If you think like a General, You Might Start a War

September 18, 2014 Leave a comment

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)

School Police Militarization

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.

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What’s Passing?

September 18, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

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Let’s Be Like China!

September 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes features an interview with Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Oregon who immigrated from China and has written extensively contrasting the Chinese education system to ours. The article should be read in its entirety, for it reinforces many of the assertions set forth in this blog and the blogs of progressive educators. Namely:

  • The focus on test scores results in a narrowing of the curriculum
  • The focus on test scores damages the self-confidence of many students
  • Test scores measure “…something very different from the quality of education… parents, educators and children desire.”
  • The Common Core State Standards Initiative has been pushed to many states, creating de facto national standards in math and English language arts. So American education today has become more centralized, standardized and test-driven, with an increasingly narrow educational experience, which characterizes Chinese education.”
  • “We need an education that enhances individual strengths, follows children’s passions and fosters their social-emotional development. We do not need an authoritarian education that aims to fix children’s deficits according to externally prescribed standards.”

Zhao describes the difficulty China is encountering in transforming its authoritarian system. He states that in order to make the kinds of changes he advocates will require “…the people and leaders to consider different pathways, different voices and different values without automatically assuming evil intentions in dissenting opinions.”

We do not have a culture of authoritarianism in our country, but we do have a culture of competition, a “winner-take-all” culture that, taken to its ultimate conclusion, can result in de facto authoritarianism. Corporations do not operate on democratic principles and are frustrated when democratically elected officials enact regulations that limit profits and/or expect the kind of public disclosures that are necessary in a democracy. All of this led me to leave this comment;

The convergence of US and Chinese education systems mirrors the convergence of US and Chinese economic systems. Opportunities for economic advancement are diminishing in our country because opportunities for educational advancement are diminishing. We cannot claim that every child has an equal opportunity to learn until every child in our country experiences the kind of education program offered in our most affluent public school systems. Setting high standards and administering rigorous tests will only move us further down the path of authoritarianism China is striving to escape.

As noted frequently in this blog, the public sees our schools as factories and, consequently, strives to have them operate “efficiently”. We use standardized tests to sort and measure the progress of students who are “efficiently” batched in age cohorts, ignoring the reality that not all children mature at the same rate and not all children enter the “factory” with the same backgrounds. Because of this our definitions of “failing schools” are flawed given the practical reality that children raised in poverty often begin school with a weaker “academic” background than children raised in affluent homes. We’ve administered standardized achievement tests for decades and we know that schools serving children raised in poverty have lower get scores than schools serving children raised in affluence. When will we acknowledge that POVERTY is the underlying cause of this “failure” on the part of schools and NOT the teachers or the “government monopoly”?  When? When “…the people and leaders to consider different pathways, different voices and different values without automatically assuming evil intentions in dissenting opinions.” You see, we ARE already like China!

More on VERY Early Intervention

September 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Nick Kristoff’s Sunday op ed column witten with Sheryl WuDunn, “The Way to Beat Poverty“, reinforces the ideas put forth in earlier posts on this blog. Kristoff cites anecdotal evidence and research evidence supporting the notion of providing support to parents who face adversity in child rearing as a result of their own suffering in childhood and the suffering brought about due to poverty. He also cites evidence on how diet, alcohol consumption smoking, and exposure to lead paint during pregnancy and a child’s first years of life adversely affect children.

He then describes how a visiting nurse program can reduce the effects of poverty at a relatively low cost. This program, which has been researched a replicated, consists of nurse visits from the time an at-risk child is born until the child turns 2, “…with the nurse encouraging the mom to speak to the child constantly, to read to the child, to show affection. Later there are discussions of birth control.” In a later paragraph he writes:

The visits have been studied extensively through randomized controlled trials — the gold standard of evidence — and are stunningly effective. Children randomly assigned to nurse visits suffer 79 percent fewer cases of state-verified abuse or neglect than similar children randomly assigned to other programs. Even though the program ends at age 2, the children at age 15 have fewer than half as many arrests on average. At the 15-year follow-up, the mothers themselves have one-third fewer subsequent births and have spent 30 fewer months on welfare than the controls. A RAND Corporation study found that each dollar invested in nurse visits to low-income unmarried mothers produced $5.70 in benefits.

So here we have an anti-poverty program that is cheap, is backed by rigorous evidence and pays for itself several times over in reduced costs later on. Yet it has funds to serve only 2 percent to 3 percent of needy families. That’s infuriating.

Any reader of progressive blogs will likely point fingers at conservatives who don’t want to have birth control the part of any poverty program and/or who don’t want the government intervening in the lives of parents. There are, however, other culprits. School districts are often in complete support of these programs as long as they don’t take money from them… and universities and colleges who rely on government spending are also leery of supporting a program that might reduce their spending levels. Kristoff acknowledges this reality, and comes down on investing where the dollars will make the greatest difference, and offers a better place for the Federal government to find money:

We certainly would prefer not to cut education budgets of any kind, but if pressed, we would have to agree that $1 billion spent on home visitation for at-risk young mothers would achieve much more in breaking the poverty cycle than the same sum spent on indirect subsidies collected by for-profit universities.

He concludes his article with this challenge:

We wish more donors would endow not just professorships but also the jobs of nurses who visit at-risk parents; we wish tycoons would seek naming opportunities not only at concert halls and museum wings but also in nursery schools. We need advocates to push federal, state and local governments to invest in the first couple of years of life, to support parents during pregnancy and a child’s earliest years.

Here’s what’s really infuriating: this isn’t going to happen unless the advocates get behind a candidate outside the existing sphere of the two political parties… because while both political parties claim they support early intervention, NEITHER party will seek additional taxes to fund it, and NEITHER party will recommend the diversion of the indirect subsidies for-profit colleges receive, and last but not nearly least, NEITHER party is willing to state the obvious: one billion dollars is chump change compared to the trillion dollars we’ve spent thus far on the misbegotten wars in the East.


Religious Freedom Cuts Both Ways

September 16, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

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VERY Early Intervention Needed

September 16, 2014 Leave a comment

A recent post by Marty Solomon in Kentucky.com, the Lexington Herald-Leader online publication provides a concise overview of the points Diane Ravitch makes in her book Reign of Error, concluding that poverty, not ineffective teaching is the problem with US test scores:

The U.S. public school system is among the best in the world for middle class children; but for kids from poverty, there is a problem. The problem is that most children from poverty suffer almost insurmountable hurdles.

While middle-class children generally start school knowing letters and numbers, even words and some arithmetic, far too many from poverty have none of these skills. They are often from single-parent families and have inadequate vision, hearing and medical care. Words spoken in the house are only a fraction of the vocabulary in middle-class families. They start school so far behind that most can never catch up. And while both middle-class and poor children progress in school, the gap persists.

Solomon then offers his prescription for the problem: the creation of “power schools” that offer extended learning for children whose parents want to see their children thrive in school and changes in the funding formula to provide more resources for schools.
James Heckman has a different research based solution: invest in early intervention. In a 20 minute interview posted on the New Economic Thinking blog, Heckman makes a cogent and persuasive case for intervening BEFORE prekindergarten. In the interview, titled “Early Interventions Lead to Higher IQs”, Heckman contends that the Coleman and Moynihan reports of the 60s identified the importance of family structures on academic performance in schools but that the accountability movement hijacked the policy directions because the accountability provisions (e.g. widespread standardized testing) were cheaper and politically easier to implement than the provisions recommended by Coleman and Moynihan (e.g. day-care; parenting supports; and schooling for children under five). Later in the interview he skewers the notion that achievement tests can be used to measure school and teacher performance and reiterates that the only reason they have gained traction is that they are cheap, easy, and politically viable. If you have 20 minutes and want to gain insights into the importance of early childhood education and the unreliability of standardized tests watch this video!

Privatization of Instructional Services: OOPS!

September 15, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

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