Monday, March 31, 2014

The Two Fronts

The battle for better public education has two fronts: the work to change the system, and to help those kids who are stuck in it now.  

The effort to change the system seems to be taking place in Maine districts that are moving to what we call the proficiency-based, or customized learning system. But we need to cast a very careful eye on what this change means for kids.

As the proficiency-based system unfolds in my school district, I become less convinced that it can really hold a key to creating a healthy education for all children. The effects of punitive measures for "not learning" are, IMHO, dire, both for those who appear to succeed and those who don't. This new system occasionally softens, but doesn't remove the worst aspects of the traditional model of public education.

To have the goal of students be the successful accomplishment of standards makes assessment more important than learning. I know all the arguments against that statement; I know how hard teachers are working to make that not be so. Just listen to the Twitter conversations among Maine teachers about the "science" of assessment! But the constant assessment is, and it always will be more important than learning, as long as we impose all of the same standards on all children regardless of their identities, their interests, comprehension and connection.

There are people who are working incredibly hard to make this system work. They believe in it deeply and defend it staunchly. They are trying, using all the tools they have, to take an assessment-driven system and make it look, sound, and behave like progressive, child-centered education. But it just won't scan.

Proponents of the proficiency-based system believe that in order for kids to be adequately educated, the same list of standards needs to be accomplished by all kids at just about the same time and regardless of interest and connection to the learning. This embeds in the system a fatal flaw, but public education has no other choice. These things are required by law and enforced by testing. The daily problem teachers face is: how to get kids motivated. But this is only a problem when their natural motivation is ignored; ignore it long enough and it will go away.

"The basics," those fundamental skills that we all believe kids must acquire in order to succeed in life, come when they have been made irresistibly interesting through students' activities. Public education is terminally topsy-turvy; you have to "learn the basics" before you get to do the fun stuff.

In my district both the middle school and the high school had special weeks where kids got to choose from a variety of fun and interesting things. At the middle school, my daughter got to work on puppetry and making solar cars. At the high school, my son got to do robotics, photography, and bridge design.

Those who had not finished the required standards did what they called "intensives." What's that? Can you guess? Catching up on unfinished standards. This probably seems right and natural on the surface. But it is punitive, and that is the way it will be taken by students. If you succeed in this system, you get to do cool stuff. If you don't, you don't.

What's wrong with this picture? Why does it have to be this way? Why does the system have to go against what would make kids happier, rev their engines, build self-respect from the accomplishment of really good work?

I think once again about Saul Kaplan's concept of connected adjacencies: rather than tearing down a flawed system, build a new one next door.  All kids need this option; those whose parents can homeschool or send their kids to a private school, and those whose families do not have that option. It has to be a community effort, with many families sharing the burden of providing a healthy education for their kids.

We need to think about two things: how to push back against this system and install one doesn't have directly or indirectly punitive consequences for "not learning;" and how to help the kids who are stuck in it now and are not thriving. Both endeavors need your help. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Guns and Murder

Is "guns and murder" an appropriate topic of study in public school?

Recently I participated in a meeting of my district’s policy committee as we were developing a new policy on our basic instructional program. My district has been actively moving from what is called a “traditional” model of education to a “standards-based” program for a few years, and it’s necessitating some changes to our policies, one of the last steps toward full implementation of the new system.

Now, for my money, the only change that would significantly shift the paradigm from “traditional” to something new and better would be to shape student learning around their strengths, interests, and pleasures. The incessant clamoring to “bring the basics” back to student learning? We’re covered.  The “basics” are defined differently from adult to adult, but for some reason, everyone and their dog seems to think the learning of the multiplication tables is the most critically important task we can give our students. I’m willing to go further: you want basics? Reading, writing and math? Get kids involved in exploring the stuff they think about, talk about, and itch to explore. Give them an environment where they can make and create. Focus on who they are, each as individuals and collectively, as groups who gather around similar interests. The basics will happen.  It isn’t rocket science.

Well, actually, I’ve been told that rocket science isn’t really rocket science either; it’s rather simple when you come down to it. Put an engine facing down and a rocket facing up. Pack in enough fuel and a way to ignite it. Park a few people at the very top and try to attain orbital velocity. Bang. (Literally.) Rocket science.

How about this?

It’s not organic chemistry.

All of the scholastic achievers in my life have complained about organic chemistry. Empowering kids to learn is not organic chemistry; it’s more like rocket science: engine, fuel, rocket. Ignition, bang, liftoff.

So, back to my policy committee meeting.

My opinion of the newfangled “standards based” system isn’t all that high. I won’t go into why; you can read back in this blog.

Actually, since my last posts about my reasons for opposing the system, I’ve observed classrooms in three elementary schools and a middle school. I come out of that with admiration for teachers and principals working diligently to engage kids in learning the standards set down as important by the educational powers that be.  Some of them are doing great work; some of them are doing adequate work. All of them are working as hard as they can to engage kids in their learning.

None of them are empowering kids to do the learning that would be most meaningful to them.

So I have opinions about how we should shape a policy on our basic instructional program. I know my place; I’m one voice among eleven on our board, and we have collectively decided to pursue this road toward a standards-based system. We are all subject to laws on accountability, and we have very little wiggle-room, given the weight that has been given to teach the Common Core standards and be prepared for the tests that will demonstrate student “achievement.” So I’m not trying to stage an educational revolution in the policy committee room. I’m there mainly to be a pain in the ass, and try to insinuate some words into policy that give kids as much power as can be eked out of the system.

One instance of the replaying of my usual sentence, “Allow kids to follow their interests” provoked an outburst from one of the administrators around the table. “You know what kids in my school would want to study if we gave them the freedom? Guns and murder!”

I was taken aback and didn’t respond in the way that I knew, even then, that I should. I chickened out. I said instead, “Let’s not talk about the outliers as if they were the mainstream! Not everyone is going to want to study destructive subjects.”

What should I have said? Can you guess? I bet you can.

“Guns and murder? We can work with that. Want to raise the chances of kids being safer with guns? Let them study them. I wonder if you can get a plastic replica of a gun, one you can take apart and study its action and it’s mechanism. History. Famous guns. Guns of today. Gun laws. Write your position on gun control. Voila.

“Want to guarantee a kid won’t grow up to be a murderer? Let him study it. Study the Mansons. Study Gary Gilmore. Study violent death around the world. Study what happens when they get caught. Study what happens when they don’t.”

It doesn’t matter what they want to learn! I search my mind for stuff I really wouldn’t want a kid to study, and I fall upon pornography. I find I don’t have room in my mind for creating a course of study in that area. But I can’t think of another subject that you can’t make into something appropriate for school.

The thing is, this administrator doesn’t seem to know this. She didn’t know that the most important thing to give kids is your respect, and she didn’t know that the first thing you need to do to demonstrate that respect is to allow kids to study what they feel they most need to learn. Because learning what you want to know most doesn’t narrow your interests and your skills; it grows them. Pushing kids to learn stuff they don’t care about? THAT narrows learning.

Allow a kid to open his/her own doors, and more doors will open. Show a kid you respect what he feels he needs to learn most, and you will gain his trust. Then you’ve won the game. Continue to show that respect, and you will gain even more trust. “I”ll learn what you say I need to learn, because you have shown respect and supported my efforts to learn what I really want to know or the skill I feel I need to gain.”

How often do we allow kids in public education to get to that point? Exactly never. I mean, so seldom that it might as well be never. It can’t be proven that kids will respond badly to being given the freedom to learn because we simply have never tried it. All we’ve tried, in the lifetimes of kids who are in school now, is forced curriculum.

And in the standards-based system, where you are allowed to learn “at your own pace, and in your own way,” the same basic subjects are pushed at kids as under the “old, traditional” model. There is no education revolution here. This is newer, shinier coercive education.

There is occasional brilliance in our school district. Great teachers who inspire kids. Who work hard to get kids motivated (“motivating” being the process of first denying them the learning that they want, and then “getting them motivated” to perform tasks that are disconnected from their identities or interests. This demotivation process has been in operation since we first told kids to stop playing and come inside, sit at a desk and face the teacher).

But it’s no learning revolution.  Give the kid a chance to study guns and murder if he wants to, and you’ll create a learning revolution that is real.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

PARENTS: Question School Testing!

The questions below were passed to me by a Facebook friend. They provide a great place to start when trying to get to the bottom of your districts' testing.

Test questions EVERY PARENT needs to ask:
(From a veteran teacher)

For principals:
  • How many standardized tests does my child have to take this year?
  • Where do these tests originate?
  • What is the specific academic purpose for each one?
  • How will these tests affect my child's academic future or standing?
  • For each test, does the teacher see individual student results and have a chance to adjust individual instruction to help each student?
  • Who sees the scores, where will they be recorded, and for what purpose?
  • Do the scores become part of my child's record?
  • Who in the district instructed you to give these tests?
  • How much time do you devote to test preparation? How do you define "test preparation?"

For school superintendents:
  • Identify by name and frequency each standardized test your district requires in each grade.
  • Explain where these tests originate and, for each, explain its specific academic purpose and the year it started.
  • Explain your district's policy on opting out of/refusing standardized tests and cite its legal foundation.

For school board members:
  • How do you view the academic purposes for standardized testing?
  • Are you familiar with all the standardized tests your district requires, and their academic purposes?
  • Are you willing to initiate a parent/teacher review of the use of testing in your district?
  • Explain your district's policy on opting out of/refusing standardized tests and cite its legal foundation.

Join us! Opt Out of State Standardized Testing - Maine

If you can think of more questions to ask, email me at

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

New YouTube Channel for The Minds of Kids!

Under the gentle guidance of my 13-year-old daughter, I have entered the world of the YouTube channel. I expect to put quick thoughts here -- responses to stuff I see that won't germinate into a whole big post for the blog. Besides, I've been told I have a good voice!

You won't see my face. For that I'd have to spruce myself up a bit. You can watch the videos below.

Let me know what you think.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Standards-Based Education: Life in a Dream World

Maria Libby, (Assistant Superintendent  of MSAD 28 and Five Town CSD) in her opinion piece in last week’s Camden Herald, paints a very rosy picture of the  future of education in Maine under a new system called, variously, Standards-Based Education, Proficiency-Based Education, or Customized Learning.  

Standards-based education (SBE), as it was first described to me, sounded like the process of applying learning standards -- those step-by-step guides to what children should know and be able to do -- to the work that children love to do.

I first found out about this new idea early in my tenure on the RSU 3 school board. I sat down with Gregg Palmer, then the Principal at Searsport High School and he shared why he was passionate about it. It became something I felt was worth working toward. When Heather Perry came into RSU 3 as Superintendent that we began the real work of moving to this system, along with other districts across Maine, and I gave it my full-throated support.

The more I listened and looked into it, the more I learned about the disturbing trends in public education nationwide, the more I came to fear that it would not be the solution I was hoping for.

How’d we get here?
Let’s put this in the context of the national education debate. Chances are that you have read and heard about the controversy over the decade-old No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which mandated every child achieve “proficiency” by 2014. This requirement was enforced with standardized testing. Those test scores determined whether your school was deemed a failure or a success, and funding hung on the result. This led to ten years of shrinking curriculum as districts, running scared, focused on producing the right test results. Very few would now describe NCLB as successful education policy.

At first glance, NCLB might sound like a simple and just proposition. We shouldn’t settle for anything less than an education that serves the interests of every child. I believe that. You probably do too. But the devil is in the details, and they have been playing themselves out for ten years. If you have a system that is going to rely on tests to judge the value of education it provides, then we’ve put all our money on teaching only those things which can be measured. All else is not reflected on the tests.

School districts can try but will never transcend this requirement. The bottom line will always be test scores. Administrators may deny it but they are in a forest and they can't see the trees. There is a law of human behavior in institutions where high stakes are attached to the production of data. It’s called Campbell’s Law.

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.“

Without even getting into the fact that the only thing a standardized tests measures accurately is the income level of the student’s parents, Campbell’s Law destroys their credibility. Standardized test scores are corrupt even before the tests have been taken.

But those with money and power had their own remedy. It's in their interests for people to believe that public education is failing because districts don’t have adequate learning standards to guide teachers. They add the Common Core State Standards into the mix.

Maine has adopted these standards and we see districts all over the state scrambling to change their curricula. New tests will come out this year that are aligned to the Common Core.

It’s all very confusing, so I have asked educator/blogger Michael Paul Goldenberg to take a stab at a short summary of one view of a complex situation. “High-stakes testing and standards have been brought to you by the education-industrial complex. That is what some call the alliance of billionaires, foundations, think-tanks, publishers, testing organizations, hedge-fund managers, and other groups, individuals and organizations involved in a concerted effort to control public education and replace it with a privately-held, for-profit system of charter schools, vouchers, and school choice. They want a two-tiered system - one for the majority of children and another for their own, privileged progeny.”

Any conspiracy theorist can find public education to be a ripe area: it’s easy to believe that those entities Goldenberg describes are very serious about their goal: make schools fail, ripe for the plucking of the education privatizers, and we are in a race to fend them off.

Some critics of the Common Core cite the academic difficulty that the standards push into lower grades, to the point of forcing even developmentally inappropriate learning to younger kids, all in the name of Raising the Bar. Then come the enforcing tests. As New York State, which took the new tests this year, has already experienced, the scores will, in all likelihood, go down. The result will be that more schools, especially in low-income areas like mine, will “fail.”

We tend to want to trust the experts. Our lives are too busy to have to delve into all the issues that affect us. The people who we see making decisions about education...well, they study this stuff, don’t they? They understand what we don’t and they make decisions based on the best interests of our youth and future.

But the motives of the monied entities who seek to control public education are not pure and they are not to be trusted.

Meanwhile in Maine...
Videos of classroom activities under the new system were brought to the RSU 3 Board over the past year; teachers and administrators described the process of bringing this system along. My misgivings about the system grew as the picture emerged of a ladder of obstacles, assessment after assessment, leading to an uncertain culmination. Rosy pictures were painted, even as an undercurrent of dissatisfaction by teachers, parents and students became an audible rumble.

Maria Libby makes an effort, in her essay, to explain and clarify this system for us. She uses some stock phrases straight from the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning playlist:

  • ”Voice and choice” refers to how a child might choose to demonstrate proficiency of a required standard. To my chagrin, I realized that it has nothing to do with choices a child might be given to develop and pursue deep interests.

  • “Students work at their own pace and in their own way,” say the brochures, but in practice this means “teacher pace or better,” so we still have kids struggling along behind, having made no particular connection to the learning, but still losing out on both teacher approval and any extrinsic bonus that the others might receive for being on pace. (At Mount View High School, if you are “behind” on your standards, you don’t get to participate in those awesome Exploratories that the other kids do; you have to attend “Intensives” so that you can catch up on your work. So much for “at your own pace.”)

  • “Anytime, anywhere learning” sounds good, but think about this: it means that everything learned in all parts of a child’s life can be measured and added to the stack of skills and knowledge acquired by a child at that point in time. No learning can’t be measured against some standard; knowledge not is gained for the value of the knowledge itself but for the reward it brings.

The measurement of "anytime, anywhere" learning may sound attractive, but has consequences. There's no place for learning that can be enjoyed for its own satisfaction. Supporters of SBE make a big deal about eliminating grades, but really, they haven't eliminated anything. All the negative aspects of being graded are still embedded into the system.

In the traditional grading system, we adults do tend to complain about kids who think only about their grades and averages (teachers do a collective eye-roll when they hear, “Will this be on the test?") The standards-based system makes it worse by extending it to all of life.

Then the kicker hit home: that every single one of the learning “measurement topics” that are being ground out by the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning -- topics that are “aligned” to the Common Core -- must be checked off by every single student.  There is no room for truly individualized learning pathways here. No matter that a student might make a connection to learning more easily, given freedom to pursue his own interests and goals. If it doesn’t fit the framework, it doesn’t fly.

It’s not personalized when everyone is learning the same thing. Nor is it customized, nor individualized...rather, it is standardized, bureaucratized, and regimentized.

The SBE system won’t bring about the education solutions I was hoping for, because it can’t. Why? Let’s go back to that conspiracy again. New tests are coming. Maine will be the happy recipients of the Smarter Balanced assessments to replace the New England Comprehensive Assessment Program (NECAPS).  We have to teach every single standard; we have to prepare for the tests.

The standards-based system promises greater engagement and achievement, but it has to accomplish this while its feet are held to the fire of standardized test results. Content is still pushed at students regardless of interest; learning is still something that, like good behavior, is coerced through the same system of carrots and sticks as the traditional model. Why doesn’t it make a change that will create more flexibility? Because it can’t. We have an institution to maintain, and it hinges on the results of those tests.

Make school work for everyone.
There are students who will always find some learning goal that they care about, even when it is prescribed. These are the same students that thrive in the traditional system: kids of families with an adequate income, stable household, and an interest in education. You can drop those kids into any school structure and they will usually find something to interest them and the support they need to do what’s necessary to succeed. That’s where this structure gets its strength: by pointing to the kids for whom it is a success. But do we truly believe that a learning environment should be structured to benefit those who are the easiest children to teach?

A truly great system of learning is one that is able to engage kids of low-income, unstable, stressed families in happy learning (yes, it is important that kids be happy). What do you find, consistently, in schools that succeed at this?

A structure that is built around the individual passions and interests of children; that helps kids develop and pursue their own goals. A system that has the resources necessary for adequate attention to be paid to home life and family (a stable family unit being the most crucial support kids need in order to focus on their own goals and work).

But wait! You know who else thrives in systems like that? Those kids from stable households, good income and involved parents! It is the rare student that, given the chance, would not want to develop their dearest goals and deepest passions into real here-and-now learning. They would be engaged in solving real problems for real people. Making real art. Designing real tools and toys for living. Interacting with their real local communities. Maybe even trying to make the world a better place.

I was enraged by Libby’s article. She and her colleagues are asking us all to join her in a dream world where high-stakes testing is merely a routine interruption of regular daily class activity, without a negative impact that needs further thought or consideration.

We can, and really must, stop the juggernaut of testing and standards that has been tearing our schools apart for over ten years and promises worse in the near future. Stop the profit-driven megolith that reduces our schools and our children to the data that will be used against them.

Rather than changing education in any real way -- that is, creating a structure that fosters the development of students’ own deepest interests and gives them the time, resources and support to create extraordinary work -- standards-based education is nothing but a better shoehorn to make sure kids are fitting into the same old shoe.

This is most likely the first in a series of reactions to Maria Libby's essay. Stay tuned for a critique of the SBE philosophy toward motivation and failure, and possibly a deeper look at the hypocrisy that "at your own pace" really means "teacher paced or better."

Saturday, October 26, 2013

My thoughts on a Saturday morning turn to TEACHERS.

Opposing the Common Core and the measurement topics that come out of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning is fairly easy for me to do; I don't have anything to lose. I'm not a teacher. If I was, I would imagine I would try to make lemonade out of a situation that tells me: what you have been doing up to now isn't good enough; now you must do things a different way, regardless of what your instincts as a teacher are.

What I like the least about the move to the proficiency-based system is that the opinions of teachers are characterized this way: "Sure, there is some push-back but more and more we have teachers signing on and seeing that this is a good change to how we teach."

What's missing from that statement is any notion that a teacher might actually have legitimate problems with the way the measurement topics work, and with the structure of proficiency-based learning. The idea is to get them on board; not to listen to their concerns.

Teachers have been compromised since NCLB passed. Actually, before that; when the MLRs (Maine Learning Results) passed, even though that was a kinder/gentler interference in the classroom, that many teachers embraced. But since NCLB, the culture of schools has been, of necessity, changed from teaching and learning, to teaching that which is measurable to the detriment of all else (see Campbell's Law to find out why high-stakes test results are by definition corrupt, even before the tests have been delivered.)

We can't know how the profession of teaching might have changed if the corporate takeover had not started with the Nation at Risk, the paper produced in the early 80s that painted a very gloomy picture of public education and predicted doom if changes were not made), through to NCLB, RTTT, and now the Common Core; new tests, and teacher evaluations connected to those tests. My feeling is that there is a very good chance that the profession might have changed with the changing needs of children in a post-Internet world: more passion-driven, more interest-driven, more respectful of the learning needs of children. But the system has been corrupted now; teachers are at the bottom of the education industrial complex. 

And so, therefore, are children.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Education Doctor

David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor

"Maybe there’s something in all of us that aspires to greatness; that wants to save whole planets."

(Dedicated to those Whovians who have had a really emotional day today)

I’ve been trying to avoid this -- an education blog post about Doctor Who. But face it, my summer has been all about the Doctor.  And today was Doctor Who's Big Reveal of the identity of the Twelfth Doctor. So here’s one of my own.

See, I have to put education activism on hold every late-spring through the end of summer to concentrate on producing jewelry inventory enough to last through show season. This year it was particularly difficult; I have a dozen-odd education projects going, and have to simply put them aside to do some work that might actually have some chance of making us some money. I had to have something to hold me to the work.

So I propped my son’s Ipod close enough to see but out of the way of torch flames and made my way through the 9th, 10th and 11th doctors while making my usual fabulous beadies.

Now, the true confession comes when I reveal that I’ve fallen into my first major movie-star crush since getting married 18 years ago. I’ve been gobbling everything actor David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor) has done that’s available for viewing, legally or illegally. (By “illegally” I mean on YouTube, of course. Ya gotta believe me.) It sparked an emotional spiral similar to the one I went through in the Fall of 1984 when Derek Jacobi came to New York with the Royal Shakespeare Company productions of Much Ado About Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac.

I was 23 years old, everything before me; just recently returned to the city of my birth with plans to become a playwright and join the circles of New York City theater. Nothing brought me flat down to earth like seeing those shows. And I saw them each twice! Got on line in the wee hours waiting for the cheap tickets, four times. And what I got from it was heartsick because I knew I would never be that good At. Anything. Ever. With an embarrassing intensity -- and not a little drama -- I was both deeply moved and violently cast down.

DT did it to me again (real fans do that. We call him DT). Funny that one of his own acting inspirations was Derek Jacobi. And for the first time since that year, I felt like I was blundering about in the world of the mundane, destined never to transcend.

Until these words came to me. “I’m the Education Doctor.”

Maybe there’s something in all of us that aspires to greatness; that wants to save planets (“I had to reboot the universe,” says Matt Smith sometime in Season 6). Sometimes a fictional character can make us look inside ourselves to try to find what greatness might be there. The Doctor makes many mistakes but he goes for it full-tilt anyway. He’s a hero.

I’m sure of my footing: 

  • The first priority in public education should be to provide the support, resources and time.needed for every student to be able to pursue his/her passions and interests. 
  • Give kids the freedom to do work that matters to them and to the world. 
  • Get rid of standardized testing. 
  • The only good curriculum standards are the ones derived from a student’s goals and interests. 

I’m an advocate of the rights of children; I call for building relationships with children based on mutual respect and trust.

I play devil’s advocate with myself more than most people do. (The part of me that must try to understand every side of any argument is part of what makes me an almost decent playwright.) I have enough folks who believe what I believe that I don’t feel I’m out on a limb. I’ve done my homework and when all’s said and done....I’m really quite cock-sure that I’m right about education.

A little humility is called for...even the Doctor, when he chose to die for Wilf, an ordinary man, said “It would be my honor.” 

While not everyone has done the homework I’ve done, I have not had their experiences in life. Everyone deserves to be listened to. Nobody’s experience should be dismissed. I get very excited by the possibilities I’ve been exposed to; great ideas that yield great results for kids, and I want everyone to see what I see. And I get impatient with people -- I don’t want another generation to have to live under the heel of the education industrial complex. So my emotions get in the way of a discipline of careful listening to what others have to contribute, when it runs counter to my own ideas. That's why the Doctor's companions are there -- to bring him up short, and back down to earth.

I work on that. I can’t help who I am. High passion, high intensity, constant work.

I want to be great at doing good. Truth, justice, fairness. A better life for children. A better future for us all. 

We can do it. Trust me. I’m the Doctor.