Not The Change We Need

“We need an outsider to come in and change things up for the better.”

“Our education system needs some radical changes if it’s going to improve.”

I’ve heard both of these things, and their derivatives, in the days since Donald Trump announced that Betsy DeVos was his choice for Secretary of Education. I agree that we need radical change in how we approach education in America. I vehemently disagree that appointing yet another outsider with no understanding of education is the way to achieve that change.

In America, we tend to equate wealth with knowledge. I don’t mean to imply that Betsy DeVos is unintelligent, but I do mean that her large bank accounts do not qualify her to make decisions on education policy. We’ve also listened to the education ideas of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, and it turns out that they might not be education experts either.

We’ve got a long, rich history of letting people from outside the field of education determine education policy, and Betsy DeVos is a continuation of that tradition. Below is a list of previous Secretaries of Education, and their jobs prior to their cabinet appointments:

Shirley Hufstedler – Lawyer and judge

Terrel Bell – HS teacher, bus driver, public school superintendent

Bill Bennett – Executive director, National Humanities Center

Lauro Cavazos – College professor

Lamar Alexander – Court clerk, legislative assistant, Governor of Tennessee

Richard Riley – South Carolina state legislator, Governor of South Carolina

Rod Paige – HS teacher, college professor, public school superintendent

Margaret Spellings – Political director, senior adviser to George W. Bush

Arne Duncan – CEO of Chicago Public Schools

John King – Charter school teacher, NY commissioner of education

Betsy DeVos (nominee) – Chairman, Windquest Group, private/charter school activist

Since the position of Secretary of Education was established in 1979, 10 people have held the position. Only three of those people had experience in K-12 education prior to their appointment. Only two of those people have had extensive experience in traditional public schools. Perhaps the “radical change” we need to improve our nation’s schools should involve the appointment of a candidate who has dedicated their lives to public education. Who would better understand the challenges facing American schools and teachers than somebody who has spent an extensive amount of time both attending and working in public schools?

A public educator would understand that our kids can not be tested out of poverty. They would understand the value of a strong public school system. They would understand that mass privatization and school choice do not work. They would understand that putting students first does not mean actively fighting teachers and working to destroy unions. They would understand that empowering and trusting teachers would create far more positive changes than any amount of testing or accountability measures ever could.

So no, DeVos is not going to bring some radical, positive change to education in America. She’s essentially more of the same, another “outsider” with no understanding of what works or what is best for students. We already know her ideas won’t fix anything (but they will make a few people a lot richer!) This appointment is not draining the swamp, it’s yet another baffling refusal to listen to the experts in the field.

I’ll be calling my representatives in the coming weeks and urging them to vote no on DeVos’ appointment. I urge you to do the same.


When Will Public Education Hit Its Tipping Point?

In sociology, a ‘tipping point’ is a point in time where a group of people dramatically changes their behavior. Malcolm Gladwell’s book of the same name defines a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”.

I’m eagerly awaiting the moment when public education reform in the US hits the tipping point. Ed policy has been in the news once again with the recent midterm elections, and as has been the case for the past several years, the news is flat out depressing. Reformers continue to try and put band-aids on our education system while turning a blind eye to the real problem. Politicians continue to attack teacher’s unions under the guise of “protecting students” while failing to realize that hurting teachers hurts students, too. And perhaps most worryingly, we continue to hold up standardized test scores as the standard of success in our students.

Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) has been in the news with the re-election of Gov. Rick Snyder. Basically, the EAA is a state-run district comprised of “failing” schools that have been taken over by the state. These schools so far have been from nothing but high poverty areas. We were told that the goal of the EAA was to totally reform these “failing” schools and boost their test scores.

Well, to the surprise of almost nobody, that hasn’t exactly happened. But how could that be? All these rich business folks who thought the EAA was a great idea surely knew what they were talking about! Fire some staff, eliminate the ability of unions to collectively bargain, and BOOM! Thanks to the magic of free market competition and schools being run like businesses, test scores should be skyrocketing.

But they’re not, because not one person involved in the reform movement seems interested in fixing the actual problem behind low-performing schools. Remember when I mentioned that all the EAA schools were in high-poverty areas? Yeah, that’s the big problem. Poverty tends to have a negative impact on education.

Remember the Vergara decision? The court case in California that’s supposed to make it easier to remove “ineffective” educators from classrooms? Well, frequently when somebody talks about ineffective teachers hampering student growth, they’re talking about teachers in high-poverty schools. Schools in affluent districts tend to have high test scores, so they must be hoarding all the top quality teachers, right?

Wrong. Correlation definitely does not equal causation in this case. Granted, this is anecdotal evidence, but I’ve known several teachers who have moved from impoverished districts to affluent ones, and seen an increase in student achievement. The only thing that changed about them was their workplace. Would anybody seriously try to argue that moving to a new district suddenly made a teacher more effective? Of course not.

The real answer to our school problem, as it always has been, is poverty. Take a look at PISA scores by country. Ed reformers would have you look at the chart on the left, the one that shows us lagging behind Finland, Belgium, and many others. What we should be looking at is the chart, which shows those same PISA scores adjusted for poverty level. So instead of comparing all US schools against those of Finland, we can see how US schools with a similar poverty level to Finland perform.

When you break testing results down by poverty level, US schools come out on top of their peers. The problem is, if you look back to the chart on the left, US schools have by far the highest poverty rates out of every country in that comparison, which tends to skew the testing results down.

This should tell us that what we have is not a school or a teacher problem, but a societal problem. And unfortunately fixing a societal problem is significantly tougher than telling a teacher, “You’re ineffective, see ya.” Ed reformers seem intent on finding an easy fix, but nothing they do will have the same positive impact as fixing our poverty problem would.

The other big disturbing trend I’ve seen lately is the drive to integrate reading and maths into every classroom, regardless of subject. As a music teacher, this is concerning for a few reasons.

  1. I am not a maths or reading expert. I don’t hold a certification in those areas. There’s a very good chance that my instruction in those areas would not be close to the level of the content-area experts in my building. That’s not fair to my students.
  2. My classroom is a music classroom. I certainly recognize that maths and reading are important, but integrating them into my classroom on a daily basis wouldn’t necessarily give students an authentic experience in those areas OR music.
  3. This push for integration is saying that my subject area is not important enough to stand on its own merits. I need to incorporate STEM subjects into my classroom to validate what I teach. That’s an insult to my profession. The creativity and expression happening in my classroom is valuable enough to stand on its own.

So, when does common sense take over with all these changes? When do we step back and realize that not all of the changes in our education system are positive ones? And most importantly, when will the general public begin to understand where the actual problems lie?

Shocker…M. Night Shyamalan Has Another Bad Idea

I’ve mentioned bad filmmaker-turned-bad ed reformer M. Night Shyamalan on this blog before. I’m not sure why somebody whose writing was once described as “an amateurish mess” is qualified to decisions regarding something as important as the education of our children. What’s even more mystifying is the fact that anybody buys what he’s selling.

The excerpts of his book offer numerous reasons to despair. I was stunned to read this gem:

One bit of advice I’m ready to share is this: whenever anyone brings up Finland, back away slowly. In fact it mystifies me that a country with fewer people than Greater Philadelphia, no civil rights problem, and virtually no significant income inequality is held up as a model for the United States.


Ridiculous. You mean to say we shouldn’t strive to achieve Finland’s low levels of child poverty or their comparatively enlightened social views? You don’t think either one of those things could help the American education system? It’s pretty clear that Mr. Shyamalan is just cherry-picking research that supports his views. Either that, or he’s really not smart enough to see the connection between low levels of child poverty, and educational achievement.

Shyamalan also attacks the notion that small class sizes can positively impact the educational experience. His “research” claims that class size doesn’t affect educational outcomes at all. Of course, a study that counters his claim is readily available after maybe 30 seconds of Googling. I’d argue that higher graduation/lower dropout rates for smaller classes is a positive outcome.

We teachers tend to argue passionately in favor of small classes because we know that affords us a greater understanding of each student’s abilities. In a small class, a teacher is able to develop strong one-on-one relationships with each student. This is hugely beneficial when it comes to teaching. But what do teachers know? They’ve only dedicated their entire lives to the study of education. Surely a hack filmmaker who’s looked into education in his spare time knows what it’s like inside a classroom.

Shyamalan cites data that shows that if current trends continue, the average class size could be 16 (SIXTEEN!) students by the year 2017. Huh. Tell that to the teachers in Detroit who have been coping with classes of 40+ students in some cases. Or Philadelphia teachers who, thanks to massive budget cuts spurred on in part by bogus “reformers”, will face similarly gigantic classes.

With his foray into ed reform, Shyamalan has not recaptured the blockbuster quality of The Sixth Sense. His dabbling seems destined to be another massive disappointment, just like every other project he’s been involved with since 2004.

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Inexperience is now a qualification, apparently

Brand-new mechanics don’t get to wrench on expensive, exotic supercars.

First-year med students don’t get to take the lead on a surgical procedure.

Fresh-faced business school graduates don’t immediately leap to the top of a Fortune 500 company.

Inexperienced politicians are frequently derided by their colleagues based on that trait alone.

Young research assistants are often relegated to tasks like data coding, or fetching coffee. They’ve got to learn how to design research studies.

Young cyclists learn the finer aspects of the sport while working for their more experienced team leader.

People generally don’t toss the keys to their 14-year old child and tell them, “Here, you seem ready to get us to Disneyland.”

So why do we so readily dismiss the voices of experience when it comes to something as important as education?

M. Night Shyamalan is great at writing terrible movies. He’s not somebody who should be influencing the direction of education.

Bill Gates has made an obscene amount of money over the course of his lifetime, and deservedly so. Unfortunately, an understanding of how children learn is not something you can buy.

Arne Duncan is man whose education experience has been exclusively outside of the classroom. While he might know his way around the baskeball court, he doesn’t seem to know that more standardized tests are a poor way to improve the education system.

Michelle Rhee couldn’t even keep her own house in order. How can we reasonably believe that she is fit to lead on a national level?

Education is one of the few fields that has directly impacted nearly everybody in this country. Why are we so willing to hand over the keys to somebody who doesn’t even have a learners permit?