Friday, March 25, 2016

Say No to Standardized Tests

This country was born of civil disobedience. From the moment a band of angry colonists threw the British tea into the harbor in 1773, civil disobedience has been a way for Americans to call attention to injustice. In the 1800's we had the abolitionist movement, Susan B. Anthony illegally voting to highlight the plight of women and Henry David Thoreau refusing to pay his taxes that supported war and slavery. In the 20th century we had, of course, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests. In the 21st century we have the standardized testing opt out movement.

Our history of (mostly) peaceful protest of governmental missteps is well established and it has shown, over the long haul, to be effective. From the Boston Tea Party came a new nation, form the abolitionist movement came the end of slavery, from the suffragist movement came more equality for women, from the civil rights movement came the end of Jim Crow and the start of a new chapter on race relations in the country. From the opt out movement, could come the more rational use of standardized testing in schools and an improved educational experience for kids.

The rational use of standardized tests would mean that the tests were administered about three times in the school life of a child -  say in third, eighth and eleventh grade. These tests would not be used to punish children, teachers or schools, but to inform parents, teachers and schools about what programs are being successful and what programs need to be improved. This is really all that these tests are good for: to provide some indicators of program effectiveness in a school overall.

Yearly testing advocates say that these tests are the only way we can assure parents that their children are getting the education they deserve.  Testing advocates say that if we are to close the achievement gap, we need the yearly data that standardized tests provide. They say that standardized tests will tell us where we need to spend our resources to close the achievement gap. They insist that standardized tests will separate the good teachers from the bad. All of this is false.

The only thing that standardized tests measure with any certainty is the relative income levels of the children who attend that school. All standardized tests do, year after year, is affirm that we have an achievement gap, which can better be understood as an opportunity gap. Where kids have rich and rewarding opportunities to grow and thrive, they do well on these tests. Where they don’t have these opportunities, they do not do well. We do not need yearly tests to tell us that. All we need do is walk down the streets of a leafy suburb and then walk down the street of an inner city neighborhood.

Almost fifteen years of a test and punish agenda has not managed to get more resources into needy areas. Instead these areas, such as those in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago are being starved of resources. Schools are being closed, buildings are falling apart and cheap and ineffective solutions like charter schools and vouchers are being foisted on the school children in the guise of opportunity.

Using standardized tests to evaluate teachers has also been roundly discredited. The tests are simply inadequate for providing any useful information on who is a good teacher and who is not. Children are being asked to take a test to determine their teachers’ ability, apparently because the adults around them can’t figure out a better way to assess teacher effectiveness.

Many of the by-products of standardized testing work directly against a quality education. When standardized tests are used to punish children, teachers and schools, it is inevitable that the rich curriculum children deserve will narrow. Money and time resources will be focused on tested areas to the detriment of the arts and physical education. Teachers, fearing their jobs and their schools are under the gun, will resort to instructional practices that focus on skill and drill and not engagement in learning. The tests end up driving the curriculum, the instruction and the overall school experience.

Parents have the power to put an end to this very wrong headed policy through civil disobedience. Education reformers know this, which is why they are conducting a full out publicity campaign to champion the tests or, in some cases, scare people into compliance. When parents opt their children out of testing, they are not just saying no to the test, they are saying no to a narrow approach to their children’s schooling. They are saying, I want better for my child. I want a full, broad program of study that engages my child in all the richness that a first class education can be.

President Obama and thousands of other people of means have opted out of this testing craziness by sending their children to elite private schools. I am sure that they would want the same opportunity for those of us whose best or only option is public school. One way we can make it clear that we want the best education for our children is by saying no to standardized tests.

My advice? Strike a blow for public education. Opt Out.

For information on how to opt out go to the United Opt Out web site here:

Monday, March 21, 2016

Making Art in the Inner City

The Cast of Shadows of War at South Camden Theatre Company

Perhaps no city in America has suffered more from the steady decline of our urban areas over the past fifty-years than Camden, New Jersey. The story of Camden is not much different than many other cities - white flight, loss of manufacturing jobs, governmental neglect and mismanagement, loss of tax income - leading to a once economically and culturally vibrant urban area becoming a literal shell of its former self. As Earl Morgan of the New Jersey Journal puts it, "Ride the Amtrak past Camden and you'll see something resembling the aftermath of a disaster movie with one dilapidated and abandoned neighborhood and building after another."

But at least one little corner of Camden is fighting back and it is doing it with art. On that corner stands the lovely little 96 seat Waterfront South Theatre, home of the South Camden Theatre Company. This professional theater is the dream project of Founding Producing Artistic Director, Joe Paprzycki, a playwright, whose father ran a tavern in the very building where the theater is now housed. The mission of this little theater is to bring new life to the community and encourage residents from around the region to return to Camden for a positive experience that will aid in the rebirth of the community.

For the past two months I have been a participant and witness to these efforts. The South Camden Theatre Company just completed the run of a one-act play festival, Shadows of War, which presented four one-act plays on themes related to the tragedy of war, all written by regional playwrights and presented by regional actors and directors. To emphasize the community nature of these productions, South Camden Theatre partnered with the organization, Backpacks for Veterans, a group that collects toiletries and life essentials for homeless veterans. Patrons and participants donated socks and money to this worthy cause. At each performance, veterans in attendance were recognized and applauded by the audience.

I had the great pleasure to act in one of the plays and to join together with a group of dedicated and talented people both on-stage and behind the scenes who were engaged in making art with a purpose. Each day as I drove to a rehearsal or performance through the streets of Camden, I witnessed close up the struggles of the people of Camden, the boarded up former grocery and hardware stores, the abandoned homes, the homeless sleeping on the sidewalks. But also each day, as I parked on the street and got out of my car, a neighborhood resident would nod at me, give a friendly smile or say, "Hi" and I could see that what South Camden Theatre Company is trying to do is working. There is hope for Camden because this little jewel of a theater has dared to bring light in the form of art to these dark and dusty streets.

And because I am a teacher, my thoughts ran to the children of Camden. And particularly to the arts in the life of the children of Camden. We know for a fact that art, both visual and performance based, is vital to the education of children. Among many other things, art inspires creativity, enhances critical thought and problem solving abilities, provides motivation for children who are not as academically inclined and helps keep kids in school.

And yet, in times of tight budgets, arts education is often the first thing to be cut. The recession of 2008 was devastating to school budgets throughout the country, but inner cities were especially hard hit and arts education in those cities was hardest hit. The current emphasis on core subject matter and standardized testing has also had its impact. When language arts and math are tested and art is not, art tends to be de-emphasized. Where tests are given the most power, again in inner cities, where schools and teachers may be punished for low test scores, the damage is multiplied.

The availability of arts education has dropped precipitously over the last 20 years and that drop has been felt most in schools serving African American and Hispanic students. In 1990, approximately 50% of African American and 47% of Hispanics had access to arts education in school. By 2008, those numbers had dropped to 28% and 26% respectively. Since 2008, budget cuts have made the situation even worse, with dance and drama programs suffering the most. You can read more about these statistics in this report from Law Street.

What we all must understand is that the arts are vital to the health of a city and to the health of a school. And we must realize, further, that making art is the most human and humanizing of activities. Art brings people and communities together. Art revitalizes neighborhood economies. Art education must be a priority of our schools and our school policy makers.

The future audiences for Joe Paprzycki's plays at the South Camden Theatre Company are sitting in classrooms in Camden right now. Are these children being well prepared to be engaged participants in the art that is being made there?

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Reading Our Way to Empathy

A Reading Hug
Last week I had the great pleasure and opportunity to work with middle school students in the Clifton, NJ schools. My assignment was to model an instructional design for teachers based on a lesson structure suggested by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, from their outstanding book, Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (Heinemann, 2013). The students were engaged and winning in their approach to the work. The text for the lesson was Gary Soto's poem Oranges.

By Gary Soto

The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighed down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December.  Frost crackling
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came over pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge.  I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore.  We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted-
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth.  I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn't say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter.  When I looked up,
The lady's eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl's hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, for a distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making fire in my hands.

Following Probst and Beers suggested lesson structure, I first read the poem aloud to the students, then had them read it silently and independently, marking the text with an x or ? at points of confusion, discovery, interest or wonder. Next, I asked the students to read the poem again, this time trying to turn those marks into questions. I then collected their questions on chart paper in the front of the room. Several students had a similar question about one key point in this narrative poem. 

I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn't say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter.  When I looked up,
The lady's eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all

Some of the students asked, "Why did the boy put the orange on the counter next to the nickel?" Others asked, "Why did the lady let him have the candy?" Still others asked, "What did the lady know it was 'all about'?" All great questions. All questions at the heart of understanding the poem. As we discussed these questions, it became clear to me that the students had no schema for what had transpired here. One young man offered that this could not really happen. We had talked about how the poem was based on a memory of the poet's youth and took place in a long ago time when candy cost a dime. The kids could understand that, but the kindness of the clerk's actions eluded them. I finally asked the vocal young man what would happen if he went into the drug store and tried to pay for a dollar candy bar with 75 cents and an orange. His reply, "They would kick my butt right on out of the store?" The rest of the class nodded and murmured in agreement.

So I suggested to the students that we look at the rest of the line "the lady's eyes met mine, and held them, knowing very well what it was all about." I asked the students to "turn and talk" to see if they could discover what it was "all about." After a minute or two, two students raised their hands and simultaneously shouted, "Maybe she remembered when she went on a first date!"

"What do the rest of you think?" Most felt that this was the mostly likely explanation for the clerk's actions, but several still said that was not believable. We took off into a discussion of times when others have shown us a kindness that was unexpected.

Upon reflecting on the lesson, many things ran through my head, not the least of which was the concern that the world had changed so much for these school children that a simple act of kindness from a store clerk was outside of their experience or comprehension. The other thought was that we need poetry and good literature more than ever, because reading poetry and stories can help us vicariously experience empathy and perhaps come to value and practice it in our own lives.

In fact, there is research to support just such a notion. New School of Social Research researchers David Kidd and Emanuele Castano published a widely read study in the journal Science, which found that reading literary fiction made people more sensitive to the emotions of others. The results could not be replicated for genre fiction (mystery, horror) or non-fiction. The study has its critics, of course, including University of Pennsylvania professor of linguistics, Mark Liberman who found the conclusions wildly overstated. Overstated or not, the argument for a central role for literature and poetry in developing empathy is pretty compelling. What Kidd and Emanuele found was that it was the specific characteristic of "gaps" in literary fiction that allow readers to see themselves in the other characters. Filling in gaps aids in developing empathy. Poetry shares with literary fiction the need for the reader to fill in gaps. In poetry, as in literary fiction, the reader joins the author as co-author of the text in a what Louise Rosenblatt has called the literary transaction.

Why does this matter? The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has rather notoriously called for a greater emphasis on the reading of non-fiction from the earliest years of school. In many ways this makes sense. As kids advance in school and college and work life they will be required to read more and more non-fiction. This CCSS edict, however, has been misunderstood by many to be some sort of mandate to move away from the full exploration of literature and poetry in the classroom. Also, the current mania for standardized tests and "evidence-based" test questions are driving some away from a literature rich curriculum. None other than the leader of the development of the highly regarded Massachusetts state standards, Sandra Stotsky, sees this as a problem.  

A diminished emphasis on literature in the secondary grades makes it unlikely that American students will study a meaningful range of culturally and historically significant literary works before graduation. It also prevents students from acquiring a rich understanding and use of the English language. Perhaps of greatest concern, it may lead to a decreased capacity for analytical thinking.

So let's go back to Oranges for a minute. It is clear to me that the students were able to fill in the "gap" in the narrative and discover that the lady understood what the boy was going through because she had once been young and on a first date. The kids were showing themselves able to view something through another's eyes. They were developing empathy. They were becoming critical readers. It was truly a joy to be present to watch this happen.

As my former mentor, Professor Leland B. Jacobs, used to say, "Give children literature!" Give them literature indeed.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Teacher Accreditation: A Game of Trivial Pursuit?

One day last week, I was tutoring three college juniors who aspire to be English teachers. In order to be allowed to student teach, these students were required to pass the English Language Arts Content Test (formerly the Praxis) developed by ETS. Using a practice test provided by ETS, I was guiding the students through some multiple choice questions, when this question appeared:

If you were to go merely by the quantity of his imitators, you could argue that Dashiell Hammett was a more important writer than James Joyce. He gave his imitators more than an attitude; he gave them a cast of characters, a resilient plot, a setting, a repertory of images, a style, a keyhole view of society, an ethos, and, above all, a hero. Sam Spade is an old American type brought up to date, Hawkeye become private eye with fedora and street smarts instead of leather stockings and wood lore, his turf the last frontier of San Francisco.

Question: In the last sentence, the comparison of Sam Spade to Hawkeye alludes to novels by

Before they answered the question, I decided to activate some background knowledge. I asked the students to name important novels by each of the authors. For Conrad, one student quickly mentioned Heart of Darkness, another chipped in with Lord Jim. Everyone knew that Hawthorne wrote, The Scarlet Letter and also were able to name The Last of the Mohicans by Cooper. But when I asked, "How about Melville?" .... crickets. No response.

I admit I was a bit taken aback. Aspiring English teachers who could not identify Melville as the author of Moby Dick? Shocking. But this is not a blog entry on the failure of our educational system to teach kids the classics of the canon. Nor is it a diatribe about the failure of colleges of education to prepare young people to teach. Instead my focus is on the absurdity of turning the assessment of preparation for teaching into a glorified game of Jeopardy!

This standardized test and others like it for other disciplines are required for licensure in most states. Many colleges require passing the test prior to student teaching, so they can be sure the students are qualified for employment immediately after they graduate. Like all standardized tests, these tests disadvantage second language learners, minority students and students who traditionally struggle with standardized tests. They also tell us almost nothing about what kind of a teacher these aspiring educators will be.

Wilson and Robinson (2012) found "negligible correlations" between standardized test performance and teacher quality. MIT economists, Angrista and Gurynab (2007) warned that a standardized test driven licensure system would limit the number of qualified Hispanic teachers. And Goldhaber (2006) found that basing teacher certification on standardized tests was a Faustian bargain that would lead to talented teachers that schools would want to hire being denied a license, while poor teaching candidates would get licenses due to item knowledge rather than teaching ability. 

It should be clear to anyone that teaching is a complex profession that requires content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, knowledge of child development and motivation, classroom management skills, the ability to differentiate instruction and a wide variety of social and emotional skills including empathy, self-control, perseverance and what Jacob Kounin has called "withitness." No standardized test could possibly come close to measuring all these traits and no standardized test should stand as a gatekeeper blocking the door for candidates who may potentially be very good teachers. 

In our current educational culture we are attempting to use standardized tests in place of trust. We do not trust that our schools are teaching well. We do not trust that our institutions of higher learning are preparing teachers well. In an atmosphere of trust, it would fall to the various colleges of education to prepare and assess teaching candidates and sign off  on these candidates as prepared to be high performing teachers. Certainly. we should expect schools to live up to that trust, but the only way to make sure that they are is to watch their graduates teach and assess the teachers' performance over time. Trust does not fit into the current education reform narrative. Trust also costs money, because any documentation of the trust would be time consuming and labor intensive. So, in the absence of trust we hit the default button and come up with the standardized test.

Here is another question from the ETS practice test:

The Secret Life of Bees was written by which of the following authors?
            A. Margaret Mitchell
            B. Sue Monk Kidd
            C. Bailey White
            D. Alice Walker
I'll take Contemporary Female American Authors for $400, Alex. Can we seriously consider questions like this to be a worthy standards for screening prospective English teachers?
So what of our young aspiring English teachers who can't match Melville to Moby? They may become very good teachers (if they can pass the test). I don't know right now, but I do know their lack of this bit of item knowledge won't be a determining factor. When I began writing this blog entry, I did not know the name of the educational theorist who came up with the term "withitness." A ten second search on Google gave me the answer (Kounin). For a teacher, knowing stuff is important, but knowing how to find out stuff and how to communicate that stuff to children is more important.  

Do I think that prospective English teachers should know what Herman Melville wrote? You bet your Billy Budd I do. I just don't believe that knowing or not knowing this bit of trivia says much about the teachers they may become.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Fordham Institute: Democracy is Overrated

Democracy? We don't need no
 stinkin' democracy!
Writing in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Ohio Gadfly Online, Aaron Churchill says that we shouldn't worry so much about whether school boards are elected, as in most public schools, or appointed, as in most charter schools, because democracy doesn't really work so well in education.

Churchill's key argument is that not many voters show up for school board elections because voters are not well-motivated for these off- cycle, low-profile elections; so who really cares if the school board members are elected or appointed by some charter operator. The problem is, according to Churchill, that these low-turnout elections leave the field open to "special interest groups" to unduly influence elections. By special interest groups, Churchill means teacher unions. Apparently, he cannot think of any other special interest groups that might want to influence a school board election.

To support his thesis, Churchill cites the work of Terry Moe, the William Bennett Monroe professor of political science at Stanford. This sounds really impressive until you google Professor Moe and find out that he is also a member of the Hoover Institute's Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. The Hoover Institute is a conservative think tank that has a long history of anti-unionism. Moe discovered, lo and behold, that teachers tend to vote in school board elections in greater numbers than most non-teaching citizens and they generally vote for people who are friendly to teachers. I think we all could have saved Professor Moe some time and just stipulated that, "Yeah, we knew that already."

Churchill apparently believes that the only thing that makes a school board democratic is an election. He fails to acknowledge that once a school board member is elected, said member is required to serve all the citizens of the school district (those who voted for the candidate, those who voted against the candidate, and those who didn't vote at all) and be responsive to their wishes for their schools. Democracy doesn't end at the ballot box. The ballot box is just the beginning of the process. With an elected school board, citizens can attend a monthly meeting, for which they have received an agenda ahead of time and comment on anything on the agenda or any other issue they wish to address. They can organize citizen's groups to request school board action and they can scrutinize every expenditure of the school board.

With charter schools - not so much. Charter school boards are appointed. Members of the board may or may not live within the school district the charter serves. Board members may or may not be responsive to parents or community members. Charter schools from New York to California have fought long and hard to make sure their books cannot be audited by public entities. Charter schools do not have to answer to the people who fund them or to those who send their children to them.

As for "special interest groups" subverting democracy, I must assume that Mr. Churchill is unaware of the 250,000 dollars that Michelle Rhee's, anti-teacher, anti-union group, Student's First has pored into Los Angeles school board elections, but he could start his reading here. And then there are those famous champions of democracy, Eli Broad and Michael Bloomberg, who have given hundreds of thousands to favored school board candidates in LA and Minneapolis. Read about their donations here and here.   And Churchill might also find it interesting to read about the huge amounts of cash a charter favoring PAC dumped into a school board race in Santa Clara County, California. 

With the shocking ascendancy of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, I am in sympathy with those who worry about the future of democracy. Lame, shallow arguments from charter champions defending the closed door policies of charter schools, however, do not convince me that schools would be better off without democratic processes. Look what overriding democracy has done for the children of Flint, Michigan.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Bill of Rights for School Children

My new book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, is due to be released in about a week from Garn Press. The book is aimed at helping parents make informed decisions from the perspective of a public education advocate and corporate education reform critic. This Bill of Rights for School Children serves as a sort of preamble to the book.

It is clear that in the near future public education faces tremendous disruption and change. How this great American institution emerges from this change is of critical importance to every parent and child in the country. In the city of New Orleans, the system of public education as we have known it has been almost entirely replaced by a system of privately run, publicly funded charter schools. In other cities, like Philadelphia and Detroit, where adequate resources have long been denied to the public schools and where the public schools have been struggling for decades, more and more of the responsibility for educating the children has fallen to charter schools, both brick and mortar schools and cyber schools.

The current crop of education reformers argue that these changes are necessary, that the situation in many inner-city schools demands that we try something new. There is no question that something must be done to improve the quality of the learning experiences that children get in the inner cities. What the education reformers miss is that the public school system, any public school system, is both a reflection of and a product of the community where it resides. Reform cannot be focused on one element of that community, like the schools, and be successful.

We have seen that in the United States public schools in affluent areas consistently perform at a very high level. We see this in community after community, county after county, state after state, all across the country. Parent income is the single best predictor of student readiness for college and career. It is notable that in many of these affluent communities, teacher unions are strong and vocal, charter schools are virtually non-existent and test scores and every other measure of student learning are off the charts. Every one of these communities has both been able to and willing to make a financial commitment to quality public schools. Strong unions have not stood in the way of strong student learning. Teachers perform at a high level. Principals and other administrators are both qualified and highly engaged in producing quality learning.

It seems obvious that if we are going to improve public education in the economically struggling inner cities, we must take a holistic view. We must attack poverty with as much vigor and energy as the education reformers bring to their lobbying efforts in support of opening more charter schools. We must provide children in the inner cities with more services than schools in affluent areas because these children need more help to become proficient learners. This means wrap around services like medical and dental screenings, increased availability of counselors to help children navigate the trauma of their daily lives, home-school counselors that assist struggling families in providing experiences for their young children that will help them when they get to school, and professionally run and developmentally appropriate pre-school programs. All of these things will help and they will help much more than sending a child across town to a new charter school that has promised to raise student test scores.

Education reformers have it wrong. We cannot end poverty by improving educational opportunity. Education has proven a way out of poverty for a select few of course, but for most children, the debilitating impact of poverty cannot be overcome in the classroom. To truly serve these children we must first concentrate on ending income inequity. If we can make significant strides in improving the economic outlook of the 24% of American children living in poverty, improved educational opportunity will be the joyous and very predictable outcome.

As we look to future, it may be useful to consider some principles about public education that, for me at least, seem immutable. A Bill of Rights for the school child if you will.

1.      Every child has a right to a free, high quality, public education.
2.      Every child has a right to attend a well-staffed, well-resourced, clean and safe local neighborhood school.
3.      Every child has the right to be taught by well-informed, fully certified, fully engaged teachers who care about the child as a learner and as a person.
4.      Every child has the right to a school that provides a rich and varied curriculum that includes the visual and performing arts, integrated technology, and physical education.
5.      Every child has a right to a school that provides a rich and varied extra-curricular program including athletics, clubs, and service learning opportunities.
6.      Every child has a right to instruction that is well-planned, engaging, and collaborative.
7.      Every child has a right to instruction that is developmentally appropriate.
8.      Every elementary school child has a right to daily recess.
9.      Every child has the right to go to a school with adequate support personnel including librarians, nurses, guidance counselors, and learning support specialists.
10.  Every child has a right to an element of choice in the educational program, including the right to choose to take advanced level courses.
As parents it is of course in our interest to see that all of these things are available to our own child, but it is also in every parent’s interest to make sure that every child has this opportunity. The world that our children will inhabit in the future will be populated by an increasingly diverse citizenry. If we want the best that this country has to offer for our own children, we must work to ensure that every child in this country has similar opportunities. For our own children to reap the benefits of the American Dream, to live happily, freely and securely in the challenging world of the future, we must make sure that everyone’s children have access to that same American Dream.