Who’s on First for the Education Reform Pennant?

Bonnie BraceyBy Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Editor, Policy Issues

As I read about solutions for addressing our nation’s educational problems, I am prompted to ask, Who’s on first in the race toward the best answer?

This question echoes Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine. It is worth listening to if you don’t remember it or haven’t heard it.

My dad was a teacher. He used to say that if education were an airplane, it would never get off the ground because everyone aboard would think they knew enough to fly it. His point was that the arguments in the cockpit would ensure that the plane would never leave the runway.

I’m not trying to make fun of anyone, and I’m not picking on the President. But I am talking about the media and about us, educators. The bottom line is that discussions about education aren’t funny, especially when you think about all the nuances of the problems that make them extremely difficult to solve.

So, who’s on first? Is it Arne Duncan, with his Race to the Top?

Duncan has some great ideas in the making, but the question is, how long will it take for the initiative to shake out, work, and prove itself? Or will it take so long that there will be another administration and another education secretary before it’s finalized? What do you think? Is Duncan and his plan on first?

No, according to Diane Ravitz, who says in a Huffington Post editorial:

The program contains these key elements: Teachers will be evaluated in relation to their students’ test scores. Schools that continue to get low test scores will be closed or turned into charter schools or handed over to private management. In low-performing schools, principals will be fired, and all or half of the staff will be fired. States are encouraged to create many more privately managed charter schools.

“All of these elements are problematic,” she say, e.g., “Evaluating teachers in relation to student test scores will have many adverse consequences.” And one of those is that “Teachers will teach to the test.”

Is Mitchell Resnick, with his focus on early childhood education, on first?

Resnick, “LEGO Professor of Learning Research and head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Laboratory, explores how new technologies can engage people in creative learning experiences. . . . Recently, Resnick’s group developed Scratch, an online community where children program and share interactive stories, games, and animations.”

In fact, kindergarten may not be a bad place to focus our resources. In “The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers” (NY Times, 7.27.10), David Leonhardt discusses research that demonstrates the clear importance of kindergarten to later success. It’s a real eye opener for many people who are involved in public education and real confirmation for those of us who have advocated for true reform in an American public-education system that has been in steady decline for years. Also see Jim Taylor’s “Kindergarten Matters!” (Huffington Post, 8.2.10).

Is Diane Ravitz, with her eagle eyes on education reform, on first? Ravitz, on Larry Miller’s Blog (8.5.10), says:

For the past five years, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein have claimed that, due to their programs, New York City was a national model. They proclaimed that the city had made “historic gains” on state tests, all because of the mayor’s complete control of the policymaking apparatus. . . . It was an exciting and wonderful ride while it lasted. But last week, with the release of the state test results for 2010, New York City’s claims came crashing to the ground. . . . The belief that mayoral control was a panacea for urban ills was no longer sustainable. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has gone around the nation for the past 18 months singing the praises of mayoral control. But in light of the New York City fiasco, he will have to find a new example when he lectures urban audiences, because the New York model just lost its wheels.

Who’s on first? Is it Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools?

Yes she is, if you believe that the failures are the fault of bad teachers. See “Michelle Rhee Gets Transparent About Teacher Firings” (Washington Post letter to the editor, 8.6.10). Also see Eve Conant and Sam Register’s “Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers” (News Week, 3.5.10). As far as I’m concerned, the question remains, Are the troubles in education and our society the fault of teachers?

In her Post letter, Rhee says, “DCPS’s approach to managing human capital is a radically different one for a school system. But we are confident it will get us strong teachers. It’s my job to make sure that happens, and I stand by these decisions.”

My question is, can we solve — or should we solve — all of the problems in education by putting teachers in an evaluation straight jacket and believing in Rhee’s methodology? Do we believe that teachers are the only problem? Furthermore, if a school system actually has a thousand bad teachers, what part of the system is to blame? Food for thought.

So, who’s on First?

A this point in time, I don’t know.

3 Responses

  1. Bonnie is being very kind to people who are wasting money, time, and our young people’s lives. Secretary Duncan is drinking the Kool Aid of charter schools and ranking teachers based on student test results. I don’t envy his position, but am sad that this is the best that he can do.

    Take a look at the i3 winners. Most prominent are those who have a staff of professional grant writers to fill their applications with the right words and phrases.

    And so it goes as Bonnie lists the attempts and failures.

    We do have some ways to ameliorate this problem. Read, for example, Jonathan Kozol. What would happen to our public schools if wealthy people had to send their children there?

    But no one idea, no single solution will halt our downward slide. We must have bold initiatives and not repetition of the old ideas that failed in the past.

    If you’ve been reading John Adsit’s columns, you know that we do have ways to make learning better. The principals and teachers, however, counter with sticking with the “tried and true.” They’re actually promoting the “tried and failed.” That’s why people like Michelle Rhee take such drastic action. She’s grabbing her district by the throat and shaking it. It may not work. It could even make things worse, but we’re all frustrated and grasping at straws.

    Clayton Christensen suggests that we should take to “Disrupting Class.” He says that we must have disruptive innovation in education. I’m not sure exactly what that means. When are real innovations not disruptive? Would too much disruption result in more failure?

    Too many ideas sound good but won’t stand up to real scrutiny. To work, ideas for change in education must have some very important features. They must scale readily. If it works in one school system, will it work in 100 or 10,000 without breaking the budget or just falling apart?

    Remember the New Math? It worked, or so they say. Yet, it did not work at scale. Small study results often have biases due to the newness or enthusiasm of the teachers and students. By simply forcing teachers to rework lessons grown stale with age, interactive white boards showed remarkable results. It wasn’t the technology but the teachers again becoming involved in lesson planning that did the trick.

    Here’s my idea, a rather vague one but doable. Search out the best practices in each area of education. My area is science, and I cannot tell you which are best in other subjects, but suspect that the same ideas work there too. Some good ideas are not new but a century old. Next, create new technologies to implement these ideas so that teachers aren’t challenged by them. Make sure that the new technologies don’t cost too much. Even better, find ways to make them cost less than current practices.

    Support simple, basic concepts such as “learning to mastery” and “student-centered learning.” Allow for social learning and online research.

    We must have solutions that really are, in NASA’s words, “better, faster, cheaper.” We can do it because we embrace new frontiers and love innovators. Or do we? Ask yourself that question, and be brutally honest with yourself.

    How would you like to wake up one day and find your alma mater gone physically and now consisting of trillions of bits scattered around the Internet?

    To answer Bonnie’s question directly, we should not put teachers into that jacket, but we absolutely must get rid of those who insist that they have to use the “tried and true.” We cannot support the perpetuation of failure. At the same time, provide as much support to any teachers and administrators who will accept it.

    We must succeed. Our children depend on it. Our prosperity depends on it. Even our national security requires it. No one should accept failure as an option. Don’t expect repeating the same things that failed before, but with gusto, to work now. Build on real success.

    • I was speaking cautiously. I feel that teachers have been hung in the balance and found wanting. I have been teaching for a very long time.
      I was doing STEM when it was called SMET. I had one principal to throw my hands on science resources away during the summer.
      I had another who refused to let me do experiments. I was working with NASA and had a huge grant. She wanted me to work from the book, because that was what she knew. George Lucas Educational Foundation loved my work, she hated it.
      I got nothing bur grief from it.

      When I started to teach using technology it was like walking over broken glass . Everyone was on my case. National experts decried the use of technology ( but they used the technology to do it). Even the pope and Oprah complained about the Internet. When I was picked by the president to work nationally the school system people did not even talk to me. I am serious. They did not want to be a part of what I was doing. I got a reprimand in writing from my principal who castigated me with this, ” Technology will NEVER replace books”. I never said that
      I love books, but I also understand the use of technology in meaningful ways.

      My final teaching position was in a school where I was very successful
      with technology, but my principal was not. I got pushed into retirement
      because of this. I would not accept a position with no use of computers.I found the suggestion ridiculous. So I resigned. Didn’t have an emergency chute.. needed one.

      I also had teaching experience in DC. I could tell lots of stories, but the
      reporters don’t do the inverted V . How about the fact that most DC teachers have not had great professional development, and most don’t use email. I blame that infrastructure of the schools and NCLB for gating the teacher’s performance. We had to do a lot of “Other Mothering”.They wanted people who were going to teach for the test. That is what they got. Then, there was a ” sea: change. She made teachers , Rhee did, walk the plank for crimes against kids. The crimes against kids in DC are poverty, malnutrition, lead in the water, poor housing, HIV, so many other factors that I will not list. We teach children, we teach what we get and try to help them.

      Teach for America? Don’t we all teach for America?
      An interesting thing is this. Why do people think the “elite” are better
      to teach those in minority communities? What does that say about the
      funded MSO’s? If the program truly works it should be expanded to the groups and colleges that serve minorities. I am not against the elite teaching, but there is a rough side to learning to work with minorities and everyone is not missionary,( MSO’s are minority serving institutions).

      I remember the parochial schools. I was a student there.
      Speaking of KiPP., they bought out the parochial schools. They have the same model. So why were the Catholic Parochial Schools sold for a song? I think they were given the business , and now those nuns and priest have lost in the minority communities. I make a proud announcement that i was a student in those schools. Very low cost to all. What did they do wrong? I must have missed the conversions.

      Rich people have TED and PopTech and Aspen. I have actually been to the think tanks. It would be good to have some reality based people there but who can afford it? I was there because I worked with the Clinton administration and we wanted to get their ideational scaffolding.

      One more thing. If the administration is serous about all schools, we need broadband. Now. Broadband is needed along the digital dark road.

      I am not against the administration, I think that they have their own agenda. But it is hurtful to those of us who did not go to an “elite” school. I challenge anyone to match my teaching skills.

      I would like to see the Dept of Education do some work and have a conversation with NSF. Is that too much to ask? We all teach for America’s children, don’t we?

      Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  2. Problem-solving. Project-based learning. Integrated studies. Constructivism. Those are the educational ideas I support. My particular approach is to emphasize geographic information systems (GIS). All phenomena, problems, and projects exist within a context — a place — and there are many elements that feed into that place being the way it is. Using GIS, adults and kids can explore the layers of information — how things here relate to things over there, and how some things in this place relate to other things in this place. By asking questions, looking at the connections, trying to solve problems, learners of all ages come to understand better the many layers of the world. The world is a vast collection of interrelated elements, and pretending that any one of them can be grasped fully and employed effectively in splendid isolation seems tunnel-visioned, even naive.

    Thinking deeply, in an integrated fashion, supporting exploration and creativity, in order to address a problem … this is not an approach that “tests easily.” But it’s the kind of thinking that employers seek. Wherever I go across the country, people tell me “Test scores and diplomas are fine, but what I really need is an employee who can cope with large amounts of information from disparate sources, sift from it the relevant items, identify what’s reliable and what’s less so, and combine them in useful ways that address a problem, by working independently and collaborating effectively, communicating well, knowing when and how to ask questions, and never ceasing to learn. You find me someone like that and they’ve got a job, today.” I get variations of that statement every week. I have yet to hear a single employer say “I need kids with better test scores.”

    Good teachers, regardless of grade level, subject matter, or instructional experience, are good because they know how to coach, and are able to help learners (of whatever age or background) build connections to information, practice skills, and tie them together in a framework that is able to grow and evolve.

    And good administrators know how to support good teaching.

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