Archives for category: Curriculum

Jeannie Kaplan reports here on Jonathan Kozol’s recent visit to Denver. Denver is a city that has become totally devoted to corporate style “reform” for a decade. Now the corporate reformers own the entire school board plus they have a U.S. Senator Michael Bennett.

Kaplan shows how Kozol’s message explains corporate reform, now deeply embedded in Denver:

“THE SHAME OF THE NATION shows how the business model has become the blueprint for education “reform.” Education “reformers” use business jargon to describe their activities: “rewards and sanctions,” “return on investment,” “time management,” “college and career ready,” “maximizing proficiency,” “outcomes,” “rigorous,” “managers and officers,” “evaluation,” “accountability,” “portfolios of schools” (like a portfolio of stocks – get rid of the losers, keep the winners).

“Mr. Kozol describes the infiltration of business into education this way:

“Business leaders tell urban school officials…that what they need the schools to give them are “team players.”…Team players may well be of great importance to the operation of a business corporation and are obviously essential in the military services; but a healthy nation needs it future poets, prophets, ribald satirists, and maddening iconoclasts at least as much as it needs people who will file in a perfect line to an objective they are told they cannot question.” (p. 106)

“Here is how Denver Public Schools has adopted this business tenet. Every email sent by a DPS employee is signed and sent with the statement at the bottom, My name is Jeannie Kaplan, I’m from Youngstown, Ohio… and I play for DPS!

“Further business verbiage: In DPS principals are no longer principals but building CEOs or building managers. At the district level there is a chief executive officer, a chief financial officer, a chief operating officer, a chief academic officer, a chief strategic officer, and within the school buildings themselves there are managers for everything under the sun. You get the picture. And with all of these managers and officers DPS has witnessed increases in facility and resource imbalances and increases in segregation while academics have remained stagnant. Corporate reform is a failure in the United States. But politics, money and lies will not allow it to go quietly into the night, and Denver’s students and communities are paying the price.”

Kozol’s message is the opposite if corporate reform:

“We now have an apartheid curriculum . Because teachers and principals in the inner city are so test driven, inner city children who are mostly students of color are not allowed to have their voices heard through stories and questions, while white students are given that flexibility, opportunity and creativity.

“Test preparation is driving out child centered learning. Testing mania has become a national psychosis, driven by business.

“Racial isolation/segregation which does terrible damage to young people, is on the rise. In SHAME, education analyst Richard Rothstein points out how important it is for children of color to become comfortable in the majority culture and how devastating this new segregation is in the long term: “It is foolhardy to think black children can be taught no matter how well, in isolation and then have the skills and confidence as adults to succeed in a white world where they have no experience.” (p. 229). That Tuesday night Mr. Kozol referred to the new segregation as a “theological abomination.”

“And finally, of course, Mr. Kozol believes small class size, enriched curricula, and equitable resources and facilities would offer an equitable education for all children. This recent article in the Huffington Post clearly and disturbingly describes the safety and health hazards brought into Chicago public schools because business has invaded public schools. Bugs, moldy bread, trash left for days, leaks left unfixed. You can bet the East coast decision makers who are driving this “reform” did not attend schools under these conditions.”

Students and parents are the most powerful voices in the battle to save public education from ideologues, one-issue zealots, misguided philanthropists, and greedy entrepreneurs. Why are they so powerful? They can’t be fired or intimidated!


Students in Jefferson County, Colorado, are holding a rally on Saturday. If you are anywhere nearby, please join them and show your support for them as they fight for a real education. Their school board is dominated by rightwing corporate reformers. The students have had enough of their school board’s love of privatization, testing, and censorship.

In this mini-essay, left as a comment, Bob Shepherd notes that Common Core testing assumes that there is only one correct answer when interpreting literature. This, he says, is a complete rejection of reader-response theory, which had been prevalent for many years. Shepherd has many years of experience writing curriculum, assessments, and textbooks.

He writes:

“Years ago, I was doing a project for one of the major textbook publishers—writing for a high-school British literature textbook. I was given an assignment to write a lesson on Robert Burns’s poem “A Red, Red Rose.” This poem begins, you may remember, with the following lines:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

One of the questions that I asked about the poem was, “Why does the speaker compare his beloved to a red, red rose?” And the answer I wrote for the answer key was something like, “The speaker wishes to communicate that his this person is attractive and that he loves her, and so he compares her to a red rose, which is a traditional symbol of beauty and of romantic love.” I could have elaborated: Probably through association with blood and with blushing, the color red traditionally symbolizes intense emotion, or ardor. Roses are attractive and share this property with the objects of romantic affection. For these reasons, it became conventional to speak of someone as being “a red rose” in order to communicate that a) she (or, more rarely, he) was beautiful and b) that she (or, more rarely, he) was an object of ardent emotion, and c) that that emotion was one of romantic attraction. The speaker is therefore using a conventional symbol.

I could have added that the reason why the poet chose to express this in a simile rather than in a metaphor (“O my Luve’s a red, red rose”) was probably as mundane as to fill out the meter. I could further have explained that it is the beloved not the speaker’s feeling that is compared to a rose, for later in the poem, the speaker uses the same word, Luve, in direct address:

And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

The editor wrote back to me saying, “Don’t presume to tell students that there is ONE CORRECT interpretation of the line.” I responded, “What should I say instead?” She wrote back, “Say, ‘One possible reason is that red roses are traditional symbols of beauty and of romantic love.’” I pointed out that if I were to follow her advice, I would have to include a similar disclaimer (“one possible”) in almost EVERY STATEMENT made about any work of literature in the book, which would make for awkwardness. She informed me that I was being overly directive and not respecting the students’ right to his or her own interpretation and that this made her question my suitability for the job she had asked me to do.

Let me hasten to add that I do understand where that editor was coming from. She held a version of a reader response theory of literature that goes something like this: a text means whatever the reader constructs when reading it. This grotesque misunderstanding of what “a reader’s construction of a text” can reasonably mean had become the de facto orthodoxy in ELA lit texts at the middle-school and secondary-school levels. I call this a grotesque misunderstanding because a text is an act of communication and as such depends, usually, upon shared usages and upon the belief on the part of the reader and the writer that communication across an ontological gap of a communicable meaning is possible. To deny that—to say that any text can mean anything—is to undercut the very notion of communication, of transmission across that gap from one subjectivity to another. Part of teaching people how to read literature is to teach them about conventional usages and what those can reliably be taken to mean.

Now, one might say, but wouldn’t an alternate reading like the following be acceptable?

The convention of the red, red rose as a symbol of feminine beauty is part of an complex of objectifications found in poetry and song produced by men, particularly in the Cavalier and early Romantic periods, and the speaker probably uses this because he is a conventional, unthinking, objectifying pig.

The editor might have had a student response like that in mind.

But here’s the problem with that: the editor would be confusing significance (meaning as mattering to the reader) with interpretation (meaning as the intent of the author). Failure to observe this distinction leads to a lot of complete nonsense in writing and speaking about literary texts. The differing responses are to differing matters–what the author intended and what significance what the author did has for a particular reader.

So, how does all of this relate to the new tests?

Well, one remarkable characteristic of the new tests is that they have COMPLETELY OVERTHROWN what was the STANDARD CHURCH ORTHODOXY in K-12 ELA–the prevailing Reader Response/Constructivist/The Author Is Dead orthodoxy that texts have alternate readings, constructed by readers, that have to be respected. For the most part, the questions about literature on the new exams assume that THERE IS ONE CORRECT ANSWER. Am I the only one to notice that? Did millions of English teachers and textbook writers who were of the “readers construct texts” or “reader response” schools of thought suddenly change their minds about this?

No, their minds were changed for them, de facto, by people constructing the new tests based upon the new standards.

Shouldn’t I be pleased about this, given my defense, above, of the “one true” reading of the line from Burns? No, and here’s why: What we mean by “What does this mean?” itself differs depending upon whether we are talking about intent or significance, and intent itself is by no means cut-and-dried, simply there for discovery. Getting at intent involves a great deal of knowledge of matters like literary conventions and genres and techniques and historical periods and the thought and practice and life experience of the author and much, much else. So even if we made the assumption that any question on a standardized test must deal with intent and not with significance, it would still be the case that particular passages would be open to varying interpretations.

And the relevance of extra-textual matters to interpretation raises another issue with regard to the approach to literature instantiated in the new standards. Students and teachers are encouraged in these to follow a New Critical procedure—to examine closely the text itself, without reference to external materials. But intent does not exist in a vacuum. If someone leaves a note saying, “Tie up the loose ends,” it matters whether the note is from a macramé instructor or from a mob boss worried about possible informants! Texts exist in context.

When I examine the new tests and the questions asked on them, my overwhelming impression is that the questions were written by people who hadn’t the subtlety to understand what a complex business learning to read carefully and well is. As often as not, the questions FAIL because the question writer did not himself or herself understand some subtlety. Let me give an example to illustrate what I mean.

Suppose that a question on one of these tests reads as follows:

Which of the following best describes the attitude of the speaker in the first line of Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose”?

A. Ardent affection
B. Casual interest

The test writer would probably think that answer A. is the correct answer.

But consider this: A deconstruction of that first line would look beyond the verbal intention—the intended communication—to other factors getting at significance. Why did the speaker use a hackneyed, conventional expression? Why did he express the conventional association in a simile instead of in some more sophisticated way? Do the facts that he chose a hackneyed convention and chose the simile, most likely, simply as an easy way to fill out the meter suggest that he did not give this poem much work or thought? In other words, is this first line suggestive of someone who is not as serious as would be another poet who, in this circumstance, would bother to say something original and real? I’m reminded of a fellow I knew when I was a kid who had written what he called a “general purpose love song.” He said to me, “The beauty of this song is that I can throw any girl’s name in there. Miranda. Amanda. Sweet, sweet Jane.” Is the casualness of Burns’s line related to the fact that in the last stanza, he’s outta here?

“Hey, you’re great. Really. I’ll be thinking about ya. Outta here.”

Hmm. Suddenly the wrong answer starts to look as though it might not be so wrong after all because now we are talking not about intent but about significance. Is this an accurate reading of the significance? I love Robbie Burns. I have participated with great delight in Burns dinners (though I shall always pass on the haggis). But he was a notorious womanizer, and this poem is a piece of tossed-off minstrelsy and not a great work of art like his “Song Composed in August” or “To a Mouse.” I don’t mean to take away from the poem by saying that. It’s a perfect specimen of its type. But it’s a conventional type. It’s a “My Darlin’ Clementine,” not Yeats’s “The Folly of Being Comforted” or Millay’s “Love Is Not All” or Burns’s own “John Anderson, My Jo.”

Myra Blackmon,a frequent contributor to Online Athens in Georgia, writes in opposition to those who want to teach a sanitized version of U.S. history.

She writes that it is important to understand that we have made mistakes, committed terrible wrongs, and that dissent and protest hold an honored place in our history. To pretend that we were always in the right is bad history.

Here is a sample of a great article:

“I worry when I read stories about groups demanding a more positive treatment of slavery — the greatest evil our great nation ever perpetuated — and an emphasis on the idea that God has somehow chosen America to be “better” than other nations.

“Civil disobedience, protest and questioning government are fundamental to our success as a nation. Without them, we would still have child labor, no protection for workers, legal segregation and discrimination. Women would not have the vote, and wives and children would still be considered the personal property of their husbands and fathers.

“The idea that we would discourage any disruption of the social order, all under the guise of “respect for authority,” frightens me.

“We were born of protest and a disruption of a social order the founders believed unjust and morally wrong.

“I love my country. I am proud to be an American. I believe to my core that we are an exceptional nation. Not because we never made mistakes, never had bad leaders and always rescued others from tyranny. I believe we are exceptional because we lived and learned from all our history.

“America is exceptional because we rebuilt our economy after the end of legal slavery, because we survived the Vietnam war, because we are working to repair the damage we perpetrated on the people who lived here before the Europeans arrived.

“America is exceptional, not because we are a Christian nation, but because we are a nation where the practice of any religion is protected. We didn’t get there easily.

“America is exceptional because we have maintained the orderly transfer of power through tumultuous times. We have learned from wrongdoing like Watergate and used those lessons to strengthen our democracy.”

On September 4, I posted two things about Marc Tucker’s latest accountability proposals. One was a brief summary of his ideas. I was especially impressed by the point he made that no other advanced nation tests as much as we do.

The second was a critique of Tucker’s accountability plan by Anthony Cody.

Cody wrote the following:

““We need to learn (and teach) the real lesson of NCLB – and now the Common Core. The problem with NCLB was not with the *number* of tests, nor with when the tests were given, nor with the subject matter on the tests, or the format of the tests, or the standards to which the tests were aligned.

“The problem with NCLB was that it was based on a false premise, that somehow tests can be used to pressure schools into delivering equitable outcomes for students. This approach did not work, and as we are seeing with Common Core, will not work, no matter how many ways you tinker with the tests.

“The idea that our education system holds the key to our economic future is a seductive one for educators. It makes us seem so important, and can be used to argue for investments in our schools. But this idea carries a price, because if we accept that our economic future depends on our schools, real action to address fundamental economic problems can be deferred. We can pretend that somehow we are securing the future of the middle class by sending everyone to preschool – meanwhile the actual middle class is in a shambles, and college students are graduating in debt and insecure.

“The entire exercise is a monumental distraction, and anyone who engages in this sort of tinkering has bought into a shell game, a manipulation of public attention away from real sources of inequity.

“We need some accountability for children’s lives, for their bellies being full, for safe homes and neighborhoods, and for their futures when they graduate. Once there is a healthy ecosystem for them to grow in, and graduate into, the inequities we see in education will shrink dramatically. But that requires much broader economic and social change — change that neither policymakers or central planners like Tucker are prepared to call for.”

For some reason, Tucker decided that Cody and I are one and the same person, apparently using different names when it suits our purpose. Cody wrote the second piece, and I quoted it.

I actually think that Tucker agrees with Cody, and I agree with them both, on the main issues at hand. We all agree that our schools would have higher test scores if there were less poverty. I think I can safely say that we believe that more testing and higher stakes won’t reduce poverty. I think I can say we agree that teachers should have better preparation for their work, more mentoring and support, and higher salaries. (Marc, correct me if I am wrong.)

Maybe where we diverge is on the value of high-stakes standardized tests. I don’t think they are necessary to improve teaching and learning. If they were, we would surely see them used at Sidwell Friends, Lakeside Academy, Groton, Dalton, Exeter, and Deerfield Academy. Instead, these institutions have small classes, respect their experienced teachers, have extensive programs in the arts, a well-stocked library, and assure that all students have a full and balanced curriculum. These schools do not judge their teachers by value-added metrics based on test scores. They are not faced annually with the threat of budget cuts and layoffs.

That’s what I want for all children. Marc, let me know where we disagree.

Bill Gates was on the treadmill one day, watched a video about history that he liked, and invited the professor to meet with him to talk about growing his approach into something that everyone could see. Now as this story in the New York Times explains, Bill Gates’ favorite way of teaching world history has been turned into a course that is being marketed to high schools across the country.

“As Gates was working his way through the series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by a jovial, gesticulating professor from Australia named David Christian. Unlike the previous DVDs, “Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth. Standing inside a small “Mr. Rogers”-style set, flanked by an imitation ivy-covered brick wall, Christian explained to the camera that he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early-20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds,” beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8).”

This is my favorite line in the article: “As Gates sweated away on his treadmill, he found himself marveling at the class’s ability to connect complex concepts. “I just loved it,” he said. “It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!”

Yes, if Gates loved it, why shouldn’t everybody “watch this thing!”

Now, let me say up front that the course may indeed be wonderful, engaging, provocative, and informative. I have not seen “Big History” and cannot judge its quality.

But there is something unseemly about a history course sponsored by the richest man in America. This is akin to research on cigarettes and cancer sponsored by tobacco company.

I am quoted in the article asking whether the course will discuss or even mention the robber barons or the problem of income inequality. How will it treat the rise–and decline–of labor unions? I can think of many topics that would make the sponsor uncomfortable.

Please read the comments, especially the readers’ picks. Many share my concerns.

On this point, read Mercedes Schneider’s latest post, wherein she reports that the Gates Foundation funds mainstream media outlets and Gates himself regularly meets with representatives of the media he gives money to. I don’t know, it doesn’t sound right to me. If he is giving millions to major news outlets, won’t that affect their coverage of the Gates Foundation and Gates himself. Will they dare criticize their sponsor? This has a bad smell.

Many years ago, in the 1990s and the early years of this century, I was a vigorous participant in what was known as “the reading wars.” I supported phonics and opposed whole language. I was influenced by the work of Jeanne Chall at Harvard, who described the ebb and flow of reading philosophies. I wrote many articles explaining why phonics was crucial and why whole language was deficient. In my book, “Left Back” (2000), I wrote an overview of the reading wars and showed the deficiencies of whole language.

In 1997, Congress created the National Reading Panel, composed of literacy experts who mostly supported phonics. Its report in 2000 strongly endorsed explicit phonics instruction. In 2001, No Child Left Behind included a program called Reading First, which gave large sums to districts that gave preference to phonics. Phonics was winning, for sure. Proponents of whole language (which valued meaning over the mechanics or reading) began calling their program “balanced literacy” to remove the implication that they opposed phonics.

By 2001, it seemed clear that phonics had won the war. But in 2006, the Reading First program blew up; not only were the evaluations unimpressive, but there were allegations of self-dealing and conflicts of interest as some phonics promoters were pushing their own textbooks. And the “war” itself lost steam.

As for me, I no longer think this “war” is a worthy cause. Reading teachers understand that students need both phonics and meaning. They know that children need to be able to sound out words but that it is boring to do that for weeks on end. Children need meaning. They get it when their teachers read to them, and they get it when they learn to read by themselves.

I am no reading expert, but I can see good sense in both approaches. I have seen balanced literacy classes where children were enjoying reading. I understand the importance of phonics as a tool to help children get off to a strong start. Wise teachers know when and how to use the literacy approach they need. Children’s needs are different. Good teachers know that and don’t need to be told by legislators how to teach. (And for older children, I love grammar, spelling, and diagramming sentences).

I read recently that NYC Chancellor Carmen Farina was reviving balanced literacy in the New York City schools, and some of my old allies wrote to ask if I was outraged. No, I was not. Balanced literacy can co-exist with phonics. Children need both decoding and meaning. Most important, they need to learn the joy of reading. It unlocks the door to the storehouse of knowledge.

I am no longer a combatant in the reading wars. What matters most today is the survival of public education. We must stop nonsensical curriculum wars and stand together for equitable funding, stable staffing, and community support for community schools.

Robert Berkman, who has been teaching math for thirty years, takes issue with the article by Elizabeth Green in the New York Times magazine called Why Americans Stink at Math. While he has great admiration for Green’s writing skills, he thinks she is an American who is not good at math.

He writes:

“The first place where Green goes wrong is when she cites “national test results” about mathematics achievement in the U.S.. First, I wonder which “test results” Green is referencing here (you have to be suspicious when, in the days of the omnipresent interweb, a link is not included to the data supporting this point.) It may be significant that 2/3 of all 4th and 8th graders are not “proficient” in math, but again, this is a national standard, not an international standard, so this only points to the fact that U.S. children are not achieving according to some standard that was created where, in some dark cave where Dick Cheney and his family reside?

“Green goes on to state that half the 4th and 8th graders taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress could not read a thermometer, or that 3/4 of the test takers could not translate a simple word problem into an algebraic expression. Note that this is the National Assessment of Educational Progress – it doesn’t say anything about whether U.S. children are better or worse than anybody else around the globe; for all we know, 7/8 of the children in Helsinki and 11/13 of the children in Ibaraki couldn’t successfully answer these questions either. Look, I’m not the sharpest pencil in the box, but even I know these numbers are insignificant without a context.”

If I may interject my view, NAEP proficient is a very high standard of academic proficiency, not a benchmark for what all students should know. Michelle Rhee constantly makes this mistake. It is like complaining that not all students are A students.

Berkman then chastises Green for comparing Massachusetts, a state, with Shanghai, a city (which excludes a significant number of students from the tests because their parents are migrants).

I confess I am tired of the constant barrage of articles and books about how terrible the U.S. is and how our public schools are the reason that we fail at this, that, or everything. I think this is a wonderful country, and I hope that one day soon we can take control back from the oligarchs that want to turn our children into standardized widgets (but not their own).

I like Elizabeth Green. I have known her for several years. I hope her next book will celebrate the success of American public schools in accepting all children and unleashing the genius of our best thinkers and creators, despite the contempt of the uber-rich and the war on the teaching profession. There is a reason that teachers say they work “in the trenches.” It’s time to celebrate their perseverance in the face of budget cuts and stupid federal policy.

The fabulously wealthy Koch brothers have developed a plan to teach their libertarian ideas to high school students. It is sort of like tobacco companies teaching students that smoking is good for you.

They have used their vast resources to identify like-minded teachers, to train them and to supply course materials. Their program, called Young Entrepreneurs, is growing in Kansas, Missouri, and other states.

What do they teach? “Lesson plans and class materials obtained by The Huffington Post make the course’s message clear: The minimum wage hurts workers and slows economic growth. Low taxes and less regulation allow people to prosper. Public assistance harms the poor. Government, in short, is the enemy of liberty.”

The course didn’t take hold at an elite private school but public schools seem eager for the support and resources.

Another way to sum it up: Greed is good. Look out only for yourself.

Russ Walsh has been teaching about literacy for 45 years. He started blogging to share his thoughts.

But then he discovered that his views about literacy did not exist in isolation. They were part of a great national debate that involved the Common Core, education reform, charters, and other aspects corporate education reform. He read other bloggers and found that he was engaged as a. Teacher,a reader, a writer, and a thinker. These were not stages of development but a process of thinking, writing, and acting.

Now he too is part of the national debate.


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