Friday, April 29, 2016

The Scores Are In: School Reformers Earn F's

Test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the Nation’s Report Card,” are out again this month. And now we know. Now we know what happens when arrogant reformers set out to improve the nation’s schools, contributing only hot air—their opinions—their plans—their pontificating—but not their deeds. (These people don’t teach. They talk. They talk and talk and talk.)

Now we know what happens when people who feel they’re too important to actually work with children bulldoze millions of front line educators who do. We know what happens when they insist on spending billions on standardized testing, because they believe the key to improving learning outcomes is piling up data.

Well, the data is in and reformers score a big red “F.”

More on the damning data later. First, the background: We are now deep into the second decade of misguided education reform. And the basic premise of all this reform has never changed. Men and women like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, billionaire Bill Gates and Wendy Kopp of Teach for America decided if front line teachers and administrators could be punished enough then student test scores would soar. These reformers and their political allies were positive. If teacher pay was tied to test results, if unions were crushed, if tenure could be denied to every man, woman and beast, scores would surge!

In fact, the fundamental premise of all this reforming could be reduced to one balloon filled with hot air. It wasn’t quite as blunt as Shakespeare—to paraphrase: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the teachers.” Still, it was close.

First, Congress passed No Child Left Behind, offering up a promise that all children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Congress did nothing to help children achieve these goals, but made sure, if children didn’t, educator’s heads would roll. The states followed suit, passing hundreds of laws designed to hold teachers “accountable.” (More educators’ heads were meant to roll.) Secretary Duncan put it simply. “It’s all about the talent,” he said. It was all about teachers. Everything would be great—if only we had better teachers and administrators in our schools.

Today, it’s time to consider what fruits the reformers produced. We know Congress was forced to rewrite No Child Left Behind, which failed in epic fashion. We know giant testing companies walked away with billions of dollars. Even the boldest reformers were obliged to admit that tests tied to No Child Left Behind produced slim results. Yet, they never blinked. They blamed front line educators for the failure of their great plans. They insisted grandiose schemes would work if only testing companies tried again. The companies should start over, come up with new tests, gather new data, and yet more heads would roll.

True. Here and there, reformers could point to gains, however spurious they proved to be. Yes. Reading and math scores at the third and eighth grade levels rose. (That’s pretty much what any real teacher would expect if you pummeled school children with test prep lessons for weeks on end every year.) Also true: high school graduation rates improved. Yet, as we will see, the new graduates seemed to know less than the old graduates did, in days when educators were free to do as they saw fit.

Meanwhile, years of abuse served to demoralize the men and women who were truly devoting their lives to helping children. Instead of more resources, they got paperwork to complete. Every teacher, every counselor, psychologist and principal knew the added paperwork ate away at the time they had to help children. In many schools, particularly low-income communities, teachers were required to read scripts—a joyless approach—to prove they were actually teaching.

Reformers and politicians claimed it would help if state and federal bureaucrats had more data. This data would then confirm what they believed: Most teachers were terrible. The data would prove America’s educators deserved to be shot, broken on racks, or run over by school buses. What really happened, of course, was that millions of teachers and administrators, all the excellent ones, and all the good ones—the kind who predominate in every school—ended up wasting days and weeks filling out forms and checking boxes.

Unfortunately, real learning, which is like chess, was stunted or curtailed. The “game” of learning was reduced to tic-tac-toe.

Now we learn that only sour fruit can grow in sour soil. Educators were admonished and threatened. You had better play tic-tac-toe. If you know what’s good for you, you had best forgo any thought of chess. Within narrow limits, then, test scores did improve. In a broader sense, reform failed completely. If anyone cared to look, they might have seen that ACT scores, which measure readiness of high school graduates to do college-level work, didn’t budge at all. SAT scores, proof of what fruits reform had grown, declined slowly but steadily every year.

Now we have fresh data from NAEP. We have the data we need to measure the reformers’ success. It is now possible to say, conclusively, that these egotistical fools have earned an “F” for meddling in the schools.

Scores from NAEP are out again for 2015. Did they soar? Did they surge? Were the latest NAEP scores swell?

Not at all! Averages in both reading and math declined, compared to 2013, the last time NAEP gave its tests. Worse, the percentage of students ready for college-level work dropped. In 2013, 39 percent were ready for college-level math, 38 percent for college-level reading. Last year scores dipped to 37 percent in both areas. Worst of all, students at the bottom, clustered in low-income schools, the kind of young people that reformers swore they knew how to save, suffered most from being force fed years of test preparation. The number of students scoring below “basic” in both reading and math increased from 2013.

In other words, tens of billions of dollars had been devoted to massive school reform. Most of the money went to testing companies, company executives, or passed through lobbyist’s hands to self-serving politicians, or to school reform experts who gave high-priced speeches, and to pay bureaucrats to gather, tally and study all the data.

What happened in real classrooms across the land? Hundreds of millions of hours of teachers’ and students’ time was totally wasted on test preparation. More hundreds of millions of hours had to be devoted to bubbling in answers or filling out forms.

Yet, scores didn’t surge.

Scores were stagnant. Or worse. On the NAEP tests, seniors scored an average of 152 in math (out of 300) in 2015. In 2005, the average was 150. All those insults hurled at educators, all those heads that rolled, all those bold plans, all those big words from people who only talked, never taught, all those hours of testing crammed down the throats of children, and all we had to show for it was an improvement of two measly points.

Ah, but it was far worse!

In 2015 the average American high school senior scored 287 (out of 500) on the reading portion of the NAEP tests. That was down five points, from 287 in 1992.

Fifteen years wasted—and almost nothing has been done to help children who suffer most outside of school, those, in turn, who struggle most in any classroom. In fact, reformers have argued that what happens outside of schools doesn’t matter—have insisted educators who claim it does (because it does) are making “excuses.” Certainly, the politicians failed miserably, as they often do. Rather than help the youth of the nation, they passed legislation which served to stifle the joys of learning. The reformers and the politicians made the jobs of educators harder and made the school days of children much, much worse.

Today, the grades are in: “F’s” across the board for the reformers and their pals.




Read what a few reviewers have said so far.

Front cover.

Friday, April 22, 2016

If Only Our Politicians Would Quote Shakespeare

In memory of William Shakespeare, who died four hundred years ago tomorrow, and in view of the sad level of discourse displayed in our current presidential campaign, a few quotes gathered from the Bard may be in order.

After all, if politicians wish to insult one another, they might at least do it with style. Wouldn’t it be great, for example, if Mr. Trump referred to Mr. Cruz next week as a “whoreson ass?”

Or if Senator Sanders lambasted Senator Clinton:         

“Never hung poison on a fouler toad.
            Out of my sight! Thou dost infect mine eyes.”

Governor Kasich could unleash the dogs of war with this blast,directed at Trump or Cruz, or Sanders or Clinton—assuming he makes it to the general election: “Go thou, [insert opponent name here] and fill another room in hell.”

Perhaps, Clinton could score some quick points with this blistering attack on Sanders—kind of hinting he’s old to be running the country: “Thou sodden-witted lord, thou hast in thy skull no more brain than I have in mine elbow.”

Certainly, there were times during GOP debates, where it might have been amusing to see a real donnybrook ensue, a kind of Jerry Springer moment. I think Senator Rubio could have stayed in the race if he had responded to some of Mr. Trump’s insults, with this threat: “I will beat thee into handsomeness.” 

Even Jeb (Jeb!) might have stuck around if he’d gone after Mr. Trump with a little more barbed language. I can almost see it now. Mr. Bush getting Mr. Trump in a headlock, with Wolf Blizter or some other moderator calling hopelessly for calm, and Mr. Bush shouting, “I will smite his noodles.”

Alas, too late, too late, for either man.

The possibilities seem almost endless. We’re hearing about a “New Trump” in recent days, a less bombastic version, prepping for the general election campaign. I think he’d sound impressive if he laid this bomb on his Democratic opponent, whoever it might be, during the first national debate: “He/she draweth out the thread of his/her verbosity finer than the staple of his/her argument.”

Then again, Mr. Sanders or Mrs. Clinton, tipped off to Mr. Trump’s plans to quote the master, might be retort: “Mr. Trump ‘speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in Venice [insert 'Washington' here]. His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff:  you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them they are not worth the search.’”

Perhaps a pithier version might be better. So, any candidate might savage the arguments of their foe with this:

            “…out idle words, servants to shallow fools,
Unprofitable sounds…”

Really. Not much has changed in four centuries, though, thankfully, men no longer wear cod pieces. I believe Sanders, when questioning Clinton’s Wall Street connections, could lay this on her and make it stick:

“Let me tell you, Cassius [substitute ‘Clinton’], you yourself
Are much condemned to have an itching palm,
To sell and mart your offices for gold
To undeservers.”

Or [altering gender below]:

“I know a discontented gentleman
Whose humble means match not his haughty spirit.
Gold were as good as twenty orators,
And will no doubt tempt him to anything.”                                   

Since I tend to vote Democratic, I hope, if it’s Clinton or Sanders vs. Trump, either Democratic standard bearer will note that five GOP-chosen Supreme Court justices decided the Citizen’s United case, unleashing fresh hundreds of millions of Establishment money in all campaigns, by baffling Mr. Trump with this 17th century nugget: “They say if money go before, all ways do lie open.”

I understand Senator Cruz is supposed to be brilliant. We all know there’s no love lost on his part for Mr. Trump. Of the GOP front runner, Senator Cruz might say: “Trump hath never fed of dainties that are bred in a book. He hath not eat paper, as it were, he hath not drunk ink. His intellect is not replenished, he is only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts.’”

Really, this could be great. 

It might even fuel an interest in the general public for reading Shakespeare once again. News commentators could get in on the act, mocking Trump for promises to make our military great —when, back in the day, the candidate decided not to take any part in the Vietnam War. His feet hurt, or something.

“Foul-spoken coward, that thund’rest with thy tongue,
And with thy weapon nothing dar’st perform.”

Megyn Kelly could class it up during her broadcast, highlighting the failure of the GOP to put forward a strong candidate to stop the rise of Mr. Trump:

“A little fire is quickly trodden out,
Which, being suffered, rivers cannot quench.”

Rachel Maddow, on MSNBC, could make it clear that Sanders and Trump had tapped a nerve with the suffering middle class, by quoting:

“And that is the wavering commons; for their love
Lies in their purses, and whoso empties them
By so much fills their hearts with deadly hate.”

Sean Hannity could explain how Senator Cruz captured the deep and abiding concern of all true conservatives:

“I find the people strangely fantasized,
Possessed with rumours, full of idle dreams,
Not knowing what they fear, but full of fear.”

Trump could go two for one, taking out Cruz and Clinton both, with: “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers.”

We could all kind of “feel the Bern” if he would warn that Cruz has plans to involve us in another misguided Middle Eastern war:        

“…He is come to open
The purple testament of bleeding war…”                          

Trump could attack the veracity of Cruz—or Kasich could blast Trump—or Trump could torch Clinton—or Clinton could lambast Sanders—or Sanders could thump Trump with these old lines:

“No marvel though you bite so sharp at reasons,
You are so empty of them.”

Think how much more elegant it might sound for one candidate to attack the other if they only quoted the greatest master of the English language. Lying Ted? Oh, please. Why not: “Through the false passage of thy throat thou liest!”

And why not bring back this gem—since it fits almost any election: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”

It might seem these days that political discourse has never sunk lower. Still, it’s never as bad as we think. Even in this regard the words of Shakespeare still ring true. “Past and to come seems best; things present, worst,” the great poet once noted. Such was true in 1616, the year of his death.

Such is true today, four hundred years later.

Can be applied to any candidate you don't like,
including Mrs. Clinton, with substitution of a pronoun.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Final Four: All I Got for Four Years in College Was This Lousy T-Shirt

If you’re like me, I suspect you had no idea Nike sponsored a dozen teams in this year's NCAA basketball tournament. That tournament wraps up tonight with the championship game at 9:18, Villanova vs. North Carolina. Perhaps you noticed in one recent game that Oklahoma players sported warm-up shirts emblazoned: “Always reppin.” 

Syracuse? Gonzaga? Iowa State? All wore the same shirt with the same slogan, differing only in color, with appropriate university logos underneath.

A Nike spokesman admitted recently that the company came up with the “reppin’” idea after hearing lyrics from a rap song in which the artist Drake sang, “I’m just repping for my town.” 

The shirts, the spokesman claimed, were “inspirational.” Also, did we mention, these fine shirts are available at the Nike store nearest you!

I admit I still love college basketball, but as an educator I find it harder and harder to follow college sports every year. This year’s Final Four featured two teams know more for academic scandal than academic excellence.

Syracuse, for one, imposed a tournament ban on its team in 2015 after evidence showed boosters paid players to come to Syracuse and staff members wrote papers for athletes to insure they remained eligible.

Normally, Coach Jim Boeheim could expect to earn $2 million for leading Syracuse to the 
Final Four. But this season he was suspended for nine games as a result of the scandal, during which his team went 4-5. Sadly, this only seemed to prove his “value,” to the school, if not to student athletes. 

There was added irony knowing Syracuse might not have made the tournament field, save for the fact two teams with superior records, Louisville and Southern Methodist, were banned entirely. Louisville’s particular brand of shame involved using prostitutes to lure top recruits to that institution of…higher learning. As for Southern Methodist, the school found itself on probation after enrolling one star recruit in an online course and helping him get a “good education” by allowing a school employee to attend to tedious chores, such as doing actual course work. Larry Brown, coach of SMU pretended dumb, but this was the third program he led to success on-court, and scandal in the classroom.

Yet, in this case, academic fraud, unlike crime, sis pay—and Brown earned $1.9 million in his first season with SMU.

For various reasons, then, I’m rooting for Villanova. Their opponent tonight, North Carolina, avoided academic probation in 2015 by the hair of their powder blue chin, when the NCAA issued a final report on a massive academic scandal. To put it bluntly, hundreds of UNC student-athletes, over the course of a decade, were carried by coaches, academic advisers and professors. They were enrolled in courses that never met, had papers written for them, and if they still failed, had grades altered.

It was, said one critic, the “plantation mentality” in college sports. Use the players, mostly African-American kids, get what you want out of them, provide little in the way of actual education. Use them up, then send them out to face life in the real world—where only 1% of college athletes go on to play pro sports—arm them with a worthless diploma or no diploma at all. 

But, hey, at least they’ll have plenty of t-shirts.

Or, as Nike might say: “Always reppin!’”

The student-athlete gets free t-shirts. Coaches make millions.