You Need to Show Me

While-I-Wait-In-Response-to-Betsy-DeVosIt wasn’t a surprise when Betsy DeVos observed teachers “waiting to be told what they have to do.” If there was anything surprising it was that she bothered to comment on it.   It marked her as an outsider.  Everyone knows that the only voice that has no seat at the seat at the education policy table is the one in the classroom. Teachers spend their professional lives looking down the barrel of uninformed experimentation, and everyone agrees that this is as it should be.

Attempting to have voice in the age of privatization? Of course, it is an exercise in futility. As my friends tell me, there’s no reason to engage in better conversation when there is no conversation to be had. (That’s near to a cold, hard fact.)  But, I have a flaw or two myself… and one of them is that I will throw myself bloody against a wall.  So here goes.

high profile reformer

high profile reformer



Mr. Somewhat Less than High Profile Reformer who made a nice career out of Hurricane Katrina

You need to show me is the argument that teachers need to meet a bar to weigh in on their profession and the familiar subtext (or, not so sub(tle) text), is that, in a discussion of education, the teacher is to be acted upon much like the children.

It stands to reason.  We are predominately female. Our work, like most female work, is largely unseen and often misunderstood. In the Norman Rockwell past (which never really existed), we were idealized as professional mommies and missionaries.  We deserved apples, then.  We were encouraged (or outright required) to have no husband and no children.  Even when my mother entered the field, women were not allowed to be pregnant in the classroom… which is why my mother (the sole breadwinner of our family)  had to avoid gaining weight and wore a girdle into her 8th month with my youngest sister.  Sounds terrible, but what was she to do? She had five mouths to feed (if you count two adults) with her $3,000 a year salary. (That’s $24k in today’s dollars.) Later, when teachers were  finally unionized and could make actionable demands for better pay, it was time to demonize them as mere factory workers and dumb slackers.  School marms don’t go on strike for better pay.  No more apples for you. Now, as history seeks repeats itself in so many places, we are dismissed as merely human capital to be moved and used by better (mostly male) minds.  Our job is to do the job without comment.  Let the adults do the talking.


The problem with agreeing to this quiet use and going tail between legs to the kiddie table is that (you may have noticed) the adult table is full to the brim with brazen mansplaining inexpertise.  And, teachers with expertise must struggle to be heard at all in a stonewall and shut down culture that unapologetically rewards privilege over merit.

If there’s any silver lining to this age of the aggressively uninformed,  it is that Main Street is bracingly and ever more aware that position is not expertise.  Influence is not respect. Ambition is not authority, and club membership is not merit.  I think the good day has arrived when privilege is so glaring that show me is the only rational response.

Whoever you are, I have rightsized you.   I don’t owe more respect to a grifter in a high place than to a grifter in a low place.  I am a respecter of hard work and the real deal. Period. Nothing less than that.  It’s no antidote to privilege and power, but there is a value to deconstructing a mythology of betterness.  We can resist. (It’s the small silver lining)

Are you capable?

Is some part of you… capable of reflecting? In order to gain entry into a discussion of my profession, I need to demonstrate some small fraction of capacity to look inward… a little bit of remaining humanity that hasn’t yet been layered over by unionism, excuses and sloth.  I must find a way to confess.  I’ll bite.  But, first I have to reflect on some bias.

Naked. Bias.

It is everything that is wrong with corporate education reform in a capsule: when a toxic class of betterers think it is their job to reform, manage, decide for and comment on the character of the rest. Every single Tom, Dick, Harry and Peter is qualified to weigh in on the teacher but the teacher. (There’s some intersection of sexism and classism right there, George.)

What better conversation can you have with the directors of the Good if you are simply the class to be acted upon? The dangling of better conversation that occurs upon such confessionals (as undoubtedly they are expected to be) lasts only so long as it takes to get to the inevitable pivot.  You can never expect to articulate and address the conditions or the issues you see.  You can never move the dial even an inch. Your job is to be moved or swarmed or stonewalled. You are only a foil.

inevitable betrayal

Are you passionate?

When I am asked if some part of me is capable of reflection, I am well aware that it flows out of the explicit belief among reformers that teachers need to face themselves.  I hope I won’t sound too irritated when I say that, in my opinion, this belief is prime hubris on the hoof.  By that I mean some entitled ignorance about who is who and what is what in the conversation around my profession.  Twenty six years of experience in the classroom is a study in self reflection. Feel free to get in front of five classrooms of twenty five 12 year olds and see how long you last without it. I’ll cut to the chase.  12 year olds take no prisoners. The painful need to address your work, your preparation, your miscalculation, your need to rework is daily. If you are to survive, you must reflect…. year after year, day after day, and in the middle of every day.  If you don’t have the capacity to check in with yourself, you’ll find yourself treating every class like it is the same class and every child like the next one.  You won’t know the quality of anything you’ve done; you won’t know how deal with the child in front of you, and you won’t know how to manage your own responses when dealing with them.  This is one of the reasons why teaching is a passion, but also why some people can’t take the heat.   And so that we’re clear: expertise is not a stint for your resume.  It’s a hard won product of time, self reflection, and craft.

This is what belief in kids looks like.

I have earned the right to weigh in on my profession whether that right is recognized or not.  I have experience in three distinct school settings: private 6-12, two NYC public schools.. one a 7-9 and the other a 6-8 middle school (people with no experience don’t know that 7-9 and 6-8 is a very different school culture) and a 6-8 suburban/urban public middle school.  I’ve taught 6th grade through 9th grade, English and Social Studies.  I’ve taught through waves of reform initiatives including whole language, multiple intelligence, constructivism, balanced literacy, interdisciplinary learning, differentiation, project based learning, inquiry based learning, standards based education, data driven instruction, blended learning, et al.  I’ve taught through NCLB and RTTT.  I try to be well read in my field although I’m sure I could read more. Among those I’ve remembered to list: Piaget, Dewey, Gardner, Freire,  Skinner, Bloom, Maslow, Rogers, Vygotsky, Sizer, Ravitch, Hirsch, Erikson,  Burgess, Calkins, Atwell, Corbett and Connors, Goldstein,  Csikszentmihalyi, Pink, Lemov, Duckworth, Dillard, Dweck,  Gates (Henry Louis Jr, not Bill).. etc.

some ed reformer who made a very good career out of Hurricane Katrina

Mr. Disaster Capitalism

I have taught wealthy, middle class, and poor kids. I’ve taught white, black, hispanic, and asian kids. I’ve taught the children of diplomats, mobsters, and jazz musicians, as well as the children of drug addicts and drug dealers.  I’ve taught the undocumented and the children of school board members.  I’ve been the general ed teacher to ELLs, kids with Aspergers, ADHD, autism, cerebral palsy, dyslexia, school phobia, anxiety, depression, selective mutism, fetal alcohol syndrome, emotionally disability, oppositional defiant disorder, and other health impairment. I’ve taught gifted and talented, heterogeneously grouped, inclusion, and kids with one on one aides.  I’ve taught foster kids and homeless ones. I’ve brought kids to my mother’s home for summer vacation and gone on home visits.  I’ve taken kids on outdoor ed.  I’ve taught teenage mothers, and I’ve called child services.  I’ve stood up to boys much larger than me, and defended a female student against her physically abusive boyfriend. I’ve stopped fights and been stalked. I once caught a right hook.  I’ve given professional development and presented to our school board and area principals. I am certified for administration.  I run a Summer Academy of approximately 200 kids in need of academic support.  Last year, I was invited to apply for the position of English Chair although I declined. ≈

This is what belief in kids looks like. It is not the smug tweet, a hashtag or a hired swarm. It does not look like a digital pledge not to have a #beliefgap.  It’s not think tank cowboys or the right alma maters on your boy shorts.   It is not a self interested stint in the classroom or a photo op with small brown faces used primarily to sell you on your personal page.   It is years of commitment and the accretion of experience into an informed whole.  It is service.

Have I met the requirements for better conversation? Maybe not.  I have not reflected upon or confessed the flaws of the traditional public school.  My bad. But what am I to do?


The position of teacher in the revolution is prone.

Most but not all of the reformers I have encountered have done few of the things needed to be considered experts in the field.  They conflate their two or three years in a classroom or their position as taxpayers or business people (who “understands how to run a business” and so could run a school or a nation of schools) or their commitment to social justice with actually understanding how schools work or what impacts kids and classrooms.  I do not mean to cast aspersions on people in reform who have committed their lives to the work of helping children.

I have nothing but respect for the real deal.. even when I disagree.

But.. it is also true that children are not served by many of you. They are not served by a revolving door of stint teachers who use their short period of teaching as a vehicle for personal advancement.  They are not benefited by a mass exodus into “still in education” policy and advocacy positions.  We need policy wonks and advocates, but we don’t need them to use our children for their outsized and impatient ambition.   We need child advocates who know the difference between advocacy and pimping ideology in the government houses.  We don’t need privilege undermining the value of expertise and real work of teachers. It has a dampening effect.  Using the classroom as a stepping stone discourages talent from viewing the profession of teaching as an end in itself.   It erodes the social value of craft and virtuosity (which takes years) and rewards opportunism (which doesn’t.)

The day must come when the way we view the work shifts toward merit rather than away from it. We can only improve preparation and sustain the pool of highly qualified teachers if we invest in the stature of teaching as a profession and when policymakers know to value experience and the expert practitioner (who is also always a beginner and a learner).  Perhaps, increasing the visibility of teachers who remain in the classroom will help insure that the next generation of teachers will have a greater role in their profession. I hope so.

disclaimer: I have removed identifying information about the tweeters that I engaged with because my point is not about them as individuals but as representatives of the disturbing trends they illustrate.




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A Brave New Word








Personalization is the newest word because when you’re marketing a new product, new words are needed and the right wording is everything. If you’re thinking that there’s something decidedly impersonal about personalization, you’re right; it sounds just like the fresh corporate jargon it is… mildly creepy. It’s about as personalized as having your own name on an identical bottle of coke.

There are plenty of people throwing personalization into whatever soup they’re selling right now.  There are graphic charts showing why personalization is better than those close, already over-commodified words like differentiation and individualization. (This chart by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey explains how personalization is the new jam that is better than the old jam.) Personalization is going hard. You can expect that it will shake like salt into whatever new newness is coming for your classroom or your child’s classroom.  Sooner or later, if you pay attention, you might notice that not everyone is using personalization in the same way.

One Kind of Personalization

In his article on its different incarnations, Education professor Yong Zhao positions this newest word to mean pretty much whatever you want it to mean.  It’s so personalized that even the meaning is personal. In Zhao’s case, personalization is working with each child as a person who has interests, needs, aptitudes, and preferences that can be leveraged to help educate her.  He distinguishes between the various strategies of personalization by adding a clarifying prepositional phrase or an adjective onto each variation.  Teachers can leverage what they knows about each child to determine how fast or slow to proceed, what type of learning,what kind of creation,  where each child learns, what they are good at and what they like the most. He calls this personalization of pace, product, content, and learning environment. As well as strength based personalization and interest based personalization.  Sounds pretty good, right… if maybe a little industrial?  Personalization could almost speak to a parent’s wish for their child’s learning to be individual, thoughtfully determined, co-created with just their child in mind… meeting real needs, developing multiple skills, and exercising her unique voice and interests. From this point of view, Zhao’s article is a good read for framing student choice, process and product.  It reminds practitioners of the several ways to address learning and demonstration of learning.  Obviously, personalized learning requires low class size, plenty of time, diverse offerings, high quality infrastructure,  talented teachers and all the resources.  Sound expensive? No worries.  Silicon Valley has the answer.

That Other Kind of Personalization

Here is where Zhao is careful to remind us that he doesn’t mean that other kind of personalization. He is not referring to “the narrow view of personalized learning driven by big data.”  His definition of personalization is not one where the child is put in front of a computer all day collecting badges for narrow aptitudes while the computer personalizes her menu of choices from a set of personalized choices.  But, here is also where it gets tricky.  Personalization can mean opposite things.  It’s a kind of verbal tofu… the educational equivalent of soft serve, tempeh, and a tofu veggie burger.  It’s a sexy new word for a sexy new future: whatever you want to eat will be made out of the same stuff, but it will be made especially for you.

Screen Shot 2017-07-15 at 2.06.36 PM In the parlance of corporate reformers and their Silicon Valley billionaires bosses, personalization is the less lovely, impersonal ability to educate children online using algorithms that adapt to the child through continuous analysis of their online behavior modifying content, pace, product and reward.  Personalization on a narrow band.  It’s a marketing term. It promises a return on its investment.  As Zuckerberg notes, “We don’t know for certain that it’s going to work.” But, with all of America’s public school children to test it out on,  he certainly will find out.

All the small faces will be welded to screens, learning through continuous adaptive assessment that is personalized by what they click on, how their eye moves, what they spend time with, what they avoid.  They will be motivated by digital badges, stickers, short games and avatar skins.  They can check off their competencies one at a time online. This other kind of personalization is an upmarket spin on a low market policy… part of the new philanthrocapitalism of socially committed faux caring.  (Please stay online. Your child is important to us.) 

Caveat Emptor, Mom

When Zhao included his preemptive disclaimer to assure readers that he is not for THAT personalization, he acknowledges that personalization means too many different things to too many different people and, for that reason, you have to clarify what you mean.  He does not address how a parent or educator is supposed to know what kind of personalization is being offered.  In the brave new world of education reform, it is up to the parent as consumer of a profitable public good to read the fine print, to know what they are getting and to determine whether it’s what they want to have.

Parents and educators need to deep dive to find out which kinds of personalizations are being rolled out in their district.  It will be on them to find out if their child is getting a rich education or a low value, boiled down, online package of content, mass produced for you, at your own speed (privacy not included) Is their child being continuous assessed by an algorithm that gathers private information and rewards them with extrinkets that build no capacity and kindle no passion? Or are they getting real world engagement and work that enables them to be motivated by the thing itself? What percentage of their learning is online? How much of what they will be doing is hands on? How is this work impacting class size?  What products will they create? Parents and educators are going to have to insist that their children’s education include rich, relational, high agency projects that produce useful skills and capacities, that broaden horizons and engage highest potential interests for both on and off line life, and they need to insist on a language that is clear.  The first thing they need to know is that it is not their job to figure out whether their school’s personalization is depersonalized.  Nonetheless… caveat emptor, dad.

Best practice: A word should do a job. Unless you are being intentionally ironic, that job is not to imply one thing while delivering another.  Best practice is the use of specific language to describe different strategies and lenses on learning.  In the meantime, make sure educators, parents and community members know that personalization has several meanings and that for the next little while they will need to interrogate those meanings and the people throwing them around.

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The One Right Answer

First Principle: There is often more than one right answer and more than one way to get to a right answer. Depending on the kind of answers we’re looking for, your answer can be right even when it is different from mine. This means: go out and find your answer… but don’t forget to use the second principle

Second Principle: Your answers are as right as your ability to back them up. If you can back your assertions up with compelling and persuasive evidence, you usually can use them. That means: do your research, find your evidence, make your argument, let the chips fall where they may.

Third Principle: The grade you get is the grade you earn.  It is assessing what you’ve learned.  It is information.  Use the grade you get to inform your actions for the next go round. That being said, if you think I assessed you incorrectly, make your case (refer back to the second principle)

Fourth Principle: Even in circumstances where there is one right answer, the process by which you get to your answer (right or not) is often more useful than the answer itself. Yes, I mean this. (except on the State Test)

Yes, But.. Aren’t Right Answers Important?

Of course, they’re important. It’s not very useful to NASA if they don’t get the right answer on the cold weather capabilities of their ORings but the process of getting to the right answer does include failure (hopefully, not as spectacularly disasterous as the Challenger’s).  Actually, failure is essential.  Sometimes failing is the means to a better success. As a former art teacher of mine put it, “You have to be willing to do bad work if you ever want to do good work.”  This is a good lesson for students, artists, writers, scientists and hockey players.  It teaches us all as learners that as we develop, our standard of excellence moves in front of our ability.  An educated eye (or ear) is developed long before the ability to master a skill.  Once we realize this simple reality of learning, we can allow ourselves to accept our best bad work and do it faithfully every day in our inevitable approach of the standard we hope to achieve.

Randy Pausch also put it very well.  We learn most of what we learn indirectly or by what he called a “head fake.” He said, ”… we send out kids out to learn football or soccer or swimming or whatever it is… we actually don’t want our kids to learn football… we send our kids out to learn more important things… teamwork,sportsmanship, perseverance… and you should keep your eye out for [these lessons], because they’re everywhere.”

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A Meditation on Grit

I believe in the principles of delayed gratification, teaching people to sustain effort through parts of a task that may be boring or difficult.  I agree that we do not sufficiently prepare for it.  It isn’t necessary that all work have a candy coat or that part of every lesson’s job be the sell.  There is something to be said for teaching children to use their internal stores to make it through to a reward that is down the road.  Football practice includes running through tires. Piano requires redundant scales to limber fingers.   How do you make it to the gym on cold mornings? You never ask yourself if you feel like it.  So, I agree that there’s a problem with demanding that everything in education be served with a thick layer of diversion.  It creates soft people who expect entertainment, or worse, reward for the lifting of every small pinkie.  It is good that sometimes children and adults be expected to hunker down through difficult tasks.  After all,  we all have to delay gratification for our long range goals.

So why do I feel so itchy about the new national expectation that we teach some grit?  Perhaps it is because I am more suspicious of my society than I used to be.  I don’t know what grit is for anymore.  I don’t much like having corporate CEOs buying public servants or using the American middle as a personal playground for their next new (profitable or philanthropic) idea.  I am concerned that while Citizens United v the FEC gives corporate entities the status of individual,  individuals are being stripped of the right to bargain collectively.  It is troubling to witness the collapse of the public sector as essential services are shifted to private investors.  I am told that schools, health care, prisons, and utilities should be run like or by business even though capitalism has proven time and again that in a conflict between profit motive and the public good, profit motive wins.  I am not happy to see privatized healthcare, prison systems and public education. It doesn’t benefits me to have my tax dollars siphoned away from services to enrich companies and shareholders.   I wonder why my tax dollars should not to be returned to my neighbors in the form of programs and infrastructure or to my middle class neighbors in the form of decent wages.  Is it better going into the pocket of entrepreneurs?  I don’t think so.  How does out-sized success for a few people help an entire community thrive? I am told that it results in jobs, but I notice that often it does not.  I am assured that it will result in better service, but how is that so? The bottom line of even socially conscious entrepreneurship is profitability.  I notice that takes every bit of grit, perseverance and tenacity I have just to handle the paper wall between me and reimbursement from my previously non profit health insurance company.  I cringe to consider in what prison entrepreneurs have their interests vested.  How did we arrive at a society in which there is a profit to be gained from incarceration? From theft of service? From pared down social infrastructure?

I have to ask: what does grit stands for in this crazy culture we are incubating?  What kind of grit are we selling? If you read the (revised) the government’s treatise on : Promoting Grit, Perseverance and Tenacity: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century, it sounds okay… just a big jargoned up effort to raise children to be gritty about their own success.  But,  when I first read this treatise a few years ago, there was (I swear) a small section that justified the teaching of grit as necessary because as adults, students would spend most of their lives doing things they did not want to do.  I can’t seem to find that section anymore. I wonder why? Perhaps it was just a bit too true.

Or perhaps it is still there, but I don’t wonder why it might have been removed.  A savvy government owned by corporations doesn’t tell parents that their children will labor in jobs they’d rather not do.  They let Tom Friedman (Or was that Milton Friedman) tell them.  A savvy government tells parents that their children can be anything they put their minds to, that the sky is the limit… if they have enough grit and if their teachers were only a little bit better.  A savvy government doesn’t point to the unemployed college graduates or the ones working in the same clothing store that they worked in all through college.  It doesn’t point to 50 year olds who have been out of work for the last 5 years.  It doesn’t tell its citizens to look at the ages of workers in Starbucks and Costco.  Or at the food banks that replace decent wages among the working poor.  It doesn’t tell you that the 200% above the stated poverty level is poor enough to be on food stamps.  So, when I look at the culture of work  in America today, I think grit may mean something quite a bit less appealing than push for your own success.

Corporate reform tell us that we need to be more competitive in a world economy.  But what does that mean?  It means you need grit, America. And, the job of teachers is to prepare children for the grit that is coming.  The new grit is the grit to meet the company goals and preference them over all else, the grit  to accept lower paying jobs with fewer benefits so that we can compete with workers all over the world.  The gritty adult in the 21st century isn’t one who delays gratification for some future personal gain; the new gritty adult is learning how to remove personal expectation.

This newly gritty adult is a free agent, not a victim of entitlement.  They’re a value added subset in a spreadsheet of corporate assets… an entrepreneur whose job it is to eke out survival, one private contract at a time.  As more work goes overseas or is automated, as many remaining  jobs are de-professionalized, this adult has the grit to provide enough service to warrant being among the lucky ones to have a paycheck.  Gritty adults remain flexible because they know that they can expect to be fired at will, even those that provide good service,  especially as they become more expensive. (ps.  Gritty adult, don’t be too in love that promotion because your removal will grow from its seed… be cheap, stay cheap, don’t age and… whatever you do…don’t complain).

Grit is what’s new for dinner.  Expect to eat it in a declining culture with more profit accruing to a few at the cost of fewer and fewer jobs for the many at lower and lower wages.   Gone is the 9 to 5.  Gone are weekends and time off. The gritty go getter takes texts and calls and emails at any time. Being entrepreneurial means never saying no. Successful adults will be the ones with enough “grit” to solve their own problems with what remains from their post 12 hour work days. But, it’s okay. They are free and flexible agents of change.

The “new reality” is diminished government and legislative allegiance to a deregulated, profitable corporate shadow government.  In this brave new society,  survival, collapsing family structure and eroding sense of community are strictly private concerns.  It will help if you expect to have fewer expectations. Be in it to win it. Be thankful. Be self dealing.

This is the grit that we’re selling our children. The test of their mettle.  Their inheritance is a society that no longer has a center.

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What do I love about teaching for #30DaysReflectResist

This was written for #30DaysReflectResist Day 5: What do I love about teaching?

I love working with ideas and language. I love publishing… finding ways for students to display what they’ve created from their understanding: a video, a magazine, a debate, a book trailer, a dictionary, a website.  I love that there is a synergy between student and teacher. I love bringing what I care about to our work together: rhetoric, beauty and refinement of language, working with ideas, graphic design, art, music, laughter, making connections, constructing meaning, emerging agency.  I love guiding them in adolescence, working with them to consider their experiences and their decisions. I love helping them to consider and awaken to new possibilities. I love being able to offer unconditional positive regard and to mirror back to them their own wholeness and beauty. I love nurturing their emerging ideas of self and other.  I love the privilege of witnessing this moment in their becoming. I love the opportunity to continually grow in my practice and am often filled with joy at new discoveries and new places to go.  I love making connections and seeing new ways in to what we do together.

As I write this, I am reminded of a recent twitter conversation I had about the definition of professionalism in teaching. My conversation partner felt that passion in teaching detracted from ideas of professionalism… that while it was fine to be passionate, she rejected it as part of the definition of professional, it was in some way heroic mythology that actually detracted from a precise definition of craft. I didn’t disagree that one can be a professional without passion.. but what a dry practice that is…. diligent with a detached interest in a job well done… robotic… more adequate than phoning it in but less than being fully present.  I prefer a different definition that may not be possible to everyone who decides to teach. I don’t know.  But,  those who are passionately interested in their work are resonating at a higher level with it.  I hope I always feel this way.  If I were giving guidance to someone considering teaching… I would say, the highest form of practice is doing what you love. Do that, if you can.

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Remediating the Numbers

According to Out of Pocket,

writers, Mary Nguyen Barry & Michael Dannenberg, writing for Education Reform Now (ERN), American education isn’t making the grade.  Screen-Shot-05-12-16-at-09Their premise is that students from all income levels have need for college level remediation courses arguably because they are not well taught in public schools. Their main finding is that Remedial education is not a phenomenon confined to low income students or community colleges. It affects students from a broad range of incomes, including those from middle-class, upper-middle-class and high income families. To understand their proofs a little better, I decided to look at their data more closely.

Screen Shot 05-12-16 at 09.34 PM

So, how are we doing?

Barry and Dannenberg argue that of the 25% of students who need to take remedial courses in college, 45%  come from middle, upper middle and high income families.  This doesn’t fit with the numbers I see. When I look at the data, nearly three fourths of remedial first year college students are from families who make $74k or less a year.  There is no information provided about family size, and the disputed bracket of 16.9% starts at $48,001 and tops out at $74,000.  But, Dannenberg argued that I had fallen victim to coastal bias.  So, I decided to see what the federal government identifies as low income.  Note: They set eligibility for Medicaid and CHIP at 200% of the poverty level.   Screen Shot 05-12-16 at 10.49 PM 001

Based on that data, a family of four would be eligible for medicaid and food stamps and still make it into the ERN forty-five percent of middle, upper middle and high income families. So, only 28% of the 25% of students who need remediation (roughly .0625 or 6 of 100 remedial students) can be guaranteed to be middle class or higher. The rest are low income students. This supports the argument that students from lower income families are less prepared for college than their wealthier peers. It doesn’t argue at all for the assertion that the middle class are poorly served by their schools.


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What the high stakes test tests best

As society continues to debate the policy of publicly flogging teachers and schools with the scores of their children (starting at the age of five), and as parents consider whether or not to allow the state to so use their children, let us consider some of the things that The Test tests best.

It tests the relationship of the student to the teacher.  Let’s start with the children. A 10 year old asserts in class that if he isn’t moved into a preferred seat, he’ll fail the test on purpose so that the teacher loses her job. A 12 year old says that he doesn’t have to do well on the test because it evaluates the teacher not him.  A little girl cries on the morning of the test because she’s afraid  if she fails her test, her teacher will be fired.   In America, children are put in an inappropriately adult position of perceiving themselves as having ability or responsibility to make or break the adult in front of them.  That should raise an eyebrow somewhere.

It tests the relationship of the teacher to the material.  Any idea that will not be evaluated by the state test is an idea at risk of being dumped.  Any reformer who argues otherwise, should have a talk with David Coleman,  the architect of the Common Core.  He clearly understood that the higher the stake the more it can reliably be expected to determine what will be taught.  As he noted in an interview with Education Next, “I think it’s fair to say that when one assesses something, particularly in a high stakes way, one should ethically have the obligation that [it] is worth practicing a hundred times. There are enormous consequences to choosing to assess something.”   In simple terms: high stakes results in test prep.  A narrow test equally narrows curriculum.   High stakes determine the focus of curriculum, decide which standards actually matter and reduces instruction accordingly.  ESSA may limit the federal government’s power to determine curriculum, but if it doesn’t limit the stakes of tests, test makers will decide what is taught more effectively than any state or federally mandated curriculum ever could.  Don’t think that matters much? Ask an AP teacher in Colorado or a science teacher in Texas.

It tests the relationship of all stakeholders to assessment.   The use of testing for predatory purposes creates the need to check under the hood on every test.  Stakes that are this high (careers, property values, community control of your schools) require a closer look. This release item  from 2014 7th grade ELA shows us explicitly why we need to check under the hood.  In this case, a thoughtful and capable student is punished by the state for close reading and attention to detail on this question. These kinds of overly interpretive flawed questions are common.  Now attach a stake. Lower scores = lower standing in the stack ranking of kids. That’s impact on a child. If the question also happened to cause students to get one more question wrong this year than last, their teacher is rated ineffective.  (not meeting growth can be determined by a single additional wrong answer from one year to the next.) That’s impact on a teacher. Magnify this by what reformers refer to as the aspirational bar, in practice this is the use of texts that are as many as four years above grade level and question stems that are so convoluted and complex that understanding the question is the real test. This manufactures failure in order to create crisis.  Add in life and community altering stakes to that aspirational bar and you have a predatory test that is more successful as a crowbar for taking schools over than it is as an achievement tool for raising the bar.  Either way, it’s been a good deal for the reformer: if the school meets the bar (however they have to do that) it’s a policy win. If the school doesn’t meet it, it’s an infrastructure win. Start selling shares.  Except..  that only works in the short run.

It tests the relationship of stakeholders to policy makers.  In the long run, even a policy maker has to pony up.  Turns out, you can’t just threaten schools into meeting untested aspirations. (Go figure, mission focused reformers.)  And, after nearly 20 years of testocracy and rule by an elite in-group of reform supermen (a term used without the slightest bit of irony or sense of history), there’s been no change at all to the achievement gap.  The NAEP,  which provides probably the most reliable comparative measures of performance in this country, has returned a decline in achievement since RTTT.  Apparently, the colossi aren’t getting it done.

Mmyz3CrThe best the reform lobby has to offer is a tweak, a pivot, a reframe, a bizarre appeasement, a weak link to more reputable movements, the appearance of progress on a failed policy.  But the mojo is gone. Years of beginner miscalculation, changed rules, fluctuating stakes, and resistance has take its toll.  Their mixed messages are frankly the butt of jokes. Which is it, thoughtful reformers…  a 2% cap on class time spent on testing or untimed tests?  Take all night. Which is it, change agents?  State tests are too unreliable to have stakes for kids but they’re credible enough for a high as it gets stake for educators, schools and communities?  Which is it?  Test anxiety is an adult invention, or let’s have stack ranking for everybody?  Harsh to say, but their mess of arrows pointing in every direction has done nothing for their reputation or the reputation of assessment.  It is no wonder that parents continue to #optout in large numbers despite threats from the state.

It tests the relationship of stakeholders to learning.   When schools become theaters of the absurd, upended by constant policy shifts and laughable fixes, children (especially in the middle grades) are left to draw their own conclusions.  What would you think about learning or assessment or school if you were forced into days weeks and even years of deadly dull test prep, on and off line.. what if your curriculum was streamlined and designed to look just like the test in class after class, month after month, year after year… what if each year you were asked to take a test over several long boring days that looked like a longer version of so many other days… and you knew all the while that the test doesn’t pertain to you… neither the test nor any of the things leading up to it?  What else might you be doing in school that doesn’t pertain to you? Well.. you could have a disruptive test prep rally to try to bump kids up into taking it seriously anyway.  But, one way or an other, an adolescent learning that adults don’t know everything anyway is likely to interpret this nonsensical policy by the shortest route possible: all the emperors are naked. School is a place to be grimly endured, where you mostly will do things that don’t matter and where none of it really pertains to you.

It tests the public will.  Hopefully this is a test we can meet. High stakes tests are a Trojan Horse. The question is how can we inform the public and if informed, can parents stop it at the gate? We know several things: Assessment is keyed to an aspirational experiment and tested on an entire generation without their consent.  We know that these tests are used to malign educators, close schools, impact home values, and erode local control.  We know that that public education in the 3-8 years has ramped up in anxiety for all stakeholders, that rich offerings are reduced for poor performers, that funds that could lower class size or provide resources are diverted to pay for testing.  We know that student standing may rest on a single badly written question. We know that kids are learning early and often that nothing they do in school counts for them and that nothing has value. We learn that the fundamental relationship between the child and the teacher is warped by a stake mismatch.  There’s a problem alright, and it’s with the test and with its stake.

Do you want to know why it’s happening? You know why.  Follow the money. And follow the money. And follow the money.  And when you finish doing that… follow


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So Let Me Talk to You About Charters Because You Left Some Stuff Out

Dear Mr. Tillotson,

I read your article on Education Post. Bravo for the good, but your statistics are not conclusive and you left out some issues that I think deserve a little sunlight. I would welcome your comments.

  • Class based and race based filters are an insufficient argument for the absence of other filters. Even if your schools are teaching the “exact same kids”, this could only be true for several years after opening (unless it is a community based charter in which parent involvement is not a filter and all the children from that neighborhood are attendees). I’m all in favor of a school that does well by its kids, but I’m not in favor of a school that argues that it provides the superior education while using parent involvement and informal filters to avoid the difficult to teach.  Only a profiler, or perhaps someone who has never taught poor minority kids, thinks that race and class equates to the same kid. It does not.
  • Secondly, you don’t have to expel a child to remove one who accidentally gets through the parent or informal filters. You can suspend them to death until finally their parent removes them voluntarily. Urban Prep is a perfect example of how this works. They boasted a 100% graduation rate for seven out of seven years. Is that accurate? 60% of the entering class left the school before they graduated.And even more telling, one third of the junior class left just before senior year! So, the school graduated 100% of 40% of the entering student body. Or 66% of the junior class. Did the school have a 100% graduation rate? A 66% graduation rate? A 40% graduation rate? A schools’ suspension and attrition rate irrespective of expulsion puts a graduation rate into better perspective.
  • Third, the bar for what is considered a good school is an accountability measure doesn’t always deliver. HST reduces success factors to an easy number on a spreadsheet. It is a marketing tool rather than a guarantee of high quality education. For example, Success Academy boasts very high scores on their 3-8 tests (They beat out Scarsdale and Bronxville, our version of Hillcrest), but so far they’ve only gotten six students into NYC selective high schools on the state test. They don’t even publish their regents pass rates (you know what that means). In essence, their students are being prepared for a single test which supports the adults and the school mission of growing more schools but does not support the futures of the children who go to them. To what extent do great test scores in 3-8 translate into college graduation rates or well prepared kids who can navigate a more diverse set of tests for living? This is of concern for parents, but also in the public interest. Returning to the Success Academy case, several videos and exposes that I’m sure we’re all familiar with illustrate just how concerning their metholodogy is. This brings us to an additional issue
  • We should be paying very close attention to the education provided in charter schools separate from the test scores they deliver. The early education of citizens impacts everything from whether those citizens can navigate and participate fully in the society around them to what they believe and whether they can think critically and independently.  Success Academy certainly needs investigation, but so do schools that are entirely independent of public scrutiny. What are these schools teaching? Should we allow public dollars to pay for an education that teaches bias or false science, for example?
  • What about the issue of school financing? Supporting charters that pull money from public schools as they teach the children who do not meet the charter bar is immoral. The idea that children should be victims of market correction is so horrendous as to turn its advocates into monsters. No one with even the slightest understanding of school finance thinks that children personally receive the dollars that are attributed to them. So, when you take money from a public school, you are taking a nurse or a librarian or increasing class size or removing a program that enriched children. It is nothing less than that. The charter in this case becomes parasitical in its relationship to the public school. It eats its host while the host is living. Someone should care about that. I know I do.
  • Finally, charters should not be able to make an end run around professional standing and the right of all workers to sustainable work and fair compensation. Children first is not identical to adults can be exploited. I must support teachers as the professionals who have the closest relationship to children and the ones who deliver the core duty of schools. So, that leads me to ask about the professional status and attrition rate of teachers in your schools. Disclaimer: I shouldn’t have to say this, but for context: I am a teacher who works at least a 12 hour day almost every day of the week and through part of every weekend. My students have unfettered access to me online. No one who works with me would accuse me of being a slacker. I don’t happen to have children which makes it easier for me to obsess about my work.  Okay. Now that we have that out of the way… No public school including charters should be able to elect not to pay teachers a middle class salary that increases with their years of service or use them as fodder for a machine. The attrition rate of teachers in your schools matter. Their hours matter. Their voice at the table of decision making matters. Their ability to have families and participate fully in the culture that they are helping to create matters.  They shouldn’t have to be childless in order to be a teacher, nor should they have to sacrifice their children for someone else’s.  They should not be desirable only so long as they have no other obligation or life concerns.  They have the right to see their wages increase with experience and expertise without worrying that it makes them undesirables to the bean counters that weigh them in terms of costs to the school.

So that’s it for today. I just thought I’d mention these issues which you don’t bring up.

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By way of analogy

Roundabout-Ahead-With-Graphic-Sign-K-8273Public schools are like busy traffic circles that have stop signs, bus stops, on and off ramps, red lights, passing lanes, pot holes and all sorts of other navigational hazards. There are many different types of vehicles and many different drivers.  Some ride in limos, some are in broken down jalopies, some are piled into overcrowded buses.  All must agree to the rules which make it possible to proceed at all.  Oh, and the rules are constantly changing.   There are accidents on a road that so many people must use.  In such cases, what’s notable is not that there are accidents, but that there aren’t more of them.  This does not mean that you don’t improve the traffic circle or that you don’t care about the accidents on the road… you must… you care about the accidents and seek to avoid them.  You improve and repair the road to address new traffic patterns and new drivers.  It is the job of all the engineers and all the workers on the road to keep up with the infrastructure and insure that the roads are accessible to and safe for all.

pedestrians-98938_1280But, if you’re on a section of the traffic circle where they’ve stopped filling potholes, let a red light burn out… closed down lanes.. piled all the traffic in… the traffic pattern falls apart.  The answer of the charter school was originally meant to add a lane to the virtuous circle, to help improve the traffic patterns, but it has morphed into something else.  It has been used by clever engineers to set up a whole, new separate traffic circle.  Instead of maintaining the neglected road, these clever engineers make the argument that a separate circle is a better benefit to some travelers.  After all, aren’t there already some subscription only traffic circles that serve their populations well through explicit agreement with other roads to be feeders to better destinations? Private roads have private means to pay for their nicer ways.  Shouldn’t everyone benefit from the ability to choose?  Should only those who have the toll be able to choose more exclusive roads with more exclusive travelers?  Thus, the charter becomes a hybrid traffic circle that attempts to provide some exclusivity without the toll.

no-traffic-signs-44320_1280How do they do it? Here’s the vision:  steal the stop signs and traffic lights of the original circle… all while people are still driving on it.  Argue that since some travelers are using their new circle, the old circle is only giving up what should be theirs anyway. Co-locate a part of the remaining road to be made exclusive for your use. Make the new traffic circle even more affordable by refusing to pay the labor on its upkeep.  Young new workers need experience in the directing of traffic.  No worries if you burn through them… there’s always a new pile of young workers who needs line items.  But, best of all, organize your circle so as not to accommodate all the drivers and conditions of traffic that exist on the roads from which you pilfer… the several drivers that get past your gatekeepers will enjoy a clearer road even if it doesn’t really travel through to better destinations.  And the clever engineers can take pictures and write promos about the success of all preferred drivers with their smiles, hopes and identical tee shirts.   And there you have it: a happy little road with happy little drivers that, like its private cousin, is a problem for almost everyone else.



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Unaccountable Things

If you don’t count undeserving people in high places or a burgeoning education reform industry of paid tweeters, bloggers and think tank thinkers, high stakes testing, known ironically as accountability,  is currently among the most unaccountable of unaccountable things in American education today.  It is unaccountable in the very thing that it purports to account for: the measurement and evaluation of learning,  teachers and schools.  It does none of these things well.

The most obvious reason for this is that staked testing shifts the priority from what will help a child to what will help the adults that teach her. High stakes advocates will argue that a high stake is the best way to insure that adult and child concerns are identical.  But, in practice,  this turns out to be untrue.  A high stake explicitly reduces the child to evidence of adult performance. Students aren’t first; scores are first.

It’s a simple arithmetic.  Most skills in the Common Core (or local variant) are untested; a teacher is valued through skills that are tested.  Therefore, tested skills are more important than untested skills regardless of their value to the student.  A stake advocate may argue (disingenuously) that a good teacher will always prioritize the student’s need, and that may be true… but only if those needs are not in conflict with the goals established for them by the state. That would be silly.. possibly even insubordinate.  A lesson that prioritizes  untested skills and opportunities is of low priority interest to administrators and a risk for a teacher whose goal must be to prove her value each year.  The best advice to is to remove untested content in order to produce better scores.  Test advocates will argue… “oh, but  there is all that other criteria that counts in teacher evaluation”, but this too is an invalid argument.  Regardless of the quality of other measures, the ultimate measure of the school is in its scores.  If test scores are high, the teacher has met the criteria that measures the district, school and principal.  

If this sounds like a corruption of mission, it is, and there is loads of evidence that a high stake corrupts the mission of schools …whether through carrot and stick incentives which encourage unethical behavior (Washington DC and Atlanta), through the demoralizing impact of indiscriminate goal setting or through the valuing of students by their scores.  This last is especially true for those schools that pick, choose and remove students at will.  For such schools, a child who is unlikely or unable to meet a given criteria, or who develops or produces later than the mean, is a risk for all the adults working there.  In essence, the state has defined every child as an added measure in support of the teacher, the school or the franchise.

The outcome of such an accounting is reduction of enrichment,  decrease in exposure to untested content areas, ruthless competition for students who meet measurement criteria and decay of transferable skills.  High needs populations are the most likely to be reduced.  A stakes advocate may argue that literacy is more important than these other skills.  (Michelle Rhee didn’t give a crap) But, what about when the reduction results in an inability to transfer skills even among students who may produce high scores on the 3-8 tests?  High profile charter provider Success Academy produces extremely high scores on the 3-8 State tests yet demonstrates little ability to get high achieving students into selective high schools and doesn’t even publish its regents pass rate.  In their literature, Success Academy boasts that their kids do better on the state tests than children in Scarsdale and Bronxville (two very affluent suburbs of NYC) and that they are reversing the achievement gap.  Yet, in 2016, after years of no students at all, only six of their students did well enough on entrance exams to test into selective high schools.

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How is it that these eye popping scores on state tests did not transfer to other measures? Unsurprisingly, preparing kids to ace one test does not build transferable skills.   Performance on high stakes tests in 3-8 does not correlate to student performance later on or elsewhere.  Students who take the 3-8 state tests are engaged not for themselves but for the limited and temporary success of the adults that teach them, and all schools that engage in staked testing (both public and charter) are explicitly instructing adults to view students as products of their performance.

Each year, a different set of adults will be required to use them similarly.. as data points of adult value. As long as this continues to be the case, students will sift through the school as on an assembly line.  Reward or reprieve comes to the successful adult from the focused screwing in of the one screw.  In this way, schools are commodified and annual scores become the real products of the efficient factory.  This is the business model applied to education.


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