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Why I don’t believe in “reform”

Posted by Sep 7th, 2010.

Marc Waxman has been an educator for 17 years, including 12 in New York City, and the last two in Denver.

I don’t believe.  I wish I could believe.  I am supposed to believe.  But, I don’t. I don’t believe in education “reform” in our country.

I don’t believe charter schools are a panacea, I don’t believe that linking student achievement to teacher evaluation will significantly impact education, and for that matter, I don’t believe student achievement” should be the ultimate goal of education in our country.

I am supposed to believe in all this, especially if you look at my resume and follow the major media discussion of education “reform.” Let me explain.

When I graduated from college in 1994 I joined Teach For America.  I taught two years in Paterson, NJ (made famous by Joe “Batman” Clark from Eastside High School – which was just across the street from the 1,000-student K-8 school where I taught.  After my two years of TFA service I became one of the first teachers and administrators at KIPP in the South Bronx.  After three years at KIPP, I spent the next nine years co-founding and co-directing a new school in Harlem which started as a school-within-a school, was part of a take-over of a failing school that was closed, became an official New York City public school, and then converted to become one of only five conversion charter schools in NYC.

Next, I came to Denver, where I worked for Denver Public Schools in the New Schools Office where I became its Executive Director and reshaped the office to become the Office of School Reform and Innovation.  And, now I am working on opening another charter school and a charter management organization (CMO) that will support a network of charter schools in the metro Denver area.

I have wanted to communicate about my beliefs, or “unbeliefs” for a long time.  Diane Ravitch’s book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Educationemboldened me to write this blog.  It’s not that I agree with everything Ravitch says.  It’s just that I felt like it was a courageous act on her part to write it.  Frankly, it was inspiring and motivating.  And, so much of the book connected to my own experiences.  Above I explained my background with Teach For America, KIPP schools, and charter schools.  But, I also have other experiences directly relating to the book.

As I went through and identified the main focus of each chapter – standards, NYC school system’s business model, NYC’s District 2, choice, accountability, testing, NCLB, the power of philanthropists – I realized that I had a direct connection to every one of them.  Although I had never done anything like it before – write a blog, an op-ed, or a letter to an author – I realized that I wanted to reach out to Dr. Ravitch and engage her and others in a dialogue about the things that matter to me about education in our country. This is my way of reaching out.

I have a feeling – although I hope I am wrong – that to many reading this I will be viewed as a polemicist. And, to be frank, I am a little scared to write for this blog. I am going to openly disagree with and challenge many people I have worked for and with, people who have supported me professionally and personally and financially, and people I need to work with in the future.  Many of these people I have great respect for.  I am trusting that these people will welcome the dialogue.  But I am scared nonetheless.

I am passionate and committed to education and am eager to engage with anyone in any way to improve education in our country (especially for those who have historically been denied access to excellent education), but education is also my job.  It’s how I pay my bills and help support my family.  So, this has real stakes for me.  But, when I think about the type of students I want to help develop – students that believe they can make a difference in the world and then go out and do it – I can’t hypocritically and comfortably sit back and not engage.  Frankly too many people – it often seems like everybody– seem to be sitting back and not engaging. Ultimately, I am more scared NOT to speak up – if nobody does, we will continue in the wrong direction.

Ravitch writes:

“If we want to improve education, we must first of all have a vision of what good education is.  We should have goals that are worth striving for.  Everyone involved in educating children should ask themselves why we educate.  What is a well-educated person?  What knowledge is of most worth?  What do we hope for when we send our children to school? What do we want them to learn and accomplish by the time they graduate from school?”

If you believe the dominant narrative, these questions all boil down to a simple concept – what’s most important is student achievement, specifically achievement on a narrow set of tasks that make up our nation’s current standardized testing program.  While I understand, to a large extent from personal experience, how tempting it is simplify in this way, we must resist.  Education and student achievement are not the same.  It’s as if we, as a nation, have decided to forgo examining the purposes of education in lieu of the narrow goal of student achievement (as defined by test scores).

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how and when I started to challenge the student achievement mantra.  It may have been when I was working at KIPP, very focused on student achievement but also taking classes at Teachers College at Columbia University.  For a class on curriculum design we read John Dewey’s Experience and Education.  In it Dewey writes,

“What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information… if in the process an individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?”

This is one of the few quotes I have memorized.  At times I have printed it and hung it above my desk.

As a parent and as an educator I think about the question “What is education?” constantly.  My answers have changed over time and are still changing.  In future posts I will explore my answers.  My question for today is not what reforms we should or should not believe.  It is simply this – what’s your vision of a good education?  It’s time to have this conversation, however messy it may be.

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47 Responses to “Why I don’t believe in “reform””

  1. Monise Seward says:

    Now you have an idea of how many African American educators feel when they are ‘told’ (by blatant classist recruiting policies) of those same organizations for which you worked. Our kids need good teachers but apparently we aren’t qualified enough to teach them. As for Ravitch, well, she could have said something long ago.

  2. Mark Sass says:

    Marc, I asked a similar question in Feb of 2009. My question was about the purpose of education, but you can get a sense of where some people stood on the bigger question on education.

  3. Mitch says:

    as mentioned above, the organizations for whom you have worked are a big part of the problem–as is the mindset that fuels all of these groups–namely, that the problems with public education are lazy teachers, disengaged parents and dumb kids. while there are some of each of these groups out there in the schools, my experience is that the vast majority of public school teachers are bright, energetic and capable–that most parents want the best for their children–and that most kids are inquisitive, eager and diligent. and yet the public narrative, as fueled by TfA and the charter school groupies, is dismissive of those who have entered the profession honestly, and have worked hard to get the jobs they have–in favor of “backdoor teachers” like those in TfA who spend a year or 2 as teachers, with little preparation, and then move into leadership positions in education and policy (see the Chancellor of Schools in DC).

    i’m glad that you have finally “seen the light,” but to be honest, I’m not terribly interested in watching you beat your chest after the fact. what we need are not more charters, or more new “reform” initiatives like Race to the Top. what’s needed is an attitudinal shift back to supporting our public schools, and the teachers who work in these schools, and the parents who have not bailed on these schools, and the kids who are “stuck” in these schools (as the “reformers” would characterize it). we don’t need quicker routes into teaching, or relaxed regulations for hiring teachers (haven’t we learned our lesson in the Gulf of Mexico about what happens when we don’t enforce the regulations on an industry?)–we don’t need more cookie cutter tests, or more closed schools, or more teachers fired for not meeting someone’s ridiculous business-driven notion of Adequate Yearly Progress.

    we need to look at the best teacher preparation programs in the country, and see what they do and how they do it. we need better administrators, and school board members with the courage to tell their neighbors that investing in education is the best possible use of their tax dollars, even in a terrible economy–because its not the kids’ fault, and they shouldn’t be punished for the misdeeds of some adults who should have known better and didn’t. and we need to realize that “the problems with education” are, by and large, the problems with our society and culture. they aren’t school- or teacher-specific, they are a function of what our society values, and doesn’t value.

    so good luck with your blog, and your search for answers. i’ll be busy teaching.

    • Layne Madden says:


      While I certainly understand your sentiments towards those who would enter your profession for 2 years and then “move into leadership positions in education and policy”, I would like to respond from a different perspective.

      I came to Denver Public Schools with Teach for America in 2009. I intend to teach for 2 years, and then I am going to med school. I am the “backdoor” teacher that you probably have little respect for. What confuses me about your post is that your actions imply that you wish to engage in a dialogue about school reform, yet you seem dismissive when you say “I’ll be busy teaching”. I suppose your inattention to capitalization and proper syntax do indicate that you feel your energies would be best spent in the classroom, but by posting on this blog you have also willingly stepped into a conversation, so I welcome your engagement.

      You imply that I have not “entered the profession honestly”, that I haven’t “worked hard to get the job I have”, that I have “little preparation”, and that I am teaching thanks to “relaxed regulations for hiring teachers”. Those are very bold assertions Mitch. I understand that you may feel threatened by Ivy League brats who teach in a poor school for a couple of years because they couldn’t get into Law School and they need to pad their resume. But if you actually worked with TFA teachers or had drinks with a few of them, you would know that this stereotype that I sarcastically presented (and I assume, perhaps erroneously, that you hold) does not prove to be true.

      I am a very good teacher. My colleagues who started teaching because of Teach for America are just as prepared and successful as those from Masters in Education programs. We are 100% dedicated to our students, to their achievement, and to helping them achieve their goals, just as you are. You are right that TFA and similar organizations are setting the tone of education reform in America. I would challenge you to get to know a couple of us, because then you may see why people are listening.

  4. Wow. This is a really courageous thing to post, and I congratulate you for it. For me, the answer lies somewhere in between the “neighborhood schools vs. charters” rhetoric. I’m having a good time visiting the charter schools in the southwest district, and it’s been particularly enlightening to me to see that not all charters are the same. And at the same time, it’s been very enlightening to visit all the traditional schools (I visit an average of 3 per week) to really drive home that in some cases we are miserably failing our kids.

    The Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Mr. Hickenlooper, certainly has my attention when he says he wants to change the CSAP. I’m all for that. While we do need some indicators of whether we’re doing the right thing by kids, it’s time for us to move away from the mentality that standardized tests are the only way to measure this. We need to do much better with longitudinal data, with studies along the lines of Tennessee’s Project STAR, that studies what kids do with what we teach them early on. We should not be rushing to snap judgments about what works and what doesn’t.

    No Child Left Behind has really skewed the whole discussion about what education is and what it’s for. It should not exist to make me, an adult, feel better. It should exist to give students a basic scaffolding upon which to build their own lives and to compensate for whatever our economy throws at them. Can’t find a gig as a writer? Switch up and become a web designer instead.

    I’m looking forward to building a close relationship with you and SOAR. Best of luck to you.

  5. melody says:

    I suppose congratulations are in order, but the most interesting thing about this post is the trepidation you feel for your colleagues in expressing a bit of doubt. How interesting that the organizations driving today’s education “reform” are so averse to critical self-reflection! Ability to doubt, question, scrutinize, balance evidence — in my view — is the ultimate aim of education. Go back and read Plato. In conversations wih your TFA and KIPP colleagues, ask yourself what would Socrates do.

  6. Paul Rubin says:

    The reason you’re scared as to the outcome of expressing yourself is because you should be. You bought into the simplified business model of what education is all about and somehow managed to rise about that and draw the correct conclusion that education must be about more than raising test scores therefore the reform of education must be about more than raising test scores.

    You haven’t made the final link though and until you do, you’re missing half the picture. There’s an underlying sentiment behind Adequate Yearly Progress and Value Added and all the related statistics driven buzzwords. The underlying goal is to find a statistical model to rate individual teachers so that the AFT and NEA can be broken once and for all. It was NEVER EVER about doing right by the kids at the very top levels where private industry funds these projects and organizations and buy off the politicians as well. It was about breaking the one public employee union that stood between business and unions in general. Private company unions are on their death bed but if the teachers’ unions can be shattered, the union concept flies out the door faster than you can say boo.

    You say education and student achievement are not the same. And you’re right. Standardized tests are important. We need them to get a sense of direction for entire grades, schools and districts. We need them to draw general conclusions about where large bodies of students have problems. But the moment “they” started telling us that we needed to use individual results to drive instruction, the jig was up and the truth became apparent. I’m not so stupid and to think that if a child on a standardized state math test of say 30 questions got the one question on adding improper fractions wrong, that suddenly I’m not doing my job unless I stress that particular skill with the child. If I gave a test of 20 such questions and the child got half wrong, I know what I have to do. One or two questions tell me NOTHING.

    This is not reform. This is not sensible. And if my children were younger, I’d be horrified as what they were being subjected to in school, all in the name of destroying the very unions that made the field of teaching high paying enough to at least CONSIDER making a career in, certainly not a lucrative one.

    So use your background and expertise to be sure, and be critical because God knows there isn’t enough criticism being leveled at this issue, but remember why it’s an issue at all so that you have the full context. It’s about destroying unions, not working with them. It’s about making teaching a short term “job” like a WalMart greeter or a burger flipper, and not a lifetime career and commitment.

  7. Christopher Scott says:

    I have to say, Marc, this post is like a thunderbolt. The question of what is education and what does it mean to be “educated” in our society today is a question almost no one wants to touch. More difficult yet is answering the question, how do we get there? In a world filled with easy entertainment and endless momentary distractions, is it truly possible to have an educated society? i believe the answer is yes, but the answer to the question of how is very elusive. Your willingness to tackle the subject is exciting, and I cannot wait to see your next posting.

  8. John Youngquist says:

    Is that the sound of a pendulum swinging? The work of our real teachers and schools does make a difference and the improvement of this effort is what will begin to support the success of the vast majority of the young people that we serve. If we can learn from each other (public, private and charter schools- yes, I know these are “public,” too), we may begin to move beyond the isolated “successes” that support too few of our community’s children.

  9. Alexander Ooms says:

    Oddly enough in the barrage of comments, there is not much of an effort to answer the question you pose at the end of your post: “What is your vision of a good education.”

    This is part of the problem with renouncing allegiances — if one doesn’t focus on something else, one merely confronts the void of what one has refused. And if all us us fail to answer the question then it allows everyone to continue on different tracks often under the impression we are going the same direction.

    My vision of a good education has a simple foundation: students can read, write, add, and interact at a level that will allow them to lead fully-engaged, democratic lives. There is a lot more, but I’ll start there.

    Any others?

    • Mike Galvin says:

      I agree with Alexander that this is a hugely important question.

      But is it up to us to answer it? Our school “communities” – from state to local – need guidance on how to frame these questions of purpose, build agreement on how purpose plays out in their schools, and then develop the capacity to make it happen. Instead, by default, we have allowed a narrow and constricted vision of education to become the norm. Great leaders, often operating as outliers, have taken some schools where they need to go – but where does that leave everyone else?

      The current reform agenda has become deeply disrespectful to public schools and the people who work in them. To use the psychologist Carol Dweck’s terms, we are seeing a “fixed” mindset. This agenda assumes limited capability for learning and doesn’t allow for even the possibility of growth and change by schools that perhaps ARE below average, or even really bad.

      It is ironic that we expect a growth mindset that says all students can learn, given high expectations and support. What happens to this mindset when we get to the subject of school-wide change? Instead of assuming that all schools can learn and improve, given high expectations and support, we blame and scapegoat teachers.

      I have seen poor and average schools improve and change. But these schools most often use strategies far different from those identified in RttT. Their leaders do not accept a meager definition of education handed down from above. They listen to the teachers and parents who have a traditionally richer and more sensible definition of a good education – one that is not limited to academic achievement, but includes working collaboratively, thinking independently, and becoming responsible, and a host of other attributes that can be defined by their school community.

      These schools attend to the work of Carol Dweck, adopt ideas from the Character Education Partnership and the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning, and emphasize the importance of relationships. They set goals in many areas of student growth and define what behaviors are seen in a truly educated and responsible student. When they monitor and measure growth in ALL of these areas, they are holding each other accountable to a much richer vision of education than is currently promoted as the “ideal” in Colorado.

  10. A truly educated person is a person who has developed the habits of mind, hand, and heart that will allow him or her to adapt to *whatever* life has in store. (I’ll explain what I think that looks like in greater depth later on.)

    This is why it’s so important to question “reform.” Do you think a child whose mind has been contorted to fit the sort of straight-line way of thinking rewarded by standardized tests would fit the description above? (Let’s not even get into the bits about who is and isn’t oppressed in such a regime…have discussed that at length elsewhere.)

    Thanks, Marc, for sharing this, and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts in the future.

  11. Sharon says:

    The assumptions behind the “reform” movement seem false to me.

    -Is the idea for EVERYONE to go to college?
    -If not, what’s the goal for the optimal percentage of our society that should be college educated, especially considering that a lot of menial grunt work still needs to be done. In the conversations, there is a basic disconnect.
    -Re the tragedy happening to low income African Americans: why aren’t the causes and cures of the incarceration crisis being addressed BEFORE anything else? (Read Michelle -Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”)
    -And why has the unemployment rate been at least twice as high for Blacks as for Whites since at least the 1950s, despite steadily increasing educational attainment? I know the fundamental answer; anyone else want to guess?

    To me, the fixation on the “educational crisis” is a way to avoid dealing with root causes of other things.

    • Barbara McCombs says:

      Bravo, Sharon!

      From my perspective, you have hit the big nail on the head … that is the issue we are all afraid of — taking a stand on the basic values, ethics, beliefs, assumptions many of us hold unconsciously about ourselves and each other.

      To me it is that simple and that hard. As an educational psychologist who has studied human moitivation, learning, and development all my adult life (more than 40 years), I have learned that unless we do as Otto scharmer of MIT suggests (deeply examine our own self beliefs, other beliefs, and our deep purpose and intentional meaning for our lives) we cannot effectively lead others or helo them be part of creating their own solutions.

      It boils down to issues of trust, power, control, security or insecurity, etc. We take stands because to us they look right. The new wave now is inclusive dialogue,. non-judgmental processes, and a spirit of collaboration and caring — founded on a deeep respect and trust of each person in the room (or outside the room).

      My two cents ….

      • Vernita says:

        Kudos to Sharon and Barbara for exhuming the real reform issues our society would prefer to bury. It isn’t that Marc’s question is not important – it is. It is simply that the question ignores the fundamental triage of questions that have to be addressed before discussing ideal outcomes. It masks the underlying reasons why we are rescuing failing schools in the first place – the root causes why many students languish in unhealthy, unproductive learning environments. Marc’s question and approach is simply not preventative enough to interrupt historical patterns of behavior and policies that continue to malign any efforts of real reform. It is akin to asking bleeding gunshot victims about their overall goals for wellness – when the obvious issue is the immediate treatment of existing wounds, the prevention of future trauma, and creating the conditions for wellness. So what are the questions that need to be answered first?

        The majority of schools identified to be restructured, turned around, transformed, or closed have a common thread. They are populated with poor children and children of color. My question – Why? That’s right, what are the assumptions, values, policies and behaviors that continue to create these conditions for mostly poor and minority children and how can they be prevented? What is the best immediate treatment to mitigate the effects of their economic trauma and educational disablement? How do we create the conditions that lend purpose to their educational experience and empower them despite their lack of privilege?
        You see, Marc, until we are prepared to confront these questions, your question about the purpose of education will only be relevant and meaningful for students equipped to flourish in a system of privilege, but certainly not for all.
        Is it important to establish the purpose of education and define what it means? Sure, but it is the low hanging fruit on the school reform tree. The really hard questions are difficult to reach and tenuous to discuss. And if you really care to be daring, you’ll stretch to reach those.

    • Alexander Ooms says:

      So I can’t answer the last two questions, but let me take a shot at the first two:

      1. The idea is that everyone should have both the option and ability to attend college. I concur that not everyone will (or probably should) go, but this should be a choice that each individual makes for themselves, not one that is made for them because they lack basic skills.

      2. I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t believe there is an optimal fixed percentage for college educated society, but it sure should be more than it is now. Pretty few people choose menial labor — again, if this is a career choice because it was desirable compared to other options that is one thing. But too many people are constrained by their lack of education, instead of freed by it. The disconnect is between aspiration and ability, since I’d be hard pressed to believe we have too few students graduating from 4-year colleges.

      And incidentally, to which of your students do you recommend they not aspire to college but consider “menial grunt work” and how do their families feel about that?

      • Alex, I think you and I are saying the same things here. But do keep in mind that culturally, Latin Americans are ok (and proud of) “menial grunt work” when there is no other. We focus our energies toward the success of our families, and if it means we dig ditches sometimes, then we do it with panache and show up to work with cleaned and pressed work pants and shiny work boots.

        The idea, I think, is to arm kids to be ready in case there are other opportunities to grab. It’s up to us, adult voters and taxpayers, to ensure there ARE opportunities.

    • See, here’s the thing. The problem is that our economy no longer supports a wide palette of work skills anymore. We no longer manufacture anything…at least not enough to ensure we have a steady flow of skilled laborers.

      As part of the NALEO Education Institute, we got to talk to officials from the Department of Education about the common core standards, which I support conceptually (to a degree). One of the questions I asked was whether there was any collaboration with the Departments of Labor and Commerce as an attempt to see if we were in fact preparing kids for “college or career.” I asked, “what kinds of jobs do you see our economy moving toward”?

      Guess what. No collaboration was done AT ALL. So what the heck are we preparing kids for, anyway?

      In light of this, it seems proper to steer kids toward an education based in the classics, with plenty of Socratic exercise, in a Montessori-type approach that connects body with mind, in an experiential- or service-learning setting. To me, that feels an awful like your garden-variety IB program, or at least something like the sturdy Catholic education I received. I feel like that would give the kids a fighting chance in a savage economy that requires them to be able to switch up careers on a moment’s notice.

      I think too that if we want the well-rounded student that an IB,or similar, program can produce, then we’d better do what is needed in the primary grades to ensure the basic skills are in place. There no longer is any excuse for poor funding of ECE, and neither is there any excuse for not taking advantage of our state law that allows us to educate a youth until they’ve turned 21. Simply don’t turn them out into the world until they’re ready, darn it.

      Of course, that means that we that feel public education is a public good that the public must pay for, need to step up to the plate and win the hearts and minds of those that don’t agree. And that means that we need to post real gains in the school funding environment that we have to be able to justify it.

      What do I know anyway? I’m just a gal from southwest Denver…

  12. Justin says:

    The goal of education should be to teach students to THINK.
    Reading, Writing, Math, Civics, Art, Post Secondary Skills etc. all fit under the umbrella of critical thought.

    A curriculum that encourages critical thought is incredibly difficult to legislate, so we have instead legislated the “simple” goals you mentioned. It eases the mind of the elected official, but solves very little.

  13. Jennifer Kramer-Wine says:

    My vision for a good education is part environment, part process and part product…and happens to exist at P.S.1, albeit for one more year: “a small, inclusive learning community where a diverse student body successfully prepares for post-secondary education, skilled employment and positive contributions to the world. At P.S.1 students build strong relationships, engage in relevant learning experiences and reach academic excellence.”

    Our community labored over this mission statement and deeply believe in its power to prepare students for far more than a standardized test or a ranking on the School Performance Framework. They are prepared to work with people thoughtfully.

    Marc – I look forward to your posts. I would love to see a discussion of what a good education looks like for our community’s students who are in the margins of our education system (who more often than not have the “special education” label).

  14. mmaes01 says:

    I good education is simply providing a person with the knowledge and skills necessary for that person to be a satisfied, successful, productive citizen of this country. What that requires will differ for the individual.

  15. Fred says:

    This is a nice prologue, but you haven’t said anything yet.

    I know that you don’t believe in reform, but you haven’t said what you think reform is.

    I know that you worked in a bunch of schools, as a teacher and administrator.

    I know that you want us to talk about education.

    What do you believe now? What do you stand for?

  16. Steve Evangelista says:

    Hi Marc,
    Sounds like we agree that charter schools are not a panacea, and it stops there! Kudos for putting your thoughts out there, though. It looks like your fear is unfounded though – nothing but lauds on this comment thread.

    Don’t worry, when you come back to NYC to visit I’ll still welcome you with love even if the rest of the charter crowd thinks you’re a traitor now!!


  17. Alex Medler says:

    I don’t think there is a single answer to the question, which is part of the reason why there is no single education reform or approach that could achieve “it”. And if people can disagree about what kinds of education they are pursuing, even when they pursue them through a common reform (like chartering or strengthening teacher quality), we shouldn’t be surprised that, collectively, people resist defining a single goal.

    Sometimes we can pursue our own goals more effectively if we agree to allow others to pursue different goals. If we must all move toward the same goals, then there will be very few paths available to us. If we must agree on the end-goal, our progress will come at the expense of someone else who wants to take a different path. If we can allow a vareity of goals, then one school’s progress or one reform’s achievements can be appreciated “in addition to” other people’s progress.

    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can all share. There are common elements that we expect of all schools, like helping children learn to read, write, compute, and think critically. But those are elements that ought to be in common among schools, but also part of longer lists of goals that differ.

    People can disagree about the rest of the list, or how long it should be, or whether it should even be articulated. In all schools, there will always be additional things some people want kids to learn.

    But it is hard to imagine the successful school where the kids do not learn to read, write, compute or to think critically; or a successful school system where most kids just leave before they are “done”. It is also difficult to find a school system where every child is currently getting the education they deserve. Thus, the decision is false if it is framed as a choice of whether we should dogmatically pursue the reforms we’ve started or support the status quo. Many elements of the status quo are unacceptable, just as all of our reforms are inadequate as currently implemented.

    Yes we should articulate what we mean by education, but we don’t need to, and shouldn’t, try to reach consensus about that. Meanwhile, we can understand what is good and bad about the current schools, and what is working and not working in our reforms.

    Alex Medler

  18. Sandhya says:

    Thank you for highlighting the question. Equal thanks to all the thoughtful posts.

    I believe in making decisions based on facts and data, BUT it has to be the right data.
    Often in the business world, metrics are poorly used. Corporations have been managing via paper efficiency numbers and short term gains instead of using common sense and long term perspective. So jobs went abroad. Too many college grads were seduced by high $$ into “pushing paper” and moving money instead of creating real products and services. However, those jobs provided little satisfaction. Slowly, people have been re-inventing themselves and pursuing their passions/talents…including working with their hands. Carpentry and other trades are coming back. That is hopeful.

    Children are not widgets and should not be managed as such. Sometimes, children take one step forward and 2 back, and other times, 5 steps forward.
    The time and energy spent on assessments takes away from true teaching. Children experience more tedium and less the delight of learning.

    Data is important, but the right data. I’m more concerned about things like what is the timeline between first identification of student need (behavioral, emotional, or academic) to an effective solution.

    Sharon, I agree there has been too much of a drive for all to go to college.
    Latest figures on student loan debt exceeding credit card debt is scary. Great that credit card debt is down, but student loans are being re-paid on 20, 25, 30 year schedules. Oh my goodness!! What an albatross around one’s neck.

    Mitch, Paul, and others
    Bravo. I’m not a teacher, but a concerned parent. Please know that I and others recognize that most come to the profession honestly and put their hearts into our children.
    Unfortunately our voices are not played much in the media.

    I have wanted to start a candid, open public dialogue in our community and the question of “what is a good education” is a great way to frame the issue.

  19. John Doe says:

    Why aren’t legitimate comments being posted?

    • Alan Gottlieb says:

      We won’t post comments submitted under a pseudonym. Read our comment policy. And that’s especially true when you use a bogus email address. I tried to email you yesterday and it bounced back. Resubmit your comment using your real name and I will post it.

  20. Barbara Neman says:

    I’ll second what Paul Rubin said but add that he left out half of it.

    My own personal epiphany came the evening a couple of years ago when my husband was checking our little stock market account online. The brokerage we use has sidebars on its site with news-you-can-use’ type pieces and my husband thought I’d be interested in that day’s.

    The ‘news we could use’ was that private colleges — you know, Phoenix, Kaplan and the like — were at that time, THE most profitable sector for investors. Then I understood. Wall Street wanted to create the same sort of revenue stream for itself out of the K-12 years. Which will take dismantling as much as the public school system as possible and replacing it with private schools.

    Breaking the teacher’s union is one step along that path.

    Making it look like schools are failing by creating impossible standards is another.

    Are schools with English Language learners and children with disabilities ever going to have 100% of students on grade level, whatever that is? Are schools with 96% of their graduates going on to college really going to be able to improve by leaps and bounds every year? No and No, but you can get a lot of good headlines about how the schools are failing but making a big fuss about how the number of kids not passing the test or going on to college isn’t increasing.

    Finally, continuing to dumb down the curriculum until parents who can afford options for their kids look elsewhere for their kid’s schooling and lose whatever loyalty they had to their local public school system is another.

    Even where I live, which is one of those archetypal upper-middle class suburbs where the schools all achieve excellent with distinction ratings every year and 90+% of our high school seniors go on to college, the curriculum is being eroded by NCLB.

    For the month before the standardized tests at the end of April, all new learning stops and test review starts. The schedule is rearranged so that the reading and math classes are longer and the other classes shorter. After the tests are completed, there is a day or two of movies and popcorn, but even after that, the pace is never picked up again. Some how, a fourth of the school year is lost.

    This year’s (7th grade) LArts reading anthology doesn’t even have a corny title like “Our World in Stories.” It merely says “Test Preparation.”

  21. monika hardy says:

    thanks Marc… for speaking and being brave. are you on twitter? would love to chat more @monk51295.

    funny. my first comment depicts the beauty of learning today. it’s alive – 24/7 – and well – and the coolest thing ever.
    we have a responsibility to scale that out. it’s not been possible before… but with web access authentic nclb is possible.
    best way to scale it – respectfully question every assumption.
    Rework (Jason Fried) our time, – seat time, meeting time, … but most of all.. start playing offense….defense is zapping all our energy.

    a short snippet answer to your question:
    what we all (every person on the planet as student) need today is the ability to be usefully ignorant. we need – more than anything else – to know what to do when we don’t know what to do. – via Erica McWilliams.
    that’s a process. a process that can be learned through any discipline. and (think fractals) as it is reiterated in various projects/disciplines/courses/etc – it becomes second nature to the learner.

    why this is so cool… now curriculum becomes community (Dave Cormier) – per passion even. as long as the process of learning how to learn is embedded in all we do – we can do whatever we want… be whatever we want… become indispensable (Seth Godin). learners owning the learning. – Alan November

    and achievement is no longer measured by one’s ability to produce static content on a given day..and then thrown in the recycle bin. but it’s determined/validated by one’s community, by society, as ed becomes the vehicle for social change.

    does is matter.. is it awesome…
    our new standard of measure.
    both beg – to whom.
    there we go with cognitive surplus – Clay Shirky
    and no more imaginary cosmopolitanism – Ethan Zuckerman
    and the leveling out of resources for a better world – Hans Rosling

    this is no longer ridiculous thinking.
    today we can.
    what’s ridiculous is to not jump in.

  22. Jim Martin says:

    The ENDLESS CIRCLE that we call education continues. Round and Round we go…Thanks for all of the fish, Mark. The dismantling of our public education system is the project of the wealthy, elite of this country. I am glad that Marc has spoken up. Where are the other courageous voices that are willing to join him and call “Educational Reform,” what it really is…you can fill in the blank as you see fit.

  23. steve harvey says:

    The only truly effective educational reform we can hope for would have to be effective cultural reform. Schools are doing an excellent job, in a context that is not, which results in lethargic academic development for many of our children. School reform must be community reform, family reform, perhaps orchestrated through the schools, reconceptualizing schools as the focal points through which education is facilitated as much as (or more than) the time and place during which and at which education occurs.

    More discussions on what kinds of reforms might actually improve American education:

  24. Vn Schoales says:

    It’s fascinating that Marc’s post resonates with so many. It speaks to the hot political war over the over the goals and means of today’s education reform movement. It’s also illustrative of the growing movement and the impact that it’s having on the current system. People are starting to realize that the system may have to change and they are fighting back.

    To answer Marc’s question, I suspect that many here would agree with me that “schools should focus on helping students to use their minds well” as Ted Sizer so aptly wrote when he found the Coalition of Essential Schools with Debbie Meier and Dennis Littky in the early 80’s. It seems pretty hard to do that without schools simultaneously teaching students to read, write and compute. Lots more stuff here but seems a good start.

    I welcome more evidence-based dialogues on all (not both) sides of the ed reform debates. It would be nice to start with an understanding of the problem by all sides before diving into strategies for fixing it.

    I wonder what Marc and others think is the problem, if one exists in urban American public education? Kids not reading? A manufactured crisis by corporate elites? Lack of funding? Maybe parents? A bloated calcified district? The teacher/principal pool? Teacher pay? The lack of ECE? Multiple choice testing? Obama? Duncan? Those nasty all-powerful philanthropists? Those kids? The Feds? Healthcare? The list goes on…..

  25. jj says:

    I don’t really believe students know why they are in school. I see 187 high school kids every day. Very few can tell my why beyond the programmed proscriptions to get a job, a career, to succeed, etc, ad nauseum… It all kind of goes back to that business model Paul mentioned in an early reply above. A few weeks ago, I got into a heated debate with a high school principal who insisted the business model had to be followed. I tried to explain that the “product” schools were producing could not be easily quantified; he continued to insist it could. I gave up.

    If students lack a vision or purpose beyond the mundane, mechanical elements of life, they will never gain in any kind of assessment regime. Adults have no more clue, it would seem, about what school is for than our kids. I recommend actually dismantling the culture–in an anthropological sense–of modern schooling.

    Best I can tell is that children learn to ‘play at schooling’ from an early age. Getting grades, or not, becomes a ritualized game they learn to play. It’s not serious in any way except for the occasional scolding by authority figures when they mess up. So, by the time the teen years begin and they begin to get savvy about how the world works, unless they are engaged in a truly meaningful and fulfilling set of activities and behaviors surrounding learning how to be human and enjoying their life, no amount of educational reform will ever work.

  26. The same process is occurring in post-secondary education (PSE). Though of course the situation with universities is very different, there is still a push for systemic standardisation, “quality” control, “accountability” for the ephemeral and the serendipitous, and “more [quantitative] data”. Even the famed National Survey of Student Engagement is little more than another check-box survey that cannot tell us what, or how much, students learn–only what their learning environment might look like.

    In media and policy discussions of PSE there is a focus on the number of graduates “produced”–and this is supposed to be an indicator of “accessibility”. Asking what universities should be for, other than feeding the national economy with human capital and “knowledge production”, seems to be beside the point–and questions about the deeper nature of education are frequently relegated to the sidelines as pressing problems of governance (especially resource shortages) are the priority. Ironically this has led to a lot of unplanned/ungoverned structural change that is having “deep” results on the nature of university education.

  27. Elisa Cohen says:

    Education should enable us to pursue a lifestyle we can live with. Except for trust fund babies, most of us have to work. Do you want to use your back, your hands, your mind, etc.? We have invited into our home a young, intelligent drop out from our local school. He could not do the math on the local hardware store’s job application. I blamed the school. He blamed himself. He enrolled at Emily Griffith to finish his degree. Oddly enough, he didn’t need anymore math credits to graduate, but sensing his own shortcomings in math, he is signing up for a math skills class now. After a long, hot summer moving rocks and pulling weeds, he is now striving for A’s so that he can attend college to pursue a degree that would allow him to wear a suit.

    Yes, there is more, the love of poetry, the patterns of history, the way things work and how we all interact, but for most in my inner city neighborhood, education is a way into a job and that is not a bad thing. No options due to the lack of basic skills stinks.

  28. Lindsay says:

    Hi Marc,

    I was excited when I came across your post today. It was linked to a New York City website called I was a former teacher at your charter school in Harlem. I only worked under you for a year before you left for Denver, but in that short time period I had admired your reflective nature as an administrator. As teachers, we are always taught to be reflective on our strengths and weaknesses, and those involved in the reform movement in this country should be continually reflective as well.

    As someone who has only six short years of experience in the education world, it is hard for me to answer the question, “What is education?” However, as I continue on my journey as an educator here in NYC, I have certainly learned what education is not. First and foremost, teaching to the test is NOT an education. Forcing Kindergarteners to maintain an academically rigorous environment without any play or socialization to foster a deep love of learning is NOT an education. As I recently observed at a charter school in Brooklyn, scaring first graders into submission by making them sit in the “SLANT” position for hours on end is NOT an education. Any curriculum that is simply back to basics, that does not inspire, engage, or motivate young children is NOT an education.

    Last year I had the opportunity to be a founding teacher at a new charter school here in NYC. It was one of the most difficult teaching years of my life, but also one of the most rewarding. It reaffirmed for me that charter schools do have an important place on the school reform stage, and that charter schools should continue to be innovative and implement different teaching and learning models throughout the country. However, teachers and administrators in all schools, charter or public, need to be rigorously trained and then trusted to provide students with an education that is rich and engaging- an education that is theirs. Many American teachers have lost control of the actual teaching in their classrooms because of testing, as well as administrators and policy makers who believe teachers should follow a script that doesn’t allow you to think. Somewhere along the way, teachers lost ownership of their classrooms, and in return, students lost ownership of their education. To me, this is the fundamental problem in many American classrooms and why so many poor and minority students are failed every day- their education is someone else’s, not their own.

    Thank you for your thought provoking blog. I look forward to reading future updates. You should know that you have had a profound effect on my career, because the only place I learned to truly teach was at your school. Best of luck with SOAR!

    • Marc Waxman says:

      Hi Lindsay,

      Thanks for your comments. While I appreciate the kind words in your last paragraph, we both know that “the only place I learned to truly teach was at your school” was not because of me, but Gianna :) .

      I found your second to last paragraph and thoughts about control very interesting. I am gathering ideas for future posts, and I have a feeling this will be a topic.

      Take care,

  29. Lisa Suben says:

    I guess I’ll be the first “negative” comment on this post because, as usual, I am bothered by critics of reform who make it seem like one must either completely support everything about the reform movement or completely reject it.

    Let me be clear. I don’t disagree with the criticism. I just don’t think it’s very helpful.

    I am a teacher who is focused on measureable student achievement. I also want each student to develop an “appreciation of things worth while” and “extract meaning from his future experiences.” If I had to choose one of these goals over the other, I might train students to perform low-order skills without giving them true understanding. But there’s also a risk that I might think I’m giving students a rich, meaningful education without ensuring they can demonstrate and apply their knowledge.

    The reason I’m disturbed by this post is because it polarizes the two concerns. I talk to teachers who feel like they have to choose between them. And when they choose, they fail. A truly good “reform” teacher would never say that it is solely about student achievement. They just know this focus can help. Like everything in life, it takes balance.

    I am sure you had some bad experiences with the relentless focus on standardized tests and accountability. I have too. But I don’t believe we have to completely reject the reform movement. We can appreciate the intention of the movement and help shape it.

  30. Van Schoales says:

    Thanks Lisa for reminding everyone that it isn’t as simple as black and white. I’m guessing that there is not a person here that would send their own kids to a school with CSAP reading scores south of 50 or 60% regardless of whether the school was Core Knowledge, Expeditionary Learning, Montessori, Waldorf or Joe’s School. I’m also guessing that most here including Marc and his family are choosing to purchase homes in certain neighborhoods based on access to quality schools as measured by those nasty tests. I’m baffled by all the so called the liberals that are quick to go after various reform strategies and yet seem comfortable supporting the current “apartheid” system of American Public education where the middle/upper classes can chose their schools through a home purchase while poor folks typically have only their low performing neighborhood school to choose. Education politics are wacked as a good friend would say.

    • Elisa Cohen says:

      A quick route to progress would be to mandate that every DPS teacher and administrator be required to send their own children to the worst performing schools in the district. Since their high school students would have been required to attend North High, I’m guessing the school would not have been able to get away with eliminating the honors reading and writing courses last year. My kid was there. I screamed and pounded the table.

      My daughter got sick and tired of being one of my soldiers in my hardcore liberal war against the inequity in educational practices taking place in Denver. She transferred this year to another high school with better outcomes.

      I used to think if only parents sent their kids to these these schools, the schools would have to improve. But it almost seems as if this inequity is on purpose. In my conspiracy theory mode, I think the need to fill the military, the low skill, low wage sector and to populate the prison economy requires some schools to fail.

  31. Ari says:

    I’m a TFA alum and I think Lisa has said it the best so far. I disagree with the TFA/Uncommon/Kipp/Achievement model of only worrying about “basic skills.” I interviewed for a job recently and was pretty much told that critical thinking wasn’t an important goal of education for these organizations, because they need foundational skills first. However, as Lisa points out, that doesn’t mean the whole movement is bunk, nor that the majority feel the same way. As someone who went through TFA in recent years, I can tell you that most corps members do not believe that basic skills are the only things necessary to be taught in the classroom. A good friend of mine had the goal of ensuring his second year would focus more on morality than his first. I know I personally strove to make students realize they needed to think for themselves.

    And let us be clear, these few organizations are not the only ones in the “reform movement.” School districts, policy makers, and advocates all across the country have been pushing for major reforms. I have recently seen what the new Common Core standards assessments are trying to get off the ground and am very impressed. I think they point to something that Marc is missing in his argument – having poor assessments that only test a certain portion of knowledge does not mean we should stop focusing on assessments. On the contrary, it means we should make the assessments more genuine. Ravitch and others would have us believe that we shouldn’t be testing students or teachers. Not knowing how well students are learning would put us back at square one. To move forward, there needs to be a fundamental change in the goals of schools, including pushes for students to learn creativity, initiative, leadership, critical thinking, etc. while at the same time having accountability that these functions are actually happening.

  32. I am moved not only by Mr. Waxman’s soul searching but by Melody’s Sept. 7 comment. We who are often on the “wrong” side of the reformist agenda in New York City have been vilified by the Chancellor with his favorite dismissive characterizations: incrementalist, beligerant, and, when citing how practice varies from press releases, “one sip does not make a drink.” Giving no quarter to an opposing point of view is a lawyerly tactic (I should know, I am one) ill-suited to development of nuanced educational policies or public engagement. We will only begin to make real improvements in our schools when we admit to doubts about our own closely held beliefs, putting relations with funders and other constituencies at risk. Thanks to Mr. Waxman for his contribution to this difficult task.

    David Bloomfield
    Chair, Department of Education
    College of Staten Island, CUNY

  33. Dan Rockwell says:

    The Purpose Of Education

    by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
    Morehouse College Student Paper, The Maroon Tiger, in 1947

    As I engage in the so-called “bull sessions” around and about the school, I too often find that most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education. Most of the “brethren” think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses. Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end. 
    It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the ligitimate goals of his life. 

    Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. 

    The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals. 

    The late Eugene Talmadge, in my opinion, possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America. Moreover, he wore the Phi Beta Kappa key. By all measuring rods, Mr. Talmadge could think critically and intensively; yet he contends that I am an inferior being. Are those the types of men we call educated? 

    We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living. 

    If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, “brethren!” Be careful, teachers!

    Students, parents, teachers and community members are speaking up to the powers who are leading our schools away from Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of education:

  34. Kathy Hansen says:

    I’m an advocate of Ms. Cohen’s suggestion: require that all DPS administrators and teachers send their children to the lowest-performing DPS schools. The elitism represented by their own choices sends the clear message that the distinction between the Haves and Have Nots is based solely on parents’ financial means. Better yet: require that all public school admins figuratively spend a week in the shoes of those parents before deciding they aren’t sufficiently committed to their children’s educations or that the children are not intending to learn.

  35. Leah says:

    Thank you for the thought provoking blog and all of the responses. I really like what Mike Galvin had to say about the need for more autonomy and collaborations among leaders, communites and schools, as well as policies supporting each school in relation to its needs and social location.

    Of course there are certain skill sets children need to have in order to “achieve” but more importantly is how they get there- and those crucial moments when kids discover how learning can empower them and plants that seed for the development of softer skills such as self-discovery, goal setting, decision making, communication, navigating community resources, and learning to advocate for themselves. These skills are so often overlooked now because of the new “reform” tactics and definitions of “achievement”, leaving teachers and public schools to work towards goals and objectives where there is no buy in.

    Now many public schools have been dropped instead of providing teachers and communities with the resources and support they need to propel a cycle of learning for both hard and soft skills. Each school and learner is in a different social space, perhaps at a different social time and the educational model should be a collaboration between school leaders, teachers, parents, AND students to set goals and benchmarks that are meaningful to them in relation to that social location.

    Common measures are important- even critical. As an evaluator, I do not take that concept lightly. However, when policies such as NCLB have decided on one definition for “achievement” and do not take into consideration the major diferences in populations (communities, students, and resources), it becomes impossible to draw overall conclusions.

    The lack of transparency for what “achievement” in relation to success means, creates an inaccurate picture when using data results to see if individidual schools have improved, comparing data to other schools, or the overall lack of data in relation to the development of non-cognitive skill sets, not to mention the consistent false representation of data at the local, state, and federal levels.

    The issue of having limited and inadequeate definitions for “achievement” and “measures of succuss” for various populations becomes especially problematic when this data is being used to drive school “reform” policies, excluding public schools from receiving the support they need to serve some of the populations where the support is most needed.

  36. Owen says:

    Excellent post. My children go to a charter school in Aurora where their philosophy is teaching “classical education”. My x-wife got my oldest into kindergarten there before we got divorced and I’ve tried to keep them in the school just to maintain some form of stability. This is an excerpt from their website:

    “A ‘classical education’ began about 2500 years ago in ancient Greece and continued to develop through ancient Rome and the Renaissance. It involves a three-part process of training the mind and using traditional standards of teaching, curriculum, and discipline. A classical education holds that humans are thinking creatures and are naturally curious. It values knowledge for its own sake and prepares students to be ‘good’ or virtuous citizens.”

    First, I think we’ve come a long way since 2500 years ago and what was good for ancient Rome and Greece is probably not what is best for modern America. It also makes it sound like they are an assembly line for cookie cutter citizens that meet their criteria of what is considered “good” and “virtuous”. The philosophy itself is probably fine as long as you are adaptable and progressive in how you implement it. The school has no arts, sports, or music program to speak of. Anytime there is something slightly outside of the box, they choke and stonewall you with policy. I’ve literally had policy from the handbook copied and pasted to me when emailing looking for solutions to certain situations.

    I was a single father for about three years and had full parenting time for about two. Homework became a huge issue with both my 1st grader and 3rd grader. They had more homework than I ever remember receiving. Every night was basically a battle to get their homework done, food cooked, house cleaned, kids bathed, kids in bed, etc in the very short amount of time there is between the end of work and bed time. I’d much rather spend that time enjoying my kids and playing with them than I would fighting with them to do homework. I’d rather walk the stream and look at frogs and snakes or show them how to cook than do paperwork at the dinner table. Admittedly, I was never a fan of homework myself and sailed through high school with a C average (3.92 in college). However, I could rebuild an engine, reload hunting ammunition, program in BASIC, and do a lot of other skilled tasks that I taught myself or was taught by my dad. Instead of the school working with me on any point that I could make, they simply copied and pasted their homework policy.

    I’ve since remarried and I have help now so the homework front has become more maintainable. However, we are now going to Brazil (part vacation and part personal reasons) and the boys will miss 15 days of school. I understand that that is a bit much but in this situation there is no one to leave the kids with so that they can keep going to school. I sent an email to the school letting them know the situation and asked about getting homework, lesson plans, and also about making the trip to a foreign country with an entirely different culture educational in itself. I was stonewalled with another copy and paste of policy, state law, etc. Maybe they have to do that and their hands are tied but I like to think that a school full of educators can think outside of the box and be a bit more adaptable and progressive than that.

    At any rate, I’m annoyed with the entires systems lack of open mindedness when it comes to education, achievement, and working with families that might not fit inside of their very narrow view of what is “normal”. I have no idea how to go about eliciting change, but my frustration is certainly growing.

  37. James Cryan says:

    Which questions, knowledge or skills on the CSAP (or any other vilified assessment), are we ok with our kids NOT knowing?

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