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Why the Secretary of Education Matters More Now Than Ever


Dear Deborah,

Back in the old days (i.e., pre-NCLB), it really didn't matter to teachers, principals, and superintendents—that is, the people who actually work directly in schools and have daily interaction with children—who was Secretary of Education. I mean, really, why would anyone in a school care whether the secretary was a governor, a business leader, or a buddy of the president? Nothing that the secretary did had any immediate—or even long-range—impact on the life of schools until NCLB. The secretary of education had a bully pulpit, and from that bully pulpit he or she could be a national scold or an inspirational speaker, but that was about it. He or she could be ignored without peril, as their speeches (which they usually didn't write) rolled on, not affecting the daily work of educators.

Now, in the NCLB era, this is no longer true. Much is expected of the Obama administration. For one thing, NCLB has created a template in which Congress and the administration can reach deeply into every classroom in the land, affecting what everyone is expected to do, setting goals and making demands. Will the next secretary add merit pay to the next iteration of federal law? Our new president says he supports merit pay. Will teachers be judged based on their students' test scores? Or will they be paid more by doing different work, like mentoring other teachers or teaching high-needs students?

Will the next secretary embrace choice and the market model for schooling? Chances are if he/she is an entrepreneur, a hedge-fund manager, or a business leader, that is likely, as that is the metric that such people know best.

I have written extensively about the New York "miracle." I agree with you. There is no miracle. For one thing, we know that New York City's NAEP scores from 2003-2007 were flat, with the exception of only 4th grade math, where the proportion of students given accommodations exceeded that of any other city tested, throwing those "gains" into question. In 2007, New York City gave accommodations to 25 percent of the students tested in fourth grade math, way beyond the proportion in Los Angeles, Atlanta, or other cities. One could dissect the much-boasted graduation rate in the same way, looking for example at the number of "discharges," students who simply are dropped from the register without being counted officially as dropouts.

My personal choice is former Governor James Hunt of North Carolina. I don't know whether he has any interest in being a member of the cabinet, but he would be wonderful. He is deeply committed to education, to children, to teachers. He is not an ideologue. I wrote a blog about him in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Flypaper. He's my guy.

Yes, it matters very much who is selected by President-elect Obama. It matters more than ever. Let us pray that it is not one of the hedge-fund managers or prosecutors or swing-the-axe superintendents whose names are now being floated in the press.



It is indeed true that US Sec Ed matters now more than ever. This amassing of fed power marks the next step on the road to dictatorship. The more decisions are made by the central authority the less decisions may be made by well...everyone else.

This is moral calamity, for sure. But let's put that aside and assume that results are the only important thing.

The inconvenient truth is that government central planning will only result in further chaos and unproductivity. It does not matter how much technocracy, expertise and moral backbone the central bureaucracy is infused with. The market cannot be destroyed without severe consequences.

An analogy is 9/11. The government's massive intelligence/security apparatus had enough information to stop the attackers way before the plan hatched. Bush even had briefings cross his desk that warned of impending attacks. But the system had no means to appropriately value information or leverage minds, inside and outside the system, for reasonable action.

But in government, failure gets rewarded with more money and power. Homeland Security, TSA and other vampire bureaucracies suffer even worse informational problems- but are ever more empowered to suck the liberties and means out of the taxpayer.

This tragic direction is being mimicked in 'education'. Though failing to improve schooling, the USDOE will certainly succeed in becoming a bonanza for the political class.

All this usurpation is predictable given that the eduocracy is married to democratic mysticism and statist positivism.

I to am a big Jim Hunt fan. But the paradoxical refrain I hear from Jim Hunt and many of the leaders in education reform on both the left and the right is “I am in favor of national standards but I’m not in favor of the federal government deciding what they are to be”. Given much of the first world has already decided on a fairly consistent set of content specific standards for math as well as science and thanks to the states setting the level of proficiency for NAEP under NCLB the vast majority of states have proven their sociopathic tendencies to lower proficiency to avoid embarrassment how do you expect to meet the need for a highly educated citizenry without national standards set by the Federal government? There are plenty of national standards that work fine why not content specific standards for math and science that are at least close to what the world employs (ie. Singapore ). What is the fear?

Diane, Given the concerns that you have about the increased importance of the Ed. Sect., wouldn't the implementation of national standards/tests only serve to make that position even more important?


I trust your judgement regarding Governor Hunt. His interpersonal skills will obviously be very beneficial. I particularly like his leanings toward a national curriculum and test.

Paul, Why do you like a national curriculum and test?

How will it be better than the state standards and tests?


Too many states are currently administering "feel good" tests relative to the federal tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly referred to as the "nation's report card."

In 2005 Tennessee tested its eighth-grade students in math and found eighty-seven percent of students performed at or above proficient while the NAEP test indicated only 21 percent of Tennessee's eighth graders proficient in math. In Mississippi, 89 percent of fourth graders performed at or above proficient on the state reading test, while only 18 percent demonstrated proficiency on the federal test. In Alabama 83 percent of fourth-grade students scored at or above proficient on the state's reading test while only 22 percent were proficient on the NAEP test. In Georgia, 83 percent of eighth graders scored at or above proficient on the state reading test, compared with just 24 percent on the federal test.

Oklahoma, North Carolina, West Virginia, Nebraska, Colorado, Idaho, Virginia, and Texas were also found guilty in their determinations of proficient when compared to the federal NAEP test.

Students in these states should be entitled to the same rich body of knowledge and academic rigor as students from Massachusetts. No Child Left Behind will never be able to realize its potential as long as entire states are left behind due to the duplicitous efforts of their respective officials. It’s simply an issue of equity.

I could not agree more with the crucial choice of a new Secretary of Education. My own personal choice would be for Linda Darling-Hammond to be chosen because we really need a practitioner at the helm of DOEd. She has had classroom experience and has contributed to nearly every significant study in modern techniques and emphases in education. We do not need a politician or superintendent in charge of an enterprise which, at its heart, involves teachers. I was impressed by her reponses and documentation during the campaign debate with AZ's Sec of Ed.


The proficiency illusion is a terrible tragedy for too many students.

But why do you think that national standards would look anything like Mass.? What if they don't and look like Tenn.?

Who would be responsible for developing the standards and tests (somebody has to)? Would it be the US Dept. Education? If so, then this position becomes even more important/influential than Diane indicated in her blog piece.

I agree that all students should have a great education, rich in content, ideas and knowledge. But national standards/testing is probably the least likely way that we will ever get there.

NCLB had great ideals but horrible incentives, poor system structure and careless implementation. Why would national standards developed by the US DOE (or any other group) be any different?

If we do go to national standards and people can only come to agreement on thin, process/skill based standards, then yes all kids will be affected but many in a very negative way.

We do need to improve our schools but that is unlikely to happen with the national standards canard.


Think I'd like to see the new Secretary of Education call a voluntary meeting of all fifty state commissioners to discuss this issue. Hopefully, it would not turn into a Red state, Blue state debate about which direction to go. I’m sure I’m being naïve about this but surely wouldn’t they all want what’s best for kids. If they decided to examine (not necessarily develop or adopt) the possibility, they could use any one of several models already in existence as a jumping off point.

National standards and tests would only be the beginning. We've had standards reform and fiscal reform in our schools to date. 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 kid of significant change to pedagogy - our system of delivery?

Clearly you don't sound too excited about a move towards national standards. So, what would you recommend to initiate improving our schools?

I was surprised to see the name of Linda Darling-Hammond as a possible secretary of education. I don't know much about her, or the politics of education, so maybe I should first ask a question. Is it fair to describe her as an education professor? My impression is that she either is an education professor, or is at least a defender of ed school thinking. Am I wrong? If she is an ed school defender, then shouldn't that be a strike against her?

I may not know much about educational politics in general, but I have some strong opinions about the math wars that have been going on for a few decades now. The math wars are a reaction to practices promoted by the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics), which, in my humble opinion, arise from ed school thinking. A lot of harm, again in my humble opinion, has come from this. I see the harm everyday in teaching freshman college math. The latest example happened today when I reminded a student that .4 is the same thing as 2/5. That bit of information was all that was needed for the algebra to make sense for him. This particular student is very conscientious and hard working. Why was he lacking a little detail of arithmetic that should be obvious to every eighth grader?

I fully share Erin Johnson’s reservations about expecting national standards to be beneficial. Is there a potential education secretary who wants to reduce the federal role in education?


If national standards would result in great standards and improvements in our children's education, I would be their biggest supporter.

But you see the ed. landscape as much as I do. It is unlikely that great standards would ever be adopted because the political standard adoption process is not primarily about student learning. As a result, the ideas about what constitutes a standard focuses primarily on process and skills not on the content, knowledge and ideas needed for a quality education. It takes strong, driven mavericks (like a few that you've have in Mass.) that can buck the trend and actually insist on quality standards. I wouldn't bet the farm on that happening at the fed/national level.

Because students learn in a classroom, any reform(s) that will make a difference will need to focus on improvements in classroom instruction (that means teaching, curricula and assessments that are directly related to both).

The farther that reforms get away from the classroom the least likely that they will succeed at improving classroom instruction. And really, what could be farther away than national standards?

Why not national standards?

Because states are the biggest source of funding for schools, it is at the state level that any and all reforms need to be addressed. (Unless of course you nationalized schools and had the feds pay, which I can't see happening soon.)

What is wrong with our schools is that our students are learning very little. That is not easy to change. And certainly, there is nothing about our schools that is set up to encourage change or improvements in anything, let alone student learning.

And given the way our schools are organized, it is very unlikely that national standards (even in the extremely unlikely event that they were of high quality) will have any effect on classroom instruction at all.

Not an easy problem to solve. If you had a say, what would you do to improve classroom instruction?


How about put the national standards in place (as I suggested above, via the 50 state commissioners sitting down and hammering them out) and let each teacher, school, district, and state develop their own strategies for satisfying the standards. Then hold them all accountable, but not in a punitive way but with a carrot ($$$$).

As I’ve stated before, I wish teachers would collectively morph away from whole group instruction and attempt to meet the individual needs of each of their students – especially as it relates to how fast or slow students learn. From their students’ perspective and from a professional standpoint this single-handedly would foster an enormous improvement in the reputation of teachers as group. Teachers need to operate child-centered classrooms, where they are able to satisfy the instructional pace(s) of each of their students as opposed to the ubiquitous teacher-centered classrooms, where there’s one lesson for the whole class each day for math, one lesson for social studies, one for reading, etc., etc.

There is obviously no one teaching strategy that would satisfy all classroom and student situations. And of course, the teaching strategies that don't cut it would have to be on a very short leash. Schools simply cannot be using students as guinea pigs to figure out which teaching strategies are "best." We do know that successful teachers are: passionate about their craft, well organized, spend extra time on task, genuinely enjoy working with kids, and are more intelligent than the average bear.

So let’s get those national standards and assessments in place and then have at it.


Grade level standards are inconsistent with individualized instruction. If there are absolute goals for each and every year, having children go faster or slower throws the standards off.

In California, this has become a conundrum with the 8th grade math tests. NCLB states that all 8th graders must take the same test, there can be no differentiation between students. In trying to raise standards, the governor insisted that the 8th grade test will be Algebra. But considering that there are many, many students that haven't learned enough arithmetic to be successful in Algebra, the failure rate will be very high. Is this in the best interest of the students?

So if we adopted national standards, how would you define the standards so that they would allow for the type of flexibility to allow children to learn at their own optimal pace?


Algebra for all eighth graders is more than a bit of a stretch and a whole separate issue. ALL US GRADUATES NEED NOT ATTEND COLLEGE. The effective elimination of the comprehensive high school has been perhaps the most misguided directive of this country's education reform movement.

We are forever going to need carpenters, electricians, plumbers, beauticians, mechanics, sheet metal workers, etc., etc. These jobs will not be outsourced anytime soon, provide workers with good to excellent benefits, and ensure remuneration as good as many white collar slots. In addition these individuals will never be saddled with enormous college debt.

One major paradigm shift necessary to convert to individualized instruction in US schools would be for teachers to be prepared to appropriately address students' academic needs AT LEAST two to three years above and below grade level. How that plays out when it comes to passing a state proficiency test for eighth grade or a high school diploma falls into the collective laps of teachers.

I’ve always insisted I’ve had both fifth and sixth graders who could have passed the Massachusetts tenth grade graduation tests, given the opportunity. They were significantly enough above grade level in both English/language arts and mathematics to pass the tenth grade tests because their instruction was geared to their academic level, not that of their classmates. There were also kids in the same class who would have unquestionably needed more time to pass the tenth grade tests to earn their competency determination for graduation. The compelling philosophy in this classroom would be that regardless of how fast or slow individuals progressed, as long as they were working hard and doing their best, that’s all anyone could ask of them. This is a student-centered classroom. Again, this could never be possible in a class where instruction is primarily whole group.

Teachers would have to be willing to sign on to this new approach and be academically competent to allow for these adjustments. Yes, that means upper elementary school teachers would have to be competent in pre-algebra and algebra to be capable of operating their classrooms in this manner. So? Didn’t they all take and pass algebra(s), geometry, trig and calculus when they were in high school? They certainly should have been on that path if they were going to be teachers, shouldn’t they? I never said this teaching approach was going to be easy, simply what is best for students.

Paul, You have been quite persuasive regarding individulizing instruction.

But given that standards are defined as what children should learn in any one given year, what happens to the children that are ready for the tenth grade material after sixth? Should they be asked to go through the same material again and again because they need to follow the standards?

And what about those children that need more time? What happens to them if they are slow learners and need more than 1 year (even with a teachers best efforts) to master the material? Should we just keep retaining them in grades?

How would it be possible to individualize instruction when standards are completely contrary to that position?


Grade level standards are what a student is supposed to be proficient in by the end of that year. They should not, however, lock any student into the existing grade level material. If a teacher is picking kids up where they are academically then yes, kids will be above and below grade level. And that's the point. This should be permissible, understandable, and accepted practice. In this type of classroom there is no need for retentions on academic grounds.

All kids learn at different rates. Therein lays the paradigm shift. That's where whole group instruction fails, and fails miserably. That's the difference between a child-centered classroom and a teacher-centered classroom. Are our schools there to meet the needs of their clients, the students, or are they there as a source of lifelong employment for teachers?

I'd like to see our schools change so they finally operate to meet the needs of their students. That is not how our schools have operated in the past and, with very few exceptions, is not how they are operating presently. Anyone who posits to the contrary is not being candid.

Visit any classroom, in any district, in any state. They’re all teaching one lesson to the whole class for most of the school day. Is that really the way they should be operating? When you were in school were you ever in a class where you were bored because the pace of instruction was too slow? Were you ever in a class where you were overwhelmed because the pace of instruction was too fast or beyond you? Neither situation is comfortable or appropriate for students.

So why is this standard practice in our schools? Why are our teacher colleges not addressing this outrageous oversight? Will it EVER change?

Paul, You and I both concur that good teaching should accommodate different learning rates.

But with standards based classrooms (coupled with standard based assessments) there is no mechanism to accommodate different learning rates at all.

The idea behind standards (all children should receive a high quality education) is very laudable but in practice the standards do more to cement in current practice than it does to ensure our students receive a quality education.

What I am looking for is clarification on how can a one-size-fits all mentality (needed in developing/implementing standards) ever encourage/support teachers in differentiating the pace of instruction?

If your definition is that standards define what every student should be proficient in by the end of the year, either we will end up with extremely low level standards (to accommodate our slowest learners) or we will end up with many children going through the material at a pace not suited to them or failing to learn the material.

And given that the standards based assessments are what schools/teachers are being graded on, there is no motivation what-so-ever to allow students to learn anything that will not be on the test.

Also, isn't what your advocating essentially tracking students?

And if so, would it not be easier for the teachers to accommodate different learning paces by assigning students to classes with defined pacing (fast, medium, slow)?

I'm becoming quite a fan of Erin Johnson. Her comments have been helping me clarify my thoughts. I am realizing that I had not fully appreciated the natural conflict between standards and the goal of individualizing instruction. Perhaps those goals can both be accommodated some way, but I'm not sure how.

Erin and Paul seem to have quite different ideas of what standards are, or should be. I think the "standards" published by the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) in 1989 and 2000 may be instructive here. Many critics have pointed out that these "standards" are mostly ideals and recommendations for practice, not standards at all, at least in the usual sense. I happen to think the NCTM's ideals and recommendations have done a lot of harm to the teaching of math in the past few decades. They promote idealistic and unrealistic ideas that have had considerable appeal over the past hundred years, but have never been particularly effective. Erin mentions that standards can "cement in current practices". That is not exactly what the NCTM's ideals and recommendations have done, to be sure. Indeed supporters of NCTM math could claim that blind adherence to conventional practice has done more to cement NCTM ideals out, than the other way around. But from my perspective it appears that bad standards, and I definitely am talking about the NCTM's standards here, can detract from good teaching, and can definitely be worse than no standards at all.

We have a few years of experience with state standards now, and from what I read in the blogs, that experience has been more frustrating and detrimental than beneficial. So it continues to mystify me that some think that we ought to do on a national scale what has proven so disappointing on a state scale.

One way to describe what Erin and Paul are discussing is the tension that exists between the rights of the many and the rights of the few (think social studies, separate but equal, etc.). Another way to describe this tension is to define it as special education and general education. In a Response to Intervention model (RtI--the current buzzword for sprinkling magic dust on general education and calling it 'differentiation' so that students with learning/emotional/behavioral exceptionalities are denied/delayed their legal and ethical rights to special education services), students receive increasingly higher levels of support based on their rates of non-responding (which can be perceived as a way of responding). Although this sounds optimal, the reality of its implementation is highly complex. And the research is still very much out as to its effectiveness. Schools are struggling; parents are struggling; teachers are struggling; STUDENTS are suffering.


Individualized instruction is the antitheses of tracking. Tracking is discriminatory because it locks kids into a group, often from which they are never able to escape. Individualizing let's them move ad hoc, at their own pace, not that of the class and not that of a predetermined group. Sometimes they’ll stumble but it is not uncommon to see that once they clear an academic hurdle they move rapidly through what lies ahead.

It never ceased to amaze me how many "well-to-do" kids were not setting the academic pace in this model while it was not uncommon for a student "from the other side of the tracks" to be excelling. Often times it put kids in a light with their peers previously unimagined.

Standards being what every student should be proficient at by the end of the year, is nothing but an ideological benchmark, exceeded by some, reached by many, eventually satisfied (at their own pace) by all. Beyond being aware of the standards at the grade I was teaching I never paid a lick of attention to them once the year started. I was totally unconcerned with them because I knew most/all my kids would get through them and beyond with little or no difficulty. They're meaningless in an individualized classroom, as are retentions. If a kid gets there – that’s great. If they don't, and they're working to the best of their ability - that's all that matters.

This type of classroom would embrace growth models and blow NCLB with its AYP right out of the water. There would be no need for a bogus set of parameters to be reached by all eleven year olds in fifth grade. Kids would be progressing academically at their own rate - END OF STORY. The only advantage to standards in an individualized classroom is it allows parents to see where their kids are in relation to what some outside agent has defined as appropriate academic progress for them. They can eliminate the mystery for those unsure of what’s occurring.

I believe we're both looking for what's best for kids. I think it's probably a question of semantics as to how we get there.


Brian and Kim,

Thanks for jumping in here. Your comments are helpful.

Paul, I agree that we're both looking for what is best for kids and we would probably agree on much about good classroom instruction tailored to a child's learning pace, but this is not just a question of semantics.

How we improve classroom instruction *is* the most important question that needs to be addressed in any ed reform.

Your idea of the use of standards is not widely shared by the greater ed community. Standards have been sold as the mechanism for which improvements will be made in the classroom. They are supposed to be used to ensure that teachers make every child meet the standards. (And failure to do so results in punitive consequences.)

If standards are meaningless to you as a practicing teacher, really what good are they and why are we bothering to write them and even more importantly why do ed reformers insist that they will improve instruction? (It is the very rare parent who will put a standards assessment above what a teacher tells them about their own child.)

If on the other hand, what would happen if standards were developed that "set a high bar" and made it impossible for you to blow them out of the water? How frustrating would that be for you as a teacher? Considering that the standards are written in stone (no real mechanism for judging whether the standards are good nor in improving them), how motivated would you be in the "high bar" circumstance to continue teaching?

What I am trying to understand is the large gap between what you describe as a good classroom learning situation (individualized learning and a growth model) and your support for national standards (especially considering that you largely ignore state standards).

Brian and Kim, Thanks for your comments as well.


As they exist, standards are the minimum grade level bar that all kids need to reach. They are quite necessary in many schools especially those dominated by poor/minority students. This is where I believe we need them and these schools were the primary reason for education reform in this country.

Could we make standards more demanding/ Of course we could but for whom?

Paul, There is little evidence that any bar (low or high) improves classroom instruction at all. Surely if standards were a good way to improve low SES schools, then with the implementation of state standards there would have been some improvement.

The very small, inconsistent gains that have been seen in low SES schools have not resulted in bringing the vast majority of low SES students up to meet the standards at all. So if state standards were unable to improve student learning how will national ones do any better?

Additionaly if we use standards as the basis for school reform, there will never be any support to meet children's instructional needs. The focus of the teachers will always be in making sure that the slowest learning kids meet that minimum. Most teachers have only so much time and energy. What happens to everyone else?

As for making standards more demanding, the Gates Foundation just announced that they are planning on increasing the rigor of standards to developing national standards and increase the rigor to that seen in schools around the world.

If we wanted to match those internationally high standards, Algebra would begin in 6th grade. (Frankly, if our elementary math curricula and teaching traditions were better, 6th grade would be about right for the vast majority of students.)

There is much to be admired in your vision for classroom instruction. I would rather our schools embrace that vision than spend enormous amount of time developing national standards (of possibly dubious worth) that will have little/no effect on improving student learning.


Guess I see national standards from an equity perspective as much as anything. Again, I'd like kids from all fifty states to have access to and be responsible for the standards we've had in Massachusetts since the early 90's.

Thanks for the supportive words about my vision of how a classroom should operate. After one year of teaching I thought back to my experiences as a student and attempted to develop what I believed would be better for kids; more pragmatic, better organized, and clearly MORE STUDENT-CENTERED. It’s not perfect by any stretch but I believe it is a much more efficient model than our existing one.

Paul, Standards haven't given us equity. Even in MA, a state known for its great educational tradition, the gap in the NAEP has grown larger over the past several years. How will national standards do what even MA has not done?

Good classroom instruction is what matters, not (very distant) standards.

If our schools were to adopt your vision of schooling, what would all those other teachers (including the ones in low SES neighborhoods) need for support to enable them to improve their teaching and become more student-centered?


Teachers have to want to change. They have to be willing to admit there is a problem in their practice. They have to realize customizing students’ instruction will be more work and be willing to make this change for the betterment of their practice and their students. None of this would be easy, not easy by any stretch.

Teachers would have to: (1) acknowledge there is a problem in their teaching methods; (2) be willing to explore alternative teaching strategies to better meet the needs of each student; and (3) be willing to enroll in a quality professional development program to actually address this issue.

There are some relatively significant roadblocks to all of this.

Many teachers are comfortable with the way they run their classroom and would be unwilling to acknowledge a problem exists. After all, this is the way they were taught when they were in school, this is the way they were trained in college, and there appears to be no substantive research to the contrary.

Many teachers are also convinced their whole group instruction is the best model to provide for a student-centered learning environment. They believe they are best meeting the needs of each of their students through this approach and any attempts to customize/individualize instruction could prove to be very redundant (for them)..

And finally, many teachers would become very defensive if questioned about their classroom methods. What’s wrong with the way I teach? My kids have always done well and I see no reason to change. What do you mean I’m not meeting the needs of each student? It could become very confrontational.

Paul, I think you have captured the problem of (any) school reform very well. Because (in our country) teaching is considered a personal trait, any critiques/intrusions into the classroom seem wrong.

This is not true in effective school systems. Teaching in those systems is considered a collaborative affair that benefits from open discussion and examination.

But on the whole the vast majority of our teachers are not teaching well and it seems unlikely that in our current system, they will all suddenly "wake-up" and change.

But it is in improvements in classroom instruction that are needed to improve student learning.

And all ed reforms that have focused on other aspects of schooling have failed to impact student learning.

Do you think that the accountability provisions in NCLB has helped teachers to re-examine their practice and/or use better curricula?

Also for your approach, wouldn't teachers need to know what the continuum of learning should/could be and what materials could be used to help children on their own learning curve? Are some materials better than others?

Is there anything that the school administrators could do to enable teachers to examine and improve their own practice?

Nobody can "force" teachers to change their practice (even though NCLB has tried), but we can encourage improvements. What is it that the school system could do to encourage teachers to improve?


You write: "Teachers have to want to change. They have to be willing to admit there is a problem in their practice. They have to realize customizing students’ instruction will be more work and be willing to make this change for the betterment of their practice and their students. None of this would be easy, not easy by any stretch."

You assume that whole-class instruction pales before your approach, and that teachers who prefer whole-class instruction (at least some of the time) don't want to improve.

I commend you for finding an effective way of teaching. But there are powerful arguments for whole-class instruction, and drawbacks to excessive fragmentation and differentiation. We have had this discussion before, but I don't mind going over it again.

At the lower levels, if you individualize instruction too much, you are giving adequate help to no one. First graders have difficulty occupying themselves for the bulk of a lesson while you hold conferences with individual students. They need whole-class instruction to learn the bare basics. Of course, it needs to be well planned so that everyone receives adequate help and challenge. This can be done, especially within the context of an excellent curriculum.

At an advanced level, whole-class instruction allows a class to delve into challenging material. No one need be bored in a Shakesperare class. A good teacher can challenge students at all levels with questions during class discussion, and there is always more to find at any level. A discussion of vocabulary will be informative even to those who understand most of the words (or think they do). A discussion of Shakespeare's puns and double meanings would be enlightening to all.

Of course whole-class instruction isn't good for every situation. But neither is individualized, differentiated instruction. As many have pointed out before, the method of instruction should suit the topic at hand.

Diana Senechal


You would probably have to see this model in operation to appreciate it. There is a great deal of hidden structure that makes it work. Kids have direction every minute of the day, are given much more freedom in their learning, and for the most part are much more invested in their learning. They know where they are, what lies ahead, and what they have to do to get there.

AND, whole group instruction is appropriate for some of the day, but the majority of the day should be customized for each student's progress.


NCLB's punitive accountability focus has created harmful teaching strategies (teaching to the test) that have done more to exacerbate rather than improve teaching methods in our schools. The law's critics have been quick, and not at all inaccurate, to raise this flaw (although, the rest of this story for another time). Teaching to the test is about as transparent as it can get. OK class, this year we're going to put real learning aside while I make sure as many of you as possible can pass the state test. That's adults telling students how they have to game the system to succeed rather than maximizing their learning experience(s). Not the correct message to send to kids.

As for materials needed to best operate a customized/individualized classroom - the more you have the better. Of course I used the existing adopted texts of the system but I also used many discarded texts and materials as well. All series have strengths and weaknesses and some discarded series are better at filling in the gaps. The greater the variety of resources in this type of classroom the greater will be the likelihood of meeting all kids' needs and learning styles.

Administrators, if they've never taught this way (and most have not), need to take a course or two in differentiated or individualized instruction to understand its intent and purpose. Beyond that, if they give teachers who delve into this style their moral support, it would be most helpful. Don’t tell teachers what they cannot do, instead have administrators ask teachers what they can do to make their job in the classroom easier.

As well, if administrators offered appropriate and accessible (in-house) professional development, this could serve as an inducement to explore this alternative teaching strategy. Administrators could also encourage more of their staff to go in this direction, even if only in a piecemeal fashion. For teachers to individualize one discipline at a time is not only appropriate but a more pragmatic approach to introduce them to individualizing. This is an excellent way to give teachers a taste of this approach until they get comfortable with it as opposed to demanding that by next September a teacher's entire class be individualized.

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