Acts of Contrition

by Robert Pondiscio
May 28th, 2010

“I’ve grown increasingly cynical about the assertions of charter-school advocates that the most pressing problem facing our public education system is the plethora of lazy, incompetent teachers who cannot be fired under any circumstances,” writes Newsweek’s Raina Kelley.  “Maybe it’s because I was a teacher’s pet growing up, or because of my undying love for school supplies, but a lot of this sounds to me more like a full court press to break the admittedly powerful teachers’ unions than simply an effort to improve public schooling.”

Doesn’t Kelley read her own magazine?  Surely she got the news that firing bad teachers is “The Key to Saving American Education.”

Listening to Teachers?

by Robert Pondiscio
May 27th, 2010

If you spend your edublog time on policy blogs rather than teacher blogs, you may have missed out an interesting story that has played out over the past few months, and which may be coming to a head this week.  Last November, Anthony Cody, a veteran science teacher, blogger and Obama supporter, wrote an open letter to the President expressing his frustration with many of the Administration’s policies.  The column soon morphed into what another veteran teacher-blogger, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, described as “a full-on social networking movement.”  A Facebook group (naturally) quickly attracted  2,000 members, eager to weigh in on ed policy as a network of independent teachers.  Letters were sent, polls were taken, and attention paid.  The climax occurred Monday, when 12 teachers including Cody, Wolpert-Gawron, and frequent Core Knowledge Blog commenter Nancy Flanagan were invited to participate in a 30-minute conference call with Ed Secretary Arne Duncan.

The climax was anti-climactic.  Technical problems plagued the call, few got a chance to speak, and the teachers walked away more frustrated than satisfied by their audience with Duncan.  “I want to find positive things to take from what unfolded, but it is challenging,” was Cody’s take on the call.  Flanagan’s synopsis is here.    End of story?  It might have been until yesterday, when Cody’s phone rang. 

It was Arne Duncan calling.

Charm offensive?  Earnest engagement?  Time will tell. Cody & Co. have already done the profession a solid by taking the first steps toward establishing a badly needed back channel for teachers, independent of the unions.

Brawn + Brains

by Robert Pondiscio
May 26th, 2010

“ One of the most spectacular examples of the athletic brain operating at top speed came in 2001, when the Yankees were in an American League playoff game with the Oakland Athletics. Shortstop Derek Jeter managed to grab an errant throw coming in from right field and then gently tossed the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged the base runner at home plate. Jeter’s quick decision saved the game—and the series—for the Yankees. To make the play, Jeter had to master both conscious decisions, such as whether to intercept the throw, and unconscious ones. These are the kinds of unthinking thoughts he must make in every second of every game: how much weight to put on a foot, how fast to rotate his wrist as he releases a ball, and so on.”

–from “Why Athletes Are Geniuses” at

Traditional vs. Progressive

by Robert Pondiscio
May 26th, 2010

If you encourage students to express themselves, you’re teaching progressive English composition.  You’re teaching a traditional curriculum, says Charles Murray, if you “make them diagram sentences and mark up their papers for grammatical and spelling errors. In red ink.”  At AEI’s Enterprise Blog, Murray describes receiving an email from a teacher who wondered if he is teaching a traditional or progressive curriculum, since the terms are thrown around with little attempt to define them.  Murray, offers no defintion, but with tongue clearly in cheek offers a few examples:

Progressive science: Teach about how pollution affects the lives of all of us.
Traditional: Teach chemistry, physics, and biology.

Progressive American studies: Mention James Madison in a sentence and devote a chapter to Harriet Tubman.
Traditional: Devote a chapter to James Madison and mention Harriet Tubman in a sentence (maybe a paragraph).

Methinks he’s merely scratching the surface.  Here are some Murray neglected to list:

Traditional:  “Miss Jones”
Progressive:  “Betty”

Traditional: Rigor
Progressive: Engagement

Traditional:  Pop quiz
Progressive: Portfolio

Traditional:  State capitols
Progressive: My community

Traditional:  “You’re suspended!”
Progressive: “You need to reflect.”

Traditional: Writing assignment
Progressive: Writer’s notebook

Traditional:    a² + b² = c²
Progressive:  How tall is that tree?  Here’s a kite, some string and a yardstick. 

Traditional:  Eat your spinach.
Progressive: Who picked your spinach?

Another Myth Bites the Dust

by Robert Pondiscio
May 25th, 2010

Learning styles?  Move over.  21st century skills?  Kindly step aside.  Reading strategies?  Please move to the rear and make way for the latest exhibit  here in the Museum of Discredited Education Ideas.  Dan Willingham has posted a new video on multitasking.   The next time you hear someone say kids are “a new breed of learners for whom doing more than one thing at a time is a way of life,” point them here:

Introducing his latest handiwork at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Willingham says while it’s true that kids multi-task a lot, putting music or videos on while doing other things, there’s no evidence they must do so to be engaged.  And while younger people are better than older folks at multitasking, that’s a function of “better raw processing speed on those sorts of functions” not any kind of new tech-driven phenomenon.  In other words, kids have always had that advantage.  But it’s not a skill you can develop.

If doing a lot of multitasking made you better at it, we should see differences in multitasking ability among kids who do a lot and kids who do very little. But those differences are not observed.  In fact, college kids who report being chronic multitaskers are actually somewhat “worse” than their peers at some basic components of cognitive control (like switching attention).  There is not good evidence that students today “must” multitask. But there is good evidence that multi-tasking is seldom a good idea, if you really care about the task you’re working on.

Kids today may “want” to multitask because they are used to doing it, Willingham concludes.  “But that doesn’t mean they should.”

More Bang for the Book

by Robert Pondiscio
May 21st, 2010

Merely having books in the home seems to have more impact on a child’s educational attainment than the education level of the parents, the country’s GDP, the father’s occupation or the political system of the country, according to a new study from the University of Nevada, Reno published in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.

“For years, educators have thought the strongest predictor of attaining high levels of education was having parents who were highly educated. But, strikingly, this massive study showed that the difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education). Both factors, having a 500-book library or having university-educated parents, propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average.”

The study suggests that “getting some books into their homes is an inexpensive way that we can help children succeed,” says Mariah Evans, the study’s principal author.  Having as few as 20 books in the home has a significant impact and “the more books you add, the greater the benefit….You get a lot of ‘bang for your book,” she notes

The Invisible Hand

by Robert Pondiscio
May 21st, 2010

“Who needs merit pay when you have 3000+ applicants for seven jobs?” asks Michael E. Lopez at Joanne Jacobs blog.  A New York Times report notes teachers may be facing “the worst job market since the Great Depression.”  Pelham Memorial High School in Westchester County, New York has received applications from candidates as far away as California for one of its seven advertised openings.

Joint and Several Accountability

by Robert Pondiscio
May 19th, 2010

On a Wednesday afternoon in May, Mr. Jones is walking down a city sidewalk, minding his own business.  At the end of the block, Mr. Smith, an uninsured motorist, sees the light turn yellow as he approaches an intersection.  To beat the light he floors it, just as an indigent man named Mr. Baker steps into the crosswalk. Smith swerves, hits a pothole and loses control, careening onto the sidewalk where he hits Mr. Jones, who is seriously injured.

Who does Mr. Jones sue?   The driver who hit him?  The jaywalker who caused Mr. Smith to swerve?  The answer is probably both – and the city, since they are responsible for maintaining the street and the sidewalk.   At trial, Mr. Baker is held 50% responsible for Mr. Jones’ injuries.  He was crossing the street ignoring the ”Don’t Walk” signal.  Mr. Smith is 45% responsible.  He had the right of way, but was reckless in speeding up as he approached the intersection.  The city is deemed 5% responsible. Jones’s lawyer persuaded the jury that if it weren’t for that pothole, Mr. Smith would not have lost control of his vehicle.

The jury awards Mr. Jones $30 million.  Mr. Smith has no insurance and few recoverable assets.  Mr. Baker has no property whatsoever.  The city can pay, but they’re only responsible for 5% of the damages, right?


Under the principal of “joint and several liability,” some form of which is allowed in nearly every U.S. state, the city is responsible for all the damages. Unfair? Perhaps, but Mr. Jones’ injuries were not his fault, so he who can pay does pay so that Jones can be made whole.

In education, we are moving ever closer to a similar system.  Call it joint and several accountability.  A child may fail in school for any number of reasons—uninvolved parents, poor attendance, lack of motivation, poverty, hunger, or an unstable home life.  That child is surely as damaged as Mr. Jones.   However, since we have no means to hold parents, peers or poverty accountable, the full weight of accountability falls on the teacher.   Like the deep-pocketed municipality in an accident, she is the only one within reach, even if she is only partially responsible.  

“The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that places virtually all the burden for learning on the shoulders of teachers,” notes veteran teacher Walt Gardner, at EdWeek’s Reality Check blog. “This notion is alien to teachers in most countries that are our competitors in the new global economy. Yet it gets scant attention from reformers,” he notes. 

Indeed, even if you believe that accountability as a “theory of action” can address the problem of ineffective teachers, it doesn’t solve  the larger imbalance of responsibility for learning.  It will no more guarantee success for all students that the threat of punitive damages will guarantee accident-free streets.  Personal accountability and intrinsic motivation will always matter more.  After all bad teachers are identified and fired, Gardner concludes, “the problem of balancing responsibility for learning won’t go away. It’s largely an American phenomenon.”

Fools Rush In Where AERA Fears to Tread

by Robert Pondiscio
May 18th, 2010

 The American Educational Researchers Association (AERA) may find itself in the crosshairs for political correctness and staking out controversial positions, but a true bill of particulars against the organization would include its inability or unwillingness to act as an honest broker in determining the validity of education research. 

Writing at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Dan Willingham responds to the recent screed by Sharon Begley of Newsweek, who described education research as a “national scandal.”  There is a lot of excellent research, but there’s also “a lot of dreck,” he observes.  But good luck telling the difference. A professor of psychology at UVA, Willingham points out that psychology “is more vigilant in its self-regulation, particularly through its professional societies,” which he notes are “deeply committed to scientific rigor, they are run by scientists, and they publish very high quality research.” But where do you turn if you’re a teacher looking for research on teaching children to read? 

“The American Educational Researchers Association (AERA) ought to be logical place, but it has not shown a lot of interest in taking on the job.  I think a large part of the reason for this is that it is an enormous organization that includes scholars from very different disciplines: psychology, economics, political science, critical theory, history, feminist studies, etc. These different fields not only have different criteria by which evidence is evaluated, they have different definitions of what it means to “know” something. Small wonder, then, that AERA is seldom ready to make a flat statement on a research issue.”

This lack of clarity opens the door for “commercial interests and frank snake-oil salesmen” to hijack the conversation on research issues, observes Willingham, which “damages the field, and ultimately harms students.” He suggests AERA start by getting its members  to decide which issues within education are amenable to a scientific analysis. “Education researchers frequently lament policy makers cherry-picking research findings to support positions that they advocate for non-research-based reasons. Until researchers get their act together, we continue to invite them to do so,” he concludes.

Why Does It Have to Be Either/Or? It Doesn’t, But….

by Guest Blogger
May 17th, 2010

by Diana Senechal

Every so often (actually, very often) I hear someone say, “Why can’t we have both content and skills? Why are people wasting their time arguing for one or another?”

This is a reasonable argument, and like many reasonable arguments, it must be adjusted for an unreasonable world. Will Fitzhugh warns us of our eroding reason: in a recent piece he proclaims that the “evidence-based techniques and processes of literacy instruction” have taken over schools just as kudzu has taken over farms in the southeastern part of the U.S. If allowed to spread further, Fitzhugh argues, “literary kudzu” will “choke off … attention to the reading of complete books and the writing of serious academic papers by the students in our schools.”

In a comment on the Core Knowledge blog, Carl Rosin objects roundly (and reasonably) to Fitzhugh’s premise: “I am dismayed by Mr. Fitzhugh’s thesis, which I believe disparages process—which even the most knowledgeable writers must learn—because of a logical fallacy: that process necessarily replaces content.”

Rosin would be right, if the schools, policymakers, and education schools were as reasonable as he. But again, we are dealing with an unreasonable world.  Process does replace content when it is accorded the highest place on the scale of values. To put process at the top, to subordinate literature and history to skills, is a gory sacrifice and boring practice. But such philosophy runs rude and ragged like Auden’s rascals.

Many state standards don’t mention a single work of literature, even in passing. Well, those are standards, one might say; the curricula should make up for the omission. But in many cases they don’t. Officials and even teachers will argue that “you don’t teach the subject, you teach the student,” and that you choose the content to match the desired skills, which should take precedence. They believe a teacher—or student—should select books that best match the student’s learning needs.

The very emphasis on skills, paradoxically, is one reason why students don’t master the skills—there’s no good content in which to ground them. “Compare and contrast” is of little value until you have something good to compare and contrast. In the second chapter of her new book, Diane Ravitch puts it succinctly: “Students should certainly think about what they read, but they should read something worth thinking about.”

Granted, some schools “infuse” the curriculum with content. That’s better than nothing—but they still assume that skills, strategies, and processes come first and that the content is a filler, vehicle, or whatever the term might be.

How can one justify putting the skills and processes on top? It would be as though someone learned the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello in order to practice bowing techniques. Certainly a student needs to learn bowing techniques; certainly a student becomes better at bowing by spending many hours on the Suites. Still, one learns bowing in order to play the Suites, and not vice versa. If there were no music worth learning for its own sake, there would be no reason to play an instrument at all. The bowing, no matter how well practiced, would not sound beautiful. But scales sound beautiful, someone might object. Yes, but that is because we can hear melodies in them. There is something beyond them.

Like any analogy, this has caveats, but something similar is true for literature. On its own, the language of strategies is dull and hollow. Not only do we need knowledge in order to build our comprehension, as E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Dan Willingham, and others have demonstrated, but we need to learn things that stay with us all our lives, things that we return to many years later, things that grip and puzzle and delight us. Of course processes, skills, and strategies come into play, vigorously, but they can’t hold a frayed matchstick to literature. Which would I rather remember, ten years down the road: terms like “making a text-to-self connection,” “monitoring for comprehension,” “using context clues,” and so forth, or the ending of James Merrill’s “Lost in Translation,” quoted below?

But nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation
And every bit of us is lost in it
(Or found—I wander through the ruin of S
Now and then, wondering at the peacefulness)
And in that loss a self-effacing tree,
Color of context, imperceptibly
Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
To shade and fiber, milk and memory.

I’ll teach the processes, but I will not talk process-talk. I will make sure my students leave with heaps of language like the language above—language we rummage for and hold up to the light, language that lifts our lives.

Diana Senechal has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale; her translations of the poetry of Tomas Venclova have appeared in two books. A former (and possibly future) NYC public school teacher, she is currently writing a book on the loss of solitude in schools and culture.