Educating the NY Times Editorial Board

I am always invigorated to see educational issues receive the public attention they deserve in venues like the New York Times. Last Saturday, however, such satisfaction quickly yielded to a profound sense of disappointment and frustration.

The editorial board published their position on the proposed revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act under congressional consideration.  They say some sound things: that the original legislation succeeded in forcing states and districts to pay attention to the needs of underserved students by disaggregating testing data, and that a key flaw of the law’s implementation lay in its extreme punishment of schools that struggled to demonstrate adequate yearly progress, lumping in first time offenders with schools that perpetually struggled.

Disappointment ensues when I read passages like this one:

Despite its obvious weaknesses, the much despised No Child Left Behind Act clearly improved public school education. But instead of finding ways to cure the law’s problems and build on its strengths, Congress seems to want to retreat from the law’s goals.

“Clearly improved public school education”?  I do not agree with their use of any of those five words.  There is clarity only if one accepts testing data as an accurate reflection of students’ learning and teachers’ teaching.  There is improvement only if one believes that tracking such incomplete testing data reveals true insight.  There is meaning in “public school education” only if one equates that phrase with “private company testing.”  Education scholars have thoroughly documented the problem of approaching education reform through a “data-driven” paradigm when doing so affords policymakers and elected officials the opportunity to ignore underlying issues of poverty, institutional racism, and inequity that play a significant role in creating the “achievement gap.”  Any announcement of systemic gain reaches only the eager ears of the policymakers themselves and those who conveniently believe that improving the lives of children and communities can be achieved through schools alone at the sanitary distance testing data provide.

I share the editorial board’s commitment to making our public school system more equitable for the most underserved among us.  That is why their emphasis on the success of testing and blind faith in state and district control befuddles me.

What data are they looking at that are so compelling and clear?  I can guess their possible sources and suspect that such data were collected via standardized tests.  Recall that the history of standardized testing in our country is a story of imperfect measurements that perpetuate inequity under the veil of rigorous objectivity.  True education reform that results in greater opportunity and equity for our children and underserved communities will only come if paired with innovations in social services, not innovations in testing. In addition, why do the editors put so much faith in states and districts to handle public education?  They seem to have forgotten that it took Brown v. the Board of Education to make local officials begin to treat children equitably.  They seem to have forgotten already that local officials in Arkansas recently proposed eliminating the Advanced Placement U.S. History test because they thought it did not reflect their own ideologies.  And they seem to have forgotten their own recent admonishment of New York State for withholding funding from its most struggling districts.

The editorial board offers an impassioned reply to the wrong problem.  The problem is not whether states and districts can be trusted to offer rigorous tests to their school children.  The problem is that it is easier to put faith in the fanciful concreteness of testing data than address the realities of inequity such tests so efficiently sustain.

Image by author.
Women Teachers 1849

Cheap Female Teachers, 1849

“God seems to have made woman peculiarly suited to guide and develop the infant mind, and it seems…very poor policy to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month, for teaching children the ABCs, when a female could do the work more successfully at one third of the price.”

– Littleton School Committee, Littleton, Massachusetts, 1849

  • A Massachusetts school committee once extolled the virtues of its female teachers, whose pedagogical skills were perhaps secondary to the fact that they could be paid much less than male teachers.
  • It’s not immediately clear what has changed and what hasn’t in a century and a half.  Read some of professor Michael Apple’s work on education as feminine work for insightful perspective.
[See full quote as image created by author here.]

Oklahoma, AP US History, and a Lesson for All

  • Huffington Post reported recently on the Oklahoma state legislature’s vote (11-4) to ban the College Board’s AP US History exam, which they say emphasizes too much of what is wrong with the United States, rather than its true “exceptionalism.”
  • It’s worth pairing these events with this reading about Senator Lamar Alexander’s push to revise No Child Left Behind, which would empower states to determine what’s right for their schools without federal intervention.
[Image from britannica.com]
Harvard Entrance Exam Questions

College-ready for Harvard, 1869

  • I can say with confidence that there would have been no Crimson for me 150 years ago.  This entrance exam posted by the Times a while back shows us just how much education has changed.
  • Or not.
[Image taken from original on NYTimes website.]

Author photo of Johns above White Ground. Estate Sturtevant, Paris. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris–Salzburg. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris

What Would It Take to Make No Child Left Behind Work?

Senator Lamar Alexander has proposed to revamp No Child Left Behind as a way to curtail what he sees as federal overreach into schools under Race to the Top and Common Core. The locus of the issue appears, at first, to be simple: the federal government should have as little to do with education as possible because it is a state responsibility. Here’s how Alexander himself framed the proposal back in November:

Our first priority is to fix No Child Left Behind. The Republican proposal to fix NCLB would give states the option — not mandate — to take federal dollars and let those dollars follow children to the schools they attend. We want to expand choice, but my view is that the federal government shouldn’t mandate it. … Republicans would [also] transfer back to states the responsibility for deciding whether schools are succeeding or failing. Tennessee, Texas or New York would decide what the academic standards would be, what the curriculum would be, what to do about failing schools and how to evaluate teachers.

Initial responses to the senator’s proposal includes predictable doses of enthusiasm, resistance, and cautious optimism.  An example of the latter includes some who see positive potential in providing states and districts with greater autonomy over their schools.  Diane Ravitch, whose expertise I admire but whose snarkiness I sometimes find unhelpful, wrote this poignant and measured open letter to the senator offering her thoughts.  The New York Times wrote this overview.  Chalkbeat offers this summary of responses to the draft bill. These sources offer informed perspectives.

However, I wish to draw attention to what is not being discussed as much.  There are two paramount issues that, if they continue to go unaddressed, will prevent us from having the futures we envision for our children:

  1. the bill lacks a shared definition of the purpose of public education and without such a definition it is impossible to measure what success looks like
  2. the bill fails to adequately address out-of-school-factors (OSFs) with the same sense of urgency and verve that surrounds pure “academic” factors

Allow me to discuss briefly each of these interlocking elements: state and local control, educational purpose and measure, and out-of-school-factors.

The Real Issue is not About Federal versus State Control

The senator’s oft-repeated suggestion that his bill seeks to minimize the federal government’s influence over how states run schools is deceptive in its neatness.  I myself have been an outspoken critic of the administration’s Race to the Top program, but my issue with it is hardly that it comes from Washington.  My issue is that it defines the purpose of public education as doing well on faulty testing instruments that are irresponsibly implemented.

My home state of New York has every semblance of state autonomy when it comes to education.  We willingly became early adopters of the Common Core.  The governor made teacher effectiveness reform a key campaign promise as he positioned himself in opposition to teaching unions.  New teacher education assessments were claimed by Albany as aggressive measures to improve education in the state.  The state education department vigorously defended their decision to share student and teacher data with a third-party technology company.  Charter schools have never had so much high-level support in the Empire State.

In the end, however, because the state allows the purpose of public education to be reduced to flawed tests, Albany gets their data but not without public backlash.  Parents have protested in the streets and opted out of tests, teachers have had their “performance” scores published in the media, and the state assembly’s education committee has publicly admonished the state education department.  Empowering states and localities alone does not reform make, not when root cause of the issue goes unaddressed.

We Must Define the Higher Purpose for Public Education

If we are to truly improve our educational system, we must have a common definition of the purpose of public education.  Because we lack this common definition, other working definitions have filled the void: Common Core standards and tests, teacher evaluation rubrics, and complex “accountability” schemas that reduce learning and teaching to data sets.  To be fair, it can be helpful to have a shared framework and language to discuss what we expect of students and ourselves.  Using disaggregated data as a means to force districts and states to address the needs of our most vulnerable and underserved students was also good.  However, pockets of success should not distract us from the larger issue.  Ask a dozen different people what they believe the purpose of public education is and you will get many different answers.  In my conversations, they tend to range from preparing young people to work, to teaching students to contribute to our democracy, or to teaching “those kids” to learn English.  Without a clear definition of the higher purpose of education, we will continue to mistake standards and measures for the purpose itself.

University of Chicago law and philosophy professor Martha Nussbaum wrote at length about this.  In the absence of clarity of educational purpose, she observes the reduction of education to the needs of the economy.  As a result, schools are forced to prepare technologists and scientists as their preparedness to contribute to a thriving democracy is sacrificed.  Twenty years ago, Boston College professor George Madaus made a compelling case for how large-scale testing reforms too often perpetuate rather than solve issues of inequity.  In his essay in the Harvard Educational Review he makes a series of recommendations to policymakers that we should take seriously today, including ensuring we have a clear sense of educational purpose.  Without knowing what the ultimate purpose is for public schools, all attempts at measurement will be both incomplete and ineffective.

Out-of-School-Factors are Equally if not More Important than Academic

Students spend far more time out of school than they do in school.  About 12% of students’ time is spent in school per year.  (Quick math: 8,760 hours in a year, 180 required school days in New York, about 6 hours of school a day.)  There is an excellent policy review document by David C. Berliner at Arizona State University that addresses the importance of systematically considering out-of-school-factors (OSFs) in education policy.  He writes in his executive summary:

The U.S. has set as a national goal the narrowing of the achievement gap between lower income and middle-class students, and that between racial and ethnic groups. This is a key purpose of the No Child Left Behind act, which relies primarily on assessment to promote changes within schools to accomplish that goal. However, out-of-school factors (OSFs) play a powerful role in generating existing achievement gaps, and if these factors are not attended to with equal vigor, our national aspirations will be thwarted.

Thwarted is right, though I would also add that our “aspirations” are at best undefined or amorphous.  One of the greatest detriments I observe of both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top is that they artificially reduce what it means to teach and learn to isolated “academic” standards and metrics.  Learning is not purely academic.  It does not happen in isolation.  It is social.  Students are human beings with fears, distractions, passions, and dreams.  If our young people spend 88% of each year worried about their health, their safety, or the well-being of their family, how can we expect them to be prepared to learn in our schools?  If over the course of the average day, some students lack access to nutritional foods or to the latest technologies, how do we imagine such factors affecting their ability to concentrate or to acquiring 21st century skills in the classroom?  Neither teaching nor learning is a delineated and objective process.  Schools play an important role in society, but they are only ever a part of the picture.

So What Do We Do Next?

1. Read these Two Things (it’ll take 1 hour)

If there are two reads I recommend, it is George Madaus’s essay to the Clinton Administration from 1994 and Berliner’s OSF study from 2009.  These pieces are relatively accessible, smart, and relevant.  We too often treat issues that are new to ourselves as new to the world.  In education, that is seldom the case.  Someone else has almost always systematically investigated the problems we identify.  While they might not always have prepackaged solutions to unbox, they very often do frame the issues with attention to nuance.  At the very least, we ask better questions upon completing the reading.

2. Explore the Bill (I made a tool to help)

Senator Alexander’s bill is over 400 pages long.  That’s a tough read, especially when written with the stylistic grace one would expect from a legal document.  To assist the average reader (with whom I express solidarity), I have created this analytical tool (in beta) for reading the bill that includes a data visualization tool for tracking the frequency of keywords throughout.  This 90 second tutorial will get you started.  While it is no substitution for a sustained and critical reading, my hope is that it provides an accessible entry point to explore the document.  I recommend comparing one’s use of the tool with the commentaries cited above.

3. Begin Defining the Purpose of Education at the School & District Level Now

Elected officials too often lack access to the perspectives of their constituents.  That is, while we might have strong feelings about the direction of education in our schools, districts, states, and country, those feelings seldom make their way to the ears of those who are responsible for education.  In my experience, when we do take the time to clearly express our ideas, the participation is appreciated.  It is also needed.  This debate about No Child Left Behind that is kindling should not be limited to the federal versus states rights framework the senator has offered and the media is already reinforcing.  Schools and districts should call together their own constituents and offer their best definitions of the purpose of public education.  I’ll even help collect and disseminate them.  Connect with me on Twitter or Facebook.

I believe that we can work together to better support our students, communities, and educators.  Part of that support means rolling up our sleeves, becoming informed, and engaging in dialogue with others.  If we do not have a shared sense of the purpose of public schools and a realistic acknowledgement that school reform must occur as part of holistic social reform efforts, our best intentions will be left behind along with our children.  We can only improve public education in our country if we take solemnly the responsibility to educate ourselves first.

[Photo Credit: Author photo of Johns above White Ground. Estate Sturtevant, Paris. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris–Salzburg. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris]

Public Money for Public Schools, 1875

  • With No Child Left Behind undergoing intense revisions in hopes of a political resurrection, the debate about using public funding to support charter schools and private school vouchers is rekindling.
  • The arguments we hear echo the sentiments of 19th century America.  Only then, the fear was providing public money for Catholic schools.



Apple Computers in the Classroom, 1979

What I love about this advertisement for Apple Computers in 1979 is not just otherworldliness of it, but the words.  Reading the text, you realize that computers back in the day were used primarily to teach students computer languages.  “One big reason we chose Apple is that it is so easy to program,” a testimonial reads.

Funny.  Thirty-five years later, learning to code is all the rage once again.



[See a collection of old Apple advertisements here]


Two pint glasses on table.

Old Friends Discuss Education at a Bar

One after another, a parade of childhood friends filed into a bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  We were there in honor of our mutual friend’s birthday.  After thirty minutes of slow greetings–how’s the family, where are you living now–we cheered and drank to our collective history.

My friend J.P. and I attended elementary, middle, and high school together.  Over the years, we ran through each other’s homes as if they were our own and maintained affection for each other as life waved us in different directions.  After college, we both found our way into education: he is a certified math and physical education teacher at an elementary school on Long Island, I was an English and technology teacher in the city who joined academia to research education.  Both of us became animated and fervent as we described what is happening in education in New York State and nationally.  As it turns out, a teacher from our elementary school had recently penned a widely read commentary about the twists and turns of local politics, the media, and school budgets.   Stirred by his stance, we traded our own insights and stories.  Our pint glasses tilted evermore steeply into the air with each anecdote.

My friend said something that resonated with me.  “You know,” he began,”it’s taken years for many of us to begin to understand what is going on.  To pay attention.  There are a lot of new teachers now and they have no idea about any of this.”

So true.  And the same might be said for many parents and citizens whose connection to education is made mostly through headlines, hearsay, and taxes.  In my role as a parent of a child in a public school, a professor of education, and an adviser to several education-related organizations, I have begun to realize that perhaps what is needed is not some impassioned tirade about how corrupt government is, how attacked teachers are, or how profitable some companies are becoming as public money is funneled their way.  Rather, I offer this primer on three inter-related educational issues for readers who wish to deepen their understanding of what is currently afoot in schools.

The Common Core

The Common Core Standards is something many of us might have encountered via news reports or in our districts.  While the standards are often framed as having come from states, there is much controversy over that claim.  Critics have questioned both credentials of the standards’ authors as well as the final document itself.  An education blogger raised valid questions about the authors of the standards after researching each of their backgrounds.  She claims that they know far less about pedagogy than they do profiteering. In another case, a respected literacy researcher chronicled how the standards became something very different than what they were intended to be.  Diligent attention to ensuring the standards aligned with decades of literacy research was scrapped, he says, as unrealistic timelines took hold and the needs of testing companies and publishers took over.

Putting aside who wrote the standards or the quality of their final form, it is important to know that the Common Core are not full-blown academic standards as some people think.  They are a set of standards that focus on literacy and numeracy skills and are written more thoroughly for English and math teachers than for, say, science and history teachers.  Teachers in New York State have to significantly reshape their curricula to align with the Common Core, which includes the lessons they teach, the projects students engage in, and the assessments they give.  Such reshaping work varies depending on the subject one teachers.  Science teachers have to review and understand the Common Core Standards, which are vague at best in terms of unique literacy practices in the sciences.  Then, they also have to integrate the state content standards for science all while many states are planning on adopting a whole set of completely new content standards.

What makes it especially difficult for many educators is the fact that amidst all this newness of curricular standards, new tests are being rolled out that are said to align to the Common Core.  Such tests have not been thoroughly field tested yet they are high-stakes for everyone involved.  Typically, high stakes tests like these would be piloted in low stakes settings before being required in this way.  In the case of Common Core, that kind of vetting appears to have been skipped.  This has led to reports of really young students stressing out and parents protesting the way officials are implementing the Common Core.

As static documents, the Common Core provide some shared language for how literacy and numeracy might be reimagined as the work of not just English and math teachers, but of all teachers.  Having a common language for such conversations with colleagues across grade- and subject-levels can be helpful.  Though the document is itself far from perfect, the outcry one hears tends to have more to do with the pace of their implementation in curriculum and testing, leading to claims that the tone and climate created by the state’s roll-out has created a toxic environment that is doing more harm than good.

Teacher Evaluations

Teachers are not only responsible now for figuring out how the Common Core Standards, their content standards, and the new tests will be addressed in their classrooms, but they are also subject to completely new–and separate–teacher performance standards.  In New York State, most districts are using what’s referred to as the Danielson Framework for Effective Teaching or just “Danielson” for short.  The Danielson Framework was intended to create a shared language for educators to discuss and improve their practice.  It consists of four main domains, twenty-two components, and seventy-six elements.  As with the Common Core, the document itself is complicated.  Just processing what the teaching standards mean takes a great deal of patient work and reflection.  The real work lies in a teacher deeply reading and reflecting upon the standards in order to determine the best ways to integrate them into the uniqueness of his or her own curriculum and classroom.

One of New York Governor’s main topics of focus this is the teacher evaluation system, calling the current one “baloney” because most teachers were rated as effective this past year while a third of students are not graduating ready for college.  In his own words:

Now 38% of high schools students are college ready. 38%. 98.7% of high school teachers are rated effective. How can that be? How can 38% of the students be ready, but 98% of the teachers effective? 31% of third to eighth graders are proficient in English, but 99% of the teachers are rated effective. 35% of third to eighth graders are proficient in math but 98% of the math teachers are rated effective. Who are we kidding, my friends? The problem is clear and the solution is clear. We need real, accurate, fair teacher evaluations.

Some have asked if putting students’ graduation rates solely on the shoulders of individual teachers is fair.  There are two main reasons to question its fairness.  First: time.  If some public school systems in New York State have been struggling for as long as the governor suggests, then surely any solution needs to be approached gradually and consistently over at least twelve years–the length of time it would take my son in kindergarten to reach his senior year of high school.  Were I still teaching twelfth grade students who had attended over a decade of poor performing schools before they arrived in my classroom, what kind of impact could I be expected to have while working with over one hundred students for forty minutes a day?  Some impact for sure, but not the kind of pedagogical light switch effect some expect.  Recently, I have taught many in-service teachers who bemoan the injustice of an evaluation system that holds them accountable for a systemic failure.  This is not, I should emphasize, a reason to “write off” such students or to offer excuses.  It is to underscore common sense: teachers should be evaluated gradually over a twelve year period with increasing responsibility for their individual students’ education–not have their feet held to the fire before the whole scope of the reform has even really begun.

Second: place.  Students spend the majority of their young lives outside our classrooms. One of the problems in the way we talk about education is that we discuss it as if education itself worked in isolation from other social realities, including the state of communities, families, and economy.  The “crisis” in education cannot be separated from poverty and race relations.  However, because issues of race and class are such political lightning rods, the way we have settled on talking about education is as if it is its own separate entity and we replace the socio-political quagmires like living conditions, crime, and prejudice with more politically palatable things like standards, accountability, and data.  The former topics clearly situate education as part of a social ecosystem, the latter isolate education from society while reducing the complexity of what it means to teach and learn to a series of abstractions and numbers.


One of tropes of the current education reforms is accountability.  It is a word that appears inherently noble and objective, but depending on how it is realized in the world the result can be quite the opposite.  Politicians and reformers have argued that in order to improve education, greater accountability is needed.  Any parent would want to know that their schools are being held accountable and that there is a fair and transparent process for both charting the future of schools while also addressing concerns as they arise.  Accountability, however, tends not to refer to establishing deep authentic partnerships between schools, communities, and families.  Rather, accountability has referred to the use of the kinds of standards, tests, and evaluations described above.  It has meant creating robust digital systems that collect data from tests, performance assessments, and census data in order to create “report cards” of how schools perform and even publishing thoroughly imperfect evaluations of teachers in newspapers. To claim accountability when the instruments of accounting are so imperfect and immature is overeager at best and dishonest at worst.

 True accountability would approach the state of education wholistically in both words and numbers.  The governor’s speech does the former fairly decently.  In words, he avoids reducing his stance on public education to purely reductive quantitative or categorical terms.  He refers to the importance of early childhood education, to “wraparound services” that address health and wellness needs of students, and even alludes to the problems of over-testing, bureaucratic bloat, and commercial money-making.  However, the hard numbers used to operationalize accountability resort back to those tied directly to the standards, tests, and evaluations based on the Common Core and teacher evaluation framework.  When expressed as confident quantities, even the most imperfect measures appear inarguably true.

Accountability does not have to mean there is a single authority who imposes some measure from on high.  As an educator, I have co-designed syllabi, assignments, and assessment rubrics with my students.  In doing so, my job is to ensure that certain goals and standards are addressed but also to work with my students to articulate fair and authentic demonstrations.  By approaching accountability this way in my classroom, I have found that students better understand what is expected and perform with conviction, with heart.  Were officials to reconsider how they engage with districts, schools, and communities, they might find that there are approaches to accountability that would not only resonate with stakeholders but also be far more effective over time.

 Final Thoughts

The tone and pace of the current reforms is due, at least in part, to the fact that our politicians and officials are staring at a countdown clock.  The funding that fuels much of the reform in New York and other states comes through the federal Race to the Top initiative, which provided over $700 million to the Empire State alone.  Whether states were prepared or not, once they received their federal funding the clock started ticking.  Regardless of what potential good might come from collective interest and investment in education, this temporal imperative has created a situation in which decisions are being made rashly, stakeholders are impatiently and inauthentically engaged, and no one has the time and space to do their jobs well.  Officials rush to act, to scale education reform measures, without taking the time to slowly hear what their constituents are saying.  They’ve given themselves no time for authentic dialogue and are learning a lesson I hope we do not soon forget: scale without sustainability is meaningless.

If we are to better support our children, our schools, and our elected officials, we need to change the ways we talk about education.  It is a topic that, when it does come up, can be greeted with conversants’ passionate views.  These views are always, to some extent, rooted in our own experiences.  Such perspectives are as dearly held as they are incomplete.  We must do more.  Begin by acknowledging the complexity of what it means to teach and learn, by talking about education slowly with whoever will listen, by presuming that most of the people involved in reform truly believe that what they are doing is right and best for children, and by sharing your voices publicly through news outletsparent advocacy groups, and voting booths.  You might even consider sharing a beer with an old friend at a bar.


“Personalized” Learning in 1922

As interest in personalization in education continues to grow, history reminds us that for nearly a century, to personalize learning has meant forcing students to comply with adults’ perspectives, paradigms, and answers to questions.  As in this cartoon, the adult might be focusing on a single student but only in terms that the adult defines and imposes.  I believe personalization might also mean that we truly take the time to understand our students–not as identification numbers whose learning is measured by tests and standards–but as breathing beings who have questions and passions and fears.



[Check out Gerard Giordano’s book on the history of American testing for this image and other artifacts]