Acceleration Nation

There it was—an ad for dealing with imaginary learning loss. Nope—your kid doesn’t need remediation to bring him up to speed after this year of screen-based semi-school. He needs acceleration! Sure he’s, umm, fallen behind somebody, somewhere. But the solution is not reviewing what he may have missed—it’s accelerating. Going faster. Catching up, then presumably surging ahead. Winning.

I was so struck by the totally American nature of this language—We Must Compete! No remediation for us!—that I googled the company’s motto and found that there are several pre-packaged learning systems and books using the same theme and jargon.

Acceleration, it appears, is having (another) sexy moment. It may even be sexy enough to tap into some of that federal funding this summer, if education vendors hustle and enough media figures wring their hands while bemoaning ‘learning loss.’  

If your kids have been moping around, griping about not seeing their friends and the head-banging monotony of Zoom lessons, it’s logical to be a little anxious about what they have not learned in the past year. Things that might have been not only interesting or challenging, but important for future coursework and plans. It’s OK to worry about their emotional health, their need for exercise and socializing.

But while I have absolute faith in well-prepared, caring teachers to do their best to move students forward, there are still a lot of balls in the air. Will enough people, old and young, be vaccinated in time for a new school year? What curve balls might the virus still be capable of? How will we re-evaluate most critical uses of instructional time with our overstuffed core curriculum—and how much permanent impact will a year of uncertainty and danger have on what ‘school’ looks like, this fall and all future school years?

Hard to say, but I am fairly certain that simply prescribing acceleration rather than remediation is an example of rhetorical flourish over substance.

My Masters degree is in Gifted Education. In my introductory courses, the foundational thinking in every article and text was that there were two basic streams of instructional practice designed to address the needs of gifted children—enrichment and acceleration. In short, going deeper or going faster. Or a combination of both.

The drawback of enrichment was that providing unique challenges for very bright kids meant you had to diversify learning, custom-tailoring lessons for differing ability, something that has always been available, but is a classroom management challenge. With acceleration, you could move children through existing structures faster—taking HS Algebra in 6th grade, for example. If you were willing to put your 11 year old in a class with high school freshmen, that is—and had a plan for what happened when her ability to the do the work outstripped her emotional maturity.

Working in the field of gifted education, it turned out that most parents didn’t care much about going deeper. What they wanted was not in-depth exploration but getting ahead of other students. Accelerating. The idea of extensive, hands-on digging into something Bright Child was passionately interested in was not appealing, especially if there were no tangible identifying markers of giftedness in the process.

I don’t remember much about elementary school, but I clearly remember my reading instruction in 5th grade. Instead of traditional reading groups, we were using brand-new SRA reading kits, color-coded 8 x 11 cards featuring stories or non-fiction articles. You moved up through the colors by passing little comprehension tests at the end of each card, until you reached aqua (or maybe it was gray). Then you started at the beginning of the next box.

You could accelerate by acing colors quickly. Miss a few questions, however, and you were stuck in purple for weeks. I remember scanning the room, or meeting someone at the box to exchange a card and noticing, hmmm—too bad, she’s on orange.

My teacher, Mrs. Wildfong, let me breeze through the first box. Then one day, instead of starting me on the 6th grade box, she pulled me into a corner of the room and showed me a small bookshelf. Quietly, she told me that for the rest of the year, I could read anything I liked on the lowest shelf. After I read the book, I was supposed to write a page in a small spiral-bound notebook about what I’d just read. There were no questions about POV, themes or characters—just my opinion, or what I’d learned.

I read every book on that shelf and filled several notebooks. After that, I had a permanent pass to the library, and permission to go during reading class whenever I needed new reading material. I read completely through the Beany Malone series, the Cherry Ames series, and a group of biographies with blue covers featuring black silhouettes. I also recall that other kids in the class wondered, with some resentment, why nobody else got to go to the library whenever they felt like it.

I remember the year, and Mrs. Wildfong, with great fondness. I tell this story not because I was ‘gifted’—I wasn’t—but because Mrs. Wildfong improvised enrichment, tailoring my reading curriculum without shorting her other students. For the rest of the day, I was doing long division and coloring maps with everyone else. Deeper, not faster.

In the 6th grade, I started at the beginning of the SRA box with everyone else, and when I started moving ‘too fast,’ my teacher made me stay for weeks in one color, reading all the yellow cards then all the brown cards, because heaven forbid any child should outstrip The SRA Box. I did not resent this—I really loved my 6th grade teacher—and my parents did not go to school to complain, to demand that a child reading at the 12th grade level be given special privileges, blah blah blah.

There are lessons in this completely ordinary story.

One is that the pandemic, for some children, may have been like my reading shelf and library pass—a chance to do something educational that they’re good at and enjoy, without the constraints of a large classroom full of kids who are good at and enjoy vastly different things, and a teacher trying to maintain order.

Another lesson is that some—again, just some—children will move forward on concepts or skills they normally would have encountered in the previous year very quickly, once they are given a bit of personal attention from a teacher who is not trying to teach 15 live children and 15 tiny, boxed heads on a screen simultaneously.

This is not about ‘acceleration’—it’s about a caring adult who has experience teaching this particular skill to children. We need teachers (and, importantly, school leaders) willing to dump pacing charts and incessant testing in favor of knowing their students–their personal goals and challenges, not their test scores. We need to reinforce skill- and knowledge-building, confidence and healing after a very rough year. There is no need to ‘set a high bar’—kids have always cleared learning bars at their own pace and feeling OK about yourself is a prerequisite.

A third lesson is that public education has increasingly become a consumer product, and advertising for that product now uses commercial language and advertising techniques. This doesn’t bode well, and probably lies under the insistence of many education nonprofits that standardized testing be done now, so the ‘data’ generated allows them to picture a picture of deficient kids who need to go faster rather than deeper.

Let’s stop asking about learning loss and catching up. It’s not a race. Let’s provide the resources to move kids forward.

Get rid of the damn test!

Guest blog from Jodi Mackley. Jodi is an advocate for public education, BLM curriculum, and creative writing for all students.  She taught secondary English in the same public school district for 30 years, and now enjoys “retirement” in a much smaller (though public) school setting. 

Next month, I may have to give the MStep test to my high school students, most of whom are English Language Learners. This is my first year teaching them. I don’t need to spend a week or more discouraging them with badly written test questions (which I did not create, do not see ahead of time and won’t get to see afterward). %#*!? is what I have to say about that.

Do ELLs really have to take this test? 

Can ELLs get support? 

Are ELLs scored the same as non-ELLs? 

Heck, who is the bottom-line-authority forcing all kids to take this test? And why can’t caring adults cry out for transparency, change, revolution? For some answers, I went to the Migration Policy Institute for some facts. Only one statement stuck with me: 

“Michigan administers the MStep for accountability purposes.” 

Accountability? Sounds like someone has been naughty. Is it me? I know it’s not my students. They are the last ones to complain about tasks thrust upon them. It’s true. They are happily embracing their American freedoms. 

We expect language learners to be English proficient within six years. Really? Are the test makers fluent in other languages? Can they read culturally biased questions, writing answers in their second language? Did they go to school in another country, with another language, arriving with deep trauma? My students did. 

They are amazingly resilient, and they deserve TLC (all kids do), not timed multiple choice questions on dead British writers and essays to write about visiting United States National Monuments they’ve never heard of. Many are grieving loss of home and life, due to ISIS or another warring faction. Yet test we must. 

The powers that be try to make it look do-able: “Students are considered on track if they meet their personalized growth targets from one year to the next.” The state then offers two (rather inflexible) ways to calculate what is “on track,” being oh so generous to students who just arrived in the U.S. 

They do not have to take the ELA MStep, but they do have to take the Math MStep. Or take them both the first year, but exclude from accountability–until the following year (for measurement purposes, of course). Does any of it help ELLs succeed? I’d like to measure that. 

Let me be clear. Teachers already test and analyze their students. But the State and Nation (group 1) have allowed purveyors of data/ corporate money-makers/ tech. industry (group 2) in the door, and they’ve run wild. (Shh…I also think these two groups are linked.) 

This invasion is fueled by fear and division–as American as sour apple pie. Claims of “failing schools” are as misleading as the reason many broke into our nation’s capitol on January 6th. Much needs repair. 

“Michigan administers the MStep for accountability purposes.” Teachers are in the line of fire, even though we are expert test makers, takers and evaluators. We’d like to see a structured, transparent system of school improvement, one including teachers’ voices and roles. But in my 35 years as an educator, there has never been a one-size-fits-all that worked. To make matters worse, testing was the worst of them all. 

Only one truism cannot fail: Trust educators

Yes, educators. Principals and staff who lead schools along the path of teaching and learning, and when allowed, adventure. I remember the beauty of bonding as a school community, practicing citizenship and leadership, holding each other’s happiness and health in high priority (as a teacher). I remember recess, several times throughout the day. Assemblies. Field Trips. Good lunches with fresh food, not the truckloads of frozen boxes from chain-titan Chartwells (as a student). 

Yet over the past decade, the purveyors of data and greed have sold us not only insipid food, but insipid curriculum, standardized tests and even standardized teacher evaluations. The results: reprimands, mistrust, unnecessary hierarchies, and severely disengaged students long before the pandemic. 

The data collectors cannot measure “soft” skills, nor do they want to. Joy and balance have been forced out. They sell us “Grit” and other racist, classist lessons, but nah. In many schools the system is just as bad as the beliefs, probably worse. 

I have never met a Social Emotional Learning program that passed the purveyor-of-power test. When life’s lessons are seen through a lens of white privilege, the message is not only lost, it was never there. Yet there is still hope. 

We need to stop whoever pulls the levers, catching them in the act of benefiting financially or otherwise. These purveyors of greed see education as a business with a bottom line. Anyone else wonder why an 8th and 9th grade PSAT was recently developed? (cha-ching$) The main cause of “losing profit”: Teacher salaries (and benefits). Why else are fingers pointed at teachers, and not others? %#*!  I still don’t have the answers. 

In the meantime, cancel the damn test.

Jodi Mackley

tl;dr = dd

So—here’s a phrase I hate: Dumbing down.

Pretty much every instance of its use in the education discourse is wrongly construed, unsupported by evidence, and reflects lack of first-hand experience by the speaker. As in: The Common Core has dumbed down the curriculum! Test scores prove that American public schools are dumbed down from the intellectual rigor present in [time frame when speaker was in K-12 school]. Why should we dumb down the canon by letting students read books they choose? And so on.

A lot of educational practices that are labeled ‘dumbed down’ are merely—changed. Evolved. Altered. Less—or more—important to learn than 50 or even 20 years ago, because the world has changed. When it comes to curricula and instruction, the heart of what we do in school, change is essential. Because the world changes, educators must also change. This is a hard concept for a lot of people to understand.

I taught school in five different decades. In my experience, the school curriculum has never once, during that time, been gradually less challenging or dumbed down, overall. In fact, I would argue that most of what is taken as evidence of diminishing academic accomplishment and expectations has roots in excessive testing, a radically altered view of who should be pursuing higher education, pushing curriculum down so far that it’s developmentally inappropriate for the students who are supposed to master it—and shifting demographics.  

We’re not dumbing things down. We’re realigning our priorities, while rowing upstream, against strong currents. Why are we doing this? So we can better teach the kids sitting in front of us.

The first time I ran into the internet shorthand ‘tl;dr’ it was a direct insult. The person who wrote it was ranting about one of my blogs, based on a title that my publisher had given it. Because I think dialogue is the only reason to put your thoughts out on the net, I pointed out that he was accusing me of saying pretty much the opposite of what I’d written in the blog. I took a half hour out of my life to go point-by-point in telling him why (there were some nasty accusations in his comment). I tried to remain calm.

He commented back—oh, I didn’t read it—tl;dr.

The blog was just under 800 words. Most bloggers know what 800 words looks and feels like. They also know that shorter pieces get more eyes. (So do pieces with numbers in the title—speaking of genuine dumbing down.) I started wondering: just how long is tl?

The experience also made me start noticing how often my friends (real friends, people I actually know and respect) would share something with a comment like ‘long but worth it’ or ‘read all the way to the end—the last paragraph will break your heart.’ If a friend shares something, I presume they’ve read it, and there’s something worth absorbing in the piece, whether it’s 200 words or 2000 words.

Even more disconcerting: I frequently post my own writing on other sites and have had readers tell me that my responses to comments are ‘not what the blogger meant.’ When I point out that I AM the blogger, they’re surprised. Where do people think free content comes from?

I know we live in a Twitter media culture, where tweets (the grandchildren of sound bites) are burnished for sharing, or linked in boxcar-like threads, 15 thoughts representing a thesis with supporting evidence. I also know that our, umm, former guy ran an entire first-world nation—some would say into the ground—using mainly random misspelled nuggets of braggadocio and bias. He paired them with rambling, often nonsensical speech-rants to large crowds. And people seemed to like them. In fact, one of the most frequent man-on-the-street comments about Former Guy was: He tells it like it is. God forbid.

So here’s what I don’t get: FG’s speeches frequently ran well over an hour, and were given to people standing outside. In the cold. When you look at transcripts, they’re pretty much an amalgam of incoherence laced with sporadic insults. The exact opposite of toastmasters recommend—short, pithy and laced with humor.

Here are my questions:

  • Are we reverting to an oral culture, where long-form reading is mostly abandoned?
  • Does this have to do with the way we have pushed reading instruction down into kindergarten, short-circuiting the love of stories and language that turns children into eager readers?
  • Is tl;dr evidence of the real dumbing down?

You tell me. And in case you’re wondering, 766 words.