Teachers, Testing and Why We Might Just Chill

You hear it all the time: What we need is teachers at the policy table. They would make the right decisions about things that would truly revive and strengthen public education.

Well, maybe.

Managing and monitoring the behavior and learning of 30 8-year olds or 150 teenagers, making 1500 fine-grained instructional decisions a day, means there isn’t much time for negotiation, nuance, what-ifs and taking everyone’s opinion into consideration. Teachers are also excellent crap-detectors, having had so much practice. Teachers cut to the chase.

No so with most policy-makers.

In a just and fair world—not the polarized and partisan world we live in—legislators are elected to craft policy that sees all sides: Business and the national economy. The environment. The needs of the rural west and the urban east. The well-being of The People. The most equitable way to educate all children.

It is worth remembering that No Child Left Behind–the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in its 2001 incarnation—was a product of bipartisan legislators who really thought they were injecting admirable goals and equity, not to mention accountability, into the venerable ESEA, now 55 years old.

Who do you suppose wrote the following statement?

It is clear that the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-2021 school year so that states can respond to the unique circumstances they are facing; keep students, staff, and their families safe; and maintain their immediate focus on supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development.

 Sounds good, right? Actually, it is the opening salvo in a letter from the federal Department of Education, letting states know that they will still be expected to give mandated federal tests this year, although significant flexibility in all aspects of testing has been granted.

Tests can be given in the spring, summer or fall, or all three, in the same district but to different populations. States or districts may choose which tests to give, and make them shorter. Tests may be given remotely. And districts are not required to test 95% of their students to make their results ‘count.’ They must still find ways to share their data with parents and the federal government.

Now—let me say, as a teacher, that I strongly believe that all mandated testing should have been waived this spring, due to the pandemic. The data generated from these tests will be garbage.

But I can understand why the Department did what it did.

First, if testing were waived for the spring testing window, it does not magically go away. It’s still there, on the books. And come fall, when—God willing, as Joe Biden might say—the large majority of public school students will be returning to face to face learning, parents (sensible, caring, good-citizen parents) are going to be asking: How is my child doing? Is he behind?

And I can see teachers everywhere saying: Don’t worry. I’ll figure it out. I’ll meet your child where he is. I’ll work to fill in any gaps that I see.

I believe those teachers. And I know they will use assessments. Not high-stakes, punitive, we-must-compare kinds of standardized tests—but they will certainly be assessing students, to inform their instruction.

I also know that over the past 20 years or so, parents (and many teachers) have begun to believe that test scores are real, that they’re the best, most reliable data we have to tell us what our children know and can do. That’s not true, but—hey, listen to any journalist or newscaster talk about the ‘learning loss’ crisis.  We have our work cut out for us.

I recently shared a letter I wrote to as-yet-unconfirmed Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, urging him to suspend testing, and drew a number of irritated responses from teachers, saying they wanted standardized testing data this spring. Some, to prove that their newly honed online instructional efforts had been effective. Others, to show that students in poverty were not learning as much online—to compare this year’s students to previous classes.

I believe all stakeholders—students and parents, teachers and school leaders, and especially business and government officials are going to need to be weaned off their faith in and reliance on standardized testing data, and moved toward assessment literacy for educators and trust in public education for the rest. We aren’t getting either of those things overnight.

We currently have billions of dollars’ worth of testing infrastructure: laws, test producers, researchers, technological investments, grant-funded non-profits, right down to part-time, hired-on-Craig’s List scorers. We need a plan to improve assessment models and report results to parents and states–because we DO still need assessments. What we don’t need is harmful, disconnected standardized tests and terrible uses of the data they generate.

And we’re not going to get rid of accountability overnight, either. David Labaree says:

The urge for accountability is not unreasonable.  Education should be accountable.  It’s a public institution that needs to be effective at meeting the goals society sets for it, and such determinations can’t just be left to the preferences of teachers or parents or students or administrators.  In addition, it’s not ok that many students don’t succeed in school and that their social origins are key determinants of their success or failure.  Schooling whose outcomes simply reproduce its inputs is not good schooling.  These equity concerns are visible in the names of the two key US laws governing accountability – No Child Left Behind and its 2013 successor, Every Student Succeeds Act.

The problems with accountability lie in the way it is implemented.  The accountability movement in the US and in the world of school reform has relied on a method that defines school success through a small number of metrics – scores in tests that measure comprehension of the formal curriculum.

After 20 years of dispiriting federal policy-making in education, we may have a window for significant change, but we are entering that window through the context of a pandemic.

The first set of policy alterations—flexibility and options around testing–is pretty weak sauce, but it does reflect change. What would happen if all states and districts were permitted to choose their own tests, give them at times they deemed useful, eliminate all punitive uses of test data and no longer be required to test 95% of their students? If that became a permanent (legislatively sanctioned) set of changes, would that be progress?

Policy shifts are often predicated by small changes that snowball. One opportunity I would see right now is for the parent-led opt-out movement. Schools can’t claim that parents exercising their right to take children out of testing threatens their 95% compliance level.  Suppose parents got organized and a significant percentage said—nope, not testing MY kid this year?  Would that not be evidence—data, if you will—that a lot of parents simply don’t think standardized tests are useful?

Here’s what we don’t need right now:

  • Ad hominem attacks (Biden lied! He wants testing. At least Betsy DeVos suspended testing!)
  • Holding out for a no tests, ever again, policy in the second month of a new administration

I feel like we (millions of educators) have been screaming about the folly of mandated standardized testing for two decades with no positive action. We might actually have a window to shift entrenched policies now, in the next four years.

But because it didn’t happen right away, we now have people screaming at the very folks who might be able to help.  By all means, keep writing letters, keep sharing your stories. But don’t give up the faith, yet.
UPDATE: The billions and orgs already invested in pro-testing? They are happy that tests will go on, but unhappy about locally chosen or designed tests and the relaxation of the requirement that 95% must be tested.

Summer School & Learning Loss

It is with some trepidation that I put both ‘summer school’ and ‘learning loss’ in the title of this blog. Trepidation, because both terms have been widely and egregiously mis-used in the month that we’ve had an actual president again.

We are now discussing What to Do About School in terms of safety and instructional efficacy, rather than how to force ‘unions’ (another word deserving scare quotes these days) to push their teachers into a workplace where potentially lethal viruses may be circulating.

To clarify: When I say ‘summer school,’ what I mean is some kind of age-appropriate, enriching and FREE experience for kids, K-12. Things like music camp, Lego teams, outdoor sports and recreation, river canoeing, book clubs, arts and crafts, coding, Young Writers workshop–or volunteering to pull garlic mustard in conservation areas and getting school credit for your work.

I know that a definition of ‘summer school’ generally comes with the stink of the punitive: having to go into a hot, dusty building to ‘catch up’ to your classmates while the custodians strip and rewax the floors outside your classroom. It’s not supposed to be fun, for teachers or pupils. The implication of summer school is that you screwed up—or, worse, were deficient—and need to be fixed.

I am also well aware of the fact that everyone, K-12, needs a break right now. A long, healing break. And what better time to take one than now, when most of the country can be outdoors, and vaccinated families will be able to re-unite and kids can run around and play?

It’s worth pointing out, however, that not all families will be vaccinated, come June, and not all kids will be able to play this summer, in healthy, supervised surroundings. Some kids will go to day care, and a whole lot of them will be on their own. This is also part of the equation—that for some students (and they may not be the students you’d think), summer is already too long. Too unstructured.

Students themselves are ambivalent.Some think that other kids who have ‘fallen behind’—not them, of course—could certainly use summer school to ‘catch up.’ Some are full-tilt protective of their summer break, after the rotten school year they’ve just endured. Some of them are actually worried that their favorite teachers will be asked to keep working with little to no pay. Others say they’ve learned differently this year, but they’ve learned plenty.

As for teachers, most know better than to hope for inspired school leadership that rustles up low- or zero-cost programming opportunities that will keep kids intellectually engaged and perhaps provide a place for parents to drop their children off every day so they can return to work. Nor can we expect interesting activities that will provide some structure and challenge for older students.

If the purpose of summer school were to do more of the inadequate same-old, with the goal of better test scores eventually, I would be adamantly opposed. It would be a waste of scarce resources. And I am only too familiar with teachers accepting summer-teaching roles for insulting hourly rates, because their salaries are so miniscule.

On the other hand—and this is an argument that usually falls on deaf or hostile ears, granted—why not take advantage of smaller numbers of children, the option of working outdoors, plus a window of instructional choice and creativity, and use some of that federal money to offer voluntary summer learning activities?

It might even be a lead-in to permanently changing school calendars, which would be the real cause of ‘learning loss’—if learning loss were a real thing.  

Which it isn’t. It’s pure baloney. Kids learn all the time, in school or at home. The question is what they’re learning, and whether it will be useful to them. Furthermore, schools accept kids ‘where they are,’ all the time. Public schools, that is.

Teachers will meet kids where they are in the fall, summer school or no summer school. And move them forward. As they have always done, after a summer of so-called learning loss.

This blah-blah about ‘union’ reticence to return to face to face learning (because that—ha ha–would solve this made-up crisis) is also baloney, a darker narrative to stop people from stepping back and saying maybe we should never return to normal, because normal has morphed into schooling that is inequitable, punitive and boring. By policy and grant-funded design.

Sometimes, I think the problem is that Americans have no sense of imagination around education:

What would an imaginative response to the requirement that students take tests be? We could start by simply saying no, state by state or district by district. This would take some gutsy leadership—but who’s in charge, after a pandemic? Gates-funded nonprofits or on-the-ground public school leaders?

Parents could organize opt-out campaigns—teachers would support parents, if they took the lead, because teachers want to end punitive testing without jeopardizing their jobs. Schools could devise their own return-to-school pre-assessments, the no-stakes things teachers do every fall, to get a handle on kids’ skill levels and understanding.

We could set an overarching national goal: a year of providing extras for our students—extra programming, extra attention, extra medical and mental health resources, extra tutoring.  We could gut and re-think school calendars, curricular requirements, instructional models, teacher preparation. We could work on reducing standardized tests to three or four over students’ K-12 career.  

Instead, we’re fighting over summer school and learning loss.

Photo credit: Anna Samoylova

Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Snow Days

Several years ago, I was on the dais at the annual meeting of the Michigan Association of School Administrators—the superintendents—in Dearborn, Michigan. I was there as token teacher, making a few remarks, but the keynote speaker at the evening banquet was their annual award-winner.

He was telling a story about a mistake he made, as a first-year superintendent. The U.S. Weather Service had predicted 12”-16” of snow overnight, with blowing and drifting, in a rural area where snows like this are commonplace. Instead of waiting until morning, and having to activate an early-hours phone fanout and radio alerts, he went ahead and called school off, and went home, secure in the knowledge that there would be snow, and plenty of it.

Of course, the storm veered north and there was no snow. None. Roads were dry and bare. And he spent the next week fielding angry phone calls. When he came to the punch line of his story, a groan swept across the ballroom. They’d all been there.

All these school leaders knew that if there had been an early a.m. storm making roads dangerous, and stranding kids at their bus stops before school was called, he would have faced the same wrath from parents. When it comes to calling snow days, it’s a crapshoot in the snowbelt. Ya can’t win.

In every community, there are the ‘Hey I had to go to work and it wasn’t so bad’ folks who don’t stop to think that driving a school bus full of elementary kids might be different than traversing the roads in their 4-wheel drive pickup trucks.

There are overprotective mamas who don’t want their children out in near-zero weather and keep them home even if there is school. There are middle schoolers who insist on wearing light jackets and no boots during blizzards—and teachers with hour-long commutes because they can’t afford to live in the town where they work.

The most complicating factor is whether the day ‘counts’ in the mandated seat-time requirements each state has for public education. A hard winter, like 2019, will outstrip the six ‘free’ days Michigan allows for weather emergencies. There were MI schools that missed as many as 13 days that year—all of them justified—and the governor had to pass a law to keep them from having to go to school until the Fourth of July.

But now—nearly all school districts have had to deal with remote school. Remote school is not ideal, but pretty much everyone agrees that it’s better than no school at all. So why not scrap snow days? Call them off the day prior, giving everyone lead time to make arrangements for substituting remote school?

There are a handful of arguments against turning bad-weather school outages into remote-school days:

  • A healthy percentage of kids don’t have devices, bandwidth, technical assistance or a quiet space. This is, however, a problem that schools have been working diligently to solve, out of necessity. That groundwork could be used for another purpose.
  • Those very kids are often using school-owned devices and school-provided hotspots. As the pandemic fades, it’s worth considering the idea of the school as main provider (using federal or special state funds) of tech basics to every child (and teacher), so school is not, ever again, completely dependent on face to face learning to be good for kids in poverty. There will always be emergencies, up to and including another pandemic. (Sorry, but it’s true.) Having kids equipped and prepared for remote school as needed is a good investment.
  • Modern-day students will lose the magic of an unexpected day off from school. I taught for 32 years in a state with snowy winters. I loved those back-to-bed calls as much as any teacher or student. But I also know that after two or three days in a row, the excitement fades. When you’re looking at tacking days on to the end of the year, or taking them out of spring break, or re-thinking your entire second-semester curriculum, the reality isn’t so delightful.

John Spencer wrote a delightful piece / podcast about using snow days as an excuse for more play in the school. It has some lively ideas about using unstructured time and a unique environment (snow!) for learning. But there’s no reason why a snow day that keeps kids home shouldn’t be filled with interesting and engaging learning ideas provided by their teacher, counting as a full day of school.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about suspending mandated high-stakes testing this spring. The assumption is that students won’t do well, that the essential knowledge and skills schools are responsible for teaching aren’t being absorbed with so many kids being schooled remotely. The data will show nothing we don’t already know: the haves are way ahead of the have-nots.

But plenty have teachers have pointed out that they’ve taught first graders how to mute and unmute, to share thoughts and ideas (and time in the spotlight), and to use their keyboards. Out of necessity, not because these things are optimum or even appropriate, especially for the very young. Still, these are real things, learned in an increasingly real environment. We shouldn’t underestimate these gains.

I don’t think it’s truly washed over us—parents, teachers, community leaders—that ‘school’ is forever changed. Having the option of remote school for emergencies as well as opportunities—not just weather-related—could end up being the new schooling model. Think of rural districts that have cut back to four days a week. Think of districts that depend on public transportation during a citywide strike. Think of a HS curriculum that lets seniors job-shadow or intern out of the building, and needs to track their work experience. And so on. School via computer is here.

A local district here, after returning to face to face school, has given students two Fridays off, three weeks apart, so their teachers can take part in a staffwide vaccination clinic at school. They chose Fridays, because many people are under the weather for a day or so after being vaccinated. It’s been an exceptionally mild winter—no snow days. Their superintendent says ‘districts are awarded a certain number of days by the state each year during which school can be cancelled without penalty. Vaccinating staff is a justifiable use of the waiver.’

Exactly.

Think of a Leader. Who did you picture?

It was a fascinating article in the NY Times, about a management training exercise that directs groups of people to draw a leader. Originally designed to bypass detailed verbal discussion about leadership in groups where multiple languages were spoken, the assignment merely asked participants to sketch their conception of a leader, with as much detail as possible.

I was especially interested because this draw-a-leader technique was one I have used, many times, in workshops around teacher leadership, for diverse audiences. I can testify that if you want to clear a room of school administrators, who suddenly have to step out in the hallway for an ‘emergency’ call, start passing out chart paper, crayons, and markers–and ask them to draw something.

Management trainers and organizational psychologists who use this exercise agree:

In terms of gender, the results are almost always the same. Both men and women almost always draw men. Even when the drawings are gender neutral [which is uncommon], the majority of groups present the drawing using language that indicates male (he) rather than neutral or female. And yet, clients often insisted that what they meant by “he” is actually “both.”

Interesting. Because from my (admittedly unscientific) sample, female teachers, when asked to draw a teacher leader, draw themselves. Details include bulging tote bags, thought bubbles with visions of dynamic schools and thriving kids, the occasional placard. There are often mountains (to climb) in the background—and clever fine points like bags under eyes, sensible shoes, mandatory pockets and mugs of coffee.

I haven’t done a workshop since the pandemic began, but I am certain that teachers creating an image of a professional leader these days would sketch her wearing a mask, holding her mouse and sitting in front of little Zoom-heads, reminding kids to unmute.

Teacher leaders are pragmatic. They know taking on leadership roles means expanding the workload that already consumes their life. They understand that the only definition of leadership that matters in Ed World is keeping one’s promises. Getting stuff–the right stuff–done. Gender is irrelevant, they’ll tell you.

So why do we perceive leadership as a predominantly male characteristic?  

Holding unconscious assumptions about gender affects our ability to recognize emerging leadership. Studies confirm what many women have long known: even getting noticed as a leader in the workplace is more difficult for women than for men. And doubly difficult for black women.

There’s also that dogged, pragmatic streak where women just keep going: Witness the winner of the 2018 Boston Marathon, Desiree Linden, who considered dropping out, but rallied to finish first. There was a lot of blah-blah about physiology–proportions of body fat and pain tolerance–when considering the higher dropout rate for men, under terrible weather conditions.

Maybe, however, the kind of leadership that lets women place first in the Boston Marathon, as well as the classroom, involves something else: persistence through unimaginably difficult conditions. This has been borne out every day, during the pandemic and election season. Think of Stacey Abrams and her crew.

In a thought-provoking blog entitled Why Teachers are Walking Out, Seth Nichols (after noting that he’s the rare male in a female-dominated profession) kicks off with the following comment:

I am often confounded at what I have seen my coworkers silently acquiesce to, happily playing along, fueled only by the sense of the purpose they work from. I am not surprised that teachers in many states have had walkouts. I am surprised that they waited so long to start. The walkouts aren’t really ultimately about “pay,” the face usually presented. Women are done being taken advantage of.

It’s a great piece–recommended–but it ends with Nichols declaring that he’s walking out for good, at the end of the year, because he (unlike the patient and persevering doormat-women he works with) is really done with being taken advantage of, the petty daily humiliations of teaching.

So who’s the leader? The one with the dogged sense of purpose, or the one who feels disrespected and splits?

A YouGov survey in 2018 asked  “Do you personally hope that the United States elects a woman president of the United States in your lifetime, or not?” Sixty-six percent of all respondents said yes, while 34 percent said no–and 59 percent of Republicans were clear: They aren’t hoping for a woman president in their lifetimes.

There were few women who breached the Capitol during last week’s insurrection—notably ‘bullhorn lady’ who gave explicit directions to rioters on where to find their goal destinations. (My first thought, watching the video, was that she sounded like a teacher.) Mostly, however, the insurrectionists were angry white men.

Among the various forms of violence on display, one has been largely overlooked: misogyny, or hatred toward women. Yet behaviors and symbols of white male power were striking and persistent features of the riots. Members of the overwhelmingly male crowds defending a president well-known for his sexist attacksembraced male supremacist ideologieswore military gear and bared their chests in shows of masculine bravado. They destroyed display cabinets holding historical books on women in politics.

Members of the mob broke into [Pelosi’s] office and vandalized it. Items like mail, signs and even her lectern proved to be particularly popular trophies – symbolizing an attack on Democrats and the House Speaker, but also against one of the most powerful women in American politics.

This is not to say that the riots weren’t about racism—they clearly were. And now—TODAY!!—we have a woman of color as our Vice-President. I hope she becomes a pragmatic leader, keeping her promises and demonstrating persistence when the going gets tough. I also hope that the fact of her leadership becomes unremarkable here in the United States, as it is around the globe.

Until that day, we are operating under an outdated conception of just what a leader looks like.

Picture a leader. Who do YOU see?

Be True to Your School

It’s an early Saturday morning coffee-meeting on Zoom. All of us are teacher leaders—what we have in common is awards for our good teaching. What brings us together is a mutual commitment to supporting both public education in our state and the teachers who hold this threatened enterprise together.

Some of us have left the classroom after long careers and moved on to new challenges, but we know that our observations matter little on this day, as the American republic itself seems to be on shaky ground. What we want to know is: What are the kids saying? How are the kids doing? Are they OK?

Of course, they’re not.

Our colleagues working in the classroom talk of their utter mental and physical exhaustion—every week like the first week of school, instructional mastery honed over years now replaced by calling students at home to ask: Are you still in my class? Is anyone in your family sick? Do you have enough to eat?

All I can think is ‘Thank God students have teachers like these.’ Teachers who understand students’ context. Teachers who care. Teachers who are a bulwark against isolation and fear.

One of the teachers mentions talking with her students—cautiously, but necessarily—about the riots and insurrection at the Capitol, and shares a comment from one of them: After all those people came screaming into the Capitol and smashed things and left it filthy, did you see who did the cleaning up? Black custodians. That’s the way it always is—cleaning up after white folks.

The teacher notes that not all of her students are black, but they’re all participating in this discussion. They’re not disengaged. They are riveted. This is real, unlike some of the things they’re supposed to be learning, so they can be tested.

It bears repeating: Public schools are the stage where all the strengths and weaknesses of American society play out. School is our students’ microcosm. School is where identity politics are first encountered. School is where they find their first allies—and ideally, hear truths.

It’s Sociology 101—parents seek the best classmates that they can afford for their children. And once they get their children into the ‘right’ school, they want them to be part of a group. Even Stephen Miller got his political wings by opposing teachers and denigrating custodians, in high school. And the large majority of schoolchildren attend fully public schools.

We all instinctively understand Dunbar’s number: the size of the group with whom anyone maintains genuinely personal and stable relationships is relatively small, somewhere between 100 and 250 people. It’s the theory behind the small-school movement—it’s a good space for learning when people in the community know each other well. Every elementary school teacher worth her salt begins the school year by trying to build a community in her classroom.

School is where values are shaped, and practiced.

It’s also the reason why some groups are interested in injecting fake patriotism into the curriculum. It’s why many education reformers are pushing as hard as they can to ‘unbundle’ education, to ‘personalize’ learning by chopping it into discrete bits to be delivered cheaply online, then tested. 

With so many students adrift, less connected to family and church than earlier generations, teachers and professors might have ‘too much’ influence over what students think.  Break up the public school monopoly (and teacher unions, while we’re at it)! The very essence of the DeVos Education Department.

Will this change, under a new administration? Jury’s out, but both the reformer-privatizer team and the be-true-to-public-education team are expressing hope. Prepare for a power struggle.

In the meantime, here’s an observation that hit me hard, in the post-insurrection reporting.  Daryl Johnson, a senior Homeland Security intelligence analyst in the Obama administration who wrote a government-funded report about the rise of right-wing extremism– later deep-sixed as too controversial—said this, warning that the Capitol riot was just the beginning:


The government is — if they’re responsible — going to be developing programs and resources to start combating the problem. These people have had over 10 years to stockpile weapons and ammunition to get stoked up and paranoid and fearful. So we’ve got to be very careful about how we go about cracking down on these groups. If there are gun laws passed, that’s just going to feed right into their narratives, draw more recruits, radicalize people.

It needs to be more about de-radicalizing. Funding organizations that have people that have left the movement and can develop strategies on how to do outreach and pull people out. There needs to be a massive marketing campaign on what should citizens be doing. If you’ve got family members, neighbors, co-workers that are part of these movements, rather than ostracize and debate and criticize and isolate them, we need to love them, have compassion and bring them into the mainstream. The only way you’re going to get rid of hate is through love. Every person I’ve ever known about that’s been a white supremacist has left the movement through an act of compassion or love. They didn’t leave it because someone convinced them that their belief systems were wrong.

It’s another way of saying, as Martin Luther King did, that we must meet the forces of hate with the power of love. 

We have all read shocking and horrible stories about what happened on January 6, and the people who took part—who invited them, who aided and abetted them, who gave them money, who told them they were ‘loved’ and ‘special.’  It is not enough to post angry and clever tweets (and I’m guilty of this) or cheer for those apprehended and punished.

Young people need places to be, places where their thoughts are heard and valued, where their talents are appreciated and nourished, where their observations about who’s once again cleaning up messes are honored by an adult listener.

Maybe it’s time to be true to public education, the place where all children are welcome.

Ten Things I Used to Think

I Used to Think was a writing and thinking prompt developed for students, part of the work done by Project Zero. Lately, we haven’t been all that interested in what students think, or how their thinking might change, given more information, dialogue and cogitation. Instead, we’ve been interested in raising their test scores by asking them to simply reproduce knowledge–or keeping them six feet apart and masked until they’re tested again.

The last four years have radically changed a lot of what I think. For example:

I used to think that choosing the right Secretary of Education was the first critical key to strengthening public education across the nation. I really enjoyed the game of proposing/comparing people who, from various perspectives, would be great Education Secretaries. My standard of excellence was always Richard Riley. Riley was Governor of South Carolina, where he did a great deal to recruit teachers of color and address poverty in public education, before being tapped by Bill Clinton as EdSec. He was not, however, an educator, and he presided over a time when education reform was considered a good thing.  But now—I am uninterested in digging up years-old board memberships and former jobs of prospective candidates for EdSec. I am not convinced that being a long-time educator is a prerequisite for success on the job. Experience in the political and policy realm really matters. I’m not even interested in writing a blog about it. Heresy, I know. But there it is.

I used to think that bipartisanship was a good thing, that moving government forward necessitated both collaboration and compromise. I thought policy creation was sausage-making—everyone gets to put in a little something. I thought having a broad range of opinion, from progressive to conservative, was how the country remained stable, and loyal, and patriotic.  But now, I agree with Rebecca Solnit: We shouldn’t meet criminals and Nazis halfway. (Read the link—it’s fantastic.)

I used to think that churches, in spite of their many flaws, were trustworthy organizations that, on balance, did good in their communities. But now, even though I work at a church that is a beacon of kindness and acceptance in a small town, I am horrified at how far astray from core, all-religions wisdom—the universal, do-unto-others stuff—that many Evangelical Christians have wandered. They say there are no atheists in foxholes—and we’re all living in a kind of viral foxhole these days—but I am heartily sick of driving around and seeing God’s Got This! signs in my neighbors’ yards. I think everyone—believers and non-believers, all creeds and traditions—needs to wear a mask, stay home, wash their hands, and stop pretending to be compassionate or ‘saving’ people.

I used to think that racism springs from acute flaws in human character—hatred, and ignorance, likely instilled early by family and community. But nowthanks to Ibram X. Kendi—I recognize that what has held deep-rooted racism in place in America for 400 years is not a continuous stream of benighted people, but policy. White people stole, platted out, and sold land that Indigenous people lived on, hunted and fished, for centuries: policy. Majority-White public schools have always had far more resources and advantages than the schools Black children attended—and policies that nominally have been established to increase equity have also increased segregation.  A country that was literally founded on diverse expression of thought has built its own caste system, through layers and layers of interwoven policy. The good news is that it’s possible to change policies.

I used to think that free and fair elections were the cornerstone of American democracy, and that most people saw election day as a kind of Norman Rockwell tableau, a cherished opportunity for everyman to have their say. I thought the peaceful transfer of power was inviolate. But now… I don’t even have to finish this one. Turn on the television.

I used to think that teachers, in spite of their lousy pay and lack of control over their own work, were regarded as community heroes and helpers. But now—there’s this. This. This. And thousands more. Today, I read an outrage-inducing piece claiming that yeah, teachers are getting sick and dying (isn’t everyone?) but there’s no way to prove they actually caught the coronavirus at school—so hey, everybody into the water. The negative repercussions on this entitled attitude—teachers are so selfish when it comes to their own health!—will last for decades.

I used to think that voluntary academic disciplinary standards were a useful way of organizing curriculum, and the occasional standardized test (say, three or four between kindergarten and graduation) didn’t hurt anyone, and provided some valuable baseline information. But now, I think that standardization, and the widespread belief that more data will improve public education, is pure folly, an illustration of the old saw that a man whose only tool is a hammer sees every problem as a nail. Rewritten: To a man with a computer, every problem looks like data.  

I used to think bootstrapping was a real thing, taking out loans to get a college degree would pay off in the end, and there was a future for deserving and ambitious students. But now, I believe we have outrun this concept of social mobility through more education, which may have once been true. If you’re rich, or your family is rich, those advantages will hold. If you’re trying to catch up economically, the odds are so seriously against you that your smarts, moxie and good character mean pretty much nothing.  The only possible hope (see above) is major policy change. 

I used to think that I was a pretty good music teacher–way above average, in fact. But now, watching music teachers struggle, every single day, with how to teach music online—and, incredibly, succeeding, I am humbled. Even more important, I’ve witnessed them forming communities on social media to help each other tackle these challenges and share resources and innovations. I’ve seen them have in-depth conversations about core pedagogical issues and the future of their profession. Humbled, I say. Seriously humbled.

I used to think putting up a Christmas tree before Thanksgiving was sacrilege, part of the ugly, metastasizing commercialization that has spoiled a once-simple holiday.  But now—this year—I think that, in this season of kindling light against darkness, any cultural or religious tradition that brings joy is spot on, and the sooner, the better.

Public Schools. Public.

[Many years ago, at my husband’s class reunion]: Inebriated classmate starts rhapsodizing about the extreme superiority of the education they all got at their well-regarded co-ed Catholic high school in the suburbs of Detroit, back in the day. His monologue derails (did I mentioned he was sloshed?) and he turns to yammering at ME (a public school teacher) about how terrible schools are today (he has no children) and that the public schools—well, they’re the worst of all. Everybody knows that.

I bite my tongue.

I’m used to people assuming that private and religious schools are, somehow, automatically better than public schools. On the face of it, if ‘you get what you pay for’ is a truism, private schools ought to be better than public schools. Depending on your definition of ‘better,’ of course.

Part of the cachet of privately funded education is exclusion. You’re paying for the privilege (a carefully chosen word) of sending your child to a school that other people can’t afford, and having them taught using a set of values (religious and otherwise) that your family has chosen, not been assigned to by location.

You are making the decisions, finding a school with a socio-economic level close to yours, probably, in the hopes your children will make friendships with similar children. There may be scholarship money for students with fewer economic resources, but that involves a different kind of screening and exclusion.

A religious school or an independent private school may be the right choice for your child, and however you get them there, knowing you support the school you chose  (financially and values-wise) will help your child understand that you are committed to their education. And that–is huge.

However. I would have to say that the cause dearest to my heart right now is saving public education.

By saving, I don’t mean preserving a nostalgic, return-to-the-past version of public schools where the curriculum was homogenized, the Common Core a distant memory, and everyone sat in straight rows.

I mean saving public education from going under, totally, being dismantled and sold for parts.

Lots of truly ghastly things have happened to public education in the past couple of decades, the pandemic merely being the worst. Teachers have had large chunks of their professional discretion taken away, and their salaries remain in the basement. The accountability movement has turned the mission of public education from citizenship and job training to improving test scores.

And now, teachers are caught in the squeeze between the challenge of teaching students well, using uneven connectivity and tools they’ve not been trained to use—or exposing themselves to a deadly virus. It’s like the worst dystopian plot ever, set in the most prosaic setting: an ordinary classroom.

And the conflicting parties are not red or blue, conservative or liberal. They’re public and private.

There are some things that need to belong to all of us, be cherished and tended and utilized by all of us, each chipping in as they can, because we understand these things are best accomplished by communal resources and effort: Parks. Libraries. Roads. Hospitals. The Post Office. Museums, theatres and auditoriums. Schools. The people who keep our food supply safe and put out forest fires. And of course, things we must have, like the military, police and prisons.

Public things.

Most pushback against public initiatives and investments stems, as far as I can see, from two impulses:

  • It’s my money and you can’t have it.
  • I don’t want to share anything with them. [Fill in your own personal ‘them’– people who don’t ‘deserve’ to enjoy ‘our’ parks, libraries, hospitals, etc. People who don’t belong.] 

For many people, public funding for things like recycling or early childhood services or a new library represents taking away their right to choose. If you don’t read, recycle or know anyone with small children, maybe It feels like money out of your pocket, your ‘right to choose’ overridden.

You take care of your own, right? You shouldn’t have to meet the needs of others. That this is a profoundly anti-democratic idea doesn’t even occur to you. Selfishness and power-mongering are featured, every night, on the TV news. Its us vs. them—freedom!–not all of us, together.

I would posit that one of the few places a wide range of citizens, including those who are Red and conservative, can find common ground is in support for public schools. I find it interesting (and also annoying) that while nearly all public schools are on a grotesque anxiety merry-go-round academically—open, close, re-open, close again, in-person/online/hybrid—football season went on.

Of course, many games were cancelled, championships will forever be listed with asterisks, and there are literally hundreds of stories about how teams played without positive-for-COVID stars (or with them, accidentally–or surreptitiously).

But schools, parents and players were absolutely unwilling to relinquish a sports season. Back in June, when the second (or third) wave was just a far-off possibility of horror, the Republican Legislature in Michigan tried to put their (fairly worthless) policy recommendations for what would happen to public education on a one-pager. It was vague and propagandistic and did not anticipate the widespread transmission that actually happened in the fall. But they were adamant in the one-pager that sports would go on.

At the time, it just seemed like pandering to special groups of parents. But I think, now, that it might be another sign that even the most adamant proponents of phony, gun-toting rugged individualism might not want to give up public education entirely. They just want to control it, squeeze all the profitability out of it, while still enjoying the great gifts (including Friday Night Lights) it has provided to small communities, for more than a century.

We are at a tipping point with public education—either it is recognized as one of the most useful institutions of community-building and progress, or it becomes just another example of scare-labeled ‘socialism.’ Ironically, we used to use public schools to advance public goals—an educated citizenry, training everyone to be productive and innovative, places to vote and be immunized against disease, places to learn the basic concepts of our American government, a genuine melting pot.

It’s time for that national conversation we keep talking about, but never have: What is the real mission of public education? Forget the over-under on who will be the new Secretary of Education. Let’s clearly define the purpose of public schools and stop supporting exclusion with our tax dollars. It’s well worth the fight.

As Roger Cohen said, today, in his final NYT column:

Exclusion precludes belonging. Racism is a close cousin to nationalism, as America has been reminded. They both depend on scapegoating or persecuting “the other”; on the idea, as Kipling put it, that: “All nice people, like us, are We, and everyone else is They.”

It’s the Right Time to Stop the Overdose of Standardized Testing

A bit of personal history: I live in the first state to launch statewide standardized assessments, back in 1969-70. Every single one of the 32+ years I taught, in every school, at least some of my Michigan students were taking state-sponsored standardized tests. Honestly, I didn’t think about it much.

In the 1970s, we had the MEAP test for 4th, 7th and 10th grades—two to three days’ worth of testing blocks, in the fall. Teachers understood they were tests of basic skills, and the best strategy was simply reviewing traditional concepts. A couple of times, one of the elementary schools in the district where I taught had a 100% pass rate. Because, on the MEAPs, students either did well enough to meet the grade-level benchmark, or they didn’t.

Schools with low pass rates got more money. The state legislature thought more intensive instruction would help children whose critical skills were weak. For the rest, well—the annual check-up was over.

Those were the days.

What this means is that Michigan stands as the first state to have 50 years of testing data, from a wide array of tests. We had state-created tests, aligned with state-crafted standards. For a while, all our juniors took the ACT, whether they were college-bound or not. We’ve used our own, written-by-MI-teacher standards and common standards. We implemented a rigorous, college-bound “merit” curriculum for all, in the hopes that it would raise test scores.

We had cutting-edge hands-on 8th grade science tests, performed in lab groups, where teams of students caused a tubular balloon stretched over a narrow beaker to inflate and deflate, as the gasses inside heated and cooled. That one was fun.

What we haven’t had is clear and steady improvement in test scores. In fact, due largely to clear and steady reductions in funding, we’ve slipped to near the bottom of the pack.

And now, we have students taking computer-based tests at home. In front of their parents. Leaving aside the very real aspect of invalid data, parents are observing, in real time, the testing process. A friend got this message from one of her former students, now a parent herself:

Just had to share how horrified I am by the NWEA tests. Our school this year is allowing us to take them from home and today [my second grader] took the reading and math assessments. He was immediately discouraged by the math (his favorite subject) as the first few questions were things he hasn’t been exposed to yet. This set him up to fail on questions he could answer because he was upset and “feeling stupid”. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have to proctor these assessments for a group of kids and have your own success as an educator be judged by the results of these awful exams.

Thank you for being such a strong voice advocating for all of our kids and for educating educators. I’m so grateful for the amazing teachers I was blessed with all throughout my time at XX and for the fantastic educators my kids have had thus far too!  Are there places or people that would be helpful to contact or to share our experience with, in order to help propel change?  

The ‘strong voice advocating for all our kids’ this mom is addressing is June Teisan, a nationally recognized teacher leader. And while the thrust of the comment—I had no idea how damaging these tests could be until I saw them for myself!—is more and more common, it’s the last sentence that sets it apart.

Just who needs to know about this? What can parents do?

The Opt-Out movement is still alive, and parents have more reason than ever to reject standardized tests. But this may well be our window for changing, once and for all, our pointless and wasteful love affair with standardized testing. They don’t tell us what we need to know, and they harm kids who don’t deserve harm. It’s as simple as that.

Ask any teacher: What are the real outcomes of using standardized testing? Cui bono?

The scariest thing to me is that any teacher who’s joined the profession in the last 15-20 years is thoroughly familiar with The Tests, and may in fact see them as something we’ve always done, something necessary.  Something, without which, we will be flying blind. They might perceive school as a place where all decisions are best made off-site by ‘experts’ and ‘authorities,’ without whom there would be no ‘accountability.’ A lawless place that needs plenty of guardrails and consequences.

It wasn’t always like this.

June and I had a short conversation about this—who might be able to help parents, teachers and school leaders assemble the strength to buck the corporate test-makers and non-profits? Those who depend on the data generated by tests to make proclamations and influence policy-making?

There are always new reports and opinion pieces on testing to share. Tom Ultican has a good one where he says this, about CREDO’s scare-mongering over projected (not real) falling scores:
 
This is the apparent purpose of the paper; selling testing. People are starting to realize standardized testing is a complete fraud; a waste of time, resources and money. The only useful purpose ever for this kind of testing was as a fraudulent means to claim public schools were failing and must be privatized.

Bob Shepherd, a retired teacher with long experience in the industry says this:

The dirty secret of the standardized testing industry is the breathtakingly low quality of the tests themselves. I worked in the educational publishing industry at very high levels for more than twenty years. I have produced materials for all the major standardized test publishers, and I know from experience that quality control processes in that industry have dropped to such low levels that the tests, these days, are typically extraordinarily sloppy and neither reliable nor valid.

The National Education Policy Center, assessing a series of pro-testing white papers on accountability:

The series correctly concludes that state accountability systems have not improved student achievement or closed achievement gaps over the last decade. Despite this conclusion, however, the series puzzlingly insists that state testing and accountability systems must be reinstated in 2020-21 and must focus on schools with the lowest performance levels.

Reports overstate some research conclusions and ignore a large body of research about factors that influence student outcomes. Specifically, the reports do not acknowledge the critical need for access to quality educators and fiscal resources, which are foundational to any serious effort to improve student outcomes. Moreover, the reports focus very narrowly on test scores as the primary outcome of schooling and ignore outcomes such as critical thinking, media literacy, and civics that are more important than ever.

If there were ever a time when testing ought to be suspended, re-examined and scaled back, it’s now.

Why scaling back and not eliminating them, cold turkey? Because I’ve been on this earth long enough to know that it’s not likely that grant-funded education nonprofits and test manufacturers will go down without a fight.

And try explaining to any forty-year old college-educated Dad that tests don’t matter any more, his children don’t have to take them, and every teacher will just be trusted to do their best from now on.

Ideas like ‘accountability’ have seeped into our national consciousness. Fear of ‘falling behind’ has been the subject of any number of local news stories. And let’s not even start with the beating teachers have taken, during a pandemic, when the idea of neat and tidy, leveled learning goals turned into flaming Zambonis.

We’re not getting rid of tests that easily. However.

Now is the perfect time for school leaders to strip off expensive unnecessary standardized tests, using budget crises and lack of technological infrastructure as an excuse. It might be time to put a focus on critical thinking, media literacy and civics, rather than drilling on testable items. Time to support parents who want to opt their children out.

For fifty years, Michigan has been testing, testing, testing. It’s time for a re-think. And it’s time for parents to turn to teachers and school leaders and demand change.

The Real Learning is in the Chat Box

My friend Mitchell Robinson, of Michigan State University asks: Am I the only teacher who finishes a Zoom class, during which I’m sharing a slide show, moderating class discussions, posing questions on assigned readings, and trying to respond to students’ questions in a thoughtful way, only to find out after ending the Zoom session that there was a whole other class happening in the chat window that I couldn’t see because my cursor had disappeared under the 25 windows and tabs I had open, juggling apps and programs?

Ah, yes. The chat box. My theory is that the chat box, used by adults and college students, contains what people want others to believe they’re thinking (cute jokes, pithy observations, deep questions) but don’t want to say out loud. What they’ve always been thinking, in fact, as a ‘presentation’ was occurring, in real time and real life, as well as online: a mishmash of random thoughts, tentative assertions and show-off remarks. Perhaps, in some contexts, a little flirting.

You might even say the chat box contents, especially in a well-run virtual classroom, is what participants will be taking away from this class—not the official material, as displayed, but their reactions to those ideas. Content on the slides will always be there for you, to refer to, like facts in a book. The chat box, and ongoing dialogue following are where the learning juice is found.

Brilliant lectures or important speeches are much better when there is a backchannel conversation going on. Sort of like watching political debates and Twitter at the same time, as people offer bon mots about, say, having a fly on your head, but also more cogent ideas about national leadership.

That’s what Dr. Robinson found, too—his students were ‘sharing their raw and deeply personal “takes” on the day’s discussion prompts that somehow didn’t make their way into the video feed…’

For several years, I facilitated seminars for an online graduate course in teacher leadership. Sometimes, I had guest speakers–including a few well-known authors and thought leaders in education. This was before using an electronic meeting platform was commonplace–and we had to set aside a half-hour before each seminar to help guests and students learn to use the platform, which was called Elluminate.

I wouldn’t dream of outing anyone, but there were more than a couple of people who fly all over the country and get big speaker fees who were adamant that they did not want to ‘talk on the internet’ or have people see them on camera. Can’t I just call in, they’d say? On the phone?

Elluminate had a chat function, too. The chat box was always on the screen unless the moderator made it inaccessible. Some of our participants (mostly teachers) found it maddening or terribly rude that backchannel chat was going on while the class speaker was presenting.

There were speakers who sharply asked participants to HOLD THEIR QUESTIONS until they were finished. Often, it was just get-to-know-you chatting, as participants came from all over the country. Worse, speakers would stop to read the chat every time something was posted, including private messages posted between individuals. Awkward.

They couldn’t relax, and trust that folks were following along, while simultaneously questioning or extending what they were learning.

I started telling guest speakers that this represented the real way students and adults processed any content. I had teachers tell me that this was the problem in education today—nobody had taught their students how to be quiet and pay attention. It was disrespectful.

Questioned, most would admit that they didn’t listen respectfully to every word an administrator said in a mandated staff meeting. And they especially didn’t pay attention to what students communicated to each other during their conventional classes unless it was an Official Discussion where students were Supposed to Contribute. There was a hierarchy of respect, it seems, and you know who was on the bottom.

I think of the chat box as a tool for democracy of thought.  Of course, I have mostly used it with teens and adults, who could construct a sentence or express a thought.

But I am guessing that, in spite of the fact that it’s absolutely the wrong way to teach early elementary grades, by the end of the year, many of our youngest students will have absorbed the road rules, democratic or not, of the online classroom. To chat, or not to chat.  To type a word, instead of speaking or writing it by hand. I can’t decide if that’s progress or tragedy.

Mitchell Robinson, after marveling at the riches and throwaway thoughts in his chat box, said this, about his students, who are learning to teach and learn in new ways, leapfrogging over traditional practice:

This next generation of teachers is so smart, so thoughtful, and so empathetic. During a time when everything looks so dark, these young teachers offer the promise of a brighter future–it’s just up to us to get them ready to take over. And then get out of the way.

The Lost Year Fallacy

The first time I learned about the 1918 flu pandemic—in school, probably junior high history or civics class—I came home and asked my grandmother (who lived with us) what she remembered about the great flu pandemic. She would have been 28 in 1918, still single and working in a grocery and dry goods store.

Not much, it turned out. None of her nine brothers and sisters or their spouses and children had succumbed, nor any friends. She couldn’t remember being ill herself, although she was notorious for living with pain and discomfort. When she was in her 90s, she fell off a stepladder while washing windows. She broke her hip, something that wasn’t verified for a couple of weeks while she hobbled around saying it wasn’t bad enough to go to the hospital, where they might hold her overnight or give her unwanted drugs.

Grandma was no Donald Trump.

World War II broke out when my mother was a freshman in high school. Many of her classmates left school before graduating, to enlist. When they came back, they were offered GEDs and the GI bill to further their education. There were good-paying, middle class jobs for those who just wanted to work, buy a home or start a family.

Their education was disrupted—but hey, duty calls. What’s put off can be reclaimed.

So—why are we claiming that 2020-21 is a lost year? In October, no less? We’re all struggling with this pandemic. Can’t we take a deep breath and try to problem-solve?

Since K-12 public education has been widely operational—for a century, more or less—we have experienced wars, depressions and recessions, 9/11, civil unrest, discriminatory school closings in the South and health scares. School has continued, to the extent possible, during all of these national crises. In fact, in the most degraded and troubled places in this nation, public education is one of the few constants: Kids show up. Kids get taught.

So why are reformers insisting that nothing must change—or we’ll ‘lose’ a year?  With advice like this?

Grades, tracking attendance, grade-level content, and opportunities for acceleration are a must. Pass-fail or pass-incomplete, optional attendance, and a focus on remediation will lead to a lost year whose damage could extend into the future.

Damage to whom? Stand for Children and their grant revenue stream?

The ‘Lost Year’ narrative has come to a scare-tactics peak with Mc Kinsey and  NWEA projecting that students could lose somewhere between three months and a year of learning in 2020-21, even as they attend school remotely. McKinsey claims lifetime learnings will be impacted. CREDO asserted that the average student lost 136 to 232 days of learning in math.

As Chalkbeat points out
: The projections rely on the assumption that students learned nothing (or worse) once schools shut their doors. How could students have lost hundreds of days of learning from missing 60 or so actual days of in-person school?

It has to do with how CREDO converts learning loss, measured in standard deviations, into “days of learning.” The approach is controversial among researchers.

No duh. It also vastly overestimates the real-life utility of testable knowledge students are being fed, the stuff necessary to generate all the predictive data. Test scores—as we all know—do not equate to life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. They don’t even equate to the social connections necessary to get a good job. Even worse, they’re a distraction from the challenges that teachers (the real front-line heroes) now face in trying to figure out how to teach under limited and often dangerous circumstances.

Let me say it again. Test-data estimates, alarmist language and shady research do nothing to help us with the most critical problem we have right now: keeping kids connected to their schoolwork and their teachers. However that’s offered and as imperfect as it may be.

Paraphrased Tweet I read recently:  Can you name one school or district that has actually reimagined education?

Well-heeled education nonprofits now depend on things NOT being reimagined—deeply ironic for those who call themselves reformers. Without tests and data and uniformity and seat time and standard deviations, we’re just back to good old public school, doing our best under the circumstances.

Kind of like schools were in 1918-19, when 675,000 Americans died of the Spanish flu.