I have always admired you, Diane, as a scholar and clear-headed thinker, even when I disagreed with you. Now? I am saddened by your Manichean view of the education reform world. You now consistently write and speak as if all would-be reformers have nothing but selfish or devious motives for advocating significant changes in public schooling.

In the opening pages of Reign of Error, for example, you write: “Public education is not broken. It is not failing or declining.  Public education is in crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has de-stabilized it.”

Yet, a few pages back you also write:

“I do not contend that the schools are fine just as they are. They are not. American education needs higher standards for those who enter the teaching profession. It needs higher standards for those who become principals and superintendents. It needs stronger and deeper curriculum in every subject…”

I agree. However, the latter angle never appears again in the book.

It’s also noteworthy how you tiptoe here around the elephant in the room in the preceding paragraph: to what extent today’s teachers are doing an adequate job. Indeed, much of your polemic is to criticize those who say that “blame must fall on the shoulders of teachers and principals.” Well, why shouldn’t it? That’s where achievement and change do or do not happen. Instead, you blame the forces of privatization and corporatism and poverty. Indeed, even, in the first paragraph above you lament merely a lack of “standards” and “curriculum” – a de-personalized critique. So, which is it? Are schools doing as well as they can with the teachers they have, or not? Are kids getting the education they deserve or not?

I think there is plenty of evidence about the inadequacies of much current teaching that you and I find to be credible and not insidiously motivated. How else, in fact, would you say that schools aren’t “fine” as they are? Reform is strongly needed in many schools (and not just the dysfunctional urban schools). To say that these problems are somehow not due to teaching and mostly due to forces outside of school walls belies the fact that schools with both non-poor students and adequate resources are also under-performing, and outlier schools serving poor children have had important successes.

Even the 2nd largest teacher union agrees that changes to teaching are needed:

But extensive improvements to America’s education system are essential to help all students acquire the knowledge and skills they need for success in the 21st century. Students must not only attain knowledge, they must be able to apply what they have learned. They must have access to a curriculum that focuses not just on what is to be tested, but on what should be learned to make them well-rounded thinkers and individuals.

Merely undoing harmful privatization is thus nowhere near sufficient to make schools serve our students properly. Schools can and should be a lot better than they are, not just in the cities but in the suburbs; not just in the US, but in all countries.

I always find it odd that defenders of teachers won’t ever criticize teachers and want to highlight forces outside of classrooms and schools because then they are tacitly admitting that teaching doesn’t make much of a difference. Good teachers get good results; weak teachers don’t. Why can’t we say this and thus work on what is in our control – the teaching?

In terms of evidence, let’s start with the remediation rate: Nationwide, as you know, the remediation rate in college is 40%. ACT reports that 30% graduating HS students are not ready for college. This can only happen in a “K-12 system” that is not a system at all. I find it hard to blame poverty and privatization for such an institutional failure to link K-12 to college in assessment and grading locally. And having spent decades in schools, I can tell you why this occurs: teachers are allowed to work in isolation and set grading and testing policies completely on their own.

[Added after the initial posting of the blog entry: from the just-released OECD study on adult skills:

      • Larger proportions of adults in the United States than in other countries have poor literacy and numeracy skills, and the proportion of adults with poor skills in problem solving in technology-rich environments is slightly larger than the average, despite the relatively high educational attainment among adults in the United States.
      • Socio-economic economic background has a stronger impact on adult literacy skills in the United States than in other countries. Black and Hispanic adults are substantially over-represented in the low-skilled population.]

Let’s look at student engagement: in national studies and in my own surveys of over 8000 students, kids – even in elementary school – consistently report or experience  work that is boring and without meaning a great deal of the time. I find that I am bored most of the time when I visit HS classrooms. I see the same disengaging teacher habits that I experienced 50 years ago as a student, despite what we know about best practice. Poverty and privatization have nothing to do with such practices, and no money is needed to fix it – just leadership and commitment to not bore kids.

Let’s look at Hattie’s research: there are over 30 powerful interventions that trump socio-economic status, yet it is extremely rare to find those practices in use in any one school. The pressing question for all teachers and administrators is: why is it so rare, in the face of two decades of research? Poverty, politics, and privatization have nothing to do with teachers using best practices. In medicine it is termed malpractice not to use such practices.

Let’s look at NAEP and more recently PISA: for decades students have shown that they are poor at drawing inferences about such things as main idea or non-routine problems. The gains have come only with low-level skills. Why isn’t that traceable to teachers and principals in the same way that the gains are?

[added: In Reign of Error you correctly note that students have made steady gains overall in NAEP. You brush over a key fact: 17-year-olds have made no gains in the 40 years of study:

Both 9- and 13-year-olds scored higher in reading and mathematics in 2012 than students their age in the early 1970s. Scores were 8 to 25 points higher in 2012 than in the first assessment year. Seventeen-year-olds, however, did not show similar gains. Average reading and mathematics scores in 2012 for 17-year-olds were not significantly different from scores in the first assessment year.

And what a close look at all the results reveals, as I have long written, is that the hard problems show terrible results. Whenever there is a multi-step task or unobvious answer, students not only do poorly, but the results are poor across the board, regardless of ethnicity or urban schools. (I’ll have more to say on this in a future post).]

Let’s look at the research on good teachers: some teachers can add an entire extra year of growth to student achievement and put those students on better footing forever, yet those teachers are a small minority of outliers (despite the fact that we have a body of best practice that provides a solid foundation for teacher improvement). And schools rarely let teachers go: “National estimates from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that, on average, school districts dismiss 1.4 percent of tenured teachers and 0.7 percent of probationary teachers for poor performance each year.” (Chait, 2010).”

Let’s look at weak curriculum, a need you underscore: in 20 years of doing UbD work I still find local curricula and assessment to be woefully inadequate and primitive. Our research shows that over 90% of curricula are still framed by discrete topics instead of complex ideas, challenges, and tasks – a fact that Ralph Tyler bemoaned over 70 years ago. Teachers still march through discrete low-level content because that is how curriculum is written. How is that anything but a local-educator and supervisor problem?

Let’s look at assessment: going back to Bloom’s Taxonomy-related research over decades, local assessment continues to demand only low-level performance – and this has been a constant since well before test prep mania. This quote from a Rand report is chilling: “ We found that 0 percent of students in the U.S. were assessed on deeper learning in mathematics through state tests, 1–6 percent of students were assessed on deeper learning in reading through state tests, and 2–3 percent of students were assessed on deeper learning in writing through state tests.” Now consider that locally assessments are typically less rigorous than state tests, as consistently found over the years using Bloom and our own assessment audit. Who is to blame for poor local assessment if not many of the designers and users of them?

Let’s look at the research on teacher questioning: for decades the research has shown the power of high-level questioning but also the sad fact that most teacher questions are low-level.

Let’s look at structural issues that are also within the control of educators: schooling is still organized based on “seat time” instead of  demonstrated mastery. Students are typically grouped by age  and follow a curriculum that is jam packed with content to be covered (often driven by rigid pacing guides) despite the obvious fact that people learn at different rates and have varied interests. This issue is as old as Ralph Tyler’s criticisms

What does poverty or privatization have to do with how educators set goals, use time, group students, and develop structures, incentives, and learning opportunities for all learners to achieve goals on a flexible schedule and with some degree of choice?

Let’s look at grading and reporting practices:  The assigned report card grades are notoriously inconsistent among teachers within and across schools. Grades are often based on local norms rather than on genuine achievement judged against credible standards. Teachers’ assessments vary so widely that an “A” in one class could be a “C” in another. No wonder there has been such a focus on external, standardized testing, since local grades and transcripts lack validity or helpfulness in providing students with helpful feedback and a fair appraisal of strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s look at student autonomy: I think that it is inarguable that 12th graders in almost every HS in America, public and private, have less intellectual and physical freedom in school than 4-year-old Montessori students. Secondary education in many places is more like a white-collar prison operating on a compliance mentality than a vital learning organization that plays to individual student passions and strengths, and the need to prepare kids for the freedom of college.

The issue: quality assurance in teaching. The bad news? We face a complete lack of quality control in teaching in most schools, in most districts. The good news? Unlike poverty, this is in our control as educators. Quality control is achievable if we would only find the courage, the persistence, and the allies to make it happen as a collective commitment to excellence.

In the absence of true leadership and the right policies for supporting good teaching week in and week out, we get the wide variance we see: side by side in the same schools are wonderful teachers and terrible teachers. I have seen teachers in middle-class schools scream abuse at little kids, right in front of me, for the smallest of infractions or a simple mistake. Similarly, some of the schools in New York City are world-class; some are downright horrendous, as stultifying and ineffective as can be imagined. In one high school I visited, not one student spoke for three straight periods. Our variance most likely explains our international results: performance in Massachusetts is on par with the best countries; performance in Mississippi is horrific, as reflected not only in NAEP results for decades but on the basis of my having worked in the state’s schools for a year. I personally witnessed endless mind-numbing practices, such as students taking turns reading passages out loud for entire periods in 10th grade, teachers lecturing from notes on the board where the students’ sole job was to copy the notes, and where homework was never assigned anymore because “kids won’t do it.”

This complete absence of consistency of quality in schools may also explain why both the ardent detractors and defenders of schools are correct. The critics are correct: our state, national, and international performance is weak, as our President has often noted – and our standing is hurt by the wide variability across teachers and schools that is less common in other countries. And money for poor schools has often not had much effect: look at the Abbott schools in New Jersey where per pupil expenditures have been over 14,000 dollars.

But the defenders are also correct: there are outstanding schools and districts in this country, truly world-class. Take away the seven weakest states, and our international performance improves significantly. Finland and Singapore may look better because of our wide variance rather than any inherent special excellence. But then let’s face facts: such variability within and across our schools and districts can only happen where there is poor management and an inability to leverage better teaching.

A perhaps unseen lesson as to why SES correlates so well with achievement. Diane, these problems are of long standing (and you know this as a historian of education). Indeed, these weaknesses also exist in private and charter schools. Some of the most boring and fear-inducing teaching I have ever seen is in prep schools where only innate ability, student willingness to delay gratification and trust adults keeps it going. So, our problems cannot be caused solely by poverty and nasty manipulators of public schooling for personal gain or politics.

Indeed, in my view the only way to make sense of the long-established connection between student SES and school achievement scores is to conclude that most schools are not very effective. That explains much of the data in education, to my eye.

I love teaching, and I greatly admire teachers. I have spent the last 30+ years with them and in schools. Yet, we must face the truth, the “brutal facts,” as Collins termed it: many teachers are just not currently capable of engaging and deeply educating the kids in front of them, especially in the upper grades. Why can’t we admit this? I can admit it happily, because I think good teachers are tired of being brought down by weak teachers and policies that support them. And I’m in this for the kids, not the adults. Kids simply deserve better and no one lobbies primarily for their interests.

Thus, I strongly encourage you to be more careful in your rhetoric and more precise in describing which reforms are bogus and which are sorely needed. Preaching to the choir and separating people into crude friend or foe categories is not what we need in these challenging times.

PS: For anyone reading this who disagrees with the basic premise here that schools could be much better than they are, please do not write me back until you have shadowed a student for a day in an average school, clocked how many minutes teachers talk and students sit, and collected the assignments and assessments given in that school. I have done this dozens of times and I can assure you it will sober the most rabid defender of “teachers” since the quality of teaching varies so dramatically in a school, and the experience is always pretty boring. By contrast, neither I nor students are typically bored in classes like art, robotics, drama and sports – just as the data from Goodlad’s A Place Called School 30 years ago and our student surveys last year reveal. The bad news? The problems are real. The good news, if we would only see it this way? Many of the key changes are in our control as educators: better teaching, better assessments, better quality control through peer review, shared standards, and policies that promote the interests of learning and learners.

Sincerely,

Grant

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