Do our country's public schools work? Are students being prepared adequately for a more demanding workplace? What are appropriate standards for elementary and secondary schools--and what values, other than academic achievement, should they teach? How can society renew the ranks of teachers, and equip them to perform much better? Can charter schools, vouchers, or other experiments play a useful role in enhancing the public-education system? Do enough Americans care enough about the quality of schooling to reform public education?
Harvard Magazine asked six educators and observers of education to discuss the performance of and challenges to America's primary and secondary schools. Participants in the conversation, held at the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Longfellow Hall, were:
Their interchanges, at times heated, ranged from broad philosophical questions about pedagogy and assessment to very specific suggestions--for example, ways to improve teacher recruiting and training. Edited excerpts of the discussion, which was moderated by Harvard Magazine, follow.
MODERATOR: What are the appropriate performance measures for evaluating education and schooling today? How does our education system stack up by those measures?
WILLIE: All standards ought to be based upon the purpose one is trying to achieve. The question is, what purpose does education serve in our society? Many different purposes, obviously, but one of them, as Steve Bailey [Keppel professor of educational policy and administration, 1977-1982] used to say, is to create the furniture of the mind--to help individuals develop cognitive constructs. But I also like Daniel Goleman's concept that education can help people develop emotional intelligence--ways of empathizing with people, ways of dealing with matters of justice and peace. The purpose of education is to do all of these.
TRAUB: There is a sense of grave crisis in education, and the most important piece of that involves basic competencies. There are all sorts of serious moral and philosophical questions about the purpose of education, but I feel we need to take seriously the results we get from standardized objective tests that look at basic competencies in American public schools and have generally very troubling--sometimes even frightening--outcomes.
MURNANE: I would agree with that. But I think one needs to look at the evidence and interpret it. Our best information on the cognitive skills of American schoolchildren is the National Assessment of Educational Progress. If you look by ethnicity, you see that the average score in reading and math for blacks, whites, and Hispanics in 1996 is not lower than it was in the early 1970s. It's about the same for whites. It's higher for blacks and Hispanics--but importantly, it's still considerably lower for black and Hispanic students than for white students.
The question is, if the scores are at least as high as they were 25 years ago, why do we see an education crisis now? The answer is that the economy has changed, dramatically. In 1970, for example, if you were concerned with the earning potential of black males, there were lots of jobs that paid well in steel, automobiles, rubber. The challenge then was to get black males access to the right union; if they could get in the union, they could do the work.
Those jobs have to a large extent been replaced by jobs in which skills matter a great deal more. There are still jobs for everybody--at least in today's economy--but a large percentage of those jobs are paying five to six dollars an hour. That's $12,000 a year--well below the poverty line for a family of three.
MURPHY: I agree that you have to ask, "What's the nature of the problem?" There's a lot of evidence along the lines that Dick presented to suggest that the issue is not one of seriously declining school performance, but of rising expectations in the different world we're now in. In the good old days, when you had these low-skill, high-wage jobs, it didn't matter so much that kids dropped out of school, because they could still live a decent life. Those jobs have disappeared. We're responding by keeping in school kids who used to drop out and still managed to do fine, and we're expecting the schools to perform at a much higher level for these kids. We're asking the schools to do something that they've never been asked to do prior to the last 15 years or so.
GRAHAM: I want to emphasize that last notion. What is being asked today is the most radical request that has ever been made of American schools in our century: to bring all our children to a high level of academic skills. The schools' business in the past was to bring some fraction of children to a high level of skills--but certainly not all. Schools were seen instead as developing the work habits of the male population who would take the unskilled jobs that Dick described, and to prepare American children to be citizens of what was then a rather novel form of democratic government.
I want to go back to Chuck's opening statement: what is it we think these schools are supposed to be doing? Are they simply supposed to be assuring academic skills? I would argue they need to do a much better job of that than they are now. But what about those other activities in which they have historically engaged: generating the habits of being able to work in a democratic society--call that citizenship or whatever you want. If we focus exclusively on schools' academic mission, then we lose their other mission. We have some real losses for our society.
NATHAN: I am the only one who hasn't spoken, on purpose, since I just finished administering three weeks of standardized tests. I think that we've gone berserk in this country with standardized testing, for some very serious reasons that have to do with a deep distrust of public education. And I don't know where that comes from. Jim, when you say that a huge fraction of our children aren't succeeding, I question what that means, since we score the highest next to Finland in reading...
TRAUB: Yet 38 percent of American kids are below the level of basic competence--and reading is the thing we're best at in all of these international competitions.
NATHAN: There is a way in which, as a society, we glom on to schools being in crisis. We are asking schools, as we always have, to solve the social and economic problems in our society. I don't think that's the wrong thing to do--but we don't give schools nearly the resources to do it.
What is our mania about giving second-graders standardized tests? I'm not interested in knowing what percentile my children are in. I'm interested in competent teachers who know how to talk about literacy and numeracy and writing. I would be happy if those were the only three areas we tested. I think we are wasting millions and millions of dollars on testing. What was the latest--3,600 teachers could have been hired in this state with the money we just spent on MCAS [the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, a new series of statewide tests administered in fourth, eighth, and tenth grades]?
TRAUB: But we know that a child who is not reading competently in third grade is almost certain to fail later on. The reason for a test being standardized is simply that all of the people who are thinking about this problem are going to be armed with the same kinds of information.
NATHAN: But the measures we're using aren't helping us. The Cambridge public schools use a very interesting measure as their standardized reading inventory. It tells any parent and any teacher how a kid is doing. Do you know what the test is? They read. And they tape. And they do an informal reading inventory. And then, at the end of the year, you know what they do? They read and they tape. It's very labor intensive. It is not filling in the blanks, which tells us very little about what children know. As a public, we are so inclined to pursue the easy way: "Give me the MCAS, give me this test or that test. It's easy. It's uniform. It's valid. It's reliable."
I question whether those measures are what my children and the children I teach need to suffer through. This is bad psychometrics and bad testing. And no one is standing up and saying, "Wait a minute. Stop this. These are bad instruments. This is not the way we want to teach reading."
TRAUB: Are they bad in their nature? Is it in the nature of any kind of standardized test--for example, a multiple-choice test--that it won't measure something worth measuring?
NATHAN: They have their place. But particularly for elementary schools, I don't think they're nearly as indicative of what kids know and can do, as sitting and doing work next to a child. Many of the measures that we're using are norm-referenced tests, which means there's always going to be a group at the bottom or top. The end results are always going to show that bell curve.
MURPHY: I take it that you agree on the need for assessment.
MURPHY: But the issue that you're really arguing is...
NATHAN: The tool.
MURPHY: I'm not an expert on this. But my impression is that the attempt to use portfolios and other exhibits--where students submit writing samples or other examples of their work for assessment--fell short as an accountability device in Vermont, in part because of issues of reliability across the raters who evaluated the portfolios. Which is to say that they are subjective.
NATHAN: We're having the same issue with the MCAS.
MURPHY: I'm not making an argument for MCAS. I think that much too much testing is going on.
On the other hand, I don't think that we have a proven alternative out there which can replace standardized testing. In the context of most people agreeing that there ought to be assessment, we're struggling to figure out what combination of measures to use.
WILLIE: This is a serious discussion about standardized testing. But that's not the essence of making education better in the United States. It's teaching, it's learning, and it's the interactions that take place.
As Pat said earlier: we in the United States have just now achieved universal education. Eighty percent of all people of high-school age now complete high school. When everybody completes high school, everybody can't be excellent. There's a range in achievement for a group of people. It's the same thing we're experiencing in healthcare: we have better healthcare; life expectancy keeps going up; nevertheless, we don't have a standardized health score. So why do we need a standardized achievement score in education?
MURNANE: Can I just ask a rhetorical question? I spent some time in Texas, which has an assessment of academic skills that is probably more problematic than the MCAS. It's being used there in a relatively high-stakes way. It has led teachers--particularly in the Rio Grande valley and in other parts of Texas that serve very poor kids, many of whom don't speak English as a first language--to be very concerned with increasingly being asked to teach to the test.
Was the instruction those kids received better before you had the test of skills? I'm inclined to think it was probably not--that those kids were really not paid attention to at all.
I think you need to see testing as one step in a long process of debate about what we really want our kids to learn and how we assess it. Our teachers do need to be accountable. We do need to have assessments that are tied to our curriculum frameworks. And it makes sense to prepare kids to take those assessments. We're not there in any state. We're further away from it in some states than others. But what leads me to be cautiously supportive of this is the speculation that the instruction kids got, in the very poor neighborhoods, was worse before you had a movement toward accountability.
GRAHAM: That's exactly the example from the Zavala Elementary School, in East Austin, Texas, from the book Dick wrote with Frank Levy. The families thought their kids were doing fine because the school was perfectly happy to tell them their kids were doing fine--until there was some external measure that revealed that the children were not doing fine academically.
The right subject for me is, what levers help us increase the academic experience of young people? To intensify it, make it richer, make it deeper, make it even tougher. We're using tests as the proverbial hammer when we think that academic experience is the nail, so we think that more tests will improve the academic experience.
The deeper question is what factors allow the school to give a richer academic experience, and how those vary by different communities. The situation in Weston [an auent Boston suburb] is going to be quite different from that in a community whose families are not as auent or as highly educated. The real trick is how you increase the academic experience of kids whose families may not be able to do it immediately for themselves.
The best thing I've read on this is a recent study by Anthony Bryk and some colleagues in Chicago, who looked at increasing what they called the "academic press" in Chicago's public schools. They found that children from families with the lowest economic circumstances learn more when they are placed in a school where there is strong academic press than they do when there isn't. That means a rigorous curriculum that expects you not just to answer a short question and prepare for standardized tests, but to be able to read a paragraph and explain its implications.
NATHAN: What happened to Advanced Placement? If that was good for the rich kids, why isn't it the lever we use?
GRAHAM: They're too expensive because they are essays and have to be graded.
NATHAN: But those are reasonable ways of judging. I don't have any problem with those tests and with kids studying for them. I think what we've got going now is this high-stakes standardized testing that is so demoralizing.
You ask what the levers are. Everything that's been written talks about the student-teacher relationship being such a primary motivator for kids. We all think about who our great teacher was, and talk about that relationship with the teacher who motivated us. So many kids don't get that because they're passing through, so I keep going back to the conditions that we've created in our schools. All the testing is just going to lay bare what we already know.
TRAUB: How do we raise expectations, if we feel that our expectations are too low, at least for what we need now in terms of the economic skills that Dick described?
WILLIE: Whose expectations are we talking about? The school's, the faculty's, or the students'? Your expectations or my expectations?
TRAUB: When I go to schools, I find that there are far too many of them--especially schools for disadvantaged kids--that just assume these kids aren't going to be able to do much, so if they behave well and are nice to each other and can write a couple of sentences, that's great.
WILLIE: That's bad education.
TRAUB: But that's also very common. To me the only importance of these tests is that they're a device for raising expectations.
WILLIE: How does the test raise expectations for teachers when the persons tested are the students?
TRAUB: We all have different answers to the questions of what are the right standards and where a standard should be created--in the individual school, at the state, nationwide.
Is it possible to raise expectations broadly without some kind of specified standards? Not the kind of blurry standards that have been fashionable until now--where you say children will gain a mastery of numbers, or understand their community. Do you need to have state standards, possibly even national standards--as they do in other countries?
WILLIE: If you ask me how you get levers to raise performance, I think we need to start looking at individual schools. We've got lots of ideal types, but we walk right by them--as if these were not models that we could follow--because we tend to look at systemic change only. That's part of our error. To be effective, I believe, we will have to do school improvement school by school. There are some very fine examples of good education going on in every community in this nation. And we don't talk very much about specific schools because we keep looking at these system-wide tests.
SCHOOLS THAT SUCCEED
MODERATOR: What are some of the things working well in schools within school systems that are perceived overall as not doing very well? What are the characteristics of the places you've seen that work well?
WILLIE: I'll tell you about a terrific school in Boston. The Hernandez School is a K-8 two-way bilingual school: it teaches all students to speak English and to speak Spanish. All the students leave that school speaking both languages fluently. It has students that go on to the best schools in this community, and many of its students eventually go on to college. Yet they don't score high on standardized tests, because English is not the first language of about half of its students. Hernandez is in the heart of Roxbury; you have to ring the doorbell to get in, because the doors are locked. But once you go into that learning environment, you experience a transformation. There's not a single lock on any of the students' lockers. I asked the principal, "How do you keep the students' things from being stolen?" She said, "We are a community in this school, and we shouldn't have to lock up our valuables in a community." I asked, "Don't you lose a jacket every now and then?" And she said, "Maybe once every 10 years." I was amazed at her answer. Here was a school teaching youngsters how to relate to each other as members of a community. Yet they were learning cognitive skills, they were learning emotional skills. The whole educational experience in this school was something of value.
TRAUB: If it hasn't changed the kids' scores, is it a successful school or is it a lovely community?
NATHAN: Let me do Fenway High School for you. Fenway sends 97 percent of its kids on to college. Probably two Fenway kids have scored high on the standardized tests. Average SAT combined scores are around 850, 900. But Fenway kids stay in college--they're at Hampshire, they're at Tufts, they're at Wheaton. They're at historic black colleges. They're all over the place. Excuse me, they're not all over the place. We're very careful about where we send our kids to college. We'll say, "Don't go there, they won't support you." The whole admissions thing is a game--and we're very cognizant of that game. Probably 97 percent of Fenway kids score low on the SATs and the standardized tests. That doesn't mean we haven't come up. We work at the SATs. We can't work at 10 different tests.
WILLIE: Can you say just a word about the demographic background of the Fenway kids?
NATHAN: Over 60 percent receive federal aid for free or reduced-cost lunches--they fit the federal guideline for poverty. Twelve percent are parenting. Twelve percent are bilingual. Twenty-odd percent are considered special-needs kids. Racially, 58 percent are African Americans, 20 percent Latino, and 20 percent white.
How do we do it? We work at it. We have very clear goals. We don't have too many goals.(I'm saying "we" because I still consider it my school.) Fenway has been very clear about not being a comprehensive high school. It does not try to do it all in any way. You don't find a zillion electives. If you want that, we say, "Go to those alternative comprehensive high schools"--because what we're really saying is that vision of schooling is dead. It doesn't work because you don't get the small teacher-student ratios and relationships--the environment Chuck was just talking about in the hallways at Hernandez, where class size is small and teachers stay. To use educational jargon, they "loop"--they see kids over more than one year.
So I could name five things that we need to see in our schools. Teacher-student relationships. Teachers who are passionate and have autonomy for developing curriculum--that's one area where standardized testing and curricula really scare me. Teachers need to have autonomy with their work life--to be able to say, "I work 10 to 6," or however. Those are the kinds of things we see in successful schools.
We're in such an old model of what schools are. Schools cannot be places for the adult primarily. They have to be incredibly welcoming in the way they work with kids. We can't have schools like McDonald's franchises, with teachers mechanically serving up the same educational program. If we do, our whole system of public education will be nothing more than a journey from Happy Meals to the Big Mac. Schools are not fast-food restaurants. Schools should be different. We should have a Hernandez. We should have an Arts Academy.
TRAUB: I've been to a very good school in Cambridge. I'd be curious to hear everyone's reaction to it. It's called the Morse School. Sixty or 70 percent of the kids are poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches. I believe that it was the only public school in the Cambridge system whose performance on the MCAS violated demographic expectations--it did much better than the other schools with a similarly large number of poor kids. In fact, it did as well as some of the schools that have quite prosperous kids.
The Morse School uses the Core Knowledge curriculum designed by E.D. Hirsch. When Morse adopted Core Knowledge, they came under tremendous pressure. They were told that they were part of a right-wing conspiracy because they were teaching this prescribed curriculum--a "dead-white-male" curriculum. What struck me when I spent time at this school is that it's just as serious about being multicultural as any other school. But also that, far from having a teacher lecturing 28 little children on a bunch of facts, they use projects. The little kids were writing music or learning about Shostakovich and actually playing music and so forth.
It occurred to me there that the claim that a curriculum rich in fact and information must feel reactionary in some way, must stamp out the joy of schooling, seemed completely wrong. The kids I met were both incredibly well informed--there were second-graders who knew who built the Great Wall of China and why--and also obviously having a great time. I'd be interested in hearing people's reaction to the things Hirsch talks about.
WILLIE: I'm glad you mentioned this school. I helped save the Morse School--I was a consultant to the Cambridge system, when someone proposed that Morse should be closed. I went to the school and saw what you saw and was impressed, too. However, it isn't the Hirsch curriculum alone that has contributed to its success.
What I found in that school was a range of youngsters, in terms of socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity. And I also found there what I've seen in other good schools--like the ghetto school I attended. Such schools are good, in part, because they are learning communities of formal and structured ways of doing things. The formal structure provides limits for students who need them, and whose learning is enhanced under these circumstances.
WILLIE: Yes, a structured identity. It wasn't loosey-goosey. The people there know what they have to do and where they have to be. I visited a school in South Carolina where the principal required students to walk on every third tile in the floor pattern. It looked crazy in the beginning, but it wasn't. She was giving them form, and thereby overcame pushing and shoving in the hallway when children were passing between classes. It worked.
That's what you have at the Morse School. You've got form and structure. You've got identity. Students, teachers, and staff know what to do. And the teachers stay with the students until they complete their tasks. It's not so much the content of Hirsch's curriculum. It is the structure and form of the teaching that makes Morse a good school.
GRAHAM: Beyond this particular Cambridge school, it seems to me that the issue we're skirting around is whether there is a universal prescription for all schools? Or what variability do we allow within this universal prescription? I'll bet we could get a fair amount of agreement on a prescription that had to do with support for strong academic work as well as support for building community values.
If we can get support at that level, how many levels down can we also agree? If there were support for strong academic growth and for some strong sense of community, then a school wants to be able to show that they're doing that--and I don't think standardized tests are the only satisfactory means of showing this. I think it would be great to have some Hirsch schools around. It would also be great to have some of those progressive-education schools that I have been very critical of at certain times.
There ought to be a variety of roads to this Mecca of high academic performance and strong sense of community. But if there are going to be various roads, how do we make sure that we have all achieved Mecca? To me, that is the issue about standardized tests. I have been known to give a standardized test in my school days, 30 years ago. I've even been known to give midterm examinations at the Harvard Graduate School of Education--to the consternation of my colleagues, not to mention my students.
I'm also a believer in reporting results by schools--but limiting the indicators we use. One of the great problems with the testing movement of recent years is that we think the tests are an effective way to cause improvement. It seems to me that there's a lot of improvement already going on in American schools right now. I'm actually quite optimistic. Twenty-five years ago, if you tried to have this kind of discussion, nobody was interested. Now people are. Talking about effective ways to engage the public in a stronger academic and community set of values for schools is good. The danger is in getting bogged down in discussions about how many tests to administer, this kind versus that kind--and using tests as a sole indicator of performance.
NATHAN: So where is the gap then, between that vision and what we have?
GRAHAM: It's hard to take action in city schools when the average age of the teachers is 45--it was 27 when I began teaching--and most weren't the beneficiaries of good educations themselves, certainly not at the college level. It's hard to say to this middle-aged workforce, who are in secure jobs, who have never been rewarded for doing a good job nor punished for doing a bad one, "Change your ways."
It's not that they don't want to, or wouldn't be willing to. But it's hard to find a mechanism to take 2.5 million teachers and get them passionate about academic learning when many of them have never thought that was their business. They thought they were supposed to be decent to the children.
TRAUB: So the answer is that the quality of teacher education is so poor? Or is it that the people attracted to teaching aren't up to it?
GRAHAM: The current teaching force works in conditions that make it very difficult to do anything other than what they have been doing. Yet everybody here would agree that what teachers as a group have been doing is not as good as what they have to do in the future--particularly those teachers who serve a middle-income and lower-income clientele.
TRAUB: Do you mean physical conditions, or not being paid enough?
GRAHAM: No, it's spiritual. Look at what they pay at the Dalton School versus what they pay in the New York City public schools. People are dying to teach at Dalton--where they make half what they could make in the public schools--but they can't fill the jobs in the public system. I'm all for more money for teachers, but the bigger issue for teachers is to work in an environment in which they feel they can be somebody--realize themselves. You have to create working conditions that are good to these teachers--that help teachers become more effective.
My generation of women who went into teaching and Chuck's generation of blacks who went into teaching--we didn't have any other choices. Linda's generation has other choices. But Chuck's generation of minorities and my generation of women formed a core of teachers that set the standards for the schools. Not everyone had the advantage of a good state university education the way I did. That core is gone. And the people who are left do not have colleagues who have been setting that tone for their schools. That's absolutely key.
The other issue is that professional development for teachers, as we currently define it, is foolishness. You don't do "professional development" at Cal Tech for physicists. Why not? Because the environment of Cal Tech does the professional development. The environment of the schools has to change. You change the conditions in the school--whether it's getting that core of people, or organizing around the Hirsch principles, or around the arts, or chemistry principles, or foreign language.
NATHAN: It almost doesn't matter which principle.
GRAHAM: I don't care which one, as long as it's rigorous, and you bring people together who have that kind of commitment. That's what's so frightening about standardization. Who can have a commitment to "standardization"? Nobody. You have a commitment to something specific, such as the arts, or science, or mathematics, or languages, or history--but to something one can love and something that can inspire.
Finally, you don't expect all teachers to stay a lifetime. You have a few good teachers who will, but it's very rare to find teachers who are as successful in year 27 as they were at year seven.
NATHAN: That mindset would really open things up. Candidates who are graduates of the Harvard School of Education usually make the strongest teachers that I can hire. That says something about the importance of training and the quality of the training program here. They understand something about the culture of education.
WILLIE: They do because our students have to listen to educators like Linda who come in and tell them what is going on. We had a terrific course this year on innovations in education, to which I invited some of the best practitioners in this community. The students had a chance to hear from people in these ideal school communities talk about the kinds of things that contribute to great learning.
KNOWING WHAT TO TEACH
MURPHY: I'd like to follow up Pat's point about standardization and see whether there's a distinction between standardization and having standards. At least part of the rationale for the standards movement is that there may be pockets of excellence throughout the system, but we have never quite figured out how to go to scale, to do the type of replication that Chuck mentioned.
Move testing out of the conversation for a second. I wonder what people think about the standards themselves, and whether standards necessarily result in standardization. At least in theory, they don't. If you establish what kids need to know and know how to do, then schools can go about figuring out how to achieve those standards--you can have Pat's various roads to Mecca.
I think the theory is great, but the practice leaves a lot to be desired--we've gone hog wild with standards.
NATHAN: You make it sound like this is new. Have we never had these kinds of standards?
MURPHY: What's new is the notion of having agreed-upon state or national standards. We've had standards since the beginning of education.
GRAHAM: Defined academic standards, and a vast area of prescribed curriculum material for all students--that's brand new.
TRAUB: Many states have had standards, but they were so general they were almost meaningless. Now, you have much more particularized standards.
WILLIE: That's what worries me. I remember the James Coleman study done in the 1960s that came to the conclusion that schools have more impact upon minority children than they have upon white children. If you're dealing with standards, are you talking about the standards for white children? For Latino children? For black children? For auent children? For poor children? Because poor children may need to travel the Morse School road, while auent students may need to travel the Agassiz School road, just to cite two different kinds of schools in Cambridge. That's why I like to keep multiple ideal types around--because that's the way schools can work effectively with people who come from different existential histories.
MURPHY: But the standards movement would say, "We ought to be able to define what kids need to know how to do--for example, what kids need to know in mathematics by the time they graduate from high school." It's different from the past, when the standards used to specify certain courses you had to take, like "passing Algebra 2." Now, as Jim said, we're trying to define the content. That's the big difference.
TRAUB: Exactly. What's the content of the knowledge.
MURPHY: Take mathematics. Say you have to know the Pythagorean theorem, as an example in geometry. But there are multiple ways to teach the Pythagorean theorem. The judgments about how to teach it can be carried out at the local schools--but, somehow, you have to achieve this agreed-upon, statewide goal.
My view is that establishing some standards across certain areas makes a lot of sense. The problem is that we have standards for everything. If we try to implement standards for everything, we're not going to be successful because there are not enough hours in the day.
What I can imagine is a system that says--going back to what Jim said earlier--if 38 percent of the kids now in the fourth grade can't read, that is unacceptable. That's probably no worse now than it was a long time ago--but in today's economy, that's simply not satisfactory. So we ought to establish certain standards in reading. And perhaps we ought to establish certain standards in writing and in math--and forget about all the other stuff.
NATHAN: That's what I think we should do. The one good thing about Massachusetts, before we screwed it up with all this other stuff, is we have fabulous state frameworks--the Massachusetts common core of learning. I consider myself a leader in the standards movement in terms of pushing the kinds of questions that you're talking about. And I love Pat's notion about the universal prescription for what schooling should accomplish. In fact, that's what the state did--and then we got bogged down in this incredible discussion about particularities.
I don't agree that we should all be learning the same thing. I love the fact that there's a Morse School down the street from where I live, and then there's a different model somewhere else. My kids may not learn about the Great Wall of China until sixth grade. But there's a framework that guides all of our thinking. It does say you have to be a competent reader by third grade. It gives some criteria for what a competent reader might be. And I think if we could just agree on that we would satisfy industry, which is absolutely what's driving this movement. Yes, schools should be for getting kids into the workplace. But they should also be for teaching civil dialogue and democracy...
MURNANE: I don't see that as a conflict. If you look at the businesses that pay high wages, that are progressive, and look at the skills they are looking for, let's be careful what we mean by basic competencies. It's not being able to do basic arithmetic well: computers do basic arithmetic so well, they have eliminated large numbers of jobs done by people who do basic arithmetic well.
Increasingly, it's what might be called uniquely human skills that are increased in value in high-wage workplaces. These are problem-solving skills: taking a semi-formed problem and figuring out how to shape it, how to design a strategy, or how to assess whether a strategy make sense. And writing, of course. These communication skills are increasingly important to high-wage employers. So is the ability to work well with other people who are different from you.
High-wage employers really pay attention to these "soft" skills and the problem-solving skills. Now, even if our kids did not have to earn a living--if we just wanted them to be effective citizens in a democracy--wouldn't we want them to have many of these same skills?
MURNANE: The ability to stand up and talk coherently for five minutes. The ability to write a compelling, one-page letter or presentation. The ability to work with people who are different.
NATHAN: So that should be the subject of the standardized test? I would love that.
MURNANE: I take your concerns very seriously. As you said earlier, you were a fan of standards in some sense. With 100,000 schools, there will always be a lot of diversity. The best of them are very good. But the worst of them are absolutely terrible--they're not serving kids well. The challenge is how to put a fire under those schools, and under those that are just doing an acceptable job. There will always be tension between any kind of assessment and an individual, like you, who has powerful visions of how to make a school work. But those tensions are manageable if we decrease the number of standards and if they are more focused. As Jerry said: Can you shape a mathematics problem and figure out how to tackle it? Can you write a coherent essay? I think it would be a mistake to throw out standards because we're upset with the current version.
NATHAN: We don't want to throw out standards--I agree with you totally. I think we should nominate you to lead this, because the leadership has to come from Harvard. We've let this whole movement be taken over by not-so-smart people.
STAFFING THE SCHOOLS OF THE FUTURE
MODERATOR: If there are 2.5 million teachers ill-suited to doing what needs to be done, and young people have better employment options than teaching today, where are the good teachers of the future going to come from? And how are they going to be trained?
WILLIE: We tend to start with a technique or a method, and that's the wrong end. First we need to ask who is doing good teaching. Then we need to ask how these people became good teachers. And then we could develop a curriculum that would build in information on what good teachers do and the methods they use. I would like to start with who's doing good teaching.
MODERATOR: Do we know anything about that?
GRAHAM: They tend to be people who are in their third to their eighth year of teaching--highly ranked suburban schools never hire a beginner. So what you do for a teacher's first two years is a deeper question. You probably want some kind of internship.
Next, you want people who have demonstrated a passion for a subject matter. We don't have a standardized test for that, but we've got to figure it out.
Finally, you want them to have a commitment to kids, because of things that they have done, usually in their nonwork lives.
TRAUB: How important is academic preparation? A criticism one hears all the time is that teachers don't have the kind of subject-matter knowledge they need in order to give kids a rich education. Recently in Massachusetts, a huge fraction of teachers flunked a test of subject proficiency, even though it was considered fairly minimal. One important element in this is that the level of academic understanding--the intellectual understanding that people have who are going into the profession--is just so low right now.
GRAHAM: That's exactly right. I say "passion" because you can have academic mastery with no passion, and that is not effective. It is extremely rare to have passion for an academic subject and not have a degree of mastery. My solution for the problem of all of these beginning teachers who flunk the basic proficiency exam is that no department of education ought to admit someone who hasn't already passed it. Aspiring teachers should take and pass it in their freshman or sophomore year of college as a prerequisite for preparing for teaching. This testing is not in how to be a teacher. It's about what you know about history or math.
TRAUB: So schools have to take more seriously the academic preparation of their students who are preparing for teacher education?
GRAHAM: They certainly should.
NATHAN: We're growing our own. We're really saying we have an obligation to grow our own teachers.
GRAHAM: What you don't want is the person who's secure in the system, who's at year 27 in a teaching career and has 10 years to go to until retirement--and who is dead in the water.
NATHAN: We don't want that. We do a tremendous amount of getting high-schoolers who have expressed an interest in teaching into elementary and middle schools to experience what teaching is--to work with those veteran teachers. Plenty of them are excellent.
MODERATOR: Jim, you've recently seen some colleges in California that have deployed their staffs back into the high schools to compensate for the shortcomings they see among secondary students, even to supplement the high-school teaching. Is that happening elsewhere?
TRAUB: I was describing that specifically in terms of the end of affirmative action and colleges' attempts to secure a qualified, diverse student body. The broader question is the role of colleges in imparting high intellectual purpose to the kind of students who attend and become teachers, and in making them feel that teaching is a valuable thing to do. Not at Harvard I'm sure, but elsewhere, it's true that ed schools are often the graduate school of last resort for kids. I don't know how to solve the problem of trying to get better educated, more eager, more reflective people going to ed school.
MURNANE: I'd like to distinguish two things. One is subject-matter knowledge. You want to be sure that everybody who enters the classroom as a teacher has strong subject-matter knowledge. Pat's suggestion is just right--test that in the students' second year.
But then, before you let teachers have their own classrooms, you want to have a performance-based assessment of whether they can actually do the job.
Now you want to have different paths to prepare for this assessment. There is the traditional high-quality, small program--as we have here at the School of Education. But you also want to recognize that there are a lot of very well-educated, smart college graduates, including lots of minority-group members, who have enormous amounts of energy. They're well educated in the subject matter. They don't know how to teach. They want to be of service. A lot of them teach in private schools--they can do it there because they get lots of supervision.
GRAHAM: And they have a culture that supports this.
MURNANE: So it seems to me, one of the solutions is school-based internships.
MURNANE: There can be two kinds. One takes a lot of these people who don't want to go to school anymore at age 22, but who shouldn't have their own classroom. But they can be of significant service while they're getting started. We know from the experience of private schools that they're willing to get experience at quite modest compensation. I would keep the compensation modest until they pass the performance-based assessment. And then they would get big raises if they keep teaching for at least five years.
The other part of the equation is the mentors. We need to create opportunities for really effective teachers who have taught for eight to 10 years, who then want something else to do in addition to teaching. Why not let them be mentors?
NATHAN: We implemented that. This year, Tufts University is sending us six students, full-time, who'll be there from the day school opens until the day school ends. They're going to have some remuneration from Tufts and some from the Arts Academy. One of our most experienced teachers, who will be teaching less, is running this program. We run a seminar with them on-site, and a Tufts professor actually teaches in our building. Those students will always get their teaching jobs, because they've had a whole year of really strong supervision. It's a whole different model of teacher education.
GRAHAM: That's terrific. But I want to go back to Jim's question. Because what you're describing and what Dick has laid out, wonderful as it is, is not exactly universal yet in America. What's universal is that an awful lot of beginning teachers are being turned out by institutions and we have reason to be concerned about their academic and pedagogical skills.
TRAUB: Look at City University. It supplies a huge fraction of the public-school teachers for New York City. The rate of failure on the teacher qualifying exams there is very high. And the level of academic preparation of those graduates is so low.
GRAHAM: The Chicago teachers' colleges were part of the secondary school system, not even part of the university system. We thought New York was a big advance in the scheme of things.
Who controls the entry of people into teaching is at least as serious a problem as the problem of standardized tests, if not more so. That's why I'm completely behind Dick's suggestion of multiple points of entry, with considerable supervision when you get in.
What worries me most about the current teacher-education debates is what I see as a pincer movement--national accrediting organizations and state departments of education defining a common pattern of preparation, which conventional colleges of education fit exactly. That is, lots of course requirements, lots of steps that have to be mastered, before the student is accredited to teach in the elementary or secondary school.
That is all deeply supportive of the economic interests of colleges of education, which are proverbially referred to in many institutions as the "cash cow." That is, in a state university--or particularly in a small struggling private institution--you advertise your education program, which has minimal supervision and very low standards, as one that will allow students to get a certificate and lifetime employment as a teacher--and anybody can pass through. Their tuition supports the English and history departments, where nobody is enrolled.
TRAUB: They churn them through, in other words.
WILLIE: That's why we need some creative thinking, like Dick's internships. We do it in medicine--physicians have to have internships. They don't graduate from medical school and then hang out their shingle.
GRAHAM: I agree with that. But what's really important about Dick's point is that you allow people to enter these internships from a variety of previous experiences. What was so devastating about the reforms of teacher education in the early '80s was that they said only people with master's degrees could become certified to teach. We need to separate the argument about how you become certified from rules about what experiences allow you to train for certification.
NATHAN: Do you think certification is worthwhile?
GRAHAM: I believe in certification. I just don't believe in the ways it's defined currently.
MURNANE: It should be performance-based. Connecticut made great progress doing that, until they ran out of money and progress slowed.
People say internships are too expensive. But if we do the accounting right, it's not. Think about what we pay for remedial education. Think about the high cost of teacher professional development.
WILLIE: The internship idea is also good because then you have two adults in the classroom. We found that made a big difference when we studied the O'Hearn School, an inclusion school in Boston--one that has both special-needs and regular education students together. With a teacher and an intern in the classroom, you're not only teaching the intern how to teach, but also improving the teaching for the students at the same time. Somehow, we've got to grab these new ideas and make them work.
MURPHY: We've been talking about how you identify good people, and what routes to follow to get them into good teaching. We also need to emphasize how to keep them in teaching. The evidence is that roughly 30 percent of people who go into teaching leave after three years.
A lot of what you need to keep them in teaching goes back to what Pat wassaying drives good people into teaching in the first place--passion for subject matter. So many teachers get caught up in the day-to-day business of the school that the connection with their subject matter, that passion, can get drained away. The professional development programs don't address that. This goes back to what universities can do. One of the things that really makes a difference is figuring out ways to connect teachers in schools with people in the universities, in the faculties of arts and sciences. Getting them together in a seminar--that's an example of a different kind of professional development off-campus. It calls on the universities and their professors--they can really provide services.
MODERATOR: Is the form of schooling an impediment to accomplishing improvements in education? There are intense public debates about home schooling, charter schools, vouchers, and privatizing education. How well do these options meet student needs and affect student performance? What effect do they have on the rest of the school system? Is the public-school system frustrating citizens enough that it might get blown up or imploded? Are these structural changes even relevant?
TRAUB: Let's separate vouchers from charters for a second, because it's easier to talk about charters. Vouchers are an ideological issue, so they're hard to talk about.
I believe in charter schools--I think it's a great innovation. But the fundamental question remains: what should we be doing in the classroom that we're not doing? An innovation whose very purpose is to let all sorts of different things happen is an indirect way of getting there. But if, as many of us feel, there are different answers, and we can't say for certain what the best answer is, there must be a lot of merit in allowing different kinds of schools to proliferate.
WILLIE: That's dangerous. You can have a proliferation of schools without going outside the system. We do that right here in Boston: the Arts Academy, the Hernandez two-way bilingual school I mentioned, and others. These schools operate within the system.
I'm not against charter schools--I want to be on the record for that. If you just fashion charter schools as alternative schools, I'm perfectly happy with that. But charter schools were mentioned as ways of showing regular schools how to do things better. That just doesn't make sense. Why not take schools within the system that are doing well, and encourage other schools within that system to say, "We can do just as well as they're doing because they're part of our same system."
NATHAN: The right question is whether the public is so frustrated that the system is imploding. Having been at Fenway, the first school in Massachusetts to get a charter--and the first school to give it back--I really worry about it. What happened in Massachusetts, and is happening around the country, is that charters were the catalyst that forced the systems to begin to say, "Uh-oh, we'd better grow it ourselves."
At the Arts Academy, I'm part of a network of 11 pilot schools in Boston, out of about 120 public schools. And I don't think we would have existed if it hadn't been for the charter schools.
But we gave our charter back for very important reasons. In the end, we didn't believe that in urban areas like Boston, the system would change because of charter schools. We felt that if we, as pilot schools within the system, could push the system to open up, we would in fact be able to influence other schools in the district. I'm really proud to say that I think we've had an enormous effect on the district. I was just able to mentor a principal who now thinks totally differently about education. Maybe the charters were a necessary evil.
TRAUB: The charters had to open up the system enough so that you could create a different model that could then be used internally?
NATHAN: The charters had to threaten the system. Now, I would say, if the Boston charter schools are worth their salt, they ought to come back. They ought to push the system to let them be in-district pilots like us. Then I think we're going to get that systemic change. Otherwise, I don't think the charter schools are accomplishing anything, except being regular schools or like any private schools you can think of. Some are good. Some are bad.
MURNANE: As a pilot school, do you have control over whom you hire?
NATHAN: Absolute control--over curriculum, hiring, budget, and governance. The first area other schools are going to get control of will be budget, which will be a massive change. And then they'll say, "Oh, but it doesn't work if we don't have control of our hiring, too." We're getting there. I may be a Pollyanna, but I believe that we can change the direction of this archaic school system. I am more hopeful than I have ever been about the possibilities for changing the system.
GRAHAM: In this discussion, we spent a lot of time on standardized tests as a lever to achieve educational nirvana. Now we're spending a lot of time on charters as a mode of achieving educational nirvana. But we have a lot of trouble describing that nirvana, even though Chuck keeps pushing us to.
We are looking for modes to achieve higher academic performance for kids as well as some evidence of teaching them how to work as a community. What terrifies me about the voucher-charter movement is that families who are knowledgeable about education will glom onto that and concentrate only on their kids' academic achievement. They will push politically to get whatever the best academic education is. But if we use parental force only for that narrow goal, we're going to lose some of the other purposes of an education.
NATHAN: How do you see charters and vouchers doing that?
GRAHAM: When they work to improve the district as a whole, they're very successful. But when they are used by families simply to get a better deal for their kids academically, it would be a case of carving themselves out of the regular system.
TRAUB: This is why vouchers are so thorny. What do you say to the mother in Bedford-Stuyvesant, who's sending her daughter to a school that's horrible, where no one's doing well? She thinks, "My child is being condemned to failure. Down the street is a parochial school. Everyone's doing well. They're going to go on to middle school. Those kids go on to high school. They have a good life." How can one say to that mother, "We're making the schools better. Be patient." She says, "What about my daughter? I don't care what's going to happen in 10 years."
GRAHAM: I understand that tension. I don't have an answer. That's why it's terribly important to keep having these kinds of conversations. It's important to see the gains we're making. And it's important to support certain kinds of very limited voucher experiments, where the devil is in the details, as Dick Murnane has told me repeatedly--in busing and facilities and so on.
But the real issue is to figure out how to make the overall system better, and what levers we have to do that--whether it's testing, or charters, or whatever. If we can get deeper agreement on the overall goals, the rest of it's going to get better.
Schools do respond to what the broader society wants them to do. I mean, we didn't get life-adjustment education [the idea, after World War II, that 20 percent of students could benefit from college, 20 percent from vocational training, and 60 percent from "life adjustment" general education] by mistake. We got it because that's what the society wanted then. Now we're finally getting rid of it.
WILLIE: My answer is that the community has got to make the school down the street better. And if you believe in democracy, then you organize grassroots support to do that. We did that in Boston to get the "controlled choice" student-assignment plan accepted. But after it was adopted, the grassroots components--such as attendance-zone superintendents and school-improvement councils consisting of local residents of the zone--were eliminated to retain power in central administration and the school board. We organized Boston into three large student-attendance zones. Everybody in every zone had access to every school. One didn't have to go to the school next door if it wasn't any good. The zone school superintendents had direct supervision over about 20 to 25 schools. The zone school-improvement councils had the responsibility of identifying schools in a zone that were least attractive and working with the zone superintendent to make them better. This was an organizational strategy that could have upgraded all of the schools.
We forgot about trying to improve schools one at a time and turned our attention to individuals. I understand the need to help each child. But I also understand the need for the community to help each school become better than it is. Democracy involves individuals assuming responsibility for the society, as well as the society assuming responsibility for each individual. The collectivity and the individual are complementary. We've tried to reduce education to an individualistic situation, and have forgotten about the collective responsibility that must go hand in hand with individuality.
TRAUB: As a practical matter, the voucher issue isn't going to go away because there are so many inner-city parents who are so frustrated. If they know they have an option, they are going to continue to put pressure on the inner-city schools--and as it happens, the parochial schools have been emptied of their neighborhoods' former residents. It's going to be a policy issue.
MURNANE: What do you do for the inner-city parent who is frustrated? I think she should have an alternative, just as we have alternatives: we can move; we can use private schools. I'm a fan of New York City's scholarship program, funded with private-sector funds with random assignment and evaluation. It's going to be very interesting to see if the kids involved do learn more.
NATHAN: Is that for vouchers?
MURNANE: Yes, basically. As I understand it, a group of people who have made a lot of money on Wall Street got some of their friends to put up enough funds to provide tuition at Catholic schools, exclusively for poor kids. Not full tuition, but two-thirds of that tuition.
GRAHAM: Which is very important.
MURNANE: Right. You have to make a commitment to pay something. There are at least twice as many kids who want scholarships as there are slots available. That's why they have this random assignment, so they can choose among kids who look the same.
If those who get the scholarships do better, it's going to be very important to see why. Is the pedagogy any different? I'd be surprised if it were. Is the way the parochial schools hire and support teachers different? I would guess it is. What can we learn from that? If you find that having the ability to recruit and hire teachers makes a difference, that's very important in the politics of pushing school districts and unions to come up with a change in their contracts. Currently, a principal must follow 25 steps to hire a teacher in the Boston schools. As a result, the public schools--not the private schools--usually hire teachers in August.
GRAHAM: When all the good teachers are already gone.
MURNANE: Right. And that seems to me a bigger deterrent than salaries, or anything else, to improving the quality of instruction in Boston and New York.
GRAHAM: This is not a new problem. In 1958, I was a high-school English teacher in Norfolk, Virginia. I lost my job, as every other teacher in the school did, because the schools closed rather than accept six black children.
So I was looking for a job. We moved to New York. My husband was a graduate student. I applied to the New York City board. I passed the exams. We had an 18-month-old baby. They told me I could expect to hear about a job the first week of school.
NATHAN: For me, it was Labor Day.
GRAHAM: By this time I had been teaching for a while and I wasn't going to put up with that. So I went to work at St. Hilda's and St. Hugh's, a school very near where we were living, where they offered me a contract in July for half the money I would have made in a New York City school. And then I got an offer from the public schools, in the second week in September, to teach in Far Rockaway, an hour and a half on the subway from where I lived.
MURNANE: There are a great many differences between the best of suburban schools and urban schools. But if you were to pick the most critical one, it is this inability of urban public-school principals and faculty to pick their colleagues--to recruit and pick them.
NATHAN: I don't want Boston to be totally bashed. This is changing. Every intern we had in our building had a contract in April. They didn't know what school they were going to, so the problem hasn't been solved, but at least they had a contract.
GRAHAM: I might have gone to Far Rockaway, if they had just told me in July that I would have a job.
MURPHY: This raises a problem that we haven't talked about. The problem is not only picking the right teachers. Increasingly, we're running into a crisis finding people who really want to be principals.
NATHAN: Who wants to run a school?
MURPHY: Exactly. Even if you have access to teachers at the right time, if you don't have the principal to pick the right ones, you're going to have a serious problem.
Another point is that we've spent our time talking about supplying good schools--how do you achieve high-quality schools. You also need to focus on the demand side of the equation.
I worry when I look at the fact that some 80 percent of households don't have kids in schools. I worry that one out of four voters belongs to American Association of Retired Persons. Those facts really matter. Publicly, it appears that education is the number-one issue. But I think what really lies behind that is that a lot of opinion leaders want their well-to-do kids to go to the best colleges.
I'm not sure there is a constituency for the kind of reform we're talking about if we want all kids to learn at a much higher level. So in thinking about bringing about reform, we do need to figure out how to make these kinds of changes, but we also have to figure out how to build a broad political constituency for the schools. Otherwise we're not going to succeed.
WILLIE: The issue is, how do you get the community surrounding a range of different kinds of schools to make sure that none of them falls through the cracks?
GRAHAM: That's really important, because most of this conversation has left the impression that education is for the benefit of the individual who is getting it. But it is really for the benefit of the society as a whole. As we all think about educational options, we have to think about those that benefit both the individual and the society as a whole.
NATHAN: There's hope there, with businesses. Where we've seen businesses coming in and staying the course with schools, we affect those people. They live in communities. They may not be parents of school-age kids. But when we have longstanding relationships with them and they come into the schools, they begin to think about these issues. I'll never forget the vice president from CVS, the pharmacy company, who said he learned more about diversity working with Fenway High School than he had ever learned in his corporation. And he couldn't be the same person in his corporation anymore, because of his experience working with high-school kids. So I think those connections really help us.