A Heartbreaking – And Preventable – Death

The official records note Rebecca Sedwick’s death as a suicide.  There’s no disputing that the 12-year-old jumped to her death from an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland, Florida, on September 9, but what happened to her requires new terminology.  Perhaps we should call it “peer-icide” or “peer-slaughter” to convey what killed Rebecca, who had been “absolutely terrorized on social media” by 15 middle school girls for over a year, according to the Sheriff of Polk County, Grady Judd.

Preventing tragedies like this requires more than vigilance by parents and educators. Anti-bullying campaigns can’t hurt, but unless schools are proactive in their use of technology so that the energies of young people are engaged in meaningful ways, idle hands (and thumbs) will continue to do the devil’s work.

‘Mean girls’ are not a new phenomenon.  What is new and frightening are the weapons at their disposal, an array of apps that allow users to post and send messages anonymously.  Rebecca’s mother singled out ask.fm, Kik Messenger and Voxer as three the girls had used to send messages like “You’re ugly,” “Can U die please?” and “Why are you still alive?”

Rebecca is one of the youngest children to die in what is reported to be a growing number of victims of cyberbullying.  About 20 percent of young people have been victimized, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, a clearinghouse of information on cyberbullying. About 15 percent of teens admit that they have bullied or ridiculed others on social media, photo-sharing and other websites, according to the Center.

“It’s now 24-7. It’s not just something you can escape after the school day,” Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, told the Orlando Sentinel

Rebecca and her mother, Tricia Norman, fought back.  Ms. Norman told the New York Times that she closed down Rebecca’s Facebook page and monitored her cellphone use.  She changed the cellphone number and kept tabs on her social media footprint.  Rebecca changed schools, and, for a while, her life seemed to have turned around.  Then she began using the new Apps, setting off a new round of cyberbullying.  (Apparently her original ‘offense’ was showing interest in a boy that one of the other girls liked.)

“I don’t want parents to wait for a tragedy to have those conversations,” Cherie Benjoseph, Co-Founder of Boca Raton-based KidSafe Foundation, Inc told WPTV. “We’re all still pretty naive on many levels,” she said. “We’re all still crossing our fingers and hoping it doesn’t happen to our children.”

Benjoseph said that Sedwick’s suicide should be a wake-up call to all parents to demand to know what their their kids are really doing online. Keeping computers and phones out of a child’s bedroom is another good move, she says, because what teens do online must not be off-limits to parents. “Our children sometimes lead double lives,” she said.

It probably makes sense to have certain ‘device-free’ times at home, especially at meal times.  It’s difficult to know what’s going on in your children’s life if they are always looking at screens.

Bedrooms should be device-free.  I know parents who’ve placed a basket at the foot of the stairs, and everyone (including the adults) is required to leave their phones in the basket when they head upstairs to bed.  The phones recharge downstairs, the humans upstairs.  Computers and tablets belong in common spaces, not in bedrooms.

Getting all parents to adopt sensible policies and practices is unrealistic, particularly in a time when a lot of parents seem to negotiate every decision with their children, no matter how young they may be.  But even if all parents were to adopt these practices, little will change unless the schools do the right thing.

Schools are where most children are, and adults there can set the tone and–more importantly–determine what kids do with their devices. I often hear adults describing today’s young people as ‘digital natives,’ usually with a tone of resignation or acceptance: “They are so far ahead of us, but we can turn to them for help,” is the general message I hear.

That kind of thinking smacks of abdication of adult responsibility. Yes, most young people know more than we adults because the fast-changing world of modern technology is alien to us, wildly different from the one we grew up in. But being a ‘digital native’ is not the same as being a ‘digital citizen.’ Young people have always needed ethical guidance and the security of rules and boundaries. That’s truer now because apps like ask.fm, Kik Messenger and Voxer allow kids to ‘go nuclear’ without fear of being identified.  Kids who spend hours every day on their devices are unlikely to develop empathy for others, and it’s a lack of empathy that seems to fuel cyberbullying.

Photo Credit: Susan Landmann

Some experts say that kids spend ninety percent of their tech time consuming, and perhaps one percent doing creative work.  If that’s accurate–texting, playing Angry Birds and Grand Theft Auto, linking up on Facebook and Google Circles, sexting and cyberbullying 90 percent of the time–then we adults should be ashamed.

Unless, of course, we are equally guilty of obsessing over our devices.

A central function of schools is what’s often called ‘socialization.’  It might be more useful to substitute ‘developing empathy’ for ‘socialization.’  As Catherine Steiner-Adair notes in her new book, The Big Disconnect, “Empathy might seem a ‘soft’ skill when compared to reading, writing, and math, but it is actually a neurological phenomenon as well as a soulful one,” adding “The development of empathy comes from direct experience…”

Cathy Davidson of Duke says much the same thing: “The brain is what it does.”

Both are echoing the timeless wisdom of Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do.”

In my experience,  the education community uses technology 90 percent of its time to control, and perhaps 10 percent to create.  I mean ‘control’ broadly, everything from keeping the school’s master schedule, monitoring attendance and grades, tracking teacher performance, and imparting the knowledge we believe kids need to have.  That’s the complete opposite of what should be happening.

Because an important purpose of school is to help ‘grow adults,’ then the creative use of technology — by adults and young people — must be ramped up dramatically.

Students ought to be using today’s technologies to create knowledge and to find answers to important questions. If they aren’t doing that, then those idle hands and thumbs will be doing the devil’s work, as those girls in South Florida were doing.

Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7. You and I went to school because that’s where the knowledge was stored. That was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. They need to be able to formulate good questions–because computers have all the answers.

Here are a few ways to harness technology and foster creativity.

1 Every middle school science class could have its own hand-held air quality monitor (under $200). Students could take air quality measurements three times a day, chart the readings, share the information in real time with every other middle school science class in the city, region or state, and scour the data for consistencies and anomalies. That’s creating knowledge out of the flood of information, and it’s real work, not ‘homework.

2. Students could use their smart phones’ cameras to map their own neighborhoods, documenting (for example) the number of trash cans on street corners. That information could be plotted and shared city-wide, and the data could be examined for patterns and anomalies. Are there more trash cans in wealthy areas? If so, ask the Mayor, the Department of Sanitation and the City Council for an explanation. Again, students will be turning information into knowledge. (I wrote about this in more detail here.)

3. Why not measure water quality? A hand-held monitor/tester of Ph costs under $100, and the instrument that tests conductivity (ion levels, which relates to purity) is available for under $100. Turbidity — how cloudy the water is — is important to measure as well, and that can be done with an inexpensive instrument and a formula. Students could also measure the speed of the current and keep track of detritus. Then share all the data with other science classes around the city, region and state. Everyone could dig into the information looking for patterns. If one river’s water seems relatively pure until it passes point X, students could endeavor to find out why.

Work like this is, well, real work. Students are creating knowledge; they are designing projects and seeing them through from beginning to end. These projects have to meet real-world standards because the results are in public view.

(The rest of the curriculum ought to be designed to engage learners, of course.  Project-based learning makes sense to me, if the projects are genuine explorations of meaningful topics.  Working together toward real goals is one avenue to developing empathy.  And I think it goes without saying that educators need to pay more attention to the social and emotional needs of students.  I’ve been in schools which set aside a period a day for the school equivalent of a hospital’s grand rounds: everyone who has Rasheed or Anita in class has the opportunity to talk about how those individual kids are doing–and not just in subject matter mastery.)

When schools do these things, young people will be learning (or reinforcing) real-world skills that will help them once they move out of school. They’re working together, they are gathering, assimilating and analyzing data, they are learning how to present what they are learning, and so on. They will be working with numbers and writing persuasive reports. No doubt some will be speaking publicly about their findings. This is career-track stuff, 180 degrees different from the ‘regurgitation education’ that is the hallmark of most education today.

And it’s a zero-sum game: The hours they spend on projects like these are hours they cannot spend consuming technology. And because they are using technology to create, they will not be bored–and will be less likely to use technology’s power negatively.  Stronger in their own sense of self, they will probably be less likely to feel the need to cyber-bully others.  Had Rebecca Sedwick’s schools taken this approach, she might be alive today.

We cannot wish today’s powerful technology away or keep it out of our children’s hands.  It’s naive to think that anti-bullying campaigns and posters will be sufficient.

Technology, which is value-free, can be used for good or ill. How it is used in schools depends in large part on us.

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Education Predictions for 2012

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What can we expect in the world of public education in 2012? (For a good review of what happened in 2011, check out this link.) I’ll start by considering three nagging questions.

1. Will this be the year that some school districts say ‘No mas!” to No Child Left Behind’s harsh rules?

2. Will we have that long-awaited national conversation about the goals of public education?

3. And will political leaders rise up against the excesses of for-profit education, so effectively documented in the New York Times (December 13, 2011), where we learned that the school superintendent of one for-profit charter chain that enrolls 94,000 students is paid $5,000,000 a year? (By contrast, Dennis Walcott, who is responsible for over one million New York City public school students, earns $213,000 a year.)

Sadly, I fear that the answer to those three questions is NO, NO and NO. Professional educators — who are generally reactors, not actors — will be busy trying to keep up with the latest new new thing (this year it’s the Common Core). I don’t expect rebellious behavior from superintendents and school boards, no matter how much they claim to be chafing under NCLB. Expect instead a further narrowing of the curriculum, more testing, larger classes, and the continued heroic behavior of most teachers under difficult circumstances.

Because this is an election year, the politics of public education are even crazier than usual, meaning that serious debate over the federal role in education won’t occur in 2012. Republicans are running against the very existence of the federal Department of Education, not debating subtleties of achievement measures. Not only is there zero chance of a national dialogue, the probability that anything useful will happen in the re-authorization of NCLB is pretty slim, unless it happens very early this year.

And because money talks in education, the for-profit crowd seems likely to continue its creeping expansion. A few more exposés like Stephanie Saul’s wonderful New York Times piece (linked above) won’t be enough to make us care about what amounts to the selling of other people’s children.

Classroom
What will happen here in 2012?

However, I can imagine four and perhaps five hopeful scenarios for 2012. In ascending order of importance (my judgement call), they are ‘Growth in Home Schooling,’ ‘Shutting Down Failing Charter Schools,’ ‘Board/Union Cooperation,’ ‘Whole School Evaluation,’ and ‘Blended Learning.’

I think it’s safe to predict more Home Schooling, fueled by a stagnant economy, policies that allow home-school students to participate in some school activities, and parental dissatisfaction with public education’s relentless focus on math and reading. Parents want more for their kids, and, if one parent can’t find a paying job outside the home, why not teach your own?

A larger number of failing charter schools will be closed in 2012. It’s happening now in California, New Orleans and Washington, DC. While the stated reason is often financial, as Andy Rotherham wryly notes, that’s how they got Al Capone. What that means: it’s easier to prove financial mismanagement than educational malpractice, but they often go hand in hand. If the non-profit public charter movement gets its act together and both raises and adheres to high standards, there’s no stopping this movement in 2012.

Board/Union Cooperation is not some dream scenario. It’s happening because the Race to the Top competition got the two sides talking, because the Gates Foundation and the U. S. Department are putting dollars behind it, and because quite a few leaders on both sides of the table are reading the tea leaves. Union leaders are well aware of the threat posed by charter schools, which do not have to unionize. Whether there’s pressure on school boards to stop their meddling is an open question, but there’s a trend toward decentralization that could grow. It’s not just Hillsborough, Florida, folks. This could be big in 2012. Maybe we will see shorter contracts that leave more decisions in the hands of the people in the school, instead of dictates from on high.

Whole School Evaluation is a sleeper for 2012 because all the public attention has been directed toward measuring the effectiveness of individual teachers (often so the ineffective ones can be removed). But quietly and behind the scenes, a few leaders have recognized that evaluating every teacher individually would entail testing every subject in every grade — and that’s both illogical and insane!

Concrete plans are being developed and implemented that use multiple measures to draw conclusions about how much or how little the entire school is progressing. And when a school rises, everyone involved — including office staff, custodians, attendance officers and the like — stand to benefit. Washington, DC, which has been in the spotlight (and sometimes the cross hairs) for its controversial “Impact” system, uses what seems like a sensible Whole School Evaluation approach. Esther Wojcicki and I wrote an op-ed, “Trust but Verify”, on this subject a few months ago, if you’d like to know more about how it could work.

But my personal pick in 2012 is Blended Learning, an idea whose time has certainly come. Sal Khan and the Khan Academy are the most visible (and most successful) manifestation, but I hear that forward-thinking educators in many districts are recognizing that, while kids are going to be in schools, there is no reason they cannot be connected with students across the district, the state, the nation and the world. What’s more, the traditional ‘stop signs’ of 8th grade, 9th grade, 10th grade and so forth are now meaningless. If a child can use technology to help her move through three years of math in one, she should be encouraged to dig deep and move at her own pace. And when a child needs a year-and-a-half to get through Algebra, that’s fine too.

There are plenty of hurdles to the widespread acceptance of Blended Learning, chief among them being habit and tradition. Teachers are going to need help with this, because they haven’t been trained or encouraged to ‘let go’ of control, and, frankly, Blended Learning can make life difficult for the adults in charge. After all, it requires close personal attention to individual kids, instead of the usual practice of grouping kids by their age. In this approach, learning is a two-way street that demands exploration and always entails failure. No doubt some are going to try to co-opt Blended Learning either to make money from it or to cut the labor force (teachers), but, all that aside, Blended Learning is my bet for education’s big winner in 2012.

So, there you have my predictions/hopes for 2012. What are yours?

What are you thankful for in education?

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In a recent tweet, I wondered aloud about what we should be thankful for in education (a similar discussion happened before Thanksgiving on the Learning Matters website). I got a variety of responses, including:

  • Students who are hungry to learn;
  • Parents and other family members who work in concert with teachers to support effective learning;
  • Growing collaboration between School Boards and Unions, often made possible by foundation grants;
  • Teacher collaboratives, like Barnett Berry’s Teacher Leader Network and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards;
  • A rich and broad variety of well-written blogs that assist in solving problems;
  • Research and documentation of pedagogy and materials that have a positive impact on learning; and
  • The Internet itself, which allows teachers to connect and support each other.

That’s a nice list. However, although I am basically a ‘glass half-full’ personality, it’s hard to be cheerful given what we are doing in public education. While I was in California last week, a friend in Palo Alto told me that his daughter was one of 40 students in her high school math class, one of 38 in her history class. In Palo Alto, one of the state’s richest communities! Our 2005 documentary history of California education, “First to Worst,” is due for a sequel, “First to Burst.”

Or take the U.S. Department of Education. It seems to me that the push for higher standards, the emphasis on early education, and the support for developing common tests are all positive. But, with its other hand, the Department is supporting more cheap and dumbed-down testing when it encourages grading teachers based on bubble test scores. Now, I know someone will tell me that I am misrepresenting Arne Duncan and send me quotes from his speeches, but I think we are past listening to what’s being said, and into actually watching what’s being done.

Thankful
What should inspire this reaction in education?

I would be happier if the Department supported policies that rewarded entire schools, not individual teachers, because education is a team sport. After all, federal legislation punishes entire schools for not making ‘adequate yearly progress.’ So why not create some carrots to go along with the stick? How about ‘OYP’ for ‘Outstanding Yearly Progress?’

In California last week at a 1-day meeting about “next generation” assessments, I was struck by the richness of what’s being developed in New York, Ohio, California and elsewhere. In these approaches, project-based learning leads to complex and comprehensive assessments. The logic is clear: kids will dig deep into subjects, and the assessment that follows will respect their efforts. In this (future) world, simple bubble tests will be trumped by assessments that are also learning experiences.

Right now, however, bubble tests rule. Teachers spend as much as one-sixth of their time getting kids ready for the test, administering the test and test makeups, or going over the test. Imagine that: 30 out of 180 days on testing stuff, days that could be spent on learning and teaching. New York State just announced plans to expand testing, so that third graders will now take a 3-hour reading test, and Washington, DC, has announced its intention to give standardized exams to second graders!

We won’t get to a brighter future until we figure out ways to turn our backs on the idiocy of the current system–while keeping our focus on achievement and accountability.


A final note of thanks: Learning Matters has received a challenge grant that will give us $100,000 if we can raise $100,000. Right now we are about $40,000 shy of the goal. If you want to help, click here. Invest $20 or $100 or an amount of your choice, and I promise you will get that back tenfold in quality reporting.

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?

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.

Two Town Halls, and a peek into the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the transcript.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Brill and the berated dog

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

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

Brill
The cover of Steven Brill's new book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An ‘act of war?’

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

The news that Education Secretary Arne Duncan is willing to give waivers to states struggling to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been greeted with a sigh of relief in lots of places. He calls the law ‘a slow motion train wreck’ while bemoaning the failure of Congress to write a new version of the law, which actually expired in 2007.

Whether the ‘relief’ will be anything more than a Band-Aid remains to be seen, because the Secretary and Domestic Policy Advisor Melody Barnes made it clear that, to get waivers, states will have to meet certain federal expectations regarding charter schools, the evaluation of teachers, and the acceptance of common core standards. The Feds are not backing away from intense federal involvement in public education and may in fact be ratcheting up.

Even so, I don’t see the Secretary or anyone in the Administration examining what strikes me as the root of the problem: NCLB’s demands for more and more testing in reading and math.

Here’s what I have come to believe: we test too much in reading and math, and that narrow focus means schools are not teaching other basic subjects like history. A 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy (PDF), a middle-of-the-road organization, found that “approximately 62% of school districts increased the amount of time spent in elementary schools on English language arts and or math, while 44% of districts cut time on science, social studies, art and music, physical education, lunch or recess.”

What’s more, I believe that an unintended consequence of focusing on reading test scores is that many kids end up detesting reading.

NCLB
What should we be focusing on to make sure that no child is truly left behind?

Start with reading: When 83 percent of ALL of our low-income third graders, whatever their color or ethnic origin, cannot read competently or confidently, our country has a reading crisis. And because we know that 75 percent of those who are behind grade level at the end of third grade are unlikely to ever catch up, it’s a crisis that demands action now.

But what exactly is the crisis? Do we teach reading incorrectly? Badly? Are educators still fighting the reading wars over whole language versus phonics? While the correct answer to all three questions is probably a qualified yes, it is our emphasis on passing reading tests that is the most significant piece of the problem.

I don’t question the test scores: they are what they are, but what they reveal is how well the kids did on the reading test, and not much else. I say that because I have confidence in my own observations over recent years, and I have seen and heard low-income FIRST graders reading competently and confidently — in schools where the fourth graders score poorly on reading tests.

They can and do read in first grade, but by fourth grade they cannot pass a reading test. And my conversations with a few of them suggest that they basically don’t like to read:

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I know that the plural of anecdote is not data, but here’s my hypothesis: Popular curricula — no doubt created in response to NCLB — emphasize (and drill in) the skills of reading in ways that actively teach children to dislike or even detest reading itself, because the goal is high scores on reading tests, not ‘a nation of readers’. The net result is children who can read but basically hate it. They don’t do well on reading tests because they instinctively rebel against being treated as little more than numbers; they aren’t allowed to read for pleasure but instead are drilled in ‘identifying the main idea’ and so on.

As E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has observed on many occasions, if we want children to pass reading tests, they should read, and read, and read.

Perhaps you are rolling your eyes: “Here Merrow goes again, blaming tests,” you may be thinking, but that’s not the point. Tests don’t kill curiosity; it’s the constant testing and the primacy of tests that turns kids off.

NCLB is the villain of the story. Since NCLB became law in 2002, the amount of standardized bubble testing has doubled, according to Marshall ‘Mike’ Smith, former US Undersecretary of Education — and other observers.

Schools do not teach what isn’t going to be tested, and they do a bad job of teaching a subject when all that matters is the test score. Treat a human being as little more than a number, and the results are predictable.

Because state-wide testing is essentially limited to math and reading (with a smattering of science now), those subjects are highlighted, while other important subjects — like history — are sidelined. What is the effect of this policy? We can answer that because we have a reliable national test in other subjects, including history. Witness the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP): Just 17 percent of 8th graders scored at a proficient or higher level (which was an increase over 2006!!). In the 4th and 12th grades, history repeated itself, with no statistically significant changes since the last analysis: Only 12 percent of seniors and 20 percent of 4th graders reached proficiency. How bad is our students’ understanding of history? Over half of all 12th graders scored below the ‘basic’ level.

The apparent outcome of this national policy: citizens who do not know much about history and are unlikely to pick up a book (where they might learn some history).

To echo “A Nation at Risk” (1983), if a foreign power had done this to us, we’d consider it an act of war.

But we are doing it to ourselves.

I am curious to know your thoughts.