Nineteen Points and One Very Bad Idea

by Robert Pondiscio
July 24th, 2009

Near the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson sought to reassure Americans that what was known at the time as “The Great War” was a just cause.  In a speech to Congress, he outlined America’s war aims in “Fourteen Points” that were as broad as insuring freedom of navigation on international waters and fair trade, and as specific as redrawing the borders of several European nations and restoring their pre-war populations.  French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, in one of history’s finer bon mots, quipped, “Fourteen points?  Why, God Almighty has only Ten!” 

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan goes Wilson one better.  Five, actually.  He has Nineteen Points.  God has fallen nine back, well off the pace.

According to detailed guidelines being released today in Washington, states that hope for a piece of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund will have to abide by 19 detailed criteria on academic standards, data-tracking, teacher recruitment and retention, and turning around low-performing schools.  “You can’t pick or choose here,” Duncan tells USA Today.

EdWeek’s Michele McNeil notes the guidelines “send a strong message that any state hoping to land a grant must allow student test scores to be used in decisions about teacher compensation and evaluation.”  While opposition to that will be summarily dismissed as the product of accountability-averse teachers unions, Dan Willingham has cogently described why this particular reform is not ready for prime time.  Still, states like New York and California, which currently forbid by law using test data to evalute teachers will not be eligible for Race to the Top funds, as McNeil points out:

Being able to link teacher and student data is “absolutely fundamental—it’s a building block,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview. “We believe great teachers matter tremendously. When you’re reluctant or scared to make that link, you do a grave disservice to the teaching profession and to our nation’s children.”

To be sure, there is much to like about this Ed Reform Early Christmas, and the sense of urgency is welcome and laudable.  But let’s be clear, No Child Left Behind, however well-intentioned, did little to advance the idea that children benefit from a robust, well-rounded curriculum.  It did much to advance the idea that children must be taught whatever might appear on a year-end test. If time was limited, anything that did not contribute to this near-term payoff was jettisoned. Thus, aggressive accountability measures actively worked against the patient, steady development of background knowledge that creates both well-educated children and, ultimately, higher test-scores.  It beggars credulity to think that using data to hold individual teachers directly responsible for student gains will result in a sudden outbreak of big picture thinking in classrooms across the country. 

The idea that reading comprehension is a function of background knowledge has not taken deep hold in America’s classrooms.  And what teacher — especially the new, young and relatively inexperienced teachers who disproportionately fill struggling urban schools — will have the wherewithal to insist on the steady buildup of knowledge across the curriculum?  Indeed, if we are to have 19 points, why not round up to 20 and insist that a Race to the Top cannot happen without attending to a well-rounded curriculum?   Instead we are almost certain to have more — much more — of the deleterious effects of our data-driven, muscular accountability age:  endless focus on reading strategies that have limited impact, mind-numbing test prep, and no attention to the essential long-range development of background knowledge that will make reading gains possible years down the road.

“Language comprehension is a slow-growing plant,” observes E.D. Hirsch.  “Even with a coherent curriculum, the buildup of knowledge and vocabulary is a gradual, multiyear process that occurs at an almost imperceptible rate. The results show up later.” 

This is clear, this is obvious, and this is certain.  But there is simply no room for this kind of thinking in an accountability system that insists –for every good reason under the Sun–on results right now and encourages individual teachers to compete instead of cooperate.

Fast-forward.  It is 2016.  After a years of holding teachers accountable for short-term gains, and creating incentives that actively work against the buildup of knowledge, with disappointing results, we wake up and realize we are going about this the wrong way.  A few look back and say we should have listened to our Cassandras.  But other energetic, well-meaning  reformers see it another way.  Instead of realizing we have fatally neglected a robust curriculum, that we are reaping what we have sown, they will conclude that as a nation we simply have no good 8th grade reading teachers.  Aggressive, immediate action is needed.

Because after all, the data doesn’t lie, does it?


  1. Great post Robert, Thanks!

    Comment by Fer Camberos — July 24, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

  2. Yes, great post. Data doesn’t lie when you end social promotion and require students to meet hard and fast outcomes like earning 44 credits, passing five Regents exams, or attending class 90% of the time. Yet the Ernst and Young audit of the NYC schools under Klein forced the DOD to put some cards on the table.

    I don’t know which is worst, the tricks they play to pass on students or the convoluted arguments they use to justify their actions. Well yes I do. Its one thing to break rules and laws out of commpasssion for students (whether or not you are doing the right thing.) Its far worse to create a culture of lies.

    Since Duncan admires the “reforms” in NYC so much, maybe his Race to the Top should encourage “annualization” or giving students credit for a whole year if they get a 65 in the second semester. Maybe they should encourage multiple undocumented changes to students’ transcripts, providing incentives for changing multiple grades to passing. They could incentivize the practice of giving students credit for passing a freshman course for a second time rather than the senior course that is legally required. If schools were encouraged to give five credit per semester in Spanish 1,2,3,4,5 or five credits for the previous year’s summer school, then we wouldn’t even need bogus credit recovery programs.

    Or they could encourage the “best practices” in Philly where they pass on students for obeying the dress code or Texas where they say that students wh aren’t proficint are profcicent as long as a computer model says they are on track to be proficient and they repeat the whole process when the student doesn’t become proficient.

    Comment by john thompson — July 24, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

  3. “…aggressive accountability measures actively work against the patient, steady development of background knowledge that creates both well-educated children and, ultimately, higher test-scores. It beggars credulity to think that using data to hold individual teachers directly responsible for student gains will result in a sudden outbreak of big picture thinking in classrooms across the country.”

    Brilliant–and self-evident, to those whose work is being measured.

    Just because you can slice, dice, and do hierarchal linear modeling with student achievement numbers doesn’t mean they represent absolute truth. A man with a computer sees every problem as data…

    I give this post an 11 on a scale of one to ten.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — July 24, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

  4. In our small California district, the new superintendent seems to be laying the groundwork for comparing teachers by test results. We’ve bought Data Director, a software package that helps him do this. And he’s forcing all teachers who teach the same subject and grade level to teach exactly the same lessons every day. I’m sure he thinks that at the end of a year or two he can confront certain teachers with the data and say, “Look: his kids’ scores are much higher than yours, yet you teach the exact same curriculum. YOU are the weak link.” He probably doesn’t realize that there are so many complicating variables that this sort of comparison would not be very valid. It’s heartening to know that California now forbids penalizing teachers for test scores, but Duncan’s coercion may end up being too much for our funds-starved legislature to resist.

    Mr. Duncan, please read The Knowledge Deficit before making any more gigantic changes in education policy!

    In the meantime, I’ve started circulating E.D. Hirsch’s beautiful Core Knowledge sequence among my colleagues. I feel like a pamphleteer in 16th century Wittenburg. Colleagues look at it and say, “Wow”. I think a lot of us are starved for concrete curricula, not vague standards and airy aspirations.

    Your prophecy about 2016, Robert, sounds depressingly plausible.

    Comment by Ben F — July 24, 2009 @ 9:02 pm

  5. Lessee…
    the federal govt throws money at the mortgage industry to incentivize them to give more mortgages to poor folks, while changing the lending practices and standards and demanding more disclosure laws…end result: massive mortgage fraud by everyone in the system, including buyers, sellers, mortgage brokers, assessors, lenders, securitization folks, and those buying and selling the risk instruments to cover the mortgages.

    the federal govt throws money at the banking industry to incentivize them to get rid of the toxic assets and also save people from foreclosure after previous fed debacle…end result: massive securities fraud and mortgage fraud again by same folks.

    The federal govt throws money at the states for health care/medicare and other welfare systems to incentivize them to add people to their welfare rolls…end result: massive welfare and medicare fraud.

    I could continue.

    Creating a giant pot of money to incentivize school districts’ behaviors as measured by these test scores will with 100% certainty incentivize the wrong behaviors. It will create extreme incentives for massive fraud on the behalf of every party: the students, the parents, the teachers, the principals, the administrators, the districts, the test administrators. It will not do anything to incentivize TEACHING or LEARNING.

    Comment by Allison Coates — July 24, 2009 @ 11:49 pm

  6. The ways to fix American Education:

    1. Eliminate social promotion. If we’re going to test, make the test the exit req.
    2. Year-round school…two week (or so) breaks between grading periods.
    3. More funding to reduce class sizes. Even ineffective teachers are more effective when class sizes are smaller…and sure, it would be better to get rid of the ineffective teachers, but I don’t see that happening. ESPECIALLY when the data-determines-pay is fully fleshed out…those superior and motivated teachers who take on the toughest, lowest kids will only be penalized and run out. I don’t see any provision for data showing growth…only data by comparison to fellow teachers. Not fair.

    And speaking of data…does this mean bad English and Math teachers are on the chopping block easily, but ineffective arts or voc teachers can stay indefinitely since electives are not subject to state testing (data collection)?

    Comment by Mark Gardner — July 26, 2009 @ 11:33 am

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