Monday, August 25, 2008

Let's Test the Politicians

No Child Left Behind's emphasis on one-size-fits-all standardized testing alarms many. But the cure for this federally induced craze may be to require passing standardized tests of every political candidate. If you don’t pass the test, you can’t join the fest. And to make sure no deserving individual escapes our net, aspiring high level government appointees, such as the Secretary of Education to be, would also have to pass the test battery. The best way to go about this testing would be to make the punishment fit the crime. This means requiring every aspiring office holder to take the same tests he prescribes for others. Before being allowed to run for President, for example, Dubya would have had to pass the self-same tests he championed for highschoolers. Ten to one he couldn’t pass. This plan really gets juicy when it’s applied to political appointees that have educational responsibilities. Let's require every aspiring state Secretary of Education to pass the battery of tests they require of aspiring teachers. Here in Pennsylvania, for example, he or she would have to pass separate NTE tests in Reading, Writing, Listening Skills, (there's a tough one for these chaps) Mathematics and Principles of Teaching and Learning. We might also want to add a content specialty test in their college major (secondary educators have to take these) or, alternatively, tests in Elementary Ed: Content and Curriculum — since they presume to tell elementary teachers what to do and when to do it. I for one, think that few chief state school officers could pass what they now prescribe. After all, they’re usually politically connected B.S. artists, not professionally trained educators. The beauty of this hoist them on their own petard approach should be apparent. Officials will typically be reluctant to mandate any testing because they too will have to take whatever they prescribe. An alternate plan is to design brand new tests for those aspiring to high office. This would be expensive and involved, but it might be worth it. We could turn to ETS and the Psychological Corporation to devise the test. They would have to craft enough items for multiple versions of the test since cheating is a particular concern.) No Child Left Behind's emphasis on one-size-fits-all standardized testing is a concern of many. But the cure for this federally induced malady may be the hair of the dog. In other words, require every political candidate to pass a battery of standardized tests to be eligible for office. If you don’t pass the test, you can’t join the fest. And to make sure no deserving individual escapes our net, we will require aspiring high level government appointees, such as the Secretary of Education to be, to also pass the test battery. One way to go about this testing would be to require every aspiring office holder to take the same tests he/she prescribes for others. Before being allowed to run for President, for example, Dubya would have had to pass the self-same tests he championed for high schoolers. Do you think he could pass? And imagine requiring every aspiring state Secretary of Education to pass the battery of tests they propose requiring of aspiring teachers. In Pennsylvania, for example, he or she would have to pass separate NTE tests in Reading, Writing, and Listening Skills, (The later would be a tough one for these chaps.). An alternate plan is to design brand new tests for those aspiring to high office. We could turn to ETS or the Psychological Corporation to craft enough items for multiple versions of the test since cheating would be a particular concern. Test items would be finalized only after a painstaking vetting. Committees both inside and outside these non-profit firms would appraise and reappraise every question. In the end we might have items roughly like these: 1. Given an unprecedented federal budget deficit, the very worst course of action would be to: a. borrow money to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure b. cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans c. privatize Social Security d. tighten the nation's belt and spend only what we have 2. If an attractive intern offers oral sex a public official should: a. quickly take him or her up on it before he or she changes their mind b. agree, but be sure to be discreet c. politely decline d. sask them what they mean by "sex." 3. If, as President, you plan to have our schools emphasize “character education,” the best model to base the curriculum on would be: a. J. Edgar Hoover b. Richard Nixon c. Bill Clinton d. none of the above 4. Should a terrorist attack against the US originate in country A, the best course of action would be to: a. invade country B b. invade country C c. invade country A d. invade some damn body Admittedly, on a test like this dishonest answers would be a problem. Safeguards are required. One possibility is to administer the test while test-takers are hooked up to lie detectors. Imagine a candidate sweating and squirming as the polygraph relentlessly tells the tale. “Is that your actual answer? Is that your final honest answer?” (Philadelphia’s infamous late Duce/Mayor Frank Rizzo once failed a lie detector test while trying to prove the device’s reliability. Evidently the polygraph was more discerning than the voters.) Alternatively, we could inject test-takers with scopolamine, a truth serum favored by secret policemen the world over. The test would be administered orally as the subjects drift guilelessly on a tripped out cloud. Regardless of the method, however, we must be absolutely certain that our subjects are answering truthfully. And we should keep in mind that most of them would be unaccustomed to doing this. That, in broad outline, is the plan. But it needs filling in. That’s where you can help. Tell us what you think. Should aspirants for public office take the same tests they prescribe for others, or should they be required to take brand new custom designed tests? If so should we measure wisdom, rectitude, practical knowledge, educational expertise, sexual cravings or what? And should we test just once, or longitudinally every year the person is in office? (Longitudinal testing has the obvious advantage of measuring whether or not the subject is improving while “serving.”) You also might like to suggest specific test items. They need not be multiple choice as exemplified in this commentary. Any types of questions typically found on standardized tests are welcome. Rush your comments and suggestions to The Worm Turns Foundation, c/o Newfoundations, P.O. Box 94, Oreland, PA 19075, or post them here. To examine these issues further, see articles at

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Index of Leading Educational Indicators

Way too much is made of standardized test scores. Public officials worry over them the way a hypochondriac frets about his bowel movements. Politicians point to them as if they were the pronouncements of Moses. School officials anticipate their public unveiling as a condemned man awaits his own execution.

All of this is more than passing odd. At their best, standardized tests indirectly measure trivial things. They tell us nothing at all about whether schooling is having a positive impact on the way children will live their lives.

Many admit the weaknesses of high stakes tests, but still argue for their administration. They say, “We need some measure of school effectiveness.” But there already are widely available measures that offer a much better measure of educational progress. All we need do is start monitoring them.

Let's call this compilation the Index of Leading Educational Indicators. Here is a preliminary list. Keep in mind, it is tentative and subject to amendment.

Here is an enormously powerful index of schooling's effectiveness. Count the number of adults regularly viewing, say, professional wrestling, for example, and we are measuring how badly schooling has failed. The same thing applies to "Jerry Springer." The higher his Nielsons, the gloomier we should be about the nation's schools. If, on the other hand, viewership is high for, say, National Geographic Specials, History Channel or Discovery Channel, there is reason for optimism.

Here I’m thinking of keeping tabs on the sales figures of various musical artists and genres. Like the popularity of paintings of Elvis on black velvet, it reveals a great deal about schooling’s success. We could, for example, compare gangsta rap music sales with classical music sales. Our schools surely have failed miserably if most consumers prefer Snoop Doggy Dog to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Biggy Small to Frederick Chopin.

Every Jonestown resident who eagerky swigged lethal Cool Aid represented a schooling failure. So did the men in David Koresh's cult who allowed Dave to sexually service their wives and daughters because, as Koresh patiently explained to them, he was the only man pure enough for the job. And what about the schooling of that Heaven's Gate crowd who had themselves castrated to conform with "Bo" and "Peep's" teachings, then "left their containers" to rendezvous with a space ship concealed behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Maybe all such followers should have repeated first grade.

The sales figures of these grotesque gazettes provide a far more valid measure of educational progress than anything ETS could dream up. I'm talking about those papers that headline things like "WOMEN COMMITS SUICIDE IN DISHWASHER!", or "HALF BOY, HALF DOLPHIN WASHES UP ON BEACH!" Of course, tabloid sales figures are an inverse measure of educational progress.

The income figures of bunko artist TV preachers, available from the IRS Tax Exempt Branch, are a sure measure of schooling's effectiveness. The more money they make, the less well our schools have done. Consider the chap who lapses into "trances" while conducting worship services. The Holy Spirit then allegedly uses the preacher's vocal apparatus to speak to the congregation. The reverend claims he has no idea what the Spirit says. He has to ask the congregation after he regains consciousness. The amount of money sent to guys like this should be monitored carefully because it is an inverse measure of school effectiveness.

Imagine visiting a psychic to decide who and when you should marry, if the one you love loves you, or how to make a person at a distance think of you. That many people seriously do this is a telling measure of schooling's ineffectiveness.

It’s encouraging when people read books at all. But the quality of the books on this best-sellers list testifies eloquently about schooling's success or failure. A few years ago, for example, millions of folks found it plausible to think that God had secretly constructed his own seek and find word game in the Holy Bible. The teachers of those who took The Bible Code seriously might prefer suicide over living with such failure.

Opinions on school reform provide irrefutable, if unintentional, proof that schools aren’t getting it done. Let’s keep tabs on these proposals. When they become better reasoned, more factual, less political and linked to conditions outside of school we’ll know our educational system is doing a better job.

Such an index is more powerful than anything Educational Testing Service or Psychological Corporation can contrive. But perhaps you are thinking that schools are not exclusively, even mainly, responsible for the presently dismal state of affairs such an index would reveal. You're thinking that some people lack native intelligence and can't be well taught and that others are too lonely, angry, scared, or what have you, to think straight. So what? Educators aren’t chiefly responsible for standardized test scores either. The point is to blame some one, and it might as well be people who haven’t shown a disposition to fight back.

How about suggesting additional measures so that we can perfect this Index of Leading Educational Indicators? Post your comments here.

To examine these issues further, see articles at

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Educational Reform Begins at Home

One of the most fundamental problems American teachers face is unloving, uncaring and/or unskillful parents. If you are a veteran teacher, you doubtless have had this experience. On Home and School day, or whatever it is called locally, the parents of your best students show up en masse. The parents of your most difficult students typically are no where to be found. Or, if they are there, reveal through their behavior why their child is a problem to begin with.

School critics demand "educational" reform. And when they do they intend that schooling should be the recipient of their tender mercies. But what is actually required is not mere school reform, but educational reform. And, at bottom, educational reform begins with better parenting. Parents are, after all, the preeminent educators of children.

Recognizing this reality is politically "incorrect." The party line is that child rearing practices vary from group to group and no one way of raising children is better than any other. This "nonjudgmental" view is fine so long as you don't have to accomplish anything with kids in school. If you do, however, it is another matter. When it comes to a child’s school success, there is NO substitute for caring, concerned parents who do their level best to insure that their children are well brought up.

It’s not hard to figure out why the parental dimension of "educational" reform is ignored. It’s a political minefield. Imagine the reaction if the President of the United States went on national television and told America's parents something like this,

“You parents are, far and away, your child’s most important teacher. That is why educational reform must begin with you. Too often you provide inappropriate examples or fail to provide adequate love, limits, direction or support. No child asks to be born and when you bring life into this world you have a non-negotiable obligation to nurture and properly direct that life. That means you must sometimes sacrifice for your child, but that is what good parenting has always required. And don’t expect teachers, or anyone else, to do this for you. This is one job that requires YOUR best effort.”

Such a message would not be popular with many, but it is long overdue.

To examine these issues further, see articles at

Friday, August 15, 2008

First Rate Teachers: The Key to School Reform

Really want to improve American schooling? Here is the first and most essential step. Respect teaching and recognize that it requires special knowledge and skill. Teachers are the key participants in improving our schools: and nothing, or at least nothing good, will happen without strengthening their preparation and licensure. This is no pipe dream. Advances in the teaching knowledge base make it possible to transform teacher preparation into a meaningfully rigorous and truly empowering process. But instead of exploiting this unprecedented opportunity, state and federal officials have been fostering lax, disempowering short cuts into teaching. For instance, thirty eight states now offer so-called alternative certification programs. And most of these alternatives are so undemanding they virtually insure incompetence, indolence or both. And, depite deceptive rhetoric to the contrary, their sole purpose is to license “teachers” on the cheap. This lack of commitment to quality teacher preparatione betrays a lack of genuine commitment to school improvement. Instead of weakening already anemic certification requirements, officials who really were serious about school reform would forget about quickie alternatives to meaningful preparation and, while they were at it, decommision marginal teacher preparation programs at profiteering colleges who specialize in cut-rate certification programs. Serious school reformers would also stop appointing pedagogical simpletons to educational positions of power and influence. When billionaire Ross Perot was appointed to head up school “reform” in Texas, for instance, he was totally, perhaps invincibly, ignorant of the teaching and learning knowledge base. He had no clue about the research that disproved his own blustering encyclicals. And, emboldened by this ignorance, Perot and his accomplices in the Texas legislature made sure that Lone Star state teacher preparation would be brief and superficial. The liberal arts professoriate typified by former Secretary of Education William Bennett are another set of pedagogical ignoramuses who have great influence on teacher preparation. What did Bennett know about schooling, teaching or learning that qualified him to become the nation’s Secretary of Education? Or how about Lynne Cheney, former Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities and wife of the Darth Vader of the Bush administration. As Chair of the NEH, Cheney routinely supported alternative teacher certification while assuring us that an academic education was not only necessary but sufficient for teacher preparation. A large body of research contradicts her assertion. Most scary of all are the big-city school district bosses that want to train their own teachers. What sort of teacher do you think they long for? The same sort of coal miners, coal barons longed for ot the same sort of steel workers the steel barons longed for. Compliant, docile and predictable. With big city school bosses in charge of preparing their own teachers you can be utterly certain that whatever else these aspirants are trained to do, it won’t be to disagree with what these schools are presently doing. Those who care about teaching can be forgiven a certain indignation at the influential trifling of educational incompetents. As the famed philosopher Alfred North Whitehead puts it: When one considers in its length and breadth the importance of a nation’s young, the broken lives, the defeated hopes, the national failures, which result from the frivolous inertia with which (education) is treated, it is difficult to restrain within oneself a savage rage” Alfred North Whitehead The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1929) p.22. Some say that that arguments of this sort are just a “special interest” of college based teacher educators who are merely “protecting their guild.” But are the interests of teacher educators more “special” than any other human being who cares about what they do. And remember, it took guilds, with their rigorous training, to build enduring masterpieces such as Europe’s great cathedrals. Master glass workers or stone masons certainly didn’t invite “creative, idealistic and enthusiastic” people in off the street to try their hand at stained glass or stone carving. They were unrelenting in their apprenticeship requirements and the results speak for themselves. Mos To examine these issues further, see articles at

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Perils of Deregulating Schooling: the charter school example

The same sort of people who loosened the government rules that regulated airlines, trucking and savings and loans in the 1980'sare working to eliminate many rules concerning teaching and schooling. These “reformers” claim that removing government regulations and encouraging competition will encourage school improvement.

They assure us that deregulating teaching will open up a whole new source of talent. Opening public schools to competition will drive out the bad schools, encourage innovation and make educators responsive to the need for change. David Kearns, former chairman of Xerox and highly placed Bush appointee to the U. S. Department of Education, puts it this way, “Public schools acting as monopolies are failing. Providing choice means allowing schools to compete with one another for the most valuable of assets: students.” (Kearns fails to consider that some kids will inevitably be regarded as liabilities. Hopefully he had better foresight when he headed up Xerox)

As the fires of competition purify pedagogy many schools and teaching jobs will perish. That is part of the plan. When he was Governor of Minnesota, Rudy Perpich described this social Darwinism with suitable detachment when he observed: “...[Failed schools] will file for ‘bankruptcy’ like any other business.” We are assured, however, that the only schools forced into bankruptcy will be those that fail to become more effective. “Effective” at what? The meaning of that slogan is left to our imagination. Hopefully, it will not be "effective" in seducing the masses or confirming our worst prejudices.

It is not difficult to determine why reformers long for public schooling to be cleansed by competition. Too many school districts, particularly large urban ones, echo the worst aspects of the former Soviet Union. Some of these conditions are caused by too many regulations. But let's not kid ourselves. Even a conservative Republican should be able to recognize that most school problems will not be alleviated by deregulation. Consider the underfunding of urban schools. City schools have the nation's largest number of needy students, yet every year they are starved for money. Deregulation doesn't address, much less resolve, this and other systemic problems rooted in out of school realities.

And let's not forget the costs of deregulation. WHen the Reagan administration deregulated Savings and Loans,for example, taxpayers eventually had to pay a half trillion dollars to bail them out of self-induced catastrophe. Now, in Philadelphia, PA, where there is an unusual concentration of 61 charter schools, the costs of this particular deregulation are bubbling to the surface. They include mismanagement, corruption, profiteering, conflicts of interest and self-dealing, In short, deregulation has been accompanied by alarming abuses. Raise your hand if you find that surprising.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at

-- GKC

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Triumph of the School as Factory

It has been well over one hundred years since this nation embarked on the breathtakingly ambitious venture of universal public schooling. The costs of this endeavor quickly proved to be extraordinarily burdensome, and it was decided early on to carry it out in as cost effective a manner as possible. The consequence of this push for efficiency was public schools modeled on factories with an emphasis on mass production and cost-effectiveness, rather than democracy or individuality.

For the most part, today’s public schools still are factories. In fact, the organization and management that typifies the most unenlightened factories characterizes much, if not most, public schooling. Management is top-down all the way. The federal government sets basic rules. State authorities implement them while adding many more rules. School boards make decisions based on these federal and state rules plus fiscal and political realities. The superintendent executes the will of the board. Principals tell teachers what to do and when to do it; and they, in turn, direct the youngsters in similar manner.

Sometimes this industrial approach produces monstrously undemocratic results. A past Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, for example, boasted to the press that she could tell them what was happening in every classroom in the city at any given moment. What was actually happening was administratively induced chaos because the standardized, teacher-proof curriculum was incapable of accommodating individual differences. For instance, second grade teachers found they were forbidden to use anything other than second grade readers and the canned lesson of the day even if some of those second grade kids still couldn’t read. Similarly, seventh grade math teachers were forced to ‘teach’ algebra to kids who couldn’t even do fractions or long division, and so forth.

With this superintendent, as with many others, autonomy, freedom and choice are low, or non-existent, priorities. The industry is focused on standardization, teacher proofing and measured outcomes. We should also remember that there is a powerful new restriction on autonomy, freedom, choice, and democracy in schooling. With its emphasis on measurable results, quality control, instrumental and extrinsic motivations, atomization and fragmentation of knowledge, No Child Left Behind represents the near total triumph of factory model schooling in contemporary America. In short, the whole weight of the federal government arc welds the school as factory in place as never before.

To examine these issues further, see articles at