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.

We Are All Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf

I just finished reading A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School, by Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider. Berkshire and Schneider are co-hosts of the podcast Have You Heard, which is the best $2 I spend every month—and, as journalist and historian, both bring interesting perspectives to the ongoing discourse about what used to be called, without a trace of irony or bitterness, education reform.

It’s not a long book—217 pages plus another 40 pages of notes and references—and it’s eminently readable. It would be an excellent choice for anyone who cares about public education—parents and grandparents, policy-makers, teachers and school leaders—to use as concise handbook explaining what the hell happened to public schools over the last couple of decades. There’s a bit of history, a good look at failed-over-time policies, and a clear analysis of the intersecting factors that got us to this point.

Who wants to see public education die, and why? Berkshire and Schneider tell you, but like all interesting and disturbing stories, you have to trace backward first, to the origins and mission of public schooling and the conflicting values America assigned to education, as a start-up nation. This sounds tedious, but it’s not. In short, succinct chapters, the authors spend the first quarter of the book laying the groundwork for the rapid changes—the dismantling of a once-noble idea—we’ve seen in the 21st century.

Ernest Boyer once said that public school is a stage upon which Americans play out their most deep-rooted ethics, and the book deftly illustrates that principle. It takes us through the decline of labor unions, the elevation of the deregulated gig economy and ‘choice,’ and the overwhelming impact of technology on every aspect of American life, school included.

I have lived experience with nearly every theory, concept and action mentioned in the book, from teacher professionalism (or lack thereof) to the DeVos model of privatizing one of the few remaining public goods. Any teacher, at any level, who has been paying attention for the past couple of decades will be familiar with the carefully curated observations and supporting data presented here.

The great benefit of the book is that it connects hundreds of established dots into a flashing arrow: this is the end game, the crushing of once-healthy public schools, monetizing their resources and selling them off for parts. It accurately represents where we are, in the midst of a pandemic and constitutional crisis. The wolf is truly at the door.

Berkshire and Schneider are careful to remind us that the well-heeled will always have school as we know it. Their children will always have creative teachers and challenging curriculum and actual classmates, in a real-life setting, because that is, in the end, the optimum way for students to learn. The question is (and always has been) who’s paying for it, and who gets to share it. The primary goal has never been maximizing each child’s potential, contrary to the thousands of mission statements hanging in front offices everywhere. It’s been ‘What’s in it for my child?’

Although some of the data are optimistic—there is still strong support from parents for their children’s public schools, and for teachers’ demands for adequate funding and resources, even via walk-outs—the authors do not prescribe clearly defined solutions.

I don’t see that as a weakness. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the future is utterly unpredictable. In a time when we might be taking a breath, rethinking our values around what matters most in public education, and thanking public school teachers for doing their best under some pretty dire conditions, reformers are busily selling yet more glossy rhetoric (don’t miss the chapter on ‘personalizing’ education) and questionable data analyses.  

So—read this book, whether you’re a veteran educator or a kindergarten parent. It’s accurate and sharp, the best education book I’ve read this year.

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.

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.