Why Send Kids To School?

by Robert Pondiscio
September 27th, 2009

“The single biggest problem in American education is that no one agrees on why we educate,” observes Diane Ravitch. ”Faced with this lack of consensus, policy makers define good education as higher test scores.”  Ravitch’s comments come in a forum published by the New York Times Magazine, which also features input from Tom Vander Ark, Geoffrey Canada, Charles Murray and others.  Ravitch writes:

Why do we educate? We educate because we want citizens who are capable of taking responsibility for their lives and for our democracy. We want citizens who understand how their government works, who are knowledgeable about the history of their nation and other nations. We need citizens who are thoroughly educated in science. We need people who can communicate in other languages. We must ensure that every young person has the chance to engage in the arts.

Reflecting on the theme of “How to Remake Education,” Vander Ark stumps for more attention to technology.  “By 2020, I believe most high-school students will do most of their learning online,” he writes.  “It shouldn’t take that long, but it will.”  Charles Murray argues we should “discredit the bachelor’s degree as a job credential”; while Canada believes we should lengthen the U.S. school year, which is “one of the shortest school years in the industrialized world.”

I’m with Diane. There is a clear failure of vision in American education at present, especially in poor, urban schools.  We have narrowed the definition of what it means to be educated in America.  When affluent parents choose a school for their children—when they enroll in a private school or buy a home near specific schools–reading scores are simply not part of their calculus.  It is assumed that in a good school every child will learn to read, and then read to learn.  That’s simply what schools do. When policy makers, education reformers and even teachers and administrators evaluate what makes schools in poor, urban neighborhoods good or bad, however, a single litmus test applies: performance on standardized reading tests.  For the children of the poor, a good grade on a state reading test has become what it means to be educated.  The contrast could not be clearer:  we set the finish line for other people’s children where we set the starting line for our own.

Solution to Ed Policy Skirmishes “Bafflingly Obvious”

by Robert Pondiscio
January 13th, 2009

Fix schools or fix communities?  “From an outsider’s perspective, one of the most frustrating aspects of the education policy debate is that both sides are right,” notes The Atlantic Monthly’s Clay Risen.  “It seems bafflingly obvious that change must come both inside and outside the classroom,” he writes on the Democrats for Education Reform blog.  It’s a must-read.

A backstory is required.  Risen wrote a major profile of Washington, DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee in last November’s Atlantic Monthly. In the new issue, there’s a letter from the University of Michigan’s Susan Neuman, a former Bush administration education official, arguing that Risen’s piece “left readers with the mistaken impression that [Rhee and other school leaders] must make a false choice between quality teachers and ‘extras.”   She also writes ”there is only so much a quality teacher, adequate classroom supplies, and caring administrators can accomplish.” 

The Atlantic typically allows its writers to respond to letters and Risen replied in print that Neuman is “undoubtedly correct that improving teacher quality and improving a student’s social milieu are not mutually exclusive, and are both important means to improve student outcomes. However, education policy is not made in a vacuum, and cannot be. This is where so much of education policy breaks down: there is, sadly, a broadening gulf between teacher-quality advocates and those aligned with ‘A Broader, Bolder Approach.’ Arguably, the answer lies in a mixture of the two. Whether we can find that answer depends much more on improving our education politics than on improving our edu­cation policy.” (ital mine)

Risen’s reply caught the attention of former newspaperman Joe Williams, now head honcho of Democrats for Education Reform.  Knowing that space is at a premium in print, Joe asked Risen to expand on his reply in the Atlantic’s letters section.  Risen notes that the “Broader, Bolder” group and the Joel Klein and Al Sharpton led Education Equality Project are both working toward the same goal and with policies that should be mutually compatible, yet find themselves at odds politically. Says Risen:

Rhee and Co. are, in my view, too eager to reject policies that addresses anything other than teacher quality and too hostile toward anything that smacks of establishment thinking, from unions to teacher colleges. And they’re not entirely wrong–I fear that while many of the signatories to EPI’s “A Broader, Bolder Approach” manifesto are well-intentioned (the list, after all, includes Education Secretary Arne Duncan), too often this wing of the education sector falls into the role of stalking horse for those who prefer the status quo to the disruptive changes that true reform would bring.

Thus a painful paradox: At a moment when education policy is making real strides, our education politics is stuck in a narrow, short-sighted, antagonistic framework in which each side would rather paint the other as anti-student than admit that it might actually have something to contribute. That’s the irony of Michelle Rhee: As a policy thinker and a force for change she is precisely what Washington needs, but she is so politically untuned, so antagonistic toward unions and teacher colleges and the City Council and anything else that might require negotiation and compromise, that she is preventing her policy vision from being realized.

Sound familiar?  In selecting Arne Duncan, who signed on to both ed manifestos as his Education Secretary, President-Elect Obama “understands the need to bring all sides to the table,” Risen believes, “not to minimize dissent but because everyone has something to contribute.”  But each side, he says will have to “concede certain policy principles.”

While teacher accountability is a vital element of reform, for example, it is vital to recognize that teachers are also workers, parents, and taxpayers, not automatons who can be expected to sacrifice everything to student achievement. Nor should we expect them to build lasting relationships with their students if they are spending all their time worried about their job security. While some aspects of teacher tenure and job protections should be relaxed, making them at-will employees is asking too much.  On the flip side, teachers need to recognize that they are not just another class of workers, and that they cannot always make the same demands that, say, teamsters do. Districts need the flexibility to demand a little extra from them, even if it means longer hours.

It’s a political truism that conservatives seek out converts, while progressives hunt down heretics.  The party labels notwithstanding, it sometimes seems the same is true in education debates–too much concern with heresy, not enough with efficacy.  Risen’s “bafflingly obvious” perspective deserves a hearing.  And kudos to Joe Williams and DFER for giving Risen the space to say what needed to be said.

What It Takes

by Robert Pondiscio
November 26th, 2008

Over at Eduwonk, Andy Rotherham posts a pair slides of 7th-grade writing assignments from two different middle schools in California, culled from a presentation by Ed Trust.  In the first, students are asked to submit a detailed character analysis of Anne Frank; the second asks students to write about “my best friend” or “a chore I hate.” The point is stark and obvious.  ”When you hear people talk about the expectations gap, this is the sort of thing they are talking about,” Rotherham writes. 

Would that it were so simple as “raising expectations.”  In the comments section, the smart and fiery John Thompson, an occasional contributor to this blog, describes a disappointing exercise at his Oklahoma City high school similar to the one posted by Eduwonk, and gets to the heart of the empty slogan that is “high expectations.” 

Had it been done as a wake-up call, and a first step towards raising standards, it would have been constructive. Had they asked why some teachers wrongly lowered standards too much, making class dull, it would have been a great professional development tool. Had they addressed the extreme classroom disruptions in neighborhood 7th grade classes that make it virtually impossible to do more than busywork, it would have been a contructive excercise….But our district leaders had the the same visceral response as you seem to be having, and mandated immediate and much much higher standards. Instantly, many core teachers were intimidated into teaching five years above the students reading level, and failure rates soared to 95% in some. The dropout rate exploded and the distrcit immediately abandoned the experiment.

“The reality is so shameful, when administrators/lobbyists with no relevant experience in the classroom come in contact with it, they have no idea how complex the problem is,” writes Thompson. ”Then when the consultants offer the simple and free solution of just “raise expectations,” the blame and shame game takes over, and the students are hurt even more.”

In my own comments on Eduwonk, I point out that curriculum is an undiscussed piece of the “high expectations” dodge.  To John’s point, students don’t just show up in middle school five years behind their higher-achieving peers.  You can’t feed kids a thin gruel of content-free, “self-directed” reading and writing for their entire academic career and then expect them to suddenly be able to write a nuanced character study of Anne Frank in the 7th grade.  You can’t ask kids to do “self-directed” writing about their family, their friends and their personal experiences throughout elementary school to the exclusion of nearly all else, then expect them to dazzle you with their insights into literature in middle school. 

The policy community, alas, continues to be nearly silent on curriculum, focusing instead on incentives, “teacher quality,” and other structual issues.  Read Eduwonk’s post and the responses.  May I humbly submit that the time has long since come to a) start looking at what students are actually being taught and, b) listening to teachers?

Who’s Bigger?

by Robert Pondiscio
November 20th, 2008

Fordham’s Mike Petrilli is showing us no love. 

Mike has a piece about edublogs in the new Education Next.  It’s good; you should read it.  But in a table of the top education policy blogs, the Core Knowledge blog is conspicuously absent.  And it’s not like we wouldn’t have made the Top Ten, based on Mike’s methodology, Technorati’s “authority ranking” — the number of blogs linking to a particular blog in the past 180 days. 

Here’s how the edublogs in my bookmark list stack up based on Technorati’s authority rankings:

Joanne Jacobs  217
Eduwonkette  167
Eduwonk  146
Campaign K-12  125
The Education Wonks  119
Flypaper  95
Jay P. Greene  93
The Quick and the Ed  87
Matthew K. Tabor  85
Core Knowledge 84
This Week in Education  79
Edwize  74
Intercepts  69
Schools Matter  68
Bridging Differences 66
D-Ed Reckoning 56
Edspresso  46
NCLB Act II  40
Sherman Dorn 39
Eduflack 29
Swift and Change Able 27
Thoughts on Education Policy 25

Note, this list excludes pure teacher blogs, even though some of them do veer off (how could they not?) into policy from time to time.  Petrilli’s piece, meanwhile, heaps well-earned praise on Eduwonkette, who came out of nowhere in the past year to (by Mike’s Top Ten list) become the Top Wonk.

The story of Eduwonkette is particularly illuminating; she was recently revealed to be Jennifer Jennings, a graduate student in sociology at Columbia University. Rather than merely toiling away in the vineyards of the American Educational Research Association, writing papers for fellow academics, she recently overtook Eduwonk as the top education policy blogger, even though her competitor is a former Clinton White House aide and cofounder of a major Washington education think tank. It’s clichéd to say that the Internet evens the playing field and makes the traditional trappings of power and influence obsolete, but so it is.

Mike is also dead-on in noting the absence of an authoritative parenting blog.  “There’s no significant parent voice in the national online conversation,” he writes, “just as there’s no national parent advocacy group in Washington. That’s a real shame; someone should blog about it.”

Sound of Silence

by Robert Pondiscio
October 14th, 2008

USA Today’s Greg Toppo takes note of the presidential candidates’ debate on education, or lack thereof, and sounds the same tone of non-surprise as the rest of us.  “The USA’s teetering economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have all but squeezed out education,” he notes, “a topic important to previous elections.”

Still, the paper produces a nice chart detailing the various stands and pronouncments by the McCain and Obama camps.  “The two split most notably on how much federal funding they believe schools can expect in 2009 and beyond,” Toppo writes.  “They also have different visions of what drives schools to improve. Obama focuses on improving teacher quality. McCain cites competition from taxpayer-supported private schools along with independently and publicly funded charter schools.”

On the Other Hand: Blogs Give Teachers a Voice in Ed Policy

by Guest Blogger
June 26th, 2008

by John Thompson

I very much appreciate this guest blogger opportunity. The first time I posted a comment, it was on Gerald Bracey’s blog, EDDRA.  I drafted and redrafted my statement before finishing with LBJ’s lament, “where can I find a one-handed economist?” I was so proud when a reply from a famed economist arrived in my mailbox. My wisdom was not mentioned, but it was Truman’s quote, not LBJ’s, I was told.

The motto of public education today should be “Inequality. It’s our greatest product.”

Despite this ignominious introduction, I’ve come to see the blogs as a modern day Village Green.  Having come to teaching at the age of forty, I had plenty of experience in academic and political battles. On the other hand, when I joined the fray in the role of a teacher, an asterisk seemed to be attached identifying me as just a teacher.  I wish that teachers had more opportunity to express their practical experience in the administration and the governmental offices across the nation, but at least in the edusphere we are welcome.

The wonderful discussion in the edusphere about policy and politics needs to be balanced by the practical experience of teachers. On the other hand, education is too important to be left to the educators.

We face a paradox. If our poor children are to have a future in the global economy, we need more than incremental change. High school, as we know it, is obsolete. Inner city middle schools may be the most dysfunctional institution in America. Richard Elmore is correct. The motto of public education today should be “Inequality. It’s our greatest product.”

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