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Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 11/19/2010

Another blue ribbon report suitable for shredding

By Jay Mathews

I have on my desk the latest example of a national scourge, the blue ribbon commission report. This one is entitled "Transforming Teacher Education through Clinical Practice: A National Strategy to Prepare Effective Teachers." It was written by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) Blue Ribbon Panel on Clinical Preparation and Partnerships for Improved Student Learning.

I propose a contest. The winner will get, appropriately enough, a blue ribbon. (I think I have a few crumbled ones in the Christmas wrapping box stuffed under the guest bed of the spare bedroom where I sit at this moment in my third month of working at home.)

To receive this wonderful prize, all you have to do is identify a blue ribbon commission--any temporary assemblage of smart people asked to produce a solution to a great national issue--that brought changes that actually solved the problem.

I don't think that has ever happened. I think the commission approach, a foundation favorite, is designed to turn the sharp ideas of great men and women into mush. Twenty-nine people served on this latest blue ribbon panel. At least nine of them I know and admire. Some of them are vivid writers and speakers who know how to get to the point.

Yet their document--although among the best of a bad breed in the quality of its prose--never really says what they are doing in plain language that might catch the eye.

My rewrite of the report's opening references to "effective teachers for 21st century classrooms" and "new pathways" and teachers "able to own, and fully utilize, the knowledge base of most effective practice" would go like this:

Education schools do a terrible job preparing students to teach where good instructors are most needed. We want to fix that by cutting way back on ed school lectures and giving those students much more time in real classrooms, making mistakes and being corrected by veteran teachers.

I am not dismissing the hard work the panel and its staff devoted to the report. In their world, this is considered progress. They believe that such reports can be used by energetic faculty members to persuade their bosses that a shift in some funding in next year's budget might win some publicity and make it easier to get grants. And might, just might, produce better teachers.

But I don't think change works that way. I would have preferred that NCATE and the foundations who supported the panel took the money they would have spent and used it instead to persuade just one education school to redo its entire program---tear up all the old stuff--and replace it with training that kept teacher candidates in urban classrooms nearly every day.

Maybe I am wrong. If so, readers deserve some idea of what the panel suggested. It offered 10 design principles for a new breed of ed school:

1. Make student learning the focus, including judging new teachers with data.

2. Make sure "clinical preparation is integrated throughout every facet of teacher education in a dynamic way." I would have put it differently (see above) but you get the idea.

3. Use data to judge every part of the program.

4. Prepare teachers who know the content, how to teach it and have good ideas.

5. Make sure the candidates have lots of contact with skilled teachers.

6. Those teaching the teachers should be "rigorously selected" and drawn both from universities and school districts.

7. Have specific schools designated to provide the classroom experience.

8. Use the latest technology.

9. Make sure researchers look carefully at the changes being made, since studies of such reforms have been inadequate.

10. Partner with powerful groups, like teacher unions, to make this work.

All 10 points make sense, in a way. Education leaders and education school deans have been talking about doing all of those things for a long time. That is part of the problem. This report will likely be the subject of many meetings, and conferences, and retreats, and courageous conversations (I don't quite know what that means, but I hear it a lot these days at conferences) and even more blue ribbon panels to figure out what to do to change specific ed schools that have long thought of changing, but haven't really done so.

Stanford education school professor David F. Labaree pointed out to me something I missed: "None of these suggestions is specific enough or restrictive enough to test the harmony of the blue ribbon panel." If the report had a bunch of fiery dissents, that might have gotten us somewhere. But no such luck.

I wish we could junk the blue ribbon commission as an American tradition and replace it with the Blue Ribbon Scary Experiment in Doing Things Differently. The foundations would be required to take at least one proposal from their reject pile every few years that required creating a new kind of ed school, or middle school, or police academy, something. They have to let the creative malcontents who suggested the idea go ahead and do it.

They wouldn't need to waste time and money on their own report. After two or three years, they could invite some journalists--maybe a team of ed bloggers--to check it out and turn its successes and failures into words commonly used in the real world.

That's not going to happen. But the publication of this latest blue ribbon report does have a benefit. All of those usually creative and productive people who sat on the panel no longer have to do so. Many of them, I suspect, are as happy as I am that they are back executing innovations instead of writing about them.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | November 19, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  10 design principals, Transforming Teacher Education through Clinical Practice,, blue ribbon panel reports are a national scourge, why not have a Blue Ribbon Scary Experiment in Doing Things Differently  
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Next: Let schools be creative with motivation


Blue Ribbon Scary Experiment in Doing Things Differently--I like that.

Posted by: pittypatt | November 19, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse

How about the set of excellent math teachers, curriculum writers, and other MCPS people that met for a year and a half about the math curriculum in MCPS? Their report was recently presented to the Board of Education, and real changes have happened so far, and more changes are coming. In particular, the "commision" found that math acceleration was not working. The commision also looked at the common core standards and made recomendations for those.

Posted by: JackS2 | November 19, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

For JackS2--- I will consider thoughtful yr nomination, but that group is in my view too low level, too close to the actual problem and too devoid of big names to qualify as a blue ribbon commission. True blue ribbon commissions of the sort I am complaining about have a national focus. And both the change in the acceleration program and the common standards are works in progress. It will take some time to figure out if they are a success. I need a more historical example where we know what the results were.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 19, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Sadly, Jay, your assessment of commissions is accurate, though I will offer one possible example of success--the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC). The BRAC was very successful at cutting through the politics of base closures mostly because Congress had to vote up or down with no amendments on their recommendations--an idea not dissimilar to your scary idea implementation plan.

Posted by: horacemann | November 19, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

"Education schools do a terrible job preparing students to teach where good instructors are most needed. We want to fix that by cutting way back on ed school lectures and giving those students much more time in real classrooms, making mistakes and being corrected by veteran teachers."

Who does a GOOD job in teaching urban students, Jay? No one. No, don't give me the Jaime Escalante example. He tracked ruthlessly (none of this AP for all crap) and he only took motivated kids. And, by the way, he didn't close the achievement gap--his pass rate was not up to white and Asian standards in similar classes.

And did you ever notice, Jay, that you are profoundly uninterested in teaching white, Asian, and/or suburban students? Look at this line here:

"replace it with training that kept teacher candidates in urban classrooms nearly every day."

Really? That's all you care about? Because you know for a fact that this will eliminate the achievement gap? You aren't even remotely interested in teaching other students, apparently, or in making sure they get good teachers.

There is ZERO evidence that educational schools are the reason that teachers fail to teach urban kids. There's zero evident that ed schools have any value at all, of course, and I'd just as soon they disappear from earth. But spare me the idiocy that if we just taught teachers better, the kids would do better. It's just that--idiocy.

And, for the record, I went to an ed school that puts their teacher candidates in majority/minority urban and high poverty suburban schools for an entire year. I student taught at a Title I school for a year. I am teaching at a Title I school now. I don't know if my kids will do better or not. But I know for a fact that their results have nothing to do with what I learned or didn't learn in ed school because I ignored what I learned in ed school. However, they spent all their time focusing on what they--and you--believe is essential to teaching urban schools. And if I had listened to them--or you--my kids would be doing worse. For sure.

Until ed schools and educational policy makers stop declaring failure in an area where no one has ever succeeded, we're not going to get anywhere.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 19, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Whoa, Cal. That paragraph was just me summarizing the report. I can see great merit in yr view of ed schools, altho i would like to give them a chance to shape up.
And once again you floor me with off the wall, deeply erroneous statements about what went on at Garfield High. What is yr source on Jaime not supporting AP for all? The only person I know who has written about this in any detail is me. I was there watching it with my own eyes. He was taking anyone who would sign up, and dragging in some more who resisted. Its in the book. One more thing not in the book, since I encountered it later: he was very angry when Ben Jimenez flunked kids at midterm. He wanted everyone, even those struggling, to stay in the course.
IN 1987 his passing rate was 74 percent, above the national average of 69 percent. I dont know what the white and Asian percentages were that year, but I suspect the white percentage was pretty close to his, and may have been the same or below given the way the national percentage was affected by the white percentage. That means he narrowed the achievement gap between white/asian and Latino kids tremendously, and may have closed it altogether. I dont know anyone else who had come close to that.
Maybe you haven't read that book, or my others. I know you are a busy teacher, but at least skim them. Two of them are about suburban schools, Mt Vernon and Mamaroneck, and the Mamaroneck book--which wanders into Scarsdale and other such places---is almost entirely about educating white kids. It started the Challenge Index, and that too applies mostly to white kids, who still take the majority of AP and IB exams.
I cover the Washington area, and focus heavily on Fairfax and Montgomery Counties, again a lot of white suburban kids, just like mine.

Posted by: jaymathews | November 19, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Escalante said he didn't track, but he only taught the kids who wanted to be there. And as you said, there were many kids who didn't "make it" to his AP Calculus class. Also, you recently posted a very nice "fake dialogue" written by a Bay Area teacher in which Escalante got a counsellor to move kids out if they wouldn't cooperate.

As the writer of that dialogue pointed out, Escalante had control over his classroom that was a de facto form of tracking. You posted it in approval, without mentioning that this was false. That's also my understanding of what he did.

As for the rest, I see now that you said "REwrite", not write! I'm very sorry about that. But did I misunderstand, or was this not your opinion, here?

"I would have preferred that NCATE and the foundations who supported the panel took the money they would have spent and used it instead to persuade just one education school to redo its entire program---tear up all the old stuff--and replace it with training that kept teacher candidates in urban classrooms nearly every day."

Because that bothers me. The total emphasis on urban classrooms, with no regard to any other students.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 19, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse


I like the BRAC answer to Jay's 'Blue Ribbon' question. However BRAC comissions keep coming back--there have been five since 1988. Are they temporary, as Jay specified?

Posted by: professor70 | November 19, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Jay and Cal:

Tell me again, why we need education schools?

I'll gladly support anyone who can teach HS students to write a coherent paragraph.

And, here's a blue ribbon idea: students entering universities should able to use spreadsheets. Unless you're going into engineering or physics, handling data sets might just be more important than calculus.

While I'm ranting: How about just a few students who can identify Iraq and Afghanistan on a map? Or, know that ...

I know, I am asking far too much. Go ahead. Teach the ed-school students how to teach to the test. At least their HS students can be successful at games like Worlds of Warcraft. Maybe they can learn that if they clean off the nacho-cheese flavoring from their keyboard that they'll get to level-60 even faster.

Posted by: professor70 | November 19, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

Hi Jay and all. I believe the simplest ed. reform for schools of education is to insist that all teachers-to-be, regardless of content or grade level, receive ample instruction and practice in how to teach writing and how to infuse reading strategies into daily lessons to make class content/material accessible to all students. Show teachers-to-be how to create, and expect them to be able to embed, reflective practices into daily lessons in their particular grade level through writing instruction and how to expand their students' understanding of a concept through reading, discussing, and writing on a concept appropriate to the grade level they teach. All students can learn how to be reflective through teacher modeling and guided practice. (Which is the methodology the schools of ed. should be using in the subject area/grade level courses as well as teaching teachers how to be writing and reading instructors.) And all teachers should trained to become reading and writing teachers.

Posted by: southsidemike1 | November 19, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

Jay M. said, "I am not dismissing the hard work the panel and its staff devoted to the report." Of course you are, Jay, and you should. And in the next sentence you justifiably criticize what the ed. school world calls progress.

Why not broaden that to almost all ed. researchers -- in NGOs, funded by some foundations, and others drinking at a vast ed. research trough. Not much to show that gets implemented or works well when implemented. They are in good company; corporations waste a lot of their R&D resources to -- but they usually learn what drop and go onto the next promising thing.

Yes, the challenge is immense, but we need to look at how the s l o w pace of change (and research that may feed it) plays into the hands of the anti-reformists.

In the District, for example, they want to stop using Impact and then wait for (they hope, many) years while some eval methods get built from scratch and are the subject of (endless) debate by all stakeholders (I agree that all should have a shot at it).

No thought of incremental improvement in Version 1 is entertained. The call for re-do's and/or near-perfection is, first of all, a delaying tactic.

The kids and their parents and other citizens here can't wait more years (especially with no evals on teachers) while another generation is condemned to subpar education in far too many classrooms.

Posted by: axolotl | November 19, 2010 7:34 PM | Report abuse

Jay, what concerns me here is that you have slipped in an endorsement of the recommendation by this group to use computer modeling of the the standardized test scores of the students of the teachers trained in the education school programs, to go back and evaluate the teacher education programs themselves.

Who is going to oversee all this evaluation of evaluation of statistically invalid evaluations?

There is NOWHERE any data to support the claim that "data-driven" policies improve student learning outcomes, even using the standardized test scores themselves as indicators of improvement. So why on earth are "commissions" like this and reporters like you promoting them?

You have not yet disclosed your employer's agressive investment program in education compliance services and start-up businesses focused on "student outcomes". Now,you publish story after story that promotes the agenda of the secretive Kaplan Ventures expansion. I worry that your promise to address the Kaplan question might not even be honest.

The links I sent you in September broke shortly after I published them, and then the Google Caches of the stories broke, too. Nobody has any way of finding out how far Donald Graham has gone with this.

I made my own caches of the Wall Street Journal and Yahoo Finance stories. I can email them to you as attachments, if you like. Someone might even be able to open the originals with the Wayback Machine site. Here are some quotes.

From the Wall Street Journal:
This is Google's cache of It is a snapshot of the page as it appeared on Sep 2, 2010 16:47:36 GMT.

“Kaplan VC LLC is a subsidiary designed to identify and develop innovative learning strategies, technologies and products with the power to transform education world-wide. The investment group will look to invest between $500,000 and $10 million in companies focused on education technology and student outcomes, Kaplan Chief Executive Andrew Rosen said.”

From Yahoo Finance:
This is Google's cache of It is a snapshot of the page as it appeared on Sep 3, 2010 10:49:35 GMT.

“Kaplan VC, LLC will initially focus on U.S. and European investments in new learning technologies and online business models in the K12, higher ed, test prep, and professional compliance areas.
Kaplan Ventures develops and grows innovative companies at the intersection of education, technology and compliance. The company’s portfolio includes medium-sized, high-growth businesses that offer an expanding array of specialized education programs that complement Kaplan’s core businesses.”

See also this new move, in the Kaplan higher Education scam. Remind yourself how truly opportunistic seedy the Washington Post Corporation's business practices are.

Posted by: mport84 | November 19, 2010 9:26 PM | Report abuse

mport84, if you take a couple of sentence and put them in quotes, the search results should bring up the articles.
Here is one link to an analysis of the news about Kalpan:

Posted by: edlharris | November 20, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse

"Escalante said he didn't track, but he only taught the kids who wanted to be there. And as you said, there were many kids who didn't "make it" to his AP Calculus class"

Motivated students are the sine quo non for teaching a subject like calculus. I wouldn't call this "tracking" at all.

Trying to teach calculus to the unmotivated has a different name: "Pushing on a rope." Won't work no matter how dedicated the teacher.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 20, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Fairfax--Escalante got to decide who was motivated, not the student. And if he decided you weren't motivated, you were booted out of the class.

Tracking is a form of selecting students. I would prefer it be done by ability than motivation, but selecting students is the issue.

Again, this is in the context of ed schools producing teachers who can teach "successfully" in "urban" schools.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 20, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

"Fairfax--Escalante got to decide who was motivated, not the student. And if he decided you weren't motivated, you were booted out of the class."

Of course Escalanted got to decide. For a subject like calculus, students have to be highly motivated to stand a prayer of a chance of succeeding.

If a teacher with the expertise in teaching calculus like Escalante saw insufficient motivation in a student to succeed, then he had every right and even a duty to the others in his class to "boot" a slacker student out.

If the subject was English - required for graduation unlike calculus - then I wouldn't take this same position.

First comes desire. With desire, lack of ability can be managed. But with the lack of desire, there is nothing else to discuss. Focus efforts on those who want to make something of themselves and lack the slackers go where they will.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 20, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Large commissions rely on excessive generality to achieve consensus, papering over disagreement.

Posted by: staticvars | November 20, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

ombudsman Andrew Alexander has written about Post coverage of Kaplan.
I wonder if it is in Saturday's print or will be in tomorrow's print edition.

Posted by: edlharris | November 20, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, edlharris. The most interesting thing is that Alexander promises a Post team is on the Kaplan story. It's funny how much I want to believe that. I've been waiting two months, though, and maybe they're just biding time until the story peaks. Maybe they're working on damage control, instead of dropping the other shoe.

Katherine Graham's personal courage and extraordinary intellectual honesty inspired me when I was young and impressionable, and she's still one of my heroes. She had a bad run with the men in her family, who acted like ordinary rich men. Are there any granddaughters out there, do you think, who could redeem her paper after the miserable things her son has used it for?

Anyway, the Google alert for Alexander's column didn't come through until 7:45 PM, so you're faster than their web crawler.

Your suggestion of googling with a block of the text worked, and I did find several stories from last summer which are still live.

The other shoe is Kaplan's agressive expansion into for-profit K-12 "reform" businesses, like the ones Jay winds up endorsing in his complicated sideways dance in this story. This isn't the online college scams, it's the online public kindergarten through high school scams, with the tainted Kaplan brand name hidden in "district virtual charters" with the look-and-feel of a public school.

It's the data-driven "student outcome" and COMPLIANCE services, for the public school competitors they are destroying, for God's sake, that these unrepentant cheats and liars need to disclose. Whether they've been caught in any actual crimes with their stealthy dealings, they are using this paper to deliberately spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt through the market they seek to exploit.

Kaplan's website touts the "public private" partenrship of their for-profit businesses with public school superintendents. It promises an accountant will be assigned to the district to help capture the per-diem tax money for students "who never even walk through the door".

The Daily Kos piece is my own blog, I'm afraid, Ed. It looks like there's maybe a few dozen of us on the planet who are willing to follow the links. Nobody with a byline even has to answer, and the free press has been brought down by Milo Minderbinder's business plan. Everybody has a share.

Posted by: mport84 | November 21, 2010 1:22 AM | Report abuse

You've got an ed school right in your backyard (maybe more than one) doing many of these things already. Maybe it's time to write about them.

GMU has a Professional Development School program. Their students, depending on the specific program they are in, spend at least a year in classrooms in specific schools. They partner only with Title I schools in the area for their clinical experience.

As a result of the strength of this program, we have hired many graduates and been thrilled by them. They are not your typical first year teachers when they begin.

I'm sure this program is not perfect, but the faculty and schools are always working on ways to improve it for the pre-service teachers. I wish I had had such preparation before I began teaching.

Posted by: Jenny04 | November 21, 2010 7:48 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps one way of getting better instruction in teaching training programmes might be obtained by requiring faculty in schools of education take their sabbaticals in the public schools. I did find that none of my professors had any any first-hand classroom experience more recent than twenty years ago. As a result, hardly any of their assignments had any real relevance to my classrooms. I learned most of what I learned in teaching on the job. In Massachusetts, the problem is compounded by giving schools of education the duty of certifying teachers. This is akin to giving used car dealers the right to dictate what cars we buy. When I wanted an additional certification, the number of courses I needed to take ranged from two to six. The college that told me I needed two apologised, saying, "we have to make it look good." It didn't look good to me, so I saved the money and tried to get the additional certification via an interview. The day before the interview with specialists in the field I wanted certification I received a rejection, stating I needed a course in classroom management. At that time, I had been teaching twenty years quite successfully, and had taught for nearly ten in a maximum security prison. I think I new enough to teach a course in classroom management.

Posted by: sailhardy | November 21, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Cal---I don't remember that being part of Jerry Heverly's lovely reimagination of those four interesting men. I suspect I may have let it go so as not to be seen as nitpicking a very fine read. But it is important to note that JERRY MADE IT ALL UP!! None of those conversations took place, and Jaime did not kick kids out. He threatened to often, but it was part of his motivational technique. He threatened to make slackers transfer to Jefferson, in a very unfriendly neighborhood for East LA kids, but he didnt mean that either. What he did was lie often to keep kids IN the class who said it was too tough. He often told them they couldnt drop it without his permission, an outrageous falsehood, but it sometimes worked.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 21, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Jay, I'm well aware that Jerry made it all up. However, he only taught kids who wanted to be there. You do realize what that means, right? And then he forced them to sign a contract. I find it difficult to believe that never in the history of Garfield did a kid renege on the contract.

And if you knew anything about teaching in urban schools, you'd know that teachers can't "threaten" to kick out slackers unless they're a rock star like Escalante.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 21, 2010 6:36 PM | Report abuse

for Cal---He dragged in several students who did not want to be there, and refused to let them leave, even though he had no power to do so. Same with the contracts, which had no legal force. He was threatening kids long before anyone had ever heard of him. He tried to create an aura that would keep reluctant kids in the classes. You are making assertions based on no first hand knowledge and no research in valid sources. You would be unhappy if one of your students did that.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 22, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Mea culpa. It seems my imaginary dialogue dissed Mr. Escalante. I *thought* I remembered a time when students were shifted to Mr. Jimenez because they didn't like Mr. Escalante's emotive techniques. But I spent a half hour pouring over the estimable book, Escalante, and found only references to how Jaime fought to keep kids *in* his class. My bad.

Posted by: heverlyj | November 22, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

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