Atlanta’s New Superintendent Should Not Agree to Be Responsible for Narrowing the Achievement Gap

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"Creative Commons Learning" by Sue Richards is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Creative Commons Learning” by Sue Richards is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has hired Dr. Meria Carstarphen to be its superintendent for the next three years.  She was hired after a one year search led by 13-member search committee.  She is now superintendent of the Austin Independent School District (TX).  Dr. Carstarphen was the only person put forward to be superintendent by the search committee.  This raised concerns among a number of citizens and groups in Atlanta, but the APS School Board voted unanimously on April 14 to approve the search committee’s one person slate.

Dr. Carstarphen has excellent credentials and experiences and one could conclude that the search committee felt that, but by putting forth only one candidate to be voted on by the APS Board of Education, that decision raised concerns.  Personally, I think the committee put Dr. Carstarphen in a difficult situation.  Search committee members didn’t have to answer any of the tough questions that Dr. Carstarphen fielded in various meetings around the city.

That said, Atlanta has hired a young superintendent with nearly a decade of administrative experience.  She will be held to very high standards, which in the end, should not be used to measure her or the APS’s success.  As you will see just below, the same variables that have been used for the past three decades to decide the effectiveness of a school district are still being used.  Also, there is a disconnect between what Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) leaders (Gates, Duncan, Teach for America, Broad, Kipp, Walton, Fordham Foundation–just to name a few) think school should be about, and what the real world of school, and the real world see as effective, vibrant, humane, and creative school.

The GERM model has infected most western nation’s schools, and as shown in Figure 1 forms the bulk of the “matrix” of schooling and is represented by crystals of quartz (white), and feldspar (grey).  But within this background matrix, are black crystal of mica.  These represent teacher-led innovations that are building up resistance against GERM.  With a bit of background in geology, I thought the thin section of this sample of granite was perfect to tell the story of GERMS and innovations.

These are real innovators, teachers and school administrators, for the most part, who have questioned, argued, resisted, and worked constructively to do the work of teaching and learning with students.  Their ideas often involve collaboration and community-based work.  In some cases, they have risen up and simply said no to the inane nonsense of high-stakes testing which not only takes time and money, but has little to do with their work with students.  And the evidence is that high-stakes testing has no effect on student achievement, the very thing that GERM advocates see as the be-all and end-all of schooling.

These innovative educators interpret the standards in their own way for their students, and many of them figure out ways to prepare their students for the exams to come down the road.  The road to successful public education puts professional teachers, their schools, and students at the center of change.  Change is from the inside-out, not the top-down.


Figure 1. Crystals in granite as metaphors for Global Education Reform Movement (GERM).  GERM dominates as white and grey crystals; teacher-led innovations appears as black mica crystals.
Figure 1. Crystals in granite as metaphors for Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). GERM dominates as white and grey crystals; teacher-led innovations appears as black mica crystals. Modified from “Creative Commons Granite” by Eelco is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Let’s see how this analogy and discussion relates to the situation in Atlanta now that the city has a new superintendent who will begin working with the APS July, 2014 under the three-year contract.

Mandate for a New Superintendent

If you go to the Search Committee website, you will find a document entitled Leadership Profile, Superintendent, Atlanta Public Schools.  The document describes the opportunity and mandate for the new superintendent, as well what the ideal superintendent should be.  I want to look at the mandate in the document because it will be used to answer the question about the effectiveness of Dr. Carstarphen in her role as the APS Superintendent.

According to the document, there are four priorities that the Board of Education and the city of Atlanta are focused:


  • Closing the achievement gap while raising the overall bar for student performance
  • Scaling the success of individual high-performing schools across the district
  • Envisioning and implementing a systemic achievement plan that addresses the needs of a diverse district
  • Developing a realistic timeline for success.

These priorities will be measured by calculating changes in the following observables or:

Evidence of success

  • Reduced drop-out rates
  • Increased percentages of college- or career-ready graduates
  • Pervasive increases in student achievement
  • Significant increase in high performing districtwide.

 Classic GERM Conditions

The priorities listed above that will be used to measure the effectiveness of Dr. Carstarphen, are classic characteristics of the Global Education Reform Model identified by Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg.

It is important to note the GERM model has emerged over the past three decades, and is not something that happened recently.  However, in the present installment of GERM, wealthy individuals and influential organizations have pushed the GERM onto schooling in such a way, that we are now beginning to see some push back, especially among parents, and teachers and teacher-unions.

There are a few things to look for in the months ahead to find out if Atlanta will continue along the GERM route.

  1. Look for continued push for standards, and adoption of the Common Core.
  2. A second feature to be aware of is the focus on common subjects of reading, writing and mathematics.  Everything else, science, social studies, PE, art, and music will be of secondary importance.
  3. Look for the use of high-stakes tests to be used to measure the all important achievement scores especially in reading and math.
  4. Look for a corporate management model as the way improvement is driven and measured.   The borrowing of ideas from the business world will end up harming and limiting the real work of teaching.
  5. And then, to continue with the business model, the system will be accountable through one reason: high-stakes tests of student achievement.  The pressure will be to improve scores and if they are not improved, then the superintendent and all the schools in the APS will be considered failures.

But Here is the Problem: Achievement Won’t Change using GERM

Ed Johnson, an expert on systems theory, has done an analysis of reading and mathematics in American cities using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). He writes that “since 2003, the (NAEP), commonly known as “The Nation’s Report Card” and respected for being untainted by political ideologies and agenda, administers the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) to voluntarily participating urban school districts.  TUDA Reading was first administrated in 2002 in Grades 4 and 8 to six urban school districts, including Atlanta Public Schools (APS or “Atlanta”).  TUDA Math was first administered in 2003 in Grades 4 and 8 to ten urban school districts, again including Atlanta. By 2013, TUDA had twenty-one urban school districts participating.  The next TUDA administration will be in 2015.  Austin Independent School District (AISD or “Austin”) participated for the first time in 2005.”

Systemic Stories

The Johnson TUDA analysis provides a portrait or a picture of how Atlanta and Austin (the previous district led by the new Atlanta superintendent) have done in Reading and Mathematics since 2002 for Atlanta, and 2005 for Austin.  The graphs that he has produced tell a “systemic story” of various systems.  For example, Figure 2 shows how math achievement at 8th grade behaves as a system.  You can view all of his graphs here to view Reading as a system, Mathematics as a system, 4th grade and 8th grade as systems.  In no case, according to Ed Johnson does systemic mean students.

Note, that all scores for the ten years fall within predicted levels (Lower control limits-LCL and Upper control limits–UCL) for each district.  There is variation, but the variation is “caused” by the system of 8th grade math, and doesn’t seem to be affected by changes in curriculum, standards, or administration.  For example, during this period, Atlanta had two superintendents, Dr. Beverly Hall and Dr. Erroll Davis.  Even after the Atlanta cheating scandal, scores actually went up.


Figure 2.  Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin.  This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.
Figure 2. Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin. This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.


Achievement Gap

What about the achievement gap?  According to the superintendent mandate for the APS, the new superintendent must figure out a way to narrow the gap between the scores of white student and black students, and white and Hispanic students.

There is a great deal of research on this question.  Diane Ravitch provides an excellent chapter in her book Reign of Error entitled The Facts About the Achievement Gap.  As she points out, the claim is out there that the achievement gaps are large and getting worse.  The reality that she reports is that

We have made genuine progress in narrowing the achievement gaps, but they will remain large if we do nothing about the causes of the gaps.  Ravitch, Diane (2013-09-17). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Kindle Location 1180). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

As she points out, the GERM reformers use this disparity of scores between white students and students of color to claim that public schools are failing.  Using concepts like turnaround schools, the GERMs set up schools for failure by using corporate managers who believe that high-stakes tests measure teacher and school effectiveness.  Not only that they continually “raise the bar” (without any scientific basis) making it impossible for schools to reach.  Remember, as Ed Johnson has shown in Figure 2, the system of math for 4th and 8th grade predicts scores within fairly narrow limits.  Do you think that simply raising the bar (Upper Control Limits) will do the trick.  Hardly.

Here as some facts that Ravitch reports on the achievement gap.

  • In 1990, 83 percent of black students in fourth grade scored “below basic,” but that number fell to 34 percent in 2011.
  • In eighth grade, 78 percent of black students were below basic in 1990, but by 2011 the proportion had dropped to 49 percent.
  • Among Hispanic students, the proportion below basic in fourth grade fell from 67 percent to 28 percent; in eighth grade, that proportion declined from 66   percent to 39 percent.
  • Among white students in fourth grade, the proportion below basic dropped in that time period from 41 percent to only 9 percent; in eighth grade, it declined from 40 percent to 16   percent.
  • The proportion of fourth-grade Asian students below basic dropped from 38 percent in 1990 to 9 percent in 2011; in eighth grade, Asian students who were below basic declined from 36 percent to 14   percent.  Ravitch, Diane (2013-09-17). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Kindle Locations 1198-1200). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Let’s return to Ed Johnson’s research.  He has done an analysis of TUDs and asked Do the TUDs have, have they always had, distinctive White and Black systems of 4th Grade mathematics with respect to NAEP TUDA average scale score gaps?  If you follow this link and at look at his graphs, the answer is yes.  For example, Figure 3 shows the White-Black Gap variation characterizing 4th grade math, 2003 – 2009.  Atlanta is marked in red.

Figure 3. NAEP, Mathematics, 4th Grade, White-Black Gap Variation, 2003 - 2009. Prepared by
Figure 3. NAEP, Mathematics, 4th Grade, White-Black Gap Variation, 2003 – 2009. Prepared

The new superintendent needs to look at this kind of data, and as Ed Johnson suggests, study Atlanta and the D.C. Public Schools to “learn to avoid what these systems do.”  What is causing the distinctive White and Black gap?  What systemic improvement might narrow the gap?

Diane Ravitch reports that progress has been made on achievement gaps.  She writes:

There is nothing new about achievement gaps between different racial and ethnic groups and between children from families at different ends of the income distribution. Such gaps exist wherever there is inequality, not only in this country, but internationally. In every country, the students from the most advantaged families have higher test scores on average than students from the least advantaged families.  Ravitch, Diane (2013-09-17). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Kindle Locations 1216-1218). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What should the New Superintendent do?

Clearly, recognize the research on achievement and the achievement gap.  Then she needs to work toward a systemic change in the way students, schools and teachers are evaluated.  She needs to shift the focus away from the obsession with high-stakes testing as a measure of student learning, and school effectiveness.  Is she willing to fight a bureaucracy that has systematically put in place a system that doesn’t work.

If she is, then she might follow these suggestions from Dr. Pasi Sahlberg.  As he points out, none of the characteristics that I listed of the GERM model of education have been adopted in Finland.  Instead, these are what might characterize a new Atlanta Public School system:

  • high confidence in teachers and principals as high professionals;
  • encouraging teachers and students to try new ideas and approaches, in other words, to put curiosity, imagination and creativity at the heart of learning; and
  • purpose of teaching and learning is to pursue happiness of learning and cultivating development of whole child.

Dr. Sahlberg has some very powerful words of wisdom for any school administrator or school board.  He writes:

The best way avoid infections of GERM is to prepare teachers and leaders well. In Finland all teachers must have masters degree in education or in the field of their subject. This ensures that they are good in what they do in classrooms and understand how teaching and learning in their schools can be improved. School principals are also experts of educational change and can protect their schools and school system from harmful germs.

Instead of focusing on achievement, use systems theory to work with the APS.  What do you think?

Children are not Assets to Make Ready for Careers & College

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Released into the public domain by Gentry George, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Released into the public domain by Gentry George, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

There was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that I believe pertains to K-12 education.  The authors (Krislov, M. & Volk, S.S., 2014) reminded us that college is still for creating citizens.

One of their main arguments was that “higher education fails in its mission if it trains graduates only for first post college jobs.”

I believe that middle and high schools fail if they think making students career and college ready is the main goal of education. But according to two major organizations–the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education (ED), making students career and college ready permeates the aims of their funding of K-12 education programs.  Gates has spent so far, $2.3 billion on college ready programs, and the ED has spent $4.5 billion in its Race to the Top program, which promotes standards and college ready programs.

According to Achieve, Inc., the company that wrote the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS),  implementing improved K–12 standards will better prepare high school graduates for the rigors of college and careers.

Children as Assets?

But there is another troubling idea that education reformers use when they talk about students. To some, children are assets that will contribute to the economic welfare of the state, and as better prepared assets, they will be more competitive in the global marketplace.

According to Dr. Meria Carstarphen, the designated nominee for the Atlanta superintendency, children are important assets that are entrusted to the Atlanta Public Schools (APS). This is an unfortunate metaphor to use when speaking about students.

Instead of assets, why not learners, or children, or kids, or teens, or youth, or by, George, human beings. Thinking of children as assets turns education into an mechanistic enterprise in which children are viewed as an economic investment.

There are contradictions here that raise questions about the rationale for putting achievement on core subjects such as reading, math and science as the pinnacle of success in high school.

What Skill Set?

What does it take to be successful in a job (career readiness) or in college? Is a student’s score on the SAT, or on a high school battery of high-stakes tests predictors of immediate job success or college readiness?  Is the overemphasis on achievement in high school warranted given that employers and colleges look beyond test scores, and indeed, many college no longer use SAT of ACT scores as admission measures.

In recent surveys reported by  Krislov & Volk (2014), as many as 70% of employers would hire someone without a higher-education credential, and more than 50% said that at least half the jobs in their companies did not require postsecondary education.  But even more definitely is that it is estimated that people will hold an average of 11 jobs between ages 18 and 46. That’s a different job every 2.5 years.

So, for our high school students who don’t attend college straight out of high school, for what jobs does school make them career ready?  And to use the language of the reformers, what “skill set” will they need?

Krislov & Volk (2014) write that “data doesn’t support those organizations’ reported conclusions that employers will be looking increasingly for workers with a targeted skill set and that a college degree in and of itself will not be important.”

They go on to say that employers are still looking for those characteristics that have long been central to a liberal-arts education: skills of communication and critical thinking, innovation and collaboration, integrity and responsibility.

These are what should characterize secondary education.

The Krislov and Volk article offers a strong rationale for the purpose for K-12 schooling, especially at the secondary school level.  We have created a conundrum for teachers who want students to develop a love of their subject, but at the same time, they work in an environment in which high-stakes tests are not only used to measure student performance, but their own performance as instructors, as well.  It doesn’t make any sense.  Read here what Krislov and Volk say:

These qualities (skills of communication and critical thinking, innovation and collaboration, integrity and responsibility) come not just from a single class but from a thoughtful and purposeful education. To the extent that these skills can be paired with experiential learning and creative problem-solving pedagogies, we will be preparing our graduates not just for their first jobs but for their future lives, which will very likely involve multiple jobs and career changes.

Children are not assets to make ready for careers & college.  They are not sent to school by their parents as assets.  They go to school as children and adolescents.  They do not serve the state or the school system.  Indeed, the school system should serve students and their parents.  Students are first, full human beings.  They have completeness now.  It is not something that will happen to them because of school.  School should be experiential.  It should engage students in explorations of art, science, mathematics, music, social studies, technology.  School should be an expedition into these realms of knowledge.  Courses should be a reconnaissance into the nature of music, or art, or science.

To abandon the notion that school is to make students ready for careers and college, we will have to think different about school.  And thinking different means to think from the inside out, and not the top down.  When we begin to realize that qualities for working with students already exist in schools, we won’t have to run around deciding whether a school system should run as a charter district, or an investment zone.   Instead, the focus will be on learning, tutoring, student voice, team learning, and assessment for learning–five qualities that honor students for who they are.

We know that the place called school is here now, and all that needs to happen is to release the resources from the inside out.  Teachers already know that if they are given the opportunity to work in school through the eyes of interconnections and not in tightly managed boxes, measured with standards and tests, they realize greatness in the classroom.

Perhaps, for K-12 schooling, this last paragraph from the Krislov and Volk article is what secondary education should be about.  They write:

Finally, we believe, with the historian William Cronon, that education should “aspire to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom.” It is the responsibility of all colleges and universities not just to teach their students calculus and U.S. history but to help them answer the question of what kind of life might be meaningful, productive, and rewarding. This mission serves not only our students, but employers, communities, and nation (Krislov and Volk, 2014).

Do you think the purpose of school is to make students ready for careers & college.


Krislov, Marvin, and Steven S. Volk. “College Is Still for Creating Citizens.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 Apr. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

Will the Atlanta Public Schools Make Foolish or Wise Decisions?

Used with permission of Dustin at
Used with permission of Dustin W. Stout at

I found this poster while reading over on Dustin Stout’s amazing work on creative design and social media. Dustin was reminded of this Bertrand Russell quote by a colleague, and superimposed it on a photo to make this Russell poster.

Russell’s Fools, fanatics and wise men quote resonated with the most recent posts on this bog that have focused on the Atlanta Public Schools (APS).

Bertrand Russell says that “the problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but Wiser Men so full of doubts.”

Education reform in this country is being led by people  who have convinced themselves that they know what is best for the education of American students.  They shout their claims with money and shenanigans with legislators on the end of their whips.  Whether these people are fools or fanatics is for you to decide.

However, I do know that there are “wise persons” out there who question the claims of these education reformists, and in their work, they document how the persistent attacks on schools, teachers, and students is unwarranted and unsupportable in research.

For years, I’ve written about how these wise persons have confronted the spread of the foolish ideas that dominate public education.  The Atlanta Public Schools are facing two decisions that will affect the future of the school system.  

The APS is about two make two critical decisions:

1. Select a new superintendent: For more than a year, the APS Superintendent Search Committee has sought candidates for the position.  They found one candidate, who they have presented to the district, and in a few days, the APS School Board will vote to accept the candidate as its new superintendent.

2. The APS also has to make a choice to run as (a) an Investing in Educational Excellence” (IE2) district, (b) a “Charter System,” or (c) a “Status Quo” system.


We’ve been making foolish decisions about how and for what reasons schools should be part of their communities. We’ve listened to the shouts of fools and fanatics who have ignored the signals and the research on learning and instead have injected schools with the virus, GERM (Global Education Reform Movement).  According to Pasi Sahlberg, GERM is a virus that has infected many nations in their march to “reform” education.  In his view, GERM is characterized by standardization (Common Core), core subjects (math, reading, science), teaching to the test, corporate management style, and test-based accountability.    In the meantime, keep in mind that GERM has created opportunity for the flow of money into education beyond our wildest dreams.   Between the Gates Foundation, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State Officers, the U.S. Department of Education, billions of dollars has been earmarked to support the GERM virus.  Gates has already spent $2.3 billion on the Common Core, and the U.S. Department of Education has invested more than $4.5 billion in the Race to the Top.  

The GERM virus is enhanced by these organizations who think that the academic performance of students is the most important outcome of K-12 education.

Wise Persons Speak

Yet, there are voices of wise persons who are often drowned out by fools and fanatics.  They oppose the further spread of GERM, and doing something about it.

In many communities, parents are opting their children out of state mandated tests. In other districts, teachers are refusing to give their students some of the mandated tests. All around the country people are raising heck about the Common Core.

In some cities, teacher’s unions, with support from parents, have gone on strike opposing government policies that continue to shut down schools inflicted by that virus.

Closer to home, I’ve reported on the voices of two wise persons, Andrew Young and Ed Johnson.

Leaders In Atlanta

Andrew Young and Ed Johnson are citizens of Atlanta whose work in politics, civil rights, and education are examples of the kind of wise person thinking that follows.

Andrew Young spoke out at the trial of Beverly Hall, suggesting to the judge to end the travesty of trying to convict dr hall and dozens of teachers from the APS. The continuation of this trial will only prolong the healing that is happening in Atlanta. There is evidence that the Atlanta test erasure scandal was an unintended consequence of the GERM virus.  Young is correct to say that we have to move beyond this trial.

Ed Johnson has been speaking and writing (documented here) about how the APS could improve the quality of education in its schools, and has backed up his ideas with research on systems theory, and evidence that achievement scores have not and will not change unless we view education as a humane, public, moral and ethical enterprise.

More than anyone that I know, Ed Johnson has offered the APS advice on how to bring a new sense of leadership to its schools, and how to view and run schools based on Edward Deming’s ideas.  In this regard, he believes schools can not be improved by trying to improve the parts separately.  It is a sure path to failure.

For example, some advocates of educational reform believe that student achievement can be improved by weeding out the bad teachers.  Millions of dollars have been invested in using student high-stakes test scores to check teacher performance using a technique called Value Added Measure (VAM).  Teachers whose VAM scores are low can be identified, and according to these experts, teachers with low scores must be bad teachers.  Getting rid of “defects” in any system will not improve the system or the part that was identified.  Instead, a better investment would be to ask how can we improve the quality of teaching, and what can be done to improve the teaching of all educators.

Systems thinking means that all parts of a school system are interdependent and must be viewed as a whole. The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) is a system of connected and interdependent parts, and to improve the quality of the APS, it is critical to look at the APS as a whole.

Atlanta is set to make two decisions, and these decisions are being made based on the Global Education Reform Model, and Ed Johnson, and others are urging the APS School Board to re-examine their views in light of a quality and systems view of education.

In correspondence with the Atlanta Board of Education, Ed Johnson has worked with other activists in Atlanta to urge the ABE to postpone its vote on a new superintendent until the Search Committee provides a slate of nominees, and not only one choice.  How in a democratic society and for a public education system, can we enable a group to dictate the outcome of such a critical decision.

In a recent email, Ed Johnson talks about the choice that all systems in Georgia have to make about how it will run.  The Georgia Department of Education has mandated that each district choose one of three ways to operate: an Investing in Educational Excellence” (IE2) district;  a “Charter System;” or a “Status Quo” system.

He writes:

During a recent Atlanta Board of Education (ABE) meeting, a board member or the superintendent – someone – mentioned Atlanta Public Schools (APS) needing to prepare a five-year strategic plan. This was mentioned without stating why the plan is needed.

Well, might it be because an APS five-year strategic plan would be necessary in order for the ABE to choose to operate APS as an “Investing in Educational Excellence” (IE2) district, or perhaps a “Charter System?”

The ABE must understand it has moral, ethical, civic, and democracy relevant responsibilities to know to choose but one option: “Status Quo,” pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 20-2-80, Requests for increased flexibility; requirements, paragraph (b), specifically.

The other two options, IE2 and Charter System, violate all that represents moral, ethical, civic, and democratic mindedness and ideals in service to the common good.

Moreover, the options IE2 and Charter System symbolize a kind of abject poverty of thinking some elected officials have brought into our legislative processes, such as this from Rep. Ed Setzler:

“[N]ot only does choice provide options to ALL parents (wealthy parents already have choice), but it creates market forces that reform the nearby public schools who must perform at a higher level to stay attractive to parents; as I watch the NFL playoffs this evening, I wonder if the New England Patriots would be as good as they are if they never had compete[d] with other world-class teams to be successful.”

Then he warns us not to fall for the foolish and intimidating behavior of those who advocate the GERM.  He says:

Please, let not “Choice” proponents, such as Rep. SetzlerRep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, and similar others fool and intimidate with their derisive rhetoric against “Status Quo.” Obviously, they mean for the label “Status Quo” to elicit a repulsive reaction. And that they do this simply exposes the depth of their abject poverty of thinking, in spite of being highly educated, one might suppose.

Contrary to what one or two ABE members and others contend, there is no loss associated with choosing “Status Quo.” There is, however, unfettered opportunity to learn to improve the APS. But that is the rub, as to improve APS requires learning more so than mandating, cooperating more so than competing (à la Rep. Setzler, above), leading more so than managing. It is these matters that challenge “Choice” proponents’ abject poverty of thinking that evidences a laziness to learn to provide for the continual improvement of our public education systems.

Atlanta should reject becoming either an investment or charter district.  It needs to rethink in a systems view the education, such as those described by the work of the Finnish educator, Pasi Sahlberg or the British educator Peter Barnard.  Ed Johnson writes:

But call it what they will, “Status Quo” is the only choice the ABE must consider and choose. “Status Quo” is the only choice that offers the opportunity for the APS to genuinely recover from its recent messes and then go on to leapfrog abject poverties of thinking, such as that of Representatives SetzlerMorgan, and similar others.

The ABE needs to think differently about the future of the APS.  It needs to heed the remarkable thinking of wise persons such as Ed Johnson.  They might also consult with Diane Ravitch, Lisa Delpit, or Deborah Meier.

Ed Johnson: Atlanta Needs to Reconsider Its Choice for New Superintendent


Photo credit:
Photo credit:

Ed Johnson, an advocate for quality education in Atlanta, provides commentary and data questioning Atlanta’s decision to hire Austin’s current superintendent for Atlanta’s superintendency. According to Mr. Johnson, there is great controversy in the process, as well as the choice for superintendent.

According an email I received from Ed Johnson, on April 7th, members of the clergy and community, including parents and educators, held a press conference to voice concerns about the undemocratic process that the Atlanta Board of Education is using to hire Atlanta Public Schools next superintendent.

According to the press release, the district paid thousands of dollars to consultants and engaged a search committee for several months to present several finalists to the public. But in a surprising move, the district presented a “sole” finalist after stating that over 400 names were submitted for consideration. The district is moving rapidly to hire the “sole” finalist without respecting a more democratic and open process that would engage and allow citizens more choices along with a more publicized and inclusive vetting process. Sadly, the board’s actions have taken the “public” out of public education.

Using his unique understanding of systems theory, he provides comparative data on these two school systems in the context of reading and mathematics performance over the past ten years.   This is an analysis you will not see performed by the Atlanta Public School Board, but whose members know him, and should take note of his thinking and caring for the students in the APS.

His analysis,  Austin Independent School District and Atlanta Public Schools Viewed through NAEP TUDA 2005-2013, can be viewed at this link, and augments his comments, which follow.

He writes:

Every two years NAEP, commonly known as “The Nation’s Report Card” and respected for being untainted by political ideologies and agenda, administers the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) to voluntarily participating urban school districts.  TUDA Reading was first administrated in 2002 in Grades 4 and 8 to six urban school districts, including Atlanta Public Schools (APS or “Atlanta”).  TUDA Math was first administered in 2003 in Grades 4 and 8 to ten urban school districts, again including Atlanta. By 2013, TUDA had twenty-one urban school districts participating.  The next TUDA administration will be in 2015.  Austin Independent School District (AISD or “Austin”) participated for the first time in 2005.

TUDA results are reported as average scale scores that range from zero (0) to 500, as with NAEP results.  Looked at over time, TUDA results may be put to simple elementary level arithmetic to extract powerful, holistic insight into the performance of all the participating urban school districts taken as a system.  The same can be done to extract such insight into the performance of any one urban school district taken as a system of Reading, Math, or other subject as assessed by TUDA.  The attachment does both; just be aware that its use of the requisite arithmetic is atypical of simplistically ranking data and of computing percentage change from two data points in time as done in business-style financial reports.  Such reports inherently fail to preserve context and give no rational basis for predicting future outcome.

The USS Urban School Reform Ship

Pages 4 and 5 in the attachment look at all TUDA participating urban school districts as a system and represents, by way of analogy, that since the first TUDA administration in 2002, all the districts, save possibly a few, have been on the same ship carrying them all in the same direction no matter the disricts’ ever changing relative positions aboard ship.  Insight, here, is that virtually no urban school district has improved or declined that would amount to having “jumped ship” for the better or for the worse.  Since the ship first set sail in 2002, the outcome has been status quo maintained; no improvement of urban school districts all taken as a system.

Similarly, pages 6 through 9 in the attachment look at Austin and Atlanta TUDA Reading and Math results put side-by-side for 2005 through 2013 and represent that Atlanta stands relatively more capable to experience systemic improvement in both Reading and Math than does Austin, although Austin would “rank” higher than Atlanta.  Any ranking, however, would be only from the standpoint of Austin and Atlanta being passengers aboard the ship, thus pointless.  So stay mindful that the ship has all passengers going in the same direction.  It should matter least, or even not at all, that one urban school district may be more port-side and another may be more starboard; they all fall within natural limits at the widest point of the ship, at its beam.

Figure 1. It should matter least, or even not at all, that one urban school district may be more port-side and another may be more starboard; they all fall within natural limits at the widest point of the ship, at its beam.
Figure 1. It should matter least, or even not at all, that one urban school district may be more port-side and another may be more starboard; they all fall within natural limits at the widest point of the ship, at its beam.

Interestingly, during 2005-2013, Atlanta TUDA Reading and Math results continuously increased, but Austin TUDA Reading and Math results continually increased.  And during 2009-2013, Austin TUDA Reading and Math results began to appear suppressed and flattened, even stalled.  Consequently, Atlanta is now port-side and has become much closer to Austin.  (Caution: Three more continuous increases in any TUDA subject and grade results by Atlanta will be a total of eight continuous increases since 2005. Eight continuous increases should prompt conducting a study to learn the root cause(s) of the increases, lest another Atlanta test cheating crisis be in the making.  The reason is simple to illustrate: Getting eight heads in row or eight snake eyes in a row is possible but improbable with a fair coin or dice.)

By the way, if the ship were to be given a name then “The USS Urban School Reform” seems reasonable.

Kindly consider the attachment.  Consider, too, that Atlanta school board members seem unanimously committed to vote the affirmative come April 14, 2014, to hire the sole superintendent finalist they selected to present to the public, a behavior that bespeaks disregard for effective public engagement.  The sole superintendent finalist is Austin’s current superintendent, Dr. Meria Carstarphen.  Dr. Carstarphen has been Austin’s superintendent since 2009, since the time Austin’s TUDA results began to appear suppressed and flattened, even stalled.

Having considered the attachment, now kindly consider a few questions: Why does the ideology of “urban superintendent” persists when NAEP TUDA results make clear that the ideology’s transporter, the USS Urban School Reform, has provided and will in the future provide for its passengers, the urban school districts, to move around onboard ship but not improve?  Austin seems a case in point.  Will Atlanta become a case in point with Dr. Carstarphen as yet another “urban superintendent,” however well-trained by Harvard?

It will be my pleasure to have conversation about anything presented here that in any way interests you.

Ed Johnson
Advocate for Quality in Public Education

Atlanta GA
(404) 505-8176 |

Science Ideas Have a History: The Case for Interdisciplinary Thinking

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Figure 1.  How was this tool used to "discover" the background radiation made by the Big Bang?  Figure 1. How was this tool used to “discover” the background radiation made by the Big Bang?

In a piece published on the Chronicle of Higher Education, Alejandra Dubcovsky, professor of history at Yale University, says  “to understand science, study history.

Indeed, science teachers have used some stories surrounding the history of science to help students understand the context of science, science research, and the relationship between science and society.

Science taught without a context becomes rote learning.  Helping students highlight connections between themselves, science, history and society provides a context for learning.  In the end, it’s a more powerful way to learn [science].

In Professor Dubcovsky’s view, there should be a dialogue between the humanities and STEM majors.  I agree with this position, and would, however, extend this to middle and high school students curriculum studies.

Dubcovsky gives us a powerful rationale for working toward interconnections between history and science.  She says:

Second, beyond the often-missed practical gains, I was developing a historical sensitivity. I realized, quite simply, that things had a past. The things we think of as inherent are, in fact, social and historical constructions, often with complicated and unpleasant roots. That sensitivity to the past and to the structures that shape our present is essential to all students and professionals.

She goes on to say that she wants future biologists, neuroscientists, engineers, and physicists to be aware that their disciplines have a history.  And I would add, this connection is as important at the middle and high school level because it underscores the value of interdisciplinary teaching, sorely needed in times when “disciplinary” thinking rules the day, e.g. content or discipline based core standards in language arts, math, and science.

Ideas Have a History

Don’t you like that notion.  Ideas have a history, and more than that, ideas are not pulled from a vacuum, but are connected.  One book I would point us to is Stephen Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From (public library).  And in the context of this post, good ideas (bad ones, too) have a history, and that connection makes for interdisciplinary thinking.

Figure 2. Cover of Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From.

Since every idea has a history, there is a plethora of “case studies” with literature, films, plays, music that can be brought to bear on the idea, thus humanizing the study of science.  In my writing, I’ve used the history and people behind great ideas to help students understand the values, beliefs, prejudices, and all the rest that can be brought to bear to understand the history of ideas–indeed our own history.

Here are some questions I’ve used to probe the connection between history, cultural beliefs, and science.

  • Why didn’t Rosalind Franklin receive the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA?
  • Albert Einstein, the pure scientist and thinker, sent the “Uranium” letter to President Roosevelt in 1939.  What was this letter about, and why did Einstein sign the letter?
  • Who was Benjamin Banneker, and what observations did he use to publish his almanac during Colonial America?
  • How did Charles Darwin’s religious views affect his work as a naturalist and the co-discoverer of the basis for evolution of life?
  • In what ways did Rachel Carson’s research and later publication of Silent Spring (library copy) show courage?  What forces were brought to bear to try to dispose of Carson’s ideas?
  • Francis Kelsey is known to me and others as the doctor who said no.  Her work as a government pharmacologist prevented the marketing of the drug, Kevadon (known as thalidomide).  What were the implications of her saying no, and what political and corporate forces did she push back?
  • Why did Galileo come under house arrest for supporting Copernicus’ sun-centered universe?  Who would bring Galileo to trial for writing a book entitled Dialog Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (library copy).

When I arrived at undergraduate school many years ago, I was accepted into the history department.  However,  before classes began, I decided to take a math and science examination.  I passed the test, and decided then to become a science/math major.  However, the study of history has always been a part of my interest.  In fact, one of the most important courses I took in high school was a course in modern political science.  It was taught as a research-based course full of dialog and collaboration.  Each of us had to write a series of research papers which were read not only by our teacher, but by a Boston College history professor.  You can imagine how thrilled we were when we got positive feedback on our writing from a college professor.

On this blog, I’ve written a number of posts on subjects that relate to how ideas have a history, and why it is important to help students explore ideas in this way.  Here are some ideas related to the intersection of the invention of air and Early American history.

The Invention of Air and Early American History

Seems like a strange connection between how air was analyzed , and early American history.  In earlier posts I’ve written about a humanistic science paradigm to reform of science teaching—one that attempts to think in wholes, and values interdisciplinary thinking, not only among fields in science, but across disciplines to include science, history, politics and religion.

Several years ago I purchased one of Steven Johnson’s books The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America.

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Figure 3. Cover of The Invention of Air by Johnson

After reading Steven Johnson’s book about Joseph Priestley, I realized that perhaps he (Johnson) was writing a story about someone who attempted to cross disciplines in the spirit of the humanistic paradigm.  The book describes  events that involve science, faith, revolution in 18th Century England, and into the early part 19th Century America.  At the center of these events, was Joseph Priestley, a minister and a scientist (natural philosophy).

Priestley had published more than 500 books and pamphlets, had won prestigious prizes in science (he isolated oxygen, and was the first to discover that plants expire oxygen), wrote important books in science, religion and politics.  Yet, in 1794, he was “the most hated man in all of Britain” according to Johnson.  He escaped to America that year, and settled in rural Pennsylvania, where he became the most celebrated scientist in the country, and became a very close friend of Thomas Jefferson.   While in England he joined with Benjamin Franklin and other intellectuals at The London Coffee House in St. Paul’s Churchyard, and laid the plans to write one of the most important books in science: The History and Present State of Electricity with Original Experiments (1769).  The book was the result of collaboration with other experimenters of the day, among them Benjamin Franklin.  You can read the original book at the previous link, and I think you will find it interesting to the visit the site, and look the book over.

Priestley was also an educator (he collaborated with Thomas Jefferson on the curriculum of the University of Virginia), and published an important book on English grammar.  As a minister, he led a dissenting congregation in England, which led to the formation of the Unitarian church in England.  He wrote two major books on the history of Christianity, and indeed influenced Thomas Jefferson’s view of religion (see The Jefferson Bible).

During the period of Priestley life, paradigm shifts were happening in several fields, each of which involved Joseph Priestley.  For example, in science, Johnson suggests that Priestley helped bring about the organizing principle of the ecosystem through his experiments with plants, animals and air.  Today the ecosystem paradigm has been subsumed by Earth System Science, and provides a framework for work done today in various fields of science.  The American and French revolutions were underway during his lifetime, and Johnson depicts Priestley as important to America’s “founding fathers” especially John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.   He written years before he came to America An Essay on the (). the realm of religion he led a movement in England that led to the formation of the Unitarian church there, and influenced the thinking of the “founding fathers” in this realm as well.

Priestley was a progressive of the Enlightenment Period, and like many progressives suffered the wrath of those who didn’t agree with his philosophies.  In 1791, his church and house was burned to the ground destroying all of his property, and laboratories.  He later fled to America with his family.

There is such a richness in the human side of science and I hope that this post encourages you to consider the application and value of thinking across disciplines, and helping students see how they can relate to ideas that others struggled to develop.

What are some examples of “ideas have history” that you use with your students?