Parents Opting Out: 155,000 So Far in NYS

April 20, 2015 Leave a comment

Several stories this past week described the increase in the number of students who opted out of tests and contrary to the narrative promoted by the pro-privatization crowd and mainstream media it is being led by parents and NOT the teacher’s union.

USA Today reported the 155,000 figure on Thursday, based on information provided by United to Counter the Core, whose Facebook page featured this statement:


As we complete the first round of counts for ELA and move into the first round of counts for math, it is important to remember why parents do this.

Make no mistake, this wave of civil disobedience is not just about Andrew Cuomo and his teacher evaluation plan. Cuomo is the flavor-of-the-month in a long line of ill-prepared, ill-advised education reformers, each worse than the one before. These sometimes well-intentioned reformers have nevertheless damaged an entire generation of America’s schoolchildren going all the way back to No Child Left Behind.

Hundreds of thousands of parents are not making political statements, they are looking at crying, defeated children around their kitchen tables and demanding meaningful change. NY parents and teachers want education reform that is educator-driven, that is tested and proven, that addresses the real problems facing our schools and our children, and that is implemented with a modicum of competency.

A reduction of testing or evaluations does not address the underlying issue. NY parents want what parents have wanted since time began – a better education for our children.

As Democracy Now reported, this figure might be an understatement:

Protest organizers say at least 155,000 pupils opted out — and that is with only half of school districts tallied so far. … More than a decade after the passage of No Child Left Behind, educators, parents and students nationwide are protesting the preponderant reliance on high-stakes standardized testing, saying it gives undue importance to ambiguous data and compromises learning in favor of test prep.

Nadia Prupis’ synopsis of the opt out movement in Common Dreams included the reports from NYS, referenced Democracy Now’s coverage and also included a quote from Juan Gonzalez’ NY Daily News account referenced earlier this week in this blog. Her post noted that the 155,000 figure dwarfed the 49,000 who opted out last year and only included half of the districts in NYS. From these reports, it appears that NYS’ hurried and bungled roll out of last year’s test may be the undoing of the standardized test movement in that state… but Governor Cuomo and the Regents will likely find some way to downplay the opt-outs and/or continue to promote the notion that the unions are behind it. One of the most reprehensible ideas advanced is to permit “high performing districts” to opt out completely, thus creating a de facto two tiered system of assessments whereby affluent schools are not required to take standardized tests.

Say tuned for Week Two of the testing cycle to see how many children stay home during the math tests in NYS… and for the coming weeks win standardized tests are administered across the nation.


A New Koan: Can Technology Be Used to Develop Mindfulness?

April 19, 2015 Leave a comment

A koan is “a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment” and after reading “Technology That Prods You to Take Action, Not Just Collect Data” I have a new koan:

Can technology be used to develop mindfulness?

Natasha Singer’s description of the work being done by Natasha Dow Schüll at MIT would suggest that technology could be used to help develop self-awareness or mindfulness in the same way that the Fitbit develops new exercise habits. The article describes several new self-help technology products that are designed to improve posture, eating and exercise habits, and to monitor one’s moods. As one who believes that the purpose of schooling is to develop self-actualized learners, and one who believes that technology can be used to enhance learning opportunities, and one who practices mindfulness meditation, I find Schull’s work thought provoking and intriguing. As one who also believes that human interaction is essential in learning skills, though, I find the notion of technology monitored self-improvement unsettling. Like the paradoxical anecdotes that serve as the teachings in Buddhism, the notion of technology monitored self-improvement demonstrates the inadequacy of logical reasoning. I’ll need to sit with it….

The Machines Are Coming… But They Can’t Replace Teachers

April 19, 2015 Leave a comment

NYTimes columnist Zeynep Tufekci’s essay, “The Machines Are Coming” describes the impact of algorithms on jobs and offers examples of how computers are increasingly taking over more and more assignments that were formerly thought to require human interaction. Some examples are manning call centers, reviewing medical tests, serving as border guards, and “interviewing” applicants for jobs. One of the rationales for this is cost savings.

Machines aren’t used because they perform some tasks that much better than humans, but because, in many cases, they do a “good enough” job while also being cheaper, more predictable and easier to control than quirky, pesky humans. Technology in the workplace is as much about power and control as it is about productivity and efficiency.

Tufekci describes how machines are deemed to be superior to humans because they don’t “…get sick, ask for higher wages, have a bad day, aging parent, sick child or a cold.”  After suggesting way technology could replace humans in the workforce, she does point out one way technology could enhance the quality of the workplace and achieve more than better productivity and efficiency:

In the 1980s, the Harvard social scientist Shoshana Zuboff examined how some workplaces used technology to “automate” — take power away from the employee — while others used technology differently, to “informate” —to empower people.

For academics, software developers and corporate and policy leaders who are lucky enough to live in this “informate” model, technology has been good. So far. To those for whom it’s been less of a blessing, we keep doling out the advice to upgrade skills. Unfortunately, for most workers, technology is used to “automate” the job and to take power away.

I believe technology could be a boon to schooling if it was used to “informate” teachers instead of being used to “automate” instruction… and if schooling was based on “informating” instead of “automating” it would be providing children with a completely different set of skills. Pandora does a relatively good job of divining my tastes in music (they introduced me to many new bands and performers)… and the NYTimes and Google do a relatively good job of divining articles that might interest me (the Times sent me this one!)… and Amazon does a decent job of figuring out movies that I might like. But while Pandora plays music I might like, but my music teacher introduces me to music I can master and play for enjoyment… and while Google and the Times send me articles like the ones I’ve read before, I find the articles posted by friends on Facebook whose insights I value give me newer perspectives… and my daughters who go to movies regularly and viewed videos with me for years have a much better sense of the movies I’d enjoy than Amazon’s algorithm. Computer algorithms can give me information that’s helpful but only humans can give me information I trust. Schooling that uses standardized tests to measure performance could replace teachers with robots Schooling that seeks to motivate students to want to learn independently and values character development can only have humans in charge.

To date, teachers are among those workers whose jobs are envisioned as ripe for automation… especially if one holds the belief that schools are factories whose “product” is a batch of students whose “quality” can be measured using a standardized test. As noted frequently in this blog, the factory school paradigm is the basis for the standardized testing paradigm and contrary to the humanistic approach progressive educators value. If one holds fast to the factory school paradigm, automation is the answer to improved productivity and efficiency. If one believes that each human being possesses unique skills “informating” is the only way to go. Here’s hoping the liberal arts majors prevail over those who write code and prevail over the MBAs and engineers who value efficiency and productivity over human interaction.

Harsher Punishment or Timely Counseling? Research Has the Answer

April 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Overcoming Poverty’s Damage to Learning“, David Bornstien’s latest “Fixes” column in the NYTimes, describes the findings of researchers who wanted to ascertain the impact of 9/11 on children in NYC schools:

Many children in city schools exhibited symptoms of trauma — but the problems weren’t clearly attributable to 9/11 nor were they clustered near Ground Zero. Such symptoms were, however, concentrated in schools serving the city’s poorest children. And the students’ sense of threat or insecurity stemmed not so much from terrorism as from exposure to violence, inadequate housing, sudden family loss, parents with depression or addictions, and so forth. 

Bornstein goes on to describe the research that followed, research that confirmed the adverse impact of poverty on schools:

Across the United States, in six of the nation’s nine largest school districts, average graduation rates have fallen below 50 percent. There is a pattern, says Cantor: Low-performing schools tend to share high stress, negative cultures (lots of yelling, punishments and inconsistent responses from adults), students with low readiness to learn who are two to four years behind grade levels, and teachers and staff members who have never been trained for these kinds of challenges.

Bornstein shows that there is a way schools can address these issues… but it requires time, patience and a willingness to look at data other than test scores. Turnaround, the program that the balance of Bornstien’s column focuses on, engages the entire school staff in the problems individual students bring to school, effectively accepting the reality that each child’s fundamental needs need to be met before learning can take place. He provides this overview of the program:

Turnaround takes a whole-school approach, inviting everyone in the school community to play a role in transforming the school’s culture. That means the principal must have a vision of a different teaching and learning environment, and commit time and resources to building it; teachers need to acquire new skills and tools to manage classrooms in ways that build trust while engaging students in rigorous instruction; and students must come to see school as important to their success in life, and connect that idea to their own actions in the classroom.  

As one who worked as a HS disciplinarian for six years in the late 1970s, the findings on poverty-stricken children’s emotional conditions are unsurprising. During the time I handled student discipline I observed that most of the problems in the two schools where I worked were the result of problems the students encountered at home. Some of the teachers understood that in these instances the misbehaving students required counseling instead of punishment… but most believed that quick and severe punishment was needed instead of quick and caring intervention. Turnaround’s whole school approach would have been benefitted the students far more than the progressively harsher penalties most teachers at that time sought.

The Seemingly Intractable Conundrum of School Boundaries

April 18, 2015 Leave a comment

My daughter in Brooklyn sent me a link to an article from The Brownstoner, an on-line newsletter for borough residents, titled “How To Research Schools Before Making Your Real Estate Decision”. She insightfully indicated in the email that the the inability of some parents to afford houses in the neighborhoods with good schools contributes to the allure of charter schools.

I’ve written several posts in the past on this issue and am writing again because I’ve believed for decades that economic heterogeneity should be an important element in public education. The schools I attended growing up in West Chester PA and Tulsa OK included children of parents who came from all walks of life. As a result the little league team I played on in OK had the sons of presidents of banks and oil companies as well as kids from single parent homes who needed to have their gloves donated. In PA the high school served the children of farmers, factory workers, college professors, and white-collar workers like my father who commuted to work in Delaware and, in some cases, Philadelphia for work. The classes were homogeneously grouped, but the buses, athletic teams, and extra-curricular activities included a demographic cross section. My sense is that school demographics have changed since the time I grew up as demographic divisions between communities increased and hardened, in large measure because of zoning regulations in the suburbs and red-lining practices in urban areas.

How do we get out of the spiral we’re in whereby homeowners pay a premium to acquire houses in the best school districts which increases their property tax-base and property values in one town or neighborhood while diminishing the tax-base and property values in another town or neighborhood. The answer is relatively simple IF we believe all children should have the same opportunity to succeed in school. We should provide the schools in low income neighborhoods with the same resources available in high income neighborhoods… and one of those resources is the chance to be in classes, on sports teams, and in clubs with children from different economic backgrounds. While we like to claim a desire to provide an equal opportunity for all children, our inaction on this topic speaks much louder than our words.


Of COURSE Principals Matter… but Principles Matter, Too

April 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Today’s blog post title is a play on yesterday’s NYTimes featured an op ed article by Will Miller titled “Want Reform? Principals Matter, Too”.  In the article, Miller, who is president of the Wallace Foundation, breathlessly reports that the Principal of a school plays a key role in school improvement… a fact that true school reformers like Ron Edmunds knew decades ago. Miller’s op ed piece recounts all of the reasons this is the fact, touches on some of the research that demonstrates this, and offers some recommendations on how this can be addressed.

One point Mr. Miller overlooked was the impact of VAM on school administrators, especially in New York. The latest thinking on “reform” in NY insists that test scores take greater precedence than principal evaluations. Indeed, Governor Cuomo has so little regard for Principals’ ability to evaluate that he wants to institute a system that requires independent third party evaluations. Why? Because the failure rate for teachers is way too low! To paraphrase Mr. Miller, it’s hard to think of another profession where so little attention is paid to leaders. Organizations like the military, corporations and universities listen to and respect their leaders. If we’re going to do this in public education, a lot has to change… beginning with abandoning the notion that test results can replace direct observation in the classroom as a means of judging teacher and administrator performance.

The fundamental principle that test scores cannot measure the human interactions between a teacher and a student and a leader and a subordinate needs to be brought to the forefront…. because THAT principle matters A LOT more than any Principal.

Deregulated For-profit Charter Schools… What Could Go Wrong?

April 17, 2015 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes features an editorial calling for the USDOE to forgive loans issued to students who enrolled in deregulated for profit colleges who knowingly enrolled them in programs that led nowhere. After reading the article I left the following comment:

Deregulated for-profit schools… what could go wrong? We now know the answer: underpaid and unqualified teachers offering a wholly inadequate education to misled students!

But wait! Many governors (including NY’s) promoting deregulated for-profit charter schools as the “solution” to “failing public schools” and taxpayers, like the misled students of for-profit colleges, seem to be willing to allow these deregulated for-profit schools to loot the public coffers.

Deregulated for-profit charter schools… what could go wrong?

MAYBE the Times will see the inconsistency in their advocacy for the deregulated for-profit charters that “reformers” advocate… but their magical thinking on charters seem to mirror the magical thinking of the students who enrolled in deregulated for-profit colleges.