Friday, March 27, 2009


The key element in teaching success isn't technical skill, or more resources, or smaller classes; the key to success is higher expectations. Teachers will get more if they expect more. The mantra to chant daily is, “Every child can learn.”

That’s the tune that a lot of people are dancing to these days. A remarkably diverse assortment of governors, national and state legislators, educational entrepreneurs, school superintendents and ordinary, right thinking Americans all assert “Every child can learn.” In fact, this overworked and under considered motto is a ubiquitous as dog doo on the public green.

Ignoring definitive research that points to non-school factors as key to school success or failure, those embracing this mindless motto dismiss the idea that “schooling failures" are largely a symptom of social failures. Do they honestly believe that positive thinking can cancel out the educational consequences of a fifth of all U.S. children living in poverty. Do they honestly believe that positive thinking can defeat the problems that cause infants born in US inner cities being less likely to survive than babies born in the “third world.” Do they honestly believe that positive thinking can save the education of hundreds of thousands of U.S. youngsters who literally don’t have a home to do homework in. (On an average night in D.C., for instance, 1,300 youngsters are in shelters for the homeless.)

Any fool can see that such beliefs are humbug. The plain fact is that “every child’s” learning is stifled if they are homeless, abused, malnourished, and way past angry. Sure they can learn to stay away from Mom when she’s high or to keep out of the way of Mom’s boyfriend when he’s looking for someone to abuse. But most kids living in misery can’t, or won’t, learn to do algebra, appreciate Shakespeare or conjugate verbs. Some won’t even learn to read. They’re too busy trying to survive.

Only a numskull really expects quality schoolwork from children in such situations. So let’s quit pretending that positive thinking will make the difference and face the ugly fact that social problems erode school effectiveness all across America.

To further examine these and similar issues, see
Power Failure: Why U.S. School Reform Persistently Misses the Target

--- GKC

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Why Educational Leaders Always Fall Short

Here is the skinny on educational leadership. No matter how good school leaders are, they can never be good enough. America's diversity generates immutable disagreements regarding what schools should teach and how they should teach it. The only way to generate consensus is with vague slogans — for example, "Every school a good school!"Since we don't agree on what these slogans mean, however, implementation quickly bogs down in endless disagreements.

What individuals want from schools and school administrators changes with their circumstances. In certain situations they want schools that are temples and educational leaders who are moral leaders — high priests of rectitude and knowledge. In other circumstances they want schools to be business-like and school administrators to be executives or production managers. In still other circumstances they want schools to be town meetings where policies and procedures are subject to negotiation, politics, and compromise and administrators are arbitrators mediating disputes.

Even the most gifted administrators finds such different roles very difficult to play. And if they must be played simultaneously, it becomes impossible.

A school administrator's troubles do not end there either. Irreconcilable organizational conflicts also are built into school leadership. To the extent that school leaders exercise power, they undermine morale. To the extent that they follow policy, they must ignore individual differences. To the extent that they pursue authorized goals, they must limit their subordinates discretion. In short, school administration involves a series of difficult and unclear choices. What does all this imply? That a school administrator's job performance will inevitably fall short of many people's expectations.

Many educational pundits imagine that school administrators can be miracle workers — pedagogical shamans who magically reconcile competing expectations for schools and schooling through the purity of their motivations and the force of their will.The literature on "transformational" school leadership, for example, is replete with solemn assurances that visionary change agents, expert at dealing with complexity and ambiguity, can successfully convince everyone to serve goodness, righteousness, duty, and obligation.

This is pure humbug —just more of the wishful thinking that too   often substitutes for thought in education. And for a wide variety of reasons, it's dangerous to expect educational leaders to achieve the unachievable. The best any school administrator can hope for is partial success. Sometimes, however, that can make the needed difference.

To examine these and similar issues further, see

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What's "Special" About Special Education?

America’s public schools (and parochial schools for that matter) are factories. Mass schooling’s enormous scale requires processing the most students at the least cost.

Cutting costs requires an emphasis on efficiency, rather than community, individuality, or even moral principle. Thus the desolate truth is that the broad mass of school kids are, and always have been, processed like so many cans of soup.

Consider the “school plant” as it’s revealingly called. Signs of its factory-like nature are everywhere. It has numbered rooms in repetitive order, mail boxes uniformly arranged, sign-in sheets or time clocks, a daily inventory (roll) of the “raw material,” buzzers that set things in motion or bring motion to a halt, chairs in ordered ranks, children segregated by age and teachers by function, and an “office” that commands in metallic tone via the P.A. system. The whole thing reeks of the repetitive, impersonal but efficient monotony of a factory.

Yes, competent teachers group kids by skill level, teach lessons that exploit various kinds of intelligence, capitalize on interests, that sort of thing. Such “accommodations” are what makes some factory schools better than others. But in the end mass schooling is still factory-like because limited resources demand efficiency.

What about kids who are so "different" they can't be mass processed. In the "good old days" children who held up production were “exempted” from compulsory school attendance . Later, youngsters too out of the ordinary for efficient processing were only removed from the assembly line and placed in “special” classes. Now federal law requires that "special" children be placed in the least restrictive environment possible. In other words, put back on the assembly line. The trouble is how to do this and still maintain efficiency.

Making matters worse, the very same politicians who order inclusion fail to fully fund it. Yet they assure the public that no child will be left behind and press relentlessly for more and more high stakes testing. This places educators in an impossible situation. They must leave no child behind. They must turn no child away. They must place every child in the least restrictive environment possible. Test scores must get better. But don’t ask for more resources or smaller classes because there’s no more money. Thus, factory type schools are the only option. This is a no-win situation no matter how you look at it. Is it any wonder that teacher attrition is scandalously high? Is it a surprise that enthusiasm for school administration is drying up?

Ultimately, the difficulties “special” children create for factory schools are unresolvable. Such kids inevitably slow production. That’s why these kids are labeled “special” to begin with; the school as factory can’t process them.

This is what is special about special education? It’s the one aspect of public schooling that isn’t factory-like. It’s the only place in school where individual differences really matter. But inclusion requires that more and more "special" kids be put back on the assembly line. Hence, the factory becomes loses efficiency and special needs go largely unmet. Is that what inclusion advocates want? Well, it’s what they’re getting.

To further examine these and similar issues, see articles at