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NYTimes’ Late– and Poorly Analyzed– Acknowledgement of Opt Out Movement’s Effectiveness

May 23, 2015 Leave a comment

On Thursday, the NYTimes finally acknowledged that the opt out movement was having an impact on the “reform” movement but missed the boat completely on their analysis of why it is happening. In “‘Opt Out” Becomes Anti-Test Rallying Cry in New York State“, Elizabeth Harris and Ford Fessenden admitted that the movement had gotten the attention of legislators who were “…now tripping over one another to introduce bills that guarantee the right to refuse to take tests”. But the article is full of misleading statements and erroneous conclusions. Take this paragraph for example:

…some education officials and advocacy groups fear the opt-out movement will reverse a long-term effort to identify teachers and schools — and students — who are not up to par, at least as far as their test performance goes. Of particular concern is that without reliable, consistent data, children in minority communities may be left to drift through schools that fail them, without consequences.

The “long-term effort” to identify “teachers… who are not up to par” based on test scores has just started in NY State and has only been in place in one state since 2003. The “long-term effort” to identify “schools… who are not up to par” based on test scores goes back, at most, to just over a decade when NCLB took effect, though some states have used test scores to identify districts that require intervention for 20 +/- years. And the “long-term effort” to identify “students… who are not up to par” based on standardized test scores has only been in place in NY for anything resembling a “long term”. The whole notion that test scores should be the ultimate assessment for teachers, schools and students, then, is a recent phenomenon.

The notion that children in minority communities “may be left to drift” because of failing schools is preposterous. Schools serving minority students have been allowed to drift for decades… and not even a national Supreme Court ruling overturning “separate but equal” or State Supreme Court rulings requiring funding equity have changed that one iota. The civil rights organizations promoting the use of standardized tests to provide equity should first promote the passage of legislation in their states that would provide schools serving minority students with the same services and curriculum offered to students in affluent suburbs.

And this paragraph from the article elicited many rebuttals from commenters:

The refusal movement sprouted after states instituted tougher tests in recent years aligned with the Common Core standards, which, in many districts, caused scores to plummet.

The commenters made it clear to the NYTimes that they were NOT opting out because the tests were too hard or because they created too much pressure: they were opting out because they did not want the tests to dictate the curriculum in their school and the test scores to define their kids, their school, or the teachers in the school.

The article ends with one a response from a think tank that advocated high stakes testing but has now concluded that some states may have gone overboard:

But Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy organization, said that rather than enforcing the rules, government officials might very well retreat.

“You could write a really good history of education writ large about our tendency in this country to go from one extreme to the other, and this has all the hallmarks of that,” Mr. Pondiscio said. “This is not a prediction, but it would not surprise me to see New York, or someplace else, go from testing every kid within an inch of their life to testing nobody, ever.

I doubt that the complete elimination of all standardized testing is happening any time soon… but it may come to pass in the next decade or so that formative testing and competency-based instruction will replace summative testing and norm-referenced instruction… but only if newspapers like the NYTimes help make the public aware of the promise of such an approach.

Preparation for Tests is the “Work” of Schools. Everything Else is “Play”

May 17, 2015 Leave a comment

The NYTimes op ed section today features an article by David Kohn titled “Let the Kinds Learn Through Play“. In the essay, Kohn describes the recent push to make pre-school and Kindergarten more “academic” in an effort to address the (sic) failing public schools as described in this paragraph:

By many measures, American educational achievement lags behind that of other countries; at the same time, millions of American students, many of them poor and from minority backgrounds, remain far below national norms. Advocates say that starting formal education earlier will help close these dual gaps.

He then describes how this notion of “starting formal education earlier” has the opposite effect on students, citing one study that showed early academic gains are short lived and another that showed early childhood students who had “academically oriented” programs did worse than students who had “child initiated” learning experiences.

From my perspective the article’s main message was important and helpful to those of us who favor experiential student centered instruction over didactic teacher led approaches. But I felt the article had two overarching flaws: it reinforced the “failing public schools” meme (the above phrase “By many measures, American educational achievement lags behind that of other countries” is a case in point); and it underemphasized the fact that “play” is neglected at ALL levels.

The emphasis on standardization and efficiency do not support “play” of ANY kind. The authors of the Common Core assume that teachers and schools are accountable only for the development of those skills that can be measured with standardized tests. The Common Core also clings to the 1920s paradigm that the most efficient way to educate children is to batch them by age cohorts and measure their progress using standardized tests that are administered annually. To make matters worse, NCLB and Race to the Top assume that the students’ group performance on these annual tests is a reliable, valid and efficient way to measure school performance and teacher performance, and that each student’s performance on these tests is a reliable, valid and efficient means of determining their ability to learn. Because these tests have such an impact on the ratings of the school, teacher, and student, preparing for them becomes the focal point of schooling and anything else is superfluous and inefficient. The “work” in school is test preparation. Everything else is “play”.

Consequently, PE, Music, Art, libraries, and recess are all bundled together as unworthy of attention in school and, therefore, unworthy of funding. They’re not in the Common Core, they don’t have a battery of standardized tests to measure performance, and they all look like “play”. Maddeningly, the teachers who provide instruction in these “non-academic” courses are evaluated based on the student performance on standardized tests. The result? PE, Music, Art, Libraries all inject “Common Core” activities into their curricula so that students can do well on the tests. There is nothing sadder than witnessing students completing bubble tests in an empty gym, an art room with paints and clay in the cabinets, a silent music room, and a library with books on the shelves. Nothing sadder except a playground that is empty throughout the school day because the children have “work” to do.

And here’s what is especially frustrating: the tests the children are “working” to do well on are NOT valid or reliable measures nor do they measure what is IMPORTANT to learn in school… yet their importance to the lives of students, teachers and parents cannot be understated.

Standardization, tests, and efficiency are the enemy of creativity and are undercutting the future of public education. Here’s hoping that eventually the public will see the need to change our emphasis in public schools and allow us to move in a new direction.

More Evidence Against Giving States Authority Over Standards

May 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Many in the progressive blogosphere are celebrating the fact that the latest versions of ESEA (aka NCLB) are limiting the federal government’s ability to dictate education policy. While I strongly oppose the Obama/Duncan overreach in effectively mandating the use of VAM as a condition of receiving waivers from NCLB, I am very ambivalent about moving toward a state based accountability model based on the actions taken by various state legislatures. This post from Houston Chronicle blogger Chris Ladd is another piece of evidence that giving states the opportunity to set education policy might be a giant step backward.

Ladd describes two bills the Texas legislature is considering which, in combination, would have the effect of allowing taxpayers to make donations to a private fund in lieu of paying taxes and allowing parents to draw from this pool of funds to attend the school of their choice. Oh… and one little detail: the dollars required for this private fund are roughly 60% of the amount needed for school taxes now. The result?

…this (legislative package) offers Texas’ religious fundamentalists a huge achievement. They could finally destroy their most hated public institution – the schools. This proposal would gradually starve the public schools of their revenue stream, further cutting the amount that the state pays after years of careful under-funding. Meanwhile it would leave the public schools trapped under their existing infrastructure and mandates, a trap that would finally finish off the beast.

Undersized vouchers would fail to deliver enough funding to support a competent private education. Affluent families would get to take the money and run, receiving a state subsidy which they could combine with their family’s own contributions to pay for a reasonably good private education. Middle income families who can’t afford to pay above the voucher value would be left in the lurch, trapped between a collapsing public school system and a collection of cheap, storefront Christian madrassas.

A new generation of young people will be spared from learning about their history or discovering anything about the natural world that might challenge their religious assumptions. They’ll be ignorant, bigoted, and reliably pious, which this legislature will see as a big fat win.

Those who oppose the top-down Common Core and the requirement that students pass standardized tests based on the common core might end up with states adopting their own “core” of studies that offer skewed perspectives of history and ignore scientific findings that contradict religious beliefs. I think those of us who oppose the overreach of the USDOE should be careful what we wish for…. It may yield more disparity and disqualify than we have today!

 

A Cautionary Legislative Action

May 9, 2015 Leave a comment

Here, in it’s entirety, is an article from the Taking Note section of the NYTimes editorial page:

Mack Butler, a state legislator from Alabama, has introduced a billthat would “allow public school teachers to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of all existing scientific theories covered in a science course.” If you’re confused about what that might mean, Raw Story has found this helpful explanation on Mr. Butler’s Facebook page:

“We are trying to encourage debate to help develop critical thinking skills for our students. This will encourage debate if a student has a problem learning he came from a monkey rather than an intelligent design! Knowledge is power! Never be afraid of a healthy debate!”

The title of the article was “No Comment Necessary: Saving Students From Learning About Evolution”… but I felt compelled to leave this comment:

For those who want to abandon the common core in favor of allowing states to set their own standards… be careful what you wish for!

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Billionaires Back Bible Based Public Schooling

May 7, 2015 Leave a comment

Sarah Jones, writing in the Wall of Separation, the blog sponsored by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, describes the efforts of several billionaires to introduce public school students to clearly sectarian content… illustrating yet another downside to de-regulation and yet another paradox to those who favor un-schooling or de-schooling.

Jones’ article describes the efforts of the Wilks brothers, who made their fortune fracking, to underwrite “Prager University”, an unaccredited on-line university that is looking to expand into public education by creating “partnerships” with individual schools. Here’s more:

About those videos: On its website, the school lists “I Am The Lord Your God,” “God vs. Atheism: Which Is More Moral?” and “Does God Exist? 4 New Arguments” among its current religion and philosophy offerings. Students and educators interested in political science may choose from courses like “The World’s Most Persecuted Minority: Christians” and “Feminism vs. Truth.”

The “university” says it also plans to release 16 new religion courses in the future. Those courses include “The Rational Case for God’s Existence: Design,” “Why Believe?” and “Is the Bible Sexist?” All will, presumably, be available for educators to use.

To date 14 schools have signed on… but what the article does not delve into is how these billionaire fundamentalists might be able to invest in publicly funded de-regulated charter schools whose curriculum would not be monitored by the State. Are state legislators willing to fund schools that offer a curriculum that is determinedly sectarian? Will they fund Muslim charters as well as fundamentalist Christian charters? This is not a theoretical question given the trend for states to promote ideas like charters.

And here’s a question people like me who advocate personalized learning plans, de-schooling, and un-schooling. If a student master the material presented in a video course like the ones described above, how will that contribute to creating a more unified nation?  If a course based on, say, Karen Armstrong’s books on specific religions be acceptable for the attainment of a college credit, why not a course like “The Rational Case for God’s Existence: Design,” “Why Believe?” and “Is the Bible Sexist?” And given that we already have cases of sectarian schools offering on-line courses that public schools are honoring (e.g. Liberty University’s vast on-line course offerings) how can one differentiate between those courses and “The Rational Case for God’s Existence: Design,” “Why Believe?” and “Is the Bible Sexist?”… especially in the environment of de-regulation that exists.

As the internet increases the fragmentation of course offerings it will be increasingly important to find mechanisms for forging unity among diverse belief systems lest our country become divided along religious lines.

Is Personalization the Future of Education

April 24, 2015 Leave a comment

EducationNext, whose writers and editors are decidedly “pro-privatization”, featured an insightful and informative “debate” between two technology advocates, Benjamin Riley and Ale Hernandez, on the question “Should Personalization Be the Future of Learning?”. Given the venue for the “debate” (which is actually an adaptation of blog posts from each of the authors from 2014), there is not a substantial difference of opinion.

Riley focuses on two assumptions and hypotheses regarding personalized learning:

1) students will learn more if they have more power over what they learn (“the path argument”), and

2) students will learn more if they have more power over when and how quickly they learn (“the pace argument”)

Riley asserts that students will not learn everything that is important if left to their own devices and they will invariably go as slow as possible unless they are overseen by an adult. Therefore a teacher must closely monitor the work that is being done and, since that is the case, “personalization” can be achieved with the traditional teacher-centered classroom model if the teacher can effectively differentiate the instruction to match the students skill set.

Hernandez has a slightly different set of hypotheses regarding personalization:

Personalized learning theory is built on the twin pillars of 1) differentiated learning pathways for students and 2) feedback that enables students to make informed judgments about what they’ve learned, how well they’ve learned it, and what to learn next.

Hernandez is more sanguine about children’s ability to motivate themselves and views the teacher as a bottleneck in the current paradigm, especially when it comes to offering timely and well crafted feedback. He believes the pacing issues raised by Riley can be overcome by setting some kind of minimum rate of speed to proceed through a predetermined set of learning objectives, acknowledging that he is “…unapologetically pro-standards” and fully supports the Common Core since it can serve as a means of measuring individual progress.

I have a slightly different slant on the value of personalization as opposed to the current benchmarking model. We currently assume that all students progress through learning sequences in different content areas at a constant rate. While I concur with Hernandez’ support for standards, I fear that his embrace of the Common Core reinforces the “…arbitrary, age-based academic standards and fixed pacing guides (that) exacerbate… most teachers’ ability to manage multiple learning paths in multiple subjects.” I DO believe the Common Core provides a valuable baseline document for professional organizations like the NCTM or ASCD and cognitive scientists to use as a template to develop learning sequences in content areas. Having a politically acceptable and scientifically supported learning sequence is an essential first step to personalizing learning. Secondly, I am not convinced that all students can progress through the entire sequence of “college-ready” objectives nor should they do so. Our economy does not require that everyone go to college. Moreover there are many service economy jobs that pay well and do not require college as much as they require self-direction, ambition, and hard work. These qualities should be by-products of a personalized learning environment. Finally, if we do “personalization” the right way we will create an environment of self-actualized learners. Both Riley and Hernandez agree that teachers are needed at the outset of a child’s schooling, but Hernandez seems more comfortable with the notion that ultimately the student owns the learning. If K-8 schooling can develop this kind of self-sufficient learning, secondary education could change dramatically making it possible for students to move into community based apprenticeships and/or preparation for post-secondary learning.

One thing is clear: the current lockstep method of instruction is undercutting the self-direction, ambition, and work ethic needed for success in the work place.

Oklahoma is NOT O.K…. Wait Till You See What’s Replacing AP History!!!

February 19, 2015 1 comment

In a piece of legislation that the Onion could not pass off as satire, the Oklahoma legislature has decided to replace AP History with… wait for it…

 … a long list of “foundational documents,” including the Ten Commandments, two sermons and three speeches by Ronald Reagan.

Judd Legum’s Think Progress post reporting on this story selected the juiciest examples from the list of the 58, but it also held back on some unsettling details until later in the story:

Many of the texts are uncontroversial and undoubtedly covered by the Advanced Placement U.S. History course, such as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and Gettysburg address. But the bill also has an ideological and religious bent. In addition to 3 speeches by Reagan, the curriculum as includes a speech by George W. Bush but nothing from any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson.

We learned in yesterday’s ThinkProgress post that Oklahoma’s legislative leaders don’t believe in the separation of church and state… today we’ve learned that they also do not believe in the two party system of government or the need to present multiple perspectives on the tough issues we are facing today and Oklahoma students will face in the future.

I’ve written on multiple posts that the process that yielded the Common Core was deeply flawed and the intended use of the Common Core to assess students based on their age is misguided… but the NEED for a common curriculum that provides all American students with the ability to think clearly and make decisions based on evidence is indisputable. If you think otherwise, move to Oklahoma and treat your children to a social studies curriculum that views the Ten Commandments as a “foundational document” that MUST be taught and, therefore, will undoubtedly be part of the standardized assessments used to determine the quality of that state’s schools.

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