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Challenging the 'Longer Hours,' 'Try Harder' Wisdom


Dear Diane,

"We live in interesting times." A statement generally said more in sorrow than joy—and that's how I've felt this week over the coverage of the two contrasting reports to which you referred. Probably not many folks will read either, but many will notice the gist of each. David Brooks's interpretation is the oddest. It's probably the first time in my life I've been labeled part of the status quo on education! I've almost given up on the word "reformer" anyway—given the company it too often puts me in—so that wasn't the shock. It was the straight-out teacher-bashing that surprised me.

"Thinking like a state" vs. "thinking like an educator" won't do either, because—as you and some of our readers reminded me, teachers need to think Big, too. In an ideal democracy, these would be interchangeable roles for all citizens.

I'm intrigued at the anger that the statement that "schools alone can't do it" elicits from the Katie Haycock/Joel Klein/Ed Sector/David Brooks folks (the "Education Equality" report). This confrontation has a long history. In its modern garb it began with the unfortunate "A Nation at Risk" statement in the mid-80s that carelessly labeled teachers and public schools as America's No. 1 domestic enemies. (Followed later by the Bushies declaring the NEA "terrorists".)

To lay at the door of schools all the ails of society—and particularly those that afflict people of color and low income—is such a cop-out and so transparent that it's hard for me to believe they've gotten as far as they have with that message. Our vast industrial preeminence overcome by lazy teachers? (If it's such a cushy job, why, one wonders, is the turnover rate so high?) Given the disparities in health care, I'm waiting for the same crowd to propose a cheaper, simpler healthcare solution: raise standards (all citizens shall be equally healthy) and mandate closing the gaps by 2014. McCain/Obama!

How schools can build a more powerful nation and better undermine the inequities in American society are important, debatable issues. I believe schools have immense potential in both arenas. That's why what interests me most of all are the questions that Mike Rose asks in his blog; and why I wish policy folks would reread Richard Rothstein's "The Way We Were?" and Ted Sizer's "Horace's Compromise". If it were as simple as the Kleins of the world imagine, why is it that the 'best' private schools are reluctant to educate any but those who start off with high test scores? Why is it that the poor have historically worked harder—sweat more for longer hours—than the rich?

I hadn't, of course, thought of policymakers as the spokespeople of democracy, as the elected representatives of citizens when I complained about them. You are right to remind me, Diane. I usually run into them as the paid lobbyists for various interest groups, hired to turn "self interests" into State policy. There are "my" policy wonks, and there are "theirs". So I should use my language more carefully. But the sad fact is that "my side" doesn't have as many paid lobbyists, think tanks, foundations as "theirs". That's why it's crucial for parents and teachers to take themselves seriously and be policy wonks on their own behalf.

Accountability is what democracy was invented for, and the kind teachers practice daily gets closer to the roots of that idea than most other schemes. Finding the way to capture that form of educational accountability writ large is why the Coalition of Essential Schools was started almost 25 years ago. (I just left the Coalition's board meeting). Its 10 Principles were put forth as ways for schools to build standards, and for young people to "show" what they could do to publicly meet them. In an odd twist of fate, most of the Coalition's language has been co-opted—like the small schools movement—to quite different ends: e.g. standards evolved into standardization and performance assessment into right answers on multiple-choice tests.

It's hard to keep the craftsman and policymaker view from splitting into irreconcilables. It's why as principal I kept some classroom responsibilities that put me in a similar position with my colleagues.

It's why I decided to retake piano lessons so I'd remember my vulnerability as a novice learner. Balancing the particular and the more global is tougher for me to do these days when they are so estranged and when I'm an observer most of the time.

But writing this has cheered me up. It's actually been a pretty good month. The earlier "Democracy At Risk" and the new "Broader, Bolder" reports have challenged the "longer hours", "try harder" wisdom. The old saw that the best way to tackle income and political inequality is through those at the bottom working harder for less has produced two good policy rebuttals. Good for us.

It will be interesting to see how the presidential candidates take it on in the months ahead.


P.S. These thoughts remind me that Michael and Susan Klonsky's provocative new book—"Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society"—deserves our discussing some time, Diane.


Well said.

We're having the same discussion on my blog right now.

Part of the problem is that educators have been promising to do more than they can do. I found a quote from the first President Bush the other day where he said “Think about every problem every challenge we face. The solution to each starts with education. For the sake of the future—of our children—and the nation we must transform America’s schools.” This is of course hogwash. But accepting such hogwash uncritically 20 years ago today, leads to the equally ridiculous assertions that teachers are America’s enemy.

The problem is that not every problem starts with the education, and education cannot solve every social problem. But in the pursuit of a utopian society, education has accepted responsibility for more than it can possibly address. As you note, poverty is not created by education. Likewise the consequences of poverty are not addressed by insisting on new academic standards in the schools. Nor is poverty addressed by adopting new administrative formula to improve accountability.

But, as the first President Bush’s quote indicates, educators have in effect advertised for a long time that “every problem” can be solved by more education. And when educators couldn’t in fact solve every problem, the public turned to business models. For what it is worth, the business models behind the accountability movement are not working either, which should in the near future create new opportunities for the “old fashioned” reformers like you who have deep knowledge and understanding of schooling in America.

I hope though that in offering new solutions, the reformers tone down their promises of utopia a bit. An more to the point, I hope that the public, as represented by their politicians, begins to more carefully use the schools for what they are good for (e.g. creating a mass population which his literate and numerate), while blaming other parts of society for the very real problems not necessarily addressed by schooling.

Reference for quotation: p. 110 Tinkering toward Utopia, by Tyack and Cuban.

So as to frame my comments, I am a parent, not a professional educator.

First, schools can not, nor should they, "do it all." I know my children best.

Second, as a parent, I am my children's advocate. I will lay aside the "big picture" to protect my children and give them what they need to focus.

What this means for my relationship with the education system is when there are limited resources, I will fight for my children.

It also means I have to be willing to be vocal with my elected and unelected officials on behalf of my children's school and teachers.

As for the tension between parents and teachers as mentioned in the essay above, when a classroom or curriculum teaches values and beliefs antithetical to how I am raising my children, there will be conflict.

However, those who think the school system is the cure for lazy or bad parenting need to wake up.

To understand the influence of home versus school on student performance, let's try an example. Let's assume that the international studies mentioned on the last thread are absolutely true: Schools account for 25% of the variance in student performance. That sounds like a lot, but is it enough?

Assume that we could measure Home, School, and a Student on the same scale. We will use the NY Regents Math scale as an example. That scale runs from 0 to 100 -- 55 is the cut score for a diploma, 65 is Regents level, and 85 is "Passing with Distinction." If the international studies are correct, we can predict a student's score using the equation: (HOME*.75) + (SCHOOL*.25) = STUDENT. That gives 75% of the weight to home and 25% of the weight to the school. What does that actually mean in practice?

A student with a home slightly below diploma level (HOME=52, three points below) would need a school much better (SCHOOL=65) just to pass (STUDENT=55.25). But if you came from a home slightly below diploma level (HOME=52), even a perfect school (SCHOOL=100), could not raise you to the Regents level (SCORE=64, still one point shy of Regents level).

Even if the totality of schools does account for 25% of student performance, the influence of the totality of home is overwhelming. No child from a home less than 40 on our scale could ever be expected to get a degree, even with a perfect school (HOME=40, SCHOOL=100, STUDENT=55, barely a diploma). Take a student in the middle, from a home between a basic diploma and a Regents diploma (HOME=60). It would take a school 20 scaled score points higher (SCHOOL=80) to move that student up 5 scaled score points to Regents (STUDENT=65). The good news is that it would take a school worse than 20 points below (SCHOOL

Try it with your own state's scale for basic, proficient, and advanced.

Doesn't this explain why growth models applied to NCLB data don't change the AYP status of many schools at all? The kind of growth that would be necessary to move a child well below proficient to proficient, given the weight of factors beyond the control of schools, is almost impossible. Before NCLB, the kinds of year-to-year gains mandated by NCLB's goals would trigger a cheating investigation or data quality review. Indeed, in many places, such gains have been erased by a careful investigation of the school's success. Only the most extreme conditions seem to work: selecting out only the most motivated students, working extended hours, focusing only on tested content, drilling relentlessly. Even those gains may not be sustained when you try to replicate that model in another community.

Is it any wonder that none of the solutions currently in vogue seem to have much influence: charter schools, choice, vouchers, mayoral control, test-based data-driven decision-making, alternative certification, TFA, merit pay, small schools, small classes, technology in the classroom. The equation explains why these fashionable reforms don’t result in consistent, significant gains and, on the other hand, why these reforms thankfully don’t seem to do much damage. Simply stated, 75 > 25. Or, if you prefer, 75 = 3*25. Until you do the math using some examples, you don't really understand what that means.

Has No Child Left Behind Failed?
An educator's response to Claudia Wallis.
Ms. Wallis, I recently read your article on Time.com regarding Dr. Neuman and No Child Left Behind.
I am most drawn to the article statement which shares that the "Economic Policy Institute,... is releasing a document entitled "A Broader Bolder Approach to Education" which "lays out an expansive vision for leveling the
playing field for low income kids, one that looks toward new policies in
child health and support for parents and communities."
To me, the crux of the statement by the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank, is the approximately 25 billion dollar budget allocation to
Title One. The figure regarding the budgetary allocation is sourced by the Democratic staff committee on Education and Labor, US House of Representatives, February 5, 2007.
The Economic Policy Institute statement -proposal is intended to influence the dollars currently allocated to instruction under the current Title One parameters.
Under the current title one guidelines additional vendors
outside of the instructional realm are not the primary recipients of these monies.
Title One dollars do not necessarily flow directly into the hands of social interventionists or developmental theorists.
Yet, if the representatives of the Broader,Bolder, Approach attain political leverage, then the amended allocation guidelines can reflect their political influence.
Posted by Delia A. Busby, Educator at 5:31 PM
Labels: Approach, Bolder, Broader, Claudia Wallis, Delia Armstrong Busby, Delia busby, Economic Policy Institute, No Child Left Behind, Susan Newman
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Delia Armstrong-Busby
I am an Award Winning Educator and former School District 11 Board Member. I am also a Graduate of CalState, LA, the University of Colorado Graduate School of Education (UCCS), and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
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25% Solution,

The international data did give a 25% weighting to the differences between school systems (not individual schools). The remaining variance was not all completely attributed to home environment.

The contribution from SES (which is captured in your "home" varied from less than 10% (the higher achieving school systems) to as large as 25%. In the US, the variance due to SES factors was 18%, which was comparable to the OECD average of 17%.

Please also note that the PISA analysis specifically found that SES was not deterministic. Low SES did not prevent some children from acheiving at the highest levels in the best school systems.

Erin Johnson


Re 25% solution. or 18%. Or whatever!

Yes, of you are so right. Statistics are just statistics--they tell us the odds. Poor kids sometimes outperform the richest, and rich kids sometimes perform miserably. On tests and, more importantly still, in life!!!

But it's the "odds against" factor that makes this a "human rights" issue--kids are not playing on an even close to level playing field. Unfortunately some of the same factors that work against the low SES also undermine their /motivation to overcome those odds!

They "know" that just trying harder doesn't work for them - at least that's part of the answer as it was for me as a poor piano student. For many kids it takes a different approach--sometimes a mere modification but more likely a very different climate, a different kind of relationship between school learning and "street/family/life" learning, different forms of relationships, different ways of developing curriculum or interconnecting pedagogy to curriculum. I think these differences are helpful to ALL kids, but less essential for the rich, especially in terms of the ranking order of students. But just as essential perhaps in releasing a kind of intellectual capacity that too few of our successful students have. So I think it's a win-win.

But I also don't think it can be imposed; but I think it can be encouraged if we stopped stepping in the way of such efforts.

If we focused on what it takes to work with what for lack of space I'd call "teacher wisdom of practice", and "student wisdom" and "parent wisdom" (as Margo points out) and all that-we'd begin to tackle the oveable odds. But that will require making schools, as a matter of course, a very different kind of place of learning--which requires addressing the time (and thus resources) it takes to build on such wisdom, explore it, reflect on it and revise as we go--out in the open. Your emphasis on external evaluation can be very useful to such efforts, if there is the time built-into our work for exploring such evaluations.

Each year at CPESS we invited external evaluators in to look at a particular aspect of our work, and then we spent nearly a full day listening to their comments, in an open-audience of staff, parents and students, and then smaller sessions where we could interact. They had no power over us but they were highly influential in building our pedagogy, curriculum and self-evaluation. Our internal/external graduation committees played a similar role in building a staff culture of inquiry into our own work. This was the basis of our proposal to create networks of schools with the responsibility for engaging in these kinds of evaluations amongst professionals. Our own forms of medical "rounds."



I posted this earlier this week, but it didn't show up! So here it is again:

Dear Deborah and Diane,

I applaud your current exchanges, and as I read them, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the nature of the mainstream discussion of schools and what they need. The corker came in Diane’s June 17th post where she discusses the “Education Equity Project” – which calls for more testing and more charter schools as the solution to our woes. She then cites New York Times columnist David Brooks’ praise of the project and dismissal of another proposal that came out a few days earlier (sponsored by the Economic Policy Institute) that sensibly argues that poor kids need more than tests to boost achievement – they need health care, after-school programs, a few resources. Brooks calls this approach – one absent in the last seven years of NCLB – the “status quo camp.” Diane rightly calls Brooks’ characterization “hokum.”

Diane, you should write to Brooks if you haven’t yet.

The whole thing brings up for me something I’ve been stewing on for a while now – and trying to write about – and that is how to counter the powerful but narrow language of schooling that has overtaken education policy, how to enter it, alter it, even just add a little classroom reality to it. Hand-in-glove, how do we begin to alter the standard media storylines about school reform, one that Brooks seems to have adopted whole hog? As Deborah suggests, following political scientist James Scott, we need to “see like a state” in order to respond to the terribly narrow conceptions of education, reform, achievement, learning, etc. that so dominate both policy and media today. How do we do it when thoughtful proposals like the one from the Economic Policy Institute (or from the Forum for Education and Democracy a few weeks before) either get swept aside or utterly mischaracterized?

Mike Rose


So from a human rights perspective, would you be happy with the results from Macao-China that had a less than 3% contribution from SES factors?

Also, we should not underestimate the powerful personal attributes associated with overcoming the odds.

Many of the students that I went to college with who had been from disadvantaged homes were better motivated and had the stick-to-it-ness that is necessary to succeed in college that was lacking from many of the students who had grown up in advantaged homes.

This is not an endorsement of growing up disadvantaged, but rather a perspective that personal determination can often be found in "overcoming the odds."

Erin Johnson

Every statistical distribution has exceptions, called outliers. This is the case with the PISA study, and the individual countries within the PISA study. What this means is that there are indeed exceptions to every rule. But it also means you cannot argue by anecdote, i.e. by using the exception. This means that in the best schools with the richest kids, you get some poor students, and in really poor schools you get a few students who do well no matter what. But a few outliers do not a system make. Use averages and medians is a much better measure for comparing systems.

I would be interested in what is different about the socio-economics of Macau that explains so little effect of socio-economics on achievement. How are socio-economics different in Macau than in the United States, or in countries where such factors play an even more important role in average test scores?


Macao-China was not the only school system to show low variance due to SES. Other school systems that had SES contributions to student acheivement that were 10% or less were Finaland, Italy, Japan, Indonesia, Canada, Iceland, Latvia, and the Russian Federation.

The full report is available if you are interested in the details of the statistical analysis.

What is very interesting is that even though these are all very different countries/cultures, the relative contribution of SES was very low (when compared to the rest of the OECD and in particular the US.

What these data indicate is that it is possible to have school systems that are more highly equitable than seen in the US, while at the same time not sacrificing the quality of education for our high acheivers as well.

Erin Johnson

Hi Erin,
> So I looked up Maco-China on Wikkipedia because I'm embarrassed to say
> I'd never heard about it. It has similarities--re the relationship to
> China--to Hong Kong. But very very very much smaller.
> I's the densest city in the world says Wikkipedia.. With a total population about the size of Boston (half a illion), It has the highest life expectancy and lowest birth mortality rates in the world! That's fascinating. 95% are ethnic Chinese and 90% Buddhist, 9% Christiabn. The State offer 15
years of free education starinig with 3 years (!) of kindergarten, 6 of primary school and 6 of secondary. But according to '06 census only
51.8 % of those 14 and over had any secondary education, and only 12% tertiary. That suggests this is all pretty new and/or that lots of young people don't stay in school all 15 years. It didn't say at what age it starts but I'd guess quite young--and they play longer!
There is virtually no agrarian population and no unemployment. The inequalty ratio is not spectacularly low or high; Hong Kong's is more "equal" or less "unequal" by a small amount. South Korea is more "equal". I don't know exactly how they calculate that and what kind of "curve" it reflects.
Also, half of the Chinese population are immigrants from the Mainland. That's odd and interesting. How did they manage to leave, and why etc? But his is a significant factor.
They mentioned that the birth rate is declining which is why they encourage immigration (which in turn has caused some recent concerns--among who?) The population was 3/5 as large 20 years ago but had alost double the birth rate!

What do I make of this? That it's hard to use it to discuss macro policy, but as with individual case studies in school I believe we can learn from close observation of anything, if done with care.
> Deb

Let the 75% equal whatever factor you want, including random error. The point is that the results of NCLB are entirely consistent with the hypothesis that schools, even if they control 25% of the variance, which seems like a lot, cannot perform the miracle once promised by John Watson. Schools alone, no matter what the method or reform, cannot take any child and turn him into anything we want him to be.

If that were true, 25 years after "A Nation at Risk" and the birth of modern American education reform, we would have some clear, consistent proof that the approaches we are taking actually work. Instead, even 7 years after the start of NCLB, we don't. Instead of reporting on our great successes, the NY Times is filled with puff pieces telling us how Margaret Spellings invented disaggregated data because she cares about children and how Wendy Kopp and Richard Barth represent the new generation of young, cute power couples out to change the world.

Not exactly the success stories we were expecting to hear by now.

I must disagree; high-stakes testing is working perfectly. The confusion arises because people think that this type of testing has something to do with education. To the contrary, high-stakes testing is mainly about getting politicians elected, and it does that very well. The problems of education are very complex, but politicians don't do complexity. By supporting testing, they avoid thinking about complex issues and put the blame for everything on the school system. If the scores on the tests are poor, how could anyone think that the tests are poorly written or that they are counterproductive; the public knows that poor test scores can only result from poor schools, and no politican has ever gone far wrong who blamed the schools for all the ills of society. Meanwhile, the real problem is ignored, "How do we teach the next generation to cope with the challenges of globalization?" Since we don't have any tests to answer that question, the politicans can engage in nostalgic conservativism, boldly demanding that the schools focus on problems from the last century. Isn't democracy wonderful?

I'd like to point to a little curiosity in the Education Equality Project Statement of Principles:

"4. We must have an honest and forthright conversation about the root causes of this national failure. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. That is the trap we must avoid or risk losing another generation of our children."

Actually, the definition of insanity is nothing of the sort. That quote on insanity has been variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Rita Mae Brown, and an ancient Chinese proverb. To call it a definition is misleading; instead, it's a commentary on specific kinds of repetitions.

In some situations (like practicing the cello), doing the same thing over and over can indeed bring a different result. In teaching, the same approach can bring substantially different results out of different children. Thus the "definition" taken out of context is downright silly.

Why complain about the erroneous "definition"? First of all, it assumes ignorance on the part of the reader. Do they really think no one will catch this? Second, the very "definition" obscures the issues at stake. Counter to the beliefs of Klein et al., we cannot change everything all the time. We have to identify those things that need changing and those that don't.

The EEP statement fails to do this. Aside from a lot of "accountability" and "empowerment" talk, it says very little. It does not even mention curriculum (whereas "Broader, Bolder" does). The EEP statement claims that "the systems were not designed with the goal of student learning first and foremost," but fails to state what they were originally designed for, or how they could be changed today (aside from the aforementioned "accountability" and "empowerment," which only go so far when you haven't established what you're trying to accomplish in the first place).

In the OED, the second definition of insanity is "extreme folly or want of sound sense; an instance of this." Rapid, reckless, curriculumless reforms may well qualify as "an instance of this," at the very least.

25% Solution

You have misunderstood the statistics.

The 25% variance has to do with the type of school system, not all the multiple factors having to do with individual schools.

Even with NCLB we have not changed our school system one iota. Layering bad tests on top of an ineffective school structure does not resemble in the least the school systems that are effective at encouraging all children to learn and decreasing the effect of SES on student learning.

There are multiple reasons to think that NCLB was a mistake. But asserting that no one can ever close the acheivement gap, grossly ignores the experience of the few school system that have gone a long way towards doing so.

If Finland, Italy, Japan, Indonesia, Canada, Iceland, Latvia, and the Russian Federation can develop quality school systems that minimize the effect of SES on student learning, why do you think that it is impossible for us?

Erin Johnson


There is little in the broad overall goals of the Education Equality Project that is wrong. Their statement that,

"The sad reality is that these systems are not broken. Rather, they are doing what we have designed them to do over time. The systems were not designed with the goal of student learning first and foremost, so they are ill-equipped to accomplish what is demanded of them today."

is entirely correct.

But their solutions will in no way improve student learning, narrow the achievement gap or do anything at all because as you pointed out, there is nothing to address curricula, teaching or the quality of the "accountability."

That is just insisting on,

"Create accountability for educational success at every level -- at the system and school level, for teachers and principals, and for central office administrators."

Ignores a basic premise of accountibility. That is: what are they supposed to be accountable to? If it is the fill-in-the-bubble, short-term, watered down tests that we subject our children to, how is that an improvement in education? Additionally, who is holding the test makers, the state standards developers or the curricula developers "accountable"?

Much like NCLB, the Broader, Bolder Challenge, the Barber/Acheive report, this Ed Reform will also fail to affect student learning because none of the "solutions" have anything to do with improving what goes on inside a classroom.

So as much as the Education Equality Project purports to put the "the goal of student learning first and foremost," none of their initiatives do so.

Erin Johnson

I was just checking a quote by Richard Elmore who is an intellectual hero of mine. I always worry about my complaints about instruction-driven reforms for high poverty schools because it puts me in a small minority and the majority includes scholars like Elmore. He argues(d) that if its not about instruction, then its not about anything.

Then I also stumbled across the Supplement to the Mass Insight's Turnaround Challenge.

I think I can make a case - at least one that doesn't place me in an too small of a minority - that instruction is the point of the spear, to reluctantly use a military slogan. An army, however, moves on its belly, needing to address the full range of material factors in order to bring that small point into action. The same applies to classroom instruction, which can be effective only when we have addressed relationships, behavior, health, and the entire social situtation.

I hate to be citing a citation but the Turnaround Challenge Supplement cited Jean Anyon's What 'Counts' as Education Policy, 2005, saying that increases in family income as small as $4,000 per year produced increases in elementary school students by 10 to 15%. The Mass Insight study went into depth describing hugely expensive reforms that didn't match those increases.

My evidence (and knowledge) here is meager, but how can people just say that the Bolder, Broader Challenge won't raise educational performance? My common sense says that it would, and others' common sense says it wouldn't. But there is research that should be addressed before making a flat assertion.

The real reason for this post, however, is to place a call for help. The report described all of these state and district efforts that included "turnaround specialists." The implication was that a turnaround specialist needed to be something more than a consultant, but the implication was that they might just be fancied-up consultants.

I'd love for some disinterested party, like the New Yorker, to do an indepth study of turnaround specialists. Who they are, what their experiences have been, what are the lessons that they have drawn. For instance, are they a distinct group who have had comparable experiences? Have they broken into schools of thought? In other words, could we supplement "teachers wisdom," "political wisdon,"and "parents wisdom," with the wisdom of turnabout specialists who have toiled in a few gardens? Surely, political/educational groups have done some of this. I'd like it done by someone who doesn't have a dog in the fight.

But in the meantime, is their anyone out their with real-world experiences in school turnarounds and the people who specialize in it?


The "Broader, Bolder" challenge includes a call for continued pursuit of "school improvement efforts," including "better instruction that makes a high-quality college preparatory curriculum accessible to all students."

The EEP statement does not once mention curriculum.


True. But wishing for better curricula and instruction will not make it so.

The Broader, Bolder initiatives put forth as to how to improve schools do not include anything that might actually improve instruction or curricula.


Evidence to suggest that Broader, Bolder will not improve education: consider that the social support programs already in place in Germany are similar to those proposed by Broader, Bolder.

And yet, SES has a greater negative effect on student learning in Germany than seen even in the US. If social support would have worked well, surely improved student learning would have shown up in countries (such as Germany) that offer those services.

Again, there is nothing wrong with any of the social aspects to Broader, Bolder. But the international evidence strongly suggests that social support alone does little/nothing to improve student learning.

It is the schools that matter. In particular, it is necessary to have a school structure that encourages quality instruction, curricula and assessment for improvements in student learning.

Erin Johnson


You're much better versed than I am in PISA data, but I think your conclusions regarding Germany vs. the U.S. are a bit hasty.

Look at PISA 2003 for mathematics literacy, for example. Yes, the gap in Germany between low-SES and high-SES (15-year-old) students is greater than the the U.S. gap. But the low-SES students in Germany score higher than their U.S. counterparts by 15 points. The high-SES German student outperform the U.S. students by 35 points. (And high school graduation rates are substantially higher than in the U.S.) Yes, the German gap is bigger, but there could be many ways of explaining this. For example, it might have something to do with the early tracking in Germany.

I found summaries of the data here:


How can we know that this data proves the failure of social support programs to help raise achivement? To me this is far from certain. One would have to take a look at those programs, as well as the schools, to see how effective both are. It seems rash to conclude that the social support programs don't help education.

Again, I don't see why it should be either-or: improving the schools or improving social services. Why not do both? Isn't that what "Broader, Bolder" is about? True, it does not go into detail regarding school improvements--or any of its points, for that matter. It is a statement, not a working plan. Any of its proposals could be implemented well or badly. Why not look at how each one might be implemented well, and seek ways to do so?


There is nothing wrong improving social services. But Broader, Bolder is trying to cast these social efforts as a way to improve student learning. This has two big problems, one for education and one for the services themselves.

First, opportunity cost. Every ed reform takes about 5 years before it is proven not to work (at raising student learning). If we spend 5 years trying out Broader, Bolder and find out that is does little/nothing to improve student learning, what then? Five years may not seem a lot to adults, but 5 years in a student's life is an eternity. There is no way to get those years back. Do we not owe it to our children to actually try and improve their education?

Second is public trust and their willingness to continue funding possibly very valuable programs if they are shown not to raise student learning. If we are to support an "educational reform" effort that requires increases in taxes, is it unreasonable for the public to actually expect student learning to rise? If student learning stays the same, do you think that the public will still be willing to fund those programs (even if they have tremendous merit under a social program)? Probably not.

Often a negative example can be more illuminating than a positive one.

While it is true that Germany's high SES students score higher than their US counterparts, those same German students are just about average when compared to Finland. That is Finland educates their average student to the same high level that Germany only educates their high SES students.

Considering the similarity between German and Finnish culture and social support, why is it that there is such a distinct difference between the two school systems?

The international evidence strongly suggests that it is their school systems. That is Finland enjoys a high quality school system that is able to minimize the SES gap so that their average student learns as much as Germany's select students.

If improving schools were as simple as improving social support, then Germany's low SES schools would be greatly ahead of ours. But they are not.

As far as education improvement, should we not support initiatives that have some evidence of affecting student learning for the better?

So far, social reforms as educational improvements have no such evidence.

Erin Johnson

I sure hope that HBOS’s Hard Times at Frederick Douglass High is watched and discussed by all. It was absolutely awesome. During the first month of summer, I hadn’t dreamed about school. But last night my dreams kept going back over the Douglass students just like they were my own.

In the first scene with the young English teacher, as I watched the body language of students, I wanted to shout at the screen. He’s going to try to teach before he gets control of the situation. I understand his dilemma, with no leverage and no disciplinary backing, and he needs to get instruction started. But you have to engage the majority, get enough of an equilibrium with those who “fake it to make it,” and deal in some credibility with the chronically disruptive. My second thought was how thankful I am to teach social studies. When face with an impossible situation in freshman Geography, your Standards are essentially the entire world, and you have so many more options for engaging students. Plus, it is worse for Math and English teachers who are under the gun and have to stay so close to the curriculum. When faced with such a challenge, I would toss the theories in the trash and adopt a teacher-centric approach. And I wouldn’t go down without fighting.

During so many parts of the show I’d slap my knee and shout “see what I mean,” explaining why teaching in the inner city can be the greatest job in the world. I agreed with equal enthusiasm with the 12th grade teacher who bemoaned the need for each person to struggle with their own moral standards when facing the full court press to just pass on students. After all, the students had clearly learned that adults were supposed to just pass them on. You have to figure that any student in the many classes with substitutes, not teachers, get an automatic passing grade. (In our school they all get blanket Bs when we can’t find a teacher, which sometimes happens in 1/4th of the classes.) The principal embodied the “just pass them on” attitude while placing the responsibility on the teachers.

The principal was the archetypical “principal’s principal.” She had that nonstop effort to put a smiley face on everything. She showed real compassion, and sometimes the truth came out. But mostly she had that perfect pitch of a principal whose job is to confidently say that tomorrow the sun will rise in the west, and if we all believe, great things will happen. She also pushed the single most destructive line in her profession, saying that she has several teachers who have no discipline problems, implying that a teacher who seeks disciplinary backing is unworthy. It was so clear to the film maker that there are huge differences between classes of older and younger students, of core classes and favored electives, and regular versus advanced classes. I’ll never understand why administrators are so wilfully blind to that reality.

The film maker had trade-offs, but she always made the right decision. For the first 1/3rd, I kept asking about the silence. Where were the shouts of “F___ You,” and the “N word?” She revealed a little of the sound in the halls as she faded into a narrative. Also missing was anything more than a hint of gangs and violence. You would think that the camera would prompt more gang signs, and I bet the play fight in the freshman hall that got pretty physical led to subsequent drama. (On the other hand, when we want [and that’s a big when] we know how to drive violence from the school premises even if we can’t deal with chronic class disruptions. Perhaps the cameras prompted the school system to deal with violence and gangs at that school.)

Also, does every inner city school have the same name for the “hall-walkers?” Do we all face the same dilemma where the administration is powerless to deal with kids who come to school but don’t go to class? And are others surprised by the lack of angry hall-walkers, groups of kids juicing themselves up prowling the hall looking for fights?

And where were the electronic devices and the cell phones that are so disruptive and dangerous? Has Baltimore solved that problem all through its schools?

The Douglass approach reminded me of our approach when my school was changing from an inner ring suburban school to the small hardcore school of today. Back then, we would push our 200 or so most disruptive students to the far edges of school property and segregate our Transitional 9th and 10th classes. In return, the serious gangsters kept their business away from school. I was shocked, however, by how blatantly the administration sought to push out students. All of our efforts are to keep kids in school, and we would get in big trouble if we publically challenged students for being overaged, or were so obvious in trying to get them in an alternative program.

Clearly, the administration saw their responsibility as ending when they pushed students inside classrooms (which in my experience is normative) or otherwise pushed them out of the halls.

I’m sure teachers had a love-hate relationship with the scene where the hall-walker was physically pushed out of the school. On one hand, we have to admire the efficiency and understand the smile on the face of the security guard/coach after removing the student. But even if it was not physically violent, it was emotionally assaultive. That kid will never forget the incident, being spoken to warmly, being hugged, then being restrained, and then being tricked as he was physically kicked out of school by people whose job it is to care for him. In some ways it was the great metaphor of the documentary. (It also made me speculate about he strengths and weaknesses of using city police in our school versus Baltimore’s using security guards. When we use a relatively larger number of professionals, the principals spend a whole lot more time with troubled students than they do teachers, so they concentrate on bestowing as many acts of kindness as possible, while the relatively larger number of security guards seem more committed to efficiency.)

At any rate, the film maker made the right decision in not overemphasizing the violence and overwhelming chaos. Her quieter approach made us more sensitive to the children. The first thing everyone says about our school - and I bet they say the same at Douglass - is the noise. But most of our kids are very quiet. The passivity is much much greater than the aggression.

And that’s what is so maddening about freshmen. They are sweet children. They are immature. They are immature because they have had so few adults in their lives. Then peer pressure and a critical mass of other exceptionally immature teens create a geometrical increase in disruptions. It is understandable that administrators, and others, would hope that teachers could just keep a lid on things until the kids grow into juniors and seniors. Who wants to remove a child from school because mostly he’s just struggling to grow up?

The difference between the chaos of the regular freshmen classes and the classes of older students, honors students, and students who engage in extracurriuclar activity is not intelligence or talent. Its maturity. What do you want to bet on this? Those students who were humiliating themselves in regular classes had been athletes, singers, musicians, or debaters, but for some developmental or family reason they were not able to function in the structure. Now they hide their fears, frustration, and deficits through passivity and/or disruption. Also, I bet Douglas was like our school when we raised the total number of students who passed the Algebra test from two to eight; none of the new passes were kids in regular classes.

Which reminds me; were there no freshmen core classes that would show relatively effective instruction? Maybe not. (This spring I agreed to take over a troubled freshman class of 35 with 8 to 10 chronic male troublemakers. We’ve never gotten much disciplinary backing for sophomores and freshmen, but now the policy was to give no disciplinary backing at all, and that seems to be the reality at Douglassl. It was the first time I had failed to turn around a class, and it drove me crazy. I was able to produce real teaching and real learning for about ½ of the class time, which was a record that made me sleepless. But, I could see how good teachers could be defeated completely by a system where students have learned that they are free to play around as much as possible. After having their fun, some adult will bail them out - or not. That’s how we get a non-graduation rate of 2/3rds.)

Which gets us back to the tragedy of NCLB. Clearly, “accountability” is not going to make a difference in these toughest schools. But I’ve always been frustrated by this question. We have focused completely on our school’s weaknesses Why haven’t we tried to build on our strengths? The Douglass choir is almost as good as ours (OK maybe I’m biased), the students responded to the team work of sports, debate and band, and parents did also. They had a freshman team. Why not concentrate first on building relationships, and teaching students to be students? If students failed to function in the context of the freshman team, then efficiently, respectfully, and humanely divert them to alternative schools where they would have a second chance to become members of a team. Had the coach been repeatedly interrupted by his ballplayers when he was trying to coach, he would have cut them from the team. That process is far less damaging than allowing immature children to humiliate themselves in class, rob their peers of an education, and then trying to embarrass them into going elsewhere. The problem with my proposal is that it would require adults to stand up, take responsibility, and make tough decisions. Its is much easier to wait for the child to decide that he or she is hopelessly behind. And the blame and shame game of NCLB just makes it worse.

Diana and Erin:
I had a look at the data that Diana cited. It is interesting, but I would hesitate to over-interpret it too much. There is simply too much variation between systems. I am currently living in Germany with a daughter who in an 11th grade gymnasium (higher level school). Our anecdotal experience is that the strengths of the German system relative to the US is not in mathematics, but in the arts, humanities, and foreign languages. It is common for the 17 year olds to speak English well.

I am also hesitant about comparing literacy statistics between English and languages like Japanese and even German. Literacy means something different in these languages (particularly Japanese with its complex writing system) than in English.

This is not to say that such inter-national comparisons of test scores are not useful. They are a good check on the type of anecdotal data I cited above! But, it is also tempting sometimes to over-interpret them, and as a result end up comparing the proverbial apples and oranges.


Would you please give me a detailed citation to the estimate of 25% of the variance being attributable to schools systems?

Thanks very much!



Here you go.

Fuchs and Woessmann, 2004

"At the country level, our empirical models can account for more than 85% of the total between-country variation in test scores in all three subjects. Institutions alone account for roughly one quarter of the international variation in student performance. Thus, institutional structures of school systems are again found to be important determinants of students’ educational performance."


Erin Johnson


You might also be interested in one of their other conclusions,

"The relationship between standardized tests and student achievement indeed differs strongly and statistically significant between systems with and without external exit exams. If there are no external exit exams, standardized testing is statistically significantly negatively related to student achievement in all three subjects. That is, if the educational goals and standards of the school system are not clearly specified, standardized testing can backfire and lead to weaker student performance. But the relationship between standardized testing and student achievement in all three subjects turns around to be statistically significantly positive in systems where external exit exams are in place."

Erin Johnson


Thank you. I look forward to reading it.


Last Monday I watched Hard Times at Douglass and was completely blown away by it. I dreamed about it all night, and the next morning I fired off an e-mail. After watching it again, I realized that I made a huge factual mistake and that I was too judgemental.

So here's my retraction/correction/explanation/apology.

After a second viewing, I owe the principal a huge apology. Any imperfections were dwarfed by her love and the commitment. I sure couldn’t do better.

On second viewing, however, I had a radical thought. Douglass committed a lot of effort into hall sweeps, tardy and attendance enforcement, and counseling overaged students. Maybe the lack of violence was a result of those efforts, and I should have trusted my "lying eyes."

On the first viewing, the administration seemed to be "pushing out" students. After all, they started with 500 freshmen and gradated 200. But that conclusion was in comparison to my system’s nonstop, though equally unsuccessful, efforts to keep kids in regular schools, long after it becomes obvious that they need an alternative program.

I had love-hate relationship with the scene where the hall-walker was physically pushed out of the school. On one hand, we have to admire the efficiency and understand the smile on the face of the security guard after removing the student. But even if it was not physically violent, it was emotionally assaultive, and that kid will never forget those feelings. On second viewing, however, I realized that I had completely mis-remembered the scene. The incident grew out of an argument over a hoodie and it was blown out of proportion. But I had conflated that incident with other hall-walker scenes, and I had become an "arm chair quarterback." Also, I had recoiled because the defiant student reminded me so much of a student who I have mishandled.

I mourn for the indignities thrust upon struggling teenage human beings. But the film just documents the dictum, "Feed the teachers or they will eat the children."

Sorry about the first post's overstatements

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