Has Testing Reached a Tipping Point? (Part Deux)

It appears I was premature.

Exactly one year ago, in an article for the SmartBlog on Education, I asked: “Are we witnessing the early signs of a sea change in how we think about the best ways to measure student learning and growth?”

What a difference a year makes.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, there were three different articles about the growing anti-testing movement, and the looming fight here in Washington over what role testing should play in the next iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was most recently rechristened No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

On the Opinion page, NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz reported on the growing opt-out movement across the country — and outlined how other parents can join the fight.

In the front section, education reporter Lyndsey Layton spoke about a speech U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan will give this morning, at an elementary school in D.C. Tops on the agenda? Preparing us for the looming battle over ESEA’s future in Congress — and steeling us to recalibrate how we use tests, as opposed to discarding their use altogether.

And then, in the Metro section, Moriah Balingit and T. Rees Shapiro shared the story of an elementary school in Virginia that has experienced dramatic test score gains for its third graders — and is left to wonder if the ends have justified the means. “I just knew it’s a part of the game,” said teacher Carissa Krane. “There has to be a way to be accountable, and this is the way that our country’s decided we’re going to hold kids accountable and the teachers accountable.”

Later in the article, University of Virginia education professor Tanya Moon sounded a similar note. Moon, who specializes in assessment, thinks the testing movement has gone too far. “I believe that everybody should be held accountable for their jobs,” she said, “but there are lots of things that kids bring into schools that schools can’t do anything about and yet the schools are held accountable.”

So, I repeat, one year later: has testing reached a tipping point? And is there a way to maintain the original spirit of accountability — to one another, for another, in the service of a greater, more legitimate quest for equity and equal opportunity — while also repairing the ways in which our efforts to build accountability have narrowed our view on what matters most?

Stay tuned for what promises to be an eventful, significant year.


Reimagining Our Schools, NOW

It’s a presidential election season, which means we can all be sure of two things: conversations about education will take a backseat to more “pressing” issues like the economy and foreign policy, and Congress will once again do nothing to address our desperate need for a new federal education policy.

However, just because our elected officials can’t get the job done doesn’t mean the rest of us are powerless to be the change we wish to see in the world. In fact, local educators could do a lot to sidestep national policymakers by committing to do just three things this coming school year:

1.   Be Visionary – Almost every school in America has a mission statement to guide its short-term decisions. Almost no school in America has a vision statement to guide its long-term aspirations. Is it any wonder that educators feel overwhelmed by the day-to-day responsibilities of their work?

One of the defining characteristics of any transformational organization – whether it’s an elementary school or a Fortune 500 company – is an ability to manage the creative tension between a distant vision and an up-close focus. As educators, that means it’s essential we keep an eye on the daily progress of our students in subjects like reading and math. And it means articulating a long-range goal to which we aspire, and being mindful of which decisions will get us there – and which will take us off course.

As an example, consider Science Leadership Academy, a public high school in Philadelphia with a mission of “providing a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum with a focus on science, technology, mathematics and entrepreneurship.” SLA’s mission clarifies the curricular focus of the school, but it tells us little about what shapes its philosophy of learning. For that, you need to consider its vision: to consistently ask and answer three questions – “How do we learn? What can we create? And what does it mean to lead?”

That extra layer of specificity is helpful not just to prospective parents, but also to SLA students, staff and administrators. And while educators are right to feel that the last ten years of federal education policy have narrowed their work to little more than basic-skills literacy and numeracy, there’s nothing preventing schools from taking the time to dream bigger.

2.   Be Specific About What Matters Most – Everyone agrees that in an ideal school, young people acquire the skills and habits to develop not just intellectually, but also socially and emotionally. According to our lawmakers, however, the mark of a successful school is still disproportionately based on reading and math scores. That’s ridiculous – but so are we if we refuse to take the time to explicitly identify which additional skills and habits we want students to practice and acquire.

This sort of work occurs informally in most schools, which hold generalized values for things like character, collaboration and empathy. Sometimes these words may appear on a wall;  other times they may get discussed during an advisory class. But there’s a big difference between implicitly valuing something in a person and explicitly committing to ensure that a person embodies those values.

The good news is that in a lot of schools, this sort of work has already begun. At the Project School in Indiana, educators work every day to nurture three sets of habits in their students: mind, heart and voice. And at the MC2 school in New Hampshire, students are assessed by their ability to master seventeen habits of lifelong learning – habits with specific rubrics and sub-skills that build a clear map for personal growth and evaluation.

Imagine if every school took the time to decide which skills and habits were most important to them, and then went the extra step by deciding how to measure what matters most?

3.   Be Comprehensive – It is both necessary and insufficient to craft a shared vision or identify which skills are most important for a young person’s overall learning and growth. What distinguishes transformational schools from the rest is their commitment to align everything they do – from student assessment to teacher evaluation to parent inclusion – around what they aspire to become.

This is not a code our elected lawmakers are likely to crack anytime soon. So let’s stop waiting. Let’s use the coming school year to take back our profession by raising it to a different standard of clarity and possibility. And let’s start holding ourselves accountable to a vision that actually reflects what we know is required to leave no child behind.

Should States Be Sued for Providing Low-Quality Schools?

How’s this for a summer blockbuster – the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state of Michigan for violating the “right to learn” of its children, a right guaranteed under an obscure state law.

That assistance hasn’t happened, says Kary L. Moss, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the ACLU. “The Highland Park School District is among the lowest-performing districts in the nation, graduating class after class of children who are not literate. Our lawsuit . . . says that if education is to mean anything, it means that children have a right to learn to read.”

Although this case is the first of its kind, we’ve been having this debate for a loooong time now. For years, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. has tried — and failed — to introduce language for a new amendment to the U.S. Constitution “regarding the right of all citizens of the United States to a public education of equal high quality.”

Then there’s the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, a 1989 gathering that resulted in the first legally binding international treaty and establishment of universally recognized norms and standards for the protection and promotion of children’s rights. By any account it was an overwhelming success; all but three member nations signed on.

The three holdouts? Somalia. South Sudan. And us.

And then there’s the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in response to a group of poor Texas parents who claimed their state’s tolerance of the wide disparity in school resources violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. A state court agreed, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, reversed. “Though education is one of the most important services performed by the state, it is not within the limited category of rights recognized by this Court as guaranteed by the Constitution.” If it were, the majority conceded, “virtually every State will not pass muster.”

For Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing in dissent, that was precisely the point. “The Court concludes that public education is not constitutionally guaranteed,” even though “no other state function is so uniformly recognized as an essential element of our society’s well being . . . Education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society. Both facets of this observation are suggestive of the substantial relationship which education bears to guarantees of our Constitution.”

The fact that the Court’s 1973 decision was 5-4 tells you how closely contested this issue has always been. And yet I can’t help but wonder, why is it so difficult to demand of ourselves a higher set of standards – for learning, for teaching, and for fairness? And what should we do at the federal level to ensure the right to learn of all American children?

We could start by taking the following seven policy steps, which were developed during my tenure as the National Director of the Forum for Education & Democracy:

1.    Link Federal support to progress in Opportunities to Learn.

Currently, the allocation of education spending does not reflect the urgency of repaying the educational debt. The funding allocated in current federal policy — less than 10% of most schools’ budgets — does not meet the needs of the under-resourced schools where many students currently struggle to learn. It is also allocated in ways that reinforce rather than compensate for unequal funding across states. Nor does current federal policy require that states demonstrate progress toward equitable and adequate funding or greater opportunities to learn. Federal mandates that simply require equity in such things as “highly qualified teachers,” without a national agenda to provide such resources, offer a hollow promise.

Such inequality is fundamentally incompatible with the democratic mission of our schools to create an engaged and capable citizenry. This new direction must not only offer access to basic education, but also equip all citizens with the higher-order thinking skills made necessary by new economic and social realities.

Investment in a “thinking curriculum” for all students is needed to reverse the destructive trend toward a society deeply divided between the “haves” whose education prepares them to participate in the new society and the “have nots” who can’t participate — and who are increasingly part of a growing school-to-prison pipeline. The federal role must ensure that every child has an equal opportunity to learn, which research has demonstrated includes access to high-quality teachers and school leaders, challenging curricula, and schools and classes organized so that all students are well known and well supported. Further, to ensure that all bilingual learners reach their optimal potential, they must have the opportunity to develop a deep, principled command of content so that they are subsequently fairly assessed on their knowledge and skills.  Like all other students, bilingual learners must be given adequate opportunities to experience rigorous instruction that is challenging, beneficial, and college-ready.  However, rather than viewing these students as lacking the English language, our system should acknowledge and expand their bilingual assets that will benefit them and our nation.  Federal support for these efforts should be expanded so that dual language and bilingual programs that foster biliteracy skills are made optional for bilingual learners.

One central tool for this task is linking state eligibility for federal funds to state progress toward equitable school funding. The goal is to establish reciprocal or two-way accountability where it does not currently exist. While recent approaches to accountability have emphasized holding the child and the school accountable to the state or federal government for test performance, government has not been held accountable to the child or his school for providing adequate educational resources.

A new ESEA should start by asking (and helping) states to develop systems of accountability that use multiple measures of student learning which are performance-based and pegged to world-class standards of learning, and that assess gains based on how students improve over time.  The current confusing statistical gauntlet of dozens of annual targets for making “adequate yearly progress,” some of which place NCLB at odds with other federal laws and parent and student rights, should be replaced by state plans that propose a continuous progress index of performance which evaluates how schools and individual groups of students are advancing. Such an index should include a range of important measures, including continuation and progress toward graduation, as well as measures of school learning that assess higher-order thinking and understanding, provide useful diagnostic information, and ensure appropriate assessment for special education students and English language learners, guided by professional testing standards.

In addition, as a condition of receiving federal funds, states should create an accompanying opportunity index that reflects the availability of well-qualified teachers; strong curriculum opportunities; books, materials, and equipment (including science labs and computers); and adequate facilities. A report describing the state’s demonstrated movement toward adequacy and equitable access to education resources — and a plan for further progress — should be part of each state’s application for federal funds.

This notion was proposed at the start of the standards movement, when the National Council on Education Standards and Testing’s Assessment Task Force suggested that student performance standards would actually result in greater inequalities if they were not accompanied by policies ensuring access to resources, including appropriate instructional materials and well-prepared teachers, for all children.

Finally, the federal government should help to distribute well-trained teachers to all students through incentives that attract and keep educators in harder-to-staff locations, just as it currently does in medicine. In these ways, our national resources would be used strategically to ensure an adequate opportunity to learn for every child.

The federal government can help ensure equity by:

  • Better equalizing its own allocation of funds to states, accounting for concentrations of need and differences in costs of living;
  • Creating benchmarks for the pursuit of equity in the form of opportunity-to-learn standards;
  • Closing the comparability loophole in Title I by requiring districts to equalize per-pupil expenditures across schools prior to awarding Title I funds; and
  • Incentivizing states to implement equitable funding models across districts and schools.

2.  Incentivize the recruitment, development, and equitable distribution of highly qualified and highly effective teachers and school leaders.

Myriad studies have clearly demonstrated that highly effective teachers are an essential element for student learning and growth. However, students in low-resource schools do not have access to these teachers at the same rate as students in high-resource schools. Studies find that the quality of the school principal — especially the extent to which he or she engages in instructional leadership practices — is the second most important determinant of a healthy learning environment, right after teacher quality.

The federal government should ensure that all students have the same opportunity to learn from a well-trained teacher and a high-quality principal by increasing the number of highly qualified and highly effective teachers and principals in the pipeline; helping to ensure high quality preparation for these teachers and principals; and creating incentives that attract and keep educators and school leaders in harder-to-staff locations, just as it currently does in medicine. In particular, teachers of bilingual learners must be well prepared in both language development and content methodologies, each of which plays an important role in students’ opportunities for learning.  Teachers should also receive ongoing professional learning opportunities in content delivery, language sheltering, and teaching of academic language, all with a focus on college readiness.

This can be achieved by:

  • Creating incentives, such as service scholarships, to recruit teachers and principals to high need areas;
  • Strengthening teacher preparation by supporting professional development programs (akin to teaching hospitals) and high quality residency programs;
  • Supporting the development of a national teacher performance assessment that can be used for licensing;
  • Implementing a minimum ratio of experienced to inexperienced teachers for all schools;
  • Supporting mentoring programs and ongoing, practice-based collaborative learning opportunities for teachers;
  • Providing opportunities to acquire certification in ESL and bilingual education through scholarships and loan forgiveness;
  • Providing expansive teacher preparation models where an ESL endorsement is part of the regular secondary certification process and that ensures that all bilingual learners are provided with teachers who are equipped to implement a rigorous curriculum that is attuned to students’ English proficiency levels in core content areas.
  • Supporting the development of differentiated career pathways that help keep promising teachers in the profession, and
  • Investing in strong school leadership recruitment and training programs.

3. Ensure equal access to high-quality early education programs.

Access to a high-quality early education experience sets the foundation for academic success. Research conducted by Nobel Laureate James Heckman affirms that early education programs have clear educational development benefits that include higher graduation rates, higher incomes, and lower levels of criminal behavior compared to children who did not participate in early education.Heckman’s findings were corroborated by the HighScope Perry Preschool Study which found that child participation in an early education program significantly reduced arrest rates, while increasing earned income, graduation rate, and IQ scores compared to those who did not participate in an early education program.

As important as early education programs are to a child’s development, access to such programs is far from equitable. A report by the National Institute for Early Childhood Research indicates that access to early education programs varies by ethnicity, income and the educational attainment level of a child’s mother. The federal government can help to close the gap in access to early education by:

  • Establishing minimum requirements for early education programs (e.g., teachers with bachelor degrees and trained in early childhood education, small class sizes, etc.);
  • Expanding current programs to include many more children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and
  • Expanding funding for early education programs.

4. Meet the Federal Obligation for Funding Programs for High-Need Students.

A complement to requiring that states move toward more equitable spending formulas is ensuring the federal funds designated for the education of high-need children are both adequate and spent strategically. When ESEA and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act were first enacted, the federal government committed to funding 40 percent of the extra costs of educating students with disabilities and those who are “educationally disadvantaged” by reason of poverty. This commitment has not been maintained.

If we are legitimately to expect all students to reach much higher standards, the federal government must meet its promises to support the investments needed to provide students the kind of intensive, high-quality teaching and support services they need. An estimated $10 billion in additional funds would move us about half the distance toward meeting this obligation. More of these funds should also be spent to improve the actual quality of services, rather than merely to meet complex regulatory requirements and manage paperwork that takes up staff time and school resources without improving the quality of education. Rather than adding ever more procedural regulations, these programs should be streamlined to focus on the quality of teaching provided to students by expert teachers and to invest in growing that expertise by investing in top-flight professional education.

Federal funds should be targeted for purposes that can make a real difference in educational opportunity — recruiting, preparing, and retaining high-quality teachers with the skills needed to help students who experience challenges in learning; improving professional learning opportunities; supporting the development of strong curriculum and assessment strategies; and providing additional learning time for low-income students through enrichment opportunities after school and during the summer.

5. Strengthen supports for English Language Learner and Limited English Proficiency students.

English Language Learners (ELL) represent the fastest increasing segment of the public school population. Under Title III of ESEA, schools and districts are accountable for the academic achievement of ELL students and for enabling these students to reach English-language proficiency. However, ELL students face a unique set of challenges compared to other students. For example, it is difficult to generate advanced conceptual understanding from English language learners (ELLs) and students with limited English-language proficiency (LEP) when they are being tested or taught in a language in which they are not proficient. The federal government can encourage teachers, schools, and districts to provide equal education opportunities for these students by:

  • Investing in the development of fully-qualified bilingual teachers who are sensitive to language barriers and cultural differences among students and able to effectively teach ELL and LEP students;
  • Aligning Title II and III by requiring that state local education agencies (LEA’s) demonstrate how their second language acquisition programs meet the academic and linguistic needs of bilingual learners;
  • Lifting the cap on the amount of money appropriated for pre-service preparation of bilingual and English-as-a-second-language teacher candidates, combined with restoring fellowship opportunities (Title VII) for graduate study in those same areas provided in earlier versions of ESEA;
  • Encouraging states and localities to increase the pool of highly qualified bilingual teachers and personnel with expertise in working with ELLs;
  • Supporting high-quality, research-based professional development opportunities for ELL/LEP teachers;
  • Providing all staff with continuous professional development in effective practices, particularly as they apply to bilingual learners.  Teacher candidates, and those already in the profession, should be provided financial support to complete higher education coursework in ESL methodology, or equivalent professional development in sheltered instruction in the subject areas.  For those teachers already in the profession, meeting this goal should be fulfilled by the end of their second year in the classroom.
  • Supporting early school intervention programs that help prevent ELL students from falling behind academically, and
  • Prohibiting districts and schools from testing ELL student exclusively in English until they have become proficient in the English language.

6. Invest in out-of-school learning supports.

The federal government also has a role to play in offering auxiliary supports that prepare students to learn, keep them engaged in school, and make their environment beyond school conducive to high levels of skill development. The obvious truth — that schools alone are not responsible for student learning and growth — should propel attention to programs that will provide adequate health care and nutrition, safe and secure housing, and healthy communities for children.

As New York University professor Pedro Noguera has noted: “If we want to ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn, we must ensure that their basic needs are met. This means that students who are hungry should be fed, that children who need coats in the winter should receive them, and that those who have been abused or neglected receive the counseling and care they deserve. If the commitment to raise achievement is genuine, there are a variety of measures that can be taken outside of school that will produce this result. For example, removing lead paint from old apartments and homes and providing students in need with eye exams and dental care are just some of the steps that could be taken.”

The learning effects of providing safe housing, non-toxic environments, and necessary health care are substantial — by some estimates as great as improving instruction. One key to the success of other high-performing nations has been the provision of out-of-school learning supports. Nations that provide all children with health care, ensure that when students come to school toothaches, vision problems, untreated asthma, and a range of illnesses do not distract them.

The availability of high-quality preschool is also a national priority in high-performing nations. When nations view learning as a priority for all children, they ensure that students come to school ready to learn. For every dollar invested in high-quality family support and early learning programs for young children, there is a $7 to $10 return to society in higher graduation rates and employment leading to higher wages and greater tax payments, decreased need for costly special  education services, lower rates of crime and incarceration, and better health. An additional $10 billion investment annually would enable all low-income children to experience high-quality preschools and affordable day care, with additional supports to enable their parents to meet their children’s educational and health needs as well.

7.  Enforce civil rights laws that are essential for educational equity.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) should evaluate and enforce state compliance with the federal mandate (as stated under the Civil Rights Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and NCLB) to provide an equal education opportunity for all students. Adherence to this goal would involve compliance with equitable access to equitable funding resources, early childhood education, quality teachers, and challenging curricula, along with equitable education opportunities for ELLs.

Fifty-eight years ago, the United States Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education captured the most hopeful strains of the American narrative: working within a system of laws to extend the promise of freedom, more fairly and fully, to each succeeding generation. In practice, however, integrated schools today remain as much of a dream now as they were fifty years ago, and the subject of segregation has all but disappeared from the national conversation about education reform. Worse still, many of the newest and most promising schools in our nation’s cities are actually increasing the racial stratification of young people and communities – not lessening it.

Investments must be made to ensure the fair and equitable distribution of resources for education in all communities. Doing so will afford our children the opportunities to learn they deserve. While the federal government cannot eliminate the long-standing educational debt overnight, it can enact policies that encourage states to equalize resources.

I’d call that a good start.

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

New Rules for School Reform

You know there’s a dearth of creative thinking in education when an article trumpeting cutting-edge teaching quotes somebody, without irony, saying the following:

“Get a computer, please! Log on . . . and go to your textbook.”

Yet that’s what the Washington Post did this morning – and they’re not alone. Despite ubiquitous calls for innovation and paradigm shifts, most would-be reformers are little more than well-intentioned people perfecting our ability to succeed in a system that no longer serves our interests.

Compounding the problem, even the best new ideas face a minefield of the same old obstacles that, left unaddressed, will lead to nothing new. For example, there’s a growing push to make homework more passive (i.e., watching a lecture at home, something that in the past would have taken up a class period), so that the school day can become more active (i.e., venturing outside to leverage community resources, something that in the past would have required a field trip). Yet the early-adopter schools are finding a familiar nemesis – inflexible definitions of “seat-time”, and strict requirements associated with course credits that inhibit teachers from letting different kids proceed at different paces and in different ways. They are, in short, the intractable rules of the Industrial Era, which was about standardization and scale, being applied to the flexible needs of the Democratic Era, which is about individualization and customization.

Instead of installing Smart Boards, and then using them as Blackboards, how can we think more imaginatively about the opportunities and obstacles in our field?

In the spirit of Bill Maher, I’d like to suggest three “new rules”:

1. Name your non-negotiables – I’m not expecting everyone to agree on these, but we should at least be clear as individuals about what our efforts are designed to accomplish. For example, do you think 3rd and 8th grade reading and math scores are a sufficient metric, by themselves, for evaluating whether or not schools and teachers are successful? If so, fire away with any and every study that supports your claim. But if not, stop cherry-picking the studies that benefit your argument (i.e., “schools that add art classes show a XX% rise in achievement.”) Either these tests are a valid stand-alone metric or they aren’t. Decide what you believe, and be consistent.

2. Begin with the end in mind – Thanks to Stephen Covey, this mantra has been with us for a while now. Yet I rarely encounter schools or school reformers that clearly understand what they’re looking for, and why it’s different in a transformational way. If we let current policies answer this question for us, we’re back to test scores; after all, nothing else matters in an era of high-stakes accountability. But what if we seek a more balanced learning environment, and a more balanced set of skills and competencies in young people? What would we need to do in order to bring that environment about, and how would we know if we were successful?

This goes beyond merely a new organizational mission statement – although for many places that would be a good start. Instead, it gets to the core questions we as a field must grapple with: What should be the primary context for learning – the classroom, the school, or the larger community? Will our goals be evaluated by test results, by curricular goals, or by individual learner aspirations? And does the responsibility for learning rest primarily with the student, the teacher, or a learning team that includes both?

Until we ask and answer these questions, both as a field and as individuals seeking to contribute something meaningful, the structural dysfunctions of the Industrial model we’ve worked within for nearly a century will remain invisible to us, and we’ll do things like get rid of textbooks  . . . so students can read them online. Or renovate old schools  . . . without also asking what new schools should look like. Or celebrate our increased efficiency in the old system . . . rather than create a truly disruptive new set of values and models.

At least one organization has clearly thought this through – check out the QED Foundation’s change model, in which they break out the primary components of a learning environment and then characterize reforms in each area as traditional, transitional, or transformational. QED has decided it will commit no less than 80% of its efforts in the transformational space. What have the rest of us decided? Have we even though our work through to this degree?

3. Stop waiting for the planets to align– Too many educators feel as though the current test-obsessed system has been imposed upon us. This has led too many of us to spend too much time complaining about what’s wrong, and not enough time actively amplifying what’s right. We are all complicit in the current system, and we all have a responsibility to change it for the better.

So if you’re a teacher or a principal, what are you waiting for? Be more proactive in demonstrating a better way to equip young people with the skills and self-confidence they need to be successful in school and in life – and show us how you did it. Band together with others to generate your own sense of political cover if the current policy environment continues to hinder your capacity to create a balanced, healthy learning environment. And define, and then maintain fidelity to, your own non-negotiables and end-goals.

In the end, transformational change really is that simple – and that difficult.

(This article also appeared in the Washington Post.)

Mission Accomplished? What the U.S. Can Learn from China

I just returned from my first visit to China in 15 years, and I still can’t get over how aligned the Middle Kingdom remains around its core “mission statement” – and how misaligned we remain in the United States.

In China, the mission that directs the priorities of its private, public and social sectors is the one first laid out by former premier Deng Xiaoping back in 1984 – “building socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Deng’s vision was an unlikely pairing – on one hand, robust financial freedoms and a willingness to welcome foreign economic influences (like McDonald’s and Microsoft); on the other, sharply circumscribed social freedoms and a determination to forbid foreign cultural influences (like Facebook and Twitter).

Back in 1994, when I taught at a university in Beijing, this shared purpose was already well ingrained: the schools existed to instill a dialectical pair of aspirations in young people: the homogeneity of ideas, and the heterogeneity of the marketplace.

Regardless of how one feels about its mission, China’s ability to align the myriad aspects of its society around such a clearly defined goal is a major contributor to its current position as an ascendant power. And not surprisingly, this sort of clarity is characteristic of other global success stories. Take Finland – just thirty years ago a Soviet backwater, and now, after steadily following through on a thoughtful 20-year vision of reform, the unquestioned home of the world’s best schools.

When I look at countries like China and Finland, I see more starkly the misalignment between America’s historic vision as a nation and the current mission of its public schools. Ask anyone to describe the former, and you’ll hear slight variations on the same foundational theme: E Pluribus Unum – Out of many, one. Ask folks to describe the latter, and you’ll hear everything under the sun.

To some degree, mission misalignment is to be expected in a country of 50 states, 15,000 school districts, one overarching federal policy, and a chaotic, inchoate marketplace of reforms du jour. Yet if we take federal policy as our guide, the central mission of public education since 2000 has actually been quite clear: to eliminate the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Will such a mission help America move closer to its larger vision of an equitable democratic society? In theory, definitely. And yet in a new article for National Affairs, education policy expert Rick Hess carefully chronicles how our decade-long obsession with the achievement gap, and our willingness to evaluate that gap based on a single metric – basic skills standardized test scores in reading and math – “has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. And it has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform.”

Unquestionably, these efforts have crippled our collective capacity to enact a shared mission for the public schools that is aligned with our shared vision for the public good. We all know we need schools that help children become more confident and creative – and yet we overvalue a small subset of academic skills to the detriment of all other forms of learning. We all know we need schools that nurture the needs of all children – and yet we pursue policies that prioritize the needs of some children more than others. And we know we need schools that pledge fidelity to the same overarching mission and fulfill that mission in myriad ways – and yet we impose stifling evaluative controls that hinder the ability of educators to make real-time decisions about how best to engage and inspire the children under their care.

The good news, I believe, is that we have reached the point in our history where the pendulum’s motion is about to swing back. A growing chorus of unlikely allies, from a wide range of perspectives, is saying ENOUGH – it’s time to restore our collective focus on the intellectual, emotional and vocational needs of children, and it’s time to align the overarching vision of our society with the shared mission of our public schools.

How do we get there? I propose a simple starting point: Since the main factor hindering our efforts is the ongoing exclusive emphasis on reading and math scores – and since the fecklessness of our elected officials suggests it may take a while before we see any serious revisions to federal education policy – let’s invite schools and communities across the country to do two things: opt out of the current system and its myopic metrics of success, and opt in to an open network of innovators that all pledge to find – and share – a better way of evaluating their capacity to equip young people to fulfill our shared vision as a nation? The goal would be twofold: to free schools from feeling like they can’t be innovative; and then, by doing so, to challenge ourselves to proactively chart a better way forward.

I say it’s time for the United States to align itself more proactively around the vision that has animated our history and inspired the world. So who’s in? And what simple structures would such a movement need in order to be effective, inspiring, and mission-driven?

What Joel Klein Doesn’t Understand About Teaching — and What We Should Do Instead

In case you missed it, former NYC Schools Chief Joel Klein had an Op-Ed in this weekend’s Washington Post in which he, rightly, urges us to do what it takes to establish a true long-term teaching profession. His recipe for doing so, however, reveals the extent to which he has misdiagnosed both the problem and its potential solutions.

Klein begins by noting the ways teachers have become “unfairly vilified” in the current conversations about education reform, and then, after celebrating the heroic few in the profession who are “America’s heroes,” dedicates equal space to calling out the teachers who “work by the clock.” According to Klein, “the problem is that our discussion too often fails to distinguish between these very different types of teachers, treating them all the same.”

I would counter that the bigger problem is when we speak of any profession in such binary terms — are you a hero or a laggard? — and expect that such rhetoric will do anything other than alienate the core constituency we are trying to support and celebrate.

Let me be clear: there are teachers who work by the clock, and who need to be in a different line of work. I have seen them with my own eyes, and worked with them, frustratingly, over the years. They are a minority of the profession — as are the “heroes” who are already working at the highest levels of mastery. Any strategy for creating a true profession, therefore, needs to be concerned less with these stereotypes and more with the overwhelming majority of people teaching our kids every day — the people who could, with the right supports and measures, become master educators, or, without such supports, struggle to stay afloat and then, like so many before them, abandon the field, burned out and discouraged.

Unfortunately, Klein misses the mark on that point as well. Indeed, not once in his entire piece does he mention the core focus of school — learning. Instead, Klein (rightly) bemoans current aspects of labor law, and (wrongly) suggests that all we need is a system that “looks at how much student progress each teacher gets.” I understand the motivation here, and it’s certainly appealing to imagine a neat linear process by which we measure what adults have been able to put into their students. It’s just not possible.

On this point, let me also be clear: rethinking how we evaluate and provide feedback to teachers is an essential part of any long-term reform, and it makes sense that part of those evaluations come via student assessments — be they quantitative or qualitative. To do that well, however, requires a much deeper understanding of the deeply nonlinear, highly individual continuum on which teaching and learning unfolds. As Mr. Klein has shown repeatedly, that is a world with which he has had little direct interaction, and about which he seems to have little interest.

Simply put, student achievement, as we have come to define it, may or may not mean actual learning. That’s wiggity wack. And teacher excellence, as Klein intends to define it, will do little more than guarantee a heightened emphasis on that current, myopic method of evaluation. We can, and must, do better than that.

In that spirit, and since there’s nothing worse than criticizing someone’s plan and offering nothing in its place, check out this set of proposed teacher policies, thanks to my former colleagues at the Forum for Education & Democracy, and share your reactions — good, bad and/or ugly — in the comments section below:

Standards for Teaching

An equitable and adequate system will need to address the supply of well-prepared educators – the most fundamental of all resources – by building an infrastructure that ensures high-quality and continuously improving preparation for all educators and ensures that well-trained educators are available to all students in all communities.  If students are to be expected to achieve higher standards, it stands to reason that educators must meet higher standards as well.  They must know how to teach in ways that enable students to master challenging content and that address the specific needs of different learners, including new English language learners as well as students with special education needs. As Ted Sizer noted back in 1984: “While our system of schools contains many consequential characteristics—for example, the subjects of the curriculum, the forms of governance, the uses of technologies and teaching aids, the organization of programs for special groups—none is more important than who the teachers are and how they work.  Without good teachers, sensibly deployed, schooling is barely worth the effort.”

Investing in skilled educators is also critical to local school innovation. If schools are to be trusted to make good decisions about educational matters, teachers and school leaders must be deeply knowledgeable about teaching, learning, curriculum, and school improvement. When the public lacks confidence in the professional judgment of educators, legislators increase bureaucratic straitjackets, even when these reduce, rather than increase, school effectiveness. Our failure to build a strong profession and to ensure that all educators have the preparation and supports they need has gradually reduced teachers’ voices in how our children are educated. From the details of teaching children to read to rules for grade promotion, we have turned over more and more decisions to centralized authorities.

The problem with bureaucratic solutions is that children are not standardized; hence, effective practice cannot be reduced to routines. By its very nature, standardized practice is incapable of providing appropriate education for students who do not fit the mold upon which all of the prescriptions for practice are based. To be effective, teachers must be able to adapt instruction to students’ individual needs. Ironically, prescriptive policies created in the name of public accountability can ultimately reduce a school’s responsiveness to the needs of its students and the desires of its parents. Students and families become the scapegoats for school failure, since no one person in the system takes responsibility for the collective impact the system has on the learning opportunities for all children.

Unlike high-achieving nations, the U.S. leaves the supply of good teachers to chance, with no systematic approach to recruitment, preparation, evaluation, development, or retention in most states. Consequently, with few governmental supports for preparation or mentoring, teachers in the U.S. enter:

  • With dramatically different levels of training — with those least prepared teaching the most educationally vulnerable children;
  • At sharply disparate salaries — with those teaching the neediest students earning the least;
  • Working under radically different teaching conditions — with those in the most affluent communities benefiting from small classes and supportive working conditions, while those in the poorest communities often teach large classes without the necessary books, materials, supplies, and supports;
  • With little mentoring or on-the-job coaching to help teachers improve their skills.

In many states, schools serving the highest-need students experience continual turnover of teachers, which undermines both student learning and school progress, contributing to the long-term failure of both.

Meanwhile, higher-achieving countries that rarely experience teacher shortages have made substantial investments in teacher training and equitable teacher distribution in the last two decades. These countries routinely prepare their teachers more extensively, pay them well in relation to competing occupations, and provide them with time for professional learning. They also distribute well-trained teachers to all students — rather than allowing some to be taught by untrained novices — by offering equitable salaries, and sometimes offering incentives for harder-to-staff locations. They provide:

  • High-quality teacher education to all candidates, completely at government expense, including at least a year of practice teaching in a clinical school connected to the university;
  • Mentoring from expert teachers for all beginners in their first years of teaching, coupled with other supports like a reduced teaching load and shared planning;
  • Equitable salaries (often with additional stipends for hard-to-staff locations) which are competitive with other professions, such as engineering;
  • Ongoing professional learning embedded in 15 to 25 hours a week of planning and professional development time.

While we worry about the supply of doctors, engineers, and technicians, we seem to ignore the supply of teachers who will educate the highly skilled workers and thoughtful citizens of the future. We lack a national policy to increase the supply of good teachers, to support teachers while on the job, or to distribute good teachers to all our children. When we do not tend to those who will nurture our young in the skills and abilities that make engaged citizenship possible, we put our future as a democracy at risk.

We can do better.

To start investing in a long-term teaching profession – and stop tolerating a short-term teaching force – our current ad hoc approaches to teacher and principal recruitment, preparation, licensing, hiring, and ongoing professional development must be reshaped so that all students will have access to teachers and school leaders who can be professionally accountable.  This will require a serious overhaul of preparation and licensing standards so that they reflect the critical knowledge and skills for teaching, evaluated through high-quality performance assessments demonstrating that prospective teachers can actually teach effectively. Indeed, the knowledge teachers need to reach all students in today’s schools has increased considerably. Teachers not only need deep and flexible knowledge of the content areas they teach, they also need to know:

  • how children learn at different stages so they can create a productive curriculum that will build on students’ prior knowledge and experiences;
  • how to adapt instruction for the needs of students with special needs;
  • how to identify and shape practices that build upon the linguistic and cultural assets of emerging bilingual learners;
  • how to assess learning continuously so they can identify students’ needs and respond with effective teaching strategies; and
  • how to work collectively with parents and colleagues to build strong school programs.

While the risk we face today is self-imposed, the lesson we learned nearly half a century ago still applies — we can make a national commitment to a high-quality teacher corps. Federal leadership in developing an adequate supply of well-qualified teachers is as essential as it has been in providing an adequate supply of physicians, developing teaching hospitals, and improving medical education for more than 40 years.

Specifically, the federal government should:

1. Create incentives for recruiting teachers to high-need fields and locations.

Most high-achieving nations completely subsidize several years of teacher preparation for all candidates, so that the most talented will enter and all will be well-prepared. The U.S. should, at minimum, provide service scholarships that underwrite the full preparation of teachers who agree to teach in shortage areas and low-income schools for at least four years, the point at which most will continue in the profession. Those who prepare to teach mathematics, science, special education or bilingual education, and those who prepare to teach in inner city schools should be prepared completely at government expense in high-quality programs. Virtually all of the positions currently filled by unqualified teachers could be filled in this way for only $800 million a year.

In addition, incentives should be put in place to attract to these schools expert teachers who can serve as mentors and curriculum leaders. These incentives should address the key factors found to affect recruitment and retention: principals who are strong instructional leaders; colleagues who are like-minded and similarly committed; supportive teaching conditions — including reasonable class sizes, plentiful materials and equipment, time for collaboration, and input into decisions; and adequate compensation. Experience shows that changing these conditions in hard-to-staff schools transforms their ability to recruit and retain teachers. Additional pay that rewards the commitment of teachers willing to take on these challenges should be part of the mix, and it must be paired with these other elements, as teachers are most strongly motivated by working in settings where they are enabled to succeed with students — the reason they entered the profession in the first place.

An annual allocation of $500 million, matched by states and localities, could award $10,000 to each of 100,000 accomplished teachers annually, recruiting them to high-need schools to serve as mentors and coaches. An additional $300 million, also matched, could be used to improve working conditions so that these schools become attractive places to teach and learn.

2. Strengthen teacher preparation.

Studies show that teachers who are fully prepared when they enter the classroom stay in the profession longer and are more effective in promoting student learning.Yet the quality of both traditional schools of education and alternative route programs is highly variable. While there are some extraordinarily effective preparation programs, there has been no mechanism to spread effective practices to others and to upgrade the quality of the enterprise as a whole. This important mission should be launched through incentive grants to schools of education to strengthen teachers’ abilities to teach a wide range of diverse learners successfully, including students with exceptional needs and English language learners.

Investments should focus on the establishment of professional development schools which, like teaching hospitals in medicine, partner with universities to offer top-quality learning settings for children, prospective teachers, and veteran teachers alike. These school-university partnerships create the opportunity for those entering the profession to learn best practices and to develop their skills under the wing of experts while taking coursework on teaching and learning that is tightly integrated with clinical practice. Evidence shows that well-implemented professional development schools improve both teachers’ skills and student learning and are part of a necessary strategy for ensuring that teacher education is grounded in good practice. A total allocation of $300 million, with incentives tied to accountability for performance, would enable major improvements in the quality of preparation.

These kinds of programs are most needed in communities where they are often least available and where schools have often been difficult to staff. Rather than bringing in teachers with the least training to teach the students with the greatest needs, the federal government should invest in high-quality teaching residency programs for candidates who will prepare in and commit to these districts. As piloted in cities like Chicago, Boston, and Denver, teaching residencies place prospective teachers in the classrooms of expert teachers — often in schools designed to exemplify high-quality practice for high-need students — for a full year, with a salary or stipend, while they complete tightly linked course work for certification and a master’s degree from partner universities. Candidates learn sophisticated practices from the best urban teachers, and they pay back this investment by pledging to teach for four or five years in the district. Research shows that more than 90 percent of the graduates of these programs continue to teach in the districts where they were trained.

Such programs can prepare prospective teachers to integrate seamlessly into the environments where they will likely hold their first jobs — and not only to survive but also to thrive and become leaders in the districts where their expertise is so needed. Further, schools of education can collaborate with local school systems to ensure that the professional learning from these residency programs and other professional development schools is made available to educators in others schools. Finally, these partnerships help train veteran teachers to provide mentorship to novices, to collaborate effectively with their peers, and to develop the skills necessary to participate in the continuous reflection and improvement efforts that improve student learning. The costs of such an initiative would be modest. To create 100 such programs located in the nation’s largest cities, for example, by allocating $1 million to each program for each of five years, the annual  cost would be only about $100 million — a small fraction of the cost of poor education and high attrition these cities normally experience.

3. Make teacher education performance-based.

Federal investments should also include support for developing and implementing teacher performance assessments that evaluate whether prospective teachers can actually teach successfully in classrooms. Current tests used for licensing and program accountability usually measure basic skills and subject matter knowledge in ways that demonstrate little about teachers’ abilities to teach effectively.  Several states, including Connecticut and California, have incorporated performance assessments in the licensing process. These measures of performance – which can provide data to inform the accreditation process – have been found to be strong levers for improving preparation and mentoring, as well as determining teachers’ competence. Federal support for the development of a nationally available performance assessment for licensing would not only provide a useful tool for accountability and improvement, but also facilitate teacher mobility across states by creating a portable license.

Rather than debating traditional vs. alternative routes, states should seek to expand effective programs for preparing teachers, based on evidence of candidates’ effectiveness when they become teachers of record, regardless of their path to certification. States should evaluate all of their programs and ensure that they include the features of programs found to increase teacher effectiveness, as well as producing teachers who are able to demonstrate, in a meaningful, valid, and reliable performance assessment, that they are prepared to teach competently from their first day in the classroom.  Programs should also be evaluated and approved based on how well their candidates succeed in the classroom after they are hired.

4. Support mentoring for all beginning teachers.

With one-third of new teachers leaving within five years and with higher rates for those who are under-prepared, current recruitment efforts are like pouring water into a leaky bucket. Yet research has shown that mentoring for beginning teachers sharply stems attrition and increases competence. For $500 million annually, a federal program that matches state and local investments in mentoring programs for novices could ensure coaching support for every new teacher in the nation, as is provided in every high-achieving nation as a matter of course.

Such a program would more than pay for itself, as the costs of teacher attrition are enormous. Current estimates suggest that most school districts spend close to $20,000 in replacement costs for every teacher who leaves, putting the national bill for teacher turnover at well over $7 billion per year — money that could more productively be spent on a range of pressing educational needs.

5. Create sustained, practice-based collegial learning opportunities for teachers.

As part of its school improvement investments under ESEA, the federal government should invest in the systems needed to provide teachers with high-quality, sustained professional development, ensuring that teachers continue to learn. The critical need for investment in teacher learning has been made clear over and over again in efforts at educational change. Those who have worked to improve schools have found that every aspect of effective school reform depends on highly-skilled teachers.

Recent research has made clear both the qualities and impact of successful professional development, which differs substantially from the “hit-and-run” workshops typically held for teachers after school. Teacher learning that enhances student learning is:

  • Focused on teaching specific students and specific curricular content,
  • Anchored by attention to students’ thinking and learning progress in relation to curricular goals, teaching strategies, and formative assessments, and
  • Embedded in long-term collaborative teacher planning, along with observation and analysis of classroom practice.

A recent study of high-performing, high-poverty schools confirmed these features, noting that such “turnaround” schools emphasize teacher collaboration and joint problem-solving that occurs when teachers work together to diagnose student learning needs through formative assessments, adapt instruction to meet these needs, and support each other in improving their practices. A review of well-designed studies found that teachers who received substantial professional development — an average of 49 hours on specific areas of practice across the studies reviewed — boosted their students’ achievement by more than 20 percentile points on average, a significant increase in performance. This kind of improvement in practice can occur through guided learning at the school site, through content-based institutes and coaching, and through vehicles like National Board Certification that focus on close analysis of practice.

If we want to improve the quality of learning in our schools, we need to direct incentives toward this kind of professional learning both by outlining the features of programs that will receive support in existing federal programs and by creating incentives for the rethinking of school schedules and organizational designs so they can routinely provide time for such collaboration to occur. Such incentives can be stimulated through grants — like the federal Small Learning Communities grants — that promote the redesign of the factory model schools we have inherited, as well as through incentives in professional development grants — which are part of most federal programs — prioritizing the design of school structures that can enable intensive study and improvement of teaching. Much of this work could be done by better focusing the funds for professional learning in existing federal programs. An additional $600 million could be used to triple the investments in Small Learning Communities grants and to provide $2,000 per teacher for job-embedded professional learning for every teacher in the neediest 25 percent of schools.

6. Develop teaching careers that reward, develop, and share expertise.

The current structure of the teaching career places teachers in egg-crate classrooms, doing the same thing on the first day they enter the profession as they do 30 years later, with little opportunity to share what they know with others. These systems create career pathways that place classroom teaching at the bottom, provide teachers with little influence in making key education decisions, and require teachers to leave the classroom if they want greater responsibility or substantially higher pay. The message is clear: those who work with children have the lowest status.

We can do better.

We need a different career continuum, one that places teaching at the top and creates a career progression that supports teachers as they become increasingly expert. Rewarding teachers for knowledge of subjects, additional knowledge for meeting special kinds of student and school needs, and ensuring excellence in the classroom — as well as a willingness to take on mentoring, curricular development, and other leadership responsibilities — would enhance the expertise available within schools. Creating stronger pathways for continuous teacher learning and  sharing of expertise — through vehicles like National Board Certification as well as high quality on-the-job evaluation and other professional development focused directly on practice — has been shown to improve overall school performance as well as classroom teaching. Federal incentives could support innovative districts where teachers take leadership in designing such career pathways that create productive and useful evaluation systems, enhance teacher compensation, help keep veteran expert teachers in the field, reward teachers for taking on tough assignments, provide supports for teacher learning, and enhance the opportunities for accomplished teachers to share what they know so that practice improves.

An initiative that encourages districts to develop career ladders should incorporate beginning teacher mentoring by expert teachers chosen for their effectiveness in the classroom, and enable other roles for expert teachers as well.  It should be accompanied by a performance-based teacher evaluation system that provides information about teacher effectiveness by conducting standards-based evaluations of teaching practices conducted through classroom observations by expert peers or supervisors, as well as a systematic collection of evidence about the teacher’s planning, instruction, and assessment practices, work with parents and students, and contributions to the school.  This collection of evidence could also include evidence of student learning and progress drawn from student work samples; classroom, district or state assessments, as appropriate; and teacher documentation.

A productive career development system should be organized around high-quality professional learning opportunities, including time for teachers to work and learn together during the school day.  It could include additional incentives for teachers to take on mentor and master teacher roles in high-need schools, and even, as part of a group of teachers, to take on redesigning and reconstituting failing schools so that they become more effective.

7. Mount a major initiative to prepare and support expert school leaders.

Studies find that the quality of the school principal — especially the extent to which he or she engages in instructional leadership practices — is the second most important determinant of a healthy learning environment, right after teacher quality. Furthermore, the single most important determinant of whether teachers stay in a particular school is the quality of the administrative support they receive from their school leader. In short, principals create the conditions that foster or undermine teaching quality — and either build or destroy the school culture that allows teachers and students to succeed.

Growing shortages of principals are a function both of the growing complexity of the job and the shortage of high-quality recruitment and preparation programs that enable principals to be well-prepared for the enormous challenges they face. While we have growing knowledge of the traits and skills that make principals effective — including their strong background as expert teachers of both children and adults — in most communities, we lack explicit strategies for identifying talented teachers with these traits and reaching out to them to cultivate their leadership abilities. One important role of the career ladders described above would be to consciously strengthen the principal preparation pipeline for those instructionally skilled teachers who also want to contribute to the management of the overall organization.

A major federal initiative would underwrite talented candidates who are recruited to attend leadership programs that offer strong training in how to support instructional improvement, organize productive schools, and lead change — and that provide a full-time internship under the wing of expert principals who have developed successful schools. An average of 100 top-flight principals per state could be trained in state-of-the-art programs each year for $300 million, providing a pipeline of well-trained human capital to lead the reforms that are essential to our success. Federal investments through a new ESEA should provide another $300 million in funds for districts to develop strong professional development for principals, through learning networks and continuing engagement in instructional leadership training. And the federal government should set aside $100 million to create a top-flight School Leadership Academy — a “West Point” for developing  sophisticated expertise among the most able school leaders — so that they can take on the challenge of turning around failing schools in high-need communities with the all the knowledge and tools available to the profession.

These investments in educator quality will both develop greater excellence in our schools and address the federal role of ensuring equal access to high-quality education for all of America’s children. While the federal government cannot obliterate the long-standing educational debt overnight, it can enact policies that will provide qualified teachers for every child.

Let’s End the Battle of the Edu-Tribes

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

There’s a revolution underway – and no, I don’t mean in Egypt or Tunisia.

I mean the growing, hopeful, tech-savvy, solution-oriented tribe of educators who attended last weekend’s EduCon 2.3 in Philadelphia, an annual event that bills itself as “both a conversation and a conference, ” and a place where people come together, “both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools.”

Hosted by the Science Leadership Academy – an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on 21st century learning (what a concept!) – EduCon was as much a revival meeting as it was a conference. To spend time there was to bear witness to the development of a different sort of tribe – a confederacy of educators from across the country, united by inquiry, connected by social media, and committed to solving the intractable riddle of public education.

See for yourself – scroll through the #EduCon tweets and you’ll find two things in abundance: a communal language of potential and partnership; and a rapid-fire establishing of new relationships based on possibility and hope.

This is, in short, the essential recipe for bringing about a paradigm shift in any profession or organization – and it is painfully rare in contemporary conversations about public education. As Dave Logan explains in his must-read book Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, “tribes emerge from the language people use to describe themselves, their jobs, and others. . . When a person looks out at the world, he sees it filtered through a screen of his words, and this process is as invisible to him as water is to a fish. . . Instead of people using their words, they are used by their words, and this fact is unrecognized.”

Logan goes on to characterize five tribal “stages” – informal groupings in society, a field, and/or an organization based on an individual’s predominant worldview (as constructed through the language s/he uses and the types of relationships s/he forms). The extreme stages range from a complete sense of hopelessness about the world and its possibilities (“life sucks”), to a transcendent space of endless possibility and collaboration (“life is great”). And, of course, the bulk of us fall somewhere in between.

I share this because when I returned from EduCon I was struck by the clear contrast in tone between tweets from EduCon attendees and tweets from the leading voices of the two main Edu-Tribes – also known as the “reformers” and the “status quo-ers”, although I tend to think of them more as the Old Guard and the New Guard.

As Logan would explain it, the EduCon Tribe is operating at the crossroads of Stages Four and Five. Its members pay almost no attention to organizational or regional boundaries; the only thing that matters is that people contribute meaningfully to the discussion. The language of this tribe is hopeful, solution-oriented, and obsessed with things like collaboration and communication. And its members are all aligned around EduCon’s five guiding principles:

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members;
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen;
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around;
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate;
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked.

The power of these principles is key; a high-functioning tribe always identifies and leverages a core set of values, and uses those values as guideposts to align around a noble cause. Yet contrast that clarity with the Old & New Guards, still engaged in bitter warfare to influence the mainstream media and shape the Obama administration’s federal education policy priorities – albeit at slightly different cultural stages.

To borrow Logan’s terminology, the Old Guard is operating at a Stage Two level – most simply described as a “My Life Sucks” view of the world. Logan describes people in this cultural stage as “passively antagonistic; they cross their arms in judgment yet never really get interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic and resigned. The Stage Two talk is that they’ve seen it all before and watched it fail. The mood that results is a cluster of apathetic victims, united in their belief that someone or something is holding them down and standing in their way.”

Any of us who live and work in education have seen – or been in – this stage throughout our careers. On Twitter, it’s reflected in a lot of negative, oppositional language: words like “skewer,” “dupe,” and “debunk.” And in articles and Op-Eds, it’s reflected in pieces that are primarily about what the other side is doing wrong – and only secondarily about what its own side is doing right.

Meanwhile, the New Guard is primarily made up of people operating at Stage Three – most simply described as the “I’m great, and you’re not” worldview. As Logan explains, “The gravity that holds people at Stage Three is the addictive ‘hit’ from winning, besting others, being the smartest and most successful.” Not surprisingly, the New Guard uses words like “innovation,” “scalable,” and “results.” Its members love the spirit of programs like “Race to the Top.” And because of its overreliance on intellect and the technocratic answer, its characterizations of schools, and of schooling, can come to sound dehumanizing for adults and children alike.

To be sure, these descriptions cannot provide full accounts of any individual or tribe. All of us defy such efforts at easy explanation, and the current debates about public education cannot simply be reduced to whether we’re pro- or anti-union, reform or status quo, or old guard and new guard.  Still, in Logan’s descriptions I see sufficient echoes of the world I inhabit and the conversations I observe, and I’ve become even more aware of the words I use and the types of relationships I form. For me, that means refusing to contribute to the cynicism and hopelessness of Stage Two, and insisting on an expansion of the “coldly cognitive” worldview of Stage Three.

I want more inquiry. I want less demonization of those I disagree with. I want more community. In short, I want my EduCon, and I want it all the time! Who’s with me?

Send Those Postcards!

Today, the coalition of education and civil rights organizations that launched the Rethink Learning Now campaign, in conjunction with Time Out From Testing, is launching a postcard campaign to First Lady Michelle Obama asking that she encourage the President to put an end to the use of high stakes testing.

You may recall that when Mrs. Obama was on the campaign trail, she said the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Program “is strangling the life out of most schools … If my future were determined by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn’t be here. I guarantee that.”

Thousands of us agree with her criticism. We need her help to end the reliance on high stakes standardized tests — not because we want to see an accountability-free education climate, but because we know that in order for schools to help children learn to use their minds well, educators must be evaluated on more than a single measure of student achievement.

Here is what YOU can do:

On May 28th, send a postcard to Michelle Obama with this message:

Dear Mrs. Obama:

We know you share our belief that all children deserve the same high-quality education that you provide for Malia and Sasha.? But in this current national culture of testing, public schools are forced to spend too much time preparing children for basic-skills tests.

Help us create a national culture of learning instead. Our children are not their test scores. Encourage the President to end the use of high stakes standardized tests!



Mail these cards to: First Lady Michelle Obama, White House,? 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest Washington, DC 20500

A flood of postcards at the White House is the effect that is needed for Mrs. Obama and her staff to take notice. This means that an actual physical postcard must be sent. Help end our country’s overreliance on the use of basic-skills standardized tests!

The Big Picture on School Performance

On Feb. 1, President Obama vowed to toss out the nation’s current school accountability system and replace it with a more balanced scorecard of school performance that looks at student growth and school progress.

I love the idea. Mr. Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan have repeatedly criticized the No Child Left Behind Act for keeping the “goals loose but the steps tight.” On their watch, both men aspire to introduce a new law that keeps the “goals tight but the steps loose.”

With that more flexible standard in mind, I have a scorecard to propose: the ABC’s of School Success.

Rethink Learning NOW

This fall, as young people across the country settle back into the rhythms and requirements of a new school year, the rest of us might want to heed the words of a former U.S. president and ask ourselves an old question:

“Is our children learning?”

The answer, of course, is that we can’t know for sure, since our education system isn’t even being asked to measure whether or not young people are learning – only whether they are demonstrating progress on basic-skills standardized tests in 3rd and 8th grade reading and math.

As everyone knows, learning involves more than basic skills and regurgitating information. It requires higher-order skills and the capacity to digest, make sense of, and apply what we’ve been taught.

We can do better. We can have schools in every neighborhood that teach children both basic- and higher-order skills, that allow creativity and innovation to flourish, and that lead all children to discover how to fully and effectively participate in our economy and democracy.

Before that can happen, however, we need to start having a different conversation. We need to restore the focus of public education reform to its rightful place – on learning, and on the core conditions that best support it.

Click here to read more.