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The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews on the “Common Core”

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HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt on this wonderful July 29th or obviously I could be talking about what the Pope had to say all day, but I decided early today that I was going to devote this hour to the Common Core, and I began it with Bill Bennett, talking about those standards and what they mean.  I now go over to the Washington Post’s own Jay Mathews, an extraordinarily gifted writer about education.  His book, Work Hard. Be Nice. is a book that I think every educator in America ought to re-read and, read for the first time if they haven’t, as they get ready to settle into a new school year.  Jay Mathews, Bill Bennett just told me to say thank you for introducing him to Hayman Escalante decades ago, so the good work that you did then, is not forgotten.


JM: Thanks, Hugh.  And you’ve done it again.  This is the first time I’ve heard any radio show look at the Common Core.  You are very brave and very intelligent to see that this is a really good story.


HH:  Well, what,  I am conflicted and I just got done telling Bennett the story, but in case anybody is tuning in, here’s the story.  I go out on the road with Dennis Prager and my other friends, people approach the microphone and they are on fire to talk about the Common Core and I don’t know what to say, because core education has always been something that conservatives have believed in, but the Common Core has burned through the tea party to the point now that Jeb Bush is in favor of it.  Marco Rubio is against it.  Bill just took his take on it.  What’s your thinking about it, Jay Mathews?


JM:  What did Bill say?


HH:  Ah, Bill said, trust but verify.  Good, but it depends upon the details.  Massachusetts doesn’t need it.  Lots of places do, but he understands it that folks like the tea party have great concerns about local control and a lot of people are making big money off it.  What do you think?


JM:  Well, I’m – Bill is obviously in the wishy-washy middle and I am too, but on the other side of the line.  I respect and admire the people who put the Common Core together.  I think they are very well intended.  I just don’t think it’s going to work.


HH: Oh, interesting.


JM:  I think we’ve—we’ve tried again and again to fix schools with better curriculum—better standards.  There’s a guy at the Brookings Institution named Tom Loveless who is my go-to guy for any kind of test assessment.  He’s a genius.  He knows all about the international tests and our tests.  He’s looked very carefully at states and countries that have gone with new tougher standards and find that that they have no affect on achievement.  Kids just aren’t going to learn much more.  What we need, I think, to get our kids up to a level we want them to be is really good teaching.  I’m writing a book about the Avid program which was born in San Diego, and they are doing what Common Core is trying to do, help our kids learn to read things closely, to ask questions about what they are reading to take it to the next level, but they are doing it be training teachers, not by creating a whole new curriculum.


HH: So, all of this effort, Jay Mathews, is going to come to naught?  Because—it is as I’ve investigated yesterday and today to prepare for these interviews, there’s a massive number of websites.  There’s a whole—a silo full of curriculum assistance on Common Core, all for naught?


JM: Well, I don’t think it’s going to do any harm, in the first place.  I think it’s going to help a lot of good teachers do even better than they are doing now. But I don’t think—it’s very difficult to take teachers who are not good teachers and give them a curriculum and that makes them into good teachers. You have to have people who have sensitivity and the energy to see how kids learn and to take them places in the direction that they want to.  It’s very hard to see how this is going to change the sort of level of teaching we have simply by handing people a list of standards.  And then, of course, [inaudible] what the Common Core is just a list of standards, but what you need then is a curriculum to tell teachers exactly what they should be teaching from day-to-day in class.  Common Core doesn’t give them that, that would be dependent on curriculum writers and a lot of different people doing this is different ways, and that generally turns into a real mess, and there’s no indication that this is going to be any different.  I don’t think it will do any harm, and I think it will help a lot of teachers.  It will get us thinking more about moving our kids in that direction, but I don’t think the Core is going to take us where we want to go.


HH: What do you think is the well-spring of opposition to the Core, because if it’s in fact a neutral, even though it’s costing a lot of money.  The government costs a lot of money for a lot of things.  Why has this become almost overnight, really in the last 6 months, a hot button issue on the right?  What is it—


JM:  I think on the right, I mean the people that I’ve, my favorite conservative education expert Chester Finn at the Fordham Institute is for the Common Core.  He thinks this is going to go forward.  He’s somebody that worked for Reagan.  He’s very—he knows more about schools than anybody I knew in the country. But I think the conservatives who are against it see it more as a political problem of the federal government coming in an imposing its standards, and this isn’t really a federal program. It was started by the National Governor’s Association, but a national program imposing its standards on their local school districts and on their local principles and teachers. But what’s interesting is that you not only have opposition from the right, you have opposition from the left because there are a lot of teachers who think, who are on the left, and who believe that teachers should have the power to decide what’s teaching in their classes, who are very pro NEA pro the teachers unions, they are also against this because it thinks it pushes teachers in ways that are not productive.


HH: How interesting.  When we come back from break, I’m going to talk to Jay Mathews about what he’s working on now.  Where do all the great teachers come from?  I’ve have always been of the opinion if you put a great teacher in front of a classroom, it doesn’t matter what they teach, they will teach those students how to learn and they will succeed having been equipped with those tools. And it requires more than anything else energy and commitment of the sort that was detailed and Jay Mathews most recent book Work Hard. Be Nice. And we’ll talk about his new work after we come back from the break.  Don’t go anywhere, America. It’s the Hugh Hewitt Show.




HH: A true treat, I’ve caught up with Jay Mathews, the Washington Post’s extraordinarily gifted education writer. His Class Struggles column over at the Washington Post is a must stop if you care about education.  The last time I caught up with Jay he was in an empty classroom in a Philadelphia charter school with the echo problem the worst I’ve ever had, but it was still worth talking to him. Now, I find him in D.C. but he’s writing about San Diego.  What is this Avid program, Jay Mathews? What are they doing?


JM: I suspect you’d know about it, Hugh.  The advancement via the individual determination was invented by a San Diego County school teacher, Mary Catherine Swanson at Claremont High School 32 years ago, and it has grown to enormous proportions.  It’s now got 250,000 kids in all, in 46 states and overseas.  What it does essentially is train teachers to take kids, the kids in the middle that we ignore, it, it allows them into this program, most of them are low income or minorities and shows them how to learn.  Essentially, it has, brings in college tutors who are trained to get kids not to think about well what’s the answer, but how do I get to the answer. What questions do I ask?  Tied to that inquiry based learning it starts kids by forcing them to take notes using the Corrnell Note System on every lecture and every book that they read in high school.  Ah, a very organized way of taking notes in which you have to ask yourself if there is points in the lecture, well, what is the question that’s being asked here and what is the answer. It also requires that each of these kids keep a binder with all their notebooks, and there is a binder check every month. You shake the binder, if it doesn’t have all the notes carefully punched in so they are ready to go for their next exam, then they lose points on the binder check. It’s a way, it’s very old fashioned in some ways getting kids to learn how to manage their time and very new in other ways getting kids to think about what are the questions that are being addressed in this lesson, not just what answers do I have to memorize in order to get a good grade on the test.


HH: Jay Mathews, (a) when is the book coming out, the new book?


JM: My deadline is in a month.


HH: [laughing]


JM: It will be out in about 6 months after that. I’ll let you know.


HH: Of course I’m very surprised your even talking to me with a deadline of a month from now!  And what role does technology play because, of course, one of the hot topics now in California at least is let’s float technology bonds, let’s get technology into the school.  And, again I’m always suspicious of cart before the horse technology before the reform. What do you think about that?


JM: I’m afraid I share your skepticism. We have yet no data to show that adding technology to classroom in the form of web assisted, computer assisted lessons raises achievement for kids.


HH: Wow. That is so disappointing. On the other hand, that just drives us back to—I know when Governor Romney was running for President he wrote a book he said, after all we did in Massachusetts we learned it’s all about teachers. Forget about everything else. It’s not class size, it’s not curriculum, it’s always the teachers. I think that’s one of the takeaways from Work Hard. Be Nice. that sounds like your going to confirm in the new book.


JM: Yeah. We have to put all, everything we can into training the best teachers, picking, training and supporting the best teachers we’ve got, and that means having really great principals who know what a good teacher is, who support them, and not placing no much faith in machines or running curriculums but what’s happening in the classrooms with human beings.


HH: What is the essence of the good teacher, the new one that they are looking for?


JM: Ah, well, first you need a teacher who absolutely loves being with kids, has that passion. Second, somebody who believes no matter what a kids background, that teacher can add something significant to their day, just in those 6 or 7 hours they have them in class. And, lastly, a teacher who knows how to get a kid beyond memorizing stuff, material for the test, to thinking about what the material and to forming an argument to doing all the things you do everyday and your listeners do, looking at a problem, pointing out its parts, looking for evidence and then making an argument, which is what we don’t do in schools and which is absolutely crucial.


HH: And so how to you measure that? How does a principal or a hiring department find that if they, if you look at Edjoin—are you familiar with Edjoin, by the way?


JM: I’m not.


HH: Look it up. It’s like Kudzu spreading across the country started by the California State Superintendent and it’s now the clearing house to get a job in California or anywhere in the United States soon is via Edjoin. And they get thousands of resumes obviously and they have to sort through them. How do they — what do you look for, what in your experience, is you gut-check as the marker of a great new teacher?


JM: Well, the kids schools which, as I think you know, are the best schools we’ve got. Pick teachers by having the principals go watch them teach. Either they go to the classrooms where they are now working in or have them come into the class to their school and teach a lesson. That tells you a great deal. The resume just doesn’t hack it. You have to see how they are with kids in a real situation, and then you can sit down and ask them questions about how they would deal with certain situations, what they would do, that’s the key moment of figuring out if a teacher is going work. And then, even then, you put them in the classroom, you hire them, and you have to have a fail-safe point. You have to see if that teacher, despite all your careful vetting isn’t hacking it the classroom, you’ve helped them as much as you can, but if that teacher still isn’t working out by Thanksgiving, you get rid of them. You don’t leave them in the classroom for 3 years which is what most public schools do bad, new teachers these days.


HH: It’s funny. Last night I had dinner with two veteran educators and they probably had 75 years between them and they said that past performance is a predictor of future results, hire by reference only. That’s not for new teachers, obviously, but hire by reference only. Jay Mathews, one minute left, how is Kipp fairing? Obviously at the time Work Hard. Be Nice. came out, it was still a launch. How’s it done in the next few years?


JM: It now has 125 schools in 20 states in the District of Columbia. It is the marker for just about every education reform we can see now. Their kids are getting into college in great numbers. They’ve spread, introduced elementary schools and high schools, and at every stretch you see them looking for ways with their kids that can do even better than they were even doing before. This is what happens when you put our best teachers together and say, okay, your job is just to get those kids up anyway that makes sense to you that works.


HH: That’s good news. What’s the—by the way—what the name of the new book going to be?


JM: My uh, my title is Raising the Average. It’s about this hidden, huge organization that’s getting our kids in the middle up to a new place. It’s really important, but I haven’t finished it yet.


HH: Yeah. I’m looking forward to it, come back and spend a long time with us when its out and I’ve read it.  Jay Mathews of the Washington Post where you can read his column almost every day. Jay Mathews with one “t”. Go and Google it. I’ll be back to conclude this hour, America, The Common Core, all right? I’ve had the two best guys I know in education talk about it: Bill Bennett and Jay Mathews. Trust, but verify, not a panacea and not going to change your schools. Teachers change your schools. Teachers change your schools. I’ll be right back. You are listening to the Hugh Hewitt Show.


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