A Brave New Word








When you’re marketing a new product, new words are needed and right wording is everything. Personalization is the newest word. There is nothing personal about it. It’s not personal or evocative; it sounds just like the fresh corporate jargon it is.    It’s 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.  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.  And… 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.

Another 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, that 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 personalization  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 passions? 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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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.

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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 nysape.org


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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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Trump Days: On the Immigration Ban of Jan 28, 2017

The United States is not a fascist country. Trump is not our dictator. It is dangerous to suggest otherwise. His administration is, and will continue to be, circumscribed by rule of law and by the will of the people. Our judges, politicians, activists and individual citizens have the right and the ability to stand up to policies that disgrace our nation. Our allies have the ability. As long as there are principled people in high and low places, this will continue to be the case. We can impact our direction.

We must continue to believe in our stated principles and endeavor to live them. We must not be persuaded by fear, anger or insecurity to support immoral policies. No executive order will protect us from violence. No scraping of basic human rights will save the nation. Acceding to immoral laws IS the disaster. It destroys us from within and what we accept for the other reverberates into the historical record as our shame.

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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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Education Reform Classified


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Savior 2.0

Screen Shot 05-22-16 at 04.35 PMIt started with that small firestorm about the Duluth cartoon… canonized at the74 by Derrell Bradford, executive director of NYCAN…  when it became clear that acknowledging the burdens that children come in with is labeling them. And it built up as the #thisteachersees army was mobilized over twitter, and as Derrell Bradford reframed the awareness of the burdens that children come in with, and when he framed acknowledgement of struggle as union teachers seeing children as deficits and using these deficits as excuses not to teach. So, suddenly another line was drawn for what you can do and you can’t, what you may notice and you may not. Who is the good teacher and who is the bad one. Until every burdened child, and every teacher who notes it, became hay in the education wars.  Screen Shot 05-22-16 at 04.34 PM



Of course, the argument is a strawman.  Acknowledging the burdens that a child comes to school with is not defining them in terms of that burden or making an excuse not to teach them.  It’s an acknowledgement that in front of you sitting in a chair is a whole child with a set of experiences some of which are very hard and those difficult experiences impact learning and a host of things that actually matter if you want to help that child: self confidence, willingness to take risks, experience with healthy choices, amount of sleep the child got the night before, sense of security, trust for adults.Screen Shot 05-22-16 at 04.33 PM

Yet, someone out there seems to think we should ignore such things.. that depicting or thinking about them is not positive.  It’s labeling children as deficits rather than seeing what actually happens to them.

It’s an argument that needs to be unpacked… and with greater care than they unpacked the cartoon which addresses the merest and most obvious fraction of the issues that children may come in with. (No one noted the little sidebar at the bottom that reminds  us that many of our public classrooms are overcrowded with more children in them than seats.)

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“Yo hey”, but they make hay out of it in Reformland.  So, I read Bradford’s article indicting Randi Weingarten for including the cartoon. And, I read as many as I could of the counter narrative #thisteachersees tweets (courtesy of the MinnCAN app).  It was great to read what teachers were seeing about their kids.  But, as they tweeted away in diligent outrage at labels or in resolute cheerfulness about their young engineers, artists, comedians, and poets… I admit I also felt a strong desire to slap someone.  It wasn’t because of what they were saying: #thisteachersees.  That was not what was unwonderful.  It’s just that in context, the real hashtag is what #thisteacherchoosestosee. Maybe a real evolution is not curating at all.

I want to see what is there.  There’s a beating life behind the eyes of every child in front of every teacher and knowing a little about that life in it’s full complexity is not an excuse not to teach them or inability to see their beauty; neither is it a label.  Rather, it is a meaningful understanding about what hinders and helps children. It’s explicitly choosing to consider what my students are facing when they aren’t in my presence.  And knowing isn’t just a side gesture that I can dispense with.  It’s important because what I  know informs my ability to see why today might not be a good day, or why that book resonates with that child, or why this topic shouldn’t be explored in the larger class setting.  The real life of the child matters, and it matters for very tangible reasons.

Teachers who get their ideas about what teaching is from CANs seem to be implicitly counseled to view acknowledging a child’s burdens as making excuses not to teach that child.  The  good teacher focuses on student strengths and does not consider the child’s circumstances when teaching them.  That’s the province of weak teachers who make excuses.  Surely, focusing on a child’s strengths is a good thing. Being cheery and positive is a good and healing thing. But, it might also be a feature of the social darwinism of reform.. the grit argument writ large: don’t make excuses, and anything other than bucking up and hunkering down is an excuse. If you are successful, later on you can put your burdens on your resume.  In the meantime, show some grit.

That agreement not to see, to turn resolutely away from the full context of a child’s life, to arm them with grit but no background works perfectly with the no context Common Core and with the reform movement generally.  Everything is reducible in Reformland.  Toughen up for the New Normal. We’ll remove context.. context about what worked before, context about what we read when we read,  context about our children when we teach them. Context about what we said last week. We will be optimists and amnesiacs. We can test anything that matters, and we can improve anything we test. We will listen to that which we have decided to hear. We will understand that which we have  agreed upon. We will nod in understanding, and our students will be what we see in them.  Our ignorance will be the new Black.

And that brings me full circle to thoughts about my own contexts.  On the outside, I have always assumed that in some ways I am similar to many of these rich, do gooder kids…. older… (like in as-old-as-their-mothers old)… less rich than many,  less private schooled, definitely not groomed for greatness or position…  but otherwise very near like. Also smart and committed. Also outraged at the way in which low income schools I’ve taught in weren’t meeting the needs of my students.  I focused on bad pedagogy, poor funding formulas, large class sizes, absent support structures and lack of books. They focused on bad teachers.  But otherwise identical: we both saw the schools as lacking. I also preached to my elders about their neglect of the important work that needed to be done.  In some respects… I was just an earlier edition of the savior teacher. Call me Savior 1.0.

But, I think perhaps I have been wrong. I’m not actually a lot like Savior 2.0, at all.  For one thing, I don’t believe in saviors anymore. I  just believe in teaching, staying fresh and in hopefully getting the chance to be the right one at the right time for someone.  I also don’t have the Savior 2.0 context. No one told me that all the teachers who came before me sucked.  I was never told that there was leadership, personal reward and position waiting for me following a short stint in the classroom.  And, I don’t have the Savior 2.0 resume. Unlike a 2.0, I don’t burst forth from a well cared for, optimistic, future forward, affluent family where parents are emotionally available.. I didn’t go from my Montessori preschool to my great private school, to my selective college. I wasn’t one to whom every opportunity was offered and exploited. I was not one of the rich kids of reform with their cultivated lives, dance classes, horseback riding lessons, sororities, and summer camp. I was not blessed with a wealthy kid’s self assurance or massive sense of entitlement as they pursue (without a trace of irony) social justice entrepreneurship.  But, I’m also not a poster child for making it against all odds. I was not at all like the Derrell Bradfords and John Kings of reform. No one would ever think to tell me that I was the hero of my own story.  Or write up my resume with a list of my deficits and how I overcame them.  I didn’t even know that there was a race on for who was going to get to be somebody. I was just a smart, quiet, troubled kid in the back of the room at school.  Not a figurehead for reform. I merely came from a home in which terrible and violent things happened.

I don’t share the cheerful removal of unpleasant context as if acknowledging these is a crime against grit and hope. I don’t share the ability to negate and erase my students’ experiences  because when you come from a home in which terrible things have happened, you don’t get that ability.  And this understanding informs what I know about trauma and contexts.  It informs how I feel things. (I am somewhat of a calloused raw nerve. Hypervigilant and detached), but it also helps me to understand that people are full universes with all the contexts that they carry. I understand that suffering is not a badge of honor or a resume item, but it is part of us; it is not separate from who we are. I also understand that in our humanness is the best of what we bring to our work.  I am okay with what I experienced in my life; my contexts inform what kind of teacher I am because they inform what kind of human being I am.  For today… it also informs what I think about the  #ThisTeacherSees movement, and what I think about what a teacher doesn’t necessarily see.


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