About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

“Reform,” “Accountability,” and the Absence of Schoolhouse Knowledge in Education Policy

Over the last few months on this blog I have been wishing for a politics that is more educational, more worthy of the citizens in a democracy. Well, wouldn’t you know it, some of the most uneducational political discourse of the last month or so emerged around the selection of Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education. I hope this is not a sign of the national discussion of education to come.

One example of the quality of last month’s discussion was the use of the word ”reform” or “reformer,” in the media campaign and reporting related to the selection of the secretary. As things played out, there were two camps vying for the position.

Camp One labeled themselves the reform camp, and they in essence favored a continuation of high-stakes testing as our primary accountability mechanism—and, depending on the person or advocacy group, also supported alternatives like charter schools and/or non-standard teacher certification. Top contenders here were people like New York Chancellor Joel Klein and, the eventual nominee, Arne Duncan of Chicago.

Camp Two was in effect a camp of one person, Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of Education at Stanford, who was a primary author of Barack Obama’s campaign platform on education and led his education transition team.

In the jockeying that preceded the selection of the secretary there were letter-writing campaigns and the internet was abuzz with charges and countercharges. At times, more heat was shed than light. But what is worthy of our attention here was the Orwellian way that Camp One claimed the reform mantle and characterized Darling-Hammond as a “traditionalist” and an advocate of the “status quo.” The labels stuck. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times calling for a synthesis of the policies of the two camps—a reasonable compromise stance—still used the labels: People like Mr. Klein are reformers and Professor Darling-Hammond is a traditionalist.

It’s hard to know where to begin to unpack these labels. For starters, the attempt to measure complex human activity (like learning) with a single statistical measure (like a standardized test score) is a century old, and has long been criticized in so many fields on so many fronts as reductive, inaccurate, outdated, etc.. In what sense is this a new approach? It is new to education only in its scale and consequence, but not at all in its innovation or creativity, or—as NCLB has made clear—in its effectiveness.

And Darling-Hammond as a champion of the status quo? She has pushed from the beginning of her career on issues of equity, the education of underserved populations, the structure of schooling, teacher development, and reform of the teaching profession itself. Her work is certainly open to scrutiny, and one can take issue with particular studies or initiatives, but to label her a traditionalist is a distortion of her record and of language.

In fact, there is something Rovian in all this. “Reformer” became the new “patriot,” a term of assault that constrains and distorts and shuts down further discussion. Come on, people; we have to do better than this, especially where education is concerned. Such use of language is not only inaccurate and unfair, but also keeps us from creative analysis and, yes, with coming up with fuller, richer reforms.


Another term we need to consider—one that I hope we will be able to think collectively and publicly about—is “accountability.” Accountability is central to effective governance, and a citizenry has the right to demand accountability of its institutions. The reigning model of educational accountability is high-stakes standardized testing, and it so dominates mainstream educational policy that few other models are given any consideration.

A new book provides the occasion to rethink accountability. Written by Richard Rothstein with Rebecca Jacobson and Tamara Wilder, Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right begins with a blistering critique of NCLB and offers a more comprehensive state-based accountability model that includes a richer array of tests combined with school inspections. This new model goes hand in glove with a call for a broader—and more traditional—set of goals for American education that include basic skills in math and reading (NCLB’s focus) but, as well, proficiency in science, history, writing, critical thinking and the arts and literature. As well, education should address social and ethical development and preparation for citizenship and for the world of work.

Some readers may be put off by the authors’ take-no-prisoners criticism of NLCB and their call to abandon it completely, but even those folks should read the central section of the book: a summary of some of the areas (health care, job training, criminal justice, corporate incentive systems) where reliance on solitary quantitative measures to assess institutional quality have failed. It is a sobering, thought-provoking history lesson. And that history should be part of our discussion of accountability as educational policy is drafted in 2009.


As I was finishing this entry, I heard one of National Public Radio’s “Letters to the President,” a spot in which various experts weigh in with advice for President Obama on pressing topics: health care, national security, the economy, the environment. This one was on education.

There were three people interviewed. A person from a conservative think tank led off with a call for standing tough on NLCB-style accountability and for alternatives to the public education system like charter schools and vouchers. She also took a swipe at teachers’ unions. Then one of Obama’s education advisors said the president needs to avoid the stale skirmishes, e.g., over NCLB, and put forth a bold initiative, like merit pay for teachers. The third speaker was from another advocacy group and spoke to the need to change our beliefs that poor kids can’t achieve in school.

Regardless of the merits of what each person said, I couldn’t help but notice that all three were from the policy world. There were no teachers or principals interviewed for this “Letter to the President.” There were no parents interviewed (though of course the three speakers might have kids in school, but they didn’t speak in that capacity.) There were no youth workers, no one from social services. There were no educational researchers. And there were no artists or writers or scientists or diplomats. And there were no students.

The NPR spot illustrates a big part of the problem with our national discussion of education, such as it is. It is dominated by policy analysts and advocates, by institutes and think tanks. And those folks have the ear of media; it’s part of what they do, part of the professional network. No surprise, then, that the labeling of the two camps I mentioned earlier made its way so readily into media accounts of the scramble for the top job at the Department of Education.

And there’s a bigger issue here, one that has to do with the nature of policy formation itself. Public policy in the United States is grounded in a technocratic managerial ideology that privileges systems thinking, abstract models of human and institutional behavior, finding the large-scale economic, social, or organizational levers to pull to initiate change. This broad view has its value to be sure—is rich in legislative, legal, and economic knowledge—but it is often accompanied by an unfortunate and counter-productive tendency; the devaluing of on-the-ground, local, and craft knowledge. In the case of education, pedagogical wisdom and experiential knowledge of schools is at best tolerated but more often dismissed as a soft or irrelevant distraction.

Though “qualified teachers” are praised in public documents and speeches, teachers are often pegged as the problem. And classroom knowledge is trivialized. Teaching or running a school is characterized as just not that hard. And the field of education in general is bemoaned as bereft of talent. I’ve heard these phrases. The sad and astounding fact is that at the state and federal level there is little deep understanding of the intricacies of teaching and learning involved in the formation of educational policy.

The trivializing and distorting of Linda Darling-Hammond’s record was made possible by this disdain for education knowledge coupled with the media’s overreliance on the policy community for news about education.

Barack Obama wants to build bridges, to build consensus. He’ll need to work some magic or exert some will in the Washington education policy community, will need to open up that culture to the wisdom of the schoolhouse. For the history of public policy failure—in health care, in agriculture, in urban planning, in education—is littered with cases where local knowledge and circumstance were ignored.


  1. Reading this account of current discourse around educational "reform" in the U.S. underlines the value, for me, of receiving this blog, where I learn about American issues our papers in Australia don't cover -- well, why would they -- The issues are, however, very similar to the education wars we conduct, along parallel lines, over here -- what is to be done about unsatisfactory achievement in the "basics", inadequate teacher training, inadequate pay and respect for teachers, accountability, transparency, the lot. And I share the frustration you palpably feel, Mike, with the gulf between decision makers and the people who should be informing their decisions. Here, it's not that teachers don't get any air time, but because they are represented by spokespeople, their views are received as the views of the teachers' union, with all the suspicion of unions that Australians harbour. And students are never heard from at all.

    Kate Chanock

  2. Dear Mike,

    You are so on the mark in so many ways--as usual! Reformers? Joel Klein? Who distains people in the classroom or anyone who has a bit of experience working directly with kids? All his hires come from McKinsey, etc. "We know best"...when in fact none of those people have ever been in a classroom.

    Your point about the misuse of language was on target as well...as well as putting things in (as you always do) the historical context. I wish education reporters would look beneath the surface of some of those words and start talking to the people on the ground rather than just the talking heads who are interviewed all the time. (I remember Frank McCourt questioning why the McNeil Lehrer News Hour on PBS never had a teacher on one of those segments about education. Good question!)

    Education reporters need to start doing some real reporting and questioning things. Test scores are not the be all and end all.... And even if you are going to look at them--what do they mean?

    If Obama's talking about health care and economic stimuli (including public works) I assume he's taking a larger view on education than let's just close down a failing school and open up a new one. What's going on inside? What help and support are they getting?

    I'm hopeful about post-Jan. 20th (how can we not be, considering the last 8 years?)but we need to keep our eyes on Duncan and make sure he hears our voices.

  3. Mike:

    I think you are right - where is school knowledge in all this? I believe the answer is that education has become a multi-trillion dollar industry with great rewards and power at the top. We university people are as culpable as the rest - we're in it up to our armpits questing for prestige and power. I recall years ago being at the old Center for the Study of Higher Education that TR McConnell ran on a shoestring. A lot of good work came out of there until the 1970s when it was designated an "R&D Center". The money trucks pulled up, intellectual life went out the window, and the output turned to drivel. So, if you buy this point of view, what is to be done? Buzz

  4. One of the points you made early on in this post, about the misuse of the term "reform" touched on something that astonishes me every time I see an example of it - as we become less literate as a population, words acquire more and more magic, they're almost totems . Repetition makes it so. Also, simplicity and clarity are certainly more satisfying than the emotional complexity of on-the-ground stuff - I'm wondering whether complexity may have been what made Darling-Hammond unacceptable, but this is only from reading your post, I have no direct knowledge.

    As for experts- Possibly a lot of them belong in Monty Python routines. Critical thinking, if taught, might threaten the positions of a few of them.

  5. Mike,
    Thank you for summarizing clearly and eloquently what so many of us feel about these matters. I am as anxious as anyone to see the back of Margaret Spelling (Wait, that didn't come out right!) yet, I am not comfortable with hints that are emerging about the education policy of the Obama/Duncan team. If we are really going to move toward actual improvement (How about using THAT word instead of "reform" or "change," cowards!)in the quality of education received by all children in the U.S., we absolutely must involve teacher voices in the conversation. In addition to the reasons you noted, is the fundamental truth that unless teachers buy into an educational policy it is doomed. We are, on the whole, quite subversive to any policy that does not fit with what we know to work in the classroom. The persistent belief expressed in both the popular and education press (see Edweek's recent article rating education by state) that test scores equal accountability is contradicted daily in our classrooms. We don't buy it! And because we don't buy it we teach to the test and cynically watch test scores rise while skills remain unimproved.

    When teachers are finally allowed into the public discourse on education we may begin to see actual, not just statistical improvement.

  6. Unfortunately, reduction of complexity is a human condition. It's the easiest way for us to organize our world. Left/Right, Liberal/Conservative, Reformist/Traditionalist--reducing people to these dichotomous labels means we don't need to spend a lot of time and energy understanding them or the situation. Mass media is guilty of doing this, as well as people who are trying to push their own agendas. And that's why we have blogs like yours.

    As for Darling-Hammond's non-appointment, she had too much going against her: not from Chicago, not politically connected, not black. Between the two candidates, I think most people would perceive Duncan as possessing the experiential knowledge that you mentioned in your post, while Darling-Hammond would be associated with the policy types in their ivory towers (she started in the trenches, but the public didn't know her then). With Obama selecting so many Ivy-Leaguers to his team, I think he wanted to pick someone who is perceived as being more grounded, a "can-do" person. I'd be impressed if Obama could reconcile the two campus and have them work together somehow.

  7. I especially appreciated your statement that "education should address social and ethical development and preparation for citizenship and for the world of work" and, further on, that policy decisions needed to include more of a grassroots component. I am hopeful that the current 'discussion' will indeed become a discussion, or barring that, perhaps the enthusiasm of more "common folk" for change will empower us all to do something that really is ... well ... change.

    I am with Educational Mentoring through the Arts & Humanities(www.emtah.org), that implements a truly original and effective strength-based arts mentoring approach. This educational approach empowers students to actually become the natural learners adults so often say kids are (a statement rarely mirrored in their actions and teaching). I find your blog a breath of fresh air --

    Thank you for this blog!

  8. I worry that we will all be disappointed in Obama's education team. It is shaping up to be a policy wonk's dream, with no one like Linda D-H included.

    Anon E. Muss

  9. In response to the post by P. Hsu, in which this comment was made:
    "As for Darling-Hammond's non-appointment, she had too much going against her: not from Chicago, not politically connected, not black." I would simply like to question the basis for the statement that she is "not black." In making this comment, I do not submit that either blackness or non-blackness should be a prerequisite for appointment to a position. My point only relates to a desire for accuracy. Please see the excerpt below from Harvard in 1992:

    "Linda Darling-Hammond Named Ed School Dean
    Becomes Harvard's First Black Graduate School Dean
    Published On 4/17/1992 12:00:00 AM
    Crimson Staff Writer

    Columbia Teacher's College professor Linda Darling-Hammond was officially named dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education by President Neil L. Rudenstine yesterday.

    The appointment, first reported in The Crimson yesterday, makes Darling-Hammond the first Black dean of a Harvard graduate school.

    Darling-Hammond is co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, School and Teaching. The New York Times has called her "one of the movers and shakers of school reform."

    I found that little quote from the NY Times in the excerpt above ironic, given the current set of circumstances.
    For the record, Darling-Hammond initially accepted the position of dean at Harvard, but ultimately turned it down before taking office.

  10. I believe that the future of education is reliant on Open Educational Resources.

  11. I very much agree with P. Hsu's point about reduction of complexity being a part of our mental armor, it is a way of controlling information and establishing a place for ourselves in the world (one component being picking out an enemy or enemies, unfortunately). It's going to happen, at least for most of us, so one has to catch oneself and choose not believe the binary model except as a tool. The map is not the territory and all that.

    Are all of Obama's appointees are from Chicago (okay, now I am being a bit obnoxious)?

    Speaking of...

  12. I think the point you make here about "accountability" and the way that terms like this are used -- and frame -- the debate about education is *so* important. It's useful, too, to think about the roots of accountability - linked to proving that a good job is being done (especially when it's not), linked to stories about failure and corruption. I think it might be more useful to think about some different terms. I like "visibility" (over "transparency") and "responsibility" (over "accountability") -- responsible to people interested in the work of education, responsible for developing learning, and all in ways that are visible to those interested. We also *all* share responsibility for learning about the contexts and ideas *about* learning that inform this work, too.

  13. I spent my whole working life in Boston public high school classrooms and I have to say that all this is a little 'academic.' The main problem I was always plagued with was that a teacher can never tell the truth. It is NOT possible to have poor kids read 100 books a year and do all the test prep and all the metacognitive stuff and so on. Whatever we are told to do, we tend to do some of and pretend to do more of. We know that the winds will shift and shift, that there are only so many hours to teach in a year and that we have to find ways to connect personally with as many of our students as we possibly can.
    So I think one thing that happens is that good teachers [maybe all teachers] stake out things we really believe in and try to do them 'around' the mandated policy. Some of us may be wholehearted about a mandated policy, but when the next one comes along, it sweeps away one we may have loved.
    If the change is too strictly implemented as NCLB is in poor schools [but probably not in rich ones] a good teacher loses that set of strategies and either quits or gets frustrated. I retired early after 4 years of refusing to stop what I knew was valuable to my students when it became clear that they really could make me stop.
    I believe that the ONLY educational policy which works is one which gives teachers a chance to meet, talk, research, plan and grope our way to success with the students before us this year, and which is predicated on the certainty that next year's students may need something else entirely.
    So I wasn't keen on either Darling or Duncan and really don't mind if Obama needs a guy to play ball with rather than an educational leader. I just hope Duncan doesn't do too much to destroy what little chance we have of honestly serving the kids.
    Judith Baker in Boston

  14. Wow Mike this is very powerful.
    Words, especially yours, are strong!