How Schools Work
Shocking stories from Arne Duncan's book
Arne Duncan’s book How Schools Work is a sad read on the state of public schools in America. He was the United States Secretary of Education under the Obama administration and in this book he candidly reveals some disheartening stories about the school system and how it’s lying to students. In this post, I’ve highlighted four stories that stood out to me.
Story #1: School grades are lying
Calvin was an 11th grader who was exceptional at Basketball. He was an African-American and came from a poor family, but unlike the other families in the neighborhood, his family was free from violence and his parents were not separated.
Arne Duncan was the captain of the Harvard Basketball team back then and he thought that Calvin would easily be able to get into one of the Division 1 schools for Basketball if he got his ACT scores at a decent place. So when Calvin sought help at the after-school program run by Arne’s mother, Arne decided to spend his college summer break assisting Calvin.
Calvin was a happy, optimistic kid who was a B honor roll in school so Arne didn’t think that getting his ACT scores up would be a problem. However, when Arne tested Calvin’s writing and English, he was shocked. Calvin couldn’t spell correctly or form proper sentences. His writing and comprehension were the level of a 3rd grader’s and yet he’d been passed to 11th grade in school and been told he was a B honor student! Arne knew that even a summer’s hard work wouldn’t be able to make up for years of poor teaching such that his ACT scores would line up. Sadly, the talented Basketball player wouldn’t be able to go to a Division 1 college because his school had lied to him. His school had lied about his performance, his standards.
Why did this happen? Teachers are judged based on how well their students perform on tests. As such, they are incentivized to pass the students or make the standards extremely low, thereby lying to the students about their performance. This is shocking.
Story #2: Teachers are cheating
When Arne Duncan was made CEO of Chicago Public Schools, he got a phone call from Steven Levitt (the Freakonomics guy) who said that he had built an algorithm that was able to detect how many teachers were changing the fill-in bubbles on tests “in order to make themselves look better.” (Firstly, I was shocked to hear teachers would do this!)
“Some teachers who knew their students weren’t learning might fudge results in order to make it look as if their kids were in fact learning.”
It turns out about 5% of teachers in the Chicago Public Schools system were changing results!
Story #3: Standards are low
School standards are set extremely low giving students a false indication of how much of the material they’ve mastered. The results of “Meets Standards” and “Below Standards” are once again not telling the truth. (Btw, I don’t think these standardized tests are a relevant indicator of student potential. The tests mostly test for how good you at taking them and not for real knowledge. But that’s a separate conversation).
For example, Arne Duncan found that the kids who were granted the “Meets Standard” status only had a 1 in 5 chance of getting close to a 20 on the ACT. In other words, they were clearly not meeting standards and were behind, but the system was once again lying to them. So, in reality, the standards scale should be shifted down by 1 entire standard or more. The students who were “below standards” should be in the group “academic warning” and the “meets standards” should be “below standards.”
Story #4: Incorporating Vocational and hands-on learning
This is an optimistic story compared to the previous three. Worcester Technical High School’s turnaround story highlights the importance of hands-on learning for people. The school was one of the worst performing in the state, but the principal turned it around by incorporating vocational programs like woodworking, automotive, and culinary programs. She partnered with a local credit union to open a bank branch inside the school. A veterinary clinic was established in the school as well. Students were given the liberty to intern in these programs. This type of hands-on-learning changed the fate of the school from being on the verge of shutting down to increasing graduation rates and the number of students who went to college.
This story sheds light on how we should incorporate more internships and apprenticeship programs for students. The best learning is learning by doing. Students don’t retain information when it’s simply being lectured at them in a boring manner. You learn by doing.
P.S. Learn more about Feynman Scholars, an after-school intellectual curricular program I’ve launched where students advance towards achieving their highest potential. Students learn the tools of masters, work on projects they are passionate about and learn by doing.