The Answer Sheet: Education chat with Valerie Strauss

May 28, 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. Thanks for being here and for submitting questions in advance. A lot of different subjects are on the agenda today, so let's get started.

Do you think the growing Ed Tech sector is mostly hype, or will it be able to effect real and lasting change? If so, how long until we see those changes?

I think there is a lot in hype in the claims about what educational technology can do to transform education at this moment, but it's a real thing. Education technology has already been a huge help to the population of students with disabilities. Online courses offers education to a vastly bigger audience than before, and significantly help a population of kids who can't function in a brick-and-mortar school. That said, I think a lot of money is wasted by school systems on technology initiatives at this point and I don't believe online education can replace brick-and-mortar schools for the vast majority of students.

Any reactions to this recent article?: - Too many of today’s “educators” see students as a captive audience for them to manipulate and propagandize.

This story is about a small program that paired kids from high-poverty schools with kids from ritzy private schools. The author of the piece is critical of the program and says he is glad nobody took him on a visit to post private school when he was growing up in Harlem. I get it. That doesn't translate into the idea that educators are trying to manipulate and propagandize students. I think the overwhelmingly vast majority of teachers just want to teach kids, not "propagandize" them.

Using student test scores to see if teachers are doing a good job seems like common sense. What's wrong with looking at how students do on tests to hold teachers accountable for making sure students are learning?

I write a lot about this on my blog. Yes, it does seem to make sense. But here's why it doesn't: The standardized tests used in this country measure only a very small portion of what kids know and can do. Furthermore, teachers are not the only -- or even the biggest -- influence on how students perform in school, and it is impossible to accurately factor out those influences and come up with a true "value" for teacher input. Those are just a few reasons why it sounds good in theory but doesn't work in practice.

I'm worried about how often kids in the country are put on medications for "ADHD," and I heard that Finland doesn't medicate its students like we do. Why do you think this is true?

This is a controversial topic. In Finland, kids are rarely medicated for ADHD even though one study found rates of ADHD in kids about the same there as in the U.S. Kids with ADHD are indeed much more frequently medicated in the U.S., perhaps because of Americans' belief in pharmaceuticals and because there isn't patience in many schools today for kids who can't sit still. ADHD is probably overdiagnosed in some populations of kids in the U.S., -and underdiagnosed in other populations.  There was a study released last year The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry that said that ADHD meds seem to help most kids for a few years but the benefits wear off by the third year. More research is being done on this subject.

The two academically strongest DCPS high schools (based on test scores; at both, the majority of students test advanced in both math and reading) are School Without Walls and Banneker, both of which require applications. But the demographics are quite different: SWS is about 40 percent white and 40 percent black, and 20 percent poor. Banneker is about 90 percent black and 0 percent white, and 60 percent poor. Do you know why Banneker doesn't attract a more diverse student body?

I don't know for certain why this is the case, but over the years I and other education reporters have rarely if ever heard white families talk about Banneker as a possibility for their children, and many don't even know that it is a possibility. It is located near Howard University, which is a historically black-majority area, while Walls has for most of its history been located in downtown D.C., now on the campus of George Washington University. Walls has also gotten a lot more publicity over the years, which may be a function of its demographics. Wish I had a definitive answer for you. Why do you think this is the case?

What role should the Department of Education and other federal actors play in the public education sector?

That's a big question. I can't say definitively what the role of the federal government should be in the public education sector. Public education has largely been in the local/state sector with the federal government playing a role in funding and guidance. President George. W Bush, with No Child Left Behind, which put federal mandates on states, and continued with President Obama's Race to the Top and then NCLB waivers. Questions have been raised about whether the federal government, especially under the Obama administration, has overextended its federal authority by imposing reform mandates on states in exchange for federal funding. There are some things the federal government should impose on states; for example, enforcing civil rights laws in schools. Should it tell schools how to evaluate teachers? I'd say no.

So how are school districts wasting money on ed tech?

There are ample examples of schools spending mountains of money on white boards that teachers wind up not using, for example. Millions have been spent putting computers into classrooms in the last decade or so though teachers were not provided with training on how to use them and some schools didn't even have the wiring to use them properly. A few years later the technology was obsolete. In Los Angeles, the school district launched a $1 billion initiative to provide iPads to every student and started to distribute them. Within a week, kids were hacking into them for personal use and they had to be recalled. Ed tech can be helpful but we have to be smart at when and how and for what.

What general "sign off" statement do you hear from "old" teachers that are retiring this year?

I don't know that the teachers I hear from are representative of the entire group of those retiring this year, but if they are, then I'd say they are leaving their profession pretty much disgusted with where things stand at the moment. Teachers who get in touch with me who are retiring this year say they are literally heartbroken on what they believe is an assault on their profession by school reformers with a standardized testing-centric accountability system that has taken away a good deal of their autonomy in the classroom and that evaluates them unfairly. Some of the e-mails I get really sad.

we need more money to develop a liberal arts education beginning at elementary to college.Includes philosophy, world religion, arts,smaller classroom more free time to pursue one's interest, no testing...they repress critical thinking.

Sounds good on a philosophical level but don't hold your breath. Your vision of education is pretty much the opposite of where public education is today.

Have you heard about the budget shortfall in St. Mary's County Public Schools (Maryland) this year? If so, what are your thoughts on that issue?

From what I understand, the multimillion-dollar deficit has to do with increased health insurance payments and more than $1 million for other things, including weather-related costs during the cold winter we just had. County commissioners just voted against a bailout of the school system right now. What do I think? I think that while there is a great deal of money spent on public education, the budget cuts that districts have been forced to sustain in recent years because of the economy and other reasons has done damage to the ability of schools to educate kids. That's a problem.

There are a number of questions on Common Core and the opposition to it. I hope the following serve to answer them all.

Aren't the people who are protesting the Common Core tests mostly very conservative, Tea Party types who object to any federal involvement in local schools?

There are extremely conservatives who are opposing not only the Common Core tests but the standards as well because they say the initiative amounts to a federal takeover of education. Some offer nutty criticism, such as the Core is teaching communism to kids. But there are many critics who oppose the initiative for reasons other than this and those have to do with the content of the standards, the quality of the tests, and the linking of the student test scores to educator evaluation. People on the political left and middle have expressed opposition to the Core too. It's just that the far-right gets more attention.

I read something about public schools actually outperforming private schools, even though the conventional wisdom is the other way around. Is that right?

There is a book published late last year called " The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools" that says public schools get the same or better math results as private schools with similar demographics. Comparing public and private schools is tricky. I'm not a big believer in the comparisons, at least not now.

Common Core is just the most recent name of a greater monster, called Outcome Based Education...the outcome being success of progressive education reform and a deliberately dumbed down/morally bankrupt citizenship. Predecessors have been called No Child Left Behind, Goals 2000, School to Work, Mastery Learning and Direct Instruction...there are many others but not with such recognizable names. Its foundation is the philosophy of John Dewey, a self-proclaimed Marxist and other-proclaimed "Father of Progressive Education." Over the past 100 years of progressive education reform schools have been changed from centers of education to training centers for the collective. How do we return to community/local control and American classical education...that education system that was never broken and needed "fixing," that education system that fueled an industrial revolution and put man on the moon?

The Common Core standards themselves are simply standards. It is the accountability system that has been built around them that has imposed an outcome-based process on schools and school districts. It seems to me you are suggesting that the Core is progressive when there isn't really anything progressive about any set of standards. As for the education system not being broken and needing fixing, you are right and wrong. Parts of the system weren't broken and parts, especially in areas with big populations of high-poverty students, were in great need of reform. Will we return to community/local control? No time soon, I don't think.

It seems like school reform is becoming a political issue. Do you agree?

Absolutely. School reform has been a political issue for years with the rise of corporate school reform. Reformers realized that the way to implement their policies was to change the people making the decisions at the local and state levels, so now a lot of outside money is being pumped into races for school boards and state superintendents. These races never got much attention before but now billionaires are paying attention. What's new now is that school reform has become THE issue in some races. Ras Baraka just was elected mayor of Newark based on his opposition to the school reform being undertaken by the schools superintendent, who had been appointed by Gov. Chris Christie in the state-run district. There are other examples too of races that could be determined by this issue.

You wrote that other political races could be affected by the school reform issue. What other races?

Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York City last year in large part because of his stance on school reform, which was against the Bloomberg reforms. Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, is running for reelection next year and school reform is such a hot issue that it may decide the race.

You posted something this morning on Jim Carrey's commencement speech at a school I've never heard of. Why did you do that?

Yes, I did. I'm not really sure why you are asking why I published it. My blog is pretty much about all things education-related with a focus on school reform. I like good speeches, and I like good commencement speeches, and I thought this was surprisingly interesting. Carrey spoke at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. You can read about the school and the speech here if you want. I have published a bunch of speeches this graduation season.

Thanks for coming and thanks to those who will read the transcript later. Appreciate your time. See you next week.

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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