School Deform

Regarding the current moves of so called school “reform” at the national level. The aspect of this is toward a nationally standardized curriculum (i.e. Common Core). And it is standardization, not standards that are being mandated—make no mistake about it. Standards refer to the quality of something. There is little about quality in the national curriculum—rather what is mandated is the content. The only mandate about quality is about competition—that students have to score above certain cut off scores (and teachers being paid according to those scores). But scores do not equal quality—they equal quantity. These scores tell us virtually nothing about the qualities of the work that students (or teachers) can perform, certainly not about work that matters beyond testing.


What mandated curriculum means is that what we want from public schools is a standardized citizenry. It really is that simple. We cannot teach innovation, creativity, and certainly not democratic citizenship in a school system where one answers to test scores on a curriculum to which those carrying out and engaging in that curriculum have virtually no say.

Those that are enacting this know that those with resources have a way out—schools for the rich still allow for creativity and self governance. That is what the privatization movement, along with the charter school movement is about (at least in part). This, as we know of everything else that is privatized, leads to a system in which the quality is based on one’s ability to pay for it. Those with the most resources can and do pay for schools that still allow for creativity, choice and abundant resources.

So really, the question is simple—if we want a system that teaches one group of children (and their teachers) to be obedient and standardized, and another group educated to be creative and powerful, then we should continue these current reforms. If we want democracy, then we need to democratize schools, and give them the resources and freedom that the rich seem to feel their own children deserve. It really is that simple. Have we or have we not given up on the idea of democracy?

1421: The Year China Discovered the World

1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America
Gavin Menzies
Harper Collins


Occasionally we learn something that alters the way we see the world, that changes our paradigm. As Piaget put it, typically new information adds to and is fit into our schema of the world. However, sometimes new information does not fit the schema. When that happens we can dismiss the new information, decide it is an exception to the rule, or we may, when those strategies do not work, actually alter our schema. 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America by Gavin Menzies was a book that did that for me.

The title of the book is actually a misnomer. It really should be called The Year the Chinese Discovered the World (as some editions—probably those sold outside the US are titled), as the book documents how they sent fleets that went virtually everywhere in the world except Europe.

The author, a retired British nuclear submarine admiral, has amassed an amazing assortment of evidence to support his claims of how they did this.  His telling the story of how and why the Chinese accomplished this feat is a telling of a fascinating journey, both of the Chinese journey, and the journey of his research. He discusses how he, as a non-academic researcher has had to fight the entrenched beliefs and assumption of the academics experts in the field, as his claims undermine much of what has been accepted truths in their fields.

This history was lost because when the fleets returned to China after their several year voyages, China had gone through an internal upheaval that led to a period of isolationism that lasted centuries.

The book is full of amazing discoveries of how many animals, inventions and customs thought to be indigenous to certain places, turn out to have been brought by the Chinese, and historically accepted beliefs of directions of transmission are reversed.

Gavin also explains how the maps of the early European explorers, such as Columbus and others were actually based on copies of the maps the Chinese had made on their voyages. (Spoiler: not only was Columbus not the first non-American to come to the Americas, there were also European colonies well established before his voyages.

I don’t want to repeat here the content of the book and the details that changed my understandings of history. I want to recommend that you read it yourself (or, if you are like me, listen to it as an audiobook. there is also a PBS video based on the book).

I hope you read this fascinating book, both because it is just a fascinating story, but also because it may change the way you understand history. What other assumptions or paradigms might you or I hold that turn out not to be true?

What is Wrong with Vouchers?

The rhetoric behind vouchers is that if everyone had vouchers parents could select the best school for their child instead of being forced to go to “government” schools*.

Where does such logic fall apart? There are two main logistical reasons it is really a false promise. One is economic and the other is question of who gets to choose.

The private schools that the elite send their children to cost tens of thousands of dollars a year to attend. I looked up a few progressive private schools and tuition ranged from $20,000 to well over $30,000, more than many private colleges. And the actual amount they spend per pupil is well over the tuition since they raise lots of extra money from alumni. (They also tend to pay their non-unionized teachers significantly less than public schools.)

Since at best the voucher proposals I have seen only pay a small fraction of that, these vouchers will leave the recipients with few real choices without putting out a lot more money. I do not think the public is going to go for vouchers of $20,000+ and have never even heard such figures discussed. If they did, the public education bugets would soar. (And those already in private schools would and should claim they should get the subsidies too). What it would do in effect, at the rates being proposed, is subsidize the middle class and rich to abandon public schools and send their children to private school, and while leaving such choices out of reach financially for the poor.

The other issue is who chooses. Most private schools have selective admission, and limited space. Since unlike public schools they get to choose their students, even if the voucher fully paid for them (which of course it will not), they would still most likely cream the easiest students to teach, leaving the more difficult to teach children in the public schools.

These two factors in combination would end up subsidizing private schools and middle and upper class families at the expense of public schools and the poor that are left in them. This would further segregate our schooling system into the haves and the have-nots.

Since I have never heard voucher proponents either suggest that vouchers should be at the levels necessary to have them cover the full cost of most private schools, nor to force private schools to take those children, I find their arguments disingenuous.

Charter schools, in theory at least, get around both of the above limitations. There is no tuition; schools receive the same funding as the other public schools, and (at least in California) schools cannot select the students. (In reality, though, they often find ways of using other means to “encourage” and “discourage” certain types of students.) So, is this not a solution?

Why I still do not favor even this is that it fundamentally changes the purpose of public schools. Traditionally we have considered the education of the next generation to be a concern of society as a whole. In fact, virtually every society has considered this to be true throughout history. For this reason, locally elected school boards have governed our public schools.

Charter schools and voucher systems make schooling a private consumer choice. In the charter and voucher systems consumers choose among the choices offered them, but have no guaranteed right to have a say about the schooling other than making that choice. Those who do not have children in the schools have no say at all. Private schools are run privately, and do not have to answer to the public. Charter schools usually have to answer for test scores and financial responsibility, but even there it is to the state and not in any direct way to the local public. While charter schools have governing boards, they select their own members of those boards. This gives control of the content of schooling to those who run the schools, often for-profit concerns, but even if not, private concerns of some sort. While our government is not perfect, should I really trust those who have private agendas and do not have to answer to the public to decide the how and what of our next generation’s schooling? Public school boards are elected, and have open meetings; private schools do not have to. Even if the charters do have open meetings, they are often run by national organizations and so are inaccessible and would probably just say, “Don’t send you child here if you don’t like it our agenda.”

Vouchers and charters are about redefining the public as consumers rather than citizens, which is part of a larger corporate agenda to destroy public institutions and the limit the power of the public.

For the above (and other) reasons, I see truly public schools as the only answer for those committed to a democratic society.

*Read between the lines the implication that anything the government does must be poor quality. Yet since parents in the suburbs and rich areas are perfectly happy with their public schools, why is it only the public schools that the poor kids go to that seem to be failing? “Government” schools for the rich and middle class are fine it seems—as long as they don’t have to share them with the poor.

An Ethic of Excellence

An Ethic of Excellence
by Ron Berger
Heinemann Press


If you are a classroom teacher and you have not read this, you have to! Ron Berger was a classroom teacher in a public school in a small northeastern town. He uses examples of his own teaching in his extraordinary school, as well as his experience working with schools and teachers in other places to describe what excellent schooling can and should look like.

In this relatively short book of only about 150 pages he takes us through is “toolbox” (Ron was also a carpenter). His teaching revolves around project-based learning. And many of his projects are authentic in the full sense of the word—they actually have an impact on real people in the larger community, such as studying water quality in local wells.

In his first chapter one of the things he talks about the importance of evidence. Over his many years teaching  collected many many samples of the quality work his students did. I have had the honor to see some of this work, and it quite awe inspiring.

His first Toolbox is A School Culture of Excellence. He describes how they create a culture in his school where excellence is expected. Peer pressure becomes a positive force. He describes the slow process of a new angry boy who over time comes to care about his work.

The second toolbox is Work of Excellence. In this he starts off my making the point that self esteem is gained from accomplishments, not compliments. By providing opportunities to do projects that have a real purpose, and plenty of time and support, students take pride in their work as they see it matters to do well, and they can keep redoing it until it is of high quality.

The third toolbox is Teaching of Excellence. In this chapter he goes though how teachers too need to be supported in order to learn how to teach this way. How teachers need both the autonomy, and the support of peers—just as their students do.

This is one of the most inspiring books on teaching I have read. It is full of both practical ideas, as well as real examples that ring true.

Dissecting Common Core Assessment Myths and Realities



A new fact sheet shows that the Common Core Assessments, which are being rolled out for widespread implementation in the 2014-2015 school year, are not significantly different from the standardized exams currently administered in many states. At the same time, plans call for more high-stakes tests with even greater costs.

“Despite proponents’ claims that the Common Core would lead to a new breed of assessments that focus on higher-order, critical thinking skills, the planned tests are predominantly the same-old multiple-choice questions,” explained Dr. Monty Neill, Executive Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest).

Dr. Neill continued, “Rather than ending ‘No Child Left Behind’ testing overkill, the Common Core will flood classrooms with even more standardized exams. Their scores will continue to be misused to make high-stakes educational decisions, including high school graduation. They will also end up costing taxpayers millions more for new tests and the computer systems required to deliver them.”

The FairTest fact sheet also challenges the notion that harder tests are automatically better. It states, “If a child struggles to clear the high bar at five feet, she will not become a ‘world class’ jumper because someone raised the bar to six feet and yelled ‘jump higher,’ or if her ‘poor’ performance is used to punish her coach.” Scores recently plummeted in New York State and Kentucky where Common Core tests were initially administered.

Based on its analysis, FairTest is calling for an indefinite moratorium on the Common Core tests. “As the prestigious Gordon Commission of educational experts recently concluded, these exams are not the better assessments our schools need,” Dr. Neill concluded. “Instead, a system of classroom- based performance assessments, evaluations of student work portfolios, and school quality reviews will help improve learning and teaching.”