Nobody Hates the Gifted

Apparently, Bill de Blasio, Mayor of NYC (at the moment, anyway) is promoting a plan to overhaul the Gifted and Talented program in NYC schools. The old G/T program would be replacedby a program that offers the possibility of accelerated learning to students in the later years of elementary school. And the test given to kindergarten students to screen for the gifted program, already suspended in part because the city’s advisory school board refused to renew it last year, would be permanently ended.’

This action has– predictably– made some people really mad.

Headlines about de Blasio ‘hating’ the gifted and the ‘war on the gifted’ popped up. New Yorker magazine re-ran their archived article on How to Raise a Prodigy. Eric Adams, who won the NYC Mayoral primary, has suggested he would keep the program as it is now—which seems to be more about tweaking de Blasio than any principle-driven stand on education policy.

As noted, all of this is unsurprising. America has been arguing about gifted education for at least half a century, without actually addressing the problems associated with setting aside assets to select our brightest children and develop special programming for them.

In the case of NYC schools, most of this boils down to inequities—the appalling idea that intellectual ‘merit’ is quantifiable and much more likely to turn up, for some unknown reason, in well-off white children. Or that rising kindergarten students ‘gained access to the program via a high-stakes exam that some families pay tutors to help their children prepare for. Or that all of this was a response to a particularly well-organized and vocal group of privileged parents.

Let me say it again: NYC was testing children as they entered kindergarten, and siphoning them off to special classes for the gifted. Given the unprecedented education issues in play right now, beginning with a deadly virus and a lack of qualified staff, NYC was right to put gifted education in the back seat, as a problem to be better addressed later.

To be clear, I believe we could do a much better job of encouraging and challenging our gifted students. I am strongly in favor of every teacher in America looking for students’ strengths, pushing them to develop that potential, encouraging them to find new passions and interests.

I taught many flat-out brilliant students, and have a master’s degree in gifted education. Giftedness is a real thing—although it is vastly broader and more comprehensive than a skill set ascertained by testing five-year-olds.

I have never met a teacher or school administrator who ‘hated’ the gifted or resented children who bring special talents and assets to the classroom. Nor do I believe it is harmful for bright children to spend their days with peers who learn differently.

We will all spend our lives living and interacting with people who are both smarter and less capable than we are. That’s a core value of public education.

A couple of years ago, Andy Smarick wrote a piece for Atlantic, entitled The Contradiction at the Heart of Public Education. Tag line: Gifted education puts in tension two equally treasured American ideals: egalitarianism and individualism.

Smarick starts out with some good points about competing philosophies—should we honor individual gifts rather than seeking first to level a playing field? Then he shifts to all the reform efforts that supposedly addressed that level playing field: Charter schools. Vouchers. Teach for America. School-finance lawsuits. No Child Left Behind.

He says this: In hindsight, it is striking how little discussion we had in the reform community about how these efforts did or did not address the needs of kids who were excelling, or how these initiatives were landing on non-disadvantaged communities—places where parents liked things just as they were. That lack of self-reflection led to a decade of humbling for reformers.

He winds up with the cliché you see in all the literature put out by organizations supporting specialized programming for the gifted: When schools don’t foster the growth of the highest-potential young people, the public loses something. Beneficial technologies might not be invented, and profound works of art might not be created.

Clearly, Mr. Smarick has not been in many public schools lately, with their (sarcasm alert) cutting-edge technologies and comprehensive arts offerings for children.

But–on the subject of what we’re losing by not skimming off the most academically capable while they’re still wearing sneakers with flashing lights: Think about the most gifted and inspiring people you know. The folks who developed the vaccines that are saving our lives, perhaps, or the MacArthur Genius awardees.  

Did they owe their overwhelming success to taking part in a selective program in middle school? Or was it something else nurturing the spark that drove them to succeed?

I’ve been reading a lot about Colin Powell this week, who graduated from a public high school in the Bronx, then went to City College, where joining ROTC led him to a path of outstanding national and international public service. Would being identified as gifted as a first grader have changed anything about his trajectory?

I believe there are two core issues that should–yes, should–make us cautious about special programming for the gifted: Resource allocation and identification.

Resource allocation is the variable that all schools, districts and states must wrestle with, putting their money where their values are. Paying to test academically promising children, then isolating them for ‘special’ instruction, is arguably a misuse of education’s most valuable resource: attention and instruction from a creative and skilled teacher. Nobody ever talks about the middle-of-the-pack child and what precious contributions they won’t make to society unless they get instruction custom-tailored for their needs.

I could name a dozen things that need urgent attention in public education, beginning with recruiting and fairly paying more of those creative and skilled teachers, and addressing the deplorable state of school funding. It is not wrong to prioritize educational needs—and it’s more like triage in 2021. The worst strategy is using scarce resources to avoid parent complaints. When you’re juggling more needs than available solutions, it’s important to see the big picture, not just respond to demands.

Earlier, I mentioned my degree in gifted education. I took a graduate-level class in Identifying the Gifted as part of my coursework, in which we took some of the tests available at the time, studied IQ distribution charts and argued about who was and was not ‘gifted’.

In sixteen weeks, the class never developed a consensus about giftedness, who was deserving–a word I came to loathe–of more consideration, unique instruction, special academic goodies. Giftedness is an incredibly difficult concept to define—and many children don’t come into or fully realize their abilities until they have gone to school, met a mentor, or had a revelatory experience that leads them into a lifelong passion.

After completing the master’s, I worked for about a decade on programming for G/T students. I was mostly interested in my student musicians, some of whom were exceptionally talented and creative. I pushed for G/T programming at my school and in the region, and sought special, challenging experiences in the arts for these kids.

We finally got a commitment from a local university to host a weekend program for gifted middle schoolers, who would stay overnight in the dorms (it was May; university students had gone home). They would choose one of three tracks to explore—the environment, great literature or the arts—and meet professionals from their field, engage in some challenging activities and discuss what they’d learned.

I submitted one of my students’ names—a girl whose proficiency and love for her instrument was extraordinary. The program coordinator called me up and told me to choose someone else, because the student I nominated ‘wasn’t gifted.’ I’m looking at her scores right now, she said. She’s barely above average.

I talked about her exceptional ability as a musician. I don’t know, the coordinator said. I hate to waste the money on someone who may not benefit. And there it was: resource allocation and identification.

Nobody hates the gifted. In fact, we may not even know who they are.

I Can’t Believe I’m Looking at Test Scores

Here’s the (incendiary) headline: Test Scores Show Dramatic Declines!

Here’s the truth: this set of test scores tells us nothing for certain. The data are apples-to-oranges-to bowling balls muddled. If anything, if you still believe test scores give us valuable information, the data might be mildly encouraging, considering what students have encountered over the past 18 months.

More about the numbers later. First, let me share with you the moment I stopped believing that standardized test data had any valid role in determining whether students or schools were successful.

I was attending a State Board of Education meeting in Lansing. These are monthly day-long affairs where education policy and affairs are discussed and instituted. (Sometimes, the legislature passes different laws, in an attempt to undermine the State Board, but that’s not relevant in this example.) The Board, on this occasion, was setting cut scores from a round of new testing data.

I can’t tell you what year this occurred, exactly, but it was after NCLB was passed, and the Board was doing what they were supposed to do: managing the data generated by federally imposed standardized testing, grades 3-8. 

Until that meeting, I assumed that there was a hard, established science to setting cut scores. I thought scores were reasonably reliable, valid measures of learning and there were pre-determined, universal clusters of students who would be labeled proficient, advanced, below basic or whatever descriptors were used. I assumed there were standard, proven psychometric protocols—percentage of correct answers, verified difficulty of questions, and so on. I was familiar with bell curves and skewed distributions and standard deviations.

What surprised me was how fluid—and even biased– the whole process seemed. There was, indeed, a highly qualified psychometrician leading the discussion, but a lot of the conversation centered on issues like: If we set the Advanced bar too low, we’ll have a quarter of the students in Michigan labeled Advanced and we can’t have that! If we move the cutoff for Basic to XX, about 40% of our students will be Below Basic—does that give us enough room for growth and enough reason to put schools under state control?

The phrase “set the bar high” was used repeatedly. The word “proficient” became meaningless. The Board spent hours moving cut bars up and down, labeling groups of students to support their own well-meant theories about whether certain schools were “good” and others needed to be shut down. So much for science.

The problem is this: You can’t talk about good schools or good teachers or even “lost learning” any more, without a mountain of numbers. Which can be inscrutable to nearly everyone, including those making policies impacting millions of children. When it comes to standardized test score analysis, we are collectively illiterate. And this year’s data? It’s meaningless.

Bridge Magazine (headline: Test Scores Slump) provides up/down testing data for every school district in Michigan. The accompanying article includes plenty of expert opinion on how suspect and incomplete the numbers are, but starts out with sky-is-falling paragraphs:  In English, the share of third-graders considered “proficient” or higher dropped from 45.1 percent to 42.8 percent; in sixth-grade math, from 35.1 percent to 28.6 percent; in eighth-grade social studies, from 28 percent to 25.9 percent.

These are, of course, aggregated statewide numbers. Down a few percent, pretty much across the board. Unsurprising, given the conditions under which most elementary and middle school students were learning. Down the most for students of color and those in poverty—again, unsurprising. Still, there’s also immense score variance, school to school, even grade to grade. The aggregate numbers don’t tell the whole story–or even the right story.

The media seemed to prefer a bad-news advertising campaign for the alarming idea that our kids are falling further behind. Behind whom, is what I want to know? Aren’t we all in this together? Is a two-point-something score drop while a virus rages reason to clutch your academic pearls?

Furthermore: what does ‘proficient’ even mean? It’s a word which appears repeatedly, with absolutely no precise definition. Everybody (including media) seems to think they understand it, however.

The really interesting thing was looking at district-by-district data. There were places where pretty much everybody took the tests, and schools where almost nobody did. Districts where the third grade scores dropped twenty percent while the fourth grade, in the same school, went up eight percent. What happened there—was it teachers? curriculum? It was also clear that charters, including virtual charters, were not the shining solution to pandemic learning.

What I took away from the data is that public education held up pretty well in Michigan, under some dire and ever-shifting conditions. In some places, kids and teachers did very well, indeed, amidst disruption. Kids without resources—broadband, devices, privacy, constant adult supervision, or even breakfast and lunch—had the hardest time. They’re the ones who need the most attention now. And good luck hiring qualified, experienced teachers to do that.

There’s probably a lot that can be learned from a close look at the 2020-21 data, but most of it isn’t about quantified student learning gains. And please—stop with the “acceleration” crapola. The pace of learning will improve when our students feel safe and part of a community, the exact conditions we’ve been striving for in perpetuity, and aren’t present anywhere, in September 2021.

Stu Bloom said, last week: I’m seriously tired of the politicians, pundits (looking at you, NYT Editorial Board), and policy-makers telling teachers and public schools to single-handedly solve the problems of racism and poverty by increasing test scores. Public schools and public school teachers are not the only ones who have anything to contribute to growing our society!

He then goes on to point out the value of actually investing in public education, in evidence-based policies and practices, designed to improve life and learning for all school-aged children. We know what to do, he says. And he’s right.

It’s time to end our national love affair with testing, to make all Americans understand that educational testing is a sham that’s harmed many children. Testing hasn’t ever worked to improve public education outcomes, and it’s especially wasteful and subject to misinterpretation right now.

What Would It Take to Genuinely Do What Is Best for Kids?

It’s quite the headline. Defiant Superintendent: How Can I Follow a Law I Believe Endangers My Students?

There are many possible responses:

These wonderings are at the heart of my long-time, central theory about school reform: When formal, titled school leaders join forces with teachers, kids win.

This is a wide-focus theory, that applies to almost everything about running a public school: Curriculum. Instruction. Assessments. Budgets and resources. Staffing. Public relations. The master schedule. Everything down to whether the supply closet is locked–or teachers are trusted to use the construction paper judiciously, with sharing in mind.

In my 32 years of teaching in public schools—in a strong-union state most of that time—there was almost always a divide between administrators and teachers. Of course, there were ‘good’ principals and superintendents, who kept communication channels open and were open to new ideas.

But every two or three years, when the union was negotiating our salaries and working conditions, there was a bright line between ‘us’ and ‘them’—we were the good guys who wanted autonomy and adequate resources. And they were the bean-counters and policy followers, whose ultimate job was managing us, and our productivity. We were for the kids; they were for the district, the taxpayers and the rule of law.

Over several decades, I had easily three dozen administrators, and most of them were somewhere between pretty good and outstanding. A handful were unimaginative or timid. One or two were vindictive bullies. Someone like that can throw off an entire building or district, setting teachers against each other, changing the learning climate, making school a miserable place to be for lots of kids and staff. People matter.

And now—these same people are players in a game with life-and-death consequences.  A game wherein dark money political organizations want to disrupt placid school board meetings, in an attempt to control curriculum, and parents feel free to physically attack teachers and administrators over mask mandates.  

This is the worst possible time to have a tentative, apprehensive administrator. The school leader who is unable to articulate and defend her own core beliefs about what students need to learn in 2021, and how to teach them safely, is worse than useless. 

If you were tempted to pin the admin-teacher power gap on unions, I think teachers in right-to-work states have even less power over their own work.

The President has directed Secretary of Education Cardona to combat governors who “block and intimidate local school officials.” It will be interesting to see which Superintendents choose community safety over a bullying gubernatorial or legislative directive.

It will also be instructive to watch which districts roll over—and which extend their newfound power to retaining control over their own curricula when the anti-CRT ‘concerned moms’ pay a visit to the school board.

This year is going to be a long, bumpy ride. Districts will be forced to make many deeply contested choices, and the best way to navigate that journey is listening to your workforce, and having a morally framed reason for pretty much everything you do. Doing what’s easiest, to shut people up, is not a morally framed reason.

Have you heard masking children called ‘child abuse’ or worse? That’s their message; what is yours? And how far will you go to defend it? Summon your courage.

Best case short-term scenario: Districts are transparent about their health and safety choices. Somebody has to be the adult in the room. We don’t pay attention to crazies. The feds back us up.

Best case long-term? Leaders find their voices. Schools begin to reclaim the professional work designed for their particular students. What to teach. How to do it safely and effectively. How to build school communities. (And yes, I know that local control can go awry and become ineffective or inequitable.)

What would it take to genuinely do what is best for kids?

A few days ago, a Hechinger report on what science tells us about improving the middle grades made the rounds among middle school teacher communities online. It’s a great piece, but the reaction from veteran middle school teachers was a resounding duh.

We’ve always known that middle schoolers want most to be taken seriously, and that the way we have middle schools set up—cells and bells—is not and never has been conducive to deep learning in 12 year-olds. So why do middle schools mostly look the same as they did 20 years ago? Why aren’t we making choices that evidence tells us are good for kids?

Because, middle school teachers said, our administrators kept a tight lid on innovation in the post-NCLB era. Because test scores. Sad, no?

This is a crucible moment in public school leadership.

Take This Job and Shove It. Or Change It.

I don’t know a single teacher—not one—who has never left school on a Friday afternoon wondering if, just maybe, they should have gone into real estate instead. Under the best of circumstances, teaching is ridiculously hard work, dependent on never-guaranteed intrinsic rewards, rather than perks, benefits and salary, to maintain employee motivation. 

The autonomy and supports necessary for a well-resourced, custom-tailored occupational package for professional educators have been in short and diminishing supply for a couple of decades now. Worse, the profession drains our energies, taxes our personal and communal resources, and has become increasingly driven by top-down data collection. Teaching, as Lee Shulman famously said, is impossible.

And then we had a pandemic.

The papers are full of stories about people quitting or not returning to their crappy (and even lucrative) jobs—for a variety of reasons. If you talk to the ‘back to normal/virus is overblown’ crowd, this is a function of their getting enough government money to live on, and general indolence.

But there is another story:  Americans are ditching their jobs by the millions, and retail is leading the way with the largest increase in resignations of any sector. Some 649,000 retail workers put in their notice in April, the industry’s largest one-month exodus since the Labor Department began tracking such data more than 20 years ago.

People are leaving because they discovered they liked working from home, or because they’re taking care of children or elders now, as the world is still too dangerous for Previous Normal behavior. Or the pandemic has forced them into paths (not commuting, cutting back spending) they’re planning to maintain.

They have re-balanced their personal values, decided that life is, indeed, too short to waste doing junk work.

You can see this as bad for business, particularly the service industry. Or you can see this as economic optimism—the chance for a fresh re-start: One general theory is that we’re living through a fundamental shift in the relationship between employees and bosses that could have profound implications for the future of work.

This applies to education, too—a field generally marked by stable but low-wage, high-skill work done primarily by women. We’ve been experiencing a long-term decline in teacher preparation, nationally, a drop of 67% in Michigan. Those classrooms we’re hoping to fill this fall? Not enough teachers.

Or school leaders.

Veteran educators are used to charter operators and superintendents–like LA’s Austin Beutner–discovering that running a school, a classroom, or a large urban district is not all apples and playgrounds. Beutner’s observation–“We are humans. We have families. We have partners, spouses, kids, our own life responsibilities. For better or worse, schools become a magnet for all of the challenges which face society. . .”—is the story of their working lives, for decades, not a trial period as CEO.

What is interesting to me is the anecdotal evidence coming out of the news about schools, their leaders focusing on what’s good for students—the core of their work—rather than what the legislature or governor thinks students need.

There’s the whole Critical Race Theory divide, for starters. Go ahead—tell us what we can and can’t teach, including the truth about our own history.

There’s the re-born #OptOut movement.  

But there’s more: virtually every Michigan school has decided to go around legislation that requires them to flunk third graders who are not testing at grade level in reading. Bridge Magazine calls this a ‘revolt’– but superintendents and teachers just laughed at legislators trying to move the mandated flunking up to 4th grade. This is akin to soldiers returning from blood-soaked battlefields, informing the generals that their orders are crazy-pants, not gonna work.

And when Michigan’s Chief Doc of Health and Human Services recommended that students be masked when they return to school in the fall, and got pushback from Great Lakes Education Project, a school choice group founded by Betsy DeVos? The recommendation was met with a shrug by school officials, who plan to make their own decisions about whether students will wear masks this fall.

As they should.

If the pandemic has revealed anything about public education, it’s that K-12 schooling is an integral part of the economic engine, and the good parts of Previous Normal will not return until the kids are back in school, 180 days a year.

Who will solve the problems created by the Great Reallocation of talent in K-12 education?

Hate to sound like the eternal broken record here, but shouldn’t we turn to educators—school leaders and teachers, working in their own unique context, to advocate for what their kids need? Better connectivity and technology. Wraparound services for students. A rebuilt teacher pipeline. A little TLC after surviving a pandemic. Better salaries and benefits.

Autonomy.   

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 present 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

A Half-Dozen Things You (Could Have) Learned in School: Lessons from a Pandemic

If you’re old and loyal to NPR, like me, you may have listened to Whad’ya Know? on the radio, out running errands on Saturdays, a decade ago. A gently sardonic quiz show, hosted by Michael Feldman, my favorite category of question was Things You Should Have Learned in School (Had You Been Paying Attention).

I was always interested in what people think is, you know, core knowledge–stuff that everyone should have mastered, in the place where I worked for more than 30 years. Mostly, it was prosaic things—the isosceles triangle or the gerund—that you likely haven’t thought of in years.

It begs the question: What do we really want—or need– kids to learn in school? Besides basic literacy and numeracy, you’d think our next highest priorities would be good citizenship, and an appreciation for the benefits of modern science, helping us make progress on the issues that have plagued mankind for centuries. But—thinking about the Governor of Texas here—evidently not.

A year ago, as it was just beginning to dawn on us that this thing was coming our way, I wrote a ridiculously sunny blog about things we could learn from being in quarantine. Naïve things. A new appreciation for teachers was one of them, as well as an up close and personal understanding of both the uses and limitations of remote learning. Increased scientific literacy. National unity in the face of a crisis. I was wrong. So very wrong.

But then—we were all wrong, at first, underestimating the spread, length and virulence of the pandemic, plus the catastrophic and politicized mishandling of it. Turning that into a Civics lesson, or an entire unit on the benefits of a functional government, might be the thing we should be doing now.

If we had been paying attention, of course.

Here are some real-time lessons you may have observed in/about school during the pandemic:

1. There is no getting away from the deal American public schools have struck with the public. We provide childcare, five days a week, for those who need it, as well as daily nutrition in many cases. Stepping away from this deal, even when it might cost teachers and school staff their health and even their lives, has created a massive societal disruption and boiling anger.

I agree with Dr. Leana Wen on this issue: Both sides of the school reopening debate have it wrong. We shouldn’t be debating whether schools are safe to reopen. Instead, we should ask whether in-person schooling is essential. If it is — as many Americans, including President Biden, insist — then we should treat schools as we do hospitals. That means doing everything possible to them make safer, starting with vaccinating teachers.

I was happy to hear President Biden prioritize teacher vaccinations (and yes, it could have come sooner), because I think this deal—we will take your kids for seven hours a day, starting at age four or five—is part of the mission of public education.

We are teachers first, sure, but we have gladly accepted other responsibilities as our niche in society, including meals, health screenings, exercise, wholesome after-school activities and even watching out for the well-being and mental health of children and teens. Lately, we’ve been connecting them to the internet and teaching them the skills of doing work electronically.

If parents now seem more interested in re-starting sports or their relieving their children’s at-home isolation than reinforcing the features of an isosceles triangle—well, we’ve made those possible for the last century, too.

And I think we should continue. Communities must understand that this costs dollars and effort, but it’s tax money well spent. It’s the right thing to do, making public schools essential to communities and the safest place in town.

1a. Corollary: There are plenty of forces that believe the pandemic has been an ideal time to do damage to public education.

2. Americans are terrible at interpreting statistics. I have had conversations with highly educated people over the past year who simply can’t understand infection rates, vaccine efficacy numbers, or why herd immunity might be difficult to achieve.

I taught 7th grade math for two years, and most of these skills sit squarely in the middle school math curriculum—including the correlation between the amount of testing done and cases identified. Every math teacher could be using the plethora of statistical analyses and colorful graphs in the news as examples of ratio, proportion, percentages and variables in human populations. It’s called tailoring curriculum to the students’ real world.

3Americans’ ability to discern truth in the media needs some work, too.

4. Working on these literacies—media analysis, statistics around our own well-being, and the benefits of a functional government dedicated to the public good—can start in kindergarten and continue until adulthood.

Right now, for example, younger adults should be outraged that their children are being forced to take pointless, stressful tests. When they are told ‘it’s the law’ or ‘it helps compare South Dakota kids to the rest of the country’–for what purpose? –their outrage should smolder and burst into flames. They can take civic action, and claim their right to opt their children out of testing. Thus reclaiming their interest and investment in public education, a common good. That’s civics, government, economics and the history of American rebellions in a single movement.

5. The most important thing we could be teaching in health class right now is long-term problem-solving. In 90 days, most of the jockeying for position in vaccine lines will be over. In the meantime, who’s getting vaccinated and who’s still waiting is like a giant, real-life example of one of those morality puzzles: Four people go out in a boat in shark-filled seas. But the boat will sink unless one is thrown overboard. Do we ditch the minister, the beautiful actress, the teacher, or the boat repairman? Discuss.

The person who is going to devise the single, annual preventative vaccine administered worldwide that will lead future global citizens to long-term viral control, or creative reversals of the damage done to our environment, is now sitting in a classroom (or on their bed, in front of a laptop).

Isn’t it our job to inspire a vision of a better world? Shouldn’t this pandemic be a real-life learning opportunity, teaching the parallels between ease of voting and ease of getting a vaccine, for example? Whose governor has made good choices for all the public? Should vaccination be required by employers? Tricky stuff, I know. But it shouldn’t be.

6. Americans are selfish. A simple glance at variance in global successes and failures in suppressing a virus and protecting citizens without destroying an economy, tells us that the United States is low on the self-discipline and community-building scale.

Where do Americans learn to get along with their neighbors and think of others’ needs as well as their own? Where do they learn the habits of order, routine and cooperation? I would argue that we’ve seen both the best and the worst of American thinking in 2021. Do we want the America that looks out for its neighbor when the power goes off in a snowstorm, and people gather to sleep in school gymnasiums—or the America that cut itself off from federal regulation in order to reap bigger profits for the oil and gas corporations?  

So what do we really want—or need– kids to learn in school?

My theory: We need our teaching and curriculum to be centered around big, future-focused questions like: What kind of country and community do you want to live in? What skills do you want to develop to support yourself and build a satisfying life there?

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

Stop Trashing Joe Biden’s Cabinet Picks

Especially his choice for Secretary of Education—but lay off the nit-picky nastiness around the others, too. Yes, YOU might have chosen others. Your favorite candidate may have been left behind. But much of Cabinet-choosing is inside baseball, beyond the ken of Joe Citizen. Stop bellyaching.

Biden’s selections all seem pretty experienced, professional and well-known to Biden or people he trusts. And hey—given what he’s got on his plate, and the worrisome lack of information coming from some quarters—I’d be reaching for the tried and trusted, as well.

There are always Cabinet members who don’t pan out, who are gone in a year—and there are people Biden wants who give me serious pause, too. Biden was far from my favorite Democratic candidate, but he displayed qualities which made him President-elect in the most contentious election in modern history. It doesn’t serve us well to flyspeck untried and unconfirmed Cabinet members, because there’s someone we imagine might be better. I’m taking a wait and see approach.

Frankly, 90 per cent of the people who are raking prospective Cabinet members across specific, overheated coals don’t know much about any of the nominees. But they’re willing to retweet some old error, a comment from years ago– or speculate about just how bad someone will be, based on some pretty limited evidence, or a single issue.

Here’s the thing: we’re not dealing with an ordinary transition, where progressives can realistically hope for big-transformative-ideas Cabinet members. We’ve got a pandemic to deal with, for at least six more months, in addition to a dozen political crises that are raw and bleeding—and dangerous.

Not every advisor and policy chief will be anxious to break new ground. Some of them are going to try to please multiple constituencies. Most of them will be lucky to reverse a stunning amount of damage, a lot of which has yet to be unearthed. They also have to pass through a confirmation process with a hostile Congress.

What is important right now is remembering whose policies and advice left us with the mess we’re in, and working to right the ship. I still have hope for an FDR-level change, eventually, but there’s work to be done first.

Like most teachers, I’d never heard of Dr. Miguel Cardona until about four days before he was nominated. But unlike many teachers, I was reluctant to name ‘my’ preferred candidate for ED Secretary. I have seen utterly inappropriate people elevated as ideal candidates–most of whom, thankfully, understand the range and scope of the job, as well as the politics, and said so.

Both Dr. Cardona and Dr. Leslie Fenwick, the other rumored finalist, seemed like good bets, people who had worked across the range of K-12 education and had deep understanding of how well-meant policy initiatives actually played out in public schools.

I heard Cardona’s acceptance speech on the radio and it felt sincere, even inspiring, to me. Biden appears to be honoring his pledge to nominate someone with classroom experience. And frankly, I don’t think there is a magic number of years in the classroom that makes a person qualified to be EdSec. Cardona enthusiastically trained to be a teacher via a public university—he didn’t come into education as a temp. To me, that’s enough.

Dr. Cardona has been a teacher, a school administrator at multiple levels, and a state superintendent during a pandemic. He’s been embedded in public education–as object of policy, administrator of policy and creator of policy.

Scrolling back through all the Secretaries, in Republican and Democratic administrations, he seems pretty close to what teachers have always said was essential, and what they wanted: someone who believes in the critical importance of public education and understands the people who do the work. Cardona will be only the 12th Secretary of Education, but compared to the previous eleven, we’re getting closer to that ideal.

Some folks disagree with Cardona’s prioritizing face to face education during the pandemic, especially for children in poverty—and others agree. He led a state with only 24 charter schools, involving less than .02% of CT students, so his mild remark about schools that serve children well hardly paints him as someone who supports destroying public education in favor of charters or choice. The question isn’t whether you like everything he’s said and done—it’s whether his CV shows him to be dedicated to the core principle of an equitable education for all children.

The Secretary of Education has little control over policy decisions that belong to states—but the rise of federal power in education policy has undeniably been steady, and onerous, for the past two decades. Cardona, as advocate for equity in public education, could be a powerful voice in reducing unnecessary (federally mandated) testing and creating conditions that make it safer for a return to in-person schooling. This might begin with federal oversight over real—not ‘alternative’—CDC recommendations, or, say, rolling out priority vaccination clinics for teachers as first step toward getting kids back to school.

My personal take on this: way too many people do not understand how inequitable virtual schooling is. There are high percentages of public school kids who do not have access.  And when I say ‘access,’ I don’t mean an internet hotspot via a bus parked near the projects. I mean enough devices in the home, some privacy and quiet, someone to help you when you run into trouble, and—most of all—adequate bandwidth to run all the programming.

There are plenty of pressing needs right now, around public education. It’s in crisis—and there’s even limited evidence that some of the strongest advocates of choice and standardization are now claiming that the pandemic has laid bare all the inequities and petty rule-making that have bedeviled public schools since NCLB sent us down the ‘accountability’ path.

Biden seems to have mostly sent us nominees that will be able to get through the confirmation process. There is SO much work to be done. I might eat my words in a year or two (Ghost of Arne Duncan floats into view), but for right now, I don’t want to waste time wishing someone else was president-elect, choosing candidates whose perspectives mirror my own. As someone once said, it is what it is.

Miguel Cardona, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Education, speaks after being introduced at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., Dec. 23, 2020.