Anthony Cody: Dialogue With the Gates Foundation: How Do We Build the Teaching Profession?

Guest Post by Anthony Cody

Note: This is the first of five posts on the dialog between Anthony Cody and his readers, and the Gates Foundation.  This post was originally published on Anthony’s site over on Education Week Teacher.  This dialog is a major contribution to educational reform.  Anthony Cody is one of the leading voices in America questioning the nature of present day reform.  One of the major players in nearly every aspect of the current authoritarian and standards-based reform is the Gates Foundation.

Anthony Cody spent 24 years working in Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high needs middle school. He is National Board certified, and now leads workshops with teachers focused on Project Based Learning. With education at a crossroads, he invites you to join him in a dialogue on education reform and teaching for change and deep learning. For additional information on Cody’s work, visit his Web site, Teachers Lead. Or follow him on Twitter.

Two weeks ago I traveled to Seattle and spent most of the day meeting with leaders of the Gates Foundation, discussing their work around education reform. I have been critical of the impact their agenda has had, but they expressed an interest in opening up a dialogue. This blog post will be the first in a series of exchanges that will explore some of the key issues in education. We plan a process where we will take turns posting our perspective on a given theme, followed by a response from the other party. All posts will be carried here, and at the Gates Foundation’sImpatient Optimists blog. We will ask everyone to join in a lively discussion. The education reform debate has deteriorated at times—our goal is to engage in a constructive conversation, to turn down the heat, and to seek a bit more light.

In the weeks to come we will get into some nitty gritty issues, such as what it means to “measure” teacher effectiveness? What is the role of poverty in relationship to education reform? What is the purpose of a k-12 education? And what role should the drive for profit play in our schools? But as our starting point, we are going to take a narrower focus, and tackle something a bit more concrete. This first exchange will focus on these questions: How can educators create a strong professional culture in our schools? How do we build the teaching profession?

The Gates Foundation has presented effective teaching as the focus of its education work for the past few years. Unfortunately much of the reform work of the past few years has focused on the negative side of the teacher-effectiveness equation. Reports like “The Widget Effect” have built up the idea that American schools are places where nobody is ever fired. Films like “Waiting for Superman” have reinforced the concept that due process for teachers means we have “jobs for life.” The Gates Foundation, I believe, has actively promoted these ideas, and in 2010, Bill Gates stated on Oprah that if we could get rid of bad teachers, “our schools would shoot from the bottom of these (international) rankings to the top.”

But there seems to be a growing awareness that real growth will not come from this strategy of rooting out the bottom 5 percent of performers. We will need to do some heavy lifting to reverse some of the counterproductive work that has been done to advance that agenda—but we will save that for another post. For this discussion, I want to explore what a healthy collaborative culture looks like, and how it relates to teacher evaluation.

Let’s take a look at the best model of collaboration I have seen in recent years, the teachers at New Highland Academy in East Oakland. This team of teachers worked with the support of a team at Mills College to engage in thoughtful inquiry into their practice. They met regularly to look at student work and talk about where their students were struggling. When they looked at their students’ work, they saw that while the curriculum they were using was helping the students learn to decode, their comprehension was lagging. They chose a set of strategies to help their students to find meaning in what they read, and worked across the school to try this out.

Here is how teacher leader Aija Simmons explained it:

“The Answers” are what we all problematize. Because what “the answer” is for me in this moment might not be the answer two years from now. So the good thing about inquiry is that I’m constantly understanding that there’s a new question, this is a new group of students, it might work better than the last thing but I’m continuing to probe myself, so that I’m pushing myself to deeper understandings about how my students learn, and I’m coming back to the question. I have had several inquiry projects that I’ve looked at over the course of multiple years, but I use them as professional developments. People have the same question that you have, and as you come together, and you begin to think more and share your ideas of inquiry, and get more tools, we’re moving ourselves forward.

They saw tremendous results. But the biggest lesson was not just the result, but the ownership these teachers had of their own expertise. By engaging in this process, where THEY figured out the big challenge before them, and THEY figured out what to do about it, and how to monitor their students’ learning, they were acting as professionals. The energy you see in these teachers is what happens when you give people autonomy and the time to use it. This energy is destroyed when mandates and models of professional growth are imposed from above.

This sort of research allows teacher to give one another feedback, and reflect on their practice. This feedback and reflection is most productive in a teacher-led collaborative context. It does not NEED to be a part of an evaluative process in order for teachers to learn and grow. Of course, evaluations should recognize and encourage this sort of work. But the most productive collaboration is peer-to-peer, of the sort done by the teachers at New Highland Academy.

When we look at our schools, we have to ask, what does it take to support this kind of innovation?

Confidence in teachers: The principal at this school trusted these teachers to take on this challenge.

Active partners, and a model of inquiry: These teachers were supported by the Mills Teacher Scholars program, which helped them learn how to investigate their practice using the teacher inquiry process. Other models that I have seen work well are Lesson Study and the National Board’s Take One process.

Autonomy and choice. These teachers actively chose the form of inquiry they would pursue, and thoughtfully determined the line of inquiry they would follow.
Stability: This project was led by experienced, expert teachers. This sort of thing will not succeed in a school with high turnover.

Small class sizes. Special funding has kept class sizes small at this high poverty school, which has made this work much more possible.
Time for collaboration: Teachers cannot do this sort of work without dedicated time for collaboration.

This school has been supported by the Quality Education Investment Act, a state funding program developed by the California Teachers Association. These funds allow for smaller class size, and that big essential, time for teachers to meet and reflect together.

This sort of process is destroyed by high-stakes tests and the micromanagement that comes with top-down mandates. It is crucial that teachers at any given site have the autonomy to choose the model of collaborative inquiry that fits their culture and the challenges they face. Every time I have seen extraordinary leadership emerge from a staff it has been when this autonomy was given. And every time I have seen top-down reforms come along, the energy drains away. We will not get this sort of professional culture without trusting and empowering our teachers to behave as true professionals.

Another model of professional growth was a mentoring program I started in Oakland, calledTeamScience. Now entering its fifth year, this project pairs veteran science teachers with novices, in order to boost their effectiveness and retain them. This program has been needed because of the district’s reliance on programs like Teach For America to fill vacancies, epecially in science, math and special education. Unfortunately, research has shown that 57 percent of the people entering TFA do not intend to make teaching their career, and in fact, three years after they start, three fourths of these teachers are gone from our schools. Although we made a dent in the turnover rate, high numbers of these novices continue to rotate through our schools. Providing them with mentors has some short term benefit, in terms of the quality of their instruction. But this investment is lost if these temporary teachers leave, taking their expertise with them.

Recent research on teacher turnover has revealed the high cost of instability:

For each analysis, students taught by teachers in the same grade-level team in the same school did worse in years where turnover rates were higher, compared with years in which there was less teacher turnover.

An increase in teacher turnover by 1 standard deviation corresponded with a decrease in math achievement of 2 percent of a standard deviation; students in grade levels with 100 percent turnover were especially affected, with lower test scores by anywhere from 6 percent to 10 percent of a standard deviation based on the content area.

The negative effect of turnover on student achievement was larger in schools with more low-achieving and black students.

To build the teaching profession we must recruit people who want to make a serious commitment to teaching, then support them with meaningful training. Why not subsidize people who choose to become teachers, and allow them to serve as half-time apprentices alongside excellent mentors? They could use the other half of their time to take courses in child development and pedagogy. Urban teacher residency programs offer models along these lines, but are not well-supported.

Unfortunately the Gates Foundation has been a big supporter of Teach For America in the past. If we are going to build the profession, and sustain solid collaboration at our toughest schools, we need to place a high priority on stability. Any program that encourages people to enter the classroom without a desire to stay beyond two years is a tremendous waste of time and energy.

What about teacher evaluation?

In a post I wrote earlier this year, I tried to create a portrait of what a constructive evaluation process might look like:

A teacher meets with his or her evaluator. They review the professional standards in use, and look for areas in need of growth. Maybe it is a focus on literacy and writing skills. Maybe it is bringing the English learners level of engagement and participation up. They discuss strategies the teacher might try to address these things, and they also discuss the forms of evidence they will look at over the year to see what is happening in this area. Assessment, especially of the classroom-based formative sort, is a powerful tool. How is a teacher assessing his or her students’ abilities? How are they using that information to give feedback and give the student appropriate, challenging work? This is where teachers use genuine assessment grounded in their understanding of their students. When this sort of assessment data is shared with an evaluator, a comprehensive portrait of how this teacher is helping students to grow can emerge.

Once an area of focus has been defined, the teacher and evaluator find some professional development resources that might help as well — maybe a conference to attend, some books that might be read, a grade-level team that might come observe a lesson here and there and offer feedback, a colleague that is expert in this area to go observe. Then over the year, the teacher collects student work samples that provide evidence of learning. They document how they have designed instruction to help students learn, and show where they have provided feedback. The evaluator observes, a few times at random, and a few times by request, to see particular lessons. This evidence would be appropriate to the goal that has been set. It could include some test data, but test data would just be one source of evidence among many.

In Bill Gates’ recent speech in Atlanta, he framed the problem this way:

Developing a great teacher improvement system is truly difficult—because there are no models. The country’s teachers have been working in systems where almost everyone gets a good evaluation—and almost no one gets any feedback. That’s the key point. Our teachers get no feedback—no guidance on how to get better.

I disagree with this dismal appraisal. There is certainly room for improvement in teacher evaluation, but to say there are “no models” whatsoever is wrong. Take a look at the report I worked on several years ago with fellow members of Accomplished California Teachers.The model I described above is in action in the schools of Santa Clara, California.

Another model with which I have some experience is Peer Assistance and Review (PAR). I served for two years as a Consulting Teacher in Oakland’s PAR program. I was tasked with observing and assisting teachers who had received poor evaluations. I was in their classrooms every week, and met often with them, offering feedback and resources to help them improve. I also took notes on what I observed, and in the spring wrote a report which was used as the basis of a recommendation from a joint union/administration committee as to the teacher’s continued status. In most cases, the referred teachers were convinced to leave the system.

I discovered doing this work that, in most cases, my observations matched up with those of the evaluator. However, there were a few occasions where this was not true. Perhaps a personality clash or power struggle had led to an unfair evaluation. In several cases the teacher in question transferred and was successful under a new administrator. The PAR program provides some essential elements that are needed to create a trustworthy evaluation system.

1. An initial check on the quality of the evaluations, which was often very uneven.
2. Another pair of eyes, with expertise, observing a teacher’s practice not just once or twice, but many times.
3. A chance for improvement—specific feedback, resources and time to make changes.

Teachers who are referred to PAR can indeed be terminated if they do not succeed in the program, and the majority of those referred left the system one way or another, although many chose to take early retirement or resign rather than go through the termination process. (The low number of actual terminations is at least part of the reason reports like “The Widget Effect” are so critical of Peer Assistance and Review—but this is deceptive.)

The PAR program gives crucial credibility to the entire evaluation process, as part of a system of due process. If you have chosen teaching as a career, you ought to have a real process before that career is ended by a few years of low VAM scores, or the un-verified opinion of one administrator.

The evaluation system I described from Santa Clara and the PAR program are not new discoveries for the profession, though Mr. Gates is apparently unfamiliar with them. We educators need to elevate and share these effective practices, and create powerful themes for strong evaluations. We need to look at the places where these practices are in place, and share them. I believe we will find these models are undermined, not enhanced, by the use of VAM and other test-driven reforms.

Even as educators move to improve evaluations, we should discard the idea that useful feedback can only come in the context of a high-stakes evaluation. Just as our students learn best when we shift the focus of feedback away from grades, teachers learn best when feedback and reflection is developed in the context of peer-to-peer collaboration, not in the context of them being rated, ranked or categorized in an evaluation system.

So to summarize my views:

We need to pursue the conditions necessary for solid reflective, collaborative cultures at schools. These are dynamic processes that rely on the leadership and inspiration of everyone involved. They require trust to be invested in our school leaders, who in turn need to trust their teachers to engage in this often open-ended work. Constant pressure to raise test scores and top-down mandates destroy this. These external pressures do not add coherence—they subtract it. Teachers need autonomy and time, and they need support, access to partners, the use of strong models of collaboration, and small class sizes so they are not overwhelmed every day. We need to strengthen, not eliminate due process, when we ask teachers to open their classroom practices to one another and reflect honestly about their practice.

[Editors’ Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation helps support coverage of business and innovation in Education Week.]

Update: The Mills Teacher Scholars has just released this video showcasing their work with 90 teachers across the Oakland/Berkeley area.

What do you think about the models of professional growth and evaluation described here? How should we build a strong teaching profession?

In Math and Science, Have American students Fallen Behind?

Is science and mathematics teaching inferior to science teaching in Singapore, South Korea, and Finland?  Have American students fallen behind in math and science?

In the 2008 and 2012,  Science Debate asked presidential candidates (as well as congressional candidates) why have American students fallen behind in science and mathematics and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students for the science and technology global economy?

Following are some “talking points” that Obama and Romney, and congressional candidates might consider as they talk about mathematics and science education.

Table 1 shows the education questions put to the two presidential and congressional candidates.

Science Education Question 2008 Science Education Question 2012
A comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, while average U.S. math scores ranked 24th.  What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century?  Increasingly, the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st.  In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?

Table 1.  2008 and 2012 Education Question asked by Science Debate

League Standings

In each question, the premise is that American mathematics and science education is way behind other countries based on rankings on PISA, an international study of more than 60 county’s educational system by testing students in mathematics, reading and science literacy.  Based on academic tests, PISA claims to assess literacy in terms of knowledge and skills needed in adult life.  It is important to note that there is controversy around using a test to “measure” higher level thinking and applications to real life.

Dr. Svein Sjøberg of the University of Oslo questions the use of these tests, and suggests that tests such as PISA are often considered as objective and value-free scientific truths, while in fact they are not.  Consequently, politicians and the media misuse test results and create perceptions of a country’s overall education system that may in fact not be correct.

Normally, the results are reported comparing countries in a fashion similar to standings in professional sports, where 1 is at the top, which is typically Singapore, followed by lower scoring countries, and as suggested in the question, placing the U.S.A. 17th out of 30.

And it’s not just a concern expressed by U.S. politicians.  Sjoberg reported (in a study–Real Life Challenges: Mission Impossible) that results on PISA of students in Norway provided “war-like headings” in most of Norway’s newspapers. In fact the commissioner of education of Norway was quoted as saying, “Norway is a school loser, and now it is well documented.”

There is a real problem in using results to compare one country to another. As some researchers have pointed out, the scores reported are averages for the country of the students who took the test. Often the differences between average scores from country to another are not significant, BUT politicians and the media  see that if their country is not NUMBER ONE, “the sky is falling.”

So, when U.S. students score 17th on an international test, policy makers make the claim that science education in the U.S. is in free-fall, and needs to uplifted. Remember, that the score used on these tests is an average. There are more than 15,000 independent school systems in the U.S. and to use an average score on a science test (typically composed of 40 – 60 questions) does not describe the qualities or inequalities inherent in the U.S.A.’s schools.

David Berliner (in a research study entitled Our Schools vs. Theirs: Averages That Hide The True Extremes) points out that the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) data for the U.S.A., when analyzed by socioeconomic levels, shows great disparities and inequalities. For example, schools in the most affluent neighborhoods do well on these tests, but schools in poorer neighborhoods do not. And Berliner points out that scores on international tests will not change unless the inequalities in the schools are fixed.

That said, lets look at the question that Science Debate has posed to our politicians.  Up front, it’s a good question because it will tell us a lot about the candidate’s understanding of our educational system, what tests measure, and what role the federal government should play in supporting American schools and what to do with the math and science “problem.”

Economic Preparedness of Students

If we are going to try to use test scores obtained from international tests to discuss student’s preparedness in a global economy, then we need to explore this connection in more detail.  Is there really a connection?

Why is the perception of science education in the U.S. (and other countries as well) driven by rankings of students on international test score comparisons?  The perception is that U.S. students are not competitive in the global market place because of their place in the rankings of the scores obtained on tests such as PISA and TIMSS.  The same is true for many other countries.

Will the candidates examine the research related to the use of rankings based on test scores to make assessments about a country’s educational system, or the likelihood that its students are prepared to live in the 21st Century?

Iris C. Rotberg, Professor of Education Policy, George Washington University, has shown in her analysis of educational reforms on a global scale that most of the conclusions that we make based on international studies are not supported either by their findings or by research in general.

For example, the most visible conclusion that is made from the international studies is that “test-score rankings are linked to a country’s economic competitiveness.” Rotberg uses data from the World Economic Forum’s 2010 – 2011 global-competitiveness report to show that student test score rankings do not correlate with a nation’s economic competitiveness. For example, on the 2009 PISA international test, U.S. students do not rank in the top 10 member countries in any of these areas: Maths, Sciences, and Reading. The United States ranked 30 in maths, 23 in sciences, and 17 in reading.

Yet, in 2011, the United States was in 4th place in the rankings of 139 countries global competitiveness (dropping from the number 2 place from the last year). The comparisons are made across countries using 12 pillars of competitiveness, including basic requirements (institutions, infrastructure, etc.), efficiency enhancers (higher education, good market, labor market, financial market, etc.) and innovation and sophistication factors (business sophistication, innovation).

Indeed, if you look at the report, student achievement test scores or changes in student scores over time,  are not part of the 12 pillars of competitiveness.

If our presidential and congressional candidates were to study the research by Rotberg they might conclude as she does that:

Other variables, such as outsourcing to gain access to lower-wage employees, the climate and incentives for innovation, tax rates, health-care and retirement costs, the extent of government subsidies or partnerships, protectionism, intellectual-property enforcement, natural resources, and exchange rates overwhelm mathematics and science scores in predicting economic competitiveness.  Continuing to use student test scores is not a valid argument to understand a nation’s competitiveness.

If American students are not well prepared in mathematics, science and technology, how do we account for America’s inventiveness.  The National Science Foundation reports that the United States has consistently led the world in inventiveness as measured by the number of patents applied for between the period 1985 – 2005. and this seems to be continuing. The community of scientists in the United States has consistently produced thousands of peer-reviewed articles per year, and is only exceeded in this output by the European Union, which is composed of many nations. The United States also graduates more people with doctoral degrees than any other nation in science, science education and engineering. Furthermore, K-12 students fare very well on tests, and consistently show improvement over time, and with its peer group of industrialized nations, does very well.

The Imposing Role of the Federal Government

In my mind, the federal government’s role in local education, especially starting with the NCLB Act, and the Race to the Top Fund, and later flexibility requests has created a system of education that is overly hierarchical with rules to make the nation’s schools conform to an imposed set of standards and authoritarian assessments.

The accountability movement that now dominates our schools derives from an authority, and that authority is far from the classrooms of teachers who really know how to work with their students.  Accountability in American schools is based on a conservative world-view, deriving its power from the top, then down to schools, classrooms, teachers and students.  Success is defined by the authority with no advice from schools, teachers or parents.  In general, the  state is able to “raise the bar” on students over time. It’s as if the authority is mad at students (because of scores on international tests?), and punishes them by making it more difficult to pass the tests. Is this the kind of accountability that professional educators would choose?

The AFT at their annual convention in Detroit,  unanimously approved a resolution against high-stakes testing.  Last year the National Council of Teachers of English resolved to call for an end to high stakes testing.  Professors in Chicago and in the state of Georgia, led by EmpowerED Georgia have written letters to government and education officials questioning the use of tests to evaluate teachers.  Based on research in peer-reviewed journals, these professors have provided government and education officials with data and recommendations on the use of testing.  Go slow, and pilot programs before they are imposed on the masses.

Test Score Trajectory: Are We Falling Behind?

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2009 and 2011 Assessments: Extracted July 29, 2012.

The latest data was reported this year by NAEP on how American students are doing in science.  According to the Science 2011 report, average scores for eight-grade students was 2 points higher in 2011 than in 2009, which was significantly different.  The only groups of students that didn’t show significant positive changes were the highest performing students.  Maybe they topped out?

We have much better data for math and reading.  Long-term trend NAEP measures student performance in mathematics and reading every four years. The last report was in 2008.  The next report will be in 2012.

Average reading scores for 9- and 13-year-olds increased in 2008 compared to 1971, but the reading score for 17-year-olds was not significantly different. The national trend in mathematics showed that both 9- and 13-year-olds had higher average scores in 2008 than in any earlier assessment year. For 17-year-olds, there were no significant differences between the average score in 2008 and those in 1973 or 2004.

Main NAEP assessments measure student performance in mathematics and reading every two years, most recently in 2011, and then in 2013. Other subjects, such as science, writing, and more, are also assessed.

Although science is not part of the “long-term trend” NAEP testing, NAEP does have data that show trends in science achievement.   According to NAEP, the trends in science are characterized by declines in the 1970, followed by increases during the 1980s and early 1990s, and mostly stable performance since then.  Science (and math) scores have NOT been falling in U.S. schools.  And the data shows that the achievement gap between white and black students is narrowing, but at the level that is acceptable to many.

Are we falling behind?

It is very convenient for some groups to make the claim that the U.S. is falling behind in math and science.  But the evidence is that student learning in science, mathematics and reading has either improved or remained stable over the past thirty years, and during that time the achievements in science and technology have been breathtaking.

American mathematics and teachers are by nature inventive, and readily solve problems in their classrooms every day.  If anything is in teachers’ ways of continuing creative and innovative teaching, it is rules imposed by NCLB  on our schools.  The requirements lessen the opportunity for learning.  On this blog, we have cited peer-reviewed research that indicates that the high-stakes testing, and authoritarian standards impedes learning, and prevents teachers from doing what they are prepared to do, and that is help students uncover their love of mathematics and science.

Are we falling behind?

In mathematics, the only country of similar size and demographics that scored higher than the U.S. was Canada. Most of the other countries that did score significantly higher were small European or Asian (Korea, Japan) countries. The U.S. score was above the average score of OECD countries. Although there were 12 countries that scored significantly higher, there were only three that are similar to the U.S. in size and demographics. We are not ranked 25th in math and 21st in science. (source: PISA Data 2009)

Are we falling behind?

America’s top students’ performance place near the top of all students tested by PISA. For example Dr. Gerold Tirozzi, Executive Director of the National Association of Secondary Schools, analyzed the PISA data from the lens of poverty, as measured by the percentage of students receiving government free or reduced lunches. For example, Tirozzi found that in schools where less than 10% of the students get a free lunch, the reading score would place them number 2 in the ranking of countries.

What role should the federal government play in improving science and mathematic?  President Obama partially answered this question. Here is what he said in this year’s State of the Union address:

At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced states to lay off thousands of teachers. We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance. Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies — just to make a difference.

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn. That’s a bargain worth making. (Emphasis mine).

For Obama to say that teachers should teach with creativity, and stop teaching to the test is a remarkable statement give how the Department of Education is advocating high-stakes tests based on a common set of standards. Many researchers would argue that continuing to use high-stakes tests will not result in teachers not teaching to the test. Until high-stakes tests are banned from being used to make decisions about student learning and teacher performance, we will continue to be immobilized.

Obama should reach back to his earlier work in Chicago where he will find the paradigm that will be advance education in ways that I’ve urged in this post.   In his book, Dreams from My Father, Obama discussed his desire to become involved with the Chicago Public Schools.

Obama and his colleague & friend Johnnie had decided to visit a high school, and the principal of the school introduced them to one of the school counselors, Mr. Asante Moran. He was, according to the principal, interested in establishing a mentorship program for young men in the school.

In his office, which was decorated with African themes, Obama discovered that Mr. Moran had visited Kenya 15 years earlier, and he indicated that it had a profound effect on him. In the course of this short meeting with Mr. Moran, Obama was clearly told that real education was not happening for black children, and then he offered Obama his view on what “real education” might be. Here is what he said on that Spring day in 1987:

Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn—the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity (p. 158, Dreams from My Father).

Starting with the child as he or she is, and helping them connect to their environment—this is the core of progressive teaching.   Most teachers know and try and act on this philosophy, but for many, it is an upstream battle.

The locus of control is far removed from the individual teacher’s classroom. The control is centered in state departments of education, and the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). And much of that control creates a conflict for innovative teachers. As responsible professional teachers, they want their students to do well on the high-stakes, end-of-year exams, yet know intuitively that this persistence on testing leaves creative teaching behind.

For science and mathematics education to flourish, teachers need to be set free to work as professionals in their schools.  They are quite able to interpret professional standards in mathematics and science, and do not need to be held to a “Common” set of standards that all students are expected to meet.

What do you think? Are American students falling behind the rest of the world in science and mathematics?

Why Science is a Non-Issue in the Election?

David Gergen, Michael Lubell and Shawn Otto had a very important conversation with Ira Flatow on this week’s Science Friday about why the science debate project is critical to the country.  The discussion focused on science in the presidential debates, and looked at why asking the candidates about science is so low on the list of priorities.

David Gergen wonders why science is put in the back seat, especially at the White House.  As Gergen points out, we have leading scientist in the White House , Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, but we never see him. Although President Obama has hosted an annual White House Science Fair, there isn’t a proactive discussion of science policy.  Gergen asks why the White House hasn’t featured him on TV and on Sunday morning shows.  As he points out, the public does have an appetite for science, and curiosity.

People are interested in science, but science is not really part of the national dialog.  Gergen suggests that we need leadership from the President, and from scientists, and science organizations to make science part on national dialog.

Shawn Otto believes leadership takes vision, and perhaps Science Debate is on the right track.  Using surveys and polls of the public, and encouraging politicians to talk about science is an important step to take.   Scientists and science educators need to be political, be willing to discuss and debate science publicly.

Here is a link to this Science Friday discussion.

Science Friday: Why Science is a Non-Issue in the Election…Again

Sciencepolitica: Science Debate Seeks to Find Out What Politicians Know About Science

Update:  Shawn Otto of Science Debate will be featured on NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday at 2 ET.  Discussion on science in the elections.

In 2007, a small group of American citizens, lead by Shawn Otto, created Science Debate 2008, an organization that called on the 2008 presidential candidates to hold a debate on science and its political implications for society.  A presidential debate on science was never held.  Here, according to Science Debate 2008, is the story:

The candidates refused.  The Science Debate team secured cosponsors in the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Council on Competitiveness.  They secured bipartisan congressional co-chairs.  They made a deal with NOVA and NOW on PBS to broadcast the debate, and secured a venue.  But the candidates instead opted to debate their religious faith in two nationally televised “faith forums.

The American science and engineering community was stunned.  These issues lie at the center of most of the major unresolved policy challenges facing the country, and yet the candidates refused to debate them.  The team went to work with other leading science organizations to cull the submitted questions into “The Top 14 Science Questions Facing America,” and teamed with Research!America to do a national poll to show the candidates that 85% of the American public thought that debating these topics was important.

This time, the candidates responded.  They assembled teams of science advisers to help them answer the questions, which helped inform their strategic thinking.  The inauguration of Barack Obama marked the first time a president has gone into office with a fully formed science policy and a sense of how it fits into his overall strategic agenda.  In a day and age when science affects every aspect of our lives and lies at the center of the causes and solutions of many of our most intractable public policy challenges, this was an important new development.

Science Debate 2012 has called once again for a science presidential debate, and for the first time, a set of eight questions for Congressional discussion.   Whether the Obama or Romney campaigns will sign off on a debate that focuses on science is unknown.  Most likely they will turn the questions over to their science advisors to answer in writing.

Sciencepolitica: Science in the Political Arena

Science Debate has created a forum to explore significant science issues in the presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.  Are the candidates qualified to discuss these issues?  As Shawn Otto puts it, Obama and Romney spend a lot of time talking about the economy, yet neither is an economist.  They express opinions on foreign policy, yet neither is a diplomat.  They should be able to discuss science and how it impacts people and society, even though neither is a scientist.

Science has not been in the background.  Extreme earth conditions, such as the Greenland ice melt, to the calving of huge hunks of glacial ice in Antarctica, the drought and forest fires in many American states, monsoon rains in China are TV stories nearly every night.  Over the past few years, the politicization of science has led to stalemates on many areas that need to be addressed: climate change and global warming, energy sustainability, clean water, & unpolluted oceans.  Science and mathematics education have been the target of many news stories, especially when international test results are released.  In most of the news stories, a “sky is falling” scenario is played out, leading politicians and corporate leaders to denigrate the state of science and mathematics education.

When scientific findings, however, conflict with personal and corporate interests, mudslinging in the form of personal attacks on each scientist and educator (for example Rachel Carson) and junk science claims on the scientific research community emerge.

Politicians love to use the term “junk science.” It is primarily used to cast doubt on and deride scientific findings, even if the findings were published in peer-reviewed journals, and supported by the scientific community. Junk science is evoked to counter global warming theories, and especially the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which has provided us with a comprehensive picture of the state of global warming. Even though the panel has reviewed thousands of studies, there are politicians and some in the media, who claim these conclusions are based on “junk science” and that until some “sound science” comes down the road, we should put a halt on any recommendations related to the data.
It’s important for us to know how the two presidential candidates interpret the findings of science.  We have a clue that Obama respects the scientific community, especially based on his science advisory appointments in the current administration.  We’ll know later this year what Romney thinks about science when his team answers the Science Debatequestions.

Science Debate has opened the conversation to a wider audience,  but we face gridlock on most of the 14 science issues proposed by Science Debate.  Debating the issues openly in democratic forums will enable the candidates to show how they would deal with these issues that are important to all Americans.

Significantly, Science Debate is partnering with Scientific American and other leading science organization to promote discussion of science issues in this year’s election.  Science Debate has reached out to the Obama and Romney campaigns to take part in a televised debate on science and science education.  The odds are slim that either will agree to debate.  Instead they will turn to their science advisers to write answers to the questions   Their replies will be published on the Science Debate and Scientific American websites as the 2008 answers were posted.  Scientific American has indicated that it will grade the answers.  I wonder if they will determine the Value Added Measure for their advisors.

The Questions

The question is what do Obama and Romney know about science?  To find out, Science Debate and its partners has devised 14 questions.  You will find the 2008 and 2012 questions in Table 1. The questions include topics on innovation, climate change, energy, biosecurity, food, the Internet, ocean health, water, space, natural resources, health, and education.

The questions are based on our understanding of various problems that society faces.  Each question provides a bit of context, and rationale for being included in the Science Debate questionnaire.  Simple answers do not exist for any of these questions.

Christine Gorman, of Scientific American suggests why it is important to ask the presidential candidates about science:

The point is, as informed citizens, we need to know how the presidential candidates expect to address the basic scientific issues that are so vital to our country’s and our planet’s future—and that their policies will be based on sound science. The best showcase for such a discussion would be a live debate between the candidates dedicated entirely to scientific issues.


Science Debate 2008 and 2012 Questions

Table 1.  Science Debate 2008 and 2012 Questions for a Presidential Candidate Debate

Science Debate 2008 Questions Science Debate 2012 Questions
1. Innovation. Science and technology have been responsible for half of the growth of the American economy since WWII. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will you support to ensure that America remains the world leader in innovation? 1. Innovation and the Economy. Science and technology have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII, when the federal government first prioritized peacetime science mobilization. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?
2. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change—a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research?  Are there other policies you would support? 2. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?
3. Energy. Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. What policies would you support to meet demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future? 3.Energy  Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. What policies would you support to meet the demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?
4. Education. A comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, while average U.S. math scores ranked 24th.  What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century? 4. Education  Increasingly, the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st.  In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?
5. National Security. Science and technology are at the core of national security like never before.  What is your view of how science and technology can best be used to ensure national security and where should we put our focus? 5. Research and the Future.  Federally funded research has helped to produce America’s major postwar economies and to ensure our national security, but today the UK, Singapore, China, and Korea are making competitive investments in research.  Given that the next Congress will face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in research in your upcoming budgets.
6. Pandemics and Biosecurity. Some estimates suggest that if H5N1 Avian Flu becomes a pandemic it could kill more than 300 million people. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from global pandemics or deliberate biological attacks? 6. Pandemics and Biosecurity. Recent experiments show how Avian flu may become transmissible among mammals. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from emerging diseases, global pandemics and/or deliberate biological attacks?
7. Genetics research. The field of genetics has the potential to improve human health and nutrition, but many people are concerned about the effects of genetic modification both in humans and in agriculture. What is the right policy balance between the benefits of genetic advances and their potential risks? 7. Food. Thanks to science and technology, the United States has the world’s most productive and diverse agricultural sector, yet many Americans are increasingly concerned about the health and safety of our food.  The use of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, as well as animal diseases and even terrorism pose risks.  What steps would you take to ensure the health, safety and productivity of America’s food supply?
8. Stem cells.  Stem cell research advocates say it may successfully lead to treatments for many chronic diseases and injuries, saving lives, but opponents argue that using embryos as a source for stem cells destroys human life.  What is your position on government regulation and funding of stem cell research? 8. The Internet. The Internet plays a central role in both our economy and our society.  What role, if any, should the federal government play in managing the Internet to ensure its robust social, scientific, and economic role?
9. Ocean Health. Scientists estimate that some 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are in serious decline and habitats around the world like coral reefs are seriously threatened. What steps, if any, should the United States take during your presidency to protect ocean health? 9. Ocean Health.  Scientists estimate that 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are in serious decline, habitats like coral reefs are threatened, and large areas of ocean and coastlines are polluted. What role should the federal government play domestically and through foreign policy to protect the environmental health and economic vitality of the oceans?
10. Water. Thirty-nine states expect some level of water shortage over the next decade, and scientific studies suggest that a majority of our water resources are at risk.  What policies would you support to meet demand for water resources? 10. Fresh Water. Less than one percent of the world’s water is liquid fresh water, and scientific studies suggest that a majority of U.S. and global fresh water is now at risk because of increasing consumption, evaporation and pollution.  What steps, if any, should the federal government take to secure clean, abundant fresh water for all Americans?
11. Space.  The study of Earth from space can yield important information about climate change; focus on the cosmos can advance our understanding of the universe; and manned space travel can help us inspire new generations of youth to go into science.  Can we afford all of them?   How would you prioritize space in your administration? 11. Space.  The United States is currently in a major discussion over our national goals in space.  What should America’s space exploration and utilization goals be in the 21st century and what steps should the government take to help achieve them?
12. Scientific Integrity. Many government scientists report political interference in their job.  Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making? 12. Science in Public Policy. We live in an era when science and technology affect every aspect of life and society, and so must be included in well-informed public policy decisions.  How will you ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are fully informed by the best available scientific and technical information, and that the public is able to evaluate the basis of these policy decisions?
13. Research.For many years, Congress has recognized the importance of science and engineering research to realizing our national goals.  Given that the next Congress will likely face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in basic research in upcoming budgets? 13. Critical Natural Resources.  Supply shortages of natural resources affect economic growth, quality of life, and national security; for example China currently produces 97% of rare earth elements needed for advanced electronics.   What steps should the federal government take to ensure the quality and availability of critical natural resources?
14. Health. Americans are increasingly concerned with the cost, quality and availability of health care.  How do you see science, research and technology contributing to improved health and quality of life? 14. Vaccination and public health.  Vaccination campaigns against preventable diseases such as measles, polio and whooping cough depend on widespread participation to be effective, but in some communities vaccination rates have fallen off sharply. What actions would you support to enforce vaccinations in the interest of public health, and in what circumstances should exemptions be allowed?

Which of the Science Debate 2012 questions is most important to you?


Peter Smagorinsky–>Great Georgia Teachers: Beyond Test Scores

Guest Post by Peter Smagorinsky

Peter Smagorinsky is a former high school teacher turned University of Georgia professor.  His columns on education issues have been featured in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) and the Washington Post.  This article appeared on the EmpowerED Georgia newsletter, and was originally published on the AJC.

Teachers sure are taking a beating these days. Not all teachers, however. If you’re in a private school or charter school, you must be pretty danged good. No, it’s just the teachers with the hardest jobs who get the abuse heaped on them, day after day, by the great and small, named and anonymous: those in regular old public schools.

Teachers are subjected to increasingly urgent calls for accountability, no doubt because those high salaries and other cushy benefits need to be justified in the most rigorous, reliable, and valid of ways. No, make that way, not ways: The only measure of successful teaching these days is their students’ test scores. Everything that teachers do for kids can easily be boiled down to those scores, regardless of whether those kids have fridge full of healthy food or a clean change of clothes at home; or for that matter, a home at all.

Or, maybe teachers can be appreciated for other things that they do. In this series of columns, I’d like to feature teachers I know of who do extraordinary work, often with kids whose life circumstances do not predict college attendance or other arenas where test scores matter to them enough to do their best. What I hope to accomplish is to provide profiles of outstanding teachers without referring to their ability to train students to fill in bubbles on machine-scored answer sheets.

Today I’ll talk about a guy I really like and admire, David Ragsdale of Clarke Central High School in Athens. I first met David when he was working on his master’s degree at UGA and took some classes with me. I was always pleased to find him in my classes because of the ripple effect he had on other students. It’s pretty hard to be in a class with someone of boundless inquisitiveness and vigor, and not get caught up in the momentum yourself. He set a high standard for engagement and participation that inevitably gave the classes vitality and purpose—certainly for me as a teacher, and I believe also for the other students in the class, many of whom, like David, were coming to campus after a demanding and often exhausting day of teaching their own classes in Georgia schools.

David has taken a special interest throughout his teaching and education in the quality of learning experienced by students from low socioeconomic status groups. There are many such students in Athens, which is one of the nation’s poorest counties. David has made the academic success of such young people his mission in life. In a community in which the public schools experience unfortunately high dropout rates, David’s ability to find ways to teach students in meaningful ways is critically important in helping the district meet its goal of serving a broad and diverse population. With his unbridled passion for social justice, David has emerged as the
teacher that semi-urban districts such as Athens-Clarke County so desperately need.

At UGA, David was among the founding Fellows in the Red Clay Writing Project, a select group of teachers from North Georgia whose experiences laid the groundwork for the RCWP institutes that followed. RCWP is an affiliate of the National Writing Project, often described as the most important professional development program available to teachers interested in writing instruction.

David quickly took a leadership role in the RCWP, based on the strong impression he made on his university and k-12 colleagues, returning each summer as an institute leader. He is also a valuable recruiter for the RCWP, visiting summer classes to explain to other graduate students the advantages of participation and the processes experienced during the institute. With his tremendous interpersonal skills and infectious enthusiasm, along with his expertise as a teacher of writing, he often impresses a number of students into applying for Fellowships the following summer.

Locally, David has also become a key part of the UGA undergraduate program in English education as a mentor teacher. David’s gifts as a teacher and mentor are well-known throughout the local teaching community; we often hear students in our master’s degree classes refer to him as an exceptional and model instructor. His generous and caring mentorship is most appreciated by our teacher candidates, who are often fragile and require sensitive handling in order to weather the vicissitudes of
school life. It’s well known that many teachers leave the profession within their first few years of teaching. Having strong mentorship during student teaching helps early-career teachers develop the resilience that they need to remain in the classroom in spite of the obstacles. David plays a key role in both the careers of teacher candidates, and ultimately in the administration of schools that are able to hire teachers whose abilities and dispositions enable them to thrive as educators.

I have saved his most remarkable achievement for last. David has had astounding success as the faculty adviser to Clarke Central High School’s news magazine, Odyssey, and its literary magazine, Iliad. He has not merely advised these publications, however; he is the founder of both. Amazingly, before David came along, CCHS had allowed its only literary magazine to fall into dormancy, and had never published a news magazine.

David saw the need for students to take pride in and have outlets for their writing, and so revived the Iliad and launched the Odyssey. Taking this initiative in a school in which student writing was so little appreciated reveals much about David’s spirited optimism and faith in his students in a setting in which many have simply given up on students’ prospects for achievement. Serving as advisor to one or the other of these publications would be an onerous amount of work; founding and advising both while pursuing graduate studies and being a key player in the RCWP is simply remarkable.

Each of these magazines has, under David’s dynamic leadership, risen to national prominence in very short order. The number of awards that these journals annually receive is far too long to list here, but if you’re interested in what Clarke Central students have achieved under his guidance, look here, or here, or here, or here, or in many other places. Or better yet, send him a contribution, because he’s done all this for the most part without a budget, relying instead on the generosity of regular folks to pony up the occasional sawbuck to keep the operation rolling. David has always modestly deferred credit to his student editors, but without a faculty adviser of considerable talent and dedication, students could not prosper in these roles. The remarkable series of accolades that his students’ magazines have accumulated can only be the work of a professional of magnificent devotion and ability, especially given the absence of a tradition of student publications in his school.

What are his students’ test scores? I have no idea, and I don’t care. They cannot begin to take the measure of the man or what he’s done for kids in Athens/Clarke County. David is a great teacher because he does so much more than teach. He works as hard as anyone I know, even spending his summers teaching in the Governor’s Honors Program in Valdosta. David is smart, dynamic, boundlessly determined, and a great asset to every institution he becomes a part of. We need more like him; I can only hope that the current toxic environment that surrounds our public schools does not run off those of similar gifts who might some day join him in the classroom.