Education reformers and I agree. Here’s my alternative. What’s theirs?

In the October 19 Huffington Post Justin Snider described how five education writers feel about the potential impact of Waiting for Superman:

Toward the end of our discussion, Errol St. Clair Smith gave the five of us — Jay Mathews, Diane Ravitch, Valerie Strauss, Debra Viadero and me — a multiple-choice test on what the lasting impact of Waiting for ‘Superman’ would be on U.S. public education. Four of us — all but Ravitch — opted for choice “D,” that the film would prove to be “another example that when all is said and done, much more will be said than done.” (Ravitch, ever the contrarian, picked “None of the above.”)

Education writers and I agree, but I believe those who tear something down should offer something to replace it. Journalists are in no position to suggest what should replace the problems they write about (low test scores, bullying, grade inflation, poor literacy, low level of STEM knowledge, etc.). They rarely go into classrooms, and they are neither teachers nor policymakers, so it is not their job to improve education, only to comment on its good parts and bad parts. What could be easier than that? Public education has plenty to cheer about and plenty to condemn.

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“At Risk” Students and Public Schools

“Cut the Crap” blogs expose language (some call it “educationese”) that obscures more than it clarifies. This blog cuts the crap about labeling students “at risk.”

We are all inadequate in some ways, so there is nothing inherently wrong with a term that says some students are “at risk” of failure. There is something inherently wrong, however, with a term that highlights student vices while hiding both their virtues and the vices promoted in public schools.

In Education Policy Brief (2009, V7, N4) Cable, Plucker and Spradlin go further by suggesting the label itself harms students:

Negative stereotypes are detrimental to students. A recognized quote by Robert Bierstedt depicts how students feel they are perceived by others has a very profound effect: “I am not who I think I am. I am not who you think I am. I am who I think you think I am.” Calling students “at-risk” may place students in more jeopardy than any other factors that may be harming them.

This blog cuts the crap about “at risk” students by putting its meaning in the context of the six-virtue definition of the educated person.

“At risk” crap #1 – Students are “at risk” of school failure because they score poorly on standardized tests (ignorance), skip classes (weak character), or don’t cooperate (selfish).

Cut the crap – Although schools don’t tolerate ignorance, weak character and selfishness, they tolerate, model and teach three other vices — intellectual incompetence, fear of truth, and pride. “At risk” students are those who don’t display understanding that is unimaginative, strong character that is fearful of truth, and generosity that emerges from pride.

“At risk” crap #2 – Some alternative programs aim to return “at risk” students to regular school programs by re-doubling efforts to teach the public school combination of understanding that is unimaginative, strong character that is fearful of truth, and generosity that emerges from pride. These programs rarely succeed because the adults in the lives of “at-risk” students have always modeled ignorance, weak character, and selfishness.  That is why teachers often say: “Now that I have met ‘Johnny’s’ parents, I know why he acts the way he does.”

Cut the crap – Regular public school teachers model and teach understanding, strong character and generosity as they overlook intellectual incompetence, fear of truth, and pride. Teachers in successful “at risk” programs do the same thing with different virtues and vices. They value student imagination, courage and humility, as they overlook ignorance, weak character and selfishness in “at risk students.”

When the six virtues define what it means to be educated, and when school personnel recognize both the virtues and vices taught in public schools, they know how to program for “at risk” students. It is simple. Educators should value “at-risk” students’ virtues and overlook their vices, just as teachers do for students who are not labeled “at risk.”

The Associated Press story about Chicago Urban Prep School for Young Men describes what that looks like:

“Education Nation” Conversations

The purpose of TSVOTEP is to start a philosophical conversation about what it means to be educated. Although that conversation is an essential first step to improving education, Americans are more interested in watching Education Nation and Waiting for Superman.

Until what it means to be educated is defined in an inspiring, useful way; education will not improve, no matter what is watched, read, or attempted. This blog “cuts the crap” from the NBC series, Education Nation.

Education Nation crap — Movie makers, actresses, football commissioners, insurance CEOs, archbishops, politicians, school district chancellors, secretaries of education, television commentators, entrepreneurs, teacher union representatives, teachers, administrators and parents have insight into how to improve public education. We should listen to their stories.

Cut the crap — We already know some schools and teachers are good, some are mediocre, and some are bad. How many times do we need to hear stories about this? And how much should we pay attention to the opinions of people who rarely go into schools, and don’t teach in them? A website commenter said it best: “The proposals brought forth do not reflect any knowledge of what actually goes on in schools today.”

Education Nation crap — Actress Cheryl Hines, Curb Your Enthusiasm, had multiple opportunities to plug School Pride, her new Friday night show.

Cut the crap — Despite the rhetoric, these shows were more about politics and making money than about improving education. At this very moment, every school improvement idea mentioned in this series is floating off into nothingness, but we have School Pride on Friday nights.

Education Nation crap — Public school teachers, administrators and parents traveled great distances to participate. If they were lucky, they had 3 minutes to say something meaningful about improving education.

Cut the crap — Now that they are home, do they feel used? When they are sufficiently humbled by this thought, they should read TSVOTEP and be reminded of why they are still devoted to improving American education.

Education Nation crap — One group of panel discussants agreed to two-minute time limits. The first panelist (Democratic California Congressman George Miller) went on for 3 minutes and 40 seconds, the last 100 seconds while the red light was blinking.

Cut the crap — Don’t listen to the Congressman’s words (they had no bearing on improving education, anyway). Watch what he does. He is a politician modeling the six vices of our uneducated human nature. He was ignorant of the warning light system. His incompetent imagination told him 3 minutes and 40 seconds was like two minutes. His character was so weak he could not stop himself from talking. He was fearful of not getting all his talking points in. He was proud of wanting better education. And he selfishly took time meant for others.

Thanks to Education Nation, in the person of Congressman George Miller we have nationally televised evidence of the fundamental failure of America’s schools. Congressman Miller received an education based on the teaching of knowledge and skills, not virtue. The results matched perfectly.

(All who have presented at academic paper sessions have had this same experience — presenters who take time meant for others. In other words, the most knowledgeable and academically skilled graduates of our colleges and universities, like Congressman Miller, lack imagination, strong character, humility and generosity. The failure of American K-12 students to score high on multiple choice tests is a small failing compared to the lack of virtue among those who earn PhDs. The second failing is probably a cause of the first. How could it not be?)

NBC promoted Education Nation as a series about education. Every time Cheryl Hines was on camera, though, it was obvious the series was really about ratings for its new show. NBC hosts and commentators should have been ashamed of their network, but they seemed ignorant of the pride and selfishness that was evident to all of us who asked, “Why is Cheryl Hines on a show about improving education?”

Furthermore, those who are among our most educated citizens (movie makers, actresses, football commissioners, insurance CEOs, archbishops, politicians, school district chancellors, secretaries of education, television commentators, entrepreneurs, teacher union representatives, teachers, and administrators) never once mentioned the six virtues of the educated person. As long as people with all the school advantages this country has to offer define “educated” as a random combination of knowledge and skills, public education will not improve. On the other hand, as soon as teachers and parents model and teach the six virtues of the educated person, public education will improve.

The Power of Purpose

Here is an editorial on the documentary, “Waiting for Superman.”

(Sarcasm alert!) I love all the editorializing. I love “Waiting for Superman.” I love John Stossel’s claim that schools are bad because public education is a monopoly. And I love the belief that chartering, vouchering, magnetizing, marketing, or profiteering will improve public education.

Cut the Crap

The point of my book is that none of this will improve education, if our purposes remain the same. So, let’s cut the crap. Without an inspiring, useful definition of what it means to be educated, education improvement efforts will fail for the same reason they have failed for 60 years — our purposes do not inspire teaching and learning. Continue reading →

Charter School Irony

The 2010 Department of Education is encouraging charter school start-ups. Where are the charter school successes that merit this kind of federal support?

Some are “the charter schools operated by the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).” These are the words of David Brooks ( His article started with praise for specific HCZ charters, but it turned into a promotional piece for the idea of charters.

I am for charter schools, too; but Brooks and I like them for different reasons. Continue reading →