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:

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, 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.)

While I Wasn’t Paying Attention……

To be honest, the slow-motion train wreck known as the Trump presidency has absorbed most of my energy lately, and so I haven’t been paying close attention to public education.  However, during all this mess, 50.7 million K-12 students, 3.6 million of their teachers, 16 million college students, and their 1.6 million teachers have been going about their business.

Think about that for a minute.  A social studies teacher right now is a modern-day Hamlet.  Should he or she embrace the chaos and encourage students to debate the morality of the flood of demonstrable lies coming from the Oval Office on a daily basis, knowing that doing so is guaranteed to incur the wrath of some parents, and perhaps some administrators as well?  Or should the teacher studiously avoid controversy, knowing full well that doing that sends a powerful value-laden message?  To teach, or not to teach, that is the question…..

Or suppose you were an elementary school teacher trying to model appropriate behavior for your impressionable students.  How do you respond when one of your kids asks you why the President said Joe Biden was kissing Barack Obama’s ass?  Or why Trump can say ‘bullshit’ but kids get punished for swearing?

During my time ‘off task,’ the flood of charter school scandals has continued.  I wish this weren’t the case because the idea of giving school-based educators authority of what’s being taught and how learning is being assessed is a good one. Unfortunately, too many people in charter world care more about ideology and money than they do about integrity and children.  You can catch up on all the scandals here…and I urge you to bookmark this page.

While I was looking elsewhere, our controversial Secretary of Education has continued her assault on public education…including public charter schools, by the way.  She’s a voucher proponent, especially if the vouchers are used for Christian schools. When historians write the record of the Trump presidency, Betsy DeVos may be only a footnote, but she has been quietly working to undermine public education from Day One.  

In her forthcoming book, the tireless Diane Ravitch documents how Secretary DeVos and other anti-public education forces (which she dubs “Goliath”) are being defeated.  “Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools” will be published by Knopf in January.

DeVos’s unremitting hostility, however, has created an opportunity for people at the local level to take charge.  Happily, many are. Exhibit A is the push for less testing and more recess, sparked by an important new book by Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle, “Let the Children Play: Why More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive.”  

However, anyone pushing for change in schools, whether it’s more recess or fewer standardized tests, must insist on hard data, because unless educators are required to keep track of, and report publicly on, what’s happening, it probably won’t happen!  

With apologies for my own bumper-sticker mentality, I offer these three words: “Measure What Matters.”  Yes, it fits easily on a bumper sticker, but–better yet–it is unambiguous: 

           1) Figure out what we care about in education (I.E. recess, the arts); and 

           2) Count and measure whether they are happening.  

So if you care about recess and free play, demand to know how many hours of both children have each week.  School people are smart enough to figure out that a low number is a bad answer.  Want children to be exposed to and enjoy the arts in schools?  Then you must demand to know how many hours of art, music, theatre et cetera students have each week.  

And so on down the line.  We have to learn to Measure What We Value, instead of simply Valuing What We Measure.

Most schools approach measurement  the wrong way. Instead of measuring what matters, they value what’s easy (and inexpensive) to measure….but they are only following the public’s lead.  So we have ended up with ‘Test and Punish (teachers)” policies.  A healthier approach would be to “Assess to Improve,’ with assessment as a tool to help both students and teachers get better.  The contrast between “Assess to Improve” and “Test to Punish” could not be more stark.

Speaking of testing, we spend too much money and too little on testing and assessment.  Basically, we buy lots of cheap tests and administer them to every student in grades 3-10, sometimes more.  The bill for this comes to tens of billions of dollars a year, according to FairTest. How much varies widely from state to state.  “(T)he 45 states from which we obtained data spend a combined $669 million per year on their primary assessment contracts, or $27 per pupil in grades 3-9, with six testing vendors accounting for 89 percent of this total. Per pupil spending varies significantly across states, with Oregon ($13 per student), Georgia ($14), and California ($16) among the lowest-spending states, and Massachusetts ($64), Delaware ($73), and Hawaii ($105) among the highest spending,” according to Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution.

To put this in perspective, consider how much you spend having your car ‘assessed’ every year.  The annual tuneup for my 2002 Toyota Four Runner costs about $200. Ironically, I bought the car in California, which spends $16 per child on state assessments, just eight percent of what I spend assessing my car’s condition!

Since you’ve read this far, perhaps you will allow me to vent about the stupidity of much mass-testing.  Basically, we have dumbed down tests because we expect so little of our young people…and because we want above all to have high test scores.  Some idiots somewhere decided that the best way to get higher scores is to ask dumb and dumber questions.

The vapidity of some of these questions may also help you grasp why American students score lower than their counterparts in most advanced nations.   The first 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?

Basic subtraction for high school students?   My second example comes from TeacherVision, part of Pearson, the giant testing company:

Linda is paddling upstream in a canoe. She can travel 2 miles upstream in 45 minutes. After this strenuous exercise she must rest for 15 minutes. While she is resting, the canoe floats downstream ½ mile. How long will it take Linda to travel 8 miles upstream in this manner?

This question’s premise is questionable.  Will some students be distracted by Linda’s cluelessness?  Won’t they ask themselves how long it will take her to figure out that she should grab hold of a branch while she’s resting in order to keep from floating back down the river?  What’s the not-so-subtle subtext? That girls don’t belong in canoes? That girls are dumb?

I found my third sample question (I’m calling it “Snakes”) 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?

  1. 2
  2. 3
  3. 4
  4. 8

These three 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.

School is supposed to be preparation for life, but spending time on problems like those three is like trying to become an excellent basketball player by shooting free throws all day long.  To be good 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 preparing young people 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.  If (under the flag of ‘greater rigor’) we ditch those boring questions in favor of  lifeless questions, schools will turn off the very kids they are trying to reach, the 99 percent who are not destined to become mathematicians.

My fourth example, ‘Fuji,’ was given to 15-year-olds around the world on a test known as PISA (for Programme in International Student Assessment):

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.  The correct answer (11 AM) was provided by 55 percent of the Shanghai 15-year-olds but just 9 percent of the US students.

Ironically, the PISA results revealed that American kids score high in ‘confidence in mathematical ability,’ despite underperforming their peers in most other countries.  I wonder if their misplaced confidence is the result of too many problems like ‘Snakes.’

To conclude, we should require schools to report hard numbers about the things that matter. 

   How many hours of music per week for all students?

   How many hours of science?

   How many hours of recess?

   How many hours of organized physical education?

   How many hours of sustained silent reading?

To repeat myself, educators would 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.

(For more about this issue, please see my book,  “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”) 

Thanks. Please post your comments on



I begin with the negative, but I promise that–if you stick it out–you will encounter a vision of what teaching could be.

The first question: is teaching a calling, a profession, or just another job?  

“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 on to something.

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

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 about three times more references than  ‘teaching as an occupation’ or ‘the teaching occupation.’

Social scientists have no doubt about the low status of teaching.  Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania says, “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 Macalester, 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.”

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 on the faculty of education at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. In a fascinating essay that’s now 20 years old, 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.”

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 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.

“Deskilling” is the enemy, a concerted effort to reduce teaching to mindless factory work. Remember that awful graphic in “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 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.

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.

It’s not all grim.  Curtis Johnson of Education Evolving notes that 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”

And Susan Graham, a teacher, has her own suggestion: “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.”

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

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

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

3) Insisting 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 common practice in Finland and other countries with effective educational systems.

Oh, and bathroom breaks when necessary….

And now, my second question, timed for baseball’s postseason: Could teaching be–like baseball–a team sport?  Perhaps, but getting there requires surmounting at least six obstacles.

  1. The “egg crate” architecture of most schools does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport: Individual classrooms resemble cartons, isolated from each other, and teachers rarely get to see each other teach.
  2. Scheduling also does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport. Most American public school teachers spend almost all of their time in their classrooms with students, which means they have very little time to work as a team, or to share and reflect.
  3. The language of education does not support the notion of a team sport. Occasionally a couple of teachers ‘team teach,’ meaning they are in the classroom together. That signifies that no one else is on a team!   
  4. Teacher evaluation does not support the idea of teaching as a team sport. It’s done on an individual basis, with the possible exception of a few rating points being given for ‘contribution to the school environment’ or something like that. In my experience, when an administrator praises a teacher for being “a team player,” the principal means that the teacher doesn’t make waves.
  5. The governance of most schools contradicts the notion that teaching is a team sport. Often it’s ‘labor versus management,’ with teachers punching a time clock twice a day. Teachers are rarely asked to play a role in choosing curriculum, for example.
  6. How teachers are paid is another problem. Time on the job and graduate courses taken are not how baseball team members are paid, but judging performance in the classroom is a challenge. The notion of “merit pay” for individuals (whether based on test scores or ‘value added’ measures) undercuts the team approach. The sport of baseball has easy-to-understand measures like batting averages and earned runs, as well as more complex numbers like ‘Wins above Replacement,’ but education is not so easy to measure. Policy makers supporting merit pay schemes are paying scant attention to the implications (test all students in all subjects!); the fact that with high student turnover, a kid might have three different teachers in one year; or to the evidence indicating that merit pay doesn’t work.  There is a solution–judge the school–which I present below.

In schools where teachers are on teams, they have time to meet and discuss individual students, to plan curriculum, to develop both short- and long-term goals. They have time to breathe. They work as a team and hold each other accountable. Yes, each school has the equivalent of a baseball team manager, but he or she is not ‘management’ and the teachers ‘labor.’ They all have their eyes on the prize.

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

So here’s my pitch: Teaching should be recognized as a team sport, and education as a team activity. The ‘team’ is the school, and everyone in the school is on the team, including secretarial staff and custodians. Education’s “win-loss” record, which is more complicated than baseball’s, should include academic measures, teacher and student attendance, teacher and student turnover, community involvement, and more. (I wrote about this in ‘Trust but Verify’ and in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”

And just as the winning team will divide the World Series loot into individual shares, so too could performance pay be divvied up when the team achieves its agreed-upon goals. In this system, teachers, administrators, counselors, secretaries and custodians would all share the rewards.  No more divisive ‘merit pay’ for individuals….but real rewards for everyone.  

A baseball season lasts 162 games, plus the post-season if they do well, and the same logic should apply to judging education.  To use a familiar analogy, it’s a movie, not a snapshot, because snapshots don’t help much in baseball or in education. A player might have five hits and 6 runs batted in in one game but do poorly in every other game.  A snapshot of that one great game would be very misleading. 

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

I’m interested in your thoughts on this.


Cheating in College–and How to End It

“Cheating Goes Global as U.S. Students Outsource College Papers”  That’s the headline from a front page story in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s a compelling, disturbing–but fundamentally flawed incomplete–story of what is called ‘Contract Cheating.’  From it we learn that a lot of American college students today cannot be bothered to do their assigned work; instead, they hire writers to produce their essays and term papers, paying as much as $42 per page.

(NOTE FROM AUTHOR: As Alan Schwarz points out, ‘fundamentally flawed’ is strong language, perhaps too strong for this post. And so I have substituted ”incomplete’ for ‘fundamentally flawed.’  My thinking was that its incomplete nature was important enough to justify ‘fundamentally flawed,’ but I respect Alan’s argument.  As noted below, the reporters tell only the ‘supply’ side of the story and neglect the equally important ‘demand’ side. They also say that Australia has solved the problem but provide no supporting details.)

The Times story is built around one Mary Mbugua, a young Kenyan woman who has earned as much as $320 a month writing papers for students, in a country where the per capita income is only $1700.  While she is conflicted about the fundamental dishonesty of her work, she needs the money,  and so she writes–to order–term papers about everything from euthanasia to whether humans should colonize space.

Ms. Mgubua is presented as a representative of many thousands of educated men and women in Africa, India, the Ukraine, and elsewhere.  How many such papers are churned out?  The Times reports: “Millions of essays ordered annually in a vast, worldwide industry that provides enough income for writers to make it a full-time job.” 

The companies that provide this service are slick.  One pitch reads, “No matter what kind of academic paper you need, it is simple and secure to hire an essay writer for a price you can afford.  Save more time for yourself.”

I ask you to consider what the company means by “time for yourself.” Beer pong?  Road trips?  Smoking weed?  Ultimate Frisbee? Personal growth?  Somehow, I don’t think they mean exploring complex issues or developing one’s mind.

Here’s my problem: The Times tells only the ‘supply‘ side of the story: who is writing these essays and why.  The reporters do not dig into the equally important ‘demand‘ aspect: who is buying these essays, and why.

Nor do the reporters address possible solutions, although they report that Australia has (somehow) solved the problem.  Because the article devotes space to a software company and its founder, it seems to be implying that solving the problem of widespread plagiarism requires technology.  That’s flat out wrong!

From my own experience covering higher education, it’s not difficult to find students who are willing to reveal their secrets.  My colleagues and I filmed on four campuses for our 2005 film, ‘Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk,’ and we had quite a few undergraduates volunteer to show us how they were cheating their way through college, and explain why. (Click here to watch the film on YouTube or buy it from PBS.)

It turns out they were cheating or coasting through because their goal was to earn a college degree, not to get a college education.  I came away believing that most students didn’t even grasp the notion of ‘a college education,’ largely because they had spent their school years on a treadmill, chasing external rewards like grades.

And we learned that most colleges and universities were more intent on improving their scores in the US News & World Report rankings than on equipping young people to navigate–and improve–a changing world.

Teaching and learning–which we naively thought were the core business of higher education–were for the most part an afterthought.

Because professors needed time to do their (all important) research, many entered into an unspoken agreement with their students: “If you don’t ask too much of me, I will give you a good grade.”  (That’s actually on tape, from a tenured professor at the University of Arizona!)  They lived by “Publish or Perish,” not “Teach or Take Off.”

If colleges want to end the moral rot of plagiarism, they can accomplish it with one broad stroke.  Here’s what needs to be done:  Make the development of the idea and the drafting of every major paper as important as the final product.

♥Insist on seeing each paper in all its stages of development

♥”What’s your idea for a paper?”

♥”How will you cover this topic?”

♥”Show me your outline.”

♥”Turn in your first draft for my comments.”

♥”Submit your second draft for comments.”

♥”Meet with me regularly to discuss your progress and obstacles.”

(All of this, along with some in-class writing, should also be standard operating procedure in high schools and middle schools.)

Plagiarism becomes impossible under these conditions, because the professors will know what the students are doing from the git-go. No more papers turned in at the last minute.

However, this approach will force professors of sociology, psychology, and history–heck, professors of every subject that is NOT English–to function as writing instructors, something that many of them will not want to do.

It will require professors to shift focus away from their chosen field and onto their students. What a concept!!

It will force students to choose what issues they want to know more about.  They will have to do research and some honest writing and rewriting.  They will be accountable for the entire process, not just a few typewritten pages turned in during the semester.

Learning to be accountable for what you do: that’s a pretty important lesson to absorb.  Sadly, plagiarists are learning a different lesson: Do whatever you have to do to get by. And they are being abetted by their professors.

This isn’t pie in the sky.  I’ve met many professors who follow these rules, and I know there are colleges that subscribe to this ideal.

To conclude, this is simple stuff, but, unfortunately, ‘simple‘ does not mean ‘easy.‘ Doing this on America’s college campuses will require genuinely hard work and a fundamental mind shift.   Unless and until higher education’s leaders recommit themselves to the vision that drew most of them into education in the first place, plagiarism will continue to flourish.

(Please post your thoughts at And thanks)


“Harder to Become, Easier to Be” (A path to ending teacher shortages)

A number of states and districts are experiencing teacher shortages, with Illinois and Florida apparently at the top of the list.  From my perspective, teacher shortages are a case of the chickens coming home to roost. Two reasons for the shortages: 1) Not enough new blood and 2) a higher rate of departure by veterans,  and both are the result of how badly we treat teachers.

A constant drumbeat of hostile ‘news’ about schools and teaching is keeping young people from choosing the field, while the practice of mistreating teachers in the name of higher test scores is driving some very good teachers out of the classroom.  

Exhibit A for the latter might be this letter I received from an experienced teacher in an eastern state.  Below is an excerpt:

“Let me tell you what a horrific day I had at work.  OK, so yesterday I had to spend the entire morning proctoring the state science assessment for 5th graders. Today I was called to the office and told I needed to proctor yet another test for the 5th graders, whose results would be used to determine what ‘track’ they will be on in middle school. The test had four sub-tests. I was told that I had to pick up all the fifth grade ESL students and get their tests and subtest answer sheets and bring them into another room. None of the classroom teachers knew anything about this test, either.

So my ESL colleague and I took the kids to a separate room and started the test. ESL kids get ‘extended time’…but while we’re giving the test, the noise level outside the room is unbelievable–the assistant principal is yelling to the secretaries because she won’t get off her butt to ask them a question but would rather yell from her desk. Talk about disrespect for the ESL kids.

We started at 9:30. The first two parts took until 11:30, then we had to dismiss the kids to their art, music, gym, etc, classes. After those classes they had to come back to us to be tested on math. Oh, and by the way, we needed calculators for them, but the administrators ‘forgot’ to tell any of the teachers about this. Then LATER we found out the kids were supposed to get a reference sheet about math terms, but the administrators said “just give them the test anyway…” Then came lunch and recess, and they had to come back again because they STILL weren’t done. When we finally finished, it was 2:30. Remember, we started at 9:30.

TOMORROW, I have to give them ANOTHER test. Friday, I have to give them ANOTHER test, then they spend the rest of their day finishing up the ESL test on the computer…and the computers keep crashing.

I called the ESL person in charge and told them about the proctor who was reading instead of doing his job. She told me that the only reason I was complaining was that I didn’t want the proctors there in the first place.

I’ve called in the union. I don’t think they will actually do anything, but this is child abuse and MY NAME is on these tests. And these scores go on MY evaluation.

Trader Joe’s looks better every day.”

How many gifted teachers move on for similar reasons?  Let’s hope the woman persevered, but the odds are that she either chose another line of work or–a worse prospect–stayed in the classroom with her hopes diminished and the fire of her idealism extinguished.

Her story is hardly unique, because for years the so-called ‘School Reformers’ have blamed teachers for school shortcomings, to justify policies that have narrowed the curriculum, increased testing, and removed teachers based on student scores. The resulting ‘churn’ hurts the field, damages morale, and brings added uncertainty into the lives of students.

However, here’s a surprise: Not everyone loses when teachers leave in droves. 

Reporters are trained to ask “Who Benefits?” because, even in the worst of situations, somebody ends up benefitting. For example, while drivers lose when roads are not maintained, those potholes also mean that auto repair shops make more money.  And while all residents suffer in a city like Flint, Michigan, with inadequate or unsafe drinking water, those who bottle and sell water make money. And when reporters dig deeper, they may find that the beneficiaries of disasters are also the major obstacles to remedying unfair situations.

So let’s ask that all-important question about the exceptionally high rate of turnover–some call it ‘churn’–in our teaching force: Who benefits from teacher turnover?

Precise “churn” numbers are hard to come by, but perhaps 30-40% of all new teachers leave the profession within their first five years. Turnover is not evenly or randomly distributed: teachers in low-income neighborhoods leave in much larger numbers. Minority teachers, who’ve been aggressively recruited, leave faster than their white peers, generally because they’ve been assigned to the toughest high poverty schools.  I’ve been in schools with turnover rates of 25-35% every year.

Turnover is not inherently bad, of course.  When older teachers ‘age out’ of the profession, they retire and are replaced. Alternative certification programs like Teach for America operate from the premise that most of its ‘graduates’ will not make a career out of teaching but will move on at the end of their 2-year commitment, adding to the churn.  Some new teachers turn out to be pretty bad and are let go, and others discover that teaching is a lot harder than they expected and look for greener pastures.

Whatever its causes, churn has had a profound impact on our teaching force. As recently as 1987 when schools enrolled 45 million kids, they were hiring about 65,000 new teachers a year.  Thirty years later, schools (now enrolling 53 million students) were hiring 200,000 new teachers every year. In percentage terms, students increased about 9 percent, while new hires grew by nearly 200 percent.  Today 12 percent of all public school teachers are in their first or second year. According to Education Week, in eight states, 15 percent of the teachers are new. Within states, however, the percentages vary, meaning that in some districts the percentage of rookies may be much higher.

According to Education Week‘s analysis of the OCR data, Florida reported the highest proportion of novice teachers in the country, with about a quarter of its teachers in their first or second years. The District of Columbia and Colorado, both with nearly 18 percent of their teaching forces qualifying as new, also came in at the top of the list.

Nationally, one-quarter of our teachers have less than five years of experience. By contrast, In 1987 the modal ‘years of experience’ was 15—we had more teachers with 15 years of teaching experience than any other.  Today the modal teacher is in her first or second year.

Churn hurts students. Researchers from Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia came to that conclusion in their study, “How Teacher Turnover Harms Student Achievement”:

Turnover affects morale and the professional culture at a school. It weakens the knowledge base of the staff about students and the community. It weakens collegiality, professional support, and trust that teachers depend on in their efforts to improve achievement. 

So, who benefits when schools have to find replacements for so many teachers every year?  The obvious answer would seem to be school boards (and taxpayers), because green teachers are cheaper than white-haired veterans.  Payments into retirement plans are lower, because those dollars are a function of salaries, and new teachers earn less.

I nominate schools and colleges of education as the primary beneficiaries of churn.  After all, someone has to train the replacements. Consider one state with a teacher shortage, Illinois: In 2012, its institutions of higher education graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers. The largest producer of teachers, Illinois State University, had more than 5000 would-be teachers enrolled, and its website reports that one of four new teachers hired in Illinois between 2008-2011 was an ISU graduate.  Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements. If 10% opt out, the K-12 schools need 14,500 trained replacements.

But if only 5% of Illinois’ teachers left every year, there would be just 7,250 job openings for the state’s 43,000 graduates who majored in education.  So is it in the interest of Illinois higher education and its teacher-training institutions to help make teaching a job that more people want to keep? Or do they benefit from the churn because it means their classrooms are full and their professors occupied?

As the lawyers say, “Asked and answered.”

But why pick on Illinois?  Teacher turnover is also high in California, which, according to the highly regarded EdSource, has among the highest student-to- teacher/counselor/librarian/administrator ratios in the nation. Having the responsibility for 35 – 45 high school students who face severe poverty and trauma makes teaching beyond challenging. Many teachers have over 200 students each day. Is it possible to teach Science or English (including writing and rewriting!) to 200 students?

The astute and tireless Tim Slekar, who works in Wisconsin, reminds me that ‘churn’ isn’t keeping teacher education institutions full, because young people are staying away in droves.  He recently told The Cap Times, “I’ve sat here and done it more than once where an interested student and their parents come in, and the parents say, ‘Yeah, she wants to be a teacher but we told her we’re not supportive of that decision,’” Slekar said. “How is it that parents are telling their kids that we don’t want them to be teachers?”

And it’s not just Wisconsin, the focus of that article.  Here’s a national view that I urge you to read.

Every institution in America that prepares teachers is on the horns of a dilemma.  They want classroom teaching to be seen as an attractive career option so undergraduates will choose to major in education instead of, say, sociology or nursing. But, on the other hand, they benefit when teaching jobs are plentiful, because an exodus of teachers from the classroom means their own enrollment will not go down.  But if teachers stay, then the need for new teachers drops, and enrollment at teacher-training institutions falls. Follow the money!

So, who benefits from our wasteful churning system? Who benefits when teaching turns out to be an unsatisfying profession for so many?

If I am right about schools of education and school boards being the beneficiaries of churn, then it follows that neither of them can be entrusted with the responsibility for making teaching a genuine profession.  In fact, it may turn out that schools of education and school boards have been (and will continue to be) obstacles to genuine change.  Instead, we ought to be taking a hard look at School Reform policies that create or exacerbate turmoil in teaching. 

It’s essential to follow the money.  Not to pick on Illinois, but in that state, where the population of both students and teachers is shrinking, the number of administrators is actually increasing!  “From 2014 to 2018, student enrollment at Illinois K-12 public school districts fell by 2%, reflected by a nearly identical percentage drop in those districts’ total teachers during that time,” according to reporter Adam Schuster writing in Illinois Policy.  Shouldn’t those dollars be spent on teachers and curriculum materials, or returned to taxpayers?

For schools to prosper, let’s make it more difficult to become a teacher (by raising entry standards and improving training).  At the same time, let’s make it easier to be a teacher (by raising their salaries, improving their working conditions, and enlarging their responsibility for curriculum, methods, and student evaluation).  

Happily, this prescription fits on a bumper sticker: “Harder to Become, Easier to Be”

I welcome your reactions at  Thanks….

(This essay is adapted from “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”)




Three Wishes for the New School Year

As public schools open across the country, I have three wishes:  One, that most parents and most teachers will be open to working together.  Two, that most teachers will accept that parents are their children’s primary educators.  And, three, that most parents will accept and embrace that responsibility.  

This is, unfortunately, a tall order. Some parents have gotten accustomed to playing second fiddle, meaning they are reluctant to get involved. As the same time, some educators truly believe that they are children’s principal educators and thus treat parents with disdain.   While in public forums many professional educators may describe parents as “our greatest asset” and “invaluable partners,” how most schools actually treat parents belies their words.  In my experience as an education reporter, many administrators and teachers hold parents in low regard, and their behavior and policies reflect that. Perhaps that’s an inevitable consequence of attempting to elevate education to a high-status profession.  “After all, you wouldn’t expect a heart surgeon to consult with a child’s parents before replacing a ruptured valve and saving the child’s life,” the thinking goes, as if the work of educating a child were the equivalent of complex surgery. It’s not brain surgery; what it is, instead, is a team effort.

Many schools make parents ‘outsiders’ in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  There’s the once-a-year “Back to School Night” and perhaps a “Parent Involvement Committee’ or a “Parent Advisory Board” that meets occasionally with the Principal.  Many schools expect parents to hold bake sales, auctions and fundraising drives, but that’s not treating parents as partners in their children’s education. Unfortunately, it’s the rare educator who 1) says “We cannot do a good job of educating your child without you,” 2) actually means it and 3) then proves it by his or her actions.

Why this negative attitude toward parents?  Some educators feel that low income parents do not have the time or energy to get deeply involved in their children’s schooling.  But even if their dismissal of parents is rooted in empathy or sympathy, it adds up to the same thing: the exclusion of parents. Unfortunately, however, plenty of administrators and teachers are genuinely disdainful of parents and apt to dismiss them as uncaring, uninvolved or ignorant.  “Just leave the education to us” is how I would characterize their attitude.

As evidence of parental detachment, these administrators and teachers often cite the low turnout at Back to School Night, concluding from the large number of no-show parents that they don’t care.  But look carefully at how Back to School Nights are structured: a quick series of show-and-tell presentations by teachers, one-off lectures that make parents feel like visitors or strangers who happened by. The educators will tell the parents to make sure their kids do their homework assignments and don’t watch much TV.  Why would most parents bother to attend more than once? What’s inviting about being talked down to?

What if parents who need help were taught the skills to help their kids become better readers and treated as partners in the education process?  No lectures, no ‘parent involvement committees,’ no window-dressing, but a genuine partnership with openness and commitment from everyone.

Suppose the root problem is education’s failure to recognize that parents want their children to succeed but may not know how to contribute?  Suppose the real problem is education’s failure to treat parents as assets?

Parents could and should be treated as valuable assets and not as ‘outsiders.’  Teachers–accustomed to holding parents at arm’s length–can learn ways to acknowledge that parents are essential.  Parents, who may have become accustomed to educators saying ‘leave the education to us,’ will have to learn to accept this new role and responsibility.   

Let me add a fourth wish for the year ahead:  That the men and women in charge acknowledge the importance of the citizens who do NOT have children in schools.  The problem with the truism “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child” is that most villagers have no direct connection to children or to the schools they go to. Only about 25 percent of homes have school-age children, and in some communities that number drops into the teens. Even if you include households with grandparents, the percentage probably won’t reach 40.

However, it is the people in those households with no strong connection to public education who hold the future of public schools in their hands.  They vote on school budgets, and so their opinions of schools, teachers and students matter. Not only do older folks vote in greater numbers than young voters, but the gap is increasing. According to the Census Bureau, “the turnout rate among 18-to 24-year olds fell to 41.2 percent in 2012 from 48.5 percent in 2008.  The turnout rates of adults ages 65 and older rose—to 71.9 percent in 2012 from 70.3 percent in 2008.”

For these reasons, educators and those connected to schools must develop and adopt strategies to win the support of those without a direct connection to schools.  It’s not enough for good things to be happening in schools; ‘the outsiders’ need to be supportive, and the best way to make that happen is to get them involved.

It may be difficult for many educators to take this step because they have grown accustomed to a system that says, in effect, “Leave the children and the money at the schoolhouse door, and leave the rest to us.”  That approach won’t work any more, if it ever did. The ‘outside world,’ meaning ordinary taxpayers and the business community, may also have trouble adjusting, because they’ve grown comfortable with being kept at arm’s length.  But that’s what has to change…and determined educators can do this pretty easily by meeting ‘the outsiders’ where they are and involving them in the ‘curriculum’ of the modern world. Here are a few ways that students–generally every school’s underused asset–can make those connections: 

*Students can create a photo gallery of the residents of their apartment building or their street and then post portraits on the web for all to see and talk about.

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

*The school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county — simultaneously on Skype.

*A video team can interview adults in a senior citizen center around a chosen theme (best job, favorite trip, et cetera), to be edited into a short video for the web. Producing short biographies of ordinary citizens will teach all sorts of valuable skills like clear writing, teamwork and meeting deadlines.

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

Once involved with students, these citizens will be much more likely to be supportive of the enterprise….at the ballot box and elsewhere.

With public education under relentless attack from powerful forces, including the current national administration, people who believe in public education must not remain silent or stand on the sidelines.  We must pitch in and work together to give every child multiple opportunities to succeed. 


(This is excerpted from “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”)

Did Public Schools Elect Trump? Will They Re-elect Him?

Our democratic republic is at risk, and I think our public schools are partially responsible.  Its elaborate sorting system has turned out too many adults who resent rather than value our nation and our struggle to create a more perfect union. 

While many of these adults voted for Donald Trump in 2016, I believe that many more did not bother to vote at all….and may in fact not even be registered to vote.

This is not new.  If “Not Voting” were looked upon as a choice (candidate), it would have won the popular vote in every Presidential election since at least 1916.  Only three times in the 15 Presidential elections since 1960 have more than 60% of the voting age population gone to the polls.  The turnout in what we like to believe is the world’s greatest democracy generally hovers around 53-54%. It has dipped below 50% three times since 1916, most recently in 1996, when only 49.1% of the voting age population bothered to vote.

Who are these non-voters? Should we scorn them for their indifference? Don’t they understand how many of their fellow Americans have died protecting their freedom and their right to vote?  Surely we can agree that not voting is deplorable behavior?

Not so fast.  I have come to believe that most non-voters are behaving rationally. They do not feel that they have a stake in our government, so why should they vote? They were schooled to see themselves as insignificant, and so, as adults, they keep their heads down, stay uninvolved, and do their best to make ends meet.

I hold public schools at least partly responsible for our consistently low voter turnout, because public education is an efficient sorting machine that is undemocratic to its core.  Schools sort young children in two basic groups: A minority is designated as ‘winners’ who are placed on a track leading to elite colleges, prominence and financial success. While the rest aren’t labeled ‘losers’ per se, they are largely left to struggle on their own. That experience leaves many angry, frustrated and resentful, not to mention largely unprepared for life in a complex, rapidly changing society.   Why would they become active participants in the political process, an effort led by the now grown up ‘winners’ from their school days? (It would take a candidate who understood their resentment to arouse them….which happened in 2016.)

Although formal tracking has fallen out of favor, schools have subtle ways of designating winners and losers, often based as much on parental education and income, race, and class as innate ability. By third or fourth grade most kids know, deep down, whether the system sees them as ‘winners’ bound for college or ‘losers’ headed somewhere else.  

Ironically, A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity,” made matters worse.  In response, America put its eggs in the basket of student achievement–-as measured by student test scores.  Believing we were raising academic standards by asking more of students, we were in fact narrowing our expectations—those test scores again.  This practice went into high gear with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.  “Regurgitation education” became the order of the day. This approach rewards parroting back answers, while devaluing intellectual curiosity, cooperative learning, projects, field trips, the arts, physical education, and citizenship. (And the state of Tennessee just affirmed this approach for its current students!)

This fundamentally anti-intellectual approach has failed to produce results.  Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have largely remained flat and in some instances have gone down. What’s more, students aren’t even retaining what we are demanding they regurgitate.  For example, a survey reveals that one-third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of our government, and half do not know the number of US Senators.

Reducing kids to test scores has produced generations of graduates whose teachers and curriculum did not help them develop the habit of asking questions, digging deep, or discovering and following their passion. Because of how they were treated in school, many Americans have not grown into curious, socially conscious adults. This is not the fault of their teachers, because decisions about how schools operate are not made in classrooms.  It was school boards, politicians, policy makers and the general public that created schools that value obedience over just about everything else. 

But the end result is millions of graduates who were rewarded with diplomas but have never participated in the give-and-take of ordinary citizenship—like voting.  Did they graduate from school prepared for life in a democracy, or are they likely to follow blindly the siren song of authoritarians? Can they weigh claims and counterclaims and make decisions based on facts and their family’s best interests, or will they give their support to those who play on their emotions?

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump welcomed support from those he called ‘the poorly educated,’ but that’s the incorrect term. These men and women are not ‘poorly educated,’ ‘undereducated,’ or ‘uneducated.’ They have been miseducated, an important distinction. Schools have treated them as objects, as empty vessels to pour information into so it can be regurgitated back on tests.

The sorting process used in schools has another result: it produces elitists (in both political parties) who feel superior to the largely invisible ‘losers’ from their school days.  Arguably, those chickens came home to roost in the 2016 Presidential election.  Candidate Clinton called her opponent’s supporters ‘A Bucket of Deplorables,’ and that gaffe probably cost her the election.  But in all likelihood she was speaking her personal truth, because, after all, her school had identified her as a ‘winner,‘ one of the elite. It’s perfectly understandable that she would not identify with the people who had been energized by Donald Trump. Most pundits, reporters, pollsters and politicians fell into the same trap.

Sorting is inevitable, because students try out for teams and plays, apply to colleges, and eventually seek employment, but let’s postpone sorting for as long as possible. A new approach to schooling must ask a different question about each young child. Let’s stop asking, “How intelligent are you?”  Let’s ask instead, “How are you intelligent?”  That may strike some as a steep hill to climb, but it’s essentially the question that caring parents, teachers, and other adults ask about individual children. They phrase it differently, asking, “What is Susan interested in?” “What gets George excited?” “What motivates Juan?” or “What does Sharese care about?”  Every child has interests, and those can be tapped and nurtured in schools designed to provide opportunities for children to succeed as they pursue paths of their own choosing. Giving children agency over their education—with appropriate guidance and supervision—will produce graduates better equipped to cope with today’s changing world.  And a larger supply of informed voters!

The challenge for the 2020 Democratic nominee is reach beyond the traditional party constituency and embrace those who have been neglected by schools and other institutions.  They need to believe that America belongs to them.

And going forward, our democracy must create more public schools that respect and nurture our children. If we don’t change our schools, we will elect a succession of Donald Trumps, and that will be the end of the American experiment.