Schools Cannot Do It Alone: Chapter 7

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A book study: Please participate in the discussion by leaving a comment below.

Part 8 in a series of chapter summaries–book club style–by New Richmond teacher, Scott Herron, who says:

Maybe you’ve heard the now famous “blueberries story” about education. That story comes from this book. So, I have an idea. As I’m reading this, I don’t want to be the only one hearing its message which we ALL should be hearing in this current educational and political climate.

So, here’s what I’m going to do: As I read each chapter I’m going to summarize its main points and important quotes/ideas. I think once you start reading you’re going to want to hear the rest. As we go through the book, I hope it sparks discussion and, at the very least, makes you feel more understood and appreciated like it has for me. Furthermore, I firmly believe that the message of this book needs to be our central mission as we go forward at the local, state, and federal level as we take the lead in the direction of education and its reform.


You can read the rest of Scott’s proposal here.


The Smoking Gun
All children go to school the same number of hours and the same number of days. This fact alone confirms that we are sorting children as opposed to educating them to their highest levels of achievement. And every parent and every teacher knows why: because some children take longer to learn than others, for reasons that can have little to do with intelligence. In fact, there is no research that equates the speed at which someone learns with his or her ability or capacity to learn. Some children just need more time.

For myriad reasons, human beings learn at different rates of speed. And as long as we choose to hold time constant for teaching, learning, and testing, we are sorting children not on the basis of their intelligence, but on the basis of that speed.

It’s a race.

Each year millions of students, grouped according to age, line up and step into the starting blocks. The opening bell rings. And they’re off!

Teachers feel it. They have dozens of units to teach, and they know that their evaluations are influenced by their ability to “cover the content.” Pacing guides drive their action forward whether or not all of their students have mastered the material. The relentless ticking forces them to teach to the middle.

Principals feel it. Each year they watch their workloads expand as legislators and bureaucrats raise academic standards, expand the number of mandates, and demand greater accountability for results while never adding a minute to the school calendar.

Students feel it. Each spring they get swept up, and they wonder aloud, “Why do they keep printing the last five chapters in our textbooks? We never get to them!”

The testing hysteria that has swept the nation in the last eight years has intensified the pressure.

The end product of the selecting process: a classic bell curve — some excellence, some failure, and shades of average in between. As long as we hold time constant, the selecting system will produce this distribution of student achievement. Every time. This does not mean that teachers cannot, through extraordinary effort and personal sacrifice, overcome the constraints and make a difference for an individual child. No matter how hard they work, or how much they care, when it comes to most kids, our teachers are at the mercy of the iron rule.


Of course, prior to the 1990s there was nothing wrong with this outcome. Most people found jobs — pretty darn good jobs — regardless of their class rank.

The challenges presented by the knowledge-based economy require a different outcome. Now, learning must be the constant. Our schools must produce a new curve.

Holding time constant may be the most conspicuous aspect of the selecting process, but it isn’t the only one. Until we accept the fact that the core system is the primary problem, we will never create schools that teach all children to high levels.

I was sure that my analysis was conclusive on the need for change. Once again, however, not everyone agreed. I was met with a barrage of tortured defenses of the status quo. But the one that I heard the most was summed up in two words: So what?

So there’s a curve. What’s the problem? We give all kids the same material, we give them the same amount of time to learn, we teach them in the same conditions, and then we test them the same way. The earlier we can sort them the easier it is to allocate resources accordingly. The system works, Jamie. It’s a meritocracy.

I even heard it from some of the same people who had initially denied that they were sorting kids.

Initially, I was taken back. Not because it seemed callous — the truth is not always pleasant — but because the conclusion was at odds with a mountain of established facts about teaching and learning, and it ignored common experience. Given our needs, it also seemed fatalistic.

After asking a lot of questions, I realized that the acceptance of the sick status quo was based on three core beliefs:

Belief #1 — Intelligence is genetic and immutable.

Belief #2 — Intelligence is distributed across a bell curve.

Belief #3 — The bell curve of human intelligence and the bell curve of student achievement are, for all practical purposes, the same curve.

These three beliefs are key to understanding our predicament. If they are grounded in fact, then the defenders of the status quo are right: the system is sound. There is no need for major reform. If, on the other hand, any of these core beliefs are groundless, then the selecting premise is indefensible, and we face a system problem of enormous proportions.

I was honored to receive an invitation to the annual conference of the American Education Research Association in New York City. I eagerly accepted.

Then, I wandered into a session where Harvard professor Howard Gardner was speaking and I knew I’d struck a vein.

This was my introduction to the theories of the “cognitive revolution.” I took a seat in the front row.

It was not long before I realized that of the three core beliefs listed above, #1 and #3 were flat-out wrong, and #2 was correct, but only if I thought of the bell curve in three dimensions, not two.

AMAZON SITE: If you want to get the book, you can go to



  1. Michele Hewitt says:

    Our teaching must evolve and change just as our students are expected to evolve and change with the culture.

  2. Gail Crossley says:

    Even though we may not have all the answers as to what to change, and how to make the necessary changes in the educational process, we must keep the dialogue open regarding the need for change.