Tabula Rasa does not mean Carte Blanche

What are the emerging education stories in the months ahead? What continuing stories should we be tracking? What issues aren’t being covered in the proper depth?

What's next?I know it’s the dog days of summer, hardly the best time for jumping up and down with intellectual energy, but I hope you will give us a hand, because Learning Matters is at another crossroads, another decision point.

I hope you have noticed that we have devoted lots of time, resources and energy over the past three years to two important school reform stories: the efforts to bring about change in Washington, DC and New Orleans, LA, two of the lowest performing school systems in the nation, by Michelle Rhee and Paul Vallas, respectively. In a few weeks the final episode of this series will air on PBS NewsHour. In total we will have produced twelve stories about NOLA and twelve about DC. That’s unprecedented reporting, particularly for television, and it’s been worthwhile.

Now, however, we have the opportunity to cover other stories.

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Summer reading

Well, it’s finally here, the proof copy of Below C Level. I looked it over and then went on line to give my approval. That one keystroke made the book available immediately.

Below C LevelAnd if you want to be the first in your neighborhood to have a copy, please visit the Below C Level website or purchase it online directly at

When you do that, you will be getting a pretty good read and also helping Learning Matters–because I am donating most of the royalties to the company.

What’s in the book, you ask? Well, It’s 432 pages before you even get to the index, 37 chapters covering everything from pre-school through higher education.

A wry friend suggested that, if I wanted to sell a lot of books, I should just write about all the people I’ve interviewed over the past 34 years. An option, he said, was to tell the truth about them. I’ve actually followed his advice (including the option); the index is 11 pages of mostly names. Continue reading

Solving a man-made problem

One of education’s dirty little secrets is that schools give what they call their ‘end of the year’ tests about six weeks before the end of school. The school year is only 5/6th of the way done, but it’s testing time, and everything stops.

School's outThink about that for a moment, maybe put yourself in the shoes of a teacher or a student. If you’re a kid, the message is clear: the year is over! Time to kick back and relax. However, if you happen to be a conscientious teacher, you have to climb a big hill every morning and afternoon for the next five or six weeks, because you have to try to interest your students in what they know doesn’t matter.

Left unexplored is what’s being tested. Do these tests cover everything that the students are supposed to have learned, or merely 5/6ths of the material? If they cover everything, isn’t that unfair to those who are being judged by the results (students and, increasingly, their teachers)? If they cover just 5/6th of the course content, will that mean that many students will never get past, say, World War II in history?

Why this happens is no mystery: it’s done for administrative convenience, to give the test companies time to run the test papers through their machines, process the scores, and get them back to the school districts as early as possible in the summer. With so many tests and so few companies, the bottleneck is frightening, worse than the lines at the toll booths on a summer evening when everyone is driving back from the beach.

What makes this bottleneck worse are the mistakes that occur. Imagine if the toll collectors randomly collected different amounts from some drivers! That’s what happens when the machines begin their mass processing: they make mistakes! Continue reading