Archive for the 'politics' Category

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

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.

6 responses so far

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

4 responses so far

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?

2 responses so far

This is what FUBAR looks like

Oct 24 2011 Published by under anarchism,politics

Our school finally made it to AYP level 5, the bottom step on the down escalator to reconstitution hell, but the superintendent, parents, and even the newspaper all say we’re doing a good job. So now, to stay clear of consequences for working with lots of poor kids, we’ve got to develop a plan to improve, which means wasting time in useless meetings discussing standards and “best practices” instead of planning actual lessons.

Our contract negotiations failed last spring, and we’ve been working without a contract since the start of school this year. Teachers are attending school board meetings now, and testifying during their non-agenda items time. This was my contribution last Tuesday evening:

I’m a sixth-grade teacher at Denali Elementary, and this is my 27th year working in the District. I’m here to talk about respect.

When Supt. Lewis was hired, Mrs. Hajdukovitch (then Board President) told the newspaper that a salary increase for his position was designed to help the District compete for the best leaders.

Last month, the administration successfully lobbied for the passage of two bond propositions (for $20.3 million) for renovations and upgrades to some of the District’s school buildings.

Supt. Lewis tells us that we’re doing a good job. He points out that our ACT, SAT, and AP scores are higher than the state and national averages. Yet, the District’s bargaining team made no salary offer during our contract negotiations prior to our contract’s June 30 expiration. Consequently, since the start of school this year, teachers have been working without a contract. We believe our proposal for a 2.5% increase to the base pay rate is reasonable and in line with other recent public sector contract settlements.

My question – What message is being sent when the District lobbies for building upgrades and salary increases for leadership personnel, but fails to similarly advocate for its teachers? Please think about that.

I didn’t stick around to hear the Board comments at the end of the night. No telling what’s going to happen. Hope for an amicable settlement is fading. What I didn’t say (yet) is that when the superintendent tells people about those above average test scores, who gets to take the credit for that? Because here’s the thing – teachers have been taking all of the blame and none of the credit for the broad range of student outcomes for too long now. And we are tired of it.

The Occupy movement has even hit Alaska, as many people may have already seen. It’s the best thing going on now. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most fun things to read about on the internet. Down with Tyranny posted this short video this evening.

Occupy (We the 99).

One response so far

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.


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.

8 responses so far

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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War is Peace

May 03 2011 Published by under borderland,politics

2011 05 01 - 2175 - Washington DC - Osama Celebration

But I’m not feeling it.

Tim Wise, after noting that the crowd seemed to be made up of college students from George Washington University “partying like it was spring break,” rhetorically asks whether they’d have also come out to celebrate a cure for cancer, AIDS, or an end to world hunger. And then he wryly observes:

Perhaps the only thing more disturbing than the celebrations unleashed in the wake of bin Laden’s demise was the cynical way in which the president suggested that his killing proved “America can do whatever we set our mind to.” If this is, indeed, the lesson of bin Laden’s death, then this only suggests we clearly don’t want to diminish, let alone end, child poverty, excess mortality rates in communities of color, rape and sexual assault of women (including the many thousands who have been victimized in the U.S. military), or food insecurity for millions of families; because we aren’t addressing any of those things with nearly the aplomb as that put to warfare and the killing of our adversaries.

We are, if the president is serious here, a nation that has narrowly constricted its marketable talents to the deployment of violence. We can’t manufacture much of anything, but we can kill you. We can’t fix our schools, or build adequate levees to protect a city like New Orleans from floodwaters. But we can kill you. We can’t reduce infant mortality to anywhere near the level of other industrialized nations with which we like to compare ourselves. But we can kill you. We can’t break the power of Wall Street bankers, or jail any of those bankers and money managers who helped orchestrate the global financial collapse. But we can kill you. We can’t protect LGBT youth from bullying in schools, or ensure equal opportunity for all in the labor market, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or any other factor. But we can kill you. Booyah, bitches.

- Tim Wise, Killing One Monster, Unleashing Another: Reflections on Revenge and Revelry.

5 responses so far

Beyond Punishments and Rewards

Apr 03 2011 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Last week, in simple language that a child could understand, President Obama denounced his own administration’s policies on standardized testing in the public schools. According to Obama:

Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well.

Because there are other criteria: What’s the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.

He said more than that, but that was the gist of his response to a question asked by a student at a town hall meeting at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C. asking if he could reduce the amount of tests that are required.

More Questions
Anthony Cody wrote a blog post, Obama Blasts His Own Education Policies, in which he noted that Obama’s expressed vision for the role that testing should play in education runs counter to the reform policies being advanced by his own Dept. of Education. In what must be an education blogging coup, Cody got a response from the Dept. of Education’s press office asking him to correct what they claimed was a misinterpretation of Obama’s remarks. But wonders do not cease, and after Cody gave them some questions to answer regarding the DOE’s increasing reliance on tests to measure student progress, teacher effectiveness, merit pay, and to determine which schools will be reconstituted, Justin Hamilton, Press Secretary for Strategic Communications in DOE’s Communications and Outreach office attempted to tackle them. I am enjoying this exchange immensely, and I’ve been watching it unfold for the past few days. Thank you so much, Anthony Cody!

Cody is using the occasion to explore the discrepancies between Obama’s expressed vision and his actual education policies, pointing to the central education reform issue, how learning should be assessed in school. I want to explore this issue, but before doing that we should look at something else Obama said at the town hall meeting because it casts doubt upon the sincerity of his remark that we should not use tests to punish schools or students, and whether this is actually his “vision” or just a mirage he is throwing out there to mislead people. In response to another question at that same meeting Obama said:

So we’re going to have to take a comprehensive approach to make sure that we reduce dropout rates. And the last point I’ll make on this — there are about 2,000 schools in the country where the majority of dropouts take place. I mean, we can name them. We know what these schools are. And for us to put some extra help, some intensive help, into those schools to help turn them around is something that we’ve really got to focus on.

Mr. Conde and I were both at a school down in Miami that used to have a 60 percent dropout rate and now they’ve been able to reduce that drastically because they completely turned the school around — got a new principal, got — about a third of the teachers were new, had a whole new approach, had the whole community surround them.

We can do that with each of those 2,000 schools around the country, we can make a big difference.

No matter which way I look at it, this is punitive. By “extra help” Obama means firing people, bringing in fresh blood and tearing apart the school community. These solutions to school problems do not help the people most in need, but merely shift the burden onto others. Obama is a politician, not an educator. I do not believe he has any clue about what really needs to be done to improve schools in this country. He is mouthing nonsense words that are just as meaningless as the nonsense words that are now used in curriculum based measures to assess whether students grasp “the alphabetic principle” – a perfect example of miseducation if ever there was one.

It is outrageous that children are schooled to pronounce sounds taken from lists of meaningless drivel instead of being taught the joy of verbal playfulness.

And it’s very telling that the Dept. of Education felt a need to “explain” what Obama so clearly said, and in doing so produced a much longer and tortured statement about why there might be more tests (but not necessarily) and how, “Instead of fostering a classroom culture of continuous improvement, our current assessment system often leaves teachers and parents feeling frustrated and lacking information that could help them accelerate student learning,” offering us an excellent self-referential example of that very phenomenon if ever we should feel the need to go looking for one. Justin Hamilton also managed to mention formative assessments half a dozen times, and he recommended that we read Arne Duncan’s speech “Beyond the Bubble Tests” in which the Secretary tries in vain to help us understand the “next generation of assessments.” I say tries because Arne Duncan has a speech impediment that causes everything he says to come out sounding like educratese, a.k.a. gibberish. “Beyond the Bubble Tests” is no exception. It is a word salad worthy of Sarah Palin.

Some Answers
It has taken me a while to get to this point, I know, but this business of formative assessment is important.

In the comments to Cody’s post featuring Justin Hamilton’s remarks, Monty Neil says:

As most commenters so far have noted, Hamilton completely misuses the term ‘formative assessment.’ Who knows if he simply does not understand the concept and practice or is deliberately sowing confusion. An excellent description/definition of formative by an international group of educators is at – I encourage people to use it and send reporters, educators, policymakers to it so they can understand the term. The proper definition should be in the next ESEA.

The link to the Position Paper on Assessment for Learning is important, and anyone who is the least bit curious about what formative assessment is, how it looks, or the role it might play in a healthy school system should follow that link or download this pdf. Simply put:

Assessment for Learning is part of everyday practice by students, teachers and peers that seeks, reflects upon and responds to information from dialogue, demonstration and observation in ways that enhance ongoing learning.

These things can not be packaged and sold. They are ongoing practices embedded in the cultural fabric of the classroom and the school, emerging out of the real needs of participants in the learning/teaching process to help one another reach mutually agreed upon goals.

Contrast this with The Harvard Business Review article written this very same week by Joanne Weiss, Chief of Staff to the Secretary of Education and Director of the Race to the Top Fund (thank you, Susan Ohanian). Addressing Vulture Capital’s real interest in education reform Weiss writes:

The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.

And they will be more than happy to sell us as many of those next generation “formative assessments” and high tech “progress monitoring” programs as frightened, well-intentioned school administrators will buy.

Finally, at the bottom of the Assessment for Learning position paper, I found an interesting link to an organization called the Assessment Reform Group who have published numerous documents available for download. I grabbed all that I could and have been browsing them. One in particular, Assessments for Learning: Beyond the Black Box offers a practical primer for teachers and policy makers on formative assessment.

So what is going on in the classroom when assessment is really being used to help learning? To begin with the more obvious aspects of their role, teachers must be involved in gathering information about pupils’ learning and encouraging pupils to review their work critically and constructively. The methods for gaining such information are well rehearsed and are, essentially:

  • observing pupils – this includes listening to how they describe their work and their reasoning;
  • questioning, using open questions, phrased to invite pupils to explore their ideas and reasoning;
  • setting tasks in a way which requires pupils to use certain skills or apply ideas;
  • asking pupils to communicate their thinking through drawings, artefacts, actions, role play, concept mapping, as well as writing;
  • discussing words and how they are being used.

At this time, I am sorry to say, I see no evidence that our leaders are encouraging us to move in this direction. Why not? Easy. It doesn’t require the collection and tracking of numerical data or the consumption of any market-based “solutions.”

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Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

Mar 21 2011 Published by under borderland,education,politics

edusolidarityIMAGE This piece is being offered in concert with other testimonials by teachers in response to moves by lawmakers (now including Alaska) to restrict the bargaining rights of public employees.

In the political football game of “education reform,” teachers’ unions are blamed for putting the interests of teachers ahead of students, opposing reform measures such as merit pay and school vouchers, protecting lazy and incompetent teachers, awarding teachers unaffordable benefit packages, and contributing to the general moral and economic decline of America. Rebuttals to these charges are tedious, and I’d rather not get mired in taking them all on since they’ve been hashed over and over for years. When you look at them closely, though, most of the “fixes” for public education end up screwing somebody near the bottom rung, and that should tell us something. Teachers know that it doesn’t have to be like that, and our collective power give us freedom to air our grievances without fear of jeopardizing our jobs.

I’m going to make this personal. Before I was a public school teacher, I worked at a private school. I worked for half of the starting pay of public school teachers, and I had a part-time job as a swim instructor that I went to after school and on Saturdays. I had no retirement or health plan. I liked the people I worked with, and I was treated decently, but since I was the only wage-earner in my family, this was not sustainable. During my second year working there, one of the school administrators stopped by my classroom after school to offer me a job as a school janitor, cleaning bathrooms at the end of the day. Without hesitation, I told her, “You know what, I’m looking for another job.” How many part-time jobs would I need if I kept working there? And cleaning toilets after dealing with little kids all day was not on my to-do list. I mentioned to one of the parents of my swim students that I was looking for a teaching position, and she passed my name on to the principal at her school, which lead to a job for me in the public schools the following year.

I got RIFF’d after my first year because of budget shortfalls, and I was rehired over the summer. The contract language that allowed me back in helps to maintain stability in school staffing and programming, so it’s a win-win deal for teachers and kids. In a show of thanks to the union, I attended a union meeting and asked how I could get involved. It was suggested that I attend a teachers’ rights committee meeting, which lead to my involvement as a union rep, an eye-opening experience. I found out that a contract is only as good as the people who are willing to defend it. Principals are not infallible or unconditionally benevolent. Grudges are held and power is abused. I also learned that there is a process for removing incompetent teachers from the classroom, and wherever you find one, you’ll also find an administrator who is not paying attention.

The union serves to manage conflict: No union, more conflict. Teaching is not an easy job, often thankless. When teachers don’t have to worry about taking a sick day or going to the doctor, or working a second job, they have more time and energy for their students and families. When teachers feel free to express their professional views, more ideas are open for consideration. This is how problems are solved in a sane world. Union busting is bullying. We need to defend our profession and our students’ futures from the whims and delusions of politicians. If we don’t, who will?

Finally, a word of caution about depending on our unions to negotiate solutions when push comes to shove: From a post at Solidarity Federation (British Section of the International Workers Association) on the Paradox of Reformism:

If we want to win, we need to recognise that being right doesn’t cut it. It’s a matter of power. . . . When the ruling class feared the working class, a welfare state was a price worth paying. Now they don’t fear us, they feel confident to dismantle it. So the paradox is without the threat of revolution, reformism is a non-starter. On the other hand, with an unruly mob on the streets and a strike-prone workforce, those reasoned reformists all of a sudden look like workable negotiation partners to whoever’s in government. They’ll no doubt claim it was their ‘responsible’ protests which got them there.

It’s all about the balance of class forces. It’s primarily a power struggle, not a moral argument. [via Phil Dickens at Property is Theft].

That’s why teachers like me support unions.

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