Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Arne Duncan to Washington State, "No Waiver for You!"

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's decision to rescind the NCLB waiver from Washington state is an act of such monumental stupidity that it would be laughable, if it did not have the potential for such a negative impact on children, parents and teachers. Arne is in a snit because the Washington state legislature failed to pass a law tying teacher evaluation to standardized test scores, one of the conditions of this waiver.

Let's back up a little to gain a full appreciation of this ludicrous action. Everyone with any knowledge of the Bush era No Child Left Behind law knows that the goals laid out in that law were impossible to meet. The law requires schools to meet "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) toward proficiency in language arts and math as measured by standardized tests for a variety of student sub-groups including minority students, special education students and English language learners. The percentage of students required to meet AYP steadily increased across ten years and is 100% for 2014.

Obviously, a target of 100% proficiency was and is pie in the sky. No one could reach it and everyone knew it, including the crafters of the law who said the goals were "aspirational." That is why so many states were anxious to jump at Duncan's 2012 offer of a waiver from this pernicious law when he offered it to them, along with a financial sweetener of stimulus money. The waiver, however, came with some Duncan favored education reform requirements. Namely, adoption of rigorous standards (read Common Core), measurement of the standards using standardized tests (read PARCC and SBAC) and evaluating teachers based on the student scores on those standardized tests.

Washington State has carried out a number of these required reforms, but the legislature balked when it came to tying teacher evaluations to students test scores. Whatever the reasons for the legislature's refusal to act on this aspect of the Duncan waiver bribe, they should be applauded, not punished. Evaluating teachers using student standardized test scores, popularly known as value-added measures, or VAMs, has been shown to be highly problematic in study after study. For a compendium of reasons that VAMs are voodoo statistics please see Amrein Beardsley's indispensable blog article from Vamboozled! here.

The loss of the waiver has some real implications for the children and teachers of Washington. As Valerie Strauss has reported in The Answer Sheet here, virtually all of Washington's schools will be labeled as failing under this law. What can happen to a failing school under NCLB? Well, besides being labeled as "failing" the school could be required to extend the instructional day, adopt a new curriculum, fire its entire staff, be shut down, be turned into a charter school, or be turned over to a for-profit outside operator.

And why is Washington state facing these disastrous consequences? Because Arne Duncan had a hissy fit over the failure to enact a favorite part of his policy. A part of his policy that has been shown, at the very least, to be problematic and very, very probably will fail to produce reliable data or improved teaching and learning. In fact, it will likely be another reform measure that damages teachers and children, because the numbers cannot be trusted. Skilled teachers will either walk away from teaching because of VAM madness or will sue if any real consequences are inflicted on them with this flawed methodology. The suits have already begun in Tennessee.

So this is what passes for educational leadership in the current Department of Education. Duncan offers bribes to states to allow them to get out from under NCLB, a law that he has acknowledged and everyone knows is fatally flawed. He uses those bribes like a Hulk Hogan hammerlock on states to get them to accept his concept of reform, no matter how flawed and then he punishes them for recognizing the flaws and acting more slowly than he wants. When I was in second grade and I pitched a fit in school because someone else got the Burnt Sienna crayon I wanted, I was sent to the office for a good talking to by the principal. I could only hope that Arne gets sent to the Oval Office for a good talking to himself. False hope though. Arne is already threatening other states with a loss of waiver.

For more on Arne's letter to Washington state, see Peter Greene's delightful analysis here.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Trouble in River City: The Manufactured Crisis in Education

Perhaps you remember Professor Harold Hill, the charming con man from The Music Man, the Tony Award winning musical and popular film. In this story, set in the early 1900s, Phony Professor Hill hatches a scheme to convince the community to buy band instruments and uniforms for the school children from him, promising to shape the children into a marching band. Of course, Professor Hill knows nothing about music or bands and intends to skip town with his ill-gotten gains. 

In order to make this scheme work, Hill invokes the time-tested strategy of the shyster, the manufactured crisis. Hill convinces the good people of River City that their children are going to hell in a handbasket because they don't have an after school activity. In this more innocent time, hell was represented as a pool hall, where bored children would idle away there time and be influenced by the nefarious characters that lurk there. This is a musical, remember, so Professor Hill sings the song "Ya Got Trouble."

I say ya got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital "T"
And that rhymes with "P"
And that stands for Pool.

Hill makes his financial killing, but because this is a happy story, he admits the error of his ways, shows he really does have a heart and marries Marian, the town's librarian.

Let's move this story ahead a few decades. The modern day Professor Hill and Marian the librarian have 2 children about to enter college. The family needs money and the old schemes won't work. Many schools have done away with their music programs in the recent budget crunch. Marian's library has been closed down because River City council said they couldn't support it anymore.

Professor Hill needs a new manufactured crisis. Then he finds his inspiration: The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international test that compares student progress across many countries. When he notes that River City students lag behind in test scores, he sees an opening he can sell. He has his manufactured crisis. The schools themselves are going to hell in a handbasket. And he sings:

I say ya got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital "T"
And that rhymes with "P"
And that stands for PISA!

Never mind that River City has never done well on the PISA tests. Never mind that these tests indicate little about River City's ability to compete in the world at the highest level. Never mind that River City is doing very well on these tests when they are controlled for the overwhelming amount of poverty in River City. Professor Hill has a crisis he can sell and along the way, he can take down public education and turn it into a profit generator.

To sell his scheme, Professor Hill needs a scapegoat. Instead of the pool hall, he decides who better to blame than the teachers? They are relatively powerless, vulnerable to appeals to do the right things by kids and they don't have much money. A perfect target. If River City scores are low it must be the teachers' fault. So let's follow up our manufactured crisis, with a false narrative of bad teachers. And then we can cast the teacher's unions as villains for only wanting to protect bad teaches. Unions are out of favor with many these days. They are an easy target. 

But you can't make any money just by criticizing teachers and bashing unions, so Professor Hill needs to talk about bad schools and he needs to convince River City leaders that we have bad schools. If we have bad schools, we need to close those schools and we need to open charter schools, free from the restraints of public school teacher job protections and unions. Now we are really talking, because we can turn these charter schools into private entities funded with public money, run them on the cheap and begin to rake in the dough.

Hill discovers he has hit on a gold mine. Private companies/Public money - a match made in educational reform con man heaven. Why stop at charter schools? Let's get into the testing business. If our kids aren't doing well on PISA, maybe we can sell the idea that they are not "college and career ready." People have heard enough stories about remedial classes in college. This is an easy sell. 

What we need, leaders of River City, are new standards tied to new tests. We can use those standards to write those tests, to identify bad teachers, to close down schools, to open more charters, to make more money. Beautiful. And did I mention, that right over here I have a testing company all ready to sell you that test, and all the supporting curriculum materials you want for a price. And Professor Hill here will be the "chief architect" of those standards and then take over the "college and career ready" testing company as the money keeps rolling in.

Back downtown in River City, however, the picture is not so bright. Public schools, drained of financial resources by charter schools, are struggling to maintain a basic level of education for students. Schools are in disrepair. Lay-offs are rampant. Charter schools skim off the high scoring students, while finding ways to insure troubled students, students with learning diasabilities and English language learners stay off their rolls. Music programs are gone. Art programs are gone. Librarians are gone. Counsellors are gone. Nurses are gone. Public education is in crisis.

But, hey, Professor Hill and his education reform con men are doing very well, thank you. They have turned their manufactured crisis into a profit making machine. And instead of being unmasked, they are lauded as saviors. And if you don't believe that, I have some used band uniforms to sell you.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Chris Christie's Curious Commencement Speech

Rowan University, in Glassboro, NJ, will present Governor Chris Christie with an honorary degree and Christie will present the commencement address to this year’s graduating class. The invitation has stirred controversy among supporters of public education and Rowan grads, including a Change.org petition asking Rowan to rescind the invite. Some educators question the appropriateness of inviting the Governor, who has shown his disdain for teachers, teacher unions and who has labeled urban schools “failure factories”, to speak at the commencement of at this public institution, which has as a central mission the educating of future public school teachers.

In our never ending search for truth, justice and the American Way, the Russ on Reading blog has discovered a draft of Governor’s Christie’s commencement speech in a stack of documents released by the lawyers the Governor hired to whitewash, ahem, I mean investigate, Bridgegate. Here is the draft as we discovered it.

Dear Rowan Class of 2014,

It is a pleasure for me to be here today on this lovely South Jersey campus. In fact, it is a pleasure for me to be anywhere that is at least 100 miles away from the George Washington Bridge. Heh. Heh. Heh.

I want to thank the Rowan Board of Directors and especially Rowan President, Dr. Ali Houshmand, for inviting me and for the honorary degree. I understand that Dr. Houshmand has been under some intense criticism since he decided to invite me, but don’t worry, Ali, if you lose this job, I have some openings at the Port Authority to fill. Heh.Heh.Heh.

Now, to those of you who have decided to use masking tape to spell out “Christie Sucks” on top of your mortarboards, with my reputation as a bully you might expect to get a rise out of me with that stunt. But I am a bigger man than that, literally. I would, however, like you to meet my new Director of Security, Bridget Kelly. Bridget just sent me a text that read, “Time for some graduation problems in Glassboro.” Heh.Heh.Heh.

Now, I know some of you graduates will be going into careers in business, engineering, public relations, performing arts and the sciences. I hope you know that New Jersey is proud of you, welcomes you and hopes you stay in New Jersey to contribute to the growth of this great state.

But of course many of you are looking to go into public education. And to tell you the truth, I can’t imagine why. If there is one message that I can proudly say I have managed to get across in my 5 years in office, it is that well-trained certified teachers are not welcome in New Jersey. I have cut money to public education; I have vilified the teacher unions; I am after your job protections; I am after your pensions; I am closing the “failure factories” in Newark and Camden. I have yelled at teachers who ask me questions at my political rallies.

Don’t you idiots get it? New Jersey is not a place for professional educators. What is my advice to those of you graduating with teacher certification? Move to some other state. That’s what all the well-qualified school superintendents are doing. I drove them out. I can drive you out. Of course, your choices of states are limited. The governors of North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Louisiana, and Arizona don’t want you either. Maybe that pantywaist Jerry Brown will take you in California.

Now if some of you business, engineering and science graduates out there would like to join Teach for America and help us turn around those “failure factories” in the inner-city, of course, you are welcome. Nothing says lovin’ to a poverty stricken inner-city child like a temporary teacher with five weeks of training and no real interest in the profession of teaching. I like the idea of temporary teachers. Low salaries. No unions. No pensions. It is a boon to the state budget. Besides, parents who really care about their kids’ education send the kids to private school, just like me and Mary Pat do. Oops. That should be “Mary Pat and I .” My teachers at Livingston High School would get on me for that one. Heh. Heh. Heh.

So, congratulations, graduates. I look forward to bringing your youth and enthusiasm into play as we move forward in New Jersey. And to you future teachers out there? Well, the George Washington Bridge is not blocked anymore. I suggest you use it to get out of here, because as I told that pesky teacher Melissa Tomlinson during my campaign, “I’m tired of you people.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Put a Poem in Your Pocket

Thursday, April 24, is Poem in Your Pocket Day. This is a perfect way to celebrate poetry during April, which is National Poetry Month.

According to the Academy of American Poets, on Poem in Your Pocket Day people throughout the United States select a poem, carry it with them, and share it with others throughout the day. 

Folks can also share a poem selection on Twitter by using the hashtag #pocketpoem.

The Academy web site has a broad selection of poems you coould choose for Poem in Your Pocket Day, or you could just choose a favorite of your own to share.

For my teacher followers out there, here is a poem to share with elementary school children.

Laughing Giraffes 
by Russ Walsh

On a field trip to the zoo, you must see the giraffe,
But I’ll give you a warning on his behalf.
Have a nice chat; get his autograph,
But whatever you do, please don’t make him laugh.

Though he truly enjoys comical patter,
A laughing giraffe’s knees wobble and chatter,
‘Til he falls to the ground with a clang and a clatter.
For a giraffe a laugh is no laughing matter.

And here is one for those who teach older children.

by Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,   
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse.   

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   

The idea you carry close to your bosom   
is famous to your bosom.   

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets,   
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,   
but because it never forgot what it could do.

And one for us all.

A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the
spheres to connect them
'Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

On April 24, put a poem in your pocket and share it with friends, colleagues and children.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

David Brooks Hearts Common Core

If you haven’t heard already, New York Times columnist, David Brooks, the liberals' favorite conservative, wrote a column yesterday supporting the Common Core and characterizing critics on the right and left as members of a “circus.”

My blogger colleagues Mercedes Schneider  (deutsch29) and Aaron Barlow (Academe blog) have already done a wonderful job of critiquing Brooks’ peculiar journey into Common Core Wonderland, so I encourage you to visit their blogs for a full discussion of Brooksian misinformation.

There is one statement in Brooks’ column, however, that really frosts my literacy teaching pumpkin. So, I feel compelled to address that one statement here.

In a discussion of how superior the Common Core is to prior standards, champion of the Core Brooks says:

The [Common Core] English standards encourage reading comprehension. Whereas the old standards frequently encouraged students to read a book and then go off and write a response to it, the new standards encourage them to go back to the text and pick out specific passages for study and as evidence.

That’s right folks in the old bad days BCC (Before Common Core), we teachers did not encourage reading comprehension, we just sent our little cherubs off to respond to what they read willy nilly. This claim is so far out of bounds as to be ludicrous. But it is typical of Core advocates, who seem to think the Common Core invented students looking for evidence in what they read. Brooks' comment echoes that of Common Core Chief Architect, David Coleman, who rather famously said, "You will find...that nobody gives a sh*t about what you think or how you feel" about your reading. 

To show you what I mean let me demonstrate a reading comprehension technique that I have been using to teach kids to examine evidence since the Davids Coleman and Brooks were in grade school. I assure you I am far from unique in my use of similar strategies.

The strategy is called Claim-Support-Question or CSQ. With CSQ, the teacher guides the students in identifying a claim in a text, finding the supporting evidence for the claim and then raising questions about the claim.

So, let's find a claim in Brooks' statement above:

Claim - The Common Core encourages reading comprehension.
Claim - Old standards did not. They had students go off and write a response to their reading.

Support - None is provided here by the author. The reader could, if s/he chose, go and look at the Common Core to verify. Then the reader could go off and read the old standards to discover if what they emphasized was going off and writing a response and not emphasizing reading comprehension.

Questions: - How is the Common Core substantially different from the "old standards" when it comes to reading comprehension? What did we know about reading comprehension before the standards were written and how was that implemented in schools? Is responding to a text in writing a valuable reading comprehension strategy? Is writing a response to reading really all that was in the old standards about reading comprehension?

Let us now explore the answers to these questions. The Common Core has brought a greater emphasis to the concept of seeking evidence for author's claims. But to state that this is new or revolutionary is just plain silly. Teachers have been asking students to cite evidence in grades K-12 at least since I started school in the '50s. The Common Core emphasis on evidence is likely in part due to David Coleman's background in "evidence based solution" consulting. Coleman is a big fan of evidence, except for evidence related to showing the Common Core will work, of which there is none (Now there is a claim I invite you to use a CSQ on).

As to what we knew about reading comprehension instruction before the Common Core, it turns out that we knew a whole lot. Just for an example, and as evidence, I would refer you to this summary of reading comprehension research from 1994 in which Fielding and Pearson lay out what good comprehension instruction should look like. The paper is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago, and those practices have been evident in classrooms for a very long time. Among the things Fielding and Pearson found worked was using background knowledge to make predictions and to form inferences. Background knowledge is disdained in the close reading world of Coleman's Common Core, which makes these standards a step backwards for reading comprehension instruction. You can find my discussion of the necessity of background knowledge in reading comprehension here. 

Fielding and Pearson also support the use of student written responses as a way for students to enter the world of the text and build a richer comprehension of the text. So, Brooks' sneer at "going off and writing a response" is a unwarranted poke at a well established and well researched comprehension strategy. You can find my defense of written response here

As far as the "old standards" go, they vared widely across states, but I have yet to see one that did not address reading comprehension or that suggrested that the students just "go off a write a response."

The Pearson of the article cited above, is P. David Pearson, probably the pre-eminent researcher on reading comprehension. Pearson supports the Common Core with reservations. The key reservations revolve around the Revised Publishers Criteria, wherein Coleman and compatriot Susan Pimentel laid out how to implement the standards. Pearson is concerned that the implementation will not match what we know about reading comprehension.

If you would like to know more about the CSQ strategy, you can find a full explanation here.

In closing, I would like to suggest that David Brooks follow sage advice passed down to writers for ages: write about what you know. Because, David Brooks, you don't know reading comprehension.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Attention, Not Retention

If the CCSS test-based accountability leads to more student retention, we all will be the losers.

So what happens if students don’t score in the proficient or better range in the upcoming tests aligned with the Common Core? In many states, either by law or by policy, students will be retained in their current grade. Retention in third grade is the law in Florida and Arizona when children are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade. In New York City parents are told that “students with the lowest 10 percent of raw (total) scores on the State tests were recommended… for retention and summer school (FAQ for Families).” Many other states are considering such policies.

Retaining students in their grade, whether driven by standardized test scores, poor grades or misbehavior, has long been popular in American education. Even among teachers and administrators, retention is often seen as a way either well-meaningly to give a child “the gift of a year” to grow or more punitively as a way to threaten and cajole miscreants.

Retaining a child in a grade is a momentous decision in the life of that child and that family. Parents, full of hope and dreams for their child, may find their view the child as a learner permanently altered. It very likely will negatively impact the way the child views himself or herself as a learner. Given the high stakes, educators better be sure they get the decision right when they decide to retain.

Does retention work? While there may be some anecdotal evidence that retention may work for some children some time, the overwhelming research evidence indicates that retention is bad for kids.

In their well-documented and very useful book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, respected researchers David Berliner and Gene V. Glass, take on this issue. Here is what they have to say on the topic:

The decision to retain a student subsequently results in that student having more negative outcomes in all areas of academic achievement, and in social emotional areas of development such as peer relationships, self-esteem, and classroom behavior.

Additionally, Berliner and Glass found that there is greatly increased likelihood of retained students dropping out of school, being suspended and having high absenteeism. Not surprisingly, retention policies impact a disproportionate number of poor and minority children, further exacerbating the “achievement gap.”

So, if not retention, what? Social promotion, the promoting of students to the next grade even though they did not meet the standards of the previous grade, is widely derided by people in and out of the public education field, perhaps justly so. There is something about social promotion that smacks of educators abandoning their responsibility. Fortunately, this is not an either or situation. Instead of retention, what struggling students need is attention.

It costs, on average, about 11,000 dollars to retain a child (the cost of an extra year of school). By not retaining children, schools will save thousands of dollars in costs, not to mention all the human costs related to high drop-out rates and behavior issues related to retention. With this money schools need to give students the attention they need, in the form of programs that Berliner and Glass, among others, have found to be effective. Individual tutoring, summer programs and early intervention programs, such as Reading Recovery, have been shown to be effective ways to provide struggling students with the attention needed to “catch-up.” For high-poverty areas, the money could also be better spent on early childhood programs, wrap around health programs and smaller class sizes.

Retaining students is a shortcut answer to a problem that actually works against our goals as educators. Educators would do better to attend to their struggling students with programmatic changes than with this mean spirited “hold them back” approach.

Let us attend to our struggling students, not condemn them to the false promise of improvement through grade retention.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

John Kuhn's Fear and Learning in America: A Review

John Kuhn is one part story teller, one part evangelist and one part passionate champion of public education. Through personal narrative, historical reference, sound research and righteous indignation he lays waste to the corporate education reform movement in his compelling new book. What I love about Kuhn's writing is that his well told stories and carefully cited sources give way at times to bursts of passionate advocacy that have the reader, at least this life-long educator, primed to storm the beaches of the Gates Foundation or the Halls of Teach for America if necessary, to do what is right by children, teachers, parents and public education.

I have had the opportunity to hear Kuhn speak and his writing voice leaps off the page at you, just as his speaking voice jumps out at you in an auditorium. Indeed Kuhn first came to prominence on the public stage for a speech he gave at a Save Our Schools rally in Texas a few years ago that went viral on You Tube. Fans of Kuhn the public speaker are sure to be fans of Kuhn the author. Fear and Learning is his second book. I reviewed his previous work, Test and Punish, on this blog last year.

Kuhn's bona fides as a critic of the education reform movement are impeccable. After two years working as a missionary in Peru, Kuhn returned to his native Texas and became a teacher of Spanish, eventually working as an assistant principal, principal and superintendent in rural Texas. His book is punctuated by telling stories of his time as a teacher and administrator and the students and parents he encountered along the way.

One of the appealing parts of the book is that Kuhn tells stories of his failures and turns a harsh eye on himself for not doing a better job. Kuhn's is not a story of the hero teacher that is a part of the education reform narrative, but rather of the life-long teacher, working hard day-to-day and doing the best job possible while trying to balance work, family and community. Kuhn says that he is confident that the life long educator, plugging along has a more lasting affect on students and the community than the fly by hero teacher who is burnt out and gone in a few years.

Kuhn accuses the education reformers of trying to sell the American public "magic soap." This magic soap is made up of "sketchy metrics and magical education solutions like value-added measures of teacher effectiveness." By selling the public magic soap, the corporate education reformers seek to distract attention from the issues they have no intention of addressing: poverty and inequality. Here is how Kuhn says it in one of those bursts of passion I mentioned above.

I believe fervently that Michelle Rhee and an army of like-minded bad-schools philosophizers will one day look around and see piles where their painstakingly built sandcastles of reform once stood, and they will know the tragic fame of Ozymandias. Billion-dollar data sorting systems will be mothballed because of their reckless top-down construction. Value-added algorithms will be tossed in a bin marked "History's Dumb Ideas." The mantra 'no-excuses" will retain the significance of "Where's the beef?" And teachers will still be teaching, succeeding, and failing all over the country, much as they would have done if Michelle Rhee had gone into the foreign service and Bill Gates had invested his considerable wealth and commendable humanitarian ambition in improving law enforcement practices or poultry production (p 62).

Kuhn says we must set our eyes higher if we truly want to close the achievement gap. First we must recognize that the achievement gap is merely a symptom of the "opportunity gap." The opportunity gap includes all the issues related to poverty, inequality and segregation that our society faces. It is the man behind the curtain that the education reformers want you to ignore. No amount of testing and measuring, school closures and teacher firings will close the opportunity gap and without closing that gap we will never impact the achievement gap effectively. The answer to better schooling, then, is not better teachers or digital learning or Common Core or school choice. It is a better, fairer, more just society.

I will let John Kuhn have the final word. "The enemy, then of academic achievement in poor America is not the failing teacher. It is the failing citizen" (p 134).

I recommend the book highly to all those who labor in the field of education and desire a clear-eyed, passionate spokesperson about what is happening to the teaching profession and to public education in 2014.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Who Gets Recess? Congress But Not Elementary School Children

Congress is on recess and House Majority Whip, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has some homework for his Republican colleagues. Politico reports that McCarthy wants his fellow members to visit charter schools in their districts to highlight the Republican position on school choice. I have my own ideas of what these Republican congresspersons can do on recess. What follows is the only one that is printable (but one of the others was a pleasing play on the term "whip").

Congressperson, instead of spending your recess time visiting charter schools, why not visit some actual public schools and talk to some actual certified, experienced professional educators and ask them why children in these schools have no recess. I hope you would also ask what the impact is of no recess for these young children.

There is something fundamentally wrong in this country when we send our legislative leaders off on a two week recess and yet we deny recess to our school aged children.

This topic is on my mind right now because last week I visited a K-5 school in northern New Jersey that has no recess in its schedule. It will not surprise you that this school district has more than 80% minority population, 74% economically disadvantaged and 16% limited English proficient. These children are from minority families, the majority are poor and what does the Recess Nazi have to say to them? "No recess for you." The move away from recess has been particularly evident in districts serving poor students. Not ten miles from where the school I visited sits, I drove past children in a leafy, suburban school playing outside in the mid-afternoon.

Here are some startling facts from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC):

  • 39% of African American kids do not have recess compared to 15% of White kids
  • 44% of kids living below the poverty line do not have recess compared to 17% of those living above the poverty line

Why no resess for poor and minority kids? Many schools over the past 10 years have moved away from providing recess for children as the mania for high stakes testing has increased. The reasoning would appear to be that recess is a frill that our six-year-olds cannot be afforded if we are going to successfully compete with Finland. But the NAEYC could find no research that indicated that test scores could be improved by eliminating recess and providing more instructional time See this report:
https://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200909/On%20Our%20Minds%20909.pdf .

Is there any research that shows recess has a positive impact on children? As my friends in Minnessota would say, "You betcha'." Here is a sampling.

  1. Children are less fidgety and more on task when they have recess.
  2. Children learn best when learning is spaced out, not concentrated. Recess provides cognitive breaks.
  3. Brain research has found a connection between cognitive functioning and physical activity.
  4. On the playground children learn games from each other, learn to cooperate and learn to negotiate to resolve conficts.
  5. Recess before lunch leads to healthier eating.
  6. Children who are active during the day, are more active in the evening.

Public education has always been about educating, to the best of our abilities, the whole child. Part of that whole child education is the learning that takes place during recess. Ask yourself, should a daily recess be just another advantage that children in more affluent areas have over their poorer and minority peers, or is recess an inetgral part of all children's education? Of course, perhaps the bigger question is, should the pursuit of higher standardized test scores be driving decision making in any public schools? But let's save that discussion for another day.

For  now, let's all insist (teachers, principals, parents) that children get the chance for recess in every public elementary school everyday. And by the way, if you happen to see your congressperson while s/he is on recess, remind her/him that you want the same rights to recess for your children that they seem to want for themselves.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What if they gave a test and nobody came?

It is standardized testing season in elementary and secondary schools across the nation. I cannot remember a time in the past 40 years, where this testing season has stirred-up so much controversy. Parents all over, but especially in New York, are opting their children out of the tests. Outraged champions of reform, like Michelle Rhee and Chester Finn, are chastising any and all who would opt out. Today the New York Times ran an anti-Common Core test op-ed by Elizabeth Phillips, Principal of PS 231 in Brooklyn, NY. Testing seems to be on everyone’s mind right now and the opposing camps are getting “testy” indeed.

And so today I am wondering, what if they gave the tests and nobody came? What would be the consequences? Would our education system as we know it fall apart and would children run amok in the streets like a scene from a Dickens novel? Would the country fall farther behind Finland and Singapore in educational achievement? Would the sun fall out of the sky? Would the Kansas City Royals win the pennant? Not likely.

In truth, if they gave the tests and nobody came very little would change as it relates to children, their teachers and their learning. The only thing these state-wide standardized tests measure with any accuracy is the socio-economic status of a child’s parents. David Berliner has addressed this very well here. The tests are less than useful for the classroom teacher since the results are rarely available to them in a timely manner (the students have moved on before the results are delivered to the school sometime in the summer) and even when they are delivered they offer scant information about what kinds of topics individual learners had difficulty with. Teachers gather much better and much more useful diagnostic information by working alongside the children daily, watching as they problem solve, reading what they write, listening while they read, asking them questions and listening to their responses.

So what would happen if nobody took the standardized tests? Here a just a few of the possible outcomes:
·         Children would get more time for genuine instruction, not test prep and day after day of testing.
·         Non-tested subjects, such as the arts, would be returned to their rightful place in the curriculum.
·         Teachers and students would have less stress.
·         Pearson, Inc. would have to find some other way to enrich its stockholders.
·         Schools could take all the money they are not spending on tests, test prep materials and test scoring and reduce class sizes and hire art teachers and librarians.
·         Arne Duncan would have to start talking about teaching and learning instead of testing, closing schools, bad teachers and “suburban moms."
·         Instead of trying to measure teacher performance by their students' performance on a standardized test, schools could spend their resources on more productive means of teacher improvement such as creating a collaborative culture and developing productive professional learning communities.

I am not opposed to tests. Tests can be one means of focusing student learning and of getting a snapshot of a moment in time in a student’s development. As a history teacher, I created and administered tests. I tried to give tests that were also learning experiences for the children. I did design tests that were criterion referenced; what I tested is what I had taught. As a reading specialist, I have administered many tests, both standardized and teacher developed as an aid in diagnosing student strengths and weaknesses in literacy. I like to think that I never gave a test that was unfair or developmentally inappropriate, that did not give the students useful feedback and did not help me teach better. I am sure I failed at this effort at times, but I got better as I learned more about my profession.

I am not even opposed to all standardized tests. I think occasional standardized tests are necessary for a school or a school district to ask itself, “How are we doing?” I think a school district can take such a measure of itself, reasonably, by testing in grades 3, 8 and 11. This should provide plenty of information for schools to take appropriate action. The only purpose behind testing children every year, something they don't do in Finland, is to feed the false narrative of "failing schools" and "bad teachers."

Schools can and do need to be better at providing a rich, all-encompassing curriculum to students. Teachers can and do need to get better at meeting the needs of all children in their classrooms. Administrators can and do need to get better at promoting environments that create the collegiality necessary for continued professional development. We all need to continually strive to get better at our craft and to provide for the children entrusted to our care.

We can always do better, but of the many things that will help us do better, standardized tests are well down the list.

So, I am encouraged by the opt out movement especially if by opting out, we can opt in to better learning opportunities for all kids.

I was going to end this piece by recommending you visit the United Opt Out website. Unfortunately, the website has been hacked and destroyed in an act of sabotage. So for now, I will send you to the group’s Facebook page here. I wonder who could be behind the sabotage? As my old history professor once told me, “Follow the money.”

Monday, April 7, 2014

Sacrificing Arts Education at the Altar of Test Prep

The irony smacked me right in the face. Yesterday, my wife and I journeyed to New York City as we often do to see a play. This one was The Heir Apparent, a thoroughly silly and joyous reworking by David Ives of a 1708 French play by Jean-Francois Regnard. And then this morning, buried on page A17 of the New York Times, comes a report from New York City’s comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, confirming what many of us have been observing: that many public schools “do not offer any kind of arts education and that the lack of arts instruction disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods.” The comptroller’s report reveals that in the arts Mecca of the world, New York City, poor children are not receiving any, let alone adequate, arts education. Between 2008 and 2013, spending on arts supplies and equipment in New York dropped 84 per cent. The irony is positively Shakespearean.

Raise your hand if you think you know why.

Yes, of course, the reason for the reduction in arts education is that in many schools, and especially those with high concentrations of low-income families, the money for arts has been diverted to the tested subjects – Language Arts and Mathematics. Given very limited resources, schools are abandoning the visual and performing arts for test prep. Why? For survival. Under pressure to raise test scores, as if these scores were a true measure of a school, schools have been given little choice. The corporate education reform movement, of which former New York Mayor Bloomberg is a leading proponent, looks to close “underperforming schools”, fire teachers and principals and turn school children over to private sector run charter schools. With these high stakes tests hanging over their heads, schools abandon the arts and in the process abandon their children.

It should not need to be reiterated how important the arts are to a child’s education. Wealthy parents seem to acknowledge this daily. I can’t imagine a private school or a wealthy suburban public school without a rich music, art, and theater program. I bet former Mayor Bloomberg would not send his children to a school without a fine arts program. My own grandchildren are currently enjoying opportunities to develop their talents as musicians, actors and visual artists thanks in large measure to the excellent arts program their public schools provide. I credit arts programs at the schools where I taught with being the difference makers for many children who might not have been as academically oriented as their peers. The arts also provide new and different learning challenges for students who are doing very well in academic subjects. Arts programs bring joy to school children. Joy is too often in short supply in a today’s test oriented school.

Strong arts programs improve student learning. Research indicates that arts education is associated with higher student grades and higher college enrollment.  Music education has been shown to correlate with higher student math scores. Arts programs in music, dance and theater foster teamwork in every bit as strong a way as does athletics. For those who take a utilitarian view of education, the arts may seem like a frill, but to those of us who view schooling as a chance to experience all the richness that a life well lived can offer, the arts are indispensable. My education in the arts did not lead me to be an artist, but it did help me become an active, engaged and supportive audience member for the arts. My arts education has enriched my life immeasurably. I want that for all children.

The comptrollers report in New York is a hopeful sign that the tide may be turning. It calls for supplying a full-time, certified art teacher for every school. It calls for controlling “co-locations” of charters so that arts programs do not suffer. It calls for financing of arts education on a separate budget line and expanding partnerships between the city’s many arts organizations and the public schools. The report has been enthusiastically received by the new schools chancellor, Carmen Farina. Here is hoping that this great center for the arts will once again turn its attention to the arts in public schools. If the schools do not offer a rich arts curriculum, where will the audiences for the great plays, great paintings and great symphonies yet to be produced come from?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

50,000 Russ on Reading Fans Can’t Be Wrong

Back in 1959, at the age of 12, I bought my first Elvis Presley record album (that’s vinyl for my younger readers). Its title: Elvis Presley’s Greatest Hits: 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. Ten years later, both my politics and my musical tastes had changed and I bought a folk album entitled, Phil Ochs Greatest Hits: 50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong. Obviously, Phil was having some fun with Elvis’s title and with his own relative obscurity. Also obviously, I am a sucker for greatest hits collections (although Phil’s didn’t include any hits. Another Phil joke.).

I am thinking of this today because this blog has just achieved 50,000 hits. This has me extraordinarily pleased, even as I realize that public education hero, Diane Ravitch, gets more hits than that in one day on her blog. Let me just say I will be very happy to play Phil Ochs to Diane’s Elvis.

I started the blog in earnest a little less than one year ago today. Originally, the blog was aimed as a way to continue the conversation I had been having with teachers over the 45 years I had been in public education. Eventually, the blog began to tilt toward the defense of public education as I became more and more aware of the war on teachers, parents and school children being waged by the corporate education reform movement.

I would like to thank every reader who has ever stopped by this blog to check out a posting, who has left a comment or who has clicked a Facebook “Like” button. There are a few early champions of the blog to whom I owe special thanks. First is Erica Spence-Umstead, friend, compatriot, outstanding educator and the person who turned me on to Diane Ravitch’s blog and changed Russ on Reading forever. I would also like to thank Jo Marley, extraordinary Philadelphia teacher and leader of the Pennsylvania Badass Teachers, for her early and consistent support. Turns out Jo and I grew up less than a mile from each other at about the same time, but still have not met to this day. Then there is Laura Gibbs, professor at the University of Oklahoma and prolific Google+ participant, who was my first Google+ reader and has helped me find an audience on that social media site.

Thanks also to the wonderful Jonathan Pelto, who writes the Wait, What blog, and who invited me to join the Education Bloggers Network, which he organized, introduced me to the world of the other bloggers defending public education and got me invited to participate in the first Network for Public Education conference in Austin, TX last month. His help has been invaluable. Thanks also to all my fellow education bloggers for there inspiration, advice and kind words.

Finally, thanks to Diane Ravitch, hero of all of us fighting the battle against the corporate interests, passionate voice who inspires us all and who provides me with the occasional “Ravitch Bump”, when she picks up one of my posts and shares it with her vast network of followers.

I promise to keep up the fight and I am so glad to have you along for the ride. Now in the tradition of Elvis and Phil, let me end this with a few Russ on Reading greatest hits. Here are some of my most popular posts from the last year. Thanks and thanks again.

Are America’s Toddlers College and Career Ready?
The Seven Blind Mice of Education Reform
Does Background Knowledge Matter to Reading Comprehension?
The Common Core in English/Language Arts: A Critically Literate Reading
The Common Core Goes to Kindergarten
Could the Common Core Widen the Achievement Gap

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Common Core’s Dead Poets Society

I decided to celebrate National Poetry Month by closely reading the Common Core recommended poetry list from Appendix B of the Common CoreStandards in English/Language Arts. Altogether, the lists offer a selection of 80 poems that I think we would all find fairly representative across the broad spectrum of poetry that might be chosen as exemplars. The people gathering the list obviously chose with an eye to quality and diversity and the introduction cautioned that the list was only a sample and that teachers should use it as a guide and not as a definitive list.

The problem with any list, of course, and especially a list in a document that has been given the power of the Common Core, is that it tends to become the de facto list from which teachers, and perhaps more importantly, publishers, choose when deciding what should be taught. I would expect to see these poems dominating text book anthologies for the foreseeable future.

On further analysis of the list, however, I did discover something, perhaps not surprising, but certainly concerning. Of the sixty poets represented on the list fifty were dead, most long dead, and only ten were living. Of the ten living poets listed none were born after 1954. Perhaps we should call it the Dead and Geriatric Poets Society.

In a way this is natural. For many years English anthologies were filled with the works of dead white men. Over the past two decades or so, we have managed to become more diverse in our offerings, but the idea that the old canon is still the canon to be studied persists, as the Common Core exemplars show. But have there really been no poems worthy of being exemplars written by poets who are not either dead or eligible for social security?

And by the way, if we can offer no contemporary examples of great poetry to our young people, are we sending the message that poetry is not for you? That poetry is a thing of the past? That poetry is for ivory towers and dilettante drawing rooms and not really a part of the student’s world of today. Are there no poems of the 21st century worthy of being included in a document aimed at 21st century skills?

And so as a public service, I have searched out some contemporary, living and lively poets to supplement the staid Common Core list. They are actually quite easy to find and glorious to read. I have provided a link to one poem from each of these authors, but you will find many more on the various web sites. Some good sources for poetry of all kinds, for all ages and occasions and curriculums include www.poets.org, www.poetrysoup.com, and www.poetryfoundation.org. For this list, I also found this web article on Rita Dove’s List of Young Poet’s to Watch very helpful http://billmoyers.com/content/rita-dove%E2%80%99s-list-of-young-poets-to-watch/.

One caveat, I included Mark Doty even though he just turned 60 because he is a personal favorite and a poet you all should know. Here is the list, by no means definitive, but a place to start.

Denise Duhamel
Mark Doty
Daisy Fried
Lisa Zaran
David Berman
Carl Adamshick
Stephen Burt
Rafael Campo
Ken Chen
Jericho Brown
Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan
Katherine Larson
Dave Lucas
Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Camille T. Dungy
Brian Teare

So, I invite you to join me, during National Poetry Month, in reading and sharing with students, young poets who may not (yet) appear in anthologies or on Common Core lists.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Education Reformer Field Test: New from BARCC

Across the nation this past week students took a field test of the new PARCC standardized tests designed to provide a “checkup for our schools and allow educators to identify kids who are falling behind and need extra help.” In the spirit of testing kids to see if your test is a proper test for kids, I would like to offer the Education Reformer Field Test. This test is designed to determine if you are falling behind or need extra help in your knowledge of the privatizing, public treasury raiding, child-abusing corporate education reform movement. The test was developed by the Bloggers Against a Rotten Common Core (BARCC).

No. 2 pencils ready. Here we go.

1. Which education reformer, a chief architect of the Common Core, said “You will find that nobody gives a shit about what you think or feel?”
            a. Vladimir Putin     
            b. David Coleman
            c. Dick Cheney
            d. Benito Mussolini
2. Education reformer Michelle Rhee became the darling of the reform movement by doing which of the following?
            a. putting tape over small children’s mouths
            b. firing  a school principal for live television cameras
            c. ignoring a system wide cheating scandal among principals she did not fire
            d. all of the above
3. What does TFA stand for?
            a. Tests for All
            b. Teach for Arne
            c. Time for Amateurs
            d. Teach for America
4. While America finishes in the middle of the pack on international tests, we lead the developed world in which of the following?
            a. childhood poverty
            b. people seeking to come to this country to attend school
            c. billionaires telling us what we should do about education
            d. all of the above
5. The Common Core State Standards designed to guide teaching and learning across the country were developed by which of the following knowledgeable groups?
            a. teachers
            b. education leaders
            c. education researchers
            d. a lawyer, a management consultant, and a math professor
6. Secretary Of Education Arne Duncan, in his role as chief cheerleader for education in the country, has said which of the following?
a. The vast majority who drop out of high school drop-out not because it’s too hard but because it’s too easy.
b. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.
c. “Suburban moms” are upset because testing tied to Common Core is showing that their children “are not as smart as they thought they were.”
d. all of the above
7. When it comes to academic achievement charter school students typically
a. perform about the same as public school students. 
b. perform better than public school students.
c. perform worse than public school students.
d. perform during school hours at protests against the mayor of New York City’s charter school policies.
8. The education reform term “no excuses” applies to all of the following except
            a. children
            b. teachers
            c. principals
            d. state governors
9. Value Added Measures or VAMs are best used for which purpose?
            a. judging teacher effectiveness
            b. judging student growth
            c. judging school-wide progress
            d. lining the bottom of a bird cage
10. Which of the following texts has the highest Lexile level?
            a. Mr. Popper’s Penguins
            b. The Grapes of Wrath
            c. Hunger Games
            d. To Kill a Mockingbird

1. (b) Coleman has designed the Common Core to focus on evidence, evidence, evidence, No touchy, feely stuff for America’s kids. He is not quite as interested in evidence that validates the Common Core, which he never bothered to collect.
2. (d) Each of these activities can be documented by a simple google or youtube search. Michelle is clearly “in it for the kids.” At least the one’s that don’t get in her way.
3. (d) All other answers are plausible, since TFA employs amateurs and Arne Duncan is one of its biggest booster.
4. (d) You could look it up.
5. (d) The lawyer is Susan Pimentel; the consultant David Coleman, the math professor is Jason Zimba.
7. (a) see Berliner and Glass, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools. As to choice d, this is the correct answer if the charter is run by Eva Moscowitz in New York.
8. (d) State governors seem to have all kinds of excuses for why they cannot fully fund urban schools or do anything about poverty. In the meantime children, parents, principals, and teachers are told there can be no excuses for lack of achievement.
9. (d) VAMs are junk science at its worst. See http://vamboozled.com/
9. (a) Quirks in the Lexile statistical measure make Steinbeck and Lee apparently appropriate for 4th grade, while Mr. Popper’s Penguins is not. A head-scratcher that shows how important teacher judgment is in choosing literature for students.

How do you measure up?  Using a sophisticated statistical formula that puts the VAM to shame, I have come up with the following rankings.

8-10 correct – You qualify as an education reform expert and should probably start a blog like this one.
6-7 correct – You are placed on probation with the possibility of losing education reform certification unless your scores improve.
Fewer than 6 correct – A remedial program is prescribed. First read Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, then read 50 Myths and Lies cited above and then go to Peter Greene’s blog on education reform basics called Reclaiming Public Education.

Happy April Fool’s Day