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A new online publication titled "Florida Thinks" has just been launched by ex-Orlando Sentinel editors. Having been a paid columnist for the Sentinel for seven years before joining them in "retirement," they invited me to be a "regular" on matters educational.

Below is my second submission.


Silver bullets or blanks?

Bill Gates says that big, impersonal schools are obstacles to improved learner performance. He’s right. His Foundation has poured major money into a "small schools initiative," but thus far nothing much of educational consequence has resulted.

Eli Broad says that better leadership is the key to improved learner performance, and the Broad Foundation has put up significant money to train new ones. Obviously, good leaders are essential, but thus far, Broad-trained leaders haven’t introduced any revolutionary new approaches to educating.

Jeb Bush, echoing the late Milton Friedman, says bringing market forces to bear shapes schools up. The market-based reforms he put in place in Florida led to teachers and schools being graded, compared, labeled, rewarded, and punished. But cut through the political hype and the statistical game playing, and it’s clear that after more than a decade, nothing of academic consequence has changed. Indeed, misapplied, market forces are counterproductive.

Policymakers in Tallahassee, like those in most other state capitols and Washington, have long argued the merits of greater rigor. They’ve pushed for more math, more science, more Advanced Placement courses, more International Baccalaureate programs, and more testing.  But neither the evidence nor common sense suggest that "raising the rigor bar" for learners who can’t clear the bars already in place will improve schools.

Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Jeb Bush, and the policymakers in state capitols and Washington aren’t the only ones with ideas about what’s wrong with schools, and what would set them straight.  Op-eds nationwide read about the same: End social promotion! Put all kids in uniform! Disband teacher unions! Close down schools of education! Get tough on parents! Expel the troublemakers! Give everybody vouchers! Put mayors in charge! Abolish tenure! Bring back corporal punishment! Convert all schools to charters! Increase spending! Adopt pay-for-performance schemes!

Check around, and it turns out that somewhere, all these "reform" strategies and many others have been tried and have made little or no difference.  That’s because – as most educators know but those actually running the big show refuse to admit -- the main reason for poor learner performance is childhood poverty. Take away the test scores of kids on free and reduced lunch – those least likely to have had adequate health care, least likely to have had good diets, least likely to have stable, stress-free home environments, least likely to have been exposed to books and rich, varied conversation, least likely to have travelled, least likely to have had music or other kinds of private lessons – take away their test scores and the average of those left will be right up there with the best, not just in the US but in the world.

Of the 21 richest countries in the world, the US ranks next to last in average measures of childhood well-being.  And, according to the Anna E. Casey Foundation, on that near-bottom-of-the-barrel world list, Florida ranks about midway between New Hampshire and Minnesota at the top of the bottom, and Mississippi and Louisiana at the bottom of the bottom.


There’s a problem, alright, but it isn’t a problem that can be addressed by telling teachers to suck it up and get on with the job.

Neither the nation nor the state have the collective will and brains to make a dent in childhood poverty, but I’ve an education-specific suggestion that could help make the best of a bad situation.

Several years ago, to illustrate a point I wanted to make in a Knight-Ridder/Tribune column written for the Orlando Sentinel, I went to my nearest middle school and asked to see copies of their eighth grade math, science, language arts, and social studies textbooks. They obliged.

Sitting in the school’s reception area, I counted the terms in the glossaries of the four books, rightly assuming that they represented what experts thought every kid should know.

One thousand, four hundred, and sixty-five! That’s how many terms were in the glossaries of just those four textbooks.  That’s 1, 465 main ideas for 14-year-olds to learn in a school year, an average of about eight new ones a day. That’s not just ridiculous; it’s stupid.  In the real, adult world, an author who’s trying to get just ONE new idea across assumes it will take a whole book.  (Think Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point, or Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy In America.)

Americans, philosophically predisposed to think short-term, and more concerned with individual than with the general welfare, aren’t going to do anything about childhood poverty. But that doesn’t have to mean that it isn’t possible to make radical improvements in educating. Information overload is just one of at least 20 problems with the familiar "core curriculum," the static, 19th Century intellectual tool the young are being handed to guide them through the 21st.

Clinging to that curriculum is a recipe not just for educational but for societal disaster. If education policymakers in Tallahassee and Washington knew what they were doing, instead of demanding national standards and tests keyed to a curriculum generated in an era long past and no longer relevant, they’d be calling for an emergency national conference to rethink what’s being taught, and why.

Originally posted to Marion Brady on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 06:21 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for crossposting this (10+ / 0-)

    I have tried to let a number of people know this is here, so that it gets a broader audience.

    And folks, please feel free to offer your reactions in the comments.


    do we still have a Republic and a Constitution if our elected officials will not stand up for them on our behalf?

    by teacherken on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 06:50:53 AM PST

  •  That's a lot of terms, all right. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, Eddie C, Roadbed Guy

    I'm sure I never learned anywhere near that many back in 1964 when I was 14. I use a glossaries more for reference than a "new topic for today" list, though. It seems like there has been a change since then though, if such things are taken as requirements now. Is that what "clinging to curriculum" means? That does sound pretty brainless.

    I've never been a teacher in the conventional sense, having spent my career a an engineer. However, nowadays I work 30 hours a week as an online math and physics tutor in an effort to supplement my rather skimpy retirement resources. The students I encounter seem to be about as knowledgeable in the subjects I help them with as those I went to school with in the early 60s. It might be a self-selected higher achieving group, though. Hard to tell with the anonymity inherent in the system I work in.

    Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

    by billmosby on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 06:58:30 AM PST

    •  D'OH! "I use a glossary...". Edit damage. n/t (0+ / 0-)

      Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

      by billmosby on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 06:59:43 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I suspect that if a kid has access to on-line (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      tutoring, he or she is likely to be self-selected out of the bottom stratum of educational achievers.

      Because, as the diarist points out, poverty and/or lack of parental input into a child's education are likely to be more important to educational outcomes then the type of school attended per se.

      •  True for some of them, (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Roadbed Guy

        but many of them access the program through computers at libraries and schools which participate in a program which is federally funded. Poverty will still have an impact, of course.

        Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

        by billmosby on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 07:42:16 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Sure, but presumably this tutoring is (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          "voluntary" and kids who take advantage of it most likely (at least in part) do so through the encouragement of their parents.

          So, if a kid comes from a completely dysfunctional family (which are not limited to the very poor, but are somewhat correlated therewith) that's less likely to be the case.

          •  Yes. That will be the impact I mentioned. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Roadbed Guy

            Sometimes I think I detect disadvantaged kids trying to help themselves by using this system; could be their grammar, could be certain life details that leak through the anonymity once in a while, could be the level of achievement they bring to the homework help session. But I can't be certain. Anyway, this tutoring program is there if kids want to take advantage of it. It's just one of a number of ways the poverty problem can be attacked.

            Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

            by billmosby on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 08:18:44 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  This is an excellent analysis. (0+ / 0-)

    You've pointed out some deep, structural problems in our society and our educational system.

    Unfortunately, we have a political system that is not set up to solve social problems in the most efficient and successful manner, but rather to shift taxpayer money towards special interest groups. So there is an even deeper governmental problem that has to be solved before we can begin to solve any of our social problems. We have to get corporate money out of politics. Period.

    --Free thinkers shouldn't go around thinking just anything. (Terry Pratchett)

    by HPrefugee on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 08:40:24 AM PST

  •  good teaching (0+ / 0-)

    and smart use of team teaching and use of students teachers, teacher aids and scrutiny by professors of education and admin.
    Can get the support of parents who are poor but support teachers at home by encourgaing their children.
    If you tell the students that you have new and innovative teaching and that what you give them is as good as the science magnet school. Parents perk up, may be they don't cal but thise kids sit in class and do the best they can.
    Well prepared teachers with good teaching skills that range from hands-on skills, understanding and using the "Intelligences", support for the educational mission from the secretary in the office to the janitor and other teachers. Working under the laser of professors doing research on best practices....
    People working closely using all the talent towards a small population. And we had lots of turn over.


    by TexMex on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 08:52:06 AM PST

  •  Hope this diary gets rescued! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eddie C, pdx kirk, princesspat

    A must read. Thanks, Marion!

    I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution. Barbara Jordan

    by Lcohen on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 09:43:09 AM PST

  •  thank you for writing this thoughtful (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Eddie C

    diary. And thank you, teacherken, for bringing it to my attention.

    Love is the lasting legacy of our lives

    by princesspat on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 10:44:00 AM PST

  •  Early intervention works. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mlle Orignalmale

    The Rand Corporation knew this in 2005 as do the rest of the jerks politicizing our educational processes.

    There is increasing recognition that the first few years of a child’s life are a particularly sensitive period in the process of development, laying a foundation in childhood and beyond for cognitive functioning; behavioral, social, and self-regulatory capacities; and physical health. Yet many children face various stressors during these years that can impair their healthy development. Early childhood intervention programs are designed to mitigate the factors that place children at risk of poor outcomes. Such programs provide supports for the parents, the children, or the family as a whole. These supports may be in the form of learning activities or other structured experiences that affect a child directly or that have indirect effects through training parents or otherwise enhancing the caregiving environment.

    As part of a recent study, RAND researchers synthesized what is known from the scientifically sound research literature about the short- and long-term benefits from early intervention programs, the features that are associated with more-effective programs, and the economic gains that accrue from investing additional resources in early childhood....

    The long-term social benefits are extraordinary. Please read the study, and many thanks for posting this very important diary.

    They only call it class war when we fight back! ht: buhdydharma

    by ezdidit on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 01:12:13 PM PST

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