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.


Saturday, August 3, 2013


by Lisa Cooley and Lindy Davies
I’m sure there are a lot of folks around me who wonder why I stick to views on education that  seem so extreme. It is the most unlikely eventuality that I will ever see my vision of education become reality. So why fight for what seems so far afield from the mainstream? Why not stick to what is do-able, and maybe makes life a little better for students?

It just doesn’t make any sense to me to be in this fight for anything but what is right.  

Does an “extreme” viewpoint only seem that way because the way things are is so skewed that you don’t notice how wrong it is?

  • Individuality or intrinsic differences between students should play little or no role in their educations. This will best prepare them for a future world that needs great ideas, creativity and innovation.
  • An approved, standard course of the  best preparation for success in a constantly-changing global community.
  • A regimented, authority-driven school experience will yield connected, intelligent and compassionate kids.
  • With the new technological horizons that are now open to us, it is especially important to limit student connectivity.
  • The best use of the knowledge, experience and instincts of teachers is to make sure that measurable quanta of knowledge are efficiently installed in each student.

These statements represent the status quo in education today. Rejection is the only appropriate response. Once we target a reasonable and appropriate destination, we can chuck the solutions that don’t get us there.

  • Want innovative kids? That requires freedom of exploration and creativity.
  • Want critical thinking? Allow kids to create their own challenges and follow them through.
  • Problem-solving your priority? Let kids grapple with the messy world of real-life situations and difficulties.
  • Worried about our ability to compete in a global economy? Want to see them collaborate and cooperate? Use our robust technology to get kids talking to and learning from folks following similar interests all over the world.
  • Want compassionate kids? Create an environment where kids are in control of their lives, not under the thumb of the constant, inappropriate authority of adults. Connect them to the world through their passions and give them your permission to try to make the world a better place. They’ll take you up on it, every time.
  • Want to see our teachers succeed in helping students succeed? Don’t stand between them and their students; let the relationships develop without grinding the gears on test-prep and enforcement of standards.

As Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia says, “If you challenge kids to do real work that matters, you better be prepared to get out of their way.”

Who’s in charge here?
Someone always benefits from new approaches, new ideas about education. Companies latch onto them, like parasites, bleeding a system for what it’s worth until the next idea comes along. They grab hold of the national education narrative (“the problem in education is that you can’t fire bad teachers” is one) and milk it dry.

The current non-solution solutions are no exception. We read words that seem right and seem to take education in the right direction. Take these words for example:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

Carefully crafted, yes? Pushing all the right buttons? Of course. But the Common Core Standards are not only very expensive to implement....they are also very far afield from what our kids really need. (One glance at the impact that the Common Core Standards and the culture of testing has on special-needs students and English-language learners reveals how extreme -- and inhumane -- we have allowed our education system to become. How do we raise compassionate kids when they observe harshness around them?)

Ordinary people don’t always look under the hood; they don’t see that these “solutions” make a bad situation worse. And publishing companies, testing firms, consultancies, educational data management systems, often represented by honest, well-intentioned educators who seem to know what they’re doing, are all making a tidy profit from not unearthing the real trouble. But like scavengers on roadkill, the profit-makers are always circling public education. We have to look very closely at what they are offering when they take our money.

A simple shift in the workings of a school district, such as to a “standards-based” system of grading, can’t dig out the problems either, even when the shift takes an incredible amount of professional development, structural reorganizing, curricular revamping and money. It's still pushing content at children whether they want it or not, regardless of what really turns their engines on -- and measuring, measuring, measuring.

It still deprives kids of the right to take their own ideas and create something great.

And that system is still subject to high-stakes testing and all the negative pressures that brings to schools. There is no innoculation against that particular disease.

Be extreme. It’s easier than ever!
Extreme is the new normal. Be extreme in response. Accept no solution that doesn’t put students fully in charge of their learning. Insist on a system where kids choose their own goals, their own challenges, and create their own curriculum.

There are always examples of a school or teacher getting it right; but we have to fashion a system where this happens all the time, not by serendipity or happenstance.  It is known that children from well-off, active and involved households are more likely to respond to any educational approach. We need to design a system that isn’t tailor-made to those students who are "easy to teach," but to all students. Even those who are compliant, curious and trustworthy would be better served by an approach to education that wraps itself around the needs of each student.

A top-down, traditional environment is the one we have all experienced; it seems organic; grown from a naturally-existing need. Not so: the current way of organizing schools was imported from Prussia around the turn of the last century and designed to create good factory workers. The fact that this framework still exists is what we all expect to see; it just seems sensible. But it isn’t; it’s extreme.

How do you teach a class full of kids all different things? The logistics alone seem extreme, but it isn’t. It’s possible, it’s do-able, and in the schools that are doing it, it is successful.

What our kids live with every day is so far off-kilter as to make the reasonable seem extreme. It is wrong to accept the sight of kids who have not themselves chosen their educational direction based on who they are and what they themselves most need to learn. It is wrong for the kids, but it is also wrong for a world that needs creative solutions to problems that seem impossible. 

See this, and you can begin to see what might create an education system full of happy learning children.