Monthly Archives: September 2012

School Reformers Who Disagree Find Common Ground (John Thompson and Neerav Kingsland)

The following post was written by teacher John Thompson of Oklahoma City  and Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans. They introduce themselves below. The post was published by Rick Hess, a blogger for Education Week on September 21, 2012.

 There is much we disagree on – don’t worry we’ll get to that. But in writing this joint post we hope to flesh out some common beliefs that unite two very different people – and, perhaps, two different wings of current education debates. The recent events in Chicago make very clear that there is a great divide between different factions of reform and that this divide continues to greatly impact children. We hope that this divide need not be permanent – and that a common agenda may be found between different reform camps. At the very least, we have found common ground where few would have expected.


Some Background on Us

I (John) taught and participated in whole school and district-wide reforms in the Oklahoma City Public School System (which is 90% low income). On the eve of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), I served on the steering committee of a bipartisan reform effort that was a down home version of the Broader, Bolder Approach — and was a team member of a school that was improving faster than any other high school in the district. I blame NCLB for wrecking our promising community-wide school improvement effort, driving hundreds of students out of my school, and turning it into the lowest performing school in the state.

I (Neerav) am the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), which launches and scales charter operators and human capital organizations. NSNO has been an accelerator of the New Orleans reform efforts – which has led to over 80% of New Orleans students attending charter schools. I (Neerav) blame local government monopolies for taking power away from educators and parents – as well as for operating stagnant school systems that fail to harness entrepreneurship, innovation, and competition.

Where We Agree

We agree that top-down, command and control governance, has failed. And that it will continue to fail regardless of the talents of the elites who run these systems. Technocratic reformers will never be able to design enough “transformational policies” to solve the complex problems facing families, educators, and communities. We are against: district-wide curriculum mandates, legislatively enforced teacher evaluation systems, and personnel decisions driven by central office bureaucrats. We’ve each seen some of our generation’s greatest minds seduced by the idea that “if I’m in power, I’ll be able to fix this.”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this agreement: a “labor activist progressive” and a “Relinquisher” both feel that the much of the current reform movement is extremely misguided. And we both point to overreaching bureaucratic elites as the source of the problem – even if we sympathize with their intentions and are hopeful that they succeed in increasing student learning.

Where We Somewhat Disagree: How to Empower Educators

We agree on the problem, but our solutions take somewhat different paths. In short, where we agree and, yet, start to disagree is with school autonomy. Both of us are for it – but in different ways.

I (John) steadfastly oppose vouchers and worry about charter chains (CMOs). I never criticize charters. I’ve always celebrated when my students get into charters, magnets, or (below the radar) get into suburban schools. I believe that the safest way to gain the benefits of autonomy can be through “enterprise schools,” or neighborhood schools that are granted autonomy. These schools should be governed by “thin contracts” that allow for collective bargaining agreements but do not restrict the operational autonomy of school site decision making for educators.

I (Neerav) believe that true autonomy can only be achieved by government relinquishing its power of school operation. I believe that well regulated charter and voucher markets – that provide educators with public funds to operate their own schools – will outperform all other vehicles of autonomy in the long-run. In short, autonomy must be real autonomy: government operated schools that allow “site level decision making” feels more Orwellian than empowering – if we believe educators should run schools, let’s let them run schools.

Where We Really Disagree: Standardized Testing

Our biggest disagreement is all about standardized testing. The gulf here is significant but not as wide as one might think…

I (John) have mixed feeling about graduation examinations, but they are state mandates ratified by the voters. Educators should not impose high stakes standardized tests without the consent of educators and students. Choice schools, whether they are charters or enterprise schools, should be free to use high stakes tests if they choose. Educators in those schools, however, should stand with their colleagues and oppose such testing in neighborhood schools. We should unite in condemning value-added evaluations that are likely to increase primitive test prep and drive teaching talent out of schools where it is harder to raise test scores.

I (Neerav) am very conflicted about standardized testing. The libertarian in me just wants to give parents choice, provide them with a lot of information, and let the market work itself out. The pragmatist in me is familiar with the research on parents being unaware of the poor performance of schools to which they claim deep allegiance. I also have mixed feelings about annual high stakes testing (compared to once every couple of years) – which I worry (a) forces schools to shallowly cover grade level material and (b) is at odds with personalized learning. That being said, I feel that the near term costs to student achievement would be high if we eliminated testing – but am very open to the idea that long-term testing mania may have deleterious educational effects. So, for now, I’m on board.

A Not Quite Manifesto

To sum it all up: we agree that the progressive labor movement and Relinquishers should unite in support of the areas where we find common ground. We enthusiastically welcome all allies in liberating educators and schools from top-down management. And we feel that ideological blinders continue to prevent educators from supporting all forms of autonomy. Yes, we disagree on the structure of autonomy and standardized testing – but both of us are aware of the risks of our preferred approaches – and neither of us vilifies the other for his beliefs.

The outcome of current educational debates will affect the happiness and prosperity of the future adults of our nation. The stakes are high.

So let us end with this:

We believe that educator empowerment – in some form or another – must be the North Star of reform efforts.

We believe that the coalition in support of educator empowerment can cross political, ideological, and geographical lines.

And we believe that the coalition around education empowerment should air its disagreements on crucial issues – but that these issues should (for now) take a back seat to educator empowerment.

And we encourage you both to visit Oklahoma City and New Orleans. They are truly wonderful places.


Filed under school reform policies

Evidence: The Case of the Common Core Standards

I have admired Rodin’s statue of “The Thinker” for many years.

Yet the statue is not a man of action.

Too much thinking, too little action is a recipe for fecklessness. Yet too much action, too little thought are ingredients for a potential disaster.*

And this is where the Common Core standards enter the picture.

Exactly how much evidence did policymakers have to justify the crafting and adoption of national standards?  Of that evidence supporting the policy, what part, if any, did research play in making policy? Since evidence never speaks for itself–it has to be interpreted–these are fair questions to ask of any policy but especially one with high-stakes consequences for how teachers teach to the standards, what children and youth study in classrooms lessons, and tests used to measure how much of the standards students have learned.

There have been two major justifications for Common Core standards: (1) raising academic standards across U.S. schools will grow the economy and make the nation globally competitive; (2) higher standards will improve students’ academic achievement. After parsing these reasons for the Common Core standards, I then turn to the evidence used by policymakers and practitioners and where research studies fit (or do not fit) into the policymaking process.

1. What evidence is there that common standards will increase a nation’s global competitiveness?

Answer: None. Zip. Nada.

See here and here.

2. What evidence is there that national standards will improve student achievement on domestic and international tests?

Answer: None. Zip. Nada.

See here, here and even here.

So how can a public policy that has heavy consequences for students, teachers, and public schools have an appalling lack of evidence?

The answer is in what top decision-makers consider as evidence when they determine policy. Or the answer is in the simple fact that policies get made for many reasons, only one of which may be evidence, including research studies. I take up each of these explanations.

First, what do policymakers consider to be evidence? Generally, school boards, state and federal officials, and practitioners–teachers and principals–have a broader definition of evidence than do researchers who rely upon the results of randomized control studies, rigorously conducted case studies, and carefully constructed interventions in schools (see Tseng-Social-Policy-Report-2012-1).

In an ongoing study of school boards’ decision-making, for example, Robert Asen and colleagues found that local policymakers drew from many sources for “evidence.” They relied on first-hand experiences,   systematically collected data on conditions, testimony of authoritative individuals and groups, specific examples that illustrated the policy issue being discussed, and, yes, they used empirical findings culled from researchers. What constitutes evidence to school board members was a broad array of experience-produced and research-produced knowledge, some carrying more weight than others in each policymaker’s mind. Few decision-makers, however, say that research findings guided their actions (coburnhonigsteinfinal-1).

Second, what drives policymaker decisions? Many reasons propel policy and evidence is only one of those reasons. Consider that financial and political pressures push policy without any reference to “what the research says.” When drug abuse or teenage pregnancies rise in a community, parents and politicians lobby school boards to initiate or revamp drug and sex education programs–regardless of what research studies say about the effectiveness of such programs. Or to cite another example, when a program becomes controversial such as “Man: A Course of Study” in the 1970s, studies of its effectiveness are disregarded as pressure groups got school boards to dump the program.

Or consider evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores–one of the public reasons given for Chicago teachers striking this month. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had, at best, contested   research findings a few years ago when he required performance evaluations to be included in state proposals for Race To The Top funds. Or even now. Political considerations mattered, not the amount or quality of evidence.

In an economic recession when state revenues shrink, districts cut staff and programs without checking research studies to determine which programs or staff were effective.

So local, state, and federal policymakers have a broader view of what constitutes evidence–practitioners even more so–than researchers. Research studies play a minor role, if at all, in making most significant policy decisions.

Which, of course, brings me around full circle to Common Core standards which is a train carrying few research studies that has left the station on its way into the nation’s classrooms. Believe me, that train is not carrying statues of Rodin’s “The Thinker.”


*Thanks to Joel Westheimer for sending me the “Thinker and Doer” cartoon


Filed under school reform policies

Cartoons on Common Core Standards

For this monthly* post of cartoons, I have selected images about the impending Common Core curriculum standards in math and English for K-12 students. While many countries have a national curriculum, the U.S. does not. Since the Common Core standards have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, the U.S. will soon have a national–not federally mandated–one.

According to a recent analysis of the Common Core standards there are two justifications for states adopting the standards (Brookings Study of Common Core):

1. Because current state standards vary greatly across the country resulting in unequal access to knowledge and skills, Common Core standards will be higher, uniform, and equitable for all students. When tests of those common standards are implemented in 2014-2015,  the quality of teaching and learning will improve. Students will then score far better on international achievement tests and the U.S. economy will grow.

2. By standardizing curriculum and assessments across states, multiple textbooks and instructional materials in math and English (and other academic subjects) will be reduced. These texts will aligned to national standards and tests. Major efficiencies will then occur.

There is, of course, another reason for adopting Common Core standards: schools are instrumental to economic growth and better schools will translate into success in besting global competitors in the  unending race for new markets.

There is much that remains unknown, however, about how these standards are to be implemented and much anxiety over new tests to measure how well students have met those standards.


Teachers were interviewed a few months ago and this is what they reported to the poll-takers:

Let the cartoons roll….

That’s all folks!


*Two of the above cartoons (American Gothic and the bucket list) originated at Susan Ohanian’s blog at:

I have done one post a month of cartoons on different topics linked to school reform and classroom practice since September 2011. Readers who wish to see previous monthly posts of cartoons, they are: “Digital Kids in School,” “Testing,” “Blaming Is So American,”  “Accountability in Action,” “Charter Schools,” and “Age-graded Schools,” Students and Teachers, Parent-Teacher Conferences, Digital Teachers, Addiction to Electronic DevicesTesting, Testing, and Testing,  and Business and Schools.


Filed under school reform policies

As Teacher Use of New Technologies Has Spread, Have Most Teachers Changed How They Teach?

Historians of technology point out that it took a half-century after the introduction of turbine-generated electric power in the U.S to eventually light streets, power trolleys, create industrial assembly lines, and upgrade the home with incandescent lights, refrigerators, telephones, and automatic washers. It took over five decades in fits and starts for these changes to emerge as American leaders electrified factories, transportation, street lighting, and home appliances. On a graph, electrification over these decades bursts ahead and recedes but the trend line is clear.

I believe that the introduction of computer hardware and software into schools in the early 1980s follows a similar fits-and-starts pattern of teachers choosing to integrate new technologies into their lessons. As in electrifying industry and home, the trend of greater access to devices and software and greater use in school is clear, at least from teacher self-reports. See here and here. But a graph would show an up-and-down line with a trend becoming evident over time.

Direct observation of classrooms confirms that more and more teachers are using new devices and software in lessons. For example, I studied Las Montanas high school at two periods of time, in 1998-1999 and 2008-2010. Where computer labs dominated some teachers’ and students’ use in 1999, classroom  laptops and interactive white boards were pervasive across all academic subjects in 2010. Yet even with far more teacher use, I noted that some chose not to use the devices and software. I wrote about these changes in Las Montanas in those two periods of time here and here.

While some gaps in access to new technologies still exist across the U.S.,  putting devices in most students’ hands has occurred. So, too, have most teachers, to some degree, begun integrating new technologies into lessons. What remains unsettled, however, is whether that integration has altered how teachers teach.

Many advocates for integrating high-tech devices into classroom lessons want to transform teacher-directed lessons into student-centered ones. Using new technologies from desktop computers to laptops to interactive whiteboards to iPads to online instruction, they have claimed, would shift traditional whole-group, teacher-centered, textbook-bound, homework-driven lessons to ones where teachers worked with individual students and small groups on customized assignments with students using multiple sources and exploring new skills and knowledge. In short, there is a clear bias among these advocates.

For those policymakers, academics, and practitioners who read Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms in 1980 to those who now read Clayton Christensen‘s Disrupting Class (2010), creating student-centered learning through new technologies has fueled their reform-driven efforts. They believed that these new technologies would transform, nay, revolutionize–favorite words in reformers’ lexicon–teaching and learning. That belief is the bedrock of the ideology deeply embedded in past and current efforts to integrate technology into daily lessons. It is, then, an unforgiving bias toward one form of teaching. or what Judi Harris, education professor at William and Mary, calls “pedagogical dogmatism.”

Such “dogmatism” leads to judgments that some forms of technology integration are better than others. When teachers use laptops, interactive whiteboards, and software–Keynote and PowerPoint–to extend and reinforce direct instruction or teacher-centered lessons, these “pedagogical” dogmatists cringe. It is not how these champions of tablets and laptops, of online lessons in math and reading believe students should learn.

These reformers believe that technology-integrated lessons should put students at the center–such as in blended instruction (e.g., School of One, Carpe Diem, Rocketship)– online instruction, or in project-based learning (e.g., High-Tech High). That is the right-minded use of technology. Those champions of student-centered learning believe that those teachers who use hardware and software to improve their teacher-centered lessons such as what I described at Las Montanas use powerful tools in wrong-minded ways.

This unacknowledged bias, of course leads to wrong-headed judgments about what constitutes “good” teaching. The fact is that there is no one best way of teaching and learning. No evidence that I know confirms that student-centered–however defined–is superior to teacher-centered instruction. What might make “pedagogical” dogmatists wince, however, is some evidence that teacher-centered lessons in the form of “direct instruction”does increase standardized test scores (see here and here). Moreover, practitioner wisdom–something researchers too often ignore–is rich in stories of those teachers who hug the middle and use hybrids of teacher- and student-centered instruction to increase their chances of engaging and reaching more students.

Reform-driven educators need to recognize that since the 1980s, most teachers, in fits and starts, have integrated new technologies into their lessons. Next, they need to understand the many organizational, sociological, and structural reasons that explain why most teachers have bent these powerful devices and software to improve teacher-centered instruction. Then, they must admit publicly that they are biased toward student-centered instruction and, acknowledge that at best, it is one among many ways to teach and learn effectively. My guess is that it ain’t going to happen.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

iPads and Reforming Classroom Practice: Deja Vu?

Listen to John Fontana, a journalist who blogs on such high-tech issues as digital identity, privacy and security.

iPad rollouts are significant when the school actually does something with them. My first-hand experience hasn’t been that good, I would like to hear what others have experienced. Perhaps I can use a good story or two to shake things loose at my son’s school.

They rolled out iPads last year. They talked about cutting edge, digital natives, blah, blah, blah. But their digital collaboration thinking was so old school (for my son’s in high school). When they mentioned email and phone calls, I knew I was in trouble. My son last sent an email three years ago and last month he burned a whopping 120 seconds in cell time.

Anyway, no text books, no apps, no home work, no digital assignments happened on the iPad all year. The thing that did happen was distracting internet surfing and game playing. The iPad experiment was never a discussion topic when I went to parent teacher conferences. I asked about it and was always answered with a grin and a shoulder shrug….

Funny that you have a bunch of teachers who likely know little or nothing about electronic collaboration, cloud applications and the like trying to teach these kids a digital lifestyle. Received a letter from my son’s school just this week touting the introduction of the iPad last year, but no mention of any academic gains. (Maybe just having one makes you brilliant). I just grinned and shrugged.

I think it will be the next genration [sic] that will drag the digital age into the classroom and make it more than just an add-on or sideshow for school board members to brag about at meetings.

John Fontana’s story of his son’s experience with iPads is, to him, a story of a failed reform. But I have heard other stories that describe teachers who practice all that Fontana wants to occur with tablets. It is a common belief among those who champion school reform that most innovations fail, particularly technological innovations. Failure to such reformers means that schools tame the reform; they suck out the promise of the innovation.

I return to a post that I wrote 18 months ago that compared school reform  to those clocks one sees in hotels showing different times across the planet. The post (slightly revised since last written) may explain John Fontana’s anger at his son’s school domesticating a technological innovation but, more important, give readers another way of seeing how time affects perceptions of reform.

In 1990, Seymour Sarason published The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform. A decade later, Diane Ravitch’s Left Back:A Century of Failed School Reforms hit booksellers. Now, not a week goes by that failures of public school reform are dissected, tallied, and trotted out as exhibits for wannabe reformers. This post and the next one re-frame school reform as looking at different clocks. Clocks?

In some upscale hotels over the registration desk, clocks show times across the globe.  Different time zones alert travelers to what time it is in the city they wish to call.

There are such clocks for school reform also. Different reform clocks record the different speeds of reform talk, policy adoption, what happens in classrooms, and what students learn. Were these clocks in public view, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and researchers would see that changes in policy talk and action have occurred but at different speeds, some far too slow for impatient reformers to notice. Framing reform as being recorded by different clocks makes the dominant belief in their constant failure a myth.

The myth, of course, has a history. It is anchored in commission reports (e.g., Nation at Risk), books (e.g., Left Back), and studies (e.g., Spinning Wheels) over the last century that document curricular, organizational, and instructional failures. The myth also comes from the feverish rhetoric of entrepreneurial reformers who see failure everywhere in order to market a different product (e.g., Disruptive Class).

Yet the hyped policy talk, books, and documents seldom distinguish between major reforms that have stuck such as kindergartens, comprehensive high schools, coed and desegregated schools and those that have disappeared (e.g., educational radio and television, the Platoon School, Dalton Plan). Historians and thoughtful observers, however, have learned that school reform has a series of clocks that move at different speeds.

*Media time. This is the fastest reform clock of all, ticking every day and week. What is  eye-grabbing and controversial registers on the media clock. Tweets, blogs, social media–and don’t forget newspaper and TV headlines–document immediate events and opinion, shaping and legitimizing what policymakers put on school reform agendas. Policymakers talk incessantly about online technologies that will revolutionize teaching and learning.  In watching only the media clock, however, policymakers may wrongly conclude that what happens in one school happens everywhere and that what is reported actually occurred.

 *Policymaker time. This clock chimes every year campaigns for national, state, and local offices crank up to re-elect incumbents or bring fresh faces to public posts. In some places, policymaker clocks tick more quickly when annual budgets or referendums come up for voter approval.

 To offer a recent example, federal policymakers have defined schools as an arm for the economy. Since the 1990s, higher academic standards, copying corporate business practices, and advocating charters have been converted by top officials into campaign slogans. Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have pushed for world-class standards, charters,  and business-inspired reforms to raise students’ performance.

 Policymaker time, then, runs on election cycles. But other clocks measure whether the talk and adopted policies have turned into action. Enter the bureaucratic time zone.

 *Bureaucratic time. This clock records administrative actions implementing policy decisions. Often the hands of the faster media and policymaker clocks make a complete turn just as the bureaucratic clock passes the first hour. The lag between policymaker time and bureaucratic time occurs because of the complexity in converting policy into feasible, clear procedures for principals and teachers who do the actual work of schooling children. The bureaucratic clock chimes when new rules are announced, revised budgets presented, and increased departmental coordination occurs. An example of how the hands on the bureaucratic clock are reduced to a crawl can be seen in desegregation.

 Brown v. Board of Education (1954) banned legally segregated schools. Studies recorded the tortured progress of judicial policymaking as state governors and local school boards across the South wrestled both peacefully and violently with implementing the decision between the 1950s and 1980s.  States and districts, prodded by federal court orders, slowly embraced open enrollment, busing, and other remedies for desegregating schools. Over time, district attendance boundaries were redrawn; schools were closed; magnet schools were opened. By the mid-1990s, a full four decades after the Brown decision, schools in the South and Southwest had largely desegregated (except in big cities where re-segregation has occurred).

The policymaking and bureaucratic clocks, then, are seldom in sync. Often political, demographic, and other non-school factors create greater lag time between the clocks.

Further lags in time occur when the practitioner and student learning clocks come into view in the next post.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

Chicago Teachers’ Strike, Performance Evaluation, and School Reform (Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt)

For the fifth consecutive day in Chicago, nearly 30,000 teachers are out on strike. At issue are many of the contractual details that typically complicate collective bargaining—pay, benefits, and the length of the work day. But the heart of the dispute roiling the Windy City is something relatively new in contract talks: a complicated statistical algorithm.

District leaders in Chicago, following the lead of reformers in cities nationwide, are pushing for a “value-added” evaluation system. Unlike traditional forms of evaluation, which rely primarily on classroom observations, policymakers in Chicago propose to quantify teacher quality through the analysis of student achievement data. Using cutting-edge statistical methodologies to analyze standardized test scores, the district would determine the value “added” by each teacher and use that information as a basis for making personnel decisions.

Teachers are opposed to this approach for a number of reasons. But educational researchers are generally opposed to it, too, and their reasoning is far less varied: value-added evaluation is unreliable.

As researchers have shown, value-added methodologies are still very much works-in-progress. Scholars like Heather Hill have found that value-added scores correlate not only with quality of instruction, but also with the population of students they teach. Researchers examining schools in Palm Beach, Florida discovered that more than 40 percent of teachers scoring in the bottom decile one year, according to value-added measurements, somehow scored in the top two deciles the following year. And according to a recent Mathematica study, the error rate for comparing teacher performance was 35 percent. Such figures could only inspire confidence among those working to suspend disbelief.

And yet suspending disbelief is exactly what reformers are doing. Instead of slowing down the push for value-added, they’re plowing full steam ahead. Why?

The promise of a mechanized quality-control process, it turns out, has long captivated education reformers. And while the statistical algorithm in question right now in Chicago happens to be quite new, reformer obsession with ostensibly standardized, objective, and efficient means of gauging value is, in fact, quite old. Unfortunately, as the past reveals, plunging headlong into a cutting-edge measurement technology is also quite problematic.

Example 1:
Nearly a century ago, school leaders saw a breakthrough in measurement technology as a way of measuring teacher quality. By using newly-designed IQ tests to assess “native ability,” school administrators could translate student scores on standardized tests into measures of teacher effectiveness. Of course, not everyone was on board with this effort. As one school superintendent noted, some educators were concerned “that the means for making quantitative and qualitative measures of the school product” were “too limited to provide an adequate basis for judgment.” But the promise of the future was too tempting and, as he argued, though it was “impossible” to measure teacher quality rigorously, “a good beginning” had been made. Reformers plowed ahead.

The IQ movement was deeply flawed. The instruments were faulty and culturally-biased. The methodology was inconsistent and poorly applied. And the interpretations were horrifying. “If both parents are feeble-minded all the children will be feeble-minded,” wrote H.H. Goddard in 1914. “Such matings,” he reasoned, “should not be allowed.” Others drew equally shocking conclusions. E.G. Boring, a distinguished psychologist of the period, wrote in 1920 that “the average man of many nations is a moron.” The average Italian-American adult, he calculated, had a mental age of 11.01 years. African-Americans were at the bottom of his list, with an average mental age of 10.41.

Value-added proponents like to make the argument that “some data is better than no data.” Yet in the case of the mental testing movement, that was patently false. For the hundreds of thousands of students
tracked into dead-end curricula, to say nothing of the forced sterilization campaigns that took place outside of schools, reform was imprudent and irresponsible.

But one need not go back so far into the educational past for examples of half-baked quality-control reforms peddled by zealous policymakers.

Example 2:
In the 1970s, 37 states hurriedly adopted “minimum competency testing” legislation and implemented “exit examinations,” ignoring the concerns of experts in the field. As one panel of scholars observed, the plan was “basically unworkable” and exceeded “the present measurement arts of the teaching profession.” Reformers, however, were not easily dissuaded.

The result of the minimum competency movement was the development of a high stakes accountability regime and years of litigation. Reformers claimed that the information revealed by such tests would provide the sunlight and shame that schools needed to improve. Yet while they awaited that outcome, thousands of students suffered the indignity of being labeled “functionally illiterate,” were forced into remedial classes, and had their diplomas withheld despite having enough units to graduate—all on the basis of a test that leading scholars described as “an indefensible technology.”

Contrary to what reformers claimed, the information provided by such deeply flawed tests did little to improve students’ learning or the quality of schools.

Today’s policymakers, like those of the past, want to adopt new tools as swiftly as possible. Even flawed value-added measures, they argue, are better than nothing. Yet the risks of early adoption, as the past reveals, can far outweigh the rewards. Simply put, acting rashly on incomplete information makes mistakes more costly than necessary.

Today’s value-added boosters believe themselves to be somehow different—acting on better incomplete information. Yet the idea that incomplete information can be good strains credulity.

Good technologies do tend to improve over time. And if advocates of value-added models are confident that they can work out the kinks, they should continue to judiciously experiment with them. In the meantime, however, such models should be kept out of all high-stakes personnel decisions. Until we can make them sufficiently work, they shouldn’t count.


Jack Schneider is an Assistant Professor of Education at the College of the Holy Cross and author of Excellence For All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America’s Public Schools. Ethan Hutt is a doctoral candidate at the Stanford University School of Education and has been named “one of the world’s best emerging social entrepreneurs” by the Echoing Green Foundation.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, testing

Anxious Dreams about Teaching Again and Again

I begin teaching a quarter-long seminar in two weeks. I have been teaching youth and adults for nearly forty years. I am turning 78 next month. And I have had dreams of walking into class unprepared and discussions falling flat; of students walking out of my class. How can that be?

First, I am not the first nor last teacher to have anxiety-ridden dream. Artist and long-time teacher Eric Baylin wrote a song about teacher anxiety cresting at the end of the summer when students return to school. Here are two stanzas of that song:

I dream I can’t control my class. Oh, me! Oh, my!
They laugh; they jeer; and I’m about to cry, to cry.
I wake up with this awful fear
I might have chosen the wrong career.
Teachers have anxiety in the fall.

They’re coming to my classroom to evaluate;
They’ll see through me and realize that I’m not so great.
I hear them whispering in the hall.
I see the writing on the wall.
Teachers have anxiety in the fall.

Or listen to teacher Peggy Woods:

It’s the first day of classes. I go to my class. The students are all there sitting quietly looking at me. I put my bag on top of the teacher’s desk and begin taking my stuff out. I take out my pen, my grade book, the class roster, and my lesson planning book. I look in my bag, but I don’t see the syllabus. I look again. I know I made copies of the syllabus. I’m supposed to give it out and go over it with the students.  I look in my bag again. The copies I made aren’t there. I begin to panic. Did I leave the syllabus on my desk? Did I drop the copies in the hallway on my way to class? Did I leave the copies home? I look in my bag again. The syllabus still isn’t there. I look out at the students. They are all staring at me. What am I going to do??  
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t have the syllabus.”
The students stand up.
“What are you doing?”  I say. The students don’t say anything. They just stand there.
“Sit down,” I say beginning to panic. They don’t. “Please,” I plead. “Please sit down.”
“We don’t have to listen to you,” a student yells at me.
“We don’t have to do what you tell us to do,” another student shouts.
“Sit down,” I shout back. The students start moving towards the door. “Where are you going?” I shout. “What are you doing?” I shout louder. “Come back here….”

And then I wake up.

So common among teachers, these dreams keep many teachers sleepless especially in the days before school begins.

Second, teachers are not the only ones whose worries surface in dreams.

Doctors do also.

For me, however, it is puzzling. I am a grizzled veteran of the classroom not a new teacher struggling to manage a class and deliver lessons that engage my students. Nor am I working in a poverty-impacted school; I am fortunate to work in well-endowed surroundings with strong graduate students who elect to take my seminar. Finally, I do not work under district, state, and federal accountability pressures to have my students score well on high-stakes standardized tests.

So why does a seasoned professional, a veteran of decades in practicing the art and craft of teaching still gets nervous and dream of doing poorly in an upcoming seminar?

Part of an answer comes being in an helping profession. Teachers, psychotherapists, doctors, social workers, and nurses use their expertise to transform minds, develop skills, deepen insights, cope with feelings and mend bodily ills. In doing so, these helping professions share similar predicaments.

*Expertise is never enough.  An experienced primary care physician facing a chain-smoking patient knows that this high risk behavior often leads to lung cancer—even the patient knows that—yet the doctor’s knowledge and skills are insufficient to get the private equity fund CEO to quit.

Some high school teachers of science with advanced degrees in biology, chemistry, and physics believe that lessons should be inquiry driven and filled with hands-on experiences while other colleagues, also with advanced degrees, differ. They argue that naïve and uninformed students must absorb the basic principles of biology, chemistry, and physics through rigorous study before they do any “real world” work in class.

In one case, there is insufficient know-how to stop a patient from smoking and, in the other instance, knowledgeable science teachers split over how students can best learn science. As important as expertise is to helping professionals, it falls short for not only the reasons stated above but also because these professionals depend upon their clients, patients, and students to learn and become knowledgeable, healthier people.

*Helping professionals are dependent upon their clients’ cooperation. While doctors can affect a patient’s motivation, if that patient is emotionally depressed, is resistant to recommended treatments, or uncommitted to getting healthy by ignoring prescribed medications the physician is stuck.

Teachers at all levels of schooling depend upon students to respond to lessons and learn. Some students, however, are unwilling to participate in lessons. Some  defy the teacher’s authority or are uncommitted to learning what the teacher teaches. Teachers, then, have to figure out what to do in the face of students’ passivity or active resistance.

These predicaments facing even veteran teachers like me mean that all of my knowledge, all of my experience may be insufficient to strike gold in a lesson because I am dependent upon my students. I cannot predict what students will do when I teach. Every time I teach, I have to perform with the fore-knowledge that I may stumble and fall. And that may be why my worries show up in dreams even now.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching