Four Decades of Failed School Reform

Patrick Welsh, Washington Post, September 27, 2013

{snip}

{snip} In the four decades between when I started teaching English at T.C. in 1970 and my retirement this year, I saw countless reforms come and go; some even returned years later disguised in new education lingo. Some that were touted as “best practices” couldn’t work, given Alexandria’s demographics. Others were nothing but common-sense bromides hyped as revolutionary epiphanies. All of them failed to do what I believe to be key to teaching: to make students care about what they’re studying and understand how it’s relevant to their lives.

A school for everyone

My first encounter with education reform came in 1971, my second year in Alexandria. That’s when the 11th and 12th grades of the city’s three high schools were combined under one roof at T.C. Williams. The move was seen as a way to achieve full integration of black and white students while avoiding the inflammatory issue of who got bussed where. It was also in line with the “comprehensive high school” model, promoted by former Harvard president James Conant, which sought to meet the needs of all students, from the “academically talented” to the “vocationally oriented.”

Concerns about racial tensions proved overblown—contrary to the fictional portrayal of the T.C. merger in the Disney film “Remember the Titans” (2000). In fact, my T.C. students had fewer discipline problems than my students at the Catholic school in Rochester, N.Y., where I’d previously taught.

But Conant’s idea that an equal opportunity would benefit all students proved to be an illusion. While the bigger school worked well for kids who were self-motivated or had parents urging them on, it soon became apparent that kids from less-involved families, many of them lower-income, lagged behind their peers.

The next era of education reform grew out of a panic. The 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,”commissioned by Reagan Education Secretary Terrel Bell, warned that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.”

I didn’t buy it. If schools were in such horrible shape, how was it possible that immigrant students—from Korea, Vietnam, Iran and other trouble spots around the globe—could enter T.C. Williams speaking little or no English and end up at top universities? Granted, there was then, as there is now, a crisis of poverty among children, and schools struggled to make headway against a persistent achievement gap. But that didn’t warrant an indictment of the entire American education system. (The hyperbole in “A Nation at Risk” is even more obvious today, in light of the fact that the system it maligned played a major role in producing the leaders of the digital revolution and in sustaining a military and an economy that are the envy of the world.)

{snip}

The “Effective Schools” concept, propounded by Harvard School of Education guru Ron Edmonds, was one of the first quick fixes to hit Alexandria. An oversize banner reading “EFFECTIVE SCHOOLS” decked the T.C. Williams auditorium for convocation in the fall of 1984. Teachers received a single-page handout on the seven qualities of effective schools: nuggets such as “the climate of an effective school is NOT OPPRESSIVE,” “the principal acts as an instructional leader,” and effective schools offer the “opportunity to learn and student time on task.” There was nothing about how we were supposed to integrate those ideas into our classrooms. And there was no follow-up.

After the ineffective year of effective schools came SPONGE. UCLA professor Madeline Hunter’s model for teaching sought to soak up every second of class time with so-called SPONGE activities to keep students focused and “on task.” I’ve never thought students should be focused—or could be focused—every moment, and I’ve always abhorred mindless, condescending busywork. {snip}

When I asked one administrator about the origin of the SPONGE acronym, he couldn’t tell me, but he warned that it would be “teacher’s risk” not to keep students “on task,” unless there was a clear “teachable moment” that would allow me to deviate. (SPONGE, I later learned, meant: “SHORT, intense, vivid activities, which provide PRACTICE of learned material, which students can do ON their own, and which will also include NEW arrivals or those finishing an assignment early, by keeping the GROUP involved, and designed to ELICIT an immediate response.”) I don’t think that lasted more than two years.

The 1990s ushered in the era of standards-based education (SBE). One of the more laughable moments I recall came in 1999, when T.C. teachers were corralled for two days of SBE presentations. We were told that we could raise student achievement if we just understood what was “absolutely essential for all students to know and be able to do” and never strayed from the “drive-train sequence” (a metaphor taken from the way power is transmitted in motors) of the SBE classroom, which, we were informed, was different from the traditional classroom. Just before a lunch break, one of my more mercurial colleagues stormed out, yelling that anyone with an IQ over 100 should not return for the afternoon session.

By the time a new $100 million T.C. Williams was being built in 2005, the pendulum had swung away from comprehensive schools and toward “smaller learning communities,” in part because of support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Alexandria’s superintendent rhapsodized that our new building would be divided into smaller academies where students could be grouped together for all their classes and thus get more individual attention.

When the new school opened in September 2007, however, there wasn’t much that resembled smaller learning communities. Seniors could find their counselors and administrators in one area of the building, while juniors could find theirs in another. But when I asked an administrator what happened to the academies, he replied, “We aren’t supposed to talk about that.”

It should have been obvious that such a system wouldn’t fly at T.C. Grouping students together for all their classes would have meant a separate academy for high-achieving kids enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. And the prevailing ultra-liberal philosophy in Alexandria abhors tracking, in which students are separated according to ability, or anything that could look like ethnic or class-based segregation.

(Yet another) transformation

Reform efforts went into overdrive after federal education officials added T.C. Williams to a list of “persistently lowest achieving” schools in March 2010. Although T.C. offers more than two dozen AP courses and more than 80 percent of its graduates go on to college, it has never figured out how to meet the needs of its most underprivileged and least prepared students. Hindered by social issues that schools can’t control, these students have lagged behind since the early days of the T.C. merger. And because of changing demographics, there are now many more of them, bringing down the school’s state test results and graduation rate.

The “lowest achieving” designation made T.C. eligible for new federal grants designed to help underperforming schools undergo a “transformation.” I wrote in these pages that I hoped it would serve as a wake-up call, forcing us to think differently about how to teach students who came to us reading far below grade level or unable to add without a calculator.

That wasn’t what happened.

Instead, we entered an era of diminished expectations. Under the regime imposed by Superintendent Morton Sherman, students couldn’t score below 50 on homework or an exam, unless they failed to do any work, in which case they could get a 40. They had until the end of each quarter to hand in late assignments. And they were allowed to retake exams on which they didn’t do well. When teachers distributed tough tests, kids took a quick look and asked, “When’s the make-up?”

{snip}

We were under pressure to pass all our students, even if they should have failed. “And for the better students,” says Eleanor Kenimer, a 2011 T.C. grad now at Duke University, “it allowed us to get lazy and quit challenging ourselves because it was so easy to calculate the minimum amount of work necessary to get an A.”

Meanwhile, Sherman brought in a parade of highly paid consultants and introduced so many educational philosophies that he sowed massive confusion among administrators, teachers and students. A memorable example: A Harvard consultant was paid $10,000 for a one-day visit to the school. Later, students were asked to evaluate their teachers using his “seven C’s” survey: care, control, clarify, challenge, captivate, confer and consolidate. We never got the results and never heard from the consultant again.

{snip}

More than four decades of education reforms didn’t make me a better teacher and haven’t made T.C. Williams a better school. Rather, the quick fixes promulgated by headline-seeking politicians, school administrators and self-styled education gurus have in some cases done more harm than good.

I found that the most helpful professional-development experiences involved fellow English teachers sharing what worked in their classrooms—always with the caveat: “This works for me; it may not work for you.” Being with people who loved doing what I did and exchanging ideas without any professional jealously was always reinvigorating.

A passion for communicating one’s subject matter to the next generation isn’t among the 74 items on Alexandria’s Curriculum Implementation Walk-Through Data Collection list, which Sherman, who left Alexandria schools last month, used to evaluate faculty. But it’s what all great teachers have in abundance. And it’s what will keep them going when the next wave of reforms comes rolling through.

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  • E_Pluribus_Pluribus

    I had saw this piece in the Washington Post the day it was published, knew the author to be sound and intelligent — and so he was, as much as he could be, in the Washington Post. The take-away paragraphs are towards the end. They are the story of the massive fraud that is American public education. Quoting:

    Reform efforts went into overdrive after federal education officials added T.C. Williams to a list of “persistently lowest achieving” schools in March 2010. Although T.C. offers more than two dozen AP courses and more than 80 percent of its graduates go on to college, it has never figured out how to meet the needs of its most underprivileged and least prepared students. Hindered by social issues that schools can’t control, these students have lagged behind since the early days of the T.C. merger. And because of changing demographics, there are now many more of them, bringing down the school’s state test results and graduation rate.

    The “lowest achieving” designation made T.C. eligible for new federal grants designed to help underperforming schools undergo a
    “transformation.” I wrote in these pages that I hoped it would serve as a wake-up call, forcing us to think differently about how to teach students who came to us reading far below grade level or unable to add without a calculator.

    That wasn’t what happened.

    Instead, we entered an era of diminished expectations. Under the
    regime imposed by Superintendent Morton Sherman, students couldn’t score below 50 on homework or an exam, unless they failed to do any work, in which case they could get a 40. They had until the end of each quarter to hand in late assignments. And they were allowed to retake exams on which they didn’t do well. When teachers distributed tough tests, kids took a quick look and asked, “When’s the make-up?”

    {snip}

    We were under pressure to pass all our students, even if they should
    have failed. “And for the better students,” says Eleanor Kenimer, a 2011 T.C. grad now at Duke University, “it allowed us to get lazy and quit challenging ourselves because it was so easy to calculate the minimum amount of work necessary to get an A.”

    Meanwhile, Sherman brought in a parade of highly paid consultants and introduced so many educational philosophies that he sowed massive confusion among administrators, teachers and students. A memorable example: A Harvard consultant was paid $10,000 for a one-day visit to the school. Later, students were asked to evaluate their teachers using his “seven C’s” survey: care, control, clarify, challenge, captivate, confer and consolidate. We never got the results and never heard from the consultant again . . .

    • Erasmus

      Now imagine what effect flooding this country with more low-skilled, low-intelligence, poorly-educated immigrants and their offspring is going to have on this school and others like it around the country.

      • jackryanvb

        Birth control Si.

        Illegal alien amnesty no.

      • Brian

        That depends on how often we all join hands and sing Kumbayah, doesn’t it? Let’s hop to it, team!

  • John Ulfsson

    If your goal is to get everybody achieving at the same level you are doomed to fail. Even within races there is not equality of ability, and across races it couldn’t be more patently obvious this isn’t the case.

    • sbuffalonative

      Solutions will come only when people admit that race and IQ are genetic realities. Until then, it will be failed theory after failed theory after failed theory.

      • Brian

        On the bright side, the deck chairs on the Titanic will be shuffled about with pleasing regularity.

  • White Mom in WDC

    The schools do need reforming, the students and their ‘Section 8 it takes a village’ families need reforming.

    • Erasmus

      Home schooling. It’s the wave of the future.

      • White Mom in WDC

        I agree wholeheartedly. More homeschool organizations are being formed by the year.

  • MekongDelta69

    See article right below on AmRen:
    “UC Researchers Find Link Between Freshman Algebra, Murder Rate”
    http://www[dot]amren[dot]com/news/2013/10/uc-researchers-find-link-between-freshman-algebra-murder-rate/

    • John Ulfsson

      When was the last genuine US president?

  • Spartacus

    SPONGE, I later learned, meant: “SHORT, intense, vivid activities, which
    provide PRACTICE of learned material, which students can do ON their
    own, and which will also include NEW arrivals or those finishing an
    assignment early, by keeping the GROUP involved, and designed to ELICIT
    an immediate response.”

    ———————————————————————————————————————

    That… What the hell is that ? It’s not even an acronym !

    • Gotsumpnferya

      Anyone can make an acronym out of a paragraph LOL .

    • What happens to the smart white or Oriental kid who finishes his or her assignment early, on their own, and then refuses to work as an unpaid tutor for the black and brown incompetoids?

      I’m pretty smart; I had to read this educationese grammatical construction only once to realize the implications.

      • Brian

        At least they will learn early in life what ‘unfunded mandate’ means.

    • Stentorian_Commentator

      I think “SPONGE” stands for consultants soaking up all available funds being spent on educational reform “studies”.

  • Spartacus

    “A Harvard consultant was paid $10,000 for a one-day visit to the school.”

    ———————————————————————————————————————

    That money would’ve been better spent sterilizing dark-skin students, it would’ve done a much better job at improving schools .

  • Puggg

    I’d hate to have to be a public school teacher, constantly being pulled from end to end and stretched to the point of insanity between one empty brained educational fad and scheme after another. All of it because nobody can face up to the truth about race and IQ.

    • Gotsumpnferya

      I don’t know how some remain energized to teach , given the low pay and schemes that everyone know won’t work .

    • Brian

      “We have now sunk to a depth at which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” –Orwell

      “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas of which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it… Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the high-brow periodicals”. –Orwell

  • Daniel Schmuhl

    The government spends billions on programs which are proven not to work when it could have spent that money on genetic engineering research or nootropic drugs if it really wanted to boost test scores and intelligence. This government is a damn joke.

    • Stentorian_Commentator

      This reminds me of the “Consulting” poster from despair . com. I think it reads: “If there is no solution, there’s money to be made in prolonging the problem.”
      Regarding educational success, a crucial building block is to start with a white student body. Failing that, get Northeast Asians (Japs, Chinese, Koreans), or maybe Vietnamese or high caste Indians. Don’t waste your time with Cambodians or Hmong, because you will just be disappointed. With the right student body, achievement and good behavior come easily.

  • Andy

    A Harvard consultant was paid $10,000 for a one-day visit to the school. Later, students were asked to evaluate their teachers using his “seven C’s” survey: care, control, clarify, challenge, captivate, confer and consolidate. We never got the results and never heard from the consultant again.

    _____________________________________________________

    The geniuses that wrote one of my ed texts solved our education problems similarly: they looked up all the slightly different meanings of “understanding” in the dictionary, and decided that students needed to “understand” each new idea by each of the definitions. So they needed, for example, to “empathize” with the FOIL method of multiplying binomials, since one meaning of understanding is understanding someone’s feelings.

  • T.C. Williams is the famous high school featured in that racial arsonist propaganda movie, Remember the Titans. Paul Kersey did a post about it awhile black. Almost all of the tensions had really nothing to do with race, but for the mere fact that since they were merging three high schools into one, they were also merging three football teams into one, and three starters for every position and various people on the depth charts into one. Two different objects of mass cannot occupy the same space at the same time, and things look really nasty when you try. When you have three zealous high testosterone high adrenaline young men who all previously had a gig all of a sudden competing for only one gig, you’re going to have not so nice things said and done.

    Meanwhile, Sherman brought in a parade of highly paid consultants and introduced so many educational philosophies that he sowed massive confusion among administrators, teachers and students. A memorable example: A Harvard consultant was paid $10,000 for a one-day visit to the school.

    This proves White Mom in WDC right, that the money not being spent on teachers because we’re all waiting on a superhero in a cape is being spent on, as Welsh called it, the “education-consultant industry.”

  • panjoomby

    school choice… will make them smarter!

    nope – nothing makes them smarter.

  • JohnEngelman

    Different people learn best in different environments. Most of what I know about anything I have taught myself through independent reading and investigation. I probably would have learned best in a home school environment with a tutor.

    Nevertheless, a person’s IQ imposes restrictions on what the person is capable of learning in any environment. For decades educational professionals have ignored this cruel reality, and American education has suffered.

  • Helios Megistos

    The Department of Education MUST be immediately obliterated and all of its workers MUST be fired and all of the then newly empty buildings MUST be sold; the debt is nearly 17 trillion dollars! Also, the Tenth Amendment speaks for itself!

  • I read on Breitbart that Florida tea party groups and teachers’ unions throughout the state joined up to kill Commune Core in Florida. Now there’s a good example on how cross-ideological activism can work, making alliances with people on the other side of the aisle on something you have in common.

    The one I think you can’t remember is Outhouse-Based Education. Oops, I meant Outcome-Based Education. Honest mistake, really.

  • Bon, From the Land of Babble

    Educational fads? What’s not to love? Each one means days and weeks of brain-numbing training listening to silly pedagogy from a flown in from New York, $150,000/year, Agenda 21-pushing consultant on the professional development circuit — while students sit in front of a video with a sub.

    I was especially fond of “Cooperative Learning” where kids were forced to work in collectives — with smart kids rationed out one per group to do all the work while the slackers sat around and everyone got the exact same grade in the name of equity and fairness.

    Then there was Harvard Professor Gardener’s “7 Intelligences” which claimed every kid was a genius in one of 7 nebulous intelligences — including kids who couldn’t read or write; a kid who could squawk out a few lines of rap was now labeled a musical genius and told he should head for Juilliard.

    Then, there’s the latest government plan, known as Commie Core, which is being shoved down everyone’s throat, public, private, charter or home school — because ALL state tests, SAT, ACT, etc. are being re-aligned to match up with the new, anti-White, social justice, globalist, global-warming, anti-gun, pro-UN agenda.

    Ever on the forefront of any and all education fads, the LAUSD, where I am employed, has jumped in first — first to fail, that is — with the first phase recently rolled out to kick off the implementation of CC: The issuance of $700 iPads in 47 selected schools.

    By the end of this school year, ALL students are teachers in the LAUSD are supposed to have iPads….

    Fox News:

    The Los Angeles Unified School District’s ambitious $1 billion plan to equip every student with an iPad appeared today to remain mired in uncertainty.

    School officials have taken back iPads from students at Westchester and Roosevelt high schools and possibly other campuses as well until further notice — the latest fallout from student hacking of the devices, newspaper outlets reported.

    ’We don’t know when or if we will able to use the iPads again for classroom instruction — this week, this semester or this year,’ said Lisa Alva, the coordinator for academic services to low-income students.

    Roosevelt also reports that 1/3 of the iPads are missing.

    Whoever is responsible for this fiasco will be given a raise and a promotion.

    I haven’t received a raise in 10 years — but, I’m glad I hung on to my Apple stock.

    http://www // myfoxla // com/story/23577999/lausd-ipads-taken-back-from-students-after-hacking#ixzz2gWyHtptm

    Bon

  • Funruffian

    This guy may have written a lucid essay on his misadventures as a teacher, but he was a fool to remain in a profession where he was nothing more than a “cog in the wheel’ of the big Marxist education reform. What a waste. Some people are intelligent, yet too lazy and complacent with their mediocre lives. He saw the problem in education and realized he was ineffectual, because the system prevented him from grading his pupils fairly. Why bump a Black kid’s score of 60 to an 80? To give them a bonus based on their race? To close the racial gap? If you want fairness and equality, give the White kid 100 who actually scored an 80.

  • Garrett Brown

    Add four more decades and unfortunately we shall get the same results. Or, lack there of.

    • Bon, From the Land of Babble

      Add four more decades, $1 trillion dollars extracted from White taxpayers and unfortunately we shall get the same result…

      Bon

  • Brian

    It makes me ill to think how much potential of kids who can actually learn, and want to learn, is being squandered for the sake of these games and illusions.

    • leftists are delusional

      That and trying to prepare kids best suited for manual labor for college instead of trade school.

      Some of these academic educators types need to teach themselves that the world needs ditch diggers too.