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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/14/2010

Radical idea: Public schools aren't an awful mess

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Nancy Flanagan, an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She writes for her blog "Teacher in a Strange Land" for Education week, and her work is featured on the Web site Teachers Lead.

By Nancy Flanagan
Here's a radical idea: Public schools in America are not a catastrophic mess.

Backed into a corner, beat up and wildly uneven in quality, yes. There's plenty of room for improvement, even in the schools that look terrific on paper. But perhaps it's time to take a deep breath and consider the words of Wendy Puriefoy:

In a society where the wealthiest are walled off in gated communities and the poorest are isolated in ghettos, our public schools—for all their faults and shortcomings—are still our best chance to give all children a shot at the American dream.

A friend who teaches in Kansas confessed recently that she feels a little guilty as bitter education reform battles rage in New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Things aren't perfect in her school--they're not perfect anywhere, including the exceptionally rare charter academies that hold lotteries for admission--but she and her colleagues believe they're doing a good job for kids.

The big initiatives they're pursuing in her suburban Kansas middle school this year? Using professional learning communities to improve curriculum, upgrading common performance assessments and expanding effective use of Web 2.0 tools. Their test scores are solid, but they believe they can do a better job. They continue to identify and address weaknesses. And nobody has seen "Waiting for Superman."

There are plenty of good things happening in American schools, things that do not involve superheroes, multimillion-dollar federal grants or life/death lotteries. Good things do not make gripping copy or support melodramatic storylines. They're small-scale: Strengthening science knowledge and pedagogy in early-grades teachers. Students growing their own lunches in Iowa. Setting up on-line book clubs for sixth graders. Individual teachers reflecting on how to inspire their students. Transforming school cultures in Detroit, ground zero for economic despair.

The list goes on and on. David Cohen of Accomplished California Teachers just posted an impressive synopsis of promising ideas here, and Public School Insights offers a sampling of more than 100 impressive and encouraging programs, research reports and visionaries here. Evidence and good news galore.

So why is the Secretary of Education promoting Hurricane Katrina as metaphor and even, unbelievably, treatment for our most stressed public districts and schools? Why would the man charged with improving education for all children in America feel compelled to begin every speech with dire, hyped-up international test comparisons, the go-to explication of our failing educational prospects?

At times like these, we miss the voice of the late Gerald Bracey, who made a career of explaining why, for decades, parents and communities have believed their schools are pretty good, but schools everywhere else are terrible.

In a wonderful article in Kappan, Bracey used PIRLS reading data to perform this thought experiment: Of the 39 nations tested, the Russians took the top slot with a score of 565. American kids clocked in at 540, still above the median international score of 500. When the scores were disaggregated by ethnicity, however, Asian-American students got a 567; white American students, 560; Hispanic students, 518; black students, 503; and American Indians, 468.

In Bracey's model, Asian-American kids were #1, and white American kids were #3 in international rankings. Disaggregating by economic status is even more revealing—in schools where fewer than 10% of the students live in poverty, the score was 573. Well-off American kids are kicking their global competition to the curb, it seems—at least in 4th grade literacy.

Not that it matters to the critics. Bracey’s comment here is perfect: “One thing these rankings make clear is that anyone who makes statements about ‘American schools’ is speaking about an institution that doesn’t exist.”

And that's the bottom line. Education in America is too diverse and vast to make neat, unilateral prescriptions for saving the schools that actually need rescue--or improving the large majority of schools, whose performance ranges from mediocre to dynamic and outstanding. We have the tools to leverage advancement across the board, but it will take hard and focused work, school by school. The last thing we need is the suggestion that it would be more efficient to smash, then wash away, the fragile social and academic capital that schools in poor neighborhoods have built up.

Arianna Huffington says the "zeitgeist is calling" America's public schools. Perhaps it's not the zeitgeist, but a media-driven narrative created by people who wouldn't dream of sending their children to public schools--folks who would be astonished at how happy parents in Kansas and other pedestrian, middle-America places are with their public schools. The campaign against public schools is dangerous and deceptive. We stand to lose something great: the uniquely American idea of a free, high-quality public education for every child.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 14, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  ariana huffington, arne duncan, gerald bracey, guest bloggers, hurricane katrina, katrina nation, nancy flanagan, pisa, public education, school reform, teachers, waiting for superman, wendy puriefoy  
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Expand your mind and expand your knowledge. There are still jobs out there. Go after a degree in the field of your choice and on demand. Find your field that is on demand and suitable for you.

Posted by: donnaadamo | October 14, 2010 6:34 AM | Report abuse

There are parallels here with what we have done to the manufacturing industry in this country. First America does not value the workers as much as it values the progress the progress they produce. There will always be more people appears to be in the back of the minds of our leaders.

We closed factories and moved south to increase profits and reduce costs. Then we moved the jobs off shore...towns and cities died because the people never recovered, many languished for decades to poor to move. Yet we print article after article decrying the fact that there are no jobs for the blue collar workers in America. We did progress to these people not with them or for them

Something similar has happened in education. The requirements to be a good teacher have changed so significantly in the past few years, that a person who got a degree five yers ago has an obsolete education. What we did was to bring in new workers under the guise of education reform and dismissed the old.

Suddenly people who had struggled to go to college to make their lives better were being dismissed in their 40s with no careers. We never thought to provide training for the new demands, there was no professional development in DCPS to speak of. Everyone cannot be expendable in this country if the people are to survive. The Rhee departure is a wake up call that people want change, they want it done with people not to people.

Posted by: topryder1 | October 14, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

I spoke to an elementary school teacher friend last night. We got to discussing reading methodologies and she suddenly said, "Most people don't realize what teachers have to do to teach reading. It is very complex, it is difficult, but I love it!"

I also can tell my my own children have good teachers. The teachers are relaxed, nothing is scripted, they are free to speak out. They are motivating my children to study more and improve in each subjects. I am just so thrilled with our public schools.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 14, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Topryder points out professional development and is right on. The people that I know that are veteran teachers constantly keep up with the latest research, often through professional courses offered at work and often through conferences and courses they attend on their own.

Getting veteran teachers to change is not that difficult if they are treated as professionals and their experience is appreciated. Schools need to decide on specific goals for each school year, provide rationale for the change, teach it to teachers, have them practice one thing a month (as they teach), while providing feedback.

This might seem like a lot of work for a district, but would be more effective. The reformers would have more credibility with everyone if they themselves were using best practices.

I was at a school that did this. They picked only one best practice every three months, and really worked on that one thing. Pretty soon everyone was doing that one thing all the time and the students started to say things like, "this is the same thing that we do in Mrs. So and So's class." It was exciting.

The teachers did walk-throughs looking for the best practices we were working on. They got together for meetings and discussed what they saw in other classrooms. Pretty soon people were just naturally using the new jargon and best practices.

I think school culture could be changed that way, but it would take leadership who knew how important it is to teach effectively. Teaching effectively is not just about test scores. Teaching effectively means providing opportunities for students to practice something new and providing them with feedback on their learning before they are tested.

The temptation is to try too much too fast. Unfortunately, that doesn't work. For a best practice to become a habit, it has to be practiced again and again.

That is why new teachers have so much trouble. There are 50 things going on at the same time and they have to develop routines and practices for all of them, while they teach. Enthusiasm makes up for a lot of this, but won't last long without a strong, positive school culture. New teachers need people who will listen, help and support them without evaluating them at the same time.

Teachers, staff and school leaders should work together, not be pitted against one another. Tough talking principals are o.k. if they know their stuff and are "on your side" underneath it all. By "on your side" I mean they care about kids AND teachers. This idea that the two groups are somehow separate is incorrect. Both kids and teachers matter in education.

There seems to be a belief among some reformers that you can skip professional development and just fire your way to a better school. They are missing the forest for the trees,as my mom would have said.

A good school would constantly improve by providing staff with ongoing training of important best practices. This should be done in a way that is respectful of all teachers and students.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 14, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

@celestun100--Thank you for acknowledging the importance of experience provided by veteran teachers. There seems to be this stereotype that veteran teachers don't want to do new things and just want to ride their time out to retirement. In my 35 years as an educator, I have seen that not to be the norm. Most teachers consider themselves to be lifelong learners and as such, they continue to increase their expertise by learning new strategies and methodologies to use in their classrooms. Quite frankly, most of us would be bored to tears doing the same thing for 30+ years. If we are to excite children about learning then we also need to be excited. This is most frequently done through learning something new ourselves!

Posted by: musiclady | October 14, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

NCLB has had one important impact that has gone unnoticed. It has raised the matter of elementary and secondary education from a level of local media interest to a level of national media attention.

It's scare-ful when the President, the Secretary of Education, Superintendents of Great City Schools, and Education "Venture Capitalists bash our schools while offering "Standards and Standardized Tests" alleged-reform that has failed at every step since the "movement" began in the late 1960s. The panacea failed with Goals 2000; it failed with NCLB, and it is failing with Race to the Top.

Whether schools are an "awful mess" depends on the meaning of "mess." The schools are turning out future Nobel Prize winners now, just as they have been doing in the past. That's not a mess.

But at the same time, failed instruction is turning out kids who have not been taught how to read. Labeled as "specific-learning disabled," these kids constitute 50% of the kids in "Special Education." That's a mess.

Rather than doing something about the mess, we're in a metaphorical Race to the Top. That's a real mess.

It's hope-ful when voices like Nancy Flanigan's can be heard. We haven't yet seen any educational change we can believe in.

When we shake off the dreamy re-form and get serious about instructional form, yes we can.

Posted by: DickSchutz | October 14, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

We need to vote a better Democrat into the office of the President. This one was not prepared to be president, and he and his friends are ripping public education apart.

In 2012 we need to put up a true education reformer into the presidency. We don't have that right now.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 14, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

For an alternative to "SUPERMAN" and a positive celebration of public schools, see CHEKHOV FOR CHILDREN - a documentary about arts education in New York in the dark days of the 1970s:

Posted by: professormom | October 14, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Yes, Nancy Flanngan has touched upon a very real problem typically passes through contemporary educational reformers' lips:
I find that many people in this debate are incorrectly applying "parts to wholes" when discussing why we should have school reform. This type of erroneous reasoning is called the fallacy of composition. And if it is not composition fallacies, then we must suffer through hasty generalizations. And sadly, both of these fallacies lie at the heart of many of educrate arguments.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 14, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps Gerald Bracey in death will be much more cited and appreciated than he ever was in life, at least by the media and politicians. It's up to the knowledgable public to persist in this.
Valerie, keep these columns coming!

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | October 14, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Dear All,
Nancy said...."The big initiatives they're pursuing in her suburban Kansas middle school this year? ..... They continue to identify and address weaknesses. And nobody has seen "Waiting for Superman." " Well, I am that Kansas teacher and she said it well.

The thing that burns me up about all this controversy, the comparisons to Hurricane Katrina disasters, is that those make these statements haven't been to many of the public schools where I teach. I've invited them...all the way to Secretary Duncan to come firsthand.

They don't want to know that there are lots of successful schools. It's much easier to make the front page reporting bad news than to herald the good news that public school teachers are able to accomplish with their kids in spite of exploding class sizes and decreased instructional funds.

No teacher, public, private or charter school, would say that their school is without areas that could be improved. But I dare anyone to come and sit in my classroom and find a reason to say that what is being provided is anything close to a disaster.

If you looked at our test scores, you'd say we're a wildly successful school. But I'd say you missed the whole point of what we do.
We all work hard where I teach....the kids, the teachers, the administrators, the parents....the whole community enters into the equation that makes our school work and work well. It's about the's not about test scores or grades.

But it will never be on the news or reported in any media outlet that I know. Why? Because it won't sell papers, or advertisements or get someone elected. It's much more effective to sling generalizations that don't fit and speak expertly about something that just isn't true.

So get it right....our school is a success. And our story is not unusual...public schools far and wide, big and small, urban, suburban and rural are doing amazing things. Probably even heroic things given all the constraints of budget cutbacks, heaps of administrative encumbrances, and the micro-managing by politicians.


Posted by: mratzelster | October 14, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

Beautiful mratzlelster! The community is the thing that teaches children and you said it so well. The thing about present day school reform is that the community is completely ignored and the whole load is put on the shoulders of individual teachers. And that in itself is very damaging to children, especially those who do not have much support in the greater community. Of course with it all on the teachers the rest of government has a pass on trying to improve the community so children can come to school prepared with food in their stomach, proper medical care and time with their parents who no longer are working 2 or 3 jobs to pay the bills! And then the only stable adults in their lives are fired to "fix" school scores. That is not reform it's "deform".

Posted by: kmlisle | October 14, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse

Since I'm far out of the running to move on to the next stage in WAPO's next great pundit contest, perhaps people won't object to this shameless plug where I argue that treating schools as if they are perpetually in crisis is not helpful. Here's the link:

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 14, 2010 11:11 PM | Report abuse

Gerald Bracey was right: "Anyone who makes statements about 'American schools' is speaking about an institution that doesn't exist." Having worked as a principal under NCLB for 9 years, I know first-hand how flawed NCLB is. Such monumental and sweeping legislation can not work in a large,diverse country such as ours. Many public schools throughout our country are doing a good job. Yes, school reform is necessary,but for the most part it needs to occur at the state and local levels. Reauthorizing NCLB would be a disaster.

Posted by: theschoolprincipal | October 15, 2010 1:43 AM | Report abuse

If it makes you feel good, go ahead and believe it. If you spend extended time in other countries, it really doesn't matter which, you may well find it necessary to change your mind should you agree with the author. The basic inadequacy in American students is their generalized lack of a desire to understand. Omit this instinct, which is teachable, even in a country where 67% of the adults reject Darwin, and you have almost nothing to work with as a teacher.

Posted by: JDBishop5 | October 15, 2010 2:51 AM | Report abuse

Teachers continue to do the remarkable job of educating our young.

Posted by: Educator10 | October 15, 2010 3:54 AM | Report abuse

As author of this piece, I thank all commenters for posting, especially Marsha Ratzel, that amazing teacher from Kansas.

@JDBishop: I am in full agreement that many countries do a much better job of educating their kids (although it does matter very much which country we're talking about). That's because those nations have been willing to do more than increase testing and experiment with vouchers and new governance models, like charters. Nations with high academic achievement have invested in carefully researched strategies to improve teaching and learning.

@topryder1: I do think that one heavily promoted strategy is replacing "obsolete" (and expensive) veteran teachers with new, hip, energetic young temporary teachers who will follow the teaching scripts they've been given, and leave in a few years. The auto industry has done that-- laid off costly experienced line workers and replaced them with people desperate enough to work for lower hourly rates and a reduced benefit package. Interestingly, however, jobs in management still need to be filled by expensive veteran "leaders."

The forces re-shaping education right now are based on free-market economics. In order to get us to buy into a "new" policy plan, the old regime has to be denigrated and positioned as abysmal.

Contrary to what some bloggers have asserted--the tired rant that this piece was an education apologist's defense of the status quo-- I was simply hoping to point out that the best changes begin from looking first at existing strengths.

Thanks for reading.

Posted by: nflanagan2 | October 15, 2010 8:29 AM | Report abuse

Why is the president ALWAYS getting blamed for EVERYTHING that is wrong??? The poster called jlp19 stated that the president doesn't know what he is doing? These problems were going on well before he arrived on the scene. It all starts with us, the educators, to do our jobs. When everyone stops blaming the other for the failure of our children and point the blame on ourselves, then a true collaboration can take place. As a specialist, I walk various halls and see teachers doing very little to educate our children. When asked, they state that "these children" can't learn or their parents could care less so why should I bother. It truly breaks my heart. We, as professionals, should work together to assist new educators with professional development, exhibit a passion for teaching that is so often missing from the campus environment. We can start there. Stop blaming the president. He is doing his job. He is not Superman.

Posted by: karen0454 | October 16, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

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