Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ohio Bill to Limit School Standardized Testing to Four Hours per Year

If the ACT and SAT can test college readiness for students on one day in about four hours, and the GRE can test readiness for graduate school on one day in less than four hours, then why do the new Common Core tests like PARCC take several days at different times during the year and require six or more hours? That's the question many teachers, parents, and students are asking themselves. Certainly, the increased emphasis and scope and frequency of standardized tests is becoming a burden for schools and students alike. For, the testing schedule is not just about the actual test times because the administering of the tests, as well the necessary test prep time schools commit because of the high stakes, can take as many as 10 - 15 days out of the the school year's instructional time.

And, one state legislator in Ohio is calling for some common sense reform.

A new bill introduced by Ohio state legislator Andrew Brenner would limit mandated state testing for most students to four hours per student per year. This limit would restrict the PARCC assessment which can take up to ten hours and is given at least two different times during the year. The bill would also limit the state's required science and social studies assessments, which add on even more time to testing schedules. Certainly, assessment has become the norm in public education, and schools are facing constant pressure to judge school quality based on standardized test scores. The problem comes when a seemingly endless string of tests are incorporated to test all kids regularly in all subjects.

Schools need choice and freedom on the use of assessments. While the corporate edu-reformers are heavily invested and committed to companies like Pearson, Inc. administering the PARCC assessment, voices of reason like Andrew Brenner's may be a good place to start the discussion.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Is Subtraction Really That Hard?

Edu-blogger Darren Miller over at Right on the Left Coast offers an interesting juxtaposition on the "New Math" and the multi-step approach that is apparently guiding math instruction under the Common Core. By now we've all seen examples of the "Byzantine" way of performing basic addition and subtraction problems that are frustrating both elementary students and their parents. As a math teacher, Darren wonders "is the standard algorithm really that difficult for most kids" and are any of the new ways of math really easier or more effective for kids. He doubts it. But along with the discussion of algorithms, he reminds us of this compelling argument for understanding the algorithm:

Saturday, October 4, 2014

DPE Poll Reveals Wide Support for Public Schools - Criticism of "Reform"

For a while now, discussion of public education has deferred to the DFER's (Democrats for Education Reform) who have aligned themselves with corporate interests and business-model reforms like increased standardized testing and test-based teacher accountability. The DFER's are led by Ed Sec Arne Duncan - a school administrator who has no teaching credentials - and Bill Gates - a billionaire computer programmer who has no teaching credentials. Together, Duncan and Gates have enabled the views of the Chamber of Commerce to drive education reforms like Common Core and PARCC/SmarterBalanced Testing. All of this "reform" has been grounded in the belief that "public schools are failing" and "American students are falling behind the rest of the world."

But there is a new voice from the Democratic Caucus, supporting traditional public education.

The Democrats for Public Education (DPE) just released a poll showing "overwhelming support for public education." America schools are not failing, and the public does not blame union teachers and tenure for the problems that plague our poorest schools. In fact, most parents have very positive views of their schools, with 80% rating their kids' schools "good to excellent." This poll mirrors the standard disgruntled American habit of "hating Congress but loving our congressman." Interestingly, most Americans cite socio-economics as the primary cause of poor schools - either through inadequate funding or low parental involvement. Both ways are about a lack of money.

Other interesting results:

  • Only 3% of Americans blame education's problems on "bad teachers."
  • Nearly 60% believe there is "too much" standardized testing
  • Only 27% have a negative view of "tenure" and most support due process for teachers
  • Many Americans have little to no understanding of charter schools

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Colorado Teacher Refuses to Give PARCC Test to Students

As the nation heads into election season, and schools go deeper into the year, the issue of standardized testing - notably PARCC tests aligned to Common Core standards - continues to rile up communities as parents begin to question the value and validity of the standards and more notably the standardized tests. Many parents nationwide are considering joining a grown "Opt Out" movement, in which parents refuse to have their kids tested by the state. And, some bold and principled teachers are now supporting that movement as they "refuse to administer the PARCC test." Peggy Robertson, of Aurora, Colorado, has published an open letter to the people of Colorado in which she explains why she cannot in good conscience administer a test that in her mind "has no credibility" and which serves no purpose other than to harm instruction in schools and increase the achievement gap.

I also refuse to administer the PARCC because I believe that participation in such testing gives the test credibility – of which it has none. The PARCC test was designed to assess the Common Core standards, which are not grounded in research, nor are they internationally benchmarked. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the Common Core standards, Common Core curriculum and Common Core testing, will in any way close the achievement gap. It will do the opposite. By funneling all of our tax dollars to corporations for curriculum, tests and technology to implement the test, we have ignored the elephant standing in the middle of the room – the number of homeless school children in Colorado, which has more than tripled in the last decade.  The poverty rate of black children stands at approximately 40 percent while the poverty rate of  Latino children is approximately 30 percent. Colorado also has the third fastest growing rate of childhood poverty in the nation. We know quite clearly that children who have quality nutrition, healthcare, as well as access to books via libraries with certified librarians, and all the other resources provided to children in particular zip codes, actually, have done quite well on standardized tests in the past. Yet, we continue to ignore this fact, and we continue to feed our children living in poverty only tests. In order to pay for these tests, technology, and curriculum, we strip our schools of much needed resources such as books, small class size, librarians, nurses, counselors and more. Closing the achievement gap requires closing the resource gap.

Peggy is not the first teacher to refuse to give the tests, as a kindergarten teacher in Florida also recently refused to give the test and made public her intentions. And that teacher refusal movement may continue to grow as more teachers are realizing this massive increase in the number and importance of standardized tests is putting the system of public education on the wrong path

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Military Leaders Promote Nutrition Standards - For Illogical Reasons

In terms of developing policy statements, I expect our nation's military leaders to be more logical and critical in the conclusions they draw and the positions they take. Thus, I was a little disappointed to learn that our head soldiers apparently fancy themselves nutrition and weight loss experts. And I was more disappointed in the clear hypocrisy in the news, "Retired Military Brass say Stay the Course on School Lunches." Apparently, the military has concluded that 70% of soldier candidates are ineligible for military service due to obesity factors. And, they have concluded that it's school lunches that contribute to weight problems and that the new nutritional standards will lower the obesity rate. Their position is naive, if not outright incorrect.

Truly, diets impact weight. And many school lunch programs have traditionally served foods of questionable nutrition. The classic image of the students with a slice of pizza, fries, and a cookie is synonymous with our nation's unhealthy relationship with food. All people need to decrease their sugar and carbohydrate intake and increase their consumption of fresh vegetables. But the changes mandated by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act are based in faulty science, and they are out of sync with what the military actually feeds its men when they arrive on base.

The primary problem with the National School Lunch Program is that it sets calorie counts for "acceptable consumption" to correlate with minimal weight gain. But the needs of high school students vary widely, and the military cafeterias are all you can eat. Secondly, the NSLP puts restrictions on fat, sugar, and sodium that do not correlate with weight control. First, there is no connection between milk fat and obesity. In fact, people who drink whole milk lose more weight than those who consume low-fat and fat-free milk. Thus, Michelle Obama and the federal government are literally off their rockers with their "anti-fat" crusade, and they are only making the problem worse. And, of course, the US military does not limit soldiers to low-fat milk. The US military does not arbitrarily limit calories. And the US military does not impose the HHKA's limits on sugar and sodium.

So, the US military is promoting an idea that they don't even believe in. And that is pretty pathetic. If the US military leaders and the First Lady Michelle Obama want to impact weight and health, they need to go after processed food manufacturers. It's highly processed foods which are heavy in white carbohydrates that are causing weight gain. And "nutrition" leaders need to get a clue.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Proponents of School Choice Aren't Really about "Choice" at all

The "school choice"movement has been a buzz word and a catch phrase for education reformers for quite a few years now. Yet, the realists who live on the front lines of education know that school "choice" is not really about choice at all. The movement is only about vouchers and asking students which "college prep" school they want to attend. It's never about what kind of school, or even whether to go to school or not. These are issues I address in my most recent piece of the Denver Post:

The Limits of School Choice 

In an era of standardization and conformity, the issue of choice is more important than ever. Students must be given the true opportunity to pursue their path in life. Whether it is bachelor's and master's degrees leading to professions in marketing or medicine or it's associate's degrees and apprenticeships for future technicians and laborers, there are multiple pathways to careers. And they do not all require a "common" proficiency in Algebra II at the age of fifteen.

The goal of education should not be to create a "standardized citizenry." It should be to produce creative and innovative thinkers who represent the rugged individuality upon which the country was founded. As long as public education is moving toward a "common floor" and students are not allowed true "choice" about their studies and their futures, public education will never live up to its promise.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Teachers & Guns at School

It's one of the grand myths about guns, public safety, and school shootings - that arming teachers would deter school shootings and keep kids safe. There is little in terms of policy discussions that would generate more vigorous response than the idea of arming school personnel. And, I, for one, am wholeheartedly opposed to any non-police personnel carrying firearms at school. And now, in the matter of a week, we have two vivid examples for why my opposition to guns in school is well founded.

This week, an elementary teacher in Utah "accidentally shot herself in the leg" when her "weapon accidentally discharged" while the teacher was in the restroom. Seriously. There is little room for error with firearms, and the thought of an accidental shooting by a teacher at a school is truly disturbing. Fortunately, no students were in school at the time. The same is not true for a university in Idaho. There, a professor "shot himself in the foot" in class when students were present after his gun accidentally "went off" while in his pocket. No students were hurt in the incident. But that's really not the point, is it.

Gun safety and the ability to proficiently handle a firearm is tenuous at best. And gun proponents are fooling themselves whenever they envision themselves or others heroically saving the day during a crisis by taking out a gun and taking down an intruder. More than likely the inevitable panic of the situation will lead to accidents and far more collateral damage. Trained police officers who practice shooting regularly don't even hit their targets with reliability during a crisis. Civilians can't begin to hope for reliability in the crisis. If schools and communities seek guns on campus to confront threats, the only answer is to hire School Resource Officers.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hugely Disappointing Finale of American Ninja Warrior

First the unfair elimination of Kacey Katanzaro, and now an incredibly boring and ultimately disappointing season finale with two decent runs and no champion on NBC/Esquire's American Ninja Warrior. Just like a competitor who has swung too far on the chains to have a chance to move on to the next challenge, I am thinking of calling it quits. The show is entertaining enough ... until it's not.

Last night's season finale of the toughest obstacle course competition in the world ended with only two competitors - Joe "the Weatherman" Moravsky and Elet Hall - even making it to Stage Three. Elet went out on the third challenge, the Hanging Boards, while Joe surpassed his last year's performance to ultimately run out of arm strength on the inverted climbing wall. Those two runs happened in the last fifteen minutes of a two-hour show in which 16 of 18 finalists never really got anywhere in Stage One - the hanging ropes that were poorly designed, not entertaining, and ultimately slowed down and tired out competitors to the point that they really had no chance to finish. And that new obstacle slowed down and tired out the show, which is coming "dangerously close to a point where the entertainment of the competition won't outweigh the ongoing lack of a champion."

ANW has lasted for six seasons without producing victory - and while that was cool and mysterious for a while, it's reaching a point of futility. Who wants to watch a show that can't be completed by athletes of exceptional skill at the top of their game? That ropes challenge didn't defeat them - it just stupidly interfered with their ability to shine. And why create new challenges when the old haven't been defeated? Americans love competition, but we also value success and achievement. And no other sports seeks to get harder and put the prize out of reach just for the heck of it. The Olympic games don't change the course - they just wait for people to complete it even faster. The NFL isn't wildly popular because they changed the rules - players have just gotten better. True, spectators enjoying watching people attempt the impossible - if only for the novelty. But that wears off, and we won't continue to watch without some hope.

NBC and Esquire and American Ninja Warrior offered us two hours of surprisingly mundane entertainment, yet kept us teased and interested based on hope of victory. It was never going to happen - and I can't say I will commit that time again. Additionally, the producers are wasting the time and insulting the talents and dedication of the contestants with a measly $500K for what is arguably the most impossible achievement in the world. If it's really that hard, then the prize money should be a cumulative pot, and they ought to be offering a couple million dollars by now. Goodness knows the ratings generate enough revenue to support that. And, while no one wants the course to get harder, the producers should address the issue of the challenges, so the goal is not simply watching someone fail or waiting to see how far they get before the inevitable failure happens.

If ANW creates a course where Kacey can legitimately compete, and epic contenders like Brian Arnold aren't ousted on a really boring challenge that never allows his talents and endurance to truly be test, then I may be back. But don't count on it.

I may just wait for a victor and then watch the re-run on YouTube.

Get it together ANW. We all deserve better.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Join the H&R Block Budget Challenge - $3 Million in Prizes

"You've got to show me the money."

That request never gets old. And, that phrase can still bring smiles to the faces of my students. Financial well being - the kind that Cuba Gooding Jr.'s "Rod Tidwell" was looking for as a client of Jerry Maguire - is on the minds of everyone these days. We are all looking for information on how to make good decisions that will give us stability. And, parents and teachers know that today's young people need this information as much as anybody. That's why H&R Block is promoting financial sense to young people.

H&R Block thinks "personal finance education is so important" that they are "paying people to learn" it. That sentiment is the gist of a new educational opportunity from the company that has been providing sound financial advice to people for more than fifty years. Everyone can use some good advice on managing their money these days, and young people just starting out are most in need of skills in financial literacy. To that end, H&R Block has created the H&R Block Budget Challenge, which is an "interactive financial education competition for high school students" that promises $3 million in prizes.

For many years, I have promoted financial literacy to my students, encouraging them to read books like David Bach's The Automatic Millionaire, where they will learn the magic of compound interest and the value of simple tricks such as "saving 10%" of what they earn. Lessons about managing a check book and deciphering credit card offers were a mystery to me until I was well into adulthood, and I could have benefited greatly from the opportunity to practice making adult financial decisions before I was actually an adult and risking my own money. That's why I have always been impressed with the high school social studies teachers I know who make economics and personal financial literacy are part of their standard curriculum. And, those who seek opportunities like the H&R Block Budget Challenge have the greatest impact by using a game and the spirit of competition to engage young people with possibly the most important and immediately useful information they'll learn in school - the ability to manage their financial lives.

H&R Block's program seems like a great opportunity for students and teachers alike. Classroom materials are readily available, and the program offers grants and scholarships for participating schools. Teenagers participate in the competition as "recent college graduates" just starting out in life. They will gain experience managing their money and facing personal financial decisions. I can remember the uncertainty of those first few months out on my own - and I was doing it half-way around the world after travelling abroad for my first job. My first paycheck was serious business, as I tried to envision how much I needed each month to cover rent, food, bills, etc. Teens these days face more challenges with cell phone bills and ubiquitous credit offers. Thus, the more experience they have, the better.

One of the best things about this opportunity is that it is FREE. That will certainly appeal to teachers dealing with ever tighter school budgets. Teachers who use the H&R Block Budget Challenge will receive a full starter kit of information and prepared lesson plans to get their kids on the right financial path. I've trusted my tax return to H & R Block for years, and I believe in the guidance they provide. And the Block Budget Challenge seems like a great opportunity for teaching personal financial literacy to young people. Being well informed on issues of credit and bill paying is invaluable.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Eat Real Food - Take the 10-Day Real Food Challenge with Lisa Leake

Roughly a year ago, my wife and I considered pursuing an "un-processed life." After realizing the negative impact that processed foods and sugars have on our health - and our environment - we planned to separate ourselves from the pack. It was more difficult than we thought, but we still try to eat as naturally as possible. And, now, there is a great resource and a best-selling book on eating mainly "real food." Blogger, writer, and mom Lisa Leake had our idea four years ago when she launched the 100 Days of Real Food blog.  Now, the idea has gone big time with a book sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list. Here's the story of how it all happened:

Thanks to Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, Lisa Leake was given the wake-up call of her life when she realized that many of the foods she was feeding her family were actually "foodlike substances." So she, her husband, and their two young girls completely overhauled their diets by pledging to go 100 days without eating highly processed or refined foods—a challenge she opened to readers on her blog. What she thought would be a short-term experiment turned out to have a huge impact on her personally. After wading through their fair share of challenges, experiencing unexpected improvements in health, and gaining a preference for fresh, wholesome meals, the Leakes happily adopted their commitment to real food as their "new normal."
Now Lisa shares her family's story, offering insights and cost-conscious recipes everyone can use to enjoy wholesome natural food prepared with easily found ingredients such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, seafood, locally raised meats, whole-milk dairy products, nuts, natural sweeteners, and more.

Filled with step-by-step instructions, this hands-on cookbook and guide includes:
  • Advice for navigating the grocery store and making smart real food purchases
  • Tips for reading ingredient labels
  • 100 quick-and-easy recipes for such favorites as Homemade Chicken Nuggets, Whole Wheat Pasta with Kale Pesto Cream Sauce, Cheesy Broccoli Casserole, The Best Pulled Pork in the Slow Cooker, and Cinnamon-Glazed Popcorn
  • Meal plans and suggestions for kid-pleasing school lunches, parties, and snacks
  • A 10-day mini-starter program, and much more.
100 Days of Real Food offers all the support, encouragement, and guidance you'll need to make these incredibly important and timely life changes.

Considering the challenges America faces, and the continued bad habits of the way we eat, we could probably all stand to take the "Real Food Challenge." The keys are recognizing the words on ingredient lists and asking yourself if the food you're eating occurs naturally. A plan to eat more "from scratch" cooking would be far more effective at reducing diet-related health problems than misguided efforts to micromanage the diets of school children. Ultimately, it all begins and ends at home.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Teacher's Case For Summer Vacation.

Though, I've discussed the issue with - and mis-conceptions about - summer vacation before, recently published my piece about "Education Reformer New Craze: A War on Summer Vacation." As education critics and reformers look for new ways to chip away at public education, the summer break is an easy target because of the "summer slide," or regression in learning while away from school. However, the "solution" of a longer school year is just more of the myopic, narrow-minded focus of a one-size-fits-all education system.

A few points to consider:

Our school calendar is based on the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working in the fields today.” This is fundamentally not true. Summer vacation is not a leftover relic of America’s agrarian past, and it is not a result of our farming history or an “agrarian calendar” that released kids in the summer to work in the fields.  In fact, the opposite is more likely true, as American students in the 19th century were generally in school during the summer, but often took breaks in the spring and fall.

 Both President Obama and Secretary Duncan have perpetuated the argument that the American “school day, week, and year” are too short. Their agenda for more school is based on the erroneous idea that Asian and European kids who beat American kids on international tests, such as the PISA exam, succeed because they spend more time in school.  Yet, like the myth of our “agrarian school calendar,” the persistent belief that other countries’ students spend more time in school is also not true.

The reality is that not all learning, or even the best learning, happens in the classroom. Many Americans know the irreplaceable value of summer camp and summer athletics. Summer is, or can be, filled with organized activities that provide opportunities for teamwork and leadership and creativity and problem solving and simple cultural enrichment. While the benefits of such activities are not instantly recognizable on a standardized test, they are the foundation for the type of social-emotional development that is every bit as significant in children becoming successful adults. Beyond that, the simple benefits of free play are the best part of summer vacation – and they contribute to making kids into better students as well as happier people overall.

However, many others are actually well-served by the numerous summer activities that enhance and add to their education as well-rounded citizens in ways that more classroom time drilling for standardized tests doesn’t. Many American high schools have large numbers of students taking Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Concurrent Enrollment college classes while still in high school. These students earn college credit while in high school, and do so with the current 180-day schedule and a lengthy summer vacation. If anything, many students can get through K-12 effectively in less time, not more

Ultimately, summer vacation is not "the problem" with public education. And shortening it or ending it is no panacea.

Free the children.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Education Wars Are Not New - We've Been Arguing Tenure for 100 Years

As a young educator who was just beginning to understand the role politics played in the public perception of my profession, I gained my first real insight into the complexity of the "Public Education Wars" when I read Diane Ravitch's seminal school reform work Left Back: a Century of Failed School Reforms.  After that I began my education as a school policy geek, and I began to challenge much of the conventional wisdom about public education and teachers. It was, for example, the first time I realized that Rudolph Flesch's book Why Johnny Can't Read was published in 1951. Thus, all the hooey about a Golden Age of Education, and the idea that kids literacy and math skills were getting worse, became exposed to me for all the myths and lies that it was.

And, now, a new voice steps out front and center to remind us all of the myth of the Golden Age of public education. Journalist and researcher Dana Goldstein interrupts the nonsense of the education reform debate to remind us that "The United States Has Had the Same Arguments About Teachers for Years." Goldstein has been researching the truth about tenure and unions and standardized testing and value-added measures and more, as she seeks to expose the truth about public education reform myths. And, she offers, perhaps, one of the most insightful comments on education reform I've heard yet.

The first reason has to do with the role that we expect teachers to play in our inequality debate. We're having this huge national conversation about socioeconomic inequality and to somewhat of a lesser extent about poverty, especially childhood poverty. And really we see teachers held up as people who can help us solve this problem. Because we have a relatively weak social safety net, we're really asking them to close these gaps between life outcomes for middle-class kids and life outcomes for poor kids. We are in a way setting ourselves up to be somewhat disappointed. That's not to say that teachers don't make an impact. We know from the latest economic research that teachers do have a big impact on kids. But as big as the impact is, it is a secondary impact. The home, the parenting, the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the family are still the primary impact.

Goldstein's book - Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession - should be on the reading list for anyone remotely involved in public education. And that means parents of students, too.