Excerpt From an Open Letter to Arne Duncan from Herb Kohl

"...I discovered then, in my early teaching career, that learning is best driven by ideas, challenges, experiences, and activities that engage students. My experience over the past 45 years has confirmed this.

We have come far from that time in the '60s. Now the mantra is high expectations and high standards. Yet, with all that zeal to produce measurable learning outcomes we have lost sight of the essential motivations to learn that moved my students. Recently I asked a number of elementary school students what they were learning about and the reactions were consistently, "We are learning how to do good on the tests." They did not say they were learning to read.

It is hard for me to understand how educators can claim that they are creating high standards when the substance and content of learning is reduced to the mechanical task of getting a correct answer on a manufactured test." (Summer 2009)

Nova High School Relocated

Nova High School Relocated

Merit Pay

"I would like to know who in our country would like their pay to be based on the actions of a group of children."

Laurie, in response to R. Weingartner, On Point, 1/26/10

Merit pay is an issue that is closely associated with charter schools and is a reiteration of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Basically, it requires that teachers pay be based on how well their students perform on standardized tests. For our students, it could be the new MAP test. With the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers and staff were pressured to teach much of the class work to the standardized tests. With so much focus on the test, many other parts of knowledge building, creativity and understanding of subjects and their synthesis with other knowledge had to take a back seat. For many students, teaching to a test meant that they were not able to reach their full potential which would have been far beyond the level of the tests.

No one wins in this situation.

Part of the fallout also is that if a teacher's pay is based on how well their students test, many teachers will want to teach in a school where they know that the students will perform well. Those schools are, for the most part, not the schools that are predominately minority in population.

Some students do not perform well on standardized tests for many different reasons and yet a teacher's pay can be tied to that student's performance. High stakes testing also puts pressure and stress on the students who become burdened with the thought that they need to perform well on one test. The test becomes a focus with little opportunity to explore and have fun learning, creating and synthesizing new thoughts and ideas.

Update: The Governor of Texas has decided to opt out of the Race to the Top funding because of the ineffectiveness of the merit pay program that was in effect for three years inthe state.

Update: March 8, 2010 Principal to be removed from school in Wasington State due to low WASL scores.

What Is a Charter School?

The basic difference between a traditional public school and a privately run charter school is that with a charter school there is complete control of the school by a private enterprise within a public school district. Although taxpayer-funded, charters operate without the same degree of public and district oversight of a standard public school. Most charter schools do not hire union teachers which means that they can demand the teacher work longer hours including weekends at the school site and pay less than union wages. Charter schools take the school district's allotment of money provided for each student within the public schools system and use it to develop their programs. In many systems, they receive that allotment without having to pay for other costs such as transportation for students to and from the school. Some states, such as Minnesota, actually allocate more than what is granted to public school students.

A charter school can expel any student that it doesn't believe fits within its standards or meets its level of expectation in terms of test scores. If the student is dropped off the rolls of the charter school, the money that was allotted for that student may or may not be returned to the district at the beginning of the next year. That is dependent upon the contract that is established by each district.

Also, according to a recent (June 15, 2009) study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO)
, charter schools do not necessarily perform any better than public schools. In fact, 37 percent performed worse. Forty-six percent demonstrated "no significant difference" from public schools. Only 17 percent of charter schools performed better than public schools.

"In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act."

Thomas Jefferson

The Broad Foundation

The Broad Foundation claims to be a philanthropic organization, created by billionaire Eli Broad.

The Broad Foundation supports privately run charter schools and actively develops a system of charter schools in urban areas.

Broad claims it engages in "venture philanthropy":
"Our Approach to Investing: Venture Philanthropy. We take an untraditional approach to giving. We don't simply write checks to charities. Instead we practice 'venture philanthropy.' And we expect a return on our investment."

Many of us have discovered the Broad Foundation's presence within SPS and are requesting an explanation for why it is here and what its' objectives are.

Seattle has three "Broad Residents", and two Broad graduates now working within SPS. One of them is our superintendent who is a graduate of the Broad Academy which trains superintendents, and is also on the Broad's Board of Directors.

Another Broad graduate and a onetime Broad resident in SPS, Brad Bernatek, is now Director of REA, Research, Evaluation and Assessment within SPS. That department is responsible for student statistics including enrollment, demographics, evaluation and standardized testing.

The Broad Foundation provided Dr. Payzant, also a Broad graduate, to be a part of our superintendent’s yearly review in 2009.

Broad recently gave SPS a $1M "gift." That money is now in the hands of the Alliance for Education and no one knows how the money is being spent.

All in all the Broad Foundation has been quite generous to the Seattle Public School system and as Eli Broad states himself, he expects a return on his investment.

Broad also supports and actively promotes mayoral control of school districts. Eli Broad's preferred model of mayoral control means that the mayor selects the school board members and superintendent who are therefore unelected and are beholden only to the mayor, not the people of the city. It then becomes a school district that is run by one person, the mayor, with heavy influence by the Broad Foundation through developed relationships with that individual.

Update: A Detroit School District employee found accepting money from the Broad Foundation.
"Let the games begin: Detroit Teachers vote to unanimously join the current Detroit Public School District in their suit against Robert Bobb".

Update: The Broad - Rhode Island connection.
Rhode Island has had the dubious distinction of making national news recently for the draconian firing/scapegoating of an entire school of teachers. Is it a coincidence that the new education commissioner for R.I., who is pushing the state to do whatever it takes to qualify for federal "Race to the Top" dollars, is a "Broad Superintendents Academy" graduate, Deborah Gist?
"This is the point, and why mayoral control and Eli Broad, Gates, The Fisher family and the Walton family (and a host of other such charitable capitalists) along with Green Dot schools and other EMO's who seek to privatize all of education are so giddy. Creating a sub-prime school system that breaks the backs of the teacher's union is the goal of the new managerial elite who seek only to turn over public schools to private operators and entrepreneurs. This way they can reduce teachers to at-will employees, de-skill them with the "best practices," force them to work longer hours for less pay and less benefits and of course eliminate collective bargaining; that will then give the new managerial elite and their corporate masters, control over the entire educational enterprise - from curriculum development to the hiring and firing of teachers."

Dan Weil

Dollars and Sense

December, 2009

What the Gates Foundation Is Doing: The MAP Test

The Gates Foundation supports, and pays for, high stakes testing which is tied to merit pay.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given Seattle Public Schools a total of $9M this year for additional testing. We have not been able to find out the details of this testing yet. We don't know what the test is, what the test is to determine, who is administering the test and how the results of the tests are to be used.

UPDATE: We have heard that the Gates "gift" is funding the new computerized, standardized "MAP" tests the district is administering this year to all students, from as young as kindergarten to grade 9. MAP stands for "Measures of Academic Progress™" (yes, it is a trademarked product) and will be administered to the kids three times during the school year. The test can take as much as two hours each session, according to the district's official announcement letter.

A number of questions come to mind: Is this the best use of the students' school time? Is it appropriate to make children as young as five who can't read take a standardized test on a computer? Is this the best use of such funds? Or would parents, students and teachers prefer to see money channeled more directly to the classroom, to create smaller class sizes, more enrichment opportunities, or to purchase new textbooks?

A SIDE NOTE: Another interesting connection is that our superintendent, Dr. Goodloe-Johnson, is on the Board of Directors for the company that has created and distributes the MAP test. There is $4.3M in the levy to pay for additional use of this MAP test in Seattle.

The Cooper Building: Program DIscontinued, 2009

The Cooper Building: Program DIscontinued, 2009

Regarding Arne Duncan's Renaissance 2010

" The purpose of Renaissance 2010 [in Chicago] was to increase the number of high quality schools that would be subject to new standards of accountability - a code word for legitimating more charter schools and high stakes testing in the guise of hard-nosed empiricism. Chicago's 2010 plan targets 15 percent of the city district's alleged underachieving schools in order to dismantle them and open 100 new experimental schools in areas slated for gentrification.

Most of the new experimental schools have eliminated the teacher union. The Commercial Club hired corporate consulting firm A.T. Kearney to write Ren2010, which called for the closing of 100 public schools and the reopening of privatized charter schools, contract schools (more charters to circumvent state limits) and "performance" schools.

Kearney's web site is unapologetic about its business-oriented notion of leadership, one that John Dewey thought should be avoided at all costs. It states, 'Drawing on our program-management skills and our knowledge of best practices used across industries, we provided a private-sector perspective on how to address many of the complex issues that challenge other large urban education transformations.'

Duncan's advocacy of the Renaissance 2010 plan alone should have immediately disqualified him for the Obama appointment."

Henry Giroux & Kenneth Saltman,

Obama's Betrayal of Public Education?


The African American Academy: Closed 2009

The African American Academy: Closed 2009

Alternative Schools in Seattle

Alternative schools in Seattle have a rich and varied history. Established in the 1960's by parents and educators and based on the principles of Summerhill, the programs that have developed over the last four decades in Seattle offer an opportunity for all students to succeed within the Seattle public school system.

At this time, the alternative and nontraditional schools in Seattle are basically under siege. Many schools have been closed, marginalized or split apart, including the Accelerated Progress Program (APP) for highly gifted kids, the Center School, Nova, Summit, the African American Academy, SBOC and AS-1. There is also a plan for an Alternative School Audit by SPS in October, 2009.

We see these alternative programs as viable options to the traditional school approach to education. For this reason many of us believe that with the support of these programs, there is no need for privatized charter schools.

Governor Gregoire and our state representatives are speaking to Arne Duncan about our alternative schools and that they meet the requirement of charter schools and should be considered in providing Race to the Top funds to our state.

Summit K-12: Closed 2009

Summit K-12: Closed 2009
An alternative school

Please Note

All of the schools and programs that will be shown on this page were closed or split in 2009 for an alleged total savings of $3M for the year. A drop in the bucket considering the $34M budget shortfall claimed by School Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson. Was it worth it? Let us know what you think. Enrollment for the fall of 2009 is 1,200 students more than the district anticipated. With schools closed based on capacity and financial management issues per our superintendent's statements, where will these students be seated?

Meg Diaz, a parent, did a brilliant presentation to the school board in January regarding the school closures, the demographics of Seattle and why it didn't make sense to close the schools.
See: http://sites.google.com/site/seattleschoolsgroup/meg-diaz-analysis

Unfortunately, the school board paid no attention to Ms. Diaz or their own reports and instead chose to believe the numbers presented by the superintendent's CFO, Don Kennedy who previously worked with our superintendent in Charleston, and Brad Bernatek our Broad graduate and Director of REA, Research, Evaluation and Assessment who also handles the demographic data for SPS.

Two schools were closed that, per their own report, would see an increase in school aged children of anywhere between 31%-100% between 2008 and 2012. See page 11 of the DeJong report titled "Seattle Public Schools: Enrollment Projections Report". Those two schools were TT Minor Elementary School and Meany Middle School.

After the closures, Ms. Diaz decided to investigate the administrative cost within the Stanford Center and came up with surprising results. While the superintendet was rifing teaches and staff and closing schools, staff was growing within the Stanford Center and particularly in our superintendent's office where yet another Broad graduate was hired as one of the superintendent's administrative assistants.

Posted on October 6, 2009: The new assignment plan just came out and the proposal is to re-open five school buildings. Between closing five school buildings, shuffling students to different schools and now proposing the re-opening of five buildings within a year's time speaks volumns about the lack of competency of our superintendent and her chosen staff.

We have now wasted money closing five schools, moving students, equipment and materials around just to re-open five school buildings.

The cost of re-opening five of these buildings is as follows:

Sand Point: $7M
Viewlands: $11M
Old Hay: $7.5M
Mc Donald$: $14.9M
Rainier View: $7.4M
Total so far: $47.8

The superintendent, along with the school board, plan to take the next capitol levy money, BEX III, to be voted on in 2010 that was to go to the maintenance and seismic upgrades of our school buildings, which would make them safer, and instead use the money to re-open these previously closed buildings.

The decision to close schools last year and close or relocate programs came down from our superintendent's office quickly and there was little time for debate or understanding of what the ramifications would be. It is my opinion that again, we need to have time to evaluate what cost can wait and how these cost can be phased so that we can not only make our existing buildings safer but also provide adequate space for all of our students.

There is also stimulus money that other school dristricts have been able to acquire to upgrade their school buildings through FEMA grants. These grants, part of a Disaster Mitigation Fund, are being used to make school buildings safer. I had presented this information to the school board and superintendent but no action was taken at the time.

I will provide updates on the effort to once again get SPS to pay attention to this opportunity.

Please send comments or ideas to us or share your opinions below. We want to hear from you. All positive and constructive input is of value.


"I think it high time Congress enact similar mandates for other professions that utilize a single measure to determine success. Dentists should be evaluated on how many teeth they save, doctors should be evaluated on how many patients they save, lawyers should be evaluated on how many cases they win, accountants should be evaluated on much money they save clients, and engineers on how many buildings they've designed get built. Congress should also enact national, comprehensive standards for each profession without any input from members of said professions since we know they can't be trusted to make informed decisions or contribute to the discussion in any meaningful way. Anyone who won't come on board should be fired and labeled a dissident. Conformity and control are a must, so teachers should be thankful they are first in the firing line."

Priscilla Gutierrez, Huffington Post comment

Lowell Elementary

Lowell Elementary
The Lowell APP program was split with half of the students sent to Thurgood Marshall.

Our Declaration

In the current national discussion about education reform, the loudest voices are not necessarily those of the people who are directly affected by what happens in our schools – the students, parents, teachers and school communities themselves.

We are parents with children in public schools. These are our kids, their teachers, our schools. And we would like to be heard.

What’s more, the message coming from the current league of reformers is largely negative, much talk about what’s wrong with our schools, but little discussion of what public schools and teachers are doing right, and what they could do even better if given full support.

Can our public schools be improved? Absolutely. But that begins with fully funding our schools and believing they can work.

We believe they can, when given the chance.

We also believe that too many of the latest proposed education reforms are too punitive and are not changes for the better.

We believe there are valuable aspects of public education worth preserving and supporting, beginning with the very principle itself – free public education for every child in the country. We believe this has always been a noble goal and one that we’re not willing to give up on.

So we have created a
Declaration of Support for Public Schools.

We invite others across the nation who share our vision for public education to sign on to our statement, to send a message to the president, education secretary and school district officials throughout the country.

The message is simple:

Let’s fix what’s broken, but don’t break what isn’t.

And do not impose detrimental changes on our schools and children in the name of “reform.”


Sue Peters, Dora Taylor

Seattle Public Schools parents
May 2010

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Taking Back School Reform: A Conversation Between Diane Ravitch and Mike Rose

This is such a great “conversation” that I decided to post it rather than just add a link in the right hand column. The original post can be found at edweek.org. It goes as follows:

Last month, education scholars Diane Ravitch and Mike Rose held a conversation at the University of California-Los Angeles about issues raised in Ravitch’s much-discussed new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Afterward, they continued their conversation by e-mail, focusing on key topics that emerged in their discussion at UCLA.

From: Mike Rose
To: Diane RavitchSubject: Public Education Under Attack

You and I are both concerned about the predominance of school-bashing rhetoric in the national discussion of public schools. This dismissive language runs across the ideological spectrum; we find it in the pages of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard or at a convening of left-leaning high-tech entrepreneurs interested in education. This way of talking about public schools, as we both argue, provides the ideological foundation to dismiss public education, to seek free-market solutions or structural or technological miracle cures. So well-to-do parents don’t send their kids to public schools. Wealthy donors direct their money elsewhere. And young people have second thoughts about a teaching career.

Of course there are problems in public schools. There’s wide variation in the teaching force. How could there not be with so many people, over 3 million? As with lawyers or journalists or plumbers, you’re going to find a range of competence. Same with schools. So political pressure to address incompetence and improve the status quo is a positive thing and essential in a democratic society. But that kind of targeted attempt at reform is not what concerns me and you. We’re talking about a reigning discourse of despair about teaching and the schools. It’s troubling—and dangerous. I’m thinking about an opening line from an article in The Weekly Standard: “We can all agree that public schools are a joke.” This is our new common sense, but it doesn’t even leave us with a problem to solve.

From: Diane Ravitch
To: Mike Rose
Subject: RE: Public Education Under Attack

One of the interesting aspects of the current situation is, in my view, that public education itself is under attack as never before. There have always been critics of the public schools, but the critics wanted to make public schools better. Now, many critics think that the answer to public education is to get rid of it, to replace it with something that is wholly different and not subject to any democratic participation or control. We see this with the demand for vouchers, which couches its claims as a fervent plea to help students escape from failing schools. The voucher supporters don’t think that any such schools can be fixed or improved; the only hope, they believe, is to help children get out. The arguments for charters are closely related, because the clamor for charters comes from a deep-seated wish to create escape routes from public education. One reason I am so discouraged by the present state of debate is that so little is said about improving public schools and so much about how to close schools, how to punish teachers. Before we can begin to have a serious discussion about public education, we must re-establish the belief that there are strong, powerful reasons to have public schools and that they are one of the foundational institutions in a democratic society.

From: Diane Ravitch
To: Mike Rose
Subject: Defining “Effective” Teachers

Mike, I want us to talk a bit more about teachers in the current “reform” environment. Reformers begin their discussion of teachers with a universally acclaimed proposition: Teachers are important, and every child should have a great teacher. No one disagrees. They then go on to define a great teacher as an “effective” teacher, and an “effective” teacher is one whose students get higher test scores every year. So, with a slight verbal or written tic, they turn the quest for great teachers into the quest for those whose students get higher test scores. Without exception, these “reformers” agree with economists who say that credentials do not predict who will be an effective teacher. Since there is no way to know who will be an effective teacher, the best thing to do is to “deselect” teachers every year whose students did not get gains. If we fire 5-10% of teachers every year, over time the nation will have an excellent corps of teachers.

Since credentials do not predict who will consistently produce higher scores, there is no reason to pay attention to certification, master’s degrees, even National Board certification. So, anyone should be able to enter teaching, without any of the usual professional training. I find myself wondering why schools should even require future teachers to be college graduates, since there is no research demonstrating the necessity of an undergraduate degree in the test-score production function. Perhaps high school seniors (or juniors?) could master the trick as well as someone with lots of credentials.

The trouble with this whole line of analysis is that it was framed by economists who look only at data and take the data at face value. Probably they do not know that students get intensive test prep for state tests, and that testing experts say that gains purchased in this manner are of dubious value. The economists do not look at the validity of the state tests, nor at clever ways that states manipulate the scoring of the tests. They do not ask whether test scores are in themselves the right measure of a “great” or “effective” teacher. They assume that teachers and students are in a hermetically sealed environment, in which only the teacher is responsible for what the students know and can do. No wonder that teachers today are profoundly demoralized by the direction of the “reform” effort.

From: Mike Rose
To: Diane Ravitch
Subject: RE: Defining “Effective” Teachers

What makes me crazy is that the statistical analyses involved miss so much; in fact, I’d argue that most of the time the statistical procedures are not thoughtfully applied to teaching and learning. No wonder, then, that most current characterizations of teaching miss the richness and complexity of the work; the teacher, as you say, gets defined as a knowledge-delivery mechanism preparing students for high-stakes tests. This reductive definition has so many negative consequences, for example the belief that by holding teachers’ “feet to the fire” of test scores, we will supposedly get more effort from teachers. Of course, the proponents of this point of view never articulate the social-psychological mechanisms by which the use of test scores will effect effort, motivation, and pedagogical skill. They can’t because the implicit models of learning and motivation in their analyses are as bankrupt as those in their understanding of teaching itself.

Here’s what I would rather see. What if we could channel the financial and human resources spent on the machinery of high-stakes testing into a robust, widely distributed program of professional development? I don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that so often pass for professional development, but serious, extended engagement of the kind that the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project might offer. These programs enable teachers to work with subject matter experts; read, write, and think together; learn new material, hear from others who have successfully integrated it into their classrooms, and try it out themselves.

Enriched, widely available professional development would substitute a human capital model for school reform rather than the current test-based technocratic one. And because such professional development would positively affect what teachers teach and how they teach it, there would be a more direct effect on student achievement.

From: Mike Rose
To: Diane Ravitch
Subject: Workable Education Policy

All this leads me to a related topic that has been on my mind. It has to do with the way public policy—in this case, education policy—is framed and developed.

Policymakers of necessity take the big view, look for the large-scale organizational or economic levers to pull to initiate broad change. Unfortunately, that often means ignoring local conditions, the on-the-ground reality of classrooms and schools. This way of thinking is perfectly captured by a professor of management’s advice to a class of aspiring principals. He told them that the more they know about the particulars of instruction, the less effective they’ll be, for that nitty-gritty knowledge will blur their perception of the problem and the application of universal principles of management—as fitting for a hospital or a manufacturing plant as a school.
But good policy does try to incorporate knowledge of local conditions. You’ve been in the middle of policy development, so I’d love to hear your thoughts about how to create robust and workable education policy.

From: Diane Ravitch
To: Mike Rose
Subject: RE: Workable Education Policy

As you note, policymakers prefer to operate from a site about 30,000 feet above the institution that they are trying to mold. This does not create good policy. It ends up producing one-size-fits-all solutions that don’t fit anyone and that solve nothing. No Child Left Behind is a perfect example of that kind of policy. It was cooked up in the meeting rooms of Washington, D.C., honed by various interest groups and political figures, all believing that they were enacting noble legislation, but ending up creating a law that was almost universally despised by the people who had to make it work, the teachers. Teachers and policymakers live in two different worlds. The teachers are busy teaching, and the policymakers are busy talking to one another. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every policymaker were required to spend at least a week as an assistant teacher in a school? It’s not likely to happen, but I can dream, can’t I?

I recommend James Scott’s wonderful book Seeing Like a State, which treats these issues very insightfully. Scott describes monumental disasters caused by policymakers who had zero understanding of the consequences of their decisions on those who had to implement them. The basic question is: How do we instill humility in our policymakers? How do we get them to understand that policies that are not embraced by practitioners are doomed to fail?

From: Mike Rose
To: Diane Ravitch
Subject: Bad Press for Education

One more related topic I’d like us to consider has to do with the way the public gets its information about education. There are lots of sources these days, but an important source is still journalism: print, broadcast, or online. So I’ve been thinking about the ways the press inadvertently contributes to the kind of narrow discussion of education that concerns us.
Education is not a prestigious beat, and journalists often rotate in and out of it, not getting the chance to build rich expertise. Also, especially in the current market, there’s not a lot of resources for journalists to spend time in schools, talk extensively to teachers, follow the many reform efforts as they play out on the ground. So too often we get reporting from a distance.
I’m also bothered by the degree to which seasoned opinion page writers rely on press-release information and standard storylines about schools and school reform. Very smart people like David Brooks or Nicholas Kristof probe beneath the surface when it comes to, let’s say, foreign policy, but surprisingly don’t do their homework when it comes to education. So they proclaim that the schools stink, that teachers need an iron fist, that people who support high-stakes testing are reformers while someone like Linda Darling-Hammond (or you or I, for that matter) are apologists for the status quo. Whew! We’re living in an echo chamber. I’ve been finding it exceedingly hard to get a different perspective into the world of the Chattering Classes.

From: Diane Ravitch
To: Mike Rose
Subject: RE: Bad Press for Education

I too am frustrated that the public does not get a full and balanced view about education issues, but, you know, Mike, I don’t blame this on the reporters. The really good reporters, in my experience, try to look behind the press releases and the conventional wisdom. But they have no bearing on the editorial boards, which reflect the views of the publisher, or on the pundits, who are wired into the world of power and money. The press barons, the mighty foundations, and most think tanks today share a common narrative. They want privatization, the more the better; they have contempt for ordinary teachers, whom they hold responsible for low test scores; and they applaud any superintendent who promises to fire principals, fire teachers, and privatize more public schools. I don’t know who will frame the counter-narrative, and I don’t know who will lead the opposition to these destructive trends. But without a counter-narrative and leadership, our education system will be transformed in ways that neither of us will like.

From: Mike Rose
To: Diane Ravitch
Subject: Disregarding the Effects of Poverty

I know you have been concerned with the way the issue of poverty has emerged in school reform debates. Some say that poverty is the root cause of poor academic performance while others contend that, in spite of income level, poor kids can achieve as well as anyone else if the school is committed to their achievement.

I think a good place to start is with NCLB. That law was driven by a masterful rhetoric that casted dissent from its agenda as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” There can be “no excuses” for the low performance of poor, immigrant, and racial and ethnic minority kids, as measured by the tests NCLB supported. Currently, some other school reform advocates, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have taken up this point of view: Poverty doesn’t matter.

I appreciate this “no excuses” stance. Our schools have an unacceptable record with poor children, and the way we perceive their ability and potential, what we expect of them intellectually, is a key element in their achievement. But it is one element, a necessary but not sufficient condition. What is troubling on a public policy level is the way the rhetoric of “no excuses” shifts attention from economic and social conditions that often do affect academic achievement.

From: Diane Ravitch
To: Mike Rose
Subject: RE: Disregarding the Effects of Poverty

Like you, Mike, I was initially encouraged by the “no excuses” rhetoric. I shared the hope that high expectations would transform the lives of children whose potential was so often overlooked. What I did not anticipate was the evolution of the “no excuses” rhetoric into a claim that poverty doesn’t matter and has no bearing on academic achievement. Thus, any reference to poverty is treated as just an excuse by bad teachers for their own failures. So, according to our current “reform” leaders, the students who are homeless and hungry should get the same test scores as those who are privileged, who are surrounded by books and every comfort. If there is one consistent finding in social science, it is the tight correlation between family income and test scores. Yet today’s “reformers” consider this correlation to be the fault of bad teachers. “Reformers” apparently believe that our society can ignore poverty, homelessness, and joblessness, because schools alone can close the achievement gap and make everyone equal. This is poppycock and unusually mean-spirited as well.

From: Mike Rose
To: Diane Ravitch
Subject: RE: Disregarding the Effects of Poverty

What NCLB had exactly right is the assertion that children’s cognitive potential is influenced by much more than their income level. But I think it is either naïve or duplicitous to dismiss the devastating effects of poverty on a child’s life in school. Yes, there are a number of cases of poor children who achieve mightily. But their stories are never simple, and, as any teacher who follows her students’ lives will tell you, their achievement can be derailed by one bad break. Furthermore, in many cases, the schools or individual teachers intervene with various kinds of aid and assistance: financial, food, and health care.

It seems hard for us as a culture to perceive simultaneously the physical and psychological devastation wrought by poverty and the cognitive potential that continues to burn within. At the extremes, we either lighten the effects of economic disruption with self-help platitudes, or we see only blight and generalize it to include intellectual capacity. What we need is a binocular vision when regarding poor kids in school, a vision that enables one to be mindful of the barriers to achievement and still nurture the possible.

From: Mike Rose
To: Diane Ravitch
Subject: Either/Or Thinking in Education

Diane, let me shift topics, for this mention of either/or polarities reminds me of something: When a friend of mine found out that you and I were going to be having this exchange, this person observed that you and I fall on different sides of the equity/excellence debate. My first thought was, “Hey, I stand for excellence, too!” And though you and I would probably disagree on what the content of, let’s say, a literature curriculum should be, I’ve never read you as anti-egalitarian.

This led me to think about a bigger issue, and I’d like to hear your thoughts about it. American education is bedeviled by a kind of either/or thinking about curriculum and pedagogy: There has been an equity versus excellence debate for decades now. And the poverty versus achievement tangle we just discussed. And consider the firestorms around whole language versus phonics or math facts and skills versus math concepts. And then there’s the granddaddy of all divides: the dichotomizing of academic versus vocational pursuits.

These binaries get hotly polemical, which creates a lot of heat, but not very much light—especially for the teacher who typically needs to find a balance between dual positions.

From: Diane Ravitch
To: Mike Rose
Subject: RE: Either/Or Thinking in Education

Like you, I have been involved in debating many of these polarities over the past decades. I am certainly not anti-egalitarian. I have long loved the John Dewey quotation that “what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community.” We should not tolerate an educational system in which some families get a great curriculum, excellent teachers, small classes, and wonderful facilities, while other families get meager dollops of all those things. The debate over teacher effectiveness, for example, has completely sidelined this discussion. Instead of talking about resources, we are locked into a fruitless conversation about “effectiveness.” But this is what I find fascinating, Mike. Old adversaries have been contacting me to say that they agree with my critique of accountability and choice. They and I are in the same camp now. What is at stake is the future of public education and the role of schools as a democratizing institution. The old polarities disappear when people realize that public education faces a common threat to its survival.

From: Mike Rose
To: Diane Ravitch
Subject: A Liberal Arts Curriculum?

You close your book with a call for a return to a strong liberal arts curriculum, rich in written canonical literature, history, and the arts.

In your new book—and more so in other things you’ve written—you’ve criticized the many other approaches to curriculum that have emerged in the 20th Century: from life-adjustment to process-oriented curriculum. I share some of your concerns about these approaches: the faddism in education and the lack of intellectual substance. (My favorite current bit of cant is “brain-based learning”—as if there is any other kind!)

But one reason that so many alternative approaches to curriculum and instruction have emerged is that significant numbers of students were failing or being poorly educated with the traditional curriculum. As you know, there never was a Golden Age of uniform high achievement, so I understand educators wanting to try new things.

So my question to you Diane—one I think a lot about myself—is how do we respond to the significant numbers of students who, based on historical precedent, will not do well with the kind of curriculum you advocate?

From: Diane Ravitch
To: Mike Rose
Subject: RE: A Liberal Arts Curriculum?

Mike, here is where we might diverge. I think that children from every background will respond to a curriculum that respects their minds and feeds them with rich experiences. Just a few days ago, I was in Dallas and met with teachers who had completed a course in reading the classics at the Dallas Institute for the Humanities and Culture. I listened to teachers described what it meant to them to study The Iliad, The Odyssey, Shakespeare, and other great works. Two of the teachers in the group were working with Hispanic students in ESL classes. They described their exchanges with the students when they assigned Julius Caesar and other canonical works.

At first the students groaned, but then they got into it. They understood the theme of betrayal. They had experienced it in their own lives. They began to argue about the motives of Brutus and other characters. They began to see that these works were not just for rich kids, but for them too. What I heard from the teachers was, first, their great enthusiasm; second, their appreciation for being treated with respect; third, the excitement they felt when they were able to bring their intellectual joy to their students.

From: Mike Rose
To: Diane Ravitch
Subject: RE: A Liberal Arts Curriculum?

Well, this is interesting. I do think we would diverge as we got down to the final content of a literature curriculum. I would like to see more of a mix of genres and authors, with the Western classics included. But I’m completely on board with the situation you describe and have experienced it myself over the years. This might be cheating, but, given our limited space, if interested readers want to explore our respective positions, they can look at the final chapter (“Lessons Learned”) in your The Death and Life of the Great American School System and my discussion of teaching James Joyce’s short story “Araby” in the “Standards, Teaching, Learning” chapter of Why School?

From: Mike Rose
To: Diane Ravitch
Subject: A Beer Summit With the President

OK Diane, this is a good place to end with a big-picture question I was asked during a recent interview: If I were invited to the White House for a Beer Summit on education, what would I say to President Obama? Let’s start with you.

From: Diane Ravitch
To: Mike Rose
Subject: RE: A Beer Summit With the President

First, I would ask him to fully fund special education. That would relieve the fiscal burden that so many states and districts are now bearing and that is causing so many hundreds of thousands of teachers to be laid off. Then, I would try to explain briefly that his policies are too closely tied to the punitive approach of NCLB and urge him to take a positive approach, so as to help teachers and schools get better. Since he is a wonderful orator, I would suggest that he change the rhetoric about education; instead of speaking about punishing, firing, failing, and closing, speak instead about improving, supporting, developing, encouraging, and inspiring.

Last, I would urge him to create an advisory group—not connected to the Department of Education—whose charge would be to develop a long-term plan for the improvement of American education. What he is now doing is too closely tied to the “measure and punish” philosophy of NCLB, as well as the privatization agenda of the entrepreneurs. What he is doing will harm public education, not improve it. Perhaps with a long-term plan, he could lift our sights, and his own as well, to a more generous, positive understanding of what is needed by our schools, our students, and our educators.

And you, Mike, what would you ask him?

From: Mike Rose
To: Diane Ravitch
Subject: RE: A Beer Summit With the President

I’d ask the president about his own education. What does he remember about elementary school or middle school, particularly those teachers who made a difference? And what books mattered? Was there someone in high school who helped him see things in a new light? When did he begin to sense that school could enable him to use his mind in the world? What issues in law school most caught his fancy? Can he think of ways to bring those issues into the elementary school classroom? He’s a very thoughtful guy, so I’d suspect I’d get some interesting answers. Then I’d ask him how the spirit of these answers could better inform his education policy, because it seems so far removed from the heartbeat of good teaching and learning.


Oldrich Kyn said...

Now here is what I believe is wrong with American education:

Memorize or think:
In most cases teachers make students to memorize but they do not teach them
how to think and how to learn on their own.

Verbal versus visual and other types of thinking:
Almost all the education is verbal. Teachers write sentences on the
blackboard, textbooks are mostly just text. It is assumed that
"communication" requires words that the memory is simply a stock of words
and that without words rational thinking is impossible. But this is wrong
there are also visual and other forms of communication, memory and thinking.
It seems to me that for majority of people visual memory and thinking is
faster and more frequent than verbal. My conclusion is to use more pictures
and even animations in teaching. See for example

Abstract learning or learning by doing:
There are two distinct ways of learning. Some find it easier to learn
abstract theory first and then go to applications. Some others prefer to
learn by doing the applications and only after that extract the common
theoretical abstraction. These two types require quite different structure
of schooling.

Short-term and permanent memory:
When learning the information enters first in the short-term memory and only
some of it is transferred to the permanent memory. Brain transfers
information to permanent memory if it is related to strong emotions.
Therefore boring lectures and textbooks are soon forgotten while when
combined with something very interesting they are remembered for a long

Differences in student abilities and interests:
Children are born with distinct abilities and both their DNA and
environmental characteristics lead to further differentiation. It is wrong
to treat students in schools as if they were identical. Society should
provide a set of different schools and within each school different type of
classes so that distinct students can find their own best path through the
educational system. Even in a single class teachers should always keep in
mind that not all his students learn the same way and allow several
alternative ways in assignments and examinations.

Single and multiple paths education systems:
American educational system provides de facto only a single path for all
distinct students. Some European countries have the multiple paths systems.
After the primary school the "abstract theory" thinkers take 8 years of the
school that prepares them for university. The "learn by doing" students take
a distinct only 4 years long school after which they go either directly to
employment with vocational schooling or to secondary specialized 4 year

Probably one of the main causes of the decline of American education is the
way examinations are done.
1) Most of the examinations contain "multiple choice" questions. That leads
students either to memorize the "correct" answers or to select the answer by
chance. Almost no thinking is needed.
2) Many professors to minimize the student's risk of failing the exam
provide students with the list of all questions that may appear on exam. But
risk is a very strong incentive to learn the subject completely, while with
knowledge of the possible exam questions students just need
to memorize the "right" answers that are usually provided by somebody.
3) Virtually all the exams are written and almost no oral examinations are
performed. But oral examinations are more effective in finding the student's
way of thinking and also make cheating unlikely.
4) The course grade should depend purely on the "cumulative" final
examination should not be calculated as an average of "noncumulative"
tests,midterm and final examination.
5) One of the worst effects comes from Student Evaluation of Teachers.

Oldrich Kyn said...


Style of teaching:
Even in the large class your lecture should not be just a stream of words.
Encourage students to ask questions so that you may clarify what they may
have not understood correctly. Alternatively ask students to answer your or
other student's questions.
In addition to recommending some textbooks or other educational materials
instruct the students to search for the sources of information and for
explanations themselves. Teach students how to learn on their own.

Teaching should not mean just to provide long lists of facts or concepts to
memorize. Students must learn how to think. Students should be taught how to
formulate some hypothesis, then find relevant facts, choose appropriate
assumptions and by logical or mathematical steps reach conclusions that
support or contradict the original hypothesis.
When presenting some case (historical, theoretical, linguistic, ...) add
some interesting story - from your experience, movies, books, TV news - to
attract attention of students so that they get the case into the long-term
memory. Lectures should not be just verbal, but if possible they should
contain projections of pictures and possibly even sounds.
When presenting some theory, do not do it as if it was the only and
absolutely true theory. We know that in many cases what has been considered
for long time as real "truth" has been eventually disproved and the new
"truth" has emerged. So present also the past development of thinking in
that area and the current critiques and alternative explanations.

About examinations:
Do not use true/false or multiple choice questions. Formulate the essay-type
questions in such a way, that the student must make some decisions and
follow logical steps to reach conclusions. Grade whether the choices were
appropriate and whether the answer was derived correctly but not just
whether the answer was true or false. In other words the answer should not
be just WHAT but must include also WHY! If you have in your class students
with very different abilities e.g. verbal vs. visual, more mathematical vs.
less mathematical etc. Allow or even encourage alternative ways in answering
questions. With some care you can ask questions about topics related but not
fully covered in your class. It assumes that students were instructed to
find on their own some additional material for topics of the course.
Any exam (final or midterm), test or home assignment should by "cumulative",
that is to cover all the material from the beginning of the course. It may
be a good idea to run exams in class, but to give students one or two days
to correct their answers at home.
Under no circumstances teachers should give students the list of possible
questions or the information that the exam questions will be the same as in
the past.
Also it is not recommended to give students for the exam the very detailed
lists including pages from the textbooks or other sources. The grade for the
course should depend almost fully on the final exam and not to be calculated
as the average of all exams, tests and assignments.
That is the pre-final grades should make no more than let us say 20% of the
course grade.
If possible the final exam should contain also the oral section.