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:
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:
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
52.6% acquired some kind of postsecondary credential by 2015 (page 22)
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.
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
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.
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)
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 issue. Students 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.
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.]
Here are a few things I wonder after reading Governor Terry Branstad’s recent comments on the teacher leadership program here in Iowa… (I also left these as a comment to the article)
- I wonder how many Iowa educators would say that “it’s cool” and “it’s neat” to be a teacher leader as they watch over a thousand teaching positions statewide be eliminated or go unfilled due to inadequate funding because of the Governor’s recent veto.
- I wonder how many Iowa educators would say that they “feel respected and appreciated” right now.
- I wonder how many Iowa educators “see that [the Governor] is listening to them,” particularly when they contrast his July veto of school funding with his proposed rule change that would remove even more state revenue by granting additional corporate tax cuts.
- I wonder how many educators feel that the Governor is “rais[ing] the bar and attract[ing] people / top talent” to the profession right now.
- In our democratic society that’s supposed to represent the voice of the people – and given the Governor’s recent stance on school start dates (despite nearly unanimous opposition from school districts) and his funding veto – I wonder how many educators and families are grateful for his top down approach in order to (in his words) remedy the fact that “Iowa [is] stuck with our local control system.”
- I wonder why the Governor thought that a sit-and-get education summit would be enough to gain traction on teacher leadership.
- I wonder how many actual examples the Governor can provide of teacher leaders “revolutionizing what’s happening in classrooms across Iowa.”
- I wonder if the Governor realizes that helping “Iowa again [to] be a national leader, known for giving our students a globally competitive education” probably isn’t going to happen with reduced school district and AEA budgets, declining educator morale, and top-down leadership that fails to reflect both the voice and expertise of the front-line educators who are charged with returning Iowa to greatness.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome…
Image credit: Iowa flag, Chuck Thompson