Do Teachers Matter?

What if you were to close your eyes and picture the people–not family members–who helped make you a better person?  How many of the men and women now visible in your mind’s eye were your teachers? 

For me, three teachers changed my life; they improved my attitude, helped shape my worldview, and strengthened my sense of self-worth: My first grade teacher, Mrs. Peterson; my 12th grade English teacher, Mr. Sullivan; and my graduate school thesis advisor, David Cohen.  There were others, of course, but those three are easy for me to picture. 

This isn’t the first time I have asked people to do this. In a fun bit of reporting some years back, we asked some prominent Americans, including Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Jesse Jackson, Phylicia Rashad, and Edward James Olmos, to tell us about the teachers who changed their lives for the better. To a person, each identified a woman or a man who refused to allow them to do substandard work, teachers who pushed, prodded, and cajoled them.  That’s what most teachers do–when we give them the time, the tools, and the opportunities.

I am hoping to make this issue personal because all across America teachers, and public education more broadly, are under fierce attack. This is an unfortunate and disturbing continuation of a pattern that began years ago and accelerated during the four years that Betsy DeVos was U.S. Secretary of Education.  

As a consequence, public education today is facing a looming teacher shortage, as more veterans (especially teachers of color) are leaving the field, and teacher education programs are struggling to keep their enrollment up.   

I have been posting on this blog for well over a dozen years now, and to my great surprise one particular post from 2015 attracts about a dozen readers every single day, from all over the world.  It’s this one, in which I ask whether teaching is a real profession or just a job?   With the possible exception of my long exposé of Michelle Rhee’s deceptions, it is the most widely-read piece I’ve ever penned.

I’m betting many of the readers are teachers or would-be teachers.  Naturally, I nurse the hope that the current U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, will read it, because I don’t think the Administration is aware of public education’s dire situation.  These times call for aggressive (and progressive) action. Smaller classes, for openers.  

Unfortunately, Dr. Cardona and the Biden Administration seem to be serving up more of the ‘same old, same old:’  More high stakes standardized bubble testing, more close scrutiny of classrooms, more highly-paid supervisors, and ever more crowded classrooms.  

In a nutshell, we ought to be making it more difficult to BECOME a teacher but much easier to BE one.  We ought to raise salaries AND standards. Communities ought to decide on outcomes–what we want our children (all of them) to be able to do.  And then we have to learn to trust the men and women in our classrooms to do what’s necessary to achieve those outcomes.   I wrote about this in some detail in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”   If you are interested in learning more, it’s available from Amazon, although I’d prefer you get it from your local bookseller.

If you had teachers who made you a better, more complete person, shouldn’t you be acting to ensure that today’s children experience the same blessing?

Is Teaching a Profession, an Occupation, a Calling, or a Job?

(Because this 2015 essay continues to attract readers from around the world, I am reprinting it, edited to include contributions from thoughtful readers.)

“So, are they quitting because they’re fed up with their heavy-handed union bosses?” The hostility of the question took me by surprise. I was explaining to my dinner companion, a veteran lawyer, that 40% of teachers leave the field within five years, and right away he jumped to his anti-union conclusion disguised as a question.

No, I explained. Unions don’t seem to have anything to do with it; it’s most often related to working conditions: class size, discipline policies, and how much control and influence they have over their daily activities.

“It’s not money?” he asked, aggressively suspicious. Not according to surveys, I explained.

I described what I’d seen of a teacher’s daily work life. He interrupted, “How can it be a profession if you can’t take a leak when you need to?

While that’s not a criterion that social scientists use to define a profession, my cut-to-the-chase acquaintance might be onto something.

Can teaching be a true profession if you can’t take a bathroom break when nature calls?

(Many teachers were upset by that comment. Teacher Susan Graham wrote, “It seems to me that taking a bathroom break whenever the individual feels the urge has little to do with professionalism and a lot to do with time, context and management of workflow.  Do lawyers take a “potty break” when ever they want? I can’t remember a single episode of Law and Order where a recess was called for Jack McCoy to “take a leak” or “Claire Kincaid to “go to the ladies room.” Of course that’s just TV. A lawyer would tell you that they spend most of their time meeting with clients, collecting information, reviewing case history, meeting analyzing potential outcomes, negotiating with other lawyers, and preparing presentations. The courtroom is just the tip of the iceberg.
The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an awareness that the time in front of the classroom is the tip of the iceberg of teaching. No, teachers don’t get to “go” whenever they need to. For one thing, teachers are expected to practice in isolation, something neither “professionals” or “knowledge workers” rarely do. Not having “enough time to pee” isn’t as much of a complaint as not having enough time to plan, to assess student work, to collaborate with colleagues, to do or read research, to make meaningful contact with parents. Teachers don’t expect to stroll out of the classroom for a potty break any more than lawyers expect to “take a leak” during the middle of cross examining a witness. What they seek is acknowledgement that teaching is highly complex work.
Whether you call us “professionals” or “knowledge workers”, what we want is enough time to do our job well; the discretion to apply the knowledge and skills we have worked to acquire; sufficient collaboration to continue to inform and improve our practice; and respect for our intention to act in the best interest of our students.”)

Certainly, teachers and their supporters want teaching to be seen as a profession. They’ve won the linguistic battle. If you Google ‘the teaching profession,’ you’ll get nearly 3 billion references, while ‘teaching as an occupation’ and ‘the teaching occupation’ produce only 69 million.

Social scientists have no doubt about the status of teaching, according to Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania. “We do not refer to teaching as a profession. It doesn’t have the characteristics of those traditional professions like medicine, academia, dentistry, law, architecture, engineering, et cetera. It doesn’t have the pay, the status, the respect, the length of training, so from a scientific viewpoint teaching is not a profession.”  He carefully refers to teaching as an occupation, noting that it’s the largest occupation of all in the USA. And growing at a faster rate than the student population.

Jennifer Robinson, a teacher educator at Montclair State University in New Jersey, disagrees with Ingersoll. She believes our familiarity with teachers and schools breeds disrespect for teaching. “We don’t treat teaching as a profession because we’ve all gone to school and think we’re experts. Most people think, ‘Oh, I could do that,’ which we would never do with doctors.”

Robinson suggests that a significant part of our population–including lots of politicians–does not trust teachers. She cites the drumbeat of criticism in the media, blaming teachers for low test scores.

A common criticism is that teachers come from the lowest rungs of our academic ladder, a charge that Ingersoll says is simply not true. “About 10% of teachers come from institutions like McAlester, Yale and Penn,” he says. “Perhaps 25% come from the lowest quartile of colleges,” meaning that close to two-thirds of teachers attend the middle ranks of our colleges and universities.

According to Ingersoll, one hallmark of a profession is longevity, sticking with the work. In that respect, teaching doesn’t make the grade. As noted above, his research indicates that at least 40% of new teachers leave the field within five years, a rate of attrition that is comparable to police work. “Teaching has far higher turnover than those traditional professions, lawyers, professors, engineers, architects, doctors and accountants,” Ingersoll reports. Nurses tend to stick around longer than teachers. Who has higher quit rates, I asked him. “Prison guards, child care workers and secretaries.”

(The always thoughtful Curtis Johnson had a response: “There are now some 75 schools where teachers are in charge, have authority over everything that counts for student and school success. At EE we called them ‘teacher-powered’ schools. In these schools, the teachers are in fact professionals and turnover is very low. For readers who find this interesting, check it out at”)

(A contrary view came from James Noonan: “Harvard’s Howard Gardner may be best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, but he has spent a far larger proportion of his esteemed career studying the role of the professions in creating a more just and ethical world (see The framework that he and his colleagues developed would suggest that teaching (in the U.S.) is not a profession, but that’s not to say that its status is inevitable or immutable. Many countries and systems of education (like Finland, as you suggest, and Ontario and Singapore and a host of others) have placed teachers on par with other professionals and they have found great success.
        … Teaching is not a profession currently, but the first step in changing that is envisioning something different and creating spaces (like the “teacher-powered” schools mentioned above) where teachers can experience what true professionalism feels like.”)

Perhaps teaching is a calling? Those who teach score high on measures of empathy and concern for others and social progress, Ingersoll and others have noted. As a reporter and a parent, I have met thousands of teachers whose concern for their students was visible and admirable.

Trying to elevate the profession’s status (or arguing about it) is a waste of energy. That’s the view of Robert Runté, an associate professor of education at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. In a fascinating essay written more than 20 years ago, he wrote,

“Since one needs schools before one can have school teachers, teachers are stuck with their status as salaried employees working within large organizations. Teachers have always been and will always be subject to direction from their school board and the provincial bureaucracy. They are, to that degree at least, already proletarianized.  Consequently, the whole question of whether teaching is a profession, or can become one, is a red herring. The real issue is the degree to which teachers can resist deskilling and maintain some measure of autonomy within the school bureaucracy.”
                           (Thinking About Teaching: An Introduction. Toronto: Harcourt Brace, 1995)

To some, he may be going off the deep end when he asserts that the construct of ‘profession’ is a trumped-up label created to flatter workers and distinguish themselves from others.

The essay continues: “The only feature that ever really distinguished the professions from other occupations was the “professional” label itself. What we are is knowledge workers, and as such we have a responsibility to both ourselves and to the public to become reflective practitioners. As reflective practitioners we can reassert, first our ability, and then our right, to assume responsibility for the educational enterprise. We must stop worrying about unimportant issues of status and focus instead on the real and present danger of deskilling.”

(When this piece first appeared, reader Susan Johnson responded: A student of history knows that professions evolve over time. There was a time when a barber could do “surgery” and a lawyer could practice after being apprenticed to another lawyer. My own grandmother ran into trouble for delivering babies without the benefit of specialized training and credentials because that practice was fairly common in her place and time.
        When teachers first formed an association, they wanted the authority to make decisions about curriculum, instruction and personnel, but were only granted the ability to bargain for salaries, benefits, and working conditions. And so, this association became a union, which will only exist as long as teachers are not the decision-makers. So it is likely true that union bosses do not want to see professional independence for teachers. However, these unions have the potential to evolve into powerful professional organizations similar to the American Medical Association.
        But change is on the horizon: teachers are starting to take control of the schools in which they teach. When schools are run by teachers who make almost all decisions regarding curriculum, instruction, selection and retention of personnel, then they will be full professionals. When the next teacher shortage hits, and the “captive women” are no longer available to teach our children, I believe districts will start to offer professional autonomy to people willing to staff the nation’s classrooms.
        In the meantime, I hope talented young people who want to be teachers look for positions that guarantee professional autonomy. It’s time.”)

“Deskilling” is the enemy, a concerted effort to reduce teaching to mindless factory work. Remember that awful graphic in the film “Waiting for ‘Superman’” where the heads of students are opened up and ‘knowledge’ is poured in by teachers?  That’s how some politicians and education ‘reformers’ understand the role of schools and teachers. And how much skill does it take to pour a pitcher? Not much, and so why should we pay teachers more, or even give them job protection? Just measure how well they pour (using test scores of course), compare them to other teachers (value-added), and then get rid of the poor pourers. Bingo, education is reformed!

Teaching has taken some big hits in recent years, driven in great part by the education reform movement that argues, disingenuously, that “great teachers make all the difference.” This position allows them to ignore the very clear effects of poverty, poor nutrition, poor health and substandard housing on a child’s achievement.

Most parents are not fooled by this. Their respect for their children’s teachers and schools remains high, which must frustrate the Michelle Rhee/Campbell Brown/Democrats for Education Reform crowd.

So what’s to be done? Professor Lethbridge asserts that teachers should embrace their role of ‘knowledge workers,’ and I agree, sort of.  I believe that schools ought to be viewed as ‘knowledge factories’ in which the students are the workers, teachers are managers/foremen/supervisors, and knowledge is the factory’s product. In that model, students must be doing real work, an issue I wrote about recently.

To show respect for teaching and teachers, I suggest we leave the ‘profession/occupation’ argument to academics. Instead, let’s consider taking three steps:

1) Support leaders whose big question is “How is this child intelligent?” instead of “How intelligent is this child?”

2) Elect school board members who believe in inquiry-based learning, problem solving, effective uses of technology, and deeper learning.

3) Insist on changes in the structure of schools so that teachers have time to watch each other teach and to reflect on their work. These are standard operating procedures in Finland and other countries with effective educational systems.

Oh, and bathroom breaks when necessary….

That is how I ended my original essay.  This time, however, I want to close with this excerpt from “Teaching Ain’t Brain Surgery–It’s Tougher,”  a provocative essay by Richard Hersh, a distinguished former college president and a friend:
        “In 1983, school reform efforts were catalyzed by the report of “A Nation at Risk.” Reform to date has largely failed. Today we are a nation at greater risk educationally but the political pandering about “Leave No Child Behind” will get us nowhere because the issue of quality teaching is ignored.
High quality teaching is the single most important factor in helping students to learn, a truism confirmed by many years of research. This fact has been blithely ignored by critics and politicians attracted to the siren calls for facile remedies such as school uniforms, computers, vouchers, and the latest bromide, high-stakes testing. The result is inadequate student achievement and more than 50% of all teachers who leave teaching in the first three to five years of their career.
The reasons for this state-of-affairs are straightforward and swept under the rug– the training of teachers and the conditions for teaching are grossly inadequate. Moreover, in the face of an acknowledged short and long-term teacher shortage, the imperative for excellent teachers and teaching conditions is profoundly undermined by a patronizing “teaching ain’t brain surgery” mentality–the belief that anyone with an undergraduate degree can teach. Teachers in a very real sense operate on the brain too but teaching ain’t brain surgery–it’s tougher!
How are brain surgeons educated? Four years of undergraduate work, at least four arduous years of medical school, and several additional years of internships and residencies are required to master the knowledge and skills to operate on the finite topography of the brain. With such training, these superbly prepared surgeons are expected by society to operate on one anesthetized patient at a time supported by a team of doctors and nurses in the best equipped operating rooms money can buy. For this we gladly pay them handsomely.
How are teachers educated? They receive a spotty four-year undergraduate education with little clinical training. At best, an additional year for a Master’s degree is also required for professional certification. Teachers are expected by society to then enter their “operating rooms” containing 22-32 quite conscious “patients”, individually and collectively active. Often the room is poorly equipped, and rarely is help available as teachers also attempt to work wonders with the brain/mind, the psychological and emotional attributes of which are arguably as complex to master as anything a brain surgeon must learn. For this we gladly pay teachers little.
Conditions for professional service matter. Contemplate the results if our highly educated and trained brain surgeons were expected to work in the M.A.S.H. tent conditions equivalent to so many classrooms. In such an environment we would predictably see a much higher rate of failure.
                                                                         Or, consider if the roles were reversed-that brain surgeons were educated and rewarded as if teachers. It is virtually impossible to contemplate because it is hard to conceive of any of us willing to be operated on by someone with so little education or clinical training in a profession held in so much public disdain.                       We take for granted that the current professional education, training, rewards, and working conditions for brain surgeons are necessary and appropriate for the complexity and value of the work performed. Not so obvious is that teaching well in one elementary classroom or five or six secondary school classes each day is as difficult, complex, and as important a task as brain surgery. But to do it well, to be truly a profession, teachers require exponentially more education, training, better working conditions and rewards than are currently provided. Unless and until we acknowledge this reality we will not solve the teacher shortage crisis and school reform will inexorably fail.                                                    To guarantee excellent teachers, effective school reform, and ultimately high student achievement, we first need to understand that teaching is at least as complex and as difficult as brain surgery and requires significantly greater education, training, monetary reward and supportive operating conditions. …                     Transforming the education and training conditions is only one-half the solution. The “operating” conditions in schools to enable professional teaching practice must be radically altered. Elementary and secondary teachers today find themselves isolated in their classrooms. Teaching has become professionally stultifying. With the additional school burdens of violence, drugs, multiple languages, bureaucratic impositions, mainstreaming, and the obvious personal needs of so many students across all social and economic strata, is it really surprising to find that so few are willing to enter or remain in this calling? The best trained teachers will fail unless we provide a school setting that enables students and teachers to be successful.”


A Memo from the Superintendent

To: Our teachers and other educators

From: Your Superintendent

May 21, 2021

I am a lifelong public educator. My core beliefs reflect my devotion to the ideas and theories of John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Aristotle, Plato, Jean Piaget, and Sam Hinkie.  

For this particular testing season, I am relying on the wisdom of Sam Hinkie.

Many fear that a year of remote learning has hurt our neediest students, making it inevitable that they will perform poorly on the forthcoming standardized tests. However, the tests are the law, and we all should agree on a strategy that will help our students, our district, and our teachers. 

There are two options.  One is to begin intense ‘drill and kill’ test practice right away.  While this is monotonous and boring, D&K often produces quick upticks in scores, which leads to positive coverage in the media.  

(Of course, the steep ‘learning curve’ is ephemeral, and the “forgetting curve” that follows almost immediately is even more dramatic in the opposite direction.)

The teachings of Sam Hinkie point to another way.  More about that in a minute.

As you are aware, math and English Language Arts tests are mandated by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Law and the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act.  Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who has refused to cancel the tests, told an education group that student data obtained from the tests would help target resources where they are most needed.  He said, “We have to make sure we are laser-focused on addressing inequities that have existed for years. … Every bit of data helps.”

Basically, he wants to know which school districts are performing poorly in order to see that they get as much federal money as possible.  That seems to mean that districts whose students perform poorly will get MORE federal money. 

But what about the teachers whose students stink out the joint on these tests?  Will they be penalized or even fired?  Well, more than once Secretary Cardona has indicated that it would not be appropriate to judge teachers based on these scores.

Maybe he won’t evaluate teachers based on their students’ scores, but I intend to.  Classroom teachers whose students do NOT perform well will get MORE resources next year, including smaller classes and teaching aides.  That seems only right to me.

Now let’s explore the teachings of Sam Hinkie, a significant influence upon my thinking. Mr. Hinkie was the architect of the now fabulous Philadelphia 76ers NBA team. How did they get so good?  They did it by losing!  

Under Hinkie’s leadership, the team was just plain terrible…deliberately.  As Yaron Weitzman wrote, General Manager Hinkie realized that “The Sixers’ best chance at succeeding would involve acquiring as many high draft picks as possible. Since the worst teams get the highest drafts, Hinkie believed it would pay to be bad for multiple years. Few leaders in the history of sports have ever so willingly and aggressively sacrificed the present in order to chase a better future. Less than two months into the job Hinkie traded his team’s best player…..Hinkie didn’t stop there. Veterans were shipped out. Salary cap space was left unused, infuriating the players’ union. Hinkie never instructed his coaches to lose games; given the roster he handed them, he hardly needed to.”

As a die-hard fan of the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA, I am over the moon at how good they are this year.  Yes, they lost a lot of games in previous seasons, and some fans were upset, but I knew they were playing the long game.  They amassed a stockpile of high draft picks, chose some great players, and today my team is at the top of the heap as the NBA playoffs begin, with a real shot at winning the championship.

Like Sam Hinkie, I would never instruct my employees to do anything but their best. I want us to always keep the interests of our students and our school district in mind.  

So, please, please think long and hard about how to best help your students in the coming weeks.  

Go, 76ers!

Rethinking JFK’s “Ask not…..”

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”  John F. Kennedy issued that stirring challenge in his inaugural address sixty years ago, in January, 1961.  His words tapped into a wellspring of idealism and inspired many young Americans to join the Peace Corps or get otherwise involved in efforts to ‘improve the world around them.’

Sixty years later, the idea of national service is in the air.  Just over a year ago the non-partisan National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, which Congress created in 2017, issued its report, “Inspired to Serve,” and on the first Sunday of this month The New York Times devoted its lead editorial to the subject: “A Call to National Service”.  

In addition to reading reports and editorials about national service, I’ve also spoken with a few dozen of its supporters in the past two weeks, and nearly all of them believe that something must be done to pull our badly fractured country together.  National service just might do that, some of them argue cogently and persuasively. And, they say, it must be required because time is running out on our democracy.

That’s the all-important question: Should national service be mandatory? Should every citizen between the ages of 18-30 be required to spend two years in some sort of national service, whether military or otherwise?  

After all, the argument goes, Americans have rights and responsibilities, and shirking those responsibilities should not be allowed.

However, I think we are asking the wrong question. I suggest that it’s time to rewrite JFK’s stirring words. More about that below.

Start with facts: How many of us actually commit to serve our country?  According to the National Commission,

Today, nearly 24 million individuals participate in some form of military, national, or public service to meet critical national needs—security, disaster response, education, conservation, health care, housing, and more.  These efforts are formidable and have transformed lives, communities, and the Nation; but in a country of 329 million, imagine what more could be done if significantly more people were inspired and able to answer the call to serve. 

The National Commission says it discovered that millions more Americans are ready and willing to serve, but the opportunities are not there.  “Inspired to Serve” puts forth 164 recommendations, which the Commission believes will lead more citizens to enter public service, either for a time or as a career.  While the Commission wants to require all 18-year-olds (including women this time) to register for the Selective Service (i.e., the draft), it does not call for mandatory service.  Instead, it hopes that, if the country asks and expects service, it will eventually become a social norm, something ‘everyone’ does as a matter of course.  

In short, it wants us to be inspired–but not required–to serve our country.

When The Times asks about requiring service, it does it somewhat rhetorically:  

What could be objectionable in asking all young people to pause before plunging into the scramble of adult life to donate some of their time and energies to some socially beneficial, critically needed service at home or abroad?

It would be an introduction to the responsibilities of citizenship, a communion with different layers of society and people of different backgrounds, a taste of different life paths. It could even be rewarded by credits toward tuition at a public university or other federal benefits, much as the G.I. Bill did for some veterans in years past.

In the end, however, The Times seems to agree that ‘coerced service is not service.’ Like the Commission, it hopes national service will become a ‘social norm.’

So, like JFK, The Times concludes that we should ask….

Asking young Americans for a year of their time for their country would be a powerful way to inculcate that call to service. It would not be a panacea for America’s troubles, of course. But a year in which barriers of race, class and income were breached, working in areas like under resourced schools, national parks or the military, where the fruits of service were real and beneficial, could help restore a measure of the community, commitment and hope that America cries out for.

I think that national service ought to be a priority of the Biden Administration and the Congress.  Let’s create more opportunities, and let’s provide all sorts of incentives, including financial support for education and training post-service.  I’m certain that many millions of young Americans are eager to do something concrete and significant to support our country. They want to feel that they are contributing to improving the world beyond their own immediate environs.

But don’t JFK’s two statements–“Ask not..” and “Ask..”–seem to imply that a lot of Americans were doing the opposite, expecting handouts while offering little in return?  Takers, not givers?  In the 1980’s President Reagan’s Secretary of Education William Bennett railed against college students for their supposed materialism. Today some politicians are demanding both ‘free college’ and debt loan forgiveness.  Are we in danger of becoming “A nation of takers,” as I have heard a few say?

That’s a red herring, in my view. I think that only a few–the top 1% and the big corporations that dodge taxes–are the takers, paying ridiculously low taxes. Most of us are already giving, or are willing.  

I believe that 2021 demands a different question:  Why does the richest country in the world tolerate treating its least fortunate so poorly?  

Even with the President’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, child poverty is a national disgrace…..or ought to be.  

Everyone paying attention must know that Health care for most poor children is inadequate and often abysmal.  The pandemic revealed the gaping fault lines in educational opportunity, the so-called ‘digital divide’ between rich and poor.

Sadly, grinding poverty is not “new news” in the United States. Michael Harrington famously brought it to our attention in 1962 in “The Other America.”  And today the great Nicolas Kristoff in The New York  Times does his best to keep the issue in front of us.  

So, I propose dumping the “Ask not” and “Ask” formulation and  rewriting JFK thusly: “Ask Why The Richest County in the World Denies Its Least Fortunate Citizens Adequate Health Care, Nutrition, Housing, and Education.”   

Followed by “Now Ask Yourself What You Are Going to Do About It.”

Because there’s plenty we can do, including, of course, national, state, and local service.  

More: Voter registration. Food banks. Tutoring. Local gardens. Anti-racism forums. Habitat for Humanity.  Meals on Wheels. And we can also throw our political support to politicians who will vote for higher taxes on the wealthy, and end to the loopholes that allow big corporations to pay NO taxes at all, and a beefed up IRS to catch tax cheaters.  

The best time to do something about this crisis was years ago. The second best time is now…….

Think of Children as POW’s, and Act Accordingly

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fault lines in our society, including in public education.  Thankfully, nearly all our children and youth have survived, but many went through harrowing experiences, including serious illnesses and deaths of family and friends.  Some of our young have prospered, thanks to their parents’ wealth and savvy, but many more have been left out, left behind, and deeply scarred.  

Soon almost all our young people will be back in school buildings, for what one might call ‘brick-and-mortar learning.’  What should that look like?  What should happen in classrooms? Will there be a mindless rush to measure “learning loss” and then ‘catch up,’ or will the adults in charge recognize the gravity of what most kids have experienced?

I suggest that we think of our children as recently freed Prisoners of War who’ve been kept in isolation for months.  They have endured unprecedented and often harrowing experiences, and they’ve also endured endless stretches of boredom. They now need time and space to process what they have been through.  They need to learn how to be together. Basically, they need a safe way to re-enter society. 

We don’t want to go back to ‘normal,’ not now and not ever!  Pre-COVID, most schools were uncomfortable and even unsafe for many youngsters, who were bullied and teased and victimized by their peers, conscious of their place in the dreaded pecking order.  Modern electronics made this harassment easier, even allowed it to be anonymous.

To become safe places for all children and youth, schools need both time and space. That means rethinking the daily schedule.  For openers, make the Middle School and High School morning ‘homeroom’ period–normally just a few minutes–into a 30-45 minute period that can be used for discussion of salient issues. No electronics allowed, and no topics off the table.  Set some rules, including “What’s said here, stays here” and “Treat everyone else the way you want to be treated” (which is, of course, a variation of The Golden Rule.) 

Because elementary school kids stay with one teacher all day, the approach should vary. I think teachers should invite/challenge their students to come up with rules for classroom behavior.  Let them spend as long as necessary debating the rules they want to live by, instead of slapping up a laminated poster listing the rules.  Allow students space and freedom to talk about their experiences during COVID, because they are now getting accustomed to being with their peers, in person.   My strong hunch is that they will come up with their own version of ‘The Golden Rule.’

Looking back at what I’ve posted in this space during the pandemic, I’m afraid I sound a bit like a broken record about the importance of creating schools that respect students, teachers, and learning.  

Here’s what I wrote in June, 2020, 11 months ago:  Create a school environment that is physically, emotionally, and intellectually safe for every child.  Physical safety is the easiest of those three.  Emotional safety means more than adults keeping their antenna alert for bullying.  A more effective strategy is to enlist student leaders in this effort, to persuade them to set the bar high and to communicate to other students about bullying and other harassment:  “We don’t do that here!”   In an intellectually safe environment, it’s cool to ask questions and be curious, and it’s admirable to acknowledge when a student isn’t grasping a concept or understanding what the teacher just said.  Displaying ignorance in pursuit of knowledge is to be expected and encouraged, not mocked.”  

Back in July, 2020, I argued that it would take a village to open schools safely. “When public schools closed during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the Federal Government responded with funding to hire school nurses.  Because only 60% of today’s schools have full-time nurses and 25% have no nurse at all, Congress should do that.  But it should also provide emergency funding to rent supplemental space, pay for Covid-19 testing and PPE, buy liability insurance, and pay teacher aides.” 

I wrote this in February:  “This school year is unlike any other. For those students who have been able to stay on track, congratulations and Godspeed.  But for those whose lives have been turned upside down, they have not failed!  They shouldn’t have to go to summer school, have their ‘learning loss’ measured and published, or be held back.”  

One year ago I wondered how learning should be assessed, and I’m still asking that question.  

 “Pass/Fail” may end up being the popular option, although hard-working students and dedicated teachers will object, because that ‘one size fits all’ approach discounts their efforts.  Randi Weingarten, the sensible President of the American Federation of Teachers, believes teachers and students should design ‘capstone projects.’  “We’ve got to trust educators and students to come up with meaningful projects that demonstrate student learning, and to do so in ways that minimize the inequalities of the digital divide,” she wrote in an email. “Before the pandemic, most students had seven months of learning, so let’s end the year with meaningful projects.” 

In December, 2020, I made these suggestions for schools when they reopen: 

1. Make the institution more (small d) democratic. 

2. Give students more agency over their own learning. 

3. Give kids time and space to get accustomed to being with peers, even socially distanced, for the first time in many months.  

4. Social and emotional learning may matter more than book-learning for these first weeks and months, because we don’t know the effects of isolation. 

5. Lots of free play. 

6. And maybe this is (finally) the time to move away from age segregation and group children instead according to the interests and their level of accomplishment.  

7. Finally, NO hand-wringing about ‘remediation’ or ‘learning loss,’ because that’s blaming the victim, big time.

At this moment in late April, 2021, I am not particularly optimistic about the future. Sadly, too many School Boards did not see this crisis as an opportunity, and, like many others, I am deeply disappointed that our new Secretary of Education refuses to abandon high-stakes standardized testing. 

On the plus side, public schools will get a large infusion of federal funds to allow them to be properly ventilated and brought up to (technological) speed.  

And never forget that children are resilient…….

The “Learning Loss” Pandemic

“Learning Loss” has grown to pandemic proportions, devastating the lives of millions of young people, particularly here in the United States.  

Worse yet, “Learning Loss” is mutating, and today an astounding 16 different and uniquely challenging manifestations have been identified.  To save their students, our teachers will need to acquire a specific skill set that will enable them to identify, diagnose, and treat this dizzying array of “Learning Loss.”  

Not only are there 16 varieties; there are also degrees of “Learning Loss.”  Unfortunately, some so-called experts rate “Learning Loss” as First Degree, Second Degree, and Third Degree without specifying whether they are using the BURN scale or the MURDER scale. That’s confusing because, while a First Degree Burn is mild, First Degree Murder is the most extreme charge.  Similarly, a Third Degree Burn is life-threatening, while Third Degree Murder is the least serious murder charge (though the victim probably doesn’t care about the distinction).  

Amidst all this confusion, there is good news: Teachers can be trained to recognize and treat “Learning Loss.”  This must be our nation’s first priority in the battle against “Learning Loss.”   As in the fight against COVID-19, we must first inoculate schooling’s front-line workers, the teachers.  

Fortunately for America’s students, the educational equivalent of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is now available for teachers.  A wonderful new video series demonstrates how to undo the damage done by “Learning Loss.”  With their practical content and easy-to-follow procedures, these videos put the joy back into teaching….and enable teachers to rescue our children.

In these commercially available but non-profit training videos, “Learning Loss” is categorized as ‘Serious,’ ‘Moderate,’ or ‘Mild.’  No confusion there….unlike some profit-seeking competitors.

The traditional standardized test–a blunt instrument–simply cannot be trusted to pick up either “Literal Learning Loss” or the more subtle “Latent Learning Loss.”  What’s needed is the specific but teachable skill of ‘Listening for Learning Loss.”  With the help of this remarkable video series, a competent professional can master these techniques in a matter of days. 

Full disclosure:  I am the creator and host of the trademarked, patented video series, “Learning Loss Lessons.”  Those who purchase it will learn about the 16 varieties of “Learning Loss” as well as two important general skills, “Labelling Learning Loss,” and “Limiting Learning Loss.” 

The specific forms of “Learning Loss” covered in the series include two language arts deficits, “Literary Learning Loss” and “Lyrical Learning Loss” and four that are specific to the realm of mathematics and scientific reasoning: “Logarithmic Learning Loss,” “Logical Learning Loss,” “Linear Learning Loss,” and “Literal Learning Loss.”

My ground-breaking series also identifies subtle forms of “Learning Loss” that are related to the increasingly important realm of social and emotional skills, including “Listless (or Lethargic) Learning Loss,” “Lukewarm Learning Loss,” “Laconic Learning Loss,” “Likeable Learning Loss,“Lapsed Learning Loss,” and (most difficult to overcome) ‘Lunchroom Learning Loss.”

Once teachers have completed watching the videos and mastering the prescribed techniques, they will feel confident when meeting with concerned parents.  Soon they will be having conversations like the following, recorded recently in Washington, DC: 

TEACHER: “Mr. and Mrs. Petrillo, your son, Chester, suffers from moderate “Literary Learning Loss” and mild “Longitudinal Learning Loss.” 

PARENTS: “Thank heaven you have been able to diagnose Chester’s problem.  We knew something was wrong but have been at our wit’s end.  What can you do for him?

TEACHER:  “Fortunately for Chester, the path to a complete recovery is straightforward.  First, a dose of  what I call “Dynamic Rejection of Individual Learning Loss,” or D.R.I.L.L.  That will be followed by “Kicking Individual Learning Loss,” or K.I.L.L.  With enough D.R.I.L.L. and K.I.L.L., Chester will be inoculated against “Learning Loss,” and soon he will be experiencing school as he did in the good old days.”

PARENTS: “Thank you so much.  This is such a relief.”

Imagine how reassuring this will be for teachers, administrators, School Board members, and everyone else who wants schools to keep doing things the way they’ve always done them.

The penultimate video in the series shows teachers and other professionals how to create and celebrate a “League of Learning Leaders,” its membership consisting of students who, thanks to extensive D.R.I.L.L. and K.I.L.L., have overcome their deficits.  

School Districts may use funds from the COVID-19 Relief Act to pay for this vital professional development training for their teachers.  And attorneys for Boards of Education will be pleased to learn that the vital issue of “Limiting Learning Loss Liability” is covered in detail.  

Some argue that education’s first priority ought to be more counselors to counter the mental health damages done by a year without peers and countless hours staring at screens, but I believe schools should first purchase these valuable videos for their teachers.  If there’s money left over, then by all means get extra services for the kids. 

Here’s some pricing information about my valuable series.  

The final video in the series, “Lucrative Learning Loss,” is largely autobiographical.

Basketball’s “March Madness” and School’s “Spring Stupidity”

Because the annual NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championships are underway, I’d like to draw an analogy between Basketball’s “March Madness and the “Spring Stupidity” of Standardized Testing, which the Biden Administration is bent on enforcing.

Let’s start with what’s likely to be on the tests. This sample problem was offered by the University of Wisconsin/Oshkosh to high school math teachers and was designed to help ‘Close the Math Achievement Gap.’

Jack shot a deer that weighed 321 pounds. Tom shot a deer that weighed 289 pounds.   How much more did Jack’s deer weigh than Tom’s deer?

Here’s another question, which I found on a high school math test in Oregon:

There are 6 snakes in a certain valley.  The population doubles every year. In how many years will there be 96 snakes?

a. 2

b. 3

c. 4

d. 8

These high school math problems require simple numeracy at most.  With enough practice, just about anyone can solve undemanding problems like that–and consequently feel confident of their ability–even though their abilities have neither been stretched nor challenged.

School is supposed to be preparation for life, but spending time on problems like those is like trying to become an NCAA-level basketball player by shooting free throws all day long.  To excel at basketball, players must work on all aspects of the game: jump shots, dribbling, throwing chest and bounce passes, positioning for rebounds, running the pick-and-roll and—occasionally–practicing free throws.

Come to think of it, basketball and life are similar. Both are about rhythm and motion, teamwork and individual play, offense and defense.  Like life, it can slow down or become frenetic. Basketball requires thinking fast, shifting roles and having your teammates’ backs.  Successful players know when to shoot and when to pass. As in life, failure is part of the game.  Even the greatest players miss over half of their shots, and some (Michael Jordan!) are cut from their high school teams.  And life doesn’t give us many free throw opportunities.  But if school is supposed to be preparation for life, why are American high school students being asked to count on their fingers?  That mind-numbing and trivial work is the educational equivalent of shooting free throws.

If schools stick with undemanding curricula and boring questions, our kids will be stuck at the free throw line, practicing something they will rarely be called upon to do in real life.  And they won’t be prepared for the challenges that await them.

Here’s the sort of realistic problem–taken from an international test–that ought to be given, because it challenges students to think.

Mount Fuji is a famous dormant volcano in Japan.  The walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometers (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 pm, which is when the park closes and the gates are locked.

Two 16-year-olds estimate that they can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometers per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times.

Using their estimated speeds, what is the latest time they can begin their walk so that they can return by 8PM and not be locked in the park for the night?

This is obviously not a multiple-choice question.  To get the correct answer, students have to read carefully and then perform a number of calculations.  Incidentally, the correct answer (11 AM) was provided by 55 percent of the Shanghai 15-year-olds but just 9 percent of the US students in that age group.

Ironically, the test results revealed that American students score high in ‘confidence in mathematical ability,’ despite underperforming their peers in most other countries.  Can it be that their misplaced confidence is the direct result spending too much time practicing the mathematical equivalent of shooting free throws?

No decent basketball coach would dream of getting his or her players ready for games by focusing on free throws; in truth, any coach who tried that would be fired in a heartbeat.

And no players with ambition would put up with such a benighted approach to their sport.

But let’s be clear: The misguided decision to proceed with national testing means that students will spend their first months at school practicing mathematical free throws.

In this year of COVID, mandatory standardized testing and the inevitable test-prep that will precede the tests amount to curiosity-killing, talent-destroying educational malpractice.

I urge you to take a break from the NCAA Tournaments and write your Senators and Representatives. Write your State and local school boards. Write the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona. Let everyone know that America’s children deserve school experiences that will stretch and challenge them, not bore and demean them.

Cancel the F**king Tests!

Last week in this space I put forth nine reasons why it was absolutely essential that students be required to take machine-scored, multiple-choice bubble tests once they return to school. This was an entirely facetious essay that maintained, among other things, that NOT giving tests would cause an economic recession but that GIVING tests would make it easier for students to social distance because they would be chained to their desks for hours.

Because a few readers thought I was being serious, I thought it might be helpful to try to state directly and clearly how I really feel. Let me put it in caps, the typed equivalent of shouting from the rooftop, to make things perfectly clear: REQUIRING TESTS THIS SPRING WOULD BE CHILD ABUSE! Because this school year has been unpredictable, abnormal, and inconsistent, why would anyone expect anything but skewed (screwed up) data from mandatory tests, particularly because students who have been ‘remotely schooled’ all year do not have to take the tests, and no one is clear yet about how the tests would be administered to students now attending remotely? It’s a disaster waiting to happen, and anyone who cares about children should be demanding that the tests be cancelled.

When running for the Democratic nomination, candidate Biden told an audience of teachers in Pittsburgh that he was strongly opposed to mandated high-stakes testing. I was there and heard his pledge.

But in February of this year, President Biden’s Education Department said that states must give the tests mandated by ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act, although the proclamation allowed states to request waivers and created some loopholes. Since that surprise announcement, many activists have been pressuring the Biden Administration to reverse the decision–and to keep his promise. No luck so far!!

Covid-19 revealed the depths of the inequalities in our society, including in public education, and we don’t need bubble tests to prove the point. You can find thoughtful discussions here and here.

The education historian turned activist Diane Ravitch summarized the problems with ever giving these machine-scored, multiple-choice bubble tests, whose scores, by the way, largely reflect the test-taker’s zip code, family income, and parental education :

The tests are administered to students annually in March and early April. Teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions. The test results are returned to the schools in August or September. The students have different teachers by then. Their new teachers see their students’ scores but they are not allowed to know which questions the students got right or wrong.This would be like going to a doctor with a pain in your stomach. The doctor gives you a battery of tests and says she will have the results in six months. When the results are reported, the doctor tells you that you are in the 45th percentile compared to others with a similar pain, but she doesn’t prescribe any medication because the test doesn’t say what caused your pain or where it is situated.

I gave this post the title “Cancel The F**king Tests!”, but in case that doesn’t happen, I hope (SHOUTING NOW) that parents and their children will BOYCOTT THE F**KING TESTS!”

Here’s a useful guide from FairTest on how to boycott them.

Cancelling State Tests WILL Cause a Recession

Many on the left are raising a stink about the US Department of Education’s insistence on having states give their annual tests. Critics say it’s unfair because most students haven’t been in physical schools for about a year.  These critics also maintain that it’s unnecessarily stressful to test students now. What’s more, some even propose sensible alternatives to machine-scored bubble tests, but don’t be fooled by the clarity of their logic or the power of their examples, because these hysterical objections only serve to demonstrate that the critics of machine-scored, multiple-choice bubble tests fail to understand that standardized testing is an important driver of the US economy.

Please consider these NINE economic consequences of cancelling machine-scored tests. 

  1. Cancelling standardized tests will endanger the health of students and teachers.  Both test-prep and testing are natural environments for social distancing; students who are required to stay at their desks all day long are not at risk of either passing on or catching COVID.  That’s a win-win that would be a loss if tests were cancelled.
  2. Not testing will unsettle students, endangering their already shaky mental health. The rhythm of test-prep and testing is well-known and familiar to students.  What could be better for students who have been trapped on Zoom for months than to have the familiar Zen-like peace-and-quiet of test prep and testing?  
  3. The companies that create, administer and process these tests are a vital cog in our national economy, employing thousands of men and women, who then spend their earnings in their communities, thus seeding local economies.  Suppose our 13,000+ school districts were to cancel the (often) multi-million dollar contracts? That would devastate those companies and the lives of their employees. 
  4. Vital educational research will be jeopardized.  The 400+ full-bore studies of “Learning Loss” would be useless without the results of this year’s mandated standardized tests.  Although it’s a foregone conclusion that these studies will demonstrate the reality of “The Achievement Gap,” those headlines will enable us to continue the practice of not having to capitalize either opportunity and expectations gaps, meaning that we can continue to pretend they are not real.  
  5. Cancelling testing will overturn lives.  Somewhere between 175 and 35,000 doctoral students are close to finishing their dissertations on “Learning Loss.”  Without data from this spring’s state tests, they will be unable to complete their theses, unable to sit for their oral exams, and unable to qualify for their doctoral degrees.  This will mean an additional year of graduate school tuition and hardship for the struggling families of the graduate students, who may also have to postpone child-bearing for another year.  Heartbreak and even divorce loom on the horizon for many of these families….if state testing is cancelled.
  6. Cancelling tests will completely derail the planned boom in in-service training for teachers regarding “Learning Loss.” With grants from the Gates Foundations and other organizations determined to reform public education, teams of skilled teacher-educators have spent months preparing extensive lessons for teachers to give them the skills they need to deal with the dreaded “Learning Loss.” Without weeks of after-school training, classroom teachers will not be able to identify the various forms of “Learning Loss,” which include ‘Lopsided Learning Loss,’ ‘Linear Learning Loss,’ ‘Logical Learning Loss,’ ‘Logarithmic Learning Loss,’ among many others. The trainers must have the data that standardized tests will provide.
  7. Cancelling tests will drastically reduce the incomes of child psychiatrists and psychologists, many of whom are called on to help despondent teens cope with the stress of testing. These doctors, humanitarians to the core, spend their well-earned dollars in their communities, and that money cycles through over and over, strengthening our economy. Without the stress of testing, young kids won’t need doctors, and the economy will sink.
  8. Cancelling tests will also hurt the bottom line of pharmaceutical companies, who rely on sales of Ritalin, Adderall, and other methylphenidate-based medications to keep their profits up. And before you scoff, those profits go to shareholders, who in turn pump the money into local economies when they purchase a new Tesla, a larger home, or a new polo pony
  9. Cancelling testing will endanger the health of universities.  Pre-COVID, the focus on test prep and testing guaranteed that every year at least 100,000 teachers would get fed up and leave the profession for some other line of work. This created a perpetual ‘teacher shortage’ that university schools of education could rely on as they prepared their budgets. That is, they knew that school districts would have jobs for their graduates, and so they could aggressively recruit students and train them for classroom work.  Cancelling testing will mean that teachers will actually be able to do what drew them into the field–help students learn and grow.  This means that fewer teachers will give up on teaching, districts won’t have teacher shortages, university education programs will shrink, education faculty will lose their jobs, and lives will wither.  All because we cancelled state standardized testing.

I will admit that some students (perhaps even all of them) would benefit from returning to a pressure-free school environment so they can get reacquainted with their peers. And I also acknowledge that some teachers (perhaps even all of them as well) should not have their worth determined by unreliable test scores. 

However, those are necessary sacrifices and small prices for students and teachers to pay, because cancelling testing will endanger our national economy.


What To Do About the Dreaded”Tennis Loss”

Imagine for a moment that you are an excellent tennis player who regularly ranks in the Top Ten in your age group and in your state.  You have an excellent first serve that you can place with pinpoint accuracy, a reliable second serve, a devastating two-hand backhand, and a well-disguised drop shot that befuddles opponents.  What’s more, you cover the court with surprising speed and agility and have developed an impressive deep topspin lob.  You invariably bring home some silver in local tournaments, and in state tournaments you are a good bet to reach–at minimum– the quarterfinals.

Then came the pandemic. You haven’t been able to play tennis since March, 2020, because all the courts and public clubs were shut down.  Some of your wealthy competitors have their own courts or have been able to play on private courts belonging to friends.  Not you…..

Now the ban has been lifted, and you and your coach have just begun to work on all aspects of your game–your first serve, second serve, drop shot, two-hand backhand, and topspin lob–because a weakness in any one aspect of your game will invariably mean defeat.  At this level, opponents are quick to sniff out deficiencies and take advantage of them. 

However, on the very day that you and your coach begin working in earnest, a directive comes from from the state office that coordinates tournaments and–critically–determines rankings. It says that, out of concern for “Tennis Loss” and in the absence of tournament results, rankings will be determined by a performance test that will be administered state-wide in one month. Players wishing to be ranked must send a time-stamped videotape that shows the player delivering 50 first serves.  The state will then evaluate the tapes based on accuracy, placement, and speed, and the results will determine everyone’s ranking for the following year.

Only first serves!  No other aspect of one’s game matters, which means that, if you care about where you are ranked, you will not work on the rest of your game, just your first serve.

You could opt out of the test, of course, but that would mean, come tournament time, you would have to hope the directors will cut you some slack.  Maybe they will give you a wild card entry, although wild card entries are little more than opening round sacrificial lambs for the top-ranked players.

It’s a classic lose-lose situation: If you ignore the other aspects of your game and just work on your first serve, you may end up with a good ranking but a crummy all-around game. But if you opt out of the test and instead develop your complete game, you won’t be ranked and probably won’t get into tournaments.

If you’ve read this far, you know that I am actually writing about the Biden Administration’s recent decision to plunge ahead with the mandated standardized bubble tests, despite then-candidate Biden’s public promise to the contrary at a gathering in Pittsburgh. I was there and heard him make the promise.   Why is he going back on that promise? Perhaps he’s been so busy with the pandemic, climate change, Iran, Russia, China, et cetera that this idiotic announcement slipped through unnoticed.

Let’s make him aware of what is being done in his name!

Consider public education’s current circumstances: The pandemic closed down physical school for well over half of students last Spring.  ‘Virtual school’ was a mixed bag across the country, a struggle for teachers, and an abyss for children in families without access to high-speed internet or space at home for them to work without interruption.

Like my hypothetical tennis player, what American students need now is the opportunity to work on all aspects of their game, and that includes relearning how to work with other kids after months and months of isolation.  It means lots of free play, games with other children. It means interesting team projects, preferably ones that involve both classmates and peers from other schools, other towns, other states (and maybe even other countries).  It means opportunities for young people to talk and write about their experiences over recent months.

Doing these things would give trained professionals the time and opportunity to assess the needs of their students.  And by ‘needs,’ I mean educational, physical, emotional, nutritional, et alia.

But because the powers-that-be have blathered on about “Learning Loss,” they have decided that one standardized, machine-scored bubble test will be all-powerful, even though it may be given on-line to some students and under wildly different conditions for other students.  

(A reminder: the term ‘standardized test’ means that the test is given under standard conditions—everybody follows the same rules.)

Because of the Biden Administration’s decision (made, incidentally, before the new Secretary of Education was confirmed), many public schools will focus on test-prep, and on the narrow subjects the test will cover.  Say goodbye (again) to art, music, physical education, extra-curricular activities, and recess.  Just get back to doing what we’ve done since at least 2001 and “No Child Left Behind.”   And the results are completely predictable: students in the wealthy suburbs will do well, and some politicians and so-called ‘reformers’ will spew their usual nonsense about “The Achievement Gap,” and nothing will change.

Ask yourself who benefits besides the established order.  Maybe follow the money??

For a clearer look at how ridiculous and harmful the Biden Administration decision is, read this

You, my hypothetical tennis player, do have one other option: Band together with other ranked tennis players in your state and simply refuse to cooperate.  If enough of you take a stand, the authorities will eventually have to give in because they will have no way of creating rankings.

And students, their families, teachers, local school boards, and state education agencies also have that option.  It’s your serve, people!