Reflection: What Happened to Curriculum?

by CKF
August 2nd, 2010

At over eighty years of age, reading the interesting and varied commentaries on Diane Ravitch’s recent spectacularly successful book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I took to wondering what had come before the onset of so-called progressivism began to dominate the teaching practices of the nation’s public schools. Roughly speaking, taking hold in the 1950s and ‘60s, how had these since compared to those of the ‘30s and then the wartime ‘40s when I was in school?

I went to a Long Island K-8 private school with every possible advantage. The curriculum was specific, systematic, and substantive, taught by agreeable, college-educated, effective teachers. I remember learning how to read, starting in the earliest grade, sounding out the syllables, and how to write, on paper lined as a guide to the proper size of letters.  As for substance, I remember best, in perhaps 3rd grade, spending what seemed like the whole year, but certainly a semester, on learning the history and geography of New York State, including the construction of the Erie Canal and its significance to the state’s development and history, lodged in my memory to this day.  Math was divided into two distinct parts – ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’, abstract being the times tables and addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and concrete being ‘word problems,’ using the mechanics of ‘abstract’ to find ‘concrete’ answers.  English was also divided into two segments, grammar and literature, taught separately, but similarly related.

As for tests, there certainly wasn’t any anxious test-preparation; in fact we never knew when they were coming.  From time to time we would come to school as usual, but instead of the usual routine, tests from some source outside the school were distributed, without time for anxiety we took them, and the results were reported to our parents. As for in-house grades, at intervals those with averages at the top of the class were rewarded by getting to carry the national and school flags at weekly whole school assemblies.  

My subsequent high school years were passed at a top-of-the-line girls’ private high school in Boston, with a faculty and curriculum so effective that the first year at Radcliffe, then the pre-co-ed incarnation of Harvard for women, seemed a let-down. Meanwhile the parents of my later-to-become lifelong best friend, immigrants from eastern Europe, landed penniless at Ellis Island and were still struggling during her early childhood in the Bronx.  There she went to the nearest public school, receiving basically the same substantive K-8 education that I did, followed by four years at a very high-quality all-girls public high school.  After that came NYU and Harvard Law School, where she and I met in the second class to admit women.  Her two brothers both became doctors and she a much honored supervising Legal Aid attorney.

During roughly the same span of years I spent summers in New Hampshire where I came to know the local 4-H Club agent who, though I didn’t know it at the time, was also a public school teacher. A few years ago I had the good fortune to meet her again, by then aged and long past retirement but with clear memories, and I asked her about her training to be a teacher.  She told me that she had attended the so-called “normal school” in the nearby small city of Keene, since evolved into what is now Keene State College, which includes an education school, successor of the normal school.  Her training, she said, included practical matters such as classroom management, but most of it was like high school all over again, courses in English, both grammar and literature, history, geography, science, etc. etc., only much more rigorous and detailed than in high school, to be taught to the children at a level suitable to each grade.   

She retired just as our public schools were entering the new era in which such prescribed subject matter was denigrated as “mere facts,” teachers were trained to focus on what children seemed to want to learn, and to act accordingly.  The results we see before us. 

Is such reminiscing just backward-looking?  I think not.  Surely the technology of the present offers unprecedented opportunities to convey essential substantive knowledge in irresistibly effective new ways.  Gertrude Stein, hardly a stodgy traditionalist, delighted in being taught English grammar by diagramming sentences, resulting in thorough understanding of the structure of the language, essential, as she saw it, to maximum creativity in using it. Yet such practices were banished by progressivism, as discouraging to children’s imaginations, written and spoken English usage suffering consequent mortal damage. Only now is it dawning on a few pioneers that interactive computer programs, diagramming correct and expressive speech, illustrating the roles of nouns, verbs, etc., and perhaps featuring notable and admired public figures as exemplars, may offer a way to re-introduce the potency of correctly spoken and written English language to the young.

What puzzles me most, perhaps, is that Arne Duncan and the new education establishment in Washington appear not to understand, not just the implications of examples from the past as possible guides to current school reform, but that of existing schools, like those that have thus far educated the Obama children.  Not to widely replicate such schools, which would be impossible, but at least to absorb the thinking behind them.

The famously progressive University of Chicago Lab school where the Obama girls started out describes itself as ‘unregimented but demanding,’ focused ‘on teaching students to analyze and critically solve problems, rather than simply absorb facts,’ where they ‘learn to be independent and responsible in their studies’ … but where students also ‘pursue a rigorous curriculum in reading, writing, mathematics, and science’ and ‘begin in the early grades to study foreign languages, music and the arts … .’  Similarly, Sidwell Friends in D.C. where they now go offers an equally specific curriculum:  “English instruction includes grammar, vocabulary, composition, reading, and literature. …Mathematics:  In fifth and sixth grade, students work with fractions, decimals, percents, and integers …Social studies:  Fifth graders study the Middle Ages around the world … Science:  The science program is organized around themes drawn from the scientific disciplines of biology, chemistry, and physical science; Modern and Classical Language:  Fifth and Sixth graders take Spanish. Seventh and eighth graders take French, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese or Latin … .”

Shouldn’t our public school leadership nationwide at least aspire to such a feast?

Louisa C. Spencer is a retired environmental attorney, a longtime supporter of curriculum reform, and a retired Trustee of the Core Knowledge Foundation. She also served for several years as a volunteer teachers’ aide in low-income New York City elementary schools.

Pitchers, Teachers, and Data

by Robert Pondiscio
June 28th, 2010

Over on Twitter, my friend Stephanie Germeraad, who is nearly as passionate about sports as she is about education, suggests education ought to steal a page from baseball when it comes to teacher seniority.  Commenting on the decline of legendary closer Trevor Hoffman, she tweets a quote from Alan J. Borsuk: “Schools can learn from baseball.  Brewers wouldn’t start Hoffman just because he’s been pitching longer.”  The point is that seniority is no guarantee of quality. Fair enough.  But here’s a sobering truth:  We are far more capable of measuring the effectiveness of relief pitchers like Hoffman than classroom teachers. 

If you’re a casual baseball fan, you might know a few ”facts” about the pitchers on your favorite team:  their won-loss record, their ERA  (the number of “earned runs” allowed per nine innings), or their WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched).  To an expert, such statistics scratch the surface at best, and may even be irrelevant.  Wins are a function of a team’s offense, for example, as much as a pitcher’s effectiveness, while ERA and WHIP are strongly influenced by the defensive ability of the other eight men on the field.  An outfielder with greater range for example, will record an out on a ball that a lesser defender lets fall for a hit.  Same pitch, same swing, different outcome.

Among baseball geeks, you often hear discussions of fielding independent pitching, or ”FIP,” a measure of the things a pitcher is directly responsible for such a strikeouts, home runs and walks.  FIP helps you understand how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well the team played behind him.  Data even helps teams decide what kind of pitchers are best suited to their stadiums through analysis of   “park effects.”  A fly ball pitcher (yes, they keep track of fly balls, line drives and ground balls hit off every pitcher) might prosper in a big stadium like New York’s Citi Field, but allow lots of home runs in a bandbox like Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park.  A pitcher who “pitches to contact” (i.e., doesn’t strike out a lot of hitters) is fine if your team’s defense is strong.  If not, you might spend more to sign pitchers who are strikeout artists.  Data even helps spot problems as they occur.  Fans of the New York Mets are concerned that all-star pitcher Johan Santana’s fastball is topping out below 90 miles an hour of late, making his changeup, a slow-speed pitch, less likely to fool hitters expecting the fastball.

To a baseball fan statistics are a revelation.  The granularity and specificity are illuminating.  You can see, if you’re so inclined, a pitcher’s FIP, ERA, strikeouts, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio.  The percentage of batted balls that were hit on the ground, in the air, or for line drives can speak volumes about a pitcher’s effectiveness.  When a player’s agent goes to negotiate his contract, he can even discuss his “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR),  a statistic that measures the total value of a player over a given season compared to an average replacement player. 

If these kinds of numbers thrill you, adding depth and nuance to your love of baseball, thank Bill James.  It is no overstatement to say that no one has had a greater impact on baseball in the last 25 years than James, who pioneered and named the field of sabermetrics, the use of detailed statistics to analyze baseball team and player performance.   James has made a career of demonstrating the factors that lead to teams scoring runs and winning games, and how the efforts of individual players contribute to wins.  Some of his insights have been legendary and have overthrown time-honored beliefs about the game–why RBIs matter less than on-base percentage, for example. Or why stolen base attempts tend to hurt a team’s offense.  Before Bill James, baseball was all batting averages, bromides and intangibles–a century of baseball men who knew what they knew based on experience, instinct and rudimentary data.

We are in the test scores, bromides and intangibles era of measuring teacher quality.  If you’re a prinicipal, wouldn’t you love to know the “school effects” of teacher performance when it came time to make hiring decisions?  Would it change your perception of merit pay if there was a classroom equivalent of FIP–the factors directly under a teacher’s control?  What if we could compensate teachers based on their replacement value compared to an average first year teacher? 

“It’s far more than win/loss/ERA/WHIP” is the clubhouse mantra,” Stephanie tweeted, defending her assertion that education can profit from baseball’s example. ”Difference is, baseball doesn’t say they therefore can’t do it,” she wrote. Not quite right.  In baseball there is data–lots of it–to measure effectiveness clearly and fairly.  Difference is ”it’s far more than test scores” is not a mantra in ed reform. 

Education awaits its Bill James.

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?

Wrong.

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.”

What Business Needs From Schools: Character Education

by Robert Pondiscio
January 10th, 2010

“Teaching kids to be good is low hanging fruit with a lifetime payoff making for a productive society,” write a trio of high-ranking Wisconsin business executives in an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel calling for character education as a way to save public schools.

To people who run companies, honesty and punctuality are as important as computer literacy. Traits such as these are about respect for ourselves and others; they make up our character. Without character, quality work is almost impossible to produce no matter the number of employee incentives.

The trio, which includes the former CEO of Harley Davidson, represent a local chapter of the Character Education Partnership (CEP), a 17-year-old organization that encourages the teaching of ethical values  along with “supportive performance values” such as diligence, a strong work ethic, and perseverance.  Character education is essential, they write, and cost-effective. 

Curriculum experimentation is expensive and confusing to children. New equipment is expensive.  Instructing principals and teachers how to encourage children to exhibit good character, especially by modeling it, is not expensive.”

When teachers, students and school administrators respect each other, reading, math and science scores go up, the trio notes, without a change of curriculum, text books or the addition of expensive equipment.   “We’re not Luddites; we’re for technology, but if a school is in turmoil how will the students learn to use it?” they add.

Amen for this breath of fresh air from the business world, on a subject they know something about.  Personally, I was happy to read a prescription for schools from business executives that for once wasn’t about a lack of accountability, performance pay, how unions protect bad teachers, international competitiveness, the need innovation and to shatter the ”status quo.”

 

Should Teachers Care About Research?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 21st, 2009

Even if cognitive scientists says “learning styles” don’t exist, should teachers care?  Is it all just a big “so what?” 

That’s the question veteran California middle school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron asks at her tweenteacher blog.  Her point is that as a practical matter, well, it doesn’t matter.  Research notwithstanding, her experience tells her that this student focuses better when she’s teaching with the Interactive Board.  That one “phases out when we’re reading, but as long as someone’s talking about the material, she’s in.”

When people get all up at arms about this research or that research being unsupported, I beg them to remember: some teachers must learn how NOT to be boring.…So providing the theory that there are different learning styles, and categorizing those learners, helps those teachers to remember what they are charged to do: teach ALL students. So why diss any theory that helps build a ladder up from our current descent into standardization? It seems to me that we aren’t doing students a disservice by thinking of themselves as individuals as long as we’re also preparing them for the shared world we live in.

In short, Heather’s argument seems to boil down to this: Learning styles may be a myth, but it’s a harmless myth, since it encourages teachers to be inventive, creative and place a premium on engaging students.  That’s a reasonable, commonsense take that may help teachers today.  But ultimately it risks doing a disservice to the profession. 

A few centuries ago, doctors thought malaria was caused by “bad air,” which was associated with swamps.  Drain the swamps and the disease seemed to go away.  Of course, we later learned it had nothing to do with bad air.  Malaria is carried by mosquitoes.  When you drain the swamp, it’s not the bad air that goes away, it’s the mosquitoes.  It’s unlikely we would say “so what” as long as the malaria goes away.  Understanding why something works is fundamental knowledge.  It also provides a provable or disprovable hypothesis, which is critical as we try to understand teacher effectiveness.  Suppose our 19th century scientists came to believe that in draining the swamps, it’s not the bad air, but the standing water that causes malaria.  Quick, no more bathing! You’ll catch malaria!  The problem with a half truth, as has often been observed, is that you might be holding on to the wrong half.

Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is not necessarily benign.  On my second day of teacher training I was taught that it was our responsibility to determine each students learning style (by means of a questionnaire) and differentiate lessons to accommodate each.  My time would have been better spent — and my students better served — if I had focused on ways to make material come alive in my classroom.  More recently, Jay Mathews published a teacher’s evaluation where a veteran teacher was dinged for, among other things, not accommodating different learning styles during his observation–a real-world consequence of junk science.  Perhaps we should also hold teachers accountable for reading their students’ auras before beginning a lesson. After all, if it helps teachers to consider the whole child, where’s the harm?

It’s easy to say “no big deal,” but it is a big deal when unproven theories and junk science robs time from good practice, becomes a time-wasting hoop to jump through, or damages a teacher’s career.  Not understanding why something works but doing it anyway is a prime example of cargo cult education.  Sure, if doctors were amputating gangrenous limbs to cut out evil spirits and offering the severed limbs as a sacrifice to the Gods, it would clearly be better than leaving the limb alone.  But medicine, like all bodies of accumulated knowledge, advances by not by learning that something works, but why it works.  Teaching should do the same.

Sharpton’s Media Maven Takes an Ill-Advised Bow

by Robert Pondiscio
December 7th, 2009

It’s PR 101 that publicists should be seen and not heard.  And not even seen.  Feast your eyes, then, on this curious piece in the New York Daily News about Al Sharpton’s “media adviser” Rachel Noerdlinger. 

Sharpton’s leadership role in the Education Equality Project has given pause to some who would otherwise be expected to support its strong accountability positions and efforts to close the achievement gap.  Fordham’s Checker Finn, most notably, described Sharpton as “one of America’s more unlovable figures, whose fingerprints can be found on an appalling list of divisive, racist, anti-Semitic, violent, and often bloody episodes over the past quarter century.”

The piece details the low-profile Noerdlinger’s work in helping “the oft-reviled Sharpton adopt a more mainstream image–witness his current national tour with former GOP Congressman Newt Gingrich in support of better education policies.”   What comes out of Noerdlinger’s mouth is eyebrow-raising:

Every day we see more acceptance of Rev. Sharpton by mainstream media, who used to see him as being opportunistic. Now he’s not as reactive. What we do now is much more strategic. We really think about what we’re doing before we do it now, because we impact so many people. I’d like to think I had something to do with that, but again, you can’t take credit for Rev. Sharpton. I like to think I am part of a well-oiled machine.”

So  is Sharpton pushing EEP because his heart is in the “new civil rights struggle” or because he’s cynically trying to “adopt a more mainstream image?”   If you want to change people’s perception, you change your act not your strategy.  People who were inclined to be skeptical about Sharpton will only be more so after reading this. 

Here’s another PR bromide:  Some of the best stories are the ones that never get written.  This should have been one of them.

2009 Edublog Award Nominations

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2009

Nominations are being sought for the 2009 Edublog awards.  The competition requires that nominations be made not just by blogs but on the blogs themselves.  I’m not posting nominees in every category–and only one nomination per category is permitted–but this gives me a chance to issue some well deserved pats on the back to some of my fellow ed bloggers.

1.      Best individual blog

When I started blogging two years ago, the first thing I did was spend a lot of time seeing what was already out there.  When I found Joanne Jacobs I thought, “That’s the blog I want to be when I grow up.”  She covers a lot of ground, is always interesting and on the news, and is not shy about telling you what she thinks.  Neither are the myriad posters who comment and make it such a robust site (to my mind great blogs encourage discussion; it’s not broadcasting).  She’s been very good for a very long time.

It would be easy to dismiss Public School Insights, written by Claus Von Zastrow as the voice of the blob, since the Learning First Alliance which Claus runs, is a consortium of major education organizations.  That would be a mistake.  Claus is an immensely talented writer who single-handedly puts the lie to the idea that anyone who opposes “reform” supports the “status quo.”  Things are complicated, and Claus writes with intelligence and subtlety.  He’s smart, he’s fair, he’s not doctrinaire–a one-man antidote for the false dichotomies that plague edublogs–and education.

Other blogs in this category worthy of nomination:  Class Struggle, Teacher Beat, D-Ed Reckoning (if only he would post more), Why Boys Fail, Gifted Exchange and Sherman Dorn.

My nomination:  Joanne Jacobs, on volume.  The woman’s a machine. Extraordinary output and dedication, independent and influential.  A blogger’s blogger, and still the very first blog I look at every morning. 

2. Best group blog

I have seen the future of education journalism and it’s called Gotham Schools.  Not a sparrow falls in the New York City school system that GS doesn’t report or pass along.  They’re up early, stay late and keep their audience well-informed.  And they’ve been rewarded with an increasingly energetic base of posters.  The best single-topic, one-stop shopping ed news site there is.

Reading Kitchen Table Math is like sitting down for a good meal with a boisterous group of really smart people.  Lots of personalities, great conversation, and all of it smart, challenging and often very funny.  It’s a true group blog, with many voices, all of whom are deeply well-informed stakeholders (parents, mostly) in public education. 

This Week in Education shows why the categories in the Edublog Awards need a rethink.   TWIE is really Alexander Russo’s individual blog, but with frequent contributions from teacher-warrior John Thompson, does it belong in the group category?  Like Joanne Jacobs, TWIE has been very good for a very long time, but resists being formulaic.  It’s still the best stop on your blog rounds to catch up on all the day’s news. 

Also worthy of consideration:  Fordham’s Flypaper, (Everything I said about Claus Von Zastrow, above, applies equally well to Mike Petrilli), Early Ed Watch, and Jay Greene’s Blog.  Education Week as a news organization deserves recognition for the terrific job they’ve done in developing their blogs over the past year.  I cited Stephen Sawchuk’s Teacher Beat in Best Individual Blogs.  Most of their blogs are team efforts and cover their beats well; I particularly like Politics K-12, Curriculum Matters and Learning the Language.   (Note to Edublog Awards Committee: please start a separate category for blogs from news organizations.  Comparing well-resourced, reporting-driven blogs to amateur efforts regardless of how well-informed they are, is apples-to-oranges).

My nomination:  Kitchen Table Math.  I’ll admit this call is somewhat unfair.  Gotham Schools and the Ed Week Blogs are slick and professional.  Kitchen Table Math isn’t.  Education journalism needs more reported blogs.  But education needs more Kitchen Table Maths.  It’s what parental involvement should look like.

3. Best new blog

Debra Viadero’s new Inside School Research is another good EdWeek blog.  I will always miss Eduwonkette, but Viadero has stepped up capably, and is consistently interesting in covering the potentially dry world of ed research.  I’m also excited about Linda Perlstein’s The Educated ReporterThe Answer Sheet, the new Washington Post blog written chiefly by Valerie Strauss has a lot going for it.  Valerie posts often on a broad range of subjects, and her news judgment is terrific.  She’s quickly become second only to Joanne Jacobs as the blog that I most frequently read and say, “Dammit, why didn’t I have that?”

The National Journal Expert Blog is to education what the New York Post’s Page Six is to gossip.  Or ought to be, since it boasts an unrivaled collection of bold-faced names in education holding forth on a new question every week.  It’s important, and I read it.  But I don’t love it quite yet.  If you’ve ever been to a panel discussion with great speakers who give their talks but don’t mix it up, you’ll recognize the problem.  The whole is less than the sum of its parts. 

My nomination:  The Answer Sheet.   The fact that it’s the new blogging home of Dan Willingham is reason enough to give it the nod.  And a note to the Post: do education a favor and give Willingham his own blog. 

4. Best teacher blog

How does NYC Educator find the energy to get up every morning, teach all day in his famously overcrowded trailer classroom, and still find the time to post so many tart, witty, and sometimes bitter cris de coeur?  Always entertaining, his motto might be, if you can’t say something nice, come sit by me.  But he writes from experience and the heart, so even his rants boast real heft.  The addition of new sidekick Miss Eyre, who can be as earnest as NYC Educator is acid, makes for a perfect blogging marriage.  If you’re a teacher, you know these guys.

Veteran teacher Nancy Flanagan’s Teacher in a Strange Land is a treasure.  She’s been around the block, is a pro’s pro and writes with grace.  She doesn’t post nearly enough, and when she does she breaks every rule in the book–thank goodness–with long, anecdote-filled pieces that ring with experience and authority.  It’s a cliche to say that the voice that’s missing in education debates is the teacher’s.  Hers is a teacher’s voice policy wonks should be listening to.

More good teacher blogs:  Life at the Morton School, TweenTeacher, The Jose VilsonIt’s Not All Flowers and Sausages, Pissed Off Teacher, and The Tempered Radical.

My nomination:  A draw.  NYC Educator and Teacher in a Strange Land.

5. Best educational use of video / visual

I’m not even going to go through the motions of citing more than one potential nominee in this category.  Dan Willingham’s YouTube video Teaching Content is Teaching Reading  should be required viewing for every teacher, ed school student and parent.  It’s everything we’re doing wrong in teaching reading – and all the things we’re not doing but should – in ten minutes, and without narration.  Not only the “best” use of video, but the most important. 

6.  Other Categories

Best individual tweeter:  Larry Ferlazzo
Most influential blog post: Real Oklahoma Students Ace Citizenship Exam at FiveThirtyEight
Best educational tech support blog: Weblogg-ed narrowly over Dangerously Irrelevant. 
Best educational use of a social networking service:  Edutopia’s fan page on Facebook.

7. Lifetime achievement

Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier are the conscience of public education.  As our elder statesmen at Bridging Differences, they have become the most effective counterweights to ed reform triumphalism.  They’ve seen it all and they’re not impressed with your shiny new plans.  Ravitch and Meier – and especially Ravitch – have drawn plenty of fire from other bloggers in recent years, but being right is the best revenge.  Whenever someone takes aim at them, I inevitably think of the New York tennis fan at the 1988 U.S. Open who shouted to Jimmy Connors during his match with a then 18-year old Andre Agassi: “He’s a punk. You’re a legend.”

They’re legends.

The Incredible Shrinking Education Beat

by Robert Pondiscio
December 3rd, 2009

A new Brookings report bemoans a lack of education reporting noting that “only 1.4 percent of national news coverage from television, newspapers, news Web sites, and radio dealt with education.”  Some are taking issue with the study’s methodology, noting it only counts page A1 stories in the newspaper.  Still nobody seems to be arguing that we are well-served by the amount and quality of ed news in our major media. 

A call for more coverage, however, is a bit like King Canute calling for the tide to recede.  It’s not going to happen,  The forces that conspire to limit ed coverage — dwindling advertising, staff cutbacks, greater competition for fewer readers– are nothing new.  Time Magazine, where I used to work, hasn’t had a reporter solely dedicated to education for nearly 20 years.  Today, they barely have reporters at all.  There is no reason to expect these trends to do anything other than accelerate.   

I don’t wish to paint a picture of the Brookings report as naive, but newspapers and other media are simply not public interest vehicles.  They are businesses that profit from what the public is interested in.  That’s not nearly the same thing.  The call for more, better and nuanced education news is fine, but the idea that our oxygen-starved major media ought to be the standard-bearer is a bit of wishful thinking.   It ignores too many irreversible trends in the way news is produced and consumed.

Also, I’m not sure the paucity of education coverage is always a bad thing.  Even when our elite media focus on education, they tend to oversimplify or focus on conflict or human interest.  More of that we can surely live without.  The Brookings report also argues ”there should be better use of education research that evaluates school reforms, teacher quality, and classroom practices.”  You might just as easily say “there should be better research.”   Media coverage that looks at schools through the lens of test scores has value, but it’s not the only lens.  If research-based reporting means more media coverage that further enshrines the test scores uber alles mindset, well, thanks but no thanks. 

The Brookings report calls for foundations and non-profit organizations to “focus on developing alternative forms of education coverage both nationally and locally.”  On this point I agree completely.  The opportunity would be for a major foundation to bankroll an education news site that attempt to do on a national scale what Gotham Schools, for example, does for New York City.  Perhaps an ed version of ProPublica, the independent, nonprofit investigative journalism outfit let by Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.  Indeed, the most efficacious move might be for Gates, Wallace or some other ed-minded foundation to write a check to ProPublica to staff up an education beat. 

The world has largely moved on from the day when national media — even strong local media — drove and dominated the conversation on education.  The education beat, never a national media strong suit, is largely viewed as expendable.  People want information about education when they want it, not when an editor in New York or Washington decides to give it to them.  And most of us outside the education and policy bubble are not interested in education; we’re interested in our kid’s school.  These are not necessarily bad trends.  And whether they are or not, they can’t be stopped.

History, Hubris and Humility

by Robert Pondiscio
October 20th, 2009

Over at Fordham’s Flypaper, Andy Smarick posts a remarkable piece that should be tacked to the bulletin boards of would-be ed reformers everywhere.  It’s a brief reflection on Diane Ravitch’s 2000 book, Left Back

If you’re not in the market for a dose of humility, this probably isn’t your bag. If read with an open mind, it’s sobering stuff for hard-charging reformers chock-full of certainty. But part of me thinks it should be required reading for anyone handing out big philanthropic grants or overseeing massive government education programs, especially those dedicated to innovation, like the much-discussed I3 program.

Hear, hear.  Diane is a friend, and someone whose work I admired long before I met her, so I will not pretend to be unbiased, but I’m happy to see Smarick come to terms with the work of our greatest education historian and apply it to current efforts in education reform, a field intoxicated with triumphalism at the moment.  Blame it on the blogosphere, but it has become too easy for “hard-charging reformers” to dismiss those who decline to ride the bandwagon as in favor of the status quo, ill-informed, enemies or just plain nuts.  Diane has been on the receiving end of  these slings and arrows in disproportionate numbers in recent years.  Just about everyone who blogs on education champions a particular point of view, program or policy.  As a historian, Diane doesn’t play favorites and she isn’t on anyone’s side.  This drives some people over the edge.  That’s their problem, not Diane Ravitch’s

Smarick, to his credit, gets it.  “Ravitch’s lesson is a modest, even sage one: We need to avoid new ‘movements’ like the plague and give ‘more attention to fundamental, time-tested truths,’” he writes.  And while he still doesn’t agree with her take on charters and assessments, after reading Left Back, “I certainly now better understand the roots of her criticisms of the Race to the Top’s favored strategies.”

My father, a first-generation American with deep blue-collar roots, did not suffer fools gladly.  One of his favorite things to tell his son was “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know.”  Diane Ravitch has forgotten more about education than most of us will ever know.

President Obama’s Standards-Based Speech

by Robert Pondiscio
September 8th, 2009

If there’s a bright side to the past week’s uproar over President Obama’s speech to schoolchildren it’s this: when was the last time we had a robust national debate about what our kids actually do in school?  A Niagara of ink was spilled debating whether the speech and a set of recommended classroom activities represented political propaganda, indoctrination or an abuse of presidential power.  But here’s an overlooked, yet indisputably accurate description of Obama’s speech and those controversial lesson plans: 

“Standards-based.”

The draft national standards in reading, writing, speaking and listening worked up by National Governors Associations (NGA) and The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), specify only the skills our children should be able to demonstrate.  Whether President Obama and the Department of Education realize it or not, they are revealing exactly how empty and meaningless these “standards” are as currently written.  For example, in order to be “college and career ready,” the draft standards hold that students must be able to “listen to complex information and understand what was said, identifying main ideas and supporting details.”  This is a standard you can apply to today’s speech by President Obama, a Glenn Beck talk show rant, the films of Michael Moore, or the conspiratorial ravings of the 9/11 “truth” movement.   So while conservatives can rest assured that Obama’s speech to schoolchildren will not be a part of the emerging national standards, neither is Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, Lincoln’s second inaugural address or Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.   In fact, no speech, book, poem or play is required.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all speeches are created equal. 

But wait a minute, you might be thinking, “isn’t that what national standards are supposed to do?  Doesn’t it mean that kids from Maine to Montana are learning the same thing?”  No, that’s what a national curriculum would do.   It’s become distressingly clear that even people in education who should know better use the terms “standards” and “curriculum” interchangeably.  Yong Zhao, a distinguished professor of education at Michigan State University wrote in the Detroit Free Press last week that national standards “stifle creativity and reduce diversity of talents by instilling a single view of worthwhile knowledge” thereby doing “irreversible damage” to American education.  There are many criticisms one can level at the national standards movement.  That’s not one of them.

What conservative critics like Beck, Michelle Malkin and others might have focused on but did not is that the Administration’s suggested activities meet literally every one of the draft common core standards.  In order to be “college and career ready” students should be able to “sustain focus on a specific topic or argument through careful presentation of essential content;” “support and illustrate arguments and explanations with relevant details and examples;” and “represent and cite accurately the data, conclusions and opinions of others” among other skills.  Even the “inartfully worded” suggestion, that students ”write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president” is not in conflict with such standards. 

This is the dilemma of process standards:  they are aggressively, adamantly agnostic on the content of a good education.  Anything goes.  What speeches and texts are important to know?  Right now, the official answer is “none.”   Perhaps that’s a silver lining in this otherwise strange and irritating controversy that has greeted the President’s speech to school children.  If you don’t think that listening and responding to a Presidential address is a productive use of school time, the question you need to address is, “What exactly do you think your child should be reading and listening to all day?”

It’s a debate that is worth having.  At present, 46 states and the District of Columbia are close to answering the question “What should children learn in school” with “whatever.”    If you don’t think “whatever” is a good or helpful answer, then your choices quickly narrow to two:  You can fight to define what is (or is not) the appropriate content of a sound, well-rounded public education.  Or you can keep your child home every time he or she is assigned a text that you don’t like.

Update: Jay Greene comes at this from a similar angle.  “Parents sense a lack of control over what their children are taught in school,” he notes. “This is as true of every day’s social studies lesson as it is of Obama’s speech.”