Citizens of Texas, What’s the Problem?

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s appointment of Donna Bahorich to chair the Texas State Board of Education “is a puzzlement” to many—just as the wise King in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s brilliant play The King and I once said.

Citizens of Texas, What's the Problem? by Regina Paul - Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s appointment of Donna Bahorich to chair the Texas State Board of Education “is a puzzlement” to many...A member of the Board since 2013, conservative Republican Bahorich, a former staffer for the Lt. Governor, has been on the Board just long enough to anger some of the more liberal Texans who did not agree with her votes on a number of issues, including the adoption of textbooks called into question for their take on American history, according to Texas newspapers. But the real kicker for many is the fact that Bahorich first homeschooled her own kids and then sent them to private high schools. What qualifies her to lead the governing board responsible for the State’s public schools, her critics ask?

That is a puzzlement for some Texas leaders of both parties and, doubtless, for lots of Texas taxpayers as well. For me, the puzzlement is not about Bahorich herself—partly because I have not done enough research on her qualifications and past votes and personal values. For me, the puzzlement is about who was intended to govern our schools when school boards were established as the governing structure for public schools in the U.S.

As I have written before, this kind of lay governance of public education by our citizens is an almost unique idea worldwide. Yes, Canadians use it, and the British use a version of it. But that’s about it. We have believed, as a nation, that our citizens—read, taxpayers—should ultimately be in charge of our government agencies and systems, including education. We elect representatives to be in charge on our behalf—at the federal level, at the state level, and at the local level, including members of boards of education (at least where the system is working right). By “be in charge,” I mean set policies and evaluate the results of those policies, as carried out by the professionals working every day in those government agencies.

In Texas, the State Board of Education consists of 15 members duly elected from districts across the state. Bahorich was elected from State Board of Education District 6, which comprises nine school districts in Harris County, including Houston, in whole or in part. So far, so good. The governor then appoints one member to chair the Board. He recently appointed Bahorich (who was subject to confirmation by the Texas Senate), as was his right and duty. So far, so good?

I guess so. Why do I say “I guess”? Because I can honestly see the point of those who wonder (to put it gently) whether someone without a personal commitment to the public education system is best able to lead it. Would Bahorich’s critics have felt the same way if Governor Abbott had appointed a single woman who had no children to chair the Board? I imagine that they would not have, even though that hypothetical single woman would not necessarily have made a personal commitment to the public education system, either.

Maybe the problem is that homeschooling (followed by private schooling) implies an actual rejection of public education and perhaps of the values it is built on and perhaps of the children and families it serves. I get that. But maybe the problem is the voters of Harris County who put Bahorich on the Board in the first place—that is, taxpaying voters who saw it differently and were not concerned about how she educated her own kids.

So, the system worked the way it was supposed to—for better or worse. Yes, not every citizen likes every elected official, for whatever reason. Those citizens who are not happy with Governor Abbott’s choice should think hard when it comes time to elect the next governor and, indeed, when it comes time to elect the next State Board of Education member from their home district. And they should campaign hard for gubernatorial and Board candidates who will make different decisions that are more to their liking. Just in case.

I Wasn’t Going To Write About Dudley Williams…

…but then I went to the performance dedicated to his memory by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on June 11.  It was the best evening of dance that I have seen in a very long time.  I will tell you why in a minute (and why each of you should run to Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater by June 21 to see for yourself), but first:  Dudley Williams (1938–2015).

I Wasnt Going To Write About Dudley Williams by Regina Paul

No one who follows dance could have missed Dudley.  He joined Alvin Ailey’s company 10 years before I first saw the company perform in 1974, and he was a star there for four decades until 2005.  If you had ever seen him do his signature solo, “I Wanna Be Ready” from Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations—live on stage or on YouTube or even on my well-worn old-fashioned videotape—you would still remember it.  It wouldn’t matter if you were a dance aficionado or my then-9-year-old son (he’s now 26) or my Sunday School class of third and fourth graders (I happened to show it to them just two weeks before Dudley’s death and, yes, I had a good reason).  And if only you had seen Dudley in the Ailey company’s 2014 New Year’s Eve performance, rocking out as a special guest performer in “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” in Revelations, you would still remember it.  He was having such a great time back on stage where he belonged, but not one bit greater than those of us who were watching and cheering in the audience.

When my daughter, Polly, entered the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. program four years ago, I said one thing to her:  “Take as many classes as you can with Dudley Williams and Milton Myers.  That’s why you’re here.  You will never see the likes of them again.”  Thankfully, she did.  Both quintessential performers, Dudley and Milton had become quintessential teachers for the next generation of Ailey students and dancers.  We didn’t know then that we would lose Dudley so soon.

Last summer, Polly took a Graham class with Dudley (Dudley had danced in Martha Graham’s company before coming to Ailey)—her third class with him.  She and another dancer demonstrated for him so that the new summer professional-level students would have someone to watch, someone who did things the way Dudley wanted them done.  I had the great pleasure of observing a class, as I had done in earlier years.

Now, I am not a fan of Graham technique.  But watching Dudley teach that class was eye-opening.  He gave students the beauty and artistry of Graham, and he brought tears to my eyes.  He challenged and motivated them, and he called it as he saw it.  At one point, he admonished them with a line that went something like this:  “Listen to the music.  This isn’t an exercise class; it’s dancing.”  He was absolutely right.

At the end of the class, I went up to him and said something like this, “Watching you teach this class and seeing Polly dance for you is worth every penny of Fordham’s tuition for four years.  And that’s a lot of pennies.”  He smiled, gracious as ever.  I was dead serious.  He was worth every penny.

At the June 11 performance, the Ailey company danced.  It wasn’t just exercise.  It wasn’t just movement.  I have to admit that some of the contemporary pieces the Ailey company performs these days don’t look like dance to me.  To paraphrase something my favorite ballet teacher once said, “All movement isn’t dance, you know.”

But performing in loving memory of Dudley, it was all dance on June 11.  The most remarkable piece of the evening was the tribute performance of a solo that Alvin Ailey had choreographed for Dudley—“A Song for You” from Love Songs (1972).  According to Artistic Director Emerita Judith Jamison, who spoke movingly from the stage about Dudley, each of the men performing the solo that night as a five-man ensemble had been taught the solo by Dudley.  And what dancers they were—the very best the Ailey company has to offer:  Matthew Rushing, Glenn Allen Sims, Antonio Douthit-Boyd, Kirven Douthit-Boyd, and Jamar Roberts.  Each is an incredible dancer in his own right—each a powerful virtuoso performer with perfect classical lines.  The effect of the five-man ensemble was breathtaking—full of grace and love.  I hope that someone from Ailey recorded it, because it would be a best-seller.  (Note to Artistic Director Robert Battle:  If you all did not record it, do it again immediately and record it this time.  You could raise a lot of money with that recording during your next membership drive.  I am making my pledge right now—whatever it costs.)

Well, you won’t be able to see that again this season, I guess, but you can see two other pieces the company performed (check the schedule and hurry to get tickets).  Choreographed by Talley Beatty in 1960 and first performed by the Ailey company in 1964, “Toccata” from Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot was restaged by Ailey Associate Artistic Director (and former amazing Ailey dancer) Masazumi Chaya and brought back into the Ailey repertory this year.  The piece was “old school” in the best possible way.  It brought back memories of the way the Ailey dancers danced when I first saw them. It seemed so right:  group after group, men and women, 16 dancers coming and going from the stage.  There was music and there were dance steps—both a bit traditional for some tastes now perhaps, but so magnificent.  (Note to Artistic Director Robert Battle:  Don’t ever lose this piece again, for heaven’s sake.)  I’ve got to believe that Dudley, who also danced for Mr. Beatty, was smiling down for that one.

Then there was Exodus, choreographed by Rennie Harris this year and enjoying its world premiere at the June 11 performance.  The piece was “new school” in the best possible way.  Harris is all about hip-hop, and he is brilliant at it (he also choreographed Home, another masterful hip-hop piece that the Ailey company has performed).  Exodus is standing-ovation good.  And, make no mistake about it, it is dance.  Though unbelievably energetic, it is not just exercise and it is not just movement.  Hip-hop has its own dance vocabulary—just as Mr. Ailey and Mr. Beatty had theirs 50 years ago—and its own music and its own storytelling and its own emotion.  Exodus is the complete package—not unlike its classical predecessors. (And I, as a fellow Philadelphian, personally appreciated the Phillies hat that Harris wore onstage during the bows.)

So, what a night it was—the old and the new, the joy and the grief.  Polly and I wept during the performance of “A Song for You.”  Anyone who knew Dudley did—anyone who had ever sat in an audience and watched him command the stage and anyone who had ever danced in one of his classes.  Be at peace, Dudley.  I pray you are still dancing.

Do Principals Need Teaching Experience?

Yep. I could stop the article right there, but let me try to make the case for my answer. On April 13, Tim Dawkins, the principal of Oliver Winch Middle School in South Glens Fall, New York, wrote a guest blog for Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground Blog in Education Week. Dawkins gave a confessional title to his thoughtful and not unpersuasive piece: “I’m a Principal Without Teaching Experience.”

Do Principals Need Teaching Experience? by Regina Paul for Policy Studies in Education

Dawkins wrote about his own valuable and relevant professional experience—eight years as a high school counselor and two years as a high school assistant principal. He said that the question we should be asking about principal preparation and the answer we should be getting is this:

‘What types of professional experiences encourage a smooth transition into school leadership?’ Is facilitating learning in a classroom one such experience? Absolutely. Is it the only experience that matters? I submit that the answer is no.

Well, I couldn’t agree with Dawkins more about that. Having watched principals up close for many years as they opened new schools or made major reforms in the curriculum or instituted innovative instructional programs or launched new school governance models, I know that teaching experience is not nearly enough to make a great principal. Dawkins is right when he characterizes his days as a principal as being filled with “unpredictability.” I am sure they are more like his former days as a counselor, in many respects, than like a teacher’s days—meetings with upset or misbehaving students, conferences with concerned or angry parents, scheduled events being pushed aside in the face of crises that no one could have predicted the day before.

And who doesn’t agree that principals need some kind of leadership/administrative training and a year or two of assistant principalship experience? Because nothing prepares you for the wide variety of administrative and instructional and community relations and personnel and legal duties that principals face every day like being an assistant, under the watchful and mentoring eye of a great principal. Clearly, teachers do not have this experience and, perhaps with a rare exception, will need it to become highly effective principals.

So, I agree with Dawkins that facilitating learning in a classroom is not the only experience that matters. But, ideally, it is a necessary experience.

Last November, I wrote a piece called “7 Things That Make a Principal Great.” One of those seven things was this (and I stand by it still):

A great principal is a great teacher. You might think this goes without saying, but it doesn’t. I love that the principal is typically called the “head teacher” in the U.K. If a principal is not a great teacher (any grade or any subject will do), then he or she cannot supervise the teachers in the school. You cannot supervise what you cannot do. Everyone knows that—including every teacher. If a principal cannot write a great lesson, deliver a great lesson, be creative in using all of the technology available, make up an appropriate student assessment, and keep the students engaged throughout, then that principal might as well stay in the office (which we already know means that he or she is not great).

In the May issue of More magazine, Judith Stone profiled a number of “second acts”—that is, career-changers who became successful in their “second act.” All the profiles were engaging, but I particularly enjoyed the one about Aihui Ong, a former software engineer, who founded Love with Food. In the profile, Ms. Ong offered her thoughts about good leadership:

I’m the only person in the company who’s done everyone’s job. I wrote the code for the site, I pitched to brands, I built our Facebook following, I packed boxes—I tell people I have a PhD in folding boxes. Because I understand the staff’s challenges, I can set reasonable goals for them. And when there’s a problem, I’ve walked in their shoes, so I can be understanding and flexible.

Yes, she can do everyone’s job—and they know it. That’s why she can supervise them and make them better.

The real work of school goes on in the classrooms and on the field trips and in the labs and in the gyms and music rooms and art studios. And, to his credit, Mr. Dawkins knows that. He wrote:

As a principal it’s my job to provide opportunities for kids and teachers, and I try my best to open that door daily.

Exactly right.

School is about what teachers do with students to help them learn all that they can. Contrary to the way that many central offices deal with principals—in a flurry of paperwork, reporting on this and that—whatever principals do to pay attention to teachers teaching and students learning makes all the difference.

So, give us principals who are great teachers themselves—indeed, who have already done that job and done it well—who can walk into a classroom and pick up the ball where a hesitant teacher dropped it, who can bring a classroom to life with a great impromptu performance, who can model challenging discussions, who can play the game better than anyone else on the field. I have known principals just like that. Who wouldn’t want one?

AP Cannot Be the Only Definition of “Challenging”

What is wrong with everybody? I can’t believe that there has not been a response of pure shock to The Washington Post index that names “America’s most challenging high schools.” I keep re-reading the explanation of the index, because I am sure that I have missed something. The index cannot—and should not—be anyone’s definition of challenging.

AP Cannot Be the Only Definition of Challenging by Regina H Paul

This is the explanation given by index creator Jay Mathews in The Washington Post:

We take the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year and divide by the number of seniors who graduated in May or June. I call this formula the Challenge Index. With a few exceptions, public schools that achieved a ratio of at least 1.00, meaning they had as many tests in 2013 as they had graduates, were put on the national list at…. I think 1.00 is a modest standard. A school can reach that level if only half of its students take one AP, IB or AICE test in their junior year and one in their senior year.

In her Education Week College Bound blog (which I always enjoy reading), Caralee Adams covered the publication of this year’s list and reported that only 11 percent of public high schools made the list of America’s most challenging high schools. She went on to note this partial explanation for the low figure (April 20, 2015):

One reason, according to education columnist Jay Mathews who created the index, is that many schools limit access to advanced courses by requiring that students be recommended by a teacher or earn a certain grade point average to sign up.

Hey, I am all for eliminating barriers to advanced courses and to any other courses that might hold students back or push them to the side unfairly or unnecessarily. I know that happens. But I am even more about eliminating this index.

Since when is “challenging” defined solely by taking tests published by a few commercial organizations, even if they test courses that are well put together and rigorous? I can tell you about plenty of excellent high school courses that are challenging and that have nothing to do with AP, IB, or AICE. So can most high school teachers. And, this may be naïve, but I would like to believe that U.S. high schools can offer a challenging curriculum for all students, not just for those in special advanced courses. In fact, I believe that the existence of special advanced courses is sometimes used unwittingly by schools to excuse a lackluster curriculum for the rest of the students—that is, focus on the prestigious advanced courses and let the others fall where they may.

When I developed curricula for high schools in school districts around the country, I used to say to teachers, “Let’s write the best high school curriculum we can imagine—so good that we will not need AP courses. Our own courses in every grade need to be just as well thought out as AP courses. All of our students deserve a curriculum like that.”

So we would get together all of the resources we could find and do the research and hard thinking and debating that makes for great curricula. When we wrote the English and math curricula for the Early College high school I co-founded in New York City, our principal, Chris Aguirre, had the idea of bringing college professors into our curriculum planning summer sessions—to ensure that the curricula we wrote for our students would lead perfectly into college courses, like the ones our third-year students took on our college partner’s campus.

At our Early College high school, we were able to put into practice what our principal and I firmly believed: If students are smart enough and/or motivated enough, send them to college early so that they can take actual college courses for actual college credit. Make the high school curriculum good enough for all students so that it can be a strong foundation for college work—on the college campus, not in the high school. We sent students to college for two or three courses in their third year with us (usually introductory engineering and architecture courses), and we sent them to take college courses full time in their fourth year with us when they had already finished their high school requirements. How is that not a challenging high school? And yet, according to the Challenge Index, we would have gotten no credit for sending students to take college courses two years early. That kind of extraordinary story is true for Early College high schools all across the country.

While I am not particularly familiar with IB and AICE tests, I have seen AP courses and exams for decades (literally, since I took an AP English exam in high school in 1970). As I have worked in school districts across the country over many years, I have seen AP grow and grow. It has almost become synonymous with “rigorous curricula.” The College Board has done a great marketing job—to high schools and middle schools and school districts and school boards and parents and students. Oh, and to colleges, too, as admissions staff judge the high school records of freshman applicants.

I can continue to live in a world where AP courses exist. Even where high school students believe they can’t get into a top college without having taken them. Even where colleges look perhaps over-fondly on applicants that took them.

But I can’t live in a world where they are the sole definition (along with IB and AICE) of “challenging.” That makes no sense. Or did I miss something?

Remembering Ben E. King

If I had a nickel for every time I have listened to Ben E. King sing a song, I would be a millionaire. But I wouldn’t care, because the music is enough. What a voice, what a presence on stage, what a gentleman.

Remembering Ben E King by Regina H Paul

One of my favorite live performances was his guest starring spot in Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the brilliant Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller musical revue that ran on Broadway for years. We took our children to see him in it; they were about 5, 9, and 11 at the time. When we took our seats, the people around us looked concerned about the arrival of a potentially boisterous five-year-old. I said to them, “Don’t worry. She’s been raised on Ben E. King.” He sang some of his greatest hits, as only he could, including “Spanish Harlem, “ “I (Who Have Nothing),” and, of course, the show-stopping “Stand by Me.” It was unforgettable.

After the show, we waited outside to see him (something I have done only one other time in more than 40 years of going to Broadway shows, and that was to see Yul Brynner in his final run of The King and I). By the time Ben E. King finally came out from backstage, almost no one was left on the street. I pushed my children ahead of me to shake hands with him, saying to them, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” How gracious he was to them. He even sang us a couple of lines a cappella from one of his Drifters’ hits for them. Who needed instruments when you had his voice?

The very next day, I went back to see him in the show again. I waited again outside the stage door. A friend took a photo of me with the inimitable Ben E. King when he came out. It was my Christmas card picture that year. It is still framed in my bedroom some 15 years later.

I had the pleasure of hearing him live a couple of times since those Smokey Joe’s days, once a few years ago. It seemed to me that his voice just got better and better with age—more mellow, more engaging, more everything. What a gift he had.

When it came time for the first commencement in 2012 at the Early College high school I co-founded in Brooklyn, we needed a song for our tiny musical ensemble to play and our totally untrained graduates to sing. I went to the obvious choice: “Stand by Me.” It made some logical sense, but I didn’t care. It was all about that melody and those lyrics.   Our very talented music teacher, Mike Mucha, managed to get our kids to play the song, and he soloed himself on guitar for that gorgeous instrumental section. We brought it back by popular demand for our second commencement a year later. That song never gets old.

How could one man bring so much happiness to so many people around the world just by singing? And yet, Ben E. King did. We will miss him. But, as my sister-in-law said, “At least, there will always be the music.” Indeed there will.

Why You Should Use Podcasting To Reach Your Audiences

Why You Should Use

Join Policy Studies in Education on Tuesday, May 19, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. for an interactive workshop: Why You Should Use Podcasting To Reach Your Audiences!

As a non-profit organization, you advocate for a target audience. Engage and educate your audience 24/7 with a podcast. In this workshop, we’ll guide you in the process of planning a podcast that will work for your organization and your clients. No technical experience is required.

This is an Internet Week New York citywide event. Join us at the Foundation Center New York. Admission is free, but registration is required. Please RSVP to or by completing the form below. We look forward to meeting you there!

Tweet: I’ll see you at #PodcastForNonProfitIWNY with @nycollegechat, an @internetweek citywide event!

Questions about this event? Contact Regina Paul at 646-270-3577 or

STEM: What’s in a Name?

I get why STEM is especially important now, when technology is invading every part of our work lives and home lives. I get why we want today’s students to be well educated in science, engineering, and math so that they can fill good jobs in these arenas in the world of work, so that they as individuals and we as a country can compete internationally, and so that progress can continue to be made on so many fronts. The public high school that I helped to co-found was an Early College career and technical education school focused on engineering, architecture, and technology (two out of three isn’t bad). So, I get it.

STEM: What's in a Name? by Regina Paul at Policy Studies in Education.

But, being a fine arts enthusiast, I have enjoyed commentaries over the past couple of years from educators wanting to add an “A” to STEM—to make it, of course, STEAM (actually a bit old-fashioned sounding, but their hearts are in the right place). I imagined that the proposed “A” was for “arts” (that is, “the arts” plural—visual art, music, dance, and theater), and I was happy about that. Recently, I read the following intriguing explanation in the 2014 Annual Report I received from my graduate school alma mater, Teachers College (TC), Columbia University:

…we stand apart in preparing teachers in the arts and other fields to interweave digital tools and materials into teaching that is playful, collaborative, entrepreneurial and multi- and cross-disciplinary. Professors Burton and Richard Jochum, together with doctoral candidate and Instructor Sean Justice, are fashioning a new concentration in Creative Technologies within our Art & Art Education master’s and doctoral programs. Their vision is that art is about agency and that artists are creative entrepreneurs who fashion practical approaches to realize opportunities—valuable skills in every profession and every area of life. In broadening the nation’s teaching focus from STEM to STEAM—that is, by adding ‘art’ to ‘science, technology, engineering and math’—they seek to inspire teachers and students alike to apply a very wide range of imaginative approaches to the solution of everyday questions and problems. (page 5)

While that reasoning is not entirely clear to me, it certainly sounds promising. So, I am going to continue to assume that the “A” includes all of the arts, because I like to think that those of us who are dancers (and I did take a great dance course when I was at TC) can “apply a wide range of imaginative approaches to the solution of everyday questions and problems” as well as visual artists can.

But what about my colleagues in the social sciences and in history? I truly believe that they can “fashion practical approaches to realize opportunities” and that they can use technology in cross-disciplinary research and teaching and real-life problem solving. So, could we add, say, “SSH” for social sciences and history? It works pretty well at the end of the word—STEAMSSH. Or, if you prefer “HSS,” you could have STEAMHSS, which is almost onomatopoetic, like the hiss of escaping steam.

Who’s still missing? Well, the English language and literature crowd. If we could make them settle for an “R” for reading, you can easily see how STEAMSSH could become STREAMSSH. And you can still pronounce it.

While I haven’t solved the inclusion of some other academic fields in my new acronym—especially all other languages, which I feel bad about—I believe that we have just about everybody else in the boat. Just as we should. Because having all the attention on STEM misses a lot of what makes an education great. Maybe that’s what I learned at TC after all.

What’s All This About the Common Core?

The Common Core standards should never have been this big a deal. They should not be the focus of education news stories every day, with states running back and forth on implementation and with testing protests abounding. What in the world caused this?

What's All This About the Common Core? by Regina Paul for Policy Studies in Education

I first had occasion to study the Common Core standards when I introduced them to the faculty of a public high school in New York City in 2010. The standards didn’t seem to me to be too exciting. After all, I had been working with school districts to develop their own learning standards since about 1980—before some states even had state standards and before the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics published its original then-revolutionary standards.

I thought it made sense that these new Common Core standards were developed under the auspices of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association—because I knew that education is a state function in the U.S. If the federal government is going to get into the curriculum conversation, what better way to do it than to endorse a product put out by state leaders.

As I read the Common Core standards in English language arts and math, I thought that they seemed fine—intelligent, comprehensive enough, mostly well written—though not particularly innovative. Yes, they called for analytical and creative thinking and problem solving and all of the other high-level things we hope our students will learn to do well. But so did most of the state standards I had been reading for years. I am sure that educators who lived in states with first-rate standards—New York, Texas, Connecticut, and others too numerous to mention—must have thought, “Well, just one more set of standards to pay attention to. Maybe I can get a few ideas from them to add to what I already do.”

I particularly liked the new standards for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects, because I agreed that students needed to read, write, speak, and listen effectively across all disciplines—in high school and in college and later in their careers. The faculty members at the high school I was working with took these literacy standards seriously, too. Good for them, I thought. But, truth be told, we had been talking about having students read and write effectively in all of the academic fields for decades.

So what was the big deal? Nothing about these standards seemed wildly new or surprising or too restrictive for teachers, who had to implement them in the classroom. Peter Greene, in a recent Commentary entitled “Which ‘Common Core’ Are We Talking About?” in EdWeek Update, hit the nail on the head:

Many of the instructional “innovations” associated with the common core, from close reading to critical thinking to problem-solving, existed long before the standards were a gleam in David Coleman’s eye. Giving the common core credit for such ideas is like giving the Obama administration credit for having three separate branches of government—and yet that has become an off-hand way of describing what’s important in the standards.


And then I read what international teaching award winner Nancie Atwell said (as quoted in “Don’t Become a Teacher, Advises Award-Winner Nancie Atwell, “ by Jordan Moeny in Education Week Teacher on March 23, 2015):

Public school teachers are so constrained right now by the common core standards and the tests that are developed to monitor what teachers are doing with them…. If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.

To be sure, Ms. Atwell tried to soften her remarks a bit in a later emailed statement, according to the news story, but the damage was done. The fact of the matter is that it’s not the Common Core standards that are so constraining. I would argue that the vast majority of great teachers had already been doing most of what the Common Core standards call for. What might be more constraining is a worry that some teachers have about having their students tested and about being accountable personally for the results.

Just as Ms. Atwell speaks, in the same breath, about the Common Core standards and the matching tests that have been made by testing companies to test them, so do less-well-informed stakeholders. My example comes from a statewide PTA convention that I attended last fall. I was promoting a video training product that my nonprofit had created for PTAs to help them get more actively involved in curriculum issues in their schools. What I heard from countless parents who stopped to chat at my booth was this: “We really need this. We have to get rid of that Common Core.”

No, parents. It’s not the Common Core that you want to get rid of. If you read the standards, you would think they were worthwhile things for your child to learn. What you are trying to get rid of is the tests—tests that you feel instinctively might be used against your child or your child’s teacher or your child’s school in some way that is not clear.

Now I do not know if the new tests are any good, and I am definitely not defending them. I know it is hard to make good tests, and I am sure there will be a lot of discussion about these new ones for some time to come. Nonetheless, I am sorry that the Common Core conversation has gotten so confused and that something that is mostly perfectly fine (albeit unnecessary, in some states) will get a bad reputation because of the confusion. Wouldn’t it have been great if the Common Core standards could have been implemented by teachers without the threat of testing? Someday perhaps we are going to figure out how to do that.

When Do Girls Give Up on Math and Science? It’s All Over Sooner Than You Think

When Do Girls Give Up on Math and Science? It’s All Over Sooner Than You Think, by Regina Paul from Policy Studies in EducationWhat about girls in math and science? I get that there’s a problem. I saw it in the enrollment statistics of the public Early College high school I co-founded. Our high school focused on engineering and architecture. Students had to say that they were interested in coming, and then they were accepted or not through some district computerized matching system that no one ever entirely understood. We had hoped for a 50–50 split between male and female students. The closest we ever got was about 75-25.

An article published recently by The Upshot, a New York Times website, offered this headline: “How Elementary School Teachers’ Biases Can Discourage Girls from Math and Science.” You should read it. Written by Claire Cain Miller, the article references statistics and studies that prove the headline. For example, Miller cites an Israeli study, conducted by Victor Lavy and Edith Sand, focused on students in sixth grade through high school, and quotes Mr. Lavy as saying “that a biasing teacher affects the work choices students make and whether to study math and science years later.”

That is entirely believable to me. However, I would like to offer some research that says it is all over even sooner than sixth grade. That is, I would offer it if I could remember where I read it 30 years ago, but I can’t. So you will have to believe me. When I am doing work with elementary school teachers on building curricula in math and science, I often say to them something like this, “By what age are a student’s attitudes set towards school subjects? In other words, if you haven’t made a subject seem intriguing or important or fun or useful or something else that is positive by that point, then you have lost that student. You have made it less likely that they will enjoy that subject as they advance in it and less likely that they will choose to take that subject whenever it becomes an elective—whether it is music or a foreign language or an upper-level math or science course.”

So what is that age? The research said that it is about seven. When students are in second grade, as it turns out, they are cementing their attitudes toward what they are studying. That has always worried me because I think there are a lot of primary teachers, for instance, who are not comfortable teaching science. What kind of science teachers do they make? Do they teach much science at all or concentrate their time on subjects they feel they know more about? In my own children’s excellent public elementary school, the classroom teachers didn’t teach any science. We had a science specialist who taught science—but so rarely in each classroom that it was not nearly enough. She might have been enthusiastic when she was there, but the kids hardly knew what science was.

When we were redoing the K–8 curriculum in Savannah some years ago, the central office math specialist and the superintendent—both of whom were great—were so persuaded by the research that I cannot now find that they agreed to include affective objectives in every marking period in the math curriculum in each grade. By affective objectives, I mean attitudes—objectives that speak directly to students’ interest in math, enjoyment of math, love of math, and appreciation of the importance and usefulness of math. They decided to work directly on math attitudes so that students would not turn off to math at an early age.

What an enlightened perspective, I always thought. We educators have traditionally spent so much time studying the outstanding Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain, published in 1956 and edited by the brilliant Benjamin Bloom, that we forget about the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook II: The Affective Domain, published in 1964 by David Krathwohl, Ben Bloom, and Bertram Masia. The affective domain work came later, but that didn’t mean it was less worthy.

So, while we are worrying about whatever biases teachers have about their students, let’s also worry about making sure that our youngest students are being taught by teachers—whether they are classroom teachers or specialists—who love their subjects, are comfortable teaching them, and can help students understand why each subject is valuable and fascinating. I hate to lose them at seven.

“What It Makes Is Democracy”— An Open Note to Chicagoans

I was inspired to write this note by blogger Marilyn Rhames’s “Open Letter to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis” (Charting My Own Course in Education Week Teacher, March 2, 2015).  In it, she thoughtfully offers her own opinions on the current mayoral race in Chicago—both its issues and its past and present players. 

9Some years ago, Mitch Brickell and I wrote a book for school board members based on his lifetime of work educating tens of thousands of school board members around the country.  We opened with this statement:

The most remarkable thing about our remarkable country is this:  Ordinary citizens control almost every major public institution.  No matter how many expert professionals are on the payroll, they do not have the last word.  Somewhere above them, above the top of the pyramid of experts, is a group of civilians.  They have the last word.  They are not as expert as the experts, but they have the last word.  They may know less about the operations than anyone on the payroll.  Still, they have the last word.

Does this make sense?  What it makes is democracy.  Government of the people, by the people, for the people.  We, the people, govern ourselves.  The professional experts do not govern us.  We govern them; they serve us.

This is a particularly American idea.  It may be the most American idea of all.  No nation uses it more.  It is our favorite form of governance.  We use it for villages, townships, cities, counties, states, regions, the nation.  We use it for sewers, police, roads, firefighting, rivers, libraries, prisons, forests, the military—every government function, without exception; all staffed by experts, without exception; and all governed by civilians.

With a bow to my good friends and colleagues in the U.K., which has its own long and strong tradition of school governors, I can say that I am proud of our American idea of “citizen governors”—whether they are city council members, state governors, members of Congress, the president, or school board members.  All are elected by the people to govern the people.

And that brings us to Chicago.  There is so much in the news right now about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s upcoming runoff with Jesus “Chuy” Garcia on April 7 and, perhaps surprisingly, their education platforms have been one focus of those news stories.  While there are several education issues being debated—including school closings and a teacher strike—the issue closest to my heart is Chicago’s school board.  Emanuel wants to continue his mayor-appointed board, and Garcia promises to propose and promote the establishment of an elected board (the state legislature and governor would have to agree to change the law for Garcia to make good on his promise).

I am taken back to one simple sentence in the opening pages of our book:  “What it makes is democracy.”  That is hard to argue with.  I am sure that there are many political and intellectual and practical arguments in favor of an appointed school board, and I am sure that some are persuasive.  But is any argument as persuasive as this one:  Citizens voting for the individuals who will govern their lives is the way we run our country.

Good luck on April 7, Chicagoans.