Gary Gutting’s NYTimes essay, “The Real Humanities Crisis” describes the sad reality that there are fewer and fewer jobs available for those who major in humanities in college… and that is contributing to a viscous circle whereby fewer students are drawn to that major in college. Sadly, public education is cited as one area that is no longer appealing to humanities majors. Why?
…As for non-college teaching, the sad state of so many of our K-12 schools — with their unprepared and undisciplined students, overcrowding, lack of funding and obtuse, test-obsessed bureaucracies — make teaching there a path to frustration and burnout.
So public education, which Gutting believes SHOULD be a logical place for humanities majors to work, is no longer a viable option because of budget cuts and the obsession with tests. As readers of this blog realize, this observation warranted a comment:
You need to talk to your colleagues and editors about public education reform. They all seem to think we need to run schools like a business and advocate the creation and expansion of the “obtuse, test-obsessed bureaucracies” while cutting wages and benefits for teachers. This “reform” package makes teaching a “path to frustration and burnout” and makes learning a monotonous progression of mandated common core lessons based on a students chronologic age instead of their interest. Until we abandon our obsession with testing we will repel humanists from entering public education altogether. Fortunately for some of them, the affluent school districts and elite private schools who ignore the tests will be able to employ humanistic teachers and pay them a decent wage.
Gutting offers a remedy for public schools, one that sounds like the “Finland” plan:
We could open up a large number of fulfilling jobs for humanists if (as I’ve previously suggested) we developed an elite, professional faculty in our K-12 schools. Provide good salaries and good working conditions, and many humanists would find teaching immensely rewarding. Meeting the needs of this part of the cultural middle class could, in fact, be the key to saving our schools.
Alas, our “reformers” believe that testing and measurement is the road to school improvement— NOT “good salaries and good working conditions”. As any business minded person knows, wages and working conditions cost money and that money has to come from taxes and taxes are a drain on the economy. Measurement, though, costs little and, as Tom Friedman asserts, will yield improvement by “striking fear into the hearts” of teachers and administrators. If only it were that easy….
Tom Friedman’s column in today’s NYTimes celebrates reforms taking place in the totalitarian governments of Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai, and features this paragraph (with my emphases added) to illustrate:
Talk about reform — in Dubai, the government has set a strategy for 2021, and each of the 46 ministries and regulatory agencies has three-year Key Performance Indicators, or K.P.I.’s, they have to fulfill to get there, ranging from improving the success of Dubai 15-year-olds in global science, math and reading exams to making it even easier to start a new business. All 3,600 K.P.I.’s are loaded on an iPad dashboard that the ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, follows each week. Maryam al-Hammadi, 48, the director of government performance, strikes fear in the heart of every minister in Dubai because each month she ranks them by who is making the most progress toward achieving their K.P.I.’s, and Sheikh Mohammed gets the list. You don’t want to be at the bottom. Hammadi showed me the dashboard and explained that Sheikh Mohammed is demanding that “every government agency perform as well as the private sector in customer satisfaction and service.” The public will get an annual report.
Chainsaw Jack Welch is alive and well and living in Dubai! But reading about the Arab method of school accountability compelled me to make this comment:
The Arab countries, China and the US are all converging on “reform” using data analyses whereby the “director of government performance strikes fear into the heart of every minister” based on “progress ratings”. This all sounds eerily similar to “education reform”… and also eerily familiar to the stack ratings Microsoft recently abandoned because of their ineffectuality…. and “striking fear into the heart” of subordinates hardly sounds like a step forward to me, especially if you aspire to a democracy where everyone is free to share their ideas and opinions.
Tom Friedman wants us to believe that data collection and reporting will magically address the inter-related root causes of social problems: inequality, poverty and culture. Regularly measuring the effects of inequalities and poverty won’t eliminate them anymore than weighing oneself daily will reduce ones weight…. and the cultural norms that won’t allow women to drive a car will not change through the use of metrics either. Publicizing measurement of student performance will only dishearten those who work with those children who face adversity— or “strike fear in their hearts” if there is a “director of government performances” cracking the whip over them— but like Microsoft the governments will soon discover that rankings based on “objective metrics” do not accurately capture the work of public servants any more than they measure the performance of technology workers.
Here’s the bottom line: if “striking fear into the hearts” of people is “reform”, we need to abandon “reform” ASAP.
I read with dismay that in order to balance the military budget in the face of the sequester the NYTimes editors are advocating consideration of cuts to military wages and benefits, including health and retirement benefits. This is outrageous as far as I’m concerned. I am no proponent of war, but I feel strongly that we owe those who volunteered to serve our country in often misbegotten military adventures deserve every dollar they are earning and especially deserve every dollar they were promised. This notion of rolling back promised wages and benefits is particularly galling knowing that the military spends millions on equipment that is unneeded and obsolete and spends millions outsourcing services that reward shareholders who never set foot on a battlefield and profited from our governments decision to privatize services. Moreover, I know that the treatment for the after effects of war— injuries, PTSD, addiction, and other mental health problems– is expensive and should not be borne by those who sacrificed to protect my right to express my opinion in a blog and everyone’s constitutional rights as they interpret them. Here’s the comment I left:
A deal is a deal. Young men and women joined the military and risked their lives on our behalf to fight wars that were extraordinarily dangerous… wars that many of us questioned but ones that our leaders voted to engage in either directly or indirectly. How can we consider cutting back on the benefits that were part of the compensation package promised them when they enlisted? I know: this kind of thing happens in the private sector all the time in order to improve the bottom line and I also know that in an effort to run the public sector lie a business that teachers, firefighters, poise, and other public employees are losing their promised benefits. Maybe it will take these unconscionable cuts to our military men and women to reverse the unfortunate trend of breaking promises to employees across our country in order to maintain the bottom line…. and maybe we might be willing to dig a little deeper in our pockets to keep these promises for everyone.
As indicated in earlier posts, employees for decades viewed their relationship with their employer as a covenant: they would provide years of selfless service to the corporation and in return the corporation would keep promises regarding wages, hours, working conditions, and benefits. When the private sector got away with giving “haircuts” to their employees as they dismissed them or re-framed their contracts in order to improve their shareholders’ benefits (or to “remain competitive” to use the verbiage the media accepted), the door was open for the public sector to do the same. Now that we are about to short change our military forces and veterans MAYBE we could claw back some of the benefits we’ve taken away from others. I fear, though, that in the name of austerity and a balanced budget we will instead take money from those who deserve it most instead of digging a little deeper in our pockets.
My daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, posted two links on Facebook regarding the urgent need for Mayor-elect diBlasio to appoint someone to Chancellor of NYC schools who will abandon the testing regimen. One link, from ParentvoicesNY includes a well produced video featuring faces and voices of parents and students decrying the time wasted on test preparation, time that diminishes the chance for students to pursue their favorite subjects in order to keep their schools open. The other link was to a New York magazine article titled “The Opt-Outers”, describing parent groups who are mounting a movement against the standardized tests that involves keeping students home on days that the city administers its tests. One paragraph in the article gives a sense of how intense the testing regimen is in NYC:
From the third through eighth grade, two major state tests loom large every spring—the ELA and math. Formal preparation takes weeks, and informal preparation, as Oscar learned, begins as early as the second grade. For kids just trying to stay at grade level, New York City is unique in how it ties promotion to those state scores. Anything less than a “proficient” rating of two on a scale of one to four, and you’re held back. For children hoping to excel, the fourth-grade ELA and math tests have become a sort of SAT—a do-or-die score that many of the selective, application-only middle schools use to screen kids.
As readers of this blog realize, my biggest concern with schooling today is the retention of the age-based grade-level grouping of students that implicitly assumes that all children grow at the same rate intellectually… an absurd notion on its face but one that persists because it has been inlace for three or more generations. With today’s technological advances it is possible to tailor schooling to meet the unique individual needs of each child, but instead we are using technology to monitor student performance against a mythical “standard” that expects linear and orderly intellectual development.
The New York article does an excellent job of using personal anecdotes of parents to illustrate the consequences of adopting the testing regimen and in explaining the derivation of the Common Core State Standards that are the basis for the grade-level outcomes:
….David Coleman (now president of the College Board), is an educational consultant who worked out a set of standards based on an elegant, seemingly unimpeachable methodology: to reverse-engineer the test results of high-performing college students by raising primary-school standards to be more in line with what prepares them for college-level work. For example, the Common Core’s elementary-school math standards focus tightly on the building blocks of algebra—addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. Traditional curricula are more varied and, in Coleman’s view, “a mile wide and an inch deep,” clogged with superfluous drills about patterns and combinations. “Imagine you have an assessment system where you can pass a fourth- or fifth-grade math test without knowing fractions ’cause you’re covering so many topics?” Coleman said at a Harvard conference last spring. “If you pass that test, are you on your way to success?”
So… the Common Core is based on reverse-engineering of college entrance exams with no thought of developmental realities or the number of hours that might be required for some children to attain those standards and with no thought to the reality that we don’t need to have all students entering college. Sure enough, complaints starting rolling in from respected educators and teachers unions:
Carol Burris, a high-school principal in Rockville Centre, has noted how it expects first-graders to know the meaning of words beyond their reading level, like cuneiform, sarcophagus, and ziggurat. Standards like that, critics say, will lead to the exact drill-and-kill problem the Common Core is trying to avoid.
Established educators complained that the standards weren’t created with enough of their input—not one of the 135 people on the Common Core panels was a K-3 classroom teacher or early-childhood professional. The unions turned on it, too: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten recently quipped, “You think the Obamacare implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.”
The fallout from the testing may well have been the difference between diBlasio and his opponents in the recent mayoral race… and from all evidence the momentum to have students opt out is increasing. But I fear diBlasio’s new chancellor will need more that the mayor’s support: both Governor Cuomo and President Obama are heavily invested in the grade-level high stakes testing accountability model and neither seems inclined to cede ground… and if a high profile mayor like diBlasio wants to appoint and support a chancellor who wants to opt out of the Regents and the Race to the Top… NYC could be in for interesting times and possibly less State and Federal aid. I hope diBlasio finds the Superman (or Superwoman) the parents desire, and I hope the lack of State or Federal funds are not the kryptonite that brings the new leader down.
Frank Bruni wrote a column today posing this question: “Are Kids Too Coddled?” As readers of this blog can imagine, my short answer would be a resounding NO! Here’s one of the comments I left:
Arne Duncan’s remarks about suburban moms were not only “impolitic”, they were not based on facts. Here are some facts:
=>Suburban schools are NOT failing based on NAEP tests the USDOE use to measure success.
=>Suburban kids are NOT “coddled”, they are under extreme pressure from the day they start school.
=>The Common Core Standards may “…emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization”, but no one knows WHAT the tests designed to measure student’s knowledge of the common core measure because they were never field tested.
=> There is NO evidence that the common core tests can measure teacher performance and ample evidence that “Value added” tests are flawed.
=> Many parents would love to “look at the results and ask themselves how they can help their children do better”, but they can’t because the neither the parents nor the teachers can see the test questions OR the individual student results.
As a retired school superintendent who experienced 29 years of tests I see the problem with the common core as one of implementation. The teachers who lead classrooms, the administrators who lead schools and districts, and the boards who answer to local taxpayers did not have ample opportunity to offer substantive feedback on the standards. Teachers had NO say on the design of tests and are rightfully opposed to their use as a measure of “added value”. If the NYTimes supports the idea of the common core, it should challenge it’s implementation, not “coddling” parents.
Having used up my 1500 characters and still feeling the need to share more thoughts on the subject, I entered this comment:
Are Kids Too Coddled? My answer is a resounding NO!
Those students in the suburbs and upscale urban neighborhoods might appear to be “coddled”… but from the very minute they enter school they are expected to excel. They need to prepare for the Kindergarten entry test that measures their “giftedness”, the Middle School examinations that determine if they are eligible for the “fast track” or the best magnet school; they need to “build a resume” in high school that will make them stand out when they apply to the elite college of their choice…. and heaven forfend if they don’t want to go to college!
Students raised in poverty are seldom “coddled” and too often neglected. A close look at the test results indicates it is that segment of the school population that our public education system fails.
And there are many students who drift through middle and high school disengaged because they know their parents cannot afford to send them to college and the information given to them in the classroom is of no interest to them whatsoever. They are ignored and allowed to drift because there is no place for them in our economy.
The common core is a great idea: we need to have a greater focus on analytic thinking and prepare more of our kids for life after high school… but to do that we might need to do MORE coddling and less testing.
Given Bruni’s extended riff on youth athletics I could have posted a third comment drawn from yesterday’s blog post about John O’Sullivan’s ideas on athletics, but figured someone else might do it.
As the title of this post indicates, I am distressed over the fact that the NYTimes fails to see that public education’s crisis is NOT the result of “bad teaching” or insufficient data on student performance. It is the result of what I would call “rational disengagement” by parents and students who cannot se where school will take them. Several years ago Ted Sizer wrote a book called Shopping Mall High School where he observed that successful high schools exhibited “Three Ps”: purpose, push, and personalization. The common core and the testing regimen emphasizes one of those “Ps”, PUSH, and neglects the other two. Without purpose and personalization there can be do student engagement and without student engagement there can be no school success.