Muddying the Data

Districts with scores at subterranean levels have been locked into required assemblies, forming multiple committees to solve the problem of resistant test scores. Especially in financially disadvantaged districts, resources commonly been end up being redeployed repeatedly, since money to add new resources can seldom be found. Instead of checking for lead in the water fountains, maybe the district buys Chromebooks instead. Some districts in America are starving for funds.

In exceptional and unpredictable cases, a district may receive a grant. For example, Neal Math Science Academy received a three-year federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) a few years back.  That grant does not seem to have radically improved performance. It’s intriguingly hard to tell, though.  The shift to the new PARCC test makes comparisons with the past tough. In cynical moments, I wonder if the push to go to the PARCC test was aided and abetted by this useful blurring of the past and present.

Is Neal improving? A few years ago, we could have compared Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT) results over time to get a fairly clear picture. But comparing PARCC to the ISAT is like comparing apples to pomegranates. They are not at all the same test. These two measurement instruments do not necessarily even test the same attributes. That one shift from pencils to keyboards was enough to impact results, without even considering the effect of content changes and the introduction of multiple right answers.

Eduhonesty: Nice job of obscuring the data, guys, in the name of improved data. Was that intentional?

A Big Truth Buried in Higher High School Graduation Rates

Whatever the number of “functionally illiterate” adults in the United States, these adults are sometimes graduating from our high schools. At worst, America’s lowest readers cannot manage large chunks of everyday life. Five-year balloon mortgage payments wait to ambush them, as they make lower monthly payments they only partly understand, while they pay thousands extra for a $26,000 car financed at a high rate whose implications they can’t compute, even with a calculator.

According to officials from City University in New York, a full 10,700 students –  or 79.3 percent of applicants – failed a test to enter community college without remedial classes the previous year, and were therefore required to study basic skills they should have learned in high school.1 That’s more than three in four entering students! This increase occurred during the full force of NCLB, a sobering reminder that best intentions may not produce even mediocre results when clumsily executed. In the meantime, remedial courses continue to become a growing part of community college coursework at New York’s City University and other community colleges.

Almost all students arriving at community colleges take a skills assessment in math, reading, and writing. If they pass, students are categorized as college-ready and can freely pick classes, subject to other enrollment restrictions such as prerequisites. Other students are labeled “developmental” or “remedial,” and these students must take classes and tutoring specifically designed to get them ready to function in a regular college classroom. Students may have to work through multiple levels of remediation—up to five levels in some cases – quarter by quarter or semester by semester. 2,

We are not talking a remediation course or two, although stronger students will get by with that extra, remedial course or two: For some students, though, we are talking a full remediation curriculum. In the time that it takes for stronger students to get an associate degree, other students are getting ready to start that associate degree program.

Remedial requirements often surprise new community college students. After all, these students graduated from their high schools. Under bright lights, with pomp and ceremony, they walked across a stage and picked up their high school diplomas, shaking the Principal’s hand. When these same students discover that they are facing what may amount to a whole curriculum of remedial coursework, unexpected classes they must complete before they can even begin to accrue actual college credits, I am sure many feel betrayed.

New York City graduation rates have increased dramatically in the recent past – but graduation and learning can too easily be decoupled when the desire to increase graduation rates becomes strong enough.



2 Developmental Education in Community Colleges, Thomas Bailey and Sung-Woo Cho

Expectations and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Our students are not data. They are children. But educational reformers, state department of education employees, and school district leaders sometimes seem to have forgotten this truth. I spent over 20% of my last teaching year giving mandated tests and quizzes to my math classes, in many cases tests my students could not even read, written by an East Coast consulting firm based on Common Core standards that were four years above the test-documented academic levels of two of my classes. I also gave extra tests and quizzes because my school’s administration had decided grades were to be based entirely on tests and quizzes. The only way to save my students grades became extra tests and quizzes designed to raise their averages.

What did that year of fail, fail, fail, retake, retake, retake accomplish? Not nearly as much as rational expectations combined with desperately needed remediation might have accomplished. But when I stepped off the common lesson plan to remediate, I risked being threatened by my administration if caught. The threats went as high as termination. “Do it or else!” was the mantra of the new Principal (or hired gun) brought in from another state. The Assistant Principal punctuated that mantra with his own, “No excuses!”

My district had to show the State of Illinois that school data was improving. The consensus seemed to be that only by teaching 7th grade Common Core standards could we improve the data — except often those standards were unteachable. My two bilingual math classes both entered my class at an average 3rd-grade-level in mathematics according to their MAP™ benchmark test scores.* English language learning scores came in at comparable levels. No child can leap four years in a single bound.

I persevered. I wanted to keep my job. After awhile, I changed my mind. Nobody in their right mind would want that job, the one where a teacher keeps giving kids impossible work, while under regular threat, and then tries nonstop to repair all the damage she knows she is doing by following scary orders. I finished out the year for the kids, carrying an emergency resignation letter in my glovebox for most of the winter.

Eduhonesty: I’m retired. The damage has been done. I’d like to share a few questions that I think require answers, however:

In the name of data, how many impossible tests did we make “Isidro” take throughout that year? How many Isidros are taking similar tests this year? If Isidro bombs six math benchmark tests, as well as corporately-designed evaluative unit tests, and his big state test, will teachers conclude Isidro must be mathematically challenged? Will Isidro’s test results prejudice future teachers? Expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Most importantly, how will all those incomprehensible tests influence Isidro’s view of himself? Even if Isidro’s teachers manage to keep open minds, will Isidro?

*Nonteacher readers — Benchmark tests are given at designated times throughout a school year to measure students’ ongoing academic progress, especially in English and mathematics.


How Hard Is Too Hard?

“Try different, not harder,” ADHD coaches advise. As an ADHD adult, I respect this advice. I know “harder” seldom works. If I could always put my keys in the gray bowl in the laundry room, my keys would be in that gray bowl. I would not need the special white tile that dings at me when I use my cellphone to ping my keys, sometimes after a phone search that starts the key search. Small objects complicate ADHD life every day. I have created many strategies to manage daily life up to and including emergency back-up lesson plans prepared against the possibility that I might somehow lose the whole day’s lesson. Before I retired, my email was full of documents I sent myself so I would never find myself without materials.

A quick note for all my ADHD former students, friends and family members: You know who you are. You know who you are not. Cut yourself some slack. You burned the toast again? So what? Be as kind to yourself as you would be to any good friend.

For those not part of the club: Please don’t assume your friend or partner could keep track of those keys by trying harder. I promise Penelope does not want to spend her morning shaking out purses, bags and clothing before thoroughly cleaning the car and going through all the pockets in her house. She does not want to shake that laundry basket. You might consider giving a Tile to attach to that keychain as a Christmas or Hanukkah present, or any “finding” device that takes advantage of modern technology.

Back to education, the purported theme of this blog: “Try different, not harder” may be the best advice I’ve encountered for dealing with ADHD. When the first shelter will not do, build again. ADHD students must understand that they will probably need to build many different shelters to survive school.

ADHD kids are often locked in battle with life’s responsibilities, at least until exhaustion sets in. “Not sure if life’s telling me to give up or try harder,” many of our kids may be quietly thinking after the latest “and-I-even-had-it-in-my-locker” fail. Those fails happen too often. Exhortations to clean a locker or organize a folder won’t help, either. Students benefit from being taught to organize themselves — but some students may never be able to manage consistent organization. They will have the best of intentions. But then a firetruck will roll down the street at the end of class, and their papers will end up in the wrong folder, if those papers leave the classroom at all. An IPad will remain behind on a desk. Maybe the whole backpack will stay behind, a clumsy, twenty-pound, black lump somehow forgotten by a kid who may make it onto the bus and home before he stops to wonder why his load has suddenly become so light.

How can we teachers help our ADHD students?

Here are a few suggestions for middle school and high school students:

  1. Identify those students. Seat Jordan and Jasmine where you can see how they handle their materials.
  2. Specifically tell them what to do with those papers or their IPad, breaking the process down into steps if necessary. Yes, they should be old enough to manage without detailed instructions. And I should be able to find my keys without the Tile. Some kids can’t manage, at least not on a regular basis, without those instructions.
  3. Convince them to set a reminder or alarm with an attached packing list for the trip home. Include items like “Put IPad into backpack” etc.
  4. Convince them to set an alarm for starting their homework. The homework alarm should be set for a time early enough to deal with crises like missing assignments.
  5. Help Jordan or Jasmine to create a back-up plan for what happens when they get home and find they forgot their folder or IPad again, or can’t understand the day’s expectations for their IPad — a better back-up plan than “I will play videogames since I have nothing to do.” Who can they message from their class? Can they email you?  What else can they do to solve their problem?
  6. Consider creating back-up assignments that can be done as substitutes for some days’ assignments, at least for those kids who always seem to get lost in the forest of details of everyday school life.
  7. Teach all students to learn to prepare “Plan B” when the occasion requires. When you are making your own “Plan B” work because district internet cut out and you cannot access useful materials, share your thought processes as you adapt to the challenge.
  8. For especially vital projects or assignments, call home. Enlist parents in advance.

Eduhonesty: This post goes out with love to all those younger versions of myself.



Skilled Trades Are Not Chopped Liver

Among others, this blog is being written for all the high school students out there who like to work with their hands. It’s for my Tomas M., a small, skinny boy who always seemed too small for his sweaters. Tomas nailed the ugliness of our testing culture and college-for-all agenda with one simple line:

“Woodworking is the only class where I don’t feel stupid.”

I was teaching him Spanish at the time, but I did not take offense. He did not test well and he was being tested all over, all the time.

Our Tomases need to be respected for their talents. If they have reached their sophomore year of high school still operating at a mid-elementary level in mathematics – and our own test scores thoroughly demonstrate this phenomenon remains part of America’s educational landscape – these kids deserve a break. They deserve a set of vocational options that take advantage of their strengths.

American public education has not been supporting vocational education. We have not been supporting our electricians, stoneworkers, masons, glazers, painters, cabinetmakers, machinists, and welders. We have not valued our skilled artisans, craftspeople, and technicians, those men and women who maintain our MRI technology, and keep our oil platforms and bridges safe. An air-conditioning repairman provides a vital, even sometimes life-saving, service in the high heat of summer.

When educational reformers hammer and hammer home the idea that all students must be prepared for college, and insist that all students take a college-preparatory set of courses that don’t leave time for true vocational and technical education,  we devalue the contributions of essential service providers. We subtly and implicitly put down the interests and abilities of students who would rather fix cars than write papers. We add to the confusion and misery of young adults who know they don’t want to go to college, but cannot think of a “respectable” alternative that will not make them feel or seem like underachievers and, eventually, second-class citizens.

P.S. Yes, I know it’s mostly called career and technical education today, but that’s part of the problem. Too many districts changed the name. And then they let the auto-repair and woodworking teachers go.




Thinkers, Feelers, Thinker-Feelers, and None of the Above — Let’s Not Trust Resilience

“That’s why we have to train kids to be resilient,” a teacher said, referring to my last post.

I feel compelled to respond to this quick answer to the problem of testing run amok. Teaching resilience and growth mindsets to our kids has a place, but we cannot keep running up from the lake with buckets of water to put out the fires we are starting in the first place. Yes, students who learn coping techniques for stress are better off than students who are left without that support. But the problem with looking to resilience training and growth mindset as antidotes to a stressful learning climate rests in the infinite variety of kids themselves.

Not all kids can shut down emotionally, but a surprising number can. In Myers-Briggs terms, some kids are thinkers, some are feelers and a percentage hover in the middle. Some go down obediently. Some fight back against the injustice of America’s inappropriate tests and standards. Some judge themselves wanting while others perceive they are playing a loaded game and decide not to play.

Current wisdom wants us to believe that resilience can be cultivated through use of positive-feedback loops, and in my experience that concept stands up to scrutiny – to a degree. The girl who gives herself positive self-messages has a better chance of standing up to the test onslaught than more pessimistic counterparts. “I will study harder and I will do better on the next quiz” certainly beats “I hate this stupid class and I can’t do math.”

Eduhonesty: We have to stop trying to use behavioral strategies to “fix” kids as a means of undoing damage we may be doing to those kids. How much stress is too much stress? Does the stress from testing for as much as 20% of a year ever provide enough useful information to justify the emotional roller-coaster from that testing?

I am not criticizing other educators. Until I retired, I worked constantly to boost self-esteem, create growth mindsets, and teach kids to give themselves positive self-messages. But I also watched certain kids sinking, as their hope fled and their self-images crumbled.

We didn’t start the fire…
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it

We are trying to fight it.

We are trying to fix our kids.

We should be reshaping their world — and shutting down this quest for excessive amounts of marginally useless data — instead.

No Place to Hide

Even the most sensitive teachers cannot keep some students from feeling like failures today. Students see stronger students taking fun electives, like pottery and robotics, while their own extra, remedial math and English classes emphasize how far behind they have fallen. We tell students over and over again what we want – good test scores – and they are fully capable of recognizing their failure to earn these scores. Plus we give them their test results, week after week, year after year.

In my final year of teaching, I was obliged to lose class periods to go over MAP™ results with each individual, middle school student so that students could figure out what might have gone wrong and make plans to improve. I knew what had gone wrong. My students were bilingual students and they were unable to read many test questions. Some of my students were also clear that lack of English-language learning was holding their scores down.

But the scary part of the MAP™ review process came from other students who discounted that language barrier as they said, “I’m not good at school,” or “I can’t do math, Ms. Turner,” or, worst of all, “I’m just dumb, Ms. Turner.”

Eduhonesty: Hello out there? This post should be passed on to many educational reformers. What happens to those kids who fail, fail, fail? Especially when we push them into repeated introspection after the fact? At least some of them decide that whatever it takes to succeed, they obviously lack this mysterious thing. Those kids who conclude they are too dumb to succeed may be impossible to pull back into the game, too.

Hope is not an inexhaustible resource. For some kids, hope only flickers off and on, if hope puts in any appearance at all. When the assaults keep coming month after month, hope can be extinguished. I have watched eyes becoming duller as efforts became more erratic. All the support and pep talks in the world cannot rescue less-resilient kids hugging the bottom in the testing game.

To emphasize a point I have made in previous posts: These are not “tests kids are failing” as much as “students we are failing” — and some of these failure rates have reached levels that can only be termed absurd. For example, New York State’s 2016 PARCC results could easily result in legions of kids abandoning hope.  In 2016, ELA scores for grades 3-8 rose, but those scores remain a debacle.  The “percentage of  students in grades 3-8 who scored at the proficient level (Levels 3 and 4) increased by 6.6 percentage points to 37.9, up from 31.3 in 2015.” That’s still around one in three. In math, the percentage of students who scored at the proficient level went up one whole point to 39.1 percent, up from 38.1 percent in 2015.*

When less than four out of ten students are passing a test, the problem is not with the students. But our kids are only kids. Do they understand that inappropriate tests should not affect their view of themselves?

I think the answer can be neatly captured in the words, “I’m just dumb, Mrs. Turner.”




Raining on Dreams — Sharing the Odds with Our Kids

On the list of statements that make me want to tear out at least some of my hair: “You know some people make lots of money playing video games, Mrs. Turner.” That statement can be added to, “I am going to play for the NFL.” Or NBA, or NHL, or Houston Astros, or some foreign soccer team. (U.S. soccer teams still don’t pay well enough.) Alternatives include, “I am going to be a sportscaster in Chicago,” or “I am going to be a famous rapper,” I have heard these and similar statements too many times. Many middle school and even high school kids have little real concept of the future coming at them. Schools don’t always help, as teachers and counselors try to avoid raining on unrealistic dreams.

I understand that desire to support the hopes and dreams of our students. In elementary school, I’d just smile and let the early NFL dream go, maybe with a few comments about getting ready for college so the NFL will be able to see your talent. By late elementary school, I might talk about getting a good education in case you hurt your knee or something.

But by middle school and high school , educational professionals ought to stop smiling and giving unconditional or lightly-qualified support to unrealistic dreams. The number of players in the NFL as a percentage of the approximate number of college football players might be a place to start. In general, what are the numbers behind the dream? How many video players are there? How many make money playing video games? How many could support a house, car and family on that money?

Unrealistic dreams lead directly to unrealistic actions. That’s our problem. School may matter only minimally to that boy who plans to be in the NBA. He intends to keep his eligibility, but especially in academically-underperforming schools, high school eligibility in the form of “C” grades and above may not indicate any level of learning close to college-readiness. Video-game-boy (or girl, but I have heard this comment from multiple boys and not a single girl) may not see any use in formal education at all.

Eduhonesty: It’s legitimate to rain on dreams. Sometimes, we teachers and educational professionals must adult. It’s adult to rain on dreams, when those dreams appear to be true longshots — and don’t offer a reasonable fallback option if the dream fails.

I’d never slow down a would-be astronaut or brain surgeon. Instead, I’d point to Mae Jemison who turned her B.S. in chemical engineering and later medical studies into a platform for journeying into space. If Mae had stopped at chemical engineering, she would have had a sturdy rung to use to climb the ladder into middle-class comfort, but she went on to become a physician and from there entered the early history of space travel. She had picked a direction with the potential to branch off into many lives of comfort and fulfillment.

I am not saying we should never support that boy who wants to enter professional sports. An exceptional high school basketball player should be encouraged to go for his dreams. But we owe students the knowledge to make informed choices. We owe them a truthful assessment of the work involved. In the book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell shared his belief that around 10,000 hours of practice were required to become expert at any activity as demanding as professional sports. That number might flex somewhat, but tossing a ball around a few afternoons a week or even attending high school practice will not get our would-be players out onto professional fields. Kids need to hear this truth from us. They ought to read Gladwell, too.

We owe students a best effort at explaining the world outside of high school — not the world we want for them, but the world they will enter. We can start with 1,696 NFL players divided by 1,085,272 high school football players =  0.0016 chance of going from high school football to the NFL.* I’d make sure students understood how tiny a piece of the pie 0.0016 represents, too.

Feel-good helps our young elementary dreamers and I am all for encouraging dreams — just not pipe-dreams in adolescents. While “You can be whatever you want to be” sounds great and is a feel-good strategy in the short-run, that short-run ends too soon. Our students graduate and move on. They have no choice. When the only plan they have is “NFL star,” only in the very rarest cases, do they have any plan at all. For 99.99% of our football players, the “NFL star” plan is only slightly more realistic than “first veterinarian on Mars.” We adults know that. Our kids need to know that too. I’d be willing to end my talk with that aspiring NFL player by explaining Malcolm’s 10,000 hours, expressing the belief that a player might achieve his dream through fierce dedication and effort.

But the actual odds should be out there for kids to understand, front and center.

*Sources: and, Football Remains No. 1 H.S. Sport in USA By Terence P. Jeffrey | August 26, 2016 | 5:07 PM EDT

Setting the Fires We Have to Put Out

I have become convinced that furious efforts to raise standardized test scores ironically are directly responsible for creating misbehaving students, often in tandem with that additional one-two punch of subject failures or near-failures in English and mathematics. Too often, I have seen efforts to raise scores lower the scores of students instead, those students who do not fit our test-directed lessons.

As we stuff classrooms with students ranging from a third-grade level to a ninth-grade level academically and then hand those students common preparatory materials chosen to provide optimal test preparation for grade-level tests, we create a group of lost students who simply are too far behind to succeed with the material they have been given. A student reading at a second-grade level and doing math at a third-grade level cannot do seventh grade work on any regular basis. When that student confronts a problem like the following, misbehavior may easily follow:

The quotient of forty-two and a number is three. Which answer or answers describe this problem?

  1. 42/x = 3
  2. 42x = 3
  3. 42 – x = 3
  4. 42/3 = x -3

Not all students sit quietly staring at incomprehensible activity sheets. The kids at the bottom know they are at the bottom. Even if teachers work to create an emotionally safe-learning environment — always a top priority in an academically-diverse class — those kids realize they have fallen behind most of their peers. How do they feel? Angry? Embarrassed? Shut-down? Scared? How many simply feel like raising hell to break up the boredom of the day? “Incomprehensible” and “boring” are synonymous for most kids.

As we analyze our mountain of test data, almost all the teachers I know feel long-term effects of failed tests and classes are receiving too little attention. Pundits talk at length about test-score numbers, but ignore the students behind those numbers. We know repeated, failed tests and quizzes are excellent predictors of long-term academic failure and even dropping out of school. What we don’t know is the extent to which those failed tests and quizzes might cause long-term academic failure.

Are student failures the result of education gone wrong? Clearly, many politicians and educational administrators have set out to make that case. But what if student failures are not merely reflections of America’s educational crises, crises that affect some groups disproportionately, but are the actual source of present and future failures? Students cannot learn what we do not teach them while we are preparing them for the annual state test instead. What if current broad scale strategies for improving education, especially those related to raising standards and beating tests, are actually hurting groups of students rather than helping them?

Someday the Dog Will Die

I keep asking teachers what they think of the Common Core. The best I hear is some version of “possibly or probably beneficial in the long-run.” When I ask about the Core’s impact on classroom environment, conversation turns more negative. In particular, English teachers express doubts about the heavy emphasis on nonfiction literature in the Core. We are skewing America away from the literary classics and toward how-to reading and writing, preparing our high school students to become technical writers rather than classical scholars.

If employability is the yardstick by which we measure academic content, then the shift to nonfiction makes a certain amount of sense. But as I talk to high school English teachers about the Core materials shift, we share a concern that many rich, descriptive literary words found in fiction never cross over into works of nonfiction. How many times will the SAT have to dumb itself down to keep up with our less and less verbally-adroit students?

More importantly, what about breadth, and learning for the sake of learning? Do we want excellence or employable conformity? Concepts like honesty, honor, courage, imagination, creativity and integrity are slighted in nonfiction — when those concepts arise at all. In this age of materialism, cynicism, relativism, and reductionism, losing the stories and poems that provide our children with examples of heroism and the pursuit of truth for its own sake should not be accepted because “that’s not where the jobs are.”

Where will the next generation of philosopher’s come from? Who will teach our children to think? Not to solve technological puzzles — but to reason out their life’s path when outguessing the standardized test is no longer enough. As much as I hate those dead dog stories, as appalled as I am by the racism in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I would like to reach our curricular planners out there: Understanding the movement of the Earth’s plates will not be enough for our students. Someday, our students will have to make their way through the tough and the ugly in life. Someday the dog will die. Those classroom discussions that have been shut down by that push to nonfiction? Please bring back those books and discussions. We are educating people, not cogs to plug into some future corporate machine.

Eduhonesty: If we want to create thinkers, we must give our children topics worthy of thought — and we will have better luck finding those topics in great works of fiction than in how-to guides, reports of scientific discoveries, or even biographies.