This is the text of a speech I gave at the National Press Club on August 6, 2001. I was one of several winners that night for the Newspaper Association of America's annual "Innovation in Education" award. I received the award for "The Effective Learning Series," a thrice-weekly education column I wrote for The Seattle Times as part of their "Newspapers in Education" program.
Standing here at the National Press Club, addressing a group of top educators and journalists from all over the country, receiving an award from the Newspaper Association of America Foundation, I find that I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that when I was a student, I rarely read the newspaper. As a kid, my only regular exposure to news came from the radio as I grudgingly endured a few minutes of it, every hour on the hour, during Kasey Kasim’s American Top 40.
The only news program I can remember now was delivered by a strange guy with a strange voice and an even stranger delivery who would introduce a humdrum human interest story and continue, rather haltingly, for a minute or two, until coming to a conventional close. Finally, to my delight, Kasey Kasim would return with the kind of news I was really interested in: the fate of the latest Helen Reddy hit or the little known story of the high school talent show origins of enduring megastars like England Dan and John Ford Coley.
At some point later on, that strange guy would come back again: “And now… the rest of… the story.”
It was Paul Harvey, of course, and as soon as I figured out his format, I couldn’t wait for his spot. The story may have been dull as dishwater, but the rest of the story, that was something else entirely — surprising, often quirky, always compelling. It didn’t take long before I was hooked.
Now, I’m a news junkie. In a single day, I can easily listen to a couple hours of NPR, skim both of Seattle’s daily papers, surf the Net for background, tackle a Time Magazine, and possibly catch a little of Inside Politics, Crossfire, or Moneyline with Lou Dobbs — even O’Reilly occasionally factors into my day. If that isn’t enough, I often end up falling asleep to Ted Koppel, Bill Maher, or Charlie Rose.
What interests me most these days is all the news about education. I can’t tell you how pleased I am with the amount of coverage, and how exciting it is for me to be listening in on what is surely our country’s first national dialog about school. But as I follow the reports about testing, standards, vouchers, charters, and all the other fashionable aspects of education reform, I feel like I’m missing the rest of the story.
In my work as an education consultant, I have the fortunate opportunity to spend a lot of time teaching in classrooms all across the country. Though I don’t have students of my own, I get to deliver hundreds of lessons each year to kids of all kinds, at all grade levels, in all subject areas, and in all types of schools. That means I get to see things: the real things that really go on in real schools struggling with the realities of real reform.
When I turn on the TV or open up The Seattle Times for which I now write, I hear mostly about testing. I hear our President saying things like “How do you know how you’re doing if you don’t test?” It all sounds quite logical, and it’s a good story. But it’s not the rest of the story.
It turns out that more testing doesn’t necessarily mean more learning. The history of educational testing in our country is well documented. I learned about it recently in a book called “Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It” by Peter Sacks.
Reading this book confirmed for me what I had been noticing in the schools I visit: that even though scores are going up, as they tend to do at the beginning of a new testing cycle, the increases are primarily artifacts of test preparation and test familiarity, and not necessarily evidence of authentic learning.
The tests are based, of course, on standards. And it seems like every state has them now. Standards are a hot story, too. But the rest of the story, from my vantage point at least, is that we may be standardizing the wrong thing.
Instead of standardizing the quality of learning — a dubious and dangerous endeavor, it seems to me, for any free society that wants to stay that way — we should be working to standardize the quality of teaching, and seeking to ensure equality of access to that teaching. It simply isn't fair for some kids to get great teachers while others do not. And no type of testing or set of curricular standards can ever address this fundamental inequity.
I learned about the rest of this story a few years ago when I came across a book called “Best Practice: New Standards For Teaching and Learning in America's Schools.” This wonderful resource is a concise and precise distillation of good teaching and how to make it happen in any school anywhere under just about any circumstances.
This book makes clear something I have long felt but could not express: that the reason some teachers are dramatically more effective than others is simply because they use more effective methods. What’s more, there's little disagreement among well-researched and well-practiced professionals as to what these methods are. To me, this means that if we took some of our testing money and turned it into training money, our children and our country might be better served.
Finally, we have voucher programs and charter schools. The story here seems to be that if one group of folks can’t educate our children then a different group will surely do a better job regardless of who they are, what they do, or what kind of experience they have. While I myself have an intense interest in educational alternatives, I have no enthusiasm for unproven ones, especially those born out of frustration and based, as I have often discovered, on little more than well-intentioned guesswork. At this crucial juncture in the history of our nation’s education system, I see little value in perpetrating upon our children new and risky experiments, especially when the research of the last 30 years is so clear about what can and should be done.
Fortunately, the rest of this story, like the other two, also has a happy ending. There already exist many proven models of successful schooling like Nancie Atwell’s Center For Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, ME. Or, if you’d like to see an inner city school with the same kind of cutting edge practice and stunning results, visit the Center for Inquiry run by Jerome Harste in Indianapolis, IN, or drop in for a day at Shelley Harwayne's P.S. 290 in New York City. The most important thing that these and many other fine educators have shown is that every can child can learn, that educational achievement correlates more with good teaching than it does with where you live, how much money you make, and the color of your skin.
As someone who has spent serious time in thousands of our country’s classrooms, I can say with confidence, that despite popular rhetoric, there is no crisis in American education today. This is not to say there aren’t problems, merely that most of them have already been solved somewhere, by someone, in some way. I see these solutions dotted all around the country and I hope that some day soon our politicians, pundits, and members of the press will be able to connect the dots and see the picture as plainly as I do.
Most people simply don’t know about these amazing schools, these great books, and these terrific teachers because we haven’t yet gotten around to telling the rest of the story. Right now, education is a political football and nobody wants to punt. It’s all about Hail Mary passes and quarterback sneaks instead of just pounding away with a solid ground game. If we are “a nation at risk,” as the famous congressional report once declared, it is only because we are more familiar with the current crop of politically expedient, red-herring remedies than we are with the real solutions discovered and perfected by our country's best teachers and researchers.
When I started writing two years ago, three articles a week for The Seattle Times, I realize now that I became part of the media, too. This year I begin again. And so the responsibility for telling the rest of the story falls now upon me as much as it does upon anyone else. In my first year, I didn’t live up to that responsibility as well as I know now that I could have. It was my first time writing for a major newspaper. I was nervous. I wanted it to be good, but I also wanted everyone to like me. So when my editors suggested that some of what I wanted to say was not exactly what they wanted me to say, I gave in. Rather than fighting for what I regarded as the truth, I chose instead tamer topics and a safer style.
I don’t want to do that this time around. While I still feel nervous, I’m no less committed because of it. And thanks to the support and inspiration I’ve received this week from the wonderful people I’ve met here through the Newspaper Association of America, I think I now have both the clarity and the courage I need to begin telling the rest of the story.
Steve Peha is the Founder of Teaching That Makes Sense (www.ttms.org), an education consulting organization specializing in literacy, strategy, and technology within the K-12 sector. He lives in Carrboro, NC with his wife Margot Lester, the most incredibly fantastic, amazingly wonderful, and supremely superlative human being he has ever known -- and their two dogs, Mookie and Marvin.
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1.19.04 @ 10:53a
There is something here that I have NEVER been able to understand: if we know about Best Practices (and we do, it's become the buzzword of the decade here) why has there been no major push for implementation? Hell, we can't even get local parent groups to adopt National PTA standards - again, a PROVEN success story.
The schools you mention - are they public schools or charter schools? My observation leads me to believe that the charters are the only public schools with enough freedom to adopt and enforce educational innovations - and they only get to do so because "nothing else has worked." It's only as a last-ditch effort that these very reasonable and successful strategies are implemented. And then people have the nerve to be surprised when it works.
1.19.04 @ 4:44p
Having worked closely for over 10 years with teacher, parent, and community groups in education, I think I understand your frustrations, Juli. There is, first and foremost, an information problem to be solved here: people not only have to know what best practice is, they also have to understand the science behind those practices in order to implement them effectively in their own situations. Second, people need good training to learn to implement these practices. But most of all, people just need to step up and do what’s right, and it is this third problem that holds back most of the people at most of the schools I work with.
As you point out, I think we have problem #1 solved to some degree at this point -- at least where knowing about practices is concerned; most people still don’t understand the science very well. Problem #2 is relatively easy to solve because with the knowledge we now have there are enough people who know how to train others in these practices. The third and, in my opinion, most crucial problem, however, is one that we as a country seem not quite ready to deal with.
Is solving all three of these problems harder to do in the public school system? I certainly thought so when I started out but I don’t believe that anymore. Jerome Harste’s Center For Inquiry school is public, as is Shelly Harwayne’s P.S. 290 in New York. Nancie Atwell’s school is private though, as a research school, she has always made sure her enrollment matches her region’s socio-economic diversity.
In my experience, a school’s legal status as public, private, religious, charter, or otherwise, has little positive effect on the quality of teaching or the degree to which reforms succeed or fail. What does seem to have a positive effect is a shared philosophy among administration, faculty, and staff that is based on good science and common sense. This is certainly easier to achieve when one starts from scratch as with the formation of a new charter school, for example. But this kind of starting and restarting happens all the time in public schools, too, especially with the amount of new school building that is taking place to accommodate the Baby Boom Echo. What doesn’t happen very often is the formation of a school based on a shared vision of good teaching and good learning, and the assertion of leadership by a few knowledgeable and committed individuals toward the realization of that vision. I suspect that the source of the frustration you mention at the top -- which I and many others share share with you -- is a natural reaction to the void of leadership in our schools. You’re absolutely right that we do know how to educate our children effectively. Unfortunately, the number of people who are willing to step up to that reality by acting in constructive and supportive ways is, at present, very, very small.