Beware of CCSS Political Hype

I recently read an curious piece written by former politician and current Wall Street executive Harold Ford Jr. entitled “Why Voters Love the Common Core”.  In my opinion, Mr. Ford’s post is a perfect example of why anything said by politicians and/or Wall Street executives regarding public education should be read with great skepticism, or at least a healthy dose of critical analysis.Ford RhetoricFord Rhetoric

I invite you to read the post at the Daily Beast before proceeding here because I encourage you to also apply a critical eye to my analysis of Ford’s argument.  In full disclosure, I am not a supporter of the Common Core.  However, I’m not posting this to convince you to join me in my thinking, but rather to point out the dangers of allowing others to do your thinking for you.

Ford’s primary claim is that the recent mid-term elections are proof that voters love the Common Core and that this is primarily because the standards are working.  Here’s why I don’t agree.

In support of his claim, Ford provides the following evidence:

Trailing only the economy, education and classroom issues dominated thinking among voters nationwide. In many states, education was the main driver of turnout.

I am not sure how this assertion is supported.  National exit polls did not even include education as an option, instead listing immigration, the economy, health care, and foreign policy as important issues for voters to choose from. Topics such as executive action on immigration, Obamacare, the fight against ISIS, and debate over economic recovery were far more prevalent issues than education in general and the CCSS specifically.  If you want to point out a “driver of turnout”, you might consider the fact that 93% of people who voted Democrat said that one reason they voted was to support President Obama, while 92% said they voted to oppose him.*

…voters, many of them parents, listened to both sides of the debate and ultimately voted for candidates who supported level-headed policy. In fact, November’s results show parents want to continue with implementation of high standards and the results they promise.

This claim is a classic case of rationalization – a logical fallacy in which someone starts with the conclusion they prefer, cherrypicks premises that support that conclusion, and then “reverse engineers” an argument to support it.  In other words, it is utter nonsense.  There are many other far more valid reasons for the midterm election results such as low voter turnout and opposition to the president.

Education may have played a role in some voters’ minds, but even if it did, it would be hard to attribute those votes to support for CCSS.  The most recent poll released by Phi Delta Kappa found that 62% of Americans have never even heard of the Common Core and the majority of the 38% who have said they were only “somewhat knowledgeable” about the standards.  Besides, of those 38% of people who said they were somewhat knowledgeable about CCSS, only 41% believe the standards will improve American competitiveness globally, while 56% believe they will actually harm American competitiveness.**

Some may consider the results surprising in light of the tireless, and often inaccurate, charges opponents leveled against politicians who support higher standards. Interestingly, some of the opponents—many of whom I believe are genuinely confused about Common Core’s development and purpose—assailed the standards as too difficult, not difficult enough, or as a federal takeover of local education. They couldn’t decide.

This one is actually kind of funny in a sad way.  Ford claims that opponents of CCSS can’t make up their minds about why they oppose the standards.  Are they too hard?  Too easy?  The problem is that we simply don’t know because the CCSS were never actually field tested or validated in any way prior to their implementation in schools.  Experts have noted that the CCSS are more difficult than previous standards in some states and less difficult than others. Are the standards an example of federal take over of local education?  Well, given that adoption of CCSS was tied to billions of dollars in federal education grants, one could legitimately argue that the adoption of CCSS is a prime example of federal overreach. Perhaps the reason why opponents can’t decide how to criticize the CCSS is because the answer is “all of the above”.

And to be sure, classrooms are seeing measurable improvements under Common Core Standards.  For example, in Tennessee—one of the earliest adopters of the Common Core Standards—college-readiness rates among high school students saw the biggest improvement this year since the state began testing. And last year, 4th and 8th grade students showed the biggest math and reading gains in the country.

I’m curious as to where Mr. Ford gets his data to support this claim, given that the tests that were designed to assess student progress on the CCSS (PARCC and Smarter Balance) haven’t even been officially given to students yet.  That presents a considerable validity problem.  He might be referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores, which do indeed show that Tennessee has improved more than most other states from 2011-2103.  The only problem here is that while Tennessee  may have been one of the earliest adopters of CCSS, the state didn’t actually begin implementation until the 2012-2013 school year, and full implementation only occurred that year at the K-2 level.  The first NAEP exam isn’t given until the 4th grade, so that doesn’t quite compute.   There was one state that fully implemented CCSS prior to the 2013 NAEP exam – Kentucky.  Unfortunately, their scores actually dropped between 2011 and 2013 and they ranked #39 in the nation in terms of improvement during that time.***  Oops.

The same problem also plagues Ford’s claims about “college readiness”.  The CCSS weren’t implemented in Tennessee until the junior or senior year of the students who are now more “college ready”, and during that time the Common Core was only partially implemented up through the 8th grade.  I’ve heard some fantastic claims about the potential that Common Core holds, but I have a hard time believing that their very presence in the elementary and middle schools in Tennessee somehow made the graduating seniors more “college ready” in high school.  That’s some serious educational mojo right there.

Here are some more takeaways from Election Day. In only four states—Arizona, Colorado, New York and Pennsylvania—did the Common Core Standards emerge as a major issue, and in three of those races the most supportive candidates won. Twelve incumbent governors who publicly support Common Core easily won re-election.

This looks to me to be some more rationalization.  In Arizona, the most supportive congressional candidates may have won their races, but in the race for State School Superintendent, Diane Douglass a critic of CCSS with a plan to abolish the standards  emerged as the winner.  In Colorado, John Hickenlooper defeated the Republican challenger, yet Hickenlooper doesn’t even mention CCSS on the  education section of his campaign website.  In New York, Governor Cuomo placated voters by delaying CCSS test scores for five years in the face of harsh criticism from his opponent.  For every article that claims that supporting the CCSS led to political victory, there are probably 100 others claiming it was something else.****

As presidential campaigns gear up on both sides of the political aisle, candidates, pollsters, pundits and media advisors should take notice: Students are making gains, parents are paying attention, and more and more teachers are embracing classroom standards that make it easier for them to do their jobs.

One poll funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (HUGE supporters of CCSS) found that 68% teachers say Common Core implementation is going well at their schools.  Another poll not funded by the Gates foundation found that teacher support for CCSS has dropped from 76%  in 2013 to 46% in 2014.  I have yet to see a study or poll in which teachers said the CCSS made their jobs easier.  Perhaps this paragraph is full of the vaguest political rhetoric because it is intended for “candidates, pollsters, pundits, and media advisors” – it is their stock-in-trade after all.

I’m not convinced.

As voters we must be careful about believing the rhetoric of anybody who stands to gain or profit on the backs of our children.   Each of us is responsible for developing a better understanding of why we support or oppose major reform initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards.  There are many well-informed and “level headed” (to use Ford’s adjective) people on both sides of the argument who will support their claims with sound logic and concrete evidence.  It is our duty as citizens to seek them out and educate ourselves to avoid falling prey to those who will only tell you enough to get your vote or your money.



*Obama loves the CCSS.

**Research shows that the relationship between standards and global competitiveness is questionable and the relationship between test scores and global competitiveness is non-existent.

***Though Mr. Ford does not mention it, the story is almost exactly the same for the NAEP mathematics exam.

****That’s totally a guess. I’m not Googling that.

Colorado Students Are Right: Your History is Un-American

I’ve been paying close attention to the events in Colorado in which students and faculty members of Jefferson County high schools have been protesting the formation of a curriculum review committee that would require students to learn a sanitized version of history that encourages blind patriotism and discourages any sort of protest.

This topic is important to me for two reasons.  First, I’m a graduate of a Jefferson County high school (Wheat Ridge HS Class of 1993).  Second, history education is my field of expertise at the University of Arkansas, so the proposed changes to the curriculum in Jefferson County are right in my wheelhouse.

Specifically, the proposed committee will be charged with reviewing curriculum to make sure that:

Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.

Cries have arisen over the fact that the Jefferson County school board is populated with members that won elections with considerable financial support from conservative and corporate interests, and these points are valid and troublesome. If you read between the lines of the committee’s charge then you might arrive at an interpretation similar to the one I did – primarily that history education should glorify the United States, promote jingoistic ideals of citizenship, and downplay all negative aspects of our history by treating them in a “balanced and factual” manner.  In other words, interpretation of history is perfectly okay as long as it preaches American greatness, but is forbidden when it comes to the darker underbelly of our collective past.

I was thinking about all the fancy academic arguments I could make against this notion while driving to work this morning when I happened to press the first station preset button on my satellite radio – which I’m not ashamed to admit is set to the 80’s music channel.  Then the simplest analogy hit me:

In many ways, jingoistic history education has the same effect on our civic ignorance as 80’s music stations have on our collective memory of the 1980’s.  

What do I mean by that?  Think for a moment about the music that is played on the 80’s station.  Of the thousands of songs that were recorded during that decade, only a few hundred of them remain in regular rotation.  I’ll bet you’d hear Beat It or Come On Eileen multiple times if you listened to one of these channels for an entire day.  Why is that?  Well, it might be because a lot of music made in the 1980’s really sucked.  It was so bad that we didn’t like listening to it then and we sure as heck aren’t going to go back and listen to it now.  Also, these stations reach back for the “popular” music that satiated the masses back in the day.  You don’t hear much in the way of country, rap, jazz, blues, punk, or folk music on the 80’s stations – unless of course it sold really well in the mainstream market.  There was a lot of really good music made in the 1980’s that doesn’t fit the mold we’ve cast around the idea of “80’s music”.   And we don’t limit this form of selective memory music.  TV shows like VH1’s I Love the 80’s do pretty much the exact same thing with products, sports, food, fashion, entertainment…etc.

The end result is a myopically glorified and painfully oversimplified memory the 1980’s as a really great, if not totally cheesy, decade.

Now think about how this school board in Colorado would have their students learn about the past.  Ordering teachers to limit their interpretation to history that “promotes patriotism” or the “positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” while downplaying all of our past imperfections can only encourage a similarly glorified and oversimplified memory of American history.

Of course, that’s exactly what this particular school board wants.

But wait… I pretty much just admitted that I love the 80’s station and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy I Love the 80’s too.  The difference is that I enjoy them as outlets for entertainment and not for any sort of meaningful learning.

History teaching should not be equated to a greatest hits compilation of mainstream music.  Much like the great (and not so great) music of the 1980’s that is no longer played, there is a lot of great and not so great history that would be left out of an approach that only seeks to glorify our American heritage.  Not coincidentally, much of this history would involve women, minorities, immigrants, and those who refused conform to the norms of an imperfect society.

Even the framers of our Constitution who wrote of creating a “more perfect Union” were not immune to what Benjamin Franklin referred to as, “all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local
Interests, and their Selfish Views”.
  Perfection, as Franklin alluded to, is
an impossible accomplishment given that those who are trying to achieve it will
always possess their own biases, prejudices, opinions and selfish views.  So why pretend we’re perfect when even Ben (the womanizer) knew we never were?

Even as we search for the “more perfect union” it is silly to think of American history as a steady march of democratic progress. Our history is riddled with horrible ideas, mistakes, injustices and marginalization.  Many of these we were able to overcome, and often it was because of protest or civil unrest by those who recognized wrongs and worked to right them.  Many more still remain and pretending like they don’t won’t make them go away.

Yet our common experiences, both joyously positive and excruciatingly negative, are what bind us together as a nation.  We can try to sweep our historical ugliness under the bed and hope nobody lifts the bedskirt, but that just leaves us ignorant and believing that things were better than they really were.

With my future teachers I call this the “Leave it to Beaver Effect”.  Watching Leave it to Beaver leaves one with a soothing image of the 1950’s as a time of intact families, moral purity, and ubiquitous civility.  This is probably one image that comes to mind when people reference the “good old days”.  I’ll wager that it isn’t images of racial segregation or social stratification.  Sanitized ignorance that shouldn’t be allowed to become a school curriculum.

This reminded me of one of my favorite coffee mugs that sports a quote from Thomas Jefferson (who said some great stuff about education when he wasn’t… you know… having sex with his slaves):

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and what will never be

Inequitable Teacher Salaries Studied by Arkansas Legislature

On September 9th I picked up a copy of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and read a story about teacher salaries titled “Lawmakers Study Salaries for Educators.” Of course this is something that I care about not only because I used to be a teacher and earned one of those for five years but also because I help prepare teachers at the University of Arkansas for careers in education, careers in which they’ll be compensated for the good work they do.

Let’s start by dispelling any myths: secondary English teachers work harder than any other teachers and they have more planning, reading, and responding (not grading) to do—by far—than any other discipline. Since I used to be an English teacher I’m probably biased, but I stayed up all night responding to papers with some frequency, averaging about four hours of sleep per night during the school week. After each paper I symbolically ran my fingers over the top of my head in a downward motion, my thinning hair thinning right in front of my eyes onto the students’ papers. I’d then tally in the upper corner of the paper how many individual hairs each took—the all time record was a six-page single spaced mess that cost me 22 hairs.

jason-alexander-george-costanza-baldI’ll blame my baldness on those papers, but what really made me lose hair was when I paid bills at the end of each month. Maybe I should say that instead of pay bills, I figured out which bills I could pay and which bills could be put off. I worked second and third jobs, taught summer school, coached football, debate, forensics, and even sponsored the class of 2004 for four years. Supplementing my all-consuming teaching job with other ways of making a meager 300/year stipend is, to date, some of the hardest money I’ve ever earned; my work history includes building fences, machining metal in a machine shop, hauling and stacking alfalfa hay, and mixing for a muffin company, a job which involved an 800 pound mixer and countless pallets of 50lb bags of flour and sugar.

Teaching is a wonderful career, and I’m honored to still be involved with education. The tenor of the policy conversations—especially any of them involving money—make lifting 50lb bags of flour and sugar or hauling 90lb alfalfa bails seem like light work. That aside, I’ve been consistently bothered by the teacher salaries in the state of Arkansas, not to say that our state is any different than others, just to say that I sense a great inequity in the funding system that currently exists. Little Rock Senator Joyce Elliot relates similar feelings in the ADG piece, “We really must spend more time thinking about this because the issue of disparity and maintaining teachers, all of these things are hugely, hugely important all around this state.”

Let’s say that one of my teachers graduated with a Master of Arts in Teaching and took a job at Springdale High School. This first year teacher made $49,029 for the 2013-2014 school year. Another pretend graduate opted to move to across the state to Brinkley, Arkansas. She made $35,950 starting out with a Master’s degree at Brinkley High last year.

Does anyone else sense that there is something wrong with that picture? Maybe it’s just me.

What I see are two jobs teaching, let’s say, ninth grade English that are likely pretty different. I’ve worked some with students and teachers at both schools and while I taught at a school that more closely resembles Springdale in terms of size and mission, I attended a small rural high school in the flatlands of Kansas, a 220px-Brinkley,_AR_009school and community not all that dissimilar to BHS. Is one job more important than the other? Is one job more difficult and if so, which one? Why is there such a gap—nearly $15,000—between pay in these two districts for equally qualified and experienced teachers? If one adds up $15,000 over a thirty year teaching career, there’s a $450,000 difference between teaching at SHS versus BHS.

Why the difference you ask? Property taxes are used to supplement the state provided minimum salary in districts that collect enough of it.

So let me get this straight, the districts that already have more money—people paying higher amounts of property taxes—hire teachers at nearly $15,000/year more than districts that don’t have as much. This sounds to me like a classic case of the rich get richer and poor stay poorer. Since we can likely count the number of garage doors per house in any given district and reasonably predict the school’s achievement numbers, it stands to reason that the districts where wealthier people live are able to hire teachers at a higher salary and they’ll also receive better marks from the state.

These same inequities are true in the northwest Arkansas corner as well and the scenario of two first year teachers from the same class of our professional teacher preparation program here leaving to make vastly different salaries is not imagined or the act of a mistreatment of schools in the Arkansas Delta. In this little corner of the state, one can find the same disparity in salaries by driving nine miles between high schools. This is pure, unadulterated class warfare and Arkansans should expect better.

So, if you, dear honorable members of the 2014-2015 Arkansas Legislature are serious about studying teaching salaries, I’d urge to first look very critically at the formula in place being used to pay teachers. In my way of thinking, the teachers in Brinkley (and all of the other small and/or rural schools) deserve to be paid every bit as much as the teachers in the population centers of our state, if not more. Let’s raise the minimum starting teaching salary to $45,000 and then initiate a plan to create equity—however a bipartisan group defines it—amongst the salary funding formula. We’ll have an easier time attracting and keeping great teachers in the profession, if, in fact, that’s what we want for all children.

An F for Arkansas’ Plan to Grade Schools

In one of what is surely many of the education policy issues that has escaped my consciousness and cursor until recently is a plan to rank all schools in the state of Arkansas on an A to F rating system. I thought about this for approximately zero seconds before it rang out to me as an awful idea. After all, what parent wants to send their student to a D, F or even a C school? What teacher wants to teach in a C, D, or F school? What first grader wants to attend a C, D, or F school? Who would want to eat at a C, D, or F Bar-B-Que joint or watch an F television show? This is an unconscionable proposition and here’s why.

Our local and national obsession with oversimplification should alarm many Americans and Arkansans, at least any of us still paying attention. While it would be much, much easier to understand any complex entity through incredibly simple markers, doing so lacks an account for the humanity of such acts. Putting people or people-based organizations like schools into narrow categories is an attack on people and the organization of school itself. Is this a thinly veiled attack on the people of Arkansas through their public school system?

In an August 30th Arkansas Democrat Gazette article titled “Letter-Grading Plan for Schools will go on View,” reporter Cynthia Howell tells about this impending policy, one that started with the 2013 legislature passing two bills: 1429 which mandated that schools have a single indicator of performance and 696 which required that indicator be the A through F system. These two bills have created an office at the University of Arkansas where colleagues of mine work and have diligently designed a statistically complex system of designating these rankings based on several variables, including growth from year-to-year. This piece is not written in opposition to them nor the work they’ve done or are set to do. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette opined on September 7th that the level of sophistication for assigning letter grades was “waaaaay too complicated,” but it seems the agenda of vilifying public schools will be well-served by either a sophisticated or simple-to-understand process. In either case, the policy reduces schools full of humans to a single letter grade that almost any living person could (mis)understand.

There are three specific reasons that the Arkansas State Board of Education should wholeheartedly reject this notion following the open public comment period and return this to the Arkansas Legislature.

First and foremost, this is a covert and perhaps inadvertent attack on the poor of Arkansas. We don’t need a sophisticated analysis of achievement scores to understand which schools will be the A or F schools. In fact, I challenge all members of the Small-Garage-Doors-ShedsArkansas legislature to plop down in their cars and drive around to all of the different towns and neighborhoods in their districts, paying close attention to the size of the houses. All they have to do is count the number of garage doors they see on the houses in a particular district and then return to their offices to rank schools accordingly.

0 garage doors/carport – D or F school

1 garage door – D school

2 garage doors – D, C, or B school

3 or more garage doors B or A school

My example here of the garage door study might come across as being a little facetious. But seriously, drive around or hire some group of retired people to drive around and count garage doors—you’ll learn about the same thing about the current state of our schools as ranking them based on achievement. Honest research has been very clear on this issue—poverty is the overwhelming and overriding factor in student achievement, however it is defined. School is nothing more or less than a reflection of culture, of the social context from which it emanates. Grading schools based on achievement (or growth) will actually be grading them on their socioeconomic status, or by the number of garage doors on houses in the district. The fact that race ties in closely with socioeconomic status should be the cause of even greater concern for state board members willing to endorse this system of grading.

I’m gravely concerned about the certainty of political mis-use of this information at all levels. If I wanted to close a school, a great way of doing that would be by ranking them in an A to F manner; the recent examples from Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia of closing public schools and opening charter experiments in their places are warnings that should be heeded. People interested in expanding charter and private schools and closing public schools in Arkansas must be somewhere licking their chops at the prospect of hanging a big fat rusty F on a neighborhood school while chroming an A trophy for the places their children attend.


Third, allow me to offer a personal anecdote. As a high school writing teacher I learned quickly that one of the worst things I could do was to write a giant letter grade or number on the top of my students’ papers. No matter how I sugar-coated or presented low grades to students on their writing, it was always a conversation stopper. But it was deeper than that too—low grades stopped the conversation just as surely as high marks did. I found the graded papers I returned in the trash, scattered in the hallways, or wadded up in the urinal. Fortunately for my students and me, I attended a summer institute of the National Writing Project and learned about revision and about the potential damage of grading students on writing and on anything else for that matter. What I wanted to do as a teacher was to start a conversation about students’ progress in writing in a way advocated by the concept of responding to writers, not only evaluating their writing.

In much the same way, a grade of F, D, or even C on a school will close the conversation for improving that school, if not close the school itself. Students and teachers with means will leave for other pastures. I’m not about to say that there aren’t schools in Arkansas and everywhere that need more support than they are currently receiving. They do. I will adamantly argue that improving a school will be next to impossible with the F, D, or C hanging in the front window. Rather, we need to respond to schools that are struggling on an individual basis. No two schools in Arkansas are struggling for the same reasons and should be treated as individuals, not simple constructs ready to be mindlessly lumped together under a single letter. The best way of understanding achievement is to look at the median income, or to follow my assertion, count the number of garage doors hanging in that district.

Citizens of Arkansas, please join me by contacting each state board of education member and asking them to withdraw the board’s support for this idea. If we aim to oversimplify schools and eventually close them, it receives an A. If we want to sustain and improve our education system, grading schools deserves to have an F hanging on it.

Emma’s Tale

Guest post by Donna Wake

Associate Professor and Associate Dean, University of Central Arkansas

I was recently invited to speak as part of a panel at a conference on “bridging the achievement gap.”  In the lead up to the conference, I prepared by doing some reading and updating my knowledge of the research. Bridging the achievement gap, after all, feels like an admirable goal. Who doesn’t want to help kids to bridge the gap? It sounds almost as good as no child left behind, right?

But the more I thought about bridging the gap, and the more I read, the more unsettled I began to feel. I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly. Not until the day of the conference when my feelings of unease coalesced around an impromptu story I shared in response to a question asked. This is Emma’s story.

Emma is 8 years old. Her mother and I have been friends for many years now. Emma is in the 3rd grade in a large elementary school (name of state withheld). This is her fourth school. Her father is in the military and has served 2 tours in Iraq and 1 tour in Afghanistan since Emma’s birth. She’s moved across two states and multiple classrooms in her short academic career. She’s a tough kid with some great skills. She’s sensitive. She’s thoughtful. She’s reflective. She’s empathetic. She’s a rule follower. She loves to read and write. And she’s smart.

Emma was tested for the gifted program in Kindergarten at the request of her teacher. She was placed in the gifted class for first grade. She lost her status when the family moved schools in 2nd grade. I think it is important to note that Emma’s parents were not asked for input in this process at any point.

This year, in her newest school, Emma was tested again for the gifted program at the request of her teachers. I would like to say from the outset that I was opposed to this. Not for Emma’s sake, but because I have a philosophical and pragmatic problem with the idea of “gifted” in our school settings. Put simply, I think all kids should have access to “gifted” curriculum and resources. I also think that kids who receive the “gifted” label may be prone to developing a sense of superiority and entitlement. Be that as it may, Emma was tested. Her parents were ok with this decision because they liked the instructional style of the GT classroom and felt it was more inquiry and project based allowing for exploration and problem solving.

Pic_4Unfortunately, Emma did not make the cut.

In this school district, kids qualify for the gifted program by meeting a set cut-off score on TWO tests. One test measures verbal-linguistic skills. The other test measures visual-spatial abilities. Emma did not make the minimum required score on the second, visual-spatial test. She did well, but not well enough to be labeled as “gifted.”

The school made the decision to place Emma (and other students who did not score quite well enough) in the gifted classroom with the “gifted” kids. So for the entire academic year, Emma was in a room where half of the kids were coded as “gifted” and the other half were kids who were, well, almost “gifted.”

Of course, the kids know the lay of the land. They always do. You can call groups whatever you wish – red/blue, robin/eagle, tiger/chipmunk – the kids know. In this room, they actually knew they were either “gifted” or “not gifted.” So Emma’s already fragile sense of self-worth was challenged.

The issues accelerated in the last 8 weeks of the school year, after the end of testing. Emma’s teacher decided that the “gifted” kids in the room would undertake an elaborate enrichment project. They started by visiting a local news room and watching the production of a news show. I should mention that only the “gifted” kids got to go on this field trip. The other half of the class stayed at school. The “gifted” kids continued the project in the classroom by scripting and creating their own news production. Kids did research. Kids wrote stories. Kids blocked scenes. Kids shot and edited digital footage.

This sounds like an awesome project, right? But remember, this project was just for the “gifted kids.” What did Emma and the other less-gifted kids do during this 8-week project? They watched. And they worked on math worksheets. All day. Every day. Worksheets.

Now, I have no idea why the teacher of this classroom chose to segregate her curriculum the way she did. Maybe there were legal reasons. Maybe there were pragmatic reasons. Maybe there were financial reasons. I have no idea, and I really am not trying to vilify her in writing this account. I’ve never even met her. Which at this point is probably a good thing. But to me, a 20 year veteran of classrooms, this made no sense to me at all. Why on earth would someone choose to treat students so differently and inequitably? Couldn’t anyone see the impact this would have on the students in the room? And indeed. The impact was inevitable.

Imagine my frustration when Emma very carefully explained to me that she was “dumb.”

I was flabbergasted. How could this bright, beautiful young woman possibly feel she was dumb? She is a voracious reader and writer. Her past academic record and experiences are good. She is not a perfect kid, and certainly she has areas of strength and weakness, but Emma is not dumb.

Shelving my anger for a minute, I began to ask Emma some very open-ended questions. She was more than happy to explain. She felt dumb because she didn’t get to do “that TV project” the other kids were doing. After all, Kay-lee who acts like she knows it all must because she gets to be on camera for that TV project. Emma knows she’s not good at math, because they keep making her do math worksheets, and why would she have to do that if she wasn’t dumb, particularly at math? It went on and on. Her logic was impeccable.

I left Emma’s house that night feeling frustrated, disgusted, and outright angry. Beyond Emma’s story is the fact this isn’t an isolated incident. I am well into my 2nd decade in a profession that I love, but it is a profession that continues to astound and disappoint me. The decision this teacher made and its impact on Emma’s mental and emotional state continued to haunt me in the weeks and months following my visit. At the end of the year Emma requested to not be placed in the gifted room next year. Really, who could blame her?

So what did this have to do with my panel and “bridging the achievement gap”? On the surface this appears to be an unrelated story. I mean, really, Emma missed the “gifted” cut-off by a few points. We have little to complain about in Emma’s story compared to those kids who are segregated from good instruction for far more egregious reasons.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s all the same broken system. It just seems to me that in the system, we come up with ways to “label” kids. On the surface, these labels do not seem bad. After all, they help us try to figure out how to sort and categorize kids so that we can serve them and somehow match our meager resources to meet their needs. So we assign them a “tag” – gifted, basic, low SES, ELL, on the bottom side of the “achievement gap.”

Only these labels, they backfire on us. The unintended consequence is that we do treat kids differently, in ways that are noticeable (by the kids!), and in ways that are not aligned with best practices or common sense. Labels create a hidden curriculum that tells kids their worth to us and to the larger world. In fact, when these labels are present, common sense appears to fly out the window. Indeed, in the case of Emma’s classroom, common sense may have shattered the window as it left the building.

We appear to base labels on a very narrow set of criteria, often created by non-educators. In terms of those “basic” kids on the bottom side of the gap, those criteria include their abilities in literacy and mathematics. But what about all of the other skills and attributes we value in our kids? Ourselves? Our culture? What about content areas like the arts, like sports, like interpersonal and intrapersonal skills? What about those more content-based-but-somehow-less-valuable areas like social studies and science? Do these not “count” in our current system? Are they truly relegated to the sidelines as electives or not important? Yet many adults I know would contend these areas are more important in the context of the real world quality of life experiences.

Please believe me, I am not discounting literacy and mathematics. I am a literacy teacher. I think it is important that kids work and grow in these content areas. However, even these content areas are very narrowly defined by standardized testing. On the standardized literacy and math tests, no kid will be ever asked to write creatively, to dream big, to make new worlds, to talk about citizenship, to discover, or to problem solve. Yet we label them based on a few random days’ work in April on skewed ideas of what we should measure and what we should consider as important in defining our children.

Even more horrifying, labels are used to vilify teachers and the teaching profession. Listen, I am all for accountability. I have seen my share of poor teachers who needed to be removed from the profession. On the other hand, I cannot think it justifiable to hold a teacher of any ilk to a narrowly-defined standard that may be unreasonable and unreachable. Any Kindergarten teacher knows that some of kids come to school already knowing how to read while the others come to school hungry, dirty, and without having had a good night’s rest.

Those hungry kids are the majority of learners on the bottom side of that achievement gap. And most teachers I know work hard to support those kids as they move through their school careers. Most teachers I know help their learners navigate a system that (to our learners and their families) is perplexing and mysterious, one that historically has not served them well. Most teachers I know try to find the strategies and approaches and methods that work to best serve these students.

But let’s face reality, the problems in our society are a lot bigger than can be fixed by one teacher, one district, or even one education “system.” We aren’t talking about an achievement gap; we are talking about an equity gap and an opportunity gap. To fix this, something larger must happen in our culture first. And until it does, there will continue to be an “achievement gap” and worse yet, people who believe they can magically close such a gap through more tests.

So here is my message to Emma’s third grade teacher. Let’s start using some common sense with our kids. Let’s find our voices. Let’s advocate for ourselves and for our kids. Let’s dispose of our fear of rocking the boat. Let’s teach based on the relationships we build with our students. Let’s teach things like empathy and creativity and passion and inquiry. Let’s stop labeling kids based on narrowly defined constructs. Let’s see the whole child and all the gifts they bring to our classrooms. Let’s do what we know is right by working with each of our kids, where they are, who they are, and by giving them what they need to the best of our ability.

All the kids. Not just half the room.

Opt Out? Why Parents Should Opt-In for Standardized Testing

Co-authored with Barton L. Goering, Ph.D., Superintendent of Schools, Spring Hill Public School District USD 230, Spring Hill, Kansas

Isn’t it time to say that enough is enough when it comes to standardized testing? Let’s draw a line in the sand for the future of our country by putting a once-and-for-all stop to the madness of tests created by people other than a child’s teacher. We think it is time parents have a choice to opt-in.

The current opt-out movement that has taken aim at stopping standardized tests and corporate education reform is a national effort that has gained considerable traction. In 2012-13, Seattle’s teachers scrapped the MAP test and provided a model for actions across the country, from Arkansas to New York. What’s more American than being conscientious objectors and exercising civil disobedience? We can’t think of much. That said, the entire opt-out movement is predicated on the unfortunate reality that parents and their students should have to take action in order to avoid these tests. Opting out has brought police enforcement, threats and actions from school districts to parents and students, and even a hacker takedown of the United Opt Out website at the onset of the March 2014 testing season.

Audaciously, we believe that every parent in America should be given the choice to opt-in for standardized testing, rather than being forced to opt-out. If these tests are such a precious and necessary part of our education system, have the tests but stop victimizing other children who don’t want or need them in the process. Conveniently, the savings to the the country’s school districts and the collective pocketbook make the opt-in movement a dream idea for politicians, parents, educators, and patrons and a long overdue nightmare for the testing industry.

Parents, we believe that you–not the corpo-federal testing machine–know what is in your child’s best interest. We’d like to restore your right to opt your student in to more testing if you so choose. Perhaps there would be a fee associated with opting-in and if a family’s income fell below a certain level, free and reduced test prices could be offered. Since the scores from these tests most reliably predict the income demographics of the parents, the requests for testing could be few. Think of the savings!

At present, the American standardized test obsession fits nicely into a grand narrative of failing schools, bogus teachers, and dumb students. Even a casual look at the evidence of the American school system shows us that we have the finest public education system in history. “We top the ranks in creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship around the world,” offers Chris Tienken in Are American Students Really that Dumb? What’s driving all of the negative rhetoric about American schools? Who’s discussing our 26th-in-the-world ranking in childhood poverty?


One of the many things at stake here is the relationship between student and teacher, a sacred bond of learning and teaching. The proliferation of teacher evaluation systems based on standardized test scores could force those relationships to change, a fact that is particularly disturbing considering the broken nature of current teacher evaluations. Instead of a teacher getting kids ready for life, careers, and post high school education, the next round of standardized tests could be the focus. Are the days of a teacher looking forward to teaching a class made up of diverse cultures and backgrounds gone? Opt-in can fix all of this.

Some are getting the message and have reduced testing requirements. Nationally, the promise of those changes could be realized if parents contact their state board of education and legislators and demand their parental rights back. Testing consortia are using children as guinea pigs to validate their tests for free, effectively sidestepping parental permission to use their children in a for-profit research project. This and many other violations highlight why we must return rights to parents through opt-in.

We’d like to extend the push to cover any tests that claim to prepare students for tests or claim to predict how students will perform. Predatory companies that sprung up in the wake of No Child Left Untested exacerbate the issue by requiring students to take as many as four tests per year in a single discipline to prepare for the state mandated test. Let’s say there’s a standardized test in five subjects of a child’s schedule, she could potentially take 24 tests over the course of the year. Schools all over America are under the impression–thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top–that in order to score well on tests, students have to take lots and lots of tests in each subject. Common Core ushers in a formalization of this with the PARCC and Smarter Balanced next year unless it is stopped.

What these tests really do is take our students away from the important learning experiences that school can and does provide. Beyond the windfall of money that the education system will save through opt-in, the time wasted preparing for tests and testing will provide teachers across America the ability to create and dream with their students, the ability to teach unfettered from the current testing-palooza.

The nastiest secret about federal and state mandated standardized testing in America today is that it has nothing to do with the students or their learning. It’s about naming and shaming public education, data collection for the grand narrative. Let’s do the American thing and let the people decide. If parents sign an informed consent form to opt their students in for the national research project called testing and agree to pay for it, they should get first dibs on those test scores. Let’s put the test in its place.

What I’d do if I could create a charter school

As a high school teacher and professor I’ve often dreamt of having my own high school, one designed in the spirit of all of my ideas about what education should and shouldn’t be.

My pretend school is called the Progressive Institute of Student Awesomeness (PISA).

PISA teachers would have autonomy and high expectations and job security. Class sizes are small–18 to 20 students at most — and the faculty is overpaid so handsomely that some feel guilty about receiving their checks each month. In reality, they’ll know they’re worth their wages and then some.

A, B, C, D and F are relics of another system. Student progress is charted through portfolio defenses of learning, held in concert with volunteer members of the public.

Teachers receive free tuition to take courses at the best local public university, each expected to either possess or work towards Master’s degrees in pedagogy and content. Part of the job at PISA is to contribute to the scholarship on teaching and learning through professional reading, writing, and sharing with others.

PISA students would experience mandatory arts programs. Their performances and exhibits are a constant part of the school day.

Discussion and dialogue highlight academic classes, raising expectations through meaningful talk. Community service is required for graduation. We’d work smart and play hard. There’s not one test given to our students that wasn’t created by our faculty.

When students, teachers, administrators, and parents pass through the front doors, they feel good and safe and at home.

012213-School0113-22PISA is the school to which all others in the country are measured, the proverbial benchmark, boasting the highest ACT scores in the land.

And if I could have it all rolled together into one awesome package, if I could create my charter school, well…

I wouldn’t.

Above and beyond all of my progressive ideas about school, I believe in public education above all else. No matter how great, the imagined PISA hurts public education and hurts our country because it stands alone, or represents the elitist nature of the charter, and can’t be replicated to serve the interests of all.

No one left behind and no one excluded from the best we can muster. Those are the ideals we should pursue as we seek to enhance our public schools. Shouldn’t every student have a school like PISA?

Being anti-charter isn’t a popular position in our climate of privatization. Our own president and education secretary have worked tirelessly to expand charters during their time in office. Pro-charter films like The Lottery, Waiting for Superman, and Won’t Back Down have helped these anti-public ideas permeate American culture. In the face of a public education system falsely held out as failing, alternatives of any kind are attractive when shown in the light of private-sector propaganda.

From my way of thinking, charters in their origin–as a tool for innovation–were an okay idea, but that’s the extent of my support for them. Unfortunately, they are currently trapped in the accountability-crazed school choice narrative, one that has effectively pitted all schools against one another in an Orwellian version of social Darwinism.

Who’s got the highest scores? What’s in it for my child the others be damned? Compete, compete, compete. And they’re spreading though still a modest part of the national picture of education–4% of all schools.

Great public schools are the cornerstone of our society. Equitable education in America must be for everyone. Charter schools hurt public education and should be closed not expanded. They disrupt the learning dynamics in any given community by taking students away from others and by leaving students behind, especially those without family or personal resources to leave their home public school.

When charter schools succeed, I cringe. I believe that the schools-worth of students belong with their peers, helping to raise everyone in our American society, not just the few who are chosen by a lottery or whose parents can get them to the charter or private school. (author’s note: I cringe in a different, elongated tone for the students when charter schools fail or are demonstrated to be corrupt.

Students who leave for charters hurt the public schools by further demonstrating to the children left behind that their situation is bad but will probably be worse in the future. Charter schools promote a perverse form of competition and school choice that some members of our society won’t get. Since in that way they aren’t really public schools at all, they should be closed immediately: the good ones, the bad ones, and the ugly ones.

The big picture I see shows me that charters aren’t the point, vouchers and a dual track school system are the point. Vouchers are the goal of charterization. Our country doesn’t want a charter school on every corner, the elite decision makers want to be able to provide vouchers so their children can attend So Smart Private Academy on the public dime, an act sure to further undermine and defund egalitarian public education.

I gained a disturbing new perspective on private schools when I moved to the south seven years ago–the Southern private schools are a mirror of the pro-charter dual system of separate and unequal education.

Drive to Anywhere, Southern State, USA and look around for the private school and public school. It’s Jim Crow all over again with near complete segregation by race, something a colleague formally linked to expanding charter schools, not only in terms of race but also ethnicity and class. Is this the country we want?

Charters are a weapon of mass distraction, nothing more than idea candy or a freshly-painted plank in a political party platform. They get lots of play on public radio and some of the schools are successful by narrow measures. But stacked measurements and positive press don’t obscure the deeper realities of elitism and profit-driven private takeover of a cherished public institution. We should focus all of our energy and efforts towards providing a PISA like school for all students in America, not diverting attention or resources–teachers, money, and fellow students–to charter or private schools.


Suggested Citation: Goering, C.Z. (2014, May 19). What I’d do if I could create a charter school. Huffington Post. Retrieved from



Is Teacher “Appreciation” Enough?

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week and the desks of teachers all across the country are being inundated with cards, treats, and nifty Pinterest inspired gifts.  As a former classroom teacher I remember how nice it was to get some homemade cookies, a coffee mug, or other sign of appreciation – especially in early May as the school year had almost taken me for everything I had.77fe9ba7943da3e93160eb3816590495

What do we mean by “appreciation” when we talk about our nation’s teachers?  How do we appreciate those who give so much of themselves while constantly hearing the fabricated refrain of public school failure? A batch of cookies or candy bouquet doesn’t seem like quite enough to show how much our teachers mean to us.

Don’t get me wrong, teachers love to be appreciated, and my experience tells me that they also love candy, coffee, Diet Coke, and pretty much anything else that comes from the hearts of their students.  I still have several gifts from my former middle school students and I remember who gave them to me.

But the word “appreciation” doesn’t quite seem enough for how we feel about our best teachers.  Appreciation is nice and everybody likes to be appreciated for what they do, but take a minute to think about how often you tell somebody you “appreciate” something.  If somebody holds the door when your hands are full you appreciate it.  When somebody picks up the tab at lunch you appreciate it.  Here in Arkansas people often say “I appreciate ya” instead of  “thank you” when you make a purchase.  My point is that “appreciation” is something we hand out relatively easily.


Scottye Allen – Teacher Extraordinaire

I’m not sure what we should substitute for “appreciation” but I’m going to use this platform to honor one of our teachers who goes above and beyond all expectations in order to give her students the education that every American kid deserves.  She also happens to be my son Jackson’s teacher.

Ms. Scottye Allen is a fourth grade teacher at Butterfield Trail Elementary School in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  She has taught for 35 years in classrooms ranging from 1st to 11th grade in Montana, Washington, Missouri, and Arkansas.  I sat in on her class yesterday, a period she characterized as “nothing special” but as somebody who knows a few things about “special” teaching, I found her disclaimer to be not entirely accurate.

A former high school basketball player, Ms. Allen towers over her students in stature, but couldn’t possibly be any closer to them in spirit.  She uses her experiences as an athlete to connect to many of her students, which on the surface might seem like a relatively easy connection for a teacher to make.  A lot of 10 year-old kids are just becoming serious about sports, but dig deeper and you find that sports are just one way that Scottye Allen makes those connections.  For example, a few years ago she had a student in her class who was deaf.  In order to make sure that he was able to participate on the same level as her other students, Ms. Allen learned sign language.  Not only did she learn sign language, but she also wore a microphone so that she could translate his signed thoughts, answers, and questions to the rest of the students.   It was important to her that this student felt as though he wasn’t talking just to her but to all of his classmates as well.

When you get to know Ms. Allen you find out more about how much she values this sort of participation and success for every student in her classes.   I was able to witness this first hand as she took the time outside of her district mandated lesson plan to display and celebrate her students’ work.   Students sat in rapt attention as she used the document camera to project their recently completed book reports on the screen.   Everybody wanted to put their work on display for all to see, and 100% participation is something that Ms. Allen carefully cultivates over the course of the school year.  She believes that the most powerful learning happens when kids are willing to take risks and she promotes risk taking in her classroom through a culture of trust and honesty.    Watch Ms. Allen in person and you’ll see her push students to reach beyond their comfort level while never wavering in her support for their efforts.   Imagine scaling a cliff that looks impossible to climb with the reassurance that one of those giant air bags stunt men use to cushion their occasional fall is waiting below just in case you need it.  Her students scale that cliff more often than not, but when they don’t she’s waiting there with a soft place to land.

Her students are willing and even eager to take on these challenges because her expectations for them are extremely high and she has convinced them it is important.  I’m not referring to the vague notion of “rigor” that you hear people who know little about good teaching constantly blabber about.  I’m talking about pride, hard work, and a sense for what is important in life.   When Ms. Allen starts a sentence with “If you’re living…” her students finish it with a chorus of “you’re learning!”  When exhorting them to put forth their best effort you’ll hear, “don’t ever put your name on something unless you’re proud of it,” and when she feels as though a student has met her expectations she’ll remind them that, “The only person who needs to push you now is yourself.”  Ask one of her students how they are doing and they’ll tell you that they are “well” instead of “good”, and they are all aware of the proper use of use “I” and “me” in conversation.  These aren’t just old school lessons on grammar, because Ms. Allen makes them fun.  When one student stood up and proclaimed that she was “done”, the other students responded with “please don’t die!” because she was not “done”, she was “finished”.

Of course, Ms. Allen also wants her students to do well on the standardized tests our leaders have come to care so much about. She consistently has over 90% of her students score as “proficient” on the annual test, thanks in large part to an 8 step test taking strategy she has developed to help her students be successful test takers.  She isn’t trying to game the system, though given the ridiculous lengths other schools have gone to in order to boost student achievement on tests it would hardly matter if she was.  Instead, she believes that teaching her students how to do well on tests is now a necessary skill in American education.   She also knows that despite her success in preparing students for high stakes testing, it’s what she does after her students are ready to take the test that has the most lasting effect on their lives.

Standing with me outside the computer lab while her students take a mandated test that helps determine if they are prepared for the other mandated tests, she explains that “the best learning happens outside the lesson plan” and that she plans to keep chasing that learning as long as she believes she is doing it well.   When I ask her how she knows if she is making a difference, she explains how it happens at different times throughout the year and not for all students at the same time.  One by one she will see a student do something they haven’t done before, but maintains the belief that it matters little how much we know students have learned if they don’t know it too.

I see the results of Scottye Allen’s hard work every time my son comes home from school.  Ironically, he won’t be among the 90% of her “proficient” students this year because we opted him out of the standardized test.   I wrote at the time about how we didn’t need that test to know how well he is doing because we trust his teacher.  Perhaps now you can see why we feel that way.

As Ms. Allen’s students filed out of the computer lab from taking the standardized test she passed out fist bumps, high fives, and hugs – each one  accompanied by a “Thank you for working hard.”  Then she shook my hand, thanked me for visiting, and followed them into the classroom to get back to work.

Reflections of Canceled Kindergarten Music Programs

If you look at the curricular history of the United States you will see that our nation’s educational focus has been greatly affected by the tenor of the times.  In the early 20th century we sought efficiency in learning while the nation was industrializing.  We were inspired by the Great Depression of the 1930’s to study problems of society and democracy.  The 1950’s saw a renewed focus on American history and civics as the Cold War heated up.  In the 1960’s we frantically scrambled to fund math and science education when the Soviets launched Sputnik.  The “rigor” era was born in the 1980’s as the United States struggled to keep up with imports from Asia.  “Rigor” lived on through the focus on educational standards in the 1990’s and our infatuation with “accountability” in the 2000’s.   In many ways the 2010′s are a reaction to the Great Recession of 2008 as “college and career ready”  has become our mantra.

When America stares into the mirror of education, we see our societal self staring right back.

So when I looked into that mirror this week I was particularly disturbed by the image staring back in the form of a story about a kindergarten show in New York that was cancelled so that the students could continue to work towards becoming “college and career ready”.

In the letter, the school’s interim principal explains:

“The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.”

Holding the language of this letter up to our education mirror provides a reflection of what we have come to value in American schools.  For example, the suggestion that the show was canceled so the students can focus on “valuable lifelong skills” suggests that skills learned while practicing and performing a show are definitively less valuable and timeless.  The letter also parrots the rhetoric of “college and career readiness” by stressing the importance of becoming “strong coworkers”, presumably inferring that time spent in preparation for a show today will somehow have a negative effect on performance reviews 25 years from today.

The End of America's Prosperity

My Future Unemployable Skunk

“Did you hear that Cooper was fired last week? Third negative review in a row.  He’s down at the bar drinking and mumbling something about rehearsing to be a skunk.”

You might also notice that the letter uses the word “professional” instead of “educational” to describe the nature of their decision.  Perhaps they believe that there is great educational value in working together to sing, dance and perform, but far less professional value unless one plans to make a career of it.  It’s also hard to miss the autocratic and businesslike tone of the letter.  This was not a democratic decision made with input from parents or students, it was made unilaterally by the administration.  Parents, teachers, and students must simply live with it.   Finally, the principal writing the letter argues that this decision is in “the interests of all children” as though there is a one-size-fits-all approach to educating kids – one that apparently does not include frivolity or fun.

C’mon Endacott, you’re blowing this out of proportion!  This is just an isolated incident right?  Well, I can’t say for sure that other shows around the country are being canceled so that Kindergarteners will be better prepared for Monday’s conference call in year 2039.  However, I can say that research shows that kindergarten is skewing farther away from being a children’s garden (translation) as teachers prepare students for standardized tests.

A study by Daphna Bassok from the University of Virginia found that teachers in kindergarten are spending substantially more time on tested subjects.  From the article:

“Consistent with our hypotheses that a heightened focus on tested academics may crowd out other types of learning experiences, we find that time spent on subjects that are not tested as part of NCLB (social studies, science, music, art and particularly P.E.) has dropped… Our results clearly demonstrate that today’s kindergarten classrooms focus on more advanced academic content, are more literacy-focused, and rely more heavily on teacher-directed whole group instruction… For instance, kindergarteners in the later period are exposed to much less PE, science and social studies and much more standardized testing.”

On that note, let’s drop the pretense that canceling this show is really about “college and career readiness.”  It’s about tests.  You know it, I know it, and the school that canceled this show knows it.  What do you see when you look in the educational mirror and see a nation that endorses a testing regime that leads to the cancellation of kindergarten programs so that students can prepare for standardized tests… sorry, college and career?

I see a nation that needs to look critically at whether or not this is what is best for our kids.  Our national “failures” have long been blamed on our public schools, but could these claims simply be an attempt to avoid looking deeper into our society’s reflection?  Was the failure to launch a satellite before Sputnik really because the Soviets had better math and science programs than the United States?  Did the Soviets really do ANYTHING better than we did?  Do you know what Sputnik did?  It beeped.  That’s it.  It circled the Earth and beeped.  Twelve years later we put a man on the moon and we did it with graduates from the same American schools that were considered horrible a decade before.

Were Japanese cars and electronics really superior to our Chryslers and Zeniths because American schools did not prepare students for global competition?  If you can blame the Pinto, Gremlin, or Pacer on teachers with a straight face, then more power to you.  The business sector has mastered the art of shifting responsibility for their lousy ideas to our schools.  But do you know what country leads the world in patents issued since World War II?  We do.  That’s right, our lousy American public schools have been cranking out more innovative thinkers than any other country over the past 70 years, and Ford now ranks with Toyota and Honda in terms of quality.

What about the housing bubble that destroyed our economy in 2008?  Are our schools to blame for the Wall Street greed, government deregulation, and predatory lending practices that led to the Great Recession?  Hardly, but thanks to a nifty diversion by the federal government, testing companies and wealthy venture philanthropists we are now using that recession as a reason to take even more of the “American” out of our American public schools.

I say that because Kindergarten music programs are what Americans do.  We dress our kids up in cute costumes, teach them songs they will sing incessantly at the dinner table, charge up our video camera, and pack the school cafeteria for a rousing performance of “Bear Went Over the Mountain” or whatever these shows are called (you know you only pay attention when your kid is singing).  I did it, you did it, Warren Buffett did it (probably), and I’d bet the house that Joe Biden did it.

We sang songs about friendship or teamwork or sharing or something and became the best country in the world doing it.

As Bassok points out later in her article:

“…teaching academic content need not be at odds with “play” and other types of pedagogical approaches considered developmentally appropriate in early childhood.”

That’s the America I want to see when I look in the mirror of education.  The America that learns and plays.  Because that’s what we do better than any other country in the world.

Dare to be Different? Not in Arkansas

University of Arkansas colleague Dr. Dennis Beck penned the following piece relating the unique experience of homeschooling in the accountability era through the story of his daughter’s experience with the third grade standardized test. 

I live in Arkansas, and we homeschool. My oldest child has never taken a standardized test before, and was now being required to take one.  We value education rather highly in our family, and talk about college and career quite a bit. We have great conversations about topics that she cares deeply about. We also talk about how her interests may someday combine to form a career – a series of things that she could pursue together and in the process earn an income. Well, when I first described the standardized test to her she was dumbfounded.  Why would anyone want to waste her time in such a manner?  Didn’t they know that even the format of the test (multiple choice) made it nearly impossible to gauge what she was learning?  Add to that the reality that there is no real way to compare each student’s individualized learning path with that of another, and she was thoroughly confused.

She was also more than a little anxious. So we bought her a book with a few sample problems and she learned how to color in bubbles on a test sheet.  I asked her if that made her feel smarter. “Not really” was her disinterested reply.  So I explored the possibility of her “opting out” of the test. I was told in a rather condescending way that my daughter was required to take the test, or that she would be counted as truant and referred to the courts. The result might be that we would be forced to place her in public school the next year (a bit of an overreaction?!?).


So we decided to have her take the test.  We told her that it didn’t matter how she did on the test and that she was really the best person to assess her own learning because she knew her own strengths and weaknesses. We also told her that if she encountered a problem that she didn’t know or a word that she didn’t know the definition of, she should try her best or just skip the question and move on to the next one.

After the test, we talked about her experience.  This is a young lady who is thoroughly enthused and engaged by art, music, literature, math, science, history and other subjects when she is learning at home, but when placed in an artificial testing environment, she immediately disengaged. She told us about how the instructor wouldn’t answer any of her questions, that the questions were extremely easy, and how most of all, she didn’t learn a thing.  Later she even mentioned doodling on her paper when she finished early.  She was bored.

Since taking the test, she has asked me what will be done with the tests.  Arkansas’ official policy is that no one, including the state, sees the exam results except for the parents – to which I sarcastically wonder why she had to take an exam that I do not value and will not look at in the first place? My daughter also wanted to know whether the test makers will consider what she wrote at the end of the test, “I did not learn a single thing as a result of taking this test.  It was a complete waste of time. Please do not make me take it again.  I would like to be learning instead.” She has also wondered how any of what on the test would prepare her to succeed in college.

Just in case you were wondering, my daughter is in the third grade.

Now I’m the anxious one. I’m worried that my daughter will be steered off the path of authentic, meaningful learning and taught that learning is about being able to regurgitate information on an exam and to color neatly inside the bubbles on the test sheet. I’m worried that she will be trained by society that everything worthy of learning is black and white and answerable in 4 or 5 different choices.  I’m also concerned that she will be raised in a community where people don’t question what they are learning and don’t spend time reflecting on why and how they are learning something. Where people are effectively told to shut up and go along with what the state says because they know best.

I don’t want her to become another cog in the machine of “progress”, however you define it. And I recognize that the over-testing phenomenon that has hit our nation is only a symptom of a much larger problem.  Instead of embracing individualized instruction for all students, we choose to compare them to each other. Are comparisons useful enough to warrant their use, given the huge amount of data that show how destructive they are to students’ self-efficacy? No.

I want all of my children to grow up loving learning.  I want them to understand that education is not preparation for some job in the future; it is life itself (John Dewey). Thus it should be enjoyed just as life is enjoyed – one moment at a time, uniquely for each person. I want them to grow up knowing that “revolt is the right of the people” (John Locke) and not just willingly allow themselves to be squeezed into doing things the way their society tells them. I want them to know that “the person who has lived the most is not the one with the most years but the one with the richest experiences” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Thus they will spend their lives seeking out rich learning experiences, whether in formal or informal education.

Yet people like my daughter and I are being labeled as problems and threatened to conform or else suffer legal action. We are being asked – demanded – to align our educational approach to an approach that has no backing in educational research. Those who seek to do this, and to implement regular comparisons of student learning should be recognized as the backward, flat-earthers that they are, and treated as such. People learn at different paces, and have a huge variety of interests and strengths.  That is reality – not their artificial world of lock-step widgets that all advance at a particular time and in the exact same way.

Dennis Beck is an Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at the University of Arkansas. He enjoys teaching instructional design and how to thoughtfully integrate technology into instruction.  But he finds most of his enjoyment in spending time with his wife and children – learning and living the rich experiences life has to offer. Contact Dennis at

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