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Teachers and the Choices They've Always Had


Dear Diane,

Agreed. It would be foolhardy to dismiss any data out of hand. Agreed also: There is stuff imbedded in these international studies that we can learn from. In fact, on the whole, the data goes against the current wave of top-down test-based reforms.

(On a side note: the potential for data bias that you refer to is not necessarily a reflection of dishonesty on the part of the studies’ designers or implementers—but in the comparability of the data collected, the state of psychometrics, and how the data is publicly reported.)

One thing we can learn from international studies is that it may help if decisions are made closer to those who are affected by them. Not only are all the high-scoring countries much, much smaller than most of our 50 states, much less the US as a whole, but many do NOT have a national curriculum or national exams.

That’s what Linda Darling-Hammond reported to us last weekend at a meeting of the Forum for Education and Democracy! We were all startled, having bought the oft-repeated claim that international studies prove that national exams equal high scores. In some of the “high-scoring” nations, standards are set by districts, and in others by even smaller sub-units. And, none come close to doing as much mandating as we do.

Which nations was Linda referring to? At the top on most of the TIMMS and PISA tests are Finland, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada and South Korea. Also usually Switzerland and sometimes Japan. Singapore? That’s a city, not a State, and, after all, virtually all of our cities have had citywide standards for a long time. Some of the list above do and some don’t have “national” standards and tests, and some have standards but no national tests; Japan now does have both—but didn’t when they were ranking highest!

Also, a reminder: Most are highly advanced welfare states, compared with the US. Last year, the US ranked 20th of 21 in UNICEF’s data on the welfare of children and at the bottom of a list of 24 countries in terms of relative poverty. As in the case of test scores, how these figures are calculated is worth learning more about.

But one sentence stuck out in your letter, Diane—the notion that without such a national curriculum teachers “have to engage in guesswork about what students needed to learn.” In fact, as you know, teachers have many other choices—and always have! Their own math education, the textbook being used in their school and/or district, the NCTM standards, and the standards (and tests) set by the locality they teach in. When it comes to any individual class or child, informed “guesswork” is what life’s all about. Like any parent, much of our practice is “guesswork” based on the wisest information available to us. Sometimes (like every minute) parents have to make split-second decisions and fall back on “intuition”, past experience, books we’ve read, or what a neighbor suggested. So too with teachers. If the neighbor is a well-trained math teacher, our intuition has been honed over years of thoughtfully scrutinized teaching experience, we’ve been attentive to research in our field, and we had a good math education when we were young…….then those split-second decisions work more often, too. So good teacher ed pays attention to all of these.

Steve Koss (see your last letter) is right about the dumbness that passes for standards. Cities and states are in a competition to look good, versus “do good.” Someone wrote me recently about how Massachusetts is being touted for the rigorousness of its standards. Proof: that it includes in its 4th grade language arts test a paragraph from Tolstoy! It turns out to be an “urban myth”. However the item on Tolstoy does appear on a test published by NWEA called MAP, and the item is amazingly “easy” if one has been well-prepared on test-taking skills, not on literacy or literature.

To completely change the subject, for a moment. (Although maybe it’s right ON the subject?) I’ve been looking around the country at prekindergarten and kindergarten classrooms. I have noted that all the staples of the classrooms I taught in are now absent. No blocks (or a few old cardboard ones!), no pretend corners, no paint and clay, no sand or water, no cooking and no animals or plants! And since the classroom represents for many parents the model “learning environment” I’ll bet those things are increasingly absent from homes as well. All the ways in which humans have learned about the “real world” have been replaced by virtual realities (and take-out order dinners) carefully fed to passive watchers. I suspect the impact of introducing our young to the world in this manner will not be good. I worry how few of us are focused on this. It worries me far more these days than low scores on advanced math tests and won’t be solved by simply starting school earlier. (See Indefenseofchildhood.org and allianceforchildhood.org)



Deborah - Why not let teachers design curricula at the school level in teams, as is done in some Coalition schools? This would promote decentralization while allowing those closest to the classroom to work their expertise and intuitions into heart of schooling.


“When it comes to any individual class or child, informed “guesswork” is what life’s all about.”

The critical word in your sentence is “informed.” For a teacher to have any clue about what direction to take their children they need to know a lot of things: What does the child already know? Where do they need to go? What ways work better than others? How would an experienced teacher approach this child? All this coupled with a substantial amount of subject knowledge.

The resources you cited to support teachers in their “guesswork” seem rather inadequate. What if that teacher does not have a neighbor who is a well trained math teacher? What if their math experience was not positive? What if the teachers do not understand math very well? (Certainly, our teachers are products of our own educational system, which has failed to distinguish itself in math achievement.) What if the textbooks are poorly organized and provide explanations that opaque to the children? You offered local/state/NCTM standards as support for teachers, but unless these rather distant goals are translated well into appropriate materials for the teacher to use, how is the teacher to use them?

If teachers had quality support materials, an outstanding math education in their youth and taught within a system that enabled teachers to learn from experienced teachers; then yes, our teachers would be able to use their “guesswork” to empower our children to learn well.

But we do not currently have those support systems in place and it shows in the mediocre education that our children are currently experiencing.

Erin Johnson


"...Massachusetts is being touted for the rigorousness of its standards," sounded a tad condescending. I believe if we compared Massachusetts to most other states, it would be easy to make the case that Massachusetts has been, and continues to be, the leader/trend setter in public education nationwide.

Most recently, our state test results, relative to the NAEP tests (also known as the nation's report card) have been the nation’s best in both mathematics and reading at the fourth and eighth grade level. Fairly remarkable, don’t you think?

As you know Deb, the Massachusetts public school tradition can be chronicled throughout our country's history (you’ll have to pardon me while I boast a bit):

1635 - Boston Latin School opened as the first publicly funded school in the country.
1647 – Massachusetts mandated towns with fifty or more families had to pay a schoolmaster to teach their children, and towns with a hundred or more families had to open a Latin grammar school for all its school age children.
1821 - Boston English became the first publicly funded high school in the country.
1836 – the first McGuffey reader was published in Boston, which became widely accepted in most other parts of the country because of its secular, versus religious (Protestant), tone.
1837 - Horace Mann became the state's first Commissioner of Education and advocated for a “common” school which he believed would be the "great equalizer" in our new democracy. Isn’t this still the dream for our democracy today?
1839 - the first teacher training school, or normal school, opened in Lexington, Massachusetts.
1852 - Massachusetts became the first state to pass a compulsory education law for all school age children.

While, not everything here in the Bay State has been exemplary (the forced busing episode of the 70's in Boston, instigated by several of our less distinguished citizens, was certainly embarrassing), you would have to admit, Massachusetts has certainly made its share of pioneering contributions in the field of public education.

Paul Hoss

Yes yes, Tom. I think the entire faculty of a school must take responsibility for their impact on their students, and there should be plenty of collective planning, observing and evaluating of each other's work.

Guesswork is at the basis of the democratic idea--and while it works best when well-informed, most tyrants have insisted that the reason they took away freedom was in the name of their greater expertise and wisdom, etc. As Jefferson said--rather than taking away their democratic powers, let us better inform them. It's not a sure cure-all, just the best I know. But, of course, a Federal system could be--in its way, democratic too. I just also think the further removed decisions are--above all when fooling around with people's "minds" the less effective it is, especially if what one desires as a result is a free-minded people. (Is there such a word?)

Finally, re Massachusetts, Paul. Just my point! They were a great education state before they had State-imposed tests, and when (unlike NY State) they relied on the power of their local town boards.

I'm a Mass. fan too--except when it comes to the Red Sox and Patriots.



Yes, the "power" of local school committees in Massachusetts has been usurped, first by taxpayers in 1981 with Prop 2 1/2 and then again in 1993 by the state legislature's passage of MERA (Massachusetts Education Reform Act).

Proposition 2 1/2 essentially stripped local school boards of their fiscal autonomy. Prior to this legislation, local school boards, with the approval of town meeting vote, could allocate whatever monies they thought necessary to run their schools. Since this legislation passed in 1981, school budgets are now limited to a two and half percent increase annually, unless overridden at the annual town meeting (a somewhat complex procedure). As a taxpayer, I was not unhappy with this legislation. As a public school teacher, I thought of 2 1/2 as a sensible governor on the public purse strings.

When the state legislature passed MERA in 1993, school committees from across the state were (for lack of better word) forced to adopt the state's "common" standards. Let me think. Who was it that advocated for these "common" standards 171 years prior? Why it was great-great-great-great-uncle Horace. I would contend, as did Horace Mann, this was a good thing for Massachusetts public schools.

Now, as for the Red Sox and the Patriots, that should probably best be left to another entry, on another day.


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