Home About Us Media Kit Subscriptions Links Forum
Dr. John Merrow: August 2011 Archives

August 2011 Archives

Two Town Halls, and a Peek into the Future

  |   Comments   |   Bookmark and Share
As always, remember that John’s book "The Influence of Teachers" is for sale at Amazon.

For the first time in my life, I am channeling Sarah Palin — specifically, her complaints about what she calls ‘the lamestream media.’ I feel like a victim, even though I was merely in the audience for an old fashioned “Town Hall” that was reported on by The Washington Post. By contrast, a few days later I was the interviewer in a two-person “Town Hall” on Twitter (the interviewee was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), an event that went directly to its audience without interpretation by the media. It pains me to confront the frailties of my profession, but that’s what’s on my mind.

The old-fashioned event — about education and race — was a slam-dunk winner from Day One. It had everything going for it: (1) It was organized by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates and his capable team at the DuBois Institute at Harvard; (2) The moderator was the incomparable Charlayne Hunter-Gault; and (3) It had cast of heavyweights: Dr. James Comer, Diane Ravitch, Michelle Rhee and Professor Angel Harris of Princeton. Even the title of the event was reassuring: “The Education Gap” — not “The Achievement Gap” — a choice revealed that the organizers understood the complexity of the issue. This was certain to be substantive.

Substantive yes, but limited in its reach. About 400 people filled the historic Whaling Church in Edgartown (on Martha’s Vineyard) on August 18th, and, while it’s possible that a few people tweeted about the conversation as it was going on, it was a closed loop. One of these days the entire session will be posted on the DuBois Institute website, but you’ll have to wade through the full two hours; it apparently won’t be searchable or divided into segments.

Wonderfully substantive for those in attendance, close to inaccessible for the rest of the world.

Here’s just part of what we learned: A child born in poverty (black or white) has a 10 percent chance of getting to college, and our poverty rate eclipses that of other industrialized nations. By graduation day, there’s a 4-year skills gap between black and white graduates — and that does not factor in those who drop out. We also lock up more of our citizens than other countries, and the black/white incarceration ratio is 8:1. Angel Harris of Princeton spoke persuasively about the depth of the ‘Education Gap’ and the public’s failure to grasp that. Because we don’t get it, he asserted, we grasp at ‘silver bullets’ and ‘magical cures’ instead of hunkering down and committing to long term solutions.

He provided a great example: the ‘silver bullet’ of parental involvement. Be careful what you wish for, he said, because there are different forms of involvement. When black parents get involved, they are more likely to be negative and punitive, and that doesn’t help the teacher get through to the child. In addition, Harris says that parental engagement only explains very small percentage of the education gap, while parent education and income explain 25 percent of the gap.

Dr. James Comer, the Yale physician whose ‘Comer Schools’ are beacons of hope, brought the crowd to life with his eloquent explanation of why and how so many schools for poor children fail. It is, he asserted, largely because teachers and administrators do not understand child development and the needs of children. Time was, Comer told the audience, when most families were able to meet their children’s developmental needs, but today, with about 35% of children living in poverty, the schools and teachers are overwhelmed. And, to make matters worse, schools of education do not prepare teachers to understand, let alone meet, developmental needs, Comer said.

Diane Ravitch sounded some familiar themes: Poverty is the key here. Small classes make a difference. She bemoaned that, because of No Child Left Behind and its testing requirements, schools are eliminating art, music, PE and “all the stuff that keeps kids coming to school.” And she suggested that we take some of the billions we spend on testing and spend it on early childhood education instead.

John Merrow and Arne Duncan at the Twitter Town Hall on August 24, 2011.
Michelle Rhee, who was directly or indirectly criticized as a proponent of ‘accountability,’ agreed that schools cannot ‘cure’ poverty. However, she said, teachers do make a difference. Society needs a sense of urgency and cannot afford to give demonstrably poor teachers years to improve.

Rhee and Ravitch agreed that society must be ‘aspirational.’ The attitude “I’ve got mine, so who cares about anyone else?” will bring the nation down.

In short, the two hours was filled with light, with occasional heat. Unfortunately, for these messages to get beyond the 400 or so who were in the audience, it fell to the media to report what happened.

And that’s my problem because a Washington Post reporter filed a piece that made the afternoon sound like a polite disagreement between Rhee and Ravitch, who are well-known for their antagonism. Not a word about Comer, Harris or Hunter-Gault or about the substance of the session.

My hunch is that the reporter arrived expecting fireworks between Rhee and Ravitch, well-known as antagonists — and when no food fight took place, the reporter made that the story: they were polite.

Criticizing the Post reporter is not my central point. I am wondering now just how often we journalists fail to get beyond our preconceptions about people and events. I write about this in my book, The Influence of Teachers, specifically about the irrelevant ‘war’ going on now about teachers and teaching. The latest example of reporters getting it wrong, in my opinion, is Steven Brill, who devotes 400+ pages to the ‘war’ without ever questioning his own premises.

Is there a better way to reach the public? Are ‘social media’ operations, such as Twitter, the answer? Can substance — like the Edgartown meeting — be conveyed in ‘tweets’ of 140 characters or less?

That brings me to my second “Town Meeting,” which took place on Twitter on August 24. And it’s probably wrong to use the past tense, because it’s all still up there for anyone who’s interested. Here’s how it worked: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and I (the interviewer) sat in his conference room. He responded to my questions, while, off to one side, two aides translated everything into ‘tweets.’. The video was live and is now archived in case anyone wants to check the accuracy of the tweets against what was actually said.

Here’s the transcript.

Just over 1, 200 people ‘tuned in’ to watch the live feed, but the 68,000 followers of the Department’s Twitter feed (@usedgov) ‘followed’ the Town Meeting on Twitter. Many thousands more follow @askarne and other Twitter feeds, and so the audience must have been well over 100,000. Hundreds of followers added their own tweets, commenting on the Secretary’s answers or my questions, or just venting about the administration. Some tweets were subsequently re-tweeted, keeping the conversation going.

The run-up to the Twitter Town Hall is also noteworthy, because the Department and I both solicited questions. About 100 came to me directly, generally thoughtful and well-written. The Department received many more, which it passed along to me. I chose the questions without any prior review by the Department.

Was Arne Duncan’s Twitter Town Hall substantive, by which I mean ‘did it have the potential to change viewpoints and expand perspectives?’ By itself, no, but the re-tweets and the comments and its archived presence taken together feel ‘substantial’ — to me anyway.

What about the Town Hall on Race and Education? Could its substance have been captured and conveyed on Twitter? I doubt it, but I feel strongly that those who are committed to the old-fashioned approach must adapt so millions, not just a fortunate few, can benefit. Sessions like that can be fed live on the web and then later segmented and indexed so that visitors can pick and choose from a menu, rather than having to watch it all. (And they can tweet their favorites to their Twitter followers.)

I am not trying to talk myself or any other journalist out of a job. For openers, I wouldn’t trust a “Town Hall” with a politician if the interviewer were anyone other than a qualified reporter. However, I think a healthy skepticism about most reporting is warranted, unless and until you develop a trust in the reporter and his/her outlet.

But social media is the future. And, while there’s now a clear a trade-off between substance and immediacy, the challenge is to embrace Twitter and other social media to increase their depth. That’s the future.

Originally posted on August 30, 2011.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Steve Brill and the Berated Dog

  |   Comments   |   Bookmark and Share
As always, remember that John’s book "The Influence of Teachers" is for sale at Amazon.

Please imagine this scenario: While walking in the park, you see someone famous ahead of you. This person is berating his dog, yelling at it, slapping it and then giving the poor whimpering dog a hard kick or two. Before you can intervene, the person drags the dog away.

The cover of Steven Brill's new book.
I ask you, would you ever be able to read about or even think about that person — let’s say he’s running for office or donating millions to charity — without that image coming into your mind?

I think something like that happened to Steven Brill, the lawyer/writer who broke the story of New York City’s infamous ‘Rubber Room,’ where teachers that no principal would hire were stashed — and paid — while awaiting arbitration. In that New Yorker article, Brill painted an unforgettable picture of hundreds of adults wasting their days (including a middle school teacher making $85,000 a year who brought in a beach lounge chair). In the piece, Brill correctly identifies the problem: a union contract that establishes procedures for dismissal that are so complex as to make firing even the most incompetent teacher impossible. It’s a good guy-bad guy story, with the teachers union being Brill’s villain (even though someone sat on the opposite side of the table and agreed to those provisions).

I use that word, ‘unforgettable,’ advisedly, because it seems that the experience colors just about every page of his new book, the very readable Class Warfare.

Brill seems to admit as much in an August 21 column distributed by Reuters:

I’ve now read all the white papers and commission reports. I’ve learned all the policy wonk acronyms, and logged hours with everyone from teacher trainees, to the secretary of education, to Weingarten and Ravitch. Yet after all of that it still seems as uncomplicated as it did when I saw my first Rubber Roomer with his head resting on a card table. I mean no disrespect to all the dedicated people who are the “experts” in education policy, but for me the problem and its root causes still seem as undebatable as the practice of paying that guy to sleep for three or four years.

That’s a shame, because the story is more nuanced and ultimately more interesting, as Brill finally acknowledges in his final chapter, which is roughly 180 degrees different in tone from the rest of the book.

In the body of Class Warfare, teacher unions are the villains — the ‘education deformists’ — and a handful of (mostly) Democrats who challenge them are the heroes. He blithely labels people and organizations as anti- or pro-reform. So, for example, the Washington Post’s blog, “The Answer Sheet” is identified as “an anti-education reform blog.” (Brill’s tunnel vision was also discussed in detail in Sara Mosle’s Aug. 18 review of the book for The New York Times ).

Even worse is his treatment of the movie “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” a badly-slanted film that distorts the reality of public education, praising charter schools despite their muddy record of success and ignoring successful traditional public schools. He explains away the millions of dollars the filmmakers received from large foundations, suggesting that since all that money came in after the fact, it did not influence the message and the filmmakers are not hypocrites or worse.

But he has no trouble implying that one of his villains, Diane Ravitch, is for sale. In a short chapter about Ravitch, he comes very close to saying that she changed her views to accommodate those who pay her speaking fees.

But Brill, a tough man who does see the big picture, does not seem to be able to criticize his heroes directly — those ideas, he puts in footnotes (two in particular about Wendy Kopp, one about Michelle Rhee and the Gates Foundation).

His heroes are Eva Moskowitz of Harlem Success Charter Schools, Jon Schnur, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and a few others in that camp. Never once does he take on school boards, although it seems to me they bear equal responsibility for our having a system that puts adult interests ahead of those of children.

It’s not a book to read in one gulp, largely because of his format — dozens and dozens of chapters that are only three or four pages in length. Each chapter ends with the transitional equivalent of “meanwhile, back at the ranch” that becomes a distraction after a while.

However, there’s a lot to like about the book — including his inside stuff about Race to the Top. I have to admit that those sections made me professionally jealous, because we had negotiated access to the Race process for our video crew with Assistant Secretary Peter Cunningham, approved by his boss, Arne Duncan, until the Department’s lawyers vetoed it.

I think all wonks will enjoy Class Warfare. It might ruin the book for you, but I’d suggest reading the last chapter first.

Originally posted on August 24, 2011.
Enhanced by Zemanta

The Meaning of Rain

  |   Comments   |   Bookmark and Share
As always, remember that John’s book "The Influence of Teachers" is for sale at Amazon.

I’ve been on vacation lately: fishing with grandchildren, playing on the beach, riding my bike, and — here in the east — walking in the rain. Vacation is supposed to be a time to decompress, to get away from my normal preoccupation, which is education and its complexities.

Wish it were that simple, but, unfortunately for me, almost everything seems to work its way around to education sooner or later.

I mean, take the songs that I sing (quietly to myself) while walking my dog. As I said, we’ve had plenty of rain, so maybe it was inevitable that I would sing songs about rain.

After a while I noticed that songs about bad weather are cheerfully, even blindly, optimistic — starting of course with “Singing in the Rain.”

Think about “Raindrops Falling on My Head,” the song that runs through the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In that song, the singer says he’s “never gonna stop the rain by complaining” and insists that there’s one thing he knows:

The blues they send to meet me won’t defeat me 
It won’t be long till happiness steps up to greet me

In other words, don’t worry, be happy, because happiness is just around the corner. You don’t have to do anything — happiness is coming.

“Soon It’s Gonna Rain” from the musical The Fantasticks is another happy song about bad weather. It’s a duet between the two young lovers, and it’s completely optimistic. They decide to build a house (in a tree) that will protect them from the harsh weather and ‘happily we will live and love within our castle walls.’

For optimism, however, I don’t think you can beat Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” because, when “the rain is gone,” there are “no other obstacles in my way.”

Perhaps it’s human nature to think in extremes and avoid nuance. Certainly, sunny optimism makes for a good song. That song would not have rocketed to No. 1 on the charts if the lyrics were “I see more clearly now, the rain has gone; I can see obstacles in my way.”

The blind optimism of the song makes me think of the education policy makers who have ignored reality for years when setting their K-12 academic standards. As Stephanie Banchero wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently:

In fourth-grade reading, for example, 35 states set passing bars that are below the “basic” level on the national NAEP exam. “Basic” means students have a satisfactory understanding of material, as opposed to “proficient,” which means they have a solid grasp of it. Massachusetts is the only state to set its bar at “proficient” — and that was only in fourth and eighth-grade math.

It’s not really raining, these policy makers decided, and so they lowered the academic bar, thus producing lots of apparently ‘proficient’ graduates. For years their schools have asked very little of students, despite the reality of No Child Left Behind’s approaching deadlines (100 percent proficiency by 2014) and the existence of an independent standard, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

How bad is it? As a federal study noted (again quoting Banchero), there are “huge disparities among the standards states set when their tests are converted to the NAEP’s 500-point scale. In eighth-grade reading, for example, there is a 60-point difference between Texas, which has the lowest passing bar, and Missouri, which has the highest, according to the data. In eighth-grade math, there is a 71-point spread between the low, Tennessee, and the high, Massachusetts.”

... come again another day?
Blind optimism may be fine for a song, but it’s not appropriate for education policy.

There’s also blind negativism, which seems to me to be the position taken by a lot of education pundits. To these folks, that’s not just rain; that’s doom and gloom, Noah’s flood and the end of the world as we know it. To me, these nay-sayers sound like Benton Brook’s “A Rainy Night in Georgia,” an unrelentingly mournful song in which It seems like it’s rainin’ all over the world

The song goes on:

How many times I wondered 
It still comes out the same 
No matter how you look at it or think of it 
It’s life and you just got to play the game 

The song ends on the same endlessly depressing note, fading away into silence: You’re talking ’bout rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’ rainin’, rainin’, rainin’ (fade).

Lighten up! Things are not as bad as the ‘rainin all over the world’ folks would have it. We have thousands of outstanding schools, superb approaches like Core Knowledge, KIPP and Jim Comer’s school reform program, to name just three.

But education also has problems that cannot be whistled away or ignored: 7000 dropouts every school day, huge gaps in educational outcomes; a teacher dropout rate that approaches 50% in five years, and so on. The rain may be gone but there are other obstacles in our way!

I am not arguing for compromise: Blind is blind. The challenge is not to find a healthy balance between blind optimism and blind pessimism, because those polar opposites have only one thing in common: complete faith in their own rightness. One side is convinced that the sun’s going to come out tomorrow, while the other feels it’s raining all over the world.

We don’t need compromise. We need to lighten up. We need to listen. Above all, we need a measure of humility, some admission that perhaps we cannot see clearly. Another line comes to mind, though not from a song: We see ‘as through a glass, darkly.’

I think I need a vacation.

Originally posted on August 16, 2011.
Enhanced by Zemanta
As always, remember that John’s book "The Influence of Teachers" is for sale at Amazon.

I am reading a collection of essays called “I Used to Think … and Now I Think,” which is billed as reflections by leading reformers on how they themselves have changed over the years. The essays I’ve read so far make me think about testing, cheating, the ‘Save our Schools’ rally in Washington, DC, and the approaching school year.

In her essay, Deborah Meier reflects on “how utterly alien” the basic structure of school is to “normal human learning.” We saw that when we reported for PBS Newshour on P.S. 1 in the South Bronx, where first graders were reading competently but fourth graders were failing the reading test. A reasonable person would have to conclude that, to borrow Debbie’s phrase, the ‘structure of school’ was conspiring against the joy of learning. That is, from second grade on, the emphasis is on testing reading, not reading itself.

In his essay, Marshall (Mike) Smith reflects on the rise in testing, which he says has nearly doubled during the years of No Child Left Behind.

Today the ‘structure of school’ includes ever more testing, this time with high stakes for teachers and administrators, who stand to lose their jobs if scores don’t go up. Under Michelle Rhee, Washington D.C. led the way in ‘holding teachers accountable,’ but now about 30 states have laws that connect test scores and adult evaluation.

Given the high stakes for adults, many predicted a wave of cheating, and that seems to be occurring: Washington, New Jersey, Baltimore, Houston, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Atlanta is the poster child: nearly half the schools and 178 adults implicated, with confessions from about 80 teachers and administrators already recorded. What makes Atlanta unique is the investigation — which was done by an outside group, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

In every other place I am familiar with, the investigations were directly or indirectly controlled by the adults in charge of the schools. Even Atlanta’s first ‘investigation’ — which turned up no problems — was done by insiders.

In a few days, PBS Newshour will air our report on Atlanta, focusing on the children who were cheated. That’s a perspective that’s been missing from much of the reporting.

Speaking of Atlanta, “I Used to Think…” includes an essay by recently departed Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall. In eight largely self-serving pages, Dr. Hall celebrates her accomplishments. She tells us that it took her three years to bring the school system under her direct control and “to institutionalize strong ethics requirements limiting the school board’s direct involvement with the day-to-day operations of the system.” (The added emphasis was mine.) Since the Georgia Bureau of Investigation report traces the cheating right to the superintendent’s desk, the sentence resonates with irony.

Dr. Hall has denied any knowledge of or involvement in cheating. During her tenure, she received nearly $600,000 in bonuses. How much of that was for raising test scores (fraudulently) is unclear, but the Board wants to ‘claw back’ those dollars.

I worry that the ‘lesson’ of these cheating scandals will be missed and instead districts will spend time and money on protection and detection. Indeed, New York State announced yesterday that it was investing in new detection systems.

In this age of accountability, testing is punitive. That’s the bottom line, and that’s what must be addressed, but we can’t abandon testing or accountability.

Matt Damon appeared at the Save Our Schools rally in Washington, D.C. last weekend -- was he the main reason for subsequent media coverage?
The Save our Schools event in Washington was hoping to call attention to the damage that our testing frenzy is doing. What did it accomplish? From one perspective, it was a bust. The organizers predicted a crowd of between 5,000 and 10,000, but head-counters from Education Week said 3,000 tops. While it got coverage on local outlets and in the Washington Post, most of the reporting can be explained in two words: Matt Damon. His star power drew media attention.

The speeches that I have read or watched on YouTube did little to move the ball forward. Organizers met with Education Secretary Arne Duncan — whose resignation they later called for. I have it from reliable sources that they turned down the opportunity to meet with Roberto Rodriguez, the President’s education advisor and a man whose power may be equal to Duncan’s, because they wanted an audience with the President.

What was the tone of the gathering? A good friend who attended the rally wrote me afterwards about ‘the corporate reactionaries,’ noting:

They are dead set on imposing a business model on our pedagogical practices … Bashing unions, demanding the end of tenure, collective bargaining, seniority, and headstrong pushing the cheap and deeply flawed metric as The only valid measure of academic achievement. John, you well know that the new so-called education consultants, and the huge mega-billionaire and corporate testing and assessment industry is all about profits! … They want to take the public out of all decision-making. They want to privatize as much as they can! …. They are determined to destroy all that we built, and all our good works that are proven successful, and to dismiss and devalue and degrade our greatest achievements.

But are the ‘bad guys’ all on one side? In Newark, New Jersey, a well-meaning ‘reform’ is being scuttled by a union contract (also signed by a school board) that prevents schools from replacing ineffective teachers. The Wall Street Journal describes in detail how failing schools simply shuffled ineffective teachers — ’you take my five, and I will take your five’ — because the contract guarantees jobs to tenured teachers. That outrage adds more fuel to the fire for those who see unions as the source of education’s problems.

And, come to think of it, when unions behave as classic trade unions bent on protecting their members at all costs, they are a huge part of the problem.

One change that must happen if public education is to survive: unions must become professional, not trade, organizations.

On my blog last week the respected educator Grant Wiggins posted a long and thoughtful response that some of you may have missed. I hope you will jump back a week and read it in its entirety. Here’s one paragraph:

Until and unless school is defined as talent development and not a march through The Valued Past, we will fail. School is boring for many if not most. When was the last time you folks shadowed students for a day? It is a grim experience. It is endlessly easy to blame Others, those Outsider bad guys. But from where I sit, the problem is a Pogo problem: I have met the enemy; it is us.

It’s in the vein of ‘physician, heal thyself.’ At the rally and elsewhere, my progressive friends have been so busy attacking their bad guys that they have lost sight of what drew them into teaching in the first place.

In my post last week, I recalled Ronald Reagan’s “Trust but verify” commandment. That prompted Grant to write:

The only way John’s pleas for a sensible middle can be achieved is if educators finally get honest and say, “mea culpa; school is more boring and ineffective than it needs to be, so let’s get our own house in order before the outsiders force us to do dumb things with their crude policy levers.

Had unions and other groups lobbied hard for alternatives to current policy we also might not be in this mess. But for 25 years the educational establishment has just lobbied hard to complain about what it doesn’t like. Washington works the old fashioned way: write the laws and give them to legislators. When was the last time all the key players got together and did that?

I don’t know if we need to get together, but I do know that testing’s critics need to think about accountability, the ‘verify’ part of Reagan’s formula, because Americans won’t accept either extreme, and by not adequately addressing that issue, the progressives are leaving the field to the verifiers.

We are a few weeks away from the reopening of schools across the country. This fall will be different because of the harsh economy, but kids will still arrive on that first day full of hope and optimism, just as they do every year. Somehow they manage to convince themselves that ‘this year will be different.’

Most often, that’s not the case. The ‘unnatural structure of school’ sorts children into groups of “A kids,’ ‘B kids’ and (for most) ‘C kids.’ That structure works against good teaching and deep learning. For children, September, not April, is ‘the cruelest month.’

I believe that teachers can make a difference this year if they band together to focus on what kids need. They may need to make common cause with parents, instead of being distant. They may need to tell taxpayers just how much of their money is being wasted on excessive testing. They may need to inform their union leaders that they are going to violate the contract and work late or meet with administrators or parents after school.

Above all, they have to be pro-child, and pro-learning, not anti-this or anti-that.

Originally posted on August 3, 2011.
Education Update, Inc. All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2011.