The trouble with expectations.

IMG_5794“We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel,” Duncan said.

That quote above has had me walking around jaw dropped for about two days. Many other people, much more qualified then I, have written amazing pieces about the sheer insanity of that statement. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-greene/arne-duncan-special-education_b_5532681.html) So I am not even going to add to that chorus, because I recognize the limits of my voice. What’s jaw dropping to me though is the slow realization that education reformers truly believe that we all have the same voice and that its just expectations and opportunity that keep us from realizing it.

As I walked around Monday trying to process this, I asked my wife, a teacher, “Do they really believe every child is capable of getting a 21 on the ACT.” “Uh Huh”, she answered. She gets a little tired of talking education with me sometimes because she lives and breathes it every day, so her answers aren’t always the most in-depth.

“No really I said. They believe everybody’s got the same potential, its just expectations and opportunity?”

“Yep”

“Are they familiar with Mendel? Multiple intelligences?”

“Apparently they don’t subscribe to those.”

I wandered off feeling like Darwin must have felt when he first brought up the theory of evolution. To me it’s a non-sequitur. We are all individual people, each of us capable of individual feats of greatness and weakness. To try and deny that fact is like arguing the world is flat. Would I look at a child and say “I expect you to run a 100 yard dash in 4 seconds because I’ve seen people do it.” Would you expect every child to be able to paint a masterpiece, because people have done it? Again ludicrous.

I’ll give you another up close and personal example. My 5 year old daughter last week tested to be eligible for the gifted program in kindergarten. She tested a 96 percentile in math. Needless to say we are pretty proud, but lets look at the reality for a minute. At home we have no expectations for her in regards to what she should know. Our only expectation is that she be intellectually curious and that she welcome the different experiences we try to expose her to. I said when she was born, and when her brother was born, all I want is for them is to not to be afraid of life and be able to tell a story. If they master that, the rest will take care of itself.

Neither her mother nor I have an infinity for math. Now her grandfather is an associate dean of engineering at Vanderbilt. I think its a pretty safe bet that he’s pretty good at math. So its probably likely that she inherited some math genes from him. We put her in situations that unlock those genes but again, I think its a pretty good bet that genes play a bigger role here then expectations.

Her brother on the other hand shows a greater propensity towards athleticism and reading. He’s only four, so that’s a guestimate. The point is, should I have the same expectations math wise for him that I have for her? Should I expect her to physically match him? That’s just dumb. Thy are two different individuals with the same value no matter what level they perform at. The only expectation I will have for them is that they be intellectually curious and open to different experiences. They will develop their own talents and own level of accomplishment.

We also would like them to develop the ability to self motivate. The goal being that they perform at the level of their capabilities independent of our expectations. Our little interpretation of grit, which is another theory I find fascinating. Reformers expect kids to learn grit but not practice it until they are out of school. See, developing grit doesn’t entail hunting around finding the school that is the perfect fit, making sure you always have the best teacher, always having parents push, ensuring child is never bored and other things that I often hear advocated. In fact, I think those things work against grit.

As a kid I went to the Pennsylvania Governors School of the Arts. One of my fellow students was a phenomenal guitar player. His schedule would be, get up around 6 and play an hour of guitar, go to HS, at lunch play an hour, come home from school play until dinner, after dinner, play another couple hours. He did that every day. Week-ends he probably spent all day playing. He was such a good player that he got a scholarship without ever being able to read music. He was crazy good and from what I hear, he’s had a very successful career as a chamber guitarist.

I guarantee you that he did not score a 21 on the ACT. In fact, he probably dragged down the composite score for his high school. My father could look at an engine and without ever having seen it before, or looking at the instructions, repair it. I’ve known dancers who choreograph incredibly intricate performances but struggle with mathematics. I’ve got friends who are amazingly gifted carpenters yet are incapable of, and frankly unconcerned about, close reading. These are all talented individuals that based on our current assessment modes, would be considered not college or career ready. They would also drag down their schools composite scores.

On the flip side, I’ve got a dear friend, who probably scored a 30 on his ACT, who developed a drinking problem and until recently, after getting it under control, was incapable of keeping long term employment. Another friend who did exceptionally well on his tests and went to a “good” school, had a wife who ran off with the plumber and left him in such a state of depression he couldn’t function for five years. Then there are friends who have scored exceptionally well yet can’t hold jobs because they thought your scores were the only thing you needed to secure and maintain employment. There are those who can and have, only to slowly realize, that a good job isn’t necessarily the key to a well lived life.

My point here is that life is messy and full of variables. Excessive testing, data collecting and yes high expectations are all attempts to even out that messiness. They are ill conceived attempts to try and assure a promising future when there is no way to insure such promises. Instead of telling children that they can be just like everybody else, we should be teaching them to appreciate the differences in everyone and how to use those differences to live a well rounded life. We should be creating environments were children feel safe enough to take risks that enable them to find their strengths and seek out assistance with their weaknesses.

That’s why I’m in favor of your good old fashion Liberal Arts education. Expose children to everything so that they can actually discover where their talents lie and they develop the ability to learn. A school’s mission should not be to create the workers of tomorrow but the citizens of tomorrow. The beautiful part of this theory is that it has a history of working. America has never been among the leaders on standardized tests but for over a hundred years we have remained among the top in economic development. That’s a body of evidence in my opinion.

When our children were born, my wife kinda scoffed at my expectations for them. She accused me of having co-opted a t-shirt saying. However, think about a world where people weren’t afraid of life. They’d embrace the messiness instead of trying to eradicate it or harness it. The ability to tell a story certainly makes us more interesting and I ‘ll take interesting over productive any day. Both of these skills would allow us to develop our true intelligence and not just the one that a consortium or a chamber of commerce finds useful.  Hopefully someday soon our educational leaders will grasp that thought and embrace the concept of multiple intelligence and let go of the theory that the world is flat. th

 

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Wanted: Chief for Change

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th44C1K480Last year when I started reading educational missives from the Chiefs for Change, for a minute or two I wondered what it takes to be a member of  Chiefs for Change. In case you didn’t know, Chiefs for Change is a national organization made up of seven current state education superintendents and then six more Members Emeritus. Which as far as I can tell, emeritus means guys who were once state superintendents but are now just citizens trying to make a buck off of education. According to their web site, they are committed to putting children first through bold, visionary education reform that will increase student achievement and prepare students for success in college and careers  ( http://chiefsforchange.org/#sthash.7xCG3Clu.dpuf) It’s pretty heady stuff.

I don’t need to tell you that they are big supporters of Common Core, TFA, Charters Schools and accountability. They are such big supporters of accountability that one member, New Mexico’s Education Commissioner Hanna Skandera, recently penned a press release on it. (http://chiefsforchange.org/chiefs-for-change-states-should-determine-what-is-best-for-their-students/). Quite obviously they’ve spent a lot of time on this accountability thing, however it seems they are using a rather skewed definition of accountability.

Did you know that New Mexico has an Indian Education Act? In this Act is a provision calling for the recruitment and training of Native American teachers and the maintenance of native tongues. In the middle of last decade the Indian Education Division partnered with the University of New Mexico and established the Native American Teacher Training Program. It was a program that has very successfully trained Native American Teachers and Administrators and helped address the needs of school districts with large Indian populations. It is something New Mexico should be very proud of. It was also compliant with the law.

Skandera apparently decided that the law was for other people. She took $800k from the Indian Education and gave it to….Teach for America. TFA spent 1% of that, or $8000, on recruitment of Native American Teachers. Now they probably spent an additional 8k to hire someone to tweet out love for Cochise or Crazy Horse, but that’s another story. The story here is about ignoring the law and rewarding the players who follow your own agenda. That contract by the way was a sole-source contract.

Speaking of contracts, New Mexico is also involved with a potential law suit over the awarding of $240 million contract to Pearson. The best part of this one is that it allowed the New Mexico Commissioner to spread her will to 14 other states, as New Mexico was in charge of the bidding process for a consortium of states. Of course the state claims the potential suit has no merit, but last month a judge disagreed. Judge Sarah Singleton put the contract on hold until further review. (http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/06/11/core-business-major-testing-company-pearson-lands-controversial-common-core/)

Manipulating bids seems to be a common thread with this group. Lets look at Paul Pastorek, another Emeritus member. If you listen to a former LDOE employee, Pastorek had a practice of manipulating qualification requirements for several New Orleans Charter Schools so that they could get millions in federal grants. (http://louisianavoice.com/2014/05/19/ldoe-under-pastorek-and-white-manipulated-data-for-grant-eligibility-for-rsd-charter-schools-former-employee-claims/) Even though these were brand new schools he instructed them to present the data to make them eligible for federal grants. Now this is all just alleged but  once again, it appears the rules are for other people.

Do we need to even mention another emeritus member, Tony Bennett? ((http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/do_the_math/2013/08/tony_bennett_education_an_astonishing_act_of_statistical_chutzpah_in_the.html)He decided the very system he created wasn’t intended for him. He allegedly “corrected” school grades to reflect positively on a large donor. Read the referenced article and tell me that math doesn’t sound like post-equating, but what do I know, I’m no chief for change.

This brings me to my two favorite members, John White and Kevin Huffman. These two gentleman have had a very bad week. White’s boss, though White contends he doesn’t have the authority to do so, withdrew Louisiana from PAARC and is looking for an exit to Common Core. White has been loudly protesting this to whomever will listen.

Here’s a fun game I’d like you to play with me. Pick a policy at work your boss has recently changed. Now walk into his office and tell him he doesn’t have the authority to change it. Better yet, skip his office and just go to the break room and loudly proclaim to everyone that he doesn’t have a right to make that change and your not going to follow it.  Let me know how that works out for you.

Apparently Mr. White is also a fan of the way New Mexico does things because as Mercedes Schneider outlines (http://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/john-whites-parcc-contract-problems/) he likes the manipulation of a contract as well. Add to this, Mr. White also has his hands full explaining the failings of his assessment department. There are accusations ranging from incompetence to outright corruption. Once again the prevailing theory seems to be, we make the rules so we get to decide how they are interpreted. Let’s see how long it takes Mr. White to move to that Emeritus status.

Another candidate for emeritus status, Kevin Huffman and the Tennessee Department of Education portend to understand the nuances of legislation better then the people who wrote it. He claims that when he screwed up getting TCAP results out on time, recently passed legislation gave him the power to waive those scores as part of students final grades. At least that’s his interpretation. Unfortunately for Mr Huffman, fifteen republican legislators disagree. They’ve submitted a formal request for his resignation based on the fact that he broke the law. (http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2014/06/19/tennessee-republicans-call-kevin-huffmans-resignation/10914485/#_=_)

I’m thinking his fellow Chief Cerf can help him get a nice lucrative job in the private industry. I know this seems like piling on, but Cerf was New Jersey’s Commisioner until a couple of months ago when he took a job with educational software company Amplify. Apparently he fended this job off for a number of months but now couldn’t resist. Who could with the recent growth in the education market. Growth brought on by policies advocated by Chiefs for Change. I particularly like Cerf’s summative quote, “I have based policy decision on what I think is the best interest of students,” Cerf said. “Sometimes that is not consistent with consensus or a lack of controversy.”

One incident is not indicative of a whole organization, but two, three, four….as my mother used to say, you are the company you keep. It doesn’t seem like this is a good crowd to hang with. In fact, if my kids came home from school and told me this was their posse, I think we’d be having a conversation about picking friends. I think all of the Chiefs, and especially Mr. Huffman and Mr. White have a little explaining to do. The question being, what happens when all of an organizations members are considered emeritus?

th25U343JVWhen I was younger I took some training to work with children. The point was driven home that kids will emulate what you are doing when you don’t think they are looking or listening. I’ve always tried to keep that in mind as I went about my daily routine. My question though, is do the Chiefs of Change understand that their actions speak as loud as their words? Do they realize that in their zeal to prepare kids for success in college and career, they are modeling behavior that will undermine that success?  The children are watching and we owe it to them to make sure that the definition they get of accountability is an accurate one.

 

 

 

 

Universal Pre-k is not a blind trust

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IMG_5327 - CopyOne area of education reform that everybody seems to agree on is the need for quality pre-k. There is a growing body of evidence that links the growing achievement gap to the lack of quality pre-k. This gap begins before children even begin their formal education and once that gap is established, it is never overcome. However, in shrinking that gap we need to make sure we are not increasing the opportunity gap in our society. We need to ensure that early childhood education isn’t used to propel some children down one track and others down another.

A key component of the achievement gap stems from the fact that children from lower income and EL populations are exposed to fewer words at home during the formative years. This results in a slower cognitive development. They are also exposed to less social contact which slows social development and means that wealthier children are better prepared to learn when they start kindergarten. Now some may counter with studies that show that things even out by third grade, but if somebody wanted you to run a race and start a mile back under the guise that you’d probably catch up by mile three, would you leap at the opportunity? Pre-K gives the opportunity for all to start from the same starting line.

In the interest of public disclosure, prior to having children, I would have argued against the necessity of pre-k. My position at that time was that children were best left with their parents until they started kindergarten. However, after watching my children flourish by attending day care since being 6 weeks old, I’ve abandoned this position. I feel no shame in admitting that there is no way that my wife and I would have been able to expose them to all the opportunities that their daycare/pre-school has offered them. We are confident that they will be ready for kindergarten when it comes time to transition because of the learning environment their teachers provided. This has lead me to believe that all children should have this opportunity.

Overwhelmingly, based on empirical evidence, it appears that making universal pre-k available is a no brainer. Unfortunately, I can’t get my Spidey sense to stop tingling on the back of my neck. In order for it to be successful pre-k has to mirror child development and the problem is, the same people talking up universal pre-k are the same ones who have advocated for more rigor in kindergarten. These are the same people who constantly are focusing on making kids career and college ready starting in kindergarten. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/02/career-test-for-kindergar_0_n_1644215.html ) My daughter wants to be an artist, so I’m not quite sure how you test for that.

Education privateers are constantly focusing on reading, math and other measurable skills, disregarding learning through play. Yet research clearly shows the importance of play. (http://eyeonearlyeducation.com/2012/05/07/how-do-young-children-learn-through-play/)So I’m a little concerned that we’ll be heading down the wrong path curriculum wise with this brand new universal pre-K plan. I have a hard time buying the fact that the testing and consulting industry is willing to exploit our kindergarten through twelfth graders but they’d have the best interests at heart for our youngest learners.

Then you take into account Peter Greene’s fantastic article on why the test matters.(http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/2014/03/why-ccss-cant-be-decoupled.html?m=0) You have to ask, do you honestly think for one minute that these people will naturally stop at kindergarten? Pre-K offers the perfect opportunity to start collecting “tags” even earlier. Let’s get these kids on the right path before they have the opportunity to start developing on their own. You brown skin ones head to the “no questions follow orders” isle, you others to the “creative think out of the box” section, which translates into bosses and followers. Eyes front now.

Tying in with the for mentioned is that business is always looking for a new market and urban education theorists are always saying ending our current education system is paramount, so what if you could bring both interests together? KIPP is way ahead of you. (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/02/04/20kipp.h28.html?r=254053340&preview=1) Since 2009 they’ve been working on cashing in on this emerging market. My favorite quote from the referenced article is, “In some communities, children will be able to begin preschool in a KIPP charter school and make the transition into a KIPP middle school in 5th grade.” If that doesn’t chill you to the bone then you have a better constitution then I do. It puts a whole new meaning on the phrase “cradle to the grave.”

People don’t like the word “indoctrination”. The truth though is that a certain amount of indoctrination is necessary in order for a society to smoothly function. During the wave of immigrants that arrived in America in the early 1900’s it became apparent that schools were the best vehicle for educating young immigrants about the values of an American society. Now the values of America have grown much more diverse but I argue that makes time in public schools even more important. Are we going to now let KIPP exchange their values for American values or even allow the further splintering of American society by letting every charter operator have their time with our children’s formative years? Like I said, its pretty scary.

All that being said, universal pre-k is a hard issue to raise a red flag on. Any time you bring up the fact that you may have concerns about what universal pre-k would actually look like, you’re instantly met with disdainful looks and an utopian description of its curriculum. Better yet, you may get that blanket statement of, “pre-k is wonderful”. It’s another one of those subjects that critical discussion on is frowned upon. You are either “for” or “against”.

Yet all I keep hearing about is more rigor and less play. Another favorite quote from above article is, “They are thrilled by their progress,” Ms. Young said, but added she and her young staff are discovering that in the midst of all this academic activity, 5-year-olds also need some breaks. Sometimes a teacher just has to make time for a freeze dance, in which the children dance for a bit and “freeze” when the music stops.” Yikes! Perhaps the freeze dance should stop every once in a while so some academic activity could come in and not the other way around. I also like the fact that they are just discovering that sometimes  5-year-olds need a break. These aren’t random test subject either. They are our children and future key player in our society.

Its important to keep in mind that despite altering the use of language,  introducing something that initially appears good is what education privateers do best. TFA, intelligent energetic young people helping out hard to staff school districts? Charter schools, mini-labs where educational specialists craft new best practices? Common Core, more stringent standards that expect more from children? Yea, that’s not what any of those do and now they are so firmly entrenched it takes an act of congress to move them. If only we’d been more vigilant.

I believe universal pre-k is next on the list and this time we can be prepared. The way to control what shape it takes is through vigilance and education. Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated into not questioning. Questioning does not automatically put you in the against column. Educate yourself on what child development experts say. Don’t let pre-k be like Common Core, developed without the input of child development specialists.

The concept of pre-K is still an essential one, but it must reflect how children actually learn. It must entail a curriculum that encompasses as much play as it does academic work. Done correctly, it can prepare children to be lifelong learners. Done incorrectly, it can lead to further stratification of our society. Pre-k is too important to be entrusted into the hands of private enterprise. We must be careful that in attempting to close the achievement gap, we don’t widen the opportunity gap.

 

 

 

 

The Importance of School Board Races

thY9QH7X5LI often speak about public schools as democratic institutions. Now this sounds great but what exactly does that mean and why is it so important. Since here in Tennessee we’ve got a bunch of school board elections coming up, this seems like as good a time as any to discuss it. Though these races are often overshadowed by more high profile offices, they are every bit as important as who sits on the local city council or who represents you up at the statehouse.

School boards are responsible for establishing the basic organizational structure of the local school system. Taking input from the community they craft policy reflective of how residents want their children educated. They oversee the dispersal and usage of funds. They act as oversight to ensure that schools are meeting the goals as established by local citizens. They act as policymakers, administrators, and representatives.

Some of you may be thinking, “I don’t have kids in the school system, so this doesn’t really affect me.”. Truth is we all have kids in the school system. These children represent the future make up of our communities. The quality of service received in the future depends on little Johnny or Jane getting a proper education today. Today’s student represents a communities future police force, ambulance crews, and firefighters. They will be future business owners and community leaders. The people who will be making policy decisions for the entire community are sitting in classrooms right now. It’s pretty important that they are getting a good education and one that is representative of the local communities mores.

Back in the early 80’s a commission was formed by then Secretary of Education T.H. Bell to study the country’s educational system. The report they created, A Nation at Risk, was like a starter gun to the reform movement. Despite its results being debatable and contradicted by a later report, this report set off a tsunami of education reform efforts. Luckily not everybody went crazy and some folks tried to hold on to some sanity. These folks quickly became targets for the reform movement.

It started first with the unions. After all, they were an easy target. After years of doing exceptional work they had slipped into bloat which made them easy to attack. Over the last few decades we’ve seen collective bargaining rights, pay roll deducted dues, right to representation all come under attack. Today, and please don’t take offense my union friends, the unions remain as but a shell of their former selves and serve mainly as straw man for the attackers of public education. I pray that changes and I’ve seen several signs of late that signify unions may be crawling out of their stupor, but the reformers have won this round.

The next target was teachers. The amount of scapegoating we’ve seen over the last several decades is mind boggling. By characterizing teachers as lazy, undereducated, un-willing to change, and basically ineffectual the reform movement has nullified the voice of the most qualified to speak on the effectiveness of our education system. I always like to say, it’s like trying to run a restaurant without ever talking to the waiters. Its lunacy.

It is worth noting though, that when tragedy strikes who rises to the challenge? The past couple of years have left us with many heroic images of teachers at Sandy Hook and other national tragedies. Despite being vilified by reformers, when called to make the ultimate sacrifice teachers rarely fail to put their charges first. Vilify them all you want but they daily prove their adage, “It’s not just a job. It’s a calling.” It’s time to give them their voice back.

The next target is the local school board. It’s easy to go to 50 different State Departments of Education, infiltrate them with like believers and then pass legislation to put in place your privatization schemes. If you think that’s trending into the land of conspiracy nuts then I urge you to follow the money. The last 5 years, thanks in a large part due to Race to the Top, there has been an explosion in the education market. There are more consultants, curriculum creators, testing companies, test preparation companies, Charter operators, teacher temp agencies, and the list goes on, in the history of public education. There’s a lot of green in the air and getting those local yokels to buy into your snake oil is hard work. Best get rid of them.

Well if infiltrating worked on the state level, why not on the local level. Again think I’m getting into the conspiracy nut realm? Pull the bios for the assistant commissioners of the Tennessee Department of Education and note how many of them have Teach for America on their resume. I feel pretty good that you could do the same with Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut and find  a similar reformer common thread. Take a look at Atlanta’s recent school board election. (http://www.atlantaprogressivenews.com/interspire/news/2013/08/14/teach-for-america-agenda-advanced-by-four-alumni-seeking-aps-seats-(update-1).html) It is nuts, just not in a way that one would think.

The last several years the amount of spending on School Board races has gone through the roof. Look at this article from 2012, (http://www.nashvillescene.com/pitw/archives/2012/07/16/money-transforms-school-board-race-into-thunderdome-for-elites) Seventeen candidate’s raising $377,703 is a whole lot of money. People and organizations don’t keep their money unless they make sound investments. The question here, is what exactly are these donors investing in? My opinion is that they are investing in a subversion of the democratic process but you’re free to form your own opinion.

Keep in mind that if reform candidates win these elections our voice as citizens is lost. They will follow the will of outside forces and even cede control to state agencies heavily influenced by outside voices. Decision that are not reflective of the local community will be made. Take a look at Jeffco County in Colorado. (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_25846728/loud-crowd-greets-jeffco-board-at-superintendent-hiring). It puts decision making in hands of fewer people and entertains less contrasting views. So go our schools, so goes our communities. Are you starting to realize just what’s at stake?

20140528_013123_Jeffco-Schools-Board-Meeting-2So the question becomes how do we make sure that the democratic process is not subverted. The answer is simple. We make educated votes and we help others make educated votes. I know it’s summertime and the last thing parents want to think about is school related issues but this is important for our children. We owe it to them to carefully vet each candidate. Ask yourself, if I call them with an issue will they take my call or will they be to busy with an outsiders agenda. There are a multitude of candidate forums these next couple of months, make plans to attend and ask questions. Its the future of our community that’s at stake.

All candidates are not exactly candid about their beliefs and affiliations, that’s why this vetting process is so important. They are betting that we are too concerned with vacation activities and resting up from an arduous school year to dive deeper then what they tell us. Please don’t make that a fulfilled prophecy. Please stand up and protect the future of our communities. Don’t let them do to citizen’s what they’ve already done to Unions and Teachers.

Accountability Commissioner Huffman Style

th-3Growing results while closing achievement gaps is incredibly hard work,” said Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “The goal of Tennessee’s accountability model is that all students grow. Accountability data help us sharpen our focus on the students who need added support.

I love the above quote. Say it with me now…accountability model. The renaming of test scores as accountability data, is brilliant. I hope the irony isn’t lost on you. The department that seems to have no accountability is tossing the word around like beads during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Which leads me to question, are they perhaps using a different definition then the one I am using? Reformers are so good at co-opting language that perhaps there is a new definition of accountability and I’m no aware of it.

First place I decided to check was the glossary of Education Reform. I typed in the word “accountability” and I got four results, Summative Assessment, High-Stakes Test, Test Accommodations, and Equity. None of those are what I was looking for. Back to the drawing board I went.

After looking around for a while I stumbled upon the Devils Dictionary of Education Reform and I found this one, “accountability – holding the 99%, especially teachers, students and administrators, responsible for the damage done by the 1%.” That one seems to fit perfectly. The TNDOE was trying to hold everyone else accountable while failing to meet their own responsibilities.

Let’s look at how accountability is applied in Commissioner Huffman’s world. By now it’s old news that test scores were delayed and that waivers of a state statute had been granted, but more then a few people have been wondering where the TNDOE of education got that kind of power. I decided not to speculate and just go straight to the horses mouth and ask them. This is the response I got.

Mr. Weber:

 

Your email was forwarded to me for response.  The waiver authority you referenced in your 2013 email below was based on Tenn. Code Ann. §49-13-105.  With limited exceptions, this law authorizes the sponsor of a proposed public charter school to apply to either the local education agency (LEA) or to the commissioner of education for a waiver of any Tennessee State Board of Education (SBE) rule or state statute that inhibits or hinders the proposed charter school’s ability to meet its goals or comply with its mission statement.

 

During the past legislative session, the general assembly passed a new law granting the commissioner of education the same waiver authority for LEAs that was previously only available to charter schools.  Pursuant to Chapter 672 of the Public Acts of 2014, upon application by an LEA, the commissioner of education may waive (with limited exceptions) any SBE rule or state statute that inhibits or hinders the LEA’s ability to meet its goals or comply with its mission.  Based on the language of the public chapter, only LEAs may apply to the commissioner for waivers of state statutes or SBE rules.  I have attached the new public chapter to this email for your review. 

and here’s the statute referenced,

(1) Upon applic~tion by)he !.£AJor one en or more of its schools, the

commissioner of education may waivec.:any statel)oard rule or statute that inhibits or

hinders the LEA’s ability to meet its goals or comply with its mission. However, the

commissioner may not waive regulatory or statutory requirements related to:

(A) Federal and state civil rights;

(B) Federal, state and local health and safety;

(C) Federal and state public records;

(D) Immunizations;

(E) Possession of weapons on school grounds;

(F) Background checks and fingerprinting of personnel;

(G) Federal and state special education services;

(H) Student due process

(I) Parental rights;

(J) Federal and state student assessment and accountability;

(K) Open meetings;

(L) Educators’ due process rights; and

(M) Reductions in teachers’ salaries.

(N) Employee rights, salaries and benefits; and

(0) Licensure of employees.

SECTION 2. This act shall take effect upon becoming a law,

See that part that I made bold? That part about Federal and state assessment and accountability, it would be my interpretation that he doesn’t have the authority to waive the use of the accountability data. That makes this a classic use of the “say it with a straight face like your serious and maybe people will believe you” policy. Around my house we refer to that as avoiding accountability. Its also symptamatic of  the arrogance that grows when nobody actually holds you accountable.

Years ago I read an article about how upper middle class kids were ending up in trouble because all their lives nobody and had ever held them accountable. Every time they got in trouble, mommy and daddy would just show up and make everything all right. Then the child got in his early 20’s and would get in serious trouble. They would be shocked because mommy and daddy suddenly couldn’t or wouldn’t help. The young person had absolutely no concept of what accountability meant and were at a loss of how to practice it. Its my opinion that we’ve gotten to a similar place with Commissioner Huffman.

Apparently there is a lack of understanding of the very concept he is demanding from others. Instead of facing up to a very major failing of those under his leadership, he tries to change the rules to mitigate the seriousness of their actions. Any of you with small children are all to familiar with this kind of behavior. My children attempt it all the time. When it happens, we sit them down, discuss the actual facts of what transpired, their role in it and the consequences of their actions. We then lay out a corrective course of action. It’s extremely important to run this process continually because its the only way my children fully understand the concept of accountability and can grow to become accountable adults.

The amazing part of all this is that the TNDOE tries to create this smoke screen without abdicating any control. Waivers have been granted to allow grades to be issued without test scores being factored in, but teachers TVASS scores will still include the corrupted scores. In what world does that make any sense at all? In essence they are trying to create a diversion from their inability to be accountable while still trying to hold others accountable. It’s absolutely ludicrous and further demonstrates the Commissioners lack of understanding of the concept.

I’ve been managing people since I was in my mid-teens. One of the first lessons I ever recieved on management and leadership was to not ask of anybody something that you would not ask of yourself. Its a lesson Commissioner Huffman should take to heart. As President Obama used to like to say, this is a potential ‘teachable moment”. The TNDOE should step up and own the mistake they made. They should demonstrate that they recognize the severity of their actions and offer transparent explanations as to why it happen. Show parents their children’s actual tests and results. They need to offer explanation of  the answers so that everyone can understand how the test scores were arrived at. Then it should be acknowledged that you can’t hold others accountable when you are not meeting your own responsibilities  and teachers should receive the same waivers as students. If he was willing to do the right thing, Commissioner Huffman could use this fiasco to actually instill more confidence in the policies he’s promoting and bring a greater understanding to the testing process.

Right now the ball is in Mr Huffman’s court, unfortunately he’s not showing signs of picking it up and running with it. Luckily we have some adults in charge to offer guidance. Representatives Gloria Johnson, Bo Mitchell, and Mike Stewart are demonstrating that they are willing to have that tough conversation with the TNDOE if necessary and we should give them full support. Sometimes we all need a little guidence and thats why we elected these people. Its a system of checks and balances but it only works when everybody does their part.

I still hold out hope that everybody will do the right thing and step up t0 the plate. This fiasco creates the perfect opportunity to bring more transparency to our testing policies and demonstrate to our children that we are not demanding anything of them that we don’t demand from ourselves. That should be the goal of Tennessee’s accountability model, but first we all need to be working off of the same definition.

 

 

 

 

Are we even having the right conversation?

thVYMRRYRPIt seems like I spend an inordinate amount of time talking about education policy. As a parent and the spouse of a teacher, it always seems to come up. Still with all that time spent talking I find my self wondering if we are even having the right conversations. We talk ad nauseam about TFA, Charter Schools, testing and such but even though poverty is recognized as a leading factor in education quality, we spend precious little time discussing solutions for it.

Here’s an example. I was talking with a teacher friend the other day about a mutual friend who’s backing a voucher policy even though their child is zoned for a very good school. My teacher friend took a little bit of exception to my proclaiming the proffered school as a good school. “How do you know its a good school?” she asked, “What are you basing your assessment on?”

My reply was the typical, their test scores are good and they have this incredible parental involvement. That only served to incense my teacher friend more. “Parental involvement! What does that mean and how does that demonstrate the quality of a school?” I gave my patented “schools are the center of the community and the more involvement the community has, the better the school” speech, but she wasn’t buying. Her argument was that parental involvement could speak just as much to socio-economic status as it could to quality of school.

She proceeded to explain to me that she works in a school that is 97% FRL with children from over fifty different countries. On paper they look like a terrible school because they have so little parental involvement but how do you have parental involvement when the children barely speak English let alone the parents? How do you have parental involvement when parent’s incomes are so low that not only do both parents have to work but both have to work two jobs? That doesn’t even cover the kids who live in homes where parents are dealing with addiction and legal problems. The truth is, theirs is an excellent school. Parental involvement becomes one of those buzz words that sound great but in reality not all are capable of practicing.

Despite the lack of parental involvement the staff at this school is still deeply involved in the community. Teachers deliver boxes of food to families so that they can eat during extended school breaks. They refer family members to community services for health and social reasons as well. My teacher friend explained to me, “Every single day I give shoes to a child that doesn’t have shoes. I give clothing to a child that doesn’t have them. Right here in the United States I have to give something to some child who lacking a basic necessity. Sometimes that necessity includes love. You have no idea how much myself and the staff love those children. Yet all anybody wants to measure schools by is parental involvement and test scores.” Read that quote again and realize just what that means.

I was a little taken aback for a minute. Teachers are supposed to be teaching not providing social services right? Unfortunately we’ve made social services a big part of a teachers job. There are wonderful social organizations doing wonderful work, but as a newly arriving resident, how do you find them? Where is the one place everybody knows to go and they have to take you? Who has better insight into the things students need then the people who are educating them. Hence teachers end up spending as much time providing social services as they do educating children. After all teachers are in the business of educating and sometimes you have to get a child to a place where they are ready to learn. You know, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

We all wish this wasn’t true, unfortunately its a reality that is all too true. Its also one we don’t wish to discuss. Instead we focus on tests that are supposed to give an accurate representation of growth, but how accurate are they really. Do they really measure what that teacher means to that child and their community? I know of teachers that have been invited to attend a students Quinceanera. Teachers who regularly attend graduations for former students. Teachers that intervene for parents when they can’t communicate with their children. This is the commitment that teachers are making to these children and their families, yet where on the value added model does that show up? Where is the measurement of the lives saved daily.

Instead we get charter operators that decry failing schools and broken systems so that they can come in and take the students with the most involved parents. After all parental involvement is a big crowing point of charter schools. They talk about it as if they are so much better at it then traditional schools when the reality is, it has as much to do with socio-economic status as it does specific programs. Newer chains talk about models that provide demographics of 50% FRL, because a more even distribution is better for all. Yet when do traditional schools get this luxury and after charters remove the most involved parents who is left? The students that require even more social services. It’s a great system isn’t it?

We have put an inordinate amount of money into Common Core Standards and an equally inordinate amount of time into discussing how much better they are going to make life, but pray tell, how are the standards going to help the children I’ve described? Imagine if Gates would spent the money he’s spent on Common Core standards on affordable housing? What if he would have used that money to insure that every school had a psychologist and a school nurse? I’d be willing to bet that test scores would rise.

I know a Title I coordinator that says the next time somebody wants to talk about test scores and how bad the school is doing, she’ll invite them along on a food delivery to discuss why those scores are so low. Let them see the actual people connected to those test scores and how they actually live. I think its an excellent idea but I’m not sure how effective it would be. It would probably just lead to a discussion about how education can provide a pathway out of this life status. That’s a fine conversation about the future, unfortunately these children are living in the present.

I find it interesting as well that the people helping these children daily navigate the pathways to a better life are making between 35k and 60k a year, meanwhile the ones who are attempting to architect a new educational system are making between 250k and 400k a year. I guess that’s what the market will bear though and who am I to argue with what the market will bear? Still in adding it up, it appears to me that we are demonizing the wrong people. We are also lauding the wrong people. Martin Luther was a reformer, nobody ever paid him 400k a year.

The time is way past for us to have an honest discussion about what really impacts the children in this countries education. It time for people that claim they are all about, “the children” to actually be “all about the children”. Teach for America has begun to craft a message of diversity and position themselves as defenders of the downtrodden. They will talk about how they are providing a great teacher for those poor impoverished children, yet they sit on an account with well over 300 million dollars in it and still collect 5k a corps member from districts that are scraping to get by. What you quickly realize is the only poor people in the reform movement are the students.

Its time that we stop measuring a teacher’s value on just the things that we can currently measure. I’d be willing to bet we’ve all had teachers who we didn’t fully appreciate until we were well out of school. Teachers don’t just teach us to read and write, along with our parents they shape the people we will become. Schools are not just places to gather facts. They are places to grow and to learn how to become good citizens and for us all to discover our place in society. Until we have those conversations that we’ve been resisting, our educational system will never reach its full potential. Its time we start having the right conversations.