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Commencement 2012: Professor Eleanor Duckworth's Convocation Speech

I want to extend my congratulations to all of you, and to thank you for committing yourselves to the great democratic tradition of quality public education for every child.

There is plenty for you to do!

My area of study is, How do people learn things and what can anyone do to help.   I started out as a scholar interested in children’s thinking -- as a researcher, talking to children, hearing them tell me how mountains actually change shape as you drive around them, and how there are more steps going up than going down.  I was fascinated by how there was no way to change what they really believed by telling them differently.  And even more fascinated by what they did if they could not figure out a conflict in their own thinking.  The efforts children made then I found – and still find—truly remarkable.

In my classes I often have 2 or 3 children sitting with me on the floor while I try to engage them in figuring out some conflict in their own thinking.   For example, I might ask them to compare two hypothetical mixtures of paint, one that would have 3 units of white paint and 2 of red, the other, 2 units of white paint and 1 of red.  This often happens:  They say the two mixtures would make the same pink, because in each case there’s only one more white. Then in the same conversation they will say that 2 units of white and one of red will make the same pink as 4 units of white and 2 of red – because in each case there’s twice as much white.   So 2 to 1 will make the same pink as 3 to 2; AND the same pink as 4 to 2 – but 3 to 2 won’t of course make the same pink as 4 to 2.  Young teenagers will spend 45 minutes developing, and then trying to reconcile, these two ways of thinking about the problem, totally engrossed -– while 50 HGSE students sit and watch.

Children WANT the world to make sense.  Children WANT to use their minds.  Children WANT to learn and explore this amazing world that we live in – part of which has been given to us and part of which we have made.

The same holds for my adult students – here at HGSE.   There is resistance at first – students have the habit of waiting to be told what the right answer is.  But if you don’t give in to that, and give them the means for learning more about it themselves, they find they can do most any kind of thing with their minds.  Poets find they like thinking about math.   Scientists find they like thinking about a poem.

And they learn deeply:

We explore – I like the phrase, ‘mess about’ -- which David Hawkins borrowed from Wind in the Willows’  “messing about in boats.”  We mess about with balancing, for example.  Without ‘messing about’, people can learn the formula that a test would ask for -–distance times weight on one side equals distance times weight on the other.   But it takes messing about to realize why a balance beam for weighing things, left alone, always settles with the bar horizontal; while a see-saw, left alone, always settles with one end on the ground.

I have found that helping people learn involves allowing time for messing about in the primary sources of any subject matter – whether that be physical balance; or poetry; or letters, newspaper, and maps from 200 years ago.  It also involves listening to their thoughts; planning experiences that could help take those thoughts further.  And it involves honoring confusion – this is what keeps minds working.   I have found that if one idea is presented as the right answer, thinking stops.  I have also found that honoring confusion is essential for helping people be willing to try out an idea, without feeling dumb if it doesn’t work out.

Learners thrive when a teacher is interested in their questions and thoughts, and is helping them take these thoughts deeply into a subject matter through their own explorations.    I have found this to be the case with children, teenagers, and adults; in city, country and suburb; whether their previous school experience has been fruitful or not; on 5 continents.  And I have found it to be an equalizing force.

But none of this is taken into account in what our schools are being asked to do in these days of Race to the Top and Leave No Child Behind.  (Have you noticed the incompatibility of those two slogans?)

Of the many teachers in our public schools, who have deep knowledge of subject matter and of how to engage youngsters’ minds, most are in despair over the limits put on them by the mindless work demanded by high-stakes tests.  Many of those who are less well prepared for teaching use the diminished curriculum as a crutch, with no help of any significant kind offered for their teaching.

School days are largely spent memorizing.  As our former colleague, Pedro Noguera, noted from his interviews with Boston public school students – the students’ main reason for dropping out is that they are bored!  They want   to be challenged and engaged in their work.  When truly high standards are set, students stay in school and rise to meet those standards.

And the tests cannot get at what is important in any subject matter.

In a heart-breaking letter to her 8th grade students, Ruth Ann Dandrea wrote, “Here we spent the year reading books and emulating great writers, constructing leads that would make everyone want to read our work, developing a voice that would engage our readers, using our imaginations to make our work unique and important, and, most of all, being honest. And none of that matters. All that matters, it turns out, is that you cite two facts from the reading material in every answer. That gives you full credit.” If they wrote an equivalent of the Gettysburg address, but cited only one fact, they would get half credit.

The president of Sara Lawrence College, announcing that the college would no longer use SAT scores as part of their admissions procedure, said: “The information produced by SAT scores added little to our ability to predict how a student would do at our college; it did, however, do much to bias admission in favor of those who could afford expensive coaching sessions."

Jiang Xueqin, a Chinese educator well aware that test scores result from memorizing, and leave no room for inventiveness or curiosity or deep learning, lamented the fact that Chinese students came out first, internationally, in math, science and reading.   “One way we'll know we're succeeding in changing China's schools is when those PISA scores come down.”

Not only do tests not measure the important things that schools should be concerned with:

  • They take many many days from the school year when students could be learning.
  • They give billions of dollars to testers and coaches, instead of to schools.
  • They affect teachers’ salaries and promotions.
  • They affect school-closing decisions.
  • They lead to teachers, schools and school systems cheating.
  • Arts have all but disappeared from public schools, along with physical education, and in many cases, recess.
  • All the teachers get is children’s scores.  They do not see what the children did, so tests give them no information to work with.
  • Children report after each day of tests that the questions make them feel stupid.  Increasingly, also, children are anguished about not doing well, sensing how much hangs on their results -- for their school and for their teachers.

There is growing resistance.

Last month, Sharon Emick Fougner, a principal, wrote  to her state Education Commissioner:  “If you were to sit down and take each of these exams, I think you would be embarrassed that your department subjected children to them.”

This morning I received this message:

“New York City – A coalition of parent organizations across New York is urging parents to boycott the field tests scheduled for middle and elementary schools in New York State. . . ‘Enough is enough,’ said Dani Gonzalez, a parent from one of the boycotting schools. ‘We are sick of all these tests. We want more teaching and less testing.’”

In Texas, more than 400 school boards have adopted a resolution against high-stakes testing.

Over 1500 principals in New York State – that is, a third of them -- have signed a letter to  ‘stop harmful educational practices that are not based in research.’

And there is more to say:  These tests hit poor children disproportionately.  Income is still by far the best predictor of school success.

I propose that the effort to ‘close the achievement gap’  is a force in the wrong direction.  In my reading, I see this phrase ‘achievement gap’ as referring solely to results on test scores.  And since putting the emphasis on test scores, instead of on educating children, overwhelms schooldays with memorizing and boredom, the efforts that go into improving poor children’s test scores necessarily take away from efforts to provide them with a demanding and engaging and worthy education.

An article by David Kirp in Saturday’s New York Times reviews recent research on the years after the Supreme Court decision --when schools were integrated -- between 1970 and 1990.

“Amid the ceaseless and cacophonous debates about how to close the achievement gap, we’ve turned away from one tool that has been shown to work: school desegregation.

“The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did. . . .

“Not only were they more successful in school, they were more successful in life as well. A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity. Now in their 30s and 40s, they’re also healthier — the equivalent of being seven years younger.

“Why? For these youngsters, the advent of integration transformed the experience of going to school. By itself, racial mixing didn’t do the trick, but it did mean that the fate of black and white students became intertwined.”

I also need to say that it is schools with primarily black populations that, due largely to the prevalent boredom of constant test preparation --  have replaced social workers with policemen, so that misbehavior becomes, instead, a criminal offence –  initiating for those children the school to prison pipeline.

I know that you know all this. 

So what can be done? Speak up.  

Whether you are a teacher or not, when you see such injustice and bad policy, Speak up.

Connect with like-minded groups.   

Go to <>: keep informed through their newsletter and fact sheets; click on ‘Get Involved,” and subscribe to their Assessment Reform Network.   

Go to <>, the North Dakota Study Group, led for decades by our late colleague Vito Perrone:  Look on their website or Facebook page for their manifesto about what public education should be.  Connect with Citizens for Public Schools in Boston and elsewhere. 

There is a Teacher Activist Group  <>, and elsewhere also. And read The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, who among many other things, pointed out at our Law School last month that while public school buildings crumble, new prisons gleam. My mother was active in a great many social justice  issues, in spite of having been a timid young woman. 

A mantra accompanied her through much of her engagement:  “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”  To her that meant, this really needs to be done, nobody seems to be doing it, so I’ll  try to do whatever I can.  And this always involved getting others, who felt the same way, to join with her.

So raise your voice.  You have a Harvard degree in Education, and this does give an extra boost to your voice.  Use it to point out the injustices and to point to what public schools could be.  Use it, how ever timid you may feel, with all of the courage and wisdom that you actually have.