While I Wasn’t Paying Attention……

To be honest, the slow-motion train wreck known as the Trump presidency has absorbed most of my energy lately, and so I haven’t been paying close attention to public education.  However, during all this mess, 50.7 million K-12 students, 3.6 million of their teachers, 16 million college students, and their 1.6 million teachers have been going about their business.

Think about that for a minute.  A social studies teacher right now is a modern-day Hamlet.  Should he or she embrace the chaos and encourage students to debate the morality of the flood of demonstrable lies coming from the Oval Office on a daily basis, knowing that doing so is guaranteed to incur the wrath of some parents, and perhaps some administrators as well?  Or should the teacher studiously avoid controversy, knowing full well that doing that sends a powerful value-laden message?  To teach, or not to teach, that is the question…..

Or suppose you were an elementary school teacher trying to model appropriate behavior for your impressionable students.  How do you respond when one of your kids asks you why the President said Joe Biden was kissing Barack Obama’s ass?  Or why Trump can say ‘bullshit’ but kids get punished for swearing?

During my time ‘off task,’ the flood of charter school scandals has continued.  I wish this weren’t the case because the idea of giving school-based educators authority of what’s being taught and how learning is being assessed is a good one. Unfortunately, too many people in charter world care more about ideology and money than they do about integrity and children.  You can catch up on all the scandals here…and I urge you to bookmark this page.

While I was looking elsewhere, our controversial Secretary of Education has continued her assault on public education…including public charter schools, by the way.  She’s a voucher proponent, especially if the vouchers are used for Christian schools. When historians write the record of the Trump presidency, Betsy DeVos may be only a footnote, but she has been quietly working to undermine public education from Day One.  

In her forthcoming book, the tireless Diane Ravitch documents how Secretary DeVos and other anti-public education forces (which she dubs “Goliath”) are being defeated.  “Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools” will be published by Knopf in January.

DeVos’s unremitting hostility, however, has created an opportunity for people at the local level to take charge.  Happily, many are. Exhibit A is the push for less testing and more recess, sparked by an important new book by Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle, “Let the Children Play: Why More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive.”  

However, anyone pushing for change in schools, whether it’s more recess or fewer standardized tests, must insist on hard data, because unless educators are required to keep track of, and report publicly on, what’s happening, it probably won’t happen!  

With apologies for my own bumper-sticker mentality, I offer these three words: “Measure What Matters.”  Yes, it fits easily on a bumper sticker, but–better yet–it is unambiguous: 

           1) Figure out what we care about in education (I.E. recess, the arts); and 

           2) Count and measure whether they are happening.  

So if you care about recess and free play, demand to know how many hours of both children have each week.  School people are smart enough to figure out that a low number is a bad answer.  Want children to be exposed to and enjoy the arts in schools?  Then you must demand to know how many hours of art, music, theatre et cetera students have each week.  

And so on down the line.  We have to learn to Measure What We Value, instead of simply Valuing What We Measure.

Most schools approach measurement  the wrong way. Instead of measuring what matters, they value what’s easy (and inexpensive) to measure….but they are only following the public’s lead.  So we have ended up with ‘Test and Punish (teachers)” policies.  A healthier approach would be to “Assess to Improve,’ with assessment as a tool to help both students and teachers get better.  The contrast between “Assess to Improve” and “Test to Punish” could not be more stark.

Speaking of testing, we spend too much money and too little on testing and assessment.  Basically, we buy lots of cheap tests and administer them to every student in grades 3-10, sometimes more.  The bill for this comes to tens of billions of dollars a year, according to FairTest. How much varies widely from state to state.  “(T)he 45 states from which we obtained data spend a combined $669 million per year on their primary assessment contracts, or $27 per pupil in grades 3-9, with six testing vendors accounting for 89 percent of this total. Per pupil spending varies significantly across states, with Oregon ($13 per student), Georgia ($14), and California ($16) among the lowest-spending states, and Massachusetts ($64), Delaware ($73), and Hawaii ($105) among the highest spending,” according to Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution.

To put this in perspective, consider how much you spend having your car ‘assessed’ every year.  The annual tuneup for my 2002 Toyota Four Runner costs about $200. Ironically, I bought the car in California, which spends $16 per child on state assessments, just eight percent of what I spend assessing my car’s condition!

Since you’ve read this far, perhaps you will allow me to vent about the stupidity of much mass-testing.  Basically, we have dumbed down tests because we expect so little of our young people…and because we want above all to have high test scores.  Some idiots somewhere decided that the best way to get higher scores is to ask dumb and dumber questions.

The vapidity of some of these questions may also help you grasp why American students score lower than their counterparts in most advanced nations.   The first sample problem was offered by the University of Wisconsin/Oshkosh to high school math teachers and was designed to help ‘Close the Math Achievement Gap.’

Jack shot a deer that weighed 321 pounds. Tom shot a deer that weighed 289 pounds.   How much more did Jack’s deer weigh than Tom’s deer?

Basic subtraction for high school students?   My second example comes from TeacherVision, part of Pearson, the giant testing company:

Linda is paddling upstream in a canoe. She can travel 2 miles upstream in 45 minutes. After this strenuous exercise she must rest for 15 minutes. While she is resting, the canoe floats downstream ½ mile. How long will it take Linda to travel 8 miles upstream in this manner?

This question’s premise is questionable.  Will some students be distracted by Linda’s cluelessness?  Won’t they ask themselves how long it will take her to figure out that she should grab hold of a branch while she’s resting in order to keep from floating back down the river?  What’s the not-so-subtle subtext? That girls don’t belong in canoes? That girls are dumb?

I found my third sample question (I’m calling it “Snakes”) on a high school math test in Oregon:

There are 6 snakes in a certain valley.  The population doubles every year. In how many years will there be 96 snakes?

  1. 2
  2. 3
  3. 4
  4. 8

These three high school math problems require simple numeracy at most.  With enough practice, just about anyone can solve undemanding problems like that–and consequently feel confident of their ability.

School is supposed to be preparation for life, but spending time on problems like those three is like trying to become an excellent basketball player by shooting free throws all day long.  To be good at basketball, players must work on all aspects of the game: jump shots, dribbling, throwing chest and bounce passes, positioning for rebounds, running the pick-and-roll and—occasionally–practicing free throws.

Come to think of it, basketball and life are similar. Both are about rhythm and motion, teamwork and individual play, offense and defense.  Like life, it can slow down or become frenetic. Basketball requires thinking fast, shifting roles and having your teammates’ backs. Successful players know when to shoot and when to pass. As in life, failure is part of the game.  Even the greatest players miss over half of their shots, and some (Michael Jordan!) are cut from their high school teams. And life doesn’t give us many free throw opportunities. But if school is supposed to be preparing young people for life, why are American high school students being asked to count on their fingers?  That mind-numbing and trivial work is the educational equivalent of shooting free throws.

If schools stick with undemanding curricula and boring questions, our kids will be stuck at the free throw line, practicing something they will rarely be called upon to do in real life.  If (under the flag of ‘greater rigor’) we ditch those boring questions in favor of  lifeless questions, schools will turn off the very kids they are trying to reach, the 99 percent who are not destined to become mathematicians.

My fourth example, ‘Fuji,’ was given to 15-year-olds around the world on a test known as PISA (for Programme in International Student Assessment):

Mount Fuji is a famous dormant volcano in Japan.  The Gotemba walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometres (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 pm.

Toshi estimates that he can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometres per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times.

Using Toshi’s estimated speeds, what is the latest time he can begin his walk so that he can return by 8PM?

Note that ‘Fuji’ is not a multiple-choice question.  To get the correct answer, students had to perform a number of calculations.  The correct answer (11 AM) was provided by 55 percent of the Shanghai 15-year-olds but just 9 percent of the US students.

Ironically, the PISA results revealed that American kids score high in ‘confidence in mathematical ability,’ despite underperforming their peers in most other countries.  I wonder if their misplaced confidence is the result of too many problems like ‘Snakes.’

To conclude, we should require schools to report hard numbers about the things that matter. 

   How many hours of music per week for all students?

   How many hours of science?

   How many hours of recess?

   How many hours of organized physical education?

   How many hours of sustained silent reading?

To repeat myself, educators would quickly figure out that larger numbers (i.e., more music and more recess) are better answers, particularly if the same evaluation sheet asked them to justify low numbers.  The form should also invite requests for additional resources.

(For more about this issue, please see my book,  “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”) 

Thanks. Please post your comments on Themerrowreport.com


4 thoughts on “While I Wasn’t Paying Attention……

  1. measure by demonstrations of learning I call Exhibitions. Just like you measure a band or orchestra performance or science fairs.

    As far as teaching about the lies, prepare students to rise above the confirmation bias through research and debate.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One encourages students to read and think. This is an age of great incivility. If a classroom teacher takes one misstep or misspeaks they are on the carpet. Unfortunately, many students are distracted by the obsessive solipsism of Instagram etc and their smartphones. On smartphones or on chromebooks I have never seen so many students fritter away so much time using their devices playing video games.

    My only power is my ability to document the arson. I have taught for over 30 years. For the first time ever I am finally contemplating throwing in the towel.


  3. I’ll accept as a given that our standardized tests and possibly our curricula are deficient, but I don’t know if that’s the reason we score lower on the PISA test. “Reformers” love to point to our “failing” public schools and use international test scores to bash our schools, teachers, and students, but I think that there are other issues at work as well.

    Our low scores on the PISA tests come in part from the fact that the U.S. has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world. It’s important to keep in mind that our public schools accept everyone and test everyone. Not all countries do that. We don’t weed out our poor and low-achieving students as they get older, so everyone gets tested.

    The fact is that students who come from backgrounds of poverty don’t achieve as well as students from wealthier backgrounds.

    Children from American schools where less than 25% of the students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, score high on the PISA test. In fact, they would rank first in reading and science and third in math among OECD nations.

    On the other hand, American students from schools where more than 75% of the students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, score much lower. Because the U.S. has a much higher percentage of students in poverty than nearly all the other OECD nations, the overall U.S. average score is below the median.


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