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Some questions for Betsy DeVos

The Washington Post collected some questions from educators for Betsy DeVos, nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education. Here are a few of my favorites:

Would you please state, concisely, any relevant experience you have had in public education, either as a student, a teacher, a school leader, a public school board member, a parent of a public school child, a PTA member, a volunteer in a traditional public school or as someone who once drove past a public school?

AND

What will you use as a basis for your initiatives and policy-making decisions regarding pedagogy and best practice, having neither studied nor worked as a teacher or principal in any school? From what, where, or whom will you draw expert knowledge on the art of teaching and learning?

AND

What if parents’ first choice, as it is for most American families, is to send their children to a clean, safe, well-resourced, professionally-staffed, local neighborhood public school? How would the voucher and charter school schemes you advocate support this kind of choice?

AND

What will you do to gain the trust of public school teachers?

AND

How will you attract teachers to the profession given the unrest and uncertainty of public education right now?

Promoters of school choice are unwilling to ensure equal access in regular public schools

Derek Black said:

[C]harters, vouchers, and other choice-like reforms are insulting substitutes for equal access to learning opportunities. They espouse the premise that all students are entitled to equal learning opportunities and reason that since students are not getting those equal opportunities in public school, they should be allowed to go elsewhere. The irony is that the people promoting these policies are so often unwilling to do much of anything to ensure students get equal access to learning in regular public schools. Likewise, they are unwilling to place oversight on vouchers and charters to determine whether opportunities are equal there either. In other words, they are pursuing choice for choice’s sake…

via http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/education_law/2017/01/the-us-department-of-education-needs-serious-disruption-but-betsy-devos-will-not-bring-it.html

Is the emphasis in your school on punishment and compliance or autonomy and dignity?

Deluxe teacher grading kit

When I was in high school, we didn’t have an ‘open campus.’ We were supposed to stay at school and eat our lunches in the cafeteria. Many of us would drive off anyway, hoping that we could make it back in time for our next class. We often were late because of the distance between our school and the fast food joints. But since I ran with a crowd of ‘good kids’ who got high grades and were heading off to college, we could stroll into class late – sometimes with coffee or an ice cream cone for our teachers – and suffer no adverse consequences. At the time I was blissfully unaware of the privilege I enjoyed simply by being a white, male, middle class, high-achieving student (or that I ‘earned’ by being mostly compliant).

Fast forward thirty years… Today we see a number of ‘no excuses discipline’ schools – particularly in urban school districts – that punish students for the slightest noncompliance. Tardy to class? Shoelace untied? Not walking quietly enough? Failing to follow the taped line in the hallway? A stripe on your sock? Slouching? The wrong color undershirt? Not raising your hand with a straight elbow? Rolled-up sleeves on your school uniform? Not tracking the speaker with your eyes? ‘Willful defiance,’ however arbitrarily defined? Yelling, shaming, assignments that get ripped up, public tracking charts, demerits, detention, suspension, expulsion, and numerous other academic and disciplinary punishments await…

Critics of these schools note that the children who attend them invariably are ‘other people’s children.’ They’re not the children of the white middle class. They’re typically black, brown, and poor. And the folks who often are the strongest advocates of these kinds of schools would never, ever send their own children there. But, you know, ‘those children’ need more structure. ‘Those children’ need that kind of discipline because they don’t get it at home. Hey, don’t blame us, those parents ‘chose’ that kind of environment for their children. And so on…

But here’s the thing: educators and parents who are aghast at these ‘no excuses’ schools need to recognize that most traditional schools aren’t much better. The discipline may be slightly less draconian for most students, but the heavy emphasis on punishments and rewards remains for virtually all students. In most schools students lack significant agency, are told what to do nearly every minute of every day, rarely have meaningful choice or input into their own learning environments, and are punished by teachers and/or administrators if they don’t comply with whatever is demanded of them. Students can tell you how disrespectful, disempowering, and apathy-inducing these environments can be. It’s pretty stifling to have so little choice in what you learn. And it can be soul-killing to be 17 years old and still need permission to use the bathroom. So, yes, like for myself, the ‘good kids’ may be afforded a smidgen of leeway and autonomy that seems utterly lacking in the ’no excuses’ schools. And, yes, traditional schools – back in my day and now – may be a little less worrisome because the penalties usually are slightly less severe. But when it comes to our disciplinary practices, we need to climb down from our pedestals because the differences are mostly a matter of degree, not orientation.

My University of Colorado Denver faculty colleague, Dr. Manuel Espinoza, has been talking with us about the concept of student dignity – about the idea of affording students basic, inalienable rights of autonomy and respect. Not because they comply with our demands. Not because we bribed or forced them. Not because the economic need for self-directed workers has never been higher. But simply because our children are human beings – precious, unique individuals – who deserve to be cherished and treated as such rather than as mere objects of our desires for control and order (no matter how well-meaning our motives are). To quote Manuel, “What would it mean for schools to treat children as if they were of supreme value, of invaluable exchange?” And, no, this doesn’t mean chaos and anarchy in our schools…

Learning environments that empower students as meaningful contributors and choice-makers – that recognize and treat students as worthy of basic dignity – look very different than those that view students as unable or unwilling partners and/or problems to be managed. Which views predominate in your school system? And before you answer, ask yourself 1) what alternatives to punishment/reward disciplinary systems do you see around you, 2) how many times a day and in how many ways is a student’s basic dignity disrespected, 3) what happens when a student disagrees or doesn’t comply with a classroom or school behavior policy, and 4) who gets to make and enforce the policies in the first place.

The importance of watching and naming

Watching you

This past weekend our minister asked us to consider what it meant to be ‘present’ within a community. Among other actions, she articulated two concepts – watching and naming – that she thought were particularly important for members of a community who wish to be deeply involved and fully present.

Watching includes the acts of staying informed and of being a participant observer. Naming includes the willingness to label things as they really are. The example she used was the so-called ‘alt-right.’ She exhorted us to be vigilant against both hate and discrimination and to be aware of their existence in all of their numerous, varied, and often-hidden forms. She also reminded us that whoever controls the rhetoric controls the mindspace and that we need to call the alt-right for what it really is: a white nationalist movement based on bigotry and hatred.

I think that the concepts of watching and naming are relevant to educational contexts as well. Educators are losing political battles all across the country because they’re not able to influence the overall mindspace of policymakers or the general public. Whether it’s anti-union rhetorics or pro-voucher rhetorics or grade-level retention rhetorics or ‘no excuses’ discipline rhetorics or statistically-invalid ‘accountability’ rhetorics or any of several dozen other antithetical rhetorics, we see firsthand that the end result of educators’ inability to substantively impact high-level conversations is policy that harms children and schools. Despite the heroic efforts of bloggers and school advocates, many educators STILL continue to be unaware of how think tanks, private foundations, corporations, astroturf groups, and government actors work together – often behind the scenes – to formulate harmful laws, policies, and advocacy campaigns. Many educators are woefully ignorant of how state and national policy is made and/or feel completely helpless to positively impact policy conversations. We need more educators to follow educational reform conversations and to read more actively than an occasional mainstream news story and/or association newsletter (hint: social media can be a great way to accomplish these goals). We also need more educators who are willing to speak up – publicly and visibly – and name things for what they are. Right now fierce conversations are occurring around terms like ‘personalization’ and ‘pro-children’ and educators are losing.

Watching and naming are relevant concepts inside a school too. Are educators within your schools paying attention to transformational societal trends? Are they watching with a keen eye and critically interrogating the instructional practices that occur within their buildings and classrooms? Do they even see existing inequities? Are they willing to identify and call out outdated or ineffective school mindsets, structures, and processes?

How might you utilize the concepts of watching and naming to enhance your own policy and/or instructional work?

Image credit: I’m watching you…, Christine Krizsa

Kindness, innovation, and Tuesday’s election

ElectionNightTweet

I typically try to stay out of politics on this blog, given that I’m trying to work with a wide variety of teachers, administrators, policymakers, and community members to transform learning environments for students. But I also know that many educators woke up Wednesday morning in disbelief about the previous night’s election results. Somehow we elected a racist, xenophobic, conspiracist, serial groper of women to be the next leader of the world’s most powerful nation. Apparently it didn’t matter to enough voters that he has – among other things – mocked people with disabilities, celebrated the use of torture, used coded anti-Semitic language, insulted the parents of deceased soldiers, denied basic science when it comes to climate change, ruminated about the casual use of nuclear weapons, and praised one of the most reviled dictators in the world.

As someone who cares deeply about social justice issues, I was dismayed yesterday to hear a man behind me on the airplane say that he was ‘incredibly pumped about the GOP clean sweep – President, Senate, House, and Supreme Court – game, set, and match’ and that he was looking forward to rolling back ‘all of the BS that’s happened over the past 8 years.’ ‘Game, set, and match’: those are not words of unity and togetherness. Those are words of anger and power and revenge, words that I’m sure are frightening to women, persons of color, immigrants, and people of other faiths (just to name a few). Let’s be clear: this may be the reality in our country but the vitriolic hate and utter dismissal of basic human dignities that have been major political themes during this election represent the worst of human nature and American society. It shouldn’t be surprising that anyone who is not a conservative white male might be a little worried right now. When someone preaches so much hate for so many months, it’s an uphill road to now be a unifier.

Many educators are trying to figure out how to respond and what to say to students who are concerned and afraid. Or what to do when the hate comes into the school. Two thoughts come to me during these first days after the election…

First, we must continue to model the kindness, empathy, civility, acceptance, and inclusiveness that are the hallmarks of most schooling environments. Educators know how important it is to honor each and every child, regardless of skin color, religious faith, or family background. The hateful statements and physical violence that have sprouted during the past year are antithetical in every school and classroom that I know. We must continue to explicitly and visibly model for our communities (and the nation at large) how to treat each other with grace, respect, and dignity, particularly when we disagree with each other.

Second, one of the key themes of the election was the insurgence of non-college-educated white voters who feel that they are being left behind by our economy. ‘It’s about jobs’ has been a key mantra. But job growth since the recession has been quite steady:

2016-11-04 job growth chart

The challenge is that many (most?) of those new jobs are either very low-paying or in sectors for which a college degree is a foundational requirement. The job prospects for employees who aren’t able to engage in higher-level, non-routine mental work have been declining for decades now:

2013AutorPrice2

We also have to pay attention to college attendance and persistence. The majority of American workers do not have a college degree, and even younger graduates are not making it through college. For instance, here are the numbers from Colorado, despite our desire that high school graduates “demonstrate the knowledge and skills (competencies) needed to succeed in postsecondary settings”:

   74.6% Colorado high school graduation rate, Class of 2009
      x
   52.6% acquired some kind of postsecondary credential by 2015 (page 22)
      x
   64% their credential was a 4-year diploma
   (approximately; it’s probably a little lower than the 2011 rate; page 22)
     =
   25% of the Colorado High School Class of 2009 has a 4-year degree by 2015

Schools are complicit with other societal institutions when it comes to individuals’ economic malaise and the inadequate preparation of our workforce. Research studies consistently show that most students spend about 80% to 85% of their school day doing routine mental work, despite the fact that the only substantive, long-term job growth in America is in professions that require non-routine mental work. Our dogged perpetuation of low-level learning environments helps foster economic insecurity and political revolts. While we continue to emphasize in our classrooms the kind of stuff that can be done in 3 seconds with voice-activated apps, search engines, or software like PhotoMath, our graduates are suffering. Schools are not just about preparing worker bees but they are necessary and vitally important components of our country’s workforce preparation pipeline. We have to own this as educators. And we must do better or we will continue to doom millions of graduates to prolonged economic hardship because they don’t have the preparation and the skills to do something different.

Cuneiform, anyone?

Quipu

Louisiana just passed a law mandating that all students learn cursive in grades 3 through 12. That’s right – all the way through high school. Not computer science. Cursive…

Beth Mizell, the state senator who sponsored the bill, said that she wanted people to have a signature. Perhaps she was so busy sealing her scrolls with wax that she missed the signal fire message that electronic signatures are now legally valid, even in Louisiana? Plus, if it takes Louisiana students ten full years to learn how to sign their name in cursive, maybe their education system is in even worse shape than I thought. Education Week gave Louisiana a D+ in overall public education performance in its most recent rankings and that was before the latest educational budget fiasco. I doubt that this law is going to improve that ranking any.

Other legislators supported the bill because documents such as the Constitution are written in cursive. Old documents also are written in Latin and Greek and Sanskrit but I don’t believe that Louisiana has passed laws on those yet. FYI, ardent readers of ye olde Constitution, perhaps this may be of service to you on your way to the pony express station?

Cuneiform as college and career readiness, anyone? Quipu?

Image credit: Quipu, Lynn Dombrowski

Congratulations, we killed kindergarten

Commentsonkindergartenworksheets

Apparently between 1998 and 2010 we killed kindergarten. Lots more testing. Much less music and art. Fewer centers and unstructured play time. Fewer student-driven activities. Greater disregard for young children’s variation in development. More emphasis on teacher-directed instruction and textbooks and worksheets…

We knew this but now it’s not just widespread anecdotes. We now have comprehensive research on data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Comments credit: Winter math and literacy packet NO PREP (Kindergarten)

New literacies, anyone?

Iowa Core

The Iowa Department of Education is soliciting feedback on the state’s literacy standards. Here’s the comment I left:

The Iowa Literacy Standards represent traditional, foundational conceptions of literacy. They do NOT reflect the 21st century literacy standards articulated by NCTE, however. Nor do they reflect digital and online multimedia literacies related to interactive media (see, e.g., the interactive storytelling and virtual reality narratives created by The New York Times), transmedia, augmented or virtual reality, and other evolving mechanisms for presenting information and conveying narratives. In short, the Iowa Literacy Standards do a decent job of articulating old literacies but not what the scholars call ‘new literacies.’ As such, we continue to prepare students for yesterday, not today and tomorrow…

And, no, the separate and thus non-integrated 21st century skills section of the Iowa Core is not enough.

The Des Moines Register’s editorial on student retention is lazy and irresponsible

Dr. John Hattie, Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, spent 15 years synthesizing the vast body of peer-reviewed, meta-analytical research pertaining to student achievement. In his highly-acclaimed book, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, he highlighted 138 different factors that can influence student learning success. Grade-level retention was one of only five factors that negatively impacts student achievement. Let me repeat that in case you missed it: grade-level retention is one of the few school factors that actually decreases student academic success.

Hattie went on to state:

It would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative. (p. 99)

and

The only question of interest relating to retention is why it persists in the face of this damning evidence. (p. 98)

Back in January 2014, I noted that

Study after study, researcher after researcher, finds the same few things about retention:

  • No long-term achievement gains. Being retained does not increase academic achievement in the long run. Let’s say that again: being retained does NOT increase academic achievement in the long run. Sometimes we see short-term score bumps but they always wash out by the upper grades. This is true even in Florida, whose educational ‘miracle’ Iowa is apparently desperate to emulate despite having better overall academic achievement, high school graduation rates, etc. A quick comparison of NAEP proficiency rates shows that Florida may have found ways to artificially inflate its 4th grade reading scores – results always look better when low-achievers have been removed from the grade cohort and/or students have had an extra year of schooling – but by 8th grade its students revert back to the lower half of the national rankings. [Quick aside: if Iowans want to reclaim our place at the top of the state education rankings, shouldn’t we be adopting practices of the states that do better, not worse, than us?] This means that – despite intuition and anecdotes to the contrary – there are no long-term achievement differences between students who are retained and those who are ‘socially promoted.’ One more time in case it’s not clear: “there are more positive effects in the long term for promoted students than for retained students – even when matched for achievement at the time of decision to retain or promote” (Hattie, p. 97).
  • Significantly higher dropout rates. Students who are retained don’t do any better academically in the long run but they do have a significantly higher risk of dropping out. For example, one study showed that 65% to 90% of overage children in grade 9 do not persist to graduation. Retention has found to be a stronger predictor of student dropout than socioeconomic status or parental education. That extra year is a killer – literally – when it comes to retained students’ secondary school completion rates. Florida’s graduation rate is 43rd in the country, while Iowa’s is 5th. Again, why are we emulating downward?
  • Lower life success. Retention has been shown to negatively impact long-term life success factors such as postsecondary education attendance, pay per hour, and employment competence ratings. Retained students also are more likely to display aggression during adolescence.
  • No increase in motivation. Retention – or the threat of retention – is not a motivating force for students. Students don’t try harder and aren’t motivated to do better after they’re retained. Instead, retention greatly diminishes student self-concept and impairs self-efficacy. Just to make clear how wrong DE’s statement is, research shows that students would rather wet themselves in class in front of their peers than be retained.
  • Discriminatory impacts. Students of color are four times as likely to be retained as their White counterparts, even when they exhibit the same academic achievement. Students in poverty also are more likely to be retained than their more affluent peers. The burdens that come with being retained are borne primarily by those students whom already are traditionally-disadvantaged by existing schooling practices.

So there we have it: incredible damage to students’ self-concept, substantial increases in students’ dropout rates, and significant reductions in students’ future life success – with bonus discriminatory impacts! – all for the mere potential of a statistically-manipulable, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t test score bump for interstate bragging rights. And, if that weren’t enough, we also get to pay more and get a worse outcome! It would be difficult to envision an educational practice that has less going for it than retention. And yet it is now enshrined into Iowa law, to be made operational (and, apparently, rationalized) by our Department of Education. [One final aside: DE also tries to justify retention because “we really want to get parents to take their child’s literacy development very, very seriously.” Most parents care very much about their children’s literacy development, of course. Parents of struggling readers need help and support, not blame or stigmatization or penalization of their children.

Similarly, I said back in April 2012:

Please realize that it doesn’t matter how many safeguards are put into place before retention occurs. The issue is the retention itself, not the procedures that lead up to it.

The proposed interventions in early grades for struggling readers are desirable and necessary. But, plain and simple, retention hurts kids. It has no proven long-term benefit and many long-term harmful consequences. If you want to ensure that students don’t leave elementary school illiterate, hire a personal tutor for academically-struggling 4th graders. It would be cheaper than paying for their repeated 3rd grade year.

In that January 2014 blog post I said that

Retention is not a policy unknown. Even the laziest of reporters or legislators can do a quick Google Scholar search and see that decades of peer-reviewed studies are clear that retention hurts kids and will hurt Iowa.

As evidenced by today’s editorial favoring student retention, apparently even that quick Google Scholar search was too much for the editors at The Des Moines Register. Citing a poll of Iowa citizens (that they commissioned) and a quote from Governor Branstad – both of which are disproven by actual data – appears to be all of the effort that they were willing to make as they lazily and irresponsibly ignored the vast weight of research and data on this issueStudents rate grade-level retention as a life stressor on par with losing a parent and going blind. Retention flies in the face of both overwhelming research and day-to-day evidence that children learn at different rates. But clearly none of this matters to the Register editors. Unless we want to be like Mississippi, the children of Iowa deserve better from our state’s flagship paper. 

Mackenzie Ryan retention 'loophole' tweet

Image credit: Mackenzie Ryan, Des Moines Register education reporter

P.S. Whatever mechanisms exist in Iowa law for third grade students to avoid being retained are the result of knowledgeable parents, educators, and policymakers advocating against proven-to-be-harmful policy. They’re not ‘loopholes.’ They represent sound educational practice backed by data.

[And, yes, the Iowa Reading Research Center should have written this instead of me.]

Is this what Iowa parents really want?

IowaParents2

Iowa parents (and grandparents), is this what you elected our state legislature to do?

  1. Reduce incoming revenue via tax cuts
  2. Then preach ‘fiscal responsibility’
  3. Then say, “Sorry, there’s no money for schools”
  4. Repeat yearly

Don’t our schools deserve better? Don’t our children (and grandchildren) deserve better?

Image credit: Capitol building, sharyn morrow

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