Seeking Solutions for the Nation's Broken Schools Our public schools are in serious trouble, says Rudy Crew, superintendent of one of the largest school districts in the country. Crew talks about why he feels the school system is in crisis and why education needs to be the nation's No. 1 priority.
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Seeking Solutions for the Nation's Broken Schools

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Next month, No Child Left Behind comes up for renewal in Congress. The education law uses standardized tests as a way to measure performance and to hold schools and teachers accountable. And while there's reason to believe that scores are up in many places, there are also reasons to suspect that some scores may have been manipulated and some standards lowered to look better. And few would argue that the law has dramatically turned around our public school system.

In a new book, Rudy Crew recounts these sobering statistics on reading and dropout rates, poor teacher pay, clouded classrooms and many others, and proposes solutions.

Rudy Crew has seen public education first hand as a student, teacher and administrator. He was formerly superintendent of New York City schools and currently heads the school system in Miami-Dade County, the fourth largest in the nation. In a nutshell, he believes the crisis requires every part of the country, private, public, and non-profit, to make education priority number one.

Later in the hour, the voice of Mr. Burns and Ned Flanders reflects on reconstruction of the Crescent City.

But first, fixing broken schools. If you're a student, teacher or school administrator with questions about mending the school system, give us a call -800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Rudy Crew's new book is called "Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools." And the author joins us from our bureau in New York City.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. RUDY CREW (Superintendent, Miami-Dade County Public Schools; Author, "Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools"): Thank you, Neal. It's good to be here.

CONAN: And the way I read your book, you called for a lot of things, but among other things, on the financial front, for spending per pupil to roughly double, as the way I look at it.

Dr. CREW: Close. And I think the issue in "Only Connect" is really that we have long since undercapitalized public education, and we're paying for it. And we're paying for it in a variety of ways, not the least of which is, in terms of our rankings internationally, what our students can do as an aggregate, and the degree to which they are really prepared for an economy that fundamentally is very, very different from that which I and perhaps you grew up in.

CONAN: Yet spending per pupil is - it's not low by historical standards, as you look at it. What would justify almost doubling it?

Dr. CREW: Well, I think there's an investment requirement here that, in some cases, it's really just realigning dollars that are here now. We've spent an awful lot of money on this whole question of No Child Left Behind, in my mind, not enough, but nonetheless, we've spent some money on that. But it's really been, fundamentally, about testing. And imagine those dollars actually going to teaching.

What we actually need more of, in my mind, has to do with a kind of a reclaiming of the priority of learning as a nation. We need to have a set of national standards. We need to have national assessments. It would be very good, in my mind, to have one scale by which teachers were paid as a nation, because if we - because we fundamentally believe in the value of teaching. And whether it's in Kansas or New York City, we can differ on how those dollars actually should be added to, but fundamentally, the base of it, for purposes of an incoming first year teacher, should be approximately $40,000.

CONAN: It obviously costs a lot more to live in Manhattan, New York than it does in Manhattan, Kansas.

Dr. CREW: Correct, correct. And for that what we would do is then allow other states and cities and local municipalities to add to or appropriate to the consumer price index for that location. But all I'm saying is that there - we have to incentivize people to join this profession. And we are struggling, really, right now to find - all across America to find people who want to go in and who will remain in the profession of teaching.

CONAN: You also talk about reorienting what we teach our kids about, and list four priorities. They include personal integrity, workplace literacy, civic awareness, and then, fourth, you have academic proficiency.

Dr. CREW: Yeah. I think the bandwidth by which we've been having this conversation as a country has been so narrow. Again, the whole conversation has been about, you know, did you pass your English or reading, or math, or science test and so forth, and that's a very appropriate question. I'm not pooh-poohing that in the least. I'm simply saying that it's a wider cut than that. It requires more of our young people than that to be a proficient contributor to a democracy.

How well you actually understand the rules of the road, in terms of your own civic engagement, is important. The way by which you understand how to have and live a life that has sort of a personal integrity index, if you will. I don't want to make up the word, but just a way of being able to have a moral center, that you know the difference and right and wrong, you act on that difference, that we actually extol the virtues of students who can function in that framework.

And the most important for me, really, has to do with, do you understand where you're going? Do we talk about it? Do we help you perhaps to groom your thinking and your manner of dress, and your way of looking at the world through the lens of what you think you may want to be? So, having an internship in high school, for example, or getting kids involved early on in thinking through their career path. All of that really represents a wider bandwidth by which we ought to be talking to kids.

CONAN: And speaking of wider bandwidths, you're connection - some might think it refers to having a WiFi connection in laptops for every student - really, what you're talking about is getting the private sector, businesses, getting the faith-based sector, getting non-profits, getting everybody involved in schools.

Dr. CREW: Yeah, that's really it, Neal. I mean, you put your finger on it, because we've had this sort of fickle debate, almost a preoccupation. Is it -should it be exclusively public? Or should we allow a little bit of privatization? Should we have notions of corporate productivity? Or should this be exclusively a public sector domain sort of knowledge? Should we allow the faith-based in? Or should we simply adhere to the rudiments of the Constitution in separation of state and church?

And I guess at some point, we have to actually say, those are really the wrong postulations. These are the wrong questions. The real question is, how do you get all of those people within the confines of law, but how do you get all those people lined up so that the resources, the intellectual capital, if you will, the human resources, the people in churches, the people in homes, the people in a variety of sectors in our American life here actually see education for the value that it holds, and buy into it from wherever they may be.

CONAN: Another question. Should public education continue to be largely a state or county monopoly? Or should it be - should there be competition in the form of charter schools, which we're seeing more and more? And indeed, through vouchers, public and - excuse me - private and religious schools?

Dr. CREW: Well, first of all, by the notion of competition, I don't think, you know, that public schools can afford to think of themselves as having a monopoly on students in a given area. But I do think that the state and the law, specifically, should enable public schools to be competitive, and we ought to be putting in those schools the necessary elements, from a teacher, a really qualified teacher, to the equipment necessary, the technological equipment necessary to be able to have students doing high-level and rigorous work. That ought to be available in a public school, and that ought to be a base, I mean, that ought to be the base. And that we ought not be talking about, well, maybe we'll get a grant and we can have a technological infrastructure. Maybe we'll get a grant and, my goodness, we might even be able to have four and five computers here, and maybe, and maybe, and maybe.

What's happening is as we have bifurcated and separated and shaken out all these maybes, schools have actually lost in the process, and we've created kind of a Dickens-like "Tale of Two Cities," where some have it and some don't. For some kids, it really is the best of times. For other kids, it really is not. And my sense is that America can't stand to have such huge variability in its public education system.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation.

Our guest is Rudy Crew, the former head of schools in New York - now, in Miami-Dade County. His new book is title, "Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools."

800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And let's start with Doug(ph). Doug is with us from Louisville in Kentucky.

DOUG (Caller): Hi. I think my big question is - in Louisville, we just recently had a desegregation case that went to the Supreme Court. And I want to know why it is that parents have to sue school districts to settle issues of, like attendance. You know, if you can't get people to agree on where their child is going to go to school, have you asked the right questions to get people to come together and value public education the way you're talking? My sense is, people in this community feel like the school system does whatever it likes. It's an 800-pound gorilla and it doesn't know how to listen. And I think the other issue is that there doesn't seem to be a quality of work life for teachers that engenders the type of education, I think, we'd all like our kids to have.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Rudy Crew?

Dr. CREW: Well, I think, on the first issue, I think you're probably - your instinct is right, that we've struggled with this question. And, again, and I think this is one of a horns of the dilemma. How do we involve parents in a significant and - what I call in the book - a demand-centered way as opposed to a supply-centered way? How do we take some of the presumption of your requirement to be a member of our environment? How do we take that out of the equation and actually start to think of this as you are part of a demand structure, that there are things you want much like any other customer base in the marketplace that you ought to be able to get and have? And we've got to turn the corner on that. And that's why I'm thinking largely that we have to start really focusing on parents as a source of demand and not a source of supply.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yet, when the bureaucracy of the school system is unresponsive, that often doesn't help.

Dr. CREW: Right. And that's why we end up in court. And that's why we end up with tremendous, tremendous dollars being spent on desegregation matters and a whole host of other things. Some of which, actually, are brought about for a better social good, I might add. I mean, I don't think necessarily all of it is bad. But I do think that we've got to get out of our own way and be more nimble and be more sort of, if you will, market sensitive and market savvy about how to put together the right kind of menu for parents so that they really see that there is a system, a school system that's speaking to them, that's engaging them, that's talking them, that's inviting them in and asking them to bring their best foot into this equation.

CONAN: Doug, we'll get to your question about teachers on the other side, okay?

DOUG: Thanks.

CONAN: All right. We're talking with Rudy Crew today about what's wrong with our schools and how to fix them. We'll get his advice for parents and teachers in just a moment, and more of your calls as well, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Many students are already back in class, and schools have a tough job to give kids the skills and knowledge they need to compete. As Rudy Crew puts it, struggling schools are not an educational side issue but a primary economic issue.

You can read an excerpt from his book, "Only Connect" on how to fix our broken schools at our Web site: npr.org/talk. Our guest is Rudy Crew. He's now the superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

If you're a teacher, student or a school administrator with questions about mending the school system, our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And you could check out what other listeners have to say on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And let's go to another caller. This is Maureen(ph). Maureen is with us from Cleveland.

MAUREEN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MAUREEN: Mr. Conan, Mr. Crew, I have a question, if you could answer it..

Dr. CREW: Mm-hmm.

MAUREEN: Actually, it's a comment and a question. In the public schools - and I agree with everything you said - in the public schools, parents especially in poverty areas, don't really know what these children need or want and they don't understand. We've - and I've taught for 35 years, I know this. We've skewed the goal of the school to be - to get the kid a job. And I remember the president of Brown University saying she does - education for his own sake. Not to get a kid a job. And our kids don't understand that. And they don't understand that each subject is an integral part of creating a human being to come into the greater world. They think the greater world needs to come to them and offer them something. They don't understand this.

And they don't love the subjects intrinsically. And to have them understand why it's important to develop a mind in the same way one can remember rap blurbs for 5,000 songs is difficult. And parents, in the same way, can't grasp what it is their kids need to know. And teachers, because of teaching through testing, have become so paranoid about getting down what they need to teach to have the kids pass the test so they reflect positively to the administration that they are - we're no longer thinking in terms of organic relationships among the classes.

And I know in private schools, children have all these wonderful opportunities because the money is there, the sophistication, the level of class and understanding of the education for its own sake. But in public schools, you've got to buck all of this that these people have been taught for years - I mean, all of us in the system and parents - and make them understand this was different. You're creating a mind that is valuable to the world. Your mind and all of these wonderful things connect you to your past and project you into the future. And I don't know how the heck to do that.

CONAN: Hmm. Rudy Crew, how do you transmit that sense of urgency?

Dr. CREW: Wow. Well, Maureen, that's a very, very interesting and powerful comment you make.

Well, first of all, I could not agree more that this is about fundamentally going to a place where an education system is viewed as having intrinsic value to human life. And in order to be able to do that from where we are, it seems as though, we actually have to - going to get control over some of what we've let go of for the last two or three decades.

Kids need to really feel as though there's a relationship, for example, between effort and earning, that nothing is given to you free, that you fundamentally have to work very hard. That things are not sort of this bling-bling, hurry up and do it because I want it kind of world. And that requires teaching people. That requires giving them experiences where they actually have to touch and feel and resonate with the notion that there is no automatic. And - but that's an integrated day. That's an integrated teaching art.

That's why I, in the book, talk about this whole question of providing needs, more connected experiences for kids because, in a vacuum or in a cell unto itself, kids really don't see the relationship among and between these things.

MAUREEN: (Unintelligible).

And then, secondly, with respect to the parents, if I may, this whole issue of the parent academy was our notion in Miami of being able to say, you know what, if you're going to get parents to feel and act with a greater sense of urgency and a sense of their own demand capability, then they've got to be taught what they can even ask for.

The market has not been kind to poor people of any color. They have not - this market has not - the marketplace of ideas has not been a kind place. They don't know, they don't know that they can ask. They, in many cases, just get here recently from countries - wherever, and they are not sure what they can do, other than to just bring their child to school and then hope for the very best. We've got to do better than that. They've got to quickly kind of belly-up to the table and say, I really want my kid to go to college. And here - tell me what I need to be able to do. Here are the courses. Here's the menu of things that I, as a parent, can and should be doing for my elementary, middle schooler, high schooler in order to enable them to be a gainful participant in this more integrated learning environment.

CONAN: I don't mean to sound zero-sum, but I mean, for example, rounded - you, for example, Rudy Crew, talk a lot about the importance of learning arts appreciation is central to the human experience. If schools are already failing to teach arithmetic and reading, when do we have time for arts appreciation?

Dr. CREW: Well, I see - that's, again, that's one of those sort of either/ors and, I think, it's both/and. I just don't think this is all about wiping away the arts, wiping away windows into how students make sense out of really important areas like math and science.

The arts can play an enormously important part in being able to give kids a sense of their own civility. They can travel to places far away from where they may are through the arts, and see and experience things that otherwise might not necessarily ever come into their space.

I think we've got to integrate that in a way that gives young people a chance to really feel that there is a connection between what they're doing in school and the life they envision or begin to envision for themselves.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Maureen.

MAUREEN: Okay. Can I ask him a question?

CONAN: If you're quick about it. We want to get somebody else a chance.

MAUREEN: Yes. Dr. Crew, you're going to have to destroy school systems as they exist now. That's what's going to have to happen, public school systems. That's what's going to have to happen.

CONAN: Are you…

MAUREEN: Break down to walls, change the way people are taught to teach and how - and understand that that's what's going to have to happen. Because the way it is now, to impose this new idea on them - or it's not even a new idea, I taught like that for 35 years, but you broke the system - is going to be impossible. It's just going to - you have to just bring new people in, teach the older people how to handle this new concept, see if you can bring them in that way, because as it exist now, it's like - it's a fortress.

Dr. CREW: Well, I would argue that this…

MAUREEN: Well, this…

CONAN: …as we start to lose our economic place in the world, as our dollars shrinks to less and less value, as our ability to have people gainfully employed in businesses right here in the United States because they simply can't find a labor pool to be able to function their own - run their own businesses, as that begins to happen, you will find that that will become the demise of public education.

MAUREEN: I hope so.

CONAN: Hmm.

MAUREEN: I hope so.

CONAN: Maureen, thank you.

MAUREEN: Yes.

CONAN: And thanks for 35 years.

MAUREEN: Okay. Yeah. I didn't see it on 35.

CONAN: Okay.

MAUREEN: I saw it get worse because of the proficiency and the Nor Child Left Behind. Dr. Crew, we had people…

CONAN: Maureen, Maureen, Maureen, Maureen, I'm sorry. I do need to get somebody else a chance, okay? I apologize.

Dr. CREW: Good luck, Maureen.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go on now to - this should be - excuse me. This is Scott(ph). Scott is with us from Tolland in Connecticut.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi, Neal.

My question is about the idea from Mr. Crew and from some Democratic candidates for president about the idea of a $40,000 minimum wage, which I don't think is necessarily going to solve the problem of getting the quality teachers in our schools. My idea was what about making teachers at least federally tax exempt but perhaps even state income tax exempt where the states have income tax to try to bring the status of being a teacher, at least in a public school system, higher in our society, and maybe, like you said, get more because that'll double the value of the seat in the classroom because the teachers are now bringing home maybe 30 percent more of their income.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. CREW: Well, I actually thought about that in terms of being able to find a way of incentivizing folks to come into this profession. And I think I probably wouldn't disagree with that.

I think the issue of the day, however, is can you actually make a living doing this work? Can you support a family doing this work? And in most cases, in most cases, particularly in big cities, the entry-level salary of a teacher simply wouldn't support a family. And the question becomes, well, then where do those people go? And they literally leave any hope of being a professional teacher. They go into businesses that will start them at $40,000 and $50,000 and $60,000 a year. And they begin - and then they come back to us, in some cases, as second career or mid-career people hoping to now do something different with their lives.

And I'm simply saying the institution of American education can no longer handle losing all of the horses that it takes to run this particular race. And we continue to do it year in and year out.

Miami, this year, we hired approximately fourteen hundred new teachers. If you ask around the room the day of new teacher orientation, roughly half of those people are at a mid-point in their career. They changed careers. They are now coming in - having made money, they now want to come into public education and do something really, really interesting and powerful, almost, if you will, emotionally ladened with their lives. And I have absolute respect and wonderful, wonderful hopes for these people.

But it's so, so difficult: A, to hold on to them and B, to get them on the front-end of this issue. We just can't afford to start schools with people who, you know, are sort of just looking at this as a way of being able to kind of supplement their salaries, if you will. These need to be understood and the country needs to be able to stand behind the emergence of a professional core of people who, as an industry, are bringing value to the lives of children and who are paid because we intrinsically believe in the value that they will be bringing.

And that's why I was arguing in the book that the way of being able to do that is to kind of really go to the heart of what a person chooses a career for in part of which is, can I earn a living doing this? Can I actually, you know, raise a family doing this?

CONAN: Thanks for the…

SCOTT: I agree. And I think you'll get a lot of, I think you'll get a lot more people coming back from their mid-career or the end of their career if you can incentivize it and maybe raise the status of being a teacher in America because it's not perceived, I mean, I'm a young professional myself, as something where you can easily raise a family.

Dr. CREW: Right. Right.

SCOTT: My only other small comment is, I'm a manufacturing supervisor and many of the people that are educated in our own school systems here do not have the same kind of work ethic as other people that are maybe first generation or brand new to this country as far as working in manufacturing environments, other kind of, you know, not necessarily unskilled labor, but, you know, the kind of job that takes the - a harder day's work. I find it a lot of the motivation and work ethic seems to be lacking in some of our young people now.

CONAN: Hmm. That would go…

SCOTT: And I take my comments off.

CONAN: All right. Thank you, Scott. And Rudy Crew, that would go to workplace literacy, one of the four things you think school should focus on.

Dr. CREW: Correct. This is exactly why I believe that we ought to be across the board giving kids an opportunity to, you know, opportunity to experience an internship. To pick a career, pick a - not a job, but pick a career. Give some thought to what you think you may want to be doing for some period of time in your life. It may change. But at least begin the process of thinking through, boy, what do I have to know in order to be able to do it? How do I dress for that? Where do I interview for that? Where are the networks of people who currently, in my own community, do that? What are the cities that do that? What kind of universities offer courses for that, et cetera, et cetera.

I mean, it's a robust and an energizing thought. It's what we mean when we say in these wonderful lofty graduation speeches that you have the whole world ahead of you. Well, the whole world ahead of children who have never thought about it does not really enable them to take advantage of that whole world. So I think, to a degree, this whole notion of workplace literacy starts really in elementary schools where people actually start thinking about and completing tasks and having effort that they have to put forward, they have to go back and do something again.

In some cases, I think we've cuddled young people to the point where they really expect that someone is going to kind of just be there to save them from a moment of failure. And, in fact, I don't think that there's anything wrong with failure if, in fact, it leads to a better effort next time. So that's why teaching is so important because it is - it supports the notion of building confidence. It develops that inner sense of, hey, I didn't get it right this time, but I can analyze what broke, what didn't, what I didn't do well and I'll go back at it and do it again.

I want every single kid in America to be able to say when they wake up and go to school, boy, I didn't - I'm going to get it better. I'm going to even be better at it today than I was yesterday.

CONAN: Rudy Crew is our guest. He's with us form our bureau in New York. His new book is "Only Connect: The Way to Fix Our Schools." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an e-mail from Rebecca(ph) in Louisville, Kentucky. In my county, we have both the best school and the worst school in the state. The incentive system for our schools across the country is fundamentally backward - give money to the schools that are doing well and take money and resources from schools that are struggling.

Instead, schools that are failing should have their student-teacher ratios decreased to something like one to 15. However, there would be quite an outcry if poor, struggling schools got special treatment like this. What do you think it would take to get people to support measures like this and the accompanying taxes?

Dr. CREW: Well, here we are again back on the, sort of, the horns of this dual proposition. Either we support schools that are doing very well and we do so at the expense of schools that are doing poorly. Again, that framework simply is the wrong framework. It just simply says we need to be able to - someone's ox has got to be gored at the expense of someone else. And I just fundamentally don't buy the framework.

When I say in the book that we actually ought to challenge America to do with this industry, what we have done over the course of history with other industries where we had to literally rebuild it, we're facing that exact same thing with the infrastructure of our bridges now. Imagine, imagine this conversation 10 years ago with respect to dollars for bridges or materials and more infrastructure for repairing of highways and so on.

We now have to do what we did in the great space race. We have to go back and literally, say, full court press, all - everything being pushed ahead for a better, stronger, economically, solidly gripping education system in America. And I fear what will happen 10, 20, 15 years from now if we do not.

CONAN: Yet, we all share your fears, I think, but you say things like we need to drain the politics out of the funding system. How do you do that?

Dr. CREW: Well, I think if you basically created a more unitary system. I mean, this was really - the notion here was that a child's education in Iowa is worth as much as a child's education in Ohio as much as it is in New York City or any place else. And let's appropriate dollars that are predicated on a national allocation of resources to public education.

We don't have really a national education system. What we have are systems of education that derive from states. I don't mind that. I certainly agree with states control and so on and so forth. But now, we're at a point where all of these multiple inputs from multiple states have led to multiple tests, multiple assessments of what constitutes graduation, multiple ways by which we're going to now build a curriculum. Some states have one or two years of social studies, other states have something less, and on and on and on. Too much variability, Neal.

CONAN: Rudy Crew will stay with us to take a couple more calls. Also coming up, Harry Shearer, the voice of several characters on the "The Simpson's" and part-time resident of New Orleans, a city he argues is bootstrap city. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. It's Neal Conan in Washington.

Harry Shearer coming up in just a couple of minutes. But still with us is Rudy Crew who's currently the superintendent at the Miami Dade County Public Schools, the country's fourth largest system. We're talking about his new book, "Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools."

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Brit(ph). Brit with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

BRIT (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BRIT: I was interested in the comments that you're making about the need for integrating different subjects and for assessing whether or not what we're doing is working in a somewhat uniformed manner. I'm a college science teacher and the freshmen and sophomores that we have now are those who've come up through middle school and high school of the No Child Left Behind system.

Dr. CREW: Mm-hmm.

BRIT: And we've seen, and it's not just in my class, we've seen many cases where the students have been trained that the test is the goal of education not the learning and they don't really seem to have a value for the knowledge itself. The fact that the administration puts only emphasis on a test score, that trickles down, that culture is communicated to the students.

So my question is, is there a way that we can assess whether or not we're being successful in educating our students without them getting an - without them having that sense that all they have to do is pass the test and get a diploma and then they magically get a job without actually having to learn anything in the process.

Dr. CREW: Yes. A great point. I think you're absolutely right. That's essentially what I was saying about the sort of end game of public education right now, happens to be, did you pass the test? And to the extent that culture flows and it creates the same in teachers. And it organize the school around being able to take and pass the test, which I think is really just such a narrow bandwidth.

I think that there is an alternative to that, however. And I think it begins by saying that, yes, assessment is important. There's no doubt about that. This is not about abdicating our role and determining whether or not students know or don't know the material. On the other hand, the kinds of assessments that we use actually determines whether or not you are simply quote, unquote, "taking a test" or whether or not you're able to demonstrate, if you will, particularly in science, that you know the material, that you actually can interact with this material in a way that can analyze and synthesize information and integrate information.

It's one thing to take a test on science concepts. It's another thing to actually do an experiment and be able to demonstrate before a class or a teacher that they actually understand the relationship between the sun and photosynthesis. And those are the kinds of experiments and experiences that I think we ought to be using in our classrooms particularly in the poorest of our schools across America.

CONAN: I hate to interrupt but how do you then get that sort of partly subjective judgment and pass that along to either the county, the state and the federal governments who are all saying, how are you doing with this money we're giving you?

Dr. CREW: Well, I think you can do both. As I said, I don't think you have to do one or the other. We've made this a Hobson's choice of sorts, you know, where it's either the test or nothing at all. And what I'm saying is that it really can be both. You can actually have in-class assessments along the way that help us to determine whether or not students are really acquiring this knowledge. Some of it, actually, can be so easily graded using some of the current technology that it doesn't take a lot of time from teachers to be able to do it.

But the question is, do you see that as a meaningful way of being able to teach? And if you don't, it's in large measure - I think it should be the rule to the fact that we established such a huge footprint for the did-you-pass-the-test question.

CONAN: Yeah.

Dr. CREW: And if that's all we're making schools the fundamental, sort of, object of, then, in fact, that's what you're going to get on the other end. You're going to get kids who can take and pass the test, who may or may not have any, any particular ability to know what they just did or how they integrated any of this into their life, may see it as having no particular relevance in their life other than for that one day and that one moment when they had to take in this particular test and hope to God, pass it.

BRIT: I very much agree. One of the other issues we've seen in science class, specifically, is the students are very good at memorizing information, but you ask them to use it, you get a roomful of blank stares.

Dr. CREW: One of the things that I wanted to say very quickly was teaching at the application level is very different than teaching simply at the knowledge level. And when - and I've been a teacher and, obviously, you are as well, you know, as well as I do, when you ask students to perform using the knowledge and the concepts that you've taught, that's a different level of assessment. That's a very - you're asking for a different kind of use of the brain, than when you ask them to regurgitate what did I just say, and hopefully you maintained it or memorized it well enough that you can now repeat it on a 10-question test. Just - it's just an enormous amount of difference in what we actually would get back from students if you ask them to apply it and demonstrate it.

CONAN: Brit, thanks very much.

BRIT: Yeah. The point I want to make is that waiting until they are 18 or 19 to start that is far too late.

Dr. CREW: Too late. Too late.

CONAN: Thanks again, Brit.

BRIT: All right. Thanks.

CONAN: And, Rudy Crew, thank you for your time today. I have to say before we let you go that I was fascinated by the stories you tell about your father and the way he raised you. And if people go read your book, "Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools," they'll find the fascinating answer to the question as to why fathers must always give their sons apples.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. CREW: Absolutely right. Absolutely right.

CONAN: Rudy Crew, thanks for your time.

Dr. CREW: Thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: Rudy Crew is superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. He's been speaking with us from our bureau in New York City. Harry Shearer coming up. It's the TALK OF THE NATION.

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