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A Sinking Ship?

During a week in which both Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama will publicly defend their education reform priorities – in response to severe criticism from the country’s leading civil rights organizations – I’m trying to figure out how a set of ideas that was so close to mobilizing a quiet revolution in public education has instead led the soldiers of that revolution to passionately (and loudly) take up arms against each other.

All I can come up with is they’ve gotten some lousy advice. And I think I see where they’ve gone wrong.

Take, for example, the issue of teacher evaluations, which is a major component of the Race to the Top selection criteria. First of all, anyone who doesn’t think our current system of teacher and principal evaluation needs to be completely remade is someone you should never listen to again on any issue of consequence. Teacher and principal assessments in this country are a joke – and do nothing to advance the quality of the profession or improve the overall learning conditions for kids. So the Obama Administration’s decision to shine light on this issue is spot-on.

Why, then, has that issue transmogrified into a bold push for using financial incentives to boost teacher motivation? Who thought that was a good idea, and why did anybody listen? As I’ve written previously, the leading thinkers in the business community have recognized for years the limitations of this strategy (Enron, anyone?). Dan Pink has posted a useful video in which he cites a study by, of all entities, the Federal Reserve, showing how cash incentives work well – as long as the desired behaviors are simple and non-cognitive. Yet this is an issue the administration continues to try and defend. They should drop it like it’s hot.

Similarly, there’s the push to adopt a common set of academic standards across all fifty states. This, too, is something I’ve written about previously, and this, too, is an issue I’m ready to support, provided the projected purpose for the use of the standards is in line with what other high-achieving countries around the world have used them for – namely, to provide guidance, clarity and quality control, not to enforce a strict set of restrictions that prescribe the actions of local educators. We need standards that are viewed as indicators of wisdom our students will need to be successful in college and the workplace, not shards of knowledge that make it easier to devise uniform tests and mandate standardized modes of instruction.

Is this the path the Obama administration and the National Governors Association seek as well? I’m not sure, but I can see why some people feel nervous.  We are, after all, still a culture intent on overvaluing the illusory certainty that basic-skills test scores provide us. We still seek linear progress in the most nonlinear of professions and experiences. And we still operate in a society where powerful forces driven by the bottom line have the capacity to steer policy decisions to their liking. So although the jury is still out on this one, I feel more nervous than confident.

Finally, there’s the issue of making federal money for states a competitive, rather than strictly a formula-driven, process. If you want to view this one purely by its ability to engineer massive changes in how states operate, it’s a runaway success. States have revised laws to lift caps on the number of charter schools, adopted the new common standards, and poured thousands of hours into finalizing their grant proposals. Initially, two states were awarded money in the first round. Today, 18 more states and the District of Columbia were named finalists for the remaining $3.4 billion in funding.

This aspect of the Obama administration’s proposals is what particularly rankled the civil rights groups. As Schott Foundation president John Jackson put it, “No state should have to compete to protect the civil rights of their children in their states.”

Hard to argue with that point, but in the interest of moving forward, I want to offer three simple pieces of START STOP KEEP advice to the Obama team:

  1. KEEP focusing on teacher and principal quality and evaluation, but STOP doing it via the 20th century notion of carrots and sticks, and START investing deeply in quality teacher preparation programs and evaluation systems.
  2. KEEP emphasizing the utility of a stronger, clearer and leaner set of national standards that can guide instruction and provide quality control to a system that sorely needs it, but STOP viewing it as a way to impose more national standardized exams, and START heeding both the civil rights groups’ recommendation for common resource opportunity standards, and the need for a long term goal (once the aforementioned teacher preparation programs are up to snuff) of having national content standards provide guidance for teachers, who then devise locally-administered assessments based on their detailed knowledge of what they’ve taught and who they’ll be testing. (This is what many of the highest-performing countries in the world do, by the way.)
  3. KEEP saying that providing a high-quality public education to all children is the civil rights issue of our time, but STOP trying to do so by incentivizing competition that results in winners and losers, and START advocating for a Constitutional amendment that makes the guarantee of an equal opportunity to learn for all children something the states cannot ignore.

I think that would help a lot. What do YOU think?


Arne Duncan’s Learning Story

Check out the first in our ongoing series with the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, who will post a different person’s learning story every week between now and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act.

Have a story of your own to share? Visit rethinklearningnow.com and tell us who helped you use your mind well.


Washington Post to Feature a Story a Week for 2010 (and beyond?)

Great news! Beginning tomorrow morning, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss will feature a new learning story each week between now and the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act (whenever that is).

Fittingly, the series will begin with the learning story of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. But there’s still time to share your own story and have it featured — go to rethinklearningnow.com and tell us about your most effective teacher, and/or your most powerful learning experience!


Draft Intro for Book of Learning Stories

For anyone interested in learning a bit more about what the book will look like . . .


This is a book of different people’s stories.

Some are about teachers who changed their students’ lives. Some describe the moment when a person first discovered how to ask the right questions, or found what they were most passionate about.  Others are about making art, or going on a challenging hike, or studying everything from Morse code to Macbeth to Kung Fu. But all of the stories in this collection are about one central thing – learning, and what it feels like to discover one’s purpose, passion, and capacity for greatness.

The 50 stories gathered here, along with hundreds of others, were submitted as part of the Rethink Learning Now campaign, a national grassroots effort to change the tenor of our national conversation about schooling by shifting it from a culture of testing, in which we overvalue basic-skills reading and math scores and undervalue just about everything else, to a culture of learning, in which we restore our collective focus on the core conditions of a powerful learning environment, and work backwards from there to decide how best to evaluate and improve our schools, our educators, and the progress of our nation’s schoolchildren.

In sharing their stories, our authors – who range from students to social workers to the Secretary of Education himself – were responding to one of two simple prompts:

  1. What was your most powerful personal experience in a learning community – regardless of whether that experience took place inside or outside of school?
  2. Who was your most effective teacher, and what was it about that person that made him or her so effective?

The purpose in asking these questions was twofold: First, to give people an opportunity to reflect on what they already know to be true about powerful learning and teaching – rather than tell them what some “expert” thinks it is; and second, to use the insights of these stories to help people see more clearly what a powerful learning environment actually looks like – and what it requires.

Based on those insights, the stories in this book are divided into five sections – challenging, engaging, supportive, relevant and experiential. As you read them, imagine how the insights they provide might be used to strengthen the learning cultures of the schools in your neighborhood. And rather than viewing each story as a “best practice” that should be replicated and scaled up, think instead of how these authors’ collective wisdom clarifies a “best question” we should ask whenever we want to improve our schools: “How can we best support educators in their work to create schools that are more challenging, engaging, supportive, relevant and experiential?”

Now, more than ever, our country needs these sorts of schools. Unlike any other pillar of our society, public education is the only institution that reaches 90% of every new generation, is governed by public authority, and was founded with the explicit mission of preparing young people to be thoughtful and active participants in a democratic society. And as these stories illuminate, the business of improving our schools doesn’t need to be a tiresome, desperate, and futile task; it can be a collaborative, risky, and deeply fulfilling journey that results in us better understanding ourselves – and each other.

So please, enjoy the stories that follow. Consider which of the recommendations we provide might be worth putting into action in your community. And take the time to share your own story, and read the stories of hundreds of other fellow citizens, at rethinklearningnow.com.


Final 50 Selected for Book of Learning Stories

Nine months ago, the Rethink Learning Now campaign launched a national storytelling initiative by asking people to reflect on their most powerful learning experiences, and/or their most effective teachers.

Since then, the campaign has received hundreds of insightful and illustrative submissions from people across the country –from students to social workers to the Secretary of Education himself. And this past month, I’ve had the difficult challenge of selecting just 50 of those stories to be collected into a book that will be released next spring.

My work has been so difficult because the stories people have submitted are all so good, and so varied. Some are about teachers who changed their students’ lives. Some describe the moment when a person first discovered how to ask the right questions, or found what they were most passionate about.  Others are about making art, or going on a challenging hike, or studying everything from Morse code to Macbeth to Kung Fu. But all of the stories in the campaign – and, ultimately, the book – are about one central thing – learning, and what it feels like to discover one’s purpose, passion, and capacity for greatness.

And so, I’m proud to officially announce the Final 50. I want to congratulate all of you who took the time to share your stories with the campaign. And I want to urge anyone that hasn’t yet done so to add your voice to our growing patchwork of learning memories. Do so today at rethinklearningnow.com.

  1. Zainab Ali – Office of the Mayor – Los Angeles, California
  2. Anonymous — Evanston, Illinois
  3. Rachel Barnes – Humanities Teacher — Chatham, Massachusetts
  4. R. Dwayne Betts – Spokesman, Campaign for Youth Justice — Suitland, Maryland
  5. Maritza Brito – World Languages Teacher — Toms River, New Jersey
  6. Cass Carland – Youth Voice Consultant, QED Foundation – Keene, New Hampshire
  7. Gary Cohen – Businessman, CO2 Partners – Wayzata, Minnesota
  8. James Comer – University Professor — New Haven, Connecticut
  9. Elijah Cummings – United States Congressman — Baltimore, Maryland
  10. Jill Davidson –Director, Coalition of Essential Schools — Providence, Rhode Island
  11. Arne Duncan – United States Secretary of Education — Washington, DC
  12. Michelle Durange – 1st & 2nd Grade Teacher — Littlestown, Pennsylvania
  13. Joel Elliott – Peace Corps Volunteer — Limpopo Province, South Africa
  14. Amy Estersohn – Afterschool Program Volunteer, Learning Unlimited — Chicago, Illinois
  15. Jamal Fields – Elementary School Principal — Livermore, California
  16. Jenna Fournel – Outreach Director, Center for Inspired Teaching — Alexandria, Virginia
  17. Jenifer Fox – Founder, Strong Planet — Franklin, Tennessee
  18. Al Franken – United States Senator — Minneapolis, Minnesota
  19. Emily Gasoi – Student — Washington, DC
  20. John Goodlad – President, Institute for Educational Inquiry — Seattle, Washington
  21. Loretta Goodwin – Senior Director, American Youth Policy Forum — Arlington, Virginia
  22. Carl Glickman – Educator and Writer — Athens, Georgia
  23. Stedman Graham – Businessman and Educator — Chicago, Illinois
  24. Patrick Ip – Student — Chicago, Illinois
  25. Gerlma A.S. Johnson – Middle School Principal — Detroit, Michigan
  26. Gloria Ladson-Billings – University Professor — Madison, Wisconsin
  27. Liz Lerman – Choreographer — Takoma Park, Maryland
  28. Sitembiso Ncube Maduma – Special Education Teacher — San Bernardino, California
  29. Andrew Margon – Special Education Teacher — Brooklyn, New York
  30. Kevin McCann – Senior Vice President, Edelman Public Relations — Washington, DC
  31. Robert McLaughlin – Administrator, New Hampshire Board of Education — Concord, New Hampshire
  32. Deborah Meier – Retired Educator – Hillsdale, New York
  33. Renee Moore – Teacher Instructor — Cleveland, Mississippi
  34. Steve Moore  — Reading Instructor — Republic, Missouri
  35. Larry Myatt  — School Leadership Consultant — Boston, Massachusetts
  36. Susan Oliver – Communications Consultant — Waterford, Virginia
  37. Margaret Owens – Student – Palo Alto, California
  38. Terry Pickeral – President, Cascade Educational Consultants — Bellingham, Washington
  39. Bruce Deitrick Price – Founder, Improve-Education.org — Virginia Beach, Virginia
  40. Jan Resseger – Minster for Public Education and Witness, United Church of Christ – Cleveland, Ohio
  41. Mark Rockeymoore – Senior Fellow, Global Policy Solutions — San Antonio, Texas
  42. Carrie Rogers — 2nd Grade Teacher — Rancho Cucamonga, California
  43. Elizabeth Rogers, Public Affairs Director, Oral Health America — Portland, Maine
  44. Ahniwake Rose – Policy Analyst, National Congress of American Indians – Washington, DC
  45. Chantale Soekhoe – Legislative Liaison, New York Civil Liberties Union —  Bronx, New York
  46. Maya Soetoro-Ng – Education Specialist, East-West Center – Honolulu, Hawaii
  47. Angela Valenzuela – University Professor — Austin, Texas
  48. Jill Vialet – Founder, Playworks — Oakland, California
  49. Stephen Vick – Director of Child Welfare, Association House — Chicago, Illinois
  50. Jenerra Williams – 2nd & 3rd Grade Teacher — Boston, Massachusetts

Book of Learning Stories — Deadline Nears

I’m spending every minute this week finalizing the manuscript that will stitch together 50 people’s stories about powerful teaching and learning (Jossey-Bass, Spring 2011 release).

Already, there are powerful voices and insights in the mix — from everyday citizens to U.S. Senators to the Secretary of Education himself. And although we already have several hundred stories to work with — and far more than 50 that are worthy of being in the book — you still have one week to share your own experience and have it be considered for publication. Just visit rethinklearningnow.com/stories/submit and tell us about your experience, and what it is that made it so worthwhile.



Privatization or Public-ization?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the growing support for a privatization of America’s public school system, and what it augurs over the long haul.

Typically, that’s as far as the conversation gets before breaking down into myopic talking points that force people to pledge allegiance to one of two camps: these days you’re either pro or anti-charter, pro or anti-union, or — the most insulting — pro-adult or pro-kid.

I can’t predict how it’s all going to play out, but I can see that these binary frames are misleading distractions that work great as sound bites, and prevent us from addressing the primary challenges we face as a nation. I can also suggest an illustrative tale worth paying attention to, on from the other side of the globe where the exact opposite push — a public-ization of the school system — is taking place.

Click here to keep reading.


The Big Picture on School Performance

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

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

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


What Would Theo Do?

I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan, so as this year’s trading deadline approaches, I’m wondering once again what Theo Epstein, the GM of my beloved Boston Red Sox, will do to improve his team’s chances of winning their third championship in six years — after not winning one for eighty-six.

I’m also a lifelong public education fan, so with the Department of Education’s Race to the Top Fund poised to provide billions of dollars in competitive grants, I’m wondering if Arne Duncan can do for public schools what Theo Epstein has done for the Red Sox — take a maligned institution known more commonly for its failures than its successes, and turn it into a perennial winner.

Duncan should start by asking himself a simple question —What Would Theo Do?


We’re Pursuing the Wrong Set of Standards

With $100 billion to spend in the next two years, the Obama administration means business when it talks about reshaping the public education system. Why, then, is it ignoring some of the business community’s best insights when it comes to core questions of how to spark systems change?

There’s a disconnect between what the administration is promising – a set of voluntary national content standards – and what we the people will receive – a standardization of the public school system.

Click here to keep reading.

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