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Good Intentions, Ignorant Elites, and Scoundrels


Dear Deborah,

We live in a dangerous and dark time for schools. In many districts, the gears of power are controlled by non-educators who don't have a clue. They madly embrace testing and data and data-driven instruction because they have not a single idea about how kids learn and how teachers teach and what conditions are necessary to promote teaching and learning. This new breed also populates some of our nation's leading think tanks. Most of them have never taught; have never been in a classroom since they were students; know nothing of the history of education and nothing about research, but they know how to fix the nation's schools.

Watch what they do. If they are superintendents, they boast of their numbers. They close schools with impunity. They open new schools. They open them by the score. They will tell you that they are going to change "the quality" of teachers by recruiting Ivy League graduates and Teach for America folk. They are going to push out all those experienced fogies, so that their newbies have no one to learn from, no one to show them the ropes, no one to help with knotty day-to-day problems. No problem, because the new generation of superintendents has a gullible media, willing to swallow whatever numbers are pumped out, whatever success stories are generated by the public relations team.

If they are in think tanks, they know what teachers should be doing, although with few exceptions, they have never actually been teachers. They know how to recruit great teachers, though they have never recruited any themselves. They know how to measure teacher quality, and they know exactly what rewards and trinkets will get teachers to work harder and produce higher test scores. Amazing that so much genius about how to run a terrific education system has been sequestered in child-free, student-free offices in the District of Columbia.

And while I am on the subject of misguided policies, check out the piece I wrote for Forbes.com last week about the admission by the Gates Foundation that its $2 billion investment in small schools didn't work. When was the last time that you heard any foundation or big-city superintendent admit that it/he/she was wrong? So I give Gates credit for candor, but I wonder if anyone will tally up the cost of their "gift," the thousands of small schools that turned out to be incapable of giving kids a good education. The thousands of additional principals and additional buildings and additional administrative staff. When you started your small school, you brought to it a singular passion. In New York City and many other districts, small schools have been churned out en masse, without a supply of top-notch principals and teachers to staff them. They were the product of the business-minded bureaucracy, who created the schools, then went looking for someone to work in them. Not your idea at all!

We live in a time of good intentions, ignorant elites, and scoundrels. Who can tell which is which?



Diane, A question about expertise: Are educators expert in what graduates should know? How did they come by this expertise?

And why do so many of us doubt the ability of the education establishment to properly account for this what?

When I look at education, the first thing I recognize is that the HOW of teaching --the bonding with the children, the skills of acting and presentation and and soothing a hurt--these are not my domain.

The WHAT of learning, however, I feel competent to comment on. There are, of course, plenty of data to back up my complaints.

From these lacks, then, we try to offer solutions. How do we look at potential improvements?

One thing we know about public education is that it mirrors many other models that don't work well. And, it doesn't have the characteristics of organizations that do perform well.

For instance, it is notoriously difficult to get rid of educators who are not fit to serve the kids. New York City last year relieved 10 of 55,000 teachers. It costs an average of $250,000 to fire one.

New Jersey fired precisely 47 (of 100,000) in 10 years (ending in 2005). That's half a hundredth of a percent annually.

For those who are not leaving, creative, energetic, and world-wise teachers are not entering the workforce. Yes, college grads come in. Yet lets go back to that subject matter thing.

If we are to know what to teach students, we need some way of getting that into the schools. If teachers don't bring varied enough experience, we need other outside input.

State committees? Those haven't worked well. Schools of education? They're more closed than the teaching profession.

Its hardly surprising that small schools of 400 were no panacea, and that finding good leaders for them isn't easy. What works in this area is high schools of 1000-1500. Yet you still have to find a way of training and identifying leaders.

Its not clear that the traditional Ed school route is the way to such leadership.

No one has any illusion that every school can be great. We can demand a couple things:
- Every school has a reasonable literacy rate by 8th grade.
- Every school has backup resources to turn to for kids who are failing.
- Every school has backup resources for kids who are well above the average.

The current models aren't ensuring these, and the educators alone are not moving to different, more promising, models.


Thank you for putting into words many of my thoughts as I read Diane's piece. It happens that I recently took a course in Human Relations Management. There were a number of teachers in my class--perhaps some who had aspirations towards an eventual management position in education.

While this changed somewhat over the "course of the course," many teachers came in the door with an expectation that the best HR Managers for districts are those who started in the classroom. This doesn't mean that they had any real understanding of what HR is all about--only that HR is among those "others" who "don't understand" and are always making ignorant demands on teachers. In one early assignment I made suggestion that one solution to this problem is to include MR at the program planning table. This was pretty much dismissed by my classmates (although, as I noted as people learned about the actual job and science of HR, they did change some).

I do not understand this tendancy among educators to dismiss anyone outside their own classroom as no-nothings. This even applies to principals (they have been out of the classroom too long). It pertains to parents (despite considerable experience with their own children--that might be helpful). It pertains to the business-world (even though they have considerable information about what it is that students need to know AFTER school, as well as the things that Ed noted about what tends to work vs what tends not to).

I have spent a good bit of time in health care, and I can even cite examples of health care organizations looking for helpful examples outside their own field (can a hospital kitchen learn anything from a restaurant? can patient registration learn anything from hotel check-in?). The provincialism within education is just not serving it well (I almost fell out of my chair when one of my child's teachers said to me, "well, unfortanately it's still a pencil and paper world out there," regarding her reluctance to incorporate technological tools into teaching and learning).

Can TfA or its clones save teaching? No--not big enough, not enough staying power. Can the teaching profession and schools be enriched by the infusion of highly proficient examples who are there for a short time--well, perhaps. Can they take something meaningful from their experience out into that hostile world of ignoramuses? Assuredly.

I, too, was refreshed by the Gates admission of failure of the small schools approach. It was not a silver bullet--and now we know that. What I think we can learn, however is that it worked for some and not for others. I believe that this is an ongoing pattern for education reform, and poses some interesting research questions about matching appropriate solutions to existing conditions--which vary from school to school. Hanushek talks about this with regard to funding resources. Increased funding does not equate well with increased achievement. This doesn't mean that funding is unimportant--but that it is one piece entangle with many others that have to do with goodness of fit to the situation.

In international situations, it appears that there are some combinations that lead to better results, among them an external accountability mechanism (Woessman uses exit exams) with local (building)autonomy regarding some features such as curriculum, staffing and budget formulation. As Americans we seem not to be able to "get" things that have to do with balance. We are all phonics or all whole language. We cannot find a midpoint between constructed and rote learning. And we cannot find a meeting point for those who have knowledge from the classroom and those who have knowledge from other, equally relevant areas.

So we staff our districts with former teachers running transportation and customer service and human relations. They don't do it very well. We assume that the classroom is the ideal proving ground for the principalship, but get outraged when principals run their staffs like they ran their classrooms.

The irony is that schools are not real big on being "learning organizations." I think we can do better.


As usual you make some great points and a compelling, if slightly cynical, case against top-down, know-nothing reformers. But I think you give far to much credit to the muscle philanthropists for their "self-critical" approach. What it really amounts to on their part is little more than flitting around from reform to reform, pushing them onto teachers and communities, and then pulling out when the push-back begins. There's nothing wrong with the idea of smaller schools. But there's nothing worse for real reform or for the small schools movement than rich, powerful, dilettantes running the show.

Diane, Another wonderful piece highlighting the state of education.

But this turn of events (for the worse) has been largely enabled by the standards movement.

The assumptions in the standards movement has been that 1) there is a bar that all students should meet at a grade level, 2) teachers are responsible for meeting that bar, and 3) the tests that we give students accurately reflect whether they met that bar

Effective school organizations do not use this model for improving.

As Margo nicely pointed out above, effective school organizations have quality checks and balances on who holds the responsibility for educating all students. That burden is never placed solely on the teachers.

I realize that a sequence of topics (e.g. CK) would be rather nice, but that is not how standards are written. And those people who write the standards are not held "accountable" for their quality nor ensuring that children learn well. Frankly, it would make more sense to fire most of the standards writers than to fire teachers. (At least teachers are doing something for our children.)

And coupling tests to those standards, necessarily means delving into the specfics of how to teach the material.

It is impossible to write standards without a teaching/learning philosphophy (e.g. content based or process/skills based).

Given how state standards have been developed and used, how would national standards be any different?


I would caution you and others who work at think tanks and comment on education to not link Teach For America completely to the thinking of its advocates. Do high needs schools benefit from having some talented, recent college graduates committed to teaching in challeneging settings and who have high expectations for kids? Absolutely. Does that mean that Teach For America thinks that high needs schools should be staffed entirely with its recruits and that all experienced teachers are *bad* and should be fired? No. I would instead look at what Wendy Kopp and the leaders of Teach For America say and what they work towards, and not impugn their integrity by linking them to the policies and practices of some of their most vocal proponents.



Scoundrels indeed and in fact. I have never been able to fathom how the Gates foundation focus on fixing high schools would have any impact other than disruption. So far it’s been almost entirely disruption. I’m glad to see Gates actually admit they have failed. The Gates foundation efforts have been at best "Random" to use one of Mr. Gates favorite pejoratives. For two billion dollars you could have purchased all of the best online education tools and provided them for free to all comers. Gates seems to believe education starts in high school when you can predict high school success with a high degree of certainty by the zip code of the grade school a student attended. The lack of focus on having children become literate and numerate in the first four grades remains beyond reason for educrats and foundations. In Singapore 90% of their fourth grade students can recite their math facts from memory in the US it’s around 20%. This is not a "Gatesean Random" coincidence. The National Math Panel has recommended a focus on early elementary math but I suspect nothing will be done to fix the problem. It will be more than interesting to see how Obama "frames" the education debate and who he chooses to move his agenda forward.

Hi, everyone.
I would like to raise one idea for consideration: in the past, there has not been a systematic understanding of the various types of assets that schools build. We know schools are supposed to focus on imparting knowledge in the same way we know that corporations are supposed to focus on financial return on investment. However, with an acknowledgement that Social Responsibility is part of good Corporate governance -- that good financial returns are related to morale, which is in turn related to allowing ones employees to function as healthy contributors and stewards of their community -- maybe it is time to revisit exactly what is Educational Responsibility.

I have published with a think tank; I have been active philanthropically and now in an education-related for-profit. I have taught, but not K-12. Given that context, I blogged a "start the ball rolling" post for the purposes of unlocking the idea of which "assets" we are trying to build (health, social skills, etc.) It is at http://www.margolin-consulting.com/2008/06/student-loans-s.html.

There is a lot that might become more clear if we reach explicit consensus about the roles schools play in our society, and the roles that community plays with the school.

In a mission-driven environment, we are so used to focusing on our mission that it's easy to overlook that others are moved (primarily or secondarily) by other missions. It doesn't matter if your mission is protecting financial capital or assisting in the development of children: one human being fulfills roles in different areas of their lives. We know that many of the causes of inequity arise from the cross-fertilization (or lack thereof) across these different areas.

We can grow knowledge, health, social skills, and even prepare a labor force for coming challenges, but we had better first develop a system that defines and measures those assets and the risk to our ability to create them.


I've gotten heavily involved in my local PTA the last couple of years.

I've never quite understood the motivation for teachers to do their best for the 'customer,' the students. I understand that most teachers are very caring people and would do nearly anything to help their students to succeed. However, with teaching performance having no impact on compensation, the students seem completely dependent on the good will of the teachers. And with what I'm learning about union contract protection, principals have their hands tied when dealing with poorly performing teachers - dooming one or more classrooms of students to getting 'stuck' with a teacher unable or unwilling to good a good job, not to mention their next teacher getting 'stuck' trying to catch them up on the missed material.

Teachers tell me that performance-based compensation would undermine the teamwork necessary between teachers. I think this is bunk. Admittedly, I've never been a formal educator, but for decades I've worked in industry where teaching (helping) others succeed, so the entire team succeeds, is a way of life. An I may not get paid as much as the person I helped!

I've looked into how various states in the U.S. and how other countries fair on standardized tests and I think we have a lot to learn about effectively teaching our students. Here is a link to some charts that summarize my findings:


We had better get our education act together before other competing countries each the rest of our lunch!

Scott Gibson
'worth a thousand words'

A response: Don't assume that the purpose of going to school is to generate higher test scores. The purpose of an automobile factory is to produce automobiles. The purpose of a school is to educate students for life in our society--to be good citizens, to hold a job and achieve economic independence, and to have the wherewithall to face life's challenges. What makes some of our readers believe that test scores are a reliable way of producing or creating those outcomes?
Diane Ravitch

Diane, Well said. Children that learn well generally do well on the tests. That does not mean that "teaching to the test" will ensure that children will learn well.

The tests we have lack the content, knowledge and ideas that are essential for a quality education. How can they be considered a real indication of a good education?

This notion that a good education is had by "just raising test scores" is rather short-sighted and brings to mind the tail wagging the dog.

Who should be responsible in our schools for ensuring that our children's education enables them "to be good citizens, to hold a job and achieve economic independence, and to have the wherewithall to face life's challenge"?

Do you think that teachers should be held responsible alone for making all improvements in our children's education?


The "experts" fail to see the contradictions in their own proposals--perhaps because they don't know better, perhaps because they don't care. The contradictions do not affect them, so long as their policies appear successful.

Take, for example, the idea of recruiting large numbers of "highly qualified" Ivy grads. Policymakers apparently believe that these novice teachers, with their knowledge, passion, and "success," will inject quality, energy, and "success" (higher test scores) into the schools.

Problems, problems, problems!

First of all, what good is knowledge of your subject, when you're not even allowed to teach it? These very policmakers subscribe to fads that value process over content--so these teachers wind up teaching strategies, not literature or history; use of manipulatives, not math.

Second, as you point out, only veteran teachers know how to handle the "knotty day-to-day problems" that continually arise. Where novice teachers are the majority, they must spend much energy and time rediscovering what has already been known. Small schools staffed entirely with novice teachers have proved unstable, to put it mildly, and their reinvented wheels have not rolled particularly well. In the meantime, many "excessed" veteran teachers work as substitutes.

Third, certain personalities fare better in rough schools than others. In many schools you have to appear tough and brassy, or students will perceive you as weak. If you have a gentle disposition, you had better grow a thick skin, or you'll be a squashed peach in no time.

Fourth, any new teacher is bound to recoil at mandates that include what to put on your wall, how to write up a lesson, how to "think aloud," how to take conferencing notes, how to put up a bulletin board, how to arrange desks, how to comment on student work, and how to collect "data." No one likes micromanagement of this sort, but the objections of veteran and novice teachers do not always coincide. In the rush of the school day, there is no time to sort out differences and come up with proposals. Thus, despite considerable opposition, the mandates continue unhindered.

Thus policymakers fail to see the contradictions in their policies. They hire teachers to teach subjects that they themselves have abolished. They staff schools with new teachers, destroying the institutional memory that would help the new teachers survice. They put soft-spoken young teachers in loud classrooms. They mandate all sorts of minutiae and ensure that teachers will be too busy to sort through them and offer alternatives based on sound values.

And contrary to what they would like to think, most of us, veteran or novice, did not enter teaching to raise test scores. We want students to do well on the tests, but the scores are not our gods. Yet we are told over and over that the test scores matter more than anything else, and that we must bow to them at all times.

Diana Senechal


"Who should be responsible...for ensuring that our children's education enables them...?"

The answer is the parents. The schools can not do it all. Teachers certainly can not do it all.

Parents can reinforce the lessons of the classroom, fill in the cracks not covered in the classroom, and when necessary, be their child's advocate.

I do not have statistics in hand, but I have no doubt there is an overwhelmingly direct coloration between parent between parent involvement and the success of the student.

I am unclear why parental involvement in not at the forefront of all discussions dealing with student success.


Parent involvement is exactly what the system roots out. Public schools get money from taxation, which parents have no control over. Kids are forced to go to school which, again, takes power away from parents. Teachers are safely privileged in their public unions- which sharply curtails any parental input. Further, the more delocalized the school regulatory and bureaucratic framework becomes, the more the feds and states get involved, the less opportunity for influence over children's lives parents have.

Of course, many politically connected parents view this as just fine and benefit from the perversity- review the current state of that famous high school in Little Rock.

Other parents welcome the idea of a daycare (prison?) center for their kids.

There are lots of concentrated interests perpetuating these totalitarian archipelagos.

One thing can be known for certain. The public system has made it de facto and de jure: your children are not your children, they are the government's children.

I read Diane’s Forbes article about the Gates’ Foundation admission that their small schools initiative had failed to live up to expectations. Her point is that there is no silver bullet is an important one. The problems of American high schools are not the result of large size any more than they are the result of teachers, parents, curriculum, immigration policies, poverty, low wage policies, and the wide range of other causes for dissatisfaction.

Nevertheless silver bullets fit well with the world view of people from business. Jillionaires from business though like to think of the schools as producing one product (workers perhaps), as a result of inputs (teachers, buildings, curricula, etc). The idea then emerges that if you tweak the combination, you will get great workers. This is a great model perhaps for a product on an assembly line, but the evidence from the Gates Foundation (and other sources) indicate that it is maybe not the greatest formula for managing schools.

Diane-- I'm a new reader of your blog, coming from a background of classroom teaching and now in a school psychology graduate program. I'm curious to hear more about your feelings on data-driven instruction. In this post it sounds like you don't value it? Or maybe just have concerns about the way it's become a buzz word used by some folks without a thorough understanding? In general, I'm now very interested in how other educators think about formative assessment and the use of data. My experience lately is that some teachers really appreciate being introduced to formative assessment when it provides them with achievable goals and intervention ideas for their students. They seem less interested in data collection when the results are not going to be useful for teaching and learning purposes--- if they are only going to be used by people outside of their classroom to make decisions about special ed or evaluations of their teaching. I'm curious to know more about where you and others stand on the "data-driven instruction" piece....


Parents can not be responsible for classroom instruction (unless we suddenly mandate homeschooling).

Your idea of parents filling in the gap already happens, and yet the vast majority of our children do not receive a quality education.

For our schools to improve there needs to be real improvements in classroom instruction. Who is responsible for that?

Tony, You (and Diane) are entirely correct that the current/past ideas promoted by the Gates foundation et al. have resulted in no improvements in student learning.

But to say "there is no silver bullet" undercuts the whole idea of educational reform, as it presumes that only incremental and small gains are what we should expect of our schools. Effective school systems around the world have made giant strides in improving student learning in rather short periods of time (e.g Singapore reduced their high school drop out rates from ~25% in the 1980's to currently less than 3%).

And the problem with what Gates et al. are doing is that they are working on programs that have not/will not improve classroom instruction. High school seems like it is a problem because that is where students drop out and the performance of too many students is so poor. But the main issue with our high schools is poor preparation during K-8. Unless Gates et al. focus on programs that address improvements in classroom instruction, it is unlikely that any of their money will enable improvements in student learning.

If you don't know how to improve schools, that's fine. But stating that only real improvements will be small and incremental allows those "testing and accountability" folks to get away with touting the minor testing gains as great strides in education.

We should expect better of our schools.

I agree that "there is no silver bullet."

I think what Diane meant by that is that there is no single parameter that can be changed and thereby cure all of the ills of the system. In the Gates case that single parameter was school size. In fact, by restricting school size they introduced other problems into the system.

I do not think that there is any single thing that we can remedy, not parental involvement, class size, teacher pay or quality, low standards, out-of-field teaching, etc. that would magically gives us the education system that we want (and need.)

Rather I think that what we have is a very complicated "systems problem". There are a large number of parameters which will have to be improved. I think that the better model is the one that Tony disparaged...

"schools as producing one product X, as a result of inputs (teachers, buildings, curricula, etc). The idea then emerges that if you tweak the combination, you will get great X."

Tony let X= "workers" (A word that, I suspect, he hopes will rub people the wrong way.)

I propose that we use Diane's definition and let X= " educate students for life in our society--to be good citizens, to hold a job and achieve economic independence, and to have the wherewithall to face life's challenges."

So while I do not believe in a "silver bullet, I do believe that we can "tweak" the "inputs" (though some will need much more than tweaking) to improve the "output."

I think that some of the best school systems around the world have done this--to their great benefit. I believe that we can do the same.


You are completely correct that this is a systems problem, and understanding how systems are changed and improved is critical to getting to an effective school system.

But the term "no silver bullet" is always used to lower expectations. It is used to say that because the system is complex and not understandable, only expect minimal/no changes.

Hardly strong motivation for actually addressing the (indeed solvable) systemic problems in education.

Are there some school systems around the world that you like? And what do you like about them?

To improve our system, what inputs would you tweak?


Well some lowering...let's say "rightsizing" of expectations is probably called for. Our problems are not such that they will be remedied with a "five year plan."

There are many nations we can learn from-- Singapore and Finland, yes, but also Japan, China, Canada, others. None have systems that could or should be "transported." Each has useful ideas.

But we have to start somewhere. I kind of like Diane's advice to Obama in Forbes...

The Obama administration can get off to a good start by revising NCLB. First, it should eliminate the goal of universal proficiency by 2014, because it is unattainable. Period. No state or nation has ever achieved 100% proficiency. Second, it should recognize that the federal government is best at providing accurate information, such as what children in each grade need to know to be abreast of international standards (that is known as the curriculum) and whether our children are meeting those standards (that is, testing); third, the administration should expect states and districts to fashion appropriate reforms and remedies in their schools.

For about 120 years (1850-1970) we had the best educated workforce in the world. In the last 30+ years we have lost that to a combination of some slipping on our part and a whole lot of catching-up and then surpassing by other nations. For a very long time we led the world in HS grads, and then college grads. Not today. We are not in the top ten on those measures.

What this gained us was the highest standard of living in the world. Vast swaths of our population moving out of subsistence-level poverty and into the middle class. However, in 2007, the median income for males in this country was lower than it is was in 1973! If we do not repair our education system and give more kids skills commensurate with the kinds of wages they currently earn we can expect them to continue to fall.

Diane is right. The government is good at measuring things. Set a national standard (Federal, national, or common-state: I don't think it will be easy but given the risks what alternative do we have?) The NAEP is then aligned to assess performance against that standard. No stakes to that test. No sanctions of any kind. But, the test goes home to parents in an easy to understand fashion so that parents know whether their kids are rivaling the Canadians and the Finns--or the Tunisians!

Diane's suggested start will not fix the problem, but it will make the problem clear to every interested person in the nation. And it will give us a common measure to see who is making progress. Then we can discuss, debate, and tweak the many "inputs" that people feel are important.

(Ideally, I would also like to give the local schools far more autonomy (a la Finland) so that they can pick the curriculum, textbooks, pedagogy, teachers, professional development that they think they need to make progress.

It is sort of a "local control--centralized reporting" system.

But, of course, I am dreaming.

GB, Woessmann suggests that the reason that systems like Finlands work so well, with substantial local autonomy, is that the school system has a very difficult "high-stakes" end of high school exam. Would you envision a set of high stakes national exams as well?

Also, given the nature of systems, can we really cherry pick the ideas that we like (local autonomy) and discard the ones we don't (high stakes exams)?

Your idea of local control - centralized reporting is fairly close to what we currently have, although the centralized reporting is usually done by the state and not the feds. How will moving the reporting to the fed level improve student learning?

Regarding other school systems: are there inputs that other systems tweak that you think would never work out here? And why?


I really would introduce this without high stakes (at least no high stakes built into the legislation.) You and I both know the perverse incentives that were built into NCLB. I think that they treat teachers like children--as though they really could fix things if they only stopped playing around and buckled down! Rubbish! It is the system that needs revamped and parts of it are well out of the control of classroom teachers. (This is not to say that there is nothing that needs improvement about how we recruit, train, retain, remunerate, etc. our teacher corps.) Also, I do not know where you got the Woessmann analysis, I don't remember reading him saying that anywhere--but Andreas Schleicher's take on Finland is a little different strong national expectations (standards) with lots of local autonomy.

I want no (built-in) stakes for anyone, at least for a long time, because I see the problems that need to be fixed falling into two broad categories, technical and political. The technical will be challenging, how do we set world-class standards for most of our kids, which ideas can we borrow from abroad, etc. but these things are soluble.

The political problems that I see are far tougher. I do not believe that most of the nation's parents, legislators, business leaders, even teachers adequately understand the nature of the threat and the price that we will pay for failing to address it. Many of these think that "we have things about right" or perhaps need a little tweaking...


I believe that this report taps into something real. When I return home to the "great middle" of the nation to visit friends and family, they definitely know something is up. Plant closings, outsourcing, stagnant wages. They even have any explanation--"people in China who will works for $5/day". But this analysis misses the key ingredient to my thinking. Lower wages, yes, (though not as low as they think) but the really devastating thing is when you combine it with a higher skill level! I try to point out that wage rates in sub-Saharan Africa are even lower, but nobody is sending jobs there, the skill levels are too low.

In this kind of environment it is, I fear, impossible to implement the kinds of major changes that I believe will be necessary for us to compete. Why bother, if we are doing OK?

The key ingredient that I believe is missing is a clear understanding of how poorly our students are doing on a world level. And this is partly related to how parents come to learn about how their children's school is performing--from the state. As Paul Hoss mentioned in a previous thread, parents in Mississippi are told that 88% of their 4th graders are proficient readers--sounds like Champagne time to me--until you learn that on the NAEP only 18% of kids score proficient. States exams define "proficient" based on political expediency--what the state politicians will be able to survive--not any rational external standard. It is exceeding complicated to compare one state to another with our system let alone understand how your kids are competing on a world level.

So that's why I say no "built in" stakes. As reality sets in, politicians and their appointees will have some "explainin"to do. But I think that all involved parents, teachers, politicians need some time accept reality. Ideally in an environment as free from recrimination as possible (think "Truth and Reconciliation") before preparing for the hard work ahead in earnest.

The cover story of Business Week a few weeks ago was "Why America Needs an Economic Strategy". I heard the author Harvard professor and "competitiveness guru" Michael Porter on a podcast where he said that the greatest long term threat to our economic stability is our K-12 schools. If we cannot fix them to be competitive in today's world he believes that our middle class will have to endure a huge change in its standard of living.

All this said, Erin, I am no politician. That is just where I think the greatest challenges lie. (In spite of my nom de guerre I am actually more of a technocrat than a bureaucrat.) So maybe my political analysis is all wrong.

GB, It not that America is not aware of the educational issue. Everyone is. What is missing is a culturally acceptable path forward.

The Woessman ref included Finland and all other school systems that use school autonomy (positive correlation with Central Exams, negative without).

What types of "tweaks" that other school systems use that you don't think would work here and why?

Hey Diane,

How do you think of charter school operators like KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools with respect to your characterizations and concerns? They seem to be experienced, dedicated, practical, and effective.


I agree with Diane’ s general comment that “The purpose of a school is to educate students for life in our society--to be good citizens, to hold a job and achieve economic independence, and to have the wherewithall to face life's challenges,” even though in many ways these are vague goals. This does not preclude administering tests, and insisting on accountability even while admitting that a number of these qualities are not measurable in such a fashion. But, schooling is not completely reducible to success on tests, except to the extent that basic literacy and numeracy can be measured and are relevant. Ultimately, no test can predict who will be a good citizen, hold a job in an economy which will change over the next fifty years, much less predict who will have whatever wherewithal necessary to withstand future challenges.

As for “silver bullets”: Remember, the inventors of previous silver bullets from NCLB, Gates Foundation, and many others were really smart people. If there were in fact silver bullets out there, I am sure they would have found them during the many decades reforms have come and gone. In this context, I have become a bigger fan of incremental change, which is likely to be more enduring. Certainly things can be learned from Finland and Singapore which have done well in producing test scores (though it is unclear whether they have produced good citizens who have the wherewithal to face life’s challenges, etc.). But silver bullet—I am doubt that they have a supply of them.

Govt. Bureaucrat,

I like your moniker. It makes it easier for me to criticize your scribbles.

On parameters. There are too many parameters for any single mind, computer program or bureaucracy to handle. Environmental circumstances are always changing. Human minds are constantly changing. There are millions of opportunity costs to be estimated among heterogeneous resources and possible goods and services. A school is only one social endeavor among many many many. Parameters for schooling, even if they could encompass all the necessary categories for rational action, have moving factors within themselves, as without, to contend with. The government planners in D.C. have to keep that in mind- but they are unable to. Bureaucrats do not even know their own minds ahead of time, never mind the future wants and needs of the millions or of the evolving status of scarcity.

Even if the D.C. educrats, the smartest in all the land, ignore the aforementioned economic warning there remains a practical problem of local knowledge that the non-geniuses in the schools can detect immediately. Nobel Laureate in Economics, Professor Friedrich von Hayek, wrote in 1945:

“Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation.”

Teachers do possess this local knowledge. A meddling central authority, with all its expert experts, can only throw wrenches into problems. The question is how can teachers be empowered to deal with the local situation while simultaneously being held accountable in a complex social environment where people, billions of them, have competing demands and scarce resources? If central planning cannot possibly supply optimality, then what can?

Market entrepreneurship, the social answer to this social problem, will allow teachers the freedom to do as they choose while leaving the choice of whether to employ these teachers in the hands of the consumer. The price system, unhampered by government (i.e. no bailouts for banksters), provides a common denominator that automatically takes into account the demands and scarcity evolving out of the trillions of actions of the billions of people in this world. No omniscient authority is required. Freedom and accountability. Voila!


Had the Ed Week spam catcher allowed me, I would have posted the comment, 25 comments ago, that you and Deb were posting prose poems that are so good that it is hard to comment on them.

Diane Senechal, as always you get to the core of issues that too many non-teachers don't understand. What teachers want to teach and how effective they are, are determined in large part by their personalities. I didn't know that I'd have the personality for a hardcore inner city school, but I know that I don't have a personality that would allow me to function in many types of school. If we keep putting up top down mandates that "any" teacher are "bound to recoil" from, we will be sorry. Teachers aren't interchangable cogs.

Erin, I bet you'd like to take the "silver bullet" comment back wouldn't you? I know you didn't mean it in a mean way, but I do think its indicative of how NCLB has coarsened educational discssuions. You aren't coarse, but I am upset that so-called "reformers" who repetedly complain that teachers who disagree with them are just trying to "lower expectations."

Scott, I diagree and if you actually taught, you might not agree but you wouldn't reject the professional experience of teachers as "bunk."

BUT, your web site is fantastic!!! Everyone should click Scott Gibson's link. The two best charts, I think, are the changes in Reading scores for frequent and infrequent readers for pleasure. Both the chart for 9 year olds and 17 year olds open up a lot of questions. Read them together and even more questions arise.

But would you basically agree that the chart for 9 year old could be used to argue for NCLB-type accountability? The chart for 17 year olds, however, presents an even stronger case against NCLB. But the best way to read your charts is with and open and expansive mind.

"Are educators expert in what graduates should know? How did they come by this expertise?"

I began teaching middle and high school math after working as a radar engineer for 10 years. I was dismayed that of all the things the students had learned, the skills they carried from one grade to the next were about the least useful skills for high school, college, or the work force. They were the skills that make simple problems far more difficult than necessary, and lead kids to prefer a visit to the dentist over math homework. They are the skills that teachers who are math-phobic themselves tend to emphasize.

John, Thanks for you kind words. At the risk of beating a dead horse, Tony's comments regarding the future of ed reform well capture the term "no silver bullet"; that is: "in this context, I have become a bigger fan of incremental change". But what does that mean? Does it mean we should be satisfied with the tiny gains seen on the NAEP using the NCLB framework of ed reform?

GB's terminology captures the situation better: "there is no single parameter that can be changed and thereby cure all of the ills of the system"

I completely agree with GB's statement. But the term - no silver bullet - conveys quite a different message. It is always used to maintain the status quo (e.g. small changes might happen but forget about larger ones).

Tony, Ed reform is not a matter of smartness but of first, correctly identifying the problems in our school system and second, finding solutions that might actually solve that problem. Are these complex problems: absolutely. But solvable: absolutely.

But it seems that most of the current crop of ed reforms start with a possible solution and then tries to fit the problem around it. (e.g. Vouchers are great, therefore they might solve the problem by allowing parents to choose their schools, and parents will look out for the best interest of their child and put them in good schools.)

This is not to say that vouchers could not be part of a good solution, but that in solving any problem, identification of the problem must come first. Solutions second.

Before you dismiss school systems like Finland or Singapore as not developing good people, you might want to consider that every school system, regardless of culture, needs to balance the needs of the individual (to be treated well) with the needs of the state (to have an educated populous).

And while we couldn't become like Singapore nor Finland even if we wanted to, perhaps their school systems have something to offer us. If they do, should we not be looking more closely at what they do? Do you think it was a bad thing/counter to developing good people that Singapore was able to reduce the high school drop out rates from ~25% in the 1980's to currently less than 3%? Does this mean that those reforms coarsened their culture and made those students less likely to be productive citizens?

From the Singapore MOE: "Education does two things: it develops the individual and educates the citizen."

I would embrace that statement. Would you?


Thanks for the Woessmann cite.

>It is not that America is not aware of the educational issue.

I have to disagree with you. Public Agenda has done the study I cited above and another a year or two ago. AAAS did focus groups with parents even longer ago that lead me to the same conclusion.

And...I have anecdote. I have given more than a hundred presentations in which I show TIMSS/PISA data to groups of teachers, superintendents, parents, technical professionals, college professors, etc. I can tell you that there is a huge resistance to accepting these data and a frantic effort to grasp for mitigating factors. So much so that I have created a series of slides to rebut the most common objections:

• "These tests are unfair because they compare all of our kids to the academic elite in countries with a selective school system." Wrong. This is controlled for.

• "We know that we have 'some kids' who pull down our average but our best kids are still the best." No, they aren't. We placed 29th overall in the 2003 PISA problems solving study. When comparing just the kids at the 95 percentile in each nations we placed 24th. Hardly "the best."

• "These tests must not matter. If we are so dumb, how come we are so rich?" Oddly, I have been getting this one less lately.

• "Don't they do better than us because they are less diverse?" No. Some of the Asian nations are extremely diverse--its not all ethnic diversity--some nations essentially teach all of their children a new language when the get to school. We have nothing that compares, say, to the linguistic diversity of China.

So, its anecdote, but one based on presenting these data to many thousands of American citizens then standing there to face their questions and, in many cases, their wrath. I'm not saying that there are not more and more people coming to understand the gravity of situation. I don't think that it is anywhere near a majority.

I will do an experiment at some point though. I can pass out a PISA graph without country names and ask them to circle the bar that they think represents the US's performance. I am betting that they select a bar substantially higher than #29. Your hypothesis is, then, that they will hit pretty close to the truth?

As for an example of something that may work in foreign countries but I would not recommend here, I will choose a "highly selective" school system. The PRC has a test in 5th grade "zhong kao" that decides who is on an academic vs. more vocational track. This would not work in the USA for a host of complicated reasons including our state of development. Northern Ireland has system that historically did very much the same thing and they are frantically trying to revamp it.

Finally, and I am not trying to pick a fight here, I usually find myself in overall agreement with your posts. And, you are clearly a person who values data and studies that which is available. (Be still, my beating heart!) But I think that you have the metaphor of the "silver bullet" wrong. When I say "no silver bullet", it is not an argument for status quo. It is simply my frustration with those who think that there is one simple thing that, if we were only smart enough to see it, we could change to remedy all of our ills. I think that the common usage supports my interpretation of "silver bullet."


Of course, silver bullet fans almost never agree on what the it is. Earlier this year, I lost my temper with someone flacking for charter schools. Now, one of our newer respondents (with whom I am determined not to engage), has an inordinate faith in the power of markets. Next it will be...who knows.

The point I was trying to make is the we need leaders (in politics, education, and business) who reject "silver bullets" and prepare the public for a long struggle. I don't think that this will be easy, but our forebears solved even bigger problems and I think that we are capable of meeting our big challenge.



Govt. Bureaucrat,

You believe we should prepare the public for a long struggle because there probably is no "silver bullet" on the education reform horizon. Guess I'd have to respectfully disagree.

On a more optimistic note I'd like to believe we have FINALLY initiated the quest for a/the "solution" which, in and of itself, is an enormous improvement compared to our pre-1983 schools.

There might not be "a" bullet. We might need an entire ammunition belt filled with bullets to address the multitude of problems that exist in our schools today. Whether it's school choice, merit pay, small schools, national standards/assessments, school uniforms, single-gender schools, improved pedagogy, etc., etc., or any combination thereof. Perhaps I'm just being naive but I'd like to believe GB, there is a silver bullet, otherwise Pandora's Box, minus hope, would seem real empty.

Govt. Bureaucrat,

Your dismissiveness re the market is merely indicative of your inability to produce reasonable refutation of my previous anti-positivist statements.

I am not surprised by your response, or rather, your non-response. Ghandhi, a man who encountered immense opposition, once said, "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."


I think that we are disagreeing more on syntax than on substance. I agree with you that a spectrum of things need to be optimized and you have started a reasonable list.

The data from PISA and, in a week or two, the new TIMSS study are discouraging--but I am not discouraged. In fact, I think that there are, today, substantially more people who understand the magnitude of the problem and I see more and more leadership emerging for really substantive solutions. I would not say that it has reached critical mass yet--but we are moving in the right direction.

This is no time to be hope-less.

GB, You and I seem to be on the same bandwagon so our slight differences in interpretation of -no silver bullet- is minor. (My concern comes from posts like Tony's above that use the term to downplay expectations.) But your use of the term to indicate that the situation requires more than one parameter is completely correct.

I can definitely see your point regarding the reaction of many to the TIMSS/PISA data, but my interpretation is somewhat different. If people had thought that the info that you were presenting was wrong, they would have called you a liar (sorry for the crass term). They didn't. They started making excuses about why the data was wrong. Not the reaction of an incredulant crowd, but one determined to maintain the status quo. Change can be quite troublesome to many (administrators seem high on that list).

As for your PISA data, I wouldn't be surprised if Americans actually got our position right. We, culturally, do not put much credence into schooling as the reason that we do so well.

Getting people's dander up about our placement in the world standing in education to motivate us to change our schools doesn't seem consistent with our world view (perhaps shaped by Huck Finn) that schooling doesn't amount to much, but pluck and perseverence do. Not bad qualities in people, but really a horrible starting place for improving education.

The problems our schools face are rather simple (our children are not learning much) and the solutions are rather easy, just not culturally acceptable nor in the current lexicon of ed reform. Why has no one in the US done a study on what the effective school systems actually do to enable their students to learn well? Why has no one identified what checks and balances are necessary in effective school systems? It really seems as if our current school structure is the third rail of politics. And yet, our school structure largely prevents any/all improvements.

Any real change will not be a long struggle but a short, difficult one. Cultural shifts in understanding what schools should be like will never be easy but a clean break (like Singapore did in the 1980's) may be our best option.

The problem with schools isn't as complex as people make it out to be and the solutions are really straightforward. But culturally it is very difficult for Americans to admit that other countries may do something better than they do themselves.

John, thank you for the kind words.

I was struck by a comment that "PRDMAMA" made (italics mine):

"I began teaching middle and high school math after working as a radar engineer for 10 years. I was dismayed that of all the things the students had learned, the skills they carried from one grade to the next were about the least useful skills for high school, college, or the work force. They were the skills that make simple problems far more difficult than necessary, and lead kids to prefer a visit to the dentist over math homework. They are the skills that teachers who are math-phobic themselves tend to emphasize."

Perhaps the writer is talking about the "strategies" that teachers are now required to teach. They are indeed based on a fear of the material, be it math or reading. What, a text? How horrifying! What are we to do? Oh, we can spend an entire period on pre-reading strategies! (I am not exaggerating.)

What are these "pre-reading strategies"? For reading, they would include: looking at the cover, reading the back cover, looking at the pictures, making predictions based on the pictures, turning to our partner and talking about those predictions, scanning the table of contents or heading, scanning the questions at the end (if it's a test passage, as it may well be). Anything, anything, but plunging into that dreadful, intimidating, detestable text.

These "strategies" bow to advertising and gossip. We must trust what the back cover says, what our uninformed partner says. We must believe the superficial summaries, the pretty words of praise. The front cover photo has more credence than the first page of text. Students learn to trust the packaging over what's inside.

Yes, we all look at the back cover. But we should not believe everything it says. When does a back cover say "An interesting, highly flawed book"? We learn more from reading a few pages of the book (in those bookstores where they let you read and read) than from all the peripheral "clues."

In order for any improvement to come about in the schools, structural or curricular, we must stop being so fearful of subject matter this very minute. We must stop believing ads and gossip. Forget about pre-reading strategies. Start reading something difficult and beautiful. Struggle with it, listen to it, think about it, make sense of it, talk about it, write about it, return to it and read it again.

Diana Senechal

This is a long an interesting string of responses, so just a couple of quick responses to Erin and GB.

For Erin: My intention is not to justify mediocrity, but to rein in overly high expectations which can create false hope in the short run, and cynicism in the long. You keep saying that there are quick policies that can be made of the society or culture takes difficult steps. This is perhaps true—but such reforms also carry higher risks of failures. The path to school reform is littered with the detritus of past experiments gone awry. That doesn't mean new ideas and suggestions for radical reform should not be proposed. But incremental change has advantages, too.

I still maintain that institutions, including the schools, are rarely perfected with any kind of bullets, silver or otherwise. Rather it is an attention to detail (including data), maintenance of relationships, articulation of goals, clarity of objectives, etc., that makes a difference in the long run. This is particularly the case in schooling where the preparation of students takes twelve or more years during which the culture for which they are being prepared changes.

For GB: I agree with your clarification of the definition of “silver bullet.” Silver bullets are convenient rhetorical devices in political discussions. But the devil is often in the details—as bureaucrats from the government and private sector often know best.

For Diana S.: I fully agree with your assertion that we need to jump into the book, and not trust the advertising blurbs on the back! This is why I rarely give my university students “pages” they should read, and insist that they should read the “whole book.” (But I still like to thumb through the book and have a look at the pictures before diving in).

For Everyone: I enjoy keeping up with the vital passions on this blog, even though the speed of my own responses are not always so quick!


"Perhaps the writer is talking about the "strategies" that ... are indeed based on a fear of the material, be it math or reading...Anything, anything, but plunging into that dreadful, intimidating, detestable text....
In order for any improvement to come about in the schools, structural or curricular, we must ... Start reading something difficult and beautiful. Struggle with it, listen to it, think about it, make sense of it, talk about it, write about it, return to it and read it again."

I had to think about, return to, and re-read your post to figure out if we're talking about the same thing. I believe we are - I just never wrote about it quite so eloquently. Thank you for clarifying my post better than I could myself!


I have nothing but respect for nearly every educator I've met (just like most of the industry people I've worked with). My 'bunk' comment only referred to the idea that results-based compensation undermines teamwork. I'm guessing that the teachers I've talked to have not worked under a results-based compensation system and are understandably concerned about a system they are unfamiliar with.

I generally believe the more experience individuals have in a profession such as education, the more they know how to be an expert in that profession. However, I don't believe all teachers have the same skill in getting the best results from their students. I've seen some blow me away with the variety of teaching strategies they have at their disposal to get a point across to every child. I've also seen some repeatedly 'pound' the same concept into the same class, the same way and seem surprised and frustrated that they get the same (poor) results?

Thanks for the positive feedback on the website. I'd welcome any suggestions from you or anyone for other charts and/or data sources that would help us all get to the important things that will strengthen our U.S. educational system.

I'm not following your comment about NCLB accountability and the 'Test Scores vs. Reading for Pleasure' charts. Seems like if the education system (and parents and friends) can influence kids to enjoy reading, then the reading practice they get while reading for pleasure will naturally improve their reading scores. Am I missing your point?

Scott Gibson
'worth a thousand words'

Tony, By taking the tack that you suggest and substantially lowering expectations, it reduces what is actually possible to do in improving education.

My main concern with education is that our students (low SES and otherwise) are not learning very much.

To change that problem any/all reforms need to focus on improving student learning (which has hardly been the focus of *any* ed reform over the past 30+ years).

Improving student learning isn't that difficult. Great teachers do this all the time. (e.g. have an idea, develop materials to engage a wide variety of students, see if the materials/approach works, evaluate if the materials/approach worked and iterate this process until the approach/materials works for the largest audience of students).

But while some very select teachers do this (and their children benefit) our system as a whole has no mechanisms for communicating that information and ideas. And so, our best teachers reach only the lucky few. And considering that it is extremely rare that a child would be blessed with 13 years of outstanding teachers, the net result of our children's education is rather poor.

Effective systems allow that creative energy to energize all their teachers and not be lost because our cultural assumptions that teachers in our country must work/innovate alone.

By focusing on silver bullets, you are missing the larger picture about why our school system largely prevents systemic improvements in student learning. Our schools have no mechanisms for improving nor of communicating to the larger teaching community any possible changes/improvements in teaching techniques or better curricula.

So to be more practical than theoretical, here is one possible idea that directly addresses how to improve student learning.

Have the Feds/States/Foundations sponser competitive 5-year public-private research collaborations focused on improving student learning (in one specific subject, possibly across several grades) between school districts/schools, curricula developers, teaching consultants, test makers (and possibly others) with the stipulation that all improvements/failures will be published, all ideas vetted to the public, all materials that were acutally used in the classroom be available, "success" in improvements will be measured by pre-determined measurements and there is some plan/procedure to spread this information to the broader teaching community. The idea is not to punish for failure but to learn from it.

This isn't the only possible approach but certainly one that focuses on how to improve student learning.

Where is the connection between all these so called ed reforms (testing and accountability, vouchers, merit pay, etc...) and enhancing student learning. If the connection isn't obvious, perhaps the connection is not there.

Instead of downplaying expectations, why are you not coming up with better solutions?


You state, "Our schools have no mechanisms for improving or of communicating to the larger teaching community any possible changes/improvements in teaching techniques or better curricula." You are absolutely correct. Guess everyone is too busy to notice what the person next door is doing. I was never able to figure out why administrators were negligent promoting anything along these lines. It's as if everyone were operating in a vacuum.

Sign me up for the five year teacher collaborative you propose and how about we make sure merit pay is part of the deal. Shouldn't we reward the positive results as opposed to punish the negatives, as practiced in NCLB ?

I read your article in Forbes, as you suggested. I have several questions about what your article, but I want to focus on what I consider the most important.

In your commentary about the Gates Foundation's shift of focus, you say nothing of what the foundation's decision is going to do with all the children currently enrolled in these small schools. In today's precarious financial environment, every penny is precious to all schools, but particularly to charter schools, whose funding is usually more precarious. How many of these schools will go under or restrict access without financial support from the Gates foundation? What will happen to sophomores and juniors forced suddenly to look for a new High School to join? How will it affect their chances of getting into College?

This is the same question that Deborah Meier raised about Geoffrey Canada: What did it say about hhis commitment to the kids that he was willing to walk away from his commitment to his kids in the middle of such a important period of their scholastic careers? Who will take care of all these kids who suddenly had the rug pulled out from underneath them with no advance warning?

Someone who has a loud voice in public discourse, it seems to me, needs to speak out for the all the children Bill Gates is deserting. Because if people like you and Deborah Meier don't speak out for them, who will?

Paul, It is the focus on student learning (that you have spoken at length about) that has been missing from the nation's discussion on ed reform. If we had a real series of reports about how new ideas could translate into classroom practice and possibly improve student learning (even reports about failure could also be of use), it would go a long way towards helping our schools to improve how their students learn.

GB, One other thing to note: When energizing people towards action (which sounds like you are trying to do with th TIMSS/PISA data), there always needs to be a viable proposal out of the morass. Just telling people that we are in a bad place is rather depressing. Without an energizing proposal to remedy the deficits that our schools are in, everybody will continue to ignore the data. (This is true in every human endeavor; business, ed reform, politics, etc.) Instead of just telling them the TIMSS/PISA story, should you not consider offering possible solutions/viable reforms that might possibly remedy this mess as well? Data is only as useful as the action that results from it.


On November 19 I asked (you) the somewhat rhetorical question on this blog, "Everything so far has been well intentioned but why is everyone avoiding the obvious? My question is: how can we have meaningful EDUCATION reform without some kind of significant change in pedagogy - our system of delivery?" Again, we've had standards reform and fiscal reform but nothing to do with the goings-on in the classroom? All we have available to us today in research and technology and still noxious, whole-group instruction is the best this country’s teachers can produce? Is this inertia or laziness?

Deborah's most recent post asks Diane for "Bold Alternate Schemes." So where are these revolutionary ideas? How and when are they to surface? Who is to bring them to fruition? Gates, et. al.? Schools of Education/Teacher Colleges? Michelle Rhee/Joel Klein types? Some misguided Washington think tank?

Paul, These are the right questions. And you are completely correct; we can't have meaningful ed reform without improvements in classroom instruction.

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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