Why Michelle Rhee gets its wrong

I’ve been opposed to the use of standardized testing as accountability tools for a long time. Not as passionately and strongly as some but in principle, the use of one time testing to determine the fate of schools and students, isn’t the model of education to which I’d ever subscribe. Fortunately for me, I’ve lived in a province that has resisted them and even today would never acknowledge the use of them the way my southern neighbours and even western neighbours have. But that’s starting to change and I don’t like it.

Without going into the specifics and details of our provincial situation, I’m writing out of passion against articles like this that seem to validate an “improve your test score or perish” mentality. The article features Washington’s chancellor of education, Michelle Rhee and her relentless efforts to improve schools. I admire her passion. I’m not all that impressed with her perspectives.

“The thing that kills me about education is that it’s so touchy-feely,” she tells me one afternoon in her office. Then she raises her chin and does what I come to recognize as her standard imitation of people she doesn’t respect. Sometimes she uses this voice to imitate teachers; other times, politicians or parents. Never students. “People say, ‘Well, you know, test scores don’t take into account creativity and the love of learning,'” she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. “I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t give a crap.’ Don’t get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job.”

Rhee has fired a number of teachers and administrators who haven’t improved test scores. I don’t have a problem with firing teachers. I recognize that it’s very difficult in most jurisdictions to the this but the idea of having the best possible teachers is not arguable. What is arguable is how we find those teachers and how we determine who are best teachers are.

I’ve been in a number of schools of late and seen students whose reading scores are the least of their problems. If you’ve been in schools lately you know what I mean.  15 year olds, living on their own, coming to school high, 1st graders so full of anger they threaten classmates lives and the list goes on. These students do not need to see their reading scores meet or exceed grade level by the end of the year, they need “touch-feely” teachers. By “touchy-feely”, I mean teachers that have time, expertise and passion to help them function as human beings, never mind reading. Reading is priority number 236 in their list of needs.  I spent a few hours watching these at risk students building a canoe from scratch. Students who, for a change, were attending school, interacting politely with adults, finding a purpose. No standardized test in the world could measure this. But the gains made by these students because of “touch-feely” teachers is unquestionable. These teachers deserve a raise.

I’ve also been in schools with students who are so far above reading level and ability that the curriculum and classroom activities are laughable. They sit in their desks and hate it when teachers ask them to consider how they learn or what they want to learn, they just want to be told what to do because they’re good at it and have had years of success playing that game and are upset when a teacher wants to change the rules.m They need opportunity to show their creative side. They need to be teaching others.  They might ace a standardized test and the teacher might be seen as successful. I’m not sure the teachers or students have done anything worthwhile.

These two diverse groups of students are the reason standardized tests and Rhee-like one-size-fits-all education isn’t valuable. Again I applaud the efforts to improve but the hard nose, testing attitudes may demonstrate short term gains and look excellent on a spreadsheet but is it really making a difference for kids? Modern education suffers from the simple problem that we are driven by multiple outcomes and agencies. Ask 10 people what schools are for and you’ll get 10 different answers. Maybe not 10 but at least 3, that while may not be diametrically opposed, but certainly require very different approaches. Teaching someone how to read and write, someone else how to create healthy relationships and someone else how to design a well, require vastly different skills and different measuring tools. Currently the same person is often asked to do the same thing and use the same measuring tool for all three.  All three are equally important and while maybe not mutually exclusive, our schools are not currently structured to blend them.

Disrupting Class outlines the future and possibility of customized learning. It involves assessing students as individuals and designing customized learning for every student. Individualized instruction has been talked about for a while but today’s technology is making it more of a reality. Again, this is not just about technology but it is about reforming educations and schools to meet the needs of students, not arbitrary tests on reading and math as if those are the two most important things in the world.   Many have seen the Ken Robinson video and this quote says a lot:

But something strikes you when you move to America and when you travel around the world: every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Every one, doesn’t matter where you go, you’d think it would be otherwise but it isn’t. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on earth.

And in pretty much every system too, there’s a hierarchy within the arts. Art and music are normally given a higher status in schools than drama and dance. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not? I think this is rather important. I think maths is very important but so is dance.

Is there anyone that disagrees with this? And in today’s world, I’d add character.

So if those like Michelle Rhee had a little broader understanding of education and want to improve schools, I’d be all over it.

  • Find the best teachers. These are teacher that in addition to experts in pedagogy and content, understand how to design customized learning and have the resources to find out who is best able to help every student.  Fire those that can’t or won’t figure this out. Good teachers don’t need accountability because they feel responsibility and would welcome an
  • Customize learning. Stop the assumption that reading and writing and math are the most important things everyone needs to learn.  Anyone who suggests reading is more important than art scares me.
  • Measure learning. Not with a ridiculously one time test but with a variety of assessments, over time, that actually measure what each student NEEDS to learn.

As it stands right now, I’m not sure Washington is any further ahead with leadership like this. Is it better than doing nothing? Maybe, but we can do better and from what I see in schools, we need to do better.

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  • I have had the good fortune to work in a district for 13 of the past 15 years where standardized tests are given, but with a different focus. Tests are administered around October every year for the purpose of documenting needs that can then be addressed during the rest of the year. The act of giving the tests so early means that a teacher doesn’t feel the need to “teach to the test” in the months prior and doesn’t feel a personal responsibility for the outcomes.

    Recently, I spent two years working in another district where tests were administered in March and the results could lead to bonus pay on one end or dismissal on the other. Predictably, teachers spent an inordinate amount of time teaching to the test – worksheet piled on worksheet to review skills. My job in technology support was frustrating to say the least. From September through March, I did little other than support the LMS and listen to what teachers wanted to do with technology “once the test is behind us.” I can’t count the number of times, teachers would lament that they couldn’t wait to really begin teaching in April…

    Neither of these is a perfect solution, but I’d prefer the first one hands down to the latter. What is really needed is what you suggest – a method to “Measure learning. Not with a ridiculously one time test but with a variety of assessments, over time, that actually measure what each student NEEDS to learn.”

    To make this happen, though, requires an investment not only in materials and training, but an investment in time. Asking teachers to meet the needs of 120+ students every day with only a 50 minute period to plan leads to the wholesale teaching methods we see today. To individualize, to plan engaging lessons, to use assessment to drive instruction, and to help students grow on an personal level requires thoughtful planning that can only come with an investment of time.

    Will districts ever be willing to invest as much time into time as they do into testing?

    Michelle Bourgeoiss last blog post..Learning isn’t supposed to be fun.

  • Interesting post, Dean. I just wrote about how US education policies are threatening to infect other countries, and bam, you add Canada to the list.

    Jim Horn recently wrote a great post on the Top 10 Reasons Teaching Jobs Based on Test Scores is Bad that sums it up really well.

    Clay Burells last blog post..Deal, Doyle

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  • I would agree that teaching students to read is vital. However, where many miss the mark in preparing for standardized tests is to focus on teaching reading for reading’s sake.

    However, decoding text is not what’s engaging about reading. Why we as adults like to read is because we have found content that we are passionate about reading. Our job as teachers then is to help students find what it is that they’re passionate about (science, art, social studies, math) and then the reading and writing often organically follows the content with teacher support.

    Students who are required to do higher level thinking in schools should do well on standardized tests. However, students who have been prepared to take a standardized test aren’t necessarily higher level thinkers.

    Mathews last blog post..Peforming Arts Help Students Write Sensory Details

  • This post and first comment make me think of many of the things that currently happen within my own district. We have a fairly new central office that has taken the secondary schools down a path toward learner-centered constructivism.

    However, at the same time, we have embraced the need to wake up and shake up our faculties. We also have a push toward accountability, which as much as it is desperately needed, tends to conflict in many ways? How? Well- periodic “benchmark” exams designed to homogenize the educational experience across three high schools, and the ensuing march toward a pacing guide for all teachers to follow.

    I am all for accountability in this, one of our most crucial careers. I am also for the spatula approach to slide under the butts and flip up all stagnant, lazy staff who are with us for all the wrong reasons and stand in the way of any real progress. However, when the very reform we need is a total restructuring that will require innovative and differentiated approaches to each student’s needs… the current accountability approaches fall well short. In fact, most would say they hinder progress.

    Your final three bullet-points… if I may:

    -expect educators with strong TPACK -fu. support them in moving this direction. don’t take no for an answer. this is a very secure job in a very insecure economy. step up. expect a great deal.

    -differentiate. and not only within the structure of the “normal” school schedule. shake things up. do it differently. if it isn’t working, for heck’s sake change. take a risk. (i realize NCLB inhibits this on a large-scale basis)

    -figure out what it means to truly assess learning. i think we know 75% of it. the rub is, that it doesn’t work very well from washington… or jefferson city… or whatever capital you serve. assessment is INTIMATE. it can’t be done effectively at the state level. we’ve figured that out. stop it. find ways to hold school systems accountable for the assessment that THEY conceive of and carry out. support them monetarily in figuring this out. only control from afar those schools who cannot figure it out.

    Excellent post. Excellent rant.

    Sean

    Sean Nashs last blog post..How do you spell constructivism?

  • People in Michelle Rhee’s position are not interested in student learning. They are interested in test scores. The problem as I see it (broken record time) is we don’t have a purpose for education in the United States. Do we teach for citizenship, business careers, or for classical learning? I hate to think that my purpose as a teacher is to prepare my student for a test. That isn’t worthy of my time or more importantly, my students.

    As for accountability, why don’t they just fire teachers that don’t like kids? It seems like a great place to start and they are very easy to identify!

    wmchamberlains last blog post..Mr. McClung’s Sixth Grade Blog

  • It was refreshing to read a post from someone who realizes the challenges facing our students today. I teach at an alternative high school in Nebraska. Approximately 15 of our students are parents. Many of our students live on their own. Many come to school hungry, tired, and cold. They are much more concerned about paying their bills than passing the standardized tests. They hate tests, but they never fail to amaze me with their desire to learn. I made the bold move of throwing out traditional tests the year. Instead the students play the role of historian as they work on one major project each quarter. This year instead of reviewing for tests they have learned to blog, evaluate websites, create digital stories, and publish content to the Internet. If schools were judged based on their ability to take throw away kids and give them back their dignity and sense of purpose we would be leading the charge! Kids will only learn from people that they know care about them. The current system does not send the right message to students.

    Beth Stills last blog post..PD Cafeteria Style: Picking and Choosing What I Learn (and whom I learn it from)

  • Tim

    A friend of mine is the principal of a very unique elementary school in DC, one in which almost all the students pass their standardized tests. Rhee, however, treats the school just like the others in the city and actively discourages the staff from experimenting with anything other than prep for the standardized tests.

    I also know others who work in the District, both in public and private schools, and who have told me that the profile in Time was actually kind. Rhee really is only interested in the numbers, not in fostering true school reform and real learning.

    Tims last blog post..A Pretty Poor Investment

  • I think @wmchamberlain is on the right track by stating that the problem lies in our lack of a concrete purpose for schools. However, our lack of a concrete purpose I think is the result of a larger problem for which the problems in our school systems are a direct result. The problem lies more in what driving forces our human race has allowed to guide everything from our structures of governance to our schools, to how we fulfill our material needs. This problem has its roots far back in our history to the invention of money for trading goods and services. Where at first benign, this tool has allowed the worst of human traits to inform and direct nearly every aspect of how people relate to one another, how we treat our environment, and what we value. For money to work we have to have a fundamentally universal understanding of the definition and concept of ownership. More specifically, things become possessions. Possessions can be traded. A variable can be assigned to hold the value of said possessions. Thereby laying the foundation for our economic system. A system that can be taken advantage of. An abstract system based on the abstract concept of ownership. When that system crashes as it has recently we don’t see material disappear, we have not really lost anything real. What we loose is the illusion we have created by investing in abstract concepts such as ownership and money.

    Ownership has had different meanings historically by different cultures. Traditional American Indian cultures had a very different understanding of ownership than feudal systems that emerged in Europe or even Eastern cultures such as emerged in Tibet or Bhutan. Under feudal systems the concept of ownership was less abstract but was the foundation for it’s existence. The monarchy owns everything. The populous is granted by the monarchy permission to use their goods. As cultures indoctrinated under feudal systems evolved and systems of government changed the concept of ownership remained. These cultures later spread their view of ownership across the world through colonization, enslavement, genocide, and more recently commercialization. This understanding of and value for the concept of ownership and the evolved need for our species to hold on to this abstract notion has spread throughout the whole world. Cultures who have a different concept of or no concept of ownership at all are either looked at as primitive or are forced to comply and reform. Not to do so often results in the loss of basic needs, imprisonment, or even torture.

    Ownership is control. Our economy dictates who has this control. Our governments are chiefly concerned with the economy. Our governments mandate standardized testing in math so members of our society can participate in this economy and understand their place. Our governments mandate standardized testing in reading so members of our society can communicate well enough to help drive this economic engine by producing goods and trading them with each other. All traditional reasons given for what schools are for all equate to the same thing: Schools exist to reinforce the concept of ownership and produce adults devoted to this notion thereby maintaining structures of control.

    We are starting to see the flaws inherent in basing our society on the concept of ownership unravel. Ownership begets greed and greed begets lust, gluttony, and envy. Greed and gluttony have resulted in the decline in our environment that if left unchecked will ultimately result in our own extinction. This ownership society has also resulted in the diminished quality of life for most people living in third world nations and many of the poor living in our industrialized nations. This includes the “at risk” students in our schools whose basic needs are not met.

    Now, we have collectively developed some concepts that run counter to the idea of ownership and have thus thrown a wrench in the ownership control system. Those include the Bill of Rights which includes freedom of speech. Based in our right to free speech the recent open source movement has brought the concept of ownership into question. Creative Commons also throws a wrench in this ownership idea as do socialized medicine and universal health care.

    Our failing schools are a result of the collapse of the ownership doctrine. Standardized tests test a student’s ability to thrive and participate in an ownership society. What subjects of study would we value more if we eliminated our current concept of ownership? What would our world look like if ownership did not reign supreme. Those teachers, administrators, and politicians who support standardized testing, teach to the test, and use standardized tests in math and reading to measure the success of a school are agents of the ownership society. They are agents of a social system that has historically included slavery, genocide, torture, and greed.

    Carl Andersons last blog post..What is Online Learning Anyway?

  • Sean,

    I like your bullet points. Certainly there’s some infrastructure issues that need to be addressed but I’m with you.

    Tim,

    Again, I was using Rhee as a metaphor in some ways but it’s nice to have that type of inside information that isn’t always evident.

    Carl,

    Wow, what a thoughtful comment. More than this space maybe deserves. It’s nice to have readers who are willing to expand the discussion beyond where I could take it. Thanks for taking the time to write.

    Dean Shareskis last blog post..Why Michelle Rhee gets its wrong

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  • Bob Regan

    Great post, thanks for kicking off what has been a great conversation.

    I think there is a danger here of painting everything in black and white terms. The problem is that we live in a very gray world. Real learning is hard work. It requires sustained concentration and effort. This does not mean it can’t be fun. I have actually seen a curriculum on boat building that was a intense as any science curriculum I have ever experienced. This is not to say that it can’t also be as light and fluffy as a kitten. The art of teaching is creating a curriculum that engages students emotionally and at the same time, engages traditional core content that students will be expected to demonstrated in contexts outside of that classroom. Ted Sizer’s work in the 90’s remains some of the best around in this area. Kids need to possess higher level thinking skills, but quite honestly, there are facts they should just know. If you can marry the two together so there is a real reason to know those things, you are really on to something. It is not easy in our own classrooms. It can be even more of a challenge to help other teachers come up with similar projects for their own classrooms.

    @Carl, Larry Cremin once described arguments about education as, “arguments about the good life.” What we value as important and beautiful becomes what we think our children should be taught in schools. This is as true in a truly progressive society as it is in a purely capitalist one. In talking war time propaganda, Antonio Gramsci talked about the struggle over ‘common sense’. What we perceive as everyday truths are really malleable concepts, each with a degree of ‘truth’ in them. Politics, and by extension education, is the ongoing struggle to connect a specific position to the realities people face every day. I don’t see the standards movement as the failure of the ownership paradigm. Rather, I see it as the result of schools failing children over an extended period of time. This is the reality by many measures. The right made the case to parents and the broader community based on this reality, in a more compelling way than the left did. The ‘back to basics’ movement, ‘no child left behind’ and accountability all contain elements we admire, even if we disagree with the end result. With a new administration and a chance to start fresh again, I would encourage everyone to constantly frame arguments in terms that reflect the realities that students, teachers and parents are facing every day. Students should leave school loving ideas, but with the ability to get jobs that will help them feed themselves and their families. Students should pursue solutions to real world problems that force them to think creatively and innovate in a way that we have not seen before, and might have to memorize a few facts to accelerate their progress along the way. Teachers should do everything in their power to help their students succeed, and those that don’t should find another way to make a living. All of these are messy, complicated issues that I sure many will point out. Black and white solutions won’t help us here.

    Thanks for the conversation!

  • Maria

    As a parent and arts educator who has worked with children in Washington, DC for the last twenty years, I personally know that children whose parents are incarcerated or on drugs, children who don’t eat on the weekends until Monday during school hours, children who live where violence is as typical as night and day are more challenging to teach than children who eat healthy food everyday, children whose parents help them with homework, children who don’t have to worry about getting shot or jumped on a daily basis.
    Chancellor Rhee and her conservative Republican, think tank buddies know that SOCIO-ECONOMICS definitely impacts academic success rates and it takes a full offering of resources to provide the services that children from these impacted area need in order to succeed academically. “The blame the teacher myth” that Rhee and the corporate right are ramming down the throats of Americans conveniently gives them an excuse to dismantle public education and funnel federal money into charter schools that are run by opportunistic “Eduprenuers” and funded by corporate pimps like Sam Walton of Wallmart fame. Mainstream Media is complicit in the crime of destroying public education as they print one dimensional features like the piece on Michelle Rhee, the witch with a broom – standing in an empty classroom – not only are teachers absent in the picture, students are also absent – which implies that her goal is to make public education disappear from DC and then she will ride off on her broom to the next American city and perform the same “trick” until she eventually kills public education completely. Hopefully the same children that she secretly hates will rise up and turn her into a frog or better yet, a real public school superintendent.

  • “Anyone who suggests reading is more important than art scares me.”

    Really?

    One of those two disciplines will affect a student’s lifelong ability a) to employ, feed, and clothe herself, b) to decipher the political, cultural, and social signifiers she’ll encounter daily, and c) to enjoy and experience art. The other is art.

    Rhee’s condescension and her readiness to propagate some harmful dichotomies really troubles me. Unfortunately, I find them here, also, though you’re advocating the other half of it. Thankfully no has forced a choice between caring for students’ emotion well-being and promoting rigorous, measurable achievement in essential skills. Done properly, with respect to a student’s developmental needs, they are one and the same.

    Dan Meyers last blog post..The Rule Of Least Power: An Initial Approach

  • Dan,

    I’m glad you chimed in here. I recall your post earlier but it didn’t register.

    Actually I do believe that art is equal to reading. Particularly in the light of many of these “back to basics” efforts where culture and creativity takes a back seat. Certainly it doesn’t have to be an either or approach but that’s what some of these initiatives foster.

    I wouldn’t say I’m arguing the “other half” but rather for what I believe is a huge part of our future success in schools and that is to develop curricula and offerings that truly meet the needs of every student, not in some artificial way but in ways that make a difference for them.

    The more time I spend in schools the more I see divergence in ability,needs and interests. We have to start addressing this beyond a bunch of test scores or even with lip service about differentiation.

    I even have a problem with the term rigor. Not sure what you mean by it but any definition I’ve read doesn’t sound very good to me:
    1. Strictness or severity, as in temperament, action, or judgment.
    2. A harsh or trying circumstance; hardship. See synonyms at difficulty.
    3. A harsh or cruel act.
    4. Medicine. Shivering or trembling, as caused by a chill.
    5. Physiology. A state of rigidity in living tissues or organs that prevents response to stimuli.
    6. Obsolete. Stiffness or rigidity.

    Essential skills is another term which I think needs some revision. Our current academic world views this in pretty traditional terms. Not that that is all bad but needs to be way broader. As I mentioned in the post. The work I see some of the teachers in my district doing with hugely at risk students impresses me and I couldn’t tell you for sure if they can read all that well. But knowing what kind of life they live outside of school and what there current future holds, they are getting a first grade education, that I would say Ms. Rhee would spit on. That bothers me.

  • Dean,

    If you insist on equating art with reading on the shelf of Skills That Are Important For Enjoying Life (and I do think they are both important, and that one has been marginalized somewhat in recent years) I have to wonder if you are witnessing or have ever witnessed the debilitating effect of illiteracy (and innumeracy) on an entire community, the sort of debilitation persistent for generations, with parents unable to help children read and learn, the cycle of poverty neverending.

    If, however, your POV is from an upper-middle SES classroom where most of the students can read a newspaper and draw informed conclusions, your assertion is understandable, though it doesn’t give you a lot of authority to speak on the issues facing low-SES communities, Washington, D.C., for one particularly relevant example, where the students do not need music appreciation, where they need to be able to read a newspaper and draw informed conclusions.

    Those of us who would put reading above art may scare you, but I don’t think you’ve justified your fear.

    Dan Meyers last blog post..The Rule Of Least Power: An Initial Approach

  • audrey

    The problem I see with not viewing art education with the same regard as reading is that it increases the likelihood that more affluent parents will resist being in districts with poorer children because it will have a negative impact on their child’s education. It will be deemed acceptable for poorer children to have a bare bones education that prepares them for merely the lowest level of literate employment, and whose cultural literacy limits their inclusion in any area that requires the broadly literate. Those who accept such a reality have already accepted defeat; they have embraced inequity as a form of empowerment.

    I would be more controversial in my solution to the literacy problems in our schools. Bring back homogeneous grouping for skill instruction. Students need daily instruction at their own levels, not mangled attempts to differentiate so as not to identify different needs explicitly. They need to get their instruction during the most productive parts of the day, not as part of a band-aid afterschool and weekend approach…. which is how covert homogeneous grouping is implemented today.

    Save broad based forms of literacy and allow children to be served exactly what they need in their skill based classes so that schools continue to serve all parts of development, differing needs are not placed in conflict in the school setting, and justifiable class warfare is kept to a minimum.

  • Jim D

    I totally agree with what you are saying, however, in your final bullet points, “Find the best teachers” is easier said than done. They are a rare commodity, and many of them are burned out in just a few years. They are simply overwhelmed by all the “stuff” they are expected to do, including preparing students for standardized tests. The best and brightest need to make a living too, and although starting salaries have improved, beginning teachers have a tough time making ends meet (and paying off their student loans). Certainly there are many gifted teachers still plugging away each day (thank God!), but there aren’t enough of them to go around.

  • If it were not for the arts what would we read or write about

    What happened to reading across the curriculum Teaching and learning about reading for reading sake is like learning about a foreign language with nothing to communicate. The same is true for math. How means nothing without why. Motivation is important and we can’t forget that.

    Carl Andersons last blog post..What is Online Learning Anyway?

  • What happened to my punctuation this morning?

    Carl Andersons last blog post..What is Online Learning Anyway?

  • Dan,

    Audrey addressed some of my concerns.

    “Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job.”

    As Carl says, what would we read about if not for the arts. I think you’re assuming arts education would be “fluffy” when it need not be.

    My biggest gripe is the one-size-fits-all approach.

    My fear is what I see when schools cancel recess, music, phys. ed in effort to raise test scores. I’m sure you have but I’d urge you to spend some time watching/listening to Ken Robinson. He makes a more compelling case than I do.

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  • Interesting discussion on the reason for school, and I think an important one. If the purpose of school is simply to educate everyone to some lowest-common-denominator level, then the course that should be followed is standardised testing. If, however, the goal is creating good citizens, or fostering a habit of life-long learning, or basically anything else, then standardised tests fall short of measuring when/if that kind of learning is taking place.

    Part of the problem is that different interest groups attempt to foist their own meaning on education: parents want it to prepare their children for life as adults, business wants it to prepare people for jobs, government wants… well, who knows, really. Teachers are caught in the middle of sometimes diametrically opposed goals, with that year’s focus being that which was yelled loudest at the last school board meeting.

    For the time being, the standardised testing model is leading, but we all know that education is cyclic, and we’ll eventually get something else to take its place. As teachers, we need to focus on student achievement, whether it can be measured by a test or not.

    Ian H.s last blog post..What I read 12/01/2008

  • We’re debating across each other here, Dean. I’m saying, simply, teaching literacy is more important than teaching podcasting or vodcasting or music appreciation or painting or drawing or photography. Full stop.

    To which you have responded, “It’s a shame that these art programs get cut to in favor of core curriculum like reading.”
    Or: “The emphasis on test-at-all-costs is killing us.”
    Or: “Reading should be enriched by art.”

    None of which I disagree with. None of which anyone here disagrees with. They are both important. One should enrich the other. It is a shame when one gets cut

    So I’ll go even further here hoping to leave you no floor space for another straw man: if an eighth grader is reading at a third grade level, she needs her art elective replaced by another class that will help her read, write, and speak fluently. Just so I’m clear, this class needs to present reading, writing, and speaking in a meaningful context, one which will include popular and classical art appreciation, but literacy is the priority and prerequisite here. Not art.

    I’m asking you justify your first statement and you have responded (thus far) exclusively with rebuttals to points no one has made.

  • I wonder what drop-out rates look like before and after schools cut art or music programs.

    Dan, your line, “this class needs to present reading, writing, and speaking in a meaningful context,” is right on mark.

    Carl Andersons last blog post..What is Online Learning Anyway?

  • Dan, please stop trying to be so lucid. 😉

    I think your example in some ways justifies my belief that one size does not fit all. For a time, perhaps that’s exactly what that student needs…intensive literacy education. But not forever.

    At the same time, the students that cannot socially function might not do well in your classroom and needs something different.

    How did I do?

    Dean Shareskis last blog post..Why Michelle Rhee gets its wrong

  • Yeah, sounds good, though I still can’t tell how seriously to take your original, “Anyone who suggests reading is more important than art scares me.”

    Dan Meyers last blog post..Wrongheaded Presuppositions

  • Please explain to me how you will be able to understand and gain information about (for example) American politics and different candidate positions. And how you will apply for most jobs through dance. And how you will file your taxes through dance.

    Then you will have me convinced.

  • Dan,

    To me anyone who feels the need to assert that reading is more important than art usually does so as a quick segue into, let’s get rid of it. I suppose it’s hyperbolic in some respects but I’m not prepared to rank the value of either. I don’t see the value. Is Math more important than reading? Is reading more important than writing? Is hearing more important than seeing?

    The person who says that, I fear has something up their sleeve.

    Morgante,
    Again, not saying don’t teach reading but political decisions, filing taxes and a job isn’t all there is to life. For some students, they may never get a job without some help in basic social skills. Everyone is different and people like Rhee fail to see that diversity in learning. Again, I never said we shouldn’t teach art but those presume we have to choose and indeed prescribe one size fits all learning concern me. That was point and still is.

    Dean Shareskis last blog post..Why Michelle Rhee gets its wrong

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  • It is amazing what one small comment can start. Unfortunately, we get so caught up with the definitions of “art” and “literacy” that we forget that they are (1) inseparable, and (2) not the point. What I am simply trying to say is that each teacher has to decide why they teach, because we don’t have an overriding nation-wide vision.

    If a teacher teaches to increase test scores, they decided that was most important. If a teacher decides to base their teaching on creating responsible adults, he/she has decided that is most important. If a teacher decides to base their teaching around using tools (like technology), that is what is most important.

    Maybe our strength as teachers are that we have differing ideas of what is important and subsequently emphasize different ideas. Maybe it is our weakness. What do you think?

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  • Dean,

    Well that’s the point. I absolutely agree with you that a one-size-fits all solution does not work, and this is not a zero sum game.

    My problem is with the statement that:

    Stop the assumption that reading and writing and math are the most important things everyone needs to learn. Anyone who suggests reading is more important than art scares me.

    As you just admitted to, reading is needed to even have any semblance of success in our society. No matter what way you try to spin it, art is not needed. With that in mind, I would argue that reading thus is more important than arts education. One is required, the other helps but is not absolutely required.

    Sure, we can talk about how everyone is different – everyone is. But everyone is also part of a literate society, which expects you to read and write. Schools which fail to teach students the basic skills needed to be a part of this society fail in their core mission – to prepare students to be citizens.

  • @Morgante Pell

    One could argue that the arts are arguably more important than reading. We base more decisions every day on aesthetics than we do on reading. The things we see, the spatial relationships between objects, the expressions on people’s faces, textures we encounter on surfaces of things we come in contact with, sounds we hear, the way someone gestures while talking, the tone of a person’s voice and the like are all more important most of the time than what can be gained through reading. These things also inform everything about how we interpret what we read. They provide understanding and definition to the adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs we use in our language. Even the design of the typeface the words we read are written in informs how we interpret meaning from the text. To say reading is more important than art is like saying that vowels are more important than consonants. A person who is visually, kinesthetically, and auditorily literate but cannot read text is far better prepared to thrive in our world than a person who can read but is aesthetically inept.

    Also, you write:

    Schools which fail to teach students the basic skills needed to be a part of this society fail in their core mission – to prepare students to be citizens.

    For this to be true we all have to agree with the last phrase. Is this really the core mission of schools today? If this were universally accepted we would have laws making school completion a prerequisite for full citizenship. To suggest this today sounds ludicrous. If it were true this would be the natural conclusion would it not? So, if school completion is not prerequisite to full citizenship than what other purpose is there for schools. The other purpose that is thrown out there a lot is that schools are meant to prepare students to be productive members of our nation’s workforce. This is changing now too. This was an easy to see conclusion during the industrial era but in the information age the school must serve some other purpose.

    Carl Andersons last blog post..What is Online Learning Anyway?

  • Athens produced history’s most famous illiterate, Socrates, who opposed the technology of writing on the grounds that it would corrupt the human mind and destroy the memory of mankind (Plato, 360 BCE).

    A quick Google search brought me to this site with a list of famous and successful people with learning disabilities like dyslexia that make reading a struggle for them: Famous People with Dyslexia, Other LD and/or AD/HD. To what should we attribute their success to if reading is not their strong suit?

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  • Well. Didn’t that just send chills down my spine.

    This person, let’s call her that, thinks test scores are what build a human being, hmmmm? That being able to ‘read’ is it? And I don’t think she actually means read, she means get a good score on a test. Because test scores are tangible.

    As an advocate for that drippy creativity, the arts are what prepare students to become human beings. Prepared to take on the real world. They promote expression, communication, team building, confidence, independent thought. Real world skills. Hasn’t Rhee heard that companies want creative thinkers? Where do you think students become creative thinkers?

    Ah, I know I’m ranting in the wrong place. It just drives me nuts. It’s having people in charge of education, who don’t actually like kids all that much. Nutty.

    And I don’t know where she gets that education is touchy-feely. Not the schools I’ve been in….

  • I think what needs considering is how important the arts are to many of the students who are struggling with the “basics” like reading and math. For many of them, it’s the best part of their school day, maybe even their entire day. A dance class or an art class is what’s keeps them coming to school, or at least, improves their attendance. The desire to communicate artfully, such as in the narration of a documentary, pushes them to want to improve their written language skills. The need to write down some lyrics for a song they want to record, improves their writing. Trying to figure out how to paint something in Photoshop pushes them to search for help using written sources.

    I wonder how much of our efforts to become literate, numerate, pro social…have to do with our need to create and consume art. I’m guessing a lot.

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  • Fabulous review. Rhee is offeringthe pablum of “market-based solutions” – suggesting that we incentivize short term, single-measurement success. That isn’t reform, that is moving from a terrible version of the industrial model of education to an even worse one.

    But you’ve said it better than I have.

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  • JK

    “But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job.”

    Not to be scary and/or naive, but how can a teacher find fault with this statement? Ok, maybe an art teacher, but your students should know how to read the labels on the turpentine can, right?
    I think when people argue against measuring the success or failure of educators they point to those kids with other issues — ADHD, crack-head parents, etc — instead of at the whole, which is like saying Tom Coughlin can’t be judged as a coach, look at Plaxico! We’re talking about the huge numbers of students failing tests and dropping out of school, and producing kids of their own that cannot read… where do we think those high, homeless, illiterate 15 yr olds come from? We do need better and better teachers, and we DO need art and canoe building, but not at the expense of a school full of children failing to learn.

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  • JK,

    I actually think there are times when canoe building should supersede reading. Reading is not the panacea cure all drug for everyone. It is vitally important but I’d rather have an caring illiterate than a socially misfit reader.

    Again, no reason why we have to choose but in some cases, we need to choose where we begin connecting with students. Learning to build a canoe can involve reading but to the students and others, they’d never think of that connection, they’re building a canoe and by the way, in order to do, they have to read.

    I’d also concede that sometimes kids have been cheated out of learning to read in order to participate in fluffy, meaningless activities. My point is that every child should be assessed according to their needs and sometimes it might seem unorthodox to others but in fact is based on data, observation and an understanding of what they need as a human being, not an academic. If schools are only about academics, then ya, scrap the canoe building. But public education’s mandate goes far beyond academics. At least I think most would agree that it’s certainly multi-faceted.

  • I teach at a very low SES elementary school (90%+ free lunch). After 8 years of, “I don’t think at risk schools should really teach anything but reading and math,” (a quote from a former superintendent) kind of approach we are reaping those rewards.

    Now we find that it was the art, science, social studies, PE, sports programs and more that built the schema for reading. If you spent much time at my school and others like it, you would note that students are pretty good at reading aloud … they just don’t understand much of what they read because they have had so few experiences in life. Kids that have never played sports, don’t understand or get too excited about a story involving sports. Students don’t make relationships between even the simplest concepts … so even if I can sound out all the words it doesn’t have much meaning.

    I look around my classroom and know that if it follows the statistics … about half my students won’t graduate from high school. The high school isn’t that far away, so I see former students. Very few get to play sports or take art classes or computer programming or auto mechanics because they are behind in language and math skills OR because they have zero experience with art or music or sports so they have no interest or personal knowledge if they are good at them or like them. Even though only a very small percentage of people ever use anything above 4th grade math in their lives we force students to take ever higher level math classes in high school even if they have art skills or mechanical skills to even graduate. So school is a place where I go and take the same classes I have always struggled in and I rarely get to do the activities that might make meaning of reading and writing or get me excited about something and give me reason to stay in school… when I graduated from 6th grade I already had gone further in school than anybody in my family ever … so I’m already a success .. I guess. Why bother?

    So yes, students should have good reading and math skills, but how many do we disenfranchise from school beginning in kindergarten when little of school builds on or respects the talents students do have? It’s interesting how many times an art project or a science experiment or “building something” as part of a project will reveal talents and ways into the curriculum for elementary students … things you can draw connections with in stories they read that continues that interest. Students require both … reading instruction and math … but also quality science, social studies, art, music and PE programs and that will cost more if for no other reason students in at risk schools will need an expanded day and year to get ALL of that. The Rhee’s of the world do not want to acknowledge that … they want prove it can be done with less and to do what has tried and failed because they feel it just wasn’t done hard or rigorous enough.

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  • E Favorite

    The author says, “Rhee has fired a number of teachers and administrators who haven’t improved test scores.”

    Really? If there’s a citation that gives evidence for her firing people based on tests scores, please post it. I have neither seen nor heard of any such thing.

    She’s fired people, but just whomever she pleased, because they didn’t “fit”

  • I loved this post! You said so much, so well. I, too, fear that we are testing to death and not paying enough attention to the hearts and creative minds of students. Of course, NCLB, has driven the issue of tests deeper into our educational culture. We do have to step back and “think different.” I work in New Hampshire. Soon after NCLB took effect, our tech literacy standards were revised to include an emphasis on the use of digital portfolios. We didn’t try to impose another test. We tried to think about the 21st century environment our kids are in and how that might look in terms of the work we would expect them to be doing in school. It seemed as thought portfolios would be a part of that. Since those standards took effect, we have been involved in what I call a multi-year change process. Schools needed to be able to store students’ work (which many were not set up to do back in 2002). They needed to figure out who would help kids learn about the portfolio process, what kind of portfolio “container” they would use to show their collection of portfolio items, how and when they would ask kids to reflect on their work, and last but not least, how teachers might actually assess students’ work contained in portfolios. We’ve come far down the road but certainly still have a ways to go.

    Now there’s a grant funded to WestEd to devise a tech literacy framework that would be added to NAEP’s repertoire of tests. Recent news articles in eSchoolNews defined this effort as one that would lead to another test. I hope it’s not a test in the traditional sense. I hope the committees will think way outside the traditional boxes. I think, Dean, you’ve stated the issues well in your post. I hope we, the educational community in the U.S., will decide collectively that character is more important to us than perfect test scores, that creativity is not so easily measured but is very highly prized, and that emphasizing tests over a constantly enriching learning experience does not create balance or progress.

  • While I agree with most of the writers here about the tone Michelle Rhee is taking, i.e., that it is really problematic to have a challenging know-it-all, we also have to remember that this is one journalist’s portrait of her. Frankly, she wouldn’t get very far as a reformer if she wasn’t pushing a ferocious agenda. The educational establishment is pretty set in their ways, and isn’t going to change of its own accord. And we are failing generations of students. So despite the tone, I think we have to give Rhee, Klein and their type a chance to see what they can do. My only fear is that we will drift so far over to the culture of testing and “achievement at all costs” that we won’t be able to get back.

    The journalist writes: “People say, ‘Well, you know, test scores don’t take into account creativity and the love of learning,'” she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. “I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t give a crap.’ Don’t get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job.”

    In a way she is right. Our kids have to know how to read. Data on high school dropouts tells us that non school completers make 21,000$ on average, are at higher risk for incarceration, suffer worse health, have children less likely to graduate high school and are less engaged in civic processes. But what Rhee’s comment shows is a marked lack of understanding about how children learn to read. Reading isn’t simply a scientific acquisition process, but requires enjoyment– the “art” of reading. If we reduce all education to science we aren’t going to get the results we want. Education is also an art form and creative process– as any good teacher knows.

    I am worried that in the war between the progressive educators and the corporatists, the establishment and the reformers, once again the only ones who are going to get hurt are the kids. A moderate approach that synthesizes differing ways of teaching, learning, assessment and leadership might take us farther than entrenched positions.

  • Tracy W

    Stop the assumption that reading and writing and math are the most important things everyone needs to learn. Anyone who suggests reading is more important than art scares me.

    This I think depends on what institution we are thinking about. Many forms of art, like dance, music, painting, sculpture, can be accessed and enjoyed by anyone with a working brain and the relevant sensory organs. Perhaps we enjoy them more greatly if properly taught, but we can appreciate them, and it is quite possible to acquire an informal education of considerable scope in these areas. But literature and mathematics are forms of art that require, for most of us, some formal teaching to be able to appreciate. So from a school’s point of view, where they can really make the difference is in teaching reading and mathematics. And of course those skills are valuable in a practical sense too.

    There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not?

    Several reasons come to mind:
    – children learn to dance outside the classroom far more often than they learn to do mathematics. Therefore if a child isn’t exposed to mathematics in the classroom you are far more likely to be limiting their future appreciation of the arts.
    – mathematics is a skill that opens doorways to a great many subjects. I have had friends who have had to drop out of their desired courses at university because they didn’t have the necessary mathematical background. Children often change their minds about what they want to do as an adult, it is the role of schools to open as many doors for their students as possible.
    – mathematics is useful if you expect your children, as adults, will have something to do with money.

    I don’t deny the value of teaching children dance. But I think it is secondary in importance to teaching mathematics for those reasons.

    These are teacher that in addition to experts in pedagogy and content, understand how to design customized learning and have the resources to find out who is best able to help every student. Fire those that can’t or won’t figure this out.

    I don’t like this, this is very harsh. Why not get your good teachers to provide the resources necessary for the not-so-good teachers? Can we really find enough teachers who are experts in pedagogy and content and understand how to design customised learning to fill every single classroom in the country? I have my doubts – the number of people who have those range of skills is limited, and some of them are likely to be just uninterested in teaching.

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  • @Tracy W

    …children learn to dance outside the classroom far more often than they learn to do mathematics.

    Really? What degree or level of dance and what degree or level of mathematics do they encounter outside the classroom? My 3 year old counts all the time, she is now learning addition and subtraction, and she has a vague sense of variables (she understands that a nickel is worth 5 and a penny is worth 1). She is not in school yet but she has learned these things. She also dances but I would not say that one is done more outside of school than the other. Also, for her I think one activity definitely supports the other. When she counts she often bounces her head in a dance-like rhythm. Also, dance is all about patterns which cognitively are directly linked to mathematics. Perhaps if we taught more dance in our schools our students would perform better at math.

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  • Tracy W

    Really? What degree or level of dance and what degree or level of mathematics do they encounter outside the classroom?

    People dance at parties far more often than they do mathematics puzzles at parties or other social events. Except at the sort of parties I attend, and those parties are mostly made up of people with a lot of formal training in mathematics. I can think of a number of societies that didn’t have schools, or didn’t have schools for girls, but still women in those societies danced.

    Dance patterns may be cogntively directly linked to mathematics, but a lot of mathematics is not cognitively linked to patterns. Eg the proof that the square root of 2 is an irrational number.