Archives for the month of: May, 2012

I liked a blog I read this morning. It was written by a TFA teacher who came into teaching with a low opinion of tenure. He (and I think it is a he because of the name of his blog) came into teaching sympathetic to the Michelle Rhee claim that tenure is only for the lazy and that real teachers don’t care about it.

But after three years of teaching, he expected to win tenure. Unfortunately, the Bloomberg administration was pressuring principals and superintendents to be parsimonious in granting tenure, so his own tenure was denied for a year. It was denied not because of his teaching (he writes), but because the principal had not done enough observations.

This blog reminds us that it is up to principals to make the tenure decision. Teachers don’t grant themselves tenure. Teachers’ unions don’t grant tenure. Principals grant tenure. If there are “bad” teachers, it is because a principal awarded them tenure.

This blog also reminds us that tenure is not a guarantee of lifetime employment, as so many in the media and in elected office assume, but a guarantee of due process, a guarantee of a hearing before one can be fired. Hearing the evidence against you before getting fired is not exactly un-American.

It is always a hopeful sign when TFA teachers realize that teaching is a career, not just a stepping stone for Ivy Leaguers who want to win a plum job at a hedge fund or want a fast track to becoming state commissioner of education with minimal experience. It is also a hopeful sign when TFAers recognize that there is a reason for teacher tenure, and it is not about protecting bad teachers.

When there are enough dissident TFA corps members, we will begin to see a real change in the national dialogue as these bright and articulate teachers start talking back to those who put them into the job.


It has recently become a humdrum narrative: Our schools are failing, we must reinvent the schools, we must fire the principals and the teachers and start over, we must race to the top, we must have vouchers and charters, we must turn public education over to the business people who tanked the economy in 2008, we must….do something, anything.

Fortunately there are sane people in the world, even in the United States. One of them is University of Texas physicist Michael Marder. Professor Marder has produced on his own a series of studies of U.S. performance and demonstrated that academic performance is a function of poverty. Here is his latest:

Professor Marder is not one of those notorious education professors who allegedly make excuses for poor performance. He is a scientist at the top of his game.

This is his bio:

Michael Marder is a member of the Center for Nonlinear Dynamics, internationally known for its experiments on chaos and pattern formation, and for the last four years ranked #1 in the nation by US News and World Report. He is involved in a wide variety of theoretical, numerical, and experimental investigations, ranging from studies of plasticity and phase transformations to experiments on sand ripples at the sea bottom. He specializes in the mechanics of solids, particularly the fracture of brittle materials. He has recently developed numerical methods allowing fracture computations on the atomic scale to be compared directly with laboratory experiments on a macroscopic scale. He has been checking these methods through experiments and computations on single crystal silicon, and is preparing for low-temperature experiments.

As Professor Marder has shown time and again, American students who do not live in poverty do very well indeed. In fact, they are at the top of the world.


Paul Vallas has taken over as superintendent in Bridgeport, Connecticut, while running a consulting business on the side (he just won a $1 million contract to help fix the Illinois schools).

He is concerned that students and teachers slack off after they take the state tests in March, so he has just imposed yet another round of tests for the end of year, which will precede the administration of even more tests.

You see, this is the way corporate reformers think. If students don’t have tests to face, they won’t learn anything. If teachers don’t have a test to prepare students for, they won’t teach anything. They think that no one in school will do anything unless someone at the top is holding out a stick or a carrot.

What they do not understand is the basic idea of intrinsic motivation. By relying so heavily on extrinsic motivation, the corporate reformers will snuff out any outcroppings of intrinsic motivation.

What the Bridgeport approach will do with certainty is to eliminate any time for creative activities and projects; to remove any time for exploration and un-regimented learning. It will substitute testing for teaching. It relies on coercion as the prime motivator for learning.

It is a plan that will prepare students for factory work in the early twentieth century.


A new report by UNICEF finds that the United States ranks second among the nation’s advanced nations in child poverty, with 23.1% of our children living in poverty. We are second to Romania, where the rate is 25.5%. Read the summary here.

Forgive me, but I think we are really number one. Romania is a very poor country that was subject to decades of misrule by Communist dictators. I visited Romania in 1990, soon after the execution of the dictator Ceauşescu and his wife. I saw desperate poverty and a collapsed economy that was not that of a developed nation. It was what we then called Third World. The nation has great potential, but it is certainly not in the same economic category as the highly developed United States, other than on a measure of child poverty.

So forget Romania. We lead the world’s advanced nations in Europe and Asia. We are number one in child poverty.

Since child poverty is the single most reliable indicator of low academic achievement, it stands to reason that anything our government and our nation can do to reduce child poverty will improve academic performance. Children are more likely to learn if they are healthy, well-nourished, and able to focus on their learning. Children who have a toothache or can’t see or hear well can’t focus. Children who are hungry can’t focus. Children who are not sure where they will sleep tonight can’t focus. Children who are worried whether their mother or father is safe can’t focus.

Why is it so hard to get the attention of our leaders tuned to what matters most? Why the pretense of a program like Race to the Top that the best way to meet the needs of poor children is to fire their teachers?


I read an article last fall that compared our current education reform movement with Stalinist education policy. (A reader told me that the link didn’t work.  Another reader sent me a different link. Thanks to all! The article is “Stalinizing American Education” by Lawrence Baines, Teachers College Record, September 16, 2011).

There is a part of me that is reluctant to go along with any sort of alarmism, not the alarmism of today’s Henny-Pennies (“the sky is falling, we are failing, failing, failing”), nor the Henny-Pennies of other eras. Unless one is presented with real catastrophe, the best course of action is usually incrementalist and muddling through. Act in haste, repent at leisure. Fix what’s broke, don’t mess with success. That sort of thing.

But the article begins with three statements and asks you to guess which one was made today and which were made by Soviet leaders in the 1930s. And frankly, the reader can’t tell. They all sound exactly the same. They all blame bad teachers for poor pupil performance. They all demand 100% success so all children can learn.

And the author goes further to make additional comparisons between then and now, such as a national curriculum, standardization, frequent standardized testing, emphasis on STEM subjects, and a regime of compliance. The compliance regime banishes the localism that produces innovation and progress.

Does this article make sense? Is it cause for concern? Should we think twice about the road on which we are racing to the top?


In what must be the most startling development of the past month, year, and perhaps decade, the U.S. Department of Education is now launching a Race to the Top competition for districts. It has nearly $400 million to award, but as we have seen in the state-level competition, the amount of money was sufficient to compel almost every state to rewrite its laws so as to be eligible.

So with this relatively small amount of federal discretionary money, Arne Duncan has set the stage to impose his will and his flawed ideas on districts across the nation.

Districts will have to show that they have the data to track students from pre-k through post-secondary education, as well as to tie test results to individual teachers. The data systems will be elaborate and they will track everyone from age 3-21. And teachers will be held accountable!

What is worse, as the article in Education Week cited above noted, is that “districts will have to promise to implement evaluation systems that take student outcomes into account–not just for teacher and principal performance, but for district superintendents and school boards. That’s a big departure from the state-level Race to the Top competitions, which just looked at educators who actually work in schools, not district-level leaders.”

Think of it. Who will evaluate superintendents and school boards? Will they be evaluated by test scores? Will the federal government fire school boards if test scores are flat? Will it fire district superintendents and replace them? Will Arne Duncan tell school boards and superintendents to raise test scores or resign? Did anyone in Congress approve this bizarre program of federal over-reach?

Even conservative blogger Rick Hess was taken aback. As he put it, “My only reaction to reading the info on this new Race to the Top-District was, “You have…got…to…be…kidding.” It’s like they read all their admiring press clips from RTT, strenuously tuned out any criticism or lessons learned from the, um, uneven track record when it comes to implementation, and wanted to see whether they could take the hubris meter up to 11 (with apologies to Spinal Tap).”

Hess disapproves because he thinks that the new competition will result only in vague promises and punch-list compliance. I am appalled because the U.S. Department of Education should not be in the business of telling districts how to do their job. They lack the competence to do so, and by doing so they ignore decades of history, tradition, and precedent. Is it really appropriate for Arne Duncan to take control of the nation’s schools?

Has anyone at the U. S. Department of Education ever heard of the principle of federalism? Does Arne Duncan think he was appointed the national Superintendent of Schools? Is there no limit to his desire to impose his bad ideas on others? His belief in the value of standardized testing is startling, to say the least. One might even say it is faith-based.


When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited New Haven’s first turnaround school, he asked what was needed to encourage more teachers to leave high-performing schools for low-performing schools. Everyone who responded to his question talked about the importance of preparing teachers better for the challenges of teaching students in urban schools. They spoke of a year or more of preparation. No one mentioned Teach for America. I wonder if he noticed that.

When he asked the only teacher who had transferred from a high-performing school why she had done so, she said it was because of her desire to serve. And the following exchange ensued:

“No one becomes a teacher to get rich,” she added.

“We’re working on that,” Duncan replied.

Duncan missed the point. She was not lured to the turnaround school to get rich, but he continues to believe that money will be the incentive that brings teachers from top schools to bottom schools. He really doesn’t get it.

What is troubling about the whole article is the underlying assumption that firing half the staff was part of a successful process; that the teachers were the reason that the students had low test scores. Of course, there is no evidence that the school actually has turned around, but that’s irrelevant. The entire day of high-fives reinforced Duncan’s rock-solid belief that firing teachers is a necessary step to turning a school around. He just can’t stop patting himself on the back as he flogs this claim that firing half or all the staff is the essence of reform. In his mind, it is.

He really doesn’t get it.


Louisiana legislators grilled Commissioner of Education John White about the state’s decision to approve the largest number of voucher students (315) for a small religious school that lacked facilities or teachers. Many questions were raised about the state’s failure to do any site visits to ascertain the readiness of the school to accept new students. Questions were raised about the school’s tuition, which is less than what the state plans to pay out (and may be very much less, making the voucher program a windfall for the school).

White must have been embarrassed because he immediately started backtracking and claimed that the list of schools approved by the state was not really final (news to everyone) and that the state planned to do due diligence.

The school plans to build a new facility during the summer and be ready to welcome its 315 new students this fall.

Nothing was said about the quality of the education that the new voucher schools would provide.

I keep wondering why smart people like Bobby Jindal and John White think that children in Louisiana will get a better education if they get public money to go to any private or religious school that wants them, regardless of their program, their curriculum, their teachers, or their record.

Since Mitt Romney wants the Jindal plan to go national, this story matters a lot.


Since “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, American policymakers (the ones who make decisions but never worked in a school) have looked with envy towards the Asian nations that get high test scores. It became a commonplace to complain that American students didn’t work hard enough and there had to be more “accountability” tied to test scores. How many times have we heard that our middling scores on international tests are proof we won’t be “globally competitive” in the future?

The other side of the story is that we have remained the global economic leader despite our ranking on international tests, which ought to make more people wonder whether the international tests tell us anything important about global competitiveness. They may actually reflect a nation’s ability to train its students to take examinations, and nothing more.

Every so often, I see stories that Japan or Korea really wishes its students would cram less and be more  creative. Now it is Singapore that is going in search of Dewey, looking for methods that would awaken student interest and creativity. Getting high test scores is not enough, Singapore’s education leaders are now saying. Something is missing. That something is creativity, critical thinking, engaging activities.

One very interesting point made in the article linked here is the reference to teacher quality. The U.S. has been obsessed with the issue of raising teacher quality, and has decided that the best way to identify it is to evaluate teachers by student test scores. In Singapore, however, raising teacher quality has meant improving teachers’ prestige and working conditions.

Our policymakers can learn something from Singapore.

And we can learn something else from Singapore: We must take care not to crush ingenuity and creativity while calling for “reform.” The willingness to “think differently” may be more important for our future than the ability to reliably sit for exams.


This may seem to be inside baseball for most of my regular readers, but it is nonetheless worth noting.

The DC think tanks exercise undue influence on the national media, because they are located in our nation’s capitol, and the media assumes it is worth paying attention to people who spend full time thinking. Unfortunately, almost every DC think tank is funded by the Gates Foundation, and they seem to think the same way about education issues. The one consistent outlier is the Economic Policy Institute, which is not Gates-funded and which consistently tries to figure out why most people in this country are left behind when corporate interests are put first.

So, it is of more than passing interest that corporate reformer Kevin Carey of Education Sector has just moved to the New America Foundation, which until now had not been a DC player on education issues. He brings some of the Ed Sector staff with him, enabling New America to join with other voices for corporate reform and to get additional funding from advocates for corporate-style policies.

And of even greater interest is that Education Sector, once thought of as centrist, or at least center-right, has now shifted decisively to the right as privatization advocate John Chubb steps up to be interim CEO and Hoover Institution economist Margaret (Macke) Raymond leads the board of directors. Also prominent in the Ed Sector hierarchy is a DFER executive from Illinois. Ed Sector can now reliably be viewed not only as a cheerleader for education reform (which it always was), but as an usually  strong voice for privatization.