Beyond Testing

Dear Friends and Family,

I want to let you know that my new book, Beyond Testing: Seven Assessments of Students and Schools More Effective Than Standardized Tests is out and is currently being offered at a discount by TC Press!


Below is a description of the book :

Beyond Testing describes seven forms of assessment that are more effective than standardized test results: (1) student self-assessments, (2) direct teacher observations of students and their work, (3) descriptive reviews of the child, (4) reading and math interviews with children, (5) portfolios and public defense of student work, (6) school reviews and observations by outside professionals, and (7) school boards and town meetings. These assessments are more honest about what we can and cannot know about children’s knowledge, skills, and dispositions, and are more adaptable to varying educational missions. Readers can compare and contrast each approach and make informed decisions about what is most appropriate for their school.

Click here to visit the online book page. Please note that there is a 20% discount when using the code “TCP2017.” Exam copies for text adoption are available by clicking here.

CPE update and other miscellany

Dear Colleagues and friends,

On the Central Park East front. The interim appointed without consulting the school community is a good guy whose sympathies seem progressive. However, the “system” undermines even him by rushing the process of permanently appointing someone before the next school year. The process, called the C-30, was meant originally to ensure that parents and staff had a major voice in the selection of “their” principal. But the process is so flawed that no one believes that is what it does. Thus, the interim may well be appointed soon without being chosen freely from all the applicants (or even knowing who they were). The fight conducted years ago, for a more democratic schooling, has mostly gone backwards. New York city, first of all, has limited control given the powers of New York State and the Federal government. Plus, the Chancellor is chosen by the Mayor.  Explain that to those defending public education as public. Like me! But it is easier to have a voice in a system that has some semblance of public accountability than in privately controlled chains with their corporate style management structure and far less accountability. If we continue to dismantle public education it will be far harder to get our voice back than passing good legislation to make urban schools “belong to you and me”.

Which is incidentally, the title of the book my colleague Emily Gasoi and I have just finished: These Schools Belong to You and Me. Publisher: Beacon.  It will be available in September but can be ordered now. It is one of two books I have just co-authored. The other is Beyond Testing, with Matthew Knoester coming out in July by Teachers College (with a chapter by Ann Cook.).

*{Full disclosure). Given my medical problems (heart and eyes) this past two years, the burden for finishing these books has fallen on my co authors.  And today I am doing fine and, thanks to them, both books are now in their publishers hands.

Going back briefly to CPE and the C-30 process. We teach 5 year olds that in a democracy a majority wins. Meanwhile we live at time when our system (with its many strengths “compared to…”) is perhaps best described as an oligarchy with democratic features rather than vice versa. If we counted the votes the Democrats got n 2016 for the House or Senate, not to mention the President, I’ll bet the Republicans lost decisively in all three.  And no one argues that the Supreme Court is chosen in a democratic fashion—expressing “the will of the people”. We spend very little time in school or life trying to understand the complexity of the “democratic” idea —which probably cannot have a “pure” form once numbers go beyond…three? But it would be nice if we thought more about how schools could introduce the idea by being themselves an experiment in democracy.

Enough for now.


Central Park East I: Principal Removed! Hurrah!

Below is a piece I wrote shortly after Monica Garg was removed as principal.  More recent developments are looking like this may be a Pyrrhic victory, more to follow….


Dear Friends and colleagues,

I got some encouraging news a couple of days ago that I thought I’d pass on. The Department of Education in New York City has decided to seek a new principal for Central Park East I. As many of you know the school has spent almost two years in a state of crisis as a new principal sought to “”change it.” She believed that progressive education was not suitable for Black, Latino and low-income children. She had other faults that were of a more personal nature. Of course, even with her departure we still keep rebuilding the school. We will keep our fingers crossed and the pressure on to replace her with someone who shares more of our original beliefs and intentions. Rebuilding a school will not be easy and in many ways it requires starting all over again since one cannot replicate but must always invent. For me this is worth celebrating because it represents the power of a community to come together, persevere and eventually be heard.  Of course it should not be so hard to get this kind of change in a public school that belongs to its teachers and families and children. The job ahead of them will not be easy but its friends will hopefully be there to help.


I wish we had our own form of ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council, the right wing billionaire funded group dedicated to influencing state and national policy), a collective of organizations whose efforts overlap in the fight to save democracy. It is great to have “too many” allies, but not if they are crippled by overlapping marches, competing agendas, etc. I have no idea how that could work, and probably in the absence of a godfather with billions to give out (which would destroy its purpose). So, we will probably all simply have to dole out our support to them all, or pick one or two…? Some are regional, some are specific to a particular effort.


My daughter, Becky, is flooded with responsibilities to a half dozen regional causes that she can’t resist. They include anti-fracking, alternative banking, and now a collective one called The Four Freedoms Campaign. They have gathered many agencies and citizens to join together to support each other as crises develop. They are sponsoring a citizen training day where they will offer workshops on a variety of ways to respond to the current crisis. This work is mostly in western Massachusetts, centering in Pittsfield but also spills over to NY state.

Then! I just got off the phone with Harry Boyte, with who I share the Bridging Differences blog on Education Week. We got into a heated argument and resolved it about whether the metaphor of war used in political battles, especially when real power is at stake, is counter-productive. There was a moment there where it sounded more like war between us than two old friends trying to figure out each other’s position. It turned out we were using different language to say more or less the same thing.

It is true that even in education battles over phonics vs whole language, or new and old math, that involve more than language differences, can, within a few minutes sound like what is at stake is civilization itself and the other and their viewpoint are the enemy. Is it unreasonable to believe there is another way to organize? To persuade? To influence? Even within one’s family?

On a more personal note, while I was teaching, it was easier to survive with cheer because for seven hours a day I was part of a community based on the hopes of children. And for much of that time I was also a member of a family that all lived together. It is nice to see that while we have not lived together for nearly 40 years we are still community, and one that extends to cousins and cousins-once-removed! I spent January on the west coast speaking and visiting with my California son, and my west coast cousins, and some dear friends in Santa Cruz and Oakland. My son Nick then came east in February to help Fred and I out, and to go with me to the North Dakota Study Group. Meanwhile my more nearby daughter Becky comes over regularly to straighten out this and that. And last weekend my granddaughter Sarah and her husband Luis picked me up to drive me to see their spectacular new apartment in East Hampton (Massachusetts) The next day we went to Lowell to see my other granddaughter, Lilli, in her charming two-room apartment in Lowell, and were joined there by son Roger and his wife Tricia. Lilli is teaching 9th graders in Lawrence, Mass. and Sarah has landed a city planning job in nearby Holyoke. And to complete the picture the two grandsons are doing fine, Daniel enjoys his job in the wine business and Ezra will be married in Ann Arbor in August.

However, in the past week I have gotten Macular Degeneration in my remain “good eye” (having lost sight in my other eye a year ago), so after all those books I am just finishing my reading and writing will be rather limited (that is I am currently relying on text-to-speech and speech-to-text features which I suddenly need to learn to use) at least in the short term depending on whether better sight can be restored.


My Upcoming Books

Dear friends,

I have not written since December 2016. On this page I mean. Actually I have been writing a lot on demand so this frivolous web page (or whatever it is called) has been ignored.

I am faithfully writing a weekly Bridging Differences exchange with Harry Boyte on our EdWeek blog, while involved in various degrees on three books that I claim to be co-authoring. One, the work primarily of a former Mission Hill colleague Matthew Knoester, is now pretty much finished and Teachers College Press will be printing it soonish. It is on alternative forms of assessment to standardized testing that are more accurate, more useful and in keeping with the democratic spirit and intent of schooling. No number can sum us up, and the presumption of experts in data ad technology to think that is possible has an old and dishonorable history.

The second book is the product of examining my own work which led to a collaboratively reframed idea with another Mission Hill colleague, Emily Gasoi. It will (we hope) appear next fall under the title This School Belongs to You and Me. Publisher, Beacon Press. We are both worn out and excited about it. It is a dialogue about the issues that have bedeviled me for fifty or more years. We explore together how schools can be a force for nourishing democracy or for squelching it. If it is not visible in our schools, where else can the young see it played ?

The third is still in the formative stage. Two colleagues (Shane Safir and Matt Alexander, the founders of June Jordan high school in San Francisco) are putting together the stories and thoughts of colleagues who have intentionally tried to create democratically governed schools—stories with sometimes not so happy endings. We hope to figure out, as we read them, what wisdom they may offer us as we, each in our own domain, carry on the fight to build a more perfect democracy. ASCD is interested and we have collective some great stores and are still playing around with how to present them and others we hope will contribute. (While also being as active as we can in the critical fight to prevent what we have from disappearing altogether under Trump.)

More on that activism in my next blog. In the meantime, be on the lookout for my aforementioned upcoming books!

Democratic Schooling

I have argued in speech and writing for years that democracy is not “natural.” Although it is well within our human capacities it is not our “default” position. To demonstrate this would take longer than this blog/web allows. But I think there are good solid reasons why as a specie we retreat to authoritarian solutions so often. We cut corners when it seems too important to trust “our members,” our fellow citizens, etc. Sometimes we do it with open eyes and often we do it with eyes closed. We organize our organizations, our schools, our towns, cities and federal governments in ways that make some have a head start, extra weight, etc, etc. I am even in favor of some of these obstacles we place on “pure” forms of democracy.

As an educator the place I have tried to explore and work with creating Democratic organizations has been in my schools. As we designed and lived with our original plan at Mission Hill (the K-8 school I was one of the founders of in Boson in 1997) we saw flaws and we wrestled with them. Some we changed, others we lived with because we could not see how to improve them. We did not include everyone on our Governing Board, like the cook and maintenance staff. Probably we should have? We did not include students for many years, and then just 7th and 8th graders. I can defend this decision but what were the trade-offs? We worked out a consensus system that required the approval of three out of the five elected representatives of each constituency group to move ahead. We also gave the principal the power to delay a vote if he/she felt it was a matter of the health/safety of children or fiscal irresponsibility—two areas he/she was legally responsible for. In case of a paralyzed situation (like we have had in D.C.) we had a plan for bringing in mediators and if need be, a new vote of representatives, or a change in leadership.

It was in working these out that I learned to understand more about the problems a democracy inevitability runs into. It worked for us as well as it did because it was only the tip of the iceberg. Democracy pervaded the school’s culture in so many particulars, including how we held family/teacher conferences, how we arrived at curriculum decisions, how we decided on the agenda of staff meeting and retreats, and much more.

I believe that it is such experiences that most citizens lack—have literally never seen or been participants of. We spend 12 years of our youth in authoritarian settings, where no one we encounter has democratic rights over the important decisions being made daily. In a school like Mission Hill, and some other brave public schools, we are exploring what would happen if all our constituents felt “this place belongs to you and me.” We agreed to disagree in public on purpose, so we would all learn to disagree in useful ways that did not hurt the school. We discussed power—who had what powers—with the students and among ourselves—the adults. It is time consuming, but it is probably no more time consuming than adding a Civics class, which isn’t a bad idea either.

We cannot afford to let our citizens reach 18 without such real life experience. It is far too costly. They need to be apprentice citizens first, and they need to be real citizens of their schools long before they are of age to be legal independent citizens of the larger society. And, course, we need teachers who are citizens of their schools and play a part in all decision made, except where it is agreed to delegate them or where basic rights are in play. And even then, nothing should be delegated permanently. We need schools that focus on habits of mind that make it easier to trust each other, including habits of examining evidence, imaginings alternatives and the other three of Mission HIIl’s and Central Park East’shabits of mind”, plus a few we forgot: like “compared to what?” Plus quite different ones others come up with.

The first reform I would make if I were … what? – is that every publicly funded school (and maybe institution) must develop a plan of governance that can be defended as explicitly democratic and where those most affected have the freedom to make important decisions with the fewest possible exceptions. In Catholic theology this is called “subsidiarity.” Yes, there must be exceptions laid down by larger and broader based governing bodies (like a locally elected school board, Congress of the United State or the State Legislature or the Supreme Court). Mistakes will be made. But that is at the heart of democracy—the right to make one’s own mistakes— and one reason it is “not natural” for humans who seem inclined to shrink from uncertainties and mistakes. .

It requires a kind of unfounded “as if” trust that has some limitations but which we feel we can safely, although not always happily, abide by. Let us start by practicing it where governance hits the daily road of young people’s lives. Tomorrow is already too late, but we are paying a piece of not having done it long ago.

What now?

Dear friends,

What a few months we’ve been through. No point in rehearsing all the stages I have gone through. But since I am incapable of not being an optimist, even though I know better, I have solved it in this way: I had been thinking that if I made it for five more years I would probably see a great-grandchild or two born. Worth doing. But now I have decided to try to live 12 more years (three electoral presidential cycles) so I can see the pendulum swing and take some healthy breaths before I call it quits. I do envy those much younger for having more time to do this.

Of course, it means that we all, including me, cannot spend too much time grieving and complaining. We do always need smart analyses, thoughtful historical perspectives, etc. (We need, for example, to remember that less than ¼ of all potential voters voted for Trump, and half of the eligible voters did not or could not vote at all.) But we also need motion—action—face-to-face as well as all other ways. We need to bury—or put on the back burner—as many differences on our side that we can tolerate (and which smart strategy suggests doing). We need to build bridges: we need the kind of listening skills that good educator’s work rests on.

A good classroom is always building bridges between what different people think—even in a math class. Listening to and taking seriously the absurd, the offensive, and the illogical ideas as I tried to do in kindergarten classes was not a frill. There was always a nugget of truth, an insight that still informs me, and even angry words were important to me—where does this passion come from? For example, were Stein votes in Wisconsin enough to have turned that state Democratic? Only Stein supporters need to consider that; while we remember how hard it was for many others to vote for Hillary as they did. The fewer litmus tests we demand, the more likely we can in the long run be persuasive.

If we write-off too many citizens (and would-be citizens) then in 12 years we may even eke out a victory with those solidly or our side, but not the landslide we need to safely move ahead. Starting in 2018 we need to practice what we preach: respecting the opinions of others.

We also need to be there, while doing our very best to take care of those directly wounded by Trump—and there will be many mortally wounded, not just disappointed.

For me it brings into question the “inevitability” of democracy that I was raised to believe in. T’aint so. It may be that some will always seek it, but it does not mean they will achieve it. Even in the shabby form of the democracy we live in. Amanda Taub wrote a piece in the NY Times on Tuesday, November 29th, page A7 entitled “Warning Signs Flashing Red for Democracies.” Read it.

I will discuss this further in my next blog.