Building a Better Edsel

by Robert Pondiscio
May 20th, 2011

Update:  Kitchen Table Math picks up the thread here and here.  Likewise Diana Senechal, guest blogging at Joanne Jacobs, here.

If you’ve spent any time at all on this blog, you’ve been treated—OK, subjected—to occasional rants about mainstream education reform’s blind spot on curriculum and instruction.  Teaching is a management issue; something to be measured by standardized tests.  And curriculum?  Hey, in the hands of a great teacher, every curriculum is great.  Or something like that.  With charters to build, tests to administer and performances to judge reformers remain largely agnostic, incurious or just plain indifferent about what happens inside the classroom.  This myopia informs policy:  Race to the Top enshrined 19 different fixes for American schools.  Curriculum didn’t make the cut.  If you were in charge of fixing America’s schools, could you find 19 things for your To Do list before you get around to curriculum? Seriously?  

A fascinating email found its way into my inbox last week describing a visit to a high profile, “no excuses” charter school.  The email was written by someone who is solidly pro-reform and strongly pro-charter.   She spent the morning visiting Big Name Charter and pronounced herself aghast.  “The school is fantastically well run, and the kids are on task —- and it is all fuzzery all the time. The reading curriculum is Fountas and Pinnell; the math curriculum is so bad it has sparked parent uprisings across the country,” she writes.

“Teachers aren’t allowed to use direct instruction for longer than a few  minutes; then the students must repair to their pods and discover knowledge. After they discover knowledge, which means solving ONE problem, they return to the rug and explain their “strategies” to each other.  Although the school prides itself on efficient use of time, the students I saw were spending a lot of time doing nothing at all while they waited for the other kids to finish so the whole group could migrate back to the rug.  

“Everything was ordered and timed and assessed, yet the curriculum is crap,” the observer concludes.  

How can this happen, she wanted to know, in a school that prides itself on data-driven decision-making?  What kind of data, she asked, did they use when it came time to choose a curriculum?  Tellingly, she notes it was the one moment where her host “suddenly sounded like a regular denizen of public education.”

“Tests can’t tell you that much about whether a curriculum is good because some of the kids taking the tests might have been tired that day; the only way you can decide on curriculum is to go into the classroom and ask a child a question and get his response. That’s how you “know.”  

“This is a data-driven school, and they don’t use data to choose curriculum,” she fumed.  I wish I could say I’m surprised.  When it comes to curriculum and instruction, a field that can’t reach consensus about anything suddenly treats what children should learn and how they should learn it as settled.  If your primary concern is measuring teacher perfomance, you are assuming–are you not?–that what is to be taught and learned has been established.  All that’s left to do is separate good practitioners from bad ones.

If you had a time machine and put a team of leading ed reformers in charge of the Edsel at Ford Motor Company 50 years ago, they would set to work energetically measuring the productivity of assembly workers (because we know—we know—that great assembly workers are the most important contributor to success in manufacturing). They would put a bonus plan in place to reward them when sales improved.  And when that failed, they would shut down plants turning out Edsels that sold poorly and build brand new plants.  

To make more Edsels.  

Meanwhile, across town, critics point to wages and working conditions and ask how assembly workers can build better Edsels when they can’t feed their families or afford better health care?  You can’t possibly fix the Edsel unless you fix that first.

Back to Big Name Charter School.  By all available data, the school described above is doing very, very well. That said, the oldest students are still young, and the big challenges lie ahead: Will they avoid the 8th grade slump?  Will they keep their low-income, minority students in the fold through high school?  What then?  

The long view may be slowly, quietly emerging–as it should and must–as the question in education reform.  To their great credit, KIPP recently released a remarkable report on the college completion rates of its students.  It shows “only 33 percent of students who completed a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college.”  Surprised?  You shouldn’t be.  It’s slightly better that the 30% college completion rate of Americans at large, and four times better than the average for the low-income minority population KIPP serves. That’s no mean feat. But the feel-good narrative driven by boosters of these schools — high graduation rates, first kids in their families to go to college, etc. – has tended to obscure how bewilderingly difficult it is to fulfill the mission that schools like Big Name Charter have set for themselves—to get kids not through the next standardized test, but on to college and the royal road to upward mobility and productive adult lives.  

How hard is that?  Bear in mind that based on the 2010 ACT test results, fewer than one in four U.S. high school graduates (24%) are prepared to do C-level work or better in all four tested areas.  That’s ALL college-bound students—not the hard-to-serve students typically served by KIPP and other “no excuses” charters, including the one visited by my correspondent.  Seen through this prism, even closing the achievement gap starts to seem like small beer.   It means nothing less (and nothing more) than bringing under-represented students up to the very same level of mediocrity that has persisted across the board for decades.  

The bottom line: There are undoubtedly process problems in American education.  But the biggest problem is the product.  And rather than face up to this, many of our most dynamic and energetic education leaders remain committed to the best possible delivery of the worst possible product.  Billions of dollars and countless energy expended in search of ways to build the best possible Edsel.  
 
I remain deeply impressed by the purposefulness, energy, positive school tone, etc. of the best of the “no excuses” schools.  But to answer the question “Are these schools effective?” will take many more years.  My best guess is that absent a much more rigorous course of study, an end to our obsession with skills-focused education, and getting over our long-standing aversion to a content-rich curriculum, you will over time see a fadeout.  Many of the kids in these schools will do well, and certainly far better than they would have otherwise.   Many more will regress to the mean.  And then we will conclude that the issue is poor teaching, lack of accountability, incentives, unions, the inevitable effects of poverty, lack of parental support and blah, blah, blah.

And no one will think to mention the curriculum.

Says Who? Lots of Folks, Actually…

by Robert Pondiscio
May 9th, 2011

Whitney Tilson, ed reform’s most aggressively outspoken acolyte, is cranky with those who think reformers “don’t acknowledge the importance of factors outside of a school’s control like poverty.”  And he’s none too happy with the idea that reformers “demonize teachers.”  In his latest ed reform email blast, he throws down the gauntlet:

“I challenge anyone to show me even one quote from one leading reformer who says that reforming the schools is all that is needed or who believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that’s required to improve student performance.”

Excuse, me Mr. Tilson, I think you dropped your glove.  Let me get that for you.  It took me all of 30 minutes of Googling to come up with these memorable bon mots:

1.  “By our estimates from Texas schools, having an above average teacher for five years running can completely close the average gap between low-income students and others.” Steve Rivkin, Rick Hanushek, and John Kain.

2.  “Having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.” Robert Gordon, Tom Kane, and Doug Staiger.

3.  “We know for poor minority children, if they have three highly effective teachers in a row, versus three ineffective teachers in a row, it can literally change their life trajectory.”  Michelle Rhee.

Reading these quotes in rapid succession feels like watching the old game show Name That Tune.  Isn’t anyone going to say “I can close that gap in TWO years”?  OK, reformers….Close that gap!  But, in fairness to Tilson, at least no one is saying poverty and outside factors aren’t a factor and teachers can overcome every obstacle. 

Er….um….well….

4.  “Florida is debunking the myth that some kids can’t learn because of life’s circumstances. The state has proven that a quality education and great teachers can overcome the obstacles of poverty, language barriers and broken homes. Florida is now forging a seismic path for modernizing the teaching profession nationwide.”  Jeb Bush.

5.  “What I know for sure is whether your family is well-off or not, functional or dysfunctional — no matter what your familial circumstances are — a great teacher can overcome the challenges that a child is facing so that they have a good chance of a productive life. I’m not discounting the effects of poverty or kids coming to school hungry, but we can’t use that as an excuse for not reaching our kids. At the end of the day, you know and I know, great teachers who took kids from improbable circumstances and catapulted them to great lives and we have to ensure that this is the norm and not the exception.”  Kaya Henderson, DC Schools Chancellor.

OK, well at least no one within the ed reform movement is making the mistake of saying things are simple and easy.  No, that’s the Amen corner’s job.

6. “Repeat after me: We can’t have great schools without great teachers.  And when you start with that simple truth, the solutions become pretty clear. Let’s recruit our best and brightest. Develop the ones we have to become better teachers. Reward the ones who are doing a great job. Recruit and train talented principals. And after trying everything, help find another job for those teachers who aren’t cutting it.” Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim.

7. “We know what works now and should just go ahead and fund it.” Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter.

Right.  Well at least we have a Secretary of Education who sees the big picture in all its nuance and complexity.

8.  “I think you need a number of things. I think that’s part of the difficulty here  is people look for one simple answer. So, do great teachers matter tremendously? Absolutely. And give an average child three great teachers in a row, and they’re going to be a year-and-a-half to two grade levels ahead. Give the average child three bad teachers in a row, they’ll be so far behind they’ll never catch up.”  Arne Duncan.

The Duncan quote is particularly interesting because he starts out by saying a number of things need to be done, but then states just one thing—teachers, naturally—is enough to get kids not just where they need to be, but ahead.

OK, so if teachers have come to suspect that the world looks at them and thinks the only thing standing between every child and upward mobility is them, it’s not something they just made up.

We are deep into a not terribly productive cycle of rhetorical excess, oversimplification and magical thinking from all sides.  I have often commended the work of Nancy Flanagan, veteran teacher and frequent commenter on this blog, whose Teacher In a Strange Land blog runs at Education Week.  Over the weekend she launched a cri de coeur, calling Duncan out for preaching education as social justice and a ticket out of poverty, while pursuing an agenda of market-based reform.  “I am heartily sick of politicians and educational entrepreneurs using ‘civil rights’ and ‘social justice’ as a rhetorical shield for advancing their own interests and commercial goals,” Flanagan thundered. 

“It’s time to remember the Freedom Riders, who risked their very lives fifty years ago this week, to achieve democratic equality. Not segregated charter schools which a handful of lottery-winners get to attend. Not classrooms staffed by two-year adventure teachers . Not watered-down, low-level curriculum and test items.

I’m deeply sympathetic to many of the items on Flanagan’s bill of particulars.  She loses me, however, when she presumes to judge who is or is not entitled to wrap their reforms in the language, history and terms associated with the civil rights movement.  Frankly, I find myself increasingly likely to stop listening to anyone these days, regardless of their cause or concern, the moment they start nattering on about the new front in the civil rights movement, who favors the status quo, who puts the interests of adults ahead of children, or whose reform is more disruptive. 

News flash:  This #$%@! is really, really hard and bewildering in its complexity.  But you knew that.

Private School Student, Public School Reformer

by Robert Pondiscio
April 19th, 2011

Many of the most prominent names in education reform attended private schools as children, observes Michael Winerip of the New York Times.  Does their background “give them a much-needed distance and fresh perspective to better critique and remake traditional public schools?” he asks.  “Does it make them distrust public schools — or even worse — poison their perception of them? Or does it make any difference?”

Winerip provides a substantial list of reform leaders and the private schools they attended including Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Jeb Bush, Fordham’s Checker Finn, and “Waiting for Superman” director Davis Guggenheim among many others.   Ed reform flame-thrower Whitney Tilson, a hedge fund manager and one of the founders of Democrats for Education Reform, responds by calling Winerip “the worst education reporter in America” and a “gutless weasel.”  The piece, he says, is a “biased, error-filled hatchet job.”  And Whitney’s just clearing his throat.

“Winerip exposes, in dramatic and scornful fashion, that a handful of people associated with efforts to reform our K-12 public education system went to – I hope you’re sitting down – PRIVATE high schools!  Oh, what a high crime!  How indefensible!  How DARE such people criticize the existing system when they, for at least four years of their K-12 education, went to a private school!?”

Does it matter what schools ed reformers attended?  It might, but not for the reasons one might initially think.  Those who feel besieged may be quick to criticize private school reformers on issues of class, race and income.  They will no doubt presuppose that presumed privilege and a top-shelf schooling blinds them to the needs of low-income children and the efforts of low-paid teachers.   I don’t agree.   But I do wonder if those who have enjoyed a first-rate education take for granted the content of their education.  Private and parochial schools tend to have fairly set curricula that describes grade-by-grade content with great specificity.  Public schools tend to have “standards” that enumerate the skills kids should demonstrate, while leaving curriculum choices to the teachers.  That’s not a subtle difference.  Yet it may be lost upon those who assume that what one learns in elementary school is settled, and the differences are chiefly in the implementation.  It certainly seems to be lost upon or of no great concern to the vast majority of heavy hitters in ed reform.

Let’s say you’re in 5th grade in a private prep school in Manhattan.  The curriculum says you’re going to learn American history from the explorers through the Civil War and Reconstruction.  In science, you’ll get basic concepts of electricity, ecology and robotics.  It’s your first year of French, Spanish or Mandarin.  You will tackle Great Expectations.  By the end of middle school, you’re pretty much guaranteed a broad, rich basic education across and among academic disciplines. That’s what a good curriculum does.   

In public school, reading is skills-driven and largely dictated by student choice and engagement.  In struggling schools history, science, art and music are the first things cast aside to make room for ever-longer periods of instruction in reading strategies of questionable efficacy.  Test prep puts even greater pressure on the curriculum.  In terms of content in science, history, geography, art and music you’re pretty much guaranteed….well….you’re not guaranteed a thing. 

Nearly no one talks about the academic content of public vs. private schools, but it should not be taken for granted for a nanosecond that they’re comparable.  If you assume that what kids learn is basically the same from school to school, you will naturally assume the only thing you can change is teacher quality, accountability, pay structures and funding formulas.  Do students in public schools get poorer meals, fewer resources and lousy teachers compared to their privileged peers?  Some do, some don’t.  But the one thing most low-SES children certainly do not get is a well-rounded, academic curriculum.  Tilson himself once told me that a good curriculum “is like mom and apple pie. Everyone is in favor of it.” 

But then why are so many children saddled with content-free drivel? 

Like Tilson’s children, my daughter attends a well-regarded Manhattan private school.  For years I would drop her off at school and continue on to the low-performing South Bronx public school where I taught fifth grade. Here’s an observation that will not endear me to the staff or parents association at my daughter’s school:  there were teachers—lots of teachers—at the school where I worked that were clearly stronger  than some of my daughters’ teachers.   I would have gladly swapped some of my colleagues for her teachers.  I would not, however, swap her school for mine.  The magic of her school, at least at the elementary school level, was not in the teachers but in the curriculum and a first-rate, purposeful school tone. 

Tilson’s full-throated rebuttal to Winerip lists a number of bold-faced names in ed reform who attended public schools, including Wendy Kopp, Joel Klein, KIPP’s Mike Feinberg, Norman Atkins of Uncommon Schools, Jay Mathews, Andy Rotherham and Eva Moskowitz, who attended New York City’s competitive-entry Stuyvesant High School.  The distinction may not whether one went to a public or private school, but whether one went to a good school or not, and the assumptions they make about what children do in school all day. 

It took me quite a while, teaching in a low-performing school while my daughter attended a private prep school, to appreciate fully the dramatic difference in their respective curricula.  I wonder how many ed reformers remain blind to the difference.

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.

Ed Reformers for Illiteracy

by Robert Pondiscio
March 8th, 2011

“A common curriculum (whatever that means) is the wrong idea when we’re about ready to develop school of one–not just a 6th grade math program, but fully customized engaging learning sequences for every student,” writes Tom Vander Ark.   His post at EdReformer.com is in response to yesterday’s call signed by 250 educators, civic and business leaders for a common core curriculum. 

There are fewer ideas more seductive than the vision of customized education, where all children remain blissfully engaged solely by the ideas and subjects that interest them, and soar to ever-higher standards on tech-driven wings.  But this splendid vision ignores an inconvenient truth:  all of our most cherished goals for education are a function of the knowledge we possess and have in common with others.  To say that a common curriculum is the wrong idea is to say literacy is the wrong idea.  Let me not mince words:  If you don’t think  a common body of knowledge is important for all children, you don’t think it’s important to teach children to read with understanding, think critically, collaborate, or solve problems.  You can’t have one without the other.

You may not like it, but you cannot ignore it.  Want to build your reform agenda around technology, structural changes, or accountability but take a hands-off approach to curriculum and content?  May I suggest a name for your group?  Try  ”Ed Reformers for Illiteracy.” 

Vander Ark is obviously a smart guy.  But his vision for education is all about delivery systems. Like many would-be reformers, he tacitly endorses a false and content-neutral, skills-driven notion that how children learn is more important than what they learn. 

“Rather than a common curriculum, learning platforms to come will support not just ‘multiple pathways’ but customized playlists.  Customized learning will be facilitated by comprehensive learning platforms surrounded by application and service ecosystems. Learning platforms will replace today’s learning management systems (LMS) that run flat and sequential courseware.  Like iPhone and Android, these platforms will unleash investment and innovation.

Dazzled yet?  Before you call your broker and load up on Apple and Cisco stock understand that if we don’t attend to what we put through these brave new pipelines, playlists and service ecosystems–or say it doesn’t matter–we will make no progress.  Zip.  Zilch. Nada. 

In a speech in Virginia last month, E.D. Hirsch, Jr. invoked Jefferson’s admonition that we “follow truth wherever it may lead.”  Where it leads — inevitably, incontrovertibly — is to understand that ”a coherent and cumulative early curriculum will raise in a systematic way the knowledge and the language of our students to a much higher level, and greatly narrow the unacceptable achievement gap between blacks and whites and between other demographic groups.”   If you want to raise a child’s general level of reading skill, you must raise his or her “domain specific” knowledge.  There is no way around it.  As Hirsch put it,

“The domain specificity of skill is one of the firmest, and educationally most important, findings in modern cognitive science.   It means that if you have learned a lot about chemistry, that won’t help your critical thinking skills in history.   Cognitive scientists have become quite skeptical of concepts like “critical thinking skills” as though they were a formal acquisition that can be applied to all subject matters.   Science has pulled the rug out from under the entire edifice of the anti-fact, how-to theory of education which has dominated in our schools for many decades, and was the chief cause of the verbal decline that appeared in the sixties that gravely weakened our nation.”

As Hirsch noted, you may not like where this leads, but you can’t pretend the facts aren’t there and the path isn’t clear.  “Consider then what the principle of domain specificity means for educational policy,” he said.  “It implies specific content in the curriculum, and a cumulative building up of the most enabling knowledge and language for all students.   The human capital of our people, the skills that our students will have will be dependent on the specific knowledge they have.  We cannot afford to leave the choice of specific topics and their cumulative sequence up to chance and whim.” [Italics mine.]

Hirsch was being polite.  I will be less so.  If you are opposed teaching a common body of shared knowledge to all children, you are opposed to teaching children to read.  You are in favor of illiteracy, either by choice or indifference.  You favor damaging our most vulnerable children by denying them the most critical thing: the functional knowledge they need to succeed. 

Deal with it, don’t ignore it.  Follow the facts where they lead.  Not just where you want them to take you.

A Curriculum Manifesto

by Robert Pondiscio
March 7th, 2011

A call for voluntary common curriculum has been issued today by a surprisingly diverse group of education, business and civic leaders.  The “Call for Common Content” issued by the Albert Shanker Institute, calls for a ”coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the content knowledge and skills that all students are expected to learn, over time, in a thoughtful progression across the grades.”

Among the dozens of signatories are Kati Haycock of the Education Trust, Linda Darling-Hammond, Tom Payzant, IBM Chairman Lou Gerstner, the Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn, and Harvard’s William Julius Wilson.  Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. and President Linda Bevilacqua also signed. 

The statement supports Common Core State Standards, but makes the point long argued on this blog that while such standards are praiseworthy, they are not a curriculum–and are unlikely to amount to much in the absence of a shared curriculum.  “To be clear, by ‘curriculum’ we mean a coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the content knowledge and skills that all students are expected to learn, over time, in a thoughtful progression across the grades,” reads the statement.  “We do not mean performance standards, textbook offerings, daily lesson plans, or rigid pedagogical prescriptions.”

The manifesto addresses head-on the fear of “centralization, institutional rigidity, and narrow-minded political orthodoxy” that typically strangles any discussion of a common curriculum in its crib.  “Common curriculum guidance does not represent a straitjacket or a narrowing of learning possibilities,” it reads.  The proposed curriculum guidelines would be “purely voluntary, comprising only about 50 to 60 percent of what is to be taught”—leaving room for state, regional, and local variations.

One of the most practical arguments for a common curriculum has long been the extraordinary rates of student mobility, especially among low-SES students.  And one of the most valuable contributions of the document is its contextualization of the role of poverty in student achievement—lifting the debate from narrow and needlessly polarized arguments about whether “demographics is destiny” or “teachers can overcome all obstacles”   Economically advantaged children come to school with a head start in knowledge and language acquisition.  “It is not poverty in itself, but poverty’s accompanying life conditions that help to explain performance gaps that begin at home and extend into secondary school and beyond,” the statement notes.

“Today, the information we need to minimize these performance gaps is in our hands, waiting to be used. Thanks to advances in cognitive science, we now understand that reading comprehension — so essential to almost all academic learning — depends in large part on knowledge. In experiments, when students who are “poor” readers are asked to read about a topic they know well (such as baseball), they do much better on comprehension measures than “good” readers who know less about the subject.

“The systematic effort to establish common, knowledge-building content must therefore begin as early as possible. The younger we start, the greater the hope that we can boost achievement across all schools and classrooms, but especially among our most disadvantaged students. Further, by articulating learning progressions linked to a grade-by-grade sequence for how learning should build over time, a defined curriculum will better enable each teacher to build on what students have already been taught. Students will also benefit, as they will be much less likely to find themselves either struggling to overcome gaps in their knowledge or bored by the repetition of what they have already learned.”

The manifesto also anticipates and addresses other knee-jerk objections that typically derail discussions of a common curriculum.  Critical thinking skills, highly prized as a goal of schooling, for example, “requires a curriculum that builds knowledge upon knowledge.”

“Finally, some may fear that common curriculum guidance will neglect important cultural referents or ignore the diversity of student experiences. However, as national curriculum standards in several high-performing nations illustrate, a modern conception of curriculum in a diverse nation is explicitly mindful of how to attend to cultural connections, and how to leave room for local adaptations and resources that enable students to connect to the curriculum from their different vantage points.”

The New York Times previewed today’s release of the statement, noting that previous calls for common academic standards, curricular materials and tests for use nationwide have been “beaten back” by those who favor local control of schools. “But last year’s successful standards-writing movement was a departure, leaving the outlook for this proposal uncertain,” writes the Times’ Sam Dillon.

I’m as sanguine about a common curriculum and convinced of the need as anyone.  Still, there will continue to be those who resist calls for common anything – standards or curriculum.  What’s encouraging about the statement and the Who’s Who of heavyweights who have lent their names to it, is its recognition that the preponderance of evidence is on the side of knowledge and language acquisition as the difference maker in raising achievement.  In that regard, it is an implicit challenge to would-be ed reformers to embrace not just structural change but instructional imperatives. 

I’ll resist the worn-out phrase “game changer.”  I’ll settle for “conversation changer.”

The End of the Rock Star Teacher

by Robert Pondiscio
February 15th, 2011

Note: A version of this post appears today on the website of Education Next, which recently asked me to review Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion and Steve Farr’s Teaching as Leadership.   The review of the Lemov will run in the upcoming issue of Ed Next, but is on the magazine’s website today.  A blog post about the Farr book appears here.   — rp.

The first five words of Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion, are “Great teaching is an art.”  This is not a promising start. 

Well over three million women and men stand in front of classrooms every day in the U.S.  It is too much to hope for, and always will be, that more than a small percentage of them will be artists, great, bad or mediocre.  The degree to which we pin our hopes for large scale school improvement on attracting artists and rock stars to the classroom is the degree to which we plan to fail.  With an average salary of $52,000—an income level on par with electricians, probation officers, and funeral directors – teachers will not be recruited exclusively from the top ranks of college graduates. 

All is not lost.  After dispensing with those five poorly chosen words, Lemov spends the next 300 pages of his remarkable book completely contradicting his opening sentence, demonstrating in convincing detail that teaching is not an art at all, but a craft—a series of techniques that can be identified, learned, practiced and perfected.  In doing so, he has produced what may be the most important education book in a generation.  His focused, obsessively practical study of what makes teachers effective could—and should—shift the terms of our increasingly vitriolic national debate from “teacher quality to “quality teaching.”  This is no mere semantic distinction.  The difference is not who is in the front of the room. The difference is what that person does.  Lemov’s achievement is to examine effective teaching at the molecular level.   By doing so, he may have rescued education reform from its implicit dependence on classroom saints and superheroes.   It is an indispensible shift.  If teaching effectively is something for the best and the brightest, rather than the merely dedicated and diligent, education reform is finished, now and forever. Read the rest of this entry »

It Could Always Be Worse

by Robert Pondiscio
February 10th, 2011

At This Week in Education, Alexander Russo had an epiphany.  “I am finally realizing that one of the main things that divides the reformy types from career educators is the thought that reform could make things worse rather than better,” Russo wrote.

“This possibility might seem hard to believe for reformers, many of whom can’t imagine things being any worse. But for those with a longer perspective (historical, personal, professional) the possibility of things going from bad to worse is real; they’ve seen good but wrong-headed ideas take root before, sucking energy away and wasting a lot of time, and they know that there’s no guarantee that the current status is a baseline below which nothing worse can happen. It’s simply where we are now. I’ve been writing about the reform/education divide for four or five years now and it’s only now that I’m finally getting this. I’m sure many others figured it out long ago.”

A-Rus’s post no doubt had many career educators and reform resisters yelling “Yes! Yes!!” in a rough approximation of Meg Ryan’s diner scene in When Harry Met Sally.   His point is precisely right.  It’s not mere intransigence that prompts resistance.  And smug rhetoric about putting the interest of adults ahead of children or favoring the status quo doesn’t help (neither does impugning the motives of those who back charters, choice, testing, etc.)

Personally, I’ve always applied the “The Tiffany Test” (after a favorite former student of mine) to all reform ideas:  Will this make it more likely or less likely that Tiffany will get the kind of complete, rich, and robust education that will enable her to reach her full potential academically?  It’s surprising how rarely the answer is in the affirmative.

Update:  Nancy Flanagan weighs in with a far better, more thoughtful post than mine.

Urban Schools Have Become “Puppy Mills”

by Robert Pondiscio
January 31st, 2011

Teacher Gerry Garibaldi’s urban Connecticut high school is not short on resources.  “We don’t want for books—or for any of the cutting-edge gizmos that non–Title I schools can’t afford: computerized whiteboards, Elmo projectors, the works,” he writes in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.  But all the money and reforms can’t help a problem no one wants to confront: teen pregnancy.  “This year, all of my favorite girls are pregnant, four in all, future unwed mothers every one,” he writes.  “There will be no innovation in this quarter, no race to the top. Personal moral accountability is the electrified rail that no politician wants to touch.”

“In today’s urban high school, there is no shame or social ostracism when girls become pregnant. Other girls in school want to pat their stomachs. Their friends throw baby showers at which meager little gifts are given. After delivery, the girls return to school with baby pictures on their cell phones or slipped into their binders, which they eagerly share with me. Often they sit together in my classes, sharing insights into parenting, discussing the taste of Pedialite or the exhaustion that goes with the job. On my way home at night, I often see my students in the projects that surround our school, pushing their strollers or hanging out on their stoops instead of doing their homework.”

Connecticut is particularly generous to unwed mothers, Garibaldi writes. But those benefits are tantamount to a public endorsement of single motherhood, “one that has turned our urban high schools into puppy mills. The safety net has become a hammock,” he notes. 

Garibaldi’s moving piece describes his efforts to teach journalism to several teenage mothers-to-be–girls who read on the 5th grade level in high school, and expect (and receive) no help from the fathers of their children.  “The young father almost always greets the pregnancy with adolescent excitement, as if a baby were a new Xbox game,” he writes.  “But a boy’s interest in his child quickly vanishes. When I ask girls if the father is helping out with the baby, they shrug. ‘I don’t care if he does or not,’ I’ve heard too often.”

I keep in touch with a substantial number of my former South Bronx students.  Garibaldi’s piece arrived in my inbox minutes after I left a message for one of my favorite, if most troubled, former students–an exceptionally bright, emotionally volatile young woman who at 17 has just given birth to her second child.  Still in the foster care system, she lives with the mother of the young man who fathered her children.  I asked her if she has the help she needs with her babies; she asked me for help finding a school where she can finish up so she can go to college.  It sounds hopeful, but I’ve learned to temper my expectations.  Last year I made arrangements after the birth of her first child for her to attend a transfer school with an array of support services, she failed even to show up to take an entrance exam she could have aced in her sleep.

Another of my former students, 18, who stopped going to school after 9th grade and last year stopped attending even her GED classes, recently posted on Facebook that she is pregnant. She regularly puts up pictures of her tattoed and swelling belly and updates her status daily with news of her clearly unstable relationship with the baby’s father–another former student she refers to as her “hubby.”  A sweet and trusting young woman, it would be disingenuous of me not to admit that I could see this one coming years ago.  Her page overflows with congratulatory messages from friends and family members about the baby, and profane advice on what to do with ”hubby.”

Back to Garibaldi:

“Every fall, new education theories arrive, born like orchids in the hothouses of big-time university education departments. Urban teachers are always first in line for each new bloom. We’ve been retrofitted as teachers a dozen times over. This year’s innovation is the Data Wall, a strategy in which teachers must test endlessly in order to produce data about students’ progress. The Obama administration has spent lavishly to ensure that professional consultants monitor its implementation.  Every year, the national statistics summon a fresh chorus of outrage at the failure of urban public schools,” he concludes. “Next year, I fear, will be little different.”

Just so.

You Want Fries with that B.A.?

by Robert Pondiscio
January 13th, 2011

Over at the Cato@Liberty blog, Neal McCluskey points out a sobering and under-discussed phenomenon: huge numbers of college graduates are taking jobs that don’t require college degrees.  He cites a recent study from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity:

Evidence shows that currently more than one-third of college graduates hold jobs that governmental employment experts tell us require less than a college degree. That proportion of underemployed college graduates has tripled over the past four decades.

The study points out the percentage of those in 20 “non-college” professions who have at least a Bachelor’s degree: baggage porters and bellhops (17.39%), bartenders (16%), administrative assistants (16.64%) and taxi drivers or chauffers (15.15%).   Before I push the panic button, I’d like to see data on how many degree holders are still in non-college jobs five or more years after graduation–plenty of us paid dues in entry level jobs right out of college–but the larger debate is an interesting one.  It should give pause to those of us who blithely sell the notion that without college, kids are consigned to second-class citizenship. 

“Many people, it seems, just assume that more education — without ever looking at what actually goes on in higher ed — is always a good thing,” McCluskey concludes, “while others believe that government should constantly funnel money to our precious ivory towers no matter how little of concrete value taxpayers get for their dough.”

In a post last year on “romanticism vs. determinism” in education, former teacher Walt Gardner argued:

If students don’t like to read and prefer working with their hands, for example, why counsel them to apply to a four-year liberal arts college? At best, they might pass through. Wouldn’t they be better off going to a community college to learn a trade in line with their interests? Or what about apprenticeships in the field of their choosing? Why is this blue collar work considered less worthy of respect?

Ultimately, perhaps the ideal outcome for K-12 is to keep as many doors open as long as possible, while not sending the message, as Jonathan Alter (if I recall his words correctly) put it in Waiting for Superman, that you’re going nowhere without college.  “Let’s hope that the record percentage of female and male high school graduates now enrolled in college get their money’s worth,” Gardner memorably concluded in his piece last September.  “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but let’s not forget either that debt is a terrible thing to carry.”