Book Review: ‘Education is Upside-Down’ by Eric Kalenze


“Education is Upside-Down: Reframing Reform to Focus on the Right Problems” by Eric Kalenze
Rowman & Littlefield, 2015; 200 pages

Reviewed by Barry Garelick

There are times when information you receive provides you with a framework for analysis that you didn’t have before. Four situations come to mind:

1) Learning to read; 2) High school physics; 3) College economics; 4) Eric Kalenze’s book “Education is Upside Down”.

In each of these instances, my view and understanding of the world was forever and irrevocably changed. It could be explained, investigated and analyzed using powerful new tools and techniques. In “Education is Upside Down”, Kalenze provides the framework and perspective to advance one’s thinking about education—no matter how much you thought you knew about it.

I teach math and am involved in the battles of how math is best taught—and how it should not be taught.  I see instances in which those in charge declare that what had worked in the past did not work. What happens then is that changes that are clearly not working are instituted—and declared to be effective.

Put in the language that Kalenze provides us, the educational world is upside-down. He makes use of a metaphor of an upside-down funnel in which some of the liquid poured into it makes it into its intended receptacle, while the remainder runs off the sides unused and wasted. (It is one of those metaphors so clever that most readers will adopt it as their own without even realizing it has been appropriated!)

Kalenze accurately describes a world in which the children of the affluent are able to succeed despite misguided efforts in educational practices, largely through access to help via parents and tutors.  And unfortunately, it is a world in which less fortunate children are harmed, trapped inside the receptacle, but unable to make use of all the liquid that spills off the sides of the upside-down funnel.

He provides an historical background of how education got this way, from Dewey and the Progressives to the present-day constructivist oriented approaches: “Student-directed, student-determined, student-discovered”— all hailed as best practices.  He describes the upside-down world of education that now has teachers evaluated using something called the Charlotte Danielson Framework—a rubric that is aligned with constructivist goals (i.e., inquiry-based and student-centered techniques).  I have run across this framework myself, and note that it is not only used to evaluate teachers, but prospective teachers. As part of the hiring process of new teachers, they are often videotaped giving a mini/demo lesson and are evaluated using the Charlotte Danielson constructivist-oriented rubric. In other words, evaluations and hiring are ideologically driven by practices that have been shown to be harmful.

The upside-down world of education treats Bloom’s taxonomy as a hierarchy of learning given from up on high and to be accepted without question. This taxonomy gives short shrift to the lowest level of learning, which is “Recall facts and basic concepts”.  In today’s education world, the goal is for the top levels: Higher order thinking, and critical thinking.

Never mind that those are highly-dependent on mastery of facts and basic concepts. In an upside-down world, teachers are told to teach in a top-down mode, and whatever facts and procedures students need can be learned in a “just in time” manner. After all, we live in an age when facts can be Googled—so why waste time learning them? Students should spend time making models of aquifers and doing “real-life” math problems that are one-off in nature and do not provide transferable problem solving skills. Students need to be engaged, after all, and if it isn’t relevant, they will not learn, say the experts.

In short, in providing the reader a framework for understanding what is going on in education, he nails it!

A prime example is this passage:

From a practical point of view, far too many of the innovations implemented in America’s schools are designed around the (you guessed it) upside-down funnel. A quick tour of a few “cool practices” that ultimately fell short and were immediately forgotten (or discredited) demonstrates this quite starkly.

From “whole-language” reading instruction to “inquiry-based learning” to “computer-aided instruction” to interactive whiteboards to learning-styles-based theories, and on and on, all of these high-profile—and high-cost—attempts to improve instruction are usually based on two major principles of the upside-down funnel:

1. Engaging students with showy, more “authentic,” or more personally relevant learning activities at the expense of genuine content mastery.

   2. Skipping to higher-order, critical thinking tasks without proper regard for essential intellectual building blocks such as knowledge and comprehension.

My only quibble with Kalenze’s book came when he described the Common Core standards.  He holds an optimistic view for these standards, while I do not. But in further reading, I can see where his optimism comes from (and I note he focuses mostly on the English Language Arts standards, since that was the subject area that he taught; my expertise is in math). Kalenze points out that the standards have laudable goals, and indeed they do. But he also points out that content is key, and that proper interpretation and implementation of Common Core will turn the upside-down funnel right-side up.

I would agree that if one exercises a common sense interpretation of Common Core’s standards, there would definitely be improvement. But from my math-oriented perspective, I see an upside-down funnel embedded in the standards that allows them to be interpreted along the constructivist-oriented reform math agenda that has been going strong for the past two decades. While I do not hold the same optimistic view that Kalenze does, I certainly see his point and the merits of his arguments.  I would argue that the right side-up funnel needs to be more prominent in the Common Core standards.

And as far as righting the funnel, he does suggest specific changes that need to be made to overturn the many years of Progressive influence and turn schools from student-centered to teacher-centered and content-focused. From the upside-down world of education, in which the goal is to “teach the whole child,” he advocates as a starting-point the following right-side up goal: “To prepare young citizens for meaningful participation in mainstream institutions.”

Another step in the right direction, in my opinion, would be to make his book required reading in all schools of education.


Barry Garelick has written extensively about math education in various publications including The Atlantic, Education Next, Educational Leadership, and Education News. He recently retired from the U.S. EPA and is teaching middle and high school math in California. He has written a book about his experiences as a long- term substitute in a high school and middle school in California: “Teaching Math in the 21st Century”.

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