Hope Is The Answer

There is only one answer to improving education, closing the achievement gap, and producing graduates who are capable and have a sense of purpose: Give poor kids what the children of the educated and the affluent already have.

We know that middle and upper class students in the United States receive from their public schools the best education in the world. We also know that the reason for the achievement of those more affluent kids does not come exclusively from what their schools offer them but also from what their families and communities give them as well. So let’s give poor kids those same family and community advantages of the more affluent and see what happens. 

Harris Rosen did just that. Since 1993, he has given $12 million to a poor community of about 3,000 people in the metro Orlando, Florida area named Tangelo Park. He gives about $500,000 a year, less than his start-up yearly contributions, directly to preschool and prekindergarten programs he established and for all graduating seniors who are going to college. 

Tangelo Park has a population that is 90% African American and, until recent years, was best known for its drugs, crime, and shuttered houses. Thank to Mr. Rosen’s involvement, Tangelo now has free preschool for all children ages 2-4 and prekindergarten classes with access to parenting classes, vocational courses, and technical training for their parents. Children, according to their teachers, now arrive in kindergarten ready to learn. The high school graduates all of its seniors, most of whom go on to college on full scholarships, funded by Harris Rosen. The scholarships are for anyone who is accepted to a Florida public university, college, community college, or technical school and covers tuition, room, board, books, and travel costs. There is a 75% college graduation rate of Tangelo high school graduates who go to college, which is the highest rate among ethnic groups in the nation. Tangelo now also has increased property values and plummeting crime rates. Harris Rosen’s investment, over the past 21 years, has changed lives and transformed a community. 

What created the changed lives and the transformed community? 

 For Harry Rosen, the changed lives of the people of Tangelo Park and the transformation of that community is all about an element absent in many impoverished American neighborhoods: hope.

“If you don’t have any hope,” Rosen says “then what’s the point?”

 The children of educated and affluent parents are raised in a culture of hope; they, to quote Emily Dickinson, ” dwell in possibility”. They are also given the cognitive skills to make the possible real for themselves. That is why they succeed. 

Harry Rosen questioned why students would devote countless hours to school and their families would emphasize education to their children if college is out of reach. He decided to make hope real for the community of Tangelo Park.

We, as a nation, can do what what Harris Rosen did for Tangelo Park. We can give all kids hope. What it will take is universal early childhood education, which emphasizes cognitive and social development, and college scholarships for all.

 Philanthropists, such as Bill Gates, The Walton family (Walmart), and Eli Broad could put their money into funding early childhood education and college scholarships, instead of trying to micromanage something about which they have no knowledge or expertise: what goes on in classrooms. Federal, state, and local taxes could help to fund quality early childhood education and college scholarships instead of paying for useless standardized tests and the curricular materials to prepare students  for those tests. Individual volunteer efforts could focus on developing the vocabulary and thinking skills of 2, 3, ,4 and 5 year old children or in helping high school seniors and their parents to explore college options and complete the required application and financial aid forms. 

We could then see in 2018 the beginning of a national effort that would make for real student achievement, for real equity, and for real education reform. We could build a culture of hope. Let’s do it.



Throwing Away What Students Need Most

Many years ago when I was six weeks into my first year as a teacher, I went to my department head with an idea. I had become aware that the 8th grade social studies classes were studying the Holocaust and thought that we 8th grade English teachers could parallel that with a study of semantics. My department head encouraged me to research my idea. So I read S.I. Hayakawa for the first time and fell in love with the power of his thinking. I became excited about the possibilities for having students explore the relationship between language and thought in their English classes and see the connections they could make to their study of the Holocaust in their social studies classes. What resulted was a shared collaboration between the two departments that enriched the education of 8th graders.

Years later in another district when I was the  English curriculum leader, a teacher came to me with the unconventional idea to have the first book in a sophomore honors level American literature class be the most difficult book in the entire course instead of beginning the course, as was the usual practice, with short stories, poems, or simpler novels. She had the idea that, by introducing students to that most challenging text, it would invite them into deep philosophical thinking and introduce them to many of the seminal ideas in the American experience in the first weeks of the course. She thought it would raise the bar for the students and enrich all of their subsequent reading experiences. I encouraged her to try it. What resulted is a curriculum that has, over the years, transformed thousands of adolescents into brand new intellectual thinkers and awakened them as deeply engaged scholars.

At another time when I was a curriculum leader, a teacher of AP Literature and Composition said she would like to try a different way of grading in order to challenge her students to grow as much possible. She said that, instead of averaging a student’s grades from the quarter, each student’s  final grade would be what that student had become by the end of the quarter. So a student with grades on her writing assignments of D, D+,C+, C-, C+, B-, C, B+, A-, A- would not receive a final quarter grade of the average of those grades but would receive a writing grade of an A- because the student had become an A- writer. What resulted was a teacher setting very high standards for achievement and giving students opportunities to reach those standards without penalizing them for their early shortcomings.

And at yet another time, a teacher came to me and wanted to teach an alternate book to one that was in the curriculum. He wanted to replace The Scarlet Letter with The Grapes of Wrath. I asked him to explain to me: 1) how the students could be challenged to develop the same skills as questioners, collaborators, responders to literature, and writers as they did with the book already in the curriculum, and 2) how students would explore the same seminal ideas about the American experience with his suggested book as they did with the one already chosen for the curriculum. He reported back in detail how he would do both. What resulted was a new book for teachers to choose for their classes and an alternate reading experience for students.

Each of these stories is about a teacher with a passion for teaching and with the opportunity to use his or her mind to bring that passion into the classroom. The days of those opportunities are over in most public schools.

Peter Greene points out  why this has happened. He says it’s due to the Common Core. He explains that, although the Common Core failed to accomplish its goal of a uniform education across the nation because “the Core was revealed as both political kryptonite and amateur-hour educational junk”, the Core has won one victory. The Common Core has “swept away the notion that actual teachers and administrators are experts in education. Instead, the standards-based school district now assumes that nobody in the school system actually knows what should be taught, and that the most they can be trusted with is to “unpack” the standards and create a checklist-certified list of education activities that will meet the standards’ demands”.  He also writes that many university schools of education are preparing prospective teachers for that same kind of diminished role.

Peter Greene laments that the one victory that Common Core can claim is the “defeat of professional educators, the clampdown on teacher autonomy”.

Intelligent and motivated public school teachers will not last in the teaching profession if they are not encouraged to use their minds but rather are charged to simply implement the content of the Common Core, a content which serves only the makers of multiple choice tests, and to practice the totally outmoded and unsuccessful pedagogy prescribed by the non-educators who wrote the Common Core.

Who then wins if those with the best minds and the deepest passion for teaching leave the profession or are not even motivated to enter it?

No one.

A New Year’s Resolution: Justice For Kids

As we are thinking up our New Year’s resolutions, how about justice for our kids?

National standards do not make for justice. Multiple choice testing does not make for justice. Ignoring the effects of race and poverty on children’s ability to learn does not make for justice.

Kids’ backgrounds are not equal. Their test scores will never be equal. But their education can be equitable if we help all students to grow from where the are and to develop fully as engaged learners and strong thinkers .

Intentions matter. Let’s resolve in 2018 to educate all kids, not just test them.

Please watch this two minute video:

Ending A Democracy With A Tax Plan

The crisis that threatens the health of the American economy today is income inequality. The GOP tax plan will markedly exacerbate that income inequality. The rich will get richer, and the poor will get poorer. The rich will educate their children in private schools so that they are prepared for good jobs, earn high salaries, and keep getting richer. The poor will send their children to public schools with decreased resources, increased class sizes, and learning focused on useless standardized tests.  The difference between education for the children of affluence and the education for the children of the working poor will deepen. Public education as the bedrock of a democracy will cease to exist.  The crisis is not just an economic one. We are witnessing as citizens and participating in as taxpayers a moral crisis of immense proportion.

Diane Ravitch, the noted historian about American education, explains how the GOP tax plan will contribute to the moral crisis which foreshadows the end of our democracy. Diane Ravitch writes:

“If you aren’t angry yet about the Trump Tax scam, you should be. An article in The New York Times clearly lays out how it will produce tax savings for private school families while devastating state revenues that now fund public schools. The author, Nat Malkus, is deputy director of education policy at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. After this tax plan, never again let it be said that Republicans believe in local control and states’ rights. They believe in federal dictation, so long as they are in charge.

Nat Malkus writes:

Congressional Republicans, traditional defenders of states’ rights, will deliver an unexpected one-two punch to state tax systems if the current version of their tax bill becomes law as expected.

The tax plan, negotiated behind closed doors, includes an expansion of 529 savings accounts and the partial elimination of state and local tax deductions. These changes will provide new avenues for people to avoid state income tax that states never envisioned. And those states will have a hard time making up the difference.

The first blow would come from expanding 529 college savings accounts, which offer tax advantages to encourage families to save money for college, to cover K-12 expenses, such as private school tuition and home schooling costs.

This amendment by Senator Ted Cruz passed only because of a midnight tiebreaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence. Under current law, earnings on contributions to 529 plans are not subject to federal taxes. These investment vehicles work well for college savings because deposits grow tax-free over a long time. Using 529 accounts for elementary or high school tuition, however, substantially shortens that period, making these accounts a minimal boost to school choice.

While this change would have only a small effect on the federal Treasury, it creates outsize impacts on the state income tax bases in the 33 states that instituted state tax deductions and tax credits to encourage 529 college savings. The federal expansion opens these state incentives to an entirely new area of expenditures, allowing private school families to funnel their tuition payments through 529s as a way to avoid state taxes.

Imagine for instance that a family in New York spends $10,000 on high school tuition but has not yet started saving for college. Congress’s 529 expansion opens New York’s $10,000 state income tax deduction for 529 contributions to private school tuition. This family could now open a 529 savings account, briefly park the $10,000 for private school tuition in it, and avoid about $600 in state income taxes.

That modest $600 for families takes a much bigger cumulative toll on New York’s income tax base. With about 465,000 New York private school students, roughly $3 billion might be cut from New York’s income tax base.

While the federal government limits its benefits to $10,000 in annual distributions per student for K-12 expenses, some states offer much larger state tax deductions, and their tax bases would be affected even more than New York’s will be. Illinois, for instance, allows deductions for $20,000 in contributions a year per beneficiary to 529 plans, while Pennsylvania allows $28,000. Colorado, New Mexico, South Carolina and West Virginia have broader tax loopholes: all 529 contributions are fully deductible, so participants’ entire private school tuition could be free of state tax.

With this law, the Republican Congress would be nullifying the intent of state legislatures by creating tax breaks for private school parents that are paid for by reducing state tax bases that pay, in part, for public schools. States did not choose to create tax-free private school tuitions, Congress did.

Not all states will bear the full brunt of this law. States without income taxes, like Senator Cruz’s home state, Texas, have no state income tax deductions for contributions to 529 plans to interfere with their state taxing sovereignty.

The second blow to state education funding would come from the new federal cap on the deductibility of state and local tax payments. Public schools are primarily funded by state and local taxes, partly by local property taxes, and partly by the state, often through income taxes. When districts are too poor to raise enough property taxes to fund schools, the state contributes funds to even the scales with wealthier districts.

Expanding 529 plans to deliver state deductions to private school families will erode the tax base that funds public schools, affecting high-poverty schools the most. By limiting state and local tax deductions at the same time, Republicans would make it harder for states and cities to raise taxes to make up for those shortfalls.

The easiest fix is to eliminate the 529 expansion, a federal action that transfers state tax dollars from the poor to the rich and which won’t substantively increase school choice for those who do not already have it. Doing so would be a principled stand for the party that professes to protect state sovereignty. Not doing so will affirm the worst caricature of Republicans and education — taking money from the poor to give to the rich.”


When success of a school is based on numbers – what percentage of the students graduate or how high the test scores are – all kinds of unethical practices occur. Most importantly, the students do not receive the knowledge and skills they need. They leave school uneducated. They suffer as adults. We are weakened as a nation. Read what happens when we set the wrong goals for schools. 

The false reporting of data and the disservice to students and, ultimately, to our country is pervasive. It happens right here in Connecticut, most notably in our charter schools. The graduation rates and college acceptance rates in Connecticut’s charter schools need to be scrutinized. For example, in 2013, Achievement First’s Amistad High School announced that 100% of its seniors were accepted to college. In reality, 38% of those who entered the high school in ninth grade were accepted to college, 25 students out of the original 64 ninth graders. The remaining 39 students were either held back in senior year or were no longer enrolled in the school. So Achievement First’s claim that it graduated all of its seniors was true only if you count the small percentage of students the school allows to be called seniors.

Our children are not manufactured products to be counted. They are human beings to be educated so that they fulfill their potential. We can’t get there by talking about numbers like standardized test scores, which will always be a reflection of the wealth or poverty of the students’ parents, or graduation rates, which can be manipulated simply by redefining the course requirements or eliminating low achieving students.

The only way to tell if a school is truly successful is to go see what the students are learning and how they are being assessed on that learning. Check out your local school and ask questions.

Go and visit Metro Business Academy, a New Haven Public School, and Pathways Academy to Technology and Design, a Hartford Public School. The teachers in both schools are teaching their students to learn and to think. The teachers are also collaboratively working together to keep learning themselves as teachers. And what the students accomplish will absolutely blow you away.

We can do it – one school at a time. We just have to ask the right questions. And those questions are about students learning – not about numbers.