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.


Lengthening School Years

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.

Period. The sooner we face this fact, the better off we will be. Remediation is not optional. Time for remediation cannot be taken away and replaced with “higher standards.” Those standards should be taught. But if we want to teach higher standards that are years above what our students actually know, we will have to provide students with more than a 7 1/2 hour day and a 180 day school year.


I Hope They Are Not Cheating, Says the Woman who Seized a Phone During a Benchmark Test Today

(In these times when leaving the phone alone may benefit everyone except the student who is learning to cheat.)

I did my student teaching in mathematics at Waukegan High School in 2005. When I left that spring, administrators were planning to evaluate student test results to decide which teachers should teach which classes. On the surface, this sounds like a rational approach. My cooperating teacher was worried, though. She taught one Honors Algebra class, but all her other classes were lowest level classes. These Algebra 1 Part 1 and Plane Geometry classes included students who somehow reached high school operating at an elementary school mathematical level. Some of these students remained hazy on what to do with equations that had parentheses, for example. They were going to bomb those tests. Nothing else was possible.

Her counterparts who taught calculus or higher-level algebra classes entered the testing arena with a huge natural advantage. Their students had aptitude for mathematics, better study habits, supportive parents, some combination of these, or whatever might be required to perform better mathematically on state tests. They had proven this through previous performance throughout their academic careers.

My cooperating teacher was about to be forced to play a game she could not win. In addition, she was being set up to compete against colleagues. The members of that math department were professionals, not the sort to refuse to share materials or advice with a coworker, but an obvious incentive exists under this system to avoid helping the teacher next door. If you raise Sam’s students’ test scores, Sam may be assigned the class you want to teach.

Eduhonesty: What is this craziness? Common sense may have fled these lands, but surely a scintilla of logical thought remains. I can’t find that teacher’s name among the faculty there now. I don’t know the end of this story. Similar stories often end in teachers leaving their schools or even the profession itself.

Craziness exists all the way up the administrative ladder today.  A few years ago, my then-Principal told me “we need teachers who can get these kids (bilingual students) to pass the ISATs.” My observation is this: Middle-school and high-school students are in bilingual programs because they cannot pass their English-language learning test, the ACCESS test. Some students who are nearly able to pass the ACCESS test may succeed in passing the ISATs. But students with low ACCESS scores are operating at an early or mid-elementary level in academic English. Some are as much as six years or more behind their grade-level peers. These students are not going to pass any Common Core-based annual state test without cheating. They would have almost as much chance of passing a standardized test written in Klingon. Unless they cheated, I’d guess the odds would be the same, in fact.

Discussing this incident with an Assistant Principal in another district the following year, that Assistant Principal said, “Why should those test scores matter?” Then after a pause, he answered his own question.  “He was being judged on those test scores.” I simply nodded agreement.

In practical terms, my former cooperating teacher in Waukegan was being pushed up against a wall. Her best move might have been to cheat. My best move might have been to cheat. My past-Principal’s best move might have been to cheat. Under the current system, threatened federal sanctions create high stakes for ordinary people who are doing their best, sometimes in impossible circumstances. Fortunately for America, most people who enter education are not the sort to cheat on tests.

I hope they are not, anyway.


Who Replaced Justin Bieber Anyway?

Book fairs fail to fill in the gaps. I have seen too many sad book fairs. In fact, I mostly hate book fairs. Those fairs separate the haves from the have-nots too vividly for my comfort.

I’d like to take a trip sideways here to suggest that schools look objectively at book fairs they have in place.  Does the book fair promote literacy? Can children without money get books? Is that 10% to 25% of sales the school receives for putting on the book fair enough compensation for the instructional time lost? Do you want students to be exposed to the TV shows and movies that are part of book fair merchandise? Could you make money more effectively by putting on your own book fair with local merchants? Information can be found on the internet about creating a book fair that provides books without all the commercial tie-ins, toys and geegaws now sold at these fairs. A good place to start is CCFC’s Guide to Commercial-Free Book Fairs at

As currently practiced, the typical book fair involves the librarian and others, who set up displays filled with often expensive books, shiny pencils, decorated erasers, movie posters, posters of Justin Bieber and other modern heroes, plus candy and tiny plastic toys, DVDs, video games, posters, and even key chains. Students visit the book fair, filling out wish lists to take home. Schools receive a percentage of total books and merchandise sold.

In practical terms, a teacher sacrifices instructional time as she shepherds students into the book fair to fill out their wish lists. The teacher makes reading suggestions, even as she watches to make sure that pencils and erasers do not disappear into student pockets. Students fill out lists with books, posters and toys.  Nobody ever writes down erasers or pencils. In financially disadvantaged districts, though, students buy a lot of erasers and pencils, along with plastic spiders and other cheapies, because those items are all many kids can afford. Even kids with money make bad choices. The boy with $5.00 may return home with flexible pencils and a Star Wars poster. Teachers can encourage books, but the school receives a cut of the flexible pencils, and those pencils return, year after year.  More class time will often be sacrificed to make purchases.

A large percentage of the books sold at a typical event may be linked to a movie, television show or video game. Personally, I think selling the Hunger Games, Divergent or Twilight may promote reading, so I am not as negative on commercial book fairs as many of my colleagues seem to be. Any book that walks out the door is a win in my view.

Unfortunately, too few books walk out the door. Few students in financially-disadvantaged districts can afford hardcover books and even paperbacks are becoming pricey. Six dollars might as well be twenty dollars if all you have is $1.87. Some students have no money and are simply standing around looking at books and toys they know they cannot afford, while watching other students make purchases.

I have watched my students with no money as they look longingly at different displays. A roving Facebook post on a prominent book fair contains thousands of entries, quotes like “True story! I would go look and make my list take it home and i’m pretty sure it went in the trash!” or “All i could afford were erasers and bookmarks…. That i never used. Haha” or “I never had money for a book. Now I make sure my kids have money so they don’t feel like I did.” I hurt to read the pathos in those posts, toss-off lines from adults who still recall the pain of book fairs, and who felt that pain acutely enough across the years to add their thoughts to a lengthy and lengthening post.

Schools pay for many goods and services. I would like to see schools add “recreational books for students,” books that are not loans, but outright gifts.  One easy approach would be to give students vouchers for $15 worth of books (and only books) at the book fair. Not all our free books will be read, but nothing will ever be read in a home empty of printed words.


Garbage In, Garbage Out, Rings of Garbage All About

We tend to overvalue the things we can measure and undervalue the things we cannot. ~ John Hayes

(How much does the above graph tell us about boys and girls? Maybe a great deal. But this graph may also express researcher or teacher bias. I’ll go out on a teacherly limb here and observe that girls tend to be quieter and less troublesome in class on the whole, and therefore are less often referred for testing.)

“The government are very keen on amassing statistics. They collect them, add them, raise them to the nth power, take the cube root and prepare wonderful diagrams. But you must never forget that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the village watchman, who just puts down what he damn pleases.” ― Josiah Stamp

In the book Big Data, authors Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier discuss former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. They describe how McNamara tracked U.S. military success during the VietNam War by using body count data as the basis for strategic plans and recommendations. Yet generals subsequently suggested those counts had been questionable measures of progress and unreliable to boot. In particular, counts had been exaggerated,(Page 165 – 166)  a completely unsurprising result when higher body counts become the yardstick that measures an officer’s success, especially given that those counts will almost always be impossible to check. The bodies don’t wait for a recount.

Garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) appears to have applied to many of those body counts, but the counts kept coming. The counts kept being published. The counts kept being used to plan U.S. policy. Enamored of data, American government and military leaders made decisions using numbers whose quality and usefulness frequently remained unchecked, as well as misunderstood.

Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier observe that data can easily delude decision makers, including educational data derived from standardized tests. We don’t know when or if the tests capture the abilities of school children, especially when a test has been set too far above or below actual student learning levels. Do standardized tests capture the quality of teaching? We cannot answer this question. Many factors enter the educational equation, and the best teaching in the world may not be able the fix the damage done by moving into three different districts during the school year and missing most of a month in school during the process. Teaching cannot “cure” autism, dyslexia or traumatic brain damage. Teaching cannot compensate for an inability to read the test itself, a fact of life for many students even when their reading skills improve by documented years of “standards” over the course of a school year.  Even in cases where a standardized test represents a reasonable set of questions for the population being tested, we do not know to what extent relentless test preparation versus a a broader approach to a more classical education may be affecting comparisons between districts. And then we should factor in cheating, a topic that has hit the radar many times in the last few decades. As the testing stakes got higher, I’d guess cheating increased. Why would anyone expect otherwise?

My journals and phone notes are filled with self-exhortations to fix data walls, update data walls, and add new data walls, preferably walls with pictures. Journals tell me to prepare more batches of data in cyberform for review by coaches, colleagues, administrators or random Grand Poobahs from the State of Illinois. I carried those journals to meetings for years. District laptops were district property, a twisted mess of shared documents, so I preferred my neatly lined books and private thoughts. As I reread journals, I am amused and bemused by the chug-chug train that steams through their pages.

Education has embraced data-based teaching and learning. If all the data spreadsheets from 2016 were printed and stacked in one place, I would not be surprised if that stack reached the moon. The stack would exit the Earth’s atmosphere I am sure. If all the useful, true data were stacked, however, the useful, true stack might barely clear the Empire State Building.

Readers are no doubt thinking, “She can’t know that!” No, I can’t. But that does not mean I am wrong. It simply means my proposition remains unprovable. We don’t have the time, money or statisticians necessary to check my (alternate?) facts. I suspect we would bog down first at the word “useful.” If data in a cumulative folder duplicates our latest data and leads to identical conclusions, is the new data useful? If teacher observations, grades and quizzes could produce an identical conclusion with less time loss and money spent, is the new data useful? Is the new data HARMFUL? If the minutes spent gathering that data were essentially duplicative, sucking time away from student instruction, have we created a net loss of learning, rather than a gain?

Data has a purpose. That’s our big problem. Humans in pursuit of purposes will find ingenious methods to reach their goals, and not all these methods will be ethical or honest. Not all these methods will consider ancillary damage from data-gathering efforts. If ancillary damage – such as loss of hope and resilience in students unable to make irrational targets – cannot be measured, that damage may conveniently be ignored, or lightly addressed in cheery posters buried among data walls and copies of Common Core-based standards in the classroom. We have begun working on “mindset” in the last few years, but we seldom address the question of whether our focus on data helped form, or even built, the bleak mindset we are working to overcome.

When my principal gave two benchmark tests, MAPTM and AIMSwebTM fall, winter and spring during my final, official year teaching, she was gathering data for the State of Illinois, and she wanted the best data she could get. From a tactical standpoint, her move made complete sense. In terms of lost classroom instruction hours, I viewed those lost hours as an appalling waste of my students’ time. As teacher-readers know, the school has cumulative folders filled with test results from previous years. Throughout the year, teachers are gathering information as they give subject-specific tests and quizzes. A perfectionistic administrator in a threatening environment will gather data with the intent of cherry-picking the best results. Her job depends on her numbers. But classroom hours slipped away as data demands triumphed over sound pedagogical practice.

In the end, we may simply show that, yes, we have no bananas, and for damn sure we can’t do this math any better than the math we had last week. GIGO. But GIGO does not come without a cost. One opportunity cost of state-required data-gathering efforts will be all the useful remedial instruction that never takes place while we are gathering data.  If the common lesson plan ends up based on the math expected to be on the state test, rather than math students have learned previously, that lesson plan may have close to zero to do with what my students need to learn to succeed in mathematics.

My Principal took her own approach to the data problem by giving six benchmark tests.  She got her data, too. She could show the state we were rapidly improving. Were students actually learning more quickly than in previous years? Were they learning more or even as much as they might have learned without our barrage of testing? No one will ever know. Like my hypothetical stacks of spreadsheets, we don’t have the money or manpower to evaluate that year’s efforts. We have a bunch of tests and spreadsheets, but the students have moved on, the Principal has left the district, and I am going to meet three former coworkers who left the district with me for lunch next week. These are just the friends I kept. Walking the halls of my old school when I sub there, I see almost no one I know.

GIGO. The whole approach to data that year sucked up class after class, producing a crazy quilt of often superfluous numbers. By October, I already had written the resignation/retirement letter I kept in my glovebox. People tend to abandon the ship after producing spreadsheet after spreadsheet that may mean little or nothing. So many of those spreadsheets merely documented what we already knew, or should have known.

GIGO. Failures were documented in red on many of our spreadsheets, failures that fell on the shoulders of those teaching special education or bilingual classes especially. I’d call that red appropriate. In those classes in particular, students and teachers bled data until some of us just expired.

Shoving Words Down Reluctant Throats

(My apologies to readers for the fact I have fallen off the map lately. I am working on my book.)

From one of the two years when I taught Spanish:

The Spanish classes I taught in high school were often taking the place of another elective students might have chosen instead, had they been given a choice. Spanish bumped a real elective – or choice — for many students.  I asked one Spanish 2 class how many were taking Spanish because they wanted to learn Spanish and how many were taking Spanish to fulfill the two-year expectation for college applications. The class contained three students who wanted to learn Spanish, twenty-five who wanted to get the college requirement out of the way and one who was not sure.

I would like readers to at least consider the idea that obligatory language studies may make the very idea of language study less appealing. If a student “has” to take Spanish, that student may be must less enthusiastic than if he or she could choose Spanish out of a list of alternatives. In an area as demanding as language learning, enthusiasm matters. The prevailing wisdom says a person should master around 10,000 words to reach fluency in a language.

We ought to be starting foreign languages in elementary school or middle school at the absolute latest. I believe some students’ negativity originated in their late start. As one sixteen-year-old student said to me:

“Ms. Turner, I am not gonna learn Spanish. Nobody can learn a language in two years. And I don’t even wanna do it.”

She was right. With a fiercely dedicated effort and a good ear, I know a student can become functional in Spanish in two years. If we had set that attractive, petite cheerleader down in an immersion program in Madrid for two years, she might have emerged knowing two languages. But that “I don’t even wanna do it” was the final nail in that girl’s language-learning coffin.

Would my student have wanted to study Spanish if she had begun earlier? We can’t know the answer to that question. But a student who starts a language at six, ten or thirteen has a far better chance of becoming bilingual than those poor high school juniors and seniors who suddenly found themselves in language classes. Being able to conduct conversations when starting high school, even halting conversations, offers a hope of success that pessimistic students may lack when their desired studio art class becomes Spanish I instead.

Eduhonesty: Today’s post will be short. A language takes time to learn. Vocabulary, accents and colloquialisms are most easily learned in elementary school. By middle school at the latest, we should be providing language instruction. Students should have a selection, too — not merely Spanish, Spanish or Spanish. By high school, students should be well-launched on their foreign language adventures, ready to take that trip to Madrid or Berlin to fill their suitcases with foreign-language versions of their favorite books.

If districts must start language students in high school, I believe parents and teachers should demand that those students start at the beginning of their freshman year. In four years, a student can get a strong start on another language. Later than freshman year is simply too late.