Thursday, December 29, 2005

Teacher Watch: Preschool Definitions and Data

Since mid-December, we've heard plenty of sound-bytes regarding Rand's projections about the effects of preschool in California. But inside the rhetoric of P-16 alignment, the Rob Reiner Initiative, and First Five California ads, the details of Rand's study are lost.

Thanks to a tip from a very smart cookie and loyal reader (who, by the way, I am fortunate enough to call my sister!), you now can read a narrative about the original data extrapolated by Rand: Arthur J. Reynolds' 16-year study of a unique and intensive Chicago preschool program which has been around for thirty-four years.

In short, the Chicago Child-Parent Centers (CPC) program is sharply different from Head Start or generic "universal preschool"--CPC requires parent participation, for example, and supports kids through five or six years of early childhood. It's not a quick, temporary, fragmented or inexpensive bandaid "fix" of anything.

You'll note, at the bottom of the article, even Reynolds' optimism about CPC wanes now in the face of expected cuts to reduce the number of years students can access the program. It doesn't seem that politicians are too concerned about clarifying precisely what kind of program they want to apply in California. But with money on everyone's mind, it's doubtful that a statewide CPC program is the planned financial commitment.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Taking the "Pre" out of Pre-School?

If you live in California, you must have noticed the increasingly varied ad campaign promoting preschool attendance. During the summer, one of the most common ads depicted two cops shooting the breeze inside their black & white, citing youth crime and dropout statistics, then smiling in unison as they turn to the camera and chime that preschool can solve everything.

A Rand study was published last week, asserting that for every dollar spent in California on preschool education, the state will yield $2.62 in returns. Funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (David Packard was co-founder of tech giant Hewlett-Packard), Rand used 2001 data generated by Arthur J. Reynolds' study of a comprehensive, multi-year preschool support program in Chicago. Rand extrapolated Reynolds' findings and applied them to each region of California.

Meanwhile, there had already been a steady drumbeat of new advertisements, specifically three you've probably seen. A boy races through crowded city streets as if running away from committing petty theft, but he's really running to the line for his diploma as a voice-over describes how he "might be a little late" but he'll definitely "get there" if he goes to preschool. A no-nonsense white principal strides shiny hallways of her high school, declaring how all her problems--we imagine poor test scores, fighting, tardiness, drop-outs--will be solved if kids just go to preschool. More subtly, an Hispanic father and toddler daughter take clothes from the laundry bin, as a voice-over narrates how this moment can be an opportunity for "a lesson" on colors and counting.

What could possibly be problematic in the sudden push? As with most things in education-related sound bytes and marketing lately, questions about motive cannot be underestimated. Do we view pre-school as an opportunity for toddlers to learn social skills, play with each other, create with clay and paint, listen to stories, sing, eat, and have free access to a rich "print environment" with books and letter blocks? Or is preschool just an earlier opportunity to make kids test and assessment ready, training them for a lifetime of giving the right answers? Is it possible that the latter motivation might easily exploit the former?

This distinction has just been raised in an open letter recently published by members of the Alliance for Childhood. As with No Child Left Behind legislation, politicians and business interests continue to employ the rhetoric of child-concern to fortify a more reductive view of education as "workplace training." More taxpayers--parents and teachers--must examine these conflicts and raise questions in their local communities.

The push for preschool is not just a recent idea, and it's not purely a California phenomenon. At the 2005 Association of Test Publishers (ATP) conference, coming off the meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA) in February, P-16 alignment was all the rage. P-16 alignment argues that all students, from preschool through university, should be on the same track of standardization to job-readiness and economic productivity. Documents from the NGA on the subject emphasize the need for government involvement--whether compulsory or voluntary remains a question--to make a transition "seamless," literally between birth and school attendance. And how do we know if students are "ready" for anything now? We test them.

Certainly no one can argue against being prepared for a job, but the question again becomes how students are trained to work, for whom they are working, what students will learn to expect from themselves and other people, and how they will be rewarded. Consider corporate guts in retirement and health benefit funding, outsourcing, the Wal-Mart effect. Do we want our young people to know when they're being handed a raw deal? If there's no bubble form for them to fill out for injustice, will they know how to speak up? The public doublespeak among business leaders like Man of the Year Bill Gates may pay lipservice to the dead "assembly-line" model of education, but the white collar obedience model isn't much better; everybody's hands just look a little less grimy at the end of the day.

Just a few social and economic elements/elephants in the room when we talk about preschool: poverty and lack of childcare, a general mistrust of parents, the low-level education and low professional status of teachers (mostly women) who work with our youngest children, and a tide of immigrant students who may or may not be literate in their primary languages.

How might we change the tenor of the conversation about early-childhood education so that we don't construct it as merely an antidote to crime and low test scores? What if, for example, we expanded funding to libraries, which provide free-standing access to reading materials that parents and children can choose together? Historically, access to books (not compulsory schooling) has been the key political empowerment issue: Stephen Douglas and Malcolm X write about how reading and writing changed their lives; early feminists crusaded for the right of women to be able to read and study as much as men. Just six years ago, Stephen Krashen studied the correlation between student success and book availability in Beverly Hills, Watts and Compton communities--not simply in school classrooms, but school and community libraries, bookstores and homes.

If we raise children who are curious, who read, write, think and ask questions, they'll be able to read between the sound-bytes. Sadly, perhaps this is the very reason that "preschool" and not "literacy" is the new political buzz.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Exit Exam Alternatives--Or Not?

Jack O'Connell, California state superintendent of public education, called for a meeting this morning (a meeting he won't be in Sacramento to attend!), a gathering of non-teacher "experts" to weigh the pros and cons of alternatives to the current high school exit exam requirement. In six months, consequences of the high stakes exam will kick in for thousands of kids. As you might imagine, there are essentially two camps: those who argue that one multiple choice exam is not the best way to validate four years of learning, and those who argue that only a multiple choice exam can do just that.

Other states--including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Vermont and New York--employ varying models of graduation assessment, in addition to, or as modifications for, one single exit test. Ideas include portfolios, native language testing for newly immigrant students and senior projects targeting the standards. New Jersey actually modifies test administration, allowing smaller pieces of the test to be taken at a time, linked more closely to specific subject matter instruction.

Some of the strongest and most prominent test advocates include representatives of California Business for Education Excellence. Jim Lanich, the president, dismisses alternatives as "subjective." (Seems he's been reading his Business Roundtable and Association of Test Publishers Bible: "To promote and preserve the general welfare of testing and its value to society, in all its forms and uses.") Lanich is also executive director of Just for the Kids, an organization whose name has creepy overtones when you realize that it's just another "accountability" lobbying group.

It's also crucial to remember what the newspapers aren't yet mentioning: the test in dispute is the High School Exit Exam produced by Educational Testing Service (ETS), highly-lucrative non-profit corporation which in November had its multi-million dollar contract renewed to manage and administer all test scoring and results for California. The stakes are at least as high for ETS as for California's schools--yet teachers are generally dismissed as the biased advocates in this debate.

Here's where the advocacy of the newly-refined UTLA platform has the potential to break ground in standing up for the complexities of learning, in a world where "people" and not "tests" have general welfare, and where kids and teachers proudly reclaim their vested interest in staying "in each other's way."

Watch for subsequent reports about what happens in today's meeting. The Sacramento Bee is closely following the story.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Teacher Watch: Kenneth Burke, Man of Letters

He died in 1993, but 21st century teachers would do well to appreciate the educational path taken by Kenneth Burke and introduce him to their students. Burke's career (and his legacy of thinking) challenges dominant attitudes about "measuring" learning through tests and certificates. Arguably, his contributions are more relevant now than ever.

Burke famously dropped out of Columbia University in order to read, write and study on his own, penning heavy book-length works and hundreds of articles about language, philosphy, and literature. I once met a Columbia grad student at a conference in Leeds, UK, who confessed that Burke's legacy is an intimidation to even his most ambitious classmates, who are mortified to discover what he accomplished without credentials from the Ivy League. Some of Burke's significant texts include Counter-Statement (1931), Grammar of Motives (1945), Rhetoric of Motives (1950), and The Rhetoric of Religion (1961). He was friend or correspondent to many modernist writers and artists, including Jean Toomer, Marriane Moore, and William Carlos Williams. He worked for a time at The Dial (as a music critic!) and also contributed to The Nation. Despite his lack of a PhD, he was also a teacher in the ancient peripatetic tradition (i.e. he gave talks everywhere).

Burke examined language to interpret human motives and to advance complex dialogue--as an antidote to winner/loser debates and physical violence. His work is not easy to catalogue or typify, and Burke defended himself against being slotted into simplistic compartments of understanding. But his "place" is still debated by scholars in diverse disciplines, including literary theory, speech communication, composition, rhetoric, history, and theology.

What does this have to do with us now? Our perpetual bombardment of testing and failure in schools is counterpart, in domestic politics, to the state of perpetual war foreseen by Orwell--a state which haunted Burke and other writers who lived through the bloody beginnings of the past century. Burke's writings provide tools through which we can analyze and discuss motivations inside forces now assumed to be "objective," including multiple choice tests, automated essay scoring, textbook summaries, classroom performance systems, diplomas, and even teacher training.

For too long, schools have valued scrutiny over attentiveness. Extending the Burkean tradition, perhaps teachers and students can stand together for curiosity, life-work, and a commitment to posing questions that open rather than reduce conversation. In our own individual ways, we can do the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable work of breaking molds that confine us--because, as Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, we too "contain multitudes."

Check out KB Journal for informational links, articles, new books and scholarship.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Breakfast with Hillary

Several years ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to meet Neil Diamond. I remember how excited we were. We talked about it for months after. I also remember how excited we were when we had the opportunity to meet President Clinton at a private reception at the Pickfair Mansion in Beverly Hills. It was a fundraiser for a gun control group headed by Reagan's press secretary Jim Brady.

All of it was great including the secret service agents and their dogs. Clinton, ever the eloquent speaker, was a big hit.

I felt the same excitement again when I was lucky enough to have breakfast with Senator Hillary Clinton at a venue near the Los Angeles airport on Friday.

It all started when Artesia assembly member and 56 AD candidate Tony Mendoza invited me to be his guest at a gala at our alma mater--Cal-State University Long Beach. I was really impressed with the event, which was to celebrate the opening of a Center for Indo-American Studies at the campus, but I was even more excited when I met the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

He was such a genuine and sincere man whose love of humanity was quite apparent. It was obvious that his grandfather had left a lasting impression on him.

At the gala, Mendoza told me that he had been asked by an Indo-American host to be his guest at a breakfast for Hillary. Unfortunately, he would not be able to attend because he had a prior commitment.

I told him that I thought he was dumb for not wanting to meet the Senator until he told me that he had suggested that I go in his place. Then I told him what a genius he was!

Of course, Hillary was great, and made a point of greeting each one of us. We had the opportunity to have a picture taken with her before breakfast. She spoke passionately about the issues facing America today, and how disappointing some of the administration's decisions have been concerning the war in Iraq and the hurricane of Katrina.

She was asked if she was planning to run for President in 2008, and she said, "It's too early to think about anything else other than my Senate race in 2006."

She did say, however, that "I do admire South Asian countries who are ahead of America when it comes to placing women in high positions of leadership!"

She also was asked why, during the Clinton administration the Republicans were relentless with their attacks, but now the Democrats have little to say about "the current problems of indictments, cronyism, and incompetence."

Hillary replied that "Americans didn't seem to be ready to hear about the problems in Washington, but now they seem to be. So you will be hearing a lot more from Democrats as the 2006 elections draw near."

In attendance were representatives from Congresswoman Linda Sanchez's office as well as the appearance of Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and State Board of Equalization John Chiang.

Overall, it was an experience I will always remember.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

An Argument for Tenure--Part Two

Here's an update to the previous post regarding the teacher at a private school who was fired for a volunteer job she used to hold with Planned Parenthood. Follow the link provided to the article in the Sacramento Bee. (Registration may be required.)

One key question: Will confidentiality bar the teacher from speaking up in public?

Loretto Settles with Teacher

A confidential deal avoids a wrongful termination suit in the controversy.

By Todd Milbourn -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Saturday, November 12, 2005
Story appeared in Metro section, Page B1

The Loretto High School drama teacher fired last month for past volunteer work at a Planned Parenthood clinic has reached a settlement with the Catholic all-girls school, attorneys for the teacher and school said Friday.

Marie Bain of Sacramento, who alleged last week that her termination was a case of religious and sexual discrimination and a violation of free speech rights, will not be reinstated but will receive compensation from the school. Neither side would disclose how much.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Teachers for Sale

In my most recent small adventures courtesy of the Association of Test Publishers, I've received an email list of teacher name banks for sale by state and region--K-12 through Community College and University levels. Considering all the hubbub in recent years about identity protection, telemarketing and "opting out" lists, it's important for instructors to know that their professional contact information is being bought and sold.
How cheap are you?
Browse K-12 email lists
Browse 4-year University email lists

A few highlights:
  • North Dakota K-12 teachers (9,000+ contacts) are a bargain at $99.
  • California K-12 teachers (100,000+ contacts) go for $1249.
  • The whole country (1.7 million+ contacts) is a steal at $3999.
My last year as English department chair, I kept every catalogue, brochure and "special offer" that landed in my mailbox. By June, I had filled a giant plastic tub to past brimming. Apple logos everywhere. Plump kid faces and pretty teacher-ladies in front of green chalkboards. All the trappings and gimmicks of easiness and user-friendliness. What irritated me most were the packets from Cliffs and Sparks Notes, now billed as "study guides." But when I thought about it, I had to admit it made perfect sense: in a curriculum where novels are seen as "non-standard" material, who wouldn't like to teach the Cliffs Notes version? I thought about the generation of students raised on reading-for-testing, some of whom will become teachers themselves.

This insider's barrage of names for sale may not be surprising for professionals who deflect marketers on a day-to-day basis, but at least it provides us with a massive consumer's view of the educational meat market.

Exercise your right to opt-out.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Teacher Watch: ETS Monopoly Continues

Educational Testing Service (ETS)--famed (or notorious?) publisher of the AP, SAT, LSAT, GRE, TOEFL, GMAT and most recently the HSEE--has again been granted an exclusive contract to administer the "mammoth" testing program for California students, grades 2-11, through 2008-09. According to ETS estimates, the contract is worth $170 million. The final price has yet to be negotiated.

Keep in mind that ETS maintains not-for-profit status under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. This means two things: ETS pays zero federal income tax and does not have to report any of its financial information to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The fact that ETS vies for public tax dollars makes no difference.

John Oswald, former president of the Association of Test Publishers and senior VP of ETS Elementary and Secondary Education, is reportedly "gratified" to see the state board reward ETS's performance since 2002-03. Interestingly, Oswald has been fairly open about ETS's essential monopoly: "This might sound a little silly, but I don't really think that we have competitors... We really do approach the market from a very different standpoint. We want to work with states that will use assessments to make teaching more effective, that will invest in professional development programs, and that are serious about curriculum reform. Our trustees have made that a matter of policy."

One of Oswald's ETS colleagues, President and CEO Kurt Landgraf, has clarified the corporation's attitude towards (public) money: "[ETS] will never be the low-cost bidder on a contract." Landgraf has also quipped, "I would really be happy if people didn't know what the 'T' meant in 'ETS'. I think of this as an educational-solutions company."

Read the full article about Thursday's new contract award in the Los Angeles Times California section.

Click links for more about ETS, John Oswald and Kurt Langdraf (as sources for above quotes). Ironically, the first appears on a website run by ETS sometimes-competitor Thomson Prometric. The other appears on the site of Stanford University of Education.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Teachers--Press Your Union Forward!

I’m an eleven-year veteran California teacher, now in voluntary exile from the public K-12 system. Politically, I’ve registered as “refuse to identify” on the California ballot for the past three years. I hated Gray Davis but voted for Camejo, not Arnold. I’m pro-labor. And with two days to go, I’m still tempted to vote for Prop 75, the so-called “paycheck protection act.” I'd like to clarify why.

In years past, I happily paid dues for union representation at the collective bargaining table, even though my district (like many) is essentially a “closed shop” which doesn’t bother with member recruitment anymore. It’s the extra money, approximately thirty-eight percent of the now $927 annual paycheck deduction for my former colleagues, that bothers me still.

Where does all that money go? Let’s say where it doesn't. In the past ten years, neither the National Education Association nor the California Teachers Association has resisted corporate interest in the public money pots of compulsory education. I don’t mean Coke machines and advertising on the Internet, but the bedrock of schooling: curriculum, standards, instruction and assessment.

That’s what makes “Stop 75” ads comparing union and corporate donations to political candidates and parties frankly laughable and even disturbing. In fact, union dollars haven’t used their muscle to advance a coherent, anti-corporate agenda under the status quo.

The National Business Roundtable’s impact on standardization in schools has stood publicly un-critiqued by unions. Neither NEA nor CTA has scrutinized, in any coherent way, the current testing and reporting system. They’ve bought into Orwellian euphemisms like “collaboration” and “professional learning communities"--phrases which belie increasingly top-down, scripted, multiple-choice models of learning. Unions have at times traded teacher pay for professional autonomy and told teachers they will not support “insubordinate” defiance of unconscionable testing practices. Even with heavy access to the Democratic Party, the NEA pressed for more funding of the No Child Left Behind Act, rather than an overhaul and re-examination of school policy.

While both NEA and CTA advocate for important medical benefits, salary, tenure, and retirement investment, they don’t press for more funding of ongoing teacher education. I’m not talking about some in-house training workshop run by district lackeys, but subsidies for serious study, writing and research. (I know, I know: it’s pie in the sky for the lowly schoolmarms.)

No union resources have been used to raise awareness about the financial interests at stake for industry lobbying giants such as the Association of Test Publishers and the Association of American Publishers. I haven’t read a single critique of how public schools are used as a marketing platform for assessments in the wider business world. No foray of union voices clamored when the nonprofit Educational Testing Service was granted a virtual monopoly on test administration and reporting in California from Grades 2-11 in 2002--and then was commissioned to develop, administer, and score the California High School Exit Exam. No one complained when Grey Davis, in his final election year, abruptly allocated millions for a quick buyout of newly-minted books with the California standards branded into the margins. (Then-CTA-President Wayne Johnson outed Davis for soliciting campaign money as trade for political support--but why was Johnson surprised?)

When I attended the 2005 annual Association of Test Publishers conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, I saw representatives from Microsoft, Vantage Learning, Thomson Prometric, ACT, Harcourt, The College Board, Linux, Caveon Data Forensics, Pearson VUE, and Educational Testing Service. Even Famous Amos of chocolate chip cookie fame was there, singing and playing a kazoo onstage. The absence of educators, state and local school board members and other officials was noted for the record at least twice. But they moved on without us. And there were no union watchdogs at the table.

Ironically, the main reason given by most supporters of Prop 75 is that “unions have an agenda.” What agenda? My problem is that the teachers’ union--at the highest and most prominent level--has provided very little organized vision and resistance.

The teachers’ union knows better than anyone that a textbook isn’t just a textbook anymore, and that information and test graft are easily the new wave of public waste. We need more sophisticated arguments than simply “Our kids need books!” or “We love kids!”

I’ve seen pictures of CTA President Barbara Kerr beaming with the Gubernator before and after his election. Under her leadership, the union agreed (with reservations?) to permit the “borrowing” of $2 billion that never got returned. Current union ads whining about Arnold’s “betrayal” would be sad if they weren’t so infuriating. Did CTA--bankrolled by the rank-and-file--really believe The Terminator would be a true advocate for education? That union compromises hadn’t already set the stage for a smile and pat on the head (or the behind)?

What teachers need is organized civil disobedience and coherent philosophical leadership, not pretenses of “reform” inside a complacent system. Make unions rally the rank-and-file. Make unions stand up and defend their expenditures.

Then I’ll happily and proudly write an extra check.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Teacher Watch: Sandy Kress--Know this Face

President Bush's central advisor on education policy, lobbyist and attorney Sandy Kress, also consults some of the most highly invested "pro-testing" interests in the country. Check out Jim Trelease's article, posted October 15 at

Kress recently spoke to Ray Suarez on PBS about Connecticut's lawsuit against the federal government over No Child Left Behind. You'll notice how, whatever the alternatives, testing is the starting and ending point:

"[T]here's lots of flexibility in this Act for Connecticut to do what it wants. They can do formative testing. They can do more in-depth testing. They can do testing by the way they can insist upon their contractor coming back faster than four months. They can do lots of things. The point is that parents and taxpayers want to know each year on a comparable assessment how youngsters are doing." (italics added)

Read the complete discussion at

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Are Teachers at Odds Over Prop. 74?

By LAUSD Teachers Larry Caballero and Tony Mendoza
From Column Left - Los Cerritos Community News- October 28, 2005

We were both surprised by Sunday's Los Angeles TIMES front page story entitled "Prop. 74 Has Some Teachers at Odds."

Apparently, there are some teachers in California who support it while the overwhelming majority of public school teachers do not. According to the story, teachers "are nervously wondering who among them will lose their jobs". If 74 passes, it would supposedly lengthen probationary periods for teachers and ease the rules for firing poor-performing veteran instructors.

The story also mentions how 74 "could rid California schools of ineffective instructors who curse at students, or talk on cell phones and show the movie Legally Blonde during class."

Frankly, we don't understand why some teachers are not opposed to 74 since it is a poorly drafted initiative which will not do anything to improve education in the classroom. It will also make it harder to remove poor teachers because schools must first find a qualified teacher to replace the one they want removed.

Even State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said, "The governor won't improve education with his half-baked ideas" since 74 will only make teaching less attractive in our state.

It's amazing to read that some teachers even believe that without 74, lazy and incompetent teachers will continue to teach in our classrooms. The reality, of course, is that very little good will come out of this proposition for several reasons.

First of all, the local school site administrator already can remove a poor teacher by simply documenting the infractions and by allowing the teacher a certain period of time to improve. If the teacher does not, then he's removed from the classroom.

The problem is not unqualified teachers as much as it is lazy administrators who don't do their jobs. It's like blaming the illegal immigrant who crosses over the border for wanting a job, but we don't blame the employer who hires the immigrant.

As for these teachers remaining in the classroom, we can assure you as veteran teachers that very few poor teacher survive very long in the classroom. No, they are not removed by the administrator, they choose to leave after their students confront them, and they will.

We're sure you remember when you were a young parent raising your small children. If you don't keep them occupied and busy doing something which is relevant, they will make your lives miserable with their behavior. It's the same in the classroom.

Teachers who are disrespectful to students or show movies every day hardly exist in today's classroom. The students would not tolerate it. Even one of the few teachers who support 74 had to admit that teaching "is really a draining kind of job. You
put so much of your heart and soul into it. I am exhausted every day."

At least, we agree with her on that, but to think that Proposition 74 is the answer is wrong. In order to improve our public schools, we need a state legislature and the community to work with the teachers and administrators.

Using ways to divide us all will not strengthen our public schools. This proposition will only cause more qualified people to leave teaching or not to enter the profession in the first place.

Vote NO on Proposition 74.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The S(H)MO Model--Post-Script

The closing keynote address at the ATP "Innovations in Testing" conference was delivered by Wally Amos, of chocolate chip cookie fame. I had seen him standing among the exhibits that morning at breakfast wearing a watermelon-styled, crushed velvet pimp hat with matching shoes. He stepped to the stage tootling on a kazoo which, as he pointed out, was also decorated by watermelon decals--all in the spirit, he said, of reclaiming the watermelon for himself as a black person. He'd made millions, lost millions, made millions again. Anyone can. It's all about attitude.

Strange that we have no tests right now to reward "attitude" as an achievement itself. In fact, according to Professional Learning Community literature published by NES, factors such as "morale" are overestimated in many discussions of school improvement. I had hoped, in light of his humanistic optimism, Amos would present a more holistic view of "test innovation." I thought he'd maybe talk about the need for more library funding, for deeper "print environments" in classrooms and homes. But the thing was, he was addressing for-profit distance managers of education. He could gloss the idea of literacy as a self-evident principle (we're all for kids and adults reading, right?). In this way, he underscored the rhetoric and self-image of ATP, an organization, you remember, dedicated to protecting and defending the interests of testing, in all shapes and forms.

He did present two dolls he's designed, shaped like cookies and named Chip and Cookie, and he talked about how he was using them to promote literacy. But the happy-clappy tenor of the presentation--given what Jonathan Kozol and many other researchers have described as the tragically "unfulfilled promise" of Brown v. Board of Education--ultimately parroted a traditional defense of existing privilege and the status quo, a contemporary enactment of God's in his heaven, / All's right with the world!

The hall was filled with most of the seven hundred ATP attendees, mostly white faces, as Amos sang, read, played with his dolls, and talked. After three days dedicated to seminars about all manner of performance assessment--including panels on "legally defensible" testing, ATP beltway lobbying and test legislation, and the need for standardization from pre-K through college to the workforce as a religiously ultimate destiny--I couldn't help but feel Amos' speech in the back of my throat and the pit of my guts: here was yet another level of "performance" being assessed. I've since learned that the kazoo routine is one of his signatures, whether he's speaking at a graduation or accepting an award for his work promoting literacy.

(You can view actual video footage by clicking this link and downloading from Real Player:

Amos didn't talk about triumphing over childhood under Jim Crow laws, or the amazing fact that literacy tests to preclude voting were banned during his lifetime, in 1965. In fact, the narrative of his success pretty much began and ended in terms of business. A friendly woman next to me nudged my elbow. "What a positive message," she said, shaking her head. "What a positive message."

Here was a sad kind of minstrelsy, conjuring moments from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: a performance not just for whites, but for power.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

No Child Left Behind--by Part-Time Instruction

Serendipity strikes. I was looking this morning for the latest statistics on teachers who leave public schools and came up with a bonus: On the White House webpages devoted to education, I discovered George Bush's plan for an "Adjunct Teacher Corps." If you know adjunct instructors at the community college or university level, or if you've ever taught an "extended day," you know how the system can deeply sever overtaxed academic programs and staff. It's a business-style bandaid approach in lieu of reducing class sizes or investing in full-time instructors (with salary and benefits)--instructors who will be emotionally and practically attached to the workings of the school.

You'll note that the teacher degree statistics used to justify the adjunct program are math and science statistics--suggesting a need to bring more professionals from the business community into the classroom. Apparently, we already have plenty of working writers and artists in the schools. (And our kids do enough writing and reading already?)

As if fulltime teacher status wasn't low enough already, adjunct teachers in K-12 schools will have the least job security--and will be least likely to speak up. Bush's plan aspires to manage education the way Wal-Mart manages its stores. I guess we shouldn't be surprised.

Check out the website at:

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Cubicle Training?

This morning on public radio, reps from the Massachusetts 2020 Foundation talked about their program increasing the 6-hour school day to 8-hours--even if it costs recess. To be fair, the foundation argues that current inequities in schools can't be rectified within the "antiquated" 6-hour schedule (notice the appeal to a vague notion of social justice?), and that all students need more exposure to the arts. Still, it's difficult to ignore the fact that the new schedule more closely resembles the workday. One has to ask whose purposes are best served by two more hours of standardization.

Read how it's all about "coaching" achievement of "the American Dream" on the 2020 Foundation website:

Monday, October 24, 2005

The S(H)MO Model--Part Five

The 2005 ATP "Innovations in Testing" conference provided glimpses of the latest in curriculum and testing technology, straight from the industry professionals who research, develop, design and sell it.

At a table during luncheon the first day, I found myself with representatives from the Buros Center for Testing and--I'm serious--the Institute for Mental Measurement at the University of Nebraska. Two senior faculty had brought along two star grad students in psychometrics, who were both trying to pump me up to enter the field. "The demand is so great," one told me. "I've already been guaranteed a job. This is very common now. The money is incredibly good." (Little did he know: I was just one of those "teacher" people--unqualified, as Lee Jones of Riverside Publishing would say, to write her own test items.)

Setting aside my objections about relying solely on automated testing to evaluate individual learning--and individual people--I thought about how the wave of national demand might in fact be making it increasingly difficult to find highly qualified people to design the tests teachers are required to implement. (Forget the "highly qualified" teacher: what about the "highly qualified" psychometrician?)

As in any industry, overconsumption of a product does not necessarily guarantee that the manufacturing process will protect quality to meet demand. In fact, inflated demand and frenetic production increase the probability of error. Right now I'm only talking about test design. You may remember the gentleman from Thompson Prometric, who said he could "curl my hair" with stories about industry complicity in designing poor (or marginally ethical) workplace test instruments. But this doesn't include test administration, data management, and score reporting. How many times has your district mixed up test booklets, miscopied items, called committees to re-word in-house assessments, tried to re-route data that was mis-crunched the first time around? How many times have you asked yourself: Given the errors and inconsistencies I can see without looking very hard, what else is underneath? Why would conscientious teachers be labeled "defiant" or "insubordinate" (even by union leadership) if they questioned the instrument itself--or refused to administer it?

Consider: I saw one demonstration of cutting edge teacher certification assessments now used in England. In what's called "simulation" testing, would-be teachers must prove themselves competent in the domains of spelling, using statistics, word-processing, spreadsheets, database management, PowerPoint, email and Internet maneuvers. The keyboard literally tracks and logs the number and order of steps chosen to complete each task and then determines the level of teacher efficiency. This final threshold for UK certification reminds me of temp-worker tests I took between jobs in college. The emphasis on simple clerical skills (what Susan Ohanian has called "paraprofessional" skills) indicates that there's decreasing expectation for teachers to ask questions, innovate, or create. The consumer model demands obedience from teachers. And here's the rhetorical trope: The more obedient you are, the more you'll be praised for being an active and creative participant!

Mingling through poster sessions in the hotel lobby between breakout workshops, I found a vast range of quality and polish. Some companies, such as Promissor, Thomson, and Pearson, used top-of-the-line electronic equipment to display their products. A few showcased research presentations were simply PowerPoint print-outs tacked on boards. One woman, who worked in Florida teacher certification testing, handed out packets. She told me that in the previous year, thirty-five thousand tests had been ordered for teacher certification--but that the actual demand had been one hundred thousand. She said that the state was having problems keeping up with the demand. That they were trying to move toward automated essay scoring by scanning teachers’ handwritten texts into computers.

I found three companies pushing automated essay scoring for students: Pearson VUE (with KAT, Knowledge Assessment Technology), ETS Pulliam (Criterion Online), and Vantage Learning (Intellimetric). Company spokesmen emphasized that typing was the key to making this most efficient in classrooms, but when I asked how companies dealt with essays when computers weren’t available, say, or writing in the primary grade levels, I got this interesting tidbit: Handwritten essays can be shipped overnight to India, where they are transcribed at very low cost--with automated scores still returning to the teacher within a day! (Such transcription work was undoubtedly performed by some of the non-PhD caste in India, though Bill Gates had made no reference to this in his speech.) When I expressed doubt, one salesman at Vantage seemed so proud he had to insist. “It sounds inefficient,” he said. “But it’s affordable and it works. You’d be surprised.”

The buy-in for English teachers seems obvious: test corporations can reduce your grading workload. But there’s something else, too. If teacher workload can be reduced by automation, why decrease class size? New brands of “Teachnology” can reduce inefficiency by streamlining the human teachers and students out of each other’s way. For example, eInstruction was demonstrating its current line of Classroom Performance Systems Technology (CPS) programs. Individual students use remote control devices to answer banks of multiple choice questions on the internet. (Note: Ownership of these massive “question banks,” by the way, is a very big deal for ATP.)

With CPS remotes, teachers can employ LCD displays, PowerPoint and SmartBoards to broadcast formative “assessment practices” on classroom screens while the students click their responses. Then the computer--not the teacher--selects successive questions based on the group’s aggregate results for each item. Every time the class responds to an item, the screen can display a bar graph and percentage of collective results. Instant, outcome-based feedback! (Or: lots of trees but no forest.)

It was amusing that we conference attendees used the CPS remotes to complete evaluations for presentations, because over the course of three days, various people would step up to a microphone somewhere and remind us to “make sure you return the CPS that you picked up by mistake.” Here was a crowd of professional adults and the CPS units were still getting lost, pilfered, and probably broken. I thought: What if these people were teaching five sections of seventh graders every day?

That is, I suppose, an imaginative, funny, and frankly inefficient question.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

An Argument for Tenure

Note the following recent development as an example of why public school teachers have fought so hard to keep tenure--clearly, it's not just about maintaining a "job for life." (This woman was fired for a job she used to have!)

Anti-abortion mother got teacher ousted

By Todd Milbourn -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PDT Saturday, October 22, 2005
Story appeared on Page A1 of The Bee

The mother of a Loretto High School student obtained photographs that exposed a drama teacher as a former Planned Parenthood volunteer, a revelation that led to the teacher's firing last week. It wasn't the first time Wynette Sills raised her anti-abortion views on the all-female, private Catholic campus.

Sills, who leads anti-abortion rallies outside Sacramento-area Planned Parenthood offices three times a week, complained to school administrators last year about a classroom presentation on domestic violence, said Gail Erlandson, a theology teacher for 11 years at Loretto.

Finish complete article at The Sacramento Bee:

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The S(H)MO Model--Part Four

The morning I dressed for the first day of the ATP "Innovations of Testing" conference in Scottsdale, my husband and I had the television tuned to C-SPAN. There, in a re-broadcast from just a few days earlier, Bill Gates was addressing the National Governors' Association at their annual meeting. I recalled that only three weeks before that, George Bush had delivered the first State of the Union Address for his second term, where he lauded the "success" of No Child Left Behind, the positive results of testing, and articulated his mission to "demand better results from our high schools."

With perfect rhetorical symmetry, Gates railed against the failure of public high schools, noting that the U.S. ranks 16th among industrialized countries with its graduation rate of 73%. (Gates did not clarify differences in total enrollment or sheer numbers of graduates. A few examples at the top of the list, though Gates did not include names: Denmark has 100% graduation, Norway's a close second at 97%, and Germany comes in third at 93%. Discuss.)

Even as Gates conceded, "I'm not here to pose as an education expert," he followed by saying, "I head a corporation and a foundation." Then he proceeded to elaborate on his observations about specific campuses and key lingo of the test-to-success program. Gates lamented the U.S.'s lack of science PhDs compared to those in India and China, without clarifying the longstanding socio-economic stratification in those countries. He took time to promote his own private foundation's recent financial investments in American schools. One of his most interesting critiques was that only privileged students were studying Algebra II in high school, while poor, minority others were stuck learning to balance a checkbook. (I've seen plenty of AP calculus students who would benefit from practical clues about managing money--and watching for corporate scams--but that's an aside for now.) Variations of Gates' speech were published in national newspapers the following week (the LA Times printed one version March 1).

The evangelical terminology and its business agenda makes a kind of perfect wallpaper--you barely notice it. You take it for granted. When someone as rich as Gates talks about education, glosses over a phrase like "improve schools" or "settle for nothing less," it's easy to see how people figure, "He must have better things to do. So he must really care."

The timing of the ATP conference after such perfect prepping was hard to miss. This became more than a gut impression once the conference began. The keynote speaker, Gaston Caperton, new President of the College Board and former Governor of South Carolina, referred to the same talking points Gates did. Caperton mentioned that he was just coming from the NGA conference, and sometimes he didn't even cite Gates. The same was true when one speaker from Pearson Assessments addressed the general assembly as part of a panel called "Titans of Testing."

A few other highlights from proponents of the managed care model of education:
  • "Teachers are not trained to use formative assessments and change teaching on the fly, teachers are not qualified to write their own items...Districts are turning to test publishers for input on formative assessments to prepare them for high stakes tests...Test corporations need to be uncompromising in teacher training for use of benchmark assessments." (Lee Jones, President, Riverside Publishing)
  • "We need to acknowledge the similarities of our various textbooks--there's not that much difference [among company textbook products]...If teachers buy in [to focused study guides, shared plans and other data] they might be able to test less--because formative tests are more integrated [into curriculum]." (Steve Kromer, VP and General Manager, Pearson Educational Measurement)
  • "I'm not an expert in the field--I bring the business point of view...Formative assessments will replace teacher tests. Turning data into knowlege is key. We need to provide flexibility to non-expert users, be a facilitator of change without becoming the enemy--really reach out to unions, etc." (Jeff Galt, Harcourt Assessment)
  • "People are turning to testing corporations and not the textbook companies for tests and formative assessments...Our Natural Language Processing technology can help scan millions of sentences to choose for reading assessments...Professional development and consulting are integral parts of our offerings, but "data driven" decision-making scares teachers...Teachers teach because they love children, and data is noise. They should teach to standards, not in the same way they always have, but it's not test prep. Tests should be tied to textbooks, assessments, and standards." (John Oswald, Senior VP and General Manager, ETS Elementary and Secondary Education)
It's important to emphasize again that all the discussion about "teachers" and "classrooms" was uni-directional--from "us" to "them." The image of teachers as incompetent, scared of numbers, and incapable of vision was easy to perpetuate inside the "in-crowd." Our absence was noted, but was as moot as it was mute. They pressed on, unchallenged--no doubt comforted by their well-established and promoted national political and corporate agenda.

[Conclusion next week...]

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Red Ribbon Weak

It's worth asking: Would your school board be this gentle if one of its longtime overworked, lonely teachers had "a dependency problem"?

Maybe there's hope for the least of us.

DUI Charges Filed Against Superintendent
CHECKPOINT: Susan J. Rainey was arrested on I-215 after having dinner with neighbors.

08:05 AM PDT on Wednesday, September 28, 2005
By SARAH BURGE / The Press-Enterprise

Misdemeanor DUI charges have been filed against Susan J. Rainey, 58, superintendent of the Riverside Unified School District, following a Labor Day weekend traffic stop on Interstate 215.

Officer Ron Thatcher, of the California Highway Patrol, said the drunken driving charges were filed with Riverside County's Southwest Justice Center on Friday.

Thatcher said Rainey was stopped about 10 p.m. Sept. 2 while driving south on I-215 south of Newport Road, and arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Attempts to reach Rainey on Tuesday by phone were unsuccessful. Riverside Unified board president Maxine Frost said Rainey decided to take 30 days leave. Frost said the superintendent is getting professional help for a "dependency problem." Frost said the board supports Rainey's decision and praised the work she has done as superintendent.

"We're looking forward to her return in October," Frost said.

In the meantime, Frost said, Deputy Superintendent Michael Fine will be the acting superintendent. Frost said Rainey was stopped at a sobriety checkpoint that diverted all of the southbound freeway traffic. Rainey was on her way to her vacation home in Oceanside after having dinner with her neighbors, Frost said.

"She said it was a bad decision and she shouldn't have done it," Frost said. "She's been alone," Frost said, pointing out that Rainey's husband died recently.

"She's been working especially hard in the last year," Frost said. "Too hard."

Rainey is scheduled to appear in court Nov. 7.

**Reach Sarah Burge at (951) 368-9642 or

The S(H)MO Model--Part Three

At the 2005 ATP "Innovations in Testing" Conference, I was privy to more goodies than I knew what to do with. When I first checked in, I received the ATP logo conference tote bag, packed with treats above and beyond the giant notebook tidily organized with daily agendas, speaker bios, and corporate sponsor ad-sheets. A few highlights from the tote as well as things I picked up during poster (advertiser) sessions over the three-day period:
  • Blue and orange M&Ms in a sealed baggie, labeled: "You can't manage what you can't measure." (Caveon Data Forensics)
  • A blue luggage tag, inscribed: "College Board: connect to college success, Research and Pyschometrics."
  • A laser pointer: "LaserGrade: Your computer Testing Specialist"
  • A puzzle-shaped piece of chocolate stamped with the Thompson Prometric logo.
  • An Educational Testing Service (ETS) calendar and notepad.
  • A green Performance Testing Council (PTC) button that we were encouraged to wear throughout the conference. (I couldn't bring myself to do this. Most people didn't.)
  • A Thompson Prometric Testing flow-chart map, made into a kraft-wrapped puzzle
  • A dainty box of RecruitMints: The flavor that lasts a lifetime! Your best career investmint! (Measured Progress)
  • A bag of Famous Amos Cookies: "Join us for our closing keynote speaker Wally Amos, 'the face that launched a thousand chips.' " (more on this later)
If there was one theme, it was advertising. Even though three of ATP's four divisions are not directly related to education, it was startling how promotional language used by both business and education corporations fit seamlessly, interchangeably together. When I didn't recognize a particular company name, I often had difficulty discerning at first whether it was in the business of testing kids and schools or employees. The overlap is merely tangible evidence of the Business Roundtable's powerful influence on education policy, something Susan Ohanian has documented for years. I found myself having Professional Learning Community and WASC committee flashbacks.

A few highlights from some of the prominent sponsors:
  • Questionmark Perception: Explore the enclosed CD and get to know the benefits of using effective and interactive assessments throughout the learning process.
  • Professional Examination Service: Delivering Client and Stakeholder Satisfaction
  • The Pearson VUE difference! [...]Biometric processes help authenticate valid test takers from imposters... Truly collaborative customer relationships featuring service excellence...
  • Promissor: Knowledge Beyond Doubt, The Total Solution Provider
  • Thomson Prometric: Enhanced testing capabilities from us. Improved testing solutions for you. Measuring success.
  • ETS Pulliam: Instructional Data Management System, Standards Based Teaching, Learning and Accountability.
  • E-Instruction, Classroom Peformance System (CPS): Successful Training is No Accident.
  • Vantage Learning: Intelligent Technology for Intelligent Decisions, Measuring Success One Student at a Time
  • Integral 7: How Can You Effectively Manage Your Business Without Effectively Managing Your Data?!
  • M2: Research and Psychometric Services: Meaningful Measurement
  • Castle Worldwide, Inc.: Building Relationships, Offering Guidance, Tailoring Solutions.
There was something else equally striking: a co-option of language (or glosses of language) from the humanities and from social justice movements, in order to articulate, promote, and justify test-as-measurement.

In the opening session, the Industrial-Organizational (I.O.) Division chairman gave a talk with an almost "I Have a Dream" tenor. As best I could, I scribbled notes on what I could get verbatim. His speech crescendoed with this point: "I would like to see a qualitative change in how the public views testing, to see testing as the solution not the problem. Testing as the best way to judge who's qualified. There is nothing better than testing to do this. I look forward to the day when a job applicant will be stunned if there is no testing." This speaker emphasized the urgency of lobbying efforts, PR and legal monitoring, and promoting test industry interests to the general public. He also pointed out that the strongest resource of ATP was in fact the I.O. Division itself, needing to lead the drive for change.

So much for on-site vertical teams. I thought about this a lot during the conference. While so many individual teachers were hard at work inside isolated classrooms--convinced by teacher-training workshops that the big picture is too daunting, too overwhelming, too irrelevant, that their day-to-day work with individual kids is the only precious thing that counts--here was a convention of professionals revving massive financial, political and rhetorical engines to drive the entire educational train down the track. These folks spare no expense. They stick to time limits in their meetings. They make no apologies for their interests. They don't whine.

And as long as teachers buy in to doublespeak about "collaboration" and "standards," ATP doesn't need smoke-filled back rooms, either.

[Continued next week...]

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Just Say No

Earlier this year, California teachers spoke out when the governor broke his promise to repay the two billion dollars he borrowed from the education budget. California nurses took the governor to court when he tried to roll back the hospital staffing law that protects patients. California’s firefighters and police officers attacked the governor's plan to eliminate survivor benefits for family members when an officer or firefighter is killed in the line of duty.

Now the Alliance for a Better California, a coalition of teachers, firefighters and nurses, kicked off the campaign to defeat Proposition 75 by unveiling its first TV ad.

The 30-second spot began airing statewide on September 8 and explains to California voters that Prop. 75 has a hidden agenda to silence the voices of teachers, nurses, firefighters and police who spoke out against cuts to education, health care and public safety earlier this year.

"Like previous California initiatives, Prop. 75 has a hidden agenda. Its real agenda is to make it easier for the governor and his big business pals to cut school funding, health care and public safety," said CTA President Barbara Kerr.

The top seven donors to Prop. 75 are major contributors to the governor, and a coalition of business and anti-tax groups was formed to promote Prop. 75 by gathering petition signatures earlier this year. If Proposition 75 passes, who will protect the workers in education, health care and public safety? It's a sure bet it won't be the governor who favors big business.

Prop. 75 will place restrictions on only public employees and would not impact any other organization that makes political contributions, including corporations. Yet according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, corporations already outspend unions by a 24-1 margin nationally.

Voters are fair and do not appreciate being lied to. It is apparent that Prop. 75 wants to thwart the efforts of workers and their organizations to reach out to the public, and voters won't be fooled. If this measure is so good for the public, then it should impact corporations and big business as well. Otherwise, it comes across to the voters as mean-spirited. Just say NO to 75.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The S(H)MO Model--Part Two

So what about this "managed care" model of education? Something we learn to intuit--if vaguely--and even accept, deep down, as un fait accompli?

Early last spring, I went to Scottsdale, AZ for the Assocation of Test Publishers (ATP) "Innovations in Testing" conference. It was the sixth annual conference of the lobbying and networking group. ATP has existed since 1992, maintains non-profit status (under Section 2.01 of Illinois law), and keeps headquarters in Washington, D.C.

I had discovered ATP when its acronym appeared in a board member biography for a textbook company I was researching. I went to the website, where I was intrigued by the clear and unmitigating language of the organizational goals, especially the first: "To promote and preserve the general welfare of testing and its value to society, in all its forms and uses."

Because ATP isn't a 501(c)3 nonprofit public benefit corporation, it can legally restrict access to some materials for the general public. Some of these materials include legal updates, complete member directories, and a "school interoperability network."

Just browsing the site, however, it's not difficult to find names--a roster of members piling up financial resources, cachet, and prestige: The College Board, Educational Testing Service (ETS), SASSI, Microsoft, Linux, Lotus, Edison Electric Institute, Hewlett-Packard, Thomson, Pearson VUE, Harcourt...and on and on. Some of the most invested clients come from multi-national corporations based overseas, in countries such as China, U.K. and the Netherlands. ATP has four divisions, only one of which is directly "educational." The remaining three cover all areas of business and professional testing: certification/licensure, clinical, and industrial/ organizational.

K-12 education serves as an invaluable marketing platform for testing as a self-evident sorting mechanism. A part of the "real world" into which all students will venture.

It cost $650 (ouch!--at least deductible as writer's reseach) plus driving expenses (we live fairly close, in California) to get there. My husband's father happens to own a small apartment where we could stay. Unlike many conference participants whose expenses were covered by the test companies that sent them, I didn't have to sleep at the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa, where all meetings and panels were held. That--plus golf on the prestigious course--would have cost another $200+ per day. Many participants flew in from all over the country.

According to one estimate in a speech the first morning, there were approximately 700 attendees this year. A vast majority were white. The most prominent black male was the outgoing ATP executive director, William G. Harris, who went--I kid you not--by a big "G" on his nametag. Everyone called him "G," and I wondered if they figured this would buy them some clout in the 'hood, if anyone was checking for "racial sensitivity" among test professionals. As a white person, I was mortified.

The dearth of educators, whether from city or state boards, unions, K-12 teachers, or universities, was fairly startling. This absence was lamented out loud at least twice--once in the general session and once in the smaller education division meeting. But lamentation goes only so far.

Fact is, the conference takes place during a regular work week, when public school employees would be highly unlikely to attend. The expenses of the conference alone are enough to discourage attendance by any typical government employee. The formal Catch-22, offered as a reason there would be little remedy: Grants or incentives to make attendance affordable for public system employees would be illegal, as ATP's member organizations stand to benefit from contracts and contacts gained. It would be a conflict of interest.

It's strange that it would be a conflict of interest to have reps from public entities looking over the shoulder of private corporations who gather pots of public money from the public system.

Two key facts I gathered from attending panels and doing a lot of listening:

1. The test industry is not currently regulated by the federal government. This is ironic, considering the government's reliance on test instruments to evaluate teachers and schools. (One man from Thompson Prometric said he could "curl my toes" with stories about tests designed to fit client demands for particular results--low or high cut-offs, for example--rather than according to "best practices" encouraged by the industry.)

2. ATP has a love-hate relationship with No Child Left Behind legislation. On one hand, it stimulates demand for tests and test-support. On the other hand, it creates scrutiny by the Feds, who may eventually intrude with regulation. NCLB may also motivate government to get into the test game itself--as a fierce and unwanted competitor.

[To be continued]

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

First Daze

Yesterday was the first official school day in Riverside Unified. I checked with my mother in the evening to see how things went. She'd spent hours of unpaid overtime in the weeks prior organizing, cleaning, and decorating her room to make it welcoming for new students.

"No AC," she said. "All day." I doubt her school's situation was unique.

Some rooms had it, some didn't. (Divide and conquer? Gaslighting? "You must have done something to deserve the lack of air"?) No windows in the bunker, of course. Not everyone had fans. Ironically, the district had shelled out big bucks to replace the air conditioning system two years ago. Part of "modernization" grant projects.

This is another vividly depressing example of how individual teacher efforts to make the best of things can be smashed and demoralized.

Anonymous OSHA hotline, anyone?

Monday, August 29, 2005

The S(H)MO Model

The annual AYP and API rankings were published mid-August--the annual treat--complete with aggregate and disaggregated test results for individual schools, districts and grade levels. If you teach, on day one or two of buy-back meetings you no doubt received giant packets of score results for grade levels, individual classes, individual items. Someone tries to read aloud the same reports on an overhead or using powerpoint. It can be migraine inducing. I used to imagine some poor schlub down at the district office having to make these thousands of packets and constantly running out of toner. There are so many pages now, though, we know these copies have to be hired out in district copy centers, sparing no expense, even in districts where teachers may still labor day-to-day under a paper ration.

Like the NYSE and NASDAQ reports, the bombardment of data can be impenetrable and intimidating. Those numbers suggest "authority," a final antidote for the unreliable "hysteria" of language, ambiguities, social contexts. (I'm sorry, was your observation research-based?)

But unless you've had a psychometric implant surgically installed, what you may be looking for as a teacher, parent, or student, is something more elusive than a number. Something a bit more desperate. Something we've been trained in the past ten years (at least) to be unsure that we deserve. We're looking for validation, any reason to let the air out of our lungs. To trust that the curriculum police won't come knocking at the classroom door, the house. To whisk our kids off to some brave new data-topia.

Sorry to say, the police are already here: kinder, gentler and comfortably inside. Corporate influence isn't relegated to Coke machines and Channel One anymore. It's implicit in the relationship between test publishers and textbook makers. It's been secured in the business move of financial and information giants to purchase textbook and testing companies in the past twenty years.

Just a few connections:
McGraw Hill--publisher of the CAT-6: Publishes the S&P Indexes.
Pearson--publisher of Prentice Hall/Globe Fearon: Publishes The Financial Times.
Reed-Elsevier--publisher of Harcourt/Holt & Stanfords 9, 10 et al: Owns Seisint Technologies, inventor of MATRIX software to track citizens for Homeland Security.

These people don't dress like surveillance experts or police. They aren't mean, either. When their marketers and salespeople come to districts and meet with teachers, they woo us with bags, free books, sometimes wine-and-dine evenings with prizes and lots of attention. At one meeting I attended as Department Chair, a district liaison with pink cheeks gushed, "These people really know how to treat teachers."

On the surface, yes. But corporate practices (including lobbying efforts) clarify two implicit convictions: 1. schools must serve as delivery mechanisms for products that sell political results; 2. public schools themselves can be a lucrative market, held captive by compulsory student attendance. Even a product that seems to fail can be marketed to justify the need for yet another product--another test, a new textbook series, a revised curriculum map, a revamped data management system. All at taxpayer expense.

A teacher's own knowledge, experience and questions get pitted as objects "in the way." Just as health maintenance organizations and insurance companies now tell the average doctor how and when to practice medicine, test and data management corporations have created a priority system that says teachers need to be told--by someone not a teacher, not interested in teaching--what will and won't work with students.

This model in policy and practice, which we could call an SMO model ("School Maintenance Organization" model), repeats one concept again and again--namely, that the teacher herself never knows what's really happening in her classroom. Despite the pretty or soft-sounding words, the candlelit dinners and other treats. Despite popular Orwellian euphemisms like Professional Learning Community or Collaboration or No Child Left Behind.

Last spring, I attended an industry conference for the Association of Test Publishers (ATP) in Scottsdale, Arizona. I attended as a grad student, and had to cough up the full $650 attendance fee--covered for many attendees by the test corporations they came to represent. God knows I couldn't exactly afford the expense, but I wouldn't trade what I learned there for anything.
[to be continued...]

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Thanks, But No Thanks

As a veteran public school teacher for 38 years, it's really laughable to read last week's Column Right in the Los Cerritos Community News when the writer, who is the President of the Cerritos Republican Club, is feeling sad for us poor teachers because "so many teachers who give themselves to our nation's youth are being distracted from their mission by having to fight their own unions."


He says that "many" teachers are expressing their opposition to recent actions by their unions to raise fees for political purposes. He mentions the California Teachers Association as one of the major culprits. I would like to know how many is "many."

First of all, teaching is a very difficult job, and that's why 50 percent of us leave the teaching profession after the first five years. If it were not for our teacher associations--unions as the writer calls them--the percentage of teachers leaving would probably be higher.

I can assure the writer that we are not being distracted by our "unions." We know that if it were not for those professional organizations, who work day after day to protect our rights, we would have a difficult time indeed just to survive. As it is now, most new teachers are unable to afford a home or raise a family. And that's after five years of college!

If it were not for the "unions," we teachers would not be able to afford decent health care for our families or be eligible for liability insurance in case we are accused of some alleged wrong doing. If it were not for the "unions," I doubt any teacher would be able to retire with the hope of living a decent life.

Thank you, but no thanks to the writer who is so interested in our welfare. As a member of the California Teachers Association state council that represents 345,000 teachers, I can also assure the writer that we were more than happy to pay a few dollars more a year to have our professional rights protected by a governor who call us "special interests."

I guess I shouldn't complain since the last Secretary of Education called teachers "terrorists."

Since the writer seems to care so much about us, perhaps he should be writing to the governor to ask him to repay the two billion dollars he took away from us after promising to give it back to the schools this year. The writer is correct--we are expressing our opposition as never before, but it's not against our "unions," it's against the governor who lied to the schools and the children of this state.

And now he wants the voters to support Proposition 74 that would extend the period before teachers are eligible for due process under the law. Proposition 75 would require loads of paperwork in order to make it more difficult for employee unions to make political contributions that would benefit their employees, and Proposition 76 would give the governor the power to cut the budget on his own without discussion with the state legislature. What a guy.

As for the writer, don't be so worried about us being distracted by the "unions." We know who is out there caring for the needs of parents, teachers, and students, and it's not he, the governor, or some bogus legal defense organization.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Almighty Standards

Teachers aren't supposed to argue for ignorance, but I'm beginning to think the wrong kind of information is worse. Yes, I suppose I'm talking about the almighty standards. It's not that I have any truck with trying to measure up to a mark. Expectations are wonderful. As a classic under-achiever I can attest that the most meaningful portion of my education was the direct result of teachers who demanded a great deal more from me than I would ever have sought for myself. I'm eternally grateful to a hand full of brilliant souls who knew who I was and what I might do long before I did.

They had standards and they held me to them before any legislative body prescribed that they should. So, I don't argue that they shouldn't have. However, they understood the difference between holding me to standards and substituting those standards for a curriculum. I'm no expert. I'm just a teacher. In fact, I'm not quite a teacher, not in district terms. I haven't learned enough useless information yet. I have another year to go.

I was an ignorant writer in my former life. I haven't become famous, but I have been very successful in personal terms. I wrote screenplays and novels and stage plays for twenty years believing that one day I would seek an opportunity to teach and, corny as it sounds, maybe even inspire a student or two. All of my adult life I have continued to write and to read and study literature in a pleasant effort to learn all I could from and about authors I admired.

Imagine my surprise when LAUSD informed me that I was totally unqualified to teach English. Neither professional resume nor a masters in literature cut any rarefied LAUSD ice. Or as one helpful advisor put me wise "We don't teach the story. We teach the standard nowadays."

In other words information is obsolete. Content is passe. We don't have to get bogged down in subject matter. We have the standards to teach. It isn't what a student has learned that matters. It's the student's ability to list the things he or she should have learned.

I'm an old dog, I learn slowly, but I learn. I'm being schooled in the ways of the standards and teachers performance expectations too. So never fear that I have been unloosed on students without thorough redress of my ignorance as to why everything I know and believe about reading and writing is extraneous. Experts and coaches are standing by as we speak.

Boy, I'm glad no really great writers have applied with LAUSD. Think how insufferably ignorant a Doestoyevsky or Woolf or Faulkner or Toni Morrison would be. And the next time some ignoramus starts touting Shakespeare I know what I'm going to say: "Oh, yeah, 'to be or not to be' and all that, but what did the guy know about Reading 2.3?"