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Thompson: Kamenetz & Gallup Nail the Key to School Improvement

EngagedAs the Hechinger Report’s Anya Kamenetz notes in Almost 70% of Teachers Are Not Engaged. Here’s Why That Matters So Much, “there’s an intimate connection between the schoolroom engagement of students, and the workplace engagement of teachers.” She then cites the truism that has been lost on school reformers, “Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.” 

Kamenetz reviews a brilliant analysis by Gallup Education, The State of America’s Schools. My joy in reading the study, and Kamenetz’s explanation,  was tempered only by a sense of regret that its main themes were not the basis of the contemporary school reform movement.  

Data-driven reform, in part, was born of an ill-considered effort to sound macho. Testing, like attacks on teachers, allowed reformers to chant tough-sounding words like “accountability” and “outputs.” 

Gallup explains how reform produced “a rigid set of education standards.”  It created “a stranglehold on teachers and students.”  Consequently, “teachers are dead last among the occupational groups Gallup surveyed in terms of their likelihood to say their opinions seem to count at work.”

As Gallup’s Brandon Busteed reports, reformers got it backwards. The path to school improvement requires a commitment to “soft” measures, such as hope, feeling valued, emotional relationships, and being engaged in teaching and learning. Busteed says, “quote unquote ‘soft’ measures move the quote unquote ‘hard’ measures, like grades and test scores.”

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Thompson: How Seniority Reform Backfired In Minneapolis

LayoffsI have long held the counter-intuitive opinion that mending, not ending, seniority could have been the most doable and beneficial first step in school improvement. I must emphasize that the direct benefits of reforming the imperfect but pretty good seniority system would have been modest. Had we worked collaboratively to make incremental gains in that process, however, we could have built the trust necessary to tackle tougher issues. 

Instead, reformers made the uninformed snap judgment that “LIFO,” or the rule of “last in, first out,” must be ended. They didn’t even bother to ask why seniority serves as the teacher’s First Amendment. It is the best single protection that teachers will be able to express their professional judgments, thus protecting students from reckless educational experiments. 

The Star Tribune’s Steve Brandt, in Poorest Minneapolis Schools Still Have the Greenest Teachers, explains how ending the “iron grip” of seniority backfired. (Hat tip to Sarah Lahm and Edushyster.) Brandt reports that a “Star Tribune analysis of teacher experience data by school found that, if anything, the experience gap between high- and low-poverty schools has widened” since so-called LIFO was ended. Six years ago, under the seniority system, the gap between average teaching experience at the highest- and lowest-seniority schools analyzed was 14 years, but it is now 15 years. The pattern is still, "poverty up, experience down."

Brandt describes inexperienced principals of high-poverty schools being stuck with even more inexperienced teachers. For instance, a second year principal finds herself with seventeen of her 31 of her teachers being probationary.

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Thompson: NYC Can Happen Here

ConformHow did we get here from there? How can an American democracy produce such a disgusting educational culture? How did schools in New York City sink so low?

OK,  it is sick enough that Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies fire students up to “SLAM the Exam” by rewarding them with basketballs and Converse sneakers for test-prep instruction. But, some people have always conformed to anything to get ahead.

As Chalkbeat New York's Patrick Walls reports, in With State Exams Underway Schools Turn from Test Prep to Test Pep, Chancellor Carmen Farina urged principals not to go overboard on test preparation. She said:

The best preparation for the test is a rich, thoughtful, engaging curriculum that awakens curiosity in students, inspires them to ask questions, helps them explore complex problems, and encourages them to imagine possibilities. We understand that the best classrooms are lively places where students are immersed in conversation, debating ideas, and developing perspectives and viewpoints.

Walls reports that some principals have heeded Farina's call and use humor or, even, yoga to reduce anxiety. But, "other schools prefer to psych students up rather than cool them down," and "some schools have spent weeks administering practice exams and reviewing test-taking strategies."

Though ostensibly liberated from a culture test prep, why do these principals continue with the most disgraceful legacies of “teaching to the test?” Why do they continue to indoctrinate children as if they are pets into a system of rewards and punishment?

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Thompson: How Common Core Is Being Defeated In Oklahoma

The Common_Core_Standards_Pushback_0ab1cNPR report Common Core Turns Business Leaders Against Oklahoma GOP, by Claudio Sanchez, must be understood within the context of business conservatives and Christian Conservatives having turned the state into a bastion of Republicanism.

Just a few months ago, it was inconceivable that Oklahoma would repudiate Common Core, but now the Republican Governor and Republican State Superintendent, Chief for Change Janet Baressi, are getting clobbered by what Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Dorman calls the “unfunded nightmare” that is Common Core.

Sanchez stresses the anger and political fear felt by conservative business Republicans in reaction to the grassroots assault on Common Core. He quotes Chamber of Commerce leader Mike Neal who derides the conservative Restore Oklahoma Public Education and others as “fringe groups.”

Neal rejects as fear-mongering the claims that Common Core is a federal scheme, that “private groups will mine and profit from test results,” and that it will undermine local control. But, isn’t there more truth in those statements than Neal’s claim that it won’t take local control away "at all?”

Neal’s opponent is Jenni White, a former teacher, a published epidemiologist, and a Christian with two adopted children from Zambia, as well as her biological children. In my conversations with Ms. White and other conservative opponents of Common Core at the State Capitol, I did not hide my support for President Obama (while opposing his education policy).  I would never judge Ms. White as a fringe element and I don’t believe she judged me either.

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Thompson: Bill Moyers Interviews Diane Ravitch

MoyersWhat do you get when you combine Bill Moyers and Diane Ravitch? WISDOM!

Both are among the all-time greats of their professions. During the Iraq War, I sometimes tried to duck Moyers' reports because he spoke more truth than I wanted to handle.  Similarly, as Ravitch assembles her case that test-driven accountability had morphed into "corporate reform," I'm often afraid of her message. But, Ravitch and Moyers do their homework before speaking the truths that I sometimes don't want to confront.   

Moyers began his PBS Public Schools for Sale by reviewing the $3-1/2 million dollar campaign against populist Mayor Bill de Blasio. He cited the New York Times' report that de Blasio was "even dialing up billionaires to ask for a truce." Moyers' said that what is at stake is the future of public education.

Ravitch warned that within a decade public education could be dead in cities like Detroit, New Orleans, Washington D.C., Kansas City, and Indianapolis. I've long worried about the same thing happening in my Oklahoma City. As choice in a time of cutthroat competition grows, it is easy to see how traditional public schools in those cities could become nothing more than "dumping grounds for the children that charters don't want."  Those are hard words, but can anyone on any side of our reform wars deny that the danger Ravitch describes is very real? 

Ravitch then articulated the single best principle for helping poor children of color, "Aim for equity and you get excellence."

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Thompson: 25,000 Rally for Education in Oklahoma

Rally I was one of 25,000 to 30,000 teachers, students, and parents rallying at the Oklahoma State Capitol.

No, this is not an April Fool's joke!

After education spending was cut more than any other state, while the full load of test-driven reforms were imposed, we are pushing back. Despite attacks by the Daily Oklahoman and some legislators on teachers for "abandon(ing) their posts ... for no good reason," the rally showed that public education supporters aren't going to take it anymore.

Signs protesting nonstop testing and budget cuts were everywhere. The Tulsa World's Kim Archer, in Rally for School Funding Draws 25,000 Teachers, Parents, Students, reports that two students, Erika Vinson and Asher Nees, "both spoke eloquently about how teachers have changed their lives."

Vinson compared teachers to gardeners who "have more flowers to look after with fewer resources in drought-like conditions." She explained the stress that high-stakes testing puts students, especially 3rd graders.  She proclaimed, "I am, not —absolutely not — the end-of-instruction tests."

Jeffrey Corbett, president of the Oklahoma Parent Teacher Association, echoed the opposition to the testing mania. He said, "It is time for the era of standardized testing as the dominant force in education to end."

John Tuttle, president-elect of the National School Boards Association, even used the P-word, opposing efforts to "privatize" public schools, "I believe that public education is a civil right and the cornerstone of our democracy." 

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Thompson: LA School Report Misstates On Vergara Lawsuit

DemocracyLA School Report's Michael Janofsky, in Analysis: Vergara Approaching Time for Tru Judgment, fundamentally misstates the issues in Vergara v. California, which seeks to overturn the state's tenure, seniority, and due process laws.

Janofsky claims that the question is, "Are the laws, as they exist, the best and only way for the state to provide California school children access to a quality education, as the state Constitution provides?"

No! Even the best of laws are the flawed results of the imperfect sausage-making that is self-government. In our constitutional democracy, Janofsky, the corporate reformers, and the economists who testified for the plaintiffs have a right to believe whatever they want about the best ways to help poor children of color. The issue is whether they proved their case, supporting their opinion that duly enacted laws, passed with the intent of helping teachers, but not hurting students, should be stricken. 

If those laws are stricken, who will determine the best and only way to provide a quality education?  

Janofsky also claims that the plaintiffs' arguments are more "systemic," while the defendants' are more "granular."  Perhaps he means that the plaintiffs' experts are economists viewing schools from 30,000 feet, but unaware of education research or facts on the ground. He is correct, however, about their tactic of "using the experiences of nine students as a motif" for showing that California needs better legislation for firing teachers. "The fact that one child’s education could be compromised," writes Janofsky, repeating the plaintiff's public relations spin, "means all children are at risk."

Yeah, that's an interesting motif and a nice soundbite, but it is completely divorced from reality.

I'd say that the demand for a system where no terminations could be mishandled  and no students could be assigned an ineffective teacher is a pretty granular goal, and it is downright utopian to boot. Where did we get this idea that because voters haven't cured all our social ills, the elites should determine the laws of the land? Why believe that the corporate funders of Vergara would not, once again, take inequities and make them worse?-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via

Thompson: Musings on This Year's Spring Break Grand Canyon Trip

Brandy%20standing%201[1]I just returned from another Spring Break trip to the Grand Canyon, although my travel companions are now thirty-somethings. It was a reminder of the wonders of teaching in the inner city. Whether it is playing basketball with students, or being schooled by the kids and by former students on cutting edge digital innovations, there is nothing like the joy of teaching.

Being quick (some say too quick) to see something new on a trip and to turn it into an outdoor lesson, I'm reminded of how much I loved classroom instruction. Even so, it is only one part of the job. It is no more than the point of the spear in the war on underperformance. And, that prompted a first musing.

Marveling at the Grand Canyon, I could ignore the problems with teacher evaluation regulations, described by Education Week's Michelle McNeil's Arne Duncan on Who's Winning the Race to the Top.  The RttT, like his School Improvement Grants, and other innovations were drafted by noneducators who did not understand that teaching and learning are acts of love, not the results of rewards and punishment. Those expensive programs were doomed because the wisdom of veteran educators, who understand the need for trusting relationships, were shunned by the programs' architects. So, even though I did my best to not think about school reform while at the Grand Canyon, I could not resist a thought experiment.

How many students' lives could have been transformed if the $5 million SIG grant at my old school of Centennial had been invested win-win solutions to our real problems? Our educational defeats were due to the predictable result of too many poor children, with too few adult role models, being segregated in a world with too few opportunities for hopes and dreams. What would have been the result of well-funded, well-planned, high-quality field trips inside and outside of the city? A series of intergenerational adventures would have nurtured the bonds necessary to learn for mastery and prepare for life after school.

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Thompson: Two Cheers NY Daily News' Account of Charter Wars

DeblasioTwo cheers for Parents and Children Get Caught Between Charter School Feud with Teachers Union and Pro-Charter Forces by the New York Daily News’ Ben Chapman and Greg Smith.

Newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio seeks to cut back on charter schools while their backers have turned NYC into the frontlines of the national battle for increased school choice. Chapman and Smith concluded that both sides are similarly funded, and I have no reason to challenge their findings. Presumably, both sides have an equal opportunity to fund comparable public relations campaigns promoting their dueling visions of school improvement.  

However, I would challenge the concluding quote, “the people most affected by all this — moms, dads and children — sometimes feel left out of the equation.”

The people who are most affected in New York and across the nation, are unaware of this conflict. It is the children who are not welcome in charters who have most skin in the game. Elite backers of choice, such as Eva Moskowitz, are not about to retain kids who make it more difficult to post test score increases.

For instance, Diane Ravitch and Evi Blaustein, in Fact-Checking Eva's Claims on National Television, explain that Success Academies enroll as few as1/2 as many English Language Learners as neighboring schools. The students in Success Academies have "an economic need index (a measure of students in temporary housing and/or who receive public assistance) that is 35 percent lower than nearby public schools." Suspension rates at Success Academies are up to 300% as large as neighboring schools.

The Daily News should pay less attention about the charter advocates' spin about serving children and more attention to what the parents of those more difficult-to-educate students think about their choice.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via

Thompson: An Even Sadder Tale of D.C. Common Core Testing

ChairsThe Washington Post’s Emma Brown, in D.C. Mulls Common Core Test Switch, explains that four years ago the D.C. schools opted for the PARCC Common Core Test rather than the Smarter Balanced assessment. Back then, little was known about the ways that the assessments would differ. Now, a powerful case can be made that the district should switch to the Smarter Balanced test.

If Common Core tests are necessary, I'd say, in an urban district the case for Smarter Balanced is overwhelming. Arguments against the transition to the more appropriate tests are worrisome.

Brown links to the blogger Ken Archer at Greater Greater Education, who has access to the minutes of a meeting of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). The OSSE administers the district’s tests and it is open to a change away from PARCC. Archer reports that the "OSSE discussed their intentions to engage in a series of stakeholder discussions with regards to the choice of common core next generation assessments.”

But, Chancellor Kaya Henderson has a disturbing reason for opposing the seemingly better test. Henderson opposes a transition because “teachers unions would see it as an opening to attack the Common Core and testing in general.”

The best reason for switching to the Smarter Balanced test is that it is a computer-adaptive assessment. Adaptive testing is one of the promising technologies that were undermined by No Child Left Behind. Adaptive assessments adjust the questions asked based on the test-takers’ ability to handle tougher or easier questions. They could be essential in helping 8th graders with 4th grade skills so they don't give up and drop out of school when standards are abruptly raised.

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Thompson: Killer Tornado Proves that Schools Still Need Rules

Tornado-damage-115801_640The Daily Oklahoman's Nasreen Iqbal, in Structural Faults Found in Destroyed Moore Elementary School, Engineer Says, explains that when an EF5 tornado hit two elementary schools, killing seven students, that there was no guarantee that a tragedy would have been prevented had construction standards been respected.

But, engineers inspected one of the destroyed Moore, Oklahoma schools and found, "Walls lacking reinforced concrete. An anchor bolt pulled from the ground. In several places, the 30-year-old school had no connection between the masonry wall and support beam."

I need to be equally careful in addressing the obvious lesson. I don't claim that market-driven reformers (and others who distrust regulatory systems) don't care about children. I just argue they are naive about the supposed public benefits of private sector competition.

Corporate reformers should heed the lessons of history. Over the 20th century, unions and workers overcame great obstacles to help enact legal regulations protecting health, safety, and other public goods. I doubt we have entered a new epoch where the rule of law is no longer necessary for checking the power of private enterprise and management. As bad as the tornado was, pretending that education no longer needs regulations is a recipe for really reaping the whirlwind.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.

Thompson: What's TFA's Role In Mass Dismissals of Teachers?

Header4Blogger Bob Braun’s Newark: 700 Teachers May Be Laid Off, Many Replaced by TFA fed the firestorm over Superintendent Cami Anderson’s and Gov. Chris Christie’s plans for the Newark schools. Braun cited union sources who said that TFA alumni Anderson will try to fire about 700 teachers and “replace about half with new hires, including the TFA members.”

TFA’s Fatimah Burnam Watkins replied that her organization sought to place “special education, science and math [that] are hard to fill.” She condemned Braun’s report as “full of toxic inaccuracies.” 

So, how can we sort out the truth? Do we just need to wait and see whether Newark follows the pattern of mass closings of schools as in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and other districts? Do we have no way of determining in advance whether TFA is no more than a supplier of teachers who are scarce, or whether it is a prime prerequisite for the mass dismissal of teachers?

Edushuyster’s Internal Documents Reveal Charter Expansion, TFA Go Hand in Hand can help answer that question. A former union communications staffer, Jennifer Berkshire looked into the Detroit corporate reform effort and their investigation of what it takes to attract charter management organizations (CMOs) to take over schools (now staffed by union members.) She linked to Broad Foundation emails explaining what is required for recruiting CMOs. In three emails, the presence of TFA was cited as an important factor in taking over schools.

I doubt many people are shocked, shocked that market-driven reformers see TFA as a resource for their market-driven campaigns. At minimum, Watkins and her organization owe Braun an apology. Edushuyster’s reporting adds to the evidence that TFA owes an apology to veteran teachers whose hard-earned salaries and benefits have made them targets.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.    

TV Shows: LA Vouchers May Be Root Of Evil On "True Detective"

image from i.kinja-img.comI thought TWIE contributor John Thompson was joking when he told me there was an education angle in HBO's gritty serial killer / murder mystery, True Detective.  But it's true: 

"Turns out that the root of all evil may be Christian voucher schools," notes one of several blog posts about the recent turn of events -- a plot twist that mirrors the current voucher debate going on in real life.  

The Onion's AV Club notes the show is "taking aim at Louisiana's very real, and very awful school voucher system."

I'll leave the details out since they'll be spoilers for many folks.  But folks are asking about it on Quora, and of course you can find out more on Wikipedia. There's a creepily administrative scene between Reverend Tuttle and one of the detectives you can watch here.

This isn't the first time that an HBO show has taken on a school reform issue.  David Simon's Treme included a rap about TFAers taking career educators' jobs in New Orleans.  The Wire described how violent and impersonal Baltimore schools could be.

Thompson: The Way to Save Common Core (If It's Worth Saving)

CommoncoreMorgan Polikoff's guest post, To Save the Common Core, Don't Fear the Moratorium, at Rick Hess Straight Up is a must-read for supporters of standards based reforms seeking a way to rescue Common Core from its botched implementation.  

I sometimes hope that advocates for college readiness standards will recognize the mess they created and make common sense adjustments. Other times, I believe that it would be best for them to continue down their doomed path and hope that the debacle will bring down the entire data-driven movement. Then, the next generation of school improvement could heed Polikoff''s advice. 

Polikoff believes that standards based reform and "some modest accountability" can drive school improvement. He makes the strong case that before NCLB they contributed to a decade or two of incremental improvements. 

His narrative gets confusing when he gets to their antithesis - standardized test-driven NCLB-type reform.   In one post, Polikoff endorses "consequential accountability." In another piece, he writes about "the abject failure of standards implementation under No Child Left Behind." 

Polikoff argues that "the major unforced error" of the Obama administration's was pushing Common Core standards and value-added teacher evaluations contemporaneously. This has created "the increasingly real possibility that teacher evaluation will destroy the Common Core in some places."

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Thompson: Pro-Reform Pundit Embraces Education Reality

YglesiasSlate's Matthew Yglesias supports education reform and yet his Education Reform, Not "Populism" Divides Democrats speaks the wisdom that must be heeded.*

Yglesias observes that the party is not that terribly conflicted over the arcane economic issue of whether "leverage ratio" should be 10 or 8%. But, "if you want to look at a really significant ideological divide among Democrats, you should look at education." Reformers made their case and Congress didn't buy it.

So, it is time to drop the theory that test-driven teacher evaluations can advance a progressive agenda and move on.

I hope Yglesias will listen to educators' explanation of why market-driven reform failed, so that he can advance conversations about the best ways for not making the same types of mistakes in other sectors of the economy. I also would like to hear from the reformers who Yglesias mentions, especially Sen. Cory Booker and President Obama, and understand why they embraced school reform. Did they do so because corporate reformers gave them an offer they couldn't refuse, or did we teachers make mistakes that encouraged them to attack our profession so stridently? 

Politicos may find this wierd, but the teacher in me keeps coming back to the question of whether we share the blame for the teacher-bashing known as "reform." Back in the 1990s, were we too slow to address the concerns of Chicago and Newark community organizers? Or, were we just in the wrong place at the wrong time and were bulldozed by the Billionaires' Boys Club? 

After the break is the case that I would like to make to Ygleisas.

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Thompson: Shouldn't We Have Choice in Testing?

SatPerhaps a new form of educational choice will drive the next era of school improvement. One would think that advocates for school choice would be consistent and support the rights of parents and students to choose whether to be subjected to standardized tests - or not. 

We should seriously contemplate William Hiss's Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions. Hiss studied 123,000 students at 33 institutions over eight years and he found there was virtually no difference in college grades and graduation rates between students who submitted SATs and ACTs or not.  He also explains, "Human intelligence is so multifaceted, so complex, so varied, that no standardized testing system can be expected to capture it."

NPR's Eric Westervelt, in College Applicants Sweat the SATs: Perhaps They Shouldn't, reports that "Some are calling this study a potential game-changer that may prompt schools to evaluate whether there is value in requiring standardized tests." Of course, he is reporting on colleges, not the bubble-in tests that are used to hold schools, teachers, and students accountable, and there is a difference between the two types of assessments. The difference is that the ACT and SAT tests are more reliable and defensible, and the younger the test taker, the greater the potential damage of the test.

So, if parents and students should be allowed to opt out of college admissions tests, shouldn't that choice be extended to all students? Of course, a study of college outcomes, alone, is not definitive proof that public school testing has failed. It just adds to the evidence that the data-driven reform movement was a historical dead end. Once we offer students headed to college the choice of whether they want to endure more of the testing rat race, the next logical step is to ask parents whether they want high-stakes testing dumped on their children. It leads to a common sense approach to school improvement; Let students and adults opt in or opt out of standardized testing.  And, if they give a test and nobody comes ..., reformers should honor that choice.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.    

Thompson: Why Haven't Reformers Rejected High-Stakes Tests (Yet)?

Tests Against my better judgment, being a team player, I originally supported my union and the majority of teachers who endorsed NCLB. Watching the recent TeachPlus presentation, The Student and the Stopwatch, and listening to the Education Next discussion on the time devoted to testing, I wondered how many participants are doing the same thing.

Leading the discussion with Dave Driscoll, Andrew Rotherham, and TeachPlus’s Celine Coggins, Mike Petrilli kept probing, asking whether high-stakes testing was to blame for excessive test prep. I hope they are just being team players as they all seemed close to acknowledging that high stakes testing had failed. 

None, however, said aloud the logical conclusion that they seemed to be approaching.

Driscoll and Rotherham described the benefits of Massachusetts’ standards based reforms and the “sea change” produced by President Clinton’s reforms of 1994.  Both nailed the key reason for those successes, and both came close to articulating the reason why NCLB failed, and why a Common Core/high stakes testing train wreck is coming.    

Rotherham even coined the best Common Core metaphor that I’ve heard.  Hoping it will solve the problems created by NCLB is like a couple having a baby to save their marriage.
To fully appreciate the wisdom of Rotherham’s punch line, we have to back up and think through his and Driscoll’s diagnosis of education’s real problems.

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Thompson: Parents Should Opt Out - And Teachers Should Help

TestI plead guilty to not being militant enough in resisting NCLB-type testing.  Had teachers put up a real fight, including "sick-outs" on testing day, they could not have fired us all, and our students would not have had to endure more than a decade of bubble-in malpractice. 

The Tulsa World's Kim Archer, in Parents Opting Kids Out of State Testing Could Put Schools in a Bind, points to a way for teachers to atone for our timidity. The state of Oklahoma has joined Chicago, New York City (under Mike Bloomberg), and others in attempting to intimidate parents into dropping their protests against high-stakes testing. Archer explains the reason, "If test participation dips below 90 percent, the district receives an automatic F, according to the A-F school grade law."

School systems often make herculean efforts to test 95% of students, which is the required minimum for each test. If only one or two students per class were to boycott bubble-in testing, the entire system would collapse. They can't give every school an "F," can they?

Of course, we would have to be strategic and we would have to put student welfare first. We could not expect many parents to opt their 3rd graders out of tests required to pass to 4th grade. Neither could we ask high school students to boycott End of Instruction tests, until they passed the minimum number required to graduate.  Except in the inner city, most students pass the prerequisite four tests by their junior year. If they boycott the rest, the A-F Report Card scheme would crater.

Teachers, of course, need to be more than fans, cheering on students and parents who opt out. I would start a legal defense fund to challenge high-stakes testing abuses. Whenever a student is denied a high school diploma due to failing Common Core or "Common Core-type" graduation exams, for instance, if he has not had an appropriate amount of Common Core or Common Core-type instruction, we should litigate for that student.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.       

Thompson: What Do "Influentials" Think They Are Doing?

Department_of_Education_-_NCLB_doorI know it’s weird, but I still have a strange curiosity about what education policy-makers think they’re doing.  Eduwonk’s Whiteboard Advisors Education Insiders Survey provides some clues, albeit complicated ones. 

The latest survey of movers and shakers concludes that collaboration and team building, risk taking, and decision making are the most important leadership skills. I agree with two of them, but I’d argue that the most important leadership value should be “first, do no harm” to the children you want to help. 

The survey determined that the three most important technical skills of policy leaders are content expertise, communication skills, and research, analysis and evaluation. Several volunteered comments about the value of actual teaching experience, however. The bottom three answers, however, were project management, strategic planning, and implementation management.

The Whiteboard Advisors then asked the astute question of what three skills they should have focused on at the age of 25.  Those answers were the opposite!  The majority wished that they had focused on real-world skills involving planning, management, and implementation. All three, by the way, are skills that effective teachers and administrators practice. In doing so, many or most practitioners become more risk-adverse.

Then, the survey’s finding really got complicated. When asked the three most overrated skills, strategic planning, project management, and research and analysis were the most overrated!

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Thompson: Weingarten Gets The Right Balance In Oklahoma City

Randi_Weingarten_2008_croppedAfter watching AFT President Randi Weingarten wow an audience of religious and labor leaders in Oklahoma City, I’m convinced that the union has reached the proper balance between resistance and collaboration.

She presented The Principles that Unite Us, a plan for communities and labor to unite for educational and social justice. It is also a counter-attack against corporate reform.

Weingarten started by recognizing the insight of the pastor’s opening prayer. This week, our 91% low-income district again closed schools due to the cold. Too many children would have been waiting for school busses without coats, gloves, and hats.

Randi and the AFT embrace the old-fashioned idea that educators must model democratic practices. The effort to improve the lives of poor children of color must be “rooted in communities.”  

Weingarten took her stand at the Fairview Baptist Church, which is led by some of Oklahoma’s most dedicated civil rights leaders. That postage stamp of urban America illustrates the bitter conflicts that continue to divide us. A few blocks to the southeast was Ralph Ellison’s old neighborhood, where The Invisible Man was inspired.  The “No Trespass Zone” where Governor “Alfalfa Bill” Murray placed a machine gun to enforce “Jim Crow” segregation was a few hundred yards away.

School patrons are justifiable angry about the past and present. That is why, a few blocks to the north, the California-based Parent Revolution found an audience. Its organizer urged parents to “go to war” against the school district. If their “parent trigger” goes into effect, it is not clear that the Oklahoma City Public School System will survive.

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Thompson: Rep. Miller Had To Have Known How NCLB Would Be Implemented

NclbEdSource’s Kathryn Baron, in NCLB Co-author Says He Never Anticipated Federal Law Would Force Testing Obsession, reports that Rep. George Miller, an  architect of No Child Left Behind, says that he did not intend to create “what some have charged is a simplistic ‘drill and kill’ approach that subverts real instruction.”

Miller claims that the most important part of the law was reporting data on the outcomes of each demographic group. This “turned out to be a firestorm.”

No! The reporting of disaggregated test score data was a win-win policy welcomed by all types of stakeholders.  It was the high-stakes testing that educators oppose.

Miller undercuts his professions of innocence to dumbing down teaching and learning. He says that “there were people who believed that drill and kill could lead to learning. And there were people who were drilling and killing and saying ‘This is absolutely wrong. But that was the policy’.”

Miller still seems oblivious to the damage done by creating the utopian goal of 100% proficiency for all students by 2014. And, again, he blames school systems for responding in ways that he should have known were predictable.

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Thompson: Henry Ford's School Reform Lesson [Stability]

FordNPR’s Sarah Cwiek, in The Middle Class Took Off 100 Years Ago ... Thanks to Henry Ford?, noted the centennial of Henry Ford’s policy of paying his workers $5 a day.

The policy of paying a living wage sparked a positive feedback loop which helped create middle class prosperity. Ford was not being charitable. He wanted a stable workforce. 

Education research confirms the value of stable teaching forces. This is especially true of high-poverty schools where students face extreme instability in their neighborhoods. 

Even so, some school reformers claim to believe that “churn” or high levels of turnover is a virtue. 

Two recent studies have added to the evidence that high-dollar efforts to turnaround challenging schools have disappointed because they do not recognize the value of stability.

And a recent post from Andy Rotherham notes that class issues play a role in how reformers view stability differently than others.

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Thompson: What Is the Real Intent of Vergara v. California?

FederalistThe most striking thing about Vergara vs California, which would strike down laws protecting teachers' due process, is the lack of evidence that those laws, not the legacies of poverty, damage poor children of color. 

It claims that "separate and together" those laws violate the civil rights of children. One would think that the court would demand evidence for the existance of that alleged interplay of the laws.  

To prove that it is the laws, not management's response to the laws, that causes harm, Vergara apparently relies on nothing but assertions made by management. If their video of the greatest hits of administrators during Vergara's  depositions is any indication, the trial will showcase their sound bites, not evidence. In other words, it is argued that administrators, not lawmakers, who should say what administrative law should be.

Such judicial overreach is almost enough to make us long for the good old days when Vergara’s lead attorney, Theodore Olson, helped found the Federalist Society. It seems like only yesterday that Olson joined with Edwin Meese, Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, Samuel Alioto, and Clarence Thomas to proclaim,   “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be." 

When Olson et. al opposed judicial activism, corporations did not have the rights of people. Or, should I say they did not have the rights that people once had, but that they would now deny to teachers?

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Thompson: Remembering "The Promised Land," Then & Now

LemannI've already shattered my New Year's resolution, which was to pay less attention to education topics of the day and reflect more on big picture issues, such as what does the failure of data-driven school reform mean, and what are its lessons for the inevitable next cycle of school improvement.  But every day brings fascinating new research and political stories, such as  Michelle McNeil's Success for All Again Wins Big, and Loses, in I3 Competition. And now I find myself replying to Alexander Russo's posts from last week.

Russo cites two great journalists, LynNell Hancock and Nicholas Lemann, and he calls on education writers  "to remind yourself about what it takes to examine education issues fairly and dispassionately, with nuance and complexity and prepared to have your mind changed." He then says that "there's far too little of that going on right now," implying both sides of the education wars betray the conventions of scholarly research.

I followed Russo's links and found no evidence for such equivalency. Hancock's Uncommon Ground recalls Anthony Lukas' masterpiece, Common Ground, on racial violence in Boston. Both Hancock and Lukas challenge the simplistic assumptions of a "naive time," and wrestle with the great horror that can be released by racial conflict.  Hancock describes the cavalier attitude of school reformers toward this history, "National school-reform notions from our last decade still wrap themselves in the rhetoric of civil rights. ... The preferred means to the end are now top-down management tools: rating teachers, adding layers of tests, closing failing schools, creating a scattershot collection of privately-run public charters in their stead."

Similarly, Lemann's Schoolwork  criticizes reformers who portray "the reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes," including Geoffrey Canada, Wendy Kopp, and Michelle Rhee. Lemann criticizes the way that reformers (who. I believe, borrow from Karl Rove, whose methods he had previously explored) take details out of context to fit their neat story lines. He challenges their "unproven assumptions" that tenure hurts students and he cites the potential of more conventional approaches, such as Success for All, that show it is not necessary to blow up the system.

Thinking about Lemann reminds me of The Promised Land, and seeing Lemann in action twenty-something years ago. 

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Thompson: Karl Rove's Descendents

Karl_Rove_140x190We have just begun the 2014 countdown to NCLB's universal proficiency target for all students.  I wonder if we'll get there by June.

Seriously, after 12 years, it is time to address some issues in addition to the law's failed, top-down approach to schooling. Was it a good idea to forsake "incrementalism" and demand rapid "transformative" change across the entire nation? It is also time to reflect upon the political strategy of blowing up the educational "status quo" to pave the way for "disruptive innovation."  

We should inventory the ways that NCLB-type reform weakened progressive coalitions, undermining state efforts to promote justice, or at least slow the increase of economic inequities.

It also has been a decade since New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann, in The Controller,  persuaded Karl Rove to reveal that NCLB was a component of his three-part plan for destroying the Democratic Party.  Now that the U.S. Supreme Court declared corporations to be people, the "Billionaires Boys Club" is the new Rove. 

Not all of the new elites seek complete domination of the party that once represented working people, but corporate reformers are rarely reluctant to bulldoze institutions that used to provide some balance of power. 

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Thompson: Why Teachers Need Ravitch & Weingarten

Flickr1Diane Ravitch's recent blog post (Why I Defend Randi)  concisely affirms principle and pragmatism. Ravitch will not attack her personal friend Randi Weingarten. She praises Randi's leadership. She reminds us of the necessity of teachers' unions, while criticizing ideological purity.
Few scholars of such national significance have shown Ravitch's capacity to think anew.  She knows what it takes to incorporate new evidence, reconsider an assumption, and engage in "reasoning to its logical conclusion." That is what Randi did when concluding that "vam is a sham." She thus demonstrates a "capacity to evolve and change her mind."
Randi's pragmatism, along with Ravitch's long view of history, could be the antidote to "the current demolition derby" known as school reform. Randi seeks to decouple Common Core from testing, says Ravitch, so that it no longer  has the "power to ruin lives and careers."
Regardless of whether Common Core is a good idea, the next step is challenging its nature as "an infallible edict encased in concrete." Regardless of the standards adopted, they "must be amended by teachers and scholars" because "No standards are so perfect that they need never be updated."
The accountability hawks may believe they are on the side of the angels, but Ravitch and Randi exemplify the spirit of scholarly dialogue in a constitutional democracy.  Teachers have been subject to such extreme abuse by the true believers in bubble-in pedagogy and governance that many educators have become as strident as our opponents.  Even so, we educators must embody the spirit of a constitutional democracy where "my opponent is my opponent, not my enemy."

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Thompson: Countdown to Universal NCLB Proficiency

NclbAs we begin another spring testing season, educators will further highlight the educational malpractice being imposed on our students by bubble-in accountability. This year, we will also showcase the countdown to the failure of NCLB to meet its accountability targets. 

Surprisingly, true believers in high-stakes testing aren't ignoring the law's anniversary and its target of 100% proficiency. The Democrats for Education Reform Statement Marks the Twelfth Anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act press release brags that "NCLB’s policies are now a permanent part of the education policy landscape."

DFER's Charlie Barone was an architect of NCLB and yet he proclaims the truth that reformers usually prefer to duck. He compares "current reform efforts on issues like standards, assessments, choice, teacher evaluation, and tenure" to NCLB.

If you liked NCLB, you will love DFER's, Arne Duncan's, and the Billionaires Boys Club's versions of NCLB-type testing on steroids. I'm curious, however, about the data that DFER cites to celebrate the output-driven mandates of the last twelve years. It links to data produced by "its inexorable march forward" to top-down micromanaging of our diverse nation's schools. It shows the $1000 per low-income student, per year increase in Title I, input-driven spending.  DFER remains silent about any supposed increases in student performance.  

The noneducators who gave us NCLB and the even worse policies of the Duncan administration remain preoccupied with their political fights.  Their lesson from NCLB is focused on "those pushing back," i.e. their adult nemeses. Once again, reformers show themselves oblivious to real-world outputs, the effects of their handiwork on poor students of color.-JT(@drjohnthompson)Image via. 

Thompson: Principals in the Classroom [10 Percent Of The Time]

PrncipalsTwo studies on principal time use, Principal Time Use and School Effectiveness (2009) by Eileen Lai Horng, Daniel Klasik, and Susanna Loeb and Effective Instruction Time Use for School Leaders by Jason Grissom, Ben Master, and Susanna Loeb, are both excellent. They show that Miami Dade principals spend just over 10% of their time on instruction-related activities.  

Such a number first seemed high to me.

I worked with more than forty high school principals and assistant principals. They all worked more than 80 hours a week and went weeks at a time without having a chance to even think about classroom instruction. Only one had teaching experience relevant to academic subjects in the inner city, but many could have become excellent instructional leaders if they weren't so overburdened with other responsibilities.

But, Loeb et. al also find that high school principals spend less time with instruction, and that may be due their lack expertise with many diverse secondary subjects. 

The headline is that Loeb et. al explain why informal classroom walkthroughs can backfire by prompting suspicion by teachers. Even brief classroom visits can be beneficial, however, if they are clearly a part of a coaching process, and not a "gotcha!"  

They are also careful to not make a claim about causation, or the theory that an unflinching focus on instruction led by school adinistrators is the path to school improvement. Loeb et. al note that, "Better schools may allow principals the time to work with teachers, while in less effective schools they are more constrained to spend more time observing classrooms."

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Thompson: The No Excuses School Debate

School,_Katni,_MP,_IndiaAs a student, I would have despised the "No Excuses" pedagogy, but I understand why some students and their families choose it.  Some people enjoy competition and structure and, in the inner city many students will choose anything over the chronic chaos of dysfunctional schools. While I see no chance that KIPP-style schools can be successfully scaled up, I always learn from Mike Goldstein's observations on what it would take to replicate his charter schools' successes.

I would go farther than Goldstein's The Softer Side of "No Excuses" in challenging the common statement, "Traditional schools can copy nearly all the KIPP playbook, if they wish to try." Such a statement is intellectually dishonest. Goldstein also questions it and says that all charter schools with a negative school culture could emulate the best No Excuses models. Then he adds that it's harder to copy the KIPP playbook than many realize.  Moreover, he wishes "there was more of an ethic among charter supporters to 'get our own house in order' before fixing traditional schools. "

Goldstein addresses a key dilemma faced by all high-poverty schools, but that is far harder for neighborhood schools to address. Ask new teachers what is expected of them if a kid hits another kid, or is 15 minutes late, or violates the school's academic rules and, as Goldstein says, KIPP teachers would more typically be able to answer those questions. And, he is equally correct in saying that reasonable people can and should disagree on what the answers to those questions are.

I agree that it is not possible for teachers in a traditional public school to agree on these policies, but that is because we are a part of systems that serve all kids, not just those who can handle the "No Excuses" regime.  We can't enforce rules without the backing of principals. Those school administrators can't agree on whether to allow teachers to enforce the school's policies, and that is partially because they aren't allowed to enforce them without permission from central office administrators.  Central office administrators, I bet, mostly realize that the resulting chaos is bad for students, but they are constrained by the larger society.  Stakeholders can't agree on whether schools should be allowed to uphold behavioral and academic standards because our stakeholders come from all parts of our diverse democracy.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via

Thompson: Tunnel Vision in Evaluating D.C.s IMPACT Evaluations

SpeedTraffic control experts know that placing a police car next to a highway will change drivers' behavior for the better or, if it causes a dangerous traffic jam, for the worse.  Nobody doubts that speeds will change at least temporarily when drivers approach a police officer. Few people would assume that the driving behaviors of persons passing a cop are representative of their behaviors before the officer was sighted.    

When Thomas Dee, Brian Jacob, and Justin McCrary, in Manipulation in the Grading of New York’s Regents Examination, studied students who were just below the passing threshold, these students were said to inhabit the “suspect region.”   The assumption was that the educators who graded their examinations were tempted to inflate their scores. They estimated that 3 to 5% of those who were within the passing threshold should have been scored below passing. Dee et. al concluded that the pattern was due to “pervasive manipulation of student test scores.”

When Dee and James Wyckoff, in Incentives, Selection, and Teacher Performance:  Evidence from IMPACT, studied teachers who were just below the threshold, they found the same pattern. When those teachers scores jumped by more than teachers outside their suspect region, it was argued that teachers “undertook steps to meaningfully improve their performance.” (emphasis mine) This was interpreted to mean that IMPACT worked.

Both studies show the same thing.  When stakes are placed on words and numbers written on a sheet of paper, those words and numbers change.  There is no more evidence in the IMPACT study by Dee et. al of meaningful improvement than there was in his study of New York Regents results. The far more likely explanation is that the game was played in both cities in precisely the same way that common sense indicates that it would be played.

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Thompson: Rick Hess & The Education Food Chain

image from upload.wikimedia.orgRick Hess, the H.L. Mencken of modern education writers, didn't expect the Common Core debate to get so passionate.  Hess's Common Core and the Food Pyramid reminds us that standards are just words on paper.  They don't matter much.

I made the same mistake for the same reason. How could anyone believe that improved standards could drive transformational improvements? But, I never thought of Hess's wonderful metaphor. 

Believing that Common Core standards could be a game-changer is like hoping the food pyramid would end obesity. According to Hess, the only way the food chart could significantly improve health would be to hold parents accountable for feeding their children in a nutritious way.

Hess indicts Common Core boosters for pretending that they're just proposing a food pyramid chart. What Common Core-ites "are really after is to reorder schooling, soup to nuts."

The battle, Hess notes, is not about "committee-generated verbiage," but about the test-based accountability that is attached to Common Core. The only way that the new standards could live up to their hype is by using Common Core test results for sanctioning schools, firing teachers, and compelling them to change what students read and do.  Despite the reformers' rhetoric, Hess correctly observes, "they have made clear that this is exactly what they have in mind."

In other words, teachers aren't resisting the food pyramid. We oppose our our placement at the bottom of the food chain.

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Events: Ed Writers & Communications Pros Going To Nashville

MaryKateMcDevitt_Nashville_864Speaking of journalism, the news is out that EWA is going to Nashville for its annual conference in May (EWA Announces Theme and Venue of 2014 National Seminar).

As usual, the event will be a fun and strange group of journalists, bloggers, academics, and advocates.  AERA is co-hosting.

Where else are you going to see things like me and Anthony Cody hanging out like we did (albeit somewhat uncomfortably) last year at Stanford?

Check out the announcement, and get yourselves psyched up to be there.  

Image via Mary Kate McDevitt

Thompson: Mixed Messages For Teachers From Fordham

Flickr hey rocker angry starPolicy theorists should understand the destructive force of mixed messages.  Often, the only contact that wonks have with schools is conferences with top administrators, who are on their best behavior and claiming to embrace standards-based instruction, not mandating bubble-in malpractice.

Perhaps these top-level bureaucrats really believe that teach-to-the-test isn't being imposed, or perhaps they have learned to stay on message when they are with polite company.  In reality, however, teachers have been coerced into primitive basic skills instruction.

Now, teachers are told to turn on a dime and teach the opposite - Common Core college readiness standards. Students are told, never mind, forget all the drill and kill that has been imposed during your school career, and instantly read, think, and take tests in brand new ways.

A successful transition to Common Core is inconceivable without a moratorium on stakes being imposed on schools, teachers, and students, based on primitive bubble-in test scores. But, Fordham's Victoria Sears, in The Accountability Moratorium Is Here, says that an explicit moratorium is unnecessary because "Punitive consequences associated with accountability are largely being put on hold during the transition to Common Core." (emphasis is Sears's) This statement is based on conversations with administrators in five states - so it must be true!

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Thompson: Here's Hoping School Reform 2014 Will Focus On Students' Needs

HealthPerhaps the National Public Radio series on schools and students' health is a sign that the pendulum has swung.  Maybe the next generation of reform will focus holistically on children's welfare.

Eric Westervelt's These Days School Lunch Hours Are More Like 15 Minutes explains that school administrators are under such intense pressure to increase minutes of instruction and boost test scores that many students get less than 15 minutes for eating lunch.  Also, eating healthier foods can take more time because it takes longer to enjoy a salad than gobble down french fries. But, as an educator explained, "you've got two important and competing priorities."

Parents are now pushing back but, until recently, accountability data ruled.

Maanvi Singh's To Get Kids Exercising, Schools Are Getting Creative  explains that the Center for Disease Control recommends 150 minutes per week of exercise for K-5th grade students. But NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health polled parents and found that the majority say their elementary school children get less than two Physical Exercise classes a week. Consequently, "parents and educators are starting to 'think beyond the gym walls,'" and devise creative ways to encourage physical activity.

School Stress Takes a Toll on Health, Teens and Parents Say, by Patti Neighmond, reports that nearly 40% of parents say their high-schooler is under a lot of stress from school, and it is from academics, not social issues or bullying. The NPR poll reported on all types of parents' perceptions.  Were the poll focused on the inner city, where imposing a stressful competitive culture  was supposed to cure the stress of poverty, I wonder if a higher percentage would have been found.

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Thompson: Reasons To Support Ravitch & AFT

Common core protests steve rhodes flickrDuring my two decades as an American Federation of Teachers member, I often worried that we were too moderate. Truth be told, I bet most teachers union members and leaders have shared such concerns. Each time I took a dispassionate look at the political facts we faced, however, I supported our leaders' willingness to remain team players and to compromise. Compromises, even painful ones that were likely to hurt our schools in the short run, were our only way to survive and protect our colleagues and students. As my AFT local president explains, "school improvement is a marathon, not a sprint."

Now the AFT, along with our NEA brethren and civil rights and community groups are launching a $1.2 million dollar counter-attack on corporate reform. The timing is perfect. The test-driven reform movement has spent its millions of dollars on scorched earth politics. The federal government has wasted billions of dollars on blame-the-teacher, market-driven reforms and coerced states into squandering tens of billions of dollars on the educational equivalent of Intelligent Design. Educators chafed, tried to contribute some realism to the accountability hawks' top-down micromanaging and tried to perform the adult role of tempering the true believers in "disruptive innovation."

The task of documenting their folly, however, often fell to Diane Ravitch and her followers.

I was slow in recognizing the truth that Ravitch uncovered: A naïve crusade claiming that classroom instruction, alone, could overcome generations of poverty had morphed into "corporate reform."

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Thompson: Punishing Children to Defeat Adult Opponents

Day_42_Overwhelmed It is bad enough that test-driven reformers have turned schools into venues for high-stakes competition.  New York City seemed to have sunk to the lowest of the low with its market-driven A-F School Report Card, which made bubble-in testing a life or death matter for schools. NYC reformers were not content with giving small schools and charters advantages in their Social Darwinist struggle against regular high schools.  As the Annenburg Foundation's Over the Counter, Under the Radar explained, they overtly damaged schools that were slated for closure by disproportionately assigning high-needs students in those targeted schools, making it inevitable that they would fail their students.  

New York Magazine's Robert Kolter, in The Opt Outers shows that under-the-gun NYC administrators have been pushed to a new nadir of common decency.  Kolter tells the story of Pharez, a third-grader at a school that primarily serves English Language Learners.  It “had surrendered its schedule solely to test prep; teachers spent the entire day teaching almost nothing but material related to the ELA and math exams.” The stress of the non-stop test prep cost Pharez sleep and his appetite. His father said the 8-year-old “was complaining about pains in his back and his head. If it was happening to a college student, I might accept this. But for a child, it was not acceptable, not at all. And so I opted him out.” 

The school made the process difficult for the father. He was pressured by the principal, the principal’s secretary, the PTA president, and the assistant principal.  Pharez had a right to prepare a portfolio in lieu of testing, but they repeatedly ignored requests for help in preparing the portfolio.  On the last day of school, they said Pharez had failed. Kolter recounts more examples of the "inhumane" results of test-driven reform.Still, it is hard to comprehend that any educators, regardless of their motives, would be so cruel to a child. -JT (@drjohnthompson) Image via. 


Thompson: Crew Nails the Key to School Improvement

FishingThe New York Times' Clyde Haberman explains the hard-earned wisdom of Medgar Evers College President Rudy Crew in Back in New York with the Same Passion, but to Less Fire and Smoke.  

The former NYC  School Chancellor is determined to "get it right on the front end" by "creating a pipeline" to higher education. Crew is networking with the persons who really matter in kids' lives - parents, local leaders, teachers, principals and pastors.

Crew bemoans the recent preoccupation with test scores, saying  “we have been chasing numbers when we ought to be chasing confidence.” He wants the entire community to help instill "a desire for learning and — no small matter — a confidence that they can learn."

Crew recalls a conversation with John F. Kennedy Jr.  when he was head of the Robin Hood Foundation. He explained to Kennedy, “John, I would take these kids, these nonreaders, and give them an experience that is so fundamentally different from any they ever had. I’d take them to camps. They’d go fishing. They would learn how to be out on boats and canoes.”

After my neighborhood became the epicenter of crack and gangs in Oklahoma City, I was an environmental educator and that is why I became an inner city teacher. I have no doubt that Crew nails the attitude that we adults must help nurture,  “So ‘I can’t swim’ becomes ‘Lookit, I can swim.’ The ‘I don’t touch fish’ becomes ‘Lookit how many fish I caught.’" Follow Crew's advise on nononcognitive experience, and test scores "will take care of themselves." -JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.


Thompson: Would Obama Consider $5B SIG Program Successful?

Arne_DuncanIn 2009, Arne Duncan must have told President Obama that his School Improvement Grant (SIG) experiment was risky. SIG would cost nearly $5 billion, as it tried to jumpstart the nation's lowest-performing 5,000 schools.  There was no time for laying a foundation for transformational change. In lieu of planning, a top-down governance would be imposed. Principals would be anointed as divine monarchs and told to produce transformational change in only three years - or else.

Collective punishment would be imposed on teachers. This would encourage other teacher-bashers to step up the blame game.  One of the Democratic Party's most loyal constituencies, teachers' unions, would be alienated and the rank-in-file demoralized. If the benefits were only incremental, would a backlash against education be encouraged? 

What would the President have decided if warned that gains on reading tests would only be 2.5 points per year? Could he not anticipate conservatives such as Education Next's Andy Smarick noting "a cost of one billion dollars for each point of improvement in reading proficiency." (emphasis in the original) Had Duncan warned the President that those low performing schools would only increase their reading scores by 1.5 points per year faster than all other schools, would the President have asked about the down sides of a gamble that produced such small benefits? 

Above all, had the President been told that student performance would decline in 1/3rd of schools, would he have asked follow-up questions? Was there something inherent in the federal micromanaging of SIG that would encourage primitive teach-to-the-test that would backfire and make conditions worse for many students?-JT(@drjohnthompson) image via.     

Thompson: Heckman's Promising New Study on Teens & Self-Control

Heckman2A generation ago, Nobel Laureate James Heckman pulled together the social science documenting the need for high-quality early childhood education.  He explained the importance of programs for teaching character skills such as perseverance (“grit"), self-control, trust, attentiveness, self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Now, Heckman and Tim Kautz, in Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition, evaluate the effectiveness of adolescent interventions. 

Building on previous findings, they report “programs that combine work and education are more promising and have been shown to have lasting effects.”

Heckman’s recent work, like his analysis of early education, finds that “successful interventions emulate the mentoring environments offered by successful families.”

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Thompson: Of *Course* There's Too Much Testing

OptAlexander Russo's Atlantic Magazine article, When Parents Yank Their Kids Out of Standardized Tests, begins with photographs of the signage that has become so ubiquitous in schools.  As the seemingly endless testing season begins, learning stops in schools full of posters stating, "Testing in Progress" and "Lab Is Closed."  

The article explains how teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School refused to give the district’s required tests and encountered the predictable pushback and quotes a Garfield teacher who anticipates “the biggest revolt against standardized testing in U.S. history” during this spring's three month long testing season. [He also cites the Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless who recalls that parent protests against tests “pop up like wildfires” about every decade.]

I'm proud that that parents in Oklahoma are also helping to lead the backlash.  Russo cites the case of Jenks Middle School where 800 parents opted out of last spring's piloting of test questions. He quotes Deedra Barnes, who helped organize the boycott, and who is considering an opt out for the high-stakes testing in 2014.  Testing, she says, is out of balance.

So far, at least, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has decided to insult suburban moms rather than listen to them, but he's not alone. DFER's Charlie Barone “just doesn’t see the groundswell of opposition against testing that FairTest and others claim to exist.”

But how would they? What actual contact with real schools do Duncan and Barone have? Of course, there is far too much testing.  As Diane Ravitch said to comedian John Stewart, "The status quo today is test, test, test, pretest, posttest, data.” The only way to deny the anger felt by parents, teachers, and students is to hypothesize that we are all suffering from a mass hallucination. 

The magazine also links to a previous article by a teacher, Ben Orlin, When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning.   Orlin describes the destructive rote learning and cramming encouraged  high-stakes testing.  It is a reminder that as testing forces teachers to engage in more and more educational malpractice, the backlash is bound to grow.

-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.

Thompson: Which Side of the Detroit Bankruptcy Is the TNTP On?

DetroitThe TNTP’s Amanda Kocon, in Ending the Teacher Hostage Crisis, is right about one thing, “for decades, the teaching profession has relied on a work now, pay later system.” Teachers have been paid artificially low salaries based on a promise of end-of-career payouts from a pension plan. Yes, this system has held teachers hostage.

Kocon cites the Detroit bankruptcy where pensioners may be paid as little as 16 cents on the dollar.  But, it is not just teachers but all of Detroit’s public retirees who must wait in line after investment bankers.  And they're arguing in court that the city did not bargain in good faith.

Kocon makes the evidence-free claim that “six-figure teacher salaries are within our reach.” She then says that we should care of veteran teachers by “doing our best” to make good on the promises that were made to them.

Does that mean the TNTP will be joining the legal fight for justice for teachers and other workers who worked in good faith for decades hoping that the big boys would keep their promises? Or, is it cheering the corporate powers and participating in a craven divide and conquer campaign that will undermine the futures of all workers and all generations? -JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.


Thompson: Why Do We Still Give Grades?

GradesI wonder how many Baby Boomers are like me and can't comprehend that it is 2013 and we still have bubble-in testing.

Then again -- and I know it would be a smaller number who agree with me on this --  I am also curious about the number of my peers who are dismayed that we still have letter grades. 

Chris Couch's Huffington Post, Grades Do More Harm Than Good, condemns the damage done by grades. Crouch explains why he "can't believe that we realistically put any stock in what they measure and what they communicate."

Of course, he is correct on the harm done to educational values because "many kids feel pressured to cut corners, sacrifice ethics, and take easier courses, all in an effort to achieve better grades instead of better learning."

We still have grades because better options aren't available.  But, we haven't tried very hard to develop better alternatives.  On the contrary, schools have changed our priorities from learning to competition and keeping score.

As we continue this outmoded and reductionistic value system, we should remember that grades are inherently subjective results of political processes. We give them because it is our job to put some number and letter next to each student's name. We shouldn't delude ourselves into believing it is a fair or constructive process.

- JT (@drjohnthompson) Image via.   

Thompson: Did Reform Make Teacher Churn Worse in Indianapolis?

SeniorityIn IPS Loses When Teachers Face Constant Moves, Chalkbeat Indiana's Scott Elliott decribes the "churn" of teachers in Indianapolis and how involuntary transfers are driving young talent out of the system.

He does not mention a common sense, though counter-intuitive, solution: Bringing back seniority.  

Seniority is the teacher's First Amendment. Without it, the honest flow of information in systems dries up.  Once teachers' ability to voice their professional judgments are undermined, the lack of an exchange of information is bound to produce more administrative foul-ups.  

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Thompson: OK Governor Tries To Halt Debate Over A-F Grading

Mary_FallinOklahoma educators are tensely awaiting the long-delayed A-F School Report Card touted by Chief for Change member State Superintendent Janet Baressi. The mistake-plagued report card has been repeatedly pulled back from public release as errors were adjusted and readjusted. 

As the report card release was further delayed and tempers flared, Oklahoma School Report Card: Hiding "Poor" Achievement, by researchers at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University concluded that the report card's formula "has very little meaning and certainly cannot be used legitimately to inform high-stakes decisions."

The Tulsa World's Kim Archer, in Gov. Fallin Counters Critics of A-F System of Grading Schools, reports that the Republican governor has joined the fray, threatening school district leaders that "continuing public criticism of the state's A-F school grading system may affect whether common education gets additional funding next fiscal year."

Gov. Fallin made this threat after presiding over the nation's largest education budget cuts. At a time when Oklahoma schools are burdened by other transformative reforms that the Obama administration and the rightwing have demanded, the state's funding for schools declined by 23%.

Fallin does not believe the university researchers' estimate that in-school factors explain only 20 to 30% of educational outcomes. She does not seem to understand that the role of out-of-school factors has been documented by an immense body of social science, and their study was reviewed by the Distinguished Professor Emeritus Robert Linn of the University of Colorado.  

The governor's spokesman summed up Fallin's beliefs, "In other words, if students were performing extremely well, it wouldn't really matter if they had a class size of one, or a class size of 50 or 100— they're performing well. We're concerned about the outcomes, not the inputs."

Neither educators or reformers should dismiss Oklahoma's mess as an aberration. Fallin is the Chair of the National Governors Association. Monday she announced plans to set a "new minimum" where underfunded public schools would prepare all students for a two-year or four-year college degree or a workforce certificate.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.


Thompson: SAT Scores Are Great, But Teaching Is An Act of Love

SatDan Goldhaber's and Joe Walch's Gains in Teacher Quality, in Education Next, reports the good news that incoming teachers' SAT scores are on the rise. Recruiting better educated teacher candidates is an input-driven approach that is smarter than the dubious output-driven accountability of the last two decades.

I hope we don't go overboard, however, in overrating the importance of "book smarts" in teaching. I was a critical thinking coach, who confounded some adults by playing basketball with the students.  My questioning strategies anticipated Common Core and they guided teenagers with elementary school skills towards mastery of college preparatory standards.

But, education is not an affair of "the Head," but of "the Heart." The real reason why I was an effective teacher was that I didn't have biological offspring, so the students became my children.

I worked hard to become one of my school's co-MVPs. Then, we hired James Booth as a parent liaison and he was universally acclaimed as our Most Valuable Person.  Mr. Booth was retired military and a basketball referee. Despite his lack of background in academics, Booth was a mentor who did far more good for far more students than any teacher, counselor, or principal.

James Booth was not an exception.  Many schools' MVPs are coaches, cafeteria ladies, bus drivers, or security guards. Children learn from adults who love them. But, don't worry. Students don't discriminate against smart teachers; inner city kids, especially, appreciate it when highly educated adults show them the respect of treating them like their affluent peers. So this new generation of teachers will do fine as long as they keep their priorities straight.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.     

Thompson: Will a New Consensus Emerge for NYC Schools?

DeblasioNY-1's Lindsey Christ, in Obama: P-TECH Setting the Stage for Student Success, reports that when President Obama praised the gentrification of Brooklyn and its small P-TECH High School, he spoke after Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Bloomberg said that P-TECH's success went hand in hand with the closing of Paul Robeson High School which co-locates with it. Obama and Arne Duncan supposedly believe his spin. On the other hand,  The President now supports mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio and his more humane approach to school improvement.

It is unlikely that the President knows the full story of NYC small schools like P-TECH.  P-TECH's students scored higher than the city's average when they entered the school, while Robeson's incoming students were below the city's average. Neither was he likely to know that Robeson served 2-1/2 times as many English Language Learners, nearly three times as many special education students, and that 1/8th of its students were homeless. 

I wonder if Obama knows that his turnaround policies facilitated Bloomberg's sabotage of poorer schools.  As Clara Hemphill and Kim Nauer explained in Managing by the Numbers, Robeson was undermined by the dumping of hundreds of at-risk students on it. Robeson's fate was sealed when 70 to 80 "Over the Counter" students were added to its incoming freshman class of 140.

The Obama administration should come to grips with the Education Funders Research Initiative's "New York City Schools: Following the Learning Trajectories," by Douglas Ready, Thomas Hatch, Miya Warner, and Elizabeth Chu. It is consistent with de Blasio's early education policies.

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Thompson: Politico Nails a Fundamental Flaw with TFA


I should not have to start with a disclaimer about my position on TFA (I'm undecided about it), but in these polarized times, I must.  TFA teachers are teachers.  

I don't judge colleagues. It is not their fault that high-profile TFA alumni who entered the classroom when they were in elementary school launched a war on teachers.  Excoriating today's TFAers because Kevin Huffman and Michelle Rhee turned corporate would be like castigating a colleague because he supports the Tea Party.

However, Politico’s Stephanie Simon, in Teach for America Rises as Political Powerhouse, nails the problem with TFA's new effort for “embedding select alumni in congressional offices and in high-ranking jobs in major school districts,” in which a charter school and voucher supporter pays the $500,000 a year price tag for providing seven TFA alumni fellows for congressmen. Ethics experts call the effort “highly unusual – though not illegal,” according to Simon. 

Too many reformers in general -- and high-profile TFA alumni in particular -- have have taken advantage of the lack of knowledge of many policymakers about the distant world of the inner city, and promoted quick and simplistic panaceas for complex problems.

In Simon's article, Elisa Villanueva Beard, co-CEO of Teach for America, seems to be sincerely oblivious about the dangers of quietly embedding alumni as staffers. She says “We don’t have a choice.” If TFA isn't aggressive “in 20 years, we’ll just wake up and find… we have made only incremental progress.”

And, that get's us back to the destructive essence of the contemporary reform movement. Corporate powers have immense knowledge about ways of secretly manipulating the levers of power to enrich themselves.  We know how to use political trickery to increase the billionaires' share of our economic pie.  Here, it seems, corporate reformers are using some of the same tactics and knowledge to manipulate government rather than improve learning. There is no reason to believe that transformationally better schools can be created this way.

That doesn't mean TFA teacher and alumni should be excluded. They should participate in the open exchange of ideas that school improvement needs.  They should do so with honesty and modesty, and not with their high-profile alumni's assumption that their brief excursion into schools has given them all of the answers.   

Meantime, TFA leaders should reveal the whole story to TFA teachers (and the rest of us?) and then have a heart-to-heart conversation about the paths to power that the organization should pursue, and those tactics that it should not consider. -JT(drjohnthompson) Image via. 

Thompson: How The NYT Got The IMPACT Evaluation Wrong

CatThe New York Times' David Leonhardt may lack background information regarding education, but he is capable of understanding the recent  National Bureau of Economic Research paper, James Wyckoff’s and Thomas Dee's Incentives, Selection, and Teacher Performance.

However, given the inaccuracies in his A New Look at Teacher Evaluations and Learning, I wonder if Leonhardt read the study or if he just skimmed it.  

Leonhardt's sources for his misrepresentations are the commentator Nick Kristof and himself,with both basing their assertions on their misreadings of The Longterm Impacts of Teachers, by Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff. Perhaps the Times should hold editorialists more accountable for carefully studying research even in the backwater field of education.   

Wyckoff's and Dee's NBER paper reports the effect of the Washington D.C. teacher evaluation system, IMPACT, on some aspects of teacher performance. It ignores the question of whether student performance was increased. It shows that IMPACT had an impact on some adult behaviors. It offers no evidence, however, that it was positive. 

The only valid conclusions that can be produced by the study’s methodology were reported by the Washington Post’s Emma Brown and Politico's Stephanie Simon.  Brown's Study: D.C.'s Teacher Evaluation System Affects Workforce explains, “Rewards and punishments embedded in the District’s controversial teacher evaluation program have shaped the school system’s workforce, affecting both retention and performance,” But the report is “silent about whether the incentives have translated into improved student achievement.”

Simon's Radical Washington D.C. Teacher-Evaluation Plan Worked, Study Says also recounted D.C.'s disappointing results in terms of student performance.  She quoted Dee as saying “This is a proof of concept.” (The concept is that carrots and sticks can have an effect.)  

Such a conclusion may mean something to theorists and commentators, but it says nothing about IMPACT's real-world impact. To paraphrase Mark Twain, a cat who sits on a hot stove won't do it again, but that does not mean that he has learned to cook.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.

Thompson: Annenberg Study Highlights Mid-Year Assignment Problems

US_Navy_110327-N-MU720-031_Volunteers_erve_food_to_children_at_the_Biko-en_Children's_Care_HouseWas anyone surprised by the Annenberg Institute's finding, in Over the Counter, Under the Radar, that late enrolling students in New York City are disproportionately enrolled in high schools slated for closure?

Its authors, Toi Sin Arvidsson, Norm Fruchter, and Christina Mokhtar, explain that NYC's student assignment policies have long been criticized for concentrating high-needs students in struggling high schools.

"Over the Counter" (OTC) kids represent about 17% of high school students and they are more likely to be new immigrants, special needs students, poor, transient, homeless, over-age, or have histories of behavioral problems. So, it is no shock that high schools that are on the chopping block would find themselves with up to 37% of their student population being late enrollees.

Shouldn't we be shocked by their findings?  Even the term "over the counter" students is disturbing.

Isn't this a "blink!" moment where we ask how we got into this shameful position?

As the Annenberg study explains, up until the 1990s, the NYC schools were dismissive of the feelings of hundreds of OTC students.  After choice increased the numbers of these vulnerable kids into the thousands, they were disproportionately placed in schools known as "dumping grounds."

But, wasn't the purpose of school reform to help children, not further disadvantage the most vulnerable of them? If the goal is helping children, not defeating adult enemies, shouldn't it have been obvious that high-needs kids should be placed in the schools that can best educate them?  

If NYC reformers have not completely lost their moral compass, they will embrace the Annenberg's conclusions and impose a moratorium on putting more struggling children in struggling high schools. Common decency says that all other high schools should be assigned between 12% and 20%  of "OTC" kids. It also says we should find a less dehumanizing term for those students.  And, then we all should ask how we got into this disgusting situation.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.   

Thompson: Listen to *All* of E.D. Hirsch's Wisdom On Common Core

Core knowledgeI entered the classroom with the certainty that E.D. Hirsch was wrong in claiming that rich content knowledge within and across grades is essential.  It took about a month to disabuse me of my non-educator's prejudice.

We should listen to Hirsch's entire position on Common Core. The subtitle of his Why I'm for Common Core in the Huffington Post addresses a point that has been lost on school "reformers."  It proclaims, "Teacher-Bashing and Common Core-Bashing Are Both Uncalled For."  

In a followup post, The Test of Common Core, Hirsch explains how to avoid a trainwreck.  He opposes the reformers' "teacher bashing"  because it is the reason why structural reforms haven't worked very well. The blame game known as the "teacher quality" movement hasn't worked because little has been done to develop a content-rich curriculum.

In the second piece, Hirsch expressed dismay over teachers' replies to his first post. Because of high-stakes testing, they would still have to do test prep shortcuts under Common Core, and this would undermine its effectiveness. So, Hirsch further explained that if he were younger, he would launch a court challenge against value-added teacher evaluations using reading test scores.

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