Kraft Singled Out

by Robert Pondiscio
February 27th, 2009

Children whose parents fail to pay for school lunches are being served cold cheese sandwiches under a policy instituted by the Albuquerque Public Schools.  The alternative meals go to children “whose parents are supposed to be able to pay for some or all of their regular meals but fail to pick up the tab,” the New York Times reports.

Such policies have become a necessity for schools seeking to keep budgets in the black while ensuring children don’t go hungry. School districts including those in Chula Vista, Calif.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; and Lynnwood, Wash.; have also taken to serving cheese sandwiches to children with delinquent lunch accounts.

The policy has sharply divided the community.  Critics say the cheese sandwiches punish children whose parents can’t afford to pay. “Others have flooded talk radio shows thanking the district for imposing a policy that commands parental responsibility,” the Times reports.

“This is one of those cases where you wish school districts wouldn’t do it,” says one editorial, “but you understand why they have to.”

Curriculum vs. Kumbaya

by Robert Pondiscio
February 27th, 2009

If you want to promote tolerance and respect for Muslim students, perhaps teaching children something about Islam might help.  Teachers College has come out with a guide for teachers “designed to enhance understanding of Islam and promote tolerance of Muslim students.”  But EdWeek’s Mary Ann Zehr points out the guide ”gives only tangential treatment to religion in favor of focusing on the culture and identity of Muslims.”

The guide doesn’t discuss, for example, the five pillars of Islam, the significance of Ramadan, or the differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.  One of the most direct references to religion that I could find is a link to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life about the beliefs and practices of Muslims (search by “tradition”). But that survey tells you about as much about Islam as a religion as a survey of the beliefs and practices of Roman Catholics  in the United States tells you about Catholicism.

In contrast, the Core Knowledge Sequence introduces major world religions in the first grade.  In the fourth grade, the spread of Islam is examined along with Islamic art.  One of the lessons in the TC cycle asks students to examine and evaluate depictions of Muslims and Islam in the media.  Great idea.  Hard to do if you’re coming to the subject cold.  “There are still entrenched suspicions and profound misconceptions about Islam and Muslim culture,” the TC guide notes.  And there will continue to be unless you actually teach the subject.

There’s No “I” In Value Added

by Robert Pondiscio
February 27th, 2009

If teachers are evaluated and rewarded on the performance of their individual students, what incentive do they have to be good team players?  Why prize the overall performance of their students and school over how kids perform in the teachers’ own class?  This essential question was brilliantly posed by Matthew Ladner at Jay Greene’s blog last week.

The impetus for the question was a New York Times magazine piece by Michael Lewis on Shane Battier of the Houston Rockets, who is “widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars,” according to Lewis. ”And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.”

In basketball, gaudy personal statistics earn you megabucks and create incentives to pad you stats regardless of whether it helps your team win.  Battier, however, is a white space employee.  “The term refers to the space between boxes on an organizational chart,” Ladner explains. ”A white space employee is someone who does whatever it takes to achieve organizational goals and makes the organization work much better as a whole.”  What does this have to do with teaching?  Plenty. 

As we move into the era of value-added analysis for teacher merit pay, this article provides much food for thought. School leaders must consider carefully what they will reward, and give some consideration to how white space behavior is rewarded. Rewards should not just be based on individual learning gains- reaching school wide goals should also be strongly rewarded. Otherwise my incentive as a math teacher will be to assign six hours of math homework a night- and to hell with everyone else (see Iverson, Allen).

“There’s no reward for being a white space player OR a superstar in the current system of teacher compensation,” Ladner concludes. “Just an old player.”  The unintended consequences have been the undoing of many a school reform effort.  If Ladner’s right about this — and I think he is — the consequences may be unintended, but they will not have been unforeseen. 


A Path to National Standards Opens Up

by Robert Pondiscio
February 26th, 2009

Ed Week’s David Hoff broke a significant piece of news over at NCLB: Act II the other day.  At the National Governors Association’s meeting last weekend members approved a policy statement that could lead to national education standards:

The statement hasn’t been released to the public yet. But governors told me that it advocates putting state leaders in charge of a national effort to establish a “common core” of standards defining what students should know.  The statement dovetails with the report released in December by the NGA, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve Inc., a group of governors and business leaders. That report called for a process of benchmarking the standards of high-achieving countries to determine what content they consider most important.

Hoff sees the stament as newsworthy because “it adds momentum to the move toward national standards” and notes it “sailed through the NGA without any controversy or significant debate.”  Fordham’s Flypaper thinks Hoff’s exclusive would have been front-page news were it not for the economy.  “Think about it,” says Mike Petrilli, “the governors are open to throwing out their own standards—the heart of their education accountability systems—in favor of frameworks that would have reach from coast to coast. This is a big deal!”

21st Century Skills Fadbusters

by Robert Pondiscio
February 25th, 2009

Who you gonna call?

Diane Ravitch, E.D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham played FadBusters at a panel discussion on 21st Century Skills hosted by Common Core in Washington, DC on Tuesday afternoon, along with Ken Kay, who heads the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21). 

For those who have only just arrived on our planet this morning, the highly visible and well-financed 21st Century Skills movement seeks to put information and communications skills, critical thinking and problem solving “at the center of US K-12 education.” Ravitch pointed out that the zippy name notwithstanding, most of the ideas promoted by P21 have been with us for over a century.  “After examining the materials associated with P21,” she quipped, “I concluded, to quote the noted philosopher Yogi Berra, that ‘it’s like déjà vu all over again.’”

There is nothing new in the proposals of the 21st century skills movement. The same ideas were iterated and reiterated by pedagogues across the twentieth century. Their call for 20th century skills sounds identical to the current effort to promote 21st century skills. If there was one cause that animated the schools of education in the 20th century, it was the search for the ultimate breakthrough that would finally loosen the shackles of subject matter and content.

Bending over backwards to applaud its motives and goals, Hirsch nonetheless observed that the entire premise of 21st Century skills rests on a flawed assumption about critical thinking, problem solving and innovation:  “The error at the heart of P21 is the idea that skills are all-purpose muscles that, once developed, can be applied to new and unforeseen domains of experience,” he noted.  “This error is fundamental, and it is fatal,” he said. 

It will lead to the same disappointments as the idea that reading comprehension is a how-to skill that can be developed through strategy drills. On the contrary, reading comprehension, communication, critical thinking, and the rest are inherently constituted by specific knowledge. More than that, if you have domain knowledge yet lack mere technical proficiency, you will nonetheless perform more skillfully than a proficient person who lacks relevant knowledge. There are many experiments supporting this, going back to de Groot’s famous 1946 experiments with chess masters. Incautious claims about the transferability of 21st-century skills from one domain to another are very misleading. No, let me put it more strongly. The how-to concept is just plain wrong.

The fallback position of 21CS proponents has become something to the effect of “we’re not saying academic content doesn’t matter.  Kids need content AND skills.”  But Dan Willingham pointed out that it’s inaccurate even to conceive of skills and factual knowledge as separate.

I often hear people say ‘Yes, yes, of course, knowledge is important. After all, you need something to think about.’ But there is more to it than that. Knowledge is not just something that skills operate on-knowledge is what enables skills to operate in the first place.

“Everyone understands that memorizing facts without skills is not enriching,” Willingham noted. ”People forget that training skills without facts doesn’t work.” 

All credit and praise to Kay for taking on the challenge of defending 21st century skills in the face of such skepticism.  He nonetheless found himself backpedalling, continually reminding the audience that P21 believes content is important.  Ultimately, he conceded that the principal contribution of the 21st Century skills movement is ”offering a vision of a desired outcome.” Students need to be prepared to be more engaged civic participants and highly skilled workers. “It’s not our job to develop the model,” he said. 

Alas, there was little in Kay’s comments that suggests he gets the idea that his vision cannot be realized by the specific methods he is promoting.  Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a Middle Ages version of Ken Kay, “offering a vision” of alchemy as the proper purpose of education.  “It’s not our job to develop the model,” he might have said.  “We’re merely articulating a vision that says the transmutation of lead into gold and discovering the elixir of life are vital 14th century skills.”

Good luck with that. 

A broad, solid knowledge-based curriculum is square one for developing “21st Century Skills.”  Inspired, creative teaching–not wish fulfillment codified by squishy, ill-defined standards–gets us the rest of the way.  That might not fit on a bumper sticker, but it might work.

“Myths About Education Reform”

by Robert Pondiscio
February 24th, 2009

Even with the billions of dollars in economic stimulus aid headed their way, public schools stand no chance of getting better “until we dispel some empty theories about how to help them,” writes Kalman R. Hettleman, a former commissioner on the Baltimore City school board.

His list of 5 myths about education reform in the Washington Post has something guaranteed to irritate virtually everyone.  He rejects the idea that teachers know best and should be left alone by policymakers, noting the profession is resistant to using research to improve instruction.  On the other hand Hettleman has no patience for the “blame the unions” line.  He also doesn’t buy the idea that the federal government meddles too much in the affairs of local schools.

“Actually, the feds don’t go far enough. Even NCLB, attacked as an effort to wrest power from local government, allows all 50 states to set their own standards. But really, why should a passing math score vary from one school district to another?  The United States is one of only a few developed nations clinging to the idea of local control over education. Most European countries, as well as Japan, have national standards and curriculums. Their schools also rely mainly on national funding, while ours receive less than 10 percent of their revenue from the federal government….U.S. education officials need to use federal funding to reward districts that raise standards and help put American schools on a par with their international competitors.

Most tellingly – and dispiritingly –Hettleman rejects the idea that we know how to fix public schools but lack the political will to finish the job.  “Conservatives generally advocate breaking up teacher unions and privatization, while liberals call for more money, less testing and greater teacher autonomy.” But nothing has succeeded in creating even a single high-functioning urban district, Hettleman notes.

No Grades, Just Standards

by Robert Pondiscio
February 24th, 2009

A Minneapolis middle school has done away with traditional grades in favor of “standards-based grading.”  Rather than hand out traditional letter grades based on homework, tests, extra-credit and participation, the school grades students “solely on how well they understand the material.”

The system at Hazel Park Middle School tells students at the beginning of a unit what they will have to prove they know by the end.  The proof can come in the form of tests, or other projects “such as writing newspaper articles or making posters.”  A “4″ means they exceed proficiency; zero means they can’t demonstrate any understanding of the skills.  If a student gets a 2 or less on a test or project, notes the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, they can work with the teacher to see where they went wrong, and take the test again until it’s clear they understand the material.

Under the new system, fewer students are earning top grades–or the worst, the paper reports. Students who know how to “game the system” by faithfully turning in homework and extra credit, even though they don’t understand the material, are having a harder time, says Kelly Detzler, a geography teacher who helped set up the program.

“There are a lot of kids who don’t know how to play the game of school, but they’re proficient. We were seeing a high rate of kids failing because they didn’t do their homework, even though they understood the material.”

The paper notes Hazel Park “hasn’t done well on Minnesota’s tests in recent years: In 2008, less than half the students in seventh and eighth grade were proficient on the state math and reading tests.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with using demonstration of mastery as the basis for grading.  As a teacher I experimented with a system that allowed some of my students to work independently on math skills, but they demonstrated proficiency through tests and quizzes on individual state standards.  I’ll confess to a bias against relying to heavily on independent projects, which are harder to gauge objectively. There’s nothing wrong with a test, if it’s well-designed.

Teaching Quality “Inadequate” in Most 1st Grade Classrooms

by Robert Pondiscio
February 23rd, 2009

A mere 23% of U.S. first-grade classrooms can be described as “high overall quality” based on a study of teacher observations in over 800 classrooms. 

Robert Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, led a study of data collected from direct observations of first-grade classrooms in nearly 700 private and public schools in 32 states.  Based upon those observations, classrooms were divided into four major categories. Teachers who worked to both create a positive social climate and strong instructional support–23 percent of classrooms–were given the score of “high overall quality.” Twenty-eight percent of classrooms were labeled “mediocre.” Seventeen percent of the classrooms were “low overall quality.” The largest category, “positive emotional climate, low academic demand,” accounted for 31% of all first-grade classrooms in the study.  The study found class size and teacher credentials had little influence on classroom quality.

“We found that quality, particularly instructional features of teacher behavior, was rather low across the sample,” said Pianta, whose system for evaluating student-teacher interactions was prominently featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s much-discussed recent piece about teacher quality in the New Yorker. 

“Most American first-grade classrooms are pretty happy places to be,” A news release about the study notes.  “But that doesn’t mean that all of the students are getting the academic content they need.”

Teaching For High Expectations

by Robert Pondiscio
February 23rd, 2009

Why go to high school when you can go to school high?  In an anonymous piece on the Radio Free Exile website “Bob Smith,” a 59-year old former science teacher, describes how years of getting high while planning his lessons provided him with “insights into the educational process” and other “truly important things about teaching.”  Take, for example, his solution to the problem of how to explain the concept of density to middle schoolers.

Suddenly, a flash of the legendary insight: I just won’t teach density. Not at all. Never again. Now, as first year teachers learn, you teach what they tell you to teach. But as some teachers soon learn, you can teach what you like if everything you do works. I had been pretty successful in all the other areas of science I was teaching, and I realized that I would be doing everyone a favor if I unilaterally declared that piece of the pie dispensable, which I did, and I’m sure that no one ever missed it.

Believing he was at his most inventive and insightful while stoned, Saturdays became the day when Smith ruminated on his teaching, wrote curriculum, made plans, and got high.  “I sometimes laugh to myself when something I’ve designed has gone over well with the students. They would be amazed at the conditions under which the ideas were hatched,” Smith writes.

In fact, I should go so far as to confess that when discussing drugs with students – a requirement of science curriculum in those grades – I have presented to the students the positives as well as the negatives of marijuana use, including ‘reports’ that people often feel more creative and insightful, and that people smoke it because it’s fun. This is an important part of the drug education piece that is always omitted: telling kids why people use drugs.

If you’re concerned about having a teacher like “Bob Smith” giving his fair and balanced view of recreational drug use to kids, fear not.  He’s no longer teaching middle school.  He’s now an ed school professor. 

Higher ed, indeed.

Panel Discussion on “21st Century Skills”

by Robert Pondiscio
February 20th, 2009

Lots of blogging lately about the 21st Century skills movement.  Now, E.D. Hirsch, Diane Ravitch, Dan Willingham and Ken Kay, the President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills will have at it at a panel discussion in Washington, DC on Tuesday, Feb. 24, titled “What is the Proper Role of Skills in the Curriculum? A critique of the idea of 21st century skills.”  Details on the program, which is hosted by Common Core and moderated by its co-chair, Antonia Cortese are here.  If you’d like to attend send an email to