Tuesday, July 2, 2013

As the 4th of July approaches, some controversial thoughts on the Pledge...

"You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose freewill"
                                                               (Rush, "Freewill")

Didja miss me?  After a prolonged absence from the blogosphere due to some personal and family medical crises, I'm back.  With a vengeance.

As the 4th of July approaches, something to think about:  “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance at the years-long insistence of the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic organization).  It was an attempt to counter-balance the perceived Communist threat Joe McCarthy claimed to have identified, which was seen as “godless.”  So its origin was not religious piety and principle; rather, it was a strategic and pragmatic countermeasure to a perceived threat, and an attempt by a religious organization to use the current coin of the realm – anti-communist fervor – to sidestep the Bill of Rights and leave its mark on a nation it sought to change into its own image through creeping gradualism.

This, from a 2002 New York Times article by David Rosenbaum:
Introducing his resolution in the Senate, Senator Homer Ferguson, Republican of Michigan, declared, "I believe this modification of the pledge is important because it highlights one of the real fundamental differences between the free world and the Communist world, namely belief in God." 
President Eisenhower, in 1954 (emphasis mine):
"From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. To anyone who truly loves America, nothing could be more inspiring than to contemplate this re-dedication of our youth, on each school morning, to our country’s true meaning.... In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”
This is NOT indicative of an America that touts the First Amendment as something of value.

Please take "God" out of my (our) public schools. I'd like my kids to be able to choose when (and if) they speak something that sounds dangerously like a prayer, especially if they're doing so under the direction of someone other than their parents. There is simply no justification for this; it is a black mark on our national character. We can discuss the heroic actions of our soldiers and fighting men and women without invoking a deity, and we can respect the nation, the flag that represents it, and the actions people have taken to defend it (many of them anyway) without forcing children to recite a religious mantra.

I don't know why Neil Peart chose to write "free will" as one word instead of two, but however we choose to write it, we should consider living it a little more, especially in regards to our children. All due respect to the great General Eisenhower, in loco parentis can and should only go so far.

That's not too much to A.S.K., is it?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Partisan politics and the death of civil discussion

"There is a lake between sun and moon
Not too many know about
In the silence between whisper and shout
The space between wonder and doubt

This is a fine place
Shining face to face
Those bonfire lights in the mirror of sky
The space between wonder and why"
                                                                                   ("Between Sun and Moon," Rush)

I took an uncharacteristically long time off between posts (a whole week) to do some reading and reflecting.  I’ve been getting a lot of flak from Conservatives (for whom I’m not Conservative enough), Libertarians (for whom I’m not Libertarian enough), Objectivists (for whom I’m not Randian enough) and Liberals (for whom I’m not nearly Progressive enough).

After my week-long hiatus, I've come to a conclusion, for now:  If I'm making so many people upset, I must be doing something right.

As I blogged last week:
Have you ever noticed that when you disagree passionately with a person, you often abandon a moderate stance in order to more vehemently oppose that person?  It’s easier to defend an extreme position, because it eliminates the complexities and nuance of any argument, and liberates you of the need to make concessions.
I think that many of my posts – not just on this blog, but comments left on other blogs (Washington Post, HuffPo, Diane Ravitch, etc…) – reflect more than a willingness, but a concerted effort to not automatically regurgitate a party-line take on an issue, and I am quick to call on grotesque logical fallacies where I see them, even if in doing so, I may appear to be defending a person or a position I might not normally defend.  In this case, ideologues take my words at their most superficial level and then respond to a straw man hyperbole of what they think my words might have meant, in other words, the interpretation of my words that gives them the greatest leverage against me.

It would amuse me if it weren’t so depressing. I’d like to think that intelligent and thoughtful people read the blogs that I myself frequent – issues-based blogs of political and social import.  And yet sometimes I wonder, if the sport of sparring, the glee that comes from armchair contrariness, is just too much to overcome to have a serious discussion. 

Here is an example. In this case, the other person and I eventually made nice-nice after some rhetorical sparring, but it is a good example of what I am talking about:

A few days ago, Diane Ravitch posted up a story about a teacher who had been wrongly accused of publicly revealing a standardized test question (which these days is practically a hanging offense). When he was cleared, the administration refused to concede error or issue any kind of apology for the humiliation, his suspension, the spectacle, or their rush to judgment.  The teacher, R. L. Ratto, on his personal blog, writes:
I was placed on administrative leave, escorted out of my room by my superintendent of schools, ultimately escorted out of the building and ordered not to return until New York State ruled on my guilt or innocence . Twenty four hours later, NYS ruled I did no wrong and I was informed that I was no longer a threat and could return to my classroom.   I have been demanding a public apology from the Superintendent, as well as my school board. To date that apology has not happened.
But what happened then was amazing.  The PTA awarded him the Distinguished Service Award, their highest honor, and made sure that his wife and kids were at the ceremony to see him receive it:
The parents of my school set the record straight! Choosing me for this award and more importantly making sure my family was there as well to witness it was more than I could  ever imagine.  I am forever grateful for the support and confidence during these trying times.
This made my heart glad.  What a wonderful story, a wonderful turn of events.

Ratto went on, and this is the paragraph that Dr. Ravitch chose to highlight on her blog [emphasis in the original]:
Parents throughout the nation are also beginning to set the record straight.  Parents are organizing to opt their children out of high stakes testing. Parents are challenging the motive and research behind the Common Core Curriculum. Parents are challenging those who want to create a data base of their children’s information. Parent’s [sic] all across the nation are saying stop scapegoating our teachers, stop closing our schools, stop destroying our nations [sic] most important asset. Parents will be setting this all straight.”
All of which I agree with, for the most part, in principle.  But what I found, upon a close and careful read, was that this particular paragraph, taken in isolation, has a slightly different main idea, a slightly different (almost imperceptible!) thrust than the anecdote of the teacher’s personal experience.  The theme of the entire anecdote, taken as a whole, is something to the effect of: “Sometimes, wonderful things can happen as a result of the sense of community that a public school can engender.”  It’s a delightful Lifetime made-for-TV movie.  The theme of the paragraph that Diane Ravitch excerpted from Ratto’s blog post, taken out of context as it was, was something more like: “Parents of the world unite!  If you speak out enough, you can topple the authority structure in your kids’ school too!”

Not quite the same thing. 

I taught grades 7-12 for two decades, and I’ve got to tell you:  From my experience, suggesting that all parents need to do is be louder and stronger and they’ll get their way is not always a good thing to do.  I'm not saying parents should not be empowered, and I'm certainly not saying that parents should not be very carefully listened to. I thought this was a subtle point, and one worth making, so I posted up this comment, reflecting the balance, complexity and nuance I try to infuse my words with, to avoid sounding like I’m just regurgitating soundbites (and to avoid confusing or overtly antagonizing the simpleton trolls that invariably surface):
Sometimes parents do know what’s best, what’s right. But I’ve found in my 20+ years of teaching that the extent to which the parents’ voices are put to good use is directly related to the nature of the community. In my experience, better-off communities with more educated parents, more stable homes, tend to be more in touch with and involved in (as well as invested in, philosophically and otherwise) the education process itself and what’s “really” going on than communities with very high dysfunction, illiteracy, poverty, crime, etc… (I’ve seen entire extended families show up to school unexpectedly mass-berate a guidance counselor or administrator over something that anyone with the slightest inkling of how schools really function would have taken in stride.) Also, parents from particularly strong partisan or religious backgrounds tend to focus their grassroots energy on areas that are not pedagogy-centered, but that support their personal sociological or religious agendas (religious displays in schools, banning GSA club activity, etc…) I think overall there is a benefit to restoring more control to local (district, site) levels. I think the Conservatives who call for total parental control are taking it one step too far, in part for [these reasons].

That said, this story is remarkable, and an excellent example of the power of the voice of the grassroots collective. In this case, the voice of the masses was used to a good end. But it is not always so.
I thought it sounded reasonable - even, balanced, not too heavy-handed or overzealous.  And carefully enough worded so that no one could possibly misinterpret and think I was calling all parents idiots or blasting all Conservatives.  Yeah, dream on.  Someone quickly responded: 
blame conservatives, blame parents. ah yes the “voice” of the “grassroots” “collective”.  these low income and poverty stricken areas have been the guinea pigs of leftist curriculum for decades precisely because of their low parental participation. It is much easier to manipulate children while their parents are not watching.
*sigh*  Such drama.  This is what I try to avoid.  My response:
I’m no progressive (seriously, read my blog – TRUST me, I’m no progressive). But it’s foolish to assume automatically that the parents with the loudest voices want and know what’s best for thousands of students in their districts. I agree that there is a hyper-liberal pendulum swing in process in schools, and I think it is turning back, finally. My fear is that it goes TOO FAR in the opposite direction. […]

A synopsis: Teacher was wrongly accused. Teacher was punished, publicly admonished. Teacher was innocent. District/site administration refused to man up and admit error, apologize, show respect. Community stepped up and showed appreciation by proxy. Teacher feels redeemed.   It’s not a partisan thing to recognize how f***ing awesome that is.
 A fellow poster’s bemused interpretation of the whole exchange:  

           There is no lonelier place than middle ground, especially on Internet forums.

And in political discussions.  Especially, it seems, about education.  Last week, I wrote about my disdain about the either-or fallacy and how it stops us from engaging in meaningful dialogue and prevents people from even conceding points to an adversary even when there is agreement, out of a sense of “keeping score.”  We place ourselves in camps, teams, groups.  And we adhere to them slavishly and cravenly, and defend them with bloodlust.  Partisan politics is like political soccer hooliganism.  And I’ve never seen a soccer brawl end well.

Most children will tell you that the opposite of day is night, and the opposite of sun is moon.  But often, the moon is visible in the sky, even when the sun is up. 

We need to learn to share rhetorical space.

Am I just naïve?  I’m just A.S.K.ing…

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

False dilemma: The either-or fallacy and the standardized testing debate

"They call me Mr. Knowitall
I will not compromise.
I will not be told what to do.
I shall not step aside.

They call me Mr. Knowitall
I have no time to waste.
My mouth it spews pure intellect.
And I've such elegant taste! [...]

They call me Mr. Knowitall
I am so eloquent!
Perfection is my middle name,
And whatever rhymes with... eloquent."

                                         ("Mr. Knowitall," Primus)

A few days ago, I came across a blog post by a fellow who chose to write about standardized testing, something that has been written about eighteen or so trillion times.

But this article was different.  It didn’t recycle old rhetoric and clichés, nor was it unduly burdened with melodrama and gross hyperbole, two sins that many, including perhaps yours truly, indulge in from time to time – some deliberately (cheesy and manipulative writers), some accidentally (bad writers).

Instead, I found its tone revelatory in its simplicity.  It says only what it needs to.  It is clear – both precise and concise.   It is so short that my attempts to excerpt it would lead me to duplicate almost the entire article, which only clocks in at just over 800 words.  It is eminently readable, and it accomplishes this without dumbing down the jargon, technical language or rhetoric.  

A few choice snippets:
“As a teacher, if my livelihood is based on test results, then I will do everything possible to ensure high marks, including narrowing the curriculum and prepping fiercely for the test. The choice between an interesting project and a paycheck is no choice at all. These are amazing disincentives to student learning. Tying teachers' careers to standardized tests does not foster creative, passionate, skillful young adults. It does exactly the opposite.”
“As a large body of research suggests, standardized test data are imprecise for two main reasons. First, they do not account for individual and environmental factors affecting student performance, factors over which teachers have no control. (Think: commitment, social class, family.) Second, high-stakes, one-time tests increase the likelihood of random variation so that scores fluctuate in arbitrary ways not linked to teacher efficacy. (Think: sleep, allergies, the heartache of a recent breakup.)”

“Because standardized tests are an inexact estimate of a teacher's ability, they are also unfair. By focusing on a sliver of the curriculum -- often rote facts --standardized tests do not measure meaningful understanding. (Think: ‘Who was the last French monarch?’ versus ‘How much violence is justified in revolution?’) And unless you believe bubbling the letter of the best answer is crucial in the 21st century, standardized tests exclude evidence of important skill development.”
And I love the way the author, Jack McKay, describes testing as America’s “new national pastime.” Hell, baseball is all about the stats now, why shouldn’t teaching be so as well?  Then they could print test scores and passing rates on the back of teachers' I.D. badges -- like baseball cards!  *sigh*

What most caught my attention, however, was this phrase:  “[E]ducation reform has been cast as a false dilemma between students and teachers…”

I wrote my Masters thesis on the either-or fallacy in public policy (specifically, as pertains to education and pedagogy) decision-making.  The either –or fallacy (also called false dilemma or the black-and-white fallacy) is, simply put, the assertion that any set of options is necessarily reduced to either x or y.  I am a passionate opponent of this manner of oversimplified, prone-to-extremes type of issue analysis.  (Think: America’s 2-party system.)

People seem to naturally gravitate towards this simplified manner  of thinking, unfortunately. Have you ever noticed that when you disagree passionately with a person, you often abandon a moderate stance in order to more vehemently oppose that person?  It’s easier to defend an extreme position, because it eliminates the complexities and nuance of any argument, and liberates you of the need to make concessions.

Think about it in debate terms.  There are two ways to approach debating:  One is to use the friction of debate to unlock new lines of inquiry, probe diverse viewpoints, better understand the gestalt of an issue, and reach a better (or at least more acceptable) solution to a problem.  I’ll call this constructive debate.  The second way is to “win,” whatever the cost, in other words, to take down your opponent.  I’ll call this destructive debate. 

There’s nothing harder than engaging in constructive debate with an adversary who is hell-bent on destructive debate.  You want to look at multiple sides, make the necessary concessions to show that you’re not a one-note ideologue; you want your discussion to be rich, nuanced, erudite, but your efforts to recognize the aspects of your adversary’s arguments with which you might agree only fuel his rhetorical zeal, and he in return gives you no such consideration. “Score-wise,” you have capitulated, whereas he has not.  He sees your acquiescence as a sign of weakness, your lack of sureness as to your own core beliefs. Clearly, he tells you, you have no consistent principles.  You feel the center of the debate shifting unacceptably towards your adversary; your confidence slides as he is further emboldened.  This creates a new problem.  You certainly don’t want your supporters to see you agreeing with aspects of your opponent’s position, while not winning any points of your own.  They might think your opponent’s position has merit!  So what do you do? You ratchet up your end of the dialogue, take a slightly more extreme position to “titrate” the discussion more into balance.

Oh, but this has the opposite effect, rather like trying to steer out of a skid.  Ere long, you and he are at radical opposite ends of the spectrum, two polarized extremes, an either-or.  Another debate that could have been a constructive discussion, turned into a destructive battle.

Even the best of us falls into this trap occasionally.  Even, it seems, the esteemed author of the blog article I’m currently lauding.

He writes:
“I believe student results from standardized tests should not be used to evaluate teachers because the data are imprecise and the effects are pernicious.”
“Let's decouple high-stakes testing from teacher evaluations for the sake of students and teachers alike.”
Hey, I agree with him! Well, mostly, that is…

And isn’t that the lure of the either-or trap?  It satisfies our driving human need to emote.  To want to say “Hell yeah!” or “Hell no!”  It’s much less cathartic to scream out, “That’s pretty much it, but there are a few details I’d like to take issue with!”  The either-or fallacy satisfies our need for easy categorization (are you a pro or a con?) and our need for fraternization (it’s easier to match black with black and white with white than it is to color-match an infinite number of shades of grey).  No public speaker is going to rouse a teeming crowd of would-be hangers-on to orgasmic outbursts of applause with “Pretty much!  That’s basically it!”

Look at these modified versions of his sentences:
“I believe student results from standardized tests should not be used as the main metric to evaluate teachers because the data tend to be imprecise and the effects can be pernicious.”
“Let's drastically reduce the impact of high-stakes testing results on teacher evaluations for the sake of students and teachers alike.”
I don’t think the utter elimination of high-stakes testing is the answer, necessarily.  That's the "or" to the "either" of testing. Any assessment can show us something useful.  If four physics teachers at a high school all give the same assessment to their three classes of 75 kids, and the results are radically different, there is a good chance that there’s some reason why.  The score disparity might just alert the teachers, or the department, or the administration to a conversation that needs to be had, a need that is not being met, or simply an artifact of the testing process itself that should be discussed, if for no other reason than to eliminate it from consideration as a failure of one aspect or other of the system.   Those conversations cannot happen if there are no diagnostics of any kind, and standardization (or "norming") is the best way I can think of to achieve, or at least approach, a state of ceteris paribus.

Now, and this is important, the reason is NOT AUTOMATICALLY teacher inefficacy, which would automatically be the assumption under the very real current educational regime that McKay describes.  Therein lies the problem – not so much the assessment itself (although we do way the hell too much of it, and at the expense of instructional time, no less), but the high-stakes, make-or-break impact of what we do with the result.

Simply put:  We trust the numbers more than we trust the people.  In fact, one might to moved to say (if one were wont to hyperbolize) that we trust the numbers to the exclusion of trusting people.   And as McKay correctly points out, the results are catastrophic.  I mean, “can be” catastrophic.  (Modal verbs make great qualifiers.  Consider the subtle, almost subliminal, impact of qualifiers on a debater's presentation by checking this out .)

Anyhow, I enjoyed the McKay piece, and I suggest you read it.  It’s short, much shorter than this (1,300+ words at this point already). And I think he is possibly more eloquent than I.  He doesn’t claim to be a Mr. Know-it-all; he pleads with us for debate (constructive, not destructive), dialogue, a discussion, a conversation.

Works for me.  I may disagree with you, but I’ll always try to talk to you, not at you.  Unless you piss me off, then I’ma have to take you down…

Can blood-feud policy adversaries ever sit at a table and have this kind of constructive discussion without resorting to the cheap and ultimately destructive rhetorical shortcuts of partisan false dilemmas?  Oh, snap, by resorting to the binary of "constructive" and "destructive," did I just create my own either-or?

I suspect I know the sad answers, but still, I’m A.S.K.ing…

Monday, June 3, 2013

Teacher resignations: Cries in the dark. Is there anybody listening?

"Is there anybody listening?
Is there anyone that sees what's going on?
Read between the lines,
criticize the words they're selling.
Think for yourself and feel the walls...
become sand beneath your feet. "
                             (Queensryche, "Anybody Listening")

I may have misspoken.

“First” came Gerald Conti, I wrote.  Not quite.  Oh, to be sure, Mr. Conti’s eloquent viral resignation letter may have touched off the current jag of public awareness and outcry, but he was not the first.  Not even recently.

I stand eloquently corrected, courtesy of a message from Mr. Stephen Round himself.  Who is he?  Well, if you don't know, then read on.  I did not know either, and I cannot believe, now, that I didn't.

On September 5, 2012, Boston-area teacher Adam Kirk Edgerton’s resignation essay was picked up by The Huffington Post, drawing nearly 5,000 Facebook “shares” and hundreds of comments.  Edgerton wrote that he was “tired of feeling powerless,” and that schools had an unacceptable “standardized test fixation,” comments that predated by the better part of a year those penned, posted and uttered by those public resignees about whom I have erstwhile written: Conti, Rubenstein, Knauth, Brissette.

Select excerpts:
“I quit because the system is demeaning. It's a structure that consumes everyone in it, from the top to the bottom. I didn't quit because of a single school -- I quit because of the pattern of inanity that is replicated throughout the whole country.”
 “No matter how much we regulate, we will always have to trust our teachers to be our surrogate parents, to take our children for an hour or six a day, to protect them, and to mold them into better people. Teachers matter more than superintendants [sic], more than senators, and more than businessmen. They make us who we are. Teachers are the ones who make the day-to-day decisions for the future of our entire nation, and we must start trusting them again.”
I should be clear that I do not agree with, nor do I necessarily endorse, all of the specific details, claims and suggestions in Mr. Edgerton’s essay, nor do I even necessarily embrace what I perceive to be his general ethos. Since, however, my purpose is to trace historical antecedents to the current Teacher Rebellion, those disagreements are not germane to the issue at hand. Edgerton, like others, including myself, is celebrating teachers finally finding their voice (and, more specifically, not letting unions fight our battles for us):
So what is the answer? Unions? Hardly. We can't allow union leaders to absorb teachers, to use them as a platform on which to stand. Our union leaders have failed us. Union politics have contributed to us getting to this point by forcing administrators to deal with them rather than teachers directly. They teach us that we cannot speak for ourselves; they teach us powerlessness. Union leaders are too often mere mouthpieces skimming off teachers' paychecks.
A few months later, in December 2012, a Rhode Island teacher named Stephen Round posted a six-minute Youtube resignation video: “I would rather leave my secure, $70,000 job, with benefits, and tutor in Connecticut for free than be part of a system that is diametrically opposed to everything I believe education should be,” Round intones. His video has been viewed close to half a million times, just short of the number of views that Ellie Rubenstein’s video has racked up, thus far, anyway.

The Huffington Post picked up Round’s resignation as well (HuffPo is considerably more on the ball than I am, it seems), and it drew over 17,000 Facebook “likes,” 1,100 Facebook “shares” and over six hundred comments.

I never knew. Lesson learned: Research your sh*t, mate.

The softspoken Mr. Round (who looks not unlike a cross between Ian Holm and Kevin Spacey) was a second-grade teacher, so his concerns were very K-5 specific. As a parent with two children in that grade range, I listened attentively. Again, I cannot say that I agree with or support with every minute detail of what he said, but this is not about the minutiae. This is about daring to speak out, be heard, and to place principle before pragmatics, despite the possible personal cost.

On January 1st, 2013, motivational/inspirational speaker (she calls herself an “educator/author/student advocate”)  Terry Preuss, NBCT, posted the first installment of a 12-part video response to Stephen Round’s video on Youtube. I will admit right now that I’ve only watched part(s), and read synopses of the rest. I will say that for the record, I’m not a huge fan of, nor am I inclined to trust, evangelistic, Anthony Robbins/Donald Trump-esque personality brands in education. I find them off-putting, and I tend to associate them with people “selling something” (in Preuss’s case, perhaps, her book(s) and her consultant/speaking fees).

I’m also not a huge fan of using NBCT as an honorary title. It’s not – it’s a title that is bought, at great expense and inconvenience, but bought nonetheless. Perhaps I will blog about my scorn for National Board Certification for teachers some other time.

I say this to assure my readers that I do not hold up the subjects of my essays as idols for worship. I recognize their flaws (I have some myself) and I do not necessarily agree with every word out of their mouths. To require one to do so before showing any kind of support would be the grossest form of perfectionist fallacy. And still I say that despite those personally discomfiting superficial indicators, I am appreciative of Ms. Preuss's efforts, all of their efforts, to publicize the plight of both students and teachers in the factories that our schools are becoming.

For two months, I’ve been painting this as a “movement.” Well, the movement’s roots go run a little deeper than I thought. Gerald Conti was not the first hot iron to strike, but when one reads articles, news stories and blog posts about him (even my own) the sense one distinctly comes away with is that he was the trailblazer.

How is it that as a people so collectively in a tizzy over the pathetic state of our education system that no one bothered to place his gesture into a larger context (myself included -- I'm rather embarrassed, actually)? Did people not even remember? Has the current culture of rapid fire news-reporting made us so myopic and attention-deficit-disordered as a thinking people that we can no longer connect the dots? I read a lot on Mr. Conti, before, during and after the first piece I wrote on him. In none of the pieces I read are the names Adam Kirk Edgerton, Stephen Round or Terry Preuss mentioned.  Not once.

This suggests that the media, the news programs, and the blogosphere all continue to see these incidents as anomalies, unrelated, unworthy of connection, not part of any pattern or trend.  I hope they're wrong.

But, maybe they’re right. Maybe there is no movement. Maybe our interest was piqued just long enough to comment on the situation before moving on to who’s leaving American Idol, or what soda pop Beyonce is peddling. (On a side note, it gives me a strange little spark of glee that my spell-checker rejects the name “Beyonce.”) Maybe, like a biological organism, our society is building up a tolerance, a resistance, and eventually, an immunity to news of teacher unrest. And soon, it won’t bother us at all.

I should point out that while the first installment of Terry Preuss’s Ken Burns-esque 12-video opus has been seen 1,000 times (a trifling figure compared to Stephen Round’s and Ellie Rubenstein’s combined 1,000,000 views) her subsequent videos have been viewed only 112, 73, 77, 41, 154, 41, 31, 33, 44, 25, and 35 times. Two recent (May 2013) videos on teacher empowerment have fewer than 10 views each. To be truthful, even I couldn’t quite motivate myself to watch the whole thing, and if you've read my recent posts, you know I'm fairly mercenary when it comes to this topic. Maybe it was her presentation; maybe it was the overall length. Maybe I’m just sick of it all.

Maybe we all are. Oh, that's not good...

So what is it that draws and holds the public’s interest? What spurs them on to action? I’m not entirely sure I understand completely. What is the key to viral success? (No, seriously, I want to know… 10,000 views is nice, and thank you for that, Dear Readers, but I want that next order of magnitude…)

And is viral success only virus-deep? Is it better for 100 people who really care to view something, or for 100,000 people to view it from the bandwagon out of a collective-frenzy of prurient interest that is quickly sated by the viewing and then cast off like a molt?

Does anybody have any thoughts on how to get the message across in a way that will actually do some good? I still believe that massive public resignations, protests, strikes, etc… will send the message, but with Teacher Education programs and TFA spitting out young, hungry, progressive-hearted teachers by the thousands (who cost much less than the people who would be resigning) who are ready and willing to drink the Kool-Aid,  I’m not sure anymore that that’s sufficient motivation.

By the way, for some excellent reasons why TFA (Teach For America) is NOT the savior of public education, take some time and read Julián Vásquez Heilig’s blog, “Cloaking Inequity.”

If not, then consider these sage words by Adam Kirk Edgerton:
Alternative certification programs, such as Teach for America, suggest that education schools are empty, facile and meaningless, at least for the classroom teacher. I don't begrudge TFA, since it helps many children escape poverty, but its existence magnifies a view of teachers as interchangeable parts, as cogs in our machine. I have no moral high ground on the issue of turnover, since I quit after three years, but policy-makers are increasingly devaluing graduate school programs that train teachers to teach -- to innovate. After all, why spend money on training teachers for a whole year, for a career, when we can pump in a stream of idealistic young people for much less money? Why teach teachers to question the machinery whirling around them?
Well, what does it matter if teachers “question the machinery whirling around them” if, when they resign in noble, principled protest, no one really notices?

I’m more than just A.S.K.ing… I really want to know.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Are teachers (inadvertently) helping drive the nails in their own coffins?

"They ran down every lead
They repeated every test
They checked out all the data in their lists
And then the alien anthropologists
Admitted they were still perplexed
But on eliminating every other reason
For our sad demise
They logged the only explanation left
This species has amused itself to death"

                                      (Roger Waters, "Amused to Death")

I was reading Diane Ravitch’s blog this morning, and I came across a post from yesterday (5/30/13), in which Diane quoted a 4th grade teacher who pleaded “Where is the real support for our children?” I’m picturing this teacher with arms extended heavenward, head thrown back (I’m certain rain was pouring down as well, I’m thinking Andy Dufresne, after escaping from Shawshank). Or possibly James T. Kirk yelling “Khaaaaaan! Khaaaaan!”  Or, remember the old lady from the Wendy's commercial asking "Where's the beef?"

Or maybe Mel Gibson’s William Wallace yelling “Freedom!” in that brief moment between his evisceration and his execution.  Ah, yes, that’s the metaphor I was looking for…

Anyway, it’s a very important, very valid, question.  And upon first quick read, I nodded my head along with the 4th grade teacher's letter, saying, “Right on!”

But a very astute poster, writing under the screen name “Ms. Cartwheel Librarian” (there has got to be a story there…) made an observation, singling out one of the sentences in the teacher’s page long commentary, and in the process reminding me to always check the premises of an argument.  This teacher lamented the condition of modern public education, but in the process of doing so, de facto endorsed (or at least condoned) NCLB/RttT’s purported validity as a barometer of school success:
[The 4th grade teacher wrote:] “The principal is a competent and supportive school leader who is simply navigating the academic culture that has developed since NCLB and high stakes testing began.”
[Ms. Cartwheel Librarian commented, after citing the above sentence specifically:] I’m sorry, but we really need to dive in and face the cognitive dissonance inherent in that sentence before we can ever begin to dig out of this mess. Anyone who “simply navigates” their way through this – and moreover forces his underlings to do the same thing – is not “supportive” and not really even “competent”, except to the same extent Adolph Eichmann was “competent” in keeping the trains running on schedule. Every cog in the machine that participates rather than resisting is part of the problem, and the further up the food chain you are, the less excuse you have for “I was only following orders”. This principal needs to be supporting your right – in fact, your duty – to teach science and social studies – not undermining your efforts to do so.
This is a very unpopular sentiment, Ms. Librarian. You don’t blame the victims! You don’t fault teachers for helping to corrupt the system that they so desperately are trying to fix. Most teachers I know would be OUTRAGED at the very notion that they are part of the problem. But – and I hate to say it – Ms. Librarian may well have valid point.

An aside: I try to make it a point in my posts not to attack teachers; I love teachers, and feel that teachers are, more often than not, victims, almost as much as the students, even. However, part of me believes that when teachers participate in the evil without fighting it in an obvious, forceful and meaningful way, their inaction contributes to, and therefore makes them part of, the problem. Acquiescence is justified in many ways, but it is almost always, in my experience, achieved by administrators at the (proverbial) barrel of a (proverbial) gun. The threat of punitive action, that show of force, is usually enough to force teachers to fall in line. I cannot completely begrudge teachers their choice in that situation. Not many people sign up for martyrdom. This was the operating principle behind Nazi success as well, as Ms. Librarian suggests. But in my quieter moments (yes, I have those) it really pisses me off sometimes. This post is the closest I ever expect to get to attacking teachers, but I need to do it, lest my blog turn too partisan and my credibility be shot. In the words of the estimable poet Mr. Robert Zimmerman, "I would not feel so all alone / Everybody must get stoned!"

You’re thinking I’ve lost my mind. How dare I blame teachers for all of our schools’ ills?

Well, for one thing, I'm not.  It's not an all-or-nothing thing.  That's typical of the kind of extremist rhetoric that is part of the problem. It's a matter of degrees, shades of gray.  Maybe even more than 50 of them.

I understand the resistance to the idea. The last half of my 19 years teaching secondary school I felt like that, like I could make a difference, fix the system, shield my students from the coming sh*tstorm, and truth be told, if I could find a system that would pay me what I’m worth (nobody’s hiring above step 3-5 these days, it seems… see my essay on the “Golden Handcuffs” for more on that) I might still be in the game. It’s hard when they literally dangle your livelihood in front of you… “Stay with us and make $60, $70, $80K, plus benefits; or go out there and try your luck as an adjunct college professor, making $20K, $30K if you’re lucky, with no benefits…” A lot of teachers, most I’d guess, would stay put and keep their mouths shut, “play the game.”

I’ve had many teachers tell me that they know what’s going on, but what can they do but focus on “their own four classroom walls?” Comes a time for some people when that’s just not good enough, the crimes are too atrocious to be a part of. Guess what happens if all teachers retreat to their own four walls? The top-down, test-driven, corporate-governmental bureaucracy is given free rein to run roughshod over all, with no resistance. What was it that Martin Niemöller wrote about German intellectuals during the Nazi rise to power? Remember that poem?
First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
The simple, sad fact is that teachers that stay, even if they think they’re doing good, even if in their hearts they remain true, even if they think they’re fighting the system in their own little way, MANY (if not MOST) are at least in SOME small way allowing the system to continue as it is simply by continuing to participate in it, and therefore contribute, in however small a way to the problem. Their continued participation confers validity.  And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Something has to change. It’s not a question of “giving up,” it’s an issue of taking the battle to the next level.

Also, in regards to the desire for teachers to stay and “do the very best [they] can,” consider the words of Gandalf the Grey (think of the "ring" as the NCLB/RttT mandates) to Frodo about trying to best an enemy with his own weapon:
Frodo: Take it!
Gandalf: No, Frodo.
Frodo: You must take it!
Gandalf: You cannot offer me this ring!
Frodo: I’m giving it to you!
Gandalf: Don’t… tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe. Understand, Frodo. I would use this ring from a desire to do good… But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.
I’m not saying it can’t be done… but I think we’ve gotten to a point where a principled and public walkout will be more effective and proactive than teachers soldiering on as always… that’s what teachers have been doing for the last generation, soldiering on nobly, and it certainly has not halted the top-down bureaucratic madness, has not made teachers’ lives better, has not made students’ lives better; why assume that it will stop anytime soon without more drastic action?

Lastly, consider this: I don’t know if you’ve read Atlas Shrugged (it is a bit of a hyperbolic commentary on America, but if you suspend your disbelief for 1,100 pages, and endure a lot of long speeches, there is a takeaway that’s worth the effort) — the sentiment of wanting to hang in there, the inner conflict, the mixed feelings, the desire to stay, to do good: these are exactly what drove Dagny Taggart (the main character) to stay as long in her job as she did. Consider her personal journey, and see if it doesn’t map neatly onto that of every frustrated teacher who has watched corporate and governmental interests appropriate all that used to be educator-driven in education. I don’t begrudge ANY teacher his or her sentiments, because they were once mine, and to a certain extent, still are. I’m just presenting an alternative.  A noble alternative, I feel.

I will say that it's a terrible dilemma that teachers get caught in... to a certain very small extent I do grudgingly agree with the "teachers are part of the problem" argument; after all, when it comes down to it, they are the footsoldiers in the very war against them. But I also believe that many teachers stay in the game, like Dagny Taggart, becuase they think they can fight the Powers That Be. And some can, and do, I guess. New teachers who act independently are denied tenure (been there, done that), and often by the time they've made it through 2 or 3 or 5 years, to get their tenure, they've drunk enough of the Kool-Aid to be complacent de facto conspirators, even if in their own hearts and in behind-closed-doors gripe sessions with other educators (whose words and "true" feelings never see the light of day, of course) they claim to maintain their ideals. Experienced teachers are disciplined, receive forced transfers, and are otherwise shamed into compliance.  Frankly, I'm seeing a lot more positive political movement courtesy of the ones who have left the game, the ones who are making a stink, the ones who are opening - not closing - their mouths.

The public, viral, resignations of the last month or two are very Atlas Shrugged (and I'm not a Rand mouthpiece per se, just a reader who calls I like I see it; I just think it's an extremely apt good metaphor) in a good way:
Ellie Rubenstein: read here;
Julie Brissette:  read here;
Kathleen Knauth: read here;
Gerald Conti: read here.
We need more, and higher profile, and more than just New York State (which is corrupt as hell anyway) and Chicagoland (ditto, from what I hear tell).

Teachers of the world, I share your feelings. I really do…I am SOOOOOOOOOO conflicted about this. And I would not ask my former colleagues to lay down their livelihoods until and unless they were ready to make that investment. (I don’t call it a sacrifice. When you sacrifice, by definition, you lose value.) A former colleague of mine recently expressed to me exactly what I suspect most teachers are feeling in this regard:
“I completely agree that we need to take a united stand. However, we are nowhere NEAR united, and I am currently the sole breadwinner in my family of 5. So.....I'm not going to be the one leading this foray.”
I get it, I really do! And it tears me up inside.

My response, however, to those administrators, those bureaucrats, those THUGS, who would make me and my colleague feel that way, is that of Hank Rearden, another central character of Atlas, speaking to his would-be oppressors with the serenity of a Gandhi, and the steely purpose of a man who knows his mission:
Hank:  If you choose to deal with men by means of compulsion, do so. But you will discover that you need the voluntary co-operation of your victims, in many more ways than you can see at present. And your victims should discover that it is their own volition—which you cannot force—that makes you possible. I choose to be consistent and I will obey you in the manner you demand. Whatever you wish me to do, I will do it at the point of a gun. If you sentence me to jail, you will have to send armed men to carry me there—I will not volunteer to move. If you fine me, you will have to seize my property to collect the fine—I will not volunteer to pay it. If you believe that you have the right to force me—use your guns openly. I will not help you to disguise the nature of your action.
And this exchange, between Dagny Taggart, who finally is moved to victoriously quit her post (a. Pardon the split infinitive, and b. No, it's not an oxymoron), and Francisco D'Anconia, a friend who helps her see the light:
Dagny:  It seems monstrously wrong to surrender the world to the looters, and monstrously wrong to live under their rule. I can neither give up nor go back. I can neither exist without work nor work as a serf. I had always thought that any sort of battle was proper, anything, except renunciation. I'm not sure we're right to quit, you and I, when we should have fought them. But there is no way to fight. It's surrender, if we leave—and surrender, if we remain. I don't know what is right any longer.

Francisco:  Check your premises, Dagny. Contradictions don't exist. 
I think Francisco is right, as was dear Ms. Librarian.  Deep within all of our conflicts there is a premise that needs checking, an unfounded assumption that by definition, by deduction, must be wrong.  Ms. Cartwheel librarian called it "cognitive dissonance."  Call it what you want.  Are we brave enough to check ourselves (before we wreck ourselves)?

Or maybe I just like to stir up sh*t more than most people do.

What do you think? I’m just A.S.K.ing…

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Standardized testing: When a picture is NOT worth 1,000 words.

“Could you take my picture
‘cuz I won’t remember…”
(“Take a Picture,” Filter)
An article by Motoko Rich in the New York Times makes the claim that it is easier to achieve gains in math than in reading, as indicated by test scores.

I repeat, as indicated by test scores.

On the surface, this makes some degree of intuitive sense; math questions are typically about “the right answer,” and it is easier to program students with a repeatable mechanical set of steps to reach a right answer to a math problem than it is to train the mind to perform the feats of abstract thought necessary to satisfy the typical question on most ELA assessments.

Rich illustrates this phenomenon thus:
During a fifth-grade reading class, students read aloud from “Bridge to Terabithia,” by Katherine Paterson. Naomi Frame, the teacher, guided the students in a close reading of a few paragraphs. But when she asked them to select which of two descriptions fit Terabithia, the magic kingdom created by the two main characters, the class stumbled to draw inferences from the text. 
Later, in math class, the same students had less difficulty following Bridget McElduff as she taught a lesson on adding fractions with different denominators. At the beginning of the class, Ms. McElduff rapidly called out equations involving two fractions, and the students eagerly called back the answers.
But I just can’t get over the grotesque leaps of illogic that this article makes.  A few samples:
“[T]eachers are finding it easier to help students hit academic targets in math than in reading, an experience repeated in schools across the country,” which begs the question: Are the “academic targets” actual learning and demonstration of mastery and understanding, or are they simply test scores? Not the same thing.
“[S]tudents … in KIPP middle schools for three years had test scores that indicated they were about 11 months — or the equivalent of more than a full grade level — ahead of the national average in math,”  which makes the implicit assumption, signaled by that word again – indicated – that test scores are a reliable and predictable and robust indicator of actual mathematical achievement.

“Studies have repeatedly found that ‘teachers have bigger impacts on math test scores than on English test scores,’ said Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia Business School,” which at least comes right out and admits that it’s only talking about test scores, and not about the actual educational experience of the child.

“Over time, teachers hope to develop the same results in reading that they have produced in math. Already, students at high school campuses in the Uncommon network in Brooklyn and Newark post average scores on SAT reading tests that exceed some national averages,” which again, emphasizes the primacy of test scores FIRST, students SECOND.
This is not as it should be. For one thing, I categorically reject the notion that a single standardized test score in any way equates to the child’s experience over a year’s worth of math classes. New York State is a sterling example of the pedagogically self-destructive redactio ad absurdum of this line of thinking, as I blogged recently (redacted here, click on this link to read the whole post):
When the focus is “doing what you have to do to get students to pass,” the focus is not on learning, building understanding, or scaffolding for continued study. The focus is instead on a short-term, quick-fix, half-assed solution that benefits NO ONE, and the illusion of the higher pass rate, suggesting a much higher quality of education that what is actually transpiring, is convincing enough for education stakeholders to look the other way. 
With regard to the New York State Algebra Regents [state-standardized final assessment], [what you see] is not [what you get]. On the New York State Algebra Regents exam, students are given a score out of 100, a "scaled score," and it is very easy (and most people, even many teachers and guidance counselors make this mistake) to think of this as a percentage – an 83 on the Regents means you got an 83% on the test. That is SO not the case.

View this chart for the June 2011 administration of the NYS Algebra Regents. A total of 87 points were available to be earned by students on the exam. 65% of 87 is about 56.5, the number of points out of 87 that would need to be earned by a student for the Regents Exam score to actually reflect the percentage correct that the student achieved. But oh, no. A [minimum] passing grade of 65 is granted by a student’s successfully earning a whopping 31 points (the "raw score"). That’s a passing grade for UNDER 36% correct. And what’s worse, standard policy in New York State is that even if a student fails the entire course, all four academic quarters, a passing grade on the Regents Exam is de facto full passing credit earned for the course.

A student could do nothing from September through May, cram for the Regents exam in June, do a 40% job, and PASS THE WHOLE YEAR based on that 40% on that one end-of-year assessment. And the Algebra teacher gets to brag about how high her passing rate is. And she will, no doubt.
As I have blogged, and re-posted, many times before:
Popular myth and the standardized-test culture of American public education would have one think that education is about the massive and rapid accumulation of content, the purpose of which is to succeed on a state test; the error of this thinking is that it relegates the education process itself to a secondary status, making the test score the “prize” of education. Nothing could be more removed from the truth. We have become a nation of pure data, of test scores and dropout rates, ciphers which are at best simplified abstractions of critically important ideas – but raw numbers do not tell the whole story. Any educational process or notion that has at its heart the notion that it is the data that needs to be treated, and not the students, is fundamentally flawed.
Motoko Rich doesn’t realize this, but she accidentally stumbles on these points early in her article in the words of David Javiscas, a seventh-grade reading teacher at Troy Prep Middle School, near Albany (emphasis mine):
Helping students to puzzle through different narrative perspectives or subtext or character motivation, though, can be much more challenging. “It could take months to see if what I’m teaching is effective,” he said.
You get that, Ms. Rich? It could take months. Teaching is a process; learning is a process. A test is at best a snapshot (not a movie), and sadly, most of this nation’s "cameramen" are not themselves educators, and are not fit to wield the cameras.

Have you ever taken a bad photograph of a normally photogenic person? When my family goes to Sears or JC Penney to get family portraits done, the photographer typically takes multiple shots of the same pose. Why? Because not every snapshot reflects the right image. How is a test any different?

And this article’s insistence, both explicit and implicit, that test scores are the de facto equivalent of achievement is a sad sign of the times; thanks to all this Race to the Top fueled testing, the way students are taught nowadays, we have to take their picture, ‘cuz they won’t remember…

Hey, Dad, what do you think about your schools now?

I'm just A.S.K.ing...

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"I was proud to say I was a teacher." Past tense.

"Huddled in the safety of a pseudo silk kimono
A morning mare rides, in the starless shutters of my eyes
The spirit of a misplaced childhood is rising to speak his mind
To this orphan of heartbreak, disillusioned and scarred
A refugee..."

                                               ("Pseudo Silk Kimono," from Misplaced Childhood, by Marillion)

“I was proud to say that I was a teacher.”  Please note the use of the past tense in that sentence. I was proud.

First, Gerald Conti’s retirement letter went viral (I’d like to think my little blog helped a little).  Conti, who for the time being, teaches in the high-performing Westhill School District, just outside of Detroitesque Syracuse, NY, posted his letter on his personal facebook page, and for a short while, it stayed in the local community.  A very short while. The rest, as they say, is history. 

And just as Mr. Conti was fading from news headlines a few weeks later, another public resignation shocked the teaching world, at least here in New York State – this time, a principal.  Kathleen Knauth’s retirement letter was shorter and sweeter, but packed just as much of a punch.  It did not have the same viral impact, confined largely to New York State (and my humble blog).  This surprised me, since the Frustrated Teacher is so commonplace an archetype as to be practically a cliche, but an administrator breaking ranks with Management to speak truth to power? That blew me away.

A subsequent public resignation from a School Board member, Julie Brissette, also in Upstate New York, drew almost no news attention outside of Syracuse’s city newspaper, the Post Standard.  I thought, perhaps, that what I had hoped would be a movement of principled acts, of Gandhi-esque gestures, of gentle, humble, almost plaintive middle fingers at the educational powers that be who are destroying the most important of our domestic institutions, public education, was dwindling into nothingness.  The starter engaged, the engine almost turned over, but the motor never roared like it should have.

Not yet, anyway.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  So what's a 10-minute youtube video worth?

Enter Ellie Rubenstein, a teacher from Illinois (Finally, one who’s not from New York! I was beginning to think it was just New Yorkers who were pissed off about all this!)  A few days ago, Rubenstein posted a 10-minute long video to youtube (watch it here) that has drawn, at this point, almost 400,000 views.

An excerpt: 
Over the past 15 years, I've experienced the depressing, gradual downfall and misdirection of communication that has slowly eaten away at my love of teaching. The emphasis in education has shifted from fostering academic and personal growth in both students and teachers to demanding uniformity and conformity.  Raising students' test scores on standardized tests is now the only goal, and in order to achieve it the creativity, flexibility and spontaneity that create authentic learning environments have been eliminated. Everything I love about teaching is extinct.  Curriculum is mandated, minutes spent teaching subjects are audited, schedules are dictated by administrators. The classroom teacher is no longer trusted or in control of what, when or how she teaches.
Eventually, if it is heard enough times, it will believed by the people who need most to hear it.  Let's all listen:
Julie BrissetteI no longer choose to spend my valuable free time representing a community that, it appears, puts private agendas ahead of the children.
Kathleen KnauthThis is not the purpose of public education and I believe [these educational reforms are] destructive in many ways to the children and to the teachers, and to education as a whole.
Gerald Conti I am not leaving my profession[;] in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists.

Ellie RubensteinEverything I love about teaching is extinct.
Don’t anyone dare accuse these educators of “giving up” on students, the spiteful insult defensively hurled most often at educators such as these, who have made this hard choice. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are not giving up on students; they simply no longer wish to be part of a system that is actively damaging them. They recognize that their enemy is too great to defeat from within the system, and as long as they stay and obey, they are inadvertently helping to perpetuate the problem, even as they try their best to shield students from it.

If this is your first awareness or inkling of this issue, please take a few moments to look back in time two months to the letter that got it all started, at my earlier blog posts on Gerald Conti and Kathleen Knauth (click the names for links to the articles).

We recently celebrated Memorial Day, in which we pause to remember those fallen in defense of this great nation. Let us also remember that , in their own way, teachers serve this great nation too. And when one falls, we should notice, and we should understand why. It’s a different kind of battlefield, but it’s a very real fight.

And it’s one worth winning.

Thank you, Ellie, Kathleen, Julie, Gerald.

Apollo vs. Dionysus: Is teaching (and teacher evaluation) an art or a science?

"The universe divided
As the heart and mind collided
With the people left unguided
For so many troubled years
In a cloud of doubts and fears
Their world was torn asunder into hollow hemispheres"

                                   ("Hemispheres," by Rush)

I failed a college class once.  I was a high-school senior, sixteen at the time, and for some reason I decided to take a typing course at a local community college (Ohlone College in Fremont, California).  I was pretty sure it would be an easy A; I mean, it was… typing.  Duh.

I know, I know, shades of Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club. [Note: If the video doesn't work, the script's key lines are beneath the viewer. Sorry. If anyone finds this scene online, shoot me a link?]

But after a couple of weeks of “A-S-D-F, J-K-L-sem,” I couldn’t take it anymore. I started to lag on my touch-typing practice assignments.  I couldn’t focus.  Other students in the class were racing ahead of me.  I was… I was… struggling.

I stopped coming after week 6 or 7 and never went back. I got the “F” on my grade report in the mail. It was strangely surreal.  It almost felt like a rite of passage.  Or perhaps that’s all in historical retrospect.  Yeah, when it happened, at the time, I was pretty rotted (bit of Newfoundland slang courtesy of my Newfie wife).

I’m a pretty decent typist.  Even then, I wasn’t terrible.  I would clock in at around 40 words per minute (I think I’m probably around 50-55 now). My error rate wasn’t too bad either because I would always look at my fingers when I typed.  “Hunt and peck,” my teacher called it derisively.

I always wanted to be able to touch-type without having to look at what I was doing.  My mother, when I was in intermediate school, had a secretary who was an absolute whiz at typing – she could type 90-100 words per minute, and she didn’t even need to look at her fingers.  It was mesmerizing to watch her, much as I felt when would watch early MTV videos of Eddie Van Halen playing guitar. I was watching a master at work.

Try as I might, I was completely incompetent as a typist if I tried to do it the “proper” way.  But somehow, I had gotten it drilled into my head, in the short time I was in that class, that the “proper” way was what mattered.

I feel much better about myself now, and am a happy 50-wpm hunter and pecker.  Oh dear, that didn’t come out quite right…

I bring this up because I currently tech in a discipline – Composition – where process is everything, perhaps equally as important (to some, more so) than product.  But when I was an undergraduate, I never learned the Writing Process. In fact, the process of writing I developed for myself and subsequently engaged in would be scorned mightily by any modern-day college Comp teacher.  I think back to my Psychology 415 seminar at Cornell University, “Concepts, Categories and Word Meanings,” with Frank Keil, in which one 5-7 page paper was due each week.  We would be assigned a mountain of reading – good stuff too: language acquisition, philosophy of language, epistemology.  And then we would have to write a summary/review/critique, of sorts.

My “writing process” at the time consisted of the following steps:
•    Do the readings;
•    Think about them for a few days;
•    Go to a computer lab in the morning of the paper due date (class was at 1:15 pm);
•    Sit comfortably and spread my sources our around me in a grand parabola ;
•    Take a deep breath, reflect, and crack open a Snapple Cherry-Lime Rickey (why did Snapple ever stop selling sodas, anyway?);
•    Crank out a 5-7 page essay in 3-4 hours;
•    Go to class;
•    Get an A!
Somehow, my mind, on its own, always seemed to have conjured up a general sense of what I wanted to write, and an organic flow; my essays all had what I now recognize as the basic chunks of an essay: introduction, body, conclusion.  My transitions were seamless, and my wording punchy, erudite and with a definite personal "voice." How did I do that, without actually deliberately doing that?  I recently paid someone a small fortune to crack the corrupt hard drive on an ancient computer of mine, and I recovered all of my essays from that 1989 class and re-read them, as well as my 25-page final essay, "Towards a more defined theory of children's responses to transformations upon natural vs. artifactual kinds: A literature review and research prospectus," also written in the same fashion.

Not bad!

If you had asked me then, I might have told you that all of the traditional formative steps in the so-called Writing Process – organizing the information, brainstorming, pre-writing, even drafting – I did in my head.  I would never teach one of my Composition students that this was okay.  Do as I say, not as I do?

One size does not fit all.  So is talk of "process" just bunk?

Another anecdote.  When I lived in California, I used to frequent a particular Borders Bookstore in Milpitas (just south of Fremont and north of San Jose). One day, they had students there from a local massage school offering free massages, in what I can only imagine was that particular institution’s version of fieldwork for credit. I selected a practitioner and flopped down on the table for 10 minutes of bliss.

It was awful.

At various times during the “massage,” I signaled (first subtly, then eventually not so subtly) that it wasn’t working for me. It was mechanical, brutal, unpleasant.  She dismissed my concerns, and said she knew what she was doing.  As most of my massages up to that point had been of the, uh,  “amateur” type, I gave this “professional” a little leeway.  But soon, I had to terminate the massage.

The woman became upset with me, saying that what she was doing was supposed to feel good because her textbooks had told her so.  She had learned a fixed way of performing massage, and clove to it, and in the process, had formulated the opinion that if a client didn’t like it, it was the client’s fault.

I’ve seen this behavior many times since, primarily in two places: 
1.    In the delusional behavior of floundering chefs and restaurateurs (let me be very clear – there is NO SUCH WORD as restauranteur) given emergency attitude adjustments by such culinary heavyweights as Gordon Ramsay and Robert Irvine to save their failing establishments;
2.    In the equally delusional behavior of high school administrators who observe and evaluate teacher performance, and who seem to feel that: if teachers do not have exquisitely detailed daily lesson plans that indicate exactly what they plan to do; if teachers do not have their chalk/white boards partitioned into exactly the same prescribed sections (date, "essential question," objective, do-it-now, agenda, key terms, ticket-out-the-door); if teachers do not, over the course of a 50 or 55 or 75 minute-lesson, physically behave the same (usually, in lockstep adherence to whatever the administrators believe “the research” tells them teachers should be doing); then that teacher is de facto a “bad teacher,” and is evaluated as such.
With regard to the former, I will only say that despite the assistance provided by Chef Ramsay, something like 90% of these failing restaurants fail anyway. Why? They hold fast to their illusory prescribed norms instead of listening to the customers, the community, and common sense. With regard to the latter, I can only say that this madness is allowed to continually be perpetuated because it is imposed top-down by administrators who are desperate to “demonstrate” accountability.

Please note that “demonstrating” accountability is actually not the same as “being accountable." High school administrations concern themselves only with the most superficial indicators of teacher performance (does a teacher appear to be following certain prescribed “recipe” for teaching performance, whether or not s/he is actually producing good teaching is irrelevant), much as they concern themselves only with the most superficial indicators of student performance (test scores). When my evaluators would come to the classroom, they would not attend to the lesson itself; they barely even listened. Instead, they would have a lengthy checklist of clearly visible indicators to look for. If they were all there, that was all they needed, and they could comfortable make the leap of assuming that since all of the required components were there, the teaching was robust.

In 2000, I was observed by an assistant principal in my Spanish III class. The class was taught entirely in Spanish. The administrator spoke no Spanish. He had been a math teacher for 20-something years. Oh, we had a Spanish-speaking administrator on-staff – in fact, she was credentialed in the same three areas I was: English, Spanish, ESL – but staff evaluations were assigned by some mysterious process and that was just the way it was. Being a 3-level Spanish class, I conducted the entire class, start to finish, in the target language. The class went pretty well. Student participation was good. We reviewed homework. There were some class notes and discussion, a little guided practice. I assigned homework.  Everything went smoothly. I was pretty pleased.

Not my observer. Because I did not have clearly written objectives and an agenda on the board, he says, he was never able to get a clear sense of what that day’s lesson was. A lesson had to have a discrete start and finish, with some kind of assessment, and those phases had to be clearly discernible. Each days’ lesson should accomplish one defined measurable objective. Mine did not, as far as he could tell.
“Uh, but Sir, you do not speak Spanish. The whole lesson was in Spanish.”
“Good teaching is good teaching. It’s evident. I know it when I see it.”
Like pornography, huh?

If you are not familiar with the awesome and wonderful scene from Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams's Mr. Keating first meets his class, now is a good time to familiarize yourself.  Go ahead, view for a few minutes. I'll wait right here.  Good teachers are Mr. Keating. But Common Core, NCLB, Race to the Top, and the school administrators mindlessly enforce their mandates and embrace them as gospel are all Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, PhD.

Hold on, now.  Maybe I’m going too far, being too simplistic.  

Jeffrey Hammond, Professor English and George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts, deflated some of the out-of-contraol romanticization of, and schooled me but good in, my post Dead Poets' Society teacher-worship when he wrote in 2009: “In the end, the extreme rationalist and the extreme romantic are more alike than they know.” Damn. I hate to admit it, but that's sage advice right there.

“The great pendulum is poised to swing back from the heart to the head, but as this movie confirms, we poets and nonpoets alike are “dead” inside unless we honor both,” he added.

So there is, or must be, some kind of middle ground. There must be some science mixed in to the art of teaching, and by extension, teacher evaluation. A little bit of Apollo mixed in with the Dionysus.

But how?

I’m just A.S.K.ing…

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Race to the Top and the 10th Amendment -- a look back at 2009

Did you ever wish you could go back in time?  Here, let me help you. 

Reprinted below is a discussion of an editorial from August 25, 2009, written by Paul Riede, who often writes on educational matters for Syracuse's Post Standard newspaper.  (Link to the article here, although most of it is reproduced in segments in this post.)

Prophetically, he titled his piece "State education law misguided, but so are Obama requirements." I have already blogged about Obama's bizarre flip-flop on the relationship between testing and accountability, as well as the eerie stranglehold, the near-total dominion, that the wicked trinity of NCLB, Race to the Top and Common Core have on our beloved profession.

But I have to admit, when I was teaching in Syracuse in 2009, and there were whispers of, "Hey, there's a ton of money available for schools that increase student performance," my ears perked up a bit.  I think everyone was a bit suspicious, but I'm not sure anyone really saw what was coming.

Well, except apparently Paul Riede.

Riede’s 2009 approach to RttT was grounded firmly in that age-old GOP rallying cry: “States’ Rights!” In making his claim, he presents a middle ground that I want to discuss for a moment, that many anti-RttT, anti-Common Core, anti-NCLB people, including myself, often ignore:  that it’s important not to conflate the lambasting of current methods of implementation of Common Core and rubrics of Race to the Top funds dissemination (which is thoroughly justified) with the rejection of all notion of content-area standards (which is foolish).

Riede dodged this false dilemma, this either-fallacy, by saying (emphasis mine):
Clearly, student test scores should not be the only thing used to evaluate teachers. School officials who give too much weight to such tests to the exclusion of the many other means of evaluation would be doing a disservice to teachers and their students. In important ways, an overemphasis on test scores limits teacher creativity and encourages a "teaching to the test" syndrome that can stultify a learning environment. But to ban administrators from even considering how students do on such tests -- the most important of which measure basic math and literacy skills -- is ludicrous.
That is particularly true as schools gain the ability to use the tests to track students' progress from year to year. If one teacher manages to get most of his or her students to make a year's worth of academic gains while the teacher next door gets only half those results with similar students, that's something administrators should be able to consider.
In this, he made a valid point. He is rejecting the extremist knee-jerk reaction position, which is, in general, a rhetorically sensible thing to do.  The rabid sentiments expressed by educators (again, including myself) often do not allow for such nuance. Political activism typically pushes one to the most extreme version of one’s own position, as combatants strive to distance themselves as much as possible from their ideological opponents. Of course test scores should be looked at – somehow – and of course they should not be the sole basis for decision-making, nor should they be disproportionately, or even heavily, weighted (as they so often seem to be).  I’m not sure that even the most venomous test-haters out there would call for the elimination of all testing, so Riede’s criticism seems at least partially valid.

Riede was consistent in his moderate stance in criticizing the state of New York for its attempted response to RttT:
The Obama administration is taking aim at New York and other states that ban public school officials from considering student test scores when they evaluate teachers. The administration is right to question states about such counterproductive laws, passed at the insistence of teachers' unions. But it is dead wrong to punish them over what should remain state policy decisions.

Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan has proposed a "Race to the Top Fund" that would divvy up some $4.3 billion in federal stimulus funds to states that are pursuing school reform and have innovative plans for further improvement. But under Duncan's plan, not a cent of the money would go to states that ban the use of test scores in teacher evaluations. Placing restrictions on charter schools could also hurt a state's chances. That would appear to leave New York out of the running for any of the money, along
with California and a few other states.

Last year, the New York State Legislature and Gov. David Paterson succumbed to pressures from teachers' unions and approved a two-year ban on the use of student test scores in teacher-tenure decisions. The unions argued that the tests were not designed as teacher evaluation tools and should not be used as such.
Riede called the state’s argument “silly” and its ban on considering testing in teacher evaluation a “counterproductive law,” and expressed a wish that New York would lift their ban, for pedagogical reasons.  I call Riede's snap judgment into question here; there is nothing silly about arguing that "the tests were not designed as teacher evaluation tools and should not be used as such." And I think most, if not all, teachers would line up behind that statement quite happily.

By his comment, Riede seems to want to say that test scores are, or ought to be, one of many rubrics to be used in concert to assess students and teacher performance, and it’s hard to argue with that stance, although I think the more important factor is growth, as opposed to a single, decontextualized raw test score, as I try to illustrate here: 
Recently, I had a girl recently in an English 10 course who, at the start of the year, could not write a coherent paragraph, much less a coherent sentence.  It was an Inclusion class, and she was a special-needs student, with major written/expressive language difficulties.  But I and my aide, as well as the support systems the school provided, worked with her all year. She passed the course, albeit just barely, with some modifications for her needs - allotted time, occasional alternative assessments, etc...  -- but no modification in the rigor and standards I required for passing the course.  In other words, the content standards remained fixed, but we adapted our pedagogy to help her rise to meet them, we did not lower our standards for her convenience and the school's passing rate numbers.  At the end of the year, she took the New York State English Language Arts Regents Exam, which at the time was a 6-hour test given over two days (and because of her special needs, she would have had double the time, so imagine being forced to take a 12-hour test in two marathon 6-hour sessions).  This test had not one but FOUR full-length essays on it.  Click here, and look at June 2010, to see what I mean.

Passing was a 65.  She got a 59 on the exam.  I was ecstatic.  This was a girl whose level of writing started off only slightly better than my 7-year-old daughter's (maybe not even that) who came literally within one or two rubric points out of 24 of passing a major composition test with four essays -- not only were her skills improved, but also her stamina and attention and focus, to be able to have even finished the test.  Even she was happy -- "Well, I almost passed it!" she told me, smiling.

In the eyes of the State of New York, in the eyes of the Board of Regents, and in the eyes of the administration of the Syracuse City School District, however, she (and by extension, her teacher and the aides that attended to her tutelage) was a failure.
I would rather have a class full of 25 of this girl than a class full of students who could receive easy grades of A and B, but coast comfortably to grades of C.  But of course, a teacher who had the latter would be lauded for his 100% pass rate, and a teacher with the former would be fired.

I ask you: Which one is doing the real teaching?

I support the existence of standards – national content-area standards, even, and even of tests to assess performance within those standards – but the NYS Board of Regents has gone from being a board that primarily monitors course content and testing to a Sauron-esque Master of Puppets (Lord of the Rings and Metallica in the same noun phrase – top that!) with its slimy tendrils (Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn) reaching into all areas of pedagogical practice.  Now magnify that by a factor of 50, and you have what is happening at the federal level.

Clearly, a set of standards is an essential component of any functional educational system.  I absolutely reject the Libertarian and Objectivist (yes, I know that they are philosophically divergent views, but their political positions overlap largely) notions of full school privatization and total local/parental control over all content and standards, as expressed here last year by C. Bradley Thompson: 
Just as antebellum Americans in the North had to be roused, educated, and radicalized on the evils of government-sanctioned involuntary servitude and on the need to abolish slavery, so too 21st-century Americans need to be shown the horrors of government-run, involuntary schools and persuaded to abolish them. Americans must come to see not only that the public school system is failing, but also that it cannot be reformed—because, like slavery, it is fundamentally immoral.
It might not be such a terrible thing if the Common Core standards were allowed to continue to exist, and just kind of “sat there” as guideposts, instead of being forced down teachers’ throats at the point of a gun, with financial inducements, punitive measures, implied threats and consequences, and an inordinate crush of weighty bureaucracy designed to do nothing more than fatten Pearson’s coffers and increase the extent of government control into an area where, even if you successfully made the argument that it belongs, it certainly has no expertise.

Even Riede, who (in 2009) seemed somewhat sympathetic to RttT’s mission, made this argument back in 2009, not based on the absolute evil of RttT (this was before Common Core was birthed, ravenous and already snarling, from RttT’s festering womb and began suckling on its wretched mother's wrinkled teat), but on the idea that the Federal Government is just too involved:
The New York Legislature should repeal the legislation, or at least let it expire next year. But that decision should be a state one, not a federal one. Duncan's proposal to deny millions of dollars in potential grants to states that don't comply with his policy preferences is an example of the kind of federal overreach on education that many hoped had ended with the Bush administration.
How very Tenth Amendment of him.  It is an interesting exercise in political philosophy.  The federal government created a disastrous policy and signed it into law.  A state drafted a policy defense and signed it into law, but the state’s law itself was an over-response.  The federal government responded by threatening financially devastating punitive measures against the state for blocking the will of the federal government.  Riede argued that, even though the federal policy was a bad one, the state’s defensive position was just as bad, and should be repealed.  However, he argued, it was not the federal government’s job to force or coerce that repeal, since it was a states’ rights issue.

Riede’s solution?  For Duncan to grow the hell up and not be so petty:
Duncan should reconsider the conditions on his "Race to the Top Fund" and direct the money to wherever schools and teachers are working diligently and creatively to help students succeed.
And we all know how that worked out….

Can schools be trusted to keep to rigorous content-area standards without the government heaving its weight behind them?  Should government have any say in what schools teach?  How about how schools teach? (Not the same thing – one is content, the other is pedagogy.)  And if so, how to titrate it to an acceptable level? And who decides what is an “acceptable” level? Will government ever trust schools and schoolteachers again?  Was the failure really mine that that English 10 student only pulled a 59 on her final, and is there anything government can do to make sure that such a tragedy never happens again?

If you taught in New York State in the 70s and 80s; Is my perception of the shift in the NYS Board of Regents' shift in priorities on the money, or am I misremembering a non-existent glorious past because the present has become so exaggeratedly bleak?

This is perhaps not a simple black-and-white issue, as many pundits might make it seem (even, I fear, myself at times).  Any ideas?

I’m just A.S.K.ing...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How high schools and colleges think differently about student preparation

Paul Riede, education reporter for Syracuse’s Post-Standard, posted something this morning that caught my eye:  “High school teachers and college professors have a different view of what ‘ready for college’ means,” and linked his comment to a SHOCKING article by the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, entitled “The college ‘preparation gap’ in a single graphic.”

Here is that graphic. Get ready to feel quite ill.


How could that be? How could high school teachers and college teachers have such a radically different take on their students’ level of preparation?

Well, having been a high school teacher for 19 years and a college teacher for 9 (often having done both at the same time – I’m not that old!), I have a couple of thoughts.

Here is a simple reason for this observation. High school teachers are under pressure to get kids "out" by hook or by crook - for HS administrations, the prize at the end is the graduation rate, so that is the target they shoot for, by hook or by crook. It's easy to "graduate" a kid (transitive verb), but that's not the same as a kid "graduating" (intransitive verb), as I have previously blogged here.

This also encourages administrators to force teachers to lower their standards, sometimes drastically, because the gold standard is not mastery or content understanding, but success on a State-mandated assessment battery, as I humorously observed, with a cool Lord of the Rings extended metaphor, here.

As I have written before, and will continue to write again and again, I believe that "Popular myth and the standardized-test culture of American public education would have one think that education is about the massive and rapid accumulation of content, the purpose of which is to succeed on a state test; the error of this thinking is that it relegates the education process itself to a secondary status, making the test score the “prize” of education. Nothing could be more removed from the truth. We have become a nation of pure data, of test scores and dropout rates, ciphers which are at best simplified abstractions of critically important ideas – but raw numbers do not tell the whole story. Any educational process or notion that has at its heart the notion that it is the data that needs to be treated, and not the students, is fundamentally flawed."

And Obama has a history of being a bit hypocritical regarding his devotion to the (Race to the) top-down model of test-driven evaluation of students, and teachers! What this all amounts to is that teachers are pressured, bribed, coerced and incentivized (and make no mistake, teachers are at least PARTIALLY to blame for their own victimhood – where’s the activist spirit that surely led them to the profession in the first place?) and threatened by administrators at the site, district, state and federal levels to move kids through the system.

Sort of like a pedagogical laxative.  Ewww…. No wonder education is in the sh*ts these days.

[insert cymbal crash]

The second half of my answer is as follows:

While high school teachers are under pressure to get kids "out," however possible, for colleges, the moment at which high schools turn out their students and wipe their hands of them is the students' starting point. In order for college-level coursework to have any meaning, there must be a set of expectations, a set of minimum prerequisites for entry and participation. If 9th graders are functioning at the 6th grade level, and 12th graders are functioning at the 9th grade level, then that forces colleges to become high schools, which eliminates the value of college altogether. And while remedial (I mean "developmental") coursework can fill some of the gaps, the fact is that most state colleges and universities and community colleges spend an inordinate amount of capital and human resources doing high schools' jobs for them, and it has a serious cascading effect on program offerings, personnel and staffing, and the robustness of the college experience as a whole.

Intermediate and secondary schools' absolute failure to impose and enforce rational, objective, consistent standards, coupled with the obscene progressivist fetish which is "social promotion" are going to destroy the notion of college as we know it. They've already destroyed high school... why stop there?

Is all hope lost?  I’m just A.S.K.ing…