Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Death and Life of the Great American School System

cross-posted from Daily Kos

My support for NCLB remained strong until November 30, 2006. I can pinpoint the date exactly because that was the day I realized that NCLB was a failure.

This is a book review. Those words appear on p.99, which however odd a starting point is critical. I learned about this event contemporaneously from the late Gerald Bracey, who informed some of us by email and many more in this Huffington Post blog. At a conference at the American Enterprise Institute called to answer the question of whether No Child Left Behind was working, we learn from Bracey
Charged with summarizing the day, former assistant secretary of education for Bush I, Diane Ravitch, declared that the answer to the conference title's question was clearly, "No!"

That began an intellectual transformation that leads to the outstanding new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. I will explore the book, the author and the implications of her transformation.

First, let me dispense with any necessary disclosures. My professional association with Diane Ravitch goes back almost a decade to when as a graduate student studying Federal educational policy I was fortunate enough to have an extended phone conversation picking her brain. Our contact has become more frequent especially in the past year, in part as a result of her transformation, a process she thoroughly explores in her first chapter, "What I Learned About School Reform." As a result of at least one of those exchanges, I am included in the acknowledgments as one who assisted Ravitch in obtaining information. I was aware of the general thrust of the book, but until I received a copy to review had no knowledge of the specific contents.

Diane Ravitch has been a major figure on educational policy for several decades. She is by training an educational historian, having done her dissertation at Columbia, beginning her association with Lawrence Cremin, perhaps the preeminent historian of education. Ravitch had first begun writing about schools in the late 1960s, during a period of turmoil in NYC public schools over the struggle between centralization and decentralization. Ravitch went back and examined the history of New York's schools to find out why they had become centralized, not only discovering relevant material but becoming thereby the most knowledgeable person about the history of NYC schools. In the process she demonstrated something that has been a characteristic of all of her scholarly work - she thoroughly examines all relevant material so that her conclusions are strongly supported by fact.

Ravitch was critical of some of the radical reformers of the period of the 1970s, some of whom were very harsh on public education. This began the process of turning her into something of a target for those on the educational and political left. Ravitch will now acknowledge that some of the viewpoints she espoused over the next few decades are things she no longer believes. She had supported some ideas because of what she saw as their promise, but as she notes in that first chapter (which is a product in part of the happenstance of cleaning out her office and thus having the opportunity to examine the work of several decades)
my views changed as I saw how those ideas were working out in reality.
She offers a possibly apocryphal remark by Keynes explaining that when the facts changed, he changed his mind.

I think in fairness to Ravitch it is important to note several things. First, she has never been a Republican, even when she served in the Bush 41 administration under Lamar Alexander at Education. She was a Democrat and is now an independent. Second, she has an absolutely consistent and strong position with respect to public schools - she wants to see them not only maintained, but thriving. Third, having grown up in Houston and seen how some of her teachers were bullied by right-wing organizations, she is a firm supporter of the due process rights unions provide teachers. Let me offer several quotes from the chapter with a title derived from a teacher influential in her own life, who would perhaps not be highly valued by some so-called "reformers" of our day, "What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?" First,
No one, to my knowledge, has demonstrated a clear, indisputable correlation between teacher unionism and academic achievement, either negative or positive.
And if we consider the kinds of international comparisons used by "reformers" to denigrate American public schools, these words will be quite relevant:
Some of the top-performing nations in he world are highly unionized, others are not. Finland, whose students score highest on international assessments of reading, has a teacher workforce that is nearly 100 percent unionized. Most high-performing Asian nations do not have large proportions of unionized teachers (though some do). Unionization per se does not cause high student achievement, nor does it cause low achievement.

I will not fully recapitulate her entire career. You can get a sense either from the Wikipedia article or from the CV she has at her website. She worked in a Republican administration. She had an association with the Hoover Institute. She has maintained friendly relations with people who many in the more progressive educational circles in which I participate despise, whether it is educational economist Eric Hanushek or her former fellow Assistant Secretary Checker Finn. Yet rather than presume that such associations are the complete indication of her orientation, she now jointly blogs with Deborah Meier, and among those she acknowledges helping her with the book by reading are Linda Darling-Hammond, education journalist Linda Perlstein, former NY Times educational writer Richard Rothstein, and Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters (a strong opponent of things like mayoral control) - none of these would be considered favorites of those on either the political or educational right.

And yet it is precisely because of her associations with those more 'conservative" on educational matters that this book by Diane Ravitch carries the impact that it does. It may infuriate some of her former colleagues, because she is thorough, she is blunt. Were I to offer a parallel, perhaps it would be the conversion of David Brock from a henchman for the political right to one of its more visible opponents. Except Brock was never considered a major player, and in educational circles Ravitch has been a major figure for several decades.

Let me focus on the book. Let me start by saying that I cannot hope to cover all of its value even in a piece several times as long as this will be. I want to give a sense of the book - its structure, some of the key issues covered therein. That also means I want to give a sense of Ravitch. I hope thereby to persuade you that is a book of critical importance. Here I note that while the publisher had apparently requested reviews not appear until March 1, the day before the book is publicly available for sale, there are already a number of reviews, for example this, this, and this - you can see how others are approaching the book. I am sure there will be many more reviews as well.

Let me list the chapters, then offer some explanation.

1. What I Learned About School Reform
2. Hijacked! How the Standards Movement Turned Into the Testing Movement
3. The Transformation of District 2
4. Lessons from San Diego
5. The Business Model in New York City
6. NCLB: Measure and Punish
7. Choice: The Story of an Idea
8. The Trouble with Accountability
9. What Would Mrs. Ratliff Do?
10. The Billionaire Boys Club
11. Lessons Learned

Chapter 3 is a detailed study of the reform efforts in one New York City regional school district. As it happens, the person responsible for those efforts, Anthony Alvarado, then went to San Diego, which leads logically into Chapter 4. New York City is the current model of mayoral control, and re-imported some of what had happened in San Diego - despite the fact that, as Ravitch clearly demonstrates, those "reforms" in San Diego provided no better performance than most of the rest of the state.

Of course, the reform in New York is led by a billionaire, Michael Bloomberg. That provides at least some connections with Chapter 10, where Ravitch thoroughly examines the efforts of several other billionaires, individuals and families, who have been using their wealth through their foundations to shape American education in ways that have been excluding the voices of the people whose schools are being reshaped and the teachers who work in such schools. That chapter is worthy of an entirely separate posting to see up close the influence of Eli Broad, Bill and Melinda Gates, and the Walton family. Some of those names appear elsewhere in the book, especially in San Diego, and in discussing the issue of choice.

Let me offer some selections of the author's words on a couple of topics. For example, after looking at San Diego and mayoral control in New York, (both districts in which control was given to former prosecutors with no prior educational experience, Alan Bersin in San Diego and Joel Klein in New York), examining the data from what studies are available, etc., Ravitch on p. 91 offers the following conclusion:
Mayoral control is not a guaranteed pat to school improvement. On the 2007 NAEP, the cities with the highest scores were Charlotte, North Carolina, and Austin Texas, neither of which had mayoral control. And two of the three lowest performing cities - Chicago and Cleveland - had mayoral control for more than a decade. Clearly many factors affect educational performance other than the governance structure.
These words carry a powerful punch. Might I remind readers that the current administration unfortunately seems to favor mayoral control. Secretary Education Arne Duncan was CEO of Chicago public schools from 2001 until he joined the Obama administration, thus the NAEP evaluation that showed Chicago public schools in such a poor light happened on his watch.

Ravitch offers a further criticism of mayoral control on the same page. She writes of such control
It solves no problems to exclude parents and the public from important decisions about education policy or to disregard the educators who work with students daily. Public education is a vital institution in our democratic society, and its governance must be democratic, open to public discussion and public participation.
Here you see something that has been an essential part of Ravitch's approach to education throughout her career, one too often not noticed by those who criticized her positions on some issues or her associations. It is a constant theme in the book, to which she returns again and again. Thus we read in her final chapter
Schools do not exist in isolation. They are part of the larger society. Schooling requires the active participation of many, including students, families, public officials, local organizations, and the larger community.
This is why Ravitch finds it necessary to remind us that we cannot hold teachers accountable for test scores in isolation from the responsibilities of others, including the students themselves. It is why she raises real questions about any approach that excludes participation in shaping educational policy and governing schools by parents and the community. In the penultimate paragraph of her book she writes
Our public education system is a fundamental element of our democratic society. Our public schools have been the pathway to opportunity and a better life for generations of Americans, giving hem the tools to fashion their own life and to improve the commonweal. To the extend we strengthen them, we strengthen our democracy
Policies that undercut public schools, and thus weaken our democracy, are things that Ravitch opposes, and against which she now forcefully advocates.

Thus we can understand her changing position on school choice. She reminds us that charters as originally proposed were not institutions to be run by for profit entities. Ray Budde and Albert Shanker both offered proposals in 1988, the former wanting schools run within districts by groups of teachers with specific goals to be evaluated at the end of three to five years, the latter also run by teachers within regular schools in order "to pursue innovative ways of educating disaffected students." Ravitch reminds us that by 1993 Shanker had withdrawn his support of charters and become a vocal critic.

We now know that when we control for all factors there is no evidence that charters as a whole perform better than public schools. We have seen charter schools and some for choice public schools find ways of excluding the harder to educate. Close examination shows, as Ravitch reminds us, that some charters are able to obtain success
because the charters often get additional financial resources from their corporate sponsors, enabling them to offer smaller classes, after-school and enrichment activities, and laptop computers for every student. Many charter schools enforce discipline codes that would likely be challenged in court if they were adopted in regular public schools; and because charter schools are schools of choice, they find it easier to avoid, eliminate, or counsel out low-performing and disruptive students.
A recent study out of Stanford analyzed data from 2,403 charters. Ravitch quotes the principal author, economist Margaret Raymond, as saying "If this study shows anything, it show that we've got a two-tone margin of bad charters to good charters." That would seem to demonstrate a lack of data to justify large-scale expansion of charters, and yet Secretary Duncan and President Obama are insisting on just such an expansion as a requirement in Race to the Top funding. One who reads the book carefully will discover this is no anomaly. Ravitch makes clear what people should have known - there is NO research base supporting any of the provisions so-called "reformers" advocate - not for charters, not for merit pay for teachers, not for using test scores as the sole measure of the performance of teachers and schools, not for approaches such as those advocated by Teach for America for teachers nor New Leaders for New Schools for principals . . . That Ravitch makes shows this clearly will not endear her to former colleagues at places like Hoover Institute, American Enterprise Institute and Fordham Foundation (on whose board she used to serve).

Ravitch also warns that the ability of charters to exclude the harder to educate will create "a two-tier system of widening inequality." Some charters will continue to show success, and because the more motivated families will opt out, we will have a spiral where the scores of those left behind in the public schools will continue to decline. As Ravitch notes,
This would be a ominous development for public schools and for our nation.

As noted, some "success" of charter schools is a direct result of the intervention of corporate interests and foundations of wealthy people. These are issues that repeatedly come up, throughout the book. Thus in San Diego, when one school board member was opposed to what Alan Bersin was attempting to do, Frances Zimmerman found herself a target. At a time when the typical school board race cost $40,000,
leading business figures in the city contributed over $700,000 to defeat Zimmerman. Walmart heir John Walton of Arkansas, a supporter of charter schools and vouchers, and Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad each contributed more than $100,000 to the anti-Zimmerman campaign.
In this case Zimmerman survived, although she remained in the minority on a pro-Bersin board.

This kind of intervention by the wealthy should be of great concern, and Ravitch fully takes it on. In Chapter 10 she traces the history of the involvement of charitable foundations in public education, and provides close scrutiny of the major players today. This chapter alone would justify buying and reading the book. You will see in the detail the roles of the major players, including but not limited to the owners of Walmart, Bill Gates, and Eli Broad. You will see not only direct contributions but also further contributions through other foundations. Let me offer four selections, two from the portion on the Walton family, and two more general.

As one review the contributions made by the Walton family Foundation, it is obvious that the family members seek to create, sustain, and promote alternatives to public education. Their agenda is choice, competition and privatization.

But why should it be surprising that a foundation owned by one of the richest families in the United States opposes government regulation and favors private sector solutions to social problems? Why should it be surprising that a global corporation that has thrived without a unionized workforce would oppose public sector unions? Nor should it be surprising that the Walton Family Foundation has an ideological commitment to the principle of consumer choice and to an unfettered market, which by its nature has no loyalties and disregards Main Street, traditional values, long-established communities, and neighborhood schools.

After similar deconstructions of the role of the foundations of Gates and Broad, Ravitch provides a couple of succinct summaries. First,
The market is not the best way to deliver public services. Just as every neighborhood should have a good public school. Privatizing our public schools makes as much sense as privatizing the fire department or the police department. It is possible, but it is not wise. Our society needs a sensible balance between public and private.
After noting the power and money now arrayed against public schools and education as a profession, and reminding us of the devastation wrought by financial deregulation, Ravitch cautions us
Removing public oversight will leave the education of our children to the whim of entrepreneurs and financiers. Nor is it wise to entrust our schools to inexperienced teachers, principals, and superintendents. Education is too important to relinquish to the vagaries of the market and the good intentions of amateurs.

There is so much more of value in this book. In her final chapter Ravitch is very blunt, warning that what we are doing in educational policy "will very likely make the schools less effective and may further degrade the intellectual capacity of our citizenry." She does offer some specific suggestions which are worth considering, although I think the real power of the book comes from how she takes apart so much of what recent educational policy has been doing.

There is in the final chapter a series of statements, each of which begins the same way: Our schools. If you take nothing else from this review, the list that follows should convince you of the value of the book.

Our schools

... will not improve if we continually reorganize their structure and management without regard for their essential purpose

... will not improve if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory and make decisions that properly should be made by professional educators

... will not improve if we value only what tests measure

... will not improve if we rely exclusively on tests as the means of deciding the fate of students, teachers, principals, and schools

... will not improve if we continue to close neighborhood schools in the name of reform

... will not improve if we entrust them to the magical powers of the market

... cannot improve if charter schools siphon away the most motivated students and their families in the poorest communities from the regular public schools

... will not improve if we expect them to act like private, profit-seeking enterprises

... will not improve if we continue to drive away experienced principals and replace them with neophytes who have taken a leadership training course but have little or no experience as teachers

... cannot be improved by blind worship of data

... cannot be improved by those who say money doesn't matter

... cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children's ability to learn

... cannot be improved if we use them as society's all-purpose punching bag, blaming them for all the ills of the economy, the burdens imposed upon children by poverty, the dysfunction of families, and the erosion of civility. Schools must work with other institutions and cannot replace them.

Given the prominence of Diane Ravitch, this book cannot be ignored. Because of her previous positions and associations, her clarion rejection of the entire "reform" agenda that is unfortunately continuing in the present administration will hopefully cause some in positions of responsibility to take several deep breaths, step back, and perhaps reconsider what they are doing.

She is likely to be attacked by those who will consider themselves former allies now being betrayed. About that I can do nothing. That they will be upset is to me a positive thing, for what they have advocated is damaging to our schools and our nation.

I hope in this review I have convinced you of the importance and the power of this book. It is yet another book about which I can say that anyone concerned about public schools should read - or in this case, devour. It is that good, that rich, that important.

Ravitch ends her book as follows:
At the present time, public education is in peril. Efforts to reform public education are, ironically, diminishing its quality and endangering its very survival. We must turn attention to improving schools, infusing them with the substance of genuine learning and reviving the conditions that make learning possible

Perhaps you think I should conclude with those words. I cannot. Even as I value them, I must remind you that I have barely scratched the surface of the riches of the book.

Rather, I want to turn back to how Ravitch concludes her introductory chapter, in which she explains her intent of the book. She acknowledges that she does not have all the answers, she offers no silver bullet or magic feather. She does claim that
we must preserve American public education, because it is so intimately connected to our concepts of citizenship and democracy and to the promise of American life. In view of the money and power now arrayed on behalf of the ideas and programs that I will criticize, I hope it is not too late.

So do I!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

How Should School Principals Be Selected in Chicago?

[Cross-posed from social issues]

In the Chicago Public Schools, since 1988, school principals have been hired (for five year contracts) and fired by the Local School Council (LSC), an elected body of parents, community members, and teachers that also approves each year's school budget (within some limits imposed by the central office). 

A new bill in the Illinois legislature, sponsored by Chicago democrat (and minister) James Meeks, would shift the principal-selection power away from the LSC, returning it to the central office (and thus, the ultimate control of the mayor). Some progressive groups are complaining that this is an affront to the ideals of democracy.
"Why would he want to get rid of the last segment of democracy that exists in our schools, where people who are most directly affected can have a voice in how their schools are run?'' asked Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. (from the Sun-Times article; see also this Tribune article)
I have mixed feelings about this one. Besides being democratically elected, do LSCs offer any special insights that give them a better perspective from which to appoint principals? We don't elect the civil engineers who oversee the building of  bridges and other critical public infrastructure democratically.  Rather, we expect the selection of civil engineers to be determined in accordance with professional standards of expertise. Certainly at some level this selection process is shaped by the democratic process, because the ultimate executive powers overseeing their selection are subjected to democratic elections. But we expect the selection process itself to be shielded from political considerations such as popularity, ability to raise funds, or the appeal of an Irish last name.

Nor do we elect our military leaders. As the Athenians had learned during the Peloponnesian War, military generals need to be able to make military decisions without regard to their personal popularity or appeal to populous impulses.  (Of course, the Commander-in-Chief is elected in the US, which of course sometimes results in military decisions that seem designed to shore up popular support for the regime.) Other professions in which popular election seems unwise (and is rarely seen) include  university professors, corporate CEOs, and scientists.

The most common way to select school principals in the US is appointment by a superintendent, who is in turn appointed by an elected school board. Yes, we do, in the US, largely follow the practice of electing school boards. This practice with long historical roots in the way that schools were first established in the US, village by village, and the gradual move toward financing those schools increasingly out of local property taxes (thus justifying the notion that their functioning should be subject to periodic public approval).

The key question, I think, that should be asked about how various professionals should be selected (appointed or elected) is the relative balance that the job requires between sensitivity to public desires (elect them) and professonal expertise (appoint them).   Amy Gutmann does a nice job of discussing this balance in a section entitled "Democratic Professionalism" in her widely respected book, Democratic Education. She writes that democratic local control of schools has the positive effect of permitting "educational content to vary, as it should, with local circumstances and local democratic preferences," and also ensures local public support of school policies. In addition, local elections of school boards provides a place for individual citizens and local groups to gain experience with active participation in governance (p. 74). The downsides of local control (most importantly, the possibility of tyrannical or corrupt policies) are minimized by both the public's access to school board decisions (if nothing else, people hear about it from their children) and by the on-the-ground presence of teachers, who have their own professional expertise and can, through their unions especially, raise a stink about what they see as bad policies.  This balance, Guttmann believes, helps to ensure that schools foster in students not just compliance to majority-supported behavioral and ideological standards, but also (we can only hope!) critical awareness.

In the early decades of the 20th century, the progressive movement worked to replace multiple school boards elected within each neighborhood (and often influenced heavily by local political heavyweights) with more centralized elected boards, especially in larger cities. The power of the elected boards was also moderated by requiring boards to appoint an experienced professional educator as superintendent. (In some states such as Alabama, school boards can only act with the recommendation of the superintendent.) This centralizing reform carried over to rural districts with the policy of district consolidation that prevailed in the 1950s and 60s, and the power of school boards has also been limited by the gradual assumption of power over local education by the federal government (and by the states as well) in the decades since. In a sense, then, Chicago's return in 1988 to the election of local school councils with control over each schools' budget and the hiring and firing of principals is a return to earlier conditions. The justification for that return to an earlier tradition was two-fold. First, Chicago's schools were so terrible (called "worst in the nation" by then US Secretary of Education, William Bennett), that decentralizing control of the schools couldn't make them any worse.  Second, the move reflected the growing power of minority groups in Chicago city politics, many of whom felt ill-served by the decisions of a largely white, largely high SES central school board. The actual effect of the change has been mixed, although most observers suggest that many school improvements can be traced to the wisdom of LSCs that make appropriate decisions in light of the unique circumstances of each school.

In general, the tradition of local control of schools through elected school boards has had mixed effects over the years, and even the idea of that they are democratically elected can be questioned in light of extremely low voter turnout in most school board elections. In some areas, elected school boards include people who are elected on a single issue, such as the goal of restoring creationism to the curriculum. The tradition of elected school boards has also recently come under attack (at least with regard to large urban districts) from some conservative educational critics (e.g. Chubb & Moe, and Checker Finn), as well as US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a supposed progressive who believes that such districts need "leadership from the top." Duncan has cited his seven-year experience as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, where the school board has, since 1992, been appointed by the mayor, rather than elected, as evidence that appointed boards are less likely than elected ones to shuffle school leadership for political purposes. But as Jim Horn has pointed out, Duncan's call for appointed school boards only extends to those large urban districts where schools seem most devoted to creating compliance among poor and minority children (rather than learning), and not to the pretty successful suburban districts where elected school boards retain the general support of most of the voting public.

Truly, the election of Local School Councils represents one of very few examples of neighborhood control of urban public institutions anywhere, and (at least according to some research summarized by Designs for Change, a local progressive advocacy group) the majority of the 600+ LSCs actually work fairly well. (Of course, this conclusion depends upon agreeing that have 10-15% of schools in the city with "LSCs ... enmeshed in sustained conflict, ...inactive, or hav[ing] engaged in unethical behavior" -- that's 60 - 90 schools, by the way -- is okay.

It is those 10-15% of LSCs (more or less) that aren't functioning well that are the primary targets of Meek's proposed legislation.  The schools with these LSCs are generally awful by any measure, and tend to be in neighborhoods with limited local social capital (such as educated parents or strong community institutions).  An LSC "enmeshed in sustained conflict, inactive, or engaged in unethical behavior" simply cannot be trusted to name an effective principal; however, it has proven politically impossible for CPS to take over the selection process in those schools without a change in the law.

Some elected LSCs seem to be doing a decent job of selecting principals.  If we roughly accept the numbers cited by Designs for Change, 50-60$ of schools have "highly functioning" LSCs, and another 25-33% are "performing well."  Those LSCs can legitimately claim to be offering democratic local control of a process that must place a priority on criteria of professionalism and effectiveness. But the other LSCs probably lack the capacity to understand those criteria or to make selection decisions that are free from personal bias, factionalism, or faulty reasoning.  In those cases, most likely democratic control is leading to worse schools than would be the case with more centralized control by educational experts.

I have some experience in one South Side school where the principal has been re-appointed four times, where (it seems to me) the primary reason for this reappointment is the political activities of the principal in maintaining the support of the public in the local community, rather than in his educational policies, which seem (to me, anyway) pretty wrong-headed.  For example, this principal works with funders and food distribution companies to ensure that each family in the community has a turkey for Thanksgiving. It's a nice gesture, but it doesn't seem to have much to do with student learning. It's a pretty blatant effort to secure public support. 

As Winston Churchill said,
"No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
Democracy is a messy thing, and it makes mistakes.(Witness the repeated election of George W. Bush.)  But when democratically-elected LSCs make mistakes in the selection of school principals, it is the children who ultimately suffer, and they don't have a vote.  So it makes sense to me that the people with the ultimate authority for the effectiveness of the schools in Chicago (that is, the mayor and his appointed school board) should, in some cases, overrule the principal-selection decisions of the Local School Councils, not in order to curtail democracy, per se, but in order to do what's best for those poor kids. Democracy is, indeed, under siege in America these days, but we shouldn't use these kids as human shields in its defense.

Friday, February 12, 2010

I'm OK--You Have Self-Esteem

Remember transactional analysis?

I'm OK--You're OK (or not, as the case may be)?

In an excellent post at Public School Insights, Claus von Zastrow recycles the evergreen debate on self-esteem, which is harder to come by these days, when even sterling academic achievement is no guarantee of employment, let alone robust self-confidence. He points to the fact that our culture provides all the wrong incentives--fame, greed, selfishness, braggadocio and other wrong-headed ideas about success.

I was reminded of a research project (conducted by Geoffrey Cohen of University of Colorado-Boulder) which dared to suggest that kids perform better when given the simple assignment of writing for fifteen minutes about their strengths, to re-affirm their competence.

Cohen: If a student starts off the year feeling more stress due to negative stereotypes, and then performs poorly during the first few weeks of school, this can establish a downward cycle of increasing stress and poor performance that is hard to break. The self-affirmation exercise, by reminding students about what is really important to them, could help reduce that stress.

Like TA, Values Clarification and polyester Saturday shirts, self-esteem as a workable premise for improving student learning is seriously out of fashion these days. Mostly, we see articles like "Are We Good-Jobbing Our Kids to Pieces?"--followed by 186 comments from people who are convinced that while they're OK, other people's children have been given way too much empty praise, causing their egos to blow up like fraudulent balloons. Use the word "self-esteem" in any educational context, and you're likely to be hit with a barrage of platitudes about grade inflation, college admissions based on the wrong stuff, and our miserable international test-score standings.

The concept of self-esteem is, as von Zastrow notes, squishy, involving considerable latitude of opinion around ego health and evaluating achievement, when you deconstruct it through an epistemological lens. Policymakers who believe that American kids are wallowing in unsubstantiated self-esteem often paradoxically believe it's a good idea to reward them for grades and test scores (because those are tangible things, presumably, rather than feelings). Coaches who declare that it's good for kids to lose occasionally still schedule extra practices on Sunday mornings to prevent that from happening. We idolize Susan Boyle, the mousy Scottish lady who apparently kept her singing talents hidden for 50 years--but we don't want our children to be silenced by their own personal Simon Cowell when they subject their early work products to scrutiny. That's why refrigerator magnets were invented.

Every first-rate classroom teacher understands the paradox here: you have to have a base of self-esteem to withstand and benefit from honest and productive criticism of your own work. And sometimes, kids come to school with very little sense of their own worth. The research on self-esteem and social learning is pretty consistent: you need to feel OK in order to learn effectively.

There is also plenty of research showing that people running successful drug rings and beating up their spouses have high self-esteem. Teachers don't want to be nurturing the next generation of narcissists.

Self-esteem in isolation can become a psychological defense for anti-community behaviors. One of the most chilling and sordid examples of this was the HS athletes in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, who raped a mildly retarded 8-year old girl with a baseball bat, detailed in Our Guys by Bernard Lefkowitz. Plenty of self-esteem there--plus a healthy dose of entitlement, nurtured by a community obsessed with high school sports.

Most of the people railing against the excess of self-esteem in American schools aren't thinking about our national adulation of sports heroes or entertainers. They're pushing to keep "standards" in place--to hold teachers and students accountable, to increase rigor, to raise the bar--plus a half-dozen other academic clichés. If students feel too good about themselves and their work, the reasoning goes, they will not see a need to try harder to beat our economic competitors. The problem with this get-tough rhetoric is that students won't produce more if they feel bad about themselves, either. It's a balancing act between sincere encouragement and honest critique. And it happens in the classroom, not in Policy World.