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.


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.

Beware of CCSS Political Hype

I recently read an curious piece written by former politician and current Wall Street executive Harold Ford Jr. entitled “Why Voters Love the Common Core”.  In my opinion, Mr. Ford’s post is a perfect example of why anything said by politicians and/or Wall Street executives regarding public education should be read with great skepticism, or at least a healthy dose of critical analysis.Ford RhetoricFord Rhetoric

I invite you to read the post at the Daily Beast before proceeding here because I encourage you to also apply a critical eye to my analysis of Ford’s argument.  In full disclosure, I am not a supporter of the Common Core.  However, I’m not posting this to convince you to join me in my thinking, but rather to point out the dangers of allowing others to do your thinking for you.

Ford’s primary claim is that the recent mid-term elections are proof that voters love the Common Core and that this is primarily because the standards are working.  Here’s why I don’t agree.

In support of his claim, Ford provides the following evidence:

Trailing only the economy, education and classroom issues dominated thinking among voters nationwide. In many states, education was the main driver of turnout.

I am not sure how this assertion is supported.  National exit polls did not even include education as an option, instead listing immigration, the economy, health care, and foreign policy as important issues for voters to choose from. Topics such as executive action on immigration, Obamacare, the fight against ISIS, and debate over economic recovery were far more prevalent issues than education in general and the CCSS specifically.  If you want to point out a “driver of turnout”, you might consider the fact that 93% of people who voted Democrat said that one reason they voted was to support President Obama, while 92% said they voted to oppose him.*

…voters, many of them parents, listened to both sides of the debate and ultimately voted for candidates who supported level-headed policy. In fact, November’s results show parents want to continue with implementation of high standards and the results they promise.

This claim is a classic case of rationalization – a logical fallacy in which someone starts with the conclusion they prefer, cherrypicks premises that support that conclusion, and then “reverse engineers” an argument to support it.  In other words, it is utter nonsense.  There are many other far more valid reasons for the midterm election results such as low voter turnout and opposition to the president.

Education may have played a role in some voters’ minds, but even if it did, it would be hard to attribute those votes to support for CCSS.  The most recent poll released by Phi Delta Kappa found that 62% of Americans have never even heard of the Common Core and the majority of the 38% who have said they were only “somewhat knowledgeable” about the standards.  Besides, of those 38% of people who said they were somewhat knowledgeable about CCSS, only 41% believe the standards will improve American competitiveness globally, while 56% believe they will actually harm American competitiveness.**

Some may consider the results surprising in light of the tireless, and often inaccurate, charges opponents leveled against politicians who support higher standards. Interestingly, some of the opponents—many of whom I believe are genuinely confused about Common Core’s development and purpose—assailed the standards as too difficult, not difficult enough, or as a federal takeover of local education. They couldn’t decide.

This one is actually kind of funny in a sad way.  Ford claims that opponents of CCSS can’t make up their minds about why they oppose the standards.  Are they too hard?  Too easy?  The problem is that we simply don’t know because the CCSS were never actually field tested or validated in any way prior to their implementation in schools.  Experts have noted that the CCSS are more difficult than previous standards in some states and less difficult than others. Are the standards an example of federal take over of local education?  Well, given that adoption of CCSS was tied to billions of dollars in federal education grants, one could legitimately argue that the adoption of CCSS is a prime example of federal overreach. Perhaps the reason why opponents can’t decide how to criticize the CCSS is because the answer is “all of the above”.

And to be sure, classrooms are seeing measurable improvements under Common Core Standards.  For example, in Tennessee—one of the earliest adopters of the Common Core Standards—college-readiness rates among high school students saw the biggest improvement this year since the state began testing. And last year, 4th and 8th grade students showed the biggest math and reading gains in the country.

I’m curious as to where Mr. Ford gets his data to support this claim, given that the tests that were designed to assess student progress on the CCSS (PARCC and Smarter Balance) haven’t even been officially given to students yet.  That presents a considerable validity problem.  He might be referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores, which do indeed show that Tennessee has improved more than most other states from 2011-2103.  The only problem here is that while Tennessee  may have been one of the earliest adopters of CCSS, the state didn’t actually begin implementation until the 2012-2013 school year, and full implementation only occurred that year at the K-2 level.  The first NAEP exam isn’t given until the 4th grade, so that doesn’t quite compute.   There was one state that fully implemented CCSS prior to the 2013 NAEP exam – Kentucky.  Unfortunately, their scores actually dropped between 2011 and 2013 and they ranked #39 in the nation in terms of improvement during that time.***  Oops.

The same problem also plagues Ford’s claims about “college readiness”.  The CCSS weren’t implemented in Tennessee until the junior or senior year of the students who are now more “college ready”, and during that time the Common Core was only partially implemented up through the 8th grade.  I’ve heard some fantastic claims about the potential that Common Core holds, but I have a hard time believing that their very presence in the elementary and middle schools in Tennessee somehow made the graduating seniors more “college ready” in high school.  That’s some serious educational mojo right there.

Here are some more takeaways from Election Day. In only four states—Arizona, Colorado, New York and Pennsylvania—did the Common Core Standards emerge as a major issue, and in three of those races the most supportive candidates won. Twelve incumbent governors who publicly support Common Core easily won re-election.

This looks to me to be some more rationalization.  In Arizona, the most supportive congressional candidates may have won their races, but in the race for State School Superintendent, Diane Douglass a critic of CCSS with a plan to abolish the standards  emerged as the winner.  In Colorado, John Hickenlooper defeated the Republican challenger, yet Hickenlooper doesn’t even mention CCSS on the  education section of his campaign website.  In New York, Governor Cuomo placated voters by delaying CCSS test scores for five years in the face of harsh criticism from his opponent.  For every article that claims that supporting the CCSS led to political victory, there are probably 100 others claiming it was something else.****

As presidential campaigns gear up on both sides of the political aisle, candidates, pollsters, pundits and media advisors should take notice: Students are making gains, parents are paying attention, and more and more teachers are embracing classroom standards that make it easier for them to do their jobs.

One poll funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (HUGE supporters of CCSS) found that 68% teachers say Common Core implementation is going well at their schools.  Another poll not funded by the Gates foundation found that teacher support for CCSS has dropped from 76%  in 2013 to 46% in 2014.  I have yet to see a study or poll in which teachers said the CCSS made their jobs easier.  Perhaps this paragraph is full of the vaguest political rhetoric because it is intended for “candidates, pollsters, pundits, and media advisors” – it is their stock-in-trade after all.

I’m not convinced.

As voters we must be careful about believing the rhetoric of anybody who stands to gain or profit on the backs of our children.   Each of us is responsible for developing a better understanding of why we support or oppose major reform initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards.  There are many well-informed and “level headed” (to use Ford’s adjective) people on both sides of the argument who will support their claims with sound logic and concrete evidence.  It is our duty as citizens to seek them out and educate ourselves to avoid falling prey to those who will only tell you enough to get your vote or your money.



*Obama loves the CCSS.

**Research shows that the relationship between standards and global competitiveness is questionable and the relationship between test scores and global competitiveness is non-existent.

***Though Mr. Ford does not mention it, the story is almost exactly the same for the NAEP mathematics exam.

****That’s totally a guess. I’m not Googling that.

Colorado Students Are Right: Your History is Un-American

I’ve been paying close attention to the events in Colorado in which students and faculty members of Jefferson County high schools have been protesting the formation of a curriculum review committee that would require students to learn a sanitized version of history that encourages blind patriotism and discourages any sort of protest.

This topic is important to me for two reasons.  First, I’m a graduate of a Jefferson County high school (Wheat Ridge HS Class of 1993).  Second, history education is my field of expertise at the University of Arkansas, so the proposed changes to the curriculum in Jefferson County are right in my wheelhouse.

Specifically, the proposed committee will be charged with reviewing curriculum to make sure that:

Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.

Cries have arisen over the fact that the Jefferson County school board is populated with members that won elections with considerable financial support from conservative and corporate interests, and these points are valid and troublesome. If you read between the lines of the committee’s charge then you might arrive at an interpretation similar to the one I did – primarily that history education should glorify the United States, promote jingoistic ideals of citizenship, and downplay all negative aspects of our history by treating them in a “balanced and factual” manner.  In other words, interpretation of history is perfectly okay as long as it preaches American greatness, but is forbidden when it comes to the darker underbelly of our collective past.

I was thinking about all the fancy academic arguments I could make against this notion while driving to work this morning when I happened to press the first station preset button on my satellite radio – which I’m not ashamed to admit is set to the 80’s music channel.  Then the simplest analogy hit me:

In many ways, jingoistic history education has the same effect on our civic ignorance as 80’s music stations have on our collective memory of the 1980’s.  

What do I mean by that?  Think for a moment about the music that is played on the 80’s station.  Of the thousands of songs that were recorded during that decade, only a few hundred of them remain in regular rotation.  I’ll bet you’d hear Beat It or Come On Eileen multiple times if you listened to one of these channels for an entire day.  Why is that?  Well, it might be because a lot of music made in the 1980’s really sucked.  It was so bad that we didn’t like listening to it then and we sure as heck aren’t going to go back and listen to it now.  Also, these stations reach back for the “popular” music that satiated the masses back in the day.  You don’t hear much in the way of country, rap, jazz, blues, punk, or folk music on the 80’s stations – unless of course it sold really well in the mainstream market.  There was a lot of really good music made in the 1980’s that doesn’t fit the mold we’ve cast around the idea of “80’s music”.   And we don’t limit this form of selective memory music.  TV shows like VH1’s I Love the 80’s do pretty much the exact same thing with products, sports, food, fashion, entertainment…etc.

The end result is a myopically glorified and painfully oversimplified memory the 1980’s as a really great, if not totally cheesy, decade.

Now think about how this school board in Colorado would have their students learn about the past.  Ordering teachers to limit their interpretation to history that “promotes patriotism” or the “positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” while downplaying all of our past imperfections can only encourage a similarly glorified and oversimplified memory of American history.

Of course, that’s exactly what this particular school board wants.

But wait… I pretty much just admitted that I love the 80’s station and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy I Love the 80’s too.  The difference is that I enjoy them as outlets for entertainment and not for any sort of meaningful learning.

History teaching should not be equated to a greatest hits compilation of mainstream music.  Much like the great (and not so great) music of the 1980’s that is no longer played, there is a lot of great and not so great history that would be left out of an approach that only seeks to glorify our American heritage.  Not coincidentally, much of this history would involve women, minorities, immigrants, and those who refused conform to the norms of an imperfect society.

Even the framers of our Constitution who wrote of creating a “more perfect Union” were not immune to what Benjamin Franklin referred to as, “all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local
Interests, and their Selfish Views”.
  Perfection, as Franklin alluded to, is
an impossible accomplishment given that those who are trying to achieve it will
always possess their own biases, prejudices, opinions and selfish views.  So why pretend we’re perfect when even Ben (the womanizer) knew we never were?

Even as we search for the “more perfect union” it is silly to think of American history as a steady march of democratic progress. Our history is riddled with horrible ideas, mistakes, injustices and marginalization.  Many of these we were able to overcome, and often it was because of protest or civil unrest by those who recognized wrongs and worked to right them.  Many more still remain and pretending like they don’t won’t make them go away.

Yet our common experiences, both joyously positive and excruciatingly negative, are what bind us together as a nation.  We can try to sweep our historical ugliness under the bed and hope nobody lifts the bedskirt, but that just leaves us ignorant and believing that things were better than they really were.

With my future teachers I call this the “Leave it to Beaver Effect”.  Watching Leave it to Beaver leaves one with a soothing image of the 1950’s as a time of intact families, moral purity, and ubiquitous civility.  This is probably one image that comes to mind when people reference the “good old days”.  I’ll wager that it isn’t images of racial segregation or social stratification.  Sanitized ignorance that shouldn’t be allowed to become a school curriculum.

This reminded me of one of my favorite coffee mugs that sports a quote from Thomas Jefferson (who said some great stuff about education when he wasn’t… you know… having sex with his slaves):

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and what will never be

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.