The Teacher Managed Not to Cry


I rocked lightly in the teacher’s rocking chair, reading to my all-day kindergarten class, watching the twenty faces sitting cross-legged out on the rug. Subbing kindergarten can be crazy, but I love that age. I tie shoes and wipe faces between teaching letters, numbers and technology. They need help with the volume on their earphones, although they are pretty good at using the QR code to open their books.

We were reading a story about a llama that followed his girl to school. Somehow, we branched out to talk about students’ cats, hamsters, bunnies, dogs and puppies and I accidentally walked into the minefield of an unfamiliar classroom. While discussing my dog and how she would joyfully follow me to school every day if the school allowed me to bring her along, I discovered that three students’ families had dogs that had passed away.

A little boy in front with tousled brown hair and a Chicago Cubs t-shirt, who had lost a dog while not much more than a toddler, brought me near tears when he said, “I bet after the dogs die, they follow their boy to school every day.”

I just said, “I bet they do. I bet they do.”

Then I moved on fast before the tears started slipping out.

Overdue for the Autopsy


Why did No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) test-based reforms fail? Why did our enormously expensive efforts flop? Why did we fail to get America’s students “up to grade level” by 2014 as demanded? Considering the time and money many school districts sank into pulling up test scores, why do hundreds of thousands of American high school graduates remain unready for college or university classes?

While the achievement gap between our more and less fortunate students in different zip codes is regularly reviewed by pundits and newscasters, a critical question tends to fall below the radar: What if current educational policy is contributing to the lack of progress in our academically-challenged zip codes? What if bars in some academically-challenged zip codes have risen because our students have learned what to expect on the test, while learning practically nothing else? What if some bars are stagnant or falling because students were unready to learn the material on the test – but were offered nothing else?

Today’s educational climate moves too quickly. Various Drs. Frankenstein in state and federal bureaucracies funnel energy into new programs only to watch their creations rise and die. No one does an autopsy, not one worthy of the name anyway. When Race to the Top becomes a Race to Nowhere, suddenly ESSA rises, the new focus of professional development meetings and seminars everywhere.

Where did No Child Left Behind fail? Where — if anywhere — did it succeed? Why do we need ESSA? Did Frankenstein need a bride? What are we doing? Where are the autopsies? Why did all those students fail the PARCC test? What did those failures mean?

Eduhonesty: Unqualified and underqualified government officials keep mandating educational fixes based on untested, unpiloted programs such as RtI, NCLB and Race to the Top. I understand the desperation. But these mail-order-diploma, academic surgeons never seem to stop to find out why the patient failed to improve. In the case of PARCC, I’d say the patient died. But we still give PARCC tests in many places, if fewer now than when the test first came out.

Where are the autopsies? We might learn a great deal from stopping long enough to carefully analyze where and how our efforts failed — and where they succeeded — before we attack Education with yet another knife.

Middle-School Explained in Fewer than 25 Words


Eduhonesty: While the age of this shift in perspective varies somewhat, I’d say most students tip over in 7th grade. That’s the age when a previously smiley, compliant boy told a teacher “Bullshit!” when asked to remove the hoodie forbidden by the dress code.

He was quite indignant about his day’s suspension, too, waving the paperwork in my face as he presented me with proof of the injustice perpetrated upon him for, in his words, “One word! Just one word!”

Questions about the Questions about the Questions: Wandering in the Dark


Especially in academically-struggling districts, our students are now being directly prepared for state tests. What are the costs of almost purely test-focused preparation. What non-test content is being jettisoned to make this happen? In the past, teachers took time to explore personal passions with their students. They might spend a few extra days on the First World War or add a lesson on the Tokugawa Dynasty in Japan. This time spent off or adjacent to the curriculum nonetheless produced test scores that suggest students learned as much or more back then, despite teachers’ deviations.

We don’t know how well teaching directly to the test works. We cannot measure the costs and benefits from a state-test-focused approach to education because we cannot know the results alternative strategies might have provided. We can’t even compare past tests with current tests, because past teaching placed far less weight on that test; testing conditions in the past and today are too different to allow valid comparisons. How would our students have tested if we had provided a more student-focused education for them today? Or a more test-based educational experience in the past? Teaching to the test removes the focus from students, and puts that focus on an annual measuring instrument instead.

Once, educational leaders chose curricula based on what they believed students needed to know for their future. The annual spring test was intended to measure student progress, but its content did not define student progress. In some schools, students might study additional classical topics such as rhetoric, logic, and grammar, as well as Latin, Roman and Greek history, and classics of American literature that have now been replaced by easier reads. In Common Core states, those easier reads tend more often to be nonfiction than in the past.

For the prodigious amount of time and effort we are now putting into testing, we know little about how today’s students compare to students from forty or fifty years ago. Thanks to the Common Core Initiative, we may never be able to even approximate that data. The new PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests, along with other state tests that are being rewritten to match the Common Core, ensure that we cannot compare today’s apples to yesterday’s apples. Students are taking significantly different tests. They are also taking those tests differently, as computers replace paper and pencil. These changes in testing content and testing instruments effectively eliminate our ability to compare test results over time.


If a million students took a test in 1975, and a million students took the same or a truly similar test in 2005, we could comb our data (assuming we had saved enough of that data) to compare educational results for 1975 and 2005. We could say that Nebraska’s students had answered 67% of a section’s math questions correctly in 1975 and only 52% in 2005. (I made those numbers up for purposes of illustration.) When the same test is employed over time, results can be compared over time. Questions that were changed over time can be eliminated from analysis provided remaining questions still comprise a sample large enough to compare.

Once our students started taking the PARCC test instead of previous tests, our ability to compare student performance over time became immensely more complex. We don’t have apples to slightly different apples now, we have apples to watermelons or even shellfish. With the new emphasis on critical thinking and scenario-based problems, we may have shifted to testing different student attributes as well as different test content.

Eduhonesty: I can’t help but be struck by the extreme irony here. At the same time when education has suddenly become heavily about data and numerical results, governmental requirements and attempts to improve education are pretty much destroying our ability to compare student learning data over time, whether by accident or design or both.

Just teach us. Ignore them.


I talked to a substitute across the hallway who had subbed in a low-income school. She was discussing the fact that she could not settle those classes down. She kept trying to get quiet and order so she could teach and the minutes marched on as she became more frazzled, watching too many students blow off her most sincere efforts, many deliberately bating her.

After awhile, a group of kids came up to her desk to help.

“Just teach us,” they said. “If they don’t want to learn, ignore them.”

“It was so sad,” she said to me. I had to return to work so I don’t know exactly how this story ends. I know I internally subbed in the 90% poverty district in which I worked once and ended up doing exactly what those kids suggested.

“If you want to learn the material, come up to the desk,” I finally said. “If you don’t, find a corner and quiet down enough so that others can hear.” I then invited specific kids forward.

That approach can work better than an outsider might expect. At least those kids who are creating disruptions for the sake of adding chaos to their environment sometimes pull themselves together. They don’t want to be excluded from the group. They just want to be the center of attention. In general, ostracism works well with a subgroup of kids.

Eduhonesty: I have watched sub positions from my old district sit for days waiting for some sub to pull the trigger and agree to take the helm of those classrooms. Waiting, waiting, waiting. In the more academically-motivated, wealthier and better-funded districts where I am also on the sub rolls, positions are snatched up, often within a few minutes of the posting.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article on this specific topic. Teachers are legally required to do a great deal of professional development nowadays, much of which takes them out of the classroom. If a teacher misses 9 days to professional development, IEP meetings, curriculum meetings, etc., she has missed 1/20th of the school year. Who filled in for her? The best districts can find and retain the best subs. Those academically-struggling, less fortunate districts — especially those suffering from high percentages of widespread disorder within the classroom (see previous post) will not sign on the best subs.

Why would I put up with widespread disorder in a disrespectful classroom when 10 miles down the road, I can walk into a room with well-prepared sub plans and enthusiastic students who are excited to see me? I signed on with my old district to help out friends, but working conditions remain substantially better in every other district I have joined.

Once again, the kids who need the most help end up likely to receive the least.

Right to learn

IMG_0677At the daily morning assembly last week, as I substituted for an elementary teacher in a district with a poverty rate over 80%, I listened as the principal went through various inspirational chants with her students. I was struck by how she ended the assembly: “All children have a right to learn,” she trumpeted. “All teachers have a right to teach!” The children parroted her, repeating these phrases.

Underneath her words, I heard the challenge facing our financially-disadvantaged and urban districts.

In the middle- to upper-middle-class suburb where I substituted today, I can’t imagine the Principal saying all children have the right to learn. In his world, that “right” would never need to be put into words. I can’t imagine him saying all teachers have the right to teach. Again, no alternative would occur to him. The idea that teachers would not have a right to teach would seem absurd. Teachers in his district go straight to work on academics in the morning without inspirational assemblies.

That Principal’s quote during her motivational assembly may be helpful in a financially- and academically-struggling district, epitomizing the disciplinary struggle that our least-advantaged districts face daily. Underneath those words, I hear a quiet plea to young, elementary students to behave, to please let their teachers teach and their classmates learn.

The site has a slew of government statistics on crime and disciplinary problems in schools that I might use to pick up this particular football and run with it.

I’ll pull out one set of facts. The category “widespread disorder in classrooms” can be found on page 114. When 0-25% of a public school’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the percentage of schools reporting widespread disorder in classrooms is 1.4% with a note to interpret that data with caution. At 26 – 50% free and reduced-price lunch, the total rises to 2.5%, at 51 – 75%, 3.9% of schools report widespread disorder in classrooms. But when the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch hits 76 – 100% — like the elementary school where I listened to that Principal assert that teachers have a right to teach — widespread disorder in classrooms suddenly jumps up to 10%. One in ten classrooms has then been categorized as out of control — and I promise that these estimates will be underestimates. No sane school administration with administrators who want to retain their jobs will ever over-report these numbers. They will attempt to minimize or even sweep under that proverbial rug as many awkward numbers as possible.

Eduhonesty: I just felt like pulling some numbers out from under the rug. That Principal and her teachers in that low-income school are fighting formidable forces that almost never get pulled out into the light. I am not saying that poverty causes disorder and consequent disruptions in learning — but the correlation between poverty and behaviors that disrupt learning exists strongly. Last week, I heard an earnest young Principal playing cheerleader to the students in her school before their academic day began, attempting to preempt problems in classroom learning environments.

I offer this fact as one more reason why we should not bash teachers in low-income schools for their test scores.

French Vanilla, Hot Fudge and Trips to the Beach


(Click on the above graph for a better view.)

All my friends drank Coke, Tab, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Bubble Up, Sprite and 7-Up. We drove to Baskin Robbins for hot fudge sundaes as soon as we got our licenses. We ate macaroni made with Velveeta cheese, garnished with cheap wieners, as well as bacon and stacks of pancakes for Sunday breakfast. We scarfed down buttery, salty school lunches until we became old enough to walk three blocks to the local drive-in for burgers and fries. I guarantee my high school only served organic produce by mistake.

I fell into those short bars in the graph above, though. In fact, all of my friends were part of the short bars. Obesity was rare in my high school and in colleges I intended. At the time, the female obesity rate was running five to six percent, and the male rate less. But we went to the beach on our days off. We played tag, Red Rover, and Mother May I. We played four-square and hopscotch. As we became older, we exercised in physical education daily and we were not allowed to sit out activities without a doctor’s excuse. We walked to our friend’s houses. We went hiking. We carried our rackets to free tennis courts in local parks.

Eduhonesty: I am not against new, healthier lunches, despite sometimes negative posts on this issue. I am absolutely against lunches that consist of tiny, single chicken legs, tasteless brown rice, and boiled, bland carrots. Organic or not, those lunches lack the calories growing children require. They also encourage crazy snacking when kids get home.

But I can get behind tasty, healthy lunches with enough calories for active kids. Give the kids two pieces of chicken and a warm roll or baked breadstick, along with spices or condiments for additional flavor, and I’ll mostly shut up about the lunches.

I will still be posting on this issue, though, because are attacking a serious, growing problem from the wrong direction. We don’t need less food. We need more exercise. America’s kids should be running back and forth across the soccer field, rather than testing how well they can think for a whole afternoon on less than 250 calories.

A study by University of Georgia kinesiology professor Bryan McCullick showed only six U.S. states require 150 minutes of elementary school physical education. Two states meet adequate middle school physical education guidelines, set by the National Association of Sport and Physical Education. NO states meet high school student guidelines.*

Many schools are eliminating or reducing physical education due to budget struggles and a desire to reallocate time toward academics. (Translation: P.E. and recess are being sacrificed to  push up school test scores.) Yet we need those P.E. minutes desperately. As our kids hunker down over their electronics, we should be pushing them outside with bats, rackets, mallets and balls. We have to get today’s kids moving. Cutting calories and fat will create skinny kids but, without exercise, those skinny kids will not be healthy kids.

American should return to mandatory, daily P.E. for all grades.


True and Scary Lesson Plan Meme

lessonplansomee-cardsSaved from the clever Someecards site.

I won’t add much to this, except I now know teachers who are spending the bulk of their week-ends preparing lesson plans. NOT LESSONS — but lesson plans, those sheets that tell what the teacher intends to do in class, and why and when, based upon what state or national standards, including plans for differentiation for learners of all different levels. Teachers today frequently borrow or buy lessons from the internet since they have no time left after writing lesson plans and fulfilling data requirements to actually make a lesson. The five to ten pages of lesson plans that must be submitted to administration usurp the time that might have been used to craft a fun lesson.

The plans are not optional. I recently talked to an administrator who was forced to tell teachers as part of Staff Appreciation Day that, if those multi-page, preformatted, canned lesson plans came in late, teachers were going to be penalized. They would be obliged to give up their lunches or time before or after school until the lesson plans were completed to some higher administrator’s satisfaction. I can imagine how well that particular piece of staff appreciation went over.

Less than a decade ago, I customarily handed in one or two pages total for my middle school classes, showing the topics and standards I intended to address. Somehow, the classes were exposed to all the standards and content that today’s students receive, but I also had time to create the Martian backpack project, the Martian calendar project, and short-story assignments with zombies and other fantastic creatures, as well as the usual little brothers and bicycles. My projects had roles and rubrics. We did fine without my writing a book covering every detail of my intentions in advance.

Eduhonesty: When teachers are writing ten pages worth of work on what they plan to do during an upcoming week, showing exactly how that plan matches the Common Core or local standards, they cannot be cutting paper strips and preparing other props for a fractions’ activity. They cannot be gathering microscopes, and setting up red onions and slides so students can learn how to create, view and describe onion cell slides. At worst, today’s ridiculous lesson plans steal time directly from preparing student instruction, shutting down experiments and activities when not enough time remains to actually pick up onions from the store.

It’s as if we spent the afternoon writing down recipes for veggie fried rice and Moo shu pork, until we were so desperate for time that our only choice was to race to Yee’s Chinese Restaurant for take-out, and then cross our fingers that Mr. Yee makes a Moo shu pork which at least resembles what we intended to serve.


Love this Pass But… Bring Back the Pencils


(QR code has been altered somewhat for privacy purposes. Note that the pass was for kids in mid-elementary school. We are talking possible third-graders here.)

Posted by the door, this pass makes restrooms visits so easy. You scan the code, complete the form and then you are allowed to go to the bathroom. I expect the pass with its QR code is tracking both when and how often students go to the bathroom. In middle or high school, the QR/Google bathroom pass could quickly reveal those students who exit class for five to ten minutes every hour on the hour. I love this pass.

I’d like to relate back to my last post, though. What do we know about the kids using this pass? These students happen to be among the highest-scoring PARCC students in the state of Illinois. They remain attached to their IPads throughout the day. Because I helped load software onto those IPads, I know these children have oodles and oodles of apps to use throughout the day, and IPads that can go home at night.

Many students in other districts are less fortunate. Classes may even share carts of IPads. Those IPads stay at school at the end of the day, rather than being checked out to students. Homework takes place on paper rather than GoogleDocs. That homework must be placed in a box, rather than sent electronically to the teacher.

I’ll be the first to argue that students do not require technology to learn. The famous mathematicians of the past never played Math BlasterTM. Edward Gibbon wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire  entirely by hand. America’s forefathers are known by their signatures, not their coding skills.

But now that we are giving our annual state tests on computers, familiarity with computer technology and touchscreen features adds speed and comfort during the testing process. Students who use the above bathroom pass daily and take their IPads home enter the state testing process with a marked advantage over students who only sometimes pull IPads out of carts and who must rely on home technology after the end of the school day. In many impoverished households, the only available home technology will be mom or dad’s smart phone — when that phone can be made available. Those phones often accompany mom or dad to work in the evening.

Eduhonesty: As we play technological catch-up, this aspect of teaching and testing needs to be out front, not on the backburner. How many points were lost on the last few PARCC tests by students who understood the math, but were regularly slowed down by unfamiliar technology. Nobody knows.

Until access to our technological platforms equalizes between zip codes, I am calling for a return to pencil and paper testing. I have watched students in our poorest districts taking computerized tests in slow, poking, keyboard motions, highlighting nothing or everything, and ignoring useful tabs, some even struggling to drag and drop items across the screen. America should bring back pencils and bubble sheets for the annual state test. As I sub in various districts, I simply see too much variation in technological exposure to believe that fully-computerized testing can be fairly administered.

P.S. This post applies to PARCCTM testing and other computerized tests that provide the same content to all. Because of the adaptive character of Smarter BalancedTM testing, I might not feel the same about Smarter BalancedTM or MAPTM testing. The benefits from adapting a test based on student responses may justify using these tests, despite the unfortunate differences in technological practice and comfort between students.

Excellence Pockmarks the Landscape


I subbed today in a school where 83% of students passed the state’s new annual test, the PARCC test, compared to 33% of students in the state of Illinois overall. Only 2% of the students in this school fall into the low-income category. The rooms are large, walls covered with student work and cheery, inspirational posters. Happy, helpful teachers guided me through hallways. I passed out videotaping permission slips for a teacher trying for her national certification. To those who keep reading about America’s educational meltdown, I assure you nothing even glowed hot in the district where I helped out today.

We don’t read about these districts in the news. The fact that a librarian searching for the answer “Aesop” as an ancient Greek storyteller was given the wrong answer “Homer” by a third- or fourth-grade student goes unnoticed by the outside world. I noticed, though. Who taught that kid about Homer? I spent a day surrounded by impressive little eight- and nine-year-olds who knew more — sometimes much more — than seventh graders who had been passed on to me in another district about 13 miles away.

So many factors affect educational results that I tend to duck topics related to discrepancies in scores between districts. But that district where 83% passed the new state test compared to 33% overall — a 50% difference — has an extraordinarily low poverty rate. In that district 13 miles away where I once taught seventh grade, the poverty rate in the elementary school runs 90% — and only 12% of that school passed the PARCC test.

Still, I’m going to duck the issue of poverty and test results for the moment. I will simply observe that students in American schools continue to compete and beat other students from the best schools around the world — those American students lucky enough to live in the right zip codes, anyway.