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…

Claims

  • “…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.

Caveats…

  • 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?

Conclusion

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

Message in a Bottle

AlbertOwlSBAC

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

Academic Football with No Pads

batsfootball2

 

I’ve got to admit a level of hypocrisy when it comes to the subject of football. I’m against it. I’m also a Seattleite who went as nuts as anyone when the Seahawks took all the marbles. Still, those are two different subjects, really. Putting children in a situation where concussions are likely, not just possible, is unconscionable in my book. The risk an adult athlete wants to take in order to earn a significant salary is, short of outright murder in the ring, an appropriate decision to leave up to the individual.

The children in our care in the public schools are subjected involuntarily to a daily game of academic football, minus pads. The “concussions” are emerging even now; Louis C.K. speaks eloquently on that subject, and I expect many, many similar stories to emerge in coming days. When abusive standardized testing is forced upon students, the curriculum narrows, the educational experience is diminished, and the need for more testing is justified…and the circle goes ‘round and ‘round.

It’s time to admit the damage done due to institutionalized underfunding that has led school districts everywhere to become dependent on federal or corporate dollars. That need for funding has opened the door to coercion of state and district leaders by federal officials who have no constitutional authority to demand anything of them. When dollars, politics, and educational philosophy intersect, it ain’t a pretty sight, though…stuff happens.

The damage is evident when students—regardless of developmental disability, emotional instability, academic background or language understanding—are required to take a test, lest the school be penalized for being unwilling to test everyone. When a decision for kindness, for reason and humanity is declared inappropriate in order that corporations may more easily calculate “academic goals” in winning educational contracts, the system tosses children without reasonable protection into a game they do not comprehend. These students gain nothing from participating in the process, but are mined for information of value to a corporate entity.

The damage is evident in the diminished commitment to the process of education I see in student eyes year by year. As demands for “rigor” have grown, alongside the institution of “safety net” classes to improve test scores, the academic breadth of experience has diminished for students who give up “electives” to double up on a purely academic subject. Increasingly, we will see these remedial courses placed on-line, and if any specific connection is necessary between student and teacher…best of luck. Students who experience learning as a deeply personal collaboration will resent the constraints of “standards” as much as they do standardized testing now.

The damage is evident in the time students lose for further enrichment and guidance in the classroom due to excessive standardized testing. The amount of time varies widely from state to state, but it has increased dramatically for all during the past two decades. A lost week? Is that justified? How about places where yearly testing takes up even more time? Are their teachers able to use the time while students are testing to do productive work, or are they misused as very expensive proctors? How much do students lose when school administrators, office staff, and instructional support personnel are entirely focused on the organization of test materials, staff training, and test administration rather than the real and present needs of children? I think the public at large would be outraged to know the true costs of standardized testing, including hours spent on proctoring, organization and administration.

Students deserve a safe, healthy environment for learning. Excessive standardized testing is not conducive to that end. The information generated by those tests is unlikely to benefit students either directly, or through the creation of greater opportunities in their future. Rather, that information will be exploited to extract value in form of payment for increasing student adeptness in taking those same lousy tests that tell students nothing.

The only profit in public education should accrue to the learner, who should feel that they have gained by the opportunity to pursue happiness in a socially responsible way, and that they are ready to accept the responsibilities of citizenship. When that basic principle is met, students will find themselves in a safe and healthy environment , with pads firmly in place as they compete and cooperate in the supreme individual and team full-contact learning challenge!

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

AlbertHandsome

I used to live in a room full of mirrors

All I could see was me

I took my spirit and I smashed those mirrors

Now the whole world is here for me to see

Jimi Hendrix

 

It is maddening to be assaulted with the cacophony of demands on public schools today. Schools (and by that I mean teachers) are expected to “fix society” in any number of ways. Each of these goals has a degree of merit, and it is not surprising that non-educators might hope that they would be met within the K-12 years. These expectations cannot be met, however. Schools have never, and will never, “fix society.” Instead, schools reflect the society they exist within.

Anti-bullying programs will not rid us of people who want to push society in one direction or another. Ask the Koch Bros. and Bill Gates if this isn’t so. “Raising standards” will not cause children to escape the effects of poverty or emotional deprivation. Teaching Shakespeare in elementary school will not inoculate future generations against the Duck Dynasties of the future.

The purpose of public schools is to preserve a democratic society by assisting citizens in their pursuit of happiness and to prepare citizens to take an active role in public affairs. Corporatists instead insist that education is utilitarian; that it functions to provide a workforce that will maintain American dominance in world markets. They work toward ensuring that every reflection of corporatism remains permanent—toward a society that shapes itself to a corporate structure, paralyzed by a need for certainty.

Corporatists are determined folks. They can amplify their messages and the political consequences of their beliefs in proportion to their willingness to use their cash. They believe that their position in society is evidence of the equivalence of capitalism and democracy, and that their socioeconomic status therefore entitles them to dominate the political scene. It’s a circular argument that has the added advantage of perpetuating their power.

It does not serve corporatists to have an engaged citizenry. They would much rather that citizens be passive spectators, disaffected by political chicanery and alienated from a government they do not think they can affect. This leaves civic affairs firmly in the hands of the one percent who distort democracy by manipulating the language of debate and purchasing the loyalty of persons who possess political power.

Corporatists want us to change the “mirror” rather than change our society. They demand a school system that conforms to market-driven forces. The mirror they offer is a distorted one; one that reflects with limited focus and exaggerated promise the possibilities of an instrumentalized education. We who have great experience in keeping the mirror in focus have been excluded from decisions that only those anointed by corporatists or their lackeys are permitted to influence. These anointed ones possess little or no experience with the population of students we engage with daily, yet feel entitled to meet behind closed doors to undermine the curriculum and limit student opportunities.

Jimi Hendrix encouraged us to smash the mirrors surrounding us, but I believe that refocusing and a bit of polish may yet permit us to enlarge and expose the image of society those mirrors reflect. Truth exists in mirrors that are square and plumb, not those built with distorting curves. That refocusing can only begin when the warping curves of education deform are straightened by teachers who demand transparency in the processes leading to determination of curriculum and the goals of public education.

At the same time, we must not permit corporatist initiatives such as CCSS and excessive standardized testing to dishearten us. If we do, our dismay will breed the apathy that permits corporatists’ unfettered control of the one institution that exists to provide students with experiences likely to instill commitment to democracy rather than oligarchy.

No, mirrors don’t fix anything, but they do permit us to consider those aspects of ourselves that might deserve attention. The discussions that can result from honest self-reflection are the heart of democracy. But there is no honesty in the reflection I see from the corporatist’s mirror. Their vision is of a profit-driven and profit-producing educational system, for that is the sort of society they are committed to. It is a society as bereft of humane interest as it is ravenous for mammon.

And yet, the number of people who have encouraged me during these “dark times” heartens me. If we all will reach out to others with and for support, our schools and world–and we ourselves–will be better for it. If we connect, then we will be able to make a commitment to a society that we will be proud to be mirrors for. My commitment is to a society that is inclusive, supportive, and fundamentally democratic and to an educational system that reflects those values.

What do you want to see in the mirror? Let’s make the changes to our society needed to bring that vision into focus in our schools.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Who’s Selling You Shovels?

Pearson Snake Oil

In 1848, Sam Brannan ran up and down the streets of San Francisco yelling, ”Gold! There’s gold in the American River!” Brannan had no intention to dig for gold himself, of course. Just before he made the announcement, he had purchased every pickaxe, shovel and pan available in Northern California. He knew that the people who came to California to dig for gold were suckers; a few might find wealth, but most would simply line his pockets.

Today, politicians, state education officials, district superintendents and school board members are suckers in the new “gold rush.”

In the “Race to the Top,” we have lined the pockets of gurus, computer hucksters, and corporate consultants galore—and the further we go, the higher the price tag gets. In the search for “gold,” we spend plenty of it.

So who’s our Sam Brannan? Well, Pearson Publishing has applied for the position, and appears to be the front-runner. But watch out, because these guys are famous for sloppy in-house “research” to support their money-making initiatives.

Take, for example, Cogmed, a “brain-training” system Pearson claims will “effectively change the way the brain functions to perform at its maximum capacity.” According to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, it’s all bunk. Dr. Douglas K. Detterman, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and founding editor of the influential academic journal Intelligence says, “Save your money. Look at the studies the commercial services have done to support their results. You’ll find very poorly done studies, with no control groups and all kinds of problems.”

Pearson also markets “SIOP” (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) as a “scientifically based” program for ELL students. The Institute of Education Sciences found that No studies of … (SIOP) … meet … evidence standards.” Another study also found major deficiencies, stating “Because of the widespread use of the SIOP and its far-reaching advertising, published research supporting the SIOP should be made of sterner stuff.”

The Common Core and PARCC tests are baloney, too. There is no evidence that the CCSS “standards” positively affect learning or that performing well (or poorly) on these tests is any indication of future performance in college or career—and test results certainly have no relevance to becoming a productive member of our society. All evidence indicates that Pearson is making plenty of money, however.

Sam Brannan was a heartless capitalist, but at least his picks and shovels did the job. The guys at Pearson who have concocted the Kommon Kore Swizzle Quizzes can’t even claim that. They’re flogging bogus products, a pattern of behavior that seems well established.

Why have we allowed ourselves to be suckered? Several obvious factors include:

  • A sincere, but misguided desire to “guarantee” that all students make lockstep progress, despite poverty or other intervening variables.
  • Political and financial pressure—Arne Duncan demands that states accept the CCSS and use test scores to evaluate teachers…or face restricted use of federal funds for education.
  • Unwitting and unwarranted trust in companies that sell products to assist already overworked educators.

In the end, the only people who find gold in education today are companies like Pearson, whose main objective is a higher profit margin, not the development of young citizens for active participation in a democracy. They are snake oil salesmen of the lowest variety. They cynically peddle their products with false promises of better learning which is “scientifically based,” leading school districts to expend limited funds on unnecessary and unhelpful items. Those expenses rob students themselves of funds that might better be spent on decreased class size and an expanded, more personal curriculum.

So what does one teacher do?

You can start at your own staff meetings by forcing public acknowledgment of the stark realities of Testing über Alles:

  • Ask your administrators if the tests you are required to give have been tested for reliability and validity—and to supply the research on which that determination is based. If they can’t, assume it doesn’t exist.
  • Ask them for specific examples of “instructional decisions” that the tests will influence for the students you have at present. I’ll bet the results won’t be available until the little darlings have flown your coop.
  • Ask them how much money is spent per pupil on each test…and if they’d prefer to spend the money on some other frippery…like maybe additional staff?
  • Ask administrators for evidence that test scores actually reflect differences in classroom learning, and not income level or other intervening variable. All evidence is to the contrary.
  • Let members of your community know that it is legal to opt-out of standardized testing—and ask your administration for specific district guidelines parents should follow to do so. Advocate that those guidelines be published and distributed to parents along with all other information about standardized testing.
  • Then, when you are accused of being “unprofessional” because you are forcefully challenging decisions made by district or state officials above your pay grade, ask them how it can be unprofessional to expect that educational decisions be based on “real science” that shows a benefit to both teacher and student rather than the wallets of Pearson investors?

The moral of the story is that since we aren’t in the gold digging business, we don’t need to buy shovels from anyone.

And if you just can’t accept that, at least don’t buy your shovels from companies like Pearson, whose only goal is gold by any means necessary.