Pennsylvania’s Broken Testing Promise – We Don’t Assess Students Less If We Demand Constant Diagnostic Tests

Jelani Guzman

Downcast faces, dropping eyes, desperate boredom.

 

That’s not what I’m used to seeing from my students.

 

But today they were all slumped over their iPads in misery taking their Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) test.

 

It’s at times such as these that I’m reminded of the promise made by Pennsylvania’s Governor, Tom Wolf.

 

He pledged that this year we’d reduce the amount of time public school students spend taking standardized assessments.

 

“Students, parents, teachers and others have told us that too much time in the classroom is used for test taking,” he said.

 

“We want to put the focus back on learning in the classroom, not teaching to a test. Standardized testing can provide a useful data point for a student’s performance, but our focus should be on teaching students for future success, not just the test in front of them.”

 

So at his urging we made slight cuts to our Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – the assessment for grade 3-8 students.

 

We removed two sections of the PSSA – one in math, one in reading – and reduced the number of science questions.

 

This can cut testing by as much as 48 minutes in math, 45 minutes in reading, and 22 minutes in science.

 

And that’s good news.

 

But it’s not exactly the kind of sea change the state claims, given the Department of Education’s recommendations for additional tests on top of the PSSA.

 

That’s right. The state wants schools to give the CDT assessment an additional 3 to 5 times a year in reading, math and science.

 

Unlike the PSSA, this is a voluntary assessment. Districts can decide against it, but the department’s flunkies are crisscrossing the Commonwealth advising we all give the CDT as much as possible.

 

So that’s between 50-90 minutes for each assessment. A district that follows the state’s guidelines would be adding as much as 270 minutes of testing every seven weeks. In a given year, that’s 1,350 minutes (or 22.5 hours) of additional testing!

 

Pop quiz, Governor Wolf. Cutting testing by 115 minutes while adding 1,350 minutes results in a net loss or a net gain?

 

The answer is an increase of 1,235 minutes (or more than 20 hours) of standardized testing.

 

In my classroom, that means students coming in excited to learn, but being told to put away their books, pocket their pencils and put their curiosity on standby.

 

The folks who work at the Department of Education instead of in the classroom with living, breathing children, will tell you that these CDT tests are a vital tool to help students learn.

 

They provide detailed information about which skills individual students need remediation on.

 

But who teaches that way?

 

Billy, you are having trouble with this kind of multiple-choice question, so here are 100 of them.

 

We don’t do that. We read. We write. We think. We communicate.

 

And if somewhere along the way, we struggle, we work to improve that while involved in a larger project that has intrinsic value – such as a high interest book or a report on a hero of the civil rights movement.

 

When learning to walk, no one concentrates on just bending your knees. Even if you have stiff joints, you work them out while trying to get from point A to point B.

 

Otherwise, you reduce the exercise to boring tedium.

 

That’s what the state is suggesting we do.

 

Make something essentially interesting into humdrum monotony.

 

Teachers don’t need these diagnostics. We are deeply invested in the act of learning every day.

 

I know if my students can read by observing them in that act. I know if they can write by observing them doing it. I know if they can communicate by listening to them arguing in Socratic seminar. I read their poems, essays and short stories. I watch their iMovies and Keynote projects.

 

I’m a teacher. I am present in the classroom.

 

That tells me more than any standardized diagnostic test ever will.

 

It’s ironic that on a Department of Education “CDT Frequently Asked Questions” sheet, the assessment is described as “minimizing testing time.”

 

That’s just bad math.

 

And my student’s know it.

 

The district just sent out a letter telling parents and students they could take advantage of a school voucher to go to a local parochial school at public expense.

 

When presented with the prospect of another day of CDT testing in my room, one of my brightest students raised his hand and asked if kids in the local Catholic school took the test.

 

I told him I didn’t know – though I doubt it. They COULD take the test. It is available to nonpublic schools, but do you really think they’re going to waste that much instruction time?

 

Heck! They don’t even take the same MANDATORY standardized testing! Why would they bother with the optional kind!?

 

It is the public schools that are hopelessly tangled in the industrial testing complex. That’s how the moneyed interests “prove” the public schools are deficient and need to be replaced by privatized ones.

 

It’s an act of sabotage – and with the CDT it’s an act of self-sabotage.

 

School directors and administrators need to be smarter. The only way to beat a rigged game is not to play.

 

And the only way to reduce testing is to TAKE FEWER TESTS!


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Facebook is Censoring Your Favorite Bloggers

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Have you seen me?

 

Probably not.

 

In fact, you’re probably not even seeing this right now.

 

Though you may have read and enjoyed my articles in the past, though you may still want to have the opportunity to see and enjoy my posts in the future, you probably aren’t seeing them anymore.

 

The reason? Facebook has employed a new algorithm to determine exactly what you’re allowed to see on your news feed.

 

Like a parent or a government censor, they are scanning your content for certain words, judging your posts based on interactions, and otherwise making choices on your behalf without your consent.

 

Unless someone pays them to do otherwise. Then they’ll spam you with nonsense – fake news, lies, propaganda: it doesn’t matter so long as money is changing hands.

 

So homegrown blogs like this one are left in the dust while corporations and lobbyists get a megaphone to shout their ideas across social media.

 

Look, I don’t mean to minimize what Facebook does. There’s a ton of information that comes through the network that COULD be displayed on your screen. The company uses an algorithm – a complex set of steps – to determine exactly what to show you and when. But instead of basing that solely on who you’ve friended and what you’re interested in, they’ve prioritized businesses and shut down the little guy.

 

Since Facebook made the change in January, my blog only gets about 40% of the hits it did in years passed. And I’m not alone. Other edu-bloggers and organizations dedicated to fighting school privatization and standardization are reporting the same problems – our voices are being silenced.

 

And all this is happening after a series of Facebook scandals.

 

After the whole Cambridge Analytica outrage where Facebook gave the data of 87 million users – without their consent – to a political analysis firm that used it to help elect Trump…

 

After Facebook sold more than $100,000 in advertisements to Russian bots in 2016 who used them to spread propaganda to help elect Trump…

 

After enabling the spread of hate speech in Myanmar which allowed the military to engage in “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya Muslim minority – which has forced 700,000 people from their homes and across the border into neighboring Bangladesh…

 

After all that, Facebook still pretends that changing its algorithm is simply a way to crack down on “fake news.”

 

It’s not.

 

They are controlling information.

 

They are policing free expression.

 

They are NOT cracking down on falsehoods and deception.

 

In fact, much of what they’re doing is completely devoid of ideology. It’s business – pure and simple.

 

They’re monetizing the platform. They’re finding new and creative ways to squeeze content providers to gain access to users’ news feeds.

 

This won’t stop propaganda and fabrications. It just charges a fee to propagate them.

 

It’s the same thing that allowed those Russian bots to spread Trump-friendly lies in 2016.

 

It’s pay-to-play. That’s all.

 

Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg characterized the change in January of 2018 as prioritizing content from “friends, family and groups.”

 

Zuckerberg admitted this means it will be harder for brands and publishers to reach an audience on the social media platform – unless they pay for the privilege. That’s significant because even though organic reach had been diminishing for some time, this is the first time the company admitted it.

 

Zuckerberg wrote:

 

“As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard—it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”

 

What are “meaningful interactions”?

 

Apparently, what the company calls active interactions are more important than passive ones. So commenting and sharing is more important than just liking something.

 

In practice that means if you comment on someone’s post, you’re more likely to see things by that person in the future. And if they respond to your comment, their post gets seen by even more people.

 

Reactions matter, too, as does the intensity of those reactions. If people take the time to hit “Love” for a post, it will be seen by more people than if they hit “Like.” But whatever you do, don’t give a negative reaction like “Sad” or “Angry.” That hurts a post’s chances of being seen again.

 

I know it’s weird. If someone shares a sad story about their mother with cancer, the appropriate response is a negative reaction. But doing so will increase the chances the post will be hidden from other viewers. Facebook wants only happy little lab rats.

 

Sharing a post helps it be seen, but sharing it over messenger is even better. And just sharing it is not enough. It also needs to be engaged in by others once you share it.

 

Video is also prioritized over text – especially live video. So pop out those cell phone cameras, Fellini, because no one wants to read your reasoned argument against school privatization. Or they may want to, but won’t be given a chance. Better to clutter up your news feed with auto-playing videos about your trip to Disneyworld. I suppose us, social justice activists, need to become more comfortable with reading our stuff on camera.

 

And if you do happen to write something, be careful of the words you use to describe it. The algorithm is looking for negative words and click bait. For example, if you ask readers to like your posts or comment, that increases the chances of Facebook hiding it from others. And God forbid you say something negative even about injustice or civil rights violations. The algorithm will hide that faster than you can say “Eric Garner.” So I guess try to be positive when writing about inequality?

 

Do you happen to know someone famous or someone who has a lot of Facebook followers? If they engage in your posts, your writing gets seen by even more folks. It’s just like high school! Being seen with the cool kids counts.

 

One of the best things readers can do to make sure they see your content is having them follow you or your page. But even better is to click the “Following” tab and then select “See First.” That will guarantee they see your posts and they aren’t hidden by the algorithm.

 

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I know. I know.

 

This is all kind of silly, but Facebook is a private corporation. It should be allowed to control speech however it likes. Right?

 

Wrong.

 

The social media giant collects a ton of data about its users and sells that to advertisers. As a user, you have to make that Faustian bargain in order to gain free access to the platform. However, as we’ve seen, that data can be used by political organizations for nefarious ends. Private business cannot be trusted with it.

 

Moreover, there is the echo chamber effect. Facebook controls what users see. As such, the company has tremendous power to shape public opinion and even our conception of reality. This used to be the province of a free and independent press, but after media conglomeratization and shrinking advertising revenues, our press has become a shadow of its former self.

 

In order to maintain a democratic system that is not under the sway of any one party, faction or special interest group, it is essential that social media providers like Facebook become public utilities.

 

It must be regulated and free from manipulation by those who would use it for their own ends.

 

The way things are going, this seems more unlikely than ever.

 

Our democracy is a fading dream. Fascism is on the rise.

 

But if we want even a chance of representative government, we need to reclaim social media for ourselves. We need control over what we get to see on Facebook – whether that be a school teacher’s blog or your cousin’s muffin recipe.

 

In the meantime, do what you can to take back your own news feed.

 

If you want to keep seeing this blog, follow me on Facebook and click “See First.” Hit “Love” on my content. Comment and share.

 

The only thing standing in our way right now is a brainless computer algorithm. We can outsmart it, if we work together.

 

Hope to be seeing you again real soon.

Grades and Test Scores Don’t Matter. A Love of Learning Does.

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My daughter probably would be shocked to discover what I truly think about grades.

 

They don’t matter all that much.

 

The other day she brought home a pop quiz on sloths from her third grade class. It had a 40% F emblazoned on the top in red ink.

 

I grabbed the paper from her book bag and asked her to explain what had happened.

 

She smiled nervously and admitted that she had rushed through the assignment.

 

I told her I knew she could do better and was very disappointed.

 

Then we reread the article in her weekly reader and found the right answers to the questions she’d missed.

 

But if my little girl would be stunned, my students would probably be even more gobsmacked!

 

As a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, it’s my job to hand out grades. And I don’t give my students too much slack.

 

Just this morning, I turned to one of my kiddos placidly drawing a Spider-Man doodle in homeroom and asked if he had given me yesterday’s homework.

 

He wasn’t sure, so I pulled up the gradebook and surprise, surprise, surprise – no homework.

 

So he took out the half-completed packet, promised to get it done by the end of the day and promptly began working on it.

 

Don’t get me wrong. No one would ever confuse me for a teacher obsessed with grades and test scores.

 

I’m way too laid back for that. But my students know I will penalize them if they don’t hand in their assignments. And if it isn’t their best work, I’ll call them out on it.

 

The way I see it, grades and test scores offer an approximation of how well a student tries to achieve academic goals.

 

In Language Arts classes like mine, that’s reading, writing and communicating.

 

After a year of study, I want my students to leave me with an increased ability to read and understand what they’ve read. I want them to form a thoughtful opinion on it and be able to communicate that in multiple ways including verbally and in writing.

 

An overreliance on testing and grading can actually get in the way of achieving that goal.

 

According to a University of Michigan study from 2002, a total of 80% of students base their self worth on grades. The lower the grades, the lower their self-esteem.

 

Common Core fanatics like Bill Gates and David Coleman probably would say that’s a good thing. It provides incentive for children to take school seriously.

 

However, I think it transforms a self-directed, authentic pursuit of knowledge into grade grubbing. It makes an intrinsic activity purely extrinsic.

 

Learning no longer becomes about satisfying your curiosity. It becomes a chase after approval and acceptance.

 

We already know that measuring a phenomena fundamentally changes that phenomena. With a constant emphasis on measurement, children become less creative and less willing to take risks on having a wrong answer.

 

That’s one of the reasons I prefer teaching the academic track students to the honors kids. They aren’t used to getting all A’s, so they are free to answer a question based on their actual thoughts and feelings. If they get a question wrong, it’s not the end of the world. It hasn’t ruined a perfect GPA and put valedictorian forever out of reach.

 

Too much rigor (God! I hate that word!) creates academic robots who have lost the will to learn. Their only concern is the grade or the test score.

 

It also increases the motivation to cheat.

 

According to a national survey of 24,000 students from 70 high schools, 64% admitted to cheating on a test.

 

But if the goal is authentic learning, cheating doesn’t help. You can’t cheat to understand better. You can only fool the teacher or the test. You can’t fool your own comprehension.

 

If you find a novel way of realizing something, that’s not cheating – it’s a learning strategy.

 

I know this is heresy to some people.

 

Even some of my colleagues believe that grading, in general, and standardized testing, in particular, are essential to a quality education.

 

After all, without an objective measure of learning, how can we predict whether students will do well once they move on to college or careers?

 

Of course, some of us realize standardized testing doesn’t provide an objective measurement. It’s culturally and racially biased. Those test scores don’t just correlate with race and class. They are BASED on factors inextricably linked with those characteristics.

 

When the standard is wealth and whiteness, it should come as no surprise that poor students of color don’t make the grade. It’s no accident, for example, that American standardized testing sprung out of the eugenics movement.

 

Yet you don’t need to crack open a book on history or pedagogy to see the uselessness of testing.

 

High stakes assessments like the SAT do NOT accurately predict future academic success.

 

Kids with perfect scores on the SAT or ACT tests don’t do better than kids who got lower scores or never took the tests in the first place.

 

Numerous studies have shown this to be true. The most recent one I’ve seen was from 2014.

 

Researchers followed more than 123,000 students who attended universities that don’t require applicants to take these tests as a prerequisite for admission. They concluded that SAT and ACT test scores do not correlate with how well a student does in college.

 

However, classroom grades do have predictive value – especially when compared to standardized tests. Students with high grades in high school but middling test scores do better in college than students with higher test scores and lower grades.

 

Why? Because grades are based on something other than the ability to take one test. They demonstrate a daily commitment to work hard. They are based on 180 days (in Pennsylvania) of classroom endeavors, whereas standardized tests are based on the labor of an afternoon or a few days.

 

Yet even classroom grades have their limits.

 

I remember my high school graduation – sitting on the bleachers in my cap and gown listening to our valedictorian and salutatorian give speeches about the glorious future ahead of us.

 

Yet for each of those individuals, the future wasn’t quite so bright. Oh, neither of them burned out, but they didn’t exactly set the world on fire, either.

 

In fact, when I went to college, I found a lot of the highest achievers in high school struggled or had to drop out because they couldn’t adjust. The new freedom of college was too much – they partied and passed out. Yet a middle-of-the-road student like me (Okay, I was really good in English) did much better. I ended up in the honors college with a double major, a masters degree and graduating magna cum laude.

 

And it’s not just my own experience. The research backs this up.

 

A Boston College study tracked more than 80 valedictorians over 14 years. These high school high achievers all became well-adjusted professional adults. But none of them made major discoveries, lead their fields or were trailblazers.

 

For that, you need someone willing to take risks.

 

The folks the researchers followed admitted that this wasn’t them. Many confessed that they weren’t the smartest people in their classes. They just worked really hard and gave teachers exactly what they thought they wanted.

 

So what’s the point?

 

Some people will read this and think I’m against all testing and grading.

 

Wrong.

 

I give tests. I calculate grades. And I would do this even if I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. (Though I would throw every standardized test right in the garbage.)

 

I think grades and testing have their place. But they aren’t the end, they are a means to an end.

 

They are crude estimations of learning. They’re an educated guess. That’s all.

 

We need to move beyond them if we are to modernize our public schools.

 

Don’t get rid of grades and testing, just change the emphasis. Put a premium on curiosity and creativity. Reward academic risk taking, innovation and imagination. And recognize that most of the time there may be several right answers to the same question.

 

Heck other countries like Finland already do this.

 

For the first six years of school, Finnish children are subjected to zero measurement of their abilities. The only standardized test is a final given at the end of senior year in high school.

 

As a result, their kids have some of the highest test scores in the world. By not focusing on standards and assessments, they counterintuitively top the charts with these very things.

 

There’s a lesson here for American education policy analysts.

 

And that lesson is the title of this article.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Arming Already Stressed Out Teachers Will Only Increase the Chance of School Shootings

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It happened in Georgia yesterday.

 

A beloved social studies teacher locked himself in his classroom while his students stood outside the door.

 

When the principal came with the key, the teacher fired a handgun through an exterior window.

 

Students ran, one even twisting her ankle in the escape.

 

Thankfully, no one else appears to have been injured.

 

However, the incident brings into focus a vital component of the gun debate.

 

Teachers are already under tremendous stress.

 

Arming them won’t stop gun violence. All it does is add another potential shooter.

 

It’s only been about two weeks since a shooting at Stonemason Douglas High School in Florida left 17 dead.

 

That’s at least 19 school shootings so far in 2018 – and it’s only the beginning of March!

 

In that time, the national media and the Trump administration have focused on one specific solution to stopping such violence from happening again: giving teachers guns.

 

The latest incident in Georgia underlines why this is such a terrible idea.

 

Teachers are not super heroes.

 

Take it from me. I’m an almost 15 year veteran of the middle school classroom in western Pennsylvania.

 

We’re just human beings.

 

My colleagues and I have all the same human failings and weaknesses as everybody else.

 

We get tired and overworked and put upon and stressed and sometimes…

 

…Sometimes we don’t handle it well.

 

I know some people don’t want to hear it.

 

Society has piled all kinds of responsibilities and unreasonable expectations on our shoulders.

 

We’re no longer allowed to be just educators.

 

We’re parents, counselors, disciplinarians, doctors, psychologists, lawyers, nutritionists…. The list goes on-and-on.

 

And now politicians actually want us to add law enforcement to the job description?

 

We’re already under colossal pressure, and some folks want to add a gun to that situation?

 

That’s lighting a fuse.

 

But don’t just take my word for it.

 

Back in 2015, tens of thousands of educators filled out the Quality of Worklife Survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers and the Badass Teachers Association.

 

After responses from 91,000 school employees and 31,000 who completed the entire 80-question survey, a picture of the emotional landscape became clear.

 

A total 73% of respondents said they often feel stressed at work.

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The reasons? Adoption of new initiatives without proper training or professional development (71%), negative portrayal of teachers and school employees in the media (55%), uncertain job expectations (47%) and salary (46%) were the most common responses.

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The survey identified the following as most common everyday stressors in the workplace – time pressures, disciplinary issues and even a lack of opportunity to use the bathroom.

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Focusing just on the classroom, top stressors were mandated curriculum, large class sizes and standardized testing.

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Many teachers claimed to be the victims of violence at school.

 

A total 18% of all respondents said they had been threatened with physical violence – though the percentage jumped to 27% when looking solely at special education teachers.

 

A total of 9% of all respondents claimed to have been physically assaulted at school. Again the percentage jumped to 18% of all special education teachers.

 

But it’s not just physical assault.

 

A total of 30% claim to have been bullied by administrators (58%), co-workers (38%), students (34%) and student’s parents (30%).

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This is the situation where policymakers want to throw firearms.

 

Most gun violence doesn’t involve a shooter doing harm to others. The great majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted.

 

Even without adding guns to the mix, several high profile teachers and administrators already have committed suicide.

 

In October of 2010, for example, a California elementary school teacher named Rigoberto Ruelas, Jr. took his own life after the Los Angeles Times published a report labeling him a “less effective teacher.” Despite the fact that students and parents praised Ruelas, who taught in one of poorest schools in his district and who also was born, raised and continued to live in area where his school was located, the Times targeted him among other so-called “less effective” teachers as part of a major propaganda campaign.

 

And this isn’t an isolated incident. In July of 2015, a New York City principal under investigation for altering Common Core test scores, killed herself by jumping in front of a subway car.

 

Adding guns to this situation will just mean more teachers taking their own lives with a bullet.

 

That may have been the intent of the Georgia teacher in yesterday’s shooting.

 

Local police said they didn’t think he was trying to injure anyone else. When he shot his gun out of the window, he appeared to be trying to get others to leave him alone.

 

Arming teachers is a terrible solution to school violence. It’s taking an already stifling room and turning up the heat.

 

We need sensible gun regulations to reduce the pressure, not increase it.

 

We need sensible school policies that treat teachers and students like human beings and not just cogs in the system.

 

But this requires us to break out of a dangerous pattern in how we deal with social problems.

 

When we see a problem, we generally just shrug and leave it up to public schools and teachers to solve.

 

Inadequate resources – leave it to teachers to buy school supplies out of pocket.

 

Inequitable funding – increase class size and leave it to teachers to somehow make up the difference.

 

We can’t do the same with gun violence. We can’t just toss teachers a gun and tell them to sort it out.

 

Teachers can’t solve all of society’s problems alone.

 

That’s going to take all of us.

 

And we’ll need more than disingenuous proposals like answering gun violence with more guns.

Economists Don’t Know Crap About Education

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I hate to be blunt here, but economists need to shut the heck up.

 

 

Never has there been a group more concerned about the value of everything that was more incapable of determining anything’s true worth.

 

 

They boil everything down to numbers and data and never realize that the essence has evaporated away.

 

 

I’m sorry but every human interaction isn’t reducible to a monetary transaction. Every relationship isn’t an equation.

 

 

Some things are just intrinsically valuable. And that’s not some mystical statement of faith – it’s just what it means to be human.

 

 

Take education.

 

 

Economists love to pontificate on every aspect of the student experience – what’s most effective – what kinds of schools, which methods of assessment, teaching, curriculum, technology, etc. Seen through that lens, every tiny aspect of schooling becomes a cost analysis.

 

 

And, stupid us, we listen to them as if they had some monopoly on truth.

 

 

But what do you expect from a society that worships wealth? Just as money is our god, the economists are our clergy.

 

 

How else can you explain something as monumentally stupid as Bryan Caplan’s article published in the LA Times “What Students Know That Experts Don’t: School is All About Signaling, Not Skill-Building”?

 

 

In it, Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, theorizes why schooling is pointless and thus education spending is a waste of money.

 

It would be far better in Caplan’s view to use that money to buy things like… oh… his new book “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.”

 

His argument goes something like this: the only value of an education is getting a job after graduation.

 

Businesses only care about school because they think it signifies whether prospective employees will be good or bad at their jobs. And students don’t care about learning – they only care about appearing to have learned something to lure prospective employers. Once you’re hired, if you don’t have the skills, employers have an incentive to give you on the job training. Getting an education is just about getting a foot in the door. It’s all just a charade.

 

Therefore, we should cut education funding and put kids to work in high school where they can learn how to do the jobs they’ll need to survive.

 

No wonder economics is sometimes called “The Dismal Science.” Can you imagine having such a dim view of the world where THAT load of crap makes sense?

 

We’re all just worker drones and education is the human equivalent of a mating dance or brilliant plumage – but instead of attracting the opposite sex, we’re attracting a new boss.

 

Bleh! I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

 

This is what comes of listening to economists on a subject they know nothing about.

 

I’m a public school teacher. I am engaged in the act of learning on a daily basis. And let me tell you something – it’s not about merely signifying.

 

I teach 7th and 8th grade language arts. My students aren’t simply working to appear literate. They’re actually attempting to express themselves in words and language. Likewise, my students aren’t just working to appear as if they can comprehend written language. They’re actually trying to read and understand what the author is saying.

 

But that’s only the half of it.

 

Education isn’t even just the accumulation of skills. Students aren’t hard drives and we’re not simply downloading information and subroutines into their impressionable brains.

 

Students are engaged in the activity of becoming themselves.

 

Education isn’t a transaction – it’s a transformation.

 

When my students read “The Diary of Anne Frank” or To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, they become fundamentally different people. They gain deep understandings about what it means to be human, celebrating social differences and respecting human dignity.

 

When my students write poetry, short fiction and essays, they aren’t merely communicating. They’re compelled to think, to have an informed opinion, to become conscious citizens and fellow people.

 

They get grades – sure – but what we’re doing is about so much more than A-E, advanced, proficient, basic or below basic.

 

When the year is over, they KNOW they can read and understand complex novels, plays, essays and poems. The maelstrom of emotions swirling round in their heads has an outlet, can be shared, examined and changed.

 

Caplan is selling all of that short because he sees no value in it. He argues from the lowest common denominator – no, he argues from the lowest actions of the lowest common denominator to extrapolate a world where everything is neatly quantifiable.

 

It’s not hard to imagine why an economist would be seduced by such a vision. He’s turned the multi-color world into black and white hues that best suit his profession.

 

In a way, I can’t blame him for that. For a carpenter, I’m sure most problems look like a hammer and a nail. For a surgeon, everything looks like a scalpel and sutures.

 

But shame on us for letting one field’s myopia dominate the conversation.

 

No one seems all that interested in my economic theories about how to maximize gross domestic product. And why would they? I’m not an economist.

 

However, it’s just as absurd to privilege the ramblings of economists on education. They are just as ignorant – perhaps more so.

 

It is a symptom of our sick society.

 

We turn everything into numbers and pretend they can capture the reality around us.

 

This works great for measuring angles or determining the speed of a rocket. But it is laughably unequipped to measure interior states and statements of real human value.

 

That’s why standardized tests are inadequate.

 

It’s why value added teacher evaluations are absurd. It’s why Common Core is poppycock.

 

Use the right tool for the right job.

 

If you want to measure production and consumption or the transfer of wealth, call an economist.

 

If you want to understand education, call a teacher.

Wake Up, America! You Have a School Shooting Problem!

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There have been 11 school shootings so far this year.

 

And January isn’t even over yet.

 

That makes about 50 for the academic year – roughly one a week.

 

Some involve no injuries. Some are suicide attempts. And some, like the latest in Kentucky, involve an active shooter hunting and killing children.

 

While gun violence is a problem throughout the country, it is especially virulent at educational institutions.

 

According to an FBI study that looked at incidents from 2000-2013, nearly one quarter of all U.S. shootings took place at schools. And they’re on the rise.

 

Yet this latest incident barely raised an eyebrow in the collective consciousness.

 

Hardly anyone even attempted to offer a solution.

 

The reason?

 

Since Sandy Hook, we’ve effectively given up.

 

In December of 2012 a gunman walked in to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 20 children and six adults, and we did nothing.

 

We stood by after the murder of elementary kids and couldn’t get up the collective energy to do one damn thing to stop things like this from happening again.

 

No new regulations.

 

No assault weapons ban.

 

No gun buyback programs.

 

NOTHING.

 

In fact, the only thing we did do was actually weaken gun laws to INCREASE the likelihood of more kindergarten kids dying by shot and shell.

 

In this country we have created a false dichotomy – it’s either children or guns — and we’ve chosen GUNS!

 

We’re told to buy bullet-proof backpacks, arm school teachers, and have gun wielding police patrol the buildings, but don’t do anything about the firearms, themselves.

 

America has 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but almost half of the civilian-owned guns in the world.

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It’s no wonder, then, that our citizens are so much more likely to die at end of a barrel.

 

Since Sandy Hook, there have been more than 1,500 mass shootings (including those done at locations other than schools).

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According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been at least 1,518 mass shootings, with at least 1,715 people killed and 6,089 wounded as of October 2017.

 

The database defines a mass shooting as one in which at least four people (not counting the shooter) were shot regardless of whether those wounds were fatal or not. And since some shootings go unreported, it’s likely only giving us the bare minimum.

 

But that’s just mass death and destruction.

 

The overwhelming majority of gun deaths are smaller scale – police brutality, domestic violence, suicides, accidents, etc. America’s total annual firearm deaths came to more than 33,000 in 2014.

 

This is patently absurd.

 

Other countries don’t have the same level of gun violence as we do, even per capita.

 

There are certain facts that we refuse to accept.

 

States with more guns have more gun deaths.

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Countries with more guns likewise have more gun deaths.

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Meanwhile, states with tighter gun regulations have fewer gun-related deaths.

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Countries with more rigorous gun control likewise have fewer gun related deaths.

(Don’t believe me? See Florida’s “The Geography of Gun Deaths,” and a 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews.)

 

 

Yet we’re told that gun control is useless because new laws will just be pieces of paper that criminals will ignore. However, by the same logic, why have any laws at all?

 

Congress should just pack it in, the courts should close up and the army should just all go home. Criminals will do what they please – there’s nothing we can do about it.

 

 

This kind of thinking is the triumph of business over sense.

 

The gun industry is making billions of dollars off this cycle of gun violence: mass shooting, fear of regulation, increase in sales. Repeat ad infinitum.

 

We may never be able to stop all gun violence, but we can take steps to make it more unlikely. We can at least make it more difficult for people to die by firearm.

 

And this doesn’t have to mean getting rid of all guns.

 

 

It just means sensible regulations.

 

 

According to the Pew Research Center, when you ask people about specific firearm regulations, the majority is in favor of most of them – both Republicans and Democrats.

 

We don’t want the mentally ill to be able to buy guns. We don’t want suspected terrorists to be able to purchase guns. We don’t want convicted criminals to be able to buy guns. We want mandatory background checks for private sales at gun shows.

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Yet our lawmakers stand by helpless whenever these tragedies occur because they are at the mercy of their donors.

 

The gun industry owns too many lawmakers.

 

Our continued gun violence problem is a symptom of our flagging democracy.

 

In a Republic like ours, our representatives are supposed to enact our will in the halls of power. Yet they don’t actually represent us. They represent business and the wealthy.

 

Until we regain control of our government, we will always be at the mercy of the dollar and the gun.

 

Our children will remain merely the most innocent victims of our heartless and unfair politics.

 

Gun violence is not an everyday occurrence at our schools. In fact, children are actually safer there than anywhere else. But everything is relative. Going to class to learn you’re ABC’s shouldn’t bring with it even a moderate chance of fiery death!

 

But that’s 2018 America. We live in a culture of death.

 

You need no further proof of that than the weekly report of which school got struck by the lightning of gun violence. Which children were mowed down by the consequences of an out of control plutocracy today?

 

Bang. Bang. Democracy is dead.

Few Kids in the World Can Pass America’s Common Core Tests, According to New Study

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Could you jump through a hoop?

 

 

Probably if it were lying on the ground.

 

 

But what if it were held slightly higher? Let’s say waist high? Sure.

 

 

Shoulder height? Maybe with some practice.

 

How about if we raised the hoop to the rafters of a three story auditorium? Could you jump through THAT?

 

 

No. Of course not.

 

 

You could train with the world’s greatest coach, with the best equipment, 24-hours a day and you still couldn’t jump that high.

 

 

Yet that’s kind of what the U.S. has been expecting of its public school students – minus the resources.

 

 

We hold the hoop ridiculously out of reach and then blame them when they can’t jump through it.

 

 

But don’t take my word for it.

 

 

This is the conclusion of a new study that came out in January called “How High the Bar?” by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League.

 

 

They found the benchmarks for passing the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and American Common Core tests put success out of reach for most students the world over.

 

To do so, they linked the performance of foreign students on international tests of reading, mathematics, and science to the proficiency benchmarks of NAEP and thus Common Core aligned tests which use NAEP benchmarks to determine passing or failure.

 

The difference is the NAEP is only meant to compare how students in various states stack up against each other. Common Core tests, on the other hand, apply exclusively to kids within states.

 

 

No one’s actually expected to pass the NAEP. It’s only given to a sample of kids in each state and used to rank state education systems. The U.S. government, however, gives almost all its students Common Core tests and expects them all to pass – in fact, failure to do so could result in your public school being closed and replaced with a charter or voucher institution.

 

 

However, in both cases, the study concluded the score needed to meet the bare minimum of passing was absurdly too high – so much so that hardly any group of children in the entire world met it.

 

 

It’s important to note that these aren’t standardized testing skeptics.

 

 

They believe in the assessments. They even believe in Common Core. What they don’t believe in is the benchmarks we’re expecting our kids to meet to consider them having passed.

 

 

And this has massive consequences for the entire education system.

 

 

The media has uncritically repeated the lie that American public schools are failing based almost exclusively on test scores that show only one third of our students passing.

 

 

But if the same tests were given to students the world over with the same standard for success, even less would pass it, according to the study. If we drew the red line on international tests at the same place we draw it on the NAEP and  Common Core tests, almost every child in the world would be a dunce.

 

 

Kids from Singapore would fail. Kids from South Korea would fail. Kids from Japan would fail. You name a country where kids do nothing but study for high stakes standardized tests, and even they couldn’t meet our uniquely American criterion for passing.

 

 

In fact, the percentage of our students who do pass under these ridiculous benchmarks often exceeds that of other countries.

 

 

So when you hold kids up to impossible standards a few actually make it – and more of our kids do than our international peers.

 

 

That doesn’t mean the benchmarks are good. But it doesn’t mean the American education system is failing either. In fact, just the opposite.

 

 

We have a high stakes standardized testing system that not only does not assess kids fairly, but it actually hides their success!

 

 

In the words of the study’s authors, “…the analysis suggest the U.S. has established benchmarks that are neither useful nor credible.”

 

 

How did this happen?

 

 

It comes down to one word – proficient.

 

 

If you’re proficient, it’s thought you’re competent, you are able to do something. You might not be incredible at it, but you can get the job done.

 

 

Kind of like this:

 

 

Hey. Did you hear about my leaky faucet? The plumber fixed it after three tries because he’s proficient at his job.

 

 

Oh really? My plumber fixed my leaky faucet in only one try and didn’t even charge me because she’s advanced at her job.

 

 

That sort of thing.

 

 

There are only four scores you can achieve on most standardized assessments: Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic. The first two are considered passing and the last two are failing.

 

 

However, this doesn’t line up with the five general grades most public schools give in core subjects:

 

 

A – Excellent

B – Very good

C – Average

D – Poor

F – Failing

 

 

A-D is usually considered passing. Only F is failing.

 

 

So you might expect them to line up like this:

 

 

Advanced – A and B

Proficient – C

Basic – D

Below Basic – F

 

 

However, that’s not how they line up on NAEP. According to Diane Ravitch, who served on the National Assessment Governing Board, the federal agency that supervises NAEP, they line up like this:

 

 

Advanced – A+

Proficient – A

Basic – B and C

Below Basic – D and F

 

 

This is important, because saying someone scored a proficient on the NAEP doesn’t mean they’re just okay at it. It means they’re excellent but have room to improve.

 

 

The problem is that when developers of Common Core tests set their benchmarks, they used almost the same ones as the NAEP. Yet the NAEP benchmarks were never meant to be the same as grade level ones. Confounding the two puts mere passing out of reach for most students.

 

And that’s not just out of reach for most American students. It’s out of reach for international students!

 

In short, American students are doing B work on their Common Core tests and failing with a Basic. Yet in other countries, this would be passing with room to spare.

 

Moreover, when you hear that only one third of American students are Proficient or above, that means only one third are doing A or A+ work on their Common Core tests. That’s actually rather impressive!

 

According to the study:

 

“National judgments about student proficiency and many state Common 
Core judgments about “career and college readiness” are defective and misleading… 
According to NAEP officials, Proficient does not mean grade level performance. The misuse of the term confuses the public. The effects of this misuse are reflected in most Common Core assessments…

 

NAEP’s term “Proficient” does not even mean proficient. “Students who may be proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”

 

The report even cites other independent analysts that have come to similar conclusions such as the U.S. General Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Brookings Institution.

 

In short:

 

“Advocates who push for school improvement on the grounds of questionable benchmarks are not strengthening education and advancing American interests, but undermining public schools and weakening the United States.”

 

Some specifics.

 

 

The study was conducted by comparing performance of foreign students on international tests of reading, mathematics, and science with the NAEP and American Common Core tests.

 

 

Very few foreign students were able to score high enough to meet what is considered proficiency on the NAEP and Common Core tests.

 

 

 

In fact, in 4th grade reading, not a single nation was able to meet the benchmark.

 

 

In 8th grade math, only three nations (Singapore, South Korea and Japan) had 50 percent or more students who could meet the criterion.

 

 

In 8th grade science, only one nation (Singapore) had 50 percent or more students meeting the benchmark.

 

 

But wait.

 

 

Even though the benchmarks are unfair and few nations children could meet them, the percentage of U.S. children who did meet them was higher than most other nations.

 

 

Take 4th grade reading.

 

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No one had 50% or more of its kids scoring a proficient or advanced. But 31% of U.S. kids actually met the benchmark, putting us fifth behind only Singapore, the Russian Federation, Finland, and England.

 

 

Only 31% of our kids could do it, but only four other nations out of 40 could do better.

 

 

That’s kind of impressive. Yet judging our scores in abstraction solely on this unrealistic proficiency standard, we’re failures. The whole process hides how well our kids actually do.

 

 

Bottom line, Common Core benchmarks are too high and paint an unfair picture of our education system, according to the study:

 

 

“When citizens read that “only one-third” or “less than half” of the students in their local schools are proficient in mathematics, science, or reading, they can rest assured that the same judgments can be applied to students throughout most of the world…

 

Globally, in just about every nation where it is possible to compare student performance with our national benchmarks, the vast majority of students cannot demonstrate their competence because the bars are set unreasonably high.”

 

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At very least, this invalidates the scores of the NAEP and every Common Core test yet given in this country. It demands we set new benchmarks that are in line with grade level performance.

 

At most, it casts doubt on the entire process of high stakes standardized testing.

 

It demonstrates how the data can be manipulated to show whatever testing corporations or other interested parties want.

 

Standardized testing is a gun, and we have been demanding schools shoot themselves in the foot with it.

 

Instead of trying to hold our schools to impossible standards, we should be holding our lawmakers to standards of common decency. We should concentrate on equitable funding, reintegration, and supporting our public school system and public school teachers. Not enriching private testing corporations so they’ll paint a misleading picture of student performance to justify pro-privatization schemes.

 

When will our policymakers rise to meet the benchmarks of honesty, empathy and caring about the well-being of children?

 

In the final analysis, that may be bar they are simply incapable of reaching.