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Could the Pandemic Put and End to the Artificial Construct of Students “Falling Behind”? Could it Shine a Spotlight on the REAL External Factors that Stymie Academic Progress?

December 25, 2020 Comments off

Common Dreams contributor Steven Singer wrote a compelling essay excoriating those who are wringing their hands over the students who are “falling behind” as a result of the pandemic. In the middle of his essay he makes these unassailable and clear points:

Let’s get something straight: there is no ultimate timetable for learning.

At least none that authentically can be set by educators or society.

People – and kids ARE people – learn when they’re ready to learn. 

And when they’re ready is different for every person out there. 

You can’t stomp around with a stopwatch and tell people they’re late. Your expectations are meaningless. It’s a matter of cognitive development plus environment and a whole mess of other factors that don’t easily line up on your Abacus. 

For example, many kids are ready to learn simple math concepts like addition and subtraction in Kindergarten. Yet some are ready in preschool.

That doesn’t mean one child is smarter than another. It just means their brains develop at different rates. And it’s perfectly normal.

In the early 1990s when I was trying to implement a mastery learning program I used the examples of two professional basketball superstars of that era: David Robinson and Michael Jordan. Both of them were late bloomers in terms of their physical development.

David Robinson was 6’5′ when he enrolled in the US Naval Academy. While attending there, he grew another 6″. Had he grown to that height BEFORE enrolling in college he would not have qualified for the Naval Academy because he would have been too tall. And because his ball handling skills were middling for a 6’5″ Division One forward or guard, the traditional college powerhouses overlooked him.  But those same skills were extraordinary for a 6″11″ center! As a result, he became an All-American player who was heavily recruited by professional basketball teams when he was eligible to play after completing college and his two years of service. The San Antonio Spurs built their franchise on his talents.

Michael Jordan was unable to make the varsity until he was a junior in high school. As a skinny 5’10” sophomore he was overlooked by the coaching staff in Wilmington NC. But he was determined to play basketball and was a JV sensation. Like many teenagers, Jordan had a growth spurt that year and ultimately made the varsity at his high school, at UNC, won Gold Medals and NBA championships, and became the iconic figure all other players are measured against.

Both David Robinson and Michael Jordan “fell behind” their age cohorts at one point. But a combination of their late maturity and determination enabled them to “catch up”. Not every athlete becomes a professional any more than every student becomes a Rhodes scholar. But when we apply universal yardsticks to unique individuals end up casting aside individuals who possess talents that haven’t emerged.  Few of us possess the persistence of a David Robinson or the grit and determination of a Michael Jordan. Many children who hear that they did not make the varsity because they were “behind” can enjoy athletic pursuits when they “catch up”. The “lesson” of David Robinson and Michael Jordan isn’t about persistence and grit: it’s about our the bogus expectations we set for children: the “ultimate timetables” that are used to decide that some children are “ahead” and others are “behind”. We need to give students the opportunity to learn when they are ready to learn and know that when they are ready to learn is different for each child. 

MAYBE the pandemic pause that is occurring will help drive this message home. MAYBE two years without standardized tests and using technology designed to tailor instruction for each child will make policy makers really that “ahead” and “behind” are relative and not absolute terms. If that is the case, we might break the stranglehold of the factory school that has gripped us since the turn of the last century.

Steven Singer puts the whole “ultimate timetable” debate in an even broader context, arguing persuasively that the only people who benefit from this mindset are the businesses who want to avoid paying for the basic needs of children and only view schools as a source of employees. He concludes his essay with this:

The problem is systemic. You can only solve it by changing the system, itself.

A system that places dollars and cents over life and health will never be acceptable. And that’s what we’ve got. Still.

So don’t buy the latest version of corporate school baloney.

Our children aren’t falling behind.

They’re surviving a pandemic.

Fix the problem and they’ll be fine.

Fix the system and they’ll THRIVE.

But beware of know nothing policymakers who don’t have our best interests at heart.

Pay them no mind and the only thing left behind will be them.

Leslie Fenwick’s Hard Core Anti-Privatization Agenda Would be Better… but Miguel Cardona is the Best Secretary of Education We’ve Seen in the Past 20 Years!

December 24, 2020 Comments off

Common Dreams Andrea Germanos fell prey to the “teachers union vs. students” meme in framing of President-elect Joe Biden’s pick of Miguel Cardona for Secretary of Education, but her conclusion is that unions are VERY happy with his nomination. She quoted the NEA President at the outset of her article:

“In these tough times,” said National Education Association (NEA) president Becky Pringle, “students, educators, and families face unprecedented challenges—from the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis to the systemic racism that has held back too many students for too long. We look forward to partnering with Secretary-designate Miguel Cardona in taking on these challenges together.”

…Contrasting Cardona with Trump, she said Cardona, if confirmed by the Senate, would “ensure that the federal government’s role in education is to ensure access and opportunity for every student,” defend their civil rights, and “work collaboratively to promote proven education models such as community schools and policies that provide whole student support.”

Ms. Germanos quote from an NPR report was also heartening:

Cardona talked about his background, his bilingual upbringing and said he was “American as apple pie and rice and beans.” His parents are from Puerto Rico and he is the third Latino candidate Biden put forward for a Cabinet post. He lived in public housing as a kid, arrived in kindergarten only speaking Spanish, and has long drawn on his personal experience to inform his approach to education policy, focusing on making schools more equitable, closing achievement gaps between students of color and their white peers, and improving teaching for English-language learners.

As Ms. Germanos noted, his experience is the polar opposite of his predecessor who never set foot in a public school and never had to cope with the challenges that many public school children face.

So Mr. Cardona supports equity of opportunity, has the support of the NEA and the AFT, and attended and worked in public K-12 schools, what’s not to like? He stands head and shoulders above DeVos, King, Duncan, Spellings, and any other appointee from the Bush administration… but… he isn’t nearly as strident in his opposition to charter schools and testing as Leslie Fenwick who was the other candidate Biden was giving serious consideration to, a candidate I championed in an earlier post. I was glad to see that Diane Ravitch shared my perspective on this, and especially glad to see that she was ultimately hopeful that Cardona would work out satisfactorily as a candidate, especially if he insists that testing be suspended this year. As Ms. Germanos reports, if the tests are given the results are predictable:

“The rich kids will have high scores, and the poor kids will have low scores. And the kids who have the least access through technology or in-person learning will have the lowest scores. So, there, I just saved hundreds of millions of dollars. We really don’t need to do these tests,”

Should Mr. Cardona take this action I am confident that after two years of no standardized tests when the federal laws for funding schools are brought up again the test-and-punish “reign of error” might come to an end.

WSJ Op Ed Headline Underscores THAT Newspaper’s Narrative and the Narrative of All Right-Leaning: A Bogus Binary Choice Between “Students and Unions”

December 23, 2020 1 comment

The Wall Street Journal has a paywall, but on some occasions I can work around the paywall and get to an article with a compelling title and opening sentence and on other occasions the article is available through a third party source a day or so later. But when I read the title of one of their latest op ed articles I decided I didn’t need to read anything else. The title?

“Will Biden’s Education Nominee Stand for Students or for Unions?”

My gut level reaction was to pose a question of my own?

“Will the conservative leaning media outlets ever abandon their narrative that unions are ONLY interested in the well-being of their membership and, therefore, working against the students they serve?”

If the unions are balking at opening schools because of safety concerns, how is that NOT a concern parents also share? If the unions seek clean and orderly workplace, how is that NOT a concern parents also share? If teachers are seeking fully functional technology equipped with up-to-date operating systems and software, how is that NOT a concern parents also share?

And here’s a point the Wall Street Journal is overlooking in its false binary choice: when was the last time a Secretary of Education stood for unions in any way shape or form? Did Arne Duncan “stand for unions?”  John King? Margaret Spellings? Betsy DeVos? And did any of these Secretaries of Education “stand for students?” For at least two decades we’ve seen Secretaries of Education who put “accountability” and preparedness for work at the forefront. Did students benefit from this? Given that  the “performance” of students raised in poverty stagnated, NAEP scores (a presumed impartial metric of “performance”) plateaued, and student debt soared, it is hard to see how the policies of former Secretaries “benefited students”. But they each clearly diminished the stature of the teaching profession whether the teachers were in a union or not.

And here’s something for the Wall Street Journal and other conservative leaning media to consider: maybe if a “union first” Secretary of Education was put in place the safety of schools would improve, the orderliness and cleanliness of schools would improve, and schools, parents, and students would have access to the technology tools they need to succeed by any metric. Stop blaming the unions for the conditions created by the economic divide and systemic racism that persists and work with the Secretary of Education and— more importantly— your State Government and local school board to ensure that all students have an equitable learning opportunity.