Low Levels & Bottom-Feeders: Education Through the Eyes of Educationnext

A colleague in Massachusetts alerted me to an article in Educationnext, an opinion and research site sponsored by the Hoover Institution and The Thomas Fordham Institute.  The article, written by the editor-in-chief of Educationnext, Paul E. Peterson, and Peter Kaplan, an undergraduate, describes the view from these two men at Harvard and what they think of American education.

They are unhappy with the state of American education, and continue the right-wing cleansing of schools by claiming that American teachers are setting the bars so low that we come in at the bottom (feeders) of international test comparisons.

Educationnext claims to measure state proficiency standards over time, and change these metrics to marks or grades, A – F.  The Thomas Fordham Institute did a similar mathematical trick by grading state science standards against the Next Generation Science Standards.  You can read about Fordham’s grading technique applied to science here and here.

Educationnext is also the publisher of articles by Kate Walsh of the National Council of Teacher Quality (NCTQ).  NCTQ is leading the assault on teacher preparation, and just recently conspired with U.S. News and World Report to on teacher education at American universities.  The NCTQ report was rated junk science not only by this blog’s author, but many other people and institutions.

Common Core

Now comes a new publication, entitled Despite Common Core, States Still Lack Common Standards by the editor-in-chief of Educationnext resurrecting the argument that American education is losing out to the rest of the industrialized nations in math and reading.  Using the Olympic “high jump” of setting the bar high or low, Peterson and Kaplan (an undergraduate in political science) claim that too many states have set their “proficiency” bar too low.  They suggest that states do this because it would cause less embarrassment.

But don’t worry, say the authors.  The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are here.  And the CCSS administrators have set the bars high to match (according to these conservative reformers) international “benchmarks” that will bring American kids up to where they should be.  And if American kids don’t do this, then our economy will tank, and they won’t get jobs.  This is hogwash.

Voodoo Math

Image 7-12-13 at 7.21 PMBack to the article.  The authors claim  to estimate each state’s real standards using Voodoo math.  Using voodoo math, they then use their calculations to grade each state in math and reading at the 4th and 8th grade levels for 2003, 2005, 2007, 2011, even though 2003 and 2005 data are missing.  The use of grades by these two authors demeans again the work of thousands of teachers across the country.  But that is what they are about.

There is no credible evidence that Peterson and Kaplan have unveiled a method to compare standards across the country.  If they looked at the literature they would find that researchers who have attempted this have found that student achievement is “unrelated” to the height of the skill bar set by the various states.  To spend this time on highlighting standards by grading the states camouflages the issues that determine the quality of education in American schools, and that is poverty.

The authors are optimistic, however.  They put it is way:

But states are not doomed to bottom-feeding status.

That’s right.  Across the country there are states that are, in their words, “bottom-feeders,” a kind of lowlife, riffraff, or bottom feeding invertebrate.  According to the authors there has been a convergence among the states.  You need to go to their article and look at their voodoo math that helps them set up trends in state proficiency standards over time.

The article, like others reviewed on Educationnext should be read carefully, but we must be cautious about any results that they report.

What do you think about this article on Educationnext?  Do you think that comparing standards across states is valid, according to the authors?

Race to the Top Results are In: 16 Winners, More than 300 Losers

The Race to the Top continues with the announcement that 16 educational organizations including charter organizations, urban schools, and consortia, will share about $400 million.  According to the U.S. Department of Education website, 16 applicants, representing 55 school districts in 11 states and D.C.–have won the 2012 Race to the Top-District competition.  The $400 million will be used improve achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare every student for college and career.  They will receive 4-year awards ranging from $10 million to $40 million.

The winners were the top scorers among the 347 contestants.  The 16 winners were selected from 61 finalists.  Scores were determined by a panels of experts who used a scoring tool after receiving training in D.C. on how to evaluate the proposals.  More than 290 reviewers were assigned randomly to read three or four proposals such that each entry was read by three panelists.  After a conference phone call among each panel, final scoring was completed.  Of the 347, those with a mean score of 178 (out of 210) were identified as finalists.  Panels reading the top 61 applications came to DC for the week of November 26 to make the final cut to 16.


  1. Carson City School District, Nevada (This link will take you to the technical review form, with reviewers comments for Carson City Schools.  Link here to see all the finalists technical review forms.
  2. Charleston County School District, South Carolina
  3. Galt Joint Union School District, California
  4. Green River Regional Educational Cooperative, Kentucky, consortium leader (consortium members: Adair County Schools, Campbellsville Independent Schools, Carroll County Schools, Caverna Independent Schools, Cloverport Independent Schools, Daviess County Schools, Green County Schools, Hart County Schools, Henry County Schools, Logan County Schools, Metcalfe County Schools, Monroe County Schools, Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative, Owen County Schools, Owensboro Independent Schools, Russell County Schools, Shelby County Schools, Simpson County Schools, Spencer County Schools, Taylor County Schools, Trimble County Schools, Union County Schools, West Point Independent Schools)
  5. Guilford County Schools, North Carolina
  6. Harmony Science Academy (Harmony Public Schools), Texas, consortium leader (consortium members: Harmony School of Excellence, Harmony School of Science-Houston, Harmony Science Academy-Austin, Harmony Science Academy-Brownsville, Harmony Science Academy-El Paso, Harmony Science Academy-Fort Worth, Harmony Science Academy-Lubbock, Harmony Science Academy-San Antonio, Harmony Science Academy-Waco)
  7. IDEA Public Schools, Texas
  8. Iredell-Statesville Schools, North Carolina
  9. KIPP DC, Washington, D.C.
  10. Lindsay Unified School District, California
  11. Metropolitan School District of Warren Township, Indiana
  12. Middletown City School District, New York
  13. New Haven Unified School District, California
  14. Puget Sound Educational Service District, Washington, consortium leader (consortium members: Auburn School District, Federal Way Public Schools, Highline Public Schools, Kent School District, Renton School District, Seattle Public Schools, Tukwila School District)
  15. School Board of Miami-Dade County, Florida
  16. St. Vrain Valley Schools, Colorado

The Losers

There are too many to list here, but you can see the complete list of applicants, their scores, and ranks among the 372 school organizations. Here is an alphabetical listing of the first 50 applicants, all of whom were not winners.

Listing of some of the districts that lost in the Race to the Top District Competition for $400 million.
Figure 1. Listing of some of the districts that lost in the Race to the Top District Competition for $400 million.

It is interesting to note the terms that are used to differentiate between winners and losers in this school competition include “winners circle,” “snagged the largest grants,” “hungry to drive reform,” “the contest,” “great track record in competitions.”

Competition has become a crucial element in school reform, and there are many that believe that without the desire to win, no one would have the incentive to be disciplined, and progress would be suffer.

Arne Duncan says that there are zero politics in choosing winners.  There is politics in all decision-making, and Mr. Duncan knows that.

The reform of American schooling has been channeled for decades to fit a conservative moral worldview.  In his book, The Political Mind,  George Lakoff, helps us understand that.  According to Lakoff, the radical conservatives have established an authoritarian hierarchy based on the control of wealth and power.  The education reformers tend to be authoritarians who seek to set up a system that is centrally controlled and based on a strict father model by asserting that all teachers and students should be held to the same set of standards, and that their work should be tested with standardized measures.

The Race to the Top is an authoritarian effort by the Federal Government, aided by several powerful foundations including the Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to inflict command and control management on schools.

The problem with introducing competition at this level, is that it justifies competition at the classroom level, from Kindergarten on through high school. Lakoff explains why competition is important to conservative moguls such as Gates, Walton and Broad.  He writes:

Competition is crucial. It builds discipline. Without competition, without the desire to win, no one would have the incentive to be disciplined, and morality would suffer, as well as prosperity. Not everyone can win in a competition, only the most disciplined people, who are also the most morally worthy. Winning is thus a sign of being deserving, of being a good person. It is important to be number one! Strict father families often promote competitive sports and take them very seriously.


We have to ask, as Lakoff has,

Why do conservatives want schools to teach to the test and make judgments on the basis of test scores? To determine merit— who deserves to move up into the stratosphere of merit versus who gets to serve people of merit. That should be determined by discipline, punishment, and obedience—learning answers by rote, with punishment for failing to do so as an incentive to be more disciplined.

The result of focusing on a race to the top has trickled down to every classroom in the country.  Instead of creating classrooms based on cognitive and humanistic theory, we have accepted the conservative truths that learning should be a competition, not only among students and teachers, but between states and nations.  There is little evidence to support this model, yet it is the structure that determines the way schools run.

Should The Race to the Top, at the State- and District-Level be the metaphor that describes American education?  What do you think?  Did your school district end up on the list of 16?

Educational Reform: A Letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama,

Educational reform is in need of your attention and help.  The 2012 election is only 11 months away, and I am writing this letter to you and your team for consideration as a policy statement as you outline your views on education, especially as it pertains to the educational reforms that have plagued our schools for several decades.

Strength in Numbers

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.

There are a number of educators who have been writing and critiquing the educational reform efforts that have been dominated by corporate billionaires, and a few private foundations.  These educators have brought to the surface the research that shows that most of the reforms being advocated do not work, and are driven by corporate interests, rather than in the genuine interests of teachers and students.  You might visit the websites of these educators: Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan,  P.L. Thomas, Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier, Mel Riddle, Vicki Davis, and Chris Guerrieri.

For instance, the fact that our students are required to take high-stakes tests as a measure of their learning has brought enormous pressure not only on the students, but their parents, teachers and administrators.  This pressure has led to behavior in schools systems in which a culture of fear has been perpetuated, resulting in cheating.  The educators that participated in the cheating scandal were wrong, but what is really misguided is the misconstrued notion that the only way to measure student learning is with a one-time bubble test in the spring of each year.  In the Atlanta school district, teachers were told to make sure their students passed the CRCT (Test), at any cost.

One policy recommendation that you might consider in your re-election bid is as follows:

As simple as this sounds, this one action would have significant effects on education today, and would result in real change in our schools.

Anthony Cody documented your own views on testing during a town hall meeting when  you were asked about ways to reduce the number of tests that students experience in schools today.  Actually, I am not suggesting that tests not be used, but that the use of high-stakes tests as the measure of student learning, or teaching effectiveness be banned.   Here is what Anthony Cody quoted you saying about testing that I think relates here.

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.

High-stakes testing is the cause of teaching to the test, and was the root cause of the cheating scandal in Atlanta, and in other districts around the country.  Vicki Davis, a prominent technology teacher in Georgia suggests that the use of these high-stakes and standardized tests is the equivalent of “modern bloodletting.”  Let’s get rid of this practice.

Starting Points

We know you have a lot on your plate—a re-election compaign, the effects of the Great Recession, two wars in the Middle East (one of which ended today), health care reform angst, extreme partisanship.   Yet the one area that that is essential to our well being as a nation–education–needs to become center stage. I know it is a high priority of yours, and I know when you think the time is right, you will bring it forward for open discussion. I believe that teaching is an art, and that teachers in our culture should work with their students creatively in classrooms characterized as humanistic, experiential, and constructivist.

One of the major problems facing education today is the nature of the High-Stakes Testing and Standards-Based Reform.  The reform is top-down, and is driven by several corporate billionaires, and on the surface one not-for-profit company, Achieve, Inc.  The reform has become mean spirited, casting teachers and administrators aside if they do not perform in a way dictated by the reformers.

This letter is an attempt on my part to think out loud, and share with you views held by many teachers across the nation that believe that their work is a calling, and that their work with students should be grounded in the latest research that supports an active learning environment in which students explore, innovate, and solve meaningful problems. I believe that you would share these views that are held by many of my colleagues.

Reform Needs Reform

Your beliefs and your experiences are clearly explored and described in your books, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance; and The Audacity of Hope. I read them in the order of their publication, and the books helped me understand your ideas, and it convinced me that you would be open to reforming education from a humanistic tradition.

Although you do not have a chapter in either book specifically related to “education,” your thoughts about education, your experiences with your own schooling and educational experiences, and your work in Chicago as a community organizer provide the reader with your fundamental views of education and the reform that is needed.

Those of us in the science teaching community have followed your views on science and technology in our society and in our schools, and many are more than satisfied with your appointments as members of the Science and Technology Advisory Council. I think there was much support within the community for your appointments of Dr. John Holdren as director of the Office of Science & Technology, and Dr. Stephen Chu as Secretary of the Department of Energy. Further, the stimulus package that was put into law provided an additional boost to the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Education has received nearly 100 billion dollars for America’s schools, and educational infrastructure.

Unfortunately, The Race to the Top Fund (RTTT) does not reflect the humanistic paradigm that I am suggesting here, but instead further reinforces the top down reforms that have plagued us for decades.  For example, in the RTTT request for proposals, states were essentially required to accept the Common Core State Standards, and insure that student test scores would be the basis for teacher evaluation, and in some states tied to teacher salaries.  There is little support for this, yet the Department of Education went ahead and told states they must base teacher evaluation on student achievement test scores using the Value Added Measure, even after the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council advised against this in a letter sent to the Department of Education.

The reform of teaching that needs to be considered focuses on a paradigm shift from a traditional view to humanistic science. This paradigm centers on the way in which students and teachers interact in the classroom. The humanistic paradigm implies that teaching, at its core, is a creative and courageous profession that needs to reform itself from the bottom up—from the local school upward, not from Federal mandates downward.

I think we’ve lost our way in this regard, and I am hoping that your personal school experiences in Djakarta, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, and Cambridge will inform you, and that the community organizing work you did in Chicago as a young man will be brought into the dialogue. Your sharing of these experiences can have a profound impact on how others view teaching, and help us chart a humanistic course.

Reflecting on Your Personal Views of Education

In Chapter 13 of your book, Dreams from My Father, you talk about your desire to become involved with the public schools in the area of Chicago that you were doing your work–on the southside.

I want to recall a section in that chapter for my readers that was very powerful, and supports the humanistic paradigm that I am proposing here. 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:

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 humanistic teaching.  Most teachers know and try and act on this humanistic 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 department’s 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.

There is a need to shift the locus of control away from the Federal and state power centers, and move it to the vast number of communities of schools (there are about 15,000) around the nation. These 15,000 districts have a better understanding of the nature and needs of its students, and has a cadre of teachers who, I submit, are quite able to formulate curriculum, and design instruction that favors a humanistic paradigm. I am not suggesting that we erase the Standards. I am suggesting that professional teachers are able to interpret the Standards, and create educational experiences grounded in constructivist and humanistic theory, and provide in the long run, meaningful school experiences.

I believe that you understand what I am talking about. Your motivation to leave New York City and move to Chicago to become a “community organizer” was because of your belief in “grass roots change.” In fact, in your first book, here is what you said:

In 1983, I decided to become a community organizer. There wasn’t much detail to the idea; I didn’t know anyone making a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots (Dreams for My Father, p. 133).

Its All in the Context

Humanistic education is not a new perspective on teaching. It has had to compete with the pipeline ideology of traditional schooling, which has been ineffective for most students. Pipeline ideology is primarilly based on training for the scientific and technological world, and the organization of the curriculum tends to a strict adherance to canonical science.

A humanistic  perspective tends to be context-based, and related to the lives of students.   Instead of a concept being the starting point for learning, the humanistic  teacher starts with contexts and applications. Concepts are explored within these contexts. Humanistic teaching trives in web-based collaborative programs, environmental projects, gender projects, and culturally focused investigations.

These experiences shed light on social content for students, and often focus on the affective outcomes of learning, how students feel about learning, how it impacts their lives, and what they can do to solve real life problems. Many teachers know from experience that projects like these help students see themselves as problem solvers.

Recent results on The Nation’s Report Card show that there has been little change in 17 year old’s performance in math and reading from 2008 to 2004, and 1973. Although there were slight gains in achievement among all students, the achievement gap between white students and black & hispanic students has not changed. And the NCLB act was intended to close the gap. Your Education Secretary,  Mr. Arne Duncan has said that he wants “real and meaningful change” in the nation’s schools. Real and meaningful change can not be more of the same—longer school days, the same curriculum and standards.

I suggest that for meaninful reform in teaching, there needs to be an openness to new ideas, and there needs to a very strong involvement of grass-roots teachers for this kind of reform. Teachers and students should not be on the receiving end of decisions made by academic vice-presidents, governors, and commisioners of state departments’ of education. These constituencies are important, but the reform must be grounded in practice & related education research; refom needs to be on the hands of professional teachers.

Well, there you have it. Am I totally off-base here? Can meaninful reform be a grass-roots effort? What are your thoughts? I hope you will be willing to share them.

Resources: Grounding Humanistic Education in Research—Starting Places:

Celebrating Individuality?

Yesterday I republished a post I wrote in October about the Race to the Top Fund, which is a $4.3 billion effort by the U.S. Department of Education to grant to winning States millions of dollars to increase student achievement, use student achievement data to evaluate teachers and administrators, emphasize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics), expand testing and evaluation systems, and coordinate (articulate) curriculum. The Race to the Top is a continuation of the No Child Left Behind Act in which the Federal Government “regulates” schooling by linking student achievement to teacher effectiveness, and yes, economic growth.

In his ground breaking book (Catching Up or Leading the Way), Dr. Yong Zhao, Distinguished Professor of Education, Michigan State University, questions and wonders why American education is moving in a direction to implement what China has been working hard to get rid of, and that is a test-driven, standardized educational system.  In fact, in his book, Dr. Zhao describes a movement in China which seeks to transform its education system to match its innovation-driven knowledge society.  He suggests that in China, the government has made a “conscious, global search” for models of education that will produce innovative talents.  And indeed, the Chinese see the American education “model” as a “reasonable candidate” for an innovative educational system.

To give you a flavor of the kind of thinking that Dr. Zhao brings to the issue of educational reform in the U.S.A., here are some comments that he made recently to an ASCD audience.

And what are we doing here in the U.S.?  As Zhao points out, we have been trying hard (for many years, by the way) to implement educational “reforms” that China has been trying to get rid of.  Perhaps the biggest Federal program that has moved American education along this path is the No Child Left Behind Act which mandates achievement testing, high-stakes assessments, state-mandated standards and curriculum.  An now with the Race to the Top fund, it looks inevitable that we will have “common standards” in math and reading, and that teachers and students in every school and district will be held accountable to these same standards.

This system of education is one that is authoritarian in nature, and one that pushes to edges of education the notion that individuality and diversity are important in the education of children and youth.  The celebration of the individual is slowing losing out to the increased demand for a central and standardized educational system.

We should question this.  There are more than 15,000 school districts in the USA, and here we have the U.S. Secretary of Education, Governors, State Education officers, and business leaders leading the charge to move us toward a more authoritarian and centralized educational system when what is needed is an educational environment that fosters innovation and creativity.

I’ll be writing more about this topic in the days ahead.  In the meantime, I suggest you take a look at Dr. Zhao’s book.