Sunday, February 28, 2010

Race To The Top: Pre-Game

Thomas W. Carroll, the president of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, provides a sound analysis of states' chances of winning Race to the Top funding in phase one. [Hat tip: Alexander Russo]

I would agree that Florida and Louisiana are the likeliest winners in phase one, and would be surprised if Delaware and Tennessee were not, at least, semifinalists. I'm not as keen on Colorado and Michigan, but agree that Georgia is a likely semifinalist as well. Here are some other possible phase one semifinalists from my vantage point: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island. Much will depend on how many states make the cut (Rick Hess says 10-15) and where Secretary Duncan draws the cut line.

Semifinalists are expected to be announced this coming week, possibly as early as Monday. Teams from those states will be invited to make a formal presentation before a panel of reviewers in Washington, DC sometime in March. Finalists are expected to be announced in April.

Who are your favorites? Which states am I overlooking? Which am I crazy to even be including in my list of possible semifinalists?


UPDATE: Education Week weighs in with its picks for RttT finalists.

Phase One winner picks: Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Tennessee

Phase One semifinalist picks: all above plus Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Minnesota, Rhode Island

Wild cards:
California, District of Columbia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania


UPDATE 2: Eduflack weighs in with some picks as well.

Barring any real surprises in the interview stage, I'm going with California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and Rhode Island. How does that fare against the $4 billion pool? Cali and Florida will account for $1.4 billion. Ohio picks up $400 million. Indiana and Tennessee get $200 million apiece. Colorado and Louisiana split $300 million. Rhode Island gets $50 million. That's $2.55 billion on the first eight states.

Friday, February 26, 2010

TFA 'Set Aside'

The Washington Post's Nick Anderson reports that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was grilled by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) yesterday about why he proposed eliminating the set aside for Teach for America in the Administration FY2011 federal budget.
"We made some tough calls. And what we did is we simply eliminated all the earmarks. We increased the chance for competition," Duncan said.

"Teach for America is an earmark?" Doggett asked.

"It was a set-aside," Duncan clarified. The organization, he said, would have "every opportunity to compete and get, frankly, significantly more money."

My question is: Why should TFA receive such a set aside while other high-quality education non-profits do not? What about KIPP, Urban Teacher Residency United, The New Teacher Project? How about the nonprofit I work for, the New Teacher Center? All of these nonprofits are national in scope. Is there something special about TFA that merits direct federal funding and forces these other organizations to exclaim, "We're not worthy!"?

Frankly, I like the Administration's competitive approach. Let the cream rise to the top. That's a very American concept.


UPDATE: Here's more on the TFA funding issue from Eduwonk.

Central Falls Redux

I have to side with Rick Hess over Andy Rotherham on the question of whether the mass firing of teachers at Rhode island's Central Falls High School is a portend of things to come. In yesterday's Christian Science Monitor story, Hess calls the situation in Central Falls "a canary in a coal mine." In a blog post yesterday, Rotherham calls is "a bogus trend story."
“This will be a canary in the coal mine,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Such dramatic moves are likely to multiply as “an increasing crop of no-excuses superintendents and state commissioners” take the view that “it’s essential to clean house” to improve persistently failing schools, he says.

This Rhode Island high school situation sure seems like a bogus trend story. Turnarounds may be a trend but really dramatic moves like this seem pretty anomalous. That whale in Florida killing people seems like a more common trend than schools firing all the teachers en masse. -- Eduwonk
In a Tweet this morning, Alexander Russo sardonically notes that "'mass layoff' sounds so much worse than school 'closing' or school 'turnaround' tho they're all the same thing." Indeed.

This morning word comes from the Providence Journal blog that teachers will appeal their firings. No surprise there.

Related Post: Rhode Island District Fires All Of Its High School Teachers (2/25/2010)


UPDATE: President Obama comments on Central Falls in his prepared remarks before the America's Promise Alliance Education Event on March 1, 2010 (via TWIE, via D_Aarons).

"If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability. And that's what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th graders passed state math tests -- 7 percent."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

How can you tell if it is a school or a prison?

I read a blog ( that pointed out that schools and prisons look alike, but there is much more in common between school and prisons than their looks:

1. Students/prisoners (s/p) must stay in the place they have been assigned unless given specific permission by the guards/teachers (g/t)
2. s/p may eat only with permission of g/t
3. s/p may go to the bathroom only with permission of g/t
4. assigned tasks must be completed by s/p
5. questioning the task you have been assigned is not allowed
6. expressing a point of view contrary to the g/t about rules is not allowed
7. the g/t may humiliate an s/p at any time
8. the s/p may intimidate and terrorize other s/p s
9. all recreation is supervised by g/t at specified times
10. reading material is deemed suitable or not by g/t
11. all visitors must be vetted prior to visitation
12. failure to follow the rules will result in punishment
13. failure to behave properly may add extra time onto one’s sentence
14. approval by g/t is determined by extremely arbitrary standards
15. freedom of expression is strictly controlled
16. dress codes are strictly enforced
17. getting the g/t to like you will make your time go more easily
18. resting is not allowed
19. pursuing one’s own interests is not allowed
20. deciding you have better things to do than be in prison or school is definitely not allowed

I realize that not all prisons and school are exactly the same in all this, but you get the idea.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

More Good Decisions

Kudos to the Obama administration for nominating some very fine colleagues to the National Board of Education Sciences!

Adam Gamoran is an exemplary education leader, Deborah Ball a fantastically original dean, and Bridget Long one of the most creative thinkers on higher ed policy. Bravo.

Rhode Island District Fires All Of Its High School Teachers

Today's Providence Journal story reports that Central Falls, Rhode Island's "tiniest, poorest city has become the center of a national battle over dramatic school reform." Even the New York Times and the Washington Post have taken notice.

While firing the entire teacher corps at Central Falls High School is a dramatic step, the school board's and superintendent's decision was largely based on the district's track record of very poor student outcomes, the teachers' rejection of a reform plan ultimatum from state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist targeting the state's lowest-performing high schools, and accountability pressures from the federal Education Department. The decision is supported by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who recently weighed in on the controversy,
applauding them for “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.” Nonetheless, the impact on individual teachers is great and undoubtedly places their lives into significant turmoil and uncertainty.

Providence Journal (2/24/2010):

Duncan is requiring states, for the first time, to identify their lowest 5 percent of schools — those that have chronically poor performance and low graduation rates — and fix them using one of four methods: school closure; takeover by a charter or school-management organization; transformation which requires a longer school day, among other changes; and “turnaround” which requires the entire teaching staff be fired and no more than 50 percent rehired in the fall.

State Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist moved swiftly on this new requirement, identifying on Jan. 11 six of the “persistently lowest-performing” schools: Central Falls High School, which has very low test scores and a graduation rate of 48 percent, and five schools in Providence. Gist also started the clock on the changes, telling the districts they had until March 17 to decide which of the models they wanted to use. Her actions make Rhode Island one of the first states to publicly release a list of affected schools and put into motion the new federal mandate.
I expect that this story will be replicated elsewhere. On one hand, dramatic change IS needed in chronically low-performing schools and districts. BUT if educators and prospective educators see the wholesale firing of staff as a likely consequence in such challenging schools and districts, are they less likely to take jobs in such environments? What is the long-term consequence for such schools' and districts' ability to attract and retain high-quality teachers?

My Guv'nah Is Stronger Than Your Guv'nah

Governors are an interesting group. Always. They are not interchangeable spirits. Just think of some of the characters and personalities amidst their ranks: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rick Perry, Bill Richardson, Jennifer Granholm, Ed Rendell, Haley Barbour.

With regard to education, governors do not come to the job with equal chances to impact the policy agenda. I grew keenly aware of this when I worked for the National Governors Assoiciation (NGA) from 2001 to 2004. Some of this is due to personalities and individual capacities, such as whether they effectively use their bully pulpit and engage in policy conversations. And some is due to politics, such as whether they campaigned for office on education. But much of the reason for this variation is out of governors' control: It is due to widely varying nature of state educational governance systems.

This Education Commission of the States brief [summarized below] maps four models of state educational governance, present in 40 of the 50 states. (The other 10 states utilize hybrid models, furthering confusing the situation.) The most important fact is that ONLY 13 governors directly appoint the chief state school officer. That gives one pause in considering how empowered chief executive officers really are to tackle changes to public education. Most certainly cannot go it alone - and perhaps that's a good thing in certain ways, but it certainly doesn't produce direct reform trajectories.
Model One: The governors appoints the members of the state board of education. The state board, in turn, appoints the chief state school officer (variously called the State Superintendent, Commissioner, Education Secretary, etc.) Twelve (12) states utilize this model: Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia.

Such state systems do not provide the governors much power over education governance. They accrue it over time as they appoint state board members -- usually with staggered terms -- and eventually gain a majority if they remain in office long enough.

Model Two: In this model, the state board of education is elected and the board appoints the chief state school officer. Eight (8) states utilize this model: Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada and Utah.

Clearly, this model generates extremely weak gubernatorial control over public education, although chief executives in these states still wield the power of the purse, vetoes, and the like.

Model Three: In this model, the governor appoints the members of state board of education. The chief state school officer is elected. Eleven (11) states utilize this model: Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Wyoming.

Again, this is a governance blueprint for weak gubernatorial influence, although right-to-work states with histories of strong state influence over education -- such as North Carolina -- challenge this general assumption. Former NC Governor Jim Hunt has a lot to do with this, I believe. In his case, the power of personality transcended a weak governance structure. Differences also can be caused by differential continuums of power between state boards of education and chief state school officers.

Model Four: In this model, the governor appoints the state board of education and the chief state school officer. Nine (9) states utilize this governance model: Delaware, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia.

This would appear to be a template for strong gubernatorial control over public education, but of course it doesn't always turn out that way, depending on personalities, political choices made, and state education systems with a strong history of and preference for local control (here I'm thinking Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire). However, this group of states has certainly produced recent governors that were strong leaders in education -- Tom Kean of New Jersey, Tom Carper of Delaware, Mark Warner of Virginia, Dick Thornburgh of Pennsylvania are examples.

The remaining 10 states function under modified versions of the above four models. Models A (Louisiana and Ohio) and D (Texas) are relatively strong pro-governor structures, while Model B empowers state legislatures over governors in New York and South Carolina. Model E as implemented in Minnesota and New Mexico also provides those governors with significant power; not so much in Wisconsin, although the Badger State governor historically has had very strong veto powers. (Ever heard of the Frankenstein or Vanna White veto?)

A. Elected and Appointed State Board; Appointed Chief

In Louisiana, eight board members are elected and three are appointed by the governor. In Ohio, 11 board members are elected, while the governor appoints eight members.

B. Legislature Appoints State Board; Appointed or Elected Chief

In New York, the state legislature appoints the board members and the chief state school officer is appointed by the board. The South Carolina legislature appoints the board, but the chief is elected.

C. Joint Appointment of State Board; Appointed or Elected Chief

The governor, lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House appoint members to the state board in Mississippi. The state board appoints the chief state school officer.

In the state of Washington, the board of education is made up of 16 members ­—­ five of whom are elected by district directors (three for the western half of the state, two for the eastern); one at-large member elected by members of boards of directors of state-approved private schools; the superintendent of public instruction; seven members appointed by the governor; and two student members (non-voting). The chief state school officer is elected. Washington moved from a model whereby the state board was elected by district directors (local boards) to this model in January 2006.

D. Elected Board; Governor Appointed Chief

The governor appoints the chief state school officer who also serves as the executive secretary of the elected state board. Texas uses this model.

E. No State Board or Advisory Only; Elected or Appointed Chief

Minnesota and Wisconsin do not have a state board of education. New Mexico has an elected body (Public Education Commission), but is advisory only.

Minnesota and New Mexico – chief state school officer is appointed by governor

Wisconsinchief state school officer is elected.

As Education Week's Alyson Klein reports, in this recent blog post about the just-completed NGA winter meeting, governors of both parties are AOK with the Administration's initial movement on ESEA reauthorization. NGA Chairman and Vermont Governor Jim Douglas, however, did invoke the word 'flexibility,' which is a tried-and-true part of the NGA mantra and which is being peddled far more aggressively by the NGA's sister organization, the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In today's meeting, which was part of the National Governors Association's Winter Conference, governors voiced "zero" concerns about federal intrusion in state business when it came to the Title I proposal, Secretary Duncan said in an interview with reporters outside the White House.

"This is being lead by the governors," he said. "We have to educate our way to a better economy. All of the governors understand this."
That's all well and good. But, the fact is, that some governors' opinions matter more than others, and some, while not wholly irrelevant, are hardly decisive actors. The fact that Race to the Top has empowered governors to take the lead in education reform conversations and to lead states' applications for these competitive dollars has changed the dynamic somewhat. Because they are not directly in charge of public education in most states, however, most governors cannot expedite change along the lines that the Obama Administration is calling for without attending to building relationships, cajoling, convincing, and achieving reform one step at a time.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Childcare Crisis

As a mother of two, including a 7-week-old infant, I think about childcare constantly. Who provides the best care? How much does it cost? What's the travel time involved? Can I find an arrangement that accomodates my desire to nurse? These difficult questions are keeping me up at night, as I struggle to find a situation that works for my infant, my toddler, my husband, and (last and possibly least) me and my career.

But I'm also aware that my situation is quite good, especially when compared to others on our college campuses. The number of unmarried parenting students is rising, doubling over the last twenty years from seven to just over 13% of the undergraduate population. More than one-third of black female undergraduates nationwide are unmarried parents, and so are 21% of all Native American undergrads.

More than half (59%) of these folks are really struggling--earning less than $10,000 a year. Unbelievably, 38% earn less than $5,000 annually! They are trying to make ends meet by doing it all--raising children while both working full-time and attending college full-time. For example, national statistics indicate that in 2007-2008 three-fourths of all unmarried parents enrolled in college full-time were working at least 15 hours per week; and 30 percent were working 40 or more hours per week. This represents a dramatic change from earlier times--in 1989-1990, less than half (48%) of unmarried parents enrolled in college full-time worked at all. Given these statistics, we can't be surprised that only 5% of unmarried parenting students finish a BA within 6 years of starting college (another 12% earns an AA, and 30% earns a certificate).

We could do so much more to support these men and women, and we have to start by providing affordable, accessible on-campus childcare. Fully 25% of unmarried parenting students have unmet financial need of $11,500 or more-- approximately the same amount that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates it costs to raise a child under age 5 each year.

While surveys consistently indicate that a lack of high-quality, affordable, on-campus childcare prevents full engagement in college life, only half of all institutions of postsecondary education provide any form of childcare on campus, and most are over-enrolled. In fact, national data indicate a severe shortage of campus childcare centers--with existing resources meetings only one-tenth of the demand. This is particularly true when it comes to infant care--only about one-third of campus childcare centers accept infants. At the same time, federal support for the Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program (the sole federal funder of such centers) declined by 40 percent (to just $15 million) between 2002 and 2009. According to calculations by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, this means an allocation of just $8 per family headed by a parenting student. That's just appalling.

Parents who try and juggle too much often end up stressed out, and stressed out adults don't make for the best parents. This is a no-brainer--support these parents and not only will they complete their own degrees, but their children will also benefit--and be more likely to grow up to earn college diplomas of their own.

*** The statistics in this post come from a paper authored by UW-Madison graduate student Kia Sorensen and myself, to appear in the journal Future of Children this fall.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Is this really any surprise given an education accountability system that grades performance and issues sanctions based on a single indicator: student test scores?

Hat tip: This Week in Education

Maryland's Taoiseach Proposes Reform

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and state school Superintendent Nancy Grasmick can finally agree on one thing: O'Malley's proposal to make the state competitive for Race to the Top round two.

Score one for Grasmick? Before Maryland decided not to apply in the first round of the Race to the Top competition -- making it one of only 10 states not to -- O'Malley said that no legislative changes were needed, while Grasmick insisted that they were if Maryland was to submit an application that had a snowball's chance in hell of being successful.

It looks like the Governor has come around. The Baltimore Sun reports that the Governor "wants to add a year to the time it takes public school teachers to achieve tenure and to tie their performance evaluations to data on how well their students are doing" and that Grasmick is "very happy."

A draft of the governor's Education Reform Act of 2010 shows that it includes:
•Lengthening the teacher tenure track from two to three years.

•Requiring that schools provide mentors to new teachers who are in danger of not achieving tenure.

•Making data on student growth a "significant component" of teacher evaluations, one of "multiple measures."

•Providing incentive pay (contingent upon Race to the Top funding) for "highly effective" teachers and principals who serve the bottom 5% of lowest-achieving public schools.
But will the Legislature agree? That remains to be seen, but the fact that the Governor and the state Superintendent could agree -- and that the proposal is supported by the state teachers' unions -- bodes well.

Monday, February 15, 2010

How the U of Alabama at Huntsville murder story highlights the disaster that is our university system

In my last column I discussed the problems caused by our notion that universities must be populated by researchers who are working on finding out new things and publishing about those things, instead of seriously teaching.
If it takes a murder to make clear what the problem is, then consider the case of Amy Bishop “a Harvard-educated biology professor who felt she had unfairly been denied tenure,” who recently murdered her colleagues at the University of Alabama, Huntsville.
The Chronicle of Higher Education says that “The dean of the chemistry department, William N. Setzer, described Ms. Bishop as smart but weird. As for why she had been turned down for tenure, Mr. Setzer said he had heard that her publication record was thin and that she hadn't secured enough grants. Also, there were concerns about her personality, he said. In meetings, Mr. Setzer remembered, she would go off on "bizarre" rambles about topics not related to tasks at hand—"left-field kind of stuff," he said.”
I have been on enough tenure committees to know that the real reason she was turned down for tenure was that people thought she was nuts. But that is really unimportant. Why does it matter that a faculty member have a publication record at a university that is very far from being one of the top research universities in the country? Why do students at such a school need to be taught by Harvard PhDs whose specialty is neuroscience when they are studying biology?
Students at schools like this study biology prior to going into a field in the health sciences because they are required to do so. Why does it matter that their teachers have a research track record in a specialty that in no way relates to the needs of the students? Why do we keep pretending that every university in the U.S is a serious research university? When do we start demanding a curriculum and teachers who teach things that students actually will need to know how to do in their future lives? Can’t we just let Harvard and Yale etc train researchers and let the other schools train citizens?
According to the Chronicle: Nick Lawton, the son of Professor called her a competent lecturer who was willing to help students who needed it. But her teaching was "not inspired."
Her teaching is not once mentioned as a possible reasons for her tenure denial because I am sure it was hardly even considered. Who cares if a professor at a teaching institution is any good at teaching? Not the system. What they care about, even at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, is how many grants she had gotten and how many papers she had published.
The system is so stupid it is beyond comprehension.
People all over the country are reading about this situation and I think they need to understand the underlying real issue. Yes there are crazy people who do crazy things. But the system encourages professors to worry about all the wrong things. The idea that all professors must publish and get grants creates awful teachers, and irrelevant courses, and unhappy students, (as well as some really miserable professors.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


This post isn't specifically about education, but the lack of political comity in Washington these days will impact the prospects for solidifying education reform and reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (not in 2010, maybe in 2011 or 12, if ever)....

I finished reading the late Senator Ted Kennedy's autobiography, True Compass, on the plane ride back home from California yesterday. It reminded me that Teddy Kennedy was no blind partisan. Sure, he called Republicans on the carpet when they deserved it and campaigned vociferously for fellow Democrats, including President Obama. But he also looked for bipartisan opportunities to pass legislation to strengthen education and further social justice. His work on the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) with two different Presidents Bush are testament to his legislative accomplishment and his focus -- especially in the latter part of his career -- on being a policymaker first and a partisan firebrand second. His Senate colleagues, Democrat and Republican, agreed. But he also leaves a legislative legacy in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Family and Medical Leave Act (1993), his work with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to expand SCHIP, and his tireless effort which resulted in the Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act of 2009.

Sadly, Kennedy seems to represent a bygone era. There are too few honest brokers left in Congress, willing to reach across the aisle and put in the hard work to build something rather than destroy it. Among the 535 congresspersons and senators, sure there are some legislative diehards. But there aren't enough of them. And they are overshadowed in our modern, media-driven politics by the bomb throwers, would-be (and actual) talk radio hosts, rhetorical empty vessels, obstructionists, partisan extortionists, and finger-to-the-wind moderate extortionists.

Being a hard-working legislator doesn't seem to pay off, at least not politically.

In a quest for ideological purity, the Republican Party currently seems most interested in purging its elected officials who dare even speak to members of the other party, let alone hug them. Just ask Lindsay Graham or Susan Collins -- or Florida Governor and U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Crist. Currently, congressional Republicans are staking their immediate political future on a legislative strategy that consists of little more than just saying 'no' and obstructing nominations and votes in the U.S. Senate. Now, Democrats certainly have been complicit of similar conduct in the past, but far more selectively and less brazenly, I believe the congressional record will attest to. Sadly, this political strategy appears to be working, at least for the moment.

Sarah Palin may be the personal embodiment of this ethos. She chose to quit as Alaska Governor in July 2009. Strangely, in the current political context, while seemingly disingenuous and typically unintelligible, her comments actually make a bizarre kind of sense, despite the fact she might run for President (which would be a title, wouldn't it?)
I’ll work hard.... But I won’t do it from the governor’s desk. I’ve never believed that I nor anyone else needs a title to do this, to make a difference, to help people.
Short of changing Senate rules (an unlikely band-aid, at best), I am not sure that there is an easy solution to changing the current political culture in Washington or in much of America. What really needs to happen is for the American people to stand up and demand that their elected officials do their jobs, legislate, and focus on the nation's problems, dealing honestly with disagreements on the issues. Perhaps the President's proposed health care summit will provide a narrow opportunity to do that. Perhaps more attention need be paid to "Congress behaving badly" stories to shame them into changing their ways.

But we can't rely on summits and exposés to deal with all of the problems and issues that need addressing. The whole political dynamic needs to change, as James Fallows argues in the January/February 2010 Atlantic magazine and in this blog post. Summon the spirit and example of Teddy Kennedy! Some how, some way, the bipartisanship that existed in generations past needs to be reborn. In the end, it is going to come down to the leadership of the folks in power, to build and leverage personal relationships with their colleagues in the other party -- some risking thoughtless and unfair political recriminations in doing so -- to make life better for the American people.

But on this score, sadly, I'm just not all that optimistic.

UPDATE: Neither is Senator Evan Bayh apparently....

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

“What’s new here?”: how academic research has ruined our education system

I gave a speech in Barcelona last week. (Actually I gave a lot of speeches in Barcelona last week.) In one that was meant for the general public, at least I thought that that was who was in the audience, I was asked a question about what was new in what I had said. I was speaking about the new experiential MBA program we are developing for La Salle University, in Barcelona, which will be soon available as on an on line web mentored degree program. And, I was talking about the 16 cognitive processes that need to be mastered in order to think and how they are used in our new MBA. A member of the audience, who identified himself as a professor at a local university, asked “what is new here?” The question took me aback. Last I heard, the world was offering classrooms, lectures, tests, and courses as a way of teaching people, not degree programs that were entirely on line project-based learning in a story centered curriculum. I had no idea how to respond. The question was beyond absurd. My colleague, Sebastian Barajas, who had presented before me and speaks the local language, jumped in and answered the question. I was relying upon simultaneous translation and got most of what was said but not all. Whatever he responded however, was not sufficient to quiet this man and he came back again with more or less the same question. I responded without mercy. Needless to say, impolite behavior is not well loved in Europe. No one who knows me has ever thought of me as being especially polite, but my response was over the top, even for me.

A flurry of twitters and blog chatter (in Spanish) later erupted about this, for example see:

The summary for those who don’t want to subject themselves to the awfulness of “Google translate” is that some people like me and some don’t -- no surprise. But, what I learned from this blog is that the audience was made up of academics, not the general public, as I had thought.

I had wondered about my own overreaction. I attributed it the fact that I was quite ill at the time having eaten something bad the day before. But after reading the blog I realized what the real issue was and felt the need to write this rather long column.

This is what infuriated me. The question he asked is exactly the question that has killed off our schools. Now it is a long road to my point here, so please bear with me.

Jonathan Cole, the former provost of Columbia University, and a man whom I like and admire, has recently written a book about the research universities in the U.S. that was reviewed in the New York Times on Sunday:

I haven’t read the book, just the review, but I am hardly surprised by, nor do I disagree with, the idea that the research universities in the U.S. are a great treasure and we should endeavor to take care of them. But, that having been said, it is the fault of the research universities that our education system is so awful. And, it is the question “what’s new here” that is the essence of the problem.

Here is what occurs in research universities. Students write PhD theses that are supposed to be original research in their field of choice. I have supervised over 50 PhD theses myself and have read and advised on many more. I am familiar with the process and understand what is wrong with it. This is it:

Think about how many PhD theses are produced each year around the world. Thousands? Tens of thousands? How many of these can really be original (much less be important)? Original is defined as something no one ever wrote before in an area of research. So there are many PhD theses, particularly in Europe, that are simply examinations of what other people have said over the years together with a point of view. Even in the best science universities, PhD theses are often about minutiae so incomprehensible that no one, not even the graduate student who wrote them, will ever look at them again. There are interesting PhD theses of course, but they are few and far between. The old joke
is that a PhD thesis is a paper written by the supervising professor under very difficult conditions.

Why do I mention this? Because it turns out, that the man who had asked this question has just written a PhD thesis in which he had examined various education theories and his conclusion was that since my work is derivative of Plato and Socrates and Dewey, something I am quite proud of by the way, then it wasn’t presenting any new theory, and therefore was not worthy of serious consideration. This is kind of like asking, in a disdainful way, at an unveiling of the new 787, “what is new in theory of flight” here? Only a newly minted PhD would even think such a thing. Real world applications and innovative changes matter a lot.

But in the academic world, the questions are always about theories, and applications are looked down upon, which is odd because no one asks Google what is new here (the answer is not much since the 1950s) but it sure has changed our lives.

Research universities produce PhD students who do original work. This would be just fine and dandy if there were just a few research universities and teaching was not affected by this process. But, while there are maybe 25 serious research universities in the U.S., there are hundreds that think they are research universities and because of that there is pressure for the faculty to do research and publish research. That pressure and that focus is the cause of the awful education system we have in place today around the world. Let me explain.

I will tell about a friend of mine, named Bill Purves. I met Bill Purves when he came to work as a post-doc at my Artificial Intelligence Lab at Yale. (He was a professor of Biology at the time. He has since retired.) People apply to work in prestigious labs all the time, but it is odd to find a biologist who wants to study AI. I was intrigued so I agreed to host him. He had a PhD from Yale and I thought he might just be feeling nostalgic for his old haunts. He had been a professor at what you might call secondary research universities. There are 3000 colleges in the U.S. and the top few hundred at least are trying very hard to act as if they are Harvard and Yale. They hire professors with PhDs from Harvard and Yale who then teach their students what they learned at those places. To put this another way, while the students who go to a state university expect to learn job skills they are being taught research skills and theories which is all that their research university trained professors actually know.

Bill’s research area had to do with some arcane feature of cucumbers. He had been doing work on cucumbers for over 30 years at that point. He wasn’t coming to visit me to learn more about cucumbers.

Bill had recently moved to a more teaching oriented college and had begun to worry about how people learn. We worked on learning at our lab so he came to learn what we knew. But it was pretty unusual to encounter a professor who did research who was so worried about teaching. Professors at research universities are more typically concerned with teaching their PhD students (via the apprenticeship method) than they are with lecturing to undergraduates. They pay their dues by teaching so that they can do their real job - which is research. This is a very common attitude at the research universities.

I am not criticizing here. That was how I felt as well. My job entailed some teaching but was not really teaching. Professors at research universities think about their real work and teach about their real work. This is fine as long as they are training future researchers. They can criticize their students and each other about whether new research being presented is good work and they can compete for getting their papers published and their presentations at conferences taken seriously. But really, do you think that Bill's students in his biology classes cared about cucumbers?

This is a real problem, Students are taught about what interests the professor but what interests the professor bears little relationship to what students came to college to learn. They might want to be psychological counselors but they will be taught about experimental research methods. They may want to become writers but they will be taught about literary theory. They may want to become doctors but they will have to learn about cucumbers, at least they will if a cucumber specialist is teaching the biology course.

Now Bill was not like this at all. In fact he came to Northwestern when I moved there for a another post-doc year to learn more about what we were doing in building courses on the computer. Eventually he became the lead designer in our high school on line health sciences course. You can see him introducing biology here:

But Bill is a rare bird. He fundamentally cares about students. Now I am not saying that professors don’t care about students. I am simply saying they care about their research more. If students attend a research university they should know the truth. But Yale and Harvard don’t really explain the research orientation in a way that would help incoming undergraduates to grasp its significance.

I am not concerned about Ivy league students, however. They get a good education any way you look at it. But if every professor in every major university is playing the same game, then students at, for example, the University of Illinois, ought to know that every one of their professors cares more about research than they do about teaching. Students are not told anything like that. This matters because it means that the “what’s new here?” standard of assessing work will emphasize theory over practice every time. Since colleges hire professors trained by research instructions, every university is dominated by an issue that distracts from good teaching. Students want job skills and professors teach rearach skills.

This is why I was furious at this question. 2000 years ago Petronius asked why Roman schools taught so little of what would be useful in everyday life. Nothing has changed precisely because it is intellectuals and not practitioners who dominate the teaching landscape. Students are forced to learn things they have no interest in, in order to get college degrees.

In then end that is why we built a new MBA program. Even MBA programs emphasize theory over practice! This may sound hard to believe but professors in a business school also tend to have PhDs from Harvard and Yale and may never have actually run a business themselves. This is why I was asked to design a new learn by doing MBA program by La Salle. It is a program designed to upset the status quo. No courses, no theories, simply learning how to do what business people do.

What is new there? If this had already been done we wouldn’t have done it. It is new in the same way as the 787 is new. It is useful and important because it changes the way education works, not because it presents a new theory.

We must fight against the university professors who wish to dominate the discussion of what education should be like. Research professors should be encouraged to do research but do there really need to be so many of them? 25 research universities is a fine number for the U.S. Spain should have maybe one. But if every professor feels obliged to publish more about his work on cucumbers the world loses its best teachers. Bill Purves understands that and he devoted the end of his career to teaching -- not to cucumbers.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Live from San Jose

Tomorrow I'll be Twittering from the New Teacher Center's 12th National Symposium in San Jose, California.

Tuesday's agenda features a morning keynote panel on measuring teacher effectiveness. Panelists include Terry Holliday, Kentucky Commissioner of Education; Brad Jupp, Senior Program Advisor, Teacher Effectiveness and Quality, U.S. Department of Education; and Tom Kane, Professor of Education & Economics, Harvard University and Deputy Director for Education, Gates Foundation. It is moderated by my intrepid NTC colleague, Eric Hirsch.

Today, keynoters include Linda Darling-Hammond and Richard Rothstein, but my schedule likely won't allow me to have my thumbs affixed to my phone or laptop during their presentations.

To follow me, here is the link to my Twitter account.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Winners & Losers

Eduflack offers up a first-rate post today on the winners and losers in the education portion of the President's FY2011 budget.

Claus von Zastrow issues a wise caution regarding federal funding for professional development (UPDATE: as well as a second thought).

The New York Times's Sam Dillon and the National Journal's Eliza Krigman (hat tip: Eduwonk) have the scoop on implications for Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization.

The budget is just at the first step and Congress has yet to have its say. Likewise, I wouldn't bet on reauthorization this election year (yep, congressional elections are only nine months away!). 2011? 2012? Anyone? UPDATE: Here is what the Education Experts at the National Journal's blog think.

Spin Cycle

Education Next apparently has provided a platform for school choice advocate George Mitchell to shill for voucher schools outside of the state of Wisconsin. Here is his latest spin on a study that shows the high school graduation rate to be 12 points higher in seven Milwaukee voucher schools compared with 23 Milwaukee public high schools.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story by Erin Richards provides the crucial quote regarding causation from the study's author, John Robert Warren, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota:

"We still don't know whether it's going to the voucher school that causes you to be more likely to graduate, or if it's something about the kinds of families that send their kids to voucher schools would make them more likely to graduate," he said.

Then there's the whole question of which and how the voucher and public high schools were chosen for purposes of comparison. More questions than answers. Unlike Mitchell, I neither see this report as providing "another piece of evidence suggesting that urban students benefit when afforded more educational options," nor "new data" to encourage President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan to take "a second look at the power of parent choice."

The study was funded by the voucher-advocacy group School Choice Wisconsin, run by Mitchell's wife, Susan. The Mitchells have split from national school choice leader Howard Fuller who is devoting his current efforts to furthering accountability and quality in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

After the spin cycle, be sure to rinse.

For past perspective on Voucher Inc, please visit here.