King of the Mountain!

As kids, growing up in the wilds of Oregon, one of our favorite sports was King of the Mountain (I warn you, don’t go Googling that one). It was a spontaneous thing that started when one of the pack of roaming young ruffians leapt on to some high ground – a log, a pile of dirt, a mound of rocks – and declared, “King of the Mountain!”  Then began what can only be described as unregulated mayhem, as boys (my older sister Mary Ann was not allowed to play because she always won) charged the summit and, in completely unorganized fashion, pushed, pulled, tugged, hit, and gouged the poor King (the only rule, unwritten, of course, was no weapons)  until he tumbled off the summit.  It usually didn’t take long; no one, in my memory, except maybe Frankie Vanderberg or Paul Callicrate, succeeded in being King for much more than about 5 seconds.

No, this is not a post about bullying.  (That’s in the works.)

I was thinking of our childhood gang game, believe it or not, as I read David Steiner’s recent column in the New York State School Board Association’s newspaper On Board. Steiner is the Empire State’s new commissioner of education and with the help of a gritty new Chancellor, Merryl Tisch, helped mastermind the state’s successful Race to the Top strategy.  King of the Mountain!  But Steiner is already anticipating the pushback.

“[T]here is a strong `counter’ movement,” he writes in On Board, “supported by many teachers, the schools of education that support them, and a sizable group of parents.”

And he knows the enemy (while diplomatic enough not to call them that):

They are skeptical that multiple-choice tests can capture the rich skills and knowledge that children should encounter, and doubtful that mathematical equations based on tests can ever be an adequate way to measure teacher performance. They are convinced that the most effective learning often occurs in project and team-based environments and that we need to get away from test prep and instead focus on critical thinking and metacognitive skills.

The model reformer, Steiner looks like a dentist, talks like a minister, but thinks like a revolutionary.  And his On Board essay – “The path of education reform” – highlights all those traits (you’ll have to go here for the picture). He is also wonderful to listen to (here).

Steiner is clearly smart enough to know, as if anticipating Mike’s recent hubris alert! warning, that RttT did not lobotomize those who disdain testing and choice and accountability.  He knows he may have quieted them by waving (federal) steak in their direction, but he also knows that the wolves are still at the door and he better think longterm – taming them.  And in his professorial way – he was Dean of Hunter College’s school of education, and much more – Steiner shows his diplomatic skills as he attempts to manage the anti-reformers:

Politicized versions of the current national reform agenda can make it sound as if measuring something is, in itself, the answer to making education reform happen. That would mistake a thermometer for both a diagnosis and a treatment. Likewise, rhetoric from the anti-testing, anti-data viewpoint can sound as if we are expected to believe that children can teach themselves and that any form of standardized evaluation is, by definition, “inauthentic.” For the sake of our P-12 students, we need strongly to resist the temptation to reify these distortions.

Reify?  That surely stops the growling for a second.

What is wrong is surely not testing per se, but narrow tests in only a couple of subjects that do not probe for real understanding. Building on the pioneering work done by Chancellor Joel Klein in New York City, we should surely give our teachers, parents and students accurate information about their academic progress, yet be equally sure that we define that progress against challenging intellectual standards based on a demanding, rich, and engaging curriculum that teachers will be excited to teach.

David Steiner surely knows that politics in New York state is a blood sport and that the powerful teachers union plays it well. But he also seems to be wise enough not to shout “King of the Mountain!”

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College