Even $1.7 Billion from the Gates Foundation Won’t Address Our Public Schools’ Deepest Needs

Last week Bill Gates announced that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will launch a new five-year, $1.7 billion initiative in education. In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss explains that all but 15 percent will go to public schools, with the rest to charter schools: “He said most of the new money—about 60 percent—will be used to develop new curriculums and ‘networks of schools’ that work together to identify local problems and solutions, using data to drive ‘continuous improvement.’ He said that over the next several years, about 30 such networks would be supported though he didn’t describe exactly what they are… Though there wasn’t a lot of detail on exactly how the money would be spent, Gates, a believer in using big data to solve problems, repeatedly said foundation grants given to schools as part of this new effort would be driven by data.”

Strauss reminds us about earlier Gates initiatives that have not only failed to produce expected results but have also, because of their size and the power of mega-philanthropy these days, driven an educational policy agenda that has neglected to support the schools serving our nation’s poorest children and failed to close achievement gaps.

First there was the initiative to break up large, comprehensive high schools into smaller schools. This project, launched in 2000, has been abandoned by the Gates Foundation and by many of the high schools that tried it. It turned out to be very expensive and complicated for school districts to operate.  Neither did test scores rise appreciably—the one way we measure school reform these days.

Then there was the initiative to evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores.  Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education, which had hired key staff right out of the Gates Foundation, made states pledge to use students’ test scores to evaluate teachers as a condition for receipt of federal grants under Race to the Top.  Here is Diane Ravitch’s critique: “The ratings were criticized by the American Statistical Association, the National Academy of Education, AERA (the American Educational Research Association), and many individual scholars. But Duncan and Gates plowed ahead… Gates gave out hundreds of millions to districts that adopted his evaluations.  Hillsborough County, Florida, won $100 million to apply Gates’ ideas about teaching, and the district exhausted its reserves and abandoned the plan. Gates paid up only $80 million, and the district was left holding the bag. Now Gates has given up on that idea, although many states are still sticking with it. Thousands of teachers and principals have been fired based on the ideas sold by Gates and Duncan….”

Then there were the Common Core standards and tests. The Gates Foundation invested in the development of the standards and promoted the adoption of the Common Core by states. Many states adopted the standards, some are still using the standards, and the future is unknown, except that the Common Core was not a miracle cure that helped the students in our neediest public schools.

Having just announced his new $1.7 billion initiative, Bill Gates hasn’t given up.  There is, however, a serious structural problem with public school reform underwritten by philanthropy. Foundation grants are really capable of operating only around the edges of schooling, because they cannot ever pay for ongoing operating expenses. Grants are a one time infusion of money to launch or correct a program, but foundations virtually always assume that if a school district were to continue the project, it would have to do so through the school district’s operating budget.

What cannot be paid for with a grant? Reducing class size by hiring more teachers. Opening what are likely at first to be very small advanced math and science courses in a high school where the pipeline for advanced classes needs to be expanded. Hiring enough college counselors to ensure that case loads can be reduced and each counselor personally knows the students for whom she is responsible. Hiring the teachers for instrumental music in a school district’s elementary and middle schools to make it possible to have a fine high school band and orchestra. Launching district-wide all-day Kindergarten or a district-wide Pre-K program. Opening and operating district-wide, comprehensive after-school and summer enrichment programs. Creating full-service, wraparound Community School programming—medical, dental, and mental health clinics; parent social services; and HeadStart programs in each school building. Adding another foreign language to a school district’s curriculum.  The list goes on and on.

Instead foundation grants cover short term initiatives and programs—the development and testing of a new curriculum, a project in which consultants are brought in to work with teachers, a field-test of an experimental new program, the development of a new direction in school reform through a foundation-funded think tank doing research on a priority, and the promotion (through vast marketing) of a particular policy proposal. An example is another project of the Gates Foundation—the Portfolio District Project funded by Gates at the Gates-funded Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), located at the University of Washington Bothell.  Through its Portfolio District Project, the Center on Reinventing Public Education promotes the growth of charter schools and the collaboration of urban public school districts and the charter schools within their school district jurisdictions. Neither CRPE nor the Gates Foundation, however, invests in the actual day-to-day operation of the public school districts within its network.

Among the biggest problems with mega-philanthropy driving school reform is its lack of capacity to touch the real problems for our most vulnerable students and their schools.  At the same time, the presence of glitzy foundation initiatives encourages widespread amnesia about the primary role of  public finance of education through taxation.

Quality public education depends on stable, ample and equitably distributed tax dollars to hire the teachers, pay for programs, and keep the buildings open.  Public schools depend on state and local tax dollars for 90 percent of their operations.  The reality that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, per-pupil school funding last year in 23 states remained below what it was before the 2008 recession and federal formula funding remained below what it was in 2010—Title I down by 8.3 percent and IDEA funding down by 6.4 percent—ought to be of grave concern. Further, states’ school funding formulas remain highly inequitable, and states increasingly fund privatized charter schools and tuition scholarship for private schools out of their education budgets.

Foundation grants and programs, even from the enormous Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, cannot ameliorate these fiscal realities.

Controversy over Federal NCLB Waivers Creates Opening for Pressure Against Test-and-Punish

The shifting of public opinion sometimes happens while we aren’t paying attention, and then it becomes clear that something has changed.  Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, recently bowed to growing pressure against his policies when he told states they can delay for another year the requirement that they evaluate teachers based on students’ test results.

A couple of weeks ago Motoko Rich in the NY Times presented the history of the use of students’ scores for evaluating teachers:  “Over the past four years, close to 40 states have adopted laws that tie teacher evaluations in part to the performance of their students on standardized tests… These laws were adopted in response to conditions set by the Education Department in the waivers it granted from the No Child Left Behind law, which governs what states must do to receive federal education dollars.  The test-based teacher evaluations were also included as conditions of Race to the Top grants that have been given to states by the Obama administration.”

But recently controversy in several states about whether the U.S. Department of Education will renew or revoke the waivers from ill-conceived mechanisms of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)  have drawn media attention to NCLB’s misguided policies, along with problems in what the waivers required states to do, and  inconsistencies in the way Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is managing the waiver renewal process.

First came the extraordinary early August letter sent to all parents in Vermont by the state’s Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe.  Vermont is one of a handful of states that never applied for a waiver.  That means NCLB is still operating in Vermont, and Holcombe sent the letter required by the law to all parents whose children attend schools considered “failing” by NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress mechanism.  The problem is that, because NCLB required states to raise ‘cut scores’ for student proficiency higher every year at the same time NCLB mandated that all schools make all their students be proficient by 2014, virtually all schools across America (and all schools in Vermont) are now “failing schools” according to the way the law evaluates schools.  In her letter to all of Vermont’s parents, Holcombe explained why her state has never sought a waiver, and then explained very clearly why NCLB’s ” failure label” is meaningless.  She also explained how the whole test-and-punish regime of NCLB has been a fiasco, how the rules of NCLB and the waivers offered by Arne Duncan are all messed up, and why Vermont simply refuses to play the game. Her letter was a refreshing development!  (This blog covered Holcombe’s Vermont letter here.)

No Child Left Behind and the NCLB waiver have also been in the news in Washington state, where the U.S. Department of Education revoked the state’s waiver because the state sought to let school districts choose the exam which would be used to evaluate the state’s teachers, when the waiver requirement is that the state test required by NCLB will be used for the evaluation of teachers. Reporters for the local Kitsap Sun on August 28th found themselves trying to explain—now that NCLB is operating again in Washington due to the loss of the waiver—why 88 percent of Washington’s public schools failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress under the newly reinstated standards of NCLB by which all students in 2014 are to reach proficiency or their schools be awarded a “failing” label.  The reporters explain that the only schools in Washington state not deemed “failing” accomplished that feat under a little known “safe harbor” rule, “which credits schools for gaining significant ground in student achievement since 2011, the last time Washington had to calculate progress.  Schools that reduce the percentage of students not meeting standard by 27 percent are deemed to be making adequate yearly progress, even if they didn’t hit the 100 percent target.”  Only 260 public schools across Washington state met the “safe harbor” Adequate Yearly Progress standard.  Like Vermont’s state superintendent, educational leaders across Kitsap County’s school districts are quoted listing the honors accomplished by many of the so-called “failing” public schools.  It is refreshing to read discussion about unworkable federal education policy in a local newspaper.

Then Oklahoma  lost its waiver on September 2, after the school year had already begun.  This time the U.S. Department of Education revoked the waiver after the state’s legislature passed a law repealing the state’s adoption of the Common Core standards.  Arne Duncan’s Department of Education had made a state’s adoption of  “college and career-ready” standards a condition for receipt of a NCLB waiver, and federal regulators deemed the standards Oklahoma presented as an alternative to the Common Core—the state’s old Oklahoma Priority Academic Student Skills Standards—inadequate because too many Oklahoma college freshmen have needed remediation.  Caitlin Emma, writing for Politico, explains that other states may be in line to lose waivers:  “With Oklahoma and Washington out of the picture, 41 states and D.C. have waivers from No Child Left Behind.  Thirty-fve of those waivers expired this summer and 22 states have received one-year extensions of their waivers so far.”

The Tampa Bay Times recently editorialized about the U.S. Department of Education’s threat to cancel Florida’s NCLB waiver: “Duncan’s staff has put Florida on notice that the state is at risk of violating NCLB standards that require all children to be counted equally in accountability formulas.  Earlier this year, with the support of educators and advocates, the Legislature agreed to give non-English-speaking students two years in a U.S. school before including their standardized test scores in school grading formulas.  The change was an acknowledgement of the huge learning curve such children face and that schools should not be penalized if those students can’t read, comprehend and write English at grade level within a year.  Yet to the federal bureaucrats enforcing the unpopular NCLB law, such common sense doesn’t matter… The last thing federal enforcers should be doing is punishing a state for embracing a commonsense reform.  Education Secretary Duncan needs to find a better solution.”

It is a very good thing to see the press exploring and exposing the local problems arising from of our federal testing law No Child Left Behind and from the state laws legislatures had to pass to enable their states to meet Arne Duncan’s conditions for receiving waivers.  As more reporters cover these problems, perhaps like the editors of Tampa’s paper, more people will begin to cry out for commonsense reforms.

At the same time, there is still much confusion among reporters and the public about whose policies are driving what is becoming recognized as ill-conceived public education policy.  Across the states debates are becoming heated about plans  to evaluate teachers—based on students’ test scores.  (You’ll remember that states had to pass legislation to this effect just to qualify for a waiver.)  Despite that Arne Duncan has delayed for a year the requirement that states with waivers start such evaluations, discussion of the evaluations—at the same time states are launching the Common Core tests—is causing confusion, anger, and controversy.  Many people (citizens as well as reporters) do not realize such test-based-evaluation of teachers is a federal waiver requirement.  A recent article in the Athens (Georgia) Banner-Herald reflects the confusion. “Georgia’s new teacher assessment system is getting bad grades from Clarke County school administrators and school board members—really bad grades,” reported Lee Shearer late last week.  “The new system is expensive–the school district has spent $10,000 in printing costs alone for newly designed pre-tests…. Another problem is the system’s heavy reliance on test scores.  Under a 2013 state law sponsored by a bipartisan group of legislators, ‘student growth’ as measured by standardized tests accounts for half a teacher’s grade—even though the tests won’t count at all for individual students this year.”

That the Athens Banner-Herald is publicizing problems with excessive standardized testing is an important development.  It is up to those of us who have been tracking federal policy, however, to continue to connect the dots to ensure that political pressure is not merely on state legislators, when state legislators passed the laws merely as a requirement to qualify for a federal NCLB waiver.  Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education are vulnerable right now due to all sorts of problems with the waivers. While controversy about the waivers continues to grow, we must ensure that reporters and citizens understand that federal waiver requirements are the reason for a number of problems in their states and local school districts.  Political pressure needs to press the U.S. Department of Education to turn away from test-and-punish accountability.

High Stakes and Performance Anxiety for One Little Boy

Javier Hernandez’s in-depth piece in Sunday’s NY Times, Common Core, in  9-Year-Old Eyes, explores the way the learning theory we believe in these days intersects with real life.  I haven’t taken a class in learning theory for many years, but what I remember has little to do with what we have come to believe today in America.  These days we evaluate teachers with “value-added” formulas and try to quantify the effect of the teacher “standing in the front of the classroom.”  We believe in filling the measuring cup with curriculum up to the appropriate standard line, and then we think we can evaluate how well the teacher pours the contents into the head of the child.

In Hernandez’s article, instead, we see how such a theory contrasts with the experience of school and learning for one little boy in New York City—an immigrant from Haiti and one of triplets—two boys and one girl.  Here are just a few of the things we can learn from this story.

The teacher is dedicated and knows her stuff.  She is teaching to the standards she has been assigned and she believes in the worth of the new Common Core curriculum.  No waivering; no ambivalence.

The mother cares about education; she emigrated to NYC to give her kids a better chance.  Even though she works long hours, she pays attention to what is happening with her three children, takes away video games entirely when she learns her sons are falling behind, and even assigns her daughter to tutor her own brothers with, incidentally, what appear to be positive results.  The daughter, as often happens, was likely more mature and developmentally more ready for school than her brothers.  She is goal-oriented and competent; she has become an excellent reader by doing lots of reading.  She is often recognized with awards at school and at home affirmed for her academic prowess.

The little boy who is the subject of the piece is a sharp fourth-grader.  He wants desperately to succeed at school.  Improving at school is so important to him that the high stakes tests he faces seem to be creating performance anxiety that interferes with his enjoyment of school and his ability to move to the conceptual level required in the new math.  He was a star at the old math and this new failure alarms him. He has become more emotionally fragile.  Fantasy video games are his favorite and very distracting interest.  It appears he is behind in reading, with vocabulary gaps that make math harder for him when he is required to “draw a model using equal groups or an array to show the problem, write a division equation for the problem, or write a multiplication equation for the problem.”  While he is much more than a beginning reader, his reading skills do not provide the flexibility for him to respond adequately to the math problems now required on the test he will be taking.  And to make matters worse, he worries about having to go to summer school, he is alarmed that he might be held back, and he worries about falling behind his brother and sister—as a matter of sibling pride.  He has become an anxious child.  He has also been working hard at school under all this pressure and his test scores in reading and math appear to be rising.  What a relief for him at the moment and for his mother and his teacher.  Intense academic pressure is making him try hard and at the same time worry more.

There has been some controversy about whether it is good for this child that the NY Times named him as the article explores the very sensitive issues of his development as a student. Shouldn’t the newspaper have disguised his identity?  Like many others, I worry for the child.

But now that the newspaper has published this in-depth piece, I urge you to read it. Read it in the context of last week’s California court decision in the teacher-tenure case of Vergara, in which the judge quoted an economist who confidently declared that research proves a single year in a classroom with an ineffective teacher costs a classroom of students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings.  The article lifts up the complexity of teaching and learning—the number of issues that affect not only the teacher but every one of the children in such a classroom.  Real life child development for a whole classroom of students is so wonderfully complicated that it cannot so easily be thought about as an econometric problem.

Hernandez’s story of a child in the fourth grade at Public School 397 in Brooklyn, New York describes the kind of hard work going on in classrooms across the country. Teaching and learning are relational; something connects between teacher and child or among children. Or sometimes it does not connect and the teacher must find another way to try again and again.   The metaphor of pouring knowledge from a measuring cup into the brains of children does not describe what happens in a classroom.  Nor does it describe the experience for the child.  This story captures how learning is experienced by one little boy.

Read this blog’s comments on the Vergara teacher tenure court decision here and here.

Diane Ravitch’s Speech to the Modern Language Association about the Common Core

The Common Core Standards are the subject of a raging war in the blogosphere.  There is much heat and not enough light.

This morning linked from her blog Diane Ravitch shares an address she recently presented to the Modern Language Association on the subject of the Common Core.  The link directs you to her blog, where you will find a link to the address.

In the address, Ravitch examines the policy context in which the Common Core Standards and their accompanying standardized tests were developed, how both standards and tests were developed, who paid for all this, how the tests will be graded, and what Ravitch believes will be the long and dangerous consequences.

She correctly, I believe, locates the primary problem.  The Common Core Standards and tests are one more chapter of America’s current commitment to high-stakes standardized testing, using fear as a supposed motivator for educators, and obsessing about data. All this seems intended to suck the humanity right out of the schools that serve our children and adolescents.

And then there is the detail that surprised me (because clearly I have not been paying enough attention): the group that created the Common Core has ended its tenure.  If the educators tasked with implementing the standards discover problems, there is no designated body to which they or anyone else can petition for revisions or improvements.

The address is 18 pages (double spaced).  As an address, it is not footnoted.  It represents Diane Ravitch’s conclusions about the Common Core Standards.  I happen to share Ravitch’s assessment of the history and policy context and I also worry about who seems to be buying federal policy these days. What Ravitch describes, sadly, seems too typical of the very rushed and ideological way policy in education is being made these days. I recommend reading Ravitch’s speech if you are willing to devote a few minutes.

Common Core Debate Is Really Just Another Chapter of Test-and-Punish

The debate about the Common Core Standards and the Common Core tests is not really about whether our public school curriculum ought to be more uniform and perhaps more challenging from place to place. That would be a debate worth having.  But really instead the Common Core is the latest chapter in a long story being circulated by our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and others who share his philosophy that teachers and students alike can best be motivated by behaviorist rewards and punishments—competition, pressure and fear.

The driver here is testing—competition for high scores and punishments for low scores—along with the collection of data.  (It is essential to remember that data-driven school reform has arrived at just the moment we have the computer-driven capacity to collect and process data, and this school reform philosophy is being promoted in many cases by the same business entrepreneurs who developed the computers.)  We are told that if we threaten school districts and schools and teachers where students are struggling, everybody will work harder and our children will do better in a world dominated by global competitiveness.  Standards-and-accountability school reform has become so embedded into our national consciousness that it’s hard to remember there might be another way.

If you are looking for an up-to-date review of the issues about the Common Core, read this article by Carol Burris (posted over the weekend on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog).  Burris is an award winning elementary school principal who understands child development and respects the teachers in her school as they try to cope with the pressures of our educational culture dominated by punitive testing imposed from above.

But this morning I want to examine the implications of an educational philosophy based on accountability, testing, and fear.  Two weeks ago, by a lucky chance, I spent a morning visiting three classes at our local public high school.  I describe the work of the teachers whose classes I visited here.  All three teachers demonstrated not only exceptional mastery of their academic content, but also deep commitment to the formation of their students, intellectually, linguistically, socially, ethically, and personally.  These teachers enjoy working with adolescents, engage their students in thinking critically, and create a culture of mutual respect.  My blog post about that high school visit has been read widely here in our community, followed by some comments I’ve heard at the grocery store: “Those teachers are at our high school?”  “I had no idea we had classes like that at Heights!” “Were you scared when you were there?”

All three teachers shared with me their worries about all the testing they believe is undermining their work.  They want desperately to find a way to oppose the time taken by testing and preparing for testing, but they know that in a system designed around competition and punishment, it is difficult for those trapped inside the system to protest.  In our state that keeps cutting funding we have to keep our scores high just to pass our levies.  And in a district with 63 percent of students qualifying for free lunch, and significant mobility into the district from poorer districts, we have lots of catch up to accomplish just to keep scores moving upwards.  In a system dominated by fear, teachers must work doubly hard to keep their classes flexible, nurturing and enjoyable.

Ten years ago, Parker Palmer, who has written extensively about teaching as a vocation, described the same dilemma the teachers at our local high school shared with me last week.  Palmer’s forward to Stories of the Courage to Teach (p. xviii) urges us all to visit a school, watch what teachers do, and listen to what they say:

“If you are not a teacher and are skeptical about their plight or their dedication, I have a suggestion to make: visit a public school near you and shadow a couple of teachers…. Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.”

In the decade since Palmer wrote these words, our society has only intensified our blaming of school teachers. As I read about the debate around the Common Core—and the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Innovation Grant competitions, I have begun to create a discipline for myself.  I force myself to think about how each of these conversations is being shaped by an educational philosophy of behaviorist rewards and punishments and a process of measuring, and competition.  Then I try to think about what it would be like if we just trusted and supported the teachers who have chosen to help our society raise our children.  I would prefer to reinvest all the money now being spent on developing and administering tests in peer-driven staff development programs where teachers like the ones I observed could share their techniques with their colleagues.

Do We Really Care about the Education of Other People’s Children?

You may have noticed the hot debate about the Common Core Standards (and tests) being rolled out across the states.  The Common Core is the latest chapter in the test-based accountability movement.  The idea is that if we set the standards much higher and make the tests harder, our children will improve and their test scores on international tests will become competitive with the scores of the children in Shanghai and Finland.

The tests for the Common Core Standards have been developed by two statewide consortia—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  Forty-five states have bought into this effort, which  has been heavily “incentivized” through requirements of federal programs like the Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind waivers. Qualifying for a waiver  demands that states adopt “college and career-ready” standards, with participation in the Common Core the most immediate way a state can meet this requirement. Development of the Common Core has been extensively supported by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

What should children know? What should they be taught at each grade level?  Can we use standardized test scores as a motivator to push teachers to expect more at every level and students to work harder?  These are the questions underneath the standards and accountability movement that has washed across the country in the past quarter century.

There is nothing scientific about any of this.  It is, of course, possible to make academic expectations so unreasonable and the tests so hard that virtually everybody will fail.  If we were to develop a test for second grade that expected all of our children to be able to read the encyclopedia, know the periodic table of the elements, and do trigonometry, all the children would fail.  There are several significant variables here including whether the material on the test has or has not been taught, whether the students are developmentally ready and academically prepared to have learned the material, and how the test are graded.  Where the passing mark on any test is set is an arbitrary matter; cut scores on the Common Core are being set arbitrarily high for the purpose of getting everybody to work harder.

I do not oppose high expectations; in fact I believe all children should have the opportunity to be challenged by and excited about what they are learning.  I have not really taken sides about the Common Core, because in some ways I agree that we need to be more systematic across our fifty states about challenging children everywhere.  However, it is clear that there are problems in the way the Common Core was developed including the dearth of educators among the writers, the unrealistic setting of cut scores that make it look as though a majority of children are failing, and the use of these scores—with passage made very difficult for students—to condemn school teachers.  There are also worries about which companies are going to make huge profits from the tax dollars that will be used to purchase the related curriculum, the tests, and the computers and tablets that are going to be required for on-line testing.  In an excellent and well-documented article last week, Anthony Cody summarizes these issues.

Over this past weekend the debate took on racial overtones when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opined that many of the critics are white, suburban moms who want to believe their schools are excellent and their children brilliant but who are being disillusioned as the low scores roll out from Common Core testing.  Duncan’s comment has spawned an outcry from those who feel that Duncan insulted them.

In response to the outcry by those who feel insulted by Arne Dunan’s comment Paul Thomas of Furman University has published a thoughtful and important response.  While Thomas acknowledges that the Secretary of Education ought not to be insulting any group of parents, Thomas wonders why there has been less concern about how Arne Duncan’s policies are hurting black, brown, and poor children than how Duncan’s comment is hurting the feelings of white, suburban moms.

“Duncan has personified and voiced an education agenda that disproportionately impacts black, brown, and poor children in powerfully negative ways.  And the entire agenda has been consistently cloaked in the discourse characterizing these policies as the Civil Rights issue of the day…  Public commentary that highlights that education reform under Obama and Duncan fails the pursuit of equity in the context of race and class in the U.S. tends to fall on deaf ears.  The same urgency witnessed in the responses to Duncan’s ‘white suburban moms’ contrasts significantly from the silence surrounding challenges to Duncan’s discourse and policies that are classist and racist, policy designed for ‘other people’s children.'”

I share Thomas’s concern.  There is an urgent need to build political will for investing in and supporting the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities, places where poverty is concentrated and opportunity stunted.  Like Thomas, I would challenge President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan to begin talking about what we can do to support the educators in our struggling schools.  I worry far more about this project than development of the Common Core.

Wow: I Got the Chance to Visit our Community’s High School Yesterday

Yesterday through a lucky coincidence I spent the morning visiting Cleveland Heights High School.  Ours is an inner-ring Cleveland suburb whose high school serves close to 2,000 students.  I jumped at the opportunity, because it is difficult these days to visit classes at a school.  Security is an issue and, as we know, ideological attacks on public schools and their teachers tend to make everybody feel very protective.

Here was my chance, however, and at 8:00 AM, I presented myself and my photo ID at the security desk.  The guard cheerfully cajoled the hundreds of students who entered when I did to show their IDs, please. This was a nostalgic morning for me.  Heights was my children’s high school, and I know its halls with the polished red tile floors so well I could walk them in my sleep even though my youngest graduated twelve years ago. Yesterday I was privileged to observe three full classes: Advanced Placement (AP) world literature, non-AP American history, and a social studies elective in political philosophy.

Heights is a majority-African American high school; 63 percent of the students in our district’s public schools qualify for free lunch.  The three classes I visited were filled with eleventh and twelfth graders.  I will share the number of students in each class and the racial breakdown of the classes because it is important to observe how well a school is doing institutionally with racial integration.

In first period, AP world literature, (22 students in the class: 13 African American, 9 white), the teacher quietly made an exception for the student coming straight from his job by permitting him to eat his breakfast during class.  She then presented a rather formal PowerPoint about dominant theories of literary criticism–Marxist, Feminist, Post-Colonial, Reader Response, Deconstructionist, and New Criticism.  AP curriculum is prescribed by the national end-of-year test, and I presume schools of literary theory are a major  AP topic this year.  After introducing each category, the teacher invited her students, in what became a spirited discussion, to think about books and plays they had read or studied that would lend themselves to the particular critical approaches. E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, for example, might be good choices for the post-colonialist approach.  The students numbered off and formed groups that will each adopt one of the critical approaches and work for the rest of the school year using that approach, and, I presume, in group presentations to the class demonstrate all the different approaches.  Toward the end of class, this teacher told the students she had finished writing recommendations for their college applications, and very quickly in the last five minutes of class asked them to tell their peers where they were applying and what they hoped to study.  I was struck, as students quickly named their career hopes, by the positive comments of other students.  When a young man said he’d like to be a nurse or nurse practitioner, a young woman across the room declared: “You’d be the best nurse. You are so kind.” By now, mid-November, the teacher knows the students, and I picked up on a number of short personal conversations and much joking and careful support,  The teacher listened carefully when students tried to frame their comments on why specific literary works might lend themselves to different critical approaches; then she asked questions that might help students think through what they were struggling to articulate.  The class remained lively throughout, and the teacher remembered to wish one girl, who had arrived quite late, a happy birthday.

In American history (22 students: 15 African American, 5 white, 2 Asian) the teacher, a powerful story-teller, engaged the students with a PowerPoint and his own recounting of the Spanish American War.  Attentive to his students’ academic skills, he frequently interrupted himself to remind them about what ought to be in their notes.  What seemed most to interest his students was this teacher’s focus on the role of historians and the press in determining how history is made and remembered.  Students engaged with him in spirited conversation about the role of African American troops recruited to fight the Spanish American War, why African Americans in the Jim Crow South likely joined the army, and the way the press ignored their role.  The teacher also engaged the students by asking them to think about the parallels between this war that established the United States’ empire and the more recent war in Iraq, which they remember personally.  Even shy students felt safe enough to venture to draw connections they had not previously considered and to respond to each other.  Near the end of class time, the teacher gave a quiz (to be collected and graded):  “Write down on a half sheet of paper six probing questions about the Spanish American War.  You don’t have to answer the questions. Just write down six good questions.”  Then the stars from a previous day’s round of what must be a long-running class game stood up to be peppered with the students’ questions.  They were stumped, sat down, and others stood up.  The bell rang.  The teacher commended the students on the quality of their questions, collected the quizzes, and reminded them that tomorrow their essays on the Spanish American War are due.

Political Philosophy at Heights High is what the school calls a social studies elective.  The particular section I observed is a seminar really (14 students: 5 African American, 9 white); according to the teacher these students are a mix of juniors and seniors.  The students were in the midst of reading Voltaire’s Candide, the topic of the day’s discussion.  After he reviewed the class ground rules for respectful conversation, the teacher presented to the class a list of fifteen questions for discussion.  He asked the students collectively to decide which questions they thought were so obvious they could cross them off without discussion (usually the more literal questions… “What is the significance of the ‘six kings’?”), and then led the conversation for the rest of the hour by inviting the students to choose a question they would like to discuss.  Each time a student requested to discuss a question, he or she explained why discussion of that particular question seemed important or would help him or her better understand the book. The classroom was arranged in four rows, two on each side, which positioned the students facing each other for conversation.  One young woman became so engaged she hoisted herself up onto the radiator behind her for a better view of the students across the room.  The teacher seemed to keep a running list of those who were posing questions and speaking up.  He made a careful effort to engage all the students, often passing over a loquacious young woman to make a space for the quieter students.  The conversation ranged from the role of two characters, Pangloss and Martin, as foils and philosophers to the question of what Voltaire is satirizing in the term “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-boobology.”  The teacher  wondered aloud whether the students understand Martin’s religion, and when nobody responded, he asked them if anyone had looked-up Manichaeism.  A very tall, introspective young man, who had usually spoken in perfectly framed paragraphs, risked replying that he thought he had read that Manicheism is a very old religion, but he didn’t fully understand it.  The teacher commended his familiarity with the subject and then carefully explained its meaning.  This student then opined that it seemed Manichaeism must have become archaic by the time of Voltaire.  Finally the teacher wondered about Voltaire’s attitude toward religion itself, and the students felt safe enough to raise their questions.  No one had been able to work this out very well, and all felt comfortable admitting that.  What followed was considerable conversation about whether Voltaire is criticizing religion or hypocrisy.  At the end of the hour, the teacher challenged them to think about that question as they finished the book and invited them to speculate how the book might end.  I came home realizing that, after 47 years, I ought to re-read Candide and admiring the intellectual safety of this classroom where fourteen earnest teenagers were encountering such a book for the first time.

Tacked to the wall of each classroom was a poster about the Common Core standards that Ohio is trying out now and adopting formally next fall.  I thought about those posters and I also reflected on the national conversation about the quality of school teachers and the econometric Value Added Measures being incorporated into their evaluations.  These trends seem so disconnected from what I experienced yesterday.  All three teachers are well qualified professionals; all three were conducting their classes according to their own high academic standards; all three were engaging students respectfully and insisting that students engage each other intellectually and respectfully. What impressed me about the pedagogy itself was, in each case,  inventive engagement of students and depth of academic content.  For me the most important thing to look at in any school is what is known as the hidden curriculum—what all the students at a school learn but nobody explicitly names or teaches as subject matter.  What I was so delighted to observe yesterday in our community’s high school is a hidden curriculum of mutual respect—respect for learning and respect for others—teachers and students.

Test Scores Released Today in New York: Just Another Arbitrary Way to Discredit Public Schools (and Hurt Children)

Today New York released the scores from last spring’s round of standardized testing. This time the tests and the scoring are based on the more demanding standards being imposed by the new Common Core.

In a cascade of Orwellian language, Shael Suransky, who heads up testing for the New York City Schools, wrote to school officials to prepare them for a shocking drop in scores.  He asks them to spin the new lower scores as a step toward “equal opportunity,” and he assures school leaders that “we are also making sure it is not punitive. These results will not be used to evaluate teachers this year (emphasis mine), and students and schools will not be punished.”

The tests are pegged to benchmarks resembling those used for many years to interpret the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), called the nation’s report card.  Diane Ravitch, who has served on NAEP’s board, has continued to warn about the danger of using such standards.  Here is her comment yesterday:  “What you need to know about NAEP achievement levels is that they are not benchmarked to international standards. They are based on the judgment calls of panels made up of people from different walks of life who decide what students in fourth grade and eighth grade should know and be able to do.  It is called ‘the modified Angoff method’ and is very controversial among scholars and psychometricians.  Setting the bar so high is one thing when assessing samples at a state and national level (the purpose of NAEP), but quite another when it becomes the basis for judging individual students.  It is scientism run amok.  It is unethical.  It sets the bar where only 30-35% can clear it.  Why would we do this to the nation’s children?”

This morning, anticipating New York’s release of the new lower test scores, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss publishes an excellent piece by Carol Burris, New York’s 2013 Principal of the Year.  Burris asks us to recall Charles Dickens’ novel, Hard Times, in which Burris reminds us, “School Master Gradgrind, obsessed with data and facts, humiliates ‘Girl number 20’ who cannot ‘define a horse’… The chapter is a chilling and uncanny allegory for the data-driven, test-obsessed reforms that are now overwhelming our schools.”

Burris continues: “Our youngest children are being asked to meet unrealistic expectations.  New York’s model curriculum for first graders includes knowing the meaning of words that include ‘cuneiform,’ ‘sarcophagus,’ and ‘ziggurat.’… If we are not careful, the development of social skills, the refinement of fine motor skills, and most importantly, the opportunity to celebrate the talents and experiences of every child will be squeezed out of the school day.”

In 2005 (revised to its current form in 2008) the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy published a simple critique of the test-and-punish strategy of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Ten Moral Concerns in No Child Left Behind.  Supporting a “whole child” philosophy of education, the Committee criticized the narrow, arbitrary, and punitive strategy of NCLB:  “As people of faith we do not view our children as products to be tested and managed but instead as unique human beings, created in the image of God, to be nurtured and educated.”  “The law has not acknowledged that every child is uniqiue and that Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) thresholds are merely benchmarks set by human beings.”

The nation’s test-and-punish public education strategy has not diminished despite intense criticism of NCLB.  These days scores on standardized tests are being used to judge not only children’s achievement but also the performance of their teachers and their schools.  Financial rewards and punishments for schools and educators have ensued along with school closures and privatization.  Perhaps Dickens’ Hard Times would be a good choice for the mass of book clubs and reading groups that have sprung up across the land.