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.

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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.

Opt Out? Why Parents Should Opt-In for Standardized Testing

Co-authored with Barton L. Goering, Ph.D., Superintendent of Schools, Spring Hill Public School District USD 230, Spring Hill, Kansas

Isn’t it time to say that enough is enough when it comes to standardized testing? Let’s draw a line in the sand for the future of our country by putting a once-and-for-all stop to the madness of tests created by people other than a child’s teacher. We think it is time parents have a choice to opt-in.

The current opt-out movement that has taken aim at stopping standardized tests and corporate education reform is a national effort that has gained considerable traction. In 2012-13, Seattle’s teachers scrapped the MAP test and provided a model for actions across the country, from Arkansas to New York. What’s more American than being conscientious objectors and exercising civil disobedience? We can’t think of much. That said, the entire opt-out movement is predicated on the unfortunate reality that parents and their students should have to take action in order to avoid these tests. Opting out has brought police enforcement, threats and actions from school districts to parents and students, and even a hacker takedown of the United Opt Out website at the onset of the March 2014 testing season.

Audaciously, we believe that every parent in America should be given the choice to opt-in for standardized testing, rather than being forced to opt-out. If these tests are such a precious and necessary part of our education system, have the tests but stop victimizing other children who don’t want or need them in the process. Conveniently, the savings to the the country’s school districts and the collective pocketbook make the opt-in movement a dream idea for politicians, parents, educators, and patrons and a long overdue nightmare for the testing industry.

Parents, we believe that you–not the corpo-federal testing machine–know what is in your child’s best interest. We’d like to restore your right to opt your student in to more testing if you so choose. Perhaps there would be a fee associated with opting-in and if a family’s income fell below a certain level, free and reduced test prices could be offered. Since the scores from these tests most reliably predict the income demographics of the parents, the requests for testing could be few. Think of the savings!

At present, the American standardized test obsession fits nicely into a grand narrative of failing schools, bogus teachers, and dumb students. Even a casual look at the evidence of the American school system shows us that we have the finest public education system in history. “We top the ranks in creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship around the world,” offers Chris Tienken in Are American Students Really that Dumb? What’s driving all of the negative rhetoric about American schools? Who’s discussing our 26th-in-the-world ranking in childhood poverty?

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One of the many things at stake here is the relationship between student and teacher, a sacred bond of learning and teaching. The proliferation of teacher evaluation systems based on standardized test scores could force those relationships to change, a fact that is particularly disturbing considering the broken nature of current teacher evaluations. Instead of a teacher getting kids ready for life, careers, and post high school education, the next round of standardized tests could be the focus. Are the days of a teacher looking forward to teaching a class made up of diverse cultures and backgrounds gone? Opt-in can fix all of this.

Some http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/06/10/texas-governor-signs-legislation-to-reduce-standardized-testing/ are getting the message and have reduced testing requirements. Nationally, the promise of those changes could be realized if parents contact their state board of education and legislators and demand their parental rights back. Testing consortia are using children as guinea pigs to validate their tests for free, effectively sidestepping parental permission to use their children in a for-profit research project. This and many other violations highlight why we must return rights to parents through opt-in.

We’d like to extend the push to cover any tests that claim to prepare students for tests or claim to predict how students will perform. Predatory companies that sprung up in the wake of No Child Left Untested exacerbate the issue by requiring students to take as many as four tests per year in a single discipline to prepare for the state mandated test. Let’s say there’s a standardized test in five subjects of a child’s schedule, she could potentially take 24 tests over the course of the year. Schools all over America are under the impression–thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top–that in order to score well on tests, students have to take lots and lots of tests in each subject. Common Core ushers in a formalization of this with the PARCC and Smarter Balanced next year unless it is stopped.

What these tests really do is take our students away from the important learning experiences that school can and does provide. Beyond the windfall of money that the education system will save through opt-in, the time wasted preparing for tests and testing will provide teachers across America the ability to create and dream with their students, the ability to teach unfettered from the current testing-palooza.

The nastiest secret about federal and state mandated standardized testing in America today is that it has nothing to do with the students or their learning. It’s about naming and shaming public education, data collection for the grand narrative. Let’s do the American thing and let the people decide. If parents sign an informed consent form to opt their students in for the national research project called testing and agree to pay for it, they should get first dibs on those test scores. Let’s put the test in its place.

What I’d do if I could create a charter school

As a high school teacher and professor I’ve often dreamt of having my own high school, one designed in the spirit of all of my ideas about what education should and shouldn’t be.

My pretend school is called the Progressive Institute of Student Awesomeness (PISA).

PISA teachers would have autonomy and high expectations and job security. Class sizes are small–18 to 20 students at most — and the faculty is overpaid so handsomely that some feel guilty about receiving their checks each month. In reality, they’ll know they’re worth their wages and then some.

A, B, C, D and F are relics of another system. Student progress is charted through portfolio defenses of learning, held in concert with volunteer members of the public.

Teachers receive free tuition to take courses at the best local public university, each expected to either possess or work towards Master’s degrees in pedagogy and content. Part of the job at PISA is to contribute to the scholarship on teaching and learning through professional reading, writing, and sharing with others.

PISA students would experience mandatory arts programs. Their performances and exhibits are a constant part of the school day.

Discussion and dialogue highlight academic classes, raising expectations through meaningful talk. Community service is required for graduation. We’d work smart and play hard. There’s not one test given to our students that wasn’t created by our faculty.

When students, teachers, administrators, and parents pass through the front doors, they feel good and safe and at home.

012213-School0113-22PISA is the school to which all others in the country are measured, the proverbial benchmark, boasting the highest ACT scores in the land.

And if I could have it all rolled together into one awesome package, if I could create my charter school, well…

I wouldn’t.

Above and beyond all of my progressive ideas about school, I believe in public education above all else. No matter how great, the imagined PISA hurts public education and hurts our country because it stands alone, or represents the elitist nature of the charter, and can’t be replicated to serve the interests of all.

No one left behind and no one excluded from the best we can muster. Those are the ideals we should pursue as we seek to enhance our public schools. Shouldn’t every student have a school like PISA?

Being anti-charter isn’t a popular position in our climate of privatization. Our own president and education secretary have worked tirelessly to expand charters during their time in office. Pro-charter films like The Lottery, Waiting for Superman, and Won’t Back Down have helped these anti-public ideas permeate American culture. In the face of a public education system falsely held out as failing, alternatives of any kind are attractive when shown in the light of private-sector propaganda.

From my way of thinking, charters in their origin–as a tool for innovation–were an okay idea, but that’s the extent of my support for them. Unfortunately, they are currently trapped in the accountability-crazed school choice narrative, one that has effectively pitted all schools against one another in an Orwellian version of social Darwinism.

Who’s got the highest scores? What’s in it for my child the others be damned? Compete, compete, compete. And they’re spreading though still a modest part of the national picture of education–4% of all schools.

Great public schools are the cornerstone of our society. Equitable education in America must be for everyone. Charter schools hurt public education and should be closed not expanded. They disrupt the learning dynamics in any given community by taking students away from others and by leaving students behind, especially those without family or personal resources to leave their home public school.

When charter schools succeed, I cringe. I believe that the schools-worth of students belong with their peers, helping to raise everyone in our American society, not just the few who are chosen by a lottery or whose parents can get them to the charter or private school. (author’s note: I cringe in a different, elongated tone for the students when charter schools fail or are demonstrated to be corrupt.

Students who leave for charters hurt the public schools by further demonstrating to the children left behind that their situation is bad but will probably be worse in the future. Charter schools promote a perverse form of competition and school choice that some members of our society won’t get. Since in that way they aren’t really public schools at all, they should be closed immediately: the good ones, the bad ones, and the ugly ones.

The big picture I see shows me that charters aren’t the point, vouchers and a dual track school system are the point. Vouchers are the goal of charterization. Our country doesn’t want a charter school on every corner, the elite decision makers want to be able to provide vouchers so their children can attend So Smart Private Academy on the public dime, an act sure to further undermine and defund egalitarian public education.

I gained a disturbing new perspective on private schools when I moved to the south seven years ago–the Southern private schools are a mirror of the pro-charter dual system of separate and unequal education.

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?

Charters are a weapon of mass distraction, nothing more than idea candy or a freshly-painted plank in a political party platform. They get lots of play on public radio and some of the schools are successful by narrow measures. But stacked measurements and positive press don’t obscure the deeper realities of elitism and profit-driven private takeover of a cherished public institution. We should focus all of our energy and efforts towards providing a PISA like school for all students in America, not diverting attention or resources–teachers, money, and fellow students–to charter or private schools.

 

Suggested Citation: Goering, C.Z. (2014, May 19). What I’d do if I could create a charter school. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-goering/charter-schools_b_5347138.html?utm_hp_ref=education&ir=Education

 

 

Coming to A School Near You: DATA WALLS!

When I was a newly minted teacher in 1998 the public display of our students’ capabilities was limited to posting grade sheets that included complex student ID numbers but no names. The notion of posting the test scores or specific skills of our students was not even a twinkle in the most cold-hearted education reformer’s eye. Then in 2002 after the passage of NCLB the word “accountability” took on new meaning. The frequency of testing increased overall from every three years to every single year while the number of tested subjects actually dropped (politicians don’t care about Social Studies).

This was also the beginning of using data to hold schools and teachers “accountable” for achievement. The test scores for schools were printed in the newspaper.  Schools were given “grades” based on how well their students tested.  These grades pretty much ignored every other facet of educating a child. This oversimplification was insulting but was tolerated.

Next was the comparison of test scores by teacher. I had one particularly myopic assistant principal who would bring our test scores to faculty meetings and rank us by achievement. She completely ignored factors such as # of students with special needs, English language learners, and the unequal distribution of students in advanced classes, but we had already gotten in the habit of ignoring mitigating factors so continuing in that tradition was business as usual.

Now, we have finally progressed to the point where we get to humiliate our 5 year-olds in the same simplistic and public manner that we have been shaming schools and students for over a decade.  Schools around the country have started posting “data walls” in classrooms where children who have not managed to learn the alphabet get to have their names posted for all to see. Those students in first grade who can memorize single digit math facts FINALLY have a public space to separate themselves from the other losers in their class who haven’t mastered that task.

I found this on Pinterest.  Clearly, this teacher is proud of how colorful her wall of failure is.
I found this on Pinterest. This teacher must be  proud of how creatively colorful her wall of failure is.

Decades of research that does not exist clearly indicates that the best way to get  kids to achieve is to motivate them through humiliation. It has worked so well in the past for schools and teachers, that it only seems natural to extend the power of public accountability to kids as well.  Education reformers have long held the position that the main reason schools are “failing” is because their failures have not been made public so that we can hold them accountable.  Why shouldn’t that apply to preschoolers as well?

What possible harm could come from moving kids from one side of the data wall to the other after they master a skill until only one child is left on the side of failure?  Surely, the desire to avoid humiliation will be the final piece of the puzzle that these kids needed to get their acts together and ACHIEVE.  I mean, there’s no way that a child who struggles to learn will notice that he or she is usually one of the last to make it on the Data Tree of College and Career Readiness, right?  Take a look at the picture below.  You think that every kid in this class doesn’t know who #2 and #15 are and that they rank at the bottom on both lists?  If you do then you’ve never set foot in a classroom.

#2 and #15 please step forward.  You have been deemed FAR BELOW BASIC by the Lords of Accountability.
#2 and #15 please step forward. You have been deemed FAR BELOW BASIC by the Lords of Accountability.

In fact, why stop there? Why don’t we go ahead and print them in the newspaper too so that their neighbors and community can hold them accountable?  Maybe they can wear scarlet “F’s” on their shirts at recess so the other kids can peg dodge balls at them until these little slouches finally buckle down and use a capital letter properly.  The list should probably go to the North Pole as well so Santa knows which kids deserve to have candy in their stockings and which kids obviously need some flash cards.  We can even make up folk songs for John Mayer to sing about the Data Wall Boogieman who comes to steal kids who are on the wrong side of the line between “basic” and “proficient”.

#5 - How can we make sure everybody else knows who they are by name and how they are responding?
#5 – How can we make sure everybody else knows who they are by name and how they are responding?

What really makes me sad about all of this is that some TEACHERS have bought into this idea.  There are Pinterest boards dedicated to making nifty data walls (please don’t go look those up).

These teachers  have forgotten the difference between data “informed” and data “driven”.  Educators have been data informed for decades.  Data is collected in multiple forms, used to guide instruction and then used for remediation or enrichment.  Education reformers would have you believe they were the first to think of using data in the classroom.  As far as I’m concerned they can have credit for that as long as they also take responsibility for this abomination.

What’s it going to take America?  If protecting the hearts and feelings of a little kids isn’t enough to get you to stand up and do something about the direction that education reformers are taking us, then I don’t know what is.

The Hubris of NCTQ’s Ed School Ratings

EduSanity is pleased to have the opportunity to re-blog some very important thoughts of Jay P. Greene, Department Head and 21st Century Chair in Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.  Dr. Greene has done an excellent job pointing out some serious problems with the recent ratings of Education schools released by the National Council for Teacher Quality. His post follows.

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One of the bigger problems in education policy is hubris.  People regularly claim that they know what the right policies or practices are, and things would be better if only others would bend to their will.  The truth is that we know relatively little about effective education policies and practices.  This isn’t for lack of trying.  Despite considerable research effort and policy inquiry, we’ve found remarkably few “universal truths” about effective education.  Part of the difficulty is that knowing what works presupposes that there is a single, best way.  But  it appears much of what is effective in education is contingent on particular needs and circumstances and does not lend itself to broad declarations about the “right”  practices and policies.icarus

Because the scourge of PLDD is endemic, however, we continue to hear claims that “We know what works.”   This was the traditional refrain of teacher union leaders, but now reformers have joined the hubris chorus.  The latest example of this is the ratings of Ed Schools issued by the National Council of Teacher Quality.  NCTQ claims to know what good teacher preparation programs should be doing and judges those programs against NCTQ’s vision of effective practices.

In particular, NCTQ identifies 18 standards by which it judges Ed Schools.  ”Our standards for the first edition of the Teacher Prep Review” NCTQ assures us, ” are based on research; internal and external expert panels; the best practices of other nations and the states with the highest performing students; and, most importantly, what superintendents and principals around the country tell us they look for in the new teachers they hire.”

NCTQ describes the research basis for their standards in a lengthy document.  Yet, even according to their own description only 8 of the 18 standards are supported by “strong research.”  And in most of the 8 cases where they do claim to have strong research support, the research does not actually provide them with the strong support they assert.

For example, the “Early Reading” standard assesses whether “The program trains teacher candidates to teach reading as prescribed by the Common Core State Standards.”  None of the studies they cite actually examine the specific standard since none specifically examine what methods of teaching reading, if any, are actually prescribed by Common Core.  As is the case with all 18 standards in the NCTQ rating system, one has to make a series of leaps between the research cited and the actual standard being used to judge teacher prep programs.

In the case of early reading, the “strong research” they cite examines whether teachers are familiar with the “five components of effective reading instruction,” and whether teachers who are certified and have masters degrees are more likely to know those five components.  It turns out teachers are generally not familiar with the five components and are no more likely to know them if they are certified or have a masters.  That’s all very nice, but isn’t the “strong research” supporting the standard supposed to show that knowledge of the five components, which presumably have something to do with teaching “reading as prescribed by the Common Core State Standards,” actually lead to improved reading by students?  The strong research cited by NCTQ says it generally doesn’t: “This study also found no relationship between teachers’ knowledge of these components and their students’ reading growth – with the notable exception of third-grade students.”  This is typical of the “strong research” supporting 8 of the 18 standards by which NCTQ judges Ed Schools.

Standards 1 and 6 address whether teacher prep programs select “teacher candidates of strong academic caliber” and whether “teacher candidates have the broad content preparation necessary to successfully teach to the Common Core State Standards.”  In both cases the “strong research” on which these standards rely is a study by Boyd, et al examining the relationship between teacher characteristics and student achievement.  Let’s leave aside the fact that NCTQ acknowledges that research by Harris and Sass as well as Chingos and Peterson contradict their standard.  Even the Boyd, et al study they do cite does not specifically demonstrate that teachers from more selective programs or with more content training are more effective.  First, Boyd, et al are careful not to make the type of strong causal claims from their work that NCTQ does:

It is not easy to estimate how the achievement gains of students are affected by the qualifications of their teachers because teachers are not randomly sorted into classrooms. For example, if teachers in schools in which students perform best in math are more likely to be certified in math, one might be tempted to conclude that being certified to teach math contributes to higher student achievement. The causal relationship, however, may operate in the other direction; that is, more qualified teachers may be in schools where students perform well in math because they prefer to teach good students and because employers want to staff their courses with in-field certified teachers. Analysts need to be careful not to attribute the test-score gains associated with sorting to the attributes of teachers.

Beyond the fact that Boyd, et al would not make the strong causal claims from their work that NCTQ feels free to do, the Boyd, et al study examines a basket of teacher qualifications and does not claim to be able to distinguish accurately between teacher experience, selectivity of the college they attended, content knowledge, and other characteristics because “many of the measures of teachers’ qualifications are highly correlated with each other.”  In short, the Boyd, et al study is hardly the “strong research” in support of their standards that NCTQ claims it is.

Do we need more examples of how NCTQ misinterprets or stretches research to claim that their standards are supported by “strong research”?  Oh, how about one more…  Standard 13 is “Equity” and judges teacher prep programs based on whether “The program ensures that teacher candidates experience schools that are successful in serving students who have been traditionally underserved.”  The “strong research ” NCTQ cites for support of the claim “that entering teachers learn crucial methods of instruction and management through observation of and supervised practice in schools where staff are successfully teaching students living in poverty” is a piece by Ronfeldt.

Unfortunately, Ronfeldt’s study appears to make the opposite claim.  He finds that it is more important for student teachers to be trained in schools with low staff turnover that tend to have more advantaged students.  He concludes:

Should we place student teachers in “difficult-to-staff, underserved” schools to learn to teach? The main
findings of this study suggest otherwise – learning to teach in difficult-to-staff field placement schools is associated with lower teacher effectiveness and retention. Moreover, the results demonstrate that being trained in field placements with higher concentrations of poor, black, and lowest-achieving students has no significant effect on teacher retention or effectiveness.

I haven’t see this much unreliable citation of research since I read teacher union reports.

To be fair, NCTQ acknowledges that quality research on effective education practices is in short supply: “To the extent that high-quality research can inform how teachers should be prepared, NCTQ uses that research to formulate standards. Unfortunately, research in education that connects preparation practices to teacher effectiveness is both limited and spotty.”  But this lack of evidence does not prevent NCTQ from confidently declaring that they know what teacher prep programs should be doing and judging them on that basis.  If quality research is so limited, how does NCTQ know what everyone else is supposed to be doing?

And I’m sure that there is considerable room for improvement in teacher prep programs.  Many of NCTQ’s recommendations are probably sensible, even if they aren’t backed by “strong research.”  The problem is not so much that NCTQ is suggesting bad ideas as that they are claiming to know much more than they actually know.  And they are willing to boss around everyone else despite not knowing as much as they think.

Maybe we’d make more progress in improving teacher prep programs if we were more upfront about what we didn’t know and encouraged more experimentation and data-collection so that we can learn more.  And given that different circumstances may call for different practices, maybe we should be open to a variety of Ed School approaches rather than attempting to impose the one true way. ________________________________________________________________

Jay Greene’s original post can be viewed on his blog.

 

 

SOCIAL JUSTICE MAN is Here!

Last week I had the pleasure of listening to a talk by Dr. P.L. Thomas, an Associate Professor at Furman University and author of Ignoring Poverty In the U.S.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Education. Dr. Thomas had much to say about the problems that childhood poverty causes in the United States in regards to education. For example, while many European countries that we compare ourselves to with the almighty test score have childhood poverty rates below 10%, the United States has a poverty rate of over 23%. That’s right, 23% of our children live in poverty. We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to Finland 5%, the U.K. 12% or Japan 14%, because we are closer to the industrialized powerhouses of Latvia 19% and Romania 25%.

According to Dr. Thomas:

“The central problems we are facing in schools are historical patterns (emphasis in original) – student achievement being strongly correlated with out-of school factors, such as poverty; disproportionate drop-out rates among marginalized populations of students; and inequity of teacher assignments to the disadvantage of students living in poverty, students of color, and English Language Learners.” (p. 5)

Indeed, research has found that the most important factor in student achievement is individual or family background (Sawchuck, 2011), and that the actual influence a teacher has on student outcomes is only about 13-17% (Hanushek, 2010). These are important points that we will refer to in future EduSanity postings, but for now it is important to note that when students live in poverty, the statistics say that they are almost certainly going to struggle in school.

Many people, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, see public education as “the great equalizer”, or the path out of poverty. The belief is that by forcing schools to hold these poor children to higher academic standards, we will drag them from the depths of their impoverished lives and send them off to a better middle class existence. This is a convenient position because thinking about the poverty problem in reverse would be too problematic. Rather than doing something to solve the poverty problem in this country (as the other leading industrialized nations listed above have done), we instead point the accountability cannon at the schools. In effect, we are telling our nation’s teachers that they are responsible for solving the poverty problem all by themselves. And when they fail, which the numbers tell us they almost certainly will in many cases, we will say that they are not dedicated enough or that the standards they teach are not rigorous enough. Myopia.

And then there’s this. My EduSanity colleague enjoys sending me links to articles that will rile me up. He is quite good at it, but a link he sent me on Sunday was so disturbing it literally took me a full 24 hours before I could finish the article and another 24 before I could write an EduSanity post that wasn’t going to be laced with the four-letter words that came to mind immediately after I read it for the first time.

A recent story in the New York Times tells the story of Dr. Michael Anderson of Cherokee County, Georgia, a place in America that suffers a great deal from the poverty problem discussed earlier. Dr. Anderson has decided that since schools either don’t have the resources or desire to do what it takes to help poor kids succeed, he must take it upon himself to prescribe stimulants such as Adderall normally used in treatment of ADHD to students simply because they are poor and are not achieving in school.

From the article:

“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

We have sunk to an entirely new low America. We have reached the point where we are actually medicating perfectly healthy poor children in order to help them overcome the poverty that we stubbornly refuse to admit is the problem behind educational achievement despite the overwhelming evidence that shows educational outcomes are strongly connected to socio-economic status.

Wait, it gets better (worse). Also from the article:

Dr. Anderson’s instinct, he said, is that of a “social justice thinker” who is “evening the scales a little bit.” He said that the children he sees with academic problems are essentially “mismatched with their environment” — square pegs chafing the round holes of public education. Because their families can rarely afford behavior-based therapies like tutoring and family counseling, he said, medication becomes the most reliable and pragmatic way to redirect the student toward success.

Bring me your poor, your tired, your hungry, your unmedicated.

You can stop looking Secretary Duncan because we have found our new American hero. Dr. Anderson, or should we call him SOCIAL JUSTICE MAN (movie to be optioned soon) has bravely stepped in with his prescription pad where an entire nation of teachers has failed. Hopefully, with SOCIAL JUSTICE MAN’s leadership we can find a way to medicate all of the poor kiddos in this country so that we can stop handing out waivers for NCLB. Teachers here in Arkansas will no longer have to drop baggies full of cereal in their students’ backpacks on Friday afternoon so they will have something to eat over the weekend. They will no longer have to find a way to raise the almighty test scores of children who live in cars. Think of it, a full quarter of American kids can simply pop a pill and make their poverty problems go away while they are at school.

But Dr. Anderson does have standards.

“People who are getting A’s and B’s, I won’t give it to them,” he said.

Finally, we educators have somebody who is respectable enough to decide who needs help in this country. Medical doctors go to school for a long time and they make a lot of money. We should listen to them. I also went to school for a long time but I don’t make a lot of money. In fact I probably owe as much money in student loans to the federal government as Dr. Anderson makes in a few months pushing pills to healthy children. Obviously, “experts” like me and our “experience educating children” should be ignored in favor of those who really know what they are talking about.

Ironically, Dr. Anderson has found a way to force you and I to address the problem of poverty in the United States with our own money. That’s because many of these parents whose children are being medicated by SOCIAL JUSTICE MAN can rest easy knowing that Medicaid covers almost all of the costs involved with paying Dr. Anderson and for the medication itself. That’s right kindhearted American citizen, pat yourself on the back because your tax dollars are financing Dr. Anderson’s medical solution to poverty.

And the kids are grateful:

“My kids don’t want to take it, but I told them, ‘These are your grades when you’re taking it, this is when you don’t,’ and they understood,” Ms. Williams said, noting that Medicaid covers almost every penny of her doctor and prescription costs.

Why wouldn’t they want to take unnecessary prescription stimulants in order to get better grades? The possible side effects only include growth suppression, increased blood pressure and, in rare cases, psychotic episodes. These ADHD medications are classified as Schedule II drugs because they are highly addictive. Other Schedule II drugs include Oxycontin, Morphine, Methamphetamines, and Percoset. But don’t worry, it is perfectly legal for a doctor to prescribe medications on a trial basis, and there’s no way that putting a kid on these drugs and then taking them off would have any detrimental effect. Plus, now we get to add “doesn’t get high enough test scores because he/she is poor” to the list of symptoms. Justice!

Don’t mistake my sarcastic rant as an argument against the prescribing of medication for students who have legitimate cases of ADHD. As a former middle school teacher I saw the enormous difference that medication can make when properly prescribed for students who truly need it, and when the medication’s effects on the child’s overall wellbeing are evaluated closely. I’m not a medical doctor, but I do believe that ADHD is a legitimate diagnosis, which ironically Dr. Anderson does not.

The bottom line is that some of us have flat out lost our minds when it comes to solving the achievement problem for students of poverty in this nation. Unfortunately, as long as we continue to think about the problem as being educational rather than societal, idiotic solutions like Dr. Anderson’s and Secretary Duncan’s will be the best we can do.


Suggested Reference

Endacott, J. L. (2012, October 23). Social justice man is here!. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/10/23/social-justice-man-is-here/

References

Hanushek, E. (2010, December). The economic value of higher teacher quality. Working paper 56. Washington, DC: Calder, The Urban Institute

Sawchuck , S. (2011). EWA research brief: What studies say about teacher effectiveness. Washington DC: Education Writers Association. Retrieved October 22, 2012, from http://www.ewa.org/site/PageServer?pagename=briefs_effectiveness

Public Education is Not Your Enemy

It has become fashionable to hate everything “public” about public education.  We here at EduSanity believe that this phenomena is due to a number of different reasons and over the next few entries we intend to unpack the reasons why the public is so down on education that bears its name.

Before we can do that however, we must present our common sense case for publicly funded education for all children in this country.  Yes, this includes the children of illegal immigrants.  Yes, this includes the children of the elite. If you are a child in this country, we should all pitch in to pay for your education because at the end of the day, it is in everybody’s best interest.

Ever since the end of World War II this country has found a common distaste for anything resembling communism.  Events like the Red Scare of the 50’s and 60’s, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear arms race, Vietnam…etc, have posited a deep fear of anything to the left of ardent capitalism among us. Calling somebody or something “communist”, or more recently “socialist” has long been a convenient rhetorical trick to immediately create a negative image in the minds of the American people. Capitalism is great and we believe that despite our problems, the United States is the greatest country on the planet. But the Cold War is over, history has proven communism to be an unreachable goal and totalitarian socialism to be an economic failure.  Why are we still afraid of the socialist boogieman?

If only there were a “socialist” institution that could have prevented this.

But more importantly, why have we forsaken our own republican ideal of liberty and justice for all by refocusing our fear of the “socialist other” on the publicly funded and operated institutions in the United States that provide fundamental services like education?  Let’s go back in time to an America that wasn’t yet afraid of socialism by reading the words of Thomas Jefferson, who in a letter supporting his education bill that would provide publicly supported education to America’s children wrote,

“The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries.”

We cringe at the thought that the talents and potential of those who might not have the means to access schooling would go to waste if they were arbitrarily left out of our nation’s schools.  If it were not for the public schools that will accept any student living within the geographic boundaries of an attendance area, you can imagine how exacerbated the division between social classes might become. Is that in anybody’s best interest?  How much of a drag on society would a mass of uneducated children become? We cannot allow our schools to become a reflection of a culture based on what’s best for “me” while forsaking thy neighbor and the poor kids down the street.

Granted, the idea of providing education for those who cannot provide for themselves may be considered “socialist” in that resources are redistributed from those who have to those who have not.  However, this idea is also truly republican in nature as well, because the foundation of our society is built upon the principle that power is derived from the people. We return to our nation’s first true Republican, Thomas Jefferson, to support our argument.  It was Jefferson who understood the necessity of educating all those who would be trusted with the office of citizen and would in turn be given the power from which our republican form of government draws.  In his autobiography, Jefferson wrote,

“The less wealthy people,… by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen.”

How can we possibly expect all of our children to become knowledgeable members of society if we do not provide for their education or if we educate them separately from the students whose parents have financial means?

The reality of publicly supported education is the necessity of taxation, and the burden of supporting education in the United States falls primarily to those who own property.  Ironically, those who own property are also more likely to have the means to send their children to private schools, yet they do not have a choice on where their tax money is spent.  That said, public education is not the only tax supported service provided by the government that we cannot opt out of.  There is no option in the United States to receive a “roads voucher” if you don’t own a car, or a “military voucher” if you don’t believe in war, or a “fire voucher” if you decide you’ll extinguish your own house if it catches on fire.  And the reason why you cannot opt out of these publicly funded services is because we all need them.  We need roads, we need a formidable military, we need fire and police protection, and if we had the choice to opt out of them because we felt (foolishly) like we didn’t need them, the infrastructure of this country would disintegrate.

Public education is no different.  You may not like how we educate our students publicly in this country, but keep in mind that there has been, under primarily a system of public education since the mid 1850’s, no more impressive country in the world than the one in which we currently live. Public education is the single greatest thing this country has ever attempted to do. Public education is necessary to protect our interests abroad and to protect us from ourselves.

We dislike paying taxes as much as anybody, but when we reach for our checkbooks (do people still use those?) we console ourselves with one more bit of wisdom from T.J. who reminds us that,

“The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”

Americans, no matter whether they fall in the 1% or the other 99%, need public education in this country.  Educating all of our citizens is vital to the prosperity of our country and security of our democracy, and the only way we can make sure that we educate every single child in America is to bite that “socialist” bullet and allocate resources for great public schools. Thomas Jefferson may not have been afraid of the socialist boogieman, but he was rightfully afraid of his own government.  We guess it should come as no surprise that the system of public education Jefferson envisioned as a protection against the tyranny of government has now fallen prey to the most tyrannical federal attack in our nation’s history.  But don’t worry, the marauders aren’t socialists.

 

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suggested citation:
Endacott, J., & Goering, C.Z. (2012, September 7). Public education is not your enemy. EduSanity. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/09/07/public-educati…not-your-enemy/

 

Restoring EduSanity

There seems to be a serious lack of sanity in the education discussion these days. The past ten years of the NCLB era have witnessed a refocusing of American determination to once again be on top of the world when it comes to educating our future workforce.  This is certainly not the first time that we have turned the microscope on public education, as we tend to ratchet up scrutiny whenever the U.S. is viewed as slipping from the top spot in the industrialized world (e.g. the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik or the Japanese dominance of the electronics industry in the 1980’s).  Unfortunately, this time we have managed to lose almost all sense of perspective as the conversation about public education in the United States; productive conversations have been replaced with mud-slinging shouting matches.

It is hard not to notice that public education has been invaded by non-educators from around the country who were nowhere to be found when the quality of a student’s education was understood to be the complex and multifaceted endeavor that it truly is. However, now that educational success has been redefined by politicians as a series of easily measured test scores, public education has become the target of economists, entrepreneurs, think tanks, bureaucrats, and members of the public who have jumped at the opportunity to introduce narrowly focused “reforms” with the sole purpose of increasing test scores. These newly self-anointed “experts” have gained a lot of traction in the public sphere by using ambiguous yet seductive words such as “rigor” and “accountability” to oversimplify, privatize, and politicize the formative years of our nation’s youth. Our children’s education has been reduced to an easily understood metric that can be neatly graphed in the local newspaper and touted or decried by politicians but has very little meaning in the world outside the classroom. How sad.

The status quo is not acceptable either, and it is undeniably true that America’s educational system is in need of improvement.  This has been the case since the first hornbook was used in the first one-room schoolhouse in the first American colony, and if we are to move forward, it should always be the case. Education isn’t a sprint, a race, or even a marathon because there is no finish line that signifies the end of learning in either victory or defeat. That our current educational focus can be summed up with the rhetorical tag line of “Race to the Top,” is unfortunate because it perpetuates the misconception that educating children is a competition that can somehow be won. What happens to the losers of the race?

Of course, not everybody has bought into this modern wave of reform, and many of the holdouts are public educators who recognize that education cannot be simplified as the public has been misled to believe. These educators (authors of this essay included) have pushed back against the tide of misguided reform, resulting in an “us vs. them” mentality usually reserved for the bickering on cable news networks and the halls of Congress. The debate over education is currently framed as the “us”, or every blue-blooded American who favors better schools, rigor, and achievement, against the “them”, otherwise known as anybody who can be portrayed as standing in the way of this very particular brand of progress. And full advantage of this discord has been taken by many politicians and well-financed edu-mouthpieces who have convinced Americans that public educators belong squarely in the “them” category.  When real teachers resist the reforms they believe to be wrong, they are characterized as trying to protect the status quo and standing in the way of progress. We’ll admit there are a few teachers determined to do that, though they are vastly outnumbered by those who resist shortsighted reform efforts for the right reasons. Despite this, it has become fashionable to demonize all things “public” about public education and all too often, attempts at “education reform” are revealed to be little more than thinly veiled efforts to undermine districts, schools, teachers, and by default, even the very students in the classrooms.

EduSanity fears that the characterization of public educators as the enemy of progress combined with a single-minded approach to evaluating the education of young people could have catastrophic consequences.  We will use this platform to call attention to the many issues assaulting American education today, primarily the issues brought forth from outside of the classrooms, issues we consider to be antagonistic attacks on the sanity of education. There are too few voices in the dialogue about public education that are broadly focused, rational, well-informed by various ways of knowing, and truly concerned with making progress in helping our students prepare for life on a local, national and global scale. We aren’t the first to call attention to these issues, but we are in a unique position to use our experience and perspective on educating students to raise a voice of sanity in a country that has lost its EduSanity.

Our mission is to ask questions of current practice and policy and to provide a venue to discuss controversial issues.  We believe that our children are not numbers and that their (and thus our country’s) future should never be for sale, yet we fear that the sign has already been posted in the proverbial front yard of our schools.  We endeavor to support those who have not been buried by the educational antagonism tidal wave of the last decade and to use our voice in opposition of those who we believe have lost their EduSanity, whether they are well-meaning or not.

We welcome your ideas, comments and your criticisms.  It is past time to look critically at the current wave of short-sighted reform by telling the counter-stories and addressing the issues currently underrepresented.

If you want to follow us on Twitter or find our page on Facebook by using the links on the top of the page we will let you know when we’ve tried to restore EduSanity to another issue.

 

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suggested citation:
Endacott, J., & Goering, C.Z. (2012, August 30). Restoring edusanity. EduSanity. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/08/30/restoring-edusanity/