On the Common Core by John Thompson via Edweek’s Living in Dialogue

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This is from Anthony Cody’s Living in Dialogue blog at Edweek, providing a piece by John Thompson. Links on top are interesting also.

« Open Letter to President Obama, Time to Do What’s Right for our Schools |

Designer of Value-Added Tests a Skeptic about Current Test Mania »

Common Core Is the Essence of the “Status Quo” — That’s why I Support It

Guest post by John Thompson.


Last week, attending a great conference in Oklahoma City, Vision 2020, focused largely on Common Core, I kept worrying how I could articulate my support for the effort without angering my friends who are skeptical of it, or needlessly antagonizing Common Core supporters who hold the weird belief that it will be “a game-changer.” Finally, I decided to just put my thesis on the table. I support Common Core because it embodies the essence of the educational “status quo.” I support Common Core because it is like the educational establishment and American democracy in being the worst of all systems, except for all of the rest.

Twenty years ago, when I shifted from an academic career as a historian, I loved education conferences where teachers presented a range of workshops on pedagogies that had worked for them, stimulating a cross-fertilization of ideas. Few presenters claimed that the best practices that worked for them could be scaled up as “silver bullets” for the entire nation. These conferences also offered a window into my new profession’s scholarship. In contrast to many other career-changers who became school “reformers,” I fell in love with the work of the late Gerald Bracey, Larry Cuban, David Berliner, Lynn Canady, Diane Ravitch and, later, Robert Balfanz and the Consortium of Chicago School Research. I concluded that the educational research informing these seminars was the intellectual equal of any other social science genre.

I was not confident that the emerging “Standards” movement would have an effect on inner city schools like mine but, when read as scholarly documents, the original standards of learning were outstanding, and I mourned their defeat by the scorched earth politics of the 1990s.

Rather than stay the course and work within the system for another set of higher standards, a new generation of accountability-driven “reformers” adopted the Lee Atwater/Dick Morris tactics of demonization. They set out to destroy the “status quo.” According to the “brass knuckles” school of reform, if education schools, school boards, teachers unions, and educational progressivism were wiped out, then “disruptive innovation” would produce “transformational” change.” Standards morphed into standardization. Bubble-in testing became the point of the spear in a war by newcomers to the profession against veteran educators, as well as the social science that questioned their quick fixes. Eventually, many of the leading accountability hawks described themselves as “the Fight Club,” and concentrated their efforts not on improving schools, but on destroying education systems in the righteous belief that something better would magically rise from the ashes.

Now, we have “déjà vu all over again,” as the Common Core seeks a collaborative effort to organize instruction and assessments in order to provide engaging instruction so that students can learn for mastery. The contemporary Common Core effort is like old-fashioned educational progressivism in that it is based on the current state of the art of educational research. So, of course, many of its core tenets will later be proven to be mistaken. But, Common Core is a back-to-the-future political process where all stakeholders have been consulted.

As with the educational status quo of the 1990s, testing companies and consultants have more influence than I would like. Common Core advocates continue to insist that they do not intend to intrude into the way that practitioners teach the new Standards, as they continue to try to micro-manage instruction. (I have several sources I consider credible who fear it’s actually PARRC that is intent on creating (yet again) scripted teacher-proof instruction – Jer) Teachers will need to push back as the policy-makers over-emphasize assessments and become overly proscriptive. And, probably, it will go overboard in replacing too much fiction with nonfiction. (This is in fact an expectation of several state- and national-award winning English teachers with whom I’ve chatted with the decisions being made by people who know nothing about teaching language arts – Jer) We should remember the wisdom of Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio, however, who explains that Common Core does more than cut fiction, it also “restores art, music, history, and literature to the curriculum. (Emphasis in the original)

But, has that not always been the case in our schools? Are not all of our social institutions the results of “reforms” that prompt pushback, and that thus evolve in a non-rational manner? Is that not also the history of our constitutional democracy? The difference is that the test mania of recent years is an existential threat to public education. Common Core is not.

Prospects for Common Core would be far brighter if it was 1992 and we had not just followed the dead end path of test-driven accountability. Today, we have far more resources for designing new Standards and assessments. The billions of dollars wasted on bubble-in accountability gimmicks, however, will be missed. It will be tough enough to fund the curriculum supports and to implement the professional development necessary to prepare teachers. In the short term, we will not have a fraction of the resources necessary to provide the supports that our poorest children will need in order to learn for mastery. (I am not convinced that the sponsors of Common Core have any idea how much it will cost to align high-quality interventions that are needed before it can improve the toughest schools.)

Even so, we must recognize the opportunity that Common Core represents.
After a decade where educational leaders had to twist themselves into pretzels, maintaining that it was possible to have high-stakes testing and engaging instruction, it was liberating to attend a conference where educators and politicians of all stripes agreed that the teach-to-the-basic-skills-test regime of the last decade has failed. Similarly, I did not meet a politician, vendor, administrator, or a teacher who claimed that value-added teacher evaluations and test-driven accountability can co-exist with the transition to the Common Core. After all, test scores are bound to crater in our toughest schools as the curriculum is turned on its head.

Value-added accountability is a tool for destroying the teachers’ part of the “status quo,” but Common Core seeks to build a new barn and not just kick the old one down. The consensus I see as emerging is that the most likely next step for data-driven accountability is to return to the skill that we know forwards and backwards. If we want Common Core to survive, systems will apply their practiced talents in fabricating data and creating loopholes in order to keep value-added models from driving teaching talent from the schools where it is harder to raise test scores, and where the transition to Common Core will be most difficult.

During the next couple of years, educators will receive a mixed message. We will be told to prepare for a brand new adventure in teaching for mastery. In enlightened districts, educators will get a head start and will be allowed to abandon the teach-to-the-test basic skills approach that has been driving the love of learning out of our classrooms. In other schools during the two-year transition period, educators will still be required to engage in the same educational malpractice of the last decade and, then, they will be expected to turn on a dime and teach analysis, critical thinking, and synthesis. Finally, there is no guarantee that “reformers” won’t again become impatient and turn the technology necessary to support Common Core into a more sophisticated version of an educational assembly line. Common Core could degenerate into a super-duper hi-tech version of the scripted instruction that that has come out of NCLB but, still, it could be a step toward real educational equity.

We should remember that the short-term pain of the abrupt change schooling will be tougher on our students. Kids are resilient, though. In another contrast to data-driven reform, if Common Core survives the rocky road ahead, it will be our poorest kids in our most challenged schools who will have the most to gain. It would be nice if the billions of dollars spent on computers for command and control could be redirected towards the socio-emotional supports that are necessary before low-skilled students can excel with a legitimate college-prep or career-tech curricula. The key to success, however, is rejecting the quick fix mentality that looks to Common Core, or any other single reform, as being more than a step by which our schools, and the rest of our so-called “status quo,” bend the arch of incremental change towards justice. Common Core Is the Essence of the “Status Quo”

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.


Flunking Arne Duncan

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Recognized widely as one of the most astute of our educational historians, Diane brings her frustration at our inability to learn from our past mistakes to bear in a variety of venues. Here, today (although I am egregiously tardy with this one), she points out her disappointment with Obama’s/Duncan’s education policy. I was particularly disheartened with the reminder that the MetLife survey noted that the percentage of teachers who said that they are likely to leave the profession mushroomed from 17% to 29% during Duncan’s watch. REMEMBER: IT IS ALWAYS THE BEST WHO LEAVE FIRST. Because they can. That’s NOT to suggest I have any hope that Obama’s likely challenger will bring enlightenment to public educational policy.

As a reminder, Georgia minimum competency testing begins. For at least a month in many schools, and since August 1, 2011 in some, there has been NO teaching — only drill and kill factoid recognition to pass the state mincomp tests. Anyone really wonder why international comparisons keep showing the gap between us and the rest of the world getting wider?

Originally published on the New York Review of Books website at


Flunking Arne Duncan

Diane Ravitch

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan loves evaluation. He insists that everyone should willingly submit to public grading of the work they do. The Race to the Top program he created for the Obama Administration requires states to evaluate all teachers based in large part on the test scores of their students. When the Los Angeles Times released public rankings that the newspaper devised for thousands of teachers, Duncan applauded and asked, “What’s there to hide?” Given Duncan’s enthusiasm for grading educators, it seems high time to evaluate his own performance as Secretary of Education.

Here are his grades:

Does Duncan respect the limited role of the federal government in education, which all previous secretaries have recognized?

No. Duncan has expanded the role of the federal government in unprecedented ways. He seems not to know that education is the responsibility of state and local governments, as defined by the Tenth amendment to our Constitution. States and local school districts now look to Washington to tell them how to reform their schools and must seek permission to deviate from the regulations written by the U.S. Department of Education. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) created the template for this growing federal control of education, but Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top has made it possible for Washington to dictate education policy across the nation. Grade: F.

Has Duncan followed the law in his education policies?

No. Duncan has issued waivers to states that want to be relieved from NCLB’s impossible mandate of reaching 100 percent proficiency by 2014, but replaced that law’s demands with those of his own devising. Duncan says his waivers allow “flexibility,” but they serve simply to impose his own ideas about evaluating teachers, “transforming” low-performing schools (by firing staff or closing the schools), and adopting national standards in reading and mathematics. While very few people defend NCLB, which will write off almost every public school in the United States as a failure by 2014, it is still the law. Duncan has no authority to replace it with his own rules; cabinet members are not allowed to change the laws. Under our Constitution, Congress writes the laws, and the executive branch must enforce them, even as it seeks to change those that are onerous and misguided. Grade: F.

Has Duncan obeyed the clear prohibitions in law against federal involvement in creating a national curriculum?

No. The law that governs the U.S. Department of Education clearly states that no officer of the federal government may “exercise any direction, supervision, or control” over the curriculum or program of instruction of any school or school system. Yet Duncan has insisted that states eager for race to the top funding or for NCLB waivers must adopt “college and career-ready standards,” widely understood as the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and reading developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, funded in large part by the Gates Foundation. Prodded by Duncan, 45 states have endorsed this national curriculum—despite the fact that it has never been field-tested. No one knows whether these standards are good or bad, whether they will improve academic achievement or widen the achievement gap. A report from the Brookings Institution recently predicted that the Common Core standards would have “little to no effect on student achievement.” Grade: F.

Have the policies promulgated by Duncan been good for the children of the United States?

No. Most parents and teachers and even President Obama (and sometimes Duncan himself) agree that “teaching to the test” makes school boring and robs classrooms of time for the imaginative instruction and activities that enliven learning. The standardized tests that are now ubiquitous are inherently boring. As President Obama said in his State of the Union address, teachers should teach with “creativity and passion,” but they can’t do that when tests matter so much. Spending hours preparing to take pick-the-bubble tests depresses student interest and motivation. This is not good for children. Yet Duncan’s policies—which use test scores to evaluate teachers and to decide which schools to close and which teachers to pay bonuses to—intensively promote teaching to the test. This is not good for students. Grade: F.

Do Duncan’s policies encourage teachers and inspire good teaching?

No. Duncan’s policies demean the teaching profession by treating student test scores as a proxy for teacher quality. A test that a student takes on one day of the year cannot possibly measure the quality of a teacher. (Officially, the administration suggests that test scores are supposed to be only one of multiple measures of teacher quality, but invariably the scores outweigh every other component of any evaluation program, as they did in New York City’s recent release of the teacher ratings.) Nor do most teachers want to compete with one another for merit pay.

Duncan cheered when the superintendent of the Central Falls, Rhode Island, school district threatened to fire every teacher in the town’s only high school; the Education Secretary memorably said that Hurricane Katrina—which wiped out public schools and broke the teachers’ union in New Orleans—was the best thing that ever happened to the school system in that city. Teachers are demoralized by such statements. They want to collaborate around the needs of the children they teach, but federal policy commands them instead to compete with one another for dollars and higher test scores if they want to stay employed. The Metlife Survey of the American Teacher, released March 6, reports a sharp decline in teacher morale since 2009: the percentage of teachers who are “very satisfied” with their job dropped from 59 percent to 44 percent, and the percentage who said they were likely to leave the profession grew from 17 percent to 29 percent. This happened on Duncan’s watch. Grade: F.

Have Duncan’s policies strengthened public education?

No. Duncan has required states to create more privately-managed charter schools to be eligible for Race to the Top funding, putting pressure on state governments to privatize public education. In response, state legislatures are authorizing many more such schools, whose budgets are drawn from the funds of local public schools. A small proportion of these new charter schools will get high scores, and some will get those scores by skimming the top students in poor communities and by excluding children with disabilities and children who are English language learners. Such practices are harmful to public schools, which will continue to educate the overwhelming majority of students—with fewer resources than before. In some states, such as Michigan and Ohio, large numbers of charters are run for profit, which creates additional incentives for them to avoid low-performing and thus expensive to educate students. Although charters vary widely in quality, they do not produce better results on average than regular public schools. Conservative governors such as Mitch Daniels in Indiana and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana have taken Duncan’s advocacy of choice to the next level and endorsed vouchers, which further undermine public education. Despite these well-documented issues, Duncan continues to urge the expansion of the charter sector and has ignored the depredations of the for-profit charter sector. Grade: F.

Has Duncan defended public education and public school educators against attacks on them?

No. Although he is a Democrat, he has been absent when public education and public school educators were under siege. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker decided to eliminate collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public sector workers, Duncan was silent. When Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels pushed through a voucher bill that provides public funding for students to attend private and religious schools, Duncan was silent. When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal endorsed sweeping voucher and charter legislation, Duncan was silent (indeed, he described Governor Jindal’s choice for state commissioner to promote his extremely conservative education agenda as “a visionary leader”). When other governors proposed legislation to remove due process rights from teachers, to slash education spending, and to expand the privatization of public schools, Duncan was silent. Grade: F.

Will Duncan’s policies improve public education?

No. Under pressure to teach to tests—which assess only English and math skills—many districts are reducing the time available for teaching the arts, history, civics, foreign languages, physical education, and other non-tested subjects. (Other districts are spending scarce dollars to create new tests for the arts, physical education, and those other subjects so they can evaluate all their teachers, not just those who teach reading and mathematics.) Reducing the time available for the arts, history, and other subjects will not improve education. Putting more time and money into testing reduces the time and money available for instruction. None of this promotes good education. None of this supports love of learning or good character or any other ideals for education. Such a mechanistic, anti-intellectual approach would not be tolerated for President Obama’s children, who attend an excellent private school. It should not be tolerated for the nation’s children, 90 percent of whom attend public schools. Grade: F.

Overall, Secretary Duncan rates an F.

We will someday view this era as one in which the nation turned its back on its public schools, its children, and its educators. We will wonder why so many journalists and policymakers rejected the nation’s obligation to support public education as a social responsibility and accepted the unrealistic, unsustainable promises of entrepreneurs and billionaires. And we will, with sorrow and regret, think of this as an era when an obsession with testing and data obliterated any concept or definition of good education. Some perhaps may recall this as a time when the nation forgot that education has a greater purpose than preparing our children to compete in the global economy.

Secretary of Education Duncan should have fought vigorously against all these pernicious developments. He should have opposed the misuse of test scores. He should have opposed the galloping privatization of public education. He should have demanded the proper funding of public education, instead of tolerating deep budget cuts as “the new normal.” He should have spoken out against states that passed along the cost of higher education to students, putting it out of reach for many. But he has not. He should have upheld, in word and deed, the dignity of the teaching profession. Unfortunately he has not.

Even more unfortunately, it is hard to find any leader of either party who stands forthrightly today as a champion of students, teachers, public schools, and good education. This is a tragedy of our times.

Report Card: Arne Duncan
Fidelity to the Constitution F
Doing what’s right for children F
Doing what’s right for public education F
Respecting the limits of federalism F
Doing what’s right for teachers F
Doing what’s right for education F

March 7, 2012, 11:05 a.m.

Why the Ed Department should be reconceived — or abolished

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Here’s an incisive piece from Peter Smagorinsky of UGA posted at The Washington Post Answer Sheet by Valerie Strauss. Peter and I have yet to meet but have managed to swap electrons periodically.

Posted at  10:45 AM ET, 03/11/2012

The Answer Sheet

This was written by Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia.

By Peter Smagorinsky

The Department of Education has, since its inception in 1979, served as the source of national education policies governing our nation’s schools. Although I agree with very little else of Rick Perry’s vision for America, I think that either abolishing or thoroughly reconceiving this office would make for a better nation, given that for the most part it has done teachers and students far more harm than good.

Over time, the Department of Education has become increasingly bureaucratic and invasive, and has formulated its policies on questionable information that appears to emanate from hunches, anecdotes, whims, and fads, buttressed by corroborating evidence from ideologically friendly think tanks and media blowhards. Along the way, in what seems to be an increasing national trend of anti-intellectualism and cognophobic reactions to the specter of educated and knowledgeable people having opinions, it has eschewed the opportunity to consult with people who teach in or study schools.

The DOE has instead relied on think tanks, film-makers whose “documentary” productions tell whatever story is convenient to the producer’s vision, commissioned studies designed to find what its authors and sponsors are looking for, billionaires whose money entitles them to policy roles, and other dubious sources. Less known to the public, and in my view the most malignant of these influences, textbook companies have used political connections and contributions to position themselves to dictate curricula and assessment that they conveniently provide, for a substantial fee, at every stage of a child’s educational journey. To give one example, McGraw Hill, with long-established ties to the Bush family and testing contracts in 26 states, reported profits in the penultimate year of George W. Bush’s presidency of $403,000,000.

It’s well known that President Obama, for whom I voted and whose presidency I continue to support, relies on the counsel of people with whom he has played basketball. Obama made his very worst cabinet appointment when he chose his fellow player, Arne Duncan, as secretary of education.

Let’s trace his path to the presidential Cabinet. One of Duncan’s childhood friends, John Rogers, appointed Duncan director of the Ariel Education Initiative in Chicago. Duncan’s directorship led to Ariel’s reincarnation as a charter school, following which Duncan was advanced in the Chicago Public School system from deputy chief of staff to chief executive officer. Note that he worked exclusively at the executive level, never stooping to teach classes or learn about schools except from an operational perspective.

As a youth, Duncan spent his free time at his mom’s after-school program. According to Duncan, this experience with African American teens who had limited literacy proficiency served as a central motivator for his educational policies. Of course, I resonate with the goal of helping to improve the lives of dispossessed people so that they can develop the resources to live happy, healthy, and productive lives. And that’s why I vigorously oppose just about everything that Arne Duncan has done in his role as U.S. secretary of education, because he has reduced the incredibly complex process of teaching and learning knowledge that people find useful to an endless series of multiple choice tests. This system has turned teachers into functionaries and turned students into factory workers whose job it is to produce higher and higher test scores in the futile quest for Annual Yearly Progress, in which each year’s students are required to outscore last year’s students, with their teachers deemed incompetent should this year’s students fail to outperform last year’s, year after year, ad infinitum.

Arne Duncan is only the latest, although probably the most test-obsessed, person to occupy the seat of U.S. secretary of education. A lot of people trace the testing movement that he currently enforces with a vengeance back to Rod Paige, George W. Bush’s first secretary of education and architect of the Houston Miracle. Well, OK, the Houston Miracle turned out to be a mirage as test scores were manipulated to create the appearance of success, just as many well-known business enterprises — offered by policymakers as the model for education — have been found to falsify their books in order to appear financially healthy when they are in fact precariously deep in the red, with stockholders provided rosy reports that mask disastrous failure. Paige also hid school dropout rates so that youth who left the system — in part, I infer, because their education had become so useless — became invisible rather than serving as evidence against his miraculous claims of success.

At least Paige had an educational background of sorts, having served as a physical education teacher for six years before becoming a full-time high school and college football coach, then a university professor and dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern University. For his doctoral dissertation he studied the reaction time of offensive lineman on football teams. I haven’t been able to find a copy of his scholarly treatise, but I did run a check via Google Scholar and found that his doctoral research has never once been referenced as an academic source. Between the topic and the utter obscurity of the content of his dissertation, I can only conclude that it is the sort of frivolous, overly simplistic study that gives educational research a bad name.

This is the sort of policy-level leadership that our Department of Education has provided us in the last 12 years. I think that the students who entered school in 2000 and are graduating in 2012 will be the worst-educated cohort in the history of the United States, through no fault of their own, because they will have experienced all of their schooling under these ruinous programs that have reduced all learning to what can be measured on multiple choice tests. Imagine these young people now entering situations where they don’t get three or four reductive choices for each problem they encounter.

Their education has studiously avoided complexity, thoughtfulness, reflection, engagement, stimulation, personal commitment, and everything else that makes an education worth having. The source of the poverty of their education will not be their teachers, who must teach this regime or face punishment; and it will not be themselves, because I am pretty confident that kids actually want to learn things and grow into competent and appreciated people, even if what happens in school often does not provide that opportunity, and especially does not do so when everything is dictated by test preparation and test taking. Rather, the problem emerges from the policies created by those who mistaken test scores for learning and have turned tests into a vengeful machine for punishing teachers whose instruction lacks a commitment to multiple-choice tests as the epitome of a learning experience.

Instead of having a highly centralized administration powered by money contributed by textbook publishers and other entrepreneurs cashing in on the lucrative enterprise of educational materials production, I would have a highly distributed approach in which most decision-making is local and includes — and indeed, relies on — the perspective of teachers.

Presently, there’s little reason for practicing teachers to keep up with the latest ideas emerging from credible sources, or to engage in the process of producing those ideas and becoming credible sources themselves. The approach that I suggest would lend urgency to the need for teachers to be informed in order to make sound decisions. It would place a premium on being a reflective practitioner who is attentive to classroom processes and student learning, because such observations would become part of the broader school conversation about how to best educate the students who attend the school.

I find that approach far more likely to serve our nation’s youth with rigor and vigor than anything the U.S. Department of Education has tried in its 32 years of existence.

AJC steps up to the plate – again

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Maureen Downey is getting downright feisty as she continues to ponder the chaos that has been the country’s knee-jerks in education. I STRONGLY recommend you read her piece in this morning’s AJC print version. I’ll put a link to an electron version here as soon as she releases it


Why is Congress Redlining Our Schools?

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Article in The Nation by Linda Darling-Hammond. You really want to read this.


In case for some reason you can’t access this, Valerie Strauss re-published it at The Answer sheet here:


Celebrating NCLB – – –

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Here’s Diane Ravitch’s take on NCLB in her Bridging Differences discussion with Deborah Meier. I hope I can generate the hope she says she has about Congress fixing the travesty. From her post:

“After 10 years of NCLB, we should have seen dramatic progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but we have not. By now, we should be able to point to sharp reductions of the achievement gaps between children of different racial and ethnic groups and children from different income groups, but we cannot. As I said in a recent speech, many children continue to be left behind, and we know who those children are: They are the same children who were left behind 10 years ago.”


“Congress, in its wisdom, will eventually reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I hope that in doing so, they recognize the negative consequences of NCLB and abandon the strategies that have borne such bitter fruit for our nation’s education system. NCLB cannot be fixed. It has failed. It has imposed a sterile and mean-spirited regime on the schools. It represents the dead hand of conformity and regulation from afar. It is time to abandon the status quo of test-based accountability and seek fresh and innovative thinking to support and strengthen our nation’s schools.”

One of the strongest pieces “celebrating” NCLB’s decade, and it has had extensive national coverage, is from the folks at FairTest: NCLB’s Lost Decade for Educational Progress: What Can We Learn from this Policy Failure? by Lisa Guisbond with Monty Neill and Bob Schaeffer. Monty has been a friend almost as long as Bracey. We crossed paths when he came to Virginia’s state board of ed meetings to caution against their early minimum competnecy insanity. Even back in those naive days of mine working for the state DOE what he had to say made a lot of sense, and marked the beginning of my typically fruitless battle against the insidious destructiveness of minimum competency testing.

The report, introduced at http://www.fairtest.org/NCLB-lost-decade-report-home, argues that

  • NCLB failed to significantly increase average academic performance or to significantly narrow achievement gaps, as measured by the NAEP. U.S. students made greater gains before NCLB became law than after it was implemented.  
  • NCLB damaged educational quality and equity by narrowing the curriculum in many schools and focusing attention on the limited skills standardized tests measure. These negative effects fell most severely on classrooms serving low-income and minority children.
  • So-called “reforms” to NCLB, such as “Race to the Top,” Obama Administration waivers and the Senate’s Education Committee’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization bill, fail to address many of the law’s fundamental flaws and in some cases intensify them.

Other than that  – – – –

Nine Myths about Public Schools, by Gerald W. Bracey

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Those of you who have been around me for more than five or ten minutes know that one of my favorite people in the world was Jerry Bracey, who I knew for nigh on 30 years. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, he was the outspoken critic of poorly done educational research and the endless misinformation spewed forth by detractors of public education. A strong supporter of public education, he felt a duty to take to task both pundits and public figures when they wrote or spoke in error or misinterpreted data. He had no fear taking to task the powerful, and if, with his Stanford psychology Ph.D., he had chosen to keep his mouth shut he could have been the consummate public official or university professor. Instead, he chose to speak truth as he saw it. Education writers, such as the Post’s Jay Mathews and our AJC’s Maureen Downey respected and liked him even though, and perhaps because, he never hesitated to skewer them when he though it justified. Perhaps his best known writing appeared in the Kappan as his monthly research column and the annual Rotten Apples awards.

This piece seems germane to the blog given the still rampant misinformation and misdirection flying around about education during an election year, and likely during the legislative session. I do have a certain fondness for this one as it’s the only time he ever asked me for an edit before he published a piece (given my composition skillset falls far short of what his was). Jerry died less than a month after he wrote this. Probability approximates unity that I’ll suffer you more of his work from time to time. 

Nine Myths about Public Schools


September 25, 2009

None of this will likely strike you as particularly new, but it might be good to have a bunch of myths lined up and debunked all in one place.

1.  The schools were to blame for letting the Russians get into space first. Granddaddy of all slanders and a great illustration of the absolute nuttiness with which people talk about education.

Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth, launched on October 4, 1957. On September 20, 1956, Werner von Braun’s Army Ballistic Missile Agency launched a 4-stage Jupiter C rocket from Cape Canaveral. After the first 3 stages fired, the rocket was 832 miles in the air and traveling at 13,000 miles an hour. The 4th stage could have easily bumped something into orbit. The 4th stage was filled with sand. There were a number of reasons for this including the fact that the Eisenhower administration was determined to keep its weapons rocket program and its space exploration project separate and von Braun’s rocket was clearly a weapon. Its primary intent was to incinerate Russian cities with nuclear warheads. Ike worried how the Russians might react. His Assistant Defense Secretary Donald Quarles actually said “the Russians did us a favor” because they established the precedent that deep space was free and international.

Most US engineers in the space program in 1957 would have graduated high school in the 1930s, but in the media, the schools of the 1950s took the hit for Sputnik. Ike was quite puzzled by this.

2.  Schools alone can close the achievement gap. This is codified in the disaster known as No Child Left Behind. Most of the differences come from family and community variables and many out-of-school factors, especially summer loss. Some studies have found that poor children enter school behind their middle class peers, learn as much during the year and then lose it over the summer. They fall farther and farther behind and schools are blamed. Middle class and affluent kids do not show summer loss.

3.  Money doesn’t matter. Tell this to wealthy districts. Money clearly affects changes in achievement although levels of achievement are more influenced by the variables just mentioned. Most studies are short term and look only at test scores, a very foolish mistake. Economists David Card and Alan Krueger also found investments in school show a payoff in terms of long-term earnings of graduates.

4.  The United States is losing its competitive edge. China and India ARE Rising. As economies collapsed all around it, China’s economy grew a remarkable 7% last year. On just humanitarian grounds, we should not wish China and India to remain poor forever, but the more they grow the more money they have to buy stuff from us. As China and India prosper, we prosper. The World Economic Forum and the Institute for Management Development have consistently ranked the U. S. economy as the most competitive in the world. Education is only one part of multi-factor systems in rankings. WEF is especially keen on innovation. Our obsession with testing makes testing a great instrument for destroying creativity.

5.  The U. S. has a shortage of scientists, mathematicians and engineers. This was a myth started oddly enough by the National Science Foundation in the 1980s in a study with assumptions so absurd the study was never published, but the myth lingers on. In fact, Hal Salzman of the Urban Institute and Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University found that we have three newly minted scientists and engineers who are permanent residents or native citizens for every newly minted job. Within 2 years, 65% of them were no longer in scientific or engineering fields. That proportion might have fallen during the current debacle when people are more likely to hang on to a job even if they hate it. An article in the September 18 Wall Street Journal reported that before the economy collapsed, 30% of the graduates of MIT–MIT–headed directly into finance.

6.  Merit pay for teachers will improve performance. Bebchuk & Fried Pay Without Performance. Adams, Heywood & Rothstein, Teachers, Performance Pay, and Accountability. Bonus pay is concentrated in finance, insurance, and real estate. In most of private sector hard to determine and often leads to corruption and gaming the system. Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

 7.  The fastest growing jobs are all high-tech and require postsecondary education. “Postsecondary education” is a weasel word. A majority of the fastest growing jobs do, in fact, require some kind of postsecondary training. But, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they account for very few jobs. It’s the Walmarts and Macdonald’s of America that generate the jobs. According to the BLS, the job of retail sales accounts for more jobs than the top ten fastest growing jobs combined.

8.  Test scores are related to economic competitiveness. We do well on international comparisons of reading, pretty good on one international comparison of math and science, and not so good on another math/science comparison. But these comparisons are based on the countries’ average scores and average scores don’t mean much. The Organization for Economic Cooperating and Development, the producer of the math science comparison in which we do worst has pointed out that in science the U. S. has 25% of all the highest scoring students in the entire world, at least the world as defined by the 60 countries that participate in the tests. Finland might have the highest scores, but that only gives them 2,000 warm bodies compared to the U. S. figure of 67,000. It’s the high scorers who are most likely to become leaders and innovators. Only four nations have a higher proportion of researchers per 1000 fulltime employees, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand and Japan. Only Finland is much above the U. S.

Consider Japan, the economic juggernaut of the 1980’s. It kids score well on tests and people made a causal link between scores and Japan’s economy. But Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums for almost a whole generation. Its kids still ace tests.

9.  Education itself produces jobs. President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan have both linked any economic recovery to school improvement. This is nonsense. There are parts of India where thousands of educated people compete for a single relatively low-level white-collar job. Some of you might recall that in the 1970’s many sociologists and commentators worried that America was becoming TOO educated, that they would be bored by the work available.

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