CIED 694V: Progressive Education Policy – Day One

Eight students joined us for the first night of CIED 694V: Progressive Education Policy. One of us–Chris tonight–is going to try to capture a sense of the class for anyone interested and reading along out there in EduSanity-land. The blog isn’t necessarily the class and vice versa but does provide another opportunity to collaborate on ideas related to education. If you are interested in reading the things we read and participating in any way you can imagine, contact one of us and let us know and we’ll make that happen for you.

The class, like so many great ideas, was born on a bar napkin in the spring of 2013 when Jason and I discussed the idea of constructing a class to help teachers recognize their own voices and power through the readings and discussion possible in such an environment. While having these sorts of conversations in academic setting is important, we decided from day one that in order for anything to help the current educational situation–one many of us can agree is untenable–we wanted the students to move their ideas, readings, and inquiry outside of the academic arena and to engage the community as part of the class. To this effort, a teacher formed a book club with other teachers in her school to discuss a book detailing the privatization of education. Another teacher, this one also a full-time graduate student–put together a public screening of Listen: The Film that featured student filmmaker, Ankur Singh.  The name of the first iteration of the course was Reclaiming the Conversation on Education.

The 2015 class starts at 6 on Wednesday nights and this week’s class began in a typical fashion–we spent the first 15 minutes of class getting a sense of who was in the class and why they specifically elected to enroll. The students in the course represent a broad range of experiences and backgrounds, an attribute we think will be important to how the class develops over the course of the semester. Ranging from a retired history teacher to a student finishing his teaching license and from special education to ESL, the conversations promise to be lively.

Starting out our past iteration of the class focusing on all of the various education reforms currently facing teachers and proponents of public education, we decided to instead spend the first night of class taking stock of what we individually believe about education. A go to text to inspire such a conversation is John Dewey’s “A Pedagogic Creed” from 1897 and that became our official first reading for the course.  I’ve cherry picked a couple of quotations from Dewey that captured at least some of the essence of our reading and discussion.

I believe that these interests are neither to be humored nor repressed. To repress interest is to substitute the adult for the child, and so to weaken intellectual curiosity and alertness, to suppress initiative, and to deaden interest. To humor the interests is to substitute the transient for the permanent. The interest is always the sign of some power below; the important thing is to discover this power. To humor the interest is to fail to penetrate below the surface and its sure result is to substitute caprice and whim for genuine interest (www.dewey.

Some larger thematic ideas and questions that came out of the reading: Dewey is timeless and connects to what good teaching is now and will always be but we wondered how many people know Dewey today? What purpose would it serve to erode the foundations of education in the learning and teaching of how to teach? Where do we see John Dewey in schools today? Do alternatively trained teachers read and study Dewey? Progressive educators are not necessarily progressives, politically speaking and finally, education must start with the child and children have power.

Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative. (www.dewey.

I believe that all reforms which rest simply upon the enactment of law, or the threatening of certain penalties, or upon changes in mechanical or outward arrangements, are transitory and futile.

People used to say, “I’m a progressive educator or that I use progressive methods,” but Dewey said that there’s no such thing as being “progressive,” but rather a progressive educator is one who must be willing to change and through those changes, always make society better and more democratic.

Following our Deweyian beginnings, the next part of class was spent moving towards each person in class–professors included–staking a claim about what they believe in education, or to take another view, what they would not do. To this end, we read the Hippocratic Oath from the medical field which was followed by a spirited discussion. Next up was Gus Morales’ video about his Educratic Oath and his perception that the entire education profession needs to draw a line in the sand about what we will and won’t due. I highly recommended watching the video if you haven’t seen it. Gus’ words and passion engendered a conversation around the idea of “Why don’t we have an oath or ceremony when teachers begin in the profession?”

Writing down these ideas that were swirling in our heads was the next goal. We made a list of the things we believed or the things we would not do and then spent time working on a draft of these ideas. I said my list would probably get me in trouble and it might. For next week’s class, each student will return with a rough draft of their oath, creed, or general thinking.

To close the blog post, what’s your line in the sand OR what do you most firmly believe about education?


Course readings for next class:

Karp, S. (2012, spring). Challenging corporate ed reform: And 10 hopeful signs of resistance. Rethinking Schools, p. 34-39.

Tienken, C. H. & Olrich, D. C. (2013). The school reform landscape: Fraud, myth, and lies. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. (Introduction and Chapter One)

“An ethic for teachers of conscience in public education.” 

Recommendations for further reading:

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education.

Published: Teachers Views of the Common Core State Standards and its Implementation

So, what do teachers think about Common Core, its implementation, and the working conditions in which they exist? If you’d like to learn more about a new Educational Review article that Jason and I contributed to, follow this link which will take you to a place you can download the article (first 50 are free, contact me for further access).

Let’s start with the abstract.

Common Core State Standards are embroiled in controversy and politics. The need to continue to study the many facets of educational changes remains critical, especially from the perspective of the teachers experiencing such changes firsthand. Existing surveys of teacher perceptions regarding the Common Core State Standards have focused primarily on teacher awareness, preparedness and opinions regarding the quality of the Common Core State Standards and curricular alignment. This survey study addressed teachers’ views and support towards the Common Core State Standards and its implementation, their anticipated effects, and how its operation has affected their teaching, their anticipated effects, and their thoughts to leave the profession prematurely. Comparisons were made between tea- cher groups based on grade-level taught and years of experience. Overall, teachers had a positive attitude towards the Common Core State Standards and its imple- mentation. Attitudes tended to be more negative as grade-level taught increased and were significantly less favorable for those with thoughts of leaving the profession early; responses varied among teachers with differing lengths of experience.

CCSS PictureHere’s a bit of context. We took up this study in late 2012 as we were hearing several reports of mis-implementation  of CCSS, feedback arriving through email, social media, and through our student interns at the university. Whether or not those things were real outside our little ivory tower bubble was worth examining.

On a sad note, following data collection on the state and national surveys, we lost my dear friend George Denny who, besides being one of the world’s nicest and smartest guys, was a heckuva statistician and a very average racquetball player, a fact that had kept us ‘in court’ most of the then previous five years.

One of George’s students came on board to help with statistical analysis and eventually took on the lead author role for this article. Dr. Ki Matlock is an outstanding person and researcher, just beginning her second year as an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University. Dr. Vicki Collet, Jennifer Jennings-Davis, and Ginney Wright also contributed to this piece and the research project, the first of what we hope will be several articles to come out of the study.

In a nutshell, teachers in Arkansas liked and supported CCSS and CCSS implementation in 2013 when we collected these data. Since that time, I argue the standards have become increasingly political and controversial nationally. Whether those or other forces are factoring in is debatable but the preliminary analysis of our 2015 data collection (same survey, 25 months later) show major changes not for the better.

A closing statement:

If it is true that the working conditions for teachers are the learning conditions of students, paying close attention to the nature of teachers’ perceptions in the midst of broad sweeping educational change is warranted by previous research (Ma and Macmillan 1999).

And here’s a section of the introduction that points to a large part of the CCSS that critics agree is a central problem:

While creating a set of educational standards in this way is not, in and of itself, controversial, the inclusion of the CCSS in Federal legislation vis-à-vis the Race to the Top program predicated at least some of the backlash. Instead of standards existing independently as they were originally intended, they became intertwined with the United States Department of Education and more broadly, with President Barack Obama. Thus, political actors opposing the President or the Democratic Party had ample ammunition to level a charge of coercion against this move. In order for states to compete for billions of dollars set aside in the Federal Race to the Top program, they had to sign on to national standards. The pushback against the CCSS, interestingly enough, is not only a Republican versus Democrat issue, with candidates across the spectrum denouncing [and supporting] the standards and how they were brought forth.

I continue to meet people on all sides of this fence–those who adamantly support and defend CCSS, those who want them gone no matter what, and those who remain undecided. The nature of conducting educational research often means that data are collected, analyzed, and published after the court of public opinion has leveled charges and either sent the defendants packing to prison or set them free. In this case, overall positive reviews of the CCSS in 2013 may mark an important understanding when the history of this particular educational reform is retold.

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests

I get a lot of questions about education from friends, family, friends of family, family of friends and random people on the interwebs.  One of the most difficult questions I get is “Why did you choose to opt your kids out of standardized tests?”.  This question isn’t difficult because I don’t know the answer.  It’s difficult because they are 1425915980_featured.jpeglooking for the short version of a very complex decision.  Last year I wrote about our decision to opt out of the state test in Arkansas.  This year is a bit different.  Partly because our reasons have evolved and partly because standardized testing will take an entire MONTH in 2015.  So I decided that I would tackle one reason per day during the month-long testing window of March 9 – April 10.  Including spring break, that’s 20 school days of testing.  I’ll post each reason separately and use this post as the master list.  So here you have it, the Endacott Family Top 20 Reasons we are opting out of PARCC in 2015:

Reason 1:  We trust teachers

Standardized tests have become the most important measure of educational quality in recent years.  As some of my later posts will explain, this is ridiculous.  You might have heard of Value Added Measurement (VAM), which is how test scores are used to determine teacher quality.  VAM requires a complicated statistical model that can be horribly erroneous when calculated by those without the right expertise.  Not only is VAM ripe for error, but the American Statistical Association has highlighted research that shows teachers account for only 1%-14% of the variance in student test scores. Very recent research has also demonstrated that there is no association between VAM test score data and other composite measures of effective teaching.  In other words VAM is a problematic way to measure teacher quality that is also inconsistent with what we already know about good teaching.  Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

According to the most recent Phi Delta Kappa survey on public education, 72% of Americans have trust and confidence in their kids’ teachers.  You can count us among their numbers.  Nobody knows what our children are capable of more than the teachers that see them every day.  58% of Americans also oppose the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers.  We are definitely among them as well, and as long as test scores are being used in this fashion, I hope they join us in opting out.

Reason 2: False Premises

If you listen to politicians and pundits (bad idea) then you’d think that poor standardized test scores are a danger to our national security and that boosting test scores can be the cure for everything from pervasive poverty to sustainable economic growth.  You’ll even hear claims that closing the achievement gap will add trillions of dollars to our GDP.  While the U.S. census has shown that each additional year of schooling will lead to greater overall career earnings, there is no evidence that higher test scores will have that same relationship.  Economists make predictions with lots of assumptions, but there is one serious flaw to the argument that higher test scores equal greater economic success.

That flaw is that test scores are a symptom of poverty and economic success, not a cause.  There is a clear and undeniable link between socioeconomic status and test scores, but it is socioeconomic status that affects test scores, not the other way around.  Simply put, raising test scores will not reduce poverty – reducing poverty will raise test scores.  We opt our children out of the test because we refuse to help perpetuate the shortsighted focus on symptoms rather than causes.

If you want to know more about the problems that poverty causes that test scores won’t fix, we recommend this book.

Reason 3:  Narrowing Curriculum

There can be no question that the curriculum in our public schools has narrowed considerably since NCLB in the early 2000’s.  Subjects such as social studies, the arts, even science were relegated to secondhand status in order to focus on standardized tests.  Now we have the Common Core State Standards for English / Language Arts and Math along with a new set of tests (PARCC and Smarter Balance).

The introduction of CCSS has further kicked the “other” subjects in school to the curb because the stakes for PARCC and Smarter Balance are higher than ever.  In reaction, schools made the rational decision to allocate resources, time and attention to preparing for the test.  By placing 100% of our attention on student “achievement” on these two tests, we have essentially told our students that nothing else matters.  And our students are listening.

Reason 4: Harming Children

Over the past few years schools have made great sacrifices in order to raise standardized test scores.  Examples include doing away with nap time in kindergarten, giving students less recess and physical education, cutting school nurses, firing school librarians, and discontinuing musical programs.

These sacrifices are being made despite the enormous body of research that says they benefit children. 5 year-olds need nap time.  Sick kids need medical attention.  All kids need physical activity.  Libraries without librarians are just big rooms full of books, and in some schools they are even getting rid of the books.   Then we have examples of how testing is used as a form of public humiliation in the form of data walls.

This is just a sampling of how we hurt our children by devoting our time, resources, and attention to testing instead of their well-being.  The worst part is that our neediest students are the children that need these things the most, yet they are the first ones to lose them as underfunded schools cut and test, cut and test.  At least there’s a significant body of research showing that testing benefits children far more than the things we are sacrificing for higher scores… Oh wait, no there isn’t.

Reason 5: Ridiculous Preparation

The preparation for all standardized testing is a little ridiculous when you think about it.  Where else in life does your ability to perform well on a test make a difference?  Sure there are qualifying exams for many professions, but once in a profession, one’s ability to perform well on a test really doesn’t mean squat.  Yet we’ve placed great emphasis on this ability in schools.

Preparation for the new PARCC test is a special kind of ridiculous.  We don’t have a great deal of data on the preparation so far (though we will be collecting this soon), but many teachers have sent us anectdotal examples of how test preparation has taken wasting time to a whole new level.  One teacher recently sent me this message:

“I have spent two weeks preparing kids for this test – practice tests, analyzing questions, breaking down the question asked, how to not lose points, etc. I feel like a hack, this is not what I got into education for.”

Plus, the PARCC is based on the computer, which means that schools
have supplemented these many hours of traditional test preparation with many additional hours of literally just showing students how to navigate the test online.  As if that wasn’t enough wasted instructional time, concerns about bandwidth issues have led schools to using students as “bandwidth testers”, pulling them out of classes in order to put them online at the same time just to see if the network will crash.  One teacher told me that it “took 3 hours just to Windows_9X_BSODtake one practice test because  students were kicked offline, videos wouldn’t play, and the network would time out.”  It would be easy to blame the schools for these decisions, but do they really have a choice?  Everything depends on this.

Remember when test preparation involved somebody winking and saying, “when in doubt, just choose “C” for the answer”?  Those were the days.

Reason 6: Losing Perspective

In addition to the aforementioned issues to narrowed curriculum and harming children, our obsession with test scores and the data they harvest has made some people flat out lose perspective on what’s important in education.  Take for example the numerous threats that parents receive when they opt their children out of standardized tests.  As a member of several Opt Out groups I am witness to the trials parents face in order to stand up for their children.  I’ve seen accounts of parents around the country being told that their children would not be eligible for Advanced Placement classes, graduation, or extra curricular activities.  Worse, some parents have been threatened with retention or forced remediation.

What do threats like these say about what we really care about in education?  Do we care about kids or the data they churn out?  Certainly data is important to good teaching, but the data provided by high stakes standardized testing is far less valuable than the data generated everyday by a child’s activity in the classroom.  Makes you wonder why it is really needed.

Reason 7:  Losing Even More Perspective

I originally planned to get into some of the reasons we’ve become so addicted to test score data today.  However, it was brought to my attention that I forgot one way in which we are losing perspective in yesterday’s post.

We have a lot of readers who are teachers from around the country.  One of them emailed me through the site with this example of how perspective has been lost in their school.  I share this with you anonymously because teachers are in danger of losing their jobs if they are critical of how far we’ve gone in search of higher test scores.

“Today our jobs were threatened if our students aren’t proficient on the exam.  The principal actually printed out the rules and highlighted sections of it. At this point I’m not sure what to do. Is this happening at other schools? Is this just part of it?  Instead of support from our department heads we get threats. I never imagined it would be like this… What will they do if our students aren’t proficient? They have resorted to fear tactics the day before the test… I’m pretty disgusted. I know my students in particular will not be proficient. Most of them haven’t been in the country for more than six years. Attendance rates are dismal. I can’t imagine how I could be held accountable for their scores.”

Targeting Teachers Won't Work
Targeting Teachers Won’t Work

I normally don’t like to use anectdotal examples like this one to make an argument, but I can tell you that this isn’t the first I’ve heard.  You might not have heard anything about this yourself, but that isn’t surprising.  Teachers who speak out are in danger of losing their jobs.

I find it curious that some people believe that threatening teachers will actually improve test scores since it definitely doesn’t work for students.   More lost perspective I suppose.

Reason 8:  Oversimplification for the Purposes of Manipulation

A friend of mine recently argued that she valued standardized test score data because it showed her how her children were doing in school.  However, if you accept my premise that we should trust teachers then high stakes standardized test scores aren’t really that valuable.  Teachers have access to a number of ways to judge a student’s progress on a set of educational standards.  They are (mostly) trained to evaluate student achievement and they have a number of other assessments at their disposal.  My children take formative assessments on the computer approximately once a quarter that provide their teachers with usable and immediate feedback on their progress.  We do not oppose these tests because they help our sons’ teachers adjust instruction to their needs and because they don’t have high stakes or penalties attached to them.   In contrast, high stakes test scores are not made available to teachers or parents until well after they have been taken.  Too late for teachers and a snapshot of the past for parents.

What my friend was really saying, whether she recognized it or not, was that she wanted to know how her children performed compared to other children.  That’s what is really behind our desire for test score data in this country.  We look at percentile rank to see just how many kids are behind ours.  We are concerned if it’s not enough and relieved if it is.  We want to compare states with other states and America against the world.  I’m not slighting my friend here, it’s ingrained in our American souls.

And the test score is perfect this purpose.  It is a promise of our child’s capability all wrapped up in a neat package that is fairly easy to understand.  Deep down we understand that it really is only a snapshot of performance on a relatively limited assessment based on a subset of educational standards that was given in an unnatural environment on that given day.  But it is a number!  We love numbers.  Credit score of 750?  Here’s some money at a great interest rate!  Batting average of .400?  All time great.  2% on Rotten Tomatoes? Your movie sucks.  Numbers are the guarantee on the side of the box.

Test scores are the strings of the marionette, but who is moving them?
Test scores are the strings of the marionette, but who is moving them?

But at the same time that we look to numbers for approval and reassurance, others are using those same numbers to manipulate you.  This is possible because numbers are often an oversimplification of something more complicated – something much harder to understand.  As such, they can be twisted and spun to suit a purpose or agenda.  Test scores are also perfect for this purpose.  Over the next few days I’ll explain how.

Reason 9:  An Invented Crisis

You’ve probably heard that standardized test scores in the United States are experiencing a dismal trend of decline.  Our children are not improving and our schools are to blame.   In fact, a colleague and I recently surveyed 1,047 Americans and asked them if they thought test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) had increased, decreased or stayed relatively the same over the past 40 years.  The NAEP is the only “national” standardized test administered in the United States.  90% of our respondents told us that they believed test scores had either decreased or not improved at all since the 1970’s.  This study is still in progress, but we have come to a pretty important conclusion:

Only 10% of Americans know the truth about NAEP test scores over the past 40 years.

Let me lay it out for you.

The following are some examples
taken from Diane Ravitch’s 2013 book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to American Public Schools (p. 49-50).

  • Reading scores in fourth and eighth grade have
    improved significantly since 1992 for almost every group of students
  • The proportion of 4th and 8th
    grade students who were “proficient” in Reading increased from 1992 to 2011
  • The proportion of 4th and 8th
    grade students who were “below basic” in Reading declined from 1992 to 2011
  • Mathematics scores improved even more than reading
  • The proportion of 4th and 8th
    grade students who were proficient in Mathematics increased from 1992 to 2011
  • The proportion of 4th and 8th
    grade students who were “below basic” in Mathematics declined from 1992 to 2011

For those of you who prefer charts, here’s one that shows how much NAEP scores increased from 1973-2008.

Increase in Long Term NAEP Scores from 1973 to 2008

The raw numbers are going up, but even more impressive is the percentage of students that have moved out of the lowest level of performance known as “Basic” and the percentage of students who have moved into at least the “Proficient” level over that same time period.

Change in percentage of students scoring at the “Basic” level and “Proficient or better from 1992 to 2011

It is clear that American students’ performance on the NAEP has improved over the last 40 years or so. Yet, politicians and the media continue to perpetuate the myth that our schools are failing to raise test scores. Why is this even possible? Manipulation of numbers makes is possible and quite profitable.

Reason 10:  Perpetuating the Myth of American Failure

My last post discussed the fact that American students have been improving on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam over the past 40 years despite the common belief perpetuated by the media, politicians, and education reformers that they have not.  Today I discuss how this manipulation of understanding possible and it involves a little-known but easy to understand statistical phenomenon known as “Simpson’s Paradox”.

To put it somewhat simply, Simpson’s paradox is what occurs when the “observed variable” (in this case it’s test scores) is affected by “lurking variables” (in this case it’s race and class) so that the observed variable doesn’t tell the whole story.  That’s an important point to remember.  Observed variables (overall test scores) don’t tell the whole story.

Let’s look at the 4th Grade NAEP Reading scores as an example.
4th Reading
The overall scores on this test have improved 11 points since 1975.  That doesn’t seem like a lot, but that belies the progress our schools have made with African American and Hispanic students since that time.   As you can see in the graph, both African American and Hispanic students have improved 25 points over that same time period.  So why haven’t overall scores improved more than they have?  It’s because the demographics of American schools are changing and the percentage of non-white test takers is much higher than it was in the past.  Here’s a look at how much the demographics have changed since 1990.

race 1990 race 2013






So the lurking variable of our changing demographics is affecting the overall average score.  The percentage of white test takers has decreased by 22% in 23 years, while the percentage of African American and Hispanic test takers has increased by 3% and 19% respectively.  All of these groups of students are improving, especially the African American and Hispanic students. But the overall numbers appear somewhat flat because we have more students who are non-white than ever before.  They are becoming a larger part of the pool of test takers so they are making up a larger proportion of the overall score.  To be clear, these students are not “dragging our average down”.  It’s simply an unfortunate fact that students who are not white have scored lower than white students over time.  The good news is that our white and non-white students are improving even if the overall average obscures that progress by washing out the details.  We still have a great deal of work to do though.

I’m willing to bet that 9 out of 10 readers of this post did not know this (based on our research), and that’s why it is possible for politicians, pundits and education reformers to manipulate you with oversimplified numbers.

Reason 11:  Perpetuating the Myth of Teacher Failure Part 1: The Achievement Gap

My last post debunked the myth of American failure on standardized tests over the past forty years by showing how scores on the NAEP have been improving though there are still disparities between white and non-white students.  Today I begin to describe how standardized test scores have been used to perpetuate the Myth of American Teacher Failure (MATF) by taking a closer look at that achievement gap between white and non-white students over the past few decades.

I must begin by clearly stating that I am not arguing that American schools are perfect or beyond reproach.  The achievement gap that I described in my previous post does exist and equity between white and non-white students needs to be a continued focus.  That said, American schools have made significant gains in closing the achievement gap over the past few decades, though you’d never know it if you listened to corporate reformers, the media, or politicians – essentially those who have something to gain from the MATF.

If you take a look at scores on the NAEP over the past four decades you’ll see that they are undoubtedly trending upward.  What you will also notice is that the scores of non-white students are trending even more steeply upward.

4th Grade Math

8th Grade Math

4th Grade Reading
4th Reading

8th Grade Reading
8th Reading

This chart makes the “achievement gap” a little easier to wrap your head around:

Long-term decrease in NAEP Score Gap 1973-2011
Long-term decrease in NAEP Score Gap 1973-2011

This chart tells us that the gap between white and Black students has decreased between 7 and 18 points and the the gap between white and Hispanic students has decreased between 3 and 24 points depending on subject and grade level. The largest improvement has happened at the grade 8 level in reading and the grade 4 level in mathematics, and the data from the last two decades is even better.

NAEP achievement gap changes since 1990
NAEP achievement gap changes since 1990

Since 1990 the achievement gap has decreased the most between white and black students in reading and mathematics at the 4th grade level and between white and Hispanic students at the 8th grade level for reading. There are double-digit decreases in the achievement gap across subjects and grade levels, with reading at the 12th grade level as the only area in which the gap has grown since 1992.

So, why is all of this a reason to opt out of standardized tests? Because test scores continue to have limited value to teachers and parents, but almost limitless value to those who use them to perpetuate the MATF. And in the case of the achievement gap between white and non-white students it is working. How do I know? Well, when we surveyed 1,047 Americans and asked them if they thought this achievement gap had increased, decreased or stayed the same over the past 40 years, only 29% got it right. Some might argue that the answer to this problem is to educate those who are mistaken. However, when we put education up against the resources, power and influence of those who profit from the MATF, education doesn’t stand a chance. So I may not be able to stop the MATF, but I sure won’t allow my children to take the tests that help contribute to it.

Reason 12: Ignoring Poverty

Today I want to address how standardized tests are used to distract you from the #1 problem facing our nation’s public schools – childhood poverty.   The simple fact is that children who live in poverty do not fare as well in school as children who do not.  This problem is worrisome enough, especially considering that those in charge of our nation’s schools refuse to accept that low test scores are a symptom of poverty and not a cause.

My argument for opting out today is a bit easier to understand after you read my last couple of posts about how test scores have improved over the past forty years despite all the complaining you hear to the contrary, and how the achievement gap between white and non-white students has narrowed though you won’t hear much about these successes in the media or from education reformers.  The bottom line is that scores on the NAEP are going up and non-white students are catching up to white students.  But there’s one group of students that are not catching up – those who live in poverty.  The “achievement gap” between students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (free or reduced lunch) has remained stubbornly stagnant over the last couple of decades.  Here’s a graph:
For 8th grade students, the “achievement gap” between NSLP and non-NSLP students has stayed exactly the same in Math and Reading since 1996, while 4th grade students who live in poverty have managed to only gain 2 points on their more fortunate peers in that same time span.

At this point you might be thinking “Well, it’s pretty clear that our public school teachers are failing students who live in poverty”.   And why wouldn’t you?  That’s what you’ve been told for years.  Well guess what?  You would be WRONG.  You know I’m not a big fan of using test scores as a measure of “success” but even by this limited measure, we can see that students who are eligible for NSLP are improving on the NAEP at almost the exact same rate as students who do not live in poverty.  Chart!

Improvement in NAEP test scores for NSLP and Non-NSLP students since 1996

And just in case you’re a more “visual” learner, here’s a graph of the 4th grade Math scores, the other tests look pretty much the same.
Those lines are seriously similar.  So what have we learned?  If you come to the same conclusion that I come to after looking at these charts and graphs (as well as a mountain of research) then you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute.  There must be something else going on.  NAEP test scores are going up for all groups of students, the achievement gap is closing between white and non-white students, but the gap between students who live in poverty and those who don’t is almost exactly the same as it was 20 years ago.”

If that’s what you were thinking then you’re definitely on the right track, and you’re on the cusp of the answer.  Just in case you need me to push you over the top, then here’s your nudge:  POVERTY IS A CAUSE, NOT A SYMPTOM OF LOWER TEST SCORES.  Teachers cannot change the circumstances of their students, as much as we desperately wish we could.  Those students who live in poverty are at a disadvantage – one that cannot be solved by teachers alone.

But that’s not all.  If you look at the change in socioeconomic status of our students over the past twenty years you’ll see that the percentage of students who live in poverty is steadily on the rise.
chart 3
That’s right, the majority of our students are now eligible for free and reduced lunch.  If you remember my discussion of Simpson’s paradox then you know that American students’ scores look flat because a higher proportion of them are now living in poverty.  This makes for a perfect distraction.  Convince the American public that scores are lower because teachers are failing while conveniently blocking their view of the real problems in our society.

And that’s why we consider this a reason to opt our children out of standardized tests.  Until we address childhood poverty as a society, these inequities will continue to be exacerbated.  And as long as test scores are being manipulated to distract the American people from looking at the root causes of inequity in our schools by casting blame on our public school teachers, then our children will not be a part of it.  It’s  a travesty, morally repugnant, and we will not stand for it.

Reason 13: Ulterior Motives

If you’ve been reading my master list manifesto of reasons to opt out of standardized testing then you know that I’ve used the last few posts to show you how standardized tests are used to manipulate the American public into believing that public education and public school teachers are failing in the United States.  Test scores are the weapon of choice for those with ulterior motives because they are relatively easy to manipulate for a variety of purposes.

The “crisis” that public education faces is not a lack of performance by schools or teachers (though there are many of both in need of improvement), but rather a larger, and all-encompassing intrusion into the space of public education by those who have something to gain.  I consider these interlopers with ulterior motives to be very similar to the mortgage brokers we saw spring up in every strip mall in American circa 2005.  Here today, profit today, gone tomorrow when the effects of their actions are felt by the public school students and teachers who are left behind to pick up the pieces

In my estimation, those “education reformers” with ulterior motives fall into three categories, which I rank from worst to just “less bad”.

  1. Those who seek to profit from corporate education reform
  2. Those who seek to gain politically from the education “crisis”
  3. Those who seek to push their philosophical beliefs (choice, competition, free-markets…etc.) despite evidence that they are harmful to children

Over the next few days I’ll unpack how these ulterior motives are harming public education in general and students specifically.


It is important to note that not all people who consider themselves to be “education reformers” have an ulterior motive.  There are many well-meaning people who are trying to reform public education.  I don’t believe these people are “bad”, I just believe they are wrong.  Many of these well-meaning folks are actually employees of public school systems, and not coincidentally, many of their paid positions were made possible by manipulations I have previously described.

Reason #15:  Corrupting Public Education

In 1976 Social Psychologist Donald Campbell wrote a paper that introduced the world to Campbell’s Law.

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Campbell’s law is pretty simple.  The more we rely on one social indicator to make our decisions regarding policy, the more that one social indicator is apt to corruption_347102_7be distorted and corrupted.   In the case of standardized tests, that social indicator is the “test score” and the social process is “education”.  And now that we’ve placed a ridiculous level of emphasis on this social indicator, it is no surprise that we also see a number of different issues with corruption.

Take for example the scandals that happened in, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and the one that should have happened in Washington D.C. but didn’t because Michelle Rhee has some kind of kung fu mojo with a lot of money behind her.   In some of these cases, the cheating was committed by teachers or administrators hoping to save their jobs or get past the testing regime so that they could focus on what is actually good for students.

As an educator I can’t condone cheating of this nature, but I understand how it can be rationalized.  If teachers view standardized tests as an unreliable measure of their effectiveness (they are) and view the hoopla surrounding standardized tests as bad for children (it is), then cheating in order to protect one’s livelihood from wrongful termination or cheating so that one can actually provide students with what they really need almost makes sense.  Of course, I’m sure many of these teachers are just dishonest.  In the case of Washington D.C., Michelle Rhee offered bonuses to teachers if their students scored higher on tests.  There’s no better motive for corruption than the almighty dollar.

This leads us to another form of corruption in public education – the corruption that inevitably occurs when “public” is taken “private”.  The best example (because it really is only the first to clearly emerge but there will certainly be more) is the privatization of charter schools.  My friend and colleague Chris Goering has written about charter schools on EduSanity before.  The original intent of the charter school has been perverted since it’s inception to fit the agenda of education reformers.  Once laboratories of experimentation, many charter schools are now factories for test scores, and in this sense test scores are very much like profits earned by a business.  They are the only thing that matters.

And a seriously disturbing number of charter schools have had problems with corruption.  A Google search for “charter school corruption” returns 3,790 results.    Many of these charter schools are part of privately owned networks.  These companies open charter schools, receive taxpayer monies to educate students, and in some cases they steal that money.  Take for example Illinois where a recent report found that:

To date, $13.1 million in fraud by charter school officials has been uncovered in Illinois. Because of the lack of transparency and necessary oversight, total fraud is estimated at $27.7 million in 2014 alone.

It’s not just Illinois.  There are other examples in Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana… and you get the point.  Even the FBI has gotten involved with raids on a charter network to look for evidence of corruption.  Heck, there’s even a blog dedicated to just compiling these scandals in one place! How is this all possible?  Test scores.  Charters continue to expand because politicians and the American public generally believe that they are better than public schools at raising student achievement – even though they’re not.  And private charter schools are all the rage because we love deregulation and the free market!  Well guess what comes riding in on the coattails of deregulation and privatization?  Corruption.  You asked for it.  You got it.

Reason 16:  Political Profiteering

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a perfect example of political profiteering off public education.  It combines a perfect title (who wants to leave children behind?) with an impossible task (all children proficient by 2014 regardless of circumstance) and a clear target when the impossible is not achieved (public schools and teachers).

Public schools have been the target of politicians since the launching of Sputnik in 1958.  The Russians beat us to space with a satellite that did nothing of significance beyond beeping and scaring the crap out of the American public.  The logical conclusion was that American schools must not be training our future scientists and engineers right.  That message hasn’t changed much and is still perpetuated today with a fake “STEM crisis” created by those who seek to profit from the overproduction of STEM graduates.

In 1983, the politicians benefitted further when A Nation at Risk was published and our public schools were again blamed for America’s inability to produce cars or televisions as well as the Germans or Japanese.  Our country was once again in crisis as America’s public teachers endangered our future economic success. Ronald Reagan held up a copy of A Nation at Risk in front of the press corps and raised the alarm.  In the decades since it’s publication A Nation at Risk has since been thoroughly debunked by real education scholars, but nobody has paid as much attention as the day when The Gipper lambasted public education’s “low standards, lack of purpose, ineffective use of resources, and a failure to challenge students to push performance to the limits of individual ability”.

Today we hear the echoes of these cries from those who ridiculously claim that public education is endangering our national security.  President Obama has doubled down on the imminent failure of NCLB by putting $5 billion into the flop known as Race to the Top (RTTT). Regardless of how badly Secretary of Arne Duncan failed with his expenditure of American taxpayer funds, the media and public still get in a tizzy when he makes claims of educational stagnation and complacency despite never actually being an educator.

One of the safest bets a politician can make is to stand up in front of a crowd and promise to do something about America’s failing schools.  What’s remarkable is that this bet is so safe despite the fallacy it’s central claim is based on.  Regardless, America’s public school teachers have long been an easy target of politicians who don’t understand what we do or how we do it, but control the purse strings and the narrative anyway.

It’s important to point out that the only people who are around to deal with the aftermath of failures like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top are the public schools and public school educators.  NCLB was conveniently designed to reach 100% proficiency in 2014, a full 6 years after President Bush would be out of office.  Ostensibly that would have left the mess for the next President to clean up.  However, instead of admitting failed policy, President Obama did what politicians do best, used the states’ inevitable failure to meet NCLB thresholds as leverage to force them into adopting the CCSS and compMTI4OTk3NzIyMTkwNjgxMzYyete for RTTT funds.  Obama’s reign over public education will end next year and I cringe to see what the next President comes up with.  We’ve replaced bad with worse, and somehow the schools are still on the short end of the blame-stick.  Frank Underwood would be proud.

Reason 17: Competitive Disadvantage

The most recent generation of education reform is full of those who believe that imposing certain philosophical beliefs on public education is the key to “saving” our schools.  Primarily, we see attempts to impose “competition” or “free market ideals” with standardized test scores serving as the “accountability” needed to maintain competitive balance.

I can see why people who know almost nothing about educating children would think that the same free market ideals that helped make the United States a world economic power would also help schools.  For some schools it has helped, though often to the detriment of other schools and students.

For instance, ever since the New Orleans public school system was converted into a system of charter schools after Hurricane Katrina, we have seen these schools become more segregated.  In fact, a report by the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School found that:

“The increasingly charterized public school system has seriously undermined equality of opportunity among public school students, sorting white students and a small minority of students of color into better performing OPSB and BESE schools, while confining the majority of low-income students of color to the lower-performing RSN sector.”

I think that in order to really understand why competition between schools is destined to fail from my perspective, you have to understand the similarities and differences between schools and businesses.  In the business world some businesses will succeed and others will fail.  This will happen for a number of reasons, whether because one business is more effective at another at marketing, has better management, produces a better product… etc.  In education, some will succeed and some will “fail”, though the difference between success and failure  is influenced significantly by the socioeconomic status of the students who attend their schools.

Schools that compete for students (charter schools) know this and so they go through great pains in order to make sure that they have the “best students” attending their school.  For example, consider the charter school “dirty dozen” – a series of underhanded tactics that many charter schools use to make sure that the students who will struggle to produce higher standardized test scores find their way to other schools.

In the school competition game, the most important factor involved in being successful is the “raw materials” – or in the world in which people matter – “students” who will produce the scores that can be held up to prove how great these schools really are.

Those who clamor for more competition in schools will tell us that those schools with better educational programs will win out in the end by attracting more of these students.  But anybody with any business sense knows that improving the product is really only one way to be successful in business.  Not surprisingly, research has shown  that charter schools have figured this out.  Instead of focusing resources and efforts primarily on im81tWqWEhYKL._SL1500_proving the educational product, schools in the most competitive districts instead put their time and money towards improving marketing, market research, differentiating themselves from other schools, and honing their selection (exclusion) process to make sure they get the best “raw materials” students.

Despite all the dogmatic rhetoric you hear about competition in schools, the bottom line is that the best way to improve the achievement at ANY school in the country is to find a way to get the “right” students to attend that school.  You certainly wouldn’t expect a business to focus all of their time and resources on improving their product when they can achieve much better results from running a few commercials and making sure they have the right clientele.  Why would we expect a school faced with competition from other schools to not make the same rational choice?

The reason I’m dogmatically opposed to competition in schools is because I know that not everybody is a winner in this scenario.   Supporters of competition will tell you that bad schools should fail just like bad businesses.  But it’s pretty clear that competitive schools see the quality of their students as the primary factor behind that success or failure, which means they are flirting with something very dangerous.  What happens to the students that nobody wants?  In this scenario, discrimination is not just rational, it’s good business sense, and it is happening.  The students who are “not right” for these schools have to go to school somewhere.  I think you can see the quandary here.   Diane Ravitch explained in her book The Death and Life of the American School System  that the system of Charter Schools in New York City eventually shunted these “unwanted” students into large left-over high schools that became pipelines to failure.

That’s because competition means winners and losers, and the most tragic result of this competition is that children have become the currency in which these “competitive” schools trade.  On the surface, the most “valuable” students are those who are capable of producing the high test scores by which schools are judged.  Below that surface however, are differences in the students, such as class, poverty, and family structure, that influence those test scorcompetitorses.  When a student’s value is determined by their ability to produce high test scores and that ability is impacted greatly by factors beyond their control, then academic discrimination between schools of “choice”, like social discrimination in general, is destined to become pervasive and systemic.  Sadly, discriminating against certain students is not just rational, but a competitive advantage.

At the root of all this is the undue emphasis we have placed on standardized tests, which has empowered this system of competitive jockeying.  That’s reason enough for us to opt our children out of it.

Reason 18: Federal Overreach

Honestly, this has always been one of my reasons for opposing standardized tests, and is one of the points of agreement with some of my more conservative colleagues.  I believe that initiatives like Race to the Top and the manner in which the Obama administration coerced states into adopting the Common Core State Standards are prime examples of the federal government exerting quasi-unconstitutional authority over states’ rights to educate their children as the people of that state see fit.

When you opt your children out of standardized tests, you’ll often receive push back from schools or districts in the form of “this is a state mandated test therefore your child must take it”.  The problem with this claim is that the test is really only “state mandated” because it is also federally mandated under NCLB.  In the days before NCLB the attention paid to students who did not take standardized tests paled in comparison to the scrutiny of today.

That’s because the pressure that we receive as parents for opting out of standardized tests comes directly from the White House.  Well, maybe not directly, but it might as well.  Schools are under pressure from their district offices to test every child, districts are under pressure from the state to test every child and states are under pressure from the federal government to test every child because NCLB mandates that at least 95% of children from each school are tested.

If states fail to meet expectations for NCLB then they have to go hat-in-hand to the Department of Education, specifically Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is a cabinet member in the office of the President.  So, I think you can see why I feel like the pressure I receive when opting out of standardized tests comes from the White House.

The President needs this leverage in order to convince states to adopt teacher evaluation systems based partially on standardized test scores and to create new regulations for teacher education programs that, you guessed it, use student test scores as a measure of success.  All of this despite the fact that research has found that student test scores are not in any way related to other measures of good teaching.

But we can’t really expect the federal government and a Secretary of Education that isn’t actually an educator to really understand something as complicated as “good teaching”.  Which is exactly why they should leave this determination to the people who know what they are talking about.


Reason 19:  The Status Quo

One popular refrain you hear from politicians and education reformers is that the “status quo” isn’t good enough.  In fact, I couldn’t agree more.

Education reformers would have you believe that they are bringing fresh ideas of choice, competition and accountability to the classroom, and that these ideas will “disrupt” the status quo.  The only problem is that these ideas have been firmly entrenched in American public education since A Nation at Risk in 1983, and have been ratcheted up in influence with NCLB and Race to the Top.

In other words, the “status quo” over the past 30 years has been firmly in control of the standards-and-accountability crowd, and over the past 15 years it has been headed up by the standardized testing cabal.

So if you’re really interested in breaking away from the status quo, then opting out of standardized tests the ultimate act of individualism in the modern regime of test-prep-test-repeat.


Reason 20:  Because We Can

In many ways we are the perfect and not-so-perfect parents to serve as a public symbol of the opt-out movement.

We are perfect because we know exactly why we are opting out and can explain it in 6000+ word manifestos that criticize the standardized testing racket with research-backed and experience-based critiques.  This is due largely to my experience as a middle school teacher in a public school, the Ph.D. I hold in Curriculum and Instruction, and the connections I have with teachers from around the country.  If there’s a story out there, I’ve probably heard it and I can relate it to research while throwing in a personal anecdote from my own experiences to make a point.  As a university professor part of my responsibility is to engage in public outreach, so I view my blogging as part of my job, though the “credit” I receive for it doesn’t quite match the effort I put in.  I am also currently aware of the legal precedents surrounding parents’ rights when it comes to educating their child though I’m hardly a legal expert.

On the other hand we are also not-so-perfect role models because our situation doesn’t really reflect the reality that most parents face when trying to decide whether or not to opt their children out of standardized tests.  I haven’t faced the same threats that other parents have faced when informing their child’s school of their intentions to opt out.  Whether that is because they don’t want to mess with a guy who can make a very public mess out of the situation or because our school district is particularly enlightened isn’t totally clear to me.  Then there’s the fact that I just keep our children home with me when they are opting out.  My job allows me the flexibility to work from lots of places (currently writing this at Panera) and home is one of them.  This makes it much easier to opt out because we don’t have to worry about sending our kids to school and putting the responsibility for opting out on them.  I’m constantly impressed by the stories I see of students who refuse the tests, often enduring the “sit and stare” treatment (i.e. they are required to sit and have nothing to do but stare at the wall during the test they are refusing).  Our children don’t have to face that.

All in all, opting out is relatively easy for us.  We are privileged in that regard and it is important for us to recognize that privilege.  But we also believe that it is important for us to use that privilege to do what is right.  It would be arguably more beneficial for us to have our children take the PARCC.  They would undoubtedly score well, which is reflective of their ability and the relatively privileged situation they live in.  They would almost certainly be among the “desired” students courted by schools of choice because their ability and socioeconomic status fit the profile.  That said, we sacrifice relatively little compared to other parents who wish to opt their children out of standardized tests but have a more difficult time asserting their parental rights.

Every parent should have the right to make the choice that has been relatively easy for us to make.  I’ve consulted with lots of parents and most choose not to opt their kids out of standardized tests though it’s usually because they are afraid of the consequences, not because they believe tests are good for their children.  I suppose that’s one of the aspects of standardized testing in the U.S. that concerns me the most.  There are few things that schools can impose upon parents and those that are imposed are designed for safety or protecting the learning environment.  Take immunizations for instance.  Schools require them because there’s a mountain of research that says they protect children, despite what former Playboy cover models will argue.  Still, you can opt your kids out of immunizations if you really want to with a religious exemption.  Yet, when it comes to standardized tests, states are adamant that there is NO exception for opting out.  This is concerning because unlike immunizations, the mountain of evidence about standardized testing doesn’t point to them being all that great for children.

When parents are compelled to subject their children to tests with a fervor unlike anything else in our schools, then one certainly has to wonder why.  Of course, if you’ve read the 20 days of opt-out posts I’ve laid out over the past month then I’m sure you’re not wondering at all.

Will the Left Wake Up to Charter Realities?

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

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

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

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

So how did we get here?

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

Choice photo

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

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

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

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

“The profit motive can’t be trusted.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this the country any of us want?

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

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

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

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

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

As Rotberg concludes:

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

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

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

Isn’t choice that leads to segregation unconscionable?


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


Awesome Teachers of Arkansas: Heather Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her 50 word philosophy of teaching:

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

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

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


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.

Is Teacher “Appreciation” Enough?

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week and the desks of teachers all across the country are being inundated with cards, treats, and nifty Pinterest inspired gifts.  As a former classroom teacher I remember how nice it was to get some homemade cookies, a coffee mug, or other sign of appreciation – especially in early May as the school year had almost taken me for everything I had.77fe9ba7943da3e93160eb3816590495

What do we mean by “appreciation” when we talk about our nation’s teachers?  How do we appreciate those who give so much of themselves while constantly hearing the fabricated refrain of public school failure? A batch of cookies or candy bouquet doesn’t seem like quite enough to show how much our teachers mean to us.

Don’t get me wrong, teachers love to be appreciated, and my experience tells me that they also love candy, coffee, Diet Coke, and pretty much anything else that comes from the hearts of their students.  I still have several gifts from my former middle school students and I remember who gave them to me.

But the word “appreciation” doesn’t quite seem enough for how we feel about our best teachers.  Appreciation is nice and everybody likes to be appreciated for what they do, but take a minute to think about how often you tell somebody you “appreciate” something.  If somebody holds the door when your hands are full you appreciate it.  When somebody picks up the tab at lunch you appreciate it.  Here in Arkansas people often say “I appreciate ya” instead of  “thank you” when you make a purchase.  My point is that “appreciation” is something we hand out relatively easily.

Scottye Allen – Teacher Extraordinaire

I’m not sure what we should substitute for “appreciation” but I’m going to use this platform to honor one of our teachers who goes above and beyond all expectations in order to give her students the education that every American kid deserves.  She also happens to be my son Jackson’s teacher.

Ms. Scottye Allen is a fourth grade teacher at Butterfield Trail Elementary School in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  She has taught for 35 years in classrooms ranging from 1st to 11th grade in Montana, Washington, Missouri, and Arkansas.  I sat in on her class yesterday, a period she characterized as “nothing special” but as somebody who knows a few things about “special” teaching, I found her disclaimer to be not entirely accurate.

A former high school basketball player, Ms. Allen towers over her students in stature, but couldn’t possibly be any closer to them in spirit.  She uses her experiences as an athlete to connect to many of her students, which on the surface might seem like a relatively easy connection for a teacher to make.  A lot of 10 year-old kids are just becoming serious about sports, but dig deeper and you find that sports are just one way that Scottye Allen makes those connections.  For example, a few years ago she had a student in her class who was deaf.  In order to make sure that he was able to participate on the same level as her other students, Ms. Allen learned sign language.  Not only did she learn sign language, but she also wore a microphone so that she could translate his signed thoughts, answers, and questions to the rest of the students.   It was important to her that this student felt as though he wasn’t talking just to her but to all of his classmates as well.

When you get to know Ms. Allen you find out more about how much she values this sort of participation and success for every student in her classes.   I was able to witness this first hand as she took the time outside of her district mandated lesson plan to display and celebrate her students’ work.   Students sat in rapt attention as she used the document camera to project their recently completed book reports on the screen.   Everybody wanted to put their work on display for all to see, and 100% participation is something that Ms. Allen carefully cultivates over the course of the school year.  She believes that the most powerful learning happens when kids are willing to take risks and she promotes risk taking in her classroom through a culture of trust and honesty.    Watch Ms. Allen in person and you’ll see her push students to reach beyond their comfort level while never wavering in her support for their efforts.   Imagine scaling a cliff that looks impossible to climb with the reassurance that one of those giant air bags stunt men use to cushion their occasional fall is waiting below just in case you need it.  Her students scale that cliff more often than not, but when they don’t she’s waiting there with a soft place to land.

Her students are willing and even eager to take on these challenges because her expectations for them are extremely high and she has convinced them it is important.  I’m not referring to the vague notion of “rigor” that you hear people who know little about good teaching constantly blabber about.  I’m talking about pride, hard work, and a sense for what is important in life.   When Ms. Allen starts a sentence with “If you’re living…” her students finish it with a chorus of “you’re learning!”  When exhorting them to put forth their best effort you’ll hear, “don’t ever put your name on something unless you’re proud of it,” and when she feels as though a student has met her expectations she’ll remind them that, “The only person who needs to push you now is yourself.”  Ask one of her students how they are doing and they’ll tell you that they are “well” instead of “good”, and they are all aware of the proper use of use “I” and “me” in conversation.  These aren’t just old school lessons on grammar, because Ms. Allen makes them fun.  When one student stood up and proclaimed that she was “done”, the other students responded with “please don’t die!” because she was not “done”, she was “finished”.

Of course, Ms. Allen also wants her students to do well on the standardized tests our leaders have come to care so much about. She consistently has over 90% of her students score as “proficient” on the annual test, thanks in large part to an 8 step test taking strategy she has developed to help her students be successful test takers.  She isn’t trying to game the system, though given the ridiculous lengths other schools have gone to in order to boost student achievement on tests it would hardly matter if she was.  Instead, she believes that teaching her students how to do well on tests is now a necessary skill in American education.   She also knows that despite her success in preparing students for high stakes testing, it’s what she does after her students are ready to take the test that has the most lasting effect on their lives.

Standing with me outside the computer lab while her students take a mandated test that helps determine if they are prepared for the other mandated tests, she explains that “the best learning happens outside the lesson plan” and that she plans to keep chasing that learning as long as she believes she is doing it well.   When I ask her how she knows if she is making a difference, she explains how it happens at different times throughout the year and not for all students at the same time.  One by one she will see a student do something they haven’t done before, but maintains the belief that it matters little how much we know students have learned if they don’t know it too.

I see the results of Scottye Allen’s hard work every time my son comes home from school.  Ironically, he won’t be among the 90% of her “proficient” students this year because we opted him out of the standardized test.   I wrote at the time about how we didn’t need that test to know how well he is doing because we trust his teacher.  Perhaps now you can see why we feel that way.

As Ms. Allen’s students filed out of the computer lab from taking the standardized test she passed out fist bumps, high fives, and hugs – each one  accompanied by a “Thank you for working hard.”  Then she shook my hand, thanked me for visiting, and followed them into the classroom to get back to work.

The No Number Parent-Teacher Conference Challenge

I met with my sons’ teachers yesterday for parent teacher conferences.  Both of their teachers are amazing in their own unique ways, but they share a common love for young people that long ago convinced me that my boys were in good hands.

I started with Cooper’s second grade teacher and after exchanging the usual pleasantries, we sat down at the little table where my adult knees didn’t quite fit and I told her I wanted to issue a friendly challenge.

“Let’s discuss Cooper’s progress in your class without using a single number that you did not generate.”

She was clearly surprised by my challenge but quickly recovered and we discussed Coop’s social developments, his leadership qualities and how much he likes to learn.   He especially loves to read.   She showed me sophotome of his writing and I found out that he loves his mommy, his family, and his teacher.  Actually, I just had my previous suspicions confirmed.  He’s been pretty clear about these matters in the past.

We eventually got to the point where I was discussing how we were trying to limit the amount of time our kids spend on their electronic devices.  Did she have any suggestions for how he could spend some time productively with academic enrichment?  She told me about a math enrichment program the district had purchased that could help students with things they specifically needed to improve.  Then her look of uncertainty returned as she pulled out a page of his test scores generated by a computer-based testing program and said,  “I didn’t generate this number but…”

We had failed our challenge but I was okay with that because I had actually achieved the challenge’s purpose.  To understand what I mean we have to go back in time a bit.

I’ve noticed a drastic change in parent teacher conferences over the past 15 years.  Back in the late 90’s when I first began teaching, parent conferences were often unstructured conversations in which we would talk about grades, homework completion, social development, and just “how they were doing”.  These conversations were helpful, but when parents asked me what their sons or daughters could do in order to improve in class, my responses were usually informed only by the data I had at hand, which consisted of my grade book and some examples of work.  I didn’t have the data to provide a really good answer beyond “make sure he does his homework” or “study for tests”.

Now we have the data.  A lot of data.  It’s a veritable DATAPALOOZA in schools today.   So much data that I’ve found that parent conferences are now mostly guided by stacks of test score data.  I only experience parent-teacher conferences from the other side of the table now, and in those meetings I’ve seen State test scores, MAPS test scores, Accelerated Reader test scores, District created benchmark test scores…etc.  Data driven indeed.   Sometimes the discussion of test scores would take up the entire 15 minutes I had been allotted.  Eventually, my wife and I would just politely tell the teacher that we both had statistical training and could decipher the pages on our own.  Could we discuss “how he’s doing” instead?

Not having solid data back in the “old days” wasn’t ideal, but neither is the data avalanche that turns conferences about kids into a blur of numbers.

Thus the challenge.

I wanted to start the conversation with “How’s he doing?” because I believe that’s the most important question.  Does he work hard?  Does he get along with others? Does he have friends?  Does he like to read as much as he tells us he does?  These are questions that only a caring adult who is paying attention like a teacher does can answer, so that’s where we started.  There isn’t a test score in the world that can answer these questions.

But then we came to the question that I didn’t always answer very well back when I was a classroom teacher working from just a grade book.  “How can I help him improve?”  Fortunately, since she is the “smartiest and niciest teacher ever”, she knew just where to look.  Whipping out a single page of data, she was able to circle the aspects of math that Cooper scores well on, and the aspects he can improve upon.  Then she told us how he can use the district’s program at home for some enrichment in that area.  That was the only test score we talked about.

I felt like I had accomplished my goal as a parent because together we had achieved what I had sometimes failed as a teacher.  I had talked about my child’s progress with his teacher for 15 minutes, found out a lot about “how he’s doing” and left with a concrete suggestion for how I can help him improve a specific area of relative weakness in math.

I won’t presume to know how his teacher felt about my challenge.  I know that she has to explain test scores to many parents because they may not understand them otherwise.  I also know that explaining data over and over again to different people can feel very impersonal.  I couldn’t help but notice that she looks a lot happier when talking about children than she does when she’s talking about data.

My challenge to the readers of EduSanity is to try to make sure that you have both parts of this discussion at your next parent-teacher conference.  Learn how to read standardized test scores if you don’t already know how so that you can spend more time talking about “how your child is doing” and less time deciphering graphs and percentiles.  Most modern test score printouts contain an explanation of what the numbers mean.

At the very least make sure the discussion starts with anything but a number.

Standing Back-to-Back with Teachers

It was one of those Saturday nights growing up in small town Kansas, USA when I probably should have stayed home. Instead, I traveled ten miles to Sharon (population 189) to a Catholic wedding dance. I was a 9th grader and in way over my head, but I was big for a 9th grader which apparently led to one of the 25 year-old locals, more than a little inebriated, to try to pick a fight with me.

Main Street

We were toe-to-toe, mono y’ mono and if I could go back there now, I would have told me to run out of that whiskey scarred air.

But I didn’t. I stayed and faced the opposition and tried to talk my way out of it. While I was standing there apologizing for something I hadn’t done, I’d sensed a presence behind me. Years earlier, when beating me up in 5th grade was the favored national pastime of my classmates, I remembered a similar presence. It was the sinking feeling right before someone–or two or three someones–grabbed my arms and held me while one of the other someones whaled on me.


Flashing forward to the really small town Saturday night, as I walked away from the would-be assailant, my friends gathered round and asked me if I’d seen Kyle Thomas behind me. I had but didn’t know why he was there or why his back was turned to me. At one point his shoulders had bumped into me.

“That meant he had your back, man. Kevin wouldn’t have stood a chance against Kyle.”

Everyone in that entire reception hall, especially Kevin, knew of his chances. Kyle was inarguably the toughest dude in five counties (coincidentally, these fellas are not Kevin and Kyle Fowler, my best friend and his little brother who lived across the street–the Fowler brothers were not harmed in the writing of this post).

Being a teacher and teacher educator naturally connects me with teachers from around the area and beyond. I count myself lucky to hear stories about their classrooms and about their students. I listen to teacher stories, the good ones and the bad ones, and the ones in between.

The concerning stories are the ones that I hear over and over (and over) again, the ones that almost take on a life of their own from their pervasiveness. Two such stories have become ingrained in almost every conversation I’ve had with teachers over the past two or three years.

1) We don’t feel like we can speak out against bogus policies or ideas for fear of retribution. This story circled around so much that a local newspaper reporter picked up on it and called me  to give her names of teachers to contact. I politely declined her request (and not-so-politely wondered what she was thinking). It isn’t that these teachers fear a slap on the wrist or loss of some magical privilege, they literally fear that their jobs or careers will be taken away, frequently pointing to some local cases as examples of that very thing.

2)  We feel like we have less control over what we teach than ever and we don’t like it. In the area where I live and work there is a curriculum mapping phenomenon that, so far as I can tell, came to northwest Arkansas courtesy of some administrators who moved here from another state. The concept of every 8th grade teacher covering the same material is puzzling, and the most egregious example I’ve encountered to date occurred in the requirement that teachers post identical lesson plans on classroom doors across an entire district. Someone would be by to check, they were told.

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These two stories take me back to that wedding dance in Sharon, KS from way-back-when because they both convey the idea of teachers being embroiled in conflict they didn’t provoke. The bully’s sour breathed accusations seem especially pertinent to the educational discourse of 2014, much of which is rank with misinformation and misinformed zealots.

I thought of that situation again when I was recently directed to (admittedly not a place I frequent) to a report from the Center for American Progress (think Fox News of think tanks) about how teachers who responded to a survey felt like they had more autonomy today than they did five years ago, I immediately raised an eyebrow of suspicion. A Huff Post (MSNBC of e-news outlets) piece published about the same time discusses, this time from the perspective of parents, how teachers in New York are being provided a teaching script, an act that would cause many to have thoughts of altercations and most certainly discredits teachers and teaching.

From the article, here’s a brief excerpt from the script:

Minutes 0-10: The teacher reads the first learning target aloud: “I can follow our class norms when I participate in a conversation.” Then, the teacher asks students to provide synonyms of the words follow and participate. Next, the teacher tells a student to read the learning target: “I can define human rights.” For the remainder of the time, students discuss the meaning of the words human and rights in small groups.

“The script continues with this kind of detail for the rest of the year in a sequence of lessons, units, modules, and assessments. Teachers are not allowed to use their own methods to introduce the material, manage the classroom, or share their own wisdom. Students are not encouraged to connect the material to their own lives, events in the world, or things that may interest them. The script tell the teachers and students, at all times, what to say and do. The Common Core ELA curriculum does not treat teachers or students with dignity.”

But if one listens to the CAP, they seem to believe that this kind of control is precisely what is needed in public education, a fairly telling sentiment:

“The bigger problem in public education, however, might not be too little autonomy but rather too much. This makes it hard to create a true profession, which requires having a clear adherence to a common body of knowledge.” (source)

Now let’s be clear, the Common Core State Standards are many things but are not a script for teachers. What New York–and soon the rest of the country–is experiencing is the idea that once the assessment is in place, standards and assessment combine to create a curriculum, one that can be over-simplified by profiteers, one that in New York’s case most definitely strips teachers of autonomy and professionalism.

What all of this really means is that teachers continue to be trashed in our society and one doesn’t have to look to carefully at the picture of education to see that grand–anti-teacher–narrative (kids don’t know anything, teachers are bad, must raise standards) in action. When teachers speak out about an issue at school, there is this backdrop of educational fisticuffs flying in the periphery, effectively undermining anything said.  When I think about those teachers both afraid to speak out and the ones who have,  I think immediately of the story of Kyle Thomas and how it felt to know that he had my back those years ago. I was invincible but if he hadn’t been there, I’m sure that my words would have been rendered pointless, my face left rearranged.

I assert that some teachers may feel like I felt in that almost fight–nerves, adrenaline, fear–when thinking about our profession or simply carrying out their work. Fortunately, we have colleagues in the support of public education across the country who stand back-to-back with us too. From Diane Ravitch to the Public Education Shakedown to the Bad Ass Teacher Association to Chicago to the MAP-defeating teachers in Seattle from last year, we must stand together. Let’s find inspiration from writers like Alfie Kohn and Paul Thomas and share those readings with parents and colleagues alike. The proverbial Kyle Thomas’ can be in the classroom next door or across the country.

I hope my fist-fighting days are over and don’t confuse the metaphor here as one that advocates for physical intimidation or violence, but it does feel very much like fight or flight time in American public education.

I lament the fact that many teachers feel they cannot use their own names to ask serious and level-headed questions of school or district leaders or the education status quo. A democracy–most certainly a public school–should encourage that type of activity, encourage free and open dialogue without the fear of retribution if for no other reason than to offer a model of America for students.

Colleagues who agree with and support these questions should feel that it wouldn’t endanger their jobs to raise questions too. Unfortunately, in many schools across the country, the current culture and climate is one that values and respects compliance versus conversation, quiet versus questioning, and discipline versus dialogue.

Make no mistake about it, we are in a fight for the rights of teachers to teach and students to learn. Together, with a definite presence behind us, we can back down the foul-mouthed educational bullies we face today.





EduSanity Thanks a Teacher

What were you doing in 1978?  Half of EduSanity was only 3 years old and the other half had just been born.  We hadn’t made much of a contribution to society yet.  However, while we were busy flushing Snoopy wind-up toys down the toilet (Jason) and learning how to sit upright by ourselves (Chris), a teacher by the name of Melody Foltz was beginning her career as a math teacher at New Mark Junior High School in North Kansas City, Missouri.

Today, Melody (now) Shoger is putting the final touches on her 35th year of teaching, an accomplishment that absolutely must be put into context.

Melody Shoger - Math Teacher Extraordinaire

Melody Shoger – Math Teacher Extraordinaire

Mrs. Shoger has taught at the same school for 35 years.  In that time she has educated over 3600 students.  That’s a decent sized Missouri town.  She has taught under 6 principals and survived the education policies of 6 Presidents.  Even the name of the school has changed; becoming New Mark Middle School in 1980.  She has worked with hundreds of teachers (myself included) and is quite literally an anchor of stability in the lives of thousands of people who have passed through her classroom door.

But Mrs. Shoger is more than just an educator who has weathered the ups and downs of a teacher’s existence.  She is a first-rate math teacher who has provided her students with a world-class education for over three decades.  If you ask Melody about her secret to success, she will brush off the question as though she doesn’t have one, but it doesn’t take long to figure it out if you listen to what she has to say.

Melody’s favorite aspect of teaching is “seeing that bulb light up” in a student’s eyes when they make a connection and get excited about something they have learned.  Many teachers can relate to this, and it serves as a reminder that the best aspects of teaching and learning often happen in the moment and can never be recorded as a test score or grade.  Most people in this world don’t ever get to experience that moment, which makes it a child’s unique gift to their teacher, and Melody thrives on it.  In fact, she actively seeks it.  She regularly spends 10 hours per day at school in addition to the 10 hours per week she spends at home grading papers and searching for new ideas.  For those of you who weren’t one of Melody’s math students, that’s approximately 60 hours per week spent teaching, researching, planning and grading.  She harnesses the power of social networks including Facebook and Pinterest to plunder the ideas of others in order to vary her strategies for teaching.  Walking into her classroom is like stepping into the aftermath of a “math idea tornado”.  Melody has more ideas than she has time for, yet is never satisfied with the ideas she has.  If you want to know how one continually improves even after 35 years of experience, that would be a good place to start.

The Aftermath of the Math Idea Tornado

The Aftermath of the Math Idea Tornado

Mrs. Shoger’s greatest challenge is keeping the students engaged, a task that has grown continually more difficult over the years as student apathy has been perpetuated by a system that undercuts motivation with “no fail” policies of social promotion and an emphasis on test scores that privileges the importance of “standardized testing week” over every other school day.   Mrs. Shoger is not allowed to hold her students accountable, yet is held accountable herself when these same students fail to perform well on standardized exams.

Many of us would recognize the hypocrisy in that situation and let it ruin our outlooks, but not Mrs. Shoger.  Her response is simply, “Kids are kids”.  And with those words, you catch another glimpse into the secret she claims not to have.   The more you listen to Melody the more you realize that her secret to 35 years of excellent teaching is simple: kids.  For her, everything is about the kids.  Still, many a teacher has strode bravely into the educational breach with an idealist vision of saving the world one student at a time, so what makes Melody Shoger different?

Quite simply, Mrs. Shoger has approached the teaching of math with the exact same philosophy that seems to be all the rage lately.  She prepares students to use math in the “real world” and helps her students make connections between math and their futures on a daily basis.  Some people would like you to believe that “college and career readiness” is the flavor of the month.  For teachers like Melody Shoger, it’s been on the menu since Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education and started this whole mess.

Mrs. Shoger with her Husband Neil

Mrs. Shoger with her Husband Neal

Mrs. Shoger can point to 3600+ students who have been pushed to understand math as a part of their lives, which she often gets to witness first hand.  Many of her former students have children of their own, which means that many families have two generations of Shoger graduates.  She is invited to weddings and has friend requests on Facebook from former students all over the world.  Many of her former students have become teachers themselves, and Mrs. Shoger has inspired more than one career in education.  Her own daughter is going into math education, a choice that Melody wholeheartedly supports despite the fact that many people suggest she should find another career.  Mrs. Shoger knows that we could use another generation of patience, perseverance, love for math, and desire to serve others.

Hopefully, the students of New Mark Middle School will be able to benefit from Mrs. Shoger’s efforts for many years to come.  35 years is a long time, but the energy and effort she puts into her teaching would put many newly minted teachers to shame.  When asked how long she sees herself teaching, Melody’s response is unsurprisingly pragmatic.

As long as I still love what I am doing.  I work with great people. I enjoy the kids–even the stinkers. I have a passion for math and for learning.  I know there is a downside (paper work, testing, changes in curriculum, attitude… etc.), but there is to almost every career.  I can deal with those.  Until the downside surpasses the positives, I will still wake up each day and trek to New Mark.

Mrs. Shoger is not alone.  Despite what many would have you believe, the vast majority of teachers work tirelessly for your children.  Today may be Teacher Appreciation Day, but any day would be a good day to thank one of them.