The Guardian today features a story reporting that 26 school districts in the United States have taken advantage of the Pentagon’s discount prices on machine guns, grenade launchers, M-16s, and mine-proof vehicles. What could go wrong?
Here’s a set of priceless quotes from the article:
The Los Angeles unified school district, the nation’s second-largest at 710 square miles with more than 900,000 students enrolled, said it would remove three grenade launchers it had acquired because they “are not essential life-saving items within the scope, duties and mission” of the district’s police force.
But the district would keep the 60 M16s and a military vehicle known as an MRAP used in Iraq and Afghanistan that was built to withstand mine blasts. (see picture below)
District police Chief Steve Zipperman told the Associated Press that the M16s were used for training and the MRAP, parked off campus, was acquired because the district could not afford to buy armoured vehicles that might be used to protect officers and help students in a school shooting.
“That vehicle is used in very extraordinary circumstances involving a life-saving situation for an armed threat,” Zipperman said. “Quite frankly I hope we never have to deploy it.”
Here are a few more excerpts from the article with my commentary in BOLD RED.
In Texas, Tina Veal-Gooch, executive director of public relations at Texarkana ISD, said the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, led the district to acquire assault rifles and it had no plans to return them. How the possession of assault weapons by police would have helped in the Newtown shootings is left to the reader’s imagination.
In Florida, Rick Stelljes, the chief of Pinellas county schools police, said the county possessed 28 semi-automatic M16 rifles. They had never been used, and he hoped they never would be, but they were “something we need given the current situation we face in our nation. This is about preparing for the worst-case scenario.” What is the “current situation we face in our nation” that warrants a school district having 28 semi-automatic weapons? Is ISIS going to attack Pinellas county schools?
Democratic congressman Adam Schiff said while there was a role for surplus equipment going to local police departments “it’s difficult to see what scenario would require a grenade launcher or a mine-resistant vehicle for a school police department”. He’s at least partially right: there is no reason for schools to have grenade launchers or MRAPs… but I’m not convinced there’s a need for a local police department to have these either.
The militarization of police forces is a by-product of the media’s fear-mongering and the NRA’s successful messaging that the only thing protecting “us” from “bad guys” is a “good guy with a gun”…. or in this case a good guy with a grenade launcher, machine gun, semi-automatic weapon, and MRAP.
As readers of this blog realize, I am unalterably opposed to high stakes standardized testing, especially norm referenced tests administered to age-based cohorts of students. On the other hand, I would support the development of systematic formative assessments that could be used to monitor a student’s mastery of a sequence of hierarchical skills. The results of well-crafted formative assessments could help a teacher diagnose where a student is encountering difficulties and, in doing so, suggest alternative approaches that might be more effective. In fact, in my experience the difference between an extraordinary teacher and a good teacher is how they assess students. The very best teachers expect mastery of the content they are teaching. Consequently they design assessments that are linked to clear learning objectives they developed based on their experience and knowledge of the content they are teaching… and the very best teachers encourage students to retake assessments until they demonstrate a complete understanding of those learning objectives.
This brings me to a blog post by Diane Ravitch regarding the announcement in Broward County (FL) that they plan to develop 1500 tests. This sounds astonishing until one realizes that as an 8th grade math teacher in 1970 I administered at least 30 tests per year, a number that was matched by my team members in science, language arts, and social studies. My colleagues and I also gave periodic quizzes to make certain the students were doing their homework and understanding the concepts we taught. The typical 8th grade student taught by our team in Philadelphia, then, had 120 tests and hundreds of additional quizzes. Given that frame of reference, 1500 tests seems like a reasonable number.
Here was the first quandary I faced as a math teacher: a mismatch between the students’ knowledge and the text books I was given. Some of the 140 math students I faced in the first week of school were unable to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Only a handful could do all of the operations successfully. The pre-algebra books I was given matched the written curriculum in Philadelphia. They had roughly 20 pages reviewing basic operations and went on to topics like graphing, negative numbers, algebraic equations, and, by the end of the book, imaginary numbers. As noted in an earlier blog post, the only thing that saved me was the use of elementary level ditto masters I got from my father’s best friend who sold DC Heath text books and, later in the year, a set of masters I wrote that made it possible to individualize instruction in the classroom. And here was the second quandary: at the end of the year what grade should I assign to the students who worked diligently on my individualized ditto sheets and eventually completed the “tests” I designed for them? I didn’t hesitate: if a student worked assiduously and made progress they received a passing grade. My students who received a passing grade clearly did not master the 8th grade written curriculum but many of them DID learn their basic operations, albeit at a later time in their academic careers than the city expected.
It struck me at the time, and informs my beliefs today, that schools that test and emphasize COVERAGE of the curriculum miss the point: it is MASTERY of the curriculum that is important… and MASTERY takes more time for some students than others… and MASTERY tests are different from COVERAGE tests: they are formative tests that can be used to determine where a student is on a sequenced hierarchical learning continuum and what kind of intervention might be helpful if a student is stuck.
Based on the article in the Sun Sentinel that triggered Diane Ravitch’s post, it is evident that the motives behind Broward County’s testing mania is deeply misguided. They are NOT using the test to ensure mastery on the part of STUDENTS but rather to fulfill a legislative mandate to use value added tests whose results purportedly can be used to measure TEACHER performance. Oh, and FLA’s tests are based on the Common Core, which assumes that all students begin school with the same knowledge base and learn at the same rate. These assumptions are baseless and, consequently, teachers are inaccurately identified as “failures” as are schools serving students who begin with a baseline deficit of knowledge. The result is that the whole notion of developing an agreed upon curriculum sequence and systematic testing of students is under fire.
I am distressed at the current use of assessments because I believe it is important to have a common curriculum, it is possible to develop a systematic sequence of mastery tests that teachers could use to measure a student’s progress through that common curriculum, and most importantly, I believe time should be variable and learning constant. I am distressed at the time and money spent on the “Common Core” curriculum written by outsiders and on the development of tests based on the assumption that students learn the curriculum at the same rate. This approach reinforces the existing factory school paradigm and is a huge step backward. It would be far better to use the money, time and energy spent developing COVERAGE tests to develop MASTERY tests designed to help teachers diagnose each student’s progress using evidence-based research. These MASTERY tests could have been devised and refined by classroom teachers (as opposed to test developers) using crowd sourcing software under the leadership of education professors whose primary interest is child development (as opposed to psychometrics). The emphasis on MASTERY learning would, in turn, move us away from the batching of students by age cohorts and toward a more individualized approach to instruction. Moreover, by focussing on why STUDENTS struggle our country might begin to tack the underlying causes of “failing schools”, which is poverty and not poor teaching.
What, then, is a passing grade? A passing grade is given when progress is made toward mastery. Using that as a yardstick, NCLB and RTTT do not pass.
The title of this Washington Times article, “Satanists to Distribute Religious Pamphlets in Schools” tells you all you need to know about the rationale for the separation of church and state. If schools distribute Gideon’s Bible will they allow the distribution of the Koran? FL legislators might want to take another look at this issue before some school board is asked this question.
Here’s a report from the EParisExtra.com, an on line newsletter from Teas, reporting the latest results from Texas: the public schools outperformed charter schools academically AND financially. I am not expecting a press release on these findings from Governor Perry or Arne Duncan any time soon.