Drowning In A Rising Tide Of…

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“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Surely everyone recognizes the 5-word phrase. Some of you may have garbled the phrase on occasion — I have — into something like ‘Our schools are drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity.

But that’s not what “A Nation at Risk” said back in 1983. The report, issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, was a call to action on many levels, not an attack on schools and colleges. “Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling,” the Report states, immediately after noting that America has been “committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” (emphasis added) Schools aren’t the villain in “A Nation at Risk;” rather, they are a vehicle for solving the problem.

Suppose that report were to come out now? What sort of tide is eroding our educational foundations? “A rising tide of (fill in the blank)?”

This is a relevant question because sometime in the next few months another National Commission, this one on “Education Equity and Excellence,” will issue its report. This Commission clearly hopes to have the impact of “A Nation at Risk.”

However, the two Commissions could hardly be more different. The 1983 Commission was set up to be independent, while the current one seems to be joined at the hip to the Department of Education.

Consider: Ronald Reagan did not want a Commission to study education because he wanted to abolish the U. S. Department of Education, which had been created by the man he defeated, Jimmy Carter. So Education Secretary Terrel Bell did it on his own.

The current Commission has the blessing of the White House and the Congress.

Secretary Bell asked the President of the University of Utah, David Gardner, to chair the Commission. He knew Gardner and trusted him to oversee the selection of the Commission members. Dr. Gardner then hired Milton Goldberg as Staff Director and they selected 15 members, plus two reliable political conservatives the White House insisted on. They asked the key education associations to nominate five candidates, then chose one from each association. They ignored the teacher unions and selected that year’s Teacher of the Year as a Commissioner. Meanwhile, Secretary Bell stayed on the sidelines, cannily keeping his distance from an effort that his boss was not in favor of.

Unlike Ted Bell, Education Secretary Arne Duncan seems to have been involved from the git-go. He has spoken to the group and recently intervened to extend its deadline. His Department named the co-chairs and all 28 members, who represent every possible constituency in the education establishment: rural, urban, African American, White, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American, conservative, liberal and so on.

Rather than delicately balancing his Commission to be politically correct, Gardner, a University President, put five other people from higher education on his Commission and famously declared there would be “no litmus test” for Commission members.

Duncan has touched every base, at least once. Well, almost every base — no classroom teachers or school principals serve on Duncan’s Commission.

Gardner included out-of-the-box thinkers like Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg and Harvard physicist Gerald Holton. Duncan’s Commission is depressingly predictable, with the exception of Netflix founder Reed Hastings. Why no Tim Brown, Deborah Meier, John Seely Brown, Sal Khan, Laurene Powell, Larry Rosenstock or James Comer?

Because the “Risk” commission had no ex officio members, it had limited contact with the Department or the White House. Staff Director Milton Goldberg recalls that Secretary Bell read the 31-page draft report for the first time just one week before its release. (“Golly, it’s short,” was his initial reaction, Goldberg recalls.)

The current Commission has seven ex officio members, including Roberto Rodriguez of the White House and Martha Kanter, who is #2 in the Education Department. Not only that, it appears that the Department’s PR people are on hand at all times. No secrets, no surprises.

The earlier Commission held most of its meetings and hearings around the country. The current Commission held seven of its 12 meetings at the U. S. Department of Education, including the final five.

Given all that, it’s difficult to think of this as an ‘independent’ Commission. End of the day, it’s Arne Duncan’s Commission, established for the express purpose of finding ways to close the ‘resource gap’ in spending on education for poor kids in this country.

That’s a worthy goal, because the spending gap is huge. However, closing it won’t be easy. States are pretty much broke these days, so the money will have to come from Washington.

And that’s a problem, because no one in Washington seems to trust states or local school districts, which, after all, are responsible for the ‘savage inequalities’ in the first place. Because education is not a federal responsibility, Washington can send money and make rules but cannot send in the troops to punish misbehavior. As Michael Casserly, long-time Executive Director of the Council of the Great City Schools, dryly noted in the January meeting, “We haven’t really resolved this question about where state responsibility ends or where their capacity and willingness end, and where the federal government’s willingness and capacity and authority begin.”

There’s some history here. Earlier efforts to equalize spending haven’t worked all that well. The early days of Title One of ESEA saw federal dollars that were supposed to be spent on disadvantaged kids going instead to build swimming pools for suburban kids or for ‘teaching machines’ that gathered dust in locked closets. States and local districts — seemingly by instinct — took the federal money and then cut their own spending by that amount, until the feds made that illegal.

And there’s also the knotty problem of past experience with spending more on poor kids. It hasn’t produced results in Newark, NJ, or Kansas City, or anyplace else as far as I know.

More than a few of the Commissioners see the 15,000 local school boards as an impediment; they are, however, a fact of American political life. It should be noted that the Commissioner who wrote the first draft of the forthcoming report, Matt Miller, is also the author of “First, Let’s Kill All the School Boards,” which appeared in The Atlantic in January/February 2008.

Nation At Risk
It doesn't seem as if the new commission will match these efforts.

The Commission wants more preschool programs and the most qualified teachers to work in low income districts, and so on, but those are local or state decisions, and most members of the Commission — those speaking up at the meetings — do not seem to trust anyone but Washington.

So if Washington can’t just write checks to close the resource gap because it can’t control states and school districts, what does it do? Several Commissioners spoke approvingly of a more “muscular” federal governmental role in education, but it’s not clear how it would flex those muscles.

End of the day, the Commission’s big goal is to energize public opinion, just as “A Nation at Risk” did.

Read through meeting transcripts (as I have been doing) and you will find lots of discussion about how to sell the public on the big idea of what Co-Chair Edley calls a “collective responsibility to provide a meaningful opportunity for high quality education for each child.”

Shorthand for that: spend more to educate poor kids.

Slogans emerge in the discussion:
“Sharing responsibility for every child,”
“From nation at risk to nation in peril,” and
“Raise the bar and close the gap”

At one point a Department PR man took the microphone offer a suggestion. “In the communication shop, myself and Peter Cunningham, my boss, are always happy to help you guys through this process, to the extent to which you — you know, you’d like our help. But “one nation under-served” would be kind of a way that to kind of capture that, and harken back to sort of patriotic tones and kind of a unifying theme, and the fact that you know, we’re not hitting the mark we should, as a country and international competitiveness. So, I just put that out there.”

What will probably be ‘put out there’ in April will be a document designed to make us morally outraged at the unfairness of it all and, at the same time, convince us that failing to educate all children is going to doom America to second-class status in the world. Expect rhetorical questions like “Would a country that’s serious about education reform spend twice as much on wealthy kids as it does on poor kids?”

I am virtually certain that the new Report will reflect the Administration’s technocratic faith that pulling certain policy levers will produce dramatic change — despite years of evidence to the contrary. (It’s part of ‘a rising tide of predictability’ that inhabits our land, as positions harden and debate and inquiry disappear.)

The real problem is not the Constitution’s limits on the federal role in education. For all its talk of public education as ‘the civil rights issue of our time,” this Administration, like the one before it, simply does not have a powerful vision of what genuine education might be. Full of the same hubris that led to No Child Left Behind, it believes in technical solutions.

Channeling Dr. King, this might be Secretary Duncan’s version of that famous speech: “I have a dream that all children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin or the content of their character but by their scores on standardized tests.”

That’s harsh, I know, but this Commission and this Administration ought to be asking other important rhetorical questions, such as “Would a country that’s serious about education reform devote as much as 20% of classroom time to test preparation and testing?”

or: “Would a nation that believes in the potential of all children spend about $10,000 per child on schooling and then measure the results with a $15 instrument — and swear by the results produced by those cheap tests?”

or: “Would a nation that believes in education develop a ‘reform agenda’ that attacks teachers knowing that, even absent such attacks, 50% of teachers have been leaving the profession in the first five years?”

While I agree with what I expect to be the Commission’s findings (“We haven’t been serious about leveling the playing field in education”), I find it impossible to see this Commission as anything but narrowly political.

More than that, however, I think this Commission represents a missed opportunity to engage American citizens on a more fundamental issue: the education of all our children.

Suppose the Administration had been willing to ask a group of independent thinkers an honest question–and been prepared to deal with whatever answers emerged?

My question would be “Does a rising tide threaten our educational foundations and our very future today? If so, a tide of what?”

I can find evidence for the following: Avarice, regulation, indifference, hostility, testing, and irrelevance.

You can make the case that a rising tide of avarice is a threat. After all, K-12 education is a reliable pot of big bucks, almost $600 billion a year for K-12 alone. That’s why for-profit charter schools are proliferating, why Pearson and McGraw-Hill are expanding voraciously, and why tech companies are banging on the doors of desperate school boards with ‘solutions’ to sell.

Is there a rising tide of hostility, suspicion and finger-pointing? Ask almost any teacher.

The rising tide of testing hasn’t crested. With new emphasis on evaluating all teachers according to student test scores, the high water mark is nowhere in sight.

What about a rising tide of regulation, much of it coming from Washington? Ask principals in Tennessee, who now must spend multiple hours evaluating each teacher and filling in forms to satisfy the state, which is in turn satisfying the U. S. Department’s rules for “Race to the Top.”

A rising tide of irrelevance threatens the entire enterprise. I believe public education is drowning because schools have not adapted to a changed and changing world. Consider: Of the three historical justifications for school, only one applies today. I write about this at length in The Influence of Teachers.

In the past, you had to go to school because the knowledge was stored there. Today, information is everywhere, 24/7, which means that kids need to learn how to formulate questions so they can turn that flood of information into knowledge. But most of our schools are ‘answer factories’ that offer ‘regurgitation education.’

In the past, you went to school to be socialized to get along with kids from different backgrounds, race, religion and gender. Today, however, there are Apps for that. So schools and the adults in them need to help kids understand the power — and limitations — of those Apps and technology in general. After all, kids need to learn that the 14-year-old they’re texting (and sexting?) may actually be a 40 year old sicko. Our kids may be digital natives, but that doesn’t guarantee they are or will become digital citizens. Schools need to fill that vacuum.

Finally, schools back then provided custodial care so your parents could hold down jobs. We still need custodial care, but when schools provide marginal education and fail to harness technology in useful ways, they become dangerous places for some children, and boring places for others. We lose at least 1,000,000 students a year, dropouts who may be hoping to find something more relevant on the street. (And, sorry, raising the dropout age to 18 will not solve the problem.)

Are there existing models of schools that are relevant to America’s future? Can we create incentives to expand those model programs to serve 50,000,000 children and youth?

I believe the answer to both questions is ‘yes.’ But first we have to ask those questions.

Before issuing its report, the Duncan Commission would do well to re-read “A Nation at Risk,” especially the last recommendation.

“The Federal Government has the primary responsibility to identify the national interest in education. It should also help fund and support efforts to protect and promote that interest. It must provide the national leadership to ensure that the Nation’s public and private resources are marshaled to address the issues discussed in this report.” (emphasis in original)

Going For The Gold

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After 37 years with NPR and PBS, I’ve finally come to my senses. I have had it with the non-profit world. It’s my turn to make the big bucks.

Because education is what I know, that’s where I intend to set up shop. I am going into the business of remedial education, and I know it’s going to be a gold mine. All I need are failing kids, and I don’t see any signs that the supply is drying up.

What has prompted this 180-degree turn? This sudden change of heart?

It was a recent news report, the key paragraph quoted below:

Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest operator of for-profit prisons, has sent letters recently to 48 states offering to buy up their prisons as a remedy for ‘challenging corrections budgets.’ In exchange, the company is asking for a 20-year management contract, plus an assurance that the prison would remain at least 90 percent full.

(The emphasis was added.)

You may be wondering what a report on prisons has to do with education, but this is deja vu all over again, in Yogi’s memorable phrase, because back in 1982 I spent six months in juvenile institutions in several states, including Minnesota, South Carolina and Texas, for an NPR documentary “Juvenile Justice, Juvenile Crime” (which won the George Polk Award that year).

Here’s what I learned: Juvenile institutions remained at-capacity or near-capacity no matter what the juvenile crime rate happened to be. For example, when juvenile offenses declined precipitously in Minnesota, the authorities simply changed the rules about what got you locked up. They criminalized behavior that previously led to a slap on the wrist. One particular example sticks in my mind: Until the crime rate went down, girls who ran away from home had been classified as PINS, persons in need of supervision, which requires no jail time. Then, rather than have the juvenile facilities empty, running away became an offense that warranted incarceration.

Prison
The prison system could be the inspiration for a successful economic model!

What a revelation: the needs of the institution — for bodies to watch over — took precedence over the needs of youth. ‘We’ve got the facility, the guards, the payroll; we need youthful offenders,’ the logic went. Because the dominant value system favored adults and jobs over kids, they didn’t even need a guarantee.

So you can see the brilliance of Corrections Corporation of America, asking for an iron-clad guarantee from the 48 states that they will keep the prisons 90 percent full! Who cares what the crime rate is. Just keep the convicts coming.

Now, let’s talk about my business plan.

What I am going to offer states and school districts is this: I will take over their remedial education in return for their guarantee that they will keep giving high school diplomas to students who aren’t ready to function.

Come to think of it, I may not need a written guarantee. Just look at the track record of school reform since in began in earnest with the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983, and since that time governments and foundations have spent billions of dollars. The dropout rate hasn’t changed much, and the number of graduates needing remedial work when they go to college has climbed dramatically.

Who have been the primary beneficiaries of ‘school reform,’ I ask you?

Duh, the for-profit companies! While consultants and think tanks have done OK, and reporters have been kept busy, the real money has been in testing and textbooks and technology and construction.

Frankly, ‘school reform’ is too expensive for states to continue with, especially since it hasn’t worked. They can cut back on reform, sign with me, and save a bundle.

I have some definite advantages over schools: (1) the technology to diagnose deficiencies and create specific programs that address those shortcomings and measure accomplishment; (2) a population of (finally) motivated young people who realize they need certain skills if they want to find decent jobs; and (3) powerful financial incentives that encourage me to teach them quickly.

Regarding No. 1: schools have semesters, but I will have self-paced modules. Learn it, prove you’ve learned it, and you’re done.

No. 2: While schools have lots of students who are bored and fed up with being treated like numbers, my clients — those former students — will be eager to learn and get on with their lives.

No. 3 is the key. Unlike today’s educators, I will get paid only when the students succeed. Should I fail, I get hurt where it matters: in the pocketbook. In most education systems, failure is blamed on the students. And then their failure is usually ‘punished’ by promotion to the next grade.

So my approach is revolutionary.

Is there competition? I am not the least bit worried about the Departments of Remediation that some colleges have created, because they function exactly like those juvenile institutions back in the 1980s — they need remedial students to stay open. So if they are successful in helping some kids, they will inevitably lower the bar for ‘remediation,’ in order to keep the warm bodies coming. Their financial incentives are screwed up.

Mind, you, I am smarter than that. I will not be calling what I do ‘remediation’ or anything that sounds remotely like failure. What I am going to offer to do is ‘certify’ the skill levels of high school graduates; it’s the same way that the mechanic ‘certifies’ your wreck of a car by banging out all the dents, changing the oil, points and plugs and installing new shock absorbers so it is ready for the road!

The only possible threat to my business would be an education system that focused on the needs of individual children; a system that taught and encouraged thinking instead of teaching (and testing) things. In that approach, time would be the variable, performance the constant. Students would be empowered to dig deeply into issues and…. (Why bother going on about this — it’s not going to happen!)

I’m looking for investors. Act now, to get in early.

A Simple Innovation: Spend The Money Wisely

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Podcast Update: In this blog post, John writes about Placido Domingo and the Harmony Program, inspired by El Sistema in Venezuela. If interested in some of John’s interview with maestro Domingo, that’s been posted online as a podcast. Click here to listen.

The New York Times has made official what most of us have known for years: the children of the privileged do better in school than the children of the underprivileged. This matters because the rich-poor gap is growing wider, and so (therefore) is the educational outcomes gap, what everyone calls ‘the achievement gap.’

Is educational innovation the way to close the achievement gap? A lot of smart people are hoping it will solve the problem. In the past few months I’ve been around a lot of innovations. I have watched the Khan Academy (and Sal Khan himself) in action, dug into ‘blended learning,’ Rocketship and KIPP, and looked at some Early College High School programs. I’ve been reading about new iPad applications and commercial ventures like Learning.com, and teachers have been writing me about how they are using blogs to encourage kids to write, and Twitter for professional development. In many schools kids are working in team to build robots, while other schools are using Skype to connect with students across the state or nation. I’ve even watched two jazz groups — one in Rhode Island, the other in Connecticut — practice together on Skype!

‘Innovation’ per se is not sufficient, of course. We need innovations that level the playing field and give all kids — regardless of their parents’ income — the opportunity to excel.

This is the core of education, but we need to be thinking differently.

This matters more than ever. As recently as 50 or 60 years ago, most high school graduates could expect to earn a living doing physical labor, while the rest could look forward to doing mental labor (as an accountant, a bank teller, etc). Back then very small percentage of adults did ‘creative labor.’

Now think about tomorrow. Unless our economy collapses, very few youth now in school will earn a living doing physical labor. Some will do mental labor, but, if we prosper, it will be because the large majority of adults — not just those who grew up rich — are doing ‘creative labor.’ They have to learn to do this ‘work’ in school, which means that innovation must become the norm and not the ‘gee whiz’ phenomenon it now is. In short, we must close ‘the opportunity gap’ if we want better educational outcomes for more kids, and, by extension, a competitive economy down the road.

A barrier to innovation is the accounting/accountability mentality. Suzy Null, a reader of this blog, wrote in part last week:

I think teachers are becoming more like McDonald’s workers. They are given pre-cooked products and a specific “recipe” for preparing them. They are expected to follow these orders religiously in order to ensure that everyone gets the same “quality” experience. If they diverge even slightly, they are told that they are negligent and aren’t doing their jobs. What’s really sad is that the public is so used to mass-produced products and fast food, that they think that uniformity and mass production would be “good” for schools too.

What’s happening is not going unnoticed. The Baltimore Sun reported on February 6th that Maryland officials are “fretting over a perfect storm of education reforms that could make today’s extensive state testing regimen seem like a snap,” because next school year students will have to take FIVE — yes, five — state-mandated tests on top of the tests and quizzes teachers give and the tests administered by local school systems. And Maryland is not unique, because at least 23 states have agreed to ‘field test’ new assessments, part of the bargain they struck to get federal dollars. “We are going to have students sitting in testing situations for weeks on end” if all of them are given, interim state schools Superintendent Bernard Sadusky told the newspaper.

This is happening, it seems to me, because the adults in charge are obsessed with ‘the achievement gap’ and somehow believe that we can test our way out of the mess we are in. More testing is not ‘innovative,’ even if the tests themselves are full of bells and whistles.

That’s why no one should endorse ‘technology’ as the innovation that will be education’s salvation. What truly matters are the values that drive the uses of technology, that is, the values of those in charge.

Truly innovative programs engage the creativity of kids, expect them to work hard, know that they will fail but are ready to help when they do, require cooperation with others, involve the families, and — roll of drums please — spend real money giving poor kids the stuff that rich kids take for granted.

Spending money matters, because, as the Times pointed out, “One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources.”

The program I have in mind does all of these: the Harmony Program provides free violins, trumpets, cellos, trombones and more to about 80 low-income 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th graders in two New York City elementary schools. Harmony also works with another dozen or so kids at a local Y and the Boys and Girls Harbor program.

Over the course of a year, children who participate receive hundreds of hours of group lessons, lessons that would otherwise cost their parents north of $7,000. The young musicians are expected to practice at least one hour a day and must keep their grades up if they want to stay in the program.

Demanding hard work of kids is innovative because our education system doesn’t come close to expecting enough from young people. Harmony demonstrates that kids don’t mind working hard when they understand and believe in the purpose.

Expecting the parents to be involved, as Harmony does, is another innovation in an education system that tends to push parents aside.

What I admire about Harmony is that it’s all about language — another innovation at a time when schools are all about ‘the basics’ of reading and math. The language happens to be music, which is, after all, the one universal language. And because music is all about mathematics, Harmony’s young musicians tend to do well in math.

World-renowned opera star Placido Domingo understands aspects of approaching innovation in education.

Most important of all, this particular innovation provides extra resources for low income kids — another innovation in a nation whose schools display ‘savage inequalities’ on a regular basis. This innovation closes the money gap.

If you ‘have to see it to believe it,’ well, soon you will, because producer Cat McGrath and I recently spent several days with the kids and the adults who work with them for another forthcoming report on PBS NewsHour. On Monday, I believe some audio of my interview with Placido Domingo will be released as a podcast on the Learning Matters site.

“Harmony” is new in this country, but it’s not really an innovation. Venezuela’s “El Sistema” has been providing instruments and lessons to the poor for more than 30 years and has helped hundreds of thousands of underprivileged kids — among its graduates is Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Perhaps one day some of the Harmony kids will be professional musicians. Perhaps not. But they are doing well in school; they seem to walk taller with the confidence of those who believe in themselves; and — as you will see on PBS and hear in podcast form next week — they get to perform in public, conducted by none other than Placido Domingo.

Can “Harmony” spread? The notion of trying to give poor kids the opportunities that rich kids get is sort of anti-American. After all, the French do it in their pre-schools, and everyone knows the French are anti-business. (Wasn’t it George W. Bush who pointed out that the French are so hostile to business that they don’t even have a word for ‘entrepreneur’?)

We can’t touch the rich-poor wealth gap without raising taxes on the rich and closing tax loopholes, but we don’t seem to have the stomach for that.

Do we have the political courage to spend a few thousand dollars a year — per child — on school programs for underprivileged children, and the wisdom to spend it in ways that develop their creativity and talent?

I hope so.

What Do Teachers Do?

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Last night over dinner, a retired educator — still very involved — suggested that the job of a teacher today was fundamentally different from what it was ten or so years ago. “Teachers are more like coaches now,” he said. I chimed in with the view that, in the best of circumstances, teachers were explorers, and I riffed about the changed world, the internet, and the importance of adults helping kids formulate questions, not regurgitate answers. (If you’ve read The Influence of Teachers, you know the drill).

Listening quietly to us two old guys were two relatively young history teachers from an independent school. At one point one of us (finally) asked what they thought. The younger of the two smiled politely and said, in effect, “Your theories are fine, but we teach Advanced Placement History, and there’s not much time for ‘coaching’ or ‘exploring.’

Later, as I was walking to the subway, I wondered what the right word would be to describe what teachers do. If they’re not ‘the sage on the stage’ or ‘the guide on the side’ and if they’re not ‘coaches’ or ‘explorers,’ then what exactly are they today?

Teacher
If you could sum up this man's job in one word...

And, if it’s true that in the best of worlds, teachers would function as coaches and explorers (guiding learning while also learning themselves), what stands in the way?

I am familiar with the complaints from teachers that they have to be social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and more, and I have no doubt that is often true.

Crowded classrooms and other factors mean that teachers are often in the role of policemen, which is not what they signed up for.

New approaches to accountability also mean that teachers have to be ringmasters, whipping their unruly ‘animals’ so they will jump through the hoops of standardized tests — or the hoops of a curriculum that is handed down from on high (and designed to be ‘teacher-proof’). Someone up there still believes that knowledge is something to be poured into children’s heads, like that awful graphic in the infamous movie “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” I am reminded of John W. Gardner’s observation, “All too often, we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.”

Today’s approaches to accountability may also be turning teachers into competitors, not teammates in a shared enterprise. If keeping my job depends on my students’ test scores, then why should I help my colleagues improve?

My own belief is that most teachers would happily be teaching children ‘to grow their own plants,’ but that’s not their decision. In my experience, many of their supervisors do not have much faith in their teachers. I think of the Director of Professional Development in the Washington, DC, schools who told me in 2007 that in her opinion 80% (not a misprint) of the teachers in DC had neither the skills nor the motivation to be successful.

The sentence that precedes Gardner’s pithy observation about flowers is descriptive. “Much education today is monumentally ineffective,” he wrote in 1963, and one can only wonder at what he would be saying now.

I am still searching for the one right word to describe teachers today. Reviewing the candidates: competitors, policemen, social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and ringmasters.

I happen to be a fan of well-designed charter schools, of which there are a fair number. These schools are found in systems that have refused to hand out charters like Halloween candy but instead set a high bar for approval. We’re working on a documentary right now at Learning Matters about how charters helped transform New Orleans, in fact:

(We have a lot of lousy charter schools because of low standards — garbage in, garbage out. Too many charter authorizers have made it too easy to get a charter, with predictable consequences. Therefore, no one should judge a charter school without taking a hard look. It would be like evaluating a car based on its color, as Ted Kolderie has observed.)

The schools I am writing about here have strong leadership, a balanced curriculum that includes art and music, and (most often) a strong working relationship with families. Inside these schools you find students and teachers who want to be there.

In these schools, the principals protect their teachers, enable them to be coaches and explorers, and hold them accountable for results. Learning is a team sport in these special places, as it should be. The adults in these schools recognize that the (paradoxical) goal of this team sport is to produce strong individuals, because (again quoting John Gardner), “The ultimate goal of the educational system is to shift to the individual the burden of pursing his own education. This will not be a widely shared pursuit until we get over our odd conviction that education is what goes on in school buildings and nowhere else.”

And we have to get over our ‘odd conviction’ that teachers are the problem in education. It’s not merely ‘odd;’ it’s downright destructive of a vital profession.

Given all that many teachers are called upon to do, perhaps the one best word is ‘juggler.’

On the other hand, if they are at various times policemen, social workers, surrogate parents, counselors, health care providers, nutritionists and ringmasters, then the one best word for ‘teacher’ has been staring me right in the face the entire time: teacher.

Back to Basics

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Lately I have been lying awake at night thinking about basic skills. To be precise, I am wondering what you — or I — would do if we were in charge of getting America “back to basics” in education. Just what are ‘the basics’ anyway? Is that a place we’ve actually been and now have to return to?

For me, there are four basics in education — but more about them in a moment. Three events prompted this line of thought. The first was an encounter with a teenage girl, perhaps 16, at a skating rink. To get a locker, I had to give her $10.50 but would get some money back when I returned the key. “So how much does the locker cost me,” I asked? She said that I would get $6 back, but something about the way she said it made me ask my question again. She said she didn’t know — and she reached for a calculator. That girl is in school now, at a time when all systems are focused on math and reading, but she wasn’t able to work with a fairly simple problem that entailed some thinking, not just calculating.

Apple
While an apple for the teacher can remain an education basic, we need to focus our attention in four key areas to see results.

A week or two later I discovered that a woman I know, who is about 40, has trouble writing a coherent page of prose; she went to good schools and a top university but cannot present a logical argument on paper. She went to school in the 70’s and 80’s, the height of an earlier ‘back to basics’ phase/craze, but somehow her writing flaws went undetected or untreated.

If ‘back to basics’ didn’t work for those two (admittedly random) examples, what’s ahead for the next generation, including my 6-month-old granddaughter, who has been living with us for the past week? What are the basics for her education, and the education of your young children and grandchildren?

“Back to basics” is a silly notion without some understanding of what is basic in the life of a child and where schools fit into the picture. So here are my four: 1) reading and writing; 2) numeracy; 3) creativity; and 4) health and nutrition. Our short-sighted leaders have in the past focused on ‘The Three R’s” of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, which is euphonious but short-sighted.

Reading and writing are inseparable and are the first ‘basic.’ We read to gain information, and we write to convey it. While neither is a natural act and therefore must be learned, they belong together. I’ve seen first graders reading and writing competently and confidently in some very poor neighborhoods, so there’s no doubt that schools can handle that basic:

Numeracy (‘rithmetic) is also a basic skill, and the best teachers engage their young students in the joy of mastery of the mystery and utter rationality of numbers. They use Cuisinaire Rods and other manipulatives, they create puzzles and group challenges, and they allow students to make and learn from mistakes.

“‘Suppose we were going to repaint this classroom. What colors? How much paint? How much would it cost? How long would it take?” That’s a ‘real world’ problem that most kids would enjoy solving. Similar ideas were recently discussed on the Learning Matters podcast series.

I remember a teacher drawing two (uncut) Pizza pies on the board and asking her class whether they would rather have two pieces of Pizza or four? Everyone opted for four pieces, of course, at which point she divided one pie in half, the other into eight pieces….and waited while her 4th graders reconsidered their decision.

Achieving success in teaching these two ‘basics’ will require some changes: smaller classes in the first four or five grades, team teaching, ungraded classrooms, serious professional development, and appropriate technology. Our most qualified teachers belong in those classrooms, and they cannot have people looking over their shoulders at every turn.

The third ‘basic’ is creativity, as Sir Ken Robinson and others have reminded us:

I believe the earlier ‘back to basics’ movements failed because schools obsessed about The Three R’s to the exclusion of creativity, fun, art, music and physical education. The current focus on student achievement is making the same mistake. The problem is not the testing itself but far too much time on bubble-measured ‘education.’ Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said (including on our Twitter Town Hall) that 10 days of tests and test-prep in a school year is too much, but I will wager that almost every school district in the nation spends more time than that.

William Sanders, the pioneer in value-added testing, trumps the Secretary. “Three days max!” he told me recently, citing a study that indicated that the more time teachers reported spending on test prep, the worse their scores on value-added measurements!

We need courageous leaders at the Board and Superintendent level who will say ‘No more!’ to the excesses of bubble-testing, but I haven’t heard of anyone making a serious effort to even keep track of how much time is devoted to those exercises, let alone restricting the time.

Who benefits from the focus on test scores, since the evidence suggests it’s neither students nor teachers? Maybe we should follow the money. Testing companies like Pearson and CTB/McGraw-Hill are pushing hard to sell school districts ‘intra-course’ tests that — they assert — will help teachers modify their instruction. To Dr. Sanders, these companies are “preying upon insecure leaders” who are under pressure from NCLB to make what’s called ‘adequate yearly progress.’ This means more testing, not less, even though Dr. Sanders reports that these tests add less than 1% to overall scores.

My fourth ‘basic’ may push the inside of the envelope for some. To me, health and nutrition are basic components of a balanced education. In this case schools and teachers cannot get there on their own but must develop alliances. It’s disgraceful that the number of children living in poverty is increasing, and it’s outrageous that our political leaders at every level and in both parties are unwilling to raise taxes on the wealthy so that the safety net can be repaired.

It’s tough enough being a teacher as it is. Larger classes with increasing numbers of children who are undernourished or otherwise in poor health are not a prescription for a vibrant future, not for kids, not for teachers, not for the nation.

So that’s my view of ‘the basics’ in public education. It’s not about going back to basics, because we’ve never gone there. I think it’s time we did.

What do you believe?


Final note: I participated in a discussion at the Commonwealth Club of California in December of 2011; it was a panel discussion and lasted over an hour — but the participants and topics were great. The video is now online if you’d like to take a look:

MOVIE REVIEW: Waiting for Superman

Note: I hesitated to review Waiting for Superman because of our dispute with Mr. Guggenheim about our PBS NewsHour footage, but that dispute was resolved (there’s no truth to the rumor that I threatened to picket the Hollywood opening in my skivvies). It’s an important film about education, a subject I have been reporting on for 35 years, and those two facts outweigh the other consideration.

Waiting for SupermanThere’s much to admire about Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s new film about public education. He and his colleagues know how to tell a story, the graphics are sensational, and some of the characters—notably Geoff Canada—just jump off the screen.

And I hope it does well at the box office, because that would demonstrate that a significant number of us care enough about education to spend a few bucks to see a documentary about it.

That said, the film strikes me as a mishmash of contradictions and unsupportable generalizations, even half-truths. And while it may make for box office, its message is oversimplified to the point of being insulting.

I realize that I am swimming against the stream on this, given that the movie has been glowingly reviewed by Tom Friedman in the New York Times and others, but please hear me out. Continue reading