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If You Can't Measure Joy and Wonder, What Good Are They?


Dear Deborah,

On Sunday morning, as I was pondering my reply to your last blog about “making sense of our differences,” I picked up The New York Times and read a shocking story. It seems that in Tanzania, albinos are being hunted down and killed by people who believe that their skin and body parts have magical powers.

This story reminded me of how fortunate we are to live in a nation where we constantly struggle to teach acceptance, tolerance, and mutuality and to judge people as individuals, not by the color of their skin or their accent or their disability. When you and I were children, racial discrimination was commonplace; people with disabilities were hidden away; divorce was shameful; anti-Semitism was socially acceptable. Most such prejudices have gone underground, but even that is a huge step forward. It is no longer socially acceptable to be a bigot. The fact that the Democratic party has just selected an African-American man as its standard-bearer for the fall elections is astonishing. This would have been unthinkable 40 years ago, 30 years ago, maybe even 10 years ago. Maybe even four years ago.

I share your nostalgia for the ebbing of the “sense of wonder and awe that we can share across our differences.” I, too, worry that the current mania to test, test, test has changed the nature of schooling in ways that make schooling abhorrent to many children. Tests may be a necessary part of life; we know they are a source of anxiety. Turning them into a weekly routine or even a daily routine is a surefire formula for crushing the “sense of wonder and awe” that can make childhood a time of exploration and fun.

But here is the rub. The clock will not be turned back. No matter how frequently or how beautifully you describe the joys of childhood, those who are making education policy will not be deterred or persuaded. Their agenda is competitiveness. They are in the throes of data-driven decision-making, which has become a sort of mantra that takes the place of actual thinking. How can you measure the joys of childhood? How can you measure wonder and awe? Go where the numbers tell you to go, they say; but what if the numbers are measuring trivial things? Do what the numbers tell you to do, they say; but people—not numbers—devise policy alternatives.

What I am suggesting is that your longing for a more humane approach to educating children has a huge constituency among teachers, but none among policymakers. What I am suggesting is that we should talk not about a past that has been lost, perhaps irretrievably, but how to change and mitigate the policies that are now destroying joy, wonder, and any hope of a better education.

So, for example, the small-school movement—of which you are a pioneer—was lauded just last week in The Wall Street Journal as the very best way to train our future workforce. (Subscription required to read full article.) Is this what you had in mind? I doubt it.



Diane: In response to your concern about the content of the Wall Street Journal article, I encourage you to go very slowly in your critique. Dan Swinney's history and philosophy as to small-school education is worth seriously close consideration. It is definitely not just another example of the corporate agenda as to education and the small-school movement. David Dobosz

I think this example has come up before, but, remember the two schools in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Clearly one dealt in wonder and awe, while the other did not. Now, if one could hop in a time and fiction machine to go back to those two buildings, armed with an appropriate grade level assessment from any state in the union--which school would you bet on having the higher scores? The one that was nurturing the ability to think about the meaning of the poet, or the one that focused on memorizing the words in sing-song cadence?

I have a problem with the wonder and awe vs test prep dichotomy for two reasons. One is the failure of any evidence to support the long-term success of drill and kill instruction by any measure, including standardized assessments. But the other is the assumption that wonder and awe was the stock in trade of schools pre-NCLB.

I read here many teachers that I would be happy to have teach my children, because it is clear that they understand the essence of education, respect their students and engage in teaching as a process of continual questioning and communication with students. But we don't get to pick and choose and frequently schools, even today (or recently, pre-NCLB) operate on a rote assumption that what was good enough continues to be good enough and a teacher is a teacher is a teacher.

I don't know what to do when I hear a bona fide wonder and awe teacher relate that they must conform to some ridiculous agenda of bubble instruction. I can understand how this comes to be the case. We have accepted for too many years that schools and teachers were relatively equal in their ability to educate--in short that the professionals all knew what they were doing. When the spotlight was finally shone on the elephant in the living room, the handiest means of denial was to grab for the "they really know it, they just don't test well," excuse.

Where is the groundswell of wonder and awe teachers willing to stand up and defend (and teach) their methodologies on the grounds that they in fact increase learning in ways that are measureable? Where are those teachers willing to give up their beloved classroom to take on positions in curriculum direction, or developing meaningful formative assessment, or mentoring and supervision, in order to move this Titanic back on course?

This is not an either/or proposition. If we were concerned with nutrition, our indicators might include weight, blood sugar, cholesterol and a whole slew of other really boring numbers. And our curriculum would need to be concerned with things like food groups, calories, fats and carbohydrates. But, if we ignored gastronomy and the culture of food as supremely important elements of our learning, we wouldn't have nearly the chance of success.


I agree with the essence of what you are saying, but am not sure about the dichotomy you pose between teachers and policymakers. Maybe it's a question of definition. Who are policymakers? A teacher speaking persuasively at the right time and place can influence policy. Principals even more so--and some principals do phenomenal work. And so on up. At no level is it impossible for someone to bring good ideas to education and put them into practice.

On the other hand, there is indeed a strange split between those who believe that data should drive everything and those who believe that it neither can nor should. Both groups include teachers, administrators, and other policymakers, though there might be a higher percentage of the latter among the data-driven types.

I find the impasse perturbing. I have gotten into arguments with teachers and others who believed so strongly in the supremacy of data that anything I said to the contrary was "disingenuous" or "straw man" in their eyes. Anything I valued had to be proven successful by data, or I was simply avoiding the issues.

I do not understand where those people are coming from. Curiously, many of them espouse child-centered programs that are supposedly "research-proven." While hooked on data, they also engage in quite a bit of fuzzy talk, of a sort that is just as alien to me as the data worship.

I am not afraid of data, quantitative research, or the truth. I enjoy all three. And I care about my students and want them to have an enjoyable as well as challenging school experience. So where is this miscommunication?

I think it may be a difference of values. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say, "Go where the numbers tell you to go, they say; but what if the numbers are measuring trivial things?" The disagreement is not over data or children. The disagreement is over what's important.

To me, the specifics of subject matter are important. It matters little how well the kids did on a test if the test has nothing of meaning. Also, a rich curriculum can make kids much happier than all the child-centered "strategies" in the world when the latter do not involve knowledge.

For the data-driven folks, the specifics of curriculum are less important than, say, the "skills for a rapidly changing world" and so forth that the child of multiple intelligences is amassing through "proven" pedagogical models. For the data-worshippers, reading Faulkner is not as important as "determining importance," "identifying sequence," and so forth in any given work.

This discrepancy of values shows up on tests. Today I administered a standardized test that included a famous and highly tricky poem. The multiple-choice questions had more than one correct answer. The test writers clearly did not see this. It is distressing that someone would choose such a poem for a test and not recognize its nuances. Whoever wrote the test probably saw in the poem a straightforward message about life's choices. It is much more than that.

My students had read the poem earlier in the year. I saw some very thoughtful students struggling with the questions, and could do nothing about it. I felt awful that our class discussions had led them to difficulty on the tests. I plan to write a letter to the test makers.

I agree with you that the clock cannot be turned back. I agree that we have to "change and mitigate" the policies. Perhaps, in order to do so, we need to bring values to the foreground.


I think Margo/Mom is on to something when she mentions the need for (and lack of) longitudinal research. One thing that is unique about the research on Deborah's schools (CPE and CPESS), by David Bensman, for example, is that he surveys and interviews graduates of the Central Park Schools, sometimes many years after they graduated. This research design picks up many things that might not be known through standardized testing, but even then hard to pinpoint to one "key to success," since these schools are unique in so many ways. Still, there are far too few longitudinal research studies done, perhaps because they're costly and require real commitment. I think they would and do show what Margo/Mom suspects--the importance of "wonder" and "awe" to long term school success. This is, of course, what many teachers know and have written about here, perhaps because they see so many students over time, and can't help but be longitudinal researchers themselves! Diane, you probably know as well as anyone that almost all of the federal research dollars go to quantitative (especially randomized control trial) studies. Is that a cause or effect (or both) of policy makers caring above all about test scores and other easily quantifiable (short term) data?

Matthew, thanks for the kudos, but I think that perhaps you misunderstand what I was saying. What I see lacking is any reason to link "test prep" curriculum to substantial or long-term gains on standardized tests. I see schools chasing a fallacy (that their students really "knew" the material--after all they were "taught"--but didn't know how to cough up the right answers on a multiple choice test) by teaching how to bubble in, how to pick the best answer out of four, etc. Someone is selling (which means that someone is buying) guides that purport to predict exactly WHICH indicators will appear on this year's state test (based on an exhaustive history of previous questions).

Schools aren't buying snake oil because the tests aren't fair or because they test the wrong things. They are buying because too many of them don't fully understand how to teach, and may not even be ready to accept that reality.

I have no problem with conducting qualitative research on joy, awe, wonder or teacher preparation. Qualitative research has a place--and may provide helpful insight into developing pedagogies that utilize children's curiosity to development their knowledge base. But this does not negate the need for quantitative measures of either school accountability, quality improvement, or just ongoing planning within educational systems.

And until I am proven otherwise, I will continue to believe that good education delivered through means that acknowledge the motivational and teaching capabilities of joy and wonder will result in measureable outcomes on quantitative tests.

Hi Ladies,

I do not view a data driven approach and fostering a sense of wonder as being incompatible One of the things I learned in business is that just measuring gets people to think more about what they are doing, to set priorities and to be more efficient. One of the things I have learned from working in technology is that almost all workers take great joy in discovery. Some of the best act like children viewing an ant colony for the first time. They express an innocent sense of wonderment about much of what they do. But at the same time there is no way that could possibly have gotten to that depth of knowledge without extreme discipline and concentration. Most of them are foreign born. The schools that they attended tested far more than do ours.

In my view the single thing that drives out the sense of wonderment from kids is the quality of too many teachers in this country.

Tom Linehan

Margo/Mom, and also Tom,

I don't really disagree much with your post. Perhaps I draw a distinction that outsiders would see as forced.

While I agree with your criticisms of teaching, especially in regard to not enough joy and wonder, I don't see how teacher-bashing is a viable alternative. Perhaps it is because I am a teacher and I have to believe certain things about the people who choose our profession, I can't believe we can help schools by attacking teachers. I certainly don't believe we can have joyful schools without unions.

I'm thinking that Obama, in general, points the way. We should resist the demand for easy answers. Education is so glorious. NCLB can't represent the greatest vision of American education. Somehow we have to get the discussion back to Wonder. We'll need some tough-minded wrestling with politics. But we need a vison that is far more hopeful.


I agree that teacher bashing is not the answer, but frankly most of our teachers are not teaching very well.

So how would you change schools so that teaching can improve?

Erin Johnson

The first step, by far the most important step, would be to act on the Broader Bolder Vision released by the EPI this week. We should all pull together on that one. Regardless of a person's preferred aganda for K to 12, whether we want accountability-drive or curriculum-driven reform, or small schools, or technology or whatever, we should relegate those debates to Step Two. Stronger, healthier families and children are the #1 priority. (after all, the medical miracles of the 20th century were awesome, but it was safe water and sewge that created the greatest brekthroughs in health.)

Then I'd push for a Marshall Plan for Teachers and Principals. Again, I would focus on recruiting adults from all backgrounds. I'd relegate the debate over the best preparation for educators to a second tier issue.

In the longer run, I would want communities in schools, schools interacting with community gardens and in touch with Nature, and generally participating in the Green Revolution. But I'd encourage the blooming of a million flowers. I'd trust the ingenuity of the American people to build a range of schools like in Edutopia to whatever comes out of the digital miracles that are emerging. Personally, I'd recruit a lot of young video game practitioners, and put hem in as many schools as possible. As I wrote earlier, I'd challenge NPR, PBS, the Smithsonians, the National Parks services, (and hip hop museums especially)to train their versions of TFA, and put several of these alternative teachers in every school.

But I'd cut back on the political correctness. We have encouraged a proliferation of choices and small schools, which is fine. But, a priori, we oppose alternative schools for students who are emotionally incapable of functioning in the chaos of neighborhood high poverty schools.
The goal for those alternative schools, like the others, would be to prepare children for healthy and joyous lives full of wonder.


These are all very interesting initiatives. But how would these change teaching?

Erin Johnson

“What I am suggesting is that your longing for a more humane approach to educating children has a huge constituency among teachers, but none among policymakers. What I am suggesting is that we should talk not about a past that has been lost, perhaps irretrievably, but how to change and mitigate the policies that are now destroying joy, wonder, and any hope of a better education.”

A cynical consideration. I look at education policy in the factory model era of schooling, where it was no secret that publicly-financed schools provided vocational training to immigrants who would then go on to work low-level low-paying jobs machine jobs, and I wonder how far we’ve actually come. Yes, to stratify society is no longer a stated aim of schooling, but to policy-makers, education is the handmaiden of the economy, just as it was in the early 1900s.

I cite the opening lines of A Nation at Risk: “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility.”

The report goes on to discuss how economic improvement hinges on improved educational practices, etc., etc.

The report was issued 25 years ago. The rhetoric has not changed. Think Tough Choices or Tough Times: The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce (NCEE) or any similar publication.

Here’s the thing. If we can only engage some policy-makers in the education conversation because they are interested in the workers who will make up tomorrow’s economy, then we have better think about what they want in a workforce in order to figure out where their interests and the interests of teachers intersect. I agree with Diane that many teachers lament the lack of “wonder and awe” in the classroom, that if teachers made policy, considerations of wonder and awe would outweigh considerations of competitiveness. But, the policy-makers are interested in competitiveness, and—here’s the cynical part—I do not think it’s in the interest of competitiveness to have school serve to the wonder and awe ideal.

It is not in the interest of competitiveness to have citizen-philosophers who scorn material interests, who would rather wear rags and read Plato than toil away at some mind-numbing office job that leaves no time for leisure.

It is not in the interest of competitiveness to have a thinking populace that questions the purpose and worth of unbridled economic expansion, that would want to curb expansion under the banner of the environment and the ideal of global justice.

It is not in the interest of competitiveness to have individuals empowered by their knowledge of history, a history that involves a vocal many rallying against the hegemonic status quo, insisting on better wages, more time for self and family.

It is not in the interest of competitiveness for everyone to acquire the equivalent of a Harvard education. Who would serve the fries? Who would mop the floors?

There are enough Chicken Soup For the Soul stories about growing up in slum housing, working hard in school, and winding up with a Harvard diploma that many are sure that America IS the land of opportunity, that those who are born into poverty and don’t wind up a dazzling storybook success story are lazy, unambitious, or both. If you’re in your thirties and work at McDonald’s, it’s your fault. Few would want believe that the stratification of society is built into the education system, that it serves our economic interests to make sure that different persons have different levels of education and are willing to take many different kinds of jobs. Even fewer would want to believe that the rote learning that takes place in schools serves the intentional purpose of dispiriting persons subjected to it. I’m not sure that I believe this myself—I don’t think policy-makers are organized enough to pull off something on this scale. (I picture somber men in suits—Let’s see, we’ll call it No Child Left Behind, and our language will suggest a belief in equality, but really, it’ll serve to create a testing culture so dreary that it’ll result in a whole generation of robot-workers, not too philosophical, but excellent at following directions and isolating the main idea…)

I don’t believe in conspiracies. However, I do believe that the impetus to create policy that promotes wonder and awe in the American classroom is missing, and that it’s missing for a reason. When it comes to the McDonald’s cashier, and so many low-wage jobs vital to today’s economy, wonder and awe don’t add to productivity. They detract from it.


I'm glad yo're pinning me down because I haven't been blunt enough while communicating with blog friends. I want less bad teaching and more good teaching. I want to recruit more talent, I want better professional development, and I want better school cultures so that teachers can teach.

But as far as determining what is better teaching, my answer may offend. I welcome research and debate over teaching methods, but mostly we will find that there is nothing new under the sun. We are no closer to nailing down the best methods of teaching than they were during Socrates' time. I try to be as eclectic as possible in my classroom. (and my rowdy style is not for everyone) I want an eclectic mix with everyone able to follow Frank McCourt's dictum, "teach your passion."

And JP, we mostly agree but I think Diane is on target with her reminder that the humane approaches favored by teachers are not winning politically. Just consider the response to the Broader Challenge. Rather than challenge the EPI approach on its merits, some have attacked it as sounding too humane, or to pre- NCLB, or too whatever. We must devise a answer to the Know Nothing-like, tough-guy "Accountability" advocates. Our dilemma is comparable to Obama's need to show that he isn't "too NPR," i.e. too smart to be president.


We all want less bad teaching and more good teaching.

Regarding your comment about recruiting more talent. What type of talent do you want?

Ditto for professional development. What type of professional development would be better?

How does the school culture prevent teaching?

Teaching a passion is great. But what if kids need to learn something (ie. how to multiply, the structure of the cell or where our government comes from) that you are not passionate about?

Student learning should be about the students and not just about the teachers.

Erin Johnson


I can't speak for John, but I want to address your last question:

"Teaching a passion is great. But what if kids need to learn something (ie. how to multiply, the structure of the cell or where our government comes from) that you are not passionate about?"

There's an assumption (common or not, I don't know) that teachers who "teach a passion" only enjoy teaching certain things, and follow their preferences selfishly. That may be true sometimes, but not always. I would love to teach cell structure, multiplication, or the origins of government. All those things would excite me. I wouldn't be qualified to teach them right now, but if someone asked it of me, I'd prepare and do it, gladly. On the other hand, I cannot get passionate about teaching "the child" or "the strategy" without specific subject matter.

I believe that this child-centered strategy-based stuff cultivates mediocrity, blandness, and lack of passion. It's not fun for the kids, either. Out with it: it's nonsense. It's the stuff that drives new and potential teachers away from the profession.

Let us instead go right into the subject matter. Let's have PDs about Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Constitution, Euclidean geometry, Petrarch, Midsummer Night's Dream, electromagnetism! Let's have teachers talking to each other about the subjects themselves. That would improve the instruction and drive away consultants who care more about their model than about the subject.

I recently had yet another PD on the "jigsaw" method--the form of groupwork in which a task is divided into parts, and each one assigned to a group. The members of each group arrive at consensus, become "experts", write down exactly the same thing, then change groups, and report their "findings." I find the jigsaw problematic for a number of reasons (including the fragmentation of the work, the superficial consensus, and the false expertise). The workshop leader in this case was great but utterly sold on this model. I was not.

Why so many PDs on the jigsaw? Why aren't we discussing short stories, grammar, poems, historic speeches, theorems, experiments, paintings? Why do we spend an entire day in varied group activity instead of delving into something complex and working on it for hours?

Our number one error lies in placing the "how" of teaching before the "what." Establish the "what," and the "how" lights up. Sadly, consultants make millions selling their version of the "how" to gullible school systems.


I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the inane activities usually associated with "child-centered activities." They are usually devoid of content and are anything but interesting let alone conducive to quality learning.

But a focus on what students are learning is not the same thing as the inane process-oriented, child-centered, lack of content blather that passes for curricula these days.

A focus on student learning is just that. What is this particular student learning? Not what the teacher intended to teach. Not what is written in the textbooks. Not what state standards say that the student should learn. But what is he/she actually learning.

I can't see how those types of PD that you describe can be of any help in facilitating improvements in teaching or in improving student learning. Frankly, it is painful just to hear you describe it, let alone waste time in that type of PD.

You illustrate well the problems that are endemic to our school organization. Just because schools offer professional development does not mean that it improves teaching or student learning. Just because students show up to school does not mean that they learn anything there.

So our schools are good at what? Monitoring seat time, monitoring whether you attended PD (even if it was useless), monitoring if students take the fill-in-the bubble tests.

Schools seem to good at everything but increasing student learning.

It is not the consultants fault that our schools are doing poorly. It is our school structure that is not set up to improve teaching, improve curricula or improve tests. Three critical aspects of improving student learning.

Without a school organization organized for self-improvement, snake oil salesmen will continue to have a "cure" for administrators desperate for actual improvements in student learning.

Erin Johnson


I could reply again, but first I need to ask a more important question. Are you asking rhetorical questions? I assume you are, but if I'm wrong, I'd be glad to reply.

As I have said, trying to use humor and diplomacy, I love the detailed debates that you and others engage in. Being a former academic, I love debating evidence and theory, and the precision with which you approach these isues is one reason why you are good at it. Not to be flippant, but I read you as debating your passion. I haven't termed your debate as academic because that could sound perjorative. But, to me, your debate is academic. WHEN APPLYING ACADEMICS to practical realities of schools, we need to be more modest.

Every school has a lot of Most Valuable Players,and sometimes an MVP doesn't had a degree at all. I have taught with a MVP who just taught his subject matter through rote, worksheets, and keeping a neat notebook. There are a lot of routes to a joyful life, and I've seen MVPs whose approach was closer to a church missionary. I am a critical thinking coach, but I don't impose my style on teachers who prefer tutorials for instance. As I told the bosses when then wanted us to all teach the same "read three pages and answer the questions" approach at the same rate from the same text,(monitored by benchmark testing for grades) my approach may be in a minority, but we're in a minority that schools can't live without. If nothing else, they need someone with my relationships with the students and my credibility and my ability to take a punch when fights get completely out of control. And when we have a riot,I love having that old-fashioned evangelist from the Black Church next to me, who loves the kids unreservedly, even if he does teach solely through worksheets.

Unless you'd like, I don't want to get bogged down in details. Though educated as a social scientist I typically use facts as metaphors. But here is my metaphor. In most ways, I think PD has improved over the grab bag approach of the past. But there has been a trade-off. A decade ago, our PD people knew that they were considered to be intellectuals, thus raising questions about their relevance in school. But it meant that they had to "sell" teachers on their methods. If they didn't listen to the rank in file, they would be ignored. Today, the worst hubris I HAVE PERSONALLY seen in PD is the idea that classroom management PD is enough to create safe and orderly inner city neighborhood schools. I came into public schools at the age of 40 with a lot of experience with high risk teens during the height of the crack and gang days. I quickly identified people who knew how to create order, whether they were coaches, bus drivers, social workers, mental health professionals, etc., and I learned a lot. I don't recall learning much of anything from prestigious PD providers like PBIS. (simialrly, I'm not a Core Knoweldge teacher, but my gut tells me that they make more sense than the other schools of thought. Fundamentally I support CK because I trust my intuition that those guys know how to teach and they are spreading a lot of wisdoAm)

Again, I don't want to be argumentative. After all, my position is that teaching is a craft not a science. We all need to practice our craft better, but let's not over-rate the gains that can come from state-of-the-art knowledge of education. I'm not anti-intellectual, but I am in the "get er done" school, and I want to cover our bets by recruiting a full range of people who have different ways to get the job done.


My questions to you were not rhetorical, but drilling down to the essence of why our schools are failing to improve student learning.

Student learning is completely dependant upon the quality of the teaching, the quality of the curricula and student motivation. Quality external tests completely aligned with classroom instruction can go a long way towards increasing student motivation without damaging the trusting relationship between teacher and student that is critical for quality student learning.

It is interesting that you characterize me as an academic and a debator. My friends would be amused. Quite the contrary, I am very practical. And what I am most interested in is very real solutions to the difficulties our schools face.

Our school structure issues are so rarely discussed because they are implict in our culture. You (and every other teacher) are so used to "dealing with it" that it seems difficult to imagine how absurd our school organization really is.

Certainly, the international studies on school organization and student learning can help to illuminate all those implict norms that so hinder all our efforts at improving our schools.

I don't mind getting bogged down in details, for it is always in the details that we find our path forward. If you would care to share what specific things that you would like to see regarding improving teaching (and PD), curricula, testing and most importantly, student learning; that's what we are here for.

Erin Johnson

Consider that we may improve the quality of our instruction by hiring supportive leaders, who recognize strengths in students, teachers, families, related service staff, ...
What we are really discussing is behavioral change. By using positive reinforcement, not punishment, we can create long term systemic change. In my opinion, our current system is punishment based, and hence the short term, erratic improvements to instruction. All people are "quality." We need to shift our focus to supporting positive instructional behaviors. Respect goes a long way, and needs to be defined and explicitly taught.
I often hear that teachers are resistant to using research-based instructional strategies in the classroom. I also often hear that teachers do not read research. A suggestion is to use peer-reviewed research as the content of professional development, and stop the condescending professional development tone/topics. To date, I have not seen this done. It makes me wonder: What would we say about the quality of instruction if a teacher did not teach the very content she/he wanted students to learn? This hardly seems to be a head scratcher to me.


Respect is necessary but not sufficient.

Teaching "content" at PDs is not sufficient either--they have to get rid of those mind-numbing "strategies."

We supposedly read "content" at some PDs: for example, we might read a "scholarly" article about ELL literacy-building. But the jigsaw kills it. Here's an example of how it might happen.

1. We are broken into groups. All groups must the intro, then each group is assigned a set of pages. (You cannot approach an article that way. Often one part of an article comments on another part. Without reading the whole, you often cannot accurately interpret any of the parts.)

2. Before reading, we must answer some "agree or disagree"? questions on a graphic organizer. Each question corresponds with a set of pages. (The questions may be no-brainers.)

3. We then read our pages and come to quick consensus about how those pages answer the corresponding question. (The consensus is in many cases passive--I have heard teachers say, "I didn't agree, but I just let her write.")

4. Now that we are "experts," we reshuffle into new groups so that each group will have one expert for each question. We report on our "findings" (which often make no sense) and complete the graphic organizer.

When I brought up my concerns about this approach, the leader responded that the jigsaw was good for beginner ELLs because it got them engaged and built their self-esteem. In other words, it doesn't matter if the kids didn't read or interpret the piece carefully; what matters is that everyone get involved and feel good about it. (And say all you want about "accountable talk"--if teachers don't interpret a work carefully at a PD, how are the kids going to do better in class? I say this to criticize the format, not the teachers.)

For crying out loud, why can't we read an article (story, poem, speech) together as a class, carefully, with a teacher-led discussion? Why all these group antics? Even though there was some sort of "content," the "process" slew it. (I recognize that class discussion is not good for every occasion, and that a teacher should vary things. But whatever the approach, it should encourage thoughtful reading and careful interpretation.)

Kim, we need to respect not only people, but the works themselves--works of literature, nonfiction, research, and so forth. And they must be of high enough quality to command respect.

I wholeheartedly agree. And, in my opinion, your points describe beautifully why differentiation is not a perfect solution (again--in my opinion, not even a viable solution).
Well said, Diana.


I hope I made it clear that I wasn't criticizing when using the term academic. I were one. You would not be presenting such a passionate and professional thesis unless you had wrestled with and mastered the fundamentals of academic discourse.

You also wrote:

"Our school structure issues are so rarely discussed because they are implict in our culture. You (and every other teacher) are so used to "dealing with it" that it seems difficult to imagine how absurd our school organization really is."

I'm not offended because you are just speacking the truth. I think I am relatively more aware of the absurdity
because I did not attend Ed School and I entered public schools at the age of 40. (And also, I have an absurd sense of humor which allows me to roll with the punches.)

That's why I want an approach that is 180 degrees the opposite of your approach, as well as most instruction-driven approaches that have flourished since NCLB.

We make a valuable distinction between a "good" teacher and an "effective" teacher. Its not good enough anymore to be good; a teacher must be effective. We need a more modest goal. We need a good teacher in every classroom. (and in the shortrun I'd be satisfied with a "good enough" teacher in every classroom, along with a lot of other adults in schools.)

My school used to be an inner ring suburban school, with plenty of good and even great teachers who stayed after desegregation. I was struck how our school had many more good and great teachers than we had when I was in high school. But many good teachers were relatively ineffective, and now that we have so many magnet schools, those good and great teachers have reluctantly moved on.

Over the last decade, a clear pattern has been institutionalized. About 1/3rd of classes are orderly enough to be effective. (a disproportionate number of those teachers are older and "old school" and we might not approve of their instructional methods, but these teachers aren't replacable.)

About 1/3 fluctuate between barely orderly enough to periods of dysfunctionality. Often those teachers are very good, (and are teaching the toughest classes) and the only thing they need to be effective is a little credibility in the school's efforts to establish order. When the school is going through good times, those teachers magically become effective, when the school is dysfunctional, teachers in those classes have little choice but to rely on worksheet-driven efforts to kill time. Its like swaddling. You just slow the kids' metabolism down and survive the rough spots.

About a third are hopelessly dysfunctional.

So, I want a school culture that is orderly enough that it is enough to be "good" in order to be "effective."

As far as PD, Diane's approach makes a whole lot of sense to me. I assume that her PD was centered in elementary and middle school, and high school is not as amenable to it. Even for high school, however, I think Diane presents an approach that synthesizes the best of the old fashioned PD with the best of today's process-oriented PD. One of the reasons, I suspect, is that it would teach teachers in the way that we should teach kids - through mentoring.

And Kim, I'm not adovcating punishment. I think my arguemnt is a bookend to that of Diane Ravitch. We need a politically viable way of presenting humane approaches favored by teachers to the political system. Conversely, we need the credibility required for safe and orderly schools.

Ironically, I bet Karl Rove could take this dilemma and turn it into a winner politically, but I don't have the stomach for his methods. We need to be "tough liberals" in regard to behavior. But after seeing how accountability hawks fell in love with their toughness rhetoric, and the harm they have unleashed, I personally am afraid of releasing comparable demons. We ought to be able to draw a distinction between assessing consequences in a credible manner vs. punishment. But to do so, we have to wrestle with details. Which brings us back to Erin's approach. I'd like to see her intellectual talents directed toward an approach that I think would be more effective than research-driven, instruction-driven methods.


No one can learn in a disorderly classroom. The fact that schools demand "seat time" over quality learning well illustrates how disfuntional our school system is.

We ask too much of our teachers. It should not be their job to ensure that their students behave well. The fact that in our current system "classroom management strategies" take priority over instruction is tragic and becomes completely unmanagable as in situations such as yours.

I applaud you and every other teacher who persevere in teaching despite the horrific school system that ignores the needs of the teachers and the needs of the students as well.

If the children are not learning in those dysfunctional classrooms, why do we force them to sit there? Wouldn't babysitting be less expensive?

I am not sure what you mean by my approach and what specifically you object to. My approach is that schools needs to be organized to support quality learning by the students not in monitoring seat time.

To learn well students need to see their teacher as an ally/champion. Being in the classroom needs to seen by the students as a benefit not a chore.

By requiring teachers to monitor behavior, forcing kids to sit in the classroom and having teachers grade the students at the end of the term, the relationship between teacher and student is absolutely antagonistic.

Students are constantly thinking about what they can get away with, instead of what they can learn from their teacher. Not a situation designed for quality learning.

To your other point, dictating how teachers teach based upon "research-driven" instructional methods is counterproductive. Teachers need to own their own teaching and the creative art that it involves. I can't see how uniformity in teaching approaches would provide a quality learning environment for our children.

A school system that allows growth in teaching ability is absolutely necessary if our children are to learn well and not just get through the day unscathed.

But where is the support for developing quality teaching? Where is the support for ensuring an orderly classroom? Where is the focus on what our students are learning?

It is our school system that is preventing any and all improvements in student learning.

Erin Johnson


I'm glad we agree on so much.

Specifically the issue where we disagree is summarized in your statement,

"Student learning is completely dependant upon the quality of the teaching, the quality of the curricula and student motivation. Quality external tests completely aligned with classroom instruction can go a long way towards increasing student motivation without damaging the trusting relationship between teacher and student that is critical for quality student learning."

As I read our exchange, we are in a situation comparable to those who accept
Broader Bolder Challenge, and yet we disagree on some K-12 issues. If we can have a civil debate, and build on agreements, why can't liberal supporters of NCLB come home and collaborate with people who share their values and not just fight over testing and accountability.


Regarding my statement, what do you disagree with? The first statement, the second or both?

As you mentioned that you are supporting the Broader Bolder Challenge (Diane and Deborah as well), it is worth looking at the statements and supporting documents.

The key elements mentioned:
1. Pursue school improvements.
2. Invest in early childhood education
3. Increase health services
4. Pay attention to time out of school

While there is much to be admired in the ideas from a purely social context, there is little here that will actually affect student learning.

Given that the initiative is supposed to improve education there are no proposed solutions to the great problems that happen within school walls.

The few actual proposed school improvements:

1. Small class sizes: this has been tried extensively in California where all K-3 classes need to have 20 students or less. Despite the enormous cost, it is an ineffective program. You (and others) may argue that California was inept in implementation. But this is not so, California is very diligent at making sure that class size in K-3 is at or below 20. If small classes by themselves would have helped, it would have shown up in increased learning by California students. It has not.

The reason that just reducing class size failed to improve student learning is that fewer students made life a little easier for the K-3 teachers in CA but it did nothing to change instruction and thus nothing to improve student learning.

2. Attracting and retaining high-quality teachers.
There is a world of difference between high quality teaching and "high quality teachers." This whole notion that teachers are born and not developed with time and experience does our schools a great disservice. Why do we continually insist that all teaching abilities are learned prior to entering a classroom? Can any teacher tell me that they learned everything in ed school and nothing in the years that they stood in front of a classroom?

Without quality school support for improving teaching (not teachers!), it matters not how many PhDs you can attract to the school, they will not stay there if the working conditions are unsupportive (no admin support, disruptive students, no time to improve their craft, overloading of both work and blame, etc...).

All the other ideas, better PD, better leadership, better co-ordination, better assessments, better instruction and better sensitivity to immigrants are great. EVERYBODY wants that. The problem is always in the how.

So we get rid of NCLB and substitute it with BBAE, what happens? What changes?

Again, the social aspects of BBAE are very nice. They just will have no effect on education because it does not address why our schools are ineffective at teaching children.

Erin Johnson


By this point everyone has gone on to subsequent posts, but you asked.

I don't believe that external assessments will increase student motivation. I do believe that the Broader Bolder Challenge would raise student performance and it would do much much more than any improvements in curriculum, PD, or Standards. I do think we can "make" better teachers, but for the most part great teachers are "born" and intelligence and book-learning is a relatively small part of it. We have plenty of people around schools who have the talents of a "born" teacher but they don't have a college degree, or they have followed a differnt career path. My priority is to recruit more of that talent, and create conditions where we retain more of it. In fact, that's one reason why I'd apply Diane's PD to high school. Creating the type of learning community that she describes would help recruit and retain adults, as well as improve instruction.

So we disagree? What's the problem with that? Nobody would hire me to run a curriculum dept, but you would be great at it. I'm just saying I don't think that is where we get the real "bang for the buck."

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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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