Where Obama is Getting Education “Wrong”

The caption under this Storybook Rabbit (Amber) Flickr photo was, “Never sit on the left side of the room when you have a right-handed teacher. This was like sitting behind a column at a baseball game. Except much less exciting.”

I would add that the teacher is thinking, “I have the data and I know that this is the scribble my students need to be looking at right now.”

The reason that I can not get eight hours of sleep is that I am haunted.  I become possessed by conversations I’ve had in my waking hours.  I am drawn from my sleep by cold boney fingers reaching out from the graves of past presentations — by the insightful, but initially unrealized, comments made by participants and those questions that I wish I’d answered better.

Yesterday, at Saint Marys, a private girls school here in Raleigh, I was asked, “Although I agree with your call to better prepare our children for the future with more authentic assignments, does that help us in our mission to prepare girls for college?”  Then the librarian asked, (and these questions are grossly paraphrased) “I know that Wikipedia and Google are invaluable tools — but what is the place for the online databases that we subscribe to?”

The ghost of workshops past that I must exorcise right now, was something that the Dean of Faculty said to me after the presentation.  He related a conversation he’d just had with a math teacher of many decades who told him that she started to “get it,” when the presenter suggested that we need to be asking ourselves,

What kind of questions will we ask on our tests, when our students walk into the classroom with Google in their pockets?

And then he (I) asked the audience to consider calculators — how, for years, we resisted the new devices because it wasn’t math.  It didn’t look like the math instruction we traditionally provided, and so we almost demonized the things.  But now that calculators have become a critical part of many mathematics classes, have they changed the questions we ask?  Have they changed the problems we ask our students to solve?  Has it changed the nature of math instruction?

The answer, of course, is, “Yes!”  Calculators empower learners to work numbers to an end.  They force students to transend paper and pencil, to truly utilize the language of numbers to solve problems, answer questions, accomplish goals — to learn new things.  I maintain that we should expect learning in the classroom to be the same as learning in the “real world” — that it is about ubiquitous access to the global flow of information and the tools that empower us to work that information.

It’s where the Obama Administration has it completely wrong.  According to Secretary Arne Duncan’s July 24 Washington Post op-ed, “The president starts from the understanding that maintaining the status quo in our schools is unacceptable.” (( Duncan. Arne. “Education Reform’s Moon Shot,” The Washington Post 24 Jul 2009. Web.18 Aug 2009. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/23/AR2009072302634.html>. ))  Yet, it appears to me that the status quo is exactly where we are staying.  Like the former failed administration, the answer seems to be do the same thing, just do it more, do it harder, do it longer, and our children will gain the skills they will need to “compete in the global economy.”  This is wrong on so many levels that I just want to throw up my hands give up.

  • Adopting internationally-benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace;
  • Recruiting, developing, retaining, and rewarding effective teachers and principals;
  • Building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices; and
  • Turning around our lowest-performing schools. ((United States Government. Education Department. Race to the Top Fund — Executive Summary. Washington: GPO, 2009. Web/PDF. <http://www.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/executive-summary.pdf>. ))

So back to my haunt.  What interests me about the connection made by the math teacher between the calculator and the Google’d cell phone is that they are both about empower learning.  Of the four (entirely unoriginal) education reform areas (see left) being targeted by the administrations dangled carrot ($4.3 billion), the one that irks me the most is number three — data.

Now I love data.  I love what you can do with data.  Data visualization is one of my favorite themes to follow on Twitter.  But what’s wrong with “Building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals..” and wrong with so much of the prevailing conversations about education reform, is that it’s about empowering teaching and schooling.  It’s designed to help us do our jobs better as educators — when we need to be figuring out how to empower our students to do their jobs better as learners.

Obama, through Duncan, wants us to use data to measure student learning — and by result, to further limit what we teach to that which can be measured.  What we should be doing is helping our students to use data, so that they can measure their world and better understand their relationship with that world — what can’t be measured.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that we are continuing down the same dumb path of thinking that we need high school and college graduates who know the answers to old questions.  This is wrong!

It’s new questions that will define our future.  Today, we need graduates who can invent answers to the “new questions.”

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23 thoughts on “Where Obama is Getting Education “Wrong””

  1. I was just scanning through yesterday’s Knitter chat at Saint Mary’s and ran across this relevant statement.

    “Being counter-cultural (educators) can be about empowering (students) to envision a world that is neither theirs nor ours — one that is better than either.”

  2. So I get what you’re saying and it’s how I want the social studies teachers I work with to think. We’re a 1:1 district in 6-12 and pretty much, most teachers teach the same way. They aren’t totally comfortable with the technology and we have End of Course exams in Virginia.

    With those two things together, like a math problem: teachers uncomfortable with technology + EOC exams = no desire to empower students. Why? Because, what if they’re learning, but not learning the state mandated material? How do I manage a classroom with technology when I don’t know how to use the technology myself? These are questions most of my teachers would have to this article and I don’t know how I’d answer them since they feel their job is on the line if their students don’t pass the EOC exam.

    So, how do I answer those questions teachers will ask?

    1. I’m going to respond to two of your questions and then say something more.

      (W)hat if they’re (students) learning, but not learning the state mandated material?

      This is, indeed, like being between a rock and a hard place, though one is where we know we need to go and the other is a barrier. I would suggest that the job of the teacher is to help students in setting meaningful goals that are real-world in nature. Then the teacher works to guide the students’ work toward the standards, and not give up lecture, workshops (digital), etc., but enhance that learning with more relevant self-directed learning. I see a lot of this happening outside the classroom as homework — a different kind of homework.

      How do I manage a classroom with technology when I don'[t know how to use the technology myself?

      Well, my answer to that question is, “Why not?” “Why do you not know how to use the technology?” What possible excuse can a teacher in 2009 have for not having embraced today’s everyday information tools. I am curious as to what excuse a teacher in 2009 might have for not using technology.

      But going back a step, nowhere in my post did I mention technology. What I talked about was data, the ability to work information to measure, experiment, explore, discover, and conclude. This usually involves digital technology, but so much of information is digital today. But the point is the information — learning to use information to accomplish goals.

      1. Thanks. I like the idea of “self-directed” homework. Seems like a nice fit with authentic lessons and how I typically dislike they type of homework students get today (page 210, questions 1-5, blah blah…). The teachers I’ve worked with sometimes have a legitimate excuse in the sense that their students aren’t the most responsible with their laptops. A teacher can plan a great lesson using Google Earth for example, and then half the kids don’t come to class with their laptop. Now, there are many issues surrounding that fact, but at the same time, it’s a reason teachers don’t risk it. The rest of their reasons aren’t acceptable. “It’s too complicated” even though they have 1 on 1 training, handouts, and videos. “I don’t have time” which I never buy. Often they think they can still teach as they always have. Some of those lessons are perfectly fine, but they miss out on authentic, real world lessons as you mentioned many times. They don’t realize that most of how they teach is replacable with an online course. I try to tell them they need to teach as if an online course couldn’t replace them. They don’t often hear me.

  3. David maybe the best short article I have read, and does it the nail on the head, once again we have to explain what business is our business, student learning, not teaching. I am a second year superintendent and was previously a principal of a 1:1 district and am slowly dragging our current staff along with technology. To Mike H. have the leadership in your building merely ask teachers the question, how can I enhance this assignment with technology, they will be amazed at how simple the answers will be.

  4. David, this is the perfect example of something that needs to be articulated to Arne Duncan during today’s conference call that’s sponsored by NAMM and SupportMusic. Are you planning to join in?

    Audience Call-in Instructions:
    1 (800) 446-2782 Audience Toll-Free Access (U.S.)
    1 (847) 413-3235 Audience International Access (outside the U.S.)

    Date: Tuesday, August 18, 2009
    Time: 1 PM Eastern, 12 Noon Central, 11 AM Mountain, 10 AM Pacific

    Registration for the conference call stream is now available. Participants may use the following URL to register for the event; please register now and up to 15 minutes prior to the event

    Secretary Duncan will join our call promptly at 1 p.m. ET.

  5. Indeed – Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan do have it wrong. Boggles my mind as well. I totally supported the president as he spoke about changes in education during the campaign. I recall words of not teaching to tests, changing how classrooms work, making knowledge accessible to all levels of students, and so forth. But as we see, the “Race to the Top” mentality shows that both men have not actually studied what is needed in education. Like many others, I assume, they are doing what they think is right based on how they were taught, how they remember education, etc, etc, etc. This retains the same industrial model of teaching to orderly, attentive students, sitting rows, taking notes, cramming for tests. The data driven aspect of determining if students are learning is, indeed, corrupting the whole process, keeping education geared toward a small set of “agreed upon ideas” that all students should learn in all states. The concept defies the very notion of enlightenment, thought, growth, and equity.

  6. David,

    You continue to write amazingly succinct posts that get to the core of the issue and challenge me to be a better educator. Thank you for sharing the conversations that you had yesterday with the rest of us. I really appreciated the quote and analogy to calculators.

    The part about data is causing me to rethink some things. My district (like all) has really been pushing data collection, and I think that my department now needs to revisit what we are collecting and reframe the question so we can “empower our students to do their jobs better as learner.” Thanks.

  7. David said – Like the former failed administration, the answer seems to be do the same thing, just do it more, do it harder, do it longer, and our children will gain the skills they will need to “compete in the global economy.” This is wrong on so many levels that I just want to throw up my hands give up.

    Thank you for you honesty. I still weary of educated people who truly believe in their heart of hearts that the government (and it’s officials) will produce productive answers to problems. Yes, public education is an arm of the government, and as such they government has the right to dictate. But to think that a government or a president is capable of producing the kind of thinking that will change things for common student is naive.

    You have to understand that if you are in a position of such power, the educational system (as it is) worked for them. They do not want it to change.

    Does that stop teachers from doing the right thing? It doesn’t have to. But quit blaming the government, the presidents, the tests, and begin to model thinking for our students. Question things and provide the situation for the questioning.

  8. I do not disagree with your call, “It’s new questions that will define our future. Today, we need graduates who can invent answers to the “new questions.” However, in regards to the RTT funds, I think you speak from a position of novelty not representative of the reality of where many public schools currently stand, particularly our lowest performing ones. For a school at or near par looking to move ahead and improve, your vision is absolutely correct. However, for those schools and districts failing to teach students basic skills and graduating many of them anyway, the leap is too far. When the average reading level of my 11th grade English class is about 5th grade, inventing new questions is a pipe dream without basic skills in place to even articulate what the questions of today. A computer lab? My school has a single, mobile computer cart with only 17 functional computers for a school of 800 kids, where class sizes are usually near 30. My impression is that RTTT funds aren’t so much intended for schools already focused and executing a form of even semi-successful college prep, but for those that need to be pulled up by their bootstraps — quickly.

  9. Like you, I have misgivings about the Obama educational plan. I differ though on your data argument. I agree that it is “about empowering teaching and schooling,” and that it is “designed to help us do our jobs better as educators.” I don’t see this approach as misguided. I equate it to good professional learning program. The primary goal is to improve student achievement by improving professional practice.

    1. It’s a problem with being passionate about your beliefs. You tend to come off as promoting an either/or solution. It sounds like I’m say that data should not be used for measuring learning and for improving teaching. It’s not what I mean to say. I think that collecting data on measurable performance and using it to guide approaches for improving service can be incredibly valuable — so long as we are not making “data” a prime focus for reform. When Obama, through Duncan, includes it as one of the four reform areas, my fear is that we will continue the spiral into valuing only that which can be measured.

      I disagree that the primary goal “…is to improve student achievement by improving professional practice.” I think that the primary goal should be to improve student achievement by improving student learning. When we can not clearly describe the future, for which we are preparing our children, then perhaps what has become most important is learning skills — learning literacy.

  10. David – being a man of few words (hah!!!) I will be brief: as good an article as I have ever read on the issue of educational change – it needs to be read by every educator, parent and citizen. Well done – as you have demonstrated consistently for years, you are not just a pretty face….

    Ian J

  11. Hi David,

    In terms of national testing, I get the sense that the big change in testing might/could/should be from looking at norm-based testing to value-added testing. (Yes, I still have hope in the Obama admin) Instead of lumping everyone together, the progress of individuals would be calculated. I see a big difference in saying “in school X, Y% of students scored at Z level” to “in school X, Y% of students made one year of gain.” Does this make sense? Tests like the NWEA MAPS tests would give this sort of data. Given that all students start at an different level coming into a school year, it seems a better indicator of how effective both a school and a teacher might be. Assuming there is validity to testing at all.

    All the best,


  12. “It’s new questions that will define our future. Today, we need graduates who can invent answers to the ‘new questions.'”

    You nailed it. Healing the environment, creating a new economy, resolving issues of gender and racial inequity, etc. are all issues that cannot be answered on a test. But they will define the next generation’s work! They are complex, and they are important.

  13. David,

    I continue to enjoy reading your blog on almost a daily basis, despite having left the classroom a year and a half ago. It is because of your blog that I continue to remain engaged in educational technology, and continue to think about a future in schools doing this kind of work.

    As a result, when I was awarded the Kreativ Blogger this morning and asked to award 7 other blogs, I couldn’t help but pass one along to you. You can check it out here (along with your shout out), http://rateyourworld.wordpress.com/ , and know that I appreciate all that you do!


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