Will Progressive Education Be On the Post Election Reform Table?

Will Progressive Education Be On the Post Election Reform Table?  Many American’s were thrilled with the re-election of Barack Obama.  I am one of them.  Yet, there are many who are concerned about the direction of education under a second term Obama administration.  I am one of them, too.

Years ago I read President Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father, and was convinced that he held a progressive world view of not only education, but many other important issues facing the world, including climate change, scientific integrity, human rights, reproductive rights, civil rights.

Obama shed light in his book on a view of education that would be embraced by progressive educators, yet his Department of Education has continued to ratify the Bush era conservative and authoritarian take-over of public education.  In fact, I wrote a post in September entitled, In his own words: Obama’s progressive world view of education.  In his book he used very different language about education compared to the speech coming out of the ED.  He had visited a South side Chicago high school, and was introduced to Mr. Asante Moran, a teacher and school counselor.  Mr. Asante was interested in establishing a mentor program for young African-American 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, he clearly told Obama that real education was not happening for black children, and then he offered  his view on what “real education” might be. Here is what he said on that Spring day in 1987 and what Obama wrote in his book:

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 about is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity (p. 158, Dreams from My Father).”

This is a progressive view of education, and Obama knows that this is where and how real education begins.  But the Department of Education, and standards-based/high-stakes reform tune is based on conservative values and worldview.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is helpful in our understanding of the Obama administration’s current position, and what progressives can do offer an alternative to the neoliberal policies that dominate American education.  In an article published today on Truthout, here is what Lerner says about the current state of the ED:

His conception of educational reform as measured by test score outcomes will continue to frustrate teachers and students alike, and it will be justified in terms of Obama’s goal for the United States to continue to dominate the global economy (rather than calling for global cooperation in which our success is linked to the well-being of everyone on the planet and on the well-being of the planet itself, rather than just on making the United States number one in its economic, political, military and media powers over others).

The economic argument is the is Achilles’ heel of much of the reform that is promoted by the neoliberals and the radical right.  If you read the rationale for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), students are reduced to performers who need to raise America’s competitive edge by increasing their achievement on high-stakes bubble tests. The economic argument is a pipeline ideology in which students are channeled up to post secondary schools to study science, technology, and engineering.  The goal is production.  The goal is to meet supply needs.

The problem is that crises in manpower shortages has been greatly exaggerated and only 2/3?s of people majoring in science actually take jobs in science. Comparative data used from TIMMS and PISA achievement scores has undermined science teaching and is used in policy debates as if the results are flawless. The argument goes that if we can boost the test scores of 15 old boys and girls, the nation’s economy will grow. This results in more of the same curriculum and more time in class. The NGSS is a good example of reform rooted in the economic argument. Content of science is emphasized and comparisons with the 1995 science standards shows little difference.

The Common Core State Standards in mathematics and reading/language arts are based on similar propositions.  The dominant education paradigm, as Henry Giroux writes that:

young people were at one time and are now once again shamelessly reduced to ‘cheerful robots’ through modes of pedagogy that embrace an instrumental rationality in matters of justice, values, ethics, and power are erased from any notion of teaching and learning.

According to Lerner, liberal and progressive constituencies have not been invited to any reform tables.  This needs to change.  Once suggestion Lerner has is to create a unified voice that articulates an alternative to the present educational paradigm.  We do not need to re-invent the wheel to find an alternative paradigm.  But we do have to create a political voice that will be heard by policy makers, at the state and national levels.

Anthony Cody wrote a powerful critique of Secretary Duncan’s education policies, and how they are actually making the problems we face worse.  And he also clues us in about whose voice will be heard at the “reform table.”  It won’t be teachers, or their unions.  It will be groups like Teach Plus, Educators 4 Excellence, and the New Teacher Project, each partly funded by the Gates Foundation.

I’ll talk more in the coming days about specific alternatives that we should be articulating.

In the meantime, what are some education alternatives that you would put on the table?

In His Own Words: Obama’s Progressive World View of Education

Update:  I’ve added a section at the end of the post suggested by Anthony Cody who blogs over on Living in Dialog (Education Week Teacher).  The section includes a radical quote from Obama about his view of using high-stakes tests that will surprise you.

President Obama has written and talked about education from a progressive world view.  How is it that looming over the U.S. Department of Education is a conservative world view that is making an all-out assault on public education?  The teacher’s strike today in Chicago should be a signal to President Obama that he should revisit his powerful experiences as a community organizer on the Southside of the city 25 years ago.

President Obama might want to check this section of his book, Dreams from My Father.  In a letter written to the president more than a year ago, I wrote, in part, this to him:

“On page 158 of your book you talk about the day you and your colleague & friend Johnnie had decided to visit a high school, and the principal of the school introduced you 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, you 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 your short meeting with Mr. Moran, he clearly told you that real education was not happening for black children, and then he offered you his view on what “real education” might be. Here is what he said on that Spring day in 1987 and what you wrote in your book:

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 about is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity (p. 158, Dreams from My Father).”

This is a progressive world view, and Obama knows that this is where and how real education begins.  Starting with the child where he or she is, and helping them connect to their environment—this is the core of progressive teaching. Most teachers know and try to act on this philosophy, but for many, it is an upstream battle.

The strike in Chicago is deeply embedded in the nature of teaching and learning, and it is a direct result of the corporate attack on education supported by conservatives in Obama’s department of education.  If the President would think and act on his experiences in Chicago, he might begin a new chapter in his effort to reform education.

He should pay a visit or throw some hoops with Mr. Duncan, and ask him what is his take on the teacher strike in Chicago?  How is it that 98% of teachers in the city voted to strike. I wish he would ask Duncan: Why are you supporting the likes of Achieve, Gates, Broad, Walton and the other boys that belong to that billionaires club?  Why are you insisting on strengthening the privatization and corporate values that are causing havoc to our schools?  Why are we testing the heck out of our kids?

So far, Duncan and the President haven’t said anything about the strike.

Striking Against Neoliberal Reform

Education reform, as being promoted by Obama’s Department of Education secretary, is not only disappointing, but a dangerous path to continue in the wake of the nation’s obsession with standards-based teaching, and high-stakes testing.  Secretary Duncan is promoting a neoliberal educational course that is driven by corporate values identified by Henry A. Giroux in his new book Education and the Crisis of Public Values that include:

  • privatization
  • downsizing
  • outsourcing
  • competition as the means of motivation
  • dehumanization of teachers and attacks on their autonomy
  • authoritarian modes of management
  •  obsession with measurement
  • the pedagogy of teaching to the test

The strike in Chicago is not a strike for higher salaries, but a stand against the most notorious period in the history of American education.  It is a strike against the neoliberal forces that are impacting public schooling.  In the neoliberal world the removal of controls allows the free market to balance naturally.  Neoliberal educational reformers want to turn what are now public schools into a free market place, enabling for-profit companies to come in and manage schools and treat them no differently than any fast food chain, factory, or retail store.  According to neoliberals, privatization of public schooling will offer parents choices and because of their belief in extreme individualism and market forces, schools, such as charter schools will not only offer a choice, but students will do better than students in regular public schools.

All of this hogwash.  The research reported on this blog shows that neoliberal reform is not working, and indeed is inferior to regular public schools.  Please refer to articles here, here, and here.

Since publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, American education (meaning its teachers and unions) has been on the receiving end of relentless attacks by neoliberals who think everything, including schooling should be market driven.  Leading the effort are unaccountable conservative and right-wing people, as well as corporate billionaire families.  Most of these attacks have been waged by individuals and groups with little or no experience as teachers or school administrators.  Yet, controlling this calamity are a few conservative groups such as Achieve, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and The Broad Foundations.

During this time, conservatives have promoted vouchers, charter schools, school choice, union busting activities, and an assault on teachers.  For example, when the cheating scandal was revealed on high-stakes tests in Atlanta, Governor Sonny Purdue discharged agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) into Atlanta schools, and forced teachers to answer questions without any notification, or legal Council.  This was a physical and psychological assault on Atlanta’s educators.

The Chicago teacher’s strike is a Sputnik civil rights moment.  The President’s second home is in Chicago, and he knows the politics of the city.  His former Chief of Staff is the mayor.  But does he know that the school board is appointed by the mayor, and the make-up of the board reflects the financial interests of the city, not its citizens.  As a civil rights moment, 98% of Chicago’s teachers are willing to risk their jobs to improve the teaching and learning conditions of their students.  Courageously, with parents support, Chicago teachers are challenging the corporate take over of public education.  Instead of being forced to teach to the test, teachers are marching to provide creative and innovative experiences for their students, rather than meeting the demands of bureaucrats.

And according to Anthony Cody, there is a powerful source of support to inspire educational reform. That source is the more than four million teachers who know about how students learn, and what they need to do to help students learn. If we want educational reform, then the leaders of this movement have to be teachers, and administrators who are on the ground, and know the students that they teach. In one of his posts, Cody suggests that teachers, along with friends, families and community members could be turned into a very influential political force.  Mr. President, you might want to listen to Anthony Cody.

The President and the Chicago Teacher’s Strike

The President is challenged to say something to Chicago teachers because of comments he made years ago if a teacher’s union went on strike.  In a Democracy Now interview with Dr. Pauline Lipman, professor of Education and policy studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Amy Goodman, host and executive producer asked about the Chicago teacher’s strike.  Here is a brief excerpt of Monday’s interview:

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama famously said in 2007—he said, to unions, “I will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States.”

PAULINE LIPMAN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you heard from President Obama?

PAULINE LIPMAN: As far—I haven’t heard from him. But as far as I know, the Chicago Teachers Union has not heard from him, either. You know, Rahm Emanuel was his chief of staff, and he’s now the mayor of Chicago. And as maybe our listeners do or don’t know, the mayor appoints the school board in Chicago.

And the school board is made up of, again, corporate CEOs, financiers, a hotel magnate, real-estate developers. And part of the agenda of forcing the teachers’ backs up against the wall, I think, is an attempt to actually weaken the Chicago Teachers Union, because the Chicago Teachers Union is not—the new leadership has not only reinvigorated the union in this city, it’s reinvigorating the trade—teachers’ union movement nationally.

But a more important challenge for President Obama is context of the strike as well as the connections among mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former Chief-of-Staff, Secretary of Education,  Arne Duncan, Chicago’s former school CEO and the President.  Here is another segment from the Goodman – Lipman interview.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the teachers have just gone out on strike. Professor Lipman, put this in a national context, what this means, what the Chicago strike means for the nation

PAULINE LIPMAN: Yes, good morning

As I said in the clip that you showed earlier, Chicago was the birthplace of this neoliberal corporate reform agenda of high-stakes testing, paying teachers based on test scores, closing failing neighborhood—disinvesting in neighborhood schools and then closing them and turning them over to charter schools—the policies that both Phil and Rhoda just described. And it was really a model which was picked up by cities around the country and then made a national agenda when Arne Duncan, who had been the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, became Obama’s secretary of education?

Chicago is now an epicenter of the pushback against it, as I also said before. And very much at the center of that is a new Chicago Teachers Union, with a new leadership that is really challenging this whole agenda with a different vision of education, a vision of education that involves a rich curriculum for all students, that puts equity at the center. They’ve named what these policies have resulted in Chicago “education apartheid,” especially for African-American and Latino students.

So, this is a battle that is being watched by people around the country. And a really strong victory for the Chicago Teachers Union, backed up by parents and community members, will send a signal that we can actually turn around this agenda. So I think it has tremendous significance. And I get the news feeds from the Chicago Teachers Union, the reports of this strike, and it’s being covered not only nationally, but internationally.

Teach with Passion and Creativity, Says President Obama

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama included a section of his speech that focused on education, not only K-12, but he also challenged colleges and universities to be more creative about how they work with students, and as well as the hundreds of thousands of young students who are not yet American citizens, and “live every day with the threat of deportation.”

In his address, the President made a few comments about teachers and teaching that might just reveal that he is interested in opening the door questioning some of the basic tenets of the ED. Here are a few sentences from his address:

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).

Did Obama open the door to altering the fixed and seemingly unchanging policies of NCLB and the Race to the Top?

I think he might have.  Anthony Cody wrote and suggested that I add a section from a town hall meeting that Obama did on Univision. The quotes below come from Anthony’s post entitled Obama Blasts His Own Education Policies. Obama was asked by Luis Zelaya, a student, about how we could reduce the number of high-stakes tests that students take in school.

The President replied:

“… we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at.

“Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.

“Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well.

“Because there are other criteria: What’s the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.”

And then President Obama added a comment that is very similar to what Mr. Asante Moran told Obama in 1987 (see Mr. Moran’s statement at the beginning of this post).  Here’s the comment:

“So what I want to do is—one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you’re not learning about the world; you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that’s not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.”

This is a powerful statement.

He needs with the teachers who are striking on the issue of what is the best course of action for students in the Chicago Public Schools.  The teachers in Chicago are striking to oppose the repressive policies of his own Department of Education, who in concert with Achieve, the billionaire boys club, and conservatives, has created schools that are not likely to teach with creativity and passion. It seems to me that President Obama does not agree with the policies of his own Department of Education.

Finally, I would add that Obama, if re-elected, has the insight to change the course of American education.  He needs the will of the people, and a new secretary of education.

Would Obama be willing to talk with the Chicago Teachers?  What contribution would this action have on the day-to-day lives of American students? What are your thoughts?

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: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2011/2012465.pdf 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?

Should All Students Be Held to a Single Set of K-12 Education Standards?

Should all U.S. students meet a single set of K-12 education standards?  In a democracy should all students be held to the same standards?

This was the question that Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute  and  Jay Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas  debated in recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Yes, says Finn; no claims Greene.

First I’ll describe the positions of Dr. Finn and Dr. Green, and then make comments on each to show that one represents a conservative world-view and the other a progressive world-view.

Yes, We Should: The Fordham View

Chester E. Finn Jr. believes that America should adopt a single set of standards for all students, regardless of where they live, and schools (teachers & principals) should be held accountable by using student achievement scores as the metric.  Finn’s Fordham Institute has been in the business of writing non- peer reviewed analyses of state standards for more than 15 years.  They’ve analyzed standards in reading, math, and  most recently science.  He states that their findings of the state science standards are “grim”.

For example, in their 2012 report, The State of the State Science Standards, he tells us In science, just 12 states and the District of Columbia earned A’s or B’s. More than twice that number have standards that deserve grades of D or F.  Finn also believes that not involving the government in Washington in developing standards is a good thing.  He explains that the common core (reading and math) was developed be a group of governors (government?) and state level school administrators.

The proponents of the common core, such as the Fordham Institute, lead us to believe that because these standards were not developed by the government in Washington, but by state government consortia, they must be better.  Finn uses the argument that we need to follow other successful nations who’ve established national standards because they seem to do so much better than those countries that don’t have a national curriculum.  Our economic competitiveness is in dire straights because we don’t have a rigorous set of national standards.  And students are on the move.  We need a single set of standards, and a uniformed and structured curriculum just in case a new child moves into the neighborhood.  Plus, well be able to compare education state to state, city to city.

Most of these arguments are not supported in juried research.  However, organizations such as the Fordham Institute commission “research” that is completed either in-house, or by hired consultants.

Comments on the Fordham View

The Fordham Institute’s view of  national standards presented by Chester E. Finn is consistent with the conservative  world-view of educational reform.  According to research by George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, the moral world-view of conservatives (or progressives) can be understood by using the conceptual metaphor of Nation as Family.

Using this idea, ones political beliefs tend to be structured by how we think of family, and our early experiences in our own family which contribute to our beliefs. Thinking of a nation as a family is a familiar notion, as in phrases such as Mother Russia, Fatherland, sending sons and daughters off to war, the founding fathers, Big Brother (see Joe Brewer, Rockbridge Institute, discussion here).  In Brewer’s thinking, the conceptual metaphor of nation as family organizes our brains in this way: homeland is home, citizens are siblings, the government (or head) is parent, and so forth. The diagram below shows the organization of schooling according to a conservative world-view.

The world-view of conservatives can be explained using the conceptual metaphor for Nation as Family. Lakoff would say that a conservative family would be based on authority, and would be represented by the “Strict Father Family”.  It makes sense to have a single set of standards in the conservative world-view.  The flow of authority and decision-making would flow downward from head to the classroom teacher.

In their book, entitled, Thinking Points by George Lakoff, and the Rockbridge Institute, the core conservative values are:

  • Authority: assumed to be morally good and used to exert legitimate control (therefore it is imperative that authority is never questioned)
  • Discipline: self-control learned through punishment when one does wrong (it is understood that failure of authority to punish for wrong doing is a moral failure)

The public schools in the U.S. reflect the core values of authority and discipline, and many of the laws and acts (especially the NCLB Act of 2001) was written by the authority of the government, and set in motion an image that suggests that students, teachers and administrators are siblings in the Family of Education, and are beholden to the Authority of Federal and State departments of education. It’s a top-down system, and conceptual metaphor of the “Strict Father Family” mirrors the way public schools are conceptualized.

When institutions like Fordham, and individuals such as Dr. Finn suggest that the nation needs “clear standards about what schools should teach and students should learn—and make these standards uniform across the land,” they base this on the conservative core value of authority at the top or the head.  In this case, the authority rests in Achieve, Inc., created by the National Governors Association.  Achieve wrote, and is now disseminating the Common Core Standards in math and reading/language arts.  Nearly all of the states have accepted the authority given to Achieve to create a single set of standards.  Coming soon, will be another authoritative set of standards in K-12 science.

The reports issued by the Fordham Institute are typically not juried.  Their research methodology is flawed, yet because of their influence, Fordham, and other think tanks use their own non juried papers as scientific research.  Their public release of these papers is normally cited by the media as the cold, hard facts.

For example, Finn mentions that his Institute recently published a report that graded each state’s science standards, and found the results grim.  The report is written in the context of Fordham Institute’s bias about the state of science education in the nation, especially in terms of achievement test results on PISA, TIMSS, and NAEP. It is very similar to the Broad Foundation’s view of American youth which I wrote about here.  The Broad Foundation has low expectations for American students, and they go on to support their claim with distorted statistics, and use them to paint negative pictures of American youth.

The Fordham Institute’s view is embedded in the “crisis mentality” that began with “Sputnik” and has carried forward through today. According to the Fordham report, American youth do not show strong science achievement, and show “woeful” results on international tests. And yet during the time that American youth showed such dismal scores on science tests, American science and technology innovations and creative development flourished, and still does. We thought our nation was at risk because of technological advances, and global economic growth of Russia (then, the USSR), Japan, Germany, and China. Now we have to worry about Finland, South Korea, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia. Their scores are higher on these tests than ours. They must be doing something different to educate their students in math and science. The race is on!  Let’s find out and import it.

Although the Fordham  report is being disseminated, the results are flawed, and biased, and should be viewed with suspicion. Access to data for reanalysis, replication and opportunity to build on findings are non-existent.  Because the “data” reported are based on opinions, it is difficult to reanalyze the study. Perhaps if the authors subjected their criteria to an outside panel, and applied the same methods, we might get more valid and reliable results.

As you explore the nature of the standards movement as it is happening in the United States, it appears as if non-profits, and professional organizations are at the heart of the development of these standards. The Federal government’s role in all of this is rather interesting. Rather than funding universities, which must be accountable, the organizations that are developing the standards receive funding from non-governmental businesses, organizations, and private philanthropic groups. The groups doing the development, and the funding sources are accountable in this process to no one but their board of directors.

If you follow the money, you would discover that there is actually a core group of foundations and businesses that are providing the financial support for institutes (like the Thomas B. Fordham Institute) and non-profits (like Achieve, Inc.—a group largely responsible for writing the math, reading/language arts, and science standards). If you go to any of these organizations, and click on the link that lists the organization’s financial contributors, you will probably not be surprised to learn that many of same contributors form the financial foundation for the entire standards movement.

Think tank “research” and subsequent views, whether from conservative or progressive organizations need to be examined with caution, and with the full knowledge of the organization’s ideology.  The Fordham Institute is a conservative group that supports a centralized educational system.  Rather odd, don’t you think?

No, We Shouldn’t: The University of Arkansas View

Jay Green suggests that to hold all students to a single metric is basically creating a national curriculum.  He thinks (as many do) that standards drive testing, which in turn will affect what content is covered, as well as how and when.  Green argues that having a national set of standards only makes sense if there was a single way for all students to learn, and when.  He points out that here is no consensus on what all students should learn.  Professor Green is concerned that a national curriculum of learning might be more like nationalized “church” of education.  What could be inspiring these groups to do so?  And finally, Green suggests we should be wary of central planning, and instead reinvigorate choice and competition.

Comments on the University View

Jay Greene, head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, has presented arguments that tend to be rooted in juried research.  The position taken by Greene aligns itself with a more progressive outlook on learning  and curriculum.  Experimentation and inquiry are values that should drive curriculum, and the focus should be on student learning.  If this is so, it begins to get difficult to tailor teaching to student interests and needs when single set of national standards is seen as the goal for all.  Dr. Green questions the uniformity that would be put in place with a single set of standards.  He suggests that:

Such uniformity would only make sense if: 1) there was a single best way for all students to learn; 2) we knew what it was; 3) we could be sure the people running this nationalized education system would adopt that correct approach; and 4) they would remain in charge far into the future. But that isn’t how things are. There is no consensus on what all students need to know. Different students can best be taught and assessed in different ways.

The Department of Education Reform headed by Dr. Greene, is comprised of six endowed chairs and one faculty member.  Standards-based reform, school vouchers, charter schools, and school choice appear to be research interests of this distinguished group of professors.

Because of their research interests and political experiences, Dr. Greene may not agree that his views reflect a progressive world view.  Nevertheless, his views open the door to the following discussion.

Using Lakoff’s conceptual metaphor theory, the position taken by Greene reflects a progressive world view.  In Lakoff’s view, the progressive world-view is based on the nurturant parent family. He suggests that nurturing has two key aspects: empathy and responsibility. Lakoff explains that nurturant parents or teachers are authoritative but with out being authoritarian.

If we apply the nurturant parent model to politics or education, Lakoff suggests that what we get is a “progressive moral and political philosophy. The progressive world-view then is based on these two ideas:

  • Empathy: the capacity to connect with other people, to feel what others feel, to imagine oneself as another and hence to feel a kinship with others.
  • Responsibility: acting on that empathy—responsibility for yourself and for others. (Lakoff, George (2006-10-03). Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Kindle Locations 827-830). Macmillan. Kindle Edition)

In research by Carl Rogers many decades ago in his person or client centered theory, empathy was considered one of core conditions for facilitative (counseling and teaching) practice. Realness of the teacher, and prizing, accepting, and trust were two additional core conditions.

Green’s opposition to a set of national standards imposed on local schools makes sense from the progressive world-view.  In this view teachers would inquirers and would ask lots of questions such as:

  • Why is our state and district willing to accept a top-down authoritarian set of standards that weren’t developed with our students’ interests or aspirations in mind?
  • Do you know what the research tells us about the ineffectiveness of using high-stakes tests on students achievement?
  • Why does the state department of education have so much authoritative power over the inner workings of every school district in the state?
  • Why aren’t educators involved in the development of curriculum that is based on the lived experiences of students, and the interests that students might have for getting involved in real work?

One More Thing

The move to centralize education in the United States is one that has gained momentum over the past ten years. Americans are being convinced that its school system is broken, old, and in crisis. Professor Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education at the University of Oregon puts it this way in one of his blog posts:

in short, the argument goes, to save America, to retain America’s preeminence in the world, to ensure America’s global competitiveness, we must dismantle America’s education system and import policies and practices from other countries.

The core group of “reformers” who want to create a single test-based curriculum have oddly suggested that we ought to import educational ideas from other countries since their economies are improving or better than ours, and their students do so well on PISA and TIMSS international tests. As Zhoa writes in his blog post entitled The Grass is Greener: Learning from Other Countries:

The belief that education in certain other countries is superior has mostly started with and reinforced by a myopic perspective of what constitutes high quality education. This perspective easily leads to the tendency to quickly jump to the conclusion that when a country rises economically (in the case of Japan and China) or militarily (in the case of the Soviet Union), it must have an excellent education system. The same perspective also leads to the conclusion that high test scores indicate educational excellence. As a result, observers rushed to Russia, Japan, China, Singapore, Finland, and Korea to search for their secrets to educational excellence and of course found what they wanted to find: standardized curriculum, focus on academic subjects that “matter,” teachers prepared and incentivized to deliver the prescribed subjects efficiently, and well-disciplined students devoted to mastering the prescribed content, with parental support.

The mistake we are making in educational reform is taking away from local educators and local systems the ability to make the policy decisions that will affect the students they know best, and of course they are the students in their own schools. We need to stop enabling the “think-tank mentality” as evidenced so well by the Fordham Foundation, and Achieve, Inc. and their view that all kids should learn the same stuff, at the same time, and in the way that are defined by a collection of central common core standards.