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Seeing 'Reform' as More Than a Horse Race or Marketplace


Dear Diane,

A good narrative is worth a dozen treatises. For good and for bad, we are a species that needs a good story. It’s why simplified history has appeal—we always want to give it a good beginning, middle, and end with a useful moral lesson. We tend to seek, therefore, the “evidence” that supports our story line—and moral. It’s very hard to avoid, especially for those who are required to have a “story line” for every subject—such as presidents. In short, you can’t be President and not delegate, and you can’t delegate without a large measure of trust. He’s simply made the wrong leap of faith.

It’s also true that some story lines, and the facts that fit them, become so commonplace that they are hard to dislodge by counter-facts. Whenever I write a public essay claiming that our schools are not in a state of historic decline, fact-checkers call to ask for citations. They do not ask the same of those who claim the opposite. This is the way of all media, and the only thing worse would be the absence of public media to catch the mis-facts in Obama’s education speech.

I’m worried these days not only about the distortions you quote, but by the dismaying state of the American press. See The Nation story by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, on "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers." I grew up thinking the daily newspaper was part of the landscape of democracy. But both TV news and the daily press may be things of the past. That’s a loss for which democracy, above all, may pay a heavy price.

I may quarrel with journalists (why didn’t they catch Obama’s facts?), but it’s a lover’s quarrel. They’re not living up to their calling, and bloggers cannot replace them. This is a public policy issue just as critical to the 2lst Century as K-12 schooling. It’s part of the nation’s “education” crisis.

Using the current public schools as best we can to prepare future adults to exercise good judgment about whatever media is available (which hopefully will include writers they disagree with) is essential! K-12 test scores give us no clue to this. Sometimes our opponents' challenges are critical, including the readers of our letters! Schools should be about preparing us to dig deep enough to make sense of truth claims, to act even on incomplete knowledge, and later to change our minds.

I’m a reformist, not a revolutionary, because revolutions in human habits don’t work. Humans resist discontinuity and unpredictability. We may be “wired” that way? In any case, I’m sympathetic, not hostile, to caution. So I’m betting on exploring what “works” within the context of both shared ends and different ends—honoring both continuity and change at the same time. They needn’t be poised as enemies. We need to see how we can invent rules of the game that honor differences, that can fit within the larger tent. We need to gather long-term data about the trade-offs embedded in alternate models of schooling: the KIPPS and the Mission Hills. Maybe the best of each is what we seek.

While we cannot produce miracles even with expanded hours, days, or even resources, we can produce impressive results if we dare build a consensus among families, neighbors, students, and faculty—school by school. The tendency to fit our facts to our biases is inescapably part of our competition with each other. Maybe Hirsch, KIPP, the MET, and the Coalition can fit under a common tent even if they appear to be in contradiction to each other. What policies would be good for them all, might be the better question to ask, Diane.

This would be easier to do if the President of the United States used his bully pulpit to initiate such a conversation rather than repeat alarmist slogans. And yes, Diane, I suspect there’s a purpose in this constant reiteration of bleak facts and non-facts. (Otherwise, why is there no cheering over our incontrovertible high international test score standing in literacy, or why is the NAEP data on pre- and post-NCLB so rarely made public?) But since you and I are right about the value of public education (of course), we have a good shot at either out-arguing them or winning them over. Hopefully, during the coming four years—if we are bold enough to imagine that we can coexist—we can see “reform” as something beside a horse race or marketplace with winners and losers.


P.S. Mike Klonsky’s blog, Small Talk, points up more misleading data:

"Philanthro-capitalist, short-seller, and former AIG boss, Eli Broad, is interviewed in Forbes magazine as saying:

In the last 10 years, we've [The Eli Broad Foundation] done a lot in training superintendents. Bill Clinton told me when he was governor 16 years ago there was one charter school. Now there are 16,000. Now we have districts offering teachers bonus pay for improved student achievement. Things are improving.

[Klonsky:] Eli, do your homework before you speak. There are approximately 4,500 charter schools in the U.S.—not 16,000. Better redo your business plan."


I am also a reformist. I also believe a campaign and tools to help parents get more involved in our children's education would go a long way.

I got passionate about reform - of quality computer/video games that emphasize creativity and help kids discover the power and joy of lifelong reading.

I researched for many years, and then spun off to create games that provide a new way for children to learn on their own or with help. The key is they CAN learn themselves.

I'd love for you to look at our game, ItzaBitza (http://ItzaBitza.com). Please let me know if you are interested.

Margaret. CEO.

I suspect many in the media present reform--and just about anything else--as a horse race, because they are simply conforming to the times.

Investigative reporting is very expensive. Opinion is cheap. Blogs are gaining readership. Readers are growing more impatient with longer articles. Many newspapers are attempting to conform to these market conditions.

Even in our most respected newspapers, comic-book battles between heroic "reformers" and villainous members of the "establishment" are taking the place of careful, well-researched stories about efforts to improve schools. School improvement efforts often require trade-offs. They offer little immediate gratification, and that spoils the headline.

In this environment, it can become difficult to have rational discussions about education.

Diane and readers -

I agree with your advising work toward consensus in the evolution of policy on public education. The question -- and a rather urgent one at that -- is where does that consensus get worked out and whose voices are included?

As Diane has recently observed, and I think rightly with some alarm, the voices advocating for more charters, for mayoral takeovers, the voices of moneyed foundations, the P21s and the NCLBers are all "in the room" and "at the table" already.

But as evidenced by the Letters to the Editor in the March 16 New York Times here -
the citizenry and its educators generally are well out ahead of the (thusfar) more influential elites.

As I said, I agree that consensus is good and possible. But voices that speak to other more progressive perspectives need to be integral as well.

In my estimate, the Obama administration is both consensus-oriented and strategically "shy" about "legislating" consensus itself. Thus, their tendency (in matters other than fiscal and financial) to look to Congress to lead on issues such as health care, energy, and other domestic issues.

Therefore, I would propose that you, Deborah, along with Diane, coordinate efforts with others (several suggestions to follow) to urge Rep. George Miller, Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Sens. Kennedy and Dodd and the Senate HELP Committee, to help craft a major series of hearings on education policy.

I would ask that you coordinate efforts with others including The Forum for Education and Democracy, FairTest, Public Education Network, Pedro Noguera, CES, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Bold Approach and others you would know better than I.

Voices who speak for us must not allow themselves to sit on the sidelines simply cheering (or booing) or hoping for the best.

I believe we have an historic opportunity to help craft policy, to be included in the shaping of consensus and change. Make it happen in the Congress and the Administration, I think, will gladly support it.

Deborah -

Sorry. My comment above should, obviously, have been addressed to you... but you get the idea.



"But both TV news and the daily press may be things of the past. That’s a loss for which democracy, above all, may pay a heavy price." I read nine (sometimes more) newspapers a day online. That would have been impossible and/or financially prohibitive under the "print" editions. I consider this luxury of being able to read this many papers daily an enormous step TOWARDS democracy.

You also state, "We can see “reform” as something beside a horse race or marketplace with winners and losers." This country is imbued on being a free market economy. It's what's made us great. It's what made citizens the world over wake up every morning with one dream in mind - they would give almost anything to have the chance to come to America, work hard and make a decent living for themselves. I'd have to say there are not many stronger endorsements for our way of life than that, even under our current outrageous fiscal tsunami.


I share Paul's joy at being able to read a slew of different news sources every day, but I suspect Paul has a skill that we need to develop better in our students: he can discriminate between good information and bad (a critical literacy skill that is more valuable than ever in the Internet age).

Deb made the point that we all need to know we are our own fact-checkers and know how to do that (not to mention care to do that…). Paul, I can join you in saying that the demise of newspapers is a step towards democracy as long as I can add the caveat that we need to acknowledge what becomes more dangerous with the proliferation of low-quality sources that look just as good as high-quality ones. Inadequate regulation creates big risks, as our recent economic experience shows. Let’s accompany this market shift with compensatory strategies instead of merely apotheosizing the market forces that created the shift.

To go back to the recent discussion on Standardization, I agree that this critical literacy is infinitely more valuable to focus on than what can more easily be assessed on a multiple-choice test – the model I like resembles Deb’s Coalition for Essential Schools portfolio, something that defies standardization. Deb says that "humans resist discontinuity and unpredictability" – about which I know she’s right – which makes the reform instinct in me say to myself, "Self, how can our school system incentivize a greater acceptance of discontinuity and unpredictability, a respect for the scientific method, a non-dogmatic and pro-curiosity skepticism about reductionism, a joy in developing and assessing possible theses?"

I want to see us try to tweak school design with an eye to fulfilling our educational philosophy, instead of starting with the school design and hoping to see good results come from that restructuring. It’s the "backward design" model; that seems sounder to me than what dilettante politicians have to say when they promote simplified, reductionist "solutions."

I very much appreciate Carl's comments about avoiding simplified, reductionist "solutions," and the dangers of standardization.

Isn't pushing for a standardized, national curriculum a lot like telling all farmers that they must grow the one crop that is the most profitable at that moment?

We know the dangers of that--it's unsustainable for the land, it would crash the market, planned economies largely don't work, and it would waste the enormous diversity of resources that exist in the country.

With a standardized, national curriculum, too few people would be dictating to everyone what they should teach and "learn" (quotes denote disparity between the policy and what students would actually remember and make meaning from), the diversity of regional knowledge is eliminated, the possibilities for teacher and student creativity and innovation are severely curbed, and diversity is seen as a burden rather than an essential focus of education for democratic citizenship.

As Carl notes, education should follow a philosophy or vision, so it shouldn't be "do whatever." But the vision should value differences and keep flexibility and responsiveness to students, teachers, and individual schools part of the plan. This is why fixing what is wrong with local school control should be at the heart of reform, not coming to some agreement on what "all students should be taught and be tested on." That wouldn't be much different from agreeing on "what is the best crop that all farmers should grow."

I can give an example of what I fear would be a very negative result from the adoption of national standards in education. In my field, math, there is a lot of disagreement about the best way to do things. Thus we have "math wars". On the one side in the math wars is the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) and the pedagogy they advocate. This pedagogy is extensively (if not sensibly) developed in the "Standards" published in 2000 (Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, I think is the actual name of the document, or PSSM). On the other side in the math wars are legions of dissatisfied parents who worry that their children are not getting a good education in mathematics. There are many organized groups of these parents, as evidenced by their websites. (check out nychold.com as a starting point, or mathematicallycorrect.com) If we get to the point that we adopt some official nationwide standards or practices for math, there is no doubt in my mind that NCTM would win out. Congress, and the public, would think that they must be the experts, so they must be put in charge. But I think this would be a very bad thing for students. The math wars would intensify, simply because the frustrations would intensify. Many teachers would become "resistant teachers", as has been discussed before.

Advocates of national standards would like to lock in excellence. So would I. But I think it is far more likely that we would lock in mediocrity. Matthew, in the comment above, speaks of the dangers of telling farmers what crop they have to grow. I see the same danger in telling all teachers what math they must teach.

I realize that we could adopt "standards" without mandating the methods used to attain those standards. But I'm not sure Congress, or the Department of Education, or the general public understands the distinction. It can certainly be argued, on the basis of the PSSM, that the NCTM doesn't.

Paul, The newspaper "experts" claim that the revenue that comes from internet (much less blogging) couldn't sustain the kind of on-site world-wide reporting we are accustomed to. or the investigative reporting--such as it is--we need. Independent magazines were already hit by an enormous increase in postal rates, and are struggling with those. Should we worry about this?

Re national standards. I think Matthew K and Brian Rude and I are on the exact same page. But I'd like to add to Brian's point re math. I thought that the math reforms that burst upon us from the mathematical world in the 60's was mazing--but that the worst thing about them was the speed at which they tried to get everyone on board. It meant teachers were not converted--to start with, much less the parents and lay public. (And in practice it also had flaws.) Teachers were not only not converted but they didn't "get it"--for good reason.. One can't teach well what you yourself are unconvinced of--and surely not in a top-down system of teaching, in which to boot most K-6 teachers knew little about math. I explored it alongside my students and actually became a math fan in the process. But that's because I went all the way back to what I had missed in Kindergarten!

But standards are problem because of WHAT we teach in math too.. And that, I don't think, is just a matter for mathematicians to decide. For example, the late David Hawkins (the physicist I often make reference to) argued that size and scale, proportion, and odds were related subjects of critical importance to 2lst century thinking--and are seriously counter-intuitive. They represented, he argued, a critical barrier to both scientific and lay thinking, especially about large quantities. He argued for a great deal more focus in that sphere--which we call "statistics". Staring earlier and more deeply ever after.

Like many other topics we teach in school, I hope we have opportunities for those interested to explore such fundamental shifts in both subject matter and pedagogy. Ditto for the usual Geology/Biology/Chemistry/Physics sequence in secondary education. Given modern science this may no longer make sense, but changing it would require a lot of forethought and gain, and should come from the bottom up--with voluntary subjects trying out different approaches.

I note that the latest revisionists (conservatives) in my field of history are now claiming that Roosevelt's interventions postponed recovery. Should equal time be addressed to this in our history books? This is just on example. The impact of our survey apptoach in K-12 education is defended on Hirsch'ian gounds--you first have to get the lay of the land, the terminology, dates, epochs before you argue theories. But this approach to history for 12 years has an impact on how we as citizens see the world--without the "as ifs", the playfulness that enables us to better respect alternate interpretations of the present as well.

In short, those of us who built the CPESS curriculum stuck to Ted Sizer's dictum of "less is more" for a philosophical reason that can't be settled by a committee of experts.

Hmmm. I should save this for my letter to Diane.


The thing is, "reform" is as metaphorical as "horse race" and "market place." The high school math and science "reform" projects of the 1960's failed because the profs involved never modified their original thinking in any respect. When the instruction didn't work as expected, it was inconceivable to them that they might not have their heads on straight.

This academic and governmental hubris has continued in it's wobbly way through Goals 2000,on to "programs based on scientifically-based research" in NCLB, and now with the spate of nostrums mandated in the Ed Stim package.

We know no more about how to reliably teach kids--anything--than we did in the 1960s or earlier. And there's been no advances in educational R&D methodology because there's been no attention devoted to this fundamental matter.

In other service sectors, high value is placed on the "method of invention." In education we don't even recognize the concept.

In el hi education, "we have nothing to reform but, reform, itself."

The el hi enterprise is not in crisis, and the US is not doing badly in the educational horse race or the marketplace. But neither is the enterprise all that it can be. The kind of thinking you, via Hawkins, applied to math applied to school math should be applied to all other el-hi instructional domains.

More such thinking is needed!

When Dick says "The high school math and science "reform" projects of the 1960's failed because the profs involved never modified their original thinking in any respect." my gut feeling is that he hit the nail on the head, but I admit I have nothing more than my gut feeling to go on. Has anyone ever written a history of these reforms, especially the "new math"? As a math student in the 60's, and a sometime math teacher after that, I was sort of peripherally aware of these things. I know that set theory was enthusiastically promoted. It was going to do magic. We'll start teaching it in kindergarten and everything will be wonderful. I didn't take college algebra as a freshman, as I started my college math with calculus, but I was somewhat aware of what was being taught under that title. My wife took it before we met, and she describes it as being heavy on set theory and not making a whole lot of sense. The only residue of set theory left in the college algebra I now teach is a bit of set language and notation. So what happened to the "new math"? Does anyone know?

There was one part of the new math that I really believed in, bases other than ten. It seemed to me, and I think it was conventional wisdom for a time, that learning to work in bases other than ten would enable a student to get a broad perspective on math that was valuable. However that topic seems to have disappeared. I haven't heard anything about it for decades. My hypothesis is that it could be valuable, but only for students who have the time to go into it pretty deeply. I presume that is not usually the case. If you can spend half of the sixth grade studying bases other than ten, I think the students, the capable ones anyway, would get a valuable perspective of our number system. But anything less, I suspect, would cause more confusion than enlightenment (the "minimum teachable structure" idea).

I also agree with Dick when he says, "We know no more about how to reliably teach kids--anything--than we did in the 1960s or earlier." And the reason for that, in my humble opinion, and as I have said before, is that the ed school mentality is to take an ideology as its foundational basis. If you start and end with an ideology, a blind faith and ideological commitment to something like "children have a natural desire to learn", then you don't need to go into classrooms and watch experienced teachers to find out and analyze what they actually do.

So what have we learned from the new math of the sixties? Very little, apparently. And what have we learned from Goals 2000? Apparently even less. And Project Follow through? I'd like to hear a lot more on that.

Deborah, you write:

"While we cannot produce miracles even with expanded hours, days, or even resources, we can produce impressive results if we dare build a consensus among families, neighbors, students, and faculty—school by school."

How about a "provisional consensus" instead?

I am deeply suspicious of consensus--if it is consensus over the wrong things, or in the wrong spirit, it can create pressure to abandon or change well-founded principles and practices.

Provisional consensus would translate into the following: "I see the need to arrive at a limited agreement for the good of our students. I am willing to set aside my differences for the time being without giving them up or pretending they don't exist. I also expect us to observe closely the effects of our current approach and discuss its benefits and pitfalls openly."

We would thus preserve a variety of perspectives while also uniting in action as needed.

Now, is this possible? I don't know. But it seems preferable to forced agreement or eternal warring. It doesn't begin to solve all problems or questions--first and foremost, which issues merit provisional consensus and which do not?--but it would help once we chose a few.

Diana Senechal


What you are calling "provisional consensus," is something that we used to call "appeal to a superordinate goal." In other words, we cannot reasonably expect everyone to embrace the outcome of every decision whole-heartedly. We can expect adherance to a broader set of principles (or as we used to say, the "struggle" with implementing those principles) as a defining term of relationship together. But there are times when various camps or individuals believe fervently in doing something one way or another. Particularly in a community that supports the existence of such diversity of belief. When these deep-seated beliefs come into conflict, it is sometimes necessary to take a step back and take a broader view of what it is that the community is trying to accomplish. The broader goal of educating children, or operating a school, for instance. There comes a time, after all, when a decision must be made for practical reasons. Agreeing to move forward may very well include an agreement of one party to be supportive, particularly with ongoing evaluation of the results of the action (or curriculum, or pedagogy). But this requires a broader commitment to a "super ordinate goal" which may be the goal of operating a school, or of involving teachers in decision-making.

I recall a teacher I knew once who worked with her students in this way. The class (and I believe that it was a segregated class of students with special needs) had determined to take an outing together. The teacher gave them broad latitude in planning--as long as everyone committed to participation. Many students wanted the class to go swimming. Some female students had religious prohibitions against swimming in a co-ed group. They went through a long period of negotiations and finally worked out a system (agreed to by parents) by which the female students would participate in swimming without the requirement that they be in the pool at the same time as any boys.

Needless to say, building trust within a community, as the undergirding of the willingness to risk consensus with a group, is a long-term and ongoing piece of the work that is required. Just as a mathematics curriculum cannot be implemented without consistent and in-depth training of the teachers who must implement it, so it is with consensus. It takes a serious commitment, from all parties.

The question is "consensus on WHAT." The swimming anecdote is a good example of consequential consensus. This is much easier to achieve than it is to try to change the kids' belief systems about co-ed swimming. The consensus "worked" and a good time was had by all.

The education "wars" typically involve clashes in belief systems that maintain differing ways of going about a matter. But the war is rhetorical and the instructional protocols are never put to empirical test. So el-hi instruction doesn't evolve. It just drifts.

Brian's points about "set theory" and "bases other than 10" represent a different form of consensus. The math gurus of the time viewed the discipline from the top-down. They found set theory very meaningful personally, and took it for granted that kids would also. It didn't work out that way, so math ed people appealed to a lot of "superordinate goals" joined together by rhetorical "strands." Consensus was achieved, but it was not consequential, and there has been only drift, no evolution.

I agree with Brian that recognition of number bases other than 10 warrant instructional consideration. Binary and hexadecimal systems would probably be sufficient. These underlie all computer software, which is a total mystery to most. The concepts and workings involved are well within the capabilities of middle school kids to grasp.

This leads into systems theory and a lot of other interesting topics. And so on.

A 2008 book that has not received the attention it deserves (I'm delinquent in writing a review) is "Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track" by Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg. The book is filled with wisdom, that I'll illustrate with one quote: "Schools should enable people to go where they want to go, not where others want them to." That contention requires a lot of elaboration, and Ackoff and Greenberg thoughtfully elaborate the point in concrete terms.

Thought BD readers might be interested in a New York Times editorial published this morning, 4/9/09.


The $100 billion in federal stimulus money that Congress has set aside for education could get the nation’s flagging school reform effort — and its schools — back on the right track. For that to happen, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will need to tighten the preliminary eligibility guidelines he issued last week.

Skip to next paragraph
Times Topics: Education and Schools | Arne DuncanThe purpose of a $49 billion stabilization fund, which is part of the education stimulus, is to protect schools from damaging cuts and layoffs while preserving the momentum toward reform. Mr. Duncan made a wise move by requiring states to finally publish data on their teacher evaluation systems — and to show how student achievement is weighted in those evaluations.

If properly spelled out and enforced, this provision would allow parents to see that most teacher evaluation systems are fraudulent and that an overwhelming majority of teachers are rated as “excellent” even in schools where the children learn nothing and fall far below state and national standards.

The guidelines also contain far too many loopholes. Unless they are closed, Mr. Duncan could be squandering the rare opportunity the stimulus has given him to demand fundamental changes. Under the guidelines, states could get two-thirds of the money in the first round — in some cases as much as 90 percent — merely by making “assurances” that they will change destructive policies, like shunting the least-qualified teachers into schools serving the poorest and most ill-prepared children.

Only in the second round of financing will the states be required to provide detailed analyses of what they do and how they operate. Federal officials say this was necessary to get the money out in a hurry, but it costs Washington the leverage it needs to speed reforms.

Consider the way the states have gamed the crucial provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that requires them to place a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom. The states have simply reclassified inadequate teachers as well qualified, without demanding that they pass competency exams in the fields they teach.

Some members of Congress are also upset about guidance language that has been widely read to mean that the states can actually shift money from education to other areas. The final version of the guidelines should make crystal clear how the states can and cannot spend this money. Mr. Duncan should also make it unequivocally clear that states that flout the law will forfeit stimulus money and become ineligible for any share of the nearly $5 billion competitive grant fund that Congress has placed under his control.

Many states and school systems will want to claim federal money while preserving the disastrous status quo. Mr. Duncan will need to resist those pressures while pushing the country toward the educational reforms it desperately needs.

The contrast between the way the Administration and the Congress are treating the nation's financial institution and educational institution is astounding.

Financial corporations are being bailed out and their toxic assets bought up. Public schools are being expected to "reform" themselves while they are facing state and local financing shortfalls and to do so by spending the money fast and not investing in anything that will create sustained costs.

NCLB set public schools up for "failure" with statistically impossible AYP requirements. These are still in force and impossible "reform thyself" mandates are being added on.

I do not think that these are either President Obama's or Secretary Duncan's intentions, but they are getting very faulty Educational Intelligence--from unaccountables in former Administrations who created the failed policy that led to the present condition.


What is "statistically impossible" about a reduction by 10% every year in kids who fall below proficient (particularly with the freedom given to states to define "proficient")? This is pretty dangerous language to be thrown around, particularly given the high percentages of kids in some schools and districts who don't make it to proficient. It strikes me as irresponsible to center discussion on whether or not it is realistic to aim for 100% when we're only reaching 30%. Maybe when we've hit 90% across the board a discussion of whether the remaining 10% can or cannot make it (and under what conditions) and what we need to do about it.


The notion that "ALL" children would get to proficient by 2014 was nothing more than the rhetorical congruence to the legislation's name - wasn't it? No one honestly believed that every child in America would get there, but the law's name merely implied that we, as educators, should not give up on any individual student.

In addition, most reauthorization proposals have intimated that growth models will replace AYP. The administration has already doled out $250 million to states to establish data systems that will track the individual progress of students from year to year.

You also state "...Obama and Duncan are getting very faulty Educational Intelligence - from unaccountables." I believe the "unaccountables" are actually giving Obama and Duncan some very responsible advice. The “intelligence” may not be coming from the educational establishment because they’re the ones who were responsible for the reprehensible state of our public schools prior to education reform. So Obama and Duncan, like the authors of No Child Left Behind, aren’t likely to begin listening despite protestations to the contrary.

Paul - Who is the "educational establishment" that was responsible for the reprehensible state of our public schools exactly?

Since so many programs have been put in place to "fix" schools no one seems really responsible for what happens anymore. If as a teacher I am following "The Program" then it is the program's fault if students aren't doing well, if I'm the publisher of the program it's lack of training in the program or the teachers are doing it wrong, ... and so on. Teachers (especially in elementary at risk schools) have little to no say as to what or how they teach ... they just follow programs and are monitored mostly on just staying on script and program ... the art of teaching is dying as we watch.

Primary teachers in my building chuckle when they get student teachers from the university that come in with lessons they designed themselves ... that's not allowed, you have to follow the program. You have to teach a science lesson? ... um it has to be a reading lesson about science ... uh same with social studies by the way ... and art ... but you could do math, we will be on lesson 32 next Wednesday, make sure to follow the pacing guide!


The current situation in our schools of outliers attempting to micromanage exactly what goes on in our classrooms could not be any worse than what was going on in our schools prior to education reform – pandemonium – no plan. However, I also believe the notion of state departments of education in combination with the business community and state legislatures attempting to mandate scripted lessons for teachers is an attempt at reform gone very bad.

I believe in some way this parallels what's going on with General Motors. One of Obama's big three priorities – energy, is being addressed via one of Detroit’s obvious failures. GM has demonstrated their persistent reluctance at getting away from producing their fleet of gas-guzzling aircraft carriers (Deanli, Tahoe, Yukon XL, Suburban). Obama has stated unequivocally this country MUST dramatically alter its energy policy. The Obama administration has given GM substantial monetary aid and to date GM has not satisfied the new administration. So for openers Obama has terminated Rick Wagoner, GM's CEO, and threatened GM with bankruptcy if they cannot demonstrate some kind of major paradigm shift within the next sixty days. This is a quasi-attempt at nationalizing our auto industry by satisfying Obama's new energy policy of the US minimizing its dependence on foreign oil. This is something we knew about back in the early 70's under the Nixon administration and not one president in almost forty years even lifted a finger to address this problem, until now.

Obama is essentially on the same path with another of his big three priorities – education. He appears to be on a path to nationalize our schools. I'm not saying he's necessarily wrong either. I absolutely support national standards, exams, and a common definition for "proficient" for all fifty states and the District of Columbia. He has stated he wants growth models to replace annual yearly progress, more charter schools, additional early childhood education, merit pay for teachers, additional funding for students in financing their higher education, etc. I am personally in favor of most or all of his priorities. He has established an agenda with increased federal funding from Washington as the carrot and defined parameters as to what he wants these new monies to be used for.

The educational establishment (teachers, administrators, local school boards, faculty from education schools and teacher colleges, unions, etc.) who have essentially been left out of the loop for the first quarter century of education reform are now being even further disenfranchised from any meaningful dialogue.

I have no idea how it's all going end but it appears the educational establishment will not be allowed back into the conversation anytime soon. Their past performance proved to be too predictable, too tired, and grossly ineffective.

Hang on folks in the health care industry, especially HMO’s and the insurance larcenists. You’re next.

That last comment by Nev is very interesting. It describes the opposite of what I experienced as a 7-12 teacher many years ago. I always taught in very small schools and was the only teacher in my subject. I was the authority. Thus I was free to do things as I saw fit. It did not occur to me that teaching could be any other way. Now when I read of a very different situation, as in Nev's comment, it makes me wonder. Was I a bad teacher because I was accountable to no one? Or was I good teacher because I was free to do things the best way? Would I have been a better teacher if I had to follow some imposed script or curriculum? I don't know. I can well imagine that in many ways I was not too good. I was not a natural as a teacher and I was never very good with discipline. But I think I did some things well. The essential question at the moment, however, is whether freedom or control brings out the best in a teacher, especially a new teacher. This question is very relevant to the issue of having national standards. Standards mean control, not freedom.

I want to describe several variations of curriculum that I tried. In the mid seventies I went back to college to study science for a few years. That endeavor never led to much, but I took enough science courses to get certified to teach 7-12 science, which I did for only one year before quitting teaching once again. That year I taught 7th and eighth grade science, ninth grade earth science, tenth grade biology, and chemistry. I mostly followed the textbooks we had, but I made a couple of departures.

I spent a few weeks with the seventh grade teaching about cars. I brought in the shop manual for my Plymouth and taught about engines, transmissions, electrical systems, starters, differentials, cooling systems, etc. This seemed to go well. The students showed genuine interest I thought. It was very academic. The only "hands on learning" was the one day we went out to the parking lot and looked under the hood of my car to identify the parts we had been learning about.

Was this a good thing or a bad thing? Under the situation that Nev describes it would be totally unacceptable. I thought what I did was a good thing. I thought the learning was worthwhile, and the process was enjoyable.

With the eighth grade class I made a similar departure from the text book. I spent several weeks teaching electricity. We learned about batteries, generators, conductors, resisters, switches, fuses, and most important of all, circuits. We analyzed closed circuits, open circuits, short circuits, and series and parallel circuits. Was this a good thing? I thought it was. I took it for granted that it was. It never occurred to me to question whether I should or should not be doing it. But, once again, under the constraints that Nev describes, it would be totally out of the question.

And here is another example. When I was growing up in a small town in Missouri our school made the decision to devote the entire year of eighth grade science to a study of agriculture. I presume that was a decision of the school board, but I don't know any details. All I know was that in eighth grade we studied agriculture for science. We learned about guernseys and jerseys and holsteins, about crops, fields, plowing and fertilizers, and weather, and lots of other stuff that I forgot. I think this idea was instituted a few years before I hit the eighth grade, and how many years it lasted I don't know. Was this a good idea? Was it a bad idea. Obviously somebody thought it was a good idea. I never gave much thought to it. It was about as interesting as anything else we learned in school, and I never heard of any complaints about it. But again, I presume, it would be out of the question in the situation Nev describes. Would it also be out of the question if we had national standards? I suppose it would.

I think it was Deborah who not long ago described teaching about snails. I think I would prefer cars and electricity to snails, but I'm sure I would find snails very interesting too. Should all of this curricular adventuring be prohibited, in the interests of maintaining standards? I don't think so. Obviously my examples can't prove anything one way or the other, but I think we are far ahead to let teachers be teachers. We would like to lock in excellence for everyone, but I'm cynical enough to think we have much to lose by trying too hard. I think frustration and mediocrity are most likely to be locked in.

So, Paul Hoss, I do not agree when you say that micromanagement could not be worse than what we have now. I think it could be a lot worse. I think Nev described it. I agree there's no grand plan in a system of local control, but there are many little plans. I may not like some of those plans, and others may not like some of my plans, but there have always been plenty of plans. Among those plans there was also a bit of common sense, sensitivity to local values, knowledge of local situations, and opportunism and initiative to make do with what we have. There was also accountability. Students were accountable to teachers, teachers were accountable to administrators, administrators were accountable to boards, and everyone was accountable to the public, escpecially to parents. Some reformers are quick to dismiss that kind of accountability, but I am not one of them.


The first sentence in your last paragraph confuses me a bit. You state, "...micromanagement could not be worse than what we have now?" What we have now according to Nev, Diana, and others is micromanagement. Scripted lessons for teachers? That’s absurd and an over reaction to what we had prior to A Nation At Risk and NCLB.

The problem I had with our schools prior to education reform was there was no promulgated plan anywhere except from local school boards and textbook publishers. A September 2005 New York Times editorial categorized it as leadership by "default" in our public schools. It troubled me that prior to education reform and state standards, kids from Scarsdale, Beverly Hills, and Shaker Heights had access to a great plan with well thought out direction while kids from the Bronx and Detroit had garbage. I know I'm a bit idealistic on this issue but I want national standards so kids from every school district can have equal access to a common body of knowledge. If teachers want to go above and beyond this, they have only one restriction – time.

If we adhere to fifty different sets of state standards I'm afraid some of the neediest of our students could be shortchanged. Kids from Mississippi deserve the same chance in life as kids from Massachusetts. I would feel much better about the life chances of youngsters from Montgomery, Alabama or Nashville, Tennessee if we had national standards, a national plan for what every student should be learning at each grade level and in each discipline. I'd like these students to at least have a chance in life if they were somehow able to overcome all their personal obstacles and put in a good effort at school.

Paul, I may be misinterpreting your words, or perhaps you are misinterpreting mine. The phrase about micromanagement is from the first paragraph of your comment right after Nev's comment. I presume the "outliers" you speak of would be government and bureaucrats, following the mandates brought in with NCLB. So I presume the micromanagement you speak of is the control that Nev describes. What Nev describes strikes me as a lot worse than the education I grew up with and the education I knew as a teacher.

Or maybe I'm missing something.


Sorry for the confusion. Today's scripted lessons are an "over reaction" to the condition of our schools prior to education reform.

The problem with schools prior to education reform was the lack of any organized plan. The problem with our schools under education reform has been an outside bureaucracy’s attempt to micromanage our schools, to the point of absurdity. Both sets of circumstances leave a great deal to be desired.

Hopefully Obama/Duncan can lead us in a more rational direction.

Might be absurd to you, Paul, but I've seen instances where scripted curriculum would be a vast improvement over reading out of textbooks. No kidding. And I have scripted science that my son LOVES (Windows on Science).

I'm glad you speak for all of us - NOT.

Personally, I've given up on consensus. It won't happen. I've shifted to Christensen's Disrupting Class theory. In a nutshell, Christensen is not an educator but he looked into why the education system seems broken. Essentially, you can't fix the system within the system. What will likely happen is a market that doesn't serve students directly will be filled. I see the One Laptop Per Child Sugar system as one that might start fulfilling needs for educational instruction not easily available or well made for certain students (think students with disabilities, Arabic language studies). This type of system will expand until much teaching is given via computer (which is individualized) and less via teacher.

Even though I'm a proponent of Direct Instruction, which is as teacher driven as can be, I find there might be truth to Christensen's theory. Schools will be changed from the outside, very slowly, by meeting niche needs and expanding.

I also read Super Crunchers by Ayres. He shows how taking lots of data and crunching that data can help the market determine better products. Well isn't that a match made in heaven - individualization attainable via computer-based learning tuned to efficiency by crunching data from the curriculum on the computer itself.

I've decided that I need to think outside the box and work outside the system. The ed system (school boards, principles, schools of ed, TSPC) are all things that stand IN THE WAY OF change.

It's the nerds. The nerds will save us. Honestly, I never thought I would say that.


Scripted lessons ARE absurd - to me. It's only an opinion not universal orthodoxy. The extreme of not trusting a teacher (most of whom are more than marginally vetted before hired) to be able to think for themselves and decide what's best for his/her students is beyond absurd. It's borderline lunacy. It undermines any level of trust in people hired to teach.

Now, for a teacher who has difficulty walking and chewing bubble-gum at the same time, scripted lessons might be the ticket. However, most teachers I've worked with would be grossly insulted to be told (pretty much) what to say in teaching a lesson in a subject they're state certified to teach.

Come on Dickey, kid. You’re usually a very delightful/positive participant to this blog.


I have been reading Christensen as well. I don't think he would agree with your suggestion that consensus is not important. In fact, he has one of those neat quadrant charts that plots agreement about goals along one access and agreement about methods along another. He suggests that we (Americans, with regard to education) are in the lower left quarter--lacking agreement about either goals or methods. This is a quadrant that really needs some drastic something or other to be able move/improve.

I have seen some that suggest that this kind of situation calls for a rather heavy-handed shake-up of some kind (such as that provided by the implementation of a scripted approach) in order to build some common experience of success (to bring folks in line with regard to methodology). One of the difficulties of looking at the business experience of disruptive innovation (as Christensen points out) is that in business the "reform" takes place when a disruptive way of doing things takes over the market share previously "owned" by the folks who were doing it the old way. In public education, we only have one company. This requires perhaps some dedicated resource somewhere on the side to the development of new ways of doing things (which a few businesses have successfully pulled off).

I tend to agree that in education, computerized coursework will develop to serve the "leftovers and leftouts" such as students with disabilities, inconvenient lives and drop-outs. We are already seeing this in "credit recovery" programs and some of the charter companies that target drop-outs. Their products have started out by being little more than online work-books. At the higher ed level, however, online coursework is becoming very refined, and recognized as the equivalent of brick and mortar schools.

Where I think that this will truly build and be revolutionary, will be in the area of utilizing formative assessment to tailor the "what comes next" for students. Christensen talks early on about the step that manufacturing takes when they reach the level of standardized and interchangeable parts (he talks about the ability of Dell computer to build individually cusomized computers--I recall the amazing ability of automobile assembly lines to build a car based on an individual customer's choice of color and options). Imagine if in a very linear subject like mathematics, we had building blocks that reliably assured that the components of one school would fit into the components of another. Could reading be taught and measured in the same way? Writing? If not writing, what about knowledge of the parts of speech?

Might we not reach an ability to truly hone in on all of a student's strengths and areas of challenge, ensuring that they are always working within their zone of proximal development (where growth is possible)? And if we are able to use computers to do the kinds of things that computers do well (building simulations, tracking data, etc), would that free up teachers to do the kinds of things that require a human being. Building relationships with students and their families. Sharing the experience of literature. Asking questions? Wondering? Creating?

A few thoughts.

Paul Hoss: As one who spent days upon days substituting in urban schools, believe me: it was never "anything goes"--except when the teacher couldn't hack it at all, or when subs were there (which was not infrequent). Almost every district had a prescribed curriculum--although rarely scripted. We live through very different 60s, 70s and 80s!! Second: you may hate the status quo, the "establishment: et al (your language is so 60s!), but I'm hoping you'll also learn something from the history of impatient reformers.

Dick S. I lovd taching different "bases". Actually once (and if) kids czatch on, they can't stop--and want to invent all kinds of base sytems. I think the probem in New Math was the failure to work aongside of patient reformers. They thought they could topple the "status quo" by fiat. Alas.

Consensus! I like "provisional consensus" Diane S. But actually consensus is a word I'm wary of except for fairly small face-to-face situations. Operating Mission Hill largely o consensus is quite different than imagining a to-down district-wide consensus--or even a bottom-up one. Then consensus usually just means the stuff we too weary to question or explore or keep up with.

I'm playing with how we could have a "system" of exceptions--how we can accept KIPPS an Coalition Schools as part of a public "system" with public over-view. What are the limits of publicness"--nondiscrimination, secular, transparent--no secrets, etc. Maybe a few common "commitments"--to democracy, the health of the community and parent and faculty "voice"??

Keep this strand going. Thanks.



Again, my quote in reference to this issue is from the New York Times. There are approximately 14,000 school districts in this country. That many different "prescribed" curricula lend itself to an enormous variety in quality. While I don't worry too much about the districts on the positive end of the quality scale the districts at the other end are cause for concern. Education reform has at least dwindled this number to fifty, which for me has proven to be still forty-nine too many.

If you have an alternative suggestion for “educational establishment” I'd be more than open to hearing/using it. The 60’s were a formative era of my life so please bear with me.

I don't "hate" the status quo. I simply dislike where we are in public education. The reform efforts on the horizon show some promise.

Deb thought my recent experiences on the road having discussions about a new book, HOW LINCLN LEARNED TO READ, might be useful on this strand. So here goes:



To drive up through New England – past the Merrimac River, past Lawrence and Lowell – is to think about Thoreau and all the factory girls whose names were once known to friends and family and are now considered nameless.
This isn’t the green New England of summer or the blazing of fall. It’s early spring, and there’s only the first reddish blush on the tips of the maples. Through the bare limbs, farms stick out on the tops of knobby hills, highways cut through pink granite, boarded-up ice cream shacks wait for warm weather and the first tourists.
It’s hard to picture the wilderness that settlers broke, but they did – right here – and almost as soon as they had, started hiring teachers and establishing schools to pass on … what? Wisdom, although who ever knows exactly what that is? It’s more like they were passing on tradition, establishing old benchmarks of knowledge in a new land.
As important as cutting down the big trees and wrestling the roots out of the rocky soil was making sure that books were available and a little time for kids to learn. That was a kind of seeding, huh, after the plowing of the land? And this second and third growth forest, these asphalt roads, those condominiums, are the results of that planting.


Up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire – a harbor town – there’s the protection of the breakwaters and an old lighthouse off in the distance. But beyond that a kind of wild loneliness. And that loneliness seeps inland, among the salt marshes and the mud flats. Docks have been built in the thin channels, lobster boats tied to them. They exist because of a whole encyclopedia of knowledge having to do with tides and weather, ropes and wood-working: a mostly unwritten encyclopedia, passed on and learned firsthand.


Highlights of the discussion at the RiverRun Bookshop on Congress Street.
The mother who stops at the edge of the crowd, listening, not sitting, till she finally speaks. She came in to buy her daughter a book ‘cause she’s been having trouble learning how to read. She stopped not because the book’s called How Lincoln Learned to Read, but because of the conversation, the Q and A. Her daughter, she says, is great at other things: the training wheels came off first day, for example, and she’s biking all over now; and she’s a wonderful dancer. Why should school define her by the thing she isn’t good at: reading?
A retired college football coach. He talks about sitting at faculty meetings and realizing he and his staff might be the best teachers in the place. Why? Because they listen to the kids and watch them and come to understand that some learn by memorizing the playbook, others need to run the plays over and over, others want to talk it out with their teammates, but all can learn – and have to – for the team to win.
The pretty young mother whose children had been going to a Waldorf school but now has to shift to public education because of the economy. She’s eager for them to get out of the “bubble” of private education, she says, but scared it means a shift from learning to learning how to take tests.
The retired history teacher who says his best classes were when he didn’t say, “Open your texts” but listened to the kids talk. And eventually, one would say, “Hey, is this stuff in Chapter Six true?”
Finally, the young woman who says her father was a factory worker and had no formal schooling, but always pointed out how the world worked: how spiders made webs or the stars turned. She never liked school that much but was always curious, liked learning. She ended up with a double major in anthropology and religious theory. Today, she’s one of the local cops in town. Do those majors help her on the job? Of course! In her police work, she doesn’t just ask what people have done but why.


Margo - I have given up on consensus because I don't think it is achievable. So I would rather put my effort into the educating part. I'm involved in Sugar Labs. They are the desktop overlay for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO machine. They exist because even if the XO bombs (due to the inability to distribute in less than 100 quantity), the desktop, along with educational activities, can live on - even on top of other operating systems (Windows, Linux, Macintosh). So far the activities are not stupendous but the potential they hold is amazing. Using a simple language such as Python they have developed a framework for future programs. Plus it will be modular. And free. And modifiable. The Typing Turtle program is worth it's weight in gold alone. Well, maybe not the program but the weight of the programmer, Wade :)

I then thought: well, we're making free, modifiable programs that nerds are expanding and making use of in other ways to make more programs. What if one way of making use of this open source technology is to use scripted material to teach a student - with images - short videos, etc. Along the way, the student will be asked various question that will elicit very short 1-2 word answers. Speech to text (there is some open source) will determine if the answer is correct. If not, the program will go through a error correction procedure. This will keep the student from learning the wrong answer. Along the way, data is collected on how well the student is doing. Those students that need more exemplars will get them. Students that are one trial learners won't get bored. In addition, the computer teaching script will be honed from data. If too many students are not getting answers correct after being taught, then the question needs to be examined and possibly changed. This is the Super Crunching part (Ayres).

I'm saying I think we have this technology right now. We need money and planning. It can be done over a long period of time without lots of money (look at how many out of work programmers there are out there). Unfortunately, I'm impatient.

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