Archives for category: Creativity

Steven Singer writes here about how economic thinking has distorted the purposes of schooling and is wrecking our society by turning everything into a transaction.

Here is an excerpt, in which he defines the transactional view of teaching:


The input is your salary. The output is learning.

These are distinctly measurable phenomena. One is calculated in dollars and cents. The other in academic outcomes, usually standardized test scores. The higher the salary, the more valued the teacher. The higher the test scores, the better the job she has done.

But that’s not all.

If the whole is defined in terms of buying and selling, each individual interaction can be, too.

It makes society nothing but a boss and the teacher nothing but an employee. The student is a mere thing that is passively acted on – molded like clay into whatever shape the bosses deem appropriate. 

In this framework, the teacher has no autonomy, no right to think for herself. Her only responsibility is to bring about the outcomes demanded by her employer. The wants and needs of her students are completely irrelevant. We determine what they will become, where they will fit into the burgeoning economy. And any sense of curiosity or creativity is merely an expedient to make children into the machinery of industry and drive the gross domestic product higher to benefit our stock portfolios and lower corporate taxes.

And since this education system is merely a business agreement, it must obey the rules of an ironclad contract. And since we’re trying to seek our own advantage here, it’s incumbent on us to contain our workforce as much as possible. This cannot be a negotiation among equals. We must keep each individual cog – each teacher – separate so that they can’t unionize together in common causeand equal our power. We must bend and subject them to our will so that we pay the absolute minimum and they’re forced to give the absolute maximum.

Thomas Armstrong recently wrote a provocative book with the same title as this essay. I invited him to write a post for this blog, and he did. His point of view stands in sharp contrast to the current policy environment of testing, data, competition, and punishment for teachers, principals, students, and schools that don’t hit test score benchmarks.

He writes:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (the ‘’nation’s report card’’), recently released reading and math test scores for fourth- and sixth-graders and the results have been less than stellar. Showing declines in reading and little progress in math, these results are bound to stimulate calls for new education reforms.  However, we should keep in mind the historical context in U.S. efforts to raise achievement levels in our schools.  This campaign for school reform dates as far back as 1983, when the then U.S. Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, wrote his seminal report ‘’A Nation at Risk’’ stating that American schools were being ‘’eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.’’

His paper unleashed what became a concerted attempt over the next thirty-five years to reform our schools.  The leaders in this effort were politicians (particularly state governors), CEOs of large corporations, and education bureaucrats. They held summits, passed laws (including the infamous No Child Left Behind Act), instituted more ‘’rigorous’’ requirements for students, and promoted new forms of standardized testing and curricula.  Yet as noted above, American academic achievement levels haven’t changed much. Similar evidence of little to no progress in test results over time among U.S. students can be seen in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests given every three years to 15-year olds in over seventy countries (the results of the latest scores from 2018 will be released December 3rd).

Perhaps it wasn’t all that wise to entrust our nation’s educational welfare to a bunch of politicians, corporate executives, and bureaucrats. Maybe there’s some other authority we can call upon who could put us on the right track with regard to education policy in America. In fact, I’d like to suggest a radical alternative:  why not Albert Einstein?  After all, he’s usually the first person that pops into one’s head when thinking of the world’s smartest person. His theories have literally changed the way we view the universe.  And as it turns out, Einstein had strong opinions about how education should be conducted which we could profitably apply to our current lack of educational progress. 

First of all, if Einstein ran our schools, he pretty definitely would discourage the current focus on standardization of curriculum and testing.  In an essay entitled ‘’On Education,’’ he wrote: ‘’A community of standardized individuals without personal originality and personal aims would be a poor community without possibilities for development.’’  Instead, Einstein likely would place a lot of emphasis in our classrooms on unleashing students’ imagination.  It was through his own imagination that he helped create a totally new way of looking at reality.  In high school, for example, he visualized himself racing alongside of a beam of light, and in his young adulthood, he imagined what it would feel like to be in a closed elevator in outer space as it began to accelerate (the experience would be equivalent to gravity).  These visual-kinesthetic images were the intellectual ‘’seeds’’ for his special and general theories of relativity. 

 Another capacity that Einstein would most probably encourage in the schools is the promotion of students’ curiosity.  Quoted in a 1955 Life Magazine article, he said ‘’The important thing is not to stop questioning.  Curiosity has its own reason for existence.  One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.  It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.  Never lose a sense of holy curiosity.’’ Einstein’s attitude toward curiosity stands in stark contrast to today’s typical classroom in the United States where students are required to make progress on hundreds of tasks that are a part of the Common Core State Standards used by over forty states, which includes such instructional goals as being able to ‘’ensure subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement’’ in language arts and to ‘’solve word problems leading to equations of the form px +q = r, where p, q, and r are specific rational numbers’’ in math. There’s not much room in these standards for authentic curiosity. 

Einstein cautioned us to keep our priorities straight with respect to education when he wrote:  ‘’It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good.  Otherwise he—with his specialized knowledge—more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person.’’  If, in our rush to raise test scores, we ignore such guidelines from one of the smartest individuals who ever lived, we do so at our own peril.

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is the author of If Einstein Ran the Schools:  Revitalizing U.S. Education.  Visit his website:  Follow him on Twitter:  @Dr_Armstrong.


Count on John Merrow to find a totally fresh way of looking at the 2019 NAEP scores!

He asks: What would John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Aristotle say?

The scores were disappointing but the responses were predictable:

The responses from the Administration, the center-right, and the left were not surprising.  Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos labelled it a ‘student achievement crisis’ and issued a call for ‘education freedom’ for parents so they could escape failing schools.  See here for her response and here for analysis.

The center-right, basically the ‘School Reform’ advocates who have controlled the public education for 20 years, focused on the smattering of good news in the NAEP report:

       Hispanic students had a higher average mathematics score in 2019 compared to 2017.

       Fourth grade mathematics scores increased in nine states.

       Mississippi showed an increase in grade 4 reading.

       Grade 8 reading scores increased in the District of Columbia.

This could be presented another way, of course: Mississippi was the ONLY state where 4th grade reading scores increased, and DC was the ONLY place where 8th grade reading scores improved.

But John takes a longer view. What would the great thinkers say?

His answers might surprise you.

For the past decade, the number of people majoring in English has declined, while STEM fields are booming.

Yet economists say that English majors are needed to tell the stories, shape narratives that make sense to people.

A great migration is happening on U.S. college campuses. Ever since the fall of 2008, a lot of students have walked out of English and humanities lectures and into STEM classes, especially computer science and engineering.

English majors are down more than a quarter (25.5 percent) since the Great Recession, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. It’s the biggest drop for any major tracked by the center in its annual data and is quite startling, given that college enrollment has jumped in the past decade…

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller’s new book “Narrative Economics” opens with him reminiscing about an enlightening history class he took as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He wrote that what he learned about the Great Depression was far more useful in understanding the period of economic and financial turmoil than anything he learned in his economic courses.

The whole premise of Shiller’s book is that stories matter. What people tell each other can have profound implications on markets — and the overall economy. Examples include the “get rich quick” stories about bitcoin or the “anyone can be a homeowner” stories that helped drive the housing bubble…

In many ways, President Trump’s constant attempts to call this the greatest economy of all time are an effort to tell a positive story to encourage Americans to keep spending, Shiller said, even if his claim is not based in fact.

What matters most is the ability to communicate clearly, a skill that English majors are likely to acquire.

Perhaps the most powerful argument for why students (and their parents) might want to think twice about abandoning humanities is the data. The National Center for Education Statistics also keeps track of pay and unemployment rates by major.

There’s no denying that the typical computer science major makes more money shortly after graduation than the typical English major.

Contrary to popular belief, English majors ages 25 to 29 had a lower unemployment rate in 2017 than math and computer science majors.

That early STEM pay premium also fades quickly, according to research by David J. Deming and Kadeem L. Noray from Harvard. After about a decade, STEM majors start exiting their job fields as their skills are no longer the latest and greatest. In contrast, many humanities majors work their way to high-earning management positions. By middle age, average pay looks very similar across many majors.



Michael Moore visited Finland with a camera crew to learn about its education system.

How could a nation post high test scores on international tests when its schools emphasize creativity, play, physical activity, and the arts and ignores standardized testing?

Watch his video and see what you think.

Regular readers of this blog have often encountered comments by Susan Schwartz. Susan was a celebrated teacher in District 2 in New York City. Now she is retired and has become a very successful photographer. She mentioned recently that her work had been accepted for an exhibit, and another reader asked whether Susan would be willing to share her work here.

I asked her and she responded with this sampling of her superb photographs. 



Ted Dintersmith was honored by the NEA for his advocacy on behalf of public education.

In this article, which appeared in Forbes, he urges support for a national commitment to investing in education and the future of our society.

He writes:

Education is the single most important issue determining our democracy’s future.  If we continue to get it wrong, we’re headed for collapse.  But if we bring the vision and courage to get it right, we will rescue the American Dream. Now more than ever, we desperately need a compelling blueprint, an Education Imperative.

Education sits in a context. Machine intelligence (computers, software, robotics, artificial intelligence) is advancing at a blistering pace, posing profound career and citizenship challenges for our population. Within a decade or two, machines will outperform humans on almost any physical or cognitive task, eliminating almost all routine white- and blue-collar jobs. To his immense credit, presidential candidate Andrew Yang is sounding alarm bells about this economic tsunami heading our way.  And if economic upheaval isn’t enough, technology-driven social media and deep-fake videos are now weapons with the power to manipulate and disrupt civic engagement, to undermine democratic processes…

In the past, America was at its best when faced with an existential crisis. Hell, we saved the free world during World War II.  We rebuilt Europe.  We put a man on the moon.  What better cause than fighting for our children’s futures by rallying around an aspirational view of what our schools could be, by stepping up to an Education Imperative.

Our Education Imperative should start with our babies and toddlers. There’s no better economic investment, nor higher moral imperative, than ensuring that our youngest children receive high-quality early-childhood care. Too many of America’s kids grow up in desperate circumstances.  Every child, not just every rich child, deserves a decent start in life.  

The vast majority of U.S. kids attend our public K12 schools, one of our country’s most vital resources. These schools need more financial support.  We need to offset the outsized role of local property taxes in funding education, which results shortchanging the kids who need the most. If you’re looking for heroes in America, you’ll find them in our classrooms. Our teachers fight daily for their kids, even risking their lives to protect children from shooters armed with NRA-endorsed assault weapons.  They deserve a fair salary, better professional development support, and trust.

You may not agree with all his prescriptions but in general he is on the right track.

Time for a massive investment in children and teachers and education.

Testing and choice have been a wasteful and harmful distraction.


Robin Lithgow spent many years in charge of arts education for the Los Angeles public schools. Having retired, she is now writing a book and blogging about the arts, especially theater and drama and their relation to cognition.

I think you will enjoy this delightful meditation about rhetoric, what it meant in Shakespeare’s day, and what it means today.

What’s with all the rhetoric?

She begins:

This is fun!

In The Taming of the Shrew, before the shrew, Kate, matches wits with Petruchio in their hilarious first encounter, the illiterate servant Grumio warns her that Petruchio will “disfigure” her with his “rope-tricks.” He’s referring to Petruchio’s scathing facility with rhetoric (which Grumio hears as rope-tricks) and his ability to use rhetorical “figures” to counter and obliterate any argument she might throw at him.

When Shakespeare was a student, only a few generations after the printing press had been invented, rhetoric had been at the core of a child’s education for over two thousand years. Before literacy was prevalent, the ability to persuade though speech gave enormous power to the “rhetor,” the public speaker. The ability to make language punch and pop, to make the listener sit up and pay attention (or else!), was considered the most important skill of a person educated in the liberal arts. All through ancient times, the middle ages, and well into the Enlightenment, the “Trivium” (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) were the foundational subjects taught first to a child in elementary, or “trivial” school.

Shakespeare had to be able to recognize and practice in his speaking and in his writing at least 132 rhetorical figures, tropes, and devices. He had to be able to practice expressive, physical rhetoric (or rhetorical dance) every time he stood on his two feet and spoke to his teachers or his classmates. “Per Quam Figuram?” was the question asked repeatedly, all day, every day: “What figure are you using?”

Robin Lithgow was in charge of arts education for the Los Angeles Unified School District. She learned to deal with bureaucracy, frustration, and budget cuts, but she never lost her joy and passion for the arts and their power to change students’ lives.

Now in retirement, she has become a student of the history of the arts.she believes that the justification for the arts cannot be demonstrated with data. She is convinced that explorations into their history will awaken minds and draw them into sympathetic appreciation for the power of the arts.

Read this entry on “Good Behavior and Audacity” to understand where she is heading.

I am retired from the position of Director of the Arts Education Branch in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where for fourteen years I and dozens of amazing colleagues labored to bring the arts to the core of the academic day for every student at every grade level. Research supported our efforts; teachers and most administrators embraced the program enthusiastically; and the evidence poured in that students thrive in arts-rich schools….And yet, we were constantly amazed that we had to advocate, advocate, advocate, to fight each year for our modest funding and for our seat at the table with the decision makers at the head of the district.

Could it be that this was, at least in part, because of our lack of history? Education leaders keep asking us for our “data,” and the obsession for data certainly drives the political power battles in education across the country. We HAVE data, and tons of it, but it is “soft” data and cannot always be directly linked to the results being sought. Perhaps history could be more powerful than data.

So I launched my own research, and once I retired I was literally able to bask in it. Over the past six years I have written a book focusing on one brief period in history, that of the humanist education designed primarily by Desiderius Erasmus and enjoyed by the young William Shakespeare and tens of thousands of his peers in Elizabethan England.

The title of my book is Good Behavior and Audacity: Humanist Education, Playacting, and a Generation of Genius.

I recently watched the PBS special about the Jewish legacy on Broadway, and I enjoyed every minute.

It is online, and I share it now with you. 

I hope it is still online.

I have always loved Broadway musicals, and many are reprised in this special.

But in addition to the entertainment and the rich cultural history, we see a very contemporary story of immigrants coming to America and becoming quintessentially American. We see Irving Berlin arriving as a five-year-old from Russia, having survived a pogrom, then becoming the composer of “God Bless America,” “Easter Parade,” and “White Christmas,” among the thousands of songs he wrote. We see stories in which composers used their music to teach lessons about racism, intolerance, and bigotry, like “South Pacific,” and the song “You Got to Be Taught to Hate.” Often they told the stories through the experiences of other groups, like “Porgy and Bess” and “West Side Story.”

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I am sending a gift to PBS for remaining a beacon of light in these dark times.