Saturday, November 30, 2013

Uncle Arne Wants You!

It has occurred to the Department of Education that teaching has a recruiting and retention problem.

"No duh," you think. And then maybe you think, "Well, perhaps that means the DoE will do something about lifting the heavy hand of regulatory oppression form teachers' backs. Maybe that means that the feds will step into the culture wars to defend teachers. Maybe the feds will stop suggesting at every turn that public school teachers suck. Maybe-- just maybe-- this means that the feds will step to take the lead in increasing the esteem and  with which the profession is view. Maybe they will take a second look at how their support of CCSS and charters and TFA and new teacher accountability models are crushing the soul of the profession."

Okay, you probably aren't thinking all that because A) you haven't been living under a rock and B) you aren't delusional.

No, what the feds have given us is a nifty PR campaign and a website that works better than the ACA site, but has far less useful information.

"Make more. Teach" is the name of the campaign, and you can read all about it at

The site puts its goals in plain English.

TEACH.ORG provides the information and community support that aspiring
teachers need to design their own path to a rewarding, successful career.

 And its origins are there in black and white as well.

The TEACH campaign originated as a Department of Education initiative to increase awareness of and support for the teaching profession. is actually almost two years old, but you can be forgiven for not knowing that because nobody has talked much about it, because there's nothing to talk about. A chirpy blog, a slick tumblr-style aggregator, some pretty interviews with teachers, and a many-click series of pages that will tell you less about the requirements to pursue a teaching career than you can learn from your high school guidance counselor. 

The new centerpiece of the...well, one hesitates to call it a "campaign." "Limply promoted  suggestion?" "Better-than-nothing lip service?" Anyway, the new feature is a PSA campaign, in which teaching is described with the kind of dewy-eyed prose usually reserved for missionary work and fine arts. 

The tagline is "Make more. Teach." It is a probably a measure of my curmudgeoniness that what I hear is the same old, "Teaching is so noble that you should be above wanting money and control over your own destiny." It is teaching as missionary work, where you just go where they send you and take what they give you because your noble rewards are so much more important than that other stuff.

The missionary line is annoying because it's not all wrong. If I won the lottery today, I would still go to school to teach and do my job. I would just go there in a nicer car. But at the same time, it's a special kind of insulting that my profession and my workplace are under attack from people who are in the education biz for no reason EXCEPT the money and the power and the control.

Speaking of those folks, the campaign is a big bed with a bunch of odd bodies sleeping in it. Microsoft and State Farm are the BIG partners with the DoE, with Teach for America right behind. The NEA and the AFT are also there, and while I have no love for their leadership these days, I  get that you win their participation by simply saying, "Think about how it will look if you AREN'T involved in this." Plus an odd assortment of other groups: National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Unite Negro College Fund, American School Counselor Association, 100K in 10, and more.

The PSA gets its theme and voice-over work from Taylor Mali (Mr. What Teachers Make), and of all the things to come out of the Department of Ed, it's certainly by far the most benign. But if Arne wants to "increase awareness and support for the teaching profession," I can think of a few dozen suggestions for him. Actually, I can think of one suggestion for him, and it's the same one as always-- instead of talking as if you respect and value teachers in public education, act as if those words are the truth. Here's one thing that being a teacher and being a Secretary of Education have in common-- talking a good game is not enough.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How Should We Teach Writing?

Today has turned into a snow day, so I have the time to address some other issues raised by yesterday's post about writing.

My classroom instruction regarding writing starts with a few assumptions:

1) Writing is a craft.

It's not an "art." You don't sit around and squint your brain and think writerly thoughts while waiting for lightning to strike. If you can only write when you are Struck By Inspiration, you're doing it wrong. (And I'll note that actual art is not an "art" either, at least not "art" as conceived by people who don't do it).

It's not a "science." I can't hand you a set of steps to follow that will automatically result in an awesome essay every time. I can't show you a structural framework that always leads to excellence.

It's a craft. You need ideas. You need technique, and the technique has to be used well. I often compare writing to cabinet-making. You need some vision and a good eye, but you can't just flail around with your tools while thinking deep, cabinetty thoughts.

2) There are no child prodigies in writing.

Mozart was composing and playing as a child. There are kids doing amazing things with math at an early age. But there are no great works of writing produced by toddlers. And from that we can deduce one important thing-- every writer must have started from the same place of not-so-great-ness. Every writer stinks at the beginning.

Sure, some show more natural aptitude than others. And some are way more interested than others. But the writer's life is a journey of growth and improvement, and that road, however long, starts in downtown Suckville. The fact that a writer is not-so-awesome today doesn't mean she won't be awesome some day in the future, and it definitely doesn't mean that she can't grow and get better.

I assess writing backwards.

Students are used to "losing points" on assignments.

If they take a regular 100-point test, they figure they've been spotted 100 points and they "lose" one every time they make a mistake. This is not how I grade writing assignments.

I'm looking for what the students did well. I tell them, "Don't ask me why you lost ten points on the last essay. You never had them. You didn't get them because I didn't see anything in the essay to earn them."

That doesn't mean we don't talk about mistakes. I am not, and never have been, from the hang loose and don't stifle creativity with all that spelling and punctuation stuff. When you mess up the mechnicals, you distract the reader from what you have to say. When you mess up the grammar and usage, you make it harder for the reader to understand what you have to say. An effective writer has those elements under control.

But good writing is not the same thing as writing without mistakes. My students have heard all of the following analogies:

A musician can appear on stage and get every note, every rhythm, every word absolutely correct, and it can still be the most boring, mediocre performance ever.

An athlete can go through a competition without doing a single thing wrong, and still be beaten.

If the best thing you can say about your boy/girl-friend is that s/he never does anything wrong, are you in a relationship that you're really excited about?

We do not get to awesome by avoiding mistakes. We do not achieve excellence by doing nothing wrong. To get to awesome, we have to do something right. When I assess, I am looking for what they do right.

Ask the right questions

Many of what we call writing problems are really thinking problems. All the technique in the world won't help you if you don't know and understand what you want to say.

Most thinking problems start with asking the wrong question. After being presented with a prompt or a writing problem, students often go to these sorts of questions:

What am I supposed to say? What can I write to get this assignment done? What are some words I can use to fill up these five paragraph-shaped blanks?

Those are the wrong questions. The write questions look like these:

What do I think about this? What do I want to say?

Writing is about creating a relationship, a connection, between the writer, the reader, and some ideas. As with any relationship in life, the most important first important step is showing up (take it from a divorced guy). Too many student writers don't show up. They don't think about the prompt. They don't look into their own brain. They don't approach writing as an opportunity to express their own ideas, but as a slightly-more-complex fill-in-the-blank quiz.

They don't support their ideas because they are just trying to fill up a paragraph's worth of page. They don't present ideas that make sense because they haven't thought about them. They don't fully develop the connections between their ideas because they're too busy trying to fill in the five paragraphs.

If they start with the right questions, everything else follows. They can choose structure based on what best fits what they want to say. They can support ideas with support that fits and makes sense, and they can give it whatever space it needs to breathe. They can stop self-evaluating by asking "Did I fill up enough paper" and start asking "Did I make myself clear?"

It's an ATV, not a train.

I do not know at the beginning of the year where writing instruction will lead me, because I don't yet know where my students' needs will lie. It takes me the first several weeks to do a needs assessment, and that process never stops. And here's a radical thought-- I figure out what their writing issues are by having them write. I read what they write. We talk about how they write. They write some more. There isn't a standardized test on the planet that would provide me with a better diagnostic tool.

Current reform-- I don't know. I guess I'm supposed to wait until the results come back from last year's poorly-constructed standardized tests, and based on that one day's worth of work loosely related to the act of writing, I'm supposed to... heck, I don't think anybody can straight-facedly propose that this is an effective way to design and steer instruction.

So my writing program unrolls a little bit differently every year. I'm not going to talk about pre-writing, organization, development, whatever exactly the same way every year just because that's what I say every single year. That would make me like a doctor who treats every patient with the same drug regardless of the patient's needs.

Writing instruction, more than any other part of the English curriculum, MUST be flexible. It MUST be able to range all over the territory and respond to whatever the students most need. While there are certain signposts one can expect to pass, every writer's journey is different, and not necessarily linear. Instruction must reflect that.

Rinse and repeat

Writing is a skill, like shooting foul shots. Basketball coaches do not set a single day aside during the season to work foul shots and then ignore the skill the rest of the year.

Writing needs to go on all year. At least once a week. Even if you have to do free-writing or short simple essays that you barely look at to grade, keep the students writing. The more they write, the better they write. Skills are only improved and retained with practice. The old model of a few-weeks-long stand alone writing unit in the middle of the year-- that model must die.


Have some and make them clear. Every teacher in the world brings a set of biases to writing evaluation. Make yours clear.

You don't have to use the same ones all the time. For some essays, I use a modified version of the six traits rubric. For others, I don't. I give my students a clear idea of which expectations they are writing to on a particular assignment. In effect, I'm behaving as two or three slightly different audiences for them. I'm comfortable with that-- being able to shift their writing behavior to suit a different situation or audience is a useful tool to have in their writer's kit.

You can't surprise them or suddenly pounce on them for giving the "wrong" answer to a prompt. That will force them right back into asking wrong questions like "What does the teacher want me to say."

Share strategies, writer to writer

One of the challenges of teaching writing is that process is so personal.

I'm a child of the seventies, and in my classes, we were all taught to write with an outline. Every big paper had to be handed in with the outline attached. And how did we handle that? Of course, we wrote the paper first and then created an outline to match it. Outlining was supposed to help us write, but in practice it was, for most of us, pointless busy work.

The pre-writing process doesn't look like any one thing. Some people need to sit quietly. Some people need to be awash in sound. Some people need to have their body occupied with something physical while their brain chews on the problem. Some people can't crystallize an idea until they start writing about it. Some people need to talk about it.

Give your students permission to find their own best techniques. Talk to them about options they can try. Don't get them stuck in the straight jacket of what is "supposed" to help them write. That's just as bad as telling someone how they're supposed to fall in love. Help them stop lying to themselves about what works for them (some people really do write their best work under pressure at the last minute, but not nearly as think they do). Help them trust their own knowledge of what is working and what is not.

Once they know what their strengths are, they have a foundation to build on and a basis to adapt to other writing situations.


Otherwise you're trying to guide students through a foreign land that you don't visit yourself.

I haven't really touched on how exactly to assess or what factors make the difference between writing that sucks and writing that is awesome, but this is already long and rambly, and I have a car to shovel out and a dog to walk. Comments and discussion are welcome.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Testing Badly for Robots and Drones

Anthony Cody's recent blog about the effect of robo-grading on instruction includes an eye-opening glimpse of how much worse things can get. A sample from the Smarter Balanced test reveals a writing test in which the students are given the content for their essay and simply asked to rewrite it. "Here's a list of points for each side of this question. Select a couple and put them in paragraphs."

It is, in fact, testing exactly the sort of plagiarism skills that we have been trying to purge for decades.

Not that the teaching of bad writing is a new issue. Evaluating writing is hard, and it's subjective. Virtually every revered writer has been the subject of the argument, "Is this person a genius, or does this person actually suck?" If a writer in the canon can provoke wildly divergent views among actual professional literati (and fake ones like David Coleman), then it can be no surprise that a writer in my fifth period class can provoke similar subjectivity.

Teachers have long tried to reduce the assessment of writing to a more manageable. I myself brought home the Oregon version of the six traits model from a conference years ago, and like many other teachers, I've since modified it to better suit my own personal biases about writing.

The quest for a simple, clear system of writing assessment is eternal. It's eternal because nobody has found a good, solid, simple, clear, objective way to assess writing that does not require pummeling writing with a stick, hacking off its limbs, and stuffing the bloody corpse into a tiny, cramped box. If Heisenberg says you can't observe a phenomenon without affecting it, Greene says that you can't assess writing without mangling and killing it.

The solution to "How do I master the difficult task of assessing writing?" is rarely "Build a better assessment." It's more usually "Make students write something that's easier to assess." Assess them not on their ability to express themselves, to manage prose, to use language to organize and capture concepts-- instead, assess them on their ability to follow a formula.

We have some classic studies of the bad formula essay. Paul Roberts' "How To Say Nothing in 500 Words" should be required reading in all ed programs. Way back in 2007, Inside Higher Ed ran this article about how an essay that included, among other beauties, reference to President Franklin Denelor Roosevelt was an SAT writing test winner. And I didn't find a link to the article, but  in 2007 writing instructor Andy Jones took a recommendation letter, replaced every "the" with "chimpanzee," and scored a 6 out of 6 from the Criterion essay-scoring software at ETS. You can read the actual essay here.

At my school, we've learned how to beat the old state writing test. It's not hard:

1) Recycle the prompt. Get the key words of the prompt into your first paragraph. If you aren't sure which words are key, just grab them all.

2) Fill as much paper as possible. Be redundant. Babble. But fill up space.

3) Use some big words. "Plethora" has historically been a favorite.

4) Write neatly. Indent clearly.

Jesse Lussenhop's classic article shows how badly the live scorer system works. But the new info about the new CCSS-related prompts show just how much the tail has begun to wag the dog.

Bad test design has a certain sort of logic. Every English teacher is familiar with the Bad Context Clue question. This is the question where a word is used in one of its least common meanings, such as "Bob's faculties were very strong." Students are instructed to depend only on context, but many are suckered into using the knowledge they already have. Teachers despair of training students to recognize those times when they are supposed to ignore what they already know.

But suppose you wanted to test a student's sense of smell, so you put a fragrant flower on the other side of the room and said, "Find your way across the room with your sense of smell." But then you realize that they might use other senses to find their way. So you start blasting Sousa marches, and you create a realistic hologram of massive flames in the middle of the room. The idea is that ONLY their sense of smell could get them across their room. But the task has been changed-- they not only have to use one sense, but they have to disregard the others. We've completely isolated the item that we want to assess, but we have done it by creating a senseless activity that would never occur in real life.

And that's why we have to teach students how to take tests. Because testing activities are designed to be easily assessed and to focus on unreal only-in-a-test activities.

We cannot teach students to write well and to write to get good scores on standardized tests at the same time.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

How To Get People To Listen To You

In these times of stress and struggle, there's certainly a place for groups that can take a vocal and activist stance for teachers (such as the Badass Teacher Association, your local union, and the AFT -- no, wait, the NEA--  never mind).

But there's also a need to talk to individual human issues surrounding the Corporate Takeover Complex in education, whether those individual humans are fellow teachers or civilians. How we can present the issues, person-to-person, in a way that is persuasive and effective? I believe the following are critical.

1) Dial It Back
It is easy, in the midst of a large, sprawling crisis, to become a bit edgy. If the crisis has come to your home turf in a more immediately threatening way (hey there, Philly, Chicago and LA), it's easy to become very focused and energized. If people have been coming at you with the same questions, the same concerns, the same mistaken objections, the same false myths, the same stupid wrongheaded flippin idiotic baloney that I have explained A BILLION GAZILLION TIMES AL-FRICKIN-READY--.......    Okay, let me catch my breath here. You see what I mean.

I get that level of agitation. I was a union president in a strike year, and I remember well one of the irritating principles of running that kind of group. You could have informational sessions, discuss something at great length with the key people, and still, somewhere later, you'd be repeatedly approached by people who wanted to start the whole discussion from scratch.

Add the presence of actual opponents who really do attack you both straight on and with stealth, and it's easy to get yourself in a high state of alarm.

But you have to remember-- that person whose shoulders you have grabbed and started shaking while screaming into his face-- that person may be having his very first day of confronting the issues. He's taking his first step on a road that you've been traveling down for months, or even years. When you scream and shake him, you ARE convincing him that something is alarming, scary and dangerous. It's just that, at that moment, he thinks the scary thing is you.

So take a breath. Dial it back. You don't convince anybody like this. There are many things to love about the BATS and the BATpage, but say the wrong thing and there will be people jumping down your throat faster than Donald Trump chasing golden hair gel. Talk to them like you would talk to a person.

And dial back the rhetoric as well. I agree that American public education is in the fight of its life. But nobody is coming to take teachers to gas chambers. No teachers are being actually raped in the name of the Common Core. When your rhetoric becomes overheated, you lose credibility.

2) Switch Shoes
Sad but true. The effect that CCSS has on how you use your regular math modules with third graders is of no major concern to the average non-teacher.

And, really, tell the truth. Except for a select few, most of us didn't pay any attention for a year or two, until we started to see how all this mess would affect us. So why would the average citizen be any different.

So do not tell people why the corporate movement makes you sad. Tell them why it's going to make them sad. If they are parents, explain how it will affect their children. If they are taxpayers, explain how it will affect the way their taxes are spent.

Look, I'm with you. I wish the majority of Americans had a deeply philosophical commitment to the principles of public education, but as anybody who has ever negotiated a contract or who can read already knows, most Americans just don't think about it all that much.

You have to meet them where they are. You have to explain the issues in terms of their concerns. And if you aren't sure what those are, well...

3) Listen
The best way to get people to listen to you is to listen to them. This does not mean letting their mouth noises wash over you while you finish composing your next talking point.  And it doesn't meaning hearing them just enough to jump down their throats because that concern they just expressed-- it's all wrong.

People are concerned about what they're concerned about. Those people who vehemently disagree with you politically? That's mostly NOT because they are some combination of stupid and evil. They have real concerns.

They may be misinformed. They may be misinterpreting. They may have made some not-quite-right linkage between their concern and the specific actions you're discussing. But their concerns are real. If you can figure out what they are and address them, you will accomplish awesome things.

Oh, and listening also means admitting when you may not be absolutely correct. It means acknowledging when they're not wrong. To do anything else will make it clear that you are an adversary, not a person trying to help them see something.

4) Go Outside
Walk your dog. Eat a hamburger. Fly a kite. Kiss your spouse. In less gentle terms, get a life.

This is another Thing You Already Know From Your Classroom. You are a better teacher when you are a more rounded person and you can approach your students as a whole human being.

Same thing here. If you're a real live human being, you can relate to other real live human beings better.

Bonus Round:
When you go outside, let it be to do something useful in your community. People who know you and trust you because they've dealt with you outside of a classroom or because they've seen you contributing to your community in other ways will be way more likely to listen to you and trust you when you open your mouth.

I probably have more to add to this, but right now my wife and I are going to play with the town band on a float in the local parade for our local Light Up Night before we watch some fireworks and go to a movie. I will continue to try to get people to understand what kind of fight education is in right now, but first I'm going to play my trombone. You should get a trombone of your own, and then get back to the fight tomorrow.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The New Factory Model

We've talked about the factory model in education forever-- the little worker-bees-in-training lined up in ranks and files, learning how to plug away assembly-line style. Truth be told, it's not exactly one of the most endearing features of American public education, and there have been regular attempts to disrupt the model, from elementary classrooms furnished with beanbag chairs and carpet to the Harkness tables of Philips Exeter (I spent a summer as a student there decades ago-- they really do make a difference).

But the newest tweaking of the model is not a good one. It's one critical part of how NCLB and Son of NCLB have poisoned the atmosphere of schools.

Under the old factory model, students were products. We were the workers, our classrooms were the assembly line, and the students were the toasters we were cranking out.

Under the New Reform Model, students are no longer the product. They are workers, and the product is test scores.

Charter schools are the most obvious demonstration of the implications of this approach. What do you do with a factory worker who won't produce a good product? You fire him. What do charter school operators like Steve "65% Graduation Rate" Perry do with students who won't produce good scores? They fire them.

Son of NCLB now requires teachers and schools to produce certain score levels to survive. And so, we are no longer there to serve the students and provide them with the education they need. Now, students are there to produce the scores, the data, that we need to survive.

When "reformers" tout a student-centered approach, they don't mean we should focus on the needs of the student-- they mean we should focus on getting the student to cough up the scores we need.

This is the new factory model, in which students are not toasters, but assembly line robots. If this model persists, here are the things we can expect to see:

-- Charters and private schools will continue to fire any student-worker-robots that fail to produce.

-- Students who can't produce will be labeled defective. After all, if my program (purchased from Pearson) is good, and my delivery system (that well-trained TFA body) is good, then the only explanation for a low student score is some sort of learning defect. Watch for diagnoses of learning disabilities, adhd, etc to go up.

-- While schools chase the top score producers like a pro basketball team tries to recruit the best point maker, some public schools will be left open specifically to warehouse the poor producers. Profit models will develop to make some money from this (cyber schools have a well-developed model of signing these low performers up with big promises and then ditching them after the check clears and before the scores come in), but those will be unsustainable, so we'll see lots of churn in this sector of the market.

-- Schools and, regrettably but inevitably, some teachers will come more and more to see students not as their purpose and focus, but their enemies. "Those damn kids in this years tenth grade are holding out on us and refusing to produce the scores we need to maintain funding. We've got to beat them somehow before they put us out of business." There is something profoundly damaging to a school dynamic when a grown adult's livelihood depends on forcing a ten-year-old to bubble in the answers that we need.

How do we deal with it? It will depend on the building and the administration to some large extent, but ultimately it's up to us to make the best choices in our classrooms.

I dealt with the old model by ignoring it. In my mind, my students are craftsmen, building the best artisanal versions of themselves that they can. I'm some sort of sherpa guiding them to a peak. I'm some sort of guide helping them read a map to a country only they can live in.

With the new model, I think we may have to reimagine ourselves as warriors. Our students, ourselves, our schools-- we have all been thrust into hostile territory where our survival and their graduation depend on meeting a series of senseless challenges, while at the same time we have to acquire the things we need to survive. In their case, students need to acquire an actual education in something other than Bad Test Taking. In our case, we need to acquire the knowledge that we have actually helped the people we went into this profession to help, and have not simply reduced them to assembly line robots. It is not always an easy fight, but we have to remember that we and our students are fighting on the same side.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Problem That Has No Name

As I mentioned in the previous posting, I believe that part of the problem for the educational resistance movement is a problem of language.

The folks that brought us No Child Left Behind thought that they had made a great branding decision by bundling all the various aspects of their reform program under one title. NCLB was an octopus with many limbs, from high stakes testing to financial boondogglery for remediation to school district evaluations to whatever else they wanted to graft on. The Powers That Were slapped a big label with the NCLB logo on that monster, but when the whole business turned ugly, that giant logo turned out to be a giant target.

If you hated the testing, you were opposed to NCLB. If you hated the government overreach, you were against NCLB. If you hated the overly-prescriptive curriculum materials, you were against NCLB. If you just knew that something was wrong with the whole direction, even if you couldn't put your finger on it, you were against NCLB.

The new wave of reform has corrected that tactical error. CCSS, federal overrreach, high stakes testing, TFA, charter schools, money and power grabs, destructive evaluations of buildings and teachers-- we know all of these things are part of the same toxic trend, the same drive to dismantle American public education and sell the parts for scrap.

But when we want to explain, clearly and passionately, what we are trying to oppose, we have nothing to call it. So we end up either waving our hands vaguely and throwing around phrases on the order of "you know, all that stuff." Or we rattle off the whole laundry list and end up sounding like scattershot crazy conspiracy theorists.

Worse yet, the fact that the Whole Big Mess doesn't have one single name lulls some folks into thinking that we only need to fight one arm of the octopus. Those other arms are friendly and benign; only this one arm wants to strangle us. And because all the arms have different names, the general public-- those folks who don't spend every day poring over blogs about education but whose support we need-- that general public has no idea that these are all parts of the same hungry animal.

Language matters. Language helps frame the discussion. There's a reason that the two sides of the abortion debate call themselves Pro-Choice and Pro-Life. There's a reason that some people call them Public Schools and other people call them Government Schools (three guesses which group supports them). There's a reason that, historically and in so much folk narrative, being able to name something is the key to power over it.

The Giant Education Reform Complex needs a name. I don't have a proposal, but I think about it a lot. It doesn't have to be pretty-- "military-industrial complex" is not very evocative, but everybody knows what it means. But we need something to call this giant mess of reform, and it probably shouldn't have the word "reform" in it because when you are out there announcing that you're against reform, you're already in trouble. Education Complex Takeover. Giant Edu-grab.

I don't have an answer. But I think the question is huge. We know what the beats is. But it needs a name.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Can the CCSS Be Cleansed?

UPDATE: This column appeared in a slightly altered and improved form on Anthony Cody's blog. As much as I appreciate your attention here, you might want to go read that. And while you're there, read through the rest of his most excellent work.

A recent recurring refrain around and about the comments sections is the notion that the Common Core standards are, in and of themselves, quite fine, and if we could just uncouple them from the testing and implementation regimens, all will be well. We need not throw the baby out with the bathwater, nor stand in the way of fine new standards just because their ugly testing step-cousin is trying to sneak through the door with them.

The CCSS are really pure and decent; we just need to find a good exorcist to cast the testing demon out of them.

I can remember thinking like that. I can remember looking at the standards and thinking, "Many of these are actually fine." (I should note that I teach at the high school level, not elementary.) In fact, one of my earliest complaints about the CCSS was that they were one more example of folks telling us to do things that we already did. And I don't think there's a teacher alive who wouldn't relish the promise of freedom to pursue the standards in any way they deemed best.

"You know," I thought at one point. "If it were possible to just use these standards as a rough guide to follow as a thought best, and we got the government to stop testing, I could live with this."

And that was the moment when I knew that, no, the CCSS were not pure of heart and I would never learn to love them.

Because what would decoupling look like, after all? What incantation would exorcise the testing demons? Would teachers go to government and say, "Thank you for these guidelines. Trust us-- we will use our best professional judgment and produce the best-educated generation of students ever. Just step back and watch us work." No, that would never work, and it would never work because the CCSS are not for us. They never were.

People who like the standards are looking at them as a guide, as that helpful assurance that teachers sometimes like that we are on the right page. We like standards. We like standards like drivers like white lines. And we think of standards as a map, a tool to help us find our way. To us standards say, "Here's a map. We trust you to find your way."

Not the CCSS. The primary purpose of the CCSS is to call teachers out. It says, "Here's what you are supposed to be doing, or else. And we'll be checking up on you every step of the way." It is not a tool to be used by teachers; it's a tool to be used on them.

The CCSS say, "Here's what you must prove you're accomplishing." If you tell your students that you expect them to study and learn the chapter about Torquemada and 15th Century Spain, they know there's a test coming. Everyone expects the Spanish Inquisition. The CCSS are not about helping us teach; they are about holding us accountable, so they are meaningless without testing (and some parts are meaningless with it).

They are also, of course, about making money. NCLB also wanted to bust into the big piggy bank that is public school funding, but NCLB was a big blunt hammer; CCSS is a more sophisticated pry bar.

But the biggest-- the hugest, in my opinion-- reason that CCSS cannot be cleansed is reflected in the difficulty all of us who write about education these days, and it is probably the biggest lesson that the powers that be learned from NCLB.

The biggest mistake in NCLB is that they gave the whole thing a name. The testing, the state standards, the punishing evaluations, the funding pressures-- everything was gathered under the No Child Left Behind banner. Oh, how we loathed it. We called it funny mocking names. But even when we couldn't see the full picture, we knew its name. We knew its name.

This thing that's happening now? The contempt for teachers, the drive to privatize, the evaluation-based punishment, the dismantling of our profession, the destruction of public education, the redirection of billions of tax dollars, the secrecy, the ill-conceived standards-- we can see all its pieces, but it does not have a name.

That's a powerful choice, because it fosters the idea that these are all separate and discrete pieces, not part of a giant machine chewing apart the entire American institution of schooling. And it leads to the belief that some of these separate pieces can be cleansed and saved, that we can accept and somehow leave the rest behind.

People who believe in the cleansing of CCSS are like the characters in the story of the blind men and the elephant, only they are saying, "This tail piece is slim and pleasant; I'm going to take it home with me. But the parts you two are describing sound nasty. leave them here." You can't just take home a piece of the elephant.

The Common Core standards are part of that whole nameless beast, and the creators of that beast will never let you take only a piece of it home. The testing regimen is not its own separate thing that can be just thrown out any more than it was its own thing when it was the spine of NCLB. If you want only one arm of the octopus, you can't exorcise the rest of the animal. You can only have one limb when you have killed the whole beast.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Arne Duncan vs. White Moms

As is spreading rapidly, Arne Duncan put his foot in it again this week with his cogent analysis of why people are not putting on a smile, lying down, and letting the Common Core roll right over them. You can find a full treatment here, but I want to just take a moment to unpack how many kinds of arrogant foolishness are rolled into that one little comment.

“It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary,” 

1) Why are we having this conversation?

Once again, Arne seems to have forgotten one of the central, important fictions of the Common Core-- that they are totally the result of a state initiative, and that they in no way represent a federal attempt to commandeer the state-based control of schools. If this isn't his program, why is he devoting so much time and fervor to defending it? Why aren't a bunch of governors running around defending the program that they developed all on their own that was in no way set up and nursed to life by the feds?

2) Moms? Really??

I thought these days it was supposed to be the GOP that dismissed contrary points of view simply by attaching them to women. "Ha ha. This is the crazy kind of objection you'd expect from one of those women. You know women, with their dumb vaginas and not-very-strong thinky parts. That's who comes up with this kind of stupid objection."

3) Plus "white" and "suburban"?? Did you skip politics 101?

Granted, this is a kind of genius play here. These are people who have it cushy, but they're not truly elite. We're trying to invoke the language of privilege, but not too much because that would land us in Arne's neighborhood. So "white suburban" translates roughly as "privileged but not as great as me." Arne is saying, "People who live on the mean streets-- they get it. People who have risen to the heights of power and wealth on their great merit (like, you know, me) get it. But these out-of-touch suburbanites (did I mention they were women) don't get it."

If you think I'm reading too much into points #2 and #3, imagine how this plays if Arne instead attributes these concerns to "blue collar fathers" or "working class black parents."

4) And then when you think for a second more...

Wait-- so only suburban Moms care about how well their kids are doing at school??

5) It's not me. It's you.

The administration has managed to cave and admit that maybe the ACA rollout didn't come off quite as planned and that maybe-- just maybe-- things weren't quite as originally advertised. (Predicted soon-to-be-meme from the comment section of the WaPo article-- "Obamacore-- you can keep your school and teachers if you like them. Oops!")

But in the world of CCSS, there's still only one explanation for why people are upset about the results. Their perception of their school, the school's teachers, the education that they perceived in THEIR OWN CHILDREN-- all of those were at fault all this time, and now only the magic of the federal  oops-- state standards can finally open their eyes.

Yup-- exposure to their offspring, with whom they presumably live, occasionally share a meal, even exchange the occasional grunts and greetings-- none of that could possibly give a parent an impression of how smart their child is. Only CCSS can reveal-- and surprise them with-- the truth.

In Arne's world, there is no possible way that the bad results are even a teensy bit the result of an untested program poorly rolled out program. And that's why--

6) Randi Weingarten is actually right about something

The WaPo column contains a money quote from the AFT head, saying that the CCSS rollout is even worse than the ACA launch. And she's right. And she's right because the ACA rollout has allowed for course correction, changes based on conditions on the ground, and even an admission that some things need to be tweaked.

But in Arne-world, all problems, all objections, all difficulties with the CCSS have one explanation-- all you dumb civilians who don't know revolutionary genius when you see it. Especially those of you with vaginas.

Where Failed Management Fads Go To Die

When I was working my college summers in private industry, I was introduced to Management By Objectives. It was all the rage-- well, it was all the rage with upper management types who liked to book training sessions for the rest of the company. And it was all the rage with the consultants who made money traveling around the country consulting and seminarring and just generally doing their drive-by rearranging of other peoples' deck chairs.

I don't remember anybody liking MBO very much, and when I played catch-up with my old cronies at the company, I heard that MBO was on its way out. Not only were people tired of it, but it didn't work very well.

Not too long after that, as a college grad with his own teaching certificate, I was introduced to the hot new thing in education-- Teaching By Objectives. I was dumbfounded. It was as if someone had simply taken all the old MBO materials and gone through pasting "teaching" in to cover up every "management."

How could it be? People in industry were already abandoning MBO-- even if you thought schools should or could be run with corporate techniques, why would you pick one that was being dumped as ineffective?

Well, I was young, and new, and just learning one of those Things They Never Tell You in Teacher School.

Public education is the elephant's graveyard of bad management techniques.

Maybe it's that some education leaders have an inferiority complex that leads them to believe that business people know something we don't. Maybe it's just that consultants have to eat, too, and once the private sector won't hire you anymore, where are you going to turn. All I know is that I noticed education was always climbing on the bus just as the private sector was climbing off.

Nothing has changed under the current reform wave. Ten years ago, Jack Welch was all the rage with his bell curve management technique-- rate all your employees and fire the bottom ten percent. But by the end of the two thousand oughts, folks were noticing that besides being hardhearted, arbitrary and just plain mean, the Welch strategy didn't actually work.

And yet in the time since the private sector fell out of love with Jack Welch, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania decided to score schools and label the bottom 15% as "failing" and thereby targeted for various remediation, vouchering, and take-over. Essentially PA decided to Welch its schools.

Now Microsoft has forsaken stack ranking. They've finally noticed that it creates a toxic atmosphere, kills collaboration, and is just generally bad for the company's health.

Meanwhile, in the elephant's graveyard, what is being pushed? The Danielson model for teacher evaluation, in which the implicit assumption is that a teaching staff should plot out on a bell curve. "Nobody," we are told over and over and over in PA, "will live at the top level." Most of us will live in the unexceptional middle. You know. Like a bell curve.

And every merit pay variation to come down the pike is built on stacking-- if you want that bonus (or, under some systems, not to be fired) you are going to have to beat out your colleagues across the hall. Fellow teacher needs a little help? Just remember, they can't do better without taking away from your success. Best to keep those lesson plan ideas and teacher-made materials under lock and key.

Public education is where failed management techniques go to die. Whenever someone wants to tout an idea as super-dee-duper because it's all the rage in the private sector, remember that the question to answer is, "And how is that working for them?" And by "working," we mean "creating a better product" and not "hornswaggling a bunch of investors into boosting the stock prices."

Thursday, November 14, 2013

TFA in Pittsburgh: Adding insult to injury

When contemplating the deployment of TFA forces in Pittsburgh, there's one other aspect of the PA education picture to keep in mind.

Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities have been experiencing tough times. The economic forces brought bear on them include budget moves by a governor who is not a friend of education, and simple demographics. The college-age population of PA has been shrinking, and most schools are suffering a corresponding decline in enrollment.

That has led to rumors of cuts, proposals for cuts, and actual cuts. For one example of how this has played out, we can look at the state university in my neighborhood, Clarion.

In August of 2013, Clarion sent out emails to incoming freshmen headed for the education department that their department was probably going to be axed. Their completion of the program was assured, but they would be the last. Later in the month, Clarion unveiled its "right-sizing" plan which did indeed include dissolving its education department. Since that time, University management has backed away from the original scope of the plan, but it is still unclear how much of the backing away represents real change and how much it represents trying to reframe with new, less-alarming language.

Clarion is a particularly disturbing case, because they started out as a "Normal" school; their core mission has always been training teachers. Now that mission is in doubt. (You can read some current news coverage here, and you can watch the whole mess unfold in real time here ) Similar dramas are unfolding across the system, each dealing with the financial pressures in their own way (the one common thread-- music programs are dropping like flies).

Let's hold this up against the backdrop of the TFA assault on Pittsburgh schools.

You're 18 years old and you are thinking about becoming a teacher. You look around at your state system, and you see an uncertain future. Maybe the program you want to (or can afford to) enroll in will still be there; maybe it won't. Maybe it will vanish out from under you midway through your college career.

But meanwhile, we are supposed to believe that Pittsburgh schools have a shortage of teachers, and that PA needs a TFA field office to help draw more non-teachers into teaching.

So as a future PA teacher, you have to wonder if you should even go into a teaching program, and if you do, will you need to compete for scarce jobs with well-connected ivy leaguers?

If there really is a teacher shortage in Pennsylvania, would it not make sense to work on the pipeline, to support and strengthen teacher training programs and give them the tools to recruit and thrive? If Pennsylvania needs teachers, why is Pennsylvania not trying to create more?

Where is the STEM initiative for educators? After all, nobody is saying, "Hey, we don't have enough scientists and engineers, so lets give graduates with humanities degrees a five week course and send them out to make sciency stuff." No, what we said was, "We need more people in this field, so lets beef up the support, funding, training, and recruiting."

TFA in Pittsburgh doesn't just hurt in the short run. In the long run, it exacerbates the very "shortage" it pretends to address. Combined with the downsizing of universities in PA, it send s a clear message to young Pennsylvanians-- "If you were thinking about becoming a teacher, you should probably think about something else instead."

CCSS: Lowering the Bar

College and career ready.

We can discuss the many and varied flaws of the CCSS all day, but those four words are all it takes to shove me off the CCSS bus.

That's it? That's your idea of what an education is for? All we send students to school to do is to get vocational training for a job? Or to go to college, which is just four more years of vocational training for a more impressive job.

I could wax rhapsodic about the value of the whole human experience, about how our minds, bodies and spirits are meant for more than the simple grind of the workplace. I could talk about how nobody ever lay on a deathbed whispering, "Oh, if only I had spent more time getting college and career ready." I could serve up some tasty rhetoric, like "What good is making a living if you don't have a life?"

But instead, let's look at the practical implications of this, and since the pushers of CCSS are practical people, let's ask them these questions repeatedly.

If a young woman's intention is to become a stay at home housewife and mother, should she be allowed to drop out of school?

Does this mean we can drop all arts programs now, because none of our students are going to be making a living as artists and musicians? Well, no, some of them might. But this gets tricky-- a future professional musician needs the experience of playing in an ensemble-- should we force all the future engineers to play an instrument or sing in choir so that our handful of future professional musicians have the appropriate preparatory experience? And by the way-- notice that for that sentence to be clear, I have to write "professional musician" but not "professional engineer." That's because lots of folks can be musicians without being professional musicians-- does being a musician without making a living at it count?

What about shop class and sports programs? And if I'm sure I'm going to pursue a non-science career, can I just drop out of math and science classes?

Of course the answer to that last one is "no" because in CCSS, one size fits all. But how does that work if I'm going to be college and career ready? Are we preparing every single student for exactly the same career? If we are, which career is it? If we aren't, why are we applying the exact same standards to everyone? Ditto the colleges-- are we preparing everyone for exactly the same college with the exact same major? And are we preparing them to be biology majors at Harvard, or English majors at Wassamatta U, or welding at Anywhere Technical Institute? How can the answer be both/either if they are being prepared with exactly the same standards??

And we haven't even started on the "clarification" that the "career ready" portion really means "ready for a career that will provide them with a living above the poverty line." Which means "none of the part-time minimum wage jobs that now drive much of the economy." (Which leads to the question, who will be working at Wal-Mart when all high school graduates are working at the above-poverty jobs that are going to magically appear to receive them?)

"College and career ready" sounds so harmless, so benign, so perfectly reasonable. But it's really a signpost that signals how myopic, ill-thought-out, and contrary to the values of both America and good education the CCSS are. When I look at the CCSS, I know something smells, and I don't have to dig deeply at all to find the source of the stink.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Data Tree

The official from the Department of Trees stopped by the old farmer's home. "I'm here," he said, "to cut down some trees."

The farmer reluctantly pulled walked out the front door into the yard. He had seen this happen before, and he wasn't optimistic.

"Okay," he said. "which ones have to go?"

The official checked his tablet. "We've been collecting extensive data, so we know which of your trees have been most successful. We'll be chopping down all the others that did not earn a highly effective rating. Starting with this one." And he pointed to one of the oldest trees in the yard.

The farmer scratched his head. "How do you figure that tree needs to be chopped down?"

"Oh, our data is extensive," said the official. "We've tracked the number of fruit produced for the past decade, and this tree lags far behind."

"Well, yes," said the farmer. "That tree is old and doesn't produce many apples these days. But see that tree house up in the branches? Both my kids used to play in that, and now when my grandchildren come to visit, they play there, too. You should hear them laugh when they're up there together. Sound lights up the whole house."

"That may be," said the official. "But we only collect data on the number of fruit. We can't measure anything about happiness or joy, so those data are unimportant." He walked through the yard. "This one, too. It goes."

The farmer stopped in his tracks. "But that's the tree with the swing. My wife and I used to sit out there every evening, drinking cider and going back over the day while the wind blew soft through those branches. That tree's full of experience and memories."

"Be that as it may," said the official, not looking up from his tablet. "The data says the tree is ineffective. It must go."

The official strolled a bit further, then gestured with a bit more energy at a gnarled old monstrosity of a tree. "Cheer up, old timer. It's not all bad news. Our data says that this tree here is highly effective. According to the data, it's highly productive."

"That?" The farmer smiled in spite of himself. "That's a crabapple tree. Hundreds of apples come off that and you can't eat a one of them."

"Well, sir, we aren't able to quantify any of that data. We can only measure quantity, so that's what matters. This tree is your best one on the lot."

"Son," said the farmer. "You are a damned fool. The world is filled with a million kinds of trees for a million kinds of uses. Why you would want to ignore all that just because it doesn't make neat numbers for your computer program is beyond me, but just because you intend to lead such a sad, blinkered life doesn't mean you get to cut down my whole orchard. Get yourself on out of here."

The official might have protested harder as he left, but the truth was, it was his last day on the job and he wouldn't have to deal with any of this ever again. He could hardly wait to start his new work for the Department of Education.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Watch out for Barnacles

Every top-down educational reform initiative has them-- barnacles.

Barnacles are the little extras, the additional clumps of junk that cling to the original body of the Brilliant Idea. When dealing with these reform movements, it's useful to be able to tell the difference between the barnacle and the ship. To that end, consider the three ways in which the barnacles become attached.

1: Fill in the Blanks.

The initiative originates in some bureaucratic office or in the halls of the legislature. Because it has been created so far from the actual place where rubber and road start their renowned blind dae, it is filled with giant gaping holes. But it still has to be implemented, so the process begins of passing it down through layers of bureaucracy.

So High Level Bureaucrat delivers the new program. "Students should eat food."

Mid-level bureaucrat finds this inconclusive, so she asks, "Well, what kind of food?"

HLB doesn't really know, so he just makes his best guess. "I don't know. Dairy food. Students should eat dairy food."

MLB heads off to his own meeting to pass on the Wisdom from the Top. "Students are to eat dairy food."

But now we're getting closer to the level where someone will actually have to make this happen, so they need details. "What kind of dairy food? And how often?"

Pass down through a few more levels and you will find teachers at the in-service where a consultant is telling them, "The new law requires your students to eat Swiss cheese every day for breakfast."

2: My Favorite Things

This starts out as #1 did, but along the way it meets bureaucrats or consultants or college profs or businessmen with an agenda.

"Eat food??!!" this person thinks. "I have always-- deeply believed/had a pet theory/figured I could make a big profit if-- every student were to eat a hamburger with a slice of tomato on it. That would fit perfectly with this new program. I'm just going to graft my pet project right onto this baby and present it as if it had always been built right into this reform movement."

3: Branding, Baby

Remember when HD was the big new things, and marketeers started just slapping "HD" on everything in sight?

We had HD tv's and disc players, but we also had HD radios and rear-view-mirrors and key chains and dog food. In the fifties it was "atomic."

The principle is simple-- you just take whatever merchandise you need to move and slapped that hot new buzz-word on it, and bang! zoom! the goods are flying out and the money is flying in.

Why Do We Care?

CCSS is absolutely covered in barnacles.

Sometimes, when the ship is worth sailing, we need to knock the barnacles off so we can free the vessel.

But CCSS is a boat that can't float. It needs to have giant holes busted through its bow and its anchor cut off and [insert your own extension of my labored boat metaphor here]. And that's why it's important that we don't waste our time attacking the barnacles.

When the tin hat crowd gets up in arms because they've found commie agitprop in second-grade readers, they're attacking barnacles. When we get agitated about opportunistic malarkey like deep reading, we're swinging at barnacles.

It's not that the barnacles deserve to live. They never do. We just have to make sure that we don't let them distract us from the real monstrosity that is CCSS.

CCSS: Taking a Deep Breath

Those of us who spend a lot of time writing and venting and raging and grumbling about the CCSS need to occasionally step back, take a breath, and remember one hugely important thing--

What the CCSS says doesn't really matter.

One of the many things that hasn't changed a bit in the transition from Bush's NCLB to Obama's RttT is one of the worst things-- the absolute reliance on testing as the measure of education, schools, teachers, bus drivers, school lunches and, presumably, the people who paint the parking spaces in the school parking lot. It's testing all the way. High stakes test that collect very little real data, filtered through really shiny software that makes all those beautiful, beautiful data digits glow and sparkle.

Testing is king, and testing will, as always, focus on the things that it can measure, or at least pretend to measure. And that means that big chunks of CCSS will never, ever be tested.

The kind of skills required to read and entire novel, synthesizing the ways in which the author uses character development and other literary techniques to create thematic unity over the course of an entire work? Forget that. We'll still read brief excerpts and bubble in some quick one-answer questions.

The PA version of the core standards includes some lovely language about collaboration. I find the idea of a standardized test that involves collaboration kind of entertaining, but that's never going to happen.

Eventually, states will produce some nice jargon (we used to like "assessment anchors" in PA) that will really mean "the only part of the standards that will be on the test." And then we will all grab our carefully-produced-by-Pearson instructional materials and hone in on those parts of the CCSS with lazer-like test-prep precision.

The rest of the CCSS, even the parts that prompted so much angst and chest-thumping and impassioned argument-- they will be no more important than your appendix, and like your school's arts program, they will fall by the wayside, ignored because they fail the most important test question in the world of corporate education reform-- Is it on the test?

Bottom line? There are parts of the core that just aren't ever going to matter. We can save our energy for other things, like fighting the culture of big tests and little data.

Monday, November 4, 2013

That Damn Tenure

We've all heard it. "People in other jobs don't have tenure. Why should teachers be any different?"

There are three parts to my answer.

The first part you can already write yourself. Tenure is not "a guaranteed job for life." It is not a get-out-of-anything-free card for every bad teacher out there. It is a promise of due process. It is a promise that I won't be fired because I gave the wrong kid a bad grade, benched the wrong kid in a sport, refused to go out with a board member, reported an administrator for a contract violation, dug in my heels over a professional matter, or belong to the wrong political party.

Behind every bad teacher who didn't get fired, there is an administrator not doing his job. Tenure should not protect the worst examples of people passing themselves off as teachers, and the rest of us don't want it to. Seriously. You know who suffers worst from an incompetent in a teacher's job-- okay, second worst, behind the students-- the people who have to work with him. We will be happy to see Mr. McBubblebrain out the door. We just want to see it happen by the book.

But everyone already knows that argument, and it won't get us past "Other people work without that kind of protection, so why should teachers?"

Well, first, you must remember that teachers don't have to be teachers. I think lots of folks forget that, perhaps because we identify ourselves as teachers, and so they assume we can't do something else. But we can. Teachers don't have to be teachers. Schools do have to work to recruit and retain (just like businesses). "We will pay you mediocre wages, we will give you little autonomy, and we will treat you like a child," make a bad start for recruiting. Throwing in, "AND we will give you no job security at all" does not make for a winning pitch.

This is one of the stupidest things that management overlooks. You can't get the best for free, but you can get them by adding things that don't cost you a cent. A promise of due process is dirt cheap.

And second, the formula cited above is a disservice not just to teachers, but to everybody else. It assumes that those other people are getting no more than they deserve.

So I submit that the whole statement is backwards. Here's what we should be asking:

"Teachers work with the assurance they will not be fired for foolish and arbitrary reasons, so why shouldn't everybody else?"