The NYTimes “Texas Tribune” offers periodic reports on the political developments in that state, which often involve education policy. This week’s Texas Tribune featured an article titled “As Curriculum Changes, Thousands of Students Will Advance Despite Failing Grades”. The article reviews the legislation in TX that required students to receive a passing grade on their examinations in order to get promoted from one grade level to another, legislation that has not substantially changed the promotion rates from their current levels of 1.5% at grade 5 and 1% at grade even though 9% of the students failed the tests. So 100,000 students failed the test yet roughly 80,000 of them got promoted anyway.
The article then goes on to report that the State Superintendent he intended to waive the requirement that the test be passed because he expects even MORE students to fail in the coming year because “… instruction (is) not rising to the level to provide (the) kind of learning (that will be tested). We have moved the bar significantly higher than it has ever been, and the system needs time to catch up.”
There are several wrongheaded ideas at play here, not the least of which is the notion that a single test should be the basis for determining if a student succeeds or fails in school. The subtlest and most profound wrongheaded idea is that a student’s learning should be based on age-based grade cohorts. It implicitly assumes that there is an intellectual growth rate that matches a student’s age which is, on its face, untrue. Do we expect all students to physically mature at the same rate? If a physician determined that a group of students was shorter than other students in their age range would we use that medical measurement as a basis for determining whether those students should be held back? I would urge the Texas legislature to answer this set of questions, which are taken from my “About” page:
- Why do we group students in grade levels based on their age?
- Why do we group students within a particular grade level based on their rate of learning?
- Why do we group students at all?
- Why does school take place in a limited time frame?
- Why do we believe there is “one best way” to educate ALL children?
All of these practices are in place because the school-is-a-factory is so ingrained that we cannot conceive of a different method for organizing education…. and these practices result in “efficiency” in the factory school. Some states, Vermont for example, are starting to replace the conception of schools as a factory with a new mental model, one that acknowledges that all students have different needs, learn in different ways, and learn at different rates. They realize the absurdity of measuring “quality” by giving standardized tests to students grouped in “grade levels” and recycling “new ideas” and “reforms” based on ways to run the factory more efficiently. Instead, they are mandating that each rising 7th grade student develop a Personalized Learning Plan in concert with their parents and school staff. The PLP would be reviewed annually and used to determine the individual student’s success.
But, you might argue, TX is much bigger than VT and much more diverse. How could they possibly accomplish this? If the staff and technology applications being used to boost test scores were instead assigned to guidance and support services ANY state or school district could implement PLPs and EVERY state or school district would move toward a truly individualized approach to learning. This CAN happen if states adjust their paradigms instead of the cut scores on standardized tests.
A few days ago I wrote a post on the battle over the AP History curriculum in Jefferson County, a battle that ultimately ended with the school board withdrawing its idea of establishing a task force to review the AP History curriculum. An article in today’s NYTimes, “Paying Respects, Pentagon Revives Vietnam, and War over Truth“, describes the “history” the Pentagon is writing about Viet Nam . It “…largely describes a war of valor and honor that would be unrecognizable to many of the Americans who fought in and against it” by glossing over the Mai Lai massacre, failing to mention several key actions and hearings held in Congress, and downplaying the protests that happened in our country when citizens learned about the government’s lies. The article made me appreciate even more the importance of making certain that history is viewed from ALL perspectives and emphasized the reality that there are many people in power who DON’T want to history to remember certain facts. That thinking, in turn, led me to make this comment:
In the coming years those who want to see history to be something more than “good guys” vs. “evil guys” will ned to be constantly vigilant, for there are people with huge sums of money who want things to be simple and straightforward. A case in point is the kind of oversimplified and antiseptic history the Koch-brothers-funded Jefferson County (CO) school board wanted students to learn. Instead of having students learn about the complicated and often questionable actions the US government and the role the protest movements played in changing the course of history they hoped to focus American history on “patriotism”. Thankfully the students and teachers in that district stood up to this effort… but the money that funded this is still out there and it is being used to elect folks who do not want us to have full and complete information about the past or what is going on today.
I’m 67 and I find myself reading about or hearing reports about events I lived through and being bewildered. When large segments of a narrative are removed from a story the conclusions can be manipulated. That, I fear, is precisely what the plutocrats and politicians want to happen. Our country, our country’s leaders, our reporters, and our voters all make mistakes. To paraphrase George Santayana, If we don’t learn ABOUT those mistakes we cannot learn FROM those mistakes.
Earlier this week Diane Ravitch had multiple blog posts in one day on Bill Gates and the Common Core. While I am unalterably disgusted by the way plutocrats are privatizing public education, I can’t help but think of the New England response to bad news, which is: “It could have been worse”. Thank goodness Thiel, the Waltons, the Kochs, or some multi-billionaire fundamentalist Christian didn’t decide to underwrite the Common Core… or for that matter that we overlook the need FOR a common set of standards to define schooling. With that notion in mind, I offered the following rejoinder to one of the posts on Monday:
The news recently offered two reasons why some kind of national standards are important: the recent curriculum review underway in Jefferson County CO and Texas. If State or local school boards get to decide what constitutes history and avoid the use of AP tests because they inaccurately depict history we’re in trouble. If State or local boards get to decide what gets taught in science based on scripture we’re also in trouble. Some content can’t be decided on a state-by-state or district-by-district basis and must be understood by all students. The founding fathers wanted church and state separated and God did not design the universe in seven days. In an ideal democracy (which we are clearly falling short of as a nation) a team of national academic leaders would formulate a set of basic content standards that would be used as a framework to define state standards that would, in turn be deliberated upon and adopted at the State board level by boards elected by the public. I believe Bill Gates is as frustrated as we are by the fact that this kind of deliberative process cannot happen because education has been politicized. He, though, has the money to play by the new rules that govern politics. While I am not happy at the notion of a squillionaire underwriting the content standards needed in this country, I AM happy for at least two items the common core does NOT include: e.g. units on patriotism and intelligent design.
This is an abbreviated version of what I wrote in an earlier post outlining the ideal presidential education platform regarding the Common Core:
- …Unfortunately, the Common Core was developed without any meaningful input from classroom teachers and, to make matters worse, once it was issued the authors of the Common Core were not responsive to the revisions recommended by teachers, academics, and child psychologists. We should not scrap the Common Core because we need to make certain that students across the country learn the facts about health, science, and history. But instead of unilaterally imposing these standards from Washington, we should use the Common Core as the basis for the development of a standard curriculum for each state. If elected I will require each state to create Standards Teams to use the Common Core as the basis for the creation of a rigorous but realistic set of State standards. The Standards Teams will include curriculum content experts from state universities, representative classroom teachers, and developmental psychologists.
I don’t believe the common core will go away any time soon and will likely be with us when candidates re vying for the nominations in each party. Going forward, we need to make sure e don’t end up with something worse than we have now…. and given the list of supposed contenders for the Presidency it’s easy to see how things COULD get worse.
Frank Bruni’s Sunday NYTimes column, “The Wilds of Education“, opens with these questions:
WHEN it comes to bullying, to sexual assault, to gun violence, we want and need our schools to be as safe as possible.
But when it comes to learning, shouldn’t they be dangerous?
Isn’t education supposed to provoke, disrupt, challenge the paradigms that young people have consciously embraced and attack the prejudices that they have unconsciously absorbed?
Isn’t upset a necessary part of that equation? And if children are lucky enough to be ignorant of the world’s ugliness, aren’t books the rightful engines of enlightenment, and aren’t classrooms the perfect theaters for it?
Bruni used these questions to lament the censorship of some reading materials, grade inflation, the tendency for students to avoid taking difficult courses, and the stance some “liberal” institutions took last Spring when they dis-invited “controversial” graduation speakers.
As one who is opposed to the standardized testing regimen, it struck me that the narrowing to the curriculum that results from high stakes testing was overlooked in Bruni’s examples of how schools avoid thought-provoking and disruptive thinking. By insisting that standardized tests are the primary means of measuring student and school performance, public schools are increasingly narrowing their curriculum and constantly reinforcing the notion that there is one and only one answer to questions… and by limiting instruction to those areas where one and only one answer is applicable the increasingly prescribed curricula are NOT promoting the provocation of disruptive thinking or challenging “…the paradigms that young people have consciously embraced and attack the prejudices that they have unconsciously absorbed?”
This may have been lost on Mr. Bruni, because based on his previous writing about education he seems to have in consciously absorbed the paradigm of education as measurable by test results… a paradigm that needs to be abandoned if we are sincere about wanting “…to provoke, disrupt, challenge the paradigms that young people have consciously embraced and attack the prejudices that they have unconsciously absorbed?”
I was disheartened to read the NYTimes report about the events that took place in Jefferson County, Colorado on Tuesday where a 3-2 conservative majority on the Board is calling for a re-write of the K-12 social studies curriculum. The three conservative members of the board proposed the board create “…a curriculum-review committee to promote patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise and to guard against educational materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder.” The wording of the mission for the curriculum review committee is revealing: it assumes that a student who exhibits “patriotism” would yield to authority, not question the adverse consequences of unfettered free enterprise, and would not be exposed to educational materials describing various anti-government, labor and civil rights movements. Which begs the question of how social studies teachers will present the American revolution against England, a revolution fought by many of the founding fathers so beloved by the conservatives. And evidently the committee wants the social studies review to include AP History! Here’s hoping that ETS isn’t getting IT’S funding from Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded group that helped underwrite the election of the three conservatives on the Jefferson County School board.
I found this report to be disheartening because I want to believe that informed voters will elect forward thinking and open minded board members who want to see students question the status quo in all subjects and witness a high functioning democratic institution taking action to improve their schools. I would hope that longstanding superintendents like Jefferson County’s Cindy Stevenson would be respected and heeded by newly elected board members. I would hope that when a superintendent resigns or retires that boards would conduct extensive searches for new superintendents and not appoint a district leader without public engagement.
The only good news I read: the first amendment has not been repealed in Colorado and democracy MAY be alive. The students decided to show the newly elected Board member that sometimes it is necessary to protest in order be heard and they seemingly organized and carried out a peaceful and relatively orderly demonstration. After getting feedback in the form of the student walkout, the board put off their discussion of the curriculum-review committee proposal, and Ken Witt, the board president,
…suggested that some of its proposed language about not promoting “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law” might be cut.”
A lot of those words were more specific and more pointed than they have to be,” Mr. Witt said. He said that the school board was responsible for making decisions about curriculum and that the review committee would give a wider spectrum of parents and community members the power to examine what was taught in schools. He said that some had made censorship allegations “to incite and upset the student population.”
I would hope that the “wider spectrum” promise is kept and that they will be able to work collaboratively— or at least civilly– to develop a social studies curriculum that aligns with the one ETS uses to develop its AP tests.
This might be one reason why a Common Core is needed… If we are the UNITED States we need to be sure that everyone has the same intellectual framework… and it should include evolution, global warming, and an accurate, factual and apolitical description of history.