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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Monday, January 31, 2011

One Teacher’s Efficacy

I’m sure that many socially minded people interested in education have a hard time understanding why some of us are so concerned about the direction of current school reform. I mean, we can all agree that way too many children – primarily poor children – are not being well served by our schools. We would all agree, as well, that, as in any profession, there are some teachers who shouldn’t be teaching – and some districts that are administratively and politically dysfunctional. It is the reformers’ remedies to these problems that spark concern, their technocratic, market-oriented, test-driven solutions that distort what education ought to be.

I keep in touch with a lot of the teachers I profiled in my book Possible Lives, an account of a journey across America documenting good teaching. When I visited her in Tupelo, Mississippi, Sharon Davis was teaching chemistry and physics at the local high school. She was remarkable, a masterful presenter who set up all sorts of experiments that her students did in the lab, in the hallway, out on the lawn – the intelligence of these young people buzzing through the activities.

I got a New Year’s card from Sharon in which she asked about me, told me about her son (who I met while in Tupelo), and offered this disquieting observation about school reform in Mississippi: “Good teachers, some even great teachers, are leaving the profession because state and districts are basing teacher efficacy off one test score. I moved from high school to 7th grade to teach a class that is not state tested so that I could still teach…”

Bless those lucky 7th graders, but I can’t help but think about the loss to another generation of Mississippi juniors and seniors – especially the girls – who will miss out on this wonderful science teacher.

I’ve heard similar stories from the other teachers with whom I’ve stayed in contact. For a reform to take hold and be effective, it has to build on what already works as well as chart a course for improvement. But a reform that promises a solution while undercutting current excellence is, at the least, counterproductive. Something is wrong when an attempt to measure teacher efficacy drives some of our most efficacious teachers out of the classroom.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Resolutions someone should make for 2011

I wrote this for The Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post (1/5/11) and reprint it here.


The beginning of the year is the time to be hopeful, to feel the surge of possibility. So in that spirit I want to propose just over one dozen education resolutions that emerge from the troubling developments and bad, old habits of 2010. Feel free to add your own.

1) To have more young people get an engaging and challenging education.

2) To stop the accountability train long enough to define what we mean by “achievement” and what it should mean in a democratic society. Is it a rise in test scores? Is it getting a higher rank in international comparisons? Or should it be more?

3) To stop looking for the structural or technological magic bullet – whether it’s charter schools or value-added analysis – that will improve education. Just when you think the lesson is learned – that the failure of last year’s miracle cure is acknowledged and lamented – our attention is absorbed by a new quick fix.

4) To stop making the standardized test score the gold-standard of student achievement and teacher effectiveness. In what other profession do we use a single metric to judge goodness? Imagine judging competence of a cardiologist by the average of her patients’ cardiograms.
As a corollary resolution I would like to have school reformers pledge to read Stephen Jay Gould’s classic The Mismeasure of Man or just about anything by Canadian philosopher of science Ian Hacking to remind them of the logical fallacies and scientific follies involved in trying to find a single measure for a complex human phenomenon.

5) To assure that teacher professional development gets increased and thoughtful support. For this to happen, we will need at the least: a) A major shift from the last decade’s punitive accountability system toward a program of growth and development. b) A rejection of typical development fare: a consultant jets in, lays down a scheme, a grid, a handful of techniques and aphorisms, then jets out. c) A replacement of said fare with ongoing, comprehensive, intellectually rich programs of the kind offered by the National Writing Project and the National Science Foundation.

6) To ensure that people who actually know a lot about schools will appear on Oprah and will be consulted by politicians and policy makers. When President Obama visited my home state of California, the person he met with to talk about education was Steve Jobs.

7) To have the secretary of education, the president, and other officials stop repeating the phrase “We are going to educate ourselves toward a 21st Century economy.” It is smart economic policy more than anything else that will move us toward a 21st Century economy.

8) To convince policy makers and school officials to stop using corporate speak (or whatever it is) when talking about education: “game changer,” “non-starter,” “leverage,” “incentivize,” and so on. We would chastise our students for resorting to such a clichéd vocabulary. Education of all places should reflect a fresher language. And while we’re at it, how about a moratorium on this phrasing: “We’re doing it for the kids” or “It’s good for kids” when referring to just about any initiative or practice. Talk about clichéd language; the phrase is used as a substitute for evidence or a reasoned argument.

9) To rethink, or at least be cautious about, the drive to bring any successful practice or structure “to scale”. Of course we want to learn from what’s good and try to replicate it, but too often the notion of “scaling up” plays out in a mechanical way, doing more or building more of something without much thought given to the fact that any human activity occurs in a context, in a time and place, and therefore a simple replication of the practice in one community might not achieve the same results it did in its original setting.

10) To make do with fewer economists in education. These practitioners of the dismal science have flocked to education reform, though most know little about teaching and learning. I mean, my Lord, with a few exceptions they did such a terrific job analyzing the financial and housing markets – something they do know a lot about – that the field of economics itself, according to The Economist, is experiencing an identity crisis. So tell me again why they’re especially qualified to change education for the better.

11) To have the media, middle-brow and high-brow, quit giving such a free pass to the claims and initiatives of the Department of Education and school reformers. There is an occasional skeptical voice, but for any serious analysis, you have to go to sources like The Nation or Pacifica radio. Journalists and commentators who make their living by being skeptical – David Brooks, Nicholas Kristof, Arianna Huffington – leave their skepticism at the door when it comes to the topic of education.

12) To have education pundits check their tendency to resort to the quip, the catchy one-liner. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll give an extended example. I believe it was Hoover Institute economist Eric A. Hanushek who observed that if we simply got rid of the bottom 10% of teachers (as determined by test scores) and replaced them with teachers at the top 10% we’d erase the achievement gap, or leap way up the list on international comparisons, or some such. His observation got picked up by a number of commentators. It is one of those “smartest kids in the class” kinds of statements, at first striking but on reflection not very substantial.

Think for a moment. There are many factors that affect student academic performance, and the largest is parental income – so canning the bottom 10 percent won’t erase all the barriers to achievement. Furthermore, what exactly is this statement’s purpose? It seems to be a suggestion for policy. So let’s play it out. There are about 3½ million teachers out there. Ten percent is 350,000. As a policy move, how do you fire 350,000 people without creating overwhelming administrative and legal havoc, and where do you quickly find the stellar 350,000 to replace them? Also, since the removal of that bottom 10 percent one year creates a new 10 percent the next (I think Richard Rothstein also made this point), do we repeat the process annually?
It is this kind of quip that zips through the chattering classes, but really is a linguistic bright, shining object that distracts us from the real work of improving our schools.

13) To have my hometown newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, stop advocating for the use of value-added analysis as the key metric for judging teacher effectiveness and return to reporting as comprehensively as it can news about education and employing the journalist’s skepticism about any technique that seems too good to be true. The Times does offer the contrary voice, but in a minor key, and too often from teachers union officials who lack credibility rather than the wide range of statisticians and measurement experts who raise a whole host of concerns about value-added analysis used this way.

14) I’m going to end by repeating my initial resolution in case the universe missed it the first time around: That through whatever combination of factors – from policy initiatives to individual effort – more young people get an engaging and challenging education in 2011.

Remember, add your own resolutions.