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Is Democratic Governance the Problem?


Dear Deborah,

You quote John Goodlad, who asks “Whatever became of the idea that representative democracy is the essential starting point for public education?”

This is an important question to raise today, as I suspect that our political elites have lost faith in this idea. Take, for example, the spread of charter schools. There are now some 1.3 million children in more than 4,500 charter schools in 40 states, plus the District of Columbia. Without getting into the merits or demerits of charter schools, it is worth noting that the impulse to “go charter” seems to align with the impulse to remove oneself from the public square. Just last week, a report on the charter schools in the Twin Cities held that they were more racially and socially segregated than the regular public schools.

As we know, both John McCain and Barack Obama endorsed charter schools during their last debate in the campaign. The big foundations, notably Gates and Broad, are gung-ho for charters, as are business groups. There seems to be a strong and growing belief that the schools controlled directly through the democratic process are incapable of improvement and that only schools managed privately can flourish. Actually, a recent paper by Cecilia Rouse (with Lisa Barrow) [School Vouchers and Student Achievement: Recent Evidence, Remaining Questions] says that there is not a lot of difference in outcomes between choice schools and regular public schools, but findings such as hers seem not to have daunted the growing movement for charters and choice.

Also last week, Louis V. Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal in which he called for the abolition of the nation’s 15,000 or so school districts and the imposition of national standards, national tests, merit pay, and longer hours in school. Although I have long supported national standards and national testing (without stakes!), I was alarmed by Gerstner’s conclusion that school districts, school boards, and democratic governance were the root cause of our educational ills. I wrote an article for Forbes.com (perhaps reaching some of the same readers as the WSJ) arguing that we should not abrogate democratic control of our schools, that it would be wrong to relinquish discussion, debate, and public review of education policies.

It is worth mentioning, I think, that Gerstner’s proposal is a kissing cousin to the ideas set out by John Chubb and Terry Moe in their book "Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools" in 1990. They argued then, on behalf of vouchers, that the fundamental problem in American education was democratic control of the schools. So, while Gerstner, Chubb, and Moe advocate different policies, their analysis is congruent.

I remain confused and uncertain about what kind of “accountability” is best. I am not even sure how to define the term; it seems to be rubbery, depending on who is using it and what ends they pursue. I agree with many of our readers that tests matter, and they are not going to disappear. I do believe, however, that they are being overused and misused, especially when so many rewards and sanctions are now tied to test scores. As one of our readers wrote, when every child is tested, then states will seek out the cheapest way to test every child. And then every child, every teacher, and every principal finds their future tied to a cheap measuring stick.

It is clear to me that we need more measures, more ways of looking at inputs and outcomes, and that we should not expect only test scores to become the ultimate judge of everything that happens in the school. So long as we continue to cling to simplistic measurements, we will be in a bind, the one I mentioned last time: Even if the scores should go higher, it won’t necessarily mean that kids are better educated. They may even be less well educated as a result of our misguided policies.



As you write, without getting into the merits or demerits of charter schools, from what I've observed one of the motivations towards charters is that public schools don't really operate under "democratic governance" very often. Hand-cuffed by federal and state restrictions, school boards find it hard to fashion "local" schools. On the one hand, that prevents both narrow interpretations of what schools should be and abuses that include various kinds of segregation. On the other, it makes democratically run visions of what education should be few and far between. Don't some charter schools start up to try to create a neighborhood institution that participants feel like they can have some say in?

I worked in one of Deborah’s schools (River East Elementary School) from 1984 to 1992. River East was one of about 50 “alternative schools” in Community School District 4 in Manhattan. Teachers, parents and students were given a choice of schools to attend. I chose River East because I shared an educational philosophy and a set of values with the community that was River East. Those eight years were the richest of my now 35 year old career.

I was a young teacher at the time, but my understanding was that schools that could not attract students closed and those that had waiting lists, like Central Park East, expanded. I like to think that this system encouraged the development of good schools. It seemed to me then as it seems to me now that this was the ultimate accountability. The government would need to regulate this free market in much the way the FDA regulates food. Ensure that all schools meet some minimum standards and insist on some equivalent of the ingredient list and nutritional label that we all take for granted. Then let the parents and teachers decide. My understanding is that the teaching method that works best is the one that the teacher and school community believe in. If that is the case, it would point to a system with choices for all. Isn’t that truly democratic?

My problem is implementation. I am wary of charter schools for many reasons. I don’t like the idea of schools being run for profit. I am nervous about the impact of charter schools on teachers unions and on funding for non-charter school public education. Alternative public schools seems like a reasonable choice, but I am not sure how that can be implemented in small districts.

Diane writes that, “it is worth noting that the impulse to ‘go charter’ seems to align with the impulse to remove oneself from the public square.” I would describe my experience at River East as an intense involvement in a public square, albeit, a small one. In the age of the Internet, cable TV and satellite radio we are witnessing the disappearance of large shared public experiences and the rise of small “boutique” communities. Isn’t that what this blog is? While the disappearance public experiences on a grand scale may not a good thing, it is unreasonable to expect schools to be the one institution that bucks the trend. People expect to have lots of options for everything and to make choices. Is it reasonable to expect schools to be different?

Diane, good afternoon, a warm break here.

Public schools under democratic control? When did we get that back again?

The whole reason we went through this painful and difficult struggle to get charter schools is precisely because the public had lost control of their schools. In school after school, parent had no recourse to change business as usual. White knights with cash were turned away. Floods of tax dollar investment were simply swallowed whole by the bureaucracies.

What are we now to believe, that the charter schools were simply a made up experiment by those with political capital to toss away?


As to accountability, the best kind is the simplest, least intrusive. Can the kids read? Can more than half of them do arithmetic as any c student would define it? If so, pass the school and let the state and locality take it from there. If they can't, bring in the Pinkertons.

This is only Rocket Science if we really, really want to make it hard.


You wrote: "I remain confused and uncertain about what kind of 'accountability' is best. I am not even sure how to define the term; it seems to be rubbery, depending on who is using it and what ends they pursue."

I commend both you and Deborah for daring to acknowledge uncertainty. All too often, brazen certainty rings from each educational castle until it crumbles: each charter school, each district, each model trumpets "success" as long as it can. To be fair, some private programs may question themselves deeply, but by and large they do not reveal their uncertainties to the world.

If we give up on public education, we give up on thoughtful discussion and more. The dangers may be greater than we know. We could enter an era in which PR replaced honesty, in which even the language of honesty ceased to exist. Not that a public system is immune to these dangers--but at its best it offers a larger community and the free exchange of ideas.

Perhaps we need a larger community to think independently. Perhaps self-promoting enterprises would not only suppress dissent, but eliminate the language for it. "Competition" without exchange of ideas could result in gaming, trickery, jargon, and, worst of all, a loss of a sense of the wrongness of it all.

Diana Senechal

D Wolff suggests that democratic action is gone/impossible with regard to local districts, due to state and federal regulation. This is something that I hear frequently and frequently question.

I believe that our local entities are hamstrung by regulations only to the extent that they determine they will be defined by carrying out the minimum required by law. If the federal government were to say tomorrow that 80% proficiency was a good enough goal for No Child Left Behind, you can guarantee that by the day after 20% of kids would be effectively written off (and some schools would be complaining that they had more than their share of the 20%, so they should get a break).

Districts don't determine the number of days in a school year based on anything related to the amount of time it takes to educate their population. They set it based on the minimum required by the state. There is no prohibition against adding days--but few do. I was at a parent meeting recently where a parent asked the superintendent if new school busses would be equipped with seat belts. You know the response--the state doesn't require it. Never mind that the bus companies sell them, or any research about whether they are good/bad, cost efficient, effective. The key determining factor is that the state doesn't require them. That's not hamstrung--that's a doormat.

Yet, we have laid out this fiction for a great while, that the people closest to education couldn't make things better because of the all the red tape and regulations. Enter charter schools--the response to that belief. Fewer regs, greater freedom. As an entity, the charter movement has not outperformed the entity of public education. Most have merely cloned the education found in the public schools, with some possible differences in population, size, customer relations. A few have picked up the ball and run with it, and excelled--as a few public schools have always been able to do.

Now we have the additional excuse of accountability to add on as an excuse--we really could teach if we didn't have to worry about whether the kids can pass the test. We used to be really creative, and responsive, and effective--until we had to be accountable for demonstrating learning, on a test.

I have a couple of counter-examples to offer: public schools that I have recently run across who have maintained a mission focus and a high level of democracy and community. Central Community School in Middletown, Ohio and the Voyager Program at Ferry Elementary School in Grand Haven Michigan. I have not connection to either one, nor have I visited. Each just happened to appear in something that I was reading lately. They are both ungraded (that is kids of different ages are grouped together). They both put a premium on democracy within the school. Kids have the ability to identify problems and suggest solutions. I would love to say that both are achieving at the top levels of their state's testing and have achieved AYP. I cannot. One is and one is not. What I can say is that their achievement is not dramatically different than the other elementaries in their district. I would also add that their demographics, while typical of their districts (at a glance) are different from each other. The one with continuing challenges is not on the bottom rung of possible achievement (believe me, I have seen worse).

All of which is to say that I think that a far greater level of democracy is possible than we choose to exercise. And that's fine--involvement is not to everyone's taste. But I think we have to be in the business of challenging this idea that there is some external factor binding us in. The fault is not in the stars--but in ourselves, that we choose to be underlings.

Hi Diane,

I would be curious to know which charter schools you have visited in New York City and what your thoughts are on how they serve children as compared to the traditional public schools in New York City that you have visited. Perhaps an idea for a future post?

I am often surprised as to the rather abstract discussions of charter schools and their merits in a city in which there are so many great charters that are excited to accept visitors.


I agree that the term accountability as used in discussions of public schools at best. If teaching students to read is the only purpose of schools as Ed seems to suggest, than we should begin discharging students after they demonstrate competence on a basic reading test. A lot of students would be released after four or five years of schooling, while others will take longer. That this does not happen says to me that the public schools are not only just doing basic literacy (or numeracy for that matter). In fact they are doing the more rubbery things, like training for citizenship as well.

I am more sympathetic though to Ed’s point, that the charter school movement is a democratic movement by its very nature. People vote with their feet and time to establish charter schools, which is an expression of democracy. But Diane is also right that it is a movement defeats the need for providing a broader sense of citizenship. Public schools, along with the help desk at the Department of Motor Vehicles, are one of the few places where people from all abilities, classes, statuses have even a pretense of mixing regularly. Without such institutions, we retreat further into our own narrow interest groups and miss out on even meeting the people we will need to build the future with. And as Diane writes, the charter school movement is an attack on this, democratic though it may be.

There is of course a paradox here between Ed and Diane’s views, meaning that despite the obvious contradiction, both are correct. Diane is correct by pointing out that encouraging individual decisions in school choice through the charter school movement, you create the basis for further segregation, and discourage the mixing that is the basis for a broad democratic citizenship. Ed on the other hand points out that refusing to permit the freedom of choice offered by charter schools is dictatorial and anti-democratic. I think that he makes a good point here. But just as Diane leaves unanswered Ed’s point about the anti-democratic nature of restricting school choice, Ed leave unanswered Diane’s point that common institutions are necessary for common citizenship.

Tony Waters

Tony: I think we're disconnected on what I was trying to say in a number of ways...not uncommon for my writing, alas.

Teachers should indeed be accountable for much more than just reading and simple math. What I'm addressing here, though,is accountability to the Federal Government. Here I agree with most teachers that the Test is too invasive. The solution, then, is not to expand it in a hundred ways, measuring whether Josh is mild and meek and compliant enough, or if Bridgette is curious and critical thinking enough, or if Zach can recognize Bach and Degas, but not necessarily Whitman and Raphael. These things we should encourage schools to look to standards bodies for, but the accountability should be to the parents and the community.

Are public schools accountable? Ask many of the parents. They will tell you no. Ask 2 of the last three superintendents here, who have told me that anyone who thinks the schools are accountable to the local board is living far in the past.

Fund the Child is another initiative to bring control back to the people. As they say, "All of these problems have a common root: today, money does not follow children to the schools they attend according to their needs. Instead, money flows on the basis of staff allocations, program-specific formulae, squeaky-wheel politics, property wealth, and any number
of other factors that have little to do with the needs of students, the resources required to educate them successfully, or the educational preferences of their parents."
Only one of these--real estate--is actually tied to the people. The rest are all tied to bureaucrats, labor leaders, and politicians.

Finally, I'd take issue with your characterization of where we meet as citizens. Yes, the public school is that, and I hope we see public schools expand in the future, not contract. But there are plenty of other places. Two weeks ago I set a barn straight with a truck driver, an insurance agency owner, an elected county official, a welder/laborer, and a utility exec. We do this sort of thing all the time, with similar mixes of people. The church is a great place. The pub. The YMCA sports.

The question is, are these quality experiences. Is the public school? If the common experience you are offering is the 25% of students can read, that's not quality, and commonality doesn't make it worthwhile.


When you state, "...I think we have to be in the business of challenging this idea that there is some external factor binding us in," could this factor (at least in part) be teacher unions? Teacher unions certainly hamstring our schools in a number of ways by negotiating what folks in schools can and cannot do.

Yeh, I know; that’s part of the democratic control we celebrate in our society. I will also argue that teacher unions have done much good for teachers in the form of improved working conditions and better pay. As well, their negotiations with their respective districts have clearly contributed to the democratization of our schools. But at what price?

Aren’t these the folks who make it all but impossible for an administrator to move an ineffective teacher out of the classroom? Aren’t they also the group that allows senior teachers to have first dibs on openings regardless of past performance, even if the administrator prefers someone else to fill the position? Haven’t they also been the most outspoken opposition to education reform, merit pay, charter schools, student and teacher accountability, etc., etc.?

As Diane (or Chubb and Moe and Gerstner) intimates, "The fundamental problem in American education is the democratic control of the schools.” So who is it that has this control? I would contend teacher unions have cornered a significant portion of that market.

They are clearly not all bad but any objective bystander familiar with the workings of our public schools can make the rational argument that teacher unions are THE significant obstacle to progress/reform ever being realized for today’s students.

Is democratic governance the problem? As it has been allowed to evolve in today's public schools, I believe that it is.

Our public schools should exist first, last, and foremost for kids. Unfortunately, democratic governance has little to do with students and has sadly morphed into a battle of control for the adults.

Tony, as usual you make compelling points, but do charter schools really offer more democratic choice, as you suggest?

First of all, competing charters would bring considerable hype, so parents might not have an accurate picture of the schools in advance. Second, the good schools would fill up fast, and it would be hard to get into them. Third, schools would frequently start up and close down.

It would be preferable to have a number of choices within a public school system. For that to work, we would have to agree on a range of viable curricular and pedagogical options and establish a common test. All schools would teach a body of knowledge, skills, and ideas, but they could approach it differently, within reason. And, yes, they would be assessed on subject matter.

Public schools suffer from bureaucratic strain, but some of that has a charter-like quality. It is no wonder that some rulers of school bureaucracies also happen to support charters and business involvement in schools. School districts spend millions on contracts with private companies offering unsubstantiated but flashy pedagogical "solutions." Schools compete via test scores for status within the district and beyond. Districts conjure elaborate success stories, adroitly shuffling their failures around.

What would it take to make the public schools "institutions for common citizenship"? I tend to agree (!) with Margo/Mom that "a far greater level of democracy is possible than we choose to exercise" (and I fault myself in that regard). We need to stop passively accepting packaged solutions in which we do not believe. We need to implement our policies thoughtfully, not crudely. We need to teach subject matter, not dance around it or ask students to teach it to each other. We need to expect and offer excellent work--not miracles, perfect people, or perfect worlds.

Diana Senechal

Link to results of the TIMSS 2007 study released 12/9/08...



How 'bout dem kids from Massachusetts! Are they getting it done or what?

So why not take the Massachusetts model, tweak it a bit in a national forum, and use it nationwide? Without question we still have a kaleidoscope of problems but what we're doing here in Massachusetts could serve as a model for other states.

Of course, we’d have to be careful not to boast about our successes too much like I’ve just done.


Kudos to Massachusetts (and Minnesota) for showing everyone what is possible. I am no expert on MA, but I think that it is doing a number of things worthy of emulation elsewhere.

Hopefully, this will help stop the "We are too big, too diverse, too egalitarian, etc. to compete" talk.


Your call for 'democratic governance' is rather nebulous. I bet no two blogmenters on this site could agree on a single definition of 'democracy'- except on one component: that democratic schooling must live via taxation and compulsory attendance. In other words, the system must be funded and operated on the basis of involuntary servitude.

Those who believe that such control is compatible with free speech and exchange of ideas are ignorant. Those in the eduocracy propagating this fallacy, regardless of stated motive, are really just crooked, arrogant, selfish-types.

There is a question that educrats like to dismiss or, when they do respond, answer with mystical pronouncements, obfuscations and rationalizations for the immoral and violent means employed in the name of "education":

If the services you offer are so valuable then why do you force them on people?

Ed, thanks for the clarification on accountability. I do think though that accountability is a rubbery term—you raise the issue to whom? This is a good question. Voters, school boards, teachers, the federal government, and (as you point out) parents have a role. Then there is also the question of, accountable for what. Basic literacy and numeracy are important, but not enough. Citizenship is also important, but hard to define.

Where I would part with you is on the need to meet in “the public square.” Meeting with people like us for a barn raising, at church, in our employment, etc., is all fine. The problem though is that it is not enough. In those places we meet with only people who are volunteering to be with us. The bigger problems, and the basis for common citizenship need to come from association civilly with people who are not like this. The military draft, particularly before student deferments, performed this function. And despite residential segregation by class and ethnicity, so do schools. Finally, I mentioned the Department of Motor Vehicles. I probably go there only once every year or two, but I am always amazed to see really nice and interesting people, albeit from social locations other than those I choose in my daily routines. I think Diane R’s concern that the charter school movement is a retreat into our own isolated communities neglects our basic need to understand each other as fellow and equal citizens with responsibility to each other. In this sense, I agree that charter schools founded by self-interested groups of parents contribute to this self-segregation by interest group.

On the other hand, I am well-aware as a parent (and earlier as a student), that control by the schools can be arbitrary and autocratic. School bureaucracies are frustrating to approach for all. In large part this is because they are protecting contradictory and conflicting demands from the many parts of the community. The response of administrators and teachers alike is to go into defense mode whenever parents approach them. Harder yet are the compromises that you need to make when acquiescing to the will of the majority with whom you disagree. What do you as a parent do when your child is stuck in a comprehensive health class, sleeps through it, and still gets an A? When your child is threatened by other students and the school does not do what you want about the situation? Do you vote with your feet and retreat into a like-minded community, or do you stick it out in the public school? These are the types of questions parents wrestle with—and a number have responded by establishing charter schools. The wealthy respond by withdrawing, and sending their children to private schools.

But the comprehensive public school is a school of hard knocks for a society which has a lot of rough edges. A society in which everyone hides from each other will not be able to do great things together. Charter schools in which parents come together with the like-minded, and isolate their children from all the hard knocks do not have this benefit. So which is better? In my earlier post, I indicated that it is a paradox, which means that I do not have an answer to the dilemma. I think that both Diana S., and Ed are right in their own way. Both are pointing to different elements of democracy. Diana S. points to equality before the law and our responsibilities to each other as citizens. Ed points to the freedom of choice which is also elemental to democracy.

Self-government and democracy are far from being a perfect form of government. But what else is there?

Much quoting of rhetoric by various people to prove or disprove is irrelevant as it's still allowing for a lack of focus on the supposed objective: results. Perhaps drastic problems call for drastic measures. For the sake of expediency, couldn't we set the debates and conflicts aside and find a point when the results of students amounted to a good education, and implement something more along those lines? Then we can continue the endless debate while doing things that have proven to provide results we say are the objective.

It's a bogus argument to infer something must be done to allow students to proceed at their own rate, as some are focused. That's what students can only do, regardless of what that individual rate is. This (bogus argument) obscures the necessity of teaching to impact what the student's "own rate' is/shall be at any point. It puts an unnecessary burden on teachers and students with unproven ideas. At this juncture we can see the results: abysmal.

There is too much burden on the educational system as a whole. It's quite easy to see a subject that is teachable and even needful that can be put in an education category. The sky is the limit. In reality, one must contend with time factors and resources. Results prove that the public education system can't do all things. The basic problem is in the expectation that we can continue this practice with different results. We must narrow the focus, and admit that we are demanding something other then a firm grasp of math, science, language, history, and current events by students that graduate from high school. It is apparent that so many go on to college in this country. Other advanced nations accomplish a level of education in students graduating high school that US students must attempt to catch up at college.

In previous generations a student graduating from the eighth grade had a grasp on the rudiments of the three R's that are hard to come by now, even at the end of H.S. or in college. Perhaps there is a dual problem. Not respecting that our public education should predominately be about 'the three R's' and not overburdening it with education special interests.

We seem to be complicating the process with an erroneous assumption that students should not be held back but forced forward, projecting more burden to a teacher and baggage for the student. What a waste of resource and effort to not allow the student to remain with a teacher who is already prepared with the information and expecting the next to take on more. Perhaps we are under some delusion that expectations aren't an encouragement for results and that there will not be those who can't keep up with the majority. Or perhaps it's simply over protection and thinking it's less damaging to force a student to suffer a situation where the majority is building on last year. The student who needs more help to grasp the information cannot start building with the rest. This is missing opportunities, in an infatuation with change. The student could have an opportunity to be at the head of the class at the second attempt. There would be an opportunity to catch a real or permanent learning disability at an earlier stage, rather then inflicting the student with more pressure to keep up. It's missing an opportunity to have things less complicated by methods with proven results. There's much to be said for the repetitive aspects alone. By rote is as successful as ever.

We can remind our future teachers the value of things that work while still in college, rather then distracting them from the basics of a good education by reinventing the wheel. A good education has already been shown as accomplished by those who have gone before. " Back in the old days" it was accomplished under forced segregation, forced integration, by lamp light, in one room school houses, by children who had to walk further, without a book bag or a computer, in class rooms of higher numbers, before we had motorized transportation, and most would have felt it a privilege to learn anywhere, even a crowded modular. This list could be almost endless. I'm yelling, there is no excuse good enough, regardless of it's purported high minded intent! There's no excuse to continue concentrating on things that have so little to do with the primaries, forcing the system to be one great, big, useless, Everything.
I'm convinced that many must not have a good education in mind. Be that as it may, perhaps we can all take a deep breath. We shouldn't cry over spilt milk. This doesn't require rocket science. The quickest way forward is to start now by simple, proven methods.

I wanted to respond to Paul's question about unions. Well, sure, absolutely unions are part of the problem, as teachers are part of the problem, buildings and texts are part of the problem. But the examples that break the mold are not operating, as far as I can tell, outside of a union environment.

Certainly there are aspects of the union/management relationship that are not conducive to collaborative thinking and problem-solving. This is where the industrial labor organizing model does not serve well. Teachers are not minimally trained pockets of human capital contributing to the enhancement of a product that will enrich various owners of either the raw materials or the means of production. In those cases, the worker has a minimal interest in the quality of the end product and a maximal interest in self-protection and ensuring a fair share of the profits. Management has a maximal interest in provision of either a high quality or highly desireable product (to ensure sales), and a minimal stake in maintaining a labor pool that is easily replaced. There is a great need for a arms-length distance and for workers to keep their eyes on the prize of organizing to ensure they are not trampled by owners/managers with very different interests.

This is not the set-up in education. At different times in history teachers have been more or less at risk of low pay, political/nepotic hirings and firings, incursion of non-professionally indicated curricular requirements, etc. Those things are real--and affect educational management as well as teachers. The tendancy to demonize principals, central office supervisors and superintendents--who after all were mostly teachers just yesterday, appears to me to be borrowed from industry, and doesn't serve well in moving the profession forward in an ability to better meet the needs of students, or, paradoxically the desires of teachers to engage in a more creative, professional and less assembly-line oriented work.

Shanker, in fact, had a different vision, as I understand it, and one that saw accountability as something to rightly be incorporated into contracts and negotiated. Despite some spurts in that direction (Toledo teacher evaluation for instance), this has not become widespread and unions instead focus on such silly details as whether the school day starts at 8 or 8:30 and laying out complex systems for ensuring the existence of a pecking order that looks at anything but the ability to do the job at hand.

But I have seen schools that were able to overcome these kinds of minutieae when there was a community rallying around a particular set of educational ideas--whether it was ungraded classrooms or arts enrichment or an extended school day or year or some other unifying theme that became a higher priority. And this is where the whole thing falls apart for me. In every instance these wonderful experiments has failed to scale up beyond the building level. In my district, the experience in even replicating successful but different models has been mixed. KIPP schools may be among the first to "franchise" something successful and carry it around the country--but this always runs the risk of McDonalds-izing. Once the things that work are identified they are frozen and controlled. Maybe that's what we need to do--get a real good grasp of the things that work from experiments like charters (or creative publics that break the mold), and work on freezing and controlling them for implementation in the vast majority of our buildings that are waiting for guidance from above.


You state, "It's a bogus argument to infer something must be done to allow students to proceed at their own rate." I did it for close to three and a half decades and had a waiting list to get into my class every year. Allowing students to progress at their own rate is the most egalitarian and child-centered approach to dealing with a classroom of students than any pedagogy I’ve read about ever. It actually puts kids first.

What's bogus to me is the practice of whole group instruction with its one size fits all mentality ubiquitously employed in America’s classrooms of the twenty-first century.

I have been following the exchanges with interest. Still waiting for someone to explain to me what "accountability" means. I say this with seriousness as someone who was on the NAEP board for seven years.

On the subject of KIPP, raised just now by Margo/Mom, I wonder how transferable this model is. For one thing, there is a high attrition rate. In the Bay Area evaluation published a few months ago, the attrition rate was 50-60% (that is, kids who started in 5th grade and were gone before the end of 8th grade). And, too, these schools are very behaviorist, a model that many parents will not want for their children.

We need a bigger idea. I am working on it as I write a book.



I wasn't meaning to endorse KIPP, only to use them as an example of what it might look like to scale up some of the things that work well at the micro level when created with lots of buy in and enthusiasm. Without an ability to recreate (across the board) that same level of enthusiasm and attention to collaboration and concern for outcome that leads to positive evolution, I think that we are left with something like the replication model of KIPP. There are specific KIPP features (for better or worse) that must be adhered to--or it isn't KIPP. I fully understand the dangers of half-hearted or superficial implementation of improvements that are not well understood. I think that is why so many promising programs fall flat once they are out the gate. We have a lot of schools "doing" High Schools that Work, or GRADS or even Direct Instruction haphazardly, piecemeal or without understanding. I don't even know that we have any standardized sense of what it means to "do" standards-based instruction. These disorganized efforts don't add up to democracy, I would suggest, but something more like anarchy, or the tyranny of individual action.

KIPP's replication process just looks like the closest I have seen to organize the dissemination of any system that might be likely to work if it could be lifted from one school to another. Mostly just idle speculation. Not an endorsement.


Once again, I have to dispute your claims. I have no trouble believing that you succeed at what you do. But why must you insist on the superiority of your differentiated approach? Why must you dismiss whole-class instruction as "one size fits all"? That's one of the biggest clichés in the education world. (I fall into the cliché trap, too. I'll get to that in a moment.)

At its best, whole-class instruction is not just one size. I will not rehash the arguments I have given before. In brief: with certain subjects, a lesson can reach a range of levels at once, and the teacher can challenge everyone. Also, the common reading and discussion can bring different people together. It is not "one size fits all." It is like a song; a song can be sung by thousands together, and they are not being hemmed in by the song, are they? Who says the song is one size? Who knows what size it is?

I am not saying that whole-class instruction is the way to teach. By no means is it the best way for every situation. Yet it is neither outdated nor wrong. It can be effective, powerful, beautiful, and elastic.

I use clichés, too, as much as I'd like to avoid them. After writing that we should expect excellence of ourselves and each other, I asked myself, what is excellence? I know what it means for me, but I rarely attain it or even come close. Others may perceive excellence on quite different terms, with different priorities. That's where accountability becomes problematic--when people with priorities A, B, and C are judging others with priorities C, D, and E (or even P, Q, and R).

I would like to see schools agree more on priorities by focusing on what is taught rather than how. But even that is a cliché sometimes. Sadly, the "what" and the "how" are so mixed up at this point that it takes a bit of time to tease them apart. I long for a day when someone could teach a whole class--or individuals at their own pace--and be judged on the fuel and fire, not the type of tongs.

Diana Senechal

KIPP is only one of many successful charter operators in NYC. One might also research (and visit!) Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Harlem Link, Democracy Prep, Harlem Success... the list goes on and on. Each operator has a different approach, so if you don't like KIPP's model, some other charter school might better suit your taste (or the taste of the parent in question!). It seems to me that some people are not paying sufficient attention to the successes playing out right in their own neighborhoods.

Separately, one should consider that each KIPP school is different than the next one and a small number have had their problems. Since the schools are generally not unionized, they have much more flexibility in trying to correct these problems.

Finally, since there are four great KIPP schools right in NYC, I am a bit surprised that Diane's comments would focus on a Bay Area study. I would love to get her thoughts on the NYC schools that are a subway ride away from her.


I think that KIPP has many admirable qualities (yes, I did visit the Bronx KIPP). It does well for many of its students.

Bear in mind, however, that 2% of the students in the US and 2% of the students in NYC attend charter schools. On average, these schools are no better and possibly no worse than regular public schools.

Can we talk about the other 98% of the kids and what is in their best interest?

Diane R


You have not changed my mind. I will continue to contend whole group instruction is not only inferior to individualized/customized instruction but it can also be harmful to too many students. I never liked to see kids bored and I avoided like the plague overwhelming kids by going too fast. Beyond that, it's a cop out by teachers who insist it's too much work, too difficult to pull off, and too demanding of their time. My only concession on this subject: there is more than one version of good teaching and good schools.

We probably need to return to the discussion and address Diane's question on accountability.

(School) ACCOUNTABILTY: students, teachers, and administrators, even school board members, all need to be responsible to someone, as well as themselves, for maximizing the learning experience of students in their school.

I am interested in reading research about differentiation and student academic performance. I am currently aware of no studies that support this intervention. If you choose to, could you please direct me to studies on this instructional method. Thank you.


If you're interested in learning about differentiated instruction I would recommend you start by reading Benjamin Bloom (Bloom's Taxonomy), Carol Tomlinson, Carl Rogers, and/or Howard Gardner.

Differentiated instruction works under the presumption that all students are different. I was never a true advocate of this approach. My presumption was that all students learn at different rates. These philosophies are really quite similar in that they both subscribe to the notion that all kids show up at the beginning of the year with different strengths and weaknesses and that because of this they all progress at different rates. Some kids are great in all subjects while others (in the same class) might have few, if any, academic strengths when they arrive. In between these two cohorts there might be kids with strengths in math or science but who have identified weaknesses in English/language arts.

Differentiated instruction was too cumbersome for me. It asks teachers to formally provide different learning experiences (auditory, visual, kinesthetic) for learners depending on how each student learns best. Instead, I had these in my repertoire if needed but focused almost exclusively on auditory and visual assignments for all lessons for all kids.

I was more interested in maintaining an individualized/customized learning pace that was appropriate and comfortable for each student. Work on a skill or concept, assess the student. If they demonstrated proficiency, I moved them on. If they didn't, we spent more time on that skill or concept. For me, the overriding factor was to operate a child-centered classroom where the pace of learning for each student in each subject was addressed through ad hoc groups.

As for studies on this approach, you could be hard pressed to find them. It's a relatively new methodology that clearly requires more work (to get started) than a traditional classroom. To the best of my knowledge it is not widely employed (yet). It’s been my experience that the implied workload alone scares off many teachers. The teacher’s organizational wherewithal is clearly challenged. It is a bit time-consuming to establish but once in place it is really no more work than a traditional classroom. Really.

I would encourage all teacher colleges and schools of education to present this methodology as a viable option and provide training in it for those so inclined. This step is finally in its infancy stage. Educational scholars are coming to realize that for true education reform to be realized in this country teachers are going to have to amend their classroom methods to have classrooms better focus on what is best for students’ learning.


I agree with you: it is unfortunate that only 2% of our public school kids have been given the option to go to charter schools, especially since there are long waiting lists to get into these schools. Consider, though:

1. The charter movement is a relatively young one that has been growing rapidly. As the movement grows, more kids will have the opportunity to attend these schools. Unfortunately, there is no instant solution to creating first-rate schools. It will take time.

2. Anti-charter activists have slowed the growth of charter schools by capping the quantity of schools, limiting funding below the funding for traditional public schools, and denying public space despite great parental demand. Just last year, anti-charter activists in New York made your argument that charter schools are too small to solve our education problems while simultaneously fighting the lifting of the cap on the number of charter schools. Incredible!

3. Charter schools educate 55% of the kids in New Orleans, 31% in DC, 28% in Dayton, 23% in Kansas City, 22% in Detroit, and 20% in Cleveland. In other words, in many cities charter schools are educating a large percentage of public school kids.

4. Charter schools may improve all schools by forcing the traditional public schools to compete for students.

I hope you will support the continued growth of charter schools so that they will have the chance to serve more students. Finally, I hope you will (continue to?) visit charter schools other than KIPP schools so that you can follow the progress of the many fine operators that are dedicated to providing high-quality educational options for low-income parents.



Re: research on differentiated instruction. Check the CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology). You are right that there is no definitive study (or set of studies) to substantiate the effectiveness of "differentiated instruction," just as I suspect that there is none for whole class instruction. I think that we are talking about tremendously broad approaches and would need to hone in much more specifically to get to helpful information.

I don't see how, on the surface, there could be much disagreement with providing education tailored to a student's needs. Now--does this in fact happen in a classroom where everyone is on a different page? Perhaps or perhaps not. Perhaps in some but not others. Are there teachers, or evaluations that are more successful to matching instruction to student need? Again, this seems to be self-evident. By the same token--what is happening in the non-differentiated classroom? Are some teachers more accommodating of difference than others? Is there such a thing as a non-differentiated classroom? Wow--sounds like a graduate student's dream.


Thank you for chiming in on this topic. Yes, even when a number of kids are on a different page the tacher can still provide an education tailored to each student's needs.

Paul and Margo,
Thank you for the information and your respective thoughts on differentiation. One issue with differentiating product, which can be perceived as offering choices, is that sometimes students have accomodations and/or modifications indicating they can demonstrate mastery alternatively. What I am finding is that, unfortuntately, some students are escaping learning to read and write at least in part because of these accomodations and modifications. This may be an intended consequence, and interpreted as giving teachers/schools a license not to teach, or an unintended consequence--I'm not sure; however, I do know it can be a problem. Another issue I have found in these complex classrooms is that sometimes scaffolding doesn't happen, resulting in the student mastering a topic or skill, and then not progressing. I support using formative assessment, and working from the information it provides. Paul, it sounds like you successfully solved these issues in your own classroom.

I still haven't heard a response to Diane's profound question of how do you define "accountability."

To me its just a word we use to sound tough.

In a time of fiscal cris, we need real tough-mindedness. I'd like us to start thinking in terms of cost-benefit analysis. It would need to be longterm thinking, though. What are the costs and benefits of various "reforms" in order to produce sustainable improvements?

Hey John,
Here are my thoughts on accountability:

What does “accountability” mean?
My favorite definition is "the obligation to bear the consequences for failure to perform as expected".

Who makes the decisions?
I think school leaders should be primarily accountable to parents. The most serious consequences of not pleasing the parents would be the parents choice to send their kids to another school. The money should follow the kids. The school leaders might have additional accountability to government officials to make sure the schools are meeting some basic standards. If they fail to meet these standards, the schools could be shut down. I think, though, that accountability to parents is much more effective than accountability to the government. With that said, the government can, in some limited but important cases, have a positive role. I think our government does a reasonably good job, for example, with restaurants -- they inspect them to minimize the possibility they are poisoning their customers, but they don't tell them how or what to cook.

Teachers should be primarily accountable to school leaders. The consequences for failure would be determined by the school leader and, importantly, could include termination.

For what can we hold schools accountable?

For the most part, parents should make these decisions. Clearly, there are many different opinions as to what is important. We could have the government or academics make the decision, but I would much rather see individual parents make the decision for their own kids. If society agrees that their are some standards that should not be left up to parents, we could require those standards to be met by schools. I am skeptical of this route with the possible exception of standards for basic literacy and numeracy.

What matters beyond test scores?

Every parent I speak to has a different point of view on this question. Let's give them many educational options so that they can find a good match for their kids. If schools aren't meeting the demands of parents and money follows the kids, new school leaders will probably create alternatives to meet these demands.



Kids with accommodations/modifications plugged into their IEPs are NOT excused from learning. This should never be allowed to happen regardless of a teacher’s modus operandi.

As for the concern of your second issue, it is addressed through the hidden structure in the room, obvious to most in the class by the end of the second or third week of school. If a student demonstrates they have learned a skill/concept (I prefer summative, but formative can work if closely monitored), every student in the room will know it because the student who has demonstrated mastery/proficiency immediately gets started on the next skill in the sequence. It’s witnessed by everyone in the room and would be impossible to ignore. The kid would justifiably raise hell if I didn’t move them to the next step – and so would the parent.

Kids love to know where they are and where they're going. It empowers them. If I learn this, I'm going to @#$%. And after I've mastered that, I get to move onto ^&*+. In my mind that's why clearly defined standards/curricula such as Hirsch's Core Knowledge are imperative for the successful operation of an individualized classroom.


What subject do you teach?

Like you, I admire Core Knowledge. But I see it as much more than a sequence of skills.

Diana Senechal

I agree that no student should be excused from learning; however, some might reason that students with identified learning disabilities are not able to demonstrate mastery like their typically developing peers. High expectations for all students should be the norm. I have already written two 'shoulds' and am anxious to get out of my own self imposed reprimand mode. As I have said before, in the real world of the classroom, things can get pretty unwieldy pretty quickly.

Your point about hidden structure is interesting. I have found that hidden things don't exist in our world of accountability, whatever that means. I don't want to be the one explaining hidden structure to students, parents, or school leaders. Perhaps this is a part of what accountability means: Visibility.

I absolutely agree that we need to be teaching high quality and explicitly defined curriculum. For me, high expectations without clearly defined standards are a breeding ground for systemic oppression, which is what we are seeing alot of right now with NCLB. And controversial questions abound when we talk about creating different worlds for each student in each classroom.


I retired two years ago after 34 years as a Massachusetts elementary classroom teacher.

For me, Core Knowledge IS more than a learning sequence. It's a quality plan, and a very welcome one at that, as to what should be taught and when. Where employed it minimizes inequality from one classroom, school or district to another. It's also a must in a heterogeneous society such as ours. It would be a terrific model for the US if we ever decided to go to a national curriculum/plan.

When CK was published it validated for me what I was teaching. 34 years ago I didn't have a committee of experts to develop a plan for what I was going to teach. I had to develop it myself. Fortunately, I was demanding enough and had a well-rounded enough education (UMass/Columbia/Harvard) to develop my own high quality plan.


Teachers who do not believe all kids can learn should find another profession. They do not belong in a classroom working with kids.

Classroom hidden structure is a good thing. It's mandatory in an individualized classroom. However, nothing about it is hidden. Ask any student in the room after two to three weeks of being there, what’s going on here, and they'll all be able to accurately explain it in its most infinite detail.

My classroom did not create different worlds for kids. It created an appropriate and comfortable PACE for each of them to traverse a universal world of learning.

Another way of looking at this type of classroom: Think back to when you were a student - from elementary school through college, even graduate school. Was there ever a time when you were bored because the teacher was going too slow or was teaching something you already knew how to do? Of course there was. At any other time did you ever find yourself overwhelmed because the teacher was going too fast or was teaching something and you had no idea what they were talking about? Probably. In my time as a student I experienced both of these worlds. After teaching for less than a year I decided this could not continue. I could not perpetuate this world for my kids. I had to develop a strategy that would better satisfy the students' world of learning and viola – I developed, what for me and my students, a better mouse trap.

It was two days ago when Kim asked for research on differentiated instruction. I tried to post a follow up on that topic, but for some reason it wouldn't go through. Here's one more try.

Instead of asking for research I would ask for some simple description. From his comments I know that Paul is committed to his perspective on teaching. I don't think anyone would argue that students are different and learn at different rates, and in different ways. So the desirability of differentiated instruction seems obvious. But how does it work out in practice?

I'm not sure we should expect much of research. Research usually means contrived experimentation, which works wonderfully well in some situations like the physical sciences, but less well in other situations. My judgment, admittedly subjective and intuitive, is that experiments in education are very seldom meaningful. They may be rigorous in some ways, but very loose in other ways. They are very seldom meaningful, in my opinion, because we don't ask the right questions. We don't ask the right questions because we don't have much of an idea of what goes on in everyday practice in real classrooms. We lack this very basic knowledge because we have never thought that plain simple description is science. I think it is. At least I think it is a beginning point of science, a necessary starting point.

So, Paul, would you consider putting together a few pages of simple narrative description of what you do. A five page description might be valuable. A twenty page description of what you do might be even more informative. Three hundred pages . . . . . Well that's a lot of work, and it might or might not be worth the effort.

I say this with some trepidation. I might be accused of setting a trap. You might put in a lot of effort, and produce a result that I would dismiss with a very brief scan. It is not my intent to set a trap for anyone, but I shouldn't promise that there is any magic in any particular description. My argument is that a lot of description is necessary as a foundation of any science, and we don't have much of it in education. But given that, it is still true that it's pretty hard to communicate. One person's profound truth is another persons meaningless platitude. One person's key to the universe may be another person's throw away trinket. One person's careful description may leave another person perplexed, and asking, "Sure, but what really goes on in your classroom?"

But I still think we need, and would benefit from, a lot more description of normal everyday classroom practice. For what it’s worth, I have attempted to provide a bit of description of what I do.

In several previous attempts to post this comment I provided links, but maybe that somehow prevented my comment from appearing. It's on my website, down near the bottom of the homepage, "Thoughts On My Teaching . . ." .

Paul and Margo and Brian,

I am reflecting upon each of your thoughts, and am always interested in how we humans make sense of our worlds. Brian, I have visited your website several times to read your ideas and really appreciate your clear thinking and writing style. Your real world examples from your classroom experiences, both as a student and as a teacher, are priceless!

A recurrent issue is how teachers document student progress, or the lack of it, so that accountability requesters are satisfied. Paul, I have been bored, intrigued, and all points in between, in many classrooms as a student. I do not recall ever having a teacher differentiate instruction for me. This is not to say that I wouldn't have learned more had this happened, but rather to point out that I survived, regardless (or perhaps, in spite of). But it is not about me. It is about teaching more effectively so that students can learn more, and so that teaching can be given the respect the profession deserves.

Although it is disgustingly western to point to research as important, I find myself going back to empirically validated instruction. I have previously pointed out the inequity and irony in expecting teachers to use research validated methods in our own classrooms, while simultaneously requiring interventions, in this case differentiation, that are not research validated. (Paul, I appreciate that your methods are not really differentiation, but rather your own unique creation that involves, in part, an emphasis on pacing.) I am also keenly concerned with being able to document what is happening in my classroom so that I have a clear rationale for what I am doing and why. This is both because I strive to improve my teaching practice, and so that I can maintain employment in our current NCLB frenzied world.

I am always interested in reading all types of research, theory, and anecdotal classroom experience information.


Very interesting website. You display both passion and character (what a character) which I always found to be two critical characteristics for successful teaching. Without these two people can be rather boring in a class of students and therefore, usually ineffective.

Will have to check to see if I can release the info you requested on this website. Yes, I have that chapter written, it's simply a matter of legalese.


I understand your demand for research to validate anything. I don't blame you a bit. I always wanted to know how my model matched up against other traditional teaching styles. I never had any research to verify what I was doing was productive or not. I simply viewed it from a pragmatic standpoint to decide if it was what was best for kids. On all counts, it appeared to pass muster.


I, too, would be interested in reading a specific description of your classroom practice.

I agree with you that a teacher needs passion and character. What better way to convey those qualities than through whole-class instruction? I am not a perfect teacher or anywhere close, but there are several things I do well when teaching a whole class: inspiring children to love literature, making them laugh with stories and dramatizations, presenting subject matter clearly, and posing questions that range in difficulty and complexity. Some of this is possible during "miniconferences"; some of it is not.

You recognize that Core Knowledge is more than a sequence of skills: "It's a quality plan, and a very welcome one at that, as to what should be taught and when." Yes, and it's even more than that. The material in the Core Knowledge curriculum is of interest to a wide range of ages and levels. I love reading the books.

One aspect of education is sequenced. This is a very important part. Another aspect goes beyond sequence; it is an introduction to things of meaning, beauty, paradox, urgency, emotion, and virtue. Core Knowledge addresses both aspects.

You may have found a superb method for teaching the sequenced aspect of education. I hold that whole-class instruction is better for the aspect that transcends sequence. How does one hear the poems if not as a class? How does one tackle an author's style or discuss a historical event?

I'm not trying to push whole-class instruction as the only way to teach. I certainly don't claim to be a better teacher than you. My point is modest: whole-class instruction has an important place in education, and we'd lose a lot if we gave it up.

Diana Senechal

I find it somewhat ironic that you write that "teachers document student progress, or the lack of it, so that accountability requesters are satisfied."

In my view, this is indeed the raison d'etre of much "research." But are the schools there to serve the educational and development needs of students, or the demands of accountability requesters for political cover? Your statement (and my own experience) indicates the latter.


Thank you for your comment and your support of Core Knowledge.

Optimally, I believe a school day should entail 25% to 30% whole group work and 70% to 75% individualized work. None of that should be carved in stone as it would probably vary from teacher to teacher depending on their comfort level individualizing as well as the cohort of kids they inherit each year.

I would never abandon whole class activities. Their benefits are infinite and often irreplaceable. I apologize if I led you to believe otherwise.

I'm sure you're an excellent teacher. As long as we all enjoy working with kids, remain current in our profession, and put in a good effort each day we can all be positive contributors to the schools in which we work.

Curious as to what you teach as well. Judging by your writing expertise you must have been an English major.

Good point.
To me the dynamic to which you're referring is the result of punishment, rather than reinforcement, based systems. In my opinion, school systems are generally notoriously punitive toward all involved.
My take on this: We urgently need a safer system.


Thank you for the clarification and the encouraging words. I have questions, but they will have to wait--it has been a long day, and I still have much to do!

To answer your curiosity and your guess: I have a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures and majored in Russian as an undergrad. I currently teach ESL and "Literature Through Theatre" to grades K through 5 at a Core Knowledge school.

Diana Senechal

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