On the Common Core by John Thompson via Edweek’s Living in Dialogue

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This is from Anthony Cody’s Living in Dialogue blog at Edweek, providing a piece by John Thompson. Links on top are interesting also.

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Common Core Is the Essence of the “Status Quo” — That’s why I Support It

Guest post by John Thompson.

http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2012/06/john_thompson_common_core_is_t.html?cmp=ENL-EU-VIEWS2

Last week, attending a great conference in Oklahoma City, Vision 2020, focused largely on Common Core, I kept worrying how I could articulate my support for the effort without angering my friends who are skeptical of it, or needlessly antagonizing Common Core supporters who hold the weird belief that it will be “a game-changer.” Finally, I decided to just put my thesis on the table. I support Common Core because it embodies the essence of the educational “status quo.” I support Common Core because it is like the educational establishment and American democracy in being the worst of all systems, except for all of the rest.

Twenty years ago, when I shifted from an academic career as a historian, I loved education conferences where teachers presented a range of workshops on pedagogies that had worked for them, stimulating a cross-fertilization of ideas. Few presenters claimed that the best practices that worked for them could be scaled up as “silver bullets” for the entire nation. These conferences also offered a window into my new profession’s scholarship. In contrast to many other career-changers who became school “reformers,” I fell in love with the work of the late Gerald Bracey, Larry Cuban, David Berliner, Lynn Canady, Diane Ravitch and, later, Robert Balfanz and the Consortium of Chicago School Research. I concluded that the educational research informing these seminars was the intellectual equal of any other social science genre.

I was not confident that the emerging “Standards” movement would have an effect on inner city schools like mine but, when read as scholarly documents, the original standards of learning were outstanding, and I mourned their defeat by the scorched earth politics of the 1990s.

Rather than stay the course and work within the system for another set of higher standards, a new generation of accountability-driven “reformers” adopted the Lee Atwater/Dick Morris tactics of demonization. They set out to destroy the “status quo.” According to the “brass knuckles” school of reform, if education schools, school boards, teachers unions, and educational progressivism were wiped out, then “disruptive innovation” would produce “transformational” change.” Standards morphed into standardization. Bubble-in testing became the point of the spear in a war by newcomers to the profession against veteran educators, as well as the social science that questioned their quick fixes. Eventually, many of the leading accountability hawks described themselves as “the Fight Club,” and concentrated their efforts not on improving schools, but on destroying education systems in the righteous belief that something better would magically rise from the ashes.

Now, we have “déjà vu all over again,” as the Common Core seeks a collaborative effort to organize instruction and assessments in order to provide engaging instruction so that students can learn for mastery. The contemporary Common Core effort is like old-fashioned educational progressivism in that it is based on the current state of the art of educational research. So, of course, many of its core tenets will later be proven to be mistaken. But, Common Core is a back-to-the-future political process where all stakeholders have been consulted.

As with the educational status quo of the 1990s, testing companies and consultants have more influence than I would like. Common Core advocates continue to insist that they do not intend to intrude into the way that practitioners teach the new Standards, as they continue to try to micro-manage instruction. (I have several sources I consider credible who fear it’s actually PARRC that is intent on creating (yet again) scripted teacher-proof instruction – Jer) Teachers will need to push back as the policy-makers over-emphasize assessments and become overly proscriptive. And, probably, it will go overboard in replacing too much fiction with nonfiction. (This is in fact an expectation of several state- and national-award winning English teachers with whom I’ve chatted with the decisions being made by people who know nothing about teaching language arts – Jer) We should remember the wisdom of Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio, however, who explains that Common Core does more than cut fiction, it also “restores art, music, history, and literature to the curriculum. (Emphasis in the original)

But, has that not always been the case in our schools? Are not all of our social institutions the results of “reforms” that prompt pushback, and that thus evolve in a non-rational manner? Is that not also the history of our constitutional democracy? The difference is that the test mania of recent years is an existential threat to public education. Common Core is not.

Prospects for Common Core would be far brighter if it was 1992 and we had not just followed the dead end path of test-driven accountability. Today, we have far more resources for designing new Standards and assessments. The billions of dollars wasted on bubble-in accountability gimmicks, however, will be missed. It will be tough enough to fund the curriculum supports and to implement the professional development necessary to prepare teachers. In the short term, we will not have a fraction of the resources necessary to provide the supports that our poorest children will need in order to learn for mastery. (I am not convinced that the sponsors of Common Core have any idea how much it will cost to align high-quality interventions that are needed before it can improve the toughest schools.)

Even so, we must recognize the opportunity that Common Core represents.
After a decade where educational leaders had to twist themselves into pretzels, maintaining that it was possible to have high-stakes testing and engaging instruction, it was liberating to attend a conference where educators and politicians of all stripes agreed that the teach-to-the-basic-skills-test regime of the last decade has failed. Similarly, I did not meet a politician, vendor, administrator, or a teacher who claimed that value-added teacher evaluations and test-driven accountability can co-exist with the transition to the Common Core. After all, test scores are bound to crater in our toughest schools as the curriculum is turned on its head.

Value-added accountability is a tool for destroying the teachers’ part of the “status quo,” but Common Core seeks to build a new barn and not just kick the old one down. The consensus I see as emerging is that the most likely next step for data-driven accountability is to return to the skill that we know forwards and backwards. If we want Common Core to survive, systems will apply their practiced talents in fabricating data and creating loopholes in order to keep value-added models from driving teaching talent from the schools where it is harder to raise test scores, and where the transition to Common Core will be most difficult.

During the next couple of years, educators will receive a mixed message. We will be told to prepare for a brand new adventure in teaching for mastery. In enlightened districts, educators will get a head start and will be allowed to abandon the teach-to-the-test basic skills approach that has been driving the love of learning out of our classrooms. In other schools during the two-year transition period, educators will still be required to engage in the same educational malpractice of the last decade and, then, they will be expected to turn on a dime and teach analysis, critical thinking, and synthesis. Finally, there is no guarantee that “reformers” won’t again become impatient and turn the technology necessary to support Common Core into a more sophisticated version of an educational assembly line. Common Core could degenerate into a super-duper hi-tech version of the scripted instruction that that has come out of NCLB but, still, it could be a step toward real educational equity.

We should remember that the short-term pain of the abrupt change schooling will be tougher on our students. Kids are resilient, though. In another contrast to data-driven reform, if Common Core survives the rocky road ahead, it will be our poorest kids in our most challenged schools who will have the most to gain. It would be nice if the billions of dollars spent on computers for command and control could be redirected towards the socio-emotional supports that are necessary before low-skilled students can excel with a legitimate college-prep or career-tech curricula. The key to success, however, is rejecting the quick fix mentality that looks to Common Core, or any other single reform, as being more than a step by which our schools, and the rest of our so-called “status quo,” bend the arch of incremental change towards justice. Common Core Is the Essence of the “Status Quo”

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

Pop Quiz on Testing

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‘Nuff said.

Jer

Published Online @ Edweek.org: June 11, 2012

Published in Print: June 13, 2012, as Pop Quiz on Testing: What’s the Answer?

Commentary

Pop Quiz on Testing

By Lisa Guisbond

Premium article access courtesy of Edweek.org.

You can practically hear the collective relief as school testing season winds down across America. It’s not just the sighs of millions of overtested and stressed-out children. Joining them are state officials, school administrators, teachers, and parents. All, for varying reasons, are no doubt happy to close the door on a particularly disastrous season that included public uproar over a confusing reading test question and a scoring fiasco on the Florida writing exam.

Before we put away the No. 2 pencils, though, how about sharpening them for one last exam? Why should our kids be the only ones to suffer the acute anxiety that comes from opening the test booklet to Page 1? Let’s share their pain and take a test to see how well we’ve been paying attention and learning from our obsession with tests.

1. Why did Florida’s state board of education call an emergency meeting to lower the passing score on its writing exam?

A) The percentage of 4th grade students with passing scores plunged                         from 81 percent last year to 27 percent this year, making it look as if most students went from good to horrible writers in one year.

B) The board realized student writing wasn’t really any worse, but the new test-scoring guide was too harsh and penalized students for minor mistakes.

C) The sudden drop in scores called the state’s entire testing system into question.

D) All of the above.

2. Why did New York eliminate the “Hare and the Pineapple” item when scoring the 8th grade reading test?

A) A student came home and told his mother about extremely confusing and incomprehensible questions regarding an absurd reading passage.

B) The author of the story adapted for the test item expressed his contempt for the way his writing was used to confuse and distress young test-takers. “This was done by somebody who was barely literate,” Daniel Pinkwater said of the adapter.

C) Media attention to the item embarrassed both test-maker Pearson and state education officials.

D) The “Pineapple” item was only one of more than 20 mistakes on the tests.

E) All of the above.

3. Why have 525 Texas school boards, more than 1,400 New York principals, and more than 8,000 individuals across the nation endorsed anti-high-stakes-testing resolutions and statements?

A) The Texas board members believe “the overreliance on standardized, high-stakes testing … is strangling our public schools.”

B) The New York principals said: “Our students are more than the sum of their test scores. … According to a nine-year study by the National Research Council, the past decade’s emphasis on testing has yielded little learning progress, especially considering the cost to taxpayers.”

C) School board members, principals, and many parents across the country recognize that testing mandates compel them to do things that undermine teaching and learning.

D) All of the above.

4. Who pays for and who profits from the testing explosion resulting from the No Child Left Behind Act and similar misguided education policies?

A) Taxpayers spend billions of dollars for ever more testing, money that could be used to improve school facilities, hire and train teachers, and staff school libraries.

B) Pearson, the company behind the twin fiascos in Florida and New York as well as years of other costly testing errors, saw its profits increase by 72 percent in 2011.

C) Veteran teachers with years of positive reviews by knowledgeable evaluators are being labeled ineffective and denied tenure or fired based on inaccurate and incomprehensible formulas using student test scores.

D) All of the above.

5. What can parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members do to change the costly and destructive path we are on?

A) Sign the National Resolution on High Stakes Testing and tell all your friends and relatives to do the same.

B) Get engaged with your local school system to review and reconsider the amount and uses of testing.

C) Write your members of Congress and tell them federal education policy needs to fundamentally change course and regain a sane and reasonable approach to assessment and accountability.

D) All of the above.

[The correct answer to all of the questions is “All of the above.”]

Lisa Guisbond is a policy analyst with FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, in Jamaica Plain, Mass.

Tracing the test-cheating scandal back to its roots

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I thought Jay’s piece in this morning’s print version was superb. I’ve been ranting about these issues for several decades yet on deaf ears,and perhaps his nicely done words will also fail. However, I think the tide is turning, albeit slowly – even with the scandals (with inescapably more to come), we as a whole are slowly recognizing that “it’s the leadership, stupid.”

There are teachers, as I was reminded today, who were single mothers facing no other option but welfare should they lose their jobs. Their choice was to put their babies at risk or erase bubbles on answer sheets under the orders of superiors. What would you do? I already know. See my piece here of January 8 on the Milgram research.

I don’t think he’s entirely correct (the elders among us will remember our frustration with automobile quality control), as Errol Davis has noted, education is the only profession in which the blame is placed on the workers.

My favorite turn of phrase from Jay, of many: ” . . .  we place a burden on testing that it is too fragile to bear.”

Disparate thoughts, but all touched in Jays far more coherent piece below.

Jer

Tracing the test-cheating scandal back to its roots

10:20 am May 9, 2012, by Jay Bookman, Atlanta Journal Constitution

http://blogs.ajc.com/jay-bookman-blog/2012/05/09/tracing-the-test-cheating-scandal-back-to-its-roots/

For weeks, teachers and administrators implicated in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal have been appearing one by one in front of a tribunal, telling their stories in hopes that they will be allowed to retain their jobs and careers.

The process — guaranteed to them by law — is meant to ensure that if fired and stripped of the right to teach, they will be fired and decertified for good cause and after they have had the chance to defend themselves. Frustrating as it might be to some who want a quicker, cheaper resolution of the controversy, that’s important.

However, the public nature of the process and testimony has also produced an important side benefit: Taxpayers, parents and citizens in general are getting a more complete and in many ways more human picture of the internal culture of the Atlanta school system and how that culture contributed to the scandal. It is possible in at least some cases to sympathize with the individuals involved and the pressure they experienced, even if that sympathy does not mean excusing what they did.

In fact, while each educator implicated in the controversy has had a unique story to tell, in the end they leave me circling back to the same basic question:

Where was Beverly Hall?

Whatever mistakes were made by individual educators, the atmosphere of fear and casual corruption within the school system was Hall’s creation as longtime superintendent. The absence of safeguards and indeed the total lack of concern about potential cheating was Hall’s responsibility. The institution’s reluctance and even aggressive refusal to support district employees who knew something was wrong and who tried to protest is a direct consequence of her leadership style and priorities.

Hall has retired and left the district, and so far has played no role in the tribunal proceedings. And while investigations continue, there is no indication that she will be held officially accountable in any way.

In her rare public utterances, she has portrayed herself as a victim of employees who failed to do their duty, but in the end she failed them, not the other way around. In fact, Hall bears a significant degree of responsibility for every career that is being ended and every future that is being compromised.

However, it’s important not to leave the issue there, because in some ways Hall herself is as much a symptom as a cause. As AJC investigations have established, cheating on standardized tests has become a nationwide problem, with high-profile schools all over the country producing wildly implausible claims of improvement in student performance. Confronted with that evidence, public officials in too many cases have retreated into the same pattern of denial that has become familiar to Atlanta residents.

When the same problems occur on such a large scale, in so many different communities and school systems in more than 30 states, it is no longer possible to dismiss it as the actions of an unethical few, or of a corrupted bureaucracy here or there. Something deeper is driving the phenomenon.

There is no question that standardized tests are an essential diagnostic tool. They can tell us which students, teachers and schools are performing well and which require attention. But when we take it a step farther and use those same test results to dictate fates, we place a burden on testing that it is too fragile to bear. When that happens, the tests themselves become a form of cheating, a means of producing misleadingly easy answers to what are really hard questions.

It’s also deeply confusing. In recent years, education reform has been dominated by two themes that are directly contradictory yet are often espoused by the very same people. And that contradiction is almost never acknowledged.

Here in Georgia, for example, state leaders have insisted that standardized testing be used as the educational equivalent of an industrial quality-control system. They produce a standardized model, and the tests determine how closely students conform to that model as they come off the assembly line.

Yet at the same time, we are told, the one-size-fits-all public-school industrial model must be dynamited to make way for a more experimental, let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach to education via charter schools and even vouchers. There’s a fundamental incoherence between those two messages that leads me to suspect that we really don’t know what we’re doing, and in fact are using schools as a battlefield in a deeper social struggle that we do not wish to acknowledge.

– Jay Bookman

Projecting and Producing Failure – Where is Success?

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A piece by Stephanie Jones’ Teaching Georgia Writing Collective. A young teacher wrote this, whom we very sadly apparently cannot identify (in itself an interesting comment on academic freedom in the public schools)

Clarke County Schools: Projecting and Producing Failure – Where is Success?

An Essay from the Teaching Georgia Writing Collective in Athens, Ga.

The Athens Patch

April 30, 2012

http://athens.patch.com/articles/clarke-county-schools-projecting-and-producing-failure-where-is-success

The end of the CRCT marks the time of the school year that teachers look forward to most. It’s the time when teachers have more freedom and flexibility to teach in student-centered, inquiry-based, and curiosity-driven ways. It’s the time of the year when tensions subside and mandates are over. Well, at least that’s what we used to look forward to. However, this year after the CRCT is over there is a new district mandate in Clarke County to which third and fifth grade teachers must adhere. It’s called the “Blitz.”
Third and fifth grade teachers across the district have been asked to compile a list of students “projected to fail” the CRCT. Teachers were forced to use previous standardized assessments to determine this list of students. And if the lists weren’t long enough, teachers were told to add more, just in case.
Students on the “projected to fail” list will be involved in a “Blitz” session immediately following the conclusion of the CRCT – before test results are even known. Students will be re-rostered – that is, the students will be grouped with new students and different teachers so all the “projected failures” will be in one class receiving “intense remediation” while the remaining students will experience “acceleration and enrichment.”
This means that while some students are investigating how tornadoes are formed, creating inventions to fix a problem they see in their community, or making informational videos using iPads, the “projected to fail” students will be sitting in a computer lab staring at a screen and listening through headphones to practice skill and drill reading assignments for an hour every day. This is on top of the hour and a half of direct reading instruction they will receive.
When does the torture end? Why aren’t all students given the opportunity to learn in creative and inspired ways? Why are students who may struggle with reading constantly given boring and uninspiring things they must read while other students have choice and learn to read through creative projects? Don’t all students need an enriching and encouraging environment surrounded by friends and teachers that know them best?
“Struggling” students are constantly on the losing end of every battle – and now they lose even before their test results are known.
If students aren’t successful on a high-stakes standardized test in reading, the blame is aimed at the student who is labeled defective and in need of fixing. But what if the student isn’t what needs fixing? What if the way school policies and mandates are created is what needs fixing? What if the budget is what’s broken? What if we stop blaming the students, their parents, and the teachers and instead look at the conditions of schooling that produce failure?
We dream of a school system in which students aren’t projected to fail and schools don’t produce failure. That school system would encourage teachers to slow down and learn about a student who is struggling and design instruction to make that student successful. We teachers don’t need more textbooks, scripted curricula or software programs, we need time to teach our students in the way that is best for them. And students don’t need more textbooks, scripted curricula or software programs either.They need a less stressful and anxiety-ridden environment and more time in creative, supportive classrooms where they know they are valued and projected to succeed. They need student-centered inquiries back in their school lives, and teachers who do engaging projects with them for which they ask questions and find answers.

School systems’ fear of failure has created the conditions for more failure to emerge. We might all be surprised if we stopped making decisions out of fear of failure and started making decisions based on hope and seeing our students as possibility. Let’s change the definition of “success” to include more than one test score and project success for all our students.

We might begin with a different kind of “Blitz” – which is defined as an intense campaign for something, even if most definitions refer specifically to military campaigns. Let’s use the end of the school year for a “School is a place I want to be” Blitz to motivate students to make deep connections to school and inspire them to look forward to the fall. Keeping them in their classrooms with teachers and students they have come to know and trust all year is one place to start, and engaging them with challenging and creative projects is another. If we don’t, this “Blitz” for the CRCT – even after the CRCT is over – will likely backfire on us all.

The Teaching Georgia Writing Collective is a group of educators, parents, and concerned citizens who engage in public writing and public teaching about education in Georgia. Some goals of the collective include: 1) empowering educators to reclaim their workplace and professionalism, 2) empowering families to stand up for their children and shape the institutions their children attend each day, 3) empowering children and youth to have control over their education, and 4) enhancing the education of all Georgians.

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.

J

New York Times

April 20, 2012

Teach the Books, Touch the Heart

By CLAIRE NEEDELL HOLLANDER

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/taking-emotions-out-of-our-schools.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&ref=general&src=me&pagewanted=print

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.

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

http://www.ajc.com/opinion/anxious-teachers-sobbing-children-1411482.html

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

Why the Ed Department should be reconceived — or abolished

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Here’s an incisive piece from Peter Smagorinsky of UGA posted at The Washington Post Answer Sheet by Valerie Strauss. Peter and I have yet to meet but have managed to swap electrons periodically.

Posted at  10:45 AM ET, 03/11/2012

The Answer Sheet

This was written by Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia.

By Peter Smagorinsky

The Department of Education has, since its inception in 1979, served as the source of national education policies governing our nation’s schools. Although I agree with very little else of Rick Perry’s vision for America, I think that either abolishing or thoroughly reconceiving this office would make for a better nation, given that for the most part it has done teachers and students far more harm than good.

Over time, the Department of Education has become increasingly bureaucratic and invasive, and has formulated its policies on questionable information that appears to emanate from hunches, anecdotes, whims, and fads, buttressed by corroborating evidence from ideologically friendly think tanks and media blowhards. Along the way, in what seems to be an increasing national trend of anti-intellectualism and cognophobic reactions to the specter of educated and knowledgeable people having opinions, it has eschewed the opportunity to consult with people who teach in or study schools.

The DOE has instead relied on think tanks, film-makers whose “documentary” productions tell whatever story is convenient to the producer’s vision, commissioned studies designed to find what its authors and sponsors are looking for, billionaires whose money entitles them to policy roles, and other dubious sources. Less known to the public, and in my view the most malignant of these influences, textbook companies have used political connections and contributions to position themselves to dictate curricula and assessment that they conveniently provide, for a substantial fee, at every stage of a child’s educational journey. To give one example, McGraw Hill, with long-established ties to the Bush family and testing contracts in 26 states, reported profits in the penultimate year of George W. Bush’s presidency of $403,000,000.

It’s well known that President Obama, for whom I voted and whose presidency I continue to support, relies on the counsel of people with whom he has played basketball. Obama made his very worst cabinet appointment when he chose his fellow player, Arne Duncan, as secretary of education.

Let’s trace his path to the presidential Cabinet. One of Duncan’s childhood friends, John Rogers, appointed Duncan director of the Ariel Education Initiative in Chicago. Duncan’s directorship led to Ariel’s reincarnation as a charter school, following which Duncan was advanced in the Chicago Public School system from deputy chief of staff to chief executive officer. Note that he worked exclusively at the executive level, never stooping to teach classes or learn about schools except from an operational perspective.

As a youth, Duncan spent his free time at his mom’s after-school program. According to Duncan, this experience with African American teens who had limited literacy proficiency served as a central motivator for his educational policies. Of course, I resonate with the goal of helping to improve the lives of dispossessed people so that they can develop the resources to live happy, healthy, and productive lives. And that’s why I vigorously oppose just about everything that Arne Duncan has done in his role as U.S. secretary of education, because he has reduced the incredibly complex process of teaching and learning knowledge that people find useful to an endless series of multiple choice tests. This system has turned teachers into functionaries and turned students into factory workers whose job it is to produce higher and higher test scores in the futile quest for Annual Yearly Progress, in which each year’s students are required to outscore last year’s students, with their teachers deemed incompetent should this year’s students fail to outperform last year’s, year after year, ad infinitum.

Arne Duncan is only the latest, although probably the most test-obsessed, person to occupy the seat of U.S. secretary of education. A lot of people trace the testing movement that he currently enforces with a vengeance back to Rod Paige, George W. Bush’s first secretary of education and architect of the Houston Miracle. Well, OK, the Houston Miracle turned out to be a mirage as test scores were manipulated to create the appearance of success, just as many well-known business enterprises — offered by policymakers as the model for education — have been found to falsify their books in order to appear financially healthy when they are in fact precariously deep in the red, with stockholders provided rosy reports that mask disastrous failure. Paige also hid school dropout rates so that youth who left the system — in part, I infer, because their education had become so useless — became invisible rather than serving as evidence against his miraculous claims of success.

At least Paige had an educational background of sorts, having served as a physical education teacher for six years before becoming a full-time high school and college football coach, then a university professor and dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern University. For his doctoral dissertation he studied the reaction time of offensive lineman on football teams. I haven’t been able to find a copy of his scholarly treatise, but I did run a check via Google Scholar and found that his doctoral research has never once been referenced as an academic source. Between the topic and the utter obscurity of the content of his dissertation, I can only conclude that it is the sort of frivolous, overly simplistic study that gives educational research a bad name.

This is the sort of policy-level leadership that our Department of Education has provided us in the last 12 years. I think that the students who entered school in 2000 and are graduating in 2012 will be the worst-educated cohort in the history of the United States, through no fault of their own, because they will have experienced all of their schooling under these ruinous programs that have reduced all learning to what can be measured on multiple choice tests. Imagine these young people now entering situations where they don’t get three or four reductive choices for each problem they encounter.

Their education has studiously avoided complexity, thoughtfulness, reflection, engagement, stimulation, personal commitment, and everything else that makes an education worth having. The source of the poverty of their education will not be their teachers, who must teach this regime or face punishment; and it will not be themselves, because I am pretty confident that kids actually want to learn things and grow into competent and appreciated people, even if what happens in school often does not provide that opportunity, and especially does not do so when everything is dictated by test preparation and test taking. Rather, the problem emerges from the policies created by those who mistaken test scores for learning and have turned tests into a vengeful machine for punishing teachers whose instruction lacks a commitment to multiple-choice tests as the epitome of a learning experience.

Instead of having a highly centralized administration powered by money contributed by textbook publishers and other entrepreneurs cashing in on the lucrative enterprise of educational materials production, I would have a highly distributed approach in which most decision-making is local and includes — and indeed, relies on — the perspective of teachers.

Presently, there’s little reason for practicing teachers to keep up with the latest ideas emerging from credible sources, or to engage in the process of producing those ideas and becoming credible sources themselves. The approach that I suggest would lend urgency to the need for teachers to be informed in order to make sound decisions. It would place a premium on being a reflective practitioner who is attentive to classroom processes and student learning, because such observations would become part of the broader school conversation about how to best educate the students who attend the school.

I find that approach far more likely to serve our nation’s youth with rigor and vigor than anything the U.S. Department of Education has tried in its 32 years of existence.

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