We’ve been there before…

“The task of returning testing to its proper place will be difficult….Those of us who believe in educational equity are facing enormously difficult problems,,,,Our belief in democracy–that normal every day people can make sense of their world and learn to make decisions about it– is at stake…There…is arising a renewed interest in educational tracking…and in new legislative proposals to support private education… All these anti-egalitarian trends….are nourished by the renewed focus on testing

“To the ideologues of the New Right, the focus on testing appears correct and proper, since the free play of market forces ‘naturally’ produces inequality… Such nonsense will someday fade. But the ‘normal’ curve so deeply and perniciously embedded in American education through the use of standardized norm-referenced testing will not fade as quickly. …The much needed development of a theory and practice consistent with democratic schooling is crippled by the existing means of evaluating and documenting educational success. It will not flourish, even in better times, until we break with the dominant ideology of 20th century psychometrics.”

Guess when that was written? 31 years ago. It appeared in the Fall, 1981 Dissent magazine, and includes examples of test items, their impact on reform, as well as useful alternatives. In just 10 pages. Author? me. (It can be read in full–see Articles above–look for Why Reading Tests Don’t Test Reading, pdf) )

It hurts to repeat what we knew 31 years ago. But I also think that we’re writing today to a broader, more powerful audience, representing far more activists than was the case in the 80’s. At least, I’m hoping so. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we can overcome the testing obsession by logic, good analysis, or its palpable silliness alone. Yes, we also still need to educate. But we gave a lot of great speeches on this topic during the 70’s and 80’s, and everyone–superintendents, politicians, and teaches–clapped loudly–and then did nothing about it. We–the good guys and the bad guys–still use test scores as a synonym for intellectual achievement!!

There was a moment, shortly after I wrote this piece for Dissent, when I imagined we had defeated the test-makers. But I was wrong. They were, it seems, just preparing themselves for the next stage of their plan to thoroughly demolish the idea itself of democratic schooling.

In 2013 let’s see if we can breakthrough the fog of camouflage–testing s the new civil rights plan– that is driving the education agenda these days. To 2013! Happy New Year one and all.

Ted Chittenden Died…

…a few days ago, from a heart attack, thus breaking a lot of hearts this holiday season. He was one of the earliest allies we had in our critique of standardized testing–especially useful since he also worked at ETS–although not on tests. To everyone who knew Ted–including the many many children in the schools he worked with over the years (like CPE) he was their imagined godfather–patient, humorous, appreciative, gentle and insightful. He listened so carefully to others, including 4 and 5 year olds (probably 2-3 year olds too) with the utmost respect and interest–he actually wanted to know. I went to meetings with him around testing issues–and always sat next to him because he promised to let me know if I was saying anything assinine (since I was just learning about standardized tests). He gave me courage to speak bluntly–they are the naked emperor. He was also such fun to be with–with widespread interests like gardening, horse track racing (for money), opera, and much more. He contributed more than many of us were even aware of to science education through his studies of what children thought–like how did they think those little weeds and flowers came up in the cracks in the sidewalk.

He was one of the founders of the North Dakota Study Group and in its early years was enormously important to our survival. He was a mentor-friend to so many..

I could go on and on.

I’m sitting here, and lo and behold, on my desk is the revised edition of his most mammoth piece of work, Inquiry Into Meaning, which he wrote with Marianne Amarel and Anne Bussis, The revised edition published in 2001 (with Terry Salinger), is half the size of the original. I mourned every left out page. Both editions though are filled with detailed and delightful longitudinal studies of children learning to read–not instruction (and the kids came from teachers with many different methods). I return to it whenever I get too impatient at all the technical educational articles I read. And how often they ignore what the children ar doing with our instruction, in ways unique to them. He was that rare intellectual in the field of eduction who could imagine how to systematically study something so idiosyncratic–and capture both the larger meaning and its individuality.

I know some of those children and the descriptions bring tears of joy to my eyes as I recall them working diligently away puzzling their way through the text.. You can actually feel the affection of the researchers as you read the children’s words.

I imagine over the next few years I will be writing about others whose death will hurt, but there is something about imagining the world without Ted that seems especially unfair to us, the living. But, in another way, I remind myself that we were very lucky to be his friends. I

Who is leading us over what cliff?

Ask any true blue/red revolutionary–left or right–and they’ll tell you that the trick is to act fast and furiously when you have a chance (there may be a short window before the opposition recoups). That mens moving fast on changes that are hard to undo. Who would of dreamed, even a decade ago, that so many public schools could be closed and so many charters could be fitted into existing public buildings, and that the contracts signed between teachers and management couldl be nullified, in fact if not on paper. The mechanism, Mayoral control backed solidly by the business community, and/or state take-over of municipalities. The Chicago Tribune has just exposed a secret plan to take over another 100 schools–to be announced in March for 2013-14. In NYC, more closings are proposed–I her rumors about how many. Ditto Detroit, Washington D.C. (where 30 more are being closed). Once students and teachers are removed from the scene, and either fired or sent elsewhere, it’s irreversible. Smart tactics, but hardly a shining example of democracy.

That it can happen at all is one more sure-fire demonstration that our democracy is in serious trouble. That’s the crisis we are living through–that’s the cliff we are blindly being led over.

Fiction vs “Information”

The debate on the Common Core’s mandate that schools put less emphasis on fiction and more on “informational books” is an odd one. I get a lot of my information about the world from fiction, even from pulp fiction (mysteries, sci fi, etc) I read “information” when I want “information”–google or otherwise. I don’t read history books for information, but to get insight into another way of seeing the story–a plot with characters. I read books on education for the same reason. I often pick up some new facts, but they rarely stick. When I need “a fact” I go back and search for it. But then I have a poor rote memory–alas. But anything that’s very well-written by a wise person–regardless of category–widens the world for me. Even empathy requires both entering into a character’s life and feelings, but is aided by the context the author provides and the context that the reader brings with him/her. This isn’t a neat division. But I will agree that fiction plays a powerful role in the development of empathy–just as make-believe play does. Maybe it’s even why some people avoid fiction–because it only works if one lets go of oneself enough to imagine the other. It can be uncomfortable and painful–it’s quite rational to avoid it. What’s more interesting is why so many people can’t put a good story down.

For me a good novel was in many ways an escape, although it has had an affect on how I envision other people’s situations. It wasn’t my intention but it can’t seem to help but do so–although perhaps conversation with others adds to it, as one realizes that you haven’t both actually “read” the same book the same way. Part of it is that we sometimes avoid noticing things in the book that we want to avoid, or misread. But it’s also because we bring ourselves to the book and read it through our own history and knowledge. “Close reading”, which is also much promoted these days thus also serves a purpose; but it would be sad if we only picked up books when we were prepared to turn it into a study.

Get out your calendars

Join “us” on April 5-7 for Save Our Schools and others–in D.C.

And put aside, NOW, August 25-28 for celebrating and committing ourselves anew. It’s 50 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The same folks who brought you the last one are mobilizing for this one. Bring your kids, grandkids, grandmothers, old and new friends– and yourselves.

The Right 4 Questions

Thank you, Roger Tilles for posing these Four Questions, which should guide all policy.

1. What kind of algorithm measures the kind of devotion that we saw and I am sure we would see in crisis after crisis in all of our schools?

2. How do you establish a pre- and post-test for the kind of personal responsibility that these professionals demonstrated?

3. How do we measure the trust that these children and their parents have placed in us as educators “in loco parentis”?

4. What kind of virtual teacher would be able to foster the communication needed to create a trusting atmosphere where learning can take place?

Let us remember these questions as we are asked to develop policies that insure the future of our children and our country.

Roger Tilles, Member

New York State Board of Regents

Thinking of Newtown

Dear friends,

If we extended the logic of the NRA one could say, “atomic weapons don’t kill, people do”.  So why are most people, including almost all NRA supporters, so worried about Iran developing a bomb? Because countries (like people) can’t kill without the weapons to do so, and they can’t kill a lot of people in one stroke without weapons of mass destruction.

That’s why we rightly fear the spread of such weapons. That should go for guns of mass destruction too.  I find it incredulous that about half our nation is so worried about a country half a world away, yet seemingly unconcerned about massively lethal weapons in their own midst.  We are not talking about weapons anyone would take out on a hunting expedition; I doubt any self-respecting hunter would use these weapons on a clump of deer.

There seems something wrong, even five days later, to be talking about the politics of the massacre in Connecticut.   None of this discussion is of any help to those dead children and their grieving parents. Nor for the millions more affected, by the fear and distrust it has spread. But it is the right time for such talk.

It is, of course, symptomatic, a signal, an indicator of something rotten in America.  Yes, we far outnumber all other industrialized nations in private madman massacres.   Isn’t that somewhat more worrisome than being in the middle on international math test scores?

This tragedy raises so many conflicting thoughts for me. As a professional entrusted with young children, and a parent of young ones, my job was to keep them from situations where their limited experience could endanger them.  Still I also wanted them to be risk-takers.  At CPE and Mission Hill I prided our schools on our openness. Our accessibility, the easy coming and going, was part of our precious character.  Should we abandon all this?

Personally I doubt that the killer in Newtown would have been deterred by any normal precautions.  In fact the Watertown school had locked doors and protocols for dealing with unwelcome intruders.  Alas, the intruder was not unwelcome.  The odd thing is that he stopped at 26.

How can we learn from this without turning our schools and communities into armed fortresses, which might lead to even more gun violence.   I just heard a TV commentator suggest, that from now on we should interrogate our children at the end of each school day with probing questions that might lead us to see dangers they may unknowingly face.  Can you imagine the cost (and not just fiscal) to following up on every potential danger raised when in many cases, such as this recent tragedy, there are few obvious signs.

I went to Litchfield, Connecticut last Saturday for a memorial service for an old high school friend, Ann Mott Booth, I listened to the stories told about Ann’s treasured openness to others, her joy, her inclusiveness–even in the midst of her own personal tragedies.  How can that special spirit be passed on to our youngsters when our own fears, not of a “foreign” enemy but even of our neighbors, are so rampant?

“Freedom from fear” was one of the Four Freedoms that FDR proclaimed as the purpose of World War II. Shouldn’t it outweigh the freedom to own weapons of mass destruction?  Let’s not lose sight of that goal in the name of security, big and small, and thus diminish our capacityto trust each other.  Let’s listen to the violence of the language that surrounds us, including the language that permeated the last election.

But as I write these words, I remember how many other children have died this month from bombs we Americans have dropped on our enemies.  And how many weapons of mass destruction we are stockpiling for…for some possible future use.  Is it really any less crazy then the weapons owned by that twenty year old boy in Watertown?

As we think about these issues, brought to the fore by this particular brutal act, let’s grieve and comfort each other.  But let’s also explore together what risks we face in efforts to promote trust, and what compromises we must make if we are to think through common solutions.   How do we balance our love for our individual freedom and our equally powerful love for our common causes, our families, neighborhood, country, and planet?

I once wrote, in defense of small schools, that probably not a day passes in the average large comprehensive high school that some child is not grieving for the death of someone dear to him or her.  If we stopped to take each death seriously we’d be in a perpetual state of mourning.  I was glad that in the schools I’ve been a part of we had the time to stop everything and join together around each other’s needs.  That was a good habit that cannot often be lived up to in modern times.  I commented also on how often I see adults rushing over when they witness a child being hurt by another angry child, to scold the perpetrator– rather than rushing first to console the victim.  There’s a time for punishment, retribution or whatever—and a time for loving. But our “habits”, and I mean mine too, are far behind the rhetoric we preach.