A Systems Thinker Reviews The Atlanta Public Schools’ Performance in Reading & Math

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People are asking for better schools, with no clear idea how to improve eduction, or even how to define improvement of education (except to increase test performance on high-stakes tests).

Most people are in favor of improving education.  But when asked how would they improve education, the suggestions are insufficient, and in some cases, even negative (See W. Edwards Deming. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (p. 8). Kindle Edition.)

Instead of reporting the details of how people and organizations want to improve education, such as corporate chiefs, philanthropists, and the U.S. Department of Education, I want to report on the work of Mr. Ed Johnson, an advocate for quality education, and has for more than a decade devoted himself to writing and talking about improving education in the Atlanta Public Schools.

Systems Thinking

Ed Johnson consults as Quality Information Solutions, Inc., with a commitment to human social and cultural systems to receive quality information from information systems for the continual improvement of life, work, and play. His commitment extends to advocating the transformation of K-12 public education systems to humanistic paradigms from prevailing mechanistic paradigms. Ed also is former president of Atlanta Area Deming Study Group.

Ed Johnson is a systems thinker.

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.

The above example highlights the current approach to reform.  Identify a part of the system, and fix it. Bad teachers, get rid of them.  Low achievement scores?  Write “rigorous” standards, raise the bar, and give high-stakes tests.  It’s that simple.  We’ve had rigorous and not so rigorous standards in place for more than a decade, and as you will see ahead, changing standards doesn’t have any effect on student performance.

Systems thinking means that all parts of a school system are interdependent and must be taken as a whole.  The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) is a system of interconnected and interdependent parts, and to improve the quality of the APS, it is critical to look at the APS as a whole.  For example, closing schools (removing so-called underperforming schools), does not have an effect of improving the APS, or indeed saving money (as some would tell you).  Fundamental questions about APS need to be asked, but in the context of the APS being a system, not a collection of  schools, students, teachers, administrators, parents, curriculum, textbooks, technology.

Ed Johnson has contributed to my understanding of quality education, and it is my great honor to share his work on this blog, and in particular to look at teaching in urban schools, and in particular the Atlanta Public Schools.

Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA)

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) created the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) in 2002 to assess student achievement in the nation’s large urban districts.  Reading results were first reported in 2002 for six districts, and math results were reported in 2003 for 10 districts.

The NAEP provides data from 2002 through 2012 on math and reading and are comparable to NAEP national and state results because the same assessments are used.

Screen Shot 2013-12-28 at 7.00.56 PMUsing data from all of the Trial Urban Districts Assessments (2002 – 2013), available online at The Nations Report Card, Ed Johnson analyzed and created a presentation that is a series of systemic stories told by the data collected in the urban district studies.

Each story is about a system.  In TUDA (Trial Urban District Assessment), there are particular TUD’s each as a system.  So, Reading is a system.  Mathematics is a system.  4th grades is a system.  8th grades is a system.

Johnson’s research is a longitudinal study of performance in reading and mathematics from 2002 – 2013.  Using scores on reading and mathematics obtained from the National Center for Educational Statistics, he investigated the nature of a number of systems derived from the data.  Some of these particular systems include:

  • Reading as a System
  • Mathematics as a System
  • 4th Grades as a System
  • 8th Grades as a System

Since these systems are part of the APS system, we know that each of these systems is interdependent with other systems, not just the ones identified here, but including parents (as a system), teachers (as a system), and so forth.

There were 21 urban school districts in the study.  However, Ed has managed to make our work easier by highlighting with color coding just two systems, Atlanta Public Schools (Red) and District of Columbia (Purple).

Overall

Figure 1. Trial Urban District, Bottom Line.  Source: Ed Johnson edwjonhson@aol.com
Figure 1. Trial Urban District, Bottom Line. Source: Ed Johnson edwjonhson@aol.com

Ed starts his study by giving us the “bottom line.”  How did these systems (reading, math, 4th grade, 8th grade) do?  Figure 1, is a summary of systemic TUD student performance in reading and math at the 4th and 8th grade from 2002 – 2011, and predictions for 2013 (all the predictions were accurate forecasts of student performance in 2013).

Only 4th grade reading showed some improvement over the period 2002 – 2011, and the improvement was slight and noticed only in Austin, Charlotte, and Hillsborough.  In all other systems, no improvement was observed, meaning that the common causes that influence the system of math, or reading, or 4th or 8th grade inhibited improvement.

Student Improvement in Mathematics and Reading

In the TUDA study, a sample of students in each urban district was tested in reading and mathematics at the 4th and 8th grade level.  To help us understand how to interpret data collected over the past dozen or so years, Mr. Johnson has produced a series of graphs (control charts) showing the natural variation of scores to be expected in each system (reading, math, 4th grade, 8th grade).

Figure 2 shows a control chart for  reading, 4th grade.  Figure 3 shows a control chart for mathematics, grade 4.  Upper control limits and lower control limits were calculated for 2002, and then projected forward.  Changes in scores from one test period to the next are shown in the Figure 2.  If there is systemic change in reading at the 4th grade level, then scores would fall “outside” the upper or lower control limits.  You’ll notice that all the variation, except for four points (Charlotte, 2009 and 2011, Austin, 2011, and Hillsborough, 211), was within the variation expected.  In systems thinking, we mean that the variation for the most part was random, but there is evidence that some special causes were at work in the three districts mentioned here.

Figure 2.  NAEP TUDA, Reading, 4th Grade, All students prepared by edwjohnson@aol.com
Figure 2. NAEP TUDA, Reading, 4th Grade, All students prepared by edwjohnson@aol.com

Mathematics is another story.  As Mr. Johnson puts it in his study, “all districts have been on the same boat continuously since 2003 in mathematics at the 4th grade level.  What means is that the variation shown in the graph is random, and not due to any special cause.

Figure 3. NAEP TUDA, Mathematics, 4th Grade, All Students prepared by edwjohnson@aol.com
Figure 3. NAEP TUDA, Mathematics, 4th Grade, All Students prepared by edwjohnson@aol.com

There is very little student improvement in reading or mathematics at the 4th grade level as shown in Figures 2 and 3.

As long as we continue to ignore the common causes of variation that exist in the system then we can expect very little to no improvement.

But as Mr. Johnson has said in other letters and reports, if fundamental questions about the purpose of schooling are not addressed and if we can not agree on these purposes, very little will change in the system.  In the two systems explored here, reading at the 4th grade and math at the fourth grade, we need to ask: What is purpose of teaching reading in the elementary school?  Why do we teach reading in the elementary school?  What is goal of teaching mathematics in the elementary school?  Why do we teach mathematics?

As Mr. Johnson has shown, why are these districts on the same boat for the teaching of mathematics?  How can we used systems theory to look at mathematics teaching as a system and answer questions about how to improve mathematics learning?  How can help students develop a love affair with mathematics?

Ed Johnson has examined a lot of data from the standpoint of systems thinking based in part of his work with Edward Deming, and other scholars in the field of systems thinking.

I highly recommend that you check his study which you can get access to as a PDF file here: NAEP TUDA 2002-2011 Views through a Deming Lens.

In the days ahead, I’ll revisit Mr. Johnson’s study, and report on his analysis of the “performance gap” variation that he has depicted as a series of images as shown in Figures 2 and 3.  I’ll also explore systems thinking and school in more detail.

Why Should Mr. Ed Johnson Be Elected to the Atlanta School Board?

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The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. Martin Luther King

Mr. Ed Johnson is one of the candidates running for Atlanta Board of Education (Board) District 9 At Large. His candidacy is just the opposite of the title of this post. His views on charter schools, Teach for America (TFA), and the Race to the Top (RT3) run counter to most of the other men and woman running for the Board. I’ll come back to Mr. Johnson a bit later in the post.

Atlanta is under siege from corporations who see the possibility of helping pick board members who are not only sympathetic to the corporate reform model, but will be bound by their acceptance of money and other resources in their campaign to grab one of the seats on the APS School Board. Even the mayor of Atlanta has teemed up with “élite businesspeople” to set up the political action committee, Continue Atlanta’s Progress. The mayor will support those candidates that backed his ideas over the past several years.

dollar-256x256What we see happening in the Atlanta School Board elections is an influx of special interest groups with money and influence that occurred last year when the Georgia Legislature passed a bill to change the State Constitution so that a Central Committee (State Charter Schools Committee) could be resurrected from the ashes. Remember. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled the Central Committee to approve the establishment of schools in local school districts unconstitutional. Our state legislature wouldn’t have it. They came to town and wrote a bill to change the constitution. The byline of the Georgia legislature was, “give us charter schools or we’ll amend the Georgia Constitution.”  And they did. The funds poured into support the legislation, and most of the money came from corporate special interests and people outside of Georgia.

And it’s happening again.  But this time it is to influence who gets elected to the Atlanta School Board.  Special interest groups are hard at work trying to get their candidates elected, and one special interest group has four candidates.

Funds are pouring in again. Sitting here in Georgia is a large urban school district that has suffered one of the biggest school scandals of all time. And the fundamental reasons that created the environment leading to the test scandal are still here. An education environment where students are pawns in a corporate led reform environment based on competition, sanctions, punishments and rewards.

There is a lot of money to be made by groups itching to influence which Board of Education candidates gets elected. There are so many conflicts of interest that one wonders if compassion, morals, ethics, and civility are at play.

What do the following have in common: Race to the Top, Teach for America and Charter Management Companies?

The simple answer is that, in combination, these three entities are part of a corporate-led model that pushes professional and highly qualified teachers to the side, and instead uses the Federal program, Race to the Top, to create a data-driven system of education in reduces learning to teaching to the test.

The Atlanta Public Schools is one of 26 Georgia school districts participating in Georgia’s $400 million Race to the Top program.  In this program, Teach for America (TFA) and charter school conversions are significant factors in the state’s efforts to punish students and teachers who do not meet the absurd performance standards that are highly questionable.   The education model that many of the candidates embrace labels schools based on high-stakes tests and then measuring the results against performance levels that are not based on sound science, evaluates a school’s worth.   And here’s another thing: these tests measure the narrowest and possibly the least important aspects of schooling, namely the ability to answer multiple choice questions on the lowest level of content in math, or science, social studies or English language arts.

Many of  the labeled “failing” schools end up being closed, in others the principal and at least half the teachers are replaced by unlicensed teachers from Teach for America (TFA). Closing or labeling schools alters the ecology of these communities, and instead of providing resources, and creating opportunities for curriculum innovation and advanced staff development, these plans fail to discuss the real problems–poverty, recreating uninteresting curricula, and using punishments and rewards to control the system.

But Atlanta and the RT3 program in Georgia have a solution.  Turn around our lowest-achieving schools by either replacing the principal and half the faculty, convert it a charter management organization, close the school, or transform the school (replace the principal and use mysterious combination of reform strategies.  Follow this link to RT3 page which describes these choices.

Special Interests and the Election

There are many special interest groups that are working hard to influence the Atlanta school board election.  Two of them stand out.

  • Teach for America
  • EMOs and CMOs

In a recent investigative report, Stephanie Simon at Politico, uncovered a form of political control perpetrated by Teach For America.  In an audacious move, TFA lobbied to support a change in the law that would define teachers still in training, including TFA recruits, as “highly qualified” to take charge of classrooms.  Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig discussed this development on his website, and the conclusion that TFA is a special interest group with political as well as education ambitions is of great importance to the Atlanta School Board election.  According to Simon, TFA has an endowment of $100 million and annual revenues of over $300 million.

I did an investigation of the Georgia Race to the Top budget, and if you follow the money, you will see that my contention that the formula for reforming low achieving schools is a combination of charter conversions and hiring cadets from either Teach for America or The New Teacher Project. TFA will be paid nearly $16 million and TNTP will earn nearly $10 million to supply teachers with no experience nor a teaching license to teach in our lowest achieving schools.  And they only sign a two-year contract.

According to Simon, TFA is “embedding” TFA “graduates” in congressional offices and high ranking jobs in major school districts.  TFA graduates (cadets, really) have five weeks of training.

According to a report by one TFAer,

TFA is at least as enamored of numerical “data points” of success as APS is. TFA strongly encourages its teachers to base their classes’ “big goals” around standardized-test scores. Past and present corps members are asked to stand to thunderous applause if their students have achieved some objectively impressive measure of achievement, and everyone knows that the best way to work for and rise through TFA ranks is to have a great elevator pitch about how your students’ scores improved by X percent. (Olivia Blanchard on Get-Schooled by Maureen Downey)

Yet, Atlanta hires TFA cadets and places them schools that are often classified by the state as failing.

And one more thing, four of the candidates for the school board are TFA graduates.  They are Courtney English, Matt Westmoreland, Eshe Collins and Jason Esteves.  TFA has a strong connection to the charter school movement, so if these four are elected to the board, they’ll represent a near-majority, four of nine.  In a report on the Washington Post education blog, Valerie Strauss, listed the amounts of money these four received from powerful people and groups outside of Georgia.

What will this mean to the APS?

Chartering is a growing enterprise in Georgia, in Atlanta, and in particular the metro-Atlanta area.  According to the Georgia DOE charter schools annual report, there are 11 Educational Management Organizations (EMOs-for profit) or Charter Management Organizations (CMO-not-for profit) operating in Georgia, 2011 – 2012.  Leading the way are KIPP, Edison Learning, Charter Schools USA,  & Academica.

Although the state will have you believe that charters do better than non-charters, the data do not support this contention.  There is no significant difference, such as, in reading scores over the past five years.  Both have improved, but there are no differences.   The same is true in mathematics, although non-charters scored a bit higher, but not significantly.  Charter schools have been unleashed on public schools with false claims and lost of money.

Even when we look at the data here in Georgia to see that there are not significant differences in charters vs non charters, and when we couple that with data nationally, in the end regular public schools out perform charter schools significantly, we still are convinced by corporate interests, and individuals with financial backing that charters and charter clusters is the way to reform schooling.

According to an AJC article (Charter debate shapes races), six of the candidates have received contributions from charter school supporters and TFA.

The reform that many candidates will support is a standards-based, high-stakes testing model that hasn’t worked in the past, yet policy makers—who are far removed from the work of classroom educators—continue to lean on models that are more political than they are realistic.  Teaching is a human endeavor that requires a kind of dedication and knowledge that one does not garner in one or two years.  To think that we will affect the learning of our students by turning schools over to charter companies who have a penchant for hiring the elite college graduates to work in schools that need high quality education is unfortunate.

Unconvential Possibilities

The candidates for the Atlanta School Board are well meaning and qualified citizens of Atlanta.  There is one candidate, however, who holds the opinion that K-12 public education should  embody the zeal for sustaining and advancing democratic ideals in service to the public good.  He also unequivocally rejects education for the purpose of engineering a workforce.  He would say that a workforce must be allowed to emerge as a consequence of education, not by explicit demands placed on education to produce a workforce.

Many of the claims that American education graduates are not nor will be able to compete in a global environment simply are not based on facts.  To suggest that student’s achievement test scores are a significant factor in a country’s competitiveness is not supported in research.  If you look at Iris C. Rotberg’s research on global education, student achievement test scores are not factored into the 12 pillars of a country’s competitiveness.  Business ethics, lack of trust in political leaders, how institutions are audited, and public indebtedness are on the list, not student achievement scores.

An unconventional possibility would be to ban high-stakes testing, and return the decision making into the hands of educators (not policy makers).  We should also stop grading schools on the basis of test scores, and get rid of the A-F assessment of schools.  If APS really wants to improve education for its students, it would need to think differently about the goals of education, and think carefully about the purpose of education in a democratic society.

Which candidates running for the Atlanta School Board would support these kinds of changes?  There may be several.  But I know for certain that there is one, and his name is Mr. Ed Johnson, who is a candidate for the Atlanta Board of Education (Board) District 9 At Large seat.

I met Ed Johnson online, and have carried on a close collaboration with him over the past several years.  I have referenced and quoted his ideas in many of my posts, and he published several guest posts on this blog, here and here.

In one of his published posts, which was a letter to Ann Cramer, Chair of the ABE Superintendent Search Committee, he describes some of his ideas for education. To understand the kind of thinking that would move the APS away from the current test mania, here is part of that letter.  Mr. Ed Johnson says:

Recent news that two Bunch Middle School students were honored in the “” Essay Contest underscores why your service, Ann, as SSC Chairperson represents for you, as well as for the committee members, a formidable challenge.

You, and they, may ask: “How come?” Kindly allow me to explain, or at least try to explain.

Certainly, applaud Do the Write Thing’s aim to help stop youth violence. But why would DtWT make it a contest when the aim of a contest and the aim of an act of violence usually are one and the same, which is to “win” at somebody else’s expense?

More importantly, why does such a pathological win-lose culture continue to persist within our Atlanta Public Schools as if APS’ massively systemic CRCT cheating scandal of 2009 offered no lessons to learn?

Why would anyone believe the APS win-lose culture does not transfer to other aspects of students’ lives and, in some instances, show up as youth violence?

Why does APS seem to embrace inculcating within children competition and adversarialism more so than cooperation and collaboration?

It seems the more the mostly “Black” ABE and APS top administration perceive a particular population of children to be mostly “Black,” the more likely they are to believe and provide for subjecting those children to competition as if competition offers the children salvation. It does not; it only offers more competition.

In the letter to Ms. Crammer, he also suggests that the moral compass that should guide education is one born of cooperation and collaboration, something that cannot possibly happen with competition and adversarialism where it truly matters.  And, in his words, “it truly matters for educating today’s children with the aim of sustaining democratic ideals in service to the public good.”

Ed also wrote a letter to President Obama, which I published here, and as part of the letter, he asked the President,

Has our emphasis on competition and winning races, titles and medals, created a culture that is conducive to an uncivil, undemocratic, and violent society?

An Advocate for Education

Mr. Ed Johnson, an education advocate in Atlanta, and a student of W. Edwards Deming, has worked for at least a decade to raise questions about the kind of education that is being put upon the children and youth of Atlanta, and the district’s policy of closing schools in poor neighborhoods.

In an interview posted on YouTube in 2012, Mr. Johnson discussed the Atlanta Public School (APS) closing proposed by Superintendent Dr. Errol Davis.  Ed Johnson opposes the closing of any of the schools in the system.  His interest is in how to improve Atlanta schools, rather than the effort to turn the schools over to private charter organizations.

Public schools should be sustained and improved, not closed.  Simply closing schools to save money (and Mr. Johnson agrees that the APS is in financial need) is a shallow way of thinking about school improvement.  Johnson, from his work professionally as a student of Deming explains that a school is part of a community, and to simply cut or close schools will result in consequences to the entire community.  Closing a school disrupts a community to such an extent that even though the district might save $5 million over a ten-year period, the real effect will be losing money.  Not only do parents depend on the neighborhood school as a public place to educate their children, but the school itself, being part of a community, is connected to many entities that make up the community.  Johnson recommends that instead of operating a school at full capacity, we might consider a variable capacity school that makes adjustments to the student population.  By keeping the schools intact, and reducing the overall costs to run the school based on enrollment, the school remains a vibrant part of the community, and with community leadership can begin to rebuild and improve the school.

Johnson explains that a system (such as a community) is more than a sum of its parts.  He says that if we get the parts (of a school & its community) working together, it will result in much more than the sum of the parts.  Narrow thinking will lead to the closing of schools because the central office looks only at short-term savings of money, where the kind of deep thinking that Johnson is advocating might create an environment for school improvement, rather than closure.

And one more thing.  Mr. Johnson tasks the school board with telling us what they think is the purpose of schooling in Atlanta.  As he points out, asking nine school board members this question several years ago resulted in nine different answers. As Johnson says, if they can’t agree on the purpose of schools, how can they function to improve the district.  Why do have public schools?  What is the purpose of school?  If we can not answer such basic questions, how can we possibly make serious decisions about people’s lives such as shutting down their children’s schools.  And indeed Mr. Johnson’s ideas about purpose of schooling are in sync with Edward Deming’s ideas when he says:

People are asking for better schools, with no clear idea how to improve education, nor even how to define improvement of education (Deming 1994).

I think you might find it valuable to watch Mr. Johnson’s interview which appears in this video. View the second part of his video interview here.

checkI am Asking You to Vote for Mr. Johnson

I worked in downtown Atlanta for 32 years as a professor of science education at Georgia State University, and lived in Atlanta for a decade.  During those years as professor I had the privilege of working with educators in the Atlanta Public School district from 1969 – 2003.  If I were still living in Atlanta (I live now in Marietta) I would not only vote for Ed Johnson, but I would feel unusually well represented by a man of integrity and creative ideas.  Parents and students will be not only protected from outside forces by Mr. Johnson, but he will forge a discussion among the Board that will bring civility and care into the room.  He also will be a champion of experienced educators, and will make sure that the views of experienced teachers are integral to reforming education in Atlanta based on the ideals of a democratic society.

If you are a citizen of Atlanta, I urge you to vote for Ed Johnson.

 

The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.  John Adams as quoted in  Ravitch, Diane (2013-09-17). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Kindle Locations 30-32). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Guest Post by Ed Johnson: The Next Atlanta Superintendent: Seeking Someone Who Embraces Unconventional Possibilities

Guest Post by Ed Johnson

This post is a letter written by Ed Johnson, an advocate and citizen for improving education in the Atlanta Public Schools. This letter is especially timely in light of the consequences of the Atlanta and State of Georgia testing debacle. Although Atlanta has a superintendent, his term will end in 2014. A search committee has been formed. Mr. Johnson explains why the “next APS superintendent needs to be – no, must be – a Systems Thinker, perhaps in the style of teachings by the late Dr. W. Edwards Deming and similar others, or possibly in the style of the Baldrige Education Criteria for Performance Excellence. Implicit in both these styles is ethical and moral development born of cooperation and collaboration, something that cannot possibly happen with competition and adversarialism where it truly matters.”

Ed Johnson consults as Quality Information Solutions, Inc., with a commitment to human social and cultural systems to receive quality information from information systems for the continual improvement of life, work, and play. His commitment extends to advocating the transformation of K-12 public education systems to humanistic paradigms from prevailing mechanistic paradigms. Ed also is former president of Atlanta Area Deming Study Group. He can be reached by email.

On May 19, 2013, at 8:35 PM, EdwJohnson@aol.com wrote:

Via E-mail

May 19, 2013

Dear Ann Crammer and ABE Superintendent Search Committee (SSC) Members:

Recent news that two Bunch Middle School students were honored in the “” Essay Contest underscores why your service, Ann, as SSC Chairperson represents for you, as well as for the committee members, a formidable challenge.

You, and they, may ask: “How come?” Kindly allow me to explain, or at least try to explain.

Certainly, applaud Do the Write Thing’s aim to help stop youth violence. But why would DtWT make it a contest when the aim of a contest and the aim of an act of violence usually are one and the same, which is to “win” at somebody else’s expense?

More importantly, why does such a pathological win-lose culture continue to persist within our Atlanta Public Schools as if APS’ massively systemic CRCT cheating scandal of 2009 offered no lessons to learn?

Why would anyone believe the APS win-lose culture does not transfer to other aspects of students’ lives and, in some instances, show up as youth violence?

Why does APS seem to embrace inculcating within children competition and adversarialism more so than cooperation and collaboration?

It seems the more the mostly “Black” ABE and APS top administration perceive a particular population of children to be mostly “Black,” the more likely they are to believe and provide for subjecting those children to competition as if competition offers the children salvation. It does not; it only offers more competition.

Questions about APS such as these plus the recent massacre at Sandy Hook Element School prompted my recent Open Letter to President Obama. In it, and within the context of his Race to the Top Competition, I question the wisdom of turning the many kids into essay writing losers as a way of honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, birth and legacy. I also suggest that engaging the children in an essay writing collaborative would have been a far more fitting way to honor Dr. King.

Similarly, I suggest a “Do the Write Thing” Essay Collaborative would have been a far more fitting way for Bunche Middle School kids to engage writing about youth violence. The aim could have been to annually compile and publish the kids’ essays in book form, so as to comprise a continuing anthology for study, research, and reflection, and so that each and every child could take intrinsic motivational pride and joy in having contributed to the “Bunche Middle School Anthology on Youth Violence.”

And the kids’ contributions to the anthology could have been a very long-lived intrinsic pride and joy, something each one of them could have pointed to well into the future and perhaps say: “See, this is my contribution.” Or, “See, this is my and my co-authors’ contribution.” Or, “See, this is a picture of our two classmates we chose to represent our ‘Bunche Middle School Anthology on Youth Violence’ in Washington, DC, and to present a copy to the President.”

Obviously, that did not happen, for an undeniable aim of the DtWT Essay Contest was to single out only two winner kids (“finalists”) worthy enough to be “honored” with a dinner and all the loser kids implicitly told they are not so worthy.

Just think of the loss. Just think of the horrible lesson this has likely taught both the contest winner kids and the contest loser kids. Just think that this has likely taught the kids that their worth and value must come from outside themselves. Then just think how this lesson might transfer to promoting and sustaining not only youth violence but gang membership and even “pants on the ground” and of course the “school to prison pipeline.”

Thus, Ann, this brings us to the formidable challenge you have as ABE Search Committee Chairperson.

Arguably, the DtWT Essay Contest at Bunche Middle School reflects conventional thinking on the part of the ABE and the APS superintendency; else, it would not have happened the way it did. Theirs is a conventional thinking that has hobbled APS for way too long a time. Thus the SSC you chair has the opportunity, and the obligation I dare say, to bring to the ABE those superintendent candidates capable to lead continual improvement of APS as one system of public schools. Such candidates will not be, again, the “strong CEO” types or the “experienced urban superintendent” types. And most certainly, such candidates will not be graduates of the Broad Superintendents Academy nor school reformists in the style of, or proponents of, Michelle Rhee or any other “Waiting for Superman” character.

In short, the next APS superintendent needs to be – no, must be – a Systems Thinker, perhaps in the style of teachings by the late Dr. W. Edwards Deming and similar others, or possibly in the style of the Baldrige Education Criteria for Performance Excellence. Implicit in both these styles is ethical and moral development born of cooperation and collaboration, something that cannot possibly happen with competition and adversarialism where it truly matters. And it truly matters for educating today’s children with the aim of sustaining democratic ideals in service to the public good.

(By the way, that anyone would contend charter schools are public schools simply manifests a moral, ethical, and civil decadence that only recently has been established in public law. It reflects the conventional win-lose culture but among our politicians, mostly lawyers, something Dr. Ben Carson warned about recently, and something Dr. Deming warned about long before his passing in 1993, at age 93.)

So, Ann, as the ABE Superintendent Search Committee continues to survey and meet with Atlantans to learn what we want in our next Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, the committee at those times must also inform Atlantans of unconventional possibilities, don’t you agree?

Ed Johnson
Advocate for Quality in Public Education
edwjohnson@aol.com

Education Secretary Duncan on the TIMSS Results: We’re Being Out-Educated & Out-Competed

If you go over to the U.S. Department of Education website, you will find the Secretary Arne Duncan’s statement on the release of the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS assessment.  You can read it online here, and I’ve copied it and posted it below.  Highlighted (my own) words describe the essence of Mr. Duncan’s view of American science and mathematics education.

Statement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the Release of the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS Assessments
Statement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the Release of the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS Assessments

Reading the letter that Mr. Duncan wrote in the context of Ed Johnson’s letter which was published on this blog yesterday, I can only say here that Mr. Duncan continues appears to be out-of-touch with our society, and the way children and youth could be educated, respected, and valued.

The letter that Mr. Johnson wrote was first sent to President Obama.  Yesterday, the letter was sent to Mr. Duncan.  Ed Johnson’s letter  was a reaction to the Newtown shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Mr. Johnson asks us to consider the larger context of our culture, and wonder if the mass shootings that we have seen for more than a decade are related in anyway to the erosion of “civility and democratic ideas” in the service to the common or public good.

He has been an activist for years in Atlanta, and his letter is a powerful statement about how we need to come to grips with the way we are educating our youth.  Competition seems to rule in the way we educate students.  Perhaps we should reconsider this.  Read what happened to Ed Johnson in a school context.

Mr. Johnson describes a transformative moment after being a judge in a Social Science Fair Contest.  Here is what he recalled:

Some years ago I once accepted an invitation to be a judge in a local middle school’s Social Science Fair Contest. Wanting to know what I had gotten myself into, I made it a point to check the 30 or so student entries on display well before the judging got underway. To my surprise, I found each entry’s content noteworthy, in spite of a few grease spots here and there. Each entry stood as “a class act,” I said to a teacher nearby. Pleased, the teacher repeated my comment to other teachers.

Soon after the judging got underway, an odd uneasiness formed in my gut. For some reason I could not state at the time, I was fretting having to contribute to judging one entry “First Place Winner,” one entry “Second Place Winner,” and one entry “Third Place Winner.” The day after the contest the odd uneasiness in the gut gave way to this nagging question: What wisdom was there in deliberately making losers of so many children?

Sometimes we are fortunate to encounter opportunities that allow us to examine our values and the things we do and hold dear. In the face of such opportunities we will either defend our values or, with eyes wide open and ears clicked on, attempt to learn and develop and change for the better.

That day, the Social Science Fair Contest opened my eyes and forced my ears on so that I might experience learning competition among youngsters in a new, revealing way. I suspect it was the unmistakable expressions of dejection on the faces of the contest losers that made me see and hear differently. Even the second and third place winners strained to put on a happy face, which showed me they, too, saw themselves as losers. Moreover, I plainly saw that the “First Place Winner” had attained recognition at the expense of all the other contestants, a God-awful lesson for a child to learn about learning and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to see other human beings as obstacles to personal success.

Overall, I saw the event as that of adults inculcating within children the adults’ win-lose values based seemingly on the belief system that even in school, as in life elsewhere, there must be winners and losers, that a few children deserve to win and most children deserve to lose.

Left wondering how many potential social scientists I had helped derail that day, I reluctantly took responsibility for my part in the competition then asked my inner being for forgiveness. In the end, that day was a day of personal transformation. Consequently, I vowed to advocate against and never again be a party to events that aim to turn kids into losers through arbitrary and capricious competition.

We’ve turned education and learning into a colossal competition that beginning in early childhood, and through competitive testing have wired schools and society to accept a behaviorist-competitive model of learning.  Ed Johnson came to grips with this when he participated in a school social studies fair.  In the context of a competitive fair, there had to be a first, second and third place winner, followed by a long list of losers.  Behaviorist theory suggests that students should be rewarded for the correct answer, or in this case of the “best” social science fair project.  Much of curriculum has been reduced to a common set of statements (behaviors to learn) that trivialize learning.  From childhood through high school students are taught and tested on a set of common standards that are behavioral in nature.

Even though most educators understand cognitive and social psychology, the structure of schooling reinforces (sorry) a behavioral-competitive approach to learning and teaching.

And this is unfortunate

Wired for Empathy and Cooperation

As human beings, our brains are wired for empathy and coöperation.  I written about empathy in teacher education, and how Carl Rogers, decades ago, established empathy as one of the core conditions of facilitating the learning of others.  In nature, coöperation is considered by many naturalists as being as important is not more so than competition in sustainable environments.  

We need to recognize that this is a more enlightened way to learn and teach, a way that at its roots seeks a sacred or humanistic consciousness.  George Lakoff, in his book The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics, explores the differences between progressive and conservative moral philosophies.  Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at U.C. Berkeley, and In Lakoff’s theory, our democracy (and thus our education system) was founded by the politics of empathy and responsibility.  Although the role of the government in the context of progressive ideas is equality, freedom, fairness and opportunity, it has taken hundreds of years of social change to move toward this reality.  I have written on this blog on Lakoff’s research and how it can be applied to education and learning.

In Lakoff’s view, the progressive world-view is based on the nurturing parent family. He suggests that nurturing has two key aspects: empathy and responsibility. Lakoff explains that nurturing parents are authoritative but without being authoritarian.

The progressive teacher is an educator that Lakoff would describe as having an educational philosophy similar to progressive political world-view. The progressive teacher is seen as the authority in the classroom, but does not act on authoritarian principles. In a classroom led by a progressive teacher, the teacher is a nurturing parent. Students in the progressive classroom are analogous to children in a nurturing family, and they would be respected, nurtured, and encouraged to communicate with peers and the teacher from day one. The classroom would be viewed as a community of learners, as the family is a community.

Empathy by the teacher, and coöperation among learners would be important hallmarks of the enlightened classroom.  Lakoff speaks to the connection of empathy and coöperation to the “wiring” of our brain.  He writes:

We begin with the biology of empathy. Our mirror neuron circuitry and related pathways are activated when we act or when we see someone else performing the same action. They fire even more strongly when we coördinate actions with others—when we coöperate. Mirror neuron circuitry is connected to the emotional regions of our brains. Our emotions are expressed in our bodies, in our muscles and posture, so that mirror neurons can pick up visual information about the feelings of others….In other words, they give the biological basis of empathy, coöperation, and community. We are born to empathize and coöperate.

As Ed Johnson realized and has eloquently written,

Legislators, Boards of Education, and top school administrators must come to examine their contributions to the nearly imperceptible yet continual demoralization of K-12 school students by way of learning competition. A very real unintended consequence is the near complete destruction of children’s intrinsic motivation for learning in school. To protect themselves, if only in their own eyes, many kids will drop out of school or commit violent acts rather than submit to loser status.

What do you think?  Is the Secretary of Education out of touch with a more enlightened way that schools should be fostering learning for and among students?  Does Ed Johnson describe a more enlightened way to educate youth?

 

 

 

In the Aftermath of the Newtown Tragedy, an Education Advocate asks the President: Has Rampart Competition Undermined Civility and Democratic Ideals?

Guest Post: Ed Johnson, Advocate for Quality Public Education, Atlanta, Georgia.

Ed Johnson consults as Quality Information Solutions, Inc., with a commitment to human social and cultural systems to receive quality information from information systems for the continual improvement of life, work, and play. His commitment extends to advocating the transformation of K-12 public education systems to humanistic paradigms from prevailing mechanistic paradigms. Ed also is former president of Atlanta Area Deming Study Group.  He can be reached by email

On the day after the massacre of 26 students and teachers in Newtown, CT, a group of advocates for improving education in Georgia received a letter from Ed Johnson.  He introduced the letter with the following statement:

The original of the following open letter of mine was first addressed to then-First Lady Laura Bush on June 9, 2003.  Given the horrific school shooting in Newtown, CT, I am now addressing a slightly revised version of it to President Obama.  The hope is to prompt asking how might excessive and inappropriate competition, including the Race to the Top Competition, contribute to undermining civility and democratic ideals in service to the common or public good.

December 14, 2012

President Barack H. Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

“Contrary to popular opinion, the many school shootings have not been random acts of violence; they have been normal acts of violence, built into educational systems that encourage win-lose behavior, especially success at the expense of others.”

Dear Mr. President:

Some years ago I once accepted an invitation to be a judge in a local middle school’s Social Science Fair Contest. Wanting to know what I had gotten myself into, I made it a point to review the 30 or so student entries on display well before the judging got underway. To my surprise, I found each entry’s content noteworthy, in spite of a few grease spots here and there. Each entry stood as “a class act,” I said to a teacher nearby. Pleased, the teacher repeated my comment to other teachers.

Soon after the judging got underway, an odd uneasiness formed in my gut. For some reason I could not state at the time, I was fretting having to contribute to judging one entry “First Place Winner,” one entry “Second Place Winner,” and one entry “Third Place Winner.” The day after the contest the odd uneasiness in the gut gave way to this nagging question: What wisdom was there in deliberately making losers of so many children?

Sometimes we are fortunate to encounter opportunities that allow us to examine our values and the things we do and hold dear. In the face of such opportunities we will either defend our values or, with eyes wide open and ears clicked on, attempt to learn and develop and change for the better.

That day, the Social Science Fair Contest opened my eyes and forced my ears on so that I might experience learning competition among youngsters in a new, revealing way. I suspect it was the unmistakable expressions of dejection on the faces of the contest losers that made me see and hear differently. Even the second and third place winners strained to put on a happy face, which showed me they, too, saw themselves as losers. Moreover, I plainly saw that the “First Place Winner” had attained recognition at the expense of all the other contestants, a God-awful lesson for a child to learn about learning and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to see other human beings as obstacles to personal success.

Overall, I saw the event as that of adults inculcating within children the adults’ win-lose values based seemingly on the belief system that even in school, as in life elsewhere, there must be winners and losers, that a few children deserve to win and most children deserve to lose.

Left wondering how many potential social scientists I had helped derail that day, I reluctantly took responsibility for my part in the competition then asked my inner being for forgiveness. In the end, that day was a day of personal transformation. Consequently, I vowed to advocate against and never again be a party to events that aim to turn kids into losers through arbitrary and capricious competition.

Case in point: a recent year’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and legacy featured middle school children in a “Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay Writing Contest.” Where is the wisdom in turning the many children into essay writing losers in the name of Dr. King? I suggest there is none. When did Dr. King ever stand to make anybody a loser? I suggest he never did. An Essay Writing Collaboration in which every student would aim to contribute to every other student’s success and joy in writing would have been a far more fitting celebration of Dr. King’s birth and legacy.

Legislators, Boards of Education, and top school administrators must come to examine their contributions to the nearly imperceptible yet continual demoralization of K-12 school students by way of learning competition. A very real unintended consequence is the near complete destruction of children’s intrinsic motivation for learning in school. To protect themselves, if only in their own eyes, many kids will drop out of school or commit violent acts rather than submit to loser status.

Once they have destroyed children’s intrinsic motivation and trust in school sufficiently, albeit unintentionally, educational leaders have only extrinsic motivators — ironically, more competition, reward programs, motivational speakers, role models, school reform, high expectations, zero tolerance, accountability, etc. — to address the problem.

Heavy reliance upon extrinsic motivation reflects a failure to understand that children were born motivated to learn. To see this, go get an infant, anybody’s. Then risk blindness by peering deep into the fire in child’s eyes. Wonderfully amazing, those neurons firing!

Educational leaders need only learn what the educational systems for which they are responsible have been doing to gradually put out the inborn fire in children’s eyes and stop doing it. Hence, high on educational leaders’ list of obnoxious utterances should be “every child can learn” and such. Of course, every child can learn. That should never be an issue.

On the one hand, invariably, the few winner kids who grow up mostly on extrinsic motivation will learn to perpetuate win-lose behavior as normal behavior, the way the “real world” works.

On the other hand, invariably, the many loser kids who grow up mostly on extrinsic motivation will learn to take on self-protective behaviors generally not conducive to anybody’s well being, including their own. The continuing epidemic of school shootings exemplifies this behavior, in the extreme.

Contrary to popular opinion, the many school shootings have not been random acts of violence; they have been normal acts of violence, built into educational systems that encourage win-lose behavior, especially success at the expense of others. Neither have the many school shootings been senseless violence; in each case, the shooter acted quite rationally in devising and carrying out a plan to “win.” Thus it is quite silly to continue blaming parents and teachers and otherwise holding them accountable for the damage being done to children by our educational system itself that reflects adults’ win-lose value system, however benignly or well-intentioned.

An editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, published a while back, opined: “Responsibility for education should rest with the parents.” As supporting evidence, the article’s author related: “[A parent] was commenting after [the parent’s son, 13,] defeated 100 other contestants from across the state to win the Georgia Geography Bee ….”

Now, how many once budding geographers, geologists, and maybe lexicographers have since turned their interests elsewhere in order to shake off the “loser” label bestowed upon them during the pursuit of just one winner?

The author’s words can be revealing. Cut away the context words then some of the win-lose thematic words that exemplify the scourge upon K-12 education, public and otherwise, become clear. “Defeated.” “Contestants.” “Win.” These are concepts and behaviors about competition imposed upon students by the educational system itself. These are concepts and behaviors for producing far too few winners and far too many losers, by design. These are concepts and behaviors that reflect the value system whereby children, of all people, must be beaten down and demoralized before being deemed worthy to rise. Nonsense.

Clearly, today’s world demands as many winners as possible, not a many losers as possible. By managing them as athletic-style competitions with attendant rankings and such, our K-12 educational systems cannot possibly help produce the many winners the world needs.

Sincerely,

Ed Johnson

Has our emphasis on competition and winning races, titles and medals, created a culture that is conducive to an uncivil, undemocratic, and violent society?