We are excited to announce the premiere of a new Learning Matters production, "Follow the Leader," a web-only series that will, we hope, reveal a great deal about the men and women who lead American education. Your guide in this new series is Sam Chaltain, an educator and writer of great sensibility and intelligence. The first leader we chose to follow for a day is Josh Starr, the current Superintendent of Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland-and someone on the short list, we hear, to be Chancellor of the New York City schools.
Here's the link to the 2-part series.
Here's what Sam sent to his contacts: "Since his surprising victory last month, New York mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has sparked curiosity around the country as to whether his education policies will be the sort that make a progressive like John Dewey proud.
Speculation abounds as to whom he might choose to become the next schools chancellor of NYC -- and recently, I spent a day with one of the leading contenders, Josh Starr, as part of a new web series for Learning Matters called "Follow the Leader."
I did everything he did -- from 5:30am workouts to 3-hour budget meetings. Along the way, I learned a lot about what it's like to be an urban superintendent and got a preview of the type of leadership he might bring to the top job in New York City."
Of course, we would love to hear your reactions to the premiere edition (post them here, please). And we want your recommendations. What other leaders would you like Sam to follow for a day? We're operating under a big umbrella, meaning that we are defining 'leader' very broadly. We look forward to hearing from you.
Like many of you, I gave thanks for our public schools and their teachers during American Education Week, which just ended. Now, during Thanksgiving week, I suggest we give thanks for our public libraries.
First of all, they're everywhere: "If you have ever felt overwhelmed by the ubiquity of McDonald's, this stat may make your day: There are more public libraries (about 17,000) in America than outposts of the burger mega-chain (about 14,000). The same is true of Starbucks (about 11,000 coffee shops nationally)." So wrote Emily Badger in the Atlantic Cities back in June. She adds that libraries serve 96.4% of the US population. While that does not mean that nearly everyone uses a public library, they could if they wanted to.
Public libraries are aggressive because they have to be; they need people coming through their doors, and so they provide internet access, loans of DVDs and more, all with the endgame of promoting literacy.
The strategy of meeting the public's needs seems to be working: Library membership and usage are up in most parts of the country, even though public financial support has been declining. Here in New York City for example, circulation, participation in educational programs and the number of visitors are up by 45% on average, although funding from the City is down 18%, according to the Library's President, Tony Marx.
New York's public library system could be a national model for how to work with schools. NYPL main library and its branch libraries deliver books to about 600 of the city's 1700 public schools, when requested by students and teachers. The aim, Dr. Marx told me, is to supplement school libraries "...so that those libraries can also circulate from our 17 million books and better meet needs, rather than forcing students and teachers to rely only on the books they have in their own small collections." His goal, he said, is to support school libraries and learning everywhere-and to give every child a (free) library card.
I have been a fan of libraries for a long time, probably because, when we were kids, our Mom was a regular patron of our local public library. In the Preface to The Influence of Teachers, I wrote:
Just a few years ago, libraries and schools were the places that stored knowledge--on microfiche, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and in the heads of the adults in charge. We had to go there to gain access to that knowledge.
Not any more. Today knowledge and information are everywhere, 24/7, thanks to the Internet. Unless libraries have been closed because of budget cuts, they have adapted to this new world. Most have become multi-purpose centers with Internet access that distribute books, audio books and DVD's. Librarians encourage patrons to ask questions, because they need to keep the public coming through their doors.
By contrast, schools remain a monopoly, places where children are expected to answer questions, by filling in the bubbles or blanks and by speaking up when called upon.
Those thoughts can be condensed into a bumper sticker: "People go to libraries to find answers to their own questions. We make kids go to schools to answer someone else's." It's not that simple, of course, because there are schools and teachers that insist on students taking control of their own education, and some teachers pose questions that they themselves do not know the answers to--and then enlist their students in figuring it out. 
But schools in general aren't changing fast enough. It's time to recognize that, because our children are growing up swimming in a sea of information, it's incumbent upon adults to make certain that the institutions we force kids to attend are teaching them how to formulate questions, not merely regurgitate answers to the questions we pose. Meeting that challenge will require a sea change by the people in charge, and all the talk about 'deeper learning,' 'blended learning' and 'flipped classrooms' won't amount to much if we don't make that fundamental change.
The old saying, "If you can read this, thank a teacher," still resonates. but I would add, "If you are a reader, you probably should thank a library."
I write the songs that make the whole world sing.
I write the songs of love and special things.
I write the songs that make the young girls cry.
I write the songs, I write the songs.
No doubt that the Barry Manilow tune is now playing in the heads of most readers. But who "writes the songs" in the larger sense of the term? Who and what determine how we look at the world, what you might call our 'political narrative'?
We know this matters. Time and again research has shown the power of preconceptions over conclusions and decisions. If people are led to believe that a particular artist's work is masterful or a certain composer's music is sophisticated, that's what most people are likely to see and hear. When a teacher is told that her students have low potential, those kids somehow end up performing poorly; conversely, if the teacher is told the students are gifted, that's how they do in class. That's the influence of the narrative.
What I find intriguing is the power of the current narrative about public education, which goes this way:"Effective teachers are the cornerstone of quality education, and, because so many of our public schools are failing today, it stands to reason that our schools must have a surfeit of ineffective teachers. Ergo, to reform education, we must drive out those bad teachers and replace them with quality teachers who will produce higher scores on standardized tests."
Once one accepts that narrative, it makes sense to evaluate and fire teachers based on student test scores. Accept that narrative, and it's logical for the federal government to award millions of "Race to the Top" dollars to states which agree to evaluate teachers based on test scores.
When I wrote about the public narrative about education just three years ago, the two sides were engaged in a fierce battle, and the outcome was still in doubt.
"On one side in this battle is a cadre of prominent superintendents and wealthy hedge fund managers. Led by former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, 15 leading school superintendents issued a 1379-word manifesto in October 2010 asserting that the difficulty of removing incompetent teachers 'has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.'
This side believes in charter schools, Teach for America, and paying teachers based on their students' test scores. Publicly pushing this 'free market' line is a powerful trio: Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for 'Superman' movie; NBC's semi-journalistic exercise, Education Nation; and Oprah Winfrey. And if one movie isn't enough, this side also has The Lottery in the wings.
It has identified the villains: bad teachers and the evil unions that protect them, particularly Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.
The other side is clearly outnumbered: The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the two teacher unions; many teachers and some Democrats. Its villains are No Child Left Behind and its narrow focus on bubble test scores in reading and math. This side's far weaker megaphone is wielded by historian Diane Ravitch, a former Bush education policy-maker turned apostate.
No longer. Now those in what I named the "Better People" camp rule. Their view has become the lens the world is viewed through, 'the new normal.' Of course, teachers will be judged by their students' test scores-and perhaps fired if scores aren't high enough. It's 'the new normal' to accept that we are losing the education race to most of the rest of the world. It's 'the new normal' to set a 'college for everyone' goal. And it's 'the new normal' to support universal early childhood education, even if that means school-like conditions for three- and four-year olds.
Diane Ravitch argues in "Reign of Error" that our schools are not failing, and I don't intend to repeat her arguments here.
What I am interested in are the consequences of accepting this narrative. Of course, it makes life simpler, even black-and-white. Unfortunately, the current narrative has, from my perspective, at least SIX negative consequences.
1) MORE TESTING. I've given up trying to count how many days are given over either to testing or to test-prep in what are called 'the testing grades.' Standardized testing used to begin in third grade, but now we are seeing the downward push for testing in second and even first grades. And while I hate giving free publicity to anyone who's seeking to make money from our testing obsession, I have to provide at least one example of wretched excess, so here it is: http://www.ixl.com/math/pre-k Some teachers have developed practice tests for kindergarteners, to get them ready for their future.
2) TEACHERS BEING JUDGED BY SCORES OF STUDENTS THEY DO NOT TEACH. That's right. It's now possible for a teacher to be rated based on the test results of kids she or he has never seen, let alone taught! There's no standardized testing regimen for physical education, music and other 'fringe' subjects, but 'fairness' demands that all teachers be judged by test scores...and so that's happening. The alternative, by this logic, is to create standardized tests for those subjects-and that's happening too. The adjective 'Kafkaesque' comes to mind.
3). A NARROWER FOCUS. The 'narrowing' of the curriculum to emphasize the tested subjects has been going on for some time now. Equally disturbing is the concentration on 'on the bubble' students who are close to meeting the standard that will keep their school from being disciplined. Those two steps make school less interesting for everyone, but particularly for gifted students, who, because they are already certain to meet the (low) benchmark, don't get the stimulation that their giftedness requires.
4) MORE ANSWERS, LESS INQUIRY. Bubble tests are blunt instruments that require correct answers and little else. But true learning is messy, uneven and often quite sophisticated. Getting things wrong-failure-is a large part of genuine education, but the value of making mistakes and learning from them is what today's narrative does not recognize. The disease of perfectionism is contagious and insidious. The admissions committees of some elective colleges eliminate candidates who earned a C in one subject in 9th grade. And why not? They have thousands of applicants with straight A's all through high school! Parents hover, ready to complain--or even sue-if their child gets a low grade. In some classes students who dare to say 'I don't understand' or 'I don't know' are mocked by their classmates (even though they themselves are equally uncertain).
The focus on getting the right answer at all costs-as opposed to asking questions and learning to cope with ambiguity-is an especially dangerous outcome today, because our kids swim in the Internet's 24-hour sea of information and data. But 'information' can be partial, misleading or wrong. Because not all information is true, young people need to develop the skills that enable them to sift through the flood of information and separate truth from half-truth and falsehood. They need to be, in the jargon, 'critical thinkers,' but the best way to develop those 'habits of mind' is through trial-and-error. They learn from making mistakes-preferably in the 'safe' environment of a classroom.
Our test-score-driven system is, inevitably, an answer-driven system. Students are rewarded for regurgitating the correct answers. Teachers encourage that because their livelihoods depend on enough students getting enough correct answers. Some parents encourage it because they want their children to qualify for a top college.
5) "TEACH ME, OR YOU'LL GET FIRED" That's what some high school students told their teachers in Washington, DC, a few years ago, according to those teachers. I have since heard similar tales from other teachers. These are examples of a system turned upside down. Apparently those students have absorbed the narrative-it's all about the teacher-and interpreted it to mean that, while they have no responsibilities, they do possess the power to get people fired. All they have to do is flunk.
6) MORE CHEATING. You know these awful stories: Atlanta, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio; Austin, Texas; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, DC. And on and on.....
Not everyone accepts the narrative, of course. Paul Tough has written convincingly about the importance of 'grit,'a quality that some value above straight A's on a report card. Some politicians-California's Jerry Brown comes to mind-want to limit the frequency and number of standardized tests. A few hundred public schools are actually led by teachers, and in those schools testing counts for less. Hundreds of school boards in Texas have taken a stand against excessive high stakes testing, and last year some teachers in Seattle flat out refused to administer one standardized test they found to be egregiously irrelevant. Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and others have called for a moratorium on high stakes testing to judge teachers while the new Common Core National Standards are rolled out, on the assumption (thus far correct) that the new tests will result in lower scores.
How can the narrative be changed? One crucial step is to identify those who benefit from the current one. That means following the money. Are there significant interests who actually benefit from failure? They need to be called out.
A second step is to persuade those on the sidelines that their long-term interests are being damaged by the current narrative. And since 75-80% of households do not have school-age children, that's a big group. Those folks need to understand that answer-based ("regurgitation") education is not keeping America competitive. They need to know that using high-stakes testing to hold teachers 'accountable' is a not a proven strategy but a gamble that could do lasting harm to public education.
The third step is peace talks. This suggestion comes out of a conversation I had with Kent McGuire of the Southern Education Fund and Jerry Weast, the former Superintendent of Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, recently. Weast and McGuire believe that it is in the best interests of warring parties to come to the table, because, even though they disagree bitterly on a raft of 'adult' issues, they have a common enemy, failure.
Nobody wants our children to fail. Weast and McGuire believe that should be enough to bring people together.
Peace talks wouldn't be easy. The warring parties would have to agree on a definition of 'success,' for one thing. For that to happen, they would first have to agree to focus exclusively on young people. Discard everything else....tenure, evaluating teachers, class size, pay scales, merit pay and all the other adult issues.
The unions, the school boards, the charter school folks, the schools of education, the superintendents, the state leaders, Teach for America, and everyone else would have to agree to decide what 'success' in education means.
One rule for a successful marriage is to fight only about the thing you are fighting about. No fair bringing up the mother-in-law or the no-good drunk of a brother-in-law. And no fair bringing up the fight you had last month either.
To change the narrative, we must decide what we want our young people to be able to do and become once they leave school. And we must keep arguing about that-and only that-until some resolution is reached. Having that argument would certainly be a better use of our energy than the demonizing 'blame game' that is now going on.
The complex definition of success that would emerge could become the new narrative. I think it's time for a new song. Who's ready and willing to help write it?
Maybe it takes a crisis to remind us of what should be obvious -- and certainly that was my own take-away from the PBS NewsHour report about the elementary school in Belmar, New Jersey, that my colleagues John Tulenko and David Wald produced. In that short and powerful segment, you saw (and felt) just how important schools are to their communities.
Watching those teachers and the assistant principal delivering food and blankets to stricken families, and later welcoming them into the school (still without power) and feeding them was deeply moving. And if you were not touched when assistant principal Lisa Hannah related her conversation with one child -- "A little girl, when we opened up the school for lunch today, she's walking in the dark because the lights were not on. She said, 'oh, I'm so happy to be back at school. I feel so safe" -- I think you need a heart transplant.
The kids got books too because, as assistant principal Hannah told John and David, she's always looking for ways to "sneak in a little bit of education."
We live in a time of widespread criticism of teachers and administrators. Of course, all educators fall short some of the time -- but so do doctors, nurses, lawyers, cops, and storekeepers (and even journalists!). Some teachers fail more often than that, and a few simply can't cut it and don't belong in classrooms, but the vast majority of the teachers I have observed in 38 years as a reporter are hardworking and dedicated. They want to succeed.
Teachers play multiple roles, and, as we saw in John and David's piece, sometimes they volunteer for additional duty that goes beyond the call. We know that the typical teacher spends a lot of her (or his) own money on school stuff. And as John once reported from Green Bay, Wisconsin, schools and teachers also step up to care for homeless kids.
The trend now is use scores on standardized tests as the measure of a teacher's value, and it's popular to say that teachers are the key to student learning. "Outstanding teachers give kids the skills and knowledge they need to escape poverty," and so on. To my ears, some of the people who say this are blowing their own brand of smoke, trying to put one over on us. As I see it, they are setting up most teachers (and public schools) to fail, because, while that recipe works for a few kids, poverty is a separate problem that those 'supporters' are happy to ignore. We have a growing income gap that ought to embarrass all Americans, and the people who put it on teachers to solve poverty ought to be ashamed of themselves. They are, at the end of the day, no friends of the teaching profession.
And you know who you are....
You can read this post with links to the segments mentioned at John Merrow's blog Taking Note.
Are there great differences between the presidential candidates on education? What would a Romney presidency mean? A second Obama term?
Unfortunately (from my point of view,) education has not been front-and-center in the campaign. Perhaps the low point came in the second debate when both men endorsed education as an antidote to the proliferation of assault weapons. Talk about bizarre!
Neither man was asked about No Child Left Behind, easily the most intrusive federal education effort in our history. They weren't asked about the seemingly inexorable move toward national education standards; the growing body of evidence about the importance of early education; or the coming teacher shortage, to mention just a few of the pressing issues Americans might have been interested in hearing about.
In the second debate, the President recited how he'd changed the rules on student loans, taking bankers out of the equation and thus saving borrowers millions of dollars. The number of students receiving Pell Grants has grown, from about 7 million to 11 million, another point in his favor. Gov. Romney boasted that Massachusetts ranked No. 1 in the nation on his watch.
The night before the second debate, Columbia's Teachers College hosted a debate between the candidates' education advisors. There, a genuine difference emerged: one candidate would sharply restrict the federal role to data-gathering and promoting variety and choice for parents, while the other candidate apparently believes that the federal government should do what's necessary, with no apparent limit to federal authority.
Both positions are a little scary, frankly.
Speaking for President Obama was Jon Schnur, a longtime political operative working in the education sphere. Gov. Romney was represented by Phil Handy, co-chair of the candidate's higher education advisory committee, who has held top education positions in Florida and the U. S. Department of Education's research wing.
Schnur praised the administration's Race to the Top campaign for its impact on school reform. He touted the expansion of the RTTT concept to include school districts and providers of early childhood education.
He noted that the Common Core was not federal but was instead a voluntary partnership among states. Washington was "seeding" the effort, which he said was the proper federal role. And he praised the administration for its pragmatic response to gridlock and the failure to amend the widely-discredited No Child Left Behind Act. The administration, he reminded us, has granted waivers to 35 states, with more in the offing. That was genuine leadership, he suggested.
In response, Handy pointed out that Washington was still making the rules, because only states that jumped through Washington's hoops got waivers. That, he said, was the issue: Who knows best?
We learned from Handy that Gov. Romney favors a return to an amended No Child Left Behind Act, largely on the philosophical grounds that states know better. He also would put bankers back into the student loan equation, again for a philosophical reason: Competition produces better results.
Handy did say that a Romney administration would honor the long-standing commitment to underprivileged children and those with special needs, but he rejected out of hand the Obama administration's efforts to circumvent No Child Left Behind by issuing waivers. He warned that the "waived" states would begin playing fast and loose with the rules, citing announcements from several states (including his own state of Florida) that they were establishing separate standards for different groups of students (i.e., one passing grade for whites, another for blacks).
"We will nullify those [waivers] on the first day in office," he told me after the debate.
In sum, the choice seems clear. A second Obama term would continue the expansion of the federal role in education, but a Romney administration would back off.
While I believe the former, I am skeptical of the latter. I expect that the winner, whoever it is, will continue to expand the federal role in public education. After all, George W. Bush arrived in Washington as a "states' rights" guy, and look what he did (albeit with Democratic help). Something in the air down there must make men and women think that they know best. Or maybe that's what happens to people when they suddenly have power.
The most heartening development in public education that I have seen in 38 years on the job has been what's happened in New Orleans since Katrina and the flooding. A key to that success has been the willingness to cede power to others, to acknowledge that what they've been doing hasn't worked.
We're finishing our film, which we are calling "Rebirth: New Orleans" now. I believe you will want to watch it, and I certainly hope that our next president, whoever it may be, will pay attention.
In this deeply polarized nation, I have found something that unites Republicans and Democrats: neither party talks about poverty, despite our current epidemic of child poverty and its consequences for the life chances of millions of children. From what this political junkie has seen and heard, both parties have studiously avoided talking about it at their respective conventions. Democrats in Charlotte talked incessantly about 'the middle class,' while in Tampa the Republicans gave off a distinctive vibe: "If you are successful, you did it yourself. If you are poor, you messed up. Not our problem."
Poverty is on my mind; however, as readers of this blog know, in an otherwise inspirational profile of a forward-looking summer program in Providence, RI, we inadvertently conflated race and poverty in the opening 45 seconds. The opening visuals conveyed the message that poor people were black and that well-off people were white. That inaccuracy -- the number of whites in poverty is actually larger than the number of Blacks and Hispanics -- has been edited to present an accurate picture, but I haven't gotten over how easily I made that mistake. It was a teachable moment for me, a chance to grow.
I have been reading a lot about poverty and have come to believe that the problem of poverty has an evil twin, greed. We cannot solve one in isolation.
Poverty, as one reader pointed out, is complex, because it is distributed unevenly. Although poverty is not Black or Hispanic or any other color, proportionally many more Black and Hispanic children live in poverty than do white kids.
Black, American Indian, and Hispanic children under 18 represent 38% of all children but more than half -- 54% -- of low income children. They are more than twice as likely to live in a low-income household compared to white and Asian children.
Consider these numbers, from the National Center for Children in Poverty:
31 percent of white children - 12.1 million - live in low-income families.
64 percent of black children - 6.5 million - live in low-income families.
31 percent of Asian children - 1.0 million - live in low-income families.
63 percent of American Indian children - 0.4 million - live in low-income families.
43 percent of children of some other race - 1.3 million - live in low-income families.
63 percent of Hispanic children - 10.7 million - live in low-income families.
Perhaps you are now doing what I did when I read those numbers -- adding them up. It comes to 30 million children of all colors.
That's the national disgrace, millions of children growing up in poverty. It's an epidemic, and professional politicians ought to be embarrassed by their failure to address the issue at their conventions.
It turns out there is poverty, and then there is 'deep poverty.' In a brilliant article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine a few weeks ago, Paul Tough examined President Obama's record on this issue through the lens of Roseland, a high-poverty area in his hometown of Chicago. Mr. Tough draws a sharp distinction between 'deep poverty' and normal (shallow?) poverty and shows just how difficult it has proven to be to ameliorate the former. Children in 'deep poverty' -- their family income is 50% below the poverty line -- tend to go to what William Julius Wilson calls 'truly disadvantaged schools,' further tipping the scales against them.
And in 2010 one in ten American children was living in deep poverty. That's about 7,000,000 kids who don't get to go to preschool, who are likely to be developmentally disabled and who will go to school hungry. To quote from Mr. Tough's piece:
"Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists can now explain how early stress and trauma disrupt the healthy growth of the prefrontal cortex; how the absence of strong and supportive relationships with stable adults inhibits a child's development of a crucial set of cognitive skills called executive functions. In fact, though, you don't need a neuroscientist to explain the effects of a childhood spent in deep poverty. Your average kindergarten teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood can tell you: children who grow up in especially difficult circumstances are much more likely to have trouble controlling their impulses in school, getting along with classmates and following instructions."
Mr. Tough doesn't propose solutions, although he does quote Valerie Jarrett, perhaps the President's closest advisor, Ms. Jarrett said that the President was proposing inclusive approaches that benefited all citizens economically, not just one specific group (the poor).
"I think our chances for successfully helping people move from poverty to the middle class is greater if everyone understands why it is in their best interest that these paths of opportunity are available for everyone," she told him. "We try to talk about this in a way where everyone understands why it is in their self-interest."
That approach, "A rising tide lifts all boats," strikes me as doomed to fail as long as greed rules. And, make no mistake, greed is in the saddle. Over the last 30 years, the salary of the typical CEO has increased 127 times faster than workers' salaries.
To put this in perspective, the average Fortune 500 chief executive is paid 380 times more than the average worker. In 1982, the ratio stood at 42:1.
Most Boards apparently set their CEO's salary based on comparisons with those of other CEO's, not with the company's own workers. And that means that scant consideration is given to the effect of that inflated salary on employee morale, loyalty, effectiveness and turnover.
It's not just CEOs. A shrinking percentage of our population controls a growing percentage of our national wealth. In fact, the gap is as great today as it was just prior to the Great Depression. Today the wealthiest 1% control about 40% of our wealth. Those in the bottom 80% control less than 7% of the nation's wealth. Those in poverty aren't even on the chart.
The starting point for the CEO-worker comparison was 30 years ago, just after the Presidencies of Nixon, Ford and Carter. We weren't Socialists then (and never have been). Thirty years ago was when the worldview of our newly-inaugurated President, Ronald Reagan, began to dominate Washington and the country. It was later summed up, without much exaggeration, by Gordon Gecko in a popular movie: "Greed is good."
One of Reagan's predecessors saw the world differently. "We have always known that heedless self interest was bad morals, we now know that it is bad economics," said Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I have no quarrel with a CEO earning a lot more than the average worker, but 380 times more! How much money does one person need? How much is one person worth?
Why not return to sensible capitalism and recognize the value of the team? It doesn't have to be 42:1. Go ahead and pay the CEO 100 times what Mr. or Ms. Average Worker makes. The boss gets $5,000,000 if the average Joe or Joan earns $50,000. Want to pay the boss $6,000,000? Then boost the average salary to $60,000.
That would be a genuine rising tide, one with widespread benefits, because we know that, while rich people tend to squirrel away money, middle class people spend it.
And if we backed away from greed, we would be more open to recognizing the scourge of poverty and the long term threat it poses to our nation. If we were genuinely disgusted by greed and not merely embarrassed by it, our hearts would not be so hard, and our intuitive generosity would rise to the surface.
We cannot solve the problems of poverty, whatever its colors, without tackling its evil twin, greed.
Q and A with John Merrow
Question: You moderate a lot of panel discussions at education meetings, and you have a reputation for doing a pretty good job at it. In fact, some of those appearances are embedded above in this post. Can you pass along some tips to the rest of us?
John: Sure, but why are you asking me now?
Question: Well, you're not getting any younger, are you?
John: Fair enough. There's really just one unbreakable commandment for running a worthwhile panel discussion: No opening remarks!
Question: Why not?
John: Because if I ask panelist so-and-so to make a few remarks, I have given up control of the microphone. That means when he or she goes off on a tangent or goes on too long, I cannot interrupt without being rude. But if it's all Q&A, it's always my microphone, and I can interrupt without being rude. Remember, it's supposed to be a 'discussion,' not a series of presentations or 'opening remarks.' How many of these events have you been to where they never even get to a discussion because each panelist takes 10 or 15 minutes -- even though the moderator had told them '5 minutes max!'
Question: What are your other 'rules'?
John: There are two expressions I try to use as often as possible. One is "I don't understand," and the other is "Tell me more."
Question: Tell me more.
John: That's cute.
Question: Well, I'm just trying to follow your example.
John: OK. Here's why. When I hear jargon, even if I understand it, I will say "I don't understand' because that forces the panelist to come down to earth and speak in understandable English. He may be thinking that I am pretty stupid, but he will invariably provide a better, clearer explanation. "Tell me more" works on that same principle.
Question: So those are the secrets?
John: Well, there's more. The moderator has to listen to what people are saying and respond to that. Some moderators seem to feel that it's their job to 'balance' the conversation, giving equal time to everyone. I don't worry about that. In fact, I often tell panelists that they have to speak up if they want to be heard. Life is unfair, and so are panel discussions.
Question: What else?
John: I always ask panelists ahead of time if there's a question they want to be asked. If there is, I ask it, because that allows them to say what they would have said, if there had been opening remarks. Everyone has a set speech, a shtick, and I want to make it easy for them to get it out there for the audience.
Question: How do you see the moderator's role?
John: Good question. Kind of like a conductor.
Question: Orchestra or train?
John: Both, I guess. If the panel has been chosen well, then there will be different voices (instruments), and a good conductor will help them create something worth listening to. But a moderator is also driving a train toward a clear destination, greater understanding of the issue. Remember, the operative word is 'discussion,' but if you look at most convention programs, these events are usually billed as 'panels,' whatever that means. It's all about having a decent conversation, one that sheds light and holds the audience's interest.
Question: You feel pretty strongly about this.
John: Sure, because pedagogy matters. We shouldn't be lecturing when we know that the more interactive and participatory an event is, the more likely it will be interesting to the audience.
Question: Is there an ideal number of panelists?
John: No, but two is too few. I would say that three or four is probably best. I've juggled as many as seven, but that's no fun for anyone.
Question: What about taking questions from the audience?
John: Essential, but here the moderator has to be tough and occasionally rude. A lot of so-called questioners really want to hold forth with their opinions. I always make it clear that I won't tolerate that, but even so someone always gets up and tries to make a speech. I am always forced to interrupt someone and ask (or demand) 'What's your question?'
Question: Your blog is usually about education. In fact, you usually complain about something or other. What's up with this?
John: I am taking a bold stand against boredom, against lousy pedagogy and stultifying panels. Pretty courageous, huh?
Question: Chances are most people won't read this far. You OK with that?
John: Well, if even one moderator behaves differently because of this, I will feel I have actually accomplished something.
Question: I suppose you think you're pretty clever, putting all this information about moderating into Q&A form.
John: You said that, I didn't.
In one of his always interesting "Disruptions" column in the New York Times, Nick Bilton held forth on how robots are replacing workers at Amazon and elsewhere. These robots, a researcher at Johns Hopkins told Bilton, "will help augment people's abilities, allowing us to use robots for things humans cannot do." And, the Hopkins guy adds, we will always "have to have someone who builds the robots."
Columnist Bilton is upset for the workers who will lose their jobs, but his column is also a wake-up call. I read it as an implicit critique of a narrow curriculum that puts aside just about anything that encourages the imagination in favor of 'the basics,' meaning basic reading and basic math.
Stressing the basics is no way to make sure that we will produce people to design, build and operate robots, or create the future in other ways. We need schools that encourage the imagination, that allow and support deep learning, and that fan the sparks of creativity -- not stomp out the fires.
However, a narrow and unimaginative curriculum is not a new phenomenon. Just as armies are supposedly spending their time getting ready to fight the last war, many schools and colleges seem to focus on preparing young people for the day before yesterday -- and have been doing so for a long time.
I have some direct experience in this. In the late 1960s, I taught for two years at a historically Black public college, Virginia State, in Petersburg, Virginia. For a privileged young white man from New England, it was a life-changing experience.
One sociological lesson stuck with me. The college stressed vocational training for its students, most of whom were the first in their families to attend college. While some studied to become chefs and barbers, a very popular major involved computers, which at the time were still pretty new. These students were being trained to be key-punch operators! (Ask your parents!!) It didn't take a wizard to know that, in a very short time, absolutely no one would be able to make a living as a key-punch operator, but that didn't slow down the training program. Disrupting that assembly line would have required more than foresight; it would have meant sticking one's neck out and challenging the comfortable status quo -remember, this was Southside Virginia, not a safe place for African-Americans to challenge the system. Easier and safer to prepare students for yesterday than to make waves and risk one's own career.
I've often wondered what happened to those young men and women. I hope they found other work, and other opportunities to learn new skills.
What about today? Not only are we not challenging the status quo of 'basic education,' we seem to be cutting to the bone and getting rid of 'frills' like the arts. While I am hearing and reading stories about larger classes and fewer 'non-essential' programs in lots of places, Texas seems to be leading the way in cutting education (big surprise).
But, wake up, folks. The arts are basic, as this report from Florida demonstrates. Some of you may have seen our piece for the NewsHour on this topic.
So what do we do about a narrow, boring curriculum and the failing schools that generally seem to accompany that approach? It takes courage to challenge the runaway train of the current approach. As the metaphor suggests, standing in front of a train is not a recipe for a long life. The money and the power are with the status quo.
Some corporations are getting involved, although maybe not as a direct challenge. If you watched the Masters Golf tournament, you saw ExxonMobil commercials about improving America's competitive position in math and science. That company's foundation has spent millions on math and science education. (I also liked that many of the ads said 'Support our Teachers'-- a too-rare message these days.)
Better news comes from San Francisco. Some high tech entrepreneurs are resisting school-as-usual and getting their hands dirty trying to change things. Right now they seem to be involved because they have children of their own, but let's hope they are intent on helping other people's children as well. Let's hope these interesting approaches to schooling become models, not just boutique luxury items for the privileged.
Cursing the darkness never did anybody any good. Let's celebrate -- and copy -- those who are lighting candles to show us the way.
A comprehensive report in late March by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provides strong evidence that adults in as many as 200 school systems have been cheating on their students' standardized tests.
We looked at this for NewsHour in 2011.
Because I spent three years chronicling the tenure of Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC - another city with a spate of thus-far-unexplained 'wrong to right' erasures on standardized tests -- I am interested in this story. I'd like to know if anyone cheated in the DC schools. If so, who and why?
But a teacher I correspond with occasionally brought me up short recently. My focus on actual, literal cheating -- physically changing answers or giving kids answers in advance -- is too narrow, this teacher wrote.
Here's part of a recent letter:
"While I know that the cheating scandals may be considered important, I'm frankly a bit disappointed that this is the focus because the cheating scandal doesn't really matter in terms of the students and their futures, which should always be the focus of anything related to education. What matters is the lasting damage that is being done to them as a result of the increased pressures being put on the school system over these tests. The lasting damage is the closing of schools with no thoughts as to the repercussions on the community, the constant rotating principals, the removal of teachers connected with the community, the privatization of public schools and property, the fact that schools budgets are getting slashed while the administrative central office expands and gives money to private contractors in huge quantities that accomplish nothing, the constant lack of knowledge about our future in the schools, the increasing class sizes and removal of resources from our neediest schools, etc. The cheating scandal is next to nothing; that is a product of the testing obsession as a whole, something that Michelle Rhee certainly fed, but it is far from the worst part of her tenure. Those test scores mean nothing about how prepared our children are for their futures-whether or not there was cheating."
Supporting her argument that the real issue is preparing kids for their futures is a new report about the arts in our schools, hard data confirming what most reporters have known for a long time: for at least 10 years, the arts have been disappearing from schools populated largely by low-income kids. The report is from the U. S. Department of Education. It tells us that fewer public elementary schools today offer visual arts, dance and drama classes, a decline many attribute to budget cuts and an increased focus on math and reading. Most high schools with large numbers of low income students do not offer music. Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, told reporters that cuts are likely to continue into the next two years because education funding has been slow to pick back up. "We haven't hit bottom yet," he said.
In other words, we're cheating kids on their tests and stealing essential courses like art and music from them! Add to that, we are lying -- because when kids get phony scores telling them they are proficient when they need help, that's an out-and-out lie.
At what point does this trifecta -- lying, cheating and stealing -- become a felony? Seriously!
In the face of this disheartening news, one has to ask, "who benefits?" I'm stumped. Certainly not children, parents and teachers. Could it be the testing companies? Perhaps it's the bevy of expert 'consultants' who advise school systems on how to raise test scores, how to calculate the 'value added' that individual teachers provide, and how to make education more 'businesslike' and efficient?
A far more important question than 'who benefits?' is: What are we going to do about it?
The young teacher started right off making a rookie mistake in the opening minutes of his first class, on his very first day. "How many of you know what a liter is?" he asked his high school math class. "Give me a thumbs up if you know, thumbs down if you don't." None of the kids responded, so he entreated, "Come on, I just need to know where you are. Thumbs up if you know, thumbs down if you don't."
An experienced teacher would not have asked students to volunteer their ignorance. An experienced teacher might have held up an empty milk carton and asked someone to identify it. Once someone had said, "that's a quart of milk," the veteran might have pulled out a one-gallon container to be identified. Only then would she have shown them a liter container, explaining that most countries in the world use a different measuring system, et cetera.
But the rookie didn't know any better. He'd graduated from Yale that spring, had a few weeks of training that summer, thanks to Teach for America, and then was given his own classroom.
Another first year teacher made a rookie mistake in the spring. "How many of you dislike poetry," he asked his high school seniors? "How many of you really hate poetry?" When most of the hands went up, he announced, "That's going to change, because I am going to turn you into poetry lovers." With that simple -- and stupid -- declaration, the rookie had made it all about himself, not about the poems. He had challenged his class on personal terms, making it an ego trip for himself, not an educational journey for his students.
Matters never really improved for the first rookie that year, and he was not invited back for a second year. I was the second rookie. I taught for two years and then moved on, but it wasn't until years later that I recognized how counterproductive my approach to that poetry unit was.
So what's the point? Rookies make rookie mistakes? Or is it that teachers need serious training (I had none whatsoever, not even the equivalent of a TFA summer) before taking over classrooms?
This brings me to the third teacher in this short essay, a young woman I observed doing a bang up job of teaching first graders to read. She seemed to have all the moves down, phonemic awareness, chunking, words that must be memorized (like 'the') because they don't follow the rules, and so forth. Her first graders were reading confidently and competently. We made a piece about it, for the NewsHour.
I knew that she had completed a five-year program at a reputable state university, giving her both a bachelor's and a master's in elementary education and a certificate to teach. In short, she had it all.
Or did she? "That's where you learned how to teach reading," I stated as a half-question. "No," she responded emphatically! "They never said a word about phonics in any of my classes. I had to learn all of that here, on the job."
I was dumbfounded and disbelieving, but a search of that education school's course syllabus and a phone call to a now-retired professor there confirmed what she had said. Phonics was barely acknowledged. Apparently the reading wars continue, at least on that campus, with 'whole language' still planted firmly in the saddle.
Given a choice between bad training and little or none, what is one to do? And if that's the choice right now, what can we do to change the odds? Let me suggest it's time for a 180-degree turn. We need to make it more difficult to become a teacher, which we could do by raising standards for admission into training programs and then providing one-year apprenticeships before teachers are given their own classrooms.
The first change -- tougher admission standards -- applies to virtually every school and college of education: Raise the bar for getting into the profession. Improve programs by weeding out professors who are still waging old battles. Do much more of the training in real schools and real classrooms. (Some schools and colleges of education are already going down this road, including Arizona State, Michigan, Berkeley, and Teachers College. All led by women, by the way. Add to that list Stanford, which was, until recently, also led by a woman.)
The second change -- a one-year apprenticeship -- applies to TFA, which already has remarkably high admission standards to its two-year program. But it's the rare individual who can take over a class after a few weeks of summer training and be genuinely effective. Even successful TFA teachers often admit that much of their first year was a wash, at best. What if TFA were a three-year program, with the first year being an apprenticeship? Would that produce better teaching and also help TFA weed out the ambitious ones seeking largely to punch up their resumés?
As I say, I think the country needs to make a U-turn. Because most schools of education have low admission standards, it's far too easy to become a teacher. And because many of our policies and practices are hyper-critical, and even punitive, toward teachers, it's now very difficult to be a teacher.
It will take a concerted effort on the part of governors and university presidents to make it harder to become a teacher. Governors have to be convinced of the economic and political benefits of having their constituents' children taught by skilled professionals. I fear that the leadership at many universities is comfortable with the 'cash cow' aspect of their education programs, which take in more than they spend. What sort of pressure would be required to get them to change?
But making those changes seems like a walk in the park compared to what it would take to do to reverse our current 'blame the teacher' approach. Making it easier for today's teachers to teach won't happen unless and until we come to our senses. Does anyone see that happening soon?