Standardized Testing’s Impact on Pre-K

October 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes editorial page features a high-minded article on Pre-Kindergarten written by Shael Polakow-Suransky and Nancy Nager on the importance of play in pre-Kindergarten. The fact that Polakow-Suransky, the champion of standardized testing during his years in the Board of Education, was advocating “play” in this article was evidently lost on the NYTimes, particularly since the article is somewhat dismissive of the effect standardized testing has had and will continue to have on pre-Kindergarten. While I am in wholehearted agreement with what the authors advocate, I am dismayed at the practical reality that “play” will not be happening any time soon as I remarked in the comment I left:

Unless we abandon the notion that pre-Kindergarten is preparation for K-12 schooling we will never accept the notion that “play” is an acceptable activity. The idea that a pre-K “graduate” must be “ready to learn” in Kindergarten leads to a checklist mentality whereby every Pre-K youngster needs to demonstrate “academic” capabilities like knowing their alphabet, knowing their numbers, nd knowing a predetermined vocabulary. These skills are easy to quantify but, as the article notes, ultimately unimportant in the long run, but these skills are emphasized to prepare students for the three year slog to the standardized tests that are used to measure school performance and teacher performance…. and the testing mania leads to the measurement of what is EASY to measure as opposed to what is IMPORTANT to measure. “Play” develops important skills like independent thinking and self-regulcation while “academic” seat-work develops compliance and conformity.

The link between the factory model of education and the standardized test movement is seemingly self-evident but seems to escape editorialists and policy makers. We need a new model for teaching and learning, one that embraces self-regulation and freedom and we won’t get it until the stranglehold of testing and age-based cohorts is abandoned.

The Oligarchs Are Winning the PR Battle

October 22, 2014 Leave a comment

The NYTimes headline reads “Nation’s Confidence Ebbs at a Steady Drip” and Peter Baker, the author of the piece, fails to connect the dots and come to the obvious conclusion:  the steady loss of confidence is a victory for the oligarchs who started the “government is bad” meme and kept the drumbeat going with every chance it had… and the combination of  inept political leadership and diminishing government resources is paying off! Anything with a “government” label attached is ipso facto incompetent and anything run by the private sector in a marketplace free from regulations is ipso facto superior. So those who own and operate deregulated corporations are benefitting and the rest of us are suffering…. especially the children raised in poverty who are left being in those “government schools” and whose parents get fewer and fewer benefits… unless they work for a company that pays them minimum wages in which case they “earn their food stamps” (sic).

And as we come to a national and local elections that are bought and paid for by the “dark money” of the oligarchs, voters are staying home in droves because the system is rigged so that the primary elections yield only mirror image candidates. Getting the government confidence back on track will require an investment by taxpayers… but getting that investment requires faith that the spending will be worth it. When you vote in a couple of weeks, select the candidate who is willing to break this vicious circle. It’s the only way “government schools” will rebound.

State Takeovers Haven’t Worked

October 21, 2014 Leave a comment

Recently elected Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s op ed column in yesterday’s NYTimes is a case study of why State takeovers of urban districts have failed… but Baraka downplays major reason for the State’s failure, which is inadequate funding. Instead, Baraka emphasizes the loss of local control as being the primary reason for Newark’s persistent failure. While I agree that the loss of local control is detrimental and the restoration of an elected Board is necessary, it will be insufficient without a corresponding increase in State funding…. and if I were Baraka I’d be looking for a substantial increase in the range of well over a billion in capital spending a millions in annual spending.

In the column Baraka recounts the history of the State’s takeover, which he insinuates was linked to a 1994 NJ Supreme Court ruling on inequitable funding in the State. He recounts the endless cycle of experimental programs that were abandoned if they failed to achieve breakthrough success levels. He also recounts the way a recent $100,000,000 grant from Facebook magnate Mark Zuckerberg was wasted on a merit pay program and the current mismanagement of the schools by State appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.

One citation in Baraka’s essay jumped out at me: Over the years, the court-ordered remedies for Newark’s schools were eroded or ignored. A $6 billion schools construction program never materialized. He wrote these two sentences near the beginning and never returned to this fact later…. and this is the kind of promise that was the underpinning of most state takeovers. One of the rationales for State takeovers of urban districts was that the local boards were corrupt and that in their effort to provide patronage jobs and construction contracts to cronies the locally elected boards ignored the needs of children. As part of their takeovers the States promised new schools, more funding, and better programs for children. Instead, urban school systems served as de facto patronage for hedge-funders seeking profits for new schools and the facilities were closed or sold to developers seeking to gentrify neighborhoods. The patronage shifted from the cities to the States and while children didn’t benefit from the changing of the guard the state political leaders did.

While I DO believe restoring local control is imperative… I think it is more important that STATE money be provided to upgrade the facilities in Newark (and as noted in an earlier post Zuckerberg’s $100 million won’t come close to helping) and to increase the operating budget so proven programs like those Baraka advocates can be funded. Without more funding Newark schools– and all schools under the control of the State— will not improve.

Toll Roads and Toll Schools

October 21, 2014 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes editorial page blog, Taking Note, has a short post by Vikas Bajaj titled “Republicans Against Toll Roads“. The blog talks about the pushback TX Republican legislators are getting as a result of their decision to fund road improvements through tolls instead of gasoline taxes. But voters are getting what they are paying for… and MAYBE the pushback in TX will spread the same way their current thinking about charging fees instead of taxes has spread.

As I noted in a comment I left on the blog, Texas’ Republican’s view of “the commons” is different from the rest of the country… but seemingly the thinking of Texas is spreading. IN, IL, and WI are all talking about toll roads as a workaround to tax increases which were needed because the mpg on cars was resulting in lower fuel consumption. But the “fee for service” model in TX has spread to schoos as well. Their public education funding is based on the same kind of premise: they underfund school districts who then charge fees to make up the difference. Texas is ranked 45th in the country in per capita spending, up from 49th. Prisons, though, are a GOOD place to spend if you’re a TX legislator! TX has more people in prison than ANY state and keeps spending even though it had 11,000 empty beds in 2013.

It would be nice if TX was an anomaly… but what has happened in TX mirrors what is happening in our country as a whole where we are cutting social spending but adding to a military budget that has excess capacity. MAYBE the outback in TX is a harbinger of what will happen across our country in the near future.

Born on 3rd Base

October 20, 2014 Leave a comment

The headline of Matt O’Brien’s Wonkblog in the Washington Post summarizes the whole story that, in turn, summarizes everything that’s wrong with our economy: “Poor Kids Who Do Everything Right Don’t Do Better Than Rich Kids Who Do Everything Wrong“. The article describes the findings of Richard Reeves and Isabell Sawhill describing the glass floors and glass ceilings that make our class system more rigid than it once was and make it difficult for children raised in poverty to move into the higher tiers of earning. This chart from Reeves and Sawhill’s report shows this graphically: Poor-Grads-Rich-Dropouts

O’Brien writes:

…rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom — 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne’er-do-wells. Some meritocracy.”

It’s an extreme example of what economists call “opportunity hoarding.” That includes everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.

As he notes earlier in the post, things are unlikely to improv given that affluent parents outspend other parents nearly 3-1 in providing enrichment opportunities for their children… and some of the folks at the very top of the pyramid are spending billions to convince the rest of us that all children raised in poverty need is “grit” to get ahead. O’Brien concludes his post with this:

It’s not quite a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose game where rich kids get better educations, yet still get ahead even if they don’t—but it’s close enough. And if it keeps up, the American Dream will be just that.

Amen….

The Bomb’s Too Big for the Plane

October 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Jay Matthews latest blog post in the Washington Post describes a concern raised by education policy writer Mike Petrilli about the “thin content” in his child’s first grade class in Montgomery County, MD. After recounting the somewhat contradictory response he got from two officials in the district in following up on this issue, Matthews invited early elementary teachers in Montgomery County to respond to him about the curriculum expectations. This whole post brought back memories from my career as Superintendent from 1981 through 2011.

In the late 1980s, when districts were reacting to the “rising tide of mediocrity” in public education, several books were written on the topic of curriculum in schools and several consultants made a good living offering workshops and lectures to schools. One of the books that captured the imagination of conservative thinkers and many upper middle class parents was Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch. While many books at the time were long on theories of teaching and learning, Cultural Literacy provided specifics about what students should know and read if they hoped to be culturally literate, to be able to converse with the great thinkers of the time. For the checklist minded, particularly those who favored the “Western Canon”, Hirsch’s books and essays were a Godsend. For teachers, particularly those in schools serving children raised in poverty, the lists were absurd. How could children who could not read at all in third grade be expected to complete the extensive listing of books for students at that grade level and begin to know the information about the world that Hirsch saw as foundational.

During that time, I was leading the Exeter NH School District and we were revamping our curriculum to not only respond to “the rising tide of mediocrity” charge but to also ensure that the students attending six elementary schools in six different communities were offering the content the Junior High and High School teachers believed students should know. While I didn’t know it at the time, I would walk three other districts through this same exercise in the next 25 years. And what I learned from this exercise is best summarized in the metaphor coined by education consultant Fenwick English: we built a bomb so big we can’t get the plane off the ground. That is, by developing curricula that met the expectations of content specialists at the secondary level of our schools and/or the entry level of colleges we created a curriculum that was so dense and full of objectives that no teacher could teach it an no student could learn it.

There is an aphorism that secondary teachers teach subjects and elementary teachers teach students. When secondary teachers develop the benchmarks they want to see all students entering their classrooms with “fundamental information” in their content area but the practical reality is that when TIME is a constant LEARNING will be variable… and in some cases CONTENT will be sacrificed. If the focus on learning was curriculum MASTERY instead of curriculum COVERAGE we might be able to provide content teachers with students who have the fundamental information they seek… but if we insist on schooling children the way we do now, and administering high stakes tests to age based cohorts of children, somethings got to give… and what is giving way is the content in areas that are not the subject of tests.

 

Culture Labs: An Idealistic Disconnect

October 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Dave Edwards October 17 post in Wired posits that American Schools are Training Kids for a World that Doesn’t Exist, which, on one level is nothing new, but on another level is more true than ever.

In 1967 Marshall McLuhan wrote that “When faced with a new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the recent past. We look at the present in a rearview mirror.”  I was a college student at that time, learning Fortran on a mainframe computer that was programmed using cards. I was taking discrete required prerequisite courses that would result in my being trained to meet the standards of a mechanical engineer at that time. The high school I graduated from two years earlier didn’t have a computer anywhere on campus and was organized the same way as it was in the 1930s. Both my high school and my college were preparing me for a world that didn’t exist when I graduated, doesn’t exist today, and hasn’t existed for several decades. So the fact that schools today are training kids for a world that doesn’t exist is nothing new.

That said, at the K-12 level, we are failing miserably to prepare students for today’s world. Why? Because while colleges have arguably updated their approaches to learning as evidenced by the description of the “culture labs” in the Wired article, K-12 schools are stuck in the factory paradigm of the 1930s and are being held accountable for delivering a circa 1930s education.

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there was a debate about the direction education should take in the 1930s between the progressive forces who advocated the approaches of John Dewey and the more “scientific” methodology of Lewis Terman. In shorthand terminology, Dewey advocated discovery learning– constructivism— while Terman advocated the use of standardized tests to sort and select students based on how they compared to their age cohorts in learning a prescribed curriculum. Dewey lost the debate and as a result standardized tests have dominated the education landscape ever since.

And here’s the sad reality: if Dewey had won culture labs would have been “discovered” decades ago and would be in place now in every school, But instead, in the name of efficiency we insist on administering standardized tests to students throughout their schooling to categorize them based on a uniform learning curve. Too bad!