Thursday, December 30, 2010

Quality Education, By Any Means Necessary. By Larry Strauss

Amid the very contentious debate about reforming public education, some of us have to enter classrooms every day and deliver instruction to students who cannot wait for systemic change--and while I greatly admire the passion and knowledge and intelligence sometimes represented in this ongoing debate I have little faith that any of this will be resolved any time soon and, alas, even less faith that it will be resolved to the benefit of my students.

So for now, at least, and probably for some time to come, I pledge--and hope other teachers will join me--to be a subversive educator. That is, to provide quality education for our students, by any means necessary.

I am not suggesting rebellion for its own sake. Where policy supports quality education, I will obediently adhere. But, like many of you reading this, I have been doing this long enough to know that (notwithstanding the many fraudulent claims of those who have no direct contact with our students) putting students first--I mean really placing their interests ahead of all others--is very often at odds with what we are told to do in our classrooms.

Subversive educators have for decades toiled in secrecy, sometimes at great risk, to provide their students with an education that is enlightening, awakening, and inspiring. I would not be the teacher I am today without the inspiration of my subversive colleagues. I would not, in fact, be a teacher at all.

Putting students first often involves great risk. I have had the good fortune to spend my career in South Los Angeles where many high schools have a significant number of unfilled positions and where, barring serious student or parent complaints, administrators rarely keep track of the antics of their teachers. I understand that many teachers in other places operate under much closer scrutiny and far more stringent limitations. To those I say, do what you reasonably can.

Administrators and politicians and union leadership may claim that there is no disparity between what they tell us to do and what is best for students--but we know that is often not the case. When I began teaching I had a colleague who--whenever he was asked to do anything outside his classroom, professional development or otherwise--would ask, "How is this benefiting my students?" A simple question but a profound guiding principle. He did not show up to work each day to support the ambitions of administrators or politicians. Neither do I. Therefore:

* I will teach students. I will not teach "testable material." Increasing student test scores has never been a morally defensible goal. What students need is to become culturally and scientifically literate, to learn to think critically and do research and synthesize data, to become both open-minded and skeptical, to respect themselves and others and love learning, to understand whatever they read and be able to articulate themselves with clarity and confidence. Some of that might be measured, to some degree, by standardized tests but when their scores become ends unto themselves, then we have sold out ourselves and our students.

* I will not recognize so-called sub-groups. I may differentiate instruction in an attempt to address different ability levels and learning styles and temperaments, but I will not calculate a moment of instruction to address the specific movement of any particular students between so-called achievement levels. I will work with equal ambition toward the advancement of all students, even those who have already demonstrated mastery (and whose improvement, therefore, would not boost my school's API or AYP).

* I will teach with the same dedication regardless of whether what I am teaching will be tested at all. Originality of thought, for example, cannot be measured on a multiple choice tests. Neither can the development of a literary or rhetorical voice. Wherever possible, I will let student interests and passions influence what I teach them--indifferent as standardized tests may be to such considerations.

* I will not permit those who know nothing about my students to dictate how and what I teach them. This includes people in government and in the text book industry. I remain open-minded and will consider any and all suggestions that might benefit my students.

* When I do use a text book (as opposed to an original source), I will teach students how to critique the text book and understand the political and economic context within which it was devised and guide them to recognize bias in everything they read and see and hear, including what I say.

* I will spend my own money and resources on what students need--to the degree that I can afford to--even if my union encourages me not to.

* I will not, except in extreme circumstances, withhold instruction from my students in order to advance the interests of my union. I will stay at school late to help students though I am not paid to do so. I will be available via Email and telephone to assist my students, also for no additional pay. If my colleagues and I vote to strike, I will not cross the picket line, but I will remain accessible to my students via Email and telephone and continue to write college recommendations and assist seniors with their personal statements, etc.

* I will assist struggling teachers--whether or not I am assigned to or paid for it--but I will also assist my administration in any way I can to purge my school and the system in general of egregiously and intractably incompetent colleagues. It is a crime not to report child abuse--the same penalties should apply to educational mal-practice.

* I will not treat my students like inmates. I will not enforce rules that are unnecessarily oppressive. I will respect them and empower them with a voice. I will be demanding. I will insist on decorum. But I will be reasonable. I will encourage students to question authority--mine included.

Teaching should be pure joy. That so many of us are frustrated and alienated--some to the point of despair--is intolerable. We can end the suffering by making 2011 the year of the subversive educator. And if we can all conspire together on behalf of students (why not make this the decade of the subversive educator?), then maybe we can save the system; we can be the reform.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Standardized snake oil. By Marion Brady

I was, generally speaking, a fairly well-behaved kid. I’ve no reasonable explanation, then, for burning a hole in the wall of the one-room school I attended in the late 1930s.

It wasn’t an original idea. A precedent had been set by somebody who’d come and gone before I arrived at Union School the previous year as a third grader. He (I can’t imagine it was a “she”) had heated the steel rod used to stoke the fire in the stove until it was red hot, pressed the end of it against the white-painted interior wood wall near the entrance door, and pushed until it burned all the way through. The result was a very neat black hole about the size of a marble.

The blackened area around the hole looked a little like fetching eyelashes.

One cold winter morning, arriving at the tiny school after the nearest neighbor had added fresh coal to the fire and gone, but before anyone else had arrived, it occurred to me that a similar hole three or four inches to the left of the existing hole offered an interesting possibility. Using a black crayon, I could add eyebrows to good effect.

I got the hole done, but not the eyebrows. Sixth grader Naomi arrived, saw the still-smoldering new "eye," and waited at the door to tattle to the teacher.

Confronted by high authority, my eyes-with-eyebrows project seemed less than wise, much less funny. I vaguely recall responding to Miss Woods’ observation that I could have burned the school down by mumbling something about the big community tin drinking cup hanging on a nail beside the nearby water cooler. I think I suggested that it provided the necessary insurance against disaster.

She didn’t buy it. I was sent home and told to come back with my mother or father, or both.

In the years since I burned that hole, I’ve stayed connected to schools and schooling as a student, teacher, administrator, college professor, writer of texts and professional books, contributor to academic journals, education columnist for newspapers, blogger, visitor to schools around the world, and consultant to publishers, states and foundations.

And for the last 20 years, I’ve done my best to burn holes in the myth that standardized tests are a means to the end of improving America’s schools. I haven’t the slightest doubt that if the testing tail continues to wag the education dog, it will kill the dog and with it the ability of future generations to cope with their fates.

It’s not that America’s schools don’t have really serious problems. They certainly do. And I’m not talking just about big, inner city institutions surrounded by blight, encircled by barbed wire, entered through metal detectors, patrolled by cops, and churning out dropouts, future prison inmates, and other social problems.

There are many of those, but I’m not singling them out. As a mountain of research makes clear, what ails them is primarily long-term poverty and the myriad problems poverty spawns. That’s a matter I’m not qualified to write about, but for those who think test scores actually mean something important, I’ll note in passing that Finland always ranks near the top, and their child poverty rate is less than 3%, while America’s rate is over 20% and climbing rapidly. Those who believe skilled teachers can level the education playing field enough to erase that difference in the quality of the material they’re given to work with aren’t just not in the game, they’re not even in the ball park.

Yes, include those blighted urban schools as a target of my criticism, but include also America’s many well-ordered schools in quiet, leafy suburbs. Include schools in top-scale ZIP codes that have been adopted by venture capitalists who see to it that every hint of a need is instantly met. Include schools where, before opening bells, Benz, Bentley, and BMW doors swing open and kids slide out to be greeted by name by headmasters and faculties. And include schools where chauffeur-driven limousines deliver their body-guarded charges because school policy forbids noisy arrivals by helicopter. (Yes, there are such schools.)

Consider as failing every school – public, charter, private, whatever – that assumes that corporately produced, standardized tests say something important about something important. Using test scores to guide education policy makes about as much sense as using the horoscope of whoever happens to be Secretary of State to guide US foreign policy.

That standardized tests are a useful tool for guiding education reform is a myth, pure and simple – a myth constructed from ignorance and perpetuated by misinformation, or conjured from hope and reinforced by cherry-picked data.

I grew up in Appalachia where the old adage, “You can’t make a silk purse out of sow’s ear” was familiar speech. Standardized tests are a “sow’s ear.” The only things they can measure accurately are random bits of information stored in short-term memory.

But even if every kid remembered everything taught, it’s hard to imagine a more wasteful use of teacher and learner time and taxpayer money than preparing for and taking standardized tests.

When the world changed little or not at all from generation to generation and nearly everyone was illiterate, unaided memory was essential. What needed to be known existed in the memories of the elders, and the young, living in that static world, either learned it from them or suffered the consequences.

That era is long gone. It’s over. Finished. It began to end when writing was developed, and its demise proceeded with the invention of the printing press, cheap books, photography, moving pictures, television, the Internet, search engines, and other means of information gathering and archiving. In today’s world, tests of unaided memory are about as useful as (insert another Appalachian slang expression having to do with the anatomy of boar hogs).

Standardized, subject-matter tests are worse than a waste. We’re spending billions of dollars and instructional hours on a tool that measures one thought process to the neglect of all others, wreaks havoc on the minds and emotions of teachers and learners, and diverts attention from a fundamental, ignored problem.

That problem? Longshoreman and college professor Eric Hoffer summed it up a lifetime ago. Because the world is dynamic, the future belongs not to the learned but to learners.

Read that sentence again. Then read it again. Even if standardized tests didn’t cost billions, even if they yielded something that teachers didn’t already know, even if they hadn’t narrowed the curriculum down to joke level, even if they weren’t the main generators of educational drivel, even if they weren’t driving the best teachers out of the profession, they should be abandoned because they measure the wrong thing.

The future belongs not to the learned but to learners. American education isn’t designed to produce learners, and the proof of that contention is the standardized test.

America’s system of education is designed to clone the learned. And motivated either by ignorance or greed, the wealthy and powerful, using educationally naïve celebrities as fronts, are spending obscene amounts of money to convince politicians, pundits, policymakers, and the public that this is a good and necessary thing.

Thus far, they’ve been wildly successful. If they’re not stopped, those now sitting in our classrooms won’t just witness America’s descent into Third World status, they’ll accelerate it.

On a somewhat lighter note, and in the spirit of the season, below is a link to a free gift – a complete, down-loadable book. It’s not my new What’s Worth Learning?, but it’s perhaps more appropriate for days made busy by holiday preparation:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Real Lessons of PISA By Diane Ravitch

Dear Deborah,

When the results of the latest international assessment—the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA—were released, our national leaders sounded an alarm about a national "crisis in education." Our students scored in the middle of the pack! We are not No. 1! Shanghai is No. 1! We are doomed unless we overtake Shanghai!

President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan warned ominously that our nation was having a "Sputnik moment." We have fallen behind the global competition in education, they cried, evoking comparison with the Soviet Union's launch of a space satellite in 1957. At that time, the media and the politicians predicted that the Soviets would soon rule the world, and we know how that turned out.

Now the politicians would like to use the latest test scores to promote their "reform" agenda for the schools: more charter schools, more reliance on competition and free-market strategies, more testing, more use of test scores to evaluate teachers, more firing of principals and teachers, more closing of low-scoring schools.

Our leaders in Washington would have us believe that they know how to close the achievement gap and how to overtake the highest-performing nations in the world. PISA proves that they don't.

Consider the two top contenders on PISA: Shanghai and Finland. These two places—one a very large city of nearly 21 million, the other a small nation of less than six million—represent two very different approaches to education. The one thing they have in common is that neither of the world leaders in education is doing what American reformers propose.

According to the OECD, the international group that sponsors PISA, the schools of Shanghai—like those in all of China—are dominated by pressure to get higher scores on examinations. OECD writes:

"Teaching and learning, in secondary schools in particular, are predominantly determined by the examination syllabi, and school activities at that level are very much oriented towards exam preparation. Subjects such as music and art, and in some cases even physical education, are removed from the timetable because they are not covered in the public examinations. Schools work their students for long hours every day, and the work weeks extend into the weekends, mainly for additional exam preparation classes...private tutorials, most of them profit-making, are widespread and have become almost a household necessity."

OECD points out that more than 80 percent of students in Shanghai attend after-school tutoring. It remarked on the academic intensity of Chinese students. Non-attention is not tolerated. As I read about the "intense concentration" of these students, I was reminded of the astonishing opening event of the Beijing Olympics, when 15,000 participants performed tightly scripted routines. It is hard to imagine a similar event performed by American youth, who are accustomed not to intense discipline, but to a culture of free expression and individualism.

Interestingly, the authorities in Shanghai boast not about their testing routines, but about their consistent and effective support for struggling teachers and schools. When a school is in trouble in Shanghai, authorities say they pair it with a high-performing school. The teachers and leaders of the strong school help those in the weak school until it improves. The authorities send whatever support is needed to help those who are struggling. In the OECD video about Shanghai, the lowest-performing school in the city is described as one where "only" 89 percent of students passed the state exams! With the help sent by the leaders of the school system, it eventually reached the target of 100 percent.

Finland is at the other end of the educational spectrum. Its education system is modeled on American progressive ideas. It is student-centered. It has a broad (and non-directive) national curriculum. Its teachers are drawn from the top 10 percent of university graduates. They are highly educated and well prepared. Students never take a high-stakes test; their teachers make their own tests. The only test they take that counts is the one required to enter university.

Last week, I went to a luncheon with Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish education expert. I asked him the question that every politician asks today: "If students don't take tests, how do you hold teachers and schools accountable?" He said that there is no word in the Finnish language for "accountability." He said, "We put well-prepared teachers in the classroom, give them maximum autonomy, and we trust them to be responsible."

I asked him if teachers are paid more for experience. He said, "Of course." And what about graduate degrees? He said, "Every teacher in Finland has a master's degree." He added: "We don't believe in competition among students, teachers, or schools. We believe in collaboration, trust, responsibility, and autonomy."

Since I have not visited schools in either Shanghai or Finland, I am certainly no expert. It was interesting to watch the short videos about their schools, found here. It is also interesting to consider what these two very different systems have in common: They place their bets on expert, experienced teachers and on careful training of their new teachers. They rely on well-planned, consistent support of teachers to improve their schools continuously.

These two systems are diametrically opposed in one sense: Shanghai relies heavily on testing to meet its goals; Finland emphasizes child-centered methods. Yet they have these important things in common: Neither of them does what the United States is now promoting: They do not hand students over to privately managed schools; they do not accept teachers who do not intend to make teaching their profession; they do not have principals who are non-educators; they do not have superintendents who are non-educators; they do not "turn around" schools by closing them or privatizing them; they do not "improve" schools by firing the principal or the teachers. They respect their teachers. They focus relentlessly on improving teaching and learning, as it is defined in their culture and society.

The lesson of PISA is this: Neither of the world's highest-performing nations do what our "reformers" want to do. How long will it take before our political leaders begin to listen to educators? How long will it take before they realize that their strategies have not worked anywhere? How long will it be before they stop inflicting their bad ideas on our schools, our students, our teachers, and American education?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Jesse Turner: Welcome to the Great American Public School Awakening!

Last year I walked 400 miles in 40 days to protest the NCLB/RTTT policies. This year I am walking again, but I am bringing a few friends with me. I am not waiting for Superman, or some dynamic leader to fix public education. Instead I am walking to Washington DC again. What our public schools need most is an Awakening of the American People. An awakening is no simple task before us. The purpose of public schooling in America is enormously complex. Every once in a while, we as a people lose sight of the purpose of schooling in America. As a country we have not had a serious conversation around the purpose of education in over 150 years.

I intentionally use the term awakening because in many ways our great nation has been asleep in regards to the purpose of our public schools. The last time such a conversation was had was when the great Horace Mann fought for the very idea of a public education. He led our nations' noble fight to establish a free public school system. Horace Mann had a great vision called the "Common School Movement." It is his vision that eventually became an American awakening. It was his life's work. His vision focused on building a quality public school system that would educate not only the poor, but would also attract the sons and daughters of the very wealthy. His vision was driven by equality. Indeed the yardstick for public education would eventually become equality. While it was never perfect, equality did become the legal measure of public schools in our great nation. We have a legal history that goes back over a hundred years attesting to this fact. Mann dreamed of a system that inspires the spirit of democracy and a sense of morality. Education was the very means of preserving our democracy. The leadership of his day, on the other hand - much like today, was less inspired by morality and democracy. They did however love the idea of a competitive workforce, (ironically not much has changed). In order to sell the idea of public schools Mann had to compromise, and sell both a competitive workforce and moral citizens. Some of us today refer to this as Horace's Great Compromise. In essence this is America's covenant with a free public education. Although it was a compromise, the moral yardstick of our public school system remained equality until the legislation of No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind lacked any moral compass from the start. This law reduces equality to a test score. It assumes no federal responsibility in obtaining equality. This current education reform has discarded our yardstick of equality. Simply put, the one and only indicator to measure academic success under NCLB is the test score on a standardized measure. Astonishingly NCLB claims to focus on closing the achievement gap while effectively taking the focus off equity issues. It has shifted the focus to outcomes on standardized testing as public schooling savior. Policy makers, politicians, and many of our educational leadership no longer focus on issues of race, poverty, and those Savage Inequalities that Jonathon Kozal so effectively writes about. Standardized testing is seen as the means to end inequality. Policy makers point fingers of blame at parents, teachers, schools of education, even students themselves. In my mind the very weakness of NCLB reforms are driven by their fear that America is losing its economic edge in this global world. In their mind democracy and morality come second. Sadly in some circles it may even be seen as a hindrance.

We once again have the unique opportunity to revisit our public school covenant. This awakening will be driven by two questions: Is the sole measure of a child that of a test score?

Is the ability to compete in the workforce the most important outcome of our public schools?

If the answer is a resounding yes, then indeed all that matters is a test of basic academic skills in math, reading, and writing. Unequivocally, I believe that as Americans we expect so much more from our public schools. Morality matters to Americans. In particular it matters to the parents and caregivers of the children in our public schools. Character counts in America. Without a doubt the very principles of democracy matter a whole lot to the people of our great nation. NCLB has thrown the balance so far out of whack that the very fabric of our nation is in danger.

This awakening is so much more than NCLB. It is more than a simple test score, or even education reform. This awakening is about a covenant that has been broken. It must be fixed. In order to do this we need a movement that returns us to a conversation around our nation's public schooling covenant.

Some people naively think parents, teachers, and Americans in general are not ready for this kind of discussion. On the contrary, I believe this is what Americans are born to do. I plan on bringing this conversation to our people. I have great faith in Americans and their do the right thing attitude when push comes to shove. With NCLB push has come to shove. For this reason I walked 400 miles from Connecticut to Washington D.C. this past summer. It is why I am walking again next year. While my simple metaphor to begin this awakening was "Children Are More Than Test Scores" it really must be so much more. It must be a call to action. A call to reclaim our schools; reclaim our schools from fear. We need to return to Horace Mann's vision of purpose.

My walk ended this year on Labor Day on the campus of the American University. Those sitting at our presentation didn't want this to be the end. Instead we said, it is only the beginning. All of those present had followed my walk from Connecticut to D.C. (via the internet) since I started out in May. We knew we wanted to continue this conversation beyond test scores. So began our conversation around a balanced and fair assessment system. This will be a system that respects children, teachers, and local schools. This on-going conversation opens the door to the awakening. We as a group, parents, teachers, and academics, have been working hard on planning a series of actions against NCLB, (SOS's March/Teach-in July '11).

America and our public schools need every voice. We need to elevate this conversation to something more than the failure of NCLB. We must be reminded that public schools are at the heart of what makes us America. I think it is imperative to move congress, the senate, and the White House, but first of all we need to move the people of America. The rest will follow.

It is to the people of America I make this call, to the Mom's and the Dad's, the builders and the firefighters, the nurses and the teachers, you are our voice, our hope. I have always thought that each and every one of us can be the hope for each other. Together our voice is loud and clear, and only together can we move mountains.

I am not pessimistic these days. I am not fearful that the day is in danger of being lost. I am convinced this wakening is already happening. No congress, or senate, not even the president can stop this conversation now. We are beyond the tipping point. There is a choice, either get out of the way, or come ride our wave. I love the idea that every tidal wave has its origins in a single drop of rain. Are you part of the coming tidal wave? What is holding you back? Hold on this is going to be one heck of a ride. Teachers and parents come join us in Washington DC. It is your voice that is often missing in this extremely important discussion. Employees of public schools, the teachers and principals of the schools that we all cherish, are very vulnerable in all of this. They and their unions are the targets of so many of the current reformers. They can very easily be dismissed or moved, at the drop of a hat. You are unique. You can do something powerful by speaking up for someone who is crying inside. The teacher or principal that you've known forever may be too fearful to speak up. I call upon you all, especially grandparents, retired teachers and principals. You are the powerful potential.

It was Abraham Lincoln who shared: "I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong".

Rather than tell people what to do, I prefer to say "Why not come join us in Washington DC this July 28th to July 31st, and become a pivotal part of the Save Our Schools Awakening." To connect with this, please join our group, Children are More than Test Scores.

Standing by those that stand right!
Jesse P. Turner,
West Hartford, CT

Monday, November 22, 2010

Eliminating Recess Hurts Kids When Testing Pressure is Too Great, We All Lose By Nicholas Thacher

The suburban New England town in which I run a small elementary school has just been obliged to eliminate morning recess for its public school children. This has, as one can readily imagine, caused a lot of palaver, dissension, anger, anxiety, and finger-pointing. Our excellent superintendent had the unenviable task of moving from one acrimonious evening meeting to another in the opening weeks of our school year, trying to explain why, since standardized-test scores haven't met the designated benchmarks, the schools have been mandated to eliminate morning recess and force the children to spend their midmorning time swotting up on their academic skills.

This is the "trickle down" of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and a commonwealth that takes occasionally justifiable pride in its challenging standards for its public schools. The thinking is that more minutes in the classroom will enable the youngsters to sharpen their minds and raise their scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS tests.

This is not a new idea, but it's a patently boneheaded one—a virtually perfect example (like the recent anti-bullying legislation cobbled together by the Massachusetts legislature) of why establishing educational policies from on high is a pointless practice, however well-intentioned. It puts me in mind of the safety stickers mandated for child strollers: "Remove Child Before Folding." But this is no joke, and it is definitely not funny.

Any child, parent, or teacher can explain why keeping young kids at their desks from 8 a.m. to lunchtime is a poor idea. Even the stegosaurus, reputed to be "so dumb as to only be dimly aware that it was alive," must have understood the importance of physical exercise. The latest research on learning and cognition, summarized in a recent New York Times Magazine article online, gives increasingly persuasive evidence that exercise and fitness have positive effects on the immature human brain. According to Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois: "Just 20 minutes of walking" prior to a test raises a child's score, even if the child is otherwise unfit or overweight. The latest studies, using MRIs to measure children's brains, show that fit children have significantly larger basal ganglia, the portion of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and "executive control."
Let's forget the worship of standardized testing, however well-intentioned. Let's just consider, for a moment, what school is going to feel like for all the little boys and girls imprisoned in my town's elementary schools.

Of course, correlation isn't necessarily causation, and it isn't breaking news—at least in the teaching profession—that children who periodically get a little exercise are apt to be more alert when they return to a less active classroom setting. And good teachers and good schools have for centuries been well aware that more learner-based, active engagement in the classroom leads to stronger academic performance in the long haul.

Tragically, the kids in the public school classrooms in my town are about to learn what the phrase "the long haul" really means. It means their opportunity to burn off calories and energy, to practice the social skills that lead to successful interaction with peers in a relatively unstructured setting, to master the challenge of a long slide or a swing set or simply to take a moment, like Prince Hamlet, to study the clouds or listen to the wind—all of these learning opportunities have been hammered out of their dreary mornings on the anvil of No Child Left Behind. A long haul, a long road, a long march.

I'd like to propose that we forget the pointless bickering, the finger-pointing, the ascribing of blame to this federal administration or that state mandate. This just doesn't pass the proverbial smell test. It's a kind of educational pornography that Justice Potter Stewart would have identified in an instant. Let's forget the worship of standardized testing, however well-intentioned. Let's just consider, for a moment, what school is going to feel like for all the little boys and girls imprisoned in my town's elementary schools, what it's going to feel like for all those teachers who are devoting their lives to the unbelievably arduous challenges of running a classroom.

In other words, let's give them all a break. Their lives—and, ultimately, the increasingly decaying fabric of our national culture—will be the better for it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

'Ready to Learn' Equals Easier to Educate, by Alfie Kohn

The phrase "ready to learn," frequently applied to young children, is rather odd when you stop to think about it, because the implication is that some kids aren't. Have you ever met a child who wasn't ready to learn -- or, for that matter, already learning like crazy? The term must mean something much more specific -- namely, that some children aren't yet able (or willing) to learn certain things or learn them in a certain way.

Specifically, it seems to be code for "prepared for traditional instruction." And yes, we'd have to concede that some kids are not ready to memorize their letters, numbers, and colors, or to practice academic skills on command. In fact, some children continue to resist for years since they'd rather be doing other kinds of learning. Can you blame them?

Then there's the question of when we expect children to be ready. Even if we narrow the notion of readiness to the acquisition of "phonemic awareness" as a prerequisite to reading in kindergarten or first grade, the concept is still iffy, but for different reasons. For one thing, researcher Stephen Krashen points out that "about three-quarters of children who test low in P.A. [phonemic awareness] appear to have no serious problems in learning to read."[1] For another thing, the premise that one must be ready to start by a certain age is contradicted by evidence that children who don't learn to read until age 7 or even later tend to make rapid progress and are soon indistinguishable from those who learned earlier.[2]

Thus, "readiness to learn" may have more to do with a schedule that's convenient for others -- or, worse, with preparation for standardized testing -- than with what is necessary or even desirable for a given child. Perhaps the phrase is an attempt to put a positive spin on what is really just developmentally inappropriate practice. In any case, I fear the effect is to set up children (or their parents) for blame when certain goals aren't reached. "Well, what did you expect? This child arrived in our classroom not ready to learn."

Sometimes, though, readiness is invoked not as a justification for premature instruction but as a criterion for admission to a selective school or program. Only those certified as "ready to learn" are deemed eligible. For the moment, let's ignore the moral implications of making 4- or 5-year-olds compete for access to an elite educational setting. When the demand exceeds the (artificially scarce) supply, the decision is usually made to choose the most advanced children, the "smartest," the readiest.

But why?

Presumably because they will be the easiest to teach.

Martin Haberman, who coined the phrase "pedagogy of poverty," related a conversation he had with his grandson's kindergarten teacher at a selective school. "Wouldn't it make more sense to admit the children who don't know their shapes and colors, and teach them these things?" he asked. The teacher looked at him as if he were "leftover mashed potatoes," but he persisted:

"Next year my grandson, who is already testing in your top half, will have had the added benefit of being in your class for a whole year. Won't he learn a lot more and be even further ahead of the 4-year-olds who failed your admission exam and who have to spend this year at home, or in daycare, without the benefit of your kindergarten? Will the 4-year-old rejects ever catch up?"

This question did even less to endear him to the teacher, but Haberman by now had realized what was going on more generally, and he summarized his epiphany as follows: "The children we teach best are those who need us least."[3]

As it happens, I had stumbled across this truth while thinking about education for a very different age group. Some years ago I was weighing the relative predictive power of high school grade-point average against that of the SAT or ACT. Some critics emphasize (correctly) that these exams are much less useful than grades at predicting college performance, but I was at pains to point out that grades have their own problems and in any case it would be more sensible to lump them together into a compound variable called "gradesandtests", which fails to predict anything other than future gradesandtests; it tells us nothing about who will be creative or a deep thinker or excited about learning or happy or successful in his or her career.

But even this reframing of the discussion failed to challenge the premise that I, too, seemed to share with more conventional participants in the colloquy about college admission. The eminent psychologist David McLelland, known for his theory of achievement motivation, delivered a public lecture at the Educational Testing Service in 1971. This talk was devoted primarily to raising pointed questions about the value of intelligence tests (Do such tests predict "who will get ahead in a number of prestige jobs where credentials are important"? he asked rhetorically. Sure. And so does "white skin.")

In an almost offhand way, McClelland then issued what struck me as a truly provocative and profound challenge. Why, he asked, do we spend time trying to figure out which criteria best predict success in higher education? Why are colleges looking for the most qualified students? "One would think that the purpose of education is precisely to improve the performance of those who are not doing very well," he mused. "If the colleges were interested in proving that they could educate people, high-scoring students might be poor bets because they would be less likely to show improvement in performance."[4]

Of course that's not how most colleges see the purpose of education. Like other institutions that get to choose whom to admit, they're looking for the applicants they think are ready to succeed. When you boil it down, that means excluding those who most need what they have to offer.

It's one thing to admit this guiltily, and something else again to build an admissions industry -- from kindergarten to graduate school -- around an unapologetic attempt to find the students who will be easiest to educate.

1. Stephen Krashen, "Low P.A. Can Read O.K.," Practically Primary, vol. 6, no. 3, 2001: 17-20.
2. Stephen Krashen and Jeff McQuillan, "The Case for Late Intervention," Educational Leadership, October 2007: 68-73.
3. Martin Haberman, Star Teachers of Children in Poverty (W. Lafayette, IN: Kappa Delta Pi, 1995), p. 80.
4. David C. McClelland, "Testing for Competence Rather Than for 'Intelligence,'" American Psychologist, January 1973, pp. 6, 2.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Gini Index and Educational Achievement By Walt Gardner

With reformers relentlessly demanding that schools produce measurable outcomes, it's curious that the Gini Index is rarely mentioned. I say that because what Italian statistician Corrado Gini wrote in 1912 has direct relevance to today's debate.

Sometimes referred to as the Gini coefficient, it measures the range of income inequality in a society from 0 (no inequality) to 1(total inequality). Sweden, for example, has an index of .23, while Namibia has .7. The U.S. has one of the world's worst Ginis for an industrialized country at .468 in 2009. This is not surprising since wealth is being reconcentrated in the upper one percent of the population in a way not seen since the Gilded Age.

The change has not escaped the attention of commentators. In his Nov. 7 New York Times column, Nicholas D. Kristof wrote that the U.S. "now arguably has a more unequal distribution of wealth than traditional banana republics like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana" ("Our Banana Republic"). Echoing this view, on Nov. 8, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely based on a sample of 5,000 people, including young and old, men and women, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. They found, among other things, that "Americans reported wanting to live in a country more like Sweden than the United States" ("Spreading the wealth").

The implications for schools are inescapable. Researchers have repeatedly emphasized the effects that poverty has on performance. According to UNICEF, the U.S. already had the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world long before the latest Census Bureau report showed that one in five children are now living in poverty. Overall, the share of Americans in poverty climbed to 14.3 percent in 2009, the highest level since 1994.

If Gini were alive today, he would find great material for his index. When any society is characterized by a high index, it is bound to exhibit the kind of socioeconomic differences that impact schools. Students can overcome their backgrounds, but they tend to constitute a small percentage of the overall population. That's why it makes little sense to compare test scores of one country with the test scores of another. Just as Zip codes serve as a reliable predictor of scores on standardized tests, so too does a country's Gini serve an equally valuable purpose.

This does not mean that inspired teachers can't help students from chaotic backgrounds. As Richard Rothstein recently explained in his keynote at ASCD's 2010 Conference on Teaching and Learning ("One-Third Agenda Won't Close Gaps"), teachers are the most important in-school factor in achievement. But teachers are not miracle workers. By themselves, they cannot compensate for the deficits that students bring to the classroom. These out-of school factors play a disproportionately large role in academic performance. The Harlem Children's Zone recognized the distinction. That's why it provides its students with wraparound services, which are underwritten by wealthy philanthropists.

In light of these facts, I have a proposal. Require that whenever test scores are published, the Gini index must be published with them. After all, federal law has long mandated that stocks may not be sold to the public without a prospectus. Why should test scores be any different? They are evidence of investment in public education. The more relevant information taxpayers have, the better able they will be to make judgments about the performance of schools.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

De-legitimizing public education. by Marion Brady

The quality of American education is going to get worse. Count on it. And contrary to the conventional wisdom, the main reason isn’t going to be the loss of funding accompanying economic hard times.

Follow along and I’ll explain:

Step One: Start with what was once a relatively simple educational system. (For me, it was a one-room school with 16 or so kids ranging in age from about 6 to 15, and a teacher who, it was taken for granted by the community, was a professional who knew what she was doing.)

Step Two: Close the school, build a big one, buy school buses, open a district office, and hire administrators to tell teachers what they can and can’t do.

Step Three: When problems with the new, more complicated system develop, expand the administrative pyramid, with each successive layer of authority knowing less about educating than the layer below it.

Step Four: As problems escalate, expand the bureaucracy, moving decision-making ever higher up the pyramid until state and then federal politicians make all the important calls.

Step Five: Give corporate America - the Gates, Broads, Waltons, etc. - control of the politicians who control the bureaucracy that controls the administrators who control the teachers.

Step Six: Pay no attention as the rich who, enamored of market forces, in love with the idea of privatizing schools, and attracted by the half-trillion dollars a year America spends on education, use the media to destroy confidence in public education.

Step Seven: As a confidence-destroying strategy, zero in on teachers. Say that they hate change and played a major role in the de-industrialization of America and the decline of the American Empire.

Step Eight: As the de-professionalization of teaching and the down-grading of teachers progress, point to the resultant poor school performance as proof of the need for centralized control of education. So, what’s next?

I don’t have a clue. But if I were forced to guess, I’d say that what’s next is whatever the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable - eyes fixed no farther than the next quarter’s profit - want to be next. They’ve been wildly successful thus far.

It’s possible, of course, that education policy next year will be just another excuse for partisan warfare, with little or no change in the status quo. Or it may be that some small congressional caucus will stick a wrench so firmly in the legislative gears that the simplistic, reactionary
education "reform" machine built by corporate America, sold to Congress, and showcased by non-educator-educators like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, will simply grind to a halt.

What particularly grieves me is that, whatever happens, it won’t be a consequence of any real understanding of education. Neither will it cause the education establishment itself to take seriously what Erica Goldson said in her June valedictory speech at Coxsackie-Athens High School in New York:

"We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

"Some of you may be thinking, "Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn't you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

"I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system."

And whatever happens next won’t support and encourage educators to get a spine. They need to scream bloody murder at stupid policy, reject inappropriate use of market forces, point out mainstream media educational naiveté, and demand that policymakers listen before serving up dysfunctional programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

And when they do so and are dismissed as self-serving whiners who don’t want to be held accountable, they should take to the streets in protest.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How to Sell Conservatism: Lesson 1 -- Pretend You're a Reformer. By Alfie Kohn

If you somehow neglected to renew your subscription to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, you may have missed a couple of interesting articles last year. A series of studies conducted by two independent groups of researchers (published in the September and November 2009 issues, respectively) added to an already substantial collection of evidence showing that "people are motivated to perceive existing social arrangements as just and legitimate."

As is common with social psych studies, all the subjects were college students, so extrapolate to every other member of our species at your peril. Still, in a variety of different experiments, everything from the formula used by a university for funding its departments to unequal gender arrangements in business or politics was likely to be regarded as fair simply because, well, that's how things are already being done. Subjects also tended to prefer the taste of a beverage if they were told it was an established brand than if they were told it was new.

If possession is nine-tenths of the law, then existence apparently is nine-tenths of rightness. At the same time, though, we seem to enjoy the smell of fresh paint (as Sartre put it). There's something undeniably alluring about the new-and-improved version of whatever product we're used to buying -- as long as the product itself hasn't changed too much. We may be seized by an urge to throw the bums out every other November, but don't ask us to question the two-party system itself. After all, if that's how things are done, it must be for good reason.

For a shrewd policy maker, then, the ideal formula would seem to be to let people enjoy the invigorating experience of demanding reform without having to give up whatever they're used to. And that's precisely what both liberals and conservatives manage to do: Advertise as a daring departure from the status quo what is actually just a slightly new twist on it.

But conservatives have gone a step further. They've figured out how to take policies that actually represent an intensification of the status quo and dress them up as something that's long overdue. In many cases the values and practices they endorse have already been accepted, but they try to convince us they've lost so they can win even more.

This phenomenon is easiest to notice in the realm of public policy. It's pretty obvious to all but the most doctrinaire libertarian that the financial cataclysm of 2007, from which we've yet to recover, was a direct result of inadequate regulation of the investment banking industry. (Even Ayn Rand protégé Alan Greenspan admitted that his faith in the free market was, er, somewhat misplaced.) This failure to regulate, in turn, reflects a sneering distrust of government that has been carefully cultivated at least since Ronald Reagan took office 30 years ago. And of course it's not limited to banking. The private sector's license to function with minimal oversight seems to have played a leading role in one recent disaster after another: the catastrophic BP oil spill, the deadly West Virginia mine explosion, the recall of half a billion eggs following a salmonella outbreak, and the San Bruno gas line explosion, to name only the most prominent examples from only the last half year.

Yet those who have drunk the ideological Kool-Aid -- a lot more than tea is served at these parties -- portray themselves as revolutionaries by virtue of demanding even further restrictions on the ability of democratically elected officials to regulate corporate conduct in the public interest. By framing the primary threat to our well-being as Big Government, conservatives succeed in marketing as something qualitatively new and different what is actually a ramped-up version of the very free-market dogma whose consequences we've been experiencing for quite some time.

Interestingly, this same artful maneuver also shows up far from the domain of Goldman Sachs and BP. Consider the way children are raised in our culture. I think it can be argued that the dominant problem with parenting isn't permissiveness; it's a fear of permissiveness that leads us to be excessively controlling. For every example of a child who is permitted to run wild in a public place, there are hundreds of examples of children being restricted unnecessarily, yelled at, threatened, or bullied by their parents, children whose protests are routinely ignored and whose questions are dismissed out of hand, children who have become accustomed to hearing an automatic "No!" in response to their requests, and a "Because I said so!" if they ask for a reason.

But traditionalists -- who, when it comes to children, include a discouraging number of political liberals -- have persuaded us to ignore the epidemic of punitive parenting and focus instead on the occasional example of overindulgence -- sometimes even to the point of pronouncing an entire generation spoiled. (It's revealing that similar alarms have been raised for decades, if not centuries.) To create the impression that kids today are out of control is to justify a call for even tighter restrictions, tougher discipline, more punishment. And, again, this is billed as a courageous departure from contemporary parenting practices rather than identified for what it is: an intensification of the control-oriented model that, as I've argued elsewhere, has already done incalculable damage.

Consider, finally, the case of education. Seymour Papert, known for his work on artificial intelligence, began one of his books by inviting us to imagine a group of surgeons and a group of teachers, both from a century ago, who are magically transported to the present day. The surgeons visit a modern operating room and struggle to understand what's going on, but the teachers feel right at home in today's schools. Kids, they discover, are still segregated by age in rows of classrooms; are still made to sit passively and listen (or practice skills) most of the time; are still tested and graded, rewarded or punished; still set against one another in contests and deprived of any real say about what they're doing.

Those tempted to point defensively to updates in the delivery system only end up underscoring how education is still about delivering knowledge to empty receptacles. In fact, snazzier technology -- say, posting grades or homework assignments on-line -- mostly serves to distract us from rethinking the pedagogy. Interactive whiteboards in classrooms amount to a 21st-century veneer on old-fashioned, teacher-centered instruction.

But enter now the school "reformers": big-city superintendents like Joel Klein and, until recently, Michelle Rhee; big-money people like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and a batch of hedge fund managers; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his ideological soulmates who preceded him in the Bush Administration; Waiting for 'Superman' director Davis Guggenheim; and the reporters, editorial writers, and producers at just about every mass media outlet in the U.S. School reform, as these people understand it, and as I've discussed in a previous post, involves a relentless regimen of standardized testing; a push to direct funds to charter schools, many of them run by for-profit corporations; a weakening of teachers' job protection -- and the vilification of unions that represent teachers -- so that those who have failed to raise their students' test scores can be publicly humiliated or fired; threats to shut down low-scoring schools; initiatives to dangle money in front of teachers who follow orders and raise scores, or even in front of certain (low-income) students; and a contest for funding in which only (some) states willing to adopt this bribe-and-threat agenda will receive desperately needed federal money.

This business-style version of reform is routinely described as "bold" or "daring" -- in contrast to the "failed status quo," which is blamed on the teachers' unions. (With education, just as with parenting, even people who are reasonably progressive on other issues suddenly sound as if they're auditioning for Fox News.) There's much to be said about each of the policies I've listed, but for now the point to be emphasized is that, just as with the Tea Partyers who rally to stop the "tyranny" of mild federal checks on corporate power, or the parenting writers who urge us to "dare to discipline" our children (even though 94 percent of parents of preschoolers admit to spanking their children), the school reformers are in fact accelerating what has already been happening over the last couple of decades.

Even before the implementation of what should be called the Many Children Left Behind Act, states and school districts were busy standardizing curricula, imposing more and more tests, and using an array of rewards and punishments to pressure teachers and students to fall in line -- with the most extreme version of this effort reserved for the inner cities. Before anyone outside of Texas had heard of George W. Bush, many of us had been calling attention to the fact that these policies were turning schools into glorified test-prep centers, driving some of the most innovative teachers to leave the profession, and increasing the drop-out rate among kids of color.

Yet the so-called reformers have succeeded in convincing people that their top-down, test-driven approach -- in effect, the status quo on steroids -- is a courageous rejection of what we've been doing.

Here's what would be new: questioning all the stuff that Papert's early 20th-century visitors would immediately recognize: a regimen of memorizing facts and practicing skills that features lectures, worksheets, quizzes, report cards and homework. But the Gates-Bush-Obama version of "school reform" not only fails to call those things into question; it actually intensifies them, particularly in urban schools. The message, as educator Harvey Daniels observed, consists of saying in effect that "what we're doing [in the classroom] is OK, we just need to do it harder, longer, stronger, louder, meaner..."

Real education reform would require us to consider the elimination of many features that we've come to associate with school, so perhaps the reluctance to take such suggestions seriously is just a specific instance of the "whatever is, is right" bias that psychologists keep documenting. At the same time, traditionalists -- educational or otherwise -- know that it's politically advantageous to position themselves as being outside the establishment. Our challenge is to peer through the fog of rhetoric, to realize that what's being billed as reform should seem distinctly familiar -- and not particularly welcome.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Waiting for sanity in education reform. By George Wood

This fall brought not only the start of another school year but plenty of noise about schools as well. A movie, a manifesto, and a mayoral election in Washington D.C. all amplified the ongoing debate about who the real education reformers are. Noise and more noise.

Thank goodness for the sane voices that arose in the midst of all this. There is Diane Ravitch with her continued campaign that brings us back to what is really at stake when filmmakers try to bend public opinion. And Mike Rose, always close to the ground, reminding us of what school reform really involves.

Now comes the news that, in light of whatever is going to happen on Nov. 2nd, the Obama administration is looking for ways to work with the next Congress and has targeted, among other things, No Child Left Behind.


With the level of animosity and acrimony currently filling the airways it is hard to imagine that Congress and the president will do anything together, let alone the long overdue overhaul of NCLB. I worry about the common ground they might actually reach: grading teachers by student tests scores, breaking unions, putting every kid in a charter school. None of these strategies has been proven as a recipe for the schools our children need and our communities deserve, but lack of evidence has never stopped us before.

With all of this in mind I have decided to trek off to Washington this weekend and join Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity. Why? Because I want to talk to some folks and see if they might accept a few basic principles around what it would take to shore up our public school system. I want to see if they are willing to take seriously the Jeffersonian ideal that public education is vital to a healthy democracy, and the notion that now, as much as any time in our history, we need such a system of public schools.

I haven’t been invited to speak at the rally, but if Stewart calls, here is what I might say:

“America’s public schools are a national treasure and it is past time that we started treating them as such. Every one of you here today probably has a schoolteacher to thank for the fact that you can read, add, and think rationally. A teacher who opened your mind to new ideas, who helped you speak that mind and listen when others spoke theirs. It’s a great system, and it opens its doors to every kid no matter their race or nationality, no matter what language they speak or if they can speak at all, no matter rich or poor, motivated or not, whole or impaired.

“We have spent too much time the blaming our schools for all that ails us. Sure schools could do better—but so could the banks, big business, and Congress. Schools, our teachers, and our kids, are not responsible for the economic strains our nation feels; or for the loosening bonds that threaten the civil discourse our republic requires. They are, however, part of the solution to these threats to our social security. But only if we come together on a few things in the name of a saner approach to making sure every kid has a good public school to attend.

“First, we have to admit that as much as schools can do, they can’t do it alone. It is hard for a child who is homeless, hungry, or in pain to heed the lessons of her teacher. America should, as part of education policy, work to see that every child is safe and secure, has good medical care, a roof over her head, and food in her stomach.

“Second, we must all admit that there is no doing a good school system on the cheap. America is 14th among the 16 industrialized nations in how much we spend on our kids’ education. But it is not just how much we spend, it is where we spend it. In the Harlem Children’s Zone, a project that considers all of what it takes to raise a child, the charter schools are spending one-third more than the public schools in the city, and they still are struggling.

"This is not a condemnation of that important work—it just means we should admit that we are going to have to invest heavily and in a targeted way if we want our schools to work for all our kids.

“Third, over 90% of our schools are good old regular public schools—not a charter or a choice, just where kids go to school. If we are serious about every child having a good school, it won’t be by creating a few fancy alternative schools. It will be by improving all of our schools.

“Fourth, we already know what works. All our schools--charters, magnets, public--have had successes, but we don’t seem to learn from them. Successful schools are places filled with good teachers who are well supported, where strong connections are built with students and families, where kids do real work not just read textbooks or listen to lectures, and where kids are evaluated by what they can do not by what test question they can answer. They also are places not segregated by social class.

“So what would a sane person, perchance a sane Congress, do to help and support our kids and schools? Hate to be simplistic, but here you go—We have to shore up our safety net for all kids to have access to health care, food, and shelter; use federal resources to get dollars to kid in the most need; and focus on all schools using the lessons learned from our most innovative and successful schools and getting the regulations and rules that prevent this change out of the way.

“This is what I wish for my school, your school, all schools. We don’t need Superman. We just need some sanity.”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

This Boy's Life. by Kaydonna Wolfcale

Within the first hour of life, Ryder held his strong head up and looked around at his new world. He didn't even seem like a baby; he was mature-looking, heavy and huge. Over the next few months, he grew fast. He was wearing 24-month clothes at six months.

My son was advanced in everything he did. He rolled over the first time at five weeks (got it on video!) and he crawled, walked, ran and jumped long before he was supposed to.

He had muscles, strong bones and a strut just like his daddy. By 12 months, he could jump flat footed up each step on the porch.

At his 18-month checkup, Dr. Young asked what words he could say. I said, "He can say everything. He talks in sentences." My English-teacher sister said, "He can even conjugate verbs!"

Some mornings I would read him 15 books before 9:00 a.m. He could "read" some of the books too--he had lines memorized from his favorite videos, and had a "Handy Dandy Notebook" that he carried around, like Steve in "Blue's Clues." He was amazingly smart and had an unbelievable memory and creativity.

At 21 months, he knew all his ABCs (out of order) and numbers and could identify shapes. He didn't go to preschool. I was a kindergarten teacher staying home to raise my babies.

Then, he turned five. Nine months later, he started kindergarten. He was very independent and happy to start to school. It was time and he was ready! Such a tough, strong confident little dude. And kindergarten was fine. His teacher said he was "wonderful." He already knew everything he needed to know. Ahead of so many others in his class.

During first grade things started to change. He started to not like school. Homework was hard. He would cry and say he had a stomach ache. I would take him to school and not be able to get him out of the car. He would cry and say he was sick.

Many times he said, "My teacher only likes the girls." I knew the worksheet/paper-pencil curriculum was geared more to girls, but Ryder was excited about reading chapter books and loved the magic tree house books. We bought the whole set at Wal-Mart! Although he didn't really love school, he made good grades. During this first grade year, his beloved Grammy lost her long battle with cancer.

Second grade was great. His teacher was young, fresh out of college and pretty! He loved her and she loved him - no question about it. He still made good grades in school. He applied for a motocross race to be held in Texas Stadium. Part of the application was a copy of his report card and a referral from his teacher. I remember thinking he would be the smartest kid entering the race!

Then third grade--an absolute disaster. Worksheet after worksheet after worksheet. My smart little boy was slowly disappearing. I am totally against medicating a child to concentrate - but we were suddenly in desperate survival mode, wondering if medication was our only option. The timed math fact pages-- three a night! --were driving us insane. He just couldn't memorize the math facts and the pressure of timed tests was almost abusive.

He HATED to read--but had to meet the Accelerated Reading goals or he would be left behind when the class took the AR reward trip to Wonderland Park. So he met his goal - but hated every single story. He was overwhelmed by reading test-prep worksheets. Most of the grades on those worksheets were failing. He did pass the high-stakes TAKS test that year - but he hated school so much, many nights he would cry himself to sleep. I collected over 1,000 test prep worksheets, most with failing grades--all completed in a single year.

Frustrated, we left public school and enrolled Ryder in a private school. The advertisement sounded too good to be true --everything I believed in, aligned with research-based best practice. His 4th grade teacher told me, in the second week of school, what a terrible student Ryder was. She had a class full of troublemakers and he was one of them. His work quickly went downhill. I didn't even recognized his handwriting; it was worse than it had been in first grade. Suddenly it seemed my son had some kind of problem. Learning disability? Dyslexia? What? Why is he suddenly a failure?

Thank goodness for sports and motocross. It was good for Ryder to come home and get on his motorcycle and go as fast as he could, flying over huge jumps. He won hundreds of trophies, racing all over the country. He loved baseball and made the All-Star teams in 3rd and 4th grades. Sports were always his stress relievers and where he found success.

He survived 5th grade with a kind, easy-going teacher. By 6th grade, it was clear that it was time to go back to public school. The private school had fewer resources and teachers lacked training. All three of my boys are rough and tough small-town country boys and seemed out of place in the private school.

We transferred to another school. Suddenly, success with all three kids-- a complete turnaround! The best part was the extra activities. Ryder got to play drums in the band! He loved playing percussion and really enjoyed band class. But when he didn't pass the TAKS math test and barely passed reading, he was informed he would have to take study hall instead of band. Instead of computer class, he would need two math classes. We still loved our new school, especially the athletic program. But mid-football season, I got a call from the doctor: the MRI results were in, the summer elbow injury was worse than we knew. No more 7th grade football, as the damaged growth plate needed weeks of 100% rest.

I also got a note from one of his favorite teachers, "Ryder is not trying in school. After he stopped playing football, he just quit trying in class." My first thought was to discipline him. But then I realized--everything he loves to do has been taken away: football, motocross, drumming. Because he's left-handed, he was having a hard time doing his school work. When he was finally allowed to use his left arm again, it was just in time for TAKS test season.

During track season Ryder, who never complains of pain, started to complain that track was ruining his knees--that he couldn't run fast any more. A few days before the first track meet, I e-mailed the coach and much to my surprise he replied, "Ryder can't go to the track meet. He didn't pass science. We were counting on him helping our team, we are very disappointed." I didn't know--a surprise, and an embarrassment.

His reading and language arts teacher was concerned he might be dyslexic. I asked that he be tested. But a school committee decided to not test him for dyslexia. I went to see the principal. who said Ryder was getting better on his benchmark tests. If he passed the test, we would know he does not have a problem.

The next day I sent a written request demanding that he be tested. But the TAKS test came before the dyslexia test. He didn't pass two of his TAKS test.

Two weeks before the end of 7th grade he was finally diagnosed as dyslexic--two weeks before 8th grade. There is only one dyslexia specialist, so as an 8th grader he went to her class at the elementary school for an hour and a half. He didn't want to go to the elementary school. He didn't want help. He just wanted to be left alone at this point.

Ryder was supposed to be at his dyslexia class at 7:15 each morning in the elementary school. He HATED the class. He was learning letters and sounds and cursive handwriting--all "baby stuff." He was angry about having to go.

It doesn't look like he will get to play football this year. Several times, he has said he wished he could go back to band class. His friends are having so much fun and he loves to play the drums. Because of his TAKS test scores, he isn't allowed to take band class.

We discovered he had major growth plate damage to both knees. Running track really did ruin his knees. There is now a possibility he will never get to play football again. All of his classes are to improve his academics in order to pass the tests. He now believes there is no way he can pass 8th grade. He can't do motocross, because he can't use his knees until they heal. This is a tough season for my awesome, talented son-- 8th grade is a very important year. He is learning to be a teenager. He needs a success.

If only I could rewind to the days last spring when he told me "track is ruining my knees." I keep thinking about the time when the coach sent Ryder to run--for punishment--the mile. He took the punishment, running that mile after two months of excruciating pain in his knees.

The dyslexia? I recently voiced my concerns about Ryder sitting in little kindergarten chairs learning letter sounds. The teacher very quickly said she would end the extra class. What a relief! Suddenly, Ryder was excited to get to school again. At his 504 meeting a few weeks ago, his reading teacher told me he could read on an 8.6 reading level. He still has a hard time getting his work done and he doesn't like to read, but the teacher said he actually reads better than a large percentage of his classmates.

Does he really have dyslexia? Or burn-out? Or high-stakes test-induced dyslexia that began in third grade? His K/1/2 teachers all told me they remember his great reading and writing abilities. What happened in 3rd grade?

I know everything happens for a reason, but it's been very hard for a mother to watch her son go from smart, athletic and so successful to being a kid whose potential has been denied.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Demonizing Public Education By Diane Ravitch

I reviewed "Waiting for 'Superman'" for The New York Review of Books. I thought the movie was very slick, very professional, and very propagandistic. It is one-sided and very contemptuous of public education. Notably, the film portrayed not a single successful regular public school, and its heroic institutions were all charter schools.

There are many inaccuracies in the movie. One that I describe in my review is Davis Guggenheim's claim that 70 percent of 8th grade students read "below grade level." He has a graphic where state after state is shown to have only a small proportion of students reading "on grade level" or "proficient." The numbers are based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But Guggenheim is wrong. NAEP doesn't report grade levels. It reports achievement levels, and these do not correspond to grade levels. Nor does he understand the NAEP achievement levels or just how demanding NAEP's "proficiency" level really is. To score below "proficient" on NAEP does NOT mean "below grade level."

NAEP has four achievement levels.

The top level is called "advanced," which represents the very highest level of student performance. Students who are "advanced" probably are at an A+; if they were taking an SAT, they would likely score somewhere akin to 750-800. These are the students who are likely to qualify for admission to our most selective universities.

Then comes "proficient," which represents solid academic performance, equivalent to an A or a very strong B. Guggenheim assumes that any student who is below "proficient" cannot read at "grade level." He is wrong.

The third level is "basic." These are students who have achieved partial mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to be proficient. This would be equivalent, I believe, to a grade of C. Many (if not most) states use NAEP's "basic" as their own definition of "proficient." This is because they know that it is unrealistic to expect all students to be "A" students.

* "Below basic" is the category that appears to be what Guggenheim means by his reference to "below grade level." But in 8th grade reading, 25 percent of students are below basic, not 70 percent. If Guggenheim knew what he was talking about, he might have said that 70 percent of 8th grade students were unable to score the equivalent of an A, but that would not be an alarming figure. It would not be a very dramatic story had he said, in sonorous tones, "25 percent of our 8th grade students are 'below basic' in reading, and that figure includes students who are learning English and students with disabilities."

He also erred in setting up charter schools as the singular answer to the nation's education problems, especially since he admits that only one in five charters gets "amazing results." The actual number that get amazing results is far smaller. In the CREDO study to which he refers, it is 17 percent, not 20 percent, closer to one in six, that outperform a matched neighborhood public school. Not all of those one in six get "amazing results," just better results than a nearby comparable school. I was told by Professor Ed Fuller at the University of Texas, who studies Texas charters, that only a couple dozen charters out of 300 in the state get "amazing results," and that many more get "abysmal" results. But you won't hear anything about that in this polemical film.

There are excellent charter schools, as there are excellent public schools. I saw one last week when I visited the KIPP flagship school in Houston, a K-12 school set on 35 acres. But it polarizes the national discussion to treat public education as a failed institution, as this film does.

The aggressive movement to lionize charters and to demonize public schools is scary because there is so much money and power pushing this agenda. I urge you to read this account by Barbara Miner, who is deeply suspicious of the billionaire hedge fund managers and foundations behind this movement. It disturbs me that the CEO of Participant Media, one of the main producers of the "Waiting for 'Superman' " film, was previously the CEO of a chain of for-profit post-secondary institutions, a sector that is now under fire in Congress for its shoddy recruitment practices and its high default rates on federally funded student loans. The man behind the other producer, Walden Media, donates heavily to conservative think-tanks, which promote privatization, vouchers, and school choice.

How socially useful is it to destroy public confidence in an essential public institution? Shouldn't we work together to improve the schools, rather than handing over our children to the private sector? I know it is the vogue now to privatize public libraries, public hospitals, public parks, prison facilities, and other public sector institutions. What will be next on the chopping block? But why give away public schools to the private sector? The private sector does not get better results on average than the public sector, not (according to NAEP) for black students or Hispanic students or urban students or low-income students. But even if it did, we should be wary of undermining one of the bedrock agencies of our democracy. This meretricious film offers fake answers for real problems.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Study: Children Need Time to Develop By Pamela McLoughlin

If you’re pushing preschoolers to read and write, you might want to reconsider and rewind back to basics, experts said Thursday.

In a nation “consumed with sooner and faster,” including in education, young students are being pushed academically at the expense of developing crucial social and problem-solving skills, Gesell Institute of Human Development Executive Director Marcy Guddemi said Thursday, in announcing results of a three-year study.

Guddemi, who highlighted the study at a press conference as the institute prepares for its 60th anniversary year, said children are developing at the same rate neurologically as they did when Dr. Arnold Gesell did his pioneering work in the 1940s, yet, they’re being pushed to do everything sooner.

A statement from the institute also announced the honorary award they were to give to Edward Zigler, founder of Head Start, Thursday night.

Guddemi said children who learn to read by age 4 have no advantage by third grade over children who master reading at 5 or 6 years old. Instead, they miss out on developing other strengths, she said.

“You can’t push developmental milestones,” she said. “Children have sets of abilities that are definitively bound by their developmental level. Those developmental abilities of a child are directly related to their success at processing the information given to them and to perform the tasks asked of them.”

The results of the fast track approach haven’t brought better test scores, she said. Rather, studies show children feel like failures now by pre-K age, are being expelled at four times the rate of children in kindergarten through 12th grade and have not fully developed qualities such as persistence, creativity, cooperation and communication, “that are necessary in the adult job market,” Guddemi said.

Gesell Institute’s national study on children’s development drew on a nationwide sample of about 1,300 3- to 6-year-olds from 53 schools in 23 states, from a variety of demographic and economic backgrounds.

Guddemi said quality early education programs for ages 3 to third grade, the years defined as early education, are essential in providing proper experiences and exploration, rather than to learn more letters earlier.

Guddemi said “Unfortunately, in an effort to close achievement gaps,” parents and schools have embraced a philosophy that earlier is better.

In response to the study, the institute is encouraging schools to reshape their curricula to incorporate more age appropriate activities and asking that school administrators become better educated in early childhood fundamentals through Gesell professional development programs.

Mayor John Destefano Jr., who proclaimed Thursday as “Gesell Institute Leadership and Discovery Day,” said New Haven prides itself on providing good early childhood education—noting a renewed focus on pre-K here 10 years ago—and said the city school system looks forward to “continued collaboration” with Gesell Institute.

He said education is key to violence reduction.

Gesell Institute of Human Development, founded in 1950, is an independent, non-profit organization that is based on the work of Gesell documenting infant and child growth and development during the 1900s. Gesell was founding director of the Yale Child Study Center in 1911.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Chamber of Commerce's flawed 'Superman' school reform guide. By Valerie Strauss

In a shameless act of movie flacking, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce just published a guide for business leaders on school reform that is linked to and reinforces the skewed vision of public education portrayed in the movie “Waiting for Superman.”

Meddling in an area about which it obviously doesn’t know much, the chamber issued a guide called “The Superman Approach: A business leader’s guide to effective education reform.”

The guide mimics the movie in extolling charter schools and test-driven data while portraying teachers unions as evil. It does this in part by comparing what the mild-mannered Clark Kent would do with his more dynamic alter-ego, Superman (obviously forgetting that the two are actually one and the same and that the superhero uses both approaches).

It really does this, addressing the business leader who reads this as an 8-year-old; I’m not making it up:

“What would Clark Kent do?
• Support local bond drives to provide more dollars for schools without demanding reforms in exchange
• Hold a “principal for a day” event for area CEOs to learn about the inner workings of a school
Some of these aren’t bad ideas, but they aren’t game changers.

So, what would Superman do?
• Work to increase the caliber of leader "

This would be funny if the chamber wasn't powerful by virtue of being the world’s largest business federation.

The folks at the chamber obviously think they are serving the interests of their millions of members, helping to fix broken schools so that America will have the work force it needs for the 21st century, but the way it proposes to do this will actually hurt the public schools, and, therefore, the rest of the country.

Says the guide:

“Traditionally, we in the business community, like most other partners, have taken something of a “Clark Kent” approach to helping our students and schools. We’ve been supportive and encouraging by mentoring children, sponsoring special events and field trips, donating supplies, and funding scholarships. These are all worthwhile activities that should be continued—but they’re not enough.”

The guide argues that the public school system, the country’s most important civic institution, should be run like a business, a philosophy championed by some of the most high-profile school reformers today.

It would be a good idea if it could work, but it can’t, because teaching children of all varying abilities and backgrounds and isn’t like selling shoes. Business people can wish it were all they want, but education is a far more complicated process that can’t be reduced to spreadsheets and charts of data.

The effort to do so -- now being supported by the Chamber of Commerce, some of the country’s biggest philanthropists, and the Obama administration -- is weakening the public schools and, ultimately, will make it harder to build a dedicated cadre of effective teachers and improve the achievement rates of minorities.

It has been said many times on this blog, but the key elements of this sort of reform path have no grounding in research. You can see a point by point critique of the Superman movie here, and here, a thorough analysis of what Superman would have done (and why the film’s director Davis Guggenheim really should have called it Waiting for Batman).

The guide summarizes all of the initiatives that, together, are effectively taking the public system down the dangerous road to privatization. Some examples:

*The guide portrays charter schools as the answer to education’s troubles. It takes no account of the largest study on charter schools conducted so far, which showed that most charter schools are no better or worse than their neighborhood traditional public schools.

Do charter schools have more flexibility than traditional schools? Yes, they do, but, interestingly, most of them aren’t innovative at all.

There is no reason that the traditional schools, which educate some 95 percent or more of the nation’s children, can’t be reformed to serve all children. And in fact, some of the most innovative schools are within traditional systems. The picture of regular school districts as all hide-bound disasters is a myth, just as is the notion that charter schools are the answer.

The guide points to as a fine example of a school system the one in New Orleans that has been under reconstruction since Hurricane Katrina. That system, unlike any other in the country, consists primarily of charter schools.

*The guide calls for alternative routes to teacher certification and lauds programs such as Teach for America, which takes new college graduates, trains them to teach for about five or six weeks, and then sends them into the country’s toughest schools, apparently to perform wonders on a wave of enthusiasm and optimism.

Some of these young people do, in fact, accomplish extraordinary things under the toughest conditions, but the vast majority leave teaching after a few years. It takes at least a few years for a teacher to become truly effective, research shows. So where does that leave the kids?

The continued, unprecedented assault on the country’s teachers is driving out the very best ones, and, incidentally, is exactly the opposite approach of the very countries that school reformers like to hold up as models, such as Finland.

How many times have you heard that we should do what Finland did to improve our system? Well, if we did that, we’d stop blaming teachers and we’d elevate the profession, not tear it down. That’s what the Finns did.

There is much, much more that is wrong with the guide and the approach it takes to reform; for example, it calls for paying teachers according to student achievement, for example, even though there are many other factors that affect a student's progress beside the teacher.

But but read it for yourself, here. And then start to really worry, because the forces arrayed against traditional public schools are getting stronger every day.

And don't let anybody fool you. That's not a good thing.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Real Public Education Principles. by Anne Geiger

In knowing the great strength and legacy of public education in the United States, we the American people seek to implant these principles ....(this is where "best teachers," "best principals" and "excellence" come in...)

#1 Principle: Children are our most important treasure. The education of children in our public schools will be based on egalitarian, democratic principles, and built on community, not "supply and demand."

#2 Principle: Teachers are our most important human resource. We will develop, empower, support, and sustain the best teaching force on the planet. We will ensure that they are highly educated, led by exceptional instructional leaders, and evaluated in fair and comprehensive ways.

#3 Principle: Public schools are our most important avenues for creating and sustaining a healthy society and vibrant economy. Our public school system in partnership with families and communities will work to educate our children by meeting their individual needs, unleashing in them creativity, resourcefulness and their own unique abilities, instilling in them rich knowledge across subjects and expertise in the arts and world languages, and equipping them with the skills needed to think, innovate, contribute, and lead fulfilling lives. Standardized testing will be one tool among many, NOT a singular, disproportionate way of measuring success.

#4 Principle: Community is our most important civic framework for protecting, supporting, engaging and empowering our children. To provide the conditions for success, we will work to ensure that all children and their families, no matter where they live, will have access to green parks, nutritious food, high-quality health care, bountiful books, robust communication networks, safe transportation, vital commerce and strong community infrastructure.

Monday, October 11, 2010

How to save schools right now: Let teachers teach. By LouAnne Johnson

We don’t have to wait for Superman to save our public schools. We can save our schools ourselves. Right now. Without firing the teachers or disbanding their unions. Without creating more standardized tests. Without pitting schools against each other in a race for dollars which should rightfully be divided equally among the school-age children of this country.

As with many complex problems, the answer is a simple one -- so simple that it is overlooked.

The answer can be stated in seven words that even a child could understand: Train teachers well -- then let them teach.

The problem with public schools isn’t lack of parental support or computers or equipment. It isn’t an overabundance of television or junk food or violence. Those things contribute to the problem.
No argument. And money is helpful. But throughout the world, there always have been students who learned to think and read and write with very limited supplies, sometimes without a classroom or textbooks, without standardized tests, without merit pay for their teachers. Those students learned because their teachers were permitted to teach.

Most American teachers are good at their jobs -- when they are allowed to do their jobs. And that is the primary problem with our public schools. Teachers are not allowed to teach.

Or rather, they are told how to teach in such great detail and required to document what they are teaching in such great detail and expected to spend so much time teaching students to pass the tests that will prove the teachers have paid such great attention to detail that the teachers don’t have time to teach the information and skills their students need.

Money isn’t the answer.

Teachers appreciate being well-paid, but most of them don’t enter the profession for the money and that is another reason why so many people misunderstand the situation. Many people work for their paychecks.

Of course, teachers appreciate being paid for their work, but most of us are willing to work for far less than we could earn elsewhere because we are passionate about the work we do. We know how important it is to educate the next generation of Americans. We don’t work for paychecks -- we work for pupils. Paying us more will make us happier but it won’t make us better teachers.

Better training and preparation make us better teachers. Objective observation and helpful feedback make us better teachers. Mentoring and staff development and sharing best practices make us better teachers.

Mediocre teachers don’t need to be fired. They need to be observed and mentored and properly trained. They need to be supported by administrators and peers and parents. They need the opportunity to watch excellent teachers in action. They need to be given the time and the tools to become good teachers -- and then if they still can’t or won’t do the job, it’s time to say goodbye.

Firing bad teachers is expensive, and firing teachers doesn’t solve the problem. The solution, again, is simple: The colleges and universities who prepare mediocre teachers, and the state licensing bureaus who license those mediocre teachers, need to be held accountable.

It is their job to train and evaluate teachers so that when those teachers are licensed and hired, they are prepared to do their jobs well. Teacher training programs and licensing bureaus need to establish and uphold high professional standards. Which brings us to the final piece of the problem puzzle.

Teachers aren’t treated or viewed as professionals by their fellow Americans, most of whom believe that because they once attended school, they are now qualified to teach school and to tell teachers how to do their jobs. Very probably, those same people have flown in airplanes, undergone surgery, or paid somebody to prepare their tax forms. Yet they don’t feel entitled to provide instruction to their pilots, doctors and accountants.

Licensed American teachers hold earned bachelor’s degrees in either a secondary content area or in elementary, childhood or special education. In addition, they have completed between two and four years of postgraduate study, including an internship or field experience comparable to the internships of medical doctors where they learn how to do their jobs under the guidance of experienced mentors .

After completing their academic programs, teachers undergo criminal background checks and apply for licensure, at their own expense. They spend days taking hundreds of dollars worth of tests -- again at their own expense -- to prove that they have the basic skills (math, science, reading, and writing) and the content knowledge (English, social studies, visual arts, mathematics, and so on), and the pedagogical expertise (zone of proximal development, designing assessment rubrics, differentiating instruction, engaging the amygdala) required to do their jobs.

Don’t know what the zone of proximal development is or how to identify it? Don’t know how to design an assessment rubric or how to differentiate instruction effectively? Haven’t got a clue how to grab the attention of an adolescent amygdala?

Then you probably aren’t a teacher.