Archives For ed reform

forbesFobes recently published a feature article/photo spread, 30 Educators under 30:The Millennials Overhauling Education And Leaving No Child (Or Teacher) Behind by Meghan Casserly, 12/7/2012. The lead in for the article read:

The 30 Gen-Yers on our list are innovators, advocates, thought-leaders and reformers. Through outreach initiatives and engineering they’re committed, like my mom, to giving kids everywhere the best chance at success. They’re committed to making the lives of teachers like her just a little bit easier, whether through technology that saves them precious minutes communicating with parents or helps them use data analytics to track performance more efficiently than traditional paper grade books ever could.

A series of slick, glossy photos of well-dressed, smiling bright-eyed entrepreneurs and CEOs followed. Readers were advised to, “Click through the gallery for the 30 men and women who are disrupting education from top to bottom.” Disrupting? Is that what needs to happen to education? To disrupt? To disrupt means:

1. To throw into confusion or disorder;
2. To interrupt or impede the progress, movement, or procedure of;
3. To break or burst; rupture.

Disrupting is a perplexing choice if the purpose of the article is to praise the contributions these individuals are making to the business of education. When students disrupt a class, they are given detentions. The choice of the verb is contradictory because in the next sentence readers are encouraged “to visit their websites and reach out to congratulate them, to give them well-deserved credit for their hard work.” Are we being asked to congratulate disruption?

I did visit some of the websites mentioned in the photospread, and I do want to express my thanks to the CEOs who provide free and well-designed software programs. Specifically, I noted the photos of  Nic Borg, 26, Cofounder and CEO, Edmodo; Sam Chaudhary, 26, and Liam Don, 26, Co-founders of ClassDojo; and Andrew Sutherland, 23, Founder, Quizlet.  I will agree that these products contribute positively to my classroom environment. None of their products are “disruptive”.

The photos of these four product founders and their 26 smiling cohorts confirmed that all were vibrantly under 30, so I concede the “30 under 30” part of the headline. And yes, all 30 individuals are associated with the business of education, but they are not educators. These 30 individuals are educreators. The difference? Educators are in classrooms….Educreators are not.

Educators are in the classroom designing lessons, developing assessments, grading papers, contacting parents, posting bulletin boards, collecting data, analyzing data, meeting with teachers, collaborating with special education teachers, organizing supplies, selecting resources, and adjusting plans every minute of ever school day, and in most cases, for hours before or after school. In short, educators teach.

All Edu-creators have been in classrooms…as students. One edu-creator featured in the article spent three years in a classroom for Teach for America, one year more than the required two years of service. Each of the edu-creators has a product to improve education, but that does not make them educators. They are not in the classroom teaching; many are marketing a product for the classroom.

There has been an explosion of educreations that parallels the expansion of technology in the classroom. Many of these educreations from educreators are offered free or in “lite” versions. Ultimately, these products will make money for their founders and CEOs; there will be subscriptions or advertisements that generate revenue for these ’30 under 30″, and that is how capitalism works. A good product will sell, and many of these are good products. However, these products are tools for educators to use, not replacements for educators themselves.

Other members of the “30 under 30” are contributing to education policy by serving on boards, writing books, or being advocates for non-profits. These roles are also important, but again, these educreators have little practical experience to anticipate the problems that even the smallest changes in policy can have in the classroom. For example, a change in a state endorsed teacher evaluation system can result in thousands of hours for training evaluators and teachers  to meet new requirements, and those new requirements will be modified numerous times until an evaluation system proves effective. The effect of policy on the individual teacher or classroom is rarely witnessed; instead, policymakers are focused on the collection of “data”, not the hundreds of personal stories policy creates.

Comments under the article decry the lack of teachers. As Becky D succinctly  states:

I think it an egregious oversight that this list doesn’t include a single practicing educator.

Meghan Casserly’s response?

Educators obviously impact hundreds if not thousands of students over the course of their careers–and I looked for ways to weigh that against some of the other people on this list. Particularly for teachers under 30, it was extremely difficult to compare them in any apples-to-apples way. That said, there were some amazing teachers nominated who I was sure fit the bill—only to find out they were already 30!

So, are we to take from this comment that there are no real educators under 30 who are overhauling education and leaving no child behind? Perhaps there are no “amazing teachers” under 30 immediately visible to Casserly because they are so busy designing lessons, developing assessments, grading papers, contacting parents, posting bulletin boards, collecting data, analyzing data, meeting with teachers, collaborating with special education teachers, organizing supplies, selecting resources, and adjusting plans every minute of every school day that they simply do not have the time to create new educational software programs, run advocacy groups, or write educational policy. They are teachers, and they are real educators. They will not be featured in a Forbes magazine article about overhauling education because they are engaged in the time-consuming and productive activity of building skills and improving understanding for students of all ages.

What did Casserly get right with this article? She suggests that if the reader does get to meet one of the featured “30 under 30”, that the reader should ask, “…what teacher they have to thank for helping them land on our pages.” I agree;  their educators would be proud of the success of their former students, their own educreations.

The health of the American Public school system is under debate in many different arenas: political, financial, social, ideological, and now, technological. At the root of these debates is our collective recognition or understanding confirmed by the author Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens):

“We believe that out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.”

I have used this quote many times myself, but I had never researched the quotation’s context until recently. This quote comes from an address given to the Public Education Association at a Meeting of the Berkeley Lyceum, New York, November 23, 1900. The speech was given the title, “I am a Boxer”, and its brief 588 word composition means that Twain spoke onstage for all of six minutes, applause aside.

The historical background for the speech deals with European colonization in Africa and Asia, and the American efforts to annex the Philippines.  Predictably, there was resistance by the natives of a country resulting in serious and costly conflicts such as the Boer War in South Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. Twain had joined with a number of other Americans including William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie, John Dewey, and William James in an effort to stop a new rush to colonize. They formed the Anti-Imperialist League, and for a short time they coordinated efforts to stop the developing American Empire. Twain’s speech also referenced Russia’s involvement in the Boxer Rebellion in joint operations with US Marines and British troops.

On that Friday, Twain opened the speech to the Public Education Association with his familiar self-deprecating humor:

“I don’t suppose that I am called here as an expert on education, for that would show a lack of foresight on your part and a deliberate intention to remind me of my shortcomings.”

He explains that his extensive travels had improved his understanding of other cultures, and that may be a primary reason for the invitation to have him speak. His best seller The Innocents Abroad had been published the previous year (1899), and he was lecturing extensively on this travelogue. But he also considered his audience and noted another reason for this address:

“The other reason that I can see is that you have called me to show by way of contrast what education can accomplish if administered in the right sort of doses.”

His argument against Anti-Imperialism was satirically addressed in the next two paragraphs suggesting if the Public Education Association’s pictures that had been sent to an exhibition in Paris could convince Russia and France to withdraw troops from colonial conflict-how quickly world peace could be achieved!

He then illustrated his Anti-Imperialistic philosophy using the Boxer Rebellion by opening with a rhetorical question:

“Why should not China be free from the foreigners, who are only making trouble on her soil? If they would only all go home, what a pleasant place China would be for the Chinese! We do not allow Chinamen to come here, and I say in all seriousness that it would be a graceful thing to let China decide who shall go there.”

The last sentences in this section of the speech are the source for the title of this speech, “The Boxer believes in driving us out of his country. I am a Boxer too, for I believe in driving him out of our country.”

The anti-immigrant declaration of “I believe in driving him out of our country” is surprising coming from the liberal Twain. One hopes he was playing to the sentiments of his audience rather than some xenophobic desire to keep America free of the Chinese. The Boxers’s fierce opposition to Christianity did not make them popular in the United States. However, the statement could also be read as a converse to the statement that the Boxer is “driving us out of his country”, a form of quid pro quo.

So how does Twain get from the Boxer Rebellion to public schools? In the paragraph that follows the declaration of commonality with the Boxer, Twain updates his satirical comments to note that, sadly, Russia would not be withdrawing its troops; there would be no world peace. Russia could choose to  have an army or public schools, and as it could not afford both, Russia had chosen the army. Twain decries the choice:

“This is a monstrous idea to us. We believe that out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.”

In using the pronouns “us” and “we” Twain joins the service of the Public Education Association. As he committed himself to the cause of the Boxer, Twain commits himself to the cause of the educator. Immediately after this statement, Twain includes a paragraph so prescient, a reader might think it came out of a recent town hall meeting:

“It is curious to reflect how history repeats itself the world over. Why, I remember the same thing was done when I was a boy on the Mississippi River. There was a proposition in a township there to discontinue public schools because they were too expensive. An old farmer spoke up and said if they stopped the schools they would not save anything, because every time a school was closed a jail had to be built.”

Twain wryly commented on his own anecdote with a familiar “Twain-ism”, commenting that the practice of not funding schools was  “like feeding a dog on his own tail. He’ll never get fat. I believe it is better to support schools than jails.”

He ended the speech with an off-handed compliment to the Public Education Association:

“The work of your association is better and shows more wisdom than the Czar of Russia and all his people. This is not much of a compliment, but it’s the best I’ve got in stock.”

Twain’s short address connected two unlikely ideas: the Boxer Rebellion and the American public school system. The speech is humorous, highly political, and frighteningly prescient. The thesis of his argument is not found in the title, but is found in the concerns he has about the funding of public education in America and abroad. In summary, Twain believed that nations who choose to fund armies over education will not be great. Education is necessary for world peace.

Mark Twain may have claimed that “I am a Boxer” in this short address, but he communicated quite clearly “I am an Educator.” Public education already had wonderful resources in the literature of Twain with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. This speech solidly affirms his belief in the importance of our public education system. His contributions to the profession of education have not been matched since.


James Bond.


On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and (surprise!) a metaphor for why relying on the standardized test is flawed.

Honestly, I was not expecting Skyfall, the latest James Bond blockbuster, to resonate with issues being discussed in educational reform today, but sitting in the darkened theatre, I suddenly heard the same concerns about the validity of tests used in assessing secret agents that I hear in assessing students.

Apparently, M-I 6 wrestles with the question: Do tests really measure ability?

Spoiler Alert! If you are someone who intends to see the film, I may be giving away a few facts; not major plot points, but a few incidental pieces of information. Bond Purists-stop reading now, please.

Before Bond (Daniel Craig) returns to work for M (Dame Judi Dench), he needs to pass a set of standardized performance tests. He is first put through a series of grueling fitness tests. He is tested on his ability to shoot a pistol at various distances in a firing range. Finally, he faces a series of psychological tests. The results of how well he succeeded in this battery of objective tests is initially kept from the audience, but the viewers are not surprised when he eventually returns to service.

Painting at the National Gallery in London

The film’s screenwriters saw fit to combine the concerns about the results of these tests with M-I 6’s concerns about Bond’s age. No scene is more direct in confronting Bond’s age than in his first meeting with the young gadget supplier “Q”. The filmmakers placed Bond at a British National Gallery sitting on a bench looking at J.M.W. Turner’s painting Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth To Be Broken Up, 1838 .

Turner’s symbolic message of the painting depicts the shift from sail power to coal engine, the billowing white clouds swirling like sails a stark contrast to the blackened smokestack of the tug in the forefront of the painting.  Q enters, sits next to Bond, and strikes up a conversation:

Q: It always makes me feel a bit melancholy. Grand old war ship. being ignominiously haunted away to scrap… The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?
Bond:  A bloody big ship. Excuse me.
Q: 007. I’m your new Quartermaster.
Bond: You must be joking.
Q:  Why, because I’m not wearing a lab coat?
Bond: Because you still have spots.
Q: My complexion is hardly relevant.
Bond: Your competence is.
Q: Age is no guarantee of efficiency.
Bond:  And youth is no guarantee of innovation.

Skyfall (

Of course, the M-I 6 tests are designed to determine if Bond is too old, if his brand of “boots on the ground” spying should be replaced by agents in command of newer technologies. And of course, M is obligated to submit Bond to the required standardized tests, tests given on one particular day. However, she is not obligated to act on the results of the tests.

M’s response, therefore, is to weigh what audiences know are the 50 years of evidence on Bond’s unconventional performance as a creative problem solver. She recognizes that Bond possesses those intangible qualities of initiative and drive, and while a standardized test does measure a level of ability, what makes Bond a valuable British agent is his ability to confound a standard.

Watching James Bond puzzle the test-driven establishment is a large part of the enjoyment for the audience. Agent 007 cannot be limited by a test score if he is going to save the free world.

Which brings me back to the shared message about testing from Skyfall and its application to education reform. The audience understands that the testing in Skyfall is flawed because of the limited results; standardized testing in education is similarly limited. Like M, educators should not let their students be defined by test scores from standardized tests, those single metric assessments given on one day. Like M, educators should pay more attention to having students develop problem-solving skills and to consider other assessments that measure students’ critical thinking skills.  Students should have the opportunity to be evaluated on the intangible qualities of initiative and drive through project-based learning. Like Agent 007, students should be allowed the opportunity to confound those standards measured by objective testing.

Oh, and maybe they could also ask for their chocolate milk shaken, not stirred.