John Oliver Examines NCLB, Race to the Top, and Testing in Comedy Monologue

Surely it must be significant that John Oliver, the HBO comedian, did an 18 minute segment last week on what’s gone haywire in American public education.  Oliver traces the history of test-and-punish since the federal testing law No Child Left Behind Act was enacted in January of 2002.  I urge you to watch this segment of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

You will see a clip of President George W. Bush defining (Definition probably wasn’t his strong point.) school accountability and a video of candidate Barack Obama, in a speech to the National Education Association, disdaining an education philosophy centered around children coloring in bubbles on standardized tests.  Oliver puzzles about the inconsistency—a candidate Obama who said he hated testing and a President Obama whose administration has vastly expanded the amount of testing through programs like Race to the Top that led to the Common Core and stretched the uses of testing not only for rating and punishing schools but also for evaluating teachers with algorithms based on their students’ scores.

As if that isn’t enough, Oliver looks into the corporate testing industry—its reach and power in the lives of children and teachers, it’s secrecy, and the public’s inability to do anything about it even when test questions are poorly written.  We hear from the people who work as test graders—people who responded to ads on Craig’s List, people who are themselves held accountable for coming up with a bell curve in scores among the essays they read—not too many high scores.

The situation in our schools has been at the same time absurd and deeply troubling for almost fifteen years now, but none of this seems to have seeped inside the Beltway, where Congress is considering legislation that leaves annual testing in place, continues to blame teachers, and fails to address serious problems in the struggling schools of our nation’s impoverished communities.

Is nobody paying attention to what is happening with our children?  I have wondered if, as a culture, we have adopted an education philosophy of “out of sight, out of mind”—if we have accepted a focus on test scores as a proxy for caring about our society’s children.  I am delighted to see John Oliver raising this issue as though it is something people watching television ought to be thinking and talking about.

Our children and our more than 3 million school teachers across America ought to matter to us.  Watch this video.  Talk about it.  Get some other people to watch it and talk about it.

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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.