I Never Ate a Bee

by Robert Pondiscio
April 18th, 2011

I never thwart reform
I never ate a bee;
Yet know I what a child must learn,
And what a school must be.

I’m not a union shill,
Reform still has my backing;
I do not want the status quo
If I find your plans lacking.

Nation Touches Third Rail, Survives

by Robert Pondiscio
July 23rd, 2010

Despite the adoption of Common Core State Standards by more than half the states in the nation, the sky remains firmly in place, impervious to the coordinated attack.   Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has declared himself “ecstatic” at the adoption rate telling the New York Times, “This been the third rail of education, and the fact that you’re now seeing half the nation decide that it’s the right thing to do is a game-changer.”

Game-evolver, perhaps, as even CCSS supporters are quick to point out.  At Public School Insights, Claus Von Zastrow writes that high standards will mean little “if the tests are no good, the curriculum is weak, and schools have little or no support to make standards mean something in the classroom.”  The Minister of Propaganda for the education status quo thus finds himself under the same big tent as Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli at Fordham.  Even conservatives love the Common Core Standards, they note at National Review Online, with its call for students to memorize their times tables, learn phonics, and understand the country’s founding documents:

“Anxiety will surely rise when school kids across the land begin (three or four years hence) to take tests linked to these standards, and even more when those test results start to determine promotion from fifth to sixth grade or graduation from high school. (The development of those tests will soon start, aided by $350 million of federal stimulus funds.) But without tests and results-based accountability, along with solid curricula, quality textbooks, and competent teaching, standards alone have no traction in real classrooms. Adopting good standards is like having a goal for your cholesterol; it doesn’t mean you will actually eat a healthy diet or live longer.”

Right.  Critics argue that standards don’t educate children.  Right again.  The true test remains implementation.  For elementary education, the principal benefit of the CCSS is the recognition that verbal achievement is based on general knowledge, and the explicit call for instruction in language arts to include all key academic domains and be integrated with a content-rich curriculum.  Is that a guarantee it will happen?  Of course not.  Even under a single standard, the states that fare the best will be the ones with the best trained teachers and the most thoughtful, rigorous curriculum.

Hey! That sounds like a real race to the top.

The Best Argument Arts Educators Are Not Making

by Robert Pondiscio
April 13th, 2010

In a speech last week at the Arts Education Partnership National Forum, Education Secretary Arne Duncan took up the cause of arts education and argued forcefully against curriculum narrowing.  Even in the face of budget cuts facing school districts, Duncan said, “now is the time to rethink and strengthen arts education.”

“And I ask you to help build the national case for the importance of a well-rounded curriculum–not just in the arts but in the humanities writ large. The question of what constitutes an educated person has been taken up by the great thinkers in every society. Yet few of those leading lights have concluded that a well-educated person need only learn math, science, and read in their native tongue.”

It’s always heartening to hear high-powered support for a well-rounded curriculum.  But I wonder if the Secretary–and arts educators, too – aren’t overlooking the most potent weapon in their arsenal for why the arts matter in our performance and data-driven age.  Arts education has a crucial and underappreciated role to play in boosting reading achievementespecially among our most disadvantaged students who tend to have less out-of-school exposure to the arts than their more privileged peers.

As Dan Willingham, E.D. Hirsch and others never tire of pointing out, “teaching content is teaching reading.”  There is a mountain of evidence that the ability to comprehend is largely a function of a student’s prior knowledge across all content disciplines.  Schools that narrow curriculum, forsaking the arts to devote more time to reading instruction are making a critical, self-defeating mistake.  As Willingham put it in his Washington Post blog last week, “Until we start paying more attention to content, expect flat reading scores.”

The Secretary could be enormously helpful by talking about this in speeches like the one he made last week.  And arts educators would do well to familiarize themselves with what the research says to rebut those who think arts education is “nice to have” but nonessential.  The arts, like science, history, geography and other content disciplines, are a critical part of the background knowledge kids need to accumulate to become good readers and writers.  The Secretary hinted at this point in his remarks last week, but never hit it head on, listing three reasons why arts education matters:

“The arts significantly boost student achievement, reduce discipline problems, and increase the odds that students will go on to graduate from college. Second, arts education is essential to stimulating the creativity and innovation that will prove critical to young Americans competing in a global economy. And last, but not least, the arts are valuable for their own sake, and they empower students to create and appreciate aesthetic works.

The Secretary gets that arts education is important, and that’s great.  But there’s an even stronger, more practical case to be made than the one he made last week: Arts education is critical to reading achievement.  Teaching content is teaching reading.  Reducing art and music will hurt, not help, test scores. 

If I were an art or music teacher I would make sure my administrators understood my importance clearly.  “I’m not just an art teacher,” I would argue.  “I’m also a reading teacher.”

Great Job! Go Sit on the Bench

by Robert Pondiscio
November 3rd, 2009

Jay Mathews thinks Arne Duncan shouldn’t be the Secretary of Education.  In fact, he looks at recent Ed Secys Bill Bennett, Rod Paige, Dick Riley, Margaret Spellings and Duncan and asks why do we have the job at all? 

Their best work for kids, in my view, happened when they were NOT education secretary. So let’s abolish the office and get that talent back where it belongs, where school change really happens, in our states and cities.

Mathews may not realize it but the same thing, writ small, happens in schools everywhere.  How often does this year’s superstar teacher become next year’s math or literacy coach?  If this thinking applied to sports, Chase Utley would become the Phillies batting coach next year.


by Robert Pondiscio
October 6th, 2009

A-Rus at This Week in Education looks at blogosphere reactions to Arne Duncan’s sit-down with Stephen Colbert and sees a pattern:  Everyone pans Colbert for lobbing softball questions at the Ed Secretary.  Huh?!?

Yes, more and more of us take our news and cues from The Daily Show, Colbert and late night comics.  I get it.  But have we really gotten to the point where we expect comedians to play Mike Wallace?  And are we really disappointed when they fail?

Moving the Chains

by Robert Pondiscio
September 30th, 2009

Football fans see it time and again:  It’s 4th down and short yardage.  An official standing 30 or 40 feet away from the play sees a running back hurl himself full throttle into a forest of 300-pound linemen and disappear beneath a collapsing pile of players, a football buried somewhere against his body.   Chaos everywhere, yet the official, with unquestioned authority places the ball he lost sight of on the exact spot on the ground where forward momentum stopped and calls for the chains.  Play stops and the fans grow quiet as a team of officials runs in from the sidelines and takes a precise-to-the-inch measurement of the ball’s location.  If the any part of the ball is beyond the plane of the outstretched chain, a first down is awarded.  The crowd goes wild. 


Never mind that the linesman is merely estimating the ball’s position.  Never mind that the ten-yard length of chain was placed based on an eyeball approximation of where the series of downs began three plays ago.  Never mind that every play in the series of downs begins and ends with a best guess (the wide receiver was knocked out of bounds at about the 35-yard line) When it’s time to determine whether or not a first down is to be awarded, football is suddenly a game of inches

Games, playoff hopes, bowl bids and careers turn on a guess–or a series of guesses.  But no one seems to question it.  Call for the chains!  If you stop and think about it, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The answer however is simple: Don’t think about it.

Here are a few more things not to think about:

  • Writing in the New York Times, Todd Farley, the author of the book “Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry” describes getting a part-time, $8 an hour job scoring fourth-grade, state-wide reading comprehension tests after a five-minute interview.  “Arbitrary decision is the rule, not the exception,” he writes.  
  • “Bowen Elementary was part of what [Washington, DC] officials hailed as the success story of their 2008 standardized test results,” reports the Washington Post.  “But Bowen also had four classrooms where children erased wrong answers and replaced them with correct ones at abnormally high rates.”  The paper reports there were elevated numbers of erasures at six schools involving classrooms with 573 students.  CTB McGraw-Hill declared the data “inconclusive,” and no teachers or administrators have been accused of wrongdoing, the Post reports.  
  • In New York State seventh graders who answered just 44 percent of questions correctly on the state math test were given a passing grade. “Three years ago, the threshold for passing was 60 percent,” the New York Times reports. “In fact, students in every grade this year could slide by with fewer correct answers on the math test than in 2006.”
  • Teacher Diana Senechal recently described an experiment in which she was able to “pass” several standardized tests just by guessing and without even looking at the tests. 
  • “Policy makers define good education as higher test scores,” writes Diane Ravitch. “But students can get higher scores in reading and mathematics yet remain completely ignorant of science, the arts, civics, history, literature and foreign languages.” 

We know this.  We see it all around us, but like the football fan caught up in the arbitrary kabuki dance of the moving of the chains, we accept it, applaud it or moan about lousy spots, but the game goes on. 

“There must be a better way,” Pat Summerall, an N.F.L. veteran and broadcaster said in a recent New York Times article. “Because games are decided, careers are decided, on those measurements.”  He was talking about measuring for first downs.  “There’s a certain amount of drama that is involved with the chains,” said New York Giants president, John Mara in the same article. “Yes, it is subject to human error, just like anything else is. But I think it’s one of the traditions that we have in the game, and I don’t think any of us have felt a real compelling need to make a change.”

“With national standards will come national standardized tests, so it’s an especially good time to rethink how these exams are scored, and by whom,” Dana Goldstein sensibly observes at The American Prospect’s Tapped blog.  “Perhaps teachers and principals should be scoring tests, not $8 an hour part-timers. In that case it would be important, especially with the push for merit pay, to make sure teachers aren’t grading their own students’ tests, to decrease the temptation to engage in foul play.”

Like the theatrical measurement of a first down in football, we want to rely on precise measurements of an imprecise process to make high stakes decisions on everything from federal funding to merit pay to whether a teacher keeps his or her job at all.  “I understand that tests are far from perfect and that it is unfair to reduce the complex, nuanced work of teaching to a simple multiple choice exam,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently observed. 

Right.  It’s way more complicated than that. 

But it’s 4th down!  Call for the chains!  Take a measurement.  How else are we going to know?

“Replace the Children!”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 1st, 2009

Oh no he didn’t!

Raging against Arne Duncan’s call to turnaround the nation’s lowest-performing schools, the chairman of the Atlanta Metro Association of Classroom Educators, John Trotter, fumed “He wants to replace everyone … except the ones who matter, the children.”   The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s ed columnist Maureen Downey quotes Trotter saying the children in failing schools are the main problem.

“They are unmotivated and lazy. Yes, there are many incompetent and idiotic and mean administrators who need to go. There are even some bad teachers, but these are really rare. The problem starts with the students. What is Duncan going to do with some so-called students who act like miscreants each day?”

This is the kind thing you hear in the teacher’s lounge when someone’s having a bad day, but seldom outside, and almost never in public.  Teachers have all the reason in the world to be upset by simplistic “no excuses” posturing, and complaints about ”putting the interests of adults first.”  But if accurate, this is the kind of intemperate diatribe that makes it all too easy for those who would paint teachers as sandbaggers and excuse makers to point and say, “See! I told you so.” 

Not smart.  Not helpful.

UpdateEduwonk says, “See! I told you so.”   Joanne Jacobs uses Trotter’s vitriol as a way into an Edweek essay by Richard Kahlenberg, who argues “it’s impossible to change a bad school without changing the mix of students.”

Nineteen Points and One Very Bad Idea

by Robert Pondiscio
July 24th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duncan: Close Failed Charters

by Robert Pondiscio
June 22nd, 2009

The NY Times plays up Secretary Duncan’s coming warning to charter school operators that “low-quality institutions are giving their movement a black eye.”  Writes the Times’ Sam Dillon:

The charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and third-rate schools to exist,” Mr. Duncan says in prepared remarks that he is scheduled to deliver in Washington at the annual gathering of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.  In an interview, Mr. Duncan said he would use the address to praise innovations made by high-quality charter schools, urge charter leaders to become more active in weeding out bad apples in their movement and invite the leaders to help out in the administration’s broad effort to remake several thousand of the nation’s worst public schools.

The Times makes much of last week’s Stanford study indicating that nearly half of all charter schools nationwide “have results that are no different from the local public school options, and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”

It will be interesting to see how charter advocates react to Duncan’s call.  At worst, it seems like a reminder of the accountability principles undergirding the movement.   Indeed, if the movement practices what it preaches, closing bad charter schools should be considered a victory– for the charter movement.

“The Most Powerful Ed Secretary Ever”

by Robert Pondiscio
February 18th, 2009

The ed world continues its efforts to simply wrap its collective mind around the just-passed stimulus bill and the gaudy sums it contains for education.  “Public schools will get an unprecedented amount of money,” the AP notes, double the education budget under George W. Bush.  “With those dollars, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan want schools to do better.”  The stimulus bill contains $5 billion to reward states, districts and schools for setting high standards and narrowing the achievement gap.   

With a wave of President Obama’s pen, Arne Duncan becomes the most powerful education secretary in history. The New York Times focuses on the power and unprecedented latitude given to Duncan: 

“There’s going to be this extraordinary influx of resources,” he said in an interview. “So people say, ‘You’re going to be the most powerful secretary ever,’ but I have no interest in that. Power has never motivated me. What I love is opportunity, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something special, to drive change, to make our schools better.”

Mr. Duncan intends to reward school districts, charter schools and nonprofit organizations that had demonstrated success at raising student achievement, notes the Times.  “Programs that tie teacher pay to classroom performance will most likely receive money, as will other approaches intended to raise teacher quality, including training efforts that pair novice instructors with veteran mentors, and afterschool and weekend tutoring programs.”

Sara Mead has an analysis of what the bill means to early childhood ed.  Meanwhile the American Library Association has put up this site to help libraries learn more about the stimulus package.

Update:  At EdWeek’s Politics K-12 blog, the dynamic duo, Michele McNeil and Alyson Klein, are compiling a list of Frequently Asked Questions about the stimulus and promising to get answers to all, bless them.  Links to their email addresses are under their pictures on their blog.