Two Poems For The Month Of Testing

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Can April be the cruelest month, as T. S. Eliot declares in his bitterly pessimistic “The Waste Land”? For Eliot, April’s inherent cruelty is — ironically — precisely because of its vitality. April’s burgeoning life force engenders hope in a world that is both dark and hopeless.

But for many public school students and perhaps for teachers as well, the line is literally true: April is the cruelest month of the school calendar. April days that are not devoted to ‘test prep’ are spent on testing itself.

And some of what is going on in this crazy month defies the imagination. For example, critics of testing are having a field day with what they are calling “Pineapplegate.”

Here’s part of what Beth Fertig reported:

A pineapple, a hare and a swift outcry against a handful of confusing questions on this week’s English Language Arts exams have led the state’s education commissioner to scrap a portion of the eighth grade reading test.

The disputed section of the test contained a fable about a talking pineapple that challenged a hare to a race. But students and teachers complained that none of the multiple choice answers to several questions made sense.

In response to the complaints, the New York State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. concluded the questions were “ambiguous” and will not be counted against students.

“It is important to note that this test section does not incorporate the Common Core and other improvements to test quality currently underway,” Mr. King said in a statement, referring to a new teaching curriculum and standards that are being adopted in New York and other states. “This year’s tests incorporate a small number of Common Core field test questions. Next year’s test will be fully aligned with the Common Core.”

Pearson, a test preparation company, has a $32 million contract with the state to make the exams more rigorous.

Here’s more stuff that’s hard to believe. This is from The New York Post:

State Education Department officials were blind to the feelings of deaf students on this week’s English exams — heartlessly asking them questions about sounds such as the clickety-clack of a woman’s high heels and the rustle of wind blowing on leaves, educators claimed.

One sixth-grade teacher of hearing-impaired kids said they were completely thrown off by a lengthy listening passage rife with references to environmental noises — such as a cupboard door creaking open or the roar of a jet engine.

The kids were then asked to write how a boy who hears those sounds as music in his head is like a typical sixth-grader.

“My kids were looking at us like we had 10 heads. They said they didn’t understand the story,” the teacher said, referring to herself and a sign-language interpreter.

“It was all based on music and sounds in the world they don’t know,” added the perturbed teacher. “They definitely were upset.”

The teacher’s sound criticism was among a host of complaints about the new exams administered to students in Grades 3 to 8 this week, part of a five-year, $32 million deal with the testing company Pearson.

You may have noticed those two stories have one thing in common: Pearson. The giant company is also ‘field-testing’ its questions for next year’s tests — by extending the testing period for young kids this year, sometimes actually doubling the amount of time kids are being tested.

Not to pick on Pearson, but the company is offering $5 Starbucks cards to educators who will fill in its survey … and the opening sentences in the accompanying letter from this education giant contain basic grammatical errors.

In an effort to learn more about the challenges being faced by K-12 educators, would you please spare a few minutes to complete an online survey? It should take less than 15 minutes, and will provide us with very valuable feedback to improve our services and offerings.

The opening phrase, ‘In an effort….by K-12 educators,” modifies the closest noun or pronoun, which is YOU. So Pearson is asking me to fill out the survey so I can learn more?

Pineapples
Pineapples have caused an issue on some state tests.

The second sentence is compound, one subject (it) and two verbs (‘should take’ and ‘will provide’), and the grammatical rule is clear: no comma.

Much of the uproar seems to be coming from teachers, and cynics may suggest that’s because their ox is now being gored; after all, these tests are now being used to grade — and fire — teachers, so of course they are paying closer attention. Perhaps some teachers are late to the party, but so what! They’re here, and teachers like Anthony Cody have been in the forefront all along.

Some parents are fighting back against high stakes testing. Parents in Colorado, California, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Indiana have opted out of high stakes testing for their children and have kept (are keeping) them home. A group with the impressive-sounding name of United Opt Out National is trying to coordinate the effort.

Peggy Robertson, a former public school teacher turned stay-at-home mom, leads the group, which she acknowledges has about 1,427 members — and no money — right now. “We are not against either testing or assessment, just this high stakes testing madness,” she told me. The number of Colorado families who kept their children at home last year was “five times more” than in 2010. It’s still only a few hundred, but Robertson is convinced that the numbers will grow “as more people become aware of the harm these tests are doing.”

And not just parents. Peggy shared a link to a letter from a New York principal.

There’s also a national effort, one that began in Texas, to slow down the testing express. As of April 23rd, 380 school boards in Texas, representing 1.8 million students, have signed this petition; that’s been rolled into a national petition.

What’s the alternative? This short piece was written by Pasi Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons (Teachers College Press). It may make you think twice about the course we are on.

But it doesn’t follow that we could just ‘blow up’ our increasingly centralized approach and do what Finland does. Ted Kolderie of Education Evolving believes we need a new kind of school, one in which teachers have largely autonomous control. I’ve just finished reading the galleys of a new book, Liberating Teachers, that argues that position persuasively. Currently there are around 60 schools with autonomous teachers, cutting across all sorts of arrangements — district, chartered and independent. Some are union-affiliated, others are not. Urban, suburban and rural, serving students from preschool to age 21.

These schools are invariably small (like schools in Finland) and less reliant on standardized assessments (like Finnish schools).

And now — a final poem for April, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lovely sonnet, “How Do I Love Thee?”

I first thought it should be “How Do We Test Thee? Let Me Count the Ways” until I realized that we basically have a ‘one size fits all’ approach to testing. No way to get a sonnet out of that.

So I went back to the drawing board and produced the following (with apologies to EBB):

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Is it A? “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.”

Or B? “I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

C? “I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;”

D? “I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.”

Or “All of the Above?”

Please mark your answer below with a No. 2 pencil, taking care to fill in the box completely without marking the area outside the box. If you do not follow directions, the machine may not be able to read your answer, and you will be marked down accordingly.

___________________________________________________

But Who Will Design The Robots?

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In one of his always interesting “Disruptions” column in the New York Times, Nick Bilton held forth on how robots are replacing workers at Amazon and elsewhere. These robots, a researcher at Johns Hopkins told Bilton, “will help augment people’s abilities, allowing us to use robots for things humans cannot do.” And, the Hopkins guy adds, we will always “have to have someone who builds the robots.”

Columnist Bilton is upset for the workers who will lose their jobs, but his column is also a wake-up call. I read it as an implicit critique of a narrow curriculum that puts aside just about anything that encourages the imagination in favor of ‘the basics,’ meaning basic reading and basic math.

Stressing the basics is no way to make sure that we will produce people to design, build and operate robots, or create the future in other ways. We need schools that encourage the imagination, that allow and support deep learning, and that fan the sparks of creativity — not stomp out the fires.

EdTech
In the East Bay, new approaches to education are taking shape.

However, a narrow and unimaginative curriculum is not a new phenomenon. Just as armies are supposedly spending their time getting ready to fight the last war, many schools and colleges seem to focus on preparing young people for the day before yesterday — and have been doing so for a long time.

I have some direct experience in this. In the late 1960s, I taught for two years at a historically Black public college, Virginia State, in Petersburg, Virginia. For a privileged young white man from New England, it was a life-changing experience.

One sociological lesson stuck with me. The college stressed vocational training for its students, most of whom were the first in their families to attend college. While some studied to become chefs and barbers, a very popular major involved computers, which at the time were still pretty new. These students were being trained to be key-punch operators! (Ask your parents!!) It didn’t take a wizard to know that, in a very short time, absolutely no one would be able to make a living as a key-punch operator, but that didn’t slow down the training program. Disrupting that assembly line would have required more than foresight; it would have meant sticking one’s neck out and challenging the comfortable status quo –remember, this was Southside Virginia, not a safe place for African-Americans to challenge the system. Easier and safer to prepare students for yesterday than to make waves and risk one’s own career.

I’ve often wondered what happened to those young men and women. I hope they found other work, and other opportunities to learn new skills.

What about today? Not only are we not challenging the status quo of ‘basic education,’ we seem to be cutting to the bone and getting rid of ‘frills’ like the arts. While I am hearing and reading stories about larger classes and fewer ‘non-essential’ programs in lots of places, Texas seems to be leading the way in cutting education (big surprise).

But, wake up, folks. The arts are basic, as this report from Florida demonstrates. Some of you may have seen our piece for the NewsHour on this topic:

So what do we do about a narrow, boring curriculum and the failing schools that generally seem to accompany that approach? It takes courage to challenge the runaway train of the current approach. As the metaphor suggests, standing in front of a train is not a recipe for a long life. The money and the power are with the status quo.

Some corporations are getting involved, although maybe not as a direct challenge. If you watched the Masters Golf tournament, you saw ExxonMobil commercials about improving America’s competitive position in math and science. That company’s foundation has spent millions on math and science education. (I also liked that many of the ads said ‘Support our Teachers,’ a too-rare message these days.)

Better news comes from San Francisco. Some high tech entrepreneurs there are resisting school-as-usual and getting their hands dirty trying to change things. Right now they seem to be involved because they have children of their own, but let’s hope they are intent on helping other people’s children as well. Let’s hope these interesting approaches to schooling become models, not just boutique luxury items for the privileged.

Cursing the darkness never did anybody any good. Let’s celebrate — and copy — those who are lighting candles to show us the way.