Speaking Truth to the Wall Street Journal

Published November 26th, 2012, in The Wall Street Journal

In your Nov. 19 editorial "The Evil Empire Strikes Back," you claim that "No reform effort is too small for the teachers union to squash," citing union opposition to, among other things, charter schools. "Unions fight as hard as they do because they have one priority—preserving their jobs and increasing their pay and benefits." You then urge President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to "speak truth to union power."

As an educator of 29 years whose only priority has been to inspire children, and who gave up much more lucrative careers to do so, I'd like to "speak truth" to the Journal. The truth is that the comprehensive study of charters by Stanford University's Center Research of Educational Outcomes found that, despite all their advantages, only 17% of charter schools outperformed their regular public school counterparts, while 37% actually lagged significantly behind. Black and Hispanic students generally fared worse in charter schools.

The truth is, as Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, points out, those states with the strongest teachers unions have the highest test scores in the nation, while those with weak unions languish at the bottom.

The truth is that unionized Finland, with the highest test scores in the world, long ago eschewed all the ideologically based "reforms" Messrs. Obama and Duncan currently inflict on my students.

See awful comments in response:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324851704578133492170215174.html?mod=ITP_opinion_1

Cheers! And Goodbye.

           I’ve poured myself a glass of wine to both celebrate and mourn this, my 551st and final column.
     As you know, the Bay Area News Group will soon consolidate most of its newspapers; and, since my column has appeared in but two them, it was a foregone conclusion that I as well as other columnists/journalists would be let go.
     Fortunately, I’ve matured a bit since I first started writing this column in 1991. I’ve learned that, while it’s important to grieve, it’s crucial as well to accept stoically how all things must pass, and to be grateful for what has been. (The older I get, the more Buddhist I become.)
     I am very grateful for this column. It’s been cathartic for me (and Lord knows, I can get very emotional about Education), a tremendous challenge (one I never imagined I could meet), a source of pride (sometimes inordinately so, I suppose), and, above all, a chance to tell the vital story of kids, teachers and schools--one laden with mirth and pathos, grace and rage, triumph and tragedy.
     So, I hope the Muses--or, perhaps, this glass of wine--will grant me some special inspiration tonight.
     I cannot ride off into the sunset without one last temper tantrum about school reforms.
     They won’t work.
     Why? Because they’ve been designed by ignorant politicians and market-based ideologues who, in their hubris, have misdiagnosed what ails public schools.
     The problem, reformers claim, is a lack of accountability and competition. So, they’d use standardized testing to root out the worst teachers, and force the others to finally do their jobs. (They’d destroy their unions along way, even though the states with the highest test scores in the nation are also the ones with the strongest unions.)
     Such testing has only exacerbated an already dire situation. Educators teach to the test, narrow the curriculum, abandon the kids at the bottom and, when that doesn’t work, cheat. The best of them often just quit.
     What are the real problems besetting public schools?
     The education profession usually attracts only the bottom percentiles of college graduates. (Now that we’ve so scapegoated public educators, we can expect even that shameful statistic to worsen.) We send the least-qualified of them to teach in dilapidated inner-city schools where we’ve imprisoned our poor, predominately minority kids. (Our schools are now more segregated by race and especially by class than ever before in our nation’s history.) Meanwhile, schools cling to a century-old, assembly-line, age-based model of education which serves no one. And too many parents have abdicated their responsibilities, allowing a sick, TV/PS4/wii/smartphone culture to raise their kids.
     Worst of all, one out of every five children in our country lives in poverty; which, besides being unconscionable, is the single most powerful impediment to them succeeding in schools.
     Will testing, accountability, or competition ameliorate any of the above?
     The truth is, this country has embraced testing because it hasn’t the courage nor the will to acknowledge, much less address the real issues in education or this country. As long as we squander our grandchildren’s wealth on killing (and thus creating more) terrorists, as long as corporate CEOs send jobs oversees, foreclose on families, manipulate the government, destroy the middle class, silence the press (columnists like me)--and pay themselves obscene bonuses for doing so--there really is no hope for public education in this country. (Or, perhaps, for this country.)
     The real school reformers are occupying Wall Street today, their voices crying in the wilderness that has become America. With my newfound free time, I hope to join them in Oakland or San Francisco soon.
     Well, I’m glad I’ve gotten that tirade off my chest one last time!
     I can’t end, though, without also expressing again how much I still love my job. It is such a privilege and pleasure to spend my days with children. I attempt to inspire them. They, without even trying, frustrate me, surprise me, and never fail to make me laugh. They are oh so beautiful gifts.
     So, with my final words, I raise my glass of wine to them, to the Bay Area News Group editors who have given me this column for so many years, and to you who have read it.
     Cheers! And goodbye.

Published October 24, 2011, in The Argus and The Daily Review (Bay Area News Group)

NCLB Waivers: More Blackmail

“Dear Parents/Guardians: In Spring STAR testing, Kitayama Elementary School students made excellent gains. Overall, English/Language Arts scores in Grades 2 – 5 went up from 60% at or above state standards to 64%, and Math scores... from 66.2%...to 66.8%. Our Academic Performance Index rose from 828 to 841, well above the state’s goal of 800. However, because of increasingly stringent state and federal standards for achievement, our school has been identified as a Program Improvement (PI)…School under the federal No Child Left Behind [NCLB]…. All parents/guardians of students attending a PI school have the right to request a transfer of their child(ren) to a non-PI district school with district-paid transportation.”
So my school, Kitayama, must finally face the PI stigma. It was only a matter of time--for us, and for the 80% of the other California Title 1 schools now in PI.
You see, schools like Kitayama, with a large population of disadvantaged kids, receive federal Title 1 funding since their challenges are so great. And it is only such schools that face sanctions for not meeting NCLB benchmarks, culminating in 2014 when all students are required to be on grade level in Math and Language Arts.
Few if any schools could meet such pie-in-the-sky standards. But, in The Age of NCLB, only the schools catering to poor kids are punished.
(Can you imagine the federal government insisting that police departments everywhere completely eliminate crime by 2014; and, when they can’t, penalizing only those cities with high rates of poverty?)
The good news is that Kitayama’s community recognizes our school’s strengths. In fact, Kitayama became a prestigious California Distinguished School in 2010. (Oh, the irony!) The parents of only five of our students have chosen to transfer to a non-PI school. (Which didn’t meet the benchmarks, either, and may even have lower test scores. Oh, more irony!)
The bad news is that many other Title 1 schools may not be so fortunate. Once parents receive a similar letter to the one above, a brain-drain of the strongest kids and most educated parents may begin--the school diverting scarce education dollars to pay for their transportation--thus ensuring that next year’s test scores will be even lower. For many Title 1 schools, the PI designation will only precipitate an inevitable spiral into ruin.
Truth be told, federal PI sanctions have forced some of the worst California schools to finally confront their failure. A few, after replacing the principal and most of the staff, for example, have shown remarkable progress. But even they cannot hope to meet NCLB’s irrational standards.
We in education have long foreseen this ludicrous moment when all schools, Title 1 or not, would “fail.” However, instead of standing up as one and stating the obvious fact that the “Emperor” NCLB had no clothes, we’ve merely vied with each other not to be the first to earn the dreaded PI designation. In this respect, because of our cowardice and disunity, we’ve made the bed we now lie in.
             President Obama and U.S. Superintendent of Education Arne Duncan finally acknowledged NCLB’s absurdity last Friday. But, instead of scrapping it and creating a more enlightened plan for education reform, they merely offered NCLB-PI waivers to states that agree to additional unfunded, unsupported-by-research federal mandates, including using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. Only then will the pressure be off all but the worst Title 1 schools.
Couched as benevolent relief, the waivers are just more blackmail, of course. “Do what we want, or else the insanity will continue.”
            And, if past is prologue, California and most other states will grudgingly comply, even though we know it to be wrong.
            We will have to lie in that bed, too.
Unfortunately, so will all the children we’ve so cravenly betrayed yet again.

Published September 26, 2011, in The Argus and The Daily Review (Bay Area News Group)

No Thaw Soon

       Three weeks ago, the Georgia governor’s office capped its investigation of Atlanta’s schools with a scathing 800-page report. It described with horrific detail the school district’s “culture of cheating.” In fact, investigators discovered that teachers and principals had been changing student answers on standardized exams at 44 of the 56 schools examined. Eighty-two educators admitted to altering tests, and their testimony implicated 96 others.
        Many additional districts are facing similar scrutiny, including now the District of Columbia, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
       Atlanta’s debacle is particularly galling, however, given the amount of accolades the district had received for its meteoric rise in test scores. Philanthropies such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had showered the district with grants, while the superintendent, Beverly Hall, had accepted numerous awards including 2009 National Superintendent of the Year from the American Association of School Administrators.
       But it was all a sham. Worse, many children who should have received additional support failed to because of their inflated, false scores.
       The July 13th issue of Education Week highlighted some of the more sensational narratives in the Georgia Governor’s Office report, including that of a teacher who surreptitiously photographed the test storage room so that, when he later broke in, he could leave everything as it was; of a principal who wore gloves when she changed answers to keep her fingerprints off student exams; of veteran teachers altering new teachers’ tests for them until they trusted the newbies enough to accept them into their cheating fold; of teachers holding weekend “[test] changing parties” at their homes.
       It boggles the mind. It deadens the soul.
       How shaming to learn that so many of my colleagues could betray their vocation, their profession, their integrity, and especially their students!
       It is true that Superintendent Hall and her administrative minions had intimidated teachers. They’d threatened would-be whistle-blowers. And one principal had even forced a teacher with low test scores to crawl beneath a table during a faculty meeting.
       Even so, none of that excuses the heinous behavior of so many Atlanta educators, and so many others who knew of it but remained silent.
       A silver lining to this despicable affair could be that it would add fuel to the increasing debate about the merits of high stakes testing. But, honestly, it seems inexplicable that there could still be any debate at all since research, including most recently that of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) and the National Research Council, has decried such testing as, at best, ineffective at improving real student achievement.
       The trouble is, U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan has once again turned a deaf ear to such research, even though he, himself, commissioned the NCEE report. Instead, he used Atlanta to argue for more testing: “This unfortunate incident highlights the need for transparency and accountability throughout our system…. There are districts across Georgia and across the country that are facing the same expectation to perform that are making genuine progress without cheating.”
       Genuine? Yes, many schools have raised state test scores. But how? By “teaching” (drilling and killing) to a narrow fill-in-the-bubble test, eschewing all knowledge and skills not on it, such as creative and higher-ordered thinking. By focusing on students just below proficiency (cherry picking) while abandoning the kids at the bottom. By doing nothing to discourage drop outs since those kids would have brought down test scores anyway.
       Or, as some whole states have done, by simply lowering the score required for proficiency (and then shamelessly crowing about a remarkable increase of proficient students).
       There are many ways to cheat.
       The obvious, embarrassing fact is that high stakes testing—and the fear it engenders—has brought out the worst in public education, not the best. The cheating in Atlanta and elsewhere is but the tip of a massive educational malpractice iceberg.
       But, since Duncan is urging Congress to quickly reauthorize No Child Left Behind and its centerpiece, high stakes testing, there is little likelihood of a thaw any time soon. 

Published August 1st, 2011, in The Argus and The Daily Review (Bay Area News Group)

Sing Children--While You Can

     THE CHILDREN sang, but I seethed.
     At my grade school's final assembly of the year, the choir performed three wonderful songs, "I Believe in Music," "My America," and "Bright Happy Day," often with intricate counterpoint and harmony. Amazing!
     The loveliness of the music, expressing so eloquently the beauty of the children singing it -- American kids of myriad races, creeds and backgrounds, so full of naive joy and hope -- was enough to bring anyone with a warm heart to tears.
     Yes, tears of immense gratitude; but also tears of blind rage. You see, as those priceless children, jewels all, sang their own warm hearts out, so many adults in this nation were at that very moment conspiring against them.
     Take U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, for instance.
     At his request (Oh, the irony!), the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) had reviewed the best educational programs in the world. Its damning conclusion: Duncan's blueprint for education reform had been, at best, a monumental waste of precious time and money.
     While Duncan had been touting shortsighted quick fixes such as high-stakes standardized testing, merit pay, vouchers and charter schools -- guided in defiance of all research by a business/competition ideology -- nations such as Finland, whose schools currently rank first in the world, had implemented much more common-sensical, forward-thinking even revolutionary strategies.
     Most importantly, leading nations had recognized how an educational system can never be any better than its teachers, and so had transformed their teaching professions into one of the most competitive and prestigious. (Finland recruits its teachers from the top 10th percentile of college graduates; the United States from the bottom 30th.)      Then, Finland and others had distributed their teachers and funding equitably to all schools and communities.
     They'd eschewed once-a-year fill-in-the-bubble testing in favor of broader (including science, social studies and the arts) less frequent evaluation, focusing on in-depth knowledge and the ability to apply it creatively.
     And they'd discarded an archaic age-grouped assembly-line approach to education.
     True to form, however, Duncan merely gave lip service to the NCEE report, then called for Congress to reauthorize a revised version of No Child Left Behind.
     In other words, he chose more of the same, but with some adjustments. He thus doomed the United States to fall even more swiftly from its already precarious eminence.
     Arne Duncan betrayed the kids in that choir -- again.
     Oh, but he was hardly alone.
     Banks continued to foreclose on their parents, corporations to send their future jobs oversees and the hidden oligarchy of the nation's giga-rich to diminish their hope for a middle-class life.
     Meanwhile, Republicans nationwide, clinging so tenaciously to their no-taxes-except-for-war/lower-taxes-for-the-rich ideology, were at that moment arguing for catastrophic cuts in schools everywhere, as well as the evisceration of unions and environmental protections.
     Will my school even have a choir next year? Will more than just a few of the youthful singers be able to afford college? Or a home, for that matter? What kind of contaminated world will they inherit? Will there be any Social Security or Medicare for them when they retire? (If they can retire.)
     For the first time in this nation's history, the kids in the choir could expect to live fewer years and at a lower standard of living than their parents.
    I wish all the powerful people in this nation -- who, because of their unbridled greed, thoughtless ideology or inexcusable cowardice, were betraying the next generation of Americans -- had been required to stand by me that morning as my school's choir sang.
     But, no, like the pilots of the B-52 bombers during the Vietnam War, they didn't have to look into their victims' innocent eyes.
     Sing children, I thought. Sing of your oh-so fleeting "Bright Happy Day," and of the "My America," which long ago ceased to be anything more than a legend.
     Yes, sing -- while you still can.

Published July 4th, 2011, in The Argus and The Daily Review (Bay Area News Group)

What Happened to Research?

     What is the role of research in public education? Apparently, very little.
     For example, I've long "known" that the best way for children to study at home is to sit in the same room, at the same table, at the same time every night, and to focus on one topic or assignment intensely before moving on to the next. Indeed, this self-evident fact has long formed the core of my yearly letter to parents every September.
     Unfortunately, it's all wrong.
     Research, summarized in an article that appeared in the September 6th, 2010, issue of The New York Times, "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits," debunked everything. (Just Google the title.) The numerous studies, some dating back to the 1970's, reveal that varying study location and even the topic vastly increases a student's ability to learn and remember.
     Can you see my red face? I'm not the only one, thought. Even the internet sites I found dealing with homework and study habits continue to give the same bogus advice.
     How is it that such important research has had no effect on educational dogma, that I learned of it only by accident when a non-teacher friend sent me a link to the article?
     "We have known these principles for some time," lamented Robert A. Bjork, a UCLA psychologist, "and it's intriguing that schools don't pick them up. Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken."
     Sometimes, however, vital educational research does make it out into the public. But, it is simply ignored. For example, (I apologize for kicking my favorite dead horse.) recent and comprehensive studies have documented the folly of both high stakes testing and charter schools. The Obama Administration still adopted both as national policy.
      Last September, the most rigorous study of merit pay as well proved its uselessness in raising student achievement. (Most teachers--who accepted a scandalously low salary when they entered the profession, and so are unlikely to be motivated by paltry bonuses--are already working as hard as they can. Merit pay, however, does discourage them from collaborating with each other.)
      Nonetheless, the very day after the study was published, the U.S. Department of Education distributed millions of dollars to promote merit pay programs nationally, and committed itself to dole out an additional $1.2 billion. (Yours and my tax dollars at work! Better than wasting them on war, I suppose.)
      Research clearly has no effect whatsoever on national education policy.
      As if to underscore that, President Obama signed a law last December designating teaching interns as "highly qualified."
      Of course, research highlights how the single most important factor in children's academic success--often trumping, amazingly, the socio-economic level of parents--is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. The scandal--no, the outrageous moral injustice--has been that we've sent our worst and least prepared educators, especially interns, to our neediest children in inner cities. Then we test the kids, respond with surprised indignation, and punish their schools. (This is reform? Yet another dead horse of mine.)
     The No Child Left Behind Law (spit!) briefly acknowledged this fundamental impediment to improving education for all. In a consummate act of naiveté, Congress simply mandated that all schools employ "highly qualified teachers." As if it were that easy! (We can imagine all those inner-city principals sighing in resignation, "Oh, heck, now I'm going to have to start hiring all those great teachers I've been turning away!")
      Of course, it wasn't that easy. Perhaps that's why, rather than respond to the research or address the crucial issue by redesigning how the nation recruits, trains, and distributes teachers, Congress and Obama simply redesignated interns as "highly qualified," and then washed their hands.
     What happened to research? What happened to a sincere attempt to reform our schools? What happened to honesty, courage, and justice?

Published January 31, 2011, in The Argus and The Daily Review (Bay Area News Group) 

A Tale of Two Teachers

     Mr. Smith teaches in the United States, which once boasted some of the finest public schools in the world, but has since fallen behind most other industrialized nations.
     Since teachers in his country are held in such disrepute, Mr. Smith's gifted college friends usually choose other, more respected and better remunerated professions. Indeed, he, himself, came from the bottom percentiles of college graduates. He had to spend an additional year at his own expense in a school of education focused mostly on esoteric theory instead of research-based pedagogy.
     If Mr. Smith somehow emerged, nonetheless, a great educator, he probably works at a beautiful suburban school where he prepares mostly affluent Caucasian and Asian students to go to college. If, on the other hand, he's uncredentialed, ill-prepared, just plain mediocre or worse, he's likely ended up in a dilapidated urban school to teach predominately poor African-American and Latino children--who, for some reason, drop out of high school in scandalously high numbers.
     Every day, Mr. Smith faces well over 30 or even 40 students per class. Perhaps he has enough textbooks for them all, perhaps not depending on where he works.
     He needn't be innovative because he must primarily drill his students to pass standardized tests measuring a narrow band of knowledge and skills, but requiring little to no higher-ordered or critical thinking. If he has any time to spare, he rushes through an absurdly broad but embarrassingly shallow curriculum.
     He can only rarely meet with colleagues about anything other than announcements, test scores, and schedules. His is a lonely profession.
     Poor Mr. Smith has little hope of redemption. The United States government insists on market-based "reforms" such as competition, high-stakes testing, charters, and merit pay, even though the most recent and comprehensive research proves them all to be, not only ineffective, but detrimental to both student and teacher achievement. Everyone's demoralized.
     Mr. Virtanen, however, loves teaching in Finland, a nation that, although wallowing decades ago near the bottom of international academic rankings, now places first.
     In order to become an educator, he had to beat 85% of other applicants. Finish teachers, you see, are revered, their jobs coveted. Indeed, Mr. Virtanen underwent an additional three-year, rigorous graduate preparation entirely at the government's expense, during which he received a stipend as well. He and most of his colleagues hold master's degrees in both Education and their content areas.
     Once he graduated, it didn't matter where he worked because nearly all Finland's small schools (less than 300 students) boast beautiful campuses, well-equipped, small classrooms (fewer than 30 children) and, of course, highly prepared teachers.
     Apparently, the Finish government believes the nation's children are its first priority because every student enjoys free health care, free busing, free school supplies, free counseling and free, nutritious lunches.
     Mr. Virtanen rarely lectures. Instead, he assists his students as they pursue individualized weekly and long-term goals he's helped them choose, goals that often involve teaming up with other students on research for multi-faceted, fun projects, such as publishing their own newspaper.
     Thank goodness the national curriculum is minimal, allowing Mr. Virtanen tremendous leeway and creativity. It also helps that neither he nor his students face high-stakes standardized testing. Instead, for their report cards, he writes detailed narratives of their progress, accomplishments, and challenges.
     Where does Mr. Virtanen find the time? Well, he spends nearly half his school day, not teaching, but meeting with students, communicating with parents, and collaborating with colleagues. Together they form a tightly-knit community where he thrives.
     Mr. Smith and Mr. Virtanen: Only one of them lived happily ever after. And only one of their nations did, too.
     For a more detailed look at Finish schools, read my source for this column. Just Google "Linda Darling-Hammond" and "Finland."

Published December 20th, 2010, in The Argus and The Daily Review (Bay Area News Group)

Billionaire Boys' Club

"The most important men in town would come to fawn on me! They would ask me to advise them.... And it won't make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong. When you're rich, they think you really know!"
Tevye, in "If I Were a Rich Man" from
Fiddler on the Roof

     I hate to look a gift hundred million dollars in the mouth. Nonetheless, I am concerned about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's lavish gift to the Newark, New Jersey's schools.
     Zuckerberg thus becomes the newest member of what Diane Ravitch identified as "The Billionaire Boys' Club." (Ravitch herself made headlines with the publication of her bombshell, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.)
     "The Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations came to exercise vast influence over American education," Ravitch reported, "because of their strategic investment in school reform.... These foundations set the policy agenda not only for school districts, but also for states and even the U.S. Department of Education."
     Indeed, as one Associated Press news analysis quipped, "The real secretary of education, the joke goes, is Bill Gates."
     What is Gates' and his compatriot billionaires' agenda? Competition, choice, deregulation and other market-based approaches. After all, they enabled the billionaires to amass their fortunes. Therefore, they can't help but raise the "fortunes" of public education as well. There's no need to ask fundamental questions--such as What are the real and difficult challenges facing public schools?--before so blithely touting such easy panaceas.
      These men are billionaires. They know.
      It matters not that none of them are educators; that none of them have worked in a segregated, dilapidated, poorly staffed inner-city school teaching immigrants struggling to learn English (Maids don't count.); that none of their pet proposals--such as charters, high stakes testing and merit pay--are supported by any comprehensive peer-reviewed research. On the contrary, emerging data indicates these policies are harming public education.
     Undeterred by such trivialities, the Billionaire Boys' Club has molded the Obama Administration's educational policy according to its ideology, not the facts, much like what The Club did during the prior Bush Administration.
     The Club has been elected by no one, appointed by no one, and remains accountable to no one. (The press remains ever so kind since editors know very well who butters their bread.) No, like Napoleon, the billionaires have placed the mantel of educational power upon themselves.
     It's really not all that surprising. If one billionaire can attempt to buy California's governorship, what's to stop a cabal of billionaires from buying America's educational system?
     Now a 26-year-old computer geek has decided that he will buy, um, I mean save Newark, New Jersey's schools. (A decision certainly not motivated by nor timed to coincide with the opening of The Social Network, a film portraying Zuckerberg in a rather unflattering light.) He'll team up with New Jersey's governor and Newark's mayor to decide what's best for the school district's 39,000 students.
     Newark suffers from nearly a 50% high-school dropout rate, so any change at all will seem an improvement. Who can blame Newark and other public school districts for accepting The Club's money, despite all its strings? We're all desperate for funds and reform.
     I fear, though, that the Billionaires' apparently benevolent strings may strangle public education to death.

Published October 13th, 2010, in The Argus (Bay Area News Group)

Nightmare of School Reform

     Mark Twain once quipped, "God made the idiot for practice, and then he made the school board."
     Twain must have been anticipating Hayward Unified's Board. I thought its lunacy had reached its zenith two years ago when school trustees abruptly fired ten principals, giving no explanation--thus completely usurping the authority, experience and wisdom of the superintendent the trustees themselves had appointed.
     Although the board eventually rescinded most of the firings, the superintendent soon resigned. One of the dismissed principals fled to another district and was quickly promoted to director. Another my district snatched up, recognizing a great educator when we saw him.
     Poor Hayward!
     Unfortunately, I was wrong about that being the board's worst moment. The trustees have since descended into inane bickering, finger-pointing and name-calling (making for highly entertaining cable TV viewing), culminating September 22nd when the board's president ordered a security guard to remove another trustee from the chamber. The latter immediately returned, stating he would not leave unless he were arrested. The police didn't know what to do.
     We do. Indeed, although the governor's, senator's and several propositions' races have taken the limelight, an equally consequential decision in November may be our choice for school board trustees.
     Frankly, and sadly, Hayward's school board is only an exaggerated example of some of the shenanigans taking place in many other districts everywhere.
     The Radical Religious Right, for example, has long taken advantage of the public's usual apathy regarding school boards to both get its members elected, and to coerce boards when it can't. It's even published a step-by-step manual, Reclaim Your School: Ten Strategies to Practically and Legally Evangelize Your School (Pacific Justice Institute, 2002). Page 21 is particularly enlightening: "The Big Lie: Separation of Church and State."
     It behooves us all to pay close attention to the impending school board elections; and to remember that a candidate's name, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religious beliefs are no guarantee that he or she will be a wise trustee or not. Let's choose carefully this November.
     U. S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan's call to publish teachers' standardized test scores has born its first fruit. (Students take the tests, of course; but their individual scores ceased to matter with the launching of No Child Left Behind nine years ago. Now the tests serve only to lambaste schools and teachers.)
     Duncan wants parents to know teachers' individual test scores in order to expose and get rid of the legions of lazy, incompetent public school educators; and, perhaps especially, to promote his pets, charter schools. 
     Well, The Los Angeles Times took Duncan at his word. The Times posted on its website its analysis of seven years of student standardized test data, focusing on how kids' performance had improved, and rating teachers accordingly.
     The Times rated fifth grade teacher Rigoberto Ruelas "less effective."
     Its analysis did not take into account the fact that Ruelas consistently reached out to the toughest kids in his school's gang-ridden neighborhood of South LA. He tutored them after school and on weekends, visited them often at their homes, and always encouraged them to set their sights on college. During his 14 years teaching , he'd had almost perfect attendance.
     None of that mattered. The Times determined Ruelas to be "less effective." He subsequently committed suicide.
     We can only imagine the scores of better teachers vying to take his place.
     When will this nightmare of "school reform" end? For the first time in my 28-year career, I've stopped encouraging my students to become teachers.

Published October 25, 2010, in The Argus and The Daily Review (Bay Area News Group) 

Ravitch: Wrenching Reversal

 Published April 26, 2010 in The Argus, Bay Area News Group    

     "The evidence suggests that the path we've been on for the past ten years is not working," says Diane Ravitch. And she makes that case poignantly in her recently published book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.
     Of course, Ravitch is not the first educational pundit to decry No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Charter Schools, Vouchers, High Stakes Testing, Merit Pay, and even Obama's Race to the Top.
     Why, then, when Ravitch speaks does everyone suddenly listen? Why did the publication of her book merit articles in The New York Times and on the front page of Education Week? Why was she the toast of the Bay Area two weeks ago, appearing at Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, and on KQED's Forum?
     It's not Ravitch's message that is new or the evidence she bases it upon. What's new--no, what's jaw-dropping, eye-popping, and game-changing--is that it is Ravitch who is saying it.
     Diane Ravitch used to be one of the most outspoken and respected advocates for market-based education reform. A professor at New York University, she's a preeminent educational historian. She served as Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush Administration, and later on the National Assessment Governing Board. She co-founded the conservative Koret Task Force and joined The Fordham Institute--both advocating get-tough approaches to fixing America's schools.
     But then Ravitch went through a "wrenching transformation" because she--gasp!--looked at the data. (Can she ever be forgiven?)
     "NCLB is close to a complete failure," Ravitch claims, citing, for example, the embarrassing fact that national reading scores haven't improved since 1998. She shakes her head at Milwaukee, the city with the oldest and most extensive voucher program. According to the most recent study, the city has seen no academic gains at all. Meanwhile, high-stakes testing and merit pay have "dumbed-down education" and "created a frenzy of teaching to the test" and even cheating. Merit pay "destroys the most fundamental ethic of education, which is collaboration."
     Ravitch's old allies are wringing their hands in disbelief and dismay. "She's really smart, and she has this incredible experience," laments Mark Schneider, a former commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. "That's why this book is so depressing. It hits on so many of the big themes of the day and picks them all apart."
     So, why don't Schneider and other conservative educational "reformers" acknowledge the data Ravitch highlights in her book?
For some, it's just too easy to dismiss her because she's gone over to the Dark Side, and now supports everyone's favorite educational scapegoat, teachers' unions. (No, she can never be forgiven for that!)
     But, there Ravitch goes again, citing the evidence: Massachusetts and Finland, the state and country with the highest student achievement are nearly 100% union, while those with no or weak unions post the lowest.
     Ravitch harks back to John Adams, our nation's second president, who quipped, "Facts are stubborn things." Even so, many individuals and organizations strive to suppress them: "There is a very-well financed effort to dismantle public education," Ravitch warns.
     She is not all doom and gloom, however. To a recent convention of school superintendents she proffered an alternative vision: "Nations like Finland and Japan seek out the best college graduates for teaching positions, prepare them well, pay them well and treat them with respect. They make sure that all their students study the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages, the sciences and other subjects.... We're on the wrong track."
     The superintendents gave Ravitch a standing ovation. So should we all.

Charter Schools

Those Left Behind

Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, has made charter schools a cornerstone of his plan to reform public education. I wish he would explain why.

I’d particularly like Duncan to comment on an emotional outburst that occurred several years ago during a course I co-taught for new teachers at Cal. State East Bay.

I’d invited a program graduate to return and speak who had, after only three years in the trenches of Oakland’s schools, already founded his own charter school.

I’ll call him Che, because, like the Latin American revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevarra, he’d evinced uncommon ability and passion, even as a student-teacher. “Urban schools are designed to fail their students,” he’d claimed. “They’re part of a conspiracy of the ruling white oligarchy to keep minorities down.”

It was no surprise when Che soon became fed up with the middle school where he first taught. It was remarkable, though, when he recruited five like-minded colleagues to help him start an alternative school just a few blocks away.

Che and his young faculty worked with a dedication that left me dumbfounded. They spent their summers educating neighborhood families about the charter school, inviting one and all to enroll, but making it clear that every parent and every child would have to adhere to a strict contract of responsibilities.

During the school year, Che and his zealous teachers labored more than twelve hours a day to ensure each child both faced rigorous challenges and received enough individualized support to meet them. Putting into practice Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, they endeavored not just to teach students academic knowledge and skill, but to transform their image of themselves and the world. 
Thus, Che created an almost unimaginable oasis of hope for some of Oakland’s apparently hopeless children.

I doubted, however, that Che’s vision would be sustainable, much less replicable. For instance, could he and his staff continue to make their school the center of their lives even as they grew older, perhaps fell in love and created families and children of their own? Could any but a few other Oakland schools ever hope to follow their model?

But, what an inspiring speaker Che would be for the new teachers in my class!

Or, so I’d thought. Once Che finished his presentation, one of those teachers raised a hand to respond, his voice tremulous with fury:

“I’m really happy to hear you and your school are doing so well. But I just started teaching at your former school. What the hell are my colleagues and I supposed to do now that you’ve lured away most of our best teachers, strongest students, and involved parents? The children you left behind, my students, are no less deserving than yours. What do you have to say to them who now languish in the school your charter devastated? What do you have to say to me? Should I, too, abandon them and my school?”

After a stunned silence, Che replied only that he’d given up on Oakland’s public schools and so had attempted to save at least a few kids from them.

I wonder: Is that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s answer as well?

Where’s the Beef?

President Obama has asserted, both as candidate and now as President, that his administration would base all policy on evidence, not ideology.

 With this in mind, I must reiterate the question I asked in my previous column, Why has U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made promoting more charter schools a cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s Educational policy? There is little evidence to support them.

First, some background: The Charter School Movement began in 1988. Its stated purpose was to free a few, select schools from the federal, state, and local bureaucracy hampering public education, and so enable them to pilot educational innovations that could one day spread to all schools everywhere.

Charters were obviously never intended to compete with other public schools since they enjoyed significant advantages: they tended to be smaller; they inevitably skimmed from neighboring schools the best teachers, students, and parents; they often received substantial additional outside funding; and, of course, they weren’t hobbled by federal/state/local micromanagement.

One would expect that, even if charters implemented no new strategy at all, they would still outperform public schools nearby; and that, similarly, those neighboring schools’ achievement would diminish, even though they’d done nothing differently, either.

You see, public education paid a high price for charters. For that reason, the onus was on charters, yes, to excel; but do so by testing some new educational approach that was both sustainable and replicable, one that would very soon benefit other schools. Charters were to be laboratories. They existed to serve other schools, not compete with them.

Now, more than twenty years later, there are many impressive charter schools. (I’ll feature at least one Bay Area charter in my next column.) But have charters justified their existence by transforming public education with their innovations?

The only justification for charters I’ve read has been that some of them have achieved higher than compatriot public schools. (Well, duh!)

The surprise, perhaps even the scandal is that research on overall charter school achievement has been mixed at best. In fact, the most recent, comprehensive and authoritative study by Stanford University’s Center Research of Educational Outcomes found that only 17% of charter schools outperformed their regular public school counterparts, while 37% actually lagged significantly behind. Black and Hispanic students generally faired worse in charter schools.

Not only have charter schools failed their mission, the vast majority haven’t even excelled despite all their advantages.

Nonetheless, at a moment when we ought to be rethinking the whole notion of charter schools—their purpose, their effect, their disappointing performance—Education Secretary Duncan insists that all states increase the number of them because…well, he hasn’t really explained why.

The Bush Administration made no pretext of basing its policies on evidence (No Child Left Behind being the prime example of its evidence-less education policy), following, instead, neo-conservative, often religious-right ideology.

The Obama Administration, however, has pledged to do otherwise. So, if Duncan wants more charters, we really ought to demand of him, “Where’s the beef?” Where’s the evidence?

"A School Where I Could Be Happy" 

“I wanted to build a school where I as a teacher would be happy,” explained Diane Tavenner, founder of Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, which opened its doors in September, 2003.

Tavenner had worked for a decade in regular public schools. As Assistant Principal for Curriculum and Instruction at Mountain View High, she’d increased access to advanced placement and honors programs to more—and, significantly, more diverse—students. But still she saw too many who ought to have made it to college left behind. And so she remained unhappy.

Tavenner is happy now. 96% of Summit High’s graduating class last June were accepted to at least one 4-year university. Well over half of them were the first in their families to head off to college.

How can she and her charter succeed like this where so many other public schools cannot?

Of course, Tavenner had the advantage of the clean slate a charter provided, the ability to, as she recalls, “design the school from the ground up.

“I knew that the single most important factor in a child’s success is the quality of his or her teacher. My goal was to place a high-performing teacher in every single class, every period of every day. So, most of our resources went into our faculty.

“Summit’s vision is simple: attract, develop, and retain such high performing teachers. Then, enable them to make real relationships with their students. And, of course, hold everyone to high standards.”

First, Tavenner provided all her teachers 40 days of professional development outside the classroom every year. She gave those teaching the same subject a common prep-period, fostering daily collaboration.

Then, she set those teachers up for success by providing them a block schedule of longer classes fewer times a week, a class size of no more than 25 students, and no more than 100 student contacts a day.

By comparison, a typical teacher in my district’s Logan High, with a student population exceeding 4,000, faces at least 35 students per class and as many as 180 students daily.

At Summit, close relationships between teachers and students are the norm. The school is small, with only 100 students per grade. All of them have a Personalized Learning Plan they themselves craft together with their parents and their mentor—a teacher who oversees their progress for all their four years at Summit. No teacher mentors more than 18 students, ensuring none them fall though the cracks.

Teachers stay after school to tutor and to participate in school government—with all major decisions including the budget decided by consensus. Struggling students and anyone who misses even a single assignment are required to stay after as well.

“It’s a difficult adjustment for the freshman class,” Tavenner laughs. “But the students and their parents get with the program soon enough.”

Tavenner has succeeded in creating a school where she—and everyone—can be happy, as long as they are willing to work hard together.

It’s no wonder Summit Preparatory Charter High School can accept by lottery only a quarter of those applying. Or that, given this demand, Tavenner has opened another similar charter this fall, and has four more on the drawing board.

Giving Up

To charter or not to charter? That is the question.

Hamlet pondered whether to battle “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or to just give up. My fear is that, in pushing for more charter schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has given up.

Charters never really became laboratories for innovation. They simply adopted the “new ideas” all public schools would if only they had the freedom and the funds: longer school days and years, smaller schools and class sizes, careful selection of motivated, gifted teachers, strict accountability for both students and their parents, site-based management….

Charters have such freedom. However, their claims to operate with fewer state funds than most public schools are spurious. For one, charters usually receive substantial outside support. Even more significant since salaries account for more than 90% of most schools’ budgets, charters typically employ younger, far-less expensive faculty, and turn them over after only four years, thus keeping expenses artificially low.

In other words, charters attract our best new teachers but quickly burn them out.

This is reform?

True reform would address the real and enduring problems plaguing public education, such as the fact that the teaching profession generally attracts our least qualified college graduates; that the worst of them too often staff inner city schools; that schools stand more segregated by race and class than ever; that they follow the same factory model as a century ago….

Many (certainly not all) charters, such as Summit Preparatory High School which I featured in my last column, offer at least a few of our inner-city children a way out of an obviously broken and shamelessly unjust system of public schools.

Indeed, although one recent Stanford University study found that most charters, despite all their advantages, fail to outperform regular public schools, another documented how New York City charters narrow the achievement gap between urban and suburban schools by an astonishing 86%.

If a poor, single mother pleads, “I just want my kids to have a shot at a good life,” and if some charter schools offer them that shot, who am to say anything other than “Bravo”?

Let’s be honest, though: Charters embody the Harriet Tubman approach to reform: Duncan will send to our beleaguered inner-cities more charter “Moseses” to save a least a few more kids, even though those charters will increase the challenges and suffering of those left behind, as I explained in my first two columns in this series.

I would rather Duncan emulate Frederick Douglass who boldly assailed the entire immoral institution that made Tubman necessary.

However, I find none of Douglass’ outrage, courage, and vision in Duncan’s other strategy for education reform, his $4 billion “Race to the Top” stimulus (which, incidentally, is less than 1% of the Defense Department’s budget). It merely throws money at and seeks to tweak an educational system that is hopelessly flawed.

Perhaps Duncan knows this. His push for additional charters reveals a cynical, desperate, and ultimately despairing approach to school reform: Instead of “No child left behind,” he quietly whimpers, “Fewer children left behind.”

To reform or not to reform? I fear Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has given up before he’s even begun.

No Child Left Behind


The hallmark of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind mandate (NCLB, pronounced “Nickel-Bee” in educational circles) is its utter simplicity.

Gone are the tortured debates regarding Whole Language vs. Phonics instruction, heterogeneous vs. homogeneous student groupings, bilingual vs. immersion programs, a broad curriculum vs. the basics…. Nope, now all we have to do is just require that all schools enable every single student to meet the same high academic standards—or at least to demonstrate adequate yearly progress towards meeting them. We measure the schools’/student’s success or failure with fill-in-the-bubble standardized testing and—presto!—we’re done! We can then either reward or punish schools accordingly.

Why didn’t we think of this long ago? (Just call me Rush!) In fact, it’s such a good idea that I propose we implement this same straight-forward reform in every other area of society.

Let’s begin with health care. We can implement the long overdue No Patient Left Behind initiative (NPLB, “Nipple-Bee” in medical circles). You see, it has come to my attention that patient death rates at county hospitals are much higher than at, for example, the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. Shocking, isn’t it? Well, why don’t we just require that all hospitals meet the same arbitrary survival rates? Then we can sit back and watch the ensuing miracle in our nation’s health care.

Now, we can anticipate the howls of protest from those lazy doctors and nurses in our county hospitals. Yes, they’ll cite the fact that poverty, crime, gangs, and homelessness run rampant in their neighborhoods. (Aren’t these the same tired excuses educators in our inner cities constantly hide behind?) We’ll turn a deaf ear, though, and simply insist our county hospitals to shape up. If not, we’ll implement vouchers and allow inner city patients to saunter over to the Palo Alto Medical Clinic for treatment.

Next, we must turn our attention to police departments, because—and I’m not making this up!—many urban areas suffer from higher crime rates than, say, Hillsborough. Why have we allowed this travesty to continue for so long?

It’s high time we undertake the No Felon Left Behind program. (“Niffle-Bee” in crime prevention circles.) We’ll merely require our hitherto slothful inner city cops to stop dunking donuts and get to work. Indeed, we’ll measure the average yearly improvement of every single ethnic group in their jurisdiction, just like we do with schools. If a single ethnicity fails to post a decrease in crime—let’s say the incidence of shoplifting among anglos remains flat one year---we’ll publish this humiliation on the front page of the local press, and threaten the police department with a state take-over….

I jest, of course, but with only a trace or mirth, and an abundance of bile. Once we transpose No Child Left Behind to any other social issue, we see it as it truly is: ludicrous.

This fact became even more difficult to obscure with the recent 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board Supreme Court Decision. We “celebrated” the fact that separate but equal schools became unconstitutional; but then find ourselves coughing and shuffling our feet as we grudgingly admit that our schools are more separate and unequal now than ever, as a recent Argus series made manifest.

Will Nickel-Bee resolve this? Clearly not, just as Nipple-Bee and Niffle-Bee wouldn’t address the challenges and injustices endemic to our similarly segregated communities either.

No, the problems our schools face—as do our nation and our world--are complex, indeed. They defy any easy, alluring panacea, no matter how cute or comforting its acronym.


It now seems highly unlikely Congress will reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The six-year-old federal law stipulates that, each year, an increasing percentage of students at each school become proficient in Language Arts and math until, by the year 2014, every single child is grade-level proficient in both subjects. NCLB also mandates escalating sanctions for Title 1 schools (those receiving federal funds to assist disadvantaged children) for repeatedly failing to meet those annual proficiency benchmarks.

Although nearly everybody agrees NCLB needs fixing, the devil is in the details.

Some argue correctly that, since NCLB allows each state to give its own exam and to determine what score on it constitutes proficiency, the law provides loopholes so large you could drive an entire state through them.

For example, North Carolina announced that, according to its test, 92% of its students were proficient in math. However, only 40% of them could pass the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math exam. Similarly, while Colorado declared students with a percentile ranking of only 6 on its test to be proficient, South Carolina kids needed a ranking of 71. (Maybe Colorado’s test was just much more difficult than South Carolina’s?)

California set some of the toughest standards in the nation, which might be a source of pride; except that, as a result, a disproportionate number of California schools have faced NCLB sanctions.

It’s a mess, really. The easy solution would be to require all states to administer the same exam, such as the NAEP, and to score it identically. However, NCLB already manifests an unprecedented federal meddling into what has hitherto been sacrosanct state sovereignty over education. Should Congress determine when, how and what will be taught at the neighborhood grade school?

Others argue, also correctly, that NCLB, in focusing only on Language Arts and math, and in utilizing only standardized testing to measure proficiency, is too narrow in scope. What about Social Studies, science, art, music and physical education, which are also essential for becoming a good citizen and a well-rounded, healthy person? What about essays, projects, presentations and portfolios, which more authentically measure the skills necessary for a successful life and career? NCLB has inadvertently undermined, sometimes even eliminated these other courses and activities.

Also, shouldn’t progress toward proficiency matter? Currently, an inner-city school that motivates its disadvantaged kids to advance three grade levels in one year will undergo sanctions nonetheless if too may kids still miss that year’s proficiency benchmark; while a suburban school advancing its students not at all will receive praise as long as enough of its gifted children still meet it. Which school is truly great, and which deserving of sanctions?

How about judging other factors as well, such as drop outs? One sure-fired way to raise high school test scores is to merely encourage low-scoring students to disappear—an underhanded strategy which, according to the Rice University Center for Education, largely explains former Governor, now President Bush’s so-called “Texas Miracle” in education. (California, once again on the stringent side, factors in graduation rates.)

And then there’s the not-so-minor detail that Congress has never fully funded NCLB. (A fact that will increase in importance here in California in the light of impending drastic cuts in state funds.) The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, Cincinnati, ruled in January that, as a result, schools may not have to comply fully with NCLB. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings disagreed.

Spellings, the courts, Congress, governors, teachers’ unions have been arguing these and other issues ad nauseam. None of them, however, acknowledge—at least publicly—that no research at all supports NCLB’s primary premise, that high stakes standardized testing will improve student achievement. In other words, everybody’s debating the details while avoiding the dubious premise underpinning all of them.

Since there’s been no accord, NCLB will most likely continue as it is well into the next presidency. In the meantime, benchmarks for adequate yearly progress towards proficiency in Language Arts and math will rise dramatically, by about 11 percentage points a year. Since 34% of California schools have already failed to meet current benchmarks, many more schools may soon run afoul of NCLB, including urban and wealthy ones.

In other words, NCLB is going to get a lot worse, and a lot more interesting.

Program Improvement

“We are a very caring and hardworking staff,” one of my colleagues wrote in defensive frustration last week, “with a spirited student population, and we all take a lot of pride in what we do here. We deserve better than to be painted with a broad brush by NCLB (No Child Left Behind), and hence the media, as ‘under-performing.’ We are always looking for ways to improve; but having to send a letter home to our students which implies that our other two middle schools are somehow superior to ours hurts our pride and, even more importantly, sends our kids indirect message that somehow they don’t measure up…. Our staff knows better.”

Two weeks ago, my school had to draft such a letter to all parents inviting them to transfer their children to one of the other two middle schools in the district. “For the past two years,” the letter read, “Barnard-White Middle has not met the NCLB criteria adopted by the State Board of Education and so has been identified by preliminary reports as needing program improvement.”

What the letter didn’t explain, however, is that those other middle schools didn’t meet NCLB criteria either. The difference is that we are a Title I school: A substantial portion of our students are eligible for free and reduced lunches. As a result, we receive additional federal funds, but now face sanctions most schools don’t.

The letter was a bitter slap in the face to us at Barnard-White, because, frankly, we’d been quite proud of our recent, hard-won success. For example, we’d improved our Academic Performance Index (API) steadily and dramatically for six straight years. And, even though our raw score was lower than those of our two sister district middle schools, when all three schools were compared to others with similar socioeconomic student populations, Barnard-White emerged on top. In fact, last year, almost across the board, we raised the percentage of students proficient on the tests used to determine NCLB criteria, including the California Standards Test, at a rate superior to the district average.

Clearly, we, the staff and students at Barnard-White, had been doing a lot of things right. Many of them--such as creating an environment where most everyone felt safe, supported, cared-for, and happy (one of our strongest suites)--would never show up on a standardized exam. Nonetheless, according to NCLB, we were in need of “program improvement” ; and so, because we were a Title I school, our students deserved the opportunity to “escape” to purportedly more successful ones.

The irony is that we must tap Title I funds to pay for the transportation of those who elected to leave, instead of using the money to assist struggling students who remained; and that those who left generally had among the highest test scores-- a student brain-drain making it even more difficult for Barnard-White to meet NCLB standards in the future.

Most everyone in education recognizes NCLB will eventually collapse under this and many other misbegotten absurdities. For example, the benchmark for success will gradually rise until in the year 2014, every single student in the nation must be proficient in every single subject, or his/her school will be similarly labeled in need of program improvement. Obviously, most schools will eventually fail--twenty-three have so far in the Tri-Cities--even elite ones with predominately advantaged students. Then, of course, the law will change.

That is no consolation to us here at Barnard-White. We will continue to do what we’ve always done: push ourselves above and beyond, demand the highest standards while taking tender care of each other--all with our enduring Bronco pride. But now we will do so in spite of NCLB, not because of it.



Why have I--and so many others who have similarly spent their careers fighting for higher standards in education--struggled so adamantly against the current standards movement in California and the nation? And why are we now beginning to smile again?

We’ve dreamed of reasonable standards, measuring student achievement with authentic assessment. We’ve confronted, instead, ludicrous standards tied to high-stakes fill-in-the-bubble testing.

Ludicrous? When the elite oligarchy in Sacramento wrote the California standards, for example, convinced that every high school graduate ought to go on to a prestigious four-year university, they were afraid of leaving anything out, and so too often threw everything in but the kitchen sink. In most grades and subjects, there are simply too many standards: more than 160 in my 4th grade curriculum; more than 70 in just one high school Chemistry course. It would not only be impossible to teach them all well, but educational malpractice to attempt to do so.

Oh, some of my colleagues have “covered” the standards: “It’s the end of the first semester, so we have to be halfway through the textbook.” They rush through the standards and the text with no pause to study anything in depth, no attempt to adequately instill real comprehension, much less a love of the subject, even less the academic skills necessary to truly succeed in school and life.

Nonetheless, they pat themselves on the back each June for having gotten though everything--a job supposedly well-done, even though the students, bored out of their minds, remember little. (Not that the students complain. After all, memorizing a list of facts only to regurgitate them on the next test is much less challenging than actually learning to think.)

Yes, systematically covering standards is quite alluring. For teachers, it is so much easier than responding to students’ needs and interests, planning captivating simulations/experiments, conducting poignant classroom discussions, guiding kids through demanding research projects, teaching kids how to read a textbook, how to take notes, how to consult a broad array of sources in addition to the text before drawing any conclusions…. (The bread and butter of real teaching, its greatest challenge, providing its greatest reward.)

Covering standards, you see, is the last and best sanctuary for uninspired or lazy educators and students.

Their sanctuary’s days are numbered, however.

Recent research is finally uncovering how cursorily rushing through standards--implementing a curriculum that is a mile in breadth, but an inch in depth--inadequately prepares students for college.

A study published in the December issue of the online journal Science Education indicates “Breadth-based learning, as commonly applied in high school classrooms, does not appear to offer students any advantage when they enroll in introductory college science courses, although it may contribute to scores on standardized tests.”

More specifically, the report documents how students who had spent at least a month on one particular topic in their high school science classes earned higher grades in college science courses than students who had not.

The difference is actually so profound as to astound: The former perform, the researchers estimate, as if they’d received as much as two thirds more instruction than the latter.

Clearly, mastering big ideas trumps “unrelated bits of scientific knowledge,” the hallmark of most standardized exams.

US science standards, upon which such tests are based, typically include vastly more topics than those of other countries whose children routinely outperform ours.

Nonetheless, each time such international test comparisons appear, pundits decry them anew, typically arguing for even more rigorous US standards and testing. (Just as physicians of old prescribed yet more blood-letting whenever the first round had proven ineffective.)

With the Obama Administration, however, we may be entering into a new era, when research (and, one can always hope, common sense) will prevail over elitist ideology. Thus, even during such dire times as ours, many of my colleagues and I find reason to hope.


Last week I wrote that the current standards movement is ludicrous. Far from improving student performance, standards have become the last, best sanctuary for uninspired or lazy educators and students. In fact, standards have hindered achievement later in college, as emerging research has revealed.

This is not news to anyone in the profession. We educators have long murmured as much among ourselves.

Publicly, however, we’ve adopted an Emperor’s-New-Clothes approach, grudgingly feigning a faith in standards we didn’t possess lest we incur the wrath of the powerful true-believers mandating them: “Of course I teach to standards,” we’ve chorused. Or, “Yes, this is a standards-based lesson.” Few dared to utter the naked truth that the standards movement was destroying education.

And so, because of our craven code of silence, the madness only escalated.

Over-zealous administrators, for example, especially those preferring a bureaucratic approach to children, demanded that teachers include numbered standards--as in “Language Arts 7.4.3”--in daily lesson plans and on class-board lists. Some even insisted that kids write the standards at the top of every assignment. (As if teaching and learning could be reduced to a numbered list of standards!)

Former New Haven Superintendent Ruth Ann Mckenna claimed a standards checklist was absolutely necessary to protect ourselves from lawsuits. If some of our students failed the high school exit exam, we could smugly claim, “We’re not to blame. After all, we covered all the standards. Here, look at our checklist.”

It was not one of public education’s finer moments.

The next (il)logical step was a standards-based report card. For example, I no longer give my students grades such as an “A” in math or a “B” in reading. No, I’m supposed to constantly evaluate each and every child on an array of more than 75 different criteria, using the indicators of 5 for “advanced,” 4 for “proficient,” 3 for “basic,” 2 for “below basic,” and 1 for “far below basic.”

It’s a report card only a desk-bound administrator could like. Any teacher who did it right, though, would have to spend as much time testing as teaching. And, oh the hapless parents! I recall more than a few humorous (After all, you have to laugh or you’ll go crazy.) moments during conferences last fall when, after failing to decipher the two-page list of numbers on the standards-based report card, some parents blinked back up at me, exasperated. “So, how’s my kid doing?” they begged.

Even most administrators eventually acknowledged--at least tacitly--that it was impossible to teach, much less evaluate every single standard. They introduced the notion of “Power Standards.” Not all standards are created equal, you see. So, although we still needed to teach every one of them (Wink! Wink!), some deserved more emphasis than others.

One might have pointed out that, if every district and school similarly identified its own particular power standards, the whole concept of standards was now defunct. However, it wouldn’t have been nice (or prudent) to mention that the emperor had no clothes.

Now there are whispers of “Gateway Standards,” crucial ones, the mastery of which would be required for passing on to the next course or grade. These would be non-negotiable standards, the ones the teachers absolutely positively had to teach, the ones students simply had to learn.

I hope such Gateway Standards come to be. Since they’d be few, simple, clear, indisputably important, reasonable for every teacher to instruct, and possible for every regular-education student to master, they’d be the kind of standards my colleagues and I could whole-heartedly embrace, without having to wink or dissemble. Gateway Standards are what we ought to have implemented in the first place.

Perhaps someday.

In the meantime, it behooves us to ask why we teachers--supposedly highly trained and uncommonly passionate professionals, the adults closest to children and the classroom--why have we been excluded from the most important decisions regarding education?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that we’ve too often behaved like sheep, remaining silent, acquiescent, even in the face of what we knew to be wrong.