Time to Kill This Long Summer Break

It’s been quiet recently here in Lake Wobegon the overly-large school district.

Because, of course, it’s July, with most teachers and students on their far too extended summer break, a monumental waste of time, money, energy and learning that I was planning to write about once again.

However, rather than inflicting the web with yet another rant on the subject, go read A Teacher’s Case Against Summer Vacation, a better and certainly more concise argument for making much needed alterations to our archaic academic calendar.

As she points out, we hold on to our current system1 largely due to tradition and emotion, and despite much evidence that it is actually detrimental to learning for many kids. Or at least to the type of student learning we most value, that assessed on standardized tests.

However, this not about increasing school time, just rearranging it. Taking the long summer block and spreading the still very much needed breaks more evenly throughout the year. Allowing for family vacations and assorted kid camps in other months, regular building maintenance, embedded professional development time for teachers, and remediation for students who need it when it will be more relevant.

Like this writer, I’m also puzzled why this kind of calendar change is not a big part of the education reform discussion. Maybe it really is just too simple of an idea.

Or maybe a new approach to school time like this never occurred to the politicians and billionaires leading the debate because it doesn’t contribute larger profits to owners of charter schools, standardized testing creators, or the many vendors of Common Core “solutions”.


  1. Which, contrary to popular folklore, does NOT have agrarian roots.

Why Change?

Last summer the school board here in the overly-large school district hired a new superintendent1 and since then we’ve been waiting for her reorganization of the system. Because that’s what new big bosses do, they rearrange things to fit their vision and add their imprint to the bureaucracy.

A couple of weeks ago that plan was dropped on us. The centerpiece is grouping the schools into five regions, each lead by an assistant superintendent and an “executive” principal. Which is different from the eight clusters we have now, created by the previous superintendent’s reorg. And the three areas (reduced from four) passed along by his predecessors. I’m sure there were other arrangement prior to that but my memory of past changes is exhausted.

In addition, the org chart for central office gets “streamlined” (although not really) with a new Chief Academic Officer, Chief Operations Officer and Chief of Staff. 2 Very telling that the Testing/Assessment office is shown reporting directly to the CAO,3 above anything to do with instruction in the diagram.

Anyway, that’s all very interesting (and not especially different) but the real bottom line question is: will any of this impact schools and classrooms? Does this latest organizational chart lead to improvements in how students learn and are assessed? Of course it’s way too early for clear answers. Bureaucracies like ours just don’t change very quickly.

I would like to believe that things will change in our district. I really would. Maybe this latest reorganization, combined with other initiatives from the superintendent (like the Portrait of a Graduate project), is the one that leads to that “learning revolution” I’ve heard our leadership speak of.

However, over the years I’ve seen too many of these promised “new way of doing business” to know that the odds of any meaningful change resulting from them are very low. There are far too many factors beyond the organizational structure that will work against any meaningful changes. 

You’ll hear many of our school and community leaders using phrases like “21st century learning”, “global student”, “4Cs”, “world class education” while still believing there’s little or nothing wrong. That the basic structure of our instructional system is solid and needs only a few tweaks.

We also are hobbled by a community, one of the wealthiest in the US, that refuses to adequately support essential elements of society like education and health, and politicians more worried about getting re-elected than about explaining to their constituents that, no, you can’t have high quality anything without paying for it.

Bottom line, standardized test score are high, the dropout rate is low, something like 80+% of our graduates go on to college, and every one of our high schools rank high on the Post’s “challenge” index. Oh, yeah, and real estate prices are solid.

How do you improve on that?


  1. After July 1 we’ll have to drop that “new” appellation.

  2. To catch whatever isn’t academic or operations, I guess.

  3. Chief Academic Officer, because we have to shorten everything to initials, right?

Getting Unstuck

Seth Godin:

When times get confusing, it’s easy to revert to the habits that got you here. More often than not, that’s precisely the wrong approach. The very thing that got you here is the thing that everyone who’s here is doing, and if that’s what it took to get to the next level, no one would be stuck.

Of course his point is directed at business.

However, falling back on the habits that got us here is exactly why reform of the American education system is stuck in the 1960’s. Teacher-directed instruction, using a curriculum based on the concept of a fixed knowledge base, with learning assessed in the narrowest possible manner is “precisely the wrong approach”.

When do we move to the next level?

US Education Policy is Screwed Up

To back that blanket statement, consider these two pieces of evidence found on the interwebs just today.

First we have a new report showing that “fraudulent charter operators in 15 states are responsible for losing, misusing or wasting over $100 million in taxpayer money”.

We found, as stated in the introduction, that at least $100 million in public tax dollars has been lost due to fraud, waste, and abuse. These instances of fraud and mismanagement, which are catalogued in appendixes A-F, fall into six basic categories:

  • Charter operators using public funds illegally for personal gain;
  • School revenue used to illegally support other charter operator businesses;
  • Mismanagement that puts children in actual or potential danger;
  • Charters illegally requesting public dollars for services not provided;
  • Charter operators illegally inflating enrollment to boost revenues; and,
  • Charter operators mismanaging public funds and schools.

Charter schools, of course, are the cornerstone of many school reform plans, including those from the current federal administration, many states, and billionaire education “experts” like the Gates and Walton Foundations.

This report is on top of other studies showing that student learning at charters is no better, and often worse, than the districts from which they are taking students and money. And, contrary to the claims of supporters that the competition provided by charters will improve schools for all kids, are actually undermining public education.

With all this data to review, what’s a politician to do? Why, push for more charters, of course.

A bipartisan group of senators plans to introduce a bill Wednesday meant to encourage the growth of charter schools across the country, mirroring legislation expected to be taken up in the House later this week.

Building on the “success of charter schools”, according to one Senator.

Congress critters must not use the same set of web-based tubes that I do.

Then there’s the matter of how to assess the quality of teachers.

Many states and districts have begun using some variation on the Value-Add Model, about which I’ve ranted recently, that assesses teachers based in part on the increase in student learning (aka standardized test scores) over time. In other words, how much value did the teacher add.

Some teachers in Florida objected to the system used in that state in which they would be “evaluated on the scores of students they haven’t taught and on subjects they don’t teach”. Seems like an unfair process, one that might even violate “the Equal Protection and Due Process Clause of the Constitution”. And a District Judge agreed that the process is ridiculous.

However, he also said it was legal.

“This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system,” Walker wrote. “The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law. The legal standard for invalidating legislative acts on substantive due process and equal protection grounds looks only to whether there is a conceivable rational basis to support them,” even though this basis might be “unsupported by evidence or empirical data.”

Obviously I’m not qualified to be a judge because I cannot see how an unfair system can have a “conceivable rational basis” to support it.

Anyway, bottom line, the political posturing represented by these examples, not to mention the tens of millions wasted, does nothing to help students get a better education.

Nothing.

Questioning the Portrait

A few months ago I ranted about our superintendent’s new pet project called Portrait of a Graduate. Her goal is to develop a long range plan for our schools based on a vision of the skills that students should have after 12 or so years in our classrooms.

Since then, the 72 people on the team have released their first product1, a framework of the skills a graduate should have acquired during their 12 or so years in our schools.

It begins…

The [OLSD]2 Graduate will engage in the lifelong pursuit of academic knowledge and interdisciplinary learning by being a: Communicator, Collaborator, Global Citizen, Creative and Critical Thinker, and Self-Directed and Responsible Individual.

Listed below each of those categories are four or five bullet points of evidence indicating a graduate has met the criteria. Stuff like “Engaging in problem solving” and “work interdependently within a group”, the kind of traits you’ve seen before in an endless stream of reports from commissions and think tanks. And therein lies the problem.

The intent of this project is to be forward looking, to consider the major societal changes of the past thirty years and imagine how our schools should change in response. As I said before, an excellent goal, one that is long overdue.

However, this initial document, designed to be a framework for the larger plans to come, strikes me as one that is very much rooted in the present and past, not at all forward looking.

For example, in the Communicator section, although the final item declares students should be able to use “contemporary digital tools to explore and exchange ideas”, the other four bullets deal with standard reading, face-to-face, and formal written communications, the kind of stuff that is heavily tested. The Collaborator section sounds like it came straight out of the handbook of a corporate team-building consultant.

Ok, this project is still very early in the process and I have no idea where it’s headed. So, I’m going to hold off on a lot of cynical ranting based on one page of text and wait to see what gets built on the superintendent’s framework. Instead, I’m just going to toss out a couple of simple questions.

First, repeating from my earlier post: where are the students? the recent graduates? the kids who dropped out?

There’s no evidence they were part of the team that wrote this document (maybe a few were scattered in those “community” focus groups) and the language is very much adult eduspeak. Continuing the conceit that we can discuss education reform without having the people who are most affected at the table as full partners.

Second, how do we resolve these goals with our current instructional practice, especially since very little of the ideas in this document fit with what we do now in schools?

Although we go through the motions of having students collaborate, in the end they are assessed entirely on their work as individuals. While we like to believe teachers are using activities that require critical thinking, in most cases there is still only one right answer and the path to get there was long ago predetermined.

And if I’m allowed one more question, are we really going to change the concept of school to better enable students to live and work in their future? Or will this project fuel just another meaningless reorganization of the same old system?

I have my doubts, but stay tuned.


  1. The document is publicly available on our district website but very difficult to locate and I can’t find anyway to link to it directly, so I’ve uploaded a copy here. We’ll see how much trouble that gets me.

  2. OLSD, of course, being our overly-large school district.

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?