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Bringing Honest Exchange Into Kids' Lives

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Dear Diane,

There are two possibilities (at least) re our agreeing too much! We can dig deeper into the areas about which we agree, or we can take on what, in other times, might appear to be important disagreements.

There are times to unite before a common threat; but it's also useful to keep the disagreements stirring.

When I was inside a school I had to take care about how much I annoyed those with more power than me. I still should. Some guy in Massachusetts with the Pioneer Institute took umbrage at my "accusing" them of having controlled the Massachusetts Department of Ed from a narrow focus on tests and vouchers, and went after Mission Hill's recent test scores.

Still, I am freer to criticize than my colleagues inside, and shouldn't lose that advantage. As you know, since you hear from these beleaguered insiders, too. Especially since these insiders are the very "educationists" that the new business owners of our schools are eager to get rid of. Their complaints are viewed as the mere "whining" of a defeated species.

So I am afraid. Truly. I think the mayor of NYC, and Eli Broad, are perfectly happy about a future in which most teachers come and go every five or so years. Temps. Easier to manage and harder to organize. A few will rise to leadership positions after a few years of teaching—after getting MBAs?—and the rest of the leaders will come from other fields like law, business, and the military.

I'm not so worried about what this will do to math scores, Diane. What worries me is what it does to the mission of K-12 schooling, plus college in fact, that matters most to us. Building and sustaining a democratic culture is mysterious, and as far as I can tell sometimes it seems to happen by just good luck. It may not be antithetical to getting good test scores, but it's not the same thing. We're not born democrats. It's even possibly an "unnatural" human invention. So where is it—if not in schools—that we imagine the habits of intellect to sustain democracy might develop, not to mention the habits of heart and the social experience that makes it seem do-able, as well as sensible?

I'm going to Russia, in part to just be a tourist, but also to talk about this to a group of teachers who are trying to build a democracy there. That's what we need now in the USA: a task force to study how democracy can be learned. Shall we inaugurate one? The Forum for Education and Democracy is a nascent effort to do so, whose statement of purpose and values is worth looking at. I'd love to hear your critique of our efforts, because we need to build a broad united movement around this idea.

Meanwhile, there is never a time without a few cracks in the sidewalk—or not for more than a few minutes after the paving is laid. I don't urge teachers to stick it out or flee, but as long as they are in front of kids they need to use every resource they have to bring an honest exchange of ideas into the lives of kids, to immerse them in a classroom culture in which all ideas, even silly ones, are taken seriously and explored. Where there is no such a thing as "of course", meaning if you don't "get it," you're stupid. I used to say to kids that even in solitary confinement there are ways to "escape"—if only in one's mind. And even the most totalitarian school isn't yet solitary confinement.

Teachers from other schools used to tell me—in the bad old days—that they weren't "allowed" to do x and y, "had to" teach x and y songs, read certain books, follow the script. I reminded them that until someone threatened to fire them for insubordination they had a choice, and even then….. It's one of the reasons, but not the only one, that we need teacher's unions so badly.

An old friend, and occasional foe these days, named Sy Fliegel, used to promote what he called "creative noncompliance". He was one of the world's greatest experts in it when he helped lead East Harlem's schools along with Tony Alvarado in the '70s and '80s. I fear it may be harder to do so in these days of centralization and the increased infantalization of school principals. But still, I know a lot of folks out there who are, in their quiet ways, fighting back—resisting. (God bless them.) The biggest distortion of truth that promoters of the current NYC utter is the claim that principals now have more autonomy. As a former K-6 and 7-12 principal I say, "bah humbug". (More later.)

They have the freedom to shuffle the deck chairs, but the Titanic is heading for an iceberg and they can't do anything about that, except try to see that there are lots of lifeboats around and lots of kids who can swim until help arrives. And that's a worthy task! Forgive the overwrought metaphors, Diane. I'm trying to finish this off as I head to Indiana in a few moments to talk with folks who are starting a new school! Hopefully I'll feel more optimistic by the time I get there.

Deborah

14 Comments

"When I was inside a school I had to take care about how much I annoyed those with more power than me."

Ain't that the truth. I think many of us can relate to this.

K-12 Schools are not a democracy for teachers nor are they a democracy for students. They are (or should be) institutions for instruction in academic knowledge and skill. Trying to create a democracy for the students and/or teachers will just derail the mission and could do as much harm in the schools as it would do in the Navy SEALS if it were dragged in there.

Dear Will,

This is my 3rd try at trying to answer you!

Your comments exactly demonstrate why we need a real debate about purposes. You and I couldn't disagree more!

CPESS used to put it this way: "we're here to help young people live satisfying, productive and socially useful lives within the context of a complex, modern democratic society."

Academics and skills matter to me when they serve the purpose of helping people to be well-prepared members of the "ruling class". Or as Ted Sizer puts it, "to learn to use their minds well" in the service of communally agreed upon "ends." . I hardly think that in a democracy we can afford to presume that learning to be a democrat isn't at least one of the central aims of our public educational system.

Democracy is neither "natural", "instinctive" nor "common sensical". Any democracy--including our particular form of it--requires serious intellectual study. We have oddly enough given virtually no thought to what this might look like.

Academic skill and knowledge can serve fascism, communism, feudalism, et al. After high school there is perhaps a need for institutions that solely serve to further the integrity of the particular "academic disciplines." Just like there is room for institutions solely devoted to plumbing. But from age 5-18 the central public purpose is larger than either of these. Academia will benefit, but it's not the aim; any more than the needs of the market for this or that job skill.

It may have been possible--add a little luck--for us to have had a surviving democracy in the absence of rigorous training for it--in some ways perhaps ordinary life helped many learn democratic "habits" in ways no longer possible; I know of no alternate institution present in the lives of the young that might help them learn these habits--it seems to me it's our schools or nothing.

The folks who want to further the habits of competitive sports take pedagogy more seriously than we do--and know that if you want really good tennis (soccer, football, et al) players you better be sure lots of young people experience tennis played well.

Deborah

Dear Will,

This is my 3rd try at trying to answer you!

Your comments exactly demonstrate why we need a real debate about purposes. You and I couldn't disagree more!

CPESS used to put it this way: "we're here to help young people live satisfying, productive and socially useful lives within the context of a complex, modern democratic society."

Academics and skills matter to me when they serve the purpose of helping people to be well-prepared members of the "ruling class". Or as Ted Sizer puts it, "to learn to use their minds well" in the service of communally agreed upon "ends." . I hardly think that in a democracy we can afford to presume that learning to be a democrat isn't at least one of the central aims of our public educational system.

Democracy is neither "natural", "instinctive" nor "common sensical". Any democracy--including our particular form of it--requires serious intellectual study. We have oddly enough given virtually no thought to what this might look like.

Academic skill and knowledge can serve fascism, communism, feudalism, et al. After high school there is perhaps a need for institutions that solely serve to further the integrity of the particular "academic disciplines." Just like there is room for institutions solely devoted to plumbing. But from age 5-18 the central public purpose is larger than either of these. Academia will benefit, but it's not the aim; any more than the needs of the market for this or that job skill.

It may have been possible--add a little luck--for us to have had a surviving democracy in the absence of rigorous training for it--in some ways perhaps ordinary life helped many learn democratic "habits" in ways no longer possible; I know of no alternate institution present in the lives of the young that might help them learn these habits--it seems to me it's our schools or nothing.

The folks who want to further the habits of competitive sports take pedagogy more seriously than we do--and know that if you want really good tennis (soccer, football, et al) players you better be sure lots of young people experience tennis played well.

Deborah

Dear Will,

This is my 3rd try at trying to answer you!

Your comments exactly demonstrate why we need a real debate about purposes. You and I couldn't disagree more!

CPESS used to put it this way: "we're here to help young people live satisfying, productive and socially useful lives within the context of a complex, modern democratic society."

Academics and skills matter to me when they serve the purpose of helping people to be well-prepared members of the "ruling class". Or as Ted Sizer puts it, "to learn to use their minds well" in the service of communally agreed upon "ends." . I hardly think that in a democracy we can afford to presume that learning to be a democrat isn't at least one of the central aims of our public educational system.

Democracy is neither "natural", "instinctive" nor "common sensical". Any democracy--including our particular form of it--requires serious intellectual study. We have oddly enough given virtually no thought to what this might look like.

Academic skill and knowledge can serve fascism, communism, feudalism, et al. After high school there is perhaps a need for institutions that solely serve to further the integrity of the particular "academic disciplines." Just like there is room for institutions solely devoted to plumbing. But from age 5-18 the central public purpose is larger than either of these. Academia will benefit, but it's not the aim; any more than the needs of the market for this or that job skill.

It may have been possible--add a little luck--for us to have had a surviving democracy in the absence of rigorous training for it--in some ways perhaps ordinary life helped many learn democratic "habits" in ways no longer possible; I know of no alternate institution present in the lives of the young that might help them learn these habits--it seems to me it's our schools or nothing.

The folks who want to further the habits of competitive sports take pedagogy more seriously than we do--and know that if you want really good tennis (soccer, football, et al) players you better be sure lots of young people experience tennis played well.

Deborah

Dear Diane,

I see you are speaking at UNC on September 20. I do not know if you take questions on the lecture circuit, but here are a few.

When did people start to assume that PROFICIENCY was an exact scientific measure of whether students can read and do math? When politicians were deciding that proficiency should be the sole determinant of academic achievement, did they really understand how proficiency cut scores are determined? For example:

1. Statisticians make decisions about how to conduct a proficiency standard setting session before it even begins. Those decisions, by design, restrict the range of what might be called proficient. Different methods going in – bookmark, holistic, Angoff, or item mapping methods -- necessarily mean that certain cut scores at the high and low ends of the scale can or cannot be obtained.

2. At the standard setting meeting with educators, despite training and multiple rounds of judgments, individual educators usually have wildly different final choices about where to set the cut score. If you took the highest individual judgment, thousands more children would fail. If you took the lowest, thousands more children would pass. That is why the median is often used to summarize their collective judgment. It hides a great deal of disagreement. (There is sometimes a good reason for the difference. As was realized after the NAEP standard setting, teachers may not even understand the process.)

3. Statisticians, especially with consecutive grades of standards to set, will often smooth those grade-level median judgments, moving the cut up or down to create the appearance of a more linear, coherent transition between grades.

4. State Boards may reject, revise, or phase in cut scores, moving them up or down as they see fit, especially if initial pass rates are very low.

5. Test makers usually cannot create a test with a cut score with a standard error of less than two raw score points, even worse with a shorter test. No statistician would ever bet that the barely just proficient child taking the same test under the same circumstances would not fail the second time or that the student who failed by one point would not pass. That is one of the reasons you have multiple chances to take graduation tests, but not reason enough to retest between grades three and eight when the only one to pass or fail will be the school.

6. The final determination of an exact cut score on one administration often results from a decision concerning how to round the final estimate. For example, if the cut score is 100, that particular administration may have only possible scores of 99 or 102 with no exact 100 at all. Do you round up the 99, especially if it is 99.9, or do you demand 100 or better? That is the difference between passing or failing for thousands of students each administration.

Forget testing errors, reading level drift, cheating scandals, standards set near random chance performance, open-ended scoring reliabilities, n-size shenanigans, student assignment shuffles, and curriculum alignment. Assume that everything associated with testing is working as well as possible. Would you still choose proficiency on any test as the sole measure of academic achievement?

Do you think the average parent or taxpayer understands how uncertain PROFICIENT is?

Thanks, "anon". It was these kinds of discoveries - from psychometrician friends - that gave me the courage to become a standardized testing skeptic. It gave me additional confidence in judgments I made that were contradicted by test evidence. And that were then reinforced by literally sitting with a student and going through the test word by word to discover that more than one thing was going on at the same time. Thanks for laying it out.

Deborah,

You should be concerned with the low math scores as it is the lack of educational attainment by the students that drives the PUBLIC support for the ill-conceived “school improvement plans” by Joel Klein et al. (That and the fact that we have so little checks and balances in our educational structure that it is entirely possible for the unaccountable dismantling of a school system seen in NYC.)

While I sympathize with the notion that we should embrace and support our children regardless of their test scores, this idea is truly doing both the public and our children a great disservice. We can (and should) do both; give our students a wonderful educational experience and the ability to perform well on tests.

Erin Johnson

I' trying a new approach to "comments" so I can use spellcheck!!

Good idea, Erin; but we actually don't try to get low scores! Maybe one
reason for all the hoopla about test scores is exactly what you are
suggesting--to lower public support? Even in the days of norm
referenced tests, when half the kids by psychometric law had to have
scores below "grade level", the scores were used to lambaste schools
("imagine--half the kids are below grade level!").

There's a reason why some schools spend so much time on test prep--it
helps. But there's a trade-off and while I can justify spending some
time trying to teach young children such skills for the sake of public
relations, it's hard to justify doing a lot of it. And we've
discovered that when they are older they do just fine on tests--or at
least most do (some people seem inevitably to always be poor test
takers). It's easier to teach testing "tricks" when kids are older,
and they think less idiosyncratically later on and can make sense of
such help better. For example, never leave an answer unanswered on
most school tests--not even if you know nothing! But on SATs the rule
is somewhat different. It's an idea that goes against the grain of
young children, and "odds" are still too slippery a concept.

But you are right--the test scores demoralize the public. And the
kids. And their families. It's one reason I became an expert on
them. And one reason I fear for the future; because they are an endless tool for playing with the public's understanding. I go into this in more detail in next week's letter to Diane.

Deb

OK Deb, so we seem to have a catch-twenty-two here. Kids from urban schools appear to have a far greater need for a focus on the affective domain while in school as opposed to the cognitive. It's a very delicate balancing act, though. They have to acquire academics while in school to have a chance at succeeding in today's world. How, then, will these kids ever have the opportunity to catch up (close the achievement gap) cognitively to their suburban counterparts if their focus in school is on the collective skills of: PERSONAL INTEGRITY, WORKPLACE LITERACY, CIVIC AWARENESS, and (some on) ACADEMIC PROFICIENCY ("Only Connect" Rudy Crew)? It's going to take more than schools to pull this off. Large investment in social services, breaking the parent/guardian paradigm debacle of poor and minority families, continued, perhaps additional welfare reform, and time, a lot of TIME. This country created the problem over the its first four hundred years, I just hope it doesn't take that long to rectify the dilemma. Again, these are the kids the legislation was intended to address but the most significant oversight seems to be the focus in the law on their cognitive development with little or no attention to the affective aspect of their lives. Again, the cognitive is what will gain them acceptance/success in the eyes of the rest of our culture: CATCH-TWENTY-TWO!

Paul,
Read my latest - in a day or two - which responds to your thoughts. I hope. Thanks.

Deborah

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