I think we’re going over the cliiiiiffff. . . . (a rant with stylistic apologies to Peter Greene)

December 8, 2015

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot like Wile E. Coyote. You know the bit. The coyote runs off the cliff, then looks forlornly at the camera before crashing to the valley floor. Unfortunately, as we have driven Teacher Education off the cliff I’m not sure we’ll simply be able pick ourselves up and chase the Roadrunner again.

There was a time when (at least some) Teacher Education programs promoted high quality, engaging approaches to teaching, even though the teachers they worked with in the schools would say “oh that’s just college stuff, here in the real world we don’t do that.” But at least we tried, and the message got through to some of our students who became excellent and engaging teachers. I’m afraid the era is over and we may have driven the Teacher Education car off the cliff with no possibility of return.

A number of recent experiences have led me to this unfortunate conclusion. First a number of my colleagues often speak about creating a “Culture of Assessment” in our programs. Let’s get real here! Do you know any teachers, university faculty, or students who would want to work and learn in such a culture?  I guess some people might enjoy the constant surveillance but personally I’m not that kinky and I suspect most teachers and students aren’t either. Even the teacher educators are now focusing on surveillance instead of on engagement, creativity, self direction, wonder, or critique. Yuck!

It’s gotten so bad people are starting to suggest that we build our programs around our assessment tools rather the reverse. I recently heard a faculty member excitedly suggest that teacher education students could create an on-line portfolio based around the 11 required standards. She breathlessly told us how students could begin it in their introductory course and continue to build and update it as they mastered each standard through out their programs. WOW!  That sure sounds exciting! I bet we can find lots of 20 year olds who would think of that as an exciting and engaging way to spend their time and would love to spend two years working on it. Of course those standards are entirely focused on building wonder, engagement, love of learning, inquiry, critique and democratic values right?. What could possibly go wrong here? Doing that would surely help to turn our schools into joyous places that children will want to attend.

The same people who love this portfolio idea thought it would be an equally good idea to use the intro class to acquaint students with even more standards, and to start getting them ready for the edTPA (essentially they want to make teaching to the test raison d’etre of our programs.”) What a great way to introduce potential teachers to the profession and to get them imagining the great ways they’ll interact with kids!

I suppose that some folks might suggest that teaching is actually like that now in public schools so education students should get used to it. Actually the same argument is used when elementary kids are forced to change classes every hour because they need to “get ready” for doing it in High School. The underlying rationale could be described like this: They are going to have a lousy de-humanizing experience when they are in High School, so we better get them ready for it by giving them a lousy de-humanizing experience now.” By that logic race car drivers and airplane pilots should practice crashing their vehicles and airplanes so they can be ready for how bad it is going to be when it actually happens. I’m sure they’d all LOVE that. More seriously, the underlying stance of “that’s how it is, get used to it” also doesn’t leave any room for us to help teacher education students imagine something better either.

Unfortunately, the lunacy doesn’t stop there. CAEP (the successor to NCATE) wants to evaluate teacher education programs based on our graduates’ VAM scores. Never mind that most statisticians recommend against using VAM scores (for a variety of different reasons) in the first place. Even though VAM scores should not be used to evaluate individual teachers because of a wide variety of social and economic factors CAEP now thinks those scores could be used to evaluate institutions. There is however an easy solution to this. From now on we will only allow our students to take jobs in schools serving primarily white, middle to upper class students. That will make our VAM scores go up.

Lest you think it can’t get any worse you need to check this out. Go ahead and look. I dare you. For the faint of heart, I’ll describe what it is. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) is piloting a “National Observational Teacher Exam” (called NOTE)  in which education students will teach for 7 minutes in front of a set of electronic avatars. You read that right. Students will teach and be judged on a 7 minute lesson taught to electronic avatars. ETS claims it will standardize instructional contexts for assessment because, of course, all classrooms and kids come in standardized models. Perhaps we can stop this foolishness by having ETS pitch their new product to a bunch of avatars well.

So maybe I am just some old codger hopelessly caught in a bygone era. Perhaps I should just give up and shut up. But like Wile E Coyote I’m going to dust myself off, climb out of the valley and continue with the chase as long as I can. Maybe someday one of my attempts to catch and shake the lunacy will succeed. I know I’ll probably be driven over the cliff again, but like the coyote, I’m hopelessly compelled to keep trying.

Do our schools inadvertently promote the racism and intolerance we have been witnessing the last several months?

October 11, 2015

I’ve been wondering recently if our schools share any complicity in enabling the blatant racism, hatred and xenophobia we have been witnessing for the past several months. To be clear, I don’t believe that schools created these attitudes as racism and intolerance have a long pedigree in our country. It certainly wasn’t long after the first European immigrants got here seeking religious freedom of their own that they began importing slaves, eliminating the Native Americans that they felt were in their way and oppressing others that didn’t share the same religious beliefs as theirs.

So the hatred and bigotry we see coming from Donald Trump, Ben Carson, the supporters of the Confederate flag and others is really nothing new. But I’m wondering if the way we conduct schools might serve to enable these beliefs and behaviors rather than working against them. Here are some of the things I think could inadvertently promote bigotry and intolerance.

ABC Grading – We’ve all experienced this. At times grades seem to be arbitrary, and even when they aren’t it has been well documented that grades are as much or more a function of who we are when we enter the class, as they are of our work or effort. So, I’m wondering if the subtle message of grading that some folks take from school is that it is okay to judge some people as being better than others based on attributes that may be beyond their control. The folks most often judged negatively by grading are ELL students and students of color. As such it’s easy to see how such judgments in schools (in this case grades) could lead to the assumption that it’s okay judge people as “bad” or “inferior” especially if they are poor or people of color.

How we try to build a respect for others – We celebrate Black History Month in schools but how often is there any real depth to what happens. Many times African-American heroes include entertainers and athletes. I do think Duke Elllington (and others) should be recognized. But is there a subtle message here when the “heroes” we identify from communities of color include musicians, entertainers and athletes and all the white heroes do “important things?”

Many teachers will also engage their students in the well-known activity known as Brown Eyes/ Blue Eyes. In this activity students are divided by their eye color, and one group gets to discriminate against the other. The roles are then reversed. At its best this activity really does help kids to empathize with what it feels like to be discriminated against. But the way it is done often misses some crucial depth and the solutions to discrimination and bigotry are more than getting kids to stop being “mean” to others. But we rarely engage kids with the larger cultural and social factors that drive intolerance and so the message kids get is that everything would be better if we just stopped doing it. This hardly gives them any tools to combat intolerance. We also need to consider if there is an underlying message here that it is okay to make others feel very bad as long as the ends are justified.

How we teach history and civics – Most students will happily tell you that civics and history are among their least favorite subjects. I suspect that for the most part this is a function of how we teach these subjects. In any event it is certainly the case that we have witnessed many public figures in the last several months that seem to not have a grip on basic civics and history. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum clearly don’t get the separation of powers between the branches of government. Others claim that we are a Christian nation (although there certainly are no documents to indicate that this is so). We also continue to hear the debunked canard that the Civil War was fought over states rights rather than slavery.

Even when we do attempt to address these issues they become over simplified and often treated as if the problem had been solved. This was brought home to me most powerfully by the 4th grade child who asked me with a puzzled look when we were discussing current discrimination “didn’t Martin Luther King fix all that?” In these cases we are not giving students sufficient tools to fight intolerance and our over simplified treatment of these issues could contribute to the belief that there isn’t really a problem. This in turn could lead to the targeting of those who raise the issue. much as we have recently seen in the media.

How we treat English Language Learners; Finally, it has become fairly common practice to “help” (and I use that word advisedly) ELL learners become fluent in English by placing them in mainstream classrooms, with an ELL teacher for part of the day. This so-called “immersion” approach is supposed help the children “keep up” with the content while they are learning English. But the subtle underlying message is that the native language is somehow inferior (after all the English-speaking kids aren’t required to learn it!). Beyond that in some schools children are forbidden and sometimes even disciplined for speaking in their first languages. We often hear stories of the first languages being prohibited because teachers assume that children are saying something “bad” or plotting something if the teacher can’t understand them. So the subtle message here again is that non-English speakers (in schools almost all children of color) are “bad” and not to be trusted. Read the rest of this entry »


August 28, 2015

I just finished reading Our Kids; The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam (2015, Simon and Schuster). Throughout the book Putnam does a masterful job of explicating the differences between the lives of lower income children and adults and middle class children and adults. First, Putnam is careful to demonstrate that the differences do not track along racial, ethnic or cultural lines. Although there are certainly more minority and immigrant families within the lower income group, the lives of minority and immigrant families in the middle class are more similar to other middle class families than they are similar to the lives of minority and immigrant families in the low-income group.

But the differences are startling. From birth lower income children have fewer language interactions with parents and family members resulting in slower and less robust language development. This of course leads to lower school achievement. Children and families in the low-income group tend to live with a great deal more stress from a variety of different sources. It may come from the neighborhood in which they live, it may come as result of parents having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, or it could be as a result of the complex family relationships often seen in the low income population. In any event, research shows that stress impedes brain development, so again many of these children will achieve less in school.

Without trying to summarize a whole book in a few paragraphs Putnum also notes that folks in the lower income group are typically less able to intervene or help on behalf of their children in school or to help navigate the maze of getting into and succeeding at college. Children in this group are also less likely to have adult mentors, nor do their parents have adult contacts that can help the children get started in career or business. Finally children in the lower income group are less likely to participate in extra curricular activities. There is a great deal of research indicating that children who do participate do better in school and life, but most schools now require a fee to participate that lower income families can’t afford.

There is much more to this work than I have described here, including the statistical research, and the first hand stories of families from across income groups. The pictures painted are simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking. But within these data I see the beginnings of a clear path to change. Putnam notes a few of them but what follows is also my expansion of Putnam’s ideas.

First, we have to abandon the miserly notion that money won’t help. All of the suggestions below will cost money. If we are generous enough as a nation to address this issue here is where we would begin.

  • High quality, free, pre-school for all low income 3 and 4 year olds. This isn’t a panacea but it could begin to address the gaps in language. Current Headstart programs don’t serve enough children. If these programs were full day and had affiliated day care it might allow parents to work and ease some financial pressures as well
  • Smaller class sizes and more para-professionals to insure students’ needs are met.
  • A high quality curriculum that includes music, art, PE and recess for all children. Middle class children often get these benefits while poorer children do not, leaving them farther behind.
  • Development of schools as community centers to provide after school opportunities for children, parent education, and healthcare.
  • Significantly more counselors, psychologists, ELL teachers and translators in schools. This could help with stress issues or help more kids find their way into appropriate colleges. The psychologists would help expedite special Ed placements and help with mental health issues while the translators and ELL teaches would ease the transition for second language students and help their parents communicate with school officials.
  • An end of “pay to play” in extra curricular activities (This comes directly from Putnam). However, if we really believe that these kinds of team/ group activities are so crucial why aren’t they a part of the curriculum? I would recommend that every student should be engaged with some sort of activity for the last period of the school day.
  • Mentorship programs for kids in all high schools. These could be from the community or from local colleges and universities. I think it is particularly important that members of the immigrant communities attending universities and colleges mentor members of their communitiea in the high schools.
  • An expansion of the earned income credit. Again this is directly from Putnam. There is research evidence that even relative small amounts of money (several thousand dollars annually) can make a big difference in the stress level of a family and hence the achievement of their children. Expanding the earned income credit could do this.
  • A national program to insure that schools are physically adequate and safe. Many children still go to school in buildings that most of us would find unacceptable (Jonathan Kozol has thoroughly documented this). Why on earth do we as nation tolerate this?

This where reading Putnam has led me to believe we need to go. It certainly isn’t about better test scores or better teachers, it’s about creating a level playing field for everyone. There may well be other things that need to be added to this list or other ways to start. But the ideas reformers are suggesting are far from the answer because they don’t provide kids with the kind of life experiences and platforms from which they can grow.

We can begin to do this if we want to. Are we generous enough as a nation,  do we care enough about other people’s kids, and can we see how important it is for our country to do it?

A Lesson from My Elementary Classroom about the Confederate Flag

July 20, 2015

I started teaching back in the mid 70’s, which admittedly were “wild and woolier” times in schools than the times we live in today The school in which I taught was an alternative school sponsored by parents, but run as a part of the local school system. One of the problems I experienced in my classroom from time to time was with kids “swearing” or using inappropriate language. Frankly, I had no personal problem with my students using such language. I grew up in the sixties and early 70’s. For my peers and I a sentence wasn’t complete unless it contained multiple, multi-syllabic variations of words beginning with f and ending with k. Besides, I believed words were just words, and they only had shock value if we gave it to them.

On the other hand, my peers and I did enjoy the shock value of the language, as I’m sure my students did as well. But my parents finally asked me to stop using four letter words around them as the words offended them. I snidely replied that I would do so if they stopped using certain five letter words that offended me. They agreed and asked what the words were. My reply; Nixon and Agnew.

But within my parents response to my teenage snark was the key to dealing with swearing in my classroom, and ultimately to the confederate flag. They didn’t tell me the words were bad, or not to use the words. They told me not to use those words around them because my parents found them offensive. I used that same approach with the children in my own classroom.

When kids used what some folks consider to be inappropriate language in my classroom we first had a class discussion about it. I told my class that those words made some kids uncomfortable, and made some of the kids parents uncomfortable. Because that language made some people uncomfortable it was unacceptable in our classroom. I neither made nor implied any judgment about the language itself nor did I say they couldn’t use it elsewhere.

That simple message, that in our community we don’t do things publicly that make other members of our community uncomfortable is the same message we should be giving to the folks who want to retain the confederate flag. They should be welcome to retain the flag for their own private purposes and fly it on their own homes and vehicles if they wish. But we do know that the flag offends some folks, and whereas some people see it as representing a distinct history and heritage, others see it as a symbol of hatred and racism. Simply because a significant number of people are offended by it is reason enough that it should no longer be displayed in public spaces.

My students learned this lesson about how we treat other members of our community in my elementary school classroom. I only wish that schools were still focused on teaching children how to treat others well in our society instead of on the common core, testing and test prep.

Maybe We Were Looking at the Wrong Thing When the Senate Passed the Every Child Achieves Act

July 18, 2015

As I’ve observed folks’ responses to the passage of the Every Child Achieves Act in the senate it occurs to me that our disappointment over the positions some democratic politicians’ took stems from a misunderstanding of what the issues on the table were.

As educators we know that the test and punish regime introduced by NCLB is harmful to children and schools. Time is squandered on testing and test prep, curriculum is constrained as teachers and schools hone curriculum more narrowly to match the tests and prop up test scores, and schools become tense, fearful place for students, teachers and administrators as they continually focus on whether their test scores are good enough. But despite the concerns of educators, the dangers of testing are not the major concerns of congress.

To be sure, the over reach of Education Secretary Duncan in pushing the Common Core and the evaluation of teachers by tests was a lightning rod for many and certainly there is no doubt that many (if not most) of our politicians have swallowed the Kool-Aid that the tests represent something of value. But underneath this I see a much different debate happening. I see some of the aspects of both the house and senate bills as a part of the long term Republican efforts to roll back federal efforts to promote equity in education and provide a high quality education for all. Over the years we have seen school integration efforts rolled back, and although schools are not legally segregated, they are now more segregated than they have been at any time since the 60’s. At this point despite Brown vs. Board of Education we not only have separate schools, we have separate and unequal schools. Or course we seen many attempts at privatization and charter schools as well. We have also seen many attempts to roll back Affirmative Action in education and beyond

The latest bill in the house provided for “portability” of Title One funds (which allowed kids to take Titke One funds with them, even to wealthy schools), which seems to me to be the latest attempt at vouchers and pulling money from poor schools (it was defeated in the senate). The accountability provisions in the senate bill, which were also defeated, were similar to NCLB in disaggregating scores, identifying the lowest performing schools etc. Although these measure would be an anathema to teachers and educators they did stand against the assault on equity in attempting to provide a way to insure that an appropriate education was provided for all children. As educators we know such an approach is wrong headed and counter productive. But our politicians have accepted the narrative about testing and “consequences”  being a positive way to influence schools. As such, some of our more liberal legislators (Senators Warren and Sanders in particular) supported the accountability measure  for the “right” reasons; to insure that schools really do attend to the needs of poor, immigrant, and ELL and minority student. (Vox has a good article on this here).

These circumstances put those of us who want testing eliminated as the bill moves in to conference committee in an odd position. We certainly don’t want the accountability measures for all the reasons noted above, and of course we want mandated testing eliminated as well. But as we stand for these things, we stand in common cause with a (mostly) Republican section of the electorate that wants the protections we have enacted at the federal level to insure equity in education rolled back. The equity issue was what ESEA, and even NCLB were supposed to address. We know NCLB was misguided, and did more harm than good but insuring an equitable education is a goal to which I assume most readers of this blog will support.

I’m not certain how much impact our e-mails and phone calls will have as the bill moves into conference committee. But it does seem to me that in some ways our concerns about eliminating testing in the bill were somewhat tangential to the core issues of the bill, which were the federal over reach, and the equity issues. Our problem is that we don’t as yet have a coalition of progressives and educators that combines work toward the guarantee of an equitable education for all with an understanding that a “test and punish” regime is not a viable way to promote equitable education and that it is poverty, not teachers that is the most important issue to be addressed in improving education and our society. I think building such a coalition is more important that making common cause with those who want to roll back equity gains in education.

Perhaps building this coalition should be our primary goal during this next election cycle.

Aiming for an Educational Revolution without Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

July 13, 2015

I’ve been seeing a lot of Internet traffic among teachers groups over the last couple of days concerning AFT’s endorsement of Hilary Clinton and various groups support for the re-authorization of ESEA (now known in the Senate as the Every Child Achieves Act or ECAA). Specifically, the folks I am reading prefer Bernie Sanders over Clinton, as they believe he is more education friendly (I do too!) and are disappointed that the ECAA still includes mandatory annual testing (albeit with the federal uses of test scores curtailed). United Opt Out has gone as far as suggesting the folks not support passage of the ECAA.

Here is where we get ourselves into trouble if we let the perfect become the enemy of the good. It still burns me that my democratic friends who maintained that Al Gore was no different from George W. Bush and stuck with Ralph Nader to the bitter end may have helped to deliver us two wars and No Child Left Behind. So here is the dilemma; Personally, I prefer Bernie’s politics (particular in terms of education) just as I prefer an end to all mandated testing. At the same time, I do believe that Hilary Clinton would be better for education and the country than any of the current crop of Republican candidates (imagine Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum or Donald Trump as education presidents!) and I believe the ECAA would go a long way to improve the lives of students and teachers even if it does still include annual or grade span testing.

So the real problem here is how to do both at the same time. We certainly want to keep pushing for the best we can get. But the nature of democracy is that we rarely get everything we want. It seems to me that we can’t descend into name-calling or a “holier than thou” attitude about our positions, as that might undermine a candidate or a position that we might actually prefer over the other alternatives later. Opposing ECAA leaves us with the current NCLB bill and the testing it mandates. The current bill in the senate is probably the best we can get (and by the way Bernie Sanders voted for it in committee).

So we need to keep pushing for what we think is best . . . a particular candidate or a change in the law with a vision of succeeding. If we don’t keep working for a revolution in our political and education systems they will never happen. However, even when we don’t succeed in the short term, our efforts change the discourse and get important issues into the public consciousness.

For me even when we don’t achieve a “revolution” in the short term in the current case it still easy to see what would be “better” if not perfect. Do we prefer Hilary or Scott Walker or Donald Trump (or any of the Republicans)? Do we prefer the new ECAA (with less Federal interference, uses of testing etc.) vs. the old NCLB? Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Trying To Create Some Sanity When None Can be Found

June 20, 2015

This past week we witnessed the shocking hate crime of the murder of nine African American people in a church in Charleston. The best that we can hope for is that horrific event will lead to some long needed national discourse about race and racism and about the ubiquity of guns in our culture. My intentions for this blog are to keep if focused primarily on education, as it would not be a pretty site to witness me holding forth on politics on a weekly basis.

Nonetheless some of the political pronouncements made in the aftermath of the hate crimes this week led me to think about what we can do in our classrooms to create a society less likely to have future such events. As you may have read some politicians have suggested that the murders were “ an attack on religious liberty.” Others have suggested it was the result of a drug problem, or that the incident couldn’t have happened if the members of the bible study group had been armed themselves. All of this is patent nonsense but it does suggest the need for something that is often crucially missing in our classrooms.

It’s really a simple process. First, we must take the time back from the Common Core and test prep to regularly spend time with students talking about what is going in in the real world (I’ve read, listened to, and discussed newspapers and news broadcasts with students as young as third grade on an ongoing basis.) Then, as we discuss stories and issues, and students begin to share their interpretations we should be asking;

What evidence do you have? and

So does your conclusion make sense?

 The question “does your conclusion make sense” is important for two reasons. First it causes students to think about how and why things fit together and how cause and effect work. Beyond that, while still insuring that multiple opinions are honored, it also insists what students are suggesting has some basis in data and could move what we do beyond the constraints of “right and wrong” answers. If we are to move forward as a democratic society we need to move beyond the excuse of ”I don’t have any data to back that up, it’s just my opinion.” (Of course within such a model students would have to learn to judge the quality of their evidence as well)

Citizens practiced in thinking in these ways would be far less likely to make the ridiculous statements referenced at the beginning of this post, It would also make citizens less likely to be swayed the rantings of hate groups or charlatans like Alex Jones. In addition making such discourse a habit could change the nature of our national discourse about race, guns, climate change and other political issues. At the day-to-day school level questions such as these also drive deeper understandings of mathematics and any other texts students are reading. Such a stance might even help to combat some of the lunacies of the school “rephorm” movement.

So what if we could make the questions “What evidence do you have?” and “Does your conclusion make sense?” the sine qua non of work in schools? Could it really make a difference? It may well be my oversimplified pipe dream in the face of an unspeakable tragedy. But today I am searching for a grain of sanity wherever I can find it.

It’s Time to Call Out Stupid Educational Decisions for What They Are – Stupid!

June 10, 2015

(Warning – Rant Approaching)

I keep searching for that grain of sanity but I just can’t seem to find it. The recent spread of the “stupid” virus makes this quest even more difficult. In fact I’m afraid the spread of this virus in the education reform movement may have reached epidemic proportions. The latest outbreaks are making me crazy!

In Wisconsin a legislative committee recently slipped a measure into a finance bill that would allow anyone with any sort of bachelor’s degree to teach math, science, social studies or English. Anyone with “relevant experience” could be certified to teach all other subjects (even without a high school diploma). Allegedly, this was done to make it easier for rural districts to find qualified teachers. This should work well because potential teachers would now hardly need to be qualified at all. The virus has clearly infected Rep. Mary Czaja, the author of the measure. Wisconsin state superintendent Tony Evers even called the measure “breathtaking in its stupidity.”

This spring the virus has been rearing its ugly head in Mississippi as well. Mississippi is a state where (amazingly) wealthy school districts receive more state education funding than poor districts. Of course it is well-known that poverty has a major impact on achievement. Nonetheless the state has enacted (at the behest of the governor) a bill that requires all 3rd graders to pass a literacy test in order to go on to 4th grade. Not passing means retention and no exceptions can be made based on the students’ in-class work. This means that even a student who got straight A’s all year-long can be retained if they don’t pass the test (They do get several chances). So of course more poor and minority kids will fail the tests and be retained. Most research indicates that retention usually doesn’t help kids, and most educators suggest a single high stakes test should never be used alone for educational decision-making. The governor however believes he is being compassionate by insuring kids can read before they move on to 4th grade. My diagnosis is that the “stupid” virus has somehow affected his ability to reason clearly about such matters.

These aren’t isolated incidents of the virus flaring up. Where I live near Lake Wobegon one local district is working to improve the achievement of students at their three schools serving the greatest numbers of poor, minority and immigrant students because the state has identified these schools as being in need of “focus.” I’m certainly glad they are “focusing” but do you think they reduced class size to give these kids more individual attention too? Nope. More ELL teachers to help the immigrants do better with a curriculum taught in English? Guess again. How about extended summer programs to provide poor, minority and immigrant kids with the kinds of experiences middle class kids have that school achievement is built on? Don’t be silly! New culturally relevant curriculum maybe? You have got to be kidding me!

The new plan is to increase the school day for the teachers by 45 minutes so they can focus on “planning, collaborating, coaching and discussion.” The school day for the students will remain the same length as it is currently. These aren’t necessarily bad things but the district has once again bought into the foolish assumption that it is the teachers who are the problem and if the teachers were better everything would be fixed. Because this extra time is not provided for in the local contract nearly 25% percent of the teachers in these buildings have asked for transfers to other schools. But that’s okay; they’ll get new teachers because experience and skill don’t matter. So it’s the teachers’ fault, but it must not be the fault of the teachers because experience and skill make no difference. Wait a minute; I think I might be coming down with virus. I better get a surgical mask.

It looks as if the spread of this virus has reached epidemic proportions nationally as well. All of these matters stem from people without much background in education making decisions about education. That particular strain of the virus seems to be everywhere. It would be truly frightening if it jumped species like animal viruses sometimes do. Imagine if our national IT infrastructure started to fail. Communications, medicine, defense, air traffic control, entertainment and a myriad of other services would all be affected. So here’s an idea. Let’s get someone who knows almost nothing about IT and has no experience in the complexities of IT to fix it. They won’t be hobbled by old ideas about how IT should function. That should work right? After all, they had a Sega or DS when they were kids, they had computer time for 45 minutes a week during elementary school and now they have a smart phone. And besides look how well that approach has worked in education!

Wow! Just imagining that the virus could jump from education to IT has really scared me. I need to go get a shot of scotch . . . and some Prozac . . . and my blood pressure medicine.

Okay, I’m back. While I was gone my 18-year-old son read what I had written thus far and upon observing my behavior suggested that it wasn’t a virus at all, but rather was the long-term effects of the “pharmaceutical entertainment” I and other baby boomers indulged in during the 60’s and 70’s. I pointed out that some of the decision makers are currently far too young to have experienced the sixties and seventies. “No problem” he said, “they are the offspring of you baby boomers so it’s probably a genetic mutation.”

To prove him wrong I introduced him to some of the viral outbreaks that occurred well before we baby boomers started destroying society as we know it. When I was in elementary school we used to have “air raid drills” in which we hid under our desks and put our hands over our heads. If only those who have been killed by nuclear or other bombs knew about this great simple protection. What a difference that would have made! I’m pretty sure the teachers knew that it was ridiculous to assume that being under the desk would protect us from a nuclear firestorm, or the shockwave of a nuclear explosion. I’m guessing they also knew how much it would scare kids. But some administrator and/or government official apparently contracted the virus and decided it was okay to scare kids and waste school time in this way.

Around the same period of time many children were subjected to a form of institutional abuse called “The New Math.” The New Math was created during the push for math and science after Sputnik but somehow some mathematicians and educators caught the virus and decided it would be a great idea to engage young children with the esoteric and theoretical underpinnings of mathematics. I mean, what second grader wouldn’t be just ecstatic at the thought of the union and intersection of sets and the ultimate entertainment, “The Null Set. It was almost as exciting as watching re-runs of Lassie. (For those of you who missed the New Math, you can tell we had a blast in school, until the New Math mysteriously disappeared.)

Unfortunately, like many viral outbreaks this one too left some lasting damage and the aftereffects of the New Math stupidity are still with us. Working in other bases in math (Base 4 or Base 7 etc.) seems to have started as a part of the New Math and believe or not kids and teachers are still subjected to doing it. Whereas there are some uses for very simplified work in other bases to learn about place value that’s not what happens in schools. Many students still have to learn to add and subtract in other bases, even though there is no real world or educationally viable reason for doing so. I learned it in sixth grade. The next time I used it was when I re-learned it in college so I could teach it to sixth graders. The only further use I can imagine for it is for me to teach it to my undergraduate teacher education students, so they can teach it to their students. Sounds like a circle created by the virus to me. Teachers and students then and now have recognized that it was an aberrant idea, but still weren’t able to prevent the spread or the aftereffects of the virus.

The more I see these events the more I feel like I’m in a parody of the movie “The Sixth Sense; “I see stupid people. They’re everywhere. They don’t know they are stupid.” But they can’t all really be that stupid over all these years. The reality is that the folks who made and make these decisions aren’t really stupid people, but something has caused them to make some really stupid decisions when it comes to education. Fortunately there is some good news on the horizon. Teachers and parents (and even some politicians) are beginning to see that one way to control the spread of such a virus is to stay away from the places where it most prevalent. This is why we saw so many parents opting their kids out of the standardized tests this year, in many cases with the support of their teachers. Avoiding a virus is a good idea, but to eradicate it we have to identify and name it and then find a cure.

I don’t have any fancy scientific suggestions for a name like H1N1 so I suggest we simply call it the “stupid” virus because it has been demonstrated to cause marked stupidity in educational decision makers. Now, I realize that some folks don’t like the word “stupid.” In fact one of my relatives is raising her children to think “stupid” is a bad word (You can bet they don’t get to come visit cranky old “Uncle Searching” very often). As such I am willing to consider some other appropriate names for this virus. Foolish, idiotic, ridiculous, ludicrous, moronic, absurd and asinine would all work equally well in describing the decisions this virus causes. Of course you can send me your suggestions as well.

Once we have named the virus we need to begin working together to find a cure. I’m wondering if a simple phrase might be the magic key, like in the movies. When we see an idea created by the virus we could say, “That doesn’t make any sense. Have you really thought this through?” Or we could say “ I think that would be really bad for our kids and our country” or even “You must really hate kids to want to put them through that!” Those who prefer a less strident approach could suggest that the idea is “under-theorized,” “under-researched” or “misguided.” I personally prefer the stronger approach as I think the latter phrases might be like using a children’s aspirin to fight a migraine. I’m guessing stronger medicine is required.

This is a serious and destructive epidemic we are fighting; I call it stupidity. We can fight it by staying away from the source of the virus (by opting out of testing) and by confronting it with the strongest medicines we have – powerful ideas and questions. I urge all of you to help us fight and find a cure for this debilitating national epidemic.

I’d be happy to share your reports of new outbreaks and your suggestions for combatting the virus if you send them to me. I can be reached at sehornstein@yahoo.com.

Re-Claiming a High Quality Education for All as Civil Right

May 29, 2015

Last week I shared my letter to Senator Al Franken regarding the every Child Achieves Act. In that letter I encouraged Senator Franken to support the “Tester Amendment” which moves federal requirements for testing from every year in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school to once each in elementary school, middle school and high school. However, a number of civil rights groups have expressed support for annual testing and a requirement for increased disaggregation and statistical analysis of the results to insure that schools continue to maintain a focus on the achievement of poor, minority and ELL children.

At some level seeing the need for testing as a civil rights issue makes sense, as we clearly must insure that we really are attending the learning of all children. But as we have seen in the years since the implementation of NCLB in 2003 the focus on testing has had a powerful negative impact on schools and teaching. Fortunately annual testing is not needed as a barometer of how we are doing and the Tester Amendment captures that. Testing one time each in elementary, middle school and high school would still give schools and school districts an annual picture of how children in targeted groups are performing in comparison to their majority peers. If schools districts find areas that need attention, they could then locally decide to what measures to use and how to address the issues. The National Assessment of Educational Progress collects this information at the national and state level every four years. Ideally, I’d like to see no federal testing mandate so school districts could develop multiple ways to represent their work. But our history indicates that some districts have not always made sure that all children achieve so the Tester approach seems like a reasonable  compromise.

But even reducing the amount of time, money and effort spent on testing and still knowing that poor, minority, immigrant and ELL students don’t do as well on the tests as their majority peers is hardly a solution. To a large extent poverty drives the tests scores and teachers on their own can do little about it. (I do however believe that teachers should be in the forefront of a social movement to combat poverty and income inequality but that’s a subject for another post). But within the schools themselves the obsession with testing has severely limited what children experience in school and what they learn and thus limits their ability to function as full members of a democratic society.

In some of the schools I visit all subjects other than reading, math and test prep have been eliminated as the schools focus on test scores. I often see children staying in from recess “to catch up” or for “re-teaching.” Of course these are often the very same children who most need some time to play. My undergraduate teacher candidates tell me that in their schools even recess is being eliminated, as there is “not enough time.” What is taught in schools has become more focused on the kinds of answers that are on the tests, and less on flexible connected knowledge. It has been well documented (most notably by Jean Anyon and Jonathan Kozol) that these trends are far more pronounced in schools serving diverse populations, poor and minority populations.

So, although we do need to know how all of our students are doing, knowing this does not require annual testing or the current obsession with test scores. Rather, the real civil right we should be fighting to protect is the right of all children to a rich, high quality education that includes the arts, humanities, sciences social studies, literacy, math, PE and (yes) recess. Our underachieving children need such rich programs far more than they need more “drill an skill” and “test prep.” Of course such programs should be the standard for all schools, and the rights of all children to a rich high quality education should be our foremost concern. A continuation of the current obsession with testing simply won’t get us there.

It’s time for us to begin a new civil rights campaign that calls for a rich, high quality education for all children. If we could really achieve this it would be good for children, good for our democratic society and ultimately good for America.

I appreciate you reading this blog! If it is of interest to you please follow and/or re-post as I am working to build readership. I appreciate your comments as well.

Next Week – Still searching for a grain of sanity but I’m having some difficulty finding it; Why do people make such stupid decisions about education?  

My Letter to Senator Al Franken about the Every Child Achieves Act

May 17, 2015

I sent the letter below to Senator AL Franken today . . .

Dear Senator Franken,

I am writing to you today to express my thanks for your leadership and support in developing the new Every Child Achieves Act of 2015. I am particularly encouraged by the removal of federal authority regarding the uses of test scores in evaluation of teachers and the limitations placed on the Department of Education in pushing the Common Core and other such initiatives. I also appreciate your focus on STEM issues, Native American languages, and the need for counselors in schools.

In general, I believe the current senate bill is a huge improvement over No Child Left Behind. However, the current bill does contain several initiatives that I believe need further scrutiny and amendment. Specifically, I am extremely concerned about the support for charter schools and the continuation of mandatory testing in grades 3-8.

Although there has been a lot of press coverage of charter schools the available data on them suggest that they are no better, and often much worse than public schools in the same neighborhoods. Certainly promoting “high quality” schools, financial oversight and transparency would help, but that wouldn’t solve the problem. There are a significant number of cases where charter schools have “shaped” their student bodies to raise their test scores as well as many cases where the financial dealings of the schools and their for-profit manager/owners have been suspect. In some cases charter schools have even served to make local schools less diverse.

If we truly wanted educational innovation in charter schools I would suggest the following:

  • Charter schools receiving federal funding would have to enroll the same percentages of special needs, minority and ELL children as the schools in their neighborhoods
  • Charter schools receiving federal funding could not receive funds in excess of the amount spent per pupil (including administrative costs etc.) in local schools. This would prevent federal tax dollars from becoming “the profits” pocketed by charter school operators.
  • Charter schools receiving federal funding would be required to use teachers certified by their states.
  • Charter schools receiving federal funding would have to meet the same accountability standards as public schools within their states.

Beyond the concern with charter schools I believe the continuation of the requirement for annual testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school is also extremely problematic. I am certainly aware that a number of civil rights groups believe the annual tests are necessary to insure we continue to focus on the achievement of minority children. I too believe that focus is important. However, testing once or twice in elementary school and once in junior high would still provide educators with those same data. Individual school districts and/or states could then decide how they would respond to the data or if they needed to look at specific grade levels for more information.

A reduction in the focus on testing could also save a great deal of money and instructional time that could then be put to other purposes. Perhaps of greatest importance a reduction in testing itself and the focus on test scores could make way for a stronger curriculum. Many of the schools I visit as an education professional have narrowed their focus to reading, math and test preparation. Art, music social studies and PE (and even recess!) are often sacrificed as more and more time is devoted to raising test scores. Unfortunately, this trend is most obvious in schools serving diverse student populations.

This intense focus on test scores doesn’t support the rights of diverse children. Rather, it constrains their rights by denying them the kind of rich school experience we hope all of our children would receive. It seems to me that we ought to more concerned about students’ rights to a rich, developmentally appropriate education than we are about making sure they take a test that doesn’t measure and constrains that education every year. As such I urge you to support the “Tester Amendment” to this bill when it comes to the floor. This change would reduce the focus on testing, allow for the continued assessment of the achievement of diverse population groups, and again make room in schools for a focus beyond reading, math and testing.

Once again, thank you for your thoughtful leadership and support on this issue. I do have research data I can share on all of these issues if that would be of help to you and your staff. Finally, I still retain a copy of Why Not Me? on my desk at work and retain high hopes for your ascendance in 2024 at the conclusion of the next democratic presidency.


Stephen E. Hornstein, PhD                                                                                                                                                               Cold Spring, Minnesota

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