IF YOU HAVEN’T NOTICED
Americans are much thinner than they were a few months ago. That’s when the
federal government wisely changed eating standards.
Yep. In June the Food
Pyramid was replaced by a new “Food Plate.” Since then the American people have
been shedding pounds at a fearful rate.
In fact, it’s only a
matter of time until we all have six-pack abs like The Situation, that fine
fellow on Jersey Shore.
You can be equally sure it’s
only a matter of time before federal standards written for schools start having
the same wondrous effect.
If you pay the slightest
attention, you know this year’s Big Idea in U. S. education is that what we
need to do to fix the schools is write up some really cool national core
curriculum standards. Even as we speak, deep in the bowels of Washington,
D. C., experts are hard at work, like Santa’s elves. Tap, tap, tap. They
are turning out those standards!
experts. This is going to be great!
I guess I feel bad,
because I’m so skeptical. I know states tried to raise standards in the
1990s with all kinds of state testing. When that didn’t work No Child Left
Behind was passed in 2002 and the federal government got involved. The
budget for the U. S. Department of Education ballooned to $71 billion in 2011
and Secretary Arne Duncan handed out fat grants to states that won the “Race to
the Top” competition.
There was progress, here
and there, but not as much as you might expect when you were spending
billions. In New York City, for example, reformers crowed because high
school graduation rates rose significantly. Then again: the
percentage of high
school grads coming out of the city’s “improving schools” and ready for college
level work declined. Scores at low-performing schools in Washington, D. C.
rose. Same in Atlanta. Then huge cheating
scandals shattered the illusion of progress. Scores on the Scholastic
Aptitude Test, often considered the surest barometer of national,
academic improvement or decline, fell between 2002 and 2011. [Since
publishing this article, scores have declined again in 2012 and 2013.] Math
scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose slightly. It
was a rare hopeful sign. Despite all the talk, talk, talk about standards,
NAEP reading scores were as flat as an education expert run over by stampeding
So: what could be
ACCORDING TO AT LEAST
ONE EXPERT (okay: according to me), our biggest problem in education
reform is that we focus only on teachers. We look at low
test scores and scratch our heads and say: We have to deny teachers
tenure. We have to tie their pay to tests results. We have to have
standards and benchmarks and indicators and complicated formulas to determine “value
added” performance. And we need to have way more paperwork to document
experts and government leaders have fallen prey to an idea that, boiled down to
its essence, goes like this: To be a successful football team all you need
is the right playbook.
In fact, there’s
only one playbook and we’re going to give it to every team.
Don’t get me
wrong. Every good teacher knows his or her efforts have a dramatic impact
on student achievement. But good teachers are like good football
coaches. They have their own plans, their own trick plays and their own
philosophies. It’s ground-and-pound for one, spread the field and throw it all
over the gridiron for another. Every good coach knows to be a success you
need more than the right playbook. You have to be able to adapt your plans
to fit the strengths of your personnel. You have to be able to relate to
individual players and those players have to be willing to
sweat every day in practice, and have to want to get better and work at that
goal. In fact, one key on the football field or in the classroom is
knowing how to motivate, being able to convince ordinary human beings to give
more than their best.
There is no magic
If all we plan to do is
keep putting plans on paper, instead of focusing on player effort
and motivation, we’re going nowhere fast in American education. It won’t matter
how many billions of dollars the U. S. Department of Education is willing to
If it all came down to
just the right playbook, to a core curriculum, to a Food Plate standard, then,
in no time at all, every football coach could be Vince Lombardi.