To all my critics, some who either posted comments to my open letter to Diane Ravitch or tweeted them or blogged them: thanks for the discussion. Many of you made thoughtful points that can be summed up in this post:

Even though this blog is addressed to Diane Ravitch, I don’t think you are engaging in a discussion on the same issues she highlights. Much of what you say about teaching and curriculum is true. Teaching can and should be better. Teachers can and should do a better job of engaging students. Curriculum needs to be richer, deeper and more learner friendly. Your leadership in the area of curriculum design has been invaluable, although it has not had as full an impact as you desire. I believe that improvement has been seen over the last thirty years in teaching and curriculum, but we have certainly not done enough. I find more elementary classrooms than not to be engaging places where students are active and learning. Work is still to be done on the high school level.

All that being said, the corporate reform movement will destroy any gains that have been made and stunt any continued growth. The vast majority of charter schools are even less engaging and more draconian in their disciplinary policies than are public schools. The teachers are less well prepared and even more likely to rely on low level instruction. Voucher programs are stealing badly needed funds from the public schools. Money doesn’t always improve learning, but lack of money has a negative impact on learning. There can be no question that the corporate driven test mania will make schooling less engaging and the curriculum narrower if it is allowed to continue.

So, Grant, I would argue that we need to attack teaching and learning on all three fronts. All fronts that we can control if we choose. One front you articulate well here. The two other fronts, ending the corporate usurpation of public education and attacking poverty as a barrier to learning are well articulated by Diane Ravitch.

I am in complete agreement. My point was merely to ask those who speak only of forces outside of our immediate control as educators to attend to what is not only in our control but can make a big difference.

Alas, others of you resorted to the cheapest of ad hominem attacks that further poison the national discourse.

Strikingly, many of you missed my point.

Teachers and schools make a difference, a significant one. And we are better off improving teaching, learning, and schooling than anything else as educators because that’s what is in our control. Am I denying or tolerating poverty? Of course not. I decry the increased poverty and wealth inequality in this country. I vote democratic and give to liberal causes such as MoveOn and SPLC. I agree with Diane that there are nasty people and groups trying to subvert public education for their own ideologies and gain.

But to tar all reformers as evil?

More to the point of my post, I have lived my whole life on the simple belief that you do what you can and should do to make a difference, in your corner of the world; it is wise to spend little time repeatedly decrying things over which you don’t personally have much control, and thus contributing to the fatalism that afflicts teaching and the country in general. I’m a kid of the 60s: you are either part of the solution or part of the problem. And teachers have great control over whether or not their classroom is a haven and a joyous place of learning – period. [added: I recently read Dave BurgessTeach Like A Pirate and found many of the author’s hundreds of ways to control your learning space delightful and useful.]

To further this with some evidence of note, I have three cautions, in brief phrases: Hattie’s meta-analysis, outlier schools, and Garfield High School in particular.

SES and achievement. Here is a cautionary note for those who simply look at aggregate data concerning SES, from Hattie’s research:

We need to be careful, however, about the unit of analysis used in these studies: is it the socioeconomic status of the school or the student? … The aggregate effect was .73 at the school level, whereas the effect as .55 at the individual student level. The effects were lower in rural schools (.34) than in suburban schools (.56)… Further, the effect was much lower when the data about SES were provided by students (.38) than when provided by parents (.76).

Here is a graph of results that reminds us that there are many outlier schools in terms of SES vs. achievement – including ‘good’ schools that don’t do as well as they should:

Picture of SES-Achievement in Reading in NY

Does this graph really suggest the truth of the simplistic statement “Poverty is key”?

Here and here are two recent reports on such outlier schools.

On the power of good teachers. Here is Hattie responding, in effect, to those who criticize me for over-emphasizing the small-focus issue of good teaching. Hattie provides full support for my claims that variance of quality is rampant, and it is not just a problem in ‘bad’ schools (thus, it cannot be an SES issue primarily):

The major message is simple – what teachers do matters. However, this has become a cliché that masks the fact that the greatest source of variance in our system relates to teachers – they can vary in major ways. The codicil is that what “some” teachers do matters – especially those who teach in a most deliberate and visible manner.

A major theme of this book is that [teacher] intentions often fall short because the decisions are inadequately evaluated relative to alternatives, they tend to be related to structural and working conditions and not to teaching strategies and conceptions,, and they are evaluated using models that seek success and ignore failures… In many classrooms and schools, there is evidence of low effect sizes, reliance on poor methods and strategies, a dependence upon war stories and anecdotes, and an agreement to tolerate different and sometimes poor teaching….It is also clear that, yet again, it is the difference in the teachers that make the difference in student learning. [emphasis added]

By contrast, here is Ravitch in Reign of Error:

The reformers often repeat the claim that three “great” or “effective” teachers in a row would close the test score gap between black and white children… Perhaps such “great” teachers exist, but there is no evidence that they exist in great numbers or that they can produce the same feats year after year for every student.

I find the putting of quotes around “great” to be very offensive to many such teachers.

The impact of Jaime Escalante at Garfield HS. Here is Jay Matthews on the impact of one particular such teacher – Jaime Escalante at Garfield HS – and, importantly, a very different story than posed by the hagiographic movie. Note that once Jaime Escalante showed what was possible, more teachers had more success with more students – including more than he had!. In fact, a few years after Escalante started his effort, his kids were outscored by his junior colleague and some of his history and science colleagues:

 “Garfield had done better that any other normal enrollment inner city high school in the history of the country. About 74% of the 329 AP examinations taken by Garfield students received grades of 3 or better, above the national average of 69 percent.

The 129 Garfield students taking Calculus AB or BC examinations exceeded the total of every US public school except three… Garfield had sent more calculus students to the calculus examinations than Exeter or Punahoe, New Trier, or Hunter College.

Here’s Matthews writing just after the death of Escalante:

“Yet the school had produced phenomenal results that would challenge widespread rules barring average and below-average students from taking AP classes. The stunning success at Garfield led U.S. presidents to endorse Escalante’s view that impoverished children can achieve as much as affluent kids if they are given enough extra study time and encouragement to learn.

In 1987, 26 percent of all Mexican American students in the country who passed the AP Calculus exams attended a single high school: Garfield. That meant that hundreds of thousands of overlooked students could probably do as well if they got what Escalante was giving out. But what was that?

Whenever I suggested that the great teaching I was seeing at Garfield might be the reason so many students were succeeding in AP, people at parties dismissed me as romantic and naive. “I bet if you checked out their backgrounds, you will find those teachers are skimming off the few kids whose parents went to college,” one professor told me. More common was the assertion that Escalante, and the school’s splendid history and government teachers, drilled enough facts and formulas into their kids to fool the AP tests but had no chance of giving them the conceptual understanding that well-prepared suburban students developed.

These theories quickly fell apart. I surveyed 109 Garfield calculus students in 1987 and found that only nine had even one parent with a college degree, and that only 35 had a parent with a high school diploma. The engineering and science professors at USC, Harvey Mudd and the other California colleges recruiting Garfield grads laughed at the “no conceptual understanding” myth, as did the Escalante students I started running into who had become doctors, lawyers and teachers.

It took me several years to understand how Garfield’s AP teachers, and the many educators who have had similar results in other high-poverty schools, pulled all this off. They weren’t skimming. It wasn’t a magic trick of test results. They simply had high expectations for every student. They arranged extra time for study — such as Escalante’s rule that if you were struggling, you had to return to his classroom after the final bell and spend three hours doing homework, plus take some Saturday and summer classes, too. They created a team spirit, teachers and students working together to beat the big exam.

Schools, all schools, can be much better than they are. That is the core premise in my work. Many anti-reformers believe that most schools are darn good and it’s just those ‘bad’ schools that are the problem. Anyone who has spent hundreds of hours in schools of all kinds knows this is simply not true.

Nor are  educators in the Ravitch camp going to be happy you spoke her words when you go to seek more funding in non-urban schools from Boards and communities. Suburban districts have for a long time played a very dangerous game of making their communities think that they are truly outstanding. Well, good luck getting funding when the new PARCC or SB test scores come rolling in and you look more average, and you have only consistently claimed that poverty is a key factor in test results.

Finally, a few of my favorite posted comments:

” I just finished reading [Grant’s post] and it’s like I just listened to a pump up speech before a game! I need to make sure I get to work, planning, teaching, designing, and evaluating my math team!

I think there are forces outside of school’s that affect a child’s performance, but I also agree with Grant that teachers play an extremely significant role. I am still left with the question – Why do teachers have such a difficult time analyzing what they are doing and seeing how they can improve?

For gosh sakes, Peyton Manning, arguably the best in the game of football right now, tirelessly studies film, listens to coaches, tweaks his plays, practices the basics, and works out. In short, he analyzes, assesses, and then makes a plan to improve. He’s the best there is! Teachers need to be committed to this process!

Along these lines, one thing that really bothers me in teaching is hearing other teachers make excuses and teachers not modeling what they are trying to teach.”

“Thanks for having the courage to say what many of us in schools feel. Good teachers do make a difference and it bugs me when people want to put all their energy into complaining in the staff room about all the things we cannot do much about, day after day. And let’s face it: many of the teachers who blame parents and poverty are not the strongest teachers in my building.”

I’ll have a detailed rebuttal to Ravitch’s use of NAEP data in my next post to show that she has glossed over a long stretch of poor student performance on the more demanding items especially at higher grades.

PS: I am appending this as a result of a lengthy Twitter discussion on teacher attitudes:

Many years ago, Alessi reviewed more than 5000 children referred to school psychologists because they were failing at school. Not one located the problem as due to a poor instructional program, poor school practices, a poor teacher, or something to do with school. The problems were claimed, by the teachers, to be related to the home and located within the student. As Engelmann claimed, “An arrogant system would conclude that all the problems were caused by defects in the children, none caused by the system.”

…Elmore located the resistance, as do I, with the conception of teaching and learning shared by teachers. “Just leave me alone to teach my way” is the common mantra. We see the increasing numbers of disengaged students as the problems of students or their families, or of society, not of teachers or schools… The likelihood of the claims in this book having a major effect will depend more on whether schools can turn, as did much of medicine, to evidence-based claims. Hattie Visible Learning p. 253-254

PPS: An article in Atlantic that also indirectly proves my point that most schools are ineffective: accounting for demographics, public schools as good as and sometimes better than private schools. No news to me, as I have often reported. There is far less value added in private schools than private school people care to admit or measure.


PPPS: Tom Friedman, on Shanghai’s top level performance in education:


After visiting Shanghai’s Qiangwei Primary School, with 754 students — grades one through five — and 59 teachers, I think I found The Secret:

There is no secret.


When you sit in on a class here and meet with the principal and teachers, what you find is a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools but that are difficult to pull off consistently across an entire school system. These are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.

Shanghai’s secret is simply its ability to execute more of these fundamentals in more of its schools more of the time. Take teacher development. Shen Jun, Qiangwei’s principal, who has overseen its transformation in a decade from a low-performing to a high-performing school — even though 40 percent of her students are children of poorly educated migrant workers — says her teachers spend about 70 percent of each week teaching and 30 percent developing teaching skills and lesson planning. That is far higher than in a typical American school.