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?

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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.

Where do teachers come from?

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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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One benefit to my being a reporter is the opportunity to spend time with people who know more than I do. I had breakfast recently with Marshall “Mike” Smith, the Undersecretary of Education in the Clinton Administration, and our conversation inspired this blog post.

The assertion that our teachers come from ‘the bottom third’ has been in the air for some time. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg seems to believe matters are worse than that, because he recently told a press conference that most came from the bottom 20 percent of college graduates.

In a recent post, Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute provided a credible analysis of the studies that seem to be the basis for the claim. Di Carlo says that two studies by McKinsey & Company provide the underpinnings for the assertion, and I suggest you read his analysis. One of the McKinsey reports asserts that almost 50% of US teachers come from the bottom third of college graduates, as defined by SAT scores (Other studies have debunked any link between SAT scores and teaching effectiveness, but that’s another story).

The data in these two reports have taken on a life of their own. For example, The Christian Science Monitor editorialized on March 17: “For starters, the United States needs to increase its pool of quality teachers. Almost half of its K-12 teachers come from the bottom third of college classes. Classroom leaders such as Singapore, South Korea, and Finland select from the top ranks. In Finland, only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted into teacher training.”

Teacher Training
Where are our teachers coming from?

But even if most teachers come from the bottom two-thirds of college graduates, just what does that mean? Let’s do the math.

Begin with 100 eighth graders. After seven years (not five), how many will have earned high school diplomas or an equivalency degree?

Let’s be generous and say that 88 of 100 will have that credential.

Of those 88, how many will continue on with their education? Suppose 65 go on to a 4-year or a 2-year institution. After six years (not four), how many will have earned a 4-year degree and thus possibly be eligible for a teaching position?

Again, let’s be generous and say that 32 of 100 will have earned degrees.

That’s the group we draw our teachers from, and that suggests that our teachers come from the top 32% of our population, even if they are not at the top of that particular pyramid.

So our teachers come from an elite group — college graduates — to begin with. Where they rank within this elite is the issue, and it’s simply unfair to suggest that a large group of people in the top third is somehow fundamentally flawed.

Why does this matter? Precisely because one proposed ‘solution’ to our education crisis is ‘better people.’

Could teacher training be improved? Could working conditions be improved? Could starting salaries and the bizarre compensation system that back-loads rewards be improved? Yes, yes and most definitely yes.

Let’s devote our energies to real problems and their solutions, not to ad hominem attacks on an entire profession.


Quick programming note: if you’re in or around New York tomorrow evening (Dec. 14), I’ll be appearing live in conversation with Randi Weingarten of the AFT. Here are some details. I’d love to see some of you there.

And of course, if interested in the above topics of teacher quality and training, I suggest you consult the Learning Matters site here and here. We produced a piece recently presenting some numbers about the teaching profession in quiz format; you can view that below (it’s great if you’re a wonk).

My ‘brilliant’ idea

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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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Some years ago, when I still believed that I was a pretty clever fellow, I dreamed up a campaign to persuade young people to stay in school. What inspired this brilliant idea was daily sightings of adults standing at intersections wearing signboards advertising one thing or another. This was, to my eye, the ultimate low-skill job because it required absolutely no mental effort and hardly any physical work. I hypothesized that the workers must have dropped out of school.

So I thought about taking photographs of the sign-wearers, blurring their faces, and then creating posters with a slogan something like “It’s your choice. Stay in School or …” with an arrow pointing to the poor guy wearing the sign.

Great message to youth, I figured, because no one could aspire to that work, and the threat of being able to get only that sort of job would be a powerful motivator.

Luckily, I did not do anything impulsive about my brilliant idea. Instead, when I replayed those images in my mind, it dawned on me that almost all of the sign-wearers were brown-skinned men and women. They might have been new arrivals to northern California and working at the one of the few jobs available. Or, a more frightening thought, they might have been dropouts from a California high school or middle school.

Camcorder
Can a simple camcorder be the beginnings of a new wave in education?

Sure enough, the Hispanic dropout rate turns out to be significantly higher than that of any other group. In 2010 the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization, released the report “Hispanics, High School Dropouts and the GED.” It found that 41% of Hispanic adults age 20 and older in the United States do not have a regular high school diploma, compared with 23% of black adults and 14% of white adults.

Their reasons for dropping out were complex, as likely to involve school failure as economic imperatives, lack of family support or expectations, and language barriers (meaning teachers, administrators and support staff who did not speak or understand Spanish).

Suddenly my notion of a ‘stay in school’ campaign seemed to be a classic case of oversimplification and ‘blaming the victim.’

Forget my not-so-brilliant idea. What we need is not a(nother) simple-minded ‘Stay in School’ campaign aimed at the kids but a more sophisticated campaign, aimed at both youth and adults. Call it ‘Succeed in School.’ And it shouldn’t be all about how much more money you earn if you get a high school diploma, but instead about ways to succeed and ways to help others succeed. Small steps, or what B.J. Fogg of Stanford calls “Tiny Habits.” Or as another thoughtful leader, Louis V. Gerstner, is wont to say, “No more forecasting rain; it’s time to build arks.”

What small steps and tiny habits are the building blocks of success? I have written about this in The Influence of Teachers, and deeper thinkers like Larry Rosenstock, Don Shalvey, Amy Valens, and Renee Moore have turned words into deeds, so I won’t go into this more deeply here but will ask you for your suggestions. What works to make kids be — and feel — successful?

I have one suggestion, however: help them make videos where community members recite poetry or prose. I wrote about this here, and now I have an example to show you:

In my last post (linked above), I wrote about how projects like this work on several levels. They teach real-world skills like production and cooperation; they give kids the satisfaction of seeing a project through from start to finish and sharing their work with a larger audience; and they demonstrate to the 80% of households without school-age children that great things are happening in our schools.

Small steps, tiny habits.

“Success is a Team Sport” is my nomination for the bumper sticker.

Your thoughts?

The teacher quiz, and the ‘other one percent’

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Friends,

We posted a new video at Learning Matters this week; it’s an attempt to review what we know about the American teacher force — and done in quiz format. Watch it now, embedded here. After the video, check out my thoughts on “the other one percent;” I had similar ideas published in The New York Daily News this week. If interested in some of these themes, I encourage you to purchase a copy of my book, The Influence of Teachers. All proceeds go to Learning Matters.

Let’s watch the video to test your knowledge:

And now, thoughts on “the other one percent.”


I’d like to begin by thanking my teachers in 5th, 6th and 7th grades, Mrs. Pulaski, Mr. Burke and Miss Elmer. They taught us percentages and showed us how to ‘round down,’ which I am doing now, because the US population is 312,624,000, and we have 3,198,000 public school teachers, which computes to 1.02%.

That’s right. More than one out of every 100 Americans teaches in our public schools.

What, you thought I was talking about Wall Street fat cats, professional athletes, entertainers and other rich people? (If interested in some thoughts on the intersection of business and education, you should listen to a new podcast we posted with Doug Lynch of UPenn.) That’s a different one percent, and I guarantee there’s no overlap between the two groups. The average teacher today earns about $55,000. At least 75 CEOs earn that much in one day, every day, 365 days a year. According to the AFL-CIO’s “Executive Paywatch,” the CEO who ranked #75, David M. Cote of Honeywell, was paid $20,154,012, for a daily rate of $55,216.47.

Dauman
Philippe P. Dauman is not worried about his next meal.

The CEO at the top of the heap, Philippe P. Dauman of Viacom, was paid $84,515,308. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Krepela, taught me how to compute averages, so I can tell you Mr. Dauman earns a daily average of $231,549, which is more than four times what the average teacher earns in a year.

Unlike wages for teachers, CEO salaries have been soaring in recent years. Forty years ago, the average public school teacher earned $49,000, adjusted for inflation. That’s a raise of a whopping $150 a year for forty years, or about one quarter of one percent annually.

Here’s another way that the other one percent is different: teachers spend their own money on supplies for their classrooms. That came to $1.33 billion in school year 2009-2010, or $356 per teacher, according to the National School Supply and Equipment Association.

I will wager several packs of colored pencils that Mr. Dauman, Mr. Cote and the other high earners do not drop by Staples to pick up office supplies for their secretaries.

The teaching profession is often criticized because salaries are not based on performance, meaning that the best teachers earn what their less-than-stellar colleagues take home. While that’s generally true, it’s also changing fast. Twenty-four states now base teacher evaluation in part on student performance, and Denver, Washington, DC and other localities have created ‘pay for performance’ systems that reward individuals or entire schools when students do well. Connecting teacher effectiveness with student outcomes is the wave of the future, and it’s becoming easier to remove ineffective teachers than it was just a few years ago.

That doesn’t seem to be true on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms, where the pay of the CEO is often at odd with his company’s performance. Take Cisco and John Chambers. The website 24/7 Wall Street ranks Chambers the most overpaid CEO, based on his total compensation of $18,871,875 even though the price of Cisco common stock fell 31.4 percent.

In fairness, some teachers are actually overpaid, because they have ‘retired on the job’ and are just going through the motions until they can retire for real. Of course, there’s a big difference between being overpaid at $55,000 and being overpaid at $20,500,000, which is what Carl Crawford of the Boston Red Sox earned for hitting .255 with just 11 home runs last season. Like the CEO of Honeywell, Crawford is earning about $55,000 a day, every day, 365 days a year. He ranks only 28th on the list of athletes, according to Sports Illustrated’s “Fortunate Fifty.”

As may have occurred to you, public school teachers — the group I am calling the other one percent — are actually part of the 99 percent. However, they probably were not occupying Zuccotti Park. At least not during the day, because that’s when they are otherwise occupied — teaching our children and grandchildren.

A new idea: shared poetry

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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?

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?

Is teaching a team sport?

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

I had an interesting conversation with Barnett Berry, the lead author of Teaching 2030, earlier this week. We covered the waterfront: how teaching has changed and is changing, whether schools of education were up the the challenges facing them, why so many teachers leave, and so on. You will have to wait for our PBS NewsHour piece — it’s in a quiz format, by the way — and the accompanying podcast to find out what the brilliant Mr. Berry believes, because right now I want to explore his final comment, over coffee after the cameras had been turned off.

“Teaching is a team sport,” he opined before rushing off to a meeting, leaving me wondering.

Is it? Who says so? And if it is, why are so many politicians and state governments rushing to support ways of measuring individual teachers?

And what’s a ‘team sport’ anyway?

Well, baseball is a team sport. We watched the Cardinals perform the near-impossible, and we saw that nearly everyone in a Cardinal uniform contributed to the team’s climb from 10.5 games out in late August to win the wild card spot on the last day of the season, upset two heavily favored teams to win the National League pennant and then overcome impossible odds to win the World Series. No one who saw it will forget Game Six, when the Cards were twice within one strike of losing it all to the Texas Rangers. Twice they rallied to tie, later winning on David Freese’s 11th inning walk-off home run. Freese won the series MVP award, but his teammates put him in the position to succeed.

Case closed: Baseball is a team sport, but with individual statistics and individual honors.

Now, what about teaching? That’s a tougher argument for at least six reasons.

World Series
Baseball is clearly a team sport, as the Cardinals evidenced throughout the summer and fall. But is teaching?

The “egg crate” architecture of most schools does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport: Individual classrooms resemble cartons, isolated from each other.

The typical school schedule does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport. Most American public school teachers spent almost all of their school time in their classrooms, which means they have very little time to work as a team.

The language of education does not support the notion. Occasionally a couple of teachers will ‘team teach,’ which implies that the rest of the staff is not team-teaching! That is, you are only on a team when you are actually working in the same classroom with another teacher.

Nor does the evaluation of teachers support the notion that teaching is a team sport. It’s all done on an individual basis, with the possible exception of few rating points being given for ‘contribution to the school environment’ or something like that. In my experience, when an administrator praises a teacher for being ‘a team player,’ he means that the teacher doesn’t make waves.

The governance of most schools contradicts the notion that teaching is a team sport. Often it’s ‘labor versus management,’ with teachers punching a time clock twice a day. That’s a far cry from the St. Louis Cardinals, where manager Tony LaRussa had such trust in Albert Pujols that he let him call a hit-and-run play on his own. LaRussa was in charge, but he occasionally deferred to his coaches and his players. He left a pitcher in the game, for instance, after consulting with the catcher, who told him the pitcher had another inning in him (turned out to be wrong, but that’s not the point).

Finally, the emerging pay structure for teachers flies in the face of the idea that teaching is a team sport. The hot issue is some form of ‘merit pay’ based on the academic performance of the individual teacher, whether it’s ‘value-added’ test scores or good old standardized test scores. The policy makers who are supporting these schemes are paying scant attention to the implications (test all students in all subjects!); the fact that with high student turnover, a kid might have three different teachers in one year; or to the evidence indicating that merit pay doesn’t work.

In some places, if teachers are on a team, it’s probably their local union team, but not the PS 112 team or the Mather Middle School team.

I’m afraid my friend Barnett is letting the wish be the father of the thought. He wants teaching to be widely recognized as a team sport, which it is in the best schools. In those schools, teachers have time to meet and discuss individual students, to plan curriculum, to develop both short- and long-term goals. They have time to breathe. They work as a team and hold each other accountable. Yes, each school has the equivalent of Tony LaRussa, the manager, but he or she is not ‘management’ and the teachers ‘labor.’ They all have their eyes on the prize.

I believe that most teachers want to play a team sport. They prefer to work together and to have big hopes, dreams and goals for their school and all its students. One of my strong memories from my own high school teaching in the late 1960s was the joy of working with other English teachers, even to the point of swapping classes for a few weeks so each of us could teach a play or a poet we felt particularly well-qualified to teach.

So here’s my pitch: Teaching should be recognized as a team sport, and education as a team activity. The ‘team’ is the school, and everyone in the school is on the team, including secretarial staff and custodians. Education’s ‘won-loss’ record is more complicated than baseball’s and should include academic measures, teacher and student attendance, teacher and student turnover, community involvement, and more. (I wrote about this recently in ‘Trust but Verify’ and invite you to revisit that blog post).

And just as the Cardinal team divided the World Series loot into individual shares, so too could merit pay be divvied up when the team achieves its agreed-upon goals. Cardinal players, coaches, equipment managers et cetera shared the rewards. In this system, teachers, administrators, counselors, secretaries and custodians would all share the rewards.

But, going back to the St. Louis Cardinals, here’s the critical point: Notice that in writing about them, I described what the team did over a two-month period, not on one day or in one hour. I showed you the movie, not a snapshot.

Snapshots don’t help much in baseball or in education. In Game 3, Albert Pujols hit three home runs, had five hits for 14 total base and drove in five runs. A great snapshot that is actually very misleading, because he had a disappointing World Series overall.

Pujols also made a key fielding misplay in the series; suppose instead the snapshot had been taken in that game? It would have been just as misleading, but the movie reveals just how valuable he was to the Cardinals.

Because education now relies on snapshots — one score on one test on that one big day — and because so much of schooling tilts against the team sport concept, we have miles to go before anyone can confidently assert that teaching is a team sport.

I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

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.