The DeHavilland Blog

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Operating like businesses

Wanted to share a letter to the editor being published in the 12/06 issue of The School Administrator, a monthly magazine of the American Association of School Administrators. It’s in response to an article written by Larry Cuban titled ”Why Can’t Schools Be Like Businesses,” published in their 2/06 edition (link here).

Operating Like Businesses

In his article “Why Can’t Schools Be Like Businesses?” (February 2006), Larry Cuban does a disservice to your readers by portraying business leaders as hamhanded autocrats who wish to reshape public education in their own image – a group to be both discounted and avoided, at least based on his description.

Had he spent some time actually exploring the perspectives of business leaders toward public education rather than making assumptions, he may have come to some different conclusions about their motives and methods and would have encouraged readers to realize the substantial benefits of partnering with business.

Businesses are concerned with more than just workforce capabilities (although those are of course a key interest). People who are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to live in the modern world make the best employees, the best customers, the best shareholders, the best citizens and the best neighbors. They are the people who businesses want to see graduating from our high schools. So when high school graduates became increasingly disconnected from society’s needs and expectations, the business community looked more intensely at public education to find out why.

The American business community has become the strongest in the world thanks to its focus on productivity, accountability, proven methodology and a continuous desire for improvements generated through research and innovative experimentation. So consider business leaders’ reaction when considering the public education system’s generous per-student spending and its comparatively low outputs; its disregard for rigorous research; and its lack of accurate reporting on student performance.

It’s no surprise that the business community continues to support the accountability requirements of No Child Left Behind. After all, without information there can be no diagnosis, and without diagnosis there can be no improvement. However, I know of no businessperson who believes NCLB represents “mission accomplished.” It is widely considered to be a critical first step.

Contrary to Cuban’s assertions, business leaders are not ignorant of the multiple functions public education serves nor do they oppose them. He is also incorrect in contending the principles of business are not applicable in schools. As best-selling author Jim Collins has said, the principles of great organizations apply to for-profit and nonprofit organizations alike, even if their desired outcomes are different.

I encourage your readers to begin developing relationships with their business communities. While they may have a different approach, they desire the same outcomes as you, and given the opportunity could be a tremendous asset in school improvement efforts.

President, DeHavilland Associates,
Founder, Business/Education Partnership Forum,
Charlotte, N.C.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The NCLB “resistance movement”

I came across an article a few days ago, and it’s been on my mind ever since. Its title sums it up: “No Child Left Behind critic a hit with teachers; conference speaker draws ovation with plan to lobby against ’02 law.” A few paragraphs for context:

Susan Ohanian has a $71.40-a-person plan to stop the federal No Child Left Behind act.

That's the sum that thousands of teachers would have to shell out to finance a whirlwind lobbying effort aimed at abolishing the 2002 law, which is up for reauthorization next year.

Ohanian, a longtime teacher who writes and speaks about educational issues, spoke Saturday at the National Council of Teachers of English annual conference in Nashville, which drew about 7,000 people. Her talk got a standing ovation.


The "resistance movement," as Ohanian called it, would include collecting and submitting 1 million signatures to Congress, organizing a march on Washington, buying ads in national publications and supporting existing groups that are working to repeal the law.

For those who would like to learn why Ms. Ohanian wants to see NCLB repealed, there’s plenty of information at her website. But if you’ve been at this a while, none of her arguments will come as a surprise.

When considering their proposal, remember that we have had evidence of poor K-12 performance for some time. We have a dropout rate of approximately 30%, higher among minorities and those living in urban areas (see here). Of our fourth graders, only 42% of black and 46% of Hispanic students have basic or greater reading skills (see here). And we know that, given a choice between looking good and performing well, both states and teachers (and here) have given in to the temptation of grade inflation.

But before NCLB, local schools had plausible deniability – sure there are problems, but they’re not our problems. And the public had no independent source of data to claim otherwise. It wasn’t until NCLB came along, with its requirements not only for school-level information in specific areas but also for disaggregated data, that we – the parents and other members of the interested public – were able to see the problems in our own backyards. And it wasn’t until we had that information that we were in a position to demand change.

Ms. Ohanian and her supporters want to see NCLB eliminated. Apparently it’s better not to see the problem at all (or at least not let the public see it) than to deal with it and correct it. Imagine if you turned on a light in the kitchen and saw cockroaches – and, rather than deal with the cockroach problem, you chose instead to turn off the light. That’s what we’re talking about here.

In order to make their case, they’re relying on at least one misconception about the law: that the feds are dictating what we should measure and how we should measure it. In reality, NCLB does no such thing. While it does specify the subjects and grades in which it wants to see progress, it is up to the states to determine what students should know, and it is up to the states to determine how that knowledge should be assessed. In other words, states set the standards, and states select the tests; if Ms. Ohanian considers those things flawed, she should take her case up with the 50 states, not with the federal law.

Ms. Ohanian (and others) also continue to present the logical fallacy that, if we eliminate standardized testing, that teachers will be able to get back to more robust and effective instruction. How is this possible? Most state tests assess the more rudimentary aspects of reading and math – if kids are failing those, how in the world could they otherwise be working at a more advanced level?

And also – what’s wrong with teaching to the test, if the test properly reflects what it is we want kids to learn? That’s how effective instructional models are set up – you determine what it is you want students to know; you develop a lesson plan to impart that information; and you assess students to make sure they learned what it is you intended to teach. If the tests are flawed, as Ms. Ohanian states, then fix the tests – but don’t dismantle the entire system.

While I’m not surprised that some teachers dislike the idea of independent evaluation, I am surprised that Ms. Ohanian received such a strong response from attendees of the National Council of Teachers of English conference (specifically, “a standing ovation.”). The bulk of NCTE’s K-12 members are at the secondary school level – the same teachers who have been speaking out about the poor reading and writing skills of incoming students. How do they think student skills are going to improve? If we don’t specify the skills we want kids to have, and set up a system to make sure kids have developed those skills, how will we ever ensure our kids are ready for high school-level work?

I can understand someone wanting to improve standards of tested subjects, and I can understand someone wanting to improve how student knowledge is assessed in those subjects. (As an aside, remember that those need to happen at the state level under NCLB).

But what I can’t understand is someone wanting to scrap the idea of independent evaluation entirely. We have failed to provide adequate instruction to millions of kids over the years, hiding those failures through the use of flawed assessment systems and deceptive reporting practices. It’s time to give kids the education we’ve promised them – something that will only happen through independent reporting as required by NCLB.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Achievement gap in science scores

The Department of Education has released scores on a 2005 NAEP science assessment conducted in 10 urban school districts. Rather than restate what others have said about the assessment, I wanted to let the scores speak for themselves by sharing some charts from the NAEP site. You can draw your own conclusions as to how well we're doing.

In case you can't read the charts, the center bar in each graphic specifies the "at or above proficient" mark, and the deep red color indicates "below basic."

White 8th graders

Black 8th graders

Hispanic 8th graders

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

If we can see the problem, why can't we fix it?

In a post titled “How Now, Sacred Cows!,” Andy Rotherham (aka The Eduwonk) notes that more states have been approved by USDOE to use growth models in assessment (like the TVAAS system in Tennessee), and takes on a blogger at the AFT who says that this move won’t reduce the number of schools failing to make AYP. He says, in part:

In a country where half of all minority students don't finish high school on time, minority students trail white students - on average -- by four grade levels in achievement by high school,'re going to have a lot of schools that don't meet accountability standards under any sort of meaningful system.

But this is all less interesting than the other dimension: What happens to schools that are not making AYP? All the attention to the measurement issue is distracting from the more fundamental problems, which are that (a) the backend timelines don't work for the number of schools we're talking about (meaning there are more schools needing help than can be helped in a real way) (b) no one really knows exactly what to do for a lot of them anyway and (c) the states are not chomping at the bit to do much at all.

He’s brought a critical question to the forefront here - if we can see the problem, why can't we fix it?

We’ve known for some time that there are serious issues in education – NAEP scores for 17-year olds haven’t budged in decades (reading and math), there’s a large disparity in academic achievement between whites and non-Asian minorities, and the dropout rate is unacceptably high. Until NCLB, we were only able to see those problems in the aggregate – national statistics that allowed us to believe our own schools were fine, thankyouverymuch, and it’s the other guy’s school that’s the problem.

Thanks to local accountability provisions with disaggregated data, however, we can now see exactly what’s going on in our own schools, and it turns out that most of us see those national problems reflected in our hometown schools and districts.

By identifying the problems, the thinking goes, we’re supposed to be compelled to address them. But here’s the rub: the people who are running and teaching in all these schools are the same ones being charged with the mission of substantially improving them, and they’re left to their own devices to do so.

I’m not trying to impugn these administrators, principals, and teachers in any way. I believe that, as a rule, educators are passionate and committed people who earnestly want to hand the keys to the kingdom to their kids. They know education is the key to success, and they would like nothing better than to watch their kids leave school with the knowledge, skills, and motivation needed to succeed in life.

But the fact is, they were working really hard before we identified these problems, and there’s no reason to expect that they can materially change course now. Why? Because we’re not giving them the tools they need to succeed.

I’m not talking about new funding here: I’m talking about the knowledge and tools they need to improve instruction in substantive ways. Like proven and replicable models from both inside and outside education. Like real authority over budget, personnel, scheduling, discipline, and curriculum issues. Like access to research, free from agenda, that points to successful practices – and the authority to implement despite ideological opposition (consider the reading wars as an example). Like the intellectual freedom to explore new thinking and ideas that would allow them to question existing practices and try new things.

Instead, we box them in with rules and restrictions that deny them the opportunity to change (i.e., you have to use this curriculum, you can’t hire/fire according to needs, you can’t kick out the kids who don’t want to be there, you can’t pay people different amounts based on scarcity or capability, etc.), and we leave all conventional thinking in place. No models of success; no focus on research; faulty beliefs on effective teaching courtesy of education schools (see here and here); and confinement within the walls of the system, restricting access to new thinking.

So what we end up with is this: do what you’ve been doing, but work harder at it. And since the means and the opportunity to truly change are not available to them, here are the kinds of responses they’re left to choose from:

  • Kill the messenger – question the value or validity of the assessments
  • Cheat on the assessments
  • Lower the bar (usually done at the state level with easier assessments or lower standards)
  • Call for more resources – money, volunteers, etc.
  • Spend more time - double reading/math classes, start clubs, hold study sessions – using the same faulty materials
  • Reform around the edges, such as professional development that reinforces existing thinking
  • Hold pep rallies (yes, this really happens)

And when none of this works over the course of a few years, the state moves in – and, since the folks from the state don’t have the tools mentioned above either, they shift staff, make some cosmetic changes (like converting to a charter school with no attendant changes), and restart the AYP clock.

Want to change this cycle? It all comes down to a stunningly simple idea: If what you’re doing isn’t working, you need to change what you’re doing.

Eduwonk follows up with this:

Everyone likes to say that we know what works, money, class size, choice, private management, etc...but that's BS. "Turn-arounds" are complicated and hit or miss and that's not all that surprising, it's a human endeavor.

A lot of people do claim to have the answers, acting mostly on beliefs rather than data. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We do have some reliable data now on effective instruction, and in areas where we don’t, we can start to gather it by trying some truly different things and doing rigorous and objective evaluations to see what happens. But it’s going to take fresh thinking, the freedom to act in new ways, and new blood from outside the industry, and it doesn’t matter whether that work happens in public schools, charters, or private schools as long as it happens and can be shared across the industry.

It’s true that you can’t improve what you don’t measure, which is the thinking behind NCLB. But it’s also true that you can’t improve on what’s not working by doing more of the same. We need to give our schools new options, new models, and new voices at the table – and we need to do it now.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Clearing hurdles in education reform

I've been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which businesses can initiate and support effective, substantive, and sustained reform. One conclusion I've reached is that the interest and the skills are out there - but the barriers to involvement and effective action are tremendous.

One example comes in a new research article from the American School Boards Journal titled "Is science education failing students?" (hat tip to According to author Susan Black, one barrier to effective science education is the lack of accurate information in science textbooks. She writes:

William Beaty, an engineer who designed an electricity exhibit for the Boston Museum of Science, discovered “a morass of misconceptions, mistakes, and misinformation” in grade school science textbooks. In fact, he couldn’t find a single book that explained basic electricity correctly.

North Carolina State University physics professor John Hubisz found similar problems in a two-year study of middle-school science textbooks. All told, he compiled 500 pages of errors in 12 textbooks, including mix-ups between fission and fusion, incorrect definitions of absolute zero, and a map showing the equator running through the southern states.

Reporting on the ways science textbooks are developed and sold to schools, Forbes writer David McClintick says many companies “churn out rubbish” with countless errors. One widely adopted text, for instance, claims the earth rotates around the sun, when it actually revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis.

But textbook companies are reluctant to change blatant errors, even when renowned scientists submit long lists of corrections. Astrophysicist and schoolteacher Leonard Tramiel, testifying before California’s Curriculum Commission, an 18-member panel that approves textbooks, reported finding 30 errors in the first 100 pages of one science book. The company corrected only three mistakes, leaving a book rife with errors that, if approved, could be used for six years or more in California classrooms and in other states.

Businesses can do a lot to improve public education: they can bring new resources to the table, lobby for effective change, help set desirable learning outcomes, initiate research and pilot projects to identify best practices, and contribute in dozens of other ways.

But will any of that matter if the materials that form the foundation of the learning process (87% of K-12 science teachers use textbooks to some extent in instruction) are factually wrong? To put it another way - if we give kids the wrong information, does it really matter how well we give it to them?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Let's Kill Dick and Jane

There's a review in today's Wall Street Journal of a new book called "Let's Kill Dick and Jane: How the Open Court Publishing Company Fought the Culture of American Education." You can read the review here (if you have a WSJOnline subscription), and you can find it on Amazon here.

The review focuses on something I've written about many times: how the education establishment ignores evidence in favor of ideology or routine. The review captures them both:

But the most vigorous objections came from progressive advocates of Whole Language. This theory rejected specific skill instruction in favor of "meaningful contexts" for reading. Some of its practitioners believed that reading could be learned as easily as talking; others feared that a systematic focus on skills was somehow akin to cultural and economic oppression. Dismissing these chimeras, Open Court argued that depriving children of such skills was the true act of oppression in a society where the boundaries of opportunity were drawn mostly by ignorance.

A recurring theme of "Let's Kill Dick and Jane" is the anti-intellectual rigidity of the educational establishment, which continually resisted the research-based methods that Open Court employed. The effectiveness of Open Court's pedagogy, to the extent that it was measured, indicated that Blouke and Marianne Carus knew what they were doing. The overt resistance of professional educators lessened somewhat over time, only to take on more subtle forms.


For all of the challenges the company faced, perhaps the most insurmountable was securing the commitment of teachers: They were often too deeply attached to their established routines, which were much less demanding than what Open Court was asking of them.

Their resistance, Mr. Henderson stresses, was caused more by inertia than ideology: "They have all the spirit and excitement of baked halibut," complained one Open Court consultant on a school visit. Contrast this dull conformity with the passion of consultants and creators of Open Court, one of whom says simply: "If you teach a child to read, you never have to do another right thing in your life."

The reviewer ends with:

The American education culture, Mr. Henderson concludes, "can assume a veneer of progressivism or traditionalism as the times dictate, but its routines lie deeper than ideology." The founders of Open Court, and education reformers before and since, can testify to the truth of those words.

Sounds like there's a lot to be learned from this book - if so, I'll write more once I've had the chance to read it.

Models of public sector reform from McKinsey

A brief, but insightful, article from The McKinsey Quarterly on different strategies to take in public sector reform, and why you need a different strategy to go from awful to good than you do to go from good to great. The article is here; free registration is required.

How will the election impact education?

A few days ago, I mentioned that Andy Rotherham (aka Eduwonk) didn't think the election would have much of an impact at all - that the big issues in education, like accountability, had transcended party lines. (His original post here.)

His is not the only opinion on the subject, of course. Alexander Russo thinks that Andy's wrong, and that when it comes down to it no one knows what the impact will be. Ryan Boots puts on an optimistic face and says that the Alliance for School Choice will roll with the punches. And some feel the change will be a positive one for public education.

When you're looking at policy changes, however, one thing everyone should keep in mind is that the unions would love to see significant changes to the law (AFT here, NEA here), and the unions were a major source of funding and volunteers in this most recent campaign. I don't know how far this will get them, but they'll certainly be more in the loop than they have been.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

David Mathews is right...and wrong

David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, recently came out with a book titled “Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy” (dedicated site here – including free download of the first chapter). As with his last work on the subject, “Is There a Public for Public Schools?” (now out of print), Mathews provides an insightful and thorough analysis of the disconnect between the public and the modern education system, and in this work goes into greater detail on what he sees as the solution.

As with his last book, Mathews offers a great deal of evidence as to the roots and the current state of the issues preventing community engagement. It’s a challenge that’s been more than a century in the making: when the idea of professional specialization took hold at the end of the 19th century, the public passed the reins of our schools to a new class of education administrators, and that trend grew over time into the chasm we see today between the two groups. As a result, we have owners who aren’t getting the results they want from schools, but don’t feel qualified to direct change, and we have experts who resent being second-guessed by people who aren’t qualified to make decisions. (For more, see my notes on his last book here.)

He also paints an exciting picture of what education could look like if communities were welcomed and fully involved. He sees the potential for the community itself as an educational institution, allowing for reinforcement and application of academic content in a real-world environment made up of encouraging and active citizens. And just as importantly, he sees the public as the proper authorities to set educational mandates –the outcomes we wish to reach by educating our kids.

However, while his analysis of the problem is excellent and his vision compelling, his solution, unfortunately, seems unrealistic. He believes that the solution will come by mobilizing all parties – citizens, parents, businesspeople, teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, and politicians – and have them step away from their long-held positions, engage in an open and substantive dialogue, build a consensus, and move forward in concert.

I would love to see this happen – it’s certainly the ideal solution, and I don’t like being a pessimist when it comes to community engagement in education or, at a broader level, democracy in action. But I just can’t see this happening.

First, most community action happens at a local level and, for the most part, the important education decisions are no longer made locally. Decisions on what to teach, what to test, and often even what materials can be used are made at the state level, and school districts don’t have the authority to overrule them. Further, there’s actually very little discretionary funding available locally to drive change: I’ve heard from school board members who say that they can influence no more than 10% of the district’s budget, and I’ve heard from numerous sources that principles typically have control over less than $50,000 each year (and that’s in school budgets that run into the millions each year).

Next, as a corollary, too many education decision-makers are unaccountable to the public. We have access to our local school administrators, board members, and district officials – but we have little to no access to the people at the state level who are setting the policies our local educators must live by. These people were not elected, and they’re not likely to listen to the public as a primary influencer, particularly when publics are organizing at the community level and there’s no unified state-level voice to hear.

Third, we have no access to, or influence over, some of the key influencers of educators, namely the colleges of education that train educators and administrators and who have recently been shown to be not only ineffective, but to be actively working against teaching methods proven to be effective. If we want every child to read, but our teachers have been trained in methods that run counter to good reading instruction (see here), how will the public and the educators find common ground?

Next, education is a huge industry, and there are groups whose survival and growth depend on advocating positions that run counter to effective instruction. The influence of these groups works directly against building consensus on end goals and effective practices. Consider the push for smaller classrooms as an example: despite the absence of reliable evidence as to the impact of this reform, many education groups advocate for smaller classrooms without regard to the substantial costs associated with them – clearly benefiting the industry at the expense of the taxpayers.

Related to this is the severe lack of knowledge on education issues on the part of the public. Members of the public are ill-informed about even such basic issues as charter schools (see here), let alone more advanced subjects such as teaching methodology. Couple this with the fact that the vast majority of research in education is unusable (see here), and that proponents of certain position use vague but pleasant-sounding terms to advocate for factually untenable position (such as “whole language learning”), and the public is clearly seen to be ill-prepared for substantive discussion with people who would subvert their interests.

We also have to discuss whether there is a visible need for education reform in the eyes of those who would be most likely to act. One of the reasons we haven’t seen more community action in education reform is that in the more affluent areas – areas where community members are more likely to be civically engaged – the schools are in decent shape, and in less affluent areas, where the schools are in very bad shape, the citizenry is less likely to be engaged. So those who have the greatest reason to get involved are historically the least likely to do so, and those who are better able to get involved don’t see the problems present under the pretty veneer of their community schools.

Finally, I would interject the reality of self-interest. It would be great if the entire community could come together around an issue like education, but studies like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone reveal that to be unlikely. Instead, we need to look at the issue of self-interest, and of the two parties with the greatest self-interest in education – parents and businesses – one is a temporary player (parent involvement generally disappears once their own kids are out of a particular school or grade level) and the other has not stepped up in a substantive way due to their focus on short-term issues (quarterly profits) over long-term issues (existence of a capable workforce).

Again, I would love to see the sort of community-wide, set-our-personal-interests-aside-for-the-greater-good type of engagement and collaboration that Mathews proposes, but I just don’t see it happening, particularly at the level it would need to happen – simultaneously, in thousands of communities across the country – in order to fundamentally reform our entire school system.

I don’t think it’s hopeless, however – I do think there are solutions, and I’ll post on that in the near future. In the meantime, I would encourage you to immerse yourself in Mathews’ book – whether I agree with his prescription or not, I believe his diagnosis of the current state of engagement, and his vision for what education could be, are excellent, and will certainly contribute to your own thinking on the matter.

Monday, November 06, 2006

What do the elections mean for education?

A brief but on-target post from Eduwonk on whether a change in the House or Senate will impact education policy.

Haven't disappeared...

It's been a week since my last post - haven't disappeared, just tackling some client deadlines, and wrestling with some of the ideas in this book. I'll be back in the next day or so.