Monday, April 22, 2013

...Are Doomed to Repeat It

The educational testing mania that has gripped the country over the past decade has bared a lethal truth: we are terrible at learning history. As a teacher of that subject, I have seen it become devalued as the focus on math, science and language arts tests have rendered history and social science courses less important in the curriculum. Some students even take a lower level history class so their homework load doesn't interfere with what they consider to be more useful, and tested, offerings.

And this is new, right? Wrong.

That pain in your tush is the bite history just took out of it.

It turns out that the past is telling us what every working educator knows about evaluating both students and teachers based on a standardized test: it doesn't work and can falsely label people as failing when in fact they are not. It's as true now as it was in 1845.

The problem is the assumption that a sit-down test is the most effective means by which to assess a student's learning, something that education reformers take for granted. The truth is that people learn using all manner of strategies, assumptions, exercises and habits. Students today are more active in their classrooms. The most effective teachers use interactive activities, technology, and differentiated learning strategies that are meant to allow all students to do something during the day that contributes to successful learning. They assess and evaluate their students over time, stressing skills and content knowledge that can ebb and flow over the course of a school year. Much of that can't be measured with a test, no matter how the questions are worded. The NJ Department of Education is touting the new PARCC tests as the vanguard of a new testing system that will be rigorous, applicable to higher education and the job market, and technologically advanced.

So what. It's still a sit-down test. And because it uses computers, it will filter out some students who don't keyboard well, or have difficulty seeing the screen, or whose technology in school is spotty. This is no way to evaluate what students know or to judge how valuable their teachers are to their learning. It's artificial, biased and deceptive.

Massachusetts learned this lesson in 1845, and we still struggle against it today. If we truly wanted to evaluate students, we would test them using the same strategies effective teachers already use in the classroom. We would use portfolios, performance measures, written exercises that allow students to show content knowledge, but also editing and grammar skills, learning over time, and enable students to explain how they came to an answer either verbally or in an expository fashion. And oh yeah, we could have them answer some questions as they sit at their desks. But that wouldn't be the whole kaboodle.

The problem with the above, real reforms, is that they don't allow the politicians to blame unions, undercut collective bargaining, slash money to public education, promote private schools or play politics with the education system. The further problem is that real reform would require an acknowledgement that teachers would need to be intimately involved in the reform process, as opposed to those states, including New Jersey, where not one working public school teacher sat on the commission to overhaul the evaluation system.

It will be a long time before we can right these wrongs, and an even longer time before the students in our classrooms now will realize that they were guinea pigs in a political crusade that cared not a whit about what they learned, how they learned it or whether they could apply it to their lives as long as the testing companies, private enterprise groups and ignorant politicians got their cut.

Americans knew this in 1845. It led to cheating scandals and tooth-gnashing and teacher bashing. It's too bad things haven't changed.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Boston Backlash

Here it comes.

Immediately after one of the most harrowing, frightening, wierdly compelling and sweat-inducing weeks in our recent history, the political backlash is rearing its ugly head. It's emotional and knee-jerk and patently American.

First up is the argument that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a terrorist and thus should be treated as an enemy combatant, as opposed to a citizen criminal. The Senators pushing this line, Lindsay Graham, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte are reacting from pure emotion. There is no defending what the two brothers did or the dastardly effects of their action a major American city, but can we at least step back a bit and consider the full range of options? Here is a 19 year-old, probably in thrall to his older brother, and probably not as committed to a radical path, who commits murder. By all other accounts, he's a law-abiding person. There are circumstances. Let's calm down.

The Senators assume that a Federal Court would be an inappropriate venue for weighing Dzhokhar's guilt (or innocence, by the way. Does anybody remember that he's still presumed innocent?) and that only a tightly controlled military tribunal will assure his punishment. They think that reading him his Miranda rights is an affront to justice. Not true, and a dangerous assumption. Let's let the FBI do its job. The genius of our legal system is that it must filter out emotional responses. That's what we need to have happen now.

The case also seems to have jolted the immigration debate. Again, the knee-jerk reaction is to shut the door to all immigrants and to throw out all of the illegals. It's as if the debate we've been having over the past four months simply vanished. Yes, we should all have legitimate concerns about the FBI's interview with Tamerlan Tsarnaev and whether government security officials should have done more to follow-up on his trip to Russia and his possible radicalization at the hands of militant Chechen or Al-Queda operatives. But how does a family that, until last week, basically followed the law and applied for legal status according to protocol get to throw an entire system into doubt?

They shouldn't, and it's up to pragmatic, level-headed citizens to see that. We certainly do need border security, but it's not like the Tsarnaev family spirited themselves across the border under cover of night or lived on false papers or were outwardly hostile to the United States. We now know that at least one of them was, inwardly, but how could anyone know that he would commit this act? We can't. That's why it's called terrorism. Because we don't expect it.

And like the gun enthusiasts who said that background checks would not prevent another Newtown, closing the door would not stop another Boston (or, for that matter, another Oklahoma City or September 11). Tamerlan was here for 10 years before he acted. I'm sure there are other legal immigrants in this country who could similarly become radicalized and act in another city. Shall we hunt down all recent immigrants from every other hotspot in the world an follow them? Evict them? Where do we start? Are immigrants from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, the Central African Republic and any other area where there's been civil unrest now eligible for government surveillance?

Speaking of the gun debate, I am extremely interested in where the Tsarnaev brothers got their guns. And whether they were registered. Or bought online. Background check? Based on the Newtown logic, I'm thinking the NRA is now going to call for all people who attend sporting events to carry guns (and for some on the left to outlaw pressure cookers). Or perhaps we should just stop having marathons. Clearly, these would solve the problem.

We need to be more diligent, to be sure, but we also need to step back and process this event logically. Only then can we look at our next steps with clear eyes.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Texas Education Back-Step

From the state that gave the United States the worst idea in school reform since Joe Clark prowled the halls of East Side High School in Paterson, NJ, Texas, comes this remarkable admission: High stakes testing has taken over the curriculum to the point where the Lone Star State is now rolling back the number of assessments students must take every year. Not only that, the reform that Bush wrought is proving that a laser-like focus on college prep curricula won't hit every child.

Here's the story, and here are some stunning facts:
The Texas House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill this month that would reduce the number of exams students must pass to earn a high school diploma to 5, from 15.  
Fifteen tests just to pass high school? Let's talk about out-of-control standardized assessments. Let's further talk about the Texas requirement that all students take four years of English, science, social studies and math, including an advanced algebra class, because all students must be college-ready and matriculate at an institution of higher learning. Never mind students who are not proficient academic learners or who would benefit from a vocational curriculum. It's vitally important for all students to get a foundation in the liberal arts, but young people also need exposure to non-academic courses and classes that do not rely on a test.

From an educational policy perspective, there is something to like in the fact that Texas is considering cutting back on testing. From the article:
Here in Texas, the backlash has been fiercest among parents and educators who believe testing has become excessive, particularly after a period when the state cut its budget for education. 

On a recent afternoon, Joanne Salazar pulled out a copy of a testing calendar for the school in Austin where her daughter is a sophomore. “Of the last 12 weeks of school, 9 are impacted by testing,” Ms. Salazar said. “It has really started to control the schedule.”
Too many tests taking too much time out of the school year? Where have I heard that before?

Is there opposition to the proposed changes? Yes, and they require some analysis. Consider:
But at a time when about half of the students who enroll in community colleges in Texas require remedial math classes, Michael L. Williams, the state’s commissioner of education, called the proposed changes “an unfortunate retreat.” 

“What gets tested gets taught,” Mr. Williams said. “What we treasure, we measure.” 
First of all, the new standards, which were adopted in 2007, do not seem to have helped a large segment of Texas schoolchildren who enroll in community college. Second, it's not just that what gets tested gets taught; it's that Texas only teaches what's on the test. And I can assure you that the Texas curriculum has narrowed considerably, since a teacher can't possibly cover an enriching curriculum with the knowledge that very little will get taught during the last 12 weeks of school.

Hey, New Jersey, this is your future, and it's starting in September. The states that adopted tests early are figuring out that they don't contribute to a quality education, and they're pulling back. What are we doing? Governor Christie has us jumping into the pool as the water is being emptied. This can't, and won't, end well.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Target Moves

If recent news reports are accurate, then the United States Senate will be discussing gun control measures that will look like John Cleese and the Ministry of Silly Walks: Take one small step, slide. take a giant stride forward, then backtrack a bit before moving forward again.

Whatever it takes.

Yes, the gun deal the Senate is discussing doesn't include a lot of things that I would like to see including bans on certain firearms and a limit on how much ammunition a person can purchase or use. According to the NRA, this is a good thing and it will protect my Second Amendment rights to carry an arsenal in my back pocket so the Obama Administration doesn't confiscate my guns in the name of public safety. I get that. But this is a major step forward in what will be a years-long process to bring our gun laws in line with socially responsible behavior and the sense that Newtown changed the debate for good over whether the constitution allows us unlimited personal firepower.

The negotiations over the proposed bill have been fraught with political dangers for both Republicans and Democrats. It's still so partisan that Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania didn't even want New York Democrat Chuck Schumer in the news conference announcing the deal for fear that Schumer's presence would put off gun rights advocates. And of course, there's still the prospect of a GOP-led filibuster, but support for that has waned over the past day. Looks like even Mitch McConnell is powerless to stop common sense. But he's trying.

I am cautiously optimistic that we will get a gun bill through the Senate. The House will be a higher hurdle, but enough conservatives can probably feel safe to vote for any compromise bill. If the House votes it down, look for President Obama to pull out all the stops to make it an issue in 2014.

It's imperfect, but it's a start. Get a bill passed. It can always be improved later on.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Smiths and the Folly of Testing

Whenever I read about the foolishness of using standardized tests to evaluate teachers, I am immediately reminded of my own experiences in school, and how even a competent student like me could have done serious damage to otherwise excellent teachers. I understand the danger of generalizing my experience to the larger issue, but I'm sure that I'm not alone, and I know that many teachers face the same issues I have.

Miss Smith was both my algebra and geometry teacher when I was in high school. She was an imposing women who asked great deal from us, and she didn't tolerate either fools or students who didn't want to learn mathematics. She was an excellent teacher in every way. The problem is that I learned very little according to the tests I took in class, and if 50% of her yearly evaluation was based on my, and some of my classmates', performance on a standardized test, then she would have been in real trouble.

But the problem was not hers. The problem was mine. I studied, but algebra was a foreign language and geometry was an alien language. I did my homework. I went after school for help. I just didn't, and couldn't, get it. As the school years progressed, I lost some interest in math, which didn't help my performance in Miss Smith's class. So if I had to take a year-end test that would in any way tell the administration how effective a teacher Miss Smith was, my score would have impacted her evaluation. And that would be a terrible injustice to her.

Do I understand algebra and geometry today, three decades later? Yes and no. Algebra comes easier when I need to use variables in my day-to-day existence. Geometry? Not so much. I continue to try and get it, but it's still an alien language. Miss Smith's fault? Not on your life.

I also had another Smith in high school, but his name was Mister and he taught Earth Science. If you can believe it, I did worse in that class than I did in either of Miss Smith's math classes. And again, the problem was me. There was very little that Mr. Smith could do to help me understand and apply facts and analysis about igneous and sedimentary rocks in a way that made sense to me. My test scores were routinely in the 20s and 30s, which mercifully he curved. Was he as effective a teacher as Miss Smith? No. Quite honestly, he wore a scowl daily, was sarcastic, and it was not always clear that he had all of his faculties while he was teaching. But other students did well in his class and he could be a very good teacher.

I had the power, though, to sink him if I had to take a standardized test that evaluated his abilities as a teacher. I didn't learn much Earth Science and to this day tend to shy away from it, with the exception of plate tectonics, but I don't really understand that all too well. I just like the rings of fire and how new Hawaiian land gets created.

I did well in English and I loved my Shakespeare class and the teacher (not named Smith), but my full Elizabethan flowering didn't come until college. Do I give my professor the credit for getting me interested in the Bard? Of course not. It was my high school teacher, but again, if I had to take a standardized test on Hamlet or the Scottish play, I would not have done so well.

So it is with thousands of students in New Jersey and millions across the United States. They are in our classes and we can teach them, but even the good ones will not always learn everything that's in the curriculum. Or they will do well on certain assignments, but when it comes to synthesis, they either can't or won't do it. They are children and they are unpredictable. The tests they'll take were not meant to evaluate teacher performance.

Further, the standardized tests they'll take mean very little to them, but they will have enormous consequences to the teachers who administer them. Does that make sense? It does to those people who think they're reforming education or believe that America's teachers are failing.

And to them, I can just see Miss Smith's burning gaze falling upon them as she asks the immortal question I heard many times in her class: "How in the ham sandwich did you get an answer like that?"

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest