The meaning of the rain

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As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

I’ve been on vacation lately: fishing with grandchildren, playing on the beach, riding my bike, and — here in the east — walking in the rain. Vacation is supposed to be a time to decompress, to get away from my normal preoccupation, which is education and its complexities.

Wish it were that simple, but, unfortunately for me, almost everything seems to work its way around to education sooner or later.

I mean, take the songs that I sing (quietly to myself) while walking my dog. As I said, we’ve had plenty of rain, so maybe it was inevitable that I would sing songs about rain.

After a while I noticed that songs about bad weather are cheerfully, even blindly, optimistic — starting of course with “Singing in the Rain.”

Think about “Raindrops Falling on My Head,” the song that runs through the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In that song, the singer says he’s “never gonna stop the rain by complaining” and insists that there’s one thing he knows:


The blues they send to meet me won’t defeat me
It won’t be long till happiness steps up to greet me

In other words, don’t worry, be happy, because happiness is just around the corner. You don’t have to do anything — happiness is coming.

“Soon It’s Gonna Rain” from the musical The Fantasticks is another happy song about bad weather. It’s a duet between the two young lovers, and it’s completely optimistic. They decide to build a house (in a tree) that will protect them from the harsh weather and ‘happily we will live and love within our castle walls.’

For optimism, however, I don’t think you can beat Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” because, when “the rain is gone,” there are “no other obstacles in my way.”

Perhaps it’s human nature to think in extremes and avoid nuance. Certainly, sunny optimism makes for a good song. That song would not have rocketed to No. 1 on the charts if the lyrics were “I see more clearly now, the rain has gone; I can see obstacles in my way.”

The blind optimism of the song makes me think of the education policy makers who have ignored reality for years when setting their K-12 academic standards. As Stephanie Banchero wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently:

In fourth-grade reading, for example, 35 states set passing bars that are below the “basic” level on the national NAEP exam. “Basic” means students have a satisfactory understanding of material, as opposed to “proficient,” which means they have a solid grasp of it. Massachusetts is the only state to set its bar at “proficient” — and that was only in fourth and eighth-grade math.

It’s not really raining, these policy makers decided, and so they lowered the academic bar, thus producing lots of apparently ‘proficient’ graduates. For years their schools have asked very little of students, despite the reality of No Child Left Behind’s approaching deadlines (100% proficiency by 2014) and the existence of an independent standard, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

How bad is it? As a federal study noted (again quoting Banchero), there are “huge disparities among the standards states set when their tests are converted to the NAEP’s 500-point scale. In eighth-grade reading, for example, there is a 60-point difference between Texas, which has the lowest passing bar, and Missouri, which has the highest, according to the data. In eighth-grade math, there is a 71-point spread between the low, Tennessee, and the high, Massachusetts.”

Rain
... come again another day?

Blind optimism may be fine for a song, but it’s not appropriate for education policy.

There’s also blind negativism, which seems to me to be the position taken by a lot of education pundits. To these folks, that’s not just rain; that’s doom and gloom, Noah’s flood and the end of the world as we know it. To me, these nay-sayers sound like Benton Brook’s “A Rainy Night in Georgia,” an unrelentingly mournful song in which It seems like it’s rainin’ all over the world

The song goes on:


How many times I wondered
It still comes out the same
No matter how you look at it or think of it
It’s life and you just got to play the game

The song ends on the same endlessly depressing note, fading away into silence: You’re talking ’bout rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’, rainin’ rainin’, rainin’, rainin’ (fade).

Lighten up! Things are not as bad as the ‘rainin all over the world’ folks would have it. We have thousands of outstanding schools, superb approaches like Core Knowledge, KIPP and Jim Comer’s school reform program, to name just three.

But education also has problems that cannot be whistled away or ignored: 7000 dropouts every school day, huge gaps in educational outcomes; a teacher dropout rate that approaches 50% in five years, and so on. The rain may be gone but there are other obstacles in our way!

I am not arguing for compromise: Blind is blind. The challenge is not to find a healthy balance between blind optimism and blind pessimism, because those polar opposites have only one thing in common: complete faith in their own rightness. One side is convinced that the sun’s going to come out tomorrow, while the other feels it’s raining all over the world.

We don’t need compromise. We need to lighten up. We need to listen. Above all, we need a measure of humility, some admission that perhaps we cannot see clearly. Another line comes to mind, though not from a song: We see ‘as through a glass, darkly.’

I think I need a vacation.

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15 thoughts on “The meaning of the rain

  1. ” When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”
    Politicans need to grow up, consider the people who elected them instead of selfishly only thinking of themselves and their friends as well as consider methods and strategies that will actually provide quality education for all children.

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    • I recently attended my school districts yearly convocation and we had a guest speaker named Bill Daggett. He was a very good speaker.I teach in North Kansas City, MO which have some of the toughest standards and many schools this past year were not as successful on our state test, but most school in our district continued to make uphill gains, despite what the media would like to say. As Mr. Daggett said in his presentation bashing education is one of the media’s favorite past time despite there being many bright spots across our country in education. It is also stated by the media how we are falling behind other countries in testing. This is true, and we need to continue to adapt and change what we are doing in education, but we are a country that that educates everybody. As Mr. Daggett says we believe in equality and excellence in education in the United States.As Mr. Daggett says we get bogged down with the equality more than with the excellence a lot in this country. However all countries do not educate everyone the same like we try to. Not everyone is given access to the same schools in other countries. There are countries out that with bigger populations than the US that, make it appear are producing better educated and smarter people on a greater scale than we do. When you take into account that some countries do not educate their students equally like we strive to do, and they have higher population, so in they have more students scoring higher because more take the tests that we are comparing countries against. As John pointed out we have many things to be proud of in American education, but we also have lots to improve on. Not every school is making gains, but many schools are making great gains, and we do need to have set standards that level the playing field like the Common Core Standards Initiative is bringing forth. Our Schools are some of the best in the world when you consider that we educate all children, some of our children with disabilities who go on the lead great lives would not have the opportunities they do here in other countries. That being said we still need to continue to strive for excellence in education. I just scrapped the surface on what Mr. Daggett shared with my district so please check out his website. Just look up the International Center for Leadership in education.

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  2. The late Gerald Bracey used to argue vociferously that the setting of the levels for NAEP was artificial, and was done deliberately to indicate that schools needed improvement.

    I lack Jerry’s facility with the data, but he pointed out that the high scoring nations were doing no better than we were as far as percentage that were proficient on a NAEP scale. If true, then perhaps there is validity to states setting their bars lower than NAEP.

    Except since states are running separate tests, I’m not quite sure how you calculate the correspondence with NAEP levels on the test. Not having read the article in question, I presume there is a comparison of state pass levels versus performance on NAEP. One could then argue that the state’s cut scores are set too low because they have a higher pass rate than the state does on NAEP. Of course, there is ample precedent for this, and that is only one way of doing manipulation of information for reporting purposes. Texas under Gov. George W. Bush was famous for a variety of these.

    I know this happens at a state level. In Virginia, for its Standards of Learning, when they went through the Modified Angoff Process to set cut scores in American History for the first administration, not only did they not take the middle of the expert opinion, they didn’t even take the highest level proposed by experts, but instead picked a cut scores ABOVE even the highest level proposed by any of their experts. Naturally they showed a very low level of achieving that cut score.

    Now here’s how the game is played. Since all that is reported on most state tests is a scaled scored, by simply manipulating the cut score you can show improvement on the reported scaled score. I experienced this. I taught one year in Virginia, middle school American History. The year before I was there the school’s passing rate was 58%. The year I was there, with me an experienced teacher new to the curriculum and two first year teachers, the schools’ passing score was 81% – my own was 89%. But here’s the kicker – the cut score had been lowered. Had the previous year’s tests been rescored according to the new scale, the pass rate would have been 81%. Thus we showed improvement – 71 to 81 – but not as spectacular as 58-81. You’d have to drill down pretty deeply in order to tease that out.

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  3. I’m not at all comfortable with standardized test results that at their best provide very little assistance with improving learning and in the worst case are downright criminal with all the manipulating, rescaling, cheating, etc.

    Learning is facilitated individually to be effective. Most of the teachers I talk with know their students’ strengths and weaknesses; BUT they get insufficient time to help where needed, all too much lack of or even worse negative support from too many parents, too often minimal support from administrators, too much negativism from politicians, and general apathy from the public. If we want more effective learning for our students, we need to come together locally, understand specific local problems, and work to help get them solved. NO PRESCRIPTIVE NATIONAL OR EVEN STATEWIDE PRESCRIPTIVE MANDATE WILL ACCOMPLISH INTENDED IMPROVEMENT GOALS AND EXPECTATIONS!

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  4. Not sure if it means rain or shine, but a new national Gallup PDK poll has results that will interest John & others who read/comment:
    http://www.pdkintl.org/poll/index.htm

    Among other things, 2/3 or more would encourage bright young person to be a teacher, would like a child of their own to be a teacher, support giving teachers flexibility rather than mandating a “prescribed curriculum”, support the charter public school idea and other forms of public school choice. They oppose vouchers. Lots of interesting things to read here.

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  5. Adding to the dog-walking rain songs, a favorite is Taj Mahal’s “Light Rain Blues”: http://www.superlyrics.com/lyrics/kGRU0hgfAR@H@Hz/Light_Rain_Blues_lyrics_by_Taj_Mahal.html. I won’t even mar your enjoyment of the embedded video with an education analogy!

    To the blog’s wish for “humility,” I would add the related “restraint.” So much of the accountability/choice movement’s problems stem from funders’ and politicians’ zeal to scale up with inadequate planning, assessment, and concern for unintended consequences. This full speed ahead approach is seen as a positive characteristic in and of itself. But, really, it’s hubris, with a broad group of kids — often outside the reformers’ target population — reduced to experimental subjects. Hmmm . . . maybe the analogy here is “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall”.

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  6. Has anybody ever run a cost-benefit study of different test makers? Your – honestly – dismal observations of the rainy season notwithstanding, it occurs to me that, with so many different instruments collecting against similar – even if state-ranked different – standards, the underlying question is what the tests contain, and how they’re framed, and how they compare – both in cost and in the kind of assessment, feedback, and analysis they provide. I read somewhere that Massachusetts spends $153,000,000 on its MCAS spectrum of tests, but I’ve nothing to compare that to, nor to judge whether this is an annual or contract or five year or whatever cost. It would be really helpful to see the cost per kid, cost per state, and time-delay per state as at least a base line. And it would also be helpful to know if proficient in Texas means the same as proficient in Massachusetts, even if Texas lets ’em pass at a lower definition. As it is now it’s a fog.

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  7. Turn Ye To Me
    The stars are shining cheerily, cheerily
    Horo, Mhairi dhu, turn ye to me.
    The sea mew’s moaning drearily, drearily
    Horo, Mhairi dhu, turn ye to me.
    Cold is the stormwind that ruffles the breast
    But warm are the downy plumes lining its nest
    Cold blows the storm there
    Soft falls the snow there
    Horo, Mhairi dhu, turn ye to me.
    The waves are dancing merrily, merrily
    Horo, Mhairi dhu, turn ye to me.
    The seabirds are wailing wearily, wearily
    Horo, Mhairi dhu, turn ye to me.
    Hushed be thy moaning, lone bird of the sea
    Thy home on the rocks is a shelter to thee
    Thy home is the angry wave
    Mine but the lonely grave
    Horo, Mhairi dhu, turn ye to me.

    (This is an English translation of an old Highland song; “Mhairi dhu” means “Dark Mary”; a sea mew is a seagull.)

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  8. We don’t need compromise. We need to lighten up. We need to listen. Above all, we need a measure of humility, some admission that perhaps we cannot see clearly. Another line comes to mind, though not from a song: We see ‘as through a glass, darkly.’

    MUNRO: Gentleness, patience, dogged perseverene and humlity are the keys to instructional success. Not all can be known and not all can be achieved. Water is one of the softest substanes and yet as anyone who has seen the Grand Canyon knows water if given enough volume and time can cut through the hardest rocks. In order to teach and to learn the first thing is showing up ready and willing to learn every day there is class and to dedicate some time every day to reading and study. If one wants to learn English or Spansih, for example, one must study the target language and immerse oneself until one reaches a plateau of self-sufficiency and self-regeneration. Many langauge learners never dedicate enough time on task to beome proficient in one or more foreign or modern langauges. I was never a math whiz but I always passed my classes and my proficiencies beause I concentrated, persevered and completed all my assignments to the best of my ability. We learn somethings more readily than other things but everyone can learn and improve in many areas through seriousness, self-discipline and effort. One of the jobs of a teacher is to convince his or her students of the meaningfulness of the subject matter. A teacher has to believe in his subject, as GIlbert Highet noted many years ago, as a doctor believes in health. Love and enthusiasm can be contagious and make the journey light.

    R.I.P Dr. Adolfo Franco Pino, professor of Spanish langauge and literature from the Uninversity of Northern Iowa. For many years he and his late brother-in-law ran the UNI Summer Spanish program in Soria, Spain. A native of Cuba, Dr. Franco, known by all as Adolfo or Sr. Franco. died while visiting his son Adolfo Alberto Frano in the Washington, DC area last Saturday. He used to say (in Spanish) “accents are the shine on the car but verbs are the motor that makes the langauge go.” A delightful man and a friend. It was he who introduced me to my wife of 29 years 38 years ago. NE OBLIVISCARIS. DO NOT FORGET AVE ET VALE (HAIL AND FAREWELL)
    HASTA SIEMPRE…

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  9. To night there is a restlessness in the wind
    There is small rain that has salt in it from the sea
    And the white breakers wander in the dark
    Lo! down in the west a waning moon calls to the sea
    Sweeping back a flood from the black points of land
    And the tide is turning from the seven rocks
    Perhaps a moon is shining for you in the far country
    But the skies there are not island skies
    You will not remember the salt smell of the sea
    And the little rain

    Father Sidney MacEwen sang this song to John McCormack on his deathbed in 1945.

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  10. Thanks for the old songs, the Gaelic and McEwen for McCormack. Just arresting material.

    A more modern one from Australia:

    “It’s not easy to walk in the rain
    So I walk with my eyes to the ground
    And I often ignore the rainbow above
    And the coming of the sun”
    (Ross Langmead).

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