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!’
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.
If you are reading this during daylight hours in March, chances are that millions of our children are now engaged in what’s called ‘test prep.’ Just yesterday someone showed me the March calendar for a high-achieving public elementary school: two solid weeks of the month were blocked off for “TEST PREP,” probably in caps lest any classroom teacher forget and do some real teaching.
These seven separate meetings (in Washington, DC and northern California) had only one thing in common: big ideas about life and learning. While their politics are different, all celebrated the human spirit. Oh, and no one talked about TEST PREP or about what is happening in real classrooms in many schools.
Both Roberto Rodriguez and Carmel Martin expressed the faith that pushing certain policy levers from Washington will produce the desired changes in 15,000 school districts and 100,000 public schools. So, for example, “doubling down” on early childhood education, as the Administration they work for has done, will dramatically increase enrollment in early childhood programs, and that in turn will lead to early reading competence. Investing $4 billion in ‘turning around’ low-performing schools will produce dramatic gains. Creating “Career and College Readiness” programs will make more kids ready for college and careers. And so forth. If either harbors doubts about the wisdom or efficacy of any of their policy initiatives, they did not let on. If either wonders whether federal policies under Presidents Bush and Obama might be responsible for the ubiquity of TEST PREP, we saw no sign.
Senator Bennet, whose previous job was Superintendent of Schools in Denver, spoke of finding new ways to train and ‘incentivize’ teachers. “What we do now makes no sense,” he said, indicating that he wanted to use federal dollars to ‘incentivize’ school districts to use technology. He told us that he was worried about all children, not just kids in poor areas, being forced to attend schools that were failing to recognize the power of technology to radically change education.
Like Senator Bennet, Giséle Huff believes that today’s technologies can transform education.
A libertarian activist who once ran for Congress, Huff now runs a small foundation. Perhaps because her office looks out on San Francisco Bay, she used a maritime metaphor to describe public education today. “Teach for America, KIPP and other programs are building rafts for a small number of kids, and that’s fine as far as it goes,” she said. “But I am worried about the ship’s direction. We cannot abandon ship, but neither can we continue doing what we are doing; we have to change course.”
GE’s Jeff Immelt was bullish on America. He gave 10 reasons for optimism, with No. 5 being, “We do education better than anyone in the world.” As evidence, he cited the number of foreign students who come here for their graduate training. However, I’d be willing to bet a new GE dishwasher that he has no clue about what’s happening in K-12 classrooms this March.
Which brings me the question posed by Claude Steele of Stanford: Is education a commodity or a public good? If it’s a commodity, who’s buying, and what’s being sold? If it’s a public good, just what are the benefits?
Steele, the new Dean of the School of Education at Stanford, suggested a double standard is at work. “For our own children, education is a commodity, a scarce resource that we are willing to pay for,” he said. “People with resources will never give up privilege willingly,” he said, which is why, he said, “When we talk about education for others, we say it’s an ‘opportunity.’”
However, if education is a commodity to be purchased, then I say ‘buyer beware.’ When even our good schools devote weeks to TEST PREP and the subsequent multiple-choice tests, that’s an education system that is training kids as if life were a bubble test.
But life is not a series of multiple-choice questions, requiring only a No. 2 pencil. Navigating the future will require improvising, regrouping, falling down and getting up, growing and changing.
We know that the predictors of success in later life include diverse experiences in what Dean Steele calls “non-routine settings,” but what could be more routine than weeks of TEST PREP? We also know that lots of reading and the experience of ‘negotiating’ with adults and other children also are preparation for, and predictors of, success. TEST PREP doesn’t make the list.
So what on earth are we doing? “Americans are pragmatists,” Mark Shields said. “While ideologues believe that what is right works, the rest of us believe that what works is right.”
If Shields is correct — and he usually is — then most Americans must not know what their children and their neighbors’ children are doing in class. If adults knew about the mind-numbing waste of time, I believe they’d do something about it.
Immelt concluded by noting that “the highway to the future is a toll road,” meaning that we Americans have to be prepared to work creatively and aggressively if we wish to ensure our future. Hard, creative work seems like a reasonable toll to pay.
The toll barriers we’ve set up in schools, however, are entirely different. We’re training kids to think inside the box and penalizing them (and their teachers!) when they don’t.
TEST PREP education probably doesn’t descend to the level of a “public evil,” but it’s certainly not a “public good.” And if it’s a “commodity,” it’s bargain basement, yard-sale stuff.
“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.
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)
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.
‘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 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 Sunreported 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.
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.
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?