Saturday, May 25, 2013

Education "Reform" in Maine, Part 3: Can we change the ending?

Governor LePage’s spokesperson, Adrienne Bennett, thinks poverty is no barrier to education.  “Overcoming poverty himself, Gov. LePage’s own personal story shows that income barriers do not define destiny.”

It’s a common view. Washington D.C.’s controversial former chancellor Michelle Rhee has made similar statements. “Our schools can't fix all of society's problems,” says Rhee in a 2012 article on Huffington Post, “but what happens in classrooms everyday can make a huge difference in the life outcomes of all children. As such, our schools can and should be held accountable for ensuring all students are learning.”

She makes it sounds so simple, but that’s why her statement is so dangerous. Kids bring problems through the doors of school that cannot be solved by the education system alone. Saying that it can trivializes the reality these kids live with.

Diane Ravitch counters such opinions: “They never explain how a great teacher overcomes homelessness, hunger, poor health, and other conditions associated with poverty. Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965 that you can’t put two people in a race at the same starting line and assume it’s a fair race if one of them is shackled. LBJ knew then what the reformers today never learned.”

How can you pay attention if you don’t know where you’ll be sleeping that night? Or if your dad will show up at home? The horrors attendant upon the lives of poor children are too many to list, and are out of reach of the impact of a really good teacher.

What is a more realistic way to address the education of children growing in poverty?

We might consider the kind of wrap-around services in Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. Health care, counseling, family services, parenting education, all the services children and their families might need so that they might stand a chance of dreaming a dream for themselves.

Let’s fund an initiative wherein low-income school districts can partner with local services to provide in-school services to students in stressful circumstances. Let’s focus on the whole family, because that unit is the most important to the success of the child. This way, we can make sure each student’s needs are being cared for.

With what money? Well, I don’t know what the exact figure is in Maine, but I sure would start with the money that’s going into the implementation of the CCSS and the Smarter Balanced assessments.  

Once you’ve eliminated those toxic influences on learning (and then count up the millions in education dollars saved -- go here for a summary under "the money problem"), whole avenues of opportunity open up. None of the items listed below are easy or cheap, but we’ll be rolling in dough once we get rid of the testing juggernaut.

  • Magnify the voices of the educators here in Maine who have devoted their lives to doing what’s best for children.
  • Bring in a new vision of education. Take this opportunity to truly envision a system of learning that brings out the best in every child. Bring in the voices of people we can learn from and can help us move in the right direction.

  • Put in place a system of public accountability that does not interfere with student learning or the culture of school.

The list goes on and on; there are no lack of brilliant resources both in and outside Maine who would help us re-imagine our schools and reinvest our hard-earned dollars in something that helps children -- rather than a system that hurts them. Overthrow the dictatorship of testing and standardization. This opens up a world of options that would make our kids’ eyes light up.

We the people did not make these financial decisions. They were made for us. They will continue to be made for us. And they are made with profits, not the best interests of our children, in mind.

Maine, we need to get control of the future of our schools before we wake up and realize that that education has left the building.

(I know I promised a three-part series, but I think the next section, "What You Can Do?" deserves its own post, so stay tuned!)

Friday, May 24, 2013

Education "Reform" in Maine, Part 2: How did we get here?

How did we get here?
Let’s look at a prescient statement made by Alfie Kohn  back in 2004:

I try to imagine myself as a privatizer. How would I proceed? If my objective were to dismantle public schools, I would begin by trying to discredit them. I would probably refer to them as “government” schools, hoping to tap into a vein of libertarian resentment. I would never miss an opportunity to sneer at researchers and teacher educators as out-of-touch “educationists.” Recognizing that it’s politically unwise to attack teachers, I would do so obliquely, bashing the unions to which most of them belong. Most important, if I had the power, I would ratchet up the number and difficulty of standardized tests that students had to take, in order that I could then point to the predictably pitiful results. I would then defy my opponents to defend the schools that had produced students who did so poorly.

Creepy, eh? We’re seeing this roll out in Maine. Our schools have not only been discredited, they’ve been nearly destroyed. There are many successes in many classrooms; I wouldn’t say that the misery quotient is so high that no parent should send their kids to public school. I will say that testing, and its cousin, standardization, have run like a very slow bulldozer over our schools over a dozen years since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), leaving behind a quivering mass of desperation. Teachers nationwide are seeing their profession become corrupted and irrelevant. Students are ducking their heads and getting through it without a thought for how it can help them on their way to success.

The name of the game in any school today is struggle. Struggle on the part of students to get through the day, struggle by teachers to teach kids while satisfying the needs of the principals, who are beholden to superintendents, who are looking at their test numbers and shaking their heads.

What Money Problem?
The neighboring district to mine, RSU 20, is all of a dither right now over whether to break up the union that was established after Governor Baldacci’s wrongheaded attempt to consolidate school districts. Passions run very high in this conflict. It is almost as though the players in that debate believe that once their side wins, things will improve for their kids.

It’s difficult for me to watch. Nearly $16 billion are being spent by the 45 states who have adopted the Common Core State Standards, to implement those standards in the classroom, and pay for the tests from the Smarter Balanced testing cohort, which will replace the NECAPS. There are layers and layers of costs, and while one school district in this area is cutting funding for all art supplies, they are paying out $40,000 (a reduction of one Ed Tech position) for a new English curriculum that is aligned to the Common Core -- whether or not they were getting good results from the old one.

RSU 20 itself is paying out $168,000 for technological upgrades to accommodate the Smarter Balanced assessments....while laying off teachers.

We observe the money crunch in districts all over Maine (read also here and here), but there is no lack of money going into education. We’re swimming it it. We’re up to our eyeballs in it. It’s just going to the makers of tests, publishers of curriculum, developers of educational technology that will help teachers move kids through the standards and prepare for tests, and the consultants who we can’t live without, to come in and save us from drowning under the Common Core.

We could also add  to the pot the money that’s wasted on textbooks. There is a treasure-trove of open sourceware available free on the Internet, expressly for the purpose of being used by educators! Add to that the money that is spent buying computers for students who already have them. We could also take away the computerized local assessment system like NWEAs and Aimswebs. Assessments are part of learning; anything else is disruptive, so get rid of it.

Tomorrow, Part 3: Change the Ending

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Story of Education “Reform” in Maine

(Part One of a three-part series)

There is an interaction between what is happening nationally on the edu-political scene and what is going on here in Maine. When we connect the dots, what emerges is a picture worth exploring.

I. The Maine story

Governor Paul LePage has cobbled together a system of grading schools, drawing primarily from state standardized test results. The metric used to develop the grading system is faulty, according to some; the Maine Sun-Journal says, “Grading schools isn't popular with superintendents and teachers, who say some of the criteria for the grades comes from things they can't control, including poverty, a lack of parent involvement, truancy and students not showing up to take tests.”

That doesn’t diminish its impact. Once your local school has been given an F, no matter what’s really going on in that school building, no amount of protest and outcry will take that F away. So the Governor is well on the way to making his case for the next steps.  

The State of Maine will also be faced with legislation to provide for school choice in districts where there are failing schools. As goes the students, so goes the money; the per-pupil allocation will follow the students to their chosen school, private or charter.

The school they left behind will have to improve as best they can, as they still will be judged by test scores.  Although those schools will receive less money, there isn’t a proportional reduction of expenses such as heating a building or operating a kitchen. In addition, the fact that a school loses 35 students, for example, does not necessarily mean that the school will be able to cut two teachers, since the students would have been spread out over several classes and grades. So the already significant reductions of art, music, gym, field trips, special projects that have happened in the past few years of cutbacks will continue.  These subjects are irrelevant to the tests...and test results reign supreme.

Measures that will be proposed this legislative session:

  • Legislation to advance school choice options for Maine students. According to the Bangor Daily News, this would “allow colleges and universities to authorize public charter schools and remove the 10-school limit on the number of charter schools that can be authorized by the Maine Public Charter School Commission.”

  • This legislation will also  also includes provisions “to help economically disadvantaged students gain greater school choice by providing funding for tuition and transportation to public and private schools, as well as room and board at charter schools,” according to the Bangor Daily News article.

  • Legislation to calculate the number of students who need remedial math or English at public colleges, and according to the Bangor Daily News, “push the cost of remedial courses needed by higher-education students at public institutions to their home school districts.” I guess this is the “scared straight” strategy.  Threats might work!

There is already a law on the books that will mandate the attachment of test results to teacher evaluations. Regulations and procedures on this measure are now being developed.

II. The national context
But what is happening in Maine needs to be seen in the context of national edu-politics. At the root of Governor LePage’s grades is the impact of high-stakes standardized testing.

The imposition of high-stakes testing (meaning the application of punitive measures if the data doesn’t reveal the right numbers) has turned our schools into places where student identity is the least important factor in what goes on in classrooms; so students have checked out, en masse. We see it. And if we haven’t seen, it we should ask our kids; they see it and experience it every day.

  • Some engaged students go for the grades, accepting the limitation on their learning in an effort to comply and please.
  • Others spend elementary school looking for learning that is meaningful to them, and finding none, have checked out by middle school.
  • Still others have such a difficult time fitting into the tight corners of school expectations that they are medicated into compliance.
  • The ones who survive and thrive best are those who understand that school is a game; they take what they need, leave the rest, and maintain their identity throughout.

High-stakes testing and standardization are keeping our children from the learning experiences they need for future success. Writer/educator Tony Wagner, in his book Creating Innovators, tells us that what the American economy needs are people who can use their creativity and imagination, who regard failure as steps along the way to success.  The best learning experiences schools can provide are those that emphasize passion-driven learning, real-world challenges and personal success.  

The most important ingredients for student success, say Wagner, are play, passion, and purpose. (I would expand this: play, experimentation, inquiry, discovery, creation, and reflection.)

This vision of education cannot take place where test results drive school culture and purpose.

So here we are, at the threshold of another great revolution in testing. Maine has joined 44 other states in knuckling under to the Race to the Top (RttT) blackmail: adopt the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or sacrifice your eligibility for this funding that we are dangling in front of you like a cookie to a starving child. (The price tag of CCSS implementation, it turns out, leaves the possible RttT funding in the dust -- and Maine was turned down for that funding anyway. Ah, well.)

III. If we do nothing...
Since RSU 3 has three failing schools under the Governor's grading system, I think we should consider ourselves vulnerable to the changes and shifts that he proposes.

Since Maine has passed legislation that will tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, look for teacher firings here in RSU 3 (poor communities do consistently worse on state standardized tests). If you think this could never happen here, you don’t understand the basic purpose of that legislation.

Tony Wagner again: “Who would want to teach in a system that measures your worth as an educator by how much your students can regurgitate on a two-hour multiple-choice test and that has reduced much of the curriculum to tedious test-prep exercises?"

Look for more charters to start up, especially in poor districts like ours.

Involved and active parents in areas with failing schools will embrace the new charter schools, no doubt, and nobody can blame them. Without some of the pressures and constraints that are on ordinary public schools, and because most of the students who go there are the children of those involved parents who seek out alternatives, these charters might be pretty nice places -- though still chained to test scores for proof of their value.

I acknowledge that better education for some could seem an improvement over lousy education for all.  Though I reject the Governor’s grading system as giving an accurate reflection of life in our schools, I do think that public education is in desperate need of change.  

More charter schools and choices may be a change that would satisfy many whose prime concern is the educational health of their own children. But is this the change we want in Maine? Is that worth fighting for? Pretty nice places for some of our kids? I’m a dedicated activist and I’m afraid I will never put that on a placard and walk in circles around the State House, with that phrase on my sign.

Compare that vision (“Maine Public Schools: Pretty Nice Places for Some of Our Kids!”) with that of the schools that will result from a different vision of education: play, experimentation, inquiry, discovery, creation, reflection.


Monday, May 6, 2013

The Governor's Grades

I don't know why I'm so impatient with the huge flap over the Maine Education Department's new school grades. It just seems everyone, from those defending them to those deriding them, is missing the point.

Some say it gives us an inaccurate picture of what is happening in our schools. Some say it doesn't take into account socioeconomic status of our school districts. Others criticize the metrics used to establish these grades, saying that they are statistically invalid -- which is certainly true.

Hard to know what to make of it. Our public education system is based on producing good scores on state standardized tests. With or without these school grades, that's how we are being judged. We have all given our tacit approval to this system. And this is what we get. We complain when someone mangles the data to serve his own purposes, but we don’t complain when for over 10 years high-stakes testing has mangled our education system?

Heather Perry, our local Superintendent, says she knows our schools need to do better. I agree. But when you say, "We know we need to do better," you have to also ask, "Better than what?"

The first step to a solution, they say, is admitting there is a problem. The problem is that over a decade of high-stakes testing have brought stagnation and decline to our schools.  We need to stand up and say no to testing and standardization, but I don't think that's on the To Do list in RSU 3. We will continue to try and "do better" and define this by our test scores...because if we don't, we're in deep doo-doo, aren't we?

Regardless of what we know to be beneficial to the education of our children, we are being judged by their performances on tests. Regardless of any effort to improve education in our district, we will be judged by our children's performances on tests. And if we don't perform, we will submit to consequences.

You don't want our schools to be judged on the basis of test scores? Then do something about it. Opt out. Refuse. Say no.

If you do nothing, then you really can't complain just because your school got an F.