345. New Era – New Urgency

Public confidence in the U.S. educational system has been declining while reports of student disengagement have been rising. In this episode, Deborah Pomeroy and F. Joseph Merlino join us to discuss the possibility of repurposing our educational system to better support the needs of our students and our society.

Deborah has over 50 years of education experience and is professor emeritus at Arcadia University. She has co-directed a Dewitt-Wallace grant, Students at the Center, for inner-city schools in Philadelphia and was actively engaged in the Bioko Biodiversity program in Equatorial Guinea. Joe Merlino has spent 39 years in education. He has been a principal or co-principal investigator and/or project director on numerous federal grants. He currently directs a seven-year USAID grant in Egypt where a team of US faculty are co-developing 180 new undergraduate STEM teacher-preparation courses for five large Egyptian universities.

Deborah and Joe are co-founders of The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education where Joe has served as president since its founding in 2007. They are also the co-authors of New Era – New Urgency: The Case for Repurposing Education, which was recently released by Lexington Books.

Show Notes


John: Public confidence in the U.S. educational system has been declining while reports of student disengagement have been rising. In this episode, we discuss the possibility of repurposing our educational system to better support the needs of our students and our society.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are Deborah Pomeroy and F. Joseph Merlino. Deborah has over 50 years of education experience and is professor emeritus at Arcadia University. She has co-directed a Dewitt-Wallace grant, Students at the Center, for inner-city schools in Philadelphia and was actively engaged in the Bioko Biodiversity program in Equatorial Guinea. Joe Merlino has spent 39 years in education. He has been a principal or co-principal investigator and/or project director on numerous federal grants. He currently directs a seven-year USAID grant in Egypt where a team of US faculty are co-developing 180 new undergraduate STEM teacher-preparation courses for five large Egyptian universities.

Deborah and Joe are co-founders of The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education where Joe has served as president since its founding in 2007. They are also the co-authors of New Era – New Urgency: The Case for Repurposing Education, which was recently released by Lexington Books.

Welcome, Deborah and Joe.

Deborah: It’s great to be here. Thank you so much.

Joe: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Deborah, are you drinking tea today?

Deborah: I am. I have a cup of chai right in front of me.

Rebecca: Perfect. How about you, Joe?

Joe: Yes, this is English breakfast tea.

Rebecca: Oh, yum.

John: And I have a black raspberry green tea today.

Rebecca: Nice. We got green tea in the office today. I have a raspberry Jasmine green tea today.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about your new book. Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of New Era – New Urgency: The case for repurposing education?

Deborah: Well, that’s an interesting story. We actually started the book over 14 years ago when we were working on the math-science partnership for Greater Philadelphia. And it was the culmination of work that both Joe and I had been doing, both independently and collaboratively, in education reform. And we were beginning to develop our ideas about education reform. And we’ll go into those in more detail later. But we started the book, and we actually got quite a bit of the book written. And then we were interrupted by a meeting with the Minister of Education from Egypt, who came to Philadelphia with a group of colleagues to study STEM schools in the US. And as a result of that meeting, we ended up working on this USAID project in Egypt, helping the ministry develop a series of model STEM schools. And when we got into the work there, which was basically 24/7, 365 days, and we were joking around that many times, it felt like we were drinking water from a firehose, it was so intensive. And we were never able to go back and finish our book. But as we were doing the work, we sort of looked at each other a number of times, sort of laughing and saying, “This is the last chapter of our book,” because in the last chapter, we hit envisioned what real transformation could be in education, and we were actually doing it and it was so exciting. And so we decided that we needed to recast the first part of the book, and then add this whole latter part of it, because we actually have a case where our ideas have been able to be put into place and have worked just amazingly well. And so the book is actually a total of 14 years in the making.

Rebecca: So I’m really curious about the word choice of repurposing because you could have probably picked many, many titles. Can you talk a little bit about why repurposing is your word choice in the title?

Joe: We felt, through our reform efforts that were difficult to implement, that the single most durable element that prevented reform from happening was the inability of teachers and students to articulate why they were teaching what they were teaching, as opposed to all the other possibilities of what you could teach per subject. So why are you teaching algebra? Why not statistics or probability? Why are you teaching it the way you’re teaching? So the idea of purpose, which is answering the why, was what we found to be lacking. That’s why we felt purpose was the central idea of the book.

Rebecca: I knew there was a key reason.

Deborah: When we started work in Egypt, the first questions that we asked them were: What are your aspirations for the future? And for the outcome of these schools? In other words, what do you dream these graduates could do and become, and when they were able to start to articulate that, and we’ll go into that in more detail later, then we built the entire curriculum and assessment system around that purpose. And so we found that that, in fact, was the linchpin for this transformative reform.

Joe: After our meeting in August of 2011. This is like a year after the Arab Spring in Egypt, that’s when the Egyptian delegation came to Philadelphia. Four months later, we found ourselves in Cairo, I did, and two other colleagues of mine. And so we’re sitting in the first school, which is outside of Giza, and it’s in the middle of nowhere. I mean, it’s 30 miles, it’s just dirt and dust in this building. And we’re sitting in the principal’s office, and looking around wondering what’s happening and in bursts the first deputy minister of education in Egypt, and he says, “Welcome to the dream.” [LAUGHTER] And we’re looking around, and we’re saying “there’s nothing here.” So we had the opportunity to rethink things, and for them to rethink things. And I’ll just say one other thing real quick, is that the purposes of education derives from your aspirations for your country or for your community, and that defines what your purpose is. And that’s what we did in Egypt.

John: And you begin the book by talking about how the purpose of education has evolved over time with a little bit of lag, because educational systems tend to adjust slowly. Could you describe how educational systems have responded to changing societal needs?

Joe: Okay, I’ll try to do this in 60 seconds, if I can, the 400 years. [LAUGHTER] For me, it was a tremendous learning experience. We have, in our time, the ability to have the internet, to have digitized libraries, and search engines. So you can go back and actually look at primary sources. So it became a real learning experience for me as I went through it. But we started with the idea that we’ve been in this business for a while now, from the early 80s to now, and we could see the development of the Nation at Risk archetype that has defined our era here. And we wondered about, are there other archetypes? Have there been other paradigms? Have there been other purposes of education other than, right now, preparing kids for the global economy, which was the idea of the Nation at Risk? So we started by looking at the earliest instances of purposes, and we found it was the religious schools in New England, the Calvinist idea of preparing kids to be a part of a religious community, salvation was the key. And then we looked at, “Well, why did that happen? Why was it salvation?” So we looked at the English history and why people came to the United States was to form a new Israel. That was the vision of the Puritans. And then we looked at how this may have changed over a single lifetime. We talk about in our lifetime, how much change there has been if you think about yourselves and your grandparents. So we looked at history through the lens of five lifetimes, laid end to end. We said, “Well, what happened during these lifetimes?” And you see a tremendous amount of change that happened, that’s what we described in each lifetime, but along with those changes have been associated changes in the purposes of education. So I’ll just give you a quick example. So from this idea of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, from this idea of a religious community, came the idea that as more immigrants came in, there was different religious sects. And there was conflict between these sects, so much so that when William Penn came to Philadelphia in 1682, he brought the Quaker ethos, the idea of the Quaker schools which was based on religious tolerance, and peace. And so it became another purpose of education. And he founded the first Quaker school here in Philadelphia. So that’s an example. Another example is the industrial revolution. There couldn’t be industrial education if there wasn’t an industrial revolution. So that’s what we did.

Rebecca: It’s really done a good job of setting the stage of how change has occurred over time. Can you talk a little bit about how the current system aligns or does not align with our current societal needs?

Deborah: Right now, the paradigm that is pretty much driving education in the US is college and career success. And many schools that I’ve worked in, for instance, have that plus perhaps lifelong learning as part of their school mission and vision. But how does that define the curriculum as such, and there’s really a mismatch, and what would a curriculum look like if we’re really focused on lifelong learning? And while the college and career success is driven so much by standards and by test scores that really are quite empty when it comes to looking at what we need as a society going forward. And going forward, we need people who can collaborate together, we need people who are very well versed in assessing the truthfulness of information and resources, we need people who can listen, we need people who are critical thinkers in terms of being able to deconstruct problems and analyze them and look at their resources and so forth. We need people who know how to recover from a failure and actually see failure as a source of learning and from which positive things can come. Those qualities are not served by high test scores in math and reading and by a curriculum which is so focused on teaching a course to prepare students for the next course. Where does life come in? …students who understand citizenship, who understand the civics of our country, and the government, and our system of checks and balances within our nation and what it really means to be a responsible voter. And on top of that, our students are in a culture in which they are dealing with the effects of pandemics, they’re in a media culture, they’re in a culture of diversity, because our kids below the age of 18 are more brown than white, that demographic is increasing in the country and we’re going to become more and more diverse. We’re dealing already with major effects of climate change. On a more personal level, the kids are dealing with bullying and Infowars, drugs, gun violence, immigration, you name it, and where on earth does the current curriculum prepare students to deal with the culture that they are facing in their own lives and what we need as a country going forward?

John: And I think everything you’ve said are things that everyone would agree need to be addressed. And there have been lots of attempts to bring these things into the school system in terms of an emphasis on lifelong learning, critical thinking, an ability to interpret information, and yet we still see the same basic curriculum being used. Why have previous efforts at reform failed?

Joe: That was the basis of the book. That’s why we wrote the book, because we’ve been doing reform efforts for decades. But we’ve been operating within this bubble of this Nation at Risk archetype, and it’s not relevant to where students are and where our country is. So the curriculum has been set, and then there’s justifications for it, rather than starting at a blank slate and saying: What’s our aspirations? What do you want to do? and then working backwards and deconstructing the subjects to fit that purpose? Like, I’m a math teacher, or I used to be a math teacher. I’m a recovering math teacher, [LAUGHTER] but I also was a philosopher and a cognitive developmental psychology, etc. There are so many different subjects and areas of interest that could be taught, not just in math, but in everything. So why this? Why this curriculum? So when we redesigned the STEM teacher preparation program in Egypt, we had to design an entirely new program. So I went to Cal Poly who was one of our partners, and we had a design session with them. And so it was a group of people at Cal Poly. And I said to them, “we’re going to design a new teacher preparation program.” And I said, “Imagine a teacher preparation program with no courses. What would it look like?” And they were stunned at the question, but eventually, they came around and after three hours, they started to think about it. And they actually did come up with courses, but it was a whole different program than they would have done otherwise. And so I would challenge people to say, what if in high school, there was no college as there was in the first half of the 20th century, it was mostly just high school, there was no college. So what would high school look like? Why would it be there? So the impediment to reform when you get right down to it is the lack of a coordinated coherent philosophy of a school that can inform the curriculum choices that are made. And that this curriculum, that biology talks to chemistry and math talks to each, the humanities are included as a central idea of a school because one of the big problems of people is getting along with each other. So you need history, you need literature, you need to understand human behavior and what triggers you. This is absent, you’re not going to get that from precalculus. And I’m not saying that precalculus isn’t important. But Latin teachers would argue that Latin is important for different reasons. So this is why it comes down to what’s your vision for the kind of life you want to live and the kind of world you want to live in? And then let’s package that in a way that relates and is integral to a child’s life.

Deborah: So, in schools today, many teachers do try to include projects and problem solving with their kids. And we know that that’s very much a part of the pedagogy in many schools today. But the problem solving and the projects are, may be related to the subject matter, and may be of interest to the kids, and maybe not. But the way we did it in Egypt is the schools were designed around the premise that the graduates would be prepared to address the grand challenges of Egypt. And we have grand challenges like climate change, alternative energy, population growth, urban congestion, disease prevention, and so forth and so on. And so all of the courses are designed to provide students with the concepts and skills necessary to address these grand challenges. And so the projects that the students do are projects that are directly related to these grand challenges. And these challenges are things that the kids see every single day when they look out the windows or on their way to school. There are problems that are so pervasive that everyone in Egypt [LAUGHTER] looks around and says “Can’t we solve these problems.” And so what we’re doing is we told the kids, this is what we’re preparing you to do. And so when the kids undertake a project, or work on problems, they’re real, and they’re urgent, and the kids are empowered to think about the fact that they could become agents of change in their country. And that is so different from the kind of projects that we do in our schools today. And when I talk about all the challenges that we face in our society, and the kids are facing in their lives every day, those could be some of the kinds of challenges and problems that a curriculum is trying to address. And those are things that are very, very real and meaningful to the kids. And it sort of takes the kids back to when they were five and six years old and wanted to make lemonade stands to meet the needs of somebody in the community who needs money or something. That altruism, that wonderful altruism of smaller children that somehow gets taught out of them, or many of them, not all of them, certainly. But anyway, I’m trying to take what Joe is saying here and putting it into some very, very specific kinds of things that are so different between a school which is purpose driven, with a purpose which is meaningful, as opposed to a purpose which is really meaningless.

Rebecca: You described in Egypt kind of a context that was ripe for change, and ready to re-envision, repurpose, what would need to happen here to better align our schools for today’s needs in the US?

Joe: I’m glad you asked that. So we brought the process that we used back here to Philadelphia, and we convened a group of 120 people in eight design studios. We had a small grant to do this. And we asked them that question, we said, “What’s your vision for the greater Philadelphia area? What kind of society would you like to live in in the next 10 years?” And we spent time articulating that and then out of that came different purposes of education. It was, you might say, a mission statement… or more than a mission, it was a purpose statement that came out of that vision. And there was like eight elements of that purpose. I’ll give you two of those elements. One had to do with diversity, “how do you live in a diverse society?” And then the second one was, “What are the unifying elements for that diversity?” So if that is your top line theme, you might say then if you’re in biology, how would you exemplify that theme? Well, you talk about biodiversity. And then you talk about evolution as being the unifying principle of biology as one of those things. For chemistry, the diversity of the material world through the elements. And well, what’s the unifying principles to that? So you look at the natural world diversity, which is immense, and then you look at the human world of diversity. What unites us? We have tremendous diversities, not just around race and religion, but personalities and cognitive abilities. So it gets to then how do we live together among all of this kind of human and natural diversity? What unifies us? Kids want to know that. They have to deal with all of us, otherwise, you just get gangs. So that theme of unity and diversity can cut through all of the subjects, look at music, my God, and yet there’s a unifying principle. So those are the two elements, and so when you then sit a group of experts in a room that have diverse subjects, and you say, “Alright, here’s your theme: diversity, unity, you’re a biologist, tell us how would you structure the subjects along those two themes?” And we did the same. And out of that, then we create a curriculum. So it’s like a rug, warp and woof, the threads of a rug becomes an integrated curriculum from that, so that when a student comes into that school, they understand what the school is about, and why they’re learning what they’re learning.

John: How has that worked? How have the changes been received?

Joe: The people who participated were really amazed by the process, and they got a lot out of it. The next step in that is then developing the curriculum, and then implementing it. So we attempted to do that with the School District of Philadelphia. And they were not interested, even though we had this process. But why we were so thrilled and still are thrilled with our work in Egypt is that we talked directly to the Minister of Education, we were in meetings with him, we had his first deputy minister, who is still directing the project. So at the very highest level we had buy in. President El-Sisi visited one of our schools in Minya, Egypt and said, “My God, these students are amazing. I want 100 More of these schools.” And more recently, the minister and the head of the Parliament said we want to have this idea throughout all of our schools,17 million in Egypt, the elements of that idea. So what the biggest change has been in this process is, and the students will tell you, not me, the students will tell you is that they came in as individuals in a competitive environment. They came out of it, they had a personal transformation of seeing something greater than themselves, cooperating with each other, and thinking of it as “we” rather than “me.” And boy, wouldn’t that be great in this country if we had that spirit of let’s just work on this together?

Rebecca: I think your story really attests to the importance of some of the grassroots kind of components of reform as well as real support from leadership.

Joe: Exactly.

Rebecca: You also ventured into Bosnia Herzegovina. Can you talk a little bit about what that project was like there?

Joe: So a lot of this stuff happens through serendipity. We didn’t go out and apply for Egypt, they came to us, quite by accident. So the same thing happened in Bosnia Herzegovina which, as you know, it was a terrible situation back in 1991 with the breakup of Yugoslavia and tremendous genocide there. Save the Children had been working there on a USAID grant to work on a STEM school. This is in 2017. And it wasn’t working out too well. So they called on us, based upon our work in Egypt, and we went over there. And we did the same process with a group of university people and other officials of this design studio. We said, “What’s your aspiration for your country?” And their aspiration was: we want peace, and we have tremendous unemployment, and also people are leaving the country. So we want to be able to have peace, have people work together and not fight each other and be employed. So for them, they came up with the idea that the purpose of education is to be equipped to participate in a knowledge-based economy (KBE). I said fine. Well, what are they? So they listed 10 sectors of a knowledge-based economy? I said, “Fine, alright, so we have design studios, where we list these sectors and the elements of the sectors and then across this matrix was the subjects. And from that they developed a K to 13 curriculum that was integrated around these KBE sectors. So our role there was not to develop the curriculum, but to consult on the process by which they could do it themselves. And so we worked there for a couple of years. And we developed the curriculum app, an application, that was a relational database that had all of this curriculum in four different languages. So, it was interesting.

John: In your book, you advocate moving towards a more purpose-driven curriculum, but we’re living in a country where there’s a tremendous amount of political polarization and a lot of divisions, where there is a already a lot of pressure on schools to move in different directions tied to the local politics of people in that community. What can be done to move towards a consensus on the goals of the educational system in the US.

Deborah: There are a couple of principles that we need to deal with. One is that conversations have to happen across the sectors of community, whether we’re talking a local community, as a community of as large as a state, or national. One of the things of course, we don’t have a national education system as such here. The closest we get to a system is at the state level, but really, decisions are made much more at a local level. And we have tremendous diversity, even within the state of New York, for instance. I mean, you have one of the largest urban areas in the world, and then you have extremely rural areas, and with levels of affluence and poverty at the greatest extremes of the continuum. But conversations need to happen, but they need to be carefully facilitated, because you just don’t get in and say, “Well, what are we going to do?” You have to have very careful guidance and structure in this kind of design studio with everybody buying into the idea that things need to change. And we need to be able to really discuss freely and openly. And I think one of our beliefs is that when you have these discussions, I believe personally, and I’m a bit of an optimist in this respect, that we’ll find that many people, even from very diverse sectors, whether it’s politically or demographically or whatever, really have the same aspirations. I think the key is to identify the shared aspirations, and maybe where they aren’t shared, maybe there’s a way to forge unity between those. So I’m going to stop at this point, and then let Joe continue on with that.

Joe: I think that’s true. I think the key is to have a diversity of voices, and not just the loudest voices. And it needs to be, as Deborah said, very well facilitated in a process that doesn’t allow just the loudest voices to dominate. So that’s part of the process of developing that. But I think you also see that if you do a design studio in Oswego, for example, and then you also did it in Rochester, New York, and you did it in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, I would bet a bag of bagels that you’re going to find a lot more commonality [LAUGHTER] than you would usually think of it, because a lot of people just want to live, they want to have a family or they want to have success. There’s common human aspirations. But we live in a different time period than we did 1800s. So those aspirations have got to reflect the technology and the culture and the context of the times. And why that’s necessary is that you just can’t come in and impose a curriculum, you have to have buy in and acceptance… not to go back to Egypt, what we did was, we had to make sure that it was accepted. So if you have these aspirations, then you design the curriculum, you get affirmation from the curriculum, and everybody knows what the goal is. And once you decide you want to do it, and you have the authorization, if you will, from the decision makers at the policy level, financially, you can do it within a couple of years.

Rebecca: I love that you have great stories about success, and that it’s possible, because I think a lot of times it feels impossible when there’s a lot of division. One of the things that we’ve focused a lot on is the K-12 arena. What role does higher ed have in these conversations? Or what part of the conversation should we contribute to? Most of our audience are faculty and staff, administrators and things in higher ed institutions?

Deborah: I think higher ed has a huge role in several respects. Number one is if you change the way you’re teaching students so that they come out of their high schools with different sets of skills, and a different knowledge base and these kids go into their traditional university classes, there’s going to be a major disconnect. And again, I don’t want to beat the drum about Egypt, but very quickly a story that our students every semester, do a major semester-long, what we call a capstone project. And these are evaluated by outside evaluators. The very first time we did this, among the outside evaluators was a dean of engineering at the University of Cairo. And afterwards, she said, “Oh, my goodness, these kids are at the level of my master’s students or even above, and here they are just sophomores.” She said, “This is just amazing.” And I turned to her and I said, “These kids are going to be coming to your university in a couple of years. What are you going to do?” And she looks stunned. She was absolutely silent. She recognized the disconnect. And so that’s what we would call sort of a ground-up push for change, but there have to be other changes as well. Faculty need to be provided with a kind of support to do their own transformations in their courses and their pedagogy. And that has to be a huge change. But that won’t happen unless they see the need for change. And so that’s why we think actually starting in the high school is a great place to do that. But it also has to come from the leadership of the universities themselves from the top down, so we have all three working together. And of course, the first change has to be on teacher preparation. But changes have to happen in other courses as well, and those will be slower and probably take longer to implement. But the teacher preparation implications for this kind of curriculum, this kind of way of pedagogy and his way of assessment… we haven’t talked about that yet… are really quite significant.

Joe: You’re not going to be able to redesign schools, like we’ve been talking about, without the participation of universities for a number of reasons. One is that people look to universities for permission to think differently, they trust the expertise of professors. So they want to make sure that if they do this, it’s not going to hurt their child’s chances of college. So you need a partnership, a very strong partnership with the University to make that happen. And you need leadership from the President and Provost to give it the heft to make it happen. And so universities have been and would be indispensable to making this thing happen.

John: And many of the discussions at universities are along the same lines, in terms of the purposes that you’ve mentioned at the start of this recording session, it just hasn’t quite made it into the curriculum to the extent which might be needed to truly affect that type of change.

Joe: So in part of my research, I came across the report on general education that was done at Harvard in 1945, after World War Two, and it was about what you needed to live in a free society. And it was a very strong statement about the need to prepare students both at the college and secondary levels to live in a free society and what that meant, and how central the humanities were in that process, but also, that you cannot just teach math or the sciences for their own sake, that there has to be a moral arrow to it as well, because we saw in Germany in World War Two, how engineers and scientists were used in nefarious purposes. And I think universities are caught in this dilemma that students want to come to universities because they want to get a better job. But universities have a social mission too, and it’s more than just private gain that you’re doing with a student, you really want to transform that student into something more than who they are already and to enculturate them with a grander sense of obligation and duty. That’s really the value of higher education and the institutions, as I see it. And I see them as indispensable. So we wrote this book in a way to give a history and a sense of permission and a way to begin talking about these issues with some common language. That’s why we wrote it, because we realize universities have the same problem. Your Gen Ed courses, what do you have in those? But also institutionally, where are you going? What are you about?

Rebecca: I definitely agree with all the things that you’re saying. And I’m appreciative that you’ve written this book. One thing that Deborah had mentioned was assessment. So I wanted to see if we could pick up on that thread very quickly. So when we’re thinking about a purpose-driven mission and curriculum, how does that change the way we assess things? Assessment has been a big subject on the podcast more recently. And so I think it ties nicely into a lot of the things that we’ve been exploring.

Deborah: Well, I’m really glad you picked up on that, because that was absolutely critical. But what we have to do is we first have to decide what is success? And we can’t answer that question until we know what the purpose is. And I was just in a group of educators last night, and they were talking about what are the challenges of grade inflation. I said, “Well, what happens if we change the way we grade so that there can’t be such a thing as grade inflation?” And so what we’re talking about is a way to so radically change things like through the kind of evaluation I was mentioning, where students do projects and they have outside evaluators, is it complicated? Yes. Is it challenging? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Can you have grade inflation when you use rubrics and do blind evaluation and so forth? Yeah, yeah, you can get rid of those things. But the bottom line question is: how do you define success? And that has to be driven by the purpose which has been, as we have mentioned, deconstructed into what are the skills and concepts necessary to achieve your aspirations?

Joe: In the book we talked about the tyranny of math scores, that and English language arts has been the sine qua non of achievement and value in schools, and if you look at New York’s test scores, for example, for grades three to grade eight, math and science scores, the gap between low income and non-low income people stays the same from third grade all the way to eighth. And that’s predominantly the black and brown, so the gap remains the same. And if you just focus on math, you’re always going to be in a situation where you see these kids as deficient in some way. Whereas if you have the idea that there’s many different things that you can measure, other than math scores, that are of value, you open up the possibility of trying to find assets within students. And you also, through your assessment, you have to allow students to fail, and then to recover from that failure by learning something new, and not feeling that they are labeled… you know, it’s the growth mindset idea. So there has to be assessments that do that. And I’ll just say one last thing, you know, whenever someone learns something, particularly if it’s a misconception they have, and then they come to a correct understanding, there is a moment of vulnerability, where they say, “If I’m going to learn, I have to open myself up to different ways of thinking.” That’s an extremely vulnerable state. So if you have an assessment system that is judgmental, kids are not going to be learning, that’s why it stays the same in terms of the achievement gap.

John: I think there’s growing recognition of that in higher ed, which is why there’s so much discussion of alternative grading systems that encourage students to recognize that making mistakes is part of learning, and not penalizing them by what they come in not knowing but evaluating them based on their achievement by the end of the term.

Joe: Well, we’ve submitted a proposal with UC Berkeley on elementary assessment schemes using learning progressions as a framework so that if you’re traveling from Oswego to Albany, for example, let’s say Erie, Pennsylvania, you have a roadmap of where you’re going. And if you’re not quite in Erie, you’re somewhere in the middle. Well, that’s where you are. It’s not that you’re a failure to go to Erie. That’s where you are. So having this sense of measuring progress, but not evaluating it in terms of whether you’re failing or not, but you’re informing the student, “Okay, you have achieved this much. Here’s where you need to go next.”

Rebecca: Well, I’ve loved our conversation today. There’s lots to think about at an individual level and a social level, institutional level, policy level, there’s a lot of levels. But we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Deborah: Well, our book has just come out. And so we are really interested in trying to start these conversations, just as you have given us the opportunity to do today and get people to start to think about the ideas that we have. We wrote it with a general audience in mind. But although it’s an academic book, definitely in that respect, it’s being marketed by our publisher as an academic book, but we really want to try to reach a more general audience and get these conversations started. So we want to spread the word, we want people to start thinking about some of these ideas, and maybe talking amongst each other in small book groups or something as: “What do you think the purpose should be?” …and start it both as a grassroots and at all levels, get these conversations going?

Joe: Yeah, for me, it’s not about telling someone what their purpose should be, or giving them our idea of what the purpose should be. I mean, I have my private idea, but more it’s the process by which it’s arrived at in a sense that it can be done. So we look at this as a sharing of our ideas and opportunities. We’ve been struggling with this for many, many years. So when we’ve had this kind of success through this process, that we want to share it. We don’t want to own it, we’re giving it away. That’s what the whole idea of the academy is about. So we’re hoping that through these interviews that we’re doing here, that people will find value in these and will read our book and have discussions about the process and about how things are in their own places. And that there hopefully will be a critical mass developed. So that’s what we’re doing right now.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. You’ve raised so many interesting questions that need to be addressed for education to be more effective. Thank you.

Deborah: Thank you.

Joe: Thank you. You’ve been tremendous hosts.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.