Teachers are the Problem, Right?

One of the podcasts I listen to every week is Freakonomics, which focuses on business and economics in everyday life and is based on the books of the same name. Most episodes are very interesting, although sometimes they reach a little too far in trying to make a connection, and once in a while fall off the rails altogether.

As with a recent edition in which they asked the question Is America’s Education Problem Just a Teacher Problem?. You can probably guess how that discussion went.

Start with the people involved. In addition to the host and co-author of the books we have the co-founder of KIPP, which the program describes as a “nationwide network of public schools”,1 a think tank economist, the author of a book on education history, and Joel Kline, a lawyer and former Chancellor of the New York City schools. No actual teachers, of course, and at least two people who are described as “educators” but who really are more business people.

Although there is so much wrong in this program, I still recommend a listen.2 If, however, you don’t want to spend the time, here’s a short summary of the conclusions, none of which should surprise you.

  1. Everyone agrees that most US students are not doing well, especially compared to those in other countries.
  2. Most US teachers “aren’t the best and brightest” and we need more “great” teachers.
  3. More great teachers will change #1 as well as improve the economy.
  4. But raising teacher salaries will not solve the problem, although “competition” (merit pay, charters, etc.) will.
  5. Teacher unions are bad and KIPP has everything figured out.

Finally, at the very end of the program, the host inadvertently stumbles across why the previous 35 minutes of talk was mostly wrong.

Think about it: a school has your kid for only seven hours a day, 180 days a year, or about 22 percent of the kid’s waking hours. Nor is all that time devoted to learning, once you account for socializing and eating and getting to and from class. And for many kids, the first three or four years of life is all parents and no school. But when serious people talk about education reform, they rarely talk about the family’s role in preparing children to succeed. That may be because the very words “education reform” indicate that the underlying question is “what’s wrong with our schools?” – which, these days, inevitably leads to “what’s wrong with our teachers”? [emphasis mine]

Reformers rarely talk about the family’s role. Or the part that a community plays in that other 78% of a child’s life. About whether living in poverty just might have more influence on a child’s future than any “great” teacher.

Maybe the underlying question of school reform shouldn’t be “what’s wrong with our schools?”, but instead “what’s wrong with our society?”.


  1. If KIPP sucks down public money with little or no public accountability, does that make them public schools? Discuss.

  2. Can’t wait for part two, coming this week.

Follow the Money

Daniel Katz, an assistant professor of educational studies at Seton Hall University offers some suggestions on How to Spot a Fake Grassroots Education Reform Group.

Genuine grassroots organizations cannot just pop up out of nowhere, grow by 1000s of members practically overnight, afford slick web designs, afford Manhattan rent and big staffs.  But without knowing what to look for it can be difficult for the casual observer, or even a working teacher, to spot the signs of a group that is more AstroTurf than grassroots.

Although Katz makes great points all the way through the post, for me it all boils down to his question “Who is funding the group and for how much?”.

When the answer is organizations like “the Koch brothers, conservative financier Rex Sinquefield, Rupert Murdoch, The Walton Family Foundation, and the American Federation for Children, which is a charter supporting organization”, as it was for the group Katz used for his example, the lack of grassroots becomes crystal clear.

In addition to fake reform groups, follow the money is also good advice for assessing educational research, survey results, “miracle” school turnarounds, and “innovative” edtech startups.

Burglarizing the Future

From the always hazardous intersection of education and politics, comes Reading, Writing, Ransacking, a summary of the systematic process to dismantle public education in Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania.

There’s way too much good stuff in the column to quote without copying the whole thing, so take a few minutes to click through and read it. Just be prepared to yell at your screen.

However, I can’t resist posting the final paragraph.

They all have so very much to answer for, the people who have decided to enrich themselves by bashing public school teachers and, in doing so, putting the entire philosophy of public education, one of the lasting contributions to society of the American political commonwealth, at serious risk. No wonder they operate secretly, and in the shadows, and beyond the reach of public accountability. They are burglarizing the future for their own profit.

I can think of stronger criminal metaphors than “burglarizing” but, ok, let’s go with that.

Gotta Fill Up Those Young Brains

Jay Mathews believes we are not teaching young children enough facts.

Before continuing I should note that I’ve spent most of my instructional time working with middle and high school students and adults, which means I have very few qualifications to pontificate on elementary education. However, there are a couple of thoughts in Mathews piece that need to be challenged.

First, he quotes the parent of a first grader and president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative educational think tank.1

“Notice what’s missing,” Petrilli said. “Proper nouns. Which historical figures will he study? Time periods? Which countries or continents? People who study education for a living understand what’s going on — this is straight out of the standards promulgated by the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional organization that has long prized such ‘conceptual understanding’ over ‘rote facts and figures.’ ” He had found the kindergarten fare similarly mushy.

I can’t help thinking that if elementary teachers were able to do more with that “conceptual understanding” early, instead of all the drilling on “rote facts and figures”, kids might be better prepared for advanced study later in their educational lives. Not to mention less inclined to dislike school by the time they reach the middle years.

Of course, since the standardized tests that Mathews and the Fordham people adore so much depend heavily on kids being able to spit back the facts and figures, I understand the longing for stuffing the curriculum with more of them as early as possible.

Then there is this statement from Mathews himself: “But filling young brains with useful facts has to start early if they are to read.”

Again, I can’t speak to the process of how young children learn to read, but the concept of “filling young brains with useful facts” is straight out of the classic, simplistic concept of education as a transfer of knowledge from teacher to student.

It’s an incredibly clueless idea, one still widely embraced by “reformers”. And one of the major impediments to ever bringing true reform to American schools.


  1. The National Zoo also has a “think tank”… for orangutans. I wonder which one gets more useful results. :-)

The Magical Properties of EdTech

Much has been written over the past year about the ill-fated 1-1 program in the Los Angeles Unified School district, which has now been suspended, scaled back and/or modified, depending on whose story you read. It began in the summer of 2013 with the announcement of ambitious plans to give an iPad to each of their 650,000 students.

And the project began to fall apart almost immediately with questions about financial and political irregularities in the procurement process. Followed closely by breathless news reports of students “hacking” their devices to get around the security measures installed by district IT. That “hack” turned out to be nothing more than removing one file to bypass the filtering system, but it was enough to insert even more media outrage into the mess.

However, in all that reporting, many writers, especially in the “traditional” media, miss a big point. They concentrated on the political (which public official should we blame this week) or the financial (Apple is doomed).1 Missing is the fact that this was, more than anything else, a crappy instructional plan.

You could start with the fact that very few if any teachers were involved in creating the proposal. As with so many of these grand ideas for improving education, the plan was pushed down on schools by administration (starting with the superintendent who claimed the devices would be “transformational”) and school board members who apparently believe that adding tech will magically fix all the other issues schools face.

Officials and parents say they hope the iPads will boost achievement and help put low-income students on an even footing with wealthier ones.

Many of those administrators also seemed to be far more worried about having enough connected devices for collecting data (through standardized testing, of course) rather than for student learning. The superintendent even called data a “pillar of his administration”.

But the far larger problem in all this, the single factor that doomed this project from the first day, lies in how too many educators, politicians, and business people picture 1-1 computing in the learning process. A concept neatly summarized by this photo:

kids and ipads

Kids, sitting in front of devices, isolated from each other, performing traditional instructional tasks.2 Or, very likely today, working their way through canned “individualized” lessons. But it’s nothing new. We’ve done the same thing since the first desktop computers were formed into school labs and teachers trooped their classes down the hall to do Math Blaster or Reader Rabbit.

Although many of the articles I’ve read blame the choice of iPads for failure of this project, it is not the device that’s at fault. Had LA schools bought Chromebooks, or Android devices, or Surface tablets, or just plain generic laptops, the ultimate result would be the same.

A district spends lots of money on classroom technology while changing nothing about the curriculum, classroom practice, teacher training, or assessment. District administrators and politicians stand for photo ops followed by high minded statements about “21st century” something and creating “world-class learners”. After everyone leaves, a small number of teachers relish the opportunity and try to do great things with the devices, while most, having had minimal opportunity for professional learning, continue with the standard test prep process and only use the new technology enough to satisfy the expectations of whoever is writing their evaluation.

And a few years later the next set of politicians, administrators and/or school board members come up with yet another idea to “reform” education.

Now, I have a pretty lousy track record at forecasting, so I could be wrong. But in my time as an educator in an overly-large (but smaller than LA) school district, I’ve seen many, many attempts to activate the magical learning properties of technology.

No one yet has found the right spell. It doesn’t exist. Not even the next shiny device to be announced any minute now.


  1. Although someone writes about that every week of every year.

  2. With a “smart” board waiting behind them.