Dan Rather’s Paean to Public Education Reminded Me of My Visit to Robert E. Lee Elementary School

October 22, 2018 Leave a comment

Yesterday my daughter tagged me on Facebook to share an article she read on Dan Rather’s blog, News and Guts. In the post, titled “My Love of Public Schools, Mr. Rather describes his visit to the elementary school he visited in Houston, TX. In the post he wrote:

The neighborhood has changed greatly since my youth. It is much more ethnically diverse, much like the larger city around it and the United States itself. But as I walked the hallways and met the children, I found so much in common with when I went there. There were the committed teachers and an inspiring principal – Melba Heredia Johnson. There was the spirit of optimism and the strong sense of community from the students and their families, many of which, as in my time, is positioned at the lower rungs of the ladder of the American Dream.

Roughly fifteen years ago, before I came out of an early retirement to take an assignment as superintendent in NH, my wife and I took a cross country tour that included a visit to Tulsa, OK, where I attended the Robert E. Lee Elementary School. I arranged a visit to Lee School to observe their gifted and talented program, which was initially instituted when I attended there. In a post this summer I recounted how it came to pass that I am an alumni of the the Robert E. Lee gifted and talented program:

In 1957 I was in 4th grade at the Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, having moved to that city when my father was transferred by DuPont. I recall being amazed that the math topics offered that year were identical to the math topics I covered a year earlier in Pennsylvania. I also recall one news event that fall that captured the imagination of the nation: the USSR’s launching of Sputnik. One of the immediate responses to the launch was passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1958, an act that included millions of dollars for science education and an act that sought to identify the best and brightest students to help the US win the Space Race that was launched when Sputnik orbited the earth.

At the end of 5th grade, I was identified as one of the “best and brightest” students in Oklahoma and placed in a special program with several of my peers. I am certain my “excellence” in math classes helped in my identification as one of the “best and brightest”, an “excellence” that had more to do with Oklahoma’s lagging curriculum standards than my aptitude. I also am certain that my test scores helped as well, for I have always done well on the tests that stand as a proxy for “intelligence”.  For my 6th grade year in Oklahoma, our group was assigned what would come to be called “inter-disciplinary units” instead of traditional subject-matter classes, working on projects instead of worksheets. It was by far the best year I experienced in my entire K-12 schooling. The teachers and interns worked with us closely and provided individual tutoring and counseling and my classmates were all engaged and committed to learning. We were taunted by others in school on occasion, but once we got on the athletic fields at recess our status as “gifted and talented” students didn’t matter, only our ability to kick a soccer ball (incredibly we couldn’t play football at recess!) and pitch, catch, and hit a baseball.

When I went to visit the Lee School I was struck by the changes. First, and most strikingly obvious, was the attendance of children of color. The Lee School was all white when I attended, Oklahoma being resistant to integration in the late 1950s. Secondly, the school was brighter and more colorful than I recall: the halls were full of student art work and there seemed to be an energy present that was missing when I attended the school…. maybe because we were, as I recall, expected to remain quiet when we passed from class to class. Finally, I learned that the school had abandoned the elective “rotation” that we experienced when we went to art, library, Speech, science, and PE classes in the afternoons after spending the mornings on academics.

When I drove through the neighborhood where I grew up I experienced the phenomenon that most adults witness: everything seemed smaller than I remember. The house we lived in seemed tiny by today’s standards and the park down the street, that I recalled being big enough to play baseball in, was seemingly smaller… and the long blocks seemed shorter and the hills looked flatter… but the azaleas that were in bloom were far more dazzling than I recall.

And how is the Lee School doing today? Well, as of August it is no longer in existence! It has been renamed Council Oak Elementary School as Tulsa works to shed its legacy of racism. Somehow, that makes me especially happy. It shows that public education is striving to the fosters in Dan Rather’s words, a spirit of optimism and a strong sense of community in a school that is, like our nation as a whole, now ethnically diverse.


How Are Our Schools Doing? Jack Schneider Reports They are Doing MUCH Better Than Most People Believe!

October 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Both Valerie Strauss and Diane Ravitch cross posted a recent article by UMass professor Jack Schneider that describes how America’s public schools are REALLY doing…. and the answer is that they are doing surprisingly well.

Mr. Schneider offers an analysis of polls on public schools and NAEP test scores and comes to the conclusion that the American public’s perception of public schools in general has taken a hit because of national policy, not because of any substantial decline in overall performance as measured by standardized tests. He writes:

It seems, then, that abstract perceptions of schools — the nation’s schools — have suffered, while satisfaction with actual schools remains fairly constant. Today, roughly one-third of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the nation’s public schools — a massive falloff from the early 1970s, when nearly two-thirds expressed such positive views. Meanwhile, nothing appears to have changed for the worse…

it seems that national reform rhetoric has driven the decline in perceptions of school quality.For the past several decades, Americans have been inundated with messages about a crisis in public education. In 1983, the authors of “A Nation at Risk” claimed: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Signing NCLB into law in 2002, President George W. Bush spoke of a need to “free families from failure in public education.” And in a recent address, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos lamented the fact that, according to results from the Program for International Student Assessment, “the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math.”

Politicians are not alone. Policy advocates and philanthropists routinely decry the state of American public education, generally as a prelude to their prescribed reforms. The XQ “Super School” project, for instance — a venture funded by billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs — explained its objective by making the case that we need to “scrap the blueprint and revolutionize this dangerously broken system.” One can’t even open a book about education without being told how bad things are. A quick search on the Google Books Ngram Viewer indicates that the likelihood of encountering the phrase “failing schools” was 100 times greater in 2008 than it was in 1975.

Given the fact that there is no evidence that school performance has declined overall since 1975,  Mr. Schneider is skeptical that a wholesale shake-up of schools is needed. Instead, he sees that the schools who struggle the most today are the same schools that struggled in the past and they need something more than a structural change:

…sweeping, large-scale reform is hardly the remedy for what ails our most vulnerable schools — the schools where our poorest and least advantaged students are all so often concentrated together. Disruption, which is so highly lauded in the private sector, is exactly what those schools don’t need. Instead, what they need is courageous policy addressing issues like school integration and compensatory funding.

But integration and higher taxes are not on either party’s radar, nor are they issues that the public at large values. Mr. Schneider concludes his article with this indictment of our country’s moral failings:

But America’s schools don’t merely reflect our nation’s material prosperity. They also reflect our moral poverty. Our schools are simultaneously an embrace and a refusal, revealing exactly who is included and who isn’t. Most of us can say our children are getting a great education. Yet whose children are “ours”? What do they look like? Where do they rest their heads at night?

Reform rhetoric about the failures of America’s schools is both overheated and off the mark. Our schools haven’t failed. Most are as good as the schools anyplace else in the world. And in schools where that isn’t the case, the problem isn’t unions or bureaucracies or an absence of choice. The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

Perhaps, then, a reset is in order. Instead of telling a largely untrue story about a system in decline — a story that absolves us of any personal responsibility — we might begin telling a different story: about a system that works. It works to deliver a high-quality education to those we collectively embrace. And it works in a different way for those we have collectively refused. When a school fails, it is because we have failed.

We HAVE failed the children raised in poverty, especially those children of color and those children who are not from our country even though they are of our country. And when democracy fails to provide for ALL of its citizens, it cannot succeed in the long run. Mr. Schneider is right: The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

Maine Is Reversing Direction on Competency Based Diplomas. What is the Lesson for Other States?

October 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Chalkbeat writer Matt Barnum wrote a lengthy and link-flied article describing the rise and fall of Maine’s efforts to implement competency based diplomas for its schools, an article that thoroughly described all the landmines associated with the effort but one that overlooked the fundamental problem, which is the strong hold of the “sort and select” paradigm in our culture.

A quick history of the movement in Maine: In 2012 Maine’s Governor Paul LePage supported legislation to abandon the traditional awarding of high school diplomas based on the accumulation of credits tied to seat time and replace it with a competency based model. Nellie Mae, a philanthropic organization that advocates student centered learning, played a pivotal role in this initiative:

(In early 2012) the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Foundation awarded nearly $9 million to two of Maine’s largest school districts, Portland and Sanford. The money was meant to help them adopt what the organization calls “student-centered” approaches. That includes what’s called mastery, competency, or proficiency-based learning, which means that students progress at their own pace, moving on only when they demonstrate they’ve learned a certain topic.

This “student centered” approach failed in Maine for several reasons, the primary one being that there was no effort to develop a uniform state-level consensus on what constituted “mastery”. As Mr. Barnum reports, once the state mandated “proficiency based” diplomas:

Each district was tasked with determining what it meant for a student to be “proficient” in the subjects Maine required. Officials knew that if they set standards too high, an unprecedented number of students could fail to graduate. Too low, and it would defeat the purpose of the whole exercise.

Without a robust State Department to provide technical assistance, districts turned to out-of-state consultants to help them or foundered on their own. The result was a hodgepodge of definitions for proficiency and, ultimately, the decision to abandon the approach altogether at the state level.

I am a firm advocate of “…mastery, competency, or proficiency-based learning”… but that approach is incompatible with the traditional batching of students by age and the traditional method of grading students. As I learned when I attempted to promote this kind of model in districts I led, anyone attempting to change this dominant paradigm of awarding student grades can expect hard pushback from two sources: teachers and parents.

Many teachers are resistant because, as the article explains, they need to make difficult and substantive changes to the way they deliver instruction, changes that some find discomforting. Teachers who hold the view that they are the purveyors of knowledge and students must absorb that knowledge and demonstrate their understanding of it by passing a relatively small number of high stakes tests see students who fail in their classrooms as “not working up to my standards”. Mr. Barnum described that subset of teachers as follows:

(Researchers) found that most teachers continued using traditional exams, not portfolios or performances. Some teachers remained overwhelmed by the prospect of helping struggling students clear the bar without more guidance.

And the teachers who were reluctant to change the current system found allies in parents who liked things the way they were, especially the parents of high achieving children who valued the traditional system that invariably identified their children as the best. Their support for the traditional grading system was buttressed by the fact that many colleges expressed confusion over the meaning of the new system, a valid confusion given that “proficiency” meant different things in different districts.

Changing paradigms requires changing minds… and as the post I wrote yesterday about the GOP-raised teacher in Oklahoma indicates, changing minds requires a combination of adverse experiences and a willingness to question one’s core convictions. This is unlikely to happen in public schools in the short run because parents whose children are successful in school are invested in keeping the system as it is. Their children experience no adversity with the current paradigm: they progress from grade-level to grade-level with no difficulty. Moreover, the current method of ranking students places their children at the top. Why change?

Nor do teachers who work in schools see any value in changing the way schools are organized. The current system efficiently drives the poor-performing students out and identifies the best-and-brightest. Replacing it with some kind of system that nebulously defines “competency” can only lead to needless confusion and, as teachers in Maine experienced, lots of wheel spinning and work.

The best hope for changing the status quo is the development of a collective belief that the current age-based grading system is flawed… and perversely the only way that collective belief can be achieved is through the continued emphasis on testing. MAYBE parents and teachers who currently value the status quo but detest the impact of standardized testing can coalesce around a new paradigm based on the notion that learning should be constant and time should be variable. The entire system we have in place now is based on the opposite belief: that TIME is constant and LEARNING is variable.

My advice to Nellie Mae is to focus on developing a set of competencies that all children should master, developing a clear and common definition of those competencies, and the developing a new paradigm that is better than the one we have in place now.


In Oklahoma Public Education is NOT OK, and at least one Teacher is Abandoning the GOP as a Result

October 19, 2018 Leave a comment

New York Magazine writer Sarah Jones interviewed Oklahoma public school teacher Emily Ozmet and the article that resulted, “I’m a Teacher in a Red State. The Teachers Strike Turned my Ballot Blue“, explained how a lifelong member of the GOP was finally persuaded that her worldview was wrong. In doing so, the article also underscored how difficult it is to change the long held convictions of educated individuals who work in social services, even when those individuals, like Ms. Ozmet, have experienced the difficulties of living on low wages and struggled in school because of disabilities.  By extension, the article underscores the extraordinary difficulty progressive politicians face in changing the minds of less educated individuals who do NOT work in social services and have NOT experienced living on a minimum wage. In reading sections of the article, I was struck by how doggedly Ms. Ozmet, the GOP teacher, held onto her ideas about trickle down economics and how doggedly some of her faculty colleagues held fast to the notion that kids with disabilities and kids whose parents struggled to keep a roof over their heads could succeed if only they applied themselves. Based on the reading of this article, here’s what is required to “convert” someone raised in a GOP community to be open to considering “bigger government”:

  • Experience as a special education student in an underfunded district
  • Experience as a low-wage worker attempting to make ends meet despite working long hours
  • Experience working with children who are doing their best but still falling short of the unrealistic expectations set for them given their maturity and ability
  • Experience being dismissed and disrespected by the GOP politicians they elected, politicians who hold them in contempt and belittle their ability to understand the political realities of lowering taxes for corporations
  • Ability to analyze complex and opaque budgets that show the true priorities of the GOP politicians they elected
  • Ability to see that how money gets spent is a far more important indicator of what a political party believes than what the politician says

After reading about Ms. Ozmet’s long road to moving from a lifelong supporter of the GOP and their platform, we find that what ultimately got her to remove the scales from her eyes was the realization that the GOP politicians she supported for her entire life were not interested in the future or in the well-being of children. Here’s what eventually undercut her support:

Previously, whenever I heard people say Republicans are out for the rich and don’t care about the poor, I’d think, “No, I’m not rich. I care about the poor and I know so many Republicans who do too.” But I learned a lot of politics is about how you appropriate money, and how you set up various social services.After we talked to our representatives, the teachers would huddle over dinner, break out our computers, and pore over the budget. We were students, breaking down the information in ways we could understand. We learned that money was flowing to private prisons and oil companies; they get money, and social services just don’t. It changed the way that I saw the entire Republican Party. You value what you put your money in.

It would be naive to think that the Democratic party was not beholden to the privatization movement, especially in the South where the Walton’s have had a huge impact on the political landscape. But it would be equally alive to think that the GOP will ever change it’s thinking about “the government” or to suddenly begin thinking that more funding is needed to help those being raised in poverty.

Facts and figures persuaded an Oklahoma teacher who had dyslexia and ADD as a child and worked for $9.50/hour before becoming a teacher. What will it take to persuade a factory worker or rancher who believes his taxes are being squandered by “the government” and who believes “teachers have it a lot easier than I do”? It won’t be easy.

The Parents of Homeless Children Have More to Worry About than “Choice”

October 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured an article that headlined an astonishing fact:

With a subheading that read:

One out of every 10 students lived in temporary housing during the last school year.

Another header noted that there are more homeless children in NYC than there are residents in Albany. When I read this, it underscored the fact that “choice” is not going to help the neediest children in New York City or ANY city or impoverished community for that matter. If a parent has no roof over their he’d, choosing their child’s school is a secondary issue: the only thing that is important to them is finding a fixed residence; a place that they can use as a base when they seek employment, try to secure child care before and after school, and have a place to store and prepare their food.

I would agree with those who say money doesn’t matter in schools serving poor children, because if 1 out of 10 of the children attending a school lack a roof over their heads then that— and not the well-being of their child— becomes the focal point of their parents’ life.

I was appalled at the facts reported in the headline and the heartbreaking stories in the article by Eliza Shapiro, but I was even more appalled at some of the comments suggesting that it was the fault of the city government because they offered generous benefits to unwed mothers. A comment that won the approval of 40+ readers landing it in the top tier read:

This situation is a direct and predictable result of the city’s humane, warmhearted, generous, social welfare policies. The city has made itself hospitable to people who cannot support themselves in one of the most expensive urban environments in the country. There is no penalty for irresponsible life styles. Rather, there is an increase in benefits. Why limit the number of children you have,if the city will pay for them? Why not become a single mother if you get lots of benefits? With the best of intentions the city, state and federal governments have magnified a problem that should at worst, be minor.

I daresay that any young woman set out to become homeless or views their life as one that has “”…lots of benefits”. But by holding a view that blames the victims of homelessness of their status, it is possible to believe that one’s tax dollars are being spent frivolously and are being used to magnify a problem that should be minor. In short, it reinforces the GOP mindset that “government is the problem”. Another commenter, whose remarks had the highest number of approvals, escaped from being a child in a homeless household. She had it right she she wrote:

A person can only persevere so much and it saddens me that so much of our policy is based on ‘grit and bootstraps’, with no understanding of how much luck, or lack of it, plays into our place in this world. We should do better and these kids deserve better.

To which I can only say “AMEN!” My place in the world is in part because I worked hard throughout my life… but it is also the result of being born a white male into a family with two college graduates who cared deeply about me as a child and an adult. The government can’t provide every child with that good fortune, but they should be able to provide every child with a roof over their heads, nutritious meals, and clothing. That doesn’t seem to be a socialist dream… only a humanitarian one.

ACT Results Show Bi-Partisan Premises Behind NCLB, RTTT, ESSA are Flawed… But They Will NOT Be Easily Overturned

October 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The latest ACT results are worse than ever, which John Merrow believes might drive a final nail in the coffin of the premise that annual high stakes tests will improve schools… but if last year’s debates in Congress and the ongoing debates in state legislatures are any indication there is no likelihood of changing the thinking on accountability any time soon. Why? Because ESSA delegated accountability to States and at this writing 33 states are controlled by GOP legislatures, many of whom are using the ALEC playbook to craft legislation and frame the debates about public education in their states. Add to that the ongoing debates about how best to “harden” schools and the bandwidth for debates about public education is used up.

New Hampshire where I live is a good case in point. In 2016 voters elected GOP candidate Chris Sununu as governor and elected GOP dominated legislature. Once elected, Mr. Sununu replaced widely respected Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry, a Ph.D educator, with Frank Edeblut, a business executive who homeschooled his seven children and ran to the right of Mr. Sununu in the primaries. As a result of the 2016 election there has been no discussion whatsoever about moving forward with a creative accountability plan Dr. Barry developed, a plan that was not exclusively reliant on standardized testing. Instead, the GOP Governor and GOP controlled State Legislature are trying to pass laws that would expand the use of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for parents who want to educate their children in private sectarian schools. To fund these ESAs, the GOP planned to divert funds from an equalization formula developed by previous legislatures in response to a court order that would provide more support to property poor districts so their students could meet the “adequate education” mandated by the State Supreme Court. The GOP governor’s solution? Pass a bill that would preclude the courts from intervening on issues involving public school funding and expand choice. The Governor’s thinking? If the parents of students who resided in property poor towns had the opportunity to use tax free savings to take their children out of “failing government schools” and place them in any school they wished their children would ultimately benefit.

Added to the mix of ALEC bills designed to facilitate vouchers that will supposedly allow children who reside in property poor towns to escape the “failing schools” in their community is the ongoing debate on how much to spend to “harden” public schools to make them safe from shooters. This debate about school safety is a double whammy for public education: it inevitably results in diverting funds away from making capital improvements in outdated schools, many of which are located in property poor towns; and it reinforces the notion that public schools are inherently unsafe, making the push for de facto vouchers to attend private schools more politically acceptable.

Because of the ongoing debates on vouchers and school safety, debates on the virtue of standardized testing are pushed to the sidelines. Indeed, the need for these tests is largely settled in minds of most voters. Didn’t voters need to pass test to pass courses that got them promoted to the next grade level and earn a diploma? Didn’t voters who went to college have to attain a minimum score on the SAT to gain acceptance to their higher education? Doesn’t the military and civil service use tests to sort and select applicants? Why, then, doesn’t it make sense to use tests to determine if schools are successful?

At the conclusion of his article on the decline in ACT scores, Mr. Merrow writes:

It’s past time for progressives to speak loudly in support of strong public education….as well as other social initiatives that will address homelessness, hunger, and lack of health care.  Schools don’t function in isolation, not when–for example–about 10 percent of New York City’s public school students are homeless.

I completely agree and persist in writing this blog to that end… but, I don’t see many politicians at any level speaking up for public education or “…social initiatives that will address homelessness, hunger, and lack of health care“. The Social Darwinists in the GOP want to drown government in a bathtub and the neo-liberals who dominate the DNC are comfortable with privatization of public services or relying on the goodwill of philanthropists… and NO politician in EITHER wants to advocate for the higher taxes that would be needed to underwrite these social needs. And alas, as the cold analysis outlined above indicates, I do not see much sentiment today among rank and file voters for “social initiatives that will address homelessness, hunger, and lack of health care” because they know that such initiatives will cost them money.

My bottom line is that unless we reframe the debates about public education away from “choice” and the debates about social initiatives away from their cost we will continue on the path we are traveling and inequality will persist. We need to talk more about the common good and less about the virtue of selfishness.

Installation of Metal Detectors Supported Because Kids Are Shooting Each Other Off Campus with Guns… but Guns Aren’t the Problem?

October 17, 2018 Leave a comment

I read with a mix of astonishment, bewilderment, and frustration that Duval County FL is going to spend $2.5 million to install walk through metal detectors and provide hand wands in each of its high schools. This decision was characterized as one that appeared to

“…reverse a long-held position held by Duval County Schools’ previous leaders, including former Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who were reluctant to take that measure in part because of cost and a belief that relationships between students and school staff were better options for unearthing weapons in school.

Based on some news reports, it was unclear who made the decision. But Jacksonville.com reported it was announced by Micheal Edwards, director of the district’s police force… which is unsurprising to me since police are more likely to believe in the power of preventative screening that the value of relationships between students and school staff. The school board chair weighed in as well:

Ten of the 30 Duval County public school students who died last year were victims of gun violence, School Board Chairwoman Paula Wright said last month. From January to mid-September, 21 Jacksonville youths were injured by guns, more than in most Florida cities, she added.

So… because many students who attend schools were injured outside of school the Board, the district police chief, and the newly appointed Superintendent are all in on screening each and every child each and every day at each and every entrance to each and every high school. And anyone who has operated a school would realize that the reported cost $2.5 million for the equipment, which includes better surveillance cameras, is just the beginning. Whoever mans these devices will need to be paid and their use will clearly need to be extended to after school activities, sports events, and plays and band performances… which means more personnel costs.

But wait! Maybe more staff will not need to be added! Why? Because:

School administrators will operate the metal detectors and wands, Edwards said, because Florida law gives more leeway for administrators to search student bags than police would have.

When I read these reports it makes me wonder what kind of individuals will be drawn to assuming administrative positions in the future…. and how those administrators, who spend their mornings and evenings monitoring the front doors will ever be able to find the time to develop the kinds of relationships that provide support children need. I am certain that the former Superintendent, Mr. Vitti, is shaking his head as well….


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