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Sunday, June 30, 2013

I'll have what she's having...

For those of us old enough to remember the movie, When Harry Met Sally, you are sure to recall the classic scene where Meg Ryan & Billy Crystal really enjoy some dinner conversation at Katz's Deli.
Rob Reiner gave the best line to his mother, "I'll have what she's having."
It is sweet to want to give your own family members the best of something, and we laughed because it is human nature to see someone else really enjoying something and to want it.

With that in mind, let's think about the kind of school we want for our own children. 
How does this one sound?

 Our student-centered academic program focuses on the relationships between talented students and capable and caring teachers. We develop and nurture students' passions and abilities and ensure every student feels known. Each student's curiosities and capabilities lead them to unique academic challenges that are sustained through a culture of support and encouragement. All students will find opportunities to discover and develop a passion; to hone the skills of writing, thinking, and speaking; and to interact with the world both on and off campus. Lakeside trusts that each student has effective ideas about how to maximize his or her own education, and that they will positively contribute to our vibrant learning community. 

The school above is where the Gates family sends their children. Bill & Melinda Gates seem like well-intended people to me (See an earlier post I wrote on well-intended people here.). They have no training or background in education, but know that they want their children in a school that emphasizes experiential learning, empathy, and above all, relationships between teachers and students. And class sizes are kept below twenty to make all this possible. If you can swing the $27,250 per year, your child can apply (But no guarantees!). You can read more about the school here.

I perused the Lakeside School's website for any mention of The Common Core Standards, to no avail. Below is a quote directly from Bill Gate's July 11, 2012 speech at the Education Commission of the States Annual Conference. Read the entire speech here.

"Some people continue to say that the common core state standards are a precursor to a national curriculum. I hope you can help set the record straight. The common core state standards are led by the states, not the federal government; they are about goals, not methods. Their purpose is to create great learners, not to transmit facts. As long as we all want our students to be able to read complex text and solve difficult equations, the common core state standards should not be controversial...
But as long as we spend the time and money to get each element right; as long as we don't let politics block the common core; as long as we let teachers use new technology in the classroom, this could be the educational equivalent of the Big Bang – creating a new universe of learning and discovery for our teachers and students. Given the opportunities, the next five years could be the most pivotal in the history of America's public schools. Your support could be decisive. Thank you very much."

Interestingly, in his 2012-13 back to school letter to parents, Head of School, Bernie Noe wrote about how Lakeside is developing it's goals and standards:

"I will work with all of my administrative, faculty, and staff colleagues this year in examining the many changes currently taking place in the world, as we prepare for our undertaking a zero-sum look at the curriculum during the 2013-2014 school year. We will examine all aspects of our curriculum to make sure that it incorporates the teaching of skills and knowledge essential for our students to work and thrive in a global context. To do this preparation, we will read and study, will hear from a variety of outside experts, and will work together in cross-department teams to review what we are teaching and how we are teaching it."

There is a concept that sounds right - administrators, faculty & staff considering the perspectives of outside experts and making sure students get what is essential for them to thrive. I didn't read about high stakes standardized tests, I didn't read about any standardized tests. I didn't see a word about cutting the arts or foreign language instruction. There was no mention of doing more with less. 

I read about their community-wide diversity and inclusion initiative....that sounds good. He mentions their new athletic center, new teachers, administrators & staff, and he invites parents to stop by to watch the kid's games and performances, 
along with all of their efforts to make Lakeside the most welcoming and supportive environment possible for each and every student, adult, and family that is a part of the school. Yes, yes, yes. We'll take it!

Check out the Lakeside website, my friends, and demand that our kids get what they are having...

Silence means acceptance.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Are standardized tests the new swine flu?

It was only four years ago that my family and I moved to the district where I teach.
I am really blessed with a job that I am passionate about in a district that is high achieving, but not just in the ways that high achievement matters today.  When I first started working here in the mid-1990's, I was amazed at what I saw.  Things were so different from when I was a kid. Parents were very involved with the schools. They came to parent conference nights, they advocated for their children, and they demanded creative, out-of-the-textbook style teaching that made their kids think critically. There was a huge appreciation for the arts, music & foreign language, there were unique after school activities, such as engineering clubs and fencing. You didn't get that when I was a kid!

Fortunately, the parents here still demand these things. And for that I am most grateful.

 The first weekend we ever slept in our new home, my oldest daughter didn't feel quite right. She was achy, exhausted, and had a sore throat. We were so excited to meet our new neighbors, walk around the neighborhood, and do what we wanted, that we ignored her suffering...

As it turns out, that child woke me up in the middle of the night and I rushed her to the emergency room. Before I knew it, a masked nurse came in, told me she had the swine flu while closing me in the now quarantine room with my baby girl....and not giving me a mask.

Locked in without a mask must be how many NY State parents are feeling. 
I just read a fascinating blog entry by journalist, author and professor, 
Andrea Gabor.

The New York State Department of education asked her to be on a committee that would revamp the English Language Arts standards. They debated " to accommodate the needs of immigrant kids who are struggling to learn English and how to account for the radically different cultural 
 experiences of the students who would be taking the tests–kids in remote rural areas, 
in suburbs, in New York City."
So far, it sounds okay...
Until it wasn't. The committee was disbanded when when New York State decided to adopt the Common Core State Standards. You can imagine how curious she was when a teacher handed her a copy of the controversial “common-core”-based 
New York State standardized tests.

Gabor writes, "The tests, which were developed by Pearson and administered to students in April, were so poorly received by both educators and parents, that veteran New York City principals mounted a grassroots campaign in opposition to what they say are “unfair” tests that take an“intolerable toll” on children."
No one's listening. We can't hear you....

"A close reading of the tests given to grades 6 to 8 raised many concerns regarding their contents. I was especially surprised to see not only how heavily the tests were skewed to non-fiction, but also the nature of those non-fiction readings, which were dominated by scienc(y) writings, with very few readings that drew on civics, American history or the urban experience."
Did I mention that Andrea Gabor is a non-fiction writer? The Common Core Curriculum is pushing non-fiction, but even non-fiction authors are concerned.

" is important to remember that the common core assessments are meant to test ELA (English Language Arts), not history or civics or science. Moreover, I’ve found that kids who have read Fitzgerald, Twain or Doctorow, are the ones who are most likely to read, and understand, non-fiction texts like The New York Times. Yet, the emphasis on non-fiction in both the standards—and the assessments—already has put pressure on ELA teachers to deemphasize literature; in other words, less Fitzgerald, Twain and Doctorow…"
That makes sense. Kids who read literature learn to like reading and develop as readers 
who tackle challenging non-fiction.
Not listening....still not listening.

She goes on to state, "Others have commented on the grueling length of the tests. Diane Ravitch who saw a bootlegged copy of the 5th grade tests noted: “Based on test questions I had reviewed for seven years when I was a member of the NAEP board, it seemed to me that the test was pitched at an eighth grade level. The passages were very long, about twice as long as a typical passage on NAEP for eighth grade. The questions involved interpretation, inference, and required re-reading of the passage for each question.”

I wonder how it feels to be in 5th grade and sit down with a test that is more like an 8th grade reading level. When I pour over educational research, sometimes (even though I am reading by my own choice), I just can't process the dense, academic writing. My eyes get heavy, my brain wants to fall asleep, and I put the book down until I want to try again.
 I imagine kids must feel like that.

"Each of the tests for grades 6, 7 and 8 are completed in 90-minute segments over the course of three days. The seventh grade test, for example, is about 72 pages long (there are a few blank pages added for essay questions.) It includes 14 passages, the vast majority of which are one-to-two pages in length. There were also eight short-answer questions that require writing about one long paragraph each, as well as two essay questions. Then there were the endless multiple choice questions—over 100 of them, far more than the number on earlier test, according to education experts."
Have you ever watched kids take standardized tests? It is a little heart wrenching. They start out full of optimism. After about 45 minutes, some start to fade.  I see the dimmed expressions begin to appear. I worry that the kids who finish early have rushed through, then I worry that the kids peering up and looking at the kids who finished early 
think they aren't as smart...
when sometimes the early finishers simply guess then retreat from the stress into a nap. 

"As a journalist who has spent my professional life writing non-fiction, I confess that I am puzzled by the non-fiction mania reflected in the common core and in New York State’s test. I believe fervently that every high-school student should be able to read, and understand, The New York Times...Yet, this (over)emphasis on non-fiction strikes me as excessively utilitarian and, in the end, counterproductive."
Why won't someone, anyone, in a position of power listen to reason? 
I can't hear you....can't hear you....

Oh, and I would be remiss to leave out the questioning the test company part:

"It is easy to point the finger at Pearson, which has a five-year, $32 million contract to create tests for the state. The costs of the tests, though, are just the tip of the iceberg. There is also the cost of scoring them–especially if that process is done well. Then there are the opportunity costs–the time spent on test-taking instead of learning, the costs to schools that have to hire substitutes so their teachers can score tests."

Now I teach English, but this looks like an easy equation to me:


"The problem is this: Developing better tests that assess “authentic” work, creativity and critical thinking will be complicated and expensive. Multiple choice questions, like the ones in such abundance on the latest Pearson test, provide a minimalist view of what children understand and do little to foster critical thinking skills; but they are cheap. As Polakow-Suransky once told me, when it comes to tests “you get what you pay for.”

  From my internet research, "professional scorers" appear to earn $10 - $12 per hour.
I don't think the professional scorers are making out that great from this.
I wonder where all the money goes? 
Well, I know where it went in Pennsylvania in 2006-07...

"Top officials with a Minnesota education company that won a $201 million Pennsylvania contract employ a Harrisburg lobbyist and donated $22,000 in campaign money 
to Gov. Ed Rendell, records show."

We need to ask ourselves if we are going to really pay attention to what is going on in our schools?

High stakes standardized tests have caused many school districts to add additional standardized tests to gather data about how kids may do on the high stakes tests.
Is this really what we want for our kids?

Are standardized tests the new swine flu?
Only if we remain silent.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Save Childhood.

  "(New York City) is developing assessments in a range of subjects, including English as a second language, special education and music. City officials are also working on assessments for kindergarten, first grade and second grade, where exams 
are less common."   -The New York Times, 6/3/13

Sometimes people ask me why I think standardized tests have become so prevalent in our schools.  There are probably many responses to that question, but regardless, I can see when a line is crossed...and I think New York City may have just crossed it.


Here's the thing, I have been unable to bounce back from the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting at the end of 2012.  I think a lot of us feel this way. There were so many horrific aspects of that morning, but I can't stop thinking about those sweet babies and their last moments on this planet.

They were so young. They should still be here playing, drawing, running, dancing, singing, laughing, exploring, reading, learning...and taking standardized tests? 
That sounds so wrong, right?

There comes a point when we have to ask ourselves to stop, and consider what we are doing in the name of data. Our children need to be allowed to grow up in an educational environment that is un-politicized.  Developmentally, giving standardized tests to kindergarten, first and second graders makes no sense (some say it doesn't make sense for most grades). 
Anyone with even the tiniest bit of background in education or child psychology
 knows this to be true.

Our littlest kids are the first to notice the shapes of clouds, a rainbow during a summer rain shower or that dandelions make a great gift for mom for no reason at all.

If I had a wish, it would be for a joyful, fair & equitable childhood for all kids.

Please stop, look & listen....the time to speak up for our kids 
may be right now.

Save childhood.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Knowing what we do not know and the achievement gap

Growing up, my father gave me a lot of advice, perhaps one of the most important nuggets was that a wise person knows what he does not know. Knowing how much more there is to learn has led my unquenchable thirst for understanding human behavior, specifically child psychology. This drives me in my studies of education, relationships, and justice.

Thanks, Dad.
A book that has taught me a lot is Dr. Maura Cullen's, 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say. It is not the 35 dumb things that fascinate me, but what Dr. Cullen calls, The 10 Core Concepts. I love the acknowledgement that good people, really caring, kind, and well-intended folks can mean well, but make mistakes when it comes to issues of diversity (or any issues, really).

This leads me to the struggle that so many communities have when they are battling against the ripple effects of standardized testing. When schools start to degrade education to teach to the test (out of fear and good intentions, no doubt), community members who care and try to help may find themselves in the "Good Intentions" hot seat.

When good people try to come up with ideas to save their schools from cutting the arts, narrowing content, or too much test prep, sometimes they get a bit close to that hot seat.

One thing I care deeply about is the academic success of all students. There is no sub group of kids who deserve different treatment from anyone else. In a well-intentioned world, sometimes we think it is a good idea to treat different groups of students differently, based on their standardized test scores. It sounds fine, but really, it isn't. Let me explain why.

In the outstanding collection of essays, Pencils Down, By the Publishers of Re-Thinking Schools, supporters of urban, suburban, and rural public schools can learn the real deal behind standardized testing and its effects.

It is so important that we do not allow any different scheduling, curriculum, or philosophies in the name of test scores for any group of children.

          "...If you rely on standardized tests to close the achievement gap, that's terribly misleading in terms of who will get a quality education. Students in more privileged groups will not only get the material on the standardized tests, but may also receive (other beneficial material & subjects). It is essential to  understand that relying on standardized tests has been shown to dumb down the curriculum." p. 15

If we allow, or even suggest that children who score high on standardized tests get enrichment work, and students who score below proficient get test prep to "close the achievement gap," we are perpetuating a kind of institutional inequality.

              "...Researchers have found that narrowing learning environments to focus solely on reading, writing, and math, as well as the test-induced increase in high school drop outs - have had a disproportionately negative impact on low income students and students of color....the construction and grading of standardized, high stakes tests contain high levels of inaccuracy. The results, more often than not, are misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misused by policy makers and the general public..." p. 3

I love well-intentioned people, I am one of them. If I end up in the hot seat by accident one day, I hope you will teach me what I did wrong and what I can do differently next time. We need to keep trying to stop the insidious ripple effects of high stakes standardized testing and watch each other's backs while doing so. Let's learn more together about how to survive this tidal wave of testing and make sure that we don't leave any of our kids treading water until they can tread no more.