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Late-night Musings of a Sometime Edu-activist Insomniac

A few nights ago I had one of those nights I often have; I couldn’t sleep. Here’s a little of how it went:

chocolate-41500_640I need to be asleep. Eyes shut. Deep breathing. Mind a blank. Nope, not happening.

The reason I can’t sleep is probably because I was sick for two days and slept most of them. No help here.

Personal observation: Hot milk does not help you sleep–even with chocolate syrup in it.

Getting up and reading Smagorinsky’s column on the definition of literacy sure doesn’t help, but tweeting it and reposting it on FB made me feel better.

Back to bed. Toss. Turn. Think. And think. And think. And think some more.

I NEED to sleep so I can get up and DO “STUFF” tomorrow. Like catching up on my bookkeeping. Going to Walmart. Revising my children’s novel. Planning next semester’s classes.

My head is spinning with chains of thought like a top. 

Tops. I remember they told us back in school that tops and other spinning objects revolve around an imaginary axis. You have to imagine an “imaginary rod,” the teacher said, going through the center of the spinning object that the rest of it spins around. But I’ve always wondered, where down deep inside the object does it not spin? There has to be a place like that, some “thing” to serve as the axis. But what if it’s not a “thing”? What if it’s a lack of a “thing,” like a tiny rod of nothing, maybe a vacuum tube one molecule in diameter that runs the entire length of the spinning object? It makes sense that if everything inside the object is spinning out and away as the object spins (centrifugal force), there would be nothing left in the center, in other words, a vacuum. Vacuums in nature have to be filled (It’s a rule!), so at the same time that there is a force slinging the molecules of the object out, there is an equal force pulling them back in. That makes gravity not a force at all but a balance, an equilibrium! Wow! That seems profound. May not be scientifically accurate, but I am now satisfied I have the answer to my lifelong “wonder” and I can put that one to bed. Maybe I can sleep now.


And I actually did, and got up the next morning and tried to write down the thoughts I’d had—or at least some of them—during the night. I even did some quick Internet research to see if my gravity theory had been thought of before. My search came up with lots of sites that call gravity a force and at least one that confessed after all the years since Newton and even with Einstein’s insight, we still don’t know what gravity is. So maybe there’s room for my theory; who knows?

But that’s not the point of this blog post. The point is the kind of thinking I was doing about the concept of gravity. A geophysicist can probably poke all kinds of holes in my little theory, but that’s not the point either. The point is that I began with a question that nobody told me I could’t ask—or didn’t need to ask—and let my mind make connections it had never made before. My thinking was not being restricted by what I’d been told or what others believe and was successful in coming up with a potential solution to the question that was totally new, at least to me. This is exactly the kind of thinking that students should be doing in school on a regular basis, but they rarely are.

Yes, I know there are examples of classrooms where this kind of questioning and thinking is not only permitted but encouraged, but the fact is, these classrooms are very much the exceptions. Most students spend their school day hamstrung by standards and high-stakes assessments. This statement is no surprise to anyone who is aware of the overwhelming demands of well-intentioned policymakers over the last twenty years or more, who sincerely believe American students won’t learn unless we “make” them (in other words, threaten them with consequences of poor test scores) and American teachers can’t or won’t teach what is important for students to know; and by the way, are teachers even needed if we have banks of computers loaded with “personalized learning” software and Internet connections?

The result of these demands has been a reaction among administrators at state and local levels to tighten controls on teachers as to what they can teach, when, and even how. Everything teachers do must be tied to the “Standards,” and all the “Standards” for a given grade level must be covered before the end of the year, no matter what, so that the students will perform well on all parts of the TEST at the (almost) end of the year. The desperate push to “cover the Standards” leaves no time for real thinking. Even when a standard seems to require thinking, the pace of the curriculum and the inauthentic contrived exercises used to “teach” the concept leave no time for questions to be asked, authentic connections to be made, investigations to be carried out, collaborations in or out of school to be developed, etc. These are the kinds of things that support and promote real thinking and learning beyond regurgitated concepts that don’t stick because they are never really learned. Covering the Standards means going very wide but not very deep.

Learning experts tell us that learning happens only when the learner is allowed to make mental and even emotional connections with what is to be learned. In order to make those connections, students must go deep. That takes time. In school, there is no time to go deep, no time for connections, no time for questions. “No,” says the teacher, often reluctantly, “we don’t have time to talk more about this. Tomorrow we have to move on to Standard X.”

A former state superintendent of education who had bought into the national standards boondoggle once screamed, “I’ll be damned if I let another generation of students be lost!” (Slightly paraphrased.) Too late. We already have.

There have been many calls from several components of American society to back away from high-stakes testing. I have added my voice to those calls. Sadly, Congress and the federal Department of Education, and consequently our state education departments, have turned a deaf ear. The 2015 ESSA retained the requirement for annual testing of students, which actually becomes almost constant testing as school districts attempt to anticipate and proactively remediate any knowledge “holes” that might otherwise show up in end-of-year tests for fear of what the ramifications of those “holes” might mean. Now I think it’s time to go further. I think it’s time to scale back standards to what they should be—aspirational goals, not requirements. Goals are laudable and can be motivational; unachievable requirements are punitive and counterproductive.

Standards are what we use for quality control in a factory. Henry Ford standardizedautomobiles-502135_1280 automobile parts and that was a good thing for building and repairing automobiles efficiently. Do we not realize that educating children should not have efficiency as its main focus? Of course, efficiency has a place, but the focus should be on graduating students who can function successfully not only in the workforce but as citizens in our representational form of government.

One standardized part looks exactly like every other standardized part of the same type. Is that what we want—children who know all the same things and no more? It reminds me of an old song from the 60s; “And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.”

To create a standardized part, we need exactly the same ingredients and we must put them together in exactly the same way using exactly the same machines. Well, that’s where the analogy breaks down completely; the diversity among students and teachers in American schools absolutely defies standardization! Yet we keep trying.

Let’s. Just. Stop. Let’s open our schools up to allow students to think and question again. Maybe one of them might eventually figure out what gravity really is. I’ll be glad to give up my own theory when she does.


A Perversion of Terms

A number of aspects of the corporate/bureaucratic reform movement make me angry, but among the most egregious is the deliberate attempt to pervert and twist the meaning of valid educational or other terms into something that is often the opposite of their true essence. I first became aware of this phenomenon when I began teaching pre-service elementary teachers in a state that had bought into DIBELS in wholesale fashion, but I have become aware of many others, and I will address several in this blog post. No doubt you can think of more.

Perversion #1: Fluency

In my course work to become a Master Reading Teacher, I learned about fluency. Fluency is a concept that identifies a good oral reader; a fluent reader reads at an appropriate speed using emphasis and expression that suggest the reader understands what he or she is reading. In fact, comprehension is one aspect of true fluency. Fluency was identified as one of the five critical concepts that readers must master and that teachers must teach to help their students become competent readers by the National Reading Panel. Then, along came DIBELS.

Since our newly minted teachers would be asked to administer this assessment in most schools they might be hired in, our teacher education department felt it was important to give them some experience in how this collection of assessments is administered, and in the process, make them aware of its shortcomings. Although I had heard about DIBELS, I had no experience with it, so I learned along with my students.

I learned that DIBELS assessments are composed of one-minute “probes” of minute skills related to reading (but in most cases, not actual reading), all of which were labeled as some kind of “fluency”–First Sound Fluency, Phoneme Segmentation Fluency, Nonsense Word Fluency, etc. None of these tests have the remotest connection to real fluency; yet by naming them with the word “fluency,” the idea is fostered that they must have something to do with the kind of fluency confirmed by the National Reading Panel. I have no idea what bureaucrat at the USDOE decided that DIBELS was exactly what was needed by schools who received Reading First Grants, but a huge percentage of the recipients of the RF grants adopted DIBELS as their screening tool. Of course there is much more to that story, but that’s for another post. What I do want to point out here is that the only aspect of fluency that DIBELS even tenuously incorporates is the idea of reading at a proper pace. However, because the tests are timed for one-minute, and smart children know they are being timed, they quickly catch on that what is important is speed, not accuracy, not expression, not even true understanding. Fluency has become “How fast can you say it?” and children become brilliant word callers with little or no comprehension. So, this perversion of a valid educational term has had and is having a negative impact on many students.

Perversion #2: Choice

Choice sounds like such a good thing, a really democratic thing. Making our own choices about how to live out our lives is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. How can choice be bad? It’s bad when it isn’t really choice at all.

What Choice has come to mean in the current political dialogue is choice in name only. The idea is this: since public schools are failing (a contention thoroughly discredited by many experts), students who attend a school that they believe is not serving their needs may either receive money in the form of a voucher to pay tuition at a private school (which has its own problems in terms of the separation of church and state), OR they may attend a publicly supported charter school. These charter schools claim that they do a better job of reaching these underserved students, but the research casts serious doubt on these claims. In addition many of the charter schools are organized as non-profits, but then hire for-profit corporations to actually run the schools. Thus public money is moving to private coffers.

Moreover, these charter schools often limit the number and kind of students they will accept (that is they refuse to admit students on an IEP or English Language Learners), or they take the money for these students, then find reasons to drop them or expel them for behavior or lack of progress or whatever excuse they can find. These students are then “dumped” back into the public schools, which now have even less money to meet their needs. The students who perform well on tests are the ones who get to remain in the charters. The level of accountability for charter schools is rarely as high as for public schools. One of the results of this kind of choice then is even less opportunity for the most at-risk students and ultimately a wider achievement gap than ever. Not much real choice going on here. I’m not at all sure these are the facts that people think of when they adopt a pro-Choice stance. Thus Choice is a good candidate for the perversion label.

Perversion #3: Accountability

Accountability is the name given to the idea that a person is held “to account” for his or her performance regarding something that is a requirement. So an “accounting” means that an explanation must be given as to whether the performance is acceptable and why or why not. We hold people accountable who have agreed to meet the performance requirements, not those who have NOT agreed to meet them. With the case of children who are students in the classroom, because we have compulsory attendance laws, they have no choice in being in school; therefore, when we hold them “accountable” for their school work, we have to ask how much accountability we can justifiably expect. Beyond that concern, what should be our response to a student who is not “accountable”–punishment or support? Of course, we train our children to do as they are told and for good reason. But we also want to train them to think for themselves, evaluate situations with logic, and make their own decisions, a scenario that is somewhat at odds with training them to follow our rules and extremely difficult to assess with standardized tests, which have become the only measure of “accountability”.

With the development of the theories that ultimately led to the passage of No Child Left Behind, we saw the push for accountability initially focused on students. The implication of the legislation is that children are inherently lazy and will not achieve the levels of learning required without pressuring them to pass tests. Tests are not inherently bad, but the tests that NCLB gave us were high-stakes tests; if the students were not accountable (i.e., didn’t pass the tests at the required level), bad things could happen. Even that might be tolerable IF the tests actually accurately assessed the students’ learning; they do not. One test alone can never be a valid litmus test of the depth and/or breadth of a student’s body of knowledge or thinking on a topic.
NCLB required that all third graders in the nation be proficient in reading and math at grade level by 2014. It quickly became apparent even to the most optimistic that this goal was impossible, so the accountability piece was moved to rest on schools for not pushing the teachers hard enough to raise student test scores and then to the teachers themselves, lazy sloggers who lap at the public trough, and finally to the teachers colleges that did a shoddy job of preparing the teachers to raise student test scores. (It strikes me that when the buck has been passed that far, the only place left to pass it to is the education policy creators–oh, no, of course not! They can’t be held accountable for anything!)

Nevertheless, the result of adopting this stance is that accountability comes to mean a method for sorting good test takers from poor test takers and punishing the poor test takers and those who are responsible for their poor showing. Any reasonable person would have to agree that this is a perversion of real accountability.

Perversion #4: Rigor

Closely related to accountability, at least in the minds of some, is the idea of rigor. Rigor is defined in most dictionaries as making something extremely and unreasonably difficult. As NCLB morphed into Race to the Top and Common Core, we began to hear that standards needed to be rigorous, and the accompanying tests that assessed the students who were learning under those standards should be rigorous. Perhaps they meant “challenging,” but that is not the word they used. Again the implication is that students (and teachers and administrators) are simply not expecting enough of themselves; they are taking the easy way out; they are lazy. But is rigor really what we want for our students, our children? Do we want them pushed to and beyond their highest stress levels? In the past, rigor was a term used in very negative contexts, and it was not even an educational term–but it is now! The perversion-of-terms menace has struck again!

Perversion #5: Close Reading

Speaking of Common Core, the requirements of the English Language Arts portion of these standards have led to yet another perversion of a good educational concept. For decades reading experts have recommended a series of word attack strategies to help students identify unknown words. One of those strategies is the use of context clues, that is, using other words in the sentence or paragraph to deduce the meaning of an unknown word. This is a very basic form of close reading. Re-reading is another recommended procedure. Both of these concepts are inherent in close reading. The idea is to thoroughly read a passage to glean as much information from it as possible. The twist comes when Common Core advocates maintain that students should not use any other information outside of the specific words in the passage to build comprehension. This is in direct contradiction to years of research that show that it is important for a reader to activate and use prior or background knowledge that they may have about the topic in the passage to build a complete understanding of it. Limiting an interpretation to only the words in the passage can and will lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Score one more for the reformers’ perversion machine.

Perversion #6: Personalized Learning

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what personalized learning is supposed to mean. With my background in education, I interpret it to mean the following: a teacher very carefully presents material to be learned to a student at an appropriate rate using knowledge of his/her ability, level of prior knowledge, interest, and preferred engagement mode, and providing supports as needed (we call this scaffolding) to enable the student to eventually construct an understanding or complete a task on his/her own. This is the essence of differentiated instruction and is as old as the one-room schoolhouse. It is difficult to do in our current factory-model of schooling, but many good teachers accomplish it. I believe this is the model that the minds of most classically trained educators jump to when the term “personalized learning” is used.

Sadly that is not what the corporate reformers mean when they use the term. In their minds, personalized learning cannot happen without a computer of some sort, be it the traditional desk top model, a lap-top, or a tablet. It involves something called adaptive programing, in which the computer has algorithms built into its programing that evaluate the answers a child gives on certain questions, then make a determination (instantaneously) as to the next item to present. Some of these programs actually can use physical feedback from the child’s hand on the mouse, perhaps even eye movement tracked by the computer, to determine stress levels, and adjust the material presented accordingly. Sounds great, right? Not! No computer can understand a child at the level that his human teacher can. The computer has no way of assessing whether an incorrect answer was given because it is too hard for the student or because he was distracted by something going on in the classroom or something that happened at home the night before or whether he didn’t get breakfast this morning. Corporate reformers envision large classes of children working primarily on some type of computer without much interaction with teachers or peers, taught “personally” at their specific level by the computer. What is missing here is an understanding of how children really learn. Children learn through manipulation of physical objects (sorry, the mouse or a touch screen doesn’t count as manipulative) and interaction with knowledgable others, either adults or peers. They learn by being in their world, not passive observers of it.

Personalized learning as touted by the corporate reformers is really pretty scary. Imagine how much data the computer needs about a child to be able to respond in a logical way to him. Imagine where that data is stored and where it is going. Who creates the programs that teach the child? If you guessed Pearson, you are correct. Adaptive learning and “personalized learning” is the focus of their new business plan.

I have reviewed only six of the terms that have been perverted to support the corporate reform agenda. Perhaps you would like to comment and add some of your own. Feel free!

On Waivers and Budgets and Things…

Over the last several days I have heard and read several different takes on the loss of Oklahoma’s NCLB waiver as a result of the passage of a law to remove Common Core as the state’s educational standards for Math and English Language Arts. The opinions of the effect of this loss range from “It really isn’t a big deal” to “It’s a disaster!” Clearly, if NCLB remains in place, there is the potential for gut-wrenching readjustments in school budgets and other painful realignments. I have never served in a public school administrative position, so I admit I do not understand the full impact of that. However, if we focus just on this outcome, I believe we are being short-sighted.

As an educator, I opposed Common Core and worked to dismantle it in Oklahoma for many reasons. Not the least of those reasons was the fact that the standards, though in many cases well intentioned, were often developmentally inappropriate, unnecessarily complicated, and not clearly based in recognized research. However, the most important reason that I fought Common Core was that the Initiative of which it was/is the linchpin represented a dangerous undermining of the democratic republican form of government that we have lived under more or less successfully for the last 200+ years.

When the Department of Education was established by Congress, it was with an accompanying fear that such a department might attempt to establish a national curriculum, and lawmakers actually built language into the legislation to prevent that from occurring. What has been happening, slowly and almost imperceptibly, over the last several decades has been an encroachment by the DOE into education at the state and local level that represents exactly what Congress feared. Under the tenure of Secretary Arne Duncan, this encroachment was thrown into high gear. Duncan used Gates money to promote the development of a set of standards that he then tricked and extorted 45 states and DC into adopting using a competition to win grant money to develop the high-stakes tests that would be used to evaluate students taught under these standards, thus establishing a de facto national curriculum. When high-stakes tests are tied to standards, the standards automatically become the curriculum, no matter how the promoters of Common Core do protest. Then to further coerce states into accepting Common Core standards and the tests and the data transfers, he offered them waivers from the draconian effects of failing to meet the 100% requirements of NCLB if they would just pay a little price. The price was, among other things, confirmation of the adoption of Common Core Standards and the use of VAM (value-added modeling) to evaluate teachers using student test scores, a concept that has been repeatedly repudiated in multiple research studies. I do not pretend to know what Duncan’s motivations are, but the effect of his efforts is undoubtedly to federalize public education, and the practical effect will ultimately be the privatization of most of public education, the widening of the achievement gap, and increasing segregation of schools.

A movement is growing to push back against not just the Common Core Standards, but against the excessive use of high-stakes standardized tests and inappropriate collection of student data. There are those, myself among them, who have said all along that the waivers were themselves illegal, amounting to lawmaking by a federal agency, which would also be unconstitutional. Derek W. Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, has just written an article (discussed by Peter Greene here)in which he elucidates a clear and reasoned argument as to the validity of this assessment. I understand that Governor Jindal of Louisiana has filed a law suit against the federal government related to at least some part of this issue; I would be surprised if Black is not called to testify in this trial. All across the country, educators, university professors, and legislators are deciding not to roll over and play dead any longer while the federal government rides roughshod over their rights in regard to the constitutional provision that powers not given to the federal government are reserved to the states. They are blogging and talking and learning that they are not alone. It seems critical to me that we seize this opportunity to make a supreme effort to take back what is ours, even if we must pay a price to do so.

One of the concerns of many Oklahoma administrators has been that they are not provided enough money to pay for all the programs and requirements laid on schools and still do the job of educating children, and I agree with them. It seems to me, however, that the most permanent solution to this problem is to fight the machine that is setting up all these requirements, that is, the federal government and its Department of Education. When schools are not required to fulfill unfunded mandates whether at the federal or state level, this should have the effect of freeing up millions of dollars to spend on students, teachers, and classrooms. This, in my mind, is a better solution than asking for more money to do the things we know we should be doing after we’ve spent so much of the money schools are actually given on things that don’t really help kids but are required by silly laws.

So I guess what I’m suggesting is that instead of wasting energy arguing over whose perception about the impact of the waiver is right or wrong, let’s all get on the same page to get rid of high-stakes tests altogether, to get rid of VAM, and to pull down unnecessary databases that serve no one but third party testing and curriculum vendors, all of which suck state and district educational budgets dry. We can only do this when legislators hear us as one powerful voice. Students have been the collateral damage in this fight for years, and I don’t see that ending until we press on to make the voice of free public education heard loud and clear. That means doing even more of what parents and educators in Oklahoma did this past year. It means not wearying in the fight. Ending Common Core was just one battle in a war that will take several years to win, and if we fight each other, we will surely lose. This seems an appropriate place to quote Ben Franklin (who, I understand, is ignored by the new AP History “curriculum”): “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” And ineffectively, I might add.

Pigs, Wolves, and Principals–Or Is It Principles?

When I was about five or six years old, my mother would often take my brother and me to visit our grandmother, where we would enjoy playing with two cousins who were about the same age. One of our favorite games was reenacting the Three Little Pigs in my grandmother’s living room. We would use chairs turned upside down for the houses of the pigs, and each of us would take one of the four roles. We would act out the entire story. We all had the dialogue memorized. When we were finished, we would change roles and do it all over again. We passed many an afternoon entertaining ourselves in this way while the grown-ups visited at the kitchen table…fond memories, indeed!

Interestingly, we had a family reunion a couple of years ago, and in the course of the conversation, I mentioned our old Three Little Pigs past-time. I was astounded to learn that neither my brother nor my cousins even remembered the game. I really couldn’t understand their inability to remember what was stuck so solidly in my own memory. I don’t suggest that there is any particular meaning to that, but clearly unlike my playmates, I never lost my fascination with the old tale (I have a collection of various versions of it) and this, I guess, helps explain why it was the first thing that came to mind when I read about Arne Duncan’s Principal Ambassador Fellowship program, which was announced last year.

According to details about the initiative provided by Dr. Mercedes Schneider in her two blogs here and here, the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Duncan is setting up a program that bears an eerie likeness to the Three Little Pigs tale. Under this program, individual principals who are accepted are provided with unprecedented opportunities for deepening their knowledge of key federal education programs and enabled to share this expertise with their colleagues in the local schools. As an encouragement to participate in this program, the DOE will pay a portion of the principal’s salary to the school district. Nevertheless, according to the job description, that was until recently posted on the USAJobs website, these principals would in fact be federal employees (See Mercedes’ first blog linked above for the actual language.) The Principal Fellow will thus become the DOE’s conduit to communicate (and enforce?) the federal perspective on how education should function at the school level.

The vision that came to my mind immediately when I read about this program was Arne Duncan in a wolf suit, knocking on the schoolhouse door intoning this plea: “Little school, little school, let me come in! I have spectacular benefits for you! You can even bypass those interfering state ed offices and have a direct connection to the wonderful, beneficent federal DOE–critical information and support on the latest directives related to No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and our expanding Early Childhood program, not to mention the high-demand Common Core State Standards. Not only that, you will only have to pay about half of the Principal Fellow’s salary! Of course, about half the time, he or she will be actually working for the DOE, but what a bargain for your cash-strapped budget! How can you not let me in? Don’t worry about the principal’s connection with the federal government. I’m sure he or she won’t tell us anything you don’t want us to know. No worries there.”

My mind-movie of the wolf has him salivating at the prospect of having this presence in schools, literally ready to pounce on and devour the schools, without interference from local school boards or state education agencies, but I realize others may not see the same picture. I fear there may be a number of cash-starved school districts out there doing their best to build their schools with the sticks and straw they have been given to work with that may be tempted by the wiles of the Wolf. They are focused on just making it through the next school year, and after all, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to hire a qualified administrator/principal for half price?

But I hope that most schools will recognize this offer for what it is. I hope that their response to the Wolf will be “Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin! I get that letting the fed-funded principals into my school is a lop-sided trade. I know that what you really want is access at the school level–in my building!–to further undermine local control. I know that opening the door to you will give you eyes and ears as to how and whether our school is falling in line with your directives, many of which are of questionable legality. So take a hike, Mr. Wolf, and you might want to watch your back, because the winds blowing in from the grassroots of this country may just blow your house down!”

My Comments on the NPR Interview with Neal and White

Today’s NPR interview/podcast by Claudio Sanchez (click here to read/listen) with Mike Neal of the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Jenni White of Restore Oklahoma Public Education, and the comments posted online about it, highlight an aspect of the Common Core controversy that is being overlooked in the media. Mr. Neal uses the term ‘fringe groups” to describe the movement in Oklahoma, of which Jenni is one, but only one, of the leaders. Neal claims that groups like ROPE, perhaps even ROPE itself, have threatened Republican legislators with election-time retribution. I’m sure Mrs. White can only wish she had that much power!

Many of those who are active in the movement to “Stop Common Core” are indeed believers in traditional, classical education, as is Mrs. White. But to attempt to write the movement off as a fringe group of conservative, religious fanatics overlooks reality. What has been amazing about this movement is that it runs the gamut of the political as well as the philosophical and religious continuum.

Last month’s first annual conference of the Network for Public Education was attended by teachers and educational leaders from all points on the continuum. Left and right, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, progressive and traditionalist, all took an active part. The focus of the conference was decidedly anti-Common Core and anti-testing. Even the most ardent Common Core supporters agree that testing is the sine-qua-non of the Common Core Initiative, and it is in fact the testing requirements that result in Common Core becoming a curriculum that teachers must teach, despite protestations to the contrary. What is tested is what is taught. Call that a scheme or not; it is a clear reality. I’ve been an educator long enough to know that.

No one has been able to present a convincing argument, including Mr. Neal, as to how the Common Core Standards are better than the PASS Oklahoma abandoned in 2010. Even the Fordham Institute, a patently pro-Common Core think-tank, reviewed PASS and found them at least as good as Common Core. Mr. Neal makes the statement that at that time “no one had a problem with [the Common Core Standards].” What Mr. Neal neglects to point out is that no one knew what was in the standards when they were approved by the legislature; certainly no teachers, administrators, or teacher educators in universities even knew what was in them. We were caught totally by surprise. It is only as we have been able to study the 500-page standards in some detail over the last two to three years that we have been able to see how inappropriate they are, especially at the early childhood levels. Sorry, Mr. Neal, that argument simply won’t hold water.

Neal says dumping Common Core would be an expensive mistake because so many Oklahoma high school graduates require remediation to move into post-secondary education or be hired for jobs. He is absolutely correct that an embarrassing amount of money has been spent on the implementation of Common Core and the related tests, with not a lot to show for it. My dad used to tell me it wasn’t wise to throw good money after bad. If the Common Core Standards are not what we need, how is spending even more money—and no one yet knows how much—going to make weak standards any better? The only thing that could justify that is if Oklahoma had the authority to revise the standards, but it doesn’t because the CC Standards themselves are copyrighted and not subject to Oklahoma “tampering.” If attempts are made by Oklahoma authorities to copy and paste parts of the Standards into “its own” standards, that would clearly be against the law.

Sanchez concludes his report by saying that business leaders are concerned that repealing Common Core would take Oklahoma “back to square one, with no guarantees that Oklahoma will end up with standards as good as Common Core.” Since we know that our old standards are at least as good as Common Core, how is that a bad thing? If Common Core is no better than PASS, how will it lead to the more “college-and-career-ready” students Neal and his fellow business leaders crave?

I do think Jenni White is right about this: “…the Chamber of Commerce…isn’t for parents. They’re for businesses.”

EdCamp Tulsa: A PD Rush

This past weekend I attended my first unconference, and I hope it won’t be my last. It was a one-day professional development meeting called EdCamp Tulsa, attended by about 150 public school educators from some 50 school districts in 4 states. This is not the first edcamp ever held, but it represents a little known but growing movement with a purpose to encourage teachers to take charge of their own professional development.

As a teacher educator and university professor, I confess I felt a bit like a fifth wheel. It wasn’t that I wasn’t welcome—I was—but I haven’t functioned in the perspective of most of the attendees for some time. This was one of the reasons I wanted to go; I think it’s important for those of us in colleges of education to leave the “ivory tower” and mingle with the folks in the trenches to keep abreast of what’s going on in schools. I think this is the only way to keep my own instruction fresh. I learned about edcamps through Twitter posts from a previous edcamp in Oklahoma City. The excitement of the participants literally radiated from those tweets, and I knew I had to go to EdCamp Tulsa when it was announced.

So you are probably asking, “What is an unconference?” And I can’t wait to tell you. It starts with a group of people who decide to organize it. They locate a site, not necessarily a large one, and invite teachers and others who want to come for a day of teacher-led learning. Attendance is totally free. Perhaps I should repeat that—it’s free! The organizers can offer it for free because there is very little overhead. They arrange to have required supplies donated, usually for a PR plug in a tweet or on the back of a t-shirt. There are also no expensive speakers for plenary sessions, as is obligatory at regular conferences. (Remember, this is an unconference.) The organizers do not set up sessions ahead of time, so there is no cumbersome and lengthy proposal process. Instead, the participants come with an idea about something they would like to learn more about or discuss with colleagues. Others come with ideas and topics they want to share and discuss. In the opening session, both groups fill out cards indicating what they came to do. The organizers then review the cards, set up the sessions, and provide a room for each. The schedule is posted on a large easel, where attendees, whipping out their cell phones, take pictures of it to use to guide their choices of sessions to attend. The rest of the day is spent in interactive sharing and discussion in individual sessions. The session “leader” may start things off but definitely doesn’t do all the talking. It is totally informal, and if a session is not meeting your needs or expectations, you can get up and walk to another and no one gets offended. Wow!

I don’t know a great deal yet about the history of the unconference movement, but it has been developing over the last couple of years. A great deal of research has been done on traditional professional development (PD), and the top-down procedures involved have been found wanting and typically ineffective. Generally speaking, when a district or an administrator (or some authority higher up) determines that teachers need to be changed (that, after all, is the real purpose of traditional PD—changing teacher behavior), they organize a “training” to introduce it to teachers and expect them to fall in line with their clearly superior ideas about how teaching should be done. It’s no surprise that teachers are typically skeptical and unengaged through these sessions, and rarely is there real change in teacher behavior, despite the thousands of dollars spent. Part of the problem is the top-down approach. No one likes to be told how they have to change, even if it’s done with peaches and cream and pretty please!

Creating professional learning communities has been offered as an alternative to traditional PD. These are small groups of teachers who meet to discuss solutions to particular problems. Unfortunately, few schools have been able to keep such communities viable and useful, and they either die out, or are taken over by an authority figure who returns them to the top-down approach.

Most teachers know full well that they need help and support, and need to continue learning more about teaching, but they’d really like to pursue it on their terms. That seems to be the genius of the unconference. The teachers are totally in charge. The teachers decide what they need to learn. The teachers take an active role in creating a learning opportunity. The teachers share with one another what they are learning and learn from one another. Vygotsky clearly explained years ago that real learning is social in nature. Rather than sitting quietly while they are talked to, the teachers at an unconference are driving the conversation—and learning from one another. They may not make a total transformation in their teaching at one unconference, but that’s an unreasonable expectation of PD anyway. Most change comes incrementally, and teachers need the freedom to make change at a speed they are comfortable with.

I did my dissertation on professional development, and I learned that changing teacher’s teaching is a very complicated—dare I say, ticklish?—process. Much like the watched pot, it can’t be hurried. And teachers need the autonomy to make their own decisions about it. In fact, as professionals, teachers should be accorded that privilege. Certainly doctors, lawyers, CPAs, and other professionals are allowed to choose their own continuing education.

At EdCamp Tulsa I saw teachers who were excited to be learning together, animated to share their ideas and hear those of others. Everywhere I went I heard people exclaiming, “Oh, I’m so glad to meet you! I follow you on Twitter!” because that’s another great place for teachers to take charge of their own PD. If what I observed this weekend is any indication, I think the future of unconferences may be very bright. I’m certainly looking forward to my next one!

When Do Ethics Kick In?

Competent, Committed, Ethical–this is the motto of the Teacher Education program at the small regional university where I teach. When I began there six years ago, I was mostly concerned with the first two aspects of this motto. I set about designing lessons and projects that I felt would help my pre-service teachers build an adequate knowledge base about how to teach reading (my particular area of expertise) and how to become a reflective, life-long learner focusing on the needs of their students and how best to meet them. I really didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the “ethical” component of the motto; I think I just assumed that everyone knew how to be ethical. After all, doesn’t “ethical” just mean pretty much following the Golden Rule?

And then along came Common Core. Yes, I hear your question–what does Common Core have to do with ethics? Well, quite a bit, it seems to me. But perhaps a slice of history is in order first.

The standards movement began to gain serious traction about 25 years ago. The idea was that there is a basic body of knowledge that all students should learn before they leave school. Unless teachers were provided with a set of goals or guidelines related to the content that should be taught, they might not teach everything a student needed to learn. Initially, the standards that were developed were not very constraining; teachers used them as general guides in planning their instruction. Standards, it was argued, were the what to teach, not the how. Slowly, with strong “encouragement” from the federal Department of Education and other policy makers, most states created a set of content standards and required school districts to implement them. In some states, a system of statewide testing was initiated to be sure that students were learning the content in the standards and that teachers were teaching the required content. At that point, the standards began to take on a more constraining character.

It must be said that as the states developed their standards, there was a serious effort to build the standards from the ground up. Educational personnel with expertise in child development attempted to match the requirements in the standards to the developmental stages of the children at each grade level. Because that was true, teachers could feel comfortable that using the standards to plan instruction would be appropriate for their students.

With the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, everything changed in the world of standards. NCLB not only required the states to have standards taught by “highly qualified” teachers, it required the states to develop tests for those standards and monitor “adequate yearly progress.” If schools were not able to demonstrate such progress by their student populations, they were threatened with sanctions, up to and including the closing of the schools. Tests to monitor progress had now become high-stakes tests used to reward and punish.

No problem, we teachers thought. If we just keep doing good teaching, our students will be able to pass almost any test. And for schools in affluent and middle income areas, that was more true than not. But in urban schools and in poor rural areas, things didn’t go that well. Teachers and administrators lost their jobs; some schools were closed; charter schools appeared that lured the best students away, leaving a high percentage of those who struggled. Creeping into our schools came the idea that we had to focus more on what was tested, on the “bubble” kids that needed just that extra little push to pass, on skills workbooks and, although we didn’t say the words, “teaching to the test.” I suspect that push came more from administrators who feared that their schools might be the ones to be closed if their students’ scores didn’t reach that magical cut score.

Through all of this, we teachers rationalized our ethical stances. For myself, I knew that teaching to the test was not ethical, and I was not willing to do it. However, I didn’t voice my feelings. I simply took the stack of test-prep reading workbooks I was given, found whatever activities in them I could incorporate as a minilesson, and then moved on for the duration of the class period to provide a varied, differentiated fare for my students based on where they were cognitively and where they needed to go next. Nobody ever questioned what I was doing and I never offered an explanation. It was my way of satisfying my own ethics, guided primarily by the needs of my students. I made an ethical decision that my students’ needs trumped the possibility that I was misleading my administrator. Although some teachers in my building opted for the drill-and-kill mentality of the test prep workbooks, I am confident that many others were operating much as I was, guided by much the same ethical stance.

Fast forward five years. About two years into my first college teaching experience, I learned that our state had adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Okay, I thought, I’ll just dig in and learn how these standards will impact my pre-service teachers’ lesson planning and teach them to use them, and for two years I tried to do that. But the more I studied the CCSS and the Initiative that they are part and parcel of, the more I questioned.

I began to see some serious deficiencies in the Standards themselves; especially at the lower grade levels, the tasks required of the students do not match their developmental abilities, resulting in confusion and frustration on the part of the students. I learned that there would be three times as many achievement tests for the students to take, and that even kindergartners would be taking these tests which would not be field tested in any authentic way. Having observed the levels of stress students experience on high stakes tests, I can only imagine the exponential increase of such stress that will occur. (Actually, I don’t have to imagine it, since a child psychologist in New York recently testified to the New York Assembly that she had seen a 200 to 300% increase in patient load that could be tied directly to the impact of Common Core teaching and testing in her state.) I learned that these tests, taken on computer, would send enormous amounts of private data about students and their families into statewide, perhaps even nationwide, databases and that the managers of these databases could not and would not guarantee the security of that data.

I also have read that many schools, rather than developing their own curricula to align with the CCSS, are opting to buy packaged programs. Since the CCSS are the law in our state and cannot be changed because they are copyrighted by other entities, administrators in many schools are requiring teachers to march through the purchased curricula without accommodating the pace or the method of teaching. The script must be followed to be sure that we have covered everything that might be on the tests. The only result this guarantees is that many students will be Left Behind.

Competent, Committed, Ethical. It seems necessary to begin paying more attention to the third component of this motto. Together we must think deeply about what the definition of ethics is and what it means to be ethical. I must find the best way to communicate clearly to my pre-service teachers the minefield they will be entering. I must help them think through a number of possible scenarios they may be faced with. I must give them opportunities to consider what the best ethical choice may be.

Could/should a teacher refuse to follow the pacing of the scripted curriculum because he or she knows that it moves too fast for many students to stay up? Could/should a teacher use differentiated teaching in his or her classroom even though it is not recommended in the teacher’s edition of the curriculum? Some folks who oppose the CCSS are organizing parent opt-out movements, in which the parents formally notify the school that they refuse to allow their students to participate in the testing. Could/should a teacher refuse to give these tests because of his or her ethical position that the tests do more harm than good for students? Could/should a teacher join with other like-minded teachers to voice their opposition to practices in the field that are detrimental to children? These are just a few of the decisions a teacher will have to make in the CCSS environment.

I recently read an article that suggested that, in the face of the behavioristic corporate reform movement, it may be necessary for teachers to become insurrectionist pedagogues. I’m not yet comfortable with that term, probably because it translates to “rebellious teachers.” I don’t like to think of myself in what are generally considered negative or oppositional terms. At the same time, my own ethics require me to provide my students with a realistic picture of the field they are entering–and pray that the ethical stance they develop under my tutelage will guide them to advocate for the children they serve.

Standards, not Standardization

Sharing this explanation of Laufenburg’s phrase, “Standards, not standardization.” It makes some excellent points from the teacher’s point of view.

Living the Dream

ImageI said this phrase, standards not standardization, in a conversation with the ever thoughtful, Jose Vilson… and he has brought it up with me a few times …  which makes me think that I need to write through my thoughts on this and will then be leading a conversation on this same topic at Educon 2.6 next month.  These are ideas in progress, trying to work through why I bristle at the mention of new standards as a key factor in ‘fixing’ American education.

Standards are developed to provide structure to the ‘what’ of what we teach.  Standardization focuses on the ‘how’ of the ‘what’.  One can have standards, one can teach with standards without being in a lock step trudge with every other teacher of math or ELA, on the same page, on the same day… crippling the ability of the teacher to practice their craft and for…

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The Bleating of the Sheeple

Not so long ago in the land of Acirema, there was a Chief Shepherd of Education who was sure that he had all the answers to the education needs of his country. With some very wealthy friends, he made an elaborate plan to assure that every kid in his land would be ready for college after high school, whether the kid wanted to go or not. All kids must be “college ready” when they finished high school, he thought, because the economic future of the country absolutely depended on it. He knew that because of the horrible scores of Acirema’s kids when compared to those of other countries. All of Acirema’s kids should be studying the same thing at the same time so he could test them to make sure they were on track and so he could know which sheeple teachers were not doing their jobs.

The plan was for the wealthy friends to hire a few folks who knew how to write tests and ask them to write a new set of rigorous educational standards for the kids, of whom, clearly not enough was being expected or demanded. Once the standards were written, new more rigorous tests could be developed by those same testing folks to match the standards. And the tests could be used to find out which kids refused to learn and which teacher sheeple refused to teach and which schools were failing. Once that was determined, the failing schools could be closed, and the Chief’s wealthy friends would be more than willing to come in and set up charter schools–for a price, of course, and staff them with wonderful idealistic young teacher sheeple with 5-weeks of training who would certainly be able to “teach” with the teacher-proof, scripted curricula that the publishing arms of the testing companies mentioned above were happy to provide–for a hefty price, of course.

But there was a problem with this plan. Acirema had laws in place that said the Chief Shepherd of Education was not allowed to promote a national curriculum. The Constitution of Acirema left the management of education up to the states. And other laws strictly forbade the Chief Shepherd of Education from interfering with that.

And then something terrible happened–a bad recession. Many sheeple were out of work. Schools were running out of money. The Chief Shepherd of Education saw this as a fortuitous opportunity to get approval for his plan. If he could offer the states a chance for money for their schools and a reprieve from the harsh testing of kids that was already in place, they might all be willing to adopt his wonderful new “rigorous” standards–and the tests that went along with them. In fact, he would tell them if they didn’t adopt the standards and the tests, the money would dry up. He was counting on the sheeple to be sheeple and just do as they were told. After all, it was best for Acirema!

And sure enough, almost all of the sheeple leaders in most of the states, desperate for money for their schools, agreed to the standards. Unfortunately, though, very few of the states got the money they hoped for, but they still had the standards that had to be implemented and the new “more rigorous” tests that would require many more computers and a bigger investment in technological infrastructure that would have to be bought and paid for and “new standards-aligned” curriculum materials that would have to be bought and paid for and professional development for teacher sheeple who had to learn how to teach with the wonderful new standards that would have to be paid for. Now the sheeple leaders knew that they would have to march forward with the new standards just to get whatever crumbs the Chief Shepherd of Education might be willing to throw their way. They felt duped, but they didn’t see a way out.

The Chief had set a deadline when all the pieces of the new educational system had to be in place. As the deadline grew closer, some of the parent sheeple became concerned. They didn’t like some of the things they saw in the new curricula designed around the new standards. They didn’t like all the tests their kids would have to take, and they learned that there would be even more tests when the new standards were completely implemented. They didn’t like the fact that the new standards were put in place without their knowing about them or without anyone from their state having a say in how the new standards came to be. They especially didn’t like the plans for all kid data to be sent to one large database and that their kid’s personal information could be released to the companies writing the tests and the curricula and other things they might want to sell to kids and their parents–or goodness knows what other use that data might be put to!

So the sheeple began to bleat, at first just a few. And the Chief Shepherd of Education said they were just a fringe element who didn’t really know or want what was best for their kids. After all, didn’t he know best?

But the sheeple continued to bleat and soon others joined in. The bleating grew louder. The Chief Shepherd of Education got angry. He said these were just well-to-do ewe sheeple who were disappointed that their kids weren’t as smart as they thought they were. This made even more sheeple grumble and the bleating grew louder and louder. Some began to say that perhaps the same standards for all states enforced by the actions of the Chief Shepherd of Education might even be against the law…or perhaps even the Constitution…but no sheeple stood up to challenge the Chief…

I wish I knew how this allegory ends, but I don’t. I do know that the federal education officials are counting on us to be sheep, and they are surprised at the growing level of pushback against their plan. Blogger Mercedes Schneider has documented serious resistance movements in 17 of the 45 sheep states here. Where are the other 28?

Knowledge is power. The pen (or a word processor) really is mightier than the sword. Add to these concepts the effectiveness of social media and you can see that we have a full toolbox with which to stop this usurpation of our right to local control of education in its tracks. But that won’t happen unless the sheeple step up and bleat and email and text and Facebook and twitter as loudly and as often as they can. And maybe some lawyer sheeple will get the ball rolling.

More thoughts about roses and names

In my latest post, I discussed how some of the leadership roles in education are misnamed. Still in that frame of mind, another misnomer reared its ugly head—and this one is no fragrant rose. The term is “achievement gap.”

If you’ve been in or around education in the last 45 or 50 years, you’ve heard the term achievement gap repeatedly. It was coined back in the 1960s to refer to the difference in educational performance between whites and non-whites. It came to be documented clearly on the periodic NAEP assessments, first administered in 1969. The term became standard fair in any discussion of perceived problems in American education and eliminating it became the goal and rallying cry in many quarters. No one likes the idea of an “achievement gap” in the education of a country supposedly committed to educating all of its students.

Just prior to the organization of the board that developed NAEP, another event occurred which I remember well. It was Sputnik. This was the first satellite ever sent into space by man and it was put in place by (horror of horrors!) the Russians! Anyone who was not alive at that time cannot appreciate the abject fear this induced in the American people. The knee-jerk reaction of many was to look around for someone to blame, and guess who they found. Yep, you guessed it—education. It had to be that schools weren’t producing enough graduates who went into science! Congress passed legislation to address the perceived problem, including low interest National Defense Student Loans for college students. I was the beneficiary of one of those early loans.

The fact is, however, that education was not to blame. The blame belonged on the American people who, after World War II, were focused on consumer goods provided by a booming economy, and on investors who saw money to be made in those products rather than in space, and in a government that refused to believe that Russia was willing to commit itself to being first in space. But blaming schools was much easier, so our leaders decided we needed to develop NAEP to keep tabs on these “failing” schools. And so was the “achievement gap” discovered.

Since the 1960s there has been a never ending litany of the chorus–“Our schools are failing!” Why Johnny Can’t Read, A Nation at Risk, the 2012 Council on Foreign Relations Report, the PISA tests, the PIRLS tests, Waiting for Superman, to name a few. The script was “our schools are not “rigorous” enough, we can’t compete economically with the rest of the world, we won’t be able to maintain our position of military strength if we don’t fix (read reform or close) the schools!” And all the time, despite bumps and dips, our economy and our military remained the strongest in the world. Hmmmm…it seems to me, if schools were as bad as we were told they were, we should be living in a third-world country by now.

But, no doubt, the achievement gap was troubling. It became the focus of numerous academic studies and think tanks. What could be done to close it, many worried. Most of those studies pointed clearly and unmistakably to a correlation between the achievement gap and poverty. While no one said that poverty prevented all students who were living in poverty from being successful in school, they were observing that a large majority of those students were unsuccessful, whereas students in affluent schools tended to be successful. Some even asserted that reducing poverty in America would have a positive impact on the achievement gap.

However, another group of influential people thought differently about the achievement gap. They decided that the problem lay with the students, who were lazy and unmotivated and didn’t apply themselves. We simply didn’t expect enough of them. Or perhaps it was the teachers who were lazy and unmotivated and didn’t know how to teach or care enough to learn. The solution to everything, they determined, was to provide both incentives and punishments and demand more of teachers and students and schools. And so, Congress passed NCLB, the first untested and unproven nationwide education experiment. It was a total failure, as we all know, because its demands were unreasonable and its methods draconian. Fast forward thirteen years to the Common Core Initiative, otherwise known as NCLB on steroids. The same groups of people continue to make the same claims with the same, ratcheted-up, unworkable, inappropriate solutions.

Unfortunately the achievement gap term has played into the hands of these reformers. If it’s simply a matter of “achieving,” they conclude students can be bribed or punished to “achieve.” Thus the use of the term achievement gap seems to lend credence to the rationale of the “reformers.” Of course, this flies in the face of decades of psychological and educational research.

Recently amid much controversy, the Oklahoma State Department of Education released the 2013 school and district report cards a few days ago. One blogger took the time to plot the correspondences between schools that got Fs and schools that are located in areas of poverty. See it here. To nobody’s surprise, the correlation was high. Yet, those in the reform camp still want to claim that schools that are making As and Bs are simply doing a better job of teaching to the rigorous standards than those who got Fs. They refuse to accept that affluence may really be the determinate of educational success.

Some have suggested the use of a different term to describe this persistent difference between affluent and non-affluent students’ performance. They propose an “opportunity gap” and this makes sense to me. I believe as long as we focus on achievement in the gap, it is too easy to blame the students, as well as schools and teachers, which is a much too simplistic solution. If instead, we use the term opportunity to describe the gap, we tend to focus on other factors which are extremely powerful but over which the student has little control. It’s a real game changer.

And so we come back to names and labels. What you call it makes a big difference in how you think about it. Looks like Juliet is wrong again.

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