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

The Teeches & Leeches… by Dr. Soods

The Enemy

 

The peeples of Lernville were learners—the best!

They shared what they learned; it was school, sans contest.

 

The pathways of Lernville were twisty and turny,

Fun things to look at, no one in a hurry.

 

The Pooples of Lernville were taught by their Teeches—

The Teeches of Lernville: adored by their Pooples.

 

Learning’s the journey peeps wanted to last,

They never got finished, “What for?” they all asked.

 

The Teeches all knew each Poople they taught

And the Pooples were happy—they learned quite a lot!

 

The Teeches helped Pooples with readin’ and writin’,

They helped them with buildin’, they helped ‘em stop fightin’.

 

Teeches taught Pooples old songs and new dances

They talked about kings, long ago happenstances.

 

Pooples learned to count numbers, they learned algebratin’

It weren’t always easy— it could be frustratin’…

 

But all of the Pooples knew Teeches were there

To help them and guide them if they felt despair.

 

Teeches helped ‘em explore the world and its voices,

The Pooples of Lernville, they made learning choices.

 

Their neighbors in Gatesville weren’t nearly so lucky,

The Schoolmeister there was really quite touchy.

 

“A box for each student! A box that they’ll fit in—

We chop ‘em, we pound any part that is stickin’!

 

“We make sure they learns every fact in the book,

Or go back and start over, by hookety-crook!”

 

Gatesville was orderly; neat and quite straightly,

No wasting of time, no Poople-come-lately.

 

Schoolmeister McDuncan was very specific,

His speeches on learning were, alas, quite prolific.

 

A standard for reading, a test when that’s finished,

More standards, more tests to keep students skittish!

 

Obedient students reading 70/30,

Not too much fiction; it makes your head hurty!

 

The two Bros. Kooks were both up for a quest,

They relished a chance to purloin an int’rest.

 

They handed McDuncan their credit-y cards,

And told him to spend ‘til the stack reached to Mars.

 

And the man Gatesville’s named for, he told them to hurry,

“We got to remember, Standards must be quite sure-y!”

 

Together they Kooked up a doozy for students,

They called it the Kommon Kore Standard Impudence.

 

“No student can do this! It’s truly implacable–

With this we can show Lernville Teeches are laughable!”

 

“Once Lernville parents lose faith in their Teeches,

We sell them our Kommon Komputery Leeches!”

 

Quite soon in Lernville, the message descended,

Less fun for Pooples! No school open-ended!

 

It’s got to be done to fight off the foreigners,

National security calls for cast-iron outcomers.

 

The Teeches of Lernville were terribly stressed,

They didn’t believe what they worked for were tests.

 

The Pooples of Lernville felt less than inspired—

Their grades on the tests could get Teeches fired?

 

In place of the Teeches the Leeches were tendered,

Costly machines that Poople minds might be rendered.

 

At this point, Teeches and Pooples became furious,

They hated the changes, which had grown rather serious.

 

And all of the Teeches, they came to consensus

That all of that testing made no common senses.

 

They marched to the office of Principal Doopt,

“This testing is tedious, it’s dull and we’ve drooped,”

they said in one voice, “Away with this scam!

We want to help Pooples, that’s who we am!”

 

And all of the peeps of Lernville that day

Decided to make sure that Teeches would stay.

 

“We don’t want Leeches or any machines

That don’t know our Pooples and walk in like kings.”

 

And that’s how they ended the Kooky Kore Schemin’

While Pooples resumed both learnin’ and dreamin’:

“We want to do stuff, and share what we’re learning,

School always includes things we might need for earning.

But don’t try to stuff us like moon pies for parties,

‘Cause the dreamin’ part makes us more than just smarties!” 

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

The Common Good For Sale?

Obamole Payment for Testing

“Where we demand rights and deny obligations, we assert Entitlement. We secure our rights when we accept matching obligations.“  Robert Fripp

Persons who have never heard of Robert Fripp have likely heard his music. He is  guitarist extraordinaire for the likes of King Crimson and David Bowie. Mr. Fripp has been fighting a lengthy battle against piracy of his music by both individual listeners and corporations who enable that piracy, like Grooveshark. He justifiably bristles at the notion that persons feel entitled to deprive him of earnings by illegally “sharing” digital files of his music.

But Mr. Fripp’s quotation is one-sided, and requires a corollary:

Where we prescribe obligations and violate rights, we assert Tyranny. Where rights are demanded, or obligations are pronounced by one party without consent by the other – citizen taking advantage of society or unilateral demands of citizens by government – both individual rights and the common good are endangered.

We need to acknowledge the reciprocal relationship between individuals and society that democracy demands. For example, students have the right to expect an appropriate educational program in the public schools as long as they respect the institution and facilities that serve that purpose. Another student obligation is to do a reasonable amount of work to justify the investment society makes in their pursuit of happiness. As adults, they should also support that society by paying reasonable taxes and contributing to the improvement of government through active participation in public affairs.

Society, on the other hand, should accept that the student and their family will have a reasonable level of input into the determination of the purpose and process of the educational experience. The rules of education should not be changed midstream; the benefits of the educational experience should be primarily to the student. Society must also accept that this investment meets a public obligation to support the individual’s rights to a true “education,” and that this education is not guaranteed to produce compliant workers. A society’s only “profit” from education is in creating a population committed to democratic principles that sustain the social order.

When organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations make remarks like “students are leaving school without the math and science skills needed for jobs in modern industry…These efforts build on President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which was the first federal effort to measure and publicize student test results, and the success of charter schools and voucher programs, which allow families to choose the best school for their children,” they reveal the dark undertones of their vision. John Ralston Saul calls such statements indicators of “an anti-public sector campaign that has created a sense of panicked urgency around the subject of privatization and cuts.”

The current “Standards Based” movement is a cause that threatens Tyranny. It is being implemented despite the fact that it is less than likely that such a plan will facilitate the pursuit of happiness by any individual. It is excessively focused on producing what the corporate structures that rig the game demand—obedient taxpayers who will strive to maintain American economic dominance in a world economy.

But education has never been a sufficient means to that end. It is a necessary part of the equation, but is distorted in purpose when an economic outcome becomes the measuring stick for success. Economists wrongly argue that anything and everything has its price—that learners (or their tax-paying parents) are simply consumers of the ”product” of education, and that cost/benefit analysis is sufficient criteria for assessing its value.

This distortion exposes the inappropriate role of corporations in educational policy. Bill Gates feels entitled to use his wealth to reform schools. His attempts, however, do nothing to amplify the voice of the individual who obtains an education and much to increase the obligations of the individual to accede to the prescriptive approach for schooling that the Standards Based movement represents.

It is time to make schools a place where democracy is not just “taught,” but practiced. When we make that commitment, alienation of students and teachers from the institution they share will lessen. Educators and legislators need to tell Bill Gates that America’s schools are no longer for sale, and they then need to build democracy by providing students with direct experience of that fundamental value during their twelve years of public education.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Call Me Unreliable

AlbertUnreliablefinal

New grading models are based on the premise that a standards-based system requires that scores on assessments be both valid and reliable.

Many believers in standards-based grading claim a score is valid when the score represents a student’s performance on a standard and that a score is reliable when students who demonstrate the same understanding of a standard receive the same score.

This is all very “scientific” sounding. How much real science is involved, though?

Reliability is the central issue—so what makes an assessment reliable? Well, a measurement made once should be replicable; if we are measuring distance, we use a tool that accurately measures it, like a ruler. If we are measuring time, we might use a “reliable” stopwatch. Doing so should make replicating measurements simple and practical. Both distance and time can be measured reliably because we agree that each has an objective reality and a corresponding system for its measurement.

So what are we measuring at school? I assume we are measuring student learning.

I’ve never seen an objective measurement of learning. Learning is not an objective construct. It has been operationally defined by some as “What you know and can do,” but a remarkable number of educators and psychologists reject that notion as a convenient reductionist fallacy. That definition is based on the belief that learning is an outcome. Learning can be described in a variety of ways—as open-ended inquiry, for example. If we view learning as primarily a process or journey that has no distinct conclusion, then we ought to accept that learning is best judged by the unexpected outcomes that accompany it—and we will reject authoritarian notions that outcomes conform to pre-ordained “standards” or “proficiency scales.”

Since it isn’t possible to measure or observe learning directly, it must be inferred from the performance of students. We give tests; we ask students to respond to questions or to solve problems or perform some skill relevant to a content area. We create scales to clarify how performance is to be evaluated—in the hope and belief that we’ll all “measure learning” reliably. We create “common formative and summative assessments” so that students can be “guaranteed” a specific experience and outcome.

But it doesn’t work.

Human beings seldom see things in exactly the same way as other humans. Tools like proficiency scales are subject to variable interpretation and application. Humans make subjective judgments of non-objective realities, using measuring tools that are blunt instruments.  Judging complex thought and performance—even with established standards—is a messy, awkward process that ought to caution against certainty, guarantees, or claims of “objectivity.” Taking the illogic of standards-based evaluation to its nadir, proponents also want to use these unreliable scores for evaluation of a second party—teachers themselves.

In the end, education itself is inherently un-reliable. That’s one reason it holds fascination for both teacher and student. Acknowledgement of this fact may free us from the discomfort that trying to shoehorn objective measures into a subjective framework produces.

And if reliability eludes us, validity is out the window as well.

Just ask a scientist.

We’d be better off with an honestly un-reliable system.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Are We Simply Mad?

Are We Mad Graphic

Bedlam.

The word invokes images of madmen chained to walls, ignored by society, abused by caretakers. We cringe at the idea that places like Bethlem Royal Hospital (nicknamed “Bedlam”) actually existed to isolate the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, under the oppressive watch of “keepers” like Helkiah Crooke and James Monro. You could end up in Bedlam if your behavior did not fit social norms, if you stuttered, if you suffered from strabismus or physical deformity…or just about anything else that might set you apart from society. A lifetime of imprisonment and abuse accompanied the label of insanity.

So, what determines that a person is “mad” today? The recent publication of DSM5, the new diagnostic manual for mental disorder, has touched off a firestorm of debate within the medical community. The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) has declared that it “will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.” It’s fascinating that scientists are rejecting a cookie-cutter approach to defining mental disorders and advocating for the conscious application of subjective professional judgment when the educational community seems hell-bent on doing just the opposite.

Educators live in bedlam today, and Charlotte Danielson, Robert Marzano, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan and their ilk are our new Helkiah Crookes. The Gates Foundation funding of Common Core State Standards has given rise to a new House of Bedlam, created without any meaningful input from public school teachers. The U.S. Department of Education, eager to subvert the delegated state power over public school curricula, has leveraged Bedlam by requiring states to accept the CCSS or forgo federal funding for schools. The Danielson Group tools for teacher and principal evaluation places educators in Bedlam cells of specific, measurable, attainable, (un-)realistic, and time-bound goals. Bob Marzano’s Professional Learning Community (PLC) scheme promotes itself with quasi-evangelical workshops that demonize educators resistant to the dogmas of standards-based education.

Conservative political lust for objectifying learning outcomes has blinded us to the value that professional judgment offers. When we accept that “standards” should function as an adjunct to qualified discernment—and not as a replacement for it—we will emerge from bedlam.

We’re mad, you know.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Does Music Lie?

Albert Tuba

“Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.”  Jimi Hendrix

But what is music? That might sound like a ridiculous question, but I wonder how our history might have been different if Standards Based Music Education had been the focus of schools in the 1940s or ‘50s.

I can only imagine what “standards” would have been imposed on little James Marshall Hendrix. Who would have been selected to write the standards? Certainly not the musicians that led the way in jazz, blues or bluegrass—Duke Ellington, McKinley Morganfield and Bill Monroe need not apply. The more likely candidate — Will Earhart, a music educator who you’ve probably never heard of. Earhart was convinced that the “beauty” of music should be appreciated by all students. Appreciate beauty? Great idea, isn’t it? But how would it be measured or described? Earhart’s standard for beauty clearly excluded the amplified instruments used in rock and roll or the loose approach to rhythm that characterizes blues music.  Jimi would have failed according to such standards—his playing was frequently ahead of or behind the beat, his amplifier distorted, with feedback shrieking. Some music educators today might still side with Earhart.

Standards tend to be written by academics, and the standards they produce are essentially conservative—they preserve the status quo rather than encourage learners to challenge accepted practice or extend the boundaries of a discipline. A standards-oriented musical academic of that era might have told Jimi, “You’re right, music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, it better happen outside of music. And what you’re doing isn’t music.”

History has spoken on that subject. Jimi changed the face of popular music, and had to do so entirely outside of the academic scene. How many other “Jimis” have been made to feel inadequate, unwanted, or inept at school because their interpretation of content, concepts or skills lay beyond an accepted academic norm?

If you’re a parent of a student, consider the impact that a standards-based education may have on your child’s ability or desire to “think outside the box.” The more we reduce knowledge or skills to a list of arbitrary standards, the more likely that we pre-empt constructive and creative change because we lie to students—we lead them to believe they have “mastered” a subject if they can check off the various boxes on whatever list we proffer.

Does music lie? No. Neither does mathematics, history, or any other field of human endeavor. The truth is that no field of knowledge will ever be complete, nor can a list of “standards” encompass any of the disciplines. When we reduce knowledge to a set of “standards,” we not only encourage students to view education as a finite experience, but also encourage teachers to eliminate anything that didn’t make the cut.  Education then ceases to be that open-ended journey that both students and teachers might contribute to.

Don’t lie to students. They deserve to explore the truths we have discovered thus far, and to add their discoveries to the ever-flowing river of learning.

© David Sudmeier, 2014