Chicken Little 2: The CRPE is Falling!

Chicken Little Final Version

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” A Nation at Risk, National Commission on Excellence in Education, April, 1983

“…powerful special interest groups, led by the nation’s teachers unions, have largely succeeded in blocking efforts to reform our broken public school system. K-12 education is a $600 billion-a-year industry–and the unions aren’t about to give up any of their market share without a fight.”  Enemies and the Future of American Education, Heritage Foundation, January 15, 2010

“We could lose this thing.”                                                                                 Introduction: A Nations’s Accountability Systems At Risk, Center on Reinventing Public Education, September, 2014

Lovers of children’s literature may feel compelled to read the re-write of the old story, Chicken Little, recently published by The Fordham Institute in cooperation with the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Apparently unaware that they were lifting the essential backstory of the fairy tale, the inept authors attempted to capitalize on past successes by suggesting that their tale is a sequel to the 1983 smash hit, A Nation at Risk. In the end, however, neither the new version nor its thirty-year old predecessor adds anything to the original.

Poor Chicken Little. He was a young and simple chick, without much worldly experience, and had the (apparent) misfortune of having his world crash down upon him. His reaction, of course, was to immediately warn his neighbors of imminent danger, stirring a panic which was later found unwarranted. A bit more life experience, a bit more courage, and the danger of a falling acorn might have been understood as minimal.

It would have been wise for the authors of the latest version of the story to discuss their plot line with Diane Ravitch, who was closely associated with the ’83 version through its legal descendant, No Child Left Behind. She has since disavowed the story, and has worked hard to dispel its myths.

Mark Toner and Joe Jones of the Center for Reinventing Children’s Fiction seem to have completely forgotten the basic appeal of Chicken Little as a character. Innocent and naive, what could be expected of him? Chicken Little seems to have been largely written out of the story this time…according to the Toner/Jones retelling, there are only very experienced and world-weary “experts” who intend to spread panic, and for less reason than Chicken Little had. A good reading of the original tale causes the reader to feel like a bystander watching a toddler scream because it has seen its own shadow. You want to comfort and calm Chicken Little, not add your voice to the chaos.

Minus an innocent protagonist, the threat has to be even more overblown than ever for the story to “work.” The CRPE danger pales next to a falling acorn, though. Dr. Jones wants us to fear the end of accountability schemes in education. In essence, Dr. Jones wants to turn a real danger into a victim. He wants us to panic because the very things that have distorted the goals of public education have been effectively challenged. Those of us who have witnessed the damage done to humanistic efforts in education due to excessive standardized testing and Value-Added Measures of teacher effectiveness are hardly likely to accept either as endangered species needing protection.

And what of the moral of the story? Writing out the main character and substituting evil for good has robbed Dr. Jones of any hope for teaching a lesson. I have a suggestion for a re-write, though. Consider casting a first-year teacher as Chicken Little, and drop Dr. Jones’ story on them instead of an acorn. The moral is played out in public schools every day; inexperienced teachers are “held accountable” to ridiculous demands, and learn over time to respond with courage and professional perspective. Now that’s a tale to tell children.

Dr. Jones, it’s clear you and your partners at CRPE read the story of Chicken Little, but it’s equally apparent that you haven’t take its message to heart. You and the rest of your brood ought to buck up, get out of the hutch and enjoy some sunshine. The sky hasn’t fallen yet, and isn’t going to because you may “lose this thing.” The real danger to public education is a continuing reliance on metrics that have little relation to the development of citizens who are prepared to challenge authority and who have the right to demand that schools expand the boundaries of learning beyond the narrow confines of standardized exams.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Dear Catrina

Catrina Edit 2


Dear Calavera Catrina,

I remember meeting you for the first time in an art store on the Puerto Vallarta Malecón. You were there in the hundreds, small and large, garish and elegant–and always possessed of a haughty stare and a set of ivories that would do justice to a shark.

I’d met you before, of course, but never understood that in-person encounters with individual representatives of your archetype pale next to your cumulative effect on society.

You are easy to recognize, and you demand that recognition. Your clothes and demeanor always mark you as one who has access to wealth and power beyond the peons you expect to bend to your will. You’ve always been a dilettante, dabbling in public affairs with little expertise or experience to guide you. You’ve also been absolutely sincere, a true believer in the appropriateness of turning over public institutions to the private sector for exploitation. After all, it’s usually your friends and family members doing the exploiting.

Campbell Brown is but the latest acolyte in your stable, and I’d say she emulates your appearance, attitude and intellectual depth with precision. Someone might have warned Campbell that attacks on teacher rights to due process ought not to be paired with statements like “I do think there should be equality in money.” After all, it will cost a lot of public dollars to correct the effects of unequal funding of public schools, if that’s what she truly intends. I rather think that she’d prefer to withdraw public funds from wealthier districts than support poorer communities…it’s a “Catrina-like” solution to the situation she created with her off-the-cuff remark on the Colbert Report. I wonder if her husband and former investment banker, Dan Senor, would approve? After all, he managed to help us lose nine billion dollars of hard-earned U.S. taxpayer cash to fraud and theft in Iraq during his time working with the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Michelle Rhee exemplifies your attributes as well, Catrina. It’s apparent that she has worn out her welcome, but her crusading efforts to destroy unions, establish charter schools, and whip students into shape with standardized testing are based on absolute conviction of the righteousness of her cause. She will never view herself as anything but a warrior against forces of darkness…even though her denial of the reality that poverty is a fundamental cause for academic difficulty has been repeated time and time again. Catrina, you know that Michelle has attached herself to Sacramento Mayor (and former NBA player) Kevin Johnson; power and money attract your ilk like sugar water attracts hummingbirds. I expect Michelle will flutter in and out of educational politics for the foreseeable future.

But even Michelle can’t outdo Eva Moskowitz when it comes to out and out fabrications. Eva is the face of “Success Academy,” the ironic name for her chain of academically un-successful charter schools. Her “Catrinaisms” reach so far beyond the truth that fact-checkers can get whiplash just listening to her. The successes her academies have achieved have been almost entirely financial…she’s been able to secure funding for her schools from private hedge funds in addition to the public dollars she collects. Still, her students perform no better than those in poorer public schools.

But gender is no barrier to you, Catrina. Your attention to personal grooming and manifestations of power are also evidenced in the male personas you inhabit. Peter Brabeck, for instance, is a magnificent specimen. Only recently, Peter managed to turn thousands of years of social obligation on its ear by denying the right of humans to free access to water. Why, if we accept that the basis of life is open to exploitation by corporate enterprise, what argument can be made for any common good to remain in the public sphere? Education becomes another endeavor subject to the laws of supply and demand, for the only ethical principle a corporate leader is bound to follow is, “…to maintain and ensure the successful and profitable future of his enterprise.

Individually, Catrina, your minions are easier to dismiss than the damage they collectively inflict on society. Catrina, you are not separable from death, for death is what you bring wherever you go. You have killed the hopes of generations of poor Mexican peasants, the dreams of poor black and white sharecroppers, the opportunities of the late middle class.

Catrina, your passion for the causes you promote is founded on a level of understanding as superficial as your smile. I remind myself that your smile is what most see last, just before your shark-like maw tears apart the tender fabric of societal protections necessary to meaningful democracy.

Will I live to see your demise, Catrina? Unlikely. You’re a slippery customer–attacking public education today, but shifting to other targets as the public becomes aware of your deceptive tactics.

No, Catrina, you’ll be with us in one shape or another…and your smiling countenance, thirst for power and impeccable taste will mark you for those with eyes to see.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

The Druids of Data

Final Dumpty

Just five days after we celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence this year, Ulrich Boser, former writer for U.S. News & World Report, the Washington Post Express, and Education Week dropped another document on the unsuspecting American public titled “Return on Educational Investment: 2014–A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity.” Published by the Center for American Progress, that bastion of privatization and “alternative certification” for teachers – as well as shill for the Common Core State Standards – the document promises to reveal those districts that spend money properly and those that don’t.

Below you’ll find a “translation” of the document’s claims, caveats, and a brief conclusion. This document cries out for translation, since it is written in corporatese–language designed explicitly to impress and befuddle the public despite a complete lack of substance. But first, a taste of passive-aggressive corporatist self-justification:

  • “For people not deeply familiar with the accounting procedures, this makes it hard to compare spending across districts types.”

We have you covered; we are the Druids of Data, and we will wave entrails over the numbers to be sure their real meaning is revealed to us and us only.

  • Fiscal accountability is central to our public education system, and educators need to spend school dollars well, if they want more school dollars. Looking forward, then, we must ask ourselves: How can we do more with what we have? How can we ensure that each school dollar is well spent? How can we make sure all education funds work for students?”

We care about money above all else. If you do what you are told, you might get a few more bucks. Just make sure you are focusing on standardized tests, because we don’t have anything else that makes numbers that can be propped up next to a cost statement. That’s how we make sure that public education serves a corporatist agenda instead of equipping citizens to act effectively as members of a democratic society…


  • “…effective organizational change can only be achieved by using data, setting goals, and thoughtfully implementing incentive and consequence programs and processes to boost outcomes.”

We want carrots and sticks to force you lazy educators to increase test scores.

  • “Policymakers should develop funding policies that direct money to students based on their needs.”

We will fund only those things that increase test scores, because numbers always trump professional judgment in our book.

  • “The Common Core State Standards Initiative provides an example of how states can work together to create a stronger, more innovative education system.”

We drank the entire keg of Kool-Aid Bill Gates and his cronies brewed. We have no evidence to show that the CCSS “strengthens” education or makes it more innovative. You are supposed to simply accept this untested, unproven statement and the system it misrepresents. Okay?

  • “…education leaders and stakeholders could create a common chart of accounts—a type of budget dictionary—as well as set out best practices when it comes to linking fiscal data to other databases.”

Let’s match up money with your test scores because everything needs to have a number attached to it, right?

  • One crucial approach to improving data is providing districts with productivity evaluations. “

Our numbers are crap, but we publish them publicly in order to embarrass you and bludgeon you into submission anyway.

  • “For this reason, we took significant steps in our report to control for funding disparities among populations of students, yet low-productivity districts are also more likely to enroll students from low-income households.”

Poverty plays a central role in “educational outcomes,” but we prefer to fudge the numbers a bit and then pretend it doesn’t.

  • “…without focused programs and policies, education spending does not always boost test scores.”

You guys might spend money on things that don’t improve test scores, like drama, art, physical fitness, foreign language or other unimportant stuff.

  • “…the issue here is not that any districts are necessarily wasting money on their education efforts. Rather, the issue is that too many districts are spending taxpayer money in ways that do not appear to dramatically boost reading and math scores, and some districts are able to gain similar levels of reading and math achievement with the same population of students but at lower levels of per- student spending.”

We do think you are wasting money if it doesn’t pay off in higher math and reading test scores. Oh, and we also believe that students are interchangeable parts in this numbers game.


  • Currently, many districts lack the capacity to do more with less.”

Just want to get you to lower your guard  before we deliver a series of sucker-punches…

  • We also recognize that there are myriad of other issues plaguing our school finance system—from issues of equity to a simple lack of good data.”

Nothing written in our document should be interpreted as factual or scientific, and we had an attorney add this clause just to make sure you can’t say we thought it could be…

  • “…while we believe that our district-level evaluations rely on the best available methods—and show important results—we caution against making firm conclusions about the ratings of an individual district.”

Our evaluation standards aren’t really useful, but that’s all we got, so use ’em anyway.

  • The literature on productivity is limited, and there is a lot we do not know about the relationship between spending and achievement.”

We have no research basis for believing that what we are talking about is valid.

  • …the link between outcomes and money is not always linear. In other words, even in an efficient school system, the first few dollars spent on a program or school might not have the same effect as subsequent expenditures, with additional dollars not boosting outcomes as much as initial investments.”

We really don’t have any reason to make these comparisons, since they’re useless. We just do it to make public schools look bad.

  • “Our measures also cannot account for all of the variables outside the control of a district…”

We really don’t know what a district that “measures poorly” needs to do any more than they would. We just want to point fingers.

  • The available data are also problematic. State and district data often suffer from weak definitions and questionable reliability.”

We know they say “Garbage in, garbage out,” but we figure we’ve been feeding you garbage for so long that you’d be offended if we didn’t at least try.

  • “Moreover, our study looks only at reading and math test scores, an admittedly very narrow slice of what students need to know to succeed in college and the workplace.”

We put all of our eggs in one basket, (okay, two) which is pretty ridiculous, but that can’t really hurt anyone’s chance to get a rich curriculum experience, can it?

  • Despite these caveats, we believe our evaluations are the best available, given existing traditions and knowledge. We designed our color-rating system to empower the public…”

Despite the fact that our data sucks, and we have no reason to believe the data tells us anything that can be verified, we still intend to abuse public schools with our findings. Aren’t the colors on our chart pretty?


A wonderful master chef, Ulrich Korn, frequently reminded me to focus on the positive during my youthful stint in his kitchen. He interrogated me every time I dined at a three-star restaurant, coffee shop or hot dog stand, asking what was “really good,” maintaining that there was frequently a valuable idea in the humblest eatery. I have applied that lesson in many areas of my life, and I’m pleased to say that after intense study I was able to find just such a nugget in Ulrich Boser’s manifesto:

“We also encourage readers to closely examine the data and our approach to evaluating productivity.”

I heartily agree with those words, and have attempted to do just that.


© David Sudmeier, 2014

Fireworks and Revolutions

RevolutionAs the 2014 NEA Rep Assembly winds down, and we simultaneously set off fireworks to celebrate the collection of 56 signatures on our nation’s Declaration, I keep thinking about the ways revolutionaries are created. Some seem born, and leap to any cause that opposes power; others seem slow to accept insurrection until swept up by events.

The Boston-born Sons (and Daughters) of Liberty filled a role that many Badass Teachers feel suited to—public displays of disaffection toward governmental and corporate structures that are insensitive to vital public institutions. For the Sons of Liberty, the collusion of the British Crown and the East India Company presented a corporatocracy worth challenging because it acted beyond the reach of representative assemblies. BATs look to the alliance of the Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education with similar hostility.

Hostility, however, can be self-defeating. Poet Charles Bukowski’s description of the alienation from American society he experienced as a student and young person exemplifies this:

“The problem was you had to keep choosing between one evil or another, and no matter what you chose, they sliced a little bit more off you, until there was nothing left. At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole gdamned nation of aholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidates who reminded them most of themselves.”

Bukowski damned corporatism and the idiocy it promoted, but was famous for his own forays into idiocy and self-destructive behavior. Still, his words evoke feelings persons close to current educational politics can relate to.

The distress BATs feel about the election of Lily Garcia to the NEA presidency (and Randi Weingarten’s reign in the AFT) is linked to their rejection of corporatism and its corrosive effect on democracy within the teaching profession. Corporatists have slowly emerged as leaders in each organization because they are not leaders at all. This is the irony of corporatism. The way out is not self-destructive calls for separation from those organizations or revolution against their leadership. It is a commitment to self-discovery and re-creation. We must change ourselves in order to change our national professional organizations and to protect public education.

BATs have had a remarkable year. We have become self-aware, all 49,000 and more of us. We have begun to present a recognizable and consistent voice on matters of public education. It’s probably a bit early to expect name cards at the tables of decision to include many BAT members, though. As an organization, providing a compelling vision for public education that is supported by a mechanism for achieving it will be necessary to turn self-awareness into visible action. And that is a concern.

As long as we find it necessary to identify ourselves as BATs– as members of an interest group— we will be one of the corporate structures that inhibit the function of democracy itself. When we are able to convince people that their obligation is to society as a whole, we will have convinced them to be part of a true democracy, where interest is subjugated to disinterest. We may also find it unnecessary to label ourselves as an interest group.

There is no reason to expect the tension between democracy and corporatism to be anything but prolonged and difficult. It has been a central conflict in our national history since its inception.

We should be pleased that the past year has given rise to the BATs and the idea that public education is worth supporting. I think it’s time to set some signposts that might indicate the effect our movement has had as we look forward to our second anniversary:

  • Has CCSS become a pejorative in its own right? That might mean that people are experiencing frustrations due to the impacts it has on instruction and on the finances of school districts across the nation.
  • What is the level of awareness of Gates Foundation involvement in public affairs, including education? Debate on the impact of its semi-private initiatives will bring it into the sunshine of democratic process.
  • What is the status of recognizable BAT participation in national, state, and local education policy decisions?
  • To what extent have BATs extended their activities to other initiatives for social justice and general public policies?

If we become more self-aware, and if we seek to have a positive impact on local, state and national affairs, we will look back on the 2014-15 academic year as one of democracy-building success. We will watch the fireworks with new understanding of the challenges the Founding Fathers passed on to posterity.

We will also feel less like Charles Bukowski, and be better able to contribute to society as a whole. Then, the primary obligation we have—to convince the coming generations that their obligation to society actually exists—will be next.


© David Sudmeier, 2014

Message in a Bottle


Like a message in a bottle, the following email arrived in my inbox just the other day. It is the Snohomish School District (Snohomish, WA) collection of teacher responses to their survey concerning the recent SBAC Field Tests.

SBAC Results Email

As I read the full report, which is attached here, I began to consider ways that this limited anecdotal document might inform future decisions on testing and instruction.

I decided to use these survey results to test the statements made by leaders in the standardized testing industry. Jeff Nellhaus, director of policy, research and design at the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC was quoted as saying: “We think the field tests were a huge success,” in the Washington Post. Joe Wilhoft, Executive Director for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, (SBAC) called his alternative test “…a bitter pill for some to swallow, but…a key step toward providing all students with the education they deserve and need to thrive in our competitive global economy.”

First, the willingness of this district to share this information with teachers is laudable. It should be common practice, of course, and my comment is meant to recognize that openness is a necessary practice to assure that the terms “public” and “education” continue to have a meaningful relationship. Far too much secrecy has surrounded the creation of the Common Core State Standards, the PARCC and the SBAC tests for the public to be confident in either instrument or the people behind it.

SBAC Administration

While the bar graph provided in the district document indicates a relative balance between frustration and satisfaction, the anecdotal evidence weighs heavily to the former. Lengthy, complex directions were cited numerous times; difficulty with technology and various online test tools was also a major theme.

These kinds of issues are “glitches,” to be expected and worked out, according to Wilhoft. What would be necessary to “work out” these problems? Developmental appropriateness of directions would require attention to factors well known already to K-3 educators, including Dr. Wilhoft, who points to his time as a third grade teacher as a source of pride. Of course, for the directions−or the test itself−to be considered “age appropriate,” the standards themselves would have to be suitable to the learners. They are not.

Technology issues require not only adjustments by the test creators, but also large and ongoing capital investments by school districts across the nation if the SBAC test is to become the gauge of academic attainment for American students. You simply can’t ignore the regular outlay of money the creators of these tests propose, driven not by a desire to enrich student learning, but to establish a culture of testing that perpetuates profits to testing companies and technology magnates. These expenses are unsustainable for many districts.

SBAC Field Testing Impact

The disruption of the educational environment due to the SBAC field test was extreme by any standard. 54% of teachers found the test to be “very disruptive,” with another 26% calling it “disruptive.” What brought on such damning statements? Lack of access to a limited number of computers for anything but testing was the main factor. Between SBAC and “EasyCBM” testing, it appears that some schools were unable to accommodate students from “…the middle of March” to sometime in May. In addition, educational assistants (EAs) were diverted from their normal duties in the classroom to test proctoring and technology trouble-shooting.

When tests pre-empt instruction, the tail is wagging so hard that the dog is hardly recognizable. If standardized testing has a place in public education (a notion that I reject), then its validity is challenged when it compromises instruction. When EAs are not working to assist learning they are no longer EAs, they are wardens.

SBAC Math/ELA Student Attitudes

To say that students generally disliked the tests is to sugarcoat the results. 40% of students considered the math test “negative” or “very negative.” Only 14% considered it “positive” or “very positive.” Results for the ELA test were nearly identical.

Frustrations with technology, with long instructions, and with the formatting of questions highlighted the concerns in math. The ELA test contained long prompts and reading articles that challenged the readiness of many students. Keyboarding skills seemed a particular obstacle for many children.

Teachers know that student attitudes toward difficult tasks can be extremely varied, and attempt to structure classroom experiences to limit frustrations that distract from active learning. Here, however, the reactions indicate a significant disconnect between the test takers and the test makers. If a test has little meaning to a student, and if the activities of the test have only a limited relationship to what occurs in the classroom, it’s likely that students will find the testing experience awkward and unfriendly.

Final Observations

While there are additional teacher comments on technology issues and various other concerns, I want to return to the statements that began this piece. Anyone spinning standardized tests as “huge successes” ought to carefully consider the data the Snohomish School District has provided. Jeff Nellhaus had a huge success in the sense that he was able to coerce school districts in the PARCC group into providing unpaid guinea pigs for norming a test according to standards that have never been validated. Beyond that accomplishment, any claim to success is smoke and mirrors, meant to preclude reasonable challenges. Joe Wilhoft ‘s statements about SBAC testing are likewise coded to conflate economic security and educational standardization. Any school, district, state official or U.S. Dept. of Education representative that claims they have the secrets students need “to thrive in our competitive global economy” is blowing some serious smoke, indeed. Decoded, this translates to, “Your student will emerge from this system a compliant individual, consumer and worker bee, ready to do what corporate structures deem vital to their survival.” The ideas of being educated and being employable are, and should remain, separate notions.

The SBAC Field Test is a great failure due to the commitment to corporatized standardization it represents and sanctions. The creators of SBAC, PARCC and other instruments that are planned for the future ought to be drummed out of public education.

I’m stuffing this message back in the bottle I got my original email in and I’m tossing it back in the Internet Ocean. I trust it will land on your shoreline and provoke conversations about better possibilities for educating students than either SBAC or PARCC represent.


© David Sudmeier, 2014

Into the Unknown

Into Unknown


A collective sigh rings out at this time of year from educators at all levels. That relief is a sure sign that our teaching and learning environments are toxic. The negative reinforcement that accompanies our escape from the classroom prompts a wide variety of utterances that are symptomatic of that toxicity, but which are also red herrings. We wail and gnash our teeth when parents challenge carefully considered student evaluations; we despair when administrators fail to support us and change grades unilaterally. We moan and groan over our own annual evaluations and the amount of energy spent collecting supportive data for them. We fume at the excessive standardized testing required of students and the time we spend proctoring. We throw up our hands in dismay when union leadership appears too willing to accept corporatist ideals.

What we seldom do is consider the root causes of our dismay and discouragement. We hope that temporary escape from these various symptoms will cure the underlying disease. Unless we confront our demons, we simply return in the fall and repeat the cycle. Each passing year breeds further alienation from the institution we once cherished.

We are walking in circles. All of the hubbub concerning CCSS (including the hubbub emanating from this site) and the anger against Bill Gates, the Kochs, etc.–is hot air unless it results in an ongoing reconsideration of all public educational policies by professional educators at all levels.

The inclination teachers have to carp about the complaints students and parents make about grades is more a symptom of loss of power and dignity than it is a comment about student performance or behavior. Likewise, the complaints we make about “harvesting student growth data” or administering standardized testing has less to do with either task than it does the corruption of a supportive student/teacher relationship. When we focus on these symptomatic issues, we allow these tangential problems to distract us from what is most important, and we continue on our circular route.

Attacks on union leadership in education also distract us from more important issues. We look to NEA and AFT leadership to challenge the rush to corporatism in education, and when their efforts seem timid, we assume they must be cozy with corporate deformers. To be blunt: do some union leaders receive compensation that is excessive? Do they not represent teachers but instead front a corporatized entity that pretends to represent us? Perhaps, but the stated purpose those leaders serve is to improve workplace conditions, pay rates and benefits to rank and file members so that those workers can focus on student needs. Vote ’em out if they aren’t effective in these areas. Compare that purpose to the goal of CEOs in private corporations − maximizing returns to stockholders. Consider the amazing inequalities of income and benefits that exist between executives in private companies and their workers, and ponder the fact that those companies thrive on that exploitation. We have little to complain about. Focus on the bigger issue, and deal with the little fish at election time.

The root issue—the underlying disease– for educators today is an excessive and often abusive reliance on evaluation measures that strip both teacher and student of dignity and power. Corporatists honestly believe that defining goals and measuring progress toward them−a practice that serves well when manufacturing consumer goods− ought to provide a solid foundation in the educational world as well. We can restore dignity and render the issue of power moot by demanding reconsideration of the role evaluation ought to play in the educational environment.

I’ve given my share of grades to students, and I’ve never felt productive or positive when doing so. Students who are just beginning to comprehend the basics of a discipline do not need categorization− they need support and encouragement. Students who are at advanced levels in study do not benefit from microanalysis of their performance− they benefit from reflection on their practice with the input and advice of established experts. Take it closer to home– we do not provide a significant other with an evaluation of their performance according to a set of proficiency standards. Why not? We inherently sense the inappropriateness of judging the performance of a loved one according to a set of external standards. Why do we view the appropriateness of evaluation for learners any differently? We should stop now.

How do you feel as a professional when you sit down with an administrator to find out whether they have labeled you as “Distinguished,” “Proficient,” “Developing,” or “Below Expectations?” Do you feel emboldened to push into new areas of pedagogy and curricular development? Or do you feel relieved that your paycheck is safe for another year? We put students through this experience regularly, and we have no evidence that they − or us−are better people or learners for it.

Evaluation is not a necessary part of learning. It is, at best, a number or letter external to the learner’s personal experience. It is a means of quantifiable coercion at worst. It is unproductive and unnecessary.

John Lennon’s song, Imagine, represents the challenge in front of us. We take the first step toward freedom of mind and spirit when we begin to imagine alternatives to our own history. Imagine there’s no report card; I know it’s hard to do− Imagine all the students learning; learning for themselves… That is the relationship I envision between my students and myself, and I’ve long wondered why it doesn’t exist.

And now I know. The corporatist vision demands absolutes. Evaluation is a natural and necessary part of their absolutist domain, and they demand we participate in that world. They prescribe standardized tests and Danielson rubrics to ensure that we do participate.

I prescribe abstinence. I prescribe the unknown and unfamiliar.

It’s wise to venture into the unknown if you do so with a sense of purpose and a sense of direction. But please, reconsider both that purpose and your direction from time to time; don’t just walk in circles.

That’s the difference between adhering to standards and using standards as a framework for professional judgment.


© David Sudmeier, 2014

The Crucible

Crucible 3

Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible survives to this day as a metaphor for accusations without merit that damage reputations and lives. The advertisement that appeared this week in USA Today after the Vergara decision contained such an accusation, which might as well have been of witchcraft and evil spells cast upon students by malevolent kindergarten teachers. The same organization that created that ad had another rejected by the Chicago Tribune, because it conflated teacher unionism with racist segregationist attitudes a la George Wallace. Teachers can likely expect a continued barrage of similar ads in the media, funded by privatization interests.

Maintaining a sense of dignity depends on the deference and support shown to you by society in light of your contributions. When major media publications accept ads portraying student feet protruding from a garbage can, and accuse teachers of placing students in that demeaning position, they accept hate speech as a legitimate source of income. Teacher sensitivity to outright lies is less a product of being targeted for criticism—that’s part of life in the public sector— than it is due to the duplicity of the bad actors that create those lies. They demonize teachers on the one hand and extend the other for profits to be earned by displacing unionized teachers with ill-trained, easily controlled dupes working in charter schools, among their many crimes. The “Center for Union Lies” does not criticize teachers; it intentionally distorts and mischaracterizes their achievements to enable corporate gain.

When you deprive teachers of dignity and meaning in their work, you strike a blow against public education. Of course, that is exactly the point for some. For others, it is “collateral damage” that must be accepted to improve instruction and raise test scores. If test scores rise, then education must be improved. If living and breathing teachers who will demand immediate compensation can be replaced with technology that raises test scores on tests written by testing companies whose shareholders seek short-term profits…well, all the better.

What is lost if public education is lost? Just as terrorism is a front in the war for the soul of Islam, attacks on public education—one of the sources of our common good— constitute one front in the war for the soul of democracy. Democracy can withstand challenges from without which are obvious and overt; whether democracy can withstand challenges from within is unknown. Dismantling public institutions encourages individualism and loss of community. That loss of community opens a democracy to manipulation and exploitation by powerful  corporations.

Still, we teachers as a group fail to see the forest for the trees. We imagine that what we experience in the form of attacks by individuals and organizations on teachers and education is somehow unique and unrelated to other events. We feel our institution being assailed, and we forget that there are others in the public service enduring similar mistreatment.

How have we ended up in this situation? Corporatists have built a myth of excellence and efficiency in the private sector, and a specter of malfeasance and incompetence in public institutions. Their tactics include attacks on public institutions, accompanied by demands for firings and accountability measures. They then demand new “standards” for performance that are clearly impossible to reach, and place blame on those same institutions when they fail to attain them and attempt to cover it up. Finally, they seek to withdraw financial support from those institutions, citing the failures they themselves engineered. This has happened in education with NCLB and RttT, and will occur with CCSS, if it is not more widely abandoned. It has happened as well with the Veterans Administration. The VA (underfunded and overwhelmed by demands resulting from the Iraq/Afghanistan debacle) was accused of not providing timely care for those who deserved better. The solution? A standard was set that could not be met, a 14-day window for care, and accountability measures for not achieving success. When that couldn’t be accomplished, managers found ways of lying to make it appear that things were fine. Uncovered, the VA was again blamed for incompetence. Calls were made to privatize an institution that attempts to fulfill a public obligation to those who have stood in the line of fire for us all.

We teachers can easily comprehend what VA employees face. Our experiences are not unique; they are part and parcel of a wider attack on democracy. The sooner we accept that and coordinate our actions with other institutions that are also suffering, the sooner we will begin to turn the corner. We become powerful when we recognize our community, and weak when we abandon it. Badass Teachers know what it means to acquire community; we need to remind our colleagues of the role their unions need to play in preserving, protecting, and extending that community of public service employees. NEA and AFT have accomplished much in the past, but are only lately stepping up to the plate on this issue. They can do much more, and will need grass roots support to do so.

We are not just educators. We are warriors for democracy, and we fight a dangerous opponent. We fight for free, fair and appropriate public education, just as our brothers and sisters fight battles for better public health care, better public transportation, and improved public security. Part of our fight is to act with dignity and demand dignified treatment from society. We need to build a new myth of the public employee, one that recognizes our commitment to service and champions our achievements in creating community.

Arthur Miller is calling to us now.


© David Sudmeier, 2014