Why Won’t Republicans Repeal Common Core?

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It was a constant refrain from Donald Trump on the stump.

 

 

He was going to repeal Common Core. How did we know? He kept repeating it over-and-over.

 

 

“We’re cutting Common Core. We’re getting rid of Common Core,” he said during a debate in Detroit.

 

 

“Common Core is a total disaster. We can’t let it continue,” he said in a campaign ad.

 

 

But then, he did a complete 180:

 

 

“We are going to do some things special. Okay. Are you ready? Common Core we’re going to keep.”

 

 

What!?

 

 

It didn’t go down so well with his supporters. He was literally booed. So he took to Twitter with the following:

 

 

“I was referring to the fact that Jeb Bush wants to keep common core.”

 

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Uh, okay?

 

 

So what’s his position now? Someone asked him about it in New Hampshire. His response:

 

 

“I didn’t know Common Core was so complicated. Isn’t this ridiculous?”

 

 

On that we can agree.

 

 

But it really doesn’t matter.

 

 

POWER TO THE STATES

 

 

Whether Trump supports Common Core or not, he’s actually kind of powerless to do anything about it.

 

 

Republicans have been arguing for years that the federal government can’t tell the states what they should be teaching. That’s the crux of opposition, and the newly reauthorized federal law governing K-12 schools, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), underlines it.

 

 

The power is unequivocally in the hands of governors and state legislatures.

 

 

The states control which academic standards their public schools are supposed to subscribe to or not. And since the beginning of 2017, the states are overwhelmingly in Republican control.

 

There are 98 partisan state legislative chambers in the United States. Republicans dominate 67 of them. In fact, the GOP controls both legislative chambers in 32 states – the most it has in the party’s history! And in 24 of those states, Republicans also run the show in the Governor’s mansion – the trifecta!

 

In short, despite any limits on Presidential power, the GOP has never been in a better position to get rid of Common Core.

 

If Republicans truly wanted to repeal it, they could do so tomorrow, and there’s zero Democrats could do about it in almost half of the country.

 

Yet, Republicans don’t.

 

They haven’t.

 

And they don’t seem in any rush to put it on their agenda in the future.

 

Which brings me to a serious question any critic of Common Core has to answer: WHY!?

 

Republicans say they hate Common Core.

 

They have the power to get rid of it.

 

Why don’t they do it?

 

 

THE STATE OF COMMON CORE

 

 

Despite any comments to the contrary, any blathering talking head nonsense from media pundits, the facts remain the same.

 

Common Core is still the law of the land in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

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Sure, some legislatures have changed the name and made nominal revisions (Hello, Pennsylvania!) but they’re still essentially the same standards applied in the same way. The Common Core’s own Website doesn’t distinguish between states that have the standards outright and those where they have been slightly revised or renamed.

 

Specifically, nine states have announced plans to rewrite or replace the standards, but in the majority of these cases, they have resulted merely in slight revisions. Only Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee appear to have created significantly different standards, according to Education Week.

 

So what’s the hold up?

 

 

MAIN OBJECTIONS TO THE CORE

 

 

Full disclosure: I am not a Republican. I am the farthest thing you could find to a Republican. But on this one issue we agree.

 

No, I don’t think Common Core will make your child gay or indoctrinate kids into a far left worldview or any of a number of bizarre, crackpot criticisms you might hear from mentally ill pundits being exploited by far right media conglomerates. Nor am I opposed simply to undo any signature legislative achievements of our first black President.

 

But I do think there are several rational reasons to be against Common Core. The standards were written almost exclusively by representatives of the standardized testing industry with input from very few practicing classroom teachers and zero child psychologists. They have never been tested and proven effective. In many cases, they are developmentally inappropriate. They were adopted non-democratically. And – perhaps worst of all – they commit schools to the failed educational management technique of test-and-punish.

 

THAT’S why I’m against Common Core.

 

But it really doesn’t matter.

 

Even if people like Glenn Beck and I disagree on the reasons why, we both agree on the course of action – repeal Common Core.

 

Yet the incumbent batch of GOP lawmakers across the country are letting us both down.

 

If one has to be beaten by Republicans, at least let them accomplish the things that have bipartisan support. That includes repealing Common Core.

 

Though the media likes to characterize this as a conservative issue, it’s not just Republicans who want to get rid of the Core. Regardless of politics, most people dislike the standards. They aren’t popular with adults. They aren’t popular with children. And most tellingly, they aren’t popular with classroom teachers.

 

According to the most recent Education Next poll, less than half of all Americans, 49%, favor the policy. In partisan terms, that’s 37% of Republicans and 57% of Democrats. And that support has been steadily dropping every year – by 20 points for Republicans and seven for Democrats since 2013.

 

And among teachers, the drop is even more dramatic. Only 40% now favor the Core. That’s a drop of 36 points among those who know the standards best!

 

 

POLITICAL PARALLELS

 

 

So let’s get rid of them.

 

For once I’m with Trump.

 

But the legislatures just won’t do it.

 

In some ways, this shares parallels with the healthcare debate.

 

Before going forward, let me just say that I am NOT in favor of repealing Obamacare and going back to the previous system. Nor am I in favor of repealing without a replacement or any of the so-called “skinny” plans put forth by the GOP.

 

I think we need single payer healthcare. Medicare for all.

 

But be that as it may. The debate offers us a similar example from the federal level.

 

Republicans say they hate Obamacare yet despite the fact that Democrats can do nothing to stop them, they refuse to repeal it.

 

In this case, the reason is obvious – they have nothing with which to replace it.

 

After all these years, they can’t come up with a plan that will improve upon the one already in place.

 

But this isn’t the case at the state level when it comes to Common Core.

 

Each and every state had a set of academic standards before Common Core. In most cases, these standards were actually far superior.

 

All the legislatures would have to do is reinstate them.

 

Pennsylvania’s standards were particularly reasonable, flexible yet grade appropriate and comprehensive.

 

We could go back to them tomorrow.

 

But we don’t.

 

Why?

 

It’s that same question again.

 

What is holding us back?

 

 

STANDARDIZED TESTING

 

 

Here’s my theory: it’s the testing.

 

One of the most frustrating things for Common Core critics is when apologists say they hate standardized testing but love Common Core.

 

The two are inextricably interlinked. You can’t have Common Core without the testing. That is the whole point of the standards – to tell districts what to focus on because those things will be on the federally mandated high stakes standardized tests.

 

If states repeal Common Core, what happens to these tests?

 

Before adopting the Core, each state had a test aligned to its own specific standards. Even where some states had the same tests, their standards were significantly similar to allow this. In any case, most states that have adopted the Core have had to buy new, more difficult tests.

 

Sure, we could all go back to the tests we used to give, but this would present certain problems.

 

First, many states were taking tests that were already being aligned with Common Core before they officially adopted it. If they got rid of the standards, they couldn’t go back to the old tests because they’re already Common Core specific.

 

In theory, they could ask to reinstate older versions of the test that aren’t Common Core aligned. However, in practice for some states, this might necessitate the creation of yet another batch of new tests.

 

However, in many states like Pennsylvania, this wouldn’t be an issue. Before the Core, they had their own tests based on state specific standards. There’s really no reason why they couldn’t dust off these old tests and put them back into circulation.

 

The problem is that this would require politicians to justify the millions of dollars (at least $7 billion nationally) they wasted on the new tests, new workbooks, new textbooks, etc.

 

Lawmakers would have to own their mistakes.

 

They’d have to say, “My bad!”

 

And most of them aren’t about to do that.

 

Of course, there is a third option: they could undo the high stakes testing altogether. They could characterize this not as a misstep but a reform.

 

According to the ESSA, all states have to give federally mandated standardized tests from grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

But what exactly those tests look like is debatable.

 

The federal government is supposed to give them leeway in this matter. What better way for the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos to demonstrate their commitment to local control than by approving accountability plans that don’t include standardized testing?

 

States could substitute student projects, classroom grades, internships, even community service for this mandate.

 

I’m sure if lawmakers were really serious about getting rid of Common Core, they could figure out a way to make this work. It would just require a commitment to patching up the massive hole in our school funding system where the standardized testing industry has been sucking away tax dollars that could be better used elsewhere – like in the actual act of teaching students!

 

 

THE CYNICAL INTERPRETATION

 

 

Which brings me to perhaps the most cynical interpretation of the data.

 

Republicans may be avoiding the Common Core issue because their opposition up to now was simply disingenuous partisan infighting. They could be craven servants to the testing industry. Or – and this is the worst case scenario – they could have another endgame in mind entirely.

 

Whenever the issue is brought up these days – whenever ANY educational issue is brought up – the Trump administration almost always pivots to school choice.

 

For instance, here’s Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway during an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN.

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “will get on with the business of executing on the president’s vision for education,” Conway said. “He’s made very clear all throughout the campaign and as president he wants to repeal Common Core, he doesn’t think that federal standards are better than local and parental control…And that children should not be restricted in terms of education opportunities just by their ZIP code, just by where they live. We’ve got to look at homeschooling, and charter schools, and school choice and other alternatives for certain students.”

 

It’s possible that today’s Republicans at both the state and federal level aren’t concerned with repealing Common Core because it’s irrelevant to their ultimate goal – repealing the very notion of public education.

 

If every school or almost every school was a charter, voucher or homeschool, Common Core would be a moot point.

 

After all, choice schools don’t have to follow most regulations. That could include using the Core.

 

This is especially true at voucher schools and homeschools. They can do pretty much whatever they please in most states. If they don’t want to use Common Core, the states have little power (as yet) to force them to do so. Of course accepting tax-payer funding does open them up to being regulated in the future if the political winds change.

 

On the other hand, charter schools often allegedly do use Common Core, but regulations are so lax with so few measures to hold them accountable for anything in most states that whether they’re actually using the standards and to what extent is anyone’s guess. Unscrupulous charter operators could conceivably forgo the standards regardless of state mandates with little fear of being found out or contradicted.

 

This may be the ultimate selling point for school choice. Almost anything goes. It could certainly allow schools to circumvent Common Core, just as it allows them to circumvent civil rights protections, fiscal responsibility, democratic local control – really any kind of protections to ensure taxpayer money is being spent responsibly and kids are actually being educated.

 

In short, it hammers a nail with a bazooka. Yet conservative lawmakers may only be concerned with who’s selling the bazooka and not who gets hit by the shrapnel.

 

For a long time now, education policy has been about where the money is, and that is unequivocally behind school choice. What these policies lack in public support they make up for in sugar daddies. Billionaires on both sides of the aisle have been pouring cash into these efforts for years.

 

Just imagine! Anyone with the backing can start a school and pocket as much of the tax dollars originally meant to educate kids but now transformed into sweet, sweet profit!

 

In fact, the point behind high stakes testing was primarily to undercut support for public schools. It was to “prove” our schools were failing and needed to be replaced with charter and voucher schools. But once we’ve gotten rid of public schools, the testing won’t be as necessary.

 

It will become just another revenue stream in a multitudinous school system where education only has meaning in how much it can profitize students and enrich investors.

 

That may be the true endgame for policymakers.

 

Common Core is just one of a number of schemes they’re pushing to take advantage of the country’s fastest growing revenue stream: our children.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

THIS is why lawmakers – both Republican and Democrat – won’t get rid of Common Core.

 

They are bought and sold employees of Wall Street and Corporate America.

 

Too many people are making a fortune off the backs of our children – charter and voucher school investors, book publishers, software companies, test manufacturers, private prison corporations! They aren’t about to let their profits take a nosedive by allowing their paid agents in the legislature to turn off the gravy train.

 

THAT’S why Republicans haven’t ended Common Core.

 

That’s why they never will.

More Truth in Teacher-Written Education Blogs Than Corporate Media

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Let’s get one thing straight right from the get go: I am biased.

 

But so are you.

 

So are the parents, students, principals and school directors. So are the policymakers, the corporate donors and professional journalists.

 

Everyone involved in education policy is interested in one side or another of the debate. It’s just that some pretend to practice a kind of objectivity while others are open about their partiality.

 

It’s unavoidable. I’m a public school teacher. Not merely someone who’s taught in a public school for a few years – I’m an educator with more than 15 years experience in the classroom. And I’m still there.

 

I’m not a Teach for America recruit who committed myself to three years in front of children after a few weeks crash course. Where I am now was my goal in the first place. I’m not doing this to get the credentials for my real dream job, being an education policy advisor for a Congressperson or Senator. Nor do I plan to become a Superintendent, Principal or school administrator someday.

 

All along, my goal was to have a classroom of my own where I could help children learn.

 

Moreover, I’m a public school parent. My daughter goes to the same public school my wife and I both attended as children. We could have sent her to a charter or private school. But we made the conscious choice not to, and we’ve never regretted it.

 

Our local district serves a mostly high poverty population. More than half of the students are minorities. The facilities aren’t as up to date as you’ll find in richer neighborhoods. Class sizes are too large. But we decided that being a part of the community school was important, and much of what my child has learned there simply isn’t taught at schools where everyone is the same.

 

So when you read one of my blogs (even this one), it comes from a certain point of view. And I’m okay with that. You should be, too.

 

However, when you read an article in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times or Pittsburgh Tribune Review, there is a presumption of detachment and neutrality. But it’s bogus.

 

Those articles are written by human beings, too, and thus they are likewise biased.

 

The only difference is what exactly that bias is.

 

My preference is plain and on the surface. I am in favor of public schools over privatized ones. I support teachers over corporations making decisions about how to educate. I’m an advocate for children and families.

 

When you read an article in the mainstream media, you frankly have no idea which direction their inclinations swerve.

 

However, you do know that money often plays a major role in their editorial spin.

 

Journalism is a business. Perhaps it should be a public good. We used to look at it that way. We used to try to keep it separate from advertising. It didn’t have to make a profit.

 

But that’s all changed. Now it’s expected to bring in money. It’s expected to generate “value” for the corporation that owns it. However, we rarely stop to think how corrupting an influence that is.

 

For some people, my position as an educator discredits my knowledge of schools. Yet getting paid by huge testing corporations doesn’t discredit journalists!?

 

I speak here from experience, too. I used to be a professional journalist.

 

Before becoming a teacher, I worked full-time at various daily and weekly newspapers in Western Pennsylvania. I can tell you first hand that sometimes editors encouraged or physically rewrote articles to spin the story the way they wanted.

 

I remember writing a story about a local tax collector seeking re-election. I didn’t know him, personally, but I had heard several rumors about unsavory practices he had allegedly engaged in while employed in a different capacity as a public servant. So I did research and found that they were true. I had proof. I even confronted him, personally, with what I had found to give him a chance to explain.

 

However, when I submitted the article, my editor had a conniption. Apparently, the tax collector had called the paper threatening to cause trouble. So the article was completely rewritten to downplay what I had discovered.

 

None of it mattered that much. It was just a local tax collector’s race. Frankly, I can’t even remember if he won re-election. But it was demonstrative of what happens in editorial departments.

 

I’ve seen businesses complain about news articles and threaten to withdraw advertising. I’ve seen colorful, glossy info-packets sent to reporters seeking articles about subjects enticing them with the ease of approaching it from their point of view. I’ve had editors assign me stories that I thought were non-issues and then they tweaked my finished product so it had the implications they intended from the get-go.

 

If that happens at the local level, imagine what happens at the biggest corporate offices.

 

Now don’t get me wrong.

 

I’m not saying that mainstream media is nothing but lies. I’ll leave that claim for the President. But it IS biased. And as smart consumers of media, we need to be aware of it.

 

We need to be aware that corporate media is often going to take the side of big corporations. They’re going to be in favor of standardized testing, Common Core, charter and voucher schools. They’re going to talk up computer-based depersonalized learning. They’re going to uncritically criticize those standing in the way of corporate profits – i.e. teachers.

 

This doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t trust education reporting from professional journalists. There are writers out there who are trying to present both sides of the issue without editorial meddling. There are reporters who understand the big picture and are trying to expose the truth. Moreover, they have resources that bloggers often don’t – copy editors, fact checkers, knowledgeable and experienced colleagues in media, etc.

 

However, they are frankly working with significant limitations that teacher bloggers don’t have.

 

When I want to know how public schools work, I can simply appeal to my first hand experience. When a reporter want to do that, she is often stymied by rules and regulations that keep people like them out.

 

They are rarely permitted inside our schools to see the day-to-day classroom experience. Legal issues about which students may be photographed, filmed or interviewed, the difficulty of getting parental permissions and the possibility of embarrassment to principals and administrators often keeps the doors closed. In many districts, teachers aren’t even allowed to speak on the record to the media or doing so can make them a political target. So reporters are often in the position of being unable to directly experience the very thing they’re reporting on.

 

If I read a book about baseball, I might know a lot of facts about the players. But that can’t compare with someone who’s actually been to the games, been on the field, even played in the World Series!

 

 

At the same time, education blogs aren’t perfect either. For one, you have to be cognizant of who is writing them.

 

You’re currently reading The Gadfly on the Wall Blog. But that’s worlds different than reading the Education Gadfly. The latter site is owned and operated by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. This organization actually runs charter schools in Ohio. They spend millions of dollars spreading propaganda on charter authorization, school choice, standardized curriculum, digital learning, standards, testing, etc.

 

I, on the other hand, am just a school teacher with a laptop. Education Gadfly has a paid staff. No one pays me a dime nor do I even sell advertisements.

 

To be fair, I operate on a free WordPress site and sometimes WordPress puts ads on my page. But I don’t see any of that money. It’s just the cost of having a free site. If I wanted to pay for it, I could get an ad-free site.

 

Also, once in a blue moon a Website that reposts my blog pays me a couple of bucks for the privilege. So maybe I’ve ordered a pizza or two with money from the blog, but I certainly couldn’t survive off the revenue from it. I would literally make more money working one week at WalMart than I’ve ever pulled in from three years of education bloggery.

 

 

These are the reasons why teacher-written education blogs are superior to the competition.

 

They aren’t beholden to corporate money or influence. They have first-hand experience of the subject.

 

Journalists have a hard job and they deserve our respect. But they can’t compare to the expertise of practicing educators.

 

If editors included our voices more, perhaps the mainstream media wouldn’t be so skewed towards corporate interests.

 

But that’s really the goal, in the first place.

Let’s Hear It For Black Girls!

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“Sisters are more than the sum of their relative disadvantages: they are active agents who craft meaning out of their circumstances and do so in complicated and diverse ways.”

-Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen (2011)

 

 

Let’s hear it for black girls!

 

They are beautiful, bold, irrepressible and – above all – so incredibly strong.

 

Black girls will outlast any struggle, face down any adversary, and – more often than not – triumph in the face of adversity.

 

I know. I’m a public school teacher, and many of my best students are black and female.

 

That doesn’t necessarily mean they get the best grades. Some earn A’s and some don’t. But when it comes to pure willpower and the courage to stand up for themselves, no one beats a black girl.

 

Those are rare qualities nowadays. Sometimes it doesn’t make these girls easy to have in class. But think about how important they are.

 

As a teacher, it sure makes your life easier when students do whatever they’re told. But in life, we don’t want citizens who simply follow orders. We want people who think for themselves, people who question directives and do only what they think is right.

 

In short, we need people who act more like black girls.

 

As a white male, it’s taken me some time to come to an appreciation of black womanhood. But after about 15 years teaching in public schools serving mostly poor, minority students, appreciate them I do.

 

Think of the challenges they face and often overcome. Not only are they subject to the same racism as black males, they also have to function under the burden of male patriarchy and the quiet sexism that pervades American society.

 

According to a study entitled Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls by the NAACP and the National Women’s Law Center, African-American girls suffer from higher rates of sexual violence and intimate partner violence than white women, high rates of sexual harassment in school, and they are more vulnerable to sex trafficking than any other group.

 

In addition, more than one-third of black female students did not graduate on time in 2010, compared to 19 percent of white female students. However, there has been progress. Despite a lingering graduation gap, black girls have actually increased their graduation rate by 63% in the past 50 years, according to the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Unfortunately, this hasn’t meant they’ve built up more wealth. In 2010, single black women’s median wealth was just $100 compared to single white women’s wealth, which was $41, 500.

 

And it only gets worse the closer we look at it. Black women are the only group whose unemployment rate remained stagnant at 10.6%, while the overall rate for workers in the United States dropped from 7.2% to 6.1% between August 2013 and August 2014, according to a National Women’s Law Center report on jobs data. More than a quarter of black women live in poverty, according to the Center for American Progress, despite making up a larger portion of the workforce than white and Latina women.

 

Despite such problems, black women start businesses at six times the national average, according to the Center for American Progress. And this is even more startling when you realize they are also more likely to be denied small business loans and federal contracts.

 

It’s one of the reasons black girls are so special. Those who somehow survive the incredible pressures society puts them under often become super achievers. They can do almost anything.

 

Perhaps it’s an internalization of the advice black women often get from their mothers. They’re frequently told they have to work harder and do more just to be noticed, and they often do. In my classes, I’ve had more black girls achieve grades over the 100% mark than any other group. And that’s not easy to do. But it’s typical black girl power – they try to be more than perfect.

 

However, it takes a toll.

 

They are more likely to die of breast cancer than any other racial group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reasons are complex, but include the fact that black women experience delays in diagnosis and treatment. Like many oppressed people, they often internalize that oppression – they don’t take care of themselves and the stress can be a killer.

 

And for those who can’t overcome the unfair pressures we place them under, the results are even worse. In school, I’ve seen precious and valuable girls thrown into a sometimes cruel and uncaring disciplinary system – a system from which it can be hard to extract yourself.

 

Some teachers and schools when faced with the independence and forthrightness of black girls don’t know how to handle them. In such cases, these girls are often disciplined out of all proportion to their population size in school districts. For example, in New York City, black girls made up only 28% of the student body during the 2011-2012 school year, but were 90% of all girls expelled that year from the city’s schools, according to the “Black Girls Matter” report by the African American Policy Forum. Similarly, black girls made up only 35% of the Boston public school population that same year, but accounted for 63% of all girls expelled.

 

In short, we’ve got a lot of work to do to dismantle a national system of racism and white privilege. But even beyond that, as a society we need to recognize and appreciate black girls. A little bit would go a long way.

 

We need to acknowledge the unique talents and skills of these amazing young women. And so much of it starts with a matter of conceptualization in the white adult mind.

 

Instead of seeing them as defiant, we need to recognize their independence. Instead of seeing them as challenging your authority, you need to see them as asserting themselves and standing up for their beliefs.

 

Those are all such positive qualities. How many times do adults complain that kids today don’t care enough about things – their apathy, their entitlement, their indifference. As a group, black girls are nothing like that! They are exactly the opposite! But instead of praising them for it, instead of valuing them, white adults often feel threatened and respond by trying to crush what they perceive as a rebellious and disruptive element in their classrooms or in society.

 

That’s why I love the Black Girl Magic movement.

 

It was created by CaShawn Thompson to celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of black women. It started as a simple social media hashtag – #BlackGirlMagic.

 

It embodies a theme I’ve already touched on – the irrepressible spirit of black women, how they are faced with an overwhelming mountain of challenges but somehow manage to overcome them and become tremendous overachievers! It’s a celebration of everything good and positive about the black female experience.

 

I think it’s just wonderful.

 

How can you not look at someone like Misty Copeland and not appreciate her success? She’s the first ever black principal at the American Ballet Theatre. She has shot to the top of one of the whitest, wealthiest and most elitist arts you can pursue.

 

Or how about Gabby Douglas? You can’t watch videos of the amazing Olympic gymnast, who at only 17, absolutely wowed the world with gold medals despite internet trolls hating on her hair.

 

And if we’re talking undue hate and criticism, no woman in recent memory has suffered as much as Michelle Obama. Whatever you think of her husband’s Presidency, you have to admit Michelle was a model of grace under pressure. How many times did haters pick apart her appearance while she just got on with the business of making school lunches healthier and being a tremendous role model for children of color and women of all races and creeds.

 

Or Ava DuVernay, the amazing director snubbed at the Oscars for her film “Selma.” What did she do? She made another amazing film “13th” about how the 13th Amendment ended slavery but opened the door to the prison industrial complex.

 

That’s Black Girl Magic. And it’s actually pretty common.

 

So come on, fellow white people. Let’s celebrate black girls.

 

Stop trying to touch their hair or compare them with Eurocentric standards of beauty. Stop, pause and actually see them. See them for who and what they are.

 

Black girls are amazing and make the world a better place.

 

Here’s to all the incredible and irreplaceable black girls in my classes and in my life!

 

You go, girls!

Standardized Testing Creates Captive Markets

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It’s easy to do business when the customer is forced to buy.

But is it fair, is it just, or does it create a situation where people are coerced into purchases they wouldn’t make if they had a say in the matter?

For example, school children as young as 8-years-old are forced to take a battery of standardized tests in public schools. Would educators prescribe such assessments if it were up to them? Would parents demand children be treated this way if they were consulted? Or is this just a corporate scam perpetrated by our government for the sole benefit of a particular industry that funnels a portion of the profits to our lawmakers as political donations?

Let’s look at it economically.

Say you sold widgets – you know, those hypothetical doodads we use whenever we want to talk about selling something without importing the emotional baggage of a particular product.

You sell widgets. The best widgets. Grade A, primo, first class widgets.

Your goal in life is to sell the most widgets possible and thus generate the highest profit.

Unfortunately, the demand for widgets is fixed. Whatever they are, people only want so many of them. But if you could increase the demand and thus expand the market, you would likewise boost your profits and better meet your goals.

There are many ways you could do this. You could advertise and try to convince consumers that they need more widgets. You could encourage doctors and world health organizations to prescribe widgets as part of a healthy lifestyle. Or you could convince the government to mandate the market.

That’s right – force people to buy your products.

That doesn’t sound very American does it?

In a Democratic society, we generally don’t want the government telling us what to purchase. Recall the hysteria around the Obamacare individual mandate requiring people who could afford to buy healthcare coverage to do so or else face a financial tax penalty. In this case, one might argue that it was justified because everyone wants healthcare. No one wants to let themselves die from a preventable disease or allow free riders to bump up the cost for everyone else.

However, it’s still a captive market though perhaps an innocuous one. Most are far more pernicious.

According to dictionary.com, a captive market is “a group of consumers who are obliged… to buy a particular product, thus giving the supplier a monopoly” or oligopoly. This could be because of lack of competition, shortages, or other factors.

In the case of government mandating consumers to buy a particular product, it’s perhaps the strongest case of a captive market. Consumers have no choice but to comply and thus have little to no protection from abuse. They are at the mercy of the supplier.

It’s a terrible position to be in for consumers, but a powerful one for businesspeople. And it’s exactly the situation for public schools and the standardized testing industry.

Let’s break it down.

These huge corporations don’t sell widgets, they sell tests. In fact, they sell more than just that, but let’s focus right now on just that – the multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble assessments.

Why do our public schools give these tests? Because peer-reviewed research shows they fairly and accurately demonstrate student learning? Because they’ve been proven by independent observers to be an invaluable part of the learning process and help students continue to learn new things?

No and no.

The reason public schools give these tests is because the government forces them. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires that all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school take certain approved standardized assessments. Parents are allowed to refuse the tests for their children, but otherwise they have to take them.

It wasn’t always this way. When the act was first passed in 1965, it focused almost entirely on providing students with equitable resources. That all changed in 2001, with the passage of No Child Left Behind, a reauthorization of this original bill. And ever since, through every subsequent reauthorization and name change, the federal law governing K-12 schools has required the same standardized testing.

The testing corporations don’t have to prove their products. Those products are required by law.

It’s one of the largest captive markets in existence. That’s some 50.4 million children forced to take standardized assessments. The largest such corporation, Pearson, boasts profits of $9 billion annually. It’s largest competitor, CBT/ McGraw-Hill, makes $2 billion annually. Others include Education Testing Services and Riverside Publishing better known through its parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

If many of these companies sound like book publishers, that’s because they are or their parent companies are. And that’s no coincidence. It’s another way they bolster their own market.

Not only do many of these testing corporations make, provide and score standardized assessments, they make and provide the remedial resources used to help students pass.

So if your students are having difficulty passing the state test, often the same company has a series of workbooks or a software package to help remediate them. It’s a good business model. Cash in before kids take the test. Cash in when they take it. And if kids fail, cash in again to remediate them.

Ever wonder why our test scores are so low? Because it’s profitable! The money is all on the side of failure, not success. In fact, from an economic point of view, there is a disincentive to succeed. Not for teachers and students, but for the people who make and grade the tests.

But that’s not all.

Once you have a system in place, things can become static. Once districts already have the books and resources to pass the tests, the testing corporation has less to sell them, the market stagnates and thus their profits go down or at least stop growing.

The solution once again is to create yet another captive market. That’s why Common Core was created.

These are new academic standards written almost exclusively by the testing corporations and forced on districts by federal and state governments. Under President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, $500 million in federal education grants were tied to adopting these new standards. States were coerced to push Common Core on their districts or else lose out on much needed funding.

This resulted in the need for districts to buy all new materials – new text books, new workbooks, new software, etc. It also required the states to order brand new standardized tests. So once again the testing industry cashed in at both ends.

And these tests were more needlessly difficult so more children would fail and need costly remediation.

Was there a pressing academic need for these new standards? Was there any evidence that these standards would increase student learning? Were there even any independent studies conducted to attempt to prove a need?

No. This was a total money grab. It was naked greed from one industry completely enabled by our lawmakers at the federal and state levels.

Republicans made noises against it, and some still do. But consider this – the overwhelming majority of state houses are controlled by the GOP. They have the power to repeal Common Core at any time. Yet almost none of them did or do.

Ask yourself why. It has nothing to do with the Democrats. Republicans are owned by the same masters as the so-called liberals – these same test corporations.

You have to understand that our government is no longer ruled by the principle of one person, one vote. Money has become speech so wealthy corporations get a huge say in what our government does.

If an industry gets big enough and makes enough donations to enough lawmakers, they get the legislation they want. In many cases, the corporations write the legislation and then tell lawmakers to pass it. And this is true for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Standardized testing and Common Core are one pernicious example of our new captive market capitalism collapsing into plutocracy.

Our tax dollars are given away to big business and our voices are silenced.

Forget selling widgets. Our children have BECOME widgets, hostage consumers, and access to them is being bought and sold.

We are all slaves to this new runaway capitalism that has freed itself from the burden of self-rule.

How long will we continue to put up with it?

How long will we continue to be hostages to these captive markets?

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

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