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 how this country is lacking when it comes to K-12 education. Oooo, 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, another article in the Times tries to make the same kind of comparison where colleges and universities are concerned.

One ranking from 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!!!

Nope. We can’t possibly have good teachers in this country, preparing good students for success in the future. According to 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 their vegetables. Eat them at every meal. And never complain!

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 (average score : 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)

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 Times 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 purportedly looks bad. But you wonder. In 2012-2013, almost 820,000 foreign students came to this country 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 these graduates return home and score higher on the PIAAC tests in the future?

You have to wonder how accurate all these tests 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 incompoop neighbors? “We might be ignoramuses,” say the Italians, “but at least we’re not as dumb as the Spaniards!”

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!) Here in Ohio, before I retired, we had a standardized test for social studies in the eighth grade. That test proved so lame the State of Ohio had to kill it after only six years. 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, you might notice a number of statistical oddities related to 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)

Nevertheless, 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.


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.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Is the Teaching Profession at Risk?

It’s not quite right to say a recent link on the Facebook page of Waiting for Superman surprised me.

My reaction was more like: “Holy crap!”

If you’ve seen the movie you know it gives public school teachers, as a group, a black eye, a bloody nose, and maybe knocks out a few molars as a bonus. So I was stunned to see the site express a sudden need to support teachers. The link was titled: “The Teaching Profession is at Risk. Here’s How You Can Help!”

It turns out the profession is endangered because half of all teachers quit within five years. That’s not a recent development, but the link offered a chance to pledge support. I think I was supposed to donate money.

Then I noticed one organization I would pledge to support was The New Teacher Project. TNTP, if you don’t know, was founded by Michelle Rhee.

If you don’t know Rhee—and you really teach—you should. Rhee actually taught three years, herself. (It seems required—if you want to become a famous school reformer—that you teach only briefly, or not at all.) Then she moved up through bureaucratic circles and found herself running the Washington, D. C. schools. In that role and in all kinds of ways since, Rhee has made it clear that she believes public school teachers are the real problem in U. S. education.

Thus the need for The New Teacher Project!

In typical tone-deaf fashion, Rhee once explained why she had no choice but to let 266 of her own Washington, D. C. teachers go. Most had been removed because of poor standardized test results. But Rhee told an audience of entrepreneurs interested in school reform:
“I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school. Why wouldn’t we take those things into consideration?”

Why wouldn’t we! Who wouldn’t want to get rid of teachers hitting and/or having sex with children? Of course, almost none of the 266 men and women Rhee axed were hitting anyone or having sex with any children (which would be roughly 260 members of this group). It was a terrible way to justify terminations.

Setting that aside, with a warning to all public school teachers not to trust Rhee, the fundamental question remains. Why do so many new teachers quit? Even worse, why are so many veteran teachers disheartened? 

Is the profession at risk?

The reaction of teachers to the original post only increases my concern. I loved teaching. I’m not sure it’s easy to love teaching today. Here’s what other educators said:

Renee Blanc: I’m going into my 9th year of teaching & Common Core will be the 3rd set of standards that have come down from the powers to be that I’m required to teach. Movies like this [Waiting for Superman] don’t address the issues, like non-teachers writing these standards.

NEWSFLASH—Teachers are told EXACTLY what to teach. How are teachers failing students when we are NOT the ones writing the standards?

Ann Grissom-Wilkins: I don’t need “Superman” or any other super hero. I want a teacher who is allowed to educate the children in order for them to become successful, productive citizens. I want them to be able to think past the answers of these high stakes test. Get rid of all the political mess and educate our children.
Mr. Viall notes: My last year in the classroom was 2008. Members of the social studies department were told we absolutely must prepare kids for the social studies section of the Ohio Achievement Test. The test seemed badly flawed—and I told my principal it seemed like malpractice to teach to such a poorly designed test. 
The following year the State of Ohio came to the same conclusion and killed the social studies test.

I fondly remember state standardized tests in the early 90s, too. Those tests didn’t work either, in part because the “standards” set were so incredibly low. See an example of a “difficult” map proficiency question below:

Not exactly the most challenging question to ask.

Libby Garrett: If society really wants teachers as this post implies, then stop attacking us AND our pensions and pay! Stop making it harder and more costly to retain our licenses. Stop blaming schools and teachers for the ills of society! START taking responsibility for student attendance! START taking responsibility for assignments and studying! START taking responsibility for bringing supplies to class! I was once chewed out over a student who was disrupting my class. The assertion was it was MY fault because I didn’t supply the student with a pencil! And in truth I had a bucket FULL of pencils to loan out but why is it MY responsibility to pay for the basic supplies of my 150 students!?
Viall: The Washington Post recently noted that in Ms. Rhee’s old district 1 of every 5 students had at least twenty days of unexcused absences—and that would not include excused absences in the mix.

Jackie Burns agreed with Libby. Then she added a few other problems to the list:

Also burnout from being harassed, cursed out / threatened by kids, unsupportive admin. Test score focus when most kids only want to make the required grade 70 to pass and don’t want / plan to go to college and lack of parent involvement.
Viall: According to the U. S. Department of Justice more than 145,000 teachers were assaulted at work in one year.

Robin Sechrist: After teaching for 35 years, I cannot in good conscience encourage young people to become teachers. The bureaucracy is just too ridiculous! The system SUCKS! It needs serious reform!

Kathy Booth: Robin I just walked away myself! Common Core is turning public education into prisons!

Tamisa Alexandria: Robin, I feel the same way!

Teresa DiStefano Parasole: Teaching is not what it was when I began my career over 30 years ago. Between pressure of standardized testing, micro managing & teacher bashing & blame for everything; it is not a profession I would recommend for anyone anymore. The creativity & joy has died since the politicians ruined education.

Maryruth Williamson: What a shame—my years of teaching were 32 of the best years of my life. I do, however also enjoy being retired.

Brian JC Kneeland: Been there—done that—the paper work killed me!
Viall: Is it possible we’re headed for a future where schools look like they’re run by I.R.S.? Become a teacher! Fill out more forms!

Dennis Clayton Frymoyer: It’s not surprising that teachers are leaving the profession. They are blamed for most of the ills of society.

Rayna Rogerson: I’m in year 26, and am dismayed by the changes that I’ve seen, especially since NCLB…My administration is great, but they’re stuck in between what they know is best for kids and what they’re being told they have to do by school districts, legislature, etc.

Day Cross: I am blessed. I have a principal I greatly respect, many great colleagues, and only a small number who put race, politics, and personal agendas above KIDS. I really am blessed!

Jessica Terese Torres: To my fellow educators... No one knows how much we love our jobs and kids

Notice that the stress above is on the word “KIDS.”

I posted a few comments and asked if anyone could tell me: Were all the recent changes enhancing learning? Were they harming learning? Or were the changes kind of a wash? I’ve asked dozens of teachers this same question. I keep getting the same kinds of answers—and these answers make me sad.

Robin Sechrist responded as most teachers do. She didn’t say she hated doing more work. She didn’t complain about not getting more pay. She didn’t bitch about students. She focused on what absolutely matters:

Sechrist: It has hog tied my ability to teach my Special Needs students. They do not fit the cookie cutters and pacing guides we are forced to use! Administration does not understand their unique needs! Hence the title Special Needs??? Go figure!

And John, the amount of paperwork is obscene!
Viall: Hey, all this testing has been great: it only cost $1.7 billion annually to try to create tests tied to No Child Left Behind. Now that law is dead and so are all the tests tied to it.

Meanwhile, AD W insisted that unions were not the main problem in education. In Waiting for Superman they certainly are. A gentleman named Jeff (who I think loved the film) claimed in no uncertain terms they are.

For the sake of brevity, I will ignore the matter of unions. My focus—and the focus of AD W and almost every teacher who responded was on what worked best for kids. 


I’m not surprised by that at all.

I know there are bad teachers out there, collecting pay every day, and would be happy to see more effort devoted to removing them from classrooms. What troubles me is the growing trend to treat teachers like criminal scum. Make us all prove we’re doing what we say we’re doing—which is our level best to help the kids. And in the process take time away from good teachers who devote themselves to that all-consuming process every hour of every day.

Someone once said that this approach to fixing problems in U. S. education was like “using a shotgun to fix the kitchen sink.”

You don’t have to be a plumber (or a teacher) to know that this approach is nuts. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Big Words from School Reformers, Small Deeds: An Aesop Fable

BIG WORDS. Small deeds.
Joel I. Klein, former New York City schools chancellor (left); U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (center), Michelle Rhee, head of Students First (right). 

Okay, teachers. Think back to the end of your first year. What did you know? You knew how hard it was going to be to be a teacher. You knew you could improve.

You also suspected that there would never be a day that would not end without the same nagging question. How could you have done more to help your students? You already understood that teaching would never be easy.

I taught 33 years, myself, and always knew what I did mattered in kids’ lives. It just isn’t ever, ever, ever going to be easy.

Not ever. Not one day.

Since I know how hard it is to help kids, I get tired of school reformers who offer up big plans to “fix the schools.” Here’s something impossible not to notice. These reformers are big with words but small in deeds. They almost never teach.

A fable by Aesop sums up the situation.

The Water Snake, the Viper, and the Frogs
There once was a viper that went to a pond to drink. But the water snake who watched the pond didn’t like him trespassing. The two began to argue. Finally they decided to fight. Whoever won would be king of both land and water.
Just before the fight began the frogs of the pond approached the viper. “We hate the water snake,” they assured him. “When the battle begins we will help you defeat him.”
 The viper and the water snake were soon joined in furious combat. They grappled and twisted and rolled about.
All the frogs did was sit there and keep up their useless croaking. In the end, the viper was victorious. But he was furious with the frogs since they had failed to come to his aid.
Why, you useless frogs!” he shouted. “You didn’t help a bit. All you did was sing your stupid songs.” 
“But you should have known that we had nothing else to offer,” replied the frogs. “We have only the sound of our voices.”

Who then are some of the biggest, loudest, most obnoxious frogs in the education pond?

One annoying croaker is U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He never spent any time in a classroom. He never did any fighting.

But he does believe Common Core will improve any pond.

Wendy Kopp founded a program to train other frogs and named it Teach for America. Kopp never spent a day at the front of a classroom. She once told a reporter, “[I]f if I had taught, I wouldn’t have started Teach for America.”

Well, duh.

Michelle Rhee is the loudest bullfrog in the land. She taught for three years! She then told other frogs she knew everything there ever was to know about teaching. She headed for Washington, D.C. to straighten out that pond. She croaked and croaked and croaked and fired hundreds of “bad” teachers. Then she gave bonuses to “good” teachers who raised standardized test scores. It was a amphibian miracle! Well, it was until USA Today uncovered a huge cheating scandal. This debacle involved many of the “good” schools and teachers Rhee had rewarded.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg sat by the pond and promised he was going to fix New York City education. He said what we needed were smarter vipers. And everyone listened to Bloomberg—because he was rich and he attended Harvard. Bloomberg never taught one measly hour. He had no desire to help fight the water snake.

Nope. None at all.

Joel I. Klein, Bloomberg’s school chancellor, did tutor briefly, once, way back in the 60s! That made him an “expert” among frogs and he decided the viper wasn’t fighting hard enough. He insisted that the way to make the pond better was to grade the viper. Klein got tired after sitting eight years on the shore and went back to giving legal advice for $2 million per year (plus bonuses!).

Klein is a frog lawyer not a frog hero.

Bill Gates? He won’t help fight the water snake. But he might open his checkbook! One time he donated $892,000 to help fund an “expert panel” to give advice to the New York Board of Regents in shaping school policy. Eleven frogs filled places on the panel. Each frog was paid $189,000. Six frogs never taught a day in their lives. The five other frogs had a total of ten years in teaching, with one additional year spent as a principal. Again, these frogs learned everything about schools quickly and so when they sung all the other frogs listened.

Ronald J. Packard built his own pond and named it K-12, Inc. His pond offers online education and Mr. Packard makes a little profit. He never teaches. That goes without saying. Before he started his pond he was a hedge fund manager. Now he is paid for his melodious croaking. In five years (2009 to 2013) he earned $19.4 million in compensation.

William Bennett was first chairman of the board at K-12, Inc. Bennett was Secretary of Education when Ronald Reagan was president. Bennett never taught. Don’t be stupid. He learned to croak by working in a think tank with other bold frogs.

The current chairman of K-12 is Steven Tisch. This is almost funny—but he never taught either. He did hop about and run a tobacco company, however. In 1994 he told Congress he didn’t believe smoking caused cancer.

Margaret Spellings is a frog that loves high-stakes testing. She was also a big fan of No Child Left Behind, which all frogs agreed in chorus was going to fix the problems in U. S. education. Remember all that loud singing! Even the toads and the tree frogs said NCLB was going to work just great! Spellings never gave students any tests in a classroom. She’s you’re your typical frog that never tried teaching. She did work on an education reform committee in Texas, however, before taking over the U. S. Department of Education.

Rod Paige is a toad of the Bufo houstonensis variety. (You can look it up.) He preceded Spelling as Secretary of Education. Paige taught at the college level, never in grades K-12. Later he performed his own toad miracles as superintendent of the Houston City Schools. During his tenure several high schools reported reducing dropout rates to ZERO.

All the other frogs croaked happily in appreciation.

Sadly, it was soon shown that one school reporting no dropouts An audit turned up a few extra dropouts.

Okay, get picky—there were at least 3,000 unreported in the old pond down in Texas.

There are many other frogs we might mention; but let us finish with a frog author. Steven Brill wrote a book called Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Brill hopped about like a frog in a frying pan and blamed the problems in education on teachers’ unions. But when it came to fighting the water snake he stayed safe on the sidelines. His teaching experience: 0 years, 0 days, 0 hours.

In his book he focused on the success of one charter pond in New York City—and Jessica Reid, one dedicated non-union teacher. Even working at a charter pond turned out to be surprisingly hard, surprising to Brill, at least.

Reid, the heroine of Brill’s tale quit teaching before Brill's book even saw print.

Reid was a real teacher—not a frog sitting and croaking beside the pond. And like all teachers she learned teaching can be hard.

So there you have it, teachers. An Aesop fable about school reformers. Enjoy your summer break. You’ll have plenty of fighting to do again in August when you head back to your classrooms.

Just don’t expect any help from the frogs on the sideline.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Another School Shooting in America: The Blood is always the Same

When will the gunfire end?

There was another school shooting yesterday. This time the blood spilled out on the floor of a high school in Troutdale, Oregon. We have now had so many school shootings—74 since the Sandy Hook massacre—that it can be hard to keep track. And that doesn’t count planned shootings that were thwarted.

According to authorities a San Antonio teen recently managed to sneak an AK-47 into his high school with “intent to commit a violent act.” His plan was foiled when parents noticed the weapon was missing and notified police.

Certain aspects of all these stories are the same. The blood is the same. The sorrow of families who lose loved ones is the same. The shock of survivors who can’t believe it happened is the same.

The reaction of the N.R.A. is also the same. “Guns don’t kill people,” Wayne LaPierre will insist. That’s true. They just help people kill people.

In an 
emotional speech yesterday, President Obama said, “We’re the only developed country on earth where this happens.”

That’s also true. You can pick from dozens of stories. In April an Indiana man shot and killed his wife in the parking lot at a Catholic school in Griffith, Indiana. The couple’s two children watched. The blood was the same—although you could argue that this shooting doesn’t “count” because it happened outside a school not inside.

But the blood was the same.

Only the details differ. Remenard Castro, the husband, had a 
history of violence. He once threatened to beat his wife with a crowbar.

In Oregon yesterday, the assailant carried a rifle into the school. Once inside he gunned down a 14-year-old student. A gym teacher was wounded in the hip. The shooter retreated to a bathroom where he committed suicide.

The blood was the same.

The sentiment of the Police Chief, Scott Anderson, was the same. Anderson 
told reporters later: “I’m very, very sorry for the family and for all the students and everyone who will be impacted by this tragic incident.”

The story was the same. It happened in America. It didn’t happen in Japan or Germany or Canada. It happened here.

blood was the same last October in Sparks, Nevada. There a middle school student shot and killed one teacher and wounded two classmates. Michael Landsberry, the teacher, “probably saved lives” when he approached the shooter on the playground. Landsberry had served a tour of duty in Afghanistan. So he knew the power of guns in this situation. Guns don’t kill people. That’s true. But a 12-year-old doesn’t kill Landsberry either.

Not without a gun.

The blood was the same. Only the details differ. In an interview with CNN, one of the wounded saw his classmate—the shooter—approaching. “Please don’t shoot me,” the boy begged, “please don't shoot me. I looked at him. I saw [the gun], and he braced it and shot me in the stomach me.” 

The blood is always the same. It’s thick and red. It dries fast in halls and classrooms and on the clothing of the dead and wounded. Only the details are different. We know twenty-six teachers and children were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary. Did you realize in one classroom where fourteen children and one teacher died there was one survivor? A six-year-old girl 
rose from among the bodies when police arrived. The blood was the same. Only the trauma of that child was different.

Think of the nightmares to come for that first grader.

Guns don’t kill people. That’s true. But without his mother’s Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook doesn’t kill 26 people either. He doesn’t have the chance to spray a classroom with a semi-automatic weapon.

Guns only make it easy for people to kill people.

In the wake of yesterday’s shooting, the reaction of the N.R.A will be the same. Wayne LaPierre will insist: you can kill people with crowbars and knives. You can kill them with cars. You can kill them with a frozen loaf of zucchini bread it you want. That’s true. But it gets harder.

The blood is the same. It was the same when Colleen Ritzer was murdered in a 
women’s bathroom at her school in Danvers, Massachusetts this past January. In that case the 14-year-old accused in the crime was armed with a knife. First he raped the 24-year-old math teacher. Then he cut her throat and went to the movies.

The blood was the same. And sure: knives don’t kill people. People with knives kill people. For mass slaughter guns are way better.

Since the shooting at Sandy Hook there have been 74 incidents involving gunfire in our schools. You can read about the LaSalle High School (Cincinnati, Ohio) student who 
brought a gun from home, carried it into a classroom and committed suicide. You can study up on the Arapahoe High School shooting in Colorado. There the 17-year-old killer shot Claire Davis, a classmate, in the head. 

Davis died later.

Claire Davis: the sorrow is the same.

The sorrow is always the same. The shock is always the same. The blood always dries the same. And then our leaders seem to forget.

You can take your pick. You can read about the killer who kept a journal and expressed admiration for the murderers at Columbine High and Virginia Tech. He killed or wounded three students at a 
Seattle college just last week. Don’t get confused, though. Don’t get mixed up trying to remember if this was different from the shootings at other colleges—other high schools—other elementary schools. You can check out the list if you want to. It makes for sad reading. 

The blood is always the same. 

What else is the same? Members of Congress, says President Obama, “are terrified of the N.R.A.” That’s true. The N.R.A. will claim again that any attempt to register guns—or do anything about the problem is a direct assault on the Second Amendment. The crazy people will say Mr. Obama is planning to take away all their guns. It hasn’t happened yet. It’s just going to happen. And soon!

Last year 21.1 million guns were sold in this country.

That topped the record of 19.6 million set the year before. (Records have been falling annually. See chart below.)

Meanwhile, the story is always the same. The blood is the same. The shootings happen in America. Guns don’t kill people. They don’t. 

In this country, however, they make it ridiculously easy. And any attempt to do anything about it will be met with fury by “gun absolutists” on the right. 

Next week or next fall when schools reopen the story will be the same. There will be more school shootings in America. 

The blood will be the same. Thick. Red. Drying quickly. 

Perhaps it’s time for a change.