Testing scandal

Dear readers,

I have been silent since June fourth because my car, without my consent, left the road and crashed into a field—totaling it, but fortunately not me. I’m very lucky to have escaped with minor damage, but enough to “lay me low” for the past month plus. But, when I read Rachel Aviv’s marvelous article about cheating to boost scores in Atlanta (July 2lst New Yorker) I felt propelled to respond. It is time to return.

What a perceptive and clear account of an old wound. And done with a rare sympathy for the “villains”—teachers and administrators. Especially those far down the hierarchy. It is a subject about which I too have been unwisely silent for too long.

Aviv tracks math teacher Damany Lewis and his principal Christopher Waller and the life inside their middle school—starting in 2006 during Beverly Hall’s superintendency. She does not condone the many teachers who followed Lewis and Waller’s lead. But she describes the relentless, not quite inevitable path they each took to protect their students, the school and, of course, their own jobs too. They lost on all counts. But they are, I believe, only the tip of an iceberg that has been around for a very long time—and which the media has deliberately refused to take into account—and has in fact aided and abetted

I know personally.

In the 1970s—when I was the teacher-director of the newly formed Central Park East elementary school in East Harlem‑I faced a similar dilemma. Because we were an “alternative” school located in larger neighborhood school, our scores were not reported separately in any public way. Thus I could ignore test score data published annually in the New York Times, etc. But one year I noticed that our host school, like a few others in the District, had vastly improved their test scores, while ours remained at a reasonably low end along with a majority of the District’s schools. We had little respect for what the tests actually told us about children’s reading, but we knew their test results could matter later on for our older students and, furthermore, given our school’s “experimental” staus, good scores might matter. What to do?

In short, the pressure to game the scores or cheat outright, is not such a new phenomenon. We faced the same dilemma Lewis and Waller did—just 40 years earlier. As a school Board member in my home District, I witnessed the pressure put on superintendents, teachers and principals to raise scores. Each was given a target to reach—not too much or too little was the request. One school got into trouble for its too rapid ascent, but most for their insufficient improvement. Meanwhile in East Harlem the new superintendent was trying to make some fairly rapid changes, aimed particularly at the middle schools. He knew that test scores were one way his novel practices would be judged. I was his fan and supporter. I was not surprised that he was elated by the rising scores and not concerned about the believability of the miraculous improvements of a few schools.

I went to see him to raise some concerns. I told him that I had long been suspicious about reported test scores. I had made a point of studying those locations where scores rose unusually rapidly. I discovered, for example, that some could be accounted for by a change in the population served, but others were more puzzling. When asked, principals would point to a new reading series, for example, but since this series was in use in other schools whose scores had dropped it seemed an incomplete answer. I noted that there were such “miracle” score in our East Harlem district. No one in the testing industry, I argued, believed that credible. Did he? He acknowledged some doubts. I suggested he pursue a sampled retesting of some schools and see whether the changes held up. He said it would create a lot of unneeded anxiety and anger in schools selected and that he felt it unwise to do so at this time. But, I persisted.

If the validity of test scores were never going to be questioned it put all schools in an awkward position. Should they do “whatever necessary” to raise their scores too? Should I? I told him that reporters often called me to inquire about test results and that I felt I was misleading them by not mentioning my suspicions.

In fact, my suspicions had been reaffirmed in a District where I worked before CPE was founded. A teacher had told me, in a panic, that she had cheated (by using the test as a practice test beforehand) and was afraid a student might expose her. In fact, the next year I overheard her bragging to a colleague about her spectacular test scores. No one confronted her or questioned her amazing teaching.

Thus I told an inquiring reporter that the scores might not be entirely what they seemed to be. A few days later the superintendent was waiting for me after recess, with the Daily News in his hand. He asked only if the quotation by me was accurate and left satisfied.

The tests themselves are incredibly misleading and biased against kids the further they are from the “mainstream” in home-language, culture, family wealth and education, etc. I had documented this in a study I conducted while teaching in Central Harlem. The study was published by City College—with recorded interviews with students about the reasons for their answers. But it took a while before I realized that, as the tests carried increasingly greater stakes, we were all affected by these not so subtle pressures to raise scores one way or another. It was not only changes in the curriculum and pedagogy, which I regretted, but also in the rampant increase (I was sure) of cheating. As long as neither the System nor the Media, now forewarned, took test score miracles at face value the pressure on everyone to cheat would only get worse. (Wouldn’t there be more cheating if we thought there was no auditing of returns?)

It is absurd and there’s even a sociological “law” about this phenomenon of cheating and gaming screos: “as the data carries increasingly higher stakes, the data becomes increasingly less trustworthy.” The new “reform-by-testing” movement has utterly ignored this “law” and builds its recipe for reform on continually raising the stakes. That this leads many students and teachers to cheat in one way or another is hardly surprising. In fact, the teachers who most care about their kids and the school, and who know the tests are a poor discriminator, are (like Lewis in Atlanta) lured into viewing the situation as a no-win. They are often driven by a desire to protect children from being abused by an inappropriate measure of their success, a good school from being closed, and their own work denigrated. Teachers resort to turning their classrooms into test prep centers to everything up to erasing a few answers here and there.

My sympathies go out to all. I even feel sad for Beverly Hall whom I had very slightly known and liked. I certainly sympathized with my superintendent for not wanting to pursue the matter further. Thus I felt as Aviv did in her New Yorker piece—sympathetic to the cheaters.

Meanwhile the real villains have never ben called to account. I mean everyone who has encouraged the use of such data inappropriately as well as the media for making it so easy for so many of us to become corrupted in the process.

Thanks Rachel Aviv; your story meant a lot to me. It brought back a moral burden that has bothered me for all the years since.

Teacher Tenure


My son’s latest blog on the teacher tenure issue

Originally posted on Nicholas Meier:

There was a recent lower court ruling against so-called “Teacher Tenure” here in California. I am really not sure about the extent of the ruling, but the general verdict was that “tenure” was unfair to providing an equal education for all students as called for by the State Constitution.

I believe the reading was faulty for a broad range of reasons. First of all, teachers in California do not actually have tenure, at least not in the sense that professors get tenure.

When a professor has tenure they can be fired only for some gross negligence or breaking of the law. Poor teaching, doing a shoddy job, or poor research cannot lead to loss of position. under most university tenure rules. Of course, it takes much longer (typically 7 years) and a much more difficult process for professors to get that protection.


As a for k-12 teachers in California, my…

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The Arts

Dear friends and readers,

Too much happening and so I forget to keep up with this! I’m hoping some are also reading Bridging Differences (see inset)—although we’ll be off the air for most of June, July and August.

Was struck by commentary about Michelle Obama’s endorsement of art education. Of course, all help is welcome in an important cause.

But, like others, I’m disturbed by her rationale: it raises test scores.

I used to point out that the purpose of a good arts education is art. And perhaps the best reason to learn to read et al is that it may expand one’s appreciation of the arts. Art is and has been at the heart of what distinguishes human beings from all other species! It’s our greatest triumph. And along with language probably one of our oldest accomplishments.

Story-telling is one of these great arts that distinguish humanity. It’s well to remember that Homer was, in our current sense of the word, an illiterate. “Just” a great story-teller. In our eagerness to get children to read early we’ve forgotten this important form of art. We no longer encourage parents to tell their children stories, or encourage teachers to do the same, much less encourage children to do so! It’s hard to find a civilization, culture or ethnic group that hasn’t achieved art of universal appeal.

Don’t, don’t let them turn art into a test-prep subject.

Smart Machines

Dear Readers

Here’s a troubling book title: Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans, written by Simon Head. In a way his argument is hardly new. Most science fiction was based on this fear. But in the last fifty years we have been bombarded with the opposite message: the 2lst century needs better minds, smarter workers, etc. I’ve been a skeptic, but reading the review by Richard Skidelsky in the NY Review of Books (April 3, 2014) brought me up sharply against these conflicting visions of the future.

I have always contended that we would always have been better off if we had used our minds better—and that it was well within our human potential. 2lst century minds were needed in the 18th and 19th century. Maybe we would not have had WW I!. if we had so-called 2lst century skills. Perhaps because I was more focused on democracy than the workplace I have been less enamored with the idea that these are newly needed skills. I figured that a more democratic workplace would also need more thoughtful workers whose experiences were better used in making worldly decisions.

Head and Skidelsky note that 70-80% of the employees in modern economies are in the service sector. But that does not mean, as we thoughtlessly assumed, that such “white collar” work requires more mental acuity than the old “blue collar.” Head “analyzes the methods used by Walmart and Amazon to squeeze ever more production out of their workers”—white or blue—“through pervasive control of the human conveyor belt. Speed-up and all—since the faster the speed the lower the per unit cost.” Head describes “Computer Business Systems”—who “have colonized much of the service sector” to “manage the affairs of giant global corporations and micromanage the work of their single employees or teams of employees.” We have for long assumed that if you had to work with your hands, you needed fewer brains. We seem to be entering an age whether neither is required?

For example, collaboration is all the buzzword these days.. But “as machines get better and better at mimicking the intelligence integral to personal service” less and less thinking goes into this collaboration. Of course, we all know that at times these computerized human beings don’t work at all, when the voice at the other end of the phone is not programmed to answer our irregular question. But it still saves money, and even a smart human might not have all the answers, and “smartness” comes at a fiscal cost.

Head bemoans the loss of the kind of “academics,” who were “paid to think” rather than paid “to produce useful papers to meet Key Performance Indicators.”

But for the wealthy—who own these new tools—service is still personal. They don’t call the ordinary scripted bank clerks to ask questions, but have their private advisers and lackeys. They don’t send their kids to scripted schools, but to schools where their future peers join them in genuine “critical” thinking tasks. How can we old-fashioned school reformers honestly urge all our students to have “high” expectations (re money and status) if the future only holds promise to a few at the top? And what makes me believe I can convince them that even those few slots are not already reserved for the children and children’s children of those already at the top? Perhaps we should be teaching resistance, not collaboration?

Head points to some of the ways German industry is governed as an example of better ways. I ponder the lessons his book raises, and wonder. Maybe we can pay enough to everyone so that everyone works fewer hours and weeks and years. Thus producing a citizenry that has the leisure and incentive to attend to creating a smarter democracy with wiser views about the public use of space and resources—citizens paid for the leisure needed to think about and act on behalf of the future of our planet.

This solves the problem

Thanks to Diane Ravitch for forwarding this important news to us:

“This month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators passed a law, intended to take effect by the next school year, setting a 2 percent limit on the amount of classroom time that could be spent on test preparation, or about three and a half days in a school year. Charter schools, some of which are known for an almost religious devotion to test preparation, are not obligated to comply, officials said.”

Corporate Pay and the Minimum Wage

An Astounding Factlet

The CEO of Oracle is paid $78 million dollars a year–mostly in no or low-tax earnings. That translates to $37,500.00/hr assuming he works 52 weeks a year and 40/hrs a week. More if he gets vacations. (Not to mention other assets that Mr. Ellison possesses, amounting to about $50 billion). To make matters more complicated we have gotten accustomed to ways of “measuring” the economy so that this counts as a positive.

There is NO WAY democracy can flourish when the top 100 or so CEOs are each richer than any of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Chinese emperors, or Marie Antoinette and family. Especially with recent court ruling about spending on elections. But then, those past figures weren’t pretending to lead the forces of freedom and democracy.

$37,000 (plus) dollars an hour. It’s unimaginable. But we’re told that without such monies, Mr. Ellison wouldn’t be doing as well for his beloved Oracle. Of the top 100 CEOs, the average is a mere $13 million annually ($6,250.00/hr) –hardly worth mentioning. Of course, there’s no evidence that their lower rate of pay has cost their companies profits.

Yet, these same CEO’s lead the charge against raising the minimum wage–from $7.50 to $10 an hour (to almost what Mr. Ellison makes per second).  Somehow, by their logic, a handful of individuals controlling most of the wealth and resources of the country is not bad for the economy. But requiring them to pay the poorest of our workers enough to feed their families, much less buy the consumer goods required to keep an economy going will be bad for “the economy,” by their logic.

Books on Democracy and Education

Dear friends and readers,

I’m in the process of putting together a collection of my writings on democracy with my friend, editor and co-thinker, Andy Hrycyna. I’m also in the process of straightening up my house—e.g. getting rid of books I’ll never reread (or read), etc. In the process I’ve rediscovered so many books that are about the topic of democracy that I either never read when I got them or have forgotten. I started pulling them out and scanning them—in astonishment. They either said much of what I was trying to say or had ideas I had not yet even considered but that seemed very relevant.

In short, if we all stopped writing new books for about five years and devoted ourselves to doing the same—reading the books we already have—we’d be amazed at how many wonderful ideas are floating out there in the form of books that haven’t been sufficiently appreciated. (I note that when I’m deciding whether to read a book I eagerly look first to see whether my name appears, or a book I’ve written—then I look for Ted Sizer’s name, then Symour Sarason, Eleanor Duckworth, Maxine Green, Herb Kohl, John Holt, Jonathon Kozol, etc etc). But in fact…there are a whole cast of old “new” (or new old) characters I’m determined to add to my list.


For example. Just yesterday I pulled off my selves the following nine “new” books—all 20-49 years old. A generation ago. They are in no order—just the order of the pile next to my desk at the moment.

silbermanCrisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education, by Charles Silberman. 1971. It was a ground breaker. My falling apart copy has notes and underlinings on every page. (It was published by Vintage and I have no idea if it’s still available—except in libraries.)

ParkerEducating the Democratic Mind, a collection edited by Walter C. Parker. (1996). The introduction itself tries to imagine what a society in which there was no effective “government”—that was based on the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family—what Edward Banfield (in 1958) called “a society of amoral familists.” It’s an interesting place to start. Each of the 18 essays would make good reading for today.

HillReinventing Public Education by Paul T. Hill. Aha, here’s a provocative precursor to what we now know as the Charter movement, proposed by an ally of democratic decision making. 1995. I think Hill’s ideas are thoughtful and resonate with my own, except… He seems obvious to the risks involved—where it might take us. Of course, that could be said for many of my own favorite ideas—like small self-governing schools of choice. However, alas, Hill seems completely blind to the real dangers that his proposals led to in the real world.  Maybe in a more equal society such a plan could be good for us all.  Alas, not in the one we now live in.

Education and Community, by Donald Oliver. 1976. His development of the complexity of the idea of “community” has stymied me at times. It’s not as simple as I pretend when I remind us the importance of community. Oliver examines it in the real world—studying seven different interesting examples.

Living Voices, Proceedings of Common Ground: A Conference on Progressive Education 1992. “A new wave of progressive education is now gathering momentum,” Carol Montag suggests in the Foreword to this collection of essays that were the focus on the Conference itself. I love that phrase, “A common ground.” I also loved its opening two “principles”: ”I’d like the uneasiness to exist; we should recognize it, not cover it up.” And “People who are not alike have the most to say to each other—we don’t want to go away thinking that we all agree.” That’s Maxine Greene who opened the conference and whose speech starts the book.

Open Education, A Sourcebook edited by Edward Nyquist and Gene Hawes. 1972 There’s not a single chapter that isn’t relevant to us today. In one book we can read Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Charles Silberman, Jay Featherstone, Lillian Weber Vito Perrone George Hein, Ann Bussis, Edward Chittenden, David Armington and on. A must re-read—42 year later. (Is it still accessible? Try.)

hawkinsThe Informed Vision, essays by David Hawkins. 1976 (reissued in 2002), Open it up anywhere and you won’t put it down. “I, Thou. And It” is a classic, and on and on. He offers a picture of what the STEM addicts have missed about the nature of science and mathematics and engineering!

lappeThe Quickening of America, by Frances Moore Lappe and Paul Martin DuBois. 1992. They start with a chapter on “The Myths That Limit Us,” move onto “America Coming Alive” (yes in 1992 they were as excited as I was by what was happening, and Part Three, “Living Democracy: The Practical Tools.” As important as it was 22 years ago—when progressive educators are “quickening” again—I hope.

Small Schools: The Numbers Tell a Story by Michael Klonsky. 1995. A short pamphlet summarizing the existing research and a great bibliography. Mike and I are still small school fans even as we also see how a good idea can become a tool for bad ends!

The Four Roles of Mathematics, A Liberal Arts Approach by George Henderson and Charles Johnson. 1972. This book, like those by David Hawkins, reawakened my fascination with mathematics—and also helped me understand my earlier aversion/ This is not a “how-to” book, but it provokes rethinking what mathematics actually is.

Of course, there are many other too often forgotten old greats—going back centuries–that I’m leaving out. The ones above seem to me just typical good books that we’ve probably mostly never read or forgotten. (The Power of Their Ideas was published, in fact, in 1995. And, if you haven’t read it, quick—buy or borrow it.) The “etc”s are just authors that I haven’t yet pulled off my shelves to reread! You’ll note that I’m taking it for granted that you still “remember” Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise, or John Holt’s How Children Fail, or Kohl’s 36 Children, Sylvia Aston-Warner’s The Teacher, Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary, Frank Smith’s Understanding Reading. I have to stop myself, I want so much to add, and add, and add—especially when I discover that most would-be teachers have never heard of John Holt or Sylvia Ashton-Warner, etc. But, the GOOD NEWS is the dozens of books coming off the press these days by teachers—more than I can celebrate or even keep up with. It must be a sign of something good. I’ll make a list of the most recent soon too.

Ah well. To all the writers whose work I’ve thrived on, whom I owe so much to, which includes many not noted above!!! Thanks.