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Simplify Everything Else, Not Kids & Subject Matter


Dear Diane,

The absurdities you describe are on the mark and ought to kill the idea of paying teachers based on their students' test scores. But we both know the idea won't die that easily. Even the most renowned of testing experts argue that we're nowhere near being able to produce tests that can do the job of pay-by-score that folks want. I do wonder at times what "they" think they are doing?

The trouble is that when I start down that path I see conspiracies everywhere—for example, that these schemes justify hiring inexperienced and low-paid teachers—who can do scripted test-prep as well as the next guy. It has the handy side effect of destroying solidarity which from a businessman's perspective (perhaps) is a good thing, and keeps teachers away from controversial subjects—and tightly aligned to the stuff being tested. It probably weakens unions. And finally, it paves the way for a marketplace system of schooling instead of a public one (which is then relabeled a bureaucratic monopolistic model). Of course, the latter can be true—and as you know I was an early champion of choice and increased school autonomy for just that reason—within the public sector.

The charter schools have also become I fear another name for vouchers. Operated by private chains with public funding, they offer a kind of distorted marketplace, controlled by test scores standing in for profits. Thus, they kill two birds with one stone: public education and human judgment.

A test of intellectual rigor always in part rests on judgment. Democracy is built on that shaky foundation of trusting our fallible judgments. The central purpose of K-12 schooling in a democracy is thus the training of human judgment. The young can only learn how-to in the company of adults who are doing it. The means and ends are one.

But where you and I may disagree re. the Obama agenda is on the question of nationwide "standards"—e.g. curriculum. I think we are in agreement that NAEP—the only existing national exam—should remain separate and untainted by high stakes. A better labeling/benchmark system—or even doing away with any labels—would be wiser still. We can then focus on in-depth analysis of a wide range of interesting data. Those who want a 50-state common core grade-by-grade curriculum won't be satisfied with sampled NAEP scores because they want to make state-by-state, school-by-school, student-by-student comparisons. They see the competition for test scores as healthy. So, where do you stand?

In that regard, I found the recent Brookings Institution research by Grover Whitehurst et al a helpful warning. He argues that "the creation of common standards will have little impact on our future in a system in which there are also aligned assessments, and aligned curriculum, educators, and accountability for students, and aligned professional development...." And on and on. "Faith," he concludes, is not enough, and a closer look at our most successful "competitors" internationally demonstrates that this is not the path they have taken.

I don't recall the exact data, but someone once noted that teachers make dozens (or hundreds?) of decisions a minute. More than almost any other field (e.g. doctors), partly because they are simultaneously educating 20 to 30 different kids every minute. That's why they need eyes in the back of their heads and a trained instinct about those peculiar silences, mutterings, etc., which only experience teaches us to notice. Kids are complex—and each one is different. The subject matter is hopefully difficult, too. Thus, as Ted Sizer reminded me, be sure and simplify everything else you can, or you'll find yourself simplifying the kids and the subject matter. We've done the opposite under the new "deform" agenda: as school people follow ever more complicated analysis of statistical data! Becoming themselves more like machines. Truly! I sometimes wonder how many hours it would take to accomplish five hours of school time. If we each were teaching one child—home-schooling, in short. Simplifying complex people and information consumes us. It's not all wasted time, but.....

Once in a while, I'd try to make a quick round of my classroom to assess who was catching on to what. The trouble was that I usually got so intrigued by the first child I sat next to that I didn't get to the second. I exaggerate, a little.

Finding the right metaphors and analogies that work for each child is in part an art that takes time to accumulate into wisdom. It takes wariness, too, and sometimes only a good observer can catch our mistakes. It's hard not to hear our own meaning rather than the one the kids are making. Besides, many kids know how to fool us by "looking" smart.

I found this as true in my relationships with adults when I was a principal or head teacher. Because once again we don't all respond to criticism or close questioning the same way and can open up or close down very quickly. Sometimes quite politely.

I wish I could convince the new reformers—those who truly want a better way—that we need to improve and deepen NAEP while school-by-school we develop better tools for assessing that are simultaneously better tools for teaching.

Our final exercises at CPE and Mission Hill and Urban Academy and Beacon and on and on are the culmination of years of teaching/assessing approaches. At culminating years, the staff pull together to show off more formally before real-live audiences, who are assigned the task of "judging." They are, as I say over and over, real "road tests"; what people encounter in the real world of college or the workplace, and they simultaneously respond to the skills and knowledge that we need as citizens who are not easy to fool—at least not often. They serve, in short, democracy first and foremost.



Deb, we're really down working in the engine room and steering mechanisms now!

"The trouble was that I usually got so intrigued by the first child I sat next to that I didn't get to the second."

When we talk about flexible labor models, I'd like to think we're talking about helping to solve that problem. Can we look for a moment at district which managed to do something there?

Mike has been urging us for six months to read Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh". With good reason.

Perhaps someone with a scanner will get us some long passages here. Particularly from the center chapters, where high goals are set, flexibility of teaching and resources are invoked, and each kid gets individual assessment (often via lots of software) and help.

Raleigh had the good sense and ability to implement all of these things before NCLB. What they found was great results early on, minor adjustments when NCLB did come, and great results when their students chose to take the SAT's at the end of their time with the system.

The SAT's certainly aren't the end-all-be-all of education by a long shot. Yet they do determine who will become our next Doctors, pharmacists, venture capitalists, lawyers, engineers, scientists, etc. The SAT's are in large part are the stepping stone to the upper-middle and middle-middle class. For urban kids to make a giant leap in SAT scoring is a big step toward equality for the next generation.

Between Kindergarten and 12th grade, the kids are yours; we who endorse certain general management principles dislike micromanagement more than we like metrics. So, bring us solutions like Raleigh's and we will be glad to dismiss the state tests.


"Those who want a 50-state common core grade-by-grade curriculum won't be satisfied with sampled NAEP scores because they want to make state-by-state, school-by-school, student-by-student comparisons. They see the competition for test scores as healthy."

I believe competition is healthy. It's what's made this country great. It got us through two world wars and many other tough times throughout our history. Whether it's in our market economy, on the golf course, in our schools, or with international business pushing American companies to their limits. It's often times knocked us off our entitled pedestals where we once may have thought we were the best or the brightest only to discover that, not only we were not but we weren't even close. Whether it was in the production of automobiles or in the development of scientists and mathematicians.

The interesting aspect of competition I've always been cognizant of is the individual. Just a theory but: those who tend to shy away from competition always appear to have something to hide, they're almost afraid to match up with their fellow competitors. Conversely, those who invite competition seem to have nothing to hide. They're proud of their product, whether it's their "game", the product they've produced, or even the price of that product.

Competition has been conspicuously absent from our schools but I think that's about to change. And that's a good thing.

It's hard to see how anyone could think that the "four pillars" which have now morphed into "assurances" by each state, will make the US more globally "competitive." One would think that strong warning that each of the "pillars" has no foundation would carry some weight.

None of these were promised by President Obama in his campaign. We were promised "Change we can believe in" not an empty slogan and initiatives that are counter to the best technical advice the US can provide.

Other than the two of you and a few other bloggers, who is speaking up for kids and subject matter?

I shudder to think that any teacher would look down on a student because they shy away from competition. There are a host of reasons people, especially young people (students), avoid competition. Very few times it's because they have something to hide. Fear, sometimes uncontrollable fear, plays a large part in it. A fear of failure. A fear of success. A fear of unfair, or maybe fair, public accountability. Insecurity. Low self-esteem, etc., etc., etc.

Certainly, it is the job of educators to help students understand the realities of competition to the best of everyone's ability. That will never happen when we presume that all students who don't measure up to the educator's competitive standards are somehow psychologically impaired, unlike say... some hypercompetitors who'll destroy anything and anyone on their path to winning.

The real problem here though as I see it is that competition, while acceptable in some venues, has to be seen in the light that, BY DEFINITION, their will be a winner and a loser. There is no such thing as "everyone wins." It is not possible in any competition.

Thus opening and closing schools creates a "losing" class of students. School choice creates a "losing" class of students. Selective charters create a "losing" class of students. When one talks about having the right to choose a better school for their child (if there is really one many times), what they are really talking about is leaving the "losers" behind. As if everyone could just up and leave and ultimately we'd all be winners. That's not possible.

I wonder sometimes if the people who promote these policies could see it in themselves to run their classes full of young human beings the same way and still maintain any semblance of discipline or respect.

Competition may be fine in sports and free markets and settling new worlds, if one chooses to believe so. But basing an educational system around competition is a recipe for disaster for everyone - the victor and the vanquished. We all ultimately live in the same society and depend on each other to conduct ourselves civilly, not anarchically.

Jason Norman,

"Competition may be fine in sports and free markets and settling new worlds, if one chooses to believe so. But basing an educational system around competition is a recipe for disaster for everyone - the victor and the vanquished. We all ultimately live in the same society and depend on each other to conduct ourselves civilly, not anarchically."

It is easy to confuse the natural state of competition, generally called Darwinism, with the "competition" in the free market. Survival of the fittest in nature is a brutal and unforgiving struggle. Competition in the market is a metaphor only and really means the way in which free people sort out who is best at serving others in particular capacities.

Sure, there may be 'losers' in economic competition but not in the sense of wildebeests devoured by lions. The social division of labor benefits all that take part. Free markets express cooperation, rights, voluntaryism, and peaceful production.

By withdrawing your support of free markets you automatically choose a more Darwinistic form of relating. Public schools are based on taking without asking, living at the forced expense of others, and compulsion. What else could you expect from a government orchestrated monopolistic privilege- but primitive 'order'?

You want to give the impression of advocating humane conduct towards children etc. But your confusion produces just the opposite in effect.

True Fallon, very true.

I think Jason would like all our schools, and our markets for that matter, to operate the way of the local T-Ball league. The score of the game is never kept and no one ever wins or loses.

By this line of reasoning you could also get rid of the achievement gap in our schools over night. The solution: eliminate all state testing. If you don't evaluate students and schools then no one could ever fail.

Additionally, there would be no further need for education reform (funding) and no one's feelings would be hurt - simply by pretending the problem has disappeared. Not sure life works that way for most people.

This is exactly what the problem was for too long in our schools. The philosophy of education where everyone is smart and hard working and everyone is a winner does nothing but mask the problems. Inherently wrong with this philosophy: the kids in our schools who truly need help would never receive it because by definition, there would be no achievement gap and no problems.

Not so sure you're going to get a great deal of support on this line of reasoning.

How many straw men can be created to compete in a pseudo-"free market" in education?

Read this from Education Week about weakening unions as we move to paying teachers based on children's test scores.

Deb says "Simplifying complex people and information consumes us". We can make big improvements by unloading worthless complexity without being consumed. The representation of technical knowledge is plagued by five kinds of "Inexcusable Complexity". See the article of that name at
http://users.rcn.com/eslowry . One result of failing to simplify is that students everywhere are taught how to arrange pieces of information without being given any idea what is a reasonable structure for easily arranged pieces of information. I would like to hear from educators who are motivated to simplify.


What is it with the union worshipping around here? When their power is threatened, the NEA and AFT hacks try to pose as Lech Walesa's trade union fighting for freedom against a repressive regime. Granted, Americans do indeed face a repressive regime, though not yet on the scale of the USSR (abroad, yes). But there is one thing that needs to be gotten straight: your teacher unions are big supporters of the regime!

Thinking now of my morning visit to my Congressman's office. I'm there of course with the message that 1) I support access to health care for everyone and 2) the current bill would be the worst public law in memory.

The Education point here is the visit itself, the fact that I have no problem at all walking in, asking to be seen. No one knows me at all; I have no credentials. Yet I am sure that as soon as a staffer is free, I'll be heard. Fortunately for me, no one else is bothering this day before the vote, and I get to walk right in.

This is not just any congressman's office, mind you, it is the office of a "Blue-dog", one of the nationally known swing votes on this issue.

Why do we still get this kind of everyman respect 220 years into our Constitution? I'd argue because our schools have mostly done their job, producing people who recognize ability and education and achievement, but who also recognize that the next person who walks up may well have a powerful idea no matter his/her appearance or status.

So the first sub-point is, you have to have the commitment and confidence to bother walking in the door. Of the ten's of thousands within reach of this door, just one was walking in at the 11:00 hour this morn.

The second point is, we all expect and give that kind of everyman respect because of the experiences we get as customers of corporations. We all know that no matter our status in life, when we walk into the grocery store, we will get equal access to a (normally short) checkout line. We know that we probably won't have to wait more than 10 minutes for a Subway sandwich, the theater will take our ticket money pretty fast, the car salesperson will hear out whatever bargaining scheme we bring to the table. Citizens of countries where the government takes control of much of life live with no such expectations or hopes. Our Congressman gives us a listen because he knows we expect it.

The third is, if you want to be invited to stay, you might want to speak with some clarity and sincerity of purpose. Having a few facts might help extend the conversation.

I'm thinking then of kids in Detroit, and their parents who were left out of a high school education, let alone grad school. Remember those 50-80% dropout rates? Do those parents get to knowingly argue their case for education that lets students pass the SAT's?

Deb, you above accuse the charters of "they kill two birds with one stone: public education and human judgment." The Pot and the Kettle come to mind with this statement.

Stepped (time-in-place) pay scales, the rage in Detroit and other bad systems for decades, do exactly that--kill off public education by first killing off human judgment.

Well said, Ed, especially that part that starts "When we walk into a grocery store . . . " I'm not sure if I agree or disagree about the other things you say. I've sort of lost the point or direction of this conversation, but I appreciate a little reality grounding when it comes. We may have a lot of faults in our American culture, but we do a lot of things right also.

Fallon talks about free markets but conveniently omits that free markets are a playground ordered by specific economic theories. These theories have been transformed into managerial tactics of control, not freedom. Educators need to become more familiar with economic theories such as regulatory capture (Stigler, 1982 Nobel Economics), decision theory (Kahneman, 2002 Nobel Economics), evolutionary game theory (Schelling, 2005 Nobel Economics), and on. Without this knowledge, educators are children, or inmates, in Friedman's yard.

The good news, Marc, is that Friedman's yard is all-but closed except for a sparse remaining number of EdLand ideologues.

I will forgive you since I am only a commenter and not a main poster. If you had been involved in the last 6 or 7 posts by Ravitch and Meier you would know that I often critique other people’s comments based on what I see as a lack of understanding concerning regulatory capture. You can check it out. I recently mentioned Thomas DiLorenzo, Gabriel Kolko and Butler Shaffer in this regard.

FYI, I am in the Mises/Austrian camp- not the Friedman/Stigler/Chicago school. Economics is not math. No matter how complex the modeling becomes it does not advance economic knowledge at all. Mathematical models require the creation of fictions in order to make them work, i.e. "rational actor" or "competitive equilibrium construct"; and even then they only become logically consistent within themselves and have nothing to do with reality. How does Kahneman and Schelling deal with this?

I think one should take issue with Stigler’s insistence that politics works like markets. Stigler, too, supported the coercion and violence of government and even deemed it efficient:

“[I]n policy analysis, one may legitimately employ an alternative definition of efficiency that rests on the goals adopted by the society through its government. When a society wishes, for example, to give more income to a group than the market provides, we may surely analyze the efficiency with which this is done. In this . . . view, every durable social institution or practice is efficient, or it would not persist over time.” (Thanks to Prof. DiLorenzo)

Stigler's "playground" is a dangerous one.

I am bemused that this discussion has morphed from the original "Simplify Everything Else, Not Kids & Subject Matter", into the topic of "free-market" competition.

This echoes what has happened "on the ground" in my low-income public high school. My classroom has become a pawn in the competition among for-profit vendors of school-reform products and services. We are assigned to product-test various programs, under the tight supervision of the same entities which market the programs.

My superintendent pays public money to a vendor to implement this program. I am ordered to "benchmark" my curriculum by listing exactly the factoids and "skills" needed to answer high-stakes test items on bulleted, numbered standards. Any extraneous text in the frameworks, related to overarching themes or inquiry strands, is purely decorative, as it is not addressed on the tests.

A literacy coach shows samples of word scatters and vocabulary concept maps. My students will score on open response items if they produce a list of target vocabulary terms, and string those together. I am ordered to produce the chemistry list (so the vendor can sell it back to us). I am guilty of delaying the work, by bringing up unneeded details about chemistry, and instructional theories I have found on my own (apparently our superintendent hasn’t purchased the SIOP model for English language learners).

The worst of “free market” competition already runs many schools and districts. Hand- picked corporate wreckers are in control of Chicago, New York, and Washington. They starve the still-public buildings of resources, and then scavenge the wreckage. My principal says the public option in education is dead. I think he is secretly glad I have tenure, though, so he can’t fire me.

I still teach chemistry, as though their lives depended on it. Please send help.

Mary Porter,

Any issue must be looked at holistically. I am just following the money in my analysis. It is unfortunate that you are suffering, but someone- a lot of someones really- get the short end of the stick in a monopolistic governmental system. Have you heard of the “Military Industrial Complex”? Well the same can be said in describing America’s public schools and prisons and…

There is irony in what you say because your paycheck derives from a successful attempt to get taxpayer money for your private use. Why assume a different motive for management companies, textbook makers and consultants?

You want to blame the situation on ‘free markets’ but there isn’t one, or else it would not be a public school. What you should be blaming is government failure. Of course, it is not government failure from the perspective of the bureaucrats and private interests feeding on the system or using it as an expression of power.

I bet a lot of these private interests support the Democrat party just like your union does. How about them apples?

My word, so little of the problems in Chicago have to do with a ‘free market’ that your complaint serves as yet more evidence for the reason why public education ought to be done away with completely. The system keeps people in the dark about the nature of capitalism and free exchange.

I am sorry for your and the kids' suffering. It absolutely does not need to be this way.

Well, Marc, you're probably right about regulatory capture theory, but your advice to teachers to learn more economics isn't very helpful. Wouldn't it be more sensible to teach the economists some basic ethics?

When we teachers stand our ground and teach (without simplifying our subjects or the kids around us) there are factors in play far deeper than market theory. Public schools are public because they answer to the people, not because they are run by the government. I'll use a quote from the previous post to unravel the difference:

"There is irony in what you say because your paycheck derives from a successful attempt to get taxpayer money for your private use. Why assume a different motive for management companies, textbook makers and consultants?"

No, teachers are a different kind of professional. My paycheck derives partly from a promise I make to humanity, which is not even asked of marketers or salesmen. Physicians and teachers promise to put our service to our students or patients above even our own interests. Even though the word hypocrite derives from the same oath, we still ask doctors to take it.

Being held accountable by whatever interests have managed to position themselves above us is a poor stand-in for our real job description: we hold ourselves responsible to and for the children we teach, in every sense. No society can ever afford to let that individual and very public mission fall.

A public school administrator I know has retired and taken a lucrative job in edubusiness. Many of them do that, these days. Anyway, he was explaining to me why the edubusiness-dominated state DOE would allow districts to under-report dropout rates, when the graduation numbers on the same web page screamed "lie". He said the state was also being held accountable to the administration in Washington. He was shaken when I reviewed the concept of responsibility for him, as he bears some himself.

Of course, that was the Bush administration. It's one reason I worked so hard for Obama. Now, there's an irony for you, Fallon!

Read this Sunday's New York Times Magazine on Dr. James - and try to tell me education is so different than medicine.

I don't think it is.

There is good reason to start using standards and evidence-based decision-making in education.

Enough excuses for the "art" of teaching.

Anne Clark,
Per your request, I read the NYT Magazine article on Dr. James.
Now I am telling you that education is so different than medicine.
1. People disagree more about educational outcomes than they do about medical outcomes. Most of the time in medicine living longer is desired outcome. Even in medicine "evidence-based" decision-making is least helpful when the "best" outcomes aren't universally agreed on (pain management, end-of-life care, universal coverage, etc.)
2. Our measurements of the outcomes that we care about in education is far less precise than in medicine.
3. Unlike medicine, there is good evidence to suggest that education is like beer or bacon . . . even when its bad is better than nothing.

The whole argument for standards-based education and data-driven decision-making presumes that there is a consensus about what educational outcomes are essential. There isn't.

Another problem, Ann, is that the policy decisions being handed down on education aren't evidence- based at all! The best I can make out is, education policy is being driven by some wacko business marketing scheme.

Studies, linked right here on EdWeek, find that charter schools don't produce better results by any measures, turnarounds don't turn schools around, RTI is shown not to raise comprehension at all, and then the NEAP exam shows NY city schools have declined in math, right after the Mayor announces their great leap forward.

Also, real data has a denominator. All the NCLB high school data is further corrupted by the contemptible strategy of forcing low-scoring students out of school entirely in demonstration programs, then making them disappear from the rosters so the average scores seem to rise.

Brazen indifference to all this data is accompanied by escalating general attacks on classrooms teachers not even involved in the failed "reform" programs, based on no evidence whatsoever. I don't attribute any good faith at all to these attacks on public "monopoly" education by eduservice vendors. The Emperor is naked, and they've known it all along. They own stock in the Nw Clothes Venture Fund.

Where did this army of non-teaching education experts come from? And, for God's sake, who is paying them all?

Ann Clark. Let’s find our recent correspondence and post it here—or did you?

But since then I have read about Dr. James, and I found it very interesting and useful.

Keith is right about the differences, but I also found that the “slow” and nonmandatory way in which James approached it—versus “blaming” doctors and mandating reform—useful. The idea of having sufficient in-house research time for doctors to do what they did would be worthwhile in our schools. The respect shown the doctors—in developing and implementing the protocols, revising as they went, etc—isn’t present in educational circles. The recognition that this works better for certain types of medical issues and not others; the assumption that “in the end” doctors MUST exercise judgment and be held accountable for their judgment is striking.

Indeed the hardest “difference” to fix may be in the very nature of how we work—not one-patient at a time, but 25-35 at a time, with no time set aside for individual conferences (when both teacher and student are free). Of course, medical tests are also imperfect, and the wealth of our patients impacts on their health much as it does in schooling. But a good diagnostician spends time viewing a lot of immediate and longitudinal evidence, family history, and talks with the patient—listening also for clues. If we could institutionalize some of these factors—time, space, etc-- it might be as useful for teaching as it may become for medicine—even though Keith is right that our definition of being well-educated is far more up for debate than it is for being “healthy”.

The kind of competition that those who believe a relatively free market-place argue works well—despite risks involved—does not lead us all to assume that everything is best served that way. Private monopolies have most of the faults of public ones, and few of the competing virtues—for example. The argument that “greed” is always good for society surely needs some checks and balances. Even democracy doesn’t prevent one politician from spending 20 times as much as his rival, thus undercutting the essential discourse upon which elections should rest. The evidence is weighted toward those with the means to produce more “evidence”.

I notice no one seemed impressed by my argument for simplifying the “business” of schooling so we could focus on “teaching/learning which must remain complex. Contrary to one commenter’s point, what I mean by being well-educated is very complex, almost as complex as the minds of our children are—each and every one. But note: we don’t agree on what we are trying to teach! Example: I want every citizen to be in the habit of sustaining uncertainty , of being open to new possibilities, to encountering the counter-intuitive (grasping what millions vs billions vs trillions are about, and on and on). To be able to act with conviction even as one acknowledges uncertainty is (I believe) central to the democratic idea—and tough to do.

Finally, surely we all agree that the new-born child’s chances in life are very different if they are born poor rather than rich—hardly a freely chosen act. Being in New Orleans this past week—and traveling between my French Quarter luxury hotel and the devastated ward hardest hit by Katrina was a reminder. There is only one small school that has been re-opened in the entire ward, and no one in New Orleans is currently “responsible” for seeing that every child can get into some school—much less a good one. It’s a story of the failure of public and private solutions when there isn’t the will to address the “common” good.


Deborah said a couple words in her post that many people seem to forget once they start talking about (around)education but those who are educators never forget.

Kids are complex—and each one is different.

And this was my favorite quote, "It's hard not to hear our own meaning rather than the one the kids are making."

It seems like this is the modus operandi of the day. The test has become more important than the learning.

Thus, they kill two birds with one stone: public education and human judgment.

This reminds me conservatives who claim that Obama is going to "destroy" healthcare. But people of the most modest intelligence realize that minor tinkering with the system to give poorer people more options isn't going to "kill" or "destroy" anything.

Anne Clark - If a Dr. instructs a patient that they need to lose weight or take a certain medication or not eat certain foods or follow a diet and exercise and the patient decides to disregard the Dr.s orders, the Dr. isn't held accountable for the patient's decision not to do what they were told.

If a teacher instructs their "patient" to do certain assignments, get work done, get extra help from the teacher during recess or after-school, etc. and the student (and possibly parents that have been advised and begged to get their child to follow through) decides to disregard that and "the patient" does poorly on "the test" the teacher and school are held accountable like they have total control over everything. Not the same.

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