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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 03/22/2010

Willingham on Obama's vision for education

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?"

By Daniel Willingham
The reception of President Obama's
proposed revision of the major federal education law has generally been positive. It’s hard for me to see why people are optimistic.

There are notable improvements to the No Child Left Behind act. The emphasis in accountability will be broadened beyond reading and math to include other subjects. In addition, schools will not be evaluated in absolute terms, but by their ability to improve outcomes. Thus, a school that is moving kids from the 10th percentile to the 25th percentile—which would be enormous progress—will no longer be dubbed “failing.”

I doubt these changes will end up meaning much because the bedrock of the bill follows the flawed logic of No Child Left Behind.

That law failed to bring change because it mandated improvement without guidance as to how to make things better.

Under some circumstances, this strategy would work. If educators know how to improve student outcomes and just aren’t doing it, then all they need is a kick in the pants to get them going. Alternatively, the kick in the pants might get some feckless educators to buckle down and figure out how to improve outcomes. Neither turned out to be the case in 2001.

Most educators were at least pretty good and most were hard-working. Sure, there were (and are) some goof-offs and knuckleheads amongst the several million U.S. teachers, and it’s in everyone’s interest—even the teacher’s unions--for those teachers to go.

In 2001 educators felt that they were already doing their best, but now were accountable for kids’ poor performance. So they gamed the system to make it appear that kids were learning.

The proposed revision of the law takes the same approach. It includes a lot of “what” schools are to achieve: good student test performance, (along with other measures like attendance, graduation rates, and learning climates). Schools with large achievement gaps are expected to close them.

To the extent that the plan includes any “how,” it’s primarily making someone else take on the job if it’s being done poorly. For failing schools, fire the principal and rehire some teachers, or turn it into a charter school. If schools can’t close the achievement gap, the state is to take over the school’s Title I funding. States have greater flexibility in how to intervene in troubled schools, which many see as positive. Again, this assumes that states know what to do.

These interventions are reserved for the bottom 5 percent of schools, so the lowest performing schools will, as in the days of No Child Left Behind, focus on ways to game the system.

We will not have a race to the top. We will have a scramble from the bottom.

Perhaps the best news is that about 90% of schools won’t be affected—only those at the bottom and those near the bottom will worry about it.

What’s disappointing is that we’re not seeing the bold new approach and fresh ideas we were led to expect. It’s fundamentally the idea we’ve had in place since 2001—accountability without guidance--and I suspect the outcome won’t be much different.

So what should the Federal government do instead? I’ll make a suggestion next week.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 22, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, No Child Left Behind, guest bloggers  
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I don't think Obama's plan would actually be so bad if it actually did well what it says it is going to do and properly measure school-year academic growth. There are studies that show that kids in poor urban districts make as much progress as others during the academic year, but they slip back during the summer. If the system were nuanced enough to hold schools accountable for only what they can control, we would not see the overtargeting of schools serving poor urban kids for intervention. The real danger is that the political knuckleheads won't enlist real experts (like Willingham) to develop the system, but will continue to use the same bad NCLB practice of simply dinging schools with low scores.

Posted by: dz159 | March 19, 2010 9:40 PM | Report abuse

Daniel -- Can't you and your band of academic experts with real empirical evidence get into see the President about this?

How about testifying before congress?


Posted by: efavorite | March 20, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Shame on the Obama leadership for their cowardly proposals and personal gluttony in proposing this out of touch plan. What your grandparents and parents built up with fairness, equity and open dialogue between economic class, patrons and leadership, Obama/Bush-vision has destroyed with your overpaid, spoiled, arrogant, self serving, crony driven leadership.

$100,000+ a year superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, vice principals and bloodsucking bureaucrats are stuffing their pockets while the middle class loses its public school system.

Duncan's elite, private school, grade grubbing, top .001% of the class, leadership style is a dishonor to those everyday people who have worked day to day in the classrooms of America and have built this imperfect, yet great, democratic, educational system.

These administrators could have saved millions of dollars by eliminating the political jobs and investing educational $$'s in the classroom. Instead the money is going to grant writers and employees who work in offices that have little or no contact with students. These jobs include evaluators, policy wonks, resource teachers, “curriculum” developers, in-service bureaucrats, assistant superintendents, “communication” public relations shills, political correctness operatives and assessment testing phonies that simply produce “paper.”

The anti tax crowd/voucher system/charters will use this Obama failure to eliminate educational waste, and as they do, they will take out the MASSIVE majority of honest, hard working, teachers and their middle class supporters whose voice they do not choose to hear.

Will someone PLEASE find a candidate to run for President in 2012 that can end this nightmare and support strong, local, teacher/student/parent/middle class/democratic centered educational policies?

Posted by: MiddleClassValues | March 20, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

I second efavorite's suggestion - Duncan has far too much power and influence without the experience and knowledge of someone like Daniel Willingham.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 20, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

I agree.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 21, 2010 12:35 AM | Report abuse

Except I like Obama on most other issues and I am holding out hope that this education"reform" will be fixed.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 21, 2010 12:36 AM | Report abuse

I third efavorites suggestion.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 21, 2010 12:40 AM | Report abuse

Yes, another brilliant plan so much like NCLB! There will always be a bottom 5%, thus a continual flow of schools to be charterized/privatized or subjected to other business model schemes to profit from the "achievement gap".

Why is this administration so bent on "reforms" that have no solid record or evidence to support them? Why are they listening to Bill Gates and Eli Broad rather than teachers?

I wish for another March 4th where people demand publicly televised debates on these reforms. And I want Bill Gates and Eli Broad there as well as Duncan because they have disseminated a whole lot of misinformation, distortion, and speculation marketed as credible research.

When the CREDO report came out, Duncan changed his rhetoric to, "I'm not for charter schools, I'm for GOOD charter schools." Heaven forbid that we one day have a Secretary of Education who actually believes in supporting and strengthening our existing public schools rather than undermining them and destroying them.

Posted by: taunar | March 21, 2010 4:52 AM | Report abuse

By the way, thank you Valerie Strauss for "The Answer Sheet" and I apologize for being so overly cynical about ed reform. It's hard not to be though. Thanks also to Daniel Willingham.

Posted by: taunar | March 21, 2010 5:02 AM | Report abuse

Why is it good news that 90% of our schools will not be affected? Even our top students are doing quite poorly when compared to other industrialized countries. Does that mean that RttT is giving up on improving the education of the vast majority of our students?

Posted by: erin_m_johnson | March 21, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

"The flawed logic of NCLB...that law failed to bring change because it mandated improvement without guidance as to how to make things better."

The above statement has me confused. Isn't the guidance on how to make things better finally going to allow professional educators to enter into the ed reform dialogue? So many cynics of NCLB and education reform have complained for almost a decade now that politicians and the business community should not be dominating the reform dialogue. That professional educators are the ones who need to be heard. After all, aren't they the experts?

I believe the intent of NCLB was to document the faults and inadequacies and then give the LEAs the steering wheel for righting the ship. Are you now proposing that Obama and Duncan (I don't care what anyone says. Duncan is NOT an educator) come up with the solutions? They're not educators. They don't have the experience that classroom teachers and administrators have for the day to day operation of a school. Yes, Washington can mandate that our schools must get better, that we must improve test scores and close the achievement gap, etc., etc., but I believe the educational establishment (teachers, administrators, school boards, unions, schools of education, teacher colleges, etc.) should be given the professional courtesy of crafting the actual remedies.

God forbid, if the educational establishment, especially at the local level, is not given the autonomy to solve these problems, the never ending complaints from the ed reform wonks will continue to reverberate throughout academia.

Oh, I get it now. You're suggesting the educators have essentially failed to this point in time to come up with effective reforms and now politicians and the business community should take on that role as well. Is that what you're proposing here? This piece has me a bit confused.

Posted by: phoss1 | March 21, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if Obama will allow a public option to remain as a part of education reform?

Posted by: mamoore1 | March 22, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

The really strange aspect of the president's plan is the fact that he seems to have a good grasp of the factors that are needed to provide a child with a good education. In his books, speeches and Essence magazine (March 2010) he repeatedly reminds us (correctly) that it takes a close partnership between parents, child and teacher to provide a student with a first-class education. In fact he makes a point of stressing his own family's involvement in his own education as well as his and Mrs. Obama's critical role in their own children's progress. In Essence he makes the point that nothing much will happen without the involvement of the parents. He's right. That's what the research has told us (repeatedly) and that's what teachers have been saying for a long time.

The only thing that makes sense to me is the possibility that the president has been so preoccupied with health care that he has just been supporting his inexperienced Secretary of Education without really paying much attention to his policies.

As a retired teacher I can assure the president and Mr. Duncan that the new NCLB policies will have little or no effect on anyone's education because they don't address the needs that children have.

If I could give the president just one bit of advice, it would be this: Listen to our teachers and our world-class experts in sociology, psychology and education: people like Willingham, Ravitch, and Darling-Hammond. There is much wisdom there and it's mostly free for the asking.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | March 22, 2010 7:03 PM | Report abuse

Hopefully Obama will have learned from the health care debate and ultimate victory - that you can't count on people to do the right thing. As a leader, you have to stand up for what you know to be right because it's soundly based on facts.

Posted by: efavorite | March 22, 2010 11:50 PM | Report abuse

I've been at UCLA for the past week so I'm reminded that the United States has some of the best minds in the world in the fields of sociology, psychology and education. It's time for President Obama to avail himself of this expertise, which has already been paid for by the taxpayers. We have the knowledge to provide each American child with a first-class education, but that knowledge does not include teacher-bashing, merit pay, or teaching to the test. It DOES include expensive interventions such as health care, preschool, highly-qualified (and well-paid) teachers, parent education, peer interaction and out-of-school enrichment.

Let's do something that has been proven successful!

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | March 23, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

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