If dogs became kings And the Pope chewed gum

The so-called Save Our Schools march scheduled for this weekend is getting a fair amount of traffic on my twitter feed, so I clicked on a link that brought me to this list of “Guiding Principles” from the events organizers. And all I could think was:

….and a pony!

To put it more directly: This is not an agenda for accomplishing anything. It’s just a wish list. Half of it is a wishlist of things the organizers don’t want (performance-based pay, school closures). Half of it is a wishlist for things someone might want, without any clear theory of how to operationalize them or what that might actually look like in practice in the real world. (I, too, would like to see “Well-rounded education that develops every student’s intellectual, creative, and physical potential”–but in the absence of clear prescriptions and mechanisms about how to make that a reality, well, you might as well wish for a pony, too.) The really weird thing is that a lot of the “wishlist” items aren’t even outcomes for educators or students, but process items, like “Educator and civic community leadership in drafting new ESEA legislation.” I don’t know how you’d intend to operationalize that or what the desired ends would be!

But beyond picking on the Save our Schools marchers, I think there’s a point here that often gets overlooked in education policy debates. Most people (but especially parents and educators) when they think about schools and what they want out of schools, they think about the day-to-day experiences that they want kids and educators to have and the concrete things they want to see happening in schools. That’s why policy initiatives like “small class size” have been politically successful despite the weak evidence on their effectiveness improving student learning–because they link up easily to something tangible that parents can understand why they’d want for their kids.

But articulating the kind of experiences we want children to have in schools is not policy. Policy is about going a step further and asking, “Given the types of experiences and outcomes we want schools to produce for kids, what are the structural and systemic arrangements we can put in place that maximize the likelihood that adults and school systems will deliver those experiences and results for kids?” And to a large extent those systemic and structural arrangements may not map obviously or intuitively to the experiences we want for kids. If anything, our experience seems to indicate that piling on mandates that schools do “good things” for kids leads to a kind of organizational incoherence and churn that reduces, rather than increases, our schools’ and educators’ ability to actually deliver the kind of experiences and results we all want.

For a long time, education debates in this country ignored the systemic and structural questions, which didn’t matter all that much because education was sort of a backwater policy issue anyway. More recently, education reform issues have risen in policy prominence and reformers have been surprisingly successful in engaging public debate around wonkier topics like accountability, teacher evaluation and incentives, and the role of market mechanisms in public education.

So it’s not surprising that many educators and some parents are feeling a disconnect now with our education reform conversation. The types of conversations that are dominating our educational policy debate today do often feel disconnected from the reality of what parents and teachers want for children and for themselves. And that’s why people like Diane Ravitch and the Save our Schools organizers can seize on that disconnect and spin a vision of an alternative world they suggest would come into play if we just got rid of those pernicious education reform initiatives. But anyone paying attention here knows that this idealized (and I use that word carefully–there’s lots of elements of this particular vision I’d dispute even if there were a clear path to accomplish them) world has never actually existed and that the people spinning a vision of it have no clear explanation of how–absent a magic wand–they’d actually get to the world they prescribe once they slay the reform dragon. Ok–I get it that you want to get rid of high-stakes testing and accountability and return control of curriculum and assessment decisions completely to the control of individual teachers. But we used to have an education system that did pretty much that. And it was really crappy, especially for low-income and minority kids. And if you think educational decisions of all ilk were free of “political and corporate control” before the current generation of reformers came on the scene–Well, when I get through laughing I’ll tell you you’d better put down Diane Ravitch’s most recent book and pick up some of her earlier ones (which are excellent, btw!).

This is a real challenge for reformers–both education reformers in the sense the term has come to take on in our contemporary debates, and individuals offering alternative prescriptions for reform. How do we keep the ball moving forward on reshaping our education systems to increase the likelihood they deliver good results for kids–with all the wonkiness that entails–while also developing a language that bridges the gap between systemic changes we seek and the emotional realities of what parents want in the most concrete of terms everyday for their children?

-Sara Mead

23 Responses to “If dogs became kings And the Pope chewed gum”

  1. john thompson Says:

    The sad fact is that you guys spent tens of billions of dollars to make things worse for inner city kids. But since I doubt you know or love any real live urban kids, how would you know? Data-DRIVEN “reform” has failed. The only question is the amount of collateral damage that will be inflicted on kids before we try something else. Until then, the SOS people have to fight you all with one hand as we do the real work to help flesh and blood kids with the other. But i’ve made that point before, and I wasn’t going to repeat it. Its just your jab at people who really know about schools got under my skin.

    I was looking forward to your post on issues where you have expertise, but I do not.You gave me the sinking feeling, however, that youre going to do to pre-school what you did to k-12. What is it with your obsession with transformational disruption? Visit some urban schools and see how we need more disruptiveness like we need another gang war. And your euphemisms regarding instructional assessments are scary. I hadn’t known how to take Berliner’s recent concern that you’ll push testing with stakes down to even younger kids. You seem to be saying, however, that that’s what you want to do.

    Education “reform” proves the old maxim that any donkey can kick down a barn. It sounds like your next step is to kick at pre-school people who don’t fit your standard.

    Surely you didn’t get into education just to defeat your enemies. Why are you so fixated on destroying things?

  2. phillipmarowe Says:

    So it’s not surprising that many educators and some parents are feeling a disconnect now with our education reform conversation.
    Particularly when one side attacks the other in a personal hateful way.
    Look at the way Michelle Rhee operates, or the way Richard Whitmire picks up the same mannerisms and extends them to attacking african americans as ignorant.
    People feel a disconnect when they are told their child’s school is failing, but they don’t see it. (so maybe they are ignorant as well.)

  3. Chris Smyr Says:

    John is apparently going for the high score of # of fallacies in a single comment, making Phillip’s gripe about “one side attack[ing] the other in a personal hateful way” ironic and, as always, humorous.

  4. phillipmarowe Says:

    Like the LA Police, my my motto is:
    To Inform and amuse

  5. Sandra Brevard Says:

    It is far more than a “disconnect” that parents, community members, and taxpayers feel. There is no “education reform conversation” either. In the complexity of current ed reform initiatives, there are three that I have been able to focus on:
    1) Schools have been converted to test prep centers with a testcentric learning environment. Increased and expensive standardized testing on the nation’s children from preschool through high schools has no rationale or benefit for students.
    2) The development of a longitudinal database from preschool to college on a nation, which includes a change of regulation to eliminate parental approval on some sharing of data is another expensive undertaking with no rationale or benefit to students. The notion counters protections under FERPA as well as serious security concerns.
    3) Accountability is important; but it has to make sense. VAM has serious enough limitations to hinder cost-effectiveness. Are there effective ways for accountability and evaluation? Certainly there are. However, the last 10 years has had no return on massive investment. Why should the public be confident in the government’s experiments that have little to do with student learning.

  6. Attorney DC Says:

    The number one problem with student performance in low-income, minority schools is student behavior (encompassing both work ethic and classroom conduct). I’ve worked with students in several different schools as a tutor, teacher, and volunteer and this is the most important, yet least-addressed, issue in low-performing schools.

    I’ve yet to understand why reformers IGNORE this issue and focus instead on teacher evaluation (the current idea du jour). Interestingly, I recently began reading a newly published book written by Jaime Escalante’s former principal (called ‘Standing and Delivering’) which clearly spells out the many steps taken to create an orderly, productive atmosphere in their low-income, majority-Hispanic high school (Garfield). They battled student tardiness and other disruptive behavior and put in place (as a school) explicit programs to address chronic truancy and other issues.

    I highly recommend this book as a guide for real reforms of these troubled, inner city schools.

    Why are reformers ignoring books like this and focusing on minor, irrelevant issues instead?

  7. Tom Hoffman Says:

    “But anyone paying attention here knows that this idealized (and I use that word carefully–there’s lots of elements of this particular vision I’d dispute even if there were a clear path to accomplish them) world has never actually existed and that the people spinning a vision of it have no clear explanation of how–absent a magic wand–they’d actually get to the world they prescribe once they slay the reform dragon.”

    Oh Canada? Finland?

    Are you saying it is impossible for us to have Canada’s educational (and human development and welfare) system?

  8. Liz Wisniewski Says:

    The saddening arrogance of your post makes me wonder if there is any hope for a reasonable dialogue on education.

    You accuse SOS supporters of “spin” and then state that those marching “want to get rid of high-stakes testing and accountability and return control of curriculum and assessment decisions completely to the control of individual teachers.”

    Ummm…here I am at this SOS conference and gosh, I have not heard that one yet! And, I am left wondering – In what past universe did teachers have “complete control over curriculum and assessment?” Perhaps you need to go reread some of Dianne’s books (that you like so much) on the history) of education.

    Even if we did once live in that diabolical world of ultimate teacher power, I cannot imagine how a reasonable person would present this march in such a light. Do you get paid extra for misrepresentation?

    And since when do you own the word accountable – that you can define it the way you want to define it (should I assume with standard test scores?) You do not even need to be an educator to understand that education, truly worthwhile education, should not be judged by such an anemic measure.

    For heaven’s sake, observe us, evaluate us, measure us, watch us like hawks with those little 350 degree camera thingies – make us work our chalk covered fingers to the bone – please, please, please, hold us “accountable” for god’s sake- but for crying out loud – we can certainly come up with something better than one test, on one day, that in most cases is not developmentally appropriate and that is based upon a 60 year old design for sorting soldiers! Am I running from my “accountability” because I am critical of such an approach?

    Perhaps I will go back to the conference tomorrow and suggest that we all go home and be good and quiet teachers.

  9. Anon Says:

    Liz,

    “Perhaps I will go back to the conference tomorrow and suggest that we all go home and be good and quiet teachers.”

    Please do. Particularly the “good” part.

  10. Chris Smyr Says:

    Sandra:

    1) Provide evidence for the “test prep centers” comment. The rationale for standardized testing does indeed include benefits for students. Please don’t imply that your opposition has no interest in benefiting students.

    2) Provide evidence for this “longitudinal database” and how it eliminates parent input.

    3) Substantiate the claim that VAM doesn’t make sense. A comprehensive accountability tool that includes VAM as a subset of evidences should be one of the “effective ways for accountability” you ought to be suggesting. Is it?

    ****

    Attorney DC:

    False dilemma. Reformers aren’t ignoring the issue of student behavior with a focus on accountability. Indeed, “promoting quality instruction” and “supporting teachers” are even two of the steps spelled out in the book you reference, both goals of a legitimate and authentic arm of accountability. “Do not tolerate poor teachers” was another one of these steps.

    *****

    Tom:

    The prompt was about how idealized versions of reality should be ignored in efforts to discuss pragmatic strategies for reform, and you responded with “Oh Canada? Finland?” Hmm….

    Do you honestly think the US is anywhere close to adopting these countries’ policies? Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but at this very moment roughly half of our politicians are adamant that we cut social services before raising taxes on job creators…

    But do go on: How long before a full emulation of Finland can occur, and are we allowed to try and fix what’s broken before this date?

    *****

    Liz:

    If you are hoping for “a reasonable dialogue on education”, maybe don’t start your comment off with an attack on the “arrogance” of your opposition and imply they are the ones stifling this debate. Because surely a blogger with an unmoderated forum is hurting our chances of such a dialogue moreso than the other troublesome comments above.

    Do you know what might actually impede such a dialogue? Ignorance. Like how you’re attending an SOS conference and still haven’t clued in to the basic premises of the movement, which are articulated pretty much everywhere…

    “The march’s guiding principles and demands, according to the SOS March official website, include, “equitable funding for all public school communities,” “an end to high stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher and school evaluation,” “teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policies,” and “curriculum developed for and by local school communities.”

    It might also be reading comprehension that works against such a dialogue, since the blockquote you responded to did not imply that teachers had complete control over curriculum and assessment.

    Perhaps, as others have shown, the debate is nonexistent because you choose to burn straw men instead of engaging others, with an oft-repeated concern of how there is only one 60-year-old test that will be the supreme arbiter of educator effectiveness everywhere.

    Or maybe the answer is D, all of the above.

  11. Liz Wisniewski Says:

    Anon- Are you implying that I am not a good teacher? To the contrary my standardized test scores are very high! Will survey the rest of the teachers at the march to get their test scores as well. Low test score teachers may have to be asked to leave – we will only keep the good teachers.

    Perhaps it is really the just being quite part that is important.

  12. Attorney DC Says:

    Chris: I have to disagree with your statement (in reply to my comment on student misbehavior): “False dilemma. Reformers aren’t ignoring the issue of student behavior with a focus on accountability.”

    In fact, most reformers ARE ignoring the issue of student behavior completely in their quest to reform America’s schools. Reform efforts such as Race to the Top, teacher evaluations (such as DC’s IMPACT system), and reforms addressing curriculum all ignore student behavior.

    The problem is that without reforming student behavior (in a major way) in the low-income, inner city schools, all the other reforms will likely fail. You can put very qualified, intelligent teachers in a school with great textbooks and lots of school supplies: But if the kids don’t show up, or if a handful of kids are allowed to constantly disrupt every class, not much will be learned. Ignoring student behavior (and expecting any real improvement in achievement) is extremely misguided.

  13. Chris Smyr Says:

    Attorney DC:

    ***”Reform efforts such as Race to the Top, teacher evaluations (such as DC’s IMPACT system), and reforms addressing curriculum all ignore student behavior”

    That is incorrect. A focus on accountability reform does not imply reformers are ignoring, or have to ignore, student behavior. This will continue to be a false dilemma until you can provide the rationale for why this truly is an either/or situation. It’s not. Stronger accountability and support for continued improvement directly translates into better classroom management. Even if accountability had *nothing* to do with student behavior, it’s still incorrect to suggest we have to either focus on accountability or student behavior, because we most certainly can do both.

    What’s more, looking at the very book you referenced “as a guide for real reforms”, the steps toward improvement are consistent with accountability reform. I like the solutions offered in that book, and understand that teacher effectiveness is a big part of those steps. If you want to suggest that reformers need to do more to support promoting good student behavior in the classroom, fine, but then you should actually give some alternative policy examples that would better do this. Recall that was the point of Sara’s post.

    In your opinion, what else constitutes “real reform”, and does it involve making the bad students pick up trash, as you’ve suggested before?

  14. Tom Hoffman Says:

    Chris,

    If we agree that Canada and Finland should be emulated, why don’t we move toward them, rather than in the opposite direction as fast as possible?

  15. Chris Smyr Says:

    Tom,

    Regardless of what country you think should be our model for the nation, I want to know exactly how long before a total overhaul of our country’s priorities can be arranged to your standards, and are we allowed to try and fix what’s broken in education before this date?

    See, I’m trying to glean something useful out of your idealistic advice to be like Canada, so how about listing out the necessary steps to take toward this goal and each of their estimated chances of success.

  16. Tom Hoffman Says:

    Chris,

    I’d suggest you read The Flat World and Education by Linda Darling-Hammond. She lays it out there pretty well.

    Nobody has ever suggested that we have to wait to start improving schools. I certainly didn’t wait.

  17. Chris Smyr Says:

    Tom:

    Well, I didn’t ask for reading material, but a few answers to some specific questions regarding why, in response to an article about the need for pragmatic visions for reform instead of wishlists, you said “Finland?”

    ***”Nobody has ever suggested that we have to wait to start improving schools.”

    Don’t be so sure. I’ve seen it argued a few times just on these forums. The refrain is typically that of, nothing will work until we fix poverty, or that we have to focus one the more important reform. I appreciate that you’re not willing to wait for said magic fix.

  18. Attorney DC Says:

    Chris: I think we’re talking at cross-purposes. Having taught in a variety of schools, including schools with low-income, minority students, I believe that reforms should focus FIRST and FOREMOST on rectifying student misbehavior (including attendance and class disruptions).

    In your comment, you referred to one of my previous posts about having misbehaving students pick up trash. I believe that my intention from that post (which was in response to a different item) was not to imply that the only way to modify behavior was to institute a trash-patrol. That was simply one consequence used by one boarding school that I happened to witness in my teaching experience. Schools could certainly use other methods to address behavior issues (for example, those used in Standing and Delivering).

    My overall point is simply that in my experience, the MAIN problem in low-income schools is student behavior: Until student behavior is addressed by the school as a whole, experienced teachers will continue to shy away from teaching in these low-income schools. In addition, those teachers who remain will struggle to teach, even if they have excellent lesson plans and new textbooks.

    In Sum: Why do all major national reforms currently en vogue continue to ignore this issue? I’d really like to know.

  19. Chris Smyr Says:

    Attorney DC:

    Put very simply, whether

    “reforms […] focus FIRST and FOREMOST on rectifying student misbehavior (including attendance and class disruptions)”

    does not imply that

    “all major national reforms currently en vogue continue to ignore this issue”.

    That reformers aren’t directly focusing on reforms such as “trash-patrol” does not imply they are ignoring student behavior. In this instance, it means they know that “trash-patrol” is the silliest idea ever to make such a focus and it is not going to solve any large systemic problems.

    Look, I know you’ve taught in a variety of schools. You preface nearly every comment you ever write with “I’ve taught in a variety of schools”. Since you’ve taught at many schools, you ought to know by now that student misbehavior occurs less often when a teacher is able to create a respectful classroom climate and can teach in such a way to minimize disruptions. High expectations are part of this. A goal of accountability reform is to reach this ideal in more classrooms, to make sure great teachers are encouraged and low-performing teachers supported to quickly improve. It is entirely false and very misleading to imply that this reform focus is ignoring or doing nothing to help with student conduct.

    To reiterate: teacher effectiveness is a large component of the “real reforms” from the book you are referencing. Do you accept this?

    And once again: if you want to suggest that reformers need to do more to support promoting good student behavior in the classroom, fine (and that would be a more nuanced approach then claiming they’ve ignored it completely!), but then you should actually give some alternative policy examples that would better do this. What other policies do you want to see enacted, other than trash-patrol? And how do you suppose SOS supporters would respond to policymakers instituting more rules on how schools need to operate?

  20. Cal Says:

    “. But we used to have an education system that did pretty much that. And it was really crappy, especially for low-income and minority kids.”

    Um. What? We had and still have an education system that was not and is not crappy, full stop, for middle class and above. It could be better, but much of the reason it could be better is because we’ve made it worse by pretending that everyone can achieve equally.

    Our educational system does not educate low income and UNDER REPRESENTED minority kids well. But then, no one else has figured out how to do this, either. So I wouldn’t go around calling it “crappy” unless Finland or Singapore is doing a great job with blacks and Hispanics.

    I don’t disagree with the “and a pony” nature of Save our Schools, a movement I have little sympathy with. But eduformer pentacostals are equally absurd, and one of their real problems is their assertion, without basis, that our schools are terrible.

    Until you can prove that it’s possible to educate blacks and Hispanics to an equal achievement level as whites (and no one has ever done it), or that our schools, rather than our efforts to reduce the achievement gap, are responsible for our whites and Asians scoring slightly below the Finnish and Singaporeans, then you really can’t wander around proclaiming that our schools are crappy. That’s the huge problem, and that’s why eduformers will never win. They will never get the country to adopt their goals–only those decision makers for low income, URM areas, eager to have another plan to execute to avoid the obvious, and of course, the occasional parents of underachieving white suburban kids eager to fund a charter that will allow their kids to get better grades.

    Destabilizing and pointless, yes. Less expensive than the marchers? Hardly. And equally delusional.

  21. Tom Hoffman Says:

    Chris,

    Why don’t you write out your agenda and the chance of success for each element first?

  22. Attorney DC Says:

    Chris: I appreciate the time you take to respond to my posts and I can understand your perspective on reform. However, NO major national reform efforts (that I’ve seen) have focused on school discipline and student behavior in any significant way.

    You wrote: “What other policies do you want to see enacted, other than trash-patrol?” My answer: I’d like schools to impose firm, predictable consequences on students for common and obvious misbehaviors. I’d like principals, counselors and VP’s to support teachers when they write up students for infractions that are clearly stated in the school’s handbook. I’d like administrators and policy makers to stop making excuses for students who skip class, disrupt their fellow students, turn in their homework weeks late (or not at all), and act inappropriately in the school environment.

    Example: I worked at a school that had a policy of three tardies = lunch detention. I dutifully recorded the tardies for all of my 5 periods of students, and assigned lunch detention to the handful of students who had violated the policy. What happened? Students complained and refused to attend. At this point, the students should have had to attend after-school detention, but they complained to their guidance counselors. The administration ultimately backed the STUDENTS, who were told they didn’t have to attend. Result? Students quickly learned there is NO consequence to coming to class tardy each day.

    This might sound like a minor point, but the minor points add up to an entire school without clear behavior or attendance standards. When schools lack these basic rules and boundaries for behavior, homework, and attendance, kids stop taking school or their teachers seriously. Knowledgeable, experienced teachers are great – but their effectiveness will be undermined if a school does not support its staff in maintaining basic orderliness and rules for behavior and attendance.

  23. Chris Smyr Says:

    Tom:

    Because I’m not the one suggesting “Finland?” is a viable answer to an article concerning the need for pragmatic solutions instead of wishlists.

    *****

    Attorney DC:

    **”NO major national reform efforts (that I’ve seen) have focused on school discipline and student behavior in any significant way. ”

    This is a step down from your initial claims, so thank you. I still find it contentious, however, because you *still* haven’t offered any sound policy alternatives that would more strongly focus on student behavior. Instead, you give examples of what has happened in your schools in the past. Those are not examples of policy, however, and I find it ironic that reformers are being criticized here for not imposing *more* regulations and rules on schools when this past weekend SOS supporters marched/freestyle rapped for exactly the opposite.

    Notice also that all of the examples you offer in your latest comment are common elements you’d find in many classrooms. Want to take a guess at how important teacher effectiveness is here in dealing with this? And have you admitted yet that teacher effectiveness is a large component of the “true reforms” your referenced book offers?

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