Sunday, May 31, 2015

Defending the USED

And that’s one of my chief gripes with the battle cry to banish the Department of Education. It’s policy by sound bite. There’s too much of that already.

That's the closing graf of Frank Bruni's NYT op-ed this morning. It follows a thoughtful discussion of the usefulness of the beleaguered Department of Education-- ha, no. Just kidding. It comes at the end of series of sound bites from the Usual Sources. I am envious of this style of well-connected mad-libs journalism-- you get out your list of reliable contacts and fill in the blanks. "Although many critics of [topic] have said [sound bite from critic], others disagree. [Sound bite from supporter.]"

Bruni's topic is the continued existence of the Department of Education, and his piece offers all the lack of nuance and shallowness of understanding that he's complaining about in the first place. Perhaps he is offering a post-modern deconstructive criticism of criticism. But on the off chance he's not, let's look at his actual argument.

Bruni starts by noting that beating up on the USED has become a GOP primary punching bag once again, coupled with knee-jerk Common Core hatred. He cites the most recent defection of Chris Christie without noting that Christie's stated faithfulness to the PARCC test means his CCSS rejection is a deeply empty gesture. As is always required in these pieces, Jeb Bush is singled out as Common Core's BFF (Bruni might have noted that, as reported by Buzzfeed of all things, Bush's love is so great that he co-ordinated Core defense with Arne Duncan.)

But, Bruni notes, Democrats are also unfriending the department. Well, actually, one Democrat. Bruni mentions that Murray has teamed up with Lamar Alexander "to sponsor legislation that would leave the department and its secretary with much less influence over states." Why he does not explain that he's talking about the proposed ESEA rewrite that came out of the Senate Education Committe that Murray and Alexander co-chair--- well, that's just a weird detail to skip. Instead he just notes that the bill-- if it passes, which it might, because "bi-partisan support"-- the department would be a shadow of its former self.

So-- to recap-- Bruni has taken the Senate attempt to re-authorize the ESEA, and instead of placing that in the context of a bill that has been awaiting re-authorization by Congress since 2007 and has finally been tackled by the appropriate Senate committee for that tackling, he's creating a new narrative in which, steeped in an anti-department atmosphere, Murray and Alexander just kind of go rogue and float this bill created out of whole cloth just to spank the department.

So what else does Bruni want to point out in this alternate universe?

Well, goodness. Under this proposal, the USED would not have say "over how (or if)" teacher evaluation would occur. And-- Good lord in heaven-- here's a short list of Things Bruni Does Not Know:

1) Even with the USED's watchful eye, states are managing to gut the teaching profession. Current leader in assaulting the profession would be the Wisconsin, where they're thinking that maybe anybody-- even a high school dropout-- can be a teacher.

2) USED's ideas about how to evaluate teacher are stupid. Their major contribution has been to demand that teachers be evaluated by using student test scores, an approach supported by no actual research or science or even common sense, and repudiated by pretty much everybody who doesn't have financial or political benefits tied to the approach.

3) "Or if"? Come on. Name one state, one school, one corner of the country where politicians and leaders are saying, "Let's never evaluate teachers at all." Well, except for charter schools. But the USED supports charters and the charter right to make up any rules they like, so again-- if this is a problem, the USED is definitely not on the case.

4) The best teacher evaluation systems are coming from local school districts, not the feds. Time magazine is profiling a system created by UCLA schools in Koreatown (in LA-- my son's neighborhood!) that Audrey Amrein-Beardsley calls "legitimately new and improved."

But now, having laid out the basic question, Bruni is ready to deploy his parade of sound bites for the USED opponents.

Lamar Alexander (former department head, but again-- not acknowledged by Bruni as the head of Senate Ed Comittee): All we need is a leader to man the bully pulpit about education and a treasury department to cut checks.

Mitch Daniels (former governor and Bush administration person): It's not "ludicrous" to get rid of the department. We did fine without them before 1979. Also, they haven't improved anything.

No, says Bruni, they haven't.

But there’s much more at work than the failings of the education department, which contributes only about 10 percent of funding nationally for K-through-12 schooling and has only so much impact on what happens in classrooms.

You'd think that sentence would open up a considerably larger discussion, but now-- Bruni leaves the mystery of A) if it's true that US education hasn't gotten better since 1979 and B) if not, why not for some other day. He really only wants to use that to the defense of the department and the sound bites for that side of things.

Kati Haycock (head of Education Trust, a advocacy group-- Bruni doesn't mention that they are charter school advocates): When states are left alone, they don't do right by poor students.

Joel Klein (former chancellor of NYC schools, corporate shill for hire, and creator of many reformster monsters): When states are left alone, they don't generate enough failing grades for students.

"Many advocates": Bruni seems to slip into the middle of his own piece to say that we have to compete globally and so students must be educated not just for their state, but for the whole world. Because everybody remembers America's big bunch of young people who never leave their home state because they are only educated in a state-specific way??

Mike Petrilli (Fordham boss and professional pusher of Common Core, testing, charters and other great education money-making schemes): We need to right-size the feds.

Bruni also muses about the money. If there were no department, who would make sure that the taxpayers are getting their money's worth. Which speaks to Bruni's view of the department, which seems to be as the national education police. There's a whole list of things that the states can't be trusted to do correctly, and a department is needed to Make Them Behave.

Recent history is more complicated. Haycock's argument that states don't do right by their poor educationally is valid; the problem is that the USED hasn't changed that a bit. Haycock, Klein, and Petrilli are fine examples of all the folks who have used the Problems of Educating the Poor as ways to Make Lots of Money. Under modern ed reformsterism, we locate educational problem areas and mark them for strip-mining, while simultaneously depriving the folks who live in those communities of voice or vote. Reformsters did not descend upon post-Katrina New Orleans out of a deep, driving concern that the poor children of the city were being deprived of an education-- they packed up their bags and headed south because it was an opportunity, a chance to create a system that gave a whole spectrum of profiteers and investors the opportunity to get their hands on public education tax dollars.

That magical time has become the reformsters dream, and a dozen techniques for forcing disaster and failure on school districts and using that failure as a means of diverting public tax dollars to private pockets. And the USED has been a champion of the process, putting the interests of investors, hedge fund operators, charter school companies, test manufacturers, and corporate interests ahead of concerns for American students.

From Common Core to Big Standardized High Stakes Testing, the USED has become the champion of one-size-fits-all reform (though, of course, wealthy folks are exempt).

And here's the problem with strong central planning. It requires your central planner to be right every time, and no human can pull that off. But with central control, a single bad idea becomes everybody's bad idea. And when your central planner has mostly only bad ideas, you get widespread disaster.

When your system is infected with money, that only makes things worse, because central planning makes one-stop-shopping for those who want to buy themselves some friendly policy decisions.

There's a lot to discuss, but when Bruni hit his contact list, he missed a particular group of sound bite generators-- he forgot to contact any actual supporters of public education. And so his Festival of Sound Bites is lopsided and nuance-free. Let's hope that next time he collects a better class of sound bites.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

When Higher Expectations Aren't

I want to go back to this post about testing from Jersey Jazzman because it so clearly hits a fundamental lie in the Common Core Testing scheme.

Go read it again. It might be the most important post of (at least) the month.

The big point-- that a standardized test is engineered to create a bell curve. Should all the students ever do really well on it, reformsters will not say, "Yippee! At last student achievement has risen! Mission accomplished!" No, should the long-awaited day arrive on which all students score well, reformsters will say, "This test is defective. Send it back."

Let's frame this another way. Let's talk about expectations.

As I ranted the other day, reformsters love higher expectations. They never tire of telling us that the magic sauce saturating their super standards is a reduction brew of higher expectations. We have for over a decade heard the mantra that we must all believe that every child can excel. Every child can do awesometastic work-- if we just have high expectations.

It's a lie.

It's a big, fat lie.

Common Core is not about higher expectations for every child at all.

Because the expectation embedded in a standardized test is that 10-20% of students will do lousy, and another large chunk will just be fair-to-middlin'.

The architects of Common Core and the Big Standardized Tests expect a big chunk of students to do poorly, and that low expectation is built into the test.

When they say, "We're going to set the bar high because that will make every student rise to meet it," they are lying. What they really mean is, "We are going to set the bar high because that will guarantee that our expectation of large-scale failure will be met."

It is possible that some reformsters don't even realize they're doing this. Under NCLB I'm pretty sure some advocates really believed that all children could be above average. But that doesn't change what they've done.

They've built the expectation of failure into the system. They have codified a program of low expectations. And their low expectations are so ingrained, that just as with their low expectations of teacher quality, they refuse to believe any results that do not confirm their expectations.

The BS Testing of Common Core is the very definition of low expectations. So the next time some reformster tosses out that baloney about higher expectations, ask them-- if the test results came back tomorrow at 95% proficiency, what would you say? Hooray? Because if you'd say "these results must be wrong," you don't ever get to lecture us about the soft bigotry of low expectations ever again.

Punching the Eight Year Olds

In some special states, it's not just the end of testing season-- it's also punish third graders by telling them that all their hard work this year was a waste of their time because they have failed a single reading test, and so they have officially flunked third grade.

Mississippi is just open more example of a state that thinks eighth-year-olds need to be pummeled mercilessly so that they will stop holding out, because clearly any third grader who can't pass a Big Standardized Reading Test must not have been threatened enough. Clearly some folks believe that once facing the prospect of failure, a nation of third graders will declare, "Well, then, I'll stop messing around and learn how to read, because previously I had no interest in learning that fundamental skill-- at last not as much as I wanted to get into fourth grade." Yes, surely that's what will happen.

“We have had dozens and dozens of studies on this topic,” said [Linda] Darling-Hammond. “The findings are about as consistent as any findings are in education research: the use of testing is counterproductive, it does not improve achievement over the long run, but it does dramatically increase dropout rates. Almost every place that has put this kind of policy in place since the 1970s has eventually found it counterproductive and has eliminated the policy. Unfortunately policy makers often are not aware of the research and they come along years later and reintroduce the same policies that were done away with previously because of negative consequences and lack of success.”

This whole Failing Third Graders policy argument is what I've learned to recognize as a standard reformster construction. The basic argument structure looks like this:

1) This is a real problem. We will tell you just how real a problem it is.
2) Therefor a bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves.

Step 1 sometimes involves a big slice of deep fried baloney, but sometimes it's an actual issue. Third grade reading is probably an actual issue-- students who can't read well-ish by third grade seem not run into issues down the road (although-- correlation or causation-- those problems might be connected to reading issues, or both the problems and the reading issues could be related to some other factor *cough* poverty *cough*).

The thing is, you could take all the evidence that third grade retention works, roll it up in ball, set it on a pedestal non the head of a pin and still have room left over for several milling angels to have a square dance. Or, to be plain, there is no evidence that retention helps. There is a mountain of evidence that it hurts.

So if we actually wanted to solve the problem of third grade reading proficiency (and not, say, create yet open more crisis with which to force more evidence of public education failure), there are so many things we could do.

We could add additional teachers at the K-3 level so that each student could get more focused personal instruction.'

We could add more intervention programs and personnel so that the moment a student faltered, that child would get all the help she needed.

We could pursue aggressive programs to put books into children's homes. Hell, we could pursue aggressive programs to write and publish materials that wide varieties of children (and their parents)would find appealing and attractive.

We could use methods of assessment that would more reliably tell us about student reading skills, and not more ridiculously inauthentic BS Testing.

We could listen to actual experts. There are plenty talking about this.

“People often present this as if there are only two choices — choice one is hold the kids back and the other is socially promote them without any additional resources or strategies,” Darling-Hammond said. “But the third way, the right response, is one in which you identify the resources they must have and ensure they are getting them immediately. They also should look at whether if you sit them down with a book, can they read? Because a lot of kids perform poorly on multiple-choice standardized tests who actually know the material if you present it in a more authentic way.”

At a minimum, we could shift our thinking-- instead of trying to think of ways to make sure that eight year olds aren't Getting Away With Something by having reading issues, we could adopt an attitude that we will do Whatever It Takes to help those students succeed. Because telling eight year olds that we will punch them in the face if they don't pass that BS Test is not only cruel and stupid-- it also just plain doesn't work.

Wisconsin's Assault on Public Education

Wisconsin's political leaders, including Governor Scott "Hoping To Be Ready For National Prime Time" Walker, are doing their best to really, truly dismantle public education.

It's a challenging story to write about, because people who aren't following education these days think phrases like "dismantle public education" are hyperbole. They aren't. Wisconsin is on a path to do away with public education as we know it.


Wisconsin has been doing its best to break the teaching profession. Walker made himself a national player four years ago by stripping all public sector unions of the power to collectively bargain. That has worked out just about as badly as could have been predicted; people are hired and fired based on, well, anything bosses feel like basing hiring and firing on this week. Wages are less than robust. It has led to teachers saying things like this from Sean Karsten, a thirty-two year old first year reading instructor:

I just look to keep improving my teaching in the best way I can and try to keep my nose out of the other stuff. 

Union membership has plummeted-- why spend money on dues for an organization that can't actually do anything when you need that money more for, say, food for your children?  But that means there's nobody to effectively stand up to Walker's newest proposal.

It emerged last January as a proposal for alternative certification. "Let's give people with life experience teaching jobs," said Walker. Since then, the legislature has been fleshing out the details, bringing us to the current point-- a proposal people who never graduated from high school could end up teaching high school. (You can see the whole history of the idea in AP releases here.)

Wisconsin would retain some standards-- to teach English, social studies, math or science you would have to have a bachelors degree. In something. Anything. And, weirdly enough, this would only apply grades 6 through 12. In Wisconsin, a first grade teacher would require a real teaching degree, but you could teach twelfth grade chemistry with a bachelors degree in art history.

Walker has been very successful selling the narrative of teachers being overpaid fancy-pants who think they're so special with their uppity college degrees while demanding to soak the taxpayers for upscale benefits far better than anything the cashier at the Pick'n'Save ever gets. This is just more of that-- after all, teaching is a job pretty much anybody would do, anyway. If this all happens, Wisconsin will have the distinction of being the first state in which Teach for American volunteers will be overqualified. In Walker's Wisconsin, anybody will be able to "be a teacher," even without an ivy league degree or five whole weeks of training.


Just yesterday, the legislature's budget writing committee approved a policy allowing the University of Wisconsin to gut the schools of Madison and Milwaukee.

We've visited Milwaukee before, viewing a legislative idea that turned the war on poverty into a war on the poor. I'm going to be speculative here, and do some between-the-lines reading. But I come from a state with a big rural-urban split, and I seem to see a similar issue in Wisconsin-- a big bunch of rural not-very-wealthy (white) folks who unhappily, even angrily, see themselves as being soaked for too many tax dollars that are going to take care of those lazy urban poor (black) folks. If I'm wrong, I'll count on someone from Wisconsin to correct me.

At any rate, the legislature would like to give UW the power to start up as many independent charters as they like. Well, actually, it commands UW to appoint somebody to the of Grand High Authorizer; local school boards will have no say. Under the Wisconsin method, those newly approved charters can be explicitly for-profit (all modern charters make a profit-- the only variation is in the book-keeping and smoke-mirror combinations to cover the revenue stream). And of course all of the charters will suck their lifeblood directly from the veins of the public system.

Imagine that somebody pulls up to your yard and starts building a house in the middle of your lawn. When you object, they show you a letter from the state capital-- not only can they build there, but you will be responsible for paying all of their bills and making sure they make a handsome income on top of that.

This is not entirely new. Charters have been previously authorizable by  Milwaukee City Council, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside and the Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Nor is this a completely out of left field. This proposal comes with the loving support of Sen. Alberta Darling, the same legislator who co-outlined the proposal to drop a house on Milwaukee's poor

And while the Madison-Milwaukee proposal is the markee move here, don't miss this other tasty detail.

The proposal also allows the Waukesha County Executive to authorize independent charter schools in that county. Sen. Paul Farrow, who headed the Senate’s effort to overhaul accountability for schools, is leaving the Senate in July after recently being elected Waukesha county executive.

Sigh. Some days I think the only way these reformsters could get more lazy and transparent would be to propose legislation requiring the state to deliver bales of money directly to their homes.

Winning Quotes

The Wisconsin State Journal did round up a couple of fine reactions to this latest educational gut shot. From Madison School Board member Ed Hughes:

It looks like the UW President is required to appoint someone who could then authorize as many publicly funded but potentially for-profit charter schools in Madison as that unelected and unaccountable person wanted.

And Madison School Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham was equally blunt:

We are incredibly determined, and we are making progress on behalf of all children. But at every step of the way, the Legislature puts more barriers in our way and makes our jobs more difficult.

Wisconsin's Education Twilight

So the bottom line-- in Scott Walker's Wisconsin, I can set up a charter school at taxpayer expense and staff it with pretty much anybody I like (and who will get whatever pay I feel like giving them--at taxpayer expense). My only out-of-pocket costs might be some up front "processing fees" for the Grand High Authorizer

The possibilities are endless. Heck, every member of my family could become a member of my charter school faculty. If my family is too small, I could recruit staff from the Pick'n'Save-- if they schedule their cashier shifts in the evening and teach during the day, they can make some nice extra money on the side.

My condolences to the few actual teachers left in Wisconsin. It has to be lonely, and getting progressively lonelier, as Wisconsin works hard to become the Mississippi or the North. The only thing worse than being an actual teacher in Wisconsin will be being a student who hopes to get an actual education.

Friday, May 29, 2015

PA: Cyber Whine Party

Pennsylvania cyber charters are Very Sad, because the new governor of the state is threatening to end their long-standing party.

Years ago, a local departing superintendent offered a few words of advice. "If you want to get rich," he said, "go start a cyber school." He was not kidding. For the past decade-plus, running a Pennsylvania cyber charter has been as good as printing money. Despite their abysmal record of academic failure,  Pennsylvania cybers rake in money hand over fist.

There's no big secret to it-- a cyber is paid the full per-capita home district cost of every student it enrolls. If it costs East Bucksawanna $10,500 per child to provide buildings and maintenance and infrastructure and resources and teachers and books and all the rest, then the Gotrox Cyber Acdemy gets that same $10,500, with which it provides the student with a computer (free!!) and access to a teacher or two (each of whom is carrying several hundreds of students).

It's like running a dealership where every customer will pay the purchase price of their last brand new luxury automobile and in return, all you have to give them is some object with wheels.

This has been a point of contention in PA because every cent that goes into cyber coffers comes straight out of public school tax dollars. Every student that a cyber enrolls is a budget cut for public schools, and the cuts are vicious and deep and resulting in loss of programs, closing of schools, and furloughs of teachers. Taxpayers are complaining to public schools, "What the hell did you do with all that money I gave you," and public schools reply, "That guy right over there [pointing at cyber charter] took it, and that guy right over there [pointing at legislator] says I have to let it happen." People are getting pissed off. The baloney about how the money follows the child isn't convincing, because people are now seeing that the child not only takes his own family's money, but the tax dollars from all the neighbors on his street, too.

Cyber charters in PA have created whole new traditions. For instance, a cyber school may test a student to determine if the student has special needs. Why would they care? Perhaps because they get roughly $10K for regular students and $25K for students with special needs.

There's also the tradition of enrollment day, on which guidance counselors and cyber schoolsters sit at their computers and toss students back and forth like hot potatoes on a reverse e-bay. Why? Well, there are two magic dates on the cyber calendar. After one certain date, the school gets to keep the money even if the kid leaves the cyber. After enrollment day, whoever still has the kid has to count that students test scores as their own.

Anyway. Governor Wolf has raised a fun question-- how much does it actually cost to educate a cyber-student? Because shouldn't it cost, you know, less? And if so, why should taxpayers pay more? No other public school (because, like all charters, cybers insist on calling themselves public schools) sets a budget that includes an extra couple of million just to feather the nest.

Wolf has proposed a flat fee-- $5,950. Cybers currently rake in about $400 million; Wolf's numbers would send about $160 million back to public schools (you know-- the schools that taxpayers thought they were funding in the first place). That sound you hear is the sound of cyber school operators whining, loudly.

"If that budget passes, we're going to have to either cut staff and programming, or we're going to have to increase our enrollment," said Kim McCully, the Interim CEO of 21st Century Cyber Charter, headquartered in Downingtown.

I call bullshit. 

21st Century Cyber spends $10,736 per student. 

I call bullshit again. Those statements, if true, mean that 21st Century is the most inefficient, poorly-run excuse for a cyber school ever created. 

"They've made all these conclusions about our school," said McCully, "but they have never, ever reached out to us and said, can we please come look."

I have no way of knowing if that's true in the case of 21st Century. I know that in some cyber-cases, it took some reaching out by federal grand juries to find out how a charter was spending money. Or by lawsuit. Or by another lawsuit. I also know that right now, the PA School Board Association is demanding to see charter schools financials, and charters have dismissed the whole thing as "frivolous." I think we can safely say that PA charters, both cyber and brick, have not been very interested in talking about fair funding. They've got theirs, Jack.

Or at least, they had theirs. Now they are worried. And whiny.

Cyber schools fill some real needs. There are students who are better served by that model than by the traditional set up. Cyber schools have also become a popular way to augment home schooling. But cybers have also become a good way to get out of having to pay one more truancy fine. And we don't talk very much about cyber assignments which, at the end of the day, just have to be completed on the computer at this end, by somebody.

There's a worthwhile discussion to be had about the value of cyberschools and about the many needs they meet. What we don't really need to discuss is how they meet the needs of some people to accumulate giant piles of money at the expense of public schools and Pennsylvania taxpayers. Wolf's proposal is long overdue; let's ee how it holds up against the impending onslaught of lobbyists for the charter biz. If you're in PA, now would be a good time to write to your legislators.

The High Expectations Fallacy

High expectations. Boy, do we love that phrase these days.

It's hard-wired into the Common Core. CCSS will use higher expectations to bring about great student achievement. I could link to hundreds of articles using some version of that phrase. The Core will save us all through the power of higher expectations.

As a flip side of this, every instance of a student coming up short is blamed on low expectations. The oft-repeated mantra that we have lied to students, telling them they're on track for college when they aren't. The claim that students with special needs only come up short on school achievement because their teachers have not expected enough of them. Here's the thought as clearly expressed by Washington State:

The evidence is clear that disabilities do not cause disparate outcomes, but that the system itself perpetuates limitations in expectations and false belief systems about who children with disabilities can be and how much they can achieve in their lifetime.

So, high expectations are the key to success and greater achievement. Higher expectations are the key to every thing!

Well, not everything.

For instance, we often offer proof that students aren't ready for college because so many of them take remedial courses. But why? Haven't colleges heard of the magical power of expectations?

I mean, why have the student take a remedial course when you could just have all professors raise their expectations? Come on, Professor McWeisenheimer! Just expect those freshmen to do better! Raise your expectations and surely, face with higher expectations, those college freshmen will be awesome!

And what about employers. We've heard that Common Core is needed to get students ready for careers, but couldn't employers do that just by raising expectations? If new employees are doing poorly, that disparate outcome must be the result of a corporate system that perpetuates limitations in expectations. If we could just train employers to have higher expectations, then all new employees would rise to those expectations! Paradise! Unicorn farms!

Look, I have great respect for the power of high expectations, and I think my students would back me up on this. But if reformsters are going to insist that high expectations are the secret to fixing everything about schools, they need to explain why the power of high expectations ONLY applies to K-12 education and not to either college or the workplace. Until then, the phrase is just an empty soundbite, and really, I expect much better of them.

CAP Chicken Littles New Jersey

This is why I don't take CAP seriously.

There has been a predictable outcry over Chris Christie's announced abandonment of the Common Core. Christie's gesture is hollow and pointless, and some of the Core-loving criticism has been correct to call it cynical, as well as ultimately pointless, since Christie has also recommitted to PARCC and since the CCSS replacement will likely not be a whole new animal, but the same old pig with fresh make-up.

But CAP can be counted on to cobble together a bit of whineage constructed entirely from old reformster PR. They unvieled this slab of baloney in under the by-line of Daniell Gibbs Leger, senior vice-president for communications and strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. In other words, her job is to go put stuff on line to try to promote the reformster program. Let's check to see if all the usual talking points are in place.

She opens by calling Christie out and quoting his former "courageous" support of the Core (because in 2010 it took real courage to accept all that money from various CCSS supporters). And she notes that turning on the Core is a popular parlor game among GOP Presidential aspirants.

But in his attempt to appease his base by opposing the Common Core, Gov. Christie has turned his back on the students of New Jersey, particularly students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.

Yes, we need the Core For The Children.

Also, Achievement Gap. There's a bad one, and it's all because of people with Low Expectations. The Common Core Standards would Level the Playing Field. Because the playing field is totally cockeyed because of educational standards for math and reading, and not at all because of systemic poverty and economic policies that favor the rich.

But see-- in the old days we were always Lying To Students about their college readiness, as proven by the number who have to Take Remedial Course. Also, students with College Degrees Make More Money. This is totally not because both college attendance and later-in-life earnings are directly tied to your socio-economic background.

Let's throw in some Stretchers as Evidence. " Kentucky, who was the first state to adopt the Common Core, saw college and career readiness rates increase from 34 percent to 62 percent in just four years." That would be more impressive if the college and career readiness rate was not simply another name for test results. All this says that after years of practicing taking tests, Kentucky students are better at taking tests.

 And let's drive it home in a Big Thesis Without Any Actual Support. "By providing more rigorous standards and holding all students to higher expectations, students are better prepared to exit high school with the skills they need to succeed in college and careers." It sounds lovely, but it depends on the higher expectations magical thinking and references the skills needed to succeed in college and career which would be great except that no such list exists. 

Let's throw in some True Statements Unconnected To The Point.  "Our students—no matter the color of their skin or their socio-economic status—deserve the highest quality education." That is absolutely true-- but how is it that such a statement does not lead us to a discussion of equitable funding or teacher support or providing resources for poor schools? What exactly does Common Core have to do with providing the highest quality education? Is it used in all the top private schools? (Spoiler alert: not even when hell freezes over).

Doubling Down on Unsupportable Promise, and False Promise of Equity.  Christie should support the "high standards that guarantee and equitable education for all students, no matter what their ZIP code may be." (Oh, yeah-- Tyranny of the Zip Code) Because using charters to eliminate geographical boundaries is working super-duper in Newark.

And finally, Alluding to Non-existent Success. Christie should not do this because it will be A Step Backwards "and our students will suffer the consequences." Because New Jersey has had huge educational success because of the Common Core.

I think cigarette companies do a better job of making a case for their project. CAP is reduced, again, to running in circles and hollering that the sky is falling and only the magical power of Common Core can save it.

Christie's Useless Gesture

So Chris Christie has decided to repudiate the Common Core.

Big frickin' deal.

Here are just a few of the reasons that his newly-discovered disdain for the standards is unimpressive, and unlikely to help save the fantasy of Christie running for President, ever.

The Core is so last year.

Repudiating the Core, even taking it to court, has not exactly set Bobby Jindal's campaign aflame. It's kind of ironic-- being against the Core no longer seems to be anything special. Once upon a time any politician could say that they were in favor of good schools and education and it was a safe, predictable position that didn't really earn votes or distinguish a candidate. Being against the Core seems to fall into the same category.

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush continues to hold hands with the Core and give it Al Gore-style kisses in public, and it doesn't hurt him. Well, not any more than the whole complex of issues on which he is so clearly a corporate tool rather than an actual conservative. He may get the nod because, like Mitt Romney, he's the only candidate who's not a outright loon-burger, but nobody will be happy about it, and Common Core support will be just one of the many reasons. It's not enough to move the needle by itself.

He's leaving the PARCC alone.

The PARCC is the most visible and obnoxious part of the Core Complex. That Damned Test is what the parents and students encounter in the most frustrating, infuriating, time-wasting manner. Saying that he'll get rid of CCSS but keep PARCC is like announcing that the neighborhood bully's family will be moving, but they will still drop him off on the street every day to continue stealing your lunch money and pushing your kids into traffic.

A rose by any other name would smell dishonest

Getting rid of the Common Core nameplate may have worked a few times previously, but the public is starting to catch on. Dropping the Core Standards so that you can replace them with the Corre Standardds not only helps nothing, but it reveals a level of dishonesty and disinterest in actual educational concerns that is not flattering on anybody.

I mean, when Jeb stands up for the Core et al, he is completely full of baloney, but at least he's being honest about it. Trying to feed me poisoned baloney while telling me it's steak just ads insult to injury. This is particularly problematic for Christie, whose whole brand is based on his being a straight shooter. Promising your wife that you'll stop sleeping with other women in your house and then continuing your affairs on the porch is just weaselly crap.

Core is the least of his sins

Some conservatives have already tried to paint Christie as bending to pressure from teachers, but if he wants to suck up to teachers, he'll have to do far better than this. Perhaps actually following the funding formulas for schools, of funding pensions. Stop belittling them and calling them names. Saying that Christie is pandering to teachers is like saying that an abusive spouse is reformed because he beats his wife with his fists instead of a club.

Meanwhile, Christie has systematically denied local control to many of his own districts. He cannot pretend that his state control of Newark, where the district is in shambles and huge demonstrations have expressed the disgruntlement of everyone from high school students to the mayor of the city-- he can't pretend that's working, and he can't hope that people will never notice that this sort of oppressive systematic disenfranchisement of voters and parents has been done mostly to not-wealthy not-white citizens.

If Christie wanted to be a bold champion of local control, he could have stood up to say, "You know what? The state-controlled of public schools is not working. I thought it was worth a try, but it failed. We're going to transition these cities back to control of an elected school board, fire Cami Anderson and her ilk, and give New Jersey's citizens a say in their community schools again."

That would have been impressive. "I've decided to change the letterhead on the government paperwork," is not the move of a bold leader. Don't get me wrong-- it's always nice to see the Common Core Standards take a hit. But this is a useless, empty gesture unlikely to improve things for either the citizens of New Jersey or the Presidential campaign of their hapless governor.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Writing: Not Unteachable, Often Mistaught

P. L. Thomas just put up a post about the teaching of writing, a subject that is near and dear to my heart, and the post is absolutely spot on (by which I mean I agree with it completely).

Thomas spins a bank shot off one of Vonnegut's writing quotes (short form: "Writing can't be taught") to re-enter that most contentious of English teacher topics-- the Five Paragraph Essay.

Ultimately, the five-paragraph essay allows both teachers and students to avoid the messy and complicated business that is writing—many dozens of choices with purpose and intent.

Yes- exactly.

Many English teachers don't like to teach writing because it is hard. More to the point, it is hard to reduce to simple set of rules and steps and a checklist one can use to grade the finished product. The problem has always been exacerbated by students themselves, many of whom would be most happy if the task of writing could be reduced to a simple set of steps that can be easily followed. "Give me my comfortable hoops," say some of my students, "and I will jump through them happily!"

I am not a five paragraph snob. I have used it my entire career and will continue to do so, primarily because many students come to me as fans of the Uniblob-- a giant mass of verbage and almost-sentences that have fallen out onto the page like toothpaste squeezed out a tube by a spasming fist. If we can get thoughts organized into paragraphs and some sort of simple progression, I absolutely call that a win.

But, as I'm not the first to observe, the FPE can be like training wheels-- useful when you're getting started, but an obstacle once you're really ready to ride.

The FPE ultimately becomes a Fill In The Blank question with five large paragraph-shaped blanks. The FPE encourages students to start by asking the wrong question. They ask "What can I use to fill in each of these blanks" or "What can I write to satisfy the assignment." These questions are most likely to produce inauthentic, lifeless, pointless pieces of writing-- but inauthentic, lifeless, pointless writing that meets the requirements of the teacher's (or standardized test scorer's) checklist.

The correct question to start with is, "What do I think about this?" A good follow-up question is "What's the best way for me to say it?"

The answers to those questions are absolutely personal. In his piece, Thomas compares himself to a colleague-- one puts words down as a first step, and one as a final step. That broad variety is, of course, normal. Some writers must be still to think, and some must be active. Some must be silent and some must be vocal.

There is no One Right Way to write. This is maddening for some teachers and some students. Where the hell is our list of rules? Unfortunately, the real list is short and only sort of helpful:

1) Figure out what you want to say.
2) Figure out a good way to say it.
3) Say it.

Most writing problems are really thinking problems, and the traditional way to solve them is to take thinking out of the equation. This is solving the problem by substituting a different problem. This is having trouble deciding what to order in a restaurant, so you go watch a movie about food instead. Templates and FPE are just a way to say, "Never mind thinking. Just fill in the blanks with what you believe the authorities will find acceptable."

There is nothing less open to standardization than writing, and yet for generations, long before the advent of Truly Terrible Tests, teachers and textbook publishers have tried to make it so. But you cannot standardize, templatize, or rulify writing without turning it into something else entirely.

I kiss my wife because I have a particular feeling, and I follow the impulse born of that feeling at that time. If I kiss my wife because I am concerned about satisfying some Higher Authority's Rules about how I should behave toward my wife, the action I take may bear a superficial resemblance to a kiss, but as I stand there carefully arranging my lips and checking for the approved level of moisture, angle of approach, degree of impact pressure, duration of contact, and any other rules I've been told I must follow for such interactions, the resulting action is something else entirely.

So, can writing be taught at all?

God, I hope so, or I don't know what the hell I've been doing for the past thirty-some years.

Here are some things that I believe work.

Tools. We teach students a variety of tools and techniques. This includes technical tricks like Ways To Make Transitions Happen and analytical tricks like Count All the Forms of Be in Your Paper and See If You Can Make Some Go Away. This also includes sharing and discussing process, so that students can learn a variety of ways that they could, for example, pre-write.

Permission. Particularly if they have wandered down the path of One True Way. I cannot even begin to guess how many students I have dealt with who insist on using approaches to writing that do not work for them at all, simply because they are convinced that's what they are Supposed To Do. Give students permission and encouragement to experiment and wander and try other things.

Write. Write write write write WRITE write write. I am pretty sure that if I simply had students write all the time and I never gave them a lick of feedback, but just kept them writing, they would get better. Feedback, reflection, discussion, sharing and assessment all speed up the process, but the activity central to improving writing is to write. Frequently, regularly, in a variety of modes and purposes, but write.

Individualization. I start with the premise that there are no child prodigy writers, which has to mean that everybody starts in the same place-- Downtown Suckville. Every writer is on a journey from Suckville to Awesome Town, but there is no bus or train that runs there, so every writer has to make the journey in her own way at her own speed. In fact, the trip metaphor only works if we allow for black holes and secret tunnels, because travelers don't even hit checkpoints in the same order. This week Chris may be ready to figure out conclusions but Pat is still wrestling with using less passive voice. Alphonse may be trying to work out writing tools that Fiona doesn't even care about. Every teacher of writing must make her own compromises, because you won't have time to handle the individual nature of learning instruction perfectly. Only you can figure out how you'll deal with that. But there is no tool more important to a writer than individual voice and that is, of course, individual.

So I believe that writing can be taught and fostered and mentored. The tricky part is that there are sooooooo many ways that a teacher can mess things up and get in the way. Templates and the FPE are prime examples of how that can go wrong. Thomas is right; Vonnegut is wrong. Writing is often mistaught, but it is not unteachable.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Voucher By Any Other Name

The New York legislature is getting ready to look at Education Tax Credits again. I know this because advocates are busy pushing it on twitter, including and most especially the Catholic Schools of New York. "We need your help to pass the education tax credit," they declare.

How does a education tax credit work? (These things have been around forever.) Simple, actually-- say we're giving a tax credit of $500 and you owe $2,000 in taxes this year. You send your child to an approved private school. Voila-- you owe $1,500. The government is going to give you $500 to help pay for your child's private schooling.

If you're thinking, "Well, that sounds pretty much like a voucher," you are correct. It is pretty much like a voucher. Here's Andy LeFevre, director of ALEC's education task force back in 2008.

"Tax credits have become popular in many states and are looked at in a little more favorable light in states than vouchers," said LeFevre. "And it's something that unions have a much harder time fighting against than a voucher program. I think they realize that the end goal is the same as a voucher; it's just a different way to come about it."

Catholic Schools of New York concur. They like how things worked out with a similar program in Florida, where the program now generates half a billion dollars in revenue for Catholic and private schools--er, I mean, a half a billion in scholarships for the students.

New York's initiative is so exciting it has its very own website at (No doubt they meant to get "" but it just wasn't handy). The site declares boldly that "every child deserves a quality education" because that's a pretty controversial position to take. There's a nice Cuomo-centric video reminding us that ETC provides scholarships for "low and middle-income students." So many glowing happy pictures that you would think thousands and thousands of poor kids will finally get to attend private school.

Let me predict how many poor students will get to attend private schools because of ETC.


That $500 figure above in my example? That's not hypothetical. That's the proposed credit. Five hundred dollars. Enough money to buy a couple of books or a uniform or two. It is not enough to make private school a possibility for families that could not otherwise afford it. However, if every family already attending a private school gets $500 and kicks it into the private school kitty-- ka-CHING!

In a crazily cynical charmingly conciliatory gesture, the architects of the bill have also included tax credits for public school teachers who buy supplies ($200 max, or as elementary teachers like to call it, "September").

Oh wait-- did I mention this:

Individuals and businesses can receive a tax credit for up to 75 percent of their donations made to not-for-profit organizations that award scholarships to private and out-of-district public schools based on financial need of the students’ families.

So tax credits to support rich folks who funnel money to private schools.

Clearly this is a bill that is All About The Kids and not in any way a method of diverting tax dollars to private and religious schools-- it's a way to divert tax dollars to people who divert dollars to private and religious schools, which is a totally different thing. I may not be able to give you twenty dollars to run down and buy me some beer, but I can give twenty dollars to my buddy who can give you twenty dollars to run down and buy me some beer. Totally different thing.

The website is not just informational. It is an advocacy site, with tools for emailing your legislator to push the bill. I would never tell you to go gum up that process with off-message emails. But if you want to tell a buddy to do it, I'm totally cool with that.

The First Hurdle

Watching a roomful of students slog through Pennsylvania's algebra-flavored Big Standardized Test today, I'm reminded of one of the many flawed assumptions of test promoters.

Before you can compile the test answers, before you can crunch the numbers and sift the data and build your house of test-driven cards-- before you can do all that, you have a first hurdle to fling yourself over.

The students taking the test have to care.

Of all the bizarre, imaginary scenarios that test-promoters believe, this is perhaps the most reality impaired: a room full of sixteen year olds coming to school and thinking, "Boy, I cannot wait to do my very best on these. I can think of nothing more important to me right now than making sure that the state and federal government have accurate data about the kind of job my school is doing."

All discussions of test-generated data start with the assumption that the students were really trying, that they really wanted to do the very best that they could. I do not know where that assumption comes from. I can't help noticing that while many reformsters are parents, very few are parents of teenagers.

People often act as if teenagers are mysterious, otherworldly creatures. I've spent my entire life around teens, and I can tell you the secret to understanding them-- they are human beings. That's it. Teens are essentially rough cut version of their adult selves with some impulse control and long-term vision issues. But they're just people.

So imagine the following scenario. At work, you are periodically required to complete a series of tasks. These tasks are not really related to your usual job, and what connection they do have is only to a very small sliver of your total job. Performing these tasks does not help you do your job better, nor does it help your supervisor lead you. The tasks themselves are long and boring and require your actual work to come to a halt for days at a time. There's no benefit at all to doing really well; you just need to do well enough so that you can be done and get back to your regular work.

I would present you with a clearer analogy, but there really isn't anything like BS Testing in the adult world. Maybe when you have to go on line and watch one of those workplace slide shows and take an idiot quiz at the end (True or False: Stealing equipment from the office is okay.)

In that situation, do you imagine that you are trying your hardest, doing your best, or caring at all?
Test promoters have spent so much time pushing PR about the high noble valuable purposes of the BS Test that they've convinced themselves that students believe it, too. They do not.

In fact, getting older students to take any test seriously has always been one of the challenges of school (for the littler ones, who would eat fried weasel brains just to make the beloved Miss Othmar happy, motivation is less of a challenge). The entire institution is organized to coerce students into telling us what we want to know. You can't "pass" this course unless you try on this test. You can't "pass" this grade until you "pass" the course. This is why that smart-ass smart kid drives some of her teachers into a rage-- they all know she's not trying at all, but they don't have enough leverage to get her to really care about doing her best.

A small sub-industry of BS Testing has sprung up. Pep rallies. Bribes. Threats. Up the road, an administrator hauled all of students into an auditorium just to berate them for their lackluster test efforts. Occasionally, there's success-- the SAT and ACT command fear and attention because students are convinced that Big Things are riding on the test results. This is why BS Tests are destined to be high stakes-- because it's the only way we can think of to make students at least pretend to care.

And if the students don't care, the data aren't there.

Behind the test results are not students intent on showing The State what they know, but students with a hundred other thoughts in their mind, and not one of them was "Boy, this is really important."

The BS Tests offer nothing relevant or beneficial to students, and our older students are perfectly capable of seeing that. The flop-sweaty pep rallies and super-secret swears of silence just underline that the whole exercise is a waste of their time, and guess what-- teenagers don't react any better to having their time wasted than anyone else.

You can say that it's my job to fix that, my job to convince them that the BS Test is Valuable and Important and they should totally care, that because I have the classroom relationship with them, I have the juice to make it happen. But the very first step in that relationship with my students came last fall on Day One, when I promised them several things including 1) I would never willingly waste their time and 2) I would never lie to them.

So here we sit, stuck at the first hurdle, a room full of teens calculating just how much effort and care they can afford to throw at what appears to be a pointless waste of their time. I wish very test-touting reformster who ever tried to sell the data as being True and Real and Valuable had to sit here with me and actually watch these students take the test. Better yet, I wish those reformsters had to apologize to my students for wasting their time.

Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Joy, Data and Jumbo Shrimp

Sir Michael Barber is the Big Cheese of Pearson (Motto: All Your School Are Belong To Us), and he recently decided to celebrate Oxymoron Day by delivering a speech entitled "Joy and Data."

While that speech spurred some twitter snark, nobody who wasn't actually in the room ever got to hear it. Barber is like that; he doesn't seem to feel any impulse to get people to like him, agree with him, or praise him. It's hard and foolish to judge from out here in Ordinary Shmoe Land, but don't think that will stop me-- Barber seems like a man who is so powerful, and so sure he's right, that he's not going to waste time trying to justify his ways to anybody who doesn't actually matter.

And Barber's ways are big. Big. His premise, as unloaded in a few different papers, is that if we could collect all the data, we would know everything, and we could predict everything and control everything. We just need all the data.

We do not, however, have all the data about his speech. So we have to depend on what slipped through the tweeterverse.

Barber is aware that not everybody sees the beauty in this relentless cataloging of everything. Quotes the tweeterverse:

There's a tendency to see data and conflict with joy and spontaneity.

Well, yes. When Knewton, a Pearson data-grabbing group, describes how collecting data would let them tell you what breakfast you should eat on test day, that seems like a spontaneity-killer.

Valerie Strauss has collected some tweets from Jenny Luca highlighting some of the key points. None of them are encouraging.

The future of education will be more joyful with the embrace of data. Also, don't get things wrong-- the data does not undermine creativity and inspiration, nor does it tell us what to do, nor does it replace professional judgment. And I don't even know how to link to all the places where Pearson has contradicted all of this. I would be further ahead to find links to Jeb Bush condemning charter schools and Common Core. But you can try here and here and here and here.

If we lump all of Pearson's visionary writing together, the picture that emerges is a Brave New World in which every single student's action is tagged, collected, and run through a computer program that spits out an exact picture of the student's intellectual, emotional and social development as well as specific instructions on exactly what the teacher (and, in this Brave New World, we're using that term pretty loosely) should do next with/for/to the student to achieve the results desired by our data overlords.

And here's the scariest thing about Barber. One idea keeps popping up, as in this closing thought from Pearson's 2014 paper on the digital ocean--

Be that as it may, the aspiration to meet these challenges is right.

What I see every time I read Barber is a man who is not following a business plan or a power grabbing plan or even just a money-making scam-- this is guy who seems to feel he is following a moral imperative to Make the World a Better Place. That's what's scary-- you cannot reason with a religious fanatic who is intent on remaking the world according to his own vision.

Yeah, the worst thing about a Barber speech centered on Joy and Data is not that he might be making some cynical marketing ploy or a cheap PR bid, but that for him, those two things really do go together.  

A Great Teacher Story

The Sunday Theater section of the New York Times featured a fun angle on the Kristin Cheneworth vs. Kelli O'Hara competition for this year's Tony-- a visit from the woman who taught both of them in college.

The Oklahoma City University website lists Florence Birdwell as "a force of nature." She has been teaching voice-- musical theater and opera-- for decades. The woman started teaching in 1946. She is 90 years old.

The NYT writer watched some teaching sessions. Birdwell is a great source of quotes.

She turned and addressed the class. “Anytime you make your voice more important than the words, you lose it and the audience knows it,” she said. “They don’t understand why, but they’re just waiting for it to be over.”

A 2008 interview says this about her:

Drawing on the disciplines of metaphysics, philosophy, math, technique and practical insight, Birdwell is a professor of voice who shapes students into stars. 

But a thread that seems to run through Birdwell's teaching is the idea of getting out of your own way. Her own path was not clear, nor did it unfold according to plan. In that same 2008 interview, she talks about finding her passion at age 8, screaming wordlessly into a canyon. But when she was 24, an infection in her pharynx ended her dreams of being a singer. In the NYT, here's how that story goes:

“I had a wonderful voice, and I lost it,” she said. “My teacher said, ‘You can’t sing, but you sure can talk.’ ”

Birdwell talks a great deal about honesty. When telling the Times about her teaching philosphy: “Be more honest!” she said. “You have to open up a little bit of your insides. You have to learn about yourself as a person.” When speaking to NewsOK:

The hardest thing is absolute honesty. You have to work it out and think about it and deal with it. Which things are you going to put first? Who do you want to please? What are you trying to achieve in life? It has to be your own inner power that takes you and decides these questions. You have to do it for yourself and not for anybody else, otherwise you give too much in too many different ways and you cheat yourself.

Cheneworth, talking about Birdwell in an interview with ChicagoPride:

She not only taught me to sing technically, but taught me to sing from the soul about what a song actually means.

Don't sing it if ya can't mean it!

Yes, Birdwell teaches the technique, the breathing, the control. But like all good and great teachers, she teaches her students how to be more fully themselves, how to be in the world, how to connect to something that both fulfills and transcends who they are. The NYT focuses on her star pupils, but I have to believe that there are a whole raft of non-famous non-Tony-nominee former students out there who are enjoying richer, fuller lives because they crossed paths with this force of nature. Isn't that the kind of teacher we would all like to be?

Standards: Agreements and Assurances

When we talk about standards, we are really talking about two different things-- and only one of them is real.


For a while it was in vogue to compare educational standards to manufacturing standards like the standards for electrical outlets.

Those sorts of standards represent an agreement-- the interested parties come to an understanding that in order to play together successfully, we will all agree to play by the same rules. These agreements do not always come easily-- while the AC power that flows into all our homes may now seem like a no-brainer, it is, in fact, the victor of the War of Currents, a battle over whether US homes would be powered by AC or DC power. Think also VHS vs. Betamax, HD vs. Bluray, and Microsoft vs. Apple operating systems. Think about how many various charger cords you have for electronic devices; standards don't always get worked out.

When they do get worked out, it's a matter of folks saying, "Let's make it easier to play together by all driving on the right side of the road" or "Let's make it easier to make money by all using the same currency" or "Let's keep refusing to use the metric system."

Some times the terms of agreement can be dictated by power players. If I control the game, then you must agree to my rules if you want to play. "We control access to the North American continent, so if you want a piece of the action, you must build your railroad cars to our agreed-upon gauge." Microsoft and Apple have not set universal standards, but they dominate the market so effectively that they can dictate the terms of agreement for anyone who wished to play in their sandbox.

Folks who want to set the terms of agreement have two basic avenues open to them-- seduction or force. Seduction has been the preferred method in game platform wars-- "Buy our console and you will get to play the awesome new game Robotic Beavers Disembowel Ninja Cowboys" on the front end and "Create a game for our platform and you'll make a gazzillion dollars" on the back end.

Seduction works best with quality (Betamax) or opportunity to profit (VHS), but when you don't have either going for you (asbestos removal), you need brute force. That would be the part where John D. Rockefeller bludgeons the rest of the oil industry into economic submission, or the part where Wall Street makes sure that the standards for ethical and responsible behavior set by the feds do not actually forbid unethical and irresponsible behavior.

The architects of the Common Core Standards used seduction successfully with industry insiders ("Pearson, this is going to make you so rich") and tried hard to wrap their product in Robes of Excellence (Thanks, Fordham), but ultimately they had not fully reckoned with the millions and millions of end-users of their product who were unwilling to enter a standards agreement either way. That led to the use of brute force (Race to the Top, waivers, and the installation of Core-enforcing goons in state capitals). But sensing that was a long bridge to cross, the CCSS-pushing forces also tried to portray the Core as the other type of standard.


People love standards because every standard is a promise-- Do X and you will be sure to get Y.

Do this and you will be sure to get rich. Do this and you will be sure to get a spouse. Do this and you will be sure to get great children. Do this and you will be sure to go to heaven.

There are folks out there making small mountains of money writing books that make these claims. People want to know what rules to follow to get the outcomes they want from life. The marketing genius of the Core (and all its attached education programs) is to say to parents and legislators, "If your kids do this, they are sure to go to college and get a good job."

Standards as assurances appeal to the human desire to Know What To Do. They promise a clear future, with clear choices leading to the desired outcome. And they are completely imaginary. All standards of this sort are completely imaginary. Nobody can tell you exactly what you have to do to become successful or have a happy spouse or rear perfect children. At best, people can tell what has often worked for many people of a certain type under certain conditions at some times in the past. But none of that guarantees that any person who follows those standardized steps will be certain to arrive at the same destination. Insisting that life be whittled down to just the narrow path described by such standards does guarantee that you will miss a great deal of what could have been good and rich and rewarding in your life. You will be the person throwing away diamonds because your rulebook told you to look only for gold.

Promising that following these standards will make every child college and career ready is codswallup. It's baloney. We don't even know what "college and career ready" actually means, and we certainly don't know a set of steps to follow that will bring every student to that place. Collapsing education (and life) down to a single narrow path is for cowards and fools. It's trading the richness of life for the empty promise of a guaranteed future, a promise on which no standard can deliver.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, there can be no doubt that I live in a small town.

I get up, put on my band uniform, and walk up town to City Hall, where my friends and I in the marching version of our 159-year-old town band grab our hats and our music and get ready to march down the main street (it's named Liberty Street in my town). My brother, sister-in-law, and wife all play in the band; some of the band members are among my oldest friends in the world, and some are former students.

We march down the main drag and end at a tree-covered city park, where folks gather on the grass for a Memorial Day program. Wreaths are laid on crosses, one for each war. The names of all the veterans who died in the last year are read aloud, followed by an honor-guard of local vets firing off a salute, followed by taps (played by two trumpet players, standing in opposite corners of the park, one playing as an echo of the other). You can hear the last echoes of the trumpets fade into the sounds of birds and passing traffic.

There's always a speaker and a speech that may veer off into "next to of course god america i love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth" territory, but I can't get offended by any of it. The list of the dead always includes families, and sometimes individuals, whom I know, and I can't help thinking that whether the war was fought in a good cause or a bad one, these are people who did their duty as best they could understand it, even at the risk of life and limb. 

It pops me back to a conversation I had with a teacher at an end-of-year gathering Friday night. We were talking about how younger teachers aren't so involved with union leadership, and he said that it may be in part that some people aren't fighters, that they don't want to make enemies. That may seem like a wimpy reason to my big city brethren and sistren, but here in small towns, it's a part of contract negotiations and strikes and battles over the schools-- the people we sit across a negotiating table from are also literally the people next door, the people we sing in church choir with, even the people we're related to. In small town politics there is no such thing as going at someone unrestrained with both barrels blazing as if we'll never have to face each other again. 

So I get the "let's not make enemies" concern. But I've had the same concern myself, back in my union president days, and I already knew the answer before he expressed the concern-- sometimes you already have enemies, and the only question is whether or not you are going to stand up to them.

Memorial Day, for me, is a reminder that you don't always get to choose your battles. Sometimes you battles choose you. 

After the ceremony in the park is over, my wife and I walked home, walked the dog, graded some papers, took a nap. Then we walked over to my in-laws, because I live in a small town and on a day like today, I can conduct all my business without ever getting in a car. The in-laws grilled some food, we face-timed my sister-in-law in Hawaii, we talked about Stuff, and then my wife and I headed home. 

In the end, Memorial Day also reminds me that I am extraordinarily blessed/privileged/fortunate (pick the one that suits your belief system), the recipient of many advantages and benefits that I haven't really earned. Even my battles are privileged ones--  I know that a year from now nobody is going to be talking about how I died in the service of my country or my cause, nor will I have died because I had the misfortune to be seen as threat requiring a lethal response. 

In a way, one of my privileges/blessings/fortunes is that I get at least one more year that a bunch of other folks do not. Memorial Day reminds me not to waste it, to try make good choices, to try not to sleepwalk through it. I live in a small place, a place I'm firmly rooted to, and yet in the last year, I've become more closely connected through this little box to a larger, wider world as well, and been given a chance to use my voice in that world. We are living through interesting times, as many generations before us have. Whatever gifts, battles, blessings, weaknesses, flaws, and struggles have come to me, I want to try to rise and meet them with whatever I have that might be of use. I am not a big deal, and I will not change the world. But none of the people whose names were read today were world-changing titans, either. They just did what they felt they needed to do, and I'm pretty sure that's a plenty tall order all by itself.


The Testing Circus: Whose Fault Is It?

Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners, a reformster-filled thinky tank, took to the pages of US News last week to address the Testing Circus and shift the blame for it explain its origins.

The ridiculous pep rallies? The matching t-shirts? The general Test Prep Squeezing Out Actual Education? That's all the fault of the local districts. In fact, Rotherham notes, "a cynic might think it's a deliberate effort to sour parents on the tests." Yes, that's it-- the schools are just making all this up in an attempt to make the public think testing is stupid.

Reformsters have been doing this a lot-- trying to shift the blame for testing frenzy from the policy makers and the reformsters pushing testing policies onto the local teachers and districts. In a video that I cannot, for some reason, link, John White, education boss of Louisiana, argues that it's local tests from teachers and school districts that are muddying the testing water, and so every single test deployed in a classroom ought to come under the control and direction of the state. Or we could go back to Arne Duncan et al suggesting that we need to trim back "unnecessary" tests, which turns out to mean tests developed on the local level.

It is hard to see this working. Can we really mollify Mrs. McGrumpymom by saying, "We know that your child really hated the PARCC and found the whole experience stressful and useless, so we're going to have her teacher stop giving those weekly spelling quizzes. All better, right?"

As with Arne Duncan, who continually seems just oh so mystified about how schools could possibly have gotten so worked up over testing, the reformster mystery here is this: do they really not understand what they've done, or do they understand and are just unleashing the lamest PR campaign ever?

Rotherham blames the Testing Circus on three factors.

First, he thinks it's a matter of capacity. But his explanation suggests that he simply doesn't understand the problem.

What elementary schools are asked to do is daunting though not unreasonable. Getting students to a specific degree of literacy and numeracy is challenging but it can be done. 

Bzzzzrtt!! Wrong. Elementary schools were not asked to get students to a specific degree of literacy and numeracy. They were commanded (do it, or else) to raise test scores, and that is what they have devoted themselves to. Achieving a specific degree of literacy and numeracy might help with that goal, but only if the test is a good and valid measure, and that topic is open to debate. On top of achieving the specific degree etc, students have to actually care about the test to the point that they try. Test advocates love to assume this as a given, and they are fools to do so. If I walk into your workplace and assign you a difficult task that seems unrelated to your actual job and which will have no effect on your rating or performance review, exactly how hard will you try?

It is not the reading and numeracy level that is the goal. It is the test score. Test advocates can pretend those are the same thing, but they are not. Schools can hang tough and refuse to start with pep rallies for the tests-- or they can recognize that the nine-year-olds who will decide their fate will do a better job if someone convinces them to try.

Second, new tests. Rotherham repeats a version of a new talking point that makes no sense. The new tests are causing turmoil, stress, and  even low scores. These tests are more challenging because they test awesome things like critical thinking and consequently, they are impervious to Test Prep. However, students will do better as everyone gets used to the test. So, the new tests have nothing to do with Test Prep, but students will do better as they are better Prepared for the Test.

Third, new technology. One point for Rotherham, who pretty much admits that making everybody take the test on computer was a bad idea. But I'm going to take the point back because he does not acknowledge that the decision to do so was not a local or classroom foul-up, but a mandate pushed from the highest level of reformsterdom.

Rotherham is correct to argue that some schools have gone berserk on the Testing Circus and some have quietly avoided it. He would like to use this to assert that the Testing Circus is not inevitable, and there I don't think he has a point.

Some states have put more weight on the Big Standardized Test than others. On the local level, some superintendents and principals have gone whole hog on testing and some have done their best to tell teachers, "Just do your job and let the chips fall where they may.'

But Rotherham et al cannot ignore that some pretty big chips are falling. New York teachers are looking at fifty percent of their professional rating coming from test scores, and they are not alone. Nor did states decide to roll test scores into teacher evaluations on a whim-- that 's a federal mandate of Race to the Top and/or NCLB waivers. And all of us the teacher biz can hear the hounds in the not-very-great-distance calling for those same teacher ratings to be used to decide pay and job security.

Nor can Rotherham ignore that some states are invoking considerable punishment for low test scores, using low scores as an excuse to declare that a school is "failing" and must be turned around, replaced, bulldozed, or handed over to charter operators.

Reformsters seem to want the following message to come from somewhere:

"Hey, public schools and public school teachers-- your entire professional future and career rests on the results of these BS Tests. But please don't put a lot of emphasis on the tests. Your entire future is riding on these results, but whatever you do-- don't do everything you can possibly think of to get test scores up."

I have no way of knowing whether Rotherham, Duncan, et al are disingenuous, clueless, or big fat fibbers trying to paper over the bullet wound of BS Testing with the bandaid of PR. But the answer to the question "Who caused this testing circus" is as easy to figure out as it ever was.

Reformy policymakers and politicians and bureaucrats declared that test scores would be hugely important, and ever since, educators have weighed self-preservation against educational malpractice and tried to make choices they could both live with and which would allow them to have a career. And reformsters, who knew all along that the test would be their instrument to drive instruction, have pretended to be surprised testing has driven instruction and pep rallies and shirts. They said, "Get high test scores, or else," and a huge number of schools said, "Yessir!" and pitched some tents and hired some acrobats and lion tamers. Oddly enough, the clowns were already in place.