That Old Expired Jar of Mayonnaise (Part 1)

Spring, 2022

“Well kids, we did it,” said Mr. McConnell leaning back in his teacher’s chair looking exhausted and relieved at the same time. State testing was finally over.

“You all handled that well. It throws a little bit of a wrench into our days, I know. Believe me, if I had my way you’d show your learnin’ on the McConnell Hilltop Compound Academy- wearin’ some work gloves and pickin’ rocks, plantin’ flowers and pullin’ weeds…”

He leaned back a little more and worked up a sort of entranced smile, eyes going kind of dramatic-dreamy. He pantomimed fanning himself in the sun and holding out a glass to act out a brief make-believe story about getting a kid to refill his iced tea, motioning for a little more “C’mon Owen, top that bad boy off, don’t be stingy,” sipping and ahhhh- ing… “Eva, not there, drag those branches over there…yeah, that’s it!

A few students protesting the thought of being turned into unpaid labor brought him to act woke out of his daydream.

“Oh sorry, where was I?” he asked the class.

This was all for show, of course. Unless there were volunteers for the Hilltop Academy (and oddly enough, they always volunteered).

The ridiculousness of the reverence and preeminence bestowed upon these tests had been growing for over a decade, and the chore of proctoring with tightly scripted directions (under threat of law, loss of teaching license, invalidation of student exams…) had led to even the inclusion of a very long list of electronic devices test-takers could not have on them because it risked the security and integrity of the data.

Data, incidentally, that can, has and will be used against public education. But to be scripted to go back in the proctoring script to repeat the list of devices, as if you are giving the second and final warning to any nefarious third-grade test spies that might just need to feel the heat and severity of the hypothetical consequences for the discovery of them having any of their spy stuff on their person when the government documents and cheap pencils are distributed…

“What have we become?” wondered Mr. McConnell in the moments he went back and challenged himself to read that list with one breath. He’d gotten very good at it.

“So, boys and girls,” he paused dramatically, looking around nodding slightly/eyeballing the kids with just a pinch of drama and that be ready for this look he liked to give when he wanted students to pay attention and be ready, “…I think with all that testing stuff done, today is the day.” His expression shifted to a satisfied, anticipatory, almost pleasure and at peace with the situation look.

“I think the time has come. You know what I mean.”

Mr. McConnell leaned back in his chair and reached with his left hand behind him for the spoon that rested in a coffee cup on the top shelf of the bookshelf that was in his corner of the room. It was a cheap soup spoon with some of that fake-fancy cheap spoon scrolly stuff on the handle. He transferred it to his right hand and reached back and up with his left again, saying:

“It’s time for the Because you never know mayonnaise.”

His hand found and retrieved the small jar of Helmann’s mayonnaise that had been there since day 1 of the school year. Indeed, had been with Mr. McConnell for some number of years, because it was three years expired at least. Students had asked about it, looked it over, and wondered why he even had it. Wondered about it on the very first day of the school year, in fact.

“Why do you have that jar of mayonnaise, Mr. McConnell?” a student had asked.

“Because you never know,” Mr. McConnell responded with a shrug. Truth be told he didn’t know why he had even said it at the time other than his tendency to drop nonsense on students just to make them think, ask more questions, ask better questions maybe.

After that, all year long, when describing preparation, readiness, and response to a problem or a situation that required a “You do this because you never know when it could help” mindset, Mr. McConnel pointed to the mayonnaise as an example. “You do this because you never know…You know, like that mayonnaise (insert casual gesture to the old jar of expired mayonnaise)

They probably didn’t expect him to bring that jar down close, affectionately even. The sigh, the look of anticipation, the almost whispered “I ‘ve really needed this”… They definitely didn’t expect him to twist the cap off that jar, dip that big old soup spoon in, and take in a big old sloppy mouthful with a satisfied and near euphoric expression on his face.

Just wait for Part 2!

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The shadow cast by NAEP

Following the October 24th release of “The Nation’s Report Card” by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), it’s no surprise that the rhetoric of education reform is once again on the rise. In reality, the tide of assault on public education had only receded a little in the quiet between “Race To The Top” and COVID. 

Now, on the heels of the pandemic, if you choose to believe it’s actually over, NAEP has provided important data that should be no surprise to anyone but is likely to be used to steer us even further away from the real reforms needed if better educational outcomes are desired.

Take, for example, the words of  U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona when talking to reporters about the NAEP results. “Appalling and unacceptable,” he said. Also, “This is a moment of truth for education,” and “How we respond to this will determine not only our recovery but, our nation’s standing in the world.”

“Our nation’s standing in the world.” My lord, you couldn’t write it more silly and lacking in substance, and this guy is the head edu-honcho for the entire country? Implicating public education in the threat to or erosion of our nation’s standing in the world indicates either ignorance or willful deflection from the stuff that actually does make us look bad to the rest of the world. 

We have been going about education reform all wrong and so-called leaders in education,  are largely to blame. The misguided assault on this human endeavor should end and we should engage in real education reform.

Real Educators and Real Education Reform

This might just be the first segment of the first episode of a new podcast.

Hello all, welcome. Come in, find your seat, or I guess find a seat- I won’t be assigning any yet so it’s okay, just grab the spot you want for now and if there are any problems I’ll move people around. Just know that if you choose to sit next to your bestie I’ll be watching to make sure you can do that and still make good choices.

Let’s get some definitions out of the way first. Since this effort I’m making here is called Real Educators, and Real Education Reform I should share the hows and whys of my using the terms “Real Educators” and “Real Education Reform”.

First, “real educators”. In my mind, if you are involved in any way with guiding learners as they come to grips with how to navigate this world we’re sharing, then you are a real educator. Most of the time my frame of reference will be how that is happening within the public school paradigm with a focus on classrooms and hallways.

But from parents to police, from presidents and their favorite porn stars to the guy at the newsstand on the corner selling the rags that reveal the darkest secrets of presidents and their favorite porn stars…

Everyone plays a role, so the key is paying attention to the role you play and the potential that lies within. 

You can make a difference, and chances are you do make a difference, but do you know that you can and do make a difference? 

Do you know that what you do and how you do it is a part of the education of others around you sharing this world with you? 

Do you think about what that difference you make might be or could look like? 

Maybe you see it as incidental or insignificant but it isn’t at all. All those tiny interactions add up. No matter how brief or in passing they are, they, and you, make a difference. Even tiny ripples travel and spread to the edges of a pond. Like the muppets sang on Sesame Street, they’re the people you meet when you’re walking down the street each day- except now you know that in the lives of learners you are those people. You are those ripples.

So sure, as a teacher my primary focus is on that role and other roles within the day-to-day school setting but having played that role for over twenty years the number one thing I have learned is that I am only part of the “real educator” team. A chance meeting, an every morning or afternoon hello from a fellow familiar…from cashier to construction worker, from preacher to police, all of these other humans tell us something about the world we are living in and tell school children as well. From puppets to porn stars it all informs us as we move forward through life. And if you are lucky enough to come across porn that incorporates puppets-definitely let me know. 

Purely for research purposes you know, I am a licensed, professional educator. Your children are safe with me

An invitation to story time

This is a description of, and an invitation to, an endeavor that is purely for the enjoyment in participating and value in whatever takeaways you find. The path and destination are TBD, but the jumping-off point is gathering initial interest, in this school and in others around us, from former professors and teachers I know, and writers in the area. I’m collaborating with SUNY prof David Franke and we’ve spoken about what might come next down the road, but at this birth-of-an-idea stage, there’s no submitting for approval. There’s no post-conference survey, which means it’s no inservice credit thing. Right now it’s more of a gathering together, feel-good, self-care, soul project, SEL thing: 

Who doesn’t have a “got pulled over” story?  Have a “my favorite teacher” story? And everyone has a “What was I thinking!?” story! We tell stories from morning to night because they’re informative. They’re how we make sense of our experience. They’re a generous way to share what we know. The best stories are crafted, and for that, storytellers need a good audience.

Dan McConnell (Marathon SD) and David Franke, (Seven Valleys Writing Project, SUNY Cortland, English) would love to have you join us, first online and then in real space, to practice our stories. Our stories do not have to be about school and teaching, but we figure that will figure in. To put it another way, we have heard a lot of badly told stories (the news is an example), but we get few opportunities to tell our own.

If you are interested in listening or maybe even telling, you are already on your way to supporting the skills your learners need. Feel free to reach out and learn more, maybe even participate.

dmaxmj@gmail.com

Taking Advantage of this Opportunity to Think Big

So, we have an opportunity to think big, and out of the box? Good news:

I think big as a rule…

  …and when I think about the best way to take advantage of some “closing the gap” funds and a significant opportunity, I think of targeting the foundation of learning first. For learners that foundation is a cognitive “net” woven during development from fetus to nurturing to parenting to schooling to life… It starts at the core of the person, and continues in the parents’ arms, satisfying the most basic physical and emotional needs.

Then it starts developing beyond that core’s reflexive responses to start reaching, touching, interacting. Those infant experiences are intertwining and stretching-weaving together continuously and then reaching outward and interconnecting with every new experience, whether introduced intentionally or just through circumstance. That cognitive net engages with its environment, makes sense out of it based on what it has already established, and then has new understanding as new experiences are integrated. Threads are created, reinforced, branches shoot off for little side trips that might connect with or just tickle/tweak other relevant experiences…  The result of a well woven net (aka prior knowledge and experiences) is that learners more openly experience new settings, new people, new ideas, new understandings… Kids just absorb it as they live it and new experiences get cross-connected in a “seven degrees to Kevin Bacon” way.

     The prepared and adept learner has an intricate weave and can access and pluck a plethora of threads that send signals all across that net and return information that drives that weaving and ends up providing the foundation for students at the beginning of their k-12 experience. We would like them to be at least “ready to learn” at the very beginning, and in the very best case scenarios: prepared to soar.

It seems our students are having difficulty, though.

The foundation, that “net” is the key. It’s gaps where threads in the net might have been. It’s threads and experiences we wish weren’t there. The things we need students to be able to do aren’t accessible to them yet because there’s weaving to be done. Maybe even undone and then redone.   A few years ago, as part of ongoing efforts to understand the students and their lived realities, their culture, we were made aware of what a pervasive and oppressive force poverty is during a poverty simulation.

     The differences in the learners’ exposure to language and vocabulary. The proportion of positive to negative interactions, and how starkly different that proportion looks when comparing our most stable and nurturing homes to those on the other end of the spectrum. Those eager to attack what educators are trying to do with catchphrases like “poverty is just an excuse” come up short on substance because they know the truth. The poverty line is not just a number to be exploited (like standardized test scores), and to engage in a rhetorical battle to blame teachers for the perpetuation of inequity and oppression through political and economic policy is disingenuous or misguided.

This process starts with students’ core relationships with parents or primary caregivers in their lives, which form a personality that is either secure and attached or insecure and unattached. Securely attached children typically behave better in school (Blair et al., 2008).

Our academic mission is supposed to be our primary mandate, but we find ourselves having to spend a lot of effort on social and emotional gaps in order to get to that mandate.

The in loco parentis role (I’m told that means we are like crazy parents) kicks in because we find that prior knowledge/learning/skills (“ready to learn”) is wanting in the areas largely pertaining to learners’ empathy, emotional stability, social connections, sense of self-worth… A growing number are “trauma informed” in ways we wish we didn’t know about, but need to know about to be our most effective.  We are spending a lot of time actively nurturing in order to get to the teaching we’ll be held accountable for. 

     So, us crazy parents have no choice but to rush into situational fires to save these children, only to emerge with them, covered in soot with our eyebrows singed off.

     So that we can then make them take standardized assessments and later be shown spreadsheets of test data that show how badly we are failing them.

Sure we have to move that ELA test score needle in the right direction in a sustainable way, but it is going to require a shift in mindset not just doing the same things more rigorously.

     We still need to target those mandates, but doesn’t anyone wonder if we married our endeavor to the wrong spouse? I envision a more desirable common-law wife than HEDI, but getting rid of her evil influence is a side mission of my own.

In the here-and-now I’d like a shift away from:

  • continually identifying, measuring and remediating/repairing on the back-end to try and catch those falling behind and falling through that “net” because they haven’t engaged in experiences and exchanges that weave well.
  • thinking that the space inside the four walls of the classroom is the “least restrictive environment”. 
  • accepting the crap of disingenuous reformers with an agenda that is more about markets and their opportunities, less about children and what they need.

I’d like to shift towards:

  • helping learners weave in more threads to extend their nets with, giving them more cognitive integrity and flexibility to support further (and more independent) learning.
  • re-envisioning the least restrictive environment. In my mind it is outside the box, out in the world, or at least in one that mimics the flexibility to move into and out of various settings and cooperative (mixed grade level, even) learning groups within the school.
  • teachers being the respected experts who have say in how education gets done instead of blamed for the results when others tell them what to do.

So, let’s think big and “outside the box”.

     If the regular, standard setting/environment/program is one that allows more movement between settings and groups, it isn’t an “accommodation” or “program modification” when it happens. It IS the program, and one that sends the fewest “why am I different” signals to students because everyone is doing it. The movement through and reconfiguration of various groups would be continuous and feel organic, while actually being planned to combine students in a purposeful way and track progress towards academic and social/emotional targets.

      It’s establishing that foundation/net and growing a culture of learners on the front end, and it could help prevent some holes in the net while inspiring more learners to start weaving on their own.Think of a district-wide PBL where “effective” (thanks to HEDI for that, at least) means active participation in one’s own learning as well as the learning of the others in your community. 

My opinion is that focusing on our school culture and nurturing learners first is a better strategy than obsessing over raised bars, grit and rigor. 

      A well-nurtured and guided learner is prepared for that grit and rigor when it happens. We shouldn’t force grit and rigor onto them hoping for better outcomes. Remember the fable about the sun and the wind having the contest to see which could get a man’s coat off the fastest? The wind was sure that by sheer force it could achieve the goal by just blowing the coat off. The harder it blew, the tighter the man gripped, held, resisted… and the coat stayed on. 

     The sun simply shone. 

     The man took the coat off himself!

     Pretty cool that warmth did the trick. Even cooler that I am using “cool” and “warmth” together in a sentence that way. Hey look…I did it again!

So let’s think big, shine like the sun, and warm this place up!

“School choice” where pragmatism and propaganda collide.

Recently, the word “pragmatic” came to me in a reply to a brief twitter conversation. It was used by the author (I consider tweeting to be authorship) as a qualifier for good education policy/solutions. Essentially, that is a “What should we realistically expect  to get for our poorest and most under-served children, I mean really” (pragmatic) presentation of a “What efforts can I promote to stroke an image or agenda?” (propaganda) position.

But I don’t think a pragmatic settling for less should be the “go to” when it comes to improving outcomes for children. That’s like surrendering and accepting the attacks on children’s minds, bodies, hearts and souls coming from all directions, shrugging off the losses incurred, all while patting yourself on the back for any opportunistic half-effort made within that paradigm.

In education, that half-effort is called “school choice”.

Often, the framing of the school choice issue is that privileged families have all the choice they want, so why shouldn’t others who need it get choice as well? In that narrative, the lucky ones wander the vast school-scape looking for whatever school they want for their children and are just given access to the most fabulous schools and teachers they manage to find. The least privileged, on the other hand, are trapped where they are, in the sinking ship of failing schools manned by bad teachers, denied the freedom to wander that school-scape to choose the schools they want.

I am not so certain that privileged people wander around choosing schools. I am more inclined to believe that their schools end up having better outcomes because of the resources and stability within the communities they are in. When communities are oppressed, abandoned by the world around them, economically deprived and lacking in cohesive personal and social supports, the negative impacts compound in ways that carry over into the schools trying to serve the children living there.

So it’s no surprise that parents seek escape for themselves and seek schools less impacted by these forces for their children. Because that demand is there, it also isn’t a surprise that a market of educational lifeboats (i.e. charter schools) would arise to rescue them. Something has to be done, and as a wise man once wrote:

“ending poverty and integration are politically difficult and financially expensive goals at a time when political courage is in short supply and many elected officials – especially on the right – seem intent on starving government”

We can see this reality play out now in the current Democratic race for the presidential nomination. Leaders of the party that were once the party of the working class, the party that preserved the social safety net, now demonstrate a disdain for the working class and the poor and look to undermine and block candidates trying to pull the party of the pretend left back to the actual left. Education policy has been victimized by that rightward lean for some time, and that has led to an approach that favors free-market style solutions rather than a call to the moral and social obligations of public education.

It boils down to social and political thought that not only holds the reins of power, but has become captured by and enraptured with the wealth equals value mindset-the notion that the more money someone has or the more money something can make, the more valuable to us all it is. This fuels a bottom lines (dollars) and test scores (data) approach to school reform and school choice that deflects attention from the human condition and holds educators responsible for numbers on paper, not the actual little human beings in classrooms, in schools, in communities ignored by policymakers unwilling to address the human condition because of their lack of political courage.

Billionaires who like being looked to as authorities on how we can all be better (like them) like trapping people in that mindset. Politicians like helping to impose that mindset on the electorate because it keeps millions of people who deserve to be represented chasing the visions, policies and mandates advised by the fewest people with the most money, which is now equated with speech, and political math is simple on this matter: more money buys you more speech.

And that’s how we end up with propaganda. It’s “failing schools”. It’s “bad teachers” protected by unions and just riding it out for their cushy pensions. Funny, it never seems to be lead in the drinking water, over-policing in struggling communities, lack of health care, jobs that pay so little that it keeps parents out working instead of home hugging…

Pragmatically speaking, the response might be, how can you honestly represent and fight for the needs of the many in the current paradigm, we might as well just let them make their own schools. I am one hundred percent in favor of choices but when you start to qualify/quantify by applying words like realistic, scalable, pragmatic… Then the underlying message seems to be We can’t really do what we should for all, so let’s just do what we can for who we can. What kind of choice is that?

Is there a merit badge for surrender?

Time to Fight

Why should educators, as professionals, be expected to willingly participate in the destruction of society-in the end making their jobs as educators even more difficult? The demands of so-called “education reform” that ignore childhood-development norms lead to practices that further that destruction.

To begin with, it’s not good pedagogy, and regardless of how much “grit and rigor” and “raised bars” rhetoric you infuse it with, it does more harm than good. No matter how many new-fangled games and technological gadgets are inserted into the daily school routine, there is no making up for the losses we suffer when our strategies move away from the foundational practices that were once the norm, and we need to vigorously fight back as a profession to insist on the respect we deserve for the value we have always brought and still bring.

A little preachy maybe, but to give a simple example of where we can be led or pushed astray:

Have you caught yourself wondering why student handwriting looks so terrible these days?

Maybe it’s because finger-paintin’ and clay-squeezin’ are now things of a distant kindergarten past. Students spend less time developing the hand strength, muscle-memory and fine-motor coordination that once led to good, legible handwriting. But Common Core, and “college and career-ready” demands mean that efforts in instruction and accountability target skills that demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests rather than some antiquated concept of handwriting and its importance.

Thinking gets delivered digitally these days anyways, and figuring that the loss of hand strength and dexterity would make it hard to hold a book and turn pages-let alone grip a pencil: we need to inject more software, screens and keyboards into the classroom  to redesign that ancient paradigm of kids writing with pencils and reading actual books and whatnot.

See how technology can fill the gaps where humanity once was?

But (you might ask) if the strength, dexterity and coordination to grip a pencil and make it write with one hand isn’t there, how can we realistically expect our little learners being whipped over our raised bars to use both hands, find and hold that home row, and execute the equivalent of tickling the QWERTY ivories to express their thoughts in writing?

Don’t sweat it. We can start formal keyboarding instruction in the primary years. Where to fit it into the school day, or how we can  expect classroom teachers being pounded into HEDI scale slots (who may or may not be typists themselves) to eke out time in the day to teach typing are questions we needn’t bother with. There are plenty of software programs available that can lead students through typing lessons. No teacher required-just give them a laptop, a pair of headphones, and let the hunting and pecking begin!

I’m being a bit snarky here, but my point is that what should be a primarily human endeavor (i.e., helping our youngest learners mature and grow into capable young citizens) is being dehumanized by that thing called “reform” and all the gadgetry (in hardware, software, approaches and assessments) that has ensued.  The demand for data to feed the reform monster has led to participation in and compliance with programs and practices that will efficiently generate that data and this pushes us further from the societal goals that build and strengthen an informed citizenry, and towards serving economic interests that care little about the realities faced in the schools and classrooms of our neediest communities.

We are being driven to place artificial, statistical value on human beings, and it’s no wonder that the consequences include us now having to spend more and more time on social/emotional/psychological issues- to instituting anti-bullying and social media awareness programs, teaching character education in school because outside of school there’s less character to be found. We are scrambling to find ways to insert more humanity wherever and whenever we can.

 I have written in the past about what education reform has looked like, what it apparently means to those who have imposed it upon the children of others and those who serve them, and what it really should mean-what it needs to mean, if we are going to reclaim our educational souls and reverse this societal decay. The demand that more and more data be produced, that this data be statistically normed so that it can take the place of individual children and what we know about their needs, and that we call this “value added” exemplifies where we have been misled.  

I would argue that the more time we spend pouring in this way over spreadsheets and assessment data, the more technology and gadgets we put between us and young learners, the less time we spend looking at and connecting with the actual children right there in front of us. That’s where dedicated teachers demonstrate real value and true values,  when and where value is needed most.

Send Your Comments on N.Y.’s ESSA!

Send your comments to NYSED today – don’t punish schools for high opt out rates! Deadline for comments on the new ESSA regs Aug. 17. 

Mine is below, borrow what you’d like:

August 13th

To the Commissioner:

It is the job of schools to administer the test to all students, not sell parents on the value of tests at a time when the state’s true commitment to the education of their children is questionable. If you want “opt out rates” to decrease, and let’s be honest, “opt out” is weak, it is a refusal rate in New York, then you need to convince parents of your loyalty and commitment to better outcomes first-not to your own reputation and coerced and enforced testing requirements. That being said, the suggestion that Title I funding might be impacted by refusals is the wrong way to go at this time. It’s doubling down on a rushed and misguided course and an anti-public education mindset.
Instead, examine closely and expand on some of the promise there actually seems to be in the ESSA draft:
School Accountability Methodologies and Measurements
(Under “what will be different”):
-Inclusion of new indicators: college, career and civic readiness (detail what, other than  standardized test scores, these are)
-Data dashboards for transparent reporting of results and indicators not part of accountability/support system (use for collection of the “indicators” in an ongoing student portfolio, not for dissemination of private student data)
-Advisory group to examine different indicators of quality for accountability (Stakeholders on the ground who can guide content/scope/intent/use of the portfolio)

Supports and Improvement for Schools:
-Examination and addressing of resource inequities in low-performing schools
-Incentives for districts to promote diversity and reduce socioeconomic and racial isolation
-Parent voice in some budget decisions in low-performing schools
-Improving access to all programs for students who are homeless, in neglected facilities…migratory

Accountability seems to be the current priority, and I would agree that there needs to be more accountability for student outcomes, but be honest about testing as it exists: the quality of the tests has not been established following years of verifiable examples and concerns (content, level, vendor…) and during what may end up being state-wide shift to computer-administered tests. To draw a sword and threaten the schools of parents expecting more consistency and a demonstration of the state’s will to commit to creating better outcomes (not just demand and measure them) will not inspire parent participation. Instead, require tests as before, but push for more of a shared accountability for things described already in the ESSA:

IN THE NYS’s APPROACH TO ESSA PLANNING SECTION
-More equitable distribution of resources and student access to programs and “effective teachers”
-Build an accountability and support system that is based on multiple measures of college, career and civic readiness (use that “dashboard” to build a digital, developing citizen portfolio that belongs to and travels with the student)
-Recognize the effect of school environment on student academic performance and support efforts to improve climates of all schools

Four steps to better education reform (Introduction to MEGA)

This will be the first installment of several in a “Better Education Reform” series. As I continue, I will be linking to associated definitions and explanations between installments, and at the end will include a glossary for some of the more colloquial-type terms I use. I try to tone it down a little, but hey-I can only water it down so much.

Introduction:

America needs to be better at educating its citizens. I say this for a couple of reasons. Mainly, the disparity in outcomes in our population is concerning-especially when that disparity is linked to race, gender and socioeconomic status.  It suggests either systemic ineffectiveness, intent, and possibly both. Secondly, the political mechanisms that drive this disparity are almost wholly owned and operated by the most privileged class and their nearly as privileged agents. This has led to a situation where the vehicle we call democracy is like some eyesore the losers next door park on the lawn and tear up and down the street in at all hours. We can’t really deny democracy exists, I mean it’s parked right there. But it’s right to wonder if it works, worry about how safe it is and what might happen to us, our property and our children with those losers behind the wheel. Seriously- all they ever do is a crappy touch-up with some spray cans and tint the windows so you can’t see what the $#%& is going on inside of it!

Donald Trump is that eyesore. Who the hell knows what goes on in his head? And our “elected” leaders and the system preserving them are driving him around. But guess what? Trump is the president. That doesn’t happen absent a decline in the character, practical intelligence, and moral commitment in the citizenry and the system. And those things-character, practical intelligence, depend on an effective comprehensive education. A real education.

That’s quite different than schooling, which uses the sterile and dehumanizing language of industry (e.g. standards, tests, achievement, proficiency…) and is focused on the task-mastering of academic skills-an approach that supports control of the masses below by the few above. Real education reform should be an honest effort, and provide much more in terms of a foundation of soft skills and a content of character that allow a person to pursue, communicate, exercise their civic duties and responsibilities, connect effectively with the world, achieve, adapt, cooperate…Basically, education imparts the qualities that shape the person who applies the academic skills acquired through schooling.

By acknowledging, legislating and working through this more comprehensive approach to education, and a more shared accountability for the components that are required, the nation can improve outcomes for traditionally underachieving groups.

Part 1: the four steps

One of the primary roadblocks to better outcomes is the bipartisan cooperation in refusing to do what is right. In other words there is a lack of the political will to do right in our leaders. I will get more deeply into practical intelligence, quality, comprehensive education, and political will in just a bit. I’ll also address the concepts of systemic ineffectiveness and intent-“intent” meaning that some of the ineffectiveness might be purposeful and used by those in power to suppress those with less in order to preserve an inequitable system.

But first things first.

The key to better education reform, more equitable outcomes and reaching for that effective, comprehensive education is informing, preparing and activating the citizenry. Once that happens, education and reform can be freed from the tightly defined box constructed by and for the wealthy and powerful establishment who ironically use it as a tool of suppression. That paradigm of suppression has led to stagnant or unimpressive societal and academic improvements. Changing the paradigm and making education great again (that’s MEGA, folks- I’ll trademark it and begin making the red hats soon) won’t be easy, but here are the four things I suggest to get us moving in the MEGA direction towards improving outcomes:

Four steps to MEGA:

1) Admit that accountability is shared for education outcomes, between policymakers, community, families and schools. Have mechanisms for measurement, evaluation and accountability that are collaboratively created by these stakeholders and keep all stakeholders involved and accountable.

2) Apply electoral and non-electoral leverage strategically to affect policy and distribute resources based  on needs. That means targeting policymakers, communities, families, and schools with transparency, honesty and a purpose that is learner and future-focused.

3) Shift the stale paradigm for how schooling works and how outcomes are defined, and provide real opportunities to pursue both collective priorities (public education should serve the public, the same way public spaces, utilities and services do) and individual goals. This is a shift from the current impersonal demands for a standardized version of “proficiency”.

4) Effectively advocate not just for the literal lives of children, but their quality of life as well. The key word being “effectively”.

Next, “The four steps explained”.

Holding Schools Accountable

While sorting through some old, old stuff, I came across a hard copy of this. I think it predated flash drives, I’m not really sure. Thank god I have a beautiful young typist that will ask for little more than a burger and maybe a few bucks. About 16 years ago, I think it was, and yet it could be today. 

 

National Standards:

Holding Schools Accountable

by

Daniel McConnell, Jr.

State University of New York

Cortland, 2002

 

Introduction

            While on the surface educational standards appear to be merely a logical move to provide cohesive instruction, the forces behind their origin and the pairing of standards with a call for “accountability” reveal other motives. Historically, the United States has taken great efforts to achieve and maintain a dominant world presence, much through advances in military technology (which are closely linked to the math and science fields). Most notably since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, when the former USSR beat the United States into space, policy makers have demanded that schools prepare students to be an active part in the US- led future. When “A Nation At Risk” was published in 1983, warning of pending failure in the competitive world market, the cry for school reform was renewed with a focus on curriculum standards, and accountability for schools not demonstrating student achievement of those standards. While doing this, policy makers ignore their own accountability in helping to nurture capable students and productive future citizens.

Background

            “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” (A Nation At Risk, 1983)

After a brief statement of educational philosophy, A Nation At Risk begins with this ominous warning. It does not warn against a pending invasion by a foreign power, or a nuclear attack, or even an anonymous biological threat. The threat, it seems, is economic: based on the ability of the US to compete and profit (to a greater degree than other nations of the world) in the global market. But the insinuation, if it could even be considered as subtle as that, is that the threat is just as dire: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” (p.1). The tone of A Nation demonstrates a shift in perspective regarding the nature of America’s “world leader” role, and the responsibilities of schools to support that role. Once in the business of promoting the rights of citizens by educating those citizens to exercise them in a responsible manner, schools have gradually found their role shifting from responsibility to protect the nation from tyranny to supporting the near-tyrannical forces of a corporate driven system. This system places monetary profit and domination of the world market high on the priority list, while subjugating the needs and desires of present and future citizens (i.e. the students themselves). With current US policy funded, advised and driven largely by leaders in the corporate world, legislation tends to favor the already wealthy and powerful minority at the cost of the less wealthy majority of Americans. This legislation includes the educational standards, and the standards-based reform movement that began largely as a result of A Nation At Risk. While staying competitive in the fields of math and science (which are cornerstones of the tech market and essential in maintaining military dominance) is important for the economic health of the nation, current efforts to impose standards and high-stakes standardized tests should be closely evaluated to determine whose needs they truly serve.

The History of Reform: Sputnik and the Science Scare

“Unless future generations appreciate the role of science in modern society and understand the conditions under which science thrives”, he (Dr. Elmer Hutchisson, Director of the American Institute of Physics) said, “our way of life is, I am certain, doomed to rapid extinction.” (New York Times, Oct. 8, 1957)

America’s public school system has, since its inception, been a source of hope and a focus of criticism. It has been given the responsibility for shaping society at times, blamed for not doing so (or doing so in a misguided fashion) at other times. One time from our not so distant history that many believed revealed a weakness in our education system was in 1957, the year Russia launched the first space vehicle, Sputnik. At a time when the nations of the world were just beginning to consider the possibilities of space exploration, and most believed that the US would lead the way with its Vanguard program, the Soviets caught the world off guard when it launched a satellite weighing eight times that of the one the US intended to launch. The possibility that the Soviets had outmatched the United States in its ability to not only launch a satellite, but to launch a significantly heavier one gave rise to two fears: 1) the capitalist beacon of hope that was the US was technologically inferior to the other world power- the communist threat that was the USSR, and 2) If the Soviets could launch a satellite into space, they could launch a nuclear missile that could reach the United States.

Dr. Elmer Hutchisson, director of the American Institute of Physics at the time Sputnik was launched, gave the statement at the beginning of this section. In addition to the accusations from others that the Eisenhower administration was under-funding satellite research, Dr. Hutchisson added a warning about the science education students were receiving

 ..the United States must distinguish carefully between ‘highly accumulative’             scientific knowledge that can be taught by rigorous discipline and the namby-                pamby kind of learning’ that seeks to protect children against inhibition of their              individuality or their laziness

According to James Rutherford, former director of Project 2061, the American Association for Advancement of Science’s program for revamping K-12 science education, the efforts to improve science curriculum and training throughout the educational system began shortly after Sputnik, but then halted after the United States put the first man on the moon (Harvard Educational Letter: Research Online, Sept/Oct, 1998).

Not surprisingly, this article states, results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, 1997) showed that US students scored lower than half of the students in other developed countries by the eighth grade, and “dead last” by the final year of secondary school. Despite the call for creation of standards across subject areas by the first President Bush in 1989, America’s schools are still having difficulty meeting the high expectations implicit in the new standardized assessments.

The Confounds Regarding Success in Reaching the Standards

“The average grade for all the standards he [L. Lerner] appraised is C-minus…In fact, we can only be confident from this analysis that six of our fifty states have first-rate science standards.” (The Fordham Foundation, 1998)

While students are apparently not performing as well as those calling for standards and accountability suggest they should, other influences confounding those goals exist. Once source blocking student success is the standards themselves. Vague and/or poorly written for many states, teachers with standards that are not clear are left unsure of what to teach and how best to teach it. Another source of poor student performance is the “baggage” that students bring to school with them. An issue highly stressed in the current reform movement is the “achievement gap” between the high and low socioeconomic groups.

Schools have been called upon to reduce this gap, with the hope that it can be eliminated, but research shows what teachers know: students that come from stable, nurturing and supporting homes are more likely to succeed academically (Pianta, 2002). Instead of pushing policy that would enable lower class families to lead more enriched lives, devoting more time to bestowing the school readiness skills that are associated with future success for students, policy makers choose to make schools the repair shops- charged with fixing the damage done to the family unit by corporate-centered policy.

That the standards themselves need fixing is an ongoing issue. With individual states being responsible for their own, variance in style and quality of those standards is to be expected, and so then is variance in what is taught and how students perform. The Fordham Foundation is one organization involved in the education reform movement, and in 1998 they published a report on the progress states were making in their effort to write science standards. An excerpt from that report reads like a scolding:

            “Among the thirty-six jurisdictions with elementary/secondary science standards fit  for appraisal, he found six that deserve “A” grades and seven that earn “B’s”. Good grades for more than a third of the states! Yet that sounds good mostly because our expectations in such matters have fallen so low. Here’s another way to look at the  results: Dr. Lerner conferred nine failing grades and seven “D’s”: three more than won honors. Seven states earned “C’s.” (New York was among the “C’s”)”

This repost goes through each of the thirty-six states evaluated and thoroughly analyzes the quality and substance of the standards the state has developed for science, as well as the examples of properly achieving them. Without arguing the foundation’s qualifications to do so, one could suggest that the nation’s leaders have given little support for this monumental task, merely directives. If, after all, a standardized result were the expectation, then a more centralized and standard approach would be the best from the beginning. Rather than having fifty different sets of standards and exemplars with the hopes of reaching a similar achievement goal, one set for all to follow would be a more sensible approach.

In addition to standards that provide little help in reaching lofty new goals, administration officials have lumped in a healthy scoop of criticism- as well as a call for “accountability”. Unfortunately, they overlook their own accountability in helping students reach their true potential, and fail to notice that very early in A Nation At Risk, the authors admit as much:

            “That we have compromised this commitment is, upon reflecting, hardly surprising, given the multitude of often conflicting demands we have placed on our nation’s schools and  colleges. They are routinely called on to provide solutions to personal, social, and political problems that the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve. We must understand that these demands on our schools and colleges often exact an educational cost as well as a financial one.” (p.6)

Rather  than overhaul policy that has served the desires of the wealthy few (campaign finance, corporate reform, foreign trade initiatives) at the expense of working families, the finger has been pointed in another direction. More recently, the attack has turned ugly: Following in his father’s school reform footsteps, President George W. Bush has lent his straightforward approach to the reform movement. Consider his words as he addresses the audience at the signing of the Education Bill in Hamilton, Ohio (Jan. 8, 2002):

            “If we’ve learned anything over the last generations, money alone doesn’t make a good  school. It certainly helps. But as John mentioned, we’ve spent billions of dollars with lousy results. So now it’s time to spend billions of dollars and get good results.

The message from The White House seems clear (if not unsettling): a lot of money has been wasted, and now it’s time to all the public school system to the carpet and make it do its job. But what does the president mean by “lousy results” and “billions of dollars”? The “No Child Left Behind Act” fact sheet released by The White House on the day of its signing by the President conveniently arranges the reform position in a problem/solution format. In regards to money spent and the results that have gone unrealized, it says:

 -Since the original Elementary and Early Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was                    signed into law in 1965, the federal government has spent more than $130 billion               to improve public schools.

 -Unfortunately, this investment in education has not reduced the achievement                     gap between the well-off and lower-income students or between minority and                     non-minority students (p.2).

The evidence is neatly laid out, but goes unexamined. Although $130 billion sounds like a lot of money, if you do the math and divide it across the years it was spent, it comes to a mere pittance when matched against other national budgeting priorities. Thirty-seven years passed while that $130 billion was spent, which raised two interesting questions: 1) If The White House wants to insist that this amount of money spent on the public school system should have been sufficient to close the achievement gap between the well-off and lower-income students, then why have they failed to consider some other source for failure in closing this gap other than schools- mainly, some function of the inequitable class system which creates “well-off” and “lower-income” students? And 2) With military spending far outpacing any developed country in the world many times greater than the money allocated to public schools (not to mention the hundreds of billions being allocated into new “homeland security” measures) how can the White House justify this indignant attitude of having spent “billions of dollars with lousy results”? If the future of our country was to truly be invested in and protected, it would be reflected in a national budget that better funded schools, and made it possible for struggling families to spend more time at home building the skills and experiences that foster school success.

The Issue Of Accountability

“You know, a huge percentage of children in poverty can’t read at grade level. That’s not right in America.” (George W. Bush)

According to New York University’s Edward Wolff, and expert on the wealth gap, a wealth tax starting at one-twentieth of one percent on net worths of $1 million, and rising to one percent on the super rich, would yield about $50 billion per year. Imagine earmarking this for, say, the education of poor kids.

As a teacher, I can accept that I am responsible for helping my students achieve the educational standards set for my students. It is, after all, my job. I resent, though, the treatment of my profession as if it were some magical machine that can turn the star-bellied sneeches and the ones with no stars upon thars (apologies to Dr. Seuss) into standardized products with equal potential and opportunity. Children come to my classroom from vastly different homes and those differences manifest themselves in all sorts of measures of behavior and achievement. It is a difficult thing to do, and has historically come with its own drawbacks, but I think the best way is to treat children as individuals- helping children meet their own goals to the best of their abilities. True, a sound set of standards that reinforce necessary basic skills is needed. But we have to avoid turning students into numbers within a statistical framework, and expect them to become “standardized”. Human beings, with their wide variety in desires, abilities and learning styles- not to mention home environments, just don’t work that way. Children are coming to school every morning from all sorts of family situations and it is reflected in what they are ready to do. At the end of the day, they go back to that home again. The connections are logical, even without hard evidence. More stable homes generally display stability across economic resources and family configuration. Families with two parents making a decent living wage have more time to be involved and supportive, have some history with and/or appreciation for education, and pass these values on to their children. They often are less stressed by the demands felt by lower income families who may not have the time to spend fostering the “readiness” skills (mostly communication, listening, and language skills). which are valuable to students (and the teachers who have them in their classes). Despite this, teachers must accept the responsibility for helping all children meet tough academic goals, with the expectations and demands continually rising.

Conclusion

While teachers, on the one hand, must accept accountability for their results, there is only avoidance of accountability from those imposing standards upon schools and students. District report cards outlining in detail how schools perform on high-stakes standardized tests appear in huge spreads in local newspapers. How our elected officials are voting on specific legislation and specifically whose agenda is being forwarded on Capitol Hill is information that requires extensive searching and investigation to uncover. Having clearly acknowledged the achievement gap between classes, our elected officials have chosen to avoid the issue of inequity in wealth and resources (including a parents’ ability to spend quality time with their children) between the classes. Instead, “leaders” have chosen to subject the public schools to accountability for making up for this inequity. But if a standardized product is expected, then the materials that go into making that product must be standardized, as well.

The demand for standardization needs to be turned around and slid back across the table to the policy makers of America. If they will spend the time and resources to close the gap between the classes, they may see the achievement gap start to close, as well.

References

Harvard Educational Letter: Research Online (Sept/Oct, 1998). From Sputnik to TIMSS: Reforms in Science Education Make Headway Despite Setbacks. More time is needed for widespread classroom changes, By Naomi Freundlich. (http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/1998-so/sputnik.shtml)

Lawrence S. Lerner (March, 1998) An appraisal of science standards in 36 states. Fordham Report; Vol 2, 4

National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A nation at risk: The imperatives for educational reform. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education

Pianta, Robert (2002). School readiness: A focus on children, families, communities and schools. Educational Research Service, Arlington, VA.

Schmeck, Harlold M. (October, 1957). Nation is warned to stress science. Times looks back: Sputnik. The New York Times learning network. (http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/specials/sputnik/sput-15.html)

The White House (January 8, 2002). Remarks by the president at education bill signing. Office of the Press Secretary (Boston, Massachusetts). Hamilton High School Hamilton, OH.

The White House (April 4, 2002). Fact sheet: No child left behind. (On-line). (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020108.html)