Board's Eye View

The New York Times editorial page has been a remarkably consistent and clear voice on behalf of smart education reform ? and today it stays the course with a sensible critique of the Harkin-Enzi proposal.? (See also Mike's Just Say No take (?a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas that should alarm folks on the right and the left?) on Harkin-Enzi here; and don't miss the all-day event on 21st century governance on December 1, sponsored by Fordham and the Center for American Progress.)

Advises the Times:? ?go? back to the drawing board.?

The editorial does the requisite bowing and scraping before the flaws in No Child Left Behind, but it does not forget the law's remarkably radical attempt to fix a ?broken American education system: ?forcing schools to be accountable for educating all children.? Yes, folks, teeth can be discomfiting.

The Times supports the Obama Administration waiver plan because it ?would allow states to be rated on student growth? and rightly also requires that waiver applicants ?set goals for all schools and plan for closing achievement gaps.?

The Harkin-Enzi bill ?lowers the bar,? says the Times, and ?backs away from requiring states to have clear student achievement targets for all schools.?

It is past time to fix NCLB; but it is not the time for retreat on the need to raise standards and hold educators accountable for student performance.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

I have been on the road for much of the last couple of weeks, much of that time spent visiting ?poor? schools doing well.? You will, I hope, see the results of my road trip fact-finding in future Fordham publications, but for now I can confidently report that, despite economic challenges (which are real), good things are happening in the provinces (i.e. anywhere not on Capitol Hill or Maryland Avenue).? Whatever happens with ESEA reauthorization, I am convinced that the genie of education excellence is out of the bottle; administrators, teachers, aides, security guards ? they are getting with the program.

In the meantime, catching up on my reading, I call your attention to a few recent stories worth pondering.

Rupert gets it right, sorta.? In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, called ?The Steve Jobs Model for Education Reform,?** Rupert Murdoch leaps into the deep end of the argument over schools by proposing ?that we're not making adequate use of technology. ?This is sensible. But one wishes that the media-mogul-turned-educator would dive a little deeper (or call Joel). ?Murdoch says,

Just as the iPod compelled the music industry to accommodate its customers, we can use technology to force the education system to meet the needs of the individual student.

What exactly are ?the needs? of a student? And who determines them?? Those questions should be answered before assuming that the ?[t]he top-down, one-size-fits-all approach? is bad, as Murdoch suggests.? What exactly do we mean by ?one-size-fits-all??

Shouldn't adults decide what kids should know? ?Shouldn't all our children know how to read and write, know how to find France on a map, know the difference between the Pythagorean theorem and the Periodic table? ?Who decides?

We can agree that there has been a...

I was prepared for a rant against all things reform when I started reading the New York Times Q & A interview with Maria Velez-Clarke, the principal of the Children's Workshop School in Manhattan's East Village, about the school's C-grade from the City.? The school is ?one of several small schools,? said the Times intro, ?started in the 1990s by people who had worked at the widely praised Central Park East School.?

Central Park East?? The school started by Deborah Meier, current scourge of standardized tests, charters, accountability, and just about everything associated with Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein, who initiatiated the school report cards program? ?(See the Bridging Differences blog Meier shares with Diane Ravitch and this wonderful 1994 profile of Meier and her hugely successful Central Park East experiment written by veteran NYC educator Sy Fliegal.)? Children's Workshop offers ballet and yoga, for heaven's sake!

Instead of a progressive principal complaining about Gotham's new accountability system squishing her student's creative impulses, however, we hear an 18-year veteran school leader who was shocked by the C grade the school received in 2010 and determined to do something about it:

I shared it with absolutely no one because it was so devastating to me. I took it home. I sat with my husband and I said, ?My God, do you know what this is going to do to morale?? And he looked at me and he said, ?O.K., you have the weekend: have a pity party and then move on.?

Velez-Clark actually went to the Transit Museum and bought ?C? buttons (for the C train), brought them to school, sat down with her staff and said, ?O.K., now what do we have to do here in order to get off the C train and...

I have always been suspicious of differentiated instruction if only because, like its kissin' cousin customized learning, it sounds too good to be true.? But reading a short essay by differentiated instruction [DI] pioneer Carol Tomlinson in a recent New York Times internet post, I am more convinced than ever that the thing is risky.

Tomlinson herself says that DI is just ?a tool for planning instruction? and ?like all tools, it can be applied elegantly or poorly.?? But it is her admission that content counts that stands out:

The critical variable in this debate? ?is not really differentiation vs. special classrooms for advanced learners. It's the quality of content a nation is willing to support for all its students.

Exactly.? The problem, however, is that as a nation we remain fearful of curriculum ? the Common Core movement is a step forward, but it is just a first step ? and thus tools like DI, because so few schools have rigorous and content-rich curricula, will be misused far more often than they will be appropriately, much less elegantly, applied. In fact, just as we make people take a test before issuing them a driver's license, we might consider a law forbidding a school from putting any teacher behind the DI wheel unless the school has a certificate of coherent and comprehensive curriculum.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

The wonderful hubris of the new National Education Policy Center study on Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice, is not the assertion that discipline data should be an essential metric in gauging a school's success ? which it should ? but that current disciplinary policies and practices are racist. [pullquote]Losen bluntly states, student suspensions ?are significantly influenced by factors other than student misbehavior.?[/pullquote]

The author of the report, Daniel Losen of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, is more diplomatic than that, but he does suggest that many current discipline policies may be ?unlawful? because of their ?disparate impact? on African Americans and the disabled.? And I would have to agree.

In our post-Columbine, zero-tolerance, character-first education world, Losen proposes a radical thesis (that the race of the student counts more than his or her behavior) and mounts a remarkably persuasive argument for doubting that current mainstream beliefs ? and the policy and practices that they have spawned ? about disciplining our students are sustainable. ?In fact, Losen bluntly states, student suspensions ?are significantly influenced by factors other than student misbehavior.?

If that sounds radical, even counterintuitive, read the study.? Among the findings reported here are these:

  • ?School suspensions nationwide have risen steadily since the early 1970s, and racial disparities have grown considerably as well.?
  • ?In 2006, at least one district in each of 46 states imposed long-term suspensions or expulsions on students with disabilities significantly more often than on nondisabled students." [pullquote]Children who are suspended are often from a population that is the least likely to have supervision at home.[/pullquote]

Racial and physical biases aside, the suspension crackdown (my word), according to Losen, doesn't seem to have improved our educational outcomes:

  • [I]f suspending large numbers of disruptive students helped improve instruction
  • ...

I happened on a small story in the Times on Sunday, called ?Deadlines Get Results,? which immediately drew me in, not because deadlines are the bane of a writer's life, which they are, but because the most frustrating part of education governance is the system's resistance to getting things done, including changing.

In fact, the headline over the online version of this story is, appropriately, ?Making Change Happen, on a Deadline.? It is not some kind of generic affection for the status quo that causes entropy.? Not getting things done seems to be an affliction in the very bones of the thing. The drinking fountain that has been broken for two years.? The doors that stay locked despite pleas to open them.? The pothole at the school driveway entry that has been unfilled for more than a year?. The curriculum that remains unwritten?. The test scores that defy change?.? It is true: if you can't fix the little things, your chances of resolving the big problems are slim.

This is not a new subject in education.? See Charles Payne's So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools or Rick Hess's The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas.

But Tina Rosenberg's Times story is instructive because it is not about schools or education; it is about construction projects in underdeveloped Africa.? Could have fooled me. This line from the story sure sounded like American education:

People drag their feet. Budget approval takes forever. The bricks are stolen. The project is abandoned by new leadership. Every villager fumes: nothing gets done around here.

Rosenberg calls attention to one Nadim Matta, a management consultant and president of the Rapid Results Institute in...

Part of the answer to Mike's Single-minded Focus question this morning about the depressing college completion data is in Sam Dillon's front page New York Times story, also this morning, on the success of incentives (i.e. $$$) programs in getting poor kids into ? and passing ? Advanced Placement courses. (Another part of the answer to Mike's question was in Paul Tough's story for the Times magazine a couple weeks ago, What if the Secret to Success is Failure? Tough argues, pretty persuasively, that character helps a lot.)

Mike wonders whether we're doing the wrong thing expecting that kids should go to college.? I would suggest that it depends on what you mean by college.

I would further suggest that we seem to be awash in existential educational questions like those, brought on by such new controversies (at least, newly packaged) as whether it's good to try to close the achievement gap, whether it's counterproductive to demand ?proficiency? as opposed to ?improvement,? whether ?differentiated instruction? is another form of tracking, whether common standards are anti-American, etc. All these tough issues seem to point, roughly, to the Big One: ?What's the point of an education? What exactly does ?college ready? mean?? What's the difference between that and being ?career ready??

Mike asks these questions:

?with so many kids dropping out of college?and especially so many poor kids?should we reconsider our assumption that higher education is the ticket to the middle class? Isn't it possible that lots of these kids would be better off pursuing the trades or (dare I say) the military?

In a sense, Dillon's story this morning helps answer those questions by subverting the premise:? that we can or should decipher a difference between higher education preparation and a pursuit...

As a journalist for the better part of 30 years (not counting the samizdat paper I wrote and published (on my dad's mimeograph machine) in my high school seminary), I worship our first amendment.? And as a student of the French Revolution and its pre-guillotine press, I'm also a big fan of Monsieur Voltaire and his famous utterance, to the effect, `I may disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right say it.'

Does this mean I believe in an unfettered web in our schools, the subject of an interesting report by Winnie Hu in today's New York Times?

Well, I think I would agree with William Fitzhugh, the respected editor of The Concord Review, who told Hu,? ?I think students should have unfettered access to the library."

In other words, we have a much huger problem than the kind of Internet censorship that Banned Websites Awareness Day seems to be worried about.? A glance at school curricula, summer reading lists, or what pass as textbooks these days, indicate that our educators are already doing a pretty good job of censorship, keeping children from THE BEST of what our civilization has produced over the last couple thousand years.? I often quote from Pat Conroy's My Losing Season, wherein an English teacher answered the budding writer's question about what he should read: ?The great books, Mr. Conroy, and nothing but the great books. There isn't time for anything else.?

What's a great book? you ask?? Well, like the pornography that proliferates on our unfettered Worldwide Web, you know it when you see it. ? And as much as the computer has put information -- including great books -- at our fingertips, it has yet to give us a longer day.? There...

As much as it pains me every time I hear Checker Finn say it, school boards may indeed be irrelevant.? And Checker's new essay in National Affairs lays out a pretty persuasive case for why they will disappear; not, why they should go away, but why they will simply die on a vine that is no longer part of a healthy education system.? What is most unnerving about Checker's argument, is that this will happen, somewhat counterintuitively, while making ?education local again.?

In short, the new essay, ?Beyond the School District,? is an ambitious rethinking of school governance, top to bottom, that weds the best of our past (true local control) with the best of our present (charters, vouchers, mayoral control, technology) to create a workable school system for the 21st century.

And I hate say it, but from where I sit, on a local school board, it makes sense.

As Checker says, with an understatement that should require no argument, our current system isn't working. ?And his attribution of cause surely matches my experience: we have a ?confused and tangled web? of local, state, and federal rules and regulation, not to mention a web of ?adult interests? like teacher unions, textbook publishers, tutoring firms, bus companies, and the like, that has thwarted the best of reform intentions. Despite spending billions of dollars to fix things, the results continue to be lousy: ?millions of children still can not read satisfactorily, do math at an acceptable level, or perform the other skills need for jobs in the modern economy.?

I surely see this dysfunction at the local level, where I sit on a school board that seems to have as much influence over our schools as the deck chair manager had over the direction of the...

You can read Sam Wang and Sandra Aaamodt's ?Delay Kindergarten at Your Child's Peril? essay in today's New York Times for what the two neuroscientists have to say about the development of young brains ? ??Indeed, a 4-year-old's brain uses more energy than it ever will again? ? or you can use it as a cautionary tale about our dumbed down education system.

There is plenty of good science here about the question at hand, but I was especially struck by this line:

?children benefit from being close to the limits of their ability.

Aside from what it says about sending your kids to school too late or too early, the statement opens up a Pandora's box of issues for educators and education policymakers. At least, it should cause them to ask some pretty existential questions, especially whenever they hear phrases such as ??child-centered classrooms,? ?customized learning,? and ?individual education plans.?? Exactly who determines an individual child's ability, let alone what ?the limits? of that ability are? And does determining a child's ability in fact predetermine it?? The authors do not even touch the question of the standard by which we measure ability -- can we customize and standardize at the same time?? And, perhaps most importantly, what does it mean, as the authors say about the little ones, that ?school makes children smarter??? What!?? Don't Wan and Aamodt know that school is supposed to make kids ?life-long learners,? not smart? And haven't they heard of poverty?

In fact, they have:

Disadvantaged children have the most to lose from delayed access to school.? For low-income children, every month of additional schooling closes one-tenth of the gap between them and more advantaged students.

Shall we say that somewhat differently?? As in, school counts. And if school...