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High-School Rankings Are Meaningless — And Harmful

Over the past month or so, in newspapers and local-news websites all around the country, public high schools and school districts have been trumpeting reports about how they’ve done on various national rankings of high schools. For instance, here’s Bill Runey, principal of Attleboro High School in Massachusetts. “We’re really proud of this,” he said in a press release put out by the school district. He was referring to the fact that Attleboro had been ranked 1,947th in the nation on the Washington Post‘s annual ranking of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools.”

On a local level, school rankings long have been the sort of thing city magazines thrive on, along with their “best of” issues that purport to tell readers where to buy the best burger in the city or get the best waxing. In a single metropolitan area (or even in a single state), rankings of public schools may have some utility if they are done thoughtfully, using sensible metrics. Parents might be able to use that information to find an affordable residence near good schools, while still leaving themselves within reasonable reach of their place of employment. It’s harder to fathom the logic for ranking high schools nationwide. Few are the families who will move out of state or across the country on the basis of claims about school quality.

Without taking away from whatever credit Runey and Attleboro High School deserve for their achievements, let’s call national rankings of high schools what they are: nonsense. There is no way to say, with any degree of accuracy at all, where any given high school ranks in relation to others in terms of how good it is or how challenging it is. And the claim that Attleboro High School, which was not even fully accredited as recently as seven years ago, is now in the top ten percent of America’s high schools — among the most challenging — seems improbable, at best.

And yet, every year since 1998, Jay Mathews, an education journalist at the Washington Post, has been putting together a ranking of what he calls “America’s Most Challenging Schools,” or the Challenge Index. For years, this national list was published by Newsweek, which was owned by the Washington Post Company. When the Post sold off Newsweek in 2010, it kept the Mathews index for itself. Newsweek then produced its own ranking, which has been continued by the Daily Beast. And, of course, US News & World Report, an organization famous for fueling Americans’ obsessions with rankings (colleges, law schools, hospitals, etc.) started its own high-school list, too.

All of these lists have flaws that stem from the inherent absurdity of presuming to rank schools around the country according to how good or challenging they are. And they all come in for criticism. Recently, Matthew Di Carlo, a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute, took a critical look at theNewsweek/Daily Beast and US News rankings, finding some good and some bad features in each of them.

But it’s the Mathews “Challenge Index” that has given rise to the sharpest criticism over time (see herehere, and here, for example) because of its methodology, which is reductionist in the extreme. It uses only one factor to calculate its rankings: It divides the number of Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and Cambridge (AICE) exams taken at each school by the number of graduating seniors. Note that the numerator is not even the number of such exams passed, but merely the number taken. So, a given school can rise on the list by increasing the number of its students who take “advanced” classes.

Conversely, schools that are more discerning and thoughtful about which students ought to be taking AP classes end up suffering in the rankings. So, the list produces nonsensical anomalies such as high schools with very low graduation rates ranking much higher on the “Challenge Index” than excellent schools that don’t game the ranking system, or that, like Scarsdale High School, have joined the growing list of schools that have eliminated AP courses so that, as Bruce Hammond puts it, “students and teachers could rediscover their passion and creativity” once freed of what is too often a rigid and stultifying AP curriculum.

To their credit, US News and Newsweek/Daily Beast, which also use AP and IB courses as a measure, have made their rankings more sophisticated and reasonable by also adding other measures of a school’s quality, such as (in theDaily Beast‘s case) graduation rates and college-acceptance rates, and (in the case of US News) performance on state accountability tests and the proficiency rates of a school’s least advantaged students on those tests. For explanations of their methodologies, see here for the Daily Beast and here for US News.)

Despite steady criticism over the years, Mathews has retained and defended the simple formula he uses to calculate his Challenge Index, refusing to factor in other appropriate measures of school quality beyond the number of students taking advanced classes. (His only concession has been to add a separate list of schools, what he calls “The Catching Up Schools,” that takes into account how impoverished the student body is, as measured by the percentage of students who quality for federal lunch subsidies. He also now notes that information in a separate column on his main ranking, along with the percentage of graduates who passed at least one “college-level” test during their high school career, but does not factor those data into his rankings.) Because Mathews otherwise insists on only using AP and IB exams as his measure, the Challenge Index typically comes in for the sharpest criticism of all these rankings. The essential criticisms can be summarized as follows:

1) The inherent impossibility of measuring relative quality in schools. Quality is a very subjective matter, especially in something as intangible as education. And using a simple measure to rank thousands of schools certainly cannot capture the relative quality of schools or indicate which are better than others.

Mathews says his index doesn’t purport to identify or rank “the best” schools or otherwise measure quality. He says he’s merely identifying the “most challenging” schools, as indicated by the number of its students who take what he calls “college-level courses.” But when his ranking was published byNewsweek, it was actually billed as a list of “America’s Best High Schools.” Like most journalists, Mathews probably doesn’t write his own headlines, and he may have been as irritated by the use of the word “best” as many of his readers. But given how his bosses have billed his lists over time, the effect of the lists is reductive. As Valerie Strauss, a sharp critic of the Mathews ranking and a colleague of his at the Washington Postpoints out, Mathews “doesn’t use that word [‘best’] to describe his rankings, but what do you think people take away from them?”

2) Focusing only on AP and other “advanced” courses is silly. Aside from the obvious and already noted objection that looking only at such courses fails to take into account all the other indicators of school quality, some people (I include myself here) say that many of these courses simply aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, which makes their use as a proxy for quality even more ludicrous.

This isn’t the place to rehash the many criticisms one can lodge against AP courses. I did that last October in a piece here. But it’s worth noting that since then AP courses have come in for more celebrated blows, such as Dartmouth’sdecision in January to add itself to the list of schools refusing to give college credits for high scores on AP courses because of concerns that AP courses “are not as rigorous as college courses.”

Then, a few weeks later, Kenneth Bernstein, an award-winning high-school teacher (recently retired) and nationally known blogger (“teacherken”) garnered nationwide publicity and hundreds of thousands of readers for a letter he published, warning college professors that the current U.S. obsession with high-stakes testing is producing high-school graduates who don’t think as analytically or as broadly as they should. He devoted much of his attention in the piece to AP courses, calling them “responsible for some of the problems” professors will encounter with students headed their way.

Most importantly (and damningly), in April, Stanford University researchers released their careful review of more than 20 research studies on the AP experience, the results of which challenged four basic common assumptions about the AP program: (1) The AP program gives students several advantages in terms of college; (2) the AP program helps to narrow achievement gaps and promote educational equity for traditionally underserved students; (3) AP programs enrich students’ high school experiences; and (4) schools with AP programs are better than schools without AP programs. Denise Pope and her Stanford colleagues found problems with all these claims.

In the face of continuing evidence that the merits of many AP courses are exaggerated, it’s hard to understand why Mathews continues to make them the bedrock of his ranking system. He says that he’s just interested in bringing the benefit of more challenging coursework to larger groups of students. But even if he disagrees with specific criticisms of AP courses, one would think that the overall quantity of criticism at this point would be enough to moderate what he himself has called his “obsession” with the program. But obsessed he is: By my count, he has devoted his space in the Washington Post to some aspect of AP courses more than fifty times in the last four and a half years.

3) The Challenge Index has been partly responsible for fueling the tremendous growth in AP enrollments around the country over the past ten years.

Of course, many students take AP courses because they’re genuinely interested in challenging themselves with what can be a rigorous course of study and because they’re intellectually curious about the subject matter. Unfortunately, too many others take these courses because they’re feverishly trying to impress college admissions officers by stacking their record with large numbers of AP courses.

But many students who end up in AP courses are there because they are unwitting pawns of their principals, local school boards, or education bureaucrats, who are pushing more students to take AP classes to improve their schools’ ranking on the Challenge Index and other such lists. Remember that the Mathews index doesn’t take into account how students perform on the AP exams, just that they take them. The incentive to vacuum kids into these classes ends up packing AP courses with too many students who don’t belong there.

In short, by being partly responsible for the explosive growth in AP enrollment over the past decade, the Mathews ranking — and, to a lesser extent, the others — amplifies the absurdity that pervades contemporary public education in the United States, where cramming students’ heads with information and then subjecting those students to standardized tests seems to have supplanted helping students to learn as the preferred modus operandi of many education officials, and where the behavior of school officials is shaped more by perverse incentives than by educational common sense.

That’s the reason to care about this.

If it weren’t for the fact that these sorts of rankings actually shape school behavior, everyone would be perfectly justified in ignoring Mathews and the Washington Post as they spend time and other resources assembling his list. The ranking itself is meaningless. But the harm it and other lists of its kind do to public education and the role they play in driving the College Board’s revenues can’t be overlooked. These lists may sell papers and draw readers to websites, but for those of us outside of that business, we’ve a duty to push back against this kind of reductionism wherever we see it.


This post originally appeared on on May 28, 2013.

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The Coming Revolution in Public Education


It’s always hard to tell for sure exactly when a revolution starts. Is it when a few discontented people gather in a room to discuss how the ruling regime might be opposed? Is it when first shots are fired? When a critical mass forms and the opposition acquires sufficient weight to have a chance of prevailing? I’m not an expert on revolutions, but even I can see that a new one is taking shape in American K-12 public education.

The dominant regime for the past decade or more has been what is sometimes called accountability-based reform or, by many of its critics, “corporate education reform.” The reforms consist of various initiatives aimed at (among other things): improving schools and educational outcomes by using standardized tests to measure what students are learning; holding schools and teachers accountable (through school closures and teacher pay cuts) when their students are “lagging” on those standardized assessments; controlling classroom instruction and increasing the rigor of school curricula by pushing all states to adopt the same challenging standards via a “Common Core;” and using market-like competitive pressures (through the spread of charter schools and educational voucher programs) to provide public schools with incentives to improve.

Critics of the contemporary reform regime argue that these initiatives, though seemingly sensible in their original framing, are motivated by interests other than educational improvement and are causing genuine harm to American students and public schools. Here are some of the criticisms: the reforms have self-interest and profit motives, not educational improvement, as their basis; corporate interests are reaping huge benefits from these reform  initiatives and spending millions of dollars lobbying to keep those benefits flowing; three big foundations (Gates, Broad, and Walton Family) are funding much of the backing for the corporate reforms and are spending billions to market and sell reforms that don’t work; ancillary goals of these reforms are to bust teacher unions, disempower educators, and reduce spending on public schools; standardized testing is enormously expensive in terms both of public expenditures and the diversion of instruction time to test prep; over a third of charter schools deliver “significantly worse” results for students than the traditional public schools from which they were diverted; and, finally, that these reforms have produced few benefits and have actually caused harm, especially to kids in disadvantaged areas and communities of color. (On that last overall point, see this scathing new report from the Economic Policy Institute.)

Fueled in part by growing evidence of the reforms’ ill effects and of the reformers’ self-interested motives, the counter-movement is rapidly expanding. Here are some reasons why I predict it will continue to gain strength and gradually lead to the undoing of these market-based education reforms.

  • It’s what history teaches us to expect. In this country, we lurch back and forth between efforts to professionalize and efforts to infantilize public-school teachers, and have been doing so since the beginning of public schools in America. Neither kind of effort accords teachers much respect. Because teachers are chiefly employed by local governments  (unlike doctors or lawyers who are typically employed in private enterprise), there has always been a tendency on the part of some groups of people to try to exert greater central control over teachers, not believing them to be professionals who can be left to do their jobs according to their own judgment. When those skeptics hold sway, the “solutions” they impose favor quantitative/metrics-based “accountability,” top-down management, limitations on teachers’ autonomy, and the substitution of external authority (outside measurers and evaluators) for the expertise of educators themselves. (See William J. Reese’s op-ed piece Sunday on the early history of the “testing wars” in America.)
  • Education policies based on standardization and uniformity tend to fail. The policy alchemists’ notion that a “Common Core” or standardized curriculum, along with standardized tests, are appropriate measures for “fixing” American education is uninformed by an understanding of history and practice. Twenty-five years ago, two of our wisest scholarly analysts of educational reform, Richard Elmore and Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin, observed, based on their study of education reforms over the decades: “Reforms succeed to the degree that they adapt to and capitalize upon variability [from school to school and classroom to classroom]. . . . Policies that aim to reduce variability by reducing teacher discretion not only preclude learning from situational adaptation to policy goals, they also can impede effective teaching.” Today’s corporate reformers are flying in the face of experience.
  • Policies based on distrust of teachers tend to fail. The current crop of reformers also roundly ignored another fundamental principle laid down years ago by Elmore and McLaughlin on the basis of their exhaustive research: policies and practices that are based on distrust of teachers and disrespect for them will fail. Why? “The fate of the reforms ultimately depends on those who are the object of distrust.” In other words, educational reforms need teachers’ buy-in, trust, and cooperation to succeed; “reforms” that kick teachers in the teeth are never going to succeed. Moreover, education policies crafted without teacher involvement are bound to be wrongheaded. When the architects of the Common Core largely excluded teachers from involvement in its development, they simultaneously guaranteed its untrustworthiness and its ultimate failure.
  • Judging teachers’ performance by students’ test scores is both substantively and procedurally flawed. A teacher’s instruction matters in student performance, but too many other things (a student’s socioeconomic background, upbringing, parental involvement, motivation) also matter for students’ test scores to be a reasonable indicator of a teacher’s merit. As The Nation magazine reported in 2011: “The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.”Moreover, using students’ test scores for such judgments is poor policy from a procedural standpoint. The news reports in recent weeks that teachers and administrators in various jurisdictions (Atlanta and Washington, DC, for example) have cheated by manipulating test scores carry a powerful message, but not the one many observers may first think. The message is not that educators are venal or mendacious, but that rewarding or punishing teachers based on students’ test scores is a fundamentally flawed process that fails to take into account Campbell’s Law, one of the best-known maxims in the literature on organizational behavior: if you impose external quantitative measurements to judge work performance that cannot be easily and clearly measured, all you will achieve is a displacement of goals — in this case, some teachers and administrators will be more concerned with maximizing scores (even through cheating) than with helping kids learn.
  • More people are realizing that many of the organizations involved in “corporate reform” seem to need reforming themselves. A great irony of the corporate reform agenda is that the mission to bring business-like accountability and efficiency to public education has been hampered in part by the colossal incompetence of some of the companies involved. A good example is Pearson, which calls itself “the world’s leading education company,” a slogan which, if true, should give all of us great pause. This big testing company, like its testing-industry competitors, has been screwing up over and over again for more than a decade now, with news of its most recent colossal mistake coming just this past week. Moreover, despite their screw-ups, these companies are enriching themselves and their executives from taxpayers’ dollars – Pearson’s pre-tax profits soaring by 72 percent in 2011. And in the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up vein, we got the news in the last few days that Pearson is allowing embedded plugs for commercial products (LEGO and Mug Root Beer, anyone?) in the exams for which taxpayers are footing the bill. No wonder growing numbers of people are rebelling against the intrusion into public education of the sort of gross commercial greed and incompetence the testing-industry represents. (If you want to read a detailed and damning appraisal of the secretive and error-ridden testing business, read this 2003 report by Kathleen Rhoades and George Madaus of Boston College’s Lynch School of Education.)
  • People wonder why reformers themselves aren’t held accountable. Accountability is a central tenet of the market-based reforms. So people naturally find it disturbing when the architects and advocates of the reforms elude accountability for wrongdoing they knew about. To be more pointed, it’s fair to say that the behavior of Michelle Rhee, the former DC school commissioner who was once the darling of the reform movement, has done genuine harm to her cause by countenancing or ignoring the misbehavior on her watch. (See here and here.)

There are more reasons why there is a growing rebellion against the reigning reform agenda. But you get the picture: the reforms are ill-conceived, and their implementation is leading to growing distrust and dissatisfaction.

Even if all this is correct, you may ask, where are these signs of growing rebellion?  Here are but a few: teachers in various cities (Seattle, for example) have refused to administer standardized tests, and support for their stance has spread; many parents are choosing not to let their kids take the standardized tests, preferring to “opt out,” and those whose kids go ahead with the tests are complaining vociferously about them; legislators in various states (even Texas!) are reconsidering standardized tests and expressing concerns about Pearson and the testing industry; corporate-reform proposals (vouchers and state-not-local authorization of charter schools) got stopped last week in the legislature of Tennessee, a state that previously was friendly to the agenda.

And here’s one more: When Gerald “Jerry” Conti decided a month ago to go public with his reasons for deciding to retire from his teaching career after 27 years at Westhill High School in New York, he leveled blistering and impassioned criticisms against the corporate reforms that, he says, are harming our educational system. Conti’s cri de coeur went viral on the Web,  embraced by a massive audience of teachers and parents, who found in it a clear and moving expression of their own dissatisfactions. Others are joining the chorus. See, for example, this recent plea by David Patten to “let teachers teach.”

What, then, do the critics of the corporate reform agenda propose? Surely they can’t be defending the status quo, content with the current state of schools. No. Without being too unfair to the diversity of views on this, the key consensus is that the most important step we could take to deal with our education problems would be to address poverty in the United States. We don’t have an “education problem.” The notion that we are “a nation at risk” from underachieving public schools is, as David Berliner asserts, errant “nonsense” and a pack of lies.

Rather, we have a poverty problem. The fact is that kids in resource-rich public school systems perform near the top on international measures. However, as David Sirota has reported, “The reason America’s overall scores on such tests are far lower is because high poverty schools produce far worse results — and as the most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores accordingly.” Addressing poverty and inequality are the keys to serving America’s educational needs.

For a broader summary of an alternative agenda, let’s turn to Diane Ravitch, the eminent educational policy analyst and most notable of those who once supported the accountability reforms and now ardently oppose them. This is an excerpt from a statement on Ravitch’s website, in which she lays out the rationale for a plea that people “take action now” to push back against the corporate reforms:

What we need to improve education in this country is a strong, highly respected education profession; a rich curriculum in the arts and sciences, available in every school for every child; assessments that gauge what students know and can do, instead of mindless test prepping for bubble tests. And a government that is prepared to change the economic and social conditions that interfere with children’s readiness to learn. We need high-quality early childhood education. We need parent education programs. We need social workers and guidance counselors in the school. Children need physical education every day. And schools should have classes small enough for students to get the attention they need when they need it.

We cannot improve education by quick fixes. We will not fix education by turning public schools over to entrepreneurs. We will not improve it by driving out experienced professionals and replacing them with enthusiastic amateurs. We will not make our schools better by closing them and firing teachers and entire staffs. No high-performing nation in the world follows such strategies. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo, which is not good enough for our children, nor can we satisfied with the Bush-Obama-Duncan “reforms” that have never been proven to work anywhere.

If I am correct that a new educational revolution is under way, it will need its own Thomas Paine, speaking “Common Sense” and urging action. Diane Ravitch is one voice advocating  that kind of action: at the bottom of her website, Ravitch provides suggestions about specific steps parents and teachers who think that corporate reforms are misguided, wrong, and harmful can take to “push back” against the corporate reformers. Anyone who agrees with her view can look there — or to their local school board and state legislators — for ways to carry the message forward.

This piece first appeared at on April 25, 2013.

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Male Teachers in All-Girls Schools


Let’s all pause for a silent moment of compassion for young male teachers in all-girls high schools. Theirs is a difficult job.

Riiiiiight, some of you young men may be thinking. I’ll sign up for that work.

But that sense of the young male teacher’s plight is one clear impression I’ve gained from a decidedly unscientific survey I recently completed of fifty of my former students, girls I taught when they were juniors or seniors at a private, all-girls high school outside Boston, from which I recently retired. I contacted these young women, all of them now college students or recent college graduates, to get a sense of how they perceived their male and female teachers in high school.

I asked each of my former students if she would tell me how she regarded her male and female teachers (not individually, by name, but as genders). I wrote to each of them:

Recognizing that these things vary by individuals, both teachers and students, is there anything we can say about how male vs. female teachers treat female students? And is there anything we can say about how female students treat their male vs. female teachers? I’m not talking here about any difference in the quality of teaching by male or female teachers, but how students treat them, and how, in turn, students are treated by teachers of different gender.

My interest in these questions came, at least in part, from comments I heard from female teachers over the years. Some of them, especially the older ones, felt invisible to their students or felt the girls simply liked the male teachers more than their female counterparts; the male teachers seemed to receive all the attention. According to such complaints, the girls were more likely to make male teachers the subjects of their comedy skits, for example, or cast male teachers in the videos they would make for all-school events. These were seen as evidence of students’ greater affection for the male faculty.

Having wondered over the years whether there was any substance to my female colleagues’ perceptions, I did a Web search that failed to produce much in the way of scholarly or journalistic information on this subject. So, I simply decided to go to the source—the girls themselves—and ask them about it. Forty-six of the 50 young women I contacted wrote back to me. Here’s some of what I learned, with more to come later.

Two principal themes emerged from the responses I received. The first is that, contrary to what some of my female teaching colleagues believed, the girls respected them more than they did their male teachers. More than half of my respondents made comments indicating that their female teachers commanded more student respect because they were stricter, more demanding, more focused in class, less likely to be nudged off topic, etc. One student wrote:

I’ve noticed that female teachers expect more of their female students than male teachers do. Maybe this is because the female teachers recognize a potential in a female student that they once saw in themselves. And perhaps the female students take their female teachers more seriously in response to the higher expectations.

Some of the students noted that the older female teachers were nurturing and “maternal” in the way they dealt with the girls; many found that comforting, others found it off-putting (“no one wants a second mom”).

If respect for female teachers was the leitmotif in most of the students’ comments, the constant refrain was that they felt more comfortable around the male teachers, who seemed less intimidating than most of the female teachers and brought far more humor into the classroom. This latter point was a constant in the commentary—the observation that the male teachers joked around with their students much more than the female teachers did and created an easy-going atmosphere in the classroom. One student, now a college sophomore, wrote:

As a general rule, I’d say our male teachers were more relaxed around us, and more willing to have fun with us. Granted, there were definitely awkward teachers or moments, but generally I think my male teachers were more interested in being friendly with us. Admittedly, we could get away with more with the male teachers. It was almost like our female teachers knew our game better and weren’t willing to play it. I would say generally our female teachers were more uptight and less friendly. They were more interested in getting the job done.

Another student wrote:

I think we tended to become more comfortable around the male teachers because they seemed more laid back than many of the female teachers. I think we also believed we could get away with more (extending deadlines, delaying a test) with the male teachers compared with the female teachers, who wouldn’t put up with it.

A different recurring observation in my former students’ commentaries made it clear that the age of their teachers often seemed to matter more than the gender. Young female teachers were prized because they are “easier to talk to and relate to,” some of them “willing to be a friend of sorts, asking about your personal life and sharing school gossip.”

A senior at a west-coast university observed:

I don’t think there’s generally a huge difference as far as gender is concerned. The teacher’s personality matters more than gender. The big exception would be young male teachers. We gave them so much shit. Poor Smith and Jones [names changed to protect the victimized]. Senior year I would make intense eyes at Jones and toss my hair whenever I saw him just to watch him squirm. We didn’t take young male teachers seriously. We’d giggle loudly whenever they walked by the couches [the students’ lounge area]. The other exception is that male teachers usually totally freak out at the sight of tears or any mention of ‘women’s troubles,’ and I know some girls took advantage of that.

I know this was true about the way the students teased and harassed the younger male teachers. I observed it myself.

Probably the most horrific story I received along these lines actually involved these girls when they were still in the school’s lower grades (there’s a middle school, too, with grades five through eight). One of them, now at a university in the Boston area, reminded me of a story I had heard from multiple sources over the years:

The only time I think there was any difference [in the way we interacted with male vs. female teachers] was possibly in middle school when girls thought they could get away with things if they related them to “female problems” with the male teachers. One instance that comes to mind is when a student threw pads and tampons around the room to make a male teacher feel uncomfortable and then asked if she could be excused.

That wouldn’t happen in a classroom with a female as the teacher, nor in a classroom headed by an older male. As I said at the start, when I think about the plight of inexperienced, young male teachers in an all-girls school, I feel compassion.

I should note, by way of conclusion, that perhaps I was oblivious to the truths around me, but I never felt I was at any advantage or disadvantage relative to the female teachers in dealing with my students. But maybe I should have. The best-known study on how a teacher’s gender matters, published in 2006 by Thomas Dee of Stanford University, found that middle-school boys learn more from men and middle-school girls learn more from women. Dee found that having a teacher of the opposite sex hurts a student’s academic progress. Though controversial, Dee’s findings raise serious questions that education researchers should explore.

And my informal inquiry suggests that, at least in an all-girls school, male teachers have to fight the desire to be liked and work on those behaviors that produce respect. And young male teachers in such settings apparently need to understand that they’re swimming with sharks.


This post originally appeared on on March 28, 2013.


What ‘Ferris Bueller’ Got Right about School

Let’s do a mental exercise. I’m going to ask you to picture a series of school classrooms full of students and their teachers. First, imagine a class of second graders. Got it? Now fifth graders. Now ninth graders. And finally, picture a classroom of high school seniors.

If you’re like many people I’ve spoken with, your image of the elementary school classroom is of happy, engaged, enthusiastic kids, perhaps with hands raised, clamoring for the teacher to call on them to answer a question. Perhaps something like this:


And your image of the high-school seniors in class probably isn’t much different from this iconic, devastatingly funny scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the 1986 hit film by John Hughes:

Even if your mental images aren’t quite at these polar extremes, you probably sense that there’s a big difference between the early years and the later ones when it comes to what’s called student engagement — essentially, how invested kids are in their learning, how much delight they take in their work, and how eager they are to participate.

Our impressions apparently are not just figments of our media-infused imaginations. New research from the Gallup organization indicates clearly that student engagement declines steadily and dramatically with each successive year in school from grade 5 through grade 12. This graph shows the dramatic drop in student engagement over time:


In 2012, the Gallup Student Poll surveyed almost a half-million students in grades 5 through 12, drawn from more than 1700 public schools in 37 states. The poll measures three different constructs that have been deemed important predictors of student success: hope, engagement, and well being. It found that a strong majority of elementary students, nearly 8 in 10, are engaged. By middle school, that figure falls to about 6 in 10. And by high school, only 4 in 10 students qualify as engaged.

As executive director of Gallup Education Brandon Busteed comments in The Gallup Blog:

If we were doing right by our students and our future, these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less. … The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure,. Imagine what our economy would look like today if nearly eight in 10 of our high school graduates were engaged — just as they were in elementary school.

Speculating about possible causes for the lack of student engagement, Busteed points to “our overzealousfocus on standardized testing and curricula [and] our lack of experiential and project-based learning pathways for students–not to mention the lack of pathways for students who will not and do not want to go on to college.”

Those seem like perfectly plausible, even likely, explanations. I certainly won’t gainsay them. But just as you would probably add some other items to that list, so would I, including the following:

  • An outdated and broken paradigm of assembly-line formal education. There may be something fundamentally wrong, especially in the secondary years, with the way we try to educate our kids (as Sir Ken Robinson has argued). How can our schools foster engagement when for so many kids they fail a basic relevance test?
  • Inadequate resources. Because of the inequities inherent in our method of financing public education and our failure as a society to take education seriously (spending far less on education than on, say, the war on drugs), our schools lack the resources necessary to be inviting, enlivening, and truly stimulating places for learning.
  • A cultural failure to value teachers. Surely there are boring teachers out there; actor Ben Stein didn’t invent his character for Ferris Bueller out of whole cloth. But most teachers work harder and are more skilled than the public believes. Even so, we certainly could do better in attracting to this profession people who might help spark students’ imagination and love of learning.
  • Student transition from childhood to adolescence. Finally, it seems disingenuous, when talking about the decline in student engagement, to neglect to mention developmental changes in kids as they move from childhood to adolescence. It’s not just constipated schools and boring teachers that lead many high-school students to cop the posture of being “too cool for school.”

Are you starting to get depressed as you read this? Starting to think you might click back to pieces about the debt-ceiling crisis, horrific air pollution in Beijing, or your computer’s vulnerability from having Java enabled in your browser? Let’s try a different mental exercise. Let’s imagine the Gallup folks didn’t get it right. Any chance of that? Possibly.

Gallup’s public announcement of the study through its blog leaves out any mention of the study’s methodological limitations. One has to go to the official report itself to find those. Here are a few of them: Schools participating in the study were not randomly selected; the participating schools did so voluntarily; participation rates varied by school; the overall data did not reflect responses from a nationally representative sample of students; and the overall data were not statistically weighted to reflect the U.S. student population. I’m no statistician, but these shortcomings seem considerable.

Moreover, one could ask whether the questions the pollsters used to measure students’ engagement were the best ones they could have devised for that purpose. While they correspond roughly to the questions Gallup uses to measure employee engagement in the workplace, one still can wonder about their appropriateness here.

In other words, if you were trying to ask your daughter some questions that probed her level of engagement at school — her investment in learning, her delight in doing her work, her eagerness to participate in class, etc. — the questions you’d come up with would probably be quite different from at least some of the ones Gallup asked (listed here):

8. I have a best friend at school.

9. I feel safe in this school.

10. My teachers make me feel my schoolwork is important.

11. At this school, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

12. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good schoolwork.

13. My school is committed to building the strengths of each student.

14. In the last month, I volunteered my time to help others.

So, it’s possible that the Gallup study didn’t get it quite right. (Thanks to Larry Ferlazzo on these points.) Perhaps the decline in student engagement is not as precipitous as the research suggests. Unfortunately, anyone who has spent much time in schools can verify that the general downtrend in student engagement from elementary through high school described by the Gallup data is real.

I don’t know how to solve this problem. But I repeat this assessment by Brandon Busteed because I think he’s correct: “The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure.” In my view, education reformers are wasting a lot of time on things like the Common Core standards, when this decline in engagement may be our biggest educational problem.

What would you do about it?


This piece originally appeared at on January 17, 2013.

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A Sad Paradox of Catholic Education

jesusThis week the New York Times ran an op-ed piece about the sad state of Catholic parochial education in most places in the United States. The finances are precarious, to say the least, even though demand remains strong. Two interesting paragraphs:

Until the 1960s, religious orders were united in responding to Christ’s mandate to “go teach.” But religious vocations have become less attractive, and parochial schools have faced increasing competition from charter schools. Without a turnaround, many dioceses will soon have only scatterings of elite Catholic academies for middle-class and affluent families and a token number of inner-city schools, propped up by wealthy donors.

As in other areas, the church has lost its way, by failing to prioritize parochial education. Despite the sex-abuse scandals and two recessions, church revenue — which flows from parishes via Sunday donations, bequests and so on — grew to $11.9 billion in 2010, an inflation-adjusted increase of $2.2 billion from a decade earlier. Yet educational subsidies have fallen; the church now pays at least 12.6 percent of parochial elementary school costs, down from 63 percent in 1965.

These two paragraphs spell out a central paradox of Catholic elementary and secondary education in the United States. While most Catholic schools are starved for resources, there are, as the piece indicates, “scatterings of elite Catholic academies for middle-class and affluent families.” Consider the Sacred Heart network of schools — an association of Catholic independent schools in the United States and around the world. At least in the US, these schools serve incredibly affluent constituencies in some of the wealthiest communities in the country. Several Sacred Heart schools appeared recently on the list of  50 most expensive private high schools in the United States.

There’s nothing wrong with Catholic schools trying to educate the kids of the wealthy, but the juxtaposition of these two polar ends of Catholic education in America should be deeply unsettling to the Church and, I would think, to the independent Catholic schools that feed off the rich rather than serve the poor.  These schools preach social justice but exacerbate and perpetuate social injustice.

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Pop-Neurology Hucksters Have Infiltrated Our Schools: They’re Not Helping

We’ve all heard of “climate change deniers” or “Holocaust deniers” — people who deny, for whatever reason, the occurrence of important events. I found out this past weekend that I am a “neuro doubter.” No, it doesn’t mean that I doubt the findings of neuroscience. Rather, as Alissa Quart used the term in an op-ed piece in Sunday’s New York Times, a neuro doubter is someone who “may like neuroscience but does not like what he or she considers its bastardization by glib, sometimes ill-informed, popularizers.”

Quart’s purpose was to “applaud the backlash against what is sometimes called brain porn,” and to add her voice to those who are critical of “reductionist, sloppy thinking and our willingness to accept seemingly neuroscientific explanations for, well, nearly everything.” I’m totally with Quart on this issue because education, the field in which I have spent my career, is rife with glib popularizers of neuroscience.

Where does one come across these people? They show up as speakers at conferences and instructors of “professional development” sessions. You can find them in the ranks of educational consultants. Wherever there is a speaker’s fee to be earned or an audience to be bamboozled, they’re around. You can find their websites, where they’re giving webinars or hawking all manner of commercial programs and products.

A book out earlier this year critically appraises the ways in which neuroscience has been applied and misapplied in the field of education. As suggested by the volume’s title — Neuroscience in Education: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — co-editors Sergio Della Sala and Mike Anderson and their contributors appraised some of the applications of neuroscience by the field of education to be valuable, others to be crazy.

The “good” examples involve solid research in cognitive psychology that has clear implications for educational practice. The “bad” use neuroscience jargon to entice listeners and lend a scientific aura to iffy practices and educational programs that are not evidence-based. For instance, the authors cite theories suggesting that listening to Mozart can boost intelligence, foot massages can help unruly pupils, fish oil can boost brain power, even the idea that breathing through your left nostril can enhance creativity. About such nonsense, they conclude: “Education is too important to be hijacked by crazy ideas that gain currency only by hearsay.”

The “ugly” examples involve cognitive theories that are interpreted in an overly simplistic way, or misapplied altogether, often as part of an ideological agenda. Anderson and Sala say in their introduction: “Sadly, the bad has swamped both the good and the ugly (possibly because of the potential for monetary reward).” While there are many hard-working, committed people who work in education, the broader education sector is, unfortunately, overrun with hucksters, hustlers, and charlatans. Consultants, entrepreneurs, and companies are scurrying to make money by applying some of our knowledge of the human brain to the field of education. They capitalize on the inherent open-endedness and uncertainty of the subject to promote themselves and their dubious ideas. Workshops, seminars, and so-called “brain-based” commercial programs and products are proliferating like kudzu.

Not all misinterpretations and misapplications of neuroscience are as outlandish as foot massages and fish oil. But they can still be very misleading — and, when employed by the unscrupulous, harmful. Neuroscientists have identified a number of prominent “neuromyths” (see hereherehere, and here), many of which enjoy currency in the broader culture.  Among these are the ideas that that we only use about 10 percent of our brain, that there are known critical developmental periods for acquiring certain abilities, that there are “left-brained” or “right-brained” learners who must be taught differently in order to reach their full potential, that there are different learning styles (typically characterized as visual, auditory, or kinetic) rooted in neural differences, and that there are “male” and “female” brains.

Neuroscientists have devoted a lot of effort to countering the spread of these widely accepted myths and are understandably rankled by what they consider pseudoscientific tripe.


None of this is to say that there aren’t lessons from neuroscience and cognitive psychology that can inform educational practices. There are. But as Daniel Willingham said in a brief but informed treatment of this same topic earlier this week, “There is definitely a lot of neuro-garbage in the education market.”

Other than health and fitness, it’s hard to think of another arena of American life that is more subject to fads, cure-alls, and miracle potions than education. Just as we want to lose weight, stay healthy, and remain youthful, we want to find easy-to-follow recipes for both classroom teaching and effective learning.

Invoking brain science provides the requisite veneer of respectability and rigor that educational grifters and snake oil salesmen need to make their schemes work. Anderson and Sala note ruefully: “There seems to be a certain allure to explanations and products that are accompanied by ‘neuro’ or ‘brain-based’ language that makes them somehow more convincing than explanations without neuroscience — even, it turns out, when the neuroscience language adds nothing of value.” They cite research showing that even in common discourse, “information that includes vacuous reference to neuroscientific data or concepts is much more persuasive than the same information without it.”

Just as we need to be cautious and skeptical in weighing the pitches of snake oil salesmen, we need to beware of “learning experts” and other educational consultants who polish their rotten apples with a glaze of neuroscience.


This piece originally appeared at

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Why Do So Many Teachers Quit Their Jobs? Because They Hate Their Bosses


What’s the reason so many new teachers quit the profession or move to a different school? The heavy workload? Low salary? A paucity of classroom resources? An absence of autonomy? The “always-on,” continually demanding nature of the work? None of the above. The main reason is their principals.

To find out what factors influence novice teachers’ decisions to leave the teaching profession, Peter Youngs, associate professor of educational policy at Michigan State University and Ben Pogodzinski of Wayne State University, working with two other colleagues at Michigan State, surveyed 184 beginning teachers of grades one through eight in eleven large school districts in Michigan and Indiana. Their studywas recently published in Elementary School Journal.

The researchers found that the most important factor influencing commitment was the beginning teacher’s perception of how well the school principal worked with the teaching staff as a whole. This was a stronger factor than the adequacy of resources, the extent of a teacher’s administrative duties, the manageability of his or her workload, or the frequency of professional-development opportunities.

These findings are especially significant because high turnover rate among new teachers is a big problem. Roughly a third of teachers in their first two years either change schools or quit teaching altogether. This ends up being costly to school districts — forcing them to recruit, hire, and train new teachers. And spending all that time getting newcomers up to speed also limits schools’ ability to implement new reforms. This is especially problematic in low-income urban schools that have difficulties attracting and holding onto teachers in the first place.

The new research affirms much of what earlier studies have found. For example, an earlier (2003) multiyear study of 50 teachers in Massachusetts found that teachers who left the profession often “described principals who were arbitrary, abusive, or neglectful.”  Other studies also have established a link between administrative climate and teacher retention.

None of this should be too surprising. Business researchers have long known that an employee’s relationship with a boss is a leading factor in job retention. A 2007 Florida State study, for instance, surveyed more than 700 people in a wide range of professions and found that people who clashed with their supervisors “experienced more exhaustion, job tension, nervousness, depressed mood and mistrust.”

In the case of the novice teachers, poor relations with principals come through in disagreements over school or district policies, evaluations of teacher performance, and expectations that teacher work beyond their contractual requirements. The atmosphere of distrust is often magnified as the teachers discuss their complaints with one another. And it’s not just novice teachers whose work lives are affected by the school’s head. My own experience in an independent school confirmed the overwhelming importance of the principal’s managerial style and its effect on teachers’ job satisfaction.

According to Youngs, one obvious upshot of this research is that training programs for principals in university or professional-development programs need to emphasize interpersonal skills as well as leadership skills. “The focus,” he said,“would be on how principals could increase their knowledge of setting a healthy, productive school climate and understanding ways that their actions and leadership can impact new teachers’ attitudes and outcomes.”


This piece originally appeared at

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Can Your Kid Read Charts and Graphs? Better Hope So

Presidential candidate Ross Perot: 1996

Presidential candidate Ross Perot: 1996
















You probably have a pretty good idea how well your teenager can write, how good her reading comprehension is, and how easily she solves math problems. But here’s a question to consider: Can your high-school student extract the meaning from a chart or graph?

Okay, let’s stipulate that your kid probably can. What do you think about your neighbor’s kid? Do you think he knows how to read a visual display of quantitative information? There’s a very good chance he can’t. And that’s a problem.

The education world seems always aflutter with controversies over how best to teach students to write or what’s the most effective way to teach mathematics. While these are important matters, involving real problems, there are other gaps and failings that also deserve attention.

I taught for the past 10 years in an independent high school for girls. Not long after starting there, I discovered that many of my students had limited ability to derive and summarize the main message from fairly straightforward charts and graphs like this one, comparing the crime rate to unemployment in the US over a twenty-year period:

A Collaboration Between Good and Part & Parcel

When I raised the subject at a faculty meeting one day, my comment elicited wide agreement. The ensuing discussion revealed that kids handled these kinds of tasks well in science and math classes, but the skills didn’t seem to transfer over to other subject areas such as the social sciences and history.

Now, this problem is surely not universal. There are certainly students who can handle these cognitive tasks well in any context. But an alarming percentage cannot. (I have not been able to find hard numbers on this and will be grateful to anyone who can provide them.)

Part of the explanation, I suspect, is a simple aversion on the part of many to anything that smacks of math. I know; I’m in that category. I’m one of those people whose skills at extracting information from graphs and charts are stunted because I avoided developing them, preferring to rely on the accompanying text to tell me the important points I needed to know from a complicated table or graph.

Another obstacle is that we all find it harder to extract meaning from graphs and charts in subject areas new to us. One study I found indicated that this is a widespread problem, showing that even professional scientists’ abilities to interpret graphs “are highly contextual and are a function of their familiarity with the phenomena to which the graph pertains.”

Still another reason for the difficulty some students have with visual displays of quantitative data is that many of the old standbys — pie charts, line graphs, dot charts and point plots, histograms, pictographs, etc. — are getting more complicated and are being supplemented, if not supplanted, by a mindboggling array of complicated and sophisticated new graphic forms, like this network diagram, showing the relationships, based on data about recorded meetings, between UK governmental ministers and British lobbyists:

Screen Shot 2012-10-30 at 6.43.57 AM.png

Tony Hirst at

These graphics are obviously the result of technological advancements, which make it easier to produce more complex graphs. (See Tony Hirst’s description of the computer work involved in producing the diagram above.)

Newspapers and magazines carry more graphic representations of data than they used to, and the Web is full of this stuff. Another example:


Global Web Index

The New York Times regularly provides good examples of these cutting-edge graphics.  See this interactive chart, for example, which shows how swing states have shifted between the Republican and Democratic parties over the years.

As these visual displays become more and more ubiquitous, it is all the more important that students know how to read, interpret, and summarize the information presented. It’s become an essential element of overall literacy.

But instead of working more aggressively to nurture this set of educational skills, we seem to be headed in precisely the opposite direction. The lead writers of the Common Core standards in English/language arts and math, David Coleman and Jason Zimba, dismiss the need to teach 5th graders about data and bar charts and graphs, saying such activities amount to a “fake version of developing young scientists.”

Instead, they want elementary-school kids to focus on fractions. Nobody can be opposed to that, but surely there is room for both kinds of emphasis.

As students get older, it’s important for them to learn not only how to be intelligent viewers of graphic representations, but wary and cautious viewers. While charts and graphs obviously are a boon to our ability to communicate information about large numbers or complicated relationships, there are also hidden pitfalls.

Statistics, like any other kind of information, are open to manipulation and distortion. We want our kids to be literate in this material so they can avoid being hoodwinked by those who use statistical figures carelessly or unscrupulously. Students need to learn how the creators of charts and graphics can misrepresent the truth: altering the baseline, changing units of analysis and comparison, using averages or means when they are misleading, not using constant dollars, not showing populations as a percentage of the base, or implying causality where none exists.

Unfortunately, unless your high school student takes a statistics course — and onlyabout 11 percent do — she or he is unlikely to learn all this. So, what can you do to help your teenager develop this particular kind of literacy?

First, ask her teachers what they’re doing to address these concerns in her classes. Push them on it. And teaching this sort of literacy should not be seen as the exclusive duty of math teachers or science teachers. Instructors in all subject areas where graphs and charts show up should be helping students with these skills.

Second, and more importantly, take an active role yourself in educating your kids how to read charts and graphs. Show them interesting ones. Talk about them. See if they can extract the important meaning from them. See if they can summarize the main point. If they can’t do it, help them figure out how. Show them the problems with graphs that are misleading. You can start by showing them this graph that Jim Fallows posted late last week as part of a piece here on what sorts of factors predict the outcome of presidential elections.


See if they know, from just looking at the graph, what he means when he says the graph is distorted because it makes the stock-market rise look bigger than it should. (And if you feel like probing a whole other matter, see if they can explain coherently what it means to say there has been a “rise in the stock market.”)

The main point to impart to your kids is that this kind of literacy is important. They shouldn’t shrug it off, nor should they be afraid of it. Show them how this kind of material can provide fascinating insights into things of real interest, with graphic representations like these:


This piece originally appeared at

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Pity the Recommendation Writer: Bard of the ‘Great Bland Majority’


It’s October. Tens of thousands of high-school teachers and college professors across the country are busy churning out letters of recommendation for students applying to college or graduate school. Students dread asking for the recommendations; teachers dread getting the requests.

Writing letters is a loathsome task. It’s not just that it takes lots of time, with each typically taking more than an hour to write. The real problem is this: About the vast majority of students, there’s simply not much to say. So all that time and effort seem like a monumental waste.

Writing letters for one’s strongest students is a cinch — and a pleasure. It’s easy to compose a great letter for a kid who is smart, hardworking, and insightful. A former colleague told me: “I actually enjoy writing the letters for the students with whom I have really connected. By thinking through their achievements and putting it into words, I feel I come to know the student better, and find even greater value in our relationship.”

Even writing for the weak students is relatively easy. Usually, if they come to you for a letter it’s because they have nowhere else to turn and because they know there’s something you like and value about them.

I remember the high-school junior in my American history class who thought Alaska was a separate country. When, in the fashion of the very best teachers, I slapped my forehead and openly expressed incredulity at her ignorance, she was unabashed, and said gleefully, “But, Mr. Tierney, nobody really needs to knowthat!” She was one of the most appealing kids I ever taught, but she was several crayons short of a full box. (She would laugh with delight at that characterization.)

I found that doing a letter for her wasn’t hard at all. After writing about her work in my course, I went on to say, in part:

Susie [no, not her real name] is remarkably open about the way she faces life: she has a cheerful insouciance about her own unawareness of the world around her. In light of her unguarded cluelessness, why would I agree to write a letter for her? The answer is that she is an extraordinary person — nice, cheerful, and, best of all, authentic. Moreover, she is the kind of student who sees that there are more keys to success in life than being able to explain the causes of the War of 1812. She has great social skills and an infectiously joyful approach to life.

She’s thriving now, in her third year of college.

Colleagues at both levels, college and high school, overwhelmingly agree that the real problem is writing for that vast array of students in the gray middle (70 or 80 percent of them), the ones who don’t distinguish themselves in class in any way, either by brains or personality, and who pass through one’s courses without leaving an impression other than their faint trail of blandness.

Writing letters for such students is incredibly difficult. And you end up feeling like you might as well connect the printer directly to the shredder and skip the whole middle part of sending the letter somewhere to be read. A former colleague of mine, a beloved science teacher, says:

I feel that the letters we write for the gray middle 80 percent are unlikely to affect whether the student is accepted or rejected from a college. Every time I write one of those “80 percent letters,” I think to myself that the letter is the perfect reflection of the student herself — i.e., almost completely indistinguishable from every other one. How could it not be?

College professors face two additional problems when it comes to writing recommendations: (1) they typically do not get to know their students as well as high-school teachers do; and (2) unlike high-school teachers, they often are approached for recommendations several years or more after having had the student in class. Addressing that problem, a professor friend told me:

Often I find I have no recollection of them at all, and it’s really difficult to tell them that I don’t remember them. … So one time a student called me and asked for a letter, and wanted to know if I remembered him. I said of course I did, but I didn’t, and I just kept digging a deeper hole. I figured I could Google my way out of this mess, but this kid had no Internet trail whatsoever and most importantly, no online images. It had gone way too far for me to ask him for a photo, so I just wrote some platitudinous piece of crap. …

Anyway, he got into grad school and he was very grateful for my letter. The whole thing was embarrassing, and I’m not proud of it, but I just didn’t want to hurt the guy’s feelings. … I’m sure he’ll turn out to be a fine, productive citizen, whoever the hell he is.

For recommenders at all application levels, the real bane of their existence is the despised and dreaded matrix or grid on which the recommender is asked to rate the student on an assortment of qualities. This particular example is from the currentCommon Application, used by hundreds of thousands of college applicants each year.

Common App Matrix.png

Trying to fill out such grids for 20, 30, or 40 students a year is a formula for despair. A special place in hell should be reserved for those responsible for the proliferation of these things.

So, have some compassion for all the instructors out there who, in the weeks and months to come, will be devoting time and sweat to figuring out what to say about the members of the Great Bland Majority.

Maybe when this do-nothing Congress returns to Washington for its lame duck session, legislators can pass a resolution of appreciation for the besieged recommendation writers. Even pickles get a week in their honor.


This piece originally appeared at