The ‘alien structure’ of education, and other thoughts

As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

I am reading a collection of essays called “I Used to Think … and Now I Think,” which is billed as reflections by leading reformers on how they themselves have changed over the years. The essays I’ve read so far make me think about testing, cheating, the ‘Save our Schools’ rally in Washington, DC, and the approaching school year.

In her essay, Deborah Meier reflects on “how utterly alien” the basic structure of school is to “normal human learning.” We saw that when we reported for PBS Newshour on P.S. 1 in the South Bronx, where first graders were reading competently but fourth graders were failing the reading test. A reasonable person would have to conclude that, to borrow Debbie’s phrase, the ‘structure of school’ was conspiring against the joy of learning. That is, from second grade on, the emphasis is on testing reading, not reading itself.

In his essay, Marshall (Mike) Smith reflects on the rise in testing, which he says has nearly doubled during the years of No Child Left Behind.

Today the ‘structure of school’ includes ever more testing, this time with high stakes for teachers and administrators, who stand to lose their jobs if scores don’t go up. Under Michelle Rhee, Washington D.C. led the way in ‘holding teachers accountable,’ but now about 30 states have laws that connect test scores and adult evaluation.

Given the high stakes for adults, many predicted a wave of cheating, and that seems to be occurring: Washington, New Jersey, Baltimore, Houston, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Atlanta is the poster child: nearly half the schools and 178 adults implicated, with confessions from about 80 teachers and administrators already recorded. What makes Atlanta unique is the investigation — which was done by an outside group, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

In every other place I am familiar with, the investigations were directly or indirectly controlled by the adults in charge of the schools. Even Atlanta’s first ‘investigation’ — which turned up no problems — was done by insiders.

In a few days, PBS Newshour will air our report on Atlanta, focusing on the children who were cheated. That’s a perspective that’s been missing from much of the reporting.

Speaking of Atlanta, “I Used to Think…” includes an essay by recently departed Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall. In eight largely self-serving pages, Dr. Hall celebrates her accomplishments. She tells us that it took her three years to bring the school system under her direct control and “to institutionalize strong ethics requirements limiting the school board’s direct involvement with the day-to-day operations of the system.” (The added emphasis was mine.) Since the Georgia Bureau of Investigation report traces the cheating right to the superintendent’s desk, the sentence resonates with irony.

Dr. Hall has denied any knowledge of or involvement in cheating. During her tenure, she received nearly $600,000 in bonuses. How much of that was for raising test scores (fraudulently) is unclear, but the Board wants to ‘claw back’ those dollars.

I worry that the ‘lesson’ of these cheating scandals will be missed and instead districts will spend time and money on protection and detection. Indeed, New York State announced yesterday that it was investing in new detection systems.

In this age of accountability, testing is punitive. That’s the bottom line, and that’s what must be addressed, but we can’t abandon testing or accountability.

Matt Damon

Matt Damon appeared at the Save Our Schools rally in Washington, D.C. last weekend -- was he the main reason for subsequent media coverage?

The Save our Schools event in Washington was hoping to call attention to the damage that our testing frenzy is doing. What did it accomplish? From one perspective, it was a bust. The organizers predicted a crowd of between 5,000 and 10,000, but head-counters from Education Week said 3,000 tops. While it got coverage on local outlets and in the Washington Post, most of the reporting can be explained in two words: Matt Damon. His star power drew media attention.

The speeches that I have read or watched on YouTube did little to move the ball forward. Organizers met with Education Secretary Arne Duncan — whose resignation they later called for. I have it from reliable sources that they turned down the opportunity to meet with Roberto Rodriguez, the President’s education advisor and a man whose power may be equal to Duncan’s, because they wanted an audience with the President.

What was the tone of the gathering? A good friend who attended the rally wrote me afterwards about ‘the corporate reactionaries,’ noting:

They are dead set on imposing a business model on our pedagogical practices … Bashing unions, demanding the end of tenure, collective bargaining, seniority, and headstrong pushing the cheap and deeply flawed metric as The only valid measure of academic achievement. John, you well know that the new so-called education consultants, and the huge mega-billionaire and corporate testing and assessment industry is all about profits! … They want to take the public out of all decision-making. They want to privatize as much as they can! …. They are determined to destroy all that we built, and all our good works that are proven successful, and to dismiss and devalue and degrade our greatest achievements.

But are the ‘bad guys’ all on one side? In Newark, New Jersey, a well-meaning ‘reform’ is being scuttled by a union contract (also signed by a school board) that prevents schools from replacing ineffective teachers. The Wall Street Journal describes in detail how failing schools simply shuffled ineffective teachers — ’you take my five, and I will take your five’ — because the contract guarantees jobs to tenured teachers. That outrage adds more fuel to the fire for those who see unions as the source of education’s problems.

And, come to think of it, when unions behave as classic trade unions bent on protecting their members at all costs, they are a huge part of the problem.

One change that must happen if public education is to survive: unions must become professional, not trade, organizations.

On my blog last week the respected educator Grant Wiggins posted a long and thoughtful response that some of you may have missed. I hope you will jump back a week and read it in its entirety. Here’s one paragraph:

Until and unless school is defined as talent development and not a march through The Valued Past, we will fail. School is boring for many if not most. When was the last time you folks shadowed students for a day? It is a grim experience. It is endlessly easy to blame Others, those Outsider bad guys. But from where I sit, the problem is a Pogo problem: I have met the enemy; it is us.

It’s in the vein of ‘physician, heal thyself.’ At the rally and elsewhere, my progressive friends have been so busy attacking their bad guys that they have lost sight of what drew them into teaching in the first place.

In my post last week, I recalled Ronald Reagan’s “Trust but verify” commandment. That prompted Grant to write:

The only way John’s pleas for a sensible middle can be achieved is if educators finally get honest and say, “mea culpa; school is more boring and ineffective than it needs to be, so let’s get our own house in order before the outsiders force us to do dumb things with their crude policy levers.

Had unions and other groups lobbied hard for alternatives to current policy we also might not be in this mess. But for 25 years the educational establishment has just lobbied hard to complain about what it doesn’t like. Washington works the old fashioned way: write the laws and give them to legislators. When was the last time all the key players got together and did that?

I don’t know if we need to get together, but I do know that testing’s critics need to think about accountability, the ‘verify’ part of Reagan’s formula, because Americans won’t accept either extreme, and by not adequately addressing that issue, the progressives are leaving the field to the verifiers.

We are a few weeks away from the reopening of schools across the country. This fall will be different because of the harsh economy, but kids will still arrive on that first day full of hope and optimism, just as they do every year. Somehow they manage to convince themselves that ‘this year will be different.’

Most often, that’s not the case. The ‘unnatural structure of school’ sorts children into groups of “A kids,’ ‘B kids’ and (for most) ‘C kids.’ That structure works against good teaching and deep learning. For children, September, not April, is ‘the cruelest month.’

I believe that teachers can make a difference this year if they band together to focus on what kids need. They may need to make common cause with parents, instead of being distant. They may need to tell taxpayers just how much of their money is being wasted on excessive testing. They may need to inform their union leaders that they are going to violate the contract and work late or meet with administrators or parents after school.

Above all, they have to be pro-child, and pro-learning, not anti-this or anti-that.

37 Responses to “The ‘alien structure’ of education, and other thoughts”

  1. CarolineSF 03. Aug, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

    I read that the National Park Service (which oversaw the event because of its location) estimated 8,000. It’s interesting how reformers and moderates are bound and determined to brand the event a failure, though most of their criticism amounts to praising it with faint damns.

    The main criticism is that the participants were too middle-aged, too white and too strident — all of that criticism coming from middle-aged, white, strident people, of course.

    What’s the problem with Matt Damon’s being the reason for the attention? That’s the benefit of star power; that’s what he came to do. The clip of him talking to that embarrassingly sad young woman from Reason TV is everywhere, posted and shared by people who couldn’t identify Diane Ravitch on a bet. The so-called reformers, with their megamillions poured into PR and so-called think tanks, must be going nuts.

  2. Patrick F. Bassett 03. Aug, 2011 at 3:31 pm #

    Lots of passion and anger expressed by the March on Washington. But little will change, given our current predispositions to impose grandiose plans on the education sector by those least connected to it.

    Thanks, John, for re-asserting again what I call “leading from the middle”: unless teacher-leaders take control of change, it won’t happen. Public schools worked pretty well for decades when they were all locally funded and run. The move to centralization of school administation and consolidation of schools in the name of industrial-age efficiency in the fifties produced big bureaucracies and remote, out-of-touch adminstration far removed from the classroom teacher, the parent, and the student, the most important trinity in edcuation that is the key to success of individual schools. It’s not a surprise to anyone when we see “turnarounds” of failing schools or the introduction of successful charters: in both cases, this happens when the schools are organized or re-organized like private, independent schools: highly professional principals, highly-engaged and engaging teachers, motivated parents, all together forming “an intentional school culture” for students and adults that is based in core values, an achievement orientation being one of them. The Sisyphean miscalculation of the last 40 years of school reforms, none of which have worked, is to believe that there are systemic solutions to a dysfucntional system. There are many highly functioning, successful public schools: they could be even better if they were granted the autonomy and freedom of private schools to hire and fire as needed; to choose the curriculum and texts (or no texts) as they saw fit; to experiment and innovate at will; to assess (or not) as their mission dictates; and to create and enforce a salutary culture rather than default to the lowest common denominator of the “anything goes” popular culture. For the 300 years of independents schools in the U.S., we’ve seen that the marketplace itself in the form of parental choice dictates which models work for parents and students when parents get to choose a school because of its mission and philosophy rather than being forced to choose by a school by its location within a taxing, local public school boundary. For schools on the bubble of success vs. failure, why don’t we do what the Finns do: heavy intervention with a swat team of teachers and principals from schools that have succeeded, with great authroity to change everything, including personnel. Schools for which that doesn’t work should be closed, period. Any finally, no one except the criminally insane would think a middle school or high school of 2000 or more kids is workable. Schools (or schools within schools: i.e., lower school, middle school, high school) of 500-600 are what work. Why? Because all the adults can know all of the children. And care about them.

    • john merrow 03. Aug, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

      Sound words from an effective, respected leader….
      Amen, Pat

  3. Dan Everett 03. Aug, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    Many years ago someone suggested to me that any school is only as good as its principal. As my children have made their way through schools in four states — in districts both large and small — I have found this to be consistently true.

    We now live in an educational environment obsessed with testing. And we all have seen what a fixation on testing has wrought to the process of educating our children.

    But when a principal dedicated to learning sets the tone, we still see kids motivated to learn.

    When a principal says to parents, “Look, we’ll get your kids through these tests because we have to. But we’re also going to challenge them with difficult material, motivate them to learn, teach them how to develop solid study skills, and prepare them for good colleges and universities.”

    In my community such a principal has done exactly that. I couldn’t be happier with the education my high school student received.

    Sadly, this principal has retired. We can only pray that his successor can continue to inspire both teachers and students to put learning ahead of standardized tests so that they will continue to get a real education.

    • john merrow 03. Aug, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

      I have said it before and will say it again: Schools must be led by people who see a child and ask, “How is this child intelligent?” and NOT “How intelligent is this child?”

  4. Monty Neill 03. Aug, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    I certainly concur that schools should be giving an accounting to the communities they serve about what they are doing, how well they are doing it, on a series of important dimensions, certainly including but not limited to academics.

    More than a decade ago, groups in Massachusetts offered a 3-part plan for the assessment and evaluation aspect (the giving an account), that would enable the verify part of ‘trust by verify’ (a phrase I’ve been using for more than a decade). The three components are school-based (classroom-based) evidence of student learning, which could be reviewed externally for verification, as is done in other nations; a school quality review/inspectorate (it is the primary form of accountability in New Zealand is used in England and the Netherlands; various groups in the US support this approach, and at least modest versions are doing in some states such as KY); and limited, low-stakes standardized tests used as a check on the system (could test once each in elem, middle, high; or alternate years with reading and math starting in gr 3; or use sampling as NAEP does). For more on this, see http://www.fairtest.org/sites/default/files/better_ways_to_evaluate_schools-_fact_sheet.pdf as well as http://www.fairtest.org/fact-sheet-multiple-measures-definition-and-exampl.

    In addition to academic outcomes, it is important to learn about the school climate and environment (is the school a healthy, supportive place for our children?), for which tools also exist. Knowing whether a school has adequate resources that are well used is also important. Surveys, gathering indicators, and the quality review process can inform the public.

    So the issue of having the information to provide an accounting, to verify the trust we should place in schools, can readily be addressed. Doing so won’t break the bank.

    That does not answer the question of what to do when things are not as good as they should be (even given lots of disagreement about what should be). This might be the lack of engagement and interest at the intellectual and other levels, as Grant Wiggins pointed to last week. The quality review process can and should both help explain why conditions or results are not what they should be, identify obstacles, and set in motion an improvement process.

    The Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA, which I chair; http://www.edaccountability.org) has papers and reports covering various aspects of what to do, including material on school turnarounds. The basic requirement facing the federal government is to replace test and punish with building school capacity and holding schools accountable for doing a good job of improving, and holding those who control schools accountable for providing the resource, support, etc. I suspect the latter will be far harder. Well over a decade ago, Cross City Schools Campaign introduced the idea of ‘reciprocal accountability.’ We are a long way from operationalizing how to hold those who control schools accountable. FEA has some ideas for how to hold schools accountable for making reasonable improvements, and there are others. The RATL network in England has found that simply pairing schools up has made a real difference – even two schools that are not doing well end up improving. (See Hargreaves and Shirley, ‘The Fourth Way.)

    This weeks National Journal education blog focuses on what Congress should do to improve teaching (http://education.nationaljournal.com/2011/08/teacher-quality-are-incentive.php). Marc Tucker, with whom I’ve certainly had my disagreements, offers some good advice, which is to look to systems internationally that have built strong teaching forces. As Marc says, they don’t do it through high-stakes testing and punitive sanctions (though interventions and even school closings are not unknown – on this see also FEA).

    The questions we face are far less on what could be done than on whether the US is politically willing to make smart changes. So far, the NCLB paradigm continues to reign supreme, exacerbated not only by Race to the Top but also many state programs. Many of the problems precede the mania for high-stakes testing (from weak curriculum and instruction in many places, to inadequate funding for schools for low-income youth, to segregation) but the testing is now a huge boulder in the path of any reasonable way forward and must be removed. Meaning there is a need to end damaging practices and a need to move strongly on positive alternatives.

  5. David B. Cohen 03. Aug, 2011 at 5:00 pm #

    A couple quick reactions:

    Whenever you complain about contract rules, I beg you, remember it takes two sides to sign a contract. San Diego Superintendent Randy Ward made that exact comment to you once during an interview when you lobbed him a softball question about the problems with unions. So, if Newark really has a contract that “guarantees jobs to tenured teachers” then the question I would be asking is what went wrong in negotiations. Why did management give up that level of control over their own schools? Or, perhaps the characterization is more true of the implementation than the actual language of the contract (if not in Newark, I believe that’s true in many other cases). Overworked administrators are missing important information about what’s happening in their schools, and when a teacher should be entering some kind of probation or should be let go, the administrators (and perhaps a string of prior administrators since they have high turnover) have left behind a trail of satisfactory evaluations which complicate their procedures.

    I do agree that there’s much we should do to improve curriculum and instruction, along with grading and disciplinary policies. However, an important point to keep in mind is that such improvement rarely if ever happens while someone is teaching. I don’t think a musician or athlete would say that performances and games are the times when they improve. We need time to study, analyze, reflect, collaborate, and to be deliberate about the changes we wish to bring about in schools and in our own classrooms. American teachers have far less professional development and planning time than our counterparts in nations that lead the way on education innovation. The fact that we do as well as we do in most schools is testament to our commitment and long hours – but much of that effort is expended individually when what we need is to put our energies into more collaborative work if we’re to bring about systemic improvement.

    • john merrow 03. Aug, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

      I was careful to say ‘also signed by a school board’ in that reference. The people on both sides of the table were guilty there, and often are elsewhere, of putting adult interests ahead of children’s.

      • David B. Cohen 05. Aug, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

        John – I have to admit I leaped on the label “union contract” and missed, or dismissed the parenthetical part. But then, why is the contract a “union contract” and the school board a mere parenthetical? Just something to think about.

  6. John Thompson 03. Aug, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    How can you say that unions are a “huge” part of the problem in a piece that deals with problems that really are huge. The huge problem is the lack of teachers qulaified for what you want. The so-called dance of the lemons is the predictable result of a flawed SIG. But the ill-conceived SIG is more of a symptom that a huge problem. The huge problem is continuing to embrace quick fixes without building capacity. The huge problem is the “blame game.” A small part of that is your posturing in this piece, setting up a false dichotomy, and a false equivilancy. After all, it was those reality-challenged true believers in bubble-in testing that started this fight and dragge it into the mud. please excuse typos. gotta go.

    • john merrow 03. Aug, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

      Please reread Grant Wiggins’ post from last week. Your side has had years to argue for policies that put students first. Or for ‘building capacity.’ That vacuum didn’t just appear out of nowhere.
      Not sure what you mean by a false dichotomy. Please explain, John

      • John Thompson 03. Aug, 2011 at 8:58 pm #

        John,

        What?!?!?! The union had something do do with creating the lack of capacity!!! Where does that come from? How in the world did traditional unionism , concentrating on protecting wages, benefits, and work conditions drive away talent? You can argue that high wages for steelworker or Teamsters or nurses raised costs. (I’d think you’d be wrong but that would not be illogical.) But nobody would argue that making those jobs better drove away workers.

        Yes, I know that Gates has that silly soundbite and claims that firing more teachers using not-ready-for prime-time evaluations, and allowing principals the “autonomy” to become petty tyrants, and taking away from teachers (and teachers alone) the constitutional rights guaranteed to Americans will make the job more attractive, but surely you don’t believe that. That sort of illogic falls under the category of a huge problem.

        I strongly agree with MOST of Wiggins comment. I think he’s dead wrong on testing though. It has cause huge damage. But he expresses fifty-fifty hindsight. Traditional unionism is called traditional for a reason. It once was the norm. When SHOULD the teaching profession have seen the light? 1983? 1843? when we had one-room schoolhouses? During the progressive era.

        And yes, we should have adopted the innovations that now seem good, like collaboration, PLC, etc. How many “reforms” however have made things worse? (here’s a thought experiment. What if we had a time machine and we could go back, say twenty years or forty, and flush both the good and the bad policy innovation down the toilet, but still enjoy the extra money we’ve gotten? To me, that’s a no-brainer. I’d take it in a second. Wouldn’t you?

        Union leaders have been working for at least three decades to raise the consciousness of members. And personally, I don’t know what more we could do today to help seek common ground. Should we give members an aptitude test and deny them entry to the profession if they don’t want to reject the values that drew them into teaching?

        Real world, most teachers teach the way their favorite teachers taught. I sure do.
        Does that make the profession inherently conservative? Of course. Does dealing with the nonstop silver bullets make us more conservative?

        Definitely. And if “reformers” were not so reality-adverse, the rank-in-file would be much more open to change.

        The key is making teaching a better job. Your post and Wiggins’ post had fair criticisms of the state of the profession. But your unfair complaints about unions aren’t helpful. (and where did they come from? Unions didn’t take the lead in SOS.)

        This is deja vu all over again. The UAW took the lead in trying to reform the auto industry but was told to mind its own business. Then it got blamed for not changing! But now, maybe a think tank can come up with a consciousness-raising added target and calculate to .xx std the shortfall in teachers changing their definition of the jobs in the last twenty years.

  7. Robert Pondiscio 03. Aug, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

    Thank you David B. Cohen for the excellent and overlooked point about union contracts. Accountability for “bad” contracts is a two-way street, yet the sense one gets is that contract terms are dictated and imposed unilaterally. If you don’t like the contract, why not hold ALL signatories responsible? Likewise, the tools exist to terminate ineffective teachers. Yes, it can take a lot of documentation. But the “dance of the lemons” requires two dancers–an ineffective teacher and a lazy administrator.

    • john merrow 03. Aug, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

      Please reread–I took pains to point out that the contract in question was signed by the other party, the school board. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but that gets us nowhere.

  8. Steve Buckley 03. Aug, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

    Your comment that teachers’ unions need to become professional unions instead of trade unions is right on target. I am reminded of the interview a Wisconsin teacher gave during that state’s recent imbroglio. She said that she would feel much better about her union if just once it had discussed how to use it’s bargaining power to get better learning aids for students of better facilities for learning. Instead, she said, all the union meetings revolved around shorter work days or how to wangle more sick days.
    Pity the children in that city.

    • john merrow 03. Aug, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

      Happily, a lot of union members and some union leaders are waking up to the new reality. Let’s hope there’s a critical mass, and that it’s not too late.

    • CarolineSF 03. Aug, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

      Two priority areas in which union negotiations and advocacy have enormously improved educational conditions for children are class size and safe and liveable facilities. I challenge this thirdhand claim that the priorities — ever, anywhere — are more sick days and shorter work days.

  9. Michael Osterbuhr 03. Aug, 2011 at 7:59 pm #

    Since the middle of the 1800s, people have been working to make school over into the image of industry. Everyone on a conveyer belt, moving along at the same speed; except that kids don’t all learn at the same speed.

    Educators aid in the learning process. It is an art, not a science; regardless of the the bean-counters may say. Statistics provide only snapshots of life frozen in a moment, but life continues to move forward.

    We are possibly at a very pivotal moment in history. Kids have more to learn and more to remember than any other group in (at least our nations’) history. Educators need to focus more on the “learning process” than in the “amount of stuff memorized.” Memorization is important for a base of information, but people need to learn how to think critically about all content.

    Schools are still about the Trivium and Quadrivium of the Greek schools, but computers have speeded up the processing and increased the storage needs of everyone’s memory. We’re over-whelmed, awash in data; with no new and improved way to process that increased data. In most industries, wouldn’t it be a good time to stop and re-evaluate our processes?

  10. Chana 03. Aug, 2011 at 10:01 pm #

    I usually really respect and like what you write, Mr. Merrow; I’ve found that you do often espouse a common sense and middle of the road kind of view of education. Which is why I’m a little disappointed in this post. A couple of things I’d like to point out:
    1-teachers do get accused a lot of not putting forth alternatives to the current testing craze, but that’s just not true. Look at any academic journal of education-researchers and teachers have been suggesting alternatives literally since the 80s, for 30 years. The issue is that the teachers, unlike corporate reformers, don’t have the political heft or, quite frankly, the money, to get politicians on our side or the same kind of media coverage. You rightly point out that the only reason mainstream media covered the SOS march was that Matt Damon was there; and this really was our attempt to get some coverage on the suggestions that we’ve been putting forth for years. The fact that it was only successful insofar as people know Matt Damon came should give you pause for thought when you talk about what teachers have and haven’t suggested. (It’s also worth saying that the kinds of evaluation teachers have consistently suggested involve things like student portfolios, which are much more accurate and authentic, but also cost much more to review. As we’ve seen, the US is generally into doing education on the cheap, unless the money is going to big corporations).

    2-I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t work significant overtime every single day and every single weekend. When you say that teachers should just accept lower pay and longer hours, you make it seem as though they just want to be fat cats, but they don’t. They want a modicum of control over their working conditions, which honestly are consistently getting worse at schools across the country. When you talk about professional unions, which ones are you thinking of? I think of, for example, the actors’ and screenwriters’ unions–but the fact is that both actors and screenwriters have respected skills, and exercise a considerable amount of autonomy in how they work. The reason teachers’ unions still resemble labor unions is that to most people in the US, teaching is not skilled work. It’s babysitting. (Note the way that Teach for America members are now considered actively BETTER than experienced teachers, after 5 weeks of training). Teaching is one of the least autonomous, least secure professional jobs in this country at this point; that people stay in it at all is, to a large degree, because they feel a strong passion for what they do. But that doesn’t mean that they can do their jobs solely for passion–teachers are also human, have kids to support and rent to pay. For some reason Americans persistently ignore this fact.

    3-I’m not sure why people keep ignoring this, but the fact is that most teachers KNOW that kids are bored stiff with the current curricula. Lots of them spent years creating and teaching non-boring curricula that helped kids learn in an exciting way, only to see their ability to teach those curricula quashed by NCLB and the testing craze. In many cases principals and administrators conduct “spot checks” to make sure that they’re sticking to mandated curricula, not their own. New rating systems like IMPACT, in DC, explicitly reward teachers who present standardized curricula, and penalize the innovative ones who might actually be able to interest kids more. We marched on Washington in part because we DO want to make schools work better, we DO want to interest kids in knowledge and learning, and we’re being given a choice, in many cases, of either doing that and getting fired, or keeping our jobs and food on the table.

  11. DC Parent 03. Aug, 2011 at 11:46 pm #

    John- If you were going to quote Wiggens, I think this is the more important quotation.

    I think I know a few things about test prep. It is a FAILED response, a TIMID response, an UNIMAGINATIVE response to one’s obligations. It has nothing to do with what tests actually fdemand. I have seen no evidence that teaching must worsen for test scores to rise; I only know that mediocre teachers and principals BELIEVE this. In fact the best teaching occurs in good schools where teachers know what good teaching is and do it. Do you see the most or least test prep in the finest schools? The test prep argument is an utter red herring, showing the bankruptcy of educators. My work in curriculum and assessment reform has always shown that local control of learning and assessment is the determining factor in whether a school is good or not. Well, of course! In good schools there are people who know what good teaching, learning, and assessment looks like; and that strong leadership is needed to make it happen.

    Over and over again I have been struck by the language educators have used about how they will be forced to limit what they teach. They are the one’s that have chosen to reduce the amount of social studies and science in the classroom. I have never understood why reading is only a stand alone and not connected at the early grades with social studies and science. It is as if teachers are threatening us with our children’s education if we hold them accountable. What teachers fail to understand is that many of us want to support them but they push parents away.

    If you want to see the debate this one on Nathan Sanders of the DC Teacher Union is an example of what policy makers feel and hear. http://www.dcurbanmom.com/jforum/posts/list/174307.page

  12. Catherine Martinez 04. Aug, 2011 at 2:38 am #

    I was at the rally and have to say that it is very difficult to estimate numbers. Many of us started near the stage but had to move back to the shade of the trees along the sidewalk due to blistering heat. Also I attended the rally but was unable to march due to health concerns. I would go with the middle figure – about 5,000. I would count it neither a bust nor a complete success but rather a good beginning. We have a lot of work to do to achieve our goals. We cannot give up because the educational health of our nation hangs in the balance.

  13. Jesse Turner 04. Aug, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    Now John, the National Park Service that does oversee these kinds of events in DC estimated the number to be 8,000. Which would mark it as meeting SOS expectations. Your numbers came from Ed Week whose mission is to count marchers in DC! By the way who exactly at ED week gave you that number?
    Sorry John I was there right up front marching. The times are changing, and tide is turning, and the nation is growing tired of a high stakes testing policy that has spent nearly one trillion dollars on results that have little or nothing to show for itself after a decade.
    Sadly you as missed the point silence and apathy are not acceptable the numbers of marchers is less important than the fact that parents and teachers are standing up, speaking up, and marching. Trust me the numbers will keep growing. Last year when I walked 400 miles from Connecticut to DC to protest NCLB/RTTT policy 50 people met me in DC. Wait until next year an election year to count the next wave. This was a beginning, and it won’t end until the public is put back into our public schools.
    You might begin your next blog with a call for an audit for where all that NLCB money went? You know some old fashion accounting of where the money went, and is going. Rather than counting marchers you might call for counting who grew rich under an NCLB policy that has little to show for itself. Or do you think the money was well spent, and the results a smashing success?
    Respectfully a proud marcher,
    Jesse Turner

  14. F. Scott Walters 04. Aug, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    A welcome article, as are many of the comments. As a teacher educator and ed assessment researcher (in TESOL), I would deign go further than Mr. Wiggins’ earlier comment that it is not just about testing. The shift to factory-style schooling in the U.S., as Mr. Basset mentions, the imposition of a business model on pedagogy, as mentioned in the above article, actually well predates the 1950s or the passage of NCLB. Wealthy industrialists from the period after the Civil War on up to WWI, and even antebellum business interests in New England, began a process of implementing a factory-style schooling model that consciously paralleled processes of manufacturing that arose with the Industrial Revolution. Rather than being merely an interesting historical factoid, this very model of schooling — in which, as you know, cohorts of age-differentiated children proceed lockstep through a bell-reinforced [work]day, this model coupled with the long-since-exploded notion of the tabula rasa — this, it seems to me, is the “alien structure” at issue, from which modern test-prep is but a latter-day, distracting manifestation. Thus, might not reform-discussions among union leaders and members, APs, parents, ed researchers, students, et al., also benefit from a courageous focus on revamping this lock-step system? For example, might not learning actually be hindered, and — to borrow yet again from Mr. Wiggins — the intellectual respect for students be systematically thwarted, by the very existence of discrete grade-levels or pre-determined class periods?

  15. Bob Marraccino 04. Aug, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    Everyone lost when we let politicians and business define the mission and performance objectives of our schools I like John’s insights that focus on the bottom up rather than the top down. I feel like the business executives, College Board, and motivational speakers, who failed, have flocked to education to grab all the consultant and test fees. Database of student performance should be treated as a plow to cultivate rather than a sword to plunder.
    Programs, which allow for the intelligences of the child to flourish and be measured, are the key.

    Examples in NYC: Corporate America Meets Educational Reality
    -NYC Principal’s Academy failed as they applied corporate management tactics by a fired CEO.
    -The bonus and merit system to award Wall-Street managers failed in NYC because reward was disconnected from the practitioners and innovation.
    -The Quality Review System in NYC digitizes all aspects of performance and opinions to create a corporate illusion of quality control; whereas, the performance objectives are arbitrary and standards applied for each school is subjective by placing schools in cohorts. with arbitrary rating systems within the cohort
    –The fallacy in NYC that an administrator can be molded by a corporate credo rather than by experience is a left over from the grand days of when U.S.Steel guiding the Nation.

  16. Michael Atherton 04. Aug, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    There are so many points to make here, but I’ll try to focus on ones that are somewhat novel. E.D. Hirsch had made a career of identifying the problems with “natural” schooling. For those unfamiliar with his perspective, he sent me a copy of a speech that he gave at Harvard: http://www.tc.umn.edu/~athe0007/HirschArticle.html.

    After studying education, cognition, and neuroscience for more than a decade and more recently spending four years teaching in inner-city schools I’ve come to the conclusion that the education wars are much more about social class than anything else. We know how to educate well, we just don’t do it. Fifty years ago sociologists understood that one of the primary functions of the public schools was to maintain class boundaries. Maintaining boundaries is still one of the schools primary functions and if you only look at outcomes you can see that they do a very good job of it.

    The problem is that most everyone in these debates belongs to the middle-class and middle-class values and worldviews make participants blind to alternative perspectives. “Naturalism” is a middle-class ideal. We want things to “flow” without struggle and for most middle-class students things do. However, things are not flowing for poor students so poor parents don’t really care how natural their children’s educations are as long as they help get their children out of poverty.

    Which leads to testing. Many people perceive testing as “unnatural,” but testing is essential for quality education. There are many reasons why teachers cannot always know how well they are reaching students. Parents, administrators, and the public need to know whether children are learning, which is why NCLB was so obsessive about minority participation and publicizing results. Middle-class parents are often not overly concerned about testing because they “know” that their children are in good schools and they wonder why testing is such an issue. Another class based issue that relates to testing is social mobility. Testing skills are important for many jobs and careers. You have to take a test to become a doctor, or a lawyer, or a cop, or a fire fighter. You have to take tests to get into college! Most middle-class students implicitly learn test taking skills from their schools and parents and if not, their parents can pay for coaching. These benefits are invisible to many who assume class privilege as the “natural” state of things.

    Until we begin to see that education is still implicitly structured to maintain class boundaries the reforms we attempt will remain superficial and ineffective.

  17. john merrow 04. Aug, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    All I can say is ‘Wow’ about the range of views expressed here. The book I used as a peg for this blog, “I used to think…and now I think” is itself illustrative of the dilemma, because a few of the writers in that interesting book either confess OR boast that they have NOT changed their views.
    Is a hardening of positions a sign of courage and determination, or evidence of hardening of the arteries? I think the latter, because the older I get, the less certain I am.
    I am trying to write a book about solutions. I have a working title, Ten Steps to Transform Our Schools (and save our children). Trouble is, I have a longer list of steps. At one point I played with calling it “Twelve Steps to Cure Our Addiction to Educational Mediocrity” but fear that might be offensive to AA members.

    • Larry Tietz 05. Aug, 2011 at 4:43 am #

      Can’t wait to read this book! Get it out soooooon!

    • Garnet Franklin 10. Aug, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

      …and offensive to those of us who strive against mediocrity every day. Please try to be thoughtful, inspiring and encourage those who slog through the exchange of vicious blaming and opinions to actually generate curiosity and wonder in students. Sometimes the blasts echo so loudly that these dedicated folks lose heart.

  18. bob marraccino 05. Aug, 2011 at 3:07 am #

    Now the politicians today jumped on what Michael A just articulated:

    Bloomberg is spending 263 million to solve the acheivement gap at the same time threatening to fire 6000 teachers.. Most of this money will go to post-secondary institutions and consultants and is another example of a top down reform destined to failure.

    JFK recognized that educational reform is correlated with poverty and LBJ started the reform with Headstart from the bottom up….so why did we stop

  19. Larry Tietz 05. Aug, 2011 at 4:41 am #

    What will it take to “move the ball forward?” The “debate” has to shift so that districts decide they need improvement. There has been enough research on how children learn that we know what’s best for kids. Sometimes it is NOT what adults think is best. Even though we have learned that the higher the stakes, the more likely there will be cheating (teachers and students), we continue to ratchet them higher. There are models of teacher preparation, supervision, instruction and curriculum that work and work well. Districts need to be sold on them, even high performing districts. The mantra of local control at the district level is so embedded that a principal who had the option of selecting a proven and funded program asked why he couldn’t develop his own!

    I don’t think we need more ideas about education, we need more efforts to implement them, to move that ball forward!

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  24. AJAY JAIN 14. Mar, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    The Voting Rights Act (VRA) must be upheld by the supreme court:

    The numerous despicable attempts to restrict voting made during the last election cycle are proof of that. Anyone who truly believes the VRA is obsolete needs to recognize, given last year’s voter suppression efforts, the Jim Crowe era is biding its time.

    Now even if you are dumb enough to believe that all is OK with the world and there are no reasons to have the voting rights act on the books. Then why are the the parties at opposite end’s on this? Why are the Republicans in America trying to keep people from the poles ?

    The argument is that VRA is discriminatory against Southern states to require them but not other states to seek pre-clearance for voting laws; I actually agree. The Voting Rights Act should require *ALL* states to seek pre-clearance. After what we’ve seen the GOP try to pass in states all across the nation prior to the last 2012 election, I see no reason this safeguard against voter suppression should be limited to just Southern states as suggested by VRA of 1965 but now should be expanded to apply to ALL 50 states.

    Ajay Jain
    ajain31@gmail.com
    1209 Creekwood Drive
    Garland TX 75044-2421

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