Archive for the 'education' Category

Search for Meaning

Apr 08 2012 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,education

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more “successful” people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.
- David W. Orr

The main work of the teacher, I believe, is to recognize those peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers, and to assist them in their efforts to attain their most noble ambitions. And this is not necessarily about career or college readiness, or data-driven lesson planning.

Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist, and Nazi concentration camp survivor, believed that an individual’s primary motivational drive is the search for meaning.

The clip below is from a lecture Frankl gave in 1972. In it, he expresses what he claims is the “most apt maxim and motto for any psychotherapeutic activity.”

“If we take man as he is, we make him worse. But if we take man as what he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”

Common Core, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind – all are standards-based afflictions that are dragging us into the pits.

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Pavement Ends. Travel Strongly

Mar 29 2012 Published by under borderland,education

Hazardous Conditions

It’s been a while. Very briefly… we’ve got union contract problems this year – and I volunteered to be a building rep. After bargaining for more than a year, we’ve officially come to an impasse. Aggravating. And time-sucking. Additionally, I’ve got a classroom full of 12-year-old attitudes. At night, I flop on the couch and try to hold my eyes open wide enough to read.

An important part of my personal program is that I run or ski every day to keep sane and steady. The weather is getting warmer – up in the 40′s (F) and gloriously sunny the last two days. And there is still a hell of a lot of snow to watch melt. It’s invigorating. My favorite time of year to be outside.

We had our spring break a couple of weeks ago, and my son and I went down to Girdwood with our snowboards. We stayed at the resort, and were lucky enough to be there for a big snowstorm. Two feet of powder fell overnight, the most I’d ever been in. The best thing, for me, was that the falling didn’t hurt. Unfortunately, all I could do was fall. And getting back up in that much snow is murder when you end up with your butt lower than your snowboard-encumbered feet. Stuck. Which is why I quit the slopes early each day, and went running instead of snowboarding. I can stand only so much humiliation.

I ran on the Cat Trail and the Winner Creek Trail with my snowshoes a couple of days. But toward the end of the week I was up for something a little easier, so I ran down along the bike path to Crow Creek Road and turned up there, not sure what I’d find this time of year. At least it was a road! Turns out that it’s not officially plowed past the first half mile, but someone has done a fabulous job of opening a single lane beyond the State Maintenance Ends sign.

It was kinda funny, I saw a Hazardous Road Conditions sign, but the snow blocked my view of the bottom of it, so I only read the Travel Strongly part. I thought, Cool! But a little strange. DOT does not usually encourage aggressive adventure travel. I forged on. After all, I was a runner! And this is Alaska. We travel strongly! It was a beautiful sunny day. The footing was smooth. It was quiet and peaceful. I ran up the road for about 15 minutes before I decided to turn around. Really, really, a nice break from the wacky powder frenzy up on the mountain. I ran back to the hotel and soaked in the hot tub. It was a good hour and a quarter run.

The next day I did the same thing. But I got a better look at that sign, and I realized that with the part I didn’t see the day before, it actually said, Travel Strongly Discouraged. It was a WARNING, not a recommendation to proceed with fortitude. Ah! Figures. Still, I had another good run.

But I started thinking how odd it is that the state puts up these Pavement Ends signs, and No Maintenance Sept-May, and they warn people against going there. But with schools, the state flat-funds the education budget and expects us to Deal With It. We don’t even get a sign. Instead, we just get tests, “tougher” standards, and a bunch of flack. I liked the idea of a sign that says Travel Strongly, even though it’d be better to not have to navigate the piles of obstacles that come with having too few resources and too many useless policy directives. Why do they pretend they can improve schools by allocating fewer resources, but with roads, they warn people off of them when they’re unmaintained?

Other signs I’d like to see:

Attacking Teachers Attacks My Future

Protesting Scott Walker

I may sometimes be absent. But I’m not gone.

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Reframing Ruby Payne

Jan 08 2012 Published by under curriculum,education,politics

i want change

I read Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty before our day-long professional development meeting, and like Anita Bohn, writing for Rethinking Schools, I didn’t know whether to laugh at the stupidity or to rage at the offensive stereotyping of people in poverty. For example, a few of Payne’s 18 “hidden rules” for surviving in poverty (p. 38):

  • I know which grocery stores’ garbage bins can be accessed for thrown-away food
  • I know how to get someone out of jail.
  • I know how to get a gun, even if I have a police record.
  • I know how to live without electricity and a phone.

Mostly, I was irritated that I would be required to spend a day listening to comic book scenarios, stereotyped bad guys, and make-believe solutions to real problems. In her Rethinking Schools piece, Anita Bohn remarked, “I am still hard pressed to understand why ideas like this have made Payne the hottest speaker/trainer on poverty on the public school circuit today.”

I’d suggest, simply, that Payne’s appeal for teachers and education reformers is the same as Batman’s mythical superhero storybook appeal: A community faces extraordinary challenges which regular institutions fail to address, and a hero steps forward promising to restore order and harmony for the general good. It’s very simple! Find a villain, characterize the threat by deploying stereotypes that ring true for a worried middle-class person’s biases, and suggest a few self-evident solutions. BAM! BANG! A modern myth.

I voiced my frustrations with the book at our meeting before the presenter arrived when we were doing a brief book talk, jigsaw style. My group was chosen to summarize chapter one. All of the people in my particular group had read the book and found it offensive in various ways. We had a pretty animated discussion, and they asked me to be the spokesman. “I’m speaking for the (otherwise all women) group,” I said, because I am a man, and we are better at public speaking than women. Men have more physical resources with our louder voices, and we have more emotional resources due to our assertiveness. We are also more accustomed to being in charge. We have a culture of leadership, you might say.” I had everyone’s attention, mostly smiling.

Payne builds a case for poverty being about more than just economic need, I said, because she wants teachers to take a measure of responsibility for remedying their condition. She presents us with several case studies of supposedly real people in order to exemplify the problems that poor people face, and along the way she tosses out numerous gross generalizations about what she calls a “culture of poverty” and the moral failures inherent in this entire class of people. As in, “The poor simply see jail as a part of life and not necessarily always bad” (p. 22). Or, “And one of the rules for generational poverty for women is this: you may need to use your body for survival” (p. 24).

It disturbed to me that this so-called training was required as part of our professional development. As far as the hidden rules go, I said, what we really need to think about is whether we want to try to fit kids into a sick society or whether we want to work to make the world a better place for them to live.

Ruby Payne on her website and in her workshop handout, describes the research base for her book:

A Framework for Understanding Poverty is a cognitive study that looks at the thinking or mindsets created by environments. It is a naturalistic inquiry based upon a convenience sample. The inquiry occurred from being involved for 32 years with a neighborhood in generational poverty. This neighborhood comprised 50–70 people (counts changed based upon situation, death, and mobility), mostly white. From that, an in‐depth disciplinary analysis of the research was undertaken to explain the behaviors. It does not qualify as “research” against university standards because it does not have a clean
methodology.

Translation: Ruby Payne made all of this up. It isn’t worth a damn thing, and nobody with any credibility pays any attention to it.

Even with the disclaimer, I cringed when the presenter, who enthusiastically called herself The Billy Graham of Ruby Payne quoted this mind-boggling little hypothetical chain of causality regarding language and cognition as if it was gospel, from Chapter 8, Instruction and Improving Achievement:

If an individual depends upon a random, episodic story structure for memory patterns, lives in an unpredictable environment, and has not developed the ability to plan, then …

If an individual cannot plan, he/she cannot predict:

If an individual cannot predict, he/she cannot identify cause and effect.

If an individual cannot identify cause and effect, he/she cannot identify consequence.

If an individual cannot identify consequence, he/she cannot control impulsivity.

If an individual cannot control impulsivity, he/she has an inclination toward criminal behavior (p.90).

Outrageous! With all of those italicized phrases, I should mention something about what is known as the deficit model. Payne explains (p. 169-176 ) why her approach does not employ a deficit model, even though she says, “When individuals in poverty encounter the middle-class world of work, school, and other institutions, they do not have all the assets necessary to survive in that environment because what is needed there are proactive, abstract, and verbal skills.” She uses the glass half empty/half full metaphor, and calls her “framework for building resources” a way to fill up the glass (p. 173). Even though she calls her approach, The Additive Model, she nonetheless tries to create a rationale for becoming a glass-filler, to implement what Martin Haberman called the Pedagogy of Poverty, which merely preserves the status quo.

Ironic, isn’t it, that “standards-based education reform” applies to curriculum and testing, but not to staff development? “Accountability” is for teachers, I suppose, and not for hired consultants.What we’re seeing is a good example of regulatory capture, in which private interests have hamstrung public institutions with crippling rules, encouraging businesses to contaminate the environment with worthless and even harmful products. Ruby Payne’s framework is a toxic waste.

Many thanks to Paul Gorski for his critical perspective on issues of poverty and social class in education.

Note: this post was slightly edited from an earlier version.

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A Decent Education

Dec 27 2011 Published by under anarchism,borderland,commonplaces,education,politics

The role of poverty in what have come to be known as “school outcomes” (or more precisely, test scores) has been getting a fair bit of attention lately at Schools Matter, and elsewhere. Rightly so. At my own school we’ve even been given a reading assignment for our winter holiday, and have been invited to read Ruby Payne’s “Framework for Understanding Poverty” (summary here). This is to prepare us for the indoctrination session to follow upon our return from our break. I’m going to read the book since I opened my mouth at a staff meeting and said that many people disagree with Ruby Payne, and “Would we have a chance to air dissenting points of view?” Take Paul Gorski’s Savage Unrealities or Randy Bomer’s Miseducating Teachers about the Poor, for example. These authors tell us that Payne claims, without any real evidence, that the poor are trapped in a “culture of poverty” and need to be explicitly taught the “hidden rules” of being middle class. I don’t especially look forward to reading this, but I want to be prepared for the meeting, which is part of our school improvement plan after too many of our low-income students did not meet the standardized testing targets last spring.

Servicing the poor is actually a growth industry in our present economy, and it’s been a magnet for school reformers like Ruby Payne and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America. Kopp’s organization was the subject of a critical piece by Andrew Hartman, who contextualizes the whole mess by pointing out:

The organs of middlebrow centrist opinion—Time Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic—glorify TFA at every opportunity. The Washington Post heralds the nation’s education reform movement as the “TFA insurgency”—a perplexing linguistic choice given so-called “insurgency” methods have informed national education policies from Reagan to Obama. TFA is, at best, another chimerical attempt in a long history of chimerical attempts to sell educational reform as a solution to class inequality. At worst, it’s a Trojan horse for all that is unseemly about the contemporary education reform movement.

It’s exhausting, being on the lookout for all of the Trojan horses that are being wheeled into our schoolrooms these days. My response has been to try to maintain my focus on the kids, and try to ignore as much of the outside noise as I can. But occasionally, one does need to pay attention to it. I was grateful that Hartman closed his article with a reference to Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation. Goodman prefaces this short collection of essays by telling us that in his criticisms he does not choose to be generous or fair, since modern life has delivered us into an unprecedented set of conditions which have caused much confusion and resulted in the rigid application of old methods which is “grossly wasteful of wealth and effort and does positive damage to the young.” Hartman summarizes Goodman:

In Compulsory Mis-Education, Goodman extended this general critique of the “organized society” to a more specific attack on its socialization method: compulsory schooling. Schooling as socialization, which he described as “‘vocational guidance’ to fit people wherever they are needed in the productive system,” troubled Goodman in means and ends. He both loathed the practice of adjusting children to society and despised the social regime in which children were being adjusted to—“our highly organized system of machine production and its corresponding social relations.” For Goodman, compulsory schooling thus prepared “kids to take some part in a democratic society that does not need them.”

Goodman published Compulsory Miseducation in 1964. His criticisms are still strikingly, and disturbingly, apt. I would like to close here with just this one, more general recommendation – one which echoes a model of educational change outlined today by P.L. Thomas, Social Context Reform: Where to Start. It should concern us all that we are still trying to articulate a framework for progressive education reform, and I offer Goodman’s recommendation as a kind of mission statement for the era of the Occupy movement.

Fundamentally, there is no right education except growing up into a worthwhile world. Indeed, our excessive concern with problems of education at present simply means that the grown-ups do not have such a world. The poor youth of America will not become equal by rising through the middle class, going to middle-class schools. By plain social justice, the Negroes, and other societies have the right to, and must get, equal opportunity for schooling with the rest, but the exaggerated expectation from the schooling is a chimera — and, I fear, will be shockingly disappointing. But also the middle-class youth will not escape their increasing exploitation and anomie in such schools. A decent education aims at, prepares for, a more worthwhile future, with a different community spirit, different occupations, and more real utility than attaining status and salary.

We need to make this happen.

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A Good Day

I hate all the wasted motion in the classroom these days, doing things that are not particularly productive or rewarding for the sake of jumping through regulatory hoops. Jeff Bryant blames it on what he calls the Edu-Bubble, which seems right on target:

Then education reform advocates — either unwittingly or intentionally (does it matter?) –gave the venture crowd a huge gift by decreeing that student scores on standardized tests would define the learning “output” that schools would be accountable for. And all of a sudden everything monetarily related to schools — operations budgets, teacher salaries, classroom costs, government funds, grant money — could be related to a test score output.

This in effect turned student learning — and by extension, the students themselves — into a commodity that could be speculated on. Now that edu-venturists had something they could put on the other side of the balance sheet, they could now “flip” student test scores into a speculative market. And all sorts of “reform” schemes and start-ups — from starting charter schools to lowering teacher salaries to closing schools — could be rationalized on the basis of test scores. (via TFT.)

So my focus in the classroom has lately shifted from teaching practice to thinking about more interesting things, like human consciousness (my own, mainly) as I ask myself all day long, day after day, What the hell am I doing now? And why? This is not really such a bad thing. The upside of it is that I spend way less energy worrying about curriculum and method, and more time watching my own interactions with the kids, trying to be as helpful and even-handed as I can be. It occurs to me that if a person was looking for a working model of resistance to reform, they really ought to spend a few weeks managing a sixth-grade classroom. It’s a test. Every day.

I was touched by the message in this video which begins, “You think this is just another day in your life,” narrated by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who is also a social and environmental justice advocate. He calls upon us, as teachers, to become more child-like ourselves, and to be open to the meaning in our lives which gets overshadowed by our preoccupation with purposefulness. What are we here for, really?

This video says it all, quite eloquently, I think.

You think this is just another day in your life. It’s not just another day; it’s the one day that is given to you today. It’s given to you. It’s a gift. It’s the only gift that you have right now, and the only appropriate response is gratefulness. If you do nothing else but to cultivate that response to the great gift that this unique day is, if you learn to respond as if it were the first day of your life, and the very last day, then you will have spent this day very well.
– Brother David Steindl-Rast

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Changing the Subject

Oct 30 2011 Published by under anarchism,borderland,education,politics,social class

The war on education that was declared with the passage of No Child Left Behind has been a class war all along. Teachers assumed that the stupidity of trying to reach 100% proficiency by 2014 would eventually become obvious, and the law would change. But alas, even as the deadline draws near, we don’t see that happening. Instead, we see waivers being offered in exchange for toxic policy changes that include more rigorous testing and linking student test scores to teacher evaluations. We are watching the life being sucked out of public schools by what amounts to a giant vampire squid, a reference taken from David Blacker who sees what’s happening to schools as a part of a larger neoliberal project aimed at privatizing everything:

What we are left with now is an all-out assault on anything in the system that might still have a little exchange value. Monster movie-like, we are now witnessing the full unleashing, to borrow Matt Taibbi’s famous image, of the neoliberal banking vampire squid, using its “blood funnel” to sniff out money in previously less accessible precincts such as schools, pensions, infrastructure, public health and safety — anywhere, really. All that is solid is liquefied and sucked up into the blood funnel, to be consumed by the megabanks, who perform no function whatever except a kind of super rent collection, a permanent life-destroying tax on all forms of human activity.

Blacker points out that the effort is framed as something that is positive, progressive, and natural. Given these benign qualities, who could object?

This process of redistribution upward — one-sided class warfare from above — operates of course in a vast scale and is hardly limited to education. It includes the sale of public lands and resources; persistent privatization schemes involving pensions and, ultimately, social security; health care; and even formerly sacrosanct public preserves such as prisons, the post office, and the military. This is the neoliberal period of capital in all its fetid glory: the ruthless marketization of everything existing — including itself, in the sense that the marketization is itself marketed as, among other things, “natural,” “fair,” “win-win,” “progress,” and other empty signifiers.

Frank Rich wrote a great column last week about the Class War that has been engaged by the #occupy movement. He criticizes the clueless establishment for not seeing it coming, and which seems either unwilling or unable to admit what it’s now looking at. He compares what’s happening now with an event that took place in 1932, when a throng of WWI veterans converged on Washington D.C. and set up camp seeking the passage of a bill for a bonus that had been promised them for their service in the war. They became known as the Bonus Army. As with the violence in Oakland, things did not go well with the Bonus Army, as MacArthur’s troops razed the encampment and killed innocent people.

You can read or listen to find out more about it. It is believed to have contributed to FDR’s victory in the presidential election that year.

Rachel Maddow notes that the #occupy movement has gone mainstream now. And Dahlia Lithwick eulogizes the demise of our uncomprehending corporate media that remains apparently ignorant to what is obvious to everyone else:

Mark your calendars: The corporate media died when it announced it was too sophisticated to understand simple declarative sentences. While the mainstream media expresses puzzlement and fear at these incomprehensible “protesters” with their oddly well-worded “signs,” the rest of us see our own concerns reflected back at us and understand perfectly. Turning off mindless programming might be the best thing that ever happens to this polity. Hey, occupiers: You’re the new news. And even better, by refusing to explain yourselves, you’re actually changing what’s reported as news. Because it takes a tremendous mental effort to refuse to see that the rich are getting richer in America while the rest of us are struggling. Maybe the days of explaining the patently obvious to the transparently compromised are finally behind us.

By refusing to take a ragtag, complicated, and leaderless movement seriously, the mainstream media has succeeded only in ensuring its own irrelevance. The rest of America has little trouble understanding that these are ragtag, complicated, and leaderless times. This may not make for great television, but any movement that acknowledges that fact deserves enormous credit.

I see that giant squid is on the menu. Where’s the ink?

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The Doom Loop

Aug 08 2011 Published by under curriculum,education,politics

With a slight adjustment, Paul Krugman’s analysis of the S&P downgrade works for education reform as well.

Krugman:

1. US debt is downgraded, sparking demands for more ill-advised fiscal austerity

2. Fears that austerity will depress the economy send stocks down

3. Politicians and pundits declare that worries about US solvency are the culprit, even though interest rates have actually plunged

4. This leads to calls for even more ill-advised austerity, which sends us back to #2

Applied to education reform:

1. US schools are criticized, sparking demands for ill-advised standardized testing

2. Fears that testing is dominating the curriculum send confidence in schools down

3. Politicians and pundits declare that teacher effectiveness is the culprit, even though instruction is focused on tested material

4. This leads to calls for even more ill-advised testing, which sends us back to #2

And back to Krugman for the zinger, “Behold the power of a stupid narrative, which seems impervious to evidence.”

Really, how much of an appetite for this shit do we have? I’m starting back to work this week and I dread every moment we will spend discussing the “data” that these tests excrete. More broadly speaking, when stupid narratives are the norm, we should expect more of the same. For teachers, this problem needs to be addressed directly because it isn’t going away on its own. Take a look at Michael Martin’s post on EDDRA2, explaining why high-stakes testing is a counter-productive fraud.

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But then you read

Jul 27 2011 Published by under education,literacy,politics

You think your pain, and your heartbreak, are unprecedented in the history of the world. But then you read. It was books that taught me, the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive – who had ever been alive. I went into the 130th St. Library at least three or four times a week, and I read everything there, and every single book in that library. In some blind and instinctive way, I knew that what was happening in those books was also happening all around me, and I was trying to make a connection between the books and the life I saw, and the life I lived….I knew I was Black, of course, and I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind or even if I could, but that was the only thing that I had to use. And I was going to get whatever I wanted that way, and I was going to get my revenge that way. So I watched school the way I watched the streets, because part of the answer was there.

- James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket

I’ve been out and about this summer, not doing much writing. But I’ve been reading and watching the insanity that public policy continues to embrace. I can’t make it to Washington DC for the Save our Schools March this week, but I want to acknowledge it here as an event that helps me to know that I’m not alone in my dismay at the looting of our public sphere. To the organizers, and to all those who will be participating, thank you.

In particular, I want to express my wholehearted support for its Guiding Principles :

Equitable funding for all public school communities

Equitable funding across all public schools and school systems
Full public funding of family and community support services
Full funding for 21st century school and neighborhood libraries
An end to economically and racially re-segregated schools

An end to high stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation

The use of multiple and varied assessments to evaluate students, teachers, and schools
An end to pay per test performance for teachers and administrators
An end to public school closures based upon test performance

Teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policies

Educator and civic community leadership in drafting new ESEA legislation
Federal support for local school programs free of punitive and competitive funding
An end to political and corporate control of curriculum, instruction and assessment decisions for teachers and administrators

Curriculum developed for and by local school communities

Support for teacher and student access to a wide-range of instructional programs and technologies
Well-rounded education that develops every student’s intellectual, creative, and physical potential
Opportunities for multicultural/multilingual curriculum for all students
Small class sizes that foster caring, democratic learning communities

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Mission Statement

Jun 15 2011 Published by under education

Chris Lehmann’s Graduation Speech has the ring of a mission statement for all of us working in schools and struggling to keep our eyes on the prize:

And after you have forgotten the granular details of the periodic table of elements, continue to honor the scientific spirit of inquiry, always asking powerful questions and seeking out complex answers.

That is, we hope, what you have learned from us. That inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are not just words in a mission statement but an iterative process of learning that can and will serve you the rest of your life if you let it. And perhaps above all else, remember that throughout that process, there are those in your life who have been there, who have cared about you, who have mentored you, and in doing so, hope that you will pay that forward. That you will care for those around you. That you will understand that the intersection of that ethic of care and that spirit of inquiry starts with asking the question, “What do you think?” caring about the answer, and then taking action.

Congratulations, Chris, and to SLA’s class of 2011 as well. I agree; it’s more than just words. Take care.

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Hearts and Minds

Jun 04 2011 Published by under borderland,education

Going NowhereIn this end-of-year reflection, I’m tackling the “no excuses” dictum. Based on this year’s test scores, it appears we may at last have reached terminal status as a Level 5 (failing) school. Officially this means,

The district is required to prepare a plan to carry out one of the following alternative governance arrangements:

  • reopen the school as a public charter school,
  • replace all or most of the staff who are relevant to the school not demonstrating AYP,
  • enter into a contract with a private management company,
  • transfer operation of the school to the department, if agreed to by the department,
  • or any other major restructuring of the school’s governance arrangement.

It sounds bad. Yet…

  • Our principal was chosen by the Alaska Association of Elementary Schoool Principals as the National Distinguished Principal for 2011;
  • We have a strong school community, with a significant number of students coming from outside our attendance area boundary because they appreciate the work we do with their kids;
  • Parent input surveys were 99.9% supportive of our efforts this year;
  • Our average rate of proficient-level test scores for sixth grade consistently exceeds the district and statewide rates;
  • We passed our Title I audit and site inspection last year, with a complement from one of the monitors who said, “When I return to teaching, this is the type of school I want to become a part of.”

So, unofficially at this point, we may be nothing more than just another example of school policy roadkill, a perhaps-unintended casualty of what amounts to little more than a numbers game, and we’re left to wonder what will happen to us under our new special status – a status that nearly all schools will eventually attain as the demand for 100% passing rates by 2014 draws ever nearer. Hoping that none of those mandated “alternative governance” measures will kick in, we know that sentiment in Alaska runs from cool to openly hostile toward federal interventions in just about any area you look at. So we’ll wait and see.

As for me, I am done caring about reformist nonsense. At a staff meeting earlier this year we were discussing our AimsWeb Data Boards put up around the room to show how many students in each grade level are below proficient, at risk, or proficient based on how well they handled an oral one-minute timed reading. To me, this was a disgusting display of a brain-dead method to evaluate reading. We were asked to say what we planned to do to improve our students’ scores. Since the data showed lots of kids scoring “below proficient” in first and second grade and very few in that category by the time they got to sixth, I observed that the trend was positive, and that at least as far as word-calling skills go, we seem to be doing all right. Teachers at each grade level announced what they planned to do, like focus on comprehension, vocabulary, decoding – the usual. When it was my turn, I said I’d be going with the happiness plan. What’s that? It’s getting the kids to enjoy reading so that they do it on their own. How does it work? Easy. Give them choices and time to read every day, and then celebrate their accomplishments. I got a round of applause. Kind of sad, really, when I think about what that might mean.

People say that testing narrows the curriculum. Pressure to make the cut does worse than that; kids with the greatest needs tend to get trampled. Diane Ravitch points out that the one sure way to succeed in this environment is to stop enrolling poor kids, or kids with language limitations, homeless kids, or those with learning disabilities:

Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible, given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on academic performance. Nevertheless, some politicians believe that the right combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement. Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an excuse for low expectations and bad teachers.

To prove that poverty doesn’t matter, political leaders point to schools that have achieved stunning results in only a few years despite the poverty around them. But the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny. Usually, they are the result of statistical legerdemain.

Being scapegoated for not being miracle workers, teachers and teacher unions should remind these critics that there is no excuse for child poverty, now running close to 21% in the U.S. If poor kids don’t do well in school, then let’s address the real problem and take care of them. Knowing that sick kids don’t do well in athletics do we blame coaches for not making them winners? People would ridicule the idea.

Ignoring what we know about the effects of poverty on families and children creates the impression that schools are somehow the cause of a social condition rooted in economic policy. William Mathis, director of the National Education Policy Center, explains the harm done to kids and to all of us when reformers “shine the light only on schools and leave the greater void in darkness”:

There is great harm in this myth, that schools can do it all. It provides the excuse for politicians, vested interests and advocates to wrongly declare schools “failures.” It gives a false justification for firing the principals and teachers who work with our neediest. It tells us a complex society does not need to invest in its skills or its children. It serves as a moral cloak for actions that are technically unjustified — as well as just plain wrong.

I’ve seen enough “data”. Next year my classroom is going to be about creativity, projects, and having fun with ideas. The way I look at it now, every year may be my last, and I don’t want to go out playing a numbers game that was rigged against me and my students from the start. Rigidly applied standards will fail the kids; that’s not my job.

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