Let me begin by apologizing for the inordinate number of typos in my previous missive. Unlike “Old McDonald” on the Geico commercials, I am actually a fairly good speller. However, when it gets late and the bed is calling my name, I get careless. I will endeavor to do better!

I had intended to open this post with a big announcement that after years of painstaking research and experimentation, I had finally invented the incandescent light bulb.

Then, someone pointed out that some guy named Thomas Edison had apparently done the same thing back in 1880. The story of my life: 133-years late and a dollar short!

To be serious, the analogy about inventing the light bulb is intended to illustrate the absurdity of people like Jeb Bush, Janet Barresi, Michelle Rhea and other national deformers who believe they have discovered things that are brand new when in fact, they are really not new at all.

Because they think they are somehow smarter than most of us, they are unable to conceive that others may have actually thought of these ideas long before THEY came around.

It is akin to a two-year old showing his mom what he believes to be a unique, shiny rock he found in the backyard.

The deformers expect us to fawn all over them and “ooh and aah” at their new discoveries. This, despite the fact their shiny new “rock” has essentially been laying in plain view in that same spot in the backyard for a hundred years.

Like the two-year-old, they are excited because it is new to them. And so we say, “That is so pretty, honey…now take it back outside where you found it!”

The problem is that very little of what the deformers are discovering is new. It’s called “repackaging.” Ask any educator who’s been around for a while, and they will tell you they have lost count of the many initiatives that have come and gone and come back again during their careers.

The words and phrases that are being thrown out—ones like accountability, college and career ready, academic rigor, formative assessments and so on have been around for years.

With that in mind, and to serve as a primer for “deformer-speak” for those new to the game, let’s take a look at a few of their “pretty rocks.” I will start by drilling into some of the biggest and shiniest rocks in their pile: “accountability” and “college and career-ready.”


Educational deformers worship the shiny rock of school accountability. Without this foundational premise, there is no need for the deformers to exist.

As stated by American writer, Clay Shirky: “Institutions (or individuals) tend to preserve those problems for which they are the solution.”

For the deformers to sustain the false proposition that American public schools are broken, they look to external accountability measures to promote this narrative. The initial external measure that they use to try to prove their point is international test comparisons. However, if you compare apples to apples on these assessments, one will find that American students from low poverty backgrounds compare extremely well with international competition. What these tests do reveal is that we have a poverty problem in our nation that results in large variances between groups of students.

The deformers prefer to use their own measures so they can be manipulated easily and directly by changing key measures, assessment cut scores, A-F school ratings, etc. Barring this, they are prone to make claims based on incomplete or inaccurate measures, along with a political spin.

No one is arguing against the concept of accountability. I have not met many teachers or administrators who believe that they should not be held accountable for their role in producing positive student outcomes. Speaking as a former Marine Corps Officer, the concept of holding individuals within an organization accountable for meeting high and well-defined standards is critically important.

The dichotomy arises because we in education believe and invest in the strength of people’s sense of intrinsic motivation and internal accountability. We value the people, systems and processes that impact school performance and seek to identify, measure, and refine those approaches that can best foster improvement.

Instead of providing schools with the tools, training and resources needed to build the capacity to study our own teaching and learning processes, the deformers focus on external measures. These include things like API scores, A-F school grades, drop-out rates, and student achievement on standardized tests. These may or may not be valuable measures, but they do not tell the whole story. They are merely a snapshot of outcomes that must be viewed within the larger context of school improvement.

The A-F school grades are a great example of an external accountability measure that offers very little value to schools. As pointed out by the Oklahoma Center for Education Policy’s Report on the Oklahoma A-F system, a single grade for a school cannot possibly capture the full extent of that school’s teaching and learning systems and processes.

In fact, the report highlights that a single grade can actually hide achievement variance within schools. As one example, the study reveals that high poverty students in “D” or “F” schools may actually outperform similar students in “A” or “B” schools. However, this gap is hidden behind the high achievement of more affluent students in the latter schools.

As backed by decades of research in organizational systems and processes, individual motivation and personal accountability by researchers like W. Edwards Deming, Jim Collins, and Daniel Pink, THE MOST EFFECTIVE ACCOUNTABILITY SYSTEMS ARE ALWAYS INTERNAL. External systems lead to reduced motivation and attempts to “game” the system.

Ultimately, for any accountability system to work, the people who are being held accountable must have faith in the system. The deformers have it backwards.

They put their faith in the measures rather than in the people.

College and Career Ready

The deformers throw this “rock” around all the time, to the point where we have all become weary of hearing it. Again, the deformers believe that they patented the novel idea of creating high school graduates who are actually ready to attend college or pursue careers.

Ostensibly, all of the existing doctors, lawyers, scientists, mathematicians, professors, architects, engineers, teachers, military officers, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, financial planners, software designers, firemen, policemen, politicians, bankers, and so on, were created on another planet in some alternate universe (let’s call it “Janet Planet” for fun) and then were transported clandestinely through interstellar space to Earth to fill these positions within our society.

Up to this point I guess all schools were just serving as day care centers for millions of kids ages 4 to 18. As Janet reminded us last week, we lost the last generation somewhere. I wonder where they went?

I am concerned that in many ways the reforms they proffer to promote the concept of college and career readiness may actually be hindering the accomplishment of this goal. To some deformers, being college-ready means that we have prepared students in core subjects to the point where they can seamlessly move right into the Freshman English Comp and College Algebra classes without remediation.

Does anyone take the time to ask the obvious question of why these courses are necessary for success? Certainly, reading and written communication skills are critically important. Yet, can we not integrate these skills into the study of various disciplines instead of teaching them in stand-alone subjects?

What about students who are majoring in music, art, sociology, history, political science, journalism, philosophy, languages, or a whole host of other majors that need very little math expertise. What value does College Algebra bring to these students?

The argument from some is that the study of mathematics enhances critical thinking and problem solving. That might be true. But if this is the objective, why don’t we just develop college courses focused on the development of critical thinking and problem solving skills within disciplines that actually incorporate real-world, relevant scenarios and NOT just abstract numbers and symbols?

In the year 2013, there are more important skills and attributes that translate more accurately to being college ready—skills like curiosity, tenacity, critical thinking, innovation and creativity? Can these things even be measured? And, even if we could, should we?

I realize that I am waxing philosophical here and that many of you may have a different point of view, but aren’t these the types of conversations that need to be taking place in our country? Instead of wringing our hands about A-F calculations and new and improved standardized assessments, wouldn’t it make more sense to discuss and debate what it really means to be college and career ready in the 21st century?

You would be misguided to believe that passing four out of seven end-of-instruction tests truly reflects that a student is prepared for college or a high paying career in today’s world. We don’t know what many of those careers will even be, yet we pretend that a curriculum virtually unchanged since 1950 will adequately prepare our students. And, if we agree that these are not valid measures, why do we waste the time and effort to use them?

A more valuable initiative would be working together to define the types of skills, attributes and knowledge that are needed to build capacity in our students so they will be able to adapt to a rapidly changing workforce. We need to be focusing on creating a generation of creators and entrepreneurs, not just another generation of employees.

College and career ready is a hollow phrase unless we want to seriously evaluate what it means in a modern-day context. Many of our students will not be able to move directly into a job opening. Instead, they may have to literally “invent” their own job. What does this mean and how can schools evolve to best serve this end?

Heavy ideas, I know. But, I firmly believe that the big issues relative to school reform in America are being overshadowed by the restraints imposed by the NCLB/RTTT agenda. Schools in American may not be failing but they are in danger of becoming obsolete. We simply have to find ways to incentivize schools to restructure to be more innovative and responsive to the needs of students, now and for the future. The current system of mandates and controls serves as an impediment to the pursuit of this ideal.

To conclude, external accountability measures and rigid adherence to inaccurate measures of college and career readiness are holding our schools back. They are also an anathema to those of us who truly believe in the concept of localized control.

In the next edition, I will cast a light on a few more of the terms in the deformers’ bag of shiny rocks: Academic rigor and Common Core Standards. Feel free to post your own ideas in the comments section and I may include them in the next post on this theme.

A quick postscript about Thomas Edison:

We have all heard about Edison’s epic levels of tenacity and persistence. This was evidenced by the fact that it literally took him thousands of attempts to finally solve the problem of what material (carbonized cotton fibers) to use for the filament so it would last.

A biographer of Edison once noted: “His mother had accomplished that which all truly great teachers do for their pupils, she brought him to the stage of learning things for himself, learning that which most amused and interested him, and she encouraged him to go on in that path. It was the very best thing she could have done for this singular boy.”

As Edison put it himself: “My mother was the making of me. She understood me; she let me follow my bent.”

Now, that’s a bright idea I could agree with!

light bulb