Teachers Will Give Up Tenure—for the Right Price

Teachers Will Give Up Tenure—for the Right Price

By Allison Schrager

The debate over teacher tenure, now fiercely under way in New York, California, and North Carolina and surely coming soon to a state near you, is usually framed in terms of education. Tenure advocates insist it’s a benefit that offsets relatively low wages and is necessary for better teaching; critics say it keeps too many ineffective teachers in their jobs and hinders reform. But there’s another way to look at it: If tenure is a benefit, like medical or dental, then it’s worth actual money. Taking it away is big pay cut.

Just how big a pay cut is hard to say. So far no one has offered enough money to persuade teachers to give up tenure. Former D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee tried and failed. Republicans in the North Carolina state senate floated a proposal that would have given teachers an 11 percent raise if they gave up their tenure. Under their plan, the average teacher would have gotten $5,200 more a year. The legislators abandoned the plan in early July after facing opposition in the House, an indication that the teachers weren’t happy with the offer.

So how much would it take? Calculating the value of teacher tenure is difficult, in part because it depends on the teacher. A high school math teacher, for example, may have more job alternatives than a third-grade generalist, which may make an explicit guarantee of job security less valuable to Ms. Math. That’s one reason to oppose pay-for-tenure swaps. The teachers with the highest incentive to choose tenure are those with the worst chances in an open job market.

We also can’t simply compare the salaries of teachers with and without tenure, because private school teachers, who don’t typically have the same job security public school teachers do, are paid on average 32 percent less than public school teachers. There are lots of reasons for this that are basically irrelevant to the question at hand; suffice it to say the comparison doesn’t help us here.

Another alternative is to look at the value of tenure in other occupations. State and local government employees (who are not teachers) don’t have guaranteed job security, but they are three times less likely to lose their jobs than private sector workers. UCLA economics professor Lee Ohanian estimated that public sector job security is worth about 10 percent of these employees’ salary. Teachers have even more security, so their premium may be larger. By Ohanian’s estimates, the 11 percent proposed by North Carolina’s state senators wasn’t high enough.

Another way we can measure the value of job security is by comparing wages in the U.S. to those in France. Until recently, firing an employee in France was nearly as hard as firing a tenured teacher in the U.S.. According to the International Labor Office, manufacturing workers in the U.S. (before the recent French labor market reforms) were paid about 11 percent more per hour than manufacturing workers in France. Although wages differences across countries capture other benefits, French employers don’t have to spend as much on employee health care. This, too, suggests that for American workers, tenure is worth more than 11 percent.

When the North Carolina proposal fell apart, critics claimed that tenure and salary have nothing to do with each other. That’s wrong. Whether or not you think teachers should have guaranteed job security, tenure is undeniably a benefit with significant value. We just haven’t figured out how much it’s worth. And once we do, we can determine if tenure is the best way to pay and attract the best teachers.


The Changing Role Of The Teacher

The Changing Role Of The Teacher

by Grant Wiggins

What does it mean to “teach”? What should a teacher “do”?

The answer varies from culture to culture, millennium to millennium–from Socrates to Jamie Escalante, the vision changes. But looking back to the beginning of public education in the United States may offer a surprising perspective on the role of the teacher, and how it has changed since the early 1900s.

In the foundational book Democracy and Education, published in 1916, public education pioneer John Dewey ironically warns us that getting (the conditions for self-directed learning) just right as a teacher-designer requires a deep understanding of how people learn to think and solve real problems – a design that makes the learner have to truly think their way through things, and thereby believe that they are creators and discoverers (even if by design we have made the re-discovery possible):

What A Teacher Was Supposed To Do In 1916 (According To John Dewey)

“The educational conclusion which follows is that all thinking is original in a projection of considerations which have not been previously apprehended. The child of three who discovers what can be done with blocks, or of six who finds out what he can make by putting five cents and five cents together, is really a discoverer, even though everybody else in the world knows it. There is a genuine increment of experience; not another item mechanically added on, but enrichment by a new quality. The charm which the spontaneity of little children has for sympathetic observers is due to perception of this intellectual originality. The joy which children themselves experience is the joy of intellectual constructiveness—of creativeness, if the word may be used without misunderstanding.

The educational moral I am chiefly concerned to draw is not, however, that teachers would find their own work less of a grind and strain if school conditions favored learning in the sense of discovery and not in that of storing away what others pour into them…. It is that no thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another. When it is told, it is, to the one to whom it is told, another given fact, not an idea…. Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does he think…. We can and do supply ready-made “ideas” by the thousand; we do not usually take much pains to see that the one learning engages in significant situations where his own activities generate, support, and clinch ideas—that is, perceived meanings or connections.

This does not mean that the teacher is to stand off and look on; the alternative to furnishing ready-made subject matter and listening to the accuracy with which it is reproduced is not quiescence, but participation, sharing, in an activity. In such shared activity, the teacher is a learner, and the learner is, without knowing it, a teacher—and upon the whole, the less consciousness there is, on either side, of either giving or receiving instruction, the better.

All educational reformers, as we have had occasion to remark, are given to attacking the passivity of traditional education. They have opposed pouring in from without, and absorbing like a sponge; they have attacked drilling in material as into hard and resisting rock. But it is not easy to secure conditions which will make the getting of an idea identical with having an experience which widens and makes more precise our contact with the environment. Activity, even self-activity, is too easily thought of as something merely mental, cooped up within the head, or finding expression only through the vocal organs.” (Democracy & Education, Ch 12)

Sound familiar? Things have changed, but maybe not in the direction we’d expect.

10 Conditions For Self-Sustaining & Self-Directed Learning In The Classroom

  1. Rich, challenging, and meaningful problems/issues/tasks that require core content
  2. No single, obvious, or superficial solution path – yet, the task is doable.
  3. Clear performance goals and criteria for judging progress and knowing when the work is “done to standard”
  4. Access to appropriate and varied resources
  5. Familiar routines/protocols that help students organize the process (with varying degrees of transfer expected, via scaffolding/explicitness provided by the teacher; depending upon level of student skill and autonomy)
  6. Sufficient choice/personalization to enable students play to strengths/interests
  7. Self-assessment and self-adjustment guides via models and rubrics
  8. Benchmarks, checkpoints and other formal and informal formative assessments, to ensure students are on course and on time.
  9. Explicit norms of mutual respect and personal responsibility, preferably built with student input and sign-off.
  10. Teacher respect for reasonable non-disruptive student “down time.”

A Chinese internet giant has an app to help students cheat on their homework

A Chinese internet giant has an app
to help students cheat on their homework

By Cathy Sizhao Yi

Chinese teens have it rough pretty with schoolwork—students in Shanghai spend an average of nearly three hours per weeknight on homework—and the summer, when many take extra classes, isn’t much better. So it’s no wonder that many smartphone-wielding students are turning to technology to lessen their load, including an app developed by internet search giant Baidu that lets them crowdsource their homework questions.

An ad for Baidu’s “Homework helper” app shows
students discussing a physics assignment.

The company’s mobile app “Homework Helper,” launched this year, and has been downloaded at least 5 million times from Android and IOS app stores, according to Homework Helper. Users can either take a photo of their homework questions or type them in by hand. Other users who answer the questions in online forums are rewarded with virtual e-coins when their answers are deemed correct. The coins can be used to buy everything from photo frames to iPhones and Lenovo laptops.

A staff member for Homework Helper, responding to a request to Baidu for comment, said through the company’s messaging service that the app’s answers were correct around 80% of the time. Asked about the dubious morality of the app, the staffer admitted: “I think this is a kind of cheating.”

Other competing apps, like one called “Mr. Nerdy,” try to automatically provide answers from their own databases of homework questions. But one Chinese reporter found that the app only had a 30% success rate (link in Chinese).

Students, unsurprisingly, seem to like the apps, but parents are less enthusiastic. “Once she gets stuck on a problem, she turns to these apps for the answers and loses the ability to think independently,” said one mother of a middle school student. Others were more sympathetic. “They have no choice but to finish their homework at home when they should have been playing outside. That pressure makes them find other ways like this,” one man commented (registration required) on Weibo.

55 Thoughts for English Teachers

55 Thoughts for English Teachers

by Nick Ripatrazone

All of a sudden, I have been teaching public school English for a decade. Why am I surprised? I never thought I would be a high school teacher. I never took education courses. Only now am I beginning to reconcile my different professional selves: teacher, adjunct professor, and writer.

For years I avoided writing about my full-time profession. From 7:20 to 2:21 each day, I teach literature and creative writing courses at a large public high school in New Jersey. The day stretches much longer than that, but those are my salaried hours. I love kids, and I love books, and I love writing.

I didn’t avoid writing about teaching because I was ashamed of my profession, though I am aware that save for a handful of other teacher-writers scattered around the country, the majority of my literary peers work in higher education or publishing. They are tenured professors and adjuncts, editors and freelancers. When people learn at a book release or reading that I actually teach high school, as in kids, they look confused. I don’t blame them.

There are few professions more confusing, or misrepresented, than high school teaching. Education is a ubiquitous experience — public or private, we are all taught by someone, somewhere — and yet it remains misunderstood. I have now begun to write about teaching because I profoundly respect this vocation. I refuse to allow politicians to corner the rhetorical market on this subject. There are stories that need to be told.

I hesitate to call what follows “advice,” though it might seem as such. There are so many varied experiences during a single teaching day that I am much more comfortable thinking in epigrammatic terms. I have a lot more to say about teaching, and certain reflections will need to wait. But, for now, here are 55 thoughts about teaching English.

You need to love words. You don’t need to love a certain type of book or a particular writer, but you need to love letters and phrases and the possibilities of language. You will spend most of your days dealing with words, and students can sense if words do not bring you joy.

Students can sense a lot of things.

Do not confuse reading passions with reading biases. Be aware and upfront about your biases and work to decrease them. Your passions are healthy, as long as you help students understand why certain words stir you. Love Gerard Manley Hopkins? Telling them so won’t do a thing. Blow-up “Pied Beauty” on an 11 X 17 page and show them how a comma can change a moment, turn a breath.

Speaking of poetry: they will hate the idea of it, but they already love and live the soul of it. Condensed narratives and emotions tucked in abstractions? Those are their existences. Give them “Scary, No Scary” by Zachary Schomburg, and see what happens.

“Mostly I want my poems to generate their own energy through confusion. I want my poems to confuse the reader. Not a confusion in a cognitive or narrative sense, but in an emotional sense.” — Zachary Schomburg

Create a space for safe confusion.

Teach Sylvia Plath, but help your students understand that she is more than how she passed from this world. Teach “Blackberrying,” teach “Pheasant,” and, most of all, teach “Sow,” that beautiful and strange poem about a mythical pig hidden by her breeder.

Show them that poetry is about being surprised.

Remember why you are doing this.

Your students are not data.

Teach them writers who look and sound like them, so that they can believe that their words are the types of words that can be printed and praised.

Teach them writers who look and sound nothing like them, so that they can recognize what we share.

Politicians will misrepresent you. Vote.

Teachers used to be activists. There is a difference between being an activist within your classroom — which is not your role — and being an activist for your profession and your students.

Know what opinions are appropriate to express, and which are not. Respect your students enough to never cross that line.

Students have a reason for everything they do.

You need to be awake. Sleep is essential. Hoard your hours of sleep.

You will make a hundred decisions within a single class period.

You need to somehow give your attention to each individual student without dividing that attention.

Thomas Pynchon is worth teaching. Often confusion breeds later curiosity.

Think about the worst teacher you ever had. Recognize that he or she was probably not as bad as you thought. Think about that teacher’s classroom, students, situation. Were you part of the problem? How would you have helped yourself?

Write. Talk about your writing. Show them your drafts, your edits. Write along with them.

Trade robotic peer editing for writing workshops. Follow the undergraduate model but manipulate it for the needs of your students. Establish clear guidelines and model them during a mock workshop of your own work. Show them that you can be vulnerable, that you can accept criticism.

Never ask students to complete an assignment that you are unable to complete.

You will often have young women in class who love to write, and who outnumber the men, and yet these young women will stop writing. Teach them to keep writing. Show them their words matter. Introduce them to Mary Shelley, Marilynne Robinson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Toni Morrison, Tayari Jones, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Alice Elliott Dark, Virginia Woolf, Stacey D’Erasmo, Roxane Gay, Jamie Quatro, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Mary Karr, Susan Sontag, Natalie Diaz, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Willa Cather, Joan Didion, Donna Tartt, and, please, Flannery O’Connor.

Do not try to sanitize Flannery. Let her live on the page.

Students want to know about you. Sometimes their personal questions are a clever distraction. Be more mystery than memoir, but never be cold.

If a student wants to engage in small talk at the start of class, they probably have not completed their assignment, and are hoping for some temporary graces. But don’t assume that.

Give them the benefit of the doubt until they will no longer benefit from it.

Avoid instructing your students to use dialogue tags in fiction other than “said.”

Cut their adverbs, but show them how, in the right hands, those words can be powerful.

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” — “The Dead” by James Joyce.

You may be the only person who will ever read their sonnets, or their prose poems, or their dystopian novellas. Don’t take that privilege lightly.

Teach writing from literary magazines. Encourage your students to read those magazines. If a student comes to class with tomes of speculative fiction, send them to Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons. Show them how literature is built from these little magazines on up, and how they can help maintain the foundation.

Give students the confidence to believe that they might publish their work, but teach them the humility necessary to withstand rejection.

Create meticulous plans for each day.

But be alive in the classroom.

“Through my years of teaching, I learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say, rather than knowing what I would say. Then I learned by hearing myself speak; the source of my speaking was our mysterious harmony with truths we know, though very often our knowledge of them is hidden from us. Now, as a retired teacher, I mistrust all prepared statements by anyone, and by me.” — Andre Dubus

Social media and cell phones exist, and neither is going anywhere. Help students use both responsibly.

Teaching is performance, but not the performance of theater; there needs to be genuine interaction. They can tell if you are putting on a show.

Each course is a different world. Each class period is a different world.

There is an art to asking questions. There is a way to ask questions that will only produce answers that you want to hear.

Wait after asking a question. Help show them what silence can reveal.

Math is language. Physics is language. Language is math. Language is physics.

You are there to teach them, not punish them. They need your help.

Read aloud. Every day.

Don’t be so dramatic about drama. Barebones in-class productions can be beautiful.

Of course, read Shakespeare, but also read Ionesco, Beckett, and Shepard.

For the right group of students, No Exit can be perfect.

Teach them how to closely read a text. Not only for the skill, but for the experience of spending time with words. Show them the worth of contemplation.

Be pragmatic and idealistic. If you are too much of one, the students will catch you.

This is not supposed to be easy.

Remember that you, also, are not data.

One day you will no longer be in the classroom. You will be standing in a garden or sitting in front of a television or holding the hand of a grandchild or pulling a plate from a dishwasher, and you will remember those rows and some of the faces. Try to remember none of the distractions; not the shortsighted pedagogical fads or the boorish politicians. Remember the students who thanked you. Trust that you helped the ones who did not.

For some students, you are their only light.

Why Middle School Should Be Abolished

Why Middle School Should Be Abolished

by David C. Banks

They do a terrible job of educating kids, especially the ones who need it most.

America should do away with middle schools, which are educational wastelands. We need to cut the middle out of middle schools, either by combining them with the guidance and nurturing that children find in elementary school, or with the focus on adult success that we expect from our high schools.

For much as half of middle schools across the country, national statistics show substantial performance gaps, especially in math and reading achievement, between middle school and high school. It’s time to admit that middle school models do not work—instead, they are places where academics stall and languish.

From my experience as an educator for 28 years with the New York City Department of Education, middle schools are rife with academic dysfunction that causes irreparable harm to children in later years, when performance really counts. One challenge is the ill-prepared teacher. Chancellors and school systems have not focused enough on the fact that one can be a great teacher of elementary school, a star high school teacher, but still not be prepared to teach middle school. Too often in middle school the teachers have never received real professional development training to help students succeed in high school. And, more importantly, there is little to no time for teachers to focus on establishing strong relationships with their students, which has a tremendous impact on how students perform in the classroom, particularly for boys. A teacher’s ability to relate to his or her students is not icing on the cake of serious academics—I believe it is the whole cake.

Academic challenges coupled with a student’s emotional development are a recipe for failure. In middle school, hormones rage: kids show up in the principal’s office and burst into tears without knowing why. Peer pressure, more than any other time in students’ lives—pressure directly from classmates and friends or indirectly through pop culture and social media—can be overwhelming. For many students, their only goal is to feel included and accepted by their peers.

In these formative years, communication from peers can drown out the wiser voices of parents, teachers and mentors, trapping our young people—and especially our boys—in an echo chamber of voices as inexperienced and impulsive as their own. Students struggling academically may decide to give up, while the bright but under-unchallenged may conclude they don’t really need to learn how to study, because middle school seems to prove that they’re smart enough to wing it.

A 2012 Harvard University study of middle schools found that, compared to K-8 or K-12 schools, middle school students scored significantly lower on achievement tests – losses amounting to as much as four to seven months of learning. The research found that students who make school transitions at grade 7, a typical point of transfer from elementary school to high school, often experience real drops in achievement in math and reading. Likewise, students making the transition in sixth grade experience similar drops in reading and math achievement.

And when you factor in the massive costs to operate these generally stand-alone schools—from tax dollars, union contracts, etc.—there is a considerable financial benefit to eliminating middle schools. In fact, the public school costs for middle school can be as high as the most expensive private schools in the country.

Middle schools that do work have key factors in common: they set measurable goals on standardized tests across all grades, subjects and proficiency levels. They correlate an evaluation of teachers and principals with student performances. And they communicate to parents and students their mutual responsibility for academic success. The best performing middle schools place great emphasis on “future-focus”—on rigorous high-school curriculum.

So why not abolish middle schools altogether?

I know the benefits first-hand. When I was a high-school principal, it became clear to me that despite the extraordinary talent and commitment of our teachers and staff, four years of high school was simply not enough time to help students, particularly young men of color, succeed. We have to start with students earlier—giving more time to develop the skills and foster the character students need to succeed later in life. Think about it: The longer the runway, the more time the pilot has to get the airplane and all its baggage off the ground.

At the Eagle Academy, a network of public schools specializing in at-risk youth that I administer as CEO, we link middle school to high school to give teachers extra time to get to know our students and what they would need, individually, to succeed in high school. The process begins with our “summer bridge” program, three weeks in the summer before sixth grade, to introduce students to our school culture and make sure they were ready on the first day in the fall. We have extended school days where we combine rigorous academics with compelling extra-curricular activities to give students encounters with teachers who are as much their coaches as their champions. And we encourage parent-student “contracts,” for class attendance, homework submission and even extra-curriculum activities.

Today, in most middle schools, students have no tangible connection to past academic years or future performance goals. Dissolving middle schools, such as sending pre-teen students directly to high school, is going to take a large-scale effort. But it is our most important challenge to make a profound difference in the education of our youth, and therefore essential to our country’s future.

A School That Ditches All the Rules, But Not the Rigor

A School That Ditches All the Rules, But Not the Rigor

by Tina Barseghian

How can we make school a joyful experience without sacrificing rigor? What’s the best way to measure true learning? What’s the purpose of school? The founders and teachers at the PlayMaker School (watch the PBS Newshour report by April Brown), an all-game based school in Los Angeles, are asking those big, abstract questions that all teachers grapple with. And they’re trying to find their own answers through their constantly morphing, complex experiment.

Here are their thoughts about these issues, in their own words, from extended answers to the PBS NewsHour report. How can teachers, parents, and administrators these ideologies to existing public schools?


Tedd Wakeman/PlayMaker co-teacher

We’ve always defined, as an educational community, rigor as being a lot of hard drudgery, what we consider really hard work, taking engagement and interests completely out of the equation and saying, “If we see kids who are sitting at their desks and they’re just writing

Tedd Wakeman

a ton or they’re doing a bunch of research, if they just look kind of upset, if they look like they are not enjoying themselves, then there is rigorous things going on in that classroom.” That’s a real problem.

We need to stop defining rigor as busywork, as kids knuckling down to the pressure and the drudgery of school. At the end of the year, there is this huge binder of notes and diagrams from PowerPoint exhibits, stuff that kids worked all year on. I’ve talked to kids here who have produced an artifact like that. To the outside community, even in many ways to the inside community, that looks rigorous because, look at what you produced.

But when we talk to those kids, when we ask, “What are your retaining from this? What do you feel, what are some of the big concepts that you came away with, and how are you applying those in your life in your lives every day,” they can’t tell you. They know that they did this thing and they got a good grade on it but they can’t tell you what they are going to do with that. And yet to the more traditional educational community, that’s viewed as rigor.

We would much rather define rigor as the pursuit of solving a really difficult task that you care about solving. And that persistence can be taught in that way as opposed to, “Yeah, let’s teach kids persistence by having them do this thing that they couldn’t care less about, but it’s really hard and just if you can survive it, that’s persistence.”

Lucien Vattel, CEO and founder of Game Desk, and Playmaker

I think of rigor in a very hyper-dimensional way. It’s not just acquisition, which is what a lot schools especially at the K-12 level focus on — the ability to retain intellectual knowledge to be able to communicate that intellectual knowledge back. That works very well for the test-taking society.

Being a highly knowledgeable and highly adaptive, self-driven, well-rounded human being. That is my definition of rigor. What we get at is the absolute best route to rigor because the information is not changing. We are not teaching less — in many cases we are teaching more — it’s how we are teaching it and what kinds of additional knowledge skills and abilities are

Lucien Vattel

enabled by engaging it in an interactive, authentic way that’s more life reflective, that gets us to a person who can be driven by their own passions, who can understand things at a complex level to be able to engage in discourse at a complex level and to be able to negotiate that information and their emotions, and their interpersonal relationships, and inter-business relationships at a high level. So if you think about that level of rigor, all of those skills at that adaptive level lead to entrepreneurialism, lead to the ability to lead in a variety of contexts, take on very complex and deeply difficult situations, to be able to take on new situations and also be able to engage in what you’ve learned in a way that allows you to perfect your knowledge so that it never stops and that you are constantly driven to do. That, to me, that’s rigor.



Tedd Wakeman/PlayMaker co-teacher

We are trying to prepare kids for a future where the problems are problems that we can’t really even imagine. That’s a really difficult task, and certainly isn’t going to be solved using the techniques that created those problems. It’s certainly not going to be solved using the strategies and approaches to education that we employed in the 1950s.

What does sitting in desks, and an authoritarian teacher, kids in rows facing the chalkboard, regurgitating information, what does that produce? What do grades produce in kids? Do they produce kids that are curious and creative and want to take risks? Or do they produce kids who know how to get the A and are going to just to do that, and real self esteem issues for those kids who can’t get the As.

What does it mean when we try to define lifelong learning? We’re preparing kids to be lifelong learners, then we don’t prepare them for that by developing strategies that actually have them hate learning and equate hatred with school?

By the time they get out of 12th grade — and granted there are people around the country that are doing good things, and there are memorable teachers along that path and memorable classes, certainly — but as an educational community as a whole, why are kids surviving this? It’s happening to them. So the reason that [PlayMaker School] works is because agency and value and relevance are things that we all value as adults. Why on earth would we not value them as kids?



Tedd Wakeman/PlayMaker co-teacher

Developing those first principles [in our school] — what are you trying to achieve — and having some sort of set of beliefs, ideal things that you are not willing to budge on, for us that’s engagement. For us, that’s problem solving, creating meaning, making connections, and that’s all driven by a sense of curiosity, persistence and creativity. If you take those fundamental beliefs, and everything that you create, you hold them up to that and you say, “Are we hitting this?” Are we hitting this every day, and then taking a playful approach? Think about what’s engaging. Be willing to change it when it doesn’t work. Be willing to allow the kids to change it. Be willing to allow the kids to have agency in that process. Don’t make them passive members of this unit that you are hanging out with every day.

But it is hard if you are bound by standards, if you are bound by test scores, if you are bound by all these things. I won’t dance around it… I will tell you, “Stand up, it’s time to revolutionize this.” There are people that are sort of enforcing these rules and regulations on education, the barnacles that have attached themselves to education. We’ve got to scrape those off. So question, question, question. And I think we can make a real change.



Nolan Windham, 11 years old, 6th grade in Playmaker.
One of the differences here is that knowledge and facts are not what everything is based around. Yeah, it can be interesting to know when Christopher Columbus settled America, but it’s not

Nolan Windham

really going to be that useful in those situations and there’s something called Google that you can use to look that up anytime you want… I’m not saying that facts are not important. Those are definitely important, like your times tables, like basic facts and things that will actually be useful and are definitely important.

One of the main things that we’re doing this year is we’re figuring how to learn that, but also to think about what that means. We’re thinking about how when we take in information, how to process it and how to create information and how to create media, how to create different things, and that’s what you are doing in your adult life. You’re taking in things, you’re taking in information, you’re taking in food, you’re taking in money and you’re giving out services, ideas like physical labor. Just all of those things you are giving and taking in, but here you are really learning the internal processing. How all these things work together and what they mean.

If everyone could do [have self-directed learning], I think that there would be so many more people that actually like school. Like I remember there was one parent from last year, a lot of them were nervous even this year, [thinking] ‘I’m not sure if this is going to work. I’m not sure, how are you guys just playing games all day? Are you guys just doing things for fun are you actually learning anything? And are you taking tests, are you looking at papers?’

Yeah, we’re doing that but it doesn’t mean that we’re not learning. It’s just a different way. Just because we’re not using papers, just because it’s not traditional means that it doesn’t work. I mean change is necessary. This is really, this is really old type of learning. This was great for back in the 1900s when you needed a system of people that knew math and writing and all those basic things that you need, and it worked really well for that, but it never changed. We never evolved with the rest of the people on earth changing as well, and that’s what I think this is. I think this is really evolving with that. So when the year was over, the parent was so happy and they said, “I’ve never seen my kid so excited to go to school.”

Isaac Prevatt, 12 years old.

One thing I really love, the thing where you are doing stuff that you love doing, at the end of the day, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh I just learned so much stuff today,’ but you didn’t feel like you were doing it all.

Isaac Prevatt

So like the last couple of days we did the thing called Geo-Guesser. It teaches you to expand your mind to think about things differently. For instance, normally when I’m walking down the street, I see a sign and I don’t really care because I’m not driving. But when you play this game, you see a stop sign, let’s think about this. So it’s not written in English, let’s figure out what language this is. Put it in Google translate and  figure it out. That’s one thing that they are really trying to incorporate this year, is thinking about things differently.

One of the electives I have is yearbook and I always go in there and talk to 7th and 8th graders, and they’re like, ‘Wow, are you seriously 12?’ They really see a difference in me maturing, and I really feel a difference.  I feel like it’s really being thoughtful, you’re not just learning, you’re really learning it in a different perspective than normally, and I feel like that’s really made a huge difference.”


A Middle-School Cheating Scandal Raises Questions About No Child Left Behind

Wrong Answer

by Rachel Aviv

In an era of high-stakes testing, a struggling school made a shocking choice.

One afternoon in the spring of 2006, Damany Lewis, a math teacher at Parks Middle School, in Atlanta, unlocked the room where standardized tests were kept. It was the week before his students took the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, which determined whether schools in Georgia had met federal standards of achievement. The tests were wrapped in cellophane and stacked in cardboard boxes. Lewis, a slim twenty-nine-year-old with dreadlocks, contemplated opening the test with scissors, but he thought his cut marks would be too obvious. Instead, he left the school, walked to the corner store, and bought a razor blade. When he returned, he slit open the cellophane and gently pulled a test book from its wrapping. Then he used a lighter to warm the razor, which he wedged under the adhesive sealing the booklet, and peeled back the tab.

He photocopied the math, reading, and language-arts sections—the subjects that would determine, under the No Child Left Behind guidelines, whether Parks would be classified as a “school in need of improvement” for the sixth year in a row. Unless fifty-eight per cent of students passed the math portion of the test and sixty-seven per cent passed in language arts, the state could shut down the school. Lewis put on gloves, to prevent oil from his hands from leaving a residue on the plastic, and then used his lighter to melt the edges of the cellophane together, so that it appeared as if the package had never been opened. He gave the reading and language-arts sections to two teachers he trusted and took the math section home.

Flipping through its pages, he felt proud of how much material he had covered that year. “Without even reading the question, I could tell you just by the shape of the graph, ‘Oh, my kids know that,’ ” he told me. He put the test in his fireplace once he’d confirmed that he had taught the necessary concepts. But he worried that his students would struggle with questions that were delivered in paragraph form. Some of his seventh-grade students were still reading by sounding out the letters. It seemed unfair that the concepts were “buried in words.” Lewis felt that he had pushed them to work harder than they ever had in their lives. “I’m not going to let the state slap them in the face and say they’re failures,” he told me. “I’m going to do everything I can to prevent the why-try spirit.”

The principal of Parks, Christopher Waller, knew that he had seen the questions before the test. Waller told me that Lewis was a “star teacher,” a “very hard worker, who will go the extra mile.” When the math portion of the test had been completed, Lewis said that Waller asked him how his students had done. Since Lewis had looked at the questions, it no longer seemed like a big deal to review the answers. Lewis returned to the testing office and opened up the answer sheets of a few students in his class who got average grades. He looked for a hard question and, when he saw that they’d solved it, he moved on, assuming that they had done fine. Then he said that he “piddled” in the room, wasting time. When he felt that he had been in there long enough, he told Waller that it looked as if his students had done O.K. But Waller told him to check the answers of students who weren’t in his class. This time, when he looked, Lewis saw that some of the smartest students at Parks had the wrong answers.

At the end of the testing week, Lewis went back to the testing office with Crystal Draper, a language-arts teacher. For about an hour, they erased wrong answers and bubbled in the right ones. They exchanged no words. Lewis couldn’t even look at her. “I couldn’t believe what we’d been reduced to,” he said. He tried to stay focussed on the mechanics of the work: he took care to change, at most, one or two answers for every ten questions. “I had a minor in statistics, and it’s not that hard to figure out windows of probability,” he told me. Many students were on the cusp of passing, and he gave them a little nudge, so that they would pass by one or two points.

A month later, when the scores came back, Waller told the students to gather in the hallway outside the cafeteria, where there was a spread of ice cream, pizza, and hot wings. A teacher announced, “You did it! You finally made it!” For the first time since the passage of No Child Left Behind, Parks had met its annual goals: the percentage of eighth graders who passed rose thirty-one points in reading and sixty-two points in math. “Everyone was jumping up and down,” Neekisia Jackson, a student, said. “It was like our World Series, our Olympics.” She went on, “We had heard what everyone was saying: Y’all aren’t good enough. Now we could finally go to school with our heads held high.”

Parks Middle School is three miles south of downtown Atlanta, in Pittsburgh, a neighborhood bordered by a run-down trucking lot and railway tracks fallen into disuse. Founded after the Civil War, Pittsburgh was a black working-class area until the nineteen-sixties and seventies, when residents began leaving for the suburbs. Half the homes in the neighborhood are now vacant. Lewis’s students called the area Little Vietnam and Jack City, because of all the armed robberies. Once, when Lewis stopped at a convenience store to tell his students to go home and do their homework, a prostitute approached him. “I’m, like, ‘Whoa, whoa, I’m a teacher!’ ” he said. “And she’s, like, ‘I don’t care. Teachers get down.’ ”

Lewis grew up in a violent neighborhood in East Oakland, California, in a house built by Habitat for Humanity. His father was a crack addict, and his mother supported four children by working as a bank teller; she later opened a safe house for ex-prostitutes. “She’s a real underdog-lover,” Lewis told me. On the weekends, she took Lewis to picnics hosted by the Black Panther Party. She worked so much that the neighbors helped raise Lewis: they often told him to wash his face or tuck in his shirt or put Vaseline on his chapped lips. His football coach became a father figure and encouraged Lewis to go to college in Atlanta so that he could have a “historical black experience.”

Lewis received a scholarship to attend Clark Atlanta University, which is less than three miles from Parks. He was homeless for several months and got arrested for possessing marijuana, but he still earned good grades. He was a “lightweight nerd,” as he put it. When he graduated with degrees in math and philosophy, his mother urged him to try teaching, since he’d always had a talent for simplifying complex ideas. In 2000, he started working at Parks and was immediately moved by his students’ despair. “Being born in the seventies, coming out of the civil-rights movement, amidst the Black Panther meetings in Oakland, I didn’t have limitations,” he told me. “I was raised in the generation that lost the shame of being black.”

His students, who came to school with bad breath and parkas that smelled of urine, seemed to lack the conviction that they would ever leave the neighborhood. Parks was run by an older woman who was not inclined to innovate. Homework was a joke. There was litter in the hallways, and students urinated in trash cans. A veteran teacher told Lewis that only twenty per cent of his students would grasp what he was teaching, so he should go over each lesson five times. “Please—I’m a better teacher than that,” he remembered thinking. “She was just making excuses for why she spiralled in circles.”

Atlanta’s school superintendent, Beverly Hall, who was hired in 1999, quickly became aware of the problems at Parks. A neighborhood minister repeatedly called to complain about drug dealing in front of the school. Hall, who was born in Jamaica, had spent her career in underperforming urban districts: she began as a teacher in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in the seventies, and moved on to become a superintendent in Newark. At one of her first meetings in Atlanta, she said, someone “got up and was literally screaming, ‘Just tell us what to do. We’ve got to do something about education in Atlanta.’ ” Three-quarters of the students in the district were living near or below the poverty line—ninety per cent were black or Latino—and fewer than forty per cent graduated from high school.

Hall belonged to a movement of reformers who believed that the values of the marketplace could resuscitate public education. She approached the job like a business executive: she courted philanthropists, set accountability measures, and created performance objectives that were more rigorous than those required by No Child Left Behind, which became law in 2002. When a school met its targets, all employees, including bus drivers and cafeteria staff, received up to two thousand dollars. She linked teacher evaluations to test scores and warned principals that they’d be fired if they didn’t meet targets within three years. Eventually, ninety per cent were replaced. She repeated the mantra “No exceptions and no excuses.”

In 2001, she hired a new principal for Parks, a former college-football player named Michael Sims, whom Lewis described as the “father I never had.” Sims focussed nearly as much on building a sense of community as he did on academics: he renovated the school, hired guidance counsellors, and replaced the “P” that had fallen off the sign at Parks’s entryway. He told students that they were representing their school even when they were off campus. If they got into a fight over the weekend, they would be suspended on Monday. The school provided computer classes to parents, who had been so removed from their children’s academic lives that it was a struggle to get them to sign progress reports. “We had to trick the parents and give away this, that, and the third in order to get them into the building,” Lewis said. “Some of them looked like they were on drugs—not fun drugs but ruin-your-life drugs.”

Parks started to feel like a place where both teachers and students, nearly all of them black, could expose their vulnerabilities. “All our little problems that we grew up hiding from the rest of the world—it became our line of communication,” Lewis said. He told students to dump their laundry into the back of his pickup truck, so that he could wash it for them, and encouraged them to sleep at his house when their mothers were absent or high. (Few had fathers in their lives.) He became the football coach, and if practice ran late he dropped students off at their homes. Several ended up calling him Dad. He told them, “I don’t know how you feel about me, but I, at least, feel like I made it. If you want to know if you can make it, look at me.” He married a language-arts teacher at Parks, who was similarly devoted to the students. “She was a great model of what an adult woman is supposed to act like, talk like,” Lewis said.

With the help of a college-prep program called Project Grad, which Beverly Hall implemented after securing millions of dollars from donors, Parks set up after-school programs and hired tutors. A 2004 documentary called “Expect the Best” explained that Parks, which had previously functioned like “day care,” had become a “model of what a good school can and should be.” The video shows Lewis on his porch, playing chess with a student who had moved in with him. The narrator of the video explains that the student, Antonio, was living with his math teacher “because his mother is in no shape to support or care for him. This arrangement, though temporary and unusual, has done a lot to stabilize Antonio’s life.”

The school steadily improved, but students’ test scores were never high enough for Parks to make “adequate yearly progress,” a measurement defined by No Child Left Behind, a nearly utopian statute that required all public-school students to become proficient in math and reading by 2014, as judged by their test scores. The reform model, which drew on an accountability system used in Texas in the nineties, ignored less quantifiable signs of intellectual development. Schools that didn’t progress at an appropriate pace were eligible for federally funded support. They also received a series of escalating sanctions, including state monitoring, a revised curriculum, replacement of staff, and restructuring or closure of the school. LaShawn Hoffman, the head of the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association, told me that when Parks opened, in 1966, it was a source of pride for the community, the neighborhood’s “jewel.” Now he worried about the burden of another large abandoned building in the neighborhood.

When Lewis showed up for the new school year in 2004, Parks’s principal was absent. Lewis knew that Sims would never miss the first day of school and assumed that he must have been in some sort of accident. Then a district administrator called a meeting and explained that Sims would not be returning; he had resigned after being accused of sexual misconduct in a previous job.

After a few months, Christopher Waller, a Methodist pastor who had worked in public schools for nine years, became the new leader of Parks. Waller was burly and freckled, and, at thirty-one, he was the youngest principal in the district. After a week of introductory meetings, he saw that the district prioritized testing results more than any other place he’d ever worked did. “All decisions have to be made by data—you have to be baptized in it,” he told me. “I lived it, slept it, ate it.”

He held a meeting with the faculty and explained that teachers needed to use data to drive every aspect of instruction. Lewis raised his hand and said, “I need to be excused from this meeting.” He left the room. Another administrator followed him into the hallway and tried to appease him, but he told her, “You all come in here trying to change every goddam thing we’ve been doing for years. We’ve been making step-by-step progress, and it’s working.”

The next day, Lewis said that Waller asked him to come to his office. “I hear you’re the man around here,” he told Lewis. At that point, Lewis was the football, soccer, and softball coach, the athletic director, and the founder of the chess club. As they talked, Lewis found himself impressed by Waller’s intellect and social awareness. When Waller asked him what changes he should make, Lewis told him to bide his time. “It’s like if you get a new stepmom in the house,” he said. “If she immediately comes in and changes everything, she’ll be hated forever.”

Every fall, the district held a convocation ceremony, which was usually in the Georgia Dome, where the Atlanta Falcons play. Schools that met their performance targets were seated on the field, while schools that fell short were relegated to the bleachers. Teachers spoke nervously all year about whether they would “make the floor.” At Waller’s first convocation, in 2005, he was humiliated by his seat in the bleachers. “It’s almost like having leprosy in the Bible,” he told me. “No one wants to associate with failure.”

Waller quickly learned that principals in the district insured loyalty by working with teachers whom they had personally selected. At one of his first meetings with Beverly Hall, Waller said that he was willing to work with the school’s current teachers. Hall laughed and told him, “You will need your own team.” Waller began encouraging veteran teachers to retire early. Lewis soon found himself one of the most senior teachers at Parks. He worried that the new faculty were being deprived of the “ethical guidance that comes from listening to older teachers.”

Under Hall, four sub-superintendents oversaw different regions within the district, making sure that schools advanced toward their targets. After Waller had been at the school for a year, he received a stern memo, titled “Mid-year Review,” from Michael Pitts, the sub-superintendent who was responsible for Parks. “Please understand that no excuse can or will be accepted for any results that are less than 70% of school-based target acquisition,” Pitts wrote.

Waller told Pitts that the targets—set by the district’s Department of Research, Planning, and Accountability—were unrealistic. It took a quarter of the year just to gain students’ trust. Two students, he said, were raped in the neighborhood that year. Others lived alone, with neither parent at home, or were on the verge of being placed in juvenile detention. When a student was arrested for stealing cars, Waller went to court and asked the judge not to send him to jail. Waller told me, “The administration wanted to move kids out of poverty—I do believe that. But test scores could not be the only means.” When Waller expressed his concerns, Pitts reiterated that Hall accepted no excuses, and told him, “The way principals keep their jobs in Atlanta is they make targets.”

Waller struggled to understand his students’ success in elementary school. They had passed the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in fifth grade, and yet when they arrived at Parks they were reading at a first-grade level. “The students and the data aren’t matching,” he told Pitts. “They’ve got to be cheating at the elementary schools. There’s no way those scores are real.” One day, when he and Pitts were walking through Parks, Waller pointed out a disruptive sixth grader who had excelled on the test the year before, even though his academic skills were dismal. He recalled that Pitts laughed and said, “Sometimes children just test well.” Then Pitts told him, “You need to keep your mouth shut.” He urged Waller to “forge stronger relationships” with the principals at the elementary schools, which Waller interpreted as a message to learn how they’d artificially boosted their scores.

Waller concluded that the school couldn’t meet its targets that year. More than half of the students were performing below grade level. The reading coördinator, Sandra Ward, told Waller that she had heard about an elementary school where teachers changed students’ answers under the pretense of erasing stray pencil marks. According to Waller and Ward, the vice-principal, Gregory Reid, informed them that he knew of another school where teachers were obtaining test questions in advance. (Reid has denied this.) Waller decided to adopt both strategies by recruiting a “team” of teachers who could be trusted. He told himself, “We’re helping them. They’ll catch up by eighth grade.”

The first teacher he approached was Lewis, who was resistant. Lewis told him, “Fuck the test. Our students are doing hot. We know they are learning.” But after several months, Lewis said, Waller “chewed away at me.” Waller reminded him that Parks was a “sanctuary,” a “safe haven” for the community. If the school didn’t meet its targets, Waller explained, the students would be separated and sent to different schools, outside Pittsburgh. Lewis said he felt that “it was my sole obligation to never let that happen.”

In 2006, Tameka Grant, a sixth-grade teacher at Parks, sent a letter to Beverly Hall. She wrote that Waller was attempting to persuade teachers to cheat by describing how the teachers at elementary schools did it. “If you can’t beat them, join them,” she heard him say. She also noted that he often asked teachers how many of their students would pass the test, and when they equivocated he said, “Are you a team player? Are you on my team?”

The president of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers sent a letter to the district’s central office, reporting that “Mr. Waller frequently intimidates the staff by telling them that the school will either be closing, or will be taken over.” The letter described an “us/them mentality among staff where Mr. Waller works with new staff and not old and is trying to divide and conquer the seasoned staff.” Lewis and other favored teachers were part of what became known as “Waller’s circle.” Some had their own reserved parking spaces.

After learning of the complaints, Pitts, the sub-superintendent, attended a faculty meeting at Parks. Teachers remember him saying, “Stop writing letters about Waller, because he is not going anywhere. There is nothing you can do to make us think negatively of Principal Waller.” Lewis said he admired Tameka Grant for writing the letter, and he found it confusing that Pitts seemed to view her complaints as a low form of snitching. “I was, like, Damn, I thought that was kind of our obligation,” he said.

At the request of the district’s Office of Internal Resolution, a private investigator, Reginal Dukes, looked into the reported problems and, in March of 2006, concluded that teachers at Parks had cheated on the Georgia Middle Grades Writing Assessment, leaking the essay prompt to students. Dukes presented his preliminary findings to Hall at a lunch meeting with her senior staff and was shocked by her apparent lack of interest. “I expected her to take definite action,” he told me. Instead, he was informed that he couldn’t hire any additional investigators. Hall asked few questions. The only one he remembered was “Is there any more evidence?” “That question floored me,” Dukes said. “I’d just gone through this litany of violations.”

Waller was never reprimanded, and he said he never heard anything about the outcome of the investigation. The next year, Tameka Grant was transferred against her will to Long Middle School, known at the time as one of the most dangerous schools in the district.

In 2007, Parks had to score even higher to surpass its falsely achieved scores from the previous year. According to statements later made by teachers and administrators (obtained through Georgia’s open-records act), the cheating process began to take the form of a routine. During testing week, after students had completed the day’s section, Waller distracted the testing coördinator, Alfred Kiel, by taking him out for leisurely lunches in downtown Atlanta. On their way, Waller called the reading coördinator to let her know that it was safe to enter Kiel’s office. She then paged up to six teachers and told them to report to the room. While their students were at recess, the teachers erased wrong answers and filled in the right ones. Lewis took photographs of the office with his cell phone so that he could make sure he left every object, even the pencils on Kiel’s desk, exactly as he’d found them.

Lewis dreaded the process. It felt to him like “a bad date where you’ve had too much to drink.” He woke up the morning after erasing answers and thought, I shouldn’t have gone that far. He worried that, because of the cheating, students wouldn’t develop “the feeling you get when you take a test and know whether you did all right or whether you knocked that shit out of the park,” he said. He also felt guilty that other teachers were deprived of feedback. Lewis never told his wife that other teachers were correcting her students’ answers. One year, she got the highest scores in the building. Lewis said, “I wasn’t going to burst her bubble. I was, like, ‘Good job. Keep going strong.’ ”

At happy-hour drinks, he and other teachers complained that the legislators who wrote No Child Left Behind must never have been near a school like Parks. He felt as if he and his colleagues were part of a nationwide “biological experiment” in which the variables—the fact that so many children were hungry and transient, and witnessing violence—hadn’t been controlled. David Berliner, the former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University, told me that, with the passage of the law, teachers were asked to compensate for factors outside their control. He said, “The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”

Hall’s targets required that the number of students who met standards rise by nearly three per cent annually; in addition, a group of students had to “exceed” standards each year. Later, when asked by a state investigator how she had arrived at those figures, she acknowledged that there were no studies supporting that rate of improvement. According to Waller, the district became increasingly “corporate,” with every school focussed on the “bottom line.” He wrote teachers’ targets in marker on the floor of the entryway to their classrooms, in view of the students. He instructed the teachers, “I need those numbers,” and, “You need to teach to the test. Do what you’ve got to do.”

A 2007 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, titled “Beating the Odds at Atlanta’s Parks Middle School,” attributed its unlikely progress, in part, to its “relentless focus on data.” The report noted that Waller kept an index card in his pocket listing all the school’s achievements, which he read aloud to parents and students. “Even the kids know their data,” Waller said. Kiel, the testing coördinator, told the foundation that data is a “passion, it’s a love, because it tells the truth: it’s not what I think—and what I feel, and what ought to be, and how I perceive it—but how it actually is.”

Lewis was initially enthusiastic about judging teaching by what appeared to be an objective metric. Since college, he had found himself devising mathematical equations to make sense of events in his own life. He was no longer as disappointed when his father, who was in and out of rehab, didn’t return his calls, because he saw the situation in terms of mathematical probability: if he assigned a zero to every day that his father hadn’t called and a one to every day that he had and added all the digits and divided them by three hundred and sixty-five, he saw that the probability that his father would call on any given day was about zero. His calculations “gave me back my sense of control,” he said.

But Lewis began to worry that mathematics had assumed an unhealthy role in the district. “Data” and “accountability” had become almost magic words: if administrators repeated them enough, it seemed they believed that scores should rise, even if there hadn’t been significant enhancements in instruction. Lewis welcomed the district’s new emphasis on reading—teachers got specialized training and taught reading more intensively—but many of the other reforms were oriented around deadlines and time frames. Lewis said, “We had two weeks to teach percentages, and if you’re still on percentages at week three, because your kids don’t get it yet, they’ll say, ‘You don’t teach well enough!’ Well, come, now, we are dealing with human brains.” He continued, “I sincerely believe that demographics does not determine destiny. But you have to be patient.”

Lewis felt pressure not only to make testing targets but to meet more ambitious attendance goals. After two years of improvement, teachers began taking attendance later in the day so that students had more time to get to school. Eventually, Lewis recalled, the teachers ceased marking absences altogether. In a letter of complaint, the school secretary, who refused to delete absences from the records, informed the district’s central office that her attendance duties had been taken away and “given to someone whom my principal calls a team player.” “I am lying low because I feel my job is on the line,” she wrote. “I am so overwhelmed by what I’m seeing.”

Waller said that he had never experienced so much pressure in his life. Although administrators throughout the district knew that there was cheating, he said that “nobody wanted to talk about it.” “We’d been cultivated in so many untruths throughout the years,” he told me. In 2008, he decided to resign, but Hall worked with the Casey Foundation to give him an “incentive award grant” of fifteen thousand dollars. He agreed to stay, believing that soon he would have the strength to tell the district that its targets couldn’t continue to rise.

By 2008, there were nine teachers on Waller’s team, and cheating had become a “well-oiled machine,” as he put it. A principal at an elementary school in southeast Atlanta e-mailed Waller charts detailing the number of questions students in each grade needed to answer correctly in order to get a passing score—information that the state’s Department of Education does not publish. The teachers now changed answers in the chorus room, because they didn’t want to raise the suspicions of the testing coördinator, who noticed that someone had been in his office and had changed the lock. (A day later, Lewis found a copy of the new key in his school mailbox.) The room was so crowded that two teachers placed test booklets in a cooler and took them to another room. “It went from a two-man show to out of control,” Lewis said. A sixth-grade teacher, who asked that his name not be used, told me that he got involved only because he respected Lewis, whom he described as the “alpha male of the building” and a “humanitarian.” “I don’t think Waller could have run the school without him,” he said. “It’s kind of like every king has to have a general, and the general gets his hands way dirtier than the king does.”

When teachers panicked about what they’d done, Lewis reminded them that the school had already gone through three principals in five years. “Calm down,” he told them. “Waller’s going to be gone in a minute. Let’s just survive until he’s gone.” He tried not to reflect on the cheating process at all. “Cheating was just something we did in April, when the tests were in the building,” he said.

In the spring of 2008, Parks’s scores were almost as high as those of a middle school in Inman Park, a gentrified neighborhood with yoga studios, bike paths, and million-dollar houses. Waller thought the results seemed obviously false, and he called his supervisor, Michael Pitts, to warn him. Pitts gave Waller the cell-phone number for Lester McKee, the executive director of the district’s Department of Research, Planning, and Accountability. When Waller explained that Parks’s results were unusually high, he said that McKee responded, “Shit happens, and sometimes when it happens it’s not always bad. Let’s see if anyone else says something.” The district took no action to investigate the improbable scores. (McKee, who could not be reached for comment, was not charged with any wrongdoing.)

Morris Johnson, the president of the parent-teacher association at Parks in 2009, told me that he never “questioned those test scores—not for one minute.” He was in the school nearly every day, and he saw administrators and teachers giving “a hundred per cent plus” and instilling in students a “winning attitude.” Both the football and the basketball teams were nearly undefeated. Using money from fund-raisers and donations, students took field trips to Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and New York. “I was so impressed,” Johnson said. “Mr. Waller wanted to expose these kids to other parts of life. They were finally escaping their Zip Code.”

Waller was lauded by the district, and became a minor celebrity of the reform movement. Hall invited him to attend the Harvard Leadership Conference with her, and she arranged a “Tour of Georgia” bus ride for civic leaders which made a stop at Parks, where Hall gave a speech. Once, at a meeting, when the principal of a middle school said that the targets were out of his students’ reach, Hall responded, “You have to make your targets,” and then pointed to a chart with data from Parks, explaining, “Parks did it.” Waller thought it would have been “evident even to a blind man that the scores were not legitimate.”

Parks attracted so many visitors who were eager to understand the school’s turnaround that teachers had to come up with ways to explain it. At Waller’s direction, they began maintaining what they called “standard-based mastery folders,” an index of all the objectives that each student needed to grasp in order to comprehend a given lesson. Lewis, who was taking night classes at the School of Education at Clark Atlanta University, wrote his master’s thesis on the technique. “It was a wonderful system,” he said. “But we only put it in place to hide the fact that we were cheating.”

Lewis took pride in the attention that Parks was receiving, and he liked the fact that his students had developed egos about their education. A few tattooed the number of the school zone on their arms. The only time an accolade made him uncomfortable was when Parks won a 2009 Dispelling the Myth Award. He and other teachers were sent to Arlington, Virginia, for a ceremony in the ballroom of a Marriott hotel. Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, gave the keynote speech. “I swear to God, I need to write that man, Duncan, a letter of apology,” Lewis told me. “I stood in his court and acted like I was doing something I wasn’t. He held us at the tip-top of education.”

On September 8, 2009, the Atlanta city council declared that the date should be known as Dr. Beverly L. Hall Day. Hall had just been named Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, and the city held a ceremony to honor her for making the district one of the highest-performing urban school systems in the nation. Under her leadership, the district had received more than forty million dollars from the G. E. Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. When she began as superintendent, fewer than fifty per cent of eighth graders met the state’s standards in language arts. By 2009, ninety per cent of eighth graders had passed the exam.

A month after the dedication, Heather Vogell and John Perry, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reported that there were statistically improbable testing gains at several schools in Atlanta. Hall’s deputy superintendent told the paper, “I don’t have any reason to look at that.” The paper’s reporting prompted the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement to conduct its own analysis of testing improprieties, not only in Atlanta but throughout the state. In early 2010, the office found that one in five schools exhibited an abnormal pattern of erasure marks, in which a wrong answer had been corrected. At Parks and at one of its feeder schools, there were suspicious erasure marks on tests from more than seventy-five per cent of the classrooms.

At the instruction of the governor, Sonny Perdue, Atlanta’s Board of Education formed a panel to investigate the erasures. Although the investigation was supposed to be independent, it was run by civic leaders who had invested in the district and touted its success, and Hall’s administrators sat in on interviews. The panel concluded that there had been no coördinated effort to manipulate test scores, a finding that Perdue called “woefully inadequate.” He decided that Atlanta was incapable of investigating itself. In August, 2010, he issued an executive order that granted authority to the former state attorney general, along with a prosecutor and a special investigator, to conduct a more thorough investigation.

There have been accounts of widespread cheating in dozens of cities, including Philadelphia, Toledo, El Paso, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, and St. Louis. According to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office, forty states detected instances of cheating by educators in the previous two years. But Atlanta is one of the few districts in which educators have been subpoenaed. “It’s hard to find anyone in the system who wants to look under the rock and see what’s there,” Jennifer Jennings, a sociology professor at N.Y.U. who studies standardized tests, said. She noted that even in Texas, whose reform model inspired No Child Left Behind, scholars doubted whether students had progressed as rapidly as the data suggested—administrators exempted low-performing students from taking the test and underreported dropouts. Jennings worries that one consequence of cheating and other forms of gaming the system is that it interferes with the “policy-feedback loop,” the conclusions we draw about student learning and the narratives we tell about reform. Given what happened in Texas, she said, the cheating in Atlanta “should have been very easy to anticipate.”

In October, 2010, fifty agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation visited Parks and other Atlanta schools. They ate in school cafeterias, handed out their business cards, and befriended teachers in the doorways of their classrooms. As soon as Lewis learned of the investigation, he was ready to confess. Occasionally, in the middle of teaching a lesson, he had to step outside the classroom and lean silently against the wall, closing his eyes. He and his wife had separated—they shared custody of a young daughter—and he found himself lying in bed, startled awake by nightmares. In one, he heard a knock at his door, and when he opened it one of his former students shot him.

His first meeting with investigators was in Waller’s office. He wondered if Waller was clever enough to bug the room and told the agents, “I’d feel a lot more comfortable at your office.” A few weeks later, he and several other teachers met at the downtown law office of Balch & Bingham, which was assisting with the investigation. The agents told the teachers that anyone who coöperated would be granted immunity from criminal prosecution. A social-studies teacher asked, “Can we all huddle for a minute?” When the agents left the room, Lewis told everyone, “The jig is up. I’m not letting this shit drive me crazy.” He urged his colleagues to blame the cheating on him, but they refused.

They all decided to tell the truth. Righton Johnson, a lawyer with Balch & Bingham who sat in on interviews, told me that it became clear that most teachers thought they were committing a victimless crime. “They didn’t see the value in the test, so they didn’t see that they were devaluing the kids by cheating,” she said. Unlike recent cheating scandals at Harvard and at Stuyvesant High School, where privileged students were concerned with their own advancement, those who cheated at Parks were never convinced of the importance of the tests; they viewed the cheating as a door they had to pass through in order to focus on issues that seemed more relevant to their students’ lives.

Waller initially refused to acknowledge to the agents that he’d cheated. He told himself that, since he hadn’t physically handled the tests himself, he hadn’t committed the act. Hoping to extract more information, the agents asked Latasha Smiley, a teacher who had already confessed, to surreptitiously record a meeting with Waller at a Panera Bread. Waller seemed flustered and suspicious when he spoke with her. “It’s messy—it’s messy,” he said. “We’ve worked too hard . . . all kids can learn. . . . I don’t have—a lot of people kick a dog when they down.” When Smiley, who had transferred to a different school, told Waller that she missed Parks, he responded, “That school is going to hell.”

After more than two thousand interviews, the investigators concluded that forty-four schools had cheated and that a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation has infested the district, allowing cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.” They wrote that data had been “used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish.” Several teachers had been told that they had a choice: either make targets or be placed on a Performance Development Plan, which was often a precursor to termination. At one elementary school, during a faculty meeting, a principal forced a teacher whose students had tested poorly to crawl under the table.

The investigators’ report didn’t conclude that Hall had directed anyone to cheat, but it did recount a number of episodes in which she ignored or minimized evidence that scores had been falsely achieved. In one instance, her staff had ordered an administrator to shred a draft of a report that described cheating at an elementary school. But in an eight-hour interview with investigators Hall insisted that there was no reason to doubt students’ scores, because other metrics showed the same trajectory. During her tenure, the graduation rate in Atlanta rose by thirty percentage points. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which is less susceptible to tampering, Atlanta’s reading scores rose more rapidly than those of the other nine cities where students took the test. (Critics have suggested that the gains may be partly the result of a demographic shift, but it appears that there was also authentic improvement.)

To explain the improvement in scores, Hall told the investigators that “an effective teacher three years in a row will completely close the gap between a child born in poverty and a child born to a middle-income family.” This theory, in its earliest form, derives from a study by William L. Sanders, a statistician formerly at the University of Tennessee, but the findings, which have contributed to a nationwide effort to rate teachers rigorously, have been overstated to the point of becoming a myth. According to a recent statement by the American Statistical Association, most studies show that teachers account for between one and fourteen per cent of variability in test scores.

John Ewing, who served as the executive director of the American Mathematical Society for fifteen years, told me that he is perplexed by educators’ “infatuation with data,” their faith that it is more authoritative than using their own judgment. He explains the problem in terms of Campbell’s law, a principle that describes the risks of using a single indicator to measure complex social phenomena: the greater the value placed on a quantitative measure, like test scores, the more likely it is that the people using it and the process it measures will be corrupted. “The end goal of education isn’t to get students to answer the right number of questions,” he said. “The goal is to have curious and creative students who can function in life.” In a 2011 paper in Notices of the American Mathematical Society, he warned that policymakers were using mathematics “to intimidate—to preëmpt debate about the goals of education and measures of success.”

In July, 2011, the district placed a hundred and ten teachers who had either confessed to having cheated or been accused of it on administrative leave. Lewis received a letter that read, “Your actions and inactions brought embarrassment, suspicion, scorn, and disrepute upon APS”—Atlanta Public Schools. The district intended to fire him unless he could prove at a hearing that he was innocent of the charges. His colleagues at Parks got similar letters and wanted to resign, but Lewis felt that they should express their devotion to Parks by “standing arm in arm before the firing squad.”

A woman from Oakland who had dated Lewis on and off since middle school saw his name in the news and called him, and said, “Tell me you didn’t cheat. You were the smartest guy I knew. Tell me that guy didn’t change.” He invited her to Atlanta so that he could explain himself in person. In the fall of 2011, they were married. Lewis was comforted by the fact that “she knew me as a child and could hold me to the character that my mom instilled in me.” To his mother, his decision to cheat was an act of civil disobedience. She told him that as soon as she heard about cheating in Atlanta she thought, “I bet my son was part of that.”

His termination hearing was held in March, 2012, at the district’s headquarters. It was the first hearing to arise from the cheating investigation; many of the other teachers in the district who had been implicated resigned. Three former educators, appointed by the school board, served as the jury. Lewis wore a gray striped button-up shirt, untucked, and sat with his chin resting on his hand, looking down. He waived his right to an attorney, thinking, he said, “I did this shit—I brought it onto myself—and I’m going to take it in the face.” When the hearing officer asked him to give an opening statement, he said, “I think the evidence will prove that there was a systemic problem in the Atlanta public schools. That’s my statement.” An agent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation served as a witness for the district, and, after detailing Lewis’s wrongdoing, explained that he “seemed to be well liked by the school and the teachers that were there. They kind of looked up to him.”

When Lewis was questioned by the district’s lawyer, he repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment, taking care not to incriminate anyone else. He didn’t speak at length until his closing statement, at which point he stood up and began reading, through tears, from a long speech that he had written about his eleven years at Parks. He described how Parks had made incremental progress each year, but its test scores “cast a cloud of doubt over whether Parks Middle School even deserved to exist at all.” Soon, data became the “underlying force behind everything we did.” He described the resilience of the students, who were “down but never out, losing but never lost.” He told the panel, “You may wonder why I haven’t resigned. It’s because the morality that resides within me are the same morals I taught my students for years; that is, whenever you are persecuted or face challenges or circumstances rise against you, you must see things through to the end.”

Of a hundred and seventy-eight educators named in the cheating investigation, Lewis was the first to be fired. “I felt like someone had hit me with the butt end of an axe,” he said. He shaved off his dreadlocks, which, in Rastafarian tradition—a culture with which he sporadically associated—signalled the loss of a child. What troubled him most, he said, was that “I was fired for doing something that I didn’t even believe in.”

He applied for jobs at charter and alternative schools, community centers, and jails, but he didn’t get any of them. “Education let me go,” he finally concluded. He broadened his search, applying for positions that required manual labor. In interviews, he promised employers that he had the “persistence and tough skin of a middle-school teacher to bring to the workforce.” He applied for a job installing cable, and, after getting a nearly perfect score on the applicant test, he daydreamed about how he would use his teaching skills to help employees streamline the process. But a few days later the company told him that he didn’t have enough experience.

His house was foreclosed on and his car was repossessed. Old friends came to him with alternative methods of earning money. “They had some of the most illegal propositions,” he said. “They were, like, ‘Man, remember when we used to take that trip to St. Louis? Don’t you want to take over that run?’ ” He supported his wife, their newborn son, and his daughter from his previous marriage by working as an auto mechanic.

At first, he was glad to see the district attorney bring charges against Christopher Waller, Beverly Hall, and thirty-three administrators and teachers, but he became troubled by the portrayal of their crimes as mercenary. On April 2, 2013, on the evening news, he watched his colleagues, nearly all of them black, report to the Fulton County Jail in an event that was described in the media as a “perp walk.” They were charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute—used to apprehend criminal organizations like the Mafia—and accused of conspiring in order to receive the bonuses tied to high test scores. Hall, who earned more than five hundred thousand dollars in bonuses, faces up to forty-five years in prison.

More than half of the defendants, including Christopher Waller, pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Now the senior pastor at a church three miles from Parks, Waller agreed to serve five years of probation, pay forty thousand dollars in restitution, and testify as a witness for the prosecution. He told me that he was offended by the idea that he would cheat in order to get what amounted to five thousand dollars in bonuses. He and other teachers at Parks spent their own money to buy groceries, H.I.V. medications, furniture, and clothes for students and their mothers, and this continued even after he was fired. “It wasn’t because of the money—I can promise you that,” he said.

In lengthy plea statements, Waller and the other defendants provided a miniature history of the past twelve years in education policy, describing how No Child Left Behind, in conjunction with the district’s targets, created an atmosphere in which cheating came to seem like a reasonable option. One principal described a “toxic culture throughout APS where all that mattered was test scores, even if ill-gotten.” Another said that the district’s “primary focus . . . became meeting targets instead of focusing on the needs of the students.”

In statements sent to me through their respective lawyers, Hall and Michael Pitts both denied wrongdoing and said they were confident that a jury would find them innocent of the charges. Hall wrote, “I did not order, request, or condone cheating to meet targets nor did I have knowledge of cheating.” She explained that in setting targets she had “relied on APS educators to behave with integrity.” She also said that, compared with the objectives set by No Child Left Behind, Atlanta’s targets were “decidedly more incremental in nature,” and the sanctions less “draconian.” (Many of her employees disagree; the district was unusual in that it required a certain percentage of students to exceed targets each year.)

Since the investigation, the stakes for testing in Georgia have escalated. Although the state is replacing the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test with a more comprehensive method of evaluation, this fall Georgia is implementing a new teacher-evaluation program that bases fifty per cent of a teacher’s assessment on test scores. The program, along with a merit-pay system, is required as a condition for receiving a four-hundred-million-dollar grant from President Obama’s Race to the Top program. Tim Callahan, the spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which represents eighty-four thousand teachers, told me, “The state is going down the same path as Atlanta, and we are not exactly enthused.” He said that many teachers have become so demoralized that they’re retiring early or transferring to private schools. He told me, “Our teachers’ best qualities—their sense of humor, their love for the subject, their excitement, their interest in students as individuals—are not being honored or valued, because those qualities aren’t measurable.”

This spring, Lewis was hired as a database developer at a mortgage company. He was thrilled by the job, to such a degree that his energy level was out of synch with that of his colleagues. When I met him at his home, a small ranch house in East Point, Georgia, he said that he found his co-workers surprisingly detached and unemotional. He often dreamed about his students. “I miss having a classroom full of Energizer bunnies,” he told me. In his dreams, Waller occasionally apologized or offered him a new job.

Lewis was looking forward to hearing Beverly Hall explain herself at the cheating trial, which is scheduled to begin in August. It had been delayed several months, because Hall is undergoing treatment for cancer. She’s now bedridden and may not be able to attend her trial. For years, Lewis had assumed that Hall instructed people to cheat, but now he began to wonder if she’d been so idealistic that she didn’t understand the environment she had created and, when it became clear, didn’t want to undermine her cause—the idea that educational reform could swiftly lift children out of poverty—by acknowledging the evidence that was in front of her. Lewis said, “I know that sometimes when you’re in the fight, and you’re swinging, you want to win so badly that you don’t recognize where your blows land.”

Last year, Parks merged with Sylvan Hills Middle School, which Lewis called “our archrival.” The students were still in the Parks building, which had been renamed, but in a year they would move into a renovated building outside Pittsburgh. No one in the community knew what would become of the vacated building. Lewis blamed himself for the fact that Parks had ceased to exist. According to the district, the school closed because of low enrollment, but Pittsburgh residents believed that it was because Parks’s reputation had been ruined. After the cheating investigation, and the departure of nine teachers and administrators, students’ scores dropped each year.

Lewis told me that in a week one of his most ambitious students, Neekisia Jackson, who graduated from Parks in 2006, would receive her diploma from Emory University. She had asked Lewis and two other former teachers from Parks to come to her graduation. Lewis found himself, almost against his will, plotting out Jackson’s future. She would go to law school, become a judge—no matter what kind of defendant was in her courtroom, she would be able to “empathetically go there”—and then become a model for kids in Pittsburgh, just as he’d been. For the past year, he’d been putting away a small percentage of his paycheck so that he could give Jackson some cash. “This is a real drop in the bucket for what life has in store for you,” he planned to tell her at graduation. “Just spread your wings—the wind is coming.” 

Multiplayer High: How Games Help Learning

Multiplayer High: How Games Help Learning

Douglas Thomas
& John Seely Brown
on games and education.

Listen to anyone talk about schools today: classical education just can’t keep up. In the digital generation’s world of constant change, most schooling is profoundly boring. But what else is possible?

Imagine an environment where the participants are building a massive network databases, wikis and websites, and thousands of message forums, creating a large-scale knowledge economy. Imagine an environment where participants constantly measure and evaluate their own performance, even if that requires them to build new tools to do so. Imagine an environment where user interface dashboards are constructed by the users themselves to make sense of the world and their own performance in it. Imagine an environment where evaluation is based on after-action reviews to continually enhance performance; an environment where learning happens on a continuous basis, because the participants are internally motivated to find, share, and filter new information on a near-constant basis.

Finding an environment like that sounds difficult, but it isn’t. It already exists, in the form of massively multiplayer online games. These large-scale social communities provide a case study in how players absorb tacit knowledge, process it into a series of increasingly sophisticated questions, and engage collectives to make the experience personally meaningful. What they teach us about learning is not found in the game at all, but is instead embedded in these collectives, which form in, around, and through the game. In essence, the game provides the impetus for collectives to take root.

In our view, the cultures created around MMOs are almost perfect illustrations of a new learning environment. On one hand, online games produce massive information economies, composed of thousands of message forums, wikis, databases, player guilds, and communities. In that sense, they are paragons of an almost unlimited information network. On the other hand, they constitute a bounded environment within which players have near absolute agency, enjoying virtually unlimited experimentation and exploration—more of a petri dish.

MMOs draw in players from every walk of life, of every age, and across gender, class, and socioeconomic divides. They require an immense amount of learning in order to play them and are grounded in participation. Most important, the engine that drives learning is a blend of questioning, imagination, and—best of all—play.

Understanding the New Context

In examining the world of MMOs, we have found that guilds constitute the most significant learning environment within the game. The amount of learning that goes on in even the smallest guilds is amazing, as is the amount of data that gets processed, filtered, and integrated into play and game practices. The game’s forums alone produce more than 15,000 new pieces of information each night. Yet guilds have found ways to avoid being overwhelmed by this mountain of data and instead manage it with surprising efficiency, using techniques that may be evocative for other institutions that face similar problems. Guilds like the Garden Gnome Liberation Army (GLA), a collection of more than 100 players who twice-weekly engage in complex raids, sit at the intersection of the two elements that make up the new culture of learning. They are intensive and complex learning collectives that are deeply invested in constructing, utilizing, and managing large-scale knowledge economies (the information network). In order to succeed, every single member of the guild must take an active, constant, and enthusiastic role in learning information about the game, his or her character class, and the battles, fights, and challenges they will face. At the same time, the space of the world itself is fluid, changing, and dynamic. It presents players with boundaries within which they search for success through trial and error, finding idiosyncratic solutions to complicated problems. Solutions are not discovered so much as they are organically grown (the petri dish). Gamers bring these two elements together through play. They combine the knowledge gained from outside the game with an evolving set of practices that occur inside the game, both of which feed each other. As players create new solutions within the game space, they return verbal characterizations, analyses, and videos to the knowledge economy surrounding the game, thus disseminating them to a wider group of players, who then use that information to create even newer solutions, and so on. In short, they in engage in precisely the activities that we have been describing as inquiry. Within the new culture of learning, we can see networked information as providing nutrients for the petri dish, allowing exploration, play, and experimentation to continually cultivate new questions.

But perhaps the deepest level of play and, for our purposes, the most significant aspect of it, has to do with a sense of collective indwelling. When playing “massively,” one moves beyond a sense of just playing with others. In order to succeed, players immerse themselves in the game, creating and constructing identities, relationships, and practices that constitute deep and profound acts of imagination. And that act of immersion is itself, at base, an act of imagination and collaboration. Very few challenges in World of Warcraft can be solved alone, and none of them occur at advanced levels of the game. A guild’s success depends on how well its members can synchronize their efforts to solve problems.

GLA members, for example, would spend months advancing through a particular raid with only incremental success each week. Eventually, the guild would have a breakthrough and suddenly be able to succeed at something that it had been failing to accomplish for months. At that point, a major shift occurred, and in everyone’s mind, the goal became achievable. And shortly thereafter, usually, the raid succeeded, seemingly without effort. So what changes? Not the gear the players possessed or their own skill levels and talents. Instead, there is a collective shift in imagination. As the fight unfolded one last time, the players—though dispersed all over the globe—had managed to completely synchronize their endeavors. Yet no one could articulate why they could do so on that day and not before. The knowledge acquired to defeat the boss and complete the challenge was principally tacit. As we have seen, tacit learning functions most effectively when students discover their own learning objectives. Games, which allow learners to play, explore, and experience, also allow them to discover what is important to them, what it is they actually want to learn—and that keeps them playing. When people stop learning in a game, they lose interest and quit. When understood properly, therefore, games may in fact be one of the best models for learning and knowing in the twenty-first century. Why? Because if a game is good, you never play it the same way twice.

The Virtual Space of Collective Indwelling

Members of a raiding guild have read plenty of information about what the fight would entail before they set foot into the dungeon, as gleaned from the information network. Yet there is no one “right” way to succeed. Each fight requires countless minor adjustments, which shape the events that follow them, making it impossible to predict what would come next. Knowing how the fight works, therefore, is necessary but insufficient for success. Information alone is just not enough.

Victory also requires a more organic notion of learning: experimentation. The three months of practice helped the guild steadily improve, and as the members made progress—however minor—each week, they set new incremental goals to advance through the fight. Practice made the players more aware of their individual roles and responsibilities and helped them understand both the mechanics of the fight and the possible combination of things they were likely to see.

Yet neither the first notion of the culture of learning (finding information) nor the second (practice, play, experience, and creating new knowledge constantly) accounts for the leap from complete failure to easy success. Something clicked for the guild, something that had not been there before—a key positioning or transition between stages of a fight, a well-timed spell casting, or perhaps a new series of moves that tipped the balance and cleared the path to victory. It’s fascinating that no one in the guild could articulate exactly what had happened. In massively multiplayer games this is a frequent occurrence. Oftentimes triumph seems to occur without reason; battles are won that, by all rights, should have been lost. Players find themselves wondering, “How on earth did we do that?” What’s more, once that shift happens, players find that it can happen again, and eventually it even becomes commonplace.

We believe that this provides a critical key to understanding what we mean by a sense of collective indwelling—the feeling and belief that group members share a tacit understanding of one another, their environment, and the practices necessary to complete their task. Collective indwelling evolves out of the fusion of the information network and petri dish cultures of learning, and it is almost entirely tacit. It both resides in and provokes the imagination. It is at once personal and collective. Though individual performance is vitally important—each and every player must execute the jobs flawlessly or the team doesn’t succeed—it is inherently tied to the group itself. There is no way for a single player (or even a small handful of players) to succeed alone. The team relies on everyone to understand that their success as individuals creates something that amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

Shared Imagination

A massively multiplayer game may seem to be a strange representative of an environment in the new culture of learning, but in many ways it is also the most appropriate. Throughout this book, we have constantly returned to the ideas of change and flux. And we have found that gamers embody the spirit of embracing change as much as, if not more than, anyone.

Games have grown up, and playing with them is no longer reserved for children. In fact, the ability to play may be the single most important skill to develop for the twenty-first century. In this context, play involves what we think of as a questing disposition. Questing is an activity that is central to most large-scale online games, and it presumes a number of things. Chief among them is that the world provides multiple resources and avenues for solving problems, and solutions are invented as much as they are implemented. The key to questing is not typical problem solving. It is innovation.

As we have seen, the things that are learned through MMOs are fed back into the collective through a variety of sources and gradually become adopted throughout their standard practices. What begins as experimentation is replicated, tested, and incorporated into the stockpile of information that constitutes the knowledge economy surrounding the game.

This type of innovation is also a fusion of the two elements of learning, a pulling together of resources and experimenting with them to see what fits. Through questing one finds what works and what doesn’t for a particular problem, but either way one also gets a feel for each object or item one encounters. At the explicit level, solutions succeed or fail. But at the tacit level, players gain information about the item at hand regardless of success or failure. That tacit knowledge is a key component of indwelling. Without it, players cannot understand the collective or their place in it. Each one develops a personal relationship with the world that, in turn, becomes shared and modified as he or she interacts with others.

Once players start to interact, they also develop a shared sense of imagination that is the means for, and the object of, collective indwelling. The multiplayer environment is made up of the acts of shared imagination among its inhabitants. And what makes that world particularly interesting and challenging is both constant change and the fact that the actions of the players in the world, as a collective, are driving that change. We look to gamers because they don’t just embrace change, they demand it. Their world is in a state of constant flux, and it must continually be reinvented and reimagined through acts of collective imagination. That’s what makes the game fun. But while players defeat bosses, kill monsters, coordinate raids, find new armor, and read blogs, wikis, and forums, learning happens, too.

What Really Counts

From the perspective of learning, battling monsters and collecting treasure are the least interesting things going on in, and particularly around, games such as World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online. These environments make it easy to see just how fun learning can be. They allow us to highlight the connections between knowing, making, and playing. They are places where we are permitted to let our imaginations run free.

That space of imagination is also scalable unlike anything we have seen previously. The information network culture and the bounded culture of experimentation get better, richer, stronger, and more innovative with each additional player, new idea, set of data, and bit of information. The multiple collectives that make up the space in and around a MMO process an astounding amount of information on a continual basis, seamlessly integrating new knowledge into play and action on a routine basis. Information flows and disseminates almost immediately. And as the game gets larger and more complicated, the new culture of learning works even better.

There are no answers online. There is only a progression of increasingly complicated and more difficult questions. And, more often than not, those questions are the result of players pushing against the boundaries that the game provides. Players quickly discover that when they encounter a problem they don’t know how to solve, the fastest and easiest way to learn the solution is to tap into a collective that is already working on it. Maybe members of the new collective will provide an existing piece of information that makes the problem solvable. Or maybe they will inspire a player to find a new, unique solution to the problem and share it with the collective in turn.

The lessons we take from these games show us that the future of learning is not in lectures, memorization, and test taking, but in peer-based learning that challenges the imagination and makes questions (and questing) more important than answers. In many ways our games have always revealed deeper truths about who we are and how we interact, so it is not surprising that we see a new culture of learning unfolding through play.

We believe that where imaginations play, learning happens. Games like A Tale in Desert—a crafting and ‘tradeskills’ MMO set at the dawn of Civilization—demonstrate one more way that peer to peer learning, amplified by the collective, may hold the key to the future of learning in the digital age.


Why You Must Remind Students Of Their Purpose

Why You Must Remind Students Of Their Purpose

by Michael Linsin

If not reminded, and reminded often, your students will naturally slip into believing that school is just something they’re supposed to do.

They never consider that school doesn’t need them, individually anyway, but that they need school.

So many students approach their education as if it were the other way around, as if their school is lucky they showed up on time.

This attitude can cause students to take their education for granted, to see it as a grind, as something they’re forced to do rather than what it is:

An opportunity of a lifetime.

Doing anything begrudgingly, anything with the specter of having to do it hanging over your head, can be a dangerous thing. Because it saps vital energy, creativity, and motivation. It makes students feel as if school is being done to them, rather than for them.

So they walk into your classroom like they’re heading for the salt mines—reluctant, sleepy-eyed, resigned to their fate.

When students lose track of its wonderful benefits, they begin seeing school as a negative, as something to endure, and if all possible, avoid.

So they goof off when they get a chance. They shutter their mind to learning. They attend to their daydreams, distractions, and the enticing call of misbehavior.

Your words, then, carry little significance, urgency, or interest to them. The colors of the classroom turn muted. They melt into their seats. The idea of personal responsibility is no more than a vague concept.

Worst of all, they develop a growing sense of entitlement.

Of course, if you’re a regular reader of this website, then you know that when students like you and trust you and enjoy being a member of your classroom, everything becomes easier—from motivation to listening to rapport-building to managing behavior.

But along with this powerful force is the importance of ensuring that your students never lose track of why they come to school.

It is the ‘why’ of school, after all, that cracks ajar the gates of learning. It is the ‘why’ that provides the initial spark of motivation that unlocks hearts and minds, giving you the opening you need to grab your students by the lapels and pull them in.

It is the ‘why’ that enables students to feel the first ounce of responsibility upon their shoulders. It is the ‘why’ that points out the truth to the expression, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” It is the ‘why’ that makes them realize that they need school.

So how do you do it? How do you get the message across?

You tell them. You tell them every day why they’re there, why what they’re doing is important, and why what you have to offer them is a most precious gift.

Good morning room three! Welcome to another beautiful day of learning. It’s my job to give you the best education you can get anywhere, and I plan on doing just that today. But it’s your job to think, read, listen, participate, and give the very best of yourself and your proud family name, so you can take advantage of the many opportunities that good education provides . . .”

Coming from someone your students like and admire, and delivered with passion, this simple message—which will vary in depth depending on grade level—can be powerful and deeply impressionable.

It puts their day-to-day, to-and-from school existence into perspective, infusing it with purpose and direction and underscoring the worthiness of learning’s pursuit.

It causes students to see beyond their current place in the world, no matter how challenging or difficult, and into a high-def technicolor vision of their future.

It alters their view, wakes them of their unrealistic fantasies, and places upon their heart a true path to their hopes and aspirations.

It sets ablaze the desire to not just accept the gift of their education . . .

But to reach out and take it.

The Global Search for Education: Head, Heart, Soul, and Frankenstein

The Global Search for Education:
Head, Heart, Soul, and Frankenstein

by C. M. Rubin

“How do we pick up the pieces and build a new
text that creates and adds meaning to Shelley’s novel?” — Erick Gordon

To explore and remix Shelley’s Frankenstein in a multi-media context is currently the creative challenge for 13 teachers from around the world and 13 New York City high school students at Teachers College, Columbia University. The Common Core Curriculum Standards have curtailed the study of fiction in favor of STEM disciplines. The multi-media remix of Frankenstein places the spotlight on fiction and the humanities as critical components of a 21st century education and asks: How else can we creatively engage with literature in the learning environment? The project will culminate with a presentation at The Center for the Professional Education of Teachers on July 17. And it’s just the beginning. After this workshop ends, the visiting teachers will design original curricula to take back to their classrooms around the world. This in turn will lead to an international conference next April at Teachers College to build on the Frankenstein experiment and expand new ideas to other practicing communities.

Collaboration, critical thinking, taking risks, problem solving, creativity, and learning from each other are 21st century skills we talk about frequently in The Global Search for Education. Education thought leaders around the world speak to the need for more innovative projects like the workshop being done this week at Teacher’s College. To find out more, I reached out to the visiting teachers, students and leaders involved with the Frankenstein initiative.

It is my pleasure to welcome educators Liew Pei Li, Merida Lang and Margaret Leisenheimer, students Kate Bralower and Matisse Neal, and Erick Gordon, Senior Research Fellow in Education Innovation at the Center for the Professional Education of Teachers at Teachers College, Columbia University.


“I am reminded of the invaluable role that creative play should occupy within the classroom. It is allowing all of us to analyze and empathize with the characters in a profound way.” — Merida Lang

Erick, what are your goals for your global workshop?

To call it a “global workshop” is not exactly accurate. It’s more an institute with a global presence. It was very reaffirming for us to receive applications from around the world; it spoke to teachers’ great desire to blend the creative with the academic, knowing that opportunities for creative problem solving in the curriculum can inspire a student’s most committed work in all classrooms, regardless of geographic location. We believe that the most innovative and disruptive thinking occurs when we step outside of our silos and draw from the world around us. In this two-week structure, we are pushing our team to rapidly prototype over and over, to see risk and even failure as a generative component of the learning process. By next week, we will have dozens of creative assets that have come out of our work together. Then the question becomes, collectively, “How do we pick up the pieces and build a new text that creates and adds meaning to Shelley’s novel?”


“I’ve had a complete re-visioning of creative thinking.” — Pei Li Lieu

Wow, re-imagining Frankenstein. What do you think is most valuable for those participating in a unique workshop such as this one?

Merida Lang: The opportunity to shift the way we develop a relationship with a text. This program affords us the opportunity to interpret the text through a myriad of ways: dance, sound, writing, visuals, improvisation, incorporating technology. The process allows the players to embody a character. The responsibility of that task forces us to go back into the text and get to know the character more. Ownership of the text isn’t limited to those who “understand the book the best.” Instead, it’s being collectively constructed utilizing everyone’s talents; there isn’t a hierarchical system in the group.

Matisse Neal: I think one of the most interesting ways that we are expressing ourselves and the themes within the novel is through movement. We may use sharp quick movements to present the creature and its representation in society. His rejection can be portrayed through movement while someone overlooks the “dance,” possibly narrating lines from either the novel or from a player’s interpretation of his character to heighten the audience’s understanding of that character’s role in society or life.

Margaret Leisenheimer: I started to work on a monologue that combines speech from the character of Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest with a few words that Frankenstein’s Creature used to describe his disgust with his creator. Just as Caliban hated his master but longed for power, Frankenstein’s Creature longs for love from a man that he hates. Another piece that I am working on with a player in our program is about the life of Justine who is not a main character in the novel. We are trying to find the best way to portray her life in a tableau and create an audio piece that can accompany it.

Pei Li Liew: By moving like the character, we’ve been better able to put ourselves in his/her shoes literally and figuratively. Literature is after all an engagement of the head, heart and soul.

Kate Bralower: If one person has an undeveloped idea, someone can then go and develop it further. We are remixing Frankenstein in every way we possibly can.


“It’s teaching me that the school system is very flawed. In this kind of a space we are all educating each other. We all respect each other. We feel much freer to share with each other.” — Kate Bralower

What have you all gained so far from this experience?

Liew Pei Li: Coming from Singapore, creative thinking is usually thought about as something that is almost EXTRA-curricular; ultimately that’s not where the real learning takes place. Critical thinking is associated with rigour and subject mastery. I’ve had a complete re-visioning of creative thinking.

Merida Lang: I am just floored by the effect of equalizing the playing field and stripping everyone of their teacher/student relationship. I am reminded of the importance of being vulnerable along with my students. The fact that everyone is participating in the same activities increases trust and makes everyone more likely to take risks. I am reminded of the invaluable role that creative play should occupy within the classroom. It is allowing all of us to analyze and empathize with the characters in a profound way. We are building a relationship with this book and that’s what I want my students to do. I don’t want them to just read books and be able to spit back analysis.

Matisse Neal: Collaboration is a valuable asset for both the students and teachers. The staff is doing everyone a huge favor by giving us the tools we need for later in life. Another big learning process for me is that vulnerability is not only okay, but also it can be a wonderful trait for a person to carry with them.

Margaret Leisenheimer: Remain open to every interpretation of the text. As opposed to shutting someone down, we can morph our interpretations to support another person’s interpretation. This process leads to an end product of everyone’s ideas.

Kate Bralower: It’s not a “mine” type of place, it’s an “our” type of place. The normal “student-teacher” relationship is broken. It’s teaching me about how you can take very minor characters and develop them further. It’s teaching me about looking at things from multiple perspectives. It’s teaching me that the school system is very flawed. In this kind of a space, we are all educating each other. We all respect each other. We feel much freer to share with each other.