February 2009 Archives

Dear Diane, A great Tuesday letter. It has outraged some of my friends—whose strategic approach now is to applaud anything moving in our direction and speak quietly about anything we profoundly disagree with. Yes, alas: Duncan’s office is not yet offering a change either of us can believe in. To stimulate the economy, Obama’s education plan includes more focus on charters, and for teachers, schools, and districts that implement so-called “merit pay” based on student test scores. Aside from misdirecting the goals of education, it misdirects the path to a good education. By confusing test scores with...


Dear Deborah, I have been watching and listening to our new secretary of education, trying to understand his views on the most important issues facing our schools and the nation's children. I wanted to believe candidate Barack Obama when he said that he would introduce real change and restore hope. Surely, I thought, he understood that the deadening influence of No Child Left Behind has produced an era of number-crunching that has very little to do with improving education or raising academic standards. We truly need change and hope. I thought he understood. He chose to keep his own children ...


Dear Diane, Thanks for “nailing” Nicholas Kristof. Another very well-meaning ally. With friends like Kristof we... . Kristof ought to read Rothstein et al more carefully on the complexity of the relationship between the economy and schooling. The lapse between schooling data and economic data is one source of error. Confusing correlation with causation is another. Besides, if all the people in the world became well-educated, would that be tragic? What data is Kristof referring to that shows that teachers with a better education and who stay in teaching longer don’t “teach” better? What does “teach better” mean? Suppose it ...


Dear Deborah, I was about to move on to a new topic but on Sunday read a column in The New York Times by Nicholas Kristof titled "Our Greatest National Shame." Well, as you must surely realize, it is American education that is "our greatest national shame." Kristof says that "...we do know that the existing national school system is broken, and that we're not trying hard enough to fix it." I believe that when he uses the collective noun "we," he is referring to himself and other newspaper columnists, not to people working in America's schools, who are working ...


Dear Diane, You ask: why are people so gullible? That includes both the writers and readers of our media. (Or should I say listeners?) Many reasons, no doubt, including a natural inclination to believe there is some way to know what’s happening out there in the big world, and gullibility is perhaps better than instinctively dismissing it all. The kind of healthy skepticism you and I are talking about is not, I’d argue, a natural part of our evolutionary make-up. Probably through most of human history we didn’t depend on any media—but that which our own ...


Dear Deborah, Teacher-bashing has become the motif of the day. It is usually cloaked in some high-minded rhetoric that pretends to praise teachers. Say the bashers: We need great teachers; great teachers can solve all our problems; great teachers can close the achievement gap; if you don't have great teachers, you are doomed; blah, blah, blah. What they really mean—read between the lines—is that they think most of the teachers we now have are no good. We have to start firing the stragglers, the ones whose kids don't get high test scores. The theory is that—emulating...


EDITOR'S NOTE: This entry has been updated since it was first posted. Dear Diane, Yes, our meeting in person is one thing for which I can thank Al Shanker. But some of the current teacher bashing was, alas, initiated by him. It endeared him to many. There was that streak in him that led him to policies we’ve lived to regret. But I miss some of that fierceness in today’s teachers' union leaders. I think the puzzlement you express may be simple: it’s a knee-jerk American (by no means uniquely so) fault to look for scapegoats, not ...


Dear Deborah, I well remember when we first met. As you mentioned, it was Al Shanker who suggested that I call you. This was after you had pretty well lacerated two of my books. Al said, "You should meet Debbie. You'll like her." He was right. I was very impressed with what I saw at Central Park East, and I recall that we talked nonstop for about two hours. Thus begins an interesting friendship! On the subject of the teachers' unions, I must confess that I have always been puzzled by people who insist that the unions are the cause ...


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