Do you want your kids on THAT bus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.

Trust, but verify

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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.

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee; it was co-authored by John and Learning Matters Board Chair Esther Wojcicki.

Two Californians, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, may yet save American public education. The first is the late Ronald Reagan. The Democrat is Darrell Steinberg, a state senator from Sacramento who is very much alive.

Public education is on life support. America’s students routinely score in the bottom half on international tests, 7,000 students drop out every school day, a half-dozen large school systems have cheating scandals on their hands, and our schools are teetering on the edge of obsolescence in today’s technology-driven society.

The heart of the problem is a near-total lack of trust, which is why we bring up former President Reagan and his phrase, “Trust but verify.” He was referring to the Soviet Union and nuclear weapons, but that essential combination is what’s required in education.

Years ago we trusted teachers but had no system for verification; today, however, trust has virtually disappeared, and education is about verifying — using scores on standardized tests. Neither extreme works. The challenge is to gain the middle ground.

Ronald Reagan
A comment that Ronald Reagan made with regards to the Soviet Union could also be a potential turning point for American public education.

When teaching was one of the few jobs open to competent women, classrooms were staffed by smart, responsible and caring women, women who would probably be attorneys or executives today.

When a changing economy opened doors for women, our schools suffered. The teaching force changed, and trust gradually eroded as we learned the hard way that trust alone did not produce results. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin came in 2003, when a high school valedictorian in New Orleans failed the math portion of the state’s graduation test five times.

By then we were well into the test-intensive era of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that requires all children to be achieving at a basic level by 2014. Today, public education is all about verifying, and states are falling over themselves to rate teachers according to their students’ test scores. Washington, D.C., led the way, but now about 30 states require the evaluation of teachers based on test scores.

It didn’t take a genius to predict what would happen when jobs became dependent on one test score. Cheating scandals have erupted in dozens of places, with Atlanta’s public schools taking the crown for most egregious.

But if neither trust nor verifying alone works, what would the middle ground, “trust but verify,” look like?

Valid, reliable measures of accountability are essential. We need a high-stakes test, but it cannot be the whole ball of wax. Because testing kids in every subject — including art and music — just so their teachers can be rated is an idiotic notion, we recommend that the unit of measurement be the school, not individual teachers.

Enter Steinberg and his legislation, Senate Bill 547, which has passed the Legislature and been sent to the governor. While it would use test scores to evaluate schools, it insists upon multiple measures, including graduation rates and college/career readiness. Moreover, it would open the door for other factors, such as classes in the arts, to be used when judging schools.

We think that no school should be allowed to stay open if most of its students cannot pass the state’s tests. But we also think that no school should be allowed to focus only on those tests, because that leads to “drill-and-kill” and dumbing down of the curriculum.

Trust but verify. The state’s high-stakes tests are the means of verifying. As for trust, we think Steinberg’s bill’s insistence on multiple measures can be interpreted to mean: Trust each community to create the kinds of school programs it wants for its children, instead of a school board or Sacramento making the rules.

A community might choose:

  • Significant programs in art, drama, journalism and music.
  • A community service requirement.
  • Project-based learning.
  • Competence in a second language.
  • At least 30 minutes of recess daily.
  • Honors recognition for academic excellence.
  • Technology to teach students to collaborate.
  • Teacher-made tests to regularly measure student progress.
  • Uniforms for all students.
  • Economic and racial diversity.
  • Early college opportunities for advanced students.

Give a community one point for each vibrant program it establishes. For argument’s sake, let’s say a school must get at least 10 points to stay open. However, merely having some or all of these programs would not be enough to earn a “passing grade” for a school, because every school must also earn points by doing well on the high-stakes test and demonstrating that its graduates are capable of moving on. That’s the verification side of the equation.

Give three points if 60 percent of kids score basic or above; four points if 75 percent reach that level; and five points for a score of 85 percent or above.

The idea is to establish multiple priorities and provide a program that is valuable to the community. A school couldn’t just “drill and kill” to pass the test, because it wouldn’t earn enough points to stay open. Nor could it just have a host of wonderful programs that make everyone feel good, because passing the state test and preparing graduates for their future are also requirements.

Trust the community to decide what kinds of programs it wants for its children, but look to the high-stakes test results and the college/career readiness results for proof that the community’s trust is justified — or, in worst cases, evidence that changes must be made.

Like the federal government, we endorse verifying the progress of a school, not its teachers. We trust teachers and administrators to see that everyone is pulling their weight or to do something about those who are not.

SB 547 represents the best hope for revitalizing public education, even though it doesn’t go as far as we would like regarding the role of the community. Steinberg’s bill leaves too many details to the state Department of Education and the State Board of Education. Our hope is that the powers-that-be at the state level will seize this opportunity to relax the reins and trust communities to do right by their children.

Only by coming together to address what we want for all our children can we hope to lower the temperature in education — and begin to catch up with other industrialized societies.

Honoring teachers — again?

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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.

Would you believe that tomorrow we are expected to put aside our own important work and honor teachers? That’s right, we’re supposed to drop everything and pay homage to those lazy, overpaid, spoiled, money-grubbing, summer-vacationing, ‘we’ve-got-tenure-and-you-don’t’ incompetents.

That’s because Wednesday, October 5th, is “World Teachers’ Day,” an occasion recognized by more than 100 countries around the world. But it’s also “Teacher Day” on Thursday, October 6th, the following day, in Sri Lanka.

In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that every day of the year is “Teacher Day” somewhere in the world.

Teachers have October locked up, that’s for sure. Beside this Wednesday’s celebration for those 100 countries and Sri Lanka’s on Thursday, Australia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Brazil, Poland, Chile, Ukraine and New Zealand all have chosen an October day to celebrate their teachers. In Ukraine, students give their teachers chocolate! (You and I work hard. Does anyone give us chocolate?)

Teachers
All over the world, teachers receive gifts on various appreciation days -- but what should be making of the overall dialogue on the profession?

Here in the USA we have at least two Teacher Days and an entire Teacher Week. The first full week of May is “Teacher Appreciation Week,” with that particular Tuesday being designated as “Teacher Appreciation Day.” This official celebration is apparently the result of hard work by the National Education Association and the National PTA. Massachusetts celebrates its own “Teachers’ Day,” the first Sunday in June.

February 28th is a good day for teachers in the Middle East. That’s when 12 countries celebrate: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Oman.

Because we were asleep at the switch, we have already missed India’s “Teacher Day” (September 5), China’s and Hong Kong’s (September 10th), Brunei’s celebration on September 23, Taiwan’s (September 28) and Singapore’s (first Friday of the month). India makes a teacher’s cushy job even easier because on that day senior students take over the responsibility for teaching.

The only month that does NOT have a “Teachers Day” to call its own is, predictably, August. June has four (Bolivia, El Salvador, Hungary, and Guatemala), March has five (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Albania, Lebanon, and Iraq), but the merry month of May tops them both, with six country celebrations: Iran, Bhutan, Jamaica, Malaysia, Mexico, and Colombia.

Teachers really live the life of Riley in Vietnam. November 20th is set aside to allow students “to express their respect to their teacher. Students begin preparing a week in advance, and many classes usually prepare literature and art to welcome teachers’ day, while other students prepare foods and flowers for the parties held at their schools. Students usually visit their teachers at their homes to offer flowers and small gifts, or organize trips with their teachers and classmates. Former students also pay respect to their former teachers on this day.”

To be serious for a moment, what are we to make of all these celebrations honoring teachers? While I am all for honoring those men and women, I hope the respect neither begins nor ends on that particular day. Somehow I keep thinking of Jon Stewart’s wry comment at the end of February when he noted that, now that Black History Month was over, we could get back to White History Year.

I have a modest proposal. In addition to the celebrations, how about a concerted effort to end the dishonoring of teachers and teaching? I’m talking about the Fox News commentators who rattle on about overpaid teachers; those school principals who treat teachers as interchangeable parts; union reps who bargain for rigid and bizarre work rules that hamstring dedicated teachers and administrators alike; curriculum designers who labor to create ‘teacher-proof’ curricula; education school leaders with low standards and undemanding programs; cheap-shot politicians and so on. I am sure that there are a few million teachers who would like to see any of them try to do for just one day what teachers do every day of the school year.

Me, I would give anything to capture that on film. We could call the ensuing television program “Real Hypocrites in Classroom 203” or maybe “America’s Got Bozos.”

Thanks, teachers. Enjoy the day — and the career.

Some thoughts on Education Nation

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon; you can also check out a Sacramento Bee editorial he co-authored with Esther Wojcicki, the Learning Matters Board Chair.

Although I left before the final event — an appearance by former President Bill Clinton — I was on hand for almost everything else, and I am comfortable declaring Education Nation 2011 a success, a 180-degree turn from last year’s disappointment.

Last year, education wonks will remember that Education Nation was badly tilted in favor of charter schools and against unions and the ‘bad teachers’ they protect. It was as if everyone running the show drank the Kool-Aid poured by “Waiting for ‘Superman’”, Davis Guggenheim’s well-made but fundamentally-flawed movie.

Not this year. Balance was the order of the day. Both union presidents and lots of regular public school teachers got ample stage time. Because NBC’s talent pool is deep, lots of good questions were asked.

For me, the absolute hit of the two days was the 65 minutes on Monday morning devoted to “Brain Power: Why Early Learning Matters.” We were treated to four snappy, insightful and short presentations by professors from the University of Washington, UC Berkeley and Harvard, after which NBC’s chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, presided over a lively discussion about the educational implications of what we had just seen and experienced.

This hit home with many audience members because much of it was new and because the pedagogy modeled what all of us are arguing for in today’s schools.

But there was other good stuff: Brian Williams herding a panel of ten (10!) governors, Tom Brokaw talking with Sal Khan and Arne Duncan, Williams again with an examination of inequality (“What’s in a Zip Code?”), and David Gregory refereeing a debate between Diane Ravitch and Geoffrey Canada.

Secretary Duncan was everywhere, taking questions gracefully and speaking earnestly about education as ‘the civil rights issue of our time.’

At least 271 people labored to make Education Nation run seamlessly, which they did with a smile. Hats off to them.

And Education Nation is also a great opportunity to see and be seen. I had a dozen or more stimulating conversations and left with four or five really good story ideas for PBS NewsHour.

And so, I think it’s fair to say that Education Nation is close to achieving that lofty ‘must attend’ status, no small feat for an enterprise that stumbled so badly out of the gate and is only two years old.

Is Education Nation all talk, or mostly talk, or will good things happen because of these conversations? I don’t know, but in defense of education and Education Nation, I don’t believe that comparable events are being held around health care, energy and transportation, to name just three other issues of great importance.

Now to the tough part — and here I have a choice between being nice and being not-so-nice. For once, I choose the former. And so I am couching my critique in the form of a proposal for next year’s Education Nation, instead of complaining about missed opportunities.

Next year, NBC’s journalists must tackle two of the elephants in the room. One is the obstacles to innovation. The second is the problem inherent in overemphasizing ‘innovation.’

Start with obstacles: In an early morning session on Monday, Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation spoke eloquently about the possibilities of blended learning. Kids, she said, could now explore and advance at their own pace in many subjects. And she’s right. We know that students using the Khan Academy math program (which I watched in action in a school in Mountain View, CA, last week) can move through three, four or five ‘grade levels’ in math without ever being aware of how rapidly they are moving — because there are no “Stop, you have reached the end of 5th grade!” signs.

So far so good, but, unfortunately for those fast-moving kids, current ‘seat time’ and course credit rules mean that a student earns just one year of credit no matter how many levels he or she actually moves up. In fact, that kid’s teacher is probably going to have to tell him to slow down, which is a terrible message to send.

Education Nation
In its second year, Education Nation is close to 'must-attend' status.

But that issue wasn’t addressed, and, until it is, lots of wonderful innovations are going to rust on the sidelines. I mentioned this to Tom Brokaw, and he got it right away, connecting it to the one-room school that his mother had attended. There, he said, the teacher had to let kids move at their own pace because she was responsible for six or seven grades. Perhaps that proves that there is no new thing under the sun. The point is learning can be ‘customized’ in theory, but it won’t happen in practice until the system loosens its rules on ‘seat time.’

A few educators told me that some schools and districts are experimenting with approaches that judge students based on competency, instead of weeks of seat time, and that’s good news. Next year NBC ought to make this a centerpiece and show us how and where it’s being done — and what problems this new approach creates.

My second issue is deeper, and that’s all the enthusiasm for ‘innovation.’ I say, “Enough already.” Please give equal time to ‘imitation.’ We have lots of good schools and good programs and good teachers, stuff that can and should be copied.

Notice that I am not saying ‘replicate’ or ‘go to scale.’ Those fancy terms are part of the problem, frankly, because they scare away folks — or they become an excuse for not doing anything. Educators can rationalize that they don’t have support for ‘innovation’ and don’t have the apparatus for ‘going to scale’ and ‘replication,’ and that’s why they aren’t doing anything out of the ordinary.

Sorry, those excuses don’t cut it any longer. Just imitate. It’s easy to do, and it doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, headline-grabbing stuff. Here’s an example: KIPP kindergarten teachers explain to their kids why they are going to walk in a line and why they are expected to be quiet in the halls. Lots of regular teachers just tell the kids to line up and be quiet. The first way is respectful and creates shared responsibility, while the second seems likely to create behavior problems down the road.

Teachers who copy that are not ‘endorsing’ KIPP or sleeping with the enemy. They are just doing something that works.

I strongly believe that education needs a new narrative to replace the current one (‘honor teachers’), which replaced last year’s narrative (‘charter schools are good, unions are bad’).

I suggest a narrative that is tougher on schools but also closer to reality. It’s this: “For as long as anyone can remember, there has been close to a 1:1 correlation between parental income and educational outcomes, whether the parents were rich, poor or somewhere in between. 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, imitate the successful places, people and practices. Find out 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.”

Congratulations, NBC, for sparking a national conversation that will be ongoing. I hope you will invite me back next year.

Get out the blender, kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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?

Six premises, seven ideas for better teacher training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough of premises and preaching. Time for specifics.

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

I suggest a seven-part strategy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.