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Retired Superintendent: Standardized Tests Are Stupid: My Grandsons Are Opting Out

April 30, 2015 1 comment

As a retired Superintendent I must confess to being in a quandary on this issue. When I was Superintendent in NH I advocated against VAM (see: https://waynegersen.com/2011/11/14/nclb-waivers/) and continue to do so today. However, my daughter notes that if my 4th grade grandson in NYC opts out he might jeopardize his placement for middle school because those test results are now part of the algorithm they use. She (and the PTO at her son’s school) are actively working to eliminate the testing… but in the meantime I believe she is doing what is best for her son by permitting him to take the tests. If she lived anywhere else in NYS I am sure her son would be at home. I’m also sure there are many parents like her in NYC, which might contribute to the lower opt-out rates in the city.

Diane Ravitch's blog

Jim Arnold, former superintendent of schools in Pelham, Georgia, explains why he encouraged his grandsons and their parents to opt out.

He writes:

“Just imagine the millions of dollars spent on standardized test development, scoring, actual testing, test training and test security that could be spent to hire new teachers, lower class sizes, restore art and music and elective classes, buy new school technology, books, materials, end furlough days or – gasp – give teachers a raise.

“Imagine an end to the silly insistence that standardized testing is the only way to hold teachers and schools accountable.

“Imagine the return of the authority of the classroom teacher to actually teach their students rather than follow a scripted test-centric routine designed not to improve teaching and learning but to improve test scores.

“Just imagine schools focused on taking students where they are educationally and socially and concentrating on teaching and learning…

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An Unsurprising Finding: Segregation Starts in Pre-School

April 30, 2015 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Washington Post published an article describing the unsurprising findings of a new report issued by researchers at the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University:

While states more than doubled their investments in preschool between 2003 and 2013, when 1.3 million three- and four-year-olds were enrolled at a cost of $5.4 billion, most classrooms were economically segregated, the researchers found.

“If every child could be in a high-quality program, we could all go home and not worry about it,” said Jeanne Reid, who wrote the report with Sharon Lynn Kagan. It was funded by The Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank, and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, a civil rights organization. “But a lot of programs are not high quality, and low-income children are most likely to be in low-quality programs.”

Anyone who has followed the expansion of pre-school education closely should not be surprised by this finding: “Universal” Pre-Kindergarten is only “Universal” for districts serving low income school districts and since most “Universal” programs are poorly funded they are generally limited to the most economically challenged school districts. Moreover, as many previous posts note, requiring all children to attend publicly funded full-day pre-school will require huge sums of money which, in turn, will require increased taxes. To make matters worse, many parents would push-back if schooling was mandated at an earlier age because parents do not want their child to be housed in an institutional setting (e.g. school) when they already have arrangements with a relative or more conveniently located child-care center. Finally, as I’ve witnessed in my efforts to offer after-school child care, there are a large number of voters who operate and staff child care centers, many of whom do not have the credentials needed to serve in a publicly funded preschool program but all of whom are satisfactorily and economically providing care for children in either community or neighborhood. All of this makes it politically challenging to mandate preschool for all children and results in our current situation where only low income parents avail themselves of publicly funded pre-school.

The article makes a compelling case for having all children attend an economically diverse preschool, but it overlooks the sad reality that economic segregation is a feature of our housing patterns, a feature that pervades K-12 education as well as preschool education. If affluent parents are unwilling to allow affordable homes to be built in their community, and are unwilling to admit children from less affluent communities into their schools, and are unwilling to increase their taxes so that the programs offered to preschoolers in poor communities and neighborhoods are “high quality”, we will remain stuck where we are today… and economic justice will be denied.

Those Cameras in School— Who Are They Watching? What Are They Recording?

April 30, 2015 Leave a comment

In my last assignment as Superintendent of Schools, I received a phone call from the High School Principal who was seeking permission to call the school district’s attorney to address a question: could she and the Dean of Students look at the messages on a cell phone a student suspected of selling drugs had willingly surrendered to them? And… in a related question, could they give the cell phone to the police who were conducting an investigation?

When I received this call, cell phones were just becoming ubiquitous and this was unsettled law. After some deliberation,  as I recall our attorney advised against it. I’m still not certain there is a clear ruling on whether a school administrator can review phone messages from a cell phone, but in today’s schools where surveillance cameras abound and students use of social media without regard for the consequences of over-sharing, looking at cell phone messages may not be necessary.

This all came to mind as I read this chilling article from The Guardian titled “Is the On-Line Surveillance of Black Teenagers the New Stop and Frisk“, an article I got to through the Mathbabe blog. The article describes how police monitored social media exchanges among young black males who were suspected of being gang members in NYC. One might accept this premise if police went through the procedures required to do phone surveillance and targeted their monitoring to those who might be the most influential leaders…. but when it affected 28,000 young black males aged 10 and up and involved subterfuge, it is chilling:

The (young black men) are surveilled offline, but also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social media channels. When accounts are set to “private”, police officers sometimes gain access to them by sending friend requests posing as young women or club promoters. 

The article details the extent to which the movements of every young black male are monitored and concludes with an interview with Mike Loudwy, a South Harlem resident, who discusses how police have adapted to the directive to limit the use of “stop and frisk”:

While ordering some food, Loudwy confides the best way to deal with police randomly stopping you is to stay silent and know your rights. “If you start talking, they’ll find a way to throw you in. Any wrong move could be my life,” he says. “You don’t even have to let them search you. They need a probable cause…”

Is he on Facebook? “Hell no. I call Facebook ‘fed-book’. I don’t do Facebook. They’re watching us on there.”

To some, his words may come across a little paranoid; the result of growing up with cameras on the street corner, police watchtowers a few blocks away; too many years being ordered to the ground by an overzealous police force…

And yet, Loudwy’s fears hold up. What is perhaps most alarming is that he and his friends are so used to being treated like suspects that to find out that they are being watched online comes as no surprise. Even without actual proof, it’s something they have just assumed – quite rightly – has been happening all along.

Here’s a question that over-protective parents, teachers, and administrators need to wrestle with in this era of surveillance cameras and the capability of monitoring social media: are we creating a generation that assumes they are being watched 24/7… and if so, is that the world we want to create in the future?

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Crass “Reformer” Calls for More Charter Schools as Solution in Baltimore

April 29, 2015 Leave a comment

The unrest in Baltimore that resulted from the death of Freddie Gray has elicited responses from many different perspectives, but none to date has been more tone deaf than that of “reformer” Jeanne Allen. In a tweet she later deleted, Ms. Allen wrote: ed-deform-tweetAs the Perdido Street School blog noted, Ms. Allen is a long time supporter of privatization, one who is eager to take millions of dollars from tax coffers and augment them with funds from philanthropists who seek the complete privatization of public schools.

I got to this post through Naked Capitalism blogger Lambert Strether who drily commented:

At least during Katrina, charter advocates had the common decency to wait ’til the hurricane was over before making their play.

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How Standardized Tests Undercut Parenting, Teaching, and Schools

April 29, 2015 Leave a comment

Huffington Post blogger Stacy Steinberg’s latests post, “Set Up to Fail: High Stakes Testing in Public Schools” describes the impact of testing on administrators, teachers, and especially parents. Steinberg asserts that standardized tests are designed to “prove” schools are failing knowing that the tests will prove what we already know: the schools serving children raised in poverty will “fail” while the schools serving children raised in affluence will “succeed”.:

High stakes testing sets a child up to fail.

Even when a school employs hardworking teachers and has the support of parents and local business partners, some schools serve students that live in homes that fall below the poverty line. Research tells us that the number one indicator of how a child will perform on a standardized test is whether or not that child lives in poverty. Our flawed standardized testing model sets even the most talented teacher up to fail.

Unlike many critics of the standardized testing regimen, Steinberg appreciates the bind administrators face, noting that they:

…are caught between trying to provide quality education to… students and maintaining the financial backing from the state to do so. Unfortunately, these goals are often mutually exclusive. High stakes testing sets up even the most altruistic school administrator up to fail.

But the lion’s share of her post is directed at parents. Noting that parents work hard to provide opportunities for their children to thrive and be creative before they enter school, once they arrive to school they find an environment that stifles creativity and focuses on test preparation:

You watch as important subjects like history, art, and music drop from the curriculum as these subjects are not covered by the common core curriculum. You know your child needs an empathetic and patient teacher, yet you watch as teachers shift focus because of standardized testing standards. Assets like empathy and patience work against our best teachers who know their performance review will be based on how much and how quickly your student is able to learn. Perhaps worst of all, your child takes her first standardized test and comes home reporting that she was required to sign a piece of paper promising not to talk to you about the test or the testing procedure itself.
This leaves Steinberg with a sense that she, as a parent, is being set up to fail! She concludes by encouraging parents to write to their legislators sharing their concerns and urging them to do whatever is possible to put an end to this testing. This compelled me to leave the following comment:
Before you write, you might want to see what the Presidential candidates and your legislators think of this approach to education… and in the case of the Presidential candidates who is funding them. Are they claiming “schools are failing” based on these test results? Are they supporting the state or corporate takeover of “failing schools”? Are they claiming the solution to “failing schools” is to give parents more choices WITHOUT requiring that ALL schools open their doors to ALL students?
At this juncture (Bernie Sanders has not officially announced his candidacy), every single Presidential candidate supports the continued emphasis on testing and at least 33 Governors insist that standardized tests are the best way to measure school performance. At this juncture NCLB is the law of the land and the pending federal legislation will not end the testing regimen. And, at this juncture states have invested heavily in the new computerized tests and expect to use those tests for the foreseeable future. At this juncture, it is not too late to change the course of public education, but the odds of making the change are approaching the odds of us taking action to address climate change.

Who Should Pay for Police Brutality?

April 28, 2015 1 comment

As I write this, because of the fear of violence schools in Baltimore are closed today. And because of the fear of violence there is a curfew in place in that city for anyone under 17. At the request of the mayor of the Governor of Maryland, because of the fear of violence, has deployed the National Guard.  And, perversely, it is because of the fear of violence that the police in Baltimore have been allowed to brutalize members of the community with relative impunity. The concluding paragraph in Atlantic writer T’Naisi Coates powerful essay describes this paradox forcefully:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.

I lived through the Civil Rights era and recall the media’s admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s peaceful non-violence in the face of explicit brutality by the police in the south. His efforts won over the nation and resulted in passage of laws that reinforced court victories won a decade earlier. But the passage of those laws has not resulted in the kind of economic justice that African Americans expected and the passage of those laws has not resulted in the change of hearts and minds of many in our country. And this intractability, this “political brutality” contributes to the sense of hopelessness and frustration that, in turn, results in addictions and violence that leads to the state doling out “…heaps of violence to its citizens”.

The answer to this problem is embedded in Coates’ essay:

The money paid out by the city to cover for the brutal acts of its police department would be enough to build “a state-of-the-art rec center or renovations at more than 30 playgrounds.” Instead, the money was used to cover for the brutal acts of the city’s police department and ensure they remained well beyond any semblance of justice.

Here’s the way to fix this problem: have the city of Baltimore divert it’s spending “…to cover for the brutal acts of the city’s police department” to build those state of the art playgrounds and divert its spending to incarcerate drug dealers to provide treatment centers for those trying to cure themselves of the disease of addiction and divert its money away from law enforcement in schools to social services outside of schools to support those families who are striving to make ends meet.

And who will pick up the costs for the brutality of the police? If the federal government can find money to bail out bankers who sold flawed mortgages to citizens trying to seek housing it should be able to find the money to protect innocent citizens who are brutalized by law enforcement officers.

The Promised Technological Utopia Falls Short

April 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Jacobin editor Megan Erickson’s essay, Edutopia describes the failed promise of educational technology, offering historic and current examples of forecasted breakthroughs in schooling that would result as a result of advances in technology. The most recent example of over promising is “design thinking”, whereby groups of individuals crowd-source solutions to thorny and seemingly intractable problems. Here’s Erickson’s description of the process as it was introduced to a group of teachers at a staff development workshop:

Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO and a regular at Davos and TED talks, has described design thinking as a way to inject “local, collaborative, participatory” planning into the development of products, organizational processes, and now schools.

After providing a more detailed description of how “design thinking” might play out in schools, Erickson’s skepticism about this process comes out in this paragraph:

What design thinking ultimately offers is not evolution, but the look and feel of progress — great graphics, aesthetically interesting configurations of furniture and space — paired with the familiar, gratifying illusion of efficiency. If structural and institutional problems can be solved through nothing more than brainstorming, then it’s possible for macro-level inputs (textbooks, teacher salaries) to remain the same, while outputs (test scores, customer service) improve. From the perspective of capitalism, this is the only alchemy that matters.

Erickson provides a history of “teaching machines”, beginning with Edward Thorndike’s ideas of precise measurement of mental skills in 1912, B. F. Skinner’s theories in the 1950s, the various individualized curricula designed in the 1960s, and the notions of technology billionaires today. She concludes that all of these conceptions are off the mark:

The fact is, education is not a design problem with a technical solution. It is nothing like building a spaceship. It is a social and political project that the neoliberal imagination insists on innovating out of existence. The most significant challenges faced today in education are not natural obstacles to be overcome by increasing productivity — they are man-made struggles over how resources are allocated.

Erickson then provides some stunning facts on how our country chooses to allocate it’s resources:

The United States is one of just three OECD countries, along with Israel and Turkey, where schools that serve rich families have better resources and more funding than schools that serve poor families. The other thirty-four countries included in the index either provide equal funding for all students or spend a disproportionate amount of money on students from low-income families.

In a country where the top 20 percent of the population earns eight times as much as the bottom 20 percent, this inevitably leads to two distinct and parallel systems of education, one for the rich and one for the poor. It’s not that “money doesn’t matter” for reforming the education system, or that technology can be a substitute, but that children from working-class and poor families score lower on standardized test scores than their wealthy peers — and America has many more poor families than rich.

Erickson then describes Sal Khan’s efforts to provide individualized lessons for children in a wide array of topics, characterizing his work as “…a fine way to practice math problems or learn a didactic skill” but notes that it deemphasizes “…the importance of interpretation and critique in education“.

Erickson asserts that individualization in isolation is a flawed way to deliver instruction:

Teachers who encourage resistance are essential sources of support and guidance for kids. People do not learn to think critically and construct meaning in isolation — which is the assumption behind the trend of textbooks that respond individually to each student and allow them to move at their own pace.

Erickson is also dismissive of the notion that children need to be protected from some content for fear they will be guided in the wrong direction:

As Katherine McKittrick has pointed out in response to the idea of trigger warnings being placed on college syllabi: the classroom isn’t safe. It should not be safe. Teaching, for McKittrick, is a “day-to-day skirmish,” and teachers must work hard to create classroom conversations “that work out how knowledge is linked to an ongoing struggle to end violence,” to engage with the history that students bring with them into the classroom and resist reification of oppressive thinking in practical ways.

Erickson DOES see one form of schooling that meets the needs of children… a method that minimizes the use of technology:

Waldorf schools incorporate creative and tactile experiences and tools including hammers and nails, knives, knitting needles, and mud — but not computers — into the curriculum. Engagement comes from the connection between children and their teachers, who stress critical thinking and aim to create interesting, inquiry-based lesson plans.

I agree completely with much of the thinking in Erickson’s essay, particularly her disdain for those who want to use technology to reduce costs and monetize schooling. But felt that she overstated the ineffectiveness of technology and oversold the status quo model of education. For example, Sal Khan himself would acknowledge the limitations of his “Academy”. He realizes that his lectures and lesson packets work most effectively when the content is hierarchical and objective because in those cases the need for intermediation is minimal. And while his work was underwritten by Bill Gates, I do not that Khan’s curriculum should be dismissed on that basis. It is conceivable that by using Khan Academy to deliver instruction that is hierarchical and objective that teacher-time could be used to engage and connect with with students and design lessons that stress critical thinking and aim to create interesting, inquiry-based lesson plans. Indeed, I could see public school teachers behaving more and more like Waldorf teachers and students progressing at their own rate on topics that are highly interesting and engaging based on their skill levels.