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Education Reform: Why Don’t We Begin with the End in Mind?


In his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote passionately urging his fellow pastors to leave behind indecision and take a stand for justice. He wrote, “Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue." Now as then, we find ourselves at a crossroads, and once again, we must enter dialogue to find our way. That is the goal of my blog, and I begin with the following post.

I believe we are now witnessing the demise of a poorly conceived and badly implemented educational reform effort. A year from now, No Child Left Behind will be buried, and few in my profession will mourn its passing. Its impending death leaves us in a quandary. Do we resume our familiar battle stations and continue attacking one another? Or do we step back and see if there is a way to actually come together and find some solutions?

The rules for this game were established when George Bush launched NCLB with his rhetoric about the cause of student failure being "the soft bigotry of low expectations." His administration has sought to vilify teachers and their representatives. Four years ago his Secretary of Education went so far as to call the largest teachers' union in the nation a "terrorist organization." And our unions fulfilled their role as our defenders: no kind words were wasted on the President or his appointees.

Those of us who have been partisans have become accustomed to our roles and the scripts that go along with them. Critics of teachers will assert that we must be held accountable for student learning outcomes, that unions should allow ineffective teachers to be judged by how well their students do and not stand in the way of the termination of the ineffective ones. Teachers will respond that the schools are just one part of the puzzle, and we cannot be held accountable for the many variables beyond our control which have profound effects on student learning. Teachers will complain that the schools are starved for funding, and we do not have the support we need to produce the results being demanded of them. This battle is a stalemate and nobody is winning.

But there is a new breeze blowing towards Washington—and a chance the rules will be changing soon.

Many schools use a strategy called backwards planning. Teachers begin with the student learning outcomes we want, and then plan our instruction to reach those results. What if we were to shortcut the recriminations and instead focus on the outcomes we would like to see for our schools? What do powerful schools look like? What are the practices and cultures associated with effective schools? I have a feeling we might be able to reach some degree of consensus here, and perhaps that could allow us to begin pulling in the same direction.

To get the conversation rolling, here are some outcomes I’d like to see:

• Practices within a school that honor teacher leadership and empower teachers to make important decisions about instruction and assessment. That means there is time for teachers to collaborate, to create common formative assessments, to review results and share instructional strategies. This is done in an atmosphere of trust, where the assumption is made that we are all here to do our best, and all willing to make changes in our teaching in the interest of our students.

• Expanded roles for teacher leaders, including opportunities to build nurturing induction and apprenticeship programs so we bring novice teachers into communities of skilled practice, allowing them to integrate those practices into their classrooms.

• A broader culture beyond the school walls that recognizes teachers cannot do this alone. In many schools that will mean opening a new dialogue with parents, challenging those who drop their students off at school and say 'he is your headache now.' We need a community culture that honors the work of students, that elevates their achievements, and not merely on standardized tests. We need a sense of active engagement between schools and our communities, so that the schools have concrete connections with the community. That means community members involved as tutors and mentors, teachers involved in their communities, and students involved in school-to-work partnerships and community service. And we need school funding that is stable and adequate to the task, with additional support for the most challenging schools.

• We need to act on our agreement that standardized tests are just one of many measures we should use to judge the effectiveness of a school. We should be looking at more authentic assessments that grow out of students’ performance on more rich and challenging assignments. We should look at our students and our schools in the rich context in which they live, set goals for growth that are realistic and meaningful, and broaden our assessment of schools to include measurements of how well they honor and serve the whole child.

• Lastly, there needs to be a recognition that if we agree that the teacher is the single most powerful variable in the educational equation, teachers need to be involved in the crafting of educational policies at every level. Policies will succeed only if they are rooted in the wisdom of the classroom.

We may not immediately reach consensus on every detail here. This is a starting point, from my own perspective as an educator in an urban district.

But the situation we have now is a game of finger-pointing and blaming, and we are getting nowhere fast. To move forward we must begin to pull in the same direction, instead of attacking each other. So instead of focusing on who is to blame, how about we shift the subject to how we would like things to be, and work on our plan to get there? What does your map of a good school include?


Despite the fact that an ocean seperates us, there is much which resonates in Anthony Cody's writing within Ireland. At present we are witnessing not only a national but a global movement towards over emphasis on assessment as a tool 'to fix' education. Schools are measured according to their capacity to improve the scores without reference to the wider and growing inequalities which exist within the societies which shape those schools. In Ireland there is a lively debate arrising regaring the future directions which we would like our schools to take. Anthony Cody's empassioned call for dialogue and collaboration are welcome indeed and have global implications as well as being pertinent within the US.

I agree completely with every point you've made. I would just like to add one other thought. Our veteran teachers need almost as much support during these changing times as the new teachers. My school recently lost an excellent science teacher to retirement who probably would have taught for several more years. He was highly respect by both students and faculty for the excitement and challenge he brought to his classroom. When the state implemented its new curriculum, he began to lose his enthusiasm, not because he didn't want to try new things, but because he didn't feel comfortable with the new methods and so would fall back on what he had always done. As a veteran teacher myself, I understand his feelings. In my 25 years of teaching, I have seen many ideas and methods come and go. As each new method arrived, I incorporated those pieces that worked for me. This time, we are undergoing a complete paradigm shift and we face a much more difficult relearning process. We need the training, and as you said, the time for collaboration in order to make the shift. As difficult as it is to find science teachers, I think we should make it possible to keep the good ones we already have.

Well stated educational reform ideas. I completely agree with backwards planning and using more than one standardized test to measure learning. I also strongly agree that unions should not stand in the way or removing ineffective teachers.

Bravo! For too long people outside of the educational process have been determining the course and form of education. I have invited legislators to visit my classroom before they vote on policy, but to date, no one has accepted my invitation. The key to the success of the true reform you have detailed hinges on allowing those who truly know our kids, our culture, and the potential of pedagogy. As you so clearly stated, that would be, of course, we the teachers.

Education Reform: The Mind is a terrible thing to WASTE!
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote many passionately things, including “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” We do find ourselves at a crossroads once again and we should enter into dialogue with all stakeholders to find our way.

It would be brilliant if we were witnessing the demise of a poorly conceived and badly implemented educational reform effort. But many are too secure in their comfort zone of blame and psychometric testing to see the opportunity for a new day. There is the chance that in a year from now, No Child Left Behind would be buried, but will those who hold the power allow its demise.
George Bush did establish the rules for the new game when he launched NCLB with his rhetoric about the cause of student failure being "the soft bigotry of low expectations”, and his administration vilifying teachers and their representatives. But the culture has long been there with the mindset “Those that can’t, teach.” Teaching evolved from a one-room collaborative effort into a machine, no a factory, to turn out a work force for the industrial age. The Model T and telegraph were the technology and children were blank slates for education to write on.
Today I use my iPhone and my students can visit friends across the globe in seconds. How can the professionals in the field of education continue to stand by as we digress into the education practices of the past, continue to use curriculum and pedagogy that served a century ago? There is current brain research and longitudinal studies that prove scientifically those humans and especially young humans do not learn best in passive direct instruction. There could be a new breeze blowing towards Washington—and a chance the rules could be changing soon.
Teachers look for student learning outcomes, and continue to match children to existing norms. Each individual develops at an individual rate and we as a society accept that in learning to stand, walk, run, but not learn. We find that at the university diversity of thought is a blessing but in public school the Socratic methods are frowned upon. Creative thinking skills are not taught and learned, they are constructed through engagement. Schools cannot produce identical “widgets” on a norm-based timeline. David Elkind states, “True education reform will come about only when we replace the reigning psychometric educational psychology with a developmentally appropriate,” which unfortunately will only happen when we see education as the opportunity to build the future. When education becomes something for 2050 not a remnant of 1950.
Change can occur:
• Examine brain research, taking a closer look at Montessori, multiage education, and holistic approaches to education.
• Focusing on the outcomes we would like to see for our schools.
• Eempower teachers to make important decisions regarding education.
• We should be looking at more authentic assessments that grow out of students’ performance on more rich and challenging assignments.
• Honor and serve the whole child.
• Teachers need to be involved in the crafting of educational policies at every level.

Anthony, thanks so much for this cogent overview of what's needed, and the respectful tone in which it's done. I think there are various ways to bring to life the professional learning community you describe, and would be interested in hearing from others the methods that they have found successful. I have been very impressed by the lesson study work I have seen by U.S. teachers (see "How Many Seats?" video and articles at website ) and am interested in hearing the strategies others have used.


More of this sort of wisdom, please! Welcome to the blog role. I'm so glad others beyond TLN get to hear you on a regular basis.

i have always believed that in the social setting we find ourselves globally that if we work to encourage nurturing behavior in children we would not only establish academic goals but social goals for individuals as well as societal goals. treating one another respectfully and in a nurturing way which we try to establish in a preschool environment must also be continued in the upper elementary grades as well as in middle school. civilized behavior without the need for fierce competition for grades would bring us to a place we want to be. children would then be able to strive to reach their unique potential and in that way would be satisfied in doing their personal best.

Oh my gosh, what revolutionary ideas...adequate and sustained funding and more for needy schools, community partnerships, teacher leadership, teacher ownership, teacher teaming for planning, treating teachers as equal partners in educational planning, and finally teachers being the single most powerful variable.

But really...This is not new thinking. Teacher leaders have known these as true-isms for a very long time. And some of us are fortunate enough to work in schools where the teachers are treated as partners.

Now here is the BUT...even in a district that honors many of the things in this list there is the element of time. My day is filled with the duty (and joy) of teaching. There needs to be built into the system the time for teachers to participate in all that you said. I am fairly well compensated for my time in the classroom, but hardly ever compensated for the time outside of the student contact minutes outlined by my state. I would gladly work more days to have this time built into my work. I find it taxing to try to accomplish this after school, weekends, or using substitutes cover my class. So in the backward planning model the issue of time to do the work and fair compensation for teachers in leadership roles needs to be addressed.

What an inspiring post! You helped me identify something about ed policy that has long bothered me. NCLB being an example of setting a noble goal (every child will be proficient), but then failing to do backward mapping of what it would actually take to move us from where we are to that point. I especially like your point about the need for more authentic assessments. I've resolved to spend more of my own time working on positives solutions, such as these, and less time singing the blues.

I would encourage everyone to LOOK FURTHER OUTSIDE THE BOX. These are very kind and practical ideas that are suggested so far yet they fall short of what kids need and want if we are to help raise the quality of living in the future.

We must go beyond the current beliefs and limitations in the areas of health, relations, careers (service to humanity) and success. Let's write a new definition of success! New definition of health and happiness! Let's clearly define what is important in life! And then set out to empower kids to reach it.

In my education program, we emphasize health, happiness, peace and success in life. We are now clear how to teach happiness and have great success so far. We are now certain how to teach healthy living for a life without the need for medications and supplements and are having success with our "out of the box" programs in Europe.

I agree to set a new goal - a new standard.

Create a new system. One with mentors and advisors rather than so many "teachers". Mentors and advisors must model the true meaning of learning. They need to lead others into areas that they know nothing of and join in the learning. We need leaders, not know-it-alls and not just experts in their field. Brave leaders to go into the unknown.

Let's stop regurgitating what is already known. Let's bravely go into the unknown. Let's experiment and take chances. Let's build trust and consciousness and overcome fear and worry. Let's TEACH TRUST. Teach courage. Teach respect. Teach happiness. Teach health. But how are you going to teach those things if you don't know them very well yourself? Kids can learn these things only if we model them. It's time that we DO them.

Build the inner qualities of a human that the brain is merely a part of. We all have a heart and soul. So lets develop the brain, heart and soul.

As posts before me have pointed out, these are all things that we have been talking about for the past 30 years, and I agree completely. I also want to go farther, because we cannot provide a the kind of collaboration, training, and synergy Anthony implies without, in effect, "exploding the paradigm." What teachers need most is TIME to make the kinds of changes discussed here, and that means REINVENTING the system to be people-centered rather than numbers-centered. The world has moved forward at warp speed in the last 30 years, and it is time to move beyond the "industrial model" that has kids flowing through middle school and high school on a conveyor belt, 150 kids per teacher per day, as though they were widgets and teachers were assembly line workers. Downsizing, personalizing, and (forgive the buzz word) re-purposing are the key concepts I think we need to be thinking about. I have even written a novel about our frustrations and how deeply we will all have to change our thinking to make some changes that count. Check it out: ANGEL PARK or my website at I am ready for a grassroots movement to change national policy and generate a national dialogue about the new purposes of schooling in the Information Age. Thanks, Anthony, for opening the subject on a national level!

After 20 years of teaching middle school art, I have finally turned to teaching for artistic behavior instead of teaching "cool" lessons. I am so blown away by the ideas that students come up with, yet on the flip side I am equally blown away that kids have such a hard time coming up with ideas. I do believe this is due to the standardized test culture that has pervaded education for the last 20 years. Even corporate CEOs are complaining that the new "crop" of people coming into the work force aren't coming up with ideas...

Your article, “living in dialogue” is very encouraging. As a teacher I was frustrated by the adversarial relationships existing between administrators, teachers, students, parents and others. For my dissertation research I had the opportunity to visit individual schools and a school district that attempted dialogue and conversation. They established a vision of their ideal educational setting, evaluated their current assets and needs and are devising plans to get from here to there. Students, teachers, parents, and administrators were involved. The schools and the district are doing well. We can get beyond fault finding and work constructively.

The kind of teacher leadership and empowerment espoused by Anthony Cody is critical to school success. The question is, “How do we get there?”

Some seem to think, like Mr. Cody, that we simply need to somehow create a general realization that teachers really are at the center of school improvement. Everyone would then understand that teachers need “to be involved in the crafting of educational policies at every level” and the necessary changes would be made.

Don’t expect this realization to come any time soon.

Public education is a huge enterprise, involving billions of dollars, operated according to long-standing traditions of generally authoritarian bureaucracies. Many educators thrive in this setting and will be unwilling to see much more than cosmetic change. They see, rightly I think, that empowering teachers usually means dis-empowering themselves. Recall all the fruitless talk about “school-based decision-making” 15-20 years ago.

However, the road to teacher empowerment, though winding, is not impassable.

First, know who your allies are likely to be. They are not, generally, the people already in positions of power within the education establishment, including teacher unions. While some of these folks support teacher empowerment they are too few, and always can be replaced by someone with more traditional views of school management. Teacher empowerment allies are more likely to be found in state legislatures and governors’ offices. Politicians are susceptible to public pressure to spend tax money well. Teacher empowerment, properly described, will appeal to them.

Second, realize that even many teachers do not understand the importance of teacher empowerment. Teachers believe they have plenty to do for their students, themselves and their own families without taking on the burden of reorganizing education from the bottom up.

But, in order to foster empowerment, some teachers simply will have to accept some additional responsibility and endure disruptions in their work situations in order to make these gains. Fortunately, people like Anthony Cody seem ready to do the work needed to bring about this revolutionary change.

A key pre-empowerment question is “Who gets to decide how education funds are spent?” The answer is almost always, “downtown,” not the principal and teachers in a neighborhood school. Empowerment advocates should look for opportunities to convince politicians that financial decisions need to be made at the school – where the real job of schooling is done – rather than district level.

However, because of the revolutionary nature of this “send-the-money-to-the-schools” approach, we should look for opportunities to start this change on a pilot and volunteer basis, rather than wholesale across a district. The change will be disruptive at both the district and school level and likely to fail if pushed too far too fast. As schools adjust to actually making their own decisions, and have the achievement results to show for it, other schools will become interested in moving toward more autonomy, too. If teacher empowerment can be shown to lead to solid student achievement gains, measured by standardized tests (and in other more satisfactory ways), teacher leadership will flower and we will eventually wonder why we ever ran schools any other way.

As a former teacher of 30 yrs. and producer/host of the only non-profit, ongoing weekly, half-hour TV/Internet/Satellite talk show about education, SCHOOL TALK, I want to congratulate you on your insights and suggestions. Some of them, like "outcomes education" had a stirring in the education world briefly, but became contaminated with meanings other than what educators had in mind. I'd like to suggest that the place where we need to focus is, as you suggest, the community and our culture. For over 20 yrs. SCHOOL TALK has continued (on a shoestring budget) to reach the only place where real change happens IN THE HANDS OF VOTERS. In our over 400 shows, we've covered many education-related issues with outstanding guests (from US Senators to authors and professors). Without public support we continue to simply talk to one another. 'Hope you'll check out and perhaps contact me for a guest appearance. (As corporate advertisers seem to know, people oten don't care about what they don't hear about.) Best wishes.

Just some background first - I have completed 34 years of teaching secondary science; 5 years in middle school and 29 years teaching high school chem and physics.
I strongly recommend that anyone concerned with education reform read
"Inside Teaching" by Mary Kennedy. It is by far the most insightful book on education reform I have read.

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