Secretary of Education

George Orwell coined the term Newspeak. An aspect of Newspeak is Doublespeak in which language is often used to mean its opposite. We have seen this come to play in our times in many ways—missiles called “Peacekeeper,” being one of the most infamous. In education, the recent example is the “No Child Left Behind” Act (NCLB), which is leaving more and more children behind educationally. Now it is being used against Linda Darling-Hammond, a possible pick for Obama’s Secretary of Education. “Reformers” are those who want to keep to the policies of NCLB, and anti-reformers are those who want to break with them in this new twist on language.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford, was one of the main educational advisors and spokespeople for Obama during the campaign, and has been leading the transition team. In contrast to Dr. Darling-Hammond, possible picks include several who run large city school districts: Arne Duncan, superintendent of Chicago’s public schools, Joel Klein, Chancellor of New York City’s school system, and Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school system.

In the press, Dr. Darling-Hammond is being labeled as too “status quo” and the other named possibilities as being the “real” reformers. This to me appears immensely ironic. Dr. Darling-Hammond has spent her career working for improving education for poor and minority students (she is herself African American). This has meant a constant battle with policy makers and school leaders, creating reforms on multiple fronts and multiple levels, ones that went against long standing traditions of education in this country. For much of her career, going back at least to her days in New York City with Teachers College, she worked to support the small schools movement and more autonomy for such schools in a system made up of high schools that often have many thousands of students, and were run (and is still run) in a very top down fashion. The small schools movement in New York City, that she was part of starting, has shown remarkable results with low-income and minority students in study after study. The autonomy and sustainability of these schools to has been enormously undermined by “real” reformer Joel Klein, the chancellors of the New York City public schools. More than one of those schools has ceased to exist despite their success, due to the Klein administration.

In Connecticut, Darling-Hammond created new standards for assessing teachers, based on high levels of performance assessment methods, which again have been shown to be successful there in raising teacher quality. The new “reformers” would rather use standardized test scores to measure teacher competency.

At Stanford University, Darling-Hammond has continued her advocacy for poor minority students. She has been a constant critic of NCLB, while the other “reformers” are willing to accept the premise of this act as a valid way to measure schools teachers and students. As in Connecticut, she was involved in creating a performance-based assessment system for credentialing teachers in California. Among her efforts to support teacher quality through capacity building was her involvement in creating the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Not one to work only at state and national levels, at the local level she founded two charter schools, one high school and one elementary school in East Palo Alto, a very poor community that went 25 years without its own high school. Both of these schools were founded on the small school, democratic and constructivist principles, to serve poor minority children. None of these types of reforms have ever been popular among the status quo for use with poor minority children. (These new reformers push policies that reinforce drill and kill rote learning for the most needy students.) At Stanford, she developed the School Redesign Network to support efforts across the nation of local schools and districts who are trying to create smaller learning communities.

On what do they try to base these attacks? Her being a successful academic makes her seen as suspect in a country that is highly anti-intellectual. Part of this comes from the fact that, as a professor, she believes strongly in accurate research. She is both a researcher herself, and an avid and critical reader of the research. She will not support reforms that research shows to be ineffective or counter effective, which is true of some of the reforms posed by some of the other names.

That she does not favor their “reforms,” in particular is probably the main problem. For instance, she has not been a supporter of Teach for America (TfA), one of Rhee’s pet projects. Darling-Hammond dared to examine and report on the actual research on TfA in a less than favorable light. Teach for America has therefore started an offensive against her appointment.

Her support for teachers themselves and their unions is another main criticism. For many reformers, those teachers who have to carry out these reforms are seen as the enemy. This goes along with the general attack on the working class, akin to blaming the auto workers for the failure of the American auto industry to compete. (Look whom our government bailed out—the Wall Street rich, but the auto workers and homeowners are left on their own.) The three above named so-called reformers are among those who see teachers as the problem, rather than the solution, to our schools’ difficulties.

The alternative reform of these three large school district leaders? All three have fought for authoritarian power. Klein, for instance dismantled the New York City School Board and the local semi-autonomous school districts. In the name of making teachers accountable, he is accountable to no one. The idea of these new “reformers” is more reliance on high stakes test scores to measure both students and teachers. Such tests reinfoce rote learning and drill and kill teaching methods. Despite fifty plus years of using such tests and teaching methods with the poor, they have never shown any lasting positive results. The data from any of these districts is less than promising under the leadership of these three.

Not only are the reforms of these so-called reformers unproven, they are highly anti-democratic. They rely on those at the highest levels making the decisions and then using rewards and punishments to insure compliance. It is likely that if any these reformers have national power, they will advance polices that promote top-down mandates, more testing and anti-teacher measures.

This is again in strong contrast to Linda Darling-Hammond, who has been a strong advocate for democratizing schools. She believes instead in giving teachers and local schools the tools, support and professional development to succeed. This is known as capacity building. It is based on the idea that teachers do want their students to succeed, and that those closest to the children are in the best position to know how to succeed, given that those people have the resources and knowledge to do so.

While believing in high standards, Darling-Hammond argues that the measure of success cannot be found in multiple choice tests, either of teachers or of students, but must be found in assessments that authentically measure the skills, abilities and knowledge that we actually want out teachers and students to have. She has spent a career developing and promoting such assessment tools.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have as Secretary of Education someone who was both one of the most respected researchers in educational reform, knowledgeable about the research on school reform, and experienced at successfully carrying out many of those reforms and both local and state levels? And an African American woman to boot!

Will Computers Free Teachers to Teach More Creatively?

At a party of a friend recently I got into a discussion with someone about education and the use of computer technology. The person I was conversing with suggested that educational software could and should be developed to relieve teachers of the technical aspects of teaching. Why should each teacher have to figure out how to teach reading or arithmetic when the best minds could solve that problem and create a computer program to teach the children these basic skills? Having software relieve teachers of this technical aspect of teaching, he argued, would free teachers to do the work that needed human interaction—teaching critical and creative thinking. I would like to use this column to explore why this suggestion makes me uncomfortable.

In some ways I agree with this fellow. The main problem in education is not the difficulty of teaching children to read or do arithmetic. Despite claims to the contrary, virtually no student leaves school illiterate. Our students may not be as literate as we would like, but students who truly cannot decode text and do accurate arithmetic are rare outside of classes for the severely disabled. And such failures have only gotten rarer over each decade (1). I agree with him as well that an inordinate amount of time and professional development is spent on the training of the technical aspects of how to teach reading and arithmetic skills more effectively and at an earlier age. The main point we agree upon is that helping students to learn to use their minds well, in critical and creative ways, is given far too little attention in the large majority of classrooms. This is especially true in classrooms serving low-income and minority students. Due to the fact that these students generally do less well on standardized tests, the schools that serve them are pressured to focus on raising those test scores. Most of these schools rely on teacher-centered direct instruction focused on discrete skills to achieve this.

His solution of using computerized instruction of basic skills to free the teacher to do the work of teaching critical and creative thinking is based on a couple of assumptions. One assumption is that if this software actually did efficiently teach these skills, teachers would engage in the critical and creative teaching we both believe is necessary. Is that what would happen? There is certainly no guarantee that teachers would be allowed, much less encouraged to use their time that way. It assumes that those who decide how teachers may use their time want teachers to do those other things. What could happen instead is that teachers, as professionals, are seen as superfluous. Since the computers are doing the “real” teaching, teachers become monitors whose job is to ensure that the students are sitting at the computer doing what they are supposed to be doing. I have actually seen after-school programs that run this way, using adults who are not trained or certified as teachers to oversee the students as they engage in such computer reading or math programs.

To counter this, I argue that we do not need to focus on developing or advocating for such software (and in any case, such software is rapidly being developed by the multi-billion dollar educational publishing industry which spares no expense in advocating for its usefulness). What we need to do is advocate for the second half—the focus on creative and critical thinking for the purpose of developing democratic citizens. There is a real lack of movement in that direction in the public schools. According to the mainstream media the purpose of education is about raising test scores to create a competitive workforce for the global economy. (And what does competitive mean? Best skilled? Or willing to work for the lowest wages?). Even if this first assumption is true, that software could be more efficient in the technical aspect of teaching, the second part is unlikely to become true until we change the perception of the purpose of schooling. That won’t happen without some strong grassroots advocacy since it challenges the status quo.

Another assumption of the software solution is that one can divorce the technical aspects of learning from the emotional, motivational, critical and creative aspects. This is a more fundamental difference in learning theory. What is known as Critical Learning Theory, as developed by Paolo Freire and others, argues that the technical aspects cannot be separated from these other factors (2). This theory claims that the context of our learning, the content of the curriculum, and the power relationships over who decides what and how we learn, are part of the learning itself. When we learn to read by being put in front of a computer, we are learning about what the purpose of reading is. The content of the material teaches us what and who is considered important. If the ideas and content of what is read or learned about are not discussed, the child has no guidance and help in making meaning of it. Constructivist learning theory (as developed by Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky) shows us that learning is a process of making sense of the world based on one’s actions and interactions with the environment. This theory tells us that we learn skills best in the context of meaningful and purposeful activities. We learned to speak and walk, not by being explicitly taught to do so. Rather, we learned to talk because we had something we wanted to communicate and were surrounded by people who were doing so, and who helped us to do so, in a non-coercive environment. We learned to walk because we wanted to get somewhere—to have more freedom to explore our environment, again in the company of others who already knew how to walk, and were willing to offer assistance when we wanted it. Maybe this is true of all learning—that it is most efficient to learn to read, write and do arithmetic, as well as to learn to have strong democratic habits of mind, by having reasons that are meaningful and purposeful to the student in the company of others who can model and assist them as they learn. Am I talking pie in the sky? Let us examine the evidence.

What is the evidence for the efficacy of using software to teach basic skills? There is currently mixed evidence with some research showing no gains, and other research showing some short term gains, in reading and math scores for some students (3). There is no long term evidence as of yet.

In contrast, progressive schools based on constructivist principals of learning have a track record. The famous Eight Year Study (4) demonstrated its effectiveness at the high school level as far back as the 1930s. Contemporary examples such as Central Park East in New York City (5), Mission Hill in Boston (6), the Shutesbury Elementary School in Massachusetts (7) and many others have been extremely successful with children of all walks of life, over the long term. These schools avoid scripted curriculum and use a minimum of teacher-centered—or software-centered—instruction. They maximize the time students are engaged in projects that have a purpose beyond getting a grade from the teacher. They allow students to be the active agents in the learning process, in charge of much of the “what and how” of the learning. It is creating more of such schools and classrooms that I believe needs our advocacy and support. A focus on technological solutions may distract of from this larger purpose.


  1. Richard Rothstein, The Way We Were? The Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement (New York: The Century Foundation Press, 1998).
  2. Joan Wink, Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World, Third Edition (Longman, 2005).
  3. Andrew Trotter, “Major Study on Software Stirs Debate,” Education Week, April 11, 2007, pp. 1, 18.
  4. Wilford M. Aiken, The Story of the Eight-Year Study (New York: Harper and Row, 1942).
  5. David Bensman, Central Park East and Its Graduates: Learning By Heart (New York: Teachers College Press, 2000).
  6. Deborah Meier, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002).
  7. Ron Berger, An Ethic of Excellence (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).

New City School

In my role as professor, I often supervise student teachers in schools serving some of the most disadvantaged students. For the most part, such education has been reduced to scripted curriculum that turns learning into a lifeless chore for students and teachers alike. I especially find it appalling to enter kindergartens, where I see these young children engaged in either whole class teacher centered instruction, or individual worksheets at their desks for the large majority of the day. All those things that the author of “Everything I need to know, I Learned in Kindergarten” learned are no longer being taught, in our rush to start our children on what we call “academics.” There is no time for creativity, children following their interests, learning to be social beings, or the engaging in the real work of childhood, which is play. Only the future will tell us what the cost of this will be to the next generation.

However, I actually am writing this column to talk about a school visit that renewed my spirit of what is possible! This was an impormptu visit last June to one of my favorite schools. On a vacation to visit friends and family in southern California, my wife and I were driving past Long Beach, when I suddenly blurted excitedly to my wife, “Can we stop here and see my friend’s school?” My wife agreed, somewhat reluctantly, as she has little interest in the topic of education, and few positive memories of her own schooling. I called up my friend, Stephanie Lee, the director of this small charter school in downtown Long Beach. She was more than happy to let us visit.

The New City School, or actually 2 sister schools now, are a pair of two-way immersion (Spanish-English) democratically run small charter schools (K-8), with multi-graded classrooms, and team teaching, using a project-based, constructivist approach to learning. With students from all walks of life, and a large proportion being from low-income Latino families, it represents virtually all the ideas I respect and admire in education.

Their new site, which I had not visited before, is a converted factory floor. The largely open space has mostly partial walls dividing the “classrooms,” with a couple of closed off rooms for particularly noisy or particularly quiet activities. The office is the old office of the factory, which looks down from above on the goings on below from its glassed in window, letting one see all the buzz of exciting activity. In walking around the school, we saw children engaged in projects of all sorts, from making life-sized anatomical drawings of the human body, to creating model cars. Each of the projects had some sort of “academic” aspect, often a written product, to demonstrate the learning of subject area content, and acknowledging that students did need to learn to become proficient in academic writing. Every wall was covered with creative works, arts and crafts. Wherever we went, students were busily engaged in work they cared about, and that had a purpose to them. My wife was amazed that this could be done in a public school, and was now glad she had agreed to come along. She loves music and dance, and was really excited to watch a group of kindergartners engaged in a hip hop dance routine as part of their elective in the afternoon as they learned their second language (dominant English speakers choose activities that took place in Spanish and vice versa).

While recognizing that standardized tests are not accurate measures of meaningful learning, they have managed to do what they need to do to keep their scores high enough to not fall under the thumb of state or federal sanctions. This is more than can be said for most of the schools I visit who use the scripted curriculums specifically designed to raise such test scores, yet still end up missing their targets. The success of The New City School has meant that they have a waiting list as big as the school (which was why they opened a second campus). Since under the requirements of NCLB and the State of California, the required scores are a moving target (each year the scores requirements are raised), how long they can sustain this is anyone’s guess. But for the meantime, this is one school where children are learning that education can be meaningful and worthwhile, and that it can allow for creativity, social learning, and be done in an environment where people treat each other with respect.

If you are in Long Beach, you might see if you can get a chance to visit! It restores my faith in what education can be. Maybe it could do the same for you!

Reading First

[Click here for the full version of this article as published in Critical Literacy Vol. 3, No.2]

A front page article in Education Week  (May 7, 2008) proclaims that “Reading First Doesn’t Help Pupils ‘Get It.'” This assessment is based on the U.S. Department of Education’s Reading First Impact Report. For those of you who are not aware, Reading First is a Federally funded grant program for “failing” school districts that use textbooks approved by the Federal government as being based on “scientifically based reading instruction.” What makes it scientifically based? That it presumably follows the advice of the National Reading Panel. The question becomes, why haven’t such programs shown effectiveness if they are scientifically based?

It turns out that where these reading programs are failing is in the area of “reading comprehension.” The report documents that schools using the program are increasing their use of the recommended practices. These programs do appear to help at so called decoding skills. However, the use of these recommended practices and these gains in decoding skills do not appear to translate into improvements in actual reading—that is, making meaning of text. Those who actually read the Reading Panel’s report should not be surprised. The fact is that the report did not have any evidence that the recommended strategies would help in reading comprehension. The only “scientifically based evidence” the panel found was that a limited amount of systematic phonics and phonemic awareness instruction would raise scores on tests of phonics and phonemic awareness for “regular” beginner readers(1). Just as in the evidence from the programs used in the field, there was no evidence in the Reading Panel’s report that such practices improved reading comprehension.

That advancement of such skills would raise actual reading ability is based on a theory of reading that is in fact quite controversial among reading researchers and specialists. Many of the foremost reading researchers, theorists and specialists have always contended that only a minimal amount of “skills-based” teaching is helpful, and that reading is most effectively learned through… reading(2)! (With support and help from those who already know how.) Moreover, the Reading Panel report found evidence for even this limited effectiveness of the skills-based approach only for students who were not shown to be problem readers, have learning difficulties nor to be second language learners. Yet these Reading First programs are often used for students of all types. In California, teachers are often mandated to use these programs in schools serving overwhelmingly Latino students whose dominant language is Spanish—in the name of scientifically–based curriculum. These skills–based strategies are applied in these programs for a much larger proportion of the teaching day than the research supports (more than a minimal amount is overkill—it’s like trying to pour more water into an already full glass). And at grades that the research has no evidence for effectiveness (the research on these approaches only looked at first or second grade). Students, whether they are already reading fluently for meaning or not, at all grade levels, are spending hours every week on decoding and phonics skills in these programs.

A friend of mine teaches kindergarten at one of these Reading First schools. The school is made up of over 90% Latino students. On the phone with her just the other day, she was telling me how they are constantly advised to examine the data on the students (another educational buzzword currently popular is “data-driven instruction”). She tells me that she is all for examining and basing instruction on data about her students. In fact the school spends considerable staff development time doing just that—examining the scores of the students so they know just where each student is. She can tell you exactly where each of her students measures up on all of the assessments which are carried out at the end of each six-week unit. Yet then she is told to keep all the students on the same page at the same time, and that she should not deviate from the script in the textbook (see, we’re not leaving them behind, they are on the same page as all the other students!). So what good does it do her to have this data? This practice ignores the research on the uselessness of teaching above students level of understanding(3). If you move on when students don’t get it, they certainly aren’t going to get the next lesson which builds on knowledge from the previous lessons, especially in a skills–based approach(4)! Her story of being mandated to use a one-size-fits-all approach is one I see and hear repeatedly from many of the student teachers and the experienced teachers I work with as a professor of teacher education, particularly those working with low-income minority children.

One of the worst problems of such programs is that they not only ignore the expertise that teachers bring to teaching their actual students—they try to prohibit it! Good teachers have always known that different children learn in different ways. Anyone who has taught knows that. Any parent with more than one child knows that. Good teaching is about figuring out that way for each student. If we really want to “Leave No Child Behind,” we have to stop tying teachers hands with scripted one-size-fits-all programs. We must allow them to do what they are trained to do, and spend a career getting better at—figuring out how the actual students sitting in front of them learn, and adapt their teaching to the students, not the other way around! (Which is part of the argument for small class sizes, but that’s another topic).

[Click here for the full version of this article as published in Critical Literacy Vol. 3, No.2]


1. Elaine M. Garan, “What Does the Report of the National Reading Panel Really Tell Us About Teaching Phonics.” Language Arts 79, no.1 (2001): 61-71.

2. Edward A. Chittenden, Terry S. Salinger, and Ann M. Bussis, Inquiry into Meaning: An Investigation of Learning to Read (New York: Teachers College Press, 2001). Gerald Coles, Misreading Reading: The Bad Science That Hurts Children (Heinemann, 2000); Kenneth S. Goodman, In Defense Of Good Teaching: What Teachers Need to Know about the “Reading Wars” (York, Me: Stenhouse Publishers, 1998); Stephen D. Krashen, Three Arguments against Whole Language & Why They Are Wrong (Heinemann, 1999); Jeff McQuillan, Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions (Heinemann, 1998); and Frank Smith, Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read. 6th ed. (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004).

3. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney L. Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000); and Linda Darling-Hammond, Barbara Low, Bob Rossbach, and Jay Nelson. The Learning Classroom: Theory into Practice (Burlington, VT: Annenberg/CPB, 2003).

4. James H. Block & Robert B. Burns, “Mastery Learning.” Review of the Research in Education, 4 (1976) 3-49; and J. Ronald Gentile & James P. Lalley, Standards and Mastery Learning (Corwin Press, 2003).