Monday, November 8, 2010

After the Dust Clears

After the election of 2008, I thought the stars were aligning for some serious changes in the way the federal government treated public schools.

Gone were the architects of No Child Left Behind. A president who had repeatedly said we should not judge schools or children on the basis of one test was elected to office. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was up for reauthorization, and I was hopeful things would change.

I did not mind waiting while other issues took stage, because I liked most of what was going on. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, health-care reform, getting higher education student loans out of the hands of the banks, a recovery act, and much more. Schools were provided a generous slice of the recovery dollars – not just once, but twice-- and that money kept the budget ax from falling on my school.

But reauthorization of ESEA languished, and the initiatives from the U.S. Department of Education including more money for charters, turnaround plans that seemed to focus more on punishing than supporting teachers, support for short-term teacher training, all echoed the plans of prior administrations. Now that the reins of legislative power have again changed hands, what should we expect this time?

I am not sure. I worry that despite election-year rhetoric about the intrusion of the federal government into local school decision-making, the new bosses in Washington may be the same as the old boss (with apologies to The Who). But I have an idea as to a bi-partisan effort that might make everyone happy: eliminate the Department of Education.

Everybody dislikes bureaucracies, but for different reasons. The “right” complains they are unresponsive, full of “feather-bedders,” and a waste of taxpayer money. The “left” complians they are unresponsive, full of people who are too busy pushing paper to see the real work, and too intrusive into local, democratic decision-making. Maybe we should unite all this new energy for making government more responsive and efficient around the idea of eliminating a bureaucracy that was probably a bad idea in the first place.

Remember that Department of Education was a pay-off by Jimmy Carter to teacher unions for their support. Before that, education was part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

That's where I propose returning it. Here are several reasons why:

First, the current structure of a national Department of Education gives it inordinate control over local schools. Remember, the feds only provide about 8% of education funding. But through through NCLB, Race to the Top, and innovation grants, they are driving about 100% of the agenda. Clearly this is a case of a tail wagging a very big dog.

Second, by separating education from health and welfare, we have separated departments that should be working very closely together. We all know, even if some folks are loath to admit it, that in order for a child to take full advantage of educational opportunities he or she needs to come to school healthy, with a full stomach, and from a safe place to live. But the federal initiatives around education seldom take such a holistic approach; instead, competing departments engage in bureaucratic turf wars that, while fun within the beltway, are tragic for children in our neighborhoods.

Third, whenever you create a large bureaucracy, it will find something to do, even if that something is less than helpful. After years of an “activist” DOE, we do not see student achievement improving or school innovation taking hold widely. We have lived through Reading First, What Works, and an alphabet soup of changing programs with little to show for it. In fact, DOE has often been one of the more ideological departments, engaging in the battles such as phonics vs. whole language. Who needs it?

It might be viewed as peculiar for someone who values education to be arguing for what has often been a very conservative position. I know I will hear responses that education is a national issue and is too important to be left to states and locales. But this has always been the argument of the “I know better than you” crowd, and it's time we stop buying into that logic. The fact is, the federal government has demonstrated time and time again it does not know better when it comes to our schools.

I would also suggest that this smaller bureaucracy have a more limited role than in the past. Instead of trying to tell our schools what to do, the feds should play a more circumspect role. That role would include insuring all children have equal access to school programs, providing and disseminating high-quality research on successful schools and programs and funneling federal dollars to schools facing the most challenging conditions (the original intent of ESEA).

Of course it's probably na├»ve to even suggest a bureaucracy as large as DOE go away – it's hard to name any such organization that we have eliminated. But why not try out an idea that appeals to our current climate of more democratic localism, less federal intrusion, and more effective use of federal dollars? It could end up being a case of addition by subtraction.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

5,755 and Counting

I thought the number would be 1,000.

That would be the number of America’s sons and daughters dead in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that would catch our attention and end our involvement.

I was wrong. This morning I read the names of two more children, both 21 years old, who were the 4, 417th (Iraq) and 1,338th (Afghanistan) war deaths. 5,755 and counting.

I appreciate the New York Times’ willingness to publish, daily, the names of our fallen soldiers. Their families deserve our thoughts and thanks, and I wish every paper in the country would follow the Times’ lead.

Perhaps the papers should add a daily tally of the financial cost of these wars as well. It would be hard to do, the costs are spread all over the federal budget and we spend so quickly the tracking services numbers race across the page. Additionally, we have no way of knowing what future obligations these wars will invoke. But as of this morning at 7 a.m. it looks we have spent about $1,099, 250,200,000 on the wars. (Or nearly $9,500 per household.)

(By the way, I worry about what we are doing to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan as well—the numbers dead, the cities and infrastructure ruined.)

Why am I cluttering up an education blog with talk of the wars? I’m a high school principal, what do I know?

Not much, really, but during the recent election cycle I have heard next to nothing about the wars and their costs in terms of lives destroyed and dollars wasted. Why not?

Perhaps it is because the leader of the loyal opposition in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, thinks his party’s most important job is to end the Obama Presidency. Or maybe debating who is most likely to follow the Constitution is easier than taking a stand on extracting us from our foreign wars.

But as an educator, I want to know why our leaders are behaving so foolishly. They talk about reducing deficits, but the war adds to it by the minute and it never comes up. They bemoan the cost of health care legislation or the stimulus or TARP but not a word is said about the cost of war.

How, I ask myself, can we ever teach our children about the use of facts versus opinion, evidence versus hearsay, or reason versus bluster when our leaders do not seem to know the difference?

More importantly, we educators know some things about change that could help the country out if we were listened to. We do not say it often enough, but what we do holds the key to the changes we thought these wars would bring about.

That’s right, if we had decided, back in 2001, to spend a decade building a public education system in Afghanistan and supporting liberal (read, not fundamentalist) education efforts in Iraq and other nations, we would have spent less and accomplished more.

I apologize for not pointing this out earlier and leaving it to Nick Kristof of the Times to recently state the obvious—more schools, not troops is the way to stop extremism. To add injury to insult, it took a soldier who responded to Kristof to illustrate how $359,000 spent on teacher preparation in Afghanistan would provide 200 new teachers for Afghani schools and set up the program to run without additional support. Oh, and that $359,000 is about the cost of one 2,000 pound bomb.

Of course, Kristof will always say it better than I, so I want to let him sum up the point I am trying to make here:

It always strikes me that in decisions about the military, financial constraints are rarely even discussed. Rather people say: If the commander wants troops, he should have them. But of course nobody would say: If the Secretary of State wants diplomats, she should have them. Perhaps that’s why there are more members of American military bands than there are diplomats in the American foreign service. Likewise, there is a furious debate about the cost of health care reform, but much less about the cost of troops in Afghanistan — which is already mounting at a clip of $60 billion a year, two-thirds the cost of health reform. (Full blog here.)

How long will we keep counting the dead and dollars while our politicians remain silent?

(In the meantime, maybe every educator in this nation could donate to the effort to build schools in Afghanistan—how about we all pledge as much as we paid for the political nonsense we have heard over the past few months. I would recommend the Central Asia Institute which is busy building schools in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Waiting for Sanity

This fall brought not only the start of another school year but plenty of noise about schools as well. A movie, a manifesto, and a mayoral election in DC all amplified the ongoing debate about who the real education reformers are. Noise and more noise.

Thank goodness for the sane voices that arose in the midst of all this. There is Diane Ravitch with her continued campaign that brings us back to what is really at stake when filmmakers try to bend public opinion. And Mike Rose, always close to the ground, reminding us of what school reform really involves.

Now comes the news that, in light of whatever is going to happen on November 2nd, the Obama Administration is looking for ways to work with the next Congress and has targeted, among other things, NCLB.


With the level of animosity and acrimony currently filling the airways it is hard to imagine that Congress and the President will do anything together, let alone the long overdue overhaul of NCLB. I worry about the common ground they might actually reach: grading teachers by student tests scores, breaking unions, putting every kid in a charter school. None of these strategies has been proven as a recipe for the schools our children need and our communities deserve, but lack of evidence has never stopped us before.

With all of this in mind I have decided to trek off to Washington this weekend and join Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity. Why? Because I want to talk to some folks and see if they might accept a few basic principles around what it would take to shore up our public school system. I want to see if they are willing to take seriously the Jeffersonian ideal that public education is vital to a healthy democracy, and the notion that now, as much as any time in our history, we need such a system of public schools.

I haven’t been invited to speak at the rally, but if Stewart calls, here is what I might say:

“America’s public schools are a national treasure and it is past time that we started treating them as such. Every one of you here today probably has a schoolteacher to thank for the fact that you can read, add, and think rationally. A teacher who opened your mind to new ideas, who helped you speak that mind and listen when others spoke theirs. It’s a great system, and it opens its doors to every kid no matter their race or nationality, no matter what language they speak or if they can speak at all, no matter rich or poor, motivated or not, whole or impaired.

“We have spent too much time the blaming our schools for all that ails us. Sure schools could do better—but so could the banks, big business, and Congress. Schools, our teachers, and our kids, are not responsible for the economic strains our nation feels; or for the loosening bonds that threaten the civil discourse our republic requires. They are, however, part of the solution to these threats to our social security. But only if we come together on a few things in the name of a saner approach to making sure every kid has a good public school to attend.

“First, we have to admit that as much as schools can do, they can’t do it alone. It is hard for a child who is homeless, hungry, or in pain to heed the lessons of her teacher. America should, as part of education policy, work to see that every child is safe and secure, has good medical care, a roof over her head, and food in her stomach.

“Second, we must all admit that there is no doing a good school system on the cheap. America is 14th among the 16 industrialized nations in how much we spend on our kids’ education. But it is not just how much we spend, it is where we spend it. In the Harlem Children’s Zone, a project that considers all of what it takes to raise a child, the charter schools are spending one-third more than the public schools in the city, and they still are struggling. This is not a condemnation of that important work—it just means we should admit that we are going to have to invest heavily and in a targeted way if we want our schools to work for all our kids.

“Third, over 90% of our schools are good old regular public schools—not a charter or a choice, just where kids go to school. If we are serious about every child having a good school, it won’t be by creating a few fancy alternative schools. It will be by improving all of our schools.

“Fourth, we already know what works. All our schools--charters, magnets, public--have had successes, but we don’t seem to learn from them. Successful schools are places filled with good teachers who are well supported, where strong connections are built with students and families, where kids do real work not just read textbooks or listen to lectures, and where kids are evaluated by what they can do not by what test question they can answer. They also are places not segregated by social class.

“So what would a sane person, perchance a sane Congress, do to help and support our kids and schools? Hate to be simplistic, but here you go—We have to shore up our safety net for all kids to have access to health care, food, and shelter; use federal resources to get dollars to kid in the most need; and focus on all schools using the lessons learned from our most innovative and successful schools and getting the regulations and rules that prevent this change out of the way.

“This is what I wish for my school, your school, all schools. We don’t need Superman. We just need some sanity.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

Blame the Kids

It’s funny how the start of school also marks the unofficial start of the fall campaign season. What isn’t funny is how so many politicians running for office blame kids for our faltering economy.

It’s an all too familiar story—when America has a problem, we often choose to blame the victim. That seems to be exactly what is being done in the rhetoric on the campaign trail these days. If only our schools will improve the economy will improve. If kids step up their games, study harder, get better grades and test scores, somehow this will make everything all right.


We have heard this blather before. Remember “A Nation At Risk” and the rising tide of mediocrity that threatened the American way of life? That was 1983 and the National Commission on Excellence in Education wanted schools and teachers to buckle down and work harder, because if not the economy would crash.

Of course, when the economy turned around in the early 1990s there were no parades and celebrations to honor the hard work of our kids and teachers. No, just more bleating about how bad schools are and the beginnings of the press for more standards, testing, and ‘accountability.’

I am thinking about this at the start of this school year as we begin to see the effects of the current economy show up at our doors.

For several families that have brought us children we are having a difficult time proving residency in the district—because they have moved in with sisters, aunts, parents, whoever has room for a family of five whose parents have lost their jobs. The oil spill in New Orleans brought us a child as well, all the way from the gulf to southern Ohio.

I am happy to have these children. Their parents come to us on the chance that we can shelter them from the turbulence of their changed conditions; and the hope that we can provide them with an education that will turn things around.

But I am unhappy that so much seems to rest with us.

In case you have not noticed, the welfare of our children is not well these days. The recent report by the Casey Foundation points out that nearly 20% of children live in poverty, over 10% live in a home with and unemployed parent, and over 16 million were ‘food insecure’ (as in hungry) during the past year. What is important to note is that on the ten indicators of childhood welfare the Casey Foundation tracks there has been little improvement since 2000; as compared with drastic improvement from 1996 to 2000.

It is not a stretch to point out that when the economy catches a cold, many kids are headed for the emergency room. But what is a stretch is to blame it on the kids.

I visited Detroit last month; I grew up near there and make an annual pilgrimage to see a Tigers’ game and wander the streets. Once again it broke my heart. Woodward Avenue, the route we would take with our parents to buy school clothes in the big city, is lined with empty and abandoned buildings. Houses are boarded up and dilapidated. The only vibrant businesses seem to be the check cashing services, six of which I counted in one block.

I had to wonder—how do you convince a child to do more math or read more books when s/he walks past a shuttered and burned out public library every day? And why do we put it all on the shoulders of these children and their teachers? Clearly they are not to blame for the abandonment of Detroit, or New Orleans, or our rural areas.

Our economy did not collapse under the weight of under performing schools or kids. Industry did not flee the country, first to Mexico and then to Asia, for better-educated workers. No, they went for cheaper labor. And the mythology about the Asian ‘miracle’, how many engineers they educate, etc. simply collapses under the evidence. Evidence of grotesque working and environmental conditions in China and the so called engineering graduates in the developing world who would not qualify in this country to fix your car.

So as long as we keep blaming kids and schools for our economic woes we will refrain from actually doing something about them. Things like fixing trade policies that allow jobs to flee to low-wage, anti-union countries; things like investing in renewable energy and infrastructure jobs; things like actually asking the rich in this nation to pay their taxes.

That may be too much to ask. But I know what I will not ask. I will not ask the teachers and kids I work with every day to take the blame for the unethical and immoral acts of the investment bankers, mortgage brokers, and industrialists who brought this nation to its economic knees.

Instead I will try to help them do their best to stand up to the half-truths and shaky logic that blames them for a world they did not create.

Not So Smart, ALEC

The recent headline in the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press was sent to me by my good friend Carl Glickman: “Low-income Vt. students rank No. 1: Report faults state on education reform.”

It seems that despite the gains made by the kids in Vermont, ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) gave the state an “F” for education reform. Incredulous, I decided to check out ALEC’s web site for verification. Guess what, while they give Vermont their #1 “performance ranking” they actually give Vermont a grade of “D”, dead last, on education reform.

I have often thought that debates about public education go on in an ‘evidence-free’ zone, but this takes the cake!

To understand how this first to last phenomenon occurs, you have to see how the smart guys and gals at ALEC come up with their ratings. The performance rating, the one that puts Vermont on top, comes from student gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth- and eighth-grade reading and mathematics exams over the period of 2003 to 2009. In particular, they look to see what states help low-income children increase their scores the most. Like tests or not, congratulations to Vermont and its teachers for their good work.

But when it comes to rating education reform, ideology, not data, raises its ugly head.

Seems that ALEC has an agenda here, with private school choice, charter school availability, online learning, homeschooling, and alternative routes to teaching certification making up 8 out of 13 categories (or over 60%) of the grade. Three more of the categories come from how well ALEC thinks a state does on retaining effective teachers and firing ineffective ones and two others rate the state’s education standards. Because Vermont does not buy the political agenda of ALEC around school choice, charters, and alternative certification they get a “D”. Tough graders, these guys. (“Teacher, I go the answers right, why did I get a bad grade.” “Because I didn’t like how you did it.”)

After digging through ALEC’s so-called “Report Card on American Education” (and please, click here to read it, just in case you don’t believe me) I am amazed at the paucity of evidence that the education reform ratings are based upon. There is no evidence that school choice, charters, alternative routes to teaching, etc. necessarily improve student performance. In fact, as Diane Ravitch, formerly a supporter of such agendas, has pointed out there is actually evidence that these strategies hurt the educational attainment of our children.

Of course, maybe ALEC’s report card is the best evidence we could have that such strategies do not work. Take a look at the top five states for student performance and the grades/ranking that ALEC gives them for education reform: Vermont rates #1 in performance but gets a “D” in reform; Massachusetts #2 for performance, “C” in reform; Florida #3 in performance, B+ in reform; New Hampshire #4 in performance, “C” in reform; and New York at #5 in performance earns a “D+” in reform.

For even better evidence that the reforms ALEC supports should be avoided at all costs, here are the bottom five states: Louisiana #47 in performance earns a “B” in reform; New Mexico #48 for performance gets a “B” in reform as does the #49 state, Michigan; West Virginia ranked 50th in performance earns a “C” for reform and South Carolina, coming in at 51st in performance (includes the District of Columbia) is near the top of the education reform rankings with a “B”. (“B+” was the highest ranking given, and Vermont’s “D” was the lowest, no grading on a curve for these guys).

Being from Ohio, I had to also take a peek at our scores. We ranked 35th in performance, but forgive me for not being surprised that we earned a “B-“ for our school reform efforts. The report’s authors must have been supremely impressed by our charter school laws, the topic of yet another scandal this week.

The authors of ALEC’s report card (who come to us from the Goldwater and Heritage Foundations) are to be thanked. They have provided all the evidence we need to show that the emperor, this time in the guise of the charter/choice/alternative certificate crowd, has no clothes. I just hope someone tells the people of Vermont.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Not the Change I Had in Mind

I am still not over the sadness and anger I feel over what happened to my colleague, Joyce Irvine.

Even though I have never met her, I call Ms. Irvine my colleague because of the way her work as principal of Wheeler Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont, has been described. As reported in the New York Times parents are grateful for her leadership, she knows all her students, she has begun innovative programs, her teachers and her superintendent give her high marks, even her U.S. Senator praises her work.

And she has been fired.

Yep, call it what you want (she has been transferred to a district administrative spot) but she has been fired because the children in her school, overwhelmingly poor and immigrant, did not get the test scores the federal government says they should have. And given the choices the district faces—pass up on federal stimulus money or take on one of the federally mandated ‘school turn around’ strategies—Joyce Irvine was removed from her job.

Recently, apparently feeling the sting of repeated criticisms of his administration’s education policies, President Obama said that part of the resistance to his Race to the Top initiative (which led to Ms. Irvine’s firing) “reflects a general resistance to change.”

Guess again.

What it reflects, in the case of many dedicated educators, is a resistance to change that does not have any basis in reality.

Many of us have been involved in the front lines of change in our schools since the time that the President was an undergraduate at Columbia. While not counted among the so-called education reformers today, these leaders such as the late Ted Sizer, Linda Darling-Hammond, James Comer, Gerry House, John Goodlad, Robert Moses, Deborah Meier, and others have demonstrated how to change schools so that all of our children can have more equitable educational opportunities and outcomes. There are lessons to be learned here, but they do not include firing principals who choose to work with those students whose test scores will never reflect the mandates of Washington.

As noted, some of the critiques of the current administration’s agenda seem to be getting through. At a recent speech Secretary Duncan admitted that the current ways we measure student progress are wrong and that the criticism of teacher’s unions and blanket praise of all things ‘charter’ are not useful or factual.

Perhaps this is in response to the recent critiques put forth by a network of civil rights groups. And maybe the Secretary will look at the alternatives to his current ‘turn around’ strategy found in the recent report put out by Communities for Excellent Public Schools.

But this comes too late for Joyce Irvine. As I have pointed out many times before, current federal policy has created at the local level all the wrong incentives. When rewarded or punished solely on test scores schools are encouraged to push out or not take students who will not score well, narrow the curriculum to basic skills, cut out enrichment and engagement activities, and narrow teaching to rote memorization drills. Joyce Irvine would not do any of that, and she is paying the price for it.

Federal policy works by creating incentives for particular actions. Funds are dangled before states or other entities if they will do what the feds want. We know this strategy can work—it desegregated schools and has opened up educational opportunities for groups of students excluded from public education. The problem with the current set of incentives is that they have things backwards. Rather than reward principals like Irvine for taking on students who are the least likely to do well on standardized tests, it punishes her for the work we all want to have done. Meanwhile, schools that work with the easiest to teach—through district boundaries or admission policies in some charter or similar schools that skim off the most motivated students and parents—get all the praise and rewards.

Over the next few weeks school will reopen, ushering in a school year in which ESEA may be reauthorized. Congress should heed what happened to Joyce Irvine and her school when they finally get around to overhauling NCLB. The Forum has, as have many front-line educational groups, issued our recommendations for change. But above all when Congress acts they should remember the physician’s admonition—first, do no harm.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Somebody Explain This to Me

For the past eighteen years I have worked as a high school/middle school principal along side a dedicated staff and a committed community to improving a school. In that time we have increased graduation and college going rates, engaged our students in more internships and college courses, created an advisory system that keeps tabs on all of our students, and developed the highest graduation standards in the state (including a Senior Project and Graduation Portfolio).

But reading the popular press, and listening to the chatter from Washington, I have just found out that we are not part of the movement to ‘reform’ schools.

You see we did not do all the stuff that the new ‘reformers’ think is vital to improve our schools. We did not fire the staff, eliminate tenure, or go to pay based on test scores. We did not become a charter school. We did not take away control from a locally elected school board and give it to a mayor. We did not bring in a bunch of two-year short-term teachers.

Nope, we did not do any of these things. Because we knew they would not work.

There is no evidence that firing staffs and using the turn around strategies that failed when Secretary Duncan was in charge of Chicago’s schools is suddenly going to work (here’s the evaluation from Duncan’s supervisors).

Tying teacher pay and tenure to scores on the current batch of narrowly constructed tests has never worked and will not, as Thomas Hilton, former researcher at the Educational Testing Service notes, work now.

Charter schools do not do any better than good old public schools. And there is no evidence that eliminating democratic involvement with our schools through elected school boards improves educational opportunities for kids. (I cannot do better than Diane Ravitch on these.)

While I applaud the commitment of the young people who see things like Teach for America as a way to serve the nation, it is a shame that we think the best we can do for kids in our most challenged communities is a steady diet of inexperienced short term teachers. (And it might not be all that effective, according to a new report examining the academic achievement of students under the instruction of TFA staff.)

So would somebody please explain to me why the new reform agenda is made up of so many unproven or failed strategies? Everywhere I turn the mantra is the same—fire teachers, close schools, start charters. Even from people who should know better.

One more thing, I also find it interesting that some of the more powerful pushers of these ideas are the so-called titans of Wall Street—the Broad Foundation, Bill Gates of late, and Democrats for Education Reform (a bunch of well-funded venture capitalists). Hey, private capital did such a great job with the economy (and oil wells) why not turn over our public schools to them?

While legislators and opinion writers seem to have drunk deeply from the ‘reform’ Kool-Aid, I believe the people who work with kids at the school level know better.

What we know is this.

To turn around a school and keep that success going requires educational leadership committed to through teacher assessment and support—I have fired tenured teachers and worked to expand the skills of every teacher in our building. And in turn my staff has taught me more than a few things about leadership and professional development.

To make sure every young person learns means constant reassessment of the curriculum, multiple measures of student achievement, and support systems throughout the school. We cannot rely on the archaic standardized tests we today use to judge student learning as they dumb down and narrow curriculum. And we must make sure that every student has equal access to the conditions to learn in every school.

To have every student rise to his/her potential we must use our communities, through internships, mentoring, and, yes, school boards that hold educators accountable to the local community.

I know this is no longer thought of as reform. And as I get ready to shake the sweaty hands of my 18th graduating class, I have to admit to being part of the educational establishment. But would somebody please explain to me how the success of my staff, and many schools just like ours, is no longer of value to a nation that seems to still want a good public education system?

Maybe we just don’t have a good press agent.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Wayne's Day

The Sunday before Memorial Day was Wayne’s day.

It was the day he graduated from our school. A day he did not think would come. But a day he made happen—and we helped.

Wayne came to me last summer and asked could he please come to our school. Eighteen, having been pushed out of his school in northern Ohio, he had moved in with a girl friend in the area.

He was wearing his best tee shirt, his smudged glasses set askew on his face, as he earnestly asked me if he could come to school. He knew that because of his age we were not obligated to enroll him, but he was making his best pitch on what might be his last chance.

For the school it was a risk. He had not passed all the of Ohio state tests, he needed every single credit he could get, and we did not know him. The reason it was risky was that if we took in this young man and he did not graduate it would count against us on our school report card. He could lower our graduation rate (we have fewer than 100 seniors so every one moves our graduation rate by more than one percentage point) that is part of the state’s accountability calculation. We would put our ranking and our reputation on the line by taking him.

But how could we turn him down? Isn’t this what schools are supposed to do—take in kids, care for them, teach them, try to graduate them?

So we took him, the guidance counselor and I took some time to get to know him, finding out what he was interested in and then secured a place for him in our career center—and he graduated on Sunday. He passed the tests, passed his courses, did what it took.

What worries me when I see Wayne is how many other kids do not find a school that will take him. Schools that know it would be the right thing to give him, and others like him, a chance—but feel they cannot do it because the risk is too great.

This one case illustrates clearly what is wrong with the current ‘hold schools accountable’ mantra. It holds them responsible for the wrong things.

Had we turned Wayne away, no one would have known, we would not have lost points on our state report card, and it would not have effected our federal accountability measures either. We took him, and it could have hurt us on all of these measures.

The system is simply wrong. It incentivizes the wrong things—and punishes schools for doing the right things. I know it is time to change it, but it seems that our leaders at both the state and national level have absolutely no clue.

But I am not worrying about that as I write this. Because Wayne graduated; in clothes that our bus supervisor and his partner bought for him after graduation practice and in a gown that my secretary secretly paid for.

It was Wayne’s day—and a good day for our school as well.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Say What?

Earlier this month Governor Charlie Crist of Florida surprised lots of folks by vetoing a school ‘reform’ bill passed by the state legislature. Who knows how this figures into his political calculations; I’ll just say that the veto made educational sense.

The major fault of the bill was its connecting teacher promotion and pay to student scores on standardized tests. Despite loads of evidence that schemes do not work ( and, and even more evidence from around the world that the best way to improve teaching is to invest in and support them, we just don’t seem to want to learn that lesson. I think it is because of the mythology that surrounds so-called performance pay.

Even the esteemed New York Times falls prey to this myth. In the reporting on the Crist veto, the reporter had this to say about performance pay: “teachers should be treated like people in most professions, and paid based on how effective they are.” What Kool-Aid is that reporter drinking?

Really, name for me one profession we pay for based on performance outside of professional athletes. Let’s try and few and see what we get.

Doctors: Well, I know I don’t pay my doc based on how good I feel. When I am sick, I go see him and he tells me what to do or writes a prescription, good enough. But when I walk out of the office I pay the cost of the office visit whether or not I will get well; I pay on faith. Further, I don’t think we want a system of physician reimbursement based on people getting well—put simply enough, if your pay depends upon success (wellness), who would have treated my father as he died from Alzheimer’s? Pay docs and nurses for performance and watch how quickly the seriously ill and elderly find it impossible to find care.

Lawyers: Despite the fact that some lawyers make good on big cash settlements, very few of them are in that ballpark. Nope, most of them get paid in defending you whether or not you win, arranging divorces no matter who gets the house, and helping you keep your driving privileges even if you have to pay the ticket.

Firefighters: Pay them for performance and the next thing you know they will be setting fires so they can collect more fees. (I don’t really believe they would do that, but you see the logic.)

The point is that in every case we pay not for performance, but for judgment. I don’t expect my doctor to get paid for every pound I lose or every drop in my blood pressure; I pay him to help me gain the tools to be healthy. And I have lots of ways to know if I should trust his judgment. For example, when I follow his directions, do I get better; what do his other patients say about him; and can he answer my questions about my care (even take time to listen to my questions).

It is the same with teachers. In a recent post Marion Brady points out that teachers have always been accountable—to those they teach and their parents. The point is not to narrow accountability to so-called performance measured by standardized tests; trust me, any teacher or school can figure out how to nudge up scores through mind numbing drills, bribing kids with money, or simply pushing kids out the door before its time for the test. Rather, what we should be doing is investing in teachers’ judgment through improving preparation, support, and development of our teaching force. It’s what we do in the other professions, and it is time we did it for teachers as well.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Blueprints for Change

As a school principal, I read everything about education with an eye towards how it would affect my school and my kids. So it is with the recently released ‘blueprint’ from the Administration on changes in NCLB.

I have approached the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with cautious optimism. During the last campaign season I heard lots of talk about ending the over-reliance upon standardized tests, supporting teachers, and equalizing educational opportunities. I hoped this would mean my school, our teachers and kids, would have something to look forward to.

Not wanting to wait for Congress to get around to coming up with what we should be doing, the team of educators that I work with at The Forum is releasing our own blueprint for ESEA next week. So I read the Administration’s blueprint while thinking about both what The Forum will propose and what my kids need. Here is a short comparison of key points:

First, I am pleased that the Administration has finally realized that the key role of the federal government in public education is insuring equal opportunity for all kids. In several places the blueprint calls for equalizing funding across schools, requiring states to address resource disparities, and holding states accountable for providing teachers and principals with the supports they need.

But the Administration’s blueprint does not go far enough. In fact, by making more Title 1 funds based on competition rather than going to support the schools with the highest numbers of low-income students, the Administration’s plan may increase rather than decrease the inequity about which they are concerned.

In the case of my school, the funding disparities are not between schools in the district—we are the district’s only middle and high school. Rather, the issue is the continued disparity in our state where some schools spend over three times more per student than we do. This is the case in state after state as schools that serve the poorest children in the most challenged neighborhoods have fewer resources to help students than those schools in wealthy community. That is why The Forum will be calling for the federal government to use its appropriate powers to allot funding to states based on the state’s movement towards resource equity for every child.

Second, I was happy to see the focus on teachers through out the Administration’s plan. NCLB avoided any serious support of teachers, leaving it to the endless filling out of form and taking of courses to determine if highly qualified teachers were teaching students.

The Administration needs to be bold in the proposals they roll out to support teachers. In my school we have lost several great teachers because they could not make enough money to pay off student loans. Our teacher support programs, built around teacher leadership, professional development on site and consistent with school mission, and common planning times for teachers who share students, are done with little or no support from the feds or the state. This is why The Forum will call for a radical overhaul of teacher preparation, including mentoring of all new teachers, financial support for teachers that work in hard to staff schools, and funds to provide high quality professional development and support activities in each every school.

The biggest disappointment for me in the Administration’s blueprint is that they do not address the over-reliance upon high-stakes standardized tests for federal accountability. It is hopeful to see the Administration at least acknowledge that improved assessments that focus more on actual student performance should be developed. But what happens in the meantime? It appears that the plan is just to keep on testing, using the same tests that Secretary Duncan has acknowledged are inadequate, and then ratchet up the punishments for schools that do poorly and provide cash prizes for schools that do well.

This will do little to turn back the culture of testing that has overtaken all of our schools. Even at my school we engage in test preparation activities, not because we think our kids are not learning, but because the higher order intellectual skills on which we focus are not on the type of test they take. Desperate to avoid being labeled as the worst schools—which could lead to mass firings—and anxious to earn the few extra dollars on the table, schools will continue to engage in test-prep agendas, pep rallies, and all sorts of student accounting tricks to get test scores up. All the while little will change in terms of daily teaching and learning practices; in fact the focus on test scores will further calcify school practices that are focused on memory and rote rather than thinking and logic. Ending Annual Yearly Progress, which is not mentioned in the blueprint but has been spoken about in hearings, is a good start. But not enough.

The Forum will call for rethinking assessment across the board, including performance assessments, school visitation teams, and information about school climate when looking at educational success. Further, it is time to end the radical experiment that judges our children and our schools by answers bubbled in on a machine-scored test. We will recommend a wide selection of measures that will serve to inform teaching and learning; and let each community know clearly what and how their children are learning.

Fourth, it does look like the Administration values innovation, providing funds for new promising practices. Good, my school’s middle name is innovation. We have advisories, integrated curriculum, internships, portfolios, projects, school wide writing rubrics, and we have eliminated tracking and ability grouping. Often these are done in spite of rather than with the support of federal policy. But we are not a charter school—thus, we are eligible for only slightly more than half the pool of federal money for innovation. Out of $900 million set aside for innovation, $400 million is designated for charter schools. Charters educate around 5% of the kids in our county, why the largess? The Forum will call for innovation funds as well, but we want everyone to have equal access to them.

For my school we need more change than what the Administration blueprint seems to be calling for. We need a greater emphasis on equity that guarantees my students educational opportunities will not be based upon their zip codes; we need teachers that are not only well-prepared and well-supported to teach in ways that are engaging and challenging but who also do not have to sacrifice their financial well-being to work with our kids; we need to stop the culture of testing so we can focus on a community of learning; and we need a fair and equal shot at all federal funds for innovation, even if we are just a plain-old public school.

After a decade of tinkering around the edges and making it harder for successful schools like mine (we graduate over 95% of our kids, with the vast majority going on to college and succeeding there—this in a community with an average family income of around $22,000) to do our best work, it is time for a bold change in federal educational policy. While the administration’s blueprint offers some good first steps, I hope the actual legislation rolled out focuses even more attention on equity, teaching, and innovation and less on punishment and sanctions.

Monday, March 8, 2010


This past week I was in Washington to talk with colleagues and friends about the upcoming debates over NCLB. While I enjoy the city and my friends, it was great to get back to my school just in time for Friday—one of my favorite days. And it has nothing to do with it being the day before the weekend.

Every other Friday my staff and I meet for what we call ‘planning period meetings’. Since we are on a semester schedule with long periods this means we have about an hour to talk about our shared work. During the first semester of the year we read a book together and discuss it. In the second semester we take on a protocol called ‘looking at student work.’

The task is simple; a teacher presents work from one of his or her classes to colleagues and asks us to discuss a question generated by the assignment. Usually this involves student work that is not what the teacher had hoped s/he would get. So we examine the lesson, the strategies used, and the student work and try to find ideas that will improve the work of students.

This past Friday lived up to our usual expectations.

We began with an Agricultural Science teacher presenting student essays that did not address the need for evidence in making their case. I sat in the back as the group of middle and high school teachers from math, science, humanities, and special education (along with a couple of student teachers) poured through the work. The discussion looked at how students were coached on such assignments through the term, what the rubric looked like, how to use the building wide writing standards.

Second period a team met to look at a 7th grade science assignment, and the discussion turned quickly to how students see work as opposed to how we see it. (In this case the teacher had asked for students to create a poster showing living things from most simple to most complex — the kids mistook it for a chart showing how humans evolved from sponges!)

Third period we looked at how to create performance assessments in trigonometry; and the most interesting ideas came from the band instructor.

We finished with a look at an integrated humanities class that blends history and literature for ninth graders. The assessment of the unit on ‘Revolution and the Enlightenment’ asked students to compare and contrast the ideas that informed the Founders calls for independence. Having not received the papers he had hoped for, the teacher wanted us to look at the literacy tools he had used during instruction and see if they were best suited for such writing.

I sat in my office at the end of the day marveling at what I had heard. The insights shared amongst colleagues, the seriousness with which they took student work, the effort to understand instruction as it cuts across content areas.

And I wondered, what if the policy movers and shakers who are responsible for reauthorizing ESEA had been with me today rather than still back in Washington. Would they finally understand that the most important investment they can make is in teachers and teaching? That if we have teachers doing the type of work that we did today they would not have to worry about micro-managing schools? That threats and punishments do not motivate teachers, rather that teachers are already motivated they just need the space and support to do their work?

So here’s an open invitation: Before you write one more line of legislation, before you approve one more regulation, before you dare to think you know how to turn around a school, stop by any Friday. We’d love to have you.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Six Standards of School Quality

(Previously published on Valerie Strauss' blog "The Answer Sheet" in the Washington Post)

Years ago, I learned that if you want to communicate with people, it’s best to avoid jargon.

It was my fourth year as principal, and I’d decided to add a portfolio requirement for graduation. After two years of study, meetings, and hearings, we were ready to move forward and decided to share the plan with the entire community. Feeling creative, we decided to put the entire proposal in a booklet and mail it to every district resident.

Then, mistakenly, we decided I would write the booklet.

I was still under the influence of academia, having just left my tenured university post three years earlier. Consequently, our booklet was yet another exercise in academic writing. The community was bewildered, unsure of what we were proposing to do to their school, and damn sure that that college professor principal was not doing things in the best interests of their children.

I look back on that experience often. It was not a lack of education or intelligence that caused the unrest. Rather, it was the contempt we had shown for our community by using insider language that was confusing. I have tried to avoid ‘eduspeak’ ever since.

Thus I was taken aback by a response to a recent piece Pedro Noguera and I wrote on this blog about the reauthorization of ESEA (commonly known as No Child Left Behind).

This person wrote that when he “got to the last sentence/paragraph, I came upon a term that has become sickeningly ubiquitous and vacant: ‘high quality schools.’ Could all the pundits in the education system do without this phrase?”

Our critic may be on to something. After all, ‘high-quality school’ is one of those phrases that everyone can agree with only because they don’t know what it means. While I won’t give up using the phrase, I do think I should explain what I mean when I use that term--based upon my own experience as a principal of nearly two decades.

*A quality school is a place that graduates its students. Every school should clearly post its five-year graduation rates (some kids take an extra year), broken down by socioeconomic class, race and educational handicapping conditions. Meet the state graduation averages and you are an OK school. Beat them and you are a school of quality.

*A quality school engages and challenges every student. It’s no good just to pass students on and hand them diplomas. The best schools ensure that every student meets the same common expectations. While different students may meet these expectations in different ways, all students should have the same opportunity to learn. With our ability to track students using computers, it would be no problem to see which curriculum kids of different backgrounds are taking in a school. The quality schools would show no difference.

*A quality school should be able to demonstrate how much and how well students are learning. I have no problem with using an occasional standardized test to sample this; it’s akin to my doctor taking my blood pressure, pulse, and temperature every time I go in for a check up. But these are only indicators of health, not the whole story.

More importantly, schools should be willing to randomly sample student work and submit it, blindly, to panels of teachers who can score and compare the work to an established standard (as we grade the Advanced Placement Exams). High quality schools would have student work that is in the top tier every time.

*A quality school would also engage students in learning experiences beyond the school walls. At the high school level, this would mean 100% of the students would be involved in internships, college classes or similar experiences. The reason for this is simple; it prepares students for life after school.

*A quality school would have clear evidence of the success of its graduates. For students who go to college, transcript studies could show student grades and progress toward graduation; for students who go to the military, the armed forces could share detailed records on advancement, training and deportment; for students who enter the workforce directly, a simple system could be established that allows employers to track which schools their employees come from and respond to questionnaires about educability, work habits, etc.

Beyond work and college, random samples of students could assess whether they feel prepared for what came after school – including the demands of democratic citizenship.

*A quality school would establish a positive working environment for its teachers. The evidence is clear; well-prepared and well-supported teachers lead to student success. Interviewing teachers about the provision of professional development opportunities, administrative support, time to collaborate and curricular and teaching materials would yield the information we need about a quality school.

Six standards of quality: Graduation rates, challenging curricula, evidence of learning, experiential learning experiences, success after graduation, and teaching environments. They are standards that illuminate schools of high quality. And they are standards every school can meet.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Snow Days and Global Warming

For the past week my school has been closed due to the snows that have made our roads unsafe for bus traffic. This happens sometimes, and it starts the annual computing of when the last day of school will be. It also started a rather telling conversation about global warming.

At the monthly pancake breakfast this past weekend a number of folks dug out of the snow and made it in for coffee, conversations, and too much to eat. More than once some neighbor made a comment about the weather and global warming. “So much for global warming,” or “Where’s Al Gore when we need him?” or “If the world’s heating up, why are my walks still frozen over?”

While some of these are made in jest, many reflect a belief that global warming is a myth and that trying to do anything about it is a political not scientific question. What worries me the most about the glib fashion in which a one-week cold snap is used to discard several decades of research is how it reflects our poor understanding of science.

Of course, some of this is to be expected as political posturing generated by faux news reports and partisan debates. But I wonder if it does not also reflect how poorly we teach science—something that will not change under the current policy environment.

This summer I was vacationing at the beach with my family and my mother and I went to the rental agency to reserve a place for the following year. Mom casually commented how comfortable it had been for the week in August, ‘not as hot as usual,’ was the remark. ‘Yep,’ the young man making our reservation said, ‘just one more reason I don’t believe in that global warming stuff.’

Actually, whether or not he believes in global warming simply does not matter, at least in terms of the climate. But it does raise serious questions for education and public policy. What his comment reflects is a sense that science is something to ‘believe’ in. And that one event, a week of snow or of rainy weather, is enough evidence upon which to dismiss years of research and observation. What could be further from an understanding of how science works?

But maybe we should expect as much given the way schools are expected to teach science. Look over any state set of science ‘standards’ and you will find a laundry list of facts to be memorized. For example, in my state of Ohio the science standards include almost 700 discrete facts and topics. The tests children face to see if they have ‘learned’ science are multiple choice, standardized batteries of disconnected facts ranging from earth, to physical, to biological sciences. It would be possible, I believe, for a student never to carry on a sustained field observation, conduct a genuine experimental activity, or visit a functioning lab and still pass these tests.

Nothing on the horizon in the way of public policy seems destined to change this state of affairs. The federal Race To The Top funds, requiring more freedom for charter school authorizers and tying teacher evaluation to test scores, will not do a thing to improve the teaching of science. Volumes of new standards keep rolling out, apparently created by panelists of science folks more interested in protecting their fields than having students think about or do science.

It could be different, and if we are to prepare our children to face the scientific challenges that await them, we need it to be. We could focus our science teaching on developing the skills of scientific thought, reflected in performance assessments that demonstrate real achievement. We could prepare teachers that are not simply well versed in a single field of science but who know how to create experiences in science for their students. We could create science standards that are fewer in number, generative in character, and that lead to students doing genuine scientific inquiry.

In "The Disciplined Mind" Howard Gardner reminded us of how hard it is for us to learn concepts in science as they run against what we think is true. Start with something as simple as disabusing young children of the notion that the sun ‘rises’ as opposed to the earth moving around our star. Remember the film, “A Private Universe” where Harvard grads, in science no less, could not explain correctly why we have seasons? We have beliefs about the way the physical world works, many of them wrong. They cannot be changed by exhortation or lecture, they require experiences that literally reframe the way we see; so we can see like a scientist sees. Science could be taught this way in our schools, but only if we set up the practices and policies that make it possible.

It is no surprise that the science around global warming is being debated as whether or not it is something to believe in; and that weekend snowstorms are comparable to years of scientific observation and research. Herein lies a danger. While science does not have a corner on truth or even all the right answers, we ignore scientific thinking at our peril.

Twenty-five years ago Ted Sizer argued that “the existence of powerful means of psychological and political influence through the organized media and of an intellectually complex culture and economy amply justifies, and indeed compels, (the school’s) focus on the effective use of one’s mind” (Horace’s Compromise, p. 85). The debate about global warming shows at what cost we ignored that advice.