Teach the Books, Touch the Heart

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In case anyone needed a reason to cry today at what we’re doing to public schooling.


New York Times

April 20, 2012

Teach the Books, Touch the Heart



FRANZ KAFKA wrote that “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” I once shared this quotation with a class of seventh graders, and it didn’t seem to require any explanation.

We’d just finished John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” When we read the end together out loud in class, my toughest boy, a star basketball player, wept a little, and so did I. “Are you crying?” one girl asked, as she crept out of her chair to get a closer look. “I am,” I told her, “and the funny thing is I’ve read it many times.”

But they understood. When George shoots Lennie, the tragedy is that we realize it was always going to happen. In my 14 years of teaching in a New York City public middle school, I’ve taught kids with incarcerated parents, abusive parents, neglectful parents; kids who are parents themselves; kids who are homeless or who live in crowded apartments in violent neighborhoods; kids who grew up in developing countries. They understand, more than I ever will, the novel’s terrible logic — the giving way of dreams to fate.

For the last seven years, I have worked as a reading enrichment teacher, reading classic works of literature with small groups of students from grades six to eight. I originally proposed this idea to my principal after learning that a former stellar student of mine had transferred out of a selective high school — one that often attracts the literary-minded offspring of Manhattan’s elite — into a less competitive setting. The daughter of immigrants, with a father in jail, she perhaps felt uncomfortable with her new classmates. I thought additional “cultural capital” could help students like her fare better in high school, where they would inevitably encounter, perhaps for the first time, peers who came from homes lined with bookshelves, whose parents had earned not G.E.D.’s but Ph.D.’s.

Along with “Of Mice and Men,” my groups read: “Sounder,” “The Red Pony,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth.” The students didn’t always read from the expected perspective. Holden Caulfield was a punk, unfairly dismissive of parents who had given him every advantage. About “The Red Pony,” one student said, “it’s about being a dude, it’s about dudeness.” I had never before seen the parallels between Scarface and Macbeth, nor had I heard Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies read as raps, but both made sense; the interpretations were playful, but serious. Once introduced to Steinbeck’s writing, one boy went on to read “The Grapes of Wrath” and told me repeatedly how amazing it was that “all these people hate each other, and they’re all white.” His historical perspective was broadening, his sense of his own country deepening. Year after year, ex-students visited and told me how prepared they had felt in their freshman year as a result of the classes.

And yet I do not know how to measure those results. As student test scores have become the dominant means of evaluating schools, I have been asked to calculate my reading enrichment program’s impact on those scores. I found that some students made gains of over 100 points on the statewide English Language Arts test, while other students in the same group had flat or negative results. In other words, my students’ test scores did not reliably indicate that reading classic literature added value.

Until recently, given the students’ enthusiasm for the reading groups, I was able to play down that data. But last year, for the first time since I can remember, our test scores declined in relation to comparable schools in the city. Because I play a leadership role in the English department, I felt increased pressure to bring this year’s scores up. All the teachers are increasing their number of test-preparation sessions and practice tests, so I have done the same, cutting two of my three classic book groups and replacing them with a test-preparation tutorial program. Only the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes.

Since beginning this new program in September, I have answered over 600 multiple-choice questions. In doing so, I encountered exactly one piece of literature: Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The rest of the reading-comprehension materials included passages from watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.

I MAY not be able to prove that my literature class makes a difference in my students’ test results, but there is a positive correlation between how much time students spend reading and higher scores. The problem is that low-income students, who begin school with a less-developed vocabulary and are less able to comprehend complex sentences than their more privileged peers, are also less likely to read at home. Many will read only during class time, with a teacher supporting their effort. But those are the same students who are more likely to lose out on literary reading in class in favor of extra test prep. By “using data to inform instruction,” as the Department of Education insists we do, we are sorting lower-achieving students into classes that provide less cultural capital than their already more successful peers receive in their more literary classes and depriving students who viscerally understand the violence and despair in Steinbeck’s novels of the opportunity to read them.

It is ironic, then, that English Language Arts exams are designed for “cultural neutrality.” This is supposed to give students a level playing field on the exams, but what it does is bleed our English classes dry. We are trying to teach students to read increasingly complex texts, but they are complex only on the sentence level — not because the ideas they present are complex, not because they are symbolic, allusive or ambiguous. These are literary qualities, and they are more or less absent from testing materials.

Of course no teacher disputes the necessity of being able to read for information. But if literature has no place in these tests, and if preparation for the tests becomes the sole goal of education, then the reading of literature will go out of fashion in our schools. I don’t have any illusions that adding literary passages to multiple-choice tests would instill a love of reading among students by itself. But it would keep those books on the syllabus, in the classrooms and in the hands of young readers — which is what really matters.

Better yet, we should abandon altogether the multiple-choice tests, which are in vogue not because they are an effective tool for judging teachers or students but because they are an efficient means of producing data. Instead, we should move toward extensive written exams, in which students could grapple with literary passages and books they have read in class, along with assessments of students’ reports and projects from throughout the year. This kind of system would be less objective and probably more time-consuming for administrators, but it would also free teachers from endless test preparation and let students focus on real learning.

We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts. By doing so, we are withholding from our neediest students any reason to read at all. We are teaching them that words do not dazzle but confound. We may succeed in raising test scores by relying on these methods, but we will fail to teach them that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them.

An English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan.


What the U.S. can’t learn from Finland about ed reform

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A lesson to be learned. In Valerie’s column this morning, Pasi Sahlberg of Finland explains why – aside from the fact that most folks are saying about the Finnish ed system “Oh, that would never work here” – the Finn success would not work here. My own take is that we never actually “re-form” education; we simply bat around the edges, expecting “reform” to work like a light switch – flip it and it’s done. While there are many reasons we will fail, there are two primaries: First and foremost, our factory model of schooling will continue to have us treat teachers like dirt (The latest MetLife survey found that the percentage of teachers who say they’ll get out as mushroomed. AND, don’t forget, the best leave first). Second, we will continue to refuse to face the reality that poverty cannot be erased by test-driven “standards” that have been randomly scattered across the grades in the absence of properly developed curriculum. I rant enough for today. I DO have some hope for positive impact from the Common Core, in spite of Diane’s piece.

Here’s Pasi’s final paragraph; the full piece you’ll find on Valerie’s site at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/what-the-us-cant-learn-from-finland-about-ed-reform/2012/04/16/gIQAGIvVMT_blog.html#pagebreak

What Finland can show to others is how equity and equal opportunity in education look like. However, school reformers in the United States need to be careful when considering equity-based reform ideas to be imported from Finland. Many elements of Finnish successful school system are interwoven in the surrounding welfare state. Simply a transfer of these solutions would add another chapter to already exhausting volume of failed education reforms.

Flunking Arne Duncan

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Recognized widely as one of the most astute of our educational historians, Diane brings her frustration at our inability to learn from our past mistakes to bear in a variety of venues. Here, today (although I am egregiously tardy with this one), she points out her disappointment with Obama’s/Duncan’s education policy. I was particularly disheartened with the reminder that the MetLife survey noted that the percentage of teachers who said that they are likely to leave the profession mushroomed from 17% to 29% during Duncan’s watch. REMEMBER: IT IS ALWAYS THE BEST WHO LEAVE FIRST. Because they can. That’s NOT to suggest I have any hope that Obama’s likely challenger will bring enlightenment to public educational policy.

As a reminder, Georgia minimum competency testing begins. For at least a month in many schools, and since August 1, 2011 in some, there has been NO teaching — only drill and kill factoid recognition to pass the state mincomp tests. Anyone really wonder why international comparisons keep showing the gap between us and the rest of the world getting wider?

Originally published on the New York Review of Books website at


Flunking Arne Duncan

Diane Ravitch

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan loves evaluation. He insists that everyone should willingly submit to public grading of the work they do. The Race to the Top program he created for the Obama Administration requires states to evaluate all teachers based in large part on the test scores of their students. When the Los Angeles Times released public rankings that the newspaper devised for thousands of teachers, Duncan applauded and asked, “What’s there to hide?” Given Duncan’s enthusiasm for grading educators, it seems high time to evaluate his own performance as Secretary of Education.

Here are his grades:

Does Duncan respect the limited role of the federal government in education, which all previous secretaries have recognized?

No. Duncan has expanded the role of the federal government in unprecedented ways. He seems not to know that education is the responsibility of state and local governments, as defined by the Tenth amendment to our Constitution. States and local school districts now look to Washington to tell them how to reform their schools and must seek permission to deviate from the regulations written by the U.S. Department of Education. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) created the template for this growing federal control of education, but Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top has made it possible for Washington to dictate education policy across the nation. Grade: F.

Has Duncan followed the law in his education policies?

No. Duncan has issued waivers to states that want to be relieved from NCLB’s impossible mandate of reaching 100 percent proficiency by 2014, but replaced that law’s demands with those of his own devising. Duncan says his waivers allow “flexibility,” but they serve simply to impose his own ideas about evaluating teachers, “transforming” low-performing schools (by firing staff or closing the schools), and adopting national standards in reading and mathematics. While very few people defend NCLB, which will write off almost every public school in the United States as a failure by 2014, it is still the law. Duncan has no authority to replace it with his own rules; cabinet members are not allowed to change the laws. Under our Constitution, Congress writes the laws, and the executive branch must enforce them, even as it seeks to change those that are onerous and misguided. Grade: F.

Has Duncan obeyed the clear prohibitions in law against federal involvement in creating a national curriculum?

No. The law that governs the U.S. Department of Education clearly states that no officer of the federal government may “exercise any direction, supervision, or control” over the curriculum or program of instruction of any school or school system. Yet Duncan has insisted that states eager for race to the top funding or for NCLB waivers must adopt “college and career-ready standards,” widely understood as the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and reading developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, funded in large part by the Gates Foundation. Prodded by Duncan, 45 states have endorsed this national curriculum—despite the fact that it has never been field-tested. No one knows whether these standards are good or bad, whether they will improve academic achievement or widen the achievement gap. A report from the Brookings Institution recently predicted that the Common Core standards would have “little to no effect on student achievement.” Grade: F.

Have the policies promulgated by Duncan been good for the children of the United States?

No. Most parents and teachers and even President Obama (and sometimes Duncan himself) agree that “teaching to the test” makes school boring and robs classrooms of time for the imaginative instruction and activities that enliven learning. The standardized tests that are now ubiquitous are inherently boring. As President Obama said in his State of the Union address, teachers should teach with “creativity and passion,” but they can’t do that when tests matter so much. Spending hours preparing to take pick-the-bubble tests depresses student interest and motivation. This is not good for children. Yet Duncan’s policies—which use test scores to evaluate teachers and to decide which schools to close and which teachers to pay bonuses to—intensively promote teaching to the test. This is not good for students. Grade: F.

Do Duncan’s policies encourage teachers and inspire good teaching?

No. Duncan’s policies demean the teaching profession by treating student test scores as a proxy for teacher quality. A test that a student takes on one day of the year cannot possibly measure the quality of a teacher. (Officially, the administration suggests that test scores are supposed to be only one of multiple measures of teacher quality, but invariably the scores outweigh every other component of any evaluation program, as they did in New York City’s recent release of the teacher ratings.) Nor do most teachers want to compete with one another for merit pay.

Duncan cheered when the superintendent of the Central Falls, Rhode Island, school district threatened to fire every teacher in the town’s only high school; the Education Secretary memorably said that Hurricane Katrina—which wiped out public schools and broke the teachers’ union in New Orleans—was the best thing that ever happened to the school system in that city. Teachers are demoralized by such statements. They want to collaborate around the needs of the children they teach, but federal policy commands them instead to compete with one another for dollars and higher test scores if they want to stay employed. The Metlife Survey of the American Teacher, released March 6, reports a sharp decline in teacher morale since 2009: the percentage of teachers who are “very satisfied” with their job dropped from 59 percent to 44 percent, and the percentage who said they were likely to leave the profession grew from 17 percent to 29 percent. This happened on Duncan’s watch. Grade: F.

Have Duncan’s policies strengthened public education?

No. Duncan has required states to create more privately-managed charter schools to be eligible for Race to the Top funding, putting pressure on state governments to privatize public education. In response, state legislatures are authorizing many more such schools, whose budgets are drawn from the funds of local public schools. A small proportion of these new charter schools will get high scores, and some will get those scores by skimming the top students in poor communities and by excluding children with disabilities and children who are English language learners. Such practices are harmful to public schools, which will continue to educate the overwhelming majority of students—with fewer resources than before. In some states, such as Michigan and Ohio, large numbers of charters are run for profit, which creates additional incentives for them to avoid low-performing and thus expensive to educate students. Although charters vary widely in quality, they do not produce better results on average than regular public schools. Conservative governors such as Mitch Daniels in Indiana and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana have taken Duncan’s advocacy of choice to the next level and endorsed vouchers, which further undermine public education. Despite these well-documented issues, Duncan continues to urge the expansion of the charter sector and has ignored the depredations of the for-profit charter sector. Grade: F.

Has Duncan defended public education and public school educators against attacks on them?

No. Although he is a Democrat, he has been absent when public education and public school educators were under siege. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker decided to eliminate collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public sector workers, Duncan was silent. When Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels pushed through a voucher bill that provides public funding for students to attend private and religious schools, Duncan was silent. When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal endorsed sweeping voucher and charter legislation, Duncan was silent (indeed, he described Governor Jindal’s choice for state commissioner to promote his extremely conservative education agenda as “a visionary leader”). When other governors proposed legislation to remove due process rights from teachers, to slash education spending, and to expand the privatization of public schools, Duncan was silent. Grade: F.

Will Duncan’s policies improve public education?

No. Under pressure to teach to tests—which assess only English and math skills—many districts are reducing the time available for teaching the arts, history, civics, foreign languages, physical education, and other non-tested subjects. (Other districts are spending scarce dollars to create new tests for the arts, physical education, and those other subjects so they can evaluate all their teachers, not just those who teach reading and mathematics.) Reducing the time available for the arts, history, and other subjects will not improve education. Putting more time and money into testing reduces the time and money available for instruction. None of this promotes good education. None of this supports love of learning or good character or any other ideals for education. Such a mechanistic, anti-intellectual approach would not be tolerated for President Obama’s children, who attend an excellent private school. It should not be tolerated for the nation’s children, 90 percent of whom attend public schools. Grade: F.

Overall, Secretary Duncan rates an F.

We will someday view this era as one in which the nation turned its back on its public schools, its children, and its educators. We will wonder why so many journalists and policymakers rejected the nation’s obligation to support public education as a social responsibility and accepted the unrealistic, unsustainable promises of entrepreneurs and billionaires. And we will, with sorrow and regret, think of this as an era when an obsession with testing and data obliterated any concept or definition of good education. Some perhaps may recall this as a time when the nation forgot that education has a greater purpose than preparing our children to compete in the global economy.

Secretary of Education Duncan should have fought vigorously against all these pernicious developments. He should have opposed the misuse of test scores. He should have opposed the galloping privatization of public education. He should have demanded the proper funding of public education, instead of tolerating deep budget cuts as “the new normal.” He should have spoken out against states that passed along the cost of higher education to students, putting it out of reach for many. But he has not. He should have upheld, in word and deed, the dignity of the teaching profession. Unfortunately he has not.

Even more unfortunately, it is hard to find any leader of either party who stands forthrightly today as a champion of students, teachers, public schools, and good education. This is a tragedy of our times.

Report Card: Arne Duncan
Fidelity to the Constitution F
Doing what’s right for children F
Doing what’s right for public education F
Respecting the limits of federalism F
Doing what’s right for teachers F
Doing what’s right for education F

March 7, 2012, 11:05 a.m.

Anxious Teachers, Sobbing Children

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Maureen Downey of the Atlanta Journal Constitution went to UGA to give the education faculty a workshop on writing op-ed pieces. Both Peter and Stephanie took advantage of same and the benefits go to us. Maureen published this piece today on her Monday print Atlanta Forward page. It’s pretty strong, but from my research and experience it’s not, sadly, an exaggeration.

By the way, if you have not yet seen the AJC’s work on their national analysis of test result “improbabilities”, by all means do so, at http://www.ajc.com/news/school-test-scores/

Anxious teachers, sobbing children

Stephanie Jones

Atlanta Journal-Constitution 4/9/2012


What’s the low morale and crying about in education these days? Mandatory dehumanization and emotional policymaking — that’s what.

The first murmurs I heard about teachers in crisis came from a principal several years ago. Teachers were streaming into his office seeking counseling services. Many were taking anti-depressants. Some couldn’t sleep at night, and some were so anxious and stressed they were worried their families would suffer irreparable damage.

Teachers enter the profession to do what is best for the students in front of them and for society at large. They earn degrees, immersed in rigorous study of how and why humans learn, how to individualize instruction and how to inspire lifelong learning and engaged citizenship.

But individualization, inspiration and engagement aren’t in current policies, and neither is teachers’ professional knowledge. Instead, teachers must follow pacing guides and move on with assignments regardless of whether students are beyond or behind. Anyone can walk into a teacher’s classroom at any moment and evaluate whether the teacher is following the one-size-fits-all program with “fidelity” and “full compliance.”

The choices are soul-crushing: 1) Slow down, teach creatively and get students excited about a topic, but fall behind the pacing guide and receive a poor evaluation and possible humiliation and job loss; or 2) Move on with the pacing guide and ignore students’ pleas for help or their yearning to learn more, and evaluations might be fine, but students suffer.

Most teachers do a little of both, but their no-win situation is devastating. And when students’ needs aren’t met because teachers are following mandates, they also cry or cry out in other ways.

I’ve witnessed sobbing children in school, tears streaking cheeks. When children hold it together at school, they often fall apart at home. Yelling, slamming doors, wetting the bed, having bad dreams, begging parents not to send them back to school.

More parents than ever feel pressured to medicate their children so they can make it through school days. Others make the gut-wrenching decision to pull their children from public schools to protect their dignity, sanity and souls. Desperate parents choose routes they had never thought they’d consider: home schooling, co-op schooling, or, when they can afford it, private schooling. But most parents suffer in silence, managing constant family conflict.

Teachers, students and parents are not the only emotional players in the game of school.

Policymakers are emotional. Punitive policies forcing the impossible combination of rigidity and test-based accountability are produced out of fear, anger, distrust and arrogance. They are written in an irrational effort to control the people in schools. But policymakers don’t have to endure the physical and psychological effects of their policies — those of us in schools do.

It’s time to stand in solidarity against mandated dehumanization in one-size-fits-all schooling and against overemotional policymakers who have a reckless stranglehold on schools. Demand that humanity be returned to teachers, students and parents who know how to make schools dynamic, inspirational places where everyone can thrive.

Stephanie Jones is an associate professor and graduate coordinator in the University of Georgia

How Do You Know When Teaching is Good?

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Recieved permission to post this with the first several paragraphs and a link to Empowered GA where this was published. Another piece by Peter Smagorinsky at UGA. MANY variations on this theme, the first I remember was the story of the dentist responding to the suggestion that he be rated the same way as teachers. Peter’s is a nice addition:

I used to be a regular listener of Michael Feldman’s humor, interview, and
quiz show radio program, Whad’Ya Know?

During one show, a member of the audience asked, “How do you know
when jazz is bad?” As a jazz lover for over 40 years, I had to laugh. A
complex music form that stretches boundaries can be difficult to evaluate.
“Smooth jazz” is probably the most popular form within the genre, but hard-
core jazz fans consider it boring because it eliminates all the challenges.
But the most challenging jazz can be atonal and cacophonous—it might
sound terrible to ears that aren’t ready for a wild assault on conventional
sensibilities, and sublime to those that are prepared and receptive.

Does Counting Notes Measure Music?
A friend of mine in a university music department once complained mightily
about the dominant research approach in his field, which was to measure
learning in music by counting notes: how fast they are played, how many
can be remembered from a musical score, and so on. To him, such
research missed the point of making music, because it measured what was
most easily quantifiable instead of what mattered.

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