Pittsburgh Public Schools Advised to Repeat Same Mistakes Over and Over and Over…

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“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

-Albert Einstein (attributed)


“AAAUUURGH!”

-Charlie Brown

 

 

If I crash my car right into a wall, the worst thing to do would be to get into another car and crash it right into the same wall!

 

But that’s what the Pittsburgh Post Gazette thinks city school administrators should do.

 

A new comprehensive report about Pittsburgh Public Schools concludes that standardization and Common Core have produced zero progress in the district over the last decade.

 

And the editorial board of the city’s largest remaining newspaper says this means administrators should stay the course – indeed, double down on test prep and uniformity.

 

The 175-page report by The Council of the Great City Schools affirms that the district showed little to no improvement in the last 10 years.

 

“In fact, analysis of student achievement trends shows little to no improvements since 2007,” the report went on. “Although some scores went up and others went down over the period, achievement gaps are about the same — if not wider — than they were when the work started.”

 

You would think this would be a scathing indictment of administrators during this time who focused on test prep and uniformity to the exclusion of more student-centered reforms. In particular, during the same time covered in the report, administrators paid for new curriculum designed to standardize instruction across schools and grade levels. They instituted a value-added bonus system rewarding principals who run the schools with the highest test scores. They even increased the length of the school day to drive achievement.

 

They did all this, and it didn’t help a bit.

 

Some might see that as proof of the error of past ways.

 

But not the Post Gazette.

 

In the minds of the editorial board, this is a ringing endorsement of those policies that got us nowhere.

 

Mark Roosevelt, superintendent from 2005 to 2010, and Linda Lane, superintendent from 2010 to 2016, are actually singled out by the paper as heroes of reform!

 

Wait a minute. These are the people in charge when the district apparently was stalled. If anything, these functionaries should bear the blame, not get a pat on the back. We should do anything BUT continuing their work which lead to this dismal report.

 

But instead, the editorial board writes, “[T]he work of Mr. Roosevelt and Ms. Lane was not in vain. They inaugurated a coherent system of reforms, made the federal benchmark known as ‘adequate yearly progress’ twice in three years, restored the district’s credibility with the foundation community, forged a closer relationship with the teachers union and generated a new sense of optimism. The course they charted is worth revisiting.”

 

What!?

 

Voters are fed up with number-worshipping flunkies who don’t see kids as anything but data points. That’s why the community has consistently replaced number crunching school directors and administrators with people who have a new vision of education – a community schools approach.

 

The editorial board may look down their noses at current Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet who took over just this summer and the positive changes he’s been making with the new progressive school board, but he’s only doing what the public wants. And given this new report, a new direction is exactly what Pittsburgh Public Schools needs!

 

In the ivory tower of big media, they don’t see it this way.

 

In fact, the PG goes so far as to imply that Dr. Hamlet and the new board are somehow responsible for Roosevelt and Lane’s failures.

 

“It may be that they [Roosevelt and Lane] did not stay long enough for their efforts to take root,” writes the Post Gazette, “that the reforms became too cumbersome to manage or that they were unable to fully impose their will on a sprawling school district with many constituencies.”

 

Please. Dr. Hamlet’s presence has not halted Roosevelt and Lane’s march toward progress. This report demonstrates that they achieved very little. Moreover, Dr. Hamlet has only been in office since June. He hasn’t been in the district long enough to flush student test scores down the toilet – especially when for more than nine of those years he was working in Florida.

 

Neither can you blame the community for being fed up with corporate education reforms that apparently don’t work.

 

No. If this report by a consortium of the nation’s 70 largest urban school districts shows failure in ‘burgh schools, that belongs to the bosses at the top during the last 10 years. If this is a failure, it is Roosevelt’s and Lane’s, not Dr. Hamlet’s. Nor can you place it at the feet of school directors, most of whom are new to the board.

 

But the media mavens can be forgiven slightly for coming to such an odd conclusion, because it’s supported by the organization that wrote the report – the Council of the Great City Schools. After all, the Council suggested this push toward standardization in the first place.

 

 

In February 2006, this same Council advised Pittsburgh to “recommit to a standardized, districtwide curriculum to ensure that every classroom is focused on a common set of rigorous expectations for student learning.”

 

And now that same Council is saying that doing so resulted in a fat goose egg.

 

Great advice, Guys!

 

Pittsburgh residents spent $156,545 of taxpayer money to find that out.

 

Still, it’s not a total waste. It’s probably the most comprehensive look at the district in recent history and drew expertise from two dozen executives from eight different city school systems. It also included interviews with 170 staff and community members.

 

The third-party review was part of Dr. Hamlet’s transition plan and “acts as a blueprint” to transform the district, he said. It includes a detailed review of the district’s organization structure, staffing levels, instructional programs, financial operations, business services, disciplinary policies, and research and data functions.

 

Of particular interest is school discipline data showing that the district has an “extraordinarily high” suspension rate compared with other cities and that its disciplinary actions disproportionately affect students of color. In fact, this seems to justify moves by Dr. Hamlet to enact a restorative justice disciplinary program instead of a strict zero tolerance policy.

The report includes numerous suggestions for improvements across the board including revamping the district’s central office structure and updating the district’s outdated PreK-5 literary curriculum – initiatives that are already underway.

 

But when it comes to a repeated call for standardization and canned curriculum across the district, it should be ignored.

 

Put simply, we’ve tried that crap. It doesn’t help.

 

We’ve got to get beyond our love for standardized tests. We know that poor students don’t do as well on these types of assessments as middle class or wealthy students. It should be no surprise, then, that an urban district like Pittsburgh with a high percentage of impoverished students will also have low test scores.

 

It’s the poverty, stupid!

 

We need to do something to address that directly, not attack a district that’s lost almost $1 billion annually in state funding for the last five years.

 

Moreover, this obsession with Common Core is completely unfounded. It has never been demonstrated that aligning curriculum to the Core will increase test scores or increase learning. In fact, there is mounting research to show that these academic standards are developmentally inappropriate and actually prevent authentic learning – especially in reluctant learners.

 

The Council of the Great City Schools is enamored with these policies because the organization has taken millions of dollars in donations from the Gates Foundation and other organizations connected with the testing industry. Even many charitable foundations have aligned themselves with this lucrative business model where corporations cash in when students fail and then cash in again by selling them the remediation and Common Core texts they convince us we need to pass the tests.

 

The editorial board of the Post Gazette is likewise blinded by dollar signs and data.

 

Like far too many non-educators, they give far too much credence to a person’s bank account than her expertise. The same people pushing testing and new academic standards also benefit financially from them. They have created at least one PAC in the city with deep pockets looking to unseat unsympathetic board members and discredit Dr. Hamlet so that they can install their own representatives.

 

This is a battle with plain sense and logic. It’s also a battle for control of Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Democrats Warned Not to Help Trump Enact Their Own Damn School Policies

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It must be hard to be a neoliberal Democrat in Donald Trump’s America.

Almost every policy decision you favor is also on the Republican President-elect’s to-do list. But if you work with him, you’ll ruin the illusion that there’s a difference between the two of you.

Take yesterday’s statement by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) warning any Democrat not to accept Trump’s offer to be U.S. Secretary of Education.

DFER is a hedge fund managers’ pro-charter advocacy group. Despite it’s name, one would think the organization would be a natural ally for pro-school-choice Trump.

But, wait a minute.

I thought one of the first things Trump promised to do once he took the Oval Office was close the Department of Education.

Weeeeeelllllllll…. That’s so November 10th.

He’s already walking back that whooper just like he’ll soon have to admit that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) doesn’t allow him to end Common Core – another one of his campaign promises. Ending the Core is up to the states (has been for months, yet most Republican controlled legislatures just can’t bring themselves to do it for some reason).

It’s easy to see why Trump has had a Come To Jesus moment about the Department of Education. If he really wants to add $20 billion in school-choice programs, as he promised on the campaign trail, a big government office that hands out bundles of cash in return for states enacting his personal policy desires sure would come in handy!

This is where it gets really sticky.

Both Democrats and Republicans love school choice! Typically GOP politicians love all flavors of privatization – charter schools AND giving away vouchers to attend private schools with public tax dollars. Democrats usually are more finicky preferring just charter schools – though you don’t have to search long to find a neoliberal willing to embrace all things school choice. Many of them are members of DFER.

In fact, the leading voices of school privatization for the last 15 years have been Democrats. So it’s no wonder that faux progressives like Michelle Rhee and Eva Moskowitz made Trump’s short list to head the Department of Education.

Moskowitz, who has since turned down the offer, is founder of Success Academy Charter Schools, a chain of privatized institutions emphasizing endless test preparation and systematically weeding out struggling or special-needs students.

Rhee, who is still a contender, was chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools where she was given leeway to do almost whatever she wanted and boasted of high test scores. However, widespread cheating on the tests and public unrest at her tactics shot down her ascending star. She then started StudentsFirst, an organization using rich folks’ money to help elect Tea Party candidates who were in favor of both charter and voucher schools. As the organization faltered, she stepped out of the limelight.

One could think of few people more suited to Trump’s education agenda than Rhee.

But NO! Rhee – or another faux progressive – can’t do that, warns DFER President Shavier Jeffries. That goes against everything Democrats stand for – somehow.

Jeffries writes:

“It is, generally speaking, an honor for any person of any political persuasion to be asked by the President of the United States to consider a Cabinet-level appointment, but in the case of President-elect Trump, DFER encourages no Democrat to accept an appointment to serve as Secretary of Education in this new administration. In so doing, that individual would become an agent for an agenda that both contradicts progressive values and threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids.

“Foundational education reform principles – from raising standards and strengthening accountability, to expanding public-school choice, to furthering innovations in teacher preparation and support, and advancing resource equity – all find their roots in a progressive commitment to ensuring that all children, particularly our most vulnerable, have access to schools that enable them to fulfill their potential.”

Jeffries is worried about “raising standards?” Am I the only person here who read the ESSA? Common Core and academic standards aren’t the federal government’s business.

He’s worried about “strengthening accountability?” The ESSA already requires annual standardized testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school – same as it has since the George W. Bush administration.

“Expanding school choice?” You guys love school choice.

“Further innovations in teacher preparation and support?” That sounds like code for Teach for America and Value Added Measures – policies that Republicans love as much as you so-called Democrats.

“Advancing resource equity?” Now who are you kidding? DFER hasn’t done a thing to help poor schools get equitable resources. In fact, you’ve supported pulling the rug out from under poor schools based on those same standardized test scores you love so much.

So when it comes to policy, Jeffries and DFER are almost completely in synch with Trump. What’s the problem?

He goes on:

“This progressive commitment to equitable education policy also goes hand-in-hand with intersectional issues that affect our kids. While effective school policies are vitally important, so too are the environmental conditions affecting children and families.”

This is a shock to me. Jeffries and DFER support “no excuses” charter schools like Moskowitz’s. These are privately run schools that don’t accept a student’s poverty or abuse or health or anything to be used as an excuse not to get high scores on standardized tests. In fact, if any impoverished, underprivileged child can’t somehow pull himself up by his bootstraps, he’s often kicked out of these “no excuses” charter schools and sent back to a traditional public school.

But NOW Jeffries is complaining about “vitally important” “environmental conditions”!? You’ve got to be kidding me! That sounds like something under any other circumstances you’d call an excuse.

On any other day, DFER does nothing to help kids overcome their environmental factors. Jeffries claims we should ignore environmental factors, that focusing on them is the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” But NOW he’s suddenly seen the light!?

Sorry. I’m not buying it.

He goes on:

“A child who is homeless; a child without access to food or healthcare; a child whose parent cannot find steady work; a child whose dad is locked up for years on low-level drug offenses—each of these situations dramatically compromise the life chances of our children.”

Well, Hallelujah! Jeffries has seen the mountain top! Paying attention to the out of school factors is exactly what teachers, parents and students have been crying out for he and his neoliberal buddies to do for 15 years! Of course, doing so would invalidate the same policies he and Trump propose, but you can’t ask a neoliberal to be consistent. Baby steps.

He goes on:

“The policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump run contrary to the most fundamental values of what it means to be a progressive committed to educating our kids and strengthening our families and communities. He proposes to eliminate accountability standards, cut Title I funding, and to gut support for vital social services that maximize our students’ ability to reach their potential. And, most pernicious, Trump gives both tacit and express endorsement to a dangerous set of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes that assault the basic dignity of our children, causing incalculable harm not only to their sense of self, but also to their sense of belonging as accepted members of school communities and neighborhoods.

“For these reasons, no Democrat should accept appointment as Secretary of Education, unless and until President-elect Trump disavows his prior statements and commits to educating the whole child and supporting the communities and families they depend on.”

So what Jeffries really takes exception to here is Trump’s rhetoric.

Trump and DFER don’t have many policy differences. It’s just how they’re packaged.

Both Trump and Jeffries wants to give poor black and brown kids a substandard education. They both want to destroy the public school system and replace it with a privatized one. Both want to give endless standardized tests. But the real difference is that Jeffries wants to do this for the expressed purpose of protecting kids’ civil rights. Trump, apparently, wants to do it to violate them, or at least he’s indifferent to the civil rights implications.

Does that really constitute a significant difference between DFER and Trump?

No. It’s just branding.

Jeffries doesn’t want someone like Moskawitz or Rhee to be the face of Trump’s corporate education reform policies because he’s betting Trump will fail. And when that happens, he wants to be there when the next Democratic administration takes over – so he can enact the same damn policies all over again!

Why Teaching to the Test is Educational Malpractice

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Malpractice is defined as “careless, wrong, or illegal actions by someone (such as a doctor) who is performing a professional duty.”

In some fields it can get you arrested. In most it’s at least frowned upon.
In education, however, it’s encouraged.

In fact, as a teacher, you can be singled out, written up or even fired for refusing to engage in malpractice. You are bullied, cajoled and threatened into going along with practices that have been debunked by decades of research and innumerable case studies.

Take the all-too-common practice of teaching to the test.

Not only do students and teachers hate it, but the practice has been shown to actually harm student learning. Yet it is the number one prescription handed down from administrators and policymakers to bring up failing scores on high stakes standardized tests.

Never mind that those same test scores have likewise been proven to be invalid, racially and culturally biased and inextricably linked with parental income. When the only goal is raising student test scores, what’s a little malpractice between friends?

In this article, I will explain the top five reasons why this policy is harmful. But first, we need to define our terms. There is a multitude of practices that are sometimes called teaching to the test. What exactly are we talking about here?

Assessment expert W. James Popham provides a helpful distinction: “curriculum teaching” vs. “item teaching.” Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions. For instance, if the test is expected to include questions about decimals, the teacher will cover the full range of knowledge and skills related to decimals so students understand what they are, know how to manipulate them, understand how to use them to solve more complex problems, and are able to communicate about them.

By contrast, item teaching involves narrowing instruction, organizing lessons around look-a-like questions that are taken directly from the test or represent the kinds of questions most likely to be found on the test. In this way, the teacher only provides the chunks of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on exams. For instance, item teachers might drill students on a certain set of vocabulary words that are expected to be assessed rather than employing instructional strategies that help students build a rich vocabulary that best contributes to strong reading comprehension.

To be clear, when we talk about teaching to the test, we’re talking about item teaching. I maintain that there is nothing wrong with curriculum teaching. In fact, that is the preferred method of educating. It is a best practice. The problem is when we resort to endless drills and give students innumerable questions of the exact type we expect to be on the test.

Here’s why item teaching is to be avoided:

1) It Makes the Tests Even More Invalid

As noted, standardized tests are terrible assessments. They do not properly or fairly assess intelligence or academics. However, whatever validity they have is further eroded when schools teach to the test.

The problem is this: if all you want to do is artificially raise test scores, teaching to the test is effective. It works. This is why middle class or wealthier families often pay to enroll their children in a test-prep course before their kids take or retake the SAT exam. It most likely will boost their children’s scores. However, it defeats the purpose of the test, which is to predict academic success in college. All it shows definitively is that these children come from families wealthy enough to provide private tutoring.

I say it “artificially” raises test scores because it is not connected with a similar increase in learning. Students don’t learn more about reading or math from test prep. They learn how to take the standardized math and/or reading tests.

There is even evidence suggesting that real, authentic learning may suffer under these circumstances. But more on that later.

2) It Steals Instruction Time

There are only so many days in the school year. Taking away class time to focus on test prep reduces the amount of time where students are authentically learning. We already take away weeks of class time for the actual assessments. Then many schools take additional time for practice tests. Now we’re losing even more time to teach students how to take the tests.

How much time is lost? According to a report by the American Federation of Teachers, public schools spend an average of 19 days to a month and a half on testing and test prep combined. However, some districts spend much more time on teaching to the test than the average. One school included in the study spent an average of 20 to 40 minutes a day on testing. Moreover, this time increases dramatically in the most highly tested grades and poorest schools.

Taxpayers compensate teachers to teach – not game the system. Students want to learn real skills, not advanced ways to jump through hoops. It can be argued that teaching to the test robs everyone of time that can be better spent.

3) It Dumbs Down the Curriculum

Teaching to the test is not real teaching. Students are not being taught authentic skills. Researchers Lauren Resnick and Chris Zurawsky call it a recipe for bad teaching. “When teachers match their teaching to what they expect to appear on state tests of this sort,” they write, “students are likely to experience far more facts and routines than conceptual understanding and problem-solving in their curriculum…. Narrow tests…can become the de facto curriculum.”

The modern economy is not crying out for the next generation of test-takers. Economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane warn that all kinds of jobs, but particularly higher paying jobs, increasingly require more complex critical thinking skills and much fewer rote and routine skills. Their 30-year analysis shows a steadily declining demand for workers who are able to do rote tasks and a skyrocketing demand for “expert thinking” skills. Employers want prospective employees with the ability to solve problems that require more than simply following rules or applying old knowledge to new situations. They need workers with complex thinking and communication skills.

In short, teaching to the test greatly reduces the depth of study and turns it into the same kind of mechanical process employers aren’t looking for at the expense of the kinds of skills they demand.

But that’s not all. An over-emphasis on the subjects tested, inevitably narrows the curriculum. Non-tested disciplines receive less attention during the school day. Time is diverted from subjects like physical education, music, and drama so that teachers can provide more instructional time on commonly tested areas like reading, writing and math.

The result is far less well-rounded students who are instilled with the false assumption that certain vital endeavors are meaningless or certainly subordinate to basic skills.

4) It Actually Hurts Learning

Not only does item teaching dumb down what’s being taught, it actually erodes basic skill development even in tested subjects. Explicit instruction in test taking strategies is not educationally neutral. It’s harmful.

For instance, researcher Monty Neill explained how test-taking strategies can erode authentic reading comprehension skills. Standardized reading tests often present students with a long passage followed by several multiple choice questions. One of the most common strategies is for students to read the questions first before reading the passage. In many cases you don’t have to read the passage to answer the question. Even if you do need to read it, the question provides students with a clue that they can look for when skimming the passage for the right answer. However, independent evaluators found that over-reliance on this strategy can lead to children who can find the correct answer on the test but cannot explain what the passage is about. The implication is that there may be a significant number of test wise students who lack the basic skills needed to be successful in higher education.

Additionally, even where tested subjects like reading and math are emphasized, the non-tested areas of these disciplines are underutilized. Reading, for example, isn’t just about passage comprehension. It includes listening and speaking skills that are not assessed on high stakes tests. So students can get advanced scores without having the requisite skills for mastery of the subject.

This is especially important for students going on to college. They will be expected to do many things they were not tested on such as making an oral presentation, conducting a science experiment, or writing a research report. For all the talk of Common Core aligned tests making students “college and career ready,” teaching to the test undermines this goal.

5) It Hurts Morale of Students and Teachers

And then we come to perhaps the worst part: motivation. Young children don’t need a reason to learn. They’re naturally curious and soak up knowledge like a sponge. However, as children mature and enter the higher grades, that natural curiosity can be damaged, dampened and even destroyed with long-lasting effects.

Teaching to the test turns school into a completely extrinsic exercise. It’s a game. Learn how to take the test so you can get a good score – don’t work hard to learn things you really care about. It should come as no surprise then that such emphasis has a negative impact on intrinsic motivation according to Edward Miller and Roberta Tovey’s Motivation, Achievement and Testing. In fact, though test prep gives students the tools to artificially raise their scores, it also can remove the motivation to get good scores in the first place. In short, it undermines the reason kids come to school at all: to learn and self-actualize.

And the damage isn’t limited to students. Item teaching also removes the joy of teaching for the teacher. It exacerbates feelings of frustration and disillusionment with the entire testing process. Wayne E. Wright (2002) documented the effects of high-stakes testing and the increased prevalence of teaching to the test in an inner-city California school. One teacher summarized her frustration with the schools test driven agenda by commenting:

“The most pathetic thing is that up until two years ago, I counseled young people, “Come into teaching. It is a wonderful profession.” Now I counsel them to find something else because this is not the profession I would choose for myself.”

(Wright, 2002, p. 28).

Recommendations and Conclusions

We’ve seen how damaging test prep can be. But does that mean it should never be utilized?

I don’t think there is definitive evidence to make that conclusion. Item teaching is not necessarily bad if done to best effect, under strict control and as minimally as possible. Doing this once or twice probably won’t poison the entire act of teaching, but it also won’t have a dramatic effect on the scores. Perhaps we should adopt a policy of cautious moderation and tread carefully.

However, it is clear that teachers should emphasize curriculum teaching over teaching to the test. Focus on student development of real critical thinking skills and the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. In this way students will be more likely to apply their new cognitive abilities and content knowledge in areas that extend beyond the confines of a particular test. In short, they’ll actually learn stuff – the important stuff – not just how to take a standardized test.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Administrators and policymakers often direct teachers to spend increasing amounts of class time doing item teaching. Almost every state includes hundreds of released test questions for just this purpose. An entire publishing industry exists to create and distribute item teaching materials. This is, in fact, one of the major ways the test companies make their money – make tests so hard kids fail and then sell schools the test prep materials to get students to pass.

What’s needed more than anything is to educate the educators – or at least their bosses. Teachers need to understand how harmful the policies are they’re being directed to undertake. Administrators need to understand that teaching to the test has diminishing returns in the long run. And our policymakers need to wake up and smell the coffee.

Test scores are neither adequate nor sufficient indicators of school success. Students cannot be reduced to numbers and evaluated as if they were produce.

Until we realize that as a bone-deep truth, we will continue to fail students as they continue to fail us. And our teachers will be continually forced to violate their deepest principles in order to stay in the classroom.


ENDNOTES:

Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2004). The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Miller, E., & Tovey, R. (Eds.). (1996). Motivation, achievement, and testing. Boston: Harvard Education Press.
Neil, M. (2003b). The dangers of testing. Educational Leadership, 60(5), 43-46.
Popham, W. J. (2001, March). Teaching to the test? Educational Leadership, 58(6), 16’20.

Resnick, L., & Zurawsky, C. (2005, spring). Getting back on course: Standards-based reform and accountability. American Educator. Retrieved June 30, 2006, from http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/spring05/resnick.htm

Wright, W. E. (2002). The effects of high stakes testing in an inner city elementary school: The curriculum, the teachers, and the English language learners. Current Issues in Education, 5(5). Online at http://cie.ed.asu.edu/volume5/number5.

Standardizing Whiteness: the Essential Racism of Standardized Testing

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“As a method of social production, as well as social reproduction, standardized testing has had serious cultural implications, not the least of which has been the eternal question of American identity. Consistent with notions of American identity, standardized testing, as an opposition to a cultural other, represents the normalization of whiteness, richness, and maleness.”
-Andrew Hartman

“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
-Toni Morrison

We talk about standardized testing as if we don’t really understand what it is.

We say we want No child left behind!

And then we pass a law named after that very sentiment that ensures some students MUST be left behind.

We say we want Every student to succeed!

And then we pass a law named after that very sentiment that ensures every student will NOT succeed.

It would be absurd if not for the millions of children being forced to endure the harsh reality behind our pretty words.

It’s not these ideals that are the problem. It’s standardized testing.

Researchers, statisticians, and academics of every stripe have called for an end to high stakes testing in education policy. Parents, students and teachers have written letters, testified before congressional committees, protested in the streets, even refused to take or give the tests. All to deaf ears.

The federal government still requires all students in 3-8th grade and once in high school to take standardized tests.

But these assessments are graded on a curve. A certain amount of students are at the bottom, a certain amount are at the top, and most are clustered in the middle. This would be true if you were testing all geniuses or all people with traumatic brain injuries.

It doesn’t matter how smart your test takers are. There will always be this bell curve distribution. That’s how the tests are designed. So to talk about raising test scores is nonsensical. You can raise scores at school A or School B, but the total set of all test takers will always be the same. And some students will always fail.

But that isn’t even the worst part.

Standardization, itself, has certain consequences. We seem to have forgotten what the term even means. It’s defined as the act of evaluating someone or something by reference to a standard.

This socket wrench is a good socket wrench because it most closely resembles some ideal socket wrench. This McDonald’s Big Mac is good because it resembles the ideal McDonald’s Big Mac.

That’s what we’re doing to people – children in fact. We’re evaluating them based on their resemblance to some ideal definition of what a child should know and what a child should be.

But children are not socket wrenches nor are they Big Macs. It is not so easy to reduce them to their component parts and say this is good and that is bad.

When you try to abstract them to that point, it is impossible to remove various essential factors of their identity – race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. Nor would it be admirable if you could, because you would have abstracted to the point where the individual is no longer visible or valued. A child raised in poverty is simply not the same as a child from a privileged upbringing. A child from a culture that values cooperation is not the same as a child from a culture that values individual achievement. And that’s often a good thing.

But when you define a standard, an ideal, you make certain choices – you privilege some attributes and denigrate others. Since the people creating the tests are almost exclusively upper middle class white people, it should come as no surprise that that is the measure by which they assess success.

Is it any wonder then that poor kids and children of color don’t score as well on these tests? Is it any wonder that upper middle class white kids score so well?

We’ve known this for almost a century. Standardized tests do a poor job of assessing intelligence or knowledge. Those things are too complex and the tests are too simple. If you’re evaluating something equally simple like basic addition and subtraction, these tests can work alright. But if you’re trying to get at something complex like critical thinking or creativity, they end up doing little more than prizing the way some people think and not others. In short, they elevate the thought processes most associated with rich white kids.

It doesn’t mean poor and/or black children are any less intelligent. It just means rich white kids have the things for which the test designers are looking. Some of this is due to economic factors like greater access to private tutoring, books in the home, parents with more time to read to their kids, coming to school healthy and more focused. However, a large portion is due to the very act of taking tests that are created to reflect white upper class values and norms.

Think about it. Almost all the questions are field tested before they become a permanent part of the exam. Students are given a question that doesn’t count to their final score, but test makers tabulate how many kids get it right or wrong. So when most white kids answer a field tested question correctly and most black kids get it wrong, it still becomes a permanent test question because there are so few blacks relative to whites. Maybe it’s a question that references sun tan lotion, something with which darker skinned people don’t have as much experience. Imagine if a question referencing the hair care practices of  black people became a test item. White people would have difficulty with it because they can’t easily relate. But the field testing process doesn’t allow that because it normalizes whiteness.

So black kids stumble while white kids have an easier time. We even have a name for it: the racial proficiency gap.

Many well-intentioned progressive voices have bemoaned this problem and wondered how to solve it. But it’s not the scores that are the problem. It’s the assessments. They are doing exactly what they were designed to do.

That’s right. You cannot have such obvious, historical problems perpetuated year-after-year, decade-after-decade, and still think they are mere unintended consequences.

This is how the system was designed to work. This is how it’s always been designed to work.

If you were going to create a racist and classist school system from scratch, what would you do? How would you go about it?

You’d need the lower classes to have SOME mediocre education so they are able to do the menial work that keeps society running. But only so much. Education as a social ladder is all well and good as propaganda. But you don’t want that ladder to lead out of the basement for more than a few.

You need something that will create a hierarchy with people of color at the bottom and poor whites only slightly better off so they can feel ennobled compared to their darker subordinates.

You need a biased sorting mechanism – something that allows you to put students into privileged and unprivileged categories but that will look to all the world like it was doing so fairly. It would have to appear like you were choosing students based on merit.

You’d need something like standardized test scores.

This is how these assessments have functioned from their very beginnings.

When Carl Brigham and Robert Yerkes, U.S. Army psychologists during WWI, designed the alpha and beta intelligence tests to determine which soldiers deserved to be officers, they were creating a pseudoscientific justification for white privilege. They used biased and unfair assessments to “prove” that rich white folks were best suited to give orders, and the rest of us belonged in the trenches.

Brigham and Yerkes were drawing upon eugenics, also called “racial hygiene” or “scientific racism.” This was a radical misreading of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin. Eugenicists thought positive traits such as intelligence were widespread in Northwestern European races and almost nonexistent in others. Moreover, negative traits such as laziness and criminality were common in nonwhites and almost absent in those same Northwestern Europeans.

“We should not work primarily for the exclusion of intellectual defectives but rather for the classification of men in order that they may be properly placed,” wrote Yerkes.

THIS is the basis of standardized testing.

After the war, Brigham took the same principles to create the Scholastic Aptitude Test or S.A.T. – in principle the same exam still taken by 2.1 million teenagers every year to ensure they get into their chosen college.

The test was further refined by fellow eugenicist Lewis Terman, Professor of Education at Stanford University and originator of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. Together these three men created the foundations for the modern field of standardized testing. And make no mistake – its axiomatic principle is still that some races are genetically superior and others are inferior.

Or as Terman put it:

“A low level of intelligence is very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among Negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come… They constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.”

After WWII, the eugenicist brand suffered from comparison to the Nazis who had been inspired by the findings of Brigham, Yerkes and Terman among others. In the post war years, we’ve discarded the overtly racist language but kept the assessments. Yet they still function the same way – sorting out blacks and the poor while prizing the rich and white.

This information is not secret. It is not kept under lock and key in some hidden military base somewhere. It’s accessible to anyone with Internet access or a library card.
We ignore it, because otherwise it would destabilize the current power structure – the corporate education policies that drive school practices in our country. We close our eyes and pretend it isn’t happening.

But it is.

“Standardized tests are the last form of legalized discrimination in the US,” said Education and Psychology Prof. Phil Harris.

With them you can give rich and middle class whites every advantage while withholding the same from students of color. And we don’t call it racism or classism because we pretend the whites earned their privileges by their test scores.

“We are using the testocracy as a proxy for privilege,” said civil rights theorist Lanni Guinier. Test scores are the excuse for prejudicial and unjust practices that would be impossible without them.

For instance, if you really wanted to help someone who’s struggling, you might offer extra help. But low test scores are used as the reason for withholding that help. We actually use these invalid scores as a means of demeaning and firing poor black kids’ teachers – as if anything they could do could completely overcome biased assessments and poverty. In this way, we not only remove those already in place to help these kids, we ensure few people will volunteer to take their place.

And when you have a teacher shortage in these poor urban neighborhoods, you can use that to justify further deprivations. Instead of teachers with 4-year education degrees, you can hire lightly trained Teach for America temps – college grads who’ve taken no coursework in education beyond a six weeks cram session.

And if the parents of these children complain, you can open charter schools to pull a quick bait and switch. Make them feel like they have a choice when really you’re pulling the rug out from under them. You provide them with a school with none of the safeguards of a traditional public institution – no elected school board, no transparency on how tax dollars are spent, little oversight, a right to refuse any student they wish, etc. And when the school goes belly up, these kids will be pushed back to their former traditional public school that has had to make due with less funding and now can provide even fewer  services than it could before students jumped ship.

Using standardized test scores to judge not just students but whole schools, you can destabilize the entire system of public education. Charter schools and traditional public schools fight over ever-dwindling funding, one required to prove everything it does, the other able to do whatever it wants until it closes with little to no consequences for charter operators who take the money and run.

The US Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs Board that we can’t have “separate but equal” schools because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal. But somehow that doesn’t apply to charter schools.

Somehow we’ve stopped caring about integration – one of the central victories of the Civil Rights movement! This plays right into the hands of the corporate education reformers. They have done everything they can to increase segregation because it makes it so much easier to privilege rich white kids and crush poor black ones.

They don’t want an equal mix of black and white, rich and poor in our schools. That would make it much harder to select against one class of student while boosting another.

They need to keep the races and classes as separate as possible. Charter schools help in this regard, but they would be insufficient without the help from many white families who flee from these “other” darker complected kids. It’s just another way to send more funding to white kids and less to poor black kids. They say it’s based on local property taxes. That way they can pretend it’s all fair and above board. Rich folks have a right to be able to give their kids the best, and if poor folks can’t afford to do the same, who do you expect to pick up the tab?

Oh! And let’s not forget setting “high academic standards” while all this is going on. They throw out everything that’s been working and come up with a Common Core of knowledge that all kids need to learn. Don’t include black and brown history, culture or the arts – just the stuff the business community thinks is valuable because they know so much about what’s really important in life. And have the whole thing written up by non-educators and non-psychologists and don’t bother testing it out to make sure it works.

Your rich white kids will have no problem jumping through these hoops. But your poor black and brown kids will stumble and fall – just as planned.

This is what has become of our public schools.

This is corporate education reform.

This is our racist, classist school system.

And it’s all based on standardized testing – a perfectly legal system of normalizing rich whiteness.

The Child Predator We Invite into Our Schools

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There is a good chance a predator is in the classroom with your child right now.

He is reading her homework assignments, quizzes and emails. He is timing how long it takes her to answer questions, noting her right and wrong answers. He’s even watching her body language to determine if she’s engaged in the lesson.

He has given her a full battery of psychological assessments, and she doesn’t even notice. He knows her academic strengths and weaknesses, when she’ll give up, when she’ll preserver, how she thinks.

And he’s not a teacher, counselor or even another student. In fact, your child can’t even see him – he’s on her computer or hand-held device.

It’s called data mining, and it’s one of the major revenue sources of ed-tech companies. These are for-profit business ventures that produce education software: programs to organize student information and help them learn. They make databases and classroom management tools as well as educational video games and test prep software.

As schools have relied more heavily on technology to enhance lessons, they’ve invited big business into a space that is supposed to be private.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects student privacy, but it also gives school districts the right to share students’ personal information with private companies for educational reasons.

Companies are supposed to keep test scores, disciplinary history and other official records confidential. They’re not supposed to use them for their own ends. But the law was written in 1974 before the Internet went mainstream or many of these technologies were even conceived.

It’s unclear exactly who owns this data or whether FERPA protects it.

For every child utilizing these programs, there’s a good chance their data has been put into a portfolio with their name on it. That portfolio could be sold to advertisers and other business interests so they can better market their products to young consumers. With this information, these companies are turning children into guinea pigs so they can improve the profitability of their products.

Let me be clear. It’s not that technology is essentially evil. There are many ways in which it can be used to enhance student learning when provided under the supervision of a trained educator. But the current laws offer little protection for children and parents from rampant abuse by the ed-tech industry.

In most cases no one explicitly gives permission for student data to be shared. No one knew it was even happening.

This is an area that is almost completely unregulated. Hardly anyone is investigating it. After all, why should they? It’s just harmless big business. It’s just corporations we invited to the party; we may even have paid them to be there.

Individual school districts could write privacy protections into their contracts with ed-tech corporations, but few do.

According to a nationwide study by the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham University, just 7 percent of the contracts between districts and ed-tech corporations barred the companies from selling student data for profit.

Few contracts require companies to delete sensitive data when they are done with it. And just a quarter of companies clearly explain why they need personal student information in the first place, according to the same study.

To make matters worse, the publicly stated privacy policies of these corporations can be extremely dense and full of provisos. You may need a lawyer specializing in this field to truly understand what they’re promising to keep private and what might fall under a loophole.

For instance, even if a company promises not to share student information for nonacademic reasons, it can farm out some of its services to third party companies that have no such compunction about student privacy. These third party vendors or even the primary ed-tech company can put cookies on your child’s computer or device that continue to gather data on her and report back on it indefinitely. Moreover, even if the ed-tech company is diligent about protecting student privacy, that policy can change without notice and without parents being notified. For instance, many of these ed-tech companies are rag tag start-ups that are just hoping to be purchased by a bigger organization. In that case the privacy policy will almost certainly alter, possibly without notice.

Data mining isn’t exclusive to education software applications. If you’ve ever passed up a product on-line and then immediately saw an advertisement for that product on a different Website – congratulations – You’ve been data mined. Many of the applications adults use every day in their virtual lives practice this to some extent – Facebook, Google, Netflix, etc. However, there’s a difference between an adult user who enters into virtual relationships with eyes wide open and a child just completing the classwork her teacher assigned in school.

But even beyond the philosophical difference is the extent to which our children are being data mined. No where is it more pervasive than in our schools.

A really efficient ed-tech firm can collect as much as 10 million unique data points on each child, every day. That’s exponentially more than Facebook, Google or Netflix collect on their users.

Moreover, the ed-tech industry hungers for even more data on our children.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a $1.4 million research project to provide middle-school students with biometric sensors designed to detect how kids responded on a subconscious level to each minute of each lesson. Like Common Core State Standards – Gates’ attempt to force uniform academic standards on the nation’s public schools – data mining is all about turning real children into information. Intelligence and knowledge are reduced to numbers. Biological functions, heat indexes, even eye movements are tabulated as a function of a salable commodity – your child.

In the not too distant future, ed-tech companies could sell information about which prospective job applicants or college students have the proper aptitude to be successful. In some ways, this is just an extension of the ways standardized tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) are used to unfairly label students worthy or not of a post-secondary education. However, those tests are taken by high school juniors and seniors. The coming data mining boom would judge children based on their performance all the way back to kindergarten or even pre-kindergarten.

As usual the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is already planning for this dystopian nightmare. The conservative lobbying organization has drafted a model bill to make this a reality.  If picked up and offered in any state legislature, the bill would set up a central database for student records and allow colleges or businesses to browse them in search of potential recruits.

In addition, these student portfolios could allow corporate vultures to prey on customers vulnerable to particular sales pitches. For instance, young adults who had struggled at math in high school would make dandy targets for high-priced payday loans.

In the meantime, hedge fund managers and other investors are pouring money into the ed-tech market. More than $650 million flowed into technology firms serving K-12 and higher education each year for the past three years. That’s nearly double the $331 million invested in these markets in 2009. The national market for education software and digital content is nearly $8 billion, according to the Software & Information Industry Association.

Yet there is little evidence these applications are truly helpful in educating children. Even the technology-loving Gates Foundation, found in a national survey that only 54 percent of teachers thought the digital tools used most frequently by their students were effective.

Let’s get something straight: the reason most of these firms exist is not education. It is spying on children. It is stealing their valuable data for corporations’ own ends.

The ed-tech market is intimately entwined with the latest fad in education policy – Competency Based Education (CBE).

This has come to mean teaching and assessment conducted online, where students’ learning is continuously monitored, measured, and analyzed.

However, the goal seems to be replacing big end of the year standardized tests with daily stealth assessments. In this way, it would be more difficult for parents to refuse testing for their children. It would hide the ways in which a standardized curriculum narrowed student learning to the very basics. It would hide how children’s every tiniest action is being used to judge and evaluate their schools and teachers. And this information of dubious validity could be used to close public schools and replace them with shoddy but more profitable charter schools.

Education historian Diane Ravitch talks about a meeting in August of 2015 with The State Commissioner of Education in New York, Mary Ellen Elia, and several board members of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), a highly successful state opt out organization.

She says:

 

“At one point, Commissioner Elia said that the annual tests would eventually be phased out and replaced by embedded assessment. When asked to explain, she said that students would do their school work online, and they would be continuously assessed. The computer could tell teachers what the students were able to do, minute by minute.”

The plan has been laid bare. Our students privacy has been compromised and is being used against them. If big business has its say, our children will be forever pawns in a system that reduces them to data and profit.

That’s not what public school should be about.

It should be a place centered on learning not earning.

It should be a place that values the student and not her data.

It should be a place of creativity, imagination and wonder.

But as long as we allow ed-tech companies to run unregulated in the shadows, it will always be susceptible to these dangers.

The only one who can stop these predators in your child’s classroom is you.

State Senator: Get Ready to Sue the PA Department of Education Over Common Core Testing

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Pennsylvania State Sen. Andrew Dinniman is mad as Hell and he’s not going to take it anymore.

The West Chester Democrat is furious at the state Department of Education (PDE) over the Keystone Exams.

In February, the legislature unanimously passed a law to delay for two years using the Keystones as a graduation requirement for public school students. The exams will still be given to high school students in Algebra I, Biology and English, but passing them is not necessary to receive a diploma. During this time, the legislature is supposed to investigate alternate assessments above and beyond standardized testing.

However, Dinniman sent out an email to supporters this week claiming PDE is “blatantly ignoring the law and issuing directives to local school districts to use the exam if they want to for graduation.”

This goes against the delay, says Dinniman. The legislature is unsure requiring the Keystone Exam is a good idea, yet the state Senator contends the current administration is advising districts to move forward anyway.

Under the old law that was put on hold by the delay, if parents decided to opt their children out of standardized testing, students had to complete a Project Based Assessment. However, even though there is no test-based graduation requirement for current seniors, Dinniman says PDE still is forcing these children to complete Project Based Assessments.

“It appears that PDE is forcing the children of parents who opted out to take the Project Based Assessment, whose use is currently suspended by the legislature,” he says.

“There seems to be no respect by PDE for the rights of parents concerning their own children.”

Dinniman, who also serves as minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, has long been a critic of the Keystone Exams. He lead the charge to delay their implementation.

Now that PDE seems committed to the project despite concerns by legislators, he is asking for parents and other concerned citizens to contact him about suing the organization.

“If you know parents or organizations who might want to take PDE to court or file amicus briefs, let me know…  This is a matter of great importance. A number of us have been working for years against excessive testing and have serious concerns about Common Core.”

He will hold an open meeting for those concerned about the issue on Monday, Sept. 12, at 7:30 pm in his district office along One North Church Street in West Chester.

One of the issues at stake is the exorbitant costs of the Keystone and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. With education budgets shrinking at the federal, state and local level, this money diverted to huge testing corporations could be better spent elsewhere.

Since 2008, the Commonwealth has spent $1 billion to proctor, grade and create new versions of the PSSA and the new Common Core-aligned Keystone Exams. Of that figure, $741 million went to Data Recognition Corporation.

Dinniman included in his email an explanation of the Commonwealth’s contract with Data Recognition Corp., a chart showing how much has been paid to the company, a list of materials PDE requested from the company but that has not yet been provided and an article written by education historian Diane Ravitch published in the New York Times explaining why these tests are troublesome.

In 2013, the state Conference of NAACP Branches issued a statement condemning the Keystone graduation requirement in extremely strong terms.

The organization called it a “present day form of Eugenics”, “a human rights violation”, “a clandestine social movement that strips children of their dignity and self worth” and that it would deprive impoverished and minority students  “of decent income, decent food, decent homes, and hopeful prospects as well as the security of justice.”

The statement can be read in full here.

In the halls of state government, Dinniman has been one of the most vocal critics of high stakes testing and national academic standards.

“I have been fighting against the use of these standardized tests as the sole determinants of high school graduation since they were first proposed by the previous [Corbett] administration in 2012.”

“Strong standards and effective assessments are needed in our schools, but they must come with the necessary resources and support to be implemented in a way that does not negatively impact both students and taxpayers,” he says.

Chester County, where Dinniman is from, has been a hotbed of testing criticism. Located in the southeastern most part of the state, parents, teachers and students publicly spoke out against the exams. Almost all school boards in the county passed resolutions opposing the Keystones and 58 superintendents and Intermediate Unit Directors up through the Philadelphia suburbs also expressed opposition.

If the delay had not been approved, this year’s seniors would have been required to pass all three Keystone Exams in order to graduate. Now the exams won’t be a graduation requirement until the 2018-19 school year.

The federal government still requires the exams be given for evaluative purposes, but it was the Republican dominated Tom Corbett administration that went the extra step of making the exams necessary to receive a diploma.

The delay is supposed to provide additional time to resolve consequences of implementing the exams. This means investigating and reporting on the following:

    • Alternative methods for students to demonstrate proficiency for graduation in addition to the Keystone Exams and project-based assessments.
    • Improving and expediting the evaluation of the project-based assessments.
    • Ensuring that students are not prohibited from participating in vocational-technical education or elective courses or programs as a requirement of supplemental instruction.

Moreover, the newly passed federal K-12 education legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), allows the Commonwealth even more leeway to implement fairer and more affective means of assessment, Dinniman says.

“Until now, education policy has been largely dominated by regulations implemented by the State Board of Education in accordance with the federal government. Some of these regulations seemed to be enacted with little to no consideration of fiscal impacts or educational value,” Dinniman said.

“However, the state legislature has a Constitutional duty and responsibility to oversee and provide for ‘a thorough and efficient system of public education.’ Going forward, I believe the legislature will be more aggressive in reasserting its role in the process.”

Dinniman can be reached by phone at 610-692-2112 (District Office) and 717-787-5709 (Harrisburg Office).

He can be reached by email here.

He is on Facebook and Twitter.

Below is the full text of Dinniman’s Email:


(Source: optoutpa.blogspot.com)

 

To Supporters of Ending Common Core Exams in Pennsylvania:

Despite Act 1 of 2016, which suspended any use of the Keystone exams or the Project Based Assessments for graduation purposes during the two year period of 2016-18, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is blatantly ignoring the law and issuing directives to local school districts to use the exam if they want to for graduation.

It certainly appears that PDE has shown their solid commitment to the Common Core testing process and the continued collection of data.  They don’t seem to care about or respect the law.  This is not government by the elected legislature but government by the bureaucracy.

You will be interested to learn the taxpayers of Pennsylvania, since 2008, spent $1.1 billion on these Common Core tests, with $741 million of that going to one testing company, Data Recognition Corporation (DRC).

Please view the supporting material at the following links:
1. An explanation of the Data Recognition Corp. (DRC) contracts.

2. A chart showing the DRC contracts, which come to $741,158,039.60, and the total paid to date of $440,512,625.69.

3. A listing of material requested from PDE but, as of this date, not provided.
4. A column from the July 23, 2016 New York Times providing background on these Common Core Exams, which in Pennsylvania are the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams.

Additionally, it appears that PDE is forcing the children of parents who opted out to take the Project Based Assessment, whose use is currently suspended by the legislature.  There seems to be no respect by PDE for the rights of parents concerning their own children.

So the question now is “what will we do about this situation?”  If you know parents or organizations who might want to take PDE to court or file amicus briefs, let me know.

In the meantime, I am having a meeting for those concerned about PDE’s actions in my district office, One North Church Street, West Chester, on Monday, September 12th, 2016 at 7:30 p.m.

This is a matter of great importance.  A number of us have been working for years against excessive testing and have serious concerns about Common Core.  Please invite your friends to join in the September 12th meeting.

Respectfully,

Andrew E. Dinniman

State Senator, 19th District

Common Core’s New New Math has the Same Problem as the Old New Math

little tired boy sitting at a desk and holding hands to head

 

Bad ideas are like unlucky pennies – they keep coming back again.

Take the New Math. Or maybe I should say the New New Math.

Common Core State Standards suggests we teach children a new way to do arithmetic. We should focus on multiple ways to reach an answer with an emphasis on understanding the concept behind the problem rather than just manipulating numbers.

It sounds fine in theory – until you think about it for five minutes.

When learning a new skill, it’s best to master a single, simple approach before being exposed to other more complex methods. Otherwise, you run the risk of confusion, frustration and ultimately not learning how to solve the problem.

Take directions.

If you’re lost and you ask for directions, you don’t want someone to tell you five ways to reach your destination. You want one, relatively simple way to get there – preferably with the least amount of turns and the highest number of landmarks.

Maybe later if you’re going to be traveling to this place frequently, you may want to learn alternate routes. But the first time, you’re more concerned about finding the destination (i.e. getting the answer) than understanding how the landscape would appear on a map.

This is the problem with Common Core math. It doesn’t merely ALLOW students to pursue alternate methods of solving problems. It REQUIRES them to know all the ways the problem can be solved and to be able to explain each method. Otherwise, it presumes to evaluate the student’s understanding as insufficient.

This is highly unfair to students. No wonder so many are failing.

Sadly there’s some history here that should have warned us about the perils of this approach.

Common Core isn’t the first new math approach to come along. In the 1960s we had a method actually called “The New Math.” And like Common Core, it was a dismal failure.

Like the Core, it proposed to focus more on conceptual understanding, but to do so it needlessly complicated matters at the grade school level.

It introduced set theory, forcing students to think of numbers as groups of objects rather than abstractions to be manipulated. In an advanced undergraduate mathematics course, this makes perfect sense. In first grade, it muddles the learning tremendously.

To make matters even more perplexing, it mandates students look at numbers with bases other than 10. This is incredibly confounding for elementary students who often resort to their fingers to help them understand early math.

Tom Lehrer wrote a very funny song about the new math which shows how confusing it can be. The methods used to solve the problem can be helpful but an emphasis on the conceptual underpinning at early ages perplexes more than it helps:

Popular culture is full of sly references to this old New Math. Charles Schultz wrote about it in several Peanuts comic strips in 1965. In one such strip, kindergartener Sally gets so frustrated trying to solve a New Math problem she cries, “All I want to know is, how much is two and two?” New Math even made an appearance in the 1973 movie “There’s No Time for Love, Charlie Brown,” in which the titular Brown asks “How do you do New Math problems with an old Math mind?”

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In the 1992 episode of the Simpsons, “Dog of Death,” Principal Skinner is elated that an influx of school funding will allow him to purchase school improvements. In particular he wants to buy history books that reveal how the Korean War ended and “math books that don’t have that base six crap in them!”

So where did this idea for New Math come from?

In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik sending Americans into a panic that they were being left behind by these Communist supermen. As a result in 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower passed the National Defense Education Act which dramatically increased school budgets and sent academics racing for ways to reform old practices. One product of this burst of activity was the New Math.
A decade later, it was mostly gone from our public schools. Parents complained they couldn’t help their children with homework. Teachers complained they didn’t understand it and that it needlessly confused their students.

Fast forward to 1983 and President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. The organization released a report called “A Nation at Risk” that purported to show that public schools were failing. As a result, numerous reforms were recommended such as increased standardization, privatization and competition.

It is hard to overemphasize how influential this report was in education circles. Even today after its claims have systematically and thoroughly been debunked by statisticians like those at Sandia National Laboratories, politicians, pundits and the media persist with this myth of failing public schools.

“A Nation at Risk” birthed our modern era of high stakes testing and, in 2009, Common Core.

In theory, each state would adopt the same set of academic standards thereby improving education nationally. However, they were written by the standardized testing corporations – not working educators and experts in childhood development. So they ignore key factors about how children learn – just like the New Math of old.

In short, we repeated the same mistake – or a very similar one.

Children are not computers. You can’t program their minds like you would a MacBook or iPhone. In many ways, including math instruction, Common Core ignores these facts.

And so we have the same result as the old New Math. Parents all over the country are complaining that they can’t help their children with their homework. Teachers are complaining that the Core unnecessarily confuses students.

In some ways, the Core is worse than the old New Math because of its close connection with high stakes testing. In the ‘60s if a child didn’t understand how to add, he failed math. Today, if a child does that, he fails the standardized test and if that happens to enough students, his school loses funding, his teacher may be fired and his school may be closed. As such, the pressure today’s children undergo is tremendous. They aren’t just responsible for their own learning. They’re responsible for the entire school community.

Those are unfair burdens for school children – especially when the decisions that make it easy or hard for him to learn are not made by the student but by politicians, pundits and policymakers.

But perhaps most telling is this: it doesn’t help children learn.

Isn’t that what this was all supposed to be about in the first place?

Perhaps we don’t need a new math. Perhaps we simply need policymakers willing to listen to education and childhood experts instead of business interests poised to profit off new reforms regardless of whether they actually work.