Pushing back--hard--against the manufactured "crisis" of "failing" schools, "bad" teachers, and "under-achieving" students, one day at a time. . .

Radio Interview: Is #TeachStrong the Death Knell for Ed Reform?

Click here to listen to my radio interview with fellow education activist Denisha Jones on the Education Town Hall: BUS (Badass Teachers Association, United Opt Out, Save our Schools):

Death Knell for “Ed Reform”?

Mitchell Robinson, of Michigan State University, and Denisha Jones, of Howard University — both active in the Badass Teachers Association — discuss the disappointment of teachers and teacher educators, nationwide, as unions and others jump on the “teachers are the problem” bandwagon of #TeachStrong.

Jones explains how the new effort fails to include many experienced schools of education, possibly in recognition of the fact that previous attempts to privatize and control schools have been thwarted by teachers and teacher educators.

Robinson also argues, however, that recent changes of tack for ed reformers, including Gates Foundation teacher prep funding, suggest reformers’ frustration because, “they have not done one thing” and are consequently failing. Robinson suggest this flurry of activity may signal, perhaps, a death knell for combative and unsuccessful strategies. 


Who's Narrating the "Teacher Shortage" Narrative?

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A recent column by Stephen Mucher, Director of the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard College, has attracted a lot of attention from those concerned about the health and vitality of public education. And for good reason. Mr. Mucher mentions the recent history of campus protests across the country, which he says he has noticed on his visits to some of the nation's most elite universities ("M.I.T. to U.S.C., Appalachian State to Cal State, Michigan to Berkeley, Amherst to Occidental") in his attempts to recruit what he refers to as "brilliant, dedicated, inspired young people who are ready and willing to serve" to Bard's Master of Arts in Teaching program. His conclusion is that these students are still engaged, politically aware, and want to make a difference in our nation's future ("until recently, many flocked to Teach For America"), but "they do not want to become teachers."


Without offering any actual evidence, Mr. Mucher suggests that prospective teachers have been scared off from applying to his program by much of the agenda of the corporate reform movement: increasing accountability demands placed on teachers, using student test scores to determine teachers' effectiveness ratings, and "the way teachers are blamed for much broader social problems." Now, no one who has spent any time in a classroom over the past several years would disagree that these are all real problems, and have combined to create a profession that feels under attack and held to unrealistic expectations even as states and the federal government continue a systematic disinvestment in public education. However, I would suggest that at least part of Mr. Mucher's failure to find what he is looking for may be because he is he is basing his search strategy on a faulty premise--and perhaps more importantly, because he's looking in the wrong places.

Better Rhetoric

A careful reading of Mr. Mucher's essay reveals an emphasis on the same, tired old reformer rhetoric: that teachers are "the problem" in public education ("But finding candidates to fill this role, especially good candidates, may be more difficult than policymakers are willing to admit"), and that these problems can be solved only if we can improve the quality of the teaching workforce ("America’s public schools need better teachers"). In an effort to bolster his assertions, Mr. Mucher nods to a recent survey suggesting that the teacher shortage is a significant problem, and identifying a set of principles designed to attract more young persons to the profession. [Curiously, these principles are eerily similar to the ones released earlier this week by the #TeachStrong initiative: "Better pre-service preparation, scholarships, loan forgiveness, higher salaries, professional mentorship, in-service training, and more time for collaborative work."]

With all due respect to Mr. Mulcher, it's time to put a stop to this lazy rhetoric, and stop blaming teachers for the problems that have been caused by the very reform agenda that forms the underpinning for his essay. Teachers are not the problem--teachers are the solution.

The "problems" in public education won't be solved by promoting the rhetoric that simply luring the "best and brightest" students from America's most elite colleges and universities to teaching will somehow fix the systemic defunding and privatization of our schools and the de-professionalization of the teaching profession. If anything, this strategy has contributed to the destabilization of the teaching force through programs such as Teach for America and The New Teacher Project--both of which, ironically enough, are partners for the #TeachStrong initiative.

Public education will only be "fixed" by admitting that whatever problems do exist in the schools have only been worsened by the damages done by the corporate reformers. Is there a "teacher shortage" in certain areas and in specific subject areas? Of course. But this shortage has been a "manufactured" one, and won't be solved simply by increasing the numbers of new entrants to the profession. We must first address the root causes of the shortage--poor working conditions, inadequate compensation structures, a lack of administrative and community support for teachers and schools, and invalid and unreliable teacher evaluation systems that are driving the most talented and experienced teachers out of the classroom.

Looking for Teachers in All the Wrong Places...

If Mr. Mulcher is really interested in finding more and "better" teachers I would also suggest that, instead of copying the approach of Teach for America and other alternative route to certification programs, he start by looking for young people who actually want to be career teachers--not just those with the highest GPAs or the gaudiest resumes.

I also find it curious that while the principles mentioned by Mr. Mulcher in his essay for improving the quality of the teaching force include recommendations for "better inservice training, and more time for collaborative work," the marketing materials for the Bard MAT Program, which is designed to be completed in 14-24 months, appear to emphasize brevity and convenience more heavily than depth or breadth of content or experience. The irony here is remarkable.

The students I have the privilege of working with at Michigan State University are not only proficient in the skills, knowledge and dispositions needed for success as early career teachers, they are aware of the "big picture" surrounding public education, and are committed to making a difference. These students are deeply committed to becoming not just teachers, but to becoming teacher leaders. They recognize the inequities that currently exist in too many schools and communities, and are excited to enter a profession that desperately needs their energy and passion. My students understand that they are entering a profession that requires significant preparation, and have dedicated themselves to a comprehensive and thorough course of study that includes theory, practice and authentic field experiences over an extended period of time. 

While Mr. Mulcher seems alarmed at the recent protests on college campuses, I see these protests as signs that today's students are increasingly aware of the inequities that exist in our society, and are ready to do something about these problems. Where Mr. Mulcher sees college activism as a sign that students are less interested in joining the teaching force, I see these events as indications that college students are ready to join those of us who have committed our professional lives to making a difference in our public schools and communities.

It is our job to stand up to the reform agenda, and make public education a place that is again worthy of the passion, dedication and spirit of our newest colleagues. We need them, and they need us. 


The Plan is Coming Together...

Careful readers have noticed a flurry of reformster activity over the past week or so, highlighted by two big announcements. First was the rollout of #TeachStrong, an education improvement scheme allegedly dedicated "to modernizing and elevating the teaching profession," and involving a murderer's row of reformer groups, like Teach for America, the Relay Graduate School of Education and the National Center for Teacher Quality. Never mind that none of these groups are actually interested in either modernizing or elevating anything, and are instead working to hasten the privatization of public education, and turning P-12 schools and college teacher education programs into profit centers. [As an aside, why is it that when the reformers name a new group they simply throw a bunch of words together that sound like they are good, but infuse them with the exact opposite of what those words mean (i.e., TFA is not about teaching for the good of America in any way; the RGS bears absolutely no resemblance to a real graduate school; and, the NCTQ wouldn't recognize a quality teacher preparation program if it actually set foot on a college campus--which it doesn't actually do in its attempts to evaluate teacher prep programs. So there's that...).]

Announcement #2 came today with the unveiling of a massive, $34 million grant bonanza from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that is designed to...stop me if you've heard this one before..."improve teacher-preparation programs’ overall effectiveness." This one looks for all the world like a college-targeted follow up to Mr. Gates' failed efforts to improve teacher quality, which has taken over a decade and billions of dollars. You've got to hand it to Bill and Melinda--they are persistent. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that their reforms have not moved the needle on teacher quality, test scores, class size, small schools or student learning, they just don't give up.

This new project involves a rather motley crew of organizations, including TeacherSquared (which includes a slew of what are charitably referred to as "nontraditional preparation programs," such as our old friends from the Relay Graduate School of Education), a consortium of 6 Southern universities, the Massachusetts Department of Education, and the National Center for Teacher Residencies.

But perhaps the most curious partner in the Gates-funded consortium is TeachingWorks, a think-tank out of the University of Michigan, led by Dr. Deborah Loewenberg Ball, Dean of the UM School of Education. TeachingWorks has been brought on board to serve "as a clearinghouse for the other grantees to share best practices, provide technical support to each center, and supply teacher performance assessments." It's the last part of that description that provides the clue as to what this flurry of activity may really be all about.

As I wrote about here, TeachingWorks has been partnering with ETS (the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, NJ) on the development of NOTE, a new competitor to edTPA, the high-stakes student teacher evaluation system from Pearson, Inc. NOTE is noteworthy (get it?) for its use of avatars and a virtual reality setting to provide an up-or-out "teacher performance assessment" for student teachers. Go back and read that last sentence again...I'll wait...yup, you read that correctly. ETS is creating a high-stakes student teacher test that they will sell to teacher preparation programs and students that makes teacher candidates pretend to teach avatars--fake students--in order to be judged worthy of becoming teachers.

Cue background music...Narrator's voice: "If only we could develop a system of preparing future teachers that involved prospective educators, under the supervision of actual master teachers, as they taught real, live children in real schools. And if only we could provide these young teachers with support and guidance during their internships in the schools by having college personnel observe them on a regular basis, and holding weekly student teacher seminars back on campus to help them process and make sense of their practice as novice teachers...well, wouldn't that be a really great way to help welcome our newest colleagues to the profession in a nurturing, realistic and supportive fashion? Wouldn't it? Wouldn't it?"

Connecting the dots here, it's becoming clear that the real goal behind all of these grants, projects and initiatives is to establish a "college to classroom" pipeline controlled, designed and delivered entirely by the reform industry...

  • from teacher preparation program admission (TeachStrong's Recruitment principle)
  • to teacher preparation programs (TeachStrong's Teacher Prep principle)
  • to teacher candidate performance assessments and licensure requirements (ETS and TeachingWorks' NOTE and TeachStrong's Licensure principle)
  • to compensation and reward structures (TeachStrong's More Pay principle)
  • to new teacher mentoring and induction (TeachStrong's New Teacher Support principle)
  • to tenure provisions (TeachStrong's Meaningful Tenure principle)
  • to professional development delivery systems (TeachStrong's Professional Development principle)
  • to graduate school programs (Relay Graduate School's involvement in both initiatives is telling)
  • to "teacher leader" ladders (TeachStrong's Career Pathways principle).

We are finally seeing Mr. Gates' "end game" fully fleshed out here. Not content to tinker with education as his personal plaything any longer, Mr. Gates has now turned his foundation's full attention to how his immense wealth and power can be used to take total control over the entire enterprise of education in our country. And based on the most current policy research being done on the impact of philanthropy in education reform, we can expect that the results will not be pretty:

The pendulum of philanthropic strategy may have moved too far in response to the Annenberg Challenge. Where funders saw too much adaptation to local circumstances with Annenberg, they have responded with an overemphasis on national models and replicating a common strategy across multiple districts. Where funders saw too much geographic dispersion of resources with Annenberg, they have responded with significant coordinated investments in certain districts where Blacks and Latinos find themselves disempowered by outside interests. Where funders saw too many attempts to cooperate and collaborate with traditional school districts, they have responded with a strate- gy that financially weakens some urban districts, and may be damaging the educational services provided to children who remain in traditional public schools.

A new course correction by foundations should take seriously three major lessons of the recent period of national replication strategies and charter school expansion. First, schools are not only a service to be provided—they are community institutions. Whether charter organizations or local school boards operate them, schools are not fast food franchises that can open and close when market pressures changes, without causing substantial dis- ruptions to children, families, and neighborhoods...

Second, power matters, particularly when decision makers and funders are disconnected from the people impacted by racial, ethnic, and class divisions. When power and resources are so starkly off-balance between outside funders and local residents, funders need to check their hubris at the door—they do not have all the answers, and they do not really know the experiences of students, teachers, and parents in the district. Hiring consultants to conduct listening tours is not the answer to bridging this gap. Listening is not the same as empowering, and funders should seriously consider how they could reduce the power gap between themselves and the communities they seek to support.

Third, the public sector is faltering in many urban areas—cities and school districts face long-term structural challenges to match revenues with expenditures. Education remains an overwhelmingly public sector enterprise—the vast majority of students are served by traditional public schools, alongside the growing ranks of public charter schools. The bottom line for students in all schools is that more funds need to reach students more effectively; addressing this challenge in public school districts may help a larger share of students in the long run.

Sarah Reckhow, "Beyond Blueprints: Questioning the Replication Model in Education Philanthropy", Symposium: The New Philanthropy: What Do We Know Now? Society, December 2015, Volume 52, Issue 6, pp. 552-558.

We have now glimpsed what Bill Gates' envisions as the future of teacher preparation in our nation. It's up to all of us to respond, clearly and forcefully.


I Dared to Teach

I received the following story from a teacher who wanted to share the ridiculous things that are going on with her/his evaluation process, but was worried about retribution from her/his administration. Sadly, these kinds of stories are becoming all too common as the pressures of the accountability era exert tremendous stress on all involved, as I've shared previously here. And the illogic and inconsistencies of our current evaluation systems for teachers are creating situations that truly defy credibility.

It's time to call this kind of behavior what it is: bullying. Plain and simple.

And it's beyond time to put a stop to these invalid, unreliable, and unprofessional methods of evaluating our practice as teachers, and let teachers teach.


Within a week after my observation, I was summoned to my post-evaluation conference.  

During that meeting I was told that I was being moved from Track II (reserved for effective teachers) to Track III (reserved for teachers deemed to be ineffective and in need of help).

What happened on the day of my observation?  It was a glorious day of teaching and learning.

Students were actively engaged the entire class period.

What did students learn?  A lesson they will remember for the rest of their lives that was directly connected to the curriculum.

What did I do that was so wrong?

I dared to teach.

I used travel-sized tubes of toothpaste to teach students that their words matter so they need to think before they speak.

I tied it to curriculum through the use of reflective questions in which students citied claims and had to write clear statements to support said claims.

I tied it to curriculum by discussing with students the central idea or theme of the activity.

This is a lesson I have done with students almost yearly for over ten years. Call it a signature lesson that students write to me and say, “I’ll never forget that day in your class when we did the toothpaste activity.”

I had all of the wallpaper in my classroom. I had the behavioral expectations posted. I had my Seven Habits posters in multiple places. I had I CAN statements from the curriculum posted and made multiple references to them.

Because I dared to teach that lesson, I was accused of not teaching the curriculum. I was dressed down for daring to say, “The most important thing I have to teach you as your English teacher has nothing to do with nouns or verbs or adjectives or adverbs or even reading and writing. The most important thing I have to teach you is that your words have power and that they matter, so think before you speak.”

The powers that be didn’t want to hear when I told them that I did directly relate the lesson to the curriculum. I was informed that these are the days of accountability and that they just didn’t see the connection. Never mind that my students did.

Because I used toothpaste to teach a lesson, one of the observers thought he was in a science classroom. I had to inform the observer that I was teaching English in a classroom that had had multiple purposes over the year and that last year it had been used as a science classroom. I wonder if the science tables and chairs had him confused.

Because I dared to give students permission to use the word “stupid” in their answers on their reflection paper (I wrote as part of the directions, “You can tell me that this is the most stupid thing you have ever done in your entire academic career as long as you back it up”), I was accused of using in appropriate language with students. 

Because of what I dared to teach at the end of the class session, that saying “Sorry” doesn’t put everything back the way it was before, I was accused of stalling and inventing something at the end of my lesson to take the class to the end of the class period. While it is true that I added the last part of the lesson on, I deliberately planned to do so when I considered the lesson for this year’s students, and I taught the last part of the lesson in every class.

Because I dared to take class time to answer in detail students’ questions about the next day’s special activity, I was accused of stealing instructional time from students.  Never mind that some students were still finishing up their reflections. Never mind that students asked. Never mind that this would be my students’ first time participating in the activity and I thought providing information ahead of time would alleviate some confusion on the day of.

I was informed that I was being moved to Track III so that the administrator could determine my goals for the year. I went into the evaluation process in good faith. I had all of the required paperwork completed. I had identified my strengths and my weaknesses. I had identified goals I want to work on, goals related to increasing student test scores, improving my use of assessment, and increasing regular parent contact. I understood that goals were supposed to be determined collaboratively between teacher and administrator. I found out that is true only for some people.

Because I entered into the evaluation process in good faith and because I dared to teach the lesson I did, I am now considered to be inferior to my peers. After twenty-five years of teaching and thirty years of effective or highly effective job evaluations in the district, I am where I am. I have to submit detailed lesson plans every Monday before 8:00 AM. I now have to show in my lesson plans that which is assumed that my peers do. I have to detail everything I do, the time I attach to each activity, the standards each lesson addresses (no more than two I CAN statements for each class for each day--I have three preps a day, well, actually four because one of my classes requires a very different delivery of the same content than my other classes), where each lesson fits on what is called a depth of knowledge wheel to prove that I am taking students to higher level thinking responses, and my instructional strategies for each activity. 

I have to do all of this until I am told that I can stop. Who knows when that will be?

Because of this, I am afraid to ask questions to clarify exactly why I am in this situation and how I get out of it and when.  I fear retribution. I no longer trust a system that has been a part of my career for thirty years. 

Yet, if my career survives this, I will dare to go into the evaluation process in good faith next year and I will dare to teach the same lesson again.

I will cross my fingers and dare."


The Tide is Turning: TeachStrong has Backfired

It's becoming clear that recent events in the education reform movement, like the bungled rollout of the #TeachStrong initiative, are actually the first vestiges of the death knells of the reform agenda.

For those unaware of TeachStrong, its an initiative that brings together the two national teachers unions (i.e., NEA and AFT) with over 40 of the leading organizations from the corporate reform movement, including Teach for America, the National Center for Teacher Quality, Education Post, and the CCSSO--the good folks who helped spawn the Common Core. (For a comprehensive review of TeachStrong's 9 Step Plan, please read Peter Green's excellent essay here.) 

If you think this sounds like an unlikely alliance, then you are seeing the issue more clearly than the leaders of the 2 unions, who are either denying that a partnership actually exists (Lily Eskelen: "These are not the Droids you are looking for."), or trying to unionsplain it all away as "just good policy" (introducing Randi Weingarten: your new Secretary of Education).

It has also become increasingly clear that the reformers' efforts have had no positive impact on anything other than their investors' bank accounts, and now some of the big online vendors are starting to go down the tubes. Savvy political pundits are even speculating that conservatives are so concerned with losing power that they are considering the unthinkable--aligning with their sworn enemy, Hillary Rodham Clinton. We truly do live in interesting times.

The public is also wising up to the hijinks being perpetrated by, Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academies, and countless charter schools across the country and the reformers are scrambling by throwing out a flurry of "new" initiatives, each one nuttier than the other.

  • Evaluating student teachers with avatars
  • Evaluating music and art teachers with math and reading test scores
  • Evaluating teachers by test scores of students they've never met
  • Virtual charters run by religious fanatics using public dollars
  • Teachers unions aligning with groups dedicated to destroying education
  • States approving bills to allow uncertified persons to teach in our schools, even as legislators claim to be "raising standards" for the teaching profession
  • State curricula endorsing young earth creationism and whitewashing slavery and the Holocaust from textbooks

And much, much more.

These are the acts of desperate people. They know their window for gaining control of public education is closing, and are responding by coming up with ridiculous, outlandish ideas in an attempt to attract attention from the public and the media. Their actions are not unlike the lunacy of Trump and Carson in the Presidential campaign. Walls and pyramids, anyone?

Although it looks pretty dark out there for students and teachers, now is the time for those of us in the resistance to redouble our efforts. Our opponents are scared, and we have them on the run; and rightfully so--because they know they are on the wrong side of history.

Stand up and speak out!


"Skin in the game..."

Gov. Bobby Jindal, a participant in the Republican "undercard" debate last night, joined the list of conservative pundits in demanding that every person in the nation, regardless of their income or employment status, must be required to pay some taxes--"even $1!"--on the premise that everyone should have some "skin in the game."

The term "skin in the game" refers to a person or group having incurred some level of monetary risk by being invested in a particular project or task. Some sources point to Warren Buffet as the originator of the term, while others attribute the term to Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice", in which the money lender Shylock demands that Antonio wager a pound of his own flesh as collateral in the event that his friend defaults on the loan Shylock has provided. In any event, the term has decidedly unsavory connotations, and says as much about the user as it does about the target of the phrase.

Now, aside from the fact that every person already pays "some taxes," in the form of Social Security, payroll taxes, sales taxes, etc., and that imposing additional tax burdens on the poor while simultaneously cutting taxes on the wealthy is a particularly Dickensian financial strategy that would raise no appreciable revenues, let's also consider the analogy itself: "skin in the game."

The issue of taxes is not a "game"--it's how we raise the financial resources to pay for the necessary social services and infrastructures at the local, state and national levels that we depend on as citizens. Roads, bridges, police and fire departments, schools, hospitals--these are not pieces in some political game of Monopoly--each of these things represents real persons and institutions that contribute in important ways to the fabric of our society. To casually throw out this kind of analogy is not only ignorant, it's offensive. And it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how our economy--and human decency--works. It also illustrates a callousness of thinking about the working poor, or the unemployed, that should give us pause as we consider the kind of person we want in elected office in this country.

Perhaps more to the point, exactly what risk is Mr. Jindal at by virtue of his decision to run for President? What "skin" does Mr. Jindal have in this game?

To date, the governor of Louisiana's campaign has raised nearly $10 million, which puts him at the bottom of the list of Presidential contenders, but in the top 5% of Americans in terms of wealth. When added to Mr. Jindal's previous personal net worth of between $4-11 million, the race for the Presidency has allowed the governor to roughly double his own wealth. In fact, with the advent of Citizens United, current campaign finance laws eliminate nearly all of the risk involved with running a political campaign, and have turned running for office into fund raising operations as much as candidacies for public service.

If Mr. Jindal and his friends are really serious about everyone having some "skin in the game," here's a suggestion: let's require that any candidate for President who currently holds an elected office must resign from that position before declaring their candidacy. There's not much risk involved in seeking a job while knowing that you already have a job to return to if unsuccessful, right Bobby? If we want these candidates to walk the walk they've been talking, then let's remove their "soft place to land" by demanding candidates resign their office before running for President.

And while we're at it, let's establish a requirement that all funds raised by candidates' campaigns through PACs, Super PACs, and any other fund raising groups affiliated with their campaigns must be donated to charity, after settling any legitimate campaign expenses. That would really weed out the candidates who are using the race for the White House as a way to build their "brand" (I'm looking at you, Mr. Trump and Dr. Carson) from those who are serious contenders for the office.

Perhaps then we'd see a real, substantive campaign for the Presidency--not a reality show masquerading as political theatre.


The "Brave New World" of Teacher Evaluation: Be Afraid...


Just when you think the masters of the universe who run the corporate reform movement can't be even more clueless, you catch wind of the newest effort to turn education into a profit-generating endeavor--this time, a hare-brained scheme to evaluate student teachers, by...and I swear I'm not making this up...observing them as they pretend to teach...wait for it...a fake "classroom" of avatars, in a virtual reality environment.




Don't believe it? Neither did I until I took a look at the new "National Observational Teaching Exam," or NOTE, brought to you by the Educational Testing Service (ETS)--the same company that brings us the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), the SAT, the PRAXIS tests, the AP Exams, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

NOTE works like this: a teacher candidate (student teacher) "teaches" a sample lesson for 6-7 minutes using a "virtual class" populated by 5-6 "avatar students," and receives feedback from an artificial intelligence program. The NOTE system is a combination of video production and "advanced technology" developed by the US Military, according to Mark Atkinson, the CEO of the tech firm Mursion, Inc., which is responsible for the creation of the avatars and virtual reality environment used in NOTE.

ETS describes NOTE as a program that promises to "measure a teaching candidate’s readiness to teach in ways that are representative of real-life teaching experiences." The operative word here is "representative," as the teacher candidates are not assessed by observing their work in an actual classroom, with real live children...

"Because a teacher's interaction with students is an integral part of certain high-leverage teaching practices, ETS and TeachingWorks are designing and prototyping virtual classrooms with interactive avatar students. In partnership with Mursion™, which provides a mixed-reality teaching environment with simulated students, the avatars are produced by trained, calibrated human "interactors" using standardized protocols. The use of virtual classrooms not only supports greater standardization of instructional contexts and settings for candidates, but also eliminates disruption to classroom activities, curriculum and student learning that occurs in schools."

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Is It ISIS or Corporate Education Reform?

Muhammad Hassan Abdullah al-Jibouri, 35, one of the 69 prisoners who were freed from an Islamic State prison last week in Hawija. Credit Michael R. Gordon/The New York Times
Muhammad Hassan Abdullah al-Jibouri, 35, one of the 69 prisoners who were freed from an Islamic State prison last week in Hawija. Credit Michael R. Gordon/The New York Times

Let's play a new game: Is it ISIS or corporate education reform?

Here's how we play--I will present a series of brief passages from current news stories, and you guess which ones are reports from stories on ISIS and which are from reports on the horrible treatment of children and teachers in American schools. Let's get started!

Our first category is "Humiliation & Degradation"...

The men described an array of exacting restrictions imposed by the militants. Local residents were told down to tiny details what to wear — the cuffs of men’s trousers had to be rolled up over the ankle, for instance — and precisely how to position their hands and fingers when praying. Disobedience or carelessness in following the rules provoked suspicion, or even beatings.

Is it ISIS or corporate education reform?

Success Academy's code of misconduct is six pages long with 65 infractions ranging from minor or Level 1 violations such as slouching or failing to be in "Ready to Succeed" position, to middle or Level 2 misconduct like forgetting to bring a pencil or pen to school, to more serious Level 3 infractions like play fighting or repeated littering. The most serious Level 4 infractions include continued violation of the lesser misbehaviors, bullying, and "blatant and repeated disrespect for school code." In-house and home suspension from school starts with Level 2 infractions. Penalties for "scholars" accused of Level 3 or Level 4 infractions include immediate expulsion from school. Principals have discretion when meting out punishment. "A scholar's prior conduct and his or her disciplinary history may be factors in determining the appropriate consequence for an infraction." It is not clear how many times a student has to forget his or her pencil to be suspended from school.

Is it ISIS or corporate education reform?

Next up..."Physical Abuse & Torture"...

They said that new prisoners were subject to a methodical program of abuse — electrically shocked, beaten with hoses, smothered with plastic bags until they lost consciousness — even without any interrogation questions. Food was meager: pieces of bread pushed through cell doors. (

Is it ISIS or corporate education reform?

The FBI has been asked to investigate an incident at a South Carolina high school Monday in which a police officer appeared to body slam a female student and drag her across a classroom. The confrontation, captured on cellphone video at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., has drawn intense criticism on social media, from the school district's Black Parents Association — the student is African-American — and the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, which called the deputy's actions "egregious." "There is no justification whatsoever for treating a child like this," the ACLU said in a statement.

Is it ISIS or corporate education reform?

Finally, "Overcrowding & Inhumane Working and Living Conditions"...

Prisoners were kept in their cells day and night, and the rooms were jammed: Mr. Jibouri’s cell held 39 detainees, he said.

Is it ISIS or corporate education reform?

Last February, administrators began what they thought would be a worthwhile teaching experiment: combining three classes of kindergartners into one “hub” and instructing nearly 100 youngsters together for a good part of the day. Kids are tracked into smaller groups — determined by ability — for math and reading lessons as well as for homeroom, according to this story in the Detroit Free Press. Why would school authorities decide to buck overwhelming evidence that young children learn better in small classes? The newspaper said that EAA authorities contend the system allows the three teachers to give more individual attention to students, though it’s not exactly clear how they they are able to do that. 

Is it ISIS or corporate education reform?

It's well beyond time that we stop the obsession with testing and measuring our students, teachers and schools, and start thinking more about how we are treating our children and our friends and neighbors who have dedicated their lives as teachers to nurturing and teaching our children.


Hey, Great Lakes Education Project: Got Integrity?

The Great Lakes Education Project is a Michigan advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the charter school agenda in the state. GLEP's official mission statement says the following: "Because a zip code shouldn’t determine the education outcomes for children, GLEP believes we must expand choice, improve quality and increase accountability.  We support Governor Snyder’s “any time, any place, any way, at any pace” approach to education." But it's worth noting that Michigan leads the nation in "for-profit" charter schools, with nearly 80% of the state's charters being of the "for-profit" variety, making GLEP not so much an educational organization as a PR firm for charter school authorizers.

Recently, GLEP announced their "Got Literacy?" campaign, the goal of which seems to be to embarrass and humiliate selected Michigan schools for "failures" in their literacy efforts. Here's how the campaign works: GLEP rolls out an ad with a photo of a Michigan school sign or billboard, each of which contains a supposedly obvious or embarrassing spelling or grammar error--like the one above ("Welcome Back. Hope You Had a Good Brake." Get it? Ha ha ha. That dumb school made a dumb spelling mistake--therefore schools in Michigan are bad at literacy...). 

As it turns out, the sign in this GLEP ad is not from Michigan, and has nothing to do with the supposed “literacy crisis” in Michigan’s schools. The billboard is from Prescott High School in Arizona, the photo was taken in 2007, and was the result of a student prank--not an error made by school personnel, as inferred in the GLEP story. School officials have asked other web sites to remove the photo as it is not a fair representation of the school, and "Its sole purpose is to shame PHS." Let's hope that GLEP follows suit, removes the photo from their ad, and apologizes to the folks at Prescott High School. It would be the right thing to do.

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Who's Who in the Education Wars?

A recent blog post from Sam Chaltain suggested that what he terms "the battle of the edu-tribes" is finally nearing an end, and both sides of the reform debate (Mr. Chaltain calls them the "practitioners and the policy makers") have aligned around a particular vision of the future of schooling. Others, like my friend and fellow blogger, Nancy Flanagan, are not quite so sure that the conflict has been resolved, and question the perhaps "sanitized" version of events described by Mr. Chaltain.


Whether the war is actually coming to an end or not, it's useful for those on the front lines to know who they are actually fighting, and who is standing beside them in their daily struggles. It's become clear to me through many recent engagements with those on "the other side" of these debates that the "combatants" on each side share certain important characteristics that inform their beliefs, ideologies and loyalties.

The Deformers and the Guardians


Mr. Chaltain's descriptors for the two sides in the war on education are revealing, in that he sees a clear distinction between those who actually teach (the "practitioners"), and those who establish and enforce the rules and policies that govern that practice (the "policy makers"). Perhaps unintentionally, his labels also highlight a major flaw in our current education enterprise: public education policy is being written and administrated largely by persons who have not themselves attended public schools, have no degrees or certification in education, have never taught, and have spent little time in public schools. Whatever meager educational background that the members of what I term the Deformer "edu-tribe" may have is often accrued through alternative routes to the classroom (i.e., Teach for America, The New Teacher Project, the Michigan Teacher Corps), and their educational credentials are often received via online programs that require little or no actual teaching experience, residencies or interactions with other teachers or professors with actual teaching experience.


Many of the "foot soldiers" in the Deformer army wind up in high-level positions in state departments of education, policy think-tanks, on school boards and as leaders of high-profile charter school networks. They reach these positions of power and authority with shockingly little experience in classrooms, or working with children, but exert out-sized influence on the shape and nature of public education. These members of the Deformer "advance force" parrot a regressive agenda of union-busting, tenure-smashing, and teacher-demonizing, paired with an obsessive devotion to standardized testing, "data driven decision making", charter school expansion, and privatization as the "answers" to the "crisis in public education"--while remaining seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was their policies that manufactured the crisis they claim to be addressing, and which are paying off so handsomely for the investors who fund their charter schools and pay their generous salaries.


Supporting the efforts of the Deformer army are legions of well-educated, poorly-paid "deputy directors," "social media managers," and "communications interns," all of whom have been tasked with patrolling the blogosphere for anything even remotely critical of the Deformer agenda. None of these staff support personnel ever taught or hold education degrees--their sole purpose is to vigorously refute any posts or articles that are deemed "negative" or contrary to the Deformers' mission--which is to destabilize schools, demonize teachers, and privatize public education.

Many of these support staff work for outfits like the Education Post, a billionaire-funded anti-education website created purely for "pushing back" against critics of the Deformer agenda. The leader of the Education Post, Peter Cunningham, is in many ways the poster child for the Deformer cause. Mr. Cunningham holds a BA in philosophy from Duke and a masters in journalism from Columbia; he has no degrees in education, has never worked as a teacher, and yet ascended to the position of Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan (who also never taught--see the pattern here?).


On the other side of the debate are what I refer to as the Guardians of public education. The members of this army largely consist of teachers, retired teachers, and teacher educators, most of whom have significant experience as classroom teachers, multiple degrees in education, and a career commitment to children, schools and education. Few Guardians entered the profession by alternative routes, instead earning their credentials in traditional colleges and universities, under the tutelage of professors who had themselves been classroom teachers before moving to higher education. Many of these activists earn graduate degrees in their chosen field--even as states now refuse to pay for additional degrees--and seek out weekend and summer professional development opportunities at their own expense in order to remain certified.


The activism practiced by these Guardians is not their sole focus as professionals--rather, these teachers blog at night after lessons have been planned, and kids put to bed, or on rare quiet weekend mornings and afternoons when a few minutes can be stolen from other tasks and responsibilities. And the conflict in which they are engaged is a non-linear war--they are  fighting not just the Deformers, but also their support staff in their underground bunkers, typing away on banks of sleek laptops as they push back against kindergarten teachers furiously hammering out their frustrated rants on the ridiculousness of testing 6 year olds, or 3rd grade teachers pointing out the illogic of retaining 8 year olds who struggle with reading.


While the Deformers are funded by the usual suspects in the education reform business (Broad, Walton, Gates), the Guardians are led by a 77 year old education history professor, Dr. Diane Ravitch. Like Mr. Cunningham, Dr. Ravitch was a former assistant secretary of education, but has now turned her professional energies towards leading the resistance to the Deformer agenda. Her self-published blog has now attracted over 24 million "hits," and has become a highly-respected and influential voice in the education debates.


The members of the Guardians come from the ranks of practicing and retired teachers, teacher educators and other professors, and parents concerned about the quality of education their children are receiving as a result of the Deformers' efforts. These writers and activists don't receive a penny for their efforts, in stark opposition to the Deformers' forces, who are stunningly well-compensated for their work. Instead, these bloggers often toil away in anonymity, providing a voice for the thousands of teachers that have been silenced for speaking out against the reform agenda.


Among the leading voices in the education debate for the Guardians are:

Despite Mr. Chaltains' claims, it appears that the education wars are far from over. The promise of billions of dollars in potential profits has proven too intoxicating to resist, and the Deformers are well-funded, emboldened, and buoyed by recent successes. The only thing standing in their way is a plucky band of part-time, volunteer activists who are committed to an agenda that includes:

  • every child having access to a rich curriculum, including music, art, physical education, and libraries
  • teachers not being rated and ranked by high-stakes evaluations based on student test scores
  • all schools being adequately funded, with well-maintained facilities and equipment for all programs
  • the elimination of for-profit charter schools, and ensuring that all charters that receive public funding are held accountable and governed by the same rules and regulations that pertain to all other public schools
  • the forceful defeat of efforts to privatize the public schools 

Until that time, the Guardians will be around to defend and support our children, our teachers and our public schools.







Imagine that your town established a private fire or police department, funded with your tax dollars, and staffed by young inexperienced college grads with no previous experience in fire fighting or law enforcement.


Imagine that these parallel organizations were given prime locations in existing facilities (built and paid for with public monies), displacing the professionals that had served your community for many years.


Imagine that these "new" fire and police forces could pick and choose which calls for their assistance they would respond to, choosing only the easiest and least dangerous cases and referring the difficult calls to the "old" departments--who were now understaffed and under-resourced. And that the "new" departments' artificially high success rates would be trumpeted by the media as evidence of their effectiveness.


Imagine that these "new" employees only spent a year or two in their jobs as fire fighters and police officers, and then moved directly into positions as fire and police department chiefs and town mayors, promoting their former colleagues into positions on their town councils, and enacting changes to town guidelines and ordinances that promoted the "new" departments while continuing to siphon off resources that had previously been dedicated to supporting the "old" departments.


Imagine that as the "new" fire and police departments became more prevalent in your community, the numbers of damaging fires and crime rates showed a steady increase, but your mayor and town council ignored the evidence and passed laws lifting the "caps" on the number of "new" fire and police departments could be established.

Imagine that these "new" departments were clustered primarily in urban centers, while the fire and police departments in the suburbs remained well-funded and staffed by experienced, well-trained professionals.


Imagine that the leaders of these "new" fire and police departments paid themselves inordinately high salaries, became wealthy and powerful, and their investors received strong returns on their initial investments.


Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be if we did this to our schools?


Better Conversation? Not so much...

I had a fun little Twitter chat recently with Peter Cunningham, executive director of Education Post, the billionaire funded anti-public education website devoted to fighting back against the critics of the corporate reform of education movement. Because billionaires evidently need to be defended against public school teachers and parents who are concerned about hedge fund managers bent on destroying their kids' schools and turning teaching into an entry-level gig. But, I digress...

Pete had just tweeted a snarky put down of students protesting budget cuts in the Chicago Public Schools, and I asked him why he was always criticizing teachers and students, and why he never used his bully pulpit to critique any charter school operators--like Steve Ingersoll, who used his charter school as a personal ATM, committing fraud and embezzlement along the way--given that they are doing a lot more damage than teachers and kids.

It's worth mentioning here that Pete's goal for Education Post was to "raise the bar" for the conversation surrounding education reform; indeed, the website's tag line is "better conversation. better education". According to Mr. Cunningham, "At some level, it feels as if it’s people . . . just screaming at each other from across the aisle,” Cunningham said. “We can have differences of opinion about these policies, but they should be based on facts, not fear. An honest, open conversation is possible among people of good will. We want to elevate those voices that are not being heard and counter the voices that are misleading, either willfully or not.”

Given Mr. Cunningham's approach to elevating the dialogue about ed reform, one might expect to see a balanced, thoughtful collection of stories being curated on the website, expressing a broad range of opinions and staking out positions along a wide spectrum of beliefs and philosophical stances with respect to the complicated, confusing arena that is modern day education reform.

As it turns out, not so much.

After our Twitter conversation, I wandered over to Education Post to see what Pete and his plucky band of hedge fund funded "reporters" were sharing in their effort to support and encourage a "better conversation." Here's what I found...

  • a piece on how Race To The Top was "genius" (a reminder: RTTT was the ed reform initiative that pitted the states against one another in a Hunger Games-styled competition that has resulted in no winners and lots of losers...)
  • another piece criticizing the Chicago Public Schools (boy, does Mr. Cunningham hate the Chicago Public Schools--I'm guessing it's the "Public" part of their name that does it...)
  • an Arne Duncan puff piece (Mr. Cunningham was Mr. Duncan's Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach in the Department of Education--neither man ever taught...)
  • a human interest piece featuring...wait for it: a charter school! (Mr. Cunningham and the Education Post love charter schools.)
  • a puff piece on DC charters (did I mention that Peter and the Post really love charters?)
  • a piece criticizing parents who choose to opt out their children from standardized tests (because the only thing that the Ed Post loves more than charters are tests--in fact, the Education Post loves tests so much they should probably marry one...)
  • a piece promoting the National Assessment of Educational Progress, because tests. (Boy, do these folks love their tests...)
  • a piece on how school choice should be for everyone...except for those nasty parents who "choose" to opt their kids out of tests, because that kind of choice isn't good for anyone!
  • a piece promoting The New Teacher Project, because these TNTP "teachers" appear to be the first persons to discover this new thing called "student centered learning", which teachers in the public schools have been, you know, doing now for decades. (This is a common theme on the Education Post--breathless reporting of allegedly new teaching strategies that actual teachers use in their classrooms every day...)
  • another Arne Duncan puff piece, which somehow also manages to slam Hillary Clinton--which is odd given the supposed liberal political leanings of Mr. Cunningham, who did serve in the Obama administration (psst: the Democrats for Education Reform are neither Democrats, or for Education Reform--they are hedge fundies who want to destroy the public schools and make billions of dollars in the process--and Mr. Cunningham works with (for?) these folks...)

The verdict? Far from being an outlet that is designed to promote "better conversation," the Ed Post is nothing more than a corporate-funded mouthpiece for the reform community, and the site only runs stories designed to reinforce and advance the reform agenda. The headlines for these pieces reads like a cheat-sheet of Michelle Rhee's talking points: anti-teachers and unions, anti-public school, pro-Teach for America and The New Teacher Project, pro-testing, pro-school choice, pro-charter schools.

If Mr. Cunningham is really serious about a "better conversation," then he should start asking some actual teachers and parents of public school students what they think about this agenda. A conversation with only one voice is a monologue, not a conversation.


Trojan Horse for America: Teach for America's True Agenda

Like many education reform initiatives (i.e., charter schools, merit pay), Teach for America was created out of what were once noble intentions: to provide bright, young teachers to fill vacancies in some of our nation's most difficult to staff classrooms. What began as a fledgling start-up, sprung from the ambitions outlined in founder Wendy Kopp's undergrad thesis from Princeton University, has now become "a political powerhouse, with net assets totaling $419 million, and is the darling of the most elite members of the corporate reformer set, such as Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee and Kevin Huffman.

But TFA's mission has now been perverted as a result of the convergence of factors such as a struggling economy, an emboldened corporate education reform movement led by hedge fund managers and investment bankers looking to turn a quick profit, and blistering attacks on teachers and schools from both sides of the political aisle.

From Publics to Charters

When TFA began, Ms. Kopp's goal was to send her recruits into the public schools, believing an infusion of "energetic but inexperienced" novices would provide a jolt to the central nervous system of what she considered a public school system on life support. "But since the recession, with education funding across the country drying up, teacher layoffs have become more of an issue than teacher shortages. Between 2008 and 2013, 324,000 teaching positions in local school districts were eliminated, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities." With teaching positions now at a premium, TFA's practice of charging schools a $5000 "finder's fee" for each recruit hired was now less attractive to schools choosing from hundreds of applicants for each vacancy. And yet, TFA continued to grow, expanding its recruiting quotas and administrative offices in Washington and New York City.

With the supply of public school teaching positions drying up, the organization needed to look for a fresh source of placements for their growing corps of eager young recruits. No longer content to focus on public schools, the organization began to hitch its wagon to the proliferation of charter schools on the education landscape. "According to internal documents and federal grant performance reports, TFA’s growth also increasingly hinges on fueling the country’s thriving charter movement. The organization’s data show that one-third of its recruits now teach in charters (up from 13 percent in 2007), which are mostly nonunionized, privately run, and can receive millions in private support on top of public funds. TFA has funneled a growing constituency of brand-new recruits into charters in large urban districts that have recently laid off hundreds of experienced teachers, including Philadelphia (where 99 percent of corps members teach in charters), Detroit (69 percent) and Chicago (53 percent)."

From Preparing Teachers to Preparing "Leaders"

TFA needed a way to provide more bang for the buck for the substantial investments they were receiving from the ed reform foundation cabal. To do so, they shifted their focus from preparing school teachers to preparing school leaders. In a stunningly prescient moment, founder Wendy Kopp said the following: “We’re a leadership development organization, not a teaching organization,” she said. “I think if you don’t understand that, of course it’s easy to tear the whole thing apart.” Pouncing on the "churn" of district- and state-level administrative positions (only 51% of school superintendents surveyed in 2010 expected to remain in their positions for 5 years, and over 60% reported having been in their current positions for only 1-5 years), Teach for America in 2007 spun off a subsidiary, Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) designed to propel more of the organization's 32,000 alumni into positions in state departments of education, policy think tanks, legislative offices and lobbying groups. 

The results have been extremely promising. For an organization responsible for only 0.5 percent of the nation’s nearly 3.5 million teachers, TFA's influence on local and state education policy has become enormous. TFA alums are encouraged to run for seats on local school boards and for state legislative offices. Jameson Brewer, a TFA alum and co-editor of Teach For America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out, shares the following incident:

"I was pulled into the district office towards the end of my second year (before I published my first critical piece on TFA - of course) and I was asked to consider running for the school board of Atlanta - LEE would help me, fund me, and take care of everything...all I had to do was say yes.  I was also offered a spot in the principal pipeline initiative.  I, of course, turned both down.  I've had conversations with LEE reps since then and we go through this symbolic tango about me telling them I'm interested but would run as an anti-TFA candidate while I test how far they are willing to go with that because according to their bylaws, they can't be partisan...though, they obviously keep dropping the push to have me run because of that prospective platform."

With an assist from LEE, the organization has nearly doubled its investment recently with respect to its lobbying efforts, spending almost $2 million since 2010 on attacking unions, weakening teacher tenure, supporting more and earlier standardized testing, reducing certification requirements, and encouraging the use of VAM in teacher evaluation systems.

Additionally, TFA has made it a priority, through LEE, to help place their alums in prestigious positions in Washington, where they exert an outsize influence on the nation's education policy. "More than 70 alumni currently hold public office, including two state senators. Within the federal government, their ranks include two assistants to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as well as education policy advisers and associates in the offices of Senators Harry Reid and Al Franken and Representative George Miller." TFA corps members have become the zebra mussels of education reform, establishing bulkheads in the halls of power from the state house to the White House.

What Does it Mean to "Stay in Education"?

Under increasing criticism from teachers, unions, and even its own alumni, TFA proudly reports that "63 percent of its alumni stay in education"--but the organization's definition of "education" may require a little unpacking.

The typical term of service for TFA corps members is between 2-3 years, although TFA's own data indicates that "just 30 percent remain in the classroom — and the attrition increases significantly after the fifth year."

So, while 2nd year TFA corps members are readying their exit strategy from urban classrooms, editing their resumes for law school and Capitol Hill internship applications, and leaving their students in the wake of a mass exodus of novice teachers on an annual basis, committed, dedicated career teachers are writing lesson plans, scrounging for classroom supplies, paying for materials for their students out of their own pockets, and staying after school to help students prepare their all-county solos, gymnastics routines, and lines for the school play.

Staying in education means making a commitment to working with students, families and communities to help children become who they want to be, to find their voices as writers, singers and scientists, and to expand access to a full and complete education for every child. 

Staying in education does NOT mean temping in classrooms as resume fodder, or using teaching as a "stepping stone" for prestigious positions in policy think tanks and congressional offices, or putting in a year in the classroom before writing policy that will cripple public education for decades.

In 2014, TFA published its "5 Commitments" for improvement, a nod to the chorus of criticism coming primarily from TFA alums. The first item on the list is this:

#1. Being better listeners to both our friends and critics.

If TFA is serious about this promise, then I would ask them to listen to this request:

Use your power as an education policy stakeholder to support schools and teachers, instead of attacking and demeaning them. Your words carry great influence with the decision makers in Washington and our state capitals. Be a positive force for students, teachers and schools.

Show that you understand that teachers' working conditions equal students' learning conditions, and demonstrate that you respect and value career teachers. Stop the attacks on teachers unions, and the promotion of the "testocracy".

Recognize that your recruits, as bright as they may be, are woefully unprepared to take responsibility for classrooms in our nation's schools with a paltry 5 weeks of "training," and consider reframing corps members' commitments as "internships" in which they support the work of certified, qualified master teachers. Encourage your recruits to pursue teacher certification and graduate degrees in education, and to become fully-fledged members of the profession, rather than "edutourists" using their classroom experience as a ticket to Wall Street or Washington, DC.

If TFA really is willing to listen, perhaps their corps members will make "staying in education" mean something again.


Let Them Sing and Dance...

I was out for my morning run today, and as I came around a bend in the road could see two little girls waiting for their bus off in the distance. Oblivious to their surroundings, they were left to their own devices. They could do whatever they wanted to do, with no adults to interfere or give direction.

So what did they do?

They held hands and danced.

They chanted a rhyme.

They sang a song.

And they laughed.

They did these things not because they were bored, or because they didn't know what else to do. They danced and sang because this is how children make sense of their world, and their relationships.

When school boards and administrators take art, music, library, physical education and recess out of the school day, they leave behind an impoverished education for the children for whom they are responsible. 

Every child deserves to be taught these disciplines by a certified, qualified teacher, with adequate supplies, materials and facilities.

The arts are not a frill, a "special", or a "break" for classroom teachers' planning time. They are a critical, integral component of a full and rich educational experience for every child, and a necessary part of the curriculum.

Just ask those two little girls.


The "Silly Season" in Education Reform

So much silliness, so little time. Where to start?

New York's new commissioner of education, MaryEllen Elia, made some curious remarks in an interview with Politico recently, revealing a troubling level of unawareness with respect to the Common Core State Standards, education, schools, learning and children. Let's take a look at what she said...

1. “We’ll make necessary adjustments, but we cannot go backwards,” she said. “Our students need the skills and knowledge the higher standards demand to be successful after they graduate from high school. Change is always difficult, and change takes time, but this change is necessary.”


Teaching to the test and the resultant narrowing of the curriculum is the very definition of "going backwards." If we want to "move forward" then we should let teachers teach and students learn, and stop the incessant testing. This naive belief that "going back to basics" will somehow propel our schools into the future is a dangerous bet that we are playing with our children's futures as the kitty. There is nothing remotely "progressive" about more tests, more retentions, and more punishment. This is not the kind of change that improves anything but the profit margins of the testing companies and charter management groups that stand to cash in from this agenda.

More thermometers don't make the meat cook faster or better.

Standards, in and of themselves, have nothing to do with helping students to be successful. Student success has everything to do with the supports that children receive at home and in their communities, and to how effective we are as a society in addressing the ravages of child poverty that have exploded in too many of our communities in the last 20 years. It is a cruel joke that even as increasing numbers of American children are living below the poverty line, American politicians and corporate reformers float the lie that "higher standards," "more rigorous expectations," and "No Excuses" are the silver bullets that will "fix" our students and schools.

2. “The United States used to lead the world educationally, but we’ve fallen to the middle of the pack. Our students are lagging behind, and the global economy is growing more competitive every day.”

No. No.

American students are not lagging behind. "When results are controlled for the influences of poverty, nearly every international test of student learning shows that American students score at the top of the rankings. For example, when test scores for U..S students on the 2009 Program for International Assessment (PISA) exams were disaggregated by poverty levels, American children from middle– and upper–socioeconomic status families performed

as well or better than students from the top three nations in the rankings: Canada, Finland, and South Korea (Walker 2013a)."

The truth is that US students in suburban schools score at the very top of the PISA tests that these faulty comparisons are inevitably based on. The problem here is poverty, not schools, teachers or students--we know that, and yet ignore addressing poverty in favor of making illogical, ill-advised changes to the curriculum, and insisting on more and more tests, as though that will change anything.

But the larger issue here is the fact that a state commissioner of education is uncritically accepting the myth of "failing schools" and buying in to the corporate reformers' belief that the purpose of education is to make America "globally competitive." 

That's not the goal of education; that's the goal of business. That's not an education goal; that's an economic goal. Since when did the failures of America's business sector become the fault of 3rd grade reading in Michigan or the supposed lack of attention to STEM subjects in American schools? If Ms. Elia is that concerned with the global economy, perhaps she should seek a position in commerce, and leave education to the teachers in NY's classrooms.

3. Elia has partly attributed the rapidly growing testing opt-out movement to a lack of publicly available information on the Common Core. In her effort to reduce the number of students refusing to take the state standardized tests, she has said that parents and the public need to become more involved in the process, because many don’t know what the Common Core is.

No. No. No.

When 68% of citizens in your state believe that they are "very or somewhat familiar with the standards," and huge numbers of parents in your state are opting their children out of state and national tests, your response should not be to attribute their opposition to your agenda to ignorance and a lack of parental involvement. That's not just tone deaf--that's insulting. And ignorant.

Parents and teachers in New York have demonstrated that this agenda of obsessive testing and standards disconnected to practice are not conducive to learning, and last year's 20% opt out rate is likely to be obliterated this year as more and more New Yorkers join the movement to push back against the reform agenda.

It's time for leaders like Ms. Elia to wake up and recognize who they work for: the children, teachers and parents of New York State--not Pearson, the Gates Foundation, and Arne Duncan.

Education is a public trust, and leaders like Ms. Elia need to understand that it is their responsibility to establish that trust. Stop the silliness, support your schools, and get to work.


Its Not *That* the Wind Blows...

One of my favorite comedians is the brilliant Ron White, and one of my favorite "bits" of his is one that has to do with his bitingly funny critique of "storm watchers"--that intrepid breed of daredevils that speeds around the countryside following tornados and hurricanes, disregarding their own safety and well-being for the (dubious) thrill of getting "up close and personal" to extremely dangerous winds and weather systems.


White wonders what these folks are doing when they risk life and limb to careen around in beat-up pick-up trucks in search of dangerous storms, and if they realize the power of the winds they are playing with. The punch-line to the joke goes like this:


"It's not *that* the wind blows; it's *what* the wind blows."

White's point here is that the real danger inherent in a powerful storm is not the wind itself, but the objects that the wind can pick up and blow around with reckless abandon, like cars, trees, and other heavy things. But even relatively innocuous objects, like a sheet of plywood, when propelled with sufficient force, can become instruments of destruction--as evidenced in the photo below of a board of plywood impaling a tree courtesy of Hurricane Andrew...

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Bake Sales, Telethons and DonorsChoose...Oh My!

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Recently, the Entertainment Industry Foundation, the 4 major networks and, a crowd funding website that targets schools and teachers, announced "Think It Up," a nationally-televised "edu-telethon" to be aired live on Friday, Sep. 11 by ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox at 8pm. According to the EIF, the purpose of this strongly STEM-slanted program is to "invite public middle and high school students to work with their teachers to develop projects that draw on their passions and help pursue their educational goals...In collaboration with, the student-powered, teacher-led projects will be crowdfunded by citizen donors beginning September 2015. The projects will entail rigorous skill development that prepares American youth for post-high school life, helping pave the way for career success, regardless of the path." 


Careful readers will notice a few "trigger words" here ("educational goals," "rigor," "career success") that suggest a strong corporate reform agenda may be lurking beneath the surface of this telethon. Indeed, major funders of include the Gates Foundation (the major financial support behind the development and implementation of the Common Core and a host of other education reform initiatives), the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation (a strong supporter of charter schools in the Pacific Northwest), and the Morgridge Family Foundation (a supporter of KIPP).


So, what's the problem? Isn't it a good thing when foundations show their support for education and student learning? What's so wrong with "crowd-sourcing" funds for educational projects and materials during a time of declining school budgets and shrinking resources? Why turn down offers of "assistance" when money is so desperately needed for public education?


Here's the problem: Every time that a foundation "steps up" to make a donation to a public school, the school district is then relieved of its social, legal, moral and ethical responsibilities to provide materials and equipment necessary for the education of our children. Public support for education has long been a given in our country, and we generally have not questioned the need to adequately support our public institutions.

However, in education, we are now seeing public education subverted in many communities on a daily basis, from community programs that send uncertified "teaching artists" into schools that have eliminated their music and art programs, to, a website that provides a portal for teachers to use their own personal resources to purchase teaching materials from other teachers, to increasingly onerous "pay to play" requirements for participation in athletics, music and other school programs. For example, some California high schools have been investigated by the ACLU after charging participation fees ranging from $500 to play in marching band to nearly $1700 for cheerleading fees.

In each instance, these actions serve to redirect sources of school support from public revenues (i.e., tax support) to private donations (from parents and fellow teachers). This shift mirrors the trend in higher education nationally, where public funding for universities has decreased from roughly 70% in 1990 to less than 30% in 2014. According to a report from Demos, "The decreasing affordability of higher education is eroding the last relatively secure path into the middle class, as more students take on larger amounts of debt to finance their higher educations, or forego it altogether. With $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt and climbing, student loan debt is now substantial enough to affect our overall economy as indebted graduates find it harder to buy a home or a car. Not surprisingly, the corporate reform agenda would appear to be propelling K-12 education down a similar path.


So, while I know this “made for TV special” is going to make folks feel all warm and fuzzy as they watch school projects get funded via DonorsChoose donations, it worries me that we seem to be sliding down a slippery slope to a time in which the public doesn't even question the premise of education being funded by telethons instead of our tax dollars.


Let's be clear here: Education is a public trust, not a charity. It deserves to be funded adequately and appropriately, not by bake sales, paper drives and telethons.


Let’s also stop forcing students, teachers and schools to beg for funding by performing like trained seals on TV specials, as though education was some sort of televised Hunger Games, and start supporting our schools adequately, and without making teachers and kids grovel.

"Think It Up" is a spectacle that just illuminates what we as a society value, and what we don’t—and that reflection in the mirror isn't pretty.


It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!!!

Another academic year is upon us, and students, parents and teachers are approaching the beginning of another school year in the "accountability era" with a mix of excitement, anticipation and apprehension. As we ready ourselves for another year in our classrooms, what do we see around us?

  • We have schools that have already been open for weeks, others about to begin, and still others that won't begin classes for several weeks...
  • We have small rural schoolhouses with children in mixed-grade groupings, sprawling suburban schools with Ivy League-worthy campuses and facilities, and historic urban schools in our nation's biggest cities...
  • We have schools with students who have a plethora of learning styles, gifts and challenges, schools with students who speak languages from across the globe, and schools that reflect the richness and diversity of the communities that they represent...
  • We have public schools, private schools, magnet schools, charter schools, independent schools, religious schools, home schools, online and virtual schools, and "schools of choice"...
  • We have schools that offer a traditional curriculum, schools that provide a veritable buffet of AP classes and other advanced offerings, schools with IB curricula, and school consortia that offer vocational education in various areas of interest...
  • We have schools that operate on quarters, semesters, trimesters, year-round and other even more arcane scheduling options...
  • We have schools organized into districts, by counties, and into "corporations;" schools in which the teachers are members of unions, and schools in states where unions do not exist...

There is nothing about these schools--or our students--that is standardized. Schools are not fast-food franchises, engineered for consistency and similarity of "customer experience." The differences in our schools, and among our students, are to be savored, treasured and celebrated, not targeted as "issues", or "problems" to be solved, or "variables" to be accounted for in the construction of a standardized exam. The diversity in our schools is not a "bug", it's a feature.

The goal in education is not for every 4th grade student in the US to be learning the same thing at the same time--"If it's October 17, it must be time to sing "The Itsy Bitsy Spider!"

The goal is for each student to become more fully human, to develop her or his individual strengths, talents and skills in the ways that make sense for each child, and to instill an unquenchable thirst for learning, exploring and questioning the world around them.

Education is not simply about constructing efficient delivery systems for the transfer of information--books and computers can do that. Education is about the building of relationships--between students and teachers, and among learners themselves. And schools, in all of their messy, noisy, confusing chaos, do this spectacularly well.

And yet we keep hearing the same mantra from non-educators that the only way to "keep the schools and teachers accountable" is to leave no child untested. Every reform initiative seemingly ups the ante yet again with more tests, longer tests and harder tests, as if inserting more thermometers will somehow cook the meat better and faster.

The reformers are fond of lecturing us that "the only way we will know how our children are doing in school" is to gather copious amounts of "data" through the administration of an endless array of "end of course," final, summative, high-stakes, rigorous, standardized tests. These reformers seem oblivious to the fact that teachers and parents already know a lot about our students and children:

  • we go to parent nights
  • we attend open houses
  • we go to concerts, plays and science fairs
  • we drop them off and pick them up from soccer games, piano lessons, dance classes, art galleries, and museums
  • we communicate with their teachers, by email, phone and face-to-face
  • we volunteer in their classrooms, marching band parent groups, chorus and orchestra booster clubs, and athletic support groups
  • we chaperone trips with their elementary classes, music ensembles and sports teams, riding buses for hours and hanging out in muddy zoos and nature centers, cold, rainy stadiums, and drafty auditoriums

And, as parents and teachers, we talk to our children and one another. We ask questions about our children and their work in school; are they paying attention? behaving appropriately? doing their best? "getting it"? A standardized test tells us none of those things--it only provides a snapshot of the movie of our children's lives as learners.

So, as we begin another school year, let's keep the focus on the differences in our schools, and among our children, and resist the reformers' urging to standardize their experiences, their learning, and their evaluation. Rather than trying to nationalize our standards, let's work to individualize our standards--with nuance, "feel", and the understanding that each child has a unique background, understandings and abilities. And let's celebrate the uniqueness of each and every one of our children, teachers, schools and communities.

Standardize that.


If You Can't Beat 'Em, Destabilize 'Em!

The typical reform agenda goes something like this: 

We see evidence of this approach in places like New Orleans with its "Recovery School District," and Detroit, where Gov. Snyder's Frankenstein-like "Education Achievement Authority" continues to deprive the students and citizens of local control of their schools. The reformers' tactics are brutal and unforgiving: create a public perception that the schools are failing, the teachers are lazy, the unions are greedy, and the only solutions are to close schools, expand choice, provide vouchers and valorize charters.

However, one of the more subtle, yet damaging, weapons in the reformers' playbook is simultaneously less visible to the uninformed eye and more insidious in its ability to accomplish the reformers' ultimate goal: the destabilization of public education by an intentional, purposeful strategy of near-constant turnover and turmoil in the leadership and teaching force in the schools.

The business world has a name for this practice: creative destruction. It's a term coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter, and "refers to the incessant product and process innovation mechanism by which new production units replace outdated ones." Also referred to as "churn," this business-centered approach to school reform considers students and teachers as "raw materials," and schools as "factories." The goal is maximizing profits, and significant "collateral damage" (i.e., school closings, teacher terminations, student expulsions) is not only acceptable, but expected, in the single-minded pursuit of the reformers' goals.

"Creative destruction" comes in numerous forms in public education, from the year-to-year involuntary reassignment of teachers from one grade level to another, to the practice of having elementary teachers with "all subjects" certifications teach subjects (i.e., music, art, PE) they are unqualified to teach, to moving principals back and forth between schools as though they are pawns in a game of administrative Pong.

An especially egregious example of this sort of intentional destabilization can be seen in the Detroit Public Schools, which has been under state control for most of the previous 15 years  (1999-2005, 2009-2016). Under the Snyder administration, Detroit's schools have suffered from a systematic defunding of facilities and equipment, sub-standard working conditions, safety concerns, drastic curriculum narrowing, and poor teacher morale as a result of the state's takeover. Recent estimates are that fewer than 30% of Detroit's children have access to school music classes, and only 40% have an art teacher. In 2014, Renaissance High School, long considered a bastion of high quality arts programming in the city, suffered devastating cuts to its music program, signaling a troubling trend in priorities from Detroit's educational leaders.

The destructive impact of "churn" in the DPS may be most visible when looking at the district's recent history of administrative leadership.

DPS Emergency Managers

  • Robert Bobb, 2009-11
  • Roy Roberts, 2011-13
  • Jack Martin, 2013-15
  • Darnell Earley, 2015

EAA Chancellors

  • John Covington, 2011
  • Victoria Conforme, 2014

Its hard to understand how a school system can make any sort of sustained progress with a veritable revolving door of administrative transition occurring in the central offices--and this is certainly the case in Detroit: "Under emergency managers Robert Bobb, Roy Roberts and Martin, DPS has shed tens of thousands of students, closed dozens of schools and struggled with persistent deficits...Last fall's (2014) preliminary enrollment was 47,238, less than half of the 96,000 students attending DPS when Bobb was appointed."

It's beyond time to declare Gov. Snyder's approach to education reform in Detroit a resounding failure. The state has had 15 years to "fix" the problems they created through a massive disinvestment of public education in Michigan, and Detroit's children and teachers have paid the price as a seemingly endless parade of highly paid "experts" have failed to turn the ship around.

It's time to turn back control of Detroit's schools to the elected school board (which has been meeting, in exile) and citizens of Detroit, and put an end to this failed experiment in "creative destruction." Fifteen years of "emergency management" have done nothing but damage the futures of a generation of Detroit's youth.

Stop the "churn," Mr. Snyder. Give Detroit's schools back to Detroit.

Why Ben Carson is Right--and Wrong--on Race

Retired neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben Carson, was asked one of the few questions on race at the first GOP Presidential debate last Thursday, and his answer provided a fascinating microcosm of our society's frustrating and challenging understanding--or misunderstanding--of how race impacts the daily lives of so many of our fellow citizens.

Fox News' Megan Kelly asked Dr. Carson what he would do to help race relations in the U.S. if he was elected president. He responded by saying, "I was asked by an NPR reporter once, why don’t I talk about race that often,” he said. “I said it’s because I’m a neurosurgeon. And she thought that was a strange response. And I said, you see, when I take someone into the operating room, I’m actually operating on the thing that makes them who they are. The skin doesn’t make them who they are. The hair doesn't make them who they are. And it's time for us to move beyond that."

Dr. Carson is absolutely right when he says, "...I’m actually operating on the thing that makes them who they are." The essence of who we are, biologically, is not determined by our hair, or eye color, or skin color.

But the issue of "who we are" is far more complicated than just biology. It's determined by how and what we think, by how we treat one another, and by what we believe as human beings. It's determined not by what we are made of, but what we do with what we are, and how we live our lives.

The trouble with Dr. Carson's response is that while surgeons may have this sort of privileged glimpse into "who we are" when they have a patient on the operating table, there are far more instances in which the color of one's skin makes a significant difference in how one is treated. A partial list might include:

Unfortunately for Dr. Carson, even brain surgeons are not immune to noticing the color of one's skin when making determinations about medical treatments. According to a study by researchers in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, "There are significant racial and ethnic disparities" in how patients are treated in emergency rooms when admitted for mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), with minority patients being more likely to receive treatment from a resident rather than a specialist, and less likely to be referred for follow up care after being discharged from the hospital.

It shouldn't take a brain surgeon to understand that while race may be a "social construct," it is still real, and presents actual, tangible challenges, obstacles, and dangers to millions of Americans each and every day. And we should expect all candidates for the highest office in the land to recognize that they have an obligation to address race as more than a "skin deep" issue.


Donald Trump, Sexism and No Heroes

This has been an...interesting week in the world of politics, at both the state and national levels. Here in Michigan, we witnessed the personal and professional self-destruction of two Tea Party legislators, Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, as the result of an ill-conceived plot to conceal their affair by distributing a fake email "outing" Mr. Courser for having "sex with a male prostitute."


At the national level, we witnessed the first GOP debates, one for the runners-up, and the main event featuring the top 10 candidates, both televised on Fox News. Amidst what can only be described as a jaw dropping parade of misogyny, war mongering and regressive policy beliefs, one candidate stood out from the crowd: The Donald. Fox's Megan Kelly called out Mr. Trump for his history of making sexist, misogynistic comments about women: "You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals...Does that sound like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?” Kelly concluded by asking how Trump would combat inevitable charges from Hillary Clinton that he is part of the “war on women.” 


Mr. Trump's response was a textbook example of "mansplaining," and a graduate level demonstration of how wealthy, powerful men have been dismissing claims of sexism for centuries. Not content to disrespect Ms. Kelly, her question or the millions of women watching the debate, Mr. Trump then turned to Twitter in the early morning hours after the debate to double-down on his attacks on Ms. Kelly, impugning her professionalism and even re-Tweeting a comment referring to her as a "bimbo." All of this was carried out under cover of one of the favorite defenses of the privileged when held accountable for their words or actions: political correctness run amok. According to Mr. Trump, "I don't have time for political correctness and neither does this country!" 


The backlash against Mr. Trump has been both swift and predictable, with caustic comments from the other Republican candidates about his remarks and an indignant dis-invitation to a RedState event this weekend from conservative king-maker, and former Fox News host, Erick Erickson.


But before we start congratulating ourselves about the societal response to Mr. Trump's behavior, let's be clear here: There are no heroes in the Donald Trump story...


The Donald is a misogynistic, sexist creep. And there is ample evidence to support Ms. Kelly's asking of her question...


...however, Megyn Kelly herself has a long history of insensitive remarks about racial and ethnic minorities, and dismissing violence against black men. None of which means that the criticism of Mr. Trump is not without merit, and that he shouldn't be held accountable for his comments. Except for the fact that...


...Erick Erickson, the person who disinvited Trump from the RedState event for his remarks about Kelly, has a troubling history himself of making extremely disparaging remarks about women--and doesn't appear to recognize the hypocrisy in these inconsistencies.


No heroes.


And while it may seem on the surface as though the self-inflicted problems besetting both Reps. Courser and Gamrat, and Mr. Trump, are unrelated, there is a common thread connecting these incidents. At their core, all of these "controversies" are about narcissism--the act of caring more about oneself than anyone else. Which is also at the root of many of the conservative beliefs on political and social issues that these folks hold:

  • Their concerns about women's reproductive health choices are not about what women want for their own bodies and lives--they are about what they themselves believe is right or true.
  • Their concerns about same-sex marriage are not about what's right for those who want to build a life with the partner of their choice--they are about what they themselves believe others should do when it comes to their sexual orientations.
  • Their beliefs about public education are not about what is best for children, schools or society--they are about what they themselves believe is the best way to "use" education to advance their own beliefs and to generate profits for themselves and their wealthy benefactors and investors.
  • Their beliefs about taxes are not about what government should do for society, or for those in need--they are about how they can guarantee that they themselves will pay as little as possible for anything that does not directly benefit their own goals or interests.

I could not care less about Mr. Courser and Ms. Gamrat's affair, or Mr. Trump's sexism. These are the concerns and beliefs that disgust me. 


The Ronnies!: Republican Debate Awards

The 2015 Republican Debate
The 2015 Republican Debate


As a self-avowed policy wonk and political junkie (don't judge me!), I forced myself to watch every minute of the two Republican presidential candidate debates last night--both the undercard, or "kids table" debate at 5pm, and the “grown up" show at 9pm...or 8:50pm, or whenever that debacle was actually supposed to air. So, in the interest of promoting democracy, or subverting sanity, here are my 2015 "Ronnies!," named after Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the Republican Party, who was mentioned no less than 1000 times, seemingly, last night by the assembled throngs on the Cleveland stage. Without further ado...

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What Teach for America Truly Values

[Note: All information in this post, unless otherwise cited, was drawn from Mercedes Schneider's excellent blog post, Teach for America Seeks Help Promoting Itself on Capitol Hill.]

Recently, Teach for America posted a vacancy for the Director of their Government Affairs operations in Washington, DC. Interestingly, the job announcement includes the following information about the experience required for this position: "At least 7 years of work experience, with at least three years experience on Capitol Hill", and "Salary for this position is competitive and depends on prior experience."

As reported by Mercedes Schneider, the former occupant of this office had been a TFA alum who "started in TFA with two years in the classroom in DC; became a “school operations manager” for five months, then moved on to legislative assistant for 13 months before becoming TFA’s director of government affairs for 27 months."


Clearly, TFA realized that experience in the areas of expertise required to be successful in the job were important considerations in the search process, and made sure that the job description reflected this understanding. Good for them. Just as I prefer that my airline pilot, or surgeon, or barista has extensive experience at flying, operating or drawing a cappuccino before they do these things for me, we should all expect that persons with more experience are capable of better performance at their jobs than those with little or no experience, at least initially...


...which--as I've pointed out previously here, here, and here, makes TFA's business model--of placing young college grads with no coursework in education, or teaching experience, in front of classrooms all across the United States, often in the most challenging teaching and learning settings imaginable--all the more problematic.


So, in the spirit of helping our friends at TFA, an education "non-profit" with assets of nearly half a billion dollars, refocus their values, here are a few questions:


Perhaps its time for TFA to update their mission statement from this:

Our mission is to enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation's most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.


 to this:


Our mission is to lobby, pressure and persuade as many as possible of our nation's most powerful political leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational privatization and profit.


Because, based on what your organization actually says and does, this is what you truly value.



An Achievement School District Primer

"Achievement School Districts" are a recent phenomenon in the corporate education reform movement. These "school districts" are designed to guarantee "rapid improvement in the state’s low performing schools", although specific methods, techniques and strategies to accomplish this goal are rarely mentioned. ASDs have sprung up all across the nation, under various names and guises, from the "Education Achievement Authority" in Detroit, to the "Recovery School District" in New Orleans, to "Achievement School Districts" in Tennessee and Nevada--and Georgia and North Carolina have recently announced plans to form their own ASDs. These experimental school systems usually target the "bottom 5%" of low-performing schools in a state or region for governmental takeover, with the promise of quickly improving student learning.


The one thing all of these experiments have in common is that they've been crashing failures. In spite of incredible amounts of publicity, spin and hoopla, not one of these educational petri dishes has resulted in any appreciable improvement in student learning, accountability, or curricular reform.

An Achievement School District Primer


How do you know if your state is considering creating an Achievement School District? Well, Achievement School Districts are characterized by several traits, none of which makes even the tiniest amount of sense in terms of helping to improve student learning or teaching quality:


School Funding

In other words, in spite of the probability that an ASD school has been chronically underfunded for years, perhaps decades, the state will now take its own cut from whatever local, state and federal funding the school may be receiving for administrative overhead, further decreasing the actual number of dollars that are going to classrooms, teachers and children.


Local Control


  • Even though it is often trumpeted as an integral aspect of effective school governance, very few ASDs follow their own propaganda when it comes to transparency in reporting. Detroit's EAA is an especially notorious offender in this respect, making claims that do not stand even the faintest amounts of scrutiny. According to Wayne State professor of education Thomas Pedroni, the EAA's "internal data directly contradicts their MEAP data. Even Scantron, the maker of the internal assessment, would not stand behind the EAA's growth claims. And Veronica Conforme, the current EAA Chancellor, removed all the dishonest growth claims from their advertising and their website, and told me personally she doesn't give them credence for the purpose the EAA used them for." For more from Dr. Pedroni on the EAA's specious relationship with transparency, see this, and this.

Punitive vs. Educative Methods

This approach follows guidelines first established in the No Child Left Behind legislation, which stipulate draconian changes for any school that fails to meet yearly progress within five years:

These school districts must implement plans to restructure the school. Options for restructuring include:

This thinking represents a sea change in terms of strategy with respect to schooling and education policy. Never in our nation's history have we taken a punitive approach rather than an educative approach when schools or children have struggled with demonstrating expected levels of progress.


When students experience difficulties in learning we respond by providing remediation, extra tutoring, or alternative teaching strategies--we don't kick them out of school. By the same token, when under-funded and under-resourced public schools do not show "adequate yearly progress," our response should be to find out why these schools are struggling, and provide them with the materials and support they need to improve--not for the charter management companies that run these schools to walk away before the end of the school year, forcing families to scramble to get their kids placed into public schools with little notice and no assistance.


Public education is far too important to treat it like a science experiment, with fuzzy methodology and uncertain results. Our children deserve schools that are adequately funded, controlled by locally elected school boards made up of persons with ties to the community and a vested interest in the success of their schools, transparency in reporting of school finances and learning outcomes, and that are founded and administrated with educative goals in mind, not punitive ones.


It's time to demand the return of our schools and our children from Achievement School Districts and the forces of school privatization. Education is not a business, and our children aren't widgets.

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Reformer Myth #27: It's not all about the kids...

It's a common refrain among the reformer Illuminati whenever they experience any push-back against their anti-teacher, anti-union, anti-public education, anti-motherhood-apple-pie-and-hot-dogs agenda. You can bet your bottom privatization dollar that as soon as these edu-tourists hear any reasonable, evidence-based rationale refuting their radical positions on teacher evaluation, tenure or the use of Value-Added Measures, they will inevitably blurt out the one magic incantation they believe will repel all attacks, confident in its power to tug at the heartstrings of any parent/voter: "But, it's all about the kids!"


(Let's leave aside the notion for the moment that this well-funded clique of hedge fund managers, investment bankers and failed morning show hosts suddenly cares about kids after spending their entire adult lives making backroom deals and raiding pension funds. There is obvious power in this spell, which is designed to cut through logic and reason, and appeal directly to the most primal instincts of any parent.)


The truth is that education and schools are not, and should not be, all about the kids. If we truly want our schools to be healthy, highly-functional institutions, then every member of the school community must be treated with honor, dignity and respect. This includes adults as well as children.


It means that every person who works in the school--from teachers to principals, from custodians to secretaries, from bus drivers to cafeteria workers, from nurses to counselors, from students to parents--deserves to work and learn in an environment where they feel trusted and valued.


It means that the working conditions of teachers cannot be separated from the learning conditions of students, and that when one member of the community is devalued there is a devastating ripple effect across the rest of the community.


It also means that as teachers, we need to stop romanticizing our profession. We can start by not referring to teaching as a "calling," as though we are clergy or missionaries. We can also stop using hackneyed phrases such as "Teaching. I'm not in it for the income; I'm in it for the outcomes," or other meme-worthy sayings that imply that teachers don't need to be compensated fairly, or don't require adequate benefit packages, like health care insurance and pensions.


When we talk about our profession in these ways we play right into the reformer's game plan, which is to degrade and dehumanize the teaching force as mere delivery systems for test prep materials and canned curricula. If we don't value ourselves as dedicated, committed, well-educated professionals with deep subject matter expertise and rich pedagogical abilities and understandings, then why be surprised when the reformers suggest that veteran teachers can be replaced with uncertified, unqualified Teach for America recruits bolstered by a mere 5 week summer boot camp's worth of "training"?


The truth is that teaching is not a "calling," or a "mission"--it's a job, and a darned hard one at that. Those who choose this profession do so because they are deeply committed to the education of all children, and they demonstrate this commitment by doing their jobs under often difficult conditions, and while under nearly constant attack from the reformers, the media and the public. Teachers deserve to be treated with respect, paid fairly, and trusted to do their jobs without the threat of invalid and unreliable "accountability measures" imposed by persons who have never set foot in a school classroom. If we as a society really value our children's education as much as we say we do, then we need to treat teachers as equal partners in our children's education, and stop pretending that "it's all about the kids," because "it's" not.

The diversity statement of the University of Chicago Lab School, founded by American progressive educator and philosopher John Dewey, says it best: "Whether parents, faculty, administrators, or staff, members can expect to receive respect and to extend respect to others. Only when our community functions in a healthy manner can we provide a beneficial environment for our students."


And only when we start treating teachers with honor, dignity and respect will we get the schools that our children, and our society, deserve.



[Thanks to the students in MUS863: Seminar in the Sociology of Music Education from the Michigan State University College of Music's Summer Masters Degree Program for the inspiration for this post. Our profession is in excellent hands.]


The One About Data, Numbers and Truth

Much has been made by the corporate reform community about how poorly American students do on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. According to the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development, which administers the exams, "the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 27th. Performance in reading and science are both close to the OECD average. The United States ranks 17 in reading...and 20 in science." Now, if these were "apples to apples" comparisons, we would be well advised to be concerned. But they aren't; and the reformers know it, don't care, and are more than willing to use this misleading data to advance their agenda.

What the reformers don't share--because it would not support their agenda of failing schools, bad teachers, disengaged students, uninvested parents, and greedy unions--is that more American students take these exams than do students in other countries, and that US students from schools with low rates of poverty do extremely well--better than students in most other countries.

(An important caveat here: I don’t think that test scores are a terribly meaningful way to assess what students know and can do, but it’s the data we are used to seeing. The idea that we need standardized test results to tell us what our children know is one of the biggest lies told by the reformers. Teachers know a LOT about our students: we know their strengths and weaknesses, we know about their siblings and families, we know when they are in trouble, and we know what they are thinking and feeling. Only persons who have never taught would believe that we need standardized test scores to let us know how our students are doing. The truth is that these test scores are among the LEAST meaningful things we know about our students, and no amount of hype and reformer drama is going to change that.)

The issue here is that the PISA test scores are usually not disaggregated--that is, the scores are not parsed out by poverty rates, but instead are all lumped together. Many in the corporate reform community are fond of reporting these international scores without sharing the fact that US poverty rates are nearly 30%, while countries like Finland are at 5% or less.

There is a strong correlation (not causation) between SES and test scores (and zip code and test scores, for that matter)--which is not to say that wealthy kids are smarter than poor kids. They aren't. Its just that kids with more financial resources have more opportunities and advantages than their less -advantaged peers. 

It's important to be clear when reporting these stats: US schools are not "failing," and in fact, when we provide our kids and schools with adequate resources they "compete globally" just fine (although that is not our goal as teachers). It's also important to remember that less than 7% of the differences in student learning are attributable to in-school factors, such as teacher quality--with more than 90% of the difference being a function of out-of-school factors, like test prep tutors, private music lessons and the resources to purchase instruments, after school sports, and access to travel, concerts, books, and movies. The reformers like to say that these things don't matter, but teachers know that they do--and we want nothing more than for all of our students to have access to schools with rich and vibrant music and art programs, athletics,  school nurses, librarians, psychologists and counselors, and all of the other advantages their peers in the suburbs enjoy and from which they benefit.

Here's the Truth...

So, the next time that someone tells you that American students are not "competing globally," and that our "failing schools" are a threat to our national defense, our economy, and our very future as a nation, please share these disaggregated stats from the most recent PISA tests. Because when we look at US students from schools with free or reduced lunch rates lower than 10%, here’s how American kids do—for comparison’s sake, Finland’s rankings are also included:

Science literacy

U.S. schools with less than 10% free/reduced – score=556 [1st in the world]

Finland – ranked 4th in the world

Reading literacy

U.S. schools with less than 10% free/reduced – score=559 [1st in the world]

Finland – ranked 5th in the world

Mathematics literacy

U.S. schools with less than 10% free/reduced – score=540 [5th in the world]

FInland – ranked 11th in the world

Then, do what my students would do, and…<drops the mic>


The One about "Global Competitiveness" and What we Truly Want for our Children

Education reformers have been very clear about their goals for American schools and students. Authors like C. M. Rubin have called for parents to vote for the presidential candidate "who has the most impactful 21st-century vision for education, because addressing our issues now is essential for the U.S. to maintain its prosperity and global leadership in the next decades." Neera Tanden and Matt James raise the specter of 200 million Chinese college grads by 2030 competing in the global marketplace, and compare education to Olympic medal counts in their analysis of global education trends. But few of these pundits ever ask parents what they want for their children, so as the father of 2 school age boys I'm taking the liberty to share my thoughts on the subject.

Here is what I don't want with respect to my kids' education:

I don't want my children to be "globally competitive"--that's nothing more than Cold War fear mongering. Having recently returned from Shanghai, I can report that the Chinese educators I had the pleasure of working with were very interested in American educational strategies and ideas, and not for reasons of "global competitiveness." They seemed honestly interested in how what we do as teachers was the same or different from their approaches to teaching and learning, wanted to know how US teachers were prepared in colleges and universities, and were eager to share their traditions and ideas with us.

I'm not interested in an educational approach that is targeted on producing "college and career ready" graduates. My boys are 12 and 14. We hope they attend college, choose a major they are passionate about, and find a way to apply their talents and abilities in jobs that they enjoy and that make a strong contribution to their community and society in general. But that's not the purpose of education. Education is not "job training". Its so much more, and limiting the creativity and wonder of learning to college and career readiness is a perversion of the true purpose and value of education. The reformers have a very narrow, impoverished notion of education as nothing more than a banking transaction, in which teachers make deposits and students withdrawals. Its little wonder that their approach to schooling is erasing the joy of learning for students and teachers in far too many of our schools today.

And, I don't want an increasing bevy of tests consuming ever larger swaths of time and energy in my children's education. The truth is that we are measuring the things that are easy to measure, and ignoring the things that really matter--relationships between teachers and students, and among students themselves.

Here's what I do want for my children's education, and for education in general:

I want my children to read for enjoyment, play an instrument and sing, draw, dance, play, think, feel and be kind.

I want schools to be richly diverse, noisy, messy places full of discovery, where instead of worrying about a stifling regimen of tests, children are encouraged to explore, ponder, experiment and create.

I want rich arts programs, nurses, psychologists, counselors and librarians in every school, to make sure that no child comes to or leaves school hungry, and for schools to be places where every child and adult is treated with dignity and respect.

I want my children's teachers to be free to create their own lessons, and work collaboratively with their colleagues in a climate of trust and mutual respect with their administrators, school board members and parents.

I want those teachers to be evaluated based on the work they do in the classroom with their students, not on standardized test scores in subjects they don't teach, from students they've never met.

I want those teachers to be well prepared, and fully certified in their subject area with a semester or more of internship experience before being entrusted with their own classroom.

I want all children to be taught by persons who care about their growth and development as full human beings, not about their test scores.

As a parent, I have a message for the reformers: Stay out of public education and stop obfuscating parents and community members with distracting propaganda like "global competition" and "college and career readiness", which is only designed to further the false rhetoric of "failing schools". The vast majority of public schools are wonderful, and our children's teachers are doing what can only be described as heroic work under very difficult conditions.

And let's stop using "competition" as a solution for the problems that have been caused by..."competition."


The One about Peter Cunningham, Education Post and Spin...

John Oliver's recent takedown of standardized testing has met with near-universal praise, and deservedly so. It was a brilliant, thoughtful and bitingly funny analysis of the fatal flaws in the testing business, and was clearly based on extensive research and investigation. There has, however, been one lonely outpost of denial with respect to Mr. Oliver's piece: the intrepid externs at Education Post, and their fearless leader, Peter Cunningham.

Mr. Cunningham is from the long lineage of education leaders who have no degrees in education, have never taught and have zero experience in education outside of decision making and check cashing. By last count, about $12 million of that, as he points out in a recent EduShyster interview:

Cunningham: We hire bloggers and we subsidize bloggers who are already out there and who we want to support or give more lift. I think it’s fine. As you know, I have all this money. I have to spend it.

Mr. Cunningham, using generous donations from the Broad and Walton foundations, among others, has attempted to carve himself a niche as a "reasonable reformer," advocating for a more civil dialogue around the issues he believes are at the core of the reform debate. His agenda is based on 3 "Issues" that form the core of his beliefs about education reform:

1. High Standards for All Students: Is my child learning what is needed to be successful?

Even if our kids are coming home with straight “A”s, how do we really know if they’re learning what they need to succeed in college, in career, and in life?  One teacher’s “A” could be another teacher’s “C”.

We need to have clear and consistent standards for what our kids should be learning.

That is the thinking behind the Common Core — a common set of high learning standards for kids.

As you can see, Mr. Cunningham is a big Common Core booster. He also seems to believe that standardized tests are the only way we will "know if they’re learning what they need to succeed in college, in career, and in life"--which makes sense if you remember that he never taught, so he must not be aware of portfolios, formative assessments, playing checks, demonstrations, essays, poems, term papers, quizzes, drawings, dances, improvisations, compositions, science experiments, interviews, observations, and hundreds of other assessment tools that tell us what students know and can do in rich, meaningful ways.

His essay flagellating Mr. Oliver also uses florid imagery (Oliver throws poor kids under the bus) to defend the Common Core and standardized tests under a cloak of faux-racist indignation, as though more and harder tests will provide the magic solution to lifting poor kids out of poverty. Mr. Cunningham also makes outlandish accusations that exaggerate his importance in the grand scheme of American education:

We know these things because we force the educational bureaucracy to test kids, publish results and take action. Until we demanded real accountability, many states, with a few exceptions, simply ignored these kids.

For a person who has never taught, and holds no elected office, that's a pretty gaudy resume. Mr. Cunningham seems to believe he has the power to "force" schools to test students according to his demands, and to enforce accountability on the unruly masses. To listen to Mr. Cunningham, before he came to the rescue no one in education ever thought to assess students' learning--and in fact, we were simply warehousing children with no thought of their futures. This is beyond arrogant--its delusional; and the fact that wealthy benefactors are subsidizing these beliefs should give us all pause.

The facts are that teachers know how to assess their students, and have been doing so very well for a long time. This recent obsession with standardized tests adds nothing to our arsenal of measurement tools that will help achieve the primary goal of any form of meaningful assessment: to improve instruction. Standardized test results present only a gross measurement of student progress, and usually are returned to teachers far too late to be of any real assistance in adjusting lesson plans or assignments. Those that depend on tests as a useful tool are placing all of their eggs in a torn and broken basket.

2. Taking Responsibility: We have a responsibility to set a high bar for every child, regardless of the challenges the child may face, and provide the teaching and support each child needs to meet those expectations. That’s the promise of public education and the right of every child.

We have a responsibility to set a high bar for every teacher. The teacher has the most direct impact on a child’s success in the classroom.

Accountability means holding everyone with responsibilities to high standards of districts and states, principals, teachers and parents.
We need tests. They are one way to answer the question: Is my child learning?

We do have a responsibility to every child, but it is not to set an arbitrary "high bar"--its to use authentic, teacher-designed assessment to determine where kids are developmentally, and design a course of study to move them further along in the learning process. Our standards don't need to be the same for every child--in fact, they shouldn't be. Each child is different, with different needs, desires and strengths. Pretending they are all the same is not only naive, but dangerous. If we think it makes sense to differentiate instruction, then why is it smart to standardize assessment?

Mr. Cunningham then goes on to repeat another tired saw of the reformer play book--that teachers are the most important factors with respect in-school learning. What he conveniently leaves out of his rhetoric is that teachers impact only between 1-14% of the differences in student learning--the rest is dependent on out-of-school factors, mostly having to do with SES. Ignoring this fact brings Mr. Cunningham into lock-step with the rest of the "No Excuses" crowd, like Michelle Rhee and Wendy Kopp--hardly "reasonable reformers."

Mr. Cunningham then returns to his favorite talking point: WE NEED TESTS! Try as I might, I could find no mention of any other form of assessment on the Ed Post web site--so while Mr. Cunningham proclaims that he "gets it" about multiple forms of assessment, you'd be hard pressed to find evidence of that anywhere on the site.

3. High-Quality Charter Schools: Public-school choice is an essential part of unlocking that door. Education is not one size fits all; children have different learning styles, and we need to provide all of our families with a range of high-quality public schools and empower them to find the right fit for their child.

High-quality charter schools help empower families.

Across the country, there are thousands of charter schools that are changing the lives of children, particularly in communities that have for decades suffered from a lack of high-quality educational opportunities.

For a "new reformer," Mr. Cunningham's talking points sound awfully familiar: charter schools are the answer! Except when they're not. The research on the success of charter schools is far from conclusive, and most of the evidence points to regular public schools doing a better job in terms of performance, access, and working with kids with special needs. Clearly, charter schools are not "the answer," yet it is all Mr. Cunningham seems able to muster as a solution. Interestingly, Mr. Cunningham never uses the term "charter schools" without tagging on "high quality"--which usually means highly selective (i.e., lottery based admission) and leads to problems with expulsion of special learners (see: Heritage Academies).

School choice is an experiment that we have seen fail time and time again (Milwaukee, New Orleans, Michigan), and yet the reformers continue beating the same old drum. Charters will never serve more than a small, selective fragment of the school population, even as they siphon billions from public school coffers and exacerbate the impact of income inequality on America's youth.

A far better solution is to call a halt to the charter expansion explosion and refocus our energies and attention on supporting and maintaining our system of regular public schools, making sure that all children have access to a great school in their own community. As comedian D. L. Hughly pointed out to neocon Dan Señor on Real Time recently,

Why do I have to leave where I came from to go to a school that is not in my neighborhood?

It says everything about where I am from is horrible.

Why is everything better where I am not?

"School choice" is a false choice. No parent should have to move their child to a "safe" school, or feel that they have to play the lottery to get their son or daughter a quality education. Mr. Cunningham's policies are making it harder for regular public schools to offer quality programs in safe, well-maintained facilities as increasing levels of resources are diverted to charter and private schools under the twin guises of "school choice" and "accountability."

Let's be clear: there is nothing "reasonable" about Mr. Cunningham's agenda of more tests, more accountability for teachers and schools, and more charter schools. Its the same old reformers' mantra, repackaged with a nicer smile, and tepid requests for civility. But the end game is the same: punish students and teachers, use data inappropriately, and turn the public schools into private profit centers.

And Mr. Cunningham has 12 million reasons to be "reasonable."


The One about Rick Snyder's Two Detroits...

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced his plan to "fix" Detroit's schools today. Here's a cogent analysis of the broad strokes of his plan, according to my brilliant friend, Nancy Osborne:

Take away schools from the Voters. They will have no say. Stick the elected School Board (the Black People) with the debt...even though they had a positive fund balance before Lansing (the White People) appointed a succession of Emergency Managers who financially crashed the district over a 15 year period. In addition, Snyder's plan will create 3 new layers of bureaucracy. Give free busing to charter school parents no matter how far the children live from their for-profit schools. And this is just the broad outline. I'm sure there's plenty of mischief in the details.

In response, hundreds of Detroit's teachers voiced their displeasure, and the resulting shortage of teachers and subs caused many DPS schools to shut down for the day. Here’s the statement from DPS Emergency Manager Darnell Earley: ”Detroit Public Schools' sole focus and goal is the education of the more than 47,000 students whose education it has been entrusted with by their families. That focus and goal should be shared by all DPS employees. While we can agree to disagree on matters of policy, those disagreements should never impact our students and the instructional time they are entitled to as it has today - with 17 schools having been closed due to lack of teachers and other instructional staff. This unplanned turn of events is seriously misguided and directly harms our students - taking away a day in the classroom that students can ill-afford given the school days already missed due to our severe weather this past winter. It is truly unfortunate that so many of those who profess to be dedicated educators have decided to participate in this action given its unjustifiable and unconscionable consequence."


A couple of thoughts...

1. With all due respect to Mr. Earley, there’s a lot more to running a school district than just educating children. Believe me, every teacher wishes it were that simple. As lovely as it sounds, the kids can not ever be the “sole focus”—those entrusted with running our public schools also need to treat all school employees, from teachers to custodians, from secretaries to cafeteria workers, with dignity and respect. Snyder’s plan does none of this, so the teachers have not just the right, but the responsibility to protest.

2. I'd be a lot more inclined to listen to Mr. Earley's diatribe if he had voiced similar concerns when the recent M-STEP tests created massive problems with school schedules and instructional time--but I don't recall him ever making a peep about these interruptions. Methinks thou dost protest too much, Mr. Emergency Manager...


3. Mr. Earley and the governor are not just "agreeing to disagree" with Detroit's teachers and the teacher union--they are actively working to destroy the Detroit Public Schools, crush the teachers union, and de-professionalize teaching as a profession. Expecting DPS teachers to sit politely on the sideline so as not to upset the apple cart while the Governor and his colleagues dismantle public education in Detroit is not only naive--its insulting.

4. Mr. Earley's disingenuous attempt to cast Detroit's teachers as the "bad guys" in this dispute ("It is truly unfortunate that so many of those who profess to be dedicated educators have decided to participate in this action given its unjustifiable and unconscionable consequence") is not only smarmy and laughable, its not how leaders are supposed to behave. When one becomes a teacher, one does not forfeit one's rights as a citizen.


What is truly unfortunate about this whole situation is the complete and utter lack of understanding on the part of the Governor and the Emergency Manager about the value and importance of public education to Michigan's largest city. Instead of robbing public schools to pay his wealthy friends in the charter "industry", its high time for Gov. Snyder to show that he understands that as goes Detroit, so goes Michigan--and that he was elected to be the Governor of all of Michigan's citizens, not just the rich ones.


The One about Two Schools 20 Miles and Worlds Apart...

I spent the day observing two student teachers. Both were teaching instrumental music in middle and high schools, and each was assigned to an experienced, master teacher. But that's where the similarities end...

One of the student teachers was placed in an urban school and the other in a rural school. The differences between these two schools were stark, and illustrative of the disparities in how our society treats children based on their socioeconomic status. 

Upon entering the urban school, I was immediately struck by how quiet it was. The hallways were eerily empty, with none of the typical hallway chatter and vibrancy of excited students making their way from class to class. The corridors were dark and gloomy, with the walls and lockers looking badly beat up and in need of a fresh coat or two of paint. A quick trip to the men's restroom revealed a dirty, broken mirror, no soap, and a single roll of paper towels propped up on the edge of a cracked porcelain sink with a leaky faucet. The restroom, like the halls and classrooms, hadn't been cleaned in a long time.

Less than an hour later I found myself 20 miles away in a bustling school with busy hallways flooded with natural light, brightly painted walls and lockers, and large classrooms with freshly vacuumed, plush carpeting. The restroom was spotlessly clean, and fully stocked with soap dispensers, paper towels and hot air hand dryers.

While the contrasts between these schools could not have been more clear, the students in each building were amazingly similar. Both bands were beautifully behaved, engaged and enthusiastic. Each group of musicians entered their respective band room, got their instruments out of their cases, and began warming up for rehearsal. It was only upon closer examination and discussion that the differences between these two settings became more readily apparent:

  1. In the rural school, every child had their own instrument, and kids who played large instruments like the tuba had one school-owned instrument to play at school, and another instrument for home practice; in the urban school, some instruments were shared among multiple students during the day, and no students had school-owned instruments at home.
  2. All of the instruments in the rural school were in good playing condition, and when repairs are required there is a school budget and an established repair procedure in place; the teacher in the urban school was busy re-padding a clarinet when I entered the band room, and shared that she spends over $1000 out-of-pocket per year on instrument repairs and equipment replacement--there is virtually no school budget for these things.
  3. Most of the students in the rural school's high school band had been playing their instruments since 5th grade, and had lived in that community their entire lives. The 112-piece band played advanced repertoire, had a full instrumentation, and many of the band's alumni went on to participate in music ensembles in college after graduation; the urban school's band program had been decimated by the elimination of the district's elementary music program the previous year, and as a result there were only 15 students in the ensemble. Due to the transient nature of the school's population, students who had been playing their instruments for several years were sitting next to kids who had just started playing two weeks previously, making for a very challenging learning environment for students and teachers alike.

Driving home at the end of the day, I couldn't help but wonder how different things would be if all of these children, both rural and urban, had the same advantages at school--clean, safe and adequate facilities; high-quality instruments in good working condition; vibrant, attractive surroundings conducive to learning.

I wondered what a student from the urban school would think if she spent a day at the rural school, in a bright, spacious and well-maintained environment. Would she feel angry, knowing that her peers in the rural school district had advantages that were denied her?

And I wondered what it says about us as a society that we allow some of our children to spend their school days in squalid conditions that make learning more difficult, while their peers in more affluent communities enjoy advantages that help prepare them for success.


The One about Bullying, Threats and Arne Duncan...

The Secretary of State is supposed to be the nation's top diplomat.

The Attorney General is supposed to be the nation's top lawyer.

The Surgeon General is supposed to be the nation's top physician.

So why is Arne Duncan, the nation's Secretary of Education, behaving more like a schoolyard bully than like the nation's top teacher?

In the face of unprecedented opposition to his administration's program of standardized testing, with nearly 200,000 parents in New York State alone opting their children out of standardized tests that they perceive as not only unhelpful, but downright damaging, Sec. Duncan went on the offensive Tuesday, promising that if the states wouldn't force those children to take his tests, then he would:

"'We think most states will do that,' Duncan told an Education Writers Association conference in Chicago, according to Chalkbeat New York. 'If states don’t do that, then we [the federal government] have an obligation to step in.'

Duncan didn’t elaborate on what the federal intervention might look like. It could, however, involve labeling districts with too many opt-outs as “failing,” a status that places restrictions on how schools use federal money. This would in turn pressure state government and school districts to roll back parental opt-out rights.

Duncan went on to say: 'Folks in the civil rights community, folks in the disability community, they want their kids being assessed. They want to know if they are making progress or growth,' Duncan said."

First, everyone should be considered a part of the "civil rights community" and the "disability community," as these communities are made up of those who support civil rights and those with disabilities. The fact that Sec. Duncan is so clearly trying to "divide and conquer" is at best a very clumsy strategy, and at worst an obvious attempt to bully folks into feeling guilty or like bad parents for opting out.

Second, no teacher needs yearly standardized tests to know if their students are "making progress or growth." Just as parents don't need these tests to know if their children are growing. The people that teach and love these children are well aware of what they are learning, what challenges and successes they are encountering, and what strategies will work best to help them continue to grow and learn. Let's not pretend that a once-per-year multiple choice test will somehow magically provide some special sauce that will reveal what kids know and are able to do.

Finally, if this many parents are angry enough to opt their kids out of these tests in the first place, just how ticked off do you think they will be when the Sec. of Education threatens to force their kids to actually take the tests?

And, Mr. Duncan--have you ever really tried to force a child to take a test? I had a tough time getting my then 4 year old to put on his mittens in the morning. Good luck with that.

What Sec. Duncan doesn't seem to know--because he was never a teacher himself--is that the testing movement depends on the goodwill of the teachers and students involved. Without getting "buy-in" from teachers, parents and students there is no way this thing is going to fly. Let's say that Mr. Duncan "succeeds" in getting every child in the nation to actually sit down and take his tests. Does he really think that no child will look at those blank rows of bubbles begging to be drawn on and not start filling them out in the shape of a tree, or just color in every bubble on the sheet? And to think that these tests are supposed to be used to make high stakes decisions on whether teachers keep their jobs or not. No wonder that the American Statistical Association is on record as saying that Value Added Measures, a statistical approach that uses test scores to come up with building-level scores, is an inappropriate and invalid use of standardized tests.

The way to "fix" this problem is not by playing the heavy and threatening to force these tests on unwilling children and teachers. It's to listen to the opinions of those who have legitimate objections to these tests, and implement thoughtful reforms, such as...

  • limiting standardized testing to one time in grades 3-6, one time in middle school, and one time toward the end of high school
  • ensuring that test results will be shared with teachers so they can use them to improve instruction
  • guaranteeing that test scores will not be used to evaluate teachers--which these tests are incapable of doing with any degree of accuracy

So, Mr. Duncan, instead of posturing and threatening punishments, why don't you try doing what a real education leader would do--listen carefully to dissenting opinions, work together with your colleagues in the schools, and develop a better testing model that actually helps teachers teach and helps students learn?


The One about Silencing Teachers, Retribution and the Smell of Fear from the Reformers...

I received the note below from a former student who is now a teacher. For obvious reasons, I won't identify her or where she teaches, but--shockingly--her story is becoming all too common...

"We had a union meeting yesterday where they warned us that the governor is going after the certificates of teachers that opted out their kids (of the state tests). The governor says it breaks our contract agreeing to protect and follow educational laws. Is this legal? Teachers are being targeted and warned to be extremely careful, especially on public media. I was just curious on your thoughts."

This theme of administrators and elected officials threatening teachers if they speak out publicly against tests, the Common Core State Standards, or other education policies seems to be growing stronger and louder recently, with reports of similar stories popping up in New Mexico (, Louisiana (, New York (, Arizona (, Missouri (, and Michigan (

In Rochester, NY, an email from an administrator to the city's principals asked them to keep a list of teachers who might have shared information on testing for possible disciplinary action:

"An email sent from a high-level Rochester City School District official to principals is causing concern among teachers.

Chief of Schools Beverly Burrell-Moore sent the email Monday afternoon to principals she supervises. The email asks them to share names of teachers who have encouraged parents to refuse to allow their children to take state exams. 

"Per your building, please identify teachers who have sent letters or made phone calls to parents encouraging them to opt out their children from the NYS Assessments.  Also, identify teachers who you have evidence as utilizing their classrooms as 'political soap boxes.'  I need this updated  information no later than Tuesday morning for follow-up," the email states. (

Audrey Amrein Beardsley, a professor of education at Arizona State University, and the author of one of my favorite education blogs on the web, VAMBOOZLED, reports: "New Mexico now requires teachers to sign a contractual document that they are not to 'diminish the significance or importance of the tests” or they could lose their jobs. Teachers are not to speak negatively about the tests or say anything negatively about these tests in their classrooms or in public; if they do they could be found in violation of their contracts.' Beardsley wonders about the legality, and even the constitutionality of this sort of action: 'As per a related announcement released by the ASBA, this “could have a chilling effect on the free speech rights of school and district officials' throughout the state but also (likely) beyond if this continues to catch on. School officials may be held 'liable for a $5,000 civil fine just for sharing information on the positive or negative impacts of proposed legislation to parents or reporters.'”

While there is no doubt that these moves are indeed a "chilling" development in the education "reform" movement, I believe that they also reveal a quickly growing sense of fear and confusion among those in the reform community regarding the viability of their agenda. Indeed, the surprising strength of the "Opt Out" movement in New York, where as many as 200,000 students have reportedly refused to sit for the state's tests, has led to calls demanding the resignation of Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the NYS Board of Regents.

If there is a silver lining to these threats it may be the impending crumbling of the reform agenda under the increased scrutiny from the public, the media and teachers. For far too long, policy "leaders" like Chancellor Tisch, Governors Cuomo, Kasich and Snyder, and Sec. of Education Duncan have responded to criticism of their agenda with either deafening silence or dismissive pandering, such as accusations that "painted parents as confused patsies of a labor action." Now, these feeble rejoinders are being exposed for what they have been all along: weak and arrogant responses to the legitimate demands for accountability from those so negatively impacted by these destructive policies.

These "leaders" are clearly scared, and they have every right to be. Now is the time to step up the pressure, and not let our voices be silenced. We are fighting for our students, our colleagues and our profession.

Let students learn, let teachers teach, and get the politicians out of education.


On Heels of Final Four Appearance, Michigan State College of Music Set to Graduate "Yet Another Class of First-Round Draft Picks" Say Analysts

For Immediate Release: Michigan State College of Music Set to Graduate Another Class of First-Round Draft Picks

April 5, 2015, 1:06pm


"Yet Another Class of Future Teacher-Leaders," Predict Top Music Education Analysts


East Lansing, MI – The Michigan State University College of Music announced today the impending graduation of another class of top recruits, drawing attention from many of the top collegiate music schools and school districts across the United States. Although NASM privacy regulations expressly prohibit identifying individual students, music education chair Mitchell Robinson characterized the class as, "continuing the outstanding tradition of Spartan music educators serving as leaders in K-12 and higher education in colleges and school systems in virtually every state in the nation."

The 2014-15 class of 34 future teacher-leaders that made such a strong contribution to this year's Final Four run includes, by position, elementary music teachers, string teachers, instrumental music teachers and choral music educators. A number of the members of the class of 2015 have also played multiple positions during their internships, "demonstrating versatility and ability on both sides of the line," according to NASM's Mel Kiper, the top music education recruiting analyst in the country.


Two members of the class have indicated their interest in pursuing graduate study upon completion of their student teaching placements, with one student being accepted to the prestigious Eastman School of Music for a doctoral degree in ethnomusicology, and another set to pursue a masters degree in applied music at Florida State University. Several Fall graduates have already secured teaching positions in Texas, Connecticut, Indiana, and Michigan, getting an early start on developing strong professional profiles.


Already looking ahead to next year, the MSU music education faculty is excited to welcome another strong class of 50 prospective music educators from across the country to the Class of 2020. "It looks like yet another very strong group of singers, players, composers, improvisers and thinkers. Go Green!" said Robinson.


The one about "Skillful Teaching," "Bad Teachers," and Real Solutions...

A recent Michigan Radio "Next Idea" piece featured the well-respected Dean of the University of Michigan's College of Education, Deborah Ball, and her thoughts on improving teacher education ( The essay starts out nicely, then takes an abrupt turn into very troubling territory:

"Teaching matters. We know that it can make the difference between a child learning to read by third grade, being confident in math, and developing the mindset necessary for success. Yet skillful teaching is not commonplace, and it’s hurting our society."

Let me start by saying that I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Ball's work. Her research on "math knowledge for teaching" is one of the most innovative insights into teacher knowledge that I've come across in the literature, and her reputation in education and research circles is impeccable. She has also taken a leadership role in education reform in our state, and while I have not always agreed with all of the recommendations her work on these efforts has produced, I'm also realistic enough to understand that these sorts of initiatives are difficult operations to manage; a bit like teaching an elephant to dance--you can do it, but its going to take a long time, be very difficult to pull off, and a lot of people are going to get hurt.

That said, I have to say that I'm disappointed in Dean Ball's rhetoric here--she seems to be adopting the reformers' talking point that if we can just "improve the quality of the teaching force," all the problems in education would be solved. I don't know what teachers she is observing, but the teachers I see in the schools today are the best and brightest I've ever seen--and are doing heroic work in spite of the most difficult conditions we've ever faced as a profession: meager resources; dwindling budgetary support; a narrowing of the curriculum leading to cuts to music, art and PE; withering attacks from Rhee, Kopp, Gates and Duncan and friends; an obsession with standardized testing; and much more.

Now, I'm certainly not saying that improvements to teacher education should not be pursued--as reflective teachers and teacher educators, that's what we do--we are constantly on the look-out for ways to improve our practice and strategies that will positively impact student learning.

But its not a lack of "skillful teaching" that is "hurting our society." Its a stunning disregard for addressing the real problems in public education in our state:

Focusing on alleged issues of teacher quality only serves to distract us from dealing with the real problems facing our students, teacher, schools and communities. The "problem" isn't a lack of "skillful teaching"--its a lack of public awareness on where we should really be focusing our attention, energies, activism and resources. And the "solution" will not be found by placing the blame on teachers.

Teachers aren't the problem--they are the solution.


The one about Opting Out, Positive Responses and Tipping Points

We recently received an email from our school district about M-STEP (Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress) Testing dates--for those not in Michigan, this is the new "required" state test for children in grades 3-8 which replaces the MEAP.

For one of our boys, the M-STEP testing schedule was to span 6 different days and include tests on English Language and Mathematics. The thought of our son missing class time for 6 days to sit for standardized tests--the results of which couldn't possibly inform his learning or his teachers' instructional practices, due to the tests being administered in the Spring rather than in the Fall, with the results not being made available until after the close of the school year--was bad enough. But to make matters worse, this "summative" test was not intended to be a long-term solution to the state's testing policies: 

“Our challenge is that this is a one-year interim assessment. I’m not sure how meaningful that will be for us because we can’t compare results,” Grandville Public Schools Superintendent Ron Caniff said about the M-STEP. “This will be a snapshot of how our students measure up to other students (nationwide), but we won’t be able to measure it in terms of how our students are learning and growing – that’s the downside.” (

The bottom line was that our child was being pulled out of classes for 6 days, for tests that weren't intended to really measure student learning or growth, or to provide any meaningful feedback for his teachers, and these tests were not likely to be given again in subsequent years. The whole thing seemed like a terrible, awful, really bad idea--but the kicker was the following tag line on the district's email announcement:

"PLEASE DO NOT MAKE APPOINTMENTS FOR YOUR CHILD ON THE DATES ATTACHED. If your child misses these dates, then they will do make up testing and will be pulled from other academic classes. If your child is ill, they should stay home, of course! We understand!"

Before going on, I want to be clear: My wife and I believe that the school district that our children attend is terrific. They have wonderful teachers, a fantastic school music program, excellent academics, and a wide array of student services. The student body is diverse and motivated, and the community is fully engaged in school activities and governance. Our interactions with school personnel have always been great, and we have never regretted our decision to purchase a home in this town--a decision we made based largely on the quality of the school system.

So, the district's message didn't appear to ring true. In private conversations with teachers and administrators within the school system, I had sensed their agreement with our thinking about the explosion of standardized testing and its negative impact on teacher evaluation, school funding, and a host of other issues. These were intelligent, thoughtful, caring persons. Each of them had treated my children as their own--with sensitivity, compassion and care. I was certain that they had the children's learning as their highest priority, but felt compelled to follow the state's (misguided) directives regarding these tests.

After a great deal of thought, we decided to contact the school to tell them we were opting our son out of the M-STEP tests, and asked about the provisions for students who will not be taking these exams. After hitting "send" I was apprehensive--I knew about the pressures the folks at the school were under, and also didn't want to put my son in an awkward position with his friends and teachers at school. Both my wife and I are teachers, and have always approached our "job" as parents of school-aged children with the goal of supporting our kids' teachers fully. Making this request was not an easy decision for either of us.

Two days later we received the following response:

"I contacted the Assistant Superintendent and she told me that we would honor your request for opting (your son) out of testing with a note from you.  (Your son) is already on the testing rosters, but with your note, we will remove him.  

Students are being tested during their academic hours with their homeroom teachers. Per Assistant Superintendent, (your son) will be offered this time to work on any homework he has or to read a book for the time that his peers are testing. He may be given the option of going to the library...

We are required to have 95% participation for testing and any student opting out is a hit on that percentage. However, we understand your request and will honor it with a note sent to the Guidance Office."

Having read and heard about much more hostile responses from schools around the country to similar requests, we were both relieved and encouraged by our school's reply. Not only was our request for our child to opt out greeted with respect, but provisions for our son's attendance on those days when the test was scheduled were provided without argument or hassle. The approach was understanding, positive and student-centered--everything we have come to expect from our school district.

I also believe that this response is an indication of a tipping point of sorts when it comes to the issue of opting out and school testing. More and more, teachers and administrators are understanding the negative impact of these tests on students, teachers and schools, and are joining the fight with parents and other groups advocating for a reduction in the number and uses of these tests.

At the end of the day, I am left feeling optimistic and enormously encouraged by this interaction, and energized to continue the fight against the corporate reformers' obsession with data-mining and high-stakes testing. I can sense the tide turning, and more teachers and school administrators joining in the push back against these reforms. We have reached a Tipping Point, and now is the time to redouble our efforts.


The one about Teach for America, their recruits, and motivations...

Teach for America "Scenarios"

Scenario 1--the college student wants to be a teacher but goes to a school with no ed degree program, so signs up with TFA: bad decision making.

Scenario 2--the student is not interested in being a teacher, graduates with a degree in another discipline, but decides to do TFA for a couple of years before going back to grad school or entering the work force: in so doing, the student may force an experienced teacher out of the classroom, as happened to hundreds of teachers in Chicago over the last couple of years, especially veteran teachers of color in the city (; and, the hiring districts pay a premium of $3000-5000 per TFA recruit on top of paying the new teachers' salaries--creating negative financial consequences for the school and community, not to mention the costs (financial, human resources, etc.) associated with excessive teacher turnover, which is a feature of the TFA business model (;

Scenario 3: the student has a sincere interest in social justice and societal change, and believes that working as a TFA recruit will help them achieve those goals: the recruit's goals are not aligned with the organization's goals, creating tensions that lead to non-productive disruption among the teaching force and in the schools (see: Gary Rubenstein's work, among others).

Scenario 4: the student enters the classroom through TFA, teaches for 2 years, then gets a job in a state education department, or in school administration, or with a policy think tank: this is TFA's real agenda (;;, and we can see how this is working out for us as a profession--our policy agenda is being dictated and guided by persons who have no education degrees, never interned or student taught, and don't have sustained, successful teaching experience in "regular" public schools.

None of these scenarios is good, most of them are really bad, and the proof is right in front of our eyes in the form of destabilized schools and communities, the explosion of for-profit charters, and continued attacks on K-12 and higher education.


The one about TV ads, the Lansing School District, and misleading claims...

Recently, the Lansing School District released a series of TV and radio ads designed to promote their schools ( Amid a floating stream of expertly produced and edited video of young children bouncing basketballs and playing music instruments, the voiceover claims that the Lansing Schools "offer more educational choices to students than any other school district in the greater Lansing region." This, in spite of the fact that the District decided to slash the offerings for those very children by eliminating all of the 27 elementary art, music and PE positions in the Lansing schools over a year ago, leaving the city's students with only 2 music, art and PE classes per semester, while their peers in neighboring school systems often receive these classes twice per week.

Now, if the superintendent, board of education and teachers union in Lansing had just gotten together and cut the elementary art, music and PE programs and teachers in the schools, that would have been one thing...

  • But to hear the former AMPE program now be referred to as the "Innovative Arts & Fitness" Department, as though there is anything "innovative" in firing 27 teachers and depriving thousands of children of a full and complete education...

  • To read press releases and interviews with district officials touting the current art and music offerings as being better than what was previously in place, because of the presence of "real artists and musicians" in Lansing's schools...

  • To see that the LSD held a promotional fair at the Lansing Center this past weekend, with radio and media coverage, in an effort to stem the tide of those leaving the District, largely due to the curricular narrowing and impoverished offerings now available at the elementary level...

  • And now, for the art and music teachers in Lansing who had their careers taken away to be subjected to thousands of dollars worth of TV and radio ads promoting the "rich and diverse curricular offerings" in the Lansing School District, even as the elementary curriculum has been gutted of art, music and PE, and to know that their former students are only receiving instruction in these subjects 4 TIMES PER YEAR...

Let me be clear: I believe that there are many excellent teachers in the Lansing schools, including several outstanding music teachers working in the District's high schools. I've been blown away by what the music students and faculty are doing in Lansing, especially given the difficult conditions under which they are working. These students and teachers deserve nothing but our support, encouragement and respect.

But cuts to music and art programs in any school system are unacceptable ways to manage school finances, and are disproportionately devastating to children in urban communities, whose families may not have the resources to provide them with alternative forms of instruction in the arts. School district leaders are charged with providing the students in their care with a full and comprehensive education, which includes the arts. Eliminating these offerings, at any level, is an abrogation of their duty, and merits a strong and forceful response.

The children in Lansing deserve strong, quality arts programs, delivered by qualified, certified music and art teachers. What is currently being offered as "Innovative" is unacceptable, and the District needs to restore the teaching positions they have eliminated so that Lansing's students get the education that they deserve.


The one about BRIGHT Ohio, Teach for America and CEOs...

The state of Ohio recently announced a newly re-branded initiative to attract, recruit and train new superintendents for the state's schools ( Interestingly--or horrifyingly, depending on your point of view--the BRIGHT initiative is based on the "executive MBA" model, and is designed to bring recent college graduates in degree programs other than education into school leadership positions in Ohio's schools. These eager new recruits would be admitted not to an administrative degree program, but to the MBA degree at Ohio State University, "fully paid for by BRIGHT", while being placed in a one year internship in an Ohio school, under the supervision of a "master principal." At the conclusion of the training program, each candidate will complete their "responsibilities as a BRIGHT leader..." by serving "at least two years as the principal of any public school in Ohio."

Now, some people might understandably have a few questions after hearing about the BRIGHT initiative. Like:

  • Why would we want school principals who have never taught?
  • Why are we designing new school leadership programs when there is no shortage of school administrators?
  • Why would an MBA be the best degree for a school principal or superintendent, and not a degree in education, or educational administration, or school leadership?
  • Why are persons with no teaching experience being placed as administrative interns when teachers who are working on their administrative credentials need these placements?
  • Why design a new school leadership training program that only requires its graduates to serve as principals for 2 years?
  • What Ohio school districts would actually hire these people?

Given that the BRIGHT program is clearly designed as a business model, I wondered how it compared to the way that business leaders are prepared. So, just out of curiosity, I looked into the typical career paths for CEOs--and this is what I found...

"Although some individuals are born leaders, most are made. Becoming a chief executive typically takes years of hard work. Extensive experience in the company's field is desirable and some companies tend to prefer those with degrees from upper-tier schools in business, economics or finance. Finally, those that have worked their way up from a low level within the organization may have an advantage, as they arguably know the company better than any outsider ever could."

If we transfer these characteristics to education, we might surmise that superintendents should have extensive experience in education with significant time in the classroom as a teacher, a degree in education and perhaps additional degrees in one's subject matter area, and should have worked their way up in the school system so that they know and understand the communities in which they work. But the folks at BRIGHT don't seem concerned with following ethical business principles when it comes to their true agenda--destabilizing schools by providing a rotating cast of short term leaders with no background or experience in education.

Now, why would the folks behind BRIGHT ignore the "best practices" from the business world, when they are basing their program on business models? As always, when you are confused about the premises of a new education reform idea, follow the money. And in this case, that means finding out who is paying for this program. The answers can be found under the "Partners" tab on the BRIGHT website:

"BRIGHT is proud to be working closely with the Ohio Department of Education, Ohio Board of Regents, and Adjutant General of Ohio, as well as Ohio's three largest school districts – Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. National partners include New Leaders, Teach for America and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Jones Day provides comprehensive legal services on a pro bono basis."

And now the circle is squared. The BRIGHT program neatly fills in the niche between "Teach for America" (producing unqualified recruits for classrooms) and the Broad Superintendent's Academy (producing unqualified superintendents) by producing unqualified principals for Ohio's schools.


The one about schools, Pearson and monopolies...

Lately we've been hearing increasingly hysterical claims from "think tanks" (, pundits ( and even presidential candidates about how our public schools are “government -run, unionized, politicized monopolies’ that ‘trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system that nobody can escape'" (( Sounds like scary stuff.

But before we call in the National Guard, let's be clear about one thing: anyone who thinks that our public schools are well organized enough to pull off a monopoly has never spent any significant time inside of a public school. Its not uncommon for the teachers who work in an elementary school to be unaware of what's happening in the middle school in their district, or for the math teachers in a high school to have any idea of what's happening down the hallway in the social studies department--let alone communicate well enough to organize a national education monopoly with consistent rules, regulations and standards.

Years ago when the then-new National Standards in Music had been out for a couple of years, I visited a middle school where we had placed a student teacher. The cooperating teacher was a wonderful musician and teacher, and happened to be a good friend of mine as well. I watched the co-op and his student teacher team-teach a terrific band rehearsal, full of inspirational teaching, artistic conducting and impressive creativity on the part of the students.

As the 3 of us were walking back to his office to debrief, I asked my friend a question: "How is your teaching different now because of the National Standards?" He turned and looked at me with a quizzical look on his face, and responded simply, "What National Standards?" Monopoly? I don't think so.

The simple truth is that public schools are a hot mess. We are disorganized, don't communicate particularly well, and do a terrible job of letting the public know what we do. That's mostly because the public schools are also incredibly active, vital and busy places, full of noise, excitement and creativity, where the adults are less concerned with issuing press releases and conducting feasibility studies than they are in working on projects, rehearsing plays, and helping children become happy, expressive, sensitive and curious human beings.

Now, if Mr. Friedman, the Cato Institute and Gov. Bush really want to see an educational monopoly in action, they need look no further than the multi-national testing conglomerate, Pearson, Inc. 

Pearson, with headquarters in Great Britain, owns the publishing companies Scott Foresman, Penguin, Harcourt and Prentice Hall, setting text book prices, controlling content, and "franchising" the curriculum in thousands of K-12 schools and colleges across the country. Not content with merely controlling textbooks, Pearson also has their tentacles into familiar companies like Adobe, Longman, Wharton, Puffin and Allyn & Bacon, which allows them to exert an outsized influence on the size and scope of the educational enterprise in the US and abroad. Pearson's support for the Common Core State Standards, with generous support from "philanthropic" foundations like the Gates Foundation, practically assures that the tests that they produce will be closely "aligned" with the CCSS, all but guaranteeing that states will enter into agreements with Pearson to be the sole test provider for thousands of students each year. In New York State alone, Pearson's contracts total more than $32 million over the next 5 years.

But it doesn't stop there: Pearson also has the contract to produce, administer and score the edTPA, a new test for student teachers. And the company is the provider of standardized tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Stanford Achievement Test, the Millar Analogy Test, and the G.E.D. Pearson also owns some of the most popular and powerful student data management systems available for schools, like PowerSchool and SASI (

Pearson is well on their way to controlling virtually every aspect of American education, from preschool materials (, to professional development for teachers (, to online and virtual learning products and services (

If Mr. Friedman, Gov. Bush and friends are *really* concerned with monopolies, I suggest that they focus their gaze on Pearson, and leave the schools alone so our teachers can teach, and our children can learn.


The One about Charter Schools, Eye Doctors and Bank Fraud, Oh My!

Charter school proponents claim that charters offer options for parents who are disappointed in what their public schools provide, and this "choice" is about giving children better options. A recent story in the Detroit Free Press ( spins a "soap opera" style tale of nepotism, cronyism, crazy ideas about how children learn, bank fraud, and embezzlement. Michigan's charter school "industry"--and that's what it is, an industry; not an educational system, but rather a business model designed to steal public money and slip it into private bank accounts--is wildly out of control, an unregulated Wild West playground for unscrupulous hucksters, quacks and charlatans who see our school system and our children as an untapped well-spring of profits. And the stream is flowing.


Let's be clear: the charter school "industry" is not about kids, learning or "choice." This unregulated explosion of charters is about money, and lots of it. This eye doctor funneled millions of taxpayer dollars into his private bank account. This was essentially a money laundering operation, not substantially different from how drug dealers set up a legitimate business, run it at a loss in order to turn "dirty" money into "clean" money, and then walk away when the heat gets too hot. [See: Breaking Bad.]

What's lost here is any discussion of Dr. Ingersoll's "innovative" approach to learning, "Integrated Visual Learning," which has to do with rapid eye movements. Here's a teacher's account of IVL, and how it was used in Dr. Ingersoll's school:

"His claims were/are at best a novelty in my opinion. If I recall correctly, students were initially given a screener to see how their eyes tracked on a page of text. This was done with a special machine and a pair of glasses hooked up to the machine. If their eyes didn’t track from left to right (as in how a person reads a page of text) and from one line to the next in the correct “zig zag” pattern during reading, then they were considered to need “therapy.” Therapy was expensive and rarely covered by insurance."

What's missing here is any description of how children learn. How does this "test" help teachers adapt instruction? What happens when a child's eyes don't zig zag? Are they taught differently, or just not admitted to the school?

Um, not so much...according to another teacher:

"There was NO room in the school specifically for IVL testing. There may have been equipment, but kids were never observed for vision. The IVL methods were taught to all kids, because Ingersoll made the staff do it; middle school and high school as well. Even the Special Education teachers had to teach it. which meant critical standards were not met."

So while we don't know if Dr. Ingersoll knows anything about children, or learning, or schools, here's what we do know:

1. He stole our money.

2. He subjected our children to radical, untested teaching methods.

3. People like this should not be permitted to set foot in our schools, much less run them.


The one about "fixing" Detroit's schools...

A recent article on the Michigan Radio web page describes Gov Snyder's plans "to 'fix' Detroit’s education problems once and for all" (

Aside from the fact that many of these "problems" were created in large part due to the Governor's mismanagement of education in the state, and specifically in Detroit, and because of the systematic starving of resources for the state's schools, the ideas included in this article were also deeply offensive to anyone who lives in, works in or cares about Detroit and the DPS.

1. Detroit's schools don't need to be "fixed." They need to be cared for. And they need to be cared for by those that care about them the most, and for the right reasons--the parents, students, teachers and citizens of Detroit. Expecting the same folks who wanted to sell the art off the walls of the Detroit Museum of Art to "fix" the DPS is like expecting a burglar to lock the doors after he cleans out your house. If you really want to help Detroit's schools, then return control of those schools to the elected school board, administration and teachers in Detroit and get rid of the

2. Hiring the architect of New Orleans' "Recovery School District" to fix DPS is like hiring the CEO of BP to clean up an oil spill. As Professors Miron and Pedroni point out in the article, the "experiment" in New Orleans has not worked, and is not likely to work in Detroit either. It was based on faulty premises, was untested and never vetted properly. Perhaps most alarmingly, it was truly an "experiment"--an experiment conducted on the children and families of New Orleans, without their knowledge or approval. The full extent of the damage created by this experiment won't be known for years, but we do know it has been spectacularly unsuccessful, and certainly is not worth bringing to Detroit.

3. You don’t “scale up” schools based on design templates. That’s a business practice, not an educational practice—and schools are not businesses. Schools are unique, organic and different, depending on where they are, who attends them, and who works in them. Just as a house in Alaska may serve some of the same functions as a house in Hawaii, they don't look the same, aren't built the same, and would be ineffective and inefficient if transported from one place to the other. You “scale up” a fast food franchise. You don’t “scale up” schools.

So, I'd like to offer some unsolicited advice for Gov. Snyder: as a businessman, you know that one of the first rules of crisis management is that when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Your policies have led to a manufactured crisis in Detroit, and your solution appears to be looking at one of the few cities in the country whose schools are in worse shape than Detroit's and bringing the former superintendent from New Orleans to Detroit. You are fortunate to lead a state with some of the nation's finest teacher education programs, and yet ignore the advice from the experts in those programs. Drs. Pedroni and Miron have been unusually blunt and frank with their advice on your plan--you would do well to listen to their ideas and suggestions.

You are, after all, paying them for their expertise.


The one about debates, issues and dangerous decisions...

Recently, we have seen an inexplicable explosion of head-scratching, chin-stroking stories on *alleged* issues, such as whether or not parents should have their children vaccinated, whether evolution is a "thing" or not, and supposedly serious discussions by elected officials about whether or not global climate change is real. [Spoiler Alert: Yes, yes, and yes.]


This rampant streak of what can only be seen as "anti-intellectualism" ( isn't simply unsettling; the science on each of these "issues" is settled. Vaccines DO NOT cause autism; the Earth is not 6000 years "young"; and climate scientists have determined without a shadow of a doubt that the planet is warming at an alarming rate, with dire consequences. Its dangerous.


  • Children are getting sick and dying because our "herd immunity" is waning due to well-meaning but uninformed parents making the dangerous decision not to immunize their kids.
  • "Young Earthers" are damaging their children's learning and understandings of the world by teaching them fables in place of science.
  • Climate change deniers are now in charge of senate science committees, where their ignorance isn't just shocking; it threatens our very existence.

To this list I would add a 4th dangerous decision that poses a threat to our children and our communities: the reckless and irresponsible decisions we see in too many school systems to eliminate music, art and physical education instruction from the curriculum.


In Lansing, MI, the decision to eliminate 47 elementary art, music and PE teachers was cast as a "tough, but responsible decision," and the local media praised the superintendent and school board for their "courage" in making this decision.

Let's be clear: This was not a "tough" decision. It was a bad, and dangerous decision. What's "tough" is being a 2nd grader who loves to draw and going to school without the possibility of art class being the bright spot of your day. What's "tough" is being a 5th grade kid who loves to play the trumpet, and knowing that your school doesn't think that music is important enough to offer as a class. What's "tough" is being in Kindergarten and seeing your cousin in the suburbs learn how to paint, and sing, and dance, while your school day is full of "test prep" and "extra math."

It was a decision that denies thousands of children, many living in crushing poverty, an education that includes making music, making art, and learning how to be physically fit and healthy for a lifetime. We have known that music and the arts were an important component of a child's education in this country since the public schools began. And while parents in more affluent communities may be able to provide their children with private music and art lessons, or pay for them to join a travel soccer or basketball team outside of school, many of the families in Lansing and other urban areas do not have the resources to afford these opportunities--they depend on the public schools to make sure their children have access to the richness of a full and complete education, one that includes music and art.


School leaders are charged with making sure that the children in their schools are provided with the very best education possible--an education that includes ALL of the disciplines and subjects that are a part of a comprehensive, sequential curriculum. And that includes the arts, foreign language, libraries, special education services, and a host of other offerings. These things are not "specials" or "extras"; their absence can't be disguised by referring to them with clever names like "Encore!" or "Innovative Arts and Fitness". There is nothing "innovative" about firing 47 teachers and denying children a full and rich education, especially when its your job to ensure that they get just that.


The inclusion of music and art in the curriculum is not an "issue"--just as with vaccination, or evolution, we *know* the truth. And the truth is that all children deserve to learn about music and art in the public schools. There are not "2 sides" to this question. No parent would willingly choose an education barren of these disciplines--and no school should either.


The One in Which I Throw My Hat in the Ring. . .

After a great deal of consideration, I have decided to apply for the position of State Superintendent of Instruction for the state of Michigan. It's time to stop complaining, and time to take action.

I have no illusions that my candidacy will be successful, but would welcome the opportunity to ask some serious questions about the policies guiding education in the state.

We need a person in this office who will be a strong supporter of teachers and students, understands the damage that over-testing has had on the schools, and will work to stop the attacks on teachers and public schools.

We need to halt the proliferation of charter schools, abolish the EAA in Detroit and the rest of the state, and address the funding problems that have hampered public education in Michigan.

We need to insure that every child in the state receives a full, rich and diverse educational experience that includes music, art, PE, foreign language, social studies, science, and library services, in addition to the "tested subjects."

And we need to make sure that teachers are evaluated fairly and appropriately, not by Value Added Measures, student test scores or other invalid and unreliable "metrics."

Please let me know what educational issues you believe are important in the comments below.


The one in which Teach for America reveals their true colors. . .

Perhaps the strongest voice defending public school teachers against the agenda of the corporate reformers is education historian, Diane Ravitch. Dr. Ravitch recently posted a story ( about Teach for America's public support of the Federal Department of Education's newly proposed regulations on teacher education programs. This is notable for a couple of reasons. One, TFA is--allegedly--a non-profit organization devoted to the preparation of alternatively certified teachers for America's urban schools. And two, TFA is clearly in competition with said teacher education programs, making their public stance on these regulations a fairly obvious conflict of interest.

Now, my own feelings about Teach for America are hardly a secret (, but even I was a bit surprised that TFA would tip their hand on their real agenda: destroying traditional teacher education programs, teachers unions, and public schools as we know them.

I guess we should be grateful that TFA was so transparent about their true colors--it makes them much easier to identify as part and parcel of the corporate reform movement, and makes it much harder for them to continue pretending they are an educational organization at all.


The one about "throwing money" at problems...

I often read stories that quote politicians and ed reform officials who claim that spending money won't help solve the problems facing students, schools and teachers nowadays. Their premise is wrong on several accounts; one, these persons are usually the ones who have created the problems we are all now dealing with, and two, in my experience throwing money at problems usually works pretty well. 

Recently, Sen. Phil Pavlov, the chair of the Michigan Senate Education Committee, trotted out this under-thought, knee-jerk response to school funding in our state, saying:  "What's clear in all of this is that simply spending money is not the answer. According to statewide school report cards available on the Michigan Department of Education website, some of the state's highest-funded school districts have multiple schools on the 2012 achievement gap list, despite receiving over $9,000, $10,000 or even $11,000 per pupil." (

What Sen. Pavlov fails to mention is that gaining a spot on the state's "achievement gap list" is no measure of any sort of educational or learning issue--its simply an indication that a school's students have not met a predetermined goal, set by the state (not teachers), with respect to standardized test scores in math or reading. In some schools, this may mean that only 97% of the school's students achieved a passing score on an exam, and the state had set a goal of 98%. Really. Both of my children's schools were placed on one of these state lists a few years ago for not achieving "adequate yearly progress," even though they were two of the highest scoring schools in the state on all measures of student learning. So, Sen. Pavlov's measuring tool isn't measuring what he thinks it is, lots of students and teachers are being punished for excelling at what they do, and lots of time and effort is being wasted on things that just don't matter.


Sen. Pavlov's response also ignores the fact that Gov. Snyder, with Pavlov's help, has cut school funding by $2 billion dollars during his time as governor. So suggesting that giving more money to schools won't do any good is a particularly cruel and hurtful approach given the systematic starving of resources and draconian reforms that have been enacted by Pavlov, Snyder and the legislature in recent years.

What I find especially ironic is the fact that the same politicians who claim to believe that "throwing money" at our children's futures is a waste of resources saw no problems with "Citizens United," which eliminated all restrictions on financial contributions to election campaigns. If throwing money at students, teachers and schools won't help education, then how does it help their campaigns?


So, Sen. Pavlov, you may be right that throwing money at the schools won't solve the problems that you helped to create, but your other solutions--expanded school choice, more charter schools with less regulations, invalid and unreliable teacher evaluation systems, increased student testing requirements, destroying our state's teacher unions, etc.--haven't worked so far, so let's try adequately funding our schools and see what happens. Its worth a shot, right?


Everything's up-to-date in Illinois!

I just returned from a wonderful time in Peoria where I shared two presentations with the music teachers and music teacher educators at the Illinois Music Educators Association Conference. One session was on strategies for designing partnerships between schools and colleges, and the other  was a talk on the (mis)uses of data in music teacher evaluation. PDFs of both sessions are available for download on the "Clinic and Workshop Materials" page on this site.

I head to Arizona in a few weeks for the Desert Skies Research Symposium to present a keynote address on music teacher evaluation and music education research, and then on to Miami the following week to visit with the music ed students and faculty at Florida International University on Friday, Feb. 27, and talk to the Miami-Dade County music teachers about assessment strategies on Sat., Feb. 28.


But the best part of my visit to Illinois was spending time with former Spartans, Bridget Sweet and Adam Kruse, now members of the music ed faculty at the University of Illinois, along with Janet Barrett and Louis Bergonzi; my "old" friend, Glenn Williams, from Downers Grove; Maud Hickey and Steve Demorest from Northwestern; Rich Cangro from Western Illinois; Scott Edgar from Lake Forest College; and many new friends as well.


What Every Principal Needs to Know to Create Equitable and Excellent Schools

It's out! Teachers College Press has released our new book, What Every Principal Needs to Know to Create Equitable and Excellent Schools, edited by George Theoharis and Jeff Brooks.


My chapter is titled, "Music Teaching and Learning in a Time of Reform"--here's a brief excerpt:


Music in the public school curriculum is at a precarious point. Indeed, one author has described the place of school music as teetering at a veritable “tipping point.” Borrowing from Malcolm Gladwell’s book of the same name, Kratus (2007) identifies the need for “sticky” ideas in music education that will attract new students and new audiences, lest we see the divide between music and “school music” grow even wider and deeper. A 2006 survey by the Center on Education Policy, an independent education policy think tank, found that since the passage of NCLB in 2001, 71% of the nation's 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math (Dillon, 2006).

This narrowing of the public school curriculum has been accompanied by an increased emphasis on standardized testing, especially in the subject areas of math and reading, in a back-to-basics movement that has threatened to alter the very fabric of American public education. 


For more information, click on the picture of the book cover to go to the Teachers College Press web page about the book.



Teaching music in a time of reform. . .

Music education, both in the public schools and in higher education, is at a precarious point. A 2006 survey by the Center on Education Policy, an independent education policy think tank, found that since the passage of NCLB in 2001, 71 percent of the nation’s 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math. This narrowing of the public school curriculum has been accompanied by an increased emphasis on standardized testing, especially in the subject areas of math and reading, in a back to basics movement that has threatened to alter the very fabric of American public education.


Never before in my teaching career can I think of a time when what we had to offer as music teachers and music teacher educators was more desperately needed, by our students, our schools and our society. I often tell my students that the job we are preparing them for as teachers is an amazing one—it allows them to make decisions, solve problems, make interpretive choices, and be responsible for making a glorious whole out of disparate, disconnected pieces. It seems to me that our goal as music teachers is to make sure that the students in our ensembles and classes also view their ‘jobs’ in the same way—that they feel creative, empowered, and independent. It is both our privilege and our challenge to be music teacher educators during an exciting and volatile time in our profession’s history, and it is the role of our professional organizations to provide the leadership and guidance necessary to support all of us as we move into the future.



My blog has been included on the Teach 100 list of "top education blogs."