Friday, December 18, 2015

Physician, Heal Thyself

Desperately poor, hostilely stereotyped, restricted from accessing reproductive health services, over-incarcerated, #72 globally in governmental representation with increasing maternal mortality...

There's nothing we love more than carping over cruelty to women in other nations, particularly those that cover women from head to toe (hijab or burka bad, wimple or habit apparently fine), but the recent report from the UN Working Group on discrimination against women had some awful things to say about women's treatment here at home.

Three delegates, from Costa Rica, Poland, and the UK, spent 10 days in three states looking at policies, attitudes, and systems, and boy were they surprised. Pregnant women don't have maternity leave! Violence against women often includes guns! Vigilantes attack women at clinics!

But the worst thing of all, according to Huffington Post's interview, is that American women retain a deep-seated but demented belief that we're better off than women elsewhere. I suppose that's what gives us the self-righteousness to challenge other cultures' bad behaviors.

Friday, December 11, 2015

NY Common Core Task Force Issues Report

That was pretty fast work! The Common Core Task Force, which looked a bit like the old Education Reform Commission with the addition of a handful of people who worked for real in public schools plus a parent and a student, has already issued a report based on public sessions, listening sessions, outreach, and 1,800 comments submitted to the Task Force website, which allowed individuals to comment on specific Common Core State Standards. (I was one of the respondents; assuming that every other respondent was a teacher, which I know is not true, the number of comments amount to about a 0.9% response. Pretty sad, and considering the strong 2014-15 pushback from parents and teachers, surprising.)

The Task Force produced a very nice report with 21 recommendations, which I'll review below. All comments are my opinion, based on 40 years of working with learning goals/standards.

Recommendation 1: Adopt high quality New York education standards with input from local districts, educators, and parents through an open and transparent process. The old NYS standards had such input. They also looked like a patched-together mish-mosh, as indeed they were. Maybe it's my editorial bias, but I liked the CCSS because they were simple and consistent. California has gone through the CCSS and added occasional bits to existing standards, boldfacing their additions but not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It would be nice if we could do something similar.

Recommendation 2: Modify early grade standards so they are age-appropriate. There have been a lot of complaints about the K-2 standards, despite the fact that NYS doesn't test them. It is certainly true that you get enormous variance in readiness at these grades, so some real flexibility is called for. I don't remember seeing a lot of state standards that enabled that kind of flexibility, but maybe we can do better.

Recommendation 3: Ensure that standards accommodate flexibility that allows educators to meet the needs of unique student populations, including Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners. Yes, absolutely. This isn't so much a problem with the standards as with the application of the standards. Insisting that everyone accomplish everything becomes daunting for teachers and frustrating for students, and yes, cruel. In our eagerness not to track students, we've lost sight of the goal, which has to be to help each individual reach his or her potential.

Recommendation 4: Ensure standards do not lead to the narrowing of curriculum or diminish the love of reading and joy of learning. The focus on reading and math of course led to diminished focus on everything else. The focus on nonfiction (which, I have to tell you, is really what people read in college and career) irked everyone who wanted kids to read for fun. I hope we don't ignore the importance of getting students to read nonfiction—it's a skill that my own college student wishes she had. New standards/frameworks in science and social studies exist, but NYS has been slow to incorporate them because of the singleminded focus on CCSS reading and math. I am not sure whether this recommendation means that NYS standards will be in every subject area as they were in the past; it's just not clear yet.

Recommendation 5: Establish a transparent and open process by which New York standards are periodically reviewed by educators and content area experts. Well, yes. I don't think anyone expects any standards to be set in stone and not subject to review. Old NYS standards were gutted and revised every few years, but people seem to have forgotten that.

Recommendation 6: Ensure educators and local school districts have the flexibility to develop and tailor curriculum to the new standards. When I did my student teaching, we had to write lesson plans based on learning goals. That's what we did. It served me well in the textbook biz, where we are given a state or national standard and told to write a four-page or six-page lesson or chapter or whatever. I was so confused when the state started issuing "modules" for districts; it seemed to be the opposite of what most districts usually want. And there was so much grief about the modules—some of them were good, and some were very bad, because, guess what—they were written by people working very fast to fill a sudden need. The reason for the need still eludes me, but I gather that there just wasn't time between the delivery of the CCSS and the school year to revise existing lesson plans. I still find this odd, because I know that state standards change over time, and I guess I assumed that teachers revised lessons to fit. CCSS was not a completely radical shift; it didn't require any textbook, for example, to throw out all lessons and start from scratch. Books did require tweaking; a lit series might need to up its focus on nonfiction, for example, and composition series needed to break down argument writing better than they had in the past. But none of it was super-dramatic, at least in ELA. I just wonder whether teacher training is at fault here; do teachers not get the training they need to accommodate changes in learning goals from year to year?

Recommendation 7: Release updated and improved sample curriculum resources. Again with the modules. Honestly, if you hate the modules so much, don't use the bloody modules. They were meant to be models, as I understand it, not stone tablets.

Recommendation 8: Launch a digital platform that enables teachers, including pre-service teachers and teacher educators, to share resources with other teachers across the state. Well, these exist all over the place, but having a state-sponsored platform is a great idea.

Recommendation 9: Create ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers, teacher educators, and administrators on the revised State standards. This recommendation does focus on teacher prep, thank goodness, and it also ensures that BOCES will continue to play a critical role going forward.

Recommendation 10: Involve educators, parents, and other education stakeholders in the creation and periodic review of all State standards-aligned exams and other State assessments. This calls for a process similar to that for the Regents exams, with questions designed by teachers and reviewed by content area experts as well as special ed and ELL teachers. I can't comment on the practicality of this. The recommendation also asks the State to work with higher ed to help adopt tests that predict college readiness, to which I say, "Hooray!" The goal would be to eliminate the need for students to take remedial coursework at any NY public college. I'm guessing that this test will have to take place in 11th grade in order for remediation to enable a student to graduate—we're talking right now about a huge number of students, as many as a quarter of graduates in some of our local districts.

Recommendation 11: Gather student feedback on the quality of the new tests. It seems reasonable that students should be allowed to complain if questions confuse them or seem unrelated to their learning.

Recommendation 12: Provide ongoing transparency to parents, educators, and local districts on the quality and content of all tests, including but not limited to publishing the test questions. Publishing a percentage of test questions is always useful. Publishing a whole test means creating tests from scratch annually, which is both exorbitantly expensive and fails to allow for correspondence of items from one year to the next. Better and more timely score reports are a great idea; making them as super-specific as the recommendations suggest may be difficult, but would certainly be useful.

Recommendation 13: Reduce the number of days and shorten the duration for standards-aligned State standardized tests. Yes, it's ridiculous and expensive to spend so much time testing. The revision of NCLB, now signed into law as ESSA, ensures that we're stuck with 3-8 and high school testing, but it doesn't have to be 540 minutes' worth.

Recommendation 14: Provide teachers with the flexibility and support to use authentic formative assessments to measure student learning. Why isn't this happening now? Or is it? There's nothing in CCSS or even in NCLB that ever suggested that teachers not use different types of assessments for their various classroom needs. I am confused about the inclusion of this recommendation.

Recommendation 15: Undertake a formal review to determine whether to transition to untimed tests for existing and new State standardized tests aligned to the standards. This has to do with reducing anxiety. If the goal is simply to find out whether students have learned, surely there's no need for a time limit. However, untimed tests will offer new challenges for districts and teachers alike.

Recommendation 16: Provide flexibility for assessments of Students with Disabilities. Kids who fall between a need for alternative assessments and the ability to fly through regular assessments are at a decided disadvantage. There's some desire to test Students with Disabilities at their instructional age rather than at their chronological age, presumably based mostly on reading levels. This will require a waiver from the feds, though. What's happening now isn't working; let's hope a new plan comes forth that is more kid-friendly than what we have now.

Recommendation 17: Protect and enforce testing accommodations for Students with Disabilities. If kids are eligible for accommodations, they must receive accommodations (extra time, oral delivery of directions, etc.) Seems like a no-brainer, but apparently it has not been enforced statewide.

Recommendation 18: Explore alternative options to assess the most severely disabled students. If students have instructional ages below K, they simply should not have to take these assessments. Coming up with an alternative plan seems completely sane.

Recommendation 19: Prevent students from being mandated into Academic Intervention Services based on a single test. It would help if AIS were seen as an advantage rather than a punishment, but sadly, that's often not the case. This recommendation calls for AIS to be based on various other input in addition to test scores. Certainly you never want a child stuck in AIS instead of receiving instruction in music or art, as happens sometimes. I think AIS should be entirely rethought, and a state panel should look at best practices and encourage them to be instituted statewide.

Recommendation 20: Eliminate double testing for English Language Learners. Right now, new immigrants who don't speak English at home have one year before they are tested in ELA. The feds require such kids to take an English Language Proficency test as well until they demonstrate proficiency in the language. This double-testing does not seem fair, and I agree with the recommendation that one year is not enough leeway.

Recommendation 21: Until the new system is fully phased in, the results from assessments aligned to the current Common Core Standards, as well as the updated standards, shall only be advisory and not be used to evaluate the performace of individual teachers or students. My guess is that we will never actually grade teachers based on standardized tests, because we will never end up keeping one test or testing plan longer than a handful of years. This transition phase is purely transitory; when have we ever kept a system long enough to draw any conclusions from it? That, in a nutshell, is the story of American education: Constant change, such that no one student makes it through preK-12 with a single set of learning goals or a consistent curriculum.

This is a lovely report that manages once again to conflate testing with standards but does address most of the critical complaints from stakeholders. With ESSA's effective elimination of federal oversight of schools, it is timely, too. My questions remain: Why would any nation on Earth want 50 different sets of goals for educating its students? How do we protect students from parochialism and dumbing-down? What can we do to prepare new teachers better? How many pathways to graduation should exist, and how can we afford them? When will we start looking at a model for regional high schools?

I liked CCSS for a lot of reasons: consistency, simplicity, thoughtfulness, connection to long-term goals. From inception to finish, they lasted eight years—a bit less in some states. That's longer than New Math, longer than Whole Language. I guess that makes the Common Core successful in American ed-terms. *sigh*

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Our Tolerance of Intolerance

Yesterday I had to test the noun persecution to accompany Elie Wiesel's Nobel Prize acceptance speech in a literature series. I did not use the model sentence "Donald Trump hopes to initiate persecution of American Muslims"; I wrote something about the Kurds. But it did get me thinking about the long and dreary history of religious persecution in the US, where sects avoiding persecution elsewhere were more than happy to persecute those who followed them to our shores.

The Puritans put down stakes early on and took the European tack of enforcing theirs as the only allowable official religion in the territories where they lived. In fact, they went beyond their own Anglican roots in England, which by then was accepting presbyterianism and tolerating some other forms of Protestantism. The Puritans turned on Quakers with a vehemence that is Trump-worthy. They accused them of witchcraft, punched holes in their tongues, imprisoned and beat them, forced them out of New England and Virginia, or sent them back to England.

Even before that, French Huguenots had established a colony in what's now Florida, only to be wiped out by the Spanish, who told their king that "they were scattering the odious Lutheran doctrine in these Provinces."

Not until James Madison was there any movement toward tolerance in government policy, and it is Madison's work that allows us to suggest that ours is not necessarily a Christian nation. He and Thomas Jefferson agreed on a plan for establishing religious freedom. Madison wrote later that "religion and Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together."

That did not stop anti-Catholic fervor, which started with the burning of a convent in Massachusetts in 1834 and built steadily through the growth of the Know-Nothing Party, which of course built anti-Catholic rhetoric into its platform. The Know-Nothings were followed by the Ku Klux Klan. In the 20th century, Al Smith was defeated by anti-Catholics, and even JFK had to reassure the populace that his allegiance was to the nation, not to the Pope. There is even an element of anti-Catholicism in our current immigration hysteria.

Mormonism is an easy religion to mock—the only one I can think of to have inspired its own satirical Broadway show—but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints may be the only religion since the founding that has also inspired its own war. The Utah War of 1857-58 saw the federal government under President Buchanan descend on Utah Territory in an effort to disperse the Mormon population. It was apparently a bloodless war, since the Mormons were underarmed and refused to fire on the soldiers. Mostly they played pranks on the federal troops, blocking their way, burning the grass for their horses, and stampeding their cattle. It's a pretty good David v. Goliath story. But that's not to say that Mormons did not suffer from persecution—their prophet was killed by an armed mob in 1844, and they were forcibly expelled from their homes in the midwest, leading to their re-establishment in Utah Territory under Brigham Young.

And then there's anti-Semitism, both overt and covert. We've had Charles Coughlin and the Christian Front; the Ku Klux Klan, which never met a non-Protestant it couldn't hate; the overt anti-Semitism of Richard Nixon and the slightly quieter but far more dangerous anti-Semitism of FDR, which may have been responsible for the turning away of Jewish refugees and the suppression of information about the Holocaust.

I will say that I can't remember a candidate using anti-religious prejudice as a plank in his campaign—but there does seem to be a bit of a precedent in the Hoover-Smith battle of 1928, where Hoover was careful not to cross the line but let his wife and the Klan spread the message about Smith. In the Nixon-Kennedy battle, Nixon vowed to keep religion out of the campaign while working behind the scenes to build up anti-Catholic fervor. Our local Millard Fillmore was nominated by the Know-Nothings to run a second time for the Presidency in 1856, an election he lost. It was an ironic move, because Fillmore had actually named Brigham Young governor of Utah Territory during his earlier presidency. The only thing he really had in common with nativists was his desire to unite the nation.

Lest we forget, here's the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It is amazing how the people who tout American exceptionalism, by which I think they mean our unique pursuit of democratic ideals, can be the very same people who are willing to set fire to the Constitution whenever adhering to its principles seems a bit inconvenient. But they have many historical prototypes on which to model their bad behavior.

Thursday, December 3, 2015


It's rare that you find people applauding a bill that is such a compromise that absolutely nobody gets anywhere close to everything he or she wanted. Yet the chatter around the revamped ESEA reauthorization, now titled Every Student Succeeds, is that just about everyone's a little bit happy.

Folks like the Center for American Progress are grateful that the feds still play some role, however small, in maintaining the data that proves that at-risk students are or are not doing okay. If we're honest, we know that returning all power to the states ensures that Every Average White Student Succeeds. ESSA doesn't return all power to the states, but it returns a lot. States may now choose their own highly rigorous standards (mostly, so far, that means Common Core Lite), meaning that we will return to an apples v. oranges situation as kids move across borders or apply from different states to the same college. Seven (why seven?) states may revamp their assessments immediately. Punitive sanctions and Annual Yearly Progress goals are gone, which is enough to let the NEA sign on. Despite the NEA president's suggestion that testing is enormously reduced, 3-8 and HS reading and math testing remain, with science tested three times across the student's career (elementary, middle, high school). Results must still be reported for various subgroups, which cheers civil libertarians. But the states get to decide how to intervene in low-performing schools. That never worked before; who knows why people assume it will work now. But perhaps there are built-in incentives to hold their feet to the fire.

I do like this quote from blogger Jeff Bryant: "First, it’s a sign of dysfunction, rather than a triumph of bipartisanship, to see officials in Washington, DC celebrating legislation that significantly curtails the influence of officials in Washington, DC." NCLB was an overreach, for sure. In attempting to shove every student, teacher, and school in the US through the same round hole, it perpetrated unfairness and suffering on children whose only fault was to be in the wrong classroom at the wrong time, or to exhibit a learning disability, or to be new to English. I accept that we can't trust officials in Washington, DC, to educate our kids. Can we trust officials in Albany? Topeka? Jackson? Stay tuned.