Thursday, December 17, 2009

Testing, Testing

In the Dec. 14 issue of The New Yorker, physician Atul Gawande takes on one of the persistent critiques of the current health care debate:

“We crave sweeping transformation, however all the current bill offers is … pilot programs, a battery of small-scale experiments. The strategy seems hopelessly inadequate to solve a problem of this magnitude. And yet—here’s the interesting thing—history suggests otherwise.”

The history that Gawande is referring to is that of the federal agricultural extension agency, where multiple small scale ‘experiments’ helped transform the productivity of farming. It’s a history that could inform federal policy in education as well.

Gawande grew up in my backyard. His parents are well-respected doctors (now retired) and all of us have a certain pride that our county produced such a literate physician (he is the author of several books and is regularly featured in The New Yorker). And it is a testament to his broad thinking that he finds in the history of agriculture policy seeds of a lesson for health care.

I don’t want to recapitulate all of what Gawande has said in this piece, it’s a quick read and I recommend it. But I guide you to it because what he has to say about health care reform is worth considering when we think about how to support our public schools. Simply put, his point is that while we may want a quick fix for health care, one probably does not exist. And, if the history of federal intervention into local practices teaches us anything, the best thing we could do is seed promising practices and do our best to disseminate what works. Here is an extended quote from the piece, insert ‘education’ for ‘medicine’ and you get the point:

Much like farming, medicine involves hundreds of local entities across the country—hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, home-health agencies, drug and device suppliers. They provide complex services for the thousands of diseases, conditions, and injuries that afflict us…Our fee-for-service system, doling out separate payments for everything and everyone involved in a patient’s care, has all the wrong incentives: it rewards doing more over doing right, it increases paperwork and the duplication of efforts, and it discourages clinicians from working together for the best possible results. Knowledge diffuses too slowly…And the best way to fix all this is—well, plenty of people have plenty of ideas. Its’ just that nobody knows for sure.

The history of American agriculture suggests that you can have transformation without a master plan, without knowing all the answers up front…

We have our models, to be sure. There are places like the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota; Intermountain Healthcare in Utah…that reliably deliver higher quality for lower costs that elsewhere. Yet they have had years to develop their organizations and institutional cultures..Even they have difficulties...Each area has its own history and traditions, its own gaps in infrastructure, and its own distinctive patient population. To figure out how to transform medical communities, with all their diversity and complexity, is going to involve trial and error. And this will require pilot programs—a lot of them.

When I read this I think of what would have been helpful nine years ago when NCLB was passed. If the feds first would have realized that our schools are profoundly local entities with a national mission. When I open the doors every morning 450 some kids come in with 450 different learning styles, injuries, strengths, and dreams. Some general strategies reach all of them, but no one of them is a carbon copy of another. We work daily to rewrite the book on how to meet our kids’ needs; rethinking the organization of the day our advisory program or our curriculum. Honestly, really, nobody knows for sure what will work from one day to the next. We rely upon our shared wisdom, research, experience, and, yes, just plain gut-instinct (so, by the way, do good doctors and farmers).

And we rely upon models. We have visited other schools, gone to meetings, invited friends to visit and critique. They all have their own limitations; no one thing fits us exactly. But we bend and shape them into our own pilot program, the one that seems to fit us the best…today, that is—it may be different tomorrow.

While we do this we work in a system that rewards all the wrong things. The matrices we use, standardized test scores, are one dimensional and easily manipulated by tutoring, pushing kids out of school, and doing more around lower level memorization skills that teaching for higher level thinking. The pile of paperwork and reports seem designed more to keep bureaucrats in business than to help kids learn. And the rewards/punishment system is set up as a ratings game with losers and winners rather than all boats rising together.

I think the bottom line here is that we trusted, some 70 years ago, local farmers to take on productive practices and produce the food we needed. And for the most part we trust our doctors to have our best interests in mind and believe they are willing to do what is right if they are given the opportunity. The same can be said of teachers, still one of the most trusted professions in America.

So, when it finally comes time for the reauthorization of ESEA those that represent us in Washington might do well to keep in mind what we learned in providing for our stomachs when they think about how to provide for our minds.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Approach on Education Needs an Overhaul

(Previous published in the Columbus Dispatch)

The recent release of the Department of Education's Race to the Top application has me anxious and hopeful. On the one hand, we've been through a trying eight years of the failed No Child Left Behind Act. Schools have dumbed-down and narrowed curricula, cutting the arts, physical education and more in the name of prepping for tests. Some kindergartners have forsaken rest time and recess for test prep; field trips have been replaced by worksheets; and some students likely to fail the tests have been pushed out of schools.

On the other hand, the promise of what targeted, serious federal funds can do is tantalizing to those of us faced with daily decisions of which services we may have to cut and which we are mandated to carry out.

With this in mind, the following is one school principal's proposal to policymakers as they prepare to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, which largely determines how we create and fund the education our children need and deserve.

To begin with, the federal government should get out of the business of mandating teaching practices and curricula. For example, the "Reading First" program that mandated particular reading approaches, and the focus on machine-scored standardized tests, as opposed to the performance assessments that were used in many states prior to NCLB. Dictating to communities how to run classrooms is something that the feds are unsuited to do.

Alternatively, the federal government should concentrate its efforts in places that have the greatest needs. ESEA was first passed as part of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. The goal was to provide schools that served the neediest of our children with extra resources to help level the playing field. The focus was on reading and math, fundamental skills that opened up a life of learning. We would do well to get back to that agenda, with a particular focus on the early years of schooling.

Proven tools should be adopted and brought to scale by federal policy. Yale University child psychiatrist James Comer's work demonstrates that when schools provide a program focused on early childhood development, children flourish and succeed in school. The Reading Recovery program documented success in Ohio and other states in helping children who had fallen behind in reading make amazing gains and catch up with their peers. And many Ohio public schools, ranging from alternative to charter to traditional, have launched innovative programs that help every child learn.

What we need is federal policy that takes those lessons learned and offers schools support to put them into practice. It could be done tomorrow.

One of the things the federal government does well is large-scale research and development. Think of the space program, highway safety, the Internet. The revised ESEA must find assessments of student learning that are more than bubble sheets and memorization tricks. Let's catch up with the rest of the world that uses performance assessments, portfolios and other demonstrations of student ability that actually reveal what our children are learning.

The federal government should invest in the preparation and support of a first-class teaching force. Every parent knows the most important question their child asks before the new school year is, "Who will my teacher be?" Yet there is no federal policy agenda to ensure an adequate supply of good teachers, let alone ensuring that every child gets a good teacher no matter where that child goes to school.

Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond and colleagues have a plan to improve teacher education, provide support for teachers willing to work in our hardest-to-staff schools and build career ladders for teachers who are willing to improve their practice and take on more responsibility. The cost for this five-year program is less than the price of one month of the war in Iraq.

Finally, we must tackle educational equity in America. Our schools are some of the most inequitably funded in the industrialized world. Some kids go to schools with plenty of teachers, swimming pools and tennis courts, up-to-date texts and computers, while others share books in overcrowded classrooms. ESEA should link federal funding to each state's record on equity in educational resources. The Fattah-Dodd Student Bill of Rights would make this the law of the land and has been introduced annually in Congress. It is time to pass it as part of ESEA.

Fund what works, develop good assessments, support good teachers, work for equity in educational opportunity. It is the least we should expect from a federal government that has failed on its promise to leave no child behind.

George Wood is in his 18th year as principal of Federal Hocking High and Middle School in Stewart, Ohio, and is also the executive director of The Forum for Education and Democracy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Election Day

I always try to be first to vote in my town, and usually lose out to a local electrician whose job starts even earlier than mine. Part of the reason for my early arrival is that it gives me time to check in and chat with our former students who are working the polls as well as those that are showing up to vote.

Some educators claim that their decisions are “data-driven.” By this they mean that they spend hours parsing standardized test scores to see what tweak they can make to the curriculum in order to raise scores a percentile or two. At my school we do “data-driven” decisions as well—but we use data that actually has meaning to our community and school. And part of that data I was collecting on Election Day; seeing which of our graduates were voting and working at the polls.

It is a shame that our public schools, the most important weapon in the arsenal of democracy, are not seen as the incubators of democratic life that they were intended to be. Thomas Jefferson, who was one of the earliest to call for a system of free public schools, realized that democracy rested upon the wisdom of the public. And the best way to insure that citizens could exercise their own judgment was to make sure they could read, write, and reason.

Today this is still the most important mission of our public schools. Contrary to popular belief, we cannot and should not be preparing kids for specific jobs nor should we simply be a boot camp for college. Rather, public schools should be focusing on the attributes we want in citizens, in our neighbors. A short list includes the ability to read critically; to write for an audience; to understand numbers and how they work—in particular statistics, which are often used to deceive; to know how science works; and to have a background in our history and the cultures that have made this nation great. You might add to that an appreciation of the visual and performing arts; a familiarity with our environment and where our food comes from; and the knowledge of how government works (or doesn’t). Finally, a set of personal characteristics that would include the ability to work with others, including those who are different from oneself; the ability to listen; and a willingness to suspend decision-making until requisite information is available.

Now here’s the rub. As a former college professor, I would have loved to have students come to me who could do all of those things. And I cannot imagine an employer, who really wants people he or she can train to do a job knowing full well that jobs change quickly, that would not also list these characteristics as desirable in our graduates. That is, the attributes that make for a good democratically engaged citizen are the same that we might want in college students or employees. However, it does not work the other way around.

Simply prepping kids to do well on the ACT or other college admission examinations does not ensure that they will be the type of participants our democracy needs. And teaching students how to do jobs that may be phased out in the next wave of technological innovation does not prepare students to be life long learners.

At my school, as with many, we take seriously the challenge we have given ourselves to prepare our charges to be life long learners, active democratic citizens, and flexible in their career choices. Young people here have to demonstrate, through actions ranging from community service, to voting, to working at the polls, to taking on leadership within the school that they are practicing habits of democratic life. Along with demonstrations of life long learning skills and career flexibility these things are placed in a portfolio for graduation. What we know is that what we assess and value at school is what students will not only do now, but will continue to do after school.

Election Day is assessment day in my little corner of the world. It is one day in which we observe how well we prepared our students to take on the challenges of democratic life. One more piece of data as to how well we are doing as a school. One more way of testing ourselves to see if we are living up to Mr. Jefferson’s ideal.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Without good teachers, it doesn’t matter

Last week I was able to spend a lot of time at the most important part of my job—supporting teachers as they practice their craft. Monday I spent a long session with a first year teacher, reflecting on a lesson she had taught and the lessons she was learning. I was impressed about how quickly she had incorporated some of the ideas colleagues and I had shared with her into her classroom work. And doubly impressed with the insights she had developed into several students.

Later that day I spent an hour with a senior faculty member who is working on developing some extensive performance assessments for our students. Her insights into how students approach texts, and how they write from experience, were amazing. How lucky our kids are to have someone who takes them so seriously.

Wednesday included an hour with the two faculty members who run our Teacher Center. Based on their work in classrooms and conversations with staff we were developing a professional development sequence around reading and writing across the curriculum. Additionally we spent time on how we might fine tune our Advisory program in order to better meet the needs of our students.

The support and development of professional educators is the most important thing we can invest in if we want to have a public education system that challenges and engages all of our children. Ted Sizer, founder of both The Forum and the Coalition of Essential Schools put it best in his book Horace’s Compromise:

While our system of schools contains many consequential characteristics—for example, the subjects of the curriculum, the forms of governance, the uses of technologies and teaching aids, the organization of programs for special groups—none is more important that who the teachers are and how they work. Without good teachers, sensibly deployed, schooling is barely worth the effort. (p. 4)

Ted’s book came out 25 years ago—if only we had headed his words then.

We again have the chance to heed Ted’s challenge with the reauthorization of ESEA this coming year. Hopefully this time our representatives in Congress will get it right and pay attention to the preparation, placement, and support of teachers. The Forum for Education and Democracy’s recently released briefing paper, Effective Teachers: High Achievers presents eight strategies that could be undertaken immediately if the nation wants to take up the challenge to put a well-prepared and supported teacher in every classroom.

Based on my 18 years at my desk in Federal Hocking Middle and High School I know that the most important question every parent and student asks each school year is ‘Who will my teacher be?’ It is my job to make sure that parents and learners will be satisfied no matter what teacher at our school is named in response to that question. Such should be the goal nationwide.

One more note. When I shared the Forum’s plan for teachers with a group of students at the nearby university during a guest lecture, one of the students challenged whether or not America could afford the plan we are putting forward. Well, do the math. The Forum’s proposal calls for an annual investment of $3.4 billion dollars in teachers. The federal government last year put over $12 billion dollars into saving General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC), an outfit that finances car purchases. Are our kids worth ¼ of what we put into our cars?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

We Already Know What Works

Another school year is already flying by and my seniors are celebrating this morning with a breakfast cook out. The reason? They have all submitted their senior project proposals, another step towards meeting the standards we have set for them here at FHHS. As I chat and eat with them, I am reminded that for many students this school year has not started this way. Rather, they are still plodding through schools focused soled on standardized tests and credit accumulation. What a shame.

Last week I had the great fortune to join a panel of luminaries in educational change at the National Network for Educational Renewal conference. The authors of the book Those Who Dared, John Goodlad, James Comer, Henry Levin, and (via video tape) Ted Sizer were present to share their personal stories of how they came to spend their lives working for good schools for all of our children.

Near the end of the lively session I was moderating the question and answer period when the most memorable question was asked: “What do you still not know?”

In a nutshell, the panel all shared their frustration with why, after years of success in multiple settings, the school change and renewal strategies they had championed had not penetrated the policy world. Why indeed?

For example, Jim Comer talked about the clear and compelling evidence drawn from his work in multiple schools that when childrens’ developmental needs are attended to they will be more successful in school ( And yet none of this good work and research, carefully documented over years of practice, has made it into the educational policy framework in DC or the states.

Then there is the work of Deb Meier, who created in both New York and Boston outstanding secondary and elementary schools focused on respecting children and the work they can do. There is simply no arguing with her success, and her students have been tracked for years after graduation. But one would look in vain to see how the structures and environments Meier has developed would be supported in educational policy.

Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools (of which my high school is a proud member) is currently documenting through transcript studies the success of our students in college. The evidence is clear—our students have higher grade point averages, credit attainment, and progress towards graduation than the average high school graduate – despite often stemming from the poorest of backgrounds.

So what gives? Is Congress an “Evidence Free Zone?” Or is something else at work?

Could it be that there is no profit to be made by textbook publishers or testing companies in the strategies of Comer, et al? Or is there something about the trust that Meier and Goodlad put in teachers that rubs the wrong way those who see our teaching corps as just the hired help? Maybe it is Levin’s and Sizer’s insistence on the equitable treatment of every student, not just the privileged, that just is too much to swallow?

I am not sure which of these explains our reluctance to do what we know works when it comes to children and schools. But I do know that it is time to take the campaign slogan “Yes We Can” and give it some new life. Yes, we can do the right thing for our children and our schools…right now, right here, because we already know what to do, we just have to do it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Counting the Wrong Things

My drive to school everyday takes me through fifteen miles of wooded countryside following the flow of the Federal Creek. Recently, some logging activity along the riverside has reminded me of how often in so many ways we count the wrong things.

In this case, the logging company will count sales and the quick profit they have turned in just two weeks of stripping the timber, including a number of beautiful walnut trees, from the river side. But they will be long gone when the fall rains begin and the creek flows out of its banks as it always does. With the trees gone and the earth churned up by the heavy equipment the topsoil will find its way into the creek. I already know what will happen; over the next three to four years this area will erode away and before long the creek will begin to edge toward the road.

After the logging company is gone the state will be left to pick up the check for repairing the road. And the silting in the creek will decrease the water quality and flow. The ecosystem will be altered for decades to come; long after the profit loss sheets are forgotten.

How similar this is to so many things in our society.

The economy is in a slide because Wall Street demanded instant profits rather than careful business practices. Mountain tops are removed and streams filled in throughout West Virginia and Kentucky to for easy access to coal. And schools have narrowed curriculum and engaged in the most limited of teaching practices in order to raise scores on standardized tests.

The single-minded focus on testing continues to damage our schools long after it has been established that such scores are, at best, just one indicator of what goes on inside the school walls. Even those who used such scores to assail public schools have found that raising scores are not only easier said than done, but maybe not the most important thing they could do. And recently David Berliner, Past President of the America Educational Research Association, has called for a moratorium on high stakes standardized testing given all the problems with this strategy for school improvement.

As Berliner found in his research, “high-stakes high school exit exams did not improve scores on other tests such as the SAT or NAEP tests, and contributed to higher drop out rates.” We should not be surprised by this or the fact that, as Berliner goes on to point out, corruption “invariably occurs when an indicator of any kind takes on too much value. Both the indicator (test scores, stock prices, return on investment) and those who work with it are frequently corrupted.”

I do not think the people cutting down the trees that once graced my drive to work are bad people. But I think they work in a bad system. One that rewards the quick scalping of the landscape more than it rewards the careful harvesting of trees and the restoration of the land.

Unfortunately, educators are working in a bad system as well. One that only rewards test scores and ignores the human cost in terms of increased drop outs and narrowed curriculum. It could be different, if we changed the accountability system to take into account the entire picture of what makes a good school—from graduation and retention rates to teaching for and assessing higher order thinking skills across the curriculum.

When I drive by this clear-cut every morning I am reminded of that old saying of not seeing the forest for the trees. When it comes to what counts in school, we also seem bent on destroying the forest while measuring the trees.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

No Surprises Here

Sadly, I was not surprised by the lead story in Sunday’s New York Times: “Surge in Homeless Pupils Strains Schools.” I have seen it at our school—more kids homeless, more on free lunch, more not able to purchase supplies. Our enrollment has been more erratic this early in the year than I can remember as families move in and out in the search for employment.

And America continues to fare poorly when it comes to measures of childhood welfare. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) recent survey of childhood well-being places the US in the bottom third of nations in many indicators and notes that childhood poverty rates in the US are double the average of the OECD nations.

Of course, school people don’t need international comparisons or the New York Times to tell us about the needs of our children. When the economy catches a cold, schools, especially those serving our poorest children, catch the flu. Along with social service workers, teachers are on the front lines of helping our most vulnerable citizens navigate economic dislocation.

We get little or no credit for doing this work—from making sure kids eat lunch and breakfast to helping kids find jobs to walking first generation college goers through the application process. Instead, in this so-called era of accountability, we are told over and over again that the only thing that counts are test scores on fairly low level measures of thinking and knowledge.

It is time to hold the entire nation accountable for the plight of our children. From health care to nutrition to housing America needs to be held accountable for a childhood poverty rate of nearly 22%, a rating of 25 out of 30 in terms of educational possessions held by children, the 4th worst infant mortality rate and 5th worst child mortality rate amongst industrialized nations we can do better.

When it comes to schools, it is time to hold America accountable as well for the educational apartheid where some children find themselves in schools with swimming pools, chemistry labs, and well prepared and supported teachers and others are in schools with few books, permanent substitutes for teachers, and crumbling facilities. For whatever reason we have allowed educational equity to be reduced to equalizing test scores. This is wrong, we can do better.

I am proud to be part of a school community that serves all comers, that provides for children who have very little, and that refuses to allow any child’s needs to go unnoticed. I am also pleased that a new campaign has been launched, Rethinking Learning, that addresses directly the issue of fairness and equity. It is past time that we return to the promise that all children will have equal access to a high quality education no matter where they live, what they have, or the color of their skin.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

This year it happened on the second day of school.

I was told there was a young man waiting in the office to see me. My secretary gave me the heads up—he was 18, had moved in with someone in the district, and wanted to come to our school.

His glasses were broken and he needed a shave, and it didn’t help that he had a hard time looking me in the eye because of his nervousness. The story was one I have heard every school year in one form or another. Jeff (not his real name) had left home and landed in our backyard because of a girl he had met on a visit to the area. Living with her family, he wanted to come back to school and try to graduate.

Jeff was earnest enough; he claimed to have heard we were a good school, and he knew he could not make it without graduating from high school. Much to his credit he had come with a copy of his high school transcript. A good start, but we would still need a birth certificate and shot record, things he was not quite sure how to get.

Ten years ago the decision would be easy. Even though we do not have to enroll students over 18, especially if they are not ‘officially’ a resident, we would let him try. But now the rules have changed, and to let Jeff come to my high school puts our standing with the State of Ohio in jeopardy.

Jeff is potentially a drop out; not only has he experienced limited school success, he has yet to pass two of the five tests the state requires for graduation. If I admit him and he decides to quit, or does not pass the state tests, he will count against our graduation rate. If we don’t graduate 90% of our students we lose a point on our state report card…and with 85 kids in the class of 2010 Jeff could cost us dearly.

The problem is that federal and state policies are not focused on encouraging schools to take a chance on the Jeffs of the world. Why admit a student who will drag down the school’s chance of meeting AYP or staying out of ‘school improvement’ if you don’t have to? We get no credit for helping Jeff, but there will be a price to pay if we try and are not successful in getting him to graduate. Even though the first seventeen years of his education was somewhere else, we will now stand solely responsible for his success or failure.

This simply must change. All over the nation schools are playing tricks to avoid the punishments of state and federal accountability systems. Tricks like pushing out students who will struggle with testing programs, or encouraging potential dropouts to leave school voluntarily and enter into a GED program, or refusing to let Jeff come to school. Every one of these tricks, and dozens more, is an attempt to game the system to avoid punishment.

The Forum for Democracy and Education has recently written to Secretary Duncan in response to the ‘Race to the Top’ initiative and pointed out how the current accountability system works against schools that admit the Jeffs of the world. From our letter:

There has been much discussion about NCLB’s “push-out effect”—a phenomenon in which poor performing students are encouraged to leave school in order to improve schools’ Annual Yearly Progress performance. The Forum is deeply concerned that the Race to the Top guidance contains language that may unintentionally accelerate, rather than reverse, the push-out effect.

Specifically, the Race to the Top Fund considers the extent to which a State “has ambitious yet achievable annual targets for increasing graduation rates.” Although this is a laudable goal, the guidance does not provide complementary instructions that ask the State to set similar targets for decreasing dropout rates. With the focus on four-year graduation rates, there are many incentives not to keep or re-admit students who would take longer than four years to graduate, who struggle academically, are credit deficient, have left school due to pregnancy, homelessness, incarceration, illness, or other reasons. Without this instruction, the incentive to push poor performing students out of the system is magnified.

I can only hope that policy makers might actually listen this time around to the voices from the field who work every day with students like Jeff.

In the meantime you should know that we admitted Jeff, and his girlfriend (who had stopped out from high school a year ago) as well. If we manage to make all the right things happen they will both graduate this year and have a much better chance in life than they currently face. If things don’t break their (and our) way, we will take a 2.3% drop in our graduation rate and probably not make state standards. But at least we will have done the right thing, regardless of how the bureaucrats in Columbus and Washington see it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Back to School and the Health Care Debate

This week for the 18th time I’ll be out front of Federal Hocking High School welcoming students back to a new school year. If I ever needed a motivator for starting a school year the recent noisy, uncivil, and often unruly public debates about health care have me anxious to get back to school.

I don’t have a television, so I have missed much of the squawk-box invective around health care reform. But it has been hard to avoid the pictures of red-faced citizens screaming at elected officials or one another and congresspersons hung in effigy. Even more outrageous have been the signs claiming that health care reform proponents are Nazis or the oft-repeated lie that reform legislation includes some sort of ‘death panel’.

The most fundamental purpose of public education is to prepare our children to take their place as citizens in our democracy. We cannot determine whether or not they will go to college or what job they will hold. But we do know that every one of them will leave our school as fully enfranchised citizens of our democracy. Clearly our inability to hold civil debate about an issue as important as the health of our nation illustrates the need for public schools to make sure they act upon this most important of all missions.

Unfortunately, much of the public policy debate about public education leaves out any consideration of the higher order skills democratic life requires. Focusing solely on holding schools accountable for improving standardized test scores, state and federal policies have even worked to push out practices that focus on critical thinking, research, debate, and public speaking skills. I have to wonder if the screaming town hall participants, the name-calling radio and television personalities, and those that deliberately spread falsehoods in the name of democratic debate on health care did well on those tests but missed something else in school.

While we at FH do not always get it right, we try to make sure that inculcating the habits of mind and heart that make democratic life possible is at the center of our school. Our students have a voice in decisions from the hiring of teachers to what we serve in the cafeteria; coursework focuses on higher order thinking skills; our literacy initiative is not about test scores but about the reading and writing skills needed to make your voice heard; and in dozens of ways, big and small, our students share with the staff the management and welfare of our school. These are practices we share with other schools through networks like the Coalition of Essential Schools, The Five Freedoms Project, and the League of Democratic Schools.

While none of us in any of these schools doubts the effectiveness and importance of what we do around education for a democratic citizenry, we also know that when it comes to school accountability measures we will not be given any credit for this effort. All that matters in this hyper-testing environment are the standardized test scores…scores that may yield interesting comparisons, but are apparently not yielding thoughtful citizens.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Who Knew?

Thanks to Libby Quaid of the Associated Press for taking the time to sort out the facts behind the myth-making that goes on around our public schools. While she points out that our schools could do better—no kidding, that’s why my staff and I put in so many hours on behalf of our kids and community—she makes it clear that the facts do not support many of the claims about our schools.

I’ll leave it to you to read her analysis, but a few highlights—

•On international comparisons, which, as Gerry Bracey often points out can be suspect, American school kids do as well as the Brits and Germans.
•Our kids may not go to school as many days as do kids in South Korea, but because of a longer school day they spend more time in school than do students in that and other nations.
•Our college graduation rates, while no where near good enough, hold up well internationally when you factor in things like that the US includes non-citizens in such rates and that many European countries have switched to three year degrees, easier to complete than four or six year degrees which are the norm here.
Who knew?

But on closer inspection, there are some other questions to be raised.

School days: The reason kids in some of the so-called high achieving nations have shorter school days is because those systems, which value teacher development, use part of the day for teams of teachers to work together on lessons and student achievement. The Forum has argued that time in the teacher day for staff development, cooperative lesson planning, and reviewing student achievement is necessary if our schools are to improve. Just adding time to the school year is not the answer, it is how that time is utilized.

More on school days: The nations we are so often compared to do not provide all the other things our schools provide—sports, bands, theater, etc. Rather, this is left to the larger community and the schools just focus on academics. Not a choice we have made, but something to remember when looking at time comparisons.

Tests: American kids do not do well on one of the international tests of math, Program for International Assessment (PISA), but do better on the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). This should not be any surprise—PISA measures how well kids apply math to real-world problems. Given the single-minded focus on standardized test scores driven by NCLB it is no surprise kids do not do well on a test that looks at real world applications. Again, who knew?

Look, we all know that we can do better in our system of public education. But maybe we can find the solutions not in sloganeering from politicians but in the hard work of teachers in this nation right now.

The Forum, through our Democracy at Risk recommendations last spring set forth an ambitious plan for investing in teaching, high quality learning opportunities, performance assessment and community involvement. It was, as Representative George Miller, chair of the House Education Committee said, “Spot on….a good place to start (when discussing NCLB reauthorization).”

We agree.

I wish I had more time to work on this agenda in Washington. But today my staff and I are too busy as all of our seniors present their Graduation Portfolios which demonstrate how they are ready to leave our school as life-long learners, engaged citizens, and on the path to career or college. How I wish those folks inside the beltway could see what is going on inside our school.