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I write the songs that make the whole world sing.
I write the songs of love and special things.
I write the songs that make the young girls cry.
I write the songs, I write the songs.

No doubt that the Barry Manilow tune is now playing in the heads of most readers.[1]    But who "writes the songs" in the larger sense of the term?  Who and what determine how we look at the world, what you might call our 'political narrative'?

We know this matters. Time and again research has shown the power of preconceptions over conclusions and decisions. If people are led to believe that a particular artist's work is masterful or a certain composer's music is sophisticated, that's what most people are likely to see and hear.  When a teacher is told that her students have low potential, those kids somehow end up performing poorly; conversely, if the teacher is told the students are gifted, that's how they do in class.  That's the influence of the narrative.

What I find intriguing is the power of the current narrative about public education, which goes this way:"Effective teachers are the cornerstone of quality education, and, because so many of our public schools are failing today, it stands to reason that our schools must have a surfeit of ineffective teachers. Ergo, to reform education, we must drive out those bad teachers and replace them with quality teachers who will produce higher scores on standardized tests."

Once one accepts that narrative, it makes sense to evaluate and fire teachers based on student test scores.  Accept that narrative, and it's logical for the federal government to award millions of "Race to the Top" dollars to states which agree to evaluate teachers based on test scores.

When I wrote about the public narrative about education just three years ago, the two sides were engaged in a fierce battle, and the outcome was still in doubt.

"On one side in this battle is a cadre of prominent superintendents and wealthy hedge fund managers.  Led [2]by former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, 15 leading school superintendents issued a 1379-word manifesto in October 2010 asserting that the difficulty of removing incompetent teachers 'has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.'

This side believes in charter schools, Teach for America, and paying teachers based on their students' test scores.  Publicly pushing this 'free market' line is a powerful trio: Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for 'Superman' movie; NBC's semi-journalistic exercise, Education Nation; and Oprah Winfrey.  And if one movie isn't enough, this side also has The Lottery in the wings.

It has identified the villains: bad teachers and the evil unions that protect them, particularly Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.

The other side is clearly outnumbered: The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the two teacher unions; many teachers and some Democrats.  Its villains are No Child Left Behind and its narrow focus on bubble test scores in reading and math. This side's far weaker megaphone is wielded by historian Diane Ravitch, a former Bush education policy-maker turned apostate.[3]

No longer. Now those in what I named the "Better People" camp rule. Their view has become the lens the world is viewed through, 'the new normal.' Of course, teachers will be judged[4] by their students' test scores-and perhaps fired if scores aren't high enough.  It's 'the new normal' to accept that we are losing the education race to most of the rest of the world. It's 'the new normal' to set a 'college for everyone' goal. And it's 'the new normal' to support universal early childhood education, even if that means school-like conditions for three- and four-year olds.

Diane Ravitch argues in "Reign of Error" that our schools are not failing, and I don't intend to repeat her arguments here.

What I am interested in are the consequences of accepting this narrative. Of course, it makes life simpler, even black-and-white. Unfortunately, the current narrative has, from my perspective, at least SIX negative consequences.

1) MORE TESTING.  I've given up trying to count how many days are given over either to testing or to test-prep in what are called 'the testing grades.'  Standardized testing used to begin in third grade, but now we are seeing the downward push for testing in second and even first grades. And while I hate giving free publicity to anyone who's seeking to make money from our testing obsession, I have to provide at least one example of wretched excess, so here it is: http://www.ixl.com/math/pre-k Some teachers have developed practice tests for kindergarteners, to get them ready for their future.

2) TEACHERS BEING JUDGED BY SCORES OF STUDENTS THEY DO NOT TEACH.  That's right. It's now possible for a teacher to be rated based on the test results of kids she or he has never seen, let alone taught!  There's no standardized testing regimen for physical education, music and other 'fringe' subjects, but 'fairness' demands that all teachers be judged by test scores...and so that's happening.  The alternative, by this logic, is to create standardized tests for those subjects-and that's happening too.  The adjective 'Kafkaesque' comes to mind.

3). A NARROWER FOCUS. The 'narrowing' of the curriculum to emphasize the tested subjects has been going on for some time now. Equally disturbing is the concentration on 'on the bubble' students who are close to meeting the standard that will keep their school from being disciplined.  Those two steps make school less interesting for everyone, but particularly for gifted students, who, because they are already certain to meet the (low) benchmark, don't get the stimulation that their giftedness requires.

4) MORE ANSWERS, LESS INQUIRY.  Bubble tests are blunt instruments that require correct answers and little else.  But true learning is messy, uneven and often quite sophisticated.  Getting things wrong-failure-is a large part of genuine education, but the value of making mistakes and learning from them is what today's narrative does not recognize.  The disease of perfectionism is contagious and insidious.  The admissions committees of some elective colleges eliminate candidates who earned a C in one subject in 9th grade. And why not? They have thousands of applicants with straight A's all through high school!  Parents hover, ready to complain--or even sue-if their child gets a low grade.  In some classes students who dare to say 'I don't understand' or 'I don't know' are mocked by their classmates (even though they themselves are equally uncertain).

The focus on getting the right answer at all costs-as opposed to asking questions and learning to cope with ambiguity-is an especially dangerous outcome today, because our kids swim in the Internet's 24-hour sea of information and data.  But 'information' can be partial, misleading or wrong. Because not all information is true, young people need to develop the skills that enable them to sift through the flood of information and separate truth from half-truth and falsehood.  They need to be, in the jargon, 'critical thinkers,' but the best way to develop those 'habits of mind'[5] is through trial-and-error.  They learn from making mistakes-preferably in the 'safe' environment of a classroom.

Our test-score-driven system is, inevitably, an answer-driven system.  Students are rewarded for regurgitating the correct answers.  Teachers encourage that because their livelihoods depend on enough students getting enough correct answers. Some parents encourage it because they want their children to qualify for a top college.

5) "TEACH ME, OR YOU'LL GET FIRED"  That's what some high school students told their teachers in Washington, DC, a few years ago, according to those teachers.  I have since heard similar tales from other teachers. These are examples of a system turned upside down.  Apparently those students have absorbed the narrative-it's all about the teacher-and interpreted it to mean that, while they have no responsibilities, they do possess the power to get people fired. All they have to do is flunk.

6) MORE CHEATING. You know these awful stories: Atlanta, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio; Austin, Texas; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, DC.  And on and on.....

Not everyone accepts the narrative, of course.  Paul Tough has written convincingly about the importance of 'grit,'a quality that some value above straight A's on a report card. Some politicians-California's Jerry Brown comes to mind-want to limit the frequency and number of standardized tests.  A few hundred public schools are actually led by teachers, and in those schools testing counts for less. Hundreds of school boards in Texas have taken a stand against excessive high stakes testing, and last year some teachers in Seattle flat out refused to administer one standardized test they found to be egregiously irrelevant.  Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and others have called for a moratorium on high stakes testing to judge teachers while the new Common Core National Standards are rolled out, on the assumption (thus far correct) that the new tests will result in lower scores.

How can the narrative be changed?  One crucial step is to identify those who benefit from the current one.  That means following the money.  Are there significant interests who actually benefit from failure?  They need to be called out.

A second step is to persuade those on the sidelines that their long-term interests are being damaged by the current narrative.  And since 75-80% of households do not have school-age children, that's a big group.  Those folks need to understand that answer-based ("regurgitation") education is not keeping America competitive.  They need to know that using high-stakes testing to hold teachers 'accountable' is a not a proven strategy but a gamble that could do lasting harm to public education.

The third step is peace talks.  This suggestion comes out of a conversation I had with Kent McGuire of the Southern Education Fund and Jerry Weast, the former Superintendent of Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, recently.[6] Weast and McGuire believe that it is in the best interests of warring parties to come to the table, because, even though they disagree bitterly on a raft of 'adult' issues, they have a common enemy, failure.

Nobody wants our children to fail. Weast and McGuire believe that should be enough to bring people together.

Peace talks wouldn't be easy. The warring parties would have to agree on a definition of 'success,' for one thing.  For that to happen, they would first have to agree to focus exclusively on young people.  Discard everything else....tenure, evaluating teachers, class size, pay scales, merit pay and all the other adult issues.

The unions, the school boards, the charter school folks, the schools of education, the superintendents, the state leaders, Teach for America, and everyone else would have to agree to decide what 'success' in education means.

One rule for a successful marriage is to fight only about the thing you are fighting about. No fair bringing up the mother-in-law or the no-good drunk of a brother-in-law.  And no fair bringing up the fight you had last month either.

To change the narrative, we must decide what we want our young people to be able to do and become once they leave school.  And we must keep arguing about that-and only that-until some resolution is reached. Having that argument would certainly be a better use of our energy than the demonizing 'blame game' that is now going on.

The complex definition of success that would emerge could become the new narrative.  I think it's time for a new song.  Who's ready and willing to help write it?


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1. And it's probably going to keep on playing in your head for the rest of the work day. Sorry about that. By the way, Barry Manilow did not write the song. Bruce Johnson did!
  2. 2. If I were writing that paragraph today, I would add names: Paul Tudor Jones and the Robin Hood Foundation, Whitney Tilson and other hedge fund powerhouses, Tim Daly and others at The New Teacher Project, and some major foundations, and others.
  3. 3. The Influence of Teachers (Page 6)
  4. 4. The distinguished emeritus UCLA professor James Popham laid out very clearly why standardized test scores are not adequate for judging students, let alone teachers, in this well-argued piece from 1999.
  5. 5. The great Deborah Meier's wonderful phrase
  6. 6. The occasion was a Board meeting of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, DC, whose Board I have just joined. IEL will be observing its 50th Anniversary next year.  While I am new to the Board, IEL was my first non-teaching job, after I finished graduate school, back in the fall of 1973.

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