The Answer Sheet: Education chat with Valerie Strauss

Apr 02, 2014

Valerie Strauss, education writer and author of The Answer Sheet blog, led this weekly discussion on what's important and new in the world of education.

Hi everyone. Thanks for coming. Since you have found your way here, you know what this is and you know what we are going to do, so let's get started talking education -- and, frankly, anything else you want to discuss.

Who was the best teacher you ever had and what made him or her so good?

Hmmm, I've had a number of really great teachers but if I have to pick one, it would probably be my fifth grade teacher at Everglades Elementary School in Miami, Berry Shaw. She was really tough and on the first day of school I was scared out of my wits. She knew how to control the class (unlike my sixth grade teacher who cried when everybody played cards instead of listen to her). Pretty quickly I realized that she wasn't mean but was determined to make us all push ourselves. Most of us did.  I still have the copy of “The Yearling” that she gave me after she read it to the class, a chapter a day. More than 30 years later, Mrs. Shaw sent my family a note when my father died.  Now I've had other teachers who worked in very different ways and were great too. There isn't one way to be a great teacher.

Someone told me that "common core" is basically teaching with a liberal point of view, e.g. regarding global warming. Isn't education suppose to be a thought process in which students come to their own conclusion? I don't have a problem with the liberal point of view, however, to be free, students need to hear both sides, don't you think?

I don't think the Common Core State Standards have a "liberal" point of view in the sense you are talking about. Besides, the CC standards are math and English, not science. There's a new set of standards called the Next Generation Science Standards that call for students to learn about global warming as a function of human activity. In this case, I don't think there are two real sides to this. The science is overwhelming that human activity is changing the climate. People are, of course, free not to believe it, but that doesn't change the fact that the science is, in fact overwhelming. Students should of course learn how to see both sides of an argument and learn to analyze the truth of an issue. But there aren't two sides to everything, and when there are, it is not always the case that each side is equally true.

Read your piece on that kid who got into all the Ivies. Why do you think we get so excited about Ivies and so focused on them? Does it hurt kids who are more "average" students and can't attain that? Does it diminish the accomplishments of Ivy students though to say that it doesnt' matter?

A lot of good questions there. For those who didn't see it, I wrote a post about the Ivy League. It came off a story about a talented boy who was accepted into all eight Ivy League schools. I wrote that it would be a good thing if we -- including the media -- stopped obsessing on the Ivy League.  The reason isn't so much that it hurts average kids who can't attain it but rather that there are all kinds of great schools out there and that the notion that the 8 Ivies are the best for everyone is faulty. They aren't. I'm not trying to say it doesn't matter that. Obviously it's a great thing that these teenagers were accepted into so many schools, and. I hardly mean to say their accomplishments don't matter. I do think though in certain communities the obsession on where kids go to school is damaging to the kids themselves.

Are you embarrassed about reprinting an error filled op-ed on the Washington Post? Corrections made here:

The question is based on a false premise. I did not reprint an error-filled op-ed on my blog. I was lambasted for doing so by a blogger who supports the education tax credit system in Florida, a voucher scheme that the legislature is now considering expanding. I did republish part of a post about this issue that was on Huffington Post by a Florida blogger. I edited the piece significantly. What is interesting is that the man who blasted me at the link above quoted lines that were not in the piece I published. 

I live in Kansas City, MO. Currently our city public school system is NOT accredited (although they are trying to get accreditation BACK) My son is 2 years old and I would LIKE to send him to public schools. Should I be trying to move? They claim students can still get accepted to college even if your high school diploma is from an unaccredited high school...but I wonder...THANKS!

My guess is that the school district will either be accredited or so changed by the time your son graduates that this issue won't be a problem. Your district officials do say that they haven't ever heard about a graduate being denied admission to a college because of this and I imagine that's true. Colleges look at a lot of things when they select a student. If a student has great grades and great test scores, I doubt it will matter if the school district is unaccredited. Kids get into college from unaccredited private schools too. Hope that helps.

I graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Computer Science from a well known college and covered very high level math (Multiple levels of calculus, discrete/finite , prob & stat) and looking at common core confuses me to no end. What ever happened to traditional math where you show your work and just do the math? I'm terrified as I think of how it's going to be when I have kids in school and how they are taught math. Please talk me off the edge

Step back from the edge RIGHT NOW. There are many terrifying things out there but this probably isn't one of them..... I'd love to know what it is about Common Core that is so horrifying. I've heard good and bad things about the math Core standards, but to the extent that they are promoting something other than what you call "traditional math," that itself isn't new. Kids haven't been doing traditional math -- where they show their work and just do the math -- for a long time. Back in the '60s there was the New Math, and since then there have been all kinds of math programs that teachers kids different ways to do even the most basic math functions and purport to deepen students' understanding of math. None of them have been what you would call big success stories. If you see this, write back and let me know what specifically confuses you.

If Bowser is elected mayor (as seems likely), do we expect big changes in DC's approach to education policy?

I don't expect much change at all. Bowser hasn't said a whole lot about what she'll do when it comes to public education. But she did say once, according to one of my Post colleagues who heard her, that she would keep Kaya Henderson -- even though she refused to answer the question a number of other times when she was asked. Bowser was a protege of Adrian Fenty, the former mayor who started the current ed reform program when he hired Michelle Rhee to run the schools in 2007. Given that, I don't expect any significant change. Could be surprised, of course.

"since then there have been all kinds of math programs that teachers kids different ways to do even the most basic math functions and purport to deepen students' understanding of math. None of them have been what you would call big success stories. " <--- Why is that? Why can't we find programs that actually work? I've seen school systems that change programs every few years to try a new approach to improve math or reading or whatever and then when it's not successful, they drop it and pick up a new program. Which is also not successful. What's the disconnect?

American math programs are known for trying to pack too much material in so the effect is that kids are taught a lot of concepts but none of them very deep. Countries where kids excel in math typically have programs that reduce the number of concepts but dig deep into them. Another problem is one you cite: we keep changing the programs, which doesn't help. Kids don't get a sense of consistency.

Thanks for taking my initial question. What concerns me is looking at these number charts & "simple numbers" and being confused on what they are trying to accomplish. When I taught basic math (25 years ago), it was traditional mathematics. You would "carry" or "borrow" a number. You didn't slice things up, draw circles, have fancy charts. A more concrete example was found online where the student used a number chart and a series of lines to show 427-316. I know right away it's 111. There's no thinking. And if I were to teach it the way my father taught me it would have been 427 and then 316 under neath it and go 7-6 =1 2-1= 1 4-3=1 QED

I know what you are saying. I watched my own children learn three or four different ways to add simple digits and my eyes glazed over. I couldn't figure it out. It worked for some kids though.

The battles between teachers and school "reformers" can seem just intransigent. Do you know of any districts where the two sides are finding ways to work together productively?

I'm not sure I would describe the two sides as teachers and "reformers." A lot of principals, parents, students, superintendents, etc., are suspicious of or outright oppositional to much of what constitutes today's reform agenda -- accountability based on standardized test scores, vouchers, etc. But in answer to the question about whether teachers well anywhere with their administrations, which are forced to implement the reforms that come down from on high, the answer is yes. There are a lot of places. One is Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where there is a teacher evaluation system that is led by teachers. It is certainly not the only place where teachers and administrators work well together.

What is your take on his recent speech where he seemed to back off of criticism of NYC's charter schools?

Capital New York had an interesting story saying that Bill Clinton called de Blasio and talked to him about charters just before the mayor gave his conciliatory speech. It says that Clinton told him that he was making his charter campaign sound too personal against a charter operator with whom de Blasio had long opposed. The mayor also may have realized that the state legislature was going to take some of his power to run charters away and decided he had no choice. What I find really interesting is that Gov. Cuomo and the legislature think it is okay to tell de Blasio how to run his school system.

Regarding the prior question - Taking global warming seriously isn't about being "liberal", it's about teaching science rather than pseudoscience.


Even with research-bsed empirical evidence and educational scholars, researchers, and experts offering their expertise on all of the "reform" issues, how do we help policymakers cut through the miasma of blind belief systems to "see" the truth that data presents about the damage done by perpetuating myths and lies about the American public schools? David Berliner's latest book on 50 Myths & Lies is an excellent resource, but I doubt it is sufficient enough to "convert" the Sauls out there into Pauls on the road to Damascus (common sense and reality). We all need help in presenting sound research and using it to persuade policymakers into support what is right for America's children. -- Duane Pitts, Moses Lake, WA

You make many good points. One of the problems is that there is so much education research out there that it can be hard to figure out what is good and what is bad. A lot of it is conflicting, and so anybody can concoct an idea and find some "research" to support their idea, however cockamamie. There is no evidence to suggest that policy-makers have ever really cared about what the long-term solid research says in forming their agendas. Berliner and Glass's new book is a terrific resource. There are other books -- Diane Ravitch's for example -- and websites (FairTest, for example). A number of bloggers do really good work (School Finance 101 by Bruce Baker, for example). I frankly don't think, though, that policy-makers are motivated by sound research. Wish they were.

Kansas City, MO's public school system is not accredited? What? How can such a thing happen?

It happened in 2011 -- and it as the second time in 11 years that it happened to the same district. It was all about failing to reach state performance standards -- meaning standardized test scores.

The US Department of Education has a Grant program for data collection that lists its number one outcome "To improve teacher effectiveness." Millions of dollars have been spent to collect data on a state-by-state basis. As a teacher, I see no progress that relates to the stated objective. What evidence would suggest that this costly program is meeting its objective?

What evidence? There is no evidence, which I suspect you already know. The department has been collecting mountain ranges of data for years now regarding "teacher effectiveness." Unfortunately, a lot of what has been collected is student standardized test scores, under the mistaken belief that teachers can be evaluated by this measure. It's one of the "big ideas" in modern school reform and it's a terrible one. Assessment experts agree that using student test scores to evaluate teacher effectiveness is a bad idea because the scores aren't reliable or valid for this purpose. Policy-makers don't seem to care what assessment experts say. 

With their recent decision to opt out of common core do you see other states following suit?

Well, the Oklahoma senate just voted to withdraw from the Core. Other states have thought about it and may; Florida has renamed the standards. The thing states have to consider is that they have already spent millions of dollars to implement the standards. I am not sure what the fate the Core initiative is going to be. With many states opting out of the Core testing consortium and choosing to design their own standardized tests, it leaves one to wonder how in the end the goal of being able to compare student performance state by state will be served.

Do you see the school boundaries being changed anytime soon? If so, is it possible to do this without upsetting a huge number of people who are banking on being able to attend Deal MS and Wilson HS?

The boundary changes are supposed to be in effect in 2015 but the Post's great D.C. schools reporter, Emma Brown, says it may not happen then. Who becomes mayor could affect the decision. Muriel Bowser, should she became mayor, may postpone the boundary change implementation.

Why do we still have close to three months off in the summer? Children who live in poverty experience drastic academic losses during the summer. It feels like the policy makers don't care about children who aren't middle / upper class. Wealthier children go to camp and have opportunities to enhance their academic skills. Poor children don't have those same opportunities, and we need to help them.

Actually kids don't really get three months off anymore. Many public schools run late into June and start in early to mid-August. That said, there is research to show that children who live in poverty experience  some academic loss during the summer, but the answer may not be more school. Why not provide other kind of educational experiences that aren't as regimented as school? There are some school districts that have year-round school -- with periodic blocks of vacation time -- and there are other time experiments as well. I personally like the idea of giving kids time off of school. The issue is getting kids who need help into enriching activities that help them keep learning.

I'm a university researcher & instructor (with a Physics PhD) in an astrophysics department at a major R1 state institution. As such, I have a good understanding of math, physics, astronomy, and basic understanding of other science (bio, chem, etc). However, there is almost no primary/secondary system in the country that would allow someone like me to come teach, without first getting teaching degrees/certifications. I hear many stories about teachers who lack any sort of deep knowledge in the subjects that they teach. How much of a problem do you think this is? And how can we expect students to really understand topics in more than a rote memorization way, if the teachers don't really deeply understand what they are teaching?

Well, schools today allow Teach For America corp members to teach without a teaching degree or certification so I imagine there is some place that would hire you with the provision that you would get a degree. I think that teaching is not simply knowing the subject matter, though obviously that is core. Learning how to deal with students, present ideas, draw up lesson plans, etc., isn't as easy as it sounds. I think people who know their subject should also learn how to teach.

Valerie, I wwas wondering if you could look up some of the work by Stephen Krashen. He is an accomplished researcher in the field of education and literacy. One of the things he writes about is that children living in poverty have little access to books. We are such a wealthy nation. How can we allow this to happen when the research shows that children who read and have access to books build literacy skills?

I have published a number of posts by Stephen Krashen, who is, as you say a highly accomplished researcher and a smart thinker about education and literacy. The research on the importance of access to books for all children, especially children living in poverty, is very clear -- unlike a lot of other education research. Why isn't this a priority of policy-makers? Good question. I wish I had the definitive answer but I don't. Some policy-makers don't believe the research. Some don't know the research. Some don't care about the research. Some find other research to bear out what they believe to be true -- not matter how wrong they are or how bad the research is. Frankly, I wonder a lot about what our policy-makers are really thinking.

Do you know the timeline for rolling this new assessment out? As a DC teacher I'm still unclear about the timetable for replacing DC CAS with PARCC.

D.C. students are now undergoing field testing for the PARCC test and it is supposed to be implemented for real next year. Some school districts are going to wait a year after that to link the scores to teacher evaluations but I don't know if Chancellor Henderson will wait or do it next year.

In meeting after meeting policy makers refer to closing the "gap" between the lowest and highest performing students in reading. My daughter reads at a high 4th grade level and is in 8th grade. Her school tells me that she is on grade level. HOW can this be? How will she be able to perform grade level tasks with inferior reading skills? 1 in 5 students have a language learning differences like dyslexia. Common Core SS are increasing the level of reading difficulty but do not provide appropriate screening or intervention for those students. Tests (PARCC) will determine if these students are "college ready" but yet refuse to teach the way they learn. Maryland has an abundance of private schools that will teach students with dyslexia to read: Baltimore Lab School, Jemicy School, Summit School, Highlands School, Sienna School, Wye River School -- these students will learn to read b/c all these schools use a systematic, structured language program to teach reading, writing and spelling. Students who are not fortunate enough to have the money, access or opportunity, will struggle to read on grade level. 80% of inmates in Maryland jails are illiterate. As a parent, I'm fed up with private school as the only option to teach my daughter to read on grade level. The Wilson program is a structured, intensive Orton Gillingham based language program that works for dyslexic students. The state purchased this program for every school in MD but only some schools use it with fidelity. Why? Decoding Dyslexia Maryland (DD_MD) is part of a 46-state, parent-led grassroots movement formed to educate and inform policy makers about best practices to educate students with language learning disabilities like dyslexia. DD-MD's 5-point plan to educate students with dyslexia was adopted from DD-NJ and includes: 1) educate pre-service and in-service teachers about dyslexia 2) define dyslexia in state education code 3) Require early screening for dyslexia in K-3 4) Provide appropriate intervention that is known to work for dyslexic students 5) Ensure students with dyslexia have access to appropriate assistive technology and accommodations. A number of states have enacted, or are in the process of enacting, dyslexia legislation (MS, IN, TN, NJ, TX, CA, CT) while others do little to nothing (MD, VA, DC). At what point does the system's refusal to teach reading to students with become a civil rights issue? Thank you, Laura Schultz Founding Member, Decoding Dyslexia MD ( Decoding Dyslexia USA (

I know this is a long question but I've received several about dyslexia and schools, and this gives a lot of good information so I'm running it in full. There is no acceptable excuse for why schools are not providing proper accomodations for students with dyslexia and whatever other disability makes it hard for them to learn. If schools in Maryland have the program and aren't using it, I'd say that's an issue for the superintendent of the district and parents should shout and shout loud and find allies, especially in the legislature.

It is going to be interesting to see what happens in D.C. in regard to education policy. When Kaya Henderson was picked to succeed Michelle Rhee by Mayor Gray, she said she wanted to have a relationship with the mayor like Rhee had Fenty. Fenty let Rhee do whatever she wanted. Gray did the same with Henderson. We don't know yet whether a new mayor who chooses to keep Henderson will want that same relationship -- and whether Henderson will agree to any change.

I (and my colleagues) do have the necessary teaching experience: we teach at the university level. What I'm getting at is more fundamental. As an example, about a year ago we had a seminar where the speaker provided us with questions pertaining to physics and astronomy from our state's high school assessment exams. Many of these questions were clearly written by people with no knowledge of the field. If a room of 30 PhDs can't come up with the answer to a high school exam question, there is a problem with the question. However, I worry that teachers who are operating in the "keep one week ahead of the students in the book" concept because the only physical science course they took was Physics 101 will not be able to detect the problems that were so obvious to that room of my colleagues. Those writing exams are missing knowledge; teachers teach to the exam, and lack the knowledge to detect problems; students suffer.

Ah, I see what you mean. There are a few issues here. Standardized tests are usually badly written. That's a HUGE problem.. Let's talk about this more next week...

I apologize if I didn't get to your question. Please come back next week and I'll have the answers. Thank you all so much for tuning in. Adios.

In This Chat
Valerie Strauss
I've been covering education for at least as long as I went to school - from kindergarten through graduate school - and The Answer Sheet gives me the opportunity to keep learning (and get paid for it).
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