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The Need to Examine Definitions of Success


Dear Diane,

NYC’s success at claiming to be the new Texas miracle is depressing. I may delay responding to your response to my query about national standards. Or get at it more slowly! But it makes me do some tough thinking...so we might stick with it for a while once again.

Speaking of tough, the Paul Tough book sticks in my mind a lot. The school he describes with such honest detail had one and only one standard: better test scores. Geoff Canada and his board were committed to proving that they could make substantial progress in closing the test-score gap with an unselected and under-performing entering 6th grade class by 8th grade. And then carrying them on through 12th. I think you’re suggesting that with national academic standards it would be easier to accomplish—and more worthwhile.

So it brought me back to remembering our early days at East Harlem’s Central Park East and later as we expanded opening CPE-like schools in other parts of Manhattan, the Bronx, and then many other places. Yes! We all started with standards!

Our starting point was to figure out what OUR definition was of being a Well-Educated 18-Year-Old, revise it on the basis of critiques from people we respected, and then and only then try to figure a way to measure our definition. It took us three years to flesh it out, and our first class of 7th graders was finishing 9th grade by the time we did. (And we never stopped fiddling with it, and none of the schools that replicated CPESS ended with exactly the same standards or ways of measuring them.) We told the students that they’d have to meet our standards, but we also told them that we’d stick with them for as long as it took them to do so. That was first.

Then we faced the question of “troublesome” kids. We decided the school was right for anyone who wanted to come to it. The only “promise” that parents needed to make was that they’d answer our calls for help, and all we promised them was that we would do the same. And that we’d not give up.

And third, we had no deadline. “As long as it takes.”

But we had an advantage that Geoffrey Canada didn’t and which many of our followers didn’t. Almost half of our incoming 7th graders had spent part or all of their first seven years of schooling at East Harlem’s CPE elementary school. When we had the chance to expand we confronted the fact that the new schools started with 9th graders. Many of the Manhattan schools did their best to attract a range of student abilities, so they wouldn’t be just for so-called “losers." Some succeeded better than others. The one that utterly failed, Vanguard Academy, began with almost nothing but hold-overs with bad attendance records, but is today, surprisingly, one of our best examples. The Bronx schools had the hardest task. Unlike CPESS, they also felt obliged for a while to prepare kids for two contrasting definitions of success—the state’s tests and their performance assessments.

Based on a long-term study by Teacher’s College, the ones that stuck with it outperformed most comparable schools by a lot, but not the old CPESS. No surprise.

What we need, Diane, is to study all three of these issues in a setting that is not defensive, but exploratory. Which means examining definitions of success, the role of heterogeneity, e.g. social class, past schooling, and how long it takes to establish a culture of success. The KIPPs and Canadas of the world need this as much as we do. We can’t keep hanging on by our fingernails, trying to survive and also thrive. The larger world also would do well to come to terms with these dilemmas: how we are defining what it means to be well educated, who we are “writing off” in the effort to prove our point, and how long it takes to establish new norms of trust and competence!

But it, too, will be for naught if we don’t first and foremost tackle purposes. Thus I find it productive to talk about standards—it focuses the mind. We have differences about what matters most (what it means to be well-educated) just as we have about how best to serve such varied ends, or how long it takes. We need to keep acknowledging that all of us are works in progress. We’re learners. The hard evidence lies in the future, which involves more complexity still.

We’ve never looked clearly at the evidence for connecting the study of the traditional academics between the ages of 5-15 and democracy; it’s “just” a theory (unlike evolution). The “academy” wasn’t invented for that purpose.

Why require that all graduates (ideally all citizens?) understand (agree on?) the causes of the Civil War, WW I…..et al as you suggest? Ditto for chemistry, calculus, etc.? Probably we can agree quickly about basic literacy (at a 6th grade level—after that, it’s debatable), and arithmetic/measurement? Both of which were traditionally part of a pre-academic course of study. Personally? I’d like evidence that they can exercise the “five habits of mind” in assorted ways, that suggest their understanding of the nature of science, history, math, literature, the arts—but not any particular coverage. And I’d like to “measure” their ability to engage publicly with such subject matter in contemporary contexts, including perhaps vocational ones. That was the CPESS way. But such measures rest on fallible judgments (even the Olympic scorers were fallible).

Maybe I’d compromise?


P.S. Note that President Bush says Catholic schools need public resources and should NOT be held accountable only to test scores. Puzzling? But it opens up an interesting discourse. My Catholic friends would argue that first and foremost Catholic schools are accountable to their effect on student’s religious faith. How about something similar for public schools—their student’s informed commitment to democracy? Can we require belief?


I just finished Tough's book. While the book left me with a lasting feeling of hopefulness, I found the chapters focusing on Promise Academy quite depressing. It was clear that the eighth grade students while being described as "pains" were also full of verve and uniqueness. I hope these students wound up in supportive high schools. Beyond that, while I loved reading about the Baby College, Harlem Gems and the rest of the conveyor belt, I was frustrated that the Promise Elementary School focused so much on getting the kids prepared for success on the 3rd grade test. These tests and the fact that we "over-prepare" students for them creates such a heightened sense of insecurity and a skewed sense of self-worth. Isn't there another way the heads of the school could prove their student's success to their board members, possibily through diagnostics which are less stressful and a portfolio of assessments in all shapes and sizes?

In order to provide low income children with a quality education, we need to teach them to love learning, and to excell in all subject areas not just a test that measures such finite skills.


A curious passage in Tough's book keeps coming to mind. It's on page 251, where board member Mitch Kurz explains the board's decision to graduate the eighth graders and cancel the lottery for incoming students. He attributes it to "typical trader's instinct": "When a trader makes a bet on a commodity, and the trader starts losing money, then he or she closes the bet out. Usually hubris takes over. Then you’ve got Long-Term Capital Management."

If Kurz' analogy is correct, then this shows how a "business model" can be misapplied to a school. Did they consider the difference between "closing a bet out" and leaving students in the lurches?

Their actions were rash and hasty. Not only did they rely too much on test scores--but they did not even take the time to wait for those scores. They based their decision on preliminary scores. When the actual scores came in, they showed marked improvement in both English and math (p. 250). In math, 70 percent of eighth graders scored at grade level.

So the problem is not only the reliance on test scores, but the tendency to react too quickly and drastically to incomplete data. They could not wait. Why not? To be sure, there are problems with waiting too long, but they seemed extraordinarily impatient--especially with the middle school, which faced extraordinary challenges.

And yes, Canada's emphasis on test scores is problematic. It seems to be coupled with a lack of emphasis on anything else. The book gives no insight into Canada's idea of education--except that he wants to guarantee the success of every child. Empty success it is, if we do not know what the success contains or what it is for. All the emptier considering the often banal content of the tests, and the poorly written multiple-choice questions. Why such ungodly worship of ungodlike tests?

National standards (if well conceived) could bring some integrity to the curriculum, which could then lead to substantial tests. The tests would mean more and dominate less. There is no perfect solution, but we can do better than we are doing now. It is a shame that our children are being taught "skills and strategies" rather than works of literature. It is a shame that children are required to read charts and maps on tests but cannot tell you about the history of economic differences between the North and South. The "habits of mind" you emphasize are valuable--and they absolutely need a foundation. Such a foundation, far from dull, can give students events to ponder, stories to remember, and questions to consider for their entire lives.

Interesting post, Diana. I have not read the book in question, but hope to soon. Though I don't know much about business, I do think we should be very cautious in adopting a business model. But couldn't NCLB, with emphasis on standards, tests, sanctions, and accountability be described as pretty much of a business model?

If not a business model, then what model is best for education? I'm not sure, but I would suggest that a "parent model" should be given very serious consideration. I have mentioned before that accountability is nothing new in education, but the form of accountability has changed. It used to be that schools were accountable to the public through the school board. (They still are, of course.) That accountability is easily dismissed, if we want to. We can say that before NCLB schools could do anything they wanted to because school boards could do anything they wanted to. But I don't think that can be fairly described as no accountability. We have cultural values and expectations that can be very powerful, though often not very visible.

My view is that schools have always followed a parent model to quite an extent. (I have a small town midwest perspective. Maybe it looks quite different in big cities.) Parents, teachers, administrators, and school boards might have many differences in the details of educating kids, but in the big picture everyone was accountable to the public in various ways. Those who would depart too much from societal expectations would discover that those expectations can be powerful.

You mention, "National standards (if well conceived) could bring some integrity to the curriculum." If I had read that in 2002, when NCLB was only a bright and shining promise, I would pass over it with nothing more than a perfunctory nod of agreement. But now I'm not so sure. Now I wonder if national standards can give us more integrity, or more achievement, or more of anything.

What can bring more integrity, or achievement? My view, at least my view at the moment, is that it's pretty hard to beat the old fashioned teacher who cares, and who relies on her experience, common sense, and her knowledge of what the parents and community expect, to find the best practice for this particular class in this particular place in this particular time. I would describe that as a parent model for education.

I supported NCLB when it was new. However as a Republican (sort of), and a conservative (sort of) and a libertarian, I did realize that without Bush's support of it, we would kill it and dance on its grave. I guess that would still be my first choice of what to do about NCLB. But since I don't think something like that can be killed, I definitely go with the idea that I believe Diane proposed not too long ago, that NCLB require no stakes testing. Only in that way can we get the benefit of valuable information without the distortions caused by sanctions.

Hi Brian:
I doubt whether either the plans of business or parenting provide great models for the schools. Business operates on short-term profit motives, and successful parenting out of love. Schools are neither, and it seems to me need to be held accountable to different standards.

Like you, I doubt that NCLB holds the key to such accountability. But that does not mean that business models or parenting guides do either!

Tony Waters


I'm not sure that NCLB has disproven (or even touched upon) the idea of national standards. NCLB left the standards to the individual states, and we see the results.

I have a lot to learn about standards and what they mean. But there are certainly at least two questions that a standard addresses: (1) what should the student learn? and (2) to what degree of proficiency should the student learn this? Certain state standards are vague on both points. Others (like Massachusetts standards) are quite specific.

National standards and curriculum would not eliminate the need for parental involvement. Once we establish what we're teaching, we have to teach it well so that the students learn it. Parents, knowing what the students are supposed to be learning, can demand that their children actually learn it and help with this at home.

Some schools, like CPESS, do take pride in creating their own standards based on their own definition of education (taking into account the advice of others). I see the value of this but also a number of dangers. How many hours have to be spent hashing out these questions? One might argue that it's a worthwhile process no matter how much time it takes--but Deborah, it seems to rest on the assumption that nothing is of lasting importance, not Shakespeare, not chemistry, not the causes of the Civil War--and that talking things out is more important than thinking them out.

If every book, every topic, every subject is up for negotiation at every moment, we do have an atmosphere of questioning of a certain sort. But I wonder if it is the kind we most need. To delve into those topics, we need some time to think about them, to teach them over and over, to let them sink into the woodwork (if there is woodwork). And certain subjects are important to our understanding of the world. They should not be endangered, nor does their repeated inclusion suggest any lack of creativity. It takes creativity to recognize and keep what is important and good.

A former professor recently told me that he teaches his poetry course (one of my favorites that I took) in the same way every year. I would take that course again if I could. Why? Because in returning to these same works by the same poets, I have the opportunity to understand them differently. And I am sure there have been subtle changes over time.

To have excellent schools, we must establish what is important and teach it. We must let it stay, making minor adjustments but refraining from drastic overhauls except when absolutely necessary. And we must have the courage to make it excellent, which requires making it specific. General principles are essential, but the specifics bring them to life. Poetic devices are subordinate to poems. We must teach actual poems. Perhaps we do not have to agree nationwide on all the poems, but certainly we can agree on some.

There are exceptional schools that do exceptional things outside of this framework. They should exist as well.

Diana Senechal

I am constantly questioning our current definition of “standards.” I doubt that anyone would argue against the idea that standards are a necessary component of a rigorous education. Deborah, when you write about devising your own standards at CPE, I have no doubt that your standards of a “Well-Educated 18- Year- Old” are above and beyond what any state would call “proficient” today. I agree that national standards might take the art out of teaching and prevent schools from creating a community of learners invested in their own rigorous, high standards. Most of those who have commented on this post agree with Diane that yes, national standards are a good thing but, no, NCLB has not created rigorous high standards but rather a culture obsessed with achieving high test scores regardless of the validity of the testing tool. I have to admit that in my heart I agree with you –any standards we would come up with as a nation would become a value judgment based on what is included and what is left out, particularly in the humanities. However, as someone intimately involved in running a large comprehensive urban high school that is often referred to as “school of last resort,” I believe that national standards would no longer allow us to sweep the failure of so many of our children under the rug. If all schools across the nation were compared to one another, on the same assessment, perhaps we as a nation will finally decide to become accountable to all of our children.

Good point, Diana, that NCLB can't tell us anything about national standards. I tend to forget that. The only genuine experience we have is with state standards. So what does this experience tell us? I don't know much about it, but from what I read I must conclude that state attempts at standards have caused a lot of frustration to a lot of people. Perhaps along with the frustration there is some real benefit. I hope so, but I'm skeptical. I don't recall in my reading anyone making the case that for all the frustration, we still are better off now than before NCLB. Or perhaps that is just assumed. I don't know.

A very important question, it seems to me, is this. Should we expect more problems and frustrations with a single federal set of standards, compared to individual state standards, or less? Would the balance between benefit and detriment shift for the better, or worse? To me the answer is very clear, things would be worse with federal standards. I can't say that I have any evidence or logic to back up this judgment. It's just intuition. A time or two I have come across the opinion that the cure for bad state standards is federal standards. That really mystifies me. It seems to me that if something we try on a relatively small scale seems to work poorly, the last thing we ought to do is crank it up on an even larger scale.

I don't know much about the standards of the various states, but I know a little about one set of standards. That is the "standards" put forth by the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) in 1989 and 2000. These standards are ideals much more than standards, and I think unrealistic ideals, and counterproductive ideals. In 2003 I read the NCTM's 2000 standards deeply enough to form some very definite opinions, which I wrote up as an article "Some Disagreements With The Standards" which is now on my website. Here's a link: http://www.brianrude.com/disagr.htm

We have math wars for some very good reasons, in my humble opinion. I think the NCTM "standards" have done real harm to math education in the past generation. Obviously that is a debatable point. My perspective is not easily defined or explained. But from my personal experience as a math teacher, and from my thinking about such things, I conclude that bad standards can be a lot worse than no standards. (As chance would have it, just minutes ago I got this link from Joanne Jacobs blog. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2008253262_opin12nutting.html I know nothing about this writer or the situation in Seattle, but the frustration expressed is very familiar. This article gives a bit of confirmation to my contention that bad standards can do a lot of harm.) Some flavor of my perspective can be gotten from my most recent article that I put on my website just the other day, "Fractions My Students Can't Do". Here's a link to that, in case anyone is interested: http://www.brianrude.com/fractionsquiz2.htm

A lot of my thinking on a lot of these ideas gets me back to the "parental model" for education. It is easy to claim that before NCLB prompted states to act we had no academic standards. My answer to that is that we had cultural standards. Many of these standards were more felt than expressed. When I started teaching in 1964 I felt I knew what was expected in junior high and high school math courses, and I did my best to fulfill those expectations. Looking back I realize that primarily what I had was my personal experience. I expected to teach math as I had been taught, with whatever improvements I could personally come up with. I did not think of my perspective at the time as a "parental model". (Indeed, I came up with that term just the other day.) I did not think deeply or extensively on math education at the time. I am not aware that anyone else did either. I think it would be accurate to say that most teachers (other than those who always latched on to the latest educational fad) tried to fulfill cultural expectations in their teaching, and that therefore the curriculum of most any field was in large part a result of cultural drift, aided by common sense and local knowledge of societal expectations.

"Drift" doesn't sound like a very enlightened way to establish a curriculum in a subject. However compared to some of the alternatives, I don't think drift comes out too badly. It is not a blind drift, so much as a drift of conventional wisdom. Certainly conventional wisdom can be limited, even just plain wrong at times. But so can design. In the sixties "modern math" was going to do wonderful things. That is mostly history now. Perhaps some would claim that it left a lasting benefit, but I don't know who. The "fuzzy math" of the 90's seems to be in retreat now. I certainly hope so.

I have always been a critic of American education in some ways, but I consider it important not to be a knee-jerk critic. And even more importantly I think we should avoid the idea that the cure for its ills are obvious to all and only prevented by the obstinacy of an uncaring establishment. I think there is a lot of room for improvement, and I had some faith in NCLB in 2002 as a vehicle for improvement. I still think there is a lot of room for improvement, but I have little faith that there is much that can be done on the federal level to improve education.

Rapper, author and actor, LL Cool J made a profound statement when he spoke at my university. He said, "Knowledge is not power." The audience gasped. He finished, "Applied knowledge is power." I believe that we are looking at standards in the tunnel-vision fashion. First of all, I don't remember half the stuff I learned in history class, I can still solve a few algebra problems, and I can't remember much about Chemistry. It wasn't the knowledge that I acquired that made the difference in my life, it was the application of knowledge which made the impact. If I don't know what to do with the knowledge, then it becomes obsolete. That is what has happened to the America education system. We are teaching children to memorize facts, and they don't know why they are important to learn. We are also telling children that this official version of history is the truth, negating that history has many perspectives. What are we measuring with standards? Are we measuring a child's ability to memorize information, or are we teaching them to formulate a unique perspective through research and inquiry? As a disadvantaged youth growing up in the Robert Taylor Homes, a gang-infested housing project in Chicago, I did not understand why no one cared about the children in our neighborhood. I did not recognize the "politics" of education, and why our schools did not have the adequate resources to achieve. What I have discovered is that a passion for learning has a major impact on student achievement. How can we measure passion with a standardized test? Standardized testing is discriminatory because it neglects other groups’ perspectives and does not allow children to formulate their own ideas about an issue. Fortunately, I had a 4th and 5th grade teacher who taught us Black history, although it was not a part of a state standard. The history of many groups are purposely left out of state and national standards, and students are left to feel that their ancestors did nothing to build America. They mention MLK and Rosa Parks, but leave out thousands of African-American inventors, who have contributed to society. Standardized testing also discriminates against children by comparing test scores across gender, nationality, economic level, or culture. Sometimes kids do not relate to the subject matter, and are bored half to death with the curriculum. I believe that self-esteem makes a huge difference in the way our children learn. If a child does not believe that he/she is capable of success, then they will not be successful. Self-motivation is required in order for children to take their learning to the next level. How can we motivate children, when standardized testing labels them failures or special education? Do I have a learning disability because I do not process information the same way as my peers? Which standardized test measures artistic ability, dance movement, or rap skills? These are talents that our children possess, but are not included in assessments. Right-brained activities are discouraged in the American school system, and left-brained dominated assessments are the cause. Children need an opportunity to explore their talents in many areas. Instead, many children tell me that they are too dumb to learn. I ask why and they say their parents called them dumb, or that their test scores are low. I am a former Teach for America Corp member, and since 2004, I have worked with thousands of teachers and students, providing professional development for my writing program, Choices i Control. I have worked with disadvantaged youths, as well as privileged ones, and I can honestly say that there are very minute differences in the education standard. Children are pressured from all angles, from parents, teachers, principals, and standardized testing to “measure up.” Why is our society so infatuated with children “measuring up” a Mary Poppins put it. Does a spoonful of encouragement help the education sink in? I believe so. I have owned a motivational speaking business since the age of 15, and have been on a mission to help children become commendable writer and outstanding citizens. It is passion and drive that changed the course of my life. I could have easily ended up in prison like my brother and girl cousins, or even strung out on crack like my father was. My parents pushed me to become more than they were, but it was ultimately my own decision which made the difference. As a teacher at Key West High School, I taught 10th grade English honors and regular English, and I noticed the same problem, but it was expressed differently. My honor students earned good grades, but lacked high self-esteem. When I encouraged them to work collaboratively, I found that many had issues working in a group setting. They were more concerned with their individual progress and had achieved success by isolating themselves. I raised their self-esteem by teaching them public speaking, which parents fought to discontinue. I had so many parent complaints because I required those students to step out of their shell, and try something new. They were more concerned that they would earn a low grade, rather than focusing on mastering this skill. I never gave up on my students, and most performed above standards. With my English regular students, they didn’t care about working in groups, but it was difficult to get them to quiet down and focus. They tried to run me off, like they had done the previous teacher and the 8 subs they had before I arrived in October. I worked with all of my students and told them every single day how much I cared about them and how I believed in them. They eventually began to believe in their own abilities, and mastered the state standards. 91% of my students passed the FCAT Writes and 80% performed above standards. I am not a conventional teacher because I use hip-hop, television shows, and video games in my curriculum. Even more, I learn from my students. My students have taught me more about technology than I could ever imagine. Our class discussions were open, intriguing, and respectful. I preached respect for others, and I always respected their opinions and viewpoints. Once my kids gained the confidence to speak freely about a topic, their desire to learn greatly increased. I believe that standardized testing should change to an individual students progress plan. Students should understand what they should learn, and work towards their goals. They should be given credit for what they already know. This would mean that lecturing should not dominate class time. Children must be allowed time for discovery. Children must discover their own gifts, and discover what causes mean the most to them. They should also discover that they have a brilliant mind, regardless of what anyone tells them. Growing up, I thought I was dumb and ugly because my teacher told me so. One thing that changed my life was my ability to write down my feelings. I kept a journal, and I secretly wanted to be a writer. I told my mother that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up and she told me that I should try to be a doctor or lawyer because writers don’t make any money. Many parents push their kids towards a certain career track, with little regards to what the child wants. I know that being a commendable writer is what every child should aspire to be because writing is required in every career field. Our standard should be writing, because in the Information Age, writing is more important than ever. I have been blessed to earn hundreds of awards, but I can honestly say that if I did not have commendable writing abilities, then I would have never earned a penny. The best way to acquire knowledge is through writing. Writing seals your knowledge in ink. Once you write something down, it is permanently etched in your brain. In order to study for tests, I wrote it down over and over and over again until I memorized it, or learned it. I do not use half the skills I learned in high school, but I did learn the value of learning. Kids need to be taught how to learn, and they need to be fed the desire to learn. By strategically raising kid’s self-esteem we are helping them believe in their ability to learn and apply knowledge. However, if a teacher is lacking self-esteem then how can he/she motivate children in the classroom? I have frequented KIPP and I know that those kids have much higher self-esteem than kids in other settings. High expectations encourage higher self-esteem. While teaching in Houston Independent School District, I used 11th grade textbooks to teach my 7th grade ESL students. I believe that children need to set their own standards, and as educators, we should help guide them along the way. By exposing kids to a variety of topics and viewpoints, we encourage them to formulate their own. Who is right and who is wrong? Aren’t we all right? Aren’t all our opinions correct? Isn’t there more than two view points? Can we respectfully have our own views without saying that one is correct and one is not? Can’t we allow our children the freedom to discover their own potential instead of locking them into a set of national and state standards, which leave out right-brained thinking? Let’s teach our kids the “write” way to learn. Thank you for the opportunity to share my viewpoint. Sincerely, Rachel Kenyata Armour AKA Kenyata Truth, Founder and President of Choices i Control Academic Program. www.teachuswrite.com.

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