To Cursive or Not to Cursive: That’s Not the Point!

EduSanity is pleased to again feature the writing of Dr. Donna Wake, Associate Dean of Education at the University of Central Arkansas and most importantly, Mia’s mom. Donna is a 2011 Teacher Consultant of the Northwest Arkansas Writing Project and has taught nearly all grades through graduate school.

I recently posted a screenshot of a blog post on my Facebook page. The image showed a summary of two bills recently passed on the floor of the state legislature. The first bill mandated a computer science class for all public high school students. The second bill required that cursive writing be taught to all elementary public school students.

Cursive CruiserI posted the screenshot because I found the juxtaposition of the two bills to be startling. While one mandate has a foot in the 1700s (literally the argument was that cursive writing should be taught so kids could read the Declaration of Independence), the other has a foot in this century. A pretty wide spread.

I did not anticipate the flurry of responses that post would receive. Few people commented on the mandate for a computer class, but I was inundated with posts regarding the sanctity and usefulness of cursive writing. My followers told me tales of their children learning to write in cursive and how important that skill was to learn. They accused me of being liberal and left-wing. They accused me of being an extremist and un-American. They fueled each other’s anger with me.

Initially I attempted to defend my position, but I soon stopped and just watched the conversations progress. And soon I began to see what was happening. The fact that this debate, as ridiculous as I found it, even occurred was symptomatic of a larger problem in education. This debate was spurious. Whether or not our children learn cursive simply does not matter.

What is important here is that this debate is distracting us from far more important issues besieging kids and teacher and schools today. Issues such as testing. Such as standards. Such as accountability. Such as merit pay for teachers. Such as the degradation of the public school system and the growing presence of charters and voucher systems.

In short, this debate about cursive writing, and other similarly distracting non-topics, is shifting our focus away from the damage being done to education, to teachers, and to students. It’s taking us away from conversations about how to empower teachers and kids in our public systems.

Furthermore, laws like this “cursive mandate” are symptomatic of a system where lawmakers with little to no background in education are making rules that impact larger numbers of kids, teachers, and families. Cursive is a faded skill for a reason. We no longer give a grade in penmanship for a reason.  There are bigger and more important issues on which to focus our attention and time.

So, let me break it down for you. This is what I want my Cursive Capdaughter to learn in school. I want her to learn to think critically. To analyze. To create. I want her to learn to love to read. I want her to invent. To organize. To collaborate. I want her to learn to have empathy and to help others. I want her to criticize. To compare, contrast, and categorize. I want her to make decisions. To assess. To choose. To defend. To find errors. To estimate and measure. I want her to predict. To debate. To listen to and respect the perspectives of others. I want her to design. To modify and mix and meld. I want her to learn to infer and to imply. I want her to explain her thinking. I want her to evaluate her own thinking and thinking and those of others. I want her to learn deductive and inductive reasoning. I want her to solve. To calculate. To break down and then build. I want her to experiment. I want her to dramatize. I want her to role-play. I want her to paint, sculpt, sketch, and model. I want her to prepare and to be surprised. I want her to learn to love learning. I want her to be a life-long learner. I want her to self-actualize, self-regulate, self-direct. I want her efficacy to be strong. I want her to ask questions. Lots of questions. I want her to be learn resourcefulness and problem solving. I want her to take risks and make mistakes. I want her to have voice and choice. I want her to learn to fail and to fail gracefully. I want her to discuss. I want her to value diversity. I want her to advocate for herself and for others. I want her to learn social justice and service to others.  I want her to be happy.

And yes, I want her to learn to write. I want her to write to see her thinking on paper. I want her to write to analyze an argument. I want her to write to interpret her experiences or whatever topic she is exploring. I want her to write so she will know herself. I want her to write to evaluate the world around her. I want her to write to advocate for herself and others. I want her to write because she likes it.

And folks, whether she does it in cursive is absolutely irrelevant.

Reblog: 12 Questions Parents Should Ask about PARCC

Education Blogger Network colleague Marie Corfield posted these 12 questions over at her blog. Given recent murmurs in Arkansas regarding legislation to push the PARCC exam out for at least two years, these seemed timely and relevant.

From her website: Mother, artist, teacher, education activist, former NJ State Legislature candidate, that teacher in that Chris Christie You Tube video, writing about education, poverty, politics, women’s issues, social justice and living in a world gone strange.

12 questions every parent must ask about the #PARCC

      Parents, print this out and bring it with you next time you meet with representatives from the State Board of Education, the ADE, or any administrator anywhere who tries to tell you this test is a magic bullet:
  1.  The reading level of some of the language arts test questions has been found to be several grades above the tested grade. How is a child who cannot read at that grade level and can’t understand the text or the test questions expected to complete the test?
  2. What happens when a student—particularly in the younger grades—doesn’t have the keyboard skills to successfully navigate the test? How is that fair to the child?
  3. If the tests are supposed to be diagnostically useful, how come students and teachers can’t see them to see what students got wrong and where they need help?
  4. If the tests are supposed to be diagnostically useful, how come the scores won’t be made available until the following school year, essentially rendering them meaningless?
  5. Why are the cut scores being determined after the students take the tests?
  6. Why aren’t you concerned that Pearson is advertising for test scorers at $12/hour on Craigslist?
  7. A high school student’s GPA is a more accurate indicator of how well they will do in their first year of college than any standardized test. If the PARCC can ‘magically’ determine college and career readiness, why don’t 4-year colleges require the test for admission instead of the SAT or ACT?
  8. Currently, there are 10 states left in the PARCC consortium. If the test is so fantastic, why have half the states in the original consortium dropped out?
  9. Bari Erlichson, Chief Performance Officer/Assistant Commissioner of Data, Research, Evaluation and Reporting at the NJDOE admitted in a public forum that “the PARCC end-of-year/end-of-course assessments —are not intended to be the… diagnostic form of assessment… that would diagnose and be able to inform instruction… These are in fact summative test scores that have a different purpose than the one that we’re talking about in terms of diagnosis.” (emphasis mine) So, why are we being told they are diagnostic? Why are we being told teachers will be able to use the results to help students?
  10. How do you justify submitting children to this test when many adults cannot pass the sample tests?
  11. Test design expert Bob Shephard has said that “For many of the sample released questions, there is, arguably, no answer among the answer choices that is correct or more than one answer that is correct, or the question simply is not, arguably, actually answerable as written.” How do you justify placing a child’s education and a teacher’s career in the hands of such a flawed instrument?
  12. How do you justify the narrowing of the curriculum, the cuts to the related arts, foreign languages, physical education, and other subjects when so much research shows that a well-rounded education is much better preparation for a productive life?

On School Takeover: “There is a track record and it’s lousy”

Lily GarciaLast week the Little Rock School District was taken over by the Arkansas State Board of Education. This morning I caught a clip of the National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García speaking with a television reporter.

I decided that for today’s post I’d transcribe the audio from the video (ok, actually would transcribe the audio for four dollars) as an attempt to further the record on this important issue. Honestly, I may still be too emotional and upset to write clearly about what happened in Little Rock last week. Tears streamed down my face when I told people from across the country about it over the weekend at a meeting in Memphis. For me, this is what I could do today to help add to the conversation today.

Here’s the video:

Here’s the transcript:

Interviewer: Last week the Arkansas Board of Education voted to take control of Little Rock schools. This less than 6 months after a federal judge granted more independence to the district and ended a quarter century of payments to boost immigration. Our next guest making a visit to our state and with that turmoil as the backdrop, she has lots to take in. She is Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association. Lily, good morning to you. Thanks so much for being here.

Lily Garcia:  Good morning.

Interviewer: First off, let’s talk about your visit to Little Rock. We know a lot going on here, but this was planned way before this decision.

Lily Garcia:  A long time ago I was invited here by our National Education Association members here in Little Rock. They’re so proud of many of the innovative schools that are going on. I’m going to a STEM Academy today. We’re going to be looking at what happens when you have a lot of resources in your schools and even what can happen when you don’t and so this kind of fell out of the sky on this visit and I wanted to come and show my support for this school district.

Interviewer:  Let’s talk about the NEA’s official stance on the decision taken by the state to assume control of the district. How do you guys feel about that?

Lily Garcia: You know, there is a national perspective on school takeovers. They don’t happen often, but there’s a track record and it’s lousy. It’s a horrible track record. It usually ends up with people mixing things up, coming in with some expert and they never ever solve the real problems in that district. The district has problems. It does, but you have another organization here in Little Rock called Heifer and I got to visit some of the Heifer projects. One of the things Heifer says is you have to have the community make the plan. It has to belong to them. You can never bring in an expert with a magic wand that says, “We’ll make all this go away for you.” I think we should listen to that.

Interviewer:  There’s been some criticism leveled at the Little Rock Education Association for failing to work with the district to help prevent this takeover, once making clear the state might take action. How do you respond to that?

Lily Garcia:  I think that you have the educators, the parents, the students, the school board all saying, “We have to come together to solve this problem,” and now that is going to be harder to do when you don’t have a school board, but it can still be done. I think you’re still going to have parents and students and educators say “We love the kids in this building. Regardless of what happens, we’re going to come together and we’re going to find out a way to solve our problems.”

Interviewer:  You’re actually in town to speak tonight at the Clinton School of Public Service. What’s the focus of your speech tonight and will you touch on this?

Lily Garcia:  I will because I’m talking about what works. I’m talking about after 12 long years of No Child Left Untested, Congress is now talking about reauthorizing this law that has turned so many schools into testing factories and what we really need to do to humanize and personalize our schools. I think it will be a message to the Little Rock community, too, because what is working, what we’ve seen working globally, it’s exactly what we need here. You bring communities together, you give them the authority to plan, you give them the resources they need and you can be top.

Interviewer:  Lily Eskelsen García, thank you so much for being here. Your insight is very interesting. Again, you’ll be speaking tonight at the Clinton School of Public Service. Enjoy your time in Little Rock and enjoy visiting the schools that you’ll get to tour today. Coming up next, a quick check of your news headlines before you head out the door. Stay with us.



Methinks Pearson Doth Propriety-ize Too Much

On Friday I received a 188 word email invitation to an “Arkansas Forum” to “learn about and discuss current hot topics in Arkansas academia” from the Pearson company. Invitations like this aren’t all that uncommon; I receive them with some frequency and it seems that every single day there is a book buyer on campus with 3 million titles on her or his electric reader that wants to stop by my office, take a look at my books, and buy them from me. I’ve only responded to either a couple of times, asking them to promptly get lost.

The reason I’m writing about Friday’s invitation is that the message from the education corporation Pearson contained the following 222 word disclaimer:

“Pearson is committed to the highest standards of ethical conduct and does not intend to create even the appearance of impropriety when providing a meal or refreshments to a university employee and we recognize that you are committed to the same standards.  As part of Pearson’s ongoing effort to maintain open, honest, and ethical relations with our customers, we want to ensure that by offering you a meal or refreshments valued at up to $25, neither you nor Pearson violates the letter or spirit of applicable ethics or gift laws or rules (“Ethics Rules”).  By accepting an invitation to attend this event, you hereby certify that you are not prohibited by any applicable Ethics Rules from receiving a meal or refreshments provided by Pearson, that your receipt of a meal or refreshments from Pearson does not require disclosure by you or Pearson, and that you are authorized to make these representations.  You agree to let Pearson know right away if you later learn that your receipt of a meal or refreshments violates any such rules or requires any such disclosure.  If Pearson becomes aware that your receipt of a meal or refreshments violates any applicable Ethics Rule or otherwise requires disclosure, you understand that Pearson may request reimbursement from you for the meal or refreshments.”

What an absurd disclaimer. Why do they feel the need to add something like that to the bottom of a message? I found it interesting that the disclaimer was both longer and in slightly larger print than the message itself.

I wonder if this has anything to do with the Pearson’s connections to the PARCC exam and the fact that Arkansas is still holding on by a thread to the idea that all of our children will be subjected to that this spring. Other than the parent company and the time, I have no evidence that the invitation and the exam rollout are related.

Even though, it made me go hmmm.

Will giving the appearance of propriety help salvage the 17 million dollar payday when the PARCC rides into town?






Will the Left Wake Up to Charter Realities?

The left in Washington is indistinguishable from the right on charter schools, a rare point of agreement in times marked by contentious discord. In 2009, Race to the Top specifically targeted expansion of charter schools and in May, President Obama offered the following words in his proclamation of national charter school week.

“I commend our Nation’s charter schools, teachers, and administrators, and I call on States and communities to support high quality public schools, including charter schools and the students they serve.”

Mr. President, though I support students, teachers, and leaders of charter schools through my work at the University of Arkansas, I won’t support charters and respectfully disagree with the your calls for increases for three central reasons:

  1. Competition. While Albert Shanker’s original vision for charter schools was for innovation, labs where teachers could experiment with new ideas and then, if demonstrated successful, return to the host public schools with those ideas, today’s charters are all about winning and losing. Sorry but when kids are involved, I can’t accept a system setup for some to lose. I’ve never met a single child who deserves to lose or to attend a losing school.
  2. Privatization. I believe that public education should now and forever remain public and that attempts by private industry to engage in the education conversation are duplicitous at best. When larger cities take over failing schools, shutter them, and then usher in companies to re-open charters in those spaces, I don’t believe the greater good of our country or those individual cities rests at the heart of this issue. Several states are experimenting with the same notion: declare something failing, sweep in for a takeover, and then sell it to the highest bidder.
  3. Segregation. My strongest negative reaction to charter schools is the way in which they are serving to provide choices to people. Choice in schooling creates situations where charters are segregating our schools by race and class. With schools more segregated now than before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, and evidence that charters are exacerbating the issue, it seems that our country is taking steps in the exact wrong direction when people vote with their feet.

So how did we get here?

As educational historian Diane Ravitch detailed in her 2010 book, at least some of the roots of these issues began under President Ronald Reagan’s 3C’s initiative for content, character, and choice.

Choice photo

An Inconvenient Truth pronounced Davis Guggenheim a hero of liberals, making his Waiting for Superman, as Ravitch explained, “the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far.” Or, as Hermansen-Webb concludes in her 2014 rhetorical analysis of the film, “The growing enthusiasm about charter schools from the political left stems, in part, from arguments for market-based reform that are delivered to liberal audiences through popular culture (p. 533).

It was comments on an article about President Bill Clinton published at Huffington Post in September that gave me some hope that the liberals who were seduced by Waiting for Superman, victims of the blistering hot school choice narrative, were waking up to at least some issues with charter schools.

I’ve selected the following quotes from the comment section because they offer criticism of the charter narrative. Of course these comments are not a scientific reflection of anything.  

“The privatization of public institutions will ALWAYS lead
to disaster.”

“The profit motive can’t be trusted.”

“Funny, we’ve been saying that for years but no one will listen until a famous politician says it? They are motivated by profit, not results.”

“Charter schools are veiled discrimination against the disabled and disadvantaged.”

“And don’t forget to add the racially different to your list! Whether some are passed over for race or the difficulty of getting to the chosen school several miles and neighborhoods away. (Could therefore be a dangerous journey.)”

“Everybody needs to quit calling charter schools “public schools”. They leach public money just like the private prison industry. But we do not call private prisons, ‘public prisons.'”

“Education policy is being determined by people who know little to nothing about education, so the failure of charter schools shouldn’t come as a surprise. These schools are being run by folks who care a lot about making money, and not so much about educating children. And just like with the big banks: deregulation = disaster.”

I responded first the day the Clinton article posted, primarily citing this piece from May. While my comment and a few of the others focused on the segregation issue, commenters were more concerned with the privatization aspect that charters represent. While I deplore that as an unforgivable reality too, the real issue for me and others is the idea of segregation based on race and class.

“Drive to Anywhere, Southern State, USA and look around for the private school and public school. It’s Jim Crow all over again with near complete segregation by race, something a colleague formally linked to expanding charter schools, not only in terms of race but also ethnicity and class. Is this the country we want? […] stacked measurements and positive press don’t obscure the deeper realities.”

Is this the country any of us want?

Iris C. Rotberg’s research published in Phi Delta Kappan in 2014 on the issue offers three specific findings:

“There is a strong link between school choice programs and an increase in student segregation by race, ethnicity, and income. 

The risk of segregation is a direct reflection of the design of the school choice program. 

Even beyond race, ethnicity, and income, school choice programs result in increased segregation for special education and language-minority students, as well as in increased segregation of students based on religion and culture.” 

While some–including President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan–want charter school proliferation, the dangers of doing so, of giving choice to some, seem to far outweigh any benefits.

As Rotberg concludes:

“Proponents of charter schools believe they’re giving low-income and minority students opportunities they otherwise would not have had. That belief is true in some cases; all charter schools do not result in segregation. But far too many do, and the trend is unfavorable.”

Dr. Paul Thomas articulates the big ideas well in a post written in honor, ahem, of National School Choice Week:

“Choice in education is an ideological lie driven by an idealized faith that ignores the negative consequences of choice: some parents choose for their children to drop out of school, some parents choose to smoke with their children in the car, some parents choose to place their children in schools based on racist and classist beliefs.”

Isn’t choice that leads to segregation unconscionable?


Author’s note: Thank you Jen, Brandon, John, and Paul for reading and responding to earlier drafts.


Awesome Teachers of Arkansas: Heather Thompson

One of the colleagues I admire most in this profession is Peter Smagorinsky at the University of Georgia. In 2012 he started a series of feature posts about “Great Georgia Teachers” and he periodically writes about a great teacher, describing their practice and what makes them great. Here’s one his latest in the series.

For two important reasons I’ve decided to mirror his efforts in Arkansas: 1) I see and work with so many great teachers and other than those fortunate students in their classroom, it’s important to me that teachers, school leaders, parents, and the public gets to see and experience  a little bit that I do; 2) In a world-gone-crazy education narrative that features a dystopian view of teachers, we all need to be reminded of the awesomeness all around the state of Arkansas. None of the teachers I’ll feature have asked for this attention and if I have to be honest, I’ll predict that most of them are uncomfortable with the attention. Teachers are human, humble beings who want to give back to their communities and ultimately shape the future of our country. I don’t too often hear those stories though.

Heather Thompson is a sophomore English teacher at Heather ThompsonBentonville High School and she happens to be part of the ARTeacher Fellowship program, an initiative of the Center for Children & Youth at the University of Arkansas, the Walton Arts Center, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. As a fellow in the program, she attends eight days of arts integration workshops and collaboration with other teachers around the state. Arts integration, the concept of simultaneously furthering an art form and curriculum content by having students create art and understanding, anchors the fellowship program.

Colleague Hung Pham and I visited Heather’s classroom on Wednesday, January 21st, just two weeks following a professional development session with Rosalind Flynn, a John F. Kennedy Center presenter and well-known author on Readers Theatre, specifically Curriculum-Based Readers Theatre, a strategy that teaches content through the art form of dramatic reading performance. Here’s a link to her book that I highly recommend.

Upon entering Heather’s classroom and saying the Pledge of Allegiance and observing a state mandated minute of silence, she played a song and within six seconds students had moved all of their desks and chairs to the outside of the room and assembled in a circle. Facing one another, these sophomores silently began a series of movements referred to as the Actor’s Toolbox.

Ms. Thompson’s method of getting class started with pizzaz, purpose, and poise made me lean over to Mr. Pham and tell him that the Awesome Arkansas Teacher blog was underway. Students were calm, focused, and totally going along with the arts focused lesson for the day.

Following the guidance modeled by Dr. Flynn, Heather practiced gestures and sound effects as a way of getting students ready for their Readers Theatre experience. The class participated fully and I observed smiles and enthusiasm for the activity. While it might seem like fun and games, warming up is important to all artists and athletes. I’ll probably never forget the half hour of calisthenics we did in an improvisation class I took in college, nor will I forget giving and receiving hand massages to different strangers each class.

For the students first experience with Readers Theatre, Heather had created a script from Chapter 4: “New Day in Birmingham” from a collection of writing by and about Dr. Martin Luther King called Why We Can’t Wait. Students had read the chapter prior to class.

Working through the short script, students volunteered for roles and every student had multiple speaking parts along with directions to provide gestures and sound effects throughout. Students chose these artful touches which brought more life to the reading. Students then practiced performing the script several times with Ms. Thompson providing feedback throughout and following each practice.  

I smiled when she began shuffling the paper in her hands and exclaimed, “Here is what I should not be hearing.” Her expectations for improvement in each reading of the script was furthered by the opportunity to video the final performance.

In what I view as an expert move, she had the students sit on their scripts and started a conversation about the content they were reading. Her prompt, “Tell me about Dr. King’s plan/process in Birmingham,” launched a discussion in which students discussed several aspects of the chapter, gaining context and understanding for their reading and performance through constructive learning talk. Students demonstrated signs of genuine engagement throughout the entire class period and following the discussion, she asked the students for feedback on the activity of the day. “This was cool.”

Following the lesson I asked Heather what advice she might give a teacher new to Readers Theatre.

“I would say to not bite off more than you can chew. I want my students to eventually create their own scripts, but I felt that was too much to take on at one time. I shared my lesson with my colleagues who did not attend the ARTeacher Readers Theatre training, and they have had great success using the materials I provided. I would definitely incorporate the gestures and sound effects tests as a preliminary activity before delving into an actual script; they break the ice and prepare students to perform. I would also move them from their desks.”

Heather shared materials with me that she also shared with her colleagues, including the original script she created for her students’ first experience with the format. Email me if you are interested in copies. I asked her how and why she wanted to incorporate these strategies so soon after learning them herself.

“Last year my students struggled to comprehend Dr. King’s writing. Coming into this year I planned to incorporate every alternative learning strategy I could find to help them understand what they read. At the beginning of the unit I made a promise to students that if they would read the text, I would ensure they understood the text. I was waiting optimistically for the Readers Theatre training because I had high hopes it would be another strategy to incorporate, and it was exactly what I needed when I needed it!”

Beyond the obvious reward of seeing the ARTeacher Fellowship put into practice, Heather’s teaching was inspirational to observer and student alike. After finishing a Master’s degree in English, Heather began teaching in the Orlando, Florida school district before joining her older brother Josh, a world history teacher, at Bentonville High. This is her seventh year in the profession and she has two Master’s degrees, one in English from the University of Central Florida and one in TESOL from Arkansas Tech University.

Her 50 word philosophy of teaching:

“I am committed to creating a classroom with a solid procedural foundation which promotes (not inhibits) highly engaging instruction. I believe learning occurs when students are provided an environment in which rapport through laughter and content via thought-provoking lessons are part of the daily experience.”

I’m reminded of the character Joe Clark’s words from the movie Lean on Me, “Discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm.” It is the structure, modeling, encouragement, and personality that she provides that inspires creativity and engagement from her students. She’s an awesome teachers of Arkansas.

The occasional Awesome Teacher of Arkansas feature provides insights to the workings of exemplary Arkansas teachers that I have personally seen teach. Other teachers, principals, parents, or college faculty members who witness awesome teaching are invited to contribute.


Local Media Takes on the Opt Out Issue, Sort Of

The time is now. This is it. This is the spring semester of testing using the new PARCC exams in Arkansas (and ten other lucky states) and our local media has caught on to the idea that some parents aren’t exactly celebrating this new educational experiment being used on their children.

I opened the January 5th Arkansas Democrat-Gazette with a fair amount of trepidation, assuming I’d find another gooey love story about charter schools or some other misrepresentation of the education profession. Instead, I found an article about parents who want to opt their children out of the forthcoming standardized assessments. While local in scope, the article relates to the growing national movement of people from all walks of life (think way-liberal to way-conservative to moderate to radical) who are opting their children out of standardized assessments in our country. If you’d like to follow their stories, go here, here, here, here, and here for starters.

imgres-19s4nua Just as I was finishing the first article, the local television news station (KNWA) came on with yet another story, and I decided that since the authority on these issues– United Opt Out (–wasn’t represented, I’d take on this issue again. Further, as a reader/viewer of the two pieces of local journalism, I was confused and conflicted. Could parents opt-out their children or not? What is the Arkansas Department of Education position on the issue? Are there repercussions for students or parents participating in opt-out?

The article, “Schools May See Boycott of Tests Aligned with Common Core,” by John Lyon revolves around an issue with the Cabot School District in which the superintendent and director of professional development and testing made public comments about consequences for students whose parents chose to opt them out of assessments, noting that students could be “retained” (superintendent) and “the law says you cannot receive graduation credit, or graduate, if you have not taken the test” (testing person).

My colleague in EduSanity wrote a terrific piece last year about opting his then fourth grade son out of the final No Child Left Behind exams. Fortunately, the young Endacott is attending the Fayetteville Public Schools versus Cabot and won’t have to forgo graduation in seven years and, in fact, wasn’t retained as a fourth grader.


So, this makes me wonder, what are the consequences for students whose parents opt them out of the assessments? Somewhere, perhaps sitting in a padded leather chair while sipping single malt scotch, there sits an attorney who would love to take a $pecial interest in these issues. According to the Arkansans Against Common Core (and other sources), parental rights are protected under the Washington v. Glucksburg Supreme Court Decision (1997) that confirms, “In a long line of cases, we have held that, in addition to the specific freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights, the ‘liberty’ specially protected by the Due Process Clause includes the rights…to direct the education and upbringing of one’s children.” The Washington Post recently featured an article that supports this position.

In their “Arkansas PARCC Test Refusal Get Tough Guide,” the AACC asserts “when the Department of Education tries to bully you, know your rights.” This was one of my favorites.

Bully Tactic #5: Your school will be punished.

Response: How so? Can you please show me the written documentation that outlines how my school is punished because I refused a test? I have yet to find any evidence of schools being punished for lack of testing. Schools have been punished for low test scores and right now the PARCC is averaging a 50-70% failure rate in other states.

Perhaps no truer words have been spoken than “Schools have been punished for low test scores.” Even a casual look around the rest of the country will net several examples (i.e., New Orelans, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia) of what happens next. Schools are identified as weak or struggling or in distress. Next, other entities sweep in to “help” schools by taking them over. Schools are closed and/or converted to charters, private schools, or very large versions of a pigeon mall of America.

If the parents in America wake up in time to pull their children out of these tests, the school privatization through excessive testing game is over. It’s remarkably simple.

I maintain that it should be the right of every parent to make that choice for their child, regardless of the assessment or other activity at school (try to make a child read a controversial book against the will of their parent and see what happens, for example). I’m also quite keen on the idea of instead of having to opt-out of something—an act that feels unnatural to most Americans—making these assessments that have a history of being used against education, educators, and even students, something parents would opt-in for, sort of like they do for photos and everything else.

Let’s revisit the original questions that were either left hanging or not fully answered in the two previous reports:

  1. Can parents opt-out their children or not? Yes but recognize that resistance is possible and as a reminder, this isn’t something about which one should ask, it is an act of civil disobedience. Use the United Opt Out website for support, dig in thy heels, and say enough is enough.
  2.  What is the position of the Arkansas Department of Education on the issue? This remains unclear and perhaps out of their purview. Other state departments have made their position on this issue very clear, see for example my former colleague’s letter regarding this issue in Kansas last year: letter-2_opt-out
  3. Are there repercussions for students or parents participating in opt-out? Not according to the supreme court and while I’m hesitant to suggest that legal action is the only way forward, my recommendation to any parent of a student suffering consequences for opting out of school assessments is that they should seek immediate legal counsel. I also strongly recommend that the governing bodies of Arkansas (and other states) protect the rights of parents by introducing or reaffirming legislation stating that parents, in fact, have the final say on issues like whether or not their children are subjected to standardized testing.

I’ve reached the conclusion that these assessments are sacred to some and are made sacred to others through misguided policy. A smokescreen is cast over all of the issues due to misinformation out there. To assess, by definition is ‘to assist’ but rather than help students, teachers, or schools, tests were co-opted in order to help name and shame poor schools, close those schools, and privatize parts of public education. Regardless of your political allegiance, you’ll probably agree with me that you don’t want a company or group who hold the opposite political view as you to take charge of your child’s education.

It’s a funny thing about rights, if they aren’t exercised, one doesn’t keep them for long.

Inequitable Teacher Salaries Studied by Arkansas Legislature

On September 9th I picked up a copy of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and read a story about teacher salaries titled “Lawmakers Study Salaries for Educators.” Of course this is something that I care about not only because I used to be a teacher and earned one of those for five years but also because I help prepare teachers at the University of Arkansas for careers in education, careers in which they’ll be compensated for the good work they do.

Let’s start by dispelling any myths: secondary English teachers work harder than any other teachers and they have more planning, reading, and responding (not grading) to do—by far—than any other discipline. Since I used to be an English teacher I’m probably biased, but I stayed up all night responding to papers with some frequency, averaging about four hours of sleep per night during the school week. After each paper I symbolically ran my fingers over the top of my head in a downward motion, my thinning hair thinning right in front of my eyes onto the students’ papers. I’d then tally in the upper corner of the paper how many individual hairs each took—the all time record was a six-page single spaced mess that cost me 22 hairs.

jason-alexander-george-costanza-baldI’ll blame my baldness on those papers, but what really made me lose hair was when I paid bills at the end of each month. Maybe I should say that instead of pay bills, I figured out which bills I could pay and which bills could be put off. I worked second and third jobs, taught summer school, coached football, debate, forensics, and even sponsored the class of 2004 for four years. Supplementing my all-consuming teaching job with other ways of making a meager 300/year stipend is, to date, some of the hardest money I’ve ever earned; my work history includes building fences, machining metal in a machine shop, hauling and stacking alfalfa hay, and mixing for a muffin company, a job which involved an 800 pound mixer and countless pallets of 50lb bags of flour and sugar.

Teaching is a wonderful career, and I’m honored to still be involved with education. The tenor of the policy conversations—especially any of them involving money—make lifting 50lb bags of flour and sugar or hauling 90lb alfalfa bails seem like light work. That aside, I’ve been consistently bothered by the teacher salaries in the state of Arkansas, not to say that our state is any different than others, just to say that I sense a great inequity in the funding system that currently exists. Little Rock Senator Joyce Elliot relates similar feelings in the ADG piece, “We really must spend more time thinking about this because the issue of disparity and maintaining teachers, all of these things are hugely, hugely important all around this state.”

Let’s say that one of my teachers graduated with a Master of Arts in Teaching and took a job at Springdale High School. This first year teacher made $49,029 for the 2013-2014 school year. Another pretend graduate opted to move to across the state to Brinkley, Arkansas. She made $35,950 starting out with a Master’s degree at Brinkley High last year.

Does anyone else sense that there is something wrong with that picture? Maybe it’s just me.

What I see are two jobs teaching, let’s say, ninth grade English that are likely pretty different. I’ve worked some with students and teachers at both schools and while I taught at a school that more closely resembles Springdale in terms of size and mission, I attended a small rural high school in the flatlands of Kansas, a 220px-Brinkley,_AR_009school and community not all that dissimilar to BHS. Is one job more important than the other? Is one job more difficult and if so, which one? Why is there such a gap—nearly $15,000—between pay in these two districts for equally qualified and experienced teachers? If one adds up $15,000 over a thirty year teaching career, there’s a $450,000 difference between teaching at SHS versus BHS.

Why the difference you ask? Property taxes are used to supplement the state provided minimum salary in districts that collect enough of it.

So let me get this straight, the districts that already have more money—people paying higher amounts of property taxes—hire teachers at nearly $15,000/year more than districts that don’t have as much. This sounds to me like a classic case of the rich get richer and poor stay poorer. Since we can likely count the number of garage doors per house in any given district and reasonably predict the school’s achievement numbers, it stands to reason that the districts where wealthier people live are able to hire teachers at a higher salary and they’ll also receive better marks from the state.

These same inequities are true in the northwest Arkansas corner as well and the scenario of two first year teachers from the same class of our professional teacher preparation program here leaving to make vastly different salaries is not imagined or the act of a mistreatment of schools in the Arkansas Delta. In this little corner of the state, one can find the same disparity in salaries by driving nine miles between high schools. This is pure, unadulterated class warfare and Arkansans should expect better.

So, if you, dear honorable members of the 2014-2015 Arkansas Legislature are serious about studying teaching salaries, I’d urge to first look very critically at the formula in place being used to pay teachers. In my way of thinking, the teachers in Brinkley (and all of the other small and/or rural schools) deserve to be paid every bit as much as the teachers in the population centers of our state, if not more. Let’s raise the minimum starting teaching salary to $45,000 and then initiate a plan to create equity—however a bipartisan group defines it—amongst the salary funding formula. We’ll have an easier time attracting and keeping great teachers in the profession, if, in fact, that’s what we want for all children.

An F for Arkansas’ Plan to Grade Schools

In one of what is surely many of the education policy issues that has escaped my consciousness and cursor until recently is a plan to rank all schools in the state of Arkansas on an A to F rating system. I thought about this for approximately zero seconds before it rang out to me as an awful idea. After all, what parent wants to send their student to a D, F or even a C school? What teacher wants to teach in a C, D, or F school? What first grader wants to attend a C, D, or F school? Who would want to eat at a C, D, or F Bar-B-Que joint or watch an F television show? This is an unconscionable proposition and here’s why.

Our local and national obsession with oversimplification should alarm many Americans and Arkansans, at least any of us still paying attention. While it would be much, much easier to understand any complex entity through incredibly simple markers, doing so lacks an account for the humanity of such acts. Putting people or people-based organizations like schools into narrow categories is an attack on people and the organization of school itself. Is this a thinly veiled attack on the people of Arkansas through their public school system?

In an August 30th Arkansas Democrat Gazette article titled “Letter-Grading Plan for Schools will go on View,” reporter Cynthia Howell tells about this impending policy, one that started with the 2013 legislature passing two bills: 1429 which mandated that schools have a single indicator of performance and 696 which required that indicator be the A through F system. These two bills have created an office at the University of Arkansas where colleagues of mine work and have diligently designed a statistically complex system of designating these rankings based on several variables, including growth from year-to-year. This piece is not written in opposition to them nor the work they’ve done or are set to do. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette opined on September 7th that the level of sophistication for assigning letter grades was “waaaaay too complicated,” but it seems the agenda of vilifying public schools will be well-served by either a sophisticated or simple-to-understand process. In either case, the policy reduces schools full of humans to a single letter grade that almost any living person could (mis)understand.

There are three specific reasons that the Arkansas State Board of Education should wholeheartedly reject this notion following the open public comment period and return this to the Arkansas Legislature.

First and foremost, this is a covert and perhaps inadvertent attack on the poor of Arkansas. We don’t need a sophisticated analysis of achievement scores to understand which schools will be the A or F schools. In fact, I challenge all members of the Small-Garage-Doors-ShedsArkansas legislature to plop down in their cars and drive around to all of the different towns and neighborhoods in their districts, paying close attention to the size of the houses. All they have to do is count the number of garage doors they see on the houses in a particular district and then return to their offices to rank schools accordingly.

0 garage doors/carport – D or F school

1 garage door – D school

2 garage doors – D, C, or B school

3 or more garage doors B or A school

My example here of the garage door study might come across as being a little facetious. But seriously, drive around or hire some group of retired people to drive around and count garage doors—you’ll learn about the same thing about the current state of our schools as ranking them based on achievement. Honest research has been very clear on this issue—poverty is the overwhelming and overriding factor in student achievement, however it is defined. School is nothing more or less than a reflection of culture, of the social context from which it emanates. Grading schools based on achievement (or growth) will actually be grading them on their socioeconomic status, or by the number of garage doors on houses in the district. The fact that race ties in closely with socioeconomic status should be the cause of even greater concern for state board members willing to endorse this system of grading.

I’m gravely concerned about the certainty of political mis-use of this information at all levels. If I wanted to close a school, a great way of doing that would be by ranking them in an A to F manner; the recent examples from Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia of closing public schools and opening charter experiments in their places are warnings that should be heeded. People interested in expanding charter and private schools and closing public schools in Arkansas must be somewhere licking their chops at the prospect of hanging a big fat rusty F on a neighborhood school while chroming an A trophy for the places their children attend.


Third, allow me to offer a personal anecdote. As a high school writing teacher I learned quickly that one of the worst things I could do was to write a giant letter grade or number on the top of my students’ papers. No matter how I sugar-coated or presented low grades to students on their writing, it was always a conversation stopper. But it was deeper than that too—low grades stopped the conversation just as surely as high marks did. I found the graded papers I returned in the trash, scattered in the hallways, or wadded up in the urinal. Fortunately for my students and me, I attended a summer institute of the National Writing Project and learned about revision and about the potential damage of grading students on writing and on anything else for that matter. What I wanted to do as a teacher was to start a conversation about students’ progress in writing in a way advocated by the concept of responding to writers, not only evaluating their writing.

In much the same way, a grade of F, D, or even C on a school will close the conversation for improving that school, if not close the school itself. Students and teachers with means will leave for other pastures. I’m not about to say that there aren’t schools in Arkansas and everywhere that need more support than they are currently receiving. They do. I will adamantly argue that improving a school will be next to impossible with the F, D, or C hanging in the front window. Rather, we need to respond to schools that are struggling on an individual basis. No two schools in Arkansas are struggling for the same reasons and should be treated as individuals, not simple constructs ready to be mindlessly lumped together under a single letter. The best way of understanding achievement is to look at the median income, or to follow my assertion, count the number of garage doors hanging in that district.

Citizens of Arkansas, please join me by contacting each state board of education member and asking them to withdraw the board’s support for this idea. If we aim to oversimplify schools and eventually close them, it receives an A. If we want to sustain and improve our education system, grading schools deserves to have an F hanging on it.

Emma’s Tale

Guest post by Donna Wake

Associate Professor and Associate Dean, University of Central Arkansas

I was recently invited to speak as part of a panel at a conference on “bridging the achievement gap.”  In the lead up to the conference, I prepared by doing some reading and updating my knowledge of the research. Bridging the achievement gap, after all, feels like an admirable goal. Who doesn’t want to help kids to bridge the gap? It sounds almost as good as no child left behind, right?

But the more I thought about bridging the gap, and the more I read, the more unsettled I began to feel. I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly. Not until the day of the conference when my feelings of unease coalesced around an impromptu story I shared in response to a question asked. This is Emma’s story.

Emma is 8 years old. Her mother and I have been friends for many years now. Emma is in the 3rd grade in a large elementary school (name of state withheld). This is her fourth school. Her father is in the military and has served 2 tours in Iraq and 1 tour in Afghanistan since Emma’s birth. She’s moved across two states and multiple classrooms in her short academic career. She’s a tough kid with some great skills. She’s sensitive. She’s thoughtful. She’s reflective. She’s empathetic. She’s a rule follower. She loves to read and write. And she’s smart.

Emma was tested for the gifted program in Kindergarten at the request of her teacher. She was placed in the gifted class for first grade. She lost her status when the family moved schools in 2nd grade. I think it is important to note that Emma’s parents were not asked for input in this process at any point.

This year, in her newest school, Emma was tested again for the gifted program at the request of her teachers. I would like to say from the outset that I was opposed to this. Not for Emma’s sake, but because I have a philosophical and pragmatic problem with the idea of “gifted” in our school settings. Put simply, I think all kids should have access to “gifted” curriculum and resources. I also think that kids who receive the “gifted” label may be prone to developing a sense of superiority and entitlement. Be that as it may, Emma was tested. Her parents were ok with this decision because they liked the instructional style of the GT classroom and felt it was more inquiry and project based allowing for exploration and problem solving.

Pic_4Unfortunately, Emma did not make the cut.

In this school district, kids qualify for the gifted program by meeting a set cut-off score on TWO tests. One test measures verbal-linguistic skills. The other test measures visual-spatial abilities. Emma did not make the minimum required score on the second, visual-spatial test. She did well, but not well enough to be labeled as “gifted.”

The school made the decision to place Emma (and other students who did not score quite well enough) in the gifted classroom with the “gifted” kids. So for the entire academic year, Emma was in a room where half of the kids were coded as “gifted” and the other half were kids who were, well, almost “gifted.”

Of course, the kids know the lay of the land. They always do. You can call groups whatever you wish – red/blue, robin/eagle, tiger/chipmunk – the kids know. In this room, they actually knew they were either “gifted” or “not gifted.” So Emma’s already fragile sense of self-worth was challenged.

The issues accelerated in the last 8 weeks of the school year, after the end of testing. Emma’s teacher decided that the “gifted” kids in the room would undertake an elaborate enrichment project. They started by visiting a local news room and watching the production of a news show. I should mention that only the “gifted” kids got to go on this field trip. The other half of the class stayed at school. The “gifted” kids continued the project in the classroom by scripting and creating their own news production. Kids did research. Kids wrote stories. Kids blocked scenes. Kids shot and edited digital footage.

This sounds like an awesome project, right? But remember, this project was just for the “gifted kids.” What did Emma and the other less-gifted kids do during this 8-week project? They watched. And they worked on math worksheets. All day. Every day. Worksheets.

Now, I have no idea why the teacher of this classroom chose to segregate her curriculum the way she did. Maybe there were legal reasons. Maybe there were pragmatic reasons. Maybe there were financial reasons. I have no idea, and I really am not trying to vilify her in writing this account. I’ve never even met her. Which at this point is probably a good thing. But to me, a 20 year veteran of classrooms, this made no sense to me at all. Why on earth would someone choose to treat students so differently and inequitably? Couldn’t anyone see the impact this would have on the students in the room? And indeed. The impact was inevitable.

Imagine my frustration when Emma very carefully explained to me that she was “dumb.”

I was flabbergasted. How could this bright, beautiful young woman possibly feel she was dumb? She is a voracious reader and writer. Her past academic record and experiences are good. She is not a perfect kid, and certainly she has areas of strength and weakness, but Emma is not dumb.

Shelving my anger for a minute, I began to ask Emma some very open-ended questions. She was more than happy to explain. She felt dumb because she didn’t get to do “that TV project” the other kids were doing. After all, Kay-lee who acts like she knows it all must because she gets to be on camera for that TV project. Emma knows she’s not good at math, because they keep making her do math worksheets, and why would she have to do that if she wasn’t dumb, particularly at math? It went on and on. Her logic was impeccable.

I left Emma’s house that night feeling frustrated, disgusted, and outright angry. Beyond Emma’s story is the fact this isn’t an isolated incident. I am well into my 2nd decade in a profession that I love, but it is a profession that continues to astound and disappoint me. The decision this teacher made and its impact on Emma’s mental and emotional state continued to haunt me in the weeks and months following my visit. At the end of the year Emma requested to not be placed in the gifted room next year. Really, who could blame her?

So what did this have to do with my panel and “bridging the achievement gap”? On the surface this appears to be an unrelated story. I mean, really, Emma missed the “gifted” cut-off by a few points. We have little to complain about in Emma’s story compared to those kids who are segregated from good instruction for far more egregious reasons.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s all the same broken system. It just seems to me that in the system, we come up with ways to “label” kids. On the surface, these labels do not seem bad. After all, they help us try to figure out how to sort and categorize kids so that we can serve them and somehow match our meager resources to meet their needs. So we assign them a “tag” – gifted, basic, low SES, ELL, on the bottom side of the “achievement gap.”

Only these labels, they backfire on us. The unintended consequence is that we do treat kids differently, in ways that are noticeable (by the kids!), and in ways that are not aligned with best practices or common sense. Labels create a hidden curriculum that tells kids their worth to us and to the larger world. In fact, when these labels are present, common sense appears to fly out the window. Indeed, in the case of Emma’s classroom, common sense may have shattered the window as it left the building.

We appear to base labels on a very narrow set of criteria, often created by non-educators. In terms of those “basic” kids on the bottom side of the gap, those criteria include their abilities in literacy and mathematics. But what about all of the other skills and attributes we value in our kids? Ourselves? Our culture? What about content areas like the arts, like sports, like interpersonal and intrapersonal skills? What about those more content-based-but-somehow-less-valuable areas like social studies and science? Do these not “count” in our current system? Are they truly relegated to the sidelines as electives or not important? Yet many adults I know would contend these areas are more important in the context of the real world quality of life experiences.

Please believe me, I am not discounting literacy and mathematics. I am a literacy teacher. I think it is important that kids work and grow in these content areas. However, even these content areas are very narrowly defined by standardized testing. On the standardized literacy and math tests, no kid will be ever asked to write creatively, to dream big, to make new worlds, to talk about citizenship, to discover, or to problem solve. Yet we label them based on a few random days’ work in April on skewed ideas of what we should measure and what we should consider as important in defining our children.

Even more horrifying, labels are used to vilify teachers and the teaching profession. Listen, I am all for accountability. I have seen my share of poor teachers who needed to be removed from the profession. On the other hand, I cannot think it justifiable to hold a teacher of any ilk to a narrowly-defined standard that may be unreasonable and unreachable. Any Kindergarten teacher knows that some of kids come to school already knowing how to read while the others come to school hungry, dirty, and without having had a good night’s rest.

Those hungry kids are the majority of learners on the bottom side of that achievement gap. And most teachers I know work hard to support those kids as they move through their school careers. Most teachers I know help their learners navigate a system that (to our learners and their families) is perplexing and mysterious, one that historically has not served them well. Most teachers I know try to find the strategies and approaches and methods that work to best serve these students.

But let’s face reality, the problems in our society are a lot bigger than can be fixed by one teacher, one district, or even one education “system.” We aren’t talking about an achievement gap; we are talking about an equity gap and an opportunity gap. To fix this, something larger must happen in our culture first. And until it does, there will continue to be an “achievement gap” and worse yet, people who believe they can magically close such a gap through more tests.

So here is my message to Emma’s third grade teacher. Let’s start using some common sense with our kids. Let’s find our voices. Let’s advocate for ourselves and for our kids. Let’s dispose of our fear of rocking the boat. Let’s teach based on the relationships we build with our students. Let’s teach things like empathy and creativity and passion and inquiry. Let’s stop labeling kids based on narrowly defined constructs. Let’s see the whole child and all the gifts they bring to our classrooms. Let’s do what we know is right by working with each of our kids, where they are, who they are, and by giving them what they need to the best of our ability.

All the kids. Not just half the room.