Meet Adell Cothorne

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Michelle Rhee is, of course, the central character in our Frontline film, “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” but I want to tell you more about Adell Cothorne, the former DC principal who appears at the end of our film. She was one of a small handful of DC educators willing to speak on the record about the widespread erasures that occurred during Michelle Rhee’s tenure in Washington–and I think what she has to say is important.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that producer Mike Joseloff, researcher Catherine Rentz and I made hundreds of phone calls to teachers and principals at schools with high erasures rates (with answers almost always changed from ‘wrong’ to ‘right’) on the District’s standardized test, the DC-CAS, and to those in Michelle Rhee’s central office. Many of those we called either hung up the phone, said ‘no comment,’ or ask to go ‘off-the-record.’ I think some changed their phone numbers, and a few managed to disappear from sight.

Why the code of silence? One person explained that she wouldn’t be able to find work in education if she spoke out—and then hung up. Others told much the same story.

So let me tell you more about Adell Cothorne, in her own words.

“I grew up in poverty. I’m a minority, of course, (laughs). (And the daughter of a) teenage mother. So I absolutely understand the value of a strong public school education. It will take you places you’ve never been before.”

Education enabled Adell Cothorne to rise from those unpromising circumstances, and she ended up as an Assistant Principal in Montgomery County, Maryland. For those unfamiliar with the Washington, DC, area, Montgomery County is a wealthy suburb of the Capital with excellent ‘Blue Ribbon’ public schools. It’s one of the top-ranked school districts in the nation.

Adell Cothorne, former principal of Noyes Education Campus

Her idealism burned brightly, and so she applied for a job in Washington, largely, she told Frontline, because of her admiration for Michelle Rhee.

“I still have the Time Magazine with Michelle Rhee on the cover,” Cothorne told Frontline. “I had been following her for a while, and I admired what I saw on the media and the news. And so to have the opportunity to dialogue and sit across from her and then have her say to me, you know, ‘It’s not a matter of when you’re coming to D.C., but where I’m going to put you,’ that was absolute confirmation for me. And I was over the top.”

Rhee installed Cothorne as principal of Noyes Education Campus, a ‘Blue Ribbon’ school that had achieved remarkable gains on the DC-CAS in previous years. In October Cothorne met again with the Chancellor, one-on-one, to discuss her plans for the year. (Rhee’s practice was to meet with every principal to get their written guarantees.)

She told Frontline that meeting, which took place early in school year 2010-2011. “You are to ‘goal set.’ You are to tell her, you know, ‘I will raise math scores by 5%. I will raise reading scores by 6%.’ And so, yes, she and I had that conversation. And I said to her in early October, ‘I’m very comfortable with a 6% gain in math and a 7% gain in reading.’”

JOHN MERROW: But … if you make the commitment for 6%, 7%, is it understood that if you don’t make it you are not going to be around?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes.
JOHN MERROW: Produce or else?
ADELL COTHORNE: She– yes, she said that to me. Yes.
JOHN MERROW: She said–
ADELL COTHORNE: In a joking fashion, absolutely joking fashion, but she did say, ‘You know, Cothorne, if you don’t make this, don’t be upset if you get a pink slip.’ Those were her words to me. In a joking manner.
JOHN MERROW: Did you take it as a joke?
ADELL COTHORNE: No. (LAUGH) That’s my livelihood. No I did not.

Even as she was making that commitment, Cothorne knew she had a problem. What she had already seen in her new school did not jibe with the test scores that had been recorded. Here’s what she told Frontline:

“As any good administrator should, I visited classrooms and just made my presence known, (and) noticed a disconnect for myself and what was going on in the classroom. The level of instruction, because I’ve worked at Blue Ribbon Schools before, so the level of instruction that I know is needed for a Blue Ribbon School, I was not seeing on a daily ongoing basis. … There’s these huge disconnects. They’re struggling academically. Yet the data that I have been given is showing great gains. But what I see with my own eyes on a daily basis is not a true picture of great gains.”

I asked her to tell me more.

ADELL COTHORNE: Well, for instruction, I saw students who were struggling to read, which is absolutely what does not happen in a Blue Ribbon School. And did not coincide or line up with the data that I had been given as the new principal. I just really saw a lack of instruction across the board. There were only very few instances where I could go into a classroom and feel comfortable that instruction was going on and kids were learning. Wholesale, that was not happening at my school.
JOHN MERROW: It must’ve been upsetting.
ADELL COTHORNE: It was upsetting and it was a little nerve-wracking because I knew (LAUGH) it was my responsibility to raise the achievement of that school.

Her predecessor, Wayne Ryan had led Noyes with great success. In fact, Rhee had promoted him to her central office largely because of his school’s success on the DC-CAS. In 2007, for example, only 44.14% of Noyes’ students had scored at a proficient level in reading, but under Ryan’s leadership that number nearly doubled, to 84.21%, in just two years. Math scores had also nearly doubled, from 34.24% to 62.79.

What Cothorne did not know was that an awful lot of answers had been changed from ‘wrong’ to right,’ on DC-CAS answer sheets from Noyes–and in nearly half of Rhee’s other schools. At Noyes 75% of the classrooms were flagged for high erasure rates. (This problem began in Rhee’s first year, and she learned of it early in her second year. She had been urged to investigate the 2007-2008 erasures but did not, as the film details.)

Cothorne told Frontline that she inadvertently discovered a possible explanation for the discrepancy between the high test scores and the students’ daily performance: Adults were changing answers on the tests. She had stayed late one night and heard noises coming from one classroom.

“So I walked into the room and I saw three staff members. There were test books everywhere, over 200 test books spread out on desks, spread out on tables. One staff member was sitting at a desk and had an eraser. And then there were two other staff members at a round table and they had test books out in front of them.
And one staff member said to me, in a light-hearted sort of way, ‘Oh, Principal, I can’t believe this kid drew a spider on the test and I have to erase it.’ … That was a little strange to me. I mean, the whole situation of all of these test books, over 200 test books being spread out in this room after school hours with three staff members. It’s not the way a testing situation is supposed to happen.”

This was not an isolated incident, Cothorne told Frontline.

JOHN MERROW: Were there any other indications?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes.
JOHN MERROW: Of– that– teachers or staff members were behaving inappropriately on testing situations?
ADELL COTHORNE: Oh, in testing situations. Yes. … I personally walked into two different classrooms and saw two separate teachers giving instruction, trying to frontload students with information while test books are open and out. So I saw that with my own eyes.

That created a crisis for Cothorne. She felt compelled to report the incident, but her immediate supervisor was Wayne Ryan, her predecessor at Noyes. How could she call him up and accuse his former colleagues of erasing answers, without implying that he may have been part of the scheme? In the end, she told Frontline, she called someone else, who, she says, told her ‘not to worry’ but that was the last she heard from him.

She also told Frontline that one administrator summoned her to his office. She would not reveal his identity but told Frontlne about the conversation.

ADELL COTHORNE: When I was meeting with this higher up– the statement was made to me, ‘You don’t respect the legacy that has been built at Noyes.’ Once again, I processed, and looked at the person and said, ‘Could you repeat that?’ The person again moved closer and said, ‘You don’t respect the legacy that has been built at Noyes.’ And I answered with, ‘You know, I thought I was doing a very good job of looking at instruction and giving support.’ And the person just kind of smirked and set back.
JOHN MERROW: And how did you interpret that?
ADELL COTHORNE: “Be quiet.” That was my interpretation.

(Cothorne would not tell Frontline the name of that administrator, but in court documents that were unsealed the day before our broadcast she names Wayne Ryan as the individual. He was, of course, her predecessor at Noyes and the person she reported to directly at DCPS. Back in May 2011, Cothorne filed a ‘whistleblower’ action with the US Department of Education alleging widespread cheating and, therefore, fraudulent awards of federal funding. However, on the afternoon before our broadcast the Department of Education’s Inspector General reported that she had not found cheating by adults and therefore the Department of Justice would not pursue Cothorne’s case. Her full complaint can be found here (.pdf).  In it she names the DCPS officials she says she spoke to. We have not be able to contact those men, and DCPS claims it has no records of phone calls from Cothorne. Cothorne’s attorney says that one call was made on Cothorne’s cell phone and that she has supporting documentation.)

At Noyes, however, she was in charge of the building itself. I asked her to talk about the coming DC-CAS. Here’s our conversation:

JOHN MERROW: You, as principal of the school, had something to say about the DC-CAS and security. And did you do anything to make sure that DC-CAS would be a secure test?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes. So I did speak with downtown, and– on a regular basis, after I witnessed what I saw earlier in the year, I had ongoing conversations with downtown. “Don’t forget, when DC-CAS comes around, I need extra, you know, monitors. I need some other people besides my staff in the building to ensure that everything is okay.”
And at that point, downtown was more willing to help because the USA Today article had come out, and so Noyes had gotten lots of publicity about an erasure scandal. So when CAS came around in 2011, I did have two extra people from downtown to help monitor to– the test, and then I had another two extra people who helped with, you know, having the test checked in to make sure all the tests came in. We had locks changed on doors so that myself and my assistant principal were the only two people that had the key to the room to get in to testing. No one– the test coordinator did not have it. No one else had the keys.
JOHN MERROW: So are you convinced that that DC-CAS in the spring of your year there, that that was a secure test?
ADELL COTHORNE: I would honestly say that was a secure test.
JOHN MERROW: So you– you’re certain there were no erasures on that test?
ADELL COTHORNE: Now, I cannot be certain because I did not stay at the school 24 hours (LAUGH) a day. But while I was there, and what I saw, I do think it was a secure test.

With heightened security, Noyes’ DC-CAS scores dropped 52 points in reading (from 84.21% in 2009 to 32.40%) and 34 points in math (from 62.79% to 28.17%). In fact, in 2010-2011 Noyes performed below its 2007, pre-Rhee, level.

JOHN MERROW: How do you explain the drop?
ADELL COTHORNE: Those were the true test scores.
JOHN MERROW: I’m sorry?
ADELL COTHORNE: Those were the true test scores, in my opinion. Those were what the students in that school actually were able to produce.

Take note, readers. The decline at Noyes was not an exception among ‘high erasure’ schools. At the 14 schools with erasure rates of 50% or higher, scores declined at 12, often precipitously, after security was tightened. For example, reading scores at Aiton fell from 58.43% in 2007-2008 to 20.80%; in math from 57.87% to 16%. Reading scores at Raymond went from 70% to 42.44%, while its math score dropped from 68% to 45.71%.

By the time the 2010-2011 DC-CAS was administered, everyone knew of the widespread erasures, thanks to USA Today’s brilliant and thorough investigation. Rhee was gone by then, but, under public pressure, Rhee’s successor asked DC’s Inspector General to investigate. He began at Noyes, where he had little success. Cothorne told Frontline, “At first, they tried to interview staff members after school, but then staff members would find a reason not to be interviewed.”

JOHN MERROW: Why would teachers play cat and mouse?
ADELL COTHORNE: That would be speculation, but I guess they had something that they didn’t want to be forthcoming.

Of course, Cothorne expected to be questioned. After all, she had filed a complaint, and Noyes was the epicenter of the story.

JOHN MERROW: Were you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: No, I was not.
JOHN MERROW: Why weren’t you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: Again, my speculation, they didn’t want to hear what I had to say.

The Inspector General spent 17 months but investigated only one school, Noyes. Oddly, he did not examine data from 2007-2008, the year with the largest number of erasures but looked only at Rhee’s second and third years. At Noyes, the IG finally managed to interview 32 school personnel–but not Cothorne–and 23 parents. He reported finding a number of problems with test security but on the issue of Noyes personnel erasing answer sheets, “investigators found no evidence to corroborate these allegations.”

The Inspector General would not agree to an interview with Frontline.

Linda Mathews, the lawyer/journalist who supervised the USA Today investigation, told Frontline that , if one of her reporters had submitted a report like the one compiled by DC’s Inspector General, “I’d fire him on the spot.”

I asked Cothorne if she understood why an administrator or teacher might be tempted to cheat?

ADELL COTHORNE: Absolutely.
JOHN MERROW: Explain.
ADELL COTHORNE: Pressure. There’s pressure from central office to raise test scores. And that pressure is given to principals. And it is very clearly explained to you, not only in D.C., but many other school systems, your job is tied to test scores. Increase test scores. Period.

JOHN MERROW: Did you think there were people who, you know, outside of school, above the school, who knew something was wrong and maybe didn’t want to know?
ADELL COTHORNE: Not that they didn’t want to know, they wanted to keep their jobs. So I think that they knew, and, you know, because of the economic times that we’re in, decided to go along.
JOHN MERROW: Do you think that was widespread?
ADELL COTHORNE: In my opinion, yes.

I ask you to pay special attention to the next section of this piece.

Playing Devil’s Advocate, I suggested that changing a few answers was a victimless crime. She nearly jumped from her chair.

ADELL COTHORNE: No, it’s not a victimless crime. There are many victims. There are thousands of victims. It’s the students that are the victims.
JOHN MERROW: How?
ADELL COTHORNE: Someone is putting forth a picture that you are able to do something that you have no capability of doing. And so you keep moving to these different levels and the next person’s saying, “Oh, Janie can read on a fifth grade level and she can do fifth grade math.”
And Janie gets into your sixth grade middle school class, Janie can’t read, ‘See the dog run down the street.’ Janie can’t do the math. And so Janie becomes frustrated, because you are putting these sixth grade expectations on her and she has first grade ability. So then what happens to Janie? She waits her time, and when she’s 16 she’s out.

Although Cothorne became disillusioned with Michelle Rhee, she suggested that the problem went beyond the Chancellor. To Cothorne, Rhee was swept up in the national obsession with test scores everywhere, created by the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law.

She described it in these words: “(I)nstruction shuts down in February because you have to do test prep from February until the test. So instruction in many districts was already shaky in the beginning, and now you’re basically shutting down all instruction in February to do all of this test prep. Because for many administrators and many school districts, it’s as important to make sure that kid knows how to take the test than it is, ‘Did they truly learn the content?’ “

Because Cothorne is also the mother of a young child, she also sees education from a parent’s perspective. She talked about that in our interview.

ADELL COTHORNE: My frustration as a parent is that education as a whole has lost the ability of students to be natural learners. No Child Left Behind has put in the caveat that every kid must get it by Tuesday at 2:00, and if you have an IEP, we’ll give you until 2:15. But at 2:15 we’re moving on.
And you’ve got to get it. So children who need a little more processing time, children who may be able to give you the idea, but they have to write a song about it, or they have to create a picture about, (but) … when the rubber meets the road, it’s not about differentiation at the end of the day. That teacher is judged on, ‘What scores did those children get on that test?’

And that test doesn’t look at, ‘Could you sing the information?’ or ‘Could you create a poem?’ It looks at, ‘Could you write a short essay and could you bubble in the right answer?’ So that has been the focus. How do they pass that test? Not ‘Did they learn anything?’ but ‘Are they able to pass numerous tests?’ Because we test all year long.

Adell Cothorne, a dedicated educator who was completing work on her doctorate, resigned her principalship and gave up a reported annual salary of roughly $130,000. She has opened up a bakery, “Cooks ‘n Cakes,” in Ellicott City, Maryland, surely a gamble in these difficult economic times.

I hope it’s a rousing success. When you stop by (to buy), please congratulate her on her courage.


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Two Poems For The Month Of Testing

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Can April be the cruelest month, as T. S. Eliot declares in his bitterly pessimistic “The Waste Land”? For Eliot, April’s inherent cruelty is — ironically — precisely because of its vitality. April’s burgeoning life force engenders hope in a world that is both dark and hopeless.

But for many public school students and perhaps for teachers as well, the line is literally true: April is the cruelest month of the school calendar. April days that are not devoted to ‘test prep’ are spent on testing itself.

And some of what is going on in this crazy month defies the imagination. For example, critics of testing are having a field day with what they are calling “Pineapplegate.”

Here’s part of what Beth Fertig reported:

A pineapple, a hare and a swift outcry against a handful of confusing questions on this week’s English Language Arts exams have led the state’s education commissioner to scrap a portion of the eighth grade reading test.

The disputed section of the test contained a fable about a talking pineapple that challenged a hare to a race. But students and teachers complained that none of the multiple choice answers to several questions made sense.

In response to the complaints, the New York State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. concluded the questions were “ambiguous” and will not be counted against students.

“It is important to note that this test section does not incorporate the Common Core and other improvements to test quality currently underway,” Mr. King said in a statement, referring to a new teaching curriculum and standards that are being adopted in New York and other states. “This year’s tests incorporate a small number of Common Core field test questions. Next year’s test will be fully aligned with the Common Core.”

Pearson, a test preparation company, has a $32 million contract with the state to make the exams more rigorous.

Here’s more stuff that’s hard to believe. This is from The New York Post:

State Education Department officials were blind to the feelings of deaf students on this week’s English exams — heartlessly asking them questions about sounds such as the clickety-clack of a woman’s high heels and the rustle of wind blowing on leaves, educators claimed.

One sixth-grade teacher of hearing-impaired kids said they were completely thrown off by a lengthy listening passage rife with references to environmental noises — such as a cupboard door creaking open or the roar of a jet engine.

The kids were then asked to write how a boy who hears those sounds as music in his head is like a typical sixth-grader.

“My kids were looking at us like we had 10 heads. They said they didn’t understand the story,” the teacher said, referring to herself and a sign-language interpreter.

“It was all based on music and sounds in the world they don’t know,” added the perturbed teacher. “They definitely were upset.”

The teacher’s sound criticism was among a host of complaints about the new exams administered to students in Grades 3 to 8 this week, part of a five-year, $32 million deal with the testing company Pearson.

You may have noticed those two stories have one thing in common: Pearson. The giant company is also ‘field-testing’ its questions for next year’s tests — by extending the testing period for young kids this year, sometimes actually doubling the amount of time kids are being tested.

Not to pick on Pearson, but the company is offering $5 Starbucks cards to educators who will fill in its survey … and the opening sentences in the accompanying letter from this education giant contain basic grammatical errors.

In an effort to learn more about the challenges being faced by K-12 educators, would you please spare a few minutes to complete an online survey? It should take less than 15 minutes, and will provide us with very valuable feedback to improve our services and offerings.

The opening phrase, ‘In an effort….by K-12 educators,” modifies the closest noun or pronoun, which is YOU. So Pearson is asking me to fill out the survey so I can learn more?

Pineapples
Pineapples have caused an issue on some state tests.

The second sentence is compound, one subject (it) and two verbs (‘should take’ and ‘will provide’), and the grammatical rule is clear: no comma.

Much of the uproar seems to be coming from teachers, and cynics may suggest that’s because their ox is now being gored; after all, these tests are now being used to grade — and fire — teachers, so of course they are paying closer attention. Perhaps some teachers are late to the party, but so what! They’re here, and teachers like Anthony Cody have been in the forefront all along.

Some parents are fighting back against high stakes testing. Parents in Colorado, California, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Indiana have opted out of high stakes testing for their children and have kept (are keeping) them home. A group with the impressive-sounding name of United Opt Out National is trying to coordinate the effort.

Peggy Robertson, a former public school teacher turned stay-at-home mom, leads the group, which she acknowledges has about 1,427 members — and no money — right now. “We are not against either testing or assessment, just this high stakes testing madness,” she told me. The number of Colorado families who kept their children at home last year was “five times more” than in 2010. It’s still only a few hundred, but Robertson is convinced that the numbers will grow “as more people become aware of the harm these tests are doing.”

And not just parents. Peggy shared a link to a letter from a New York principal.

There’s also a national effort, one that began in Texas, to slow down the testing express. As of April 23rd, 380 school boards in Texas, representing 1.8 million students, have signed this petition; that’s been rolled into a national petition.

What’s the alternative? This short piece was written by Pasi Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons (Teachers College Press). It may make you think twice about the course we are on.

But it doesn’t follow that we could just ‘blow up’ our increasingly centralized approach and do what Finland does. Ted Kolderie of Education Evolving believes we need a new kind of school, one in which teachers have largely autonomous control. I’ve just finished reading the galleys of a new book, Liberating Teachers, that argues that position persuasively. Currently there are around 60 schools with autonomous teachers, cutting across all sorts of arrangements — district, chartered and independent. Some are union-affiliated, others are not. Urban, suburban and rural, serving students from preschool to age 21.

These schools are invariably small (like schools in Finland) and less reliant on standardized assessments (like Finnish schools).

And now — a final poem for April, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lovely sonnet, “How Do I Love Thee?”

I first thought it should be “How Do We Test Thee? Let Me Count the Ways” until I realized that we basically have a ‘one size fits all’ approach to testing. No way to get a sonnet out of that.

So I went back to the drawing board and produced the following (with apologies to EBB):

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Is it A? “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.”

Or B? “I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

C? “I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;”

D? “I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.”

Or “All of the Above?”

Please mark your answer below with a No. 2 pencil, taking care to fill in the box completely without marking the area outside the box. If you do not follow directions, the machine may not be able to read your answer, and you will be marked down accordingly.

___________________________________________________

Asking Questions

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Question: You moderate a lot of panel discussions at education meetings, and you have a reputation for doing a pretty good job at it. In fact, some of those appearances are embedded above in this post. Can you pass along some tips to the rest of us?

John: Sure, but why are you asking me now?

Question: Well, you’re not getting any younger, are you?

John: Fair enough. There’s really just one unbreakable commandment for running a worthwhile panel discussion: No opening remarks!

Question: Why not?

John: Because if I ask panelist so-and-so to make a few remarks, I have given up control of the microphone. That means when he or she goes off on a tangent or goes on too long, I cannot interrupt without being rude. But if it’s all Q&A, it’s always my microphone, and I can interrupt without being rude. Remember, it’s supposed to be a ‘discussion,’ not a series of presentations or ‘opening remarks.’ How many of these events have you been to where they never even get to a discussion because each panelist takes 10 or 15 minutes — even though the moderator had told them ‘5 minutes max!’

Tell me more...

Question: What are your other ‘rules’?

John: There are two expressions I try to use as often as possible. One is “I don’t understand,” and the other is “Tell me more.”

Question: Tell me more.

John: That’s cute.

Question: Well, I’m just trying to follow your example.

John: OK. Here’s why. When I hear jargon, even if I understand it, I will say “I don’t understand’ because that forces the panelist to come down to earth and speak in understandable English. He may be thinking that I am pretty stupid, but he will invariably provide a better, clearer explanation. “Tell me more” works on that same principle.

Question: So those are the secrets?

John: Well, there’s more. The moderator has to listen to what people are saying and respond to that. Some moderators seem to feel that it’s their job to ‘balance’ the conversation, giving equal time to everyone. I don’t worry about that. In fact, I often tell panelists that they have to speak up if they want to be heard. Life is unfair, and so are panel discussions.

Question: What else?

John: I always ask panelists ahead of time if there’s a question they want to be asked. If there is, I ask it, because that allows them to say what they would have said if there had been opening remarks. Everyone has a set speech, a shtick, and I want to make it easy for them to get it out there for the audience.

Question: How do you see the moderator’s role?

John: Good question. Kind of like a conductor.

Question: Orchestra or train?

John: Both, I guess. If the panel has been chosen well, then there will be different voices (instruments), and a good conductor will help them create something worth listening to. But a moderator is also driving a train toward a clear destination, greater understanding of the issue. Remember, the operative word is ‘discussion,’ but if you look at most convention programs, these events are usually billed as ‘panels,’ whatever that means. It’s all about having a decent conversation, one that sheds light and holds the audience’s interest.

Question: You feel pretty strongly about this.

John: Sure, because pedagogy matters. We shouldn’t be lecturing when we know that the more interactive and participatory an event is, the more likely it will be interesting to the audience.

Question: Is there an ideal number of panelists?

John: No, but two is too few. I would say that three or four is probably best. I’ve juggled as many as seven, but that’s no fun for anyone.

Question: What about taking questions from the audience?

John: Essential, but here the moderator has to be tough and occasionally rude. A lot of so-called questioners really want to hold forth with their opinions. I always make it clear that I won’t tolerate that, but even so someone always gets up and tries to make a speech. I am always forced to interrupt someone and ask (or demand) ‘What’s your question?’

Question: Your blog is usually about education. In fact, you usually complain about something or other. What’s up with this?

John: I am taking a bold stand against boredom, against lousy pedagogy and stultifying panels. Pretty courageous, huh?

Question: Chances are most people won’t read this far. You OK with that?

John: Well, if even one moderator behaves differently because of this, I will feel I have actually accomplished something.

Question: I suppose you think you’re pretty clever, putting all this information about moderating into Q&A form.

John: You said that, I didn’t.

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: The Lottery

Put one notion to rest: The Lottery is not a poor cousin of Waiting for Superman.  In some respects it’s a purer and more honest film, ferocious in its anger.  And although an NPR reviewer called it “a devastating piece of propaganda,” the filmmaker begs to disagree.

Madeleine Sackler, not yet 30 years old, says The Lottery simply tells the stories of the lives of four families as they struggle to find better educational opportunities for their children.  “That word, propaganda, has a negative connotation,” she said. “This movie is true.”


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MOVIE REVIEW: Race to Nowhere

By now it seems we have all reviewed Waiting for Superman, but what’s surprising is that WFS is just one of four or five movies about education now out. A few weeks ago I reviewed WFS, and now I’ve decided to review the rest of them, beginning with Race to Nowhere, the 2009 film made by first-time director (and angry parent) Vicki Abeles.

Race to Nowhere is a film about how schools and parental pressure are affecting students’ mental and emotional wellbeing. WFS portrays our schools as undemanding; Race to Nowhere says the opposite—that we are killing our kids, figuratively and sometimes literally.

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