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Why 'Washington-Driven Standardization' Is NOT Best


Dear Deborah,

I am somewhat crazed and stressed-out today because my book is due to the publisher, with no more edits allowed. So, needless to say, I am focused on meeting that deadline. But since the book deals with the same issues that we discuss every week, it is not as if I have to turn my attention to a totally different subject. Readers of this blog know that I have often tried out ideas here and benefited by hearing their reactions.

One issue that we have discussed and should discuss more is the regulations embedded in the Race to the Top fund, that sum of $4.3 billion that the U.S. Department of Education is using to stimulate innovation and reform. It may be daring to say this, but I am weary of reform. I think that our schools have been overrun by too many reforms, to the point where it becomes difficult to say what effect any of them has had. Some of our schools are like archeological sites, with layer after layer of reform, one on top of the other. A teacher once said to me that she had "reform fatigue." I wonder if any other nation so regularly reorganizes, reshapes, and reforms its schools.

A few days ago, I came across a stunningly articulate response to the Race to the Top Fund, written by California Attorney General Jerry Brown. Jerry Brown is an interesting public official who has been governor of California and mayor of Oakland, among many other things.

I will quote a few lines, as I think Brown's letter is brilliant. He wrote, "The basic assumption of your draft regulations appears to be that top down, Washington driven standardization is best. This is a 'one size fits all' approach that ignores the vast diversity of our federal system and the creativity inherent in local communities. What we have at stake are the impressionable minds of the children of America. You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score...In the draft you have circulated, I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power social science [sic]."

He goes on to write, "You assume we know how to 'turn around all the struggling low performing schools,' when the real answer may lie outside of school. As Oakland mayor, I directly confronted conditions that hindered education, and that were deeply rooted in the social and economic conditions of the community or were embedded in the particular attitudes and situations of the parents. There is insufficient recognition in the draft regulations that inside and outside of school strategies must be interactive and merged."

There is growing evidence that Arne Duncan's "turnaround" strategies have not worked in Chicago. In fact, there is a paucity of evidence that anyone knows how to turn around a school without throwing out low-performing students and replacing them with better-performing students.

Brown is thinking about running for governor, a post that he held in the 1970s and 1980s. If I lived in California, I would sign up to work for him. We need his well-informed voice in the national debate about education.




I agree with you totally so I just emailed Jerry Brown offering my support for his campaign. It's time for some common sense in education. I am a resident of California.


We need to back up and reexamine the idea of what "success" and "failure" mean in terms of American schools. The reason why Washington-Driven Standardization is not best for kids is that it defines school success as having a high percentage of students fill in a high percentage of bubbles correctly on a standardized test. Whether or not that goal is actually met is irrelevent; the goal is hopelessly flawed.

Since I write today from 8th&L in DC, should I take offense or welcome you to Conservatism?!!!

I'd like this week to engage you all on the topic of creating Citizen-Soldiers. Two reasons: One, our nation is at a major fork in the road, one demanding a quick response, one we all should have been pondering deeply these last 12-18 months. Two, my body and mind are at the Association of the US Army annual meeting, where the morning briefing addressed building a 21st century Army.

As Americans, really all that binds us is a shared hope that the life we lead today will at the least be what we pass to our children. In that, for example, we want not to drift into a society where our movements are much more constrained, our lives intruded into or watched, many of us are inducted into violence, or fear becomes a big part of our lives.

Today, my retired parents will all but be strip searched on their vacation in the pacific northwest. The Taliban in Afghanistan have the strategic momentum. We've reduced the violence in our own cities (Hurrah!), but... We're not, eight years after 9/11, ready to move the terror index down a notch.

Has education been moving us forward?

The phrase citizen soldier conjurs many ideas, most archaic. We're not talking men, we're talking all of us. And we're not talking merely physical toughness, or ability to handle a weapon.

At this AUSA conference, some 30,000 people will gather (from all over the world) to discuss on almost every concievable topic, from plasma to photonics, psychology to poetry. Education of many types will be a big topic.

Everything here has one common purpose: to move the world to a state of peace, and to protect the American soldier as well as civilians.

Of course the soldiers themselves are a huge topic. Are we taking care of them both deployed and at home? Are we taking care of their families? Do they have the tools they need? If the President cuts the budget, which of these priorities will go? (The official answer is always "none".)

So, a question that many a society has pondered and,...eventually failed at:

How do we continue to educate American citizens to preserve and support and, be prepared to serve in--and in the end constrain and limit this, our, Army?


On my own --through trial and error, and ignoring the fashionable approaches -- I've developed a method of teaching that I think is promising and that I will try to stick to as wave after wave of reform crashes over my head. The method is this: study the hell out of a topic I want to teach (e.g. the fall of Rome), take notes, identify important points I want students to learn, identify juicy details that kids will find interesting, brainstorm a vehicle for conveying the info (often a narrative, a question/solution-format lecture, a lecture with comic-strip style notes, a lecture punctuated with brief student act-outs, etc.), draft my lecture notes, then make a final draft of my lecture notes, line-up necessary props or materials, think about which kids I'll playfully weave into the talk as examples... It's very labor intensive and slow, and it eats up a lot of my weekends and vacations, but it works. I suspect this resembles what good teaching has always been, and what it will always be (I'd be happy if someone could correct me if I'm wrong). Why does it seem I've never heard a prescription for more of this labor-intensive lesson planning as a way of bolstering our education system?


"reform fatigue" is particularly interesting given the way our schools are structured. New administrators bring in new reforms, and last from 3-5 years, more or less. They try to pretend that nothing of value existed before them, and that their reign begins at Year Zero. And then they leave. They are rarely held accountable for success or failure--just innovation. But the people who have to implement those reforms are the ones who have seen things come and go for 10, 15, 20 years. And they are the ones who can easily kill a reform effort, simply by closing their doors and ignoring it, knowing that This Too Shall Pass. Which means that not only is the reform not given an adequate chance to succeed--in some cases, it may never have been implemented thoroughly, or properly. This makes it easy for the reform's enemies to say, "see, we told you it wouldn't work." And on we go to the next one.

Andrew's point is well taken: A new administration comes into a school and tries "to pretend that nothing of value existed before them, and that their reign begins at Year Zero." "Reform" comes to a school even if, for example, 94% of its students are at or above grade level. The "reform" sweeps through with no consultation with teachers, no sense of what teachers believe is needed or warranted, no inkling of what might already be working perfectly well or a realistic assessment of what actually needs to be changed. Then, teachers are "held accountable" for something they never needed, wanted, asked for, or, especially, were taught how and why to implement.

I wish that federal mandates would not be so contradictory. In Indiana, the state standards are becoming numerous, more detailed and higher each year; and yet, we are to leave no child behind. We, as teachers are continually asked to do more and schools are asked to raise the expectations of their school improvement plans; and yet, we given no more money in the state or federal budgets. What can we do?

As a Californian, I think that Jerry Brown never ceases to amaze. As you note, his letter is a very well-reasoned critique of the Obama administration's Race to the Top Fund. He does come up with these things, which is why there is an enduring attraction.

But this is also the guy who always seemingly has his eye on the next election, rather than the daily grind of reform. Indeed, I think that he has run for President almost as many times as Harold Stassen...I don't know. I am still withholding judgment for now.

Critiquing the misguided attempts by Arne Duncan to improve education is not to be confused with a positive path forward towards improving education. While Jerry Brown has great points regarding the pointlessness of the Obama administration's reforms, it begs the question: what else would he prefer?

Diane, I agree completely with you that the current crop of ed reform will only result in a degrading of our public school system. But we all need something else to rally around if schools are to improve. What is that something else?


You describe what sounds like a wonderful approach to lesson planning, and you ask: "Why does it seem I've never heard a prescription for more of this labor-intensive lesson planning as a way of bolstering our education system?"

Well, I imagine this could be attributed to the solitary aspect, the slowness, and the focus on subject matter--all admirable traits, all of them distrusted by many reformers.

Reformers don't often like the idea of the teacher who works and plans alone. They want to see collaboration and, if not uniformity, at least similarity from classroom to classroom. They don't trust individual teachers to use good judgment or to bring good knowledge into the classroom. Whether it's Balanced Literacy or a scripted curriculum, reformers often want teachers "on the same page." It is possible to be "on the same page" and yet do your own planning, but to them the common parts should come first, and teachers should spend their prep time working with other teachers. Some of this is understandable, of course--but schools that do not value solitary thought will drive away those teachers who love to spend quiet evenings planning their lessons.

Now for the slowness. You yourself admit that your approach takes up weekends and vacations. Some would not consider that an efficient use of time. If you are going to put that extra time into your teaching, shouldn't that be in the classroom, where the students will be the direct recipients of it? Many would like to see a longer school day and year, with most of the extra time going to instruction. And they want to see quick results, not slow ones. Your time spent on lesson planning may have a deeper and longer-lasting effect on your students than days spent in meetings and after-school test prep--but where's your proof? Everything has to be proven now.

Finally, the focus on subject matter makes a lot of people nervous. For some, it is not "student-centered" enough (even though you clearly have your students in mind when you plan); for others, it is not "data-driven" enough. But the distrust of subject matter probably boils down to human discomfort with things we do not understand. Bring up the Gold Rush, and I recognize uneasily that I haven't read about the Gold Rush in many years and wouldn't know what to say about it. We all forget things we have learned in history, math, literature, or any other subject, so it's much easier to talk about subjects in general terms or to discuss reforms that apply to any subject. (There are exceptions, of course--I have seen lively discussions of literature, math, history, and physics on the education blogs. But they are fairly rare.)

We do need more solitary thinkers in education. We do need slow, careful planning. We do need immersion in the subject matter. Schools should uphold and make room for these things. So should schools of education. And we should all be fearless about things we have forgotten, never learned, or don't understand--willing to ask about them, willing to admit we don't know about them, willing to read and think about them. I am as remiss in this respect as anyone.

But reformers are working in a culture of rush. In a rushed society, thoughtfulness is difficult. We have been deeply affected by the rush--not only the Gold Rush, but the results rush, or even the rush for rush's sake.

Diana Senechal

"School reform" hasn't re-formed anything (anything substantial) in the el-hi enterprise. It's been aspirational in the minds of the Reformers.

Jerry Brown's letter seems spot on re ARRA. But he joins the growing number of people who see the instructional failings of schools as beyond schools, in the community and society. The weakness of that view is: we know less about how to change communities and society than we do about how to deliver reliable instructional accomplishments.

It's not in the teachers, the kids, or the water. It's in the texts and tests that are in use, which few are interested in examining. Instruction is a black box somewhere between "standards" and "tests"--which are sensitive to SES differences but not to instructional differences and which throw no light on instruction.

The prevailing view is: "we need more good teachers," but we don't know how to make all teachers "good."

I don't think there is any chance that Jerry Brown's counsel or the counsel of D&D and others who have "been there" will be heeded by the Administration. They are already "too far in." But his letter won my vote and support. A lot can and will happen before the 2010 election. Interesting and dangerous times, as Diane noted in an earlier post.


Thanks for your very thoughtful response to my question.

The Gold Rush seems like a good metaphor for a lot of what we do as Americans --an unseemly, reckless and destructive dash to get results fast. The San Francisco Chronicle just did a story on how the sediments from the Gold Rush's soil blasting water cannons have only now --over one hundred years later --finished washing out of San Francisco Bay. A modern gold rush is going on now in the Amazon, obliterating ecosystems and native cultures. Our education "rushes" seem to be blasting away the ecosystems and cultures that once supported vibrant humanities teaching, all for the sake of "gold": higher test results.

Washington-driven standardization aspirations aren't really anything new.
It can be traced at least back to the late 1980s. So the Gold Rush analogy doesn't hold too well, particularly because it's been all fools gold--to push the analogy further.

With few exceptions, teachers work very hard. Just surviving the school day, even with a minimum number of students is hard work. Students also, with few exceptions enter school with high motivation and high expectations. And parents, with few exceptions, have high expectations for their kids. This is borne out in both the Birth and K cohorts of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

Schools do many things well--for which they get no credit. It's ironic that their only serious weakness is instruction, their primary purpose as far as students, parents and citizenry are concerned. That weakness stems from the unaccountables at the top of the EdChain. The accountability buck starts and stops at the bottom.

From your comments you seem to believe that a national math standard that was content specific (what problems a student needs to be able to solve at a given grade level) is a bad idea? As you know content specific standards for math are the case in Singapore, Japan and many other countries that out perform our students in math on TIMSS and PIRS. So math standards should be non content specific and left to local school boards? I seem to recall that Jerry Brown was the Governor when "New Math" was introduced in California with disastrous results.

I guess you are talking to me, John?

"From your comments you seem to believe that a national math standard that was content specific (what problems a student needs to be able to solve at a given grade level) is a bad idea?"

Not exactly. Particularly in Math, I'd structure the instruction in terms of prerequisites up-front and transparent accomplishments to be delivered. Rather than focusing on "content standards" the focus would be on the instruction for reliably delivering the accomplishments.

This orientation results in teaching matters once rather than recycling and doesn't employ "strands." Substantive "content" is of course involved, but the focus is on the "how to" of mathematics operations rather than on specifying discrete "problems."

I found the work of the last year's National Advisory Panel on Math very helpful and instructive.

Jerry Brown's expertise isn't in education. But "New Math" was in his Dad's, Pat Brown's, era (1959-67). Jerry Brown was Governor from 1975-83. Many Californians look back on the period from Earl Warren to Jerry Brown as the "Golden Era" of CA el-hi and higher ed. How much the Governors were responsible for this is debatable. But the Feds were certainly much less intrusive back then than they are now.

Erin.... hope this finds you well.

I think there are many ways to improve schools!

But we all need something else to rally around if schools are to improve. What is that something else?

What about this as a possibility seldom talked about:

Check out this book: Hope and Despair in the American City- Gerald Grant

This certainly would broaden our discussions and expand possibilites.

be well... mike

Hey, Mike, I'm well. But I don't get what you are saying. The first link argues that the conditions in Wake County are not replicable elsewhere.

What am I missing?

Seems to me discussions would be better narrowed than broadened. SES doesn't yield academic accomplishments. Instruction does. Some kids learn without formal instruction and some kids learn despite unintended mal-instruction. Schools take credit for these "placebo accomplishments"

Kids who aren't taught do tend to be from lower SES families. They do enter school "behind" but they are motivated and they have the prerequisites to be taught how to read, if one builds on their assets rather than tries to address their deficiencies.

Reliably teaching kids to read, do arithmetic, and achieve other academic accomplishments won't eliminate poverty, but no one is expecting the schools to do that. It will level the academic playing field for kids in school, which is all that is expected of schools.


Singapore found that Standards without quality texts were quite useless.

Originally, when the Singapore MOE put out a standards document in the hopes of having publishers develop materials, they found that the publishers interpreted the standards quite differently than the original intention. To that end, Singapore decided that it was the student learning materials that needed to be developed and they currently use the standards as an internal document to prioritize and align their textbook development.

There have been *no* cases of "Standards alone" that have driven improvements in student learning.

Dear Diane,

I wonder if you have read the book, "Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism" by David Whitman. It begins to address the 'paucity of evidence' that you refer in your entry. People are making extraordinary strides in education; their methods just do not fit the politically correct models to which so many educators and politicians insist on adhering. There may yet be hope!

Hi Dick... hope all is well.

Gotta disagree a bit... and even move beyond improvement of achievement.... here is why i believe broadening is required....

Violent Deaths Shock Chicago Into Action - Wall Street Journal- 10-7-09

Between September 2008 and September 2009, 398 Chicago students were shot, said Monique Bond, a spokesman for the district. So far this school year, four students have been slain.

In response to the violence, Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools Ron Huberman last month announced a safety and security strategy that will target nearly 10,000 high-school students identified as at risk of becoming shooting victims. The project will connect some of them with mentors and part-time jobs in hopes of keeping the teens off the streets. The $30 million annual cost of the program will be paid for by federal stimulus grants.

This is costing a tremendous amount of money, but for this group of students we believe are at substantial risk of being shot, we don't have a choice," Mr. Huberman said.

This goes well beyond SES and achievement... it is a disgrace... and it is certainly not just in Chicago.

We need to broaden our goals... to confine this to imporvments in teaching... to improvements in standards and alignment... is to remain blind to the conditions people are living in... and not to far a drive from where the reformers live!

A bit more from the article:

Mr. Huberman, a former police officer who was named CEO seven months ago, said the security plan was created by analyzing profiles of all the students shot over the past five years.

The most at-risk students have poor academic performance, miss more days of school and are more likely to be homeless and in special-education programs than other students, according to the report.

The analysis found that about 80% of the shootings involved students at 38 of 89 high schools in the district.

The 200 students assessed as being in the "ultra high risk" category were deemed to have greater than a 20% chance of being shot over the next two years. An additional 1,000 students had between a 7.5% and 20% chance of being shot, and an additional 8,500 had a 1% to 7.5% chance of being shot.

Now we are calculating chances of kids getting shot!!!

Dick...narrowing our discussion... help me understand how that will help?

be well... mike

One of the issues identified by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel is the inconsistency of text books. Math text books are bloated into thousand page volumes ('doorstop books'). They are unfocused, contain too much non mathematical side material, and despite their size often miss essential expository points.

This is the direct result of the multitude of state and local math standards, and of the school-bred tracking policies. Publishing companies need to sell their product to stay in business; their incentive is not so much to streamline material for a top-down subject approach - but to comply with as many standards as possible.

If the situation of school math is bad, that of its dependents physics and chemistry is worse. They are not taught as independent subjects until high school, often only one year each (in the last two years). Even there these subjects may be optional.

Compare that with other countries that teach physics every year starting with the 7th grade, chemistry for 3 years starting with the 8th, biology for 3 years.

Our chemistry classes have to first reteach metric units and unit conversions - a subject elsewhere in the world mastered in the 3rd-4th grade.

The subjects are tightly interrelated. Physics requires vector calculus for mechanics, coordinates geometry and trigonometry; chemistry requires the atomic model studied in physics; the advent of biologic life is a sequence of chemical reactions.

Instead of subjects taught structurally, for a solid foundation, students get a little bit of this and of that, function of chance and whim.

Who can fix this? The local school boards and the schools don't have the resources to write a curriculum, a to z. They don't have the incentive, nor the scientific preparation necessary. The curriculum is a riddle inside a poem wrapped in an enigma. What shows up in one grade is iterated later, in a more complete light. And the curriculum must be as precise as a legal document:

In the 8th grade you solve equations of the form ax^2 + bx + c = 0, with a, b, c real numbers and b^2 >= 4ac. In the 9th grade, you solve it for complex roots, graph it, describe its axis of symmetry and the intercepts with the axes.

This has to be completed for all class tracks. In my town, I've counted 2 math tracks in grades 6-7th, 3 in 8th, growing up progressively to over 10 in 12th grade.

The schools are loath to change the order of the subjects, say, to teach physics starting with 8th grade instead of the 12th. That is a huge, risky undertaking not worth the trouble unless it's changed systemically. For one thing, there may be no textbooks available for such a move. For second, the 'mission' of the high school is to prep for college, there is no incentive for anything additional.

In fact, states are not at great liberty to change things drastically either. State education boards can make incremental changes, shoring up standards and testing requirements; but it is an uphill struggle because they have no control over textbooks. In fact, the misalignment of textbooks vs. tests is one of the reasons why standardized testing is such a headache for the schools.

There is some hope with the Advanced Placement class system. The AP textbooks are focused and readable, the contents is similar across publishers. The flaw of the AP system is that it is optional. But notice how the AP exam requirements act as de facto national standards.

Outside the AP system, this leaves the Federal Government, for all its imperfections, as the authority of last resort.

I read Governor Brown's letter and I find nothing in particular to disagree with. Indeed there is much to agree with, and that is important. However it irks me a little when his words are described as brilliant. Jerry Brown is nationally known. But suppose those words were authored instead by a small town school board member somewhere in Kansas? Would they still be brilliant?

I read Brown's words as pretty much just common sense. It was certainly my common sense prior to the passage of NCLB. My attitude then was that I didn't think there was anything the federal government could do to substantially improve education, at least not at its core. I departed from that perspective somewhat with the passage of NCLB. I don't mean to imply I thought very deeply about it at the time. Accountability seemed like a pretty good idea. Bush wanted it passed, so it seemed sensible to give it a try. But over the past few years it seems that almost all of what I read about NCLB is frustration. I find it easy to revert to my previous position that education is best a local matter, and leave it at that.

I very much like Ben F's description of making a lesson plan. But, if I may, I do have some comments.

I think of teaching as consisting of three primary phases. First there is initial presentation of a topic, then there is provision of some way for students to interact with the topic, to apply it, to use it, to practice it. Finally there is feedback and follow up. In my own case, teaching college algebra, the initial presentation of a topic is primarily by lecture. I explain the math as best I can in class. Part of the initial presentation is also done by reading the text. I suspect in my classes this is primarily for the students who cut classes and don't hear my lectures. Phase two is primarily a matter of a homework assignment. In math you learn by doing problems. There is a world of difference between a well chosen assignment and a poorly chosen one. Phase three is the tedious part. I have to grade the homework. It's tedious, but I consider it very important. It's the primary means by which I give students feedback, and get feedback from them.

Ben's description seems to deal only with the first of these three phases, the initial presentation of the new topic. I doubt very much that Ben slights the other two phases. I'd like to hear more of what he does in that regard.

When Ben mentions "labor-intensive lesson planning" as an avenue for educational improvement, I do not disagree. But I do have some very bad visions of how this might be interpreted. "Lesson planning" can be interpreted as making lesson plans like we did in ed school. I don't think this is exactly what Ben has in mind, but it could be interpreted that way. I'm not saying lesson planning from ed school is all bad, but from what I remember it is not at all practical. I remember working hours and hours for a simple fifteen or twenty minute presentation. In the real world of teaching there is no time to do this. If a teacher is in front of a class twenty five hours a week, and must grade papers, keep records, and so on, there is no way to do lesson planning like we did in ed school. Most planning must be informal, even invisible. Good teachers do plan. They plan a lot. But they don't necessarily write down a lot. There's little time for that, and little benefit.

How do teachers plan? In the real world I mean. I'd like to hear a lot more from teachers on that. I know what I do, and I know it is no simple matter to put into words. I wish more teachers would try.

I do see pedagogy as an avenue of educational improvement. In fact most of my life I've seen it as the only avenue of educational improvement. By "pedagogy" I mean a careful analysis of what actually happens in real classrooms with real people, not educational fads with lots of wishful thinking and good intentions. In reading the ed blogs for the past couple of years I've seen a different perspective, sort of. People see "educational policy" as an avenue of educational improvement. I guess that means that what is agreed upon and enacted into law about schools and about what teachers can or should do can make a difference. Well, I suppose. But I think I'll continue to look closely at pedagogy.

So, tell us more, Ben, and Diana, and others, - a lot more.


Your assessment of the state of science/math in schools is quite accurate. No one (school boards, principals, teachers, etc...) have any incentive to realign the curriculum to include real science and math in middle school as it should be.

But given the ineffectiveness of the federal influence on improving schools, why would you think that the feds could do this better than the states?

All, some great, detailed discussion!

Diane's post here is both spot-on and disingenuous. She says here no Washington solution, but in 3 of 4 other posts, she berates the state quality control and calls for Washington-created NAEP as the answer.

Of course, in a way both positions are correct. What we need are standards that come in three or so different nationwide packages.

Andre: Your complaints about texts illustrate how the teaching profession has let the world pass it. (One example on my mind, the Army is streamlining its 200+ field manuals into 94, moving much to wikis. It has long put much of the real working knowledge into Army Knowledge Online. Of course task and equipment training have long been moving toward simulation and interactive software.) The standard public school institutional model - wholly unaligned local districts of enormous variation in size--doesn't let us do the type of system-of-systems look that would speed up improvements in curricular delivery.

I do disagree somewhat Andrei, that the European model is necessarily better. Its us, after all, who have the space station and who deliver the F35, the iPod, cgi magic on film, most drug innovations, medical device miracles, WIN-T, $4.95 electronic stock trading, Amazon stores, cloud computing, genomics and proteomics, field and factory robotics, DARPA's grand challenge finishers.......

In my case, I was on your "slower" track in science, math. Hurt a lot when I got to Carnegie-Mellon, but... I still got to play with the soon-to-be-appointed chief engineer at DARPA by the time I was 23. (There's much to be said for curiosity.) I got to redesign a multi-billion system-of-systems at that tender age, rewriting the requirements spec and realigning the network design myself, so,.. you know, not having AP calc isn't a game killer.

What worries me Andrei, is that we don't (I believe) have an AP-like system for Middle School. Yes, we can take students who are prepared at the high school level and point them to an AP curriculum, but...how do we assure that enough kids are ready earlier on? To that end, we've invented these 4th and 8th grade achievement tests, but...they're scattered across the 50 states. And designed too much out of the public eye by state bureaucrats.

What, too, of the rest of the students? Is project-based-learning something we are behind on distributing to schools? Or is it an unaffordable distraction from what you and I have discussed above? Do we have enough experiments and data?

In fact, what we never aim to have is "middling achievement" standards. We call a kid "proficient" if he gets a certain low percentage of a decently hard test. What if we instead suggested, as Deb did last week, that a "basic qual" test be designed where "Proficient" meant you got 90% right?

I'd like to see some national group do that!

you are absolutely right: whether or not Idea X is a good one (and i agree that the common core standards project is loaded with the worst possibilities for bureaucracy and technicism), teachers are fed up with the layers of reform. one idea i suggested almost 10 years ago in phi delta kappan (january 2000, "Ten Years of Silver Bullets") still has merit: that teacher groups demand a "zero-sum" approach to reform: for any new duty added to a teacher's burden, something comparable must be taken off. ALWAYS. We'll never stop them from coming up with innovations (however much they are simply retreads of old to ancient practices), but we might be able to stop the piling on. You have a public enough voice to push the idea, so please consider it. we're driving too many good people out of the classroom.
Wade Carpenter


A quick response (I have too many essays to grade and plans to draft today, a day-off): since writing that post I've had several moments in which I've felt that I just can't sustain that level of intensive planning. In itself it's too much, but add to it what you mentioned -- designing high quality practice/assignments/assessments for the students and then grading those --and it's really overwhelming. I need downtime. I want to use this week of vacation reading poetry and going hiking, not continuing my labors for school. So today it seems to me that unless we as teachers join forces and, through division of labor, work in a coordinated fashion to construct a truly great, detailed curriculum, (or we adopt a real curriculum like Core Knowledge) I'll have to content myself with offering flashes of brilliance mixed with a lot of shoddy teaching --falling back on our lame textbook to teaching the expansion of Islam, for example; or creating an essay assignment on the fly that turns out to be pretty flawed; etc.
To recap: I don't think I CAN offer high-quality teaching in each of the three dimensions you mention. In one, possibly. Short of a grand unified effort to build a "golden" curriculum, one thing that would help is only having to teach one course per year. Another would be shorter school days so that I could use the afternoons for lesson planning and grading.

Ben writes:
"unless we as teachers join forces and, through division of labor, work in a coordinated fashion to construct a truly great, detailed curriculum, (or we adopt a real curriculum like Core Knowledge)"

Hoohah!! Yea verily! Right on.

What I want to add to that is: that's going on all over the place, on the web, in conferences, etc.

What we're missing is the mechanisms to help the teacher who hasn't the time, energy, willpower, or intellectual stamina to find that on their own.

The Chicago shooting was a terrible thing.
This caught the news, but the same tragedies and worse are commonplace today throughout the US. Does this concern me? Of course! It should concern everyone.

The point that I'm trying to make, is that the "worst and poorest" kids enter school ready and willing to learn. And the current teaching cadre has the capability to teach them to read, do arithmetic and acquire the other academic expertise that parents and public aspire for them.

andrei radulescu-banu has it right. It's in the texts and tests. AP provides a good model. A SSRN paper sketches how this can be done:


Dialog re instruction rarely gets deeper than tis-taint ideological considerations. (Bridging Differences excepted) And the tendency today is to quickly veer off the radar into considerations of parents, SES, or society--with now feasible suggestions of how to change the "bad" conditions.

As I've said, the birth and K cohort data of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, indicate that the ethnic/racial and ethnic differences are not as great as commonly held. NAEP item data indicate more similarity in response patterns than differences.

I submitted that narrowing the "debate" to instructional matters that ARE controllable and manipulable by schools
would be a productive step.

Tony Waters’ (10/06 10:02 posting) reservations about Jerry Brown are spot on. As a longtime Oakland resident, I once cast my vote for him as mayor, but then from watching how he interfaced with the public schools here, I’ll never trust him again.

During his term as mayor, I would describe Brown’s attitude to Oakland’s public schools as one of contempt. Rather than to lend strong support to the schools, he spent his energy launching two charter schools -- the Oakland Military Academy and the Oakland School of the Arts. He continued his involvement with both of those schools long after his term was over, especially the OSA.

The OSA is Brown’s “baby.” He has never offered one lick of support to the performing arts programs at the traditional public schools here, including a high school with a pre-existing, strong performing arts program (Skyline High School). Even today, he continues to undermine the public schools by leveraging his connections to bring in millions of extra dollars to his one “baby.”

Mmmm… One charter school with donations amounting to $10,978,807 in 2006 for 285 students, $1,032,828 in 2005 for 421 students, $1,432,148 in 2004 for 272 students, and $1,088,851 in 2003 for 176 students. (990 - EIN 680463892). I don't have the figures for the most recent two years, but you get the idea. Just recently he persuaded Sean Penn to help bring in more bucks.

This all is being conducted when the performing arts funding of the traditional public schools is absolutely neglected. It makes me think that people who need to have so much attention focused on their own grandiosity aren’t willing to take on a supporting role.

Brown also placed three mayoral appointees on our school board. That whole era was a disaster.

I like his letter, too, but I just figure it fits into some scheme he’s cooking up.

Wouldn't it be ironic if the Obama administration provided billions of dollars for data that were then used to justify re-segregating southern schools?

That is exactly what just happened in Wake County, North Carolina. A grassroots group used rumors of a secret value added report to convince voters 48 hours before an election that voting against integrated schools was the right thing to do. Voters were told that complicated statistics showed economic diversity within schools was hurting poor children. The group claimed to have data showing that poor children would be better served if they had their own schools, "neighborhood" schools in their own "neighborhoods." Voters in four districts took the bait.


Those who follow the value added debate will want to take a closer look at the reports buried in the link above. Find the link to SASa.pdf and scroll to page 7. One of the claims of value added models is that they are not biased. They have statistical controls and don't penalize students for race or socioeconomic status. Table 1 in the report proves just the opposite.

Table 1 reports the correlations between the percent poverty at a school and value added scores. 21 of the 22 correlations are negative. For almost every grade-subject test everywhere in the state, the more poor children you have in your school, the lower your value added score. The negative correlations range from weak to very, very strong, but 21 of 22 are negative. Fewer poor children, higher score. More poor children, lower score.

Amateur statisticians in Wake County may contend that the -.674 relationship between poverty and End-of-Course Algebra value added scores proves that busing isn't effective in Wake County. Better trained statisticians will recognize that almost half of a school's value added Algebra score can be explained solely by the percent of low wealth students in the school. Poverty predicts performance. Even with longitudinal value added scores and all those promised statistical controls.

If these data are not shocking to the value added faithful, read more carefully and you will learn that the table doesn't actually use socioeconomic data for low wealth, it uses percent minority students. Race predicts performance. How many times have we been told that socioeconomic status and race don't matter because the teacher is the most important factor in learning? Not according to these data.

If what is true for schools is true for teachers in Wake County, you could almost predict an Algebra teacher's value added score knowing little more than the percent of black or Hispanic students in her class. What do you say to the top teacher at the awards ceremony? "Congratulations, you had the fewest black students this year. Here's your check, courtesy of Barack Obama."

Is this what Arne Duncan and President Obama really want to pay billions of dollars for? For a system that provides complicated statistics that are so easily misunderstood or manipulated? For a system that, despite its controls, in the end awards high scores to majority white schools and low scores to majority black schools, with a few random exceptions thrown in to prove some high minority school can beat the odds and some low minority school isn't as good as it thinks it is? Do we really want to penalize schools and teachers for the students they serve? If not, why is anyone using these scores?

If these kinds of data are all we are going to get for our billions of dollars in tax money, let's do this the easy way inexpensively. On the first day of school, count the number of white and black children who walk through the door, add one point for each white child, deduct one point for each black child, tally the results, and hand out the checks. That method is just as valid as value added, only the people using the data couldn't fool themselves or other parents into thinking these "statistics" were in any way scientific. From the data reported in Table 1, the inexpensive "subtract-for-black count" and the costly "value added" scores would be very strongly correlated.

Someone should ask Arne Duncan if President Obama thinks a school should be penalized just because it serves more African-American students. While you have his attention, ask him how much money he will be sending Wake County voters to open some "neighborhood" charter schools.

As I understand it, none, the School Board election is coming up next Tuesday. Is that right?

I understand your explanation of what is going on (I think). Has the election already happened? Are you saying the results are a foregone conclusion? Neither of the above?

The National Academy of Sciences yesterday issued a report counseling caution in applying VAM and essentially demolishing the "4 Pillars" of the Administration's education stimulus package. The report can be downloaded from:


Both the Wake election and the NAS report seem very important.

Oh my, pondoora. Thanks for the clarification on Jerry Brown's education record as Mayor of Oakland. One letter doesn't make a commitment to public schools. Happy days aren't yet here again for California. We'll have to watch what goes on very carefully.

Ed, my critique of schools is not seditious, I still see ourselves better off overall. Just that I'd also like to have a solid science education in the local schools.

Why are we more advanced technologically than countries which outperform us in school? One, our colleges are the best in the world. Two, our economy is more open to competition. Three, a sizable portion of our high tech work force has passed through other school systems. The percentage might be as high as one third, I am not sure, if someone has a reference I would appreciate it. I know that 1/2 of Engineering PhD's in our colleges are awarded to students coming from abroad; the figure is comparable for Math and Physics PhD's.

Erin -
Pushing for federal control in school science education is no magic bullet. That's why it is important to call their mistakes as we see them. Teacher pay tied to student test results is a mistake. The NSF sponsored math curricula are another federal scandal.

At least that leaves one level to attack the problem, not 50. It is easier for experts to insert themselves in the debate in one place. Research scientists in their field - math, physics etc would get a voice. Organizations like the National Mathematics Advisory Panel would get teeth.

At the same time, I am mindful of countries like France, with a centralized curriculum, who find themselves in a similar pickle mired in debased school science education.


You asked what else we can rally around if our schools are to improve. I'd like to answer that question, especially since I've been turning it over in my mind for the last ten years.

Before I begin, I'll state my basic assumptions: I believe that the first five years of a child's life are the most important in regard to his education; and second, I believe that the family is the primary educator of the child. Yes, the teacher is the most important factor in schooling, but the parents, to a very great degree, determine the quality of a child's education. Third, I believe that it is our poorest children, as opposed to all our children, who are not receiving an adequate education. So, this is how I'd like the stimulus money used to improve education in impoverished neighborhoods:

Prenatal and postnatal care for all infants;

Visiting nurses for new mothers;

"Baby colleges" for all babies and parents;

High-quality preschool;

Health care for all children;

Full-service community centers for all children;

Developmentally appropriate instruction for all children (what we're doing now, test-prep, is the worst possible way to educate, even for adults);

Highly-trained and experienced teachers (pay them more). No "emergency" credentials under any circumstances;

Professional salaries, perks and autonomy for teachers;

Very small elementary and high schools with 15:1 student/teacher ratio;

Nurses, social workers and therapists in each school;

Removal of extremely disruptive children from regular classroom;

Full-time aide for each learning disabled child;

Vouchers to suburban public schools;

Boarding schools for parents who request it;

Charters run by professional educators (teachers, administrators, professors). These schools must be nonprofit.

Personally I think it's a crime to keep poor, minority children trapped in unsafe neighborhoods so I'd like to see the federal and state governments help families to move to various parts of the country. In England there are "estates" spread throughout the nation that people can apply for. I'd like to see something like that.

We can never even come close to substituting for a family that isn't there for a child, but we can attempt to give every child some of the "good stuff" that privileged children take for granted.

(As I read over this, I see that I have implied that most poor families don't care for their children, but of course that is not true. As I've said in other posts, most poor children have their basic needs met, but many need help.)

Andrei, your points on the paucity of US STEM ed are well taken. A couple stats here:
From 1980 to 2000,
• Chinese engineering graduates increased 161 percent to 207,500
• Japanese engineering graduates increased 42 percent to 103,200
• Korean engineering graduates increased 140 percent to 56,500
• U.S. engineering graduates declined 20 percent to 59,5008

There's a 2005 NAM report, The Looming Workforce crisis. It verifies that half our graduate STEM degrees go to non-citizens.

Much of this is just interest and willingness to work. If a kid has a comfy life in the 'burbs, and knows he can make a nice living otherwise, why go through the hell of a first class science/engineering degree?

Which is why I always draw the discussion back to making sure more poor minority Americans have the qualifications to get into good US science/engineering programs. We need more Black technologists!!!!!!!!! And they can use the good salaries.

I don't agree that one entity attacking a problem is better than 50. You should recognize this from any given technology or other innovative deployment. Take cell phones, we started out with lots of trials; we winnow them down even as technology introduces new waveforms, bands, processing, etc. Today we're down to a handful of nationwide solutions and some new regional ones. That's more the model we should aim for rather than a single national solution.

Andrei, It would be (and will be) a mistake for the federal government to intrude any further into the operations of schools. The feds know how to regulate, not innovate.

So say we get federal standards, what then? Will schools magically know how to meet them?

How would only having one set of federal standards help with improving schools? Once standards get entrenched, how difficult will it be to remove/change them? If the Federal standards embrace much of the NSF reform math nonsense, it will not be easier to change schools. It will be the opposite. At least now, schools have the ability to embrace innovations in education (even if they generally do not do so.)

With the Feds as the "authority" school districts would be even less interested in hearing community objections. And considering that the operational control of the schools will remain at the school district level (even under Fed standards), why would any school district official gainsay the Federal mandates. This is a guarantee for the perpetuation of the status quo, not improvement.

Your point about AP as being a good model for external validation of schooling is interesting. Why couldn't we do that for all high school courses? (With possibly less intensity and slower pacing than the current AP classes.)

Linda, The effects of poverty on education are well documented. But given that we are talking about education, are there no school level reforms that could minimize the effects of poverty on our children's education?

Erin, the only school level reforms that would work somewhat would be:

Paying very successful teachers and principals to accept inner-city jobs;

Continuing teacher education so that all teachers know best instructional practices (including diagnostic testing);

Freeing teachers to make professional decisions without much interference;

Encouraging volunteers to act as mentors for students (perhaps give them stipends);

Instituting developmentally appropriate instruction in each classroom;

Lowering the student/teacher ratio considerably (10:1 or 15:1?)

Providing social workers, nurses and therapists in the worst schools;

Removing very disruptive students from the regular classroom (and school?);

Providing aides for learning disabled children who require extra attention.

Some of the above actions will help somewhat but until we can provide poor children with social supports (as they do in other countries) I don't think we'll see dramatic results. I don't believe merit pay, standards or standardized testing will have much of an effect, except maybe in a negative way.

If you are asking me what I'd do at the school level without moving children to other schools, I think the research is clear: Hire the best teachers possible and let them do their jobs. Peer review should be used to reward excellence and to help or remove ineffective teachers.

One more thing:

What happens to a child outside of school IS part of his education. People are confusing SCHOOLING with EDUCATION and that's why we're off course. A child who is looking through a telescope at home with his father IS being educated, but he is not in school. A child who is being carefully treated for asthma so he won't miss school is engaged in an experience that could have a profound effect on his education. I AM talking about education when I mention health care and preschool. I consider these interventions to be huge.

Linda, Have you looked at the curricula/teaching techniques used in countries with high performing students and very low SES gap?

Ed Jones,

The NAM report is useless. First, the report is dated from 2005 at the height of the Fed Reserve expansionist policy, post dot.com bust and 9/11. During the high of easy credit things look rosy. What should a NAM report say now?

The next error is NAM’s nationalist aggregation of economic data from which nonsense analysis naturally flows, as can be seen in this statement: “Unfortunately, there are troubling signs that the American workforce is not ready to meet innovation’s challenge, and our position as leader of the global economy is threatened.” Has NAM ever heard of the Ricardian Law of Association? Comparative Advantage?

Of course they have- but recognizing economic truth is not conducive to expediency. This is how NAM can get away with saying garbage like “American labor will never cost less than that of workers in the rest of the world.” That wages under competition tend to even out is a truth that NAM works hard to displace with this propaganda. Much of NAM’s members are all too interested in getting government protections against competition or if really lucky, direct contracts. Many of the so called “capitalists” in general, not just in manufacturing, are often guilty of anti-competition, anti-capitalist mindsets, like Dick Schutz, CEO and a commentator here, or the elites at Goldman Sachs and General Motors that are receiving mega bailout money.

One way to make American labor necessarily cost more is to continue the policies of government intervention.

Even if the situation arose that mainland Chinese workers tended to be more productive and efficient while meeting the wants of the consumer better and, therefore, commanded higher wages, there would still be a net benefit for Americans via the increased production at lower costs. The cost of having a “concerted national strategy”, as NAM advocates, is a Darwinian impulse that is unnecessary and antisocial.

It is no wonder why NAM celebrates the ‘space race’ and ignores what a boondoggle NASA represents. The government spends billions on NASA and gets little bang for the buck. The Chinese send satellites into space for much cheaper due to NASA’s insistence on manned flights. One ex-bureaucrat has summed up NASA: “While a few examples of success exist, the general rule is that the private sector wants nothing to do with technologies developed in federal labs.” The private sector has no need of NASA. One example is Bell Labs, which paid for the first telecommunications satellite (although using govt. rockets). The Pentagon followed suit only years later. And let us not forget basic politics. Bush’s expansion of the NASA budget was a pork payoff to one of Texas’s mainstays.


I wonder if we're discussing different student populations. From my experience I know that the majority of low SES students can be brought up to grade level with excellent instruction. We have a lot of research about best practices here and abroad.

However, a significant number of all low SES students arrive in kindergarten already seriously behind (See "The Meaning Makers" by Gordon Wells for a good description of linguistic and cognitive differences in young children). Many of these children have severe learning problems caused by lead poisoning, fetal alcohol syndrome or abusive and neglectful parenting. Some students miss half the year of school and receive little stimulation at home. In my many years as a teacher, I rarely saw any teacher, excellent or otherwise, bring these children up to grade level. Yes, some teachers were somewhat more successful than others but, by and large, these children just fell further behind as they grew older. How can we help these children?

What did you have in mind? Thanks.

Linda, These are unfortunately issues that are experienced around the world and yet there are school systems that are able to dramatically reduce the SES gap in learning. And they do that with better curricula and teaching practice. Internationally, "Best practices and curricula" are not well disseminated.

If children have specific cognitive learning disabilities due to brain dysfunction, it would be foolish to suggest that schooling needs to remediate that when the best of medical science has not. But that is certainly not the vast majority of children in impoverished circumstances.

The vast majority of impoverished children have the mental abilities but come to school without the language skills and knowledge that higher SES students have. Since they are not receiving that stimulation at home, the only place where they will get the academic knowledge to be successful is in school.

So if internationally, there are school systems that are able to narrow that SES gap, how do they do it?

There is certainly little dissemination of best practices/curricula from around the world. Frankly, because teachers have so little time to examine their own teaching practice, it is difficult for most teachers to even see what the best American teachers are using/doing in their own classrooms. Our schools are not designed to improve student learning or encourage quality teaching practices.

There are several elements that other schools use that are completely absent in our school system. The international comparitive studies really do suggest that the curricula used in these other countries really is that much better.

Two quick examples. 1. the Asian countries use a different sequence of math study and several conceptual techniques that are completely absent from any of the major math published in our country (reform or traditional), enabling all their children to grasp Algebra much earlier than we teach it here. 2. Finland uses a reading method that allows their children to learn to read fluently in 6-9 months.

So even if we hired all the "best teachers" to teach in the lower SES schools, how will they ever discover these better curricular methods/techniques on their own?

They won't.

Our students do okay when compared to the rest of the industrialized world. They do not do great. It is not just the low SES students that are bringing down the average, as our top students do not compare well with the top students around the world.

The US has a greater than average SES contribution to educational outcomes. Considering that other school systems have been able to close that gap with what they do in school (with all the same issues: ESL, poverty, etc..), why can't the US take the best ideas from around the world and apply them to our schools?

Thank you, Erin.

Of course I agree that there is much we can learn from other countries, especially the ones that have narrowed the achievement gap. One strategy Finland uses is to delay formal reading instruction until the child is seven. If we just adopted this one critical strategy, we'd see a huge reduction in the number of reading failures in young children, especially boys. This does not mean that a five-year-old cannot learn to read because obviously many can, but what it does mean is that instruction should be informal and low-pressure (no test prep!) until second grade. But I remember learning this in graduate school in the late 1960s. Why are we headed in the other direction?

When I was expecting my first child, I was warned by many sources to avoid drugs, medications, alcohol and cigarettes. After the baby was born I knew good nutrition, safety, interaction, and health care were critical to the brain development of my baby. Well, when I started teaching in the inner-city, I understood what happens when these cautions are ignored. Although most of the children ARE thankfully normal in mental ability, a sizable minority have mild to moderate learning disabilities due to prenatal problems, abuse and/or negligence. I would guess 10% of the children are so afflicted but it could be as high as 20%. That's why I think we really need to go to medical care and social supports to help these children. This is just based on experience as it always seemed that I had two or three children in my class of 20 who had disabilities, especially in the very poorest schools in which I taught. Does anyone have statistics on this?

As for the rest of the low-income children, I think many of them are getting six hours per day of education, while many privileged children get significantly more time with educated parents while they are at home. To me, that's the primary reason for the achievement gap. Yes, "schools alone" can close much of the gap, but only if we add a lot of those extras that I mentioned in my other post.

Linda, It would be a disaster if we waited until 2nd grade to teach children to read. Talk about increasing the SES acheivement gap. As much as you a proponent of early-childhood education, why would you think that reading would not fall into that category?

The Finns are able to wait until 2nd grade because the techniques they use to teach reading are fast and easy. All the techniques that we use to teach early reading are slow and ineffective for to many children, especially the low SES children.

And yet these (much better) reading techniques have not taken hold in the US. Why? If the reading techniques are so much better (and they are), why doesn't every individual teacher take all that extra time during the day to discover these better ways of teaching reading, translate it into English, develop new materials that work for all children and teach the vast majority of kids to fluently decode by the end of 1st grade?

Our schools have no network for evaluating new ideas, testing them, allowing teachers to communicate with each other about new or better ideas.

Given that these other beginning reading techniques are so significantly better than the traditional ones, how would you ensure that every student is taught with the best possible methods?


I taught reading for many years. When reading is introduced to second graders, most catch on very easily and are "reading everything by Christmas." I believe this is the secret to the Finn's success. If I'm not mistaken, THEY think it's the secret to their success also. A person must have a degree of cognitive readiness to learn to read with ease. If that readiness is not there, the task becomes extremely stressful for the child and can result in a lifetime of dislike for reading. This is indeed what happens to many children. As a professor said many years ago, "Learning to read and write should seem easy and almost effortless to the child." I agree with that.

Of course, I would not keep reading a "secret" from younger children. A knowledgeable teacher knows when a child is ready to learn to read and would teach accordingly. However, our practice of introducing reading to children who are not ready has caused a lot of problems, especially for boys and English language learners.I am speaking here of formal reading instruction. I believe informal instruction begins at birth with songs, rhymes, talke etc. and proceeds to storytelling and book sharing. Phonemic awareness, letter sounds and recognition, knowledge about books and print will all come easily to the child who has had the first five years in a print-rich environment. Such children often come to kindergarten knowing all this and even how to read.

From my experience, low-income children who learn to decode early just fall behind in comprehension in the middle grades. They don't sustain these early gains. By sixth grade many are already two years below grade level. I just don't see how teaching decoding to five-year-olds has done much good. The time would be better spent on language development, which is so critical to reading comprehension. Language development and background knowledge represent the academic gap in kindergarten and first grade. I know the scores in reading have supposedly improved in the early grades, but most teachers are just drilling children on the test items so that doesn't mean anything to me. On more authentic tests, scores are stagnant or even declining somewhat. I agree with Diane and others who say that people are just gaming the system when they say test scores are rising.

I really agree with you on one point: we need to look at what others are doing and learn from them. Also, our teachers need time to collaborate and to reflect on their own methods and those of others.

Schooling isn't necessarily education and decoding doesn't always lead to reading.

Linda, Your commonly-held beliefs about early reading instruction although completely refuted by every study published on this subject is the prime reason that standards based reform will never improve student learning. It what teachers believe and do in the classroom that result in quality learning (or not) not external standards.

Although decoding is not the end goal of reading instruction, it is impossible for anyone to comprehend what they are reading if they do not possess fluent decoding skills. Decoding is not an age dependant skill but an experiencial one. That is it really does not matter what age that children learn to decode (past say 4 years old), the techniques used to teach decoding will take the same amount of time (even though there is huge variablity in total decoding acquisition time between children using our current techniques.) The longer we wait in that process the less time that particular child will be able to use those skills to comprehend.

From a student point of view, it would be ideal if decoding instruction time can be minimized so that more time can be spent on comprehension.

But considering that you (and most other reading teachers) do not believe that fluent decoding can be done substantially better than is our tradition, how is it possible for these better teaching techniques to ever become part of the teaching lexicon?


I definitely agree that fluent decoding is essential for reading comprehension.

Let's take just one piece of classical reading research. We've known for some time that a mental age of 6 years 6 months is necessary for the complex task of reading (decoding and comprehension). The Finns and some other countries that have virtually eliminated reading failure have accepted this research and have delayed reading instruction until seven. And yet we have not. You yourself said that we ignore the successes of other countries. Why do you think this is so? Has this research been contradicted? If so, I'm not aware of it.

I don't think too many American teachers would agree with my ideas.

Linda, Your ideas about the naturalism of decoding abound within our schools. The studies on reading have all very consistently concluded that reading ability is limited by two things: fluency in decoding and oral comprehension. As oral comprehension grows steadily over time and quality of education, there is no one specific mental age for which there is a switch to where children can then read. Additionally, there is no specific mental age limit for decoding as well; past say the age of 4yrs old.

Those countries that have eliminated reading failure enjoy a transparent orthography. That is, there is a one-to-one connection between letters and sounds. The methods then used to teach decoding direct the students "sound it all out". No sight words, no word families, no guessing based upon context, etc... that are used quite pervasively and ineffectively thoughout most English speaking countries.

The Finns can wait so long to teach their children to decode because they know that their children can reach fluency in under a year; not something that is typically seen in most American classrooms.

If decoding fluency were a matter of age, we certainly would not have the profound number of "slow readers" that do not decode fluently at grade level. (The estimates are ~30-40% at 4th grade.)

Certainly if you are looking for a compendum of research on this topic the NRC did put out a summary several years ago. While their conclusions were somewhat orthogonal to the data that was presented in the report (somehow the term synthetic phonics morphed into systematic phonics, two quite different concepts), the detailed research work that has gone into decoding acquisition is very well documented.

If all children with age appropriate oral language were able to learn to decode fluently by the end of 1st grade (say be able to read the Magic Tree House books), do you not think that this would be a substantial benefit to our children/schools?


We are not talking about the same thing. I am speaking of reading, a complex psycholinguistic process akin to thinking; whereas you are referring to decoding, a skill that allows the person to crack the code in order to apprehend the text. Decoding is to reading what spelling is to composition. Decoding and spelling are critical skills but reading and composition are highly complex mental processes that continue to develop over a lifetime. It is "reading" that requires the mental age of six and a half years or more. You and I are reading one another's text but decoding for us is automatic. However, if someone were reading these posts to us, the mental processes would still be the same or nearly the same. When we read we are thinking about the author's purpose and our own responses to it. When I talk about a child's being able to read I mean that decoding has become automatic. Someone who is "sounding out" is a beginner.

It is my experience that almost all our children can become fluent in under a year also if we wait until late first grade or early second to begin formal reading instruction. I have the same reason as the Finns. 80% of the English orthography is consistent so it isn't that hard to learn. We make it hard because we have ignored the research that tells us it will be easy at seven years, but not at five years.

No, I see no reason why little children have to be fluent in reading by the end of first grade instead of second or third. This is just an unexamined American tradition like summer vacation.

Children are people; some learn to read at four or five; many at six and a few at seven or eight. All I'm saying is that if teachers waited until children are seven before commencing formal instruction, almost everyone would become fluent within the year.

There are at least two reasons that children should be taught to read as early as possible. One is that the earlier a child can read, the more independent the child can be in personally controlling her/his instruction and in experiencing success in school generally.

The other is to school-proof the child from inadvertent mal-instruction. In large part the mal-instruction is Washington driven. Today's children run a high risk of being designated "learning disabled" and never being taught to read. Sadly and ironically, it's the child, parents, or society who get stuck with the blame for the failed instruction.

An IES study released in September (with no fanfare) showed that two years of after-school tutoring of grade 2-5 kids produced zippo effects. In fact 2 years of reading tutoring was worse than one, bringing to mind the old line about a trip to Philadelphia.


This is consistent with the earlier Haan Foundation study that showed that none of the 4 "best" remedial reading programs had any effect after a full school year of instruction at either grade 3 or grade 5.

If a child has not been taught to read by grade 3, the child is headed to be designated "learning disabled" or "dyslexic" if that already hasn't been done.

It's not in the kids, it's in the instruction.

It's true that remedial programs after grade one are not successful, but I am not talking about remedial programs. I am referring to basic reading instruction delivered when children have the needed mental age of six and one half years. This would prevent the need for remediation, as it does in Finland. I realize that many people disagree with this, but this approach has been successful in several countries. This discussion has been about how to improve instruction for low-income children and this is just one way that might help.

The requirement of Mental Age of 6 for reading instruction has long since been debunked. It all depends on how one goes about the instruction. The UK and France are each beginning to teach reading in our equivalent to Kindergarten and to complete the job by our equivalent of Grade 2. Some homeschoolers in the US who have little or no formal training in education are also doing this.

The Finnish Alphabetic Code is composed of one-to-one letter sound correspondences. The English Alphabetic Code is much more complex due to the various overlays of language brought by conquerors of Great Britain--Romans, German Tribes, Vikings, and French. If the English Code were comparable to the Finnish Code, reading could be taught in a matter of weeks and months.

The Finns also have a well-developed preschool structure, which starts, as I recall at age 3.

If children in the US could be prevented from any exposure to text or reading instruction until age 7, your suggestion would be fine. But that's impossible.

As it is, some kids learn to read without any ostensible instruction. Some learn despite unintended mal-instruction. Schools take credit for the placebo instruction and blame anything other than the mal-instruction for the failed instruction.

There are two main differences in teaching reading between Finnish and US instruction and those are the methods used to teach decoding and the depth of content in history and science. There are no substantial differences in the teaching of comprehension techniques.

Misconceptions regarding early reading instruction abound in our schools. There is no reliable network to disseminate quality reading methods (or any other subject). Even the quality reading research that went into the National Reading Panel report had little to no impact on actual reading instruction; primarily because teachers teach what they know/believe.

Standards (fed or state) can not change what teachers know and believe (much like this conversation is unlikely to change your mind about the completely debunked mental age needed for reading).

My point regarding the Finns instruction is not to debate the age at which to start reading but to illustrate that the techniques/ideas that US teachers use to guide their instruction are often mistaken or out of line with the best studies on learning. Certainly the NRP report tried to do that quite unsuccessfully.

Certainly the international studies can highlight the what is possible; but they can't directly change what happens in the classroom.

Much of the standards that are being written today use the best of the international school systems and assume that our teachers will "magically" know how to get their students to the same place that these other quality systems can. It won't happen, because there is no network, method or system to disseminate why Japan teaches math so well, why the Finns are great at science nor why Singapore was able to improve their student's 4th grade reading ability from mediocre to outstanding in less than 5 years.

The studies that have looked at the best school systems point out quite starkly that the main differences between US school and the top performing nations are the quality of curricula, tests that are directly tied to curricula (not the guess what is on the test standardized methods) and enough teacher support to enable teachers to improve their practice. All elements which are missing from our schools.

There are no cases of school systems that have used external standards alone to improve.

Fallon, I'm glad Ed pointed me to the National Assoc of Manufacturers (NAM) report. Its data is correct, and independently verifiable. The National Science Board says the same thing.


I do disagree with the solutions recommended in the NAM. In the economy, it does not matter if 100 companies perish, if 10 make it big. The labor force is flexible, and will move around to the companies that make it.

Schools are different in this respect. They have an equal responsibility to all children. The risk/reward equation is structured differently in schools vs. the open economy. On this point, the solutions proposed by the NAM sound a bit ideological.

By the way, since I've sung the praise of our high tech sector. The NSF says that "The historically strong U.S. trade balance in advanced technology products exhibited a [...] reduction, shifting from surplus to deficit starting in 2002."


Linda and Erin:

I appreciate your discussion about reading instruction in Finland.

I also appreciate your attention to detail and data both of you offer regarding a subject which I don't know much about.

Tony Waters


You allude to my most important point that cooperation, the market, does not recognize political borders. The NAM or NSF are nationalistic creations that serve political designs. The question really becomes government vs. market.

I highly doubt whether the statistics are exact, no mega-conglomeration ever is. The use of hard numbers is designed to give confidence where there should not be.

Even if the numbers were right they would still only pertain to that time under the limited nationalist statistical framework. It is now five years later and the technocrats and polticians and fake capitalists have damaged civilization even moreso via arrogance and greed.

But of course, one could predict a NAM or NSF report stating the same case over again, with different numbers but with even more dramatic flair. Their reports might contain a statement like:

"In this deep recession it is an imperative for the United States to have a concerted effort to create more engineers whom, more than any other profession, have the greatest potential for making America strong again."

Why don't they just dig up Soviet planner documents from the 1950s instead of wasting their time on new reports?

It is not just that the NSF and NAM have a direct stake in creating the perception of crisis so that they can both receive more government largesse. Although that is certainly the case. It is that no central authority, the more central the authority becomes, is capable of planning an economy on an economic basis. And what is implied in 'statistics'? State. And in this case, it is a national state that the NAM and NSF reports are referring to. They are advocating social engineering.

Who knows, maybe Comte was right?


You write,

"Schools are different in this respect. They have an equal responsibility to all children."

That 'equal responsibility to all children' rhetoric, although stated with good intentions, could seem rather Orwellian in that it serves to cover up an underlying parasitism.

Even if 100% of all humans were in agreement with you, the structural arrangements would say other wise. It is more than just ironic that the market, with its selfish profit motive, would end up serving the needs of children more than the government and its altruistic official mandate. Players in an unintervened market have to serve others, call them consumers, in order to succeed. The consumer decides who are the winners for the most part.

Under the government paradigm the game becomes political, the process of taking without asking. There is not the mutualism that exists in the market nor the accountability that comes from the individual's ability to abstain from transactions and seek third party intervention in disputes.

Currently, the government is the final arbiter in its own disputes.

Government schools are mangled contrivances. Compulsory attendance, taxation and interest group regulation/legislation ensures that mutualism will be suppressed. Union control over individuals- its members as well as the rest of society- implies irresponsibility. The money and benefits keep flowing though. What a social disconnect.

NCLB in some regards is an attempt to enforce an accountability but only exacerbates the problem because it is really just more of the same distortion moved to the national level. The money and power keep flowing to DC.

The real question is always government vs. market. Coercion vs. voluntarism. War or peace. School or education. I have no doubt that most teachers care a great deal about children. A government system does not, cannot, primarily reflect such concerns though.

In fact, the nationalization and unionization of the term "teacher" ought to be scrutinized. Any real analysis would necessarily recognize 'teacher' as an ancillary and suboordinate classification to the primary label: government employee.


You state, "Children are people; some learn to read at four or five; many at six and a few at seven or eight. All I'm saying is that if teachers waited until children are seven before commencing formal instruction, almost everyone would become fluent within the year."

Are you saying the kids who are reading at four should wait? As a retired Massachusetts teacher I'd have to respectfully disagree. All kids are different. They all show up at the beginning of the year with different strengths and weaknesses and different levels of readiness. The students who are ready to read/learn earlier than their classmates should be allowed to progress through the curriculum at a pace challenging for them. HOWEVER, this is the missing component of education reform to this point. We've had standards reform, fiscal reform but no pedagogical reform. When classroom (elementary) teachers present one lesson to the entire class in each subject every day, they are perpetuating anachronistic practices that have kept our schools in failure mode for too long.


I agree with you. A child who is ready to read at four should be taught to read. My point is that formal reading instruction for the entire class (as is usual now) should be postponed until most children are seven years old. But ideally each child would be taught when he demonstrates readiness, as you suggest. The practice now of introducing reading to all kindergarten students is, in my opinion, bad pedagogy that often results in a sense of failure in five-year-olds.

In the school attended by my grandchildren two interesting things are occurring: Many parents are keeping their children at home for an extra year (so they are six when they enter kindergarten and seven when they enter first grade) and a "developmental kindergarten" is being offered for "immature" children. The children are then promoted to regular kindergarten so they too are seven years old when they enter first grade. I've since found out that these interventions are occurring at many schools in affluent neighborhoods. Interesting.

Paul, Great point about pedagogy. Where is the acknowledgement of the needed improvements in teaching to help kids learn better? One of the most disheartening elements of the standards movement is the (mistaken) idea that all kids should be learning exactly at the same pace. Even Signapore (not a place known for their live-and-let-live attitude) has 4 different streams to challenge children at their own level.

While it is debatable whether that type of streaming would be better or having (as you have done) mixed abilities in a classroom with teachers accommodating their individual needs, it is important to acknowledge that children do not learn at the same pace. The underlying assumption of grade level standards is that there is one fixed pace that every child should be learning at. Something not in tune with reality.

If standards were simply a matter of content, then grade level topics might be very appropriate. But skills (as most standards documents focus on) are not standardizable.

Linda, The practice of affluent neighborhoods encouraging retention/delay of children seems more to do with boosting test scores than meeting the needs of the children. But as all the quality pre-school studies have shown, delaying school does not benefit children.


I am a strong advocate of high-quality preschools. I do NOT advocate delaying school!!! A print-rich early childhood program is what I envision for young children. Developmentally appropriate instruction in reading and writing would be offered for those who are ready and interested. I will admit that I am a great admirer of Frobel's kindergarten. It brought joy to the hearts and minds of little children and I'd like to see it come back.

You might be right about the affluent parents wanting higher test scores but some of my friends who kept their children home a year said they were afraid their children would not succeed in an academic kindergarten.

It seems that we all agree that one-size-fits-all is not the best approach to teaching anything. Maybe we should end on that note.


Interesting stuff on your local early childhood practices.

I had a theory (I'm sure there's research to substantiate it), often reinforced through experience, that many young boys (certainly not all) mature slower than girls. Time and again I saw boys, who if they had waited a year to start school, would have had a much better chance at success. They simply were not READY to start when the local guidelines said they were eligible. Many times this was directly the result of family finances. By the time I got them in third, fourth, or fifth grade they already had several years of disappointment under their belts with egos as well as academics suffering needlessly.


Good points, as always. And yes, all kids do learn at a different pace, quite possibly the white elephant in America's classrooms enigmatically ignored over our last quarter century of educational reform.

"The underlying assumption of grade level standards is that there is one fixed pace that every child should be learning at." I believe the grade level standards are what most states PLAN for kids in that year. The disappointing aspect of that practice is that teachers rarely deviate from that road map to accommodate those above and below where they are SUPPOSED TO BE.

Interesting news about the four Singapore streams. On the surface it sounds comparable to our former tracking practice. Tracking is even more troublesome than one size fits all which again, too many of our teachers employ.

Fallon, if we have trouble agreeing with the facts on the ground, as a starting point, what is the chance we'll come to a common conclusion?


I know that I seem to be talking a foreign language here and many would wonder why I would come to a site that operates on a different paradigm. I have no connection to public education except for a brief tenure working for some NCLB paid consultants- reading over fat documents and running the copy machine etc. I can tell you that these guys were pointy headed technocrats that if given enough power would think nothing of centrally planning the world.

I currently work on a production line where I manually put tires on rims before they go on cars, 11 hrs a day. It is exhausting and somewhat mindless work. I bet some of the brain workers here would like it as a break- but maybe for only a couple of hours.

But I do understand that education plays a vital role in setting the mindset that contributes to creating the society that we live in. And that's where I come in, because it is not necessary to know classroom techniques in this regard... Rather, it is everyone's responsibility to get involved in education in general.

That said, I am not above getting facts or theory wrong, for sure. I am no expert on anything except taking naps in my car at lunch. I value the feedback. But whether we come to common conclusions or not is a separate matter.

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