Dancing Around the Status Quo

Here in the overly-large school district, we are in the middle of the annual budget dance. It’s sorta like an aggressive tango mixed with a square dance involving lots of partners.1 The long, drawn-out process stems from the fact that our school board has no taxing authority. Most of the funding for schools comes from the county Board of Supervisors in a magic formula called the “transfer”, with much smaller amounts sent directly from state and federal governments.

The first movement begins in the fall with the Supervisors declaring that they will only be able to provide this much money for schools, because we are in dire financial straits and (never directly stated) no one is going to be politically stupid enough to propose a tax increase. This despite the fact that we live in one of the richest counties in the country.

A few weeks later, the superintendent presents a budget for the schools system, one that always requires more funds than the Supervisors, along with dire pronouncements of how awful the impact will be on your children if it is not fully funded. For a variety of reasons, this year is slightly more awful than in past years, including class size increases and personnel cuts right up front.

And then everyone dances. At community meetings, in the paper, online, on television, wherever there is an audience. The final steps will come in late May when the Supervisors pass their budget, the school board passes theirs, and the new fiscal year begins with everyone living with the decisions made.

However, in all the claims, threats, and political posturing, one thing is missing from the ballroom: any serious discussion of what this community wants from it’s schools.

The process is all about the status quo, specifically how much of it everyone wants and is willing to pay for. The assumption is that, during the coming year, schools will operate exactly as they have in the past. The classes may be a little larger, the busses a little older, fewer of us lazy central office folks,2 but still the same basic education formula.

At the same time, we have politicians, parents, administrators, business folks, community leaders, and others using phrases like “world class”, “21st century skills”, “life-long learners”, “innovation”, “problem solvers” to describe the lofty (and somewhat vague) goals they want for students and schools. Ideas that don’t at all fit with our traditional teacher-directed, test-focused, fact-transfer instructional process.

Anyway, the bottom line question, if our leaders are really serious about wanting to make those major changes to the way we education our children, is how do we pay for it?

As I said, we live in one of the richest areas in the US, probably the world, able to pay whatever is necessary for a high quality school system, whatever we decide that means.  All the different participants in our annual budget dance need to stop the music and have that serious and comprehensive discussion of what we expect from our schools?3


  1. Just as chaotic and entertaining as it sounds.

  2. As you might expect, never fewer assistant superintendents and their pet programs.

  3. Beyond higher property values, lower taxes, and the best SAT scores in the DC area.

Charter Schools Are a Great Idea

In the original concept of charter schools, a few innovative educators would be enabled to organize their own school and experiment with new ideas for reforming the old model and improving student learning, all under the auspices of, and using funds from, the surrounding public system. The ideas that worked could be incorporated into “regular” schools. The ones that didn’t would also provide a learning experience.

That’s the theory, anyway. The reality has been far different.

Two different articles that landed near each other in my Instapaper queue over winter break offer plenty of evidence showing that charter schools in the US, with few exceptions, provide lousy instruction and worse results, and are undermining public education.

Possibly the biggest problem is that nearly half of charter students are enrolled in schools being run by corporations,1 often supported by grants from large, well-funded philanthropic organizations with a political agenda like the Walton Foundation. And their schools are rarely held to the same accountability standards (instructional or financial) as public schools.

Beyond serious questions about who are running these schools (more business people, fewer educators), is the fact that study after study shows they produce “mixed results” at best.

A 2009 national study of charter school performance by CREDO, a research unit at Stanford University that supports charter “reform,” found that only about one in five charter schools had better test scores than comparable public schools and more than twice as many had lower ones. Earlier this year, CREDO released an updated study that looked at charters in 27 states, and little had changed. As the National Education Policy Center explained, “The bottom line appears to be that, once again, it has been found that, in aggregate, charter schools are basically indistinguishable from traditional public schools in terms of their impact on academic test performance.”

However, there is an equally fundamental problem with the way the charter concept has been applied that goes back to the original idea: very few charters are not doing anything innovative.

Most are structured around the traditional teacher information delivery model, with students required to learn the same material, in the same order, often using the same resources as has been standard in public schools for decades (if not centuries). And then demonstrate their learning on programmed standardized tests.

Some charters make a big deal out of requiring longer days, Saturday school, and more regimentation (KIPP), others substitute computer-delivered instruction for human teachers (Rocketship). Certainly these changes may work for some students under some circumstances, but as test cases that might be more broadly applied, they are generally worthless. For many public schools, these ideas could be classified as “been there, done that”.

Even with all these problems, what I’ve covered here only scratches the surface of why the charter school movement (pushed by many high profile education “reformers”) are doing nothing to improve American public education and are probably detrimental.

Spend some time and read the two articles, along with some of the many supporting citations they link to, for a much fuller picture of why the theory of the charter concept is a great idea, while the reality of charter schools in this country is a crappy mess.


  1. “such as K12 Inc., National Heritage Academies, Charter Schools USA and KIPP”

Common Core Gives Me a Headache, But Give It a Chance Anyway

Look around and it’s not hard to find negative reviews for Common Core, along with the many education reform “leaders” promoting this latest framework for testing kids.1

However, Jay Mathews’ column from last week sets a new low for arguments in support of this program, starting with the title: I’m no Common Core fan, but give it a chance.

He gets off to a good start by explaining why new standards are the wrong approach and will do nothing to improve learning for kids.

As our national battle over the Common Core standards escalates this year, remember that new standards and curricula rarely improve schools. What does work is families becoming more affluent, teachers becoming more proficient and students spending more time and energy on their studies.

New lesson plans and textbooks such as those being unleashed by the Common Core in nearly all states have no effect on parental income. Some teachers and students may do better when there are changes in what they study, but so far there is little proof of that.

Mathews goes on to say that the standards are “difficult to summarize” and “[r]eading their jargon gives me headaches.”, but he still knows that “in general they encourage a deeper approach to teaching”.

And ignore the research (not to mention a long history of experience) showing that “raising standards doesn’t improve student achievement” (aka test scores).

C’mon, everyone, stop complaining about Common Core and give it a chance.


  1. Guess which side I’m on. :-)

Nothing New

More than a few people I follow on Twitter posted this morning about a “special report” on the Forbes magazine website profiling thirty people under the age of 30 who are “disrupting” education. A few also linked to this post by a teacher ranting about the list being completely void of either classroom teachers and students.

Why is anyone shocked and/or surprised at this kind of story?

First, the list comes from Forbes, a publication that bills itself as “The Capitalist Tool”. They focus on people who are working to make a lot of money, in this case in the education industry. Not on those trying to improve the actual process of student learning. The two parts are tenuously connected at best.

Second, reports like this reflect the usual pattern in the overall public picture of education reform. People held up as leaders in the effort to “fix” our “failing” American schools are wealthy philanthropists, corporate executives, politicians, consultants, and pretty much anyone who is not directly connected to working with kids in those schools.

Of course we’re not going to include teachers or students.

Missing Skills

I wonder if the panel working on our Portrait of a Graduate (see the previous post) has read this.

At the end of 2012, Forbes presented a list of The 10 Skills That Will Get You Hired In 2013. Since Forbes magazine says they are “The Capitalist’s Tool”, and education exists to support the American economy, we need to pay attention to their advice, right?

Anyway, cynical ramblings aside, I know we are past 2013 but things didn’t change that much in the past twelve months, so here are the skills a major business publication says our graduates should have to make them employable.

No. 1 Critical Thinking (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 2 Complex Problem Solving (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 3 Judgment and Decision-Making (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 4 Active Listening (found in 9 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 5 Computers and Electronics (found in 8 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs) – according to Forbes this includes knowledge of circuit boards, processors, electronic equipment and computer hardware including applications and programs.

No. 6 Mathematics (found in 6 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 7 Operations and Systems Analysis (found in 5 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 8 Monitoring (found in 5 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs) – the monitoring and assessing performance of yourself, other individuals or organizations to make improvement or take corrective action.

No. 9 Programming (found in 3 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

No. 10 Sales and Marketing (found in 2 out of the 10 most in-demand jobs)

Education reformers and school administrators like to talk about many of these skills, often under the umbrella of “21st century something”. However, the fact of the matter is that most students will never be asked to develop or use these abilities during their time in a K12 classroom.

Remember, what gets tested, gets taught, and of these ten, only a whiff of number 6 will appear on most standardized tests.

Not Transferable

From the book A Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun:

A great fallacy born from the failure to study culture is the assumption that you can take a practice from one culture and jam it into another and expect similar results.

His context is replicating the success of one tech company by simply copying their approach to business. But you could make the same statement about schools, classrooms and teachers.

Too many education reformers declare we can solve all our education problems by simply finding “what works”, those “best practices”, and duplicate them in every school.

Completely ignoring the many variables found in different groups of children, their schools, and the cultures of the communities in which they live.

The Split Over Profits

In his most recent post, Jay Mathews thinks he sees a surprising split in the school reformer monolith.

Critics of current trends in education reform, such as historian Diane Ravitch, often complain that they are up against a phalanx of business executives and rich investors more interested in making money than improving schools. These people, the critics say, march in lock step to replace our traditional public schools with charters, vouchers and online campuses so they can squeeze profits out of taxpayer dollars.

That sense of unity among the corporate types has been shattered in the past few weeks by a bitter quarrel between two of the reform movement’s most prominent leaders.

As it turns out, the dispute between these two “most prominent leaders” started during a prevention at something called the Value Investing Congress and has far more to do with profits and stock prices than it does improving student learning or other educational policy. One says stock in K12 Inc, “the nation’s largest private operator of public schools”, is a good investment, the other is selling short (which I gather is a negative view of the company).

Mathews extends this trivial financial disagreement into a major split in the reform movement. Instead what he has stumbled onto (and largely ignores) is one of the primary reasons why any improvement of American education has been stagnating over the past decade.

The only monolithic thinking here comes from investors who believe that schools are a good place to increase revenues, with politicians happy to help since it means they can move the money that was being spent on kids somewhere else (plus the investors might kick in some campaign contributions).

There’s a reason why “K12 revenue has grown 32 percent annually for the past decade”, and corporations like Pearson and NewsCorp are working hard to develop standardized materials tied to Common Core and testing systems, plus devices to deliver both.

And it has nothing to do with “the debate over what works best for our kids”.

The All-Knowing Mr. Gates

Recently Bill Gates spoke to members of Microsoft’s Faculty Summit “on the future of education, programming and just about everything else”. I guess if you’re that rich, you must be an expert on pretty much anything.

So, what did the omniscient Mr. Gates have to say about education? For one thing, that he has not made any mistakes in funding his experiments.

Gates acknlowedged during the session that some of his work might have unintended, negative consequences, but not this one. “In the education space,” he responded to a question from the audience, “I frankly don’t see that much of a downside.”

No unintended, negative consequences. I guess, just like the Zune, we’re supposed to forget the billions and years spent on creating “small” schools, the concept that was supposed to revolutionize the American high school. Not to mention his current misguided and unsupported-by-any-research advocacy for “value add” teacher assessments.

Of course, Gates is also a major supporter of online education.

But, Gates acknowledged, we’re also a way out from online education achieving its full potential. We need to develop better understanding of what makes a good online course (“just sticking a camera in front of someone … who has a captive audience [won't cut it]“) and how to replicate non-lecture experiences like lab time and study groups. We also need to figure out how to supplement the cognitive and social development that comes along with attending school in person (although, he noted, MOOCs might also be able to help teachers focus on these things).

I’ll be very interested to hear the all-knowing Mr. Gates explain how one teacher is supposed to support the cognitive and social development of 5000+ MOOC students. Especially in a one-way format like the Khan Academy, of which he is a major advocate.

And just so you don’t think Gates is only wrong about education, consider his view of the American intellectual property system, which he claims is “working very well”. For someone with lots of IP lawyers, he’s probably right.

The view from on high is so much better than the one here on the ground, isn’t it?

Our Information Stinks

As a guest writer in the Post’s Answer Sheet blog points out, a good deal of the debate over education reform in the past two decades has centered around two concepts: choice and accountability.

Choice, of course, usually comes back to charter schools and vouchers, and accountability may as well be a synonym for standardized test since almost no other ideas of what it means to assess student learning seems to be considered.

Neither has done much to improve American education and probably have done a great deal of harm by narrowing the discussion of what public schools are and should be. But why have choice and accountability not lived up to their claimed potential?

Critics have a whole host of explanations, some of which are quite compelling, and some of which are burdened by political agendas. But the simplest answer, which also happens to be true, is that both movements are dependent on good information about school quality. And, frankly, our information stinks.

Both of these models, of course, are dependent on accurate information about school quality.  Whether parents have the power or accountability officers do, the central assumption is the same: that we can measure school quality precisely enough to make high-stakes decisions.

As the writer correctly points out “standardized test scores provide a very narrow picture of what happens inside schools”. As for charter schools and most private schools, they aren’t doing much if anything different from the public schools. They are working with a selected group of students whose parents are very motivated.

He concludes with a list of five criteria for rating schools that, while certainly not perfect, would be a much better alternative to test scores.

I especially love number one, how much time do students spend on art, music and other creative activities?, and number 5, which asks how well did the education they received help students five to ten years later.

However, back here in our real world, this is the unfortunate bottom line of our current education policy in this country.

Test scores, as many parents and policymakers already know, are misleading.  But they aren’t going away.  They aren’t going away in state or federal decision-making.  And they aren’t going away in the role they play in parental decisions about school choice.  In fact, the opposite is happening: test scores are insidiously taking hold in policy discourse and among the public as a perfectly acceptable measure of quality.  They aren’t.  And, as such, it is our job not only to resist narrow and simplistic measures of educational quality, but to demand access to the data we really need—information that allows us to make thoughtful decisions about our schools.

Thoughtful decisions about our schools. Wouldn’t that be a nice change?

A Mediocre Debate

The Post’s Answer Sheet blog today has a short piece concerning a recent live chat at the paper dealing with education issues, featuring three state governors.  At one point during an interview, the moderator asks them “how America became “so mediocre” in regard to educational outcomes”

The governor of Mississippi1 started by blaming parents. Specifically he said that our troubles began when both parents started working outside the home: “And the mom is in the work place.”.

Ok, that makes for a nice, sensationalistic headline that draws traffic, links, and comments (almost 2000 the last time I looked).

However, the real story here is not that yet another regressive politician yearns to return to a black and white, Ozzie and Harriet2 view of American life that really only existed on TV screens.

This is the state of discussion these days.

A reporter declares the American education system to be universally mediocre (or broken or failing or [insert negative phase here]) without ever explaining the claim, everyone nods in agreement, and a panel of politicians proceed to generate sound bites blaming teachers, tests, Finland, video games, moms in the work place – basically anything other than than their own antiquated policies.


1 Certainly a shining center of academic excellence in this country…

2 Look it up, kiddies.

Lecturing in High Def

At the risk of being declared obsessive, I have one more rant about the educational philosophy of Bill Gates based on the Fast Company interview with him. This time, his vision of that classic instructional tool: the lecture.

That’s one more goal: to revolutionize the lecture in terms of cost and quality. The idea that you can store video essentially for free should mean that anyone can watch the best lecturers in the world. Rather than a student getting one of 3,000 people across the country who try to teach beginning physics or statistics or remedial math, through a process of comparison, competition, and improvement, you get someone who is pretty special and has the budget to do something fantastic. Lectures should go from being like the family singing around the piano to high-quality concerts.

Transform lecturing by giving them better production values.

The high-budget video of a concert may look and sound better, but you’ll probably learn more about music by actually singing with your family around the piano. I’m betting Gates didn’t learn computer programming by watching someone talk about.

Howl About These Numbers Instead

In the article that triggered the previous rant, both the writer and the subject, Bill Gates, make reference to the frequent howl of politicians and corporate types, that students in US schools have fallen far behind their counterparts in other countries. The line has been repeated so many times that it has become accepted as fact.

Except Alfie Kohn has some evidence-based arguments to use in response to those claims that are far more clichéd talking points than truth.

As always, his essay is very good, well worth saving for your next discussion with someone from the all-testing, all-the-time fan club.

However, this is probably the most important point Kohn makes about improving student achievement in the US, no matter how you define that term.

4. Rich American kids do fine; poor American kids don’t. It’s ridiculous to offer a summary statistic for all children at a given grade level in light of the enormous variation in scores within this country. To do so is roughly analogous to proposing an average pollution statistic for the United States that tells us the cleanliness of “American air.” Test scores are largely a function of socioeconomic status. Our wealthier students perform very well when compared to other countries; our poorer students do not. And we have a lot more poor children than do other industrialized nations.

More than 20% of American children are living in poverty, a rate that puts the US 34th out of 35 industrialized countries, the same ones frequently used in test score comparisons.

That ranking should be far more upsetting politicians and corporate types than the numbers generated from largely irrelevant multiple choice tests.

Don’t Worry, Bill Will Be Fine

In their current issue, Fast Company, a business magazine that focuses on technology and design, presents an interview with Bill Gates, in which he “offers his cure for what ails the education system”.

Although the intro section includes a little criticism, it’s pretty clear from the start the writer has no intention of asking anything that might be considered push-back. The editors even include a sidebar with a list of Bill’s “favorite edtech startups”, all of which are more about the technology and data management than they are about learning.

The whole interview isn’t very long and offers none of those “cures” mentioned in the subhead. But Gates’ answers to two questions stood out as especially shallow.

At the top, the writer asks him what he sees as the “ultimate challenge in education”. Gates replies that we must “get more out of $600 billion a year”, the amount he says the US spends on education. Spoken like a true billionaire money manager.

Then towards the end of the article comes this excellent question.

You’ve said that when you were in high school, you followed your own interests, taking on independent study, working on computer programming day and night. Is there room for that kind of student-driven learning in a highly rigorous, metrics-based environment?

Gates’ response is both disingenuous and clueless.

People who are as curious as I am will be fine in any system. For the self-motivated student, these are the golden days. I wish I was growing up now. I envy my son. If he and I are talking about something that we don’t understand, we just watch videos and click on articles, and that feeds our discussion. Unfortunately, the highly curious student is a small percentage of the kids.

As so many education “experts” do, Gates’ is extrapolating his personal experience to every student in the country. But unlike him, I don’t believe the highly curious kids are a small percentage of the whole. There are many more than he can see who are very self-motivated, just not by the narrow goals dictated by a standardized test-driven system.

Let’s face it, we don’t give our students many reasons or resources to express their curiosity and self-motivation during the time they spend with us in the formal process we know as school. Maybe fixing that would be a better way to spend Bill’s money.