School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

Stop Stealing Dreams (What is school for?)

Entrepreneur Seth Godin likes to “poke the box.” As a writer with degrees in computer science and philosophy, he is grounded in both technology and the liberal arts. Within this framework he implores us to reject preconceived notions of how the world works, and question every assumption we’ve ever held.

In his latest effort, Stop Stealing Dreams (What is school for?), Godin tackles my favorite subject, education. But this 30,000 word manifesto is far more intriguing than typical education policy conversations.

Godin describes it as “a series of provocations, ones that might resonate and that I hope will provoke conversation.” Because according to Godin, “one thing is certain: if we keep doing what we’ve been doing [in education], we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting. Our kids are too important to sacrifice to the status quo.”

The e-book is divided into numbered “manifestos” that read more like individual blog posts. Through these polemics, Godin speaks of the epic failure that is our current education system. According to Godin, this failure by definition can never improve until we disrupt it to the point of radical transformation, because our system was designed for a society that no longer exists, and as such meets educational needs that are no longer relevant.

I’ll spend the next few blog posts sharing some of his more compelling and less-obvious manifestos (which I think makes me a “sneezer” in Godin’s view of the universe). Be warned. He does not tread lightly, and his view of the world can at times be deflating, but to the extent his message makes us ask hard questions it is ultimately serving a useful purpose (even when we disagree with him).

In Manifesto 3 “Back to the (wrong) School” Godin returns to the origins of compulsory public education, and how that system hasn’t really changed much since 1925.

A hundred and fifty years ago, adults were incensed about child labor. Low-wage kids were taking jobs away from hard-working adults.

Sure, there was some moral outrage about seven-year-olds losing fingers and being abused at work, but the economic rationale was paramount. Factory owners insisted that losing child workers would be catastrophic to their industries and fought hard to keep the kids at work—they said they couldn’t afford to hire adults. It wasn’t until 1918 that nationwide compulsory education was in place.

Part of the rationale used to sell this major transformation to industrialists was the idea that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence—it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child-labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told.

Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

Of course, it worked. Several generations of productive, fully employed workers followed. But now?

Nobel prize–winning economist Michael Spence makes this really clear: there are tradable jobs (doing things that could be done somewhere else, like building cars, designing chairs, and answering the phone) and non-tradable jobs (like mowing the lawn or cooking burgers). Is there any question that the first kind of job is worth keeping in our economy?

Alas, Spence reports that from 1990 to 2008, the U.S. economy added only 600,000 tradable jobs.

If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.

Do you see the disconnect here? Every year, we churn out millions of workers who are trained to do 1925-style labor.

The bargain (take kids out of work so we can teach them to become better factory workers as adults) has set us on a race to the bottom. Some people argue that we ought to become the cheaper, easier country for sourcing cheap, compliant workers who do what they’re told. Even if we could win that race, we’d lose. The bottom is not a good place to be, even if you’re capable of getting there.

As we get ready for the ninety-third year of universal public education, here’s the question every parent and taxpayer needs to wrestle with: Are we going to applaud, push, or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable, and mediocre factory workers?

As long as we embrace (or even accept) standardized testing, fear of science, little attempt at teaching leadership, and most of all, the bureaucratic imperative to turn education into a factory itself, we’re in big trouble.

The post-industrial revolution is here. Do you care enough to teach your kids to take advantage of it?”

My take: This manifesto forces us to ask a question that seems largely missing from today’s debates: what is the purpose of education? Because until we know the answer to that (and there probably isn’t a single answer) we’ll never figure out how to solve the problem. As Godin describes it, historically the aim of education was to train workers for Industrial Age factory jobs awaiting them at the end of high school. Clearly that isn’t the case anymore. In subsequent manifestos, Godin poses several possible “purposes” that our education system could serve, and ones that it absolutely should not serve.

Beth T. Sigall

February 28, 2012

Tough Love in Washington State

In Washington state, the paper of record is The Seattle Times, and when it comes to education, the columnist of record is Lynne Varner.

 Yesterday Varner’s readers got a glimpse inside a family fight that typically goes on behind closed doors. The fight pits the leadership of the powerful teachers’ union (Washington Education Association – WEA) against the centrist faction of the state Democratic party. The issue is education reform.

Although differences between the two factions have been simmering for years, the battle took center stage recently when Nick Hanauer, a major Democratic party donor, criticized the WEA’s refusal to embrace what he considers mainstream education policy reforms. In a blistering and now viral email, Hanauer took his party and the teachers’ union leadership to task:

I am despondent over my political party’s intransigence on the most important issue in the state – public education reform. I have seen the enemy, and it is us.

Hanauer continued:   “It is impossible to escape the painful reality that we Democrats are now on the wrong side of every important education-reform issue. Today, the [WEA] is literally strangling our public schools to death with an almost infinite number of institutionalized rules that limit change, innovation and excellence.”

A handful of moderate Republicans in the state legislature have stepped in, joining forces with some centrist Democrats to fight for reforms that the rest of the country and the Obama administration have championed for years, such as replacing seniority-only based hiring and dismissal rules with a fairer, more merit-based system.

Yet the WEA maintains such a tight grip on state education policy that it successfully thwarted passage of a modest bill introduced in January to lift the statewide ban on charter schools (Washington remains only one of nine states where it is illegal to open a charter school). The sole African-American member of the state legislature, Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D), sponsored the bill. It would have allowed up to ten charter schools to open per year, targeting at-risk communities.

According to Varner, in other states teachers’ unions and political leaders are coming together on many of the major education issues of our time. In places like New Haven, Connecticut and New York state, teachers’ unions are signing onto evaluation systems that take student performance into account, make tenure less automatic, and give school districts more control over teacher hiring and placement decisions. Varner observes that nationally, the American Federation of Teachers “has wisely chosen to work with state legislatures shaping teacher-evaluation systems.”

In Varner’s view, compromise will only happen here in Washington if WEA leadership starts listening to state Democratic leaders who want the state to “go big” on education reform:

“For [Washington Democratic] lawmakers, it will be hard to tell that ally [WEA], ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t support you on this issue.’ But that’s leadership. Tough love is difficult, but as any parent will tell you, it’s necessary sometimes.”

Beth T. Sigall

February 22, 2012


The Beginning of the End of Social Promotion

Stephanie Banchero of the Wall Street Journal reports today that four state legislatures are considering bills that would end the practice of social promotion in the early grades. Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico and Tennessee are all looking at legislation that would require third-graders to pass a reading proficiency test. During grades K-2, parents could choose whether to continue their child to the next grade if he/she does not meet state reading standards. But, in third grade, the state could require a third-grader to repeat his/her grade if the child can’t pass a state reading exam. Banchero reports that Oklahoma, Indiana and Arizona have passed similar bills.

According to The National Center for Education Statistics, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, only one-third of U.S. schoolchildren scored proficient on national reading exams. The scores have remained stubbornly flat for two decades.

The rationale behind these bills, according to state legislators, is a large body of research that shows significantly negative outcomes associated with children who do not read proficiently by third grade. For example, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that children who can’t read at grade level by third grade are four times as likely to drop out of school.

Moreover, after third grade, there is a leap commonly described as transitioning from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” that happens across academic subjects. This means that students in fourth grade are expected to read text and understand its content independently. As such, children who are still struggling readers in fourth grade and beyond end up deficient in other academic areas, particularly those dependent upon reading and learning from a text (e.g., social studies). The result is a student who ends up behind in multiple subjects, and never quite manages to catch up.

While the decision to retain can be difficult, Florida teacher Kyla Burd described it this way:

Holding back a child is not an easy decision.  But the alternative is you just move them ahead, hope for the best and then watch them struggle in fourth grade.

Burd is a third-grade teacher who has held back students, and has two retained students in her current classroom.

Critics of these bills, and of grade retention generally, point to research studies showing mixed results on the effectiveness of repeating a grade, while others worry that repeating a grade will cause low self-esteem in students because of the social stigma associated with it. But proponents of grade retention contend that illiteracy is a far worse social stigma than grade retention.

In Florida, former Governor Jeb Bush and the state legislature ended social promotion in 2002, with a goal to dramatically increase reading proficiency. By 2011, fourth graders in Florida were scoring above the national average reading, although 8th grade scores remain flat.

My take: For retention to really work, the student can’t merely repeat the grade using the same interventions that didn’t work in the first place. That’s why the policy proposed by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (R) is a good choice. He wants to commit $10 million to fund specific reading programs focused on getting children to grade level; it would include an additional 90 minutes a day of reading instruction for those students who need it. The bills in New Mexico, Colorado and Iowa make a similar commitment to early literacy.

Beth T. Sigall

February 13, 2012

How Do You Measure Creativity?

In an education system seemingly fixated on test scores, how can educators ensure that schools continue to foster creativity and innovation in students? According to Erik Robelen of Education Week, some states are tackling this issue by developing an index for measuring creative opportunities afforded to students in school.

Robelen writes that the “creativity” movement has been gaining steam in business, political and education groups. The movement recognizes that fostering creativity helps students learn to take risks and to apply problem-solving skills successfully in novel situations. Robelen adds that the creativity push is gaining popularity in countries like South Korea, where the former minister of education states that “creating the type of education in which creativity is emphasized over rote learning” is a top priority for the government there.

In California, the Senate passed a bill requiring the development of a “Creative and Innovative Education Index” where schools would measure their creative education opportunities on a voluntary basis.

In Massachusetts, a new commission is formulating recommendations for a “Creative Challenge Index” for its public schools, in response to legislation. Examples cited in the legislation include arts education, debate clubs, science fairs, filmmaking, and independent research.

And in Oklahoma, Governor Mary Fallin has announced the formation of a public-private partnership to develop a creativity index. The governor views the index as a “very valuable tool to help Oklahoma be a national leader in innovation, critical thinking, and entrepreneurship.”

Proponents hope the index will promote more balance in school curriculum, and provide incentives to schools to spend more time developing creativity in their students.

My take – This is a much-needed movement with laudable aims. But the dust of education reform history is littered with well-meaning yet ultimately misguided checklists and rubrics designed to do one thing, but delivering quite another. Robelen is right to point out the concerns of some involved, such as Robert J. Sternberg, the provost and a professor of psychology and education at Oklahoma State University: “We don’t want an index that trivializes creativity, such as by counting numbers of activities that, on their surface, sound creative rather than exploring what is actually done in the activities to encourage creativity. We don’t want to encourage quantity over quality of activities.”

Beth T. Sigall

February 6, 2012

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