“Insect-Based Teacher Training, Part 2”

Last week in this space I took a poke or two at what I called “Insect-Based Teacher Training,” specifically the practice of wiring teachers so that remote observers can hear and see what they do in their classrooms.  What they call “Bug in the Ear training” enables experts to interrupt teachers and tell them what they are doing wrong. In theory, that allows teachers to improve on the spot.  You may remember that the expert I observed in action wasn’t particularly effective.

(Full disclosure: In last week’s essay I took a small liberty with the two veteran teachers whose opinions I cited: neither of them actually referenced ‘ants in underpants’ or ‘ticks on dicks.’   I owe my readers an apology because the teachers did not say that.  I made that up, just for the fun of it. 

Why would I do that?  Well, after so many years of reporting for public broadcasting, where the emphasis is on truth, making stuff up gives me a huge adrenalin rush.

However, everything else in that essay  is 100% accurate.  You can take that to the bank.)

But I digress. What I want you to know is the morning after “Insect-Based Teacher Training” was published, I received a call from the School Superintendent whose district I had visited.   He was upset about my portrayal of the process, saying that the observer had a bad day.  Moreover, he said, I had failed to grasp the subtle, significant ways that technology improves education.  Would I come back and learn more, he asked?

I rushed out the door, and a few hours later the Superintendent and I were in the school’s monitoring room, staring at the 30+ video screens that showed all the school’s classrooms.

I wanted to hear his defense of the “Bug in the Ear” approach.  Would he have wanted to have a bug in his ear when he was teaching, I wanted to know?

“I actually never taught,” came his response. “I came up the ranks through coaching.”

Then he chuckled.  “That’s an old joke, superintendents starting out as coaches.  I was never a coach either.”

What was his background, I wanted to know?

“I studied organizational behavior in college, and then, for my MBA, I focused on management.”

He continued:  “But that’s not why I asked you to come back,” he said. “I want you to see another way that monitoring and advanced technology improve teaching and learning.”

Go on, I said.

“From  this control board, I can zoom in on any classroom.  I can pump up the volume to allow me to hear much of what was going on.”

What exactly are you looking for, I asked?

“Look, every student deserves to be taught the same material in the same way.  That’s what equality and equity mean, as far as I am concerned.  We have a state curriculum, and this is a great way to monitor whether my teachers are where they are supposed to be.”

Tell me more, I said.

“OK, look at those three screens in upper right.  Those are all 8th grade math classes.  Now, today is Tuesday, and, according to the state syllabus, Tuesday’s assignment is learning to graph integers on vertical and horizontal lines.  That means that all the students in all three classrooms should be doing worksheets right now. Otherwise they’re not getting an equal education.

In two of the rooms we could see students working at their desks, but not in the third classroom.  The superintendent zoomed in and turned up the sound.  We could hear laughter but couldn’t discern what was being said.

“That’s unacceptable.  I need to be able to hear clearly.  I have to get my tech guys on this right away,” he muttered.

Why do you need to hear, I asked?

“I’m enrolled in an on-line PhD program,” he explained. “This is research for my dissertation, which is on the benefits that technology brings to education.”

But will you talk to that teacher, I asked?

“You bet your boots I will. I may even play the tapes for him so he can see his failures in living color.”

Do your teachers know that you can watch them at any time, I asked?

“We’ve never discussed it, but it shouldn’t bother them if they’re doing their jobs. It’s no big deal, unless, of course, they have something to hide,” he said.

I said that it seemed like the world of “Big Brother,” always watching.

He actually erupted when I said that.  “That’s a pet peeve of mine, people criticizing Big Brother.  I think the idea of Big Brother is a positive one.  I mean, what kid wouldn’t want to have his Big Brother watching his back, protecting him?  I sure would! But, no, everyone hates Big Brother….except me.”

He went on.  “You know whose fault it is? It’s that writer, Orwell.  Remember how in Animal Farm he makes Big Brother the bad guy?  Well, everyone reads Animal Farm in school, and that’s what makes them biased against Big Brother.”

I wanted to ask him about the pigs, but instead I bit my lip and went home.




The latest development in the never-ending struggle to improve teaching involves “A bug in the ear” AND “A fly on the wall.”  This insect-based approach has a highly-trained but distant observers watching (on closed circuit video) teachers at work and giving them instructions and suggestions in real time, so the teachers can modify methods and instantly improve their instruction. 

According to Education Week, what’s called ‘Bug in the Ear Coaching”  is being used in about a dozen states. The premise is simple: A teacher wears an earpiece during a lesson, which is being live-streamed for an instructional coach who is somewhere else. Throughout the lesson, the coach delivers in-the-moment feedback to the teacher, who can add something or switch gears based on what she’s hearing in her ear.”

I reached out to some of the sources I developed in my 41 years of reporting for a closer look. One enthusiastic superintendent, who requested anonymity, said that the system would pay for itself in higher scores on standardized tests. “While the initial investment of $500,000 per school for cameras and directional microphones for every classroom, a dedicated room of monitors, the cost of a half-time tech person, and the salaries of the instructional experts who monitor the teachers, looks like a lot, once those standardized test scores go up, it’s smooth sailing.”

Are there other costs, I wanted to know?

“Our experts wanted all the teachers to wear identical loose-fitting shirts and blouses to minimize sound interference.  I had a great deal worked out with the company that makes the uniforms they wear at the federal penitentiary in the next county.”  He chuckled, “But without stripes, of course.” However, he explained, the teachers union shot the idea down. 

He (and some educators cited in Ed Week) say that most teachers like the immediacy of the system, saying that instant feedback is really the only kind that sticks.  “It was really nice to feel supported and get direct feedback in the moment,” a special education teacher in Washington State told Ed Week.

However, when I reached out to some veteran teachers I respect, I found no support for the approach.  (Stop reading here if vulgar language offends you.)

One woman, call her Mrs. Jones, scoffed, “I would sooner have ants in my underpants then have some so-called expert muttering in my ear. If you want to help me get better at teaching, come to my classroom.”

“Likewise,” her male colleague, call him Mr. Smith, agreed. “A bug in my ear? No way!  I would rather have a tick on my dick!”

Wanting to know more, I arranged to spend a day with an expert who monitors teachers to help them improve. We met in the small windowless room where he spends his weekdays. Mitchell Rheese is in his late 30’s, a former Teach For America member with an MBA who also spent four years with McKinsey. He allowed me to make audio recordings but no video or photographs. Below are transcripts of three interactions, slightly edited for clarity. (I have changed the names of the teachers to guard their privacy.)

1: First period Social Studies, Mrs. Burris:

The entire class, including the teacher, sat silently for about 90 seconds, while Mr. Rheese grew visibly agitated. Finally he spoke quietly but forcefully, “Mrs Burris, you appear to be wasting valuable instructional time. This is not good!  May I remind you that the state exams are fast approaching!”

She answered quietly, “Sir, we are observing a moment of silence. One of my students lost his twin sister last night. A drive-by shooting. She was sitting on the stoop talking with friends, and now she’s dead.  Everyone is hurting, and I decided that peace and quiet would be the most supportive gesture we could make. In a minute, we will all hug each other, and then try to move on. I hope you understand.”

“Of course I do, and my thoughts and prayers are with your student. But district guidelines specify that moments of silence should not exceed 45 seconds. And hugging is specifically prohibited.  May I make a suggestion?”

“Of course.”

“Don’t get into fruitless discussions of gun control and gun violence, because that’s not part of the unit you are supposed to be covering: How a Bill Becomes a Law.” 

2: Third period American history, Mr. Cody

Mr. Rheese watched intently, again growing visibly agitated. Not by silence, but by the noise level.  We could hear loud laughter and shouts of encouragement from students. Mr. Cody appeared to be smiling broadly, and at one point got up to clap a student on the shoulder. Finally Mr. Rheese spoke to Mr. Cody.

“Mr. Cody, have you lost control of the classroom? Should I call the principal’s office?”

“It’s all good here, sir.  We’re studying the Gettysburg Address, and my assignment was for them to deliver a modern version.  Perhaps in a song, maybe a sonnet, maybe rap. And that last one, the rap version, was just off the charts terrific.  I am so pleased.”

“I don’t see why you are pleased. I am not. How does rap help prepare your students for the exam?  Do they know when Lincoln delivered the speech? Do they know how many words it was, or how long it took for him to deliver it? That’s what’s going to be on the test.”

“Let me ask them.  Hey, kids, how many words are there in the Gettysburg Address?

At this point we could hear a chorus of ‘Who cares!’ and ‘Why does that matter?’

“Tell them, Mr. Cody, that the Gettysburg Address contains 272 words and it took two minutes to deliver.  That’s all they need to know for the state exam. And I will see you on my next visit to the school.”

That hadn’t gone well, and so I asked Mr. Rheese whether ‘Bug in the Ear Coaching’ might be a better fit for math instruction.  He said we would monitor a 9th grade Algebra class.  “This should be straight-forward,” he told me, as he consulted the state syllabus. “The goal  for today is to learn the formula for the area of a polygon, a 4-sided figure with irregular length sides.  The students are supposed to solve 12 problems during the class period and another 18 for homework tonight. Repetition, repetition, repetition, that is the key to learning!”

With that he turned to the monitor showing Mrs. Ravitch’s Algebra class.  He expected to see kids in rows at their desks, but what we saw were small groups of students, three or four, huddled around desks, whispering and sketching.  

“Mrs Ravitch, what on earth is going on? Your students are supposed to be learning how to find the area of a polygon. Why are they gossiping? Why aren’t they doing the problems?

“They aren’t gossiping, sir. They are trying to figure out the formula.”

“You are supposed to TELL them the formula so they can solve 12 problems before the bell rings!”

“Yes, I know what the state recommends, but, if I give the formula to them, they will forget it once the test is over. If they figure it out themselves, they’ll own it, because the key to genuine learning is students’ wanting, needing, to know.  Once their curiosity is engaged, there’s no stopping them.  Can I tell you how I am getting them involved?”

Mr. Rheese did not respond, and so she continued.

“First, I drew a polygon on the board and told them it was a big tract of valuable land.  They owned half, and I owned half, but we wanted to make sure we divided it equally before we sold it. So we had to figure out exactly how much land we had.  They jumped at the challenge, and I will bet that at least one of the small groups will get it right. Once they do, then we will do some problems.”

“Mrs. Ravitch, I hope you know that you are not going to fulfill the state requirements today, and that’s not good for your career.”  

“Maybe so, but I will bet you that every one of them will always remember the formula.”

“I am not a gambler, Mrs. Ravitch, and I don’t think you should be gambling with your students’ futures.”  He paused.  “And your own.”

At that point Mr. Rheese terminated our interview and my access to “Bug in the Ear Coaching.”  

As for me, perhaps if I did more reporting and dug deeper, I would change my mind about “Bug in the Ear Coaching”, but right now I feel exactly the way Mr. Smith does.



Dear Friend,

Last week I congratulated you for earning enough money to allow you to give generously to deserving non-profit organizations.  As I told you then, I hired a high tech firm to crunch the data from my 5,000 person mailing list.  Well, one person (not you) was outraged that I had spent my money invading the privacy of friends and others.


I did not spend my own money to dig into your personal space.  I used a gift certificate given to me by a friend in Silicon Valley.  And, by the way, it wasn’t all that expensive.

THAT’S ANOTHER JOKE!  Invasive data-crunching is very expensive.  It actually costs a surprising amount per person.  But it’s worth it because now I can sell the information to marketing firms, which means that I may end up making a profit, a nice way to end the year, I’d say.

THAT’S ANOTHER JOKE!  I will barely break even selling your data.  My data-cruncher told me that only 1,271 of you are capable of making ‘significant’ donations, and, while those names go for big bucks, the rest aren’t worth anything.  The data-cruncher added that 79 of the people on my list never donate, and so he’s given their data to hundreds of obscure non-profits, like that group that provides seeing eye dogs for blind dogs—just so their email boxes will always be full.

THAT’S ANOTHER JOKE!  Nothing preceding this sentence is true, just silly stuff to remind you that ‘Giving Season’ ends tomorrow at midnight, the last gasp of 2019.  Below are some organizations worthy of your consideration, IMHO:

  1. If you want to help education reporters do a better job:




COALITION OF PUBLIC INDEPENDENT CHARTER SCHOOLS (CPICS)   This fledgling organization representing thousands of so-called ‘Mom and Pop’ charter schools is determined to rescue the charter movement from its predators and its diminished reputation. (Full disclosure: I have been involved in its formation.)



2.  If you care about teachers and children’s learning environments:

THE NETWORK FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION   Years ago the pushback against so-called ‘School Reform’ was little more than Diane Ravitch with a megaphone. No longer!  Diane and Anthony Cody created NPE, now led by powerhouse Carol Burris.  Remarkable story….


AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization)

3.  Your local public library, your NPR station, and your PBS station are all worthy of consideration…..

Just to be clear, the only information I have about you and the others on my list is your name, your email, and perhaps a phone number.  (Well, in some cases I also have your social security number and bank routing number, but that’s about it….nothing to worry about…..)

Happy New Year, and Happy Giving….



I recently hired a high tech data-crunching firm to analyze my 5,000 person mailing list. Their task was to divide my list into three groups based on their disposable income: “Significant,” “Reasonable,” and “Negligible.”

Lucky you!  You are in the “Significant” category!  Happily for all concerned, this news comes during ‘The Giving Season,’ meaning that you can help others while helping yourself (because charitable donations are tax-deductible).

To cut to the chase: Below are links to some worthy organizations.  (Not surprisingly, many have a connection to education.)

  1.  If you want to help education reporters do a better job:




COALITION OF PUBLIC INDEPENDENT CHARTER SCHOOLS (CPICS)   This fledgling organization representing thousands of so-called ‘Mom and Pop’ charter schools is determined to rescue the charter movement from its predators and its diminished reputation. (Full disclosure: I have been involved in its formation.)



2.  If you care about teachers and children’s learning environments:

THE NETWORK FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION   Years ago the pushback against so-called ‘School Reform’ was little more than Diane Ravitch with a megaphone. No longer!  Diane and Anthony Cody created NPE, now led by powerhouse Carol Burris.  Remarkable story….


AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization)

3.  Your local public library, your NPR station, and your PBS station are all worthy of consideration…..

A final note: Many of these organizations are in a matching-gift mode right now, so your generosity will be matched….

Thanks, and Happy New Year to all


Winners & Losers in Pittsburgh

On Saturday seven candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination came to Pittsburgh to talk about education.  Four candidates emerged as winners, as I saw things.  Three of the names won’t surprise you: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden.  After all, this all-day event was organized by the two national teacher unions and other progressive groups.

Who’s the fourth–and biggest–winner? You may be thinking it’s the Mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigeig, but you would be wrong.  To help you along, here’s the full list of the seven hopefuls: Senator Michael Bennet, Biden, Buttigieg,  Senator Amy Klobuchar, Sanders, Tom Steyer, and Warren.  (After initially declining the invitation, Senator Cory Booker changed his mind at the 11th hour but then came down with a bad cold and cancelled.)

(There was a fifth winner, but that’s not revealed until the final paragraph.)

No surprise: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden were the crowd favorites.

No surprise: All seven candidates favor paying teachers more and want to at least triple federal funding for Title One.  Everyone said that we test students too much.  Just about everyone claimed to have teachers in their family tree.

Slight surprise: Most spoke in favor of apprenticeships and community schools.

Big surprise: the NBC journalists did not push very hard on some questionable assertions or surprising claims, particularly Mayor Pete’s embrace of valued-added research. Neither reporter questioned Biden about supporting Arne Duncan’s much-vilified “Race to the Top,” which dominated education during the eight years of the Obama Administration.

Biggest surprise of all: Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar opened eyes and won hearts with her stirring performance. She was, in my view, easily the biggest winner of the day.

I was privileged to be one of about 1500 in the audience for the event, which was also live-streamed on MSNBC and anchored by two NBC reporters. The day was well-organized and carefully choreographed.  Each candidate got about two minutes on stage alone to make a quick pitch to the audience.  Then the reporters asked the candidate questions for about 15 minutes.  Finally, each candidate responded to three questions from the audience.  Even that part was pre-arranged; someone in charge selected the questioners, who had written out their queries.  (I know because I tried to get in line at a microphone and was told not to bother.)

If you are curious, here are my (edited) notes about the seven candidates, in the order they appeared.  My own thoughts and reactions stand out in this fashion.

MICHAEL BENNET, the United States Senator from Colorado, received polite applause.  Said has a plan to end poverty in one year. but no explanation.  Said he’s the first school superintendent to run for President and recognizes the limitations of the federal government re education.  His Secretary of Education would help spread the word about innovation, not be ‘national school superintendent.’ 

“Need to massively increase teacher salaries.  (applause) Pay teachers like lawyers and doctors! Living wage, not minimum wage.  … I won’t make empty promises.  Feds cannot pay teachers more, because it provides only 9% of $$. ….  States and school districts must  act.” 

Democrats are sending a bad message because “Parents care more about free pre-school than about free college, yet Democratic Party’s image is ‘free college’”

I heard three proposals: 1) link MS, HS, and community college.

2) More apprenticeships in HS, as in Denver.  3 days a week of school, 2 days of apprenticeship.

3) Need MORE school, not less.  Not 180 days but more! 6 days of school a week, not 4! (I couldn’t tell if he was kidding!)

He defended what he did in Denver:  Merit pay, which eventually led to a strike, and his embrace of charter schools, not popular with this audience: “Denver charter schools are authorized by the school board and held to same standards as regular public schools.  “Charters are not be all and end all but have been useful element in Denver, only because of accountability standards.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:  His reception was not enthusiastic, which surprised me.

He cited the data about the increase in lifetime earnings ($300,000) of having a great Kindergarten teacher. Says that researcher, Raj Chetty, is on his policy advice team.  “Value added” is what he is endorsing. 

(But the implication of what Mayor Pete is saying seems clear to me: “if only we had better teachers…..”   Frankly, this is scary stuff because most policy folks don’t accept this finding. Is Pete a Republican in disguise, or GOP-lite?  Although the audience around me did not react, in later conversations I learned that lots of people were upset.)

He uses all the right words and phrases about poverty, SEL, wrap around services, community schools.  Roll back Trump tax cuts.  Need more conversation about apprenticeships, CTE, etc.   Right now there’s too much focus on college. Proposes tax credits for employers who provide apprenticeships.  

Pete in PittsburghHe is eloquent, well-spoken, and soothing.  “Crisis of belonging” afflicts us.  “We are in desperate need of things that are shared.”  Eg, military service. But Public School, especially Community Schools can also be that shared experience. 

A seemingly thoughtful suggestion: A national teaching certificate, with training paid for if you teach in a high-poverty school for 7 years.  Certificate would be portable all across the US.”  However, The US already has something akin to that, Board Certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.  To date, more than 122,000 teachers have earned Board certification. Does he not know this?

ELIZABETH WARREN, the United States Senator from Massachusetts, was greeted by a standing ovation from many in the audience.  Easily the most enthusiastic response so far…

Began with familiar story: “From 2nd grade I knew what I wanted to be: a teacher.  Lived my dream because I became a special ed teacher.”

Ed is most important issue.  “I have a plan” (that got a laugh, of course).  Wealth tax. Invest in education. $800 Billion. $1 M to every school.  25,000 community schools. We build a great country when we invest in all of our children.

Q from audience:  What can president do for special needs kids?  More $$ from feds. $50B for HBCUs.   Quadruple funding for Title One and fully fund IDEA.  More $ for preschool…

“Make it easier to be a teacher.  I will cancel student loan debt for 43M Americans, and some of them will then be able to become teachers.

More respect, beginning with more $$

“Free College,” but nothing for for profit colleges.  Just public colleges. But state must also make investments, Supplement, not supplant.  How will this cut college costs? (It won’t, apparently)

She was asked about charter schools (but not about Josh Delaney, a senior advisor on her team who is from Teach For America and connected to charter schools). “Public school $ must stay in public schools.” 

Q: Will she support public charter schools? Her answer was unclear. “My responsibility is to make sure that every public school is excellent.”  Not cutting funding for those currently in charter schools. For-profit charters should be closed. All charter schools must meet the same accountability standards.

She has riffed on her ‘wealth tax’ at least three times, maybe four. 

And she’s doing it again.

Q about grad school and lack of tenure, poor pay.  How would your Higher Ed plan help us? “When workers have a strong union, things get better.  Workers are entitled to bargain collectively: that’s where I start. Fed $ will help a bit. Need to push states to contribute more. Cancel student loan debt will help.  Need to treat grad students as professionals.” 

Q about getting more teachers of color:  Need support for HBCU. Need loan debt forgiveness because debt keeps many from teaching.

As she leaves, she’s getting another standing O from most of the audience…

BERNIE SANDERS, the United States Senator from Vermont, received an enthusiastic standing ovation, outdoing Warren.  He seems to have unlimited energy, easily the most energetic speaker so far.

Instead of sitting down when reporters came on stage, he charted his own path. He remained standing while answering the moderators’ questions, basically taking over and making each Q a mini-campaign speech.  No one else has done that…and eventually the two reporters also stand. 

Bernie in PittsburghAsked about his own public education, he talked about going nearly all white schools in NYC

From here on, it was almost all about money, basically his stump speech.  “Forgive all student debt” (including that of the rich) because he believes in universality.  So all public college will be free. All debt, even that of the rich, will be forgiven.

He opposed NCLB.  The Q implies he wants to get rid of all testing, but he demurs.  He says we spend too much time teaching to the test, but we need to keep track of student progress and help where it’s needed.  There are better ways to keep track than standardized testing.

Q: What about ‘food shaming’?  Free breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  IE, community schools.

“NCAA athletes should be paid.”

Q: “Fact from fiction” question: only 14% of MS students can distinguish between them. “We need to do something big. We need a revolution in education and learning, because learning is inherent in our species.  Have to respect the educators if we value education. Cites case of young man who wanted to be a teacher but got a better paying job in a state liquor store!”

He applauds teachers for leading a ‘revolution,’ in Red states, for better pay and conditions. “I have the longest and best record of supporting unions. Will introduce most sweeping pro-union legislation in history.  50+1 votes to unionize is all that’s needed. Repeal ‘right to work’ laws. All workers have a right to strike.” 

“We jail more than any other country, even China, which has 4 times our population.  Invest in schools, stop building prisons, invest in their education. Also we need common sense gun policy. We will not allow the NRA to dictate.”  

“We have make sure that schools have the resources–teachers and support staff–to help all kids.”

Q: Raise pay of aides and support staff?  Yes, “National minimum wage of $15.”

“We will end the war on drugs and legalize marijuana.”

“We will triple the funding of Title One”

Another enthusiastic standing O on leaving…

TOM STEYER, the billionaire from California, has the tough job of following Senator Sanders.  Barely any reaction from audience.  Introduces self by saying his mother was a teacher in school and detention center and his brother a long-time activist for children.

A laundry list of what he would do, delivered with passion.  “Must start with quality preschool.”

“Teachers need more $$ and more support. More time to plan.  IE, fewer students.  Schools need nurses, food services, mental health services.  Broad measure of student success, not just test scores.”

“My support for HBCU’s dwarfs any other plan.”

Q: Do we want to educate all children?  We spend one-tenth as much on education as on defense.  “The enemies of education are framing the issue as ‘greedy teachers.’  They are lying.   In GA, if you are in the bottom quintile, you have a one-in-twenty chance of moving out and up. That’s a disgrace.  We cannot repair society without ending education injustice. The idea of not starting with teachers is insane.”

“We have to tell a different story. It’s not just money.” 

Q: Should education be a federal right?  “Yes, but we cannot wait for that.  Kids are in school now.. Have to get it right tomorrow! Look at ERA. we still haven’t gotten to 38 states on that.”


Q from reporter about unequal schooling. You are the picture of privilege. How do you get people to believe that you are the one who can and will make change?  “What I have seen. Basically, I am ‘woke.’ This is a fight for our country. It’s about who we are, how we describe ourselves, who we are deep down.”   

“We all succeed when all kids succeed.” 

“Need to create incentives to get more people into the teaching profession.”

Q from a 13-year-old: why doesn’t my school have a librarian etc, even though schools 10 minutes away have them?   “Fundamental injustice, because of how we pay for schools. This has to change. The property tax approach is wrong.  Have to budget differently. More Title One money won’t be enough.”

Q: How do you measure school success? What can you do to help schools succeed? (While this question caused him to stumble, he recovered.)  “Not test scores or teaching to the test. Check to see how disabled kids.  Education must be for every kid, and,, if you are taking care of most disadvantaged, you are probably doing a good job for everyone.”   

He was earnest, but the audience reaction did not suggest much of a future for his campaign. He got a polite sendoff…

AMY KLOBUCHAR, the United States Senator from Minnesota, began by talking about her Mom. A great story of teaching handicapped kids.  Also mentions her dad and his alcohol issues.

“Will double teacher salaries, repeal Janus decision regarding unions and collective bargaining.  Increase minimum wage.  Will put estate tax back to Obama level, which will bring in $100B.”

“Will fire DeVos in first 100 seconds” (big applause)

Mentions Sandy Hook, the first to do so (today is the 7th anniversary).

“Need a president who looks at issues holistically. I have a track record.  100 bills.”

Q about poor student performance on NAEP. What would you do?  “Attack homelessness with major housing policy.”  Knows Section 8, which is impressive.  “More preschool.” She knows legislation, cites Patty Murray’s bill to change preschool funding.  Impressive wonkiness.

Q: You candidates are all saying the same thing. How will YOU get it done?  “I have gotten things done, more than anyone else.  I will build a blue wall around Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan….and make Donald Trump pay for it!!!”  (huge laughter)


Cites her winning record… “I have won every election since 4th grade, where my slogan–now abandoned–was ‘All the way with Amy K.'”  (laughter)

Q about chronic absence of many students:  We need to do more to retain teachers. Important to have teachers of color teaching kids of color. Make school interesting…. My daughter went to public schools, including those with lots of ‘free and reduced…’

“Let’s have someone with an education background as Secretary.”

“We can do this. We won Kentucky, We won Louisiana, We won Virginia.  Bring people together.  Donald Trump is a decency check, a values check, a patriotism check as well.”

Q from union member. Amy says that was her mom’s union. 

She’s doing a wonderful job of connecting with questioners, including a very nervous boy, whom she helped relax. When one girl talked about being loud, Amy told about the teacher who taught her to speak up..by going to the back of the room and saying ‘I cannot hear you.’  She laughed and said that’s why she’s a Senator today.

She got a standing ovation as she left the stage, the third candidate to get one

Former Vice President JOE BIDEN was also greeted with a (partial) standing ovation.

“If Jill and I end up in the White House, you will have the best friend education could ever have. These are not someone else’s kids.  These are our kids.”

“Free community college for all.  $6B a year.  Also need to allow people to go back to college when their jobs disappear.  That’s another reason to make it free. But just tuition-free isn’t enough. Need help with Pell Grants (double them) etc, to help people attend.” 

He did what he did during the national debates, a strange sort of apology:   “If I’m going on too long, stop me.”

He’s got lots of data at his fingertips. Impressive.

Q about remedial education. “If I had only $10 to spend, I’d spend $7 on preschool.” (this turned out to be his most quotable line in news reports.) 

“I will triple Title One. We will get it by taxing income and wealth the same way. Capital gains taxes.   Teacher salaries must be competitive.  $60K minimum. Every 2-, 3- and 4-year old can go to school, for free.  That increases success probability by 50%.  

“But teachers need support–counselors, psychologists, aides.”  He’s citing data again…

“Community schools are good..you have them in Pittsburgh.”

“Kids need to be challenged.  Cannot treat kids as if they are not capable.”

“Here’s the deal” is his favorite expression.  Used it at least four times.  

Q: Should schools be desegregated?  “We have institutional racism. I supported busing because of de jure segregation.  We also have de facto segregation. If all schools are excellent, then the issue will take care of itself.” 

“I make no apologies for my records on race, none…”

Eloquent about violence against women and the law. Says what he learned was that to decrease violence against women, we have to get men involved.  Says colleges dragged their feet. Colleges have not protected women; assault and failure to punish is biggest reasons women drop out of college. Cites Title IX, showing that he knows his stuff….

“No man has a right to touch a woman unless she can say ‘yes.’”  Slams hand in fist. “Those men are cowards.”

He ended with an impassioned pitch about what teachers contribute and a personal story about the teachers who gave him confidence, especially the one who helped him overcome his stutter.  He was really impressive.

The former Vice President received an enthusiastic standing O at the end and then posed for selfies with what seemed like hundreds of teachers. Biden in Pittsburgh

There was a fifth winner that day: Me! It was incredibly energizing to be back in the trenches again, in my fourth year of retirement.  Teachers are great to be with, for sure. No one can match their commitment and enthusiasm, and I had forgotten just how much I missed being with them.

Governor _______’s Inaugural Address

Good afternoon. I am thrilled, delighted, and deeply honored to be speaking here today to our state legislature in person and, on radio and television, to citizens of the great state of _______.  As your duly elected governor, I want to promise that my team and I will spend every waking hour working on your behalf.

On the mirror in our bathroom is a small piece of paper on which appears theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer.”  I read it every morning.  I’m sure you know it well.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

This morning I am asking all of you to take those sentiments seriously. Let’s resolve to change what we can–what we must–change, to ensure a bright future for our state and our citizens.

For me, the answer begins with the education of our young.  That’s not all we need to work on, but if we don’t get that right, not much else matters.

Let’s remind ourselves that public education serves an important public purpose.  Yes, of course there is an undeniable private benefit to getting education: children who finish high school and college will earn significantly more over their lifetimes than high school dropouts.  Parents know that, which is why they seek out communities reputed to have ‘the best schools.’

However, in addition to the individual’s private gain, education provides significant public benefits.  Investing in one child’s education helps all of us.

Think about it: Educated citizens have better jobs, pay more taxes, are more likely to vote, get involved in civic life, and work cooperatively with their neighbors.  Educated citizens are less likely to be on welfare, live in homeless shelters, or require public benefits.

It’s a win-win when people are educated.  That’s why we–government–cannot stand by and leave it to parents to see their children get educated. We need to enable, and we need to provide.  And we need to pay the bills!

Let me remind you that, until fairly recently, America understood that. The GI Bill paid for the college education of millions of returning World War II veterans, creating the middle class and the greatest economic boom in history.  In the mid-1960’s generous Pell Grants opened the door to college opportunity for millions of low income young people, creating another economic surge.

But during the Reagan years government walked away from a public commitment to education. Pell Grants were cut.  States cut their commitments to their public colleges and universities. Government began making students borrow for college, rather than using public dollars to help them.  Basically, we swapped grants for loans, and now student debt is over $1.5 trillion!

There have been other harmful changes.  For the past 20 or more years, those controlling public education have emphasized test scores to the detriment of just about everything else.  Adding to those bad policies, two major economic downturns did serious damage to school budgets, harm that most of our communities have not yet recovered from.  School spending here in _______ is down from 2008, just as it is in 31 other states.  And because too much money is being spent on testing and too much time on test-preparation, our young people are not enjoying art, music, drama, physical education, field trips, and other extra curricular activities–all the good stuff that (at least for me) made school enjoyable.

Schools need less testing and more money.  Making that happen will require the courage cited in the ‘Serenity Prayer,’ because we also must change how we pay for schools here in _______.  Back in 1973, the US Supreme Court ruled that education is not a federal constitutional right; it’s the job of individual states to educate its citizens.  As in most states, here in ______ we have passed down the job to cities and towns and let them figure out how to pay for it.

Which they do with property taxes.

The result here in _______ (and just about everywhere else) is huge inequities, with some property-rich towns spending more than $20,000 per student, others, the ones that aren’t blessed with mansions, spending less than $10,000 per child.  Some of our schools have ‘Maker Spaces,’ free laptops for all students, even their own climbing walls!  Some of our middle schools are still using textbooks printed before Man landed on the Moon!

Do we have the courage to change that system? Can we increase state spending (Remember, education is the state’s responsibility!) so that every city and town is guaranteed an adequate level of spending.  Enough money to provide art, music, drama, sports, physical education, science and more?

But providing more money is not a ‘magic bullet.’ In fact, there is no such thing as a ‘magic bullet,’ not in the world of politics and government. Change requires dedication, planning, and hard work.  It won’t be enough to cut back on testing.  Just adding art and music won’t get the job done either.

We need to unleash our educators.  Let them teach….but with a caveat: they have to treat each child as an individual.  Just ask, “How is this child smart?”  Not “How smart is this kid?” Stop sorting children into pools of ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ because we cannot afford that.

If this sounds like a sea change for schools, think of it as Education’s version of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others…..”

During my campaign for Governor, I met literally thousands of idealistic young people, men and women who want to improve the world around them.  They seem to have absorbed the words of JFK, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” 

I believe those young people are also saying “We are not asking what our state can do for us. We want to know what we can do for ______.”

We can build on their energy and intelligence; let’s use it to make our state stronger, economically and in every other way.

So I say, “Let’s make a deal.” Let’s tell our young people that we’ll pay for two years of post-secondary training or college if they commit to working to improve our state.

Here’s the deal: two free years of college or technical training at in-state institutions for students who agree to work in our state for three years in paying ‘community service’ jobs.  They could teach in lower income communities, work for the park service, take positions in homes for the elderly or VA hospitals, or some other jobs that meet the state’s requirement.

Of course, some may choose to skip community service. Naturally, they will be required to repay the state for their two years of post-secondary education.

But let’s focus on those who complete the bargain.  They will be making our state a better place for all. That’s their gift to us.

But they also will benefit, because their gift of community service will make it more likely that they will want to stay here in ______.  They will want to build their futures right here.

These are investments that will make our state stronger and more attractive, while also giving our young people the skills and certification they need to improve their own lives.

Investing in the public purpose of public education makes economic sense. If we do it right, we will get a damn good ROI, return on investment.  Companies everywhere are looking to locate in states and communities with strong schools, where their employees’ children will receive a good education.  They will relocate here, making us stronger.

Most children grow up looking for reasons not to leave the town and state where they have grown up, because it’s what they know and love.  Let’s give them plenty of reasons to stay, beginning with strong schools that will attract businesses, which will provide the good jobs that will keep our young from moving out.

You legislators will get a personal–but perfectly legal–benefit.  You will get to be around your grandchildren as they grow up. What could be better than that!!

Thank you. May God bless you, our country, and the great state of _________.



The National Assessment of Educational PARALYSIS (NAEP)

“U.S. 15-year-olds made no significant progress on the Program for International Student Assessment, the results of which were released Tuesday. On a 1,000-point scale, students in 2018 earned on average 505 in reading, 478 in math, and 502 in science in 2018, statistically unchanged from when the tests were last given in 2015.”  That’s how Sarah Sparks of Education Week reported the dismal findings from an important international test familiarly known as PISA, which measures reading, math, and science literacy among 15-year-olds, every three years.

This comes on the heels of even more disappointing results on our own national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). When I wrote about this recently in this space, I solicited reactions from Aristotle, Maria Montessori, and John Dewey.

However, given the PISA results and the harsh truth that NAEP scores have been disappointing for many years, it’s time to rename NAEP. Let’s call it the National Assessment of Educational Paralysis, because paralysis accurately describes what has been going on for more than two decades of “School Reform” under the test-centric policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Unless and until we renounce these misguided “School Reform” policies developed under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, educational paralysis will continue, and millions of children will continue to be mis-educated and under-educated.

Right now, too many school districts over-test, which means their teachers under-teach. Too often their leaders impose curricula that restrict teachers’ ability to innovate.  At the same time, these narrow curricula have curtailed or eliminated art, music, physical education, recess, drama, and even science.  Today many districts judge teachers largely by student test scores, leading teachers to devote more and more class time to test-prep, not teaching and exploration of idea.  This is what I and others label the ‘test-and-punish’ approach to education, instead of a far more desirable ‘assess to improve’ philosophy.

For many children, their school experience is akin to going out on the basketball court and spending the entire time practicing free throws. No games of H.O.R.S.E. No direct coaching. No 4-on-3 drills. No full scrimmages.  Just free throws!  Not exactly preparation for life.  And that’s particularly disgraceful when today’s technology allows students in one school to work on projects with other kids anywhere in the world!  

“School Reform” rewards performance on narrow tests, not thinking and exploration, and the results are perversely impressive.  We have managed to teach our children how NOT to think, and today not even 14% of American 15-year-olds are able to distinguish between fact and opinion.

How tough is PISA?  You decide.  Here’s a sample PISA question, which I urge you to try to answer.

Here’s another example this one taken from the PISA test three years earlier:

Mount Fuji is a famous dormant volcano in Japan.  The Gotemba walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometres (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 pm.

Toshi estimates that he can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometres per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times.

Using Toshi’s estimated speeds, what is the latest time he can begin his walk so that he can return by 8PM?

Note that ‘Fuji’ is not a multiple-choice question.  To get the correct answer, students had to perform a number of calculations–I.E, they had to think!  The correct answer (11 AM) was provided by 55 percent of the Shanghai 15-year-olds but by just 9 percent of the US students.

Folks, this is the inevitable product of public schools that treat most students as little more than scores on multiple-choice bubble tests.  (By the way, many charter schools aren’t much better, because they too are driven by the goal of higher test scores.)

What will it take to overcome educational paralysis?  A lot, frankly.  Those supporting the failed ‘School Reform’ policies won’t go without a fight, because their recipe for success requires more of the same.  Eli Broad is a prime example.  The billionaire has just announced that Yale’s School of Management will take over his LA-based Broad Center, which has been turning out school district managers for 20 years.  Howard Blume reported the story in the LA Times: “As described by Broad and center leaders, the mission was twofold: to attract and train talented leaders from outside education — including business executives and senior military officers — and to provide needed skills to career educators who rose through the ranks, often starting as teachers.” 

Blume, a thorough reporter, does cite an opposing view: Education historian Diane Ravitch, a critic of Broad, said graduates of the center’s two-year training program “have a reputation for top-down management; they are data-driven, they don’t listen to stakeholders like parents and teachers, and they favor closing public schools and replacing them with charter schools.”

While we can cure “educational paralysis,” in this society money talks, and the big money is still firmly behind “School Reform.” That means that failed policies like high-stakes testing are likely to remain in place–unless we demand real change. 

As I write in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education, it is long past time for us to abandon the sorting system that our public schools have become. We need to look at every child and ask “How is she smart?”   And then we must insist that our schools build on each child’s interests and abilities so all children can develop their potential and acquire the basic skills of writing, working with numbers, critical thinking, public speaking, working with others, and so on.

Please post your reactions and suggestions below.


My Breakfast with Ambassador Sondland

That didn’t happen. I wanted to get you to open the link.  Now I hope you will click on this link: https://www.adl.org/news/article/sacha-baron-cohens-keynote-address-at-adls-2019-never-is-now-summit-on-anti-semitism

It’s just 24 minutes long, but its message about the unchecked power of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google and ‘The Silicon Six’ is critical. Moreover, he tells us what can be done……

By  the way, since this speech, Mark Zuckerberg has had a private meal with Donald Trump!



“My Grandchildren Started Out Loving School”

“My grandchildren started out loving school at 4 years old, but have now grown to dislike it, as have so many children who are deprived of the arts, recess, and true learning.”

That’s one sentence from a very moving letter from someone who read last week’s post in which I reached out to Maria Montessori, John Dewey and Aristotle to get their reactions to 20+ years of ‘Education Reform’ and its impact on NAEP scores.

I wonder how many more grandparents and parents feel as she does, their hearts sinking as they see children’s vitality, their love of learning, and their curiosity diminishing or disappearing?  It doesn’t have to be this way.

In last week’s post I said that rescuing public education requires a new paradigm in which educators ask, ‘How is this child intelligent?”   Our current system, which is designed to sort students into ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ uses test scores, parental status, income, residency, race, and social class to answer the wrong question, “How smart is this kid?”

While it’s easy to say, ‘Ask a different question,’ what can people who aren’t on School Boards actually do to change the direction of public education? What steps are required?

I believe that there are seven specific steps/tasks/actions that parents, other citizens, and change-oriented teachers can initiate.  While my book, “Addicted to Reform,” provides a 12-step program, several entail coming to grips with the expensive failures of “School Reform.”  In this post, I will briefly describe three of them: Measuring What We Care About; Expecting More from Students; and Using Technology to Enhance Learning.   (I will cover the others in subsequent posts.)

1. Measure What Matters.  To be blunt, right now we value what we measure.  In a changed system, we will measure what we value–but that of course requires deciding what we care about.  Just test scores?  What about the ability to write clearly, speak coherently in public, and work effectively with others? Physical fitness?  The arts?

Our current system focuses on academic achievement in math and English, which it generally measures by means of standardized, machine-scored, multiple-choice ‘bubble’ tests.  While academic achievement in those two subjects is important, are bubble tests an adequate measure?  Again, what else matters in the education of a child?  If you want art, music, drama,  physical education, public speaking, and group projects in the curriculum, then you must insist that they be measured, because things that aren’t counted do not count!   If you want change, then you must require schools to report hard numbers for the following:

   How many hours of music per week for all students?

   How many hours of science?

   How many hours of recess, meaning free play?

   How many hours of organized physical education?

   How many hours of sustained silent reading?

Educators will quickly figure out that larger numbers (i.e., more music and more recess) are better answers, particularly if the same evaluation sheet asked them to justify low numbers.  The form should also invite requests for additional resources.

Asking those questions shifts the focus from individual test scores to the school, which I believe should be the primary focus of evaluation.  Focusing on student achievement has produced a test-obsessed culture, widespread cheating, and a narrow curriculum. 

Regular people, especially parents, get that schools come first. When they talk about education, they want to know “Are the schools good?”  We can answer that question with a set of multiple measures, not simply by looking at test scores.  We also need to measure teacher turnover, student attendance, and teacher attendance, 

Anyone wanting to be good at something needs two things: instruction and practice. The only way for kids to learn to write well is by writing, rewriting, and rewriting again. Children become better readers only if they read. They can learn to speak well by speaking often, with some direction, some coaching. It’s no different from how children learn to play a musical instrument well or make jump shots consistently: Practice, Practice, Practice.  Testing and test-prep take away from valuable practice time.  Schools should be in the business of  ‘assessing to improve,’ not ‘testing to punish.’

The question of measurement becomes more complicated because tests cannot measure diligence, honesty, tolerance, fairness, and compassion, which are the values and attitudes that parents repeatedly say they want their children to possess.  Parents want their kids to be well-rounded; to develop the skills they need to continue learning on their own; and to become good citizens, productive workers, and fulfilled human beings, and most employers would probably agree. But how can schools assess those values, skills, and abilities?

This is a complicated conversation that most communities are not having, perhaps because it’s easier and infinitely less controversial to default to mass testing on a narrow range of subjects.   So, step one, begin the conversation…..

2.   Expect More   My favorite aphorism, ‘We are what we repeatedly do,’ applies here.  Because this is true, it is essential that children do different–and important–things in school.  Aristotle continued: “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  And so, if we want our children to strive for excellence, then we must do our part and expect more from them.  Young people need to learn that they don’t have to be perfect, but that they should strive to be better tomorrow than they were yesterday.

This step requires looking carefully at the routines of school, because most children live up (or down) to expectations.

If students fill in bubbles, color inside the lines, fall into line when ordered to do so, never ask ‘why?’ and don’t question authority, they are unlikely to become independent thinkers and doers.  Going forward, we must expect and encourage students to dig deeply into subjects and ideas they are curious about about. Teachers must then use their students’ curiosity–about The Odyssey, sky-diving, auto mechanics, the French Revolution, or the music of Prince–to ensure that they also master clear writing and thinking, mathematical concepts, and other essentials.

It’s generally understood that the longer the learning curve, the longer the forgetting curve.  That means that students who are expected to work something out through trial-and-error are more likely to retain information than those who are spoon-fed the material. The key word in ‘trial-and-error’ is the last one, because making mistakes is an essential part of learning.  That’s right, students must be involved in activities where failure is anticipated as part of the learning process, because failure matters. Independent thinkers, no matter their age, fail….and learn from failure. That’s not only not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. In fact, failure is an essential part of the schools we are going to build.

Case in point: If you’re at all like me, somewhere in your home you have at least one can of WD-40®, because the stuff works wonders. I think science teachers ought to have a WD-40 poster on their classroom wall. Not to advertise the product but to teach a basic lesson about learning: failure is an essential part of succeeding.

Have you ever wondered why it is called WD-40?  The answer is, in a word, failure! In 1953 the three employees of the San Diego-based Rocket Chemical Company were trying to develop a product that would prevent rust, something they could market to the aerospace industry. They tried, failed, and tried again…and again..and again. Being methodical, they kept careful records. They labeled their first effort Water Displacement #1, or WD-1.  After 39 failures, eureka! They had a product, and the product had a name.

Students need to know that adults try and fail and fail and fail–and keep on trying. More than that, they need to experience failure. While I am a big fan of both project-based learning and blended learning, I believe the most critical piece of the pedagogical puzzle is what we ought to call ‘Problem-based learning.’

In my experience, many teachers assign tried-and-true projects where they already know the outcome.  Because students, especially older and more capable ones, see through this, that approach to project-based learning is suspect. 

Expecting more means giving students real problems to tackle.  They cannot be intractable (“How can we achieve peace in the Middle East?”) or trivial and uninteresting (“What color should classrooms be painted?”). Instead, the problems should be both genuine and manageable.  “How does our air quality compare with the air quality at other places in our city, town or state?” is an issue students can tackle with the help of technology and the internet. 

Unfortunately, a pedagogy based on discovery and knowledge creation flies in the face of what seems to be happening in most classrooms and schools, where the emphasis seems to be on ‘critical analysis’ to arrive at the predetermined right answers. Some years back a math teacher in Richmond, Virginia, told me how he used to take his students down to the James River and challenge them to determine the distance to the opposite shore. He didn’t give them a formula; just the challenge, which he expected them to solve. Then they put their heads together and, he said, eventually ‘discovered’ the formula, which they then could apply to other situations and problems.  They failed and kept on trying, until, like the creators of WD-40, they were successful. Sadly, he said, the new state-mandated curriculum no longer allowed time for field trips and discovery. Now he explains the formula and gives his students a prescribed number of problems to solve.

The schools we must create will build on student strengths and interests; they will also expect much more from students.  However, giving students more control over their learning does not mean the adults just say ‘Whatever” or tell kids to “follow their passion.”  Most young people aren’t likely to have developed a passion yet, and they shouldn’t be made to feel deficient. Ask them what they’re curious about, and encourage them to explore, experiment, and follow their interests. It’s a journey and a process to be celebrated.

3. Embrace Technology (Carefully)    

The cliché about idle hands doing the devil’s work has been rewritten for an age of smartphones and computers, to read “Idle thumbs do the devil’s work.”  Cute, but wrong, because it is idle minds and brains that do the work of the devil. What that means is that, because technology is ubiquitous among the young, their brains and minds must be engaged productively; if not, lots of bad things–i.e., cyberbullying–are likely to occur.

Let’s begin with the basics: Both the common #2 pencil and the most tricked-out smartphone are technological tools. Both have common sense age restrictions. No 3- or 4-year-old should be handling a sharpened #2 pencil; the appropriate age for a smartphone is arguable, but it exists.  Both technologies are value-free, meaning that how they are used depends on the user. The individual wielding a pencil can write a love sonnet, a grocery list, or a threatening anonymous letter. The user of smartphone (which has more computing power than the computers that sent the first man to the moon in 1969) can do all these things, and far more.  However, the essential fact remains: how technology is used depends on the values of the user.

Much good can come from harnessing technology’s potential; conversely, harm results when adults ignore technology’s potential or fail to accept their adult responsibilities.  Some adults are wont to say, “Technology is the kids’ world. They’re digital natives, and I’m just a tourist.” That’s inadequate. Young people may be digital natives, but it remains the responsibility of adults to see that they become digital citizens.

Here’s an example of technology in support of genuine learning that expects more from students: Imagine if every third grade class in a city had access to an air quality indicator (roughly $200 per machine).  Suppose that three or four times each day the third graders went outside, activated the monitor, and recorded the measurements. After comparing the daily and hourly readings for their playground, they would enter the information into a database that also contained readings from other schools in the city, the state, or a range of places around the world.  Now they can compare the air they are breathing with everyone else’s! They would need to know how to interpret readings, which would require some basic science research and direct instruction from their teacher. Perhaps they would ask local scientists to come in and talk and also Skype with experts from all over the globe.

As they began to understand–and perhaps be outraged by–anomalies, they might feel compelled to write letters or articles for local publications.  Perhaps some would create video reports that could be posted on YouTube…and maybe even picked up by local television news.  

That’s for elementary and middle school students. A high school project that will also lead to the creation of knowledge involves the study and analysis of water in Texas, which has about 4,000 miles of fast-running water.  Suppose every high school within reach of a river owned a water quality monitor (about $1,000 per machine). Once or twice a week, the science class could go to the water’s edge and take measurements of acidity, alkalinity, speed, amount of detritus, and so forth.  Like those third graders, they would analyze the data. Share the results with other high school students around the state. Where there are anomalies, dig deeper. Ask for explanations. Publish the results.

This “curriculum” is about more than air and running water.  It’s also about democracy, independence, collaboration, and knowledge creation.  Projects like these will teach other lessons besides science as well: information is power, collaboration produces strength, and social policies have consequences. Students will learn that they themselves are not merely numbers or test scores but sentient, thinking individuals with potential.  They matter.

Technology makes all this possible. To be clear, I think it’s also imperative on at least two levels. For one thing, much schoolwork today is hopelessly boring regurgitation, whereas this is real work in uncharted territory. For another, we need our young people to be in the habit of asking questions and searching for answers.

And to circle back to another central theme, technology allows our schools to ask of each child, ‘How is he or she intelligent?’ and then create learning opportunities that allow every child to soar.  Technology allows students to have more control over their own learning, without downgrading or minimizing the role of the skilled teacher.

Those are three steps toward creating schools that children won’t hate. In subsequent posts I will write about teachers, ‘outsiders,’ the value of preschool, and more.

I’d welcome your responses, of course.



Montessori, Dewey, & Aristotle Respond to NAEP decline

By now you know about the disappointing scores on what is widely known as The Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.  Basically, what was called ‘a lost decade‘ a year or two ago has continued.

Here’s a short summary from the NAEP announcement: “Average reading scores for the nation in 2019 were lower for students in both fourth and eighth grade than in 2017, while average mathematics scores were higher by 1 point for fourth graders and lower by 1 point for eighth graders…….In mathematics and reading for both grades, a little more than one-third of students nationally scored at or above the NAEP Proficient level in 2019.”

The responses from the Administration, the center-right, and the left were not surprising.  Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos labelled it a ‘student achievement crisis’ and issued a call for ‘education freedom’ for parents so they could escape failing schools.  See here for her response and here for analysis.

The center-right, basically the ‘School Reform’ advocates who have controlled the public education for 20 years, focused on the smattering of good news in the NAEP report:

       Hispanic students had a higher average mathematics score in 2019 compared to 2017.

       Fourth grade mathematics scores increased in nine states.

       Mississippi showed an increase in grade 4 reading.

       Grade 8 reading scores increased in the District of Columbia.

This could be presented another way, of course: Mississippi was the ONLY state where 4th grade reading scores increased, and DC was the ONLY place where 8th grade reading scores improved.

(My aside: The decline in NAEP reading scores is shameful, given that the so-called ‘reading wars’ were settled years ago. That phonics and phonemic awareness are essential was proven in 1967 by Dr. Jeanne Chall of Harvard.  And yet, reading instruction is woeful in many classrooms largely because those teachers were not taught how to teach the skill.  If you haven’t experienced Emily Hanford’s brilliant reporting on this topic, please do so now.  She absolutely nails it in “At a Loss for Words: How a Flawed Idea Is Teaching Millions of Kids to be Poor Readers,” revealing both causes and cures.)

The left‘s response so far has been mixed.  To some, the NAEP results prove the folly of  the “corporate reform agenda” of high stakes testing and charter school expansion.  Others say the results show schools need smaller classes, more counseling, improved facilities, and better teacher training.

Those are responses in the heat of the moment. What about a longer view? What would real experts say about the continuing disappointing NEAP scores? To find out, I reached out to Aristotle, Maria Montessori, and John Dewey.

Professor Dewey was brief and to the point in his Snapchat response to my question about testing and test-prep: “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” 

I pushed back.  Doesn’t knowledge matter? Isn’t it important for students to be able to answer questions correctly, I asked?   His response was immediate: “Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”

Had Professor Dewey heard about the cuts in school arts programs, I wondered? Again he responded immediately: “Art is the most effective mode of communications that exists.”

Not surprisingly, Dr. Montessori focused on how children spend their time, arguing for giving them more control over their activities.  In an email (she still uses AOL.com, by the way), she wrote, “When you have solved the problem of controlling the attention of the child, you have solved the entire problem of its education.”   She went on, “The greatest sign of success for a teacher…is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.'”  

The ever-generous Aristotle sent the following text message:  “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  Succinct and to the point–as we have come to expect from the Greek philosopher.  I infer from his comment that, because our children are spending lots of time taking tests and prepping for tests, their cognitive faculties are not developing.

I agree with those three wise people. Our national obsession with scores on multiple-choice bubble tests is doing incalculable damage to millions of students.  While this did not start with the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), that misguided legislation jump-started the crisis.  Under pressure to avoid having their schools labelled ‘failing’ for not making what the law called ‘adequate yearly progress,’ educators focused their energies on raising test scores–by whatever means necessary.  That meant lots of test-prep, known as ‘drill and kill,’ and in too many instances, outright cheating by adults.  See here and here for more about this.

In order to devote more time to testing and test-prep, educators had to cut something. Sadly but predictably, they most often slashed art, music, drama, and recess, arguably the stuff that kids enjoy most!  See here and here.   Here’s a sample quote from one analysis about how the curriculum has been distorted: “Five years into NCLB, researchers found that 62 percent of a nationally representative sample of all districts in the United States—and 75 percent of districts with at least one school identified as needing improvement—increased the amount of time spent on language arts and math in elementary schools. These increases were substantial: a 47 percent increase in language arts and a 37 percent increase in math. Correspondingly, these districts decreased time allotted to other subjects and activities, including science, social studies, art, music, physical education, and recess.”  (my emphasis)

The answer to what ails us is simple….but it won’t be easy.  We need educators to look at each child and ask “How is this child intelligent?” instead of testing to find out ‘How intelligent is this kid?”

While that may sound radical, that’s actually what parents seek to know about their own children, and it’s within the reach of our institutions…if we are willing to break our bad habits.  Frankly, we cannot afford not to change!

(I write about how to do this in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.)