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Joining Top-Down & Bottom-Up to Make Policy


Dear Diane,

Given that, in my own childhood, people of color couldn’t go up the front elevator of my apartment building in NYC’s West Side, Obama’s victory is an amazing, if belated, triumph. I still only half-believe it happened. But it’s also been a long, long time since we’ve had someone who is as thoughtful, reflective, smart, and knowledgeable in the presidency—of any color or party. That’s equally impressive. Obama is an intellectual in the best sense of that word. I’m proud to have been part of this election in so many ways.

And, one of the ideas Obama’s been playing with just so happens to be one that I, too, am fascinated by. How do top-down and bottom-up join together to make policy, not just run campaigns? In the latter, the “ideas” largely came from Axelrod and company, and we campaigners agreed to trust their judgment and carry out their “orders.” But once elected, our roles shift, and we need to think that shift through.

We need a combination of people who “think like a State,” in partnership with people of equal power who think like the recipients of too many orders, who know the ground well, and who see how the two actually interact.

You and I have equally good reasons for worrying about who gets the Secretary of Ed job. For example, it’s pleasing to see your name crop up occasionally as a superstar, Diane. But it’s funny to see it alongside a list that includes Joel Klein of NYC! I shudder to think we may be in for another, even worse, Rod Paige of Bush fame. The so-called New York miracle is as phony as the Texas one that ushered in Paige. By the time we exposed the latter, much harm had been done. We cannot afford a repeat of this.

We need a quick, brief statement—300 words?—on why NYC’s “reform” has been at best a waste of precious years, and at worst a disaster. Test scores have not risen, nor have graduation rates, nor has the content of education (which has merely been narrowed to test prep), nor the culture and climate of our schools, nor the achievement gap; meanwhile, economic and racial segregation have grown apace. We’ve got hard data to demonstrate all of this. We need to put them into simple order and spread the word.

The folks Klein pals around with, to use a campaign phrase, are not leaders in the field of schooling, education, or youth-building, but precisely the guys and gals who gave us our current fiscal crisis. Their knowledge of accountability, even in business, is shabby at best (and in Klein’s case very thin). There is very little first-hand knowledge of the public schools that educate the vast majority of our children among those he associates with and those he hires to make the big decisions. And there is no feedback that’s taken even half-way seriously. Even his record on spending needs to be exposed—who got what.

The voices of parents, teachers, and principals have been drowned out by a system that makes clear it does not know or care what “they” think.




Your last statement made it clear to me what kind of person we need in the position--and it relates to the way that the Obama campaign was run, as well. What we need, is a community organizer. The part of NCLB that has intrigued me the most--and been the most ignored--is the role that it provides for parents (and teachers if they so choose) in school improvement.

NCLB provides two clear roles for parents--one has gotten minimal attention, the other, none at all. First is the parent as a consumer--with the ability to select compensatory tutoring for their child, or attendance at another school. Second, though, is as a community "stakeholder," or involved citizen, in the school reform process.

Now because there was money involved, and competitors for the money in the form of tutoring vendors and charter schools, the first role has gotten some attention, with some accountability provided in the marketplace. Schools have been largely uncooperative with SES and transfer options--which are really only stop-gap measures to begin with.

But the role for parents in reform (school improvement) process goes overlooked. Parents don't know about it, don't understand the importance, teachers don't know about it, or are resistent to the idea of both reform and allowing parents a role in the process. Some schools have a cursory "Title I" meeting, in which they do practically anythng but grapple with the essential questions of identifying problem areas and coming up with plans to attack them.

If implemented, yes, it would be messy. It would mean actually hashing out with some parents both sides of that required parent compact--not just pulling something off the web and putting it in front of parents to sign. It would mean teachers facing the parents of kids that they believe cannot learn unless they are drilled on test material and explaining why you think that. It would also mean listening to the things that parents see--and what their fears are, and where they get their information about school: what keeps them away and what keeps them coming.

We talk a good bit about how education decisions need to be made locally--but we are totally clueless about how to involve our communities in making decisions. We postpone community involvement thinking that the parents in our neighborhood "aren't ready yet," and instead schedule parenting classes that no one attends. Even the most impoverished and non-English speaking community has a tremendous contribution to make to the education of children--but we don't act like we believe this.

Obama's campaign worked because he moved the tent--he didn't keep trying to get folks on the outside to come in. This is a key element of community work--which is what is required to carry out that grassroots accountability parent involvement piece of NCLB. I don't have a name to offer (although Jonathon Kozol comes to mind). We may need someone with community organizing knowledge who also knows how to think enough like a state to ensure that something happens (not like the signing of those phony "parent compacts"). Maybe Obama is wise enough to realize this.

Readers who agree with Deborah Meier on who should not be the next Secretary of Education may want to sign this petition:



Thank you for a wonderful column. I especially like the points you made about the need for people in education who can listen to each other and speak a similar language.

For this, we need to define our terms carefully at all levels. In education, words take on deceptive meanings. "Standards," "accountability, and "data" may sound tough and good but may hold widely different meanings for different people. All too often the terms hide something: the term "standards," for example, often conceals vagueness of instruction.

How often such distortion of language goes unchecked in education! For example: many NYC schools are now required to establish individualized, differentiated short-term and long-term "goals" for each student in each subject. It is not enough, say, for a class to learn musical notation in music class; there must be evidence--on paper--that different students are striving toward different goals. They must know their own goals and be able to state the strategies they are using to attain them. The goals must relate to the standards--but may represent different standards, or different levels of achievement.

Now, there is obviously a kernel of good in this idea. Ideally it means that schools are paying close attention to what each student needs to learn. The flipside is that it is close to impossible if done thoughtfully. It turns into massive paperwork (imagine a music teacher setting goals for 300 students), and ends up interfering with instruction instead of improving it.

The result? People will start cutting corners for survival--or relying on automated products of the sort Diane described in last week's column. Computer programs will generate the goals, and no one will raise an eyebrow. No "quality reviewer" will pay attention to the actual content of the goal. Instead, they will perform spot-checks to make sure the goals are there, that they contain the language of the standards, and that they're not all alike. They will make marks on their checklists and walk away. The outcome is cruel: when required to document everything, teachers have less time for thoughtful lesson preparation, less time for their students. "If it's not mandated and documented, it cannot matter"--that's the strange conclusion of it all.

Thus a seemingly good idea becomes a nightmare. How can we counteract this? By thinking out our policies carefully before implementing them; by listening closely to a variety of perspectives; by encouraging debate, not stifling it; by showing how policies and jargon actually translate into everyday classroom practice, by defending what we care about in education. In that sense, I applaud your idea of joining the "top-down" and the "bottom-up." And I am grateful for the discussion and debate that I find here.

Diana Senechal

P.S. As I think about it more, I realize that the very concept of "student goals" contains a contradiction. If these are student goals, why don't students set them for themselves and take full responsibility for them? Well, they are not ready to do so. They don't really know what goals they should have. So, the teacher must "help them" set the goals (read: set the goals for them). Teachers supposedly do this during class time, in student-teacher conferences, but sorry, you can't spend all of class time conferencing and taking notes. That's just wrong. So, teachers end up doing it on their own, to get the forms filled.

Thus these become "teacher-defined and teacher-logged student goals." Perhaps we should focus on excellent instruction instead of this goal mania. Goals are fine if the students know how to set them for themselves. They are more likely to know this if they are grounded in the subject matter. Conferences can help, but they should not erode instruction.

Diana Senechal's comments bring to mind some related thoughts. I would agree that it would be good to think out our policies carefully, and especially to think about how they would actually translate into practice. But I think we need to back up just a bit in our thinking. There are two things in particular that I want to mention.

First is what I like to call the "program fallacy", which might be stated, "If you don't have a formal program, you are doing nothing." Some things need a formal program, of course, but many other things do not. The fallacy is in thinking that if you don't have a formal program for something you are not doing it. Here is an example. When our children were younger my wife and I were very conscious of home safety. But if you were to ask to see a copy of my home safety program I would have nothing but a sour look for you. If you told me that I obviously don't care about home safety if I hadn't written up a formal program, my look would turn from sour to hostile. I think it is totally wrong, in many situations to interpret the lack of a formal program as a lack of either concern or action.

Do you want to promote good behavior on the playground? What is your program? Do you want to improve your teaching? What is your program? Do you plan to do a better job with the Christmas pageant next year? What is your program?

Do teachers promote critical thinking in elementary school? I believe many do, though obviously not all. But how many teachers have developed, or adopted, a formal critical thinking program? Would there be any advantage in doing so? Suppose you find some teachers who have a formal written "critical thinking program". Would you expect those teachers to be more successful in promoting critical thinking than other teachers who do not have such a program? I certainly would not.

This relates to the idea of "lesson plans" so much beloved in ed school. Does it make sense to argue that if you don't have a formal lesson plan for tomorrow's classes, a plan like they teach in ed school, then you have no plans for your classes tomorrow? I think that is total nonsense. I spend a lot of time planning for my next class, but I haven't written a "lesson plan" for about forty-five years, and I don't intend to.

A formal lesson plan is not a good way to plan for tomorrows classes. A formal "program" of any sort is actually beneficial only in very limited contexts. For the vast majority of things we do everyday, a formal plan, or a formal program, is a waste of time, effort, and resources. I have no experience with the type of world Diana describes in her comment above. I can hardly imagine what it must be like. But it sure sounds like it confirms what I am saying here.

Diana says we need to define our terms carefully, and that we need to speak a similar language. I agree, and this leads to another soapbox topic I 've been arguing for some time. The study of education does not have a basis in simple, accurate, and comprehensive description. How can we have a common, or even similar, language, how can we define our terms, if we cannot describe what we do? I know what I do in class each day, but I know very little about what others do, even my fellow math teachers. Of course on the surface the answer to what we do is very simple. We lecture. I teach math to college freshmen and sophomores, so I lecture - end of story. But to my mind it is not the end of the story. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of the things I think about when trying to figure out what to do in tomorrow’s classes. I wonder if other math teachers think about the things that I do. I wonder if elementary school math teachers think about the things that I do. Common sense tells me that there must be a lot of commonality in what we think about, but somehow we don’t have the language to communicate very much.

Diana talks about requirements for individualized differentiated short term and long term goals for all students. Do the people who set these requirements have any idea how they will actually impact teachers? How could they? How can they know what practicing teachers actually do? I don’t think they can. And surely that means that the “top down” and the “bottom up” are going to have a hard time meeting on common ground for the foreseeable future.

Not so long ago there was some discussion of the appropriateness of a “business model” for education. I thought maybe a “parental model” might be better. I still think that. The “higher ups” can’t possibly know much about how their dictates will affect the “lower downs”, but with a parental model that’s okay. With a parental model we just leave the teachers alone and let them use their own good sense. I’m still not convinced that can be improved upon.

Bravo, Brian! You nailed it with your definition of the "program fallacy": "The fallacy is in thinking that if you don't have a formal program for something you are not doing it."

This is one of the main problems with "accountability." Accountability carries something of an accusation: we must prove on paper that we are formally doing something; otherwise, as you say, we are not doing it.

This leads to absurdities. In some schools, every single classroom must have a "four square" chart, even if the children haven't learned to read yet. Every classroom must have an outline of the "writing process," even if the children are barely forming letters and words. When the people with the checklists come around, they want to see that you have a reading and writing program (specifically Balanced Literacy) in place. Oh, and make sure you have some strategies on the wall. They want to see strategies.

Now, once a program is formalized, it's just a hop, skip, and trademark away from becoming a marketable product. Schools now mandate the use of Accountable Talk®, a package of class discussion "tools" intended to keep students "accountable" to the lesson. Too bad if you think you can lead a good (even inspired) class discussion without Accountable Talk®. Schools require its use in every classroom.

You will not find its history anywhere. Who coined the phrase? How has its meaning changed? Who decided to make a product of it? Did that person lose any sleep at night? Good luck finding out. It was developed by the Institute for Learning, whose website lists it but gives no information about it (remember: you have to buy it). Certainly we can learn, debate, and disseminate principles of good class discussion; but isn't there something perverse about buying our own classroom conversation? Will we have to buy our personalities next, when the character development tools come out?

Diana Senechal


I can tell from the last several threads that you are really disturbed about this particular program. And there may be a germ of truth in what Brian talks about. Yet, I have seen educators devolve unmarketed principles, methodologies and pedagogies into program language, in ways that deny an understanding of ways in which learning can be additive and theories can combine to guide behaviors. It's as if one can only learn from Erikson, or only learn from Vygotsky--but not both. If one is "doing" phonics, they cannot be "doing" whole language. A school can either "do" Baldrige, or "do" school improvement or reform or turn-around--never seeing any connection between the grounding theory behind any of these.

I don't want to generalize, but I have certainly encountered too many educators (in the form of my children's teachers) who do not think either deeply or reflectively enough about the things that they are doing to be able to answer questions about the the things that they are doing in a classroom unless there is a "program" that they can attach to. Teachers fresh out of college allude to their "professional judgement" as a valid reason for things--and are annoyed when asked to explain.

When I ask questions about the things that a school is doing to maintain order on the playground, I am not looking for the name of a program. But generally the real answer is something like they have assigned (by default) a minimum of the least qualified (meaning lowest in seniority) staff to stand outside with a whistle to put out fires.

When the chaos rises to a parent's attention (like the third time that they are called because their child is either in trouble or a victim), it is a reasonable question to ask. Actually, I think that a "program" will be the least helpful response. But the most helpful responses are profoundly unlikely to happen These would require a whole staff effort to problem-solve that would include the possibility of doing things differently. Some schools have gotten a lot of mileage out of scheduling resource before (instead of after) lunch. Some have gotten the gym teacher to teach a unit on playground games early in the year. Some break recess up into smaller chunks of kids--but this requires more staff-time devoted to supervision.

I see way too many schools get stalled at the point of upping the disciplinary ante (suspending or expelling more kids) or pointing hostile fingers towards the principal for not "handling discipline" (ie: suspending or expelling more kids), as appears to be rampant in DC schools right now.

As it happens, there is also a "program" available. The City Year program (available in some cities, to some schools) has something like "peaceful playgrounds." This isn't acommercial program. In fact, City Year itself is an example of a well-branded non-profit effort (sort of like Girl Scouts). In their case having well structured "programs" allows them to utilize a revolving door of minimally trained staff (it is a one year community service program) to deliver on research-based support to schools on an ongoing basis. But even within their highly structured context, they provide for a good bit of reflection on the part of their volunteers.


Brian said clearly that not all programs are bad. "Some things need a formal program, of course, but many other things do not." Like Brian, I recognize the need for certain programs. I object to programs that claim some sort of originality or edge that they do not really have. I object to programs that do not provide information about themselves to the public. I object to programs marketed aggressively with buzz-words and little else. I object to programs that deny the existence of good work beyond them or insult those who do not conform to their ways. I object to programs that fail to recognize their own limitations.

Diana Senechal


I understand what it is that you are saying. My point is that these things are on the market because there is a market for them. If no one buys the shiny empty boxes they will disappear from the shelves.

There is a market for them because most states require schools to purchase a reading series, math series, science series ... whether schools and teachers want them or not. For years we put the state mandated reading series on the shelf when it was delivered because we were using a literacy program that we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on to implement based on the requirements of NCLB. That program required sets of books that we also purchased.

An issue more at risk elementary schools are faced with after 8 years+ of "programs" is that teachers are using them to deal with the extra non-teaching work they are doing collecting, organizing and reporting all that data, along with other busy work they are doing to "prove" they are doing a good job.

Data is good when it is appropriate and valuable in helping teachers make decisions about instruction. So of course now too many schools collect lots of data to "prove" what a great job they are doing whether that data is really valuable or not.

So teachers have begun to deal with the avalanche of data and other busy work that takes up much of what used to be planning time by retreating to programs.

Programs that came with their approved and often mandated reading program and literacy program so they already have them. Programs that are "research based", take lots of time and leave little of the day to plan ... programs that are sacrosanct because they are part of THE program so if teachers use them they can't be questioned. It "proves" they are doing a good job. It gives them cover. Lessons are prewritten, maybe scripted and materials (often worksheets, overheads and fill in charts) are provided so little prep is required. Lots of time and stress saved.

Problem solved.

First, I want to apologize because what I write is going to show that I haven't fully read all of the other responses.

First,I would like very much to hear what you think has or hasn't happened in Klein's tenure in NYC. It is very similar to what is happening in DC with Chancellor Rhee. As a KIPP teacher, I am able to watch with interest, knowing that I will not be directly affected by her policies because I work for a charter school.

Second, I wonder what sort of systems of accountability need to be in place in your ideal educational structure. I know that there is a laundry list of huge problems with NCLB, but I'm worried that we may throw the baby out with the bath water here.

While doing my student teaching in rural Iowa, I saw the problem of an extremely low graduation rate addressed for the first time because the administration was mandated to do so. And though I wasn't there to see what happened, I do know that partnering up with local businesses to get students internships while still in high school was part of the plan. I thought that was a practical, workable idea for students who may have been losing interest and seen (understandably) that what they were doing didn't have enough relevance to their lives for them to care. That wouldn't have happened without the NCLB mandate.

At KIPP, I think that we'd continue to do what we do with or without NCLB, but we rely heavily on multiple forms of feedback--the two most important being our test scores and feedback from our alumni. I think this creates a marriage between the test-centered approach, and a more holistic approach I think you advocate for. In fact, I think you have said in the past that feedback from your alumni at CPESS was your most valuable barometer for how your school was doing.

I'm a little all over the place here, but what I wanted to get across is that I'd love to get more info. on Klein and to hear what kind of accountability you think makes sense.


P.S. I agree with everyone else that these "Programs" are absolutely ridiculous, especially without in-depth training that requires the teachers to actually THINK about how/what it will do for the kids in their classrooms.

Brian Stoffel,

I'm glad you commented, because I have wanted to thank you for an earlier comment you made about KIPP. It is heartening to see someone break through the slogans and write thoughtfully about the dilemmas that a school faces. I may disagree with you on certain points--and still have an outsider's skepticism about KIPP--but I applaud your candor and your consideration of complex questions.

Diana Senechal

I want to echo Brian's question. I have taught in the Bronx and worked in the NYC DOE, but only under a Klein administration. And in the time that I have been here, I have yet to really make up my mind about what his leadership has meant for the city. One side has Debbie Meier blasting away, the other has the Rotherham-type crowd singing his praises (btw, how did Rotherham get in on the list for Sec of Ed? As far as I know, he has about as much executive experience as Piper Palin.). Like Diana said about standards, they seems to be talking about different things entirely.

I was at TFA's NY Summit this past weekend. Klein spoke, and he got a standing O. It was a little weird, because I don't think most people know much about what has actually happened under his watch.

Here's what I do know. The school Progress Reports are new and unique. Sometimes schools get unfairly labeled. They follow individual students longitudinally, which is an improvement over AYP, which only looks at student groups. The small school movement has exploded. TFA is everywhere. There are lots of stories about local corruption being cleaned up throughout the school district, though they are just stories.

I'd love to see Debbie and/or Diane debate a Klein support on this blog, so that I can really get both sides of the story.

it’s also been a long, long time since we’ve had someone who is as thoughtful, reflective, smart, and knowledgeable in the presidency—of any color or party.

Oh, Gag. What elitist tripe.

What Mr. Obama knows about the world and our role in it makes Sarah Palin and the people on Jaywalking look like Woodrow Wilson School laureate.

You must be talking about Chicago style politics, of which he is indeed a scholar. Hoorah! A deep thinking Chicago politician. Just what we need.

Again, what experience exactly tells you what the country needs? What field have you worked? What factory floor have you mopped up or piled shavings onto? What system have you designed? What medical cure prescribed or invented? What public office held? Crime prosecuted? Utility service provided?

Who fixes your computer when its ailing? You -- or someone who has learned content?

We desperately need a President of any stripe who can succeed; and we need Black leaders of any titles, but especially President, who can exceed.

Instead, your ilk have thrust upon the nation a singularly inexperienced, unstudied, unthoughtful self-lover who changes policy positions like a world class wind-surfer.

Oh, but he is so Lincolnesqe we hear. His will be a Team of Rivals. Really? So why doesn't the Democratic party again have a single person capable of being Secretary of Defense?

There is, still, hope. Mr. O is at least practiced in the art of doing nothing, and sometimes that is just the thing to do. For instance, letting Gen. Petraeus run things without interference. That would be good leadership. Not doing much to the economy and letting it right itself--that would be good leadership.

In education, though, we need just a bit of Presidential push, and it may be that the President Elect is at least the man to do that. Letting NCLB mostly renew while funding experiments for different (less invasive) tests, more vouchers, relaxed rules on charters, etc., support for data gathering as discussed at Fordham Monday, support for Biography in middle schools; these would all be an excellent prescription for moving forward.

Fortunately, while the Organizer-in-Chief learned nothing of national security in Chicago, at least he learned something of the plight of poor black parents subject to the whims of the Chicago union school debacle. For this reason, he disagrees with your side about how to fix schools. Good for him. Something good may come out of what looks to be a very very long 4 years.

I've flirted off and on about turning my ideas into "programs"--the Meier 5-Habits of Mind program, for example. My colleague and friend Dennis Littkey has tried to explore how ideas can be translated into replicable franchised schools. There are tensions between learning from ideas and following them. Maybe there's a place for both, if it remains largely voluntary. But, but but.

I've enjoyed your dialogue Diana and Margo et al/.

And I wish Brian, we could follow-up with your idea. I'll explore it. I think I originally assumed Diane and I would be further apart and this would be such a vehicle! But we shall I imagine [resent more sharply different ideas re national standards.

I'll see if I can find an interesting public defense of Klein?Bloomberg's approach that can be used for this purpose.

Ed Jones' "attack" on my naivete, elitism, et al is always refreshing. And he has a point here and there. His abrasive tone is even refreshing--and since we don't know each other personally, I don't take it personally. t's my ideas that annoy him.

I know I shall be disappointed in Obama--and already am by many of his apppointments. But it doesn't lead me to turn my back on either politics or democracy--just remind myself that it's a "long arc" and, besides, it may not land where I want it to.

Best, Deb

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