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)

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The Values Behind ‘Value-Added’

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Does the current push for “Value Added” measures mean that education has finally figured it out, or is this yet another silver bullet that will fail — and perhaps do more harm than good along the way?

While that is an interesting question, a number of prior questions need answers:

1. What exactly do we mean by ‘value’?
2. Who adds ‘value,’ and how do they do it?
3. How can we enable the women and men now teaching to add more ‘value’?
4. How can we attract people who add value to go into teaching?
5. At the end of the day, what do we value?

Recently I was introduced to Masha Tarasyuk, who spoke no English when she immigrated from the Ukraine at age 6. Masha told me that one teacher at her public school in the Bronx took her under her wing, supported her when she got down in the dumps and never stopped believing in her. Masha eventually graduated from Barnard and the Fordham School of Education and now is a Teach for America corps member at the High School for Medical Professionals in New York. She’s giving back, helping others just as that teacher helped her (and Masha is in her third year, by the way, even though the TFA term is just two.)

Surely that teacher ‘added value’ to Masha’s education, but, judging from the way Masha told the story, the value had less to do with her academic achievement and more to do with the emotional connection.

I’d like to believe that everyone reading this had at least one teacher like that, someone who made a huge difference in your life. We did a series on it, available at our YouTube channel.

Value Added
Is value-added data truly accurate?

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have to be aware of the recent value-added study by economists from Harvard and Columbia, positing that students who have truly effective teachers for a few years of their education end up making lots more money. Much of their findings are conjecture or at least extrapolation, and the authors were careful to warn against basing policy decisions on their study.

The economists measured ‘value’ with test scores, of course, because that’s what is available. Bubble tests results are how we keep score, at least for the moment. And if the kids in Teacher X’s classroom always seem to do well on those tests, while the students in Teacher Z’s classroom always seem to do poorly, why shouldn’t we draw some conclusions about the value each teacher is adding?

It is a stretch to connect better test scores to attending a better college, getting a better job and eventually making more money, but even if the connections are flimsy, we surely need more teachers who can motivate their students to do well.

Nick Kristof, the well-respected columnist for the New York Times, ignored the caveat about policy recommendations and made some: pay effective teachers lots more and fire ineffective ones. But it didn’t take Kristof’s words to energize politicians like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York’s Andrew Cuomo and New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, all of whom are pushing value-added measurement as a way of doing what Kriistoff recommends.

That’s a Republican, a Democrat and an Independent, if you’re keeping score, which suggests that ‘value-added’ is either a non-partisan idea whose time has come — or a mad rush to judgment.

But let’s dig deeper? What do truly effective teachers do that adds value? Can those skills be taught?

The father of “value-added” measurement is Dr. William Sanders, now nearly retired in North Carolina but still very much engaged. He has not been fond of some of what I have been writing in this blog about bubble tests and, ever the gentleman, asked if I would be open to having a conversation.

Which we had recently.

A good deal of what follows is based on our 96-minute phone meeting, several days ago. What Dr. Sanders wanted to explore was the ‘how’ of value added. What is it that excellent teachers do that adds value to their students’ learning? Can a trained observer see what excellent teachers do that no-so-good teachers do not?

Here’s where it got interesting. Bill told me that teams of observers cataloguing the classroom behaviors of teachers from both groups could not find differences in their behavior. ‘Look again,’ he told them. Still no luck, they reported. ‘Look some more,’ he directed.

Eureka. The truly effective teachers, his observers finally figured out, were able to provide what’s called ‘differentiated instruction’ (treating kids individually according to their needs) and able to disguise what they were doing, so that the children were not aware of the different treatment.

These teachers, Bill said, don’t see a classroom of 25 students; instead, they see 25 different kids and figure out the best ways to reach them. And then they camouflage the different treatment lest some kids feel like Robins and others like Crows in those infamous reading groups.

They do not spend hours or days on test preparation. (Administrators, please read that sentence again!)

Do some teachers intuitively know how important it is to disguise what they are doing? If not, how did they learn to do that? He’s a fan of Teach for America because, he says, the data tells him that those teachers are more likely to be truly effective than teachers from traditional schools of education.

What’s the evidence, I wanted to know? The old Tennessean cited his research in Memphis, where, he said, for three years in a row the cadre of TFA teachers outperformed teachers who attended Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee and Tennessee, using student achievement scores as the measure of performance.

Bill suggested that it was not the TFA summer training that makes the difference as much as the caliber of their recruits. When society opened up more opportunities for women, he reminded me, the entering ACT scores of those enrolling in education and home economics fell dramatically. Since the late 1960s, he said, talented young women are likely to enroll in other departments. Today, women make up half or more of those studying to be lawyers, doctors and veterinarians.

“TFA is bringing capable people back into the teaching pool,” he told me. If Bill is correct, then one sure-fire way to ‘add value’ in education is to recruit more people like the men and women who apply to Teach for America.

How do we entice them to become classroom teachers? With about one million teachers approaching retirement, TFA’s corps of 15,000 teachers is not the answer. We have to appeal to hundreds of thousands of talented young men and women and convince them that teaching is a respected and rewarding career.

Ask yourself if what’s going on in the public arena now is likely to attract people into teaching. Are the heavy-handed campaigns by politicians like Governors Christie and Cuomo (and the Governors of Wisconsin and Ohio) helpful? Is Mayor Bloomberg’s effort a step in the right direction? Is Michelle Rhee’s campaign to restrict collective bargaining and tenure likely to persuade talented young men and women that teaching is an appealing career? Are union leaders who oppose charter schools ‘on principle’ adding value to the teaching profession? When union leaders insist that teachers cannot be held accountable for student learning, are they elevating the teaching profession?

As the lawyers say, asked and answered.

Surely an important part of the value of an effective teacher is her ability to connect with individual children, her willingness to become emotionally attached to her students as individuals. (I write about this at some length in The Influence of Teachers.)

Those teachers need the time and space to make connections, but today teaching seems to be all about higher test scores. In an earlier piece, we explored the impact of test pressures on young readers:

Maybe it’s time to figure out the impact on young teachers, too?

Because evaluating teachers using student achievement scores is here to stay, it’s in teachers’ interests to argue for better measures of achievement. We need better ways of assessing the value that teachers add to the lives the children they teach, beyond test scores.

What do we value?