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 na├»ve 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