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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Suburban kids & Fear of Failure

noun: fear; plural noun: fears unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous,

 likely to cause pain, or a threat.

 I used to live in fear. I was scared to speak up, scared to share what I had learned about the planned destruction of public education, scared to say what no one I knew was saying out loud. I couldn't believe that although we all knew better, we were being forced by our government to standardize our schools, change our teaching, focus on high stakes standardized testing, and pretend that these changes were good for children. It was when I decided to no longer be afraid that I started this blog.

Fellow blogger and PA teacher, Peter Greene, writes here about the fear facing students in today's educational culture. And he says parents are feeling it, too. I agree. I think that we are unaware of the new normal of living with fear for our kid's futures.

Greene reports on the elite Silicon Valley communities with student suicide rates four or five times the national average.  He asks, "If students from wealthy families in one of the most affluent communities in the country are feeling driven to these sort of extremes-- what the heck can that mean.

And it's not just the issue of suicide. Rosin writes:

The rich middle- and high-school kids [Arizona State professor Suniya] Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm. They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average. Starting in seventh grade, the rich cohort includes just as many kids who display troubling levels of delinquency as the poor cohort, although the rule-breaking takes different forms. The poor kids, for example, fight and carry weapons more frequently, which Luthar explains as possibly self-protective. The rich kids, meanwhile, report higher levels of lying, cheating, and theft."

 I live in an affluent, suburban area and my kids are in middle and high school. I see the truth in these words. Why the pressure? Why the depression? Why the cheating?  The lying? The drug and alcohol use? 

Our government has marketed the idea of education as a Race to the Top. Races have clear winners and losers.  In authentic education, everyone can be a winner. As parents, teachers, school leaders, school boards, and others swallowed this bitter pill, the race mentality trickled down to our kids.

If you have not seen this film, make sure you do.... with your whole family.

"In the U.S., adolescents represent the only age group where the mortality rate continues to increase. Combined, the top three causes of death — accidents, suicide and homicide — account for 75% of adolescent deaths."

When we feel fear we cannot and do not make our best choices. 

Living in constant fear "... weakens our immune system and can cause cardiovascular damage, gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome and decreased fertility. Fear can impair formation of long-term memories and cause damage to certain parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus. This can make it even more difficult to regulate fear and can leave a person anxious most of the time. To someone in chronic fear, the world looks scary and their memories confirm that. Moreover, fear can interrupt processes in our brains that allow us to regulate emotions, read non-verbal cues and other information presented to us, reflect before acting, and act ethically. This impacts our thinking and decision-making in negative ways, leaving us susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions. All of these effects can leave us unable to act appropriately. Other consequences of long-term fear include fatigue, clinical depression accelerated aging, and even premature death. So whether threats to our security are real or perceived, they impact our mental and physical well-being."  

The time has come for the conversations to return to each individual, local community (Those of us who still have locally elected school boards should be extra thankful). We must speak up and insist that we end the culture of fear. Do not try to change my children's mindsets or instill more grit. Do not make them feel like their standardized tests scores define them. Do not send a conscious or unconscious message to them that their future depends on filling in correct bubbles or passing sections on robotic adaptive technology.

Schools must set their teachers free of the testing shackles and encourage them to bring back creativity, passion for learning, learning for pleasure, teaching kids that intrinsic motivation feels good, that reading books is fun, and that math can make sense. We must return the importance of science, social studies, art, music, physical education, health, cooking, sewing, industrial arts, and recess k - 8. High school students need to take electives that interest them and stop the obsession with doing what they think will make their college applications look better. 

How can we help our kids? We can stop the toxic environment of living in fear. Consider opting out in 2016. Parents, not the government, know what is best for our children.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Exxon Exec's Love Letter to the Common Core in PA


Our children have been and are being used as pawns by business leaders who support the common core state standards. Don't believe for a minute that our PA core standards are not the common core. They are almost identical.

The idea of business leaders having a say in public education best practices is not only a conflict of interest, but a laughable idea. Business leaders are good at running their businesses and making money. Education policy and practices should be left to those who have studied education, learning theory, psychology, pedagogy, technique, and curriculum.

Want a top quality education for your kids? Keep the corporations out of it. Read this letter to Pennsylvania's former Governor, Tom Corbett, from the Exxon CEO. If you want to know who is behind this push for the common core, add big corporations to the list of players we already know, including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, The College Board, The Pearson Corporation, and other names you will recognize.

Diane Ravitch explains more in this article. She answers a big question for us,"Who supported the standards? Secretary Duncan has been their loudest cheerleader. Governor Jeb Bush of Florida and former DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee urged their rapid adoption. Joel Klein and Condoleeza Rice chaired a commission for the Council on Foreign Relations, which concluded that the Common Core standards were needed to protect national security. Major corporations purchased full-page ads in the New York Times and other newspapers to promote the Common Core. ExxonMobil is especially vociferous in advocating for Common Core, taking out advertisements on television and other news media saying that the standards are needed to prepare our workforce for global competition. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed the standards, saying they were necessary to prepare workers for the global marketplace. The Business Roundtable stated that its #1 priority is the full adoption and implementation of the Common Core standards. All of this excitement was generated despite the fact that no one knows whether the Common Core will fulfill any of these promises. It will take 12 years whether we know what its effects are."

In this Bill Moyers post, Ravitch explains, "The leading funders of the (corporate education) reform movement are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports charter schools and test- based teacher evaluation; the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which supports charter schools and trains urban superintendents in its managerial philosophy; and the Walton Family Foundation, which funds vouchers and charters. These powerful and wealthy foundations have overlapping interests. They subsidize many organizations in common, such as Teach for America (which recruits young college graduates to teach for two years in low- income schools), the KIPP charter schools and Parent Revolution (the chief advocates of the “parent trigger” idea). They jointly funded the digital learning policy statement issued by Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia, which promotes the proliferation of low- quality virtual charter schools. Many other wealthy foundations support the corporate reform agenda, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, the Fisher Foundation and the Anschutz Foundation, as well as fabulously rich individuals, including the Bezos family (, Reed Hastings (Netflix) and Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation)."

See the Exxon letter here.

This is just one of myriad reasons why so many people are pushing back against the common core and high stakes standardized testing. Education is a local, highly interpersonal, multi-faced, complex process.

Education is NOT a business.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Why we can boycott PSSA's without hurting our schools

Have no fear.

 We are all trying to figure out how the new ESEA law (formerly NCLB) will impact our local schools and our kids. One thing to check off your list of worries is what will happen to our schools if we opt out. In this post from, it is simplified for us.

"Some states, districts and schools continue to claim they will lose U.S. Department of Education Title I aid if parents, students or teachers boycott standardized exams required under federal law. The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) specifically allows parents to opt their children out if their state allows them to do so. ESSA does require that 95% of all students and of all students in any “subgroup” be tested. However, it leaves it to the states to decide what actions to take if too few students take the tests."

"As far as we know, no school or district anywhere in the country has ever been penalized by the federal government for failing to test enough of its students. Further, seven states (Utah, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and California) have laws specifically allowing opting out, and none have been sanctioned. In fact, Oregon made it easier for students to opt out in 2015, but DOE did nothing. Nor has any state taken steps to cut funds to schools. New York State had threatened to do so, but like the feds, it backed down."

"Therefore, parents, students and teachers should not fear harmful federal financial penalties to their schools if parents and students boycott standardized tests."

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Standardized Tests Show Testing Gains NOT Learning Gains

This morning is my first morning of winter break. I was relaxed, sitting down with a cup of coffee, going through my emails, and then I saw it—Alfie Kohn's new article called, What 'No Child Left Behind' Left Behind. Alfie has been an educational inspiration to me for years and years. (I can't help it, I always call him Alfie, like he is a personal friend. That is how long it feels like I have known him through his work.) He gets the big picture, says it like it is, and keeps me questioning. This article made we want to text and email my friends and fellow activists, but on the day of Christmas Eve, I knew better. So I am blogging the letter I would have written to them.

Hey my friends,

You have got to read Alfie Kohn's article on what NCLB left behind. I love this:

"Standardized testing — especially when it’s done to every child every year, and when bribes and threats are employed to coerce better results — was never necessary to tell us which schools were failing. Heck, you could just drive by them and make a reasonable guess. (The eminent educator Nel Noddings once called that “the windshield test.”) For years, I’ve been challenging NCLB’s defenders to name a single school anywhere in the country whose inadequacy was a secret until students were subjected to yet another wave of standardized tests."

That is so true, right?! Can anyone name a single school in the country where the standardized test scores revealed something we couldn't have guessed? Love the term, "Windshield Test."

I am worried about our schools losing our most creative, innovative, experienced, and child-centered teachers. Before NCLB and now ESEA, I rarely heard teachers talk about retirement if they were more than a few years away. I hear it all the time now, and it saddens me. If we want to keep the kind of teachers who make kids love learning, we need to stop the push for lock-step teaching and assessment. Alfie knew this 15 years ago. And he was right.

"But testing isn’t just superfluous; it was, and remains, immensely damaging — to low-income students most of all. As I argued 15 years ago, standardized exams measure what matters least about learning and serve mostly to make dreadful forms of teaching appear successful. Pressure to raise scores has driven out many of our best teachers and many of our most vulnerable students. It has taken second-rate schools and turned them into third-rate test-prep factories."

To my teacher friends here in the burbs and even more so in our cities: Please, don't leave. Don't let the demoralizing things they are making us do and say and write on our boards kick us out of our classrooms. Stay. The kids need you.

As you know, I care a lot about racial equality and the lack thereof in our country and in our schools. I have learned over the years to question the policies made in the name of the achievement gap. An expert on this topic is another education hero of mine, Jonathan Kozol. Click on the hyperlink. We should all know who he is and what he stands for. As a civil rights activist, author and teacher, Kozol knows that standardized tests are a civil rights issue and he wants them to end.

"What’s true of testing is, not surprisingly, true of the law that should have been called the Many Children Left Behind Act. Tests constitute not only its enforcement apparatus but its very definition of success and failure. As no less a champion of marginalized children than Jonathan Kozol concluded, 'NCLB widens the gap between the races more than any piece of educational legislation I’ve seen in 40 years. . . . [Its] gains aren’t learning gains, they’re testing gains.'"

And that, my friends, is important for all of us to know. That quote should go viral. Memes should be made, posted, and shared. Don't be proud when our kids do well on these tests. They are not indicators of learning gains, they are testing gains.

The federal government is so scared of us—of parents—that they wrote a 95% participation demand into the Every Child Succeeds Act. They are telling us their Achilles heel. We are the parents. The government does not own our kids and they cannot and will not be able to stop American parents from parenting. 

We never had a vote on this, so we will vote with our feet. We will vote with each and every opt out. We love our local public schools and want them to focus on what matters. With each opt out we are telling our state and federal government that we don't want what they are pushing on us. WE ARE THE PARENTS. THESE CHILDREN ARE OURS. YOU CANNOT TEST THEM UNTIL THEY CRY. YOU CANNOT TEST THEM ON BUBBLE SHEETS. YOU CANNOT TEST THEM ON COMPUTERS. WE ARE PROTECTING OUR KIDS AND OUR SCHOOLS. WE ARE OPTING OUT.

Thanks for reading this note and hey, have a happy, healthy, and joyful new year!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

High School Juniors Should Take ACT, Not SAT

Respected Pennsylvania pubic education activist, author, slightly acerbic blogger and dedicated teacher, Peter Greene, warns parents of 11th grade students (of which I am one) about the new SAT:

"I've looked at the marketing and the samples and I feel comfortable saying that every failure of true educational assessment that we've seen on the Big Standardized Tests is right there in the New! Improved! SAT. This test is a crapfest-- and not just a crapfest, but an untested, unproven crapfest from a company that just rolled out the first part of its new suite of tests and now can't get the results back to students on time."

He continues:
 "The New! Improved! SAT has the potential to be a disaster of epic proportions, and that might be an occasion for schadenfreude if not for one thing-- a whole host of eleventh graders are counting on those scores to help them get into college. Yes, we can talk about how screwed up that whole business is, but in the meantime it's the world our students have to live in, and in that world, this spring, the ACT is their best shot."

Student protesters against standardized testing.

"This will be a real wrenching change for some folks. In many schools, taking the PSAT and SAT is just something you do, and students believe these issue forth from the same immutable government authorities as vaccine requirements and rules about how many courses one must complete to graduate. But as always, folks need to understand that the College Board is a company that makes a living selling a particular product, just like Ford Motor Company and Coca-Cola. That means it's caveat emptor time, and this time around, the smart emptors should avoid the SAT, and those of us who teach juniors have a responsibility to say so."

"You don't have to take the SAT-- and this year at least, you shouldn't. "

And besides, your child can attend one of the outstanding colleges on this incredible site that is test optional.

Consider ourselves warned. Thanks, Peter.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Very Little to Celebrate in the new "No Child Left Behind" Law

In the education world there has been a lot of worry and hype about the passage of the new No Child Left Behind Law - The Every Child Achieves Act. Frankly, the wording our politicians use is foreshadowing enough for us to know that the game plan won't be good for American kids. This bi-partisan name game is an insult to American citizens. If politicians write a title that sounds unrealistic to attain, it will be. If you search for bills with misleading names you will get some great results or just check out this article, and this article, and this one.

Now back to The Every Child Achieves Law. There are several reliable articles on it here, here, and here. But when I want to see what the opposition thinks, I pay close attention their perfectly polished spin doctoring. I read in this Education Reform Now post all I apparently need to know about the new law. They even produced a beautiful infographic (below). Note what makes them the most saitisfied with this new law - they made it the first point. Testing remains unchanged. Yay for the testing companies. Too bad for our kids.

 The HUGE change is the elimination of much federal overreach, which is great if your state has a Governor who supports pubic education. If not... I can't even write it.

As reported here, the original 1965 law that NCLB and ESEA replaced stated, 

"FEDERAL CONTROL OF EDUCATION PROHIBITED SEC. 604. Nothing contained in this Act shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution or school system, or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials by any educational institution or school system."

So ESEA returned much (but not all) of the power back to the states, and it sure will make Wall Street happy with its Pay for Success plan, which is woven into this law. Pay for Success allows for private investment in underfunded public services.

"There’s no free lunch. Yet across the country, advocates of Pay for Success (PFS), or Social Impact Bonds (SIBs), serve up this alternative private financing model as a cost-free, risk-free silver bullet to support critical, yet underfunded, public services. As local and state governments rush to pass enabling legislation and strike deals with investors, a closer examination of these schemes is warranted." 

What is Pay for Success?

"PFS (Pay for Success) brings venture capital to the provision of public services. Investors, such as Goldman Sachs or Bank of America, provide up-front funds for critical preventive services with the expectation of receiving a return on their investment. The theory is that the private investment dollars can fill a funding gap when government doesn’t have adequate financial resources to spend on prevention activities.
Under a PFS arrangement, the government repays the loan with interest if pre-determined social outcome targets are met. The theory presumes that even after paying the investors and service providers, the state ultimately reaps financial savings through foregone budget dollars spent to address future more costly, but now avoided, social problems. But PFS looks better on paper than in reality. A closer look at how they operate raises issues that warrant careful consideration for decision-makers looking to undertake a PFS."

Our government is basically inviting Shark Tank into our schools.

“Ultimately, Pay for Success ignores the deeper cause of many of our growing social problems: underinvestment in the public interest. America desperately needs more investment in all our public services. Prevention-focused public funding of critical public services—like pre-K for all children and help for juveniles who end up in the criminal justice system—is our simplest and least expensive solution.”

As always, Caveat Emptor. There is very little to celebrate in this new law.