Notes on Mayor Adams’ Education Summit, My Mother, and the Future of Education in America

Steve Novick

Early last month, I attended Mayor Adams’ two-day Education Summit. The keynote speaker on Day 1 was Michael Geisen, the 2008 national Teacher of the Year. The keynote speaker on Day 2 was Greg Darnieder, representing the Obama Administration’s Department of Education and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

In the past week, I’ve been re-reading Jonathan Kozol’s most recent book, ‘Letters to a Young Teacher.” And it’s reminded me of the stark contrast I heard between Geisen and Darnieder. Geisen teaches science in Prineville, Oregon. Kozol has spent the past forty-plus years teaching in and writing about children in inner-city Eastern schools. But Geisen and Kozol live in the same world and are on the same page. Darnieder is on a different planet – one that I wouldn’t even want to visit.

I’ll start with a quote apiece from these three men. Well, actually, I’ll cheat and give you two from Kozol. In Geisen’s and Darnieder’s cases the quotes won’t be exact, but I promise you they’re pretty close:

GEISEN: We used to hear about the three R’s – reading, writing and ‘rithmatic – which always bothered me because only one of them actually starts with “r.” Now we hear about a new three “r’s”: rigor, relevance and relationships. [I subsequently learned that this is now the mantra of the Gates Foundation.] You notice that they always start with rigor, and say they’ll get to the relevance and the relationships – but of course they never really do. It should be the other way around. You should start with relationships, move on to relevance, then get to rigor.

KOZOL: In any event, the tests are there; and … the better teachers in these schools detest the rote-and-drill routines that have been put in place, “aligned,” as it is said, with items to be measured by those tests. **** Down with concerns about “the global marketplace!” Up with “Wiggly” and “Wobbly” and “Out!” Childhood does not exist to serve the national economy. In a healthy nation, it should be the other way around. We have a major battle now ahead of us, not just about the tone and style of a child’s education but about the purposes it should espouse and whether we, as teachers, need to get down on our knees before a brittle business-driven ethos that is not our own. We need the teachers who are coming to our classrooms making up their minds, before they even get here, which side they are on.

DARNIEDER: We have young people showing up as military recruits without the skills the services need. This education issue isn’t just an economic crisis. It’s a national security crisis.

As far as I’m concerned, Sam Adams could have regained all the moral authority he needs, in one fell swoop, if he had seized the microphone and said “Mr. Darnieder, I don’t think you know where you are. I am the Mayor of this city because a good man named Jim Francesconi suffered a terrible lapse of judgment and voted against a resolution condemning the war in Iraq. You just can’t come to Portland, Oregon and tell us that we need to improve the education system in order to get more young people ready for you to send them to Iraq and Afghanistan. Please relay that message to Secretary Duncan and to the President.”

Darnieder’s statement – which, I assure you, was the one and only memorable thing he said in a leaden speech - was a stinging reminder that a boy should always listen to his mother. My mother spent years as an education researcher and (I am proud to say) is internationally recognized as an expert in early literacy (she was very big in Czechoslovakia), and she warned me awhile ago that Arne Duncan wants to militarize American schools. I thought that seemed far-fetched, but after hearing Darnieder, I Googled “Arne Duncan military,” and found a 2007 USA Today article about how Duncan had established numerous military academies in Chicago public schools. “"These are positive learning environments," Duncan said "I love the sense of leadership. I love the sense of discipline."”

As Kozol – a lifelong advocate for poor and minority inner-city students – observes, it is ironic that white education ‘reformers’ claim to be expressing their commitment to educational equity by advocating sending poor and minority children to schools that they wouldn’t be caught dead sending their own children to. Writing of the “small schools within a school” experiments of the type that the Gates Foundation funded, Kozol writes:

“Teachers in these schools report to me that if you walk into their building you can see an all-black small academy on one floor and a nearly all-white small academy one floor below … you will find what one teacher in the black part of her building teasingly refers to as a ‘woodsy Walden kind of school’ primarily for white kids and a drill-and-kill academy, strictly geared to state exams, serving the children of color elsewhere in the building.”

Now, I recognize that some level of discipline is necessary to an effective education system. And I honor the service of those who choose to join the military. But the idea that the ideal school is a military academy is not one that I’m going to sign up for. And Teacher of the Year Michael Geisen wouldn’t either. Here’s another quote from Geisen’s speech at Adams’ summit:

GEISEN: What was the best year of most people’s educational lives? Kindergarten. But kindergarten’s kind of a bait and switch. We open the door and we say to these kids: ‘Come on in! It’s kindergarten. You’ll sing, You’ll play. We’ll read aloud. We’ll paint. We’ll tell stories.’ So they come on in … and then we slam the door and stick it to them for the next twelve years.

Geisen went on to say that he’s worried that his own children, as they go through school, may be slowly losing interest, surrounded by a school environment that is increasingly driven by the need to raise test scores rather than capture children’s imaginations.

After reading Kozol, and Diane Ravitch’s recent book “The Life and Death of the Great American School System,” and “In Schools We Trust,” a 2002 book by Deborah Meier, a celebrated principal in inner-city schools (first in New York, and then in Boston), I am becoming more and more convinced that defining equity in terms of test scores may actually result in practices that make our education system more inequitable than it was before. Meier reports that although poor and minority students from her schools did very well in terms of graduation rates, postsecondary education, and post-school success, their scores on standardized tests often remained stubbornly below those of white students – even in cases where, by other metrics, the white students weren’t as successful. Ravitch echoes Kozol’s concern that obsession with test scores of minority students has resulted in pushing those students into ‘drill-and-kill’ test preparation factories.

So how do we ensure equity? We expand and improve early childhood education. We make sure that the facilities and libraries in the schools poor children attend are equal to those that rich children attend. If the parents of poor students are less likely to come to parent-teacher conferences, we give teachers the time and incentives to do what Kozol did as a young teacher – make home visits to the homes of those students. (I recently ran that idea by a local African-American leader who isn’t happy with Portland Public Schools. He paused and said, That would certainly send a message that the school and the teachers really care about those kids.)

We should have smaller class sizes in schools serving high numbers of low-income and minority students.

We should make sure that the teachers in the students poor children attend aren’t just the inexperienced teachers, or the teachers no one else wanted. (Rebecca Levison at PAT says that critics of public schools exaggerate the extent to which that is the case; I’d like to see her and some of those critics engage in a respectful public debate on that topic.)

And we should strive constantly to improve the education of teachers, making sure that they all have a good understanding of how children learn … and that they understand that poor and minority children aren’t a different species from upper-middle-class white children: that if upper-middle-class white children learn from storytelling and reading aloud and singing songs, it’s a pretty damned good bet that poor children of color will, too.

My mother taught me to read. She claims that the day she told me I needed to learn to read, I said ‘I know how to read!’ picked up one of my Dr. Seuss books, and recited it, verbatim. She then pointed to a word and said ‘what’s that word?’ I had to admit that I had no idea. So she taught me to read. But I think that the fact that she had read a lot of Dr. Seuss books to me had at least as much to do with my ultimately becoming a voracious reader as did her technical skills – strong as those were – as a reading instructor. If children show up in first grade not ‘ready to learn,’ I’d expose them to Dr. Seuss before I started drilling them in phonics.

Year in and year out, Finland has the highest scores on international assessments of schools. Finland doesn’t rely on high-stakes testing and evaluations for either students or teachers. Finland does send the parents of every newborn child a gift pack that includes a picture book.

Oh – you might be wondering: “What was that about “Wiggly” and “Wobbly” and “Out”?” Kozol explains that the teacher whose class he was visiting, and to whom he was sending letters, had put a timeline on the wall – or rather, a “Tooth Line” – describing the status of her first-graders’ teeth: “Wiggly,” “Wobbly,” and “Out.” Kozol observes:

“The teaching of sequences, progressions, categories, is, I know, a very important part of early education. But, as you demonstrated in this instance, there’s no reason why these concepts must be taught in shopworn terms that are external to the students’ lives. Immediacy, and a sense of fun in the immediate, can infiltrate the teaching of these concepts too.”

I doubt they have any Tooth Lines in Arne Duncan’s military academies. But I bet Michael Geisen would love the idea. And I haven’t asked him, but I’m willing to bet that he would also agree with Kozol that “Childhood does not exist to serve the national economy” – let alone the national military. I bet he would agree that “In a healthy nation, it should be the other way around.”

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    I am the Mayor of this city because a good man named Jim Francesconi suffered a terrible lapse of judgment and voted against a resolution condemning the war in Iraq.

    This isn't exactly on point, but I think it's worth noting that Francesconi lost for several reasons -- among them, because he appeared to be disdainful of the concerns related to the Laurelhurst dog murders.

    I had a new puppy then, and spent a lot of time in the dog parks, and there was a LOT of chatter among otherwise apolitical people about how Francesconi seemed unconcerned by the conflict between dog owners and other park users.

    In a town that is as animal-crazy as this one, I remain convinced that one of the major reasons Francesconi lost is because of that issue.

    Combined, of course, with the Iraq thing, the strength of Howard Dean's operation in Portland - which shifted en masse to Tom Potter, and the fact that Potter was able to outflank him with both liberal voters and conservative voters (who liked the idea of a police chief as mayor.)

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    Now, back on point, I don't know anything about Greg Darnieder, but was he really making the case that our schools should serve as pre-military preparatory academies?

    Or was he just making the argument that K-12 education funding should be supported by pro-military conservatives -- reprising the argument by Dwight Eisenhower in support of the National Defense Education Act of 1957, which was an early major investment in higher-ed by the federal government.

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      He didn't say this is why conservatives should support education. He made it sound like the major reason we should support education was so that kids could be well prepared for the military. Which is consistent with his boss' creation of numerous military academies in Chicago.

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    I read the comment differently.

    I think he simply meant that some of the people entering the military are not schooled very well. Even the military has standards that not everyone can meet - physically as well as academically.

    One thing I remember from my military training of long ago, is that much of the training material for enlisted personnel was written so that someone with an 8th grade education could read and understand the material.

    With social promotion and other issues in our schools today, it is likely that our K-12 graduates can't actually read at this 8th grade level, let alone comprehend much of what may be expected while doing their job.

    Not everyone entering the military is going to the front lines to fight or shoot. Most of the jobs in the military are well behind the front lines and require basic skills that our graduates may not master.

    Step back though from these "military demands" for a second.

    Realizing that not everyone graduating from a k-12 education will be going on to college. There still should be some expectation of mastering certain skills, so that students may excel in whatever they choose to do next.

    Being able to read and comprehend, being able to handle basic math, and being able to live amongst the rest of the community with respect for others and accepting responsibility is not too much to ask for.

    Alas, some of our graduates cannot master those basic skills.

    It may be money, it may be teachers or administrators, it may be their family life, or perhaps just the distractions of everyday life that contributes to the problem of why our students aren't doing better.

    But back to the original premise of establishing military type schools. These are but one way of moving forward. Just like charter schools, private schools, and religious schools. Public schools try to be all things to all people. The alternatives are a subset that achieve better results through self selection. The non-public alternatives don't have to accept everyone. They can achieve different results because they set barriers in place - barriers that exclude those who don't necessarily "qualify". Unfortunately, it is not always a choice. Some students simply cannot do better, regardless of the environment.

    Perhaps something as simple as addressing social promotion and restoring discipline in our schools is a start.

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    Steve, I too attend the Mayor’s Education summit and heard both speakers. I too was far more inspired by Geisen than by Darnieder. But I think you are creating an interesting straw man issue by misinterpreting Darnieder’s comments.

    The primary function of schools is to develop the complete child and the focus rightly should be on what is good for the individual child. But even so, as progressive we also need to worry about our economy, our national security, and our communities. Even more so than conservatives do, IMHO.

    At the time, I took Darnieder comments more to mean our schools were failing to produce graduates with basic skills, like those needed to get into the military, than as any effort to militarize education. So it was a call out both to those who worry about our national security (and, again, I don’t yield than concern only to conservatives) and to those concerned about the general skill levels of our graduates.

    If you are suggesting that school should not also serve community economic and national security concerns, let me disagree. I am an advocate for more Mandarin and study abroad programs. I think Oregon’s educational system could offer far more opportunities for students to learn Mandarin (and other foreign languages) and to study abroad within existing budgets. This would be great for some individual students. But there are also strong arguments for such programs based on the needs of Oregon’s economy and on national security. I am for cutting the defense budget and reallocating funds to education for even more of such language and study abroad programs because I believe such reallocation would strengthen our economy and national security (and make arguments to that effect).

    I also think that expanding Mandarin and study abroad in China programs in our educational system are the most significant actions our state government can take for peace. I don’t think equity and lifting the skill levels of underperforming students is the only problem with our current educational system.

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      I really don't think I'm misinterpreting Darnieder's comments, when you look at the broader context. Part of the context is, his boss was famous for promoting military academies in Chicago public schools. Another part of the context is that Obama has called for a freeze in the budget for domestic discretionary spending but not military spending. Exactly the opposite of your approach. I think that if George Bush had sent someone here to say that, progressives would be appalled. I don't think we should listen uncritically because Obama is President. I think Arne Duncan's view of what the style and purpose of public schools should be is different from Geisen's or Kozol's or mine.

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    I too attended the Mayor's Education Summit and listened to Darnieder's speech. I do not believe Steve is misrepresenting anything here.

    The difference between Kozol/Geisen and Darnieder is that the former actually spend time with and understand children. They also approach education with a tilt towards equity and how education "reform" plays out in different communities. They know test scores are a very poor way to measure "learning".

    The idea of starting with relationships and building from there is an excellent one, but that's also not on Duncan's agenda. His ESEA Reauthorization Blueprint and Race to the Top competitive grant program contain very little, if anything, about engaging parents in schools. In fact, parent activists from a number of major cities recently sent a letter to Congress and the President outlining many of the issues Steve raises in this post:

    [Note: there's representation from Portland, too. In full disclosure, I'm involved with the group, the Portland Parent Union]

    It should also be noted, Steve, that Duncan pushed military academies in minority neighborhoods, not the whiter parts of the city.

    One can also include the "no excuses" charter schools and zero-tolerance penal pedagogies prevalent in low-income schools as a form of militarized learning environments. Those are the schools pushed by many white reformers - even though they'd never send their kids to those kinds of schools.

    Obama, for instance, sends his two daughters to Sidwell Friends, which is far, far, far different than the kind of schools he and Duncan have been pushing.

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