Once again its testing time in Tennessee


This week marks the beginning of testing week in Tennessee. All week long students will be taking the annual TCAP assessments. These tests will establish their worth, their teacher’s worth, their school’s worth, their state’s worth, their countrie’s worth, and… well you get the picture. These tests are so important that people feel the need to create pep rallies, special festivals and even video’s to relieve some of the pressure. Initially I saw the one above on the Tennessee Department of Education web site but before writing this post I perused YouTube and probably found 100 more.

That’s over a hundred video’s dedicated to celebrating a test. Yes, I said test, not a school, not books, not learning in general. They celebrate a test. Think of all the resources that went into producing those pieces that could have been applied to actual learning, not to mention the creativity wasted. Some of them are quite creative and had that creativity been applied to inspiring actual learning as opposed to doing well on a test, been quite valuable.

teach-to-test-cartoon-7Yesterday I attended a carnival dedicated to celebrating the upcoming TCAP tests. There were bouncies, games and free food, all dedicated to the glory of the upcoming test. A teacher friend of ours would have attended but she had to run off to find a camouflage shirt. Seems her school is doing some kind of presentation that requires the wearing of camo. So she was spending Sunday afternoon searching out something that she has as much use for as I do an extra nipple. An extra nipple that she would purchase with her own hard earned cash.

Later I started reading my Facebook thread and found out that Little Leagues across the state have suspended their schedule for this week so as not to conflict with TCAP. Apparently during the rest of the year its perfectly fine for kids not to get home until after 9 but not testing week. Too much is riding on these exams. We can’t go messing them up with games.

To make things even crazier. Teachers and administers spend the week ahead of testing making the environment as sterile as possible. They cover up all artwork on the walls. Take down any pictures. All the work that goes into making a school a joyous learning place goes out the window for test week. After all we’ve got to focus and we can’t have any cheating.

All of this leads me to ask…WTF? Pardon the French, but am I the only who seems to think this is absolutely ludicrous? We are creating an environment that apparently is so toxic for our children that we have to create special rules and distractions to counter that toxicity. I know that I don’t have any fancy degrees nor have I ever set foot in a classroom as a teacher, but I can’t see how that’s a good idea. I mean if my kid puts his hand in a fire and it burns him, I tell him to get it out. I don’t make up skits and tell him jokes to take his mind off of it.

Since we’ve deemed these tests are so important that they’re worth putting our children through this you would assume that Tennessee’s Education Commissioner has some reassuring words. Well maybe if you find these words reassuring,  “But TCAP, I think most educators would say is inherently not a very strong test, not as strong as what we’re aspiring to do because, ya know, it’s a multiple choice test and, um, it doesn’t have significant critical thinking or problem solving… ”. Apparently strong enough though that we insist on subjugating our children to severe discomfort for it. I don’t feel very reassured.

testtodayCulture is extremely important. In my family we are trying to create a culture of lifelong learning. Learning is something that is always an adventure even when its difficult. We try not to put emphasis on testing as something other then a measure of progress. In other words its a ruler not a goal. It’s something we will expect from the schools we entrust our children to. We want you to inspire them, not distract them with “Frozen” parodies.

However, that’s not what’s being instilled in our schools. There we are creating a culture that says everything proceeding the test is preparation for the test. Gone is “Be true to your school” only to be replaced by “Rockin TCAP”. If a child learns something that can’t be measured, that’s a waste of time. It doesn’t help validate the school, teacher or child’s worth. We need to get rigorous! (Sorry had to sneak that one in. I’ve learned that if you don’t use rigor in everything you write, no one will take you serious on education.)

This is sending us down a very dangerous path. When what we do is shaped by a test instead of the test measuring what we do, the immeasurable falls by the wayside. Time spent on the arts is replaced by reading time. Reading time becomes something you do to increase a test score and not to get lost in an alternate world. It may make us become more efficient people but does it make us become more interesting people? Ask China. They’ll probably have some insight on the value of doing well on a test and why they’ve changed their focus.

I’ll admit, I watch these test video’s and I am horrified. Other’s find them cute and counter with the argument, “They’re so stressed and anything I can do to relax them I’m going to do.” That’s nice and I certainly appreciate the sentiment, but when does it stop. When do we say “No I am not going to try and cover up these actions that are detrimental to children.” If we keep helping kids relax, when do the powers that be stop attaching more consequences to these assessments?

One of the stated purpose of these tests is to help make students college and career ready. How do these tests aid in that? Imagine if for 8 months out of the year you labored at your job and then got taken into an isolated room and tested for two days. Your salary and position were all contingent on those tests, independent of what you’d done for the last 8 months. I doubt many of us would embrace that career path.

Here’s another real world application for you. I was fortunate enough a long time ago to have a teacher instill in me that you don’t have to know everything, you just have to know where to find the answer to everything. How often in your career do you say, “I’m not sure about the answer to that. Let me research it and get back to you.” If you are at all successful, probably pretty often. Where in TCAP or even PAARC is the measurement for that ability?

Testing_CartoonAt some point its going to have to stop. Politicians are going to have to stop allowing such priority to be attached to testing. Education policymakers will have to develop new ways to measure learning that take into account the immeasurable. School administrators are going to have to create environments dedicated to learning not testing and don’t reduce a child to a number. Teachers will have to refuse to be complicate in practices that don’t facilitate learning and actually steal valuable classroom time.

If that doesn’t happen and things continue down the path we are on, parents will just have to opt out. Its really that simple. Anytime I hear a story of a 7 year old breaking down in tears because of the pressure placed on them to demonstrate the knowledge that they are supposed to have accumulated, its crystal clear to me that we are not creating life long learners. Parents, as their child’s advocate will have to form the last line of defense. Lets hope it doesn’t come to that.





A good legislative session


kevin-huffmanThe Tennessee legislative session ended on the morning on April 17th and that afternoon Tennessee Ed commissioner Kevin Huffman tweeted the following out,

1st thought on end of leg session: Free community college for all TN grads is a game changer for kids & the state.

That’s it. In a session where he was backing bills linked to for profit charters, vouchers, expanding the eligibility for the Achievement School District, a parent trigger, not to mention bills he was opposed to that limited testing, slowed the implementation of Common Core, unlinked TVASS from teacher licensure, and the only comment he could make was “Yay! Community college for all TN grads.”. I don’t want to downplay the benefits of that bill but not having anything else to tout speaks volumes.

It didn’t hurt that the bills he was supporting were bad bills. Take a look at the voucher bill. This is the second year in a row that it was considered a done deal yet once again it failed to pass. Some supporters of this bill tried to rally support for it by saying how much Memphis needed it. Problem was Memphis already has the Achievement School district and both were focused on students enrolled in schools in the lower 5%.

This is how I figure it would’ve worked. If you attend a school ranked in the lower 5% achievement wise, you get a voucher to go anywhere. However those schools are already being addressed by the ASD, so what’s the ASD to do when a segment of its population heads off to another school with voucher in hand? That’s where the bill allowing the ASD to accept students from schools not zoned for the ASD, as long as the ASD had empty seats, comes in. Are you catching on here?

Fortunately Tennessee legislators did. Both of those bills died on the vine. Now keep in mind the ASD’s favorite method of improving those schools in the bottom 5% and moving them to the top 25% is through authorizing more Charter schools. So what’s to happen when these families with their brand new vouchers still can’t get into the private school they thought they were going to go to? Well there was a bill for that too.

A bill that would’ve allowed for-profit charters to come on in and set up shop. After all we can’t leave our children trapped in failing schools. We need more high quality schools and if its the lure of a profit that gets them here, so be it. It makes sense doesn’t it? Fortunately it didn’t to Tennessee legislators either. It failed. They did drag a state charter authorizer across the finish line but we’ll see how that actually gets used.

Legislators did see a need to have a testing law that demanded that school districts provide a list of tests to parents, at the beginning of the school year, that their children will be taking and who is mandating them. Thank you Rep Butts for this fine work. They also decided to make sure TVASS is never linked to teacher licensure and to slow down Common Core and PARCC for one year. Neither idea was supported by our education commissioner, but hey, this wasn’t his session.untitled

Now you may be asking yourself, how exactly did all this come to pass? Tennessee has a super majority for Republicans. Passing these reforms should have been a piece of cake. Two things prevented this session from turning out different, the strong dislike for our education commissioner  and the rising activism of Tennessee parents.

Tip O’Neil once said, “All politics is local” and the truth is the locals don’t care much for Mr Huffman. In his brief tenure as education commissioner he has shown the heavy hammer of authority coupled with the inability to listen, not a winning combination. That recipe may have worked for his first couple of years but now there are signs of it starting to wear thin.

Tennesseans tends to not like a bully. They tend to also like their teachers. The last couple of years Mr Huffman has made numerous policy changes that have created the perception of scapegoating teachers. The use of value added metrics linked to teachers licenses and even pay scale was the straw that broke the camel’s back. When concerned citizens tried to express qualms about his policies he proved to not be very receptive. So they did the expected and started bending the ears of their legislators.

When legislators tried bending the ear of the Commissioner they got the same results as parents had. The difference is, they can do something about it and they did. This session of the Tennessee Legislation can easily be seen as a vote of no confidence for Mr. Huffman. Many legislators voted not just their conscious but their personal feelings as well. Legislators don’t like getting their ears bent and they like being ignored even less.

Its my personal opinion, that it won’t be long until it sinks in that Kevin Huffman is a political liability and he finds a nice cushy consultant job somewhere else. Of course there will be glowing praise and thank you’s to guide him off to his new position but in the immortal words of Sam Cooke, I believe a change is going to come. That change won’t come a moment too soon and there will be rejoicing among the faux parents.

Which brings us to the second reason why this session turned out the way it did. Parents and citizens got into the fray and they did it relentlessly. This session was a lesson in democracy. As Momma Bears, BATS and TREE’s all wrote letters, called legislators, held rallies and generally let their voices be heard. Kevin Huffman might have thought these were faux parents but nothing could have been further from the truth. These were true grass root organizations whose coffers were empty but hearts were full. It was inspiring to witness.

Things turned out all right this year. Next year they might not. That’s why its so important for individuals to keep working to make sure your voice is heard. Reformers like Mr Huffman, along with Chris Barbic and Andy Smarick have made it clear they don’t believe democracy has any place in education. They work to strip school boards of power, limit the voice of school districts and even drown out the individual voices of parents. We can’t let that happen.

Parents, I’m not asking you to come to the same conclusions as I have. I am asking you to educate yourself about what’s going on in our schools and what reform ideas really mean. Many reform ideas sound great and logical until you look beneath the surface and realize the sacrifices they are asking for. Public education is one of our strongest public institutions. Our forbearers believed that public education led to better citizens which led to a better society. We need to never forget that and guard it as if we are guarding our very democracy, because we are.photo (101)

If only Common Core really helped with critical thinking.


Pinky and the Brain podering Critical ThinkingThe last couple of years I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about Common Core and Education Policy and I am at a conundrum. We seem to be pursuing a goal in a manner that reflects none of the qualities we desire to produce. I was raised that if you value honesty demonstrate honesty. If you value kindness, be kind. These are the truism’s that I try to live by and instill into my children. After all, modeling is still the most effective form of teaching.

When I apply this metric to our education policy there seems to be a disconnect. One of the big pillars of Common Core is that it increases kids ability to critically think. However if that’s the goal shouldn’t we as adults already be exhibiting that ability? Because truth be told, at this point I’m not seeing a whole lot of critical thinking involved in the current conversation on education reform. To my eyes its more like the colleague who shows up at a team meeting with a ready made plan and you either get on board or you’re not a team player.

Take a look at the Common Core discussion. I personally think Common Core is inappropriate for ages K-3 based on personal observations and studies done on how children learn. ( i.e http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/how-ed-policy-is-hurting-early-childhood-education/2012/05/24/gJQAm0jZoU_blog.html). I make that argument and the rebutal I get is “lots of teachers are using it and that’s not a Common Core problem that’s a “teaching problem”.” (http://anhpe.org/2013/12/09/are-the-common-core-math-standards-developmentally-appropriate-for-kindergarteners-it-depends-as-always-on-whos-teaching/)

Where are the counter studies? Shouldn’t there be some evidence presented on a large scale that supports the position? Instead a broad statement is utilized followed with an incitement to fear. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/11/nyregion/common-core-gets-strong-defense-from-state-education-chief.html?_r=0)  “If we don’t move forward our children will be ignorant.” “People don’t understand the standards.” There is not a single piece of research presented that contradicts my position.

When my children disagree with a decision I’ve made I ask that instead of crying and pouting they offer an explanation of why they believe my decision is wrong. Even at ages three and four they are capable of attempting a counter argument. Granted their defenses aren’t always the best, but if I expect them to attempt an explanation, shouldn’t I expect the same from policy leaders?

We as a family believe that you welcome challenges to your beliefs. Because if your beliefs are truly worth having they should be able to withstand challenge. That every challenge is an opportunity to further explore those beliefs. If they can not handle the scrutiny, perhaps they need to be modified. This doesn’t seem to hold true in the debate over educational policy. Instead of critical thinking supporters are demanding adherence. Unfortunately the more you demand adherence the more I question.children thinking

This phenomenon is not just transpiring with Common Core either. Take charter schools as another example. Almost every study conducted demonstrates that there are no transcendental differences between charter schools and traditional schools, yet the drum continues to beat. (http://nepc.colorado.edu/newsletter/2013/07/review-credo-2013) I ask, if someone wanted to sell you a car that sometimes ran a little better then your current vehicle at a cost 5 times greater, would you buy it or fix your current car? The counter argument?  Our schools are just incapable of serving the needs of our students and we need to try anything and everything.

Lets take a look at the voucher discussion. Again, not a single study demonstrates that vouchers offer any measurable improvement on a school system and plenty of studies that show the opposite. (http://publicpolicyforum.org/blog/enrollment-and-performance-choice-schools) I bring up the argument that most private schools will not accept vouchers, they won’t cover activity fee’s and books, and that recipients are at the mercy of transportation availability. The counter argument? Why do you want to trap children in a failing school?

We are on a roll now, so lets look at TFA. The majority of studies show slightly better results in math but lower results in English. (http://www.danagoldstein.net/dana_goldstein/2013/09/tfa-teachers-perform-well-in-a-new-study-but-teacher-experience-still-matters.html) I argue that the results aren’t enough to justify the $5k a year fee and that since most corps members only stay two years this creates a transient environment which is detrimental to students and undermines the profession. The counter argument? These are the best and the brightest and they care.

How about schools themselves? We always hear about how schools are failing and that non-reformers are just supporters of the status quo. So I point out the rise of project based learning (http://www.edutopia.org/pbl-research-learning-outcomes) and the creation of Academies(http://www.mdrc.org/project/career-academies-exploring-college-and-career-options-ecco#featured_content) as evidence of innovation taking place in our traditional schools. The counter argument? Urban school districts are just broke and there’s no fixing them.

We ignore the things that have proven to work and instead invest in Achievement districts that turn over traditional schools to charter schools that staff with TFA corps members. Where is the logic in that? Where is the critical thinking that we claim to so desire? Because I’ll be honest with you I’m certainly not seeing it. Which is where the suspicious part of my nature starts to kick in. If we are incapable of applying the traits of  a desired outcome what’s the real goal?critical-thinking-cartoon

People with bad intentions rarely start the conversation by stating their selfish designs. Its always about the good that will happen based on these ideas. For example, data is always collected so that the individual can be better served, never for how they can be controlled and manipulated. All you need to do is look at our  Homeland Security policies and you can see how good intentions can run awry. Democracy is a never ending negotiation about what you’re willing to give up for that greater good.

I can see where current education reforms will produce better readers and better mathematicians. Corporations will have a better and larger pool of personnel to draw from. The population will be better able to follow directions. We will rigorous and gritty. Heck, future generations may even be able to recite the Gettysburg address. Will they be able to understand the meaning behind it though?

By creating readers that are 4 levels above their age will we lose the ability of spending a lazy afternoon reading a book at its pace without a specific goal? Since nobody will play anymore, where will those crazy innovative ideas materialize from? We feel quite comfortable enrolling our minority and lower income students into no-excuse charter schools while our wealthier children are constantly encouraged to think outside the box, how will that effect the make up of our future society? Will we be producing a society that any of actually want to live in?

Critical thinking involves being able to decipher a text by drawing in both experiences and external reading. It’s developed by spending time in a stable environment that makes a child feel secure enough to try out different ideas and not be afraid to fail. It involves teachers that are committed to a life time of learning so they can inspire that trait in children. It involves creating a system where all children are valued the same and that we invest in our communities as well as our children. It means being able to hold a conversation without demagoguing.

So it appears that some kind of Common Core might be needed. Shouldn’t it however be created to reflect the desired outcome? Perhaps parents, teachers, politicians, child development experts, administrators and community members could be brought into an actual discussion of what is appropriate. Instead of selling people on the concept maybe we could give them a sense of ownership by inviting them to truly participate in the process. Better yet, we could create standards that mold people in the shape of the type citizen we desire instead of the type employee desired.th1DDX3WMI




A Brand New Educational system


10157358_10152401787904316_748095920667012335_nLast week I had a very interesting exchange on Twitter with the head of the Tennessee Achievement District. In case you don’t know, the ASD is Tennessee’s version of the Louisiana RSD. The state has created a “district” that is committed to taking the bottom 5% of schools and moving them to the top 25%. A noble endeavor as long as you ignore the fact that there will always be a bottom 5%, but we won’t talk about that.

Lately the ASD has committed to a path of taking these failing schools and “partnering” with a Charter operator to facilitate this improvement. Whether this partnering works or not is debatable, but in the eye’s of the ASD it must work because they are planning on allowing 41 new Charters to open by 2020. Aspire CEO James Wilcox and Rocketship CEO John Danner both think “Tennessee is an exciting place to be.”

Let me also give you a little back ground on Chris Barbic. Mr Barbic, an amiable fellow comes to us from Houston after previously doing a 6 year stint with Teach For America and co-founding YES Prep. YES was so successful in its mission that Oprah gave them a million bucks. The TFA stint puts him in good company with his boss, Kevin Huffman and half the Tennesse Department of Education. Someday we need to talk about how infected the Tennessee Department of Education is with TFA alumni, but that’s another day.

Back to our exchange. Chris was tweeting out some pro-charter tweets and so I felt compelled to point out that “It scares me when a person is hired as a guardian of a public trust and they so strongly support private entities”. His response was “what about the broken public trust that results from poor performing schools?”. That’s a fair question. My answer of course was, “that’s easy…fix them. That’s why you were given public trust. To improve public institutions not privatize them.” That’s when he brought the hammer down, “There is no fix. Current system is broken. Have to create new public ed system.” In that fell swoop, the agenda is revealed.

Take that statement and couple it with Netflix Reed Hastings recent statement:

And so the fundamental problem with school districts is not their fault, the fundamental problem is that they don’t get to control their boards and the importance of the charter school movement is to evolve America from a system where governance is constantly changing and you can’t do long term planning to a system of large non-profits…The most important thing is that they constantly get better every year they’re getting better because they have stable governance — they don’t have an elected school board. And that’s a real tough issue. Now if we go to the general public and we say, “Here’s an argument why you should get rid of school boards” of course no one’s going to go for that. School boards have been an iconic part of America for 200 years. So what we have to do is to work with school districts to grow steadily, and the work ahead is really hard because we’re at 8% of students in California, whereas in New Orleans they’re at 90%, so we have a lot of catchup to do…So what we have to do is continue to grow and grow… It’s going to take 20-30 years to get to 90% of charter kids….And if we succeed over the next 20 or 30 years, that will be one of the fastest rates of change ever seen around the world for a large system, it’s hard. [applause]

If these two statements together don’t scare you then you’re not taking democracy serious. Neither Barbic nor Hastings are elected officials, yet they feel they have the right to fundamentally change a public institution. One that is a corner stone of our democracy. Imagine if you will, if Rosie Rios and Fredrick Smith got together and stated that our banking system was beyond repair and that we needed to create a new banking system while they were openly opening privately regulated S & L’s. There would be howling.

Even scarier is the public education system that Barbic and Hasting feel we need. One that pays less attention to the arts and humanity and more attention to the skills that make better future worker bee’s. The tests that are going to propel the ASD schools into the top 25% aren’t going to measure artistic creation or the ability to reason. They are not going to measure the ability to navigate an increasing multicultural society because the population of the ASD schools is predominately African American.

Which is interesting because there is no shortage of empirical proof that Charter Schools increase the likelihood of greater segregation. So not only are we by-passing the democratic process in creating this new system but we are creating one that will widen the achievement gap and create a more unequal system. Best part of this is that its being done with unapproved tax money. I most certainly believe that given that information, most voters would reject that vision of a new system and ask that their money be better spent. Perhaps though, proponents don’t even believe its their money.

Barbic and Hasting’s vision also directly threatens democracy because it removes local control. The ASD schools are answerable to Barbic ultimately who is answerable to the TN Department of Education and elected State Officials. In other words if I have an issue with the way my children are being taught I have no recourse but to go through Barbic or my elected state official who has a lot of other concerns. Ask the folks in New Orleans how that is working for them.

Under the current system I have an elected official who every four years must reassure me that they are putting my child’s interest first. My school board officials are extremely assessable and I talk to them often. We don’t always agree on every issue but I know my child’s education is their sole purpose. They are not focused on writing traffic laws or devising new taxes or any other of a multitude of interests that take up state officials time. My child’s education is the sole purpose of their elected existence. That’s democracy in action.

I know democracy is messy. It means you must convince the masses of things you probably don’t think they are smart enough to understand. The process of making change can be slow and unresponsive, not to mention that those darn pesky locally elected officials have a tendency to follow the will of the people vs your vision. The flip side is that it seems to be working.

It may seem like I’m being a little hard on Mr Barbic, an individual who I genuinely enjoy talking with, but the hubris just galls me beyond no end. Where do you get the belief that a system that has served this country well since the 1840’s needs you to create a new one without ever running for elected office on that platform? Let’s be clear too, thats whats transpiring. Look back at Hasting’s comment, 90% of students go to a Charter school that is unaccountable to a locally elected board and he received a round of applause when he made that statement.

If the so called reformers believe so strongly in the need for a new system they should bring it to the democracy. I challenge anyone of them, be it Rhee, Huffman, King, White, or even Bush to run for public office. Make creating a new system your central plank. Lets have that discussion out in the open where people can then vote on it and decide for themselves if that’s what they want for their children and this country.

I suspect they know as well as I do that such a plank wouldn’t get you far. That’s why they manipulate language as they do. Paint themselves as reformers while the rest of us are merely defenders of the status quo. Problem is, I can’t think of a single elected official that has stated our current system needs to be dismantled. Instead reformers work in the shadows, twisting words and implementing 20-30 year plans that have not been vetted by the general population.

I come from a family that values democracy enough that several members have risked their life to guard it against outside invaders. It pains me to say it but inside invaders are just as dangerous. All of us need to pay attention to these threats and take them very seriously. Don’t allow yourself to be painted as a conspiracy nut who just wants to protect the interests of adults.We need to remember that all children become adults. Therefore the system needs to serve the needs of children and adults. Its the bedrock of our democratic society.kids

Once our public education system is dismantled, there will be no putting it back together. The achievement gap will continue to grow. We will create two separate societies. There will be the privileged and the worker bees. As parents we will have less and less say in the manner of how our children are educated. The measurable will become the primary focus and everything else will fall by the wayside. That may be desirable for some but thats not the world I plan to leave for my children.