ poverty. However, she said, teachers do make a difference. Society needs a sense of urgency and cannot afford to give demonstrably poor teachers years to improve.

Rhee and Ravitch agreed that society must be ‘aspirational.’ The attitude “I’ve got mine, so who cares about anyone else?” will bring the nation down.

In short, the two hours was filled with light, with occasional heat. Unfortunately, for these messages to get beyond the 400 or so who were in the audience, it fell to the media to report what happened.

And that’s my problem because a Washington Post reporter filed a piece that made the afternoon sound like a polite disagreement between Rhee and Ravitch, who are well-known for their antagonism. Not a word about Comer, Harris or Hunter-Gault or about the substance of the session.

My hunch is that the reporter arrived expecting fireworks between Rhee and Ravitch, well-known as antagonists — and when no food fight took place, the reporter made that the story: they were polite.

Criticizing the Post reporter is not my central point. I am wondering now just how often we journalists fail to get beyond our preconceptions about people and events. I write about this in my book, The Influence of Teachers, specifically about the irrelevant ‘war’ going on now about teachers and teaching. The latest example of reporters getting it wrong, in my opinion, is Steven Brill, who devotes 400+ pages to the ‘war’ without ever questioning his own premises.

Is there a better way to reach the public? Are ‘social media’ operations, such as Twitter, the answer? Can substance — like the Edgartown meeting — be conveyed in ‘tweets’ of 140 characters or less?

That brings me to my second “Town Meeting,” which took place on Twitter on August 24. And it’s probably wrong to use the past tense, because it’s all still up there for anyone who’s interested. Here’s how it worked: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and I (the interviewer) sat in his conference room. He responded to my questions, while, off to one side, two aides translated everything into ‘tweets.’. The video was live and is now archived in case anyone wants to check the accuracy of the tweets against what was actually said.

Here’s the transcript.

Just over 1, 200 people ‘tuned in’ to watch the live feed, but the 68,000 followers of the Department’s Twitter feed (@usedgov) ‘followed’ the Town Meeting on Twitter. Many thousands more follow @askarne and other Twitter feeds, and so the audience must have been well over 100,000. Hundreds of followers added their own tweets, commenting on the Secretary’s answers or my questions, or just venting about the administration. Some tweets were subsequently re-tweeted, keeping the conversation going.

The run-up to the Twitter Town Hall is also noteworthy, because the Department and I both solicited questions. About 100 came to me directly, generally thoughtful and well-written. The Department received many more, which it passed along to me. I chose the questions without any prior review by the Department.

Was Arne Duncan’s Twitter Town Hall substantive, by which I mean ‘did it have the potential to change viewpoints and expand perspectives?’ By itself, no, but the re-tweets and the comments and its archived presence taken together feel ‘substantial’ — to me anyway.

What about the Town Hall on Race and Education? Could its substance have been captured and conveyed on Twitter? I doubt it, but I feel strongly that those who are committed to the old-fashioned approach must adapt so millions, not just a fortunate few, can benefit. Sessions like that can be fed live on the web and then later segmented and indexed so that visitors can pick and choose from a menu, rather than having to watch it all. (And they can tweet their favorites to their Twitter followers.)

I am not trying to talk myself or any other journalist out of a job. For openers, I wouldn’t trust a “Town Hall” with a politician if the interviewer were anyone other than a qualified reporter. However, I think a healthy skepticism about most reporting is warranted, unless and until you develop a trust in the reporter and his/her outlet.

But social media is the future. And, while there’s now a clear a trade-off between substance and immediacy, the challenge is to embrace Twitter and other social media to increase their depth. That’s the future.

Steven Brill and the berated dog

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

Please imagine this scenario: While walking in the park, you see someone famous ahead of you. This person is berating his dog, yelling at it, slapping it and then giving the poor whimpering dog a hard kick or two. Before you can intervene, the person drags the dog away.

Brill
The cover of Steven Brill's new book.

I ask you, would you ever be able to read about or even think about that person — let’s say he’s running for office or donating millions to charity — without that image coming into your mind?

I think something like that happened to Steven Brill, the lawyer/writer who broke the story of New York City’s infamous ‘Rubber Room,’ where teachers that no principal would hire were stashed — and paid — while awaiting arbitration. In that New Yorker article, Brill painted an unforgettable picture of hundreds of adults wasting their days (including a middle school teacher making $85,000 a year who brought in a beach lounge chair). In the piece, Brill correctly identifies the problem: a union contract that establishes procedures for dismissal that are so complex as to make firing even the most incompetent teacher impossible. It’s a good guy-bad guy story, with the teachers union being Brill’s villain (even though someone sat on the opposite side of the table and agreed to those provisions).

I use that word, ‘unforgettable,’ advisedly, because it seems that the experience colors just about every page of his new book, the very readable Class Warfare.

Brill seems to admit as much in an August 21 column distributed by Reuters:

I’ve now read all the white papers and commission reports. I’ve learned all the policy wonk acronyms, and logged hours with everyone from teacher trainees, to the secretary of education, to Weingarten and Ravitch. Yet after all of that it still seems as uncomplicated as it did when I saw my first Rubber Roomer with his head resting on a card table. I mean no disrespect to all the dedicated people who are the “experts” in education policy, but for me the problem and its root causes still seem as undebatable as the practice of paying that guy to sleep for three or four years.

That’s a shame, because the story is more nuanced and ultimately more interesting, as Brill finally acknowledges in his final chapter, which is roughly 180 degrees different in tone from the rest of the book.

In the body of Class Warfare, teacher unions are the villains — the ‘education deformists’ — and a handful of (mostly) Democrats who challenge them are the heroes. He blithely labels people and organizations as anti- or pro-reform. So, for example, the Washington Post’s blog, “The Answer Sheet” is identified as “an anti-education reform blog.” (Brill’s tunnel vision was also discussed in detail in Sara Mosle’s Aug. 18 review of the book for The New York Times ).

Even worse is his treatment of the movie “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” a badly-slanted film that distorts the reality of public education, praising charter schools despite their muddy record of success and ignoring successful traditional public schools. He explains away the millions of dollars the filmmakers received from large foundations, suggesting that since all that money came in after the fact, it did not influence the message and the filmmakers are not hypocrites or worse.

But he has no trouble implying that one of his villains, Diane Ravitch, is for sale. In a short chapter about Ravitch, he comes very close to saying that she changed her views to accommodate those who pay her speaking fees.

But Brill, a tough man who does see the big picture, does not seem to be able to criticize his heroes directly — those ideas, he puts in footnotes (two in particular about Wendy Kopp, one about Michelle Rhee and the Gates Foundation).

His heroes are Eva Moskowitz of Harlem Success Charter Schools, Jon Schnur, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and a few others in that camp. Never once does he take on school boards, although it seems to me they bear equal responsibility for our having a system that puts adult interests ahead of those of children.

It’s not a book to read in one gulp, largely because of his format — dozens and dozens of chapters that are only three or four pages in length. Each chapter ends with the transitional equivalent of “meanwhile, back at the ranch” that becomes a distraction after a while.

However, there’s a lot to like about the book — including his inside stuff about Race to the Top. I have to admit that those sections made me professionally jealous, because we had negotiated access to the Race process for our video crew with Assistant Secretary Peter Cunningham, approved by his boss, Arne Duncan, until the Department’s lawyers vetoed it.

I think all wonks will enjoy Class Warfare. It might ruin the book for you, but I’d suggest reading the last chapter first.

The meaning of the rain

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

I’ve been on vacation lately: fishing with grandchildren, playing on the beach, riding my bike, and — here in the east — walking in the rain. Vacation is supposed to be a time to decompress, to get away from my normal preoccupation, which is education and its complexities.

Wish it were that simple, but, unfortunately for me, almost everything seems to work its way around to education sooner or later.

I mean, take the songs that I sing (quietly to myself) while walking my dog. As I said, we’ve had plenty of rain, so maybe it was inevitable that I would sing songs about rain.

After a while I noticed that songs about bad weather are cheerfully, even blindly, optimistic — starting of course with “Singing in the Rain.”

Think about “Raindrops Falling on My Head,” the song that runs through the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In that song, the singer says he’s “never gonna stop the rain by complaining” and insists that there’s one thing he knows:


The blues they send to meet me won’t defeat me
It won’t be long till happiness steps up to greet me

In other words, don’t worry, be happy, because happiness is just around the corner. You don’t have to do anything — happiness is coming.

“Soon It’s Gonna Rain” from the musical The Fantasticks is another happy song about bad weather. It’s a duet between the two young lovers, and it’s completely optimistic. They decide to build a house (in a tree) that will protect them from the harsh weather and ‘happily we will live and love within our castle walls.’

For optimism, however, I don’t think you can beat Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” because, when “the rain is gone,” there are “no other obstacles in my way.”

Perhaps it’s human nature to think in extremes and avoid nuance. Certainly, sunny optimism makes for a good song. That song would not have rocketed to No. 1 on the charts if the lyrics were “I see more clearly now, the rain has gone; I can see obstacles in my way.”

The blind optimism of the song makes me think of the education policy makers who have ignored reality for years when setting their K-12 academic standards. As Stephanie Banchero wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently:

In fourth-grade reading, for example, 35 states set passing bars that are below the “basic” level on the national NAEP exam. “Basic” means students have a satisfactory understanding of material, as opposed to “proficient,” which means they have a solid grasp of it. Massachusetts is the only state to set its bar at “proficient” — and that was only in fourth and eighth-grade math.

It’s not really raining, these policy makers decided, and so they lowered the academic bar, thus producing lots of apparently ‘proficient’ graduates. For years their schools have asked very little of students, despite the reality of No Child Left Behind’s approaching deadlines (100% proficiency by 2014) and the existence of an independent standard, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

How bad is it? As a federal study noted (again quoting Banchero), there are “huge disparities among the standards states set when their tests are converted to the NAEP’s 500-point scale. In eighth-grade reading, for example, there is a 60-point difference between Texas, which has the lowest passing bar, and Missouri, which has the highest, according to the data. In eighth-grade math, there is a 71-point spread between the low, Tennessee, and the high, Massachusetts.”

Rain
... come again another day?

Blind optimism may be fine for a song, but it’s not appropriate for education policy.

There’s also blind negativism, which seems to me to be the position taken by a lot of education pundits. To these folks, that’s not just rain; that’s doom and gloom, Noah’s flood and the end of the world as we know it. To me, these nay-sayers sound like Benton Brook’s “A Rainy Night in Georgia,” an unrelentingly mournful song in which It seems like it’s rainin’ all over the world

The song goes on:


How many times I wondered
It still comes out the same
No matter how you look at it or think of it
It’s life and you just got to play the game

The song ends on the same endlessly depressing note, fading away into silence: You’re talking ’bout rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’ rainin’, rainin’, rainin’ (fade).

Lighten up! Things are not as bad as the ‘rainin all over the world’ folks would have it. We have thousands of outstanding schools, superb approaches like Core Knowledge, KIPP and Jim Comer’s school reform program, to name just three.

But education also has problems that cannot be whistled away or ignored: 7000 dropouts every school day, huge gaps in educational outcomes; a teacher dropout rate that approaches 50% in five years, and so on. The rain may be gone but there are other obstacles in our way!

I am not arguing for compromise: Blind is blind. The challenge is not to find a healthy balance between blind optimism and blind pessimism, because those polar opposites have only one thing in common: complete faith in their own rightness. One side is convinced that the sun’s going to come out tomorrow, while the other feels it’s raining all over the world.

We don’t need compromise. We need to lighten up. We need to listen. Above all, we need a measure of humility, some admission that perhaps we cannot see clearly. Another line comes to mind, though not from a song: We see ‘as through a glass, darkly.’

I think I need a vacation.

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.

To save our schools, wear sunblock and bring ideas

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

I won’t be reporting from Saturday’s Save Our Schools March and Rally because my young granddaughters (and their parents) are visiting from Barcelona, but it’s likely that PBS NewsHour will have a presence there. The rally and march are being organized by teachers from across the country — and has attracted promises to attend from numerous big names in the field, as well as endorsements from Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch and others. I regret missing the event, because I expect I would recognize a lot of people there. I wish everyone well.

I have a question, however. The acronym, SOS, is catchy and convenient — the internationally recognized cry for help. But what are protestors hoping to save our schools FROM? And, just as important, what are they FOR?

Ellipse
The March and Rally begins at noon on Saturday, July 30 at the Washington, D.C. ellipse.

I am one of those middle-of-the-road guys who is concerned about the polarization of public education. I see an ever widening gap, with “We must trust teachers” on one side and “We must verify with high stakes testing because we don’t trust teachers” on the other. I think Ronald Reagan — no hero to liberals — got it right when he said, “Trust but verify.” He was talking about the Soviet Union, but I think the concept applies to public education. How we get to that sensible middle, where we trust teachers but also have a valid and reliable way of measuring progress, is the challenge that I see facing us.

So please go to the rally ready to argue for specific changes in schools — not just ‘holistic education’ and the like, but specifics.

Here’s one: Barnett Berry of the Teacher Leadership Network suggested to me the other day that principals ought to be teaching part of the time. “Principal” was once an adjective, we both recalled, as in ‘principal teacher.’ That one step would free teachers to develop their leadership skills, a useful move in the right direction.

Here’s another: after the levees broke and effectively destroyed New Orleans’ lousy school system, the organization that was created to rebuild was pointedly called “New Schools for New Orleans,” a name designed to make the point that no one wanted to go back to the status quo. Whether you agree with the direction they’ve taken or not, the purpose was to move forward.

So, my protesting friends, on Saturday put on plenty of sunblock, wear floppy hats, drink lots of water, and please bring suggestions that will make schools better.

Post your thoughts here, if you will.

With testing, where do we go from here?

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

Forget cheating on tests for a minute and think about the concept of ‘teaching to the test.’ Just what does that mean? The usual line (which I have used myself) goes something like this: “It’s OK if it’s a good test,” and that may be correct. Unfortunately, most of the tests that I have seen are not ‘good’ tests.

Think about teaching students to write, and then testing their skills. Clear writing is important. Employers want to hire people who can write clearly, accurately and well — but learning to write takes time and requires rewriting and more rewriting, under the guidance of a good teacher. There are no shortcuts. However, our obsession with numbers subverts both teaching and learning. Teachers are told that their students must be able to pass bubble tests and write a lot of short so-called essays (usually one or two paragraphs!) There’s no time for reflection or rewriting.

Instead, students are drilled in the ‘constructed response’ process: write a declarative statement and then add three or four details to support a statement, such as: “I always use sun block when I go to the beach.” And so they follow the formula they’ve been given and produce something like: “I always wear sun block when I go to the beach because too much sun can cause cancer, and because too much sun will make me all wrinkled when I get old, and because cancer can kill you. My mother makes me use sun block too.”

That ‘essay’ would get a passing score because the student supported his statement in four ways. The teacher (or machine?) grading the ‘essay’ could simply count the supporting reasons. Everybody — teachers, principal, superintendent and school board — would pat themselves on the back, but is Microsoft, GE or Hilton likely to offer someone who’s been trained to write that way a job?

That’s what we are doing to our children. It’s only slightly hyperbolic to say that we are lying to our kids.

Cracking down on cheaters — which we should do — won’t fix our problem. Think about it this way: You are sitting in your living room when drops of water begin falling on your head. Clearly, you have a problem. If you move your chair, have you solved it? After all, you no longer have water falling on your head.

Bubble Test
Tests aren't going away. But where do we go now?

Of course not, because the problem persists, although now the water is falling on your living room rug. Suppose you get a large pot and place it where it can catch the falling water? Have you solved the problem? Of course not, because you still have a leak somewhere.

You get the point. I think it’s time for those of us who are attacking bubble testing and the intense pressure to ‘produce’ to back off and ask, “Where do we go from here?”

Unfortunately, we haven’t asked and answered that question in the past. Subverting the testing system is an old story that we don’t seem to learn much from. Remember Austin, Texas, where most of the school board was implicated in test score deception? How about that small town in Connecticut with its ‘miraculous’ test score gains a few years ago? Not miracles, just plain old cheating.

Sometimes the system aids and abets the deception, as in Florida, where a loophole in the state law allowed districts to counsel low-performing students to drop out to go into GED programs. By law, the districts didn’t have to count these kids as dropouts as long as they suggested the GED alternative, no matter that no one had to follow up to see if the kids actually enrolled.

How about the so-called ‘Texas Miracle” that turned out to be the ‘Texas Mirage?’ Houston had great test scores, and Superintendent Rod Paige eventually became U.S. Secretary of Education. Then we learned that an inordinate number of low-performing 8th graders were simply being held back, often for more than one year, because high-stakes testing didn’t begin until 9th grade. Some find the seeds of No Child Left Behind in that misadventure.

Atlanta may actually be the proverbial tip of the cheating iceberg because evidence that suggests major cheating has also occurred in D.C., Pennsylvania, Florida, Houston, Baltimore, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Some consultants, test security companies and even the test makers themselves are licking their chops right now, expecting to make a lot of money designing what they will claim will be better defenses against cheating, because ‘firewalls,’ ‘fail-safe’ steps, ‘erasure detection software’, and other ‘technical fixes’ are a big part of the conversation. In fact, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

“The technical fix is very simple, and they need to put that in place. The job for a new superintendent coming in after a crisis is to rebuild public confidence with absolute integrity, transparency.”

I respectfully disagree, because cheating is not the real problem; it’s a symptom of a larger problem, and the solution is not simple. Not by a long shot.

The problem in Atlanta, in D.C., and wherever else cheating is occurring proves Campbell’s Law, which states “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Live by the test, die by the test.

We rely too heavily on the scores of relatively simple (and relatively cheap) machine-scored ‘bubble’ tests as the measure of educational accomplishment, and that invites deception, cheating and criminal behavior.

So where do we go from here? Well, we aren’t going to ‘get rid of testing,’ that’s for sure. Anyone who wants to throw out that bath water ought to recall the New Orleans high school valedictorian that could not pass the Louisiana state graduation test, despite being given multiple opportunities!

Nor is it enough to endorse “multiple measures” of achievement. It’s more complicated. We have to ask ourselves what we want young people to be able to do upon graduation and figure out how to teach and encourage those behaviors. Then — and only then — do we figure out ways to measure them.

What if we were to ask large employers like Michael Dell, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, Carol Bartz of Yahoo, the heads of Hilton, Hyatt, Avis and Hertz, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, Steve Jobs, Jeffrey Immelt of GE, the provosts of some major universities, top advertising agencies and so on what they look for in potential employees? What would they say?

Or maybe you hire people for your company. What do you look for?

Life is not all about work, of course, so we ought to ask what we want our youth to be: good parents, concerned citizens, informed voters, discerning consumers, and so on.

Then let’s figure out what sort of school-based experiences teach or sharpen those skills and attributes. My hunch is that group activities and project-based learning will figure prominently. I think we will be reminded of the truth of the late Ted Sizer’s observation that “Less is more.”

Tests drive public education right now. But what should be driving the enterprise are agreed-upon goals that come from the real world.

Where do we go from here? That’s up to us, isn’t it?