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Cross-posted at Education Week.
Dear Mark and Priscilla:
In a recent open letter, the Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn warns you against trying to reform our public school districts, which he describes as impossible to change, even with the scale of funding that you can bring to the table. The old wisdom, he says, was that private foundations could be “pilot fish” for government, charting a path with independent money that could then leverage large amounts of public money. But even when the leviathan Gates Foundation, acting in concert with the Broad Foundation, joined forces with the Arnie Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education, trading staff and ideas back and forth, nothing much, he says, was achieved.
Better, Finn says, to “just avoid government entirely.” You should be using your resources to “press for change outside the district structure.” He means, he says, charter schools. But he says you should be thinking about chartering in a larger sense, with entities that will “advance the education of kids with all sorts of different needs, interests, and possibilities…Likewise with alternative pathways into education.” He cites as examples Teach For America and New Leaders.
Finn notes that advocates from both the right and the left lament the separation of American society into haves and have-nots. And he acknowledges that the American education system bears some responsibility for this growing divide. But he states flatly that this challenge “isn’t likely to be solved by that system.” So he urges you to provide scholarships, supplemental learning opportunities and great summer programs for poor kids from low-income communities.
I disagree with every element of Finn’s analysis and therefore with his recommendations.
I’ll begin by making an important assumption, namely that you would like to make as big a difference as possible for the greatest number of children who need you the most—that is, that you want as much leverage as possible. I will further assume that you don’t just want changes that last only until your money runs out, but changes that will last long after you are gone.
If that is what you want, then there is only one way to get it and that is by changing the way public education works, by changing the system, the very opposite of scholarships.
I’m not opposed to scholarships. But scholarships only affect the students to whom they are given and, when the money runs out, there are no more scholarships. Teach For America, an organization Finn suggests is worthy of your support, is another version of the same thing. Fewer than two percent of the jobs filled each year in our schools are filled by Teach For America volunteers. That proportion is going down, not up, and the majority of the TFA members don’t stick around very long. Or take another organization Finn recommends, New Leaders. New Leaders spends about $85,000 on each New Leader trained, which is unsustainable and unscalable. No leverage there, either. The idea and the reality of charter schools has been around since 1992, and there is no doubt that individual charter schools and charter school organizations have produced strong schools and strong students, but, after all these years, charter schools are still only six percent of all American public schools and there is no evidence that, taken as a whole, they have resulted in a significant net gain in student performance in the United States.
I can understand why your experience in Newark made you think that you needed to listen more carefully to the community and the rank-and-file educators than to the kind of experts who led you astray in Newark. I’m with you on that, but I would also urge you to take some other things into account as you plan your next moves.
First, city school districts are not independent actors. They live in a spider’s web of state and federal policies. Those policies structure the incentives faced by everyone in the system. Strong leaders marching to the beat of their own drum can and sometimes will ignore those incentives and do what they need to do to make things better for students, but, over time, they burn out, and the people who come after them go back to responding to the incentives they face. They are not bad people; they are just ordinary mortals, unlike the heroes and heroines we like to find and point to. I do not doubt that you will be able to find such heroes and heroines or that things will go reasonably well while you invest in them. But they won’t change the larger system.
So what can you do? The answer begins with the recognition that there are city school systems in many parts of the world whose students do far better than all of their counterparts in the United States. Average performance is much higher and there is much more equity in student outcomes. It would be much more than worth your while to look closely at how these systems get these greatly superior results.
But, while there is a whole lot to be learned from the countries and cities with the world’s best-performing education systems, you also ought to look at the urban systems in our best-performing state: Massachusetts. What you will find is a story that runs counter to Checker Finn’s narrative on every point. It is not a story about making things better by giving up on the system; it is a story about making things better by creating a better system. And, not least important, it is a story about how Jack Rennie, an entrepreneur in the Massachusetts high-tech community, led the charge by involving many people in creating a widely shared vision of a high-value-added, high-skills economy and the system that would be needed to realize that vision. If he could do it, there is no reason that you cannot do it.
Finally, there is another story that makes the point in a different way. This is the story of the Union City school district in New Jersey, as told by David Kirp in Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools. You are probably familiar with it. You will find that there are common elements in the strategies used by the top-performing countries, the Massachusetts story and the Union City story. They are all stories about providing more resources to poor and minority students than others; creating a strong system of early childhood education; greatly raising expectations for students; developing strong instructional systems based on high standards, a strong curriculum and high quality assessments based on the curriculum; supporting teachers in every possible way as they work to help students meet the expectations described by the more demanding curriculum framework; recruiting the best possible candidates for teaching positions and making sure they are supported as they enter the system; and, most important, welding all these elements together into one coherent system that is stronger than any of its parts and pieces.
But you will note that not all these things are under the control of school districts. The state sets the core curriculum, the standards for student performance and the required tests. The district has no control over the teacher education program educating the teachers it hires, who gets admitted to those institutions or what the standards are for getting a teachers’ license. These days, it has to abide by the state accountability system and all the incentives it creates. The Union City story shows you what can be accomplished by a superintendent who does it the right way: by setting high expectations, getting the highest quality staff, supporting them in any way he can and providing them with sensible guidance on instruction. But, while this shows what an effective local government leader can do, it also shows how much influence the state and federal governments have on the outcome. We are left to wonder how much of what the superintendent did will be on view a few years after he leaves.
So what is the bottom line here? First, it is not to listen to the council of despair. You do not have to settle for “charters” that work at the margins of the system making the world better for a little while for a few people at a time. There is abundant evidence here and abroad that it is actually possible to create much more effective urban school systems.
Second, there is a big role here for private foundations. Finn and his colleagues have had astonishing success at selling his agenda as the only “education reform” agenda. The agenda I have just described–the agenda derived from careful study of highly successful education systems around the world—is not well known or understood either by American policymakers or practitioners. You could change that, and, in changing it, make an enormous difference, by helping a few states and districts study what the top performers have done and helping them to build their own agenda on their shoulders.
None of this is said with any animosity. Finn and his colleagues are serious, thoughtful analysts. Their steadfast support of high student performance standards over the years has been at times heroic and always on the money. Finn’s willingness to modify his views based on the data has been exemplary. But, in my view, the direction in which he is pointing you is not the direction that will deliver the results you are seeking when all is said and done.
Cross-posted at Education Week.
A new report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State, wastes no time in getting to the point. “The bad news,” it says in the very first sentence, “is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy. The U.S. workforce, widely acknowledged to be the best educated in the world half a century ago, is now among the least educated in the world…Pockets of improvement in a few districts or states is not enough to retain our country’s global competitiveness.”
You’ve heard observations like this from me for years, but this report was written by a study group of state legislators, most of them long-serving, from all over the country, equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, fire-breathing liberals and rock-hard conservatives. They wrote it after two years of hard study together, reading through great stacks of materials, visiting other countries, travelling across the country to meet with one another and global experts, almost all of them attending every meeting. The NCSL staff told me they had never seen state legislators work this hard on an assignment like this.
At the end it was impossible to tell the Democrats from the Republicans. However much they differ on other issues—and they do—they are united as one now on the urgent need to overhaul the schools of the United States. And they have coalesced around a clear idea of how to do it, which is to learn as much as possible from the countries that have in ever-larger numbers been eating our lunch for years.
Most reports of this sort are the end result of compromise after compromise, written in the kind of vague language that conceals more than it reveals. Not this one. It took real courage to produce this report. Read only a little between the lines and you will find people who have served their states for many years saying to you, in effect, that we, like the whole country, have been on the wrong track for years, pursuing silver bullet solutions to our education challenges and getting nowhere, while other countries, once well behind us, are now far ahead.
They could have hidden behind a mountain of excuses—reasons why the achievements of other countries are irrelevant here because we are exceptional—as so many others have, but they did not do that. They explicitly rejected that approach after careful study of the issues. They recognized that they could be taken to task for embracing silver bullet solutions themselves in the past, like the rest of the country. They knew that by rejecting the easy ways out they could easily be attacked for suggesting that other countries had succeeded where the United States has failed, but, as you will see from their report, they decided that too much is at stake for the usual sort of political behavior. These state officials are the bedrock of the American political system and they rose to the occasion. If you should happen to be looking for real patriots, this is where you will find them. This report, unlike so many others, is very well worth reading.
There are six big messages in this report:
With help from NCEE’s Center on International Education Benchmarking, the NCSL study group worked hard to see if it could identify common threads in the strategies used by the top-performing countries. Here is what they found:
Stated at this level of abstraction, one can hear many educators saying, yes, this is what we do in my school or district. But throughout, the study group report makes it clear that American schools typically fall far short of what the top performers do in each and every one of these areas and they point to the kinds of policies and practices that would be needed to bring an American state into the ranks of the top performers.
One might conclude that this is yet another assault on professional educators, but that is not the case at all. The tone throughout is that of an urgent call to action. The reader will search in vain for blame casting, for there is none. This report was written by people who recognize that if anyone is to blame, we are all to blame. Instead of trying to assign responsibility for the past, we must now accept responsibility for the future. It is refreshingly hopeful and I urge you to read it. You can find the report here.
Cross-posted at Education Week.
Like so many others, I am watching the presidential election campaign unfold with a gathering sense of dread. And, I must say, a certain sense of shame. Thomas Jefferson famously told us that “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” And, “…if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” Whence we derive our faith that an educated citizenry will, more often than not, do the right thing.
But now it appears that on the order of 35 percent of the citizenry is not interested in the facts or expert analysis based on the facts, and is eager to elect to the highest office in the land a man whose contempt not only for the facts, but also for the constitution, is obvious. How did this happen in a country that practically invented mass education and which was a leader in extending the franchise broadly precisely because it was confident that those who exercised the franchise would do so with more knowledge about the issues than any other people on earth?
In a recent blog, I offered the view that this has happened in part because the experts have consistently recommended policies that have resulted in profound hurt among a growing number of poorly educated people who can no longer compete in what has become a global market for labor or against intelligent machines that can do what workers with only the basic skills can do, but faster, less expensively and more reliably than they can. They are understandably angry with both the experts and their facts.
But a recent article in the New York Times, while not inconsistent with my thesis, raises the possibility that Donald Trump’s triumph over the facts and the experts who bear them was made possible not just by unwise policies, but by a very deliberate and sophisticated effort to produce exactly that result by Roger Ailes and Fox News, in a propaganda campaign designed to subvert the kind of democracy Jefferson had in mind.
Ailes was a TV guy who persuaded Richard Nixon that TV would be the key to victory in his 1968 campaign after he was blindsided by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election in the first televised debate. Later, after Bill Clinton’s first term, he teamed up with Rupert Murdock to create Fox News. Ailes saw Fox not just as a grand business opportunity, but as a way to place himself in the catbird seat of Republican politics, choosing candidates to back and oppose, creating the issues on which the party would run and making Fox and himself the arbiters of Republican politics.
Prior to Ailes, the tone for TV news had been set by the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite—sober, objective, based on the facts and sound analysis, middle of the road, responsible. Its producers and anchors treated the news as a public trust. The networks knew they would lose money on the news but hoped that the news would attract viewers to their other, moneymaking shows. That was not Ailes’ idea of TV news. He threw out all the rules. Balance was replaced with conservative voices alone. Defending that choice, he pronounced all the other news programs as having a liberal bias, so he alone would create “balance” by presenting only conservative views. Network news had always had a cool aesthetic. Ailes pumped it up, to get the blood flowing, with martial music and wooshing visual effects. He filled his panels with people shouting at each other.
But the main thing, the one that is of most importance here, was his decision to use every weapon at his disposal to whip up a fever of grievance among his viewers, to grab them by the lapels and persuade them that the liberals were out to get them and only Fox was going to tell them the truth; all the others were liars. He was going to run Fox on a menu of “resentment politics” for an audience of people who increasingly felt that they were being left behind by the elites. That was how Roger Ailes would become Republican kingmaker and in the process, make Fox and himself very, very rich.
To make this model work, Ailes needed to constantly stoke the sense of grievance that was key to the model. Whatever you used to have that made you great—the special place of your religion, your race, your values, your work, whatever—was being taken away from you by them, and only Fox knew what was going on, only Fox understood you, only Fox could be trusted to tell it like it really is. None of this was done casually. Ailes’ team dreamed up these grievances, but did not use them on Fox News until they were carefully field-tested with their audience, so they knew they would work. This is how “anchor babies,” “birtherism” and “ground zero mosque” came into the public square.
The facts did not matter. The views of experts did not matter. In fact, Ailes painted the facts and experts as tools used by the other side to fool the people. What mattered were emotions and Ailes became a master of the art of playing on peoples’ emotions. Grievance after grievance was cooked up, field-tested and then launched on Fox. And, all the while, a firewall was being built against the facts, against analysis, against expertise.
Enter Donald Trump onto this carefully prepared ground. Thomas Jefferson’s worst fear personified: loud, angry, ignorant and beautifully attuned to the fears and grievances that Fox had so carefully identified and nurtured.
This should never have happened. It should not have been possible in the country that pioneered mass education. This is exactly what mass education was supposed to inoculate us against. What went wrong?
This question ought to be at the top of the agenda for the next annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of School Administrators, the school principals associations and the school boards associations. It ought to be addressed in the lead articles in Education Next, American Educator and other leading education journals and in the commentary columns of Education Week. But it won’t be.
I submit that there is no more important function of American education than to give American students the tools they need to preserve this incredibly important democracy and the freedoms and liberty with which we are blessed. How do we do that? It may be difficult, but it is not complicated. Our students need to understand the origins of freedom, liberty and constitutional government, from their beginnings in ancient Greece to their revival in the Scottish enlightenment and their expression in the cauldron of the American Revolution. They need to understand how fragile democracy is and they need not least to study how freedom and democracy and constitutional government was undermined in the interwar years in Weimer Germany. They need to know how our government was designed to work and how various forces over the years have compromised that design and have been reversed.
But, at the root of it all, our students need to develop a respect for the facts, for empiricism, for reasoned argument, and for one another. There is no doubt, Roger Ailes should have been brought down because of the appalling way he treated women at Fox. But what price should he pay for paving the way for Donald Trump, for deliberately creating an electorate that deeply distrusts the facts and anyone who has expertise, for creating a world in which voters are willing to suspend reason in favor of turning their lives over to people whose expertise consists entirely of knowing how to press their emotional buttons?
I hope that American educators will seize the opportunity to ask themselves what went wrong here and to consider what changes need to be made in the curriculum and how it is taught in order to develop a citizenry that is not so easily led by their emotions rather than clear thinking. The aim should be to ensure that this never happens again.
Cross-posted at Education Week.
Betsy Brown Ruzzi, the Director of our Center on International Education Benchmarking and I decided a while back that we needed to take a group of NCEE’s senior staff to several of the top-performing countries that we’ve been studying over the years so they could see for themselves what the two of us have seen on our many trips. We recently returned from the first of these trips—to Shanghai. I thought I would share some of our team’s observations with you.
One member of our team began by saying that he had expected to see schools full of students memorizing, drilling and practicing, lined up in rows at their desks in rather grim classrooms in which discipline was the order of the day. The students, he said, were orderly and well behaved, but the classrooms were anything but grim. What came through in every classroom in every school, he said, was the warmth, the feeling on the part of the students that they were loved by the faculty, the genuine affection the faculty had for the students. The schools were joyous places. This, he said, seemed to be the foundation for everything else he observed.
Second, he pointed out that the students seemed to be paying close attention to what was going on, not because they expected to get their hands slapped if they didn’t, but because the lessons were beautifully crafted, clearly designed to be as engaging as possible. Most of the classrooms we visited were lined with other teachers who were collaborating in the design of these lessons. They worked together over months to build the most effective lessons they could, critiquing each version, adding new ideas, testing them out, until the whole group was satisfied that the lesson was as good as it could be.
Another member of our team reported being stunned by the ratio between prep time and teaching time in the Shanghai schools we visited. In the U.S., she said, teachers typically have one hour to prepare for five classes. In the Shanghai schools, they have four hours to prepare for two hours of teaching. This, she said, makes all the difference. Teachers can use this time to collaborate with other teachers to craft great lessons, to talk with other teachers about particular students’ learning needs and how they might work together to address them, or to do the research needed to get ready to do another improvement project.
We talked for awhile about what it meant to do research as a teacher in Shanghai. All teachers are expected to do it, and getting good at is it one of the criteria for moving up the career ladder. We concluded that doing research as a teacher in Shanghai does not mean the same thing as doing research in the United States, with its heavy emphasis on quantitative data gathering and statistical analysis. Teacher research in Shanghai is instead focused on reading relevant literature and taking it into account in planning improvement projects and then being deliberately reflective as one undertakes the project, considering what is working and what is not, correcting course accordingly and so on. It is, in other words, a disciplined and reflective way to go about the work of continuous improvement in the school. What fascinated our team was the way teachers were expected to write short papers about the research they had done and to publish these research papers in a range of juried journals, some published by universities. The best of these articles are very widely circulated and their authors get to talk about their work in large district-wide conferences to thousands of their peers.
One of our team members recalled our conversation with a principal who had taken over a low-performing school and turned it around. She told us that when she had arrived the former principal had the faculty concentrating almost entirely on the teaching of Chinese, English and mathematics to get student performance in these key subjects up, but had found little success. This new principal said to us, “Of course they did not do well this way. How could they do well in language and mathematics without a balanced curriculum, without a faculty that showed that they loved them, without music, art and PE?” And our team member observed with a wry smile how different this reaction was from the way American schools, faced with poor performance in language and mathematics, had been forced to double down on drill and practice in language and mathematics, with little success.
Another team member, a policy analyst, observed how startled he was when we met with Professor Minxuan Zhang, one of the principal architects of the modern Shanghai system and the author of a report on Shanghai’s teachers published by NCEE’s Center on International Education Benchmarking. Our colleague had read page after page of Shanghai policy pronouncements (in translation) and found them stilted and dry, hardly the stuff of inspiration. But, listening to Professor Zhang describe the thinking that had inspired those statements and the intentions of their authors, he had been enthralled.
What he and the other members of our team had been astounded by was the degree to which the principals, teachers and even the students we talked with had, when asked what they were trying to achieve and why it was important to achieve it, spoken with conviction and understanding about the same aims and the same practices that the policymakers had had in mind when they wrote the policy statements. This whole enormous system was on pretty much the same page for the same reasons, not because they had been told to do something in particular, but because the discussions they had been involved in had led them to the same conclusions about the goals and the most effective ways to achieve them.
Another member of our team talked about his surprise when we asked principals and teachers in the middle and high schools we visited whether the students coming from the primary and middle schools were ready for their very demanding curriculum, and every respondent looked at us as though that was the dumbest question they had ever heard. It was quite clear that this was simply not an issue. Of course the students were ready. Why shouldn’t they be? We asked this question in schools serving poor, migrant students and those serving students from much more advantaged backgrounds. We kept getting the same answer. But this, of course, is a gigantic problem in American schools, to the point that the majority of high school graduates wind up three or four grade levels below the 12th grade level of literacy by the time they graduate, and therefore a long way from ready for a very undemanding college program. We asked ourselves what we had seen in the Shanghai schools that would explain how they could be so successful on this crucial point when our schools are so unsuccessful.
Three related facts came to the minds of our team. One was the clarity of the system’s curriculum expectations. There is a core curriculum that accounts for about 70 percent of the available time that is required for all students. The courses are spelled out and the system approves the textbooks that will be used. The teachers, as I pointed out above, have the time to talk and work with each other to make sure that the lesson plans they create for those courses do what they are supposed to do for their students and the students master the material, lesson, by lesson, grade by grade and subject by subject. The teachers, organized by grade level, have the time to talk with one another about individual students who seem to be having trouble and work out a plan for correcting the problems they see before the student has a chance to fall very far behind. So everyone keeps up. There is little doubt that this one feature of their system accounts for no small amount of their remarkable success.
One member of our team, who in an earlier life had studied at the Curtis Institute of Music, one of our country’s leading music schools and had at another point in his life studied chemistry, talked about his observations of high school lessons he had seen in these two subjects. The music lesson he saw was, he thought, an absolutely masterful lesson in certain key music skills, crafted so that each element led ineluctably to the next in way that demonstrated both a deep understanding of music theory and practice and, at the same time, a deep understanding of how one learns music. He learned from the teacher of the class that he had collaborated in the design of the lesson with a top musician and teacher at Shanghai’s leading music conservatory, a world-class institution. My colleague noted that the lesson managed to convey in 35 minutes material that would typically take more than twice that time. That it had clearly been honed and then honed again to remove everything that was not essential and to give the connections in the logic of the instruction an air of inevitability that seemed, as he put it, simply elegant.
He saw the same characteristics in a chemistry class, the same deep knowledge of subject matter and same care in the design of the lesson, resulting in an impressively elegant lesson that he characterized as carefully constructed choreography that resulted in near total student engagement and deep understanding.
And, finally, one member of our team, a former teacher, principal, superintendent and chief state school officer, pulled it all together. The common thread, he said, was the way teachers were treated, in every way, as professionals. Teachers are well paid relative to other government employees and teaching is a preferred profession in China. Their career ladder system offers the same kind of career opportunities that highly regarded professionals in other fields can look forward to. The career ladder leads in one direction to the principalship and in the other to master teacher and beyond. What is fascinating is that the top of the teacher career ladder is a position called Professor-Teacher, a position higher than that of a Master Teacher. As Professor Zhang explained it, all teachers are required to do research of the kind described above. But, as they go up the career ladder they are expected to deepen their research skills and to lead other teachers in research teams, often with the direct support of people in the district offices. As they progress further up the career ladder toward the top, they are expected to learn and use the kind of quantitative and analytical skills that we would recognize in our universities as qualifications for tenured professorships.
“So,” he said, “if they have the same skills as university professors and the only difference is that they are expected to teach in our schools rather than in our universities, why not call them professors?”
And that, my colleague pointed out, revealed a very important attitude that the Shanghai system has toward its teachers. The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission clearly views its teachers, not university researchers, as the main drivers of improvements in student performance. That’s why Shanghai teachers have so much time to work together to constantly improve every aspect of school and student performance. That’s why so much of the criteria for moving up the career ladder are based on teachers’ capacity to do research, lead research and lead other teachers in applying research to the improvement of student performance.
Everywhere we went, the teachers talked about the importance of constantly getting better, which meant improving their own skills and improving the curriculum and instruction and therefore improving student performance. Like doctors, engineers and attorneys in the United States, they saw keeping up with the latest developments in their field and changing their practice in the light of those advancements as a core part of their responsibility. That is why professional development and school improvement are thought of as synonymous by Shanghai officials.
Like professionals in all high status fields, the Shanghai teachers we talked with saw mentoring young people just beginning their careers as another core part of their responsibility. And they accepted the idea that they were not functioning autonomously in their classrooms, but accountable to their peers and colleagues for the quality of their own work and for their contribution to the common enterprise. These are all hallmarks of a true profession. My colleague observed that it was this professional environment for teaching that made everything else we had observed both possible and necessary.
Every part of the system was essential to its performance, but Shanghai’s enormous investment in its teachers—in their compensation, their initial education, their long apprenticeship to a master of their profession, the time they are given to learn from one another, the opportunities they are given to do research and share what they have learned with their peers and so much more—this aspect of the system is the mainspring that drives it all. It is the professionalism, confidence, skills, drive and commitment of the teaching force that makes the whole thing work.
Date: August 19, 2016
Date: August 10, 2016
Date: August 5, 2016
Date: July 29, 2016
Date: July 21, 2016