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The Purpose of Small Schools


Dear Diane,

A lot of questions. I’d love to know more about your answers, too. But part of the problem is that there are lots of different things called charters—even the charter laws differ dramatically in different states and the schools even more so. Not all are small, and many are no more, and sometimes maybe less, self-governing than the average regular public school. Vouchers are, of course, a straightforward proposal to get out of the public school business—except maybe for the left-overs.

The Edison schools (now moving into online learning) have been as large as any public school. In fact, most charter school students in Massachusetts attend large schools, although the average charter is modest in size. Many of the “chains” are even more “standardized” than KIPP. You sent me a piece, recently Diane, about IKEA schools—in of all places, Sweden!—whose leader boasts: "We do not mind being compared to McDonald's. If we're religious about anything, it's standardization. We tell our teachers it is more important to do things the same way than to do them well." A colleague and pro-KIPP’er friend acknowledged that their kids sometimes have difficulty in high schools that expect kids to be more independent, speak up, write well, and be intellectual explorers. He hoped they’d learn from this. But deciding to go into the high school business may just be postponing the bad news. (See Mike Rose’s brilliant "Lives On the Boundary" about just this subject.)

A side note on test scores: dramatic system-wide improvements in test scores, like New York state’s and D.C.'s, would have sent up a red flag in the days of psychometric standards when such results were a sign of poor tests or cheating. One of the odd qualities of the current mania for testing is that we have no standards for standardized tests.

But back to small schools. The purpose of smallness—that kids and faculty and families are better known to each other—is generally irrelevant in many of the new “small learning communities” and in most of the chains that profess smallness. Irrelevant, that is, for the purposes we had in mind. The reason for the large “dinner table” conversation that small schools (and smaller classes) allow for is precisely in order to make difficult decisions together, to weigh trade-offs, to look across age spans at unexpected side effects (or no effects at all, e.g. “successfully teaching fractions” starting at scratch year after year). Kids have always created their own form of smallness (cliques, gangs, groupings), so have adults! What we wanted was smallness on behalf of educational decision-making close to the ground.

Knowing kids better is not simply to help kids “feel good” (which is definitely a positive), but so that we can over time better understand their interests, styles, passions, “ways of thinking”—and our own. It matters only if we—school and family—are in control of how we can respond to what we learn. It’s a laboratory, in effect, for democracy. It’s not intended to turn teachers into social workers (although hopefully there are social workers that the kids can see) but into wiser intellectual leaders. Fewer and fewer kids take for granted any more that they live within something they can call “a community”—a living culture held together by common bonds as well as common norms for dealing with differences. Democracy is one kind of community, and a very complex kind. When our lives depend on democracy many of its citizens have only the faintest notion about how to think, much less operate, within it. Often enough, they abandon it at precisely such moments as a frill we cannot afford.

When we tease local school boards, or local decision-making in general, for stupidity, we are acknowledging that we have created a society in which very few people “think like” democrats, seeing the importance of connecting their knowledge to their arguments, taking the opinions of others into account, and on and on and on. Once every four years we deride “elitism” but in between we operate with elitist assumptions about the way “ordinary people” think. That’s the most telling indictment of our schools, not their scores on tests.

Yes, representative democracy is essential when the numbers prevent direct democracy, so we must learn equally how to operate within such a system. But each school needs to develop its own set of trade-offs between the two, which was a central argument of the NYC Network project. I think the Boston pilots come close to representing a helpful model that has captured the strengths of charters, but has remained true to our commitment to public’ness. I’m hoping the L.A. model follows in that path.

But, remember, what you and I have hoped for in public schooling has always been aspirational. As you have noted in your books, it has had a rocky and uneven history. Many were excluded. Nor have we ever depended on them as much as we do today given all the other publics kids were once exposed to in their growing years. Today, the young experience the adult world, if at all, through a variety of media, via pre-programmed, often solo games. They require very little negotiation amongst peers, and the ends are pure amusement—to induce the state of wanting “more, more”. (I’m sure there are some skills that are honed, some knowledge taken in—I’m an acknowledged novice at kids’ electronic games.)

Small schools are an attempt to re-create, intentionally, the best of the family dinner table, the town meeting, the public square, the legislative process, the team, and the academy of thinkers—with as much of the diversity of the larger community as we can corral all in one manageable place.

You asked many other questions; particularly about the reason so many hedge fund managers (etc.) want to start schools. Money and the pleasure of control is my short answer. The longer answer is that they really are “believers”. Note the rest of that piece, where IKEA’s spokesman broadens his McDonald’s analogy. What works for hotels and airlines, he says, is what’s best for schools.

But this is more than enough for starters.




Your essay well captures the types of quality student-teacher interactions that foster quality learning.

But what happens if the small community is exclusionary? Perhaps by race or ethnicity.

The description of this type of school design seems to rely very heavily on what teachers already know. But what if the collective wisdom of the small community is rather limited?

How do teachers grow and improve in their understanding of teaching, subject matter and better ways of connecting with their students?

How would you envision quality curricula being developed in this type of school?

Curricular quality currently used in our schools is very poor. What is the process for improving the materials/ideas/approaches that our teachers use? Does every teacher need to re-invent the wheel or is there some common mechanism to share ideas/materials with teachers in the local school as well as the greater teaching community?

Your advocacy for quality teacher - student interactions is quite compelling. But could these quality interactions not happen in a larger system as well?

Is it the size of the school system that is important or the interactions between the teacher and student?

Erin Johnson



It's simply much much harder for us, as teachers, to notice the kids
good at not being noticed, year after year, in large schools. We need
all the "institutional" odds we can in our fazvor5. Fort faculty
interactions too. The harder it is to hide...

I think the network idea, which CPESS and MH carry out, of external
public review by other professionals in various fields is an essential
and amazingly useful provocateur. Also treating teachers like
professionals helps. For example, in NYC when I was there, an entire
school got 2 professional days off a year (that is two teachers a
year) to attend conferences, visit other schools, etc. Of course we
cheated. In Boston principals had to get permission for themselves or
any member of their staff to take a day or two off for such
professional purposes--with 60 days notice so it could be processed
and approved/disapproved in a timely manner. My old private high
school has a whole program of honoring teacher's professional
lives--encouraging them to write, attend meetings, be part of a larger
professional community of English or CHemistry teachers, etc.
Read!!! Seymour Sarason has often claimed--and it might be true--that
few professions read less in their own fields than teachers.

Breaking down the walls is critical, but they get rebuilt quickly in
sneaky ways if the purpose is "monitoring" rather than "provoking."

Have a wonderful summer. If you've never read Gerald Graff's book,
Clueless in Academe or Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary, they are
both lively reading with a somewhat similar point, made dramatically
differently, that I'm always trying to figure out how to put into

I often wish I were young again so that I had more years to work on
all the conundrums.



Being able to see each and every child is such an important aspect of teaching. And making each and every student feel valued and connected is the hallmark of quality teaching.

One possible reason that external evaluations work so well in promoting student learning may be that when teachers are not focused on "grading" they are focused on encouraging and engaging with their students.

As you so rightly note, our school system does little/nothing to encourage quality student-teacher interactions. In fact much weight and blame is placed on the shoulders of the teacher without providing any of the support/resources needed for quality teaching. How anyone could call 2 teacher days of prof. dev. a year per school is absurd. This lets the administrators get away with saying that they promote prof. dev. without providing real development. But our system allows this to happen because administrators only have to check boxes and not responsible for promoting quality student learning.

But a large school system does not necessarily mean that the teacher-student interactions need to be impersonal. An impersonal environment is not conducive to quality student learning.

But what a large school system can do is provide the extensive support mechanisms to enable those very important teacher-student interactions.

Those school systems that are successful at enabling the type of quality teacher-student interactions that you describe are so few and far between. But those systems are quite large while allowing/enabling the quality teacher - student interactions so necessary for quality student learning.

Without a school system change, we will be forever having to overcome all the barriers that the staus quo has to offer. Just relying on the goodwill of teachers is not enough.

Erin Johnson


Thank you for your enlightening essay. I applaud your statement: "One of the odd qualities of the current mania for testing is that we have no standards for standardized tests."

Yes, and far too many schools, small and large, measure their "success" in terms of test scores, not considering the mediocre quality of the tests themselves.

I have gotten into arguments with proponents of scripted curricula who say, "Prove that your methods are at least as successful as ours. If they are not, then you are failing your students." The only way to "prove" this, in their view, is through test scores. Thus the test scores acquire near-divine status.

Then there are those who view the tests with extreme skepticism and define success on different terms. To realize their vision, many believe they must work collaboratively and continuously to match their instruction and assessment to the individual children in their classes. In such a school there can be no set curriculum, because the needs of the children are in constant flux. This, to me, is as problematic as a scripted approach.

The kind of "dinner table" atmosphere you advocate has definite appeal. Yet I share Erin's concerns and questions. And I would prefer to combine a tradition of excellence (say, a liberal-classical curriculum) with a spirit of open discussion and deliberation--the very sort that you describe, but with certain established goals, subjects, and syllabi.

The dichotomy of the "script" and the "endless innovation" is just one more of the polarities plaguing our education system. I am not implying that you advocate "endless innovation," but it does seem your arguments tilt that way. It seems the extremes might have something in common. Both are in a sense reactions to a perceived problem. The script-proponents react to inconsistency of instruction; the "innovators" to the stultifying effects of standardization (stultifying mainly because of its mediocrity). We need to make schools that transcend the problem. Extreme rigidity and extreme innovation only go so far. I have heard from new teachers, "My school is really cool. It's all young teachers, and everyone's progressive, and we're all writing curriculum together." I think: yikes!

So, back to the question of small schools--why would "smallness" appeal to both the "script-proponents" and the "innovators"? Well, as you say, in a small school we are more aware of each other. It is harder for anyone to slip through the cracks. It is easier to build a school culture, whether regimented or flexible. For these very reasons, there's something to be said for largeness. Not everyone wants to be tracked all the time. Some kids and teachers need it, to be sure; but some thrive when given a little space and vast resources. There is room for both small and large schools, and benefits to both. I wonder if size might be a tangential issue, not the essence of what makes a school good.

Speaking of tangents, I have a question: why do we perceive "left" and "right" in education the way we do? I don't understand why "constructivism," for instance, would be associated with the "left." Yes, historically it has been so--but we also see the "business model" proponents embrace it swooningly. A lot of the group work that we see in the "workshop model" coincides with the agenda of the Business Roundtable.

Diana Senechal


Nice points.

As further support in refuting standardized tests:

The international evidence indicates that standardized testing is negatively correlated with student learning, where external tests that are directly related to what the student is learning in class has a strong positive correlation with student learning. That is: the type of testing has a dramatic effect on student learning.

So why do we persist in giving standardized tests when they have been shown so consistently to negatively affect student learning?

As for the size of schools: it seems that we could/should accomodate multiple types of schools if our school system was focused on student learning.

But our schools are focused on checking boxes (how many days of prof. dev.; attendence; etc...) and not on quality student learning.

Because our school system is ineffective at defining or promoting quality learning we get into these false discussions about "script" vs. "endless innovation". But without a focus on student learning how will any of us find out if either and/or both types of approaches/methods really do anything?

It is conceivable and most likely probable that students learn rather little from either approach.

How are we going to get to better learning environment without a school system that is actually responsible for providing a quality education?

Erin Johnson

I would return to Deb’s central point about stimulating the “dinner table conversation.” Larger classes encourage this, and smaller classes do not. Certainly there is also something to do with the skills of the teacher—an autocrat is an autocrat whether they are at the head of a 4 person table, or 400 person table. But for the skilled teacher able to stimulate interaction between participants, smaller is typically better. My experience at the college level is that something on the order of 12 students is ideal for the dinnertime conversation Deb describes. I would be interested in knowing how many students are in the private classrooms of the billionaires’ children who are promoting charter schools.

As for the testing which Diane S., and Erin write about from different perspectives, I think that it can be one measure of school effectiveness. The problem comes when it is considered to be the only measure of effectiveness, as is done on the web sites of state departments of education, and international comparisons. Unfortunately, most of what schools do (e.g. socialize children into a future national society) is not as easily measured as are English vocabulary, grammatical conventions, and algebra functions. As a result, we are again reduced again to a squabble over the efficacy of different testing regimes. Such arguments are perhaps good defensive measures, but do not provide an alternative way to address the problem of accountability.


I concur that our state departments of education are doing a poor/non-existant job.

But would also like to point out that any and all evaluations should focus on the student and not "school effectiveness."

Internationally, the focus of all effective school systems is the student, not proxies such as the school, district, classroom, etc...

Those school systems that develop students who do well on international exams, do so because their school systems are designed to promote quality learning. They are not test prep factories for the next international test. When the students have learned well, the tests are easy.

The problem of accountability is: what/who is accountable to what/who?

In the "testing and accountablity" model of school promoted by Bloomberg et al., the idea is that teachers will teach better if they are held accountable to a standardized test. The underlying assumption is that teachers are just lazy and they need strong motivation to do their job. The reality of the sitution could not be farther from the truth. And relying upon these minimalistic standardized tests undermines quality learning. Deborah stated correctly: who is evaluating the tests? No one.

Accountablity is necessary in any large organization. But who is responsible in our school system for ensuring that our children get a good education? No one.

Our schools are living off a historical tradition of schooling. As much as we tout "local control" in our schools, there really is no control and thus no responsibility for quality learning.

So we get these half-baked ideas about using poorly developed standardized tests to drive instruction. Talk about the tail wagging the dog.

Tests can be used effectively to measure quality learning. They are not and should not be the goal of education, but a reasonable measurement of knowledge and understanding.

Those very few school systems that provide an outstanding education do so by developing a quality learning environment for their students.

An over-reliance on on the wrong tests is only a symptom of our dysfuntional school system's problems.

As for the dinner table conversations, they can have a very powerful role in education. But how would we ever get to that point without a change in school structure to encourage quality learning?

Erin Johnson

Hi Erin:

The problem is that “quality learning” is more than any one exam, whatever the quality of that exam may be. They also create a people, establish a collective senses of right and wrong, civility, and a mass culture. The consequences of these very real effects are difficult to measure (if measurable at all), and unlikely to be measurable for years or decades. An ever more perfect exam does not change this. Schools also implicitly know this, even though this is rarely measured.

To illustrate this point, I recently scooted around school web sites to see what their mission statements. My non-random survey found the following goals for high schools:

"...develop a solid educational background enabling them to become productive members of a changing society."

"...to educate ethnically and economically diverse urban youth in critical thinking and problem solving."

"...provides all students the knowledge, skills, and educational opportunities to achieve high academic standards and be successful in a changing global society."

"OUR MISSION: Today and tomorrow: committed to excellence for all."

"...we are all partners in providing each student with the skills, knowledge and attitudes to be a contributing citizen in a changing world.

"...a science-focused college-preparatory high school designed to give students the tools they need to achieve academic success."

Note that missing from this list is mention of writing conventions, algebra, vocabulary, and the other things that are routinely tested for, although admittedly these are one means to being prepared for a changing society, diversity, excellence, a changing world, and academic success. What is more, I think that such philosophical questions about the future in the mission states are best dealt with in small groups, rather than large groups, and thus the dinner table metaphor.

Indeed, even standardized testing is dealt best with in such groups. I just forked over $999 for my daughter’s Kaplan SAT prep test which will be in a…small group with quick drills, and quick turn-around time on graded papers. Class size may not matter in the regression analyses done by researchers using test scores as a dependent variable. But if you follow the dollars of those who can afford to avoid the public system, you will find smaller classes than in the public schools. In economics, such expressed preferences are also considered data to make a point.

Tony Waters


Of course, quality learning is more than any one exam.

While exams can be useful for monitoring certain aspects of schooling, they should not be driving the process. (Which happens to the detriment of quality learning under NCLB.)

The process of defining and encouraging quality learning and thus enabling students to learn well needs to be first. Exams second. Also, note that exams are not the only way of measuring student learning. Certainly, oral presentations, projects or comprehensive reports can all play a role in monitoring student learning. The point is that student learning should be a primary mission of any school.

And those ephemeral intangibles that create a sense of people, as you mentioned, should be very high on the list of schools.

Internationally, those school systems that enable their children to learn well, strongly enable those intangibles as a critical part of their educational system.

Our schools are not set up to enable quality learning, no matter what form.

Erin Johnson

I agree with Erin on testing. Every school, that I can find that beats the demographics by a country mile, teaches the kids to high standards. They do teach to the test at all. In fact when the press interviews the kids from high performing schools, there is invariably a quote from a student that compared to their everyday work “the test” was easy;. If we worried less about the test and more about teaching, everyone would be better off.

The one thing that many of these schools do not do is teach to the test, unless, of course, Latin, Ancient Greek, Chaucer, and Beowulf are central to the test. Most of these schools are small and teach fewer things to mastery. There are often whole subjects they do not even cover that are on “the tests” and these kids still score better than most.

I have to weigh in here, because I start to get uncomfortable whenever the accountability discussion starts to go off into vague references of the other qualities or indicators that comprise effective education. I wholly believe that such things exist. I also believe that when it comes down to anything that might actually measure such things, we will be no happier with the implementation.

Linda Darling-Hammond presented a very good piece, I thought, in her testimony during the NCLB reauthorization hearings. She really fleshed out what alternate, or additional measures look like. These include things like performance based assessment--which a few states have started to tinker with. I do believe that PBA would be a wonderful adjunct to current testing (and improve it if you like--to my mind one of the arguments in favor of national standards). However, when push comes to shove, will teachers and administrators be any happier at the prospect of compiling meaningful and reliable portfolios of student work, and compiling and training the kinds of committees necessary to evaluate with some semblance of validity? And will we be any happier with what the results tell us?

There are indeed other data points that contribute needed knowledge to our picture of how schools are doing. Attendance and discipline data are an important part of the mix--but the accountability attached to this is far weaker. Some schools may be ecstatic to trumpet their AP scores and college acceptance rates. Others would find this an "unfair" evaluation. Even if it were boiled down to something more generic, such as the percentage of students either working or going to school 1 year after graduation, there are likely to be schools that balk that these things are too far out of their control.

I have no problem with changing the outcome indicators around--but I really don't think this is the problem. The problem is the unwillingness--of schools, yes, but in a more general societal way, as well, to accept any accountability for the outcomes of our education system.


Many mission statements I've read, including the ones you cite, are rather vague and cliche-ridden. It's hard to make much meaning of them--except that they do seem to appeal to business and progressives alike. "Critical thinking and problem-solving"? "Changing global society"? What are the alternatives? Would a school officially espouse "rote memorization for a stagnant world"?

Back to the question of left vs. right--it seems not only constructivism but progressivism could go either way politically. Progressive and business agendas have often coincided. That's not to say business is "right wing"--in fact, many businesses have integrated socialist and capitalist principles. Nonetheless, the confluence raises questions.

I was remembering a passage from Left Back--here it is, from pp. 51-52, regarding reformist ideas at the turn of the twentieth century: "Criticism of the academic curriculum came mainly from two sources: business leaders, who wanted economy and efficiency in the schools, and progressive educators in the nation's new colleges of education, who wanted the school curriculum to be more closely aligned with the needs of society in the industrial age. The business community was primarily interested in securing low taxes and well-trained workers. Progressive educators wanted socially efficient schools that would serve society by training students for jobs."

Very interesting--in particular, how social efficiency potentially serves the interests of business leaders and progressives alike. This may even shed light the wording of certain school mission statements. "Productive members of a changing society"--I imagine that sounds good to business and progressives. It sounds good to anyone--except that it is rather limited. Society is not only changing; and we do not seek only to be productive. Many of our ideas and movements have a long history; and a meaningful life involves learning enough that we can distinguish the new from the old, the original from the unoriginal--
and find our place not only in the economy, but in ideas.

Even terms like "data-driven" appeal to business and progressive perspectives, as Deborah points out in In Schools We Trust, p. 90: "All of this is an argument on behalf of being 'data driven.' While many, in these days of tough, businesslike jargon in the school world, see the phrase as strictly a measure of counting and questioning, for us it also requires looking for the evidence in the stories, the artifacts, the long-term outcomes of our work--what happens to the kids." To me, both kinds of data are important and potentially flawed, and we should master both so that we can use and evaluate them effectively.

So, a bigger question might be: why do certain terms and ideas appeal both to business interests and to progressives? How do these terms play out in the classroom? And what are the dangers of such apparent consensus? This could shed light on the "small school" movement and others. I have some ideas, but will have to test them out and read much more.

Diana Senechal

I’m going to miss you all in August, but then….. So, a few thoughts for August.

Diana, you’ve hit upon an important problem. The word “progressive” as we use it to talk about the educational ideas of Dewey and as it was and is often used to describe more modern, efficient educational/vocational practices promoted by business men of that era are rather different. Just as socialism was the word for fascism (national socialism), for Sweden, Eugene V. Debs and Dewey, but also for Communism complicates our lives. Note McCain’s use of Teddy Roosevelt as his hero.

Margo! You accuse schools of not being “accountable”, Compared to what? (I’ve often thought that if I were to add a 6th “habit of mind” it would be “compared to?”). I certainly had (have) an enormous stake in the lives of my children, but do you think I’d have done a better job if some authority had held me “accountable” for their success? And that it would work to have a state-imposed definition of “success”? (My libertarian streak is showing.)

I think there are existing systems for making informed judgments about kids’ and schools. They may not all be identical, because we define school success differently. Can there be some “universals”? I think we could handle some universal indicators, as long as no high stakes were attached. If we viewed them as publicly accessible information, alongside the richer locally designed indicators. Transparency, accessibility (and use friendly) is at the heart of public’ness.

Incidentally, the studies’ I’ve seen of schools with “low demographics” that score high for more than one year in one grade and one subject, are rare and can generally be accounted for by some particular qualities of their student body. Most are plain and simply schools for kids with high scores (gifted), some are schools whose families have high SES and low incomes, some have found ways to restrict their population to the “worthy” poor through interviews, special forms of recruitment, extra requirements for families, etc. There was a choice school in District 4 that only offered advanced math and thus insisted, reasonably, that kids who couldn’t handle it shouldn’t come to their school. Re test focus? KIPP schools don’t deny that they focus on what will be on the tests. They have become, wisely, adept at understanding the tests they are measured by. I agree, however, that in the long run, good schooling per se will help test scores—if only that kids won’t turn off them, will understand sensible guessing, will have broader vocabularies etc. Still SATs continue to – statistically – overwhelmingly measure income in increments of $10,000! I suspect if you measured grandparents income and education you’d get an even better match.

All this and much more when we return. But meanwhile, you can continue your own dialogue even if we're off the air.



The problem is not the unwillingness of schools to accept any accountability.

It is their inability to use our current system to improve student learning. But that is not the schools fault but the system that we have set up.

Our school system is not set up to improve at all. So why do we blame teachers or schools when they are only complying with the rules that the system has set up for them?

Erin Johnson

If there is one thing that would raise student performance more than any others, I believe it would be the return to the family dinner every evening.

Large schools could also recreate the dinner table but I am more confident that small schools can fill in that absolutely essential piece.

I am also happy with Deb's answer to why billionaires want to get involved so much. They believe. If a person loves numbers and was liberated by computers, those beliefs will carry over into their beliefs about education policy. Similarly, if a person prefers the consistency and convenience of McDonalds over the Slow Foods table, that is their choice.

My problem is when people want to impose their preferences on the entire nation. I get frustrated when people confuse their best judgments with "the Truth." Its frustrating when good-hearted people who want to help poor children impose policies that hurt the children who they want to help. And it is really frustrating when people face evidence that contradicts their opinions and respond by blaming others.

Had I drafted NCLB the way I wanted, I would now have to deal with all of the hard evidence of failures that I wanted to avoid - unless my ideas had worked out perfectly.

I am reminded by the great Japanese baseball player who violated the fundamental American rule of don't "step in the bucket" ie step back. He did so in order to build his focus. Its sure not my preference, but why are we afraid to allow different people to seek their own paths? Aren't educators supposed to help kids to imaginatively "walk a mile in the other person's moccassins?"

I might as well be more honest than diplomatic on this last point regarding the dinner table. If we weren't all feeling guilty about the decline of that institution, as well as other family functions, would we be having this conversation on whether to blame tests or teachers, or speculating about whether teachers would be unhappy with PBA or why do billionaires want to get involved?

I offer my own teaching experience as anecdotal data:
Formative assessment empowers students to be responsible for their own learning (or lack of it). It provides the entire whole child team with on-the-pulse information from which to make informed instructional decisions.
I have been extremely impressed with using data driven student led conferences for academic goal setting. Students choose their own portfolio work samples to identify strengths and needs. An internal accountability system is built into this model when it is consistently used across disciplines and grade levels. (Note that these analysis and critical thinking skills have to be taught and reinforced--they typically don't just materialize.)


Why would you have drafted NCLB so that you were guaranteed failure?

A quality school system is set up to allow for the great diversity of students and their strengths and interests. A quality school system is set up to allow incremental improvements. And most importantly a quality school system is set up to focus on student learning.

Now all that being said, it is impossible to reform NCLB to improve our school system. NCLB was designed to punish states/schools for not performing well on their own tests. Talk about having the fox guarding the hen house!

Unless the Feds take over running our schools (a prospect that every state house would most likely object to), it is impossible to reform schools on the federal level.

Every quality system needs checks and balances. Having the Feds be the ultimate authority without any responsiblity for student learning is not a successful path towards quality student learning.

Having all the responsiblities reside with the teacher/school and all the authority reside with the Feds will only set up a blame situation. The Feds blame teachers/schools for not doing better and the teachers/schools blame the Feds for tying their hands. This gets us nowhere.

Quality systems employ checks and balances where the authority and the responsiblity are distributed appropriately.

Now it is possible to have all the responsiblity and the authority rest with the teacher. But to ensure a quality education, this would necessitate students staying with that teacher the entire time.

It is possible to have all the responsiblity and the authority rest within a school, as the teachers can align instruction across the grades. But this requires the student to stay within a specific school.

But students move. And American students move a lot. Particularly in impoverished neighborhoods, the mobility rate is very high. So when students move, who is actually responsible for that particular student receiving a quality education? No one.

It is as Deborah so rightly said, too easy to not see those students that fade into the woodwork. And their education suffers.

A quality system should not be rigid but set up to ensure that every child learns well.

Something our schools lack.

Erin Johnson

If I can't even draft a sentence like that in an unambiguos manner, then I couldn't draft the perfect law.

My point is that I would have done my best, but a lot of things would not work out the way I intended, and then I'd have to wrestle with the pride of authorship. I hope I would be able to accept the criticism that would follow.

If a person has put years into accountability, drafted the best law they could, and then still had to face the disappointing results of NCLB, it would be a blow. I can understand why good people find it so hard to give up on NCLB-type accountability.


It is not the writing of the law that is the problem with NCLB but the idea that the Feds can improve schools with either sticks or carrots.

The Feds are not responsible for ensuring quality student learning and so consequently they really can not improve student learning, no matter how well they craft a law.

Developing a quality school system has very little to do with desire and much to do with understanding the checks and balances needed within a system to promote quality education.

There are only a handful of school systems around the world that have done this well. Why are we not learning from their experience?

Quality school systems have only arisen when the authority and responsiblity for schooling are either in one body or in distributed bodies with checks and balances.

Overlaying NCLB onto of our current ineffective school system does nothing because the Feds can not change nor are they responsible for anything that goes on inside a classroom.

(I am not suggesting that the Feds should be responsible, only that because they are not responsible they can not effect improvements in student learning.)

NCLB-type accountablity will continue to fail because the school system itself is not set up for success.

Erin Johnson

Hi Diana, Erin, and Margo/Mom,

My point in posting the mission statements is to point out that they are inherently vague. Often they are “wish statements” reflecting the political interests of the year, as reflected by school boards and administrators. How do you evaluate whether your graduates were able to adapt to the “changing global society” which they themselves will create? I can think of alternatives which are much worse. For example, some school systems have had as goals the elevation of a master race or religion above all others. In this sense such statements are a good thing. They can also be evaluated qualitatively.

As Erin said, there always intangibles. But instead of looking for a new way to measure such things quantitatively (e.g. by inventing yet another Likert scale and more elaborate regression equation), isn’t better to recognize as a statement of purpose, and evaluate them qualitatively? Plenty of good techniques are emerging to do this in valid and reliable fashions. Albeit, there still is no one perfect solution.

Left Back is a good source about the coming and going (and coming) influence of business models on school evaluation. So is Larry Cuban’s recent book The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Cannot be Businesses. Business has the advantage that a quantitative measure of worth is readily available, i.e. profits as measured by money (the bottom line). Evaluation of what a worker or process means for profits is fairly easy to calculate in a business. But schools don’t work that way, for a variety of reasons. However, business leaders tend to push them in that direction because that is what they are familiar with.

James Q. Wilson published a book Bureaucracy: What Governments Do and Why They Do It in 1989. He makes the point that the nature of public bureaucracies are different than private corporate bureaucracies, and that different type of public bureaucracies. If you are real ambitious, you can also have a look at what classical sociologist Max Weber and his followers wrote about the differences between public and private bureaucracies. The bottom line is that business models do not work well in the development and supervision of public tasks, including education.


So building upon what you say, if business models fail as quality school models: should we not be looking at successful school system models around the world to guide us in our ed reform measures?

Erin Johnson


Models from everywhere can be looked at. But they will always be of limited utility in any one particular situation. There is still room for local/state/national judgment.

The basic problem is that mass schooling, particularly in a country as large as the US, is a far more complex task than running a business. It is also more complex than teaching literacy in Finland, and math in South Korea, too!

What this means is that there is always room for people (like the people on this blog) to learn from other "models" while also thinking about their own situation.



So what do you think that we can learn from quality school systems around the world?

Erin Johnson


You wrote: "...there is always room for people (like the people on this blog) to learn from other "models" while also thinking about their own situation."

What are you saying here? Doesn't that apply to just about every situation in life?

If you are studying violin, your teacher may use a particular technical method. But even as you learn that method, you must be listening to your own playing and making your own adjustments, or that method will do you no good. In the process, you may develop your own techniques--and that's as it should be.

Even if we had a perfect school model, one that was good for everyone, it could easily turn into hell through mechanical or overly literal implementation. Conversely, an imperfect model, implemented conscientiously, flexibly, and questioningly, could do great good, if it were based on a solid premise in the first place.

We must seek the best and most reasonable models, but also implement them with active conscience and mind. Otherwise we will engender aversion to all models--an attitude of "if it's a model, then it ends our freedom, and it's bad." Or, from those "enforcing" it: "if you don't follow it to the letter, then you're bad." That's a dangerous scenario: without models with which we can work thoughtfully, and a tradition of doing so, we will be susceptible to the worst fads (and already have been for a long time).

But this is all very general, and the most interesting stuff is often in the specifics. If we take a curriculum or other structure that shows promise, and discuss its merits, drawbacks, promises, and dangers, then we're already making progress. I look at "Broader, Bolder" in that light--I support it wholeheartedly, and am also concerned about the specifics of its implementation. To reject it because it could be abused--that to me is absurd. Yet to make it work well, one must recognize where it could go wrong, and what must be done to avoid the problems and bring forth the best results. This sort of discussion may be part of the "checks and balances" to which Erin refers.

And, of course, before discussing a model, we must establish what we are trying to accomplish in the first place!

Diana Senechal

P.S. Thanks for the book recommendations.

Hi Diana and Erin:

I agree with what Diana writes, but would point out that to “establish what we are trying to accomplish in the first place!” is always the most difficult thing with schools. And even when a goal is agreed upon, it is likely that sometime in succeeding years it is likely to change anyway. This does not happen in businesses where the point yesterday is to…make a profit, today is to…make a profit, and tomorrow will be to make a profit. Businesses need to be responsive to cultural changes just like schools, but the goal is always the same.

In response to Erin’s question about other “models”, I spent the last two semesters in Germany where my daughter spent her time in an academic high school’s (Gymnasium) 11th grade. Although my observations were not systematic, there was plenty of informal material for reflection. Two items which I will mention here are the ways that they group children in cohorts, and the explicit tracking based on academic ability they do at 5th grade, and after.

German Gymnasium classrooms are more student centered than American. During the nine years of Gymnasium (5th to 13th grade), students share the classroom with each other, while subject teachers move from class to class. (Teacher's do not decorate the classroom). This grouping is broken up twice during the nine years, once in 9th grade, and again in 12th. This creates for very cohesive student study groups and lifetime friendships. Is such a policy appropriate for the individualistic American society, particularly given high mobility rates? I don’t know, but it is important to realize that the American system of having children switch every 45-50 minutes is not the only way.

Germany is well known for its explicit tracking system. It is all above board: at 4th grade teacher, parents, and testing results determine which of three tracks a student will go into. There are no attendance districts. The Gymansium track goes to grade 13, and then to the university. Competition in terms of academics were both at a higher level and more focused than at my daughter's comprehensive high school in California. Students took 13 subjects each week, the levels of which were similar to AP level courses in the US. About one in three German students is on this track, and completes it, which is pretty good (this is roughly the equivalent of 1/3 students in a high school completing a whole bunch of AP classes).

The middle level track goes to tenth grade, and then to apprenticeship/trade schools which train students in careers such as nursing, retail trade, technical fields, pre-school teacher, etc. The lower level track goes to ninth grade and then (in theory) to apprenticeship/trade school. The connections between schools and business are excellent—and internships of various sorts in all three sectors of the school common.

I have mixed feelings about this system. Ilike the rigor of the Gymnasium, and appreciate the career connections made for lower level students. The Americans track too, but it is done under-the-table, and by what neighborhood you live in, which I find tacky. But we do this while asserting an ethic of equal opportunity, which I think is good in principle, if not always practiced. One consequence is that the “immigrant valedictorian” whom has taken advantage of American values about equality is fairly common here. In Germany, which also has a large immigrant community, this such immigrant students are rare in part because German language skills obtained by the age of ten are so important in making a decision about which track a student will be pushed into.

One of the by-products of the German meritocracy is that the schools are segregated by ethnicity and especially immigrant status. The “language police” have also not taken as deep root as it has in the US. Ethnic comments which curled the hair of my daughter were let pass—indeed teachers themselves even made some of them. (So here I am praising the America’s sometimes hyper-sensitive language police…such surprises always come out of cross-cultural experiences!)

There are a host of other differences which enrich conversations about American schools from Germany and elsewhere which would make this post go on much longer. Suffice it to say that such experiences from abroad point out our own taken-for-granteds, and as a result help us think outside our own boxes. This is a good thing for us. They need to do it too!


PS. In Germany they lament constantly their ranking on the PISA survey, too. They were 20th in Math, and 18th in Reading. Sorry for such a long answer to Erin's short question!

Tony, Erin,

Today I read a book that I had been eyeing on my shelf for a few months: Doomed to Fail: The Built-in Defects of American Education, by Paul A. Zoch. His main argument is that, in America, everything is expected of teachers and virtually nothing of students. He attributes this to the influence of Progressivism--from the behaviorism of Thorndike and Skinner to the socially oriented pedagogy of Dewey to the child-centered theories of Parker and Hall to the "multiple intelligences" of Gardner. The quotations are funny and horrifying, and most of the book rings true.

I find some of his argument a tad simplified: for instance, he only briefly discusses the complexities and contradictions of Dewey's thought, and does not mention Junius L. Meriam's regard for excellent literature. Also, he does not address the contradictions inherent in progressive pedagogy: for example, the backseat role of the "teacher-facilitator" vs. the teachers' exclusive responsibility for student learning.

That said, the book is a compelling read. It has one jaw-dropping quote after another, speaks directly to teachers' experiences (at least mine), and addresses some of my urgent questions. One passage even provided a clue to the early origins of the workshop model. On page 73, where he discusses Dewey's Experience and Education (in which Dewey critiques the excesses of the "new education"), he writes:

"The type of education Dewey envisioned--teachers presenting lessons, students following their own interests--was impossible, for one premise contradicted the other." Aha! Teachers presenting lessons: would that not be the "mini-lesson" of the workshop model? Students following their own interests--would that not be the subsequent groupwork and independent reading? Perhaps the workshop model is, in part, an attempt at reconciling two irreconcilable poles of education.

He devotes a chapter to the schools in Japan, where the teachers deliver lessons in lecture style, following a national curriculum, and the students are entirely responsible for mastering the material. They take school seriously and study, study, study. He acknowledges that not everything about the Japanese system is laudable and that we could not emulate it exactly even if we desired. Still, he argues persuasively that we could learn something from Japanese student effort.

In the final chapter, he says something that reminds me of Erin's points and maybe sheds light on them. He advocates a national curriculum with end-of-course tests, and comments (p. 198):

"As a benefit of the tests, students could begin to see the teacher as a coach who would help them gain an understanding of the material and enable them to pass the test, rather than as an enemy imposing seemingly arbitrary standards."

As I understand his statement, the adversarial relationship between teacher and student is due not only to the teacher's role as evaluator, but to the arbitrary standards by which these evaluations are conducted. That makes a great deal of sense to me. Students need to know what they are supposed to learn. That does not mean that their learning should be restricted to the minimum requirements or that it will stop at the "facts." It does mean that they will understand their options. They may choose to fail the course, pass it, do well in it, or go beyond that.

Tony, would you agree that American students need to take more responsibility for their learning? Erin, would you agree that part of the problem with teacher-student relationships lies in the arbitrariness of the standards?

Diana Senechal


The arbitrariness of student grades could very much contribute to poor teacher - student relationships.

Certainly, the root causes of why external evaluations result in better student learning is a ripe area for exploration.

Your comment regarding the benefits of the student seeing the teacher as a coach is well supported by reasearch on effective school systems and teaching.

You are so correct regarding students taking ownership for their learning. In the US, students rarely have that opportunity.

As a teacher, do you like grading?

If you did not have to grade students or do the reporting necessary for grading would you then have more time to prepare/teach?


Thank you for your description of the German school system. While few people would consider the German system to be of high quality, even seeing how other people could/do schooling different can result in a better understanding of the limitations in American schools.

There seems little in the German system that would make our schools better as their system yields a broader SES gap and lower achievement overall. Why is that Finland is able to educate their average student to the degree seen in Germany's select schools? Certainly, you mentioned many of the difficulties/problems with their school system.

My previous question was regarding the few school systems around the world that enable students to learn well while closing the achievement gap. Of course, this does not mean that everything about these other school systems are perfect. But what are the nuggets that we can learn from their experience at teaching children.

Is there something from those quality school systems that you would find helpful?

(Finland, Singapore, the Netherlands, Australia, Macao-China, Japan and South Korea should/could be included in the list of quality school systems.)

Erin Johnson

I gathered lot of information. I am very happy to post my comment in this blog.


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I like your list of goals, Diana. So I can't resist a few words!

It can't be accomplished by boredom. Try sitting through a school day in the manner of a student; it's unnatural to expect any of us to tolerate 6-7 classews in a row of mostly teacher-talk and that's what it mostly is. Disruptions are a blessing.

Read Sizer's Horace Compromise or Goodlad's A Place Called School.

Even physical education, which one would think most young people lmight ove is not a favorite in school. The athletes who play on teams love sports, but probably half of the students are bored by what one would think would be a positive experience. Teaching 30-60 students at a time how to dribble a ballis intolerable!

We've organized school-life in ways that make no sense for learning purposes--it's not merely boring, but you can't learn tennis by being told about it, and having the racket passed around the class for a "hands-on" experience. Dirt for math, science, history, literature. If you are already a fan (and a player) some of these methods might be just the thing to add a little extra expertise--some added info.

Lag!! Dewey died a half century ago. Progressive ed at its best and worst never made strides in our schools, and where it did it was pretty much just for the well-off (suburban schools like Winnetka that still honor their progressive history). In the only long-term study of progressive (mostly middle class) schools the kids did at least as well, and mostly better, in college! It was called the 8-year study and is worth learning about. When it came out, aftr WWII, we were already in a backlash against progressive ed (fifty years ago!) and it got little attention.

In 1939, when my family moved into NYC, the public schools of NYC were as "traditional" as could be. Virtually all of the prestigious private schools were progressive, as had our suburban New Rochelle school where we had gone for our earliest schooling.

You're maybe mixing up the "free school" movement with progressive ed? And even they have a history of success with young people that is embarassing to critics like me. In part, perhaps, because we are looking at a very selective kind of student and family that chooses such schools.

A great and entertaiing lecturer is a pleasure. Some such folks made a living traveling the circuit to audiences in the pre-TV days. I still make some good income by public entertainments. But hardly 180 days a year, 5 times a day to captive audiences! And the Q and A is usually the hardest part of a good lecture.

My best,


p.s. I wonder (Erin) if Singapore and Macao are good comparisons--given that their goals are surely somewhat different?


Your question of "compared to what?" regarding my comment about our societal unwillingness to accept accountability. Let me share first that some of my formative work experience focused heavily on the idea of "holding government accountable" in a world/society where the letter of the law must often be pushed into reality by the actions of citizens. Witness how long it took us to move "with all deliberate speed" away from de jure and de facto segregated school systems--and the citizen action required from district to district to make that happen.

So, a part of my answer would be, compared to the ideal in my head, or perhaps the ideal suggested by the concept of public education and such terms as "free and appropriate public education," or "thorough and efficient system of common schools," or the various terms in various state constitutions across the country. These are things that we struggle with, at the funding table, in discussions of standards, in court cases, and in the current discussion of what it means to leave no child behind and whether this is possible or desirable. As you, Deb, show your libertarian side, so I share my idealistic side.

An additional "compared to what" answer that I cannot entirely ignore is a notion of compared, perhaps, to other generations. This one is very slippery, as it is often based on memories and nostaligia not supported by fact. But a significant coming of age moment in my life came as a group of baby boomers was confronted by someone of an earlier generation--and facing something particularly stupid and rebellious that we had done--and told that our generation was characterized by a lack of commitment. This was a striking blow to folks who grew up in the background of the 60s with all kinds of commitment and social consciousness. But all that change has resulted in a generational unwillingness to trust in a notion of anything long-lasting. We have perfected divorce as a life-style. Accountability, the undergirding of commitment, comes hard to us. Rolling with the waves of change--without being changed by it--comes far easier. In education, this plays out as the "this too shall pass" wisdom.

But, also, as Erin frequently points out, there are countries who appear to be doing far better in terms of accountability than we are. Canada and Finland come to mind as two who do not trumpet the innate inability of some students to succeed--and as a result exhibit few achievement gaps. This is an acceptance--to my mind--of the responsibility to be held accountable for the education of all students.

Deb--this is not something that I lay at the feet of teachers individually or as a group. It is much broader. It is the society that creates "the system" that Erin talks about. Individuals certainly have a part in it--and sometimes all individuals can do is to make personal decisions to hold themselves accountable--as I believe you have done.

But when I review the difficulties we have had, and still have, in distributing the things of education in an equitable manner; and the ugliness that arises whenever it appears likely that there will be a redistribution, I still have to view this as a societal lack of ability to accept accountability for the education of all children. It is very difficult for us to see beyond what our own children receive, or do not receive. And some benefit from the inequity. Others know that the only hope of improvement for their own child is to improve the state of education for all children.


Let me clarify the "list of goals" for others. You had asked me, "So, what is it that WE, the public, want all kids to know and know how to do--so to speak--by the time they become 18?" I offered the following:

"What should students know by age 18? Enough that they can continue their education in any way they choose--or find satisfying employment that can develop over time. Enough that they can choose what to do with their leisure time, and that no healthy and affordable activity seems off-limits or impossible. Enough that they can participate in culture and government and understand people from other countries. Enough that they can distinguish propaganda from truth, and make informed decisions about matters that affect their lives. And enough that if they hit difficult times or find themselves in a rut, they have the mental resources to pull themselves through."

I imagine many would agree with those goals, but would differ in their means of accomplishing them.

Deborah, I just don't agree that lectures are inherently boring or that all subjects lend themselves to "hands-on" instruction. What about a combination of lecture and class discussion, especially in literature and history? I love that structure; it never gets old for me, whether I'm the teacher or student. Hour after hour, day after day, give me more of it and I won't be tired.

I understand that not all students are the same, and that there should be room for projects and other experiences. I'm all for that--but once we start treating lectures as boring, we're on dangerous footing, I'm afraid. Students follow our cue and get bored.

Part of Zoch's point is that you have to work at something to become interested in it. Yes, the teacher should make the class interesting! I'm all for that. But so should the student. And the curriculum should have enough substance and challenge to make this possible.

I have seen a lot of progressive ideas at work in schools, public and private, throughout my life. I don't think the progressive influence is a myth at all. In junior high, I told the counselor that I wanted more challenge. He told me to relax--that junior high was a time for socializing. And what awful socializing it was! Kids standing around judging each other's shoes and clothes, beating each other up, screaming names at each other in the hallway, or vandalizing lockers. The kids were suffering from lack of challenge, and the school refused to do a thing about it. When my parents came to the school to talk to the teachers, the teachers told them that I walked down the hall with the books clasped to my chest, and that this made me stand out.

I have a hard time believing that this experience had nothing to do with progressives' view of education as a social experience. Of course there is a social aspect to school. There can be wonderful friendships in school, but they usually form around something of substance! Take away the substance, and you're left with taunting, bullying, and torture.

So, two separate but related issues here: the progressives' emphasis on socialization, and their reluctance to push children intellectually or ask them to do anything they don't want to do. Either tendency is problematic in itself; taken together, they make for a nightmare.

But don't get me wrong--I am drawn to certain aspects of progressive education. People consistently describe my teaching as "exuberant" and "creative"--and I see so many ways I could improve in that regard. It's important for a teacher to be creative and versatile as well as knowledgeable, and to look out for the needs of each student. I think about each student and have a gnawing knowledge that I could and should do more for each one. But we need to give them subject matter. We need to give them challenge. And we need to expect them to do their part, whether or not they feel like it, whether or not it's fun.

Diana Senechal


We could learn much from other school systems, even at a minimum if we learn that we do not like what they do.

Singapore is the easiest Asian school system to examine from our point of view as all the materials are written in English. Additionally, it is very intriguing as their educational system in the 1980's was considered very poor. Within the span of 20 years, the were able to reduce the high school drop out rate from ~25% to less than 2%, while improving student learning, most notably in math (TIMSS) and more recently in reading (PIRLS).

I am not suggesting that we adopt the Singaporean system. There are many cultural aspects that would prohibit that. But are there any lessons that we can draw from their experience?

From the MOE website:

"The Ministry of Education aims to help our students to discover their own talents, to make the best of these talents and realise their full potential, and to develop a passion for learning that lasts through life.

We have a strong education system. Singapore students aim high and they achieve very good results. This is recognised around the world. We have good schools, with capable school leaders and teachers, and facilities that are amongst the best in the world.

We are building on these strengths as we prepare the next generation of Singaporeans for the future. This is a future that brings tremendous opportunity, especially in Asia, but it will also bring many changes that we cannot foresee today. The task of our schools and tertiary institutions is to give our young the chance to develop the skills, character and values that will enable them to continue to do well and to take Singapore forward in this future.

We have been moving in recent years towards an education system that is more flexible and diverse. The aim is to provide students with greater choice to meet their different interests and ways of learning. Being able to choose what and how they learn will encourage them to take greater ownership of their learning. We are also giving our students a more broad-based education to ensure their all-round or holistic development, in and out of the classroom.

These approaches in education will allow us to nurture our young with the different skills that they need for the future. We seek to help every child find his own talents, and grow and emerge from school confident of his abilities. We will encourage them to follow their passions, and promote a diversity of talents among them – in academic fields, and in sports and the arts.

We want to nurture young Singaporeans who ask questions and look for answers, and who are willing to think in new ways, solve new problems and create new opportunities for the future. And, equally important, we want to help our young to build up a set of sound values so that they have the strength of character and resilience to deal with life’s inevitable setbacks without being unduly discouraged, and so that they have the willingness to work hard to achieve their dreams."

Do you disagree?

Is there nothing that we can learn from school systems around the world that enable their children to learn well?

Erin Johnson


It is not progressivism that has done our schools in, even though there has been a lot of poor ed reforms done in the name of progressivism that have done serious damage to the few quality traditions our schools have had.

Because our schools are not set up to ensure quality student learning, they are too often swayed by the latest "sounds good" ed reform which promises much but does little to improve student learning.

Consequently, our schools have undergone wave after wave of "ed reform" that does nothing but tire out the teachers. Teachers put up with the "new ideas" with the hope that this ed reform will pass quickly, just like all the previous bad ideas. You have given great examples of teacher development that at best was idiotic and at worst is set up to undermine quality teaching.

The problem with our schools is that no one is reponsible. Our politicians/public keeps demanding that teachers (or schools) be responsible, but then greatly restricts their ability to be responsible.

Our politicians/public keep talking about local control. But what do school districts really control? They have some influence over spending on buildings. They have some influence over adopting curricula. But really they have almost no control over nor a desire to change what or how our students learn. Our schools are mostly set by historical tradition. So for the most part our school districts are set up to maintain the status quo.

Internationally, those school systems that do encourage quality learning hold the final responsiblity for a quality education in the hands of a Department of Education. That is teachers play a very important role but they are not held solely responsible. Schools have varying degrees of autonomy, but they are not solely responsible. The Department of Education is held responsible for ensuring that teachers, schools, curricula developers, test makers and everyone else involved in education works well to focus on quality student learning.

Contrast that with the pronouncements by American state/fed DOEs about "holding schools accountable." Do they not get that they need to be responsible as well?

It is not one ideology or another that is keeping our schools from providing a quality education, but a school structure that has no ability to improve. Our school system has no way of setting or evaluating goals, developing quality materials, encouraging quality teaching and thus no mechanisms for improving student learning.

While the Singapore school system would not be a complete match with our culture, if you were inclined to see how a school system can support and enable quality learning, you might look at their web site and see the checks and balances that the system uses to ensure that each and every child receives a quality education.

It is not ideology but the lack of organizational responsiblity that ails our schools.

Erin Johnson

One thing to keep in mind when comparing the American system to Singapore, or Japan or Finland are the huge differences in what we have to deal with and the situations in those countries. Most of those countries are significantly smaller, so a national DoE isn't overlooking nearly as many schools and students as an American one would. Also, many of those countries are significantly less ethnically and linguistically diverse, or have much lower immigration. We have a rather unique set of challenges in this country in that we are so large and so culturally diverse.

From what I've read about Finland, the two main points to take into account is that teachers are given much more training before they enter the classroom, with an almost-doctor-like internship set up, and then are given more autonomy to meet their goals once they are in the classroom.


Quality school systems can be effective at both large and small sizes. The critical element present in those school systems that enable children to learn well is an entire system that is focused on student learning.

Finland has many aspects besides the 2 you mentioned that enable their students to learn well. And Singapore is more ethnically diverse than our country with very high, historical tensions between their racial/ethnic groups.

The questions that we should be asking ourselves are: Given the large cultural differences between Finland and Singapore, what elements of their schooling enable their children to learn well? What is common to both systems and what is unique to their culture? Are there any lessons that we can take away from both systems that would enable our own children to learn better?

None of the culture specific factors refute the need in our country for a quality educational system.

Certainly, if it is better for student learning to have a smaller monitoring group (say county or district) then we should be considering organizing our school system along those lines.

But that unit needs to be completely responsible for developing curricula, for setting learning goals and for making monetary decisions. Something completely absent in our school system today.

Additionally, as much as we lament our disadvantaged students and blame them for the poor state of our schools, all school systems around the world struggle with SES issues. Many of the top school systems also struggle with racial and ethnic tensions between groups. We are not as exceptional as we believe ourselves to be.

Internationally, school autonomy can be a very positive influence on student learning. But if is only positive in school systems that have enough checks and balances to ensure that all students do not fall through the cracks.

A quality school system does not have to be prescriptive. In fact in the best school systems, prescriptive lessons are not encouraged as they take out too much of those vital teacher - student interactions. Something quite counter to quality learning.

What a quality school system can do is allow teachers to teach well and ensure that students have a quality connected education thoughout their schooling.

Without a quality school system, I fear that the increased implementation of "testing and accountability" reforms will further degrade the few positive elements present in our schools. Not a pleasant thought.

Erin Johnson

Hi Erin,

Your example of Singapore is a good one. It would be interesting to know more about how they manage their schools.

. Germany has a number of high qualities that are not picked up in PISA rankings which are only of 15 years olds who take tests in science, math, and languages. Among them are excellent programs in second language acquisition (i.e. English), music, literature, and the arts, none of which are measured by PISA. Also not measured by PISA are the excellent school to work programs. The state I lived in (Baden-Wurtemburg) had an unemployment rate under 4%, while the area I lived in was in the 2-3% range.

For that matter, I think that the United States also has some high quality education results which can be studies by others. I already mentioned the comparatively good job that we do integrating immigrants into comprehensive high schools. We also have very high college attendance rates, and have high percentages complete Bachelor’s level education. This does not excuse the weaknesses described in the PISA rankings which focus on relative weaknesses in the academics in junior high school, but it does provide some context.

I do not have any special knowledge of Finland, South Korea, Macao, or the other countries you mention. I do know that California adopted the South Korean math standards sometime in the 1990s without much analysis or forethought, and it has not done much for how well math is taught in California. This is not the fault of the South Korean math curriculum. Rather it is the fault of California’s sometimes slavish focus on test scores above all else.



Your comments regarding California well illustrate the problems with our school system.

California tried to write outstanding standards and they even tried to align some of their tests with the standards.

Did this process improve student learning? For the most part, no.

All the California reforms have mostly failed for 2 reasons. Teaching has not changed and the curricula being used is still rather poor. Even though publishers explain in great detail how the materials satisfy the standards, all the materials fail to capture the essence of the math seen in high performing countries.

This is a system problem.

California (and every other state) has no support to improve teaching nor any mechanism of producing quality curricula. Even the tests that California has tried to align with the standards fail to capture the intent of high quality standards.

California's failure to improve student learning is not just because the state is incompetent. Rather our system of schooling (how we develop curricula, how we set standards, how we encourage teachers to reflect and improve on their craft, how we review whether our tests are capturing the essence of a quality education, etc....) is not set up to improve.

Consequently, we get no improvements.

Having a comprehensive school system does not ensure a quality school system. Certainly, there are countries around the world that have a DOE responsible for all the schools and still fail to educate their students well.

So the question that we should all be asking ourselves: What elements of those quality school systems could we adopt and use to enhance our own children's learning?

Erin Johnson


You wrote: "It is not ideology but the lack of organizational responsiblity that ails our schools."

Why should it be one or the other? Why can't it be both?

Today I was reading The Child-Centered School (1928) by Harold O. Rugg. Here's a passionate proponent of child-centered education who not only extols the child-centered schools as though they were cherubim, but sharply denounces their follies and excesses, in the same book! Here's one of his arguments in favor of planned curriculum (p. 129):

"Emphatically, intellectual development is avoided by many of these schools. They stand for informality and they secure the outcomes of informality. Their centers of interest (they are well named) lack intellectual rigor in plan and development. They are too often conspicuous examples of following the path of least resistance. Hence the new schools have frequently been accused of lacking the intellectual stamina for which certain of our private schools, on both sides of the Atlantic, have been famous. Thinking is indeed hard work--there is no harder work--yet there is no royal road to understanding; prolonged intellectual effort offers the only route. The important meanings are difficult to comprehension. They will not teach themselves. The new school is obligated to teach them. To be effective, therefore, it must plan in advance the manner of their development."

With all his reservations, he remains a champion of the child-centered school (see pp. 190-196 of Left Back for a discussion of his ideas). But his contradictions, logically presented with sequential questions and answers point to some of the problems not only in the schools, but in his ideas. Here is the gist of one of his arguments:

1. All curriculum should be based on the child's interests and should spring spontaneously from the child.
2. However, children beyond a certain age will not be naturally interested in certain important topics; so the teacher must plan and guide (as subtly as possible).
3. Schools with spontaneous theme-based units risk lopsidedness; there may be no consistency from class to class or from school to school. There may also be needless repetition. Schools need to take care to avoid this, through joint planning among faculty.
4. Moreover, to develop ideas, one needs to acquire understanding in a sequential manner, through disciplined work. The planning cannot be haphazard.
5. Therefore the schools must plan carefully sequenced curricula in advance.

He attempts to resolve this contradiction by calling for a combination of planning and spontaneity. But he is clearly troubled by real excesses in child-centered education, which he witnessed first-hand at the Lincoln School and other schools.

We still have, in many schools, a preponderance of spontaneous theme-based units that lack logical sequence. Erin, this may result from lack of organizational structure, but wouldn't you agree that it has an ideology behind it as well, or at least a scrap of an ideology?

Diana Senechal

P.S. I looked closely at the Singapore website, and yes, it does seem that they have a good combination of structure and flexibility. At the same time, it's a little too glossy to be believed or even understood--I would need a little more information to understand what goes on there.


"Why should it be one or the other? Why can't it be both?"

Because the way we define a problem in large part determines the solution.

If we believe that the school structure is the problem with schools, then the action plan would involve changing the governance laws of schools.

If we believe that ideology is the problem, then we might possibly argue against those ideas. But truly there is no way to effectively argue against an opinion. And many educational philosphophies come down to "I just believe this to be true". There is no path forward to improve schools because everybody is entitled to their opinion.

Frankly, everybody that I have talked to has a different definition of "progressive." If we can't even define what it is or what it constitutes, how could anyone possibly say that it is incorrect.

As for Singapore, more information would be better. Certainly, there has been substantial change in their educational system and it has resulted in their students performing very well on the international exams. This is even more remarkable when considering the dramatic reduction in high school dropout rates.

While I don't think that we could just adopt their system, what their experience tells us is that a systemic support for quality teaching, curricula and aligned testing can dramatically improve their students ability to learn well enough to score very high on international measures.

But I think that the more interesting story is not that they score high, but that it was not very long ago that their country did very poorly on international tests. Their process for improvement deserves some respect and study.

But Singapore is not the only school system that succeeds by focusing on the needs of the student and what they are learning. Certainly, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia, Japan, South Korea all enjoy school systems that focus on student learning.

It is not that we need to adopt one specific school system, but to understand and incorporate the critical elements of a quality school system support.

And the lessons from the international studies indicate that it starts with a school structure that focuses the efforts of everybody (teachers, curricula developers, test makers, administrators, etc...) on student learning.

Erin Johnson


Student learning of what?

The countries you mention seem to have figured that out. Singapore appears to have a national curriculum that makes room for local choice and variation. In the U.S., establishment of a curriculum is quite difficult due to the very differences of opinion that you mention.

My point is not that "progressives" are ruining our schools! My point is that certain ideas, taken to silly extremes, have done a lot of damage. These ideas may come from the left or right. What unites them is their silliness. And unfortunately there are very few people like Rugg who will criticize a movement from within, publicly. Especially in a culture driven by PR and branding, the proponents of an idea or plan all too often portray it as flawless (take Bloomberg and Klein for example), so that criticism must come from the outside.

How can we focus on student learning if we're not clear about what they're supposed to learn? Many opinions are a good thing; fragmentation is not.

Diana Senechal


It is not a "we" in terms of focusing on student learning but "who".

That is: who is responsible for determinining the long term goals of learning along with the nuts and bolts of student learning? Who is responsible for ensuring that those goals are being met?

Frankly, I can't see a school system operate in the US without a functional process for incorporating community or public feedback regarding the long term goals or the specifics. (Not that we really have a functional system now of public feedback.)

Those school systems that enable their children to learn well do not do so with a single, one size fits all type of "what". In fact there is wide variablility between even quality school systems.

On the 1995 TIMSS Math, South Korean 4th graders had only covered less than 45% of the material present on the exam, while US students had covered 100% of the test items. And yet despite the lack of item coverage, the South Koreans greatly outscored the US students. Why?

In effective school systems, the whole organization is set up for feedback to answer the questions: What did we intend the children to learn? What did they actually learn? Is there a better way?

A case study of responsiblity for student learning: 4th grade reading in Singapore.

In 2001, the Singapore MOE identified early reading as an item that they wanted to improve on. The 2001 PIRLS showed that while their students scored above the international average, the distribution of scores was very wide and the overall acheivement was lower than they wanted.

Compared to the US, Singaporean students scored lower in reading. Considering that to many of the students, English is a second languge, perhaps they should have been satisfied with their students performance, but they were not.

What Singapore did not do is: make a test prep for the PIRLS, start blaming teachers for not teaching better or start explaining that because of the language challenges their students face it is impossible to improve. (All things that happen too often in our country.)

What the Singapore MOE did do was assemble a team to develop a new syllabus, produced materials that were aligned with the syllabus (curriculum), gave teachers extensive time and development on understanding the underpinings of the curricula, encouraged more pre-school development of English.

Consequently, their students learned better. One measure of the improvement in learning was a dramatic increase in test performance on the 2006 PIRLS.

While the Singapore MOE used the international tests to assess their own efforts, the tests did not dictate what or how their children learned. When children have learned well the tests are easy.

The point regarding the Singapore MOE is not that they are the front of a horse race. But that quality improvements in teaching and curricula enabled their students to learn well.

Singapore has a system for improving student learning. The US does not.

It is a school organization focused on quality learning that we are greatly missing in our country.

Erin Johnson

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