Friday, December 26, 2014

Is Teaching Actually a Blue-Collar Job?

I've never really complained about the money I make teaching - and I certainly don't agree that teachers should be making millions like pop stars and pro athletes. That said, I don't doubt that, like most teachers, I don't make nearly as much money as all the other college educated professions of people I know. Looking at pay scales from across the country, I realize that David Cook of the FreePress may be right - based on simple compensation and earning power, "Teaching is now a blue-collar job."

Teachers are not poorly paid, especially for ten months of work, but they are not necessarily compensated in a manner commensurate with their outlays in terms of education and credentialing. In most places, teachers don't make much more than people who work in skilled labor. As Cook points out, teachers are making roughly the same as electricians and masons. And, that's not necessarily an insult or out of kilter with the economy, but it is off base with what sort of money must be invested in the job training.

And, as readers of this blog will recall, I am a strong supporter of skilled labor and career education. In places like Colorado and South Dakota, laborers in the energy industry can pull down six figures. Additionally, the value of an education is increasingly suspect, so the value offered by a middle school language arts teacher may not be instantly quantifiable in terms comparable to a laborer or a accountant. That said, this sort of information may be useful advice for people considering education. And it may just be reason enough to encourage our best brightest - "Don't become a teacher."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Anya Kamenetz Puts Standardized Testing to "The Test"

One of the strongest voices in the world of education writing - or really many issues facing young people pondering their future - is Anya Kamenetz, who has published several books of non-fiction and has written for NPR, Fast Company, and others. Kamenetz is now turning her attention to the complicated world of education accountability and standardized testing. As an education writer and parent, Kamenetz was looking to investigate the state of public education, but was surprised to discover how every conversation was completely consumed by discussions of testing. Thus, with her curious and insightful mind, she set out to answer "What Are Education Tests for Anyway?" She offers a bit of a primer on what tests are out there, and what they are supposed to mean.

Did that trigger scary memories of the 10th grade? Or are you just curious how you'll measure up?
If the answer is "C: Either of the above," keep reading. Tests have existed throughout the history of education. Today they're being used more than ever before — but not necessarily as designed.
Different types of tests are best for different purposes. Some help students learn better. Some are there to sort individuals. Others help us understand how a whole population is doing.
But these types of tests are easily confused, and more easily misused. As the U.S. engages in another debate over how — and how much — we test kids, it might be helpful to do a little anatomy of assessment, or a taxonomy of tests.

Her initial article for NPR has taken on a life of its own, and now Kamenetz is offer a much more comprehensive look at the testing issue in her soon-to-be released The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing, But You Don't Have to Be. While I have not read this work, I am looking forward to Kamenetz's observations and analyses, for I have appreciated all that I've read by her before. Let's hope she keeps the keenly critical eye on the issue of how obtrusive, and ultimately inconclusive, all this testing has become.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Keeping Teachers, Getting Rid of Teachers, Fixing Schools, and more ...

"Fixing schools" and improving public education is an inevitably complex topic on which everyone has an opinion and a comment. The value of the entire conversation, of course, is a bit dubious in that it begs the question of whether schools actually need to be fixed. That said, there are plenty of ideas out there. In the past couple years, we have been offered various tomes about improving the education system, and the majority of them center on creating better teachers. Joanne Jacobs recently spotlighted a somewhat questionable review of these works. The review in question from Jonathon Zimmerman for the New York Review of Books asked, rather cynically, "Why Is American Teaching So Bad?"

Dana Goldstein in The Teacher Wars, her impressive new history of teachers in the United States ... makes clear, Americans have simultaneously lauded teachers’ moral virtue and deplored their lack of adequate knowledge and skills. But debate over teaching has shifted sharply over the past two decades, when public education became much more narrowly academic in focus and purpose

What is the matter with teacher preparation and how can we make it better? Elizabeth Green takes on both questions in her eloquent new book, Building a Better Teacher, which manages to be depressing and hopeful at the same time. Like Dana Goldstein, Green was a Spencer Fellow at the Columbia Journalism School; if nothing else, the current educational crisis has produced a new group of skilled and knowledgeable reporters on education. Green’s thesis is simple: most teachers are never actually taught how to teach. After encountering a very thin introduction to the theory and practice of teaching at education schools, they’re sent into classrooms to learn on the job.

Of course, our best teachers can and do make a difference in the lives of our least privileged children; you can see Keizer doing that, in small ways, in Getting Schooled, his fine book. Yet every piece of credible social science confirms that, notwithstanding such efforts, schools cannot overcome the crippling effects of poverty. Telling teachers that they can represents yet another insult to their intelligence, all in the guise of bucking them up. Ditto for the perennial promotions of digital technologies, which promise to “revolutionize” teaching very soon. Similar claims greeted film projectors, radio, and television in their own times; in 1922, for example, Thomas Edison predicted that motion pictures would replace textbooks within a few short years.

In looking at the title of his review, it may appear that Zimmerman has bought into the myths of "failing public schools." He certainly offers some reasonably commentary and criticism, and he obviously thinks these recent bits of reporting on some successful schools may offer the key to "fixing public schools." Overall, Zimmerman's reporting on these recent education books offers some valuable food for thought, if not an actual solution. That said, the discussion of public education must go on, and scrutiny of teaching, sadly, will be the primary, and often only, focus. That said, there are still voices out there offering caveats to the "teacher question." As freelance education writer Nick Morrison posits in Forbes, "The Problem Isn't Getting Rid of Teachers, It's Keeping Them."

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Best-selling YA Author Jay Asher Brings Anti-Bullying Tour to Colorado

Bullying may always be with us - but that doesn't mean we can't try to do something to lessen it. And, that's the approach being taken by best-selling YA author Jay Asher, whose novel Thirteen Reasons Why has engaged millions of teens nationwide with discussions of bullying, harassment, depression, and suicide. In response to the huge outpouring of support for and interest in his novel, Asher has been on a "50 States Against Bullying Tour," sponsored by his publisher, which includes visits to fifty different high schools across the country.  Recently, Asher visited Cherry Creek High School in Colorado and delivered his message of hope and positive behavior to more than a thousand students. Here's my coverage of the event.

The presentation at Cherry Creek was an entertaining event, as Jay Asher is an engaging speaker who can connect with large groups of teens in person as well as with the written word. His speech, which is obviously about a serious and potentially somber matter, is surprisingly light and uplifting as he constantly reinforces to the audience a message of hope. As a speaker, he has an easy-going manner, punctuated with some self-deprecating humor that enables him to deal with a difficult topic in a positive and engaging way. Asher deftly balanced his serious commentary with amusing anecdotes that were both thoughtful and amusing. 

The book and tour have not been without controversy, which isn’t surprising considering the subject. Sadly, Asher noted, “Some communities live in silence” about issues like bullying and depression and suicide because they make people uncomfortable. And that, Asher believes, is a huge mistake. Not talking about serious issues is not the answer for how to deal with them, and his tour is a response to that instinct. In that regard, Asher spoke positively about the opportunity to come speak at Cherry Creek, after noting his book had been banned and challenged in numerous places. In fact, he has even been un-invited from some schools after their communities learned more about the book’s plot. “It’s a testament to your school that I’m speaking to you now,” he told the students. “Your school is telling you that they care about you.” 

Jay believes that ultimately Hannah’s lesson, or message, would be that “I want you to think about how to treat people from now on.” That’s the message he’s sharing with students, and he believes he’s making a difference with young people like the reader who told him after reading the book, “It just makes me want to be wonderful to everyone.” That would be a pretty meaningful legacy.

Ultimately, this event is another important step in educating our youth.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fat Doesn't Make You Fat - And Weight Isn't about Counting Calories

We all know people who can eat what they want and not gain weight. And we know some people seem to put on weight by just looking at dessert. The amount of misinformation about health and weight is as staggering as the number of calories in a Carl's Jr. burger. And until we get some legitimate honesty about weight and the role played by sugar and carbohydrates, we will never begin to get a handle on Americans' expanding waistlines.

The biggest myth in the "obesity crisis" is the idea that "fat" makes people fat. That's been a myth perpetuated on the American public for more than fifty years now. And, interestingly, that fifty years coincides with the greatest increase in American's weight and health problems. The reality seems to be that the low-fat and no-fat craze - initially fueled by the the government and the American Heart Association - is probably the most significant cause of increasing weight problems. That's why "Everything you think you know about fatty foods might be wrong."

The low-fat and zero-calorie hype is directly correlated with weight gain. For, as producers removed fat from foods, they actually increased the sugar. The rise in processed foods with a lot of sugar and empty carbohydrates is the link to weight gain.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Charli XCX Revitalizing Music Industry by Making Music Her Way

The future of the music industry seems to be in the hands of numerous gifted young women who are making music on their terms and setting their own standards for success. Everyone knows the names Taylor Swift and Lourde, but we can add Iggy and Charli to the mix. Notably, British musician, singer, songwriter, Charli XCX is making a name for herself by writing great hit songs, collaborating with others like Iggy Azaela, and occasionally just giving her hit songs away. This week Time Magazine profiles Charlie as the "Riot Girl Hitmaker" who is raging against the pop music machine and improving the music industry in the process. It's just an exciting time to listen to music, especially with a young women who claims to be "very judgmental of the music industry." Charli is innovative and progressive, producing catchy rock anthems like "I Love It" as will as hip-hop tunes like "Fancy" and the pop radio friendly "Boom, Clap." On her most recent album, Sucker, she went for a feisty punk sound, which Time calls "a middle finger covered in Sour Patch dust." That sounds pretty good to me.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Is Education Reform Holding High Achievers Back?

In the push to close the achievement gap and ensure equal access and opportunity to all students, the community that supports advanced learning has legitimate fears that the needs of America's highest achieving students are being ignored. The basic belief around "Gifted & Talented," or advanced learners, is that "they will be all right." However, scholar and educator Charles Finn is not so sure. In fact, he is deeply concerned that the country's highest achieving students are being harmed by the recent attention the Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has put on "access to advanced classes."

Five points deserve attention.

First, in going after practices that separate kids on the basis of achievement, OCR will confound and cripple every educator’s favorite reform du jour, “differentiated instruction.” Because in the real world of middle schools with 200 sixth-graders, differentiation doesn’t mean true individualization. It means various forms of ability grouping.

Second, the U.S. is already having huge trouble paying attention to high achievers (some say “gifted and talented”) when we’re preoccupied with low achievers and dire schools. Anything that discourages such attention is bad for American economic growth and competitiveness, not to mention unfair to kids who are ready, willing, and able to soar but have trouble getting the teacher’s attention. (Disparate impact at the expense of high achievers and smart kids is apparently just fine with OCR.)

Third, some forms of “tracking” are good for poor kids, minority kids, and low achievers seeking a path to upward mobility. If anything, we need more of it in high-poverty schools. As Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution has shown, those are the schools least likely to give their high achievers (who are also poor and minority kids) chances to accelerate and to learn with other high achievers.
At the high school level, “voc ed” has a bad name, and old-style tracking led to a lot of dead ends. But what about high-quality career and technical education for young people who want a good job but don’t necessarily want to go to a conventional college—or who haven’t been educated well enough in the early and middle grades to thrive in an AP classroom? Aren’t they going to get further if they have access to classes designed for them? At the very least, the choice of such classes?

Indeed, if OCR (and the Education Department more broadly) were as interested in giving people school choices as in deciding what’s good for them, I’d be a lot less apprehensive. But they’re not. They’ve been throwing monkey wrenches into all sorts of choice programs and policies because they think they know better where people belong.

Fourth, of course we want to see more minority kids succeed in AP classes and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, just as we want to see more boys succeed in English and girls in physics. Insofar as the education system is capable of achieving these goals, however, it needs to strive comprehensively from kindergarten (or preschool) onward. Swatting high schools because elementary schools didn’t send them an ethnically balanced collection of kids ready for AP and IB does not accomplish any educationally desirable end.

Fifth, consider the likelihood that OCR’s threats may have the unintended effect of encouraging white and Asian families to decamp (more than they’ve already done) for predominantly white and Asian schools. Then, of course, there won’t be racial gaps in access to educational resources—because kids of other races won’t even be present.

To be sure, schools and communities must take measures to guarantee access and opportunity. However, the push must not come at the cost of slowing schools, classes, and instruction down in order to allow all students to catch up.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Jovan Mays - A Conversation on Race

Sometimes it takes the poets, speaking in verse and imagary, to help us truly understand the world around us. To that end, we have some powerful words from Jovan Mays, the Poet Laureate of the city of Aurora, Colorado.

"On these days, we are all Black boys ..."

It's time to stop ... and think.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Colorado Students Refuse State Standardized Tests

The school reform movement ran into a bit of a snag earlier this month in Colorado, at least in terms of its standardized-test emphasis and test-based accountability for schools. As one of the states that adopted Common Core State Standards and aligned with the PARCC testing consortium to assess "readiness" in the areas of math and language arts, Colorado is also in the process of implementing state standardized assessments in science and social studies at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. These assessments are not related to Common Core or PARCC, but are related to Colorado Academic Standards, which cover eleven content areas. These tests, which are being called CMAS - Colorado Measures of Academic Success, gained news earlier in the year when "students performed poorly" on the new assessments. Some argued the low scores were evidence of a need for the "more rigorous" standards, while others argued against the authenticity of the scores for a variety of reasons including decreased prep time and the new style of computerized assessment from Pearson. Thus, the battle over standardized assessments for rating schools, teachers, and students has taken center stage in the Rocky Mountain state.

And, now some parents and students are pushing back.

Thousands of high school seniors refused to participate in the high school version of CMAS, which was scheduled for the fall of senior year and required two days of testing. The movement seems to have snowballed around the state, as word spread about the idea of "opting out." Several education advocacy groups have promoted the idea of parent refusal, arguing that students are "more than a test score" and that they should "choose to refuse." In the progressive town of Boulder, students not only refused to participate, but also staged a protest on one of the coldest days of the year, explaining their reasons for "opting out":

Across the state, the number of parent refusals was highly noticeable. In two of the highest performing schools in the state (and, in fact, in the nation), Fairview High School and Cherry Creek High School, hardly any students took the test, as participation was well below five percent. These numbers weren't matched at most schools, but numerous school districts saw surprisingly low compliance with the state mandated tests. The reality is that parents don't have a legal right to "opt out" of tests, but any parent has a legal right to "refuse participation" for any aspect of their children's education. Thus, parents can refuse to allow their child to read a specific book or attend a required assembly or even to be immunized. And, many students who feel like they have been over-tested for their entire school career are beginning to ask if "standardized tests should still be standard."

With the coming PARCC assessments in the spring, the issue of challenging standardized assessments in public education will continue to generate controversy.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Students Need to Hear

What to do about kids who don't achieve in school?

Every school reformer has a general big idea or agenda to fix the problem of struggling schools and struggling students. Is it standards or poverty or teachers or tenure or testing or  what? Occasionally, it seems like they just need a good talking to, explaining the "truth" to them in a way that will shake them out of the slumber that leads to sub-par performance. A pep talk should do it. And, that's the essence of a video making the rounds by English teacher Chase Mielke who as some advice on "What Students Really Need to Hear."

Basically, they need to work harder.

There's been a lot of writing lately about how success for kids is really about grit and perseverence. Paul Tough wrote about it in "How Children Succeed" and Charles Duhigg did in "The Power of Habit." It's what Geoffery Canada promotes with the Harlem Children's Zone. It's really all about character education, and many reformers will argue that truly effective, or great, teachers will be able to get this message through to kids. 

The real sadness is the endless stream of kids who can't find it in themselves or their lives. So, as Chase says, we simply have to be there each day, patiently, helping them develop it.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Joel Klein is Right about Education Reform, Except Where He's Ridiculously Wrong

Joel Klein, who was a lawyer before becoming Chancellor of New York City Public Schools, has some ideas about how to "fix public education." In addition to heading up one of the largest school districts in the country for roughly a decade - a time in which he did little to improve the educational conditions and achievement for the neediest of students - Joel has since become one of the expert voices in the world of "education reform." To that end, he has (big surprise) written a book on "fixing schools" called Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools. And, obviously, his high profile has allowed him the opportunity to promote his book in a huge weekend profile in the Wall Street Journal.

The problem, of course, with Klein's WSJ piece and his book is that he has very little experience with or knowledge of "fixing schools." In fact, I'd venture to say he has never actually "fixed" a school or dramatically impacted the life of a single child. To do that, he would have to be an actual educator with some experience working "in a school." These concepts are foreign to people like Joel Klein, as they are to "edu-reformers" like Bill Gates and Dave Welch. As I've noted before, these men would be far more impressive and credible if they simply focused on fixing "a school" and then continued to devote their vast financial resources to replicating that "achievement." The biggest problem with Klein is in the following statement:

Too many teachers in our big urban school systems are overworked, isolated and bureaucratically oppressed, struggling to educate students who can be exceedingly difficult to reach. As anyone who has stood before a classroom will attest, teaching is a tough job. 
The problem with many education reformers is that Joel Klein has no idea what it's like to have "stood before a classroom" and attempted to "educate students who can be exceedingly difficult to reach." Neither has any of the other edu-reformers. And, in almost perfectly cliched fashion, he cites the "Finland example," as if he's just discovered some gem for education reform that no one has mentioned in the past decade. Clearly, Klein is obtuse to the fact that Finland has about 4% poverty and an elaborate social safety net with a homogenous population. And, he makes no mention of the NYC schools which have social problems that would blow the minds of most Europeans, including schools with 80-90% of kids in poverty and food insecurity and violence in their neighborhoods that Europe hasn't seen since WWII.

Granted, Klein makes some sound assertions about creating teachers who are experts in their field and are pretty high achievers. But he ignores a lack of correlation and causation between Master's degrees for teachers and the achievement in their students. And, he seems clueless that nationwide teachers must undergo regular professional development and graduate level courses to simply retain their teaching licenses. And, he's also right that the teachers who develop "relationships" with students are actually most adept and effective at improving achievement. But that has nothing to do with their high school GPAs or their advanced degrees. It's simply who they are as people. So, once again, we have an in-experienced school leader who has no credentials or record of achievement offering cliched and unproven answers for how to "fix schools."

I'd be more impressed if he just took his money and his backers and stepped up to the front lines and literally showed us how it's done.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Are Charter Schools "Motivating Kids," or just finding "Motivated Kids"

When I first saw the edu-documentary "Waiting for Superman," my first reaction to the stories of waiting lists for kids to get into high performing charter schools was simply, "Let them in." Heck, if a student wants to go to the rigorous, high performing school that offers him a better chance of success than his neigborhood school, then school districts should just let him in and build more schools if the current ones are at capacity. Of course, that is a knee-jerk reaction fueled by the pathos of the "for the children" argument of the movie.

The real issue of "charter schools" as the answer to struggling schools is far more complicated ... and potentially nefarious.

The criticism of the charter movement is that the schools simply "siphon off" the most motivated and high achieving kids, leaving behind the struggling and less motivated ones who will only drag the neighborhood school down more. And there is plenty of evidence for such charter school recruitment and enrollment tactics. Even when charter school supporters explain how they don't or can't "cherry pick" their students, the reality is that the students who enroll in charters must be motivated enough to pursue the opportunity, which means a lot more than just showing up at their neighborhood school each day. And the problem with students enrolling in charters is the movement does nothing to strengthen the struggling schools.

I remember visiting a charter, The Denver School of Science & Technology, with a friend from the business world who was promoting the school. DSST is truly one of the gems and success stories of Denver Public Schools. The problem comes when my friend said, "Isn't this impressive? Imagine if they could just run all schools this way." But it doesn't work that way. And the struggling schools that remain just become fodder for perpetuating the myth of "failing public schools."

Charter schools and education reformers are really only helpful and significant if they can succeed at "motivating students" and not just finding "motivated students."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Corporate Education Reformers Should Partner with, not Attack or Align Against, Educators

It's no secret or surprise that the major "education reform" efforts of the past decade or so are driven by the business world, not parents or educators or politicians or school boards. Driven by "stories" and news of the "decline of public education" and the "failing state" of public schools, people in the business world such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have joined with organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and think tanks like Achieve, Inc to launch nationwide efforts to change the nature of public education. The charter school movement and the Common Core national standards initiative have been born out of buinsess leaders belief that they can "fix public education." They base their hopes and fears on a view of public education based on the dismal nature of America's worst 30% of schools and the reports in the news that American students trail the world on standardized assessments like the PISA exam.

There are, clearly, numerous problems and shortcomings with this point of view. But it is the current reality, and schools must deal with it as such.

Thus, it's refreshing to hear from experienced educators and school administrators who can take a critical eye to both public education and the corporate-led reform movement. That is the feeling I got from reading the commentary "How Business Leaders Can Help Education" today in the Vail Daily from Eagle County Schools superintendent Jason Glass who offers some valuable recommendations for the education reformers. Glass's piece very astutely identifies the problems and challenges of corporate-led "education reform" while also acknowledging the good intentions and potential benefits of an education-business relationship. Glass offers some important recommendations for business leaders hoping to help, not the least of which is encourage business leaders to team with educators as opposed to painting them as the problem and the enemy. Imagine that.

And, in a particularly insightful observation, consider Glass's opening:

This week, a star-studded list of CEOs, investors and entrepreneurs from across the country gathered in Avon to discuss the important topic of improving the American education system. I felt fortunate to be invited and to be a participant in this event, the discussions and the ideation.

Clearly, the absence of educators and parents and students from the meeting in Avon to discuss how to fix education is the primary problem with corporate-led reform efforts. Not only should a school superintendent not feel "fortunate to be invited," but the "CEOs, investors" and business leaders should be ashamed of themselves for convening any discussion of "improving the education system" without the primary stakeholders as the center of the event. Discussion of improving education should take place in schools and communities with teachers and parents present, not at resort areas away from the crux of the matter.

So, thanks to Superintendent Glass for his commentary and insight. Let's hope some of the businessmen who gracioulsy invited him to discuss his area of expertise actually listened to his input.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Fall Break - A Bonus to School Schedules

"Fall Break" is the greatest invention in the history of school schedules. When I first moved to Colorado, I was amazed to discover this little gem in the calendar for the year. After the first ten weeks of school, the Cherry Creek School District takes a week-long break at the end of October. It is the perfect time to re-charge and re-focus, and it operates almost like a "quarter system" in school. And, it meets the needs and expectations of people worried about learning loss from students out of school too long or over-stressed by long stretches of school. While I am firmly against the idea of "ending summer vacation" and adopting "year-round school," I am not opposed to shorter and more frequent breaks in school. The idea of taking a break after about ten weeks is a great idea, especially for high school students who have so many activities going on and seniors who can use the break time to visit schools and finish college applications. So, adding a break into the fall might be just the key to adjusting school schedules to meet more needs. A week or two in the fall, two or three at winter, and a week or two in the spring, with a slightly shorter summer is the perfect antidote to the burden of school schedules.

Monday, October 27, 2014

College Board & Common Core Shift Focus From Calculus to Algebra

Is the College Board conspiring with proponents of Common Core to replace its emphasis on calculus for top students with a focus on basic algebra skills for all? And, is this all the more evidence of a "Race to the Middle" in which the needs of America's best and brightest are ignored in the attempt to bring all students to a basic competency? That seems to be the indication from the announcement that the College Board is "Reconciling AP Exams with Common Core."

The College Board is responding to the brewing changes of today's Common Core era by revising the Advanced Placement program so that the focus is on fewer concepts and more depth. Despite these measures, there are still difficulties in reconciling many AP courses with the Common Core. In particular, AP Calculus is in conflict with the Common Core, Packer said, and it lies outside the sequence of the Common Core because of the fear that it may unnecessarily rush students into advanced math classes for which they are not prepared. The College Board suggests a solution to the problem. of AP Calculus “If you’re worried about AP Calculus and fidelity to the Common Core, we recommend AP Statistics and AP Computer Science,” he told conference attendees.
Moreover, the College Board may offer an AP Algebra course (although no plans are definite), which may supplant AP Calculus, particularly in schools rigidly adhering to the Common Core standards.
This misguided shift by College Board could very well represent another "Sputnik moment" when America again ends up on the wrong side of history. Truly, for many students a basic proficiency in algebra is all they will ever need in terms of numeracy knowledge. But for the top thirty percent who will be accessing the highest levels of math in college, the earlier access to trig and calculus and differential equations is fundamental to success. Let's be clear: Some students should be prepped for the study of calculus and many shouldn't. And there is nothing wrong with that. But emphasizing a deeper knowledge of fewer concepts at the lower grades will prepare fewer for the highest levels at high school and college. And this is a mistake.

The very idea that College Board could be considering an AP-level for algebra is truly absurd. Granted, there is "algebra" at the college level - especially abstract studies of "linear algebra." But the idea of offering AP credit for the basic level of math at high school is disconcerting. The students at my high school can access four levels of math past AP Calculus - Calculus III, Differential Equations, Abstract Math, and Linear Algebra - because our students are simply that advanced. We even have students accessing AP Calc as freshman or middle schoolers. And that is truly exceptional and should be cultivated. It should not be dismissed as a side effect of trying to make sure more students "go deeper" into algebra.

Could this be more evidence that the current education reform is detrimental to the needs of our most most advanced and gifted students? And why is our focus on one-size-for-all?

Thanks to Darren at RightOnTheLeftCoast for bringing this to my attention.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What Do Standardized Tests Measure?

As the battle for school accountability heats up - and standardized tests like corporate-backed PARCC take center stage in the school year -people are finally beginning to ask what they're getting for all the hassle. Specifically this year, schools will see greater losses of instructional time to state testing. And these tests may not tell us anything valuable at all.

All the tests we administer can’t predict a child’s future. The tests don’t measure real learning. They measure test-taking ability. Research has shown that test scores are most accurate in measuring the socioeconomic level of the student. That’s correct. We use tests that don’t measure teacher competence or student learning to make or break careers, categorize children and place them in certain groups or pathways. We assume poor test scores mean a poor teacher, when often the opposite is true. We are obsessed with our ridiculous tests. The state legislature insists that test scores make up at least 50 percent of a teacher’s performance evaluation. The lobbyists for Pearson, McGraw-Hill and others fund the campaign coffers of candidates and court high-level administrators to convince them we need more testing. And more testing is exactly what we get. What if we spent those millions on authentic testing, that actually allows students to demonstrate mastery of content by performing an action, doing a presentation or building something that explains the concept? What if we spent some of those millions on more observation in the classroom, or gathering feedback from parents and students that actually tells us how the teacher works with children, assigns homework, provides extra help or many of the myriad other indicators of professional competence?
Certainly, the public will simply not accept a system devoid of data from standardized tests. But parents and students should have greater "choice" in the demands the state puts on them. For, the fundamental aspect of public education is that the schools serve the students and families and not the other way around. And currently, it doesn't appear this obsessive focus on standardized testing is serving them at all.

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.