Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Swift Fall of Testing. What Comes Next?

I've been in the education business for 31 years and I've seen many a fad come and go, from Teacher-proof curricula to shared decision making to Differentiation to Cooperative Learning, Curriculum Mapping, Goals 2000 and various reading programs that focus on inventive spelling, phonics, whole language and learning vocabulary in context. Many of my colleagues didn't believe me when I said that our present testing fetish would also shuffle off the educational stage at some point. What caught me by surprise was just how quickly that would happen.

The focus on testing and corporate-style accountability began with the publication in 1983 of A Nation at Risk, a report that essentially regarded the American education system as having failed our students, our economy, and our values. It repudiated many of the reforms that liberals had foisted on the system in the 1960s and 70s and said that if we didn't correct those flaws we would fall behind other countries whose schools were beginning to produce students who knew more math, science and analytical skills. Conservatives adopted the report as the clarion call for privatization, a back-to-basics curriculum that stressed factual recall, and of course, tests to measure not just students, but teachers, with the secondary goals of loosening the grip that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers had on school policy and defeating Democrats who relied on union support.

And they almost succeeded. The testing movement, which reached its pinnacle last year and is now under more assault that that which we are using to fight ISIS, is in rapid decline. Lat year 44 states gave the PARCC tests, which measure how thoroughly students have learned the Common Core Curriculum Standards. This school year 7 states, including New Jersey, will be giving those tests. The rest will be giving a test adopted by their own Education Departments. Further, some states, most notably New York, won't be using the tests to evaluate teachers. The retreat is notable.

Is the assault over? Not by a long shot, but it is weakening. Conservative groups are still trying to get states to funnel money to Charter Schools, which, on average, do no better than public schools. Many charters do better within certain geographic areas, but much of that has to do with state governments that are abandoning public schools that are in poor urban centers. The fight to limit collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers reached its height in 2013 and has since paused, although the damage done to teachers' pay and benefits has been significant. And although New York is backing away from using tests to evaluate teachers, more states need to follow them for the good of education everywhere.

The bottom line is that teachers are doing a magnificent job with the dwindling resources and increased scrutiny that came with the rise of the know-nothing conservatives. Aligning teacher evaluation with student test scores only illustrated that the overwhelming majority of teachers were effective. Clearly, the know-nothing's intent was to use the test scores to fire teachers they thought were failing our students. That hasn't happened because their assumption was incorrect. They won't admit it, but it's true.

The next fight will now be on the state level as we return to local standards and local tests. In the past, most states have created tests where 90% of the students scored in the proficient range. That's just not statistically feasible. We do need national standards and we do need to measure how students are learning. The reaction to the Common Core and PARCC will not make this possible, and that's to the country's detriment.

Have no fear, though: If history is any guide, this reaction will only last a few years and something else will come along and replace it. Will it be better or will it be worse?

My answer? Yes.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Refugees From Reality

Leave it to the GOP (and some uninformed Democrats) to make a frightening situation something to panic over. The Paris attacks were terrible. The threat of more terrorist attacks on Europe is very real. But if you want to stop terrorists from coming into the United States, tampering with the refugee system is exactly the wrong place to start.

The United States has accepted about 70,00 refugees into this country since 2009.  And there's a lengthy process. One-third of them were from countries that, on first glance, might supply potential terrorists. How many of these refugees turned out to be terrorists or involved in potential terrorist plots? None.  Further, if ISIS or any other group wanted to send potential terrorists to the United States, why would they choose a process that could take up to two years? It makes no sense. Which is why, I'm sure, the Republicans are pursuing legislation that would affect the refugee program.

It would be far easier for a potential bomber to come in as a tourist. Or as a worker who doesn't need a visa. Or as a student.  But of course, no politician wants to shut down tourism or interfere with students who want to come to the U.S. to study or with someone who will do a job that an American won't or can't (including high tech jobs that require math, which seems to be another GOP weakness). That would be an economic catastrophe. So instead, they're going after the one program that vets all applicants over a specified period of time as their target.

Even better, Donald Trump leads the GOP with a policy of building a very high wall on the Mexican border to stop the hordes who are coming to the United States. The truth is that more people are leaving the US for Mexico than are trying to come to this country.  The people who really want to come in, the drug smugglers, have built sophisticated tunnels. A wall won't stop them.

President Obama is exactly right to veto any legislation that is built on fear, xenophobia and ignorance, which the right seems to think will win it an election next year. Hillary Clinton has proposed a specific, pragmatic policy for dealing with ISIS that goes beyond mere rhetoric and fearful slogans. It's a policy that even conservatives view as thoughtful and worth considering.

Fear has been the coin of the realm for the Republican Party since 2001. They've run on a platform that says only they can keep us safe and I'm sure they'll plug that exhausted line until November. What they need to do is to detail a plan for actually fighting ISIS both militarily and diplomatically with our allies. It will take thought and political will rather than blame. So far, I haven't heard anything that gives me confidence in their ability to confront the threat.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Does This Mean War?

I'm being a bit of a coward by posing my title as a question, but I do firmly believe that the western world is headed towards a much larger, more coordinated and, ultimately, more deadly military conflict. If it sounds like war, smells like war, destroys like war, breeds intolerance like war, then it must be a war.

And we're in one.

I fear that there are more attacks coming in places that think they're prepared, but are not. After all, Vladimir Putin thought he was going to help Assad is Syria and escape the fate that has befallen the United States, France and Great Britain. He was wrong, and 224 Russians savagely and tragically lost their lives. The French have been attacked twice this year. Israel is under constant threat.Who's next?

I went on Facebook on Friday night after reading about the attacks and saw many people who had attached the peace sign with the Eiffel Tower in it, the French flag, and pictures of the people I know from their Paris vacations. But I also saw some vitriolic hatred directed towards all Muslim, and I mean ALL Muslims, even though they are not terrorists, and I saw the requisite number of posts calling President Obama a Muslim and blaming him for this, and seemingly every other, attack, whether it was on US soil or not. It's still gauche, evidently, to blame GW Bush for September 11, but blaming Obama for an attack on Paris is de rigueur, at least among a certain segment of the population.

Foreign policy will be a key factor in the upcoming presidential election and the GOP field had better begin focusing on policies other than building a very high wall on the Mexican border, throwing people out of the country and reestablishing the fortress America that served us so badly from 1924 to 1965. It also means that Bernie Sanders had better come up with a foreign policy plank that offers Democrats a choice between him and Hillary Clinton. Obviously, she has the most experience in the field by a wide margin. She's got to make Americans believe that she can keep us safe, but engaged in the world. We need to stay strong.

My heart goes out to those who lost a loved one or who was injured in the attacks. The world has now shifted. 

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mrs. MacDowell 1 Exxon 0: Why I Knew in 1970 What Big Oil Still Denies

OK, let's go back to the halcyon days of the 1969-70 school year when I was in fourth grade. My teacher was one of those cool, hip, young people who knew how to reach children, to excite them to learn, and to inject a bit of reality and responsibility into them as they began to navigate the world. She was the kind of teacher that every child has, I hope, at least once during their schooling. I was lucky enough to have her as a teacher twice.

One of the great activities I clearly remember from that school year was a unit we studied on pollution that included not only classwork on the issue but an assembly in front of the school. We made posters. We wrote skits. We listened to CCR's Who'll Stop the Rain  (lyrics).

And we wrote songs.

One of them was based on the Pepsi Cola jingle, "You've Got a Lot to Give." Sing along with me:

It's the pollution generation
Comin' at ya, goin' strong.
Put yourself behind pollution
If you're livin'
You won't for long.

I also seem to remember a pollution song based on the Marseillaise, but I can't seem to recall the words.

We were a cheeky group. She was a great teacher.

And Mrs. MacDowell also knew a heck of a lot more than Exxon did, if contemporary news reports are believable. How is that possible? Because Exxon and other energy companies are not telling the truth about what their scientists were telling them about air pollution and the environment. Even in 1970, as a ten year old, I had heard about the "Greenhouse Effect" and how pollutants in the air were being trapped and were causing the planet to heat up.

But Exxon? They say they didn't know. I don't blame the scientists who work(ed) for the company. I'm going to assume that they stuck to science and dutifully reported what they knew to the best of their ability. To believe otherwise would call into question their credibility and morality. I'm going to blame the company because it has shown time and time again to be on the wrong side of propriety, from the Valdez tragedy to employee protections to today's allegations about covering up what it knew about the effects of fossil fuels on climate.

 I certainly understand that institutions will do whatever they need to do to survive, and the oil and gas industry is no exception. After all, this is the group that came up with the oxymoronic term "clean coal" to try and make the world's greatest pollutant and killer of far too many miners sound acceptable. It's also an industry that probably sees low gas prices as a short-to-medium-term good for its survival since many Americans have moved away from hybrid cars in response to lower prices. We even seem to be acting irrationally by taking the savings we're seeing in low prices and buying slightly pricier premium fuel.

And then there's the political angle. President Obama's rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline project became a formality because of the low price of oil, the glut in the very refineries and storage tanks that the Canadian oil was supposed to occupy, and the plain fact that the promised jobs from the pipeline project were not going to approach the economy-saving levels that many conservatives, and labor unions, envisioned. Plus, the Canadian oil is actually getting to the United States through other means, so destroying the Midwestern landscape for a pipeline was not necessary. Obama rightly measured the impact on the environment and cannily waited until a great Labor Department employment report materialized, then mercifully killed the proposal.

As for the Republicans running for president, their views on the environment, climate and energy policy are, to be kind, ignorant. They see no reason to act on what is clearly happening to the earth, preferring to stick their heads in the sand and wait for the Montana banana industry to flourish (catchy as the jingle would be). Forget about Carson and Trump, who will not be elected president in 2016. Certainly, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have seen the devastation wrought by climate change on eco-sensitive Florida, and Chris Christie, who used to be somewhat reliable on the issue, certainly saw what happened during Sandy and the October snowstorm of the previous year. All of them are in favor of more drilling, more oil company benefits and, most tragically, more United States involvement in the Middle East, which is rapidly coming undone by climate, politics and religion. For these reasons alone they are unelectable.

So thank you Mrs. MacDowell for being one of the early few who knew about the climate problem and doing what terrific teachers do: Telling your students, waking them up, getting them to act.

If only Exxon, other energy companies and the Republican party were as smart as you are.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Education's Dirty Little Secret

The week began with the president saying that there was too much emphasis on testing in schools. 
In the middle of the week, the New York Times published a story about Success Academy Charter Schools that, among other things, noted the following:
The network serves mostly black and Hispanic students and is known for exacting behavior rules. Even the youngest pupils are expected to sit with their backs straight, their hands clasped and their eyes on the teacher, a posture that the network believes helps children pay attention. Ms. Moskowitz has said she believes children learn better with structure and consistency in the classroom. Good behavior and effort are rewarded with candy and prizes, while infractions and shoddy work are penalized with reprimands, loss of recess time, extra assignments and, in some cases, suspensions as early as kindergarten.
Backs straight? Hands clasped? Candy as a reward for good behavior? More homework as a punishment for bad behavior? Any public school teacher who attempted any of these would be severely reprimanded. In addition, this is not the way we're supposed to be teaching in the 21st century. What happened to cooperative activities? Differentiation? Healthy snacks? Imagination?

By the time the week was over, the entire know-nothing education reform movement was in question.  Not that teachers and others who actually work in education didn't already know this. Because they lived with the terrible reforms every day and had little influence on whether those reforms should have been imposed in the first place. After all, the political process is slow and those right-wing money machines that were attempting not just to change the schools but also to destroy the teacher's unions had a vested interest in drawing out the process so that the public could catch a ride on the train as it crashed in Conjunction Junction.

Not so bad, right? At least we only messed up one generation of children.

Yes, friends, education came roaring back as a national priority with the release of both the PARCC and the NAEP exams this week. In a nutshell, students did not perform very well on the tests. The reasons? Well, there's the rub. According to those who comment on such things, they range from the fact that more students are living in poverty to the truth that the Common Core Standards, which are the basis for the PARCC exams, have not been around long enough for students to have internalized them. As for the NAEP, the answer is even muddier, but the consensus seems to be that last year's exam asked questions about curriculum that students have not been taught.

Really? If I gave tests on information I hadn't taught my students, I could be fired. That hasn't stopped the know-nothings from using tests to evaluate teacher performance and use the information to retain or let teachers go. This year we're using flawed tests created by people who are not in classrooms based on standards that have not been sufficiently implemented.

But there's a bigger problem. The NAEP has generally shown that students do not perform well in math and reading. If you want evidence, take a look at this report by the NAEP on the 2009 test administration. Scroll down to page 9, then look at pages 10 through 14. I'll wait.

Interesting, yes? It shows that students in almost every state, save Massachusetts, do not perform proficiently on the test. Remember; the NAEP is called "The Nation's Report Card" because it is given in every state, so it gives us an unsparing look at the differences in each state's curriculum strength and delivery.

Want more stark proof? I knew that you did. Take a look at the 2013 NAEP Report that graphically shows the remarkable differences between student performance on the NAEP with their performance on their state's end-of-year evaluation. Scroll yourself down to pages 3 and 4. Those graphs tell you the difference between NAEP scores and state tests scores. In every state but two--NY and MA--there was a gap between how students performed on state tests versus the NAEP.  Isn't it scary enough to be posted on Halloween? Many states were clearly giving easy tests and skewing the results.

And, no, these numbers are not confined to 2009 and 2013. They are similar in every year the NAEP has been given.You could look it up. And you should, because this has been education's dirty little secret for too long.

The lesson here? There are many. One is that both the NAEP and the PARCC are difficult tests that hold students accountable to standards that require much more reinforcement over time. The PARCC has not been in existence long enough for us to adequately measure its accuracy. The NAEP has been showing us for years that students across the country are not getting a rigorous enough training in content and skills that a truly educated person should have.

More important is that for years, at least since the No Child Left Behind Act began mandating tests in the early 2000s, most states have been giving easy tests based on easy curricula and calling themselves satisfied with their education systems. This is the main reason why we need the Common Core Standards. They will ensure that students throughout the country be held to the same standards no matter where they live. The political opposition to the Core Curriculum has been centered on federal government involvement in what should be a state concern. The state test scores invalidate that argument. Many of the states have been committing educational fraud. National standards will go a long way towards fixing that.

The president was correct in saying that we are focusing too much on testing, but testing is not going away and it shouldn't. What we need are tests that measure what students know based on verifiable standards and that ask students to perform evaluative tasks that stretch their brains and their imaginations. We haven't achieved either of those yet. That will require that classroom educators be intimately involved in the evaluative process. It will happen, but we need the know-nothings to step aside and let the teachers take over this process.

Let's not waste another generation.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest