Category Archives: school reform


A question from a student, some tweets with a colleague, and I realized I had forgotten a good bit of my education history. The question had to do with why more progressive educational practices such as those found in Montessori schools did not catch in on public schools. The colleague suggested that it was the Cold War and A Nation at Risk that squelched progressive ideas. I made a vague commitment to read some history including Diane Ravitch‘s Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms.

But it was a vague commitment and the fiction on my shelf was much more compelling. So, I was excited when I saw Bud Hunt’s post about starting an education history book club. He felt as though educators often repeat history because they don’t know enough about it:

So I’m pretty sure that my main objectives for a project like this would be basically encouraging educators and folks who impact education to better understand their history.  In my reading and writing and thinking, I’ve come to discover that people are pretty much ignorant of anything educationally relevant that happened more than ten or twenty minutes ago.  And we keep having the same conversations.  And forgetting the outcomes.  Then doing it again.

So, his suggestion is for a group to read historical documents related to education, beginning with the report of the Committee of Ten from 1892. This committee was created by the National Education Association to develop answers to questions related to what, when and how students should be learning.

I have started the report and am finding it tough going. I had trouble getting past the fact that, even though women made up more than 50% of teachers at that time, the committee included men only and seemed to celebrate that fact:

Six of the Chairmen were college men, and three were school men; while of the Secretaries, two were college men and seven school men (p. 11).

Forty seven of the ninety members of the committee were from colleges and universities but the report assures us that many have had school experiences.  But like many modern day education commissions, there were no practicing teachers on the committee.

Ravitch begins her book about school reform with the Committee of Ten, which was the first national committee to discuss how to standardize education in the United States. According to Ravitch, the one legacy of the committee’s work was the creation of the College Entrance Examination Board that set uniform standards for college admissions.

NB: Part of the reason I’ve struggled with the reading is because it took me some time to find the “right” digital version from the Internet archive. I wanted to be able to bookmark, highlight and annotate. After some experimentation, I found the ePub version to be the best although it has lots of errors that aren’t found in the online or pdf version.


Friday Find: Why Empathy is Important

This blog post showed up in Zite this morning: Glimmers of Hope in the Education Debate. The writer makes the case that the two sides are not as far apart as it might seem.  He shows several places where the seemingly rigid accountability movement is opening to the possibility of non-cognitive skills:

Friedman gives a nod to the Common Core Standards, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia — and long anathema to many in the progressive educator circles — which establish clear learning goals and competencies in math and literacy for students across multiple grade levels. Quoting Duncan, he cheerfully writes, “For the first time in our history, a kid in Massachusetts and a kid in Mississippi will be measured by the same yardstick.”

Even there, however, the battle lines are no longer quite as rigid as we tend to think. Earlier this year,Expeditionary Learning — known for an educational model built on Outward Bound, with an explicit focus on empathy, collaboration, and self-discovery — was hired to develop the curriculum and professional development training for grades 3-5 of the Common Core for the state of New York.

It’s a big deal, because for the first time, it means we don’t have to choose: we don’t have to choose between academic learning and non-cognitive development; we don’t have to choose between overly burdensome (and by many accounts, meaningless) standards and nothing at all; we don’t have to choose between the interests of teachers and the interests of those who control them.

It’s worth a read: the cynical side of me couldn’t help but think that Flowers was being a Pollyana, something she says of herself. The people she reads might be interested in redefining “highly skilled worker” but I haven’t heard a whole lot of discussion of empathy in the mainstream discussion.  Maybe Paul Tough‘s book will help form a foundation for discussion. And, maybe I’m just in a negative mood since my current read is Jonathan Kozol.

The blog post is part of a larger website focused on empathy, which is sponsored by Ashoka, an organization that strives to develop the citizen sector of society. They believe that empathy is an important 21st century skill:

We know that a child who masters empathy at the age of six is less likely to bully ten years later, and that, for students, having one supportive relationship with an adult outside the family can be the difference between success and failure as an adult. And we know that far from being a “nice-to-have,” empathy – and the various skills it entails – is increasingly critical to our success at home, in the workplace, and in the world.

I was also intrigued by the writer’s comment that he had a Google alert related to empathy.  That was not the kind of search time that occurred to me so I signed up. The first email included a wide range of articles from a report about research that shows empathy can override analysis in the brain, a description of a new app designed to make commuting on the London Tube less stressful, and an interview from The Salt Lake Tribune where a CEO discusses the characteristics of great leaders, one of which is empathy.

I was a bit surprised by the depth and breadth of articles and am looking forward to future alerts. There are articles, well written blog entries and lots of videos. One series tells the story of a Tokyo teacher and his students who write notebook letters to each other:

Parent Triggers and Charters

I am visiting in Pennsylvania, and this commentary on the need for a parent trigger law was in today’s paper. The Commonwealth Foundation supports charter schools, and the writer points to evidence that charters are outperforming public schools by demonstrating that more charters have made Adequate Yearly Progress. It’s telling that the organization does not compare scores on either the PSSA (Pennsylvania’s state test) or NAEP (the national test of progress).  That data is only used to show that scores for public schools are declining.  I can’t help but wonder why?  Could it be that, when it comes to actual scores, the charters aren’t doing any better and maybe worse than the traditional schools?

In fact, that’s what data is really showing about charters. What little reliable data can be found shows what much educational research does: results vary across schools, states, and students. Some charters do better; some charters do worse. There is certainly no research to support increasing the number of charters or that parent trigger laws lead to greater student achievement.


My New Reading List

I happened to catch a bit of Jonathan Kozol on CSPAN this afternoon.  He was talking about his new book Fire in the Ashes. I was somewhat surprised to learn this his book Savage Inequalities had been banned in Tucson, Arizona, along with lots of other subversive literary works like Walden and The Tempest.  (Really, Shakespeare?) You can view a copy of the full list here.

The banned books were part of a larger ban on ethnic studies enacted by the Tucson School Board in January of this year.  They did so under threat of losing 10% of their state funding for breaking a state law that forbids “any ethnic studies classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” While auditors did not find evidence of this sedition, but it seems that in the charged atmosphere of Arizona where immigration is a divisive issue, just having a group of hispanic students gather to talk about their history and their families is enough to scare some state legislators.

The Independent Lens video Precious Knowledge is worth a view. The students are experiencing higher achievement as they are drawn into courses where they can find themselves.

Meanwhile, I may make my next 30 day challenge to start working on the banned books list as I have not read much latino literature and it’s time to get back to Thoreau and Kozol and Shakespeare as well.


Of Platitudes and Poverty

In the past two weeks, I have found myself lecturing several well-meaning people on the impact of poverty in education. Both of them were people who had clearly bought into the popular reform idea that charter schools and vouchers, the favorites of corporate reformers, can overcome any and all social issues. I don’t blame them. I think it makes people feel good to think that education can be the great equalizer since it seems like we can fix education while poverty seems unsurmountable.  Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” put anyone who wanted to try to solve the poverty problem on the defensive as we seemed to be making excuses for low student achievement rather than being willing to roll up our sleeves and just teach every child no matter where they came from.  As with most slogans, it simplified an incredibly complex problem.

In fact, trying to tackle the issue of poverty as a way of boosting student achievement is all about high expectations not just for students or schools but for our society in general. We want to do more than get every kid to pass what are often lowest-common-denominator multiple choice tests. We want them to come from homes where wondering about the next meal can be replaced with wondering about the universe.

Valeria Strauss, author of The Answer Sheet at the Washington Post, has been a consistent voice in the fight to reveal the effects of poverty on student achievement. She speaks through her own voice and that of educators who speak from the front line rather than the front office. Here are a few recent columns:

And, for all those people who wonder why the US isn’t first in international testing, here’s a great blog post from Mel Riddle that links the international test (PISA) to poverty in the countries in which it is taken: