Friday, November 29, 2013

The Seven Blind Mice of Education Reform: A Field Guide

Perhaps you know the ancient parable from the Indian subcontinent, The Blind Men and the Elephant. The story has been told and adapted many times. If you don’t know it you can find a video adaptation here. In a picture book retelling of the story, Ed Young, the Caldecott Medal winning author, recasts the men as mice for The Seven Blind Mice. If you don’t know that story you can find it read aloud here.

The story is the tale of blind men (or mice) who upon encountering an elephant disagree as to what the creature might be based on their own limited experience gained from touching one part of the mysterious creature. In the mousey version, a seventh hero mouse runs all over the whole creature and determines what it truly is – an elephant.

I got to thinking; lots of people are telling educators today what they should be doing. They have identified the problem with their narrow vision and they are ready to tell us how to fix it. To me they are like the blind mice of the tale above, looking at one part of the whole and claiming understanding.  And so I present a new tale intended as a field guide for those who may be invaded by these vermin. I identify each species by its Latin name. A description is followed by recommended reading for further understanding of the type.

Education Reforming Mice, A Field Guide

1. No Excusem Charterus – easily identifiable for his mating call “KIPP, KIPP.” Known to favor harsh climates. Responds only to rigid, ritualistic behavior commands. When one member of this group fails to follow rituals, s/he is shunned by the group and placed in exile in a land called Onthebench. Known to push disruptive or special needs members of the species out of the nest.
            Recommended reading: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.

2. Commonus Corpus Colemanus – A close examination of the Colemanus shows a species that was
kicked out of the nest at an early age. Still compensating for early childhood disappointments. Seeks to make sure that all young mice have a similarly joyless youth through slavish adherence to narrowed learning experiences and numerous yearly standardized mazes to run through. When young mice complain of mistreatment replies harshly, “Nobody gives a s**t how you feel.”

            Recommended reading: Are You My Mother?, by P.D. Eastman

3. Scabus for Americanus (SFA) – Bright and enthusiastic, the Scabus for Americanus will dive into the most difficult project with minimal training. Often found inhabiting ivy covered walls. Willing to invade the turf of more experienced members of the species for a warm nest and a small cheese allowance. Known to abandon their habitat after a short tenure for more cozy confines in the hedge or on the ladder.

            Recommended Reading: Teach for Us, Gary Rubinstein's blog

4. Tyranus Rheemus – mutant strain of Scabus for Americanus, this species has over developed ego
and underdeveloped empathic response. Known to sprinkle every communication with trademark call, “I…I…I….” Favors public humiliation of underlings, but abandons post at first signs of distress. Silences critics with masking tape. Approach with caution.

            Recommended Reading – The Prince, Maciavelli

5. Secretarius Duncanus – tallest of the species. Athletic with striking gray coat, but a clumsy communicator. Often seen foraging in public with his foot in his mouth. When cornered will blame any convenient target. Unwelcome in suburban homes and at tea parties. Always ready for a game, he is known to offer bribes to get others to play ball.
            Recommended Reading: The Peter Principle, Lawrence Peter


6. Plutochrus Uberallus – enjoys sticking his nose in areas where he has no expertise. Uses obscene riches
to unduly influence other education reform mice and political mice. Likes to talk about accountability, but accepts none for own actions. Talks about the need for “churn” in the teaching profession. When asked what will happen with teacher mice who lose their jobs says, “Let’m eat cheese.”

            Recommended Reading: Plutocrats at Work, Joanne Barkan

7. Ravitchus Heroicus – The hero of the story. Uses deep understanding of educational issues to see the
whole picture. Battles back at reform mice with books and blogs. Recognizes that ill-advised educational policies cannot overcome the poverty that many mice face daily. Champions teachers, while calling for improvements in curriculum and instruction. Borrows her battle cry from another famous mouse, “Here I come to save the day!”
            Recommended Reading: Reign of Error, by Diane Ravitch

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Putting Students First: What Does that Really Mean?

We can see, if we care to look, that the way we treat children – all of them, not just our own, and especially those in great need – defines the shape of the world we will wake up in tomorrow. – Barbara Kingsolver

My wife, Cindy Mershon, and I were talking over lunch about the perceived and real issues related to education. Cindy said to me, “The real issue is that we don’t value children in this country.” While I tried to digest that statement she went to the library to pull out a book. Then she read me an essay, part of which I quoted above, from Barbara Kingsolver’s collection, High Tide in Tucson.  And so, I began to think about the education reformer battle cry, “We must put children first.”

The so-called education reformers like to say that they want to put children first. And so we get organizations like Students First, Kids First, Achievement First, Just for Kids and we get rhetoric from reformers like Steve Perry, who seems to accuse every reform agenda critic of being anti-child and racist. For the reformers, “Education is the civil rights issue of our time” (Edna Bush, 2013). The clear implication is that educators have not been putting children first, or as Steve Perry puts it, they “put jobs first.”

Reformers look at the dire conditions in urban schools and they decide that the poor teaching and intransigent unions are the cause. Citing the oft repeated shibboleth that the “teacher is the single most important in-school factor in a child’s learning”, they base their remedies on so-called “school choice”, staff “churn” and stripping union members of job protections.

Here are the chief tenets of the reform agenda as I can best discern them:

·         Parents deserve choice in the school they send their children to. Children should not be relegated to a poor school because of their “zip code.” Vouchers will allow parents to choose better schools for their children.
·         Charter schools will use public funds to create “healthy” competition with regular public schools and create replicable models for public schools to follow.
·         Teacher accountability measures must be tied to student scores on standardized tests, so that we can make judgments about the most effective teachers.
·         Teachers whose students score well should receive monetary rewards to “incentivize” high performance.
·         Tenure and seniority rights must be stripped from union negotiated contracts, so that “bad” teachers can be more easily removed.
·         Public schools should adopt a business model of “creative disruption”, where staff “churn” is a featured part of improving performance by a regular removal of the lowest performers.
·         States should loosen teacher certification rules, so that more people can come into the profession without the burden of extensive training in teaching.
·         Curriculum should be tied to a set of national standards that will be the basis for a yearly standardized testing regime.

Sound good? Well, apparently it does to many people judging by what is going on across the country in the name of putting children first. What would be funny, if it were not so horrifying, is that all of the things listed above do not put children first. What they put first is a corporate agenda to privatize public education and profit from it. If the corporate reformers were really serious about putting children first, they could look at the thousands of schools in the country that have strong unions and a wide variety of teachers and who are doing a terrific job of educating children, better even than Finland. How is it that so many schools in the country are doing well, if the problem is teaching quality and unions who want only to protect poor teacher’s jobs?

While the United States is leading the developing world with 22% of its children living in poverty, we have wealthy reformers telling us the problem is lack of school choice and poor teachers. Let’s ask ourselves who profits from a narrative that bashes unions and demonizes teachers. Could it be those famous union bashers like the Walton Family and Michelle Rhee and the other plutocrats behind the pillaging of public education? Or how about that “creative disruption” maven, Bill Gates?

In the U.S. our social programs for children are hands down the worst in the industrialized world. – Barbara Kingsolver

What would an agenda that actually put children first look like? (Many of these were enumerated in Diane Ravitch’s excellent book, Reign of Error.)

·         Excellent pre-natal care for all expectant mothers to be sure every child got a healthy start in life.
·         Excellent child care available for every working mother.
·         Social workers and child psychologists available to advise parents on parenting activities that will help prepare the child for learning.
·         Paying working parents a livable minimum wage so that they can feed, clothe and spend time with their children.
·         Universal quality health care
·         Universal Pre-K education
·         Public libraries in every community
·         Health clinics in every urban public school
·         School counselors in every public school
·         Librarians in every public school
·         A rich curriculum for every child in every public school that includes physical education, the arts and lots of after school enrichment activities.
·         A curriculum that is broad, rich and deep and not narrowed by an overreliance on standardized testing.
·         Strengthening the teaching profession by attracting top level candidates, preparing them well in both content knowledge and pedagogy and encouraging them to work in areas of greatest need through competitive salaries and improved working conditions. Merit pay does not incentivize teachers. It has been tried and it has failed. What professional educators desire most is good working conditions. Good working conditions means reasonable class sizes, a workable schedule, a physical plant in reasonable repair, helpful supervisors and friendly, open colleagues.
·         Improving teacher evaluation so that it is a valuable and integrated part of the profession, which provides meaningful feedback that the teacher can use to improve performance. This requires viewing the teacher as a professional and not a cog in a testing machine.
·         Employing sufficient administrative staff, who are experts in teaching and learning, to provide valuable feedback
·         Working with teacher unions to provide needed support to lower performing teachers until the desired improvement is either made or the teacher is counseled out of the profession. (Yes, this can happen and does happen, see Montgomery County, Maryland’s PAR program for instance.)

What we get from reformers is an easy to sell, but deeply flawed narrative that puts children first in words only. If the agenda of the education reformers is to put children first, where is the outcry from these people when budgets for urban education are slashed as they have been in Philadelphia? Or when 30 neighborhood schools are shut down in Chicago? There is no outrage from the reformers because the denial of funds to public schools plays into reformers hands. They can again point to public education and say it is not working. In corporate parlance they are “starving the beast.” And where in any reasonable sense of "putting the child first" would we be subjecting young children to battery after battery of standardized tests? 

If the reformers really wanted to put children first, they would be fighting for every public dollar that could be found to support quality, neighborhood schools for all children and for living conditions that allow every child to arrive at school secure, healthy, well-fed and well-prepared to learn. When I see education reformers fighting for those things that will truly benefit children, and not their own corporate agenda, I will believe they are willing to put children first. The way we care for our neediest children, in and out of school, is the civil rights issue of our time.

[Children] thrive best when their upbringing is the collective joy and responsibility of families, neighborhoods, communities, and nations.” – Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver quotes from “Somebody’s Baby” in High Tide in Tucson (1995). NY: Harper Collins.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Common Core in English/Language Arts: A Critically Literate Reading

In her guest post on this blog, The CCSS: Knowledge is Power, Cindy Mershon recommends that all educators take a critical literacy approach to the reading of the Common Core State Standards. She recommends we seek to answer the following questions as we read:

Who is/are the author(s) of this text?
Who are we hearing from in this text?
Who are we NOT hearing from in this text?
How might this text be different if someone else had written it?
Why did the author(s) write this document?
Why did the author(s) write this document in this way?
What message do you think the author(s) wants us to take away from reading this document?

I decided to give this reading of the CCSS a shot. Here are the answers I have been able to cobble together from my reading of the CCSS and other sources.

Who are the authors of the CCSS?
The lead authors of the CCSS are David Coleman and Susan Pimentel. David Coleman has a background in management consulting. He once tutored children while a student at Yale. Susan Pimentel is a lawyer who specializes in standards driven reform.

Does the fact that authors of the CCSS have extremely limited experience as educators matter? One CCSS critic, Sandra Stotsky, a career educator and one of the authors of the highly regarded Massachusetts standards says, “[TheCCSS’] misplaced stress on informational texts (no matter how much is literary nonfiction) reflects the limited expertise of Common Core’s architects and sponsoring organizations in curriculum and in teachers’ training”(emphasis mine).

Who are we hearing from in the CCSS for E/LA?
Clearly we are hearing from David Coleman, who has rather famously said in reference to approaches to teaching literature that focus on students relating to the text, “As you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a s**t about what you feel or what you think.”

Who else are we hearing from? The Gates Foundation has spent millions in funding the development and the promotion of the Common Core. Bill Gates is, of course, the chairman of Microsoft. Gates’ education efforts are led by Alan Golston whose online biography says he has an MBA and has a background in finance, health care and education. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, led by long time education reformer, Chester A. Finn, and proudly listing former Bush era Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, as a Board Member, has worked throughout the country cheerleading for the implementation of the Common Core.

Who are we not hearing from in the CCSS for E/LA?
Teachers, principals, parents and students.  As Anthony Cody reported in Education week, “the two ‘Working Groups’ that actually wrote the first drafts of the standards do NOT include a single classroom teacher. You can see for yourself on this list provided by the National Governors Association. The two ‘Feedback Groups’ include only one classroom teacher.”

There was a standards review process that involved a large number of teachers. One teacher characterized his participation in this way: “My input was politely heard. I vaguely recall some wording tweaks from the CCSS folks, but my main issue - that the standards could be a guide to be used creatively and professionally rather than another big ‘accountability’ list - wasn't really part of the review agenda” (see Anthony Cody’s full interview here).

There were also no early childhood teachers, researchers or experts on the team writing the CCSS.

How might this text be different if someone else had written it?
One thing is for sure, if the most experienced standards writer in the country, Sandra Stotsky, had been involved in the writing, the emphasis on reading informational text would have been entirely different. There would have been much more emphasis on reading literary texts. You can read Stotsky’s criticisms here.

If literacy experts, Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, had been involved, student voices would have been more valued in the creation of meaning from text and that CCSS favorite “close reading” would have included some of what we have learned about student transactions with text since 1937. You can read about their perspective in the excellent book, Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading. You can read my discussion of their approach to close reading here.

If early childhood literacy specialists, Elfrieda Hibbert and Katie Van Sluys, had been consulted, there would have been no change in the Lexile levels of text reading for children through third grade. Hiebert and Van Sluys posit that there is plenty of research evidence to show that the pre-CCSS levels are appropriate for children and that we need to focus on fluent, comprehending reading at these lower levels for younger children. You can read my full summary of their article here.

Another thing that is clear is that if some early childhood educators had been involved, the standards for K-3 children would look very different. As early as 2010, when the Standards were still in draft form, the Alliance for Childhood issued a statement that said in part, “We have grave concerns about the core standards for young children now being written by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The draft standards made public in January conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades.” You can read the full statement here.

Dr. Carla Horowitz of the Yale Child Study Center was quoted in The Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post as stating, “The Core Standards will cause suffering, not learning, for many, many young children.”  And child psychologist, Dr. Megan Koshnick told the American Principals Project that, “Instead of thinking about what’s developmentally appropriate for kindergarteners, [CCSS proponents are thinking college] is where we want this kindergartener to end up, so let’s back track down to kindergarten and have kindergarteners work on these skills from an early age. This can cause major stress for the child because they are not prepared for this level of education.”

If noted educational historian, Diane Ravitch, had been involved in writing the standards, the standards would have been truly voluntary for the states to adopt and they would have been pilot tested to see if they were effective before a national roll out. You can read about Dr. Ravitch’s concerns here.

Why did the authors write this document?
This document was written in response to the perceived concern that the USA’s students were losing ground to students in other nations and that this was a threat to the economic security of the country.  Part of this concern was driven by US student performance on international tests, like PISA, where the country has been scoring in the middle of the pack for many years now. The thought was that a rigorous set of national standards would raise achievement levels and insure that the country could maintain its place as a world economic leader.

A further reason for writing the new standards was that the authors’ research indicated that students were not “college and career ready.” Over the past several decades college level reading material has been getting more difficult, while middle school and high school texts have become less difficult. By increasing the “text complexity” of what children were required to read in grades 2-12, the authors hoped that students would complete their K-12 education “college and career ready.”

What message do you think the authors want us to take away from reading this document?
The authors want teachers to believe that the standards identify what children are supposed to know and be able to do by the end of each grade level. By ensuring that children meet these standards the authors believe that students will be “college and career ready” and that our students will be competitive on a global stage. The authors further want us to believe that this is the “correct” core knowledge that children should attain at each of these grade levels.

I use the word “believe” in the paragraph above, because the authors of the CCSS are asking all of us to take it on faith that these standards will create the desired results. There is no evidence to support this.

Extra Credit Question

What is my “reader response” to this close reading of the CCSS in E/LA (apologies to David Coleman who doesn’t give a s**t how I feel)?
I am not opposed to standards. In fact, when I was a teacher I demanded the highest standards of myself, even though I did not always achieve them. When I was a supervisor, I demanded the highest standards from the teachers I worked with and most of the time I got just that. I am opposed to standards that were developed with minimal input from teachers, teacher leaders, literacy and early childhood experts, parents and students. I do object to standards that fly in the face of sound and long standing literacy research. I do object to the rapid implementation of untried and untested standards. Finally, I object to standards that will drag the country further into the “test and punish” mode first instituted by No Child Left Behind and currently being reinforced by Race to the Top.

Unlike David Coleman, I do give a s**t about how teachers feel and think. I also care what children feel and think. That is because I am an educator. So tell me, how do you feel and what do you think about all this? Your input is welcome.

Charlotte Zolotow, Great Children's Author and Editor, Dies at 98

Charlotte Zolotow, the author of seminal children's books like William's Doll, I Know a Lady, and The Angry Book has died. Her books profoundly influenced my parenting and my teaching. Ms. Zolotow was also the editor of many of the top children's authors including Paul Zindel, Paul Fleischman, Robert Lipsyte and Francesca Lia Block. The New York Times obituary today described her books as "cleareyed explorations of the interior landscape of childhood." 

For a time her book William's Doll, was my son's favorite and we read it night after night. The book resonated for him and for me as a reminder that we do not always need to fill the roles that society has prescribed for us. A book she edited, An Overpraised Season, a collection of great short stories aimed at adolescents, was a key text when I was teaching adolescent literature.

In tribute and celebration of this wonderful writer lets make sure her books stay alive. If you are a parent, read a Charlotte Zolotow book aloud to your children. If you are a teacher read one of her books to your class this week. This action would be a good reminder that the most uncommon core function of reading is emotional connection and human understanding.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The CCSS: Knowledge is Power

Today I am pleased to post a guest blog by my go-to person for discussing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), my wife, Cynthia Mershon. Cindy has been a reading specialist, language arts supervisor, and teacher resource specialist.  She has taught both struggling and gifted students, and collaborated with teachers and administrators to develop and implement classroom reading and writing workshops. In addition she has been a curriculum writer and a consultant for Reading Rainbow and is currently working with Teachers College, Columbia University, presenting workshops for school districts about implementing writing workshop.

Several days ago, Russ and I were talking about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English Language Arts.  Not an unusual conversation for two reading specialists these days, but the focus of our conversation was not what you might expect.  Rather than our usual lively but loud grousing about the CCSS in general that sends our cocker spaniels running out of the room seeking shelter elsewhere, we were discussing instead teachers’ and school districts’ responses to the Standards in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language. Recently, we have been working closely with several groups of teachers in different school districts, and have been surprised – shocked and dismayed, actually - by how little information teachers are being given about the CCSS, and at the ways in which school districts are responding, through instructional directives and curriculum development, to what they believe the CCSS require and recommend.  Is it possible that uninformed responses that ignore educational research, coupled with a lack of information about the actual Standards document, can be  more harmful than a set of standards can be on their own?

Certainly there are many voices weighing in on the CCSS and on particular aspects of them, e.g., “Close Reading in Elementary Schools” by Fisher and Frey, (2102), The Reading Teacher, 66.3, pp. 179-188; “Engaging Children in Close Reading: Multimodal Commentaries and Illustration Remix, by Dalton, (2103), The Reading Teacher, 66.8, pp. 642-649; “Children Giving Clues,” by Ohanian, (2013), English Journal, 103.2, pp. 15-20;  “Close Reading: A Cautionary Interpretation,” by Hinchman & Moore, (2013), Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 56.6, pp. 441-450.  Russ has talked in a previous post about the ways in which the CCSS might be misreading (ignoring?) research about how children learn to read here, here and here.  There is much for teachers to wade through, read, and consider, and many voices entering the conversation about what should be done, what should not be done, what is right, what is less than right, and what is just plain wrong. We worry about what information teachers are getting.  We worry more about whether teachers are getting any information, period.  We know they are being told what to do, but are they being given all the information about the CCSS they deserve and they need to make important decisions about their classroom instruction?

What concerns us most is how little opportunity teachers and administrators are given to examine and discuss the actual CCSS as a published document.  Most educators seem not to know some very important specifics about the Standards.  For instance,
·         The CCSS are not a curriculum, but rather a set of competencies with
clear, measurable benchmarks.
·         The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach
·         The Standards focus on what is most essential; they do not describe all that can or should be taught.  A great deal is left to the discretion of teachers and curriculum developers.
·         While the Standards described are critical to college and career readiness, they do not define the whole of such readiness.  Students require a wide-ranging, rigorous academic preparation and, particularly in the early grades, attention to such matters as social, emotional, and physical development and approaches to learning.
·         The Standards insist that instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language be a shared responsibility within the school, i.e., social studies, science, math, etc.
·         Each standard need not be a separate focus for instruction and assessment.  Often, several standards can be addressed through a single rich task.
·         The Standards set grade-specific standards but do not define the intervention methods or materials necessary to support students who are well below or well above grade-level expectations.  No set of grade-specific standards can fully reflect the great variety in abilities, needs, learning rates, and achievement levels of students in any given classroom.

     It is imperative that teachers be given the opportunity to learn about the CCSS; their conversations with colleagues, parents, and administrators need to be informed and intelligent.  Their classroom instruction needs to show they understand what the CCSS are asking of them but also that they as professionals understand what research says about best practice in literacy. They need to understand the CCSS did not invent good reading and writing instruction but are certainly exerting an influence over what is interpreted as good instruction in today’s schools. 

    In addition to learning more about the CCSS themselves, we encourage teachers to call on the very critical literacy questions they are modeling for their students to examine and reflect on the text that IS the CCSS.  Just as we do with our students, we need to look beyond, inside, and around this document and ask ourselves important questions [adapted from McLaughlin, M., &  DeVoogd, G.L. (2004).  Critical literacy: Enhancing students’ comprehension of text.  Scholastic.]:

Who is the author(s) of this text?
Who are we hearing from in this text?
Who are we NOT hearing from in this text?
How might this text be different if someone else had written it?
Why did the author(s) write this document?
Why did the author(s) write this document in this way?
What message do you think the author(s) wants us to take away from reading this document?

I believe many of us are finding it difficult to balance the power for critical teaching decisions with a document, a set of standards, which we cannot completely support, and may not completely understand.  Teachers are being asked to document which standards are met in their lesson plans, to volunteer for committees developing “CCSS curriculum” and “CCSS report cards.”  On their worst days, perhaps through a misreading or misunderstanding of the CCSS, they are being asked to alter what and how they teach in ways that ignore what they know to be research-based and responsible classroom practice. They are being told to abandon instruction that addresses the joy of learning, and concerns itself with not just what students know and understand but how they feel and what they think.

I am not suggesting that teaching, like life, is not a series of carefully considered compromises, but these compromises are best made when we are informed and educated about the factors in play. With regard to the CCSS, we need to know everything we can about who wrote them, what those people were thinking, what the final document says (and does not say), and how that document squares with the research that informs our daily teaching of reading and writing. When we lack important information, and do not have the knowledge we need to be a productive part of the conversation, we are giving the CCSS even more power than they are demanding.  When we give “people from out of town” (thank you, Donald Graves) the power to make decisions about our students and our instruction without collecting important information about what they are doing, how they will do it, and why they are doing it, we give away our power; we relinquish our responsibility to ourselves, our students, and our profession.  In this case, at this time, knowledge is power.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Stories Matter: Where Does Story Fit in the Common Core?

We need to insure that stories are an integral part of our instruction and we need to be able to explain why to those who might challenge this notion in the name of “college and career readiness.”

I have a story to tell you. This week I was attending the annual College Reading and Literacy Association conference in Boston, Massachusetts, to learn from colleagues and to deliver a paper. On Friday afternoon, I delivered my paper, attended a late afternoon session and returned to my room about 6 PM. Being in the city and alone, I searched on the internet to see what plays might be going on that night. I couldn't find anything that struck my fancy, so about 7:20, I decided to walk the few blocks from the hotel to the Boston theater district to see if I could find something interesting. As I turned the corner onto Tremont Street, I saw a large, well-lit marquee declaring “Live from the Dublin Theater Festival, Waiting for Godot, October 31 – November 10.” Perfect, I thought; I had seen the play twice before and enjoyed it, why not see this production direct from Ireland? I wondered why I hadn't seen this on my internet search.

As I walked down the street I noted that there was a large and loud contingent of teenagers and their parents lining the sidewalk. “Must be some American Idol phenom in town,” I thought, as I made my way toward the ticket booth. The lobby of the theater was mobbed with people waiting for the doors of the theater to open, so I had to wriggle my way through them to the ticket booth. I thought, “Nice to see so many young people interested in a Beckett play.”  At the ticket booth, the friendly young woman said that they were nearly sold out, but she was able to find me a sole ticket way up in the mezzanine. “I’ll take it,” I said, feeling fortunate, and forked over my 40 bucks.

Turning away from the ticket booth just as the theater doors opened, the mob of young people, parents, and a few folks of my vintage streamed past me to get to their seats. I looked down at my ticket. It read, Step Africa: A Celebration in Dance. Wait. What? I walked outside and looked up at the marquee once more. There in small print below the ad for “Waiting for Godot”, it read, “Two Nights Only, November 8, 9, Step Afrika.” Hmm… Well I had already purchased the ticket, so I went inside, climbed to the top of the mezzanine, seeing all the young people in the crowd in a whole new light, took my seat and waited for the show to start with a combination of anxious anticipation and amusement.

What I saw was one of the most exhilarating performances I have ever seen. Step Africa is a dance troupe dedicated to the tradition of step dancing that began among the African American college community as a sort of combination of the traditions of tap, African dance and social dancing ( I learned all this from the program.). Whatever the influences, it was an exciting display of rhythm, movement, high energy and sound. Ten young dancers on the stage possessing amazing dexterity and grace. I accidentally walked into a performance I would have never chosen, but was extremely pleased that I got a chance to see. I was thoroughly entertained, but still waiting for Godot.

Why do I tell you this story? Because I think the role of story in the classroom could be undervalued by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  The CCSS call for 50% informational text in Kindergarten and a gradual increase in that percentage as children move through the grades, along with the call for reading short excerpts and an emphasis on close reading may crowd story out of the curriculum. There seems to be a devaluation of fiction and story in the CCSS focus on making students “college and career ready.” Is there room for story and storytelling on a standardized test? But stories matter and stories deserve a central place in any curriculum. Here’s why.

Story is how we make sense of the world. There is no reading comprehension without a sense of story. My little story above illustrates so many things about life, small and large, not because it is such an exceptional story, but precisely because it is not exceptional. It is a shared experience. Who hasn't made some kind of silly error by not paying attention to the clues around them? Who hasn't gone to see something they thought they would not like and enjoyed it immensely? Story makes us human. Story builds community.

Kathy Short comes to the defense of story in the curriculum in her recent article, “The Role of Story and Literature in a World of Tests and Standards”, which has just been published as a part of a series of articles I highly recommend in the book Whose Knowledge Counts in Government Literacy Policies? by Goodman, Calfee and Goodman. I have discussed other articles from this book in the blog pieces here and here. Short says, “We need to understand why stories are important and why they matter to our students as learners and as human beings and to our work as educators, both in our work in developing curriculum and in addressing the broader political context of public policy and mandates (page 114).”

In other words, we need to insure that stories are an integral part of our instruction and we need to be able to explain why to those who might challenge this notion in the name of “college and career readiness.”

What do we need to know about story? Here is what Short has to say.

·         Story is how we make sense of our experiences
Just as it did in my story above, story allows us to take all the crazy stuff that happens to us during the day and make some sense of it (Rosen as cited in Short, 2014, p. 116). It helps us find meaningful patterns in our world.

·         Story is how we make sense of information
Information does not tend to be retained unless it is connected in some way through a story (Gottschall as cited in Short, 2014, p. 116). This is why effective math, science and history teachers couch new concepts in stories. Remember Archimedes and, “Eureka!” When we tell the story of 9/11, we often begin with the story of how we first heard of the attack on the World Trade Center.

·         Story is how we connect to each other and our histories
Without our stories of the past (growing up during the depression, Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, first responders on 9/11) we can’t envision a better world to come.

·         Story is where we explore our fears and our futures
Story allows us to practice for the real life dilemmas we will face. One type of story we all experience is dreams. Dream stories allow us to work out our fears, much like fairy tales help young children work out their fears of abandonment and loss.

·         Story is where we develop values and community
Stories contain life lessons. One lesson the story I told on myself above might be “Pay close attention to your surroundings for clues about what might be happening.” Another lesson is “embrace serendipity;” it can yield unexpected rewards.

·         Story is a way to change the world
Short notes that a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is a story that changed the world. The story of Malala Yousafzai, the Afghan teenager shot by the Taliban because she insisted on attending school is changing the world as we speak.

·         Story is a strength for all learners
As any teacher of primary children can tell you, all children have stories to tell. Short says that the challenge for the teacher is to build on children's strengths through the stories they bring with them. Acceptance of the stories, from many different cultures and backgrounds, must be a valued part of meaning making for all children (p. 118).

Short says that the CCSS call for a 50/50 split for fiction and informational text is a “false dichotomy” (p. 121). Much informational text is told through a narrative structure (Think of books like Gail Gibbons, Monarch Butterfly or Martin Jenkins, The Emperors Egg, both of which are informational text told in narrative form). And then, of course, there is historical fiction like James and Lincoln Collier’s, My Brother Sam is Dead or Irene Hunt’s, Across Five Aprils two books that teach much information in the process of telling a fictional story.

Short is further concerned that the CCSS emphasis on short texts will mean that students are reading truncated stories. A chapter from a good book is not the same as reading the book. Take a look at a typical high school anthology excerpt of “The Iliad” to see if that gives the student a good sense of the story.

Finally, there is the issue of text dependent questions. When the focus of the instruction is first on what the text actually says it robs the student of what Louise Rosenblatt has called the “lived through experience of the text.” Essentially, what this means is that the reader creates his/her own “story” of the text from which all further explorations are based. We need to encourage students to have this lived through experience because without it we lose engagement and without engagement we lose any chance at rigor. Mining the text for what it says explicitly is the necessary next step.

So, no matter what directives we may get in the guise of “college and career ready”, let us remember that all children need story and need to have their stories valued. Our classrooms must remain places where there is plenty of time to create, share and revel in our stories.

Short, K. (21014). The Role of Story and Literature in a World of Tests and Standards. In K. Goodman, R. Calfee and Y. Goodman (Eds.), Whose Knowledge Counts in Government Literacy Policies? (113-127) New York: Routledge.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Test and Punish, by John Kuhn Reviewed: An American Horror Story

Kuhn, J. (2013) Test and Punish: How the Texas Education Model Gave America Accountability without Equity. Austin, TX. Park Place Publications

John Kuhn has a story tell. It is a horror story worthy of Stephen King made even more horrible because it is true. It is the story of how Texas released the “test and punish” monster on public education and how, like a 1950’s science fiction movie, that monster came to threaten the entire country.

Kuhn is particularly well-qualified to tell this story. He is the ultimate participant observer, having served as a public school administrator in Texas and then becoming a vocal advocate for public education when politicians in Texas combined huge spending cuts with a draconian school accountability scheme. He has been a leader of the Save Texas Schools movement and the speech he gave at that organization’s July, 2011 rally (included in this volume) went viral on Youtube.

To tell his story, Kuhn takes us all the way back to 1968, when citizens in one of the financially strapped school districts in San Antonio, Texas, noting the great resources available to a school district just outside of town, sued the State for equitable funding. The fault, of course, lay in the State’s dependence on property taxes, which disproportionately favored wealthier neighborhoods. That suit unleashed a decades long battle between the advocates of equity and the powerful wealthy business people and parents who wished to maintain the inequitable status quo. Guess who won?

It is not, however, the fact that the moneyed interests won that is so important, but how they won. The plaintiffs in the original suit actually won their case, but through a long series of appeals and new lawsuits, the forces for equity won a few battles, but they lost the war. How? The politically influential citizens of Texas hit on a winning strategy: they convinced the people of Texas that funding inequity and poor student achievement outcomes were unrelated. Poor outcomes had nothing to do with money, but were instead “the simple result of bad classroom instruction” (location 239). The convoluted way that this all came to be is the heart of the book and it is quite a tale. Suffice it to say that some of the names involved have come to haunt all friends of public education throughout the country. It is a dishonor roll of conservative politics and reform education mis-leaders: George W. Bush, Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings, Sandy Kress, Ross Perot, John Cornyn and The Pearson Corporation among others.

Cornyn got the ball rolling when the now U.S. Senator, then a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, in a dissent from the majority, suggested that equity in education was not about equitable distribution of funds only, but about educational “efficiency”, which he defined as measurable results of educational quality. Perot moved the ball down the field, when, as the leader of the Select Committee on Public Education, he declared that the schools were not producing enough quality graduates.

That brings us to Sandy Kress who carried the ball over the goal line with a “single minded obsession on standardized test-based accountability.” Working in collusion with his powerful friends in the business community, Kress, in his position as a member of the Dallas Independent School District’s Commission for Educational Excellence, pushed for test based accountability and a system of rewards and punishments for schools, teachers and administrators. If schools did well, there would be rewards, praise and cash prizes. If the scores fell there were punishments such as being labeled “failing schools” and facing the firings of teachers and principals or school closures. Sound familiar?

When Kress moved up to the State Department of Education, the model he began in Dallas was expanded to the entire state of Texas. Eventually, Kress, nominally a Democrat, became new Governor Bush’s education advisor. While Kress was bending Bush’s ear, he was also receiving lucrative consulting fees from Pearson, the company that would come to dominate the Texas testing juggernaut to the tune of 500 million dollars. Test based accountability aligned perfectly with the financial interests of Pearson and that company’s extreme lobbying efforts resulted in Texas testing everything but the armadillos crossing the road on a West Texas highway.

The rest of the story is familiar to most of us. Bush moved from Texas to Washington, D.C. after the Supreme Court ruled him the winner of the 2000 election. Along with Bush came that Houston miracle man himself, Rod Paige, as Secretary of Education. Kuhn devotes a chapter to Paige, called The Houston Mirage, that is a cautionary tale for anyone buying into public school miracle talk. When the news of Paige’s improprieties in manipulating numbers in Houston became too much for him to continue, Bush replaced him with another Texas test and punish advocate, Margaret Spellings. Along the way, in 2002, we got the Texas model of test and punish for the entire nation, No Child Left Behind. Despite the hopes of public education advocates, President Obama and his Secretary of Education have doubled down on test and punish in the form of Race to the Top.

And so, Kuhn shows us, as Texas goes so goes public education in America. Let us hope that this continues to be true for a bit longer, because Kuhn’s book ends on a hopeful note. Parent groups, horrified by the amount of testing their children were being subjected to, have been successfully challenging the test and punish brigade. Politicians, responding to pressure from constituents, began to listen. Wendy Davis, State Senator from Ft. Worth and recent popular feminist hero, called the student assessment system “a colossal failure.” Pearson and its lobbyists came under fire. The number of tests was reduced. Kuhn feels that thanks to the pressure of parent and educator groups, politicians “finally came to understand that education reform was not synonymous with zealotry and over testing” (location 2047).

The book is compelling and informative. I have only two minor quibbles. First, it may have been helpful for the lay person, if Kuhn had clearly defined what he meant by the  “punish” of the title (labeling schools, closing schools, firing staff, even just creating the impression that educators were not doing their jobs). Second, the chapter on Diane Ravitch is interesting, as reading about a true public education hero, Kuhn quotes another writer who calls her “our necessary contrarian”, should be and she is also from Texas, but for me, the chapter detracted some from the narrative flow and focus of the book.

As I said, these quibbles are minor. The book is a must read for all public school advocates. As we all came to understand in school, if we don’t learn our history we are doomed to repeat it. John Kuhn presents a history we would be loath to repeat. If I don’t quite share his optimism at this point, perhaps that is only because I don’t live and work in Texas on the front lines as John does.

One more thing, don’t fail to read the appendices – John’s “Alamo Letter” and his speech to the Save Our Schools rally. They left me in tears of pain and of joy. They are worth the price of the book alone.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Some Reading for Arne Duncan

Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, believes that improved educational opportunity is the route to success for the 22% of America's children living in poverty. What a terrible shame for the country that he has this exactly wrong. I want to encourage Duncan to do some reading.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses what biologists call the ecology of an organism. A fallen acorn needs to have a lot of factors fall just right to grow to be the tallest oak in the forest. First, the acorn must be of hearty stock; healthy from the get go. Next the acorn must fall on fertile ground and there must not be other trees too close by to block out the sunlight. Next that growing oak must be a little lucky; no rabbit can come by when it is young and strip its bark and no lumberjack can cut it down before it has matured. It takes a multiplicity of inter-causation to create a great tree (Gladwell, 2008).

So, too, with children. Education matters. Good teaching matters. Poverty matters more. In his article "Re-reading Poverty", Patrick Shannon says that Duncan has it backwards. Shannon says, "There can be no separation among the social, economic, and political reform and educational reform (Goodman, Calfee, and Goodman, pg 45). In other words, all the problems related to poverty are also educational problems. Health care issues, housing issues, nutritional issues, living wage struggles, all are also educational issues. Unless we can attack all of these issues in a coordinated effort, we will never get the educational gains we seek.

What if Secretary Duncan encouraged the plutocrats who are funding charters, vouchers, Common Core standards and the vast testing industry to put their efforts and their money into improving the actual life conditions of the poor? What if he acknowledged that our problems are not instructional issues, but learning issues brought about by the debilitating effects of poverty? What if he led a war on poverty, rather that a war on public education? What if he recognized that scholastic achievement was inextricably linked to all of the issues of poverty? What if his education policy was shaped by this realization?

Two things would happen: Poverty would go down. Test Scores would go up.

More importantly, children would have a genuine opportunity to thrive in the forest.


Gladwell, M. (2008) Outliers. New York: Back Bay Books
Goodman, K., Calfee, R and Goodman, Y. (2014) Whose Knowledge Counts in Government Literacy Policies? New York: Routledge.