FROM THE ARCHIVES…

 

The NEWS section of alfiekohn.org contains information about AK’s recent or forthcoming publications but also some blog-like commentary on various topics in education and human behavior.  Here are selected examples of the latter, in reverse chronological order.

 

6/14: "While we're at it, maybe we should just design classrooms without windows. And, hey, I'll bet kids would really perform better if they spent their days in isolation." My friend was reacting (facetiously, of course) to a new study that found kindergarteners scored better on a test of recall if their classroom's walls were completely bare. A room filled with posters, maps, and the kids' own art constituted a "distraction."

The study, published last month in Psychological Science [1] and picked up by Science World Report, the Boston Globe, and other media outlets, looked at a whopping total of 24 children. A research assistant read to them about a topic such as plate tectonics or insects, then administered a paper-and-pencil test to see how many facts they remembered. On average, kids in the decorated rooms were "off task" 39 percent of the time and had a "learning score" of 42 percent. The respective numbers for those in the bare rooms were 28 percent and 55 percent.

Now if you regularly read education studies, you won't be surprised to learn that the authors of this one never questioned, or even bothered to defend, the value of the science lessons they used -- whether they were developmentally appropriate or presented effectively, whether they involved anything more than reading a list of facts or were likely to hold any interest for five year olds. Nor did the researchers vouch for the quality of the assessment. Whatever raises kids' scores (on any test, and of any material) was simply assumed to be a good thing, and anything that lowers scores is bad.

Hence the authors' concern that children tend to be "distracted by the visual environment." (Translation: They may attend to something in the room other than the facts an adult decided to transmit to them.) And hence my friend's wry reductio ad absurdum response.

Alas, "sparse" classrooms had their own problems. There, we're told, children "were more likely to be distracted by themselves or by peers." Even if we strip everything off the walls, those pesky kids will still engage in instructionally useless behaviors like interacting with one another or thinking about things that interest them. The researchers referred to the latter (thinking) as being "distracted by themselves." Mark that phrase as the latest illustration of the principle that, in the field of education, satire has become obsolete.

Our attention seems to be fixed relentlessly on the means by which to get students to accomplish something. We remain undistracted by anything to do with ends -- what it is they're supposed to accomplish, and whether it's really valuable. Perhaps that's why schools of education typically require "methods" classes but not goals classes. In the latter, students might be invited to read this study and ask whether a child could reasonably regard the lesson as a distraction (from her desire to think, talk, or look at a cool drawing on the wall). Other students might object on the grounds that it's a teacher's job to decide what students ought to do and to maximize their "time on task." But such conversations -- Time on what task? Why is it being taught? Who gets to decide? -- are shut down before they begin when all we talk about (in ed. schools, in journals, in professional development sessions) is how to maximize time on whatever is assigned.[2]

Those of us who are disturbed, even outraged, by what's being done to our schools in the name of "reform" -- imposing ramped-up, uniform, prescriptive standards; high-stakes testing; and pressure that's both vertical (with kindergartens now resembling really bad first-grade classrooms) and horizontal (with little time for music and the arts, recess, student-designed projects, or any subjects not being tested) -- ought to consider how this agenda is quietly supported by research that relies on test scores as the primary, or even the sole, dependent variable.

Then, too, there's the way such research is described by journalists. Most articles in Education Week, for example, ought to include this caveat:

Please keep in mind that phrases such as "effective policies," "higher achievement," "better results," or "improved outcomes" refer only to scores on standardized tests. These tests are not only poor indicators of meaningful intellectual accomplishment but tend to measure the socioeconomic status of the students or the amount of time they have been trained in test-taking skills.

The idea that kindergarteners ought to block everything out but facts about plate tectonics reminded me of an essay called “Can Teachers Increase Students’ Self-Control?” (as usual, the question was “can,” not “should”) written by a cognitive psychologist named Daniel Willingham. He offered as a role model a hypothetical child who looks through his classroom window and sees “construction workers pour[ing] cement for a sidewalk” but “manages to ignore this interesting scene and focus on his work.”[3]

But what was the "work"? Was it a fill-in-the-blank waste-of-the-time that would lead any child to look out the window or at the wall? Or was it something so intellectually valuable that we'd be justified in saying, "Hey, this really is worth it"? I don't know. But for Willingham, as for so many others, it apparently doesn't matter: If the teacher assigned it, that's reason enough to ignore the interesting real-life lesson in how a sidewalk is created, to refrain from asking the teacher why that lesson can’t be incorporated into the curriculum. An exemplary student is one who stifles his curiosity, exercises his self-control, and does what he's told.

Is a given lesson worth teaching? I may not always be sure of the answer, but I'm pretty sure that's the question we should be asking -- rather than employing discipline, or demanding self-discipline, or pulling stuff off the walls in order that students will devote their attention to something whose value is simply taken for granted.

NOTES

1. Anna V. Fisher, Karrie E. Godwin, and Howard Seltman, "Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children: When Too Much of a Good Thing May Be Bad," Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797614533801. Published online 21 May 2014.

2. A couple of years ago I wrote an article called "Teaching Strategies That Work! (Just Don't Ask 'Work to Do What?')" [http://ow.ly/xzZ3I], which focused on a research review challenging the effectiveness of discovery-based learning without ever asking what constitutes effectiveness. There, too, my point was that if we don't ask what we're looking for and argue about the values that underlie our answers, we'll end up by default with a goal like higher test scores -- or, in the case of classroom management strategies, compliance.

3. Daniel T. Willingham, “Can Teachers Increase Students’ Self-Control?” American Educator, Summer 2011, p. 23. I offered this example in my book The Myth of the Spoiled Child (Da Capo Press, 2014) and, in the same chapter, cited a pair of studies by Angela Duckworth and her colleagues that found an elite group of middle schoolers performed better in the National Spelling Bee if they were higher in grit, “whereas spellers higher in openness to experience -- defined as preferring using their imagination, playing with ideas, and otherwise enjoying a complex mental life -- perform[ed] worse.” The study also found that the most effective preparation strategy was “solitary deliberate practice activities” rather than, say, reading books. Thus, if enjoying a complex mental life (or reading for pleasure) interferes with performance in a one-shot contest to see who can spell more obscure words correctly -- and if sufficient grittiness to spend time alone memorizing lists of words helps to achieve that goal -- this is regarded as an argument in favor of grit. But of course the unasked question once again concerns ends rather than means: How important is it that kids who are exceptionally good spellers win more championships? Should we favor any strategy or personality feature that contributes to that objective (or to anything that could be described as “higher achievement”) regardless of what it involves and what it displaces?

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10/13: To create the schools our children deserve, it's probably not necessary to devise specific policies and practices for every occasion. Rather, these will follow logically from a few core principles that we devise together. Here's a sample list of such principles, intended to start a conversation among educators, parents, and (let's not forget) the students themselves:

1. Learning should be organized around problems, projects, and (students') questions -- not around lists of facts or skills, or separate disciplines.

2. Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly.

3. The primary criterion for what we do in schools: How will this affect kids' interest in the topic (and their excitement about learning more generally)?

4. If students are "off task," the problem may be with the task, not with the kids.

5. In outstanding classrooms, teachers do more listening than talking, and students do more talking than listening. Terrific teachers often have teeth marks on their tongues.

6. Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.

7. When we aren't sure how to solve a problem relating to curriculum, pedagogy, or classroom conflict, the best response is often to ask the kids.

8. The more focused we are on kids' "behaviors," the more we end up missing the kids themselves -- along with the needs, motives, and reasons that underlie their actions.

9. If students are rewarded or praised for doing something (e.g., reading, solving problems, being kind), they'll likely lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.

10. The more that students are led to focus on how well they're doing in school, the less engaged they'll tend to be with what they're doing in school.

11. All learning can be assessed, but the most important kinds of learning are very difficult to measure -- and the quality of that learning may diminish if we try to reduce it to numbers.

12. Standardized tests assess the proficiencies that matter least. Such tests serve mostly to make unimpressive forms of instruction appear successful.

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10/13: In 2009, when a friend breathlessly told me about a new social media format in which messages would be limited to 140 characters, I smirkily predicted that within a few years it would be mentioned in the same breath with the pet rock craze of the 1970s. Fifty-two months after having stuck my toe in these digital waters, however, I'm prepared to admit that I was wrong. This thing may be around for awhile. Still, my attitude about Twitter remains ambivalent, and I thought I'd take about 3000 characters to explain how I view it and use it.

RECEIVING: I've been accused - mostly by people who don't much like my ideas anyway - of being arrogant or unsporting because I don't use Twitter to converse. It's true: I don't. If someone asks a question, and I happen to see the tweet, I'll usually invite him or her to send me an e-mail so we can communicate privately and without the need to omit important qualifications or 2 dpnd on irrtatng abbrvs. I follow only a handful of people - plus another small bunch in a backup account that I check less frequently. That's my limit. I frankly don't understand how it's possible to follow hundreds, or even thousands, of people: Those who do so are either devoting orders of magnitude more time to this medium every day than I do (or would want to), or else they're missing the vast majority of those tweets. Most of the ideas and perspectives I encounter, like most of the conversations I have, don't involve Twitter.

SENDING: I limit myself to one carefully chosen message a day, which is either a reflection (about education, parenting, human behavior, or occasionally politics), a quote I found provocative, a link to a useful resource, or, once every week or two, an article of mine. This limit forces me to be selective. It allows me to avoid (a) spewing out a volume of material that would be more overwhelming than useful to those who follow my tweets, (b) presuming that people care about what restaurant I've just eaten in or whether the traffic is really bad today, or (c) creating a loop of self-congratulation whereby I retweet every message that mentions me favorably. If I restrict myself to a single tweet, I'm not tempted to impersonate a fire hose, or to share my prosaic daily activities with the world, or to keep saying, "Look! Someone likes what I wrote!"

CHATTING: I've tried a few times, but mass Twitter "conversations" just don't work for me. Each person is talking to everyone and to no one. Your attempt to respond to a particular observation or question is quickly buried under a pile of subsequent messages. And I find a 140-character limit a terrible match for the rapid-fire nature of the colloquy. I can be succinct (sometimes) or I can be fast, but please don't ask me to be both at once.

Even reading selectively, Twitter helps me learn about articles I might otherwise have missed. Conversely, I hope my one-a-day links and thoughts are useful to those who follow me. At some point I may rethink and expand my use of the medium, but for now this restricted use - and the limited commitment of time it entails - still makes sense for me.

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5/13: Beliefs that are debatable or even patently false may be repeated so often that at some point they come to be accepted as fact. We seem to have crossed that threshold with the claim that U.S. schools are significantly worse than those in most other countries. Sometimes the person who parrots this line will even insert a number -- "We're only ____th in the world, you know!" -- although, not surprisingly, the number changes with each retelling.

The assertion that our students compare unfavorably to those in other countries has long been heard from politicians and corporate executives whose goal is to justify various "get tough" reforms: high-stakes testing, a nationalized curriculum (see under: Common Core "State" Standards), more homework, a longer school day or year, and so on. But by now the premise is apt to be casually repeated by just about everyone -- including educators, I'm sorry to say -- and in the service of a wide range of prescriptions and agendas. Just recently I've seen it on a petition to promote teaching the "whole child" (which I declined to sign for that reason), in a documentary arguing for more thoughtful math instruction, and in an article by the progressive journalist Barbara Ehrenreich.

Unsurprisingly, this misconception has filtered out to the general public. According to a brand-new poll, a plurality of Americans -- and a majority of college graduates! -- believe (incorrectly) that American 15-year-olds are at the bottom when their scores on tests of science knowledge are compared to those of students in other developed countries.[1]

A dedicated group of educational experts has been challenging this canard over the years, but their writings rarely appear in popular publications and each typically focuses on just one of the many problems with the claim. Here, then, is a concise overview of the multiple responses you might offer the next time you hear someone declare that American kids come up short. (First, though, I'd suggest politely inquiring as to the evidence for his or her statement. The wholly unsatisfactory reply you're likely to receive may constitute a rebuttal in its own right.)

1. Even taking the numbers at face value, the U.S. fares reasonably well. Results will vary depending on subject matter, age, which test is being used, and which year's results are being reported. It's possible to cherry-pick scores to make just about any country look especially good or bad. The U.S. looks considerably better when we focus on younger students, for example -- so, not surprisingly, it's the high school numbers that tend to be cited most often. (When someone reduces all student performance to a single number, you can bet it's the one that casts our schools in the worst possible light.)

But even with older students, there may be less to the claim than meets the eye. As an article in Scientific American noted a few years back, most countries' science scores were actually pretty similar.[2] That's worth keeping in mind whenever a new batch of numbers is released. If there's little (or even no) statistically significant difference among, say, the nations placing third through ninth, it would be irresponsible to cite those rankings as if they were meaningful.

Overall, when a pair of researchers carefully reviewed half a dozen different international achievement surveys conducted from 1991 to 2001, they found that "U.S. students have generally performed above average in comparisons with students in other industrialized nations."[3] And that still seems to be the case with the most recent data, which include math and science scores for grade 4, grade 8, and age 15, as well as reading scores for grade 4 and age 15. Of the eight results, the U.S. scored above average in five, average in two, and below average in one.[4] Not exactly the dire picture that's typically painted.

2. What do we really learn from standardized tests? While there are differences in quality between the most commonly used tests (e.g., PISA, TIMSS), the fact is that any one-shot, pencil-and-paper standardized test -- particularly one whose questions are multiple-choice -- offers a deeply flawed indicator of learning as compared with authentic classroom-based assessments.[5] One of them taps students' skill at taking standardized tests, which is a skill unto itself; the other taps what students have learned and what sense they make of, and what they can do with, what they've learned. One is a summary statistic labeled "student achievement"; the other is an account of students' achievements. Anyone who cites the results of a test is obliged to defend the construction of the test itself, to show that the results are not only statistically valid but meaningful. Needless to say, very few people who say something like "the U.S. is below average in math" have any idea how math proficiency has been measured.

3. Are we comparing apples to watermelons? Even if the tests were good measures of important intellectual proficiencies, the students being tested in different countries aren't always comparable. As scholars Iris Rotberg and the late Gerald Bracey have pointed out for years, some countries test groups of students who are unrepresentative with respect to age, family income, or number of years spent studying science and math. The older, richer, and more academically selective a cohort of students in a given country, the better that country is going to look in international comparisons.[6]

4. Rich American kids do fine; poor American kids don't. It's ridiculous to offer a summary statistic for all children at a given grade level in light of the enormous variation in scores within this country. To do so is roughly analogous to proposing an average pollution statistic for the United States that tells us the cleanliness of "American air." Test scores are largely a function of socioeconomic status. Our wealthier students perform very well when compared to other countries; our poorer students do not. And we have a lot more poor children than do other industrialized nations. One example, supplied by Linda Darling-Hammond: "In 2009 U.S. schools with fewer than 10 percent of students in poverty ranked first among all nations on PISA tests in reading, while those serving more than 75 percent of students in poverty scored alongside nations like Serbia, ranking about fiftieth."[7]

5. Why treat learning as if were a competitive sport? All of these results emphasize rankings more than ratings, which means the question of educational success has been framed in terms of who's beating whom.

a) Education <> economy. If our reason for emphasizing students' relative standing (rather than their absolute achievement) has to do with "competitiveness in the 21st-century global economy" -- a phrase that issues from politicians, businesspeople, and journalists with all the thoughtfulness of a sneeze, then we would do well to ask two questions. The first, based on values, is whether we regard educating children as something that's primarily justified in terms of corporate profits.

The second question, based on facts, is whether the state of a nation's economy is meaningfully affected by the test scores of students in that nation. Various strands of evidence have converged to suggest that the answer is no. For individual students, school achievement is only weakly related to subsequent workplace performance. And for nations, there's little correlation between average test scores and economic vigor, even if you try to connect scores during one period with the economy some years later (when that cohort of students has grown up).[8] Moreover, Yong Zhao has shown that "PISA scores in reading, math, and sciences are negatively correlated with entrepreneurship indicators in almost every category at statistically significant levels."[9]

b) Why is the relative relevant? Once we've debunked the myth that test scores drive economic success, what reason would we have to fret about our country's standing as measured by those scores? What sense does it make to focus on relative performance? After all, to say that our students are first or tenth on a list doesn't tell us whether they're doing well or poorly; it gives us no useful information about how much they know or how good our schools are. If all the countries did reasonably well in absolute terms, there would be no shame in being at the bottom. (Nor would "average" be synonymous with "mediocre.") If all the countries did poorly, there would be no glory in being at the top. Exclamatory headlines about how "our" schools are doing compared to "theirs" suggest that we're less concerned with the quality of education than with whether we can chant, "We're Number One!"

c) Hoping foreign kids won't learn? To treat schooling as if were a competitive sport is not only irrational but morally offensive. If our goal is for American kids to triumph over those who live elsewhere -- to have a better ranking -- then the implication is that we want children who live in other countries to fail, at least in relative terms. We want them not to learn successfully just because they're not Americans. That's built into the notion of "competitiveness" (as opposed to excellence or success), which by definition means that one individual or group can succeed only if others don't. This is a troubling way to look at any endeavor, but where children are concerned, it's indefensible. And it's worth pointing out these implications to anyone who uncritically cites the results of an international ranking.

Moreover, rather than defending policies designed to help our graduates "compete," I'd argue that we should make decisions on the basis of what will help them to develop the skills and disposition to collaborate effectively. Educators, too, ought to think in terms of working with - and learning from - their counterparts in other countries so that children everywhere will become more proficient and enthusiastic learners. But every time we rank "our" kids against "theirs," that becomes a little less likely to happen.

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NOTES

1. Pew Research Center for People and the Press, "Public's Knowledge of Science and Technology," April 22, 2013. .

2. W. Wayt Gibbs and Douglas Fox, "The False Crisis in Science Education," Scientific American, October 1999: 87-92.

3. Erling E. Boe and Sujie Shin, "Is the United States Really Losing the International Horse Race in Academic Achievement?" Phi Delta Kappan, May 2005: 688-695.

4. National Center for Economic Statistics, Average Performance of U.S. Students Relative to International Peers on the Most Recent International Assessments in Reading, Mathematics, and Science: Results from PIRLS 2006, TIMSS 2007, and PISA 2009, 2011.

5. See, for example, Alfie Kohn, The Case Against Standardized Testing (Heinemann, 2000); or Phillip Harris et al., The Myths of Standardized Tests (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

6. For example, see Iris C. Rotberg, "Interpretation of International Test Score Comparisons," Science, May 15, 1998: 1030-31.

7. Linda Darling-Hammond, "Redlining Our Schools," The Nation, January 30, 2012: 12. Also see Mel Riddile, "PISA: It's Poverty Not Stupid," The Principal Difference [NASSP blog], December 15, 2010; and Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein, "What Do International Tests Really Show About U.S. Student Performance?", Economic Policy Institute report, January 28, 2013.

8. Keith Baker, "High Test Scores: The Wrong Road to National Economic Success," Kappa Delta Pi Record, Spring 2011: 116-20; Zalman Usiskin, "Do We Need National Standards with Teeth?" Educational Leadership, November 2007: 40; and Gerald W. Bracey, "Test Scores and Economic Growth," Phi Delta Kappan, March 2007: 554-56. "The reason is clear," says Iris Rotberg. "Other variables, such as outsourcing to gain access to lower-wage employees, the climate and incentives for innovation, tax rates, health-care and retirement costs, the extent of government subsidies or partnerships, protectionism, intellectual-property enforcement, natural resources, and exchange rates overwhelm mathematics and science scores in predicting economic competitiveness" ("International Test Scores, Irrelevant Policies," Education Week, September 14, 2001: 32).

9. Yong Zhao, "Flunking Innovation and Creativity," Phi Delta Kappan, September 2012: 58. Emphasis added.

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2/13:When people who write about agriculture or dentistry tackle the important issues in their respective fields, do they try to shake things up? Are they feisty and willing to peer beneath the surface of whatever topic they're exploring? I have no idea. But I do know that those qualities are awfully hard to find in what's written about education.

Consider the question of parent involvement in schooling. Almost everything published on this subject leaves the ideological foundations of the discussion unexamined. Either we're treated to a predictable announcement that Involvement Is Good ("Parents should do more!") or else we're warned that some folks have a tendency to get, well, you know, a little too involved. ("Jeremy, I'm wondering whether you might have had some help with your science fair project? I ask only because it's unusual for a sixth grader to build a working nuclear reactor"). Put these two themes together and the message seems to be that the interest parents take in their children's education is either inadequate or excessive.

Does that mean there's a sweet spot in the middle that consists of just enough involvement? Or are we looking at an example of what a statistician might call a bimodal distribution when involvement is plotted against socioeconomic status: Poor parents don't do enough; affluent parents do too much?

Let's begin by noticing that the whole question is framed by the extent to which educators think parents ought to be involved. The parent's point of view is typically absent from such discussions. And, of course, no thought is given to the student's perspective -- what role kids might want their parents to play (or to avoid playing). But then that's true of so many conversations about education that we scarcely notice its absence.

There's something both short-sighted and arrogant about exhorting low-income parents to show up at school events or make sure the homework gets done. The presumption seems to be that these parents lack interest or commitment -- as opposed to spare time, institutional savvy, comfort level, or fluency in English. Annette Lareau and other sociologists have described how class differences play out in terms of parental advocacy -- including why poorer and less-educated parents may be less effective when they do become involved.[1]

But even observers who are sensitive to issues of class don't always take a step back to ask what kind of involvement we're talking about, and to what ends. As is so often the case, our questions tend to be more quantitative than qualitative, with the result that we focus only on how much parents are involved.

Imagine someone who monitors his or her child's schooling very closely, for example, and doesn't hesitate to advocate for -- or against -- certain policy changes and resource allocation decisions. Is that a good thing? Rather than just asking whether the level or style of advocacy is effective, we'd also want to know whether this parent is asking for changes that will benefit all children or mostly just his or her own child (possibly at the expense of others). Our intensely individualistic, free-market-oriented culture -- witness the growing push for charter schools, vouchers, and privatization -- encourages us to see education not as a public good but as just another commodity one shops for, and to evaluate its effectiveness in terms of how much my kid gets out of it. Thus, those of us who value the cause of equity have reason to be disturbed by many sorts of parent involvement -- not just because some are more involved, or better at being involved, than others but because of what that involvement is intended to achieve and for whom.[2]

Proponents of progressive education, too, have reason to be disturbed by the focus of much involvement, even in individual classrooms. What are the pushiest parents pushing for? If they're judging schools by test scores and children by grades, if they're demanding more traditional forms of math and reading instruction, tighter regulation of students, and more homework, then the content of their agenda will strike us as more relevant than the degree of their involvement. Some of us may be inclined to ask, "How can we invite these parents to reconsider whether their preferences are really consistent with their long-term objectives for their children?" And: "What would it take to create a powerful parent constituency pushing in the other direction?"

Likewise, while everyone wants parents to be engaged with what their children are doing in school, what matters more is the nature of that engagement. There's a big difference between a parent who's focused on what the child is doing -- that is, on the learning itself -- and a parent who's focused on how well the child is doing. To ask "So, honey, what's your theory about why the Civil War started?" or "If you had written that story, would you have left the character wondering what happened, the way the author did?" represents a kind of engagement that promotes critical thinking and enthusiasm about learning. To ask "Why only a B+ [or a 3 on the rubric]?" is a kind of engagement that undermines both of these things.[3]

Of course, parents wouldn't be asking the latter questions if the school weren't reducing students to letters and numbers in the first place; they're taking their cue from educators who blur the differences between a focus on learning and a focus on performance, or between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Nevertheless, this issue seems to have escaped the notice of just about everyone who writes on the topic of parent involvement.

Finally, there's the matter of whether established educational practices are, on the one hand, accepted uncritically, so that the only question is whether kids are compliant and successful by established criteria, or whether, on the other hand, those practices are examined to see if they make sense. Not surprisingly, it's the rare educator who encourages the latter. The result is that parents are urged to become more involved (ma non troppo!) in a way that may be more about perpetuating the status quo than about doing what's in children's best interest.

A "partnership" between school and family sounds lovely unless that partnership is perceived by the child as an alliance against him. If the purpose is to coerce him into obeying rules that may not be reasonable, or to "live up to his potential" by working harder at assignments of dubious value, then we'd want parents to ask penetrating questions about the school's practices. Parents should aim higher than helping teachers to make children toe the line.

Homework offers a vivid example. Even on its own terms, parental involvement may not be beneficial. A recent study of middle schoolers found that "the more teachers intended to establish a close link with parents and to involve them in the homework process, the less positive the student outcomes were."[4] And a review of fifty studies found that, while parental involvement in general was "associated with achievement," the one striking exception was parental help with homework, where there was no positive effect.[5]

But the predominant outcome measures in such studies are test scores, which means that even if "positive effects" did turn up, they wouldn't impress those of us who doubt the validity and value of standardized test results. Nor would they tell us about the possible negative effects that certain kinds of involvement might have on students' creativity, psychological health, excitement about learning, their relationship with their parents, and so on.

The practice of forcing children to begin working what amounts to a second shift after they get home from a full day of school has absolutely no proven benefits before high school, and there are increasing reasons to doubt its value even in high school.[6] What kids need, therefore, are parents willing to question the conventional wisdom and to organize others to challenge school practices when that seems necessary. What kids don't need is the kind of parental involvement that consists of pestering them to make sure they do their homework -- whether or not it's worth doing.

Exhortations for more "parental involvement" remind me of calls to be "a good citizen": In the abstract, everyone is for it. But inspected closely, what's most often meant by the term turns out to be considerably more complicated and even worthy of skepticism.

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1. For example, see Lareau's book Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education (Philadelphia: Falmer, 1989).

2. Alfie Kohn, "Only for My Kid: How Privileged Parents Undermine School Reform," Phi Delta Kappan, April 1998. Available at www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/ofmk.htm.

3. I review research relevant to this distinction in my book The Schools Our Children Deserve (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), chapter 2. Also see this 20-minute video presentation: http://cfee.me/PSPvidAK.

4. Ulrich Trautwein et al., "Between-Teacher Differences in Homework Assignments and the Development of Students' Homework Effort, Homework Emotions, and Achievement," Journal of Educational Psychology 101 (2009), p. 185.

5. Nancy E. Hill and Diana F. Tyson, "Parental Involvement in Middle School: A Meta-Analytic Assessment of the Strategies That Promote Achievement," Developmental Psychology 45 (2009): 740-63.

6. Alfie Kohn, The Homework Myth (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006); and, for a look at a new high school study, http://ow.ly/fzwxn.

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11/12: A brand-new study on the academic effects of homework offers not only some intriguing results but also a lesson on how to read a study -- and a reminder of the importance of doing just that: reading studies (carefully) rather than relying on summaries by journalists or even by the researchers themselves.

Let's start by reviewing what we know from earlier investigations.[1] First, no research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school. In fact, there isn't even a positive correlation between, on the one hand, having younger children do some homework (vs. none), or more (vs. less), and, on the other hand, any measure of achievement. If we're making 12-year-olds, much less five-year-olds, do homework, it's either because we're misinformed about what the evidence says or because we think kids ought to have to do homework despite what the evidence says.

Second, even at the high school level, the research supporting homework hasn't been particularly persuasive. There does seem to be a correlation between homework and standardized test scores, but (a) it isn't strong, meaning that homework doesn't explain much of the variance in scores, (b) one prominent researcher, Timothy Keith, who did find a solid correlation, returned to the topic a decade later to enter more variables into the equation simultaneously, only to discover that the improved study showed that homework had no effect after all[2], and (c) at best we're only talking about a correlation -- things that go together -- without having proved that doing more homework causes test scores to go up. (Take ten seconds to see if you can come up with other variables that might be driving both of these things.)

Third, when homework is related to test scores, the connection tends to be strongest -- or, actually, least tenuous -- with math. If homework turns out to be unnecessary for students to succeed in that subject, it's probably unnecessary everywhere.

Along comes a new study, then, that focuses on the neighborhood where you'd be most likely to find a positive effect if one was there to be found: math and science homework in high school. Like most recent studies, this one by Adam Maltese and his colleagues[3] doesn't provide rich descriptive analyses of what students and teachers are doing. Rather, it offers an aerial view, the kind preferred by economists, relying on two large datasets (from the National Education Longitudinal Study [NELS] and the Education Longitudinal Study [ELS]). Thousands of students are asked one question -- How much time do you spend on homework? -- and statistical tests are then performed to discover if there's a relationship between that number and how they fared in their classes and on standardized tests.

It's easy to miss one interesting result in this study that appears in a one-sentence aside. When kids in these two similar datasets were asked how much time they spent on math homework each day, those in the NELS study said 37 minutes, whereas those in the ELS study said 60 minutes. There's no good reason for such a striking discrepancy, nor do the authors offer any explanation. They just move right along -- even though those estimates raise troubling questions about the whole project, and about all homework studies that are based on self-report. Which number is more accurate? Or are both of them way off? There's no way of knowing. And because all the conclusions are tied to that number, all the conclusions may be completely invalid.[4]

But let's pretend that we really do know how much homework students do. Did doing it make any difference? The Maltese et al. study looked at the effect on test scores and on grades. They emphasized the latter, but let's get the former out of the way first.

Was there a correlation between the amount of homework that high school students reported doing and their scores on standardized math and science tests? Yes, and it was statistically significant but "very modest": Even assuming the existence of a causal relationship, which is by no means clear, one or two hours' worth of homework every day buys you two or three points on a test. Is that really worth the frustration, exhaustion, family conflict, loss of time for other activities, and potential diminution of interest in learning? And how meaningful a measure were those tests in the first place, since, as the authors concede, they're timed measures of mostly mechanical skills? (Thus, a headline that reads "Study finds homework boosts achievement" can be translated as "A relentless regimen of after-school drill-and-skill can raise scores a wee bit on tests of rote learning.")

But it was grades, not tests, that Maltese and his colleagues really cared about. They were proud of having looked at transcript data in order to figure out "the exact grade a student received in each class [that he or she] completed" so they could compare that to how much homework the student did. Previous research has looked only at students' overall grade-point averages.

And the result of this fine-tuned investigation? There was no relationship whatsoever between time spent on homework and course grade, and "no substantive difference in grades between students who complete homework and those who do not."

This result clearly caught the researchers off-guard. Frankly, it surprised me, too. When you measure "achievement" in terms of grades, you expect to see a positive result -- not because homework is academically beneficial but because the same teacher who gives the assignments evaluates the students who complete them, and the final grade is often based at least partly on whether, and to what extent, students did the homework. Even if homework were a complete waste of time, how could it not be positively related to course grades?

And yet it wasn't. Again. Even in high school. Even in math. The study zeroed in on specific course grades, which represents a methodological improvement, and the moral may be: The better the research, the less likely one is to find any benefits from homework. (That's not a surprising proposition for a careful reader of reports in this field. We got a hint of that from Timothy Keith's reanalysis and also from the fact that longer homework studies tend to find less of an effect.[5])

Maltese and his colleagues did their best to reframe these results to minimize the stunning implications.[6] Like others in this field, they seem to have approached the topic already convinced that homework is necessary and potentially beneficial, so the only question we should ask is How -- not whether -- to assign it. But if you read the results rather than just the authors' spin on them -- which you really need to do with the work of others working in this field as well[7] -- you'll find that there's not much to prop up the belief that students must be made to work a second shift after they get home from school. The assumption that teachers are just assigning homework badly, that we'd start to see meaningful results if only it were improved, is harder and harder to justify with each study that's published.

If experience is any guide, however, many people will respond to these results by repeating platitudes about the importance of practice[8], or by complaining that anyone who doesn't think kids need homework is coddling them and failing to prepare them for the "real world" (read: the pointless tasks they'll be forced to do after they leave school). Those open to evidence, however, have been presented this fall with yet another finding that fails to find any meaningful benefit even when the study is set up to give homework every benefit of the doubt.

_________________________________________________

1. It's important to remember that some people object to homework for reasons that aren't related to the dispute about whether research might show that homework provides academic benefits. They argue that (a) six hours a day of academics are enough, and kids should have the chance after school to explore other interests and develop in other ways -- or be able simply to relax in the same way that most adults like to relax after work; and (b) the decision about what kids do during family time should be made by families, not schools. Let's put these arguments aside for now, even though they ought to be (but rarely are) included in any discussion of the topic.

2. Valerie A. Cool and Timothy Z. Keith, "Testing a Model of School Learning: Direct and Indirect Effects on Academic Achievement," Contemporary Educational Psychology 16 (1991): 28-44.

3. Adam V. Maltese, Robert H. Tai, and Xitao Fan, "When Is Homework Worth the Time? Evaluating the Association Between Homework and Achievement in High School Science and Math," The High School Journal, October/November 2012: 52-72. Abstract at http://ow.ly/fxhOV.

4. Other research has found little or no correlation between how much homework students report doing and how much homework their parents say they do. When you use the parents' estimates, the correlation between homework and achievement disappears. See Harris Cooper, Jorgianne Civey Robinson, and Erika A. Patall, "Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?: A Synthesis of Research, 1987-2003," Review of Educational Research 76 (2006): 1-62.

5. To put it the other way around, studies finding the biggest effect are those that capture less of what goes on in the real world by virtue of being so brief. View a small, unrepresentative slice of a child's life and it may appear that homework makes a contribution to achievement; keep watching, and that contribution is eventually revealed to be illusory. See data provided -- but not interpreted this way -- by Cooper, The Battle Over Homework, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2001).

6. Even the title of their article reflects this: They ask "When Is Homework Worth the Time?" rather than "Is Homework Worth the Time?" This bias might seem a bit surprising in the case of the study's second author, Robert H. Tai. He had contributed earlier to another study whose results similarly ended up raising questions about the value of homework. Students enrolled in college physics courses were surveyed to determine whether any features of their high school physics courses were now of use to them. At first a very small relationship was found between the amount of homework that students had had in high school and how well they were currently faring. But once the researchers controlled for other variables, such as the type of classes they had taken, that relationship disappeared, just as it had for Keith (see note 2). The researchers then studied a much larger population of students in college science classes - and found the same thing: Homework simply didn't help. See Philip M. Sadler and Robert H. Tai, "Success in Introductory College Physics: The Role of High School Preparation," Science Education 85 [2001]: 111-36.

7. See chapter 4 ("'Studies Show…' -- Or Do They?") of my book The Homework Myth (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2006), an adaptation of which appears as "Abusing Research: The Study of Homework and Other Examples," Phi Delta Kappan, September 2006.

8. On the alleged value of practice, see The Homework Myth, pp. 106-18, also available at http://bit.ly/9dXqCj.

*

 

10/12: Education experts have long known that there is more to success -- in school or in life -- than cognitive ability. That recognition got a big boost with science writer Dan Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence in 1996, which emphasized the importance of self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved.

But a funny thing has happened to the message since then. When you hear about the limits of IQ these days, it's usually in the context of a conservative narrative that emphasizes not altruism or empathy but something that sounds suspiciously like the Protestant work ethic. More than smarts, we're told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned grit and perseverance, self-discipline and will power. The goal is to make sure they'll be able to resist temptation, override their unconstructive impulses, and put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they've been told to do. (I examined this issue in an earlier essay called "Why Self-Discipline is Overrated.")

Closely connected to this sensibility is the proposition that children benefit from plenty of bracing experiences with frustration and failure. Ostensibly this will motivate them to try even harder next time and prepare them for the rigors of the unforgiving Real World. However, it's also said that children don't get enough of these experiences because they're overprotected by well-meaning but clueless adults who hover too close and catch them every time they stumble.

This basic story, which has found favor with journalists as well as certain theorists and therapists, seems plausible on its face because some degree of failure is unavoidable and we obviously want our kids to be able to deal with it. On closer inspection, though, I think there are serious problems with both the descriptive and prescriptive claims we're being asked to accept.

Is failure rare? The idea that "kids today" have it too easy is part of a broader conservative worldview that's been around for a long, long time. Children are routinely described as coddled and indulged, overprotected and overpraised. But I've been unable to find any data to support this claim, which may explain why it rests mostly on provocative anecdotes. Even if we could agree on how much protection (or parenting) merits the prefix over-, there's simply no proof that the phenomenon is widespread, much less that it's more common today than it was 10, 20, 50, or 100 years ago.

Moreover, even if it were shown that some parents cushion their children more than you or I think they should, that doesn't mean these kids are unacquainted with frustration or failure. To see life through a child's eyes for even a short time is to realize that, quite apart from a parent's willingness to intervene, children frequently come up short, don't get what they want, and find themselves on the receiving end of critical judgments from their peers or adults.

Is failure useful? A hypothetical child who managed to succeed in every one of his endeavors, or who always got everything he desired, might well find it hard to cope if things suddenly turned sour. But are we entitled to conclude from this fanciful thought experiment that failure is beneficial, or that parents and teachers should deliberately stand back rather than help out?

Research certainly doesn't support the idea that failure or disappointment is constructive in itself. A "BGUTI" (better get used to it) rationale -- the assumption that children are best prepared for unpleasant experiences that may come later by being exposed to a lot of unpleasantness while they're young -- makes no sense from a psychological perspective. We may want kids to rebound from failure, but that doesn't mean it's usually going to happen -- or that the experience of failure makes that desired outcome more likely.

In fact, studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure. (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they're doing.) In one study, students were asked to solve problems that were rigged to ensure failure. Then they were asked to solve problems that were clearly within their capabilities. What happened? Even the latter problems paralyzed them because a spiral of failure had been set into motion. By the same token, if an adult declines to step in and help when kids are frustrated, that doesn't make them more self-sufficient or self-confident: It mostly leaves them feeling less supported, less secure about their own worthiness, and more doubtful about the extent to which the parent or teacher really cares about them.

Have some people experienced failure but then gone on to be wildly successful? Obviously. But things don't work out this way for most people. And even when it does happen, we can't conclude that experience with failure was responsible for the success. (Also, we should be careful to define what we mean by "successful." One can end up rich or famous without being an admirable or psychologically healthy human being.)

What determines the impact of failure? Why do some people throw in the towel as soon as things get tough? Why do other people get back on the horse? (And why are so many of us unable to discuss these issues without resorting to stale metaphors?) To talk about grit and resilience is to focus on the attributes of individuals. But it may make more sense to look at the situations in which people find themselves and the nature of the tasks they're being asked to do.

Challenge -- which carries with it a risk of failure -- is a part of learning. That's not something we'd want to eliminate. But when students who are tripped up by challenges respond by tuning out, acting out, or dropping out, they sometimes do so not because of a deficiency in their makeup (lack of stick-to-itiveness) but because those challenges -- what they were asked to do -- aren't particularly engaging or relevant. Finger-wagging adults who exhort students to "do their best" sometimes don't offer a persuasive reason for why a given task should be done at all, let alone well. And if the rejoinder is that it doesn't matter if the assignment is just busywork because kids need to develop "good work habits" across the board, well, a reasonable person would wonder who stands to benefit when children are taught to work hard at anything that they're assigned to do by someone with more power.

A second explanation for students' not rebounding from failure at what they were asked to do is that they weren't really "asked" to do it -- they were told to do it: deprived of any say about the content or context of the curriculum. People of all ages are more likely to persevere when they have a chance to make decisions about things that affect them. Thus, the absence of choice might be a better explanation than a character defect for giving up.

And here's yet another possibility. Maybe the problem is that the educational environment emphasizes how well students are doing rather than what they're doing: It's all about achievement! performance! results! rigor! and not about the learning itself. Educational psychologists have found that when students are induced to think about grades and test scores -- particularly, though not exclusively, when the point is to do better than everyone else -- they will naturally attempt to avoid unnecessary risks. If the goal is to get an A, then it's rational to pick the easiest possible task. Giving up altogether just takes this response to its logical conclusion. "I'm no good at this, so why bother?" is not an unreasonable response when school is primarily about establishing how good you are.

Jerome Bruner said this: We want students to "experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information." That's a marvelous way to think about reframing unsuccessful experiences: My experiment, or my essay, didn't turn out the way I had hoped, and the reason that happened offers valuable clues for how I might take a different approach tomorrow. But this requires us (the adults) to do more than reframe or encourage. We have to address the structural factors that get in the way. For example, a student isn't going to view letter or number grades as informational feedback; they'll be seen as rewards and punishments, in part because that's exactly what they're intended to be.

The problem isn't with kids' attitudes or motivation as much as it is with our practices and policies. Yet potential problems with the latter are typically ignored by people who tell kids to grit their teeth, pull up their socks, and try, try again. Worse, these people may explicitly endorse those problematic practices or even call for more rigorous or competitive grading and testing. Some researchers use them to define success and failure -- with high grades or test scores uncritically accepted as a positive outcome for measuring the effects of grit or perseverance.

Indeed, many people oppose even mild attempts to make the whole grading experience less debilitating, such as eliminating zeroes for individual assignments (given that zeroes, when averaged in with other marks, can drag down a child's overall grade disproportionately). Not long ago, a Canadian teacher became a conservative folk hero for defying his district's no-zero policy. He insisted on his prerogative to punish students by giving them the lowest possible grade.

Those who came to his defense invoked the familiar rhetoric of accountability, high standards, and the need to prepare kids for the real world. But ponder the irony! Many students whom a teacher brands with zeroes already see themselves as failures. They're likely to experience his insistence that they be "held accountable" as yet another dose of humiliation and punishment. (And it's the students' perception, not the teacher's intention, that determines the result.) The idea that another goose egg will snap them out of their cycle of failure and put them on the road to success is, to put it gently, naïve. (On the other hand, some people's get-tough response is actually more moralistic than practical. The point may not have been to produce a better outcome for students at all but to make sure they don't "get away with" something. If you do something bad, something bad must be done to you -- regardless of the effect.)

In short, there's reason to doubt the popular claim that kids have too little experience with failure. Or that more such experience would be good for them. What is clear is that the very environments that play up the importance of doing well make it even less likely that doing poorly will have any beneficial effect.

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7/12: The idea of summer learning loss -- the implication being that it’s risky to give kids a three-month vacation from school because they’ll forget everything they were taught -- has become the media’s favorite seasonally specific education topic. And that’s not just because they’re desperate for something to write about when school’s out. It’s a story we’re all predisposed to embrace because we’re already nervous about time off for children. It’s widely accepted, for example, that kids need to be doing some homework every night during the school year lest they find themselves gravitating to insufficiently constructive activities.

Experts who study creativity like to talk about doing and resting, painting and stepping back from the canvas, thinking about a problem and taking a break during which a new insight may sneak up when we’re not expecting it. (Recreation can mean re-creation.) If, on the other hand, we’re enamored of a factory model, then we’re going to be more concerned about productivity than imagination -- and, theologically speaking, more worried about idle hands being the devil’s tools. Busyness becomes an end in its own right. We frown when our kids waste time and feel a little ashamed when we ourselves are guilty of it.[1]

I shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that when I’ve raised questions about the practice of assigning homework on a regular basis, the most common challenge I’ve faced isn’t related to the putative academic benefits (which, incidentally, research generally fails to support)[2] but to the prospect that children will just misspend all that time on Facebook or video games. It’s kind of interesting, when you think about it: No teacher ever admits to assigning busywork, but this defense of homework itself has nothing to do with the value of the assignments; the point is just to keep kids busy.

It’s predictable, then, that we’d be disinclined to let children chill just because it’s hot out. We’re primed and ready to respond when someone claims that all the progress students have made during the school year will be lost forever if they’re allowed to slack off during the summer. It’s a Sisyphusean metaphor buried in our DNA: The minute you let up in your efforts to roll that rock toward the summit, well, you know what happens. “L’école d’été pour tous les enfants!”

What does the research say? Is there any truth to the summer loss claim? Yes. But it’s more limited than is generally acknowledged and it doesn’t point to the solution that’s most commonly endorsed.

First of all, whatever kind of loss does occur, at least in reading skills, is directly related to students’ socioeconomic status. Low-income children are affected disproportionately -- to the point that a good part of what is classified as the achievement gap can be explained, statistically speaking, by class-based differences in what happens over the summer. The “summer shortfall…[of] low-SES youth…relative to better-off children contributes to the perpetuation of family advantage and disadvantage across generations.”[3] That’s very different from sweeping claims about learning, per se, being something that’s inevitably lost when you take a break.

Second, to the extent that low-income kids are likely to lose ground in reading proficiency, Richard Allington, who specializes in this very issue, points out that summer school (and summer homework assignments) aren’t necessary or even sensible. Rather, he and his colleagues have shown that the key is to ensure “easy and continuing access to self-selected books for summer reading”[4] -- a solution that’s not only a lot cheaper than summer school but a lot less likely to cause kids’ interest in learning to evaporate in a sweltering classroom.

Third, in evaluating the nature and extent of the problem, it’s important to keep in mind that virtually all of the research, like almost all talk about the achievement gap itself, is limited to what shows up on standardized tests. Here’s the question we should be asking: “Is there still a summer loss problem when we use more meaningful assessments, or is it an artifact of exams that we already know to be deeply misleading (and to have bias built into them in various ways)?” The answer is: We just don’t know. For the time being, then, we should refer to the phenomenon as “summer loss on standardized tests.”

Finally, even within standardized test measures, summer loss mostly applies to “factual and procedural knowledge” such as “math computation and spelling skills,” according to the 1996 meta-analysis that’s still the most widely cited source on the topic.[5] This echoes what we know about the whole idea of “time on task,” which turns out to have a much less significant relationship to learning outcomes when those outcomes are intellectually ambitious. More time reliably leads to higher achievement mostly when the task involves very little thinking.

As progressive educators have been pointing out for a long time, one of the flaws of traditional instruction is that it consists of transmitting a bunch of facts and skills to students, which they then promptly forget. Summer loss thus should be seen not as a sad but inescapable truth about education, but as one more indictment of traditional education, with its reliance on lectures, textbooks, worksheets, grades, tests, and homework -- all employed in the service of making students cram bits of knowledge into their short-term memories. (And how absurd to think that the solution to this predictable forgetting is to give students more of the same!)

By the time September rolls around, kids may indeed be unable to recall what they were told in April: the distance between the earth and the moon, or the definition of a predicate, or the approved steps for doing long division. But they’re much less likely to forget how to set up an experiment to test their own hypothesis (if they had the chance to do science last spring), or how to write sentences that elicit a strong reaction from a reader (if they were invited to play with prose with that goal in mind), or what it means to divide one number into another (if they were allowed to burrow into the heart of mathematical principles rather than being turned into carbon-based calculators).

Summer learning loss? It’s just a subset of life learning loss -- when the learning was dubious to begin with.

_________________________________________________

1. For a refreshing perspective on this issue, see Tim Kreider, “The Busy Trap,” New York Times, June 30, 2012.

2. See my book The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006), especially chapter 2.

3. Karl L. Alexander et al., “Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap,” American Sociological Review 72 (2007): 175.

4. Richard L. Allington et al., “Addressing Summer Reading Setback Among Economically Disadvantaged Elementary Students,” Reading Psychology 31 (2010): 423.

5. Harris Cooper et al., “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores,” Review of Educational Research 66 (1996): 260.

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4/12:If you decided to have a child, presumably it was because you wanted to be a parent and anticipated that the experience would be fulfilling. You did it for you. But the child's arrival demands a radical shift: Now you must do things for him or her. Moreover, you need to be mindful of the difference and how it's predicated on the fact that your child is a separate being with distinct perspectives and preferences.

That may sound obvious, but some parents use their children to meet their own emotional needs -- and seem unaware that they're doing so. To put this in positive terms, we might say that high-quality parenting is defined by three closely related features: (1) an awareness that a child's experience of the world is often different from one's own; (2) an ability to understand the nature of those differences, to imagine the child's point of view and tune in to his or her needs; and (3) a willingness to try to meet those needs rather than just doing what's right for oneself.

Each of these is more difficult for some people than for others. Those who are plagued by doubts about their own worth may be so consumed with getting what they lack, psychologically speaking, that it becomes impossible to focus on their children or even to see them for who they are (and aren't).

But it's not just about differences among parents. The same issues play out in the differences among situations that any of us will face. For example, when we're out in public, where other people may judge our parenting skills, we're more likely to respond to what we interpret as our children's misbehavior with too much control and too little love and patience. When a child is having a meltdown in the grocery store, it takes extra effort for even the best parent to remember that what matters are the challenges the child is facing, not our need to appear competent in the eyes of strangers.[1]

Not everyone who's preoccupied with his or her own needs fits the stereotype of an authoritarian, punitive parent who cracks down on any sign of disobedience. In fact, some people who are appalled by harsh traditionalism take pride in their extreme attentiveness to their children. Their assumption is that the more you do for your kids, the better your parenting.

But this isn't necessarily true. Some parents who conspicuously sacrifice everything for their children, whose very lives seem to revolve around them, actually turn out to be rather narcissistic. The family appears to be child-centered to a fault, yet the child is really being used to meet the parent's own needs.

Kids may come to feel their job is to keep their parents happy, to reassure them, to make them feel capable. Sometimes children are subtly encouraged to provide what the parent fails to get from her partner (or even from herself), and perhaps to provide adult-like companionship. The child may be steered into becoming a friend, or even a parent, to the parent. All of this can take place without anyone's realizing what's going on. But whether or not the child manages to figure out how to become what the parent wants, the result is that the child's development may be warped because the adult's needs have taken center stage.

Rather than seeing an aptitude for good parenting (or for just about anything) as something you either have or you lack, perhaps we should say that it takes more effort for some people to attain a level of proficiency that comes easily to others. I have a lousy sense of direction, for example, but that just means I have to work harder to figure out how to get where I'm going. Thus, the kind of parent who's tempted to say to her child, "I'm cold. Go put on a sweater" (in the classic tongue-in-cheek example of this syndrome) may need to remind herself periodically, "My kid isn't me. She has different interests. Just because x makes me happy, or upset, doesn't mean it will have the same effect on her."

That's part 1 of the three-part formulation I mentioned earlier: taking care not to confuse a child's identity with our own. Part 2 is to figure out who the child is, what she's feeling, how her mind works, why she acts as she does. That invites us to engage in what psychologists call "perspective taking": getting outside of ourselves in order to imagine how things appear to someone else. The question isn't just "How would I feel if someone did that to me?" It's "How does he feel about someone's having done that to him?" It's not just about asking what it's like to be in his shoes, but what it's like to have his feet.

Three different studies, each from a different country and all coincidentally published the same year, confirm the importance of this attribute. A group of Dutch researchers found that one of the most important factors in predicting parenting quality was the level of understanding of children's unique interests and needs, along with a willingness to consider that perspective as distinct from the parent's own. Canadian researchers discovered that parents who were better able to "accurately perceive their [teenage] children's thoughts and feelings during a disagreement" ended up having fewer conflicts -- or at least a more satisfactory resolution of the conflicts that did occur. And a U.S. study of families with toddlers showed that parents who were "able to adopt the child's viewpoint" were more responsive to his or her needs as a result.[2]

Part 3 in my little model consists of acting on what we understand about a child's inner life, which, in turn, entails a commitment to be less egocentric. That doesn't mean giving a child everything he asks for, or engaging in endless self-sacrifice (which, paradoxically, may mean the parent is using exaggerated devotion to the child as a way of proving something about herself), but simply being a caring and attentive parent. As yet another study discovered, parents who tend to think mostly about their own needs and goals tend to be less accepting of their children than those who are concerned with the needs of their kids or of the family as a whole.[3]

In short, the best parents acknowledge the needs of their children (as distinct from their own), learn all they can about those needs, and are committed to meeting them whenever possible. And those of us who find it a struggle to do these things most of the time . . . need to make a point of struggling to do these things most of the time.

NOTES

1. Consider how much of what we do with our children is driven by worries about how we'll be perceived by other adults. A grown-up hands something to our baby and we pipe up: "Can you say thank you?" - ostensibly addressing the baby even though he obviously can't say thank you and may be too young even to learn from our example. What we're really doing is speaking through the child to the adult, making it clear that we know the polite response as well as the right way to bring up kids. People in our culture are far more likely to fault parents for controlling too little rather than too much - and to approve of children because they're "well-behaved" rather than because they're, say, curious. So when you combine the parent's anxiety about being judged with the likely direction of that judgment, you end up with this unsurprising fact: We're most likely to resort to coercive tactics, and to become preoccupied with the need to control our children, when we're out in public. As is true of many other fears, this can set up a self-fulfilling prophecy, so that cracking down on kids for fear of what other people will think may produce more of exactly the kind of behavior that we don't want anyone to see.

2. Jan R. M. Gerris et al., "The Relationship Between Social Class and Childrearing Behaviors: Parents' Perspective Taking and Value Orientations," Journal of Marriage and the Family 59 (1997): 834-47; Paul D. Hastings and Joan E. Grusec, "Conflict Outcome as a Function of Parental Accuracy in Perceiving Child Cognitions and Affect," Social Development 6 (1997): 76-90; Grazyna Kochanska, "Mutually Responsive Orientation between Mothers and Their Young Children," Child Development 68 (1997): 94-112.

3. Paul D. Hastings and Joan E. Grusec, "Parenting Goals as Organizers of Responses to Parent-Child Disagreement," Developmental Psychology 34 (1998): 465-79. Those who habitually put their own needs first were also more likely to believe that their children's misbehaviors were deliberate and rooted in their nature or personality rather than emerging from a particular situation.

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2/12: Over the last few years I've had the odd experience of seeing my work cited with approval by people whose views on the issue in question are diametrically opposed to my own. The issue I have in mind is praise. I'm troubled by it, as are the people who quote me, but for very different reasons. So I thought I'd try to set the record straight even if the result is that I antagonize some folks who seem to regard me as an ally.

I explained my concerns about praise -- and outlined alternatives to it -- in two books (Punished by Rewards and Unconditional Parenting) and in an article called "Five Reasons to Stop Saying 'Good Job!'", so I'll quickly summarize my arguments here rather than trying to lay them out in sufficient detail to convince a skeptic.

Praise is a verbal reward, often doled out in an effort to change someone's behavior, typically someone with less power. More to the point, it's likely to be experienced as controlling regardless of the praiser's intention. Praise is a pat on the head, "pat" being short for "patronizing," that's offered when the child (or student or employee) impresses or pleases the parent (or teacher or manager). Like other forms of reward (or punishment), it's a way of "doing to," rather than "working with," people. My value judgment is that the latter is more respectful and therefore preferable to the former.

Value judgments aside, though, praise has very real and unfortunate effects -- again, just like other types of rewards. It tends to reduce the recipient's interest in the task, or commitment to the action, that elicited the praise. Often it also reduces the quality of whatever was done. The effect of a "Good job!" is to devalue the activity itself -- reading, drawing, helping -- which comes to be seen as a mere means to an end, the end being to receive that expression of approval. If approval isn't forthcoming next time, the desire to read, draw, or help is likely to diminish. Praise isn't feedback (which is purely informational); it's a judgment -- and positive judgments are ultimately no more constructive than negative ones.

Some years after laying out these concerns, I came to realize that praise was troubling in yet another way: It signals conditional acceptance. Children learn that they're valued -- and, by implication, valuable -- only when they live up to the standards of a powerful other. Attention, acknowledgment, and approval must be earned by doing a "job" that someone else decides is "good." Thus, positive reinforcement is not only different from, but antithetical to, the unconditional care that children need: to be loved just for who they are, not for what they do. It's no surprise that this strategy was designed to elicit certain behaviors rather than to promote children's psychological health.

That's the basic critique. Now allow me to point out what it isn't.

1. It's not an argument for praising less frequently. The problem isn't with how often it's done but with the nature of a verbal reward -- how it's intended and especially how it's construed.

2. It's not an argument for offering more meaningful praise -- as distinguished from the "empty" kind. Quite the opposite, in fact. Yes, some teachers and parents reflexively hand out the equivalent of a doggie biscuit every few minutes, the result being that kids habituate to it and it has no impact. If so, good! It may be a waste of breath, but at least it's not doing too much damage. The kind of praise that's rationed and carefully timed for maximum impact is more manipulative and more harmful.

3. It's not an argument for praising people's effort rather than their ability. That distinction, which has attracted considerable attention over the last few years, is derived from the work of Carol Dweck. I have been greatly impressed and influenced by Dweck's broader argument, which spells out the negative effects of leading people to attribute success (or failure) to their intelligence (or its absence). Intelligence, like other abilities, is often regarded as innate and fixed: You either got it, or you ain't.

But the critical distinction between effort and ability doesn't map neatly onto the question of praise. First of all, while it's impossible to dispute Dweck's well-substantiated contention that praising kids for being smart is counterproductive, praising them for the effort they've made can also backfire: It may communicate that they're really not very capable and therefore unlikely to succeed at future tasks. (If you're complimenting me just for trying hard, it must be because I'm a loser.) At least three studies have supported exactly this concern.

Second, the more attention we give to the problems of ability-focused praise in particular, the more we're creating the misleading impression that praise in general is harmless or even desirable. Of the various problems I've laid out -- its status as an extrinsic inducement and a mechanism of control, its message of conditional acceptance, its detrimental effects on intrinsic motivation and achievement -- none is limited to the times when we praise someone's ability. In fact, I'm not convinced that this type is any worse than other praise with respect to these deeper issues.

Third, to the extent that we want to teach the importance of making an effort -- the point being that people have some control over their future accomplishments -- praise really isn't required at all. (Dweck readily conceded this in a conversation we had some years ago. Indeed, she didn't seem particularly attached to praise as a strategy and she willingly acknowledged its potential pitfalls.) It would be a useful exercise, for an individual teacher or as a staff development activity, to figure out how we might be leading students to conclude that failing at a task means they just don't have what it takes. What policies, and what approaches to assessment in particular, might incline someone to think that ability, as opposed to effort, makes the difference?

4. Most of all, this is not an argument that praise is objectionable because we're spoiling our kids, overcelebrating their accomplishments and convincing them that they're more talented than they really are. If you have read any article critical of praise in the last two decades, it has probably proceeded from this premise, which represents a form of social conservatism widely shared even by political liberals. Here, praise is seen as just one more symptom of a culture of overindulgence, right alongside grade inflation, helicopter parenting, excessive focus on self-esteem, and the practice of handing out trophies to all the participants.

Microsoft Word lacks a font sufficiently bold to emphasize how starkly this sensibility -- and this reason for opposing praise -- differs from my own. In fact, I'm so troubled by the values underlying this critique and its mistaken empirical assumptions (about child development, learning, and the psychology of motivation) that I may write a book on the subject. You can imagine my reaction, then, when people who think along these lines invoke something I've written about praise to help make their case.

Some of these people wax indignant that children are praised -- and consequently come to expect praise -- for doing things that they ought to do just because they've been told to do them. This old-school argument for unquestioning (and unrewarded) obedience contrasts sharply with my claim that praise is more likely to function as a tool for imposing our will and eliciting compliance. Like much of what is called "overparenting," praise doesn't signify permissiveness or excessive encouragement; to the contrary, it is an exercise in (sugar-coated) control. It is an extension of the old-school model of families, schools, and workplaces -- yet, remarkably, most of the criticisms of praise you're likely to read assume that it's a departure from the old school, and that that's a bad thing.

Praise is typically faulted for being given out too readily (see point #2, above), with the bar having been set too low. We're told that kids should do more to deserve each "Good job!" they get -- which is a way of saying it should be more conditional. Again, this is exactly the opposite of my objection to the conditionality inherent in rewards. The problem isn't that kids expect praise for everything they do. The problem is with our need for control, our penchant for placing conditions on our love, and our continued reliance on the long-discredited premises of behaviorism.

You may not be persuaded by my critical analysis of praise and the assumptions that underlie its use. Just don't confuse it with criticisms that reflect an entirely different set of values.

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1/12: Q. We are facing a proposal to require community service for all high school students. I am very concerned about the mixed message this will send to our students about freely giving of themselves in service to others. What are your thoughts on community service as a requirement for graduation?

A. I roll my eyes a bit when those up above reach for coercion to improve those down below: We'll just mandate community service (or character education, or tougher graduation requirements, or whatever) and watch students improve. But while a service requirement hardly guarantees any benefits -- which are contingent, among other things, on the extent to which your staff and the students themselves take the activities seriously -- neither does it preclude such benefits. Much depends on how (and by whom) the activities are designed.

First of all, I have some concerns about bland activities undertaken by individual students. If, however, you were to redefine "community service" as an opportunity for collective action, genuine democratic involvement, and work for social justice -- that would be as exciting as it is rare. (See Joseph Kahne & Joel Westheimer's article "Teaching Democracy: What Schools Need to Do" in the September 2003 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, as well as other writings by both of these authors.)

Second, for anything of value to come out of this, students need to be involved at all points -- in thinking about the rationale for doing some sort of service and in working together to plan every detail of the activities: deciding democratically how many options will be available to each student and discussing the rationale for each option, making contact with people in the community to set things up, making arrangements to evaluate the activities themselves as well as the students' experiences afterwards, and so on.

The process probably ought to be framed as "How can we make our town/ our state / our country /the world a better place? What needs doing? Who requires our care and our help?" -- rather than "How can we fulfill this requirement?" Sandwiching the activity itself between planning (before) and reflection (after) -- and having the students play a key role in every stage (rather than just giving a menu of options to each student individually) -- could turn out to be as valuable, both intellectually and socially, as the activities themselves.

Finally, what one doesn't do can be as important as what one does. I hope it goes without saying that any benefit potentially derived from this activity would likely be wiped out by (1) rewarding students for their participation or (2) setting up some sort of competition between students (individuals or groups).

Some mandates are inherently useless, if not counterproductive, and should be actively resisted. (See under: NCLB.) But my hunch is that this lemon can be made into lemonade. For school administrators to treat students the same way the administrators are treated by policymakers would instead be to turn salmon into salmonella.

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11/11:You don't know whether to laugh or shudder when you read a sentence like this one in a national magazine: "Kids need careful adult guidance and instruction before they are able to play in a productive way." But even staunch defenders of play -- and those who worry that children don't get enough opportunities to engage in it these days -- sometimes yield to the temptation of trying to justify play in terms of its usefulness.

The problem is that to insist on its benefits risks violating the spirit, if not the very meaning, of play. One plays because it's fun to do so, not because of any instrumental advantage it may yield. The point isn't to perform well or to master a skill, even though those things might end up happening. In G. K. Chesterton's delightfully subversive aphorism, "If a thing is worth doing at all, it's worth doing badly."

Play, then, is about process, not product. It has no goal other than itself. And among the external goals that are inconsistent with play is a deliberate effort to do something better or faster than someone else. If you're keeping score -- in fact, if you're competing at all -- then what you're doing isn't play. The point of play is that it has no point.

Implicit in all of this is something that John Dewey pointed out: "'Play' denotes the psychological attitude of the child, not…anything which the child externally does." As is so often the case, focusing on someone's behavior, that which can be seen and measured, tells us very little. It's people's goals (or, in this case, lack of goals), their perspectives and experiences of the situation, that matter. Thus, Dewey continues, "any given or prescribed system" or activities for promoting play should be viewed skeptically lest these be inconsistent with the whole idea.

Such is the context for understanding well-meaning folks whose lamentations about diminishing opportunities for play (in this achievement-obsessed era) tend to include a defensive list of its practical benefits. Play is "children's work"! Play teaches academic skills, advances language development, promotes perspective taking, conflict resolution, the capacity for planning, and so on. To drive the point home, Deborah Meier wryly suggested that we stop using the word play altogether and declare that children need time for "self-initiated cognitive activity."

But what if we had reason to doubt some or all of these advantages? What if, as a couple of researchers have indeed suggested, empirical claims about what children derive from play -- at least in terms of academic benefits -- turned out to be overstated? Would we then conclude that children shouldn't be able to play, or should have less time to do so? Or would we insist that play is intrinsically valuable, that it's not only defined by the absence of external goals for those who do it but that it doesn't need external benefits in order for children to have the opportunity to do it? Anyone who endorses that position would want to be very careful about defending play based on its alleged payoffs, just as we'd back off from other bargains with the devil, such as arguing that teaching music to children improves their proficiency at math, or that a given progressive innovation raises test scores.

[These comments constitute one of the "Five Not-So-Obvious Propositions About Play" posted by AK on various blogs in mid-November. You can read that essay here or here.]

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9/11: There's a scene near the beginning of Small Change (also known as Pocket Money), Truffaut's übercharming movie about children of all ages, in which a teacher makes each of her students recite a passage from a Molière play -- a test of both memory and dramatic skill. The teacher is especially tough on one boy who chants the lines in a leaden monotone: She stands next to his desk and threatens (in front of his peers) to keep making him repeat the lines until his performance is to her liking. Abruptly, though, she is called away, and the moment she's gone, the boy comes to life. He stands up and begins to wander around the room while delivering the Molière monologue with remarkable power and spontaneity, revealing to his peers his considerable talents as an actor.

The point, of course, is to remind us adults how little we really know our kids and what they're capable of doing. That was a lesson I personally learned some years ago when I was teaching high school. I gave a ride one day to a 15-year-old girl, a student of mine who had no apparent interest in anything that I -- or, from what I could gather, any of my colleagues -- was teaching. Awkward and taciturn as usual that afternoon, she spoke only to ask if I would turn on the car radio, at which point she proceeded to sing along with every song that came on for the duration of the ride, displaying not only more enthusiasm than I had thought possible but also an astonishing gift for recall.

Thinking back on this incident, I'm struck not only by what she did but by how I reacted. In relating the event to my colleagues the following day, I shook my head and smiled condescendingly at how this girl, a washout in the classroom, had evidently taken the time to learn pop lyrics to perfection. I mean, talk about misplaced priorities!

Only much later did it dawn on me that this student had something to teach me -- about why her talent came as a complete surprise to me, and also about motivation and its relationship to achievement. If I (and her other teachers) had never seen her steel-trap memory in action, or witnessed the look of total absorption I glimpsed in the car that day, that was undoubtedly because we hadn't taken enough time or shown enough interest so that she felt sufficiently safe to reveal who she was and what mattered to her.

And why wasn't she engaged in the classroom? Well, people tend to become more enthusiastic and proficient when they're in charge of what they're doing. How much choice had she been given about her schooling -- not only the broad curriculum but the daily details of classroom life? Indeed, I had fallen back on grades to induce my students to do what I hadn't been able to help them find meaningful in its own right. This girl had chosen to learn those songs; no one had to promise her an A for doing so, or threaten her with an F for messing up. Her impressive achievement did not require carrots and sticks. In fact, it probably required their absence.

It was particularly disconcerting for me to realize that when the priorities of adults and kids diverge, we simply assume that ours ought to displace theirs. Stop wasting your time learning song lyrics when you could be doing important stuff -- namely, whatever's in our lesson plans: solving for x or using apostrophes correctly or reading about the Crimean War. We tell more than we ask; we direct more than we listen; we use our power to pressure or even punish students whose interests don't align with ours. This has any number of unfortunate results, including loss of both self-confidence and interest in learning. But let's not forget to number among the sad consequences the fact that many students quite understandably choose to keep the important parts of themselves hidden from us. That's a shame in its own right, and it also prevents us from being the best teachers we can be.

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8/11: So here's the dilemma for someone who writes about education: Certain critical cautions and principles need to be mentioned again and again because policy makers persist in ignoring them, yet faithful readers will eventually tire of the repetition.

Consider, for example, the reminder that schooling isn't necessarily better just because it's more "rigorous." Or that standardized test results are such a misleading indicator of teaching or learning that successful efforts to raise scores can actually lower the quality of students' education. Or that using rewards or punishments to control people inevitably backfires in multiple ways.

Even though these points have been made repeatedly (by me and many others) and supported by solid arguments and evidence, the violation of these principles remains at the core of the decades-old approach to education policy that still calls itself "reform." Hence the dilemma: Will explaining in yet another book, article, or blog post why its premises are dead wrong have any effect, other than to elicit grumbles that the author is starting to sound like a broken record? [In place of this dated simile, younger readers may substitute "like a corrupted music download."]

Another axiom that has been offered many times (but to no apparent effect) is that it means very little to say that a given intervention is "effective" -- at least until we've asked "Effective at what?" and determined that the criterion in question is meaningful. Lots of educators cheerfully declare that they don't care about theories; they just want something that works. But this begs the (unavoidably theoretical) question: What do you mean by "works"?

And once you've asked that, you're obligated to remain skeptical about simple-minded demands for evidence-, data-, or research-based policies. At its best, and on those relatively rare occasions when its results are clear-cut, research can only show us that doing A has a reasonably good chance of producing result B. It can't tell us whether B is a good idea, and we're less likely to talk about that if the details of B aren't even clearly spelled out.

To wit: There's long been evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of certain classroom management strategies, most of which require the teacher to exercise firm control from the first day of school. But how many readers of this research, including teacher educators and their students, interrupt the lengthy discussion of those strategies to ask what exactly is meant by "effectiveness"?

The answer, it turns out, is generally some variation on compliance. If you do this, this, and this, you're more likely to get your kids to do whatever they're told. Make that explicit and you'd then have to ask whether that's really your paramount goal. If, on reflection, you decide that it's most important for students to become critical thinkers, enthusiastic learners, ethical decision-makers, or generous and responsible members of a democratic community, then the basic finding -- and all the evidence behind it -- is worth very little. Indeed, it may turn out that proven classroom management techniques undermine the realization of more ambitious goals because those goals call for a very different kind of classroom than the standard one, which is designed to elicit obedience.

An even more common example of this general point concerns academic outcomes. In scholarly journals, in the media's coverage of education, and in professional development workshops for teachers, any number of things are described as more or less beneficial -- again, with scant attention paid to the outcome. The discussion about "promising results" (or their absence) is admirably precise about what produced them, while swiftly passing over the fact that those results consist of nothing more than scores on standardized tests, often norm-referenced and multiple-choice versions.

We're back, then, to one of those key principles, enunciated -- and ignored -- repeatedly, that I mentioned earlier. Standardized tests tend to measure what matters least about intellectual proficiency, so it makes absolutely no sense to judge curricula, teaching strategies, or the quality of educators or schools on the basis of the results of those tests. Indeed, as I've reported elsewhere, test scores have actually been shown to be inversely related to deep thinking.

Thus, "evidence" may demonstrate beyond a doubt that a certain teaching strategy is effective, but it isn't until you remember to press for the working definition of effectiveness -- which can take quite a bit of pressing when the answer isn't clearly specified -- that you realize the teaching strategy (and all the impressive sounding data that support it) are worthless because there's no evidence that it improves learning. Just test scores.

Which leads me to a report published earlier this year in the Journal of Educational Psychology. A group of researchers at the City University of New York and Kingston University in London performed two meta-analyses, which is a way of statistically combining studies to quantify the overall result. The title of the article was "Does Discovery-Based Instruction Enhance Learning?", which is a question of interest to many of us.

Would you like to know the much-simplified answer that the meta-analyzers reported? The first review, of 580 comparisons from 108 studies, showed that completely unassisted discovery learning is less effective than "explicit teaching methods." The second review, of 360 comparisons from 56 studies, showed that various "enhanced" forms of discovery learning work best of all.

There are many possible responses one might have to this news. One is "Duh." Another is "Tell me more about those enhanced forms, and which of them is most effective." Another is "Why did 108 groups of scholars bother to evaluate laissez-faire discovery given that, as these reviewers acknowledge, it constitutes something of a straw man since it's not the way most progressive and constructivist educators teach?" Yet another: "How much more effective are we talking about?" since a statistically significant difference can be functionally meaningless if the effect size is low.

But I took my own advice and asked "What the hell did all those researchers, whose cooking was tossed into a single giant pot, mean by 'effective'?" Pardon my italics, but it's astonishing how little this issue appeared to matter to the review's authors. There was no discussion of it in the article's lengthy introduction or in the concluding discussion section. Yes, "dependent variable" (D.V.) was one of the moderators employed to allow more specificity in crunching the results -- along with age of the students, academic subject being taught, and so on. But D.V. -- what discovery learning does or doesn't have an effect on -- was broken down only by the type of measurement used in the studies: post-test scores vs. acquisition scores vs. self-ratings. There wasn't a word to describe, let alone analyze, what all the researchers were looking for. Did they want to see how these different types of instruction affect kids' scores on tests of basic recall? Their ability to generalize principles to novel problems? Their creativity? (There's no point in wondering about the impact on kids' interest in learning; that almost never figures in these studies.)

Papers like this one are peer-reviewed and, as was the case here, are often sent back for revision based on reviewers' comments. Yet apparently no one thought to ask these authors to take a step back and consider what kind of educational outcomes are really at issue when different instructional strategies are compared. Never mind the possibility that explicit teaching might be much better than discovery learning . . . at producing results that don't matter worth a damn, intellectually speaking.

In fact, the D.V. in education studies is often quite superficial, consisting only of (yup) standardized test scores or a metric like number of items taught that were correctly recalled. And if one of these studies makes it into the popular press, that fact about it probably won't. In January I wrote about widespread media coverage of a study that supposedly proved one should, to quote the New York Times headline, "Take a Test to Really Learn, Research Suggests." Except that you had to read the study itself, and read it pretty carefully, to discover that "really learn" just meant "stuff more facts into short-term memory."

But the problem isn't just an over-reliance on outcome measures -- rote recall, test scores, or obedience -- that some of us regard as shrug-worthy and a distraction from the intellectual and moral characteristics that could be occupying us instead. The problem is that researchers are, as a journalist might put it, burying the lead. And too many educators don't seem to notice.

If this situation doesn't improve, please accept my apologies in advance because it's likely that I'll feel compelled to write another essay about it in the near future.

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7/11: I often find myself unable to let go of questions that don't seem to give most people any pause at all. For example, why do we cry at weddings? The more I think about this, the less certain I am about the answer -- or, rather, the answers, because there are probably many different reasons, depending on the crier's relationship to the bride or groom, the crier's own marital status (by which I mean not only whether he or she is married but how happy that marriage is), whether the crier is someone who tends to weep purely for joy or thinks frequently about death and loss.

Another day may find me musing about gossip and whether it's just a harmless way to kill time and bond with friends or coworkers -- or, like racist jokes, something that decent people should refuse to participate in. As is often the case, it's hard to decide solely on the basis of observable behaviors (in this case, what's being said about the absent party); we need to consider people's motives for saying it as well.

Or, while sitting in traffic (or standing in the shower), I may be busy constructing a taxonomy of different forms of loneliness: The aching separation from a particular other is not to be confused with the undifferentiated emptiness of being alone (which lacks the felt absence of a specific someone). Similarly, the sensation of being far away from other people is quite different from being surrounded by others and yet connected to no one.

Today, however, you've caught me thinking about a new question: why some people never seem to be on time. Surely you know such people, perhaps quite well. Indeed, if you can overcome a rising bubble of defensiveness, you may admit that you are one of those people. Everyone is late now and then, of course, but I'm talking about folks who habitually show up after an event has started or after the hour that was designated for meeting someone. These people never manage to leave the house until after the time they're supposed to have arrived at their destination.

I realize there are cultural differences in expectations -- in some places, it's a major faux pas to ring the doorbell at the time a dinner party is nominally scheduled to begin -- but let's put that aside. (Let's also ignore the fact that most people apparently believe their own geographical region or ethnic group is unique for its casual attitude toward punctuality. At my lectures, someone invariably explains the near-empty auditorium fifteen minutes before the announced starting time by saying, "Oh, you know. It's ________ time" -- the variable adjective being a reference to where we're located or whatever category of people is expected to attend the event. I wish I had videotaped each of these utterances so they could be spliced together into one endless, hilarious testament to parochialism.) Anyway, forget about group differences. The question is why some individuals are almost always later than they're supposed to be.

To say these people are "inconsiderate" is probably accurate, at least as a description of their behavior, but that's not an explanation. My best guess is that chronic lateness can be explained in one of two general ways. The first is some personality feature that would be interesting to a psychoanalyst, something juicy and diagnosable that suggests the phenomenon serves some psychological purpose, even if unconsciously.

To wit: Maybe tardy arrivers enjoy the attention they get from making an entrance and breathlessly describing to the assembled group whatever detained them on this occasion (which elicits sympathetic smiles and nods -- at least from people who don't know that something or other always seems to detain them.) Or maybe they feel guilty for other reasons so that lateness gives them a chance to apologize and seek forgiveness. Or maybe such people are simply indifferent to the effects of making others wait for them, a symptom of a more general egocentricity; they're caught up in their own needs and preferences and fail to take the perspective of others -- a prerequisite, perhaps, to making an effort to be on time.

But these possibilities, like any number of others, may not apply to folks whose chronic tardiness typically inconveniences themselves as much as it does their friends and colleagues. It's hard to argue that you're "getting something out of" your pattern of showing up late if the main effect is to make you miss flights or get shut out of events you really wanted to attend. In this case, it may make more sense to appeal to a second kind of explanation -- namely, a deficit of the sort that's sometimes described in terms of executive functioning.

Try turning the question around: How do other people usually get where they need to go on time? What steps do they take to avoid being late? First, they check the clock every so often, particularly when they know there's a deadline approaching. They estimate how much time they'll need to get wherever they're going and thus what time they'll need to leave where they are. They pause to figure out how long it will take to finish what they're currently doing and get ready for whatever is coming next. And then they adjust their behavior accordingly, saying to themselves something like, "I was planning to do x but I don't think I'll have time. It isn't crucial that I do that right now, so I'll put it off until later" or "I think I can keep doing this, but I'll have to step up the pace given that there's only half an hour before I have to leave." And then they check the clock more often as the departure time approaches, altering their behavior as necessary.

I suspect that those who chronically show up late don't do these things. Perhaps they have a tendency to lose themselves in whatever they're currently doing and don't discover what time it is until it's too late.

Or perhaps it's a kind of inertia: They have an idea of what time it is but they just don't stop what they're doing in light of what the clock is telling them. (Is it that they won't stop or can't stop? It's hard to know whether this is a conscious choice and thus whether they're truly responsible.) They lack the self-discipline, for lack of a better term, to pull themselves away from an activity they're enjoying or that they feel compelled to finish. They are frequent travelers on the path of least resistance, the result being that they end up late to where they need to go.

Undoubtedly there are other explanations that I've overlooked -- perhaps whole categories of explanations. But whatever this tentative framework is worth, the next step would be to figure out which account best fits a given individual. My hypothesis is that it would help to look for broader patterns in his or her life. The person who's late by virtue of indifference to its impact on others will probably seem self-centered in other respects, too. The person who genuinely feels bad about making people wait (again and again and again) but just can't summon the self-control to be on time probably has trouble getting his or her act together in other ways as well -- say, around saving money or saying no to junk food.

In the meantime, there are other questions clamoring for my attention. For example, have you ever stopped to consider how well you can predict someone's personality and style of thinking just by knowing what he or she finds funny?...

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6/11: How to Write an Article About Current Parenting Styles:

1. To maximize the chance of getting your article published, be careful to make exactly the same argument that shows up in every other article on the topic. It sounds like this: "Parents today refuse to set limits for their children. Instead of disciplining them, they coddle and dote and shield them from frustration in order to protect their self-esteem. The result: a whole generation of undisciplined narcissists with a sense of entitlement that will eventually crash into the unforgiving real world." With enough padding, you can easily expand that 50-word summary into a lengthy essay without adding anything much of substance -- and without saying anything that hasn't already been said in umpteen other articles[1] and books[2].

2. Interview and quote only the carefully selected parenting authors who accept this thesis and will restate it for you.

3. Depend exclusively on snarky anecdotes about silly parents. Hope your readers won't notice that you haven't cited any real data to support your thesis -- either about the prevalence of such parenting or about its effects -- because no such data exist.[3]

4. Even as you repeat what is by now the stale conventional wisdom about permissive parents and overprotected kids who don't have a chance to learn from failure, try to create the impression that you are actually a courageous contrarian, boldly challenging the conventional wisdom.

5. Slide from one indictment about parents (e.g., they hover too close) to a very different one (e.g., they're too lax) as if these aren't discrete hypotheses. In fact, if you write smoothly enough, readers may not notice that your complaints actually conflict with one another. For example, you can fault parents for being too wrapped up in their kids' success, pushing them relentlessly to triumph over their peers -- and then, a few paragraphs later, fault the same cohort of parents for trying to protect their kids from competition (by giving trophies to all the kids who participated in a game). Likewise, feel free to warn about outcomes that seem difficult to reconcile with one another: The young adults who were parented this way are self-satisfied twits -- more pleased with themselves than their accomplishments merit . . . and, not only that, but they're so unhappy that they're in therapy!

6. Give the impression that this set of problems is unprecedented, or at least far worse than what we've seen in any previous generation -- even though, again, there's not a shred of evidence to support that contention. (Indeed, very similar complaints have been offered for decades, if not centuries.)[4]

7. Frame your essay so that the curious phenomenon to be explained is this type of parenting rather than all the folks who are eager to believe that we aren't tough enough on our kids. Don't ask why parents might want to be reassured (notwithstanding all the developmental evidence to the contrary) that experiencing frustration and failure at a young age is terrific psychological preparation for coping with frustration and failure in adulthood.

8. Above all, ignore the powerfully conservative value system that underlies this way of looking at children and parenting, and the fact that it's accepted uncritically in our culture even by people who are politically progressive.

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1. For example, in the Atlantic Monthly ("How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," 2011), Newsweek ("Just Say No: Why Parents Must Set Limits for Kids Who Want It All," 2004), Time ("Parents and Children: Who's in Charge Here?", 2001), New York Times Magazine ("The Trouble with Self-Esteem," 2002; "Enough with the Overparenting," 2006), the New Yorker ("The Child Trap: The Rise of Overparenting," 2008), and countless opinion pieces published in newspapers, syndicated columns, and blogs.

2. To name just a few: The Myth of Self-Esteem (1998), The Self-Esteem Trap (2008), The Feel-Good Curriculum (2000), The Epidemic (2003), Overindulged Children (2003), Spoiling Childhood (1997), The Narcissism Epidemic (2009), Generation Me (2007), Pampered Child Syndrome (2005), and The Omnipotent Child (1994). Trust me: if you've read one of these, you've read them all.

3. The one exception is Jean Twenge, a conservative social scientist who has published surveys in support of her claims about higher levels of narcissism in today's youth. Be sure to quote her conclusions -- and ignore the researchers in the field who have questioned them and failed to replicate her results.

4. See my article "Spoiled Rotten -- A Timeless Complaint," Washington Post, July 18, 2010.

*

3/11: At a meeting the other night, a mother bragged that she had figured out a way to make her daughter's phone shut down automatically at a certain hour, thereby preventing the girl from texting when, in the mother's opinion, she ought to be doing homework or sleeping. Somewhat undiplomatically, I pointed out that if parenting strategies could be classified as either "doing to" or "working with," this one was a pretty clear example of "doing to." The mother was unfazed. "Sometimes," she replied, "you just have to be the parent."

That phrase was still echoing in my ears the next morning. The mom hadn't objected to the way I characterized her intervention. She seemed perfectly willing to acknowledge that she had excluded her daughter from the process and used coercion to achieve her goal of restricting phone use. Moreover, rather than simply defending that way of handling the situation, she maintained that a "doing to" approach defines the essence of being "the parent." And that troubled me far more than what she had done to her child's phone. Or even to her child.

I believe that, at its core, or at least at its best, parenting is a process of caring, supporting, listening, reconsidering, guiding, teaching, and negotiating. There will be times when we lack the time or the skill or the patience to do these things properly. But if we resort to compelling children to do what we want, or using force (physical or digital) to prevent them from doing what we don't want, then we should be willing to admit that our response was less than ideal. There's a big difference between forgiving ourselves an occasional lapse and not even recognizing that what we did was a lapse.

Imagine, then, that this Mom had instead said: "Sometimes you can't be the parent; you have to resort to being the dictator." I might want to challenge her as to whether that's really true and to ask her to reflect on all that's at stake: the need to help children take more responsibility for (and learn how to regulate) their own actions, the importance of inviting them to figure out how to persuade us that their position is reasonable, the urgency of making sure we take them seriously and treat them respectfully. What's more, a "doing to" approach just teaches kids to use power over others when it's possible and expedient to do so since that's what we've done with them.

This mother might disagree with me about any of this, but at least by distinguishing between a parent and a dictator she wouldn't be rationalizing what she did by pretending that it's implicit in the very idea of parenting. In fact, an even better way of phrasing things would sound something like this: "Sometimes it's easier to impose our will on kids, but we have to resist that temptation -- and be the parent instead."

*

3/11: A parent writes to express her frustration not only with homework but with the response she hears from teachers when she complains about homework. Even those teachers who are sufficiently knowledgeable and brave to admit that research fails to show any meaningful benefit from making kids do homework -- particularly in elementary school -- tend to insist that pressure to cover an absurd number of topics prescribed by the state standards means they just can't get through it all during the day. Hence the apparent need for homework.

Here are four responses to this claim:

1. Lengthy lists of specific standards and benchmarks for each grade level and in each subject can be just as damaging to learning as the tests used to enforce them. Yet many teachers -- even at the high school level, and certainly below it -- find a way to teach the required material without pushing the burden onto families and making kids work a second shift at home. (See entry below dated 9/08.)

2. The best teachers go a step further: Rather than focusing on how to cover a "bunch o' facts" more efficiently, they see their job as helping students to discover ideas. These are the teachers who really succeed at helping kids to become critical thinkers and excited learners. And, as a rule, these teachers are even less likely to assign homework.

3. Just because the practice of assigning homework seduces some teachers with its promise to make up the gaps in what they're able to get through during the day, that doesn't mean students will actually learn what they're made to do at home on their own. Even supporters of homework generally justify it as a way to have kids practice skills they were taught during the day, not as a way for them to teach themselves new material!

4. In any case, the disadvantages of homework -- frustration, exhaustion, family battles, loss of time for kids to pursue other interests, diminution of interest in learning -- far outweigh any theoretical gain in curriculum coverage.

*

2/11: What's the single most alarming educational crisis today? That's easy. It's our failure to pay more attention to the academic field of whichever educator happens to be speaking at the moment.

Just listen, then, and learn that while there may be other problems, too, the truly urgent issue these days is that we're just not investing in math and science instruction the way we should be -- with predictably dismaying results. No, it's that kids are outrageously ignorant about history, a subject that ought to be, but never is, a priority. No, it's that even in high school, students still can't write a coherent paragraph. No, the real emergency is that reading skills are far from what they should be. No, it's that music and the arts are shamefully neglected in our schools. And so on.

Now there may be some truth to all of these assertions, and the overarching tragedy is our failure to commit to -- and adequately fund -- education itself. How unsettling, then, to be overwhelmed by a cacophony of claims by educators from different departments forced to compete for attention.

(Let it also be noted that, if we look carefully, not all of these statements are actually comparable: Saying that a specific subject is underfunded or ignored is different from saying that students are doing poorly in that subject, and vice versa. And saying that either of those things is true with respect to an ideal standard is different from saying that it's true relative to what happens in other subjects.)

What interests me at the moment, though, are not empirical claims about who's getting what -- or the competence that students do or don't possess in a given discipline -- but value-based beliefs about what matters most. Does one subject merit special attention, deserve more dollars, constitute the core of what we expect our schools to offer?

To listen to those who shape our society's conversation about education -- not educators but public officials, corporate executives, and journalists -- the answer is yes. At the top of the heap sits the compound discipline of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Thus, for example, President Obama announced an expensive new public-private initiative last November called "Educate to Innovate" that will focus on improving student performance exclusively in STEM subjects. Then, in early January, he was back with a new education project. Was its intent to spread the wealth to other kinds of learning that he had overlooked before? Nope. It was to commit another quarter-billion dollars to improve the teaching of STEM subjects. And a few weeks later, in his State of the Union address, the only academic disciplines he mentioned were, yet again, math and science.

Thought experiment: Try to imagine this, or any other, president giving a speech that calls for a major new commitment to the teaching of literature, backed by generous funding (even during a period of draconian budget cuts). Close your eyes and hear our Chief Executive's stirring words: "Few experiences can compare to savoring truly wonderful fiction, and our obligation is to make sure that all children are invited to do just that. Moreover, we must help them to appreciate what they're reading and encourage them to continue reading for pleasure throughout their lives. At its best, literature enriches our understanding of the human condition and the natural world, while thrilling us with words arranged in combinations that are unexpected and yet perfectly right. The appreciation of the literary imagination is a hallmark of a truly civilized society, yet we have fallen woefully short of making this a priority in our schools. That is why I am announcing today a commitment of $3 billion to establish..."

Yeah. Right.

The point of my example is not to argue in favor of studying literature, per se, or, for that matter, to argue against studying math and science. It is to ask a question rarely posed except by educators in other fields -- namely, why STEM subjects consistently attract so much money and attention.

Among decision leaders and the general public, I suspect that STEM enjoys an immediate advantage simply because it tends to involve numbers. Our society is inclined to regard any topic as more compelling if it can be expressed in numerical terms. Notice how rarely we evaluate schools by their impact on students' interest in learning; we focus on precisely specified achievement effects. Issues that inherently seem qualitative in nature -- intrinsic motivation, say, or the meaning of life -- we consign to the ivory tower. And when questions that don't lend themselves to quantification aren't simply brushed aside, they're reduced to numbers anyway. Witness, for example, how English teachers have been told that they not only can but must use rubrics to quantify their responses to students' writings.

As compared with other, "softer" disciplines, STEM usually provides us with the reassurance of knowing exactly how much, how many, how far, how fast, which means that these subjects are viewed (often incorrectly) as being inherently objective, therefore more reliable another questionable leap), and therefore more valuable yet another one).

Closely related to our comfort with numbers, then, is our preference for practicality. But STEM seems practical with respect to a specific kind of number -- namely, dollars. Putting aside for the moment the fact that reading and writing skills, too, have obvious implications for real-world success -- and, conversely, that theoretical physics and "pure" mathematics do not -- it's easy to see how politicians and corporate leaders would favor the fields that appear to be more directly linked to economic productivity and profit.

Moreover, anyone whose sensibility is shaped by a zero-sum mindset, such that the goal is not success but victory, is far more likely to be drawn to STEM subjects than to the humanities. "The nation that out-educates us today," said President Obama last month, "is going to out-compete us tomorrow." That is a sentence that could have been spoken by the most reactionary Republican you can name. But it is not a sentence likely to be followed by a discussion of the humanities. Those who confuse excellence with competitiveness are most likely to privilege STEM subjects over others -- and vice versa.

Every educator, in fact every citizen, needs to know how profoundly mistaken are the specific empirical claims that we keep hearing on C-Span regarding the relationship between school achievement and jobs and regarding the relative status of U.S. students. Yong Zhao recently did a fine job of rebutting the specific contentions enunciated in the State of the Union address. As Harold Salzman and B. Lindsay Lowell have reported, very few jobs require advanced proficiency in STEM subjects and there is actually "an ample supply of [science and engineering] students whose preparation and performance has been increasing over the past decades." In fact, "each year there are more than three times as many [science and engineering] four-year college graduates as S&E job openings."

But my point here is more basic. The real question we should be asking when we hear yet another speech arguing, explicitly or implicitly, for the unique importance of STEM disciplines is What does this say about the speaker's -- or our society's -- beliefs about the point of education itself? You don't have to be a music or history teacher to say, "Now hold on a minute!" In fact, even algebra teachers should be frowning because the reasons for a politician's (or the Chamber of Commerce's) STEMcentricity carry implications for what's taught within a STEM course, and how it's taught, and whether K-12 education is conceived as nothing more than an elaborate, extended exercise in vocational preparation.

Building on a discussion by the educational historian David Labaree, I once created a simple table, which you can see here, to capture four possible purposes for schooling our children. I am troubled by both the private and public versions of an economic focus, and I am drawn to what, for lack of a better word, might be called the humanistic purposes -- again, in both their private and public expressions.

Yet another respected thinker who recoiled from the educational priorities reflected in President Obama's State of the Union message was Berkeley linguist Robin Lakoff, who called on us to recognize education's "less practical (but equally vital) functions." She added that "education is invaluable not only in its ability to help people and societies get ahead, but equally in helping them develop the perspectives that make them fully human."

Anyone who agrees with that sentiment -- and who worries at least as much about the state of our democracy as about the state of the Dow Jones Industrial Average -- should think not only about education in general but about which subjects are seen as priorities within the field of education. And why.

*

1/11: If there is a verbal equivalent of a drive-by shooting, it must be the use of that nasty epithet "politically correct." At best, this is a label that allows the intellectually lazy to denigrate anything they don't like without having to offer a reasoned objection. Its political implications, however, are what might prove particularly disturbing -- even, perhaps, to some people who casually toss around the phrase.

Theoretically, any idea or practice that's widely accepted, but which one would like to call into question, could be described as politically correct (PC). But in practice it is not an equal-opportunity sneer; it's almost always wielded by those with more power in order to dismiss objections (to language, policies, or behaviors that harm or offend people) offered by those with less power, and thus to shut them up.

Thus, someone who calls attention to the fact that every single person selected for a particular distinction happens to be white can be written off as PC. Likewise, an individual who objects to the use of the word girl to describe a grown woman. Or who requests accommodations for people with disabilities. Or who points out that what has just been said about love seems to assume that everyone in the world is heterosexual. In short, any move to be more inclusive in extending consideration or respect, anything that challenges the comfortable world in which certain people quietly maintain their privileged status, may be met with a roll of the eyes and a sarcastic "Oops. I forgot we have to be politically correct here …"

To classify something as PC isn't just to say that one would prefer not to deal with it. It implies that what might be called a liberal sensibility represents the conventional wisdom (of which the challenger is attempting to remind us). But I'd argue that exactly the opposite is true: Our political system and the norms of our culture are largely built on an edifice of conservative beliefs regarding power, tradition, religion, and nationalism, many of them invisible to us precisely because they're so widely and uncritically unaccepted.

If "PC" were just a neutral pin for puncturing any balloon thought to be overinflated, then it might be applied to, say, the view that when the U.S. invades or occupies other countries, it is doing so in the interest of spreading democracy -- or that soldiers who participate in these military adventures around the world are "defending our country." But when did you last hear someone say with a smirk, "I know, I know. It's politically correct to 'Support Our Troops.' But I happen to believe…"?

The same is true of many other assumptions regarding patriotism (attitudes toward our national anthem or treatment of the flag, for example) as well as beliefs overwhelmingly shared about how to raise children, teach students, or manage employees that could be described as deeply conservative -- and that one questions at one's peril.

Imagine someone saying, "Hey, you want proof that political correctness is out of control? Try asking why Christmas is a national holiday. Try exploring how it is that only one person in a classroom is called by her last name. Try challenging the assumption that workers need to be motivated with incentives. These things are all off-limits because they're too PC." If the label seems odd in these contexts it's because "PC" works in only one direction: from right to left.

In addition to defending a conservative status quo from inconvenient challenges -- again, without one's having to offer a substantive defense -- the term serves another important function: self-congratulation. To say that x is PC is to praise oneself for having the courage to see things otherwise. And to warn that something isn't PC is to commend it -- or, in many cases, oneself -- as bold and refreshing. "Now I know what I'm about to say is politically incorrect, but . . ." sounds like a cautionary preface, but it actually invites us to view the speaker as daring even though what follows may be merely conservative. Or offensive.

In fact, no matter how despicable something might be, opposition to it can always be dismissed by framing it as political correctness. In 2004, a book about Benjamin Franklin was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by a staff writer who made it clear he was an admirer of Franklin but then added that "the politically correct would most likely hector him if they could. For Franklin was a slaveholder." Even opposition to slavery apparently qualifies one as merely PC.

By the same token, no matter how conservative you are, there's always the risk that someone to your right may fling the label at you. When, in 1996, the presidential campaign of Republican candidate Patrick Buchanan tried to distance itself from the unsolicited support of neo-Nazi David Duke, Buchanan was accused by a Duke spokesman of -- yup -- political correctness. (And if Pat Buchanan can be called PC, truly none of us is safe.)

But the label serves no legitimate purpose regardless of whom -- or what -- it is used to disparage. Those who merely find it a convenient, perhaps ironic, shorthand ought to consider the political ramifications of its use. And even people who approve of those ramifications ought to be offering logic and evidence to support their views rather than depending on an unpleasant label to bully into silence those with whom they disagree.

*

12/10: "In recent years, parents have cried in dismay that their children could not read out loud, could not spell, could not write clearly," while "employers have said that mechanics could not read simple directions. Many a college has blamed high schools for passing on students...who could not read adequately to study college subjects; high schools have had to give remedial reading instruction to boys and girls who did not learn to read properly in elementary schools..."

On and on goes the devastating indictment of our education system. Or -- well, perhaps I shouldn't say "our" education system, since few of us had much to say about school policy when this article appeared...in 1954.

Similar jeremiads were published, of course, in the 1980s (see especially the Reagan Administration's influential and deeply dishonest "Nation at Risk" report) and in the 1970s, but one could argue that those, like today's denunciations of falling standards and demands for accountability, reflect the same legacy of multiculturalism, radical education professors, and the post-Woodstock cultural realignment that brought down traditional values inside and outside of schools.

But how does one defend such an argument when it turns out that people were saying exactly the same things about America's dysfunctional education system before Vietnam, before Civil Rights, before feminism - and displaying that same aggressive nostalgia for an earlier era when, you know, excellence really mattered?

And if pundits were throwing up their hands during the Eisenhower era about schools on the decline, about students who could barely read and write, about how we're being beaten by [insert name of other country here], the obvious question is: When exactly was that golden period that was distinguished by high standards?

The answer, of course, is that it never existed. "The story of declining school quality across the twentieth century is, for the most part, a fable," says social scientist Richard Rothstein, whose book The Way We Were? cites a series of similar attacks on American education, moving backward one decade at a time. Each generation invokes the good old days, during which, we discover, people had been doing exactly the same thing. ("Grade inflation" is a case in point: Harvard professors were already grumbling about how A's were "given too readily" back in 1894, only a few years after letter grades were introduced to the college.)

Of course, this phenomenon isn't limited to schooling. As I've described elsewhere, claims that parents are too permissive, that they fail to set limits, and consequently that "kids today" are spoiled and self-centered, can be found in articles and books that date back decades, if not centuries.

To dig up strikingly familiar observations or sentiments offered by people long dead isn't just an amusing rhetorical flourish. These echoes deprive us of the myth of uniqueness, and that can be usefully unsettling. Whenever we're apt to sound off about how contemporary education -- or any other aspect of modern life -- is unprecedented in its capacity to give offense, the knowledge that our grandparents or distant ancestors said much the same thing, give or take a superficial detail, serves to remind us of an observation once offered by Adrienne Rich: "Nostalgia is only amnesia turned around."

*

10/10: Education "reformers" have discovered the source of our schools' problems. It's not poverty or social inequities. It's not enforced student passivity or a standardized curriculum that consists of lists of facts and skills likely to appear on standardized tests. No -- it's …teachers.

Fortunately, there's a two-pronged solution: First, identify the really bad teachers (on the basis of their students' test scores, naturally) and pluck them out like weeds. Second, as a safeguard against the possibility of more widespread incompetence than can be solved by step #1, remove as much authority as possible -- about what's to be taught and how -- from all teachers.

Two articles in the October 2010 issue of Phi Delta Kappan address these strategies. "Incompetent Teachers or Dysfunctional Systems?" by Ken Futernick looks carefully at the premises -- and real-world effects -- of sacking teachers who fail to perform up to expectations. And Maja Wilson's "'There Are a Lot of Really Bad Teachers Out There'" weighs efforts to improve teaching by imposing mandates from above.

We should begin by noting that claims about the contribution of the quality of teaching to student success are often overstated, particularly by "reformers." As Richard Rothstein reminds us, all school-related variables combined can explain only about one-third of the variation in student achievement; most is due to non-school factors. Still, even to the extent that the quality of teaching does matter, Futernick argues that "variations in teaching performance flow largely from variables that have little to do with the qualities of teachers themselves." Lousy classrooms are more likely due to "poorly functioning systems than [to] individual [teachers'] shortcomings."

If, for example, a lot of good teachers are quitting, or are assigned to teach subjects outside their areas of expertise, then a purge of bad teachers isn't going to help -- particularly if that district doesn't have better teachers waiting in the wings to replace them. Moreover, the "bad" teachers may not really be bad at all. Futernick points out that they may just "lack adequate support and resources" that would allow them to succeed. Not only is it unfair to blame them for what is really a systemic failure; it doesn't help kids because that failure will persist even after we shuffle the personnel.

Of course it's a lot easier to pretend the problem rests primarily with incompetent individuals, and therefore that all would be well if we could just eliminate tenure and those damned unions that make it hard to get rid of slackers (or anyone else an administrator would like to fire for whatever reason). In the meantime, though, the Powers That Be are producing uniform standards and curricula that will let them impose their will on classrooms from a distance. "If we can't get rid of teachers' physical selves," says Maja Wilson, "we can replace their teaching selves with the standardized self of the mandated, scripted curriculum" and thereby assure quality.

But whose definition of "quality"? Arne Duncan and Bill Gates have no better grasp of the nuances of how children learn, and what constitutes meaningful evidence of deep understanding, than does your next-door neighbor -- which helps to explain why, when they talk about "quality" (or "achievement"), all they mean is higher standardized test scores. Unlike your neighbor, though, they have the power to compel schools -- whole states, even -- to enact practices that will cement that conflation into place.

Let's assume for the sake of the argument, though, that some people in a position of power really do have an unusually good feel for how children learn. Wilson's point is that great teaching can't be imposed from above: "Mandating practices in the effort to improve teaching paradoxically creates the kind of environment that undermines good teaching…by stunt[ing] teachers' ability to make good decisions in the classroom."

There is simply no shortcut to helping educators "cultivate an active intelligence that allows them to negotiate principles, practices, students' needs, and the ever-changing classroom and school environment." In short, says Wilson (in a sentence that ought to be e-mailed to every administrator and consultant in the country), "Good teaching doesn't rest on specific practices, but on how well the educator actively thinks through hundreds of decisions that no program can script." To try to mandate specific practices -- and Wilson offers some disconcerting examples relating to "literacy systems" -- not only doesn't help teachers to become more accomplished, flexible thinkers; it gets in the way.


Efforts to fire bad teachers and mandate specific practices weren't devised in a vacuum. They emerge from a specific cultural context. Specifically, this double-barreled strategy seems to reflect:

* an arrogance on the part of decision makers that expresses itself in a predilection for top-down control -- doing things to people rather than working with them;

* the low esteem in which the profession of teaching is held. (It would seem outrageous for professionals in most other fields to be told how to do their jobs, particularly by people who aren't even in their field);

* a widespread tendency to blame individuals rather than examining the structural causes of problems -- something that distorts our understanding of such varied topics as cheating, self-discipline, competition, character education, and classroom management;

* the outsize influence on education of business-oriented models, with a particular emphasis on quantification and standardization; and

* the assumption that teaching consists of filling up little pails with information. If learning were understood instead as the active construction of ideas, it would seem odd, to say the least, to mandate certain teaching styles or a single curriculum for all students at a given grade level.

While there's no official name for the dual strategy of micromanaging teachers and trying to root out the bad ones, it might as well be called Operation Discourage Bright People from Wanting to Teach. After all, who would choose to focus on test preparation rather than helping kids to think and question? Who would agree to forego any real professional autonomy? Who would want to be treated like a pet, rewarded with financial doggie biscuits for toeing the line? And who, if he or she had other opportunities, would pick a career that featured a constant threat of public humiliation?

In fact, it does seem likely that more and more college students who become teachers will be those who lack other opportunities. The impact of this isn't difficult to predict. What's less obvious is the ironic fact that it's due, in large part, to what's known -- and uncritically celebrated in the popular press -- as "school reform."

*

4/10: "If rewards and punishments just make things worse, what should parents do?" The question is perfectly reasonable yet very difficult to answer in a simple and satisfying way. That's true, first, because everything depends on how the question ends: What should parents do . . . to make kids obey? (If we're really looking for how to get mindless compliance, then we may need to rethink the goal rather than just searching for a better technique.) What should parents do to help their kids become generous and compassionate? Happy? More self-sufficient? Lifelong learners and readers? Each set of objectives will lead us to a somewhat different answer. Even for a single goal, moreover, it makes no sense to look for a recipe because so much depends on who the children -- and their parents -- are.

The absence of a step-by-step solution to parenting challenges can be terribly frustrating to people who believe that "practical" advice entails just such a solution. But we really ought to be skeptical about the advisers who do offer such solutions. To say "If your kid does x, you should do y," is to imply that it doesn't matter who you are, who your child is, or why your child is doing x. To that extent, they're being disrespectful both to you and to your child.

Besides, one-size-fits-all strategies usually just turn out to be ways of doing things to children - in other words, a variant of rewards ("positive reinforcement") or punishments ("consequences"). By contrast, there are countless "working with" approaches, and they need to be worked out in each family.

That doesn't mean, of course, that no help can be offered to parents. But what can be said to everyone - rather than just to you about how to help your child with this particular problem - will necessarily take the form of broadly conceived guidelines rather than specific instructions. Here are ten examples.

1. Reconsider your requests.
Sometimes when kids don't do what we tell them, the problem isn't with the kids but with what we're telling them to do.

2. Put the relationship first.
What matters more than any of the day-to-day details is the connection that we have - or don't have - with our children over the long haul - whether they trust us and know that we trust them.

3. Imagine how things look from your child's perspective.
Parents who regularly switch to the child's point of view are better informed, gentler, and likely to set an example of perspective-taking for their children (which is the cornerstone of moral development).

4. Be authentic.
Your child needs a human being - flawed, caring, and vulnerable - more than he or she needs someone pretending to be a crisply competent Perfect Parent.

5. Talk less, ask more.
Telling is better than yelling, and explaining is better than just telling, but sometimes eliciting (the child's feelings, ideas, and preferences) is even better than explaining.

6. "Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts."
Nel Noddings reminds us that kids will live up to, or down to, our expectations, so it's better to assume the best when we don't know for sure why they did what they did.

7. Try to say yes.
Don't function on autoparent and unnecessarily deny children the chance to do unusual things. People don't get better at coping with frustration as a result of having been deliberately frustrated when they were young.

8. Don't be rigid.
Predictability can be overdone; the apparent need for inflexible rules may vanish when we stop seeing a troubling behavior as an infraction that must be punished -- and start seeing it as a problem to be solved (together).

9. Give kids more say about their lives.
Children learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. Our default response should be to let them choose - unless there's a compelling reason to deny them that opportunity.

10. Love them unconditionally.
Kids should know that we care for them just because of who they are, not because of what they do. Punishments (including time-outs) and rewards (including praise) may communicate that they have to earn our love - which is exactly the opposite of what children need, psychologically speaking.

You'll find much more on each of these themes in the book Unconditional Parenting -- and, for those who prefer to watch and listen to a presentation, the DVD of the same name.

*

1/10: Given that most schools still send home report cards with letter or number grades, and most teachers still put these letters or numbers on students' individual assignments, you would never guess that most studies of the effects of grades find that they're destructive in multiple ways.

For nearly a century, in fact, educators have been pointing out that grades don't make sense and aren't necessary to provide feedback or even evaluation. Max Marshall's Teaching Without Grades and Howard Kirschenbaum et al.'s Wad-Ja-Get have been around for some 40 years - and an impressive batch of journal articles were making the same point well before that. Making Sense of College Grades, by Ohmer Milton and his colleagues, came out 25 years ago. All of these sources are still enormously persuasive - and all-too-relevant - today.

As for the research studies: Collectively, they make it clear that students who are graded tend to differ from those who aren't in three basic ways. They're more likely to lose interest in the learning itself. They're more likely to prefer the easiest possible task. And they're more likely to think in a superficial fashion as well as to forget what they were taught. (For summaries of the relevant research and arguments, see the books Punished by Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve, the article "From Degrading to De-Grading," and the lecture DVD "No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.")

These three unhappy outcomes (diminished motivation, preference for challenge, and achievement) appear to result from grades, per se. When consultants offer elaborate assessment strategies, their premise is that teachers need only change the way they handle grading, tweaking the methods or the criteria. But this is a fool's errand. Some even insist that new techniques will ensure that we are "grading for learning." To paraphrase a '60s-era slogan, this is rather like bombing for peace.

The question, then, is how we can summon the courage to get rid of letter and number grades, replace them with reports of students' progress that are more informative and less destructive, and help parents and students to recognize the value of doing so.

It's always helpful to know that (and how) others have already done this. At The Berkeley School, for example, principal Janet Stork decided a couple of years ago that she simply couldn't justify giving grades to middle school students. Her first step was to call public and private high schools in the area to make sure her kids wouldn't be penalized for having transcripts devoid of grades. These schools assured her it would not be a problem. Stork then presented that information, with verbatim quotes from admissions directors, to her faculty and board as well as to parents and students -- along with a summary of what research shows about the negative effects of grading. Balanced against the powerful reasons to stop giving grades, she argued, there was nothing other than fear or tradition to argue for continuing to do so. She encountered some resistance from students, who for years had been told, in effect, that the whole point of school is to get the best possible marks - a very different objective from, say, understanding ideas. Stork found that those conversations with students became productive learning experiences in their own right.

After the first year without grades, she reports, more graduating students who were heading to selective private high schools were accepted by their top choices than ever before. When she checked in again with those admissions officers, they told her that her school's narrative reports and accompanying materials offered "a far richer understanding of our students" than a GPA could provide. Stork adds that some of the high school folks told her they wished they, too, could go grade-free but were deterred by "the pressures from colleges." She replied that they had more leverage than they thought, particularly if high schools got together and spoke to college admissions officers just as she had spoken to them. [Sadly, Janet Stork, an uncommonly courageous and erudite educator, died in April 2010 at the age of 55.]

What about schools whose administrators are unwilling to do what The Berkeley School did? Teachers have the power to neutralize much of the destructive impact of grades by making them as invisible as possible for as long as possible. This can be done, first, by never putting a letter or number on any individual assignment (only a comment, when time permits), and second, by allowing students to decide on - or at least participate in deciding on - the final course grade.

David Noble, a college instructor, argues that teachers may dismiss these options, finding it easier to rationalize their traditional grade-oriented teaching by pointing out that they're required to give grades, rather than investigating ways to minimize the harm that grades do within their classrooms. Grades are actually convenient for teachers, he argues in this article, a fact he had to acknowledge before deciding to stop using grades in his own classroom.

The ability for forward-thinking teachers to make a difference even in backward-thinking schools isn't limited to those who work in universities. After a year of experimentation that he describes as "liberating," Jim Drier, an English teacher at Mundelein High School in Illinois, is now teaching all of his classes, including an AP class, without any grades. The reaction from those around him has been varied: it was "an adjustment" for the students (particularly those in the AP class), his principal was "very enthusiastic," and his department chair was "tepid at best." Drier sent a letter home to parents explaining exactly what he was doing and why. Rather than offering students comments and grades on their papers - which a fascinating study by Ruth Butler has shown to have no positive effect - he offers comments instead of grades, and the result has been "meaningful, rich conversations." At the end of the term, he meets with each student to determine what grade he should turn in after they review the coursework together.

"Only a few of my colleagues know about what I do," he says. "Our departmental meetings are focused on Power Standards, Shared Curriculum, Common Assessments, improving test scores, and other stuff that makes me sad to be an educator. Those who know what I'm doing are either skeptical or envious." Drier says his next challenge is to build on his success at creating classes that are about learning by securing permission to eliminate the final course grade as well - either by replacing it with an end-of-term narrative or offering the course on a pass/fail basis.

*

12/09: To understand the true impact of raise-the-bar, close-the-gap "school reform" - the type demanded by corporate executives, imposed by politicians of both parties, and celebrated by pundits - you need to hear from the people who spend their days in real classrooms. Never mind that no credible evidence has ever shown that children benefit from high-stakes testing, merit pay, national standards, school takeovers, and the like. The absence of improvement wouldn't be so bad. What's intolerable is the substantial harm this approach has caused, a reality to which self-styled reformers seem oblivious.

The following comments from teachers, which are used here by permission, were sent unsolicited to our website just during the last few weeks. They're representative of many, many more in the same vein that have been arriving on a regular basis for a decade now. These teachers are barely hanging on, while untold numbers of their colleagues have already thrown in the towel. From all indications, these are among the most talented and dedicated people in the field. Ominously, they are often replaced by the kind of teachers who obediently teach what (and in the manner) they're told, who may even take comfort from scripted instruction, and, like so many noneducators, tend to confuse high test scores with meaningful learning.

The damage of top-down, test-driven school reform is most severe in the inner cities, where very specific and uniform standards ("All fourth graders will …") have done the most to lower standards, and where NCLB has left the greatest number of children behind. We can expect even more bottom-level teaching as a result of Obama and Duncan's Race to the Top initiative.

But let's hear from the teachers themselves:

I have been teaching for 20 years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. During that time, I have honed my craft, embraced the art of teaching and shown many urban children that there is a whole world out there to discover and embrace--a world beyond their neighborhoods and city. I have loved teaching and could never imagine myself without students in front of me.

The past three years, however, have been a nightmare of epic proportions. As we struggle to meet our "Average Yearly Progress" on the Pennsylvania State System of Assessment, we have, as a District, implemented a managed curriculum that has completely robbed teachers of the ability to practice the art of teaching. The "art" of teaching has instead been replaced by simply being able to deliver facts and formulas that will allow students to better perform. While this may garner us the coveted AYP, it has also had the chilling effect of seeing many of our children lose a sense of self that arts, electives, historic literature and project-based instruction allowed them. Yes, our scores on the PSSAs have gone up, but at what cost? We turn out students who can write an essay but fail to see the beauty in a Renoir or the emotional impact of a Civil War love letter. We have students who, like automatons, can add, subtract and multiply, but will never feel the personal sense of satisfaction and fulfillment after offering voluntary community service--students who will never know the emotional impact of the opera or the symphony. Students to whom I will never be given the opportunity to impart my love of Antigone or Beowulf.

I can't imagine enduring ten more years of this in education.

-- Pennsylvania teacher, 11/09

I am a 5th grade teacher in the western suburbs of Chicago. My district recently purchased the new Pearson/Scott Foresman Reading Street program. We formally administer tests every 6 weeks now in preparation for the ISATS, published by [another] Pearson company. Test scores are all that matter [in my district]. This school year, we will give our students... roughly 20 tests over the course of the year mandated by the district or state. The [reading] tests are so bad we had our district literacy coordinator take one, and she got a B because she simply had to guess at so many answers due to the tricky nature of the test.

The madness is growing. Please tell me it will stop. What is the best way to get people of influence to understand that now is the perfect time for a district to be progressive and show policy makers (almost all non-educators) what true learning should look like?

My love for teaching is sinking like the stock market.

-- Illinois teacher, 11/09

As a "school in improvement," we are under attack from the feds, the state, and sadly, our own superintendent and curriculum director.

We are a great school. Many of us bring our own children (and nieces and nephews) here. 80% of our children live in poverty. 30% are [English Language Learners]. We provide a precious gem of a school for them. Every teacher has an excellent and extensive classroom library. We have amassed a book room containing hundreds of sets of multiple copies of great literature and emergent readers. Teachers focus on individual interests, strengths and needs. We work hard to provide quality experiences in science and the arts. We have a long-running book club.

We are being told to teach the basal with fidelity. We are hammered with test scores constantly and often publicly. We have been told to "Work harder. A two year gap in kindergarten can be closed in three months with good instruction." and "Poverty is a bad word. You should have to put a quarter in a jar every time you use it." Any discussion is ended by putting our test scores on the overhead and saying, "Here is the data."

I have spent 20 years honing my craft. I love this work. I hate to see all our efforts go down in flames. What will happen to the children without us? Our staff is attempting to fight back. But they look pretty dispirited. Our school is losing its glow.

My question is: How do we fight back effectively?

-- Oregon teacher, 11/09

For strategies and resources to answer this last teacher's question, please see the links on our Standards & Testing page as well as these brief comments from teachers who have simply refused to participate in standardized testing.

*

10/09: The field of education lost two great men in October. Ted Sizer and Jerry Bracey were distinguished by the issues that animated them and the way they pursued their respective interests, but each made such an enormous contribution that his death leaves us bereft.

In person, Ted Sizer was good-humored and gracious to a fault. Unlike those people who are mightily impressed with their own accomplishments, Ted, whose resume was extraordinary by any measure, mostly wanted to know what you had to say. His empathy for both teachers and students wafts off the pages of his Horace trilogy. If you haven't read these books, you must. If it's been a few years, revisit them. His big ideas are there, laid out in remarkably graceful prose - the notion that "less is more" when it comes to curriculum, the idea of "exhibitions of mastery" that will allow students to show us what they understand rather than just coughing up particles of knowledge they've committed to memory -- but it's his feel for the details of school life that draws you in and wins you over.

Ted advised us to follow a high school student around for a full day in case we've forgotten what it's like "to change subjects abruptly every hour, to be talked at incessantly, to be asked to sit still for long periods, to be endlessly tested and measured against others, to be moved around in cohorts by people who really do not know who you are, to be denied any civility like a coffee break and asked to eat lunch in twenty-three minutes, to be rarely trusted, and to repeat the same regimen with virtually no variation for week after week, year after year."

Ted was a big-picture school reformer, with a keen sense of how structural changes ought to be made - major changes, at that; he exhibited a polite but persistent impatience with incrementalism - but he was nothing like the camera-ready school reformers whose call to arms is based on corporate abstractions. He never forgot that the goal isn't Tougher Standards or Accountability. It's to help kids engage in "serious thought, respectful skepticism, and curiosity about much of what lies beyond their immediate lives." He and Debbie Meier hatched the Coalition of Essential Schools to create real standards-based reform, not to promulgate standards that are lists of "things that will be covered . . . put into the head of the student." He wasn't interested in "delivering instruction," a metaphor employed unself-consciously by the kind of people whose idea of school improvement, he once said, involves "testing the kids until they begged for mercy."

Ted watched with the eye of a novelist, noticing the "rows of twitching Adidas" on a classroom floor, feeling the teachers' barely suppressed outrage at yet another interruption by the "malevolent intruder" known as the public address system. He spotted the wink-wink conspiracy between burnt-out teachers and burnt-out kids in traditional schools, the "façade of orderly purposefulness" they created together that allowed both parties to minimize hassle even though that meant little real learning was taking place.

But he knew these deficiencies weren't randomly distributed. "Tell me the incomes of your students' families," he wrote, "and I'll describe to you your school." He grasped the macro -- how hard it is to change a school so it stays changed - but also the micro, such as how teaching honors-track seniors in the fall (when all they can think about is college) is very different from teaching them in the spring (when their goal is "to have a party and, if white, to get a tan").

If we lived in a country where a real thinker like Ted Sizer, rather than clueless managerial types and cliché-spouting politicians, got to be the Secretary of Education, maybe we wouldn't need his wisdom so badly.

Nor would we need Jerry Bracey's compulsive, perpetually irritated truth-telling. Where Ted charmed even his ideological opponents, Jerry pissed off even some of his allies. In what was apparently the last missive he banged out before going to sleep for the last time, a response to a newspaper article about "value-added" assessment techniques, he began as follows: "I can't believe that this piece of crap appeared in the L.A. Times." This he wrote to people who worked at the L.A. Times.

But then he went on to show exactly why it was crap and cited the National Research Council (with a link attached to the appropriate report). When he knew exactly what the data showed on a subject, which was often, he was impatient with people who didn't. He was even less forgiving of people who wrote about the subject as if they knew what they were talking about when that obviously wasn't true. Worst of all were those politicians, researchers, and journalists who deliberately distorted the data. Those people he skewered without mercy or tact.

Jerry was my go-to guy for the numbers, as he was for many others. He had an unerring crap detector, an amazing quantitative skill set, and the patience to drill down into thick reports to find their mistaken premises, their statistical flaws, the reason that their confident conclusions weren't worth the paper they were written on. Nobody was his equal in debunking empirical claims about charter schools and the effects of retention, the dubious connection between student achievement and economic productivity, the fatal methodological problems with international comparisons (TIMSS, PISA) and the results of NAEP exams (too few kids "proficient"? don't get him started). Forget the theory and politics underlying the Nation at Risk report; when Jerry got through with the numbers, it was exposed for the ideological piece of garbage it was. Same for the Heritage Foundation's "No Excuses" paper with its list of low-income schools that ostensibly proved poverty wasn't a real barrier if you just buckled down.

Jerry had an ego - who doesn't? - but he didn't want us to depend on him to dissect a report. His books, Setting the Record Straight, Reading Educational Research, Bail Me Out, and, most recently, Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality, were intended not only to expose the public-school bashers as frauds, and not only to show us exactly what kinds of games they were playing with numbers, but to teach us how we, too, could spot errors and lies.

I hate not being able to e-mail Jerry with a question now, as I did a few days before he died, so he could spare me from doing my own analysis. I hate not having Ted around to remind us what schools should be about and how they can be restructured to do right by kids. Thankfully each man left us a substantial collection of books and articles to remind us of his work and to inspire us to carry it on.

*

9/09: About a year ago, I was invited to write a chapter for an education anthology on the subject of "21st-century skills." I replied as follows: "To be perfectly honest, I'm never sure what's meant by the phrase '21st century' when it's used as a modifier for 'skills,' 'standards,' or 'schooling.' The stuff that interests me, such as student-centered learning, critical thinking, understanding ideas from the inside out, compassion, collaboration, democracy, authentic assessment, and so on, are fairly timeless, which means that attaching the name of the current time period to them seems more a marketing ploy than a meaningful modifier."

That was the end of this particular exchange - and of the publisher's interest in having me contribute to the book. But the phrase in question has been bandied about so often during the last year or so that I find myself pondering the more complicated ways it's come to be used. To be precise, there seem to be three distinct but occasionally overlapping usages.

First, it continues to be wielded as an empty catchphrase. Just about anything one likes can be presented as a component of "21st-century" schooling. It's like "new and improved" except that here we're selling books and conferences instead of dessert toppings and floor waxes. The appropriate response to this use, I believe, is either to roll your eyes or to point out that this particular emperor is parading around in his birthday suit.

Second, to invoke the current century is sometimes meant to suggest an economic justification (and direction) for schooling rather than a focus on what kids need. Notice how often terms like "competitiveness" and "global economy" tend to accompany "21st century skills." The appropriate response here is alarm and active resistance, for reasons I tried to explain in this article.

For awhile, I got the sense that these were the two dominant connotations of the phrase, so I made fun of both of them in a satirical essay and thought that was the end of that. But now it turns out there's a third use, which is more substantive than the first and more encouraging than the second. A fair number of educators are using "21st-century skills" to refer to relatively sophisticated intellectual activity - the sort that includes critical thinking, creativity, and learning about ideas "in a context and for a purpose" (as I like to say). Notice that this instructional agenda has two separate implications: It favors higher-order skills as opposed to low-level skills, and it emphasizes the importance of skills -- ways of learning and thinking -- as opposed to facts.

Of course, the need to bring about both of these shifts, and particularly the latter, was defended quite ably by a number of pre-21st-century thinkers, including John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead. In his 1941 book Escape From Freedom, meanwhile, the psychoanalyst and social critic Erich Fromm wrote: "The pathetic superstition prevails that by knowing more and more facts one arrives at knowledge of reality. Hundreds of scattered and unrelated facts are dumped into the heads of students; their time and energy are taken up by learning more and more facts so that there is little left for thinking. To be sure, thinking without a knowledge of facts remains empty and fictitious; but 'information' alone can be just as much of an obstacle to thinking as the lack of it."

We're certainly better off if this venerable sentiment is warmed over for the modern age than if it's ignored. But wouldn't you know it - this third meaning of "21st-century," the only one that's actually kind of progressive, is the one that's come under a withering and apparently coordinated attack from the "core knowledge" contingent. To be fair, when they point out that there is nothing particularly new about this argument, that dressing it up with the "new and improved" label is silly and self-serving, they are absolutely right - and I wish that label would go away. (What approach to pedagogy do you support in the 21st century that wasn't just as relevant in the 20th?) But when they argue against the position by claiming that the main problem with schools is that not enough time is spent getting kids to memorize facts, or by caricaturing the opposing position -- as if progressive educators believe that learning how to learn means that knowledge doesn't matter -- then we should take them on. (See, for example, this excerpt from The Schools Our Children Deserve.)

This controversy has implications for assessment, too, of course. If the twenty-firsters are saying that standardized tests are no longer particularly useful, I'm willing just to nod rather than pointing out that they never were. But beware of accepting another dichotomy that's been offered to us (for example, in an op-ed by E.D. Hirsch last spring): giving kids standardized tests that just measure test-taking skills or giving them a bunch-o'-facts curriculum with matching tests to make sure enough of those facts have been stuffed into short-term memory. Put me down for "none of the above," please.

Apart from the unfortunate label and general faddishness of the whole 21st-century thing - the first bandwagon educators are hopping on in the new century involves references to the century itself - we should make sure that the second use of the term doesn't leach into the third. This approach to education is worth endorsing only if we are very clear that the reason for helping kids to think deeply and critically, to evaluate and apply knowledge, is because these capacities will enrich their lives and contribute to the common good in a democratic society. Not because it will outfit them with skills that will be useful to the corporations where they may eventually work, thereby allowing one company -- or country - to triumph over another.

In other words, apart from the means by which we educate (facts or skills, basic or advanced), we have to think about the ends. Even if there really were something new about 21st-century schooling, fostering "competitiveness in a global economy" is a wretched rationale for providing it. And that will continue to be true even when the next century rolls around.

*

8/09: "Obama is, in effect, giving George W. Bush a third term in education," remarked Diane Ravitch, who worked in the elder Bush’s administration. Was she exaggerating? Well, for starters, notice that two of the most enthusiastic endorsements of President Obama’s choice of Arne Duncan as secretary of education came from the individuals who had held that position under GWB. Margaret Spellings pronounced herself “thrilled” with the selection, while Rod Paige called Duncan “a budding hero in the education business.”

More to the point, pay attention to the remarkable overlap between the specific policies of the two administrations, including the reliance on high-stakes standardized tests; threats to close down schools with low scores; and enthusiasm about transferring resources to charter schools, using merit pay to “motivate” teachers, and forcing struggling students to repeat a grade.

Finally, there’s the rhetoric of the presidents themselves. Read each of these quotations and try to decide whether it came from the current Democratic chief executive or his Republican predecessor. (Answers follow.)

1. "We will insist on high standards and accountability because we believe that every school should teach and every child can learn."

2. "We're seeing what children from all walks of life can and will achieve when we set high standards, have high expectations, when we do a good job preparing them. ... [W]e will cultivate a new culture of accountability in schools."

3. “We want to . . . not only raise standards, but make the changes that are required to actually meet those standards, by having the best teachers and principals, by having the kind of data collection that tells us whether improvements are actually happening, and tying student achievement to assessments of teachers, by making sure that there's a focus on low-performing schools, by making sure that the standards that have been set are ones that mean a kid who graduates can compete at the international level… [and by] ending the practice of social promotion.”

4. "Too many American children are segregated into schools without standards, shuffled from grade to grade because of their age, regardless of their knowledge. This is discrimination, pure and simple."

5. "Accountability is an exercise in hope. When we raise academic standards, children raise their academic sights. When children are regularly tested, teachers know where and how to improve. When scores are known to parents, parents are empowered to push for change. When accountability for our schools is real, the results for our children are real."

ANSWERS:

1. GWB. From his Presidential radio address, Jan. 3, 2004, cited by Education Week, April 8, 2009

2. BO. From an address to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, March 10, 2009, cited by Education Week, April 8, 2009

3. BO. From an interview with the Washington Post, July 23, 2009

4. GWB. From his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, August 3, 2000

5. GWB. From a speech at a Student Achievement and School Accountability conference, October 2002

How did you do? More to the point, how well will our children do under a continuation (or even intensification) of the same basic corporate-style model of schooling, an approach that confuses competitiveness with excellence and high test scores with successful learning?

*

5/09: REVISITING THE FAILURE OF INCENTIVES: Punished by Rewards is surely the only book from which excerpts were simultaneously published in Parents magazine and the Harvard Business Review - evidence of how pervasive is our culture's embrace of pop-behaviorism. In the family, the workplace, and the classroom, more-powerful people try to control less-powerful people by dangling some sort of reward in front of them if they do what they're told. And evidence continues to accumulate that this strategy not only doesn't work but tends to make things worse in various ways.

In an op-ed just published in USA Today, AK, who recently keynoted a national conference devoted to the subject of health promotion, summarizes what the research says about the use of financial incentives to help people quit smoking or lose weight. What the research says is that they don't work, at least not for very long. Rewards for becoming healthier aren't just less effective than other strategies - they actually tend to undermine the effectiveness of those other strategies.

But for evidence of the perverse effects of incentives, you don't need to read reports in academic journals. The daily paper will do.

Take the current financial crisis. "Questions are being asked about what role lavish bonuses played in the debacle," as a recent front-page story in the New York Times delicately put it. But the point isn't just that bonuses are lavish (or in some cases funded by our taxes). "Pay was tied to profit, and profit to the easy, borrowed money that could be invested in markets like mortgage securities." Meanwhile, senior managers who should have halted reckless speculation by the traders didn't do so . . . because their bonuses, too, were on the line.

An even darker example appeared in the Times last fall: "Colombia's security forces are increasingly murdering civilians and making it look as if they were killed in combat, often by planting weapons by the bodies or dressing them in guerrilla fatigues." One can understand the motive for that post-mortem deception after the accidental killing of an innocent. But why the widespread, deliberate murder of civilians in the first place? Ideological fervor? It turns out that soldiers have been "under intense pressure in recent years to register combat kills to earn promotions and benefits like time off and extra pay."

It's an extreme, gruesome illustration of a familiar pattern. Offer performance bonuses to auto mechanics, and unnecessary repairs will be performed on a regular basis. (When that happened at Sears in the early '90s, the company finally was forced to eliminate its incentive pay system.) Offer rewards to educators for high test scores, and reports of improprieties in the administration of testing will show up repeatedly. Behaviorists keep insisting that we're just rewarding the wrong things and need only tweak the incentives. But after enough disasters it becomes harder to avoid the suspicion that the problem is inherent to the very idea of "do this, and you'll get that."

Even beyond the abuses, rewards simply don't produce quality. Some say it's just because the rewards aren't large enough to make a difference. But a brand-new series of experiments published in the Review of Economic Studies finds that relatively large incentives are especially detrimental to performance, notably on tasks that require "even rudimentary cognitive skills," according to lead author Dan Ariely of Duke University. It appears that the provocative conclusion offered in PBR is still accurate after 16 years: No controlled study has ever found a long-term improvement in the quality of work as a result of any kind of incentive plan. And yet those plans are as popular as ever.

Again: the trouble isn't with the size of the rewards, or the type, or the schedule on which they're offered. The trouble is with the inadequate model of motivation on which rewards, per se, are based. And the data continue to roll in. A few months ago, two researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany reported (in the journal Developmental Psychology) that, while "children are highly motivated from an early age to help others," those who received a reward for being helpful subsequently became less likely to help.

Many earlier studies had supported the general principle that the more people are rewarded for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward (see PBR, chapter 5). Some of those studies had even confirmed that this is true of helpfulness and caring in particular. But the new study is the first to show that rewards can do their damage even before children are two years old. And what they do to a toddler's altruistic tendencies they also do to an investment banker's common sense.

*

 

3/09: Merit pay is Exhibit A for the proposition that the relevant distinction in education policy is not between Democrat and Republican but between those who have some understanding of the nuances of learning, teaching, and motivation - and those who haven't a clue. President Obama - who chose for his Secretary of Education someone who would have felt right at home in the Bush administration - recently offered enthusiastic support for a concept that has been tried and found wanting over and over again: dangle more money in front of teachers to make them perform better.

For a little more about why pay-for-performance plans turn out to be as counterproductive as they are insulting, see the article called "The Folly of Merit Pay." For a lot more on the misconceptions about motivation that underlie such plans, see the book Punished by Rewards. Anyone who possesses a bit of historical perspective realizes that what we're living through now is just the latest in a series of waves during which the alleged miracle of behaviorism is rediscovered - all evidence to the contrary having vanished down the memory hole. You want better teaching (read: higher test scores)? Just offer more money to teachers who jump through the right hoops. And why stop at teachers? Let's pay off students - particularly low-income students of color -- who take more tests, or score well on those tests, or sign up for tutoring, or get better grades, or show up at school even though they can't see any reason why they should.

It's telling that much of the research about education policy being published these days - or at least being featured in the popular press - isn't conducted by people in the field of education but by economists. These are folks who tend to believe that human beings are driven by incentives. That's not a hypothesis to be tested but a premise to be accepted on faith. All motivation is extrinsic, so it's just a matter of getting the incentives right. Their discipline, including the hipper variant known as behavioral economics, is constructed on a decidedly outdated set of assumptions about human psychology. And what they write about education not only proceeds from a stunted view of motivation but also reveals the depths of their ignorance about what happens in classrooms - particularly really good classrooms. Economists, and the popular writers who draw from their work, rarely seem to understand the difference between meaningful learning, on the one hand, and higher scores on standardized tests, on the other. The latter is just assumed to be a marker for the former, in part because this discipline also believes that everything can be reduced to numbers.

Perhaps it's unfair to expect economists or politicians to be well-versed in the nature of learning or the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for doing something (which, in fact, are often inversely related). But surely it's not too much to expect that economists will know what they don't know, will show a little humility rather than assuming that all human endeavors, including education, lend themselves to the methods of their own field. And surely it's reasonable to ask that politicians, including our new president, refrain from imposing their ignorance on our children and teachers with the force of law.

*

 

12/08: Political progressives are in short supply on the president-elect's list of cabinet nominees. Now that he has finally turned his attention to the Department of Education, how surprised should we be that he failed to choose someone who is educationally progressive?

Such an individual was said to be in the running - Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who has been directing Obama's education transition team - and, not coincidentally, she has been singled out for scorn in editorials in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Boston Globe, as well as in a New York Times column by David Brooks, a New Republic essay, and a Newsweek blog. The thrust of all these articles, using eerily similar language, is that we must reject the "forces of the status quo" which are "allied with the teachers' unions" and choose someone who represents "serious education reform."

To decode how that last word is being used here, recall its meaning in the context of welfare (under Clinton) or environmental laws (under Reagan and Bush). For Republicans, education "reform" typically includes support for vouchers and other forms of privatization. But groups with names like Democrats for Education Reform-along with many mainstream publications-are disconcertingly allied with conservatives in just about every other respect. To be a school "reformer" is to support:

  • a heavy reliance on fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests to evaluate students and schools, generally in place of more authentic forms of assessment;
  • the imposition of prescriptive, top-down teaching standards and curriculum mandates;
  • a disproportionate emphasis on rote learning-memorizing facts and practicing skills-particularly for poor kids;
  • a behaviorist model of motivation in which rewards (notably money) and punishments are used on teachers and students to compel compliance or raise test scores;
  • a corporate sensibility and an economic rationale for schooling, the point being to prepare children to "compete" as future employees; and
  • charter schools, many of which are run by for-profit companies.

Notice that these features are already pervasive, which means "reform" actually signals more of the same-or, perhaps, intensification of the status quo with variations like one-size-fits-all national curriculum standards or longer school days (or years). Almost never questioned, meanwhile, are the core elements of traditional schooling, such as lectures, worksheets, quizzes, grades, homework, punitive discipline, and competition. That would require real reform, which of course is off the table.

Obama's choice, Arne Duncan, whose all-too-apt title is "chief executive officer" of Chicago Public Schools, is a "reformer" only in the Orwellian sense of the word. He has been called a "budding hero in the education business" by Bush's former Education secretary Rod Paige - and, indeed, it's not difficult to imagine Duncan having been picked by Bush. Just as the test-crazy nightmare of Paige's Houston served as a national model (when it should have been a cautionary tale) in 2001, so Duncan may try to bring to Washington an agenda based on his pet project called "Renaissance 2010," which Chicago education activist Michael Klonsky describes as a blend of "more standardized testing, closing neighborhood schools, militarization, and the privatization of school management." Even before NCLB, Duncan boasted, "Chicago took the initiative to hold students accountable to annual state assessments" and to get "back to basics with our curriculum, aligning it to the state academic standards all the way down to optional daily lesson plans."

Like New York City's Joel Klein and D.C.'s Michelle Rhee, Duncan prides himself on a program that pays students for higher grades or scores. He has also championed the practice of flunking low-scoring students and forcing them to repeat a grade. (Research overwhelmingly finds both strategies to be counterproductive.) Coincidentally, Darling-Hammond wrote about just such campaigns against "social promotion" in New York and Chicago, pointing out that politicians keep trotting out the same failed get-tough strategies "with no sense of irony or institutional memory." In that same 2001 essay, she also showed how earlier experiments with high-stakes testing have mostly served to increase the dropout rate.

Some years ago, Darling-Hammond remarked, "If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet." Consider how difficult it is to imagine a comparable insight coming from Arne Duncan or from any of the other spreadsheet-oriented, pump-up-the-scores "reformers" (or, for that matter, from any previous Education secretary). That's because she understands what they don't: how all the talk of "rigor" and "raising the bar" has produced a sterile, scripted curriculum that has been imposed disproportionately on children of color. Her viewpoint, in short, is that of an educator, not a corporate manager.

Once again, however, the Department of Education will be run by the latter rather than the former.

(This essay is adapted from an article that appeared in the issue of The Nation magazine dated December 29, 2008.)

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9/08: Is it really possible to completely eliminate homework - or at least to assign it rarely, only when it's truly needed - even in high school? We keep hearing from educators who say it's not only possible but preferable to do so.

Some of these folks were influenced by the arguments and data contained in The Homework Myth, while others came to realize on their own that it simply isn't necessary to make students work a "second shift" after a full day in school.

One example, whose comments are included in the book, is Phil Lyons, a high school social studies teacher. He noticed that homework contributes to a situation where students see learning as just an unpleasant means to an end --"a way to accrue points." Homework typically consists of tasks that are "time-consuming, dreary, uninspiring and serve only to kill whatever motivation remains in students," Lyons says. Interestingly, he confesses having assigned a lot of homework at the beginning of his career "as a crutch, to compensate for poor lessons. . . . But as I mastered the material, homework ceased to be necessary." And so he assigned less and less of it as the years went by. Today he assigns none at all, even to his A.P. classes.

"In addition to reinforcement type worksheets which I do not assign for homework I also do not assign reading to be done at home," says Lyons. "Instead, I begin each day with an article (1-2 pages tops) that relates to the topics we're studying. Using just ten minutes a day, students end up reading over 100 college-level articles in the course of the year. Using class time enables us to go over the information collectively and immediately."

And the result? "Each year my students have performed better on the [A.P.] test....I would feel justified encroaching on students' free time and I'd be willing to do the grading if I saw tangible returns, but with no quantifiable benefit it makes no sense to impose [homework] on them or me."

However, Lyons did notice one clear difference after eliminating homework: "Students come in all the time and hand me articles about something we talked about in class or tell me about a news report they saw. When intrigued by a good lesson and given freedom [from homework], they naturally seek out more knowledge." Academically speaking, then, the absence of homework -- even in a high-level high school course -- created absolutely no problems. Intellectually speaking, it has been positively beneficial.

Yet, Lyons observes, the prospect of questioning homework leads some people to react in much the same way that creationists do "when you try to explain evolution to them….Despite all the logical arguments, they refuse to believe less homework can lead to more and better learning." But he quickly adds that, even in the sorts of communities where high school is regarded mostly as a source of credentials for the purpose of admission to selective colleges, people can be successfully invited to reconsider their assumptions:

I've encountered a lot of hostility from parents who think their children are being shortchanged because they came home and said they didn't get any homework. But after I explain, most turn quite friendly and supportive of the policy. Adults freely admit that they can't remember anything about the election of 1876 from their high school U.S. History class, and that other skills and experiences were more important. Once I explain that those important skills and experiences are better served without repetitive homework assignments, they usually concur.

Testimony from other teachers has been rolling in since The Homework Myth's publication. To wit:

"For the past month of the final term I assigned no outside homework. I teach English, so all reading and writing was done in class. I had to plan more carefully and navigate those times when the quicker readers or writers finished earlier. There are many positives that resulted. The kids were better rested, more interested in what we were doing in class, and the quality of the work they did in class was better. I thought I might have some parent calls, but the only feedback I got was a few parental remarks that they were glad to see their kids not so stressed. [The students' written] reflections convinced me that homework has a long-term detrimental impact on student learning. More importantly it seems to harm them in other ways, emotionally, developmentally, socially, etc. I regret not having done this earlier in the year. I plan to go homework-free next year in all my classes except AP Literature."

-- Jim Drier, English teacher, Mundelein (IL) High School

"I've assigned homework once this semester. That was Geometry. In Algebra, I'm not sure I've assigned any… [I believe] students need a certain amount of practice for each new concept. That amount certainly varies by the student, however. [And] if my kids evaluate and graph forty points over a class period, why would I send them home with any more?....The issue for most math teachers, I believe, is one of time management. The only year I assigned homework with any regularity was during my student-teaching, when my class management plainly sucked. By assigning whatever practice we didn't finish [as] homework, I was transferring the cost of my poor teaching onto my students." [Mr. Meyer investigated this issue for his Masters thesis and found no statistically significant difference in achievement between students who were and were not assigned homework. Students' attitudes about learning, and about math, were much lower for those who got homework, however.]

-- Dan Meyer, high school math teacher in CA [from his blog]

"I always felt weird about assigning specific books for kids to read. How could you possibly find a book that is at all 34 kids' reading levels. Not to mention the fact they would all have to be excited about reading the book! . . . [With most homework, students] do what they already did in class, and the ones that get it waste their time doing it again and the ones that didn't just get discouraged and struggle through it. It particularly would break my heart when parents would tell me. . . how nights would be ruined. How could any teacher not feel bad about that? Then I would correct it and put it in their files and then they would stuff it in their backpacks never to be looked at again. Not to mention the inequity of some kids' parents being able to help and some not. . . . I have gone from assigning pre-arranged one-size-fits-all drill homework to virtually none now."

-- Richard Coleman, San Diego teacher

"Assigning homework was something I did without really thinking because it was something that had always been done…. Not assigning homework has drastically cut down on the amount of time I spend mindlessly grading student homework and has increased the amount of time I spend preparing for lessons . . . looking for interesting activities and … finding 'real world' examples of mathematics…"

-- Kate Degner, math teacher, Williamsburg (IA) High School
[from her Master's thesis]

"I first read The Homework Myth while trying to get my daughter through a middle school that was obsessed with making kids do 2-3 hours of homework every night. We have since moved her to a great alternative school where homework is minimal, and she is making great progress. After reading your book, I thought about how I was teaching my [college] classes -- lecture, then assign pages in the text workbook to be turned in at the next class. I realized that what I needed to do was more 'hands on' teaching in the classroom. I eliminated most of the homework assignments (except for major projects), and had the students do the exercises in class while I walked around giving help where needed. I told the students that the few assignments I would give are for the purpose of giving me feedback -- 'Are they getting it?' This has made for a lot less busywork for me and for the students, and has brought me into closer contact with the students and how they are learning."

-- David Moore, music theory teacher, Univ. of Tulsa

"Many kids are burned out on school and learning before they leave 3rd grade due to the increasing amount of homework being demanded of them. Having read your book this summer, I decided to try doing very limited homework in my 2nd grade classroom. What I've found is that the kids are less confused in math [as a result]. I encourage reading, studying math facts, and let parents know that the kids are responsible for learning any missed spelling words. (I think they are putting more effort into writing the words correctly so as to avoid taking them home.) My parents are all happy and other 2nd grade teachers are trying it."

-- Carol Tuveson, elementary school teacher, Stratham (NH) Memorial School


We've also heard about whole schools that have virtually eliminated homework rather than merely adjusting the amount or tweaking the details of its implementation:

-- After Christine Hendricks, the principal of Grant Elementary School in Glenrock, WY, implemented a no-homework policy, a survey of parents revealed that children had more time to play, sleep, read, and eat dinner with their families and spent less time watching TV. Children also had an improved attitude towards going to school and parents found themselves in fewer conflicts with their children. [Source: stophomework.com]

-- Banks County Middle School in Homer, GA, a lower-income, rural, public school, has eliminated virtually all homework. Principal Matthew Cooper explained: "First, I want our students to have the opportunity to be kids. If they cannot learn what they need in seven hours, something is wrong. A 'No Homework' policy actually results in better classroom instruction. It puts more responsibility on teachers to maximize class time. Second, homework was setting many of our students up for failure. It resulted in lower grades and lower self-esteem. Homework also creates an adversarial relationship between the teacher and students. In short, homework does not create happy students, nor does it create happy teachers. And it definitely does not create successful students." The abolition of homework, he reports, has had a positive effect even when judged by conventional measures such as grades and the number of students meeting state standards. [Source: personal communication from Matthew Cooper]

-- "Oak Knoll Elementary in Menlo Park [California] has mostly banned homework, except reading, occasional projects or catch-up work. Addison Elementary in Palo Alto and the Berryessa School District in San Jose are discussing the issue. Since Bubb Elementary School in Mountain View relaxed its homework regimen, fourth-grader Elyse Fitzsimons has been reading on her own, 'devouring books,'' said her mother, Renée Fitzsimons. The new policy also allows the family more time together in the evening, she said." [Source: San Jose Mercury News - February 25, 2007]

(For more examples of teachers who have eliminated homework, and suggested strategies for parents who are concerned about the toll homework is taking on their children, please see the book The Homework Myth and the DVD No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.)

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5/08: What if they gave a test and nobody came? Or what if all the students came, but the teachers refused to give them a test? The civil rights movement succeeded not only because good laws were eventually passed (mandating desegregation) but because ordinary people refused to obey bad laws. Rather than just complaining about policies they thought were immoral, they withheld their consent through disciplined disobedience.

In May, virtually the entire eighth grade at a South Bronx, NY middle school handed in blank sheets of paper rather than take yet another practice exam for the state test - along with a petition that protested the "constant, excessive and stressful testing" that comes at the expense of "valuable instructional time with our teachers." In California, activists are currently working to convince parents to boycott that state's endless STAR testing program. "We have written and read and talked for years about the damage tests are doing to our children, our teachers, our schools and our democracy," their website says. Now "it's time to act."

There have been other examples of protests by parents and students - from Scarsdale to San Antonio -- but let's take a moment to honor the people who have put their jobs on the line to say no: teachers who have stood up alone in their communities and said they just can't in good conscience participate in - and thereby perpetuate -- this suffocating regimen of testing. When the history of the current "accountability" fad in education is written, these teachers will be likened to the folks who bravely challenged Jim Crow laws in the South.

"My conscience bothered me. I thought, 'How can I continue to do something I think is harmful for my students?' I simply had to stop giving the [state test]."

-- Carl Chew, Washington teacher

"They've taken my job away from me as long as I have to spend my time teaching to the test. I can't do that anymore. So I have nothing to lose [by refusing to participate in the testing]."

-- Jim Bougas, Massachusetts teacher

"Every single time I administer these tests, children are upset. I felt this year that I had three options, since continuing with this practice was not an option. I should either (a) spend a lot of time teaching my students about tests to try to lessen the stress, or (b) tell them exactly what to write down for every question, or (c) stand up for what I believe in and risk discipline, while protecting my students from this nonsense. . . . [In choosing (c), I'm] attempting to represent the views of so many of us who feel helpless in this horrible, spiraling descent of our education system."

-- Kathryn Sihota, British Columbia teacher

"I have to look at myself in the mirror, and I know these tests are wrong. Frankly, I'm not a teacher when I teach to a test like this [or] when I administer a test like this."

-- Don Perl, Colorado teacher

"Someone needs to use a little common sense and say, 'I am just not going to do it.'"

-- Doug Ward, North Carolina teacher

"How can I teach my kids to stand up for what they believe in if I'm not doing that myself?"

-- Katie Hogan, 1 of 12 boycotters at a Chicago school

When Thoreau was imprisoned for refusing to pay war taxes, the jail faced the street. One day, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was walking by and said, "Henry! What are you doing in there?" To which Thoreau replied, "The question is what are you doing out there?" For any teacher who shares the outrage and grief felt by these dissenters, the challenge is to explain why he or she is helping to perpetuate that policy by breaking the shrink wrap and handing out the tests to students - in short, by following orders that he or she knows are wrong.

Of course we applaud the courage of educators who have taken a stand against this insanity. But what will it take for us to summon our own courage and join them?

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4/08: MORE GLEANINGS - that is, writings from various sources likely to be of interest to anyone drawn to AK's work. This month, we feature an article, a website, a quote, and news of an important campaign of resistance. Also, note that a new essay by AK (about progressive education) has been posted elsewhere on this site.

Act of Resistance: There is something uncomfortably inconsistent about denouncing the terrible effects of the current standardized testing fad, on the one hand, but continuing to participate in that testing (and thereby helping to perpetuate it), on the other. The most powerful weapon against what Ted Sizer once called the "test 'em until they bleed" approach to school reform is civil disobedience - that is, organized noncooperation. Perhaps sensing this, officials have relied on crude threats to discourage such resistance. For example, NCLB decrees that if participation in the testing falls below a certain level at a given school, that school will be labeled as failing, and punished. This effectively turns local school administrators into enforcers of an agenda about which they may harbor their own doubts.

The solution is to organize enough parents (or teachers) to take part in a mass boycott of the tests so that a critical mass is reached and it would be absurd for the government to punish all the participating schools or individuals, particularly when it's obvious that the low participation rate isn't due to apathy but to the very opposite: a collective act of conscience.

A group of educators in California is trying to do just that. If you're a parent who lives in that state and has concerns about the amount of time your children are forced to spend taking and preparing for standardized tests - or doubts about whether the resulting scores accurately capture what's most important about your child - then please check out CalCare.org right now. If you're a teacher in California, let the parents in your school know about this campaign so they can make up their own minds about whether to participate. If you live elsewhere, please spread the word to any Californians of your acquaintance.

Article: It's called "Death to the Syllabus," it's by Mano Singham, it's focused primarily on higher education (but is relevant to high schools as well), it's available HERE, and it begins as follows: "It is time to declare war on the traditional course syllabus. If there is one single artifact that pinpoints the degradation of liberal education, it is the rule-infested, punitive, controlling syllabus that is handed out to students on the first day of class. I have seen long and highly detailed syllabi that carefully lay out rules for attendance, punctuality, extra credit, grades, and penalties for missing deadlines, as well as detailed writing assignment requirements that specify page and word length, spacing, margins, and even font style and size. The syllabi use boldface, underlining, italics, and exclamation points for added emphasis; the net effect is that of the teacher yelling at the student. What such syllabi often omit is any mention of learning."

Website: ExcellenceWithoutAP.org [subsequently renamed IndependentCurriculum.org] lists dozens of prestigious high schools that have eliminated all Advanced Placement courses. The trick to figuring out why that move makes sense is to realize that harder isn't the same thing as better. The most "rigorous" courses are often dreadful - and that's particularly true when those courses exist not to enhance students' understanding or enthusiasm about learning but merely to prepare them for an exam.

Quotation: "If there had been even an ounce of genuine concern over American schools in three decades of federal goals-oriented policy intended to fix public education, past presidents and other high-ranking officials might have asked educators to be involved in the search for solutions. But beyond involving teachers in the preparation of standards, educators have been left out of virtually all decision making. Look at the selection of presidential appointees to the office of secretary of education since Reagan took office. It is impossible to look at that list and say, with a straight face, that there was even a little presidential concern for the state of public education in America. Had there been such a concern, educators of world renown would have occupied that office. John Goodlad would have been there, and James Comer, Theodore Sizer, Nel Noddings; the list of highly qualified individuals could go on."
-- Paul G. Theobald, "Elevating Education's Public Purpose," in Education and the Making of a Democratic People, ed. by John I. Goodlad, Roger Soder, and Bonnie McDaniel (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008)

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11/07: Several years ago, a teacher who regularly invited her students to "drop everything and read" their favorite books was asked by a colleague whether she was still setting aside class time for that purpose. She replied, "We haven't been doing any reading since we started preparing the kids for the reading test."

That response says as much about the collateral damage of our focus on test scores as it does about the poor quality of the tests themselves -- and thus how little the resulting scores really tell us. I thought of that teacher's comment just before Thanksgiving, when the National Endowment for the Arts released a report claiming that young Americans spend less time reading for pleasure these days.

At least one expert, Stephen Krashen, has his doubts about whether the data really support that conclusion. But let's assume it's true, and further, as the report contends, that this helps to explain why test scores are lagging. We're confronted, then, with a terrible irony: Our preoccupation with those very scores may be why kids aren't reading as much in the first place.

To see how that's true, consider what's been found to promote, or to undermine, a love of reading. Positive factors include ready access to books, time to read them, exposure to adults who read for pleasure, and the chance to decide what to read. Research is very clear about that last item: The more choice kids have, the more likely that they'll enjoy reading and get better at it.

The ostensible decline in pleasure reading is often blamed on TV and other technology, but the data offer weak and inconsistent support for that hypothesis, at best. More likely to smother interest is the practice of offering kids rewards for reading. Scores of studies have found that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they come to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.

Potential excitement about reading also evaporates as a result of the kind of instruction that focuses on narrow, isolated decoding skills. That doesn't mean phonics don't matter. It means learning to "break the code" should be part of a rich literacy curriculum that has kids reading real stories, not facing endless worksheets and contrived fragments of text harnessed to the skill of the week. (Hence the teacher who was heard saying to a child, "Put that book away and do your reading!")

"Hooked on phonics"? Please. No child has ever gotten hooked on the cr sound. For that matter, no child cares whether Pat's rat has a hat. Impoverished, scripted curriculums -- devoid of meaning, context, and joy -- teach kids that reading is something you'd never want to do. And that's what older students learn when they have to outline chapters or write book reports, or are made to read so many pages, or for so many minutes. Now the child's question isn't "Why did she [the character in the story] do that? Is she nuts??" It's: "How much more do I have to read?"

Sadder still, children are forced to work what amounts to a second shift after school is over, as more and more homework is loaded on younger and younger children. It's not just that the time eaten up by those assignments leaves less time for pleasure reading. It's that many of those assignments adversely affect their attitude about the written word.

One reason for the push for more homework as well as more frantic drilling -- particularly for low-income kids - is the current testing mania, exemplified and intensified by the No Child Left Behind Act. This legislation, and the whole corporate-styled "accountability" fad that gave rise to it, brings us back to that hapless teacher who is so busy trying to raise her students' scores on the reading test that there's no time to let them read.

In fact, a study of middle schools published in the journal Language Arts found that "the most frequently cited reason for not providing regular opportunities for free choice reading was the pressure teachers felt to explicitly cover the skills students needed to do well on the statewide competency test."

The NEA report has it half right: Kids who love to read also read more proficiently. But standardized tests are poor measures of that proficiency and, more important, our concern with the results of those tests drives teachers to desperate measures to jack up the scores - at the expense of an engaging curriculum, a well-rounded education, and a desire on the part of children to keep reading after the last school bell has rung.

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9/07: Almost as much as one yearns for a solution to the achievement gap, one searches for a fresh way of thinking about this problem. Most of what's published seems awfully familiar by now, so it's worth celebrating the exceptions. In this installment of the occasional feature called Gleanings, we mention some recent books and articles of interest.

Jonathan Kozol has a way of speaking in a calm, measured tone even as he grabs us by the collar. In his latest book, Letters to a Young Teacher, he emphasizes the extent to which we are still a segregated nation. If a photo were taken today in a school in almost any black or Hispanic neighborhood, he remarks, "it would be indistinguishable from photos taken of the children in the all-black schools in Mississippi back in 1925 or 1930 - precisely the same photos that are reproduced in textbooks now in order to convince our children of the moral progress that our nation has made since." Moreover, the kind of education that these children usually receive - particularly with ghastly programs like KIPP, Success for All, and Open Court - drives home the truth that segregation is indeed inherently unequal. "Children of the suburbs learn to think and to interrogate reality," says Kozol, while "inner-city kids are trained for nonreflective acquiescence." ("Work hard, be nice.")

Part of the reason that education for children of color has become an endless ritual of test preparation has to do with NCLB and state variants thereof. But part of the blame can be laid at the feet of colleges, a new study suggests. Writing in the August 2007 issue of the American Sociological Review, Sigal Alon and Marta Tienda cite data showing that "over time [colleges and universities] have relied more heavily on standardized test scores to screen applicants . . . despite the mounting evidence that test scores have low predictive validity for future academic success." This is partly because colleges are classified as "selective" not on the basis of the quality of their teaching but purely on the basis of the SAT scores of their incoming students. (Thanks to U.S. News & World Report for reminding us once again that competitiveness and excellence are two entirely different things.) The more tests matter, the less diverse colleges will be; in fact, "if selective institutions based their admissions decisions entirely on test scores, fewer than 2 percent of their students would be black." But here's the punch line: The widely discussed trade-off between merit and diversity - or between quality and equality -- "exists only when merit is narrowly defined by SAT scores." When you throw out the scores, which aren't contributing much information of value in any case, "the need for affirmative action diminishes," Alon and Tienda conclude.

In 2005, Mano Singham, a physicist who directs the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education at Case Western University, published a book called The Achievement Gap in U.S. Education that should have received a lot more attention than it did. His contention is that the solution to the gap isn't remediation (particularly in the form of skill-based instruction that's liable to destroy kids' interest in learning); it's better teaching for everyone. "We are not doing a good job of teaching in general," he says, "and the size of the achievement gap should be viewed as a measure of our failure to teach all students. . . . White students underachieve, and black students underachieve even more." He cites some impressive research showing that when the quality of instruction improves - when it's about deep understanding rather than memorizing facts and practicing skills, when students play a more active role in designing the curriculum, and so on - all students benefit, but minority students benefit the most. Taken seriously, this simple insight has the potential to revolutionize what we're doing to help those who are being left behind.

If Singham invites us to rethink the reasons for (and solutions to) the gap, Jim Crawford, an activist on bilingual education, asks us to rethink the tendency to talk about an "achievement gap" in the first place. In his June 6, 2007 commentary in Education Week, Crawford wonders how any civil rights groups could possibly support a policy like NCLB, which is disproportionately destructive to the education of minority students. His answer: The whole idea of educational equity has been shifted (by the Bush administration, among others, for political reasons) from talk of equal educational opportunity to talk of "achievement gaps." The latter is "all about measurable 'outputs' - standardized-test scores - and not about equalizing resources, addressing poverty, combating segregation, or guaranteeing children an opportunity to learn," Crawford suggests. "Dropping equal educational opportunity shifts the entire burden of reform from legislators and policymakers to teachers and kids and schools. . . . In other words, despite its stated goals, NCLB represents a diminished vision of civil rights. Educational equity is reduced to equalizing test scores. The effect has been to impoverish the educational experience of minority students."

Once the problem has been framed as closing a gap in achievement (i.e., reducing disparities in test results), therefore, the solutions are bound to be unsatisfying, if not counterproductive. It's roughly analogous to a point that Joan Goodman made years ago about special education: Once teachers are required to use Individual Educational Programs (IEPs) that spell out discrete, narrow, measurable goals for children, the worst sort of instruction - focused on skills, mired in behaviorism, driven by extrinsic motivators, uninformed by children's choices (or, for that matter, their needs) - is virtually mandated.

What matter isn't just what we're doing; it's the earlier decisions about what we should be aiming for that quietly determine what we're doing.

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6/07:  "Hey, if it was bad enough for me, it's bad enough for my kids": Many of us cheerfully acknowledge that we’ve always hated math or were never any good at it.  In the next breath, though, we may insist that our children be taught the same way we were – with an emphasis on memorizing facts, filling out worksheets, mindlessly applying procedures and formulas they don’t understand – in short, the very approach for whose inadequacy we are walking advertisements.  The irony would be amusing if it weren’t for the fact that better math programs, along with the people who introduce, teach, or defend them, are being battered.  And our kids are getting an inadequate education as a result.

The latest casualty is a very fine superintendent who, according to the New York Times,  was pressured into declining a job in an affluent New Jersey district by angry parents who wanted to roll back the clock and replace a math curriculum called Investigations with a return to what one writer has called Parrot Math:  worksheet and quiz, listen and repeat, drill and kill.  It’s an approach that tends to be favored by three overlapping groups:  nervous parents, political conservatives, and professional mathematicians (not to be confused with math educators).

In reality, we should be concerned if our kids are still getting traditional math instruction.   We should be relieved if they’re getting a richer, more meaning-based curriculum, regardless of whether it looks unfamiliar to us.  To learn why this is so – and to see what the research finds when the two approaches are carefully compared – click here for an excerpt from The Schools Our Children Deserve.

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4/07:  GLEANINGS – A new feature in this space that will appear from time to time:  Mentions of (and snippets from) articles and books written by various people -- some just published, some discovered belatedly – and likely to be of interest to anyone drawn to AK’s work.  To wit:  five resources worth checking out:

*  Mara Sapon-Shevin’s new book, Widening the Circle:  The Power of Inclusive Classrooms, isn’t just an argument against segregating kids with special needs.  It’s about inclusion as a deeper commitment, about our discomfort with differences, about the arrogance of expecting “those kids” to fit in to the mainstream.  The book is full of sly observations about disability and social change, noting that “you can’t say you can’t play” doesn’t go far enough, and revealing how arguments against inclusion often assume a traditional approach to instruction that actually isn’t ideal for any students.

*  Speaking of differences (and segregation), someone at a recent AK lecture stood up during the Q&A to thank him for talking about children -- rather than about boys and girls as two distinct species.  Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke recently reminded us that “we don’t have a male brain or a female brain; we have a human brain, with a whole lot of commonality.”  At a time when entire careers are being constructed on the claim that we should segregate children by gender – and that boys are suffering a unique crisis – it's well worth reading Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers’s article in the Winter 2007 issue of Independent School “Gender Myths & the Education of Boys” -- or their slightly shorter essay "The Difference Myth," published in the Boston Globe in October 2007.

*  Few of us can pick up anything by Deborah Meier without feeling illuminated, refreshed, perhaps a bit startled.  That’s even true of her short essays, such as the foreword she wrote to Chris Gallagher’s new book, Reclaiming Assessment (Heinemann, 2007) – a useful review of Nebraska’s struggle to pursue more authentic forms of assessment at a time when the most appalling forms of standardization are justified in the name of “accountability.”  Says Meier:  “Even if we teachers and parents have been attacked by friend and foe alike for resisting reform, we forget at our peril that our capacity for resisting is our true salvation.”

*  In “What Are You Thinking?”, which appeared in last October’s Educational Leadership, Katie Wood Ray distinguishes between memorizing the definition of an ellipsis and asking kids what they're thinking about an ellipsis.  The latter, she adds, requires them to “have a writing life in which to imagine...how they might use” it.  Then she tells a story about being a guest writing teacher in a fifth-grade classroom where the students had been assigned to write persuasive letters to the principal about changing the school:  “I asked the first student I met with (who had written about four sentences) to tell me why she had decided to start her letter in the particular way that she did.  ‘What were you thinking?’ I asked.  As one of the observing teachers noted, the young girl looked at me as though she had just had a frontal lobotomy.  All my wonderful wait time provided no answer.  I finally realized it was because there wasn't any answer.  The student hadn't been asked to do any thinking or decision  making in this writing at all.  The topic had been assigned, a graphic organizer told her exactly what to include in each part, and when I sat down next to her, she was simply transferring information from the organizer to a worksheet on which she was supposed to write the letter.  The point is, it’s difficult for students to answer questions about their thinking when the work they are doing doesn’t require them to think.”

* Finally, have a look at “Contradiction, Paradox, and Irony: The World of Classroom Management,” a 10-year-old essay by Barbara McEwan Landau.  It raises troubling but vital questions about our need for control, the ubiquitous demand for quick fixes, and a tendency to reproduce the very cruelties to which we were subject as children.  Even educators committed to thoughtful curricular practices may resort to “authoritarian management measures, despite the contradiction,” she observes.  This essay was originally published in a little-noticed academic-press anthology, but Landau has just posted it as a pdf file, so you can read it here

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3/07:  AK once asked the late John Nicholls, an expert on motivation and achievement, for his assessment of Pizza Hut’s “Book It!” program, which uses fast food as a reward for reading.  Nicholls dryly observed that the most likely result would be “a lot of fat kids who don’t like to read.”  This spring AK joins the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in calling for an end to this depressingly pervasive program.

CCFC argues that there are three distinct problems with Book It!, any one of which would be reason for concern.  First, it’s a prominent example of how corporations are turning schools – and, by extension, kids – into sources of profit.  This program is a cheesy gimmick for developing brand loyalty in children while also increasing sales in the short-term because parents presumably will have to buy food for themselves when the child redeems a coupon for a free personal pizza.  (For more on corporate inroads into our schools, see the article “The 500-Pound Gorilla” and the anthology Education, Inc.: Turning Learning into a Business.)

If treating children as a captive market isn’t disturbing enough, consider what the product is here.  Depending on whether a topping is included, personal pizzas contain 27 to 39 grams of fat.  Why would educators want to facilitate the marketing of junk food to kids just as we’re finally waking up to the childhood obesity epidemic in America?

Finally, and most surprising to some, Book It! is educationally counterproductive.  As AK put it in CCFC’s press release:  “If I were trying to design a program that would undermine children's interest in books, lead them to read in a shallow fashion, and convince them to avoid challenging texts, I honestly don't think I could top Book It!  Dangling pizza in front of kids as a reward for reading, much as one might use treats to house-train a puppy, reflects a completely discredited theory of motivation.  Indeed, by teaching children that reading is just a means to an end, the program is likely to be not merely ineffective but positively harmful.”  (For more, see Punished by Rewards, or this excerpt from the book dealing with reading incentive programs [including the equally pernicious “Accelerated Reader”], or the article “Newt Gingrich’s Reading Plan.”)

Several correspondents have recently tried to defend Book It!  One points out that Pizza Hut is hardly the only company using the schools to advertise or sell things to children.  It’s not clear, however, why that fact would make any given example less troubling.  (Such logic would imply that all problematic practices are justified whenever other, similar practices are also in evidence.)

We might respond similarly to the argument that junk food, too, is ubiquitous.  Surely we ought to do whatever we can to stem the tide.  In any case, educators shouldn’t be lending their imprimatur to it.  An implicit alliance between the purveyors of high-calorie food and schools is disturbing for the same reason that we recoil from finding McDonald’s outlets in hospital lobbies.

Finally, several people seemed perplexed that anyone would oppose a program that gets kids to read more.  This understandable reaction reflects a widespread tendency to look only at behaviors rather than the reasons and motives underlying behavior.  As AK has often explained, scores of psychological studies have shown that the more people are rewarded for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.  It doesn’t matter whether children can be induced to read an extra book today; what counts is whether they will still want to read tomorrow.  Or, to put it differently, it doesn’t matter whether they’re motivated; it matters what kind of motivation they develop.  Extrinsic inducements like pizza, payment, prizes, and praise are so insidious precisely because they’re likely to undermine children’s intrinsic motivation – in this case, to read.  In fact, the more strongly we want children to become lifelong readers, the more we should work for the abolition of reading-for-reward programs.

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12/06:  “Boy, I’ll bet you’re real popular with kids!” is one of the more common responses AK has heard from reporters after having done more than 90 TV, radio, and print interviews to discuss The Homework Myth.  He begins by admitting that he has indeed received a number of fan letters from those not old enough to vote, but then points out that a lot of parents and teachers have a similar reaction to the book’s thesis; the realization that most homework is not particularly useful is by no means limited to the people who are compelled to do it. 

But look a little deeper and ask what is implied by this remark about children’s reactions.  Many adults miss (or dismiss) the significance of the fact that the vast majority of students dislike homework, regarding their reaction as predictable and therefore not worth taking seriously. The obvious question would seem to be, If most kids see homework as (at best) something to be gotten over with as quickly as possible, how could we expect that it would benefit them?  What assumptions about the nature of learning underlie the belief that the learner’s attitude about what he or she is doing has no bearing on the outcome?

It’s been gratifying to hear that educators – from Lake County, Ohio, to Glade Spring, Virginia -- are reading the book together and reexamining their practices and assumptions.  Some individual teachers, meanwhile, have decided to call a moratorium on homework, if only to see what happens.  One teacher, in Falmouth, Massachusetts, mentioned the role of The Homework Myth to her fifth- and sixth-graders in helping her realize it was time to change.  As one of her students subsequently explained, “My teacher said that if we understand what we are doing we should not get homework” but “if we do not [understand] she will help us understand.”  (One of her classmates plans to recommend the book to another teacher who “gives way too much homework,” “gives us homework that we don’t understand,” and “does not care what we say about it.”)

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8/06:  Back around the turn of the century (ca. 2000), AK was invited to deliver the keynote address at an education conference in western Massachusetts that brought together people from regular public schools and charter schools to address issues they all faced.  The organizers decided that one such issue was the pressure on students and teachers caused by MCAS, the state's standardized test, and they asked him to speak on that topic.  When officials from the state’s Department of Education discovered this, they contacted the conference organizers and effectively threatened to shut down the event if Kohn was permitted to speak -- even though a grant from the state helping to fund the event wasn't paying for the speakers' fees.  When a reporter broke the story in the spring of 2001, the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kohn and several attendees who had wanted to him.  It’s taken half a decade, but a ruling was finally issued on July 28, 2006:  A State Superior Court Judge agreed that the Department of Education’s action was an illegal attempt to silence those who disagreed with its pro-testing policies.

“Just as standardized tests interfere with meaningful learning,” Kohn remarked, “so the DOE attempted to interfere with a free exchange of ideas about education.  Happily, the court caught them at it, determined that they'd violated the Constitution, and will now issue an order to stop them from trying to do it again.”  (For an ACLU press release with more information, click here.)

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6/06:  Interesting quote:  “Education can be based on aims, but not on outcomes. . . . To say that education should be outcome-based – so that the curriculum is constructed by ‘designing down’ [or ‘backwards’] from the outcomes . . .  is to misunderstand the function of ends. . . . If we … allow the ultimate outcomes to prescribe prior ends, the term training would be more appropriate [than education].”

-- Maurice Holt, in the Journal of Curriculum & Supervision, Fall 1993

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12/05:  REINDEER RUMINATIONS -- When my daughter was about three, she had a mad crush on Clifford the Big Red Dog.  You can imagine her delight when she spotted a six-foot Clifford greeting children at a fair one afternoon.  She dashed over and wrapped her arms around his fur, excitedly informing him that she had seen him on television.  After a few minutes, she trotted over to me and said in a confidential whisper, "Daddy, you know that isn't really Clifford.  It's just someone dressed up like him" -- at which point she scooted back over and resumed her hugging.  The fact that my daughter understood it was all pretend didn't dilute her joy one bit.  The same is true of the endless imaginative games that all kids play:  It's enormous fun even though they know it's make-believe.  Why, then, do so many adults assume children can't enjoy the Santa myth unless it's presented as literal truth?  Given that it's possible for kids to have fun without our having to deceive them, why not have the best of both worlds:  gaiety and honesty?  – AK  


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