Archives for the month of: October, 2015

Valerie Strauss solved an interesting question. Why did Secretary Duncan recommend that states limit testing time to not more than 2% of class time?

He got the idea from John King, who is slated to be Interim Secretary after Duncan leaves government. John King was Commissioner of Education in New York, where he proposed a 2% limit on testing time.

That worked out well. Twenty percent of the eligible students (220,000) students opted out of the testing in 2015.

Turns out that 2% is a very large number of hours.

Not long ago, I was in Kentucky to speak to local school boards and superintendents. The walls outside the Grand Ballroom were festooned with pictures, quilts, and murals made by students from different communities. I took many photos of beautiful student work. I left with a sense that Kentucky has strong and united communities.

But the corporate reform movement can’t stand the thought of any state that hasn’t unleashed the power of competition and free enterprise, sort of like bringing Walmart into town to compete with the local stores in Main Street. So the usual right-wing funded groups have been pushing charters, promising the innovation and results that no one else has gotten.

Every year, the Republican-controlled Senate votes a charter bill, and every year the Democratic-controlled House ignores it. But this year may be different because all of the candidates for governor say they favor charters. The Democrat says he will support charters as long as they don’t take funding from public schools. Where does he think their funding comes from?

He says:

Democrat Jack Conway said in an interview he supports the concept of charters as long as they don’t take funds away from public schools.

“If it’s a charter where bureaucracy is getting out of the way and allowing for innovation, and it’s transparent, and we’re not in the situation where we’re siphoning off public dollars, then yes, I’m in for more flexibility in the public school system,” Conway said.

He added that he wants to make sure for-profit charter school companies can’t “cherry pick” the best students, leaving an underclass in the rest of the public education system.

How can he make sure that for-profit charter school companies don’t cherry pick the best students? How can he make sure that nonprofit charter schools don’t cherry pick the best students? Why does he think he can figure this out when no other state has? He should learn about the experience of Pennsylvania, where charter schools are bankrupting community public schools. Or about the many financial scandals in Ohio, Michigan, and Florida.

Why not protect the community schools of Kentucky where everyone works together for the benefit of the children?

The U.S. Department of Education says that the correct number of standardized tests is 2% of instructional time.

In most districts, that would be about 20-24 hours of taking tests. Not prepping for them, just taking them.

That would be an increase in the amount of time now allocated in most places to standardized tests. Should children in grades 3-8 really sit for 20 hours of tests? Sounds nutty.

Peter Greene has a different idea. He says the correct number of standardized test is zero.

He writes:

Students need standardized tests like a fish needs a bicycle. Standardized tests are as essential to education as a mugging is essential to better financial health.

Is there a benefit to the child to be compared and ranked against the rest of the children in the country, to be part of the Great Sorting of children into winners and losers? No. Having such rankings and ratings may advance the agenda of other folks when it comes to writing policy and distributing money, but those benefits are for those folks– not the children. The mugger may benefit from mugging me, but it does not follow that I enjoy a benefit.

Are there standardized tests from which a classroom teacher can glean useful information? Sure– but those tests are best chosen to fit the needs and concerns of one particular teacher and one particular collection of students. A diagnostic test might help me with Chris, but there’s no reason to believe it would help me better understand Chris if it were given to every other student at the same time.

Read on.

The deputy sheriff who roughly pulled a student out of her chair and tossed her to the ground has been fired. The officer is white. The student is black. The incident was caught on cellphone cameras and displayed around the world via social media and TV.

Be sure to see G.F. Brandenburg’s post on the pass rates for DC high schools on the Common Core test PARCC. 

Don’t miss his commentary after the graphs. He tells the secret to getting high scores. He says, as I have written many times, that the cut scores were set so that most students would fail. 

Eva Moskowitz is operating five city-funded pre-K classes, but she has refused to sign the contract requiring her to agree to the city’s rules, including inspections.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer informed Moskowitz that she must follow the city’s rules, as other charters do, or he will cut off funding for her pre-K classes.

What an audacious idea! Public accountability for public funds! Who knew?

Observers–most recently, John Merrow on OBS Newshour–have long wondered whether Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter schools were getting high test scores by weeding out low-performing students (scholars).

Kate Taylor of the New York Times learned that the elimination of unwanted students is practiced assiduously in some (perhaps all) SA charters. She even learned that one of them maintained a “got to go”list of unwanted students.

The SA schools have rigid behavior rules. Those children who do not obey without hesitation don’t belong. This is the Secret of Success.

In a big victory for the Walton family, the Arkansas Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling and will allow the state to take over the Little Rock school district. Of 48 schools in the district, six have been labeled “failing” by the state. Nonetheless, the state will oust the elected board and run all the schools.

A former Little Rock school board member, Jim Ross, said of the ruling:

“The Supreme Court of Arkansas is the best court Walton money can buy, so it’s no surprise. … We’re pretending that there’s not a big elephant sitting in the middle of this conversation, which is that the Waltons want to fundamentally destroy traditional public schools. And our state Board of Education is leading in that.

“I’m sure on some level they’re all altruistic people who think they’re doing the right thing, but at the end of the day they’re driven by profit, not people,” Ross said. “They’re driven by the idea that white, educated elites should be in charge, and that black people in our city are irrational, have political agendas, are enslaved to John Walker, whatever it is … there’s a fundamental lack of commitment to democracy.”

Teacher and teacher trainer David Greene tells a true story about a teacher in an unnamed district.

Read it and see what you think.

“Derrick’s Story”

The other night I had dinner with a couple I’ve known for a long time. Let’s just say that one of these people is not named “Derrick,” but that’s the name I will use. It will be easy to understand why as I tell this story. The facts are correct, but I will not identify him nor identify the school so that I don’t put Derrick in a bad spot.

Derrick is a retired high school teacher who was recently hired as a substitute in an upper-middle class suburban high school whose population is 80 percent white with less than ten percent of students considered to be economically disadvantaged. Approximately 70 percent of students take AP courses. Almost all meet ELA and math proficiency standards.

It is a town similar to several NYC suburban towns. The estimated median household income was about $90,000, which is $30,000 higher than the New York state median. More than half of the town’s population has at least a bachelor’s degree, while more than a quarter has a graduate or professional degree.

In short, this is not your average high school in your average suburban town.

Derrick started by saying he has been learning a great deal of new technology while on this job. Great, I thought, but then he went on.

His story soon morphed into a version of “The Walking Dead” or a parallel of the story of Clarisse McClellan, an unorthodox teacher, in the film and stage version of “Fahrenheit 451” — fired for not believing in Ray Bradbury’s fictional, high tech, book-burning, future society she lives in.

Derrick began to describe how he had to learn the Smart Board, specific tablet apps, Infinite Campus, and Pearson-created, computer-directed curricula for his courses. He was forced to implement a rigid, computer-directed classroom where all students worked in groups, listened to a Kahn Academy-like lecture, followed computer-programmed procedures outlined on the Smart Board, and did assignments on their tablets. Lesson plans were only to be followed, not created, and rigidly broke the period down into timed sections.

Derrick was told not to use the Socratic Method or any kind of class participation where he did anything more than monitor student progress on their work. He became a glorified babysitter. A cog in a machine. An automaton.

A technician, rather than a teacher.

Coincidentally, the next morning I read a New York Times piece related to this issue. Entitled, Lecture Me. Really., it told the tale of a college American history prof who inspected her new classroom and was pleased to see all the new technology there, but was surprised that there was no lectern for her to place her notes. She managed to get one after weeks of telephoning and emailing.

Although she defended lecturing in her piece, of which I am not a fan, the tale is still important to this discussion.

The point is that even if this room was used for a student-centered Socratic classroom, the emphasis was solely on the non-human technology. We need to combine active learning (which can easily be done via low or high tech tools) and the kinds of teaching tools that allow students to “keep students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action and… a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the “critical thinking” that educational theorists prize.

To quote the author, Molly Worthen, “Technology can be a saboteur. Studies suggest that taking notes by hand helps students master material better than typing notes on a laptop, probably because most find it impossible to take verbatim notes with pen and paper. Verbatim transcription is never the goal: Students should synthesize as they listen.”

Derrick’s story, on its own, is scary indeed, but we also know that this is happening all across the country where school districts, even relatively wealthy ones such as his, are buying into the high tech trend regardless of what it does to the quality of teaching and learning.

All districts want to upgrade their technology, so when giants like Pearson, Apple, or Microsoft tell them they will install everything and provide all students with tablets, many jump at the chance to sell their souls to the devil. The devil corporations or foundations give districts the hardware and software, but they are locked in to using their curricula and lesson plans.

The result? Instead of technology creating great teaching tools for teachers, teachers become the tools of technology!

Jesse Hagopian wrote the following essay for the blog. Jesse is an associate editor for Rethinking Schools magazine and teaches history at Garfield High School. Jesse is the editor of the book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. 

Obama regrets “taking the joy out of teaching and learning” with too much testing

In a stunning turn of events, President Obama announced last weekend that “unnecessary testing” is “consuming too much instructional time” and creating “undue stress for educators and students.” Rarely has a president so thoroughly repudiated such a defining aspect of his own public education policy.  In a three-minute video announcing this reversal, Obama cracks jokes about how silly it is to over-test students, and recalls that the teachers who had the most influence on his life were not the ones who prepared him best for his standardized tests. Perhaps Obama hopes we will forget it was his own Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who radically reorganized America’s education system around the almighty test score.

Obama’s statement comes in the wake of yet another study revealing the overwhelming number of standardized tests children are forced to take: The average student today is subjected to 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation. Because it’s what we have rewarded and required, America’s education system has become completely fixated on how well students perform on tests. Further, the highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color.

To be sure, Obama isn’t the only president to menace the education system with high-stakes exams.  This thoroughly bi-partisan project was enabled by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB became law in 2002 with overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Obama, instead of erasing the wrong answer choice of NCLB’s test-and-punish policy, decided to press ahead.  Like a student filling in her entire Scantron sheet with answer choice “D,” Duncan’s erroneous Race to the Top initiative was the incorrect solution for students.  It did, however, make four corporations rich by assigning their tests as the law of the land.  Desperate school districts, ravaged by the Great Recession, eagerly sought Race to the Top points by promulgating more and more tests.

The cry of the parents, students, educators and other stewards of education was loud and sorrowful as Obama moved to reduce the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning to a single score—one that would be used to close schools, fire teachers and deny students promotion or graduation.  Take, for instance, this essay penned by Diane Ravitch in 2010. She countered Obama’s claim that Race to the Top was his most important accomplishment:

[RttT] will make the current standardized tests of basic skills more important than ever, and even more time and resources will be devoted to raising scores on these tests. The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, because of the link between wages and scores. There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test.

What Ravitch warned us about has come to pass, and Obama has now admitted as much without fully admitting to his direct role in promoting the tests. Duncan and Obama, with funding from the Gates Foundation, coupled Race to the Top with Common Core State Standards and the high-stakes tests that came shrink wrapped with them.  Together these policies have orchestrated a radical seizure of power by what I call the “testocracy”—The multibillion dollar testing corporations, the billionaire philanthropists who promote their policies, and the politicians who write their policies into law.

These policies in turn have produced the largest uprising against high-stakes testing in U.S. history.  To give you just a few highlights of the size and scope of this unprecedented struggle, students have staged walkouts of the tests in Portland, Chicago, Colorado, New Mexico, and beyond.  Teachers from Seattle to Toledo to New York City have refused to administer the tests.  And the parent movement to opt children out of tests has exploded into a mass social movement, including some 60,000 families in Washington State and more than 200,000 families in New York State. One of the sparks that helped ignite this uprising occurred at Garfield High School, where I teach, when the entire faculty voted unanimously to refuse to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test.  The boycott spread to several other schools in Seattle and then the superintendent threatened my colleagues with a ten-day suspension without pay.  Because of the unanimous vote of the student government and the PTA in support of the boycott—and the solidarity we received from around the country—the superintendent backed off his threat and canceled the MAP test altogether at the high school level.  Can you imagine the vindication that my colleagues feel today—after having risked their jobs to reduce testing—from hearing the president acknowledge there is too much testing in the schools?  And it should be clear that this national uprising, this Education Spring, has forced the testocracy to retreat and is the reason that the Obama administration has come to its current understanding on testing in schools.

However, the testocracy, having amassed so much power and wealth, won’t just slink quietly into the night.  A Facebook video from Obama isn’t going to convince the Pearson corporation to give up its $9 billion in corporate profits from testing and textbooks. The tangle of tests promulgated by the federal government is now embedded at state and district levels.

More importantly, the President exposed just how halfhearted his change of heart was by declaring he will not reduce the current federal requirement to annually test all students in grades 3 through 8 in math and reading, with high school students still tested at least once. A reauthorization of NCLB is in the works right now, and all versions preserve these harmful testing mandates.  As well, Obama’s call to reduce testing to 2% of the school year still requires students to take standardized tests for an outlandish twenty-four hours.  And it isn’t even all the time directly spent taking the tests that’s the biggest problem.  The real shame, which Obama never addressed, is that as long as there are high-stakes attached to the standardized tests, test prep activities will continue to dominate instructional time.  As long as the testocracy continues to demand that students’ graduation and teachers’ evaluation or pay are determined by these tests, test prep will continue to crowed out all the things that educators know are vital to teaching the whole child—critical thinking, imagination, the arts, recess, collaboration, problem based learning, and more.

Obama’s main accomplice in proliferating costly testing, Arne Duncan, said, “It’s important that we’re all honest with ourselves. At the federal, state, and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation.”

Yes, let’s all be honest with ourselves. Honesty would require acknowledgement that standardized test scores primarily demonstrate a student’s family income level, not how well a teacher has coached how to fill in bubbles. Honesty would dictate that we recognize that the biggest obstacle to the success of our students is that politicians are not being held accountable for the fact that nearly half children in the public schools now live in poverty. As Congress debates the new iteration of federal education policy, they should focus on supporting programs to uplift disadvantaged children and leave the assessment policy to local educators.  They have proven they don’t understand how to best assess our students and now they have admitted as much. It’s time to listen to those of us who have advocated for an end to the practice endlessly ranking and sorting our youth with high-stakes tests.  It’s time Congress repeal the requirement of standardized tests at every grade level.  It’s time to end the reign of the testocracy and allow parents, students, and educators to implement authentic assessments designed to help support student learning and nurture the whole child.