Heresy Watch

by Robert Pondiscio
February 18th, 2009

Things We Dare Not Say Dept.:  A survey of principals across Minnesota shows 97% think it is not possible for the state’s schools to meet the goals of universal proficiency set out under No Child Left Behind. The survey was released Tuesday by the St. Paul-based think tank Minnesota 2020 and the state’s principal associations.

According to the survey, 97 percent of responding principals say that the law’s main goal, to have every student proficient on math and reading tests by 2014, is unattainable. More than 70 percent of the principals say their schools spend more time and resources on test preparation in the law’s wake, and 40 percent say they have taken away class time from arts and other subjects.

Remember the recent comments from Palo Alto schools Superintendent Kevin Skelly who said educators are “deluding themselves” if they think the achievement gap can be completely closed?  The scales have fallen from his eyes. “During the past week I have thought about my comments and had a chance to discuss them with staff and parents,” Skelly said last week. “Their comments have caused me to change my thinking on this.”

When Patty Fisher of the San Jose Mercury News asked him what exactly he had changed his thinking about, Skelly took a pass.  “I want to move beyond my comments in the newspaper,” he said. ”There was a sense that I was giving up on kids and saying kids couldn’t achieve, and I could see why they took it that way.”  So does he really believe that any child — let alone every child — has “limitless” potential, Fisher wanted to know.

“The less I say at this point, the better,” says Skelly.


  1. Robert,

    On a somewhat related note: earlier today I told of a Boston Globe story from 2004. The piece chronicled the achievement of one Katy Bartlett, a sophomore at Arlington High School (suburb just outside Boston – on Paul Revere’s route). Katy is a Down-Syndrome youngster who passed the MCAS graduation tests on her first attempt. She is clearly a remarkable individual and her efforts and the efforts of everyone at Arlington High are nothing short of commendable.

    MCAS critics instantly backed off their argument that the test was too difficult and that kids from the inner cities would never be able to pass it. The folks at Fair Test didn’t know whether to fish or cut bait.

    Someone should relay the story to Superintendent Skelly.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 18, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  2. The Skelly case fascinates me, Paul for reasons that are almost beside the specific point he was crucified, er, criticized for. As the Minnesota case shows, almost no one believes that universal proficiency is possible, or even desirable, since the only way to achieve it is by lowering the bar to a meaningless standard. On the achievement gap, it’s become a commonplace to observe that the only way to close the gap is to raise the level of achievement at the bottom, while keeping the top in place. Try selling that to the parents of Palo Alto. So along comes Skelly, trying to make a fairly nuanced point about all this, and he’s now forced to make an apology that the paper at least makes sound as forced as Galileo recanting heliocentrism. Agree with him, disagree with him. But I fail to see how inhibiting high level educators from speaking their mind in public about important issues benefits anyone.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 18, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  3. Robert,

    I’m not sure every child has limitless potential (come on, I was in the classroom for 34 years) but at the same time I am convinced, with an honest effort, most kids can get to an eighth or ninth grade level of achievement in mathematics and English/language arts. After all, that’s the level to which state graduation tests are written. For me, anything short of that is not worthy of a high school diploma. I realize I could be construed as a bit demanding, but…

    As for Skelly’s remarks, most of these folks understand when they sign on for the job it’s 80% to 90% public relations. That being said, most also realize it’s all about the how one’s thoughts/actions are perceived by their public.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 18, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

  4. I don’t disagree with you, Paul, but bear in mind you just uttered a FAR more extreme poition than the one for which Skelly was beaten up.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 18, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

  5. Robert,

    I believe my position was more realistic than his, not necessarily more extreme. As well, my position clearly had a more positive connotation about what could be expected of kids. Additionally, I’m not standing in his shoes, not being interviewed by the local newspaper, and no one cares what a retired Massachusetts public school teacher thinks, especially an audience from Palo Alto, California, home of the Stanford Cardinals.

    I think he simply should have known better.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 18, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

  6. Saying that neither Palo Alto, nor any other school district in CA, can close the achievement gap by 2014 (or any year close to that) is not the same thing as saying that a goal of having almost all kids reach basic proficiency standards is unattainable.

    Comment by Rachel — February 19, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

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