Co-opting the Language of Authentic Education: The Competency Based Education Cuckoo

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Cuckoo!

 

Cuckoo!

 

Such is the incessant cry of the hour from one of the most popular souvenirs of the black forest of Germany – the cuckoo clock.

 

Time is demarcated by the chirp of an 18th century animatronic bird jumping forward, moving a wing or even opening its beak before making its distinctive cry.

 

However, in nature the cuckoo has a more sinister reputation.

 

It’s one of the most common brood parasites.

 

Instead of investing all the time and energy necessary to raise its own young, many varieties of cuckoo sneak their eggs into the nests of other birds. When the baby cuckoos hatch, they demand an increasing amount of their clueless foster parents’ care often resulting in neglect of the birds’ own children.

 

Parental care is co-opted. The love and affection natural to raise parent birds’ own children are diverted to another source. And the more parent birds try to help the interloper’s child, the less they can help their own.

 

Corporate education reformers must be bird lovers. Or at very least they must enjoy antique cuckoo clocks.

 

In fact, one could describe the entire standardization and privatization movement as a Homo sapien version of brood parasitism.

 

Profiteers co-opt authentic education practices so that they no longer help students but instead serve to enrich private corporations.

 

When parents, teachers and administrators unwittingly engage in corporate school reform strategies to help students learn, they end up achieving the opposite while the testing industry and charter school operators rake in obscene profits.

 

But some of us have seen through the scam, and we think it’s cuckoo.

 

We’ve seen this kind of bait and switch for years in the language used by oligarchs to control education policy. For instance, the defunct federal No Child Left Behind legislation had nothing to do with making sure no kids got left behind. It was about focusing obsessively on test and punish even if that meant leaving poor kids in the rear view.

 

Likewise, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program has nothing to do with quickening the pace to academic excellence. It’s about glorifying competition among students while providing them inequitable resources. Teach for America has very little to do with teaching or America. It’s about underpreparing poor children with unqualified instructors and giving cover to privatization operatives. School Choice has nothing to do with giving parents educational alternatives. It’s about letting privatized schools choose which students they want to admit so they can go through the motions of educating them as cheaply as possible and maximize profits for shareholders.

 

And on and on.

 

The latest such scheme to hoodwink communities out of authentic learning for their children is Competency Based Education (CBE) a term used interchangeably with Proficiency Based Education (PBE). Whatever you call it, this comes out to the same thing.

 

Like so many failed policy initiatives that came before it offered by the same group of think tank sycophants, its name belies the truth. CBE and PBE have nothing to do with making children competent or proficient in anything except taking computer-based tests.

 

That’s what the whole program consists of – forcing children to sit in front of computers all day at school to take unending high stakes mini-tests. And somehow this is being sold as a reduction in testing when it’s exactly the opposite.

 

This new initiative is seen by many corporate school reformers as the brave new world of education policy. The public has soundly rejected standardized tests and Common Core. So this is the corporate response, a scheme they privately call stealth assessments. Students will take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’ll be asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers will make it look like a game. The results will still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.

 

The only difference is they hope to trick you, to hide that it’s even happening at all. And like a cuckoo pushing its egg into your nest, they hope you’ll support what’s in THEIR best interests while working against what would really help your own children.

 

And the method used to achieve this deception is co-opting language. They’d never enact what real classroom teachers want in school, but they will take our language and use it to clothe their own sinister initiatives in doublespeak.

 

So we must pay attention to their words and tease out what they really mean.

 

For instance, they describe CBE as being “student-centered.” And it is – in that their profit-making machine is centered on students as the means of sucking up our tax dollars.

 

They talk about “community partnerships,” but they don’t mean inviting parents and community members into the decision making process at your local school. They mean working together with your local neighborhood privatization firm to make big bucks off your child. Apple, Microsoft, Walmart – whatever huge corporation can sell computers and iPads to facilitate testing every day.

 

 

They talk about “personalized instruction,” but there’s nothing personal in it. This just means not allowing students to progress on their computer programs until they have achieved “mastery” of terrible Common Core standards. If standardized testing is a poor form of assessment, these edu-programs are worse. They don’t measure understanding. They measure zombie cognitive processes – the most basic surface type of spit-it-back to me answers.

 

And if that isn’t bad enough, such an approach subtly suggests to kids that learning is only valuable extrinsically. We don’t learn for intrinsic reasons like curiosity. We lean to get badges on the program, to progress forward in the game and compulsively collect things – like any good consumer should.

 

Today’s children already have problems socializing. They can more easily navigate cyber relationships than real flesh-and-blood interactions. And CBE will only make this worse. Not only will children continue to spend hours of after-school time on-line, the majority of their school day will be spent seated at computer terminals, isolated from each other, eyes focused on screens. And every second they’ll be monitored by that machine – their keystrokes, even the direction their eyes are looking!

 

I’m not making this up! It shows engagement, tenacity, rigor – all measurable, quantifiable and useful to justify punishing your school.

 

They call it “one-to-one computer technology.” Yes, each child will be hooked up to one device. But how does that alone help them learn? If every child had a book, would we call it one-to-one book access? They call it “blended learning” because it mixes instruction from a living, breathing person with sit-and-stare computer time. It sounds like a recipe. I’ll blend the sugar and milk until I have a nice whipped cream. But it conceals how much time is spent on each.

 

Don’t get me wrong. There are effective uses of technology in schools. But this is not one of them.

 

Students can make Keynote presentations, record movies, design graphics, write programs, etc. But taking endless testing disguised as a video game adds nothing but boredom to their day. A few years ago, I was forced by administrators to put my own students on iStation twice a week. (I’ve since convinced them to let us be.) In any case, when we used the program, it would have been more effective had we called it nap time. At least then my kids wouldn’t have felt guilty about sleeping through it.

 

The corporate education reformers are trying to sneak all of this under our noses. They don’t want us to notice. And they want to make it harder to actually oppose them by stealing our words.

 

When public school advocates demand individualized learning for their children, the testocracy offers us this sinister CBE project. When we decry annual testing, they offer us stealth assessment instead.

 

We must continue to advocate for learning practices that work. We can’t let them steal our language, because if we do, they’ll steal our ability to engage in authentic learning.

 

And to do that, we must understand the con. We have to deny the technocrats their secrecy, deny them access to our children as sources of profit.

 

We must guard our nests like watchful mama birds.

 

The cuckoos are out there.

 

They are chirping in the darkness all around us.

 

Don’t let them in.

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Blinded by Pseudoscience: Standardized Testing is Modern Day Eugenics

 

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Adolph Hitler was a big fan of standardized testing.

 

It helped justify much of the horrors of the Nazi regime.

 

National Socialism is nothing but applied biology,” he said.

 

In other words, it’s just science, people. Some races are simply inferior to others. Black people, Jews, Gypsies, Hispanics – they just can’t hold a candle to the superior races of Northwestern Europe.

 

And Hitler based much of this on the “science” of Eugenics, especially the work done in America in the 1910s and ‘20s.

 

Eugenicists used a flawed and biased interpretation of Gregor Mendel’s laws on heredity to argue that lawlessness, intelligence, and even economic success are passed down in families due to dominant or recessive genes. Moreover, the negative traits are widespread in certain races and the positive ones in others.

 

Practitioners like Carl Brigham used IQ tests to PROVE white people were just the best and everyone else, well, maybe they should just stop breeding. (In fact, laws were passed in the U.S. imposing mandatory sterilization on thousands based on the conclusions of these “scientists.”)

 

Brigham was a U.S. Army psychologist who used WWI data to declare that whites (especially those born inside the United States) were the most intelligent of all peoples and that immigrants were genetically inferior. He went on to refine his work into an even better indicator of intelligence the he called the Scholastic Aptitude Test or S.A.T.

 

Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

 

In his seminal work, A Study of American Intelligence, Brigham concluded that American education is declining and “will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive.”

 

 

To combat this mixture, eugenicist education reformers encouraged schools to rigidly track students into low, middle and high level classes – similar to the way many of our schools are organized today.

 

 

Lewis Terman, Professor of Education at Stanford University and originator of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, expressed these views in his textbook, The Measurement of Intelligence (1916). He wrote:

 

“Among laboring men and servant girls there are thousands like them [feebleminded individuals]. They are the world’s “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” And yet, as far as intelligence is concerned, the tests have told the truth. … No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable voters in the true sense of the word.

 

… The fact that one meets this type with such frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and negroes suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew and by experimental methods.

 

Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding” (91-92).

 

This was the original justification for academic tracking. Terman and other educational psychologists convinced many schools to use high-stakes and culturally-biased tests to place “slow” students into special classes or separate schools while placing more advanced students of European ancestry into the college preparatory courses.

 

 

Compare that ideal to the increasingly segregated American schools of today. We have schools for the rich and schools for the poor. We have schools for black and brown kids and schools for whites.

 

 

Terman would have been in heaven!

 

 

It was the work of patriots like Brigham and Terman that the Nazis relied on heavily to justify their forced sterilization programs and ultimately the Holocaust, itself.

 

 

Does that sound extreme? It isn’t.

 

 

At the Nuremberg Trials, Nazi scientists repeatedly praised the work of American eugenicists, who uncoincidentally also created the standardized test model of education favored by corporate education reformers today.

 

 

It’s easy to follow their logic. If certain races can be scientifically proven to be inferior, it is a small step to thinking that they should be stopped from breeding or eradicated from the face of the planet altogether.

 

 

And the pseudo-scientific justification for this scheme was standardized testing. The IQ test – which has since been shown to be incredibly biased – was used to justify mass murder. And then Brigham refined that same test into our most popular current standardized assessment – the SAT. In fact, all standardized tests that students are forced to take today owe a huge debt to the SAT and other standardized assessments used by Terman and other eugenicist educators.

 

 

The resemblance between testing in the 1910s and the 2010s is obvious to those who will but look.

 

 

Similar to the IQ test, modern standardized exams like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) repeatedly have been shown to be biased in favor of affluent and white test takers. Supporters bemoan the “racial proficiency gap,” but that’s just a nice way of wondering why the same folks Hitler thought were “inferior” don’t do well on our modern tests.

 

 

This is no accident. It’s how the assessments are designed.

 

 

The IQ test is supposed to demonstrate an innate intelligence. However, modern psychologists have become increasingly skeptical that intelligence is fixed. So standardized assessments like the SAT are supposed to somehow show BOTH what students have learned AND their innate intelligence. That’s the justification behind the high stakes. You have to pass the SAT to show you’re smart enough to do well in college.

 

Such outright racism would not be tolerated today, so it becomes cloaked in doublespeak. It’s good that poor black students don’t score well on standardized tests because that shows us they need extra help. And then, instead of providing any help, we close their schools or turn them over to fly-by-night charter operators.

 

Once again, standardized tests are used as the justification for doing something obviously racist. If anyone said, “We’re going to close and privatize all the schools serving minorities and the poor,” people would revolt. However, when you say we’re doing it because of standardized tests – because of “science” – people just shrug and say, “You can’t argue with that!”

 

The same goes for Common Core State Standards. States were bribed to enact them so that the reasons for attacking public schools would be uniform across the country. This provides another level of pseudo-scientific justification.

 

They are supposed to ensure every student who graduates high school will be “college and career ready.” However, now that Common Core has been adopted in 46 states and their tests have become aligned with the standards, we’ve seen student scores take a nosedive. Only our rich white kids apparently are ready for college.

 

So what will we do with those who fall below the mark? We’re sending no additional resources to help them increase their achievement. We’ll just close their schools and/or privatize. And to make sure none of them escape, we’ll make passing the Common Core tests a graduation requirement.

 

This does not level the playing field. This does not – as some corporate education reformers claim – ensure the sanctity of students Civil Rights. It extensively violates them!

 

The education model of Test and Punish is a modern eugenics movement. We’re shellacking over class divides so that those below a certain point have no possibility of ever rising to the white place. And I do mean “white.”

 

Standardized testing is not a ladder of social mobility. It is a means of keeping certain people in their proper place.

 

Some try to deny the racial component by pointing to the intersection with class. Testing impacts poor white children as it does poor black ones.

 

To a degree this is true, but remember our eugenic forerunners saw everything in purely racial terms. For instance, today, few people would claim Judaism is a race. It is a religion. It is essentially a belief system, not a set of shared genes even though some adherents do share genetic characteristics after centuries of segregation. But the Nazis considered them a race and, thus, systematically murdered 6 million of them.

 

The same goes for the poor. Brigham and his Nazi admirers thought that people were poor mainly because of their genes. They are genetically predisposed to being lazy and good for nothing, so they can’t keep a job or advance themselves. Therefore, they’re poor. Pause for a moment to consider the large numbers of people in America today who would agree with them.

 

Standardized testing treats the poor the same way it does minorities. In fact, it is just the lack of opportunities that come with poverty that cause the very scores that are being used to denigrate these people. Lack of proper nutrition, food insecurity, lack of prenatal care, early childcare, fewer books in the home, exposure to violence – all of these and more combine to result in lower academic outcomes.

 

But standardized testing puts the blame on the victim. Students score badly because they aren’t working hard enough, corporate reformers say. These kids don’t have enough “rigor.”

 

To make sure few people actually volunteer to help, we blame their teachers, as well. We make the education profession as unattractive as possible, indicting teachers for all societies ills knowing full well that this will result – as it has – in a nationwide teacher shortage. Then we can deprofessionalize the field and replace educators who have four-year-degrees with lightly trained Teach for America temps.

 

These kinds of shenanigans didn’t fool the anti-racists of the past.

 

The great African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois remarked in 1940, “It was not until I was long out of school and indeed after the [First] World War that there came the hurried use of the new technique of psychological tests, which were quickly adjusted so as to put black folk absolutely beyond the possibility of civilization.”

 

He could be talking about No Child Left Behind.

 

In “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,” scholar Horace Mann Bond issued a warning about the misuse of IQ tests:

 

“But so long as any group of men attempts to use these tests as funds of information for the approximation of crude and inaccurate generalizations, so long must we continue to cry “Hold!” To compare the crowded millions of New York’s East Side with the children of Morningside Heights [an upper class neighborhood at the time] indeed involves a great contradiction; and to claim that the results of the tests given to such diverse groups, drawn from such varying strata of the social complex, are in any wise accurate, is to expose a fatuous sense of unfairness and lack of appreciation of the great environmental factors of modern urban life.”

 

He could be talking about Race to the Top.

 

Karen Lewis, a present-day Chicago teacher and president of her union, says this:

 

“What many people do not know is that the use of standardized tests has its origins in the Eugenics movement …we have to be clear about the original purpose of standardized tests.

 

In a society fascinated by statistics, we are often compelled to reduce everything to a single number. Those of us who work with children know that there are so many characteristics that cannot be quantified.

 

Ask yourselves whether you want to be part of a legacy born of the unholy alliance between the concept of  “natural inequality” and the drudgery that has been imposed on many of our classrooms.”

 

Make no mistake. Corporate Education Reform is modern day eugenics. It pretends to justify increasing standardization and privatization of public schools through flawed and biased assessments. Its claims that any of this is actually supported by research are spurious. At heart, these are articles of faith – not science. Neither Common Core nor high stakes testing nor charterizing impoverished schools nor putting districts into receivership nor evaluating teachers based on student test scores – none of it has ever been shown in peer-reviewed studies to help students learn.

 

Corporate Education Reformers are asking all of us to have faith in a racial and economic social order that benefits those already at the top and keeps the rest of us in our place.

 

And for anyone who questions it, we are continually blinded by their pseudoscientific justifications.

Department of Education SorryNotSorry About High Stakes Testing

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The Obama Administration must think the nation’s parents, teachers and students are pretty darn dumb.

President Barack Obama and his hand-picked Department of Education are solely responsible for the knuckle dragging academic policies strangling our public schools day in, day out. Yet instead of doing anything to reverse course to proven methods that might actually help kids learn, the department trudges out its annual apology.

It goes something like this:

Hey, Everybody! So sorry about all those high stakes tests, Common Core Standards and Value-Added teaching evaluations. We know they’re bad and we’re going to stop.

Then whatever functionary drew the shortest straw toddles back into the building and for the rest of the year things continue on exactly the same as they always have.

Let’s just pause for a moment and imagine how incredibly stupid they must think we are. I’m surprised they don’t issue public service announcements reminding us to exhale, multi-colored pamphlets on the benefits of blinking, and puppet shows instructing us how to use the potty.

The Obama Administration has had 7 years to fix this mess, and the only things they’ve done are to make it worse. Most of us voted for this so-called progressive because we thought he’d improve upon George W. Bush’s astoundingly wrongheaded school policies. But instead he doubled down on them! We hired a competent janitor but he was successful only in creating greater disorder.

We thought someone with the intelligence and grace of Barack Obama would be able to understand more than the eternal C-student Bush that you can’t ensure equity by standardized testing. That’s like trying to ensure a bathtub was filling with hot water by using nothing but Tarot Cards. The cards don’t give you an accurate reading and even if they did, you’d need to adjust the faucet at some point!

We thought a Constitutional scholar would understand that a national school curriculum violates federal law – even if you get a faux state commission to propose it and slap a new name on the thing! The federal government is allowed to do some things and state governments are allowed to do others. It’s not that hard. Moreover, armchair generals who have zero understanding of educational pedagogy, psychology, sociology and no classroom experience have no business telling teachers what they should be teaching!

We thought a political party that claims to be on educators’ side wouldn’t then turn around and initiate a witch hunt against us using poor student test scores instead of pitch forks and torches. Every independent, peer-reviewed study shows that poor kids do badly on standardized assessments and rich kids do well. Every statistician says you can’t use a test created to measure one thing (students) to measure another (teachers). Yet this is exactly what this so-called intellectual president mandates, and then he and the Democrats expect us to be there for them at the polls!?

In short, we expected a liberal Democrat, but got instead a Conservative Democrat in Name Only (DINO). He took far right ideas that Bush could barely officiate and made them much more efficient and thus much more damaging.

And every year like an alcoholic stumbling off a bar stool, the administration swears they’re not going to take another drink. Then they hire the head of Anheuser-Busch (John King) as a nutritionist. And some of us still believe them!

Just look at the crumbs they’re throwing out to us, peons!

Hey, Girl. We’re going to cut testing down to 2% of the school year.

That’s 23 hours! Almost 3 full days! Imagine if the dungeon master told you he was only going to put you on the rack for 2% of the time! Would you thank him? Maybe, but it would be a pretty half-hearted thank you.

Can the administration prove any positive value for standardized testing? I’m not asking them to trot out the tired party line about equity. I mean can they prove that testing actually helps children learn in any appreciable way? If the answer is no (and Spoiler Alert: it is!) then we shouldn’t be wasting any more time with it. Not 2%. Not 1%. ZERO PERCENT!

Moreover, Obama has been talking about reducing testing since he ran for office in 2008. America’s schools are still waiting for him to come through on that one. Maybe on his last day in office we’ll have a testing moratorium. Fingers crossed!

The department says, “The assessments must be worth taking.” No shit. That’s exactly the problem! They aren’t! And they’re shrouded in secrecy under the guise of test corporations intellectual property. How will we be able to determine they’re “worth taking”? Will you just tell us? THAT sure puts my mind at ease!

You know what assessments have been proven worth taking? The ones created by teachers. Yet these are exactly the kinds of tests that schools have been forced to cut back on. Perhaps this is what the administration has in mind. No more teacher-created tests. Let’s just have tests made by the professional test creators who have no idea what the heck they’re doing!

And speaking teachers, this one’s for you: “No standardized test should ever be given solely for educator evaluation.” It sounds like a condemnation of Value-Added Measures (VAM), of evaluating teachers on student test scores. However, it’s just the opposite. Notice the word “Solely.” We’re not going to give kids tests if we ONLY use them to evaluate their teachers. Well woop-de-do! Professional flunkies will talk to you for hours (if you pay them enough) about how great the tests we give now are at doing both! So no change in policy, just some purple prose to light on fire and blow the smoke up educators hind ends.

Perhaps worst of all is the use of English Language Learners (ELL), students with disabilities and minorities as props. We’re doing it all for them, they say. Bull! Shit!

The administration has nothing to say about fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). There’s nothing about sanctions on districts that don’t provide proper services for ELLs. There’s nothing about ensuring adequate, equitable and sustainable funding for all students – especially the poor and minorities. Instead the Department of Education pretends like high stakes tests are candy bars and what poor disadvantaged minority ELL disabled kid doesn’t love the soft velvety chocolate taste of a multiple choice test!?

This announcement is not reason to celebrate. It’s more of the same fake apologies soaking wet in crocodile tears and bad candor.

If Hillary Clinton wants to get elected President, she’d better do more than that. If Bernie Sanders wants a shot, he’d better do more than spout socialism about Wall Street and silence about K-12 schools.

You can only lie to our faces for so long. Despite your best attempts to trash public education in the name of saving it, we’re not so dumb as to believe any more of your evasions, deceit and dishonesty.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

No TEST Left Behind – Why the Senate ESEA Reauthorization is Unacceptable

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Testing.

Testing.

One, two, three…

How about four? Maybe more.

There’s never enough testing for you and me!

And that’s exactly the problem with the Senate reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – the federal law that governs K-12 schools.

The Senate draft of the law (currently called No Child Left Behind) doesn’t do a single thing to limit or reduce standardized testing.

It keeps annual testing in place, untouched.

The legislation needs reauhorized every five years. After epochs of political stalling, the House and Senate are both hammering out versions of the law.

If this Senate version were enacted, public school students across the country would still be subjected to standardized tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

And legislators have the gall to call this the “Every Child Achieves Act of 2015.”

Ha! They should call it what it really is – No TEST Left Behind.

Now is the perfect moment to rein in our nationwide addiction to fill-in-the-bubble multiple choice tests. There is a national consensus that these sorts of assessments do more damage than good. Legislators should listen.

The Senate even asked concerned parents, teachers and people of conscience to write in with suggestions to improve the law. But instead of actually doing the most important thing on everyone’s list – the one thing that almost everyone who isn’t profiting off of the testing industry wants – they chickened out.

Why?

Education historian Diane Ravich has an interesting theory. In a comment on her blog, she says, “I have spoken to people directly involved in the negotiations who told me that President Obama made known that he would veto any bill that does not include annual testing.”

It wouldn’t be the first time the President’s threatened to veto this legislation. Just a few months ago he promised to return the House’s version of the ESEA if it left open the Title I piggy bank to privatizers.

That much-publicized threat was a sane response to an insane suggestion by partisans. But veto the ESEA if it didn’t have enough testing? That would be highly controversial.

Can I prove he said it? No, but Ravich is a reputable source. After all, she was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush. She served under Lamar Alexander – then Secretary of Education and now one of the U.S. Senators chairing this reauthorization project. She’s in a unique position to know.

Moreover, this alleged threat is right in line with comments made by Obama’s own Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

“I believe parents, teachers, and students have both the right and the need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college-and career-readiness.” Duncan said in a January speech.

“That means all students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned with their teacher’s classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3-8, and once in high school.”

Duncan’s assertion – clearly supported by President Obama – is that annual testing is necessary to show if kids are learning. Without it, we wouldn’t know if schools were teaching them.

This is absurd.

The ONLY way to tell if a child can read is a standardized test? The ONLY way to tell if a child can add and subtract is if they can choose between A, B, C or D?

Such an assertion is not only a slap in the face of every classroom teacher who grades their students on actual work done in the classroom, it’s also an insult to the intelligence of the American people.

Students do a variety of assignments throughout the year to demonstrate their learning – book reports, essays, group projects, reading aloud, homework, power point presentations – heck – even just walking up to the blackboard and solving a problem with a piece of old fashioned white chalk!

All of these things show nothing!? They provide no significant data with which to determine if a child is learning!?

I guess teachers just wander around all year saying “I’ll find out if my students learned anything when they take their state assessments. In the meantime I’ll just throw darts at the wall to determine the grades to put on their report cards.”

Moreover, where is the proof that standardized tests are such good indicators? Which peer-reviewed studies have ever proven that the results of these tests are – in fact – valid?

The answer: there are no such studies. In fact, there is a mountain of evidence that proves just the opposite. Standardized test scores are highly correlated with a child’s parental income. Rich kids generally score highly and poor kids score lower.

That’s what these tests measure – not academic achievement.

And it should be no surprise considering how they’re scored. Go on Craig’sList and find yourself an advertisement seeking test scorers. You need have no experience or degree in education. What counts as a passing score changes from year-to-year based on the whim of the scorers.

The whole system is set up to fail as many kids as possible in order to justify the need for more test prep materials which are often provided by the same giant corporations that make the tests in the first place.

And THIS is what Obama is demanding we keep in our public schools or else he’ll veto the legislation?

I say, “Fine! Veto it!”

Obama is already the testing president. He hides behind his lap dog, Duncan, but it is and always has been his policy to double down on George W. Bush’s bad educational ideas.

So I say we force him to own up. Make him admit it to the world, shout it to the heavens – I am President Barrack Obama, and I will do anything for standardized testing!

Then for once critics could actually blame him for something he really did.

Annual testing!? Thanks, Obama!

The President and Duncan claim to hear these testing criticisms, but they’re talking out of both sides of their mouths.

Duncan says he’ll ask Congress to include language in the ESEA to call on states to set limits on how much time can be spent on testing.

They demand we keep it, but let’s spend less time doing it!?

So we’ll still take all those math and reading tests, but maybe there will be less questions? We’ll force schools to spend less time on test prep by timing them and punishing those who don’t comply?

Which brings me to the best thing about the Senate version of the ESEA. It puts a stop to this kind of federal meddling. No more top down we-know-better-than-you federal mandates.

Annual testing is still in there, but the act leaves it up to states how to use the scores. No more Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The act forbids the federal government from dictating to states and districts how to help improve schools where kids are struggling.

Moreover, it no longer requires states to create new teacher evaluation systems, though it allows them to do so if they wish. And the fed cannot mandate or incentivize states to adopt particular standards such as Common Core. States are required to have standards but are free to determine their content.

These – at least – are positive revisions. They demonstrate why some education advocates are expressing cautious optimism about this Senate version of the ESEA.

But it’s just not enough. Sorry.

I could be political and say “It’s a good first step,” but that’s all it would be. A first step on a long and treacherous journey. Don’t start patting yourself on the back just yet. There’s a long way to go.

There’s no mystery what needs to be done to improve public education – fund it.

Stop wasting tax dollars trying to determine where the problem is. That’s obvious! It would be like a fire department spending all it’s money on a high tech machine to scan the city in infrared to determine where the maximum heat sources are and thus where they should dispatch the fire truck. But all they have to do is take the call and follow the smoke, screams and flames!

The high poverty schools are the ones that are struggling the most. More than half of our public school students live below the poverty line. They need help!

And stop offering funding with strings attached! We’ll let you buy books for your students if you use these fancy new standards that have never been tried or proven to work.

It’s time for action.

We must be bold. No more chasing after scraps. We must demand Congress get this right – regardless of presidential threats.

And please no grade span testing!

Even organizations like Fair Test – who rightly criticize the Senate ESEA for similar reasons outlined here – don’t go far enough in their demands of Congress.

Instead of asking for an end to standardized testing, they request a reduction. Not tests yearly in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but once in elementary, middle and high school.

Yes, it’s better than annual testing, but have some courage.

There is no need for our children to take even one standardized test. That should be our demand.

Zero standardized tests. Not six, not three, not one. ZERO.

We might not get it, but we’ll get a whole lot more than if we start from a compromise position.

The time is now. Write your Congresspeople. Write the President. Tell them in no uncertain terms – NO MORE STANDARDIZED TESTING!

PUT CHILDREN FIRST! LEAVE ALL TESTS BEHIND!


NOTE: This article also appeared in the LA Progressive and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Fight Corporate Education Reform and Meme It!

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Sometimes words alone aren’t enough.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re arguing with someone and just not able to get your point across. You know if you could just show them the picture in your brain, they’d understand what you meant with the force of a bullet. But lacking psychic abilities, you’re reduced to the efforts of your poor twisted, tangled tongue.

That’s where memes make all the difference.

A meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Though originally coined as a term to describe genes, the expression has expanded to encompass anything that can carry ideas from one mind to another with a mimicked theme.

I know that sounds daunting, but you’ve probably seen hundreds or thousands of memes already. At least half of the images on Facebook and Twitter are memes – Grumpy Cat, Condescending Wonka, One Does Not Simply, Conspiracy Keanu and enough facepalms to break your jaw.

As a meme-maker, myself, I’ve been surprised that some of my efforts have taken on lives of their own. By no means am I a master at the art, but a few of my 50 plus memes have been surfing the Internet on their own for a year or more. I’ll go on a nationwide education organization’s Facebook page and see my little meme staring back at me. “Hi, Daddy!”

I leave you with an experiment. Here is a collection of some of my favorite creations. I’ve limited myself here to memes on the subject of education. I’ve also organized them to some degree based on subtopics.

Please feel free to browse. If you see a meme that you like – that helps make your point about the errors of corporate education reform – you have my blessing to take it. Post it on your Facebook page, in a tweet, on Tumbler, whatever you please. Send my little message off again into the great sea of interconnected webs and communication nets. Maybe one day it’ll return to me.

Happy shopping!

 

STANDARDIZED TESTING
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BUDGETS
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COMMON CORE
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TENURE

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VALUE-ADDED MEASURES (VAM)

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CORPORATE EDUCATION REFORM

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ACCOUNTABILITY

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PENNSYLVANIA ISSUES
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MISCELLANEOUS

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The Final Straw: Cancel Our Labor Contracts, We Cancel Your Tests

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You can’t do that.

All the fear, frustration and mounting rage of public school teachers amounts to that short declarative sentence.

You can’t take away our autonomy in the classroom.

You can’t take away our input into academic decisions.

You can’t take away our job protections and collective bargaining rights.

You can’t do that.

But the state and federal government has repeatedly replied in the affirmative – oh, yes, we can.

For at least two decades, federal and state education policy has been a sometimes slow and incremental chipping away at teachers’ power and authority – or at others a blitzkrieg wiping away decades of long-standing best practices.

The latest and greatest of these has been in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Earlier this week, the state-led School Reform Commission simply refused to continue bargaining with teachers over a new labor agreement. Instead, members unilaterally cancelled Philadelphia teachers contract and dictated their own terms – take them or get out.

The move was made at a meeting called with minimal notice to hide the action from the public. Moreover, the legality of the decision is deeply in doubt. The courts will have to decide if the SRC even has the legal authority to bypass negotiations and impose terms.

One doesn’t have to live or work in the City of Brotherly Love to feel the sting of the state SRC. For many educators across the nation this may be the last straw.

For a long time now, we have watched in stunned silence as all the problems of society are heaped at our feet.

Nearly half of all public school children in the United States live in abject poverty. This is not our fault. We did not pass the laws that allowed this to happen.

We did not crash the economy and then allow the guilty parties to get away Scott free – in most cases to continue the same risky financial practices all over again.

We did not cut funding to programs designed to help the poor – public assistance, childcare, counseling , job placement, etc.

We did not slash state and federal taxes for the wealthiest Americans, corporations and big businesses resulting in less public money to do the jobs we give the government.

We didn’t even get to provide more than the most minimal input into the dominant education policies of the land. School Choice, No Child Left Behind, Common Core, Race to the Top – those were written and enacted by bureaucrats, politicians and billionaire philanthropists.

But somehow we’re to blame.

Teachers dedicate their lives to fight the ignorance and poverty of the next generation and are found guilty of the very problem they came to help alleviate. It’s like blaming a doctor when a patient gets sick, blaming a lawyer because his client committed a crime or blaming a firefighter because an arsonist threw a match.

The Philadelphia decision makes clear the paranoid conspiracy theories about school privatization are neither paranoid nor mere theories. We see them enacted in our local newspapers and media in the full light of day.

Step 1: Poor schools lose state and federal funding.

Step 2: Schools can’t cope with the loss, further reduce services, quality of education suffers.

Step 3: Blame teachers, privatize, cancel union contracts, reduce quality of education further.

Ask yourself this: why does this only happen at poor schools?

You never see a rich school dissolve its contract with its teachers. You never see a rich school declare it will become a charter to increase educational outcomes.

Why is that? Is it because rich schools are so poorly managed they can’t see the benefits of these excellent strategies – or is it because no one cares about the poor?

Poverty has been the driving factor behind the Philadelphia Schools tragedy for decades.  Approximately 70% of district students are at or near the poverty line.

To meet this need, the state has bravely chipped away at its share of public school funding. In 1975, Pennsylvania provided 55% of school funding statewide; in 2014 it provides only 36%. Nationally, Pennsylvania is 45th out of 50 for lowest state funding for public education.

Such chronic neglect by the state left poorer Philadelphia neighborhoods unable to make up the difference financially. In 1998, exasperated school administrators threatened to close the district unless the state paid its fair share.

The matter went to the courts with the district suing the state for not providing “thorough and efficient” funding and discriminating against the district’s largely non-White population. After a long series of negotiations, in 2001 lawmakers quickly created contentious legislation to take over management of the district.

Since the schools were in distress (read: poor), the state decided it could do the following: put the district under the control of a School Reform Commission; hire a CEO; enable the CEO to hire non-certified staff, reassign or fire staff; allow the commission to hire for-profit firms to manage some schools; convert others to charters; and move around district resources.

And now after 13 years of state management with little to no improvement, the problem is once again the teachers. It’s not mismanagement by the SRC. It’s not the chronic underfunding. It’s not crippling, generational poverty. It’s these greedy people who volunteer to work with the children most in need.

We could try increasing services for those students. We could give management of the district back to the people who care most: the citizens of Philadelphia. We could increase the districts portion of the budget so students could get more arts and humanities, tutoring, wraparound services, etc. That might actually improve the educational quality those children receive.

Nah! It’s the teachers! Let’s rip up their labor contract!

Take my word for it. Educators have had it.

There will come a time – that time may have come already – when teachers refuse to be the scapegoats for poor policies made by poor decision-makers to fleece and rob the poor.

It all comes down to standardized tests. Bureaucrats don’t know how to measure educational achievements without them. After all, they’re not, themselves, educators. That’s why every major educational “reform” of recent years requires more-and-more of these fill-in-the-bubble falsely objective, poorly written and cheaply graded tests.

In fact, standardized test scores are used to determine whether a school is “failing” or not. It was, after all, one of the chief justifications used for the state takeover of Philly schools.

However, educators know the emperor has no clothes. We know the best predictor of high test scores is a student’s parental income. Rich kids score well, poor kids score badly. Standardized tests don’t measure knowledge. They measure economics.

That’s why parents across the nation are increasingly refusing to let their children take them. It’s why colleges are increasingly lifting the requirement that applicants even take the SAT.

Teachers, too, have begun refusing to administer the tests. However, this is risky because in doing so they are in jeopardy of being fired for insubordination.

But times are changing. The two biggest teachers unions in the country recently came out in favor of protecting educators who take this principled stance.

Alice O’Brien, head of the NEA Office of the General Counsel:

“NEA supports parents who chose to exercise their legal right to opt their children out of standardized tests. When educators determine that a standardized test serves no legitimate educational purpose, and stand in solidarity with their local and state association to call for an end to the administration of that test in their schools, NEA will support those educators just as it did in the case of the teachers who protested the administration of the MAP test at Garfield High School.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten:

“We supported teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle when they refused to give redundant tests. We supported early childhood teachers in New York when they shined the light on how abusive it is to give bubble tests to 5-year-olds. On the testing madness that’s sapping the joy from our classrooms, teachers are the canaries in the coal mines, and we support their advocacy. Ultimately, though, it’s up to parents to make the decision whether to opt out.”

It follows then that educators should refuse to administer standardized tests across the country – especially at poor schools.

What do we have to lose? The state already is using these deeply flawed scores to label our districts a failure, take us over and then do with us as they please.

Refuse to give them the tools to make that determination. Refuse to give the tests. How else will they decide if a school is succeeding or failing? They can’t come out and blame the lack of funding. That would place the blame where it belongs – on the same politicians, bureaucrats and billionaire philanthropists who pushed for these factory school reforms in the first place.

This would have happened much sooner if not for fear teachers would lose their jobs. The Philadelphia decision shows that this may be inevitable. The state is committed to giving us the option of working under sweatshop conditions or finding employment elsewhere. By unanimously dissolving the union contract for teachers working in the 8th largest district in the country, they have removed the last obstacle to massive resistance.

Teachers want to opt out. They’ve been chomping at the bit to do this for years. We know how destructive this is to our students. But we’ve tried to compromise – I’ll do a little test prep here and try to balance it with a real lesson the next day. Testing is an unfortunate part of life and I’m helping my students by teaching them to jump through these useless hoops.

But now we no longer need to engage in these half measures. In fact, continuing as before would go against our interests.

Any Title 1 district – any school that serves a largely impoverished population – would be best served now if teachers refused to give the powers that be the tools needed to demoralize kids, degrade teachers and dissolve their work contracts. And as the poorer districts go, more affluent schools should follow suit to reclaim the ability to do what’s best for their students. The standardized testing machine would ground to a halt offering an opportunity for real school reform. The only option left would be real, substantial work to relieve the poverty holding back our nation’s school children.

In short, teachers need to engage in a mass refusal to administer standardized tests.

“But you can’t do that,” say the politicians, bureaucrats and billionaire philanthropists.

Oh, yes, we can.


This article was published on Diane Ravich’s blog and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

The Best Evidence Against Common Core

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There were hands in the air. Lots of them.

It wasn’t just the same one or two I was used to seeing, either. It was almost all of them.

My classroom of 8th grade Language Arts students had something to say, and they could barely contain it.

We sat together in a circle, the desks piled in the center and forgotten. We peered across that distance at each other’s faces and waited for someone to be called on.

It wasn’t me who did it.

The student who had just spoken picked a girl across the room from him. A smile cracked her face wide open as she began to speak.

This wasn’t the norm in my room. At least not yet.

We had only been together a few weeks. In that short time, this group of children from impoverished families – many of whom had criminal records, behavior contracts and folders full of write up slips in the office – had really been putting me through my paces.

If you left them in a room alone, there would probably be a fist fight in 5 minutes. If you peeked at their IEPS, you’d see a host of pharmaceuticals needed just to get them through the day. And if you only looked at their standardized test scores, you’d assume they’d need help to tie their own shoes.

But here they were sitting comfortably, discussing societal racism, gender roles, and how we treat the disabled.

If you closed your eyes and just listened, you’d think it was a class of college freshmen.

That’s what a Socratic Seminar does to a class full of troubled teens.

For the uninitiated, Elfie Israel succinctly defines Socratic Seminars as follows:

The Socratic Seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions.  Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.  They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89)1

Socratic Seminars acknowledge the highly social nature of learning and align with the work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Friere.

In short, it’s the kind of thing teachers used to do all the time before No Child Left Behind, Common Core and Race to the Top replaced it with something more rigorous – test prep.

The text we were discussing was “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambera. The story centers around Squeaky, an African American girl tasked with looking after her mentally challenged brother, Raymond. At first this is just a chore assigned by her parents. Her real goal is to defeat all comers in various track and field events. However, by the end of the story, she discovers that helping others is its own reward.

But hush. Destiny is speaking.

“Squeaky is kind of a Tomboy,” she read from the question sheet I provided. “Should girls do girly things like being ‘flowers or fairies or strawberries’ or should they be allowed to do more masculine things like play sports? Why or why not?”

“Girls should be allowed to do whatever they want,” she answered. “If they want to play sports or do things that we usually think of as boy things, no one should stop them.”

“In fact,” she went on, “boys should be able to do girl things if they want, too. It’s just like in the story when Squeaky says girls can’t be real friends with other girls because they’re too busy being something other people expect them to be. If people were allowed to be themselves, there’d be less fights.”

Destiny was a girl who only last week sullenly sat with her head down refusing to answer any of my classroom questions with a suck of the teeth. Now she sounded like Gloria Steinem.

And she wasn’t alone. She chose Pablo to continue answering the question about gender roles. He brought up how people in our school treat gay kids.

Pablo said it made him sad that other boys were afraid to be seen hanging around with some kids because they thought their friends would call them gay. “Two girls can hug and hold hands and no one says anything, but if boys did that – they’re gay.”

This from a child who is often absent from school and still had the remains of a black eye that the guidance councilor would only explain by saying the school was aware of it.

Serina took the floor next and had to actually calm herself down before speaking. She told us about her brother, who is gay, and how it makes her cry when people make fun of him. In fact, there may have been a tear or two she calmly rubbed out of her eye with her palm.

At this point – had he been there – David Coleman would put a halt to our discussion.

The co-author of the Common Core famously said, “People don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think.

So shut up, kids. No one cares what you have to say.

Drawing from his deep zero years of training in the field of education, Coleman said:

Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

This attitude is reflected in the standards Coleman helped write and Bill Gates coerced state and federal governments to force on our public schools.

It’s embodied in an emphasis on close reading – going over a text multiple times to squeeze every drop of intention from the author. It’s a fine way of understanding what the author may have meant. It’s not a fine way of teaching or even understanding the full scope of a literary text.

To be honest, this isn’t exactly cutting edge stuff. It comes from the New Criticism of literary theory of the 1940s. Most schools of education replaced this outdated orthodoxy with Reader-Response theory thirty or forty years ago. Reader-Response sees the author as merely one of many factors making meaning in a text. Of equal importance is the world in which the author lived and the particular point of view of the reader.

Think about it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a very different book written during the Civil Rights Movement than had it been written in the 1990s. It’s important to know that many of the characters are based on real people in the author’s life. It’s important to know about the violence and civil unrest that came to a head at the time of the book’s publication. Moreover, an inner city African American boy has a different experience reading it than a privileged white suburbanite.

Reader-Response criticism opens up the act of reading and allows for classroom activities like the Socratic Seminar. But Coleman wouldn’t know anything about that. He was an English Literature major, and when given the chance to write education standards, he paid no attention to what was most pedagogically significant. He simply favored his pet literary theory over those of more modern thinkers.

But if Coleman and the architects of Common Core could be in my classroom, they might see the error of their ways.

Allowing students ownership of the text – allowing them to take their proper place as part of a complex relationship between the text, author and the world – is so much more engaging an experience than just being an authorial archeologist.

When we insist on strict adherence to the author’s message – and only that – we create a false objectivity. Language Arts is a subject that is at most times open to interpretation. But Coleman makes it a guessing game to get the “right answer.”

Literature is not math. We shouldn’t try to turn it into something it isn’t.

This is why at the beginning of the year, my students take my innocent questions about the meaning of a text as an affront. They see me as just another adult trying to trick them. They assume I’m trying to get them to guess what I’m thinking – about what the author was thinking. There has to be only one true answer, they suppose, and if they haven’t been good at guessing it in the past, why try now?

It takes a while, but through lessons like the Socratic Seminar, I try to broaden their horizons, to show them that they have a vital place in this dynamic. Without a reader, a text is nothing but words on paper. Without a larger societal context, those words lack their full meaning.

Moreover, not all texts are created equal. By this I don’t mean that some aren’t rigorous enough. I mean that literary texts are richer and deeper if they come from a multitude of cultural points of view.

We used to know this. Schools used to encourage students to read works by the full spectrum of Americans – African Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, etc. Now we shove all that under the carpet in favor of “rigorous” works by the same safe vanilla European Caucasian males.

Common Core doesn’t stop schools from using multicultural texts, but it doesn’t value them, either. There is no standard about the importance of reading diverse authors. In fact, the only diversity I see valued is that students should view diverse kinds of media!

Great! Read an essay, watch a video, play a song. But what about being exposed to diverse cultures and points of view?

Oh! I almost forgot. Coleman says no one gives a shit about that stuff.

My students do. When they read a work by an African American woman like Toni Cade Bambera, they can see themselves in her work. I’ve taught an awful lot of Squeakies in my years as a teacher. (I’ve even taught a few David Colemans.)

When you can open a book and see yourself looking back, what a motivation to read! But how unfair that we only value providing this experience for the white kids!

If we had truly high standards, we’d recognize this. We wouldn’t ignore the value of multiculturalism. We wouldn’t dumb down Language Arts to a simplistic and anachronistic formula designed to fail and humiliate.

Coleman and the Common Core designers would know that if they had ever led a classroom of students. But hardly any of them are educators. They’re bureaucrats, politicians and millionaire philanthropists.

They’re missing the true picture.

Because the best evidence against Common Core is denied them.

Because the best evidence against Common Core is in the classroom.


NOTES:

1 – Israel, Elfie.  “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom.  James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.

-For more information about Socratic Seminars, professional development and even ideas about how to extoll their Common Core benefits (lesson plans, people!) please visit Socratic Seminars International.

This article was also published on Diane Ravich’s blog and the Badass Teachers Association blog.