On July 1, Bridging Differences starts its annual summer break. Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch will be back in September, though, rested and ready to blog about their differences—and similarities—once again.
Until then, happy summer everyone.
On July 1, Bridging Differences starts its annual summer break. Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch will be back in September, though, rested and ready to blog about their differences—and similarities—once again.
Until then, happy summer everyone.
Money maybe can't buy everything, but it can buy influence. (Which is why some semblance of financial equity is so crucial to democracy.) For example, it can buy the terms of the debate in a way that gives one side a leg up.
Part of that staging is capturing the right words. Example: "Choice" is such a nice word that the Right grabbed onto it re. schooling—although it's object was privatized schooling, just as the Left did on abortion when they were stronger. Defining "our" side of the education debates has been difficult as a result. We end up defending rather than proposing. It's been additionally difficult because the "other side" has co-opted a lot of the language that my side "invented," while moving fast in the opposite direction. Examples: Empowering schools, one of Joel Klein's favorite claims for his New York City reforms, means only that principals have more power over teachers (and less power in relationship to city and state). Similarly, knowing kids well has been turned into having reams of computer data—mostly test scores—on kids.
To avoid endless semantic and historical debates, Al Shanker once told me that he had given up arguing about whether schools were actually getting better or worse because it was hopeless. The facts couldn't penetrate a public already sold on the story of a glorious past, lost because of unionized teachers, bad parents, a permissive society, progressive education, and university ed schools. He said he had given up refuting the myth and rested his case for reform strictly on the need for a better-educated workforce than was needed in the past. I think he made a mistake. As you and I, unrealistically perhaps, would insist, the truth is always useful—in the long run. I have meager evidence to prove this point, but it remains an article of faith.
When I suggested your crisp statement of June 21 was perhaps a bit too celebratory of our history, I was worrying about how others might misread it. That the USA was a pioneer in promoting the ideal and practice of public (free) education and the degree to which, over time, the nation made it universal for all 6- to 18-year-olds was, you are right, remarkable. That the rest of the modern industrialized world has caught up with us—at last—is also good news. On these facts we are in agreement.
To celebrate the past while also being its severest critic is a tough stance. Rather than being defenders of the status quo, you and I are defenders of some very hard-won past triumphs. But, alas, the Billionaires Club seems to be want to kill the very best of our historic victories—not only in education but many other areas of life. The progressive income tax was a triumph that we have largely lost; ditto Social Security that might really provide security, ditto re. Brown v. Board of Education and on and on. And now the 200-year-old struggle to create a universal and equitable public system of education under the control of "the people" is not merely endangered but fast slipping away under the name of reform. (And regaining what is being lost will not be easy, which is why they are moving so fast to un-do as much as they can while they have the chance.) The Billionaires may be legitimately called "revolutionaries;" the Left has no monopoly on that term. They are not reformers—patient or impatient—and the revolution they are seeking is not one focused on teaching and learning, but on ownership of our schools.
Neither you nor I are for the status quo—we are, however, seeking ends always more, not less, compatible with schooling for democracy.
Before we quit for the summer I want also to alert you to what's happening at one 37-year-old school where I left part of my heart: Central Park East. CPE was the harbinger of an idea that our Billionaires have co-opted—a small self-governing public school of choice in East Harlem.
Instead of seeing Central Park East, and the other schools that burst like genies upon the scene in the '70s and '80s, as an exemplar of what they seek, they have done the opposite. In strictly "free-market" terms, CPE, for example, has always had a long waiting list and parents eager to have CPE extend through 8th grade. But year after year the Klein department of education has turned them down. Now the department has chosen to place a charter school in the building! Instead of betting on a proven innovator, they have invited in an unproven one and squashed the hopes of CPE's families. The current CPE principal's plan to open another CPE-like school in upper Manhattan in response to that neighborhood's strong interest was simultaneously turned down in favor of still-another charter. These are examples of what the United Federation of Teachers and NAACP are fighting about in their court case—the misuse of co-locations and charters to undermine the public system. The well-orchestrated outcry against the NAACP has been amazing to witness, as though it were odd for them to stand for a level playing field, greater rather than less integration, and the importance of public institutions.
By the way, in preparation for discussing the role of colleges/universities/trade schools next fall read this piece in The New York Times. David Leonhardt provides data that suggests that having a B.A. increases one's salary, but he also suggests that this is true regardless of what the job requires. Dana Goldstein's piece in The Nation tackles a similar conundrum behind "the college for all" debate. In short, the evidence suggests that the value of the B.A. is as a sorter, not a qualifier.
Isn't it amazing that at just the moment in history that the private sector has demonstrated a combination of appalling ignorance and incompetence—to the detriment of billions of ordinary people—they've managed to use their monstrous profits to shift the argument to the sins of the public sector?
Until we see each other at the SOS events in Washington, D.C., July 28-31, best,
As the school year draws to a close, it's time to take stock of the current situation in American education.
For the past year, the nation's public schools and the educators who work in them have been subjected to an unending assault. Occasionally someone will suggest that this is just another swing of the pendulum and is nothing new. I don't agree. In the past, we have had pendulum swings about pedagogical methods or educational philosophy, but never a full-fledged, well-funded effort to replace public schools with private management and never a full-throated effort to hold public school teachers accountable for the ills of society.
What is happening now has no precedent in the past. For the first time in our history, there is a concerted attempt, led by powerful people, to undermine the very idea of public schooling and to de-professionalize those who work in this sector. Sure, there were always fringe groups and erratic individuals who hated the public schools and who disparaged credentials and degrees as unimportant.
But these were considered extremist views. No one took them seriously. Now the movement toward privatization and de-professionalization has the enthusiastic endorsement of governors and legislatures in several states (including, but not limited to, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Indiana, and Wisconsin). Worse, it has the tacit endorsement of the Obama administration, whose Race to the Top has given the movement a bipartisan patina. And Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said little or nothing to discourage the Tea Party assault on public education.
Are there reasons to hope?
Yes, and these are the grounds that I believe will in time permit a revival of a sane, sound public policy.
1. Teachers—including our very best—are angry. The March on Washington on July 30 is led by National-Board-certified teachers like Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan, and Ken Bernstein, all well-known teacher-bloggers. They are tired of the teacher-bashing, and they are militant in defense of their profession.
2. Parents of public school students are getting organized to stop creeping privatization, to demand a reduction or end to high-stakes testing, and to insist that their schools be improved, not closed.
3. As research studies accumulate, the evidence in support of current corporate reform policies grows weaker. The evidence about the effects of high-stakes testing, merit pay, judging teachers by test scores, charter schools, and vouchers runs strongly against No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, as well as the mean-spirited policies advanced by Tea Party governors with the support of Michelle Rhee and her Students First front group. The nine-year study by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science on "Incentives and Test-based Accountability," plus the recent work of the National Center on Education and the Economy were the latest to warn that corporate reform strategies are seriously flawed.
4. Growing evidence and growing resistance by teachers and parents, by administrators and school boards, will eventually make it possible to break through the media shield that protects corporate reform. In time, the general public will understand the full dimensions of this corporate effort to reduce public space and to hand more of the nation's children over to the private sector. When the curtains are pulled away, we will learn that many idealistic and well-meaning people were cynically used by people with an ideological axe to grind, with a will to power, or with dreams of financial gain.
5. This, too, will pass away, as so many other fads have in the past century. In many respects, the current movement echoes the now forgotten ideas of Frederick W. Taylor, John Franklin Bobbitt, and David Snedden (to learn more about them, read Raymond Callahan's classic Education and the Cult of Efficiency, or my Left Back or Linda Darling-Hammond's 2011 commencement address at Teachers College. The speculators will find greener fields elsewhere, the Wall Street hedge-fund managers will grow bored and seek a new plaything, the billionaire philanthropists will find another cause that is less troublesome. How much collateral damage will they leave behind?
6. And then there is history. I only wish I might be alive and vigorous enough 20 years from now to write this story. I know I won't be, but I see the outlines already. It will make a fascinating read. There will be heroes, villains, naive collaborators, rigid ideologues intent on imposing their failed philosophy regardless of its effects, and those who were just following orders or unthinkingly carried away by the latest idea.
Of one thing I feel sure—history will not be kind to those who gleefully attacked teachers, sought to fire them based on inaccurate measures, and worked zealously to reduce their status and compensation. It will not admire the effort to insert business values into the work of educating children and shaping their minds, dreams, and character. It will not forgive those who forgot the civic, democratic purposes of our schools nor those who chipped away at the public square. Nor will it speak well of those who put the quest for gain over the needs of children. Nor will it lionize those who worshipped data and believed passionately in carrots and sticks. Those who will live forever in the minds of future generations are the ones who stood up against the powerful on behalf of children, who demanded that every child receive the best possible education, the education that the most fortunate parents would want for their own children.
Now is a time to speak and act. Now is a time to think about how we will one day be judged. Not by test scores, not by data, but by the consequences of our actions.
Yes, yes to your declaration of "where we stand" on Tuesday. I can quibble with a word here and there—a "can't" vs. a "shouldn't," and an overly enthusiastic endorsement of the schools of yesterday which so appalled me when I started teaching in 1962. It's wise to remember past achievements, but the pre-war schools of America also played a role in the sorrier part of our national history.
I'm a revolutionary in spirit—this cannot continue! But I'm a "reformist" in practice since it is, in fact, the fastest way to get to where I want to go. And, indeed, there are times, I believe, when it's best to close a school and rebuild. But when and how is an issue we haven't discussed. Let's take that on next year.
But, of late, I have a new worry! The corporations have already launched a new round of attacks on postsecondary education. Hardly their first attempt to muscle in to the money to be made in this field, as well as the opportunity to impose their ideals on the nation. Yes, its not just the dollars they see. I grant the fact that, like me, they have a vision. It's just not mine.
The argument's in favor of everyone going to college—regardless of their real interest and preferences—if they have any hopes of a decent future wage is worth examining. First of all, is it even true? Second of all, if it is, who does it benefit? And, finally, when "college for all" fails, what will come next? I think there are signs out there to help us answer all three questions, but the signs point toward an ugly conclusion—a return to the past with a huge wrinkle. Once again, by failing to insist on thinking about purposes, we let others use our schools for other purposes than "ours;" or as they would say, relying on "the market" to solve it for us.
Mike Rose spoke eloquently to this topic in his blog this week and in Education Week's Diplomas Count report recently. Also worth reading is Jay Mathews' response to it on June 16th. And, just a week earlier I was fascinated by Louis Menand's thoughtful and provocative piece in The New Yorker (June 6th).
It hits close to home these days as some of my grandchildren finish college—B.A.s in hand—while others approach it. Whether the experience was full of joy and happiness or not ... so what? When folks tell me how some students "drop out" after only two or three years, or within a semester of getting a diploma, and then lament "all that wasted time and money," it makes me wonder. We're assuming, aren't we, that the diploma is the whole point of it, rather than rejoicing that they got at least half or 7/8 of the benefits. As we've turned away from using the high school diploma as the symbol of our "level playing field" commitment, we've now insisted one needs a college B.A. to get, even half seriously, "into the game." (Meanwhile, income disparities grow and grow.) But I hear more and more college graduates now saying that a B.A. turns out not to be enough so they go to law school to "wait it out" until the job picture improves. (The world of work is not where we now think they'll sort out their strengths, but in career-choice courses in high school—or maybe kindergarten. We thus postpone once again reaching "adulthood" without having made college much more "adult," and impoverished their parents in many cases while doing so!
I think back at our efforts to convince Jorge, a student in our first graduating class at Central Park East Secondary School, to apply to college: "You can always go to the Police Academy later," we cajoled. His own passion to become a cop, fortunately, was stronger than our passion to "look good"—our statistical bragging rights. When he returned to visit us a few years later in his proud uniform and well-settled future, I felt ashamed of myself. Now I brag about him.
Menard concludes with a sad recollection of his impatience with the student who asked "Why do we have to buy this book?" He was, Menard now realizes, actually asking "how the magic worked."
The stakes are high, but just like high-stakes testing, they are misdirected and, worse, we are not paying close attention to the repercussions. We celebrate the post-World War II entry of the "masses" into higher education—at least I do—but in retrospect realize "we" (the democrats) didn't struggle over the purpose of it—then or now. So someone else did. It has become a hugely expensive experience of differential value to different 18- or 19-year-olds—and for some no value at all, just lost years and lost money. And, perhaps, lost dreams.
We haven't a lot of time left before summer to start this discussion, but maybe we can move to it in the fall, while also tackling alternative ways to reform K-12 that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top not only don't address, but prevent us from doing.
I will be marching with the Save Our Schools coalition of teachers and parents on July 30 in Washington, D.C. I know you will be, too. I hope we are joined by many thousands of concerned citizens who want to save our schools from the bad ideas and bad policies now harming them.
I am marching to protest the status quo of high-stakes testing, attacks on the education profession, and creeping privatization.
I want to protest the federal government's punitive ideas about school reform, specifically, No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top. Neither of these programs has any validation in research or practice or evidence. The nation's teachers and parents know that NCLB has been a policy disaster. Race to the Top incorporates the same failed ideas. Why doesn't Congress know?
I want to protest the wave of school closings caused by these cruel federal policies. Public schools are a public trust, not shoe stores. If they are struggling, they should be improved, not killed.
I want to protest the way that these federal programs have caused states and districts to waste billions of dollars on testing, test preparation, data collection, and an army of high-priced consultants.
I want to protest reliance on high-stakes testing, which has narrowed the curriculum, encouraged gaming the system, and promoted cheating.
I want to express my concern about the effects of 12 years of multiple-choice, standardized testing on children's cognitive development, and my fear that this reliance on bubble-testing discourages imagination, creativity, and divergent thinking.
I want to express my opposition to an educational system devoted to constant measurement, ranking, and rating of children, which validates the belief that some of our children are winners, while at least half are losers.
I want to speak out against federal policies that promote privatization of public education.
I want to protest federal efforts to encourage entrepreneurs to make money from education, instead of promoting open-source technology, free to all schools.
I want to protest the federal government's failure to develop long-term plans to improve the recruitment, preparation, and support of the teaching profession.
I want to protest the ill-founded belief that teachers should be evaluated by their students' test scores, which is a direct result of the Race to the Top.
I want to express my disgust at the constant barrage of attacks on teachers, principals, and public education.
I want to urge Congress and the Obama administration to recognize that federal funding should support equity and benefit the nation's neediest students. That was the rationale for passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and it should be the rationale for federal funding today.
I want to urge Congress and the Obama administration to acknowledge that school reform cannot be imposed by legislative fiat, but must be led by those who are most knowledgeable about the needs of children and schools: educators, parents, and local communities.
I want to urge Congress and the Obama administration to recognize the constraints of the Constitution and federalism and to stop using the relatively small financial contribution of the federal government to micromanage the nation's schools.
I want to urge Congress and the Obama administration to acknowledge that our nation's public schools have played an essential role in making our nation great. After many historic struggles, their doors are open to all, regardless of race, economic condition, national origin, disability, or language. We must keep their doors open to all and preserve this democratic institution for future generations.
I want to urge Congress and the Obama administration to recognize that our public schools are succeeding, not declining. Since the beginning of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the 1970s, our students have made slow but steady gains in reading and mathematics. Improvement has been especially notable for African-American students. Progress was greatest, ironically, before the implementation of NCLB.
I call on Congress and the Obama administration to cease spreading false claims of educational decline. Since the first international test in 1964, we have never led the world in test scores, and we have often been in the bottom quartile on those tests. Yet, as President Obama said in his State of the Union Address in January, we have the world's greatest economy, the world's most productive workers, the most inventors, the most patents, the most successful businesses, and the best universities in the world. And all of these great achievements were created by people who are mainly products of our nation's public schools.
I urge Congress and the Obama administration to support programs that help children arrive in school ready to learn: assuring that every pregnant woman has appropriate medical care and nutrition; that children have high-quality early-childhood education; and that parents know they have the support they need to help their children grow up healthy and ready to learn.
I am marching because I want every child to attend a school where they can learn not only basic skills, but history, geography, civics, the sciences, and world languages, and have ample opportunity to engage in the arts.
I am marching to support the dignity of the education profession and to express my thanks to the millions of teachers, principals, and other educators who are in the schools every day, doing their best to educate our nation's children.
I hope the march will revive the morale of our nation's educators. I hope it will remind the American people that the future of our nation depends on our willingness to protect and improve our public schools, the schools attended by nearly 90 percent of our nation's children.
I picked up a nice button in D.C. that reads: "Those who can, TEACH. Those who can't, pass laws about teaching."
I, too, once proposed a law: "Any legislative body that mandates a test for K-12 students must first take the test and publicly post their scores."
Rick Hess and Terry Moe, I suspect, would score at the top of that list. I grew suspicious of this talent for test-taking only when my oldest son, an early and fluent reader, gave wrong answers on a 3rd grade test. While his test failure may have fooled his teacher, it didn't fool me. But it made me curiouser and curiouser. So I tape-recorded 8-year-olds in Harlem "doing" the test. I discovered that they mostly read OK, but still gave "wrong" answers.
It felt much that way at the recent American Enterprise Institute session in D.C. in which I took part. I had a long list of issues to take up with Terry Moe and, even stretching my time limit, not enough time to get through them. So I felt semi-incoherent. I focused on Moe's historical amnesia about the rules and regulations imposed on schools and teachers long before teachers' unions, much less collective bargaining! I hammered away at his use of studies whose conclusions rested entirely on test scores. He denied that was so, but couldn't recall what else was used. I quoted from some recent prestigious studies that concluded that 10 years of test-based reform has not been good for American education. (Thanks, Diane, for your last letter, which outlines all their conclusions. What powerful ammunition for "our side" from some quite unlikely sources. Add to that my applause for Rick Hess's attack on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's proposal to get around the Constitution.)
To my delight the third panelist, Heather Harding of Teach for America, responding to Moe's attack on "collaboration" with unions, acknowledged she had a soft spot for collaboration, including collaboration with unions
Thanks to one of our readers, chemtchr, I found another deft critique of Moe's work here.
Where Terry Moe and other AEI-fellow travelers go off course is in thinking (or pretending?) that poverty and social disadvantage are excuses, and that tests measure what happens between 8:30 and 3 p.m. But I don't want to entirely undermine their argument because in fact society has held these kinds of low expectations for a few thousand years. Neither liberals nor conservatives are innocent. Some of the bias has been based on unmistakable racist and classist assumptions masked as a desire not to unfairly penalize those with naturally inferior capacities. It's ancient history reaffirmed by modern psychometrics. Their arguments justified, and still do, segregation—for the children's own good.
When I started teaching it seemed obvious that we had never seriously imagined that all children could learn about subtle and complex topics, and lo and behold, they didn't. What we need instead is a recognition that poverty and racism undermine the intellectual abilities of human beings, but schools add to this in powerful ways.
Yes, there are children in every community (just more in communities of poverty) who have serious health problems that impede their intelligence, as well as emotional traumas that undermine cognitive skills. But they are not the norm. Complicating their schooling is the fact that poor children, and poor black children above all, live in a bifurcated world. They must simultaneously—at a very young age—try to perceive the world as the "mainstream" sees it while also holding on to the reality they know best. They've been wisely warned by those they trust about the sometimes subtle dangers of that "other" world. Many decide silence is the best defense. Some become masters at finding clues in the faces of teachers. But many simply become restless, bored, angry, and eventually humiliated by the experience. They reject their teachers before their teachers can reject them.
When friends from the private Dalton School came to visit our school in Harlem, they left with this comment: "Your children are so much easier to teach than ours." They explained that what they didn't find at CPE was what they called "brattiness." They were right. Fortunately, we started our school with teachers who had many years of experience and were experts at seeing the world through the varied eyes of their students. They assumed a "dumb" (i.e. wrong) answer was likely based on something worth exploring together. It takes work to "see" this way. For one extraordinary year I co-taught with an experienced colleague. We spent hours together after school sharing anecdotes and incipient theories, and then planned together for the next day. I miss you, Howie!
Such practice requires graduate schools, teacher-ed programs, and schools themselves to change—not just kids. It requires schools with the power to adapt to individual children. Not just individually more effective teachers, but a community of adults, including families. It means assuming we belong to what Frank Smith calls the "literacy club," a club where membership is not exclusive, and doing so before children say, "I don't want to join your club anyway."
We can't overcome the past until we make radical changes in the way too many Americans are forced to live, as well as in our ways of using school. Over years—not months—schools can produce kids who cope with their dual memberships successfully, guess at what's on "our" mind (or the test-makers') when we ask right/wrong questions, and still respect their own minds. We need schools that help children, parents, and teachers to be alert to the many other forms of assessment that are both more accurate and reliable. That's what Ted Sizer challenged us to do. He was called a utopian. But it's a lot less utopian than thinking that repeating the same old practices under new names with tougher enforcement will produce better results.
Yes, "There oughta be a law." But passing laws isn't at the heart of the answer we need.
Sometimes critics complain that I write too much about what doesn't work and should focus instead on what does work. Since I am a historian, I don't think I am the right person to tell teachers how to teach or tell principals how to run their schools. I leave that to you, since you spent so many years as both teacher and principal.
I would argue, however, that there is value in warning policymakers when they are imposing harmful ideas on children, schools, and educators. I liken it to standing on the train tracks and yelling "Stop!" when you see that the train is heading right for the precipice at full speed, with every compartment packed with children, teachers, and principals. I freely admit that I was wrong about test-based accountability and choice. I take lots of knocks because I had the audacity to change my mind, that apparently being a rare thing to do in our hyper-polarized political environment. I'd like to believe that everyone has the capacity to re-examine what they think and determine whether the facts support their ideas. If evidence accumulates saying that those ideas don't work or have unintended negative consequences, why in the world would one proceed? Why not stop and listen and come up with a better idea?
Here is a golden opportunity for corporate reformers to reconsider their belief in carrots and sticks. The National Research Council of the National Academies of Science just released a major report about the value of test-based accountability and incentives. It appeared right before the Memorial Day weekend. It says that the train is on the wrong track. It deserves careful attention. I hope that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, members of Congress, and all the luminaries of corporate reform will read this report with care. So should every teacher and principal and parent who cares about the future of education in this country.
The NRC convened a Committee on Incentives and Test-Based Accountability to review and synthesize research into "how incentives affect behavior and to consider the implications of that research for educational accountability systems that attach incentives to test results." The 17-member committee consisted of a stellar cast of experts from the social and behavioral sciences. The committee's conclusions do not support our nation's current emphasis on test-based accountability, which is the primary idea behind No Child Left Behind. The same criticisms can be extended to Race to the Top, which relies heavily on test-based accountability as much as NCLB does, with most accountability landing on teachers.
The report contains two major conclusions: First, "Test-based incentive programs, as designed and implemented in the programs that have been carefully studied, have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest-achieving countries. When evaluated using relevant low-stakes tests, which are less likely to be inflated by the incentives themselves, the overall effects on achievement tend to be small and are effectively zero for a number of programs."
Referring to No Child Left Behind, now in effect for nine years, the committee held that there were some school-level effects, "but the measured effects to date tend to be concentrated in elementary grade mathematics, and the effects are small compared to the improvements the nation hopes to achieve."
The second major conclusion of the report is that high school exit examinations, as currently implemented in the United States, "decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement." It suggests that incentives for graduation, such as rewards, might be used to increase graduation rates.
Particularly telling were remarks made by some committee members about their findings. Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at MIT, said: "We went ahead, implementing this incredibly expensive and elaborate strategy for changing the education system without creating enough ways to test whether what we are doing is useful or not." He added, "We're relying on some primitive intuition about how to structure the education system without thinking deeply about it." Kevin Lang, the chair of Boston University's economics department, said: "None of the studies that we looked at found large effects on learning, anything approaching the rhetoric of being at the top of the international scale." He said that the most successful effects of NCLB, according to the committee's calculations, "moved student performance by eight-hundredths of the standard deviation, or from the 50th to the 53rd percentile."
Ariely of MIT said that the report "raises a red flag for education. These policies are treating humans like rats in a maze. We keep thinking about how to reorganize the cheese to get the rats to do what we want. People do so much more than that." Even worse, he said, was the idea that teachers could be motivated by bonuses: "That's one of the worst ideas out there. ... In the process of creating No Child Left Behind, as people thought about these strategies and rewards, they actually undermined teachers' motivations. They got teachers to care less, rather than more ... [because] they took away a sense of personal achievement and autonomy."
In another report, released on the same day, Marc S. Tucker, writing for the National Center on Education and the Economy, surveyed the practices of the top-performing nations in the world. He said that "much of the current reform agenda in this country is irrelevant, a detour from the route we must follow if we are to match the performance of the best." These nations, he said, do not test every student every year; they do not judge teacher quality by student test scores; they do not rely on computer-scored tests; they have a national curriculum that goes "far beyond mathematics and the home language covering, as well, the sciences, the social sciences, the arts and music ..."; and they have built over time a coherent process for recruiting, educating, and supporting excellent teachers who make teaching their career. Tucker's report deserves more space than I can devote to it here. Please take the time to read it. It is yet another clear sign that our "reform" train is on the wrong track.
Deborah, you have been saying many of the same things for years, based on your experience. Isn't it nice to know that so many experts agree with you? Will anyone listen? Will Secretary Duncan? Will Congress? Will the Gates Foundation? Will the D.C. think tanks?
P.S. In my last post, when I discussed the results for Urban Prep Academy, I linked to the Illinois website for that school. The school had been lauded by Secretary Arne Duncan for its remarkable graduation rate and college acceptance rate. When the website opens, it appears that 17 percent of the students of Urban Prep passed the state exams, as compared with 64 percent of the students in the Chicago public schools. One of our readers wrote to say that the students at Urban Prep take only the Prairie State Achievement Examination, which is for high school juniors, so I should have clicked that link to find that only 29 percent of Chicago public school students passed PSAE. The reader was right. So, 17 percent of Urban Prep students passed PSAE, as compared with 29 percent of Chicago's public high school juniors. This is indeed appalling, especially since these scores were registered in 2010, which was the capstone year of Secretary Arne Duncan's Renaissance 2010 plan. When I opened other links on the same site, I discovered that Urban Prep had not made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, and was in year one of program improvement. I point this out not to criticize the teachers or students, as the secretary claimed, but to criticize the secretary for presenting an airbrushed portrait of the school for his own purposes. I just wish—no doubt a vain hope—that politicians would stop showcasing schools to advance their political agendas and instead work harder to make sure that every school has the support it needs to succeed.
I'm going to D.C. tomorrow** to talk with Rick Hess about Terry Moe's new anti-union book, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools. I read it thinking: "Does this guy really believe what he's saying, or is he only trying to make points with some larger audience he hopes to reach?"
The odds are that he believes every word he writes; another reminder of how much what we take for granted depends on our particular experiences. Maybe these guys DO constantly run into teachers who are fans of Michel Rhee, as they claim. With the millions of dollars Rhee has access to she'll have no trouble soon claiming soon that her new organization, StudentsFirst, represents enough teachers to present herself as the voice of real teachers in favor of serfdom. (Joke)
To claim, as Moe does, that we live in a world/country in which unions match the power of corporate entities in all their forms strikes me as such an absurdity that I tend not to take him seriously. I had a theory once that "labor bosses" didn't discourage the world from seeing them as more powerful than they were because it was precisely that image that gave them more power than they actually possessed.
I know the trick. In the old days when I felt vulnerable on behalf of "my" school I encouraged the view that Bobby Wagner and Al Shanker were my backers/supporters. There was a germ of truth to it—so I never denied it. I hoped it gave me extra credibility in some of the circles where I needed it. Never worry about people overestimating your influence, I figured. It's actually not always such a good idea, but I followed the path of least resistance. So maybe having failed for years to deny the view that "labor bosses" are comparable in power to big business and banking bosses, it doesn't seem so absurd for others to believe it.
Ergo, maybe it's a mistake for me to remind that audience of their actual weakness?
In a way, I'm grateful to Moe for being so specifically and forthrightly an enemy of unions. At least it doesn't sound paranoid for Randi Weingarten (or me) to claim we see anti-unionism involved in the latest round of bipartisan education policy.
Do we each just meet different teachers? I spoke last Saturday with a group of 60-75 teachers from the New Paltz, N.Y., area. The group comes together regularly to share practices under the auspices, in part, of the National Writing Project. (That's an amazing group with a grass-roots history that has sustained itself for decades, but is threatened financially by current federal policies.)
It was a teachers-showing-teachers day, on a day that couldn't have been more beautiful outdoors. The teachers were all there, though. It lifted my spirits; they were ready to snatch at every encouraging word and determined to out-wait and outwit those who want to turn them into data-bookkeepers and script-readers. Fortunately, they have local allies at many levels and have grown accustomed to widening every crack they find in support of the self-confident joy of learning that children can't resist—when it's available.
We did a lot of block-building. New Paltz is near Rifton, N.Y., where Community Playthings (makers of blocks and much more) does its work. Community Playthings is affiliated with a community of Hutterites—a group of people with strong beliefs about what young children need to thrive, plus a religion that reminds me somewhat of the Amish, and a commitment to working cooperatively with their neighbors. They offered us a free truckload of what they called slightly flawed blocks in the spring of 1974—which allowed the original Central Park East to open its doors full of blocks.
I'm convinced that irrepressible humanity will create something someday that even I cannot envision, and it will be good. Unless we kill off the planet first.
Meanwhile, I'm wondering how to respond to those whose literal picture of the world seems so unbalanced, at best, and imaginary at worst. The Terry Moes of the world, but even more importantly all the less-famous versions of him. Which again means wondering where I, too, live my own version of unreality.
I remember when I first moved to Hillsdale, N.Y. Folks said, "How can you? Everyone there's a Republican." I soon realized that, at most, Republicans won by 60/40 margins. So four out of 10 people I passed on the street were likely to be Democrats! And, of course, I may agree with Republicans on some things.
Working with children, especially very young ones, reminds one how easy it is to see the world sensibly, but differently. (One reason standardized tests are so unreliable at that age.) As perhaps I've mentioned to you before, I was startled at CPESS (Central Park East Secondary School) when 16- and 17-year-olds would confront me with their reality. For example, they were certain that "All in the Family" was an explicitly racist show (and a prime-time one at that). They argued persuasively just as 5-year-old Darryl had about the "livingness" of rocks. I could only resort to: "Well, the critics agree," or "I know the writer, and he intended it to be anti-racist," etc. Not powerful arguments.
So I head off Tuesday to confront an American Enterprise Institute audience about a book I suspect they agree with. I have 12 minutes.
** Editor's note: Deborah Meier wrote this blog entry in advance of a June 8 appearance at the American Enterprise Institute.
I had planned to write about an important new report from the National Research Council that shows the risks and ineffectiveness of high-stakes testing, but I have to put that off until next week. Events intervened that require me to address another, though related, subject.
On June 1, The New York Times published my critique of politicians who single out "miracle schools." These schools allegedly made such amazing progress in such a short time that they prove that poverty is no barrier to high academic achievement. Bill Bennett often referred to such schools as "existence proofs": If one school can do it, then all schools can do it. I have come to believe that such existence proofs are akin to saying that if one person can run a four-minute mile, then everyone should be able to do so. If one student can score a perfect 800 on her SAT in mathematics, then all should.
My goal in the article was to make five points: 1.) our political leaders are selling a false narrative (dramatic school reform can happen quickly and allow us to ignore oppressive social conditions); 2.) the media should be skeptical when presented with such claims; 3.) our society must act to reduce poverty; 4.) schools can and should be improved; and 5.) parents are children's most important educators and what they do matters a lot.
Two days later, Jonathan Alter of Bloomberg View accused me of trying to derail school reform. Alter's article quoted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saying that I had "insulted" teachers and students by questioning the gains at Bruce Randolph school in Denver, Urban Prep Academy in Chicago, Miami Central High School, and P.S. 33 in the Bronx.
I write now not to rehash the events, but to present the evidence. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg first launched the myth of the New York City "miracle" at P.S. 33 in the Bronx in 2005. He went there, in one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods, to celebrate a 49-point gain in its reading scores in only one year. Andrew Wolf of the New York Sun and Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute noticed the next year that the scores fell by 40 points and called for an investigation. When the city investigated three years later, they could find nothing amiss; all the paperwork had been destroyed. Case closed. Now the reading scores at P.S. 33 are nearly the same as they were in 2004, before the evanescent miracle of 2005.
Several weeks ago, I got an email from Gary Rubinstein, a high school math teacher and Teach For America alumnus. Gary reviewed Secretary Duncan's claims at the TFA 20-year reunion about Urban Prep. Duncan said that the students were no different from those in the old failed school, but 100 percent of the new school's graduates were accepted to four-year colleges. Gary discovered that Duncan was omitting some crucial facts: the students were not really the same, not all 9th graders made it to graduation, and—remarkably—only 17 percent of the students at the school passed the state exams, compared with 64 percent in Chicago.
When Harvard University's Nieman Foundation for Journalism invited me to blog for www.niemanwatchdog.org, I included Gary's Urban Prep story as a cautionary tale for reporters.
A few weeks later, Noel Hammatt, a researcher in Louisiana, contacted me. He had reviewed public data about Miami Central High School, which President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and former Governor Jeb Bush hailed as a successful turnaround. Hammatt concluded that the school had improved, but had not turned around. Despite some gains, it was still one of the lowest-performing high schools in Florida. He asked if I had any ideas where he could publish it, and I sent him to Nieman Watchdog.
I asked Noel if he could check out the Bruce Randolph school in Denver, which President Obama had lauded in his State of the Union address. He went to the Colorado website, where he discovered that Bruce Randolph has an amazing graduation rate, but is still one of the lowest-performing schools in the state. On the state tests of reading and writing, it scores in the first percentile, meaning that 99 percent of schools in the state get better results. The ACT score for its graduating seniors is 14.4, which indicates a lack of college readiness, as compared with a state average of 20.
None of these schools made adequate yearly progress, and under our punitive federal No Child Left Behind system might have been slated for closure, not for celebration. This system, I think we can agree, makes no sense.
On one level, this is a story about politicians taking credit for improvements to justify their policies. But there is a larger, and I think more ominous story, and that is the effort to claim that we can safely ignore growing income inequality and poverty and concentrate instead only on specific school reform policies. The underlying narrative is that our current regime of high-stakes testing is working; that teachers are to blame if scores are low; that if we fire principals and teachers, open more privately managed schools, and have more testing, scores and graduation rates will rise, more students will go to college, and our society will prosper. This narrative fits nicely with the political goals of the Tea Party governors who are slashing the budget for public education and encouraging vouchers and charters and testing as their school reform agendas.
This is wrong. Schools and society are intertwined. We have to improve both. There are certainly many schools that have made genuine gains in test scores and graduation rates, and they deserve recognition and commendations because their success defeats the odds. But the odds remain decidedly against children who grow up in poverty, without adequate healthcare, housing, nutrition, and support. The success of some schools does not obviate the need to improve the harmful economic and social conditions in which families live.
The night before Alter criticized me for "phony empiricism," I received the Daniel Patrick Moynihan award from the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences for promoting "the use of informed judgment to advance the public good" through "sound analysis and social science research in policy-making, while contributing to the civility of public discourse and pursuing a bipartisan approach to society's most pressing problems."
Douglas Massey of Princeton University, the president of the academy and a renowned scholar of race and poverty, wrote to say that the controversy was evidence of our society's unwillingness to face up to the great social and economic challenges of our day.
All in all, an eventful few days.
One familiar definition of a revolution is that it involves a dramatic shift in WHO has power. In general, power begets power while powerlessness too often stupefies.
We are almost all victims of myths that intensify the divisions of power. Examples:
The myth that the Left controls the media, that union bosses are all-powerful (and rich), that we spend too much money on x vs. y (confusing millions with billions or trillions), and the power of teachers' union bosses to dictate contracts and get their way. It gets to seem reasonable even if it is pure nonsense. We can resist these myths, but this can be a mixed blessing. Many kids I know resist knowledge because of who and how it is offered.
Some of our readers were distressed at my hostility toward wealth and power. In fact, they have a point. It is in part sheer envy. In part, it is an inherited trait. In part, it is a product of the career I chose. In part, it is rational.
Andrew Carnegie did a lot of good with free libraries. If I had not become a teacher, maybe I would have become a library reformer. Less hush-hush, more discussion. That's what should be going on in libraries. (My mother-in-law was a neighborhood librarian who told scholarly customers that if they wanted silence they should go to the nearby Washington University library.) It may be unnecessary to privatize public libraries because private bookstores have displaced libraries for many, and Amazon and Google for others. Meanwhile, my apologies to Carnegie.
Ditto Harvard. It's not a bad place, but we can acknowledge that it stands out in terms of arrogance. Still, many of my best friends and colleagues and their offspring went there or taught there. Even I taught there. (In our own way, we University of Chicago'ans are also arrogant, but somehow I find it less offensive.)
Maybe having "enemies"—in the form of people—is a necessary evil. In part, because some problems are actually perpetuated by greedy people for greedy ends, with a well-honed blindness to the side effects of their policies on others. Still, some of those are blinded, as I have argued earlier, by "seeing like a state." Some I always hope to convert—which requires not seeing them as enemies! After all, we are every single one of us guilty of blindness at times. Other names for it might be egocentricity, arrogance, lack of empathy, and even just wishful thinking. Infantile egocentricity, which Jean Piaget wrote about so well, doesn't disappear, but reappears in more sophisticated forms.
The expression "you have to break eggs to make an omelet" wasn't perhaps first said maliciously, and good people nodded in agreement. They didn't identify with the eggs. But when the eggs are you, you ought to get suspicious.
I speak with humility as well as arrogance. I know that I have spent 45 years sheltering myself from most of the Important discussions and been consumed with thinking small—about this and that child, fascinated by their ideas, mistakes, wisdom, and foolishness, intrigued also by my own and my colleagues' often vain efforts, our theories that didn't produce the results we intended, plus ideas we shunned that we later saw had merit. Staying close and observing closely has advantages. But staying close also has disadvantages: one isn't as prepared as one should be for the larger political context. Such was the case with my varied love affairs with neighborhood schools, small schools, choice, open education, John Dewey, integrated curriculum, whole language, constructivist math, teacher power, and parent power! I am more intrigued than I was by home schooling—and precisely for social rather than "academic" reasons—the reverse of what I'd first assumed.
What those like myself often miss are the trade-offs that our "discoveries" might entail writ large by policymakers. Or even colleagues! I remember talking to one of my favorite kindergarten teachers (Pam Cushing) about a new idea I had about the connection between our thoughts, the pencil in our hands (or the keyboard), and paper. In taking dictation, psycho-linguist Frank Smith suggested, we may reinforce the mistaken presumption that "authoring" is just writing down what you have said aloud, a form of dictation. It may have unintended consequences.
We played with this idea, and then Pam said, "Oh dear, I'll have to stop taking dictation! And I love doing it so." "STOP! STOP!," I said, "or I'll never explore an idea with you again! It's more than 'just an idea,' but less than a confirmed one, and even were it confirmed, maybe taking dictation has other benefits that outweigh its drawbacks!" She was relieved. Me, too.
Similarly, I used a finger-counting method with Jason, and it was so magical that I wanted to call a staff meeting so that we could do it with everyone. But having colleagues with equal power held me back. Luckily for me and them; otherwise, we'd have resorted to sabotage and other forms of resistance.
My conclusion? We need to put more power into the hands of parents, teachers, and students to accept and reject new ideas, extend them, revise them, and on and on. Publicly. Whether it's a proposal about what to include in our curriculum or what way of teaching the decimal system works best, it's never sufficiently "solved" to turn it into a national mandate.
If brainwashing humans with our truths (for their own good) worked, we'd long ago have become a flawless tyranny. We're eventually irrepressible. We see other possibilities; we dare; we challenge. Working alongside colleagues, families, and students has convinced me over and over how glad I am of that.