Archives for the month of: April, 2012

I blog weekly for Education Week. I think it is a wonderful publication and a great newspaper of record for education.

On my blog, I have been free to write whatever I want. No one has ever told me that I can’t say what I think. I respect Education Week for that editorial independence. I mention this because a friend wrote today to ask me if I started my own blog because of problems with Education Week. Absolutely not! I just have more to say and comment on than can be contained in a weekly piece or in tweets, and sometimes I want to write something on the spur of the moment, blow off steam, or just jot down whatever I want when I want. Like now.

At this moment, I am upset that Education Week has become intertwined with the online for-profit industry. I got an email today, one of those automated things, announcing a webinar on May 8, called Education’s “Constructive Turbulence”: How Innovation and Technology Can Help Improve Student Learning. The webinar is sponsored by Apex Learning, which is a for-profit online corporation.

That bothers me. It bothers me for several reasons. First of all, I don’t like for-profit corporations that seek to replace schools. I understand that they meet certain legitimate purposes, providing instruction for students who can’t get to a physical school for whatever reason. I understand that for-profit corporations sell textbooks and testing and pencils and software and hardware. I just have this really bad feeling about for-profit schools. I keep thinking that they give more thought to profits than to pupils. I worry that the bottom line will matter more than imagination or unfettered inquiry. I hate the idea of machine-scored essays, which seems like a living example of an oxymoron.

The email says that technology–that is, the opportunity to sit your child in front of a computer for a longer period of the day or maybe the whole school day–will supposedly address the triple threat of tight budgets, teacher shortages, and the need for higher achievement. I think we should all be fighting to protest the budget cuts, not supinely accepting them as inevitable. And with so many layoffs, I am not convinced there is a teacher shortage. I think what Apex really means is that school districts can replace teachers and save money by putting more kids in front of computers and having larger classes and fewer teachers. Curious that we hear so much about the importance of education but aren’t willing to pay for really great education, which requires teachers and resources.

The other thing that really bothers me is the very notion of “Constructive Turbulence.” Why do children need turbulence in their lives? What’s “constructive” about “turbulence”? Why would be we pay a corporation to produce chaos for our children? Aren’t children’s lives sufficiently turbulent these days? Don’t they need constructive stability, constructive relationships and caring? There are far too many adults who think that children need to be in an environment of disruption and risk. I don’t know any parents who want their children’s lives to be chaotic and turbulent. That may work for entrepreneurs, but as a mother and grandmother, I don’t believe it is right for children.

Almost every day, I get an email from some sponsor telling me how entrepreneurs will re-invent education and make money at the same time. I wish they would stick to soap and toothpaste and leave our children alone.

If you haven’t seen this article by Lee Fang in The Nation about the for-profit online industry, please read it now: That’s an important article.

Some people say that the movement towards privatization is a juggernaut that can’t be stopped. I don’t agree. As more parents wake up to what is happening, there will be more push-back against privatization.

The push-back is happening now against high-stakes testing. It will happen against privatization too, as the public catches on to what is happening to their public schools. I heard this afternoon that Kenneth Cole decided to take down his obnoxious anti-teacher billboard. What that says to me is that corporate interests are even more sensitive to public opinion and to controversy than public officials. But that’s a subject for another blog. This juggernaut can be stopped.


I wonder why our policymakers in Washington, D.C., love euphemisms. Ten years ago, Congress passed No Child Left Behind, and by now, is there anyone in the United States who takes seriously the idea that “No Child” has been “Left Behind”? Since Congress can’t agree on how to change the law, maybe they could just rename it and call it “Many Children Left Behind” (MCLB) or “No Child Left Untested” (NCLU). When the name of a federal law is so clearly at odds with its actual results, either we must rename the law or declare it a failure or both. But, please, no euphemisms, no flowery predictions in the title of the legislation.

Then there is Race to the Top. No one has explained what it means to “race.” Does it mean that with more and more pressure on teachers, their students will get higher test scores? Surely, a “race to the top” has nothing to do with equality of educational opportunity. And what, exactly, is “the top”? Does that mean that if we just test everyone with greater frequency, then student scores will rise to the top of the world? Where is the evidence for that? Another deceptive euphemism.

The euphemisms that are most annoying, however, are “turnarounds” and “transformations.” When we think of a turnaround, we are likely to think of a charming little dance, perhaps one where we all hold hands and circle the Maypole, with rosebuds fluttering around the heads of the children. But “turnaround” means something dark and sinister, not a happy dance. It means that if you get the money, you must fire the principal, fire half or all of the staff, close the school, give it a new name. That’s harsh medicine, not a turnaround. Whether the new school will be better or worse than the old one is by no means clear. What is it about closing a school that promises that the achievement gap will close or that children who don’t read English will now learn English and speak it fluently? I don’t see the logic or the sense.

Honesty is the best policy. If the federal government really wants to fire the principals and teachers in the 5,000 schools with the lowest scores, why don’t they call it the Close Bad Schools policy? Or something that approximates the brutal reality? Why don’t they explain the mechanism by which mass firing leads to better education?

Just call it what it is.


When I read Gail Collins’ nifty column about the pineapple fiasco, I realized why New York ended up using a ridiculous story that was recycled from tests given in several other states. Wherever that pineapple story appeared on the state tests, the kids said it was a stupid story with stupid questions. Pearson didn’t listen and didn’t care. They just sent it on to the next state test. (

New York got the pineapple story because NY is paying Pearson only $32 million for five years of tests. Texas is paying Pearson $500 million for five years of tests. That means that Texas gets the shiny, new questions–the ones that make sense-and NY gets the recycled remainders, the ones that no one else wanted

You get what you pay for.


Now that I have a blog where I can write what I want, when I want, I have the luxury of revisiting some good and bad ideas. In this post, I will revisit a really pernicious idea that appeared about a month ago in The New Republic. You see, the odd thing about our culture is that it is so attached to the present moment that anything that happened or was written about a month ago tends to disappear in the ether. But this editorial was so outrageous that it still annoys me, and I want to explain why.

In an editorial called “Making the Grade: The Case Against Tenure in Public Schools,” the editors argued that it was a fine idea to remove any job protections from public school teachers because they don’t need them. In making this assertion, the editors of this once-liberal magazine were giving support to the far-right Virginia legislature, which was at that moment not only trying to strip teachers of tenure but to require women to have “a trans-vaginal ultrasound before having an abortion.” The editorial of course condemned the latter as harsh, but thought that the far-right effort to remove job protection from public school teachers as a “halfway decent idea.” Indeed, the editorial went on to decry teacher tenure as “the least sane element” in our country’s education system.

The editorial claimed that after a few years, teachers get job protection that “makes it extremely difficult to fire them for the rest of their careers.” The source of this claim is the conservative National Council on Teacher Quality. TNR goes on to say that university professors deserve tenure because they are “our country’s idea factories,” so they must be free to explore unpopular ideas and to be protected from “ideological or intellectual retribution.”

By contrast, the editorial maintains, K-12 teachers need no such protection. They don’t create ideas, they don’t delve into controversial subjects. Their job is so important that they should be fired if they aren’t doing it right (let us assume for the moment that “doing their best work at all times” in Virginia means teaching what the Virginia legislature wants to hear and not teaching what it finds abominable).

The Virginia bill was not perfect, sniffed the editors, because “it allowed teachers to be fired for any reason,” and predictably those darn Democrats, so “beholden to teachers’ union,” were able to block the measure. So, for the moment, until Virginia elects a few more conservative Republicans, Virginia teachers still have tenure. The editorial, sorry to see their position embraced mostly by far-right Republicans like Rick Santorum and Chris Christie, called on President Obama to join them in calling for an end to tenure for public school teachers.

What’s wrong with this argument? First of all, tenure for teachers is not lifetime tenure. It is not analogous to the job protection enjoyed by lifetime professors, which is almost beyond challenge. Teacher tenure means the right to due process, nothing more, nothing less. After a teacher has served satisfactorily for a period of years, depending on state law, an administrator decides whether the teacher should receive the right to due process. If administrators are awarding due process to incompetent teachers, then we have an administrator problem.

Once a teacher has the right to due process, she cannot be fired capriciously. She is entitled to a hearing before an impartial administrator, where facts are presented about her performance. If the arbitrator agrees that she should be fired, she is fired. There is nothing comparable in higher education, where tenure means lifetime job protection.

Is there too little turnover of teachers? Not at all. Some 40% or more of those who enter the teaching profession are gone within the first five years. No other profession has the same degree of turnover. Some were fired; some left. That suggests to me that we don’t do nearly enough to support teachers and help them get better at their job.

But why do teachers need due process rights? Are they merely transmitters of information or do they too deal in ideas? I would argue that teachers must be free to teach and students must be free to learn. In the states trying so hard to eliminate teacher tenure–and in those that long ago succeeded–teachers put their jobs in peril if they teach about evolution, abortion, global warming, or many of the other hot-button issues of the day. If they teach a book that offends community values (and the American Library Association has a list of the 100 most-challenged books of the year, which includes Harry Potter books), they can be fired.

The New Republic should be pleased with the law pleased by the law passed recently in Louisiana. Bobby Jindal’s Legislature stripped tenure from the state’s teachers. It is odd to see a once-liberal magazine echoing the principles of the far right. And disheartening to hear the claim that public school teachers need no academic freedom.

An editorial like this one is symbolic of the collapse of the liberal center.


Once again, a large group of New York City public schools will close their doors, their staffs will be fired and replaced, and new schools will open. Among the schools that will be closed are Flushing High School, reputed to be the oldest school in the city, and John Dewey High School, once highly regarded for its progressivism but now burdened by a steady influx of low-performing students. (

Some schools were saved by last-minute expressions of interest by the Borough President of Queens, Helen Marshall, and the chair of the State Assembly Education Committee, Cathy Nolan, which apparently sufficed to save Grover Cleveland High School in their borough.

As the closing of “failing” schools becomes an annual ritual, along with the opening of brand-new schools (some of which will eventually join the ranks of “failing” schools), it is time to ask about where accountability truly lies.

I wonder if  it ever occurs to anyone in the New York City Department of Education that their own policies of closing schools and shuffling low-performing students around like checker pieces on a checker board have actually created “failing” schools. Every time they close a large high school with large numbers of low-performing students, those students are then pushed off into another large high school (like Dewey) that is doomed to “fail.”

Why doesn’t the leadership of the DOE ever take responsibility for helping schools that have disproportionate numbers of students who enter ninth grade with low test scores, including students with disabilities, homeless students, and students who are English language learners? Their methods of “reform” look like 52-pickup: Just throw the cards in the air and hope that somehow you come up with a winning hand.

Instead of providing resources, technical support, extra staff, or whatever the school needs to help students, the DOE declares that the school is “failing.”

Mayor Bloomberg took control of the schools in 2002. His reforms were put in place in September 2003. We are now in the ninth year of mayoral control with no checks or balances. The students in the “failing” schools started school when the Mayor was in charge. At what point can we say that the Mayor’s reforms have worked? Every time a school fails, the responsibility and accountability belong to the New York City Department of Education, which proves each time that it has no idea how to help schools improve.

No wonder that New York City voters (and public school parents) expressed their dissatisfaction with the Mayor’s policies in the latest poll. New Yorkers are tired of the parade of school closings and openings. (

Accountability starts at the top. If school officials don’t know how to help schools, they should get out of the way and stop wrecking what is left of the public school system.


When I spoke at NCTM, I talked about the common thread that unites mathematicians and historians: We believe that evidence matters. No matter how much we speculate, or theorize, or predict, what matters most is: Show me your work, where is the evidence.

There is no “reform” these days that has less evidence to support it than the expansion of cyber-charters. This is the (usually for-profit) business that enrolls students, provides them a computer and textbooks, then teaches them online while they sit at home in front of a computer. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have published exposes of the for-profit cyber-charter corporations.

I don’t doubt that there are some students who benefit by being able to take their courses at home. Some special-education students, some incarcerated youth, some others. But as a replacement for regular schools, the cyber-charters have a very poor record. Various academic studies, including those by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado have documented the poor results of the cybercharters. One of the best is the CREDO study of Pennsylvania cybercharters.

If we look at the studies and investigations, these findings stand out: students in cyber-charters get lower test scores, have lower graduation rates, and are likely to drop out and return to their local public school, leaving their state funding behind with the cyber-charter.

The bottom line on these “innovations” is that they produce worse education but generate large profits for their investors and owners.

The Michigan state legislature just voted to increase the number of cyber-charters in the state and the number of students these schools could enroll. No doubt, the for-profit corporations hired lobbyists to make their pitch.

If evidence matters, this would not be happening. If legislators and policymakers actually cared about education and our nation’s future, they would not be expanding a sector that has such a poor record.

Legislators and policymakers who ignore evidence should look in the mirror when they seek a reason for the state of education today.


I was the opening speaker at NCTM last night and I had a wonderful event. First of all, I sat next to a smart middle-school teacher from Wellesley, Massachusetts, and we talked about the problems of the Common Core standards and about Wellesley in the spring. She told me that she wasn’t sure that even her students–who live in an affluent suburb of Boston–will be able to handle the expectations of the CC standards. I asked her, if they can’t, who will? The problem, as I later told the audience, is that these standards have never been field tested. But more about that on another post.

When I got up to speak, I suddenly realized that I was utterly awestruck: Everyone in the room was a math teacher! That meant that everyone in the room was really smart, much smarter than I! I did well in math in high school, but I always considered myself an English & history person. So, of course, I am awestruck in the presence of 2,000 or more math teachers.

I talked about what historians and mathematicians have in common: respect for evidence. And I went through the popular reforms of our day, none of which has a solid base of evidence, and some of which have a long record of failure (the most obvious example of a policy that fails and fails and fails is merit pay).

It was altogether a terrific event. I got an 8:30 train back to New York City, couldn’t find a taxi so took a subway home to Brooklyn, and got home about 11 pm. I was too tired to make dinner. But satisfied that another 2,000 people, really smart, really engaged people, understand what is at stake today in the struggle to save public education from oblivion and bad ideas.


Yesterday I went to Philadelphia to speak to the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Before I left New York City, the local spokesperson for Parents Across American, Helen Gym, asked if I would meet with some journalists to talk about the “reform” plan just released the day before. She sent me a link to the plan, and as I read it, it sounded just like the plans recently proposed or adopted in such cities as Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Cleveland: Close public schools, open privately managed charter schools, cut the budget. That’s the basic formula, and it is always accompanied by impressive promises of glory to come: higher test scores, higher graduation rates.

In the Philadelphia “blueprint,” as elsewhere, there is always talk about evidence and research, but truth to tell, I couldn’t find any in this plan. The Philadelphia reformers say they want to downsize the central headquarters and establish “Achievement Networks” to manage portfolios of schools. This is supposed to be based on the New York City model. I called around to veterans in the system and asked them to tell me about these networks that are a model for others. Their first question: Are they talking about the second reorganization of the New York City schools, or the third, or the fourth? Do they mean the Student Support Organizations (now gone)? Or the private partnerships? Or something else?

I suggested to the journalists that they need to know two things about New York City’s experience of the past decade. One is that the Mayor has doubled spending on education, though class sizes are not smaller. Was Philadelphia going to do that? Of course not, Philadelphia expects to cut the budget.

The other thing they need to know is that New York City has not gotten remarkable results, even after doubling spending (much of which went to no-bid contracts, consultants, IT, dramatically increasing the number of schools and the number of highly-paid administrators, and a 43% boost in teachers’ salaries). The city’s proficiency rates, which seemed to be flying up by leaps and bounds every year, got deflated in 2010 when the State Education Department admitted lowering the cut scores on state examinations. Overnight, the New York City miracle disappeared, as the percentage of students who reached proficiency fell to levels near where they had been years earlier. And the achievement gap was as large as it had been in 2002, when the mayor took charge.

What is so maddening about the reformers’ promises is that they are not based on anything at all: Trust us, they say. Turn the public schools over to private managers, inject competition into the system, close low-performing schools, and student scores will go up. But nothing in the plan says what they will do to improve teaching and learning. There is nothing about class size, nothing about support for hard-pressed educators. Just trust these guys who know how to make money in the private sector.

When I read Helen Gym’s blog about the reform proposal, I realized that she knows far better than I that this latest reform plan is just the latest in a long series of empty promises that do nothing for children and communities. So I am putting her blog here. It is a wonderful caution against those who promise miracle cures but offer neither evidence nor experience to support their plans.

Thank you, Helen.


I read in the Daily News this morning that Governor Cuomo will oppose the public release of teacher ratings ( I am glad he realizes that teachers’ evaluation should not be published for all to see, but I wish he had taken the next step, which is to shield such evaluations as part of every teacher’s personnel file. No member of the public has the right to see the job evaluations of police or firefighters or corrections officers, yet their jobs are no less important than those of teachers.

The Governor’s position is that parents have a “right to know” the job evaluations of their child’s teacher. I disagree, and I’ll explain why.

The first reason that I think this is wrong is that the ratings themselves, as we learned when they were released by New York City, are inaccurate. Why should parents have the right to know a rating that is wrong? We saw examples of teachers who were assigned students they never taught; teachers who got ratings for years when they were on maternity leave. Given the city’s insistence that teachers be compared to other teachers and graded on a curve, half of the teachers fell in the bottom half of the curve, despite their qualities as teachers.

In one case, a teacher of gifted children was rated a very poor teacher—one of the worst in the city—because the children who started in her classroom gained only .05 of a point when the computer said they should have gained .07 of a point. This is not judgment, this is a mechanical calculation that is meaningless. Her principals says she is an excellent teacher but the computer knows best.

Then there was the New York Post’s “expose” of the woman they called “the worst teacher in the city.” The rankings showed her at the bottom. But the rankings did not explain that she teaches new immigrant students who cycle in and out of her classroom as they learn English. In other words, the rankings are bunk.

Aside from the question of accuracy—a very large question given the crudeness of the measures—there is an issue of practicality. What happens when the parents in a school learn that Ms. Smith has a ranking in the 12 percentile? Will they all go to the principal and ask to have their children transferred to a teacher with a higher ranking? If they do, will Ms. Jones have 65 children in her class, while Ms. Smith sits in an empty classroom? What will be their rankings next year? What will parents do with the inaccurate information the Governor wants them to have?

I suppose this will sort itself out and in time will come to mean nothing at all. One thing seems certain. This is not a method that will improve the teaching profession or improve education or give teachers the respect they now feel is sorely lacking.

Ten years ago, the New York State Education Department got embroiled in a very embarrassing scandal. A vigilant parent discovered that many passages on the Regents’ exam in English had been heavily rewritten to remove any references to race, religion, gender, sex, and a bunch of other topics. The parent’s discovery merited a front-page story in the New York Times and caused the State Commissioner of Education to promise that it would never happen again. (

Of course, it did happen again. On the very next administration of the Regents, there was a single stanza from Matthew Arnold’s famous poem, “Dover Beach,” not the full four stanzas of the poem. The last stanza begins, “Ah, love, let us be true to one another!” but the state changed it to, “Ah, friend, let us be true to one another.”

How soon they forget. Now with the Pineapple story, we learn that they never stopped meddling with the text of passages. They can’t help themselves. They think they can write better than Elie Wiesel, better than Isaac Bashevis Singer, better than Daniel Pinkwater.

I told Gotham Schools, trying to be charitable, that maybe they forgot the promise made a decade ago. But I was too kind. The NY SED just isn’t very smart. They send out tests with egregious errors, and the Commissioner blames the teachers who reviewed it. The math tests that will be given tomorrow has errors, but no one at SED will admit they are culpable. Stuff happen is what they say. Don’t blame us.

In 2010, the Regents commissioned a study of the state tests and independent experts said the tests had been dumbed down, the cut scores had been lowered in an effort to meet NCLB’s absurb target. So test scores across the state plummeted to reflect the reality that the SED had gamed the system. But was anyone at SED held accountable? Of course not.

The moral of the story: Accountability begins at the top.