Test is a test is a test is a test

Subtitle:  You can put lipstick on a pig, but that doesn’t mean it ceases to be a pig.

For those clamoring to declare isolated successes amongst the political wranglings going on in Congress over ESEA/ECAA, I think it’s important to remember a couple of things.  First, whatever the Senate votes to approve, with whatever amendments are tacked on to the legislation, we still don’t know what the legislation will look like when it emerges from the conference committee established by the House and Senate.  Amendments get removed, House and Senate legislation is merged and — well, it’s sort of like making sausage.  So, as I’ve said before, it’s a little disconcerting when organizations endorse legislation before it’s been finalized.  It’s okay to point out the strengths of proposed legislation or the weaknesses, but an endorsement, qualified or not, of half-baked legislation is troubling.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, I think we should remember, as Gertrude Stein was fond of asserting, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”  It’s an existential concept.  There isn’t a point in which the rose ceases to be a rose — even after your memory of a rose fades or it has been described countless times and in different ways.  Many years ago now, in the years leading up to our current state of education reform, we were cautioned about the rise in standardized testing of our nation’s school children and the detrimental impact it would have on education (and our children).  Too few listened.  And the steady creep of standardized tests continued until it has now become the zeitgeist driving our curriculum and test prep dominates our daily lives in school.

So — as we’re on the eve of an ESEA reauthorization, we find policymakers parsing the language of tests.  We talk about  grade span testing versus annual testing and standardized tests vs. “high stakes” standardized tests.  And the big “win” is presented as the federal government sending the responsibility for governance over of education policy back to the states and local districts.

It may sound good on the surface.  But all the parsing of the language associated with ECAA/ESEA and killing the beast of NCLB doesn’t change the reality that we, as a nation, have waved the white flag of defeat when it comes to standardized tests.  Instead of saying, “Please, sir, I want some more,” while plaintively holding forth an empty bowl, we say, “Please, sir, I want a little less.”

Our current iteration of ESEA holds no promise of breaking the stranglehold that standardized testing has over education in the U.S.  To say that it is needed to equalize educational opportunity and educational outcomes is simply not the case.   To say limiting the number of hours children are required to sit for standardized tests will end the amount of energy expended on test prep is a simplistic notion.  And merely giving this authority back to states will not stop the abuses associated with standardized tests.

It’s time to say no.  Measuring is not teaching.  Standardized tests have no real purpose in education except to sort and label children.  They are constructed purposefully to create a system in which half of our children are deemed below average.  We do not live in Garrison Keillor’s mythical  Lake Wobegon, “where all the men are good looking, all the women are strong, and all the children are above average.”  That place doesn’t exist.

Test is a test is a test is a test.  How is it that we simply accept the assumption that we need standardized testing in order to educate our children?

I cannot support legislation that continues to make standardized testing the law of the land.

What’s More Important? Test Data or Life Data?

In my last post I suggested that if the government is so intent on publishing standardized testing data as an indicator of the effectiveness of teachers and schools, they should likewise publish other meaningful data on the communities teachers and schools serve.  In What’s Missing in Education “Reform”  ?  Daun Kauffman discusses another dimension of child wellbeing that is distinctly missing from discussions of education reform.  One dimension that is missing, according to Kauffman, is “the massive incidence of childhood trauma, and its laser-like connection to cognition and education ….”  Children who live in urban settings typically experience more incidents of trauma.

A great deal of research has been generated about the impact of childhood trauma or “Adverse Childhood Experience” (ACE).  Therefore, Kauffman makes the following suggested addition to the data that should be reported concomitantly with standardized test scores:

“What are aggregated, community rates of Childhood Trauma, or “Adverse Childhood Experience” (ACE), as separate from ‘poverty’?”  What are the reported incidents within a community of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and physical or emotional neglect?  How many children are being raised in single parent homes due to abandonment, separation, divorce, or incarceration?  What are the reported incidents of household violence, substance abuse, and mental illness?

I agree with Daun Kauffman that this type of data is clearly missing in discussions of child wellbeing.  The federal government funds research in the area of childhood trauma/ACE and, therefore, it would seem that the government acknowledges the impact of trauma on a child’s ability to meet the cognitive demands of school life.  According to Kauffman:

“ACE Rates vary widely. Chronic exposure to ACEs directly affects cognition. They have the power, as chronic events, to disrupt neurodevelopment and secondarily social behavior(as defenses against the onslaught). Presently ACEs are ignored in educational performance analyses. Ignored at macro levels, ignored at District level, ignored at school level . . .  Their prevalence is shocking:  suburban rates (for 3+ ACEs) have been measured at 22% and urban rates at 37% and greater.  A prevalence above the COMBINED rates of ELL and IEP students.”

It is not without irony that education reformers posit that improvement in the academic lives of children begins and ends at the schoolhouse door and they distance themselves from meaningful data about the realities of the lives of too many children through “no excuse” rhetoric that teachers can demonstrate academic improvement for every student regardless of all the factors that impact their lives.  No other profession is held to the same level of accountability, responsible for one narrow set of outcomes in spite of all other dimensions of human life.

Again, if the federal government is so intent on public disclosure of standardized test scores as an indicator of the effectiveness of teachers and schools, they should be required to provide a full picture of the community data that impacts the lives of children.  Then, perhaps, teachers will get the credit for their noble efforts in trying to educate children who face almost insurmountable challenges every day.  As one teacher I interviewed a few years ago poignantly stated about her young students in a high poverty community, “I’m trying to teach these children to read and they’re trying to survive.”  I’ve experienced firsthand the devastating impact of unsafe communities on the lives of children.  I’ve heard children speak of family members murdered, imprisoned, and lives lost to drugs and crime.  I saw little children take freshly sharpened pencils and pretend to inject themselves in the tiny little crooks of their arms.  It broke my heart.

How dare education policy makers ignore the realities of the lives of far too many children in the U.S. when they boldly and callously propose systems for holding teachers accountable for academic performance while ignoring the devastation of too many of the communities that create the world children have to navigate through on the way to and from school?  Children deserve better.


For more information, see:

http://lucidwitness.com/2014/09/25/whats-missing-3/ http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/ http://captus.samhsa.gov/prevention-practice/targeted-prevention/adverse-childhood-experiences/1


There is a Need for Real School Reports Cards: Data that Counts in the Life of a Child

If the federal, state, and local governments continue to place so much weight on standardized test scores as indicators of education progress and success at the national, state, and local levels, then they should be forced to publish any data associated with academic outcomes alongside other indicators of a child’s wellbeing.  We know, and have known for a long time, that academic achievement is highly dependent on other indicators of well-being, such as socioeconomic status.  There are other indicators as well.  The OECD, the organization that brought us PISA scores which for critics of public schools act as the bellwether for school success, recognizes that the well being of children encompasses more than test scores and, therefore, publishes rankings on material well-being, housing and environment, health and safety, risk behavior, educational well-being, and quality of school life.  Of course, systemic educational reformers in the U.S. only want to focus on data from standardized test scores.

We know the ramifications of poverty on the well-being of children.  However, we’ve adopted a “no excuses” mentality for teachers, and like to assert that teachers can overcome any and all of the challenges a child brings with him/her to the classroom.  But teachers cannot.  Teachers can make a noble effort, but they simply cannot overcome poverty and the structural challenges that impede the academic growth of so many children.  Any amount of disaggregating data for student subgroups does not tell the whole story and does not provide a complete picture of a teacher’s worth.

The publication of school, district, and state education report cards may be well intentioned as a means of providing data and information about how well schools and teachers are doing.  However, we need to ensure that report cards about a school district, individual school, or individual teacher include all relevant information that truly reflects the lives of their students in order to meet the needs of those students  Therefore, I suggest that we expand the report card to include the following dimensions on the well-being of the children served by schools and teachers.  In many cases, this data already exists and is used by businesses to make decisions about where to build factories, relocate offices, or open stores. Let’s use this data meaningfully to affect real change in the lives of our children:

  1. What is the average income of the families living in the community served by the school?
  2. What is the employment rate for the families living in the community served by the school? Are there jobs available that pay a living wage?
  3. What are the crime statistics for the community?  I’ve worked in high crime neighborhoods. I know how impactful it can be for children who witness or experience crime and are traumatized. Is it safe for children to play outside in the community? Do they have to navigate drug dealers, gangs, and criminal activity once they leave the front door of their homes?
  4. What is the availability of high-quality affordable healthcare for children and families in the community?
  5. What types of high quality affordable childcare are available for working families in the community?
  6. What types of preschools are available and what percentage of families send their children to preschool?
  7. Is there a public library in the community, is it open on weekends, and how many books do they have available?
  8. What kind of programs are available for children on weekends and after school?
  9. How many parents attend functions at the school, in particular, parent-teacher conferences?  This is information teachers could make available and is highly relevant in light of teacher accountability.  For each class, what percentage of parents attend parent-teacher conferences?  This is a fair point if you’re intent on holding teachers accountable for student performance on test scores.
  10. What types of grocery stores are available within the community? Are fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh meats readily available at a price families in the community can afford?
  11. Are the homes children live in safe?  If their families rent homes and apartments, are they well-maintained?
  12. How do children get to school? If they walk to school, what does the community look like through their eyes? Do they feel safe? Do they have to navigate through crime ridden streets, afraid of being assaulted or bullied? Do they have to cross busy streets on their own?  If they ride buses, how long is the ride?  Are they already tired by the time they get to school? Do they feel safe at the bus stop while waiting for the bus?
  13. What is the governance structure of the school/school district? Are school board members elected by the community to reflect the needs and wishes of the community? Or is the school board appointed to reflect the needs and wishes of people in positions of power far removed from the community — like governors, mayors, or private for-profit or nonprofit charter school organizations?

That’s my list.  Maybe you have other suggestions.  I watched the ESEA reauthorization hearings last week.  I am unconvinced that we’re going to be released from the hyper-focus on standardized test scores.  Lawmakers are intent on making them the mainstay of education policy and we may have to live with that for at least the next generation of school children.  However, we should insist that test score data is balanced with data that reflects the lives of children and the communities in which they live.  Systemic education reformers love data; but let’s make the data meaningful.  Let’s acknowledge that the life of a child doesn’t begin on the first day they enter school, nor does it end the minute the bell rings at the end of the school day.



For Poor Children, “It is the Economy, Stupid”

As I concluded the research for my upcoming book, The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy, I was left with the conviction that untangling and dismantling corporate free market education reform policies requires a citizen mass willing and able to speak truth to power.  Topping my list of recommendations for reclaiming our public schools in the U.S. is the following:

“When politicians or pundits begin a discussion with an assertion that the entire American public school system is a failure it is a clear indication that … they would rather target public schools for reform than engage in a meaningful discussion about how to eliminate poverty and larger social issues that are at the root of low academic achievement in some communities in America” (p. 210).

You see, for children, education reform should and must begin with efforts to eliminate poverty.  Those of us who have taught in high-poverty schools and worked with children who are the victims of our nation’s allegiance to free market economic policies know all too well that simply reforming schools and blaming teachers for low achievement doesn’t target what is really at the heart of low achievement.  A number of years ago, as I was interviewing an excellent veteran reading teacher in the Mississippi Delta, she made a poignant statement that I will never forget.  She was talking about her efforts to provide reading interventions in a school that served children living in extreme poverty.  She felt defeated and frustrated and, on this day, she was sad.  She said, “I’m trying to teach these children to read, and they’re trying to survive.”

Brett Dickerson, too, understands how high poverty rates impact students and teachers.  In August, he wrote “… schools with high poverty rates tend to wear down the best teachers and burn them out from the relentless pressures of poverty-related issues in their students.”

In my years in Mississippi working in high poverty schools I was keenly aware of how vulnerable and isolated children are when they live in impoverished communities — both urban and rural.  They are, indeed, trying to survive.  They are highly motivated to learn, but sometimes life just gets in the way.  It’s hard to concentrate when you don’t know if you’ll have anything to eat at home or you don’t know where you’ll be staying that night.  It’s hard to concentrate when your neighborhood is not a place where you can safely play.  So many of the children I taught talked about violence they’d witnessed first-hand and they were too knowledgeable about the drug culture that surrounded them every day.  On two separate occasions I saw children pick up freshly sharpened pencils and use them to pretend they were injecting themselves with drugs in the crooks of their little arms.  It broke my heart. These were very young children.  And they didn’t ask for the opportunity to be so worldly wise.

James Carville, President Clinton’s campaign manager is attributed with developing the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  It was a successful strategy and helped Clinton get elected.  However, four years later Clinton enacted his welfare reform strategy, prompting Clinton appointee Peter Edelman to publicly resign his position and write a scathing critique for The Atlantic entitled “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done.”  The nation should have listened when Edelman stated, “I am afraid … that along the way we will do some serious injury to American children, who should not have had to suffer from our national backlash.”  But the nation didn’t listen.  And children have suffered.  Peter Edelman’s wife, Marian Wright Edelman, is the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.  The Edelmans met in 1967 when Peter accompanied Senator Robert Kennedy to the Mississippi Delta and witnessed first-hand the devastating poverty in the region.  Marion Wright, then working for the NAACP, accompanied Kennedy and her future husband, Peter Edelman, as they toured impoverished communities and homes.

Marian Wright Edelman has been a stalwart voice for poor children in the United States.  The Children’s Defense Fund ceaselessly advocates for children, publishing annual reports on the state of childhood poverty in our country.

Because, of course, for children, “it is the economy, stupid.”  And for Black children, the situation is dire.  In September, 2014, the CDF provided the following analysis of childhood poverty in the U.S.:

“Poverty data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on September 16, 2014 reveal that child poverty dropped significantly for the first time since 2000, from 21.8 percent in 2012 to 19.9 percent in 2013. While child poverty decreased for Hispanic, White and Asian children, Black children saw no decrease and continue to have the highest child poverty rate. Despite some decreases child poverty among all children remains at shamefully high levels. Nearly one in five children – 14.7 million – were poor in 2013, and children remain the poorest age group in the country. Although 1.5 million fewer children were poor in 2013, there were still 1.3 million more poor children than in 2007 before the recession began.”

No amount of education reform initiatives, grit studies, or no-excuse charter schools can overcome the unwieldy noose of poverty that strengthens its grip every day on the lives of poor and vulnerable children.  Peter Edelman began his article for The Atlantic with the statement, “I hate welfare.”  I do, too.  Most of all, I hate the need for welfare and I hate the fact that it is the children who suffer the most.  For one of the wealthiest nations in the world to have nearly 20% of its children living in poverty is a national disgrace.

I am sad, too, that our politicians and education policy makers continually point to teachers and schools as the institution that has the power to overcome childhood poverty.  We cannot.

Obsessive Testing and Data Collection One Step Further — Genetic Testing for Children

I’ve been thinking and writing about our nation’s obsession with grit  and big data recently.  I almost couldn’t believe it when I read Jay Belsky’s article in the New York Times entitled “The Downside of Resilience” in which he advocates for genetic testing of young children to decide issues of disposition and, specifically, resilience.  What if it isn’t true, says Belsky, that positive interventions like preschool education have the power to help all children?  What if, instead, we were able to identify certain alleles of genes linked to seratonin and dopamine early on to decide which children are “at risk” for being less gritty?  Belsky suggests that, ethics aside, this would enable us to target “scarce intervention and service dollars” toward “at risk” ungritty “delicate orchid” children who are genetically predisposed to “whither if exposed to stress and deprivation.” Other children, who “are more like dandelions,” … “prove resilient to the negative effects of adversity” and “do not particularly benefit from positive experiences.”

Anthony Cody wrote an insightful commentary about Belsky’s article, pointing out that, if Belsky’s ideas are correct, then the education community’s belief that resilience and grit can be taught is, indeed, incorrect and any instruction in these areas is a waste of time.  And there is a darker side to the use of genetic testing to determine resource allocation.  The eugenics movement thrived in the years prior to WWII as societies looked to science to produce a better human race.  The Nazis wholeheartedly embraced eugenics and we’ve lived with that legacy ever since, vowing to never forget.  But it seems that we are forgetting.  And now, we want to impose ethically challenged ideas on our youngest members of society.

However, isn’t this a natural extension of our nation’s obsession with testing, measuring, and data collection? Genetic testing at birth is merely another form of data collection.  This truly, however, harkens back to Huxley’s Brave New World —  schools for Alphas, different schools for Betas, and Epsilons can mop their floors (no need to waste money trying to education them).

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Stopping the Corporate Raid on America’s Public Schools: Local Control Over Education

Britt Dickerson wrote an insightful essay entitled “Investors Ready to Liquidate Public Schools” about the corporate raid on America’s public schools.  Dickerson writes:

“Plans are under way for investment corporations to execute the biggest conversion – some call it theft – of public schools property in U.S. history.

That is not hyperbole. Investment bankers themselves estimate that their taking over public schools is going to result in hundreds of billions of dollars in profit, if they can pull it off.”

Much has been written about the free market corporate plans to cash in on the public dollars associated with RTTT policies and the exploitation of children as profit producing capital.  However, less has been written about how to stop the freight train loaded with venture capitalists hell-bent on reaching the destination of a totally unfettered free market of education in the U.S.

Dickerson succinctly distills the solution.   Who has the power to stop the corporate raiders?

  1. Educators, parents, and concerned community members who “rally to maintain local, democratic control of public schools” … who understand that “any degree of standardization that comes from beyond the state only serves large, nation-wide investor interests.”
  2. Educators who “successfully counter the investor propaganda that parents are the only true stakeholders in a child’s education.” Only “then raiders can be opposed successfully. The oldest to the youngest and richest to poorest members of every community are the true stakeholders in public schools and public education.”
  3. Democratically elected school boards that “stay empowered to make decisions for the local public schools,” … able to resist the raider process.”
  4. Stakeholders who “successfully press legislators to listen to them instead of paid, professional lobbyists hired by large, investor-owned charter corporations… .”

The total destruction of our nation’s public school system is predicated on the elimination of local control over public schools.  Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM and current advisor to the Carlyle Group, who served as a chief architect of systemic education reform in the 90s, understood the need to wrestle control away from local school boards in order to push forward free market corporate education reforms.  Gerstner’s legacy among corporate education reformers was cemented in 1996 when he brought together the corporate world with state governors at the IBM headquarters in Palisades to establish the education reform agenda for the nation.  This meeting brought us Achieve — the organization that is credited with the development of the Common Core standards.  In 2008, Gerstner summarized what he had learned over the years as a leading voice in education reform for the The Wall Street Journal.  One of his recommendations addressed the issue of local control over public schools:

Abolish all local school districts, save 70 (50 states; 20 largest cities). Some states may choose to leave some of the rest as community service organizations, but they would have no direct involvement in the critical task of establishing standards, selecting teachers, and developing curricula.”

Need I say more?

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