THE BLOG
08/03/2011 08:13 am ET | Updated Oct 03, 2011

The 'Alien Structure' of Education, and Other Thoughts

As always, remember that John's book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

I am reading a collection of essays called "I Used to Think ... and Now I Think," which is billed as reflections by leading reformers on how they themselves have changed over the years. The essays I've read so far make me think about testing, cheating, the 'Save our Schools' rally in Washington, DC, and the approaching school year.

In her essay, Deborah Meier reflects on "how utterly alien" the basic structure of school is to "normal human learning." We saw that when we reported for PBS Newshour on P.S. 1 in the South Bronx, where first graders were reading competently but fourth graders were failing the reading test. A reasonable person would have to conclude that, to borrow Debbie's phrase, the 'structure of school' was conspiring against the joy of learning. That is, from second grade on, the emphasis is on testing reading, not reading itself.

In his essay, Marshall (Mike) Smith reflects on the rise in testing, which he says has nearly doubled during the years of No Child Left Behind.

Today the 'structure of school' includes ever more testing, this time with high stakes for teachers and administrators, who stand to lose their jobs if scores don't go up. Under Michelle Rhee, Washington D.C. led the way in 'holding teachers accountable,' but now about 30 states have laws that connect test scores and adult evaluation.

Given the high stakes for adults, many predicted a wave of cheating, and that seems to be occurring: Washington, New Jersey, Baltimore, Houston, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Atlanta is the poster child: nearly half the schools and 178 adults implicated, with confessions from about 80 teachers and administrators already recorded. What makes Atlanta unique is the investigation -- which was done by an outside group, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

In every other place I am familiar with, the investigations were directly or indirectly controlled by the adults in charge of the schools. Even Atlanta's first 'investigation' -- which turned up no problems -- was done by insiders.

In a few days, PBS Newshour will air our report on Atlanta, focusing on the children who were cheated. That's a perspective that's been missing from much of the reporting.

Speaking of Atlanta, "I Used to Think..." includes an essay by recently departed Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall. In eight largely self-serving pages, Dr. Hall celebrates her accomplishments. She tells us that it took her three years to bring the school system under her direct control and "to institutionalize strong ethics requirements limiting the school board's direct involvement with the day-to-day operations of the system." (The added emphasis was mine.) Since the Georgia Bureau of Investigation report traces the cheating right to the superintendent's desk, the sentence resonates with irony.

Dr. Hall has denied any knowledge of or involvement in cheating. During her tenure, she received nearly $600,000 in bonuses. How much of that was for raising test scores (fraudulently) is unclear, but the Board wants to 'claw back' those dollars.

I worry that the 'lesson' of these cheating scandals will be missed and instead districts will spend time and money on protection and detection. Indeed, New York State announced yesterday that it was investing in new detection systems.

In this age of accountability, testing is punitive. That's the bottom line, and that's what must be addressed, but we can't abandon testing or accountability.

The Save our Schools event in Washington was hoping to call attention to the damage that our testing frenzy is doing. What did it accomplish? From one perspective, it was a bust. The organizers predicted a crowd of between 5,000 and 10,000, but head-counters from Education Week said 3,000 tops. While it got coverage on local outlets and in the Washington Post, most of the reporting can be explained in two words: Matt Damon. His star power drew media attention.

The speeches that I have read or watched on YouTube did little to move the ball forward. Organizers met with Education Secretary Arne Duncan -- whose resignation they later called for. I have it from reliable sources that they turned down the opportunity to meet with Roberto Rodriguez, the president's education advisor and a man whose power may be equal to Duncan's, because they wanted an audience with the president.

What was the tone of the gathering? A good friend who attended the rally wrote me afterwards about 'the corporate reactionaries,' noting:

They are dead set on imposing a business model on our pedagogical practices ... Bashing unions, demanding the end of tenure, collective bargaining, seniority, and headstrong pushing the cheap and deeply flawed metric as The only valid measure of academic achievement. John, you well know that the new so-called education consultants, and the huge mega-billionaire and corporate testing and assessment industry is all about profits! ... They want to take the public out of all decision-making. They want to privatize as much as they can! .... They are determined to destroy all that we built, and all our good works that are proven successful, and to dismiss and devalue and degrade our greatest achievements.

But are the 'bad guys' all on one side? In Newark, New Jersey, a well-meaning 'reform' is being scuttled by a union contract (also signed by a school board) that prevents schools from replacing ineffective teachers. The Wall Street Journal describes in detail how failing schools simply shuffled ineffective teachers -- 'you take my five, and I will take your five' -- because the contract guarantees jobs to tenured teachers. That outrage adds more fuel to the fire for those who see unions as the source of education's problems.

And, come to think of it, when unions behave as classic trade unions bent on protecting their members at all costs, they are a huge part of the problem.

One change that must happen if public education is to survive: unions must become professional, not trade, organizations.

On my blog last week the respected educator Grant Wiggins posted a long and thoughtful response that some of you may have missed. I hope you will jump back a week and read it in its entirety. Here's one paragraph:

Until and unless school is defined as talent development and not a march through The Valued Past, we will fail. School is boring for many if not most. When was the last time you folks shadowed students for a day? It is a grim experience. It is endlessly easy to blame Others, those Outsider bad guys. But from where I sit, the problem is a Pogo problem: I have met the enemy; it is us.

It's in the vein of 'physician, heal thyself.' At the rally and elsewhere, my progressive friends have been so busy attacking their bad guys that they have lost sight of what drew them into teaching in the first place.

In my post last week, I recalled Ronald Reagan's "Trust but verify" commandment. That prompted Grant to write:

The only way John's pleas for a sensible middle can be achieved is if educators finally get honest and say, "mea culpa; school is more boring and ineffective than it needs to be, so let's get our own house in order before the outsiders force us to do dumb things with their crude policy levers.

Had unions and other groups lobbied hard for alternatives to current policy we also might not be in this mess. But for 25 years the educational establishment has just lobbied hard to complain about what it doesn't like. Washington works the old fashioned way: write the laws and give them to legislators. When was the last time all the key players got together and did that?

I don't know if we need to get together, but I do know that testing's critics need to think about accountability, the 'verify' part of Reagan's formula, because Americans won't accept either extreme, and by not adequately addressing that issue, the progressives are leaving the field to the verifiers.

We are a few weeks away from the reopening of schools across the country. This fall will be different because of the harsh economy, but kids will still arrive on that first day full of hope and optimism, just as they do every year. Somehow they manage to convince themselves that 'this year will be different.'

Most often, that's not the case. The 'unnatural structure of school' sorts children into groups of "A kids,' 'B kids' and (for most) 'C kids.' That structure works against good teaching and deep learning. For children, September, not April, is 'the cruelest month.'

I believe that teachers can make a difference this year if they band together to focus on what kids need. They may need to make common cause with parents, instead of being distant. They may need to tell taxpayers just how much of their money is being wasted on excessive testing. They may need to inform their union leaders that they are going to violate the contract and work late or meet with administrators or parents after school.

Above all, they have to be pro-child, and pro-learning, not anti-this or anti-that.