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. As a bonus, Friday was a day off from work. People parade. Picnics are held. Flags wave.

Then we blow crap up.

What is this holiday about?

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

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

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


The six questions:

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 agnostics and atheists too? They do. Let them worship or not worship as they please.

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 do.

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—now more than fifty years old—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.

Are you free to fly the Confederate flag on this day, on your own property, if you so desire? Of course you are.

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 our neighbors.

If they don’t like the way you talk, or how you worship, or the political party you 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 the Middle East or we can oppose it with equal fervor. (We should, of course, study the issues, ourselves.)

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