Opportunity Knocks and Grade Level Answers the Door

Last month, Ed World was abuzz over a flashy new report from TNTP, the refurbished face of The New Teacher Project.  The New Teacher Project was a super-reformy org originally started by Michelle Rhee to promote the idea of placing smart, eager (and also cheap) college grads with superior content knowledge, like Michelle, in needy classrooms, replacing the tired old ineffective dishrag teachers slogging along there.

TNTP has morphed into another grant-funded report-writing nonprofit, surfing the reformy trends and saving the world, one white paper or glossy report at a time. You really need to take a look at the report, because it’s uber-slick, from its title–The Opportunity Myth— to its multi-directional graphics and catchy bullet points.

Its main point: Most students are doing work below grade level. And we should immediately change that, so students can reach their potential, which seems to mean getting into competitive colleges and becoming neuroscientists.

‘That’s the opportunity myth. It means that at every grade level, in every district, for students of every demographic background, school is not honoring their aspirations or setting them up for success—in their next grade, in college, and in whatever they want to do down the road.’ 

Notice—every grade level, every district, every demographic is currently being failed by… schools, which are not setting them up to succeed. Because ‘schools’ are not giving students grade-level work.

How does TNTP know this? Because they amassed a huge data set—20,000 samples of student work!—from students and teachers in five school districts. That’s right—five districts, including three urban, one rural (where all the white kids were) and one charter district. Anyone who’s ever corrected papers knows that 20,000 pieces of student work could easily be the annual total for two or three secondary math teachers—although it certainly sounds like a big, impressive data number. Extrapolating the numbers from five districts to the entire public education system? That’s a data fail.

Peter Greene does a wonderful job of deconstructing the research and the flabby, well-duh recommendations—which begin with the following statement:

 ‘We readily acknowledge that we don’t have a detailed operational plan to improve student experiences at scale. But we believe it’s time to…return to the basic guiding principle that brings us to this work: the right of every student to learn what they need to reach their goals. But we think we know where to begin, and it starts with making students’ daily experiences the center of our work.’

That statement is the dead giveaway that the report, research and recommendations were crafted by non-teachers, who were ‘trained’ to compare a daily assignment to what the Common Core (masquerading as ‘College and Career standards’ in this report) says Any Given Student ought to know and be able to do in, say, 5th or 11th grade.

Because—honestly—I don’t know any teacher who doesn’t believe students have a right to pursue high and worthwhile goals. And ‘students’ daily experiences’ are pretty much the entire point of teaching.

The weakest link in the report, however—the core assertion that marks it as just more pearl-clutching sludge– is all the fussing over ‘grade-level’ work.

Some observations:

  • As a metric, ‘grade level’ is pretty wobbly. We’re all familiar with the fact that kindergarten is the new first grade, and that national standards have pushed everything from algebra to frog dissection down a level or two, whether students are developmentally ready or not. We have increasing numbers of students whose native tongue is something other than English, policy churn and students moving in and out of schools due to ‘choice.’ What Arne Duncan called ‘the same goalposts’ has never been reality.
  • We need to meet students where they are. There’s no point in following college readiness standards and a pacing guide if the students haven’t absorbed today’s lesson or last year’s core content. All those lessons deemed too easy by TNTP might have been exactly what the students needed to move forward.
  • In any given class, even in a highly tracked system, there are students at multiple points on the understanding/application spectrum. And in two weeks, most of them will be someplace else. Some will have leapt ahead. Others will be stuck. And some, for some inexplicable reason, will be in retrograde, with skills once mastered having dribbled off. It’s the teacher’s job to give them all something to do, something that will either add new knowledge, provide practice opportunities, or extend their understanding. Planning lessons is the proverbial moving target, a fact that standards creators and those wishing to ‘re-imagine’ school as more uniform seem to have missed.
  • The use of student work samples to evaluate instruction means the research analysis—comparing the samples to standards—was based on tangible items: paper-based assignments, artifacts created using computers, and so on. Things. This seems to ignore that fact that lots of valuable student work cannot be photographed and sent digitally to ‘analysts.’ It leaves out many types of assignments and assessment models: discussion, observation, silent reading, role plays, student leadership in group learning, model-making, movement, conversations with a teacher. It leaves out things that cannot be assessed but are critical for learning—imagination and play.
  • It’s worth remembering that grade levels (and assigning students to age-similar groups) are arbitrary. And–it’s a journey, not a race. Deciding when to accelerate is a function of experienced judgment on the part of the teacher. I have seen students cover six months’ worth of content in three, once some core ideas took root—and that was in my class made up of students in four so-called grade levels, 9th through 12th

If the purpose of school is giving students tools to pursue their goals, judiciously increasing the difficulty level of their work is only one aspect of successful outcomes. Students need to feel a sense of safety and belonging before the small successes can accrue.  Skipping that step is folly. The range of what students learn in school is vast, and much of it is not measurable.

Probably the most irritating aspect of the report was snapshot profiles of individual students, where the report’s authors reveal their background biases. There’s the immigrant girl headed for a career in medicine: Her father wants her to go to college, so she can avoid the kind of suffering he’s experienced working in a local factory. Remember when unionized skilled factory workers were the backbone of the economic growth of the nation—a job that supported a family, not something to be ashamed of?

And then there’s the student who is torn between boredom and frustration. Sometimes, she finishes her work after 20 minutes, and is bored. But sometimes, she doesn’t understand the work and is frustrated. To me, this sounds like a typical kid in a well-functioning school—one where some things are easy and others hard. The kind of kid who carries a paperback to fill time in one class but needs after-school tutoring in another subject.

The TNTP report, however, sympathizes–her teachers, they claim, should be hitting the magic instructional sweet spot, the zone of proximal development, day after day. Each lesson should be just challenging enough to engage interest, but not too difficult. Otherwise, says the report, months will be wasted every year. Return on investment will be inadequate.

And with that, it becomes clear just who’s on the hook here. And just who has never had to deal with the messy, chaotic, non-standardized, glorious, rewarding job of classroom teaching.



I was editor of my high school yearbook. It was way more work than I anticipated when I took on the job–and because our yearbook wasn’t distributed until August, long after graduation and right before school started, the page proofs weren’t due until after school was out. Which meant I spent the first few weeks of summer slapping final edits on pages, in between shifts at a waterfront breakfast joint favored by 5:00 a.m. fishing enthusiasts and old men who wanted 14 ‘bottomless’ coffee refills and left quarter tips.

If I flirted with them, that is. And I needed every quarter, because I was going off to college–the first in my family–in three months.

As a doctoral student in Education Policy, many decades later, one of my ProSeminar assignments was choosing an educational artifact, analyzing and contrasting three diverse examples of that item, over time. Most of my colleagues chose prestigious, chart-laden reports from non-profits or the federal government on a single topic–mathematics education changes over time, say, or uses of standardized testing data.

I chose yearbooks. I was in possession of my mother’s HS yearbook (Class of ’45), my own yearbook (Class of ’69) and my son’s yearbook (Class of 2006). And I knew something about how yearbooks were put together, whose voices and photos would predominate, and about how easy it was to sneak in juicy little personalized bits that seem uproarious at the time, but may have been overlooked by the faculty sponsor.

Besides the obvious surface features–color photos, fashion and 200 self-indulgent pages– there some distinct differences, over the 60+ years between the oldest and most recent yearbooks. You can tell a great deal about school climate and the socio-economic prospects of the students from a school yearbook, in addition to observing a revealing sketch of critical cultural issues in America at the time.

The ’45 yearbook was sparse, including headshots, nicknames and future plans of students, plus tiny pictures of faculty. There were a few group photos of clubs and events, but no sports teams, no Homecoming queen, no prom. Instead, there was a sober, black-bordered page of boys (and these were indeed boys) who had already lost their lives in WWII, and another page featuring service photos of classmates who had dropped out of HS to join the military. Girls outnumbered boys perhaps three to one in the class that was actually graduating in May.

All students were identified by their course of study–general, business, vocational, college prep.  Most boys in the graduating class were college prep, and my mother had written which branch of the service they entered, post-graduation. Next to one, she even wrote ‘4F.’ Even though both V-E and V-J Days were celebrated immediately after the graduation of this Class of ’45, my mother tracked, with her handy-dandy fountain pen, the classmates who enlisted anyway and went off, presumably to mop up, and those who returned to faithful girlfriends and G.E.D. diplomas.

Life seemed to be about growing up quickly and doing your duty. Kind of the original no-excuses curriculum and climate.

A mere 24 years later, the 1969 volume was infused with Essence of Baby Boomer, from the hippy-dippy cover to the e.e. cummings-like lack of capital letters in page titles and names. Classes had been de-tracked, and nobody was labeled by their scholastic prowess or future educational plans. There was an eight-page photo essay based on a Beatles tune, and lots and lots of sports pages. Other than cheerleading and synchronized swimming, these pages were boys-only features.

The original ESEA was passed in 1965, and four years later, because of the law, my previously all-white, blue collar high school had been integrated. Why? Because we had a newly built school with extra classrooms (unlike overcrowded, older school districts in the mid-1960s). We could house something new: a program for students who needed a ‘special education’ setting. A majority of the newly identified special ed students were black, and were bused from the city to the unzoned outer edge of town, where I lived, to a different school.

I remember asking a teacher about the new kids–who were mostly in self-contained classrooms in 1967-69, mingling with us only at lunch and in physical education–and she said our equalized tax base was low, and we got money for taking these students, money that was needed because we had a smaller revenue stream than other local districts.

It was my introduction to the general inadequacy and inequity of school finance, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I was operating on the ‘Be True to Your School’ model of pride and loyalty, rah rah, sis boom bah. It never occurred to me that, because I lived on the working-class side of town, my school got less money, and the budget had to stretch further. Or that the first kids in my county to be labeled ‘special ed’ were collected out of their home schools and went across town to a school that was underfunded.

My son’s yearbook is twice as thick as mine, and filled with color shots of graduates, plus a paragraph of personal in-jokes and reminiscing for each. There’s a lot more focus on events–casual shots from dances, parties, contests and games. The big difference in 2006 is girls. More girls in leadership roles, the exit of the Future Homemakers club, and an abundance of girls in sports. They’re everywhere.

There are forty pages in the back of the book–in the place where older yearbooks have ads from local businesses–filled with space purchased by parents to celebrate their graduates. These tributes often include a shot of the graduate as a toddler or kindergartener, plus some humble bragging about all the student’s achievements and college plans.

Buying more space in the yearbook to advertise (is that the right word?) your kid is pricey, but lots of parents seemed to see this as one of the embedded costs of having a high school graduate–nearly half the class participated, in quarter / half / full-page increments of parental praise. I’m not criticizing parents for feeling proud of their kids. I’m wondering about parents who absolutely can’t spare the money, feeling bad about their kid not getting a half-page accolade when they’ve worked hard and done well. Kind of puts a different spin on yearbooks, when they’re funded by the folks whose kids are the stars.

Brett Kavanaugh’s yearbook seems to come from a vastly different socio-economic context than any that I studied–but there are some of the same classic yearbook elements that tell us lots about who he is.

Primarily– the now well-known graduation photo with his smart-ass, ‘let’s see what I can get past the faculty advisor,’ guy-joke paragraph of memories. The ones about the Devil’s Triangle, the 100 Keg Club, the truly despicable shaming of a girl (Renate) from a nearby school and the rest of his little witticisms.

In 1982, I had been teaching for 10 years. I can tell you that a faculty advisor who let that stuff be printed was either asleep on the job or (more likely) simply reflecting the prevailing norms at Georgetown Prep, unworried about the boys being jerks because that kind of behavior was common.  Kavanaugh’s personal yearbook memories were similar to what other boys wrote–there were eight of them tormenting poor Renate. The yearbook caught the flavor of the culture around there in 1982. Preppies on the loose.

When Kavanaugh was asked, by Senator Patrick Leahy, about text from his yearbook, he sneered. Oh, he said–we’re gonna talk about my yearbook now?

It’s surprising what you can learn from a high school yearbook.






Teacher in a Strange Land

Welcome to my world. Literally. This is the view from my deck.

I am a retired music teacher from Michigan, who lives and breathes education policy and practice. I firmly believe that–for all its flaws–public education is America’s best idea. A fully public, fully funded education (no turning away the ‘hard to educate’ who may be no such thing). A public education for everyone, no matter what they bring to the table. It’s fundamental.