Here We Go Again

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learnHere we go again. In Tennessee, like many states in the Union, we test our students using standardized tests every April. In May and June, the results come out and the questioning begins. The last couple of years have seen the questioning get louder and louder. Last year, it was over a delay in test results. This year, teachers are taking to social media, questioning the quick scores because they seem abnormally high. Are they, though?

Well, if you are like most parents, you probably don’t know what a quick score is. I certainly didn’t. So I went to the Tennessee Department of Education website for a definition. I didn’t find a definition, but I did find this:

Q47: Should I use my district’s/school’s quick scores for accountability determinations?

Due to post equating and psychometric reviews on assessment data, quick scores might look different from final accountability results. Districts may aggregate their numbers for their own data analysis; however, these are merely estimates. There is always the potential for changes in scoring. In all cases, we do not keep a record of students for whom scores change. Quick scores are embargoed which means they are not meant for public dissemination.

So that sounds pretty serious, but no more clear than it was before I checked. One thing was clear – that in order to interpret the quick scores you needed to know the cut scores. You got it, back to the web site.  That’s where I found this: The index cut scores are an estimate of the number of items the student would be expected to answer correctly to achieve basic, proficient, and advanced designation if there had been 100 such items for each category.

Okay, that’s not much clearer, but it’s clear that I needed the cut scores in order to assess the value of the quick scores. Clearly, this isn’t like Ms. Johnson’s 5th grade class where there were 50 questions and each one you got right earned you two points, and if you got between 80 and 90 points you got a “B,” 90 to 100 an “A,” and so on. Under the state scenario a student receives a score, say an 87, and what ever number the cut score is set at determines whether the student is proficient or advanced. If the cut score is set at 88, the child would be considered basic. If the cut score is 86, they are proficient. Sounds fairly simple, but there are questions about how cut scores are derived at.

But let’s put aside any suspicions and ask, where are the cut scores? Well, they aren’t available yet because arriving at them means some additional calculations need to occur. Well of course they do, didn’t we have a similar issue last year? Instead of releasing the cut scores, on Friday, Education Commissioner McQueen released this cryptic letter explaining why they weren’t available:

Directors,

I want to thank you for your work in finalizing student demographic and teacher claiming information to close this year’s TCAP cycle. I know many of you have received your quick scores for student grading and are anxious to understand more about your district’s overall performance. Though the department made the decision in 2014 to stop associating TCAP performance levels with quick score results, we do want to provide information as accurately, transparently, and quickly as possible.

To that end, the division of data and research will provide a detailed communication regarding quick score use and interpretation in our May 27 Director Update, followed by a release of preliminary data regarding quick score relationships to raw scores and cut scores to determine proficient (versus non-proficient) on June 1. For now, I caution you to avoid communicating any results regarding proficiency rates based on the 2015 quick scores using performance level relationships that were last calculated and communicated in 2013.

Quick scores are generated for use in student grading only. As such, there will not necessarily be a consistent relationship between quick scores and performance levels for achievement from year to year. Performance levels are determined first by raw score to scale score conversions and then through cut-scores defined by the standards setting process. Over the next couple of months, we will engage our TOSS working group for accountability in further conversation about how we address quick scores during the transition to TNReady. In the meantime, please look for the memo in the May 27 Director Update and the follow-up information on June 1. As a reminder, we will also include this timeline in today’s Director Update.

Best,

Candice

(I like the way she signs her memos “Candice.” After all, she’s just one of us, right?)

I’m not going to try and decipher exactly what all that means. It is obviously way more complicated than I can handle, so I’ll leave that to smarter minds than mine. However, I do have a couple thoughts on our student testing system that I’d like to share. Some things that I do understand and I don’t believe can be said enough.

Critics often say that we should run our school system like a business. Well, you can pick up any number of business books, and they will stress the value of having an evaluation system that stake holders all buy-in to. Without that buy-in, there is no value. If people don’t believe in the fidelity of the system, it becomes too easy to attribute outside factors to the results. In other words, they start to feel that data is being manipulated to augment an agenda that they are not privy to and not included in. I’m not saying results are being manipulated or not being manipulated when it comes to our student evaluation system, but I am saying that there seems be a growing belief that they are, and without some kind of change, that perception will only grow. I’ve always maintained that perception is nine-tenths of reality.

Candice is the one person who has the ability to reclaim that belief in the system. Imagine if she were to announce, that based on her listening tour, she is calling for a complete review of our testing process and its timelines. She recognizes that in its current configuration, the testing process is not meeting the needs of parents, administrators, teachers, or students. Timelines could be adjusted to ensure that when scores are delivered, all components are delivered and no one will have to speculate what they mean. Definitions and processes could be clarified so that all could understand the results without relying on “experts.” Because as it stands, nobody can give you a clear picture of what it all means, yet we spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on the test. (The below chart was created by a parent.)

calender

That’s a lot of focus on something that nobody can give a clear concise explanation of. What if parents were given copies of the test their children just took and were permitted to review these tests with them? What if teachers were permitted to see tests and judge the strength of the test questions? What if teachers were given Unless the process was truly flawed, greater transparency could only increase confidence in the way we test our children. Perhaps if we spent as much time defending stakeholder’s proprietary rights as we did testing companies, some faith would be restored.

Which leads me to my second thought and one that cannot be understated. We need to make sure that the public has a full understanding of exactly what a bell curve is and that it serves as a base for our measurement system. In a new posting, Jersey Jazzman, an education researcher and blogger, does an exceptional job of explaining how it all works. A bell curve is applied to the test results, and that means that some students will fall to the exceptional end of the scale and some students will fall to the other side, but the majority will fall in the middle. Let me spell that out further. While we are demanding that students do exceptional work, we are utilizing a measurement system that guarantees the majority of them will do average work. Because if too many of them do exceptional work, we’ll just make the test harder so that the majority fall back in the middle.

Let’s take it a step further. Since the evidence is pretty strong that standardized tests are a better measurement of socio-economic status than actual learning, who do you think will fall to the lower end of the curve? That’s right, our low income children and our children of color. Reformers will latch on to these scores to create strategies like charter schools, extended school days, and no-excuse discipline policies.  They will apply these strategies predominately to our low income children and children of color.

I recently brought a magician to a high-poverty elementary school to entertain the children. A teacher came up to thank me and made the comment that they don’t often get opportunities like this one due to the testing scrutiny they are subject to. Kids in poverty get more focus on what is measurable while wealthier kids enjoy a more well-rounded education. When was the last time you heard a call for longer school days in a wealthy district? What about the need for a no-excuse discipline policy? A test that just reinforces socio-economic status will just serve to create two separate and unequal education systems.

At a listening session for the upcoming Project RESET in Nashville a roomful of education professionals offered very insightful assessments of our educational system when the owner of a local charter school spoke up and proclaimed that we can talk about engagement, parental involvement, and diversity all we want, but we need to focus on achievement because 13 percent of students are not proficient in reading and to her that was unacceptable. To me, it sounds like she has a lack of understanding of how the system is designed, and that based on that design, the system is working. Because if that 13% ever became proficient, we would just adjust the test to make sure that either they or some other students fell back into that non-proficient status. Starting to feel like it’s a rigged system? It should.

At a luncheon the week before, in front of hundreds of civic leaders, Nashville Public Education Foundation, a main sponsor of Project RESET, president Shannon Hunt proclaimed that all students have the identical potential to achieve. Apparently, she hasn’t looked too closely at our measurement system because under that system, only a few have the chance to achieve at a high level, lest we, again, adjust the test. Many in the room will use those words to justify further privatizing a system that is already under attack, and again it will be our poor children and children of color who will be affected.

In Tennessee, we have the Achievement School District, which has the mission of taking the bottom 5% of schools up to the top 25% while ignoring the fact that there will always be a bottom 5%. The use of a bell curve goes one step further and insures there will always be below average schools and teachers. Or, as the reform movement likes to label them, failing schools and failing teachers. How many parents and community members are aware of this, and how many take the results at face value? Since NPEF is sponsoring Project RESET to reset the educational conversation in Nashville, this discussion of test scores and failing schools might be the area to start the reset. Perhaps we could have an honest conversation about what standardized test tell us.

Students are not alone in being held to a higher standard in a system that only allows a high output for a few students. Countless articles have been written about the need to have a great teacher in front of every class, yet each of those teachers will only be allowed to produce average outcomes. Because again, if all those teachers produced great outcomes, we’d have to redo the test to make sure those outcomes were average. I can hear the critics shaking their heads now. You’re oversimplifying it, they’ll say. They’ll point out that’s why there is an observational portion and a growth element added to the teacher evaluation system. And what happens when that observational portion produces results different than the test? We say the observations are biased and we re-address the scores.

It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out this summer. I don’t know if Tennessee needs high test scores to fortify the narrative that reform is working or low test scores to reinforce the need for the move to Common Core. I suspect I’ll know by the end of the summer. I do know that at some point the state will have to address the growing lack of faith in our evaluation system. At some point we will have to stop demanding that children produce at a high level in a system that guarantees the majority will produce at an average level. We will have to face facts that our evaluation system aids in the creation of inequalities and fails to give us a true picture of student outcomes. That is perhaps Candice’s biggest challenge.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Reset

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Nashville business leaders have decided that the education conversation, for whatever reason, is in need of a RESET. To begin this “reset,” the Nashville Public Education Foundation has commissioned a group out of Boston, the Parthenon Group, to do a study of Nashville’s education system. In NPEF’s words, in order to have a real conversation it’s important that we are all looking at the same data. They’ve also lined up a slew of respected voices, from Vice-Chancellors at respected universities to local school board members and respected business leaders, to help facilitate the conversation. All of it sounds very noble, but with the main event just three weeks away, something funny has happened. People have started to take a look at the players.

One of the most baffling traits of the reform movement is how they apparently think they are the only ones with access to the internet. They often try to sell stuff like it’s completely original only to have it debunked by a basic Google search. That’s what happening here. A simple search reveals some disturbing information about the group that is doing the study that will produce the data that we all will be looking at when they release their Benchmark Study this month. Data that will come through their lens.

The Parthenon Group is a worldwide organization out of Boston that consults in a variety of fields, education being one of them. A perfunctory look at their website reveals an education team lacking education experience. Almost all have an MBA and what little education experience there is comes from time spent with… wait for it… Teach for America. Okay, that’s a little troubling, but not necessarily a deal breaker. Let’s take a look at the things they’ve been involved in.

Again, just perusing their website reveals a propensity to look at avenues for their clients to make money off public education systems. In fact they seem to be quite thrilled with being able to find shortcomings in the current system. I will give them credit – they are not just trying to exploit public education here in the United States, but worldwide, including Dubai and India as well. One of the U.S. success stories touted on their site is their work with the New York City school system and the attempts to improve dropout rates. There is even a Time magazine article trumpeting this success.

Readers of Diane Ravitch are probably a little more familiar with this story. You see, this was part of the Gates Foundation’s foray into education reform. They paid the Parthenon Group to conduct a study that revealed a cause of increased dropout rates was kids attending large high schools, and they concluded that if those large schools were broken into smaller schools then dropout rates would decrease. An estimated two billion dollars was dedicated to this directive, and guess what? It failed, in their opinion. Did the perpetrators stick around and help solve the new issues they created? Nope, they just scampered off to their next data-revealed crisis: teachers and the Common Core standards.

Let’s make no mistake about the goals of the Parthenon Group: to make money for its investors. Here’s a PowerPoint Parthenon_20Perspectives_Investing_20in_20Education presentation they gave to potential investors back in 2009. It lays out clear as day how the education sector is ripe for some money making. Are we to believe that these dyed-in-the-wool capitalists have suddenly had a change of heart? Suddenly they are all about the kids and not the Benjamins? Color me skeptical.

To see more local evidence of the Parthenon Group’s work, we don’t even have to get on the internet. We just need to talk to the folks in Knoxville. That’s Rob Taylor of Knoxville talking about the Parthenon Group in the video above. In Knoxville, the school board commissioned the Parthenon Group to study their system and share their recommendations for improvement. Those recommendations included increasing class size and eliminating around 300 positions that included guidance counselors, psychologists, and librarians. It also produced the stunning comment that not all students are the same; some are more profitable than others. Knoxville paid over a million dollars for this brilliant advice.

In case you don’t want to look to the eastern part of the state, we can also look to the west in Memphis. Where a school district already $142 million in the red paid roughly $350k a month for the Parthenon Group’s expertise. The recommendation in Memphis? Merit pay for teachers with no added compensation for higher levels of education. A plan that has been proven ineffective countless times and that Memphis rejected as well. Starting to notice a pattern? Momma Bears, a Tennessee parent group, certainly did. So did another parent group Tennessee Parents.

The Parthenon Group’s missteps are not relegated to just K-12 education though. Some of you may be familiar with the Corinthian Colleges scandal. The Santa Ana company, one of the world’s largest for-profit college businesses, allegedly targeted low-income Californians through “aggressive marketing campaigns” that inaccurately represented job placement rates and school programs. Who touts Corinthian Colleges as one of their success stories and strongly recommended them to their investors? Why, none other than the Parthenon Group. Still not noticing a pattern? The pattern seems to be one of presenting ill conceived plans to clients.

Let’s be clear here, I’m not saying the Parthenon Group is the wrong group for providing data to RESET a conversation (well, I guess I am), but at the very least there is enough here that surely warrants a little digging by the local paper. But nope, they are not interested. When Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge brought these concerns to their attention, The Tennessean responded by writing a piece that focused on her not having read the Parthenon Group’s report – a report that is not yet complete and can only be read by scheduling an appointment and going down to their offices and watching a PowerPoint presentation. Numerous other Tennessean staff members negatively engaged her on social media attempting to deflect any criticism of the Parthenon Group by making her appear incompetent for not having read the report.

I personally called Tennessean reporter Jason Gonzales to discuss his article and asked him point blank if The Tennessean had a sponsorship role in Project RESET. He emphatically answered no, they are just producing a series of articles on the Nashville education system. Articles that all bear the Project RESET logo and have been a mixture of negative and calls to put aside petty politics. You know, politics that call for an equitable system for all kids. Today there was a positive article on Pre-K but it focused almost exclusively on Casa Azafran, and keep in mind Casa Azafran is a sponsor. Let me be clear, I am not questioning their work; by all accounts it’s exceptional. I just think there should be more transparency from The Tennessean. When I asked Jason if he thought that information surrounding the group conducting the study was relevant he answered with an equally emphatically no. The data from the study is important, he said, but not the conductors. Is this what investigative journalism has been reduced to?

I disagree with the position of the reporter, Jason Gonzales, and by proxy, The Tennessean. To RESET a conversation there has to be a level of trust between all parties and that requires transparency. In order for it to be a truly productive conversation, all parties need to feel there is no hidden agenda. That’s why you research the people with whom you are entering a discussion. What’s revealed shouldn’t necessarily prevent the discussion from taking place, but it certainly allows for the recognition of clues should an agenda start to be revealed. I don’t think asking our local news organization to do due diligence on the company that is providing the groundwork for the conversation is unreasonable. I am just a citizen, not a journalist, and was able to uncover the information presented here. Imagine what could be revealed by the trained eye of an investigative journalist. I understand the financial challenges news organizations face, but I can’t help but believe the readers want more information and less PR when it comes to the news.

Most citizens of Nashville trust The Tennessean. They believe the majority of things written there. They believe that the agenda set is a reflection of their own agenda, not one being driven by outside interests. They look for our local news media to connect the dots, not just write an article imbedded with random links and expect us to figure it all out.

Many moons ago, while pursuing a communications degree at Penn State, I got to cover the press conference for the search for the first journalist in space. The event was attended by the likes of Walter Cronkite, Geraldo Rivera, and such. I was fortunate to be allowed a question and asked, “The role of a journalist is to cover the news, not make it. By sending a journalist into space, are we not, in effect, subverting that role?”

Later in the day, the then Head of the Science and Technology Department came up to me and complimented me on the question. He said that he and his wife had spent the lunch hour discussing it and were unable to reach a conclusion. Tragic events with the Space program prevented the journalist- in-space initiative from proceeding, but I think the question I posed then is now more relevant than ever. I think it’s an internal discussion The Tennessean probably needs to have.

As far as the Project RESET event itself, I think as many Nashvillians as possible should attend. But they should do their research first. Then they should listen and evaluate who is saying what and is there agenda truly what’s best for Nashville. We do owe it to our children and our communities to pursue every avenue to improve a system that does remarkable work but is always in need of more solutions. I am not sure, based on the evidence readily available, made Nashville Public Education Foundation think the Parthenon Group was the right group to perform a study for this conversation and hopefully they’ll learn from it. The conversation on education is always saturated with calls for a system that holds people accountable.  In that sense we need to make sure that it’s a system that doesn’t just hold schools, teachers, and students accountable, but also politicians, consultants, and foundations. The Tennessean needs to play take an active part in that process and not just produce PR pieces for the influential.

RESET?

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reset-button-bell-01Like many of you, I spend a great deal of time thinking about education. Once I started blogging, I was always thinking about things to write about and what I wanted to say. After 50-some posts, I still don’t have a system for deciding what I want to write about. Sometimes I think it’s going to be one thing, and then I sit at the keyboard and it turns to something else.

This post was going to be about the Tennessee Achievement School District and their intent to further invade Nashville. How that’s what happens when you get kicked out of one community and you have to go find another to annoy. Then I was going to write about Charter School Week which, coincidentally, is the same week as Teacher Appreciation Week. But there was one thing that just kept sticking in my head, and so this time, I’m going to go local and tell you about a new extravaganza coming to Nashville.

The name of this event is RESET (Reimagining Education Starts with Everyone at the Table). How long do you think they had to fiddle with words before they got a sentence to fit the acronym? A major driver of this initiative is the Chamber of Commerce. Apparently, the business community is frustrated because too much of the conversation is being focused on the good of the child and the community when it should be focused on finding cheap labor that is adequately prepared for the uses of business.

They’ve got a fancy website, with a fancy survey, that is going to produce a fancy report. I took the survey and noticed the hallway that it walked me down. I am pretty confident that the report will show how we all want good schools, with good teachers, and our kids to be college and career ready. We may differ a little on the definition, but that’s going to be our starting point to work together, and anybody who is not willing to compromise, well…. that’s just putting adult needs first. This may or may not be true, but I do have some concerns about this new project.

My first problem is with the large amount of reform-type folks who are rallying around this “reset.” You’ve got the head of KIPP Nashville and the head of Valor Collegiate Academy, two local charters, all touting the glories of collaboration. I’m pretty familiar with how collaboration with the charter crowd works. You allow us to do what we want, adopt our policies, and don’t ask too many questions, and we are all good. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a charter school operator say, “Oh, we observed such-and-such in a public school and then thought, what a great idea. So we adopted it.” So their enthusiasm dampens mine.

Case in point: Randy Dowell of KIPP Nashville is quoted as saying, “I look forward to the day when Nashville takes on the larger issue of how to share lessons from great schools and apply them broadly so we can put more of Nashville’s students on the path to opportunity-filled lives. Every child and every parent – no matter where they live or what their resources are – deserves that. I’m hopeful that Project RESET will help bring that sort of focus to the discussion.” He is saying this at the same time he’s working with the state Achievement School District to take over one of our MNPS schools. If the state takes over a school and turns it over to KIPP, that school is no longer responsible to the community. It’s responsible to the state and the community of its creation. So which conversation are we resetting?

My next concern is the strong backing by the business community. These are the people who are always talking about how schools are failing to produce enough qualified workers to fuel a growing economy. Yet somehow the economy keeps growing and new businesses keep opening. About the only thing that remains stagnant is wages. Which you would think, based on the law of supply and demand, would be exploding. If there is a dearth of qualified workers, then companies must be willing to pay top dollar to retain them, right? Yeah, not so much it turns out. Wages continue to remain stagnant. Perhaps we can reset the conversation about a living wage as well.

The big thing, though, is the title of this project. According to the dictionary, reset means to set again. In other words, starting all over. Usually when I reset something it’s because it’s reached a stage where everything is so wrong that I have to start over. A couple weeks ago, my iPhone got so out of whack that I had to reset it back to factory settings. Am I to believe that MNPS is in the same position as my iPhone and the conversation needs to be completely reset?

We seem to be doing well enough that the President of the United States decided to come tout our high schools. Our pre-K expansion is worthy of a $33 million federal grant. Our graduation rates have risen 20 percentage points in 10 years, twice as fast as the state’s. We have, perhaps, due to being a refugee destination, the most diverse student population in the country. This presents several unique challenges and opportunities, certainly not a reset.

Things aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. We do have a majority of students failing to earn a score of 21 on the ACT (even though we force every junior in the state to take this college admissions exam), if that kind of thing is important to you. We do have schools that are in need of resources and more stability. If you take a close look at our lower achieving schools, you’ll see that they all share a high turnover rate in leadership roles. That needs to be addressed. But while we have kids and schools that are underperforming (based on test scores), we also have teachers, administrators, and students who are performing heroic feats every day. So forgive me if I don’t embrace a reset.

Here’s what I would embrace: an actual evidence-based conversation. One that is transparent on both sides. For example, LEAD Public Schools has been touting their upcoming graduation class having 100% college acceptance. A laudatory feat. However, how big was this class in 10th grade, and what happened to those who are no longer in this class? How are these kids going to pay for college, and are they potentially taking on debt that could have a future negative impact? What is LEAD’s actual spending per child compared to our community public schools?

In order to find answers to these questions, I have to file an open records request, and then I have to pay for copies of these records. When I get them, they are as opaque as if they’d been scratched on a napkin.  Looking at their budget, I can see they spend $12,401,257 on personnel, but what personnel? How much is spent on administration? Teachers? Teacher’s aides? School nurse? I don’t know, so once again I’m forced to file another open records request for a supposed public school. The same holds true if I try to obtain the actual number of students they serve. LEAD Public Schools touts themselves as a system of public schools, but they are clearly not-look at their funding, their selectivity of students, and their lack of transparency. Will that be part of the RESET.

Maybe I’m being a little jaded and guarded, but I’ve seen how this all plays out before. While we engage in conversation, the reform crowd continues dismantling public education. This upcoming extravaganza on May 30 is painted as a local event and not focused on national educational reform, but is that true? As leading reform advocate Neerav Kingsland points out, the reform movement has become more local. There was a time when all reform initiatives were led nationally by recognized leaders. Unfortunately for them, people caught on to the rhetoric and rejected it. So now reformers attack the system under guise of it being a local issue, when clearly it’s a coordinated national effort.

Jersey Jazzman, an education blogger from New Jersey, points out the rise of the “reasonable reformer.” He references EduShyster’s (Jennifer Berkshire, another education blogger) recent conversation with Peter Cunningham, creator of Education Post. Education Post was created so that we could supposedly have a better conversation about education. Sound familiar? Problem is that a better conversation seems to be putting aside opposition to policy that has been proven to be wrong and in some cases detrimental (i.e., unchecked charter growth, over testing, merit pay, etc.) It’s like trying to have a better conversation about democracy while abandoning the principle of one vote for each citizen.

In the reform world, what has happened with the decimation of public education in New Orleans and Washington, DC has been deemed a success. Denver is well on its way to the same end, so for the reformers, it’s time to expand. The problem is how to convert districts and get rid of public education fast enough without a natural disaster. Is RESET a potential method to speed that along? After all, Nashville has 13 new charter applications this year, to add to the 27 charters in Nashville we will already have. I don’t know, but I can’t say it’s not since we seem to be speeding along. I do know that a lot of money is being spent on Project RESET. Money that could really make a difference in our less fortunate schools. LEAD Public Schools has received a total of $1.3 million this year. I promise you my child’s school doesn’t receive even 5% of that. Can we reset that conversation?

I’m signed up to attend the big event at the end of the month, and I’ll let you know what it brings. I plan to listen but be vigilant. We’ll dialogue and see what the business community thinks a reset looks like. But don’t think for a moment if this turns out to be another one of those reform movement bait and switches that I won’t be ready. I fully expect to be painted as one of those negative types who are fueled by self-interest.

My wife is a teacher, so they’ll say I want to preserve the status quo to protect her job. Sure, that’s it, I’m afraid that my wife, with an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt and a Master’s degree from Tennessee State, won’t be able to get another $40k-a-year job. That argument is insulting, yet even during Teacher Appreciation Week it’s repeated ad nauseam. Come to think of it, that might be a good place for a reset.

Despite it all – the frustration, the fear, and the disagreements – I still love our public schools, and I still believe in our system. I still believe that community public schools are a cornerstone of our democracy and need to be preserved, not closed, torn down, or replaced by temporary housing. One of the comments in the article about the upcoming Project RESET event compared public policy to a marriage. When your marriage doesn’t work, you don’t just dump it and start over with a new one. You begin with the parts that are working and try to replicate them in the parts that aren’t. In other words, you don’t reset – you reclaim.

 

Bedtime for Reform

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keep-calm-and-please-go-to-sleepI love my children dearly but I am no fan of bedtime. Things at your house may be a little different, but at my house, it’s like standing behind a jet plane. The kids are going a million miles a minute. Questions are flying. Toys are sprawled everywhere. The noise is deafening. I’m alternately crying, begging, and yes, yelling, “Brush your teeth,” “Put your pajama’s on,” and “Get over here and listen to this book.”

All the while the kids are working off a different agenda. They realize that the day is coming to an end, and they’re not ready to let it go. It’s been a good day, and they want to milk it for everything they can. So they are fighting and talking and trying to create enough energy to delay the inevitable. Finally, though, the kids are settled into bed and the day comes to an end, and preparations begin for tomorrow. It was always a forgone conclusion that they would end up asleep at some point and the day would finally come to an end and that their protestations were pointless.

In my mind, that’s where we are with the reform movement in education right now. The day is coming to an end, and like my children, reformsters are kicking and screaming and making as much noise as they can to try and delay the inevitable. We have reached a point, that the reform movement was once engaged in battle against the status quo has become the status quo. As Nietzsche said, “Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you.”  I certainly don’t consider myself and other like-minded individuals monsters, but man have we been demonized by the reform movement, and now the abyss is gazing right back at them.

The reform movement has been in action long enough that we have a body of evidence to examine. It’s a body of evidence spanning some twenty-plus years, and it looks a whole lot like the status quo. Teach For America has been around since 1991, but as Gary Rubenstein points out, it has become this big blob with no real sense of direction or ability to evolve. A recent in-depth study on charters illustrates, that they have more in common with traditional schools than they’d like to admit. A look at voucher data debunks their value pretty, quickly and don’t get me started on achievement districts as blogger Crazy Crawfish points out, they are their own monstrosity.

When confronted with all this evidence, you would think reformers would start looking forward for new solutions and cast off the ones that have been proven ineffective. That would be the wrong assumption. In fact, it’s just the opposite: they double down in defense of the status quo. They accuse education experts of not believing in children of color.  They beg for more time. They create focus groups to study things we already know. They pretty much do everything that they’ve accused public education advocates of doing for years. Hello, kettle? This is pot, and guess what, you are black.

Meanwhile, there is a growing wave of public school advocates who are looking at ways to actually lead us down the paths of innovation. They are studying community schools. Others are looking at successful models from Columbia and Finland. There is a growing focus on education for the whole child instead of an overwhelming focus on the measurable (i.e. reading and math). These are all areas that research has shown to have the potential to be truly reformative. These are the subjects that should be making headlines.

Yet, the reformers still try to engage in muddying up the waters to buy more time for their agenda. Sometimes to the point that they ask you to ignore common sense. Charter operators continue to argue against the depletion of resources, even though its obvious that if I have one pile of money, each time I divide it, each portion is going to get smaller. Apparently not in the reform world. There, everybody continues to get all the resources they need and the portions remain the same – even if this isn’t realistic when it comes to actual  school budgeting, they’ll continue to make the argument.

These are the kind of ludicrous conversations that continue to eat up our time and focus. How many studies to we have to present or debunk in order to show the unsustainable practices of charter schools before it sinks in that they are not the panacea they’re made out to be? How many times must we slap the hands of a Achievement District for jockeying numbers before they accept the truth that it’s just not working? How many times and in how many ways must it be shown that charter schools do not perform better than public schools? None of these are isolated events. They are repeated over and over and over and still the reformers fight to maintain the status quo processes. Just like my kids asking for five more minutes – please.

I’ll be honest. I’m a little bit weary of these conversations. There are few things I enjoy more than a good philosophical discussion, but when the other party continues to ignore empirical evidence, it just becomes tiresome and makes it hard to take them serious. I long to move on to something a bit more meaningful. Truth is, I long for the day when I no longer feel compelled to write this blog because we are actually employing research backed best practices.

Reformers tend to further mimic my children in their desire to constantly be doing  something, seldom pausing to consider overall implications. It makes me think about what fellow blogger Rob Miller recently wrote, “The tendency to take action often leads to action without reason or research, which has the potential to cause more problems than it fixes.” Miller makes a compelling argument about slowing things down transferring our focus from the individual and onto the whole.

Instead of focusing on bad teachers, perhaps we should focus on all teachers. Instead of focusing on “low performing schools” we focus on all schools. And instead of trying to just quickly solve the problem, let’s examine what is causing the problem and adjust from there. There’s validity to the old saying of lets sleep on it and attack it with fresh minds in the morning.

The reform movement is afraid of rest though, they like to keep things in perpetual motion. They often declare a state of emergency and that “we can’t afford to waste a single second.” But are we really being effective if we are just in motion for motions sake? We have to resist the urge to get caught up in the noise and cling to failed practices just to give the illusion that we are “doing something.” Let’s not just do something. Let’s do something effective.

I have to guard myself against getting too caught up in my children’s energy level and their desire to prolong their bed time, because when I do, the process just gets lengthier. Conversations about whether Spiderman could beat up Hulk, much like conversations about charter schools vs public schools, do nothing but prolong the inevitable. Giving in to their demands for extra snacks, longer stories or another glass of water just means they’ll be getting to sleep a little later, but they are still going to sleep. The same holds true in reference to TFA, more time for achievement school districts or vouchers. All the protestations and whining isn’t going to change the fact that the day is coming to an end.

Its time for education reformers to truly grasp the title and close out this day and help make tomorrow better. Across the country, the voices of parents, teachers, and community member are being heard. They are ready for tomorrow to come, a bright sunrise on a new day with less testing, restored funding to arts, music, and PE, fewer charter schools, and happier kids with restored time to build character rooted in the innocence and simple pleasure of a joyous childhood. It’s past time to stop protecting the status quo and let the day come to a close. As Adlai E. Stevenson once said “Change is inevitable. Change for the better is a full-time job.”

 

 

Keeping it in Perspective.

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kidsThis week Metro Nashville School Board Member Jill Speering wrote a Facebook post that started with the following question:

At last week’s meeting, an MNPS Board member suggested that there are 35,00o seats in Metro Schools that lack “quality” so I’ve been thinking about this language and what this term means. What do we mean by student “success”? What do we mean by “quality” seats?

It’s a question that I wrestle with on a regular basis. As I’ve previously mentioned, I have two small children. My daughter, Avery, is 5 and half, (that half is extremely important to her), and a four-year-old named Peter . Six years ago when my wife was pregnant, we had many conversations about how we wanted to raise our children. We both agreed that we wanted independent, intellectually curious, verbal children who would be equipped to stand up for themselves and navigate the uncertainty that is life. Well, guess what I’ve learned in the last 5 years? I’ve learned that raising children with that skill set is a pain in the ass.

I’m not afraid to say it – it’s hard work and sometimes I’m not sure I’m equipped for it. I come home from a lousy day at work and they are ready with a thousand must-be-answered-now-not-later questions. If you tell them to do something, often they’ll question the motivation and offer their not-always-welcome insight. My son is fond of telling me I’m not in charge, God is. The other day he had a laundry basket on his head, and he was preparing to submerge it in the toilet. He was interested in what was in there. My daughter likes to proclaim she’s an artist as she spreads paint everywhere. Other times they’ll lay on the couch with their ipad and you’ll be lucky to get a grunt out of them.

Yesterday after I got home from a grueling day at work, everybody wanted to get a last bit of sledding in. It was late in the day and temperatures were dropping, so what was once snow was quickly transitioning into ice.  As we made our way to the sledding spot, Avery and her brother ran on the ice and got into other mischief that their mother and I tried to caution against. Of course, every rebuke was met by a defense of why they were engaged in said activity.

I was tired, grouchy, and getting cold. “We need to stop the back talk, or we are going home.” I said. “But Daddy….” Avery began. That was the last straw; I picked her up and immediately began the trek home. “I told you about that back talk. Now we are going home and no ipad when we get there”, I began to lecture. She bravely listened, fighting back a rebuttal. We’d gone about 10 yards when it became apparent that the dog wasn’t following. As I called for the dog,  but she wasn’t listening either.

“Daddy, I can get her to come.” My daughter had a plan.  “I get down and do my hands like this.” She said putting her hands together. “Please let me do it. I’m sorry, I know you said not to run but I just wanted to have more fun. I haven’t cried either because you always say crying makes it worse.”

It began to dawn on me that she was realizing a whole lot more than I was giving her credit for. I slowly let her down, and she called the dog. As the dog came along, I picked up my daughter, hugged her and told her I loved her. Then I asked her if we could please work on the back talk. She nodded yes. Her mother and brother caught up, and we went home.

When we got home, my daughter said she needed to have a conversation with just me. We went into her room and she started with, “I know I back talked but I called the dog and got her to come and I didn’t cry, because like you said, that just makes it worse. But since I did those…could I…um…please…have my ipad?” I looked her and repeated the “work on the back talk” question and then said yes. You may think I was a pushover, but in my mind she was practicing the skills that would serve her as an adult. She was taking in a situation, analyzing it, and proposing action. Skills that were actually more important than not back talking.

There is a thin line between critical thinking and back talk, but how is a child supposed to develop that skill if they are never allowed to practice? Self-analysis is an equally important skill. Do I think she was doing some deep higher level thinking? Of course not, but the mastery of all skills needs to start somewhere. In the beginning it may be clumsy and annoying, but hopefully by adulthood it’s a fine tuned symphony. There has never been a  single master concert pianist who has not made their family suffer through endless off key, out-of-tune plunking when they were starting out. Why should growing up be any different?

Our schools should be an extension of our families. They should be places where children get to hone and practice skills that they will utilize as adults. It’s one of the qualms I have with eye tracking, where students are forced to keep eyes on a teacher throughout class. Sure, it makes for an orderly environment where learning can take place, but what’s it’s real world application. Who is going to fill the management roles: the advanced reader who lacks the ability to take a command, process it, discern its value, and formulate a response or my back talking daughter? Besides, does learning demand a specific environment to transpire or can it thrive in a multitude of environments?

The accountability era has created a plethora of ideas that exist to bring a sense of comfort to adults. Let’s be honest, public education, like democracy, is a very messy proposition and like democracy, we never know if it’s really working or not. Test results make us comfortable that it’s working. “No Excuses” brings us comfort that discipline is being introduced to children that we perceive as lacking discipline. Vouchers, choice, charter schools, all designed to tame an uncomfortable system. After all, isn’t the public often the worst part of public education?

The problem is, we can’t just do what we find comfortable and pass it off as a child’s best interest. Sometimes children talk out of turn. Sometimes they learn things at their own speed. Sometimes they have things going on in their lives that are more important then what we think they should be focused on and it impacts their learning. Schools and instruction need to be responsive to the child and not the manufactured mandates created to give the illusion of accountability and comfort adults fears..

Kids can score well on tests all day, but if they lack the skills to translate that to real world application’s, then what’s the point other then to validate an adult’s existence? We’ve created a learning environment where everything is measured, and there is no margin for failure. There are businesses with similar cultures. In these cultures, there is no incentive to take risks or innovate because that means potential failure, which will reflect poorly on performance. We know these companies aren’t market leaders and that companies that foster innovation thrive, so why would we foster the former over the later? As  hedge fund manager James Altucher says, “Your competition is not other people but the time you kill, the ill will you create, the knowledge you neglect to learn, the connections you fail to build, the health you sacrifice along the path, your inability to generate ideas, the people around you who don’t support and love your efforts, and whatever god you curse for your bad luck.”

Don’t be mistaken, I may quote a hedge fund manager, but I still believe we need to push back against the commerce narrative of education. Education is about creating better citizens not workers. I can promise you that I’ve never had a conversation with my children about competing for jobs. The same holds true about talking to them in regards to competing against the Chinese or anyone else in the global market. Instead, the conversations in our household center around the skills that will make for better lives and better people.

My son is encouraged to read not because it’ll make him career and college ready, but because it’ll unlock the magical realms of his beloved comic books. My daughter and I engage in math games not to reach a goal but because they are fun.  Both are regularly taken outside to play or on inclement weather days we find an indoor play facility. We do this because exercise and nutrition are every bit as important as high performance in math. The importance of balance needs to be instilled at an early age.

During the recent snow days here in Nashville, it drove me insane to see administrators take to social media to admonish kids to read during this off day. How about go out and play on this rare snow day? How about mentioning that learning takes all shapes and embracing a rare free day has equal value. What would your reaction be if your boss took to social media to issue instructions for you on a snow day? “Hey TC, make sure you spend the afternoon reading about life insurance. Can’t let a day go by. The Chinese might catch up.” I can tell you how that would be met by me. Unfortunately we have put teachers and administrators in an untenable situation. Because of the false air of accountability that permeates everything, they have no choice but to focus on the measurable and attempt to take advantage of every minute available.

It seems that we’ve gotten ourselves involved in some kind of race were perpetual forward motion is a requisite. A fellow parent forwarded me an email in regards to valentine’s day celebrations that they received from their child’s principal. Apparently we’ve reached a place where we can’t even take time to celebrate a day of love lest we lose a minute of instructional time. After spelling out rigid dress code and time constraints for a holiday they “rename friendship day”, the email closes thusly:

We have many skills that still need to be taught and practiced, therefore every moment we have with your child is important. Thank you and have a great evening.

Have we become so focused on preparing children for life that we are failing to demonstrate to them how to live it? To paraphrase the rapper Ice Cube, we better check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. This is not the path to a healthy society.

We are in danger of running down a rabbit hole where the practice for life overtakes the the practice of living life. We are so focused on quality seats that we’ve begun to narrow the definition to a point where it neglects the whole child and fails to include all that is involved in a child’s life. I’m fifty years old now and when I reflect back on my public school career and how it’s helped me navigate the challenges of life. I realize that it was as much the extracurricular activities that shaped me, as the classroom work. Solar day and History day inspired me more then any assessment I ever took. Truth be told, cutting class and the machinations that it required went a long way to fostering a gift of planning, while also presenting a lesson in accountability.

If you talk to most teachers they will agree with that we are narrowing our focus to our detriment. Its not hard to find them lamenting against the rise in testing and other reforms and how they’ve affected their ability to reach the whole child. A whole advocacy group of teachers, known as BATS, who recognized the dangers of the path we were on and the need to push back rose up last year to defend the needs of the whole child and attempt to shift the focus of our policies. As evidenced by the growth in the anti-testing movement, parents are also expressing concerns. If not parents and teachers who should we listen to?

We need to step back and reassess. A large portion of an adults life is spent earning a living and the quality of employment directly affects their quality of life, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus. Life is filled with many rich opportunities and one never knows where life may take them, this is why its so important to equip children with the tools to take advantage of those opportunities. If we don’t, in my opinion, we are doing a disservice to the child and furthermore to society. Locking children in to a predictable future locks society into a predictable future, to the detriment of both.

I’m going to close like I opened, with Ms Speering’s words. I hope you all will take them to heart, because they offer some very sage advice.

“Quality” results when students learn the relevance and inter-relationships of each and every subject. “Quality” results when students work together cooperatively rather than competitively. Working together in teams more closely resembles real world experiences and helps prepare our children for the expectations of an unknown future.