David Brooks, Diane Ravitch, and the education wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a sample:

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks’ money line follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to your responses.

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A speech I’d like to hear

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

This is a speech I hope Arne Duncan will give one day. I don’t necessarily expect you to write a FULL SPEECH back in the comments, but I’d love to know the issues you hope the Secretary will touch on in major future addresses.


With my basketball playing limited recently because of my schedule and a nagging injury, I have been thinking about the sport and its similarities to education. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Some of you may know that I am comfortable on the court. I played a lot as a kid, was team co-captain at Harvard and then competed in an Australian pro league. I still play regularly and have been on the team that has won three national Three on Three titles in the past few years.

I know something about education too — maybe even more than my critics would have you believe. I grew up in my mom’s early childhood program, and I was CEO of CPS (Chicago Public Schools) for seven years.

What I have come to realize is that we are focusing too much on test scores — to the detriment of real learning. That’s like a basketball coach paying attention only to wins and losses while neglecting the fundamentals of the game.

Here’s what I mean. In basketball you compete to win, of course, but you play and practice a heck of a lot more than you actually compete in games against other teams. And that’s what should happen in school, if you think of big high-stakes tests as those competitive games.

In both, of course the scores matter, because winning is better than losing, but think about how you get those good scores in basketball. It’s not by practicing ‘winning.’ No, it’s by working on the elements that make up the game: passing, foul shots, jump shots, rebounding, diving for loose balls, defending, and so on.

When teachers devote a lot of time to practicing test taking, they are going down the wrong path. That’s like trying to practice ‘winning’ when they should be working on the essentials of the subject, the elements of ‘victory.’ Teachers should be helping with the academic equivalent of rebounding, passing, defending and so on. If you’re an English teacher, your students should be reading, writing, rewriting and arguing their points, and so on. As E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has noted, “If we want our children to do well on reading tests, they should be reading — not practicing taking reading tests.”

Friends who have been around Washington longer than I point out that, ever since No Child Left Behind, we have gotten away from the essentials of learning and focused instead on high stakes tests. We used to give high stakes tests just three times — in 4th, 8th and 12th grades — but now, because of NCLB, schools are required give them every year. In my basketball analogy, that’s like sending teams out to play in tournaments all the time, without giving them time to get game-ready.

Want an example? Take Connecticut, which had invested a fair amount of money to develop some pretty good (largely non-bubble) tests that were going to be given every other year, until the previous administration made it stop, effectively saying, ‘Test every year or lose your federal dollars.’ Connecticut fought back but lost the battle. Washington forced it to throw out its much better tests and replace them with cheap, off-the-shelf bubble tests.

And so, from now on, our policy will be to encourage more of the basketball equivalent of practicing the elements of excellence. I urge teachers to translate ‘rebounding, passing, defending, foul shots, three pointers, et cetera’ into their academic counterparts in their particular subjects, and concentrate their efforts there. When a coach does that, winning takes care of itself. If we do that in our classrooms, winning — doing well on accepted measures — will also take care of itself.

The Department will do its part by granting waivers from some of No Child Left Behind’s rules, to states that apply and qualify. But it’s up to ordinary Americans to get involved, to help figure out what we want for our children.

Thank you.


What do you want to hear from Arne Duncan? Seriously!

A Paradox? Or a Genuine Contradiction?

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

Can something really be good and bad at the same time? How about that delicious but fattening dinner you had last week? It was great, until you added up the calories, right?   Now what about a school? Can it be both good and bad at the same time?  Is educational quality — like beauty — in the eye of the beholder or do test scores say it all?
Good/ Bad blog

More precisely, can a school with only 18% of its 4th graders at grade level in reading be considered a good school? Before you say, “Of course not,” please read on.  Because we discovered that the FIRST graders at that school were reading confidently and competently. That’s right: the first graders were readers, but the fourth graders weren’t according to the results of the state test.

Is this a paradox, or a full-blown contradiction?

I’m asking these questions of you because we are asking them of ourselves, in our reporting for the NewsHour. It actually began with a different question: “Are the Reading Wars (phonics versus whole language) over, or do they rage on, but under the radar?”

As a starting point, producer Cat McGrath and I decided to see if we could get into some schools with terrible reading scores.  While a couple of principals turned us down, the principal of PS 1 in the South Bronx in New York City, said, “Come on up. We are a great school.”

“Yeah, right,” we thought. After all,  we had the scores in front of us: not even 18% of the school’s 4th graders were competent readers.

We went up to that high poverty neighborhood, where crime scene tapes proliferate and unemployed men linger on street corners. PS 1 fits right in. It is grim looking from the outside, a fortress-like building with few windows.  Inside is different, however. The classrooms and corridors of PS 1 are bright and full of energy, with student work displayed everywhere.   Jorge Perdomo, who’s led the school for  five years, took us to his first grade classes.  “Our first graders are reading,” he claimed, “and writing too,” pointing to their papers on classroom walls.

Our skepticism did not seem to bother him or diminish his enthusiasm.  “Come on back anytime — with your cameras — and see for yourself.”

We did.  We saw veteran and rookie teachers giving their first graders a strong (and essential) foundation in phonics.  First graders were learning that letters make sounds, that combinations of letters make different sounds, and that, when letters are strung together, they can make words.  They were decoding.

That’s only part of the battle, of course.  Comprehension, actually understanding what the words mean, is a tougher challenge.  To test that skill, I asked the first graders to close their eyes while I wrote a nonsense story on the board: “The blue pancake went swimming in the lake and ate a frog.”

They read it eagerly and confidently.  When I asked what they thought of the story, they said without much enthusiasm, “It’s OK,” but that was because they were just being polite to the white-haired stranger.  When I asked, “Is there anything wrong with that story?” (a question that gave them permission to be critical), they were impossible to contain.  Pancakes aren’t blue, pancakes can’t swim, pancakes don’t have a mouth, and pancakes can’t eat a frog.  The words tumbled out of their mouths.

The principal was right about his first graders, but what about the fourth graders and their 18% competency?

Adults offered several possible explanations.  By the time they’re fourth graders, one teacher said, they are no longer naive. They know that their Dad is in prison, or their Mom has a drinking problem, or maybe they now have to be responsible for their younger siblings. Life has caught up with them, and reading no longer matters.

The test is much harder, several offered.  Now they have to reach conclusions and draw inferences, and that’s much tougher.

We looked over past tests, and, sure enough, the passages were about subjects that poor kids in the south Bronx may not be familiar with (cicadas or dragonflies were two of the subjects, for example). Answering the questions did require inferential leaps, just as we had been told.

So we asked to talk with a couple of fourth graders who were reading below grade level, and here’s where it got complicated.  As you will see in the NewsHour piece (embedded below), both children, one age 9 and the other 11, handled the passages and answered all the questions. Maybe the personal attention helped, but they read easily and drew inferences correctly. We only ‘tested’ a couple of kids, but both were below grade-level, their teacher assured us.

Where does that leave us? Maybe the kids are terrible test takers? Maybe there’s too much stress (there’s a couple of weeks of test-prep build into the schedule)?  Perhaps there’s a fundamental contradiction between testing reading and reading itself?

I have a theory, but I would love to know what others make of this.

You can view the completed piece from PBS NewsHour (it aired on June 6, 2011) here:

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The international divide

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

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

You can read the paper here.

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What do teachers want?

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

Readers of this blog or of my book, The Influence of Teachers, know that I believe that the harsh criticism of teachers and their unions is largely undeserved. I also believe it is hurting public education.

In the clamor, the voices of regular classroom teachers are difficult to hear, which is why I am devoting this blog to them. With apologies to Sigmund Freud, “What do teachers want?”

Some answers to that question can be found in recent surveys by Met Life and the Gates Foundation/Scholastic. I include some of those findings below.

Renee Moore, a veteran teacher who is certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, says it’s all about respect. “Highest on my list,” she wrote, “would be more respect for the professional expertise of teachers, particularly for those of us who have shown consistently, year-after-year that we are highly accomplished teachers.”

That seems to be consistent with a Met Life finding that most teachers feel they are being ignored. “A majority of teachers do not believe that teachers’ voices are being heard. Seven in ten teachers (69%) disagree with the statement that “thinking about the current debate on education, teachers’ voices in general have been adequately heard.”

Ms Moore continues: “By every means we currently have for measuring teacher performance, I am considered an excellent teacher; yet, when it comes time to decide what should be taught and how my students’ learning should be measured, I have little or no say. This is also true for teachers as a group.”

What form would respect take? “The reward for excellent teaching should be increased responsibility for the policy decisions that govern our work.”

In other words, pay attention!

The Gates/Scholastic Survey of 40,000 teachers reveals that paying attention would also entail giving equal weight to teachers’ assessments of student achievement. “From ongoing assessments throughout the year to student participation in individual classes, teachers are clear that these day-to-day assessments are a more reliable way to measure student performance than one-shot standardized tests. Ninety-two percent of teachers say ongoing in-classroom assessment is either very important or absolutely essential in measuring student performance, while only 27% say the same of state required standardized tests.”

Another Board-certified teacher, Kenneth Bernstein of Maryland, calls for an end to micromanaging: “Treat us as a profession,” he wrote. “That is, require appropriate training, which is not five weeks before turning us loose in a classroom. Give us appropriate support, which means do not overburden us with too many students in a class or too large a student load. And pay us as the professionals we are so that we do not lose so many of our gifted teachers because they cannot afford to raise a family on what they are paid.”

I also directed my question, “What do teachers want?” to Anthony Cody, a veteran teacher in Oakland. High on his list was collaboration. “American teachers get a fraction of the time our counterparts overseas get, and most of the time is filled with either top-down professional development or administrative staff meetings. We need dedicated time to look at student work, to reflect and engage in these processes.”

The Gates/Scholastic Survey emphatically supported Anthony’s point. “When asked about teacher retention, nearly all teachers say that non-monetary rewards like supportive leadership and collaborative working environments are the most important factors to retaining good teachers. Fewer than half of teachers say higher salaries are absolutely essential for retaining good teachers and only 8% say pay for performance is absolutely essential.”

Money matters less than collaboration!

According to the Gates/Scholastic survey, “Teachers are skeptical of current measures of teacher performance, with only 22% indicating that principal observation is a very accurate measure. At the same time, more than half of teachers indicate that student academic growth (60%) and student engagement (55%) are very accurate measures of teacher performance — much more so than teacher tenure, which a significant number of teachers said is not at all accurate.”

The Met Life survey reveals a crucial nuance: the newer the teacher, the more likely they are to want to collaborate. “Regardless of their specific path to teaching, new teachers are strong proponents of collaboration. Although teachers across experience levels agree on many of the topics in the Survey, new teachers (those with five years of experience or less) emerge as having a particular affinity for collaboration. New teachers strongly agree in greater numbers than do veteran teachers (those with more than 20 years of experience) that their success is linked to that of their colleagues (67% vs. 47%).”

And the newbies are ready to collaborate with anyone who shares their concern for student learning. “New teachers are also more likely to emphasize the importance of collaborating with other groups to improve student achievement. They are more likely than veteran teachers to say that strengthening ties among schools and parents is very important for improving student achievement (95% vs. 85%).”

These are hopeful signs, because our teaching force is growing younger by the year. In 1987 the modal ‘years of experience’ was 15 years. In 2007 (the last year we have data for) the mode was one year!

The comments of all three veterans indicate their agreement with another Gates/Scholastic finding: they want the freedom to innovate. Here’s how the survey put it: “To keep today’s students engaged in learning, teachers recognize that it is essential for instruction to be tailored to individual students’ skills and interests. More than 90% of teachers say that differentiated assignments are absolutely essential or very important for improving student achievement and engaging students in learning. Also, showing a clear understanding of the world students inhabit outside of school, 81% of teachers say that up-to-date, information-based technology that is well integrated into the classroom is absolutely essential or very important in impacting student achievement.”

But innovation is not high on the list of those running the show. As Anthony Cody noted, “Modern ‘education reform’ has redefined the purpose of schools to be to raise scores in tested subjects. As teachers we feel responsible for so much more, and we find other things we value — critical thinking, creativity, compassion, civic engagement, even knowledge of history and science — crowded out when we are coerced by threats of school closures, pay cuts or the loss of job security if our test scores do not rise.”

And while Moore, Bernstein and Cody did not speak directly to the question of higher and common standards, my hunch is that they tilt in that direction—as long as teachers play a significant role in their development. Here’s what Gates/Scholastic said on that point: “Teachers see the role clear common standards can play in preparing students for their future, but want clearer standards and core standards that are the same across all states. Nationwide, 74% of teachers say that clearer standards would make a strong or very strong impact on student achievement, with only 4% saying they would have no impact at all. 60% of teachers say that common standards would have a strong or very strong impact on student achievement, with only 10% saying that they would have no impact at all.”

So what do we know? What’s the answer to my question? What do teachers want?

Aretha Franklin said it best: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

It takes different forms, but that’s what they want — and it’s what they deserve.

Your thoughts?

The joys of jargon

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

At Harvard recently a young graduate student asked me a tough question:

Mr. Merrow, you have been interviewing educators for 35 years. How do you know when an educator is sincere and can be trusted?

It’s a great question, but before I tell you how I answered her, let me admit that, once I got back to New York, I queried other education reporters on the subject. Is there language — jargon — that makes you suspicious of educators, I asked?

The flood of responses surprised me. It seems that a lot of reporters have had it up to here with educational jargon. Their (non) favorites include phrases like: ‘at risk,’ ‘scaffolding,’ ‘value-added,’ ‘best practices,’ ‘state of the art,’ ‘laser-like focus,’ and ‘raising the bar.’

For about half a dozen reporters the absolute nails-on-the-blackboard term is ‘stakeholders.’

I can’t resist stringing together expressions, like so:

“Aligned instruction with buy-in by highly qualified teachers for authentic inquiry-based learning and student engagement in professional learning communities will produce 21st Century skills in our youngsters.” (And I’ll bet some educator somewhere has actually said that!)

(But not in my new book, The Influence of Teachers.  I did my best to make it a jargon-free zone and will refund your purchase price if you can find examples of my — non-ironic — use of ‘educationese.’)

Educators apparently adore alliteration: ‘Scaffolding for success,’ ‘ramp up for rigor and readiness,’ ‘data-driven,’ ‘drilling down,’ ‘authentic assessment,’ ‘teaching to the test,’ and ‘rigorous research.’

Reporter Jackie Borchardt of the Casper Star-Tribune made a school board bingo card last year that included ‘literacy,’ ‘goal team,’ ‘rigor,’ ‘pathways,’ ‘research-based,’ ‘engaged,’ ‘high-access,’ ‘what’s best for kids,’ ‘cohort,’ ‘strategic plan,’ ‘and ‘21st century education. She didn’t say whether she called out “Bingo” during a School Board meeting!

JargonDoes jargon disguise vacuity? Anne Lewis, a veteran reporter, offered this analysis: “I have come to the conclusion that it exists because of a professional lack of esteem. Other professions requiring college degrees have a specific language — medicine, the sciences, engineering, law. But educators only have plain English, so they change it into a ‘professional’ language that sounds fancy and inaccessible when it ought to be the most accessible profession of all.”

Do some educators obfuscate because they think it makes them sound more professional? Are some educators so deep in the weeds of their profession that they have forgotten how to communicate with ordinary folks?

And are some being duplicitous, saying, ‘We know what works’ when in fact they do not?

I suspect it’s “Yes” to all of the above.

So how did I answer that young woman?

I told her that two terms make me hyper-vigilant: rigorous and ready to learn. ‘Ready to Learn’ tells me one of two things: either the educator hasn’t thought about the difference between being ‘ready to learn’ and being “ready for school” OR she actually believes they mean the same thing. If the latter, that’s remarkable arrogance. If the former, let’s hope the leader can be taught the difference.

I hate it when educators talk about the need for a ‘rigorous curriculum’ because that tells me they haven’t thought much about the meaning of the adjective (harsh and unyielding). Perhaps they think it makes them sound tough, as if that were a good thing, but I associate rigor with death (‘rigor mortis’). Who needs that in our classrooms? Why not say ‘challenging’ instead?

But what I listen for are clues about beliefs. When an educator looks at a child, I want to know if he wonders, “How intelligent is this kid?” — or is he thinking “How is this child intelligent?”

If the former, then the educator is operating from a medical model, with himself as the doctor and provider of cures. I don’t like that philosophy. If the latter, he is working from a health model and is ready to build on the child’s strengths.

I advised the young woman that one cannot simply ask educators which way they look at the world, because they will spit back the politically correct response. Instead, I said, watch and listen carefully. Cut through — or even ignore — the jargon, which at the end of the day is a nuisance and a distraction. It’s the core beliefs that matter.

In education, a lack of response to basic demand

I started writing this blog entry on a flight to California from New York; I’m headed there for another book party and a meeting of the Learning Matters board.

For the last 30 minutes or so, I have been listening to a father talk about his two young children, ages 7 and 10.  He’s an older Dad with at least one adult child, and he radiates child-like enthusiasm about what amounts to a second go-round of childrearing. He’s been telling me about their endless curiosity; they always are asking “why?” and “how does this work?” and so on.

As I listened, a dark cloud flickered across my eyes and I wondered: what would their schools do to their spark?

Nurture it, tolerate it, or extinguish it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

No mistake: This is a crisis!

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REQUIRED READING: 6 Titles Not To Be Missed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Terrific” – Jim Lehrer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading…