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Of School Reform and The Common Core

So here we are in the midst of another school reform movement.  Here’s a funny thing.  I’ve worked as a high school English teacher for about twenty-four years now, and while I consider myself progressive, forward thinking, willing to try new things, and while I feel confident that, in actual practice, I do progressive, forward thinking, new things in my classroom with my students, I feel, paradoxically, that in the 24 years I’ve been teaching almost nothing of real consequence has changed in Education—despite the fact that at every step of the way there was some reform movement on the front burner.

Oh, let me count the reforms (fair warning: this will be tedious):  Over my twenty-four year career, we have been introduced to and/or implemented block schedule, site-based management, project-based education, schools within schools, houses, I.T.I.P., sheltered instruction operation protocol, professional learning communities, authentic assessment, Oregon state standards, Oregon state standards revisited, the CIM, the CAM, senior seminar, the capstone experience, career to work, language objectives, learning targets, multiple intelligences, international baccalaureate, and now, drum roll, please, The Common Core, adopted by something like 45 of the 50 states in the union.

Out of all of these hobby-horse reforms (some more hobby-horse than others and none of them meaningless on theoretical merits), only one or two of them have seriously impacted my practice and most all of them have come and gone and come and gone and come again.

Schools tend to be both perpetually in reform mode and perpetually frozen in time.  Save for some clear philosophical distinctions between what I do as a teacher and what the teachers who taught me did as teachers, the experience of teaching or taking a high school English class is essentially the same as it ever was, only more difficult.  Not that those philosophical differences between myself and my predecessors are small potatoes—I think of them as significant—significant, but not new.  I know that there were secondary teachers during the late seventies and early eighties who would agree philosophically with almost every thing I do now—and probably did some of those things themselves. But in the end, it’s not so much about what teachers DO as it is about what they believe, which influences what they do.  Can all students learn?  Can all students improve?  Should students have some autonomy, as often as is possible, to steer their own learning? Should students be encouraged to discover their own knowledge rather than regurgitate their teacher’s? Is schooling life-affirming and soul-enhancing? Is schooling a respectful, validating, joyful experience? Does the schooling experience grow positive and productive citizenry? If you can answer all of these questions in the affirmative, it seems to me you’ve got your answer to school reform.

All of this hullabaloo to measure and evaluate seems at total cross purposes with the above important questions.  We’re always trying to evaluate, grade, assess, measure, weigh, compare, compete and publish those results, and once we figure out how to do these things, then the job seems to be about how often we can do them. The more often the better. And all of this momentum toward measurement comes from OUTSIDE the school.  I have never known a teacher to beg for a standardized test.  I have never known a teacher who professed any amount of faith or trust in the value of a standardized test. What I do know is how much time with students actually exploring meaningful work is lost to administering tests I have no role in creating, the content of which I have no foreknowledge, and that have absolutely zero connection to my curriculum.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the guv’ment, and the district bosses who are beholden to the guv’ment, don’t trust teachers to teach up the kids in our community.  They don’t trust principals to hire effective people.  Actually, I do know better, and what seems to be true I think is actually true:  We’re not trusted at the school level.  And testing is the most expedient way for the powers that be to check up on our progress, even if the meaning or value of that check-up is nebulous.  Nobody once considered just stopping by, looking into a room or two, talking to kids and parents, asking some teachers to explain what they’re doing.  That would be too hard.

Instead, let’s get a bunch of college professors and politicians together to hammer out The Common Core—this new group of nationally selected standards by which ALL students in participating states will be measured.  In fairness, The Common Core website says the standards were created by “teachers, parents, school administrators and experts from across the country together with state leaders.” Beyond this, the authorship of these standards and exactly how they were decided upon is a relative mystery.

What’s “new” about these standards?  Well, in English education, not a whole lot.  They’re standards for skills rather than for content knowledge, skills around reading, writing, speaking and listening.  None of these skills are skills that any thinking professional would dismiss as unimportant or trivial. But there are a ton of them, more than any one thinking professional could keep inside his or her thinker, and more than any one busy professional could ever accomplish in a school year.  And they’re rigorous as all get-out—as if the authors of these lovely little standards had NO idea about what the populations of our classrooms look like in terms of diversity in readiness and skill level.  They make the same mistake that every other standards movement in the history of standards movements makes: expect the same thing from all students in the same way over the same amount of time–as if they were all, dare I say it, the same.  Here’s more work.  Here’s more difficult work.  And the added resources to help you with that, or the relief from massive student loads?  I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that.

On the whole, if anything has changed in Education over twenty-four years, it’s that teachers have come into the profession, not less, but more highly skilled, knowledgeable, prepared, and professional than ever before—at least that seems true to me here in Oregon, or here in my district in a suburb of Portland.  It is a wonder that the most qualified teaching force in the history of the public school system is not qualified to make determinations about the effectiveness of and the best path toward improving our schools, our programs, the learning of our students, and ultimately, whether or not those students have the skills necessary to be worthy of a high school diploma.

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The Imaginary Commencement Address

Greetings, class of 2012! You’ve worked hard and you’ve finally arrived at this momentous day, which, just like yesterday was, and the day before yesterday, and just like tomorrow will be and the day after tomorrow will be again, the first day of the rest of your life.  But yesterday you weren’t graduating from high school, and tomorrow you will have already graduated, so this day is in fact set apart, appropriately, as a special day, a day on which you participate in a singular right of passage away from childhood and into adulthood, whatever that means. It sounds kind of scary, actually.

I’d like to begin by thanking you all for not inviting me to speak at graduation.  I appreciate that.  It really takes the pressure off. But even though I have not been invited to speak, I will speak anyway, at least in imagination and spirit, because I CAN, and because I have a few things to say.

I greeted many of you four years ago in English 9. You were silly.  You were nutty.  Some of you were interested in learning.  Some of you were not.  Some of you worked hard.  Some of you didn’t.  Most of you are here today, but others of you could not join us this evening.  That should give us some pause.  (Pause). But you were a sweet group.  I mean to say, even though as freshmen, and even more so as sophomores, you were sometimes frustrating to work with (remember that time I got so angry I walked out of the classroom,  and that other time I slammed my open hand on a desk to get your attention and hurt myself?), you were, on the whole, nice, kind, caring. I really appreciate that.  To me, being a decent human being weighs on the scale much more significantly than good grades and academic prowess.  So I will remember you for being decent human beings.  We had fun together. Thank you.

Others of you I did not meet until your junior year.  You came into American Literature or IB Junior English knowing nothing about me–and we got on pretty well.  We studied witches, the Declaration of Independence, the roaring 20s, Coyote, poetry, monster-making, alcoholism, Chile’s dark past, America’s dark past, and love during the Mexican Revolution–and through the Exhibition Project (which you all loved) and the Individual Oral Presentation (which you all loved), you made your voices and your learning heard above the roof tops of the world.  Good work, people.

And I was fortunate enough to have about 37 of you in my IB Senior English class and my good buddy and Evil Twin Mr. Hawking had another 25 to 30 of you.  I think we studied some things in the context of that particular curriculum that might be appropriate to highlight here, on this occasion–in case you missed it the first time, or, in case you were not in those classrooms.  Let’s think of the next few minutes as a “review for the test,” so to speak.  The test we’re talking about is a long one.  It begins right this second.  And it ends–well, it ends–at the end–hopefully a really long time from now. I want you to do well on the test, so listen up.

We studied literature about the Vietnam war and we learned this:

Wars suck.  If you can help it, don’t fight them.  Instead, fight to prevent them. How do you do that?  Live peacefully in your families and in your neighborhoods.  I believe in the ripple effect that good living can have on everything and everyone that surrounds us.  I don’t mean pure living.  I mean good–good in that no one gets hurt, physically or emotionally; that everything and everyone that comes into direct contact with you is left in a better shape, condition, or state than it or he or she was before your paths crossed.  Live peacefully in and with your own mind.  You have to believe in the possibility of a world without war.  You have to start there.  And know this: that you can believe all of this and fall short of the mark over and over.  You will fail.  As I have.  And then what? We do what we can to make things better, to make amends, to forgive and be forgiven, to avoid past mistakes and destructive patterns.  In a 2011 joint venture between Vietnam and the U.S., 32 million dollars was invested for an Agent Orange clean up in Central Vietnam, nearly forty years after the end of the war. It’s never too late, people. And for those of you who serve: thank you, first of all.  And secondly, help us imagine collectively and then realize an armed forces whose primary job is to help relieve suffering and not to inflict it.

We studied literature about American slavery and the Troubles in Ireland, and we learned that history matters. It teaches us primarily not about the way things were, but WHY things are the way they are.  And if you don’t understand that, you’re living in the dark. History also teaches us this one abiding truth that, if we allow it to, can guide our lives:  nothing worth achieving comes easily.

And we studied post World War II existentialist drama and we came away with this: Live your own dream, not someone else’s.  Learn to distinguish the voice in your head from the voices coming from your cell phones and the internet and the television and your friends and family, all of which or all of whom think they know you better than you know yourself.  Technology is a tool, but many of us live as though we are tools to the technology.  Don’t be a tool.  There’s a lot of noise in this world competing with the good noise, the music of your own thoughts.  Try to find some way, some silent space within your lives, to listen to that music within.

And from Beckett we learned that it’s okay to wait, but we have to be careful, because all of what we believe we are waiting for might already be here. And this is the trap, right, that Beckett was describing: in grade school we wait for junior high (which is absolutely crazy when you think about it), in junior high we  wait for high school, and in high school we  wait for college and the concurrent and/or subsequent unemployment.  And once we’re in college or unemployed we wait for a job, a family, a kid, and then we wait for the kid to go through grade school, middle school, high school, college, job, marriage, grandkids, and . . .  Good grief. Stop waiting for life to begin.  Your life has already begun.  You’re in it.  Live it. Be here now.  Tomorrow will come, I guarantee it.

Notice I didn’t say anything about writing a great essay or analyzing text. Don’t get me wrong, here.  It’s not that I don’t think these things are important–but they are not the end–they are the means to an end, and those of you who have taken advantage of your education know this and those of you who haven’t will learn it.  Learning to use your mind well–and I think that has been or should have been the goal of the last 13 years of your school experience–will help you create a more peaceful world, will help you understand and make sense of your society and your relationships, will help you to think your own thoughts and follow your own dreams, and will help you learn to live in the present moment as if it were the only moment left to you.

With love, deep appreciation for all that you have taught me, and with the best wishes for each and every one of your days, congratulations class of 2012.

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No Grades? No Carrots or Sticks? Then What?

Not cookies and pokes in the ribs, I presume.  No, we can’t just replace one set of rewards and punishments for a different set, although, most people would rather have a cookie than a carrot and would like even less to be poked in the ribs than slapped with a stick.  I don’t know about that one.  Pokes and slaps seem equally unpleasant to me.  How about cookies or ten minutes on the rack?  Yeah, that’s better.  It’s better on the one end and worse at the other, but still really really bad no matter which way you go, because, as I’ve already established, rewards and punishments are bad in education–as they are bad in most other arenas: child-rearing, workplace motivation, innovative thinking, creativity, and relationships.  And, please, for crying out loud, don’t take my word for it; do some reading, look at the data, visit a school, or talk to some kids.  This is all a long preamble to answer the question, if no carrots and sticks, no grades, then what?

Full disclosure:  this is a thought experiment.  I cannot claim to have solved this issue in actual practice–only to have come to a conclusion philosophically, long ago, that grades, high ones as carrots, low ones as sticks, do not work, are, in fact, detrimental. I award grades because it’s part of my job expectation–and I suppose, although I have not tried it, that if I refused to award them I might be disciplined somehow–ten minutes on the rack, maybe, or worse.  So, my goal might be to come up with an alternative that would satisfy me philosophically and satisfy administrators, parents, and students that they weren’t somehow being short-changed because the carrots and sticks disappeared, but rather, felt like they had been finally presented with something like the way education ought to go, forever and ever, amen.

There was a comment to my last blog entry from another blogger named momshieb, and it was brilliant.  Here’s what she said about grade schoolers, but I believe it applies to all schoolers: “In a school with no grades, kids would recognize and measure their own progress because they would take pride in what they are achieving. They would NOT do the “bare minimum” because they wouldn’t know what that is. When children are studying or thinking or creating because they are curious or interested, they keep going until they are satisfied. When children are not being presented with external judgements about everything that they do, they stop trying to do just enough to please the judges.”  So this is just more strong argument against grades and what might happen in their absence–which seems to me obviously and infinitely better than the hoop-jumping and grade-grubbing that goes on when kids and their parents are addicted to external motivators.  And parents are often the most culpable parties.  I can count on maybe one hand how many parents have called me over the course of my entire career to ask what their children are actually learning in my classroom and not about what they’re getting.

One of the things teachers can do immediately, even if they have to award grades in order to avoid the rack, is to do everything they can to deemphasize grades.  They shouldn’t talk about them.  They shouldn’t  dangle them.  They shouldn’t use them as a threat or as a treat. They should avoid putting point values  on assignment sheets.  After awhile students will stop asking.  They start thinking instead about what they’re doing and why, about the learning, and ultimately, they will do the work because it is meaningful work.  And if they can’t find meaning in the work, teachers can help them as long as they are looking. If they want to “pretend” to find meaning and fake their way through, they might be successful, but are nevertheless TOOLS, and this behavior will some day catch up with them.  No skin off their educator’s nose.  Another group of students will refuse to look for meaning, will be unmotivated no matter what kind of dancing monkey you place in front of them, will not do anything that is asked of them.  And these are the ONLY kids, without serious intervention that is beyond what a classroom teacher can do, who will either FAIL or be forever IN PROGRESS. Our public schools do not serve these kids well and something should be done about it–but that’s another topic and another blog. But here’s another possible perspective on those kids who will not play.  Perhaps, they find no meaning in what they’re being asked to do because there is, after all, no meaning to to be found there.  I suspect that classes in which grades and points are heavily emphasized are classes for which meaning and purpose might not be clear or even existent for students and their teachers.  Recalcitrance in these situations is likely a kind of silent protest against a dumb curriculum.

I know my colleagues often worry about rigor, they are loath to think that students might think their class is “easy.” If grades go away, and a whole range of work then becomes acceptable for a PASS, from the mediocre to the truly brilliant, why should students at the top end work hard, and why wouldn’t kids doing mediocre work just become satisfied with their own status quo? First of all, we have to accept as a given the inherent differences between individuals, differences in interest level and in readiness for particular kinds of academic work.  Kids who truly love and excel in a particular discipline will continue to do so whether grades are given to them or not, and kids who hate a  particular discipline may warm up to it or at least feel less threatened by it if the fear of failing is removed and they are allowed to work towards excellence in their own way.  We never let them off the hook and we don’t poke them in the ribs.

So would it be possible, though, Mr. School Smarty Pants, to eliminate grades altogether?  In short, yes.  Read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards or The Schools Our Children Deserve.  He’s done his homework in a big way, and he can give you names of schools that are doing it and he can tell you that it has had no adverse effect on the futures of children–that colleges accept them, businesses hire them, and people love them. No negative effects.  What are the positives? The ultimate goal is that they become intrinsically motivated, curious, healthy, balanced, joyful, critical thinking, independent, interdependent, fearless young humans.  They’re not afraid to fail because they know that’s where the learning happens and that they won’t be punished for it. Can you see it?  I think I can.

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An English Teacher Doesn’t Do The Math: The Trouble With Assessment

It’s Friday and I’m not at work. It’s a furlough day, one of the 14 days cut from the school year in our district’s belt tightening regimen. I’ve got grading to do, but I’m not going to do it. Hell no. Instead, I’ll write about doing it. I want to conclude this part of my blog series about the difficulties of teaching English in a suburban public high school by talking about the king of all difficulties, the crowning glory of obfuscation and muddle, the most mysterious of mysteries regarding classroom practice, that is the problem of assessment. I know I’m doing it wrong. With the best of intentions, I think I’ve been doing it wrong for twenty years. Let me see if I clear this up. First of all, there is, has been all along, as far as I can tell, fundamental differences between what I DO and what I BELIEVE. Cognitive dissonance abounds on a massive scale with regards to measuring student achievement.

I give grades to students. I am expected to give grades to students; giving grades is, as far as I can tell, part of my job description. I hate grades and if I could abolish them, I would.

I believe students should be motivated because a thing is worth doing or knowing, not because some teacher is giving them ten points or a hundred points for an assignment. I give students an assignment and, while I try to communicate to them as clearly as I can why the assignment is worth doing for its own sake, I give them ten points or a hundred points for doing it.

I despise standardized tests, and yet, I routinely sacrifice a couple of weeks of instruction every year to administer these bad boys.

To wit: I know the only way students get better at reading and writing is by reading and writing. So I ask them to read and write. I think I should know what they’re reading and something about what they’re learning and thinking, so I ask them to write about their reading. Let’s say I get two pages a week from each kid about his or her reading—that’s about 360 pages of student work every week that I have to do something with. Then they’ve got to learn how to write by writing so I ask them to do some formal written work, say, a paper or two, between 3 and 10 pages—that’s potentially 1800 pages of student writing for each paper I assign. Let’s just pretend that in a good year I ask all of my students to do three or four formal pieces of writing in a year. Okay, I’m an English teacher—you do the math. It’s a hell of a lot of reading. I’m embarrassed to say it, but there’s a little bit of giddiness that bubbles up from deep inside me when they don’t all turn in their work. There’s something wrong with the picture when a teacher is made happy by the non-performance of a group of students.

My belief is, again, though, that if the work is worth doing, it’s worth doing, not because it’s worth ten points or a hundred points or because the kid will get a “good job” note or a gold star from the teacher, but for its own sake. I don’t even have to look at this stuff and there would still be value in the endeavor for a student, provided that the work is meaningful. But teachers, parents, administrators (and students too) are conditioned to believe or at least practice in such a way to suggest that no kid in his or her right mind would ever do an intellectual job because it was worth doing, without any kind of extrinsic reward for the doing of it at the end. I know it’s not true, but we all buy into this error and I sit several times a year at my desk buried in 1800 pages of the worst writing in the known universe. I don’t mean that as a disparagement, only a statement of fact. My students are, most of them, in varying degrees, beginners all. There are moments of sheer joy at reading competent or highly creative or immensely improved pieces of writing, but the tonnage of work I get from students reveals a dearth of these characteristics. Perhaps I would find more reasons to celebrate if I were not so heavily weighted down. Then, maybe I could look for the best stuff in even the worst work and that would likely be well worth it for all parties involved.

So how do I assess this mountain of stuff? By necessity and for survival and sanity, I do it quickly, so quickly, in fact, that in many cases, the end result, in terms of its value to a student as feedback, is so minimal as to make my intensive labor completely superfluous and ineffectual. Ouch. I can see my education professors wincing and squirming. I don’t blame them. I’m wincing and squirming myself. Why would you DO something you know to be ineffective? Well, here’s my quick response. The following is true: effective assessment, just like effective planning, takes time and careful consideration. And the realities of the public education work place are not conducive to these things. Zahir Wahab, a professor from Lewis and Clark College, planted this image into my head more than two decades ago and it stuck and seems absolutely appropriate here, and frightening, that public educators are sometimes no more than intellectual worker bees. I’m betting the bees are more efficient and effective. But teachers are busy. Like the bees, we’re very busy.

I believe students should be met where they are and a teacher should take them as far forward as he can while they’re in his classroom—forward in skills, knowledge, thinking, awareness of self and others, general humanity. Achievable goals should be agreed upon. Improvements and epiphanies should be measured and recorded. A conversation should take place about barriers broken and territory explored. Evidence of the learning should be gathered and shared. There should be much rejoicing. And I think these kinds of things could be, and sometimes are, achieved without stacks of paper. And the results would be so much more powerful and meaningful than the scores received on a standardized test, which my district has kids taking again and again and again, every year, often more than once, so that maybe, one day, on one test, they may reach the benchmark of one point above passing. These results would be more meaningful than where a kid falls on some rubric, which, more often than not, measures at once too broadly and too narrowly and never personally or individually. And these kinds of results would also blow points and grades out of the water. Here’s a portfolio of evidence. This is what has been accomplished and learned. Who needs ten points, a hundred points, or a grade? You do the math.

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