Saturday, May 31, 2014

Robin Alexander Presents a Cautionary Tale about GERM (Global Education Reform Movement)

Robin Alexander is a Fellow of Wolfson Collegeat the University of Cambridge, Professor of Education Emeritus at the University of Warwick, Honorary Professor of Education at the University of York, Chair of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, and past President of the British Association for International and Comparative Education. His cross-cultural study Culture and Pedagogy, involving fieldwork in England, France, India, Russia and the United States, won the 2002 AERA Outstanding Book Award. The Cambridge Primary Review, which he directed from 2006-12, is the UK’s most comprehensive independent education enquiry for half a century.

On last May 13th, Robin delivered the 2014 Godfrey Thomson Trust Lecture at the University of Edinburgh. His title was Evidence, Policy and the Reform of Primary Education: A Cautionary Tale. I was struck with the close similarities between the politics of education in the UK and in the US. Robin’s lecture is a cautionary tale for educators and politicians in the US and elsewhere. The struggles being fought in the UK with curriculum, standards, and accountability closely parallel those in other nations and give testimony to the existence of a GERM (Global Education Reform Movement).

Robin’s lecture is not only an insightful examination of the contemporary British scene but also traces more than 50 years of history of the evolution of the UK school system and its relationship to government.

Robin’s web site is at

Robin has graciously agreed to have his lecture posted here:

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Parent Encounters a BASIS Schools Inc. Charter School

Jennifer McDowell is a mother of three children in the Scottsdale (AZ) attendance area. She is actively engaged in her children’s education and seeks the best opportunities for them to acquire a good education. Basis Scottsdale is a charter school, one of about a dozen operated by Basis Schools Inc. Recently, US News and World Report ranked Basis Scottsdale as the second best high school in America. Much has been written about how Basis schools attract a highly select group of students and even then winnow and sift them down to a couple dozen by graduation time.

Jennifer contacted me recently after having had an encounter with Basis Scottsdale, and I asked her to record her experiences so that I could pass them along here.

We moved to Scottsdale when our oldest child was entering 1st grade. We found a school with excellent test scores, an active parent community, and an old fashioned neighborhood. Our years at Cochise Elementary were filled with engaged teachers who worked hard to provide differentiated instruction for our daughters despite the burgeoning class sizes due to the annual budget cuts. On the advice of our first grade teacher, we had our oldest tested for "giftedness" and our youngest followed when she reached the appropriate age. We even opted out of the “pull out” gifted enrichment classes because we didn't want either kid to miss any class time with their excelling teachers who were exceeding our expectations of meeting our kids' needs.

When our oldest arrived at middle school, we had a less than ideal experience. While the middle schools in Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) allow kids to enroll in a "double advanced" math class in which they are on track to take AP Calculus their junior year of high school, they didn't offer much in terms of clustering, differentiation, tracking or any form of creating a challenge for those kids that might need it. Additionally, after six straight years of love fests between teacher, student and parent, we were underwhelmed by the anonymity of the giant open maw that is middle school with its 6 different teachers and class sizes that have now burgeoned to 36 kids due to the continuing budget cuts. Hence, I made a phone call to BASIS Scottsdale in March of 2013.

I spoke with a gentleman by the name of Ben Sullivan. I felt confident that I could enroll my child as I knew of several kids who had jumped ship from 5th to 6th grade and knew, based on history, that even more students would be leaving BASIS and there would, therefore, be spaces available. BASIS starts out with a large class in 5th grade of around 130 students, eventually graduating a mere 35 students as the rigor and difficulty continue to weed kids out. Ben did not mention how many kids were on the waiting list nor if any room was even available.

After telling Ben that a good friend and neighbor attended the school as well as several of Sarah's former classmates, I was confident that my child would be a good fit academically. I freely admitted to Ben that my child was highly gifted, was eligible for not just “pull out” enrichment but had also been offered a spot in the self-contained gifted classrooms in SUSD, Paradise Valley School District and the Herberger School for the Gifted. Additionally, my child always exceeded expectations on the AIMS (Arizona's state test).

I told Ben that I had been reluctant to enroll my child in BASIS starting in 5th grade as we didn't want to miss the last year of her fabulous elementary school but were now realizing the middle school might not be the best option and were thinking of making a switch. Ben did not guide me through how to enroll my child. Ben did not schedule our family for a tour or give us a day in which my child could "shadow" a student. Ben did, however, tell me, that it would be very, very difficult for my child to enter BASIS. At the tender age of 12, my child would be "too far behind." The "double advanced" math class in which my child skipped 6th and 7th grade math and entered 8th grade pre-algebra was the absolute lowest, remedial class BASIS offered. Missing two years of Latin was another problem. Basically, the message was, if you didn't start in 5th grade or at the very least 6th grade, BASIS doesn't want you. If there are parents stating that BASIS seemed to not want their child with special needs or who struggles in a particular subject, well, I would believe it, because they didn't want my Principal's List, National Junior Honor Society, gifted child.

This May, I made another phone call to BASIS Scottsdale. I inquired if there was a waiting list for incoming 8th graders and how many they anticipated on accepting. Currently, there are over 20 kids on the waiting list and the school anticipates accepting, maybe, 4. Although this class started with 5 sections of students and are down to three, they can only accept as many students as the building capacity will allow. So, in essence, they keep a large number of spots for the early two grades with the understanding and intent of having smaller and smaller classes as the kids age. Based on that model, they don't want their entire incoming class of 5th graders to stay from year to year. They would need a bigger building or be forced to accept far fewer kids in the incoming 5th grade class. If the school is run with a maximum student body of 750 kids and the 5th grade class is 130, then it follows that the older grades must get smaller and smaller if the school still wants be under the number required by the fire codes.

Our public middle school, Cocopah, has just begun an honor's track for English Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies to go with our three-tiered math program already in place. The kids who are automatically placed in this new honors track are first the kids identified as gifted. Second, should space be available, those kids who have high standardized test scores, high grades and are identified by their teachers as motivated students are “matrixed” in. Lastly, if space is available, parents will be able to "opt in." The school is anticipating having at least three sections in each grade that are designated "honors" which translates to more than 90 students per grade or roughly 1/3 of the student body who will participate in at least one honor's class. At Chaparral High School, regardless of grades or ability, any child may enroll in an Honors class or AP class and decide whether or not they choose to take the AP exam. Additionally, each child has to pay the $50 exam fee to College Board. At BASIS Scottsdale, the school pays for all AP exams.

I am not against school choice. I know people with kids with special needs for whom school choice offers an excellent option that their neighborhood school does not offer. But I have a real problem with the comparison between schools like BASIS and my excellent public school. I can promise you that if you took the group of kids in my child's double advanced math class and compared their scores with that of BASIS, we would be on US News and World Report’s top ten list. If our public schools were allowed to only submit the scores of its brightest, most motivated students, we wouldn't have a nation obsessed with the notion that charter schools are doing a better job of educating our young. If our high school was allowed to systematically weed out students year after year until only the most hard-working, brightest remained, I am quite sure you would find a group of students with a 100% passing rate on their AP exams and some spanked SAT scores. In fact, to that end, I would be happy to work with my contacts at the district to provide for you the aggregate test scores, AP rates, etc. of Chaparral's top 35 students. I think that we will find commensurate test scores along with a group of well rounded students who were also exposed to sports, clubs, and students from all walks of life and teachers who were dedicated career teachers that produced those results year after year.

Lastly, when a traditional school district with a budget of roughly $130 million spends roughly $28 million on special needs, why should they be compared to a school that is clearly spending almost none of their dollars on similar programs? By touting charters over district schools, are we, as a society, saying that providing for those special need students isn't important? Some charters do an excellent job of providing services for special needs kids, but not the ones the politicians love to use in their examples of how our public schools are failing.

The measure of a good school isn't about your "cherry picked" student body. It is about the teachers who have dedicated themselves to teach everyone, from the gifted, motivated student to the below average underachiever in the back of the classroom. The measure of a good school should be about community involvement. The measure of a good school should be about the transparency of its budget, its governing board and its curriculum. The measure of a good school should be about how it treats the students from our communities with the highest needs regardless of what that does to its standing in some magazine's bogus ranking system.

First and foremost, the symbol of public education should be equity; equal opportunity given to every child regardless of how wealthy their school district, how educated the parents, or how bright the students. The goal of public education is to educate the public, not an exclusive cohort of exceptional students. When we pay taxes to fund our local police departments, we would not allow the police to respond more quickly to those individuals in their data base who have never had a speeding ticket. We would not allow our fire departments to prioritize emergencies at the homes of people who contributed to their fallen firefighter fund. Why then, do we allow inequities to exist between charter and traditional public schools? If charter schools are allowed to remain, they should do so under the same laws and regulations by which the traditional public schools must operate. Otherwise, a generation from now, we will find that the only true public schools that remain will be for the truly disenfranchised who simply have no other options.

Thank you, Jennifer, for reporting what so many have suspected is truly going on out there in the world of “school choice.” Rather than the students choosing the schools, it looks like the schools are choosing the students whom they want to make themselves look good.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Are Charter Schools Contributing to Segregation?

The celebration of the 60th anniversary of Brown v Topeka has been tempered somewhat by the realization that U.S. schools are more segregated today than they were in the early 1950s. Apologists will argue that today there is a new ethnic group to consider, or that school segregation is really all about housing segregation, both of which are true. However, there is one source of school segregation that is only about schools and school choice.

Charter schools are racially, ethnically and socio-economically segregated and there are just no two ways about it. A particularly egregious form of statistical malpractice holds that charter schools are not segregated because 15% of the U.S. is African American and 15% of the charter school population is African American, or 18% of the U.S. population is Hispanic and 18% of the charter school population is Hispanic. Such comparisons ignore the fact that the 15% of the African American charter school population might be enrolled in charter schools that are 90% African American. To see what is happening in the charter schools system with regard to segregation, you have to look at individual schools in close proximity. There is significant research that has done just that. ( Casey D. Cobb & Gene V Glass, 1999; Erica Frankenberg, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, Jia Wang, 2011).

Unless anyone think that the old research is out of date and things are getting better, let's take a look at the contemporary scene. Consider Boulder County, Colorado, where I am writing this blog entry right now. It's graduation time and the public schools of Boulder have published the names of their graduates in the newspaper. Now Boulder County has within its boundaries three cities: Boulder (white and upper middle class), and Louisville & Lafayette (mixed white and Hispanic and middle to lower middle class). There are two charter schools, one in Louisville — Arapahoe Ridge — and one in Lafayette — Peak to Peak. The two cities in the eastern half of the county have virtually merged and the two charter schools are about 5 miles apart.

I scanned the list of graduates' names in the newspaper and kept a count of Hispanic surnames. Now, please don't write me and tell me that inferring Hispanic ethnicity from surnames is not 100% accurate or even 75% accurate. I know that; it's obvious. It's also obvious that the magnitude of differences I observed between Arapahoe Ridge and Peak to Peak are not going to be explained away by ambiguous surnames.

Percent Hispanic Surnamed
Graduates at Arapahoe Ridge
Percent Hispanic Surnamed
Graduates at Peak to Peak

Is this just an aberration? Is Boulder County somehow an outlier with respect to charter school segregation? I don't think so. School choice means many things, most of which I find undesirable. But one thing it means is unmistakable. School choice leads to school segregation.

Gene V Glass
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Ever Hear a BASIS Schools Sales Pitch?

The Basis charter schools – some ten schools in Arizona and a couple more in places like San Antonio and Washington, DC – have long been a fascinating subject for this blog and others.

US News & World Report continues to rank schools like Basis Scottsdale and Basis Tucson in the top ten high schools in the nation. This happens in spite of the fact that the schools' practices result in thinning elementary and middle school classes down from a hundred to a couple dozen by graduation from grade 12. Is this the best education in the country or the worst journalism, I ask you, US News? A high school that graduates fewer than 30 students a year hardly deserves the accolades afforded Basis Scottsdale or Basis Tucson. I can assure you that within a radius of 5 miles there are several times as many high school Seniors graduating from traditional public high schools whose test scores and college admissions statistics will outdo those of Basis students.

A little background: About five years ago, Basis decided to open a private school in Scottsdale, AZ. No one knows what their motivation was since their previous schools were all charter schools. Perhaps they saw the eye-popping tuition ($15,000 and up) that was being charged by Phoenix Country Day School or Rancho Solano and thought to themselves, Why not? Basis Scottsdale was created and advertised and by opening day in the fall, seven students had signed up! Basis Scottsdale was quickly converted into a charter school – which had to be quite an embarrassment to Michael Block, Basis founder and a former free-market economics professor at the University of Arizona. This particular little test of the free market failed miserably. Crony capitalism is safer.

Not only does Basis engage in ruthless thinning across the grades, but they also practice rigorous selection of students for high academic ability at the entry grades. David Safier has shown as much in his blog, and it hit a sensitive nerve with the Basis people who attempted to refute his charges. The Basis people insist that they do no selection of incoming students and that admission is strictly by lottery. Clearly we have some word play going on here. Stripped of casuistry, I think we can clarify by saying that Basis randomly “selects” incoming students from a very “select” group of applicants. I didn’t realize just how select that applicant pool is until my friend Ellie just happened to drop by a Basis schools sales pitch.

Ellie works in downtown Phoenix. Basis had announced in early 2014 that they would soon open Basis Phoenix, a charter school in the center of the city in order to favor the unhappy parents of Phoenix with the Basis brand of education. Ellie was leaving work late one evening in March when she saw the placard announcing the Basis information meeting in the conference hall of her very own building. The capacity of the hall was 90 persons, but more than 200 people filled the room and spilled out into the hallway. For just a moment, she considered phoning the fire marshal; but on second thought, she decided to squeeze into the hall and catch the sales pitch.

What Ellie told me about what transpired during the Basis sales pitch was filtered through her years as a teacher in big-city schools across the country. The Basis people would surely claim that her views were thus corrupted and biased by her background. I would argue that her views are well informed by years of experience as an educator. Judge for yourself.

Ellie’s Report (with her reflections in parentheses)

I was stunned by the size of the crowd of parents who showed up at this “informational meeting,” but what was more shocking to see was that maybe 60% of the parents were either far east Asian or East Indian. That really seemed weird because I know that the Phoenix Elementary school district is 2% or less Asian. I saw very few Hispanic or African American parents in the room.

The meeting – it was really an hour long uninterrupted presentation with no questions allowed – was presided over by a pot-bellied man in a florescent orange shirt. Orange Shirt stood in the middle of the stage backed up by a half dozen young adults seated in chairs. He referred to his back-ups as “Subject Specialists”; they sat silently through the entire presentation, never said a word, and left without being asked any questions.

The presentation started with a series of video clips projected onto a large screen. The clips showed school teachers as portrayed in popular media like movies, and each one made the teachers look ridiculous. Of course, the famous Ben Stein scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was featured: “Anybody, Anybody?” The message was clear: traditional, ed school trained teachers are fools. Orange Shirt never referred to the Basis teachers as “teachers”; he made it quite clear that Basis employs Subject Specialists.

Here’s how things were going to run at Basis Phoenix, according to Orange Shirt. The school would start with grades K through 4, and each year a grade would be added until a full K-12 school was reached. In the beginning, grades K-4 would have 30 students each and each subsequent year another track of 30 would be added until each grade’s enrollment reached 100.

Two themes permeated the presentation – all of which consisted of Orange Shirt’s monologue with no questions from the floor entertained.

  1. At all grade levels schooling would be conducted as if it were a high school. From Kindergarten up, the students would experience Basis education just like high school education: lectures, passing from room to room for each subject taught, individual lockers, etc. Children who go through a Basis school will be high school and college ready at the end.
  2. Self-selection. Orange Shirt was emphatic. Basis does not select its students; admission is by lottery. (Of course, if Basis doesn’t “select” then it can claim to be just like a traditional public school that takes all comers – a fatuous claim, of course, since a lottery from among a pool of “self-selected” applicants is hardly comparable to taking on all comers.) Yes, there is a lot of thinning going on across the grades. (Parents have reported that the curriculum resembles a gauntlet of paper-and-pencil tests.) And yes, lots of students choose to continue their education back in the dreaded traditional public schools. But – and Orange Shirt was emphatic on this point – students “self-select” out of the school; Basis does not do any selecting.
Orange Shirt rattled off a series of features of a Basis education:
  1. “Subject Specialists” have not been corrupted by having their brains filled with a lot of “ed school” nonsense.
  2. Students will study Mandarin in Grades K – 3. (Presumably this will make the school more appealing to those highly motivated Asian families.)
  3. Parents are to drive their children to the front entrance, drop them off, remain in the car, and drive away promptly; no congregating at the entrance to the school.
  4. Parents are not used as volunteers in the classroom. (In fact, the whole idea of parent involvement in the school was strongly discouraged.)
Orange Shirt’s monologue took up 45 minutes. No time was allotted for questions from the parents. I pressed forward toward the stage at the end of the talk; Orange Shirt did not seem too receptive to questions but I managed to ask him how much his “Subject Specialists” are paid. “Each contract is individually negotiated,” he said. Sure, what better way to keep the employees in the dark and off balance in any negotiations.

All I can say is that it was a bizarre experience. Looming over the proceedings were the personalities of Michael and Olga Block, the Basis founders who were spoken of reverentially. A picture was painted of small children treated as adults. I couldn’t help thinking of my own grandchildren and how I would never want them treated like miniature college students by the Basis Subject Specialists.

Yes, Ellie. Bizarre indeed. I wonder how much the average reader of US News and World Report knows about what goes on in the Best High Schools in America.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Apple Inc. Buys Another School District

Last night my daughter went to a parents meeting at my granddaughter's middle school. The meeting was presided over by the principal who proudly announced the school's new iPad program. Due to the generosity of Apple Inc., every child will be given an iPad as they enter school next fall.

Questions from the floor came fast.

Parents: To keep?
Principal: No, they will be checked out and have to be returned at the end of the year.

Parents: And what if they are lost or stolen?
Principal: Well, they will have to be replaced at retail price.

Parents: Is Apple giving these things to the school free?
Principal: No, we get a special price.

Parents: What if a kid doesn't have wifi at home?
Principal: Comcast has agreed to a special introductory offer.

Parents: Some of our families can't afford Comcast's "special offer." What percent of our families qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch?
Principal: About a third.

Parents: What happens when the kid shows up for school and needs to charge the battery? It takes about 10 to 15 minutes of charging before you can use the thing.
Principal: I'll have to have IT look into that.

Parents: Is Apple going to be pushing ads at our kids?
Principal: I don't think so, but every student has to have an Apple ID and password before school starts in August.

Parents: Why are we doing this? What good is it?
Principal: We are going to be able to do daily formative assessment for every child. We can maximize learning.

Parents: MORE TESTING?! We're sick of all the testing you are doing.

Questions died out amid much grumbling from the audience. It was clear that the deal was sealed. There was no backing out. It was also clear that the iPad roll-out in August was going to be a disaster and that Apple Inc. and Comcast had made themselves a sweet deal. I suppose things like this are called School-Business partnerships in some quarters. In other quarters, things like this are called sell-outs by the schools to corporations. The commercial entanglement of public education has been the subject of ongoing annual reports by Alex Molnar and his colleagues at NEPC for several years now. What started as a trickle is becoming a flood.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Strangest Academic Department in the World

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville has an academic department in its College of Education & Health Professions that is one of the strangest I have ever seen.

It is called the Department of Education Reform, and the strangeness starts right off on the department's webpage: edre/ There one sees that the department is the "newest department in the College of Education and Health Professions, established on July 1, 2005. The creation of the Department of Education Reform was made possible through a $10 million private gift and an additional $10 million from the University’s Matching Gift Program." One is never told – anywhere – that the gift was from a foundation set up by the Walton family of Wal*Mart fame. Of course, the Walton family has sunk more than $330 million into one in every four start-up charter schools in the past 15 years. This is pretty dark money since few know how deep into education reform the Waltons are. And the University of Arkansas is not advertising on their web site that an entire department was created by one very ideologically dedicated donor.

This lack of acknowledgement of the ties between the department and the Waltons goes even further than the unwillingness to advertise who is paying the department's bills. The January 2014 issue of the Educational Researcher – house organ of the American Educational Research Association – carried the report of a study that alleged to document a very impressive benefit to children's critical thinking abilities as the result of a half-hour lecture in an art museum. Pretty impressive stuff, for sure, if it's true. The article was written by Daniel H. Bowen, Jay P. Greene, & Brian Kisida. (Learning to Think Critically: A Visual Art Experiment) Now it is never disclosed in the article that the art museum in question is Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, the creation of Alice Walton, grande dame of the Walton family, or that the authors are essentially paid by the very same Waltons. Now the authors should have disclosed such information in their research report, and the editors of the journal bear some responsibility themselves to keep things transparent.

One thing among several that is truly odd about the Department of Education Reform is that when you click on the link to the department ( you are taken immediately to, which appears to be a website external to the University. Huh? What gives? The University doesn't want to be associated with the department? Or the department doesn't want to be associated with the University of Arkansas?

Once you are at the internal/external website ( for the Department of Education Reform, you can't get back to the University of Arkansas or its College of Education. Even clicking on the University's logos at the top of the department's homepage leaves you right there at So the department is really in the University of Arkansas, but it seems to act like it would rather not be associated with it.

Among the activities of the department supported by the Walton money is the endowment of six professorships. Well, there are only six professors in the entire department, and only one of those is not sitting in an endowed chair. I know of no other department in which 5 out of 6 faculty occupy an endowed chair of some sort or other. Well and good. Professors work hard and they deserve support and many have labored for decades without such reward. However, the five endowed professors of the Department of Education Reform appear to be a tad different from most endowed professors. In fact, only one of them strikes me personally as having the kind of record that would deserve an endowed professorship at any of the top 100 colleges of education in the country.

Among those surprising recipients of endowed professorships are four others. Robert Maranto has a doctorate from the University of Maryland in 1989 and had only risen to the rank of Associate Professor at Villanova when he was hired by the department in 2008 to fill the Chair in Leadership.

Gary Ritter earned a doctorate from Penn in 2000, and less than a decade later is awarded an endowed professorship by the department.

Likewise for Patrick Wolf who made it to Associate Professor at Georgetown before being named 21st Century Chair in School Choice in the department. And the department chair, Jay Greene, never made tenure at a university before logging five years at the notoriously right-wing Manhattan Institute and then jumping into the 21st Century Chair in Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

Question: Who is making these decisions? How does this department relate to the College of Education & Health Professions? Does a university committee vet these appointments to endowed chairs? What role do outsiders play in hiring decisions? The department administers the University's PhD in Education Policy. The department uses the University's imprimatur in much of what it does. Does the University have any say in what the department does? And the bigger question: Is everything for sale today in American higher education?

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Myth 9: Teachers are the most important thing in the world. (So we should fire them if their kids' scores don't go up.)

Myth 9. Teachers are the most important influence in a child’s education.

The full statement of Myth 9 might take the following form: “Dear Teachers, you are so overwhelmingly important in the education of our children, you are the be-all and the end-all, the Alpha and the Omega, that when the children aren’t learning, it has to be your fault, that’s why we are going to fire you if the test scores don’t go up.”

As obvious as it is to note the importance of good teachers, research makes it clear that teachers are not the most important influence in a child’s education. Most research shows that less than 30% of a student’s academic success in school is attributable to schools, and teachers are only a part of that overall school effect, perhaps not even the most important part. Student achievement is most strongly associated with socioeconomic status of the child’s family. Outside-of-school factors having nothing to do with teacher ability appear to have at least twice the weight in predicting student achievement as inside-of-school factors. Schools can’t supply all of what society fails to give children.

Politicians and education reformers – the Value-Added Measurement group, let’s call them – argue that holding teachers accountable for student success is the best way to improve education. The mythological importance of teachers in determining student achievement is then promoted, as policymakers strive to show that what they are doing is best for children, namely, holding teachers accountable for student success. This illusion of “doing something really important,” even if it is not likely to cause the desired changes, let’s many politicians and citizens close their eyes to the larger social and economic problems that limit what schools can achieve.

The federal government through “Race to the Top” has forced many states to adopt programs that tie large portions of teachers’ evaluations to student achievement on standardized tests – the system known as value added measurement, or VAM. It would be reasonable, if we were sure that teachers were the most important factor in determining student achievement, to promote policies holding them accountable for what students learn. But accountability policies built on this myth are a hoax because it is assumed that teachers have more control over student achievement than they actually do. Teachers cannot change the conditions of students’ lives outside of school, and it is those conditions that account for much of the difference in student achievement. In addition, teachers are often among the most powerless people in the school when it comes to making decisions that affect student achievement.

As a result, policies flowing from this myth of the all-important teacher put teachers in an untenable position. They are asked to overcome many problems outside of their control, and this can lead to devastating consequences for both students and teachers. As the pressure increases on teachers (and their administrators) to improve student performance, so does their temptation to game and to cheat the assessment system to show improvement. Cheating scandals in Atlanta, Washington, DC, Denver, and elsewhere point not just to the possibility of this regrettable situation, but to its reality (Nichols and Berliner, 2007; Ravitch, 2010).

The policies growing out of the myth of the all-powerful teacher can also result in lower teacher morale and push talented people away from considering a career in teaching. Working in an environment where you are evaluated on outcomes that are largely outside of your control is a recipe for stress, discouragement, and exit.

What appears on the surface to be a song of praise for teachers – “You are the most important thing in all the world” – turns out in the end to be an attempt to deny teachers due process and to bust unions.


Nichols, S. N. & Berliner, D. C. (2007). Collateral Damage: How High-stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System‬: ‪How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education‬. New York: Basic Books.

David Berliner and I have joined with 15 bright young PhDs to expose 50 of the myths & lies that are threatening our nation’s public schools. 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools is published by Teachers College Press at Columbia University.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Who Owns the Future: Common Core, TFA or the Koch Brothers?

[The remarks below were delivered on May 1, 20144 to a group of doctoral students in the Educational Leadership & Innovation program at Arizona State University.]

A couple weeks ago we had a dinner party. My brother, Ed, was there; and Ed’s grandson Jason and Jason’s wife Heather and the new great-grandson, Jackson Paul … we call him JP.

As the evening progressed the conversation turned to education, as it often does. I was beginning to expound my favorite opinions – the K-12 curriculum is completely obsolete; schools are not preparing students for life in the 21st century – when I sensed that I was losing my audience.

But wait; let me back up.

Ed, my brother, will turn 82 in October; he was born in 1932. Our father was born in 1909, and our grandmother in 1888.

My grandmother’s parents were homesteaders in Southwestern Nebraska. They struggled to stay alive on arid land not fit for farming. My grandmother told me stories of lying awake at night as a child fearful that the skirmishes between the Oglala Sioux and the soldiers at Fort Robinson might spill over into their locale. My father worked from age 15 as an apprentice printer and then as a journeyman and proud member of the International Typographical Union. My brother had a long a successful career as a YMCA director – Denver, Oklahoma City – only retiring after 45 years of service. And me? Well the next time I teach a statistics course will be the 51st year that I have taught a class of college students. And what about Jason and Heather? Well, Jason sells computer software services and has no office and is often in the air, and Heather just accepted a promotion to the Boston office of her medical supply company.

The changes in the nature of work between my grandmother’s life and JP’s are nothing short of phenomenal. Their lives span a century-and-a-half and a universe of change. The great inventions that made progress possible in my grandmother’s era were the steel plow and the horse collar. In JP’s life? No list will begin to cover all that has happened.

In my opinion, the nation’s education system is hopelessly out of step with how young people’s lives are evolving, and it always has been. There are reasons for this, good and sufficient reasons about universal education in a democracy; but to explore them will take me far afield of this look at the future.

An an 8th grader in the Lincoln, Nebraska public schools, I was required to take a semester of Metal Shop where we worked hot metal at a forge. At that time – 1953 – there could not have been more than a handful of blacksmiths in the entire state; and yet, such is the conservatism of the school curriculum that we were being trained in junior high to hammer out a pair of horse shoes. Today’s curriculum strikes me as no less ridiculous. Spelling, arithmetic, handwriting, writing itself, even keyboarding. Has no one over the age of 40 ever held a smartphone?

And so I went on around the dinner table that evening.

In the future, the nature of work will be radically changed. Except for a small percentage of the population who engineer and program computers and robots, there will be no way for the vast majority of the population to contribute to the economy. My father and ITU struck against the arrival of computers in the composing room in 1963; he never worked another day as a printer. Years later when I showed him how my word processor – WordPerfect – could completely change the font and spacing of an entire document with a few key strokes, he was stunned, and perhaps silently reflected on the demise of his once valuable trade. When I started as a professor in 1965, there was one secretary for every four faculty members; now there are none – no secretaries, that is, but plenty of faculty.

If computers and robots will take over the vast bulk of work – as I am convinced they will do – what will happen to the people who have no way of contributing to the world’s wealth by selling their labor? For some, different cultural norms will have to evolve for such things as the length of one’s work-life and even workday. For many, it will simply have to be accepted that they will not “work” in any form like the current definition of the word and that wealth created by the very few will have to be redistributed among the many. (Note 1)

At this point in the evening, a generational divide opened up around the dinner table.

To my brother, this idea of a few workers and many others benefiting from their labor bordered on the repugnant. People without work receiving services and subsidies from a government would have no sense of self-worth; they would be miserable; they would be leeches; we live to work; it is our fate and our destiny: “By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made.” (Genesis 3:19)

To older generations, the idea of redistribution of wealth is anathema, but ironically, it is precisely those generations who are the biggest beneficiaries of wealth redistribution through Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and virtually zero estate taxes.

But to Heather and Jason – and all the more to JP someday, I predict – people will work in order to live lives of enjoyment and fulfillment, and fulfillment will not always be achieved through work. Work will be a means of acquiring the wherewithal to enjoy life. Jason and Heather had only recently returned from a vacation in Costa Rica. Although they had only been in Denver about four years, they were prepared to pull up stakes and move to Boston for Heather’s advancement in the company. Unlike the careers of their seniors, their careers are not marked by loyalty to a single company. Were they threatened by the idea of redistributing wealth to others less privileged or unluckier than themselves? No, not in the least, and they even said they would be willing to pay higher taxes so that more people could receive health care and adequate housing and nutritious diets. In this respect, Jason and Heather may reflect the values of a whole generation, the generation that Howe and Strauss (Note 2) called the Millennials. Their Millennials show a stronger sense of community and are more civic minded than previous generations, sometimes referred to as Generation X or the Baby Boomer Generation.

I submit to you that what I observed around the dinner table that night was a miniature reflection of a huge generational and cultural divide that is working its way slowly through modern societies the world over. The nature of work is changing rapidly, and culture is changing slowly behind it, and schools as the reproducer of culture change more slowly still.

And where do the schools stand in the midst of all this change? The schools have a miserable record of preparing young people for work. The contemporary curriculum is no more relevant to the shifting nature of modern society than the metal shop class I took in 1953 was relevant to my work-life to come. Most of what is taught in schools today is antiquated and useless. Most mathematics can’t stand on its own two feet in a debate about relevance, Google spells better than I do – and has done so several times as I type this – and the recorded human voice communicates better than writing. And if it were not impossible to keep humans from learning a system of writing, books would have long ago been put out of business by movies and recordings. (Homer – the Greek, not Simpson -- was not a writer, one must recall.)

And please do not tell me that even though you’ll never use geometry that it trains you to think logically. It doesn’t. It just trains you to think about geometry, that’s all. There are millions of people (like Megan Fox) who passed geometry and still believe in Leprechauns, or who (like Fran Dresher) believe that they were once abducted by aliens, or who believe that someday they will ride their horse again in heaven. And there are thousands of scientists who can’t reason their way out of a wet paper bag on issues like abortion, immigration, or affordable health care. The fact is that all the talk on the part of the business community about wanting graduates who are “career ready” is just so much hokum.

Here’s Alan Golston of the Gates foundation talking about the relationship of the schools to the business community: “Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools, so [school & business] is a natural alliance.” Sure, what company wouldn’t want to have new employees trained at public expense on all the little particular tasks that their employees perform? But why should I pay taxes to have Company X’s employees trained so that Company X’s bottom line can grow and Company X’s CEO can increase his salary even more than 250 times that of his average worker? (And if you object to the sexism of the previous sentence, just check out the number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 companies. Don’t bother, I’ll do it for you: 24.)

When the business world says they want “career ready” employees, what they really want is employees who show up on time, stay off drugs, don’t steal, and don’t join unions. And what career are these graduates supposed to be ready for when labor economists tell us that the average adult today can look forward to hold 3 or 4 different jobs in their lifetime?

The current curriculum fads are STEM and the Common Core State Standards, which we are learning are neither common nor state generated. Let’s first take STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education. Those who wish to interject the Arts and talk about STEAM education have gained no traction in the reform movement.

It is a multi-faceted myth that the U.S. economy is suffering due to a dearth of scientists, engineers and mathematicians. In 2012, the unemployment rate of college educated STEM graduates rose to 5.5%, approximately the same rate as for all college graduates (5.4%). Only about 38% of college graduates whose highest degree is in a STEM field work in STEM jobs. In 2008, there were more than 17 million individuals with a STEM bachelor’s degree or higher, but even by the highest estimates there were fewer than 7 million STEM jobs. With about 10 million STEM graduates currently without STEM jobs, it is unclear how anyone, particularly our President and Secretary of Education, could claim that there is now a shortage of STEM workers. One starts to wonder whether creating a surplus of workers in a field with subsequent holding down of wage increases might not be a motive behind some STEM cheerleading.

On a personal note: Our son-in-law Piet is in charge of a section of the website of a huge corporation whose name is instantly recognizable. He works from home, although his corporation provides office space for tens of thousands of its employees. He supervises two IT web workers in San Paulo and one in Bratislava. Why? Because labor is bought cheaper there than in the U.S. So maybe it’s Brazil and Slovakia that need STEM education.

And what about the Common Core? The Common Core, I regret to report, is little more than a trumped up excuse to funnel billions of dollars to some huge corporations – count among them, Pearson the U.K. based publishing giant. Here’s Bill Gates, the major backer of the Common Core who has spent millions pushing the program speaking to the U.S. Congress in 2009: “When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well – and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.”

The sorry fact is that the K-12 curriculum is rapidly being destroyed by things like the Common Core. Music, physical education, and art are being dumped to make time for more test taking preparation. School officials in Elwood, New York, cancelled a Kindergarten play because it would take time away from getting the little tykes “college and career ready.” The interim principal wrote to the parents: “The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers, and problem solvers.” Ironically, in an effort to make the world career ready, teachers’ jobs are being turned into dull mind-numbing jobs.

If the modern K-12 curriculum is nearly useless, and if the Common Core is the answer to the wrong problem, then what should we be teaching our children?

The greatest problem facing the U.S. economy is not that we have too few scientists and engineers, but that we have tens of millions of people who sap hundreds of billions of dollars out of the economy unnecessarily. And I am referring to the cost to the economy of lifestyle choices that lower worker productivity and increase medical costs: namely, obesity, addictions to tobacco, alcohol, and drugs (both legal and illegal), and sedentary lifestyles. The total cost of drug abuse and addiction due to use of tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs alone is estimated at greater than $500 billion a year.

Throw in another $50 billion annually as the cost of incarcerating the illegal drug addicts and you are starting to account for a non-negligible portion of the nation’s GNP. Let’s look at it a different way: The cost to the U.S. society due to substance abuse and addiction is greater than the combined GNPs of Finland and Norway. And we are not even considering the cost to our economy of sedentary lifestyles leading to heart disease and diabetes, for example.

What is the U.S. education system doing about these problems? Can the school carry out a full-speed campaign to stamp out fast food, Coca Cola, and quasi-professional high school sports that exalt the few and train the rest to be popcorn munching, sedentary ticket-buying spectators? Instead, we sign contracts with the soft drink companies to share some of the profits from the sale of sugary sodas to our students.

I do not for a second underestimate the pressures on school administrators to give into the forces that make money off of children. It takes a special kind of fortitude to resist these temptations and pressures.

Once upon a time there was a thing known as a “liberal education.” It strove to make students aware of the rights and obligations of a citizen in a democracy, to equip them with the experiences and dispositions to enjoy a lifetime filled with healthy relationships and a commitment to things outside their own narrow appetites. A liberal education sought to make children aware of their connection to a larger society, and to assume some responsibility for its well-being. The “liberal” in liberal education meant “free.” A liberal education was to be the education of free men in a society comprising free men and slaves (with women categorized among the latter, presumably). We no longer have a society divided into the free and the slave, because the slave labor increasingly is being taken over by machines. There will come a day when people are no longer defined solely by their job; when the answers to the question “What do you do?” will no longer be “I’m a printer,” or “I’m a pharmacist,” but will be “I play the guitar” or “I’m a gardener” or “I’m a world traveler.” Will we educators of future generations hasten that day? As my colleague Tom Barone says, “Teachers touch eternity.” Will we continue to reach for it?

We return now to the question with which we started. Who owns the future? Let’s hope it’s not the Common Core. But what about Teach For America and the Koch brothers? Well, we are out of time, and those are topics for another day.

  1. Unemployment in Spain exceeds 50% for persons under age 25; the causes are both political and structural; but even Jeremiads like this one from the BBC can not disguise the fact that young people are finding ways of adjusting to what may be more than a mere evanescent moment in economic history:

  2. Howe, Neil; Strauss, William (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Monetizing the Common Core

Joanne Weiss, Secretary Duncan's chief of staff, wrote on the Harvard Business Review blog in March 2011:
"The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale."
Bill Gates speaking to the U.S. Congress in 2009:
“When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.”
So is profit the motive pushing the Common Core State Standards, or is it just an incidental side benefit?

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.