Education Chat

The Last Word

Ronald A. Wolk and Jay Mathews took questions from our readers.

September 12, 2007

The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education

Ronald A. Wolk
, a founding editor of Education Week; and Jay Mathews, an education reporter and columnist for The Washington Post. Bost guests contributed to The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published by Education Week Press and Jossey-Bass.

Mary-Ellen Deily (Moderator):

Welcome to today’s live chat with Education Week founding editor Ronald A. Wolk and Jay Mathews of The Washington Post. Our two guests will be taking your questions on the book, The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education and the issues regularly addressed in Education Week’s Commentary section, including the No Child Left Behind Act, testing, and curriculum. We’ve got plenty of questions so let’s get started.

Question from Walt Gardner, education writer and former teacher and lecturer:

Why are the views of classroom teachers given such short shrift and those of academics and policymakers without classroom experience given the lion’s share of space?

Ronald A. Wolk:

Couple of reasons come to mind:

* The media tend to cover policy matters and controversy. Academics and policymakers are more likely to be recognized as “experts: and they are a lot easier to identify and contact than classroom teachers who are rarely well known by anybody but their students.

* In general, teachers are neither well informed or much involved in matters that go beyond the classroom. And the perspective of the great majority of them, is local.

Question from David Robinson, English Teacher, ISD 877:

What dangers or threats to learning does current NCLB legislation--and the states’ responses to NCLB--have you encountered as people who study education?

Ronald A. Wolk:

The complete answer would require several thousand words.

The goals of NCLB are worthy: improve public education for all and close the race-based and class-based achievement gap. The law has also improve data collection and has helped increase public awareness of the problems in education.

Nearly everything else about NCLB is badly flawed or downright harmful.

A a time when we need new thinking to address “new problems,” NCLB drives us further into the past. It makes a highly regimented and bureaucratic system even more so. It operates on the premise that if the mule won’t run beat it harder.

More specifically:

* Its goals are unrealistic and unachievable--guaranteeing “highly qualified” teachers in every classroom and assuring that every student is proficient in reading and math by 2013. This sets up schools for more failure.

* Its emphasis on standardized testing distorts the whole teaching and learning process, and makes even less likely that schools will adopt multiple measures of assessment that are more sensible and useful in evaluating student achievement.

* NCLB makes the conventional curriculum even more rigid, limits the creativity and spontaneity of teachers, offers an even more monolithic education to an ever more diverse student body.

Critics of the law are now lobbying the Congress for changes and the first draft of the revisions proposed by Congressional staff runs into hundreds of pages. So, as I say, a complete answer to the question would require at least a lengthy monograph.

Confounded and frustrated by the demands of the law, states and districts are gaming the system--looking for loopholes and actually lowering standards in some cases sto give the appearance of compliance.

I recommend the back page Commentary of the most recent Eduction Week speculating about how Al Shanker would rate the law.

Question from Tonya N. Jefferson, District of Columbia Public Schools:

Differentiated Instruction seems to be doing more harm than good. Why isn’t tracking re-implemented in school systems? While I was in school, it was understood that not everyone was going to college and was placed in classes based on their abilities. Although all of us honors and AP students took the same classes, we seemed to excel. Nowadays, talented and gifted students suffer from boredom and low-ability students suffer from frustration and embarrassment as teachers struggle to differentiate instruction. In theory it is equitable, but in reality it does not work.

Jay Mathews:

I know many people share your view that tracking works better, but you have to show me the data first that backs you up. As for AP and IB, and the opening of those classes to all motivated kids in some districts, is simply false that that has produced dumbed down classes that bore the brightest kids. When Fairfax County Va. opened up its AP classes to all, I waited for the complaints to pour in from high-achieving kids and their parents. That was ten years ago. So far, zero complaints. Those courses cannot be dumbed down without the teacher getting caught, because they use an independent, challenging exam. The bright kids still love them. And the low-income kids who are not so high performing are learning a great deal in them, without slowing anything down. Visit an AP class sometime and see for yourself.

The real problem is our insistence in locking students into age-based grade levels and lockstep time schedules, and force feeding all of them the same curriculum at the same time in the same way.--Jay Mathews

Mary-Ellen Deily (Moderator):

ADDITIONAL COMMENT FROM RON WOLK: I have to add my two cents worth on his one. Tracking is a terrible idea and always has been, and the research shows that . Our Schools have long been guilty of sorting and classifying kids into winners and losers, and we need to eliminate that process completely. If we organized schools effectively and abandoned some of their archaic and harmful practices, we would be able to personalize education in a way that would enaable students to proceed at their own pace, so kids who need more time and help would get it, and kids who can move faster are able to.--RW

Question from Candus Muir, 7th Grade Science, The Classical Academy - Charter School:

Charter schools get 80% of funding from the government. If a charter school proves to be effective should the funding be increased so that these schools not stay at a financial disadvantage?

Ronald A. Wolk:

Funding for chartered schools varies from place to place. But the point is that they are public schools and should receive the same per-student allocation that other public schools receive.

For the first time in history, states have delegated to public and private agencies outside of school districts the authority to create publicly funded schools. For the most part, they did this out of frustration with the pace of reform and in an effort to improve education. It follows, therefore, that they should do everything possible to help these schools succeed, including providing a physical facility or the funding to acquire one

Question from John Stallcup:

Why is there so little focus of resources, research and classroom time on elementary math? In terms of content level the US on average at least two years behind the world’s best at every grade level. Our best are average compared to the world’ leading programs. What gives?

Jay Mathews:

We must be reading different studies. The ones I have been seeing show us near the top of the world in fourth grade math. Fourth grade math is also where we are seeing the greatest gains in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Clearly we could do even better, but most other parts of our public school system would envy the progress we have made in elementary math.

Question from Barry Golden, Ed. Consultant Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction:

Nationally, we appear to have a two fold problem in attempting to improve teacher skills in areas such as formative assessment, learning progressions, problem based learning, technology integration etc do to: 1. inadequate professional development, 2. weak preservice training. How do you propose these issues be addressed and do you have any fiscal estimates for retraining existing teachers and administrators?

Ronald A. Wolk:

I think our problem is broader and more challenging than you suggest. The teacher pipeline is broken from recruitment to retirement.

Virtually every independent study of preservice training in the past 25 years has concluded that the process is woefully inadquate. The leadership of higher education should be ashamed. They treat ed schools as cash cows. They would never tolerate in their medical or law schools such low standards and poor educational practices.

Trying to correct these shortcomings with better professional development is almost an insurmountable challenge. Policymakers are highly unlikely to provide the resources that would be necessary to fund an effective professional development system. Most teaches will testify that the inservice training they receive is Mickey Mouse. Effective PD requires that teachers have time for study, learning and reflection.

As to cost, we ought ro figure out some way to shift the $20 billion or so now spent on teachers taking useless college courses at night and during the summer so they can earn a degree and increase their compensation. If those funds were spent to allow teachers to work together on real educational tasks and learn from each other, we might make a dent in the problem.

We have been talking about improving the preparation of teachers for a long long time, without much success. Likewise with professional development. From the work of the Holmes Group to the more recent reports of the former president of Columbia Teachers College, we have had studies that offered worth recommendations then sank like stones.

The problem will be seriouly addressed only when college presidents, provosts, and deans take the preparation of teachers seriously and make changes required to make teaching a true profession. That is an indispensable start.

Question from Tonya N. Jefferson, District of Columbia Public Schools:

Why isn’t virtual education being pushed to decrease high school dropout rates?

Jay Mathews:

I have heard some people propose it as a partial solution to the dropout problem, but I don’t see anyone rushing into our poorest neighborhoods, where most of our dropouts live, with computers and modems and money for the monthly cable bill that would allow those kids to participate in virtual ed. That would be a very expensive, and difficult to monitor, approach to the dropout problem. Dropout are probably the most difficult issue we face in public education. I think the most hopeful approach is the one the Gateses are making, encouraging small schools like the Big Picture Company schools in many of our cities, under the benevolent guidance of esteemed Big Picture board chair Ronald Wolk.

Question from Mary-Ellen Deily:

Let’s talk a little about the book. Commentary has long addressed curriculum. In The Last Word, Anne Wescott Dodd writes an essay titled, *Curriculum Mood Swings*. Toward the end of the essay she writes: *Some might argue that curriculum change today is more research-based than it was in the past, but still I wonder. Changing curriculum? So what else is new?* Her essay appeared in Commentary in 1993. Do you think today’s curriculum decisions are more research-based, or does the pendulum continue to swing back and forth?

Ronald A. Wolk:

Ms. Dodd’s commentary is splendid and “right on” in my opinion.

Curriculum is the elephant in the room: It largely determines the school schedule, the structure of the school (both physical and intellectual), how teachers are assigned, and how money is spent.

I don’t believe it is research based. The public generally, the policymakers, and a large proportion of the professionals are forever mired in the traditional curriculum. Innovations, as Ms. Dodd writes, seldom endure; they make people uncomfortable and they are overturned or allowed to wither away.

Sociey’s perception of schooling assumes there is something very wrong if kids seem to be having fun, if they collaborate and share information, if they question authority, if they spend time on “frills” instead of memorizing names, dates, and other factoids.

I am associated with The Met school in Providence where every student has his or her own curriculum linked closely to an internship. This is truly personalized education. We don’t consider “coverage” as the ultimate in education.

Lots of our kids graduate without knowing a lot of stuff that conventional wisdom says every kid should know. But almost all of them graduate and almost all of them go on to postsecondary education. And we can literally see these kids grow and get to know themselves in the four years they’re with us.

Until we slay the sacred cow of the conventional disciplinary curriculum most of our student will leave public high schools (with or without a diploma) only partially educated.

Question from Mary-Ellen Deily:

Commentary has long addressed curriculum. In The Last Word, Anne Wescott Dodd writes an essay titled, *Curriculum Mood Swings*. Toward the end of the essay she writes: *Some might argue that curriculum change today is more research-based than it was in the past, but still I wonder. Changing curriculum? So what else is new?* Her essay appeared in Commentary in 1993. Do you think today’s curriculum decisions are more research-based, or does the pendulum continue to swing back and forth?

Jay Mathews:

That pendulum is still going back and forth, and sometimes I dream it has a razor blade on its bottom and I am tied to the floor, about to get sliced open. I don’t think our curriculums are as research-based as their promoters say they are. Fortunately, I think everybody is pretty clear on the goal of whatever curriculum we have. We want students to be able to read, write and do math well enough to do well in a good job, or in college, and we want them to be able to think and analyze and deal with their fellow humans and have an appreciation of all the wonders of the modern age, particularly science and art and political debate. I am finding that some of our best schools, the ones who have adopted the model of great principal hiring the best teachers I described above, are experimenting with which curriculums work best for their kids. As long as they keep their eye on the need to show solid progress on all those goals above, they can keep coming up with new stuff, and it won’t bother me at all.

Question from Jeannie M. Sims, Ph.D., psychologist/parent:

I have long been concerned that educational practice and research do not address the needs of high ability children who need a faster pace and more depth of content in order to learn new information and to function well in the classroom. It seems that best practices for this group are addressed only by authors and researchers who specialize in gifted education and largedly ignored by others, therefore this information is not integrated into the mainstream. Do you have ideas for changing this?

Jay Mathews:

I have been asking for emails the last few weeks from parents around the country with an interest in this issue, and the more I read, the more I think we ought to stop trying to raise the level of education for certain kids designated gifted in our public schools at their current grade level. We should instead get much more serious about acceleration. If a first grader is ready for fourth grade work, give it to him. If a seventh grader is ready for calculus, get him to the high school, or the high school to him, and make sure he gets that course. We are just now figuring out a way to handle our greatest education problem, the low achievement of low-income kids. I don’t think we are going to have the resources, or more importantly, the competence in the classroom, to differentiate instruction for gifted kids in the way those kids deserve. So I think our energies and money is better spent accelerating kids into existing classes, when they are ready, and funding institutions and parent groups that can provide other kinds of enrichment in lieu of school, through home schooling communes, or after school. Researchers have come up with some great stuff, but we are dreaming if we think we are going to be able to train classroom teachers to execute that research in the proper way. We are more likely to muck it up, so let’s have experts do it.

Question from Lee R. McMurrin,Retired Supt.,Milwaukee Public Schools:

Don’t you think the numbers game used for so called “accountability” resulting in the ranking and labeling of schools, teacher and students is detrimental to the education of children?

Ronald A. Wolk:

Yes, I think the numbers game as now being played is irrational and harmful.

As long as schools are funded with public money, there must be accountability. And I don’t think it is inherently wrong to evaluate schools, attach consequences, and make that evaluation public.

However, the way we measure whether schools are effective, the thing we hold them accountable for, the actions we take when they don’t measure up, etc. are often stupid and indefensible.

In my home state of RI, we have a version of the British Inspectorate. A group of professionals, parents, and members of the public visit schools periodically. They spend up to a week shadowing students and teachers, sitting in classes, meeting with faculty and administrators, poring over data, etc. In other words, they have substantial and comprehensive information about the school on which to base their conclusions. That is added to other data to assess school performance.

Relying on test scores as the sole measure is unfair and inaccurate.

Question from Harriet Winters, Parent:

What can the American people glean from the recent announcement that America will not be participating in the TIMSS International math and science study for 2008?

Jay Mathews:

I read the Edweek story on this and it seemed to indicate this is not a big deal. We will continue to participate in TIMSS but not this particular study. As I recall, it had very few other participating countries and our TIMSS people did not want to dilute their efforts. I don’t see any signs that we are running away from comparing our kids to those in other countries.

Question from Joe Petrosino, EdD,Career & Tech Ed.:

Trust functions as the lubricant of an organization. Trust in schools between school leaders and teachers is not very strong, based on your 25 years of experience, how can one build this bridge of trust?

Ronald A. Wolk:

I agree. And there are lots of books and experts who address this issue.

In an obvious oversimplification, I would argue that schools should not be heirarchical organizations but rather communities of scholars and learners with the common interest of helping students learn. To achieve that mission, they must work together and support each other.

That means sharing both authority and responsibility. New Country School near Minneapolis is owned and operated by teaches --much as a law firm or medical clinic is. The teachers hire an administrator and share in the decision making. It works.

The most effectived principals and superintendents I’ve seen are those who practice distributive leadership--where teachers (and even students_share in making decisions.

Good leaders build trust by listening ti and considering the opinions of others, by involving the people they lead in developing he mission, setting the goals, and formulating the strategies to succeed.

Schools are not command/response systems like the military. As you say, the community must be based on trust.

Question from Janet Zehr, science teacher, North Tonawanda, Retired:

People are always asking me why teachers seem to feel “underpaid”. I never felt underpaid, ony underappreciated. l would not mind longer hours, a longer school year, etc., if I could only be assured of reasonable class sizes and time to inspire my students. I wonder how many teachers feel that the current emphasis on testing has produced a situation where teachers feel that they are pressured to spend an inordinate amount of time in test prep, sacrificing real learning.

Ronald A. Wolk:

I have often heard that teachers don’t become teachers because of the salary. Underpaid is a relative term. When you consider that the salaries are for about 9 months, the pay is better than it seems, particularly for veteran teachers.

But I agree with your general point. Between a third and a half of taechers quit within the first five years of their careers, and a relatively small percentage leave because of low pay. Working conditions are cited more often. Increased testing, “teacher-proof” curricula, student discipline and motivation, andd odther such factors probably discourage more techers than low salary does.

Question from Anthony Rebora,

Jay: How has the field of education opinion writing changed with the introduction of blogs, reader forums, and the 24/7 news cycle? Have you had to change your methodology or thinking as a columnist?

Jay Mathews:

I think all these developments are God’s way of telling me I have lived a good life, and deserve his blessing. In a few years I will have to retire as a daily newspaper reporter. My wife want us to return to our California homeland when she retires, and that is fine with me. But because of all the changes you describe, I can keep doing what I do, writing about schools, on the Internet. I can keep reporting by email, my prime source of news now, and I can keep in touch with smart people like you. None of these changes in word delivery systems have affected the way I report. I am still reaching out to as many people as possible, exploring trends, looking for new ideas and most importantly for me, looking for teachers and schools that have succeeded in raising achievement for low-income kids and getting in deep to find out how they do that and spreading the work in my column, my articles and my books. The blogs have added something I did not have so much before---VERY intense and well-informed criticism. But that is the kind of thing that gets my heart started in the morning, and at my age I need more of that than I used to.

Question from Mary-Ellen Deily:

This is a question for both of you. In the preface to The Last Word, Jay, you cite Saul Cooperman’s essay titled Increase Class Size_And Pay Teachers More. You called it one of those Commentaries “that knock you sideways.” Can either of you think of any other commentaries that, in Jay’s words, offer a “thought so daring and ideologically incorrect that you have to read the thing right away and then talk to your friends about it”?

Jay Mathews:

Cooperman was really asking for trouble, which I always find thrilling in a commentary. But I think most of the pieces in the book have daring and productive thoughts like that. My favorites include Joy Hakim’s challenge to get real history and real literature into schools, even elementary schools, rather than watered down pablum, Alfie Kohn’s attack on the notion of rigor as our goal (I don’t agree, but he made me think) and Larry Cuban’s very smart questioning of our classroom tech craze.

Question from Mary-Ellen Deily:

This is a question for both of you. In the preface to The Last Word, Jay, you cite Saul Cooperman’s essay titled Increase Class Size_And Pay Teachers More. You called it one of those Commentaries “that knock you sideways.” Can either of you think of any other commentaries that, in Jay’s words, offer a “thought so daring and ideologically incorrect that you have to read the thing right away and then talk to your friends about it”?

Ronald A. Wolk:

I’m sure I’ve read commentaries that I felt were wrong headed and that upset me, but I can’t recall any right now; the probably had to do with the need for a national curricuum or an argument that money doesn’t matter or that vouchers are the answer to education’s problems.

Certainly, I did not find any such essays in The Last Word, except for Saul Cooper’s piece. (The ideea that paying teachers more will improve teaching is tantamount to arguing that if pilots were paid more air travel would be safer.)

On the other hand, I’ve read dozens of commentaries in EW that changed my thinking about a subject or opened my mind on something.

aA recent and instructive example is the essay by Marion Brady, Why Thinking Outside the Box Is So Difficult. Aug. 30, 2006. This influence my thinking more than any commentary I’ve read in recent years.

I wish it had been included in The Last Word.

Question from Alex Vazquez. International teacher.:

I enjoyed reading your book. What do you think about the Hispanic students in the United States? Do you think that they have an opportunity to get out of the shadow? What is the government doing to face this issue?

Jay Mathews:

The federal government is not doing much, but I think I would give some credit to the local and state governments that provide most of the money for public education, and the taxpayers who pay those bills, for their support of one of the great migrations of all time. I think the influx of immigrants into the United States, most of whom are Hispanic, is saving and expanding what is best about America---our commitment to providing opportunity to anyone willing to work for it, and our instinctual sense that diversity in our all institutions is what will guarantee our commitment to democracy and human rights for all. I know that there is a anti-immigrant strain in our politics, but I note that nobody has been elected to any important offices on such a platform. The fact that we are educating so many young Hispanics now, giving them chance they would never have had in Latin America, is making the world in general a better place. We need to do better job for all low-income kids in our schools, but all that time I spent with Jaime Escalante and his kids at Garfield, and what I am seeing with the many Hispanic kids in the KIPP schools now, makes me very optimistic. --JM

Mary-Ellen Deily (Moderator):

ADDITIONAL COMMENT FROM RON WOLK: Again, I have to horn in on Jay’s question. The answer is no and very little. Hispanics are still a minority and our public education system is unkind to minorities. Governmental programs--often driven by politics--aren’t particularly helpful.

Hispanic students will only “get out of the shadow” when the Hispanic population uses its growing political and economic clout to bring them out. -- RW

Question from Rik McNeill, Exec. Director, Florida Education Association for the Central Panhandle Service Unit:

Florida public schools have been forced by years of bad press by politicians and changing legislation by the same to enter a market system where they are competing with vouchers, private & charter schools for students and the revenue they bring. What are some of the best practices for marketing public schools/systems? Where is this being done successfully?

Jay Mathews:

Great question, and I appreciate your resisting the temptation to consign all those reforms to the lowest levels of hell. Instead, you are asking the sensible question, how can public schools respond. The best marketing plan for public schools, in my view, is a very active recruitment of the best possible principals, people who have demonstrated a sincere belief in our ability to raise achievement for all kids, and have shown they had success doing so as teachers or principals. THEN give those principals the power to hire and fire teachers based on their success in raising achievement. They don’t have to turn low-income kids in Miami into Presidential Scholars. They just have to show they know how to get those kids up to grade level. And finally, once you have the numbers that show you have such people having such success, tell people like me and Ron about it and we will get it into our papers and magazines and Web sites like this one. THEN you will see parents flock to your door.

Question from Richard A. Hart, Professor Emeritus, NWMSU:

Multiple-choice questions can be scored for knowledge and judgment (right and not marking wrong by omitting) which permits rewarding students for quantity and quality independently, as is done with essay tests. When do you see this method replacing counting right marks on standardized tests so meaningful information can be obtained on each student?

Ronald A. Wolk:

I’m not a psychometrician (Thank God) and so don’t understand the distinction you make between scoring knowledge and judgment. I have not seen standardized multiple choice tests that are effective in either case. And even essays and open ended questions leave a great deal to be desired.

I’m old enough to be a cranky radical. I would do away with standardized tests. Formative testing by teachers in classrooms is an essential part of teaching and learning. Norm referenced tests are not really good for anything except comparing students. Curriculum referenced tests are only slightly better.

We need assessments that evaluate students on the bssis of their work, their skills, their comportment. Many great people in the field hade been pusing for multiple measures for a long time with little success, but portfolios, exhibitions, and other demonstrations of achievement are far better ways to determine whether kids are achieving. That is another important aspect of extra curricular actvities: A kid in chorus is judged on singing; debaters are judged on their knowledge of the subject and how well they argue it; a quarterback on completed passes. they don’t take standardized tests to determine how successful they are.

Question from David Patterson, Executive Director, Rocklin Academy:

As an educator for more than 30 years, I have seen much motion, but little deep and significant improvement in K-12 public education. In our current system children are the ones that suffer for the shortcomings of the system. Do you see any significant progress in shifting the risks and the burdens of the system to the adults – as we are the ones that have the potential to improve the system? Can the system be changed to reward adults who are making needed changes, and not just protect the status quo?

Jay Mathews:

I agree with yr view of the last 30 years, but I do see some significant progress. I think there has been in the last few years a huge change in attitude about the ability of low income children---the ones we are not serving well---to learn much more if well taught. Sadly, I don’t think this view has captured a majority of Americans yet, or even a majority of educators, but the minority who do believe it is much larger than it used to be, and has found a home in some school districts, and particularly in some charter school systems. Those that now have this belief are making great strides in starting schools and erecting new structures, like the strong principal with power to hire and fire model I consider ideal, that have already shown that they have the power to raise achievement significantly, at least in those few schools that have given that approach a serious trial run. The adults who are making those changes are motivated by the best of rewards, seeing kids’ lives change for the better, and that will keep most of them in the game forever. But I do also see a little bit more money and recognition coming their way. This generation of Teach For America people, including the ones who are no longer teachers but still interested in helping schools, I think will be key to making these changes.

Question from Theresa J., Teacher, Chicago Public Schools:

What do you think is the current status of the issue of technology being integrated into the curriculum in the schools in america? And do you think with the NCLB most teacher are more equip to handle it now?

Jay Mathews:

I like the new technology. At the very least it prepares students for dealing with the new technology. More importantly, it gives teachers a way to keep much closer track of how their students are doing, and where they need to improve their teaching. NCLB is obviously helping motivate that kind of regular looks at the data, as long as the school is equipped to assess students every 8 weeks or so and supply that data. Most schools are not, and I hope will move in that direction. What is going to make the biggest difference in the technological skills of our teachers is simply the passage of time. The next generation has soaked up this stuff like oxygen, and will be much better at it than my generation.

Question from Jonathan Eakle, PhD. Johns Hopkins University School of Education:

With the emergence of unconventional institutions that deliver “blended” teacher education programs, such as the “American College” spearheaded by former political figures, what does the future hold for traditional teacher education programs? In this vein, are there academic groups forming that endorse, resist, or plan to transform the methods and perspectives of teacher education that are emerging through institutions such as the “American College”?

Ronald A. Wolk:

Sorry, I’m not familiar with American College.

in an answer to a previous questions I ranted about teacher education. I’m not sure what I can add at this point, except to repeat that I don’t really think we take teacher education very seriousiy. We blather about, study it, spend lots of money on it, but in the end it goes on pretty much as it always has.

The New Teachers Project, Teach for America, and a raft of alternative paths to teaching programs may one day reach a point where higher education and the education establish start doing what they should be doing to improve teacher preparation.

But I should also point out, that fixing ed schools is only part of the challenge. To recruit the best people, we not only need to prepare them well, but to improve the conditions they wlll work in, rethink how they are compensated, and reconsider what the role of teachers should be in a rapidly changing and increasingly technological society.

Question from Patrick Mattimore, AP Psychology Teacher:

Hi Jay, Here’s a link to an op-ed I have in today’s Examiner papers suggesting that it might be time to get rid of the SAT I in college admissions based primarily on the recent criticisms of that test by Charles Murray. What do you think?

Jay Mathews:

Hi Patrick. It is great to have real educators like yourself favoring we folks in the newspaper business with some of your great pieces. I have been, as you know, in the anti-SAT I camp for a long time. I think Murray’s suggestion that we just use the subject tests is a good one. I would go even further. Require that all kids applying to college take AP or IB. It is astonishing to me that a majority of kids going to college do not get a taste of college trauma through those courses and tests. It would be a great way to make high schools better, and give admissions people a sense of how ready students are for college. Of course, eliminating the SAT I will not reduce the useless anxiety over getting into brand name schools. That is part of our culture that cannot be eradicated.

Question from Bonnie Sneed, Executive Director, Arizona Alliance for Arts Education:

With the narrowing focus on math and reading in the schools, are you experiencing less emphasis on a well-rounded education which includes the arts?

Ronald A. Wolk:

I’m not in a classroom, but everything I read and hear suggests that the curriculum is narrowing in order to meet the demands of standardized testing and standards-based accountability.

We can’t seem to get it through our heads that it is impossible to stuff into the heads of our kids all the accumulated knowledge of mankind. And one can be educated without having read Shakespeare or taken Algebra 2.

Education is, unfortunately, mainly about mastering and memorizing an infinite number of inert facts--like the names of generals, the dates of battles, the table of elements, etc. That has never made much sense and it makes less sense when a kid can go onto the Internet and find the facts he or she needs when they need them.

Education should be about stimulating curiosity, learning how to gather, assess, and use knowledge, understanding and appreciating the world one lives in, and develop a sense of values. It should be about developing habits of mind and behavior that make one a lifelong learner, productive worker, good citizen, and fulfilled individual.

That is the context in which we should look at curriculum, standards, assessments, and the practices of schooling.

Question from Claudia Stepke, The Parent-Child Home Program:

Dear Jay,

I am a fan of your work.

Recently, an article in the Boston Globe authored by Chris Shea raised questions about the amount of play time parents should spend with their children and whether or not that should differ by race or income.

We believe, at The Parent-Child Home Program, that facilitating parent-child verbal interaction is important in order to develop the language skills that children need to succeed in school. Reading, play and conversation with children, the three things we model, are ways to build language and literacy skills. We model all three because different parents will find themselves more comfortable with different approaches. The idea is to present parents with an array of ways to create language rich home environments, not to require that they play with their children. The program does extremely valuable and research-validated work to enable parents and their children to enter school ready to be successful students.

I’d like your thoughts on Mr. Shea’s article and our approach.

Thank you.

Jay Mathews:

I don’t believe I have seen that piece, although Chris has also written often for the Post and I have long thought his work was first rate. I believe completely in the worth of the research you cite, and in the ability of parents to increase that verbal interaction no matter what their educational backgrounds. I have interviewed many successful Americans who started out in poor circumstances, but had relatives who read them the Bible, talked to them about the history of their families, found a number of ways to enrich the verbal exchanges in the home, and in the end gave them the tools to do well in school and have many choices in life. I am also intrigued by your approach. My email address is Please tell me more. That goes for any other readers here who want to reach me privately.

Question from Mary Lou Folts, Retired Curriculum Director from Pennsylvania:

Isn’t it unrealistic to think that nationally mandated reforms can affect the American educational system in that schools are supported/funded locally and run by the states in a wide variety of ways? Mustn’t the disparities in funding and other “inputs” be addressed before outcomes tell us anything?

Ronald A. Wolk:

No I don’t think it is unrealistice. The feds only contribute about 7 cents on a dollar, but look at the impacte of NCLB, special ed, etc.

The states lack either the resources or the courage to tell Uncle what he can do with his money. The negative reaction to key part of NCLB was almost universal among the states, but only a couple resisted and only Utah, I think, turned down the funds (Not sure about that.)

I think it is a bit unrealistic to expect reforms from any sources to seriously change the way schools are organized and operated. The culture is simply too deeply embedded. And the system has proved time and again how resilient it is.

The efforts to addresss the disparities and inequities in funding have been going on for almost half a century. Virtually every state has been in court over school finance problems--some several times. Some proress has been made, but as they say abour Iraq, we have a long way to go.

Question from HT, Museum Educator (work with Magnet schools):

What are we going to do about teacher pay? What are we going to do with tests, which are implemented towards the end of the school year and are NOT diagnostic? What are we going to do when there are 40 kids in a classroom and one teacher?

Jay Mathews:

I think we have an opportunity to raise teacher pay by doing what the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools do in the inner city---increase the length of the school day and raise teacher salaries accordingly because of their extra hours. Not only are they bringing home bigger paychecks, but they have more time to teach kids, to compare notes with their colleagues and to inject the extras---simulations, music, activity, projects---that make learning come alive. And instead of some teachers getting more than others, which I think would be difficult to do and keep the team spirit alive, everybody gets more bucks.

Question from Bill Ring, Past Chair, Parent Collaborative, LAUSD:

How can parents become part of the collective bargaining process so that we can advocate effectively for our children?

Jay Mathews:

Oh man. That is a very interesting and provocative question, but it takes me way beyond my competence. What little I know of collective bargaining suggests to me that it is already complicated and burdensome enough, on both labor and management, and that an attempt to add parents to the mix would be perilous in the extreme. I think the best way for parents to influence these conversations is to support school board members who share their views on what should be in teacher contracts. And, who will support a school climate that welcomes parental input on all kinds of issues.

Question from Jim in Maimi: citizen at large:

I have a theory that smaller is better in terms of giving youngsters K-12 a worthwhile adn useful basic educational experience. I have some quesitons about this you might be able to help me wiht: Are smaller schools generally thepoistively associated with better learning? Are smaller classes ? Does school size make adifference if there are still smaller classes? Are there different optimal sizes for schools and/or classes at different grade levels? Any other size related issues that shoudl be given priority consideration? What about student sports and social life? Thanks.

Ronald A. Wolk:

Thoughtful questions but too many and too complex to answeer fully in this space.

There is research and plenty of anecdotal evidence to indicate that small classes AND small schools do better than laarge. I’ve seen research that says optimal size for elementary schools is about 200 (I may be off because of faulty memory, but it is small)and optimal for high schools is under 1000. I personally believe high schools should be under 600 and elementary schools under 200.

Size, though, is an essential factor but not a sufficient one. A small school with an incompetent principal can be a bad school; and an ineffective teacher can negate the advantages of a small class. For hard data check out the Star study in Tennessee

Sports and social life are very important especially in high schools. I think kids often get more out of extra curricular activities than they do out of academic. And you don’t have to beat on kids to get them to excel out of the classroom. They are highly motivated and willingly give long hours and great effort to chorus, band, football, debate, theater, etc.

But I don’ think he major team sports should get the attention in school that they get. The Friday Night Lights syndrome is a sad commentary on society. School kids could have an opportunity to participate in competitive club sports organized in and by the community, not by the school.

Question from Conny Jensen, advocate for quality education:

Why is it that no one takes seriously the developmental needs of young children? Under the pressures of No Child Left Behind playtime in public kindergartens has been eliminated. How moral and ethical is that?

Why do we not learn from European nations, in particular Finland where kids do not start formal schooling until age 7 and six-year-olds still get to learn through play. On international student assessments (PISA) they consistently score at or near the top. The U.S. in contrast scores lower than average for problem solving, along with mostly poor nations. Filnland places 3rd in that category.

If we do not allow kids in kindergarten to develop intellectually and creatively through self-directed play, the score for problem solving will get even lower!

Plus, if the United States scores in the middle of the pack for reading, but so do Denmark, France, Iceland, Switzerland, Norway, Japan and even China, then why are we made to believe there even is need for a heavy focus on reading by means of scripted lessons?

Ronald A. Wolk:

Your questions kind of contain the answers in the way you state them. I agree that we give too much attention to schooling and not enough to learning, and that we concentrate too much on academic trivia and not enough on the development of young people into thoughtful citizens with good habits of mind and behavior.

I recently wrote a column in Teacher Magazine pointing out how many of the founders of this country managed exceedngly well with little or no formal schooling: Abe Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Edison, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Fulton and the list goes on.

The best system of education ever invented was the aprenticeship system, where a youngster learned at the hands of a master in real world situations and was judged not on a pencil and pape exam but on the quality ofhis or her work.

As to reading: our kids have paid a price price for the meddling of politicians and ideologues. Something is wrong when the govenment mandats that phonic must be taught. We’ve always give so much emphasis to decoding that many of our “readers” leave school with very low comprehension skills.

Question from Robin LaSota, Chicago based education consultant:

Education Week recently published an extensive report on professional development for principals. Particularly in low-performing schools in need of turnaround, what should professional development for teacher leaders emphasize? How can professional development better support teachers to implement and sustain research-based curricula?

Ronald A. Wolk:

I’m afraid I can’t be very helpful. The conditions in which teachers administrators work make it very difficult for them to continue to grow intellectually. I once heard a prominent federal district judge exclaim in a meeting on professional development: You people talk as though this is something that a person can put on like a coat, something separate from the every day work. That is not how doctors and lawers continue to learn. Professional development is an integral part of their daily work. They keep up with the literuature intheir fields, talk with colleagues,l attend professional meetings, reflect on their work and professional lives.

I’m sure their are effective programs that would be helpful to leaders and teachers, but they require a commitment in time and money that is hard to come by. The case study method used at the Harvard Business School is quite effective, but it won’t work in an hour after school.

I have had several questions about teacher education. One of the things we could do much better is cultivate among aspiring teachers and appreciation for and understanding of research. In my experience, neither administrators or teaches are consumers of research.

Question from Robin LaSota, Chicago based education consultant:

What are your thoughts on the most important ways to revise the No Child Left Behind Act to improve academic success and quality of life for students, particularly in high-need communities? Of the 100+ proposals for revision, which are the most salient?

Ronald A. Wolk:

I am not familiar enough with the 100+ proposed revisions of NCLB to comment.

Impractical as it may be, I’d repeal the law and start over again. It is hard to believe that the people who crafted NCLB have much knowledge about public education and schools.

To believe that we could put a highly qualified teacher in every classroom is dumb. To define highly qualified as a teacher who is certified is dumb. To proclaim that all students will be proficient in reading and writing by 2013 is dumb. To think that add standardized tests to virtually every grade is dumb.

How could people who know anything about public schools and the current system put forth such nonsense?

Question from Harriet Winters, Parent:

Regarding the TIMSS question, although I don’t have the report in front of me I recall the last TIMSS report consisted of 26 countries including Canada and England. It is a very important study that I think is essential to compare our academic standing with the International community. Our countries 4th and 8th grade students were listed anywhere from the 6th to the 15th position compared to other countries in the last TIMMS study.

Jay Mathews:

I just proved once again the ease and efficiency of the Edweek web site by searching for TIMSS, and got that story right away. It says that this study we are not going to participate in covers only upper level math and physics, and only has 9 countries signed up, down from 12 who originally expressed an interest. The US officials said they did not think such a small study justified the time and cost, and that seems a reasonable argument. We will still be participating in other, broader, TIMSS studies in the future.

Mary-Ellen Deily (Moderator):

Thank you for joining today’s chat. Special thanks go to Ron Wolk and Jay Mathews for fielding so many thoughtful questions. The chat is now closed. A transcript will be posted shortly on

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