20 reforms, no. 20: business support

If the Elephant-in-the-Classroom approach is to work, it will need unprecedented support from private industry. Companies need to contribute monies to the local school system, ear-marked for career training and apprenticeships. They will also need to coordinate with schools to develop working models.

I suspect that even the conservative business community will not object to an increase in taxes for career studies, if necessary. One nice thing about career work is that it is less of a political football. Whereas liberals and Tea Party folks are on opposite sides of debates about school financing and curriculum content, they will all agree that making a soufflé requires mostly the same steps and skills that it always has, and won’t be arguing about curriculum materials –– or recipe books.

The “Year Up” crash course program developed for disadvantaged students, some of whom have only GED degrees, shows that private industry has its heart in the right place. These programs provide six months of intensive training followed by six months of internships with Fortune 500 companies including J.P. Morgan Chase and American Express. Students are given stipends of a few hundred dollars per week. The funds could be docked if students don’t adapt to the social codes and norms of the workplace, such as showing up late for work. “Year Up,” CBS 60 Minutes, January 26, 2014.

Next Generation?

An outstanding example of support from business is the Ford Motor Company Next Generation Learning Communities that have set out to establish career academies at the high school level with the goal of helping all students become college and career ready. Next Generation is real-world and performance-based. It redesigns secondary schools to permit career study programs for all students and encourages community involvement in student projects. This looks like a winner! Fordngl.com.

Endowed institutions such as the Gates Foundation could make a major impact by investing money in career education. In the past, they have emphasized teacher training and Common Core Benchmarks rather than altering the one-size-fits-all –– all kids are the same –– strategy of our government.

It’s true that increases in school board budgets have not always led to effective change, but with the Elephant-in-the-Classroom concept we’re talking about career development that directly affects future employees. I believe private industry will stand up and be counted!

On the college readiness side, we already have gifted programs, including public charter schools for the gifted, advanced placement programs, International Baccalaureate programs, and the challenging pre-Cambridge programs (creaming that recruits a good number of the collegiate strivers). Industry really needs to push career education.

elephant 003

20 reforms, no. 19: Compete with other countries

I would like to take this opportunity to say something in defense of our teachers and our public school system today. Comparing our kids with kids in Norway, China, or other foreign countries is ludicrous, in my humble opinion. This is truly comparing apples and oranges. America is an immigrant society that accepts and works with people from all socio-economic levels. Students in our top 30% to 35% of academic ability and interest do as well as similar children in other countries. The Elephant in the Classroom says: “This isn’t about a race to the moon. This is about giving all American children an opportunity to be successful, contributing citizens.”

Wei Luo is CEO of the Cal Sunshine Education Center in Claremont, California. He reports that the higher students score on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), the lower those students score on self-confidence and entrepreneurship. So the fact that U.S. scores lag in global tests may not be such a bad thing.

elephant 003Matthew Muller said visiting Chinese students reported that they had 12-hour school days at a Beijing high school, followed by homework. This obviously left them with less time for athletics and social interaction, compared to US students. Wendy Kopp visited rural schools in China, and noted that fewer than 30% of rural Chinese students make it to high school, where they would participate in the PISA exam. So much for comparing apples and oranges! Wendy Kopp, (op-ed) “Let’s call off the Education Arms Race,” The Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2013. There’s that 30% figure again! I know I’m getting repetitious but it keeps cropping up, doesn’t it?

Just learn the darn thing!


A national movement to base grades on mastery of the subject and not homework or behavior has gained some traction. Educators went to this approach when they discovered that nationally only 26% of high school seniors met college benchmarks in four important subjects. With the mastery approach, homework is not graded and student’s can retake portions of tests.

As with most other well-meaning reforms, this assumes three myths: All kids have the same ability, all should go to college, and all have the same personalities. To start with, only the top 25% or so should go to college. So what’s the fuss?

It’s too early to assess this program but the approach suggested in The Elephant and the Classroom would solve the problem of all kids meeting benchmarks. Kids in career studies wouldn’t need academic benchmarks because they would already be on a mastery-based career program. Meanwhile, the true college-prep student will do fine with or without grading homework and use of tests.

elephant 003elephant 003Students Have One Assignment: Learn.” St. Louis Post Dispatch, December 29, 2013.

20 reforms: no. 17: Common Core

Common Core.

This popular new approach is a set of K – 12 academic benchmarks that have been adopted by 45 states. Some folks had the impression that Common Core would demand college prep work for all students in high school. Therefore, my objection is that only 25% to 30% of students are capable and motivated to do well at that academic level.

These reformers refuse to understand that there are drastic differences in student’s abilities. The majority of students should be in career studies and shouldn’t be subjected to high-stakes academic testing.

And perhaps Common Core doesn’t represent college prep work, after all. Professors from Stanford University and the University of Arkansas agree that children educated under Common Core will not be prepared to do competitive university work. Rather, it is geared for community college studies. Sandra Stotsky, a former member of Common Core’s validation committee, is a professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas. She says the basic mission of Common Core is to provide students with enough mathematics to make them ready for a non-selective college –– not for STEM.

Stotsky concludes that Common Core aims too low in mathematics and common core deficiencies also plague its English standards. She believes it does not prepare students for college majors in mathematics, science, engineering and technology- dependent fields. Sandra Stotsky, “Common Core Doesn’t Add Up to STEM Success,” The Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2014.

Diane Ravitch, well-known columnist and researcher, seems to agree with Stotsky. In a Twitter message to me on March 17, 2014, Ravitch complained that Common Core was not written by educators. She also believes it hasn’t been thoroughly tested and “needs a major fix.”

What to believe? If it is truly geared for high-level university academics, it will be over the heads of 65% to 70% of our students. If it is geared for community college, then the top 30% to 35% with high academic ability will be bored and frustrated and not well prepared for a rigorous four-year university education. This program is a good example of what’s wrong with our present reforms. It buys into the myths that all kids are the same and all should go to college.

What’s problematic with common core is that it is common. There is no such thing as a common child. All are different and all have unique characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. Gerald V. Bradley, “Common Concern for the Common Core,” The Irish Rover, October 10, 2013.elephant 003

20 Reforms: No. 16: Drop Liberal Arts?

Excerptedelephant 003 from The Elephant in the Classroom (How our fear of the truth hurts kids and how every student can succeed).

Since there will always be limited funding for state universities, especially during a recession, the Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, seems to be on a path that would force cuts to liberal arts courses such as anthropology and English as a way to increase funding for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs. Bill Maxwell, a writer for the Tampa Bay Times who has taught at the college level, believes this is a huge mistake. If this is in fact true, I would agree with Mr. Maxwell. Bill Maxwell, “Requiem for College Life as I Knew It,” Tampa Bay Times, Sunday, July 8, 2012.

A related threat to universities is the concept of evaluating these institutions according to the earning power of their graduates. Our U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, recently unveiled a Blueprint for College Affordability. It calls for collecting earnings and employment information on colleges and universities. This will allow the government to publish statistics on how much money graduates earn after leaving school.

The State of Florida is about to embark on an assessment of state colleges, including graduates’ earning power, but will also add factors such as six-year graduation rates, the number of students in science and technology, and the percentage of graduates who get a job. This may inadvertently punish small colleges such as Florida A&M University, the state’s historically Black public university. Tia Mitchell, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, Tampa Bay Times, January 17, 2014.

Robin Mamlet, a former admissions dean at Stanford University, and Christine Van DeVelde, a journalist, raise the possibility of unintended consequences. They state that “in reducing college selection to a mere financial scorecard, the government is promoting a false value that has a high price indeed. “Should Colleges Be Factories For The 1%?”  Robin Mamlet and Christine Van DeVelde, The Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2000.

As with all these reforms that look in all the wrong places, the elephant’s plan makes these approaches unnecessary. College bound kids will get a full spectrum of college courses while career students will be happy with research that show how much they earn with their certifications.

20 reforms: No. 15: Military Schools

Military schools.

These schools have been around for a long time. I attended one in Tulsa, Oklahoma for two years. They offer structure and close personal attention. But again, these have been selective private schools. Now some public-private charter schools are choosing to follow the military model in order to get more kids into college. Former San Francisco mayor Jerry Brown, who is now governor of the state of California, started the Oakland Military Institute in 2001. Other charter schools want to go military to replicate the instruction provided at Oakland Institute.

Military schools provide even more structure and self-control training than ordinary boarding schools, and they teach teamwork and willpower. Earlier I commented on research by Dr. Roy Baumeister at Florida State University which indicated that self-control is a key element for future success.

Once again, this is a good effort, but if the goal is to get everyone into college, they’re not listening to the elephant. Most kids should be in career training. Creaming is also a real concern. Who will go to the military campus and how will parents learn about it. And what about the children of uninformed parents in neighborhood schools? Will they get career, and/or college prep experience? elephant 003“School Goes Military to Push Kids to College,” Tampa Bay Times, October 20, 2013.


20 reforms, no. 14: Scholarship Programs

Scholarship programs.

A current example of monetary infusion is the Kalamazoo Promise. The Kalamazoo, Michigan program took a blind stance to family income levels, pupils’ grades, and even to disciplinary and criminal records, thus becoming the most inclusive and generous scholarship program in America. Tuition and room and board to Michigan’s public colleges, universities, and community colleges was paid for all students who started the program in kindergarten and completed high school.

Seven classes covered by Promise have graduated, but only a small percentage of students have received their college degrees so far. Some of the most troubling conditions confronting Kalamazoo children still exist: the pregnancy rate for Black teenagers in Kalamazoo is highest in the state. Only 44% percent of Black males graduate from high school. Ted C. Fishman, “The Tuition Jackpot,” The New York Times Magazine, September 16, 2012.

This program is well-intentioned, as are most reform movements, and has helped some students graduate from college in four years. It’s much too early to evaluate the overall success of these kinds of programs, but it is unlikely they will make a significant difference except for the brighter and more motivated students, most of whom would have made it to college anyway. And the financial cost of the program is extraordinary.

This is a creative idea and perhaps over a longer period of time it will have a significant impact.

elephant 003

Reform no. 13: Is money the answer?


Money (lots of money)! Another approach is simply the massive infusion of money into the elementary and secondary educational system. In 1985 a Missouri judge ordered the state to spend $2 billion over 12 years and per student funding increased to $25,000 per student. But the CATO Institute documented this effort, and a decade later student achievement hadn’t improved. The judge admitted that spending all that money didn’t accomplish much. Editorial:  “Kansas Democracy Lesson,” The Wall Street Journal, January 17, 2014.

I believe a heavy investment of money into our schools would do wonders if and when we sort out what we should be doing in public education. With the elephant still in the room, we are merely spending more money on the wrong things.

We need to offer advanced career training in neighborhood schools as well offering true college prep for the few highly motivated neighborhood kids elephant 003who haven’t been creamed off to magnets, charters, and private schools. Start by reading The Elephant in the Classroom.

20 school reforms: no 12: tutoring

elephant 003


The Elephant in the Classroom believes tutoring promises help for students who are falling behind or who need individualized assistance. In Pinellas County, Florida, the school system is hiring college students at $20 an hour to tutor. The college students must have at least a 2.5 grade point average. Bill Maxwell, “A Debate on Tutors, Teachers,” Tampa Bay Times, December 15, 2013.

I’m a great believer in tutoring, and this is a good way to improve basic skills such as reading and mathematics.  Experienced teachers would do a better job than college students and this approach won’t change the basic thrust of teaching today, but I think it is a positive remedial effort.

The cost of tutoring for all students K – 12 is prohibitive, but it should be offered to elementary school students who are significantly below average in reading or math. This is especially true for poor children. So, tutoring is good if the goal is to bring them up to an average level but it is not so good if the goal is to merely help them pass high-stakes tests which most students shouldn’t be taking in the first place.

Again, we run into the old myth of college for everyone. This tutoring should help them with basic skills and not trigonometry; not to prepare all kids for that pie in the sky which we call college.

20 school reforms: no. 11: push up grad rates

Graduation rates have become a government obsession. Get those graduation rates up and we’ll solve all our problems. Right? Maybe not. In fact, a sharp increase in graduation rates is a symptom of our obsession with “pure” academics. This year, the high school graduation rate has topped 80% for the first time in U.S. history. Stephanie Simon, Politico, April 28, 2014.

This means that more high school students will receive a piece of paper (diploma) at graduation that does not represent career skills or a true college-prep education. Before we celebrate, we need huge gains in academic test scores and an enormous jump in elite technical and career certifications.

In my opinion, the true figure is more like 65% if GED isn’t counted and we measure the same students who started in 9th grade rather than newcomers.

To support this assertion, we need only to look at what high school graduates are doing with their diplomas. Graduates are choosing work over college. Ben Casselman, “More High School Grads Decide College Isn’t Worth It,” Heigh Ho, April 22, 2014. Most of these students aren’t prepared for college, and watered-down academic skills won’t help them in the workplace. And a public school administrator told me that half of new enrollees in career programs at an outstanding community college are former college students.

And high-stakes testing of celephant 003areer students will just make true graduation that much more difficult and keep kids too busy repeating tests to take career studies. Read The Elephant in the Classroom for more insight into true school reform.