Saturday, August 23, 2014

Is Getting Rid of Tenure the Answer? Or Should Teachers Stop Breathing?

I’m your typical retired teacher. I suppose I shouldn’t let all the attacks on public school teachers bother me.
But they do.

For that reason, I would like to pose a question that goes to the heart of school reform thinking. That is: Why do so many experts sound so stupid when they talk about fixing our schools?

This question bothers me like a stone in the shoe. I read the stories about what’s “wrong” with American education and end up scratching my head.

Maybe I’m dumb! That’s a powerful thread in attacks on public school teachers today. Supposedly, we’re just not smart enough. Finland! Finland is the model we must follow to fix our schools. In Finland only smart people teach! In fact, according to experts there’s nothing wrong with American education except all the bad teachers.

A typical editorial in the New York Times this week hammered away at that point. According to Mike Johnston, who “spent two years with Teach for America,” bad teachers with tenure are the great stumbling block in the path of every child’s academic success.

After spending two whole years (!!!!!) in a classroom, Johnston seems to believe he learned everything there is to know about teaching. Then he spent six years working as a principal in a Denver public school. And what do you know! 

His school had amazing standardized test results.

(We will not mention here the numerous cheating scandals involving other “amazing” standardized test results. We will also not mention that all the amazing test results linked to No Child Left Behind have now been tossed out the classroom window onto the schoolhouse lawn. Nope. We will keep our teacher sarcasm in check.)

Frank Bruni, who signed the editorial, noted that Johnston’s mother was a public school teacher. Johnston isn’t a teacher hater. (So Bruni says.) Still, Johnston “expresses the concern that we’re not getting the best teachers into classrooms or weeding out the worst performers.” That’s the first line that makes me choke on my morning toast.

You there! You! The physics teacher pointing out the solution to a complex problem on the white board. You! The one grading those eighth grade Language Arts essays! You! The one talking to the weeping third grader! YOU are not the best person for the job.

You are the PROBLEM. 

If we could get rid of you all the children would excel. We can’t get rid of you though. You have tenure. You dirty rat!

So what must be do? Johnston says we need to implement a tenure system that “means something,” a system based on test results. (Even bogus test results? Or test results that no longer matter because NCLB is dead?) We can’t continue the system we have now that rewards teachers “just because you’re breathing.” That’s the second line in the editorial that makes me choke on my toast.

If I read this right, asphyxiation is the cure for what ails U. S. education. We simply convince bad teachers to stop breathing.

Ironically, after trashing teachers in a general way, Bruni ends by exhorting readers to support good teachers everywhere. But this is one of many pieces of a similar sort that hint good teachers are few and far between. Hard to find. Kind of like Sasquatch. Or unicorns. “We need to pay good teachers much more,” Bruni adds. “We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the great from the bad.”

Now a Colorado lawmaker, Mr. Johnston has the last word: “Our focus is not on teachers because they are the problem,” he says lamely, having already said the reverse. “Our focus is on teachers because they are the solution.”

That’s the line that finally makes me mumble a curse.

I loved teaching and had tenure most of my career. I knew what I did mattered. So I did the absolute best I could. But unlike the non-teaching experts—or the quick teaching quitters who go on to become “leaders” and politicians and critics—I learned that I wasn’t the solution. No teacher has ever been and no teacher ever will.

If every bad teacher in a classroom suddenly stopped breathing next Monday critical problems in all our schools would remain. (In Finland, to cite one example, 4% of children live in poverty. In the USA that figure is 23%.) Good teachers put dents in such problems. Good teachers do that every day. 

Nevertheless, our so-called leaders must face up to the truth. Teachers aren’t the solution and tenure isn’t the problem. H. L. Mencken put it plainly seventy-five years ago: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

The experts keep offering up simple solutions to complex problems in education, simple solutions that prove disastrously wrong in the end. If we wish to improve outcomes in schools we have to rest reforms on a solid foundation of good sense. A society has a right to expect teachers to give their best. A society cannot, however, expect them to perform miracles with every child every day.

Teachers don’t need to be lectured, punished, or vilified by fools. They need aid in addressing terrible problems that seep into schools—problems rooted in neighborhoods and homes, problems not of their making, nor within their ordinary human capacities to resolve.


Problems Beyond Teachers' Control

Problems Beyond Teachers' Control

See if you can figure out which of these problems would be eliminated (or even reduced) if teachers lost all tenure protection:

Approximately 300 American children are murdered annually by parents. Marchella Pierce (as just one example) was tied to a bed, beaten and starved to death by her mother. The four-year-old weighed 19 pounds when she died.

Each day an average of 4.5 U. S. children die as a direct result of neglect.

There are 3,000,000 cases of abuse and neglect reported annually in this country involving nearly six million children.

A "Lousy Parent" Hall of Fame would include but not be limited to:
  • the father who put his infant daughter in the freezer because she was crying 
  • a father who threatened his daughter (over her grades) with an AK-47 
  • a mother who gave her two-year-old marijuana to smoke as a joke
  • a mother who sold her two daughters to a pedophile for $30,000
  • another mother who sold her daughter in return for Beyonce tickets
  • a dad arrested after repeatedly throwing his 23-month-old daughter into the pool to teach her a lesson about safety

At least 1.6 million American kids run away from homes every year. Most are teens. Many are fleeing physical or sexual abuse. Over half of all children and teens living in shelters or on the streets say parents "asked them to leave or knew they were leaving and didn't care."

(We might be able to help them if we spent less on standardized testing and more to hire school psychologists and counselors.)


In 1950 only 6% of American children grew up in single-parent homes. Today the figure is 35%. For African American kids the figure is 67%; for Native Americans: 53%; for Hispanics and Latinos: 42%; for Non-Hispanic Whites: 25%; for Asian Americans: 17%. It won't surprise any teacher to know that graduation rates are inversely related to the figures above.

Children raised in single-parent homes are twice as likely to drop out of school.

Nearly three million children in this country live with neither parent.

High school graduation rates for Native Americans, to cite one of a thousand examples, fell to 51% in 2010. You could argue this has much to do with crushing poverty on reservations. (Or you could make some absurd case that bad teachers with tenure gravitate toward reservations.) On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota 61% of children live below the poverty line.

A study by Johns Hopkins reveals that 15% of students miss at least one school day in every ten. Forget ending tenure as a solution. Give teachers telepathic powers so they can reach students sick, and faking sick, at home.)


There are 2.7 million children in this country who have one (or both) parents behind bars.

In 2011 roughly 35% of all gang members in this country were 17 years of age or younger. An estimated 1.4 million individuals belonged to gangs in 2009. That means 490,000 gang members were still in schools or roaming the streets.

In 2007-2008, the U. S. Department of Education estimated that 145,100 U. S. teachers were attacked by students.

Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre there have been 74 school shootings in this country, including twenty involving one fatality or more.

This would not include 22 students and staff injured in a stabbing attack at a Murrysville, Pennsylvania high school (April 2014).

Nor would it include Colleen Ritzer, a 24-year-old Massachusetts teacher, raped, stabbed and killed in a bathroom at her school after classes ended for the day. A 14-year-old student in her math class has been charged with the crimes.

According to FBI statistics there were 2,852 attacks in U. S. schools involving knives or other "cutting instruments" in one year (2004).

It might also be difficult for any teacher, with tenure or without, to reach a confused 11-year-old who brought knives, a loaded pistol and 400 rounds of ammunition to a Vancouver, Washington middle school intending to kill classmates. (This attack was thwarted before he could do any harm.)


In 2009 alone more than 13,500 infants were born suffering "from a type of drug withdrawal commonly seen in the babies of pregnant women who abuse narcotic pain medications." The rate of such births has tripled in a decade.

Deaths from opiod overdoses in the United States now number 16,000 per year. (One statistical oddity: doctors in Tennessee wrote opiod prescriptions at a rate 22 times higher than doctors in Minnesota.) Thomas Frieden, director of the Center for Disease Control, explained recently: "Prescription drug overdose is epidemic in the United States. All too often, and in far too many communities, the treatment is becoming the problem.”

Meanwhile, 6.4 million American kids have been diagnosed with ADHD and treated with drugs like Ritalin. Frieden recently "likened the rising rates of stimulant prescriptions among children to the overuse of pain medications and antibiotics in adults." (Again, rates of diagnosis vary: 23% of children in Tennessee--only 10% in Colorado. Sorry, we're not really picking on Tennessee.) Even Dr. NeHallowell, who once called such drugs "as harmless as aspirin" and wrote a book about ADHD now calls this situation "dangerous" and admits, "I hate to think I have a hand in creating that problem."

Roughly 23.5 million Americans, many of them teens still in school, or parents of kids, are addicted to alcohol or drugs.

One in fifteen high school students (6.5%) admits smoking marijuana every day. No way of telling whether or not this helped when they took their standardized tests.


Finally, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, for health and educational reasons, that children be limited to watching two hours of television per day. Many moms and dads aren't getting the message. The average American child watches 35 hours per week.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Best Seating Chart Ever

I adopted this arrangement after I read it helped with discipline.
I taught seventh and eighth grades.

Like any young teacher, I found keeping good order in a classroom to be one of my biggest challenges. I had been in the Marines, too.

And that kind of helped.

At the start of my third or fourth year in the classroom, I came across a story about a teacher who did away with typical rows. Instead, he arranged student desks in a horseshoe formation. There were two rows of chairs on each wing, teens facing inward and two rows at the base of the “shoe.” His position was at the open end near the blackboard (in those days). 

This allowed him to roam the center of the classroom at will.

This seating chart proved to be a huge improvement over old-fashioned rows. First, it was popular with students (nearly always a virtue, I think). It allowed them to see each other instead of the backs of their classmates’ heads. This fostered a more intimate atmosphere, especially during discussions.

Equally important, this setup allowed for greatly improved discipline from my end. Suppose, with old-fashioned rows, a child in the back was thinking about poking a neighbor. Or he was writing a note. Under the old arrangement you found yourself far away at the front of the room while the young man studied the distance.

To him it looked safe. He knew you wouldn’t see him poke the cute girl in the back. Or he knew by the time you came down the row he’d have his half-finished love note tucked safely away.

The horseshoe altered this calculation. If you roamed the center in random fashion, it was hard for anyone in the “back” to zone out. If you thought the young man in Seat A was doodling, you strolled in his direction, casually, since no rows impeded. And you stood next to his seat. You just happened to stop by—and asked the girl to his right to answer a question. The boy in Seat A is now alert. 

If a girl in Seat C was being a little disruptive you walked over and without a word gave her your “teacher look” or simply tapped her desk.

Seat B (or its twin on the other side of the room) was a good place to locate any particularly loquacious youth. You surrounded them with quiet or studious types in adjacent seats. It was also easy to stand by them during lectures and tamp down any disruptive impulse.

Proximity sufficed—and cutting down minor problems helped avoid festering sores that could lead to serious discipline problems in the end.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Index of all Posts

My Promise 

When I started blogging three years ago, I promised to speak up for good teachers. I also said I would never defend bad ones. I began by trying to debunk the myth that something was wrong with America’s teachers as a group.

See:  Numbers Don’t Lie: Our Teachers (And Doctors) Are Failing. (More recently, I addressed this topic again. PISA Wars.)

I also mocked the idea that U. S. teachers were stupid and terrible in: America’s Teachers! We’re Dumb! And We Suck!


When I retired in 2008 I felt lucky. I loved life in the classroom, loved working with teens, and taught for decades. Today, I’m worried about younger teachers. When I look at current education reforms it appears to me that so-called experts are pushing disastrous policies. That should not be a surprise. Most of these experts never taught.

See, for example:  Do Recent School Reforms Help or Hinder Real Learning.

Other teachers weigh in on the topic: Is the Teaching Profession at Risk?

Also: R.I.P. No Child Left Behind. Hard to believe that since this blockbuster law was implemented, SAT, ACT and PISA scores have all declined. Even NAEP scores are flat. (If you’re a real teacher you start to wonder: Do these experts have a clue?)

I would say no: Arne Duncan Discovers the Obvious.


I know good teaching is extremely hard. I know even the best teachers face victory and defeat in the classroom, oftentimes during the same day. I am currently working on a book titled Two Legs Suffice:  Lessons I Learned by Teaching.

The title relates, in part, to two bicycle trips I took across America, one at age 58, the second four years later.

If you’re interested in reading about my first ride across the United States go to viall4diabetes. My youngest daughter is a type one diabetic and I pedaled to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. Students helped me raise more than $13,500. 

Double click on any pictures and they fill your screen.

My second ride—including my arrest as a bank robbery suspect—is documented at viallfordiabetes2011. Luckily, I was able to prove my innocence and pedaled 4,615 miles in 58 days, again raising money for JDRF.

Pedaling along the shore of Bear Lake in Utah, early morning.


Several of my most popular posts are listed in the sidebar at the right. More than 20,000 educators have now read the N.F.L Adopts Common Core Playbook.

My personal favorite is: How Many Reformers Does it Really Take to Fix a School? I believe every frontline teacher knows how many reformers we actually need—and how rarely those reformers actually step into a classroom to help.


Social studies teachers might be able to use:  Who Were Those People Who Died on 9/11?

I had excellent results using this reading with my seventh grade students (they then turned it into a skit that lasted an entire bell): Women of the American Revolution

Can You Answer Six Simple Questions about the Declaration of Independence?

Sixty Years Ago: Brown v. Board of Education.

Teaching about Slavery also explains a lesson plan idea I used successfully with my kids.

I found that putting up quotes all over the room also helped interest students: Wisdom on the Walls.

Drawing by Emily C., showing the TV-Indian stereotype.
Not like most Native-American cultures at all.


This category keeps growing as incidents of school violence pile up. Recently, I had to add a tribute to Colleen Ritzer: Find Something Good in Every Day, the Massachusetts high school teacher stabbed to death by one of her own students.

Another Teacher Killed in Danvers, Massachusetts highlights Ritzer’s tragic fate, as well as the death of Michael Landsberry, gunned down on a middle school playground. 

The shooting at Chardon High (February 2012) tells us much about the problems teachers and students face in the real world:  Shooting at Chardon High.

My most recent post on the topic expresses anger in regard to the failure of our so-called leaders. Their blindness is breath-taking: Does Arne Duncan Realize that Teachers and Students Are Dying?

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre I shared a few thoughts on Arming Teachers:  A Stupid Idea. One of my students brought a gun to class in 1985, intending to shoot me and at least one classmate. So I have a particular interest in the topic.



In the summer of 2012 Johns Hopkins University released a study on student absenteeism: Stop Blaming Teachers and Start Blaming Pediatricians? Every teacher in the country could have predicted the results of this study.

Rock, Voucher, Scissors:  Saving Carl Won’t Be Easy:  A friend teaches in a poor district. What might she have done to save Carl if the young man lived with a mother whose mind was addled by drugs? Carl’s father was long gone from the picture.

See also: Home School for Homeless Kids. Which school reform (standardized testing, vouchers, charter schools) addresses the needs of these most needy children?


Consider the Ten Myths about U. S. Public Schools. These myths have shaped the thinking of the general public, which now believes our entire public school system is in crisis. One of the ten myths is that we who teach are morons.

How many times have we heard America’s schools are not preparing kids to succeed in a competitive global economy? That’s a second myth:  Are Poor Public Schools Killing the U. S. Economy?

Michelle Rhee, a leading education reformer, promised to use a broom and sweep out all the bad teachers in Washington, D. C. She failed to say what she would do about the students carrying knives. See: Michelle Rhee: Reformer with a Broom.

Thanks to Fox News a video of a student ranting against his teacher went viral (What One Student Rant by Jeff Bliss Doesn’t Tell Us). Based on ninety seconds of tape people weighed in on what they felt was wrong with all teachers.


In my class I had some success in reducing bullying. I share a few of my ideas in the post: Bullies in Middle School and Junior High


Can you get rich in education? You can if you start your own charter school and pay yourself $9.5 million for one year: You Can Become a Millionaire.

How are charter schools doing? Based on current evidence here in Ohio, they’re not doing that well. Ohio Charter Schools Suck: GOP Lawmakers Still Love Them.

We know what happens when business interests run for-profit colleges. Crooks abound! It’s hard to see how they’ll do better when it comes to for-profit charter schools: The Business Model in Education: Really! It’s Going to be Great!

Actually, we already know what happens when shysters run charter schools. As a bonus, you have a science curriculum that teaches kids the Loch Ness monster is a dinosaur. Link: Privatizing Public Schools and the Loch Ness Monster Bonus.

Also: Governor Kasich Puts the Bible (and Koran) Back in Ohio Schools.

How does a for-profit charter school make money and get rid of kids with serious discipline issues all in one simple move? Why not charge $140 for discipline packets when kids get in trouble, like Noble Schools in Chicago? See:School Crisis?” Maybe It’s an “Office Tower Crisis?”
     Big Money in College Sports Means Bad News for Student Athletes.
     Vouchers, Charter Schools and Terrible Parents.


What happens if I bring in fourteen combat veterans to speak to 700 students at my school? It’s not standardized education and the experiences these veterans share can’t be “measured” on any standardized test.

See also: Sham Standards: Governor Kasich and the Standardized Testing Fetish (Part Two).

We’ve farted around with standardized tests for two decades. So: Should I focus on Shay’s Rebellion, as the State of Ohio now insists, or will my students be more likely to hear about “The American Dream” in years to come? And, if you like standardized tests, what do you about Songhai trade? See: Where in the World is Ohio? The Curse of Standardized Tests.

What did it mean when the worst stutterer I ever had in class spoke in front of his peers for an entire period and won a standing ovation? This was the kind of learning experience that matters. Yellow Brick Road to Nowhere.

Also: Teachers: Are You Part of the Lunatic Fringe?
         Standardized Testing: So Far We Might as Well Dump the Money in the Ocean.
         Rock, Paper, Common Core Curriculum: What’s the Real Key?
         The Emperor of A, B, C and D.
                        An auxiliary post provides even more examples.

A Perfect Mesh of Common Core and New Technology offers a glimpse of a Brave New World in which education and testing are controlled by testing and software companies.

In my class students were required to read a number of books for outside reading as part of their grade. I wanted to engage as many kids in reading as possible; so I gave them hundreds of books to choose from. Is that standardized teaching? Comments by former students help provide an answer: Why Teaching Matters—Part Four (Books).

Also: Why Teaching Matters: Part Three.
         Why Teaching Matters: Part One.
         Why I Loved (Non-Standardized Teaching): Stephanie’s Astute Observation.
         Standardized Testing: Confessions of a Terrible Teacher.

George Stranahan (who taught for half-a-century) addresses a number of critical issues in his book, A Predicament of Innocents. He shares my disdain for standardized testing.


If you bring business efficiency to public schools you’ll be introducing business morality too. What happens if businesses run for-profit charter schools the way pharmaceutical companies market harmful drugs for children? Let Big Business save Our Schools and Our Children.

ExxonMobil Announces Commitment to Fixing U. S. Education touches on the same subject.

Also: Big Bucks in Tater Tots: When Public Schools Run with Business Efficiency.
         Donald Trump: Next U. S. Secretary of Education?
         If Only Goldman Sachs Ran the Public Schools!  
         Pigs in the River: How Rupert Murdoch Got His Foot in the Schoolhouse Door.
         Unionized Public Sector Workers and Free Market Enterprise.

         Related posts include: June 30, 2011November 4, 2011June 8, 2012.


In this satiric post we send education experts to the doctor to get advice from car mechanics and plumbers. I mean, it could work. An Education Expert Goes to the Doctor.

Making fun of education experts is too easy. Shakespeare explains what school reformers miss. Forsooth: Shakespeare Doth Explain School Reform.

Do bureaucrats in Washington, D. C. help or hinder real teachers and real students? See: Rick Perry Was…Um… Uh…Right: Get Rid of the U. S. Department of Education.
           Can Teachers Save Every Child: Even Dylan Klebold?

Aesop weighs in on the topic of big talking experts: Big Words from School Reformers, Small Deeds.



I thought the key to my success in the classroom and the key to students’ success was obvious: The Key to Better Education: It’s Not Just Teachers.


Critics forget that there are hundreds of thousands of good teachers at work every day in this country. I asked former students to talk about educators who made a difference: Why Teaching Matters: What’s the Square Root of Inspiration? They fill a series of posts with heartfelt comment.


If you’re a public school teacher and not yet familiar with this program you might want to pay attention. The Teach for America approach has its virtues but too many of the people who run it and support it are puffed up with arrogance. (Ergo or Lego: Why I Hate Teach for America.)

I have an even better idea. I say we let all the experts actually teach: Experts for America: Like Teach for America, Only Better!

We keep hearing that America needs smarter teachers.
The arrogance of Teach for America leaders is sometimes hard to take.


When do we give up on the idea that grading schools will solve our biggest problems? Try this: Grading Schools, Grading Society?


Is it a good public policy to tie teacher pay to test scores? We consider the speech therapist who reaches an autistic child and finally helps her communicate. (Say “Wabbit:” The Inherent Limits of Merit Pay and Standardized Testing.)

How do you “measure” what it means when a teacher convinces a seventh grader he has the talent to go to college some day? Joey provides an answer in a letter he writes to his old history teacher. (Making a Difference in Untestable Ways.)


We’re now spending billions of dollars annually on all kinds of school reforms. So far, SAT scores have decline every year since No Child Left Behind was enacted. Scores reached record lows in 2012: Education Experts Baffled: SAT Scores Decline Again!

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Performance have also flat-lined in recent years. Leading reformers are puzzled.


My conservative friends don’t like these posts. Far-Right Conservatives Invent New Language was “liked” more than 100,000 times when posted repeatedly on AddictingInfo

Conservatives forget there was a time when even inter-racial marriage was banned in America. Read: Who Knew? Rupert Murdoch is a Flaming Liberal.

A number of posts in August, September and October 2012 might also be of interest to those who like to argue liberal vs. conservatism, and everything on the fringes and in between.


Freedom of religion is fine. Using tax dollars to support schools that debunk modern science might not be wise. See: Christian School Lays Smack Down on Science.

Putting Prayer Back in School: Better Keep the Lid on Pandora’s Box


No school reformer has done more to damage the image of public school teachers than Ms. Rhee. Rhee’s claim to fame rests on raising test scores in miraculous fashion. Unfortunately, certain ugly facts undercut her claims: Michelle Rhee’s Perfect Ponzi Scheme.

Also: Grading School Reformers: Michelle Rhee and the Miracle of Rising Test Scores

         Michelle Rhee Calls for Teachers with Telepathic Powers.


The whole concept that the nation’s public schools are failing (compared to schools in Finland and Japan) is wrong. So what if American students rank 25th in math!!!! What if the same kind of lists prove that America ranks 24th in life expectancy? Are hospitals in America failing?

American Teachers Stink Up the Place Again (but our nation’s judges are doing great).

See: A Fairy Tale Called “Waiting for Superman, Part Two.”

       I Blame Teachers for Everything.
       A Tea Partier’s Guide to American Education.

Finland! Finland, Finland, Finland! All the education experts seem to believe we should copy the model of Finland. Finland Has Smarter Teachers


I’m Facebook friends with hundreds of former students. They keep me posted (Loveland Students: Part Three) on what they’re doing and remind me why I liked teaching so much.


New technology opens up new possibilities in any classroom. The fight to fire students with a desire for learning remains unchanged: Old Tools, New Tools, The Battle is Unchanged.


Fox News hates teachers’ unions. Suddenly, Fox News loves poor down-trodden members of teachers’ unions! Fox News Goes All Warm and Fuzzy for Teachers.

Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times, laid blame for the failure of school reform on recalcitrant teachers and their unions. Mr. Bruni is full of goose stuffing: The Big Evil in U. S. Education: Teachers’ Unions.


We need some school reformer or education expert to explain how vouchers help if a child’s problems are severe and begin and end at home. (If Only Vouchers Worked like Magic Cloaks.)


Want to know why this movie was stupid? Consider what director Davis Guggenheim and critics who loved it missed: A Fairy Tale Called Waiting for Superman.

For my response to the question posed above go to: The Witch-Burning Mentality and Miramonte Elementary School.

One of my former students blamed me for fueling her passion for books.
Betsy's library today.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Teachers: Are You Part of the Lunatic Fringe?

Teachers: are you part of “the lunatic fringe?” Considering the results of a recent poll you probably are. Only 1 in 4 Americans said they believed standardized testing had made schools better.

To answer this question yourself a little background information first. If you missed the story early this month, the National Education Association approved a resolution calling for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign. Why? The resolution faulted Mr. Duncan for a “failed education agenda,” particularly a “toxic testing push.”

Naturally, this attack riled up Duncan’s defenders. Typically, these defenders never bothered to teach. Joe Williams, the no-teaching-ever-director of Democrats for Education Reform, was quick to condemn. The vote made those (at least to him) calling for Mr. Duncan’s head seem like part of “the lunatic fringe.”

Call me one of the lunatics, then.

But I believe teachers have legitimate reasons to despise standardized tests. In fact, I wonder what Williams would say if he tried teaching for a year or two, or twenty-five years. Here’s what I saw during my career in the classroom. In the late 80s I was there when states created their own standardized tests. Ohio implemented what was known as the Ninth Grade Proficiency Test. If students failed they had multiple chances to retake it and try to pass.

Unfortunately, state tests didn’t do much to improve education. The first problem was that the standards these tests set weren’t all that high to begin. Here’s one of my favorite geography questions from the old Ohio exam:

Not exactly a daunting challenge, right? (Wait: is the answer Z?)

At the same time, Ohio lawmakers in their infinite wisdom decreed that third graders would not advance to the fourth grade unless they could pass a reading proficiency test. This was labeled the Third Grade Reading Guarantee.

Elementary teachers warned that children mired in poverty might be dramatically impacted. Lawmakers didn’t care. Teachers warned that students new to this country and unfamiliar with English might not fare well. Lawmakers didn’t care.

Educators in middle and upper grades added their own warning. If you held a children back in third grade—and any other year during their academic careers—they were almost guaranteed to drop out of school. That was not the guarantee lawmakers had in mind.

Lawmakers didn’t care.

And yet the Third Grade Reading Guarantee died an early death. When actual children failed the test and parents made it clear they would not vote again for knuckle-headed lawmakers responsible for the mess, suddenly lawmakers cared. 

The guarantee was wiped from the books.

Eventually, leaders in education (people who give advice but never teach) realized that state-level testing was doing no good. So: Congress enacted No Child Left Behind (2002). Now the feds promised by 2014 every child in America would be proficient in reading and math.

Bureaucrats in various state departments of education realized how hard achieving academic perfection might be. And since failure to achieve “adequate yearly progress” involved penalties of all kinds, most states decided the path to success was clear. They lowered standards on their tests for the next few years. Then they raised them gradually to “prove” that great strides were being made—kind of a one step forward, two steps back approach to learning, you might say. This turned out to be a lame approach and teachers who had to scuffle to conform to all the rules understood it was a charade.

No one asked them what they thought.

Meanwhile, real teachers wanted to know what would happen if a young man missed 106 days of class in a single year. (I had one student who did.) Would they be “held accountable” if these kinds of students failed their tests?

Yes, the non-teaching education experts insisted, yes, they would.

School reformers—who never taught a single, solitary soul—insisted that real teachers were making excuses if they couldn’t reach every kid. Real teachers inquired anew: Will we be faulted if homeless boys and girls can’t pass the tests? After all, we find that acute hunger has have a detrimental effect on an eight-year-old’s performance in school?

“Stop making so many excuses,” the non-teaching types said.

What else was NCLB supposed to do? Politicians promised that the law would eliminate racial achievement gaps across this great land. But a decade later gaping racial gaps remained. When children were tested in 2012, 54% of white fourth graders scored “proficient or above” in math. For Asian Americans the figure was 64%.

Blacks (18%), American Indians (23%) and Hispanics (26%) still lagged behind.

Classroom teachers tried to point out to lawmakers that poverty really seemed to matter. In 2012, the biggest “gap” in math scores was seen when students eligible for free/reduced price lunches were compared with those not eligible.

Those eligible passed at a rate of 25%.

Those not eligible passed at a rate of 59%.

Scores on the eighth grade reading test showed the same poverty-related achievement gap.

The experts, who never taught anyone, rich child, or poor, told real teachers to quit with all the whining and save every child.

Here in Ohio, politicians decided that if testing in reading and math was good then testing in science and social studies would be better yet. So sub tests in science and social studies were added to the Eighth Grade Ohio Achievement Test. (This test replaced the Ninth Grade Proficiency Test after passage of NCLB.) The social studies sub test was phased in in 2003 and scores first counted in 2005. By 2009, however, the sub test was dead. Too late, frugal lawmakers (the same ones who came up with the idea in the first place) suddenly realized that it would cost large heaps of money to print, administer and grade the social studies sub test.

Besides, there were complaints from all corners of the state—not necessarily from members of the lunatic fringe—that made it clear the social studies sub test was stupid, almost from question one all the way to the bitter end.

On one occasion I headed for Columbus to testify in front of the education committee of the Ohio Senate about a proposal to tie merit pay to scores on high stakes tests. I asked members of the august panel if any of them could provide a definition of “mercantilism.” That was in fact a question asked of eighth graders on the previous year’s test.

Not one member on the Senate committee could.

I inquired next about Songhai trade. That was indeed another question on the social studies sub test of the OAT.

Once more, I was met with uncomprehending stares.

Worse yet, when all the testing was done and students walked across the stage to pick up their diplomas, how much had standardized testing done to improve U. S. education? In reading, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress, there was zero long-term gain

All that money spent on testing and scores would not budge! 
(Well, not unless you count going down.)

And in math, gains were also thin.

Real teachers grumbled—but not because they hoped to evade accountability. They realized you could have had greater impact on reading scores if you had simply taken all the money wasted on testing ($1.7 billion annually) and used it to buy books—170 million per year, at $10 each. And you could have given two to every child in the U. S. public school system and done it every year.

Each spring the tests were given and taken. Teachers had no choice but to play the lousy hands they were dealt. If tests at the elementary level measured only what children learned in reading and math—well, thenit made sense to focus only on that. Technically, if a subject wasn’t tested in your grade it no longer mattered what you taught.

Art? Not tested. Forget art! Music? Who cares! Even time spent on science and social studies declined (ironically, students would be tested later in those very subjects). As for physical education, it was clear the testing companies weren’t going to ask kids to run a mile.

Who cared if kids got fat!

It took a decade—but gradually it dawned on politicians and bureaucrats and education leaders who never taught that NCLB was a terrible flop. Probably every classroom teacher from Juneau to Miami could have predicted this would be the end result.

Then Secretary Duncan stepped forward with a bold new plan. And his plan was sure to work. (That’s what the last guy said.) NCLB would be killed. All those expensive standardized tests tied to NCLB? Use them for scrap paper, kids.

Mr. Duncan would oversee creation of a brand new battery of standardized tests. His tests would be tied to Common Core and this time testing would work!

State after state fell in line. Everyone seemed to love Common Core. And it did not hurt that Mr. Duncan passed out $4.35 billion to states willing to implement his plan—which another reformer (who never taught) dubbed “Race to the Top.”

In Louisiana the legislature voted in favor of racing to the top. Racing to the top sounded good. Governor Jindal was all for the racing. Then Governor Jindal changed his mind and said he would work to defeat Common Core instead. Oklahoma lawmakers were all for Common Core until they were all against it and repealed their consent. Real teachers sadly shook their heads.

So the years passed and new plans came and went and came and went and came and went. Real teachers who had growing and even profound doubts about the mess school reformers were creating did not feel as if they were part of a lunatic fringe. They watched and wondered. Who were these fools pushing all these tests, changing the rules almost as quickly as those rules were written. Did these people have even the whiff of a clue?

Here in Ohio, the bureaucrats and politicians went back to work. They renamed their test. The OAT was no longer cool. The Ohio Achievement Assessments (OAA). That sounded better! And you know what we really needed, they said?

A new third-grade reading guarantee.

This time, lawmakers promised, everything would turn out great.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Can You Answer Six Simple Questions about the Declaration of Independence?

Today we celebrate the quintessential American holiday with beer and bratwurst and day off from work. Flags wave. People parade. Picnics are held.

Then we blow shit up.

What is this holiday about?

What then is the true meaning of this foundational day? You’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to realize that we as a nation have not always lived up to the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Yet the ideals are there and central to what makes this nation sometimes great.

Can you answer six questions based on the passage that is heart and soul of this famous document? Do you truly understand what it means to be “American” today?

Here is that passage:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.
                                                                                                         Thomas Jefferson
                                                                                                         July 4, 1776

And the six questions are:

1. Government gets its power from _____.

2. If government does not work we have the right to _____.

3. Governments are set up to _____.

4. If government works as it should everyone will be treated _____.

5. Certain basic rights cannot be taken away from you by _____.

6. Government should leave you alone to enjoy _____.

The Fourth of July isn’t just a day to set off fireworks. It’s a day to consider what this nation stands for at its best. Abraham Lincoln explained it this way:
I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration…I have often inquired of myself what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land, but that something in the Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.

What then does the Declaration mean to us all now? Do Christians, Muslims, and Jews have equal rights on this day? Do all agnostics and atheists too? They do. Let them worship or not worship as they please. (It may be anathema to suggest this to fellow liberals, then, but the recent Hobby Lobby decision by the U. S. Supreme Court might be correct.)

Well, what about gays? Do they have the same rights? Can they marry if they wish, for example? Conservative might not care to admit, but according to the ideals outlined in the Declaration, clearly they may.

What are the answers to the six questions above? How many did you get right?

1. Government gets its power from the people.

2. If government does not work we have the right to alter or abolish it.

3. Governments are set up to protect our rights.

4. If government works as it should everyone will be treated equally/fairly.

5. Certain basic rights cannot be taken away from you by anyone.

6. Government should leave you alone to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

If we keep those ideals in view the answers to many current questions seem clear. Was the Civil Right Act of 1964—fifty years old this week—a great piece of legislation? It was. Does any American accused of any crime, including terrorism, have a right to be treated equally under the law? They do. Can Neo-Nazis do as they please—as long as doing what they please doesn’t infringe on the rights of others? They may.

My kids don’t have to listen to any public school teacher reading from one version of the Bible and your kids don’t have to listen to another teacher reading from the Book of Mormon.

Any attempt to deny voting privileges or make it harder for any citizen to vote is a violation of our ideals.

Even better, no one can curtail my rights or yours. We are free, within the wide limits of wise laws (see #1, #2 and #3 above where laws are unwise). The government cannot take away our rights. Neither can other Americans.

If your neighbors don’t like the way you talk, or how you worship, or which political party you choose to support, they are free to dislike it as much as they can. They may not control what you do. Nor may you control them. My Tea Party neighbor is as free as I am to vote for representatives of his choice. You may send a donation to the Sierra Club. Your cousin may pay to hear Sarah Palin speak. We can write our representatives and ask for more money for border control—or legislation to address climate change. We can support sending more troops back to Iraq or we can oppose it with equal fervor. (We should, of course, study the issues, ourselves.)

I will leave aside for now the matter of the equality of even those who are not American citizens. Time passes and I have to get ready for the family picnic. But let me add finally that it seems obvious efforts by career politicians to make their seats in power more and more secure are at variance with ideals set down more than two hundred years ago. When various state legislatures gerrymander U. S. Congressional districts into weird shapes to insure that incumbents remain safe that too is a failure to uphold values outlined in the Declaration of Independence.

Enjoy your bratwurst and beer. If you’re committed to freedom for all, then you know the true meaning of this day.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Finland Has Better Teachers, Better Colleges! And Fluffier Kittens!

Do nations like Finland and South Korea really beat us in education? And kittens?

I’m getting sick of hearing about howthis country is lacking compared to the rest of the world when it comes to K-12 education. Ooooooooo, critics moan, “Finland’s schools are way better! Finland has smarter teachers!”

(See: “Teachers: Will We Ever Learn,” New York Times, April 12, 2013).

Today, an article in the Times tries to make the same kind of comparison where colleges and universities are concerned.

One ranking, out of London, credits the United States with having 18 of the top 25 universities in the world. Sounds like we win! A second ranking coming out of Shanghai says we have 19 of the top 25. Sounds like we win!!!

Oh no. We can’t possibly have good teachers in this country, preparing good students for success in the future. That doesn’t jibe with accepted wisdom. According to many critics everything U. S. public school teachers and U. S. public schools do is terribly, terribly wrong.

You see, on “average,” it turns out U. S. colleges don’t do so good.

There’s even a chart to prove it. The chart shows the average “numeracy” score of graduates (ages 16-29) with bachelor’s degrees. It shows you what so many of these stupid charts show. Finland has better teachers! Finland has better colleges! Finland has children who eat all their vegetables. Eat them at every meal, they do!

Finland has fluffier kittens! 

It turns out, compared to young college graduates around the world, ours don’t know beans from Brussels sprouts when the subject turns to math. And Finland beats us again:

1. Austria (average numeracy score: 326)
2. Flanders (a.k.a. Belgium—which makes me really hope we beat them in soccer on Tuesday)
3. Finland (averages core : 322)

4. Czech Republic
5. Japan (average: 318)
6. Sweden

7. Germany (314)
8. Netherlands
9. Estonia

10. France
11. Slovak Republic
12. Denmark

13. Norway
14. Canada (301)
15. South Korea (297)


17. Westeros (296; okay, I made that one up)
18. Australia (296)
19. England/Ireland (296)

20. Ireland
21. Poland (you’ll see why this seems odd in a moment)
22. Cyprus

23. Italy
24. Spain (283)
25. Russian Federation (take that Putin, you scumbag; you finished tied for last; 283)

And how do we get these scores? We study the results of a brand new test, Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, (PIAAC) first administered in 2011 and 2012, to adults ages 16-65 in twenty-four countries.

The article today has a number of different comparisons—math scores for 15-year-olds on the PISA tests (Program for International Student Assessment)—average reading scores for left-handed people taller than six feet—even kitten fluffiness, has probably been tested.

In all categories the United States supposedly looks bad. But you have to wonder. In 2012-2013, almost 820,000 foreign students came to this country (more than to any other nation, by far) to attend our colleges and universities. Did these poor devils not know they were wasting their money?

And, by the way, will we get credit if their graduates return home and score higher on the PIAAC tests in the future?

In any case, you have to wonder how accurate all these tests really are. The PISA test, for example, did not exist until 2000. So how did nations of the world survive until then—without the ability to make fun of their dumbbell neighbors? “We might be ignoramuses,” say the Italians, “but at least we’re not as idiotic as the SPANISH!”

We’ve all seen in recent years how tests tied to No Child Left Behind failed to measure anything actually worth knowing. (And at a mere cost of $1.7 billion annually, at that!) Here in Ohio, before I retired, we had a standardized test for social studies in the eighth grade meant to measure proficiency. That test proved so lame the State of Ohio killed it before it turned six. (R.I.P. OAT social studies sub-test, b. 2003, d. 2009). Even the Scholastic Aptitude Test, long used to “measure” the supposed decline and fall of U. S. education has now been found to be fatally flawed and in need of a serious makeover.

Finally, I notice a number of statistical oddities related to the PIAAC results. If you look at PISA scores going back to the year 2000, you notice that South Korea has never ranked lower than third among nations tested—and ranked first in 2009.

Here are comparative math scores (and rankings among nations) for 15-year-olds in the United States and South Korea on all PISA tests:

                              United States                     South Korea

2000                        493 (19th)                            547 (2nd)
2003                        483 (26th)                            542 (2nd)
2006                        474 (33rd)                            547 (3rd)
2009                        487 (28th)                            546 (1st)
2012                        481 (33rd)                            554 (3rd)

Somehow, in some bizarre fashion, South Korea’s huge lead dissipates by the time students move on and get their bachelor’s degrees from college. On one PISA test in 2003, they lead our kids by 73 points. When the very same organization uses the PIAAC test Korean college graduates see their lead in math cut to a single point.

You almost have to ask. Are South Korea’s schools really better? Or Japanese schools? Or Finland’s, for god sakes?

At this point, I’m not even sure Finland has fluffier kittens.

Now: suppose we DID want to have an education system just like Finland. Could we do that? Well, sure, if we wanted to fundamentally alter our social fabric.

(I can explain that in a separate post tomorrow.)

Postscript: Also interesting to note, Australian 15-year-olds beat ours in math in every PISA test given, by 40 points in 2000 and 23 in 2012. Yet on the PIAAC test, their youngest college graduates could only manage to tie ours.

Same with Canada. Their kids supposedly out-performed ours by 40, 49, 53, 40 and 37 points on the five PISA tests; yet at the end of the line, on the PIAAC test their lead was only 5.

Meanwhile, scores for Finland on the PISA test dropped from a high of 548 in 2006 all the way down to 519 six years later.