The DeHavilland Blog

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The barrier to bold reform

At a meeting of the National Governors Association in 2005, Bill Gates said the following:

America’s high schools are obsolete.

By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded – though a case could be made for every one of those points.

By obsolete, I mean that our high schools – even when they’re working exactly as designed – cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.

Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It’s the wrong tool for the times.

Our high schools were designed fifty years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting – even ruining – the lives of millions of Americans every year.

Today, only one-third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work, and citizenship.

The other two-thirds, most of them low-income and minority students, are tracked into courses that won’t ever get them ready for college or prepare them for a family-wage job – no matter how well the students learn or the teachers teach.

This isn’t an accident or a flaw in the system; it is the system.

While he may be the most often-quoted, he’s certainly not the only one to paint a stark picture of the current state of public education. Many others have done the same, and the call for bold reforms continues to grow.

I’m all for bold reform. But the challenge lies not in coming up with innovative ideas; it is in breaking far enough away from the current system to be able to test those ideas without compromise or restriction.

Consider funding, for example. Whatever new and innovative learning model you want to try, you’ll still face salaries, rent, and a host of other costs – you can’t be innovative unless you can afford to open your doors. So how do you fund your efforts? And how does that funding extend or limit what you can accomplish?

There are three possible solutions to the funding requirement.

Go private. You can, of course, open a private school and charge tuition – but you’re hardly going to make a statement there. Affluent kids are not representative of the entire population, and you won’t be able to claim that your reforms work across the board.

Find a sponsor. You could also find someone with deep pockets to underwrite your efforts, but making a multi-year commitment to a revolutionary model takes deep pockets indeed, and there aren’t many sugar daddies around who can (a) afford to back such a large effort, and (b) have the vision and guts to give it a whirl.

(As an aside, this highlights the biggest challenge faced by Bill Gates: he sees the problem, but keeps hiring industry insiders – ie, former superintendents – to come up with solutions. Do you think someone steeped in the industry for 20 or more years is really going to come up with something revolutionary?)

Go public. Your third, and most promising, choice is to lock in public funding to fuel your efforts. In principle this could mean any public funding model, including vouchers; however, in practical terms, given the legislative environment in the states, the most realistic option available to most reformers involves starting a charter school.

So the question is – if starting a charter school is the only real option for creating and validating truly bold reforms, why isn’t it happening? Why aren’t we seeing the kind of bold innovation that people are calling for, and that charters were intended to produce?

The reason it’s not happening is that we’ve put the existing bureaucracy in charge of deciding what gets funded. The people in charge of a system we’re calling “obsolete” are the ones who get to decide whether anyone gets to try something that could put them out of work. In my home state of North Carolina, for example, charters can only be authorized by local school boards, the University of North Carolina, or the state board of education (see here for details).

Given the threat that substantive reform could turn the existing system upside down, what kind of charters get approved? That’s right – schools that look a lot like existing public schools. Sure, you’ll see smaller-scale innovations like uniforms, themes, community partnerships, or differences in instructional approaches. But I haven’t seen the kinds of paradigm-breaking reforms that could truly lead us into a new perception of effective schooling, such as grouping by ability or a major restructuring of the course of study.

And let’s not forget other handicaps, such as artificial ceilings on the number of charters in many states (North Carolina has a limit of 100, or an average of just one per county). Or that charters don’t receive funds for capital costs, a huge pressure on the operating funds they receive.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying at all that charters aren’t a good thing, or that some of them aren’t doing innovative work. I’ve talked with principals and teachers in charter schools – I’ve seen the passion, the commitment, and the desire to help kids achieve great things.

But I can guarantee you that if you talk to charter school administrators and educators and asked if they’ve been able to truly innovate, the answer will be no. You’ve got to present a model that won’t scare charter authorizers to the point where they won’t award your charter, and even though regulations on charter are reduced, there are still far too many that keep us bound and in line with the current system.

The solution? I suppose the workaround would be to either convince those with big pockets to jump into the pool or rethink the charter authorization process, perhaps giving charter approval authority to mayors and governors rather than school boards and the departments of education. This could still be dangerous – approval boards would most likely be populated by the same education insiders on the grounds that we need “experts” to evaluate applications – but given the current limitations on available funding, it may be the only chance we have to make real innovation possible.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Are our children learning enough about whales?

Leave it to The Onion to give us a perfect parody of every education debate I've ever heard.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How can business help education?

There's an excellent article on by Rick Hess exploring the role that business does, and should, play in K-12 education. I would highly encourage people to go read the complete article, but I wanted to at least share his five suggestions for how business can engage in education reform:

What, specifically, should business do to improve education? Five suggestions:

First, business has expertise in areas like performance evaluation, human resources, information technology, and data systems. Tom Donahue of the U.S. Chamber noted that in a study earlier this year, “Not a single state could provide systematic data on teacher performance or return on investment. No responsible publicly or privately held firm could operate successfully with such a lack of data. While education policymakers have invested great energy in gathering student achievement data, they have paid inadequate attention to developing the kind of information essential to driving organizational improvement.” These are areas where business has decades of hard-won experience. Companies can pass on the lessons to schools.

One development is the benchmarking initiative launched by the American Product Quality Center. APQC is working with districts across the nation to bring to school systems the attention to process and quality control that characterizes high-performing public and private organizations. Another promising venture is the work by the New York–based New Teacher Project to analyze school district personnel policies and human resource departments, devise improvements, and provide solutions.

Second, any vibrant sector requires that strong new ventures have access to venture capital, be able to secure expertise and talent, and have the opportunity to grow. K–12 education directs the vast majority of funds to school systems on a per-pupil basis. As a result, there is little support for new entrants. Even the best new ventures, such as the highly regarded KIPP academies, have had to search hard for minuscule support. As a result, such innovative schools have grown too slowly.

Business leaders should know better. They appreciate the risks in making organizations work and the bracing discipline of accountability and competition. This knowledge should not be left on the shelf when business tackles education. Not just the lack of resources, but also the lack of networks, mentoring, and a straightforward way to locate potential investors, all deter potential entrepreneurs. One attractive model is the San Francisco–based NewSchools Venture Fund, co-founded by venture capitalist John Doerr and staffed, in part, with former high-tech executives and consultants from McKinsey and Accenture. NewSchools offers funding to new providers while tapping its own network to give strategic planning, financial modeling, and fundraising help.

Third, business can get out in front on contentious education reform issues when education innovators themselves can’t. Unfortunately, organizations like Teach for America (TFA) and Edison Schools need to advance cautiously with education authorities in order to preserve relationships and develop new markets. Just consider how multinationals trying to enter China are unlikely to criticize Chinese policy on free speech, and you will get an idea of how difficult it is for TFA to be aggressive with local school boards. Critical leadership—of the sort offered by Jobs, Gates, and Gerstner—is what outsiders often are best equipped to provide.

Fourth, business needs to get tough with school boards, superintendents, and state officials. As it is, too many corporate leaders prefer to avoid conflict that can spark bad feelings or negative publicity. They want education reform, but they want it quiet, collaborative, and calm. However, fixing dysfunctional organizations is always messy, and taking back prerogatives from unions is inevitably a bruising struggle.

The business community is a key player in local bond drives and other efforts to provide more dollars for schooling. Business leaders have too often given money, muscle, and support without demanding substantial reform in exchange. It’s time to strike a savvier bargain. The price of support should be serious movement on fronts such as merit pay, deregulation, expansion of school choice, and transparency.

Finally, business leaders have experience and credibility on issues like accountability, compensation, and management that can allow them to serve as the voice of reason when would-be reformers champion ill-conceived notions. For instance, one popular reform idea is a dubious proposal known as the “65 percent solution,” which has won support from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and other politicians who usually know better. The proposal appears unexceptional, mandating that school districts commit at least 65 percent of their budgets to classroom expenditures, apparently as an alternative to overspending on administration.

The measure, however, is troubling because, in an era when successful schools are finding new ways to deliver education—whether through virtual schooling, supplemental tutoring, or hybrid high school–college programs—it embraces a bookkeeping gimmick that could stifle creative staffing or use of technology. Business needs to take the lead in educating the public and policymakers about the promise and the pitfalls of such measures that claim to advance businesslike virtues.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Do educators really want to dismantle NCLB?

Based on reports in the trade and general press, one would think that teachers, administrators, and parents are uniformly opposed to the No Child Left Behind act. It seems like every day brings a new story about how NCLB is going to singlehandedly destroy public education as we know it, and how the only way to free the victims of this unfair legislation is to repeal the law.

Unfortunately for those who oppose the law, this seems to be a case of the vocal minority getting the ink, while reality looks quite different once the histrionics are set aside.

If you want to learn about the opinions of people inside and outside the education industry regarding NCLB, a good place to start would be ETS’ latest education survey, titled “Standards, Accountability and Flexibility: Americans Speak on No Child Left Behind Reauthorization.” A review of the key findings makes it clear that the public, and parents of K-12 students in particular, support the principles behind the law as well as the law itself, and that while teachers and administrators have an unfavorable opinion of the law (77% and 63% respectively), only a portion of those professionals (25% of teachers and 22% of administrators) believe the law should not be reauthorized. (Most would rather see the law remain with changes made to improve it .)

But what’s more interesting to me is action: if you truly feel an injustice is being committed, you’re more likely to feel compelled to take action against it. Anyone can answer the phone and offer opinions to a pollster; a better measure of true opposition comes with counting the people who take the initiative to sign a petition, write letters, or donate to a cause.

So how many people are taking action to see NCLB torn down? Not many, it turns out. The big teacher unions are firmly in the “fix it, don’t nix it” camp (see here for NEA and here for AFT). The only organized movement comes in the form of The Educator Roundtable, which is circulating a petition for the repeal of NCLB and collecting money for a national awareness campaign.

Given that they are the sole organized effort for elimination of the law, how is The Educator Roundtable doing? Despite getting a fair amount of press and online coverage, not to mention any grassroots awareness created by its supporters and those sympathetic to the cause, they’re not doing terribly well. The group launched its online petition in November 2006, and according to the group’s website, as of today, it has gathered 30,877 signatures from teachers, administrators, and parents. Furthermore, the Roundtable has collected $15,823.16 against its goal of $100,000 for a national ad campaign.

To put this in perspective, consider that there are more than 5.9 million people employed by public elementary and secondary school systems (see page 13 of this report for the 2003-04 figures); we won’t even include the millions upon millions of parents in our calculations, even though The Educator Roundtable encourages their involvement as well. At any rate, based on the total number of professionals employed by public education, only 0.5% have signed on to the petition. And of those 30,877 petition signers, assuming an average donation of $10 (the amount suggested on their site), only 1,582 people, or 5.1% of those who put their names on the petition, felt strongly enough about repealing the law to part with a few dollars.

In fairness, I’m sure that The Educator Roundtable will continue to gradually grow its numbers, both in terms of petition signers and donors. But the fact is, if repealing the law was of real interest to the education community and others, one would expect to see a much, much greater groundswell of activity over the past nine months around the only organized effort in this field. As it stands, it appears that the movement to repeal NCLB is a paper tiger.

That's not to say that the law is flawless. But clearly the smart money is focusing on moving forward with the legislation as a good starting point, and not on erasing the progress we've made to date.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Antonucci on standardized testing

Mike Antonucci has a thought-provoking post on standardized testing - take a look at "In Defense of Bubbles."

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The conference question

Posting has been light over the past few weeks, but with good reason: the redesign of the Business/Education Partnership Forum and the interest generated by our latest research report (over 3,000 downloads to date!) have kept me busier than expected, and that's aside from the ongoing project work, which would keep me hopping even if it weren't for those independent projects.

Despite the current workload, it seems I don't know when enough is enough: I've recently found myself exploring an idea for another independent project, this one a national conference on business/education partnerships. It would be a huge undertaking, and would carry with it a fair amount of financial risk - but I think it could offer tremendous value to people who work in this area, and based on that I'm continuing to explore the idea.

What I'm considering, in essence, is a two-day conference open to all stakeholder groups involved in business/education partnerships that focuses on case studies and effective practices, with sessions led by practitioners and plenty of opportunities for sharing experiences and networking.

Certainly there are other conferences that touch on business/education partnerships: NSPRA, for example, has a strong emphasis on community outreach and partnership development at their conference, and NSFA is similarly focused on how to build strong school/community relationships.

But the conferences offered by these organizations are targeted toward their respective memberships, which ultimately make up only one slice of the partnership picture. It's certainly not a slight against them - they're doing exactly what they should be doing, which is serving their members. They're not charged with bringing other stakeholders (businesspeople, coalitions, higher education, and others) together for multi-party discussions. But those conversations should still take place, and that's what I believe is missing.

If you have thoughts you'd care to share, please contact me via email or post a comment on the blog. I'd love to hear if this is already being done, whether you think there's a need for it, and what you think it should look like in terms of strands, speakers, or anything else you'd care to suggest.

I'll post more on this as I get further along in my thinking...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

What would Jefferson do?

In the spirit of the July 4 observance and holiday, I'm pleased to be able to share a piece written by Tom Shuford, a retired public school teacher living in Lenoir, NC. Mr. Shuford has given me permission to share his article here. It was originally published June 28 on; you can go here to see the original, or here to read other articles and editorials he's written.

Jefferson on Public Education: Defying Conventional Wisdom
by Tom Shuford, Columnist

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Thomas Jefferson

The Fourth of July is fireworks, festivities and images of a gathering of remarkable men determined "to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them."

For me the Fourth of July is those things and a question: What sort of education produced these men? What schools might produce their like again? There are clues. The author of the Declaration of Independence had much to say about educating the very young.

Thomas Jefferson lobbied the Virginia General Assembly to implement a system of publicly-funded schools. He failed. It would be sixty years before Horace Mann traveled the state of Massachusetts on horseback advocating a system of "common schools" and decades more before most states would follow Massachusetts' lead.

Jefferson's vision for public education is, nonetheless, illuminating and provocative. The main source is his Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in 1785. Here are some of the key features of his plan — in the original spelling, where quoted:

1) Attendance is voluntary. "It is better to tolerate that rare instance of a parent's refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings by a forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of his father." (1)

2) Every child is entitled to three years of instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

3) The reading for the primary school years is mainly history. "The first stage of this education . . . wherein the great mass of the people will receive their instruction, the principal foundations of future order will be laid here. Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European, and American history."

And later in the text, Jefferson writes that "of all the views of this law, none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. For this purpose the reading in the first stage, where they will receive their whole education, is proposed, as has been said, to be chiefly historical. History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views."

4) The "best genius in the school of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education" is entitled to a fourth and fifth year at a "grammar school."

5) Students at grammar schools study "Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic."

6) After a trial period of one or two years, the best student at each grammar school is selected for six years of further instruction. "By this means . . . the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expense, so far as the grammar schools go."

7) After the sixth year, the best half of these go to college. "At the end of six years instruction, one half are to be discontinued (from among whom the grammar schools will probably be supplied with future masters); and the other half, who are to be chosen for the superiority of their parts and disposition, are to be sent and continued three years in the study of such sciences as they shall chuse, at William and Mary college . . ."

Jefferson's plan defies today's conventional wisdom in every respect. But is conventional wisdom superior? Let's look at differences:

Schooling, according to Jefferson, should be voluntary rather than compulsory. Modern education is based on coercion: coerced attendance, coerced school assignments, coerced acceptance of students by schools and by teachers. Would less coercion produce happier results?

Jefferson felt that three years of formal schooling would be enough to teach "the great mass of the people" how to read, write, and do arithmetic and enough history to "qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men . . . to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views."

We moderns think children should go to school for a time that amounts, in Jeffersonian terms, to forever. Do we prolong dependence and immaturity to no great gain in learning?

Jefferson put great stock in the study of history during those first three years of school. The closest elementary-level incarnation today of the view that "their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European, and American history" is E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s Core Knowledge curriculum. The theoretical bases are different. Professor Hirsch would give children the background information they will later need to read at advanced levels. Jefferson believed reading history would inform children's judgment.

Neither viewpoint has a presence in modern primary education. Prevailing wisdom is embodied in the "expanding horizons" social studies curriculum: "Me" (kindergarten), "My Family, My School" (1st grade), "My Neighborhood" (2nd grade), "My Community" (3rd grade), and "My State" (4th grade).

Do we underestimate children? Do we underestimate the instructive power of history?

Jefferson believed in selection by merit from an early age: "By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of youths of genius from the classes of the poor, we hope to avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought and cultivated."

Could a dose of selection strengthen education, particularly urban education? "Many communities of color" say urban sociologist Pedro A. Noguera and historian Robert Cohen "are increasingly focusing on how to make our racially separate schools more equal. That focus has yielded a small number of successful selective public schools that cater primarily to black and Latino students." (2)

Jefferson's embrace of selectivity makes especial sense in light of his curricular recommendations for the fourth and fifth years of school, and beyond. Grammar school years should be devoted to the study of Greek and Latin. Before dismissing that idea as elitist folly, consider this remark about our Founding Fathers made by the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough: "They were steeped in, soaked in, marinated in, the classics: Greek and Roman history, Greek and Roman ideas, Greek and Roman ideals. It was their model, their example. And they saw themselves very much like the Greeks and the Romans, as actors on a great stage in one of the great historic dramas of all time." (Mr. McCullough gave voice to these thoughts in a 2002 speech at DePauw University.)

Jefferson knew that a facility for languages is a special talent of the young: "The memory is then most susceptible and tenacious of impressions," he said, "and the learning of languages being chiefly a work of memory, it seems precisely fitted to the powers of this period." Could chartered grammar schools with a Greek and Latin focus succeed in some communities?

What, in the end, can we make of Thomas Jefferson's vision for education? In the same DePauw University speech, David McCullough concluded, of the Founding Fathers:

"The fact that they all rose to the occasion and did what they did, accomplished what they did against the most horrendous odds, is the real miracle. And the more I know about that period, the more I read about it, and the more I come to understand it, the more convinced I am that it's a miracle that the United States ever happened."

We may need another miracle in the 21st century. If the experiment with freedom that is the United States is to be preserved — from social fragmentation within and totalitarian designs abroad, we may need leaders of the caliber of that first generation.

Can that generation tell us how to prepare actors for the next great historic drama? (3)


1) This quotation of Jefferson's is the exception as to source. All the other quotes in this essay are from Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, but this one, in which he cautions against compulsory schooling, is from an attachment to a Sept. 9, 1817, letter Jefferson wrote to Joseph C. Cabell. The attachment is called "An Act for Establishing Elementary Schools."

2) "The Legacy of 'All Deliberate Speed,'" Education Week, May 19, 2004

3) Capsule description of Jefferson's own early education: "Jefferson was born at Shadwell in Albemarle county, Virginia on April 13, 1743. He was tutored by the Reverend James Maury, a learned man, in the finest classical tradition. He began the study of Latin, Greek, and French at the age of 9. He attended William and Mary College in Williamsburg at sixteen years old . . ."

Jefferson was forever grateful for his early education in the classical languages. In 1800, in a letter to British scientist Joseph Priestly, Jefferson wrote: "I think the Greeks and Romans have left us the present models which exist of fine composition, whether we examine them as works of reason, or of style and fancy; and to them we probably owe these characteristics of modern composition . . . To all this I add, that to read the Latin and Greek authors in their original is a sublime luxury; and I deem luxury in science [possession of knowledge] to be at least as justifiable as in architecture, painting, gardening, or the other arts." — Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestly, 1800. ME 10:146

Tom Shuford is a retired teacher living in Lenoir, North Carolina.

Originally published June 28, 2007