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The Rest of the Story

What the media misses in its coverage of education reform and how our national dialog on school suffers as a result

by Steve Peha

 

August 6, 2001. Standing here at the National Press Club, addressing a group of top educators and journalists from all over the country, receiving an award from the Newspaper Association of America Foundation, I find that Iím somewhat embarrassed to admit that when I was a student, I rarely read the newspaper. As a kid, my only regular exposure to news came from the radio as I grudgingly endured a few minutes of it, every hour on the hour, during Kasey Kasimís American Top 40.

The only news program I can remember now was delivered by a strange guy with a strange voice and an even stranger delivery who would introduce a humdrum human interest story and continue, rather haltingly, for a minute or two, until coming to a conventional close. Finally, to my delight, Kasey Kasim would return with the kind of news I was really interested in: the fate of the latest Helen Reddy hit or the little known story of the high school talent show origins of enduring megastars like England Dan and John Ford Coley.

At some point later on, that strange guy would come back again: ďAnd nowÖ the rest ofÖ the story.Ē

It was Paul Harvey, of course, and as soon as I figured out his format, I couldnít wait for his spot. The story may have been dull as dishwater, but the rest of the story, that was something else entirely ó surprising, often quirky, always compelling. It didnít take long before I was hooked.

Now, Iím a news junkie. In a single day, I can easily listen to a couple hours of NPR, skim both of Seattleís daily papers, surf the Net for background, tackle a Time Magazine, and possibly catch a little of Inside Politics, Crossfire, or Moneyline with Lou Dobbs ó even OíReilly occasionally factors into my day. If that isnít enough, I often end up falling asleep to Ted Koppel, Bill Maher, or Charlie Rose.

What interests me most these days is all the news about education. I canít tell you how pleased I am with the amount of coverage, and how exciting it is for me to be listening in on what is surely our countryís first national dialog about school. But as I follow the reports about testing, standards, vouchers, charters, and all the other fashionable aspects of education reform, I feel like Iím missing the rest of the story.

In my work as an education consultant, I have the fortunate opportunity to spend a lot of time teaching in classrooms all across the country. Though I donít have students of my own, I get to deliver hundreds of lessons each year to kids of all kinds, at all grade levels, in all subject areas, and in all types of schools. That means I get to see things: the real things that really go on in real schools struggling with the realities of real reform.

When I turn on the TV or open up The Seattle Times for which I now write, I hear mostly about testing. I hear our President saying things like ďHow do you know how youíre doing if you donít test?Ē It all sounds quite logical, and itís a good story. But itís not the rest of the story.

It turns out that more testing doesnít necessarily mean more learning. The history of educational testing in our country is well documented. I learned about it recently in a book called ďStandardized Minds: The High Price of Americaís Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change ItĒ by Peter Sacks.

Reading this book confirmed for me what I had been noticing in the schools I visit: that even though scores are going up, as they tend to do at the beginning of a new testing cycle, the increases are primarily artifacts of test preparation and test familiarity, and not necessarily evidence of authentic learning.

The tests are based, of course, on standards. And it seems like every state has them now. Standards are a hot story, too. But the rest of the story, from my vantage point at least, is that we may be standardizing the wrong thing.

Instead of standardizing the quality of learning ó a dubious and dangerous endeavor, it seems to me, for any free society that wants to stay that way ó we should be working to standardize the quality of teaching, and seeking to ensure equality of access to that teaching. It simply isn't fair for some kids to get great teachers while others do not. And no type of testing or set of curricular standards can ever address this fundamental inequity.

I learned about the rest of this story a few years ago when I came across a book called ďBest Practice: New Standards For Teaching and Learning in America's Schools.Ē This wonderful resource is a concise and precise distillation of good teaching and how to make it happen in any school anywhere under just about any circumstances.

This book makes clear something I have long felt but could not express: that the reason some teachers are dramatically more effective than others is simply because they use more effective methods. Whatís more, there's little disagreement among well-researched and well-practiced professionals as to what these methods are. To me, this means that if we took some of our testing money and turned it into training money, our children and our country might be better served.

Finally, we have voucher programs and charter schools. The story here seems to be that if one group of folks canít educate our children then a different group will surely do a better job regardless of who they are, what they do, or what kind of experience they have. While I myself have an intense interest in educational alternatives, I have no enthusiasm for unproven ones, especially those born out of frustration and based, as I have often discovered, on little more than well-intentioned guesswork. At this crucial juncture in the history of our nationís education system, I see little value in perpetrating upon our children new and risky experiments, especially when the research of the last 30 years is so clear about what can and should be done.

Fortunately, the rest of this story, like the other two, also has a happy ending. There already exist many proven models of successful schooling like Nancie Atwellís Center For Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, ME. Or, if youíd like to see an inner city school with the same kind of cutting edge practice and stunning results, visit the Center for Inquiry run by Jerome Harste in Indianapolis, IN, or drop in for a day at Shelley Harwayne's P.S. 290 in New York City. The most important thing that these and many other fine educators have shown is that every can child can learn, that educational achievement correlates more with good teaching than it does with where you live, how much money you make, and the color of your skin.

As someone who has spent serious time in thousands of our countryís classrooms, I can say with confidence, that despite popular rhetoric, there is no crisis in American education today. This is not to say there arenít problems, merely that most of them have already been solved somewhere, by someone, in some way. I see these solutions dotted all around the country and I hope that some day soon our politicians, pundits, and members of the press will be able to connect the dots and see the picture as plainly as I do.

Most people simply donít know about these amazing schools, these great books, and these terrific teachers because we havenít yet gotten around to telling the rest of the story. Right now, education is a political football and nobody wants to punt. Itís all about Hail Mary passes and quarterback sneaks instead of just pounding away with a solid ground game. If we are ďa nation at risk,Ē as the famous congressional report once declared, it is only because we are more familiar with the current crop of politically expedient, red-herring remedies than we are with the real solutions discovered and perfected by our country's best teachers and researchers.

When I started writing two years ago, three articles a week for The Seattle Times, I realize now that I became part of the media, too. This year I begin again. And so the responsibility for telling the rest of the story falls now upon me as much as it does upon anyone else. In my first year, I didnít live up to that responsibility as well as I know now that I could have. It was my first time writing for a major newspaper. I was nervous. I wanted it to be good, but I also wanted everyone to like me. So when my editors suggested that some of what I wanted to say was not exactly what they wanted me to say, I gave in. Rather than fighting for what I regarded as the truth, I chose instead tamer topics and a safer style.

I donít want to do that this time around. While I still feel nervous, Iím no less committed because of it. And thanks to the support and inspiration Iíve received this week from the wonderful people Iíve met here through the Newspaper Association of America, I think I now have both the clarity and the courage I need to begin telling the rest of the story.

Good bye.

 

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