Field Tripping: Economists Take Education Faculty to Visit Charter “Success”

In this guest post, Dr. Donna Wake, Associate Dean of Education at the University of Central Arkansas, relates an experiences taking a trip to visit a charter school with two economics faculty members. Donna has written other posts for this blog, including one about cursive writing (see here), and another about the educational mistreatment of Emma, (see here). Readers are encouraged to contact Dr. Wake with responses to this piece and/or engage in the comment section below.  

In the fall term, two economics faculty from my university’s College of Business contacted me about a trip they were taking to visit a charter school in the Arkansas Delta. The first email came on a Tuesday afternoon. Two economists, one who positioned himself as an educational policy analyst, were planning this trip and wondered if faculty from the College of Education might be interested in joining them. On Friday. In 3 days.

Despite the inconvenience of shuffling my week’s schedule for an impromptu trip to a school 3 hours away, I appreciated that they thought to include us, albeit at the last minute. With that in mind, and given my own curiosity about this specific charter school, I convinced a colleague to join me and made arrangements to go on the trip.

Friday morning arrived. After a three hour drive into the Arkansas Delta, we spent the morning touring the school’s various facilities, visiting classes, and talking with students and faculty and administrators. Collectively, my education associate and I asked the school personnel hundreds of questions in our three hours at the school. We asked about teacher turnover, free and reduced lunch rates, bus routes, and percentage of traditional versus non-traditionally certified teachers. We asked about parental involvement, class demographics, administrator preparation, use of Common Core, and school response to the recent changes in test requirements. We asked about the newly implemented teacher evaluation system, professional development initiatives, and state funding models. The economists followed us, listened, and took notes.

At times, we worried that we were “taking over” the economists’ trip. But when we individually asked the economists if we should allow them more time for their questions, they told us keep driving the conversations. Our questions helped them to think about this school.

In contrast to our many questions, the economists asked multiple school personnel only one question, repeatedly – “to what do you attribute your success?” When pressed to define “success”, the economists cited recent standardized test results, particularly when compared to local districts.

 

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Economist #1 (E#1), the educational policy expert, clearly assumed the school’s impact was positive, and he assumed this positive impact was correlated with standardized test scores. Unfortunately, I was not able to uncover any depth of research behind his assumptions. In fact, both E#1 and E#2 were openly surprised when I asked about how the school’s presence might be harming the local contexts by de-stabilizing the local school structures.

I began to feel as if our presence had been arranged simply because the economists didn’t know what questions they should be asking. This suspicion was confirmed the following Monday when E#1 emailed me to ask what was the difference between a traditional and non-traditionally trained teacher. I carefully typed my response and connected him to the department of education website as a resource.

I heard nothing from the economists for several months and had almost managed to forget the whole exchange. Then in January I received an email asking me to recommend a film for an economics student group as they discussed “School Choice Week.” I cautiously complied by recommending “Waiting for Superman.” I use “Waiting for Superman” in my own classes to talk about the complexities of public education and the positive and negative impact of school choice on districts, families, and students.

I also suggested that perhaps the students stage a panel discussion after the film viewing to include education faculty. I felt that the students might need guidance in discussing the history of school choice as well as both the pros and cons of school choice. I even volunteered my own time for this event.

I soon learned that my panel idea had been rejected by the student group. That’s right… rejected by the student group. But, they wondered if I might let education majors know of their film screening by sharing the following information:

This Thursday: Film Screening & Dinner Discussion of Waiting for Superman

Want to improve kids’ education? Come learn about realistic changes that make huge differences in the lives of children.

To celebrate National School Choice week (January 24th -30th), the Young Americans for Liberty are hosting a screening of the documentary Waiting for Superman. Great conversation, pizza, and beverages will be provided.

Perturbed does not begin to describe my emotional response. I immediately responded that I would not be sharing the announcement. I also asked that the world “celebrate” be replaced by the word “discuss.” In fact, I pointed out that using the word “celebrate” was based on the assumption that school choice is something to celebrate and represented a bias in programming that should really be a part of the larger conversation happening around this topic.

Here is my take away from this sequence of events… It is wonderful that so many people care about kids and education. It is fantastic that people outside the field of education want to help and think they can help support teachers and kids in schools. However… we in the education profession all need to be much more blunt about our communication with people outside of our field. To make real differences in the lives of teachers, students and schools requires a deep understanding of context and requires a great deal of time working within school structures and thinking about issues related to educational practices and policies. I wish to refute the idea that “anyone can teach.” I want to support the idea that teaching is a profession with long standing traditions and discourses. While the field certainly has its issues, it is impractical and troubling to think that those from outside the system can enter and “fix” the system with no knowledge of the field.

While people enter into these situations with the best of intentions, this intrusion into the field was ineffective and potentially harmful in that it promulgated the narrative that school choice is a “solution” to all of the complexities and challenges facing modern educational contexts. Put simply, if you want to play in my sandbox, then spend some time studying the field (e.g., perhaps take coursework and earn a degree or licensure) and spend some time yourself as a teacher in local schools. Once you do that, then engage with me in a conversation. Until then, I will not be celebrating choice – particularly when we do not know the impact those choices have on teachers, kids, and schools in local contexts, where it matters most.

Which States Value Public Education? A New Report from NPE Says “Pretty Much None of Them”

The Network for Public Education, an Organization with values and beliefs that align with us here at The Progressive Educator, released a report yesterday that evaluated our 50 states and D.C. according to the value each state places on public education.  In writing the executive summary, Diane Ravitch describes the purpose of the report:

Our report, Valuing Public Education: A 50 State Report Card, evaluates how well each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia support their public schools, based on objective and measurable factors aligned with our values. We promote specific policies that will help make our public schools vibrant and strong—a well-trained, professional teaching force, adequate and equitable funding wisely spent, and policies that give all students a better opportunity for success.

The report then goes on to evaluate each state based on the following criteria:

  1. No High Stakes Testing
  2. Professionalization of Teaching
  3. Resistance to Privatization
  4. School Finance
  5. Use of Taxpayer Resources

Readers of this blog won’t be surprised to find that applying these five criteria to the current status quo of “test-punish-close-privatize-and-profit” results in 8 states with failing grades and no state with a grade higher than a “C”.

We find this report to be interesting because it is an example of how a common education reform strategy can be turned on its head.  In order to perpetuate the myth of public school failure, many organizations that promote education reform produce report cards for states based on criteria with narrow visions of accountability or appropriate disciplinary content.  Not surprisingly, many or most state fail these evaluations.  This makes headlines and results in a renewed rush to find solutions (many of which cost prodigious amounts of money) for the “problems” our schools face.

With the NPE report, you see a different take.  If states were to align their values towards public education with the NPE criteria, they would not only see far less demand for external solutions (i.e. testing regimens, expensive gifts to Teach for America, tax payer supported private charter schools), but more importantly, they would actually align themselves with decades of research that shows the “test-punish-close-privatize-and-profit” status quo simply doesn’t work.

We encourage you to check out the entire report here.

The Progressive Educator Goes On the Road to NH

We are very excited to be traveling to New Hampshire this Friday to give a presentation entitled Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: How Americans Have Been Tricked into Perpetuating the Myth of Public School Failure
UntitledUntitledSo, you know, if you’re in the neighborhood and all, come on by.

 

Welcome to The Progressive Educator

EduSanity is no more.

Well, there’s more. But it’s different.

When Chris and I launched EduSanity in 2012 we were pretty angry about the course that public education was taking in the United States. In the three years since our launch we have written lots of posts that take on the forces of privatization that seek to profit off the education of our children.

We won’t be quitting that fight.

But things have changed somewhat. Where we once wanted to simply restore sanity to the discourse of public education in the United States, we now have broader goals. Rather than seeing our blog and related endeavors as a reaction to bad ideas, policies and sometimes people, we want to take our work in a more positive direction.

That doesn’t mean we won’t still fire up the righteous indignation when it is warranted.

As avowed progressive educators, we decided that renaming this site “The Progressive Educator” would be a proper reflection of what we want to do.

It’s important to start off on that path by clarifying what “progressive” means in this context. While we tend to think of “progressive” in political terms – thereby associating the word with others like “liberal” or “democrat” – that’s not how we are using it here.

Instead, we like to think of progressive education in the same fashion as the father of progressive education, John John-Dewey-Laboratory-School-1859-1952Dewey, did over a hundred years ago. I won’t bog down this post with citations or quotes, but rather with a simple distillation of the theory in terms the average reader can appreciate.

Dewey knew that in order for education to maximize its value to the human experience, it needed to be in a state of constant change – or more specifically – progress. Progressive educators are those who recognize that education is experience, that our educational experiences must change as our life experiences change, and that educational experiences are only truly educative if they lead to further life and educational experiences.

That’s a very generalized take on a very complex and granular philosophy.  But blogs aren’t necessarily meant to be complex and granular.  It’s enough to know that progressive educators connect meaningful educational experience to students’ lives in a manner that will prepare and encourage them to seek out more experiences. That’s who we are and that’s what we are in the classroom.

This site is named “The Progressive Educator” because we envision it as a space for those who share our philosophical approach to educating students across disciplines and ages. In the future you will see posts related to this purpose as well as posts that look like classic EduSanity diatribes. Its not like we’re changing who we are.

To be clear, we don’t believe that the discourse on public education has had its sanity restored thereby freeing us to move on. But one can only feed off righteous indignation for so long before it becomes debilitating to the energy and soul of the educator. That’s one reason we want to use this space in a more positive way – to write about what we believe in rather than primarily dissecting the potentially harmful beliefs of others.

Our social media accounts are also changing to keep up. If you already follow us on Facebook or Twitter you will see “The Progressive Educator” show up on your Facebook timeline and @T_P_Educator in your Twitter feed. If you don’t follow us you can click on the icons in the left sidebar!

Thanks for the support,

Jason and Chris

Guest Post – PARCC Reports

When I received the following email yesterday morning, I temporarily had my waning faith in email restored. Justin Escher Alpert wasn’t a name I recognized and immediately I wondered, given the title of PARCC Reports, who had sold my email address. As I started reading the message, an excellent piece of satire about the educational failure known as the PARCC exam unfolded in front of me. I still don’t know Justin Escher Alpert but he authorized the reprint of this, and I find myself wanting to read more. Enjoy, Chris

 

Dear Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers:

Congratulations on the PARCC test reports finally coming out.  It will be great for the kids to come back from the holidays to work on where they fell short last spring.  Thanks for bringing it back up.  Without your efforts, it would be very hard to compare our children to those in Washington D.C. or New Orleans… that is… unless we had the means to actually visit and take in the Culture.

One point for your consideration, please:  That the reports were going to be IN COLOR was a major selling point of the PARCC Exam.  Take a look at the attached sample report.  The colors are dull and faded.  It is almost like we cheaped out on ink.  As long as we are reducing our children to two-dimensional depictions, couldn’t we use more vivid colors, if only to evoke the rich full spectrum of possibility that Life has to offer?

PARCC Mock-Up

Thank you for your continued interest in the few PARCC states remaining.  Perhaps we might compare our lowest-performing schools and work together to fix the underlying socio-economic problems exposed by standardized testing.  The remnants of the PARCC structure would be a wonderful scaffolding to reverse the flow of information and effect innovation at the grass roots level.  Besides, just by sampling the lowest-performing schools, we could extrapolate the issues nation-wide and empower further responsible and accountable local Control.  You know, upon reflection, maybe we could cut back on the amount of testing and just do a statistical sampling.  Nobody ever needed a road map where one inch equals one inch.  You’d spend all of your time cartographing, lost in the details, and sort of miss out on the real-world beauty and adventure of the travel and interactions with People.  Just saying.

That’s all.  Well that, and your science is fundamentally flawed.  If you would like, I could put together a team to show you how to use data more effectively.  There is seemingly a conflict-of-interest bias that affects your results.  Maybe in the beginning of April you could submit your findings for peer review.  A continuing conversation.

Anyway, happy holidays to you and your whole PARCC team.  There is no reason why with critical thinking and rigor, we can’t raise the nature and quality of your work up to our standards of excellence in the New Year.

Very truly yours,

Justin Escher Alpert

Livingston, New Jersey

A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 2

This is the second of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.  

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 thattest scores won’t fix, we recommend this book.

For tomorrow:  Narrowed Curriculum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Methinks Pearson Doth Propriety-ize Too Much

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

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

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

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

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

Even though, it made me go hmmm.

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

 

 

 

 

 

Emma’s Tale

Guest post by Donna Wake

Associate Professor and Associate Dean, University of Central Arkansas

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

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

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

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

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

Pic_4Unfortunately, Emma did not make the cut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the kids. Not just half the room.

Dare to be Different? Not in Arkansas

University of Arkansas colleague Dr. Dennis Beck penned the following piece relating the unique experience of homeschooling in the accountability era through the story of his daughter’s experience with the third grade standardized test. 

I live in Arkansas, and we homeschool. My oldest child has never taken a standardized test before, and was now being required to take one.  We value education rather highly in our family, and talk about college and career quite a bit. We have great conversations about topics that she cares deeply about. We also talk about how her interests may someday combine to form a career – a series of things that she could pursue together and in the process earn an income. Well, when I first described the standardized test to her she was dumbfounded.  Why would anyone want to waste her time in such a manner?  Didn’t they know that even the format of the test (multiple choice) made it nearly impossible to gauge what she was learning?  Add to that the reality that there is no real way to compare each student’s individualized learning path with that of another, and she was thoroughly confused.

She was also more than a little anxious. So we bought her a book with a few sample problems and she learned how to color in bubbles on a test sheet.  I asked her if that made her feel smarter. “Not really” was her disinterested reply.  So I explored the possibility of her “opting out” of the test. I was told in a rather condescending way that my daughter was required to take the test, or that she would be counted as truant and referred to the courts. The result might be that we would be forced to place her in public school the next year (a bit of an overreaction?!?).

homeschoolfun1

So we decided to have her take the test.  We told her that it didn’t matter how she did on the test and that she was really the best person to assess her own learning because she knew her own strengths and weaknesses. We also told her that if she encountered a problem that she didn’t know or a word that she didn’t know the definition of, she should try her best or just skip the question and move on to the next one.

After the test, we talked about her experience.  This is a young lady who is thoroughly enthused and engaged by art, music, literature, math, science, history and other subjects when she is learning at home, but when placed in an artificial testing environment, she immediately disengaged. She told us about how the instructor wouldn’t answer any of her questions, that the questions were extremely easy, and how most of all, she didn’t learn a thing.  Later she even mentioned doodling on her paper when she finished early.  She was bored.

Since taking the test, she has asked me what will be done with the tests.  Arkansas’ official policy is that no one, including the state, sees the exam results except for the parents – to which I sarcastically wonder why she had to take an exam that I do not value and will not look at in the first place? My daughter also wanted to know whether the test makers will consider what she wrote at the end of the test, “I did not learn a single thing as a result of taking this test.  It was a complete waste of time. Please do not make me take it again.  I would like to be learning instead.” She has also wondered how any of what on the test would prepare her to succeed in college.

Just in case you were wondering, my daughter is in the third grade.

Now I’m the anxious one. I’m worried that my daughter will be steered off the path of authentic, meaningful learning and taught that learning is about being able to regurgitate information on an exam and to color neatly inside the bubbles on the test sheet. I’m worried that she will be trained by society that everything worthy of learning is black and white and answerable in 4 or 5 different choices.  I’m also concerned that she will be raised in a community where people don’t question what they are learning and don’t spend time reflecting on why and how they are learning something. Where people are effectively told to shut up and go along with what the state says because they know best.

I don’t want her to become another cog in the machine of “progress”, however you define it. And I recognize that the over-testing phenomenon that has hit our nation is only a symptom of a much larger problem.  Instead of embracing individualized instruction for all students, we choose to compare them to each other. Are comparisons useful enough to warrant their use, given the huge amount of data that show how destructive they are to students’ self-efficacy? No.

I want all of my children to grow up loving learning.  I want them to understand that education is not preparation for some job in the future; it is life itself (John Dewey). Thus it should be enjoyed just as life is enjoyed – one moment at a time, uniquely for each person. I want them to grow up knowing that “revolt is the right of the people” (John Locke) and not just willingly allow themselves to be squeezed into doing things the way their society tells them. I want them to know that “the person who has lived the most is not the one with the most years but the one with the richest experiences” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Thus they will spend their lives seeking out rich learning experiences, whether in formal or informal education.

Yet people like my daughter and I are being labeled as problems and threatened to conform or else suffer legal action. We are being asked – demanded – to align our educational approach to an approach that has no backing in educational research. Those who seek to do this, and to implement regular comparisons of student learning should be recognized as the backward, flat-earthers that they are, and treated as such. People learn at different paces, and have a huge variety of interests and strengths.  That is reality – not their artificial world of lock-step widgets that all advance at a particular time and in the exact same way.

Dennis Beck is an Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at the University of Arkansas. He enjoys teaching instructional design and how to thoughtfully integrate technology into instruction.  But he finds most of his enjoyment in spending time with his wife and children – learning and living the rich experiences life has to offer. Contact Dennis at debeck@uark.edu