5 Ways to Change the Status Quo: Interview with Phillip Kovacs

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’ve been interviewing a lot of folks who are well known in education, Debbie Meier, Margaret Spellings, Diane Ravitch, Pat Callan and others. Many readers have posted comments, which I read with interest. Sometimes I wonder about the writers, and sometimes I reach out.

This post came from my interest in one reader’s comments to my recent post on innovation in schools.  His name is Philip Kovacs, and he’s a former high school English teacher who now teaches would-be teachers at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. I also know that he has a PhD in Educational Policy Studies, a 6 month-old son, and some strong convictions about public education. (The latter is the focus of the interview, although the proud new Dad manages to work his son into the conversation a couple of times).

The Interview

So tell me what you believe, and why.

In my dissertation I argue for keeping public schools public, but after four years working with local public schools, I’m open to alternatives. I am now working on starting a project-based lab school.

How did you find Learning Matters?

The More things ChangeIt was research into the Gates Foundation that brought me to your website in the first place. The Foundation funds an unbelievable number of projects, some of which argue against one another, though the larger of the funded organizations agree on key points, none of which, in my humble opinion, are very innovative. I do not, for the record, think Bill Gates is controlling your content!

I am now editing a book about the Gates Foundation’s involvement in educational reform. I am 100% sure that the edited volume is going to anger the educational “right” and “left.”

You sound as if you want to anger both ends of the spectrum.

I guess I do, now that you mention it. Three years ago I helped about 30 scholars, teachers, and other concerned individuals create and post a petition calling for an end to No Child Left Behind. Continue reading

“Pay teachers what they are worth (think six-figures)”: An Interview with Rick Hanushek

Economists, whether liberal or conservative, don’t think about education the way most educators do, and that’s healthy. My friend Eric Hanushek is in the conservative camp, as his affiliation with the Hoover Institution at Stanford indicates. Eric HanushekRick has been interested in education–no, strike that–in doing something to improve education, for many years. He’s active on a number of fronts, particularly in Texas and with the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. Professor Hanushek has a new book out, but, because he manages to sneak in two plugs in our interview, I won’t repeat the title here.

The Interview

Before we turn to No Child Left Behind, tell me your take on the current so-called “Race to the Top.” Secretary Duncan has an unprecedented amount of discretionary money, $5B, to give away. States seem to be falling all over themselves promising to do what Washington wants. Is this good?

I absolutely think the Secretary is doing the right thing, and I am actually encouraged by the positive reactions of the states. He has chosen particularly important issues to take to the states: developing systems for ensuring that there are effective teachers in every classroom; encouraging more competition in education through expanding charter schools; and developing good data systems that allow for reliable evaluation of programs and teachers. These are central elements of the funding and policy proposals in my recent book (Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses), so I am thrilled that the Secretary is putting the force and the funding of the federal government behind these ideas. The essential unifying idea is that we should provide strong incentives to improve student performance – and each of these policy thrusts fits into that overall structure. I applaud the Secretary and the President for their forceful leadership in these substantive matters. Moreover, he has done this in a way that respects the states’ central role in education, while encouraging their movements in productive directions.

The Department says there will be winners and losers, but will that fly politically? Educators are accustomed to getting money based on formulas, not in a competition. Can you imagine the political pressure Arne Duncan is going to be under?

There is no doubt that the Secretary has taken a courageous position, because many resist the idea that policy should intrude on the way we have always done things. And his are not the positions that have been championed by the educational establishment. But, while there are political difficulties with standing firm, I think of the issue more from the viewpoint of what happens if he does not succeed. I frankly worry for the nation.  Continue reading

Privatization Will Not Help Us Achieve Our Goals: An Interview with Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is a prominent historian of education, the author of a dozen books including Edspeak: A Glossary of Education Terms, Phrases, Buzzwords and Jargon (2007), The Language Police (2003) and Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000).  Diane Ravitch

Diane is not a political type, but neither is she afraid of controversy.  In recent years she’s become a lightning rod for controversy.  She has been embroiled in an ongoing battle in the press with Joel Klein, the Chancellor of the New York City public schools, about academic achievement.  Here she takes on both Arne Duncan and NCLB!

The Interview

The Obama Administration and nearly every state have now endorsed national or common standards.  Is this a good thing?  Or is now the time to get worried, the logic being that, when ‘everyone’ is for something, the rest of us should watch out?

I have favored common standards for a long time. When I worked for Bush I in the early 1990s, I helped to launch federally funded projects to develop voluntary national standards in the arts, English, history, geography, civics, economics, science, and other essential school subjects. Some of the projects were successful; others were not. The whole enterprise foundered because a) it was not authorized by Congress, and b) it came to fruition during the transition between two administrations and had no oversight, no process of review and improvement. So, yes, I believe the concept is important.

However, I worry about today’s undertaking, first, because it will focus only on reading and mathematics, nothing else; and second, because I don’t know whether the effort will become a bureaucratic nightmare. But I won’t prejudge the outcome. I will hope for the best, and hope that today’s standardistas learned some lessons from what happened nearly two decades ago.

If we have common standards, are national tests likely to follow?

Not necessarily. If the standards are worthy, then any testing organization should be able to develop test specifications that are aligned with the standards.

On balance, has No Child Left Behind done more harm than good?

I would say, sorrowfully, that NCLB has failed. Continue reading

Struggles Can Breed Innovation: An Interview with Clay Christensen and Michael Horn

A recent issue of Newsweek Magazine asked ‘What to read this summer?’  And the answer included Disrupting Class, the provocative book by Clay Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson.  Disrupting ClassI talked with two of the authors–Clay and Michael–about the book, the economic crisis and the importance of innovation in education.

My interview with Clay and Michael is particularly relevant now that Arne Duncan has unveiled ambitious plans for the so-called Race to the Top and the $4B in stimulus money.


Everywhere I go these past months, I’ve met people who were reading “Disrupting Class” and/or talking about your ideas. When you decided to turn your attention to schools, traditionally one of the most hidebound of our institutions, did you anticipate such a positive reaction?

When we published the book, we really didn’t know what to expect. It’s been a pleasant surprise that so many educators have been mostly excited by the vision we put forth. Many educators realize that everyone learns differently from each other, and many wear the battle scars from their largely futile struggles to customize learning for every student from within a factory-based system built for standardization. It seems that our message struck a chord as it suggested a way to deliver innovation in a sector that has been so lacking in it and offered a vision for how to transform learning from our current monolithic world to a student-centric one that could spell great relief from these struggles.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Tom Friedman urged America to innovate, innovate, innovate, if we want to survive and prosper. You have, of course, made a persuasive case for innovation and provided recipes and a road map. In the book, you urge educators to innovate. Are educators listening, or are they so wrapped up in trying to survive that innovation is just not on their list?

Many of Friedman’s themes in that piece have echoed our own thoughts and writing–from why America seems to have been the only country to be able to disrupt its own economy in the past to how necessity in times of struggles can breed innovation (a step beyond invention). In many pockets it really does seem as though educators are innovating in creative ways. For example, the main disruption we identified in the book–online learning–is booming at the moment as it is growing well over 30 percent a year, and many educators are pushing it well beyond its initial versions to allow it to serve many more people with quality options. Doing this is vital so that we can offer more with less. Continue reading

“I want schools small enough to fail as they learn on the job”: An Interview with Deborah Meier

Deborah MeierDeborah Meier is the founder of the modern small schools movement. After teaching kindergarten in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, Meier founded Central Park East elementary school in 1974.  This alternative but still public school embraced progressive ideals in the tradition of John Dewey in an effort to provide better education for inner-city children in East Harlem, within the New York City public school system.

She then served as founding principal for two other small public elementary schools, Central Park East II and River East, both in East Harlem. In 1984, with the assistance and support of Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools, Meier founded the Central Park East Secondary School. The story of these schools is told in David Bensman’s Central Park East and its Graduates: Learning by Heart (2000), and in Frederick Wiseman’s High School II (1994). In 1987 Meier received a MacArthur ‘genius’ Fellowship for her efforts.

I’ve known her for at least 20 years and have admired her for more. Now 78, Deb is still going strong, as this recent interchange proves.

Continue reading

Sometimes It’s Better to Get Caught


“Did you cheat in school when you were my age?” My 12-year-old niece looked at me as she asked the question, then turned to her father, my younger brother.cheating

We were talking about her school, a gymnasium outside Munich. Because I knew about the intense pressure at these elite German schools, I wondered whether German students cheated as much as their American counterparts. In surveys of American students, more than 70% admit to cheating on an exam at least once in the past year, with close to 50% admitting to cheating two or more times. My niece confessed that once she ‘helped some friends’ on a test by giving them answers, and that other kids did the same thing.

And now that she had ‘fessed up, she was turning the tables on us.

Continue reading