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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

What (Really) Works

This is my first official post on the Cooperative Catalyst and I really wanted it to be something mindblowing. You know, the newbie’s gotta make a big entrance. Yet, as I sat down to hash out what I wanted to write I realized that my thoughts were scattered all over the place. Originally, I wanted to write about how, when it comes down to it, educating children is about teaching them to think. I am halfway through Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity before which I read The Shallows by Nicolas Carr. Basically, my brain hasn’t done this much deep thinking in years. I mean truly deep thinking. It’s like I can feel my brain creaking under the pressure.  It feels wonderful.

However, I just spent 2 hours last night discussing education and where it needs to go with (in my opinion) some of the most passionate and forward-thinking educators here in Philadelphia.  It’s an overwhelming time to be an educator.  In talking with my friend and fellow Philadelphia teacher, Ann Leaness, we agreed that it’s hard to know who to trust these days. It seems everyone has an ulterior motive. In reflecting on Will Richardson’s post, The Wrong Conversations, I realized that maybe all of the outcry is a distraction and that teaching kids is really the conversation we should be focused on.  The Education Nation fiasco and the Waiting for Superman documentary uproar have taken an emotional toll on me. I feel beaten down, abused, angry, frustrated and lost. I also feel like I have to do something, but I’m not quite sure what.

What I do know is that what the media says will fix education (and I include Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and others in that group as their sound bytes are what feeds the media) is completely irrelevant. The fact that teacher tenure was even discussed at NBC’s Teacher Town Hall this past Sunday sickened me. As Chris Lehmann said last night during our 2 hour discussion, we need to talk more about pedagogy, more about how kids learn and more about what we believe the purpose of education is. Until we have figured those simple things out, the other stuff is pointless.

Here’s what the media says will work to ‘fix’ education:

Pay-for-performance will retain good teachers.

Creating more charter schools is the only way to ensure better schools.

Accountability and firing ‘bad’ teachers will fix the system.

Get rid of tenure and get rid of ‘bad’ teachers.

Do whatever it takes to raise test scores.

Throwing money at education will solve all of its problems.

Students need longer school days to close the achievement gap.

Increase STEM education to get ahead of China and stay ‘competitive.’

The problem with these solutions? None of them have students at the center. None of them even mention pedagogy at all.

Here’s what really works:

Organized, focused, passionate and caring leadership will retain good teachers.

Good schools are those in which there is a common vision and instruction is centered around inquiry and critical thinking.

When teachers work as a team to raise a child and provide rich learning experiences, there will be no room for ineffective teaching.

Provide teachers with professional support along with support for their students and they will be more effective and happier.

Schools should do whatever it takes to ensure that every child leaves their care capable of thinking for him or herself, engaging in discussion and asking questions about everything they see, read and hear.

Money is great when it is carefully invested with students and learning in mind, but money a good school does not make.

Parents need to be educated as well. Teach the whole child and educate the family. The achievement gap starts before children reach school.

Model the cooperation and collaboration that is now an essential skill for success in this world by reaching out to countries whose students are surpassing us and finding out what’s working.

Ask ourselves: why educate? What is the purpose of school?

My goal right now is to be the best teacher I can be for my students, to provide them with essential critical thinking skills and open up the classroom walls to the world. I will speak out when I need to and I will stay in the conversation. When it gets to the point of emotional stress, I will avoid the negativity and realize that I am not alone and that I am making a difference. My advice? Steer clear of the complainers, the whiners, the naysayers, the curmudgeons and I will focus on what works, not what needs fixing. As many people have stated on this blog, we have to put down our differences and work together if we are ever to achieve what we know is a quality education for all students.


23 thoughts on “What (Really) Works

  1. Thank you Mary Beth! This is the kind of conversation we need to be having! We need to continue to stir the conversation to more pragmatic positive outcomes and remembering the children and the actual people we are all talking about!

    Posted by dloitz | September 30, 2010, 1:12 am
  2. Hi Mary Beth,

    I find your list of what really works to be eloquent and well thought out. They are indeed valuable things and important conversations to have.

    At the same time, I feel you are casting the media’s arguments as incomplete and a straw man. To be at least pragmatic, no one no one wants to see kids finish their schooling uneducated, but kids are exiting the school system, both by dropping out and graduating, without meeting either your criteria (“capable of thinking for him or herself, engaging in discussion and asking questions”) or the content-based ones (easily tested by test scores and comparing them to China). Whenever I think about education, I try to keep in mind that even those that I most disagree with want the same final outcome – educated students.

    From there, it’s important to note that none of the meaningful ideas behind the media’s talking points contradict yours. I feel you cast them as straw men, and that a more accurate assessment of, say, “Do whatever it takes to raise test scores” is “Since test scores show our kids are not learning, we need to change something so that they are.” I don’t think it is necessarily obvious to someone with a BFA in journalism (let alone the 50 year old viewer who only finished 9th grade) that the current assessment strategy is flawed. They learned English and Math in junior high and the kids these days don’t know what they remember, and so that means they aren’t learning as much…. I don’t think we can blame them for such sensible, deductive logic, but we need tools and constructive conversations ready to show why it isn’t the most effective assessment strategy (and what is).

    Further down the line, I feel some of the media’s points are completely valid (and again, entirely disjoint from yours). There are teachers (lots of them) that aren’t very good, who took the job teaching because they realize the perks are better than the alternative job opportunities they have; there are ex-teachers who are good and love teaching and are not because it does not provide the accessory requirements for their outside lives. These (along with test scores) are things that everyone at home can understand, and so they make for good 5 minute new stories. What leadership _is_, or what methodologies are most effective, or how to assess ‘ability to think critically’ are often intractable subjects within a single department, let alone the general consensus of teachers, let alone the public at large.

    It would be interesting to see a new organization that would have a story a day that was not convergent and presented an open ended dilemma to the viewers, but it would also need a place for moderated and constructive follow up (and not just a raving comments section 🙂 ). Until that day, though, I think we can move at least some distance by acknowledging the straightforward and easily digestable problems (bad teachers, low pay, poor policy, bad assessments and results) and searching for increasingly better ways to explain the hard ones (what is leadership, learning, pedagogy? How do you motivate learning and assess it? How do you build collaborative, constructive environments? How do you overcome hardships the kids bring with them to school?).


    Posted by Kevin Crouse | September 30, 2010, 8:11 am
    • Kevin, let’s start that organization. DM or email me. I’ve felt the non-profit itch for a while, but haven’t had a clear idea of what to do. I’d love to serve the public by problematizing education in accessible ways. I don’t have a ton of time to give, but would love to plan and recruit and create a resource.

      What do you say?

      Posted by Chad Sansing | September 30, 2010, 1:31 pm
    • Kevin,

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Yes, I don’t expect the media to understand pedagogy and I completely agree that everyone wants the best for their child no matter who they are or where they live. I purposefully simplified the media stance because contrasting them helped me better understand my own beliefs about what works in education.

      Making things black and white is detrimental to making the kinds of changes that need to happen. The media does not necessarily concern themselves with truth or seeing all sides when controversy is what brings ratings up. While I believe that media and the general public understands that bad test scores means students aren’t learning, it’s a shallow understanding of what learning looks like.

      I also agree that there are ‘bad’ teachers (ineffective teachers? — the phrase ‘bad’ teacher rubs me the wrong way, kind of like ‘bad kid’) and I have worked with a number of them. However, the problem was that we as colleagues were complacent and allowed this staff member to slack off. As for the good teachers not in the classroom, they have an important voice in the conversation whether they are still teaching or not.

      I’m of the belief that answering the questions you pose at the end of your comment will provide solutions that will address the ‘more easily digestible problems.’ My issue with easily digestible problems is that they want easily digestible answers, of which there are few. I think it’s up to those of us who have it in us to think deeply and (sometimes) clearly to, as you state “better explain” the solutions to hard to digest problems. I also agree with you that we need a constructive conversation, one that allows for real dialogue without pointing fingers and without making excuses (i.e. “we could, but…”)

      Would love to see what we could come up with.

      I appreciate your thoughts and I thank you for your honest and thought-provoking reply.

      Posted by marybethhertz | September 30, 2010, 4:00 pm
  3. I like the list, MB – something we’re long struggled with here is how to bring in “the middle,” the folks who are not opponents of meaningful change, but, rather, are not aware of the conversations happening about transforming schools.

    I wonder if you might tell the story of how you arrived at this list in a Coöp post sometime. The more individual stories we tell about what brought us to action, the more chance we have of finding the common ingredients of motivating discontent for our profession.

    Thanks for posting!

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 30, 2010, 8:13 am
  4. I dig the list. It’s exactly what is needed.

    Posted by johntspencer | September 30, 2010, 8:57 am
  5. I’m really taken with Kevin’s idea: a place,

    “that would have a story a day that was not convergent and presented an open ended dilemma to the viewers.”

    I think this is one of the most powerful ideas we’ve had here at the Coop. Thank you Kevin. Might we undertake this? A description of a real teaching dilemma or a problem of the work (as Chad suggests) that leads to MB’s list?

    Thank you MB for starting out with a splash. I’m really in Kevin’s camp on this. We wear ourselves out and whip ourselves into a frenzy making the media bad guys who just don’t understand, or who want the wrong things, when the picture may not be so starkly black and white at all. People are pretty sensible and reasonable in the long run, and the evidence is that not all, but in many cases, the work that is done in school just isn’t good enough. As the professionals in the organization, it is our responsibility to do something about that. Some of the conditions of our work right now, its accountability structures, may be devaluing and counter-productive, but it’s our responsibility to figure out how to change that.

    I like the idea of a Dilemma A Day about a real-time teaching and learning problem. It begins to suggest that the work of teaching is really complicated, and requires professional knowledge, craft expertise, reflection.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 30, 2010, 3:46 pm
  6. It’s hard for me to imagine that so much can happen from poor editing. I had meant to say that I would be interested in seeing a “news” organization have an open ended story a day in the mix of its typical reporting…. but now that it is out there and breathing on its own, making such a space is intriguing. I’ll take you up on the direct conversation, Chad. If others feel they hold a stake in such a space, message Chad or myself.

    Posted by Kevin Crouse | September 30, 2010, 8:56 pm
  7. Hi Mary Beth,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog and think that you did well in achieving your goals!

    Posted by Shireen Richardson | October 1, 2010, 6:44 am
  8. Thank you for your ‘here’s what really works’ list. It is accurate and articulates a critical difference between today’s ‘command and control’ vision and your quality-based, student learning approach. The merits of each item on your list deserses deeper discussion, but one stands out as a foundation for the others. You state that “Good schools are those in which there is a common vision and instruction is centered around inquiry and critical thinking.” Absolutely, and as long as state tests are used to define the ‘common vision,’ all your other values will be nullified. It is the responsiblity of every state school board and school district to provide clarity of objective or common vision. States do not, except with their tests. Districts do not for various reasons, none of which is valid, and the new common core state standards do not as they are high level and cannot be implemented without well-articulated curricula and sound instruction. We have been working with school districts in Mississippi who are using the On-Grade Model ( which begins with a clear ‘common vision’ for teaching and learning and which supports and encourages all the other ‘what really works’ items on your list. I look forward to your second blog and to your list being featured on Oprah.


    Posted by Steve Kussmann | October 1, 2010, 1:10 pm
  9. Most of what you said is point on, but we must absolutely focus on STEM education. Don’t lump STEM into the same bowl as those other ingredients. STEM is important because it is directly tied to our nation’s ability to innovate and stay a leader in the world. Most of the leading minds that advocate for STEM aren’t in favor of a lot of these cookie-cutter school reforms and instead advocate hands-on problem solving.

    Also, there is nothing wrong with focusing our country’s education around staying competitive in the world (as one of, but not the only reason) we need better schools. The primary issue with the media’s ideas are that they are more of the same, rather than the major redesign of learning that we all need.

    Posted by Joe Bires | October 1, 2010, 5:46 pm
    • I hear you, Joe.

      I’m really enthused by the work my wife, Bethany Nowviskie, and her colleagues do in digital humanities – applying computer science and STEM methods of analysis to texts, anthropologies, and archives. There is fascinating work going on that is truly interdisciplinary – truly human – and the more of it we can get into K12 education, the more fluent our kids will be with the habits of mind that help all artists, explorers, and scientists, social and otherwise.

      Let’s not lump STEM with the “bad,” but let’s make sure we mix it with the humanities.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | October 1, 2010, 7:51 pm
    • I think Chad has it right. The competitive as a nation is not just tied to science and math, innovation is not merely build on the foundation of Science or Math, true innovation comes from a mind that is a problem solving mind like you say, but also one that can dream, create, act, and most of all put there ideas together with others.

      Plus the focus on Science and Math alone disregard the fact that not all our worlds problems can or should be solved with technology. Part our big problems today are in the human realm, and science and math are not going to solve those. I am not sure I want to do be a leader in the world, because we have done a lot of damage by being the leader. We don’t need to beat another country to be leaders in the world. What about China or India or any country having innovation or math and science robots makes the world a better place to be alive in?

      Besides being Competitive in the world, what are other reasons we need better schools? Lets have a more holistic conversation about why we educate, not just about gearing up our children to grow into the job we believe they need to have.

      Most of the most successful people I know are not Math minds or Scientist, but artist of live, moving back and forth towards their passions and looking for ways to make the world better, not just compete in it.

      I am not saying that math and science are not important but the overall focus on them as fragmented subjects are not going to help create a better world.

      Posted by dloitz | October 1, 2010, 8:11 pm
  10. This topic of education and finding “what REALLY works” is a roller coaster ride through the trials and tribulations of the “old school”, the old archaic way of a system that’s left us all wanting to run for the hills (and skip school), to the profundity of the creative process itself in discovering new ways of seeing and being . . . and discovering the ability of the human spirit IS THE CREATIVE PROCESS and inherent in who we really are. In turning our attention to our natural state of curiosity and trusting in a greater process of evolving consciousness, there is a group of people coming together discovering this beautiful flow of learning in their classrooms right now. Please go to the link below if you are interested in what can be next in our human dynamic development and the future of education.

    Posted by Sandra | October 19, 2010, 10:00 am
    • Sandra, thanks for your comment and the link!

      Certainly self-assessment and self-actualization go hand-in-hand.

      I’m curious though, about two things:

      1. Is it possible for a student to make good choices for self-actualization and learning that differ from a teacher’s choices for that student? Where in this system of reflection is there a place for self-advocacy within the student-teacher relationship? Should students see it as a negative choice to be out of the zone while working on something that they don’t find engaging?

      2. Are teachers using the Dynamic Development approach asked to do the same self-assessment as students?

      Thanks again!

      Posted by Chad Sansing | October 19, 2010, 10:21 am
  11. Fantastic questions Chad!

    What is fascinating about what is being discovered in using this “developmental value system”, is that the children are able to identify, based in “their own experience”, what is of higher value in behavior and deed, in themselves and in others . . . including their observations of teachers/adults. It is bringing about an awareness and strength in the child that becomes an autonomous developmental process within the child’s ability to recognize what is an appropriate, valued response for any given situation.

    Certainly because this is a “developmental process”, there is the learning curve for each child’s way of integrating and developing their abilities, and this is where it becomes creative – in allowing for the natural progression for each child to come to their own level of understanding and not have it “forced” in anyway.

    These teachers are trained in an evolutionary spiritual philosophy that gives them a very big perspective and freedom to let go of any “old ideas” they may have and allow for what is new . . . hence, they are open to the children’s views and capabilities, and are willing to hear what the children bring to them as well – they absolutely practice what they “preach”. There is this natural flow, where the teachers are well established in their hierarchical role as teacher, but they are available to what the children observe and co-create within this beautiful exchange of creativity and freedom of expression.

    The amazing thing about this, is that what is really being taught here, is how to “listen” to your own ability to “know” from a deeper place within. And to observe what you do and how that affects others. And that you make choices that inherently have consequences and to distinguish and discern what seems the most positive outcome for you and everyone.

    Thanks so much for your interest Chad!

    Posted by Sandra | October 19, 2010, 10:54 am
    • I’m all for the letting go of expectations, habits, and behaviors that limit learning, creativity, and joy at school. Thanks, Sandra, for your thoughtful response to my questions – I really like the adult training you describe.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | October 19, 2010, 1:16 pm


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