Marion Brady

12 Ideas That Explain What’s So Wrong With American Schooling Today

George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan was quoted by the Atlantic as saying the following while pitching his new book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money: “From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market.”

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Why Even the World's Highest-Scoring Schools Need to Change

Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Secretary of Education, has a theory. She agrees with Jeb Bush and other education amateurs now shaping American education that “the system” is basically sound, but teachers lack skills and kids lack grit. Fortunately, there’s an easy fix. Competition in the form of market forces—choice, vouchers, merit pay, charters, privatization, and so on—will shape them up.   

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Here's Why School Is So Confusing for Kids

The federal and state education reform initiatives kicked off about a quarter-century ago by the No Child Left Behind legislation assume the following: that the institution itself is basically sound, that teachers bear major blame for poor school performance, that the Common Core State Standards tell teachers what to say and kids what to remember, that bringing market forces to bear will make them do it, and that high-stakes tests monitor what’s important.

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One Mother's Story: How Overemphasis on Standardized Tests Caused Her 9-Year-Old to Try to Hang Himself

“…I received a note from my son's teacher telling me hed failed the FCAT [Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test] by one point. The note said hed have to take a reading class over the summer and retestWe werent alarmed as he only had to score one more point to be promoted

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Who's Behind the Devastating Movement to Privatize Public Schools?

When, about 30 years ago, corporate interests began their highly organized, well-funded effort to privatize public education, you wouldn’t have read or heard about it. They didn’t want to trigger the debate that such a radical change in an important institution warranted.

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The Big Problem With the Common Core That Keeps Getting Ignored

The role of the Common Core State Standards in attempting to improve schooling has prompted countless editorials, op-eds, and letters to editors. Opinion about them has split political parties, faculties, and friendships, and even created an unusual progressive-conservative alliance in opposition.

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What Bill Gates Doesn't Understand About Education

Editor's note: A long-time educator and advocate for curriculum reform, Marion Brady brings deep historial context to his evaluation of our current educational conundrum. Here he shares his thoughts on what he might tell billionaire funder Bill Gates about what schools and students really need, if he had the chance.

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Why the Conventional Wisdom on Schooling Is All Wrong

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint the root cause of poor school performance. Here’s a theory: Because education policy in America is made by non-educators in state legislatures and Congress, it’s shaped by the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom says schooling is primarily about “delivering information.” The conventional wisdom is wrong.

Delivering information isn’t the problem. Kids are drowning in information, and oceans more of it is at their fingertips ready to be downloaded. What they need that traditional schooling has never given them and isn’t giving them now isn’t information, but information processing skills. They need to know how to think—how to select, sort, organize, evaluate, relate, and integrate information to turn it into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom.

How do kids learn information processing skills? The same way they learn to walk, read, swim, write, catch a ball, keyboard, ride a bicycle. They learn by doing—learn to process information by processing information.

Let me try to explain why the delivering-information model of educating makes it almost impossible for schools to pursue the most useful, legitimate, important, satisfying, philosophically defensible aim of schooling: improving learners’ ability to think for themselves.

Imagine a horizontal line representing a continuum of kinds of information. On the lefthand end of the line, insert the word, “Unmediated,” “Unprocessed,” or “Raw,” for information that goes directly to our brains by way of our senses—seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. If a kid walks into a room and says, “It’s too hot in here,” she’s created firsthand, directly experienced information.

On the right-hand end of the line, insert the word, “Mediated,” “Processed,” or “Refined” for information that’s the product of others’ thought. If I say, “Einstein said space and time are relative to the position of the observer,” I’m passing along secondhand (or fifteenth-hand) information that was the product of complex thought processes in Einstein’s head.

The “too hot in here” information goes to the extreme left end of the information-type continuum, creating opportunities for speculation, investigation, and wide-ranging thought processes. Did she enter the room from a colder one? Is what she’s wearing affecting her perception? Is she sensing air temperature or radiated heat? Has she been exercising? What does her metabolism have to do with what she’s sensing? What does the thermometer say? What’s the best way to find answers?

The Einstein information goes to the extreme right end of the continuum. All the heavy-lift thinking has already been done, and relatively few people know enough to do anything with the information except assume—based on Einstein’s reputation—that he was right.

To help kids improve their ability to process information, they need information on or near the left-hand, raw end of the continuum, and the traditional curriculum isn’t giving it to them. Open typical textbooks to almost any page, listen for a few minutes to a lecture or teacher talk, check out the reference section of a library or seek information on the Internet, and it’s obvious that what’s being delivered is on the far right end of the continuum. Learners can’t process it—can’t improve their ability to infer, hypothesize, generalize, relate, integrate, and so on—because the information delivered has already been processed to levels beyond their ability to challenge or question.

As my brother and I say in one of our short PowerPoints designed to stimulate thinking about big issues in educating, what delivered information gives kids is about as interesting and intellectually challenging as crossword puzzles with all the squares filled in. They can’t do anything with the information except try to store it in memory. And, not having thought through for themselves the delivered information to a useful level of understanding, and having no immediate use for it, it goes into short-term memory, then disappears.

We’re kidding ourselves if we assume those “A” grades being hung on American schools based on scores on standardized tests mean that the students who attend them are being taught to think. We’re kidding ourselves if we assume the high test scores of students in Finland or Poland or South Korea mean they’re being taught to think. Standardized tests are sideshows on the periphery of effective schooling because they can’t evaluate original thought, without which humankind can’t adapt to continuous change and survive. What matters is our individual and collective ability to make sense of the world as it was, is, and could be, and the means to that end are far too varied and complex to be measured by machine-scored tests.

There’s a solution to the problem. Choose any idea in any school subject for which a solid case can be made that every kid in the country needs to understand it, and within the property boundaries of her or his school are the kinds of immediately accessible real-world prompts that allow that idea to be studied firsthand. The prompts just need to be identified and examined until they emerge from environments ignored because they’re too familiar.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for acceptance of the obvious fact that direct experience teaches best. It’s been 99 years since Alfred North Whitehead, in his Presidential Address to the Mathematical Association of England, said, “The second-handedness of the learned world is the secret of its mediocrity.”

There are administrators and teachers not only willing but powerfully motivated to move beyond today’s emphasis on mere learner (temporary) recall of delivered information, but “the system” won’t let them. The system—district offices, boards of education, state legislatures, state bureaucracies, education publishers, chambers of commerce, colleges, universities, Congress, courts, philanthropic foundations, mainstream media—the system assumes that delivered information is what educating is all about, so that’s what gets taught and tested and scores treated as if they meant learning had taken place.

It’s gratifying to see the growing student, teacher, administrator, and parental resistance to the present misnamed “reform” effort. The rate at which testing is wasting the potential of kids’ minds that don’t work in standardized, text-centric ways, is inexcusable. But resistance would be far more effective if demands to stop high-stakes testing were accompanied by demands to get serious about improving thinking skills.

Given learner diversity, given the accelerating rate of social change, given an unknowable future, no one really knows what information needs to be delivered. Given the WorldWideWeb, delivering information isn’t a problem. Given abundant, daily evidence of humankind’s ability to create messes it doesn’t know how to clean up, helping learners improve their ability to think is Job One.

Educators can solve this problem, but there’s no point in their even trying as long as the rich and/or powerful are on their stumps peddling the myth that what ails America’s schools are educators clinging to the status quo and kids with insufficient grit to do what they’re told to do.

The “reformers” are the ones stuck in the status quo. The Common Core State Standards are the status quo with the screws tightened. High-stakes tests are the status quo with life-destroying potential for those who can’t guess what the test-item writer was thinking. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are the status quo with performance bars raised high enough to produce failures “proving” public schools need to be handed off to charter chains or privatized.

Kids, teachers, and taxpayers are being taken for a very expensive ride to nowhere worth going.

Here, from my younger brother Howard, is a link to a pdf for those who may be interested in re-purposing schools—turning them into living laboratories that capitalize on the teaching and learning potential of immediate, here-and-now, firsthand experience:

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The Important Things Standardized Tests Don't Measure

As my students were taking their seats, Myrna, sitting near my desk, said she’d just read a magazine article about secret societies in high school. What, she asked, did I know about them?

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Here's One Thing Schools Should Do to Boost Students' Intellectual Growth

America’s schools aren’t going to significantly improve until a main reason for their flat performance is correctly diagnosed and addressed.

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The Paradigm Shift Schools Need Now

Modern education, worldwide, has lost sight of its primary mission—helping humankind survive.

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What the Common Core Standards Can’t Do

“Mr. Brady, you have to read this book!”

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What Do Standardized Tests Actually Test?

A headline in the January 26, 2009, issue of Forbes magazine reads: “Bill Gates: It’s the Teacher, Stupid

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Why the Common Core Can Never Do What Ed Reformers Claim It Will

In a commentary in the July 21, 2014 issue of Time magazine, columnist Joe Klein takes aim at one of the usual targets of today’s education reformers—unions. In a dig at New York City mayor de Blasio, he says, “A mayor who actually cared about education would be seeking longer school days, longer school years, more charter schools…and the elimination of tenure and seniority rules…"

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What Real Learning Actually Looks Like

Part One

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10 Things Wrong with What Kids Learn in School

Mainstream media, cued by corporate press releases, routinely claim that America’s schools are markedly inferior to schools in other developed nations. The claim is part of an organized, long-running, generously funded campaign to undermine confidence in public schools to “prove” the need to privatize them.

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Want To Solve America’s Curriculum Problem? Here's How

In my January 31st contribution to The Washington Post's “Answer Sheet” blog, I joined Rene Descartes, Buckminster Fuller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Alfred North Whitehead, Felix Frankfurter, Thomas Merton, Neil Postman, John Holt, Harlan Cleveland, Ernest Boyer, John Goodlad, and dozens of others saying that the Common Core Standards are reinforcing an idea that's doing great damage to education. 

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Why Common Core Isn't the Answer

As far as I know, no one has asked the general public’s opinion about the Common Core State Standards for school subjects. My guess would be that if polled, most people—including most educators—would say they just make good sense.

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Do You Know What ‘The Procedure’ Is?

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, high-profile education reformer Lou Gerstner, Jr., wrote, “We must start with the recognition that, despite decade after decade of reform efforts, our public K- 12 schools have not improved.”

In a speech to the American Federation of Teachers, multi-billionaire Bill Gates agreed, saying the United States has been “struggling for decades to improve our public schools,” and the results have been “dismal.”

In his December 19, 2013 Education Week blog, Marc Tucker, another influential long-time education reformer, asks, “Why has US education performance flatlined?”

Like Gerstner, Gates, and Tucker, I don’t see any evidence that the army of corporate types who left business suites and corner offices to come to the rescue of American education have done anything but dumb down the public’s conception of the ends of public education and the proper means to more acceptable ends.

Corporate reformers have had two decades to make their case that what ails American education is a lack of rigor, and two decades to test their theory that market forces are the surest way to kick-start that needed rigor. To that end, they’ve introduced competition with a vengeance—kids against kids, parents against parents, teachers against teachers, schools against schools, districts against districts, states against states, nations against nations.
 
And it hasn’t worked. But like all true believers, it doesn’t shake their faith that rigor is the key to quality performance, that competition is the key to rigor, and that more of it will make America the winner in the bubble-in-the-right-oval race.

I come to the reform problem from a simpler, more direct perspective. Although at one time or another I’ve played most of the roles connected to education—student, parent, teacher, researcher, school board member, textbook author, contributor to journals, college professor, consultant, administrator, and so on, I think of myself primarily in the role I most enjoyed and in which I learned the most—a classroom teacher of adolescents, working with kids sent to me against their will, on orders from vague authority figures, behaving as kids could be expected to behave when caged for hours at a time in a small, dull space.
 
For years I wrote newspaper columns for Knight-Ridder, trying to help general readers think freshly about long-ignored school problems. Below is a response to one of my columns from John Perry, a classroom teacher in Central Florida. Read what he has to say and ask yourself how more rigor would solve his problem.

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What's Wrong with the Common Core?

A particular interest of mine has long been what kids are taught in the early years of adolescence. No surprise, then, that when the Common Core Standards went public, I clicked on the standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects and scrolled down to pages 61 and 62, where you can find lists of standards for different grades.
Let’s look at the standards for 9th and 10th graders.  There are two lists for the various subjects, but they are nearly identical. Reading them, I was struck by something I’ll boldface for the sake of emphasis:

Standard 1: “Cite specific textual evidence…”

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What Makes an Effective Teacher? Here are the Right and Wrong Roles

Bill Gates spent$45 million trying to find out what makes a school teacher effective. I’ve studied his Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, and think it ignores a matter of fundamental importance.

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Do Textbooks Really Help Teach Our Kids?

A few days ago I watched a Public Broadcasting System, Independent Lens video titled “The Revisionaries.” It follows Don McLeRoy, dentist and longtime conservative member of the Texas Board of Education, as he campaigns for the position of chairman, then, later, to continue to serve on the board.

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What a REAL Paradigm Shift in Education Would Look Like

I envy Thomas Paine’s way with language. I’ve been searching for years for words that would have the impact of those he penned in his 1776 pamphlet,
“The Crisis.”

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Why We Should Consider Letting High Schoolers Pick Their Classes

Both my late mother’s and my father’s right foot tended to be heavy when in contact with car accelerators. Their brothers and sisters shared the tendency, suggesting some sort of genetic propensity — which I, unfortunately, seem to have inherited.

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What's Worth Learning: How Outdated Curricula Are Failing America's Students

It goes without saying that solving a problem begins with a correct diagnosis of its cause.

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The Ultimate Education Reform: Learning by Doing

We learn most of what we know by doing something while thinking about it—learn about cooking by cooking, learn about getting through airport security by going through airport security, learn about removing appendices by removing appendices.

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Testing Companies are Robbing Your Children of an Education, and Making Big Money for Big Business in the Process

Future historians, trying to explain why America, at the turn of the 21st century, chose a path to education reform that made catastrophe all but inevitable, will have a difficult time unraveling the tangled weave of ideology, ignorance, hubris, secrecy, naiveté, greed and unexamined assumptions that contributed to that catastrophe.

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8 Reasons We Should Be Seriously Suspicious of the Common Core Standards

E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s book, “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” was published March 1, 1987.

So it was probably in March of that year when, sitting at a dining room table in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, my host — a publishing executive, friend, and fellow West Virginian — said he’d just bought the book. He hadn’t read it yet, but wondered how Hirsch’s list of 5,000 things he thought every American should know differed from a list we Appalachians might write.

I don’t remember what I said, but it was probably some version of what I’ve long taken for granted: Most people think that whatever they and the people they like happen to know, everybody else should be required to know.

In education, of course, what it’s assumed that everybody should be required to know is called “the core.” Responsibility for teaching the core is divvied up between teachers of math, science, language arts, and social studies.

Variously motivated corporate interests, arguing that the core was being sloppily taught, organized a behind-the-scenes campaign to super-standardize it. They named their handiwork the Common Core State Standards to hide the fact that it was driven by policymakers in Washington D.C., who have thus far shoved it into every state except Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia.

This was done with minimal public dialogue or feedback from experienced educators, no research, no pilot or experimental programs — no evidence at all that a floor-length list created by unnamed people attempting to standardize what’s taught is a good idea.

It’s a bad idea. Ignore the fact that specific Common Core State Standards will open up enough cans of worms to keep subject-matter specialists arguing among themselves forever. Consider instead the merit of Standards from a general perspective:

One: Standards shouldn’t be attached to school subjects, but to the qualities of mind it’s hoped the study of school subjects promotes. Subjects are mere tools, just as scalpels, acetylene torches, and transits are tools. Surgeons, welders, surveyors — and teachers — should be held accountable for the quality of what they produce, not how they produce it.

Two: The world changes. The future is indiscernible. Clinging to a static strategy in a dynamic world may be comfortable, even comforting, but it’s a Titanic-deck-chair exercise.

Three: The Common Core Standards assume that what kids need to know is covered by one or another of the traditional core subjects. In fact, the unexplored intellectual terrain lying between and beyond those familiar fields of study is vast, expands by the hour, and will go in directions no one can predict.

Four: So much orchestrated attention is being showered on the Common Core Standards, the main reason for poor student performance is being ignored—a level of childhood poverty the consequences of which no amount of schooling can effectively counter.

Five: The Common Core kills innovation. When it’s the only game in town, it’s the only game in town.

Six: The Common Core Standards are a set-up for national standardized tests, tests that can’t evaluate complex thought, can’t avoid cultural bias, can’t measure non-verbal learning, can’t predict anything of consequence (and waste boatloads of money).

Seven: The word “standards” gets an approving nod from the public (and from most educators) because it means “performance that meets a standard.” However, the word also means “like everybody else,” and standardizing minds is what the Standards try to do. Common Core Standards fans sell the first meaning; the Standards deliver the second meaning. Standardized minds are about as far out of sync with deep-seated American values as it’s possible to get.

Eight: The Common Core Standards’ stated aim — “success in college and careers”— is at best pedestrian, at worst an affront. The young should be exploring the potentials of humanness.

I’ve more beefs, but like these eight, they have to do with the quality of education, and the pursuit of educational quality isn’t what’s driving the present education reform farce.

An illustration: As I write, my wife is in the kitchen. She calls me for lunch. The small television suspended under the kitchen cabinets is tuned to CNN, and Time cover girl Michelle Rhee is being interviewed.

“On international tests,” she says, “the U.S. ranks 27th from the top.”

Michelle Rhee, three-year teacher, education reactionary, mainstream media star, fired authoritarian head of a school system being investigated for cheating on standardized tests, is given a national platform to misinform. She doesn’t explain that, at the insistence of policymakers, and unlike other countries, America tests every kid — the mentally disabled, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the transient, the troubled, those for whom English is a second language. That done, the scores are lumped together. She doesn’t even hint that when the scores of the disadvantaged aren’t counted, American students are at the top.

If Michelle Rhee doesn’t know that, she shouldn’t be on CNN. If she knows it but fails to point it out, she shouldn’t be on CNN.

It’s hard not to compare Rhee with Jennifer, a friend of my oldest son. He wrote me recently:

…I asked Jenn if she was ready for school.

“I’m waiting for an email from my principal to find out if I can get into my classroom a week early.”

“Why a whole week?”

“To get my room ready.”

She teaches second graders. I ask her why she loves that grade. She laughs and says, “Because they haven’t learned to roll their eyes yet.”

But I know it’s much more than that. Her sister was down from Ohio for Jenn’s birthday, and when she asked her what she wanted, Jenn said she needed 18 sets of colored pencils, 18 boxes of #2 pencils, 18 boxes of crayons, construction paper, name tags and so on — $346 dollars total.

She’s been doing this for 25 years. I’m sure she makes less than I do, but they could probably cut her salary 25 or 30% and she’d still want to get into her room early.”


Rhee gets $50,000 a pop plus first-class travel and accommodations for putting in an appearance to tell her audiences what’s wrong with the Jennifers in America’s schools, and what clubs should be swung or held over their heads to scare them into shaping up.

Future historians (if there are any) are going to shake their heads in disbelief. They’ll wonder how, in a single generation, the world’s oldest democracy dismantled its engine — free, public, locally controlled, democratic education.

If they dig into the secretive process that produced the Common Core State Standards, most of their questions will be answered.

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Improve Public Education

Whether or not America arrives at the 22nd century in recognizable form hinges in great measure on the quality of public education.Presently, educational policy is being driven primarily by the Business Roundtable and the US Chamber of Commerce, working through Congress. They assume that "the system"-the curriculum adopted in 1892-is sound, from which it follows that poor performance must be the fault of teachers and students. Their cure? Tougher "standards and accountability."Wrong diagnosis. Wrong cure. The familiar 1892 curriculum grows more dysfunctional by the day, clinging to it is suicidal, and a national conference is essential.

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