by Robert Pondiscio
February 10th, 2012

“President Obama and Secretary Duncan pushed the reform envelope as far as they could be expected with these waivers….We remain skeptical, however, of the storyline that says we are a nation filled with states chomping at the bit to do the right thing for children but which are hamstrung from doing so by federal bureaucrats and paperwork.” — Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform on states receiving waivers from compliance with No Child Left Behind (via This Week in Education)

I remain equally skeptical of the storyline that says schools are dysfunctional purely as a result of adult indifference or self-interest.

I see no reason to believe that failing schools are filled with tenured layabouts refusing to teach and not getting fired.  In my experience, such schools are mainly filled with decent people trying their best and failing. And with depressing regularity, they are failing despite doing exactly what they were trained to do–even because they are doing exactly what they were trained to do.

The entire edifice of accountability assumes that American education is essentially a sound product, but it’s delivered poorly. I see no evidence to suggest this is true. I see much evidence to suggest it’s not.

What is the Value in a High Value-Added Teacher?

by Guest Blogger
January 12th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

Great news emerged this week for elementary- and middle-school teachers who make gains in their students test scores.  While the teachers themselves may not be pulling down big salaries, their efforts result in increased earnings for their students. In a study that tracked 2.5 million students for over 20 years, researchers found that good teachers have a long-lasting positive effect on their students’ lives, including those higher salaries, lower teen-pregnancy rates, and higher college matriculation rates.

I’m a practical person.  I understand that we spend billions of dollars educating our children and that the taxpayer deserves some assurance that the money is not being squandered.  Accountability matters.  I get it.  Still, as a teacher, it’s hard not to feel a little bit wistful, perhaps even wince a little, reading this study.

It’s important to remember that its authors, Raj Chetty, John N. Freidman, and Jonah E. Rockoff, are all economists. Their study measures tangible, economic outcomes from what they call high versus low “value-added” teachers. This “value-added” approach, which is defined as “the average test-score gain for his or her students, adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores,” may work for measuring such measurable outcomes as future earnings, but it misses so much of the point of education.

I asked my Uncle Michael, a professor of law and economics, what he thought of the study, and he compared the proponents of the study’s mathematical economic approach to education to acolytes of The Who’s Tommy, pinball wizards who “sought to isolate themselves from the world so as to improve their perception of a very narrow sliver of that world. The entire ‘assessment’ enterprise defiles education as that word once meant.”

He attempted to explain his feelings about the study in terms of mathematical equations – something to do with linear regression thinking and educational outcomes, but I got lost in the Y = a + bX + errors of it all.

Tim Ogburn, 5th grade teacher in California, phrases the debate a bit more simply: Why are we educating children?

His answer goes like this: Until fairly recently, teachers would have answered that they were educating children to become good Americans or good citizens, but now we seem to teach only to prepare elementary- and middle-school children for high paying jobs. When money figures into the goal, we lose so much along the way, such as curiosity, a love of learning for its own sake, and an awareness that many of the most worthwhile endeavors (both personally and socially) are not those with the highest monetary rewards.

To which I reply: Hear, hear. If economic gain is the measure of our success, we have lost sight our goals in education.

In order to round out the definition of “value” as defined by Chetty’s study, I conducted my own research project. Sure, my sample was smaller – about thirty versus Chetty’s 2.5 million, and the duration of my study was three days rather than 20 years…and of course there might just have been a wee bit of selection bias in my Facebook sampling. Oh, and I chose not to apply Uncle Michael’s formulas because they gave me a headache.

The goal of my study was to find out what some of the other, less measurable benefits of good teaching. I asked people to write in with examples of good teaching, teaching that has resulted in positive outcomes in their lives. Who were their “high value-added” teachers?

Sarah Pinneo, a writer from New Hampshire, recalled her third grade teacher, who took her aside one day and said, “You are going to be a writer. Here’s your portfolio. Every poem you finish, we’re going to save it in here.” Sarah’s first novel will be released on February first, and she still has that poetry portfolio.

Carol Blymire, a food writer and public relations executive in Washington, D.C, recalled her kindergarten teacher “who taught me that letters make words and words make sentences…and is the reason I love to write today.” She counts among her low value-added teachers, “Every other teacher reprimanded me for asking questions that came across as challenging them, even though it was really my way of wanting to know more and understand the bigger picture.”

My favorite example came from Dr. Jeffrey Fast, an English teacher in Massachusetts.

“One morning, when I was a senior, we were discussing Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset. While I can no longer remember exactly what I said, it was something about the interaction among the characters. Immediately after I spoke, [my teacher] responded by saying – for all to hear: ‘I like you!’ His response, of course, was coded language to identify and mark – for both me and my peers – something insightful. I felt enormously rewarded. That was the benchmark that I tried to replicate in dealing with literature ever afterwards. That was 50 years ago. He never knew that those three words catapulted me – to a Ph.D. and a career as an English teacher!”

While the studies of economists may add to the discussion about what makes teachers valuable in our lives, I believe that if we reduce teachers’ value to dollars and cents, we run the risk of becoming, in Oscar Wilde’s phrase, “the kind of people who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.”



Student Achievement, Poverty and “Toxic Stress”

by Robert Pondiscio
January 4th, 2012

It’s a safe bet that not many teachers are avid readers of the medical journal Pediatrics.  But a report that appeared in the publication last week deserves to be read and understood deeply by everyone in education.  It has the potential to transform the way we think and speak about children who grow up in poverty–and education as a means of addressing its worst effects.

The report links “toxic stress” in early childhood to a host of bad life outcomes including poor mental and physical health, and cognitive impairment.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in an accompanying policy statement, calls on its members to “catalyze fundamental change in early childhood policy and services” in response.

The term “toxic stress” is not a familiar one in education circles, but it should be.  The Harvard Center on the Developing Child describes a toxic stress response as occurring “when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support.”  Think of it as one plus one equals negative two:  something bad happens to a child, and there’s no positive adult response to mitigate the trauma.  The lack of adult support is what makes stress, which is largely unavoidable, “toxic” to a child.  Crucially, repeated or prolonged activation of a child’s stress response system “can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years,” notes the Center’s website.

This cannot be dismissed as pseudoscience or a mere hypothesis.  The report and policy statement notes a “strong scientific consensus” and a growing body of research “in a wide range of biological, behavioral, and social sciences,” on “how early environmental influences (the ecology) and genetic predispositions (the biologic program) affect learning capacities, adaptive behaviors, lifelong physical and mental health, and adult productivity.”

“Game changer” is a trite and overused phrase, but it applies here.  The report should have a profound impact on educators and education policymakers.  At the very least, understanding the language and concept of exposure to toxic stress should inform the increasingly acrimonious, dead-end debate about accountability and resources aimed at the lowest-performing schools and students.

On the one hand, those who insist that improving educational outcomes must be viewed within a broader context of health care, community resources and poverty can claim a victory here and a potential ally in the AAP.  Interventions must start from Day One.  Not Day One of school, Day One of life.  Kindergarten is too late.  Those who favor quality preschool programs have crucial evidence to support their case.  The story in four words:  Geoffrey Canada is right.

But it is equally clear (or should be) that low-income status is not synonymous with toxic stress. Even the worst schools and poorest neighborhoods have a significant number of children from stable homes with engaged, caring adults, who are able to provide the consistency and nurturing necessary to buffer the negative effects of even the most traumatic stressors.  “Research shows that, even under stressful conditions, supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response,” according to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.

To this end, no less than pediatricians, schools and teachers–especially in early childhood– have an essential role to play.  In the absence of nurturing relationships at home, children may be able to find the support they need within the educational environment.  According to Rebecca Schrag, Ph.D., psychologist at Healthy Steps at Montefiore Medical Center, supportive adult relationships “can no longer be considered the ‘touchy-feely’ domain of child psychologists alone.  Rather, there is hard science suggesting that they are perhaps the number one protective factor against the negative outcomes of a range of stressors.  The AAP has made a huge step forward in releasing its policy statement on toxic stress, and it would be truly wonderful if other professionals who work with children – educators, most notably – followed suit.”

In light of the important role of supportive adult relationships, the takeaway here is clearly not that exposure to toxic stress makes it impossible for schools to succeed with low-income children.  But it should make clearer that the bar is much, much higher for a significant number of kids who endure extreme levels of chaos and disruption in their lives, children whose brains – even by age 5 – show the deleterious effects of toxic stress exposure.  This does not mean we should throw up our hands and say, “let’s not waste time and money on poor kids.  It’s not going to work.”  But it certainly puts the “No Excuses” mindset at a disadvantage, particularly when most children only begin school in kindergarten.  Given the scientific consensus cited by the report, holding to the idea that schools or teachers should be able to reverse unilaterally the worst effects of toxic stress in all cases begins to sound ill-informed and hopelessly naïve.

At present, the standard reform recipe for improving educational outcomes for all children living in poverty is high expectations, improved teacher quality and muscular accountability.  For many low-income kids, perhaps even most, this may indeed be enough.  For others, more – much more – is clearly required.  It is critical that educators and policymakers begin to differentiate between the two.

A Critical Look at the Critical Lens Essay

by Guest Blogger
December 14th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

On standardized high school English examinations in New York, students must write what is often called a “critical lens” essay. They are given a quotation (the “lens”) and must interpret it, state whether they agree or disagree with it, and substantiate their position with examples from literary texts of their choice. This task has logical flaws and encourages poor reasoning and writing. The problem is largely due to the lack of a literature curriculum; when there are no common texts, essay questions on state tests become vague and diffuse. The test question needs an overhaul, and New York State needs a literature curriculum with some common texts and ample room for choice.

One flaw of the “critical lens” task is that students must interpret the quotation out of context. Students may or may not have read the source of the quotation; they are allowed to make it mean whatever they want it to mean (within reason). The test-taker must provide a “valid” interpretation of the quote, but without a context, “valid” simply means free of egregious error. When it comes to analysis, this is not good practice; the student latches onto the interpretation that comes to mind instead of searching for the most fitting one.

A sample New York Regents English examination illustrates how this might play out. (I discuss this example in my book, Republic of Noise.)  Here the quotation is from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” (See p. 21 of the PDF file.) This quotation can mean many things, but it has particular meaning in The Little Prince. It is the fox who speaks these words, after befriending the prince and being tamed by him. They have been meeting, day by day, at the same time and place; the regularity of the ritual allows the fox to prepare his heart for the prince’s arrival. Seeing with the heart in this case has to do with caring for another, spending time with another, honoring rituals together. But students are more likely to take the quotation as a comment on romantic attraction (and some of the sample responses do precisely that). Then they agree or disagree with the quotation on the basis of this incorrect interpretation.

Another flaw in the “critical lens” task is that it hinges on the student’s opinion (about a statement that may apply to a range of situations). The opinion may be hasty or superficial, yet it is unassailable. It would make more sense to ask the student to explain how a particular literary work affirms the quotation in some ways and negates it in others, and to decide whether the affirmation or the negation is ultimately stronger. That would require careful, thoughtful analysis and examination of a work and would leave room for the student’s ideas and judgment. At the very least, the prompt could ask the students to show how a literary work addresses or touches on the idea in the quotation. That runs the risk of reducing literature to ideas and themes, but at least it keeps the focus on the literature.

A third flaw is that students must cite examples from literature in support of their opinion. It is possible to do this, but one must do so cautiously. Literature is not a direct reflection of life; often its messages are oblique and contradictory. So, for instance, if one looks to Romeo and Juliet for examples of people blinded by love (not seeing rightly with the heart), one will find them, but one will also miss the point. In the play, love has both delusion and illumination and is part of a larger scheme. Help and harm intermingle, as Friar Laurence suggests in his monologue:

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities:
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor aught so good but strain’d from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.


The play does not pass judgment on the lovers’ passion; rather, it shows the playing out of passions, feuds, and good intentions, where no one grasps the full situation until the end. But students who ignore this can get a high score on the essay. One can even ignore key details of plot and get a high score. A sample student response with the highest score (on p. 58) states that “if Romeo had not used his heart, he would have seen rightly. He could have stayed with Rosaline, and saved both the Montagues and Capulets from enduring his reckless, love-inspired antics.” The student neglects the fact that Rosaline has sworn herself to chastity, that the Montagues and Capulets have antics of their own (the play begins with a fight that escalates), and that it is the lovers’ deaths that brings an end, finally, to the warring of the two families. This is at least partly the fault of the essay question; by requiring students to cite literary examples to support their opinion, it encourages (or at least does not penalize) shallow interpretations of these examples.

In short, the “critical lens” task rewards poor writing and thinking, precisely because it can rely on no common knowledge. There is no check on the student’s opinion; nothing  challenges the student to examine the quotation or the works closely. The student who follows the directions does well. He may provide a flawed interpretation of the literary examples and quotation, yet receive a top score. He may even get basic plot details wrong without losing any points. It would not be surprising if some students made up the details and still passed. To fight this absurdity, we should have a few texts—just a few—that everybody reads, including those scoring the tests. The essay question could then pertain to the works themselves. This would allow for coherent, probing essays and would take students out of opinion’s muddier puddles.

Innovate or Imitate?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 6th, 2011

If education is a test, America might want to spend a little more time copying the answers the other countries are writing down on their papers.

Writing in at The Atlantic, Marc Tucker notes that despite spending “more per student on K-12 education than any other nation except Luxembourg” America continues to lag not just developed nations like Japan, Finland, Canada, “but developing countries and mega-cities such as South Korea, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.”

“You would think that, being far behind our competitors, we would be looking hard at how they are managing to outperform us. But many policymakers, business leaders, educators and advocates are not interested. Instead, they are confidently barreling down a path of American exceptionalism, insisting that America is so different from these other nations that we are better off embracing unique, unproven solutions that our foreign competitors find bizarre.”

Tucker’s list of “unproven solutions” includes charter schools, private school vouchers, entrepreneurial innovations, grade-by-grade testing, diminished teachers’ unions, and basing teachers’ pay on how their students do on standardized tests. These strategies are “nowhere to be found in the arsenal of strategies used by the top-performing nations,” he writes. “And almost everything these countries are doing to redesign their education systems, we’re not doing,” notes Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

“They develop world-class academic standards for their students, a curriculum to match the standards, and high-quality exams and instructional materials based on that curriculum. In the U.S., most states have recently adopted Common Core State Standards in English and math, which is a good start. But we still have a long way to go to build a coherent, powerful instructional system that all teachers can use throughout the whole curriculum.”

The top performers also raise entry standards for the teaching profession and insist that all teachers have in-depth knowledge of the subjects they will teach” and generally make teaching a high-status profession.

“The result is a virtuous cycle: teaching ranks as one of the most attractive professions, which means no teacher shortages and no need to waive high licensing standards. That translates into top-notch teaching forces and the world’s highest student achievement. All of this makes the teaching profession even more attractive, leading to higher salaries, even greater prestige, and even more professional autonomy. The end results are even better teachers and even higher student performance.”

The cycle in the U.S., Tucker notes, is the opposite of virtuous.  Teaching is a low-status profession, lacking in prestige and colleges of education set a low bar for admissions.  Salaries are low.  Teachers also have weak knowledge of their assigned subjects “and increasingly, they’re allowed to become teachers after only weeks of training,” he notes. “When we are short on teachers, we waive our already-low standards, something the high-performing countries would never dream of doing.”

The inevitable result is ever lower student achievement, which drives more attacks on teaching and stricter accountability, which Tucker wisely observes, makes it “even less likely that our best and brightest will become teachers.”

But hey, we can innovate and disrupt with the best of them!

The problem, Tucker concludes, is not a lack of innovation but a simple lack of what successful countries have: “a coherent, well-designed state systems of education that would allow us to scale up our many pockets of innovation and deliver a high-quality education to all our students.”

An Inconvenient Truth About Teacher Quality

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2011

If teacher quality is the most important school-based factor in student outcomes, then why are math scores rising, while reading scores stay flat?  Do we just happen to have really good math teachers and really lousy reading teachers?  That can’t be: in the case of 4th grade teachers, the exact same teachers are responsible for both subjects.

Or maybe it’s not the teachers. Could it be the curriculum?

That’s the question posed by Dan Willingham and David Grismer in an op-ed in the New York Daily News this morning.  They point out intriguing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that has been hiding in plain sight:

“Reading scores over the last 20 years have been flat. But in math, scores have increased markedly. A fourth-grader at the 50th percentile in 1990 would score at about the 25th percentile compared to the kids taking the test in 2009. That’s an enormous improvement.

“This raises an uncomfortable question for teacher quality advocates: If teachers are so vitally important, why have fourth-grade math scores dramatically improved, but reading scores have flatlined, given that — at least at the elementary level — the same teachers are responsible for each?

Perhaps the secret sauce is not who’s teaching but what’s being taught.  It’s a lot easier to align standards, curriculum and assessment in math. “There is little controversy as to the subject matter to be covered, and the order in which one ought to tackle subjects is more obvious,” Willingham and Grissmer write.  “Indeed, substantial effort has been made over the last 25 years to develop coherent math standards and curricula from K-8.”

In reading? Not so much.

As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, there’s no direct correlation between the subject matter that gets taught and tested in reading.  We teach random, incoherent content that bears no relation to the passages children ultimately encounter on their reading tests.  We insist on teaching and testing the “skill” of reading comprehension when it’s clearly not a skill at all.  Willingham and Grissmer conclude:

“Yes, overall teaching quality would improve with a more sensible method to usher hapless teachers out of the profession. Better teacher training would help too. But in addition to these longer-term goals, policymakers ought to focus on ensuring that the unglamorous but vital work of curriculum design is done properly. The popular perception is that America’s teachers are largely ineffective compared to international peers. But the data show that when given a clear, cogent curriculum to work with, they’re a lot stronger than we think.”

Education Week

by Guest Blogger
November 21st, 2011

by Jessica Lahey

Last Friday, the Illinois State Board of Education proposed new rules that will link teacher performance to their students’ performance on assessments. Up to thirty percent of teacher evaluations will be based on how students perform on tests, and while I understand the value of student progress in evaluating teachers, it’s certainly not the main thing that determines success in education. My mind has been on assessments lately because I just came out of a week defined by what I initially labeled a colossal assessment failure. I gave unit tests to cap off a couple of weeks in Latin and English grammar, and things did not go well. My students failed, failed, failed, and as teachers are wont to do, I used the transitive property and concluded that I had failed, failed, failed.

I spent the following weekend going over the assessments, my preparation, my teaching, the students’ homework scores, and found that the week of failure was much more complicated than one faulty assessment or a failure to teach some critical aspect of the lesson. As I could not go back and re-do the previous month of teaching, I decided to move forward, and figure out how to turn failure in to a learning experience. Once some time had passed, and I’d gained the benefit of hindsight, I wrote about the solution I came up with in my blog, Coming of Age in the Middle . I wrote about my teaching methods, but mostly, I wrote about how I had managed to make it through the week without tucking my tail between my legs and quitting my job.

A writer friend of mine liked the post, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, my failure was in the Gray Lady herself. When K.J. Dell’Antonia wrote her piece on my blog, titled “What Good Teachers Do When Kids Fail,” in the New York Times’ parenting blog Motherlode , the comments fell into two distinct camps: Parents who wished their teachers had more time to address student failure and teachers who lamented that they had no time to address student failure. A few teachers wrote about the time they took for re-writes and remedy, but for the most part, the message from educators was one of regret and frustration with a testing-centric schedule that did not allow for reflection.

The solution I came up with for my students required humility on both sides of the classroom – I had to admit I had failed my students and my students had to admit that they had not held up their end of the pedagogical bargain – but mostly, it took time. Time that, according to the comments after the article, most teachers just don’t have. I handed out blank tests and asked the students re-take the assessment as an open book exercise. They were asked to work in pairs I had strategically assigned, and teach each other the material on the test. They were required to not only find the correct answer, but to show why all of the other answers were wrong. This process ate up two classes, and as I only see my Latin students twice a week, this one remedial exercise burned an entire week of the school year. Clearly, this is simply not an option in many classrooms. Maria, from Baltimore, MD, wrote:

“I am a public high school math teacher. It’s only November, and I’m already 10 days behind schedule in one class, 3 days behind in another. And this is without me taking any sick days, no snow days, just a few days away from class for . . . you guessed it, administering the No Child Left Behind tests. I would love to have students retake their tests and learn from mistakes, but thanks to NCLB, and curricula that are an inch deep and a mile wide, we need to press on to the next topic.”

Many comments stressed the vital role that failure plays in education. Dr. Kim, from Ithaca, NY wrote,

“We need to allow students opportunities to fail. Too often our kids are afraid of failure. If we don’t fail, we’re not pushing our limits–we’re not challenging ourselves. I have a friend who is an amazing skier who says “if you don’t fall, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.” This is true. Plus, we learn much more from failure. Our brains are programmed to remember those things with strong emotional attachments — positive or negative. Failures are memorable.”

I completely agree that some of the best lessons are learned from failure. Failure can shock a student out of complacency, particularly among those students who are smart enough to do well on a bare minimum of effort. Middle school is the ideal time for this time of shock; the stakes are still low(ish) and the potential for growth is huge. I’m not one for sports quotes, but in this case, baseball player and coach Vernon Law had it right. “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” It would have been much easier to teach the lessons first and give the test after, but in the end, I think the experience taught all of us a greater lesson. Everyone has to admit to failure – teacher and student. As a result of this failure, I grew as a teacher and they grew as students. Crossroads Academy was built on a core virtues curriculum as well as a core knowledge curriculum, so our journey through this week of failure became an important part of the students’ character education. That’s where commenter T. Zinner of Boston hits the nail on the head:

This article goes to the heart of our goal as parents and the ideal of teachers: creating individuals with strength of character. The happiest and most successful people seem to be the individuals who take their talents and face obstacles either directly with perseverance or creatively so that the obstacles are no longer viewed as challenges. This is the case for the most exceptional physicians I work with, the patients who live fully despite illness and friends and neighbors who create lives of joy and depth in the face of unexpected loss or change in circumstance.

That’s the kind of teaching I love to do, teaching that helps students become better people, teaching that takes into account the unpredictability inherent teaching adolescents.

But this sort of teaching is increasingly not what is valued today, and it’s certainly not what counts as quality teaching or a gauge of student progress. Failure makes people nervous because in order to find anything of value in the situation, everyone has to face their role in the failure. It would have been much easier for me to fail the students and move on, or curve the exam so much that the failure got lost in a sea of amended numbers. The grades would have looked good, the students would have felt good, and everyone would have been satisfied with my performance. But lurking under this neat and tidy appearance, my students would know. They would know they had not really learned the material, that I had swept something under the rug. Worse, I would know that somewhere down the line that gap in their education would come back to haunt them.

Assessments are often blunt instruments, and to decide a teacher’s worth based on student testing measures just one small fraction of the learning that goes on in the classroom. This one assessment failure taught me valuable lessons about my teaching methods, the quality of my assessments, and the courage of my students. Two of my students summed up our week perfectly as they handed in their remedy exam: “I think I learned more from that one failing grade than from any A,” and “You know, now that we have gone through every question, that test really wasn’t that hard.”

My sentiments exactly.

The Trouble at My Old School

by Robert Pondiscio
October 3rd, 2011

This one cuts close to the bone.

PS 277 in New York City’s South Bronx, the school where I taught for five years, the school that made me militant on curriculum—and which made me deeply skeptical about the standard ed reform playbook—received an “F” on its latest “report card” and could face closure.

I was in the car this morning half-listening to an NPR report about a school struggling to understand why its scores are so low when their students seem to be doing well in school. Suddenly, my former principal’s voice leapt from the speakers: “We see kids engaged,” she said. “We see kids doing some — honestly — some really extraordinarily deep thinking and talking.”

I don’t disagree with a word of that assessment. The report describes a warm, nurturing school where class sizes are small, classrooms are filled with books and teachers are dedicated, committed and nurturing. All of it—every word—is true. I taught there for five years. I know. My former colleagues include some of the most decent, caring, hard-working people I’ve met. Still I can’t pretend to be surprised by the test scores and the F. It has nothing to do with the staff or leadership. Neither is it the fault of the students, their parents, or the community at large, in the heart of the poorest Congressional district in America.

It’s the curriculum.

The Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Workshop, to which the school is wedded, is what made me militant on curriculum. Its relentless focus on process writing—children plumbing their personal experiences for “small moments” and memoirs–can no doubt be engaging for some students, but ultimately it does them a grave disservice.

Children of poverty tend to come to school with smaller vocabularies and less general knowledge of the world that their peers in more affluent neighborhoods. These deficits lie at the heart of their difficulties in reading comprehension and other language skills. Thus the most important thing we can do as teachers is immerse children in rich content, across subjects–science, history, art, music–deliberately and coherently. The “curriculum” at PS 277 does not do this. Indeed, as one of my TC staff developers liked to say, “It’s not a curriculum, it’s a philosophy.”

With its relentless focus on student selected topics this philosophy has the unintended consequence of narrowing a child’s field of vision to his or her immediate surroundings and experience. It is exactly the opposite of what we should be giving the child: access to the empowering world of knowledge and ideas that affluent children come to school with, not because they are smarter, but because they have enjoyed the benefits of travel, rich dinner table conversations with educated parents, outings to museums, and myriad other cognitive benefits that effectively stack the deck before they set foot in school on Day One.

Similarly, the Readers Workshop approach mistakenly assumes that comprehension is a transferable skill, a function of formulaic “reading strategies” and other how-to tricks. Like the Writers Workshop, students read books that they choose themselves, thus minimizing the opportunity to build their store of background knowledge, and the context in which language and vocabulary growth occurs.

“Teaching methods like this are embraced by successful schools from [affluent Brooklyn neighborhood] Park Slope to the Upper East Side,” notes WNYC reporter Beth Fertig. Parents give the school high marks in annual surveys, she notes. But fewer than a quarter of the school’s students passed state reading and math exams. This is depressingly identical to the percentage that passed when I began teaching there in 2002. The school briefly attained an “A” rating during a period of rampant score inflation. But that turned in to a “C” last year, and this year’s “F.”

“[Principal Cheryl] Tyler said at least three quarters of her students — excluding those with special needs — were performing on grade level based on monthly teacher assessments. So why are the children at P.S. 277 testing so poorly? One theory is that the school population has high-risk factors like a poverty rate of almost 90 percent. It also has a high percentage of English-language learners and students with special needs.”

It’s no mystery to me as to why the teachers are seeing progress in their classrooms, but test scores remain low. I don’t doubt they demonstrate proficiency when reading and writing about subjects they choose themselves: they understand the context of their work. But put them in unfamiliar contexts, settings and topics and ideas to which they’ve never been exposed, and they flounder. On state ELA tests, children do not get to choose the topics they read about. The high scores tend to go to those with the broadest base of background knowledge

Supporters of the workshop model insist it has been successful in high-poverty schools. I have no doubt that may be so, but to understand why would require a careful analysis of other factors at play. There is theoretically no reason, for example, it couldn’t work in a school with a commitment to rigorous content in other parts of the school day.  But a lack of background knowledge is a crippling structural deficit for which there can be no workaround.  A lack of general knowledge–and a lack of any concerted, coherent attempt to impart it–is almost certainly the X factor that explains why a school like PS 277 can appear to do everything right and fail.

The education given to low-SES kids has to expose them–coherently, consistently, rigorously–to the knowledge that more affluent children take for granted. An exclusively student-driven workshop model may indeed work well on the Upper East Side and Park Slope, but it does nothing to account for or address the Matthew Effect, the deficits low-SES kids come to school with in language and knowledge.

My heart breaks for my PS 277 friends and colleagues who are slavishly devoted to their students. The fault is not theirs. They are laboring under a humane, well-intentioned, but ultimately ruinous theory of learning and a curriculum that is deeply flawed and deleterious to the needs of their students. It is too easy to look at schools like PS277, label it a failure, fire the staff and “start fresh.”

My old school does not need new teachers or leadership.  You will never find a more dedicated staff.  What they need is to be open to answers that might challenge their notions of what children really need: less engagement with the content of their heads, and concerted engagement with the world outside their windows, above 149th Street and into the rich, ripe world beyond.

Meet the children where they are and give them what they need.  Give them more–much more–than what they came to you with.

My District Spent $33 Million on Technology and All I Got Are These Lousy Test Scores

by Robert Pondiscio
September 7th, 2011

Maybe the medium is not the message.

Voters in the Kyrene school district, which serves students in Tempe, Phoenix and Chandler, Arizona approved spending $33 million on education technology, and are being asked to fork over another $46.5 million in November. The funds have purchased a lot of laptops, interactive whiteboards and software. What it hasn’t bought is higher test scores. The New York Times reports reading and math scores have stagnated in Kyrene since 2005 while rising statewide. “To many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning,” the paper reports.

“This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.”

Anyone shocked? Regular readers of this blog will note we have regularly questioned the rush to fill classrooms with technology without asking how–how exactly–it improves outcomes or what we expect kids to learn. Breathless pronouncements about the needs and preferences of “digital natives,” and the imperative of endlessly individualized curriculum and instruction, elevate tools over their use. It’s magical thinking and overlooks that every piece of educational technology—from a piece of slate on a child’s lap and bound books in a one-room schoolhouse to Smartboards and Twitter—is a delivery mechanism, a means of displaying, transmitting, or manipulating ideas and information. The bottle is not the wine.

There is a broad tendency among edtechnophiles to conflate student engagement with achievement, and the Times is particularly strong in puncturing that myth. “The research, what little there is of it, does not establish a clear link between computer-inspired engagement and learning,” notes the Times, citing Randy Yerrick, associate dean of educational technology at the University of Buffalo:

“For him, the best educational uses of computers are those that have no good digital equivalent. As examples, he suggests using digital sensors in a science class to help students observe chemical or physical changes, or using multimedia tools to reach disabled children.

“But he says engagement is a “fluffy term” that can slide past critical analysis. And Professor [Larry] Cuban at Stanford argues that keeping children engaged requires an environment of constant novelty, which cannot be sustained. ‘There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,’ he said.”

The Times is as guilty as any news organization of mooning over the need for “digital-age upgrades” and to liberate schools from their 19th century mindset. Thus it’s gratifying to see the Grey Lady take a clear-eyed look at what exactly we get when we fill our classrooms up with tech toys. The answer needn’t be “not much.” But that will always be the answer unless we make an equal effort to thoughtfully design a content-rich curriculum and stop assuming that mere “skill” with technology is a meaningful goal for schooling.

Every trade celebrates its tools, but education has made a fetish of it, too often treating technology as an end, not a means. It is hard to imagine a chef saying, “it’s not the meal that matters but the ingredients”; or an architect declaring, “Buildings aren’t important. Building materials are important.”  But when someone says what we learn doesn’t matter, but that we learn to learn–that skills and tools are what really matter, not content and products–we nod knowingly as if we have heard something profound.

Students Have “Complete and Ultimate Control” Over Achievement

by Robert Pondiscio
August 26th, 2011

Will Fitzhugh didn’t get the memo.

Everybody knows that teachers are the alpha and omega in education.  The only thing standing between every child, a college degree and a lifetime of prosperity is that child’s teacher.   This is “settled wisdom among Funderpundits and those to whom they give their grants,” observes Fitzhugh.  But students still exercise “complete and ultimate control over how much academic achievement there will be” in a school, he notes.

“This may seem unacceptably heterodox to those in government and the private sector who have committed billions of dollars to focusing on the selection, training, supervision, and control of K-12 teachers, while giving no thought to whether K-12 students are actually doing the academic work which they are assigned.”

Fitzhugh, the publisher of The Concord Review, the only known journal to publish research papers written by high school students, laments a view of education and ed policy that does not acknowledge students’ responsibility for their own performance, and instead assumes they are merely “passive recipients of their teachers’ influence.”

“Apart from scores on math and reading tests after all, student academic work is ignored by all those interested in paying to change the schools.  What students do in literature, Latin, chemistry, history, and Asian history classes is of no interest to them.  Liberal education is not only on the back burner for those focused on basic skills and job readiness as they define them, but that burner is also turned off at present.”

The view that teachers are the prime movers is not just wrong, but stupid, Fitzhugh concludes. “Alfred North Whitehead (or someone else) once wrote that, ‘For education, a man’s books and teachers are but a help, the real work is his.’”