It’s Not You, It’s Me. I Think You’re an Idiot.

by Robert Pondiscio
October 2nd, 2012

Anyone who has grown overtired of dead-end education debates needs to read Dan Willingham’s latest blog post, which points out that when debate devolves into mere taunting and questioning the motives of your intellectual opponents, the audience you’re most trying to reach–the unpersuaded and undecided–tune out. “In education policy, some of us have gone too far,” Dan writes.  “People who disagree with us are depicted as not merely wrong, but evil.”

“People who advocate reforms such as merit pay, the use of value added models of teacher evaluation, charter schools, and vouchers are not merely labeled misguided because these reforms won’t work. They are depicted as bad people who are unsympathetic to the difficulty of teaching and who are in the pockets of the rich.

“Likewise, those who see value in teacher’s unions, who are leery of current methods of teacher evaluation, who think that vouchers threaten the neighborhood character of schools are not merely wrong: they are accused of looking out for the welfare of lousy teachers.

“And of course both sides are accused of ‘not caring about kids.’”

Willingham, as is his wont, cites studies bolstering what you might intuit by watching—or heavens forfend, participating in–these dispiriting wars of words:  partisans tend to believe they know what people in the other side of an issue are thinking and how they would behave.  The bottom line: “We think that people who agree with us are moral, and people who disagree with us, less so. Further, we think that we know how other people will interpret complicated situations–they will driven more by ideology than by facts,” Dan writes.

He concludes with a call for “fewer blog postings that, implicitly or explicitly,  denigrate the other person’s motives, or that offer a knowing nod with the claim ‘we all know what those people think.’” That call is all but certain to be more honored in the breach than the observance.

We can’t help ourselves.  And besides the other guys really ARE  evil.  Me? I just want what’s best for kids.






The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

by Robert Pondiscio
May 7th, 2012

“As a policy wonk, I push for high academic expectations for all students,” writes Scott Joftus in Education Next. “As a father, however, I find that what matters most to me is that my daughters are happy in school.”

“Over more than 20 years in the field of education—including two with Teach For America—I have helped promote state standards, the Common Core, the hiring of teachers with strong content knowledge, longer class periods for math and reading, and extra support for struggling students, to name a few. I have recently discovered, however, that what I believe as an education policy wonk is not always what I believe as a father.”

Joftus’s wonk side believes “student learning flourishes in classrooms that include students with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds.”  However, as a Dad, he admits to getting angry when a troubled kindergartener disrupts his daughter’s class and forces the “talented, but inexperienced” teacher to spend more than half of her time trying to keep this boy on task.

“I feel for children like him; my company works with schools and districts to improve outcomes for these kids. But I was angry. The other children were clearly uncomfortable. His disruptions reduced learning time for my daughter, and seemed to steal some of her innocence and excitement about school.”

Commenters on the Ed Next blog offer both praise and criticism for Joftus.  “Teachers have been fighting policy wonks who have been destroying the happy learning environment for decades,” writes one.  “But you don’t listen, it is only when it becomes personal that you reconsider your opinions and admit the possibility that teachers have been right all along.”  “Had you guys listened twenty years ago, and respected our wisdom on safe and orderly schools, this educational civil war would not have had to happen,” observes veteran teacher and ed blogger John Thompson.

Rocketship schools CEO John Danner admits to similar cognitive dissonance when sending his kids to school.  “However, I would challenge you as your kids grow to think more about how those skills jibe with rigor,” he writes. “Rigor is actually a form of compassion. A teacher who expects a lot of their students prevents them from feeling the frustration your children feel now, but much later in their school career.  The real problem you are seeing is that your child’s teacher has high expectations but doesn’t understand how to differentiate.

Loftus’ tale serves to illustrate how regrettably wide the gulf can be between policy ideals and classroom realities.  The policies Loftus has worked to support–standards, improved teacher quality, enhanced learning time for strugglers, et al. –  are laudable, but risk melting into insignificance in the face of teachers overwhelmed with a critical mass of disruptive children in her room.  I don’t have any data on this, but I suspect that far fewer parents than wonks tend to lay the problem of learning time lost to disruption at the feet of teachers.  It is easy to say, as Danner does “differentiate.”  It is difficult, and always will be, to expect every teacher in every classroom to have the training, expertise and experience to handle every challenge offered up by 25 free agents in their classrooms every day.

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Achievement Gap Mania Fails the “Tiffany Test”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 27th, 2011

The person who has had the greatest influence on my career in education was not a professor, policymaker or a fellow educator. It was an eleven-year-old girl named Tiffany Lopez, a fifth grader in my class during my second year of teaching in the South Bronx.

Walk into any classroom in any struggling urban school and you will spot someone like Tiffany almost immediately. Her eyes are always on the teacher, paying careful attention and following directions. She is bright and pleasant, happy to help and eager to please. Her desk is clean and well-organized; homework always complete. She grew up hearing every day how important education is. She believes it, and her behavior in class shows it. She does well in school. She gets praise and she gets good grades.

She also gets screwed.

Since she goes to a school where the majority of her classmates read and do math well below grade level, Tiffany is “not your problem,” as one of my administrators pointedly told me early in my teaching career. The message to a new teacher could not have been clearer: focus your efforts on the low achievers. Get them in the game. Tiffany will be fine.

Will she?

I thought of Tiffany Lopez, as I often do, while reading Rick Hess’s essay last week in National Affairs on “Achievement Gap Mania.” Nearly alone among edupundits, Hess has the standing—and frankly, the balls—to call into question the gap-closing orthodoxy, the de facto policy engine driving American education in the era of No Child Left Behind. Our focus on gap closing, Hess writes, “has hardly been an unmitigated blessing.”

“The truth is that achievement-gap mania has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. It has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform.”

Hess couldn’t be more correct or on target. To this day, I worry about whether I was the teacher Tiffany Lopez needed me to be. In my post-classroom work I apply the “Tiffany Test” to any new reform, policy initiative or teaching idea that comes down the pike: will this make it more likely or less likely that kids like Tiffany will get what they need to reach their full academic and life potential? The answer rarely comes back in the affirmative. Indeed, the primary casualty of our achievement gap mania is what Hess describes as “the credo that every child deserves an opportunity to fulfill his potential.”

Blame the teachers? Not this time. Hess cites a 2008 poll, which asked if it’s more important to focus equally on all students or disadvantaged students who are struggling academically. Eighty-six percent of teachers said all students and just 11% said disadvantaged students. “Yet education reformers are doing their very best to counter this healthy democratic impulse — and they have largely succeeded,” Hess observes.

“All of this has eroded traditional notions of what constitutes a complete education. Because of the way “achievement gaps” are measured — using scores on standardized reading and math tests — any effort to “close the achievement gap” must necessarily focus on instruction in reading and math. Hence many schools, particularly those at risk of getting failing grades under NCLB, have fixated on reading and math exclusively; other subjects — art and music, foreign language, history, even science — have been set aside to make more time and resources available for remedial instruction.”

Frank C. Worrell of the University of California, Berkeley points out that the focus on bringing up the bottom means “we are not sparking the creativity of those who have the most potential to make outstanding contributions.” Hess is particularly strong on how a gap closing focus coupled with the orthodoxy of differentiated instruction is a double whammy for high-achieving (or potentially high achieving) students. Students like Tiffany Lopez.

“Children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient peers. In 2008, Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless reported that, while the nation’s lowest-achieving students made significant gains in fourth-grade reading and math scores from 2000 to 2007, top students made anemic gains. Loveless found that students who comprised the bottom 10% of achievers saw visible progress in fourth-grade reading and math and eighth-grade math after 2000, but that the performance of students in the top decile barely moved. He concluded, “It would be a mistake to allow the narrowing of test score gaps, although an important accomplishment, to overshadow the languid performance trends of high-achieving students . . . .Gaps are narrowing because the gains of low-achieving students are outstripping those of high achievers by a factor of two or three to one.”

Tiffany Lopez had more “grit” at age 11 than the entire graduating class of any KIPP school. There was never a doubt in my mind that she would stay in school and go to college. This month, she began her freshman year at a four-year, in-state, public university in Pennsylvania, where she moved a few years after leaving my classroom. I’ve been waiting for this moment for seven years. I have long feared that at college she will find herself surrounded by students of lesser gifts who, though they lack her aptitude and character, will be better academically prepared. I hope I’m wrong. But if she succeeds, it will not be because of what I and other teachers did for her over the course of her public school education.

It will be in spite of it.

When you have a Tiffany in your class in the age of gap-closing you understand that despite her good grades and rock steady performance on state tests, she is subsisting on starvation rations in history, geography, science, art and music. You understand that her finish line—read on grade level; graduate on time—is the starting line for more fortunate children. Tiffany and the numberless, faceless multitude of children like her, represents the low-hanging fruit the typical inner city school leaves drying on the vine. She is–maddeningly, damnably, undemocratically–”not your problem.”

There is a question that has gnawed at me ever since I was Tiffany Lopez’s 5th grade teacher in the South Bronx. If you are committed to equity and social justice, which is the more effective engine of change: giving every child a mediocre, minimum-competency education? Or giving the richest, most robust possible education to the most receptive and motivated? A focused, low-income kid with a superior education is on the time-honored path to upward mobility, virtually guaranteeing her children will not grow up in poverty. The same kid with a bland, good-enough education is prepared merely to march in place.

A false dichotomy. We should do both, of course. But as Hess has amply demonstrated, it’s not working out that way.

Faith-Based Education Reform

by Robert Pondiscio
August 10th, 2010

When education policies are adopted at the state or federal level, the belief they will improve things “is not based on anything much more solid than faith or hope,” writes Dan Willingham.

Wrapping up a series of posts over at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, the UVA cognitive scientist notes that because there are so many moving parts in student outcomes, changing in one factor might yield no difference in student performance.  That doesn’t mean it’s ineffective.  In a previous post, Willingham pointed out that a problem in one part of a school system might mask positive change in another part, “just as repairs to the electrical system of a car might appear to have no effect if the fuel system also needs repair.”  This notion seems lost in policy debates, which look at results on a system-wide basis. 

Because we lack sufficiently sophisticated system models, Willingham argued in a subsequent post, we “don’t really know what we’re doing in education policy, beyond a very rough cut.”  In short, Willingham argues, ”we don’t know much about the system we’re tinkering with, and better knowledge will be a long time coming.” 

Moving forward, we have two options, he concludes.  We can invest the educational equivalent of the moon shot.

Or we can continue doing what we’ve done for the last 50 years: quibble about theories of systems that we don’t understand, without taking seriously the challenge of understanding them. That’s the path that has cost countless kids a good education along the way, and has led us to the place we are today–a place that very few argue we should stay.

It’s a shame Willingham’s cogent series of posts are appearing in the dog days of summer and are obscured behind the buzz surrounding Race to the Top and the i3 grants.  He’s taking the broadest, longest possible view and essentially offering a prism through which to view every recent and current ed reform debate.   Here’s hoping some influential policymakers and deep-pocketed philanthropists can take a few moments away from their preferred “theories of action” to consider, “Is he’s talking to me?”

Kemble: Standards Not the Same As Curriculum

by Robert Pondiscio
August 4th, 2010

We’ll never get ed policy right as long as we continue to conflate standards and curriculum, notes the Shanker Institute’s Eugenia Kemble.  Discussing the rapid adoption of Common Core State Standards on the Institute’s blog, Kemble notes “the creation, promotion and acceptance of the Common Core Standards…represent[s] a sea change in the way this country is coming to think about its education system.”

“But, aside from a few enlightened souls, most of education’s brains trust still fail to recognize that curriculum is where the rubber hits the road. The road is about implementation and implementation requires curriculum – that is, the selection and sequencing of essential content knowledge so that teachers can produce a sensible year’s worth of expected learning in the core domains of math, literature, science, history, civics, the arts, foreign languages, and health and physical education.

Kemble notes that calls for a common curriculum have been made by Shanker, E.D. Hirsch, Diane Ravitch and many others, but the idea has never gained traction, probably because of preoccupations about local control of curriculum.  “Aligning education around a common core curriculum the way most developed nations do,” Kemble writes, ”means a virtual overhaul of the way American education operates.”

“But think about what doing this might actually mean for all the pop solutions currently on the table – good teacher preparation (education schools might have to acknowledge that student curriculum actually matters), good teacher evaluation (we might even consider the fairness of having a consistent set of expectations for what students should know), good research (imagine research not plagued by an inability to truly control for the variation in what students are expected to learn), performance pay, targeting low performing schools, assessments to measure defined accomplishment rather than to differentiate students, and on and on.

The Best and the Brightest, The Sequel

by Robert Pondiscio
June 1st, 2010

As states race to meet today’s second Race to the Top deadline, some are complaining the changes wrought by the program have not been sweeping or revolutionary enough. And then there’s David Warsh at Economic On reading Steve Brill’s latest bigfooting exercise into education reportage Warsh heard familiar and disconcerting echoes.

Remember the recipe for a policy disaster? Start with a handful of policy intellectuals confronting a stubborn problem, in love with a Big Idea. Fold in a bunch of ambitious Ivy League kids who don’t speak the local language. Churn up enthusiasm for the program in the gullible national press – and get ready for a decade of really bad news. Take a look at David Halberstam’s Vietnam classic The Best and the Brightest, if you need to refresh your memory. Or just think back on the run-up to the war in Iraq.

He’s just getting started. Warsh, a veteran economics reporter whose column ran in the Boston Globe for the better part of two decades, turns in the most scathing recent take on current education policy by someone not named Diane Ravitch, whose recent book he cites in the piece. Describing the competitive grant program as “a hammer-blow to the basic principles of public education” Warsh suggests a history lesson:

Obama and David Axelrod should take out some old Time and Life magazines, compare them to Brill’s Times Magazine article, and reflect on how the media pranced as Presidents Kennedy and Johnson blundered into Vietnam. They should read and discuss Diane Ravitch’s book. They should think long and hard about whether they are going to let Arne Duncan and his whiz kids put Obama’s presidency in greater peril than the Deepwater Horizon ever could.

Personally, I’m less than sanguine about RTTT, but not necessarily for the reasons Warsh, Ravitch and other cite. “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” the British scientist Ernest Rutherford famously quipped. With apologies to Rutherford, I’d offer that all education reform is either curriculum or accounting.

Listening to Teachers?

by Robert Pondiscio
May 27th, 2010

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

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

It was Arne Duncan calling.

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

DOE to States: Clean Your Room!

by Robert Pondiscio
February 3rd, 2010

Race to the Top reminds Dan Willingham of his mother’s attempts to get him to clean his room when he was 10 years old.  At first, young Danny’s goal was to get out of the house each morning before Mom found out his room was a mess.  Tired of nagging, Mom offered him – sorry, incentivized him – with 50 cents a week, so he changed his ways.  Now his goal was to get out of the house before Mom saw all the junk he’d pushed under his bed. 

It’s obvious, Willingham writes at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, that like his mother’s attempt to make him a tidy boy, Race to the Top is “a doomed bribery scheme.”  The secretary of education and the president “believe they know what ought to be done, and they are offering money to states who do it,” he writes.

Here’s the problem. States are not really committed to the reforms the administration envisions. If they were, they would have implemented them, or at least they would have been making a game attempt to do so. When you pay people to do something, they don’t become motivated to do it. They become motivated to be able to defend that they are doing it. States will do their best to make it appear that they are complying.

The likely failure of the “Race to the Top” initiative, Willingham writes, doesn’t depend on whether the reforms embedded in the program are any good, but rather the inherent flaws of its incentive structure.  “The administration is motivating states to shove their dirty laundry under the bed. Eventually that will be discovered, but in the meantime we will have wasted a lot of time and money,” Willingham concludes.

Education, The Economy, and Talking Dogs

by Robert Pondiscio
December 31st, 2009

If schools produce well-educated and skilled graduates, the nation’s economy will grow.  That belief has been at the very heart of school reform since the late-1970s.  Yet the belief is suspect, Larry Cuban points out, ”because even economists, the ones who are expected to know, cannot point with assurance at precisely which factors cause economic growth.”

In 2004, a group of top economists published the Barcelona Development Agenda announcing in it that ‘there is no single set of policies that can be guaranteed to ignite sustained growth.’ Not that economists are shy about identifying factors that explain economic growth. It is just that there are too many explanations. One recent survey found 145 separate factors linked to economic growth, yet most of these factors could not be isolated as ones that caused heightened growth. Yes, formal education was one of the 145 factors.

Cuban writes on his blog that no one cites the example of Switzerland, which is one of Europe’s wealthiest countries, “yet has the lowest university attendance and graduation rates among OECD countries.”  Similarly, he points out, several developing African nations including Angola, Zambia, Ghana have made major investments in education and increased their graduation rates with little discernible economic impact.   The Stanford education professor cites ventriloquist Todd Oliver and Irving, his talking dog, as a “harmless shared illusion,” since no one really believes the dog can talk.  But the idea that education exists to grow the economy, he writes, is not a harmless illusion.

There are many reasons to have strong schools in a society beyond, but including, economic ones. Although they hardly get mentioned by policymakers save in throwaway lines at graduation ceremonies, expanded literacy in service of developing an engaged citizenry who, in fulfilling their civic obligations, build better communities and live moral lives are, and have been, historic reasons for investing tax dollars in American schools.

“Historically, schools have sought to serve society and the individual in many ways beyond job preparation,” Cuban writes.  “Not now.”

The Best and Wisest Parent

by Robert Pondiscio
October 27th, 2009

Invoking John Dewey’s maxim that a community should want for all children what the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, Diane Ravitch wants small classes and the presence of the arts in schools that are physically attractive and well-maintained.  At Bridging Differences, she notes none of these ideas are driving education policy at present.

The president’s Department of Education will dispense nearly $5 billion, not to reduce class sizes, not to expand access to the arts, and not to improve the beauty and functionality of our public schools, but to incentivize the workforce with merit pay; to increase the privatization of struggling schools; and to compel teachers to teach to admittedly poor tests by tying teacher pay to students’ test scores.

If we’re making lists, I want my child to attend a school that sees itself as a place of learning first and foremost, with a rich, well-rounded curriculum; a view of reading as a means to academic achievement rather than an end in itself; and teachers and administrators who are not afraid to be grownups.