As Florida Goes…

Something’s significant seems to be happening in the complex world of public education. The Common Core testing has been the catalyst, but what’s now going on appears to be a much bigger deal.

My quick take: The opting out surge will be followed by a decrease in the total number of standardized tests (and test prep) being administered across all grades. That’s already underway in Florida.

If this analysis is correct, then it’s time to answer the essential question: “If schools are not going to focus on test prep, what should they do instead?”

Opting Out now seems to be a genuine grassroots movement. Yes, it’s tangentially supported by teacher unions and the Tea Party, but it is primarily driven by well-organized parents (and individual teachers) who are concerned about excessive testing. Nearly 15% of New Jersey’s high school kids in the testing grades opted out, along with about 5% of elementary students who were supposed to take the tests. Students in California, Colorado, Washington State and elsewhere have voted with their feet in droves. Even states that are ‘prohibiting’ opting out are finding their rules to be difficult to enforce. FairTest has been keeping a scorecard of sorts, which you can find here.

The 5% threshold matters because federal law requires that districts which fail to test at least 95% of all students risk sanctions. With so many schools failing to meet that threshold, the U.S. Department of Education is in a bind. What can or should it do? At the recent Education Writers Association meeting in Chicago, Secretary Duncan was asked about the probable violations of federal law. His response: it’s up to the states, but he added that he would be watching.

Daniel Koretz, the Harvard professor who wrote “Measuring Up,” believes that the rapid growth of the Opt Out movement has gotten the Department of Education’s attention. “At first I thought it was mostly the right wing, but it’s clear that it goes well beyond that,” he said.

Yes, it does. Now testing–”excessive testing”–is squarely in the critics’ sights.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho of Miami-Dade (FL) public schools has announced what he calls “the most aggressive decommissioning of testing in the state of Florida, if not in the country.” The politically astute leader has cut the number of district-developed, end-of-course exams from 300 to 10 — including all elementary school tests. He said his goals are to “restore teaching time” and to “respect the educational environment.”

At least a dozen other Florida school districts have announced plans to do the same thing, and reporters there say that number is likely to grow. Florida Governor Rick Scott just signed a law that’s meant to reduce the number of standardized tests given to students, and Superintendent Carvalho has seized the opportunity to act. And take note that this is happening in Florida, where former Governor Jeb Bush pioneered “test-based accountability” for schools and teachers.

Mr. Carvalho is no ordinary superintendent: he is the current National Superintendent of the Year, proclaimed and honored by the American Association of School Administrators. And so what he does matters.

In our conversation, Professor Koretz recalled previous protests about schools during the ‘age of reform’ that began in 1983 with the publication of “A Nation at Risk.” Generally, he said, the education establishment reacted by seeming to agree with the protests, saying “We got the details wrong, but we can fix it with a better curriculum, or fairer tests, or higher standards or more choice.” That line of defense defused much of the protests in the past, but this time, he speculated, talking about ‘details’ may be inadequate. This time the concern is deeper. It’s not just about ‘narrowing the curriculum’ or ‘too much test prep’ this time. Now many parents and observers seem sense that something is deeply wrong….something that is not fixable by tinkering.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress regularly confirms our educational stagnation, whether it’s 12th grade reading or 8th grade geography.

But the strongest evidence that something is seriously amiss is what’s happening at the end of the school line, when students finish college. For 16 years they bought system’s pitch: “Work hard so you can get to the next step on the ladder (advanced placement, honors course, a first rate college, and a great job).” But now that they have reached the promised land and have that college diplomas, they find themselves underemployed or unemployed and deeply in debt, a debt they cannot pay. {{1}}

Is it time to conclude that 30+ years of ‘school reform’ have not worked? Time to seriously question the ‘more rigorous’ approach and its goal of higher test scores? No other advanced country approaches educational accountability the way we go about it, testing students to judge teachers. “Getting tough on teachers” seems to be driving people away from the profession. Does anyone seriously believe that’s a good way to ensure a quality education for our children?

The brilliant new film “Most Likely to Succeed” makes the point that technology is destroying jobs faster than it’s creating them. To survive and prosper in the adult world, children are going to have to become builders, creators and producers while they are in school. No more ‘regurgitation education’ but real and meaningful work.

The challenge, as school districts cut back on bubble testing, is to determine what students and teachers will do with all the free time. “More direct instruction” is the worst possible choice, in my view. Today’s technologies offer remarkable opportunities for exploration and creation, but if educators just swap computers for textbooks, the enterprise is doomed. As we show in our new film, “School Sleuth: The Case of the Wired Classroom,” nothing is impossible….but only if educators are willing to take risks.

For more than 30 years the ‘school reform’ crowd has been asking one basic question of every student: “How Intelligent Are You?” They tested to find out, and then grouped, stacked and categorized kids accordingly. That hasn’t worked for the vast majority of kids.

A warning is in order here, because the reform crowd acknowledges past missteps–even as they ask for just one more chance to get it right. For example, a new report from the American Enterprise Institute talks the talk but then proceeds to put forth the same old stuff: more choice, less regulation and so on. A sample line: “Although many education reform efforts have fallen flat over the years, there are promising initiatives on the horizon that state leaders would be well-advised to pursue.

Do today’s ruling reformers deserve another chance? Under their leadership, an entire generation of kids has grown up in the internet world, a 24/7 flood of information. Those young people needed to learn how to ask questions so they’d be able to sift through the flood of information and separate truth from falsehood, but school reform policies reward compliance and the giving back of the right answers, what I call ‘regurgitation.’

It’s time for those folks to step (or be pushed) aside, so that others can ask a far more important question of every child, a question that ‘reformers’ have not asked: “How Are You Intelligent?”

Listen to the answers and act accordingly. Build schools and create classrooms that enable students to discover and grow. When students do meaningful work in schools, they will also learn to read, write, calculate, work with others, process information, and separate truth from falsehood. They are a good bet to emerge from school ready for the new world that awaits them.

[[1]]1. Many are back in their family home. Graduate school doesn’t necessarily make things better. Some 40% of law school graduates are working in jobs that do not require a law degree.[[1]]

The Opt-Out Opportunity

Does the opt-out movement have legs? Or could what some are calling a ‘revolution’ just be nothing more than normal growing pains for the Common Core State Standards? Whichever of those is accurate, it’s also a rare opportunity to rethink the wisdom of the strange path we are heading down.

The extent of opting out and the passion of its proponents have surprised a lot of observers, and, of course, it’s not over yet. While I haven’t heard any recent public statements from Secretary Arne Duncan{{1}}, radio, television, newspapers and the web are full of reports and analysis. {{2}}

How widespread is opting out? In New York State, where about 60,000 students opted out last year, at least 200,000 opted out of the first round of testing (English Language Arts), with math yet to be tested. Across New Jersey, Colorado, Washington and Oregon and elsewhere, thousands and thousands of parents chose to withdraw their kids from the Common Core State Standards tests. In some schools, less than half of students slated to be tested actually took the exams, and in as-yet-uncounted number of districts, the percentage tested fell below the magical 95% required under federal law.

As we reported on the NewsHour last month, it’s a ‘perfect storm’ that has brought together the left and the right, generally with very different motives but with a common purpose: slow down or stop the testing machine. Sweeping generalization: Most on the right want to get rid of the Common Core State Standards and anything that smacks of federal control; most on the left believe schools test too much, and this is their moment to draw a line in the sand. As one CCSS testing opponent said, “We are not anti-testing; we are against these tests.”

What makes America’s approach different from nearly every other country is that we use test scores to judge teachers, not primarily to assess either students or schools. The people in charge do not trust teachers. That, to be blunt, is the root cause of the mess we are in. Years ago we trusted teachers{{3}} but had no system for verification; today, however, trust has virtually disappeared, and education is about verifying — using scores on standardized tests to weed out ‘bad teachers’ and reward ‘good teachers.’ {{4}}

Trust without verification doesn’t work. Verification without trust is a disaster.

But what exactly are we intent on verifying? There are three basic options: Student progress, teacher performance, and school quality? That’s the key decision.

The Obama Administration has put its money–lots of it–on assessing teachers, and standardized test scores are the essential measure. A requirement for “Race to the Top” millions was a test-based system of teacher accountability.

But that was then. Has Secretary Duncan been ‘evolving,’ as politicians like to do? Two years ago at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, he said, “Despite the flaws of today’s tests, we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t believe that the problems of assessing student growth are so unsolvable that we should take a pass on measuring growth—or bar the consideration of student progress in learning from teacher evaluation.”

At the beginning of this school year, he threw the critics a bone, saying “(T)esting should never be the main focus of our schools.” He went on: I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards, improved systems for data, better aligned assessments, teacher professional development, evaluation and support, and more.

But he did not back away from his central belief that student test scores must be used to evaluate teachers; he just gave states a bit longer. “States will have the opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation during this transition. As we always have, we’ll work with them in a spirit of flexibility to develop a plan that works, but typically I’d expect this to mean that states that request this delay will push back by one year (to 2015-16) the time when student growth measures based on new state assessments become part of their evaluation systems.”

This may be moot, because the current rewrite of ESEA/NCLB takes away a lot of the Secretary’s power. That, and the election of a new President next fall, mean an opportunity to rethink the big picture.

To many in education, testing students in order to measure, reward and punish teachers is a flawed strategy, because half of students are not in testing grades. Most are also studying subjects that aren’t tested, but of course those teachers have to be evaluated. So, bending logic beyond recognition, some teachers are being judged by the scores of students they’ve never taught! If there’s no standardized test for, say, music, then music might as well be dropped from the curriculum.

Testing kids in every subject — including art and music — just so their teachers can be rated may strike you as an idiotic notion, but it’s the logical outgrowth of federal policy.

Focus on students, argues the new president of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen Garcia. She says that No Child Left Behind defined ‘success’ as a test score. That has to change.

What we need instead is a whole dashboard of indicators that monitor better measures of success for the whole child — a critical, creative mind, a healthy body and an ethical character. And we need indicators of each student’s opportunities to learn — what programs, services and resources are available?

Success should be measured throughout the system — preschool to high school — but a standardized test tells us so little. We want to know which students are succeeding in Advanced Placement and honors programs, where they earn college credit in high school. You can measure that. We want to know which students have certified, experienced teachers and access to the support professionals they need, such as tutors, librarians, school nurses and counselors. We want to know which students have access to arts and athletic programs. Which middle school students are succeeding in science, technology, engineering and math tracks that will get them into advanced high school courses, which will get them into a university. You can measure all that, too.

And we want the data broken down by demographic groups, so we can ensure that all types of students have access to these resources. Without this dashboard of information, how would the public know which children are being shortchanged? How would anything change…?

I like President Garcia’s ‘dashboard’ image and the multiple measures, but why not put the emphasis on measuring school quality? Test scores could be on the list, but so would graduation rates, college/career readiness, classes in the arts, community service, teacher and pupil attendance, teacher turnover and more.

I would argue that no school should be allowed to stay open if most of its students consistently fail the state’s tests. At the same time, no school would dare to ‘dumb down’ its curriculum and devote hours to ‘drill and kill,’ because of those all-important multiple measures it’s being judged by.

“Multiple measures” cannot be handed down from on high. We need to trust each community to create the kinds of school programs it wants for its children, instead of the state or federal government making the rules. I hope citizens would accept this wisdom: “We are what we repeatedly do {{5}}.”

A community might choose:

  • Significant programs in art, drama, journalism and music.
  • A community service requirement.
  • Project-based learning.
  • Competence in a second language.
  • At least 30 minutes of recess daily.
  • Honors recognition for academic excellence.
  • An emphasis on ‘blended learning,’ the healthy mix of teaching and technology.
  • Teacher-made tests to regularly measure student progress.
  • Uniforms for all students.
  • Economic and racial diversity.
  • Early college opportunities for advanced students.

Give a community one point for each vibrant program it establishes. For argument’s sake, let’s say a school must get at least 10 points to stay open. However, merely having some or all of these programs would not be enough to earn a “passing grade” for a school, because every school must also earn points by doing well on the high-stakes test and demonstrating that its graduates are capable of moving on.

That’s the verification side of the equation.

Give three points if 60 percent of kids score basic or above; four points if 75 percent reach that level; and five points for a score of 85 percent or above.

The idea is to establish multiple priorities and provide a program that is valuable to the community. A school couldn’t just “drill and kill” to pass the test, because it wouldn’t earn enough points to stay open. Nor could it just have a host of wonderful programs that make everyone feel good, because passing the state test and preparing graduates for their future are also requirements.

Trust the community to decide what kinds of programs it wants for its children, but look to  (a smaller number of) standardized tests and the college/career readiness results for proof that the community’s trust is justified — or, in worst cases, evidence that changes must be made.

I’m suggesting that states should focus on verifying the progress of schools, not teachers, while the federal government should return to its roots: assuring the rights of the disadvantaged. However, we need to trust a school’s community (of teachers, administrators and parents) to see that everyone in that school is pulling their weight–and to do something about those who are not.

Today’s bitter battles about the Common Core State Standards and their tests could become an opportunity for community leaders to bring people together to talk about what we want for all our children. Doing so could lower the temperature in education — and help us begin to catch up with other industrialized societies.


[[1]]1. Speaking on background, a Department official questioned whether it’s a real movement. “It’s far too early to judge that. States will report their participation data to us later this summer, and the testing window is still open in some states.”[[1]]

[[2]]2.I was surprised–and disappointed–by the front page story in The New York Times on Tuesday, April 21, which reports that opting out is union-led and union-driven.  That was not the case in New Jersey, where the union got involved only late in the game.  The national effort led by Peggy Robertson says it has received no support from either teacher union. The Times’ story cites analysts but no parents.[[2]]

[[3]]3. When teaching was one of the few jobs open to competent women, classrooms were staffed by smart, responsible and caring women, women who would probably be attorneys or executives today.  When a changing economy opened doors for women, schools suffered. The teaching force changed, and trust gradually eroded as we learned the hard way that trust alone did not produce results. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin came in 2003, when a high school valedictorian in New Orleans failed the math portion of the state’s graduation test five times.
By then we were well into the test-intensive era of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that requires all children to be achieving at a basic level by 2014. Today, public education is all about verifying, and states are falling over themselves to rate teachers according to their students’ test scores. Washington, D.C., led the way, but now about 30 states require the evaluation of teachers based on test scores, a requirement most added to qualify for Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” money. [[3]]

[[4]]4. This approach has had unintended consequences, particularly outbreaks of cheating by adults determined to increase student test scores.  Atlanta is the poster child, of course, but only because no one in power in the District of Columbia had the courage to investigate what went on during Michelle Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor.[[4]]

[[5]]5. The aphorism continues: “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” I and most others attribute this to Aristotle, but apparently these are the words of philosopher Will Durant, who was riffing on an observation of Aristotle.  I’ve also learned that Mark Twain did not say about Wagner, “His music is better than it sounds.” He was quoting another humorist, Bill Nye.[[5]]

What Can We Agree On, After Atlanta?

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” William Butler Yeats wrote in 1919 in ‘The Second Coming.’ Yeats was describing the world after the Great War, but it aptly describes American education today{{1}}: polarized, shouting at, but rarely listening to, each other. We disagree about dozens of issues: the Common Core; whether ‘opting out’ of the Common Core tests is appropriate (or even legal); the role of unions; the effectiveness of charter schools; the federal role; the amount of standardized testing; how to evaluate teachers; poverty’s impact on children’s learning, and more.

Now, out of the blue, we have two{{2}} points of agreement: 1) Draconian punishment for the Atlanta cheaters is unjust, unseemly and counter-productive; and 2) students are the losers when adults cheat.

By now everyone knows that 11 Atlanta educators have been convicted for cheating and could be facing serious time behind bars. Thoughtful observers like Richard Rothstein, Robert Pondiscio and David Cohen are weighing in. Mr. Rothstein’s piece takes the deepest dive, and so I suggest you start there.

Even though everyone agrees that kids{{3}} were cheated, we don’t agree on what should be done. Should they be offered free tutoring? Or is an apology enough?

And we disagree about who’s really to blame for the cheating in Atlanta. Superintendent Beverly Hall was too ill to stand trial and died before the decision was handed down, but for many the buck started and stopped with her.{{4}} Others blame the unrealistic demands of No Child Left Behind for the cheating in Atlanta, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Columbus, Ohio and Austin, Texas.

Everybody’s got a villain, whether it’s Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top; an obsession with ‘data-driven decision-making; education profiteers; greedy teacher unions; or a right wing vendetta against those same unions. {{5}}

Can’t we agree on something else? I suggest two big ideas that everyone who is genuine about putting kid first can support. One, expose hypocrites and hypocrisies, wherever they may be. Two, school spending should be transparent, because we are talking about taxpayer dollars, and sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Of course, the two are related, because hypocrisy often involves money and secrecy.

To me, the biggest hypocrites are those who preach, “Poverty can never be offered as an excuse” (for poor student performance) but then do nothing to alleviate poverty and its attendant conditions. What they are saying, bottom line, is “It’s the teachers’ fault” when kids in poverty-ridden schools do poorly on tests or fail to graduate.

These preachers disguise their mendacity with words of praise for teachers, calling them ‘heroes whose brave work changes the lives of their fortunate students blah blah blah.’ Sounds great, but when it comes from those who discount all the other factors that affect outcomes, it’s hypocrisy. They’re setting up teachers and schools to be blamed.

How satisfying and convenient to have a simple, easy-to-grasp analysis. And how hypocritical.

OK, poverty is not an excuse, but surely substandard housing, inadequate health care, poor nutrition, abuse and abandonment (all of which are more likely in high poverty areas) are factors in poor academic performance. So why are these hypocrites either standing by silently or actively opposing efforts to alleviate poverty and thereby improve the lives of students outside of school?

Are they benefiting personally? Are they mouthing the words of their rich and powerful supporters?

Even if these so-called “thought leaders” genuinely believe that poverty is not an excuse, shouldn’t they be outraged that most states are actively making things worse for poor kids {{6}}? At least 30 states are systematically shortchanging poor areas when they distribute education dollars, as the Hechinger Report made clear recently. “The richest 25 percent of school districts receive 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts, the federal Department of Education pointed out last month. That’s a national funding gap of $1,500 per student,” Jill Barshay reports.

And money matters. The centrist-right Alliance for Excellent Education has addressed this issue in a report that demonstrates the clear link between poverty and academic outcomes.

According to the Alliance’s report, 1200+ high schools with graduation rates at or below 67 percent can be found in nearly every state.{{7}}

“These high schools predominantly, and disproportionately, enroll traditionally underserved students. In Michigan, for example, African American students represent only 18.4 percent of K–12 students in the state, but they account for 69.1 percent of the student population in the lowest-performing high schools. In Massachusetts, Hispanic students represent 16.4 percent of K–12 students, but they account for 51.3 percent of the student population in the lowest-performing high schools.

Nationally, of the more than 1.1 million students attending these low-graduation-rate high schools,

  • 40 percent of students are African American, even though African American students make up less than 15.7 percent of the overall K–12 public school student population;
  • only 26 percent of students are white, even though white students make up 51 percent of the overall K–12 public school student population; and
  • 70 percent are students from low-income families, even though students from low-income families make up 50 percent of the overall K–12 public school student population.”

So let’s ask, “Who benefits?” Whose lives would be disrupted most if the status quo were to change and we stopped “underserving” so many poor kids and so many non-white kids? Who gains an advantage from the current situation? To answer those questions, follow the money…..

We might want to start the investigation with charter schools, both the for-profit and the non-profit varieties {{8}} (because, when it comes to money, they’re almost indistinguishable). Rarely do they disclose how they spend their public tax dollars. And why should they, when their political enablers don’t demand it?

I hope you are following Marian Wang’s reporting on this issue for Pro Publica. She documents how some charter operators are laughing all the way to the bank, taking your dollars to put in their accounts.

However distasteful you may find the notion of adults diverting dollars from the education of kids to their own personal use, what they’re doing is legal. Politicians and charter authorizers have made it legal, and we ought to ask them why they don’t demand transparency. How are they benefiting?

The leadership of the charter school movement is culpable here, it seems to me, for not strongly supporting transparency in all financial matters. I put the question to Nina Rees, the Executive Director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ( in June, 2014. Here’s the relevant part of my letter:

What I wonder is how many Charter Management Organizations {{9}} are playing fast and loose with the system. Here’s one case in point: We are looking into a CMO that is growing; its records indicate that its President owns the building his charter schools operate in, and so he billed the CMO for rent—a hefty sum. The CMO pays him a salary, a 16% management fee and an additional 7% or so for ‘professional development’ for the staff. In recent years he has added categories, notably ‘back office & support’ for nearly $300,000 and ‘miscellaneous equipment rent’ for $317,000. In FY 2008 he billed for $2.6M, but in FY 2012 the number climbed to $4.1M. His 5-year total is $15.8M….and he’s a CMO, not an EMO.
We have a number of other examples, which prompts my questions: who’s minding the store, and whose responsibility is it?
Is it the role of national organizations like yours to set standards for transparency? State politicians? I have no idea but would love to hear your thoughts.

She responded almost immediately:  “I would say it’s the authorizers more than anyone else – if they fail, the state lawmakers. We are here to shine a light and guide though, so if you think there is a systemic problem, it’s important for us to know.”

She seems to be saying that her national organization bears no responsibility for policing the charter movement, for pushing states to write tighter rules, or for calling out the profiteers.  That’s someone else’s job.

“Remedial education” is another money pit. Follow the money, you will discover that big bucks being spent on remedial education at every level, and, while some kids get ‘remediated,’ the situation never changes. The adults in charge may be wonderful, likeable human beings, but their jobs depend on a steady stream of failed students, meaning that they do not have a stake in fixing the system. I wrote about this three years ago when I announced that I was leaving PBS {{10}} to make my fortune in remedial education.

Follow the money: How many millions of the $100 million Mark Zuckerberg donated to ‘fix’ Newark’s public schools have gone to consultants? How much money goes into the trough labeled ‘professional development’ and is never seen again? How much are school systems spending on highly paid central office staff ($100K+ per year) whose job it is to go watch teachers they don’t trust to do their jobs? How much of the increase in college costs is directly attributable to spending on administrators? Quite a lot, according to the New York Times. {{11}}

Schools would be improved if we’d agree to: Follow the money. Call out the hypocrites. Demand transparency. And stop blaming teachers.

Do you agree?


[[1]]1. And perhaps our society as a whole.[[1]]
[[2]]2. I am not counting our agreement that ‘children come first,’ because everyone has to say that. It’s what people actually do that reveals their true beliefs.[[2]]
[[3]]3. In some cases the cheating was essentially covered up. Washington, DC, where massive cheating took place, lacked the political will to go after the adults who were responsible. Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her deputy, Kaya Henderson, controlled most of the investigations and were aided by an inept and uncurious Inspector General. Mayor Adrian Fenty and his successor, Vincent Gray, preferred to believe that schools were improving, and the Washington Post raised no objections. Thousands of students received inflated scores, and no adult has been held accountable. ( , [[3]]
[[4]]4. The obsession with higher tests scores in Atlanta and elsewhere precedes NCLB. Dr. Hall arrived in Atlanta in 1999, but her predecessor, Benjamin O. Canada, had already eliminated recess, so that kids could spend more time getting ready for tests. Dr. Hall kept that ball rolling, but she didn’t give it the first push.[[4]]
[[5]]5.Peter Cunningham, Arne Duncan’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, told me after the Atlanta cheating came to light, that Secretary Duncan believed that ‘tighter test security’ would solve the problem.[[5]]
[[6]]6. Are you thinking that most Americans believe in helping the neediest? As the Bible (Acts 11:29) has it, “And the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief….” But in 1875 a fellow named Karl Marx copied the Frenchman Louis Blancin’s rephrasing: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That gives politicians an out, because nobody interested in a political future wants to echo Marx, even if he was borrowing from the Bible.[[6]]
[[7]]7. Nineteen states have at least 20 such schools. California and New York have 105 and 199 of these schools, respectively, while southern states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, have more than fifty; Georgia has 115.[[7]]
[[8]]8.I don’t want to live by a double standard or knowingly hold charter schools to a higher standard. Teacher unions have had corruption issues, and their national leadership hasn’t made much of a fuss. The American Medical Association is not upset, not publicly anyway, about Medicaid and Medicare fraud committed by some doctors, and so maybe it’s unfair to expect the supporters of charter schools as the last best hope to be raging against the frauds and cheats.[[8]]
[[9]]9. CMO is the term for non-profit public charter schools. EMO’s are set up to make money and represent somewhere around 12% of all chartered schools.[[9]]
[[10]] 10. In the same vein, I announced last week that I was joining the Board of Pearson Education.[[10]]
[[11]]11. From the Times op-ed: “Interestingly, increased spending has not been going into the pockets of the typical professor. Salaries of full-time faculty members are, on average, barely higher than they were in 1970. Moreover, while 45 years ago 78 percent of college and university professors were full time, today half of postsecondary faculty members are lower-paid part-time employees, meaning that the average salaries of the people who do the teaching in American higher education are actually quite a bit lower than they were in 1970.
By contrast, a major factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.”[[11]]

Teaming Up With Pearson

It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but I want my friends to know that I will be joining the Board of Directors of Pearson Education. This was not an easy decision, and I know that some of my friends, particularly those on the left, will be angry with me. I ask you to withhold your judgment until you have finished reading this.

Pearson has been criticized, unjustly in my view, for putting profits ahead of children, but I have gotten to know some of Pearson’s leadership, and I can attest that they are caring parents who are devoted to their children. Recently I took one of my grandchildren to a polo match at the home of a Pearson executive. When my little girl fell and scraped her knee, our host attended to her every need. He could not have been more caring. Pearson hostile or indifferent to children? I don’t think so. I know better.

Pearson has gotten a lot of bad press, and I may have contributed to that with my reporting about the ‘Opt Out’ movement and its attacks on assessment. For example, when the Pearson Foundation was forced to shut down and fined $7.7 million for some questionable practices, the press coverage made it sound as if the Pearson Foundation had been guilty of child molestation. All it did was entertain some decision-makers in an effort to create a relaxed atmosphere where they could make important decisions about purchasing tests and other education products, perhaps from Pearson Education but also available from McGraw-Hill and other companies.

Why have I accepted Pearson’s invitation? Well, it’s not the money. Yes, it is true that I will receive something north of $100,000 per year plus stock options, but I publicly pledge that I will donate some of that largess to charity.

I am doing this because, frankly, I believe I can do more good from the inside than I can from outside {{1}}. Pearson is huge, with fingers in every aspect of American education, from testing to teacher evaluation. Carping from outside will not soften the edges of this behemoth nor restrain its harsher hyper-capitalistic instincts, but my strong commitment to holistic, child-centered education will move Pearson in a direction that its critics will one day celebrate.

I am sure some cynical readers are thinking that I will now start pulling my punches in this blog, but I give you my word that I will not hold back. Whenever Randi Weingarten of the AFT or Lily Garcia of the NEA cross the line, they will hear about it from me. If I learn about teachers lying down on the job, I will write about it. If McGraw-Hill behaves unethically, you will read about it right here. And if I praise Pearson, it will be because Pearson is an honorable company.

Why does Pearson want me on its Board? I believe the invitation is based on their respect for my 41 years of ‘telling it like it is’ in American education. I’m sure the cynics, aware that the current Board is entirely Caucasian, believe that Pearson wants me for diversity. Wrong! Pearson assured me that my status as a Native American (I am 1/128th pure Cherokee) did not influence its decision.

As always, friends and countrymen, I am grateful to you for lending me your eyes and ears.

My term on the Pearson Board of Directors begins today, April First.

[[1]]1. I am not the first ‘outsider’ to seek to restrain (and retrain) Pearson. The current President of Teachers College served on its Board for many years.[[1]]

Tough Choices

Imagine you’ve been made responsible for making dramatic improvements in our public schools…but with the stipulation that you must choose one point of attack and focus almost all of your energy and resources on that.

What would you choose? Pre-school? Teacher training? Professional development? A longer school day and year? More technology? More sophisticated assessments? Greater parental involvement?

The list of possibilities is intriguing and daunting. On one level, this is a parlor game, but it’s also a serious question because policy-makers make choices like this all the time.

Recently five Chicago principals-in-training, a college professor, the President of Catalyst and I were relaxing after an evening celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Catalyst {{1}}. Wanting to take advantage of all that brainpower, I posed the question, but with a twist: once someone had chosen an option, that one was off the table, and the next person had to select–and argue persuasively for–a different way to improve schools.

I should have taken notes on what ensued because it was fascinating. I was surprised that no one focused on technology or a longer school day and year. In fact, the primary emphasis was on teachers, perhaps not surprising because just about everyone at the table had been a public school teacher (including me, years and years ago). The participants argued for more professional working conditions for teachers, for improved teacher preparation and for relevant professional development (lots of scorn for what is now offered in PD). Preschool and early childhood programs were also eloquently supported, and one principal-in-training argued for fewer but better assessments of student learning.

When my turn (8th and last) came, seven ‘good’ and ‘obvious’ choices were off the table. No matter, because it gave me the chance to speak in favor of a change that would, I believe, transform the way we run schools. It would be inexpensive to boot, although most teachers would need training (and some would need a full makeover).

I proposed that, to bring about major improvements, at least half of the school year should be devoted to project-based learning. Not ‘some’ but at least 50%, and in every subject.

Doing that would mean a complete makeover; it would mean that teachers in different subjects would have to collaborate, as you see them doing in my colleague John Tulenko’s superb report about Portland, Maine, a few years ago. The best projects begin with a question that the teachers do not know the answer to, so they become genuine searches for knowledge. Many projects will be strengthened by the use of today’s remarkable technologies, and virtually all of them will require teamwork, data analysis, careful writing and a public presentation–all skills that young people will need as adults. This change would put schools in the ‘deeper learning’ camp, which is where they belong, in my view.

Yes, better training, more preschool, and greater parental engagement are fine ideas, but they do not get at the heart of schooling’s problems.  Today’s schools are out-of-date, horribly antiquated.  Because young people swim in a sea of information, 24/7, they need to learn how to figure out what information to trust and what to reject.  They need the exact opposite of the ‘regurgitation education’ that most schools now offer. Genuine exploration through a project-based curriculum is the best way I know to provide what kids need.

Now it’s your turn. Where would you put your money and effort?


[[1]]1. A remarkable publication that has consistently pushed Chicago to improve its education system. [[1]]

Reporting About Reporting…..

I had planned to devote time to Alexander Russo’s critique of my reporting for the PBS NewsHour about students “opting out” of the Common Core States Standards tests. However, we have too much going on {{1}} for me to spend excessive time looking back.

So, quickly, here’s the backstory: Alexander emailed education reporters to say he was writing an analysis of media coverage of the Common Core tests and asked for interviews with anyone who was covering the subject. I agreed to an interview, which–because we were in different cities–took place by email. He sent questions, which I answered. No other reporters cooperated, he acknowledged in his short online article.

Mr. Russo took me to task for ignoring the number of tests that were successfully administered, for not providing accurate counts of the numbers of students who ‘opted out,’ and for highlighting student protesters in Newark. I addressed these issues in my written interview, but that apparently did not meet his standards of journalism.

In his critique, he cites as authorities an individual who works for the Gates Foundation and another whose organization has received millions in contributions from the Foundation. He accepts without question reports from Pearson and others that the tests have gone well, even though a modest degree of skepticism would lead one to wonder what ‘going well’ means. A spokeswoman from PARCC, one of the two test developers, told me that it meant ‘without technological failure,’ but she did not know how many students might have been flummoxed by the technology, et cetera.

Even though the tone of some of Mr. Russo’s questions made me think he’d made up his mind before he began his reporting, I answered him in detail. Here is my complete, unedited response, with his questions underlined:

I am answering your questions on the assumption that you are writing about media coverage and not just about our piece. If you are doing the latter, then I choose not to participate and am declaring the material below to be ‘off the record.’ Fair enough?

1. Are there any particular aspects of reporting the Common Core testing/opt-out story that are particularly challenging or unusually complicated?

This is THE interesting question because there are multiple players with different agendas. It makes answering the ‘W’ questions very difficult, particularly Who and Why. Opting Out is seen by these groups as their chance to change the course, although they do not agree on a new direction. The protesters, whatever their politics, have been, as I see it, marginalized in the coverage, partly because of habit and partly because it’s difficult if not impossible to judge the strength of this (or any) grassroots movement. Most media, it seems to me, tend to echo the official line and present the usual faces. So the ‘left’ part of Opt Out is dismissed as tools of the union (as your third question suggests), which is a convenient story line but not accurate, as far as we could determine.

It’s a difficult story in another way: the response of the establishment has been over the top, especially if they truly believe that it’s just a few disgruntled folks and union pawns. But that story doesn’t get told (and it’s not in our piece). But you might ask why no reporters are asking why Arne, the Chamber, Mike Petrilli et alia are going nuclear. I think of Gertrude, ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

2. The connection between the Newark sit-in and opting out of the Common Core seems pretty thin — why’d you include them in the piece so prominently?

Thin in what way? Many of those kids were also part of other, specifically anti-CC testing events, and the proliferation of testing was one of their issues at the sit-in. Because they had more than one issue (quite a few, actually), does that disqualify them from being in the piece?

3. Why no mention of the NJEA, whose opposition to the future uses of the Common Core tests is behind at least some of the concerns and opting out that’s taking place?

The NJEA began running ads as the testing approached, but we did not see strong evidence that the union was calling shots or pullings strings. The NEA has provided small amounts of money to United Opt Out, according to Peggy Robinson {{2}}, but again the financial scales are so heavily tipped the other way. {{3}} Let’s just talk Gates for a moment: The Gates Foundation has played a major role in the Common Core State Standards. Between January 2008 and November 2010, it contributed more than $35 million to the Council of Chief School Officers and the National Governors Association Center; it gave Achieve $12.6 million in February 2008; $3 million to ASCD, and another $1 million to the National PTA to organize parent endorsement of Common Core. The list goes on and on. “It is not unfair to say that the Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., which itself has received nearly $3 million in Gates Foundation grants. (and those numbers are somewhat out of date because I wrote that paragraph a while back…and Mike Petrilli has become even more prominent as a supporter of the tests and the CC, along with Peter Cunningham, another recipient of Gates largesse (and other foundations)).

So, if you want a story, why don’t you compare spending and then analyze the language of the reporters and the reporting (starting perhaps with the assumptions behind your question???)

4. How did you protect against exaggerating or overstating the breadth and depth of the opt-out movement? Would it have helped to indicate the number of tests administered or kids tested as of the time of the broadcast?

We fessed up to not being able to provide numbers, even ended the piece with that question, “How strong….?” But we also reported that there were anti-testing events every night of the month, often multiple events. And we tried to capture the diversity of the folks speaking out. We tried to give the audience a sense of how difficult it would be for kids to step up, and I feel we did not do an adequate job there. Quite a few school districts put up obstacles, gave misleading information and established a threatening ‘sit and stare’ policy that would make opt out kids feel like outcasts among their peers. In short, they did a lot to prevent opting out. I don’t think we captured the guts it must have taken in quite a few districts.

Re numbers, the districts weren’t releasing any, and Pearson wasn’t responding, and we were of course not willing to report the counts provided by bloggers with an axe to grind. You no doubt saw that Pearson released numbers favorable to its position, which some media simply xeroxed and reported, but those numbers don’t provide adequate information. (Q for you: why isn’t the NJ Department of Education on top of these numbers? Does the Department have a responsibility to address the spreading of misinformation, for example?)

5. Do you feel like your peace (sic) was as balanced and contextualized as you wanted, or are there things you wanted to do or would have done to make it better?

Alexander, I work for the only place on television that will give a story like this 8 minutes, and I am eternally grateful for that privilege. But do I wish we had 10 minutes, or 15, or 20? Of course I do.

The points above are ones that we would have loved to tackle in the piece, but cooler heads prevailed down in Washington. However, I have a hunch that very few reports have given this much time to those opposing the tests, which is odd considering that it’s a story about ‘opting out.’

6. Anything else about the assignment, development, or editing of the piece that you think readers (especially other education reporters) should know?

It’s a tough story to report. We filmed in Florida at the National Opt Out conference and used maybe five seconds of that. We filmed at a school in NYC whose principal is opting out her own kids in NJ but has to devote days to test prep in her school…and is seriously conflicted about that contradiction—and that story didn’t make the piece either.

(When I retire, someone is going to get a hell of an archive of raw tape!!)

Mr. Russo, who seems to be trying to position himself as an independent judge or referee of education journalism, assured me that he would be analyzing other coverage, although it turns out that no other reporters cooperated with him. There must be a lesson in there somewhere.


[[1]]1. Including our new film, “School Sleuth: The Case of the Wired Classroom” and two pieces for the PBS NewsHour. [[1]]

[[2]]2. My error here. The founder of United Opt Out is Peggy Robertson, not Robinson[[2]]

[[3]]3. I not only got her name wrong; I apparently misinterpreted what she told me on the phone in January. My notes say ‘small support,’ which I incorrectly interpreted as ‘small amount of money.’  Peggy (Robertson) assures me that United Opt Out has received neither dollars nor encouragement from the National Education Association. I apologize for my error.[[3]]

Undercutting the Strengths of the Common Core State Standards

No need for you to do a close reading of the paragraphs below, which are taken from the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts for 9th and 10th graders. Just pay attention to the words and phrases in bold type, which include “initiate,” “participate,” “work with peers,” “actively incorporate others into the discussion,” and “thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.

These particular standards encompass skills we want young people to develop: assimilating and analyzing information, speaking persuasively, and working effectively with others. However, these ‘soft skills’ are impossible to test for by means of either a computer-based exam or a paper-and-pencil, fill-in-the-bubbles standardized test. These are judgement calls, which must be made by qualified teachers.

So here’s today’s question: What are the odds that these essential skills are being stressed by teachers in states and districts that plan to use Common Core test scores to play “Gotcha” with teachers?

That’s not really a question, of course. Teachers who know they may be fired or demoted based on their students’ scores are going to behave rationally. They are going to emphasize what they know will be on the test…even though they are fully aware that the soft skills listed above are essential for success beyond school. (And they will be supported by their principals, whose jobs also may hang in the balance.)

Some readers may not agree much of the Common Core is praise-worthy, but I believe we need to expect more of our children. While in some areas of the country these new standards may be too low, in most regions higher standards are a darn good idea.

Yes, these particular standards are too detailed. Yes, they may actually harden the practice of age-segregation. Yes, they were foisted upon a largely unaware school system. And, yes, the Common Core State Standards are ridiculously text-biased and do not even begin to acknowledge the power of today’s technologies to liberate learning; instead they over-emphasize text while ignoring the multi-media reality that today’s young people inhabit.

However, those flaws are forgivable and/or fixable. The issue that must be addressed immediately is the inane, insane policy of playing “Gotcha, teacher” with the student scores.

I think the solution is straightforward: Because our current geniuses-in-charge do not trust teachers and because we cannot easily replace 3.1 million teachers, we need some new geniuses.

Preferably ones who do not think “I am a genius” when they look in the mirror.

Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9-10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.
Work with peers to set rules for collegial discussions and decision-making (e.g., informal consensus, taking votes on key issues, presentation of alternate views), clear goals and deadlines, and individual roles as needed.
Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions.
Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.
Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source.
Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.
Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:
Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.
Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.
Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. (See grades 9-10 Language standards 1 and 3 here for specific expectations.)

“The Moving Finger Writes….”

We lost a giant with the passing of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, the former President of the University of Notre Dame, on Thursday, February 26. “Father Ted” was a national leader and not simply the head of a major university. He had the courage to challenge a sitting U.S. President, his own Catholic church, and even big time college football. He won two out of three.

After Father Hesburgh spoke out, President Richard M. Nixon backed away from his plan to use federal troops to quell student demonstrations. After Father Hesburgh insisted that the purpose of Catholic higher education was to search for truth and not merely to propagate the faith as the Vatican maintained, his Church backed off. However, big-time football proved too formidable an obstacle for this courageous man, and football’s sorry pattern–low admission standards, lower graduation rates and unacceptable (often criminal) behavior in pursuit of television money–continues unchecked.

The obituary in the New York Times captures the man’s greatness. It notes that “Father Hesburgh was for decades considered the most influential priest in America. In 1986, when he retired after a record 35 years as president of Notre Dame, a survey of 485 university presidents named him the most effective college president in the country.” For more of the story, see the University’s website.

Father Hesburgh advised Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, but proximity to power did not prevent him from speaking truth. As Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, he battled the Nixon Administration over busing for purposes of desegregation and other civil rights issues; he eventually resigned from the Commission, a black eye for Nixon.

Will we look upon his like again? That seems questionable, at least in American higher education, where ‘leadership’ seems to be focused on raising money to put up new buildings on campus, and not our pressing social problems.

I hope you will read or re-read “A Deafening Silence,” my blog from May 2012. I wrote it after a 15-year-old New Orleans student we had gotten to know was gunned down–executed– merely because some other kids suspected that she might be able to identify them.

Toward the end of the piece I raised this question:

I want to know where all the leaders have gone. Where are the university presidents, once moral and ethical leaders of our nation? Remember Clark Kerr, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, James Bryant Conant, Fr. Timothy Healy, Bart Giamatti, Kingman Brewster and Robert Maynard Hutchins? The nation once looked to them for counsel, and they were willing to speak forcefully on the key moral issues of our time.
We are living in an age of economic inequality that is unprecedented, but have the Presidents of Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Chicago or Princeton spoken out? They must be aware that nearly 25% of our children are growing up in poverty and being denied a fair shot at what we used to call The American Dream, and yet they are silent.
Gun violence is tearing our urban centers apart, and the blood that’s most often shed seems to be that of promising young children. Why the deafening silence from our leading campuses?
I was on the campus of Notre Dame earlier this week and had the privilege of spending 30 minutes with Fr. Hesburgh, now nearly 95. ‘Father Ted’ happens to be one of my heroes, but this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to shake his hand. Though hampered by failing eyesight, he is as bright, strong and forceful as anyone I know, and I walked away from our meeting inspired by him — but depressed by the resounding silence of those occupying university presidential suites today.

Remember, this was seven months before the Newtown massacre, another preventable tragedy that was also followed by a deafening silence most of from American higher education. I wrote about it in early January, 2013.

Neither of these pieces is an anti-gun rant, although I believe we are crazy to make it so easy for just about anyone to get a gun. This is about leadership, or the lack thereof.

But perhaps we will look upon Fr. Hesburgh’s like again. A candidate, in my view, is Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III, the long-serving President of the University of Maryland–Baltimore County. He was one of the few Presidents who spoke out forcefully after the Newtown murders, and he has been a consistent, eloquent and effective force for opportunities for students of color, particularly those from low-income communities. His book, “Holding Fast to Dreams,” crossed my desk yesterday in ‘uncorrected page proof’ form. It will be available in May, and I hope many of you will read it and reflect upon the leadership lessons.

Meantime please, a prayer or other appropriate expression for Fr. Hesburgh. Rest in peace….

The “Multiple Measures”© Game

Before you read further, please picture NEA President Lily Garcia, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, AFT President Randi Weingarten, and U.S Senator Lamar Alexander sitting around my kitchen table.

What are they doing? They are playing my new socially valuable parlor game, “Multiple Measures.”©

What’s “Multiple Measures”©? Well, it’s the phrase everybody uses when they’re talking about the most reliable way of evaluating schools, teachers and students.’ After all, anybody who knows anything about education understands that a single measure (i.e., a score on a standardized test) cannot accurately capture the complexity of the enterprise.

Unfortunately, the conversation usually stops with that overused phrase, “multiple measures,” and we continue to rely heavily on one measure, scores on standardized tests.

Here’s how to get beyond the talk. Take a pile of plain index cards. Then, invite a few people from differing political camps who are solution-oriented, or at least willing to engage in dialogue, to have a cup of coffee and play “Multiple Measures.”©

Let me demonstrate at my kitchen table with Secretary Duncan, Senator Alexander and Presidents Garcia and Weingarten. First I distribute pencils and index cards to each of them, and then I explain the challenge: “What exactly do you mean when you say “multiple measures”? Your task is to write specific measures on the back of index cards. Each of you must identify three measures, then put the cards, face down, in the middle of the table.”

Mix up the cards, then turn them over. Discuss….

With that awesome foursome, the specific measures might include test scores, teacher attendance, student attendance, participation in Advanced Placement classes,extent of project-based learning, years required to gain tenure, teacher turnover, and who knows what else. A few measures would most likely appear on more than one index card.

Now repeat the process. Twelve more cards. Turn over. Discuss….

Keep playing until you have reached agreement on at least five specific measures.

The principle behind the game is simple: It’s time for us to measure what we value, instead of our current practice of valuing what’s easy to measure.

The goals of my game are threefold: general agreement on multiple ways of assessing schooling; a lowered temperature; and a commitment to work together for the benefit of children and society.

I think everyone reading this should arrange a game of “Multiple Measures”© in your community. Please take pains to include people from the left, right and center, men and women of varying ages, races and occupations. {{1}}

If you’re wondering, “Where can I buy this wonderful game?” I have good news: “Multiple Measures”© is now commercially available…..from me. The basic set, which includes a dozen index cards and four unsharpened pencils, sells for $69.95. The deluxe boxed set, available for $99.95, includes two dozen index cards, six pre-sharpened pencils and a signed photograph of my kitchen table. {{2}}

Multiple games of “Multiple Measures”© in local communities might break the logjam and chip away at the walls {{3}} we’ve built up in our polarized society, and I am excited about that.

I am also excited about making a bundle of dough. I’ve worked in non-profit enterprises for my entire career, and “Multiple Measures”© is my first effort in pure, naked capitalism. Frankly, I hope to make enough money {{4}} to allow me to retire comfortably. I’ve stockpiled multiple cases of index cards and #2 pencils, so I’m ready for the orders to pour in.

But my life-long habits of generosity and public service are hard to break, and so I have decided to donate an unspecified portion {{5}} of the proceeds to the “Save Nebraska’s Whales” fund.

Can’t wait to hear your reports about playing “Multiple Measures”©….and to cash your checks.


[[1]]1. Extensive field studies indicate that four is the ideal number, but you may try other combinations.  A basic rule that cannot be tinkered with, however, is “No Shouting!”[[1]]

[[2]]2. The first 100 customers will receive a set of “Multiple Measures”© coasters to protect your kitchen table from coffee stains.  Hurry. Act now![[2]]

[[3]]3. This is not an impossible dream. Arne Duncan and Lily Garcia have breakfast together once a month, and perhaps they will play “Multiple Measures”© next time.[[3]]

[[4]]4. I’m not about to cut into my profits by paying for shipping. That’s on you, so add $7.50 to the tab.[[4]]

[[5]]5. When I decide on the portion,I will let you know.[[5]]

What A Difference A Dash Makes!

“Pro-Test” or “Protest”? The dash makes all the difference, making one word into two that, taken together, describe polar opposite worlds. If you are “pro-test,” you favor the Common Core State Standards tests. Remove the dash, and you are aligned with those urging families to opt-out and refuse to take the PAARC and Smarter Balanced Common Core tests, which will be administered in March.

Are you in one of these camps?

Or are there even two camps? It’s hard, maybe impossible, to measure the strength of the “protest” movement, if indeed there really is a ‘movement.’ It could be thousands and thousands of tiny, grass-roots organizations and loose gatherings, or it could be just a few hundred. If it is a national movement, it’s one that lacks a ‘command central,’ although three organizations, Save Our Schools (SOS), United Opt-Out, and Badass Teachers Association, do have modest national profiles. Every week FairTest publishes a report of anti-testing actions, but the list gets repetitive and sometimes includes newspaper stories and blogs that merely ask tough questions–hardly evidence of a full-blown revolt. Is there a genuine bandwagon, or is FairTest trying to create the illusion of a bandwagon where none exists? Hard to say.

In some places, local and state politicians are taking note. Colorado’s legislature is holding hearings, and there’s ferment in Philadelphia, for example. And Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wants to stop the testing.

We know the protesters have different motivations. Some are upset about what they see as excessive testing in schools, while others are vociferously opposed to the Common Core State Standards, which they have labelled “Obamacore,” his plan to take control over public education.

Protest politics makes for strange bedfellows, with lefties and righties coming together to agree on this issue (and probably on just this one issue).

As for the other side, the “Pro-Test” camp has the appearance of substance. With unofficial “headquarters” in Washington, DC, the Common Core test defenders include the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Council, the Education Trust, the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education.

The basic message: “If you don’t take the test, you won’t be counted–and you won’t matter.” The “Pro-Test” group has an impressive roster with money and power, but perhaps it’s mostly Chiefs and very few followers. Impossible to say now, but we will find out before long.

Just last fall, the establishment was agreeing publicly that we might be subjecting our children to too many tests. The President spoke out, and his Secretary of Education noted that testing was sucking the air out of classrooms. Now, they’re saying, “OK, perhaps schools do test too much, but these tests–the Common Core tests–are essential.

I haven’t found overwhelming evidence that hundreds of thousands of students are going to boycott the Common Core tests, but people in Washington appear worried. How else to explain their going on the offensive to trumpet the importance of these tests?

What do they know that we don’t? Or are they seeing dragons under the bed at night?

In other states, educational leaders have been issuing threats: “Boycott these tests and you will suffer the consequences,” is the tone of these messages. “I know some of you have already received questions from parents who would like their children to be able to opt out of taking the test. Opting out of PARCC is not an option,” Illinois State Superintendent Christopher A. Koch recently wrote to district administrators, a message he expected they would share with their principals. Some schools are going to force kids who come to school but opt-out of the tests to ‘sit and stare’ all day long, instead of offering them alternative learning experiences. “Sit and stare”–Now that’s enlightened leadership, teaching kids what it means to live in a free and democratic society!! Teaching kids how power responds to principled action.

So, the establishment is dropping the hammer. Will that backfire?

We will find out in March, when the PAARC and Smarter Balanced tests are administered over a 2-3 week period.

The great Dinah Washington song I am riffing off, “What a Difference a Day Makes,” ends with the line, “And the difference is you.”

Care to make a prediction as to what will happen?