A new idea: shared poetry

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If you live in or around NYC, John will be appearing in conversation with Randi Weingarten — the topic is “Unions and the Future Of Our Schools” — on Wednesday, December 14. Click here for tickets and info.

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Stop reading right now If you are a strong ‘back to basics,’ no-frills education person, because this column is about as far away as humanly possible from your notions of what should be happening in schools.

However, if you teach in high school or middle school — or if you are worried about the narrowing of the curriculum — please stay with me.

In a given month, between 30,000 and 40,000 people read this blog; I am hoping that at least a few of you are HS or MS teachers who are committed to the arts. Or perhaps non-teachers who share that enthusiasm and are in a position to help.

In a recent post about the threats to the arts in the schools, I suggested that we needed to ‘energize the 80,’ my shorthand for the need to get the 80% or so of households without school-age children involved in supporting public education.

A lot of you liked the idea, which was gratifying for a day or two — but now it’s time to do it. Or rather, for students to do it. I envision a squad of middle school or high school students, armed with a decent video camera, going door to door and persuading apartment owners and shopkeepers to look into the camera and recite poetry. A couple of lines each, to be edited together, with the speakers identified on the screen.

(For fun, we will get a couple of recognizable people — think pro sports stars, like Derek Jeter — to contribute as well)

There’s just one rule: the students must recruit adults who do not have school-age children. They are members of the 80 percent that have to be energized in support of the arts.

I ask you to imagine watching the video described below on YouTube (I’ve used characters from my Manhattan neighborhood, but you should picture folks from your world):

Mrs. Andrews in Apartment 9B:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

Mr. Young of Mr. Young’s Cleaners:
To die, to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to …

Kimberly Wong in Apartment 17C:
… ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream …

Augie Ramos at the Deli:
… ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause – there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

Angela Packer at Equinox Gym:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office …

Jacob Epstein of Epstein Jewelers:
… and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees:
Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Fifth grader teacher Alice Gotteswold:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought …

Richie O’Connor, 201 East 79th doorman:
… and enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

This could obviously be done for an assortment of literary elements.

Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow online video, and that has made all the difference in education.

You can be certain every one of those performers will be boasting about their roles and urging others to watch. And, even more important, they will be shaking their heads in amazement at what school kids are doing these days. They will now be the schools’ advocates.

Shakespeare can be intimidating, but because everyone can relate to passion, I’d suggest the kids bring along Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Vicki Hennigan, florist:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

Archie Samuels, counterman at Wrap ‘n Run:
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

Victor Reynoso, 235 East 79th doorman:
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

Peggy Sydak, age 83, in Apartment 21B:
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

And Robert Frost is a natural. Here I would break apart the verses, divide them among performers.

Alfonso Gonfriddo, postal carrier:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler …

Amanda Morales, office manager:
… long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth …

Joan Zrodowski, businesswoman:
… then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear …

Ted Bauer, web site developer:
… Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same …

Jerry Flanigan, owner of 81st Street Hardware:
… and both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Joe Quinlan, salesman:
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

The kids will quickly figure out the importance of videotaping each performer reading lines from several different poems, with multiple takes of each reading. They will figure out that doing it well will not be easy, but this is the real world, and their work product will be up there for all to see, up against lots of other student productions. A little competition is a good thing, particularly when it’s team competition.

I have stressed that these videos will build support for the arts, but it’s just as important to point out that the process will teach valuable lessons to the students. In addition to the obvious ‘soft skill’ of working on a team with a real world product, producing these videos will add to their skill set, because they are going to have to persuade the adults to relax, persuade them to ‘do it again’ quite a few times, stroke their fragile egos when they mess up (which will happen a lot), and generally persuade them to take their minds off the camera — even as they are looking into the lens.

School will be more valuable and interesting, and the enthusiasm will rub off and carry over into other aspects of their school experience. They will be become better and more discerning consumers of education precisely because they are now producers.

As they search for talent, and as they edit on their computers, I am sure that some of these young producers will start to take some chances, let their imaginations run free.

Perhaps they will have the dry cleaner saying “Out, damned spot.’

Or the local watch repair guy reciting ‘To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time…’

How about some pre-schoolers on the playground intoning “When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning or in rain? When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won?”

Just don’t ask the school principal to intone ‘it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

I understand that at least two school groups have begun working on this. That’s a start, but this is a big country with a lot of bored school kids out there, kids with drive, brains and energy.

Learning Matters will create a dedicated channel on YouTube, and we’ll try to get the big arts groups behind this.

Long ago the novelist E. M. Forster told us what matters. ‘Only connect,’ he wrote, getting it right.

What do you say?

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Questioning the conventional wisdom

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The phrase “conventional wisdom” is often an oxymoron, at least in education. At a bare minimum, conventional wisdom ought to be questioned. Which is what I propose to do here about ‘Time on Task’ and the new Common Core standards.

‘Time On Task’ is a concept educators love to talk about. It often goes this way: someone asks about extending the school day and/or the school year, prompting this response: “Good idea, because more time on task produces academic gains.”

Odds are good that what comes next is an emphatic statement about the importance of quality time on task — which strikes me as akin to supporting motherhood and apple pie.

Everyone nods approvingly at this conventional wisdom.

But they have it backwards. It’s not ‘quality time’ that matters so much. It’s ‘quality tasks.’ Anyone who’s spent much time in high school lately knows that much of what goes on there is mind-numbing. It’s the tasks, not the time, that ought to take precedence.

You may have read my earlier comments about creating knowledge, so I won’t rehash them here, except to say that teachers have remarkable opportunities to work with young people on tasks that build their skills and knowledge, tasks that challenge their creativity, and tasks that help them sort through the flood of information that surrounds them 24/7 and turn it into knowledge.

So it’s not ‘quality time on task’ that we should be talking about. Instead, it’s ‘Time on Quality Tasks.’ See that the tasks are meaningful, and we won’t have to worry about time — most students will want to complete quality tasks.

The second example of conventional wisdom that ought to be scrutinized involves the Common Core (national) standards for math and English, which have now been endorsed/adopted by 45 states. Bandwagons in general scare me, and the Common Core bandwagon is moving at high speed, endorsed not just by most states but also by teacher unions and many other education associations. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and I talked about it at our Twitter Town Hall this past Monday, and he was lavish in his praise, while taking extreme care to point out that the federal government had not written these standards.

(However, his Department of Education has thrown a lot of money at this and also made acceptance of ‘higher standards’ one of the four requirements for qualifying for its “Race to the Top” competition. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

STOP Sign
Is this a sign that our children should be seeing year-to-year?

The Common Core will be a game-changer, the Secretary asserted. Perhaps they will be, but I have to wonder how many people have actually read them? (The PDFs, available for download at the site linked in the first paragraph above, are quite lengthy.)

One thing is clear: What we have now in public education is unacceptable. It’s a hodgepodge of standards, many quite low because of the ‘dumbing down’ effects of No Child Left Behind. As Robert Rothman makes clear in his valuable new book, Something in Common, America has been wrestling with this issue for years. So I am not arguing for the status quo. However, I am afraid that we are missing an opportunity to re-examine our 19th Century approach to school organization. Let me explain.

Because I taught English in high school and college at the beginning of my career, I have been poking around in the ELA standards (English Language Arts). They are very detailed, by year, and ‘strand’ and category. So be prepared to crack the code, ‘Rl.5.4,’ ‘Rl.9.10.10,’ and so on.

On the subject of ‘Range of reading and level of text complexity,’ by the end of the year, fifth graders are expected to “read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.”

Before you say ‘huh’, read on.

In that same category, this is what’s expected of 9th graders: “By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9–10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.”

“Scaffolding” is educational jargon. Think building blocks. First you learn to add and subtract, then you build on that scaffold and learn to multiply and divide, that sort of thing. An awful lot of learning does NOT occur that way, but that’s probably beside the point here.

Leaving aside the mind-numbing jargon that makes my eyes glaze over, I have a serious issue with the Common Core and the conventional wisdom that these detailed national standards are just what we need. They are pouring concrete around our antiquated, age-segregated approach to learning. Just when modern technologies allow students to move at individual and different speeds, the Common Core standards seem to set in concrete the notions of 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade, and so on.

I worry that these markers will become stop signs, just as the grade demarcations now operate. Not long ago I heard a school principal complain that he had to tell his 9th graders to ‘motor down’ to get ready for the 9th grade test — because they were doing 11th grade math. All they will get credit for, naturally, is the 9th grade. Isn’t “Slow Down!” a horrible lesson about the irrationality of the world for those young people to absorb?

Schools work around age segregation by creating programs for ‘the gifted,’ which allow precocious 9-year-olds to do work that’s usually for older kids. Sometimes kids skip a grade, but no one seems to question age- and grade-segregation.

I want to be clear here. I am not arguing for ‘fewer standards,’ something the writers seemed to have anticipated, because they write, “It is important to recognize that ‘fewer standards’ are no substitute for focused standards. Achieving “fewer standards” would be easy to do by resorting to broad, general statements. Instead, these Standards aim for clarity and specificity.”

‘Specificity’ they’ve achieved, but ‘clarity?’ Re-read the excerpts quoted above.

I have a suggestion. Rather than perpetuate grade-based learning, could we set standards for age groups? Standards for children ages 6-10 that say, ‘This is what every 10-year-old is expected to be able to do.’ Standards for kids ages 11-14 that say ‘This is what every 14-year-old is expected to be able to do.’ And graduation standards for those ages 15-18: ‘This is what every HS senior is expected to be able to do before getting a diploma.’ Then our system could actually be learner-centered.

Is that a pipe dream? What do you think?

Moving the chair, at Penn State and in education

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

The latest example of failed leadership — what I call ‘moving the chair,’ an analogy I’ll explain in one second — comes from Pennsylvania State University. This is a tragic story of sex abuse that apparently went unchecked for years, despite the fact that a fair number of university leaders — including President Graham Spanier and legendary football coach Joe Paterno — knew of the situation.

“Moving the chair” is my analogy for what lousy, ineffective leaders do when faced with a tough decision. Envision a man sitting in his living room watching football on a large flat-screen TV when, suddenly and unexpectedly, water begins dropping on his head. He has a problem: he’s getting wet. He ‘solves’ the problem by moving the chair, and maybe also getting a pot from the kitchen to catch the water drops.

Obviously, the football fan has failed to define the problem, perhaps willfully — because it was a good game, or because he’s lazy, or because it’s a rented house, or whatever. He’s willing to limit the immediate damage, a short-term ‘solution’ that lets him watch the game.

It seems pretty clear that Penn State leaders didn’t want to disrupt their games either, because football is a huge business in Happy Valley, where Coach Paterno is revered and the economic benefits run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

For too long we have simply ‘moved the chair’ in public education, often congratulating ourselves for having solved the problem. Here’s what I mean:

Our so-called cures for whatever is wrong in education don’t work because we haven’t diagnosed the problem correctly. Too many influential people think the problem is abysmal test scores, and those folks then design ‘cures’ with the purpose of raising the scores.

(Unfortunately, it is possible to raise test scores with malleable third and fourth graders, and so the ‘cure’ seems to be working. It’s a mirage, as the inevitable drop in scores in 8th grade and beyond demonstrates. Older kids are not so easy to manipulate. What that means is that the ‘learning’ shown in 4th grade was not genuine, more akin to sleight-of-hand than the deep learning that we should want for our children.)

Spanier and Paterno
Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno, the president and head football coach at Penn State, seem to have simply moved the chair.

Diagnosing the problem requires strong leadership, courage, and an informed electorate.

I believe that our fixation on tests and test scores is responsible for our having lost sight of the aims of education. What is the purpose of school? How about this?

“Schools and teachers are helping to raise adults.” Their job is not, contrary to conventional view to ‘teach children,’ because that’s too narrow an aim.

But if I am right and the job is growing adults, then we need to think about what sort of adults we want children — our own and others’ — to become.

Our founding fathers possessed great wisdom, and many today are fond of quoting Jefferson. However, I call your attention to James Madison, who wrote:

“… A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

To me, as a journalist, that means putting the best possible information in front of the public, trusting it to act wisely and in its own interests. But the public also relies on leaders (like Madison and Jefferson) to do the right thing, to identify problems and possible solutions, and to have the courage to face unpleasant choices instead of running from them.

How often in education do leaders ‘move the chair’ instead of doing the right thing? For that matter, how often do politicians and policy makers go to the heart of the problem, instead of settling for the quick and superficial analysis? It’s a lot easier to focus on quick fixes that are not disruptive of ‘the way we have always done it.’

I’m not sure that courage is rewarded — and challenging the status quo, even when it represents mediocrity, is often a sure fire way to short circuit one’s career.

This is, however, not an academic discussion, because policies based on flawed logic do substantial harm to children and youth, to teachers and administrators, and to the nation’s faith in public education.

What will it take to transform schools so that their essential question, asked about each student, becomes “How are you intelligent?” instead of the ubiquitous “How intelligent are you?”

And what can you do to make it happen?

Energizing the 80

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

So, here’s the question: are the arts a core subject, or a frill? Of course, just about everyone says the former, because that’s a motherhood/apple pie kind of question. But suppose instead of listening to what folks say, we watch what they are doing? What then do we conclude? Are the arts alive and well in our schools? If not, what can be done about it?

In the last week or two I have been immersed in the arts, first at the annual gala of Americans for the Arts, held at Cipriani in New York on October 17th — and then, a few days later, over a long lunch with the dynamic Director of Education at Lincoln Center, Kati Koerner. (If you don’t know Americans for the Arts, you should. It’s a fantastic organization that encourages and supports the arts and artists in just about every aspect of life, but particularly for the young.)

My lunch with Kati Koerner and Lincoln Center Board member Allison Blinken triggered memories of my own high school teaching back in the late 1960s, specifically of the role the arts played in the best teaching I ever did. My high school was rigidly tracked, and as a new teacher I was assigned the ‘4’ level kids, the ones most veteran teachers didn’t want to be bothered with. I was team-teaching with a new History teacher, and we were struggling to connect. One day she said, “Let’s have them write a play.” “Why not,” I probably responded. “Nothing else is working.”

And that’s what we did. We invited the kids to come up with a plot (with a beginning, middle and end), some characters, dialogue, the whole nine yards. To say they ran with it is an understatement. Before long they had come up with a plot: misunderstood and disrespected students (resembling guess who?) were accused of shoplifting by a local merchant. They were innocent, of course, but no one believed them. Somehow (I don’t remember the details), the merchant discovered that the real thieves were the football captain and the head cheerleader.

Hamlet

As our students’ excitement grew, the idea of actually staging the play emerged, and that snowballed. In the end, they built two sets (the store and their own hangout), got the props and costumes, rehearsed and rehearsed — and then staged the play for the rest of the high school. They were heroes around the school (maybe not to the kids in the top tracks!).

So I know what most of you know — the arts turn kids on, motivate them to excel, and all the rest.

Inspired by my lunch and the Americans for the Arts celebration, I then read “Reinvesting in the Arts,” the call to action issued this spring by the President’s Council on the Arts and Humanities.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from that report, the first about the need, the second about the current situation.

At this moment in our nation’s history, there is great urgency around major transformation
in America’s schools. Persistently high dropout rates (reaching 50% or more in some areas) are evidence that many schools are no longer able to engage and motivate their students. Students who do graduate from high school are increasingly the products of narrowed curricula, lacking the creative and critical thinking skills needed for success in post-secondary education and the workforce. In such a climate, the outcomes associated with arts education –– which include increased academic achievement, school engagement, and creative thinking –– have become increasingly important. Decades of research show strong and consistent links between high-quality arts education and a wide range of impressive educational outcomes.

At the same time, due to budget constraints and emphasis on the subjects of high stakes testing, arts instruction in schools is on a downward trend. Just when they need it most, the classroom tasks and tools that could best reach and inspire these students –– art, music, movement and performing –– are less available to them. Sadly, this is especially true for students from lower-income schools, where analyses show that access to the arts in schools is disproportionately absent.

In other words, things could hardly be worse.

The President’s Commission makes five recommendations:

  • collaborate more;
  • do a better job of teaching would-be teachers about the arts;
  • bring more artists into the schools;
  • educate policy makers; and
  • use measures besides those damn bubble tests to prove that the arts make a difference.

I would sum those five up in a bumper sticker: (IM)PROVE ARTS EDUCATION. That is, make arts education better, and find better measures of its value.

Those five recommendations are fine as far as they go, but I don’t think that’s enough to win the day. I think the key can be captured in a different bumper sticker: “ENERGIZE THE 80”

“THE 80” are the 80 or so percent are the households that do NOT have children in schools, because we know that only about 20 percent of American homes have school-age children. (It’s 23 or 24 percent in some places, and lower in others, so I landed on 80.) The 80 percent are men and women of all ages and races with at least one thing in common: they do not have daily contact with students. They don’t know how terrific our young people are. They don’t know that the vast majority of our youth are eager to do work of value.

If we find ways to put our students and the 80 percent together, the latter could be the arts’ secret weapon, supporting, speaking up and voting for arts programs in schools.

The best way to energize the 80 percent is to get them involved. Here are a few ways. I am sure you will have more.

Students could create a photo gallery of the residents of their apartment building or their street, portraits posted on the web for all to see and talk about.

Art students could sketch portraits of business storefronts, or workers and bosses, also to be posted on the web.

Or imagine a school’s jazz quintet performing at a community center with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county — simultaneously on Skype — which is no problem as long as the schools are within 750 or so miles of each other, roughly the speed of sound (any farther creates a sound lag and bad music).

A video team could interview adults in a senior citizen center around a chosen theme (best job, favorite trip, et cetera), to be edited into a short video for the web. They could produce short biographies of ordinary citizens — thus learning all sorts of valuable skills like clear writing, teamwork and meeting deadlines in the process.

Music and drama students could rehearse and then present their productions at retirement homes and senior centers — but with a twist: involve some of the adults in the process (a small part in the play, a role in selecting the music, and so on).

Koerner’s Lincoln Center Shakespeare Project (the password is Hamlet) offers another possibility. In that project, middle school students recite passages from Hamlet. It’s compelling and fun. Now take that concept and invite local businessmen and women to recite lines from Hamlet, then weave it into a production that everyone can watch on the web. They could go down my block and ask the woman who runs the bake shop, Mr. Young at the dry cleaner’s, the hardware store guy, and so forth.

The end game here is to have the 80 percent buzzing about what’s happening in their schools. ‘Their schools,’ not ‘the schools.’ Have them saying, “Wow, I didn’t know the kids were doing things like that in school.”

And, of course, have them saying, “Did you see me in Hamlet?”

An Energized 80 could overwhelm the small group of folks who make the rules for schools, a group that seems to be dominated by narrow concerns over bubble test scores.

What do you think? Can we ENERGIZE THE 80 and, in so doing, rescue our kids from boredom and our current system of educational neglect?

Do you want your kids on THAT bus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.”

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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 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.