Saturday, August 12, 2006

High School Exit Exam Upheld--And Chickens Come to Roost in Higher Ed

Here's the news you didn't hear: Yesterday, the California Court of Appeals upheld the requirement that every student in the Golden State must indeed pass the High School Exit Exam to earn a diploma. Lawyers for the plaintiffs, who have not challenged the test itself but rather the quality and equity of school resources, are now appealing to California's Supreme Court. (For background, see our recent coverage of Valenzuela v. O'Connell.) If students don't pass the test, the judges argued, they will be given a message that they don't have adequate skills to succeed in life.

Here's the news you did hear: Two days earlier, university professors from across the country were shocked! shocked! to hear Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and her federal commission admonish higher education to clean up its act with standardized testing. (The committee did settle on laughably euphemistic language for some recommendations at the end of its session, as reported by the NY Times, changing "should require" testing to "should measure student learning" with tests. Of course, any public school teacher knows what this really implies for colleges, who would be foolish to consider the phrase adjustment some sort of appeasement or exemption.) Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education--which includes members from private and public schools, think tanks and corporations--certainly did offer some enticements, in the form of increased money for Pell Grants to finance student attendance. Pell Grants, of course, mean more political leverage via federal money spent expressly on colleges and universities.

It's difficult to sympathize with the outcry from universities, who have themselves been largely complicit in the test mania perpetrated on "little sister" K-12--while remaining insanely out of touch with daily realities of compulsory schools and local communities. The university system has, in effect, fed the monster it now decries as counter to its educational interests.

As an ETS speaker told one group at its Orlando Pathwise Conference in June, "The old system used to be that universities told the primary and secondary schools what to do. Now the Nation's Report Card is going to tell the universities." This statement is only half of the story, however. The Nation's Report Card itself has been largely influence by corporate interests such as Achieve! and The Business Roundtable. Educational testmakers such as ETS and Reed-Elsevier have long been in bed with corporations such as Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and IBM.

Consider this passage on corporate involvement in education as posted on our own U.S. Department of Education website:

Today, more than ever before, corporate prosperity as well as our economic success as a nation depends on a highly educated workforce. The demand for highly skilled and well-educated workers in the new economy will only increase over time, making businesses major stakeholders in the educational success of our children.

To this end, the Office of Corporate Liaison works to facilitate effective communication between business leaders and program officers at the Department, to build mutual understanding of the needs of both the corporate world and local communities, and to promote business—education partnerships around the country. Businesses interested in supporting local efforts to improve education may consider aligning their current programs with one or more of the Department's priorities.

The now public-push for testing in universities, where professors have too-long enjoyed the privilege of obliviousness, shouldn't be a surprise. I'm reminded of the old parable: They came for the blind, and I did nothing because I could see. They came for the crippled, and I did nothing because I could walk. They came for the Jews, the Catholics, the evangelicals, the atheists, and I did nothing because I was none of these. When they came for me, there was no one left to stand up.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Teacher Watch--ETS Pathwise Conference, or: Who's the Potato Head?

In June, I attended Educational Testing Service's annual Pathwise Teaching & Leadership Conference. The 9th annual gathering, held just outside the main thoroughfare of Orlando's bustling DisneyWorld Resort, was designed to promote what ETS has branded its "System 5" program for educational customers: Professional Development Solutions, Instructional Solutions, Assessment Solutions, Data-Driven Decision-Making Solutions, and School Improvement Solutions. (The 5-point and 5-year plans of certain historical dictators come to mind.)

Most of the attendees came from local superintendent and professional development offices, or were active classroom teachers. The group felt somewhat divided among administrators gunning to raise test scores, researchers curious about training teachers, and educators lassoed by their districts to gather solutions for local problems. The total turnout seemed relatively small, approximately 300-400 people, which I did not mistake as a sign of ETS's waning influence. (Coincidentally, the National Education Association was holding its annual convention in a hotel nearby, and there appeared to be no overlap in crowds.)

The rhetoric in Orlando displayed an intriguing shift from the brazen "rah rah tests and moolah" speeches at the 2005 Association of Test Publishers Conference in Scottsdale Arizona, where ETS logo, products, and corporate speakers had made a formidable presence. Here in Orlando, where ETS was the only game in town, we had a kinder, gentler and much more disingenuous language offered for the teacher audience--for those people in closest proximity to actual students. "We're not picking on teachers," one presenter said. "Change is hard for everyone." This rhetorical seduction was capable, smooth and (perhaps) well-meaning, as it was usually delivered by individual researchers themselves "on the ground" and less connected to centers of ETS power. (The only trace of corporate leadership appeared on certificates for professional development credit, via John Oswald's signature in black felt-tip ink.)

One of the central ETS promotions in half-day workshops was its Keeping Learning on Track (KLT) Institute, also listed under the title What is Formative Assessment? The idea, presenters insisted, was to change what happens inside learners' heads--and that requires minute-to-minute assessment in classrooms. Don't confuse what ETS means by this and what Madeline Hunter meant by "checking for understanding", "guided" or "independent practice," or for that matter any of the other hundreds of individual instructional, social and emotional assessments teachers make in the course of any given day. KLT means asking one particular question, with a quickly assessable answer, to an entire group of students--who indicate their responses, en masse, via A B C or D choice cards or, perhaps, by flashing up a few words or symbols on their personal white boards. The results tell teachers how to proceed.

Most bizarre during this workshop was how presenters openly attacked the idea of scripted learning and curriculum maps (ETS would offer a separate "Curriculum Mapping: Aligning Learning" workshop just two days later). There was something dissonant and surreal about the presenters' attack, since ETS benchmark tests--at district, state and national levels--were acknowledged openly as the keys driving curriculum alignment and realignment in the planning process. To sell KLT, however, presenters appealed to teachers' frustration with mapping and scripts. A brilliant maneuver.

For example: One presenter described how she addressed teacher frustration balancing KLT strategies with the weekly planning demands prescribed by her district. "You all remember the Nuremberg defense?" she asked us. "Saying 'I was just following the pacing guide' is no defense if your students don't move ahead." I had to cover my mouth to keep from laughing aloud at the hideous analogy, especially by a representative of a corporation that drives curriculum mapping, but the quip drew solemn nods from the group. (I wondered how many teachers might be subjected to that comment when attendees returned to share the story with their districts.)

It was repeated at least twice in this session that it's not sufficient for students to arrive at the right answer for wrong or inaccurate reasons. (Terrific! An emphasis on thinking! says the conscientious teacher.) Nevermind that ETS and other brands of multiple choice tests--the big elephants in the classroom--rarely provide students with opportunities to earn credit for thoughtful or accurate thinking and methodology, even if they make a simple computational error at the very end. The teacher-touching emphasis on “process” in the rhetoric of KLT is frankly undermined by the reality that “product” is what our system ultimately measures and values.

A final note: It was hinted at various points during the five day conference that ETS researchers are now pushing to eliminate teacher grades in favor of written feedback or comments only. Keep in mind, however, that while it might consider “letter grades” from individual teachers irrelevant, ETS corporation has its eye fixed on the big prize: there’s no talk of eliminating the numbers, rankings, scores, and percentiles generated on a national level by its own test instruments. That sounds like Game-Over, Check-Please, and all in the name of "better learning": making one corporation the final arbiter of multiple-choice quality in the world of education-as-product.

Keep your own potato eyes wide open on this one.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Exit Exam Debate Heats Up, Again--ETS Contract in the Background

On July 25, the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco heard arguments about the fairness of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) in the continuing case of Valenzuela v. O'Connell. The court will have 90 days to decide whether a judge in Alameda was correct in blocking the exam. The case and its ensuing debates seem to hinge on two central questions: Does the CAHSEE punish students not equitably prepared by educational resources across the state, or does the test reward students by creating a common benchmark for graduation?

While many of us are certainly rooting for the underdogs here, it's important to note that the case does not challenge the test instrument, the assessment process, or the core principle of "exit exams" per se, but instead argues that bad teachers and poor materials are to blame for students not passing the exam. Even a plaintiffs' victory in this case could result in an ironic backlash of increased standardization for classrooms. It's an odd case of Be careful what we wish for.

The results of Valenzuela v. O'Connell will determine whether or not students denied diplomas in June for failing the exit exam will be issued diplomas retroactively. According to estimates, nearly 40 thousand students in California failed the CAHSEE.

However, behind the scenes is a larger picture, with ETS's multi-million dollar contract to develop, administer, and score the test hanging somewhat in the balance. Making the test "optional" or rendering its results "unconstitutional" would not bode well for the assessment giant. ETS has already taken recent hits in the press for "misplacing" score sheets for the CAHSEE in Long Beach, as well as for scoring errors nationally publicized on the the high-stakes SAT exam.

Additionally, ETS last spring spent $11.1 million to settle a class action suit brought on behalf of 4,100 teachers who "failed" the PRAXIS teacher certification exam when they had actually passed it (a total of 27 thousand teacher candidates received lower scores than they should have and may also be eligible for damages).

No wonder ETS has learned to diversify its services, building up the minute-by-minute formative assessment component of its K-12 instructional marketing, offering a more intimate classroom connection--increased resources for "how to prepare for tests we give you."

Click here to read the Sacramento Bee's coverage of appeal preparations last week, including sample questions from the CAHSEE with answers.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Teacher Watch--ETS Hydra Adds Another Arm

It's more difficult by the minute to track who owns what, who's bought or partnered with whom in the test and curriculum industry. It's practically migraine-inducing even to try.

Here at "HorseSense" we attempt in our modest way to keep you up to date on some of the key players and their new deals. This isn't simply trivia. It's important for teachers, parents, students and activists to have at least some information about key players in the industries that shape policy and research in education. Under-our-nose acquisitions, partnerships and mergers can make individual corporations seem smokier, less direct, in their lines of accountability to public money. See our coverage of scoring errors in the SAT and California High School Exit Exam (CASEE) earlier this year.

In a new maneuver to aquire a competitive edge in teaching writing through computer assessment, Educational Testing Service (ETS) has teamed up with Great Source, a division of publishing heavyweight Houghton Mifflin. Houghton Mifflin announced in a May 30 press release that its Great Source division will now "market and distribute subscriptions to a co-branded version of ETS’s Criterion Online Writing Evaluation."

"Distribute subscriptions" means selling and managing sales. Co-branding is a partnership marketing strategy between corporations seeking to corner or control a market. According to a term coined by Brandenburger and Nalebuff (1996) this maneuver is called "coopetition." Such connections are not always clearly advertised to the public. (Consider how the connection between Philip Morris and Kraft Foods became camouflaged in 2002 when the parent corporation was re-named Altria Group.)

ETS's Criterion online writing program for grades 4-university will now complement Great Source's Write Source textbooks. According to John Oswald, senior Vice President of ETS Elementary and Secondary Education, "By working together, we can reach more schools with stronger resources that give students the practice they need to become clear, fluent, and effective writers."

And there's more: In a development announced by ETS June 6, Criterion has also partnered with Educere, "a respected provider of virtual education services to K-12 schools."

The ETS announcement of the Educere partnership makes no reference to the new Great Source connection, an announcement reserved for a previous, separate release. In effect, however, we now have an alliance between Criterion, Educere and Write Source--with quite a corporate trail in the wings.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Teacher Watch--Formative Assessment Agenda

Recent public outrage over scoring errors in the SAT and California High School Exit Exam (HSEE) has again inflamed national, if temporary, questions about high-stakes benchmark testing--and the unregulated corporations which create and adminster such programs, at the state and national level. Part of the concern is that many test corporations subsist on continuous public funding for each trial, error and profit.

But as eggregious as these momentary scandals may seem to parents, students and teachers, it's important to keep in mind that corporations such as Harcourt and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) have long shifted their eyes to something much more lucrative, long-term and mostly unquestioned: formative assessments.

Roughly, as teachers already know, "formative assessments" are seen as practice tools to prepare students to succeed on high-stakes, benchmark tests that occur perhaps once or twice a year. High-stakes benchmarks at the state level, such as the CAT-6 in California, are used to determine rankings of Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. Such results can affect funding for schools, not to mention the real-estate rates in your neighborhood. National high-stakes benchmark tests include the PSAT and new SAT test, which affect student entry into colleges and universities, and can also affect individual student options for scholarships and other funding.

By comparison, "formative" test sounds kinder and gentler--it's just like studying, right?

As articulated by CEOs at the 2005 Association of Test Publishers "Innovations in Testing" Conference, what test publishers mean by "formative assessment" is literally constant assessment. Via tools such as remote control, internet question banks and automated, instant online grading software programs, the formative assessment agenda seeks to break down barriers between "testing" and "curriculum" so that they literally mean the same thing. The buzzphrase for this is "integrated" testing.

The argument, of course, is that teachers are always preparing students for tests anyway, so more automated and standardized formative practice would simply make the whole process user-friendly for everyone.

Two months ago, ETS acquired the assets of Assessment Training Institute (ATI), a Portland Oregon company which specializes in integrating assessment with day-to-day instruction. In an official press release dated March 8 2006, John Oswald, ETS Senior Vice President of Elementary and Secondary Education, says, "ATI's people and products will broaden ETS's educational solutions, including minute-to-minute assessment for learning in the classroom, periodic benchmark testing to validate and adjust instruction, and high-stakes summative state assessments."

Richard (no relation to Henry) Higgins, CEO of ATI, calls the approach "assessment FOR learning." You can read the entire press release here.

The key is that big-money testers know how to diversify their portfolio. Corporations such as ETS are already planning creative recovery from possible fallout over inevitable, isolated squabbles over a few high-stakes tests.

If George Orwell were still alive, he'd repeat that the domestic counterpart to a state of chronic war with an enemy somewhere else is a state of chronic surveillance at home. In the next generation, unless we resist, compulsory schools will be the primary (and invisible) front for this battle.

Friday, March 31, 2006

The Reiner Initiative and Preschool Pressures: An Interview with Diane Flynn Keith

What might be the problem with preschool? Where can conscientious parents and educators find common ground? In this interview, Diane Flynn Keith shares her views with Jo Scott-Coe about California's "First Five" advertisements, Rob Reiner, standardized testing, John Taylor Gatto, Bill Gates, Oprah--and much more.

Diane Flynn Keith is founder of Universal and author of Carschooling: Over 350 Entertaining Games & Activities To Turn Travel Time Into Learning Time (Random House 2002).

Jo Scott-Coe: The name of your website, "Universal Preschool," must catch some people off guard once they start reading it. Talk about how your group began.

Diane Flynn Keith: In my home state of California, I kept hearing advertisements by "California First Five" that made ridiculous claims such as children who don’t go to preschool are more likely to wind up in prison.

California First Five is a tobacco tax funded front for the California School Board supported "Children & Families Act of 1998" that was spearheaded by actor-director Rob Reiner. First Five believes that parents are woefully inadequate and therefore need government preschools to prepare kids for entry into kindergarten and first grade. This is absolute poppycock.

I thought that I'd see parental rights organizations offer an opposing opinion but, to my amazement and consternation, it didn't happen. The ads were so recurrent and insidious that by August of 2004 I had heard enough! I decided that if no one was going to oppose the movement to institutionalize little kids in government preschool programs -- I would do it myself!

The fastest way to get a message out is via the Internet. I found the domain name, "" was available. I decided to launch a website, where people looking for information on "Universal Preschool" would be surprised to find information opposing it, along with resources to empower parents to teach their little ones at home and/or with the thoughtful use of privately funded preschool programs. I also wanted the website to be a place where activists could mobilize opposition to public preschools.

JSC: What's been your reaction to the latest First Five barrage of ads on TV and radio in California?

DFK: Outrage. I can't believe that tax money is used to disseminate such propaganda. I didn't know that public funds could be used to convince the population that little kids should be institutionalized without providing equal opportunity for rebuttal. Reiner's First Five Ads were cleverly timed to sway public sentiment and opinion to assure a "yes" vote on the Preschool-For-All Act. The 23 million tax dollars spent on this advertising campaign were funds that could have been used to help educate parents in ways that would make meaningful differences in the lives of children. What a waste of taxpayer's money. It's unconscionable.

JSC: What about conscientious, financially struggling parents who can't afford privately funded preschool options but who want some support?

DFK: State and federally funded programs (such as Kidango and Head Start) already exist for low-income families. They are under funded and have waiting lists. The PACE research study released in 2005 by U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University show that while at-risk, low income children receive slight benefits from preschool, children from middle class and high-income families develop negative social behavior, aggression, stress, lack of cooperation, poorer work habits, and were more difficult to discipline as a result of preschool attendance. Rather than subsidize preschool-for-all, we should adequately fund and expand existing programs to help the at-risk children for whom it will do some good.

There's a second part to this question. There are families who are struggling financially who don't qualify for government programs based on income. They find it difficult to afford private preschool. There is an assumption here that children NEED preschool. Want and need are two different things. Again, research shows that “disadvantaged” kids receive some benefit from preschool. Not all low-income children are disadvantaged. Many children have functional, attentive parents who provide what children need to prepare them for school readiness without ever setting foot in a preschool. However, for some parents preschool is synonymous with daycare. They WANT welfare for daycare in the form of public preschools. That is an entitlement mentality, and it cultivates dependency on the government nanny from womb to tomb. Rather than developing preschool welfare programs for everyone, we should take a look at raising the financial intelligence of the population. Invest in education programs that teach people how to manage their money, avoid consumerism, and make their money work for them so that they can afford privatized preschools if they want them. Even as I say this, I understand that it doesn't relieve the financial stress for some families in the here-and-now. Perhaps we should consider the feasibility of low-interest preschool loans.

JSC: Now we have Rob Reiner's abrupt withdrawals--“leave of absence” and now outright resignation!--from the First Five Commission. It appears that there's an audit imminent. Any predictions?

DFK: I won't bite my lip in anticipation of a scandal. I can tell you, however, that last Fall, at a Preschool Advocacy Day in Sacramento that was sponsored by the non-profit Packard Foundation, I witnessed a presumptuous and cocky Reiner urge the audience to turn out the yes vote on Preschool-For-All in June 2006. Reiner acknowledged that he wasn't supposed to say that (due to IRS regulations restricting non-profits from political and lobbying activities) but told the audience he didn't care and invited the Feds to come and get him.

If the auditor's saber-rattling serves no other purpose than to wipe that arrogant smirk off Reiner's face, stop the First Five ads, and cast doubt about Prop 82 in the minds of voters that's a good thing, in my opinion. Whether or not an audit proves conclusively that First Five mishandled public funds to influence votes, the damage has been done. I hope voters won't entrust vulnerable 4-year-olds to legislation that has been sold like snake-oil to them by people seemingly without ethics or political principles.

JSC: What's your definition of a good education?

DFK: I think it's different for every human being. I know that it's not about producing a product, hard as that may be to believe in a society that is product oriented. A good education is not linear. A good education is chaotic and messy. It's trial and error. It's the scientific method at work. A good education is human life expressing itself unencumbered by false agendas. The journey is what a good education is all about -- magnificent quantities of time to wonder, engage, and reflect in order to figure out who you are, what you're good at, what you want to contribute, and how to be happy. A good education provides the student with a sense of utter fulfillment and infinite joy in becoming the author and editor of his or her own life.

JSC: How does a child learn to be a good person as well as a good student?

DFK: Every person has their own view on this. I can only speak for my own family. My husband and I raised our children with an assumption of goodness. We reinforced it with three rules as guidelines. Two are from English common law and the third is the Golden Rule. They are:

1) Don't encroach on other people or their property.
2) Keep your agreements
3) Treat other people the way you would like them to treat you.

We posted these rules -- our family's Civil Code of Conduct -- in plain site in our house. Whenever the children had friends over -- we showed them the rules, so they knew what behavior was expected and accepted. Whenever there was a situation where we needed guidance, we referred to it. It worked for us.

JSC: How do you think policymakers view a "good student" and "good person" in the current climate -- and what do you see as tangible effects for kids, both at home and at school?

DFK: I think policymakers view a good student and a good person in exactly the same way -- as human capital. They think of them as human resources and consumers who need to be managed and controlled so that they are predictable, and can be quantified and calculated for profit down to the last penny. The way the masses are indoctrinated and controlled is through government schools. Kids who are in the public school system don't have a prayer of escaping without some kind of intellectual, social, emotional, psychological or physical damage. That damage extends to the society at large.

JSC: What interests you specifically in John Taylor Gatto's writing about American compulsory school?

Gatto taught in public and private schools for 30 years and upon receiving the New York State Teacher of the Year Award in 1990 he used the opportunity to quit -- accusing the government school system of being psychopathic. From that time, he's been a champion for change and has worked to reveal the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling. He spent 10 years researching public schooling that culminated in the release of his book, The Underground History of American Education, that details the social engineering behind public schools deliberately designed to not only dumb down the population but rob us of our autonomy and liberty.

JSC: Lots of people are excited about the Reiner Initiative's sound bytes, which
promise half-day preschool programs, five days a week, for all 4-year-olds. On the surface, it seems like such an easy sell. "Tutoring" plus daycare support. Why is UP opposed?

DFK: UniversalPreschool lists many reasons why we are opposed to Reiner's
Preschool-For-All Act or Proposition 82. Here are five of the most important:

1) Preschool-For-All will jeopardize funding for California K-12 public schools that already have academic scores among the worst in the country.

2) A state-run preschool monopoly will put private preschools out of business. Replacing thriving businesses that are mainly owned and operated by women and minorities will eliminate jobs and tax revenue and reduce educational and childcare options for all families -- especially for the poor and middle class.

3) California spends $3 billion each year to provide preschool for families in need -- and this initiative extends that subsidy to the middle class and rich who don't need it.

4) Preschool-For-All has unproven benefits and may actually harm children. Proponents make inflated claims about preschool based on a handful of studies that were conducted on severely disadvantaged poor children. Those findings don't apply to children from normal homes. In fact, the PACE study by U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University shows that children from middle class and high-income families suffer negative consequences from preschool attendance.

5) Preschool-For-All is not in the best interests of ALL children. Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for preschool programs that can hurt the state's economy, destroy small businesses, and harm little kids.

JSC: There's a rising tide of teachers in the public system concerned about
test mania and standardization in schools, which has frankly stood
unchallenged by the unions which supposedly represent them. What kind of
connections might you envision between dismayed parents and teachers to
create alternatives to the status quo?

DFK: Funding for schools is tied to accountability through standardized testing. Until and unless we don't require that kind of accountability nothing will change. Most people think that standardized testing is a legitimate measure of what a student knows, and that's a myth that needs to be exposed too.

In my opinion, the only way that teachers and parents can change the status quo within the public school system is through outright rebellion. Refuse to administer tests. Refuse to teach to the test. Refuse to allow children to take tests. In California, Education Code 60615 allows parents to waive testing of their child just by requesting it in a letter to the principal of the school. More parents should do that.

JSC: Certainly, but why aren't more Californians mobilized in this direction? In Colorado this past month, citizens addressed lawmakers on the floor of the state legislature, challenging the notion of testing for merit. Our own California "opt out" advocates are rather quiet these days.

DFK: Perhaps it's cynicism or apathy. But it could also be that misguided Californians (largely uninformed about the monolithic school system) don't want to negatively impact school funding. Most believe that money is the answer to the problem. Of course, if money were the answer, we would have solved the problem a long time ago.

The public school system is not just sick, it's terminal. We keep it on life support by pumping more money into it. We need to pull the plug and let it die. Of course, that would result in an economic disaster when you consider all of the corporations and special interests who benefit financially from public schooling. That government-school-industrial complex will not sit idly by and allow change without a fight. The truth is that most parents only care about school while their kids are enrolled in it. Their opposition to business-as-usual is transient. The system is set up so that change is completely and utterly avoidable.

JSC: What do proponents of younger and younger preschool attendance NOT
understand about the parental choice to delay enrollment in school?

DFK: I think they understand very well the meaning of parental choice to delay or refuse preschool enrollment. Parents currently have authority over the lives of their young children. That's a threat to social engineering. I think that's exactly why we are seeing this push-to-preschool on a national level. Once voluntary public preschool programs are seeded, and people become accustomed to them, we will see legislation introduced to make preschool mandatory. (It has already happened with Kindergarten in many states, and Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano is leading a task force to provide public preschools and to make Kindergarten mandatory nationwide.) The younger the student is, the easier it is to program them with state doctrine. Historically, political dictatorships have done it with great success.

JSC: How would you describe your own educational journey?

DFK: I had a private, parochial school education from grades 1-12. I received an AA degree at community college. I attended a registered nursing program and a couple of state colleges but began resisting schooling in earnest -- I just couldn't take responding to an authority outside of myself any longer. So, I dropped out of college and spent many years in different jobs trying to figure out what I wanted to be and do. Working provided the best educational experience. I started my own business and that was the ultimate eye-opener -- that I could direct my own life, work, and education and enjoy it every step of the way.

JSC: Describe your philosophy of home-preschooling.

DFK: I hate the term "home-preschooling." It implies that preschool is a de facto necessity. It suggests that if you don't send your children to public or private preschool then you must create preschool at home. Nothing could be further from the truth. Encouraging learning is what's important. Children are naturally curious and with the loving guidance of functional, caring parents they develop all of the skills and attributes necessary to prepare them to tackle schooling or other learning scenarios when they are developmentally ready. Parents who spend copious amounts of time with their kids and who talk, read, sing, hug and kiss their kids, and who play with them and take the time to show them how to do things and how things work, and answer their questions with facts, clarity, and honesty, and who expose their kids to the bounty of life, not only instill learning readiness skills, but provide self-confidence and emotional stability as well. While institutions like preschools may provide some activities that get the synapses firing, they are woefully lacking in the variety of stimuli, attention, love, support, and encouragement received by a child raised in a loving home.

JSC: You probably saw footage of Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey on Entertainment TV on February 16 making a surprise school appearance down in San Diego. Gates' Foundation has already donated $11 million into a "smaller schools" program there, and Winfrey has herself made million-dollar contributions to schools. What's your reaction to the rush of corporate money, and "celebrity experts," to "help" the public system?

DFK: I didn't see footage, but I heard about it.

Gates heads a corporation that needs to train human resources and consumers. There is no better way to do that than through public schools. Donating $11 million is a small gesture to instill faith in public schooling that will result in billions of dollars in profit gained from training future work forces and consumers. That's all it is. It won't change the inequitable consequences of funding being tied to testing results. Testing results are tied to the socio-economic class of the student. The amount of money a kid's parents make is the best indicator of how well they will do on a test. Visit a public school classroom in Beverly Hills and then visit one in south central L.A. The disparity in educational opportunity will astound you. There is no such thing as the utopian ideal of equal opportunity in public education. All of Bill Gates' money won't change that if the system itself remains the same. I think he's counting on it.

As for Oprah, she thinks pouring more money into schools is the answer. Again, the government school system is the problem. I've said it's broken. Actually, it's not broken at all. It operates exactly as it was designed to do -- to dumb down the population so that it can be controlled and manipulated for profit. Public schools help to maintain the socio-economic status quo. It assures massive gaps in education among the poor and working classes and the elite. Giving government schools more money will only feed the machine, to the detriment of the very people Oprah hopes to help.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

SAT Errors: An Invisible Partner? or, Testing in Fantasia

You may have seen TV or newspaper coverage this past week regarding errors on October's SAT test for 4,000 high school students. Reportedly, the discrepancies ranged from 10 to 200 points on the now 2,400-point exam. Both FOX and Los Angeles Times reports included contact with representatives of the nonprofit College Board founded in 1900, whose best known "educational quality" programs include the SAT, PSAT/NMSQT and AP exams.

FairTest reiterated its call for government regulation of the testing industry. (Remember: there are currently no legal restrictions on high stakes tests, no accountability for the accountability-makers, represented by the Association of Test Publishers, or ATP.)

An interesting sidenote: No report has pointed out that the College Board doesn't score its own exams. The nonprofit Educational Testing Service (ETS)--last Fall granted a lucrative monopoly on scoring and administering the High School Exit Exam program for the state of California--is the exclusive scoring entity for the SAT and other College Board tests.

Somehow, ETS has been well insulated from the latest national gaffe.

But it's a small world after all. Yesterday, a story appeared about an error in scoring the California High School Exit exam for 400 Long Beach sophomores, who will need to retake the exam because answer sheets were misplaced en route to the scoring site. ETS spokesperson Tom Ewing insisted that it was "fairly rare" for answer sheets to be lost. But look at the layers of the story: California-contracted ETS had subcontracted Pearson Educational Measurement to subcontract arrangements for transportation of the score sheets. The courier DHL seems a too-convenient scapegoat, and even Long Beach School District officials seem way too pacified that ETS has admitted the error (um, what else could ETS do? as yet, there's no magic wand for missing tests). Kudos to the Long Beach Press-Telegram for covering the story.

So Friends, who's keeping score on the scorekeepers? (I've heard a rumor that one teacher plans a visit to ETS's annual "teacher leadership" conference at the end of June. Where? Why Walt Disney World, of course!)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

One Tough Stand for Better Schools: Interview with Don Perl

Think that "opting out" of standardized assessment is too controversial? too tall an order for any reasonable person? Think again.

In this interview with Jo Scott-Coe, Don Perl talks about how a coalition of concerned Colorado citizens are standing up and speaking out for better education--gasp!--without testing.

Jo Scott-Coe: How did you come to be concerned about the impact of standardized testing on schools?

Don Perl: 2001 was my last year in the public schools. I taught in an inner city junior high school - which during my last year became a middle school. About half of my students spoke Spanish at home, and although they were fluent in English, since it wasn't their home language, they were at a disadvantage. I was also one of only a few bilingual teachers at our school and was often called to translate conversations between administrators and parents. I saw parents struggling to understand a foreign system. And the more I read about high-stakes standardized testing, the more I saw the injustices at work, and the more I saw a system truly designed to marginalize our society even more. I remembered the phrase "in loco parentis" that I had heard often when I was an aspiring teacher. We don't want any harm to come to our children. This testing mania was harmful to them. Thus, I could not in good conscience administer the test. And so I committed an act of civil disobedience by boycotting the administration of the test. That was February, 2001.

JSC: What consequences did you face professionally?

DP: I was suspended for two weeks without pay - the two weeks that the test was administered then. When I returned to school, the atmosphere was so charged, I thought seriously for the first time that maybe this should be my last year. In early April I composed a letter of resignation of one sentence. It said, "So displeased am I with the direction public education is going that I have decided to make this my last year in District 6." I put a copy in the principal's mailbox and sent one to the superintendent. I saw the principal later that day in the hall, and she gave me a look of something like, "Thank God." We never spoke of it.

JSC: When and how did the Coalition for Better Education (CBE) get started?

DP: CBE really got started in February of 2004. At that time I was working on the language of a proposed ballot initiative. I also was working with some latino students from our Cesar Chavez center, a center for hispanic college students. I would meet with the students from time to time - and we staged two protests of the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) - we gathered on the sidewalk with signs and literature. One of the students, an aspiring teacher, started a website, and when our ballot initative was approved, our coalition was born. Right now we have 450 members on our list serve. I probably hear from 30 or 35 from time to time. We are all parents, grandparents, teachers, and just concerned citizens.

JSC: Describe your latest campaign to raise awareness about "opting out" of the state's standardized testing program. What problems and frustrations have you encountered? What successes?

DP: The latest campaign to raise awareness about "opting out" of CSAP concerns the purchase of signs on bus benches in the Denver metropolitan and Greeley areas. We raised about $1,950 this year to pay for advertisements. With that money we bought 20 signs for bus benches in Denver and 5 in Greeley (60 miles to the north.)

There was quite a bruhaha here in Greeley over the signs because someone ordered the signs be taken down. When we contacted the media and they published the story, someone within the city bureaucracy admitted to having made a mistake, and so our signs will go back up in Greeley. NextMedia, the company we contracted with, promises that those infamous signs should be up in a week or so. They read: “Parents: we can do something about this injustice." Then there is our logo, and then our website -

JSC: What do you see as the currently most pressing problem in K-12 education?

DP: To me the most pressing problem in our public schools has its roots in a lack of faith in the profession. This lack of faith has lead to the furor and insanity of high-stakes standardized testing. Instead of our society addressing the issues of poverty, we turn a blind eye and insist that our teachers get better and that society watch them through the hopelessly inadequate tool of test scores. 22% of our children, in this incredibly wealthy nation, are living in poverty.

JSC: Do you also see consequences, though, even for students who are more economically privileged? These are the kids most likely to be hardwired into the system, most likely to help perpetuate testing as “key” to meaningful measurement--whether they work in schools or in business. How are tests redefining "learning" and "school"?

DP: I see tectonic plates separating, separating more and more. So the privileged, hardwired into the system, as you aptly said, are increasingly marginalized from those who are struggling financially. With this kind of marginalization come frightening spectres such as more misunderstandings, more prejudice, a world increasingly more out of tune. High-stakes testing, by definition, ignores some truly important concepts such as co-operation, curiosity, and sense of community. Our world is such a mess. Not only do we have to think about preparing our children for its insanities, but we also have to work to improve the world for them.

JSC: Connecticut has recently pursued legal action over the No Child Left Behind Act. What legislative or legal measures are brewing in Colorado?

DP: Here in Colorado two legislators are looking to forward a bill which will de-claw CSAP, that is require school districts to inform parents of their exemption rights, and require that no negative consequences flow from such an option. We are hoping that this bill gets a lot of attention. However, the reality is that the governor (Bill Owens) has already announced that he would veto it even if it gets as far as his desk.

JSC: At last year’s National Governers’ Association Summit on national high schools, your governor talked about resolving the “Colorado paradox”--defined as more college degrees per capita than any other state, but a lagging population of students going on to college. What do you make of the “paradox” and his proposed solutions?

DP: His proposed solutions fail to address the socio-economic problems we all face. The true problems are in the dark and around the corner, and they deal with poverty, a minimum wage that hasn't been raised in years, neighborhoods whose water contains dangerous levels of lead, poor nutrition and all the attendant social problems. And I have to say that a university education is not for everyone. We need skilled people who ply a trade and perfect a craft. Politicians put the university education on some sort of pedestal without thinking of the need people have to develop their own individual gifts for the commonweal.

JSC: For a layperson, the idea of "merit pay" in schools may seem like good sense. What are the benefits and drawbacks? What is CBE's position on current "merit pay" proposals pending in Denver?

DP: Merit pay is founded on the notion that teachers seek out mediocrity. We can not force any artificial program of what is titled "merit pay" on our profession. Let us say that you feel called to teach in an inner city school. Your children come to the classroom with a set of experiences and issues planets away from the students who attend more affluent schools. What are the eating habits of our children? How much lead is there in the water? How do they live? Is there violence at home? All this and more impacts education. Would we fault a dentist who plied his trade in a low income neighborhood because his patients had more cavities than the patients of his colleague whose office served an affluent population? Should we fault teachers because their road of life took them to needier neighborhoods?

JSC: How possible or difficult is it to facilitate efforts with activists in other states?

DP: We are just beginning to converse with activists in other states. Thanks to this technology, the roadways are opened, and we are hoping that a national movement does grow.

JSC: What inspires you to keep going? What's most discouraging?

DP: I am inspired by parents and teachers who contact us, who thank us for being a resource for them. I am also inspired by other members of our coalition who share the incredible stories of both courage and abuse which are occurring regularly in education today. What is most discouraging is how so often supposedly thoughtful people, political leaders, so distanced from the real world of our children, become so enamored by the golden calf of unidimensional measurement.

JSC: What changes do your foresee in the next 10-20 years for American classrooms?

DP: I have great hopes that the monster will implode. But we have to make this happen. So often people will tell me, this too will pass. Yes, but only if we make it pass. If we wait for the world to turn, incredible societal damage will have been meted out.

JSC: You work from a university "base" to organize parents, K-12 teachers, academics and others. What has been most challenging about connecting these groups?

DP: The university base has great advantages. This is the community service I offer as part of my professional contribution to this little world here. I frequently make presentations to aspiring teachers and am amazed how little they know about the realities of the classroom in the swath of high stakes standardized testing. However, I am also often treated as a persona non grata from time to time since so many fear change and look to me as the person responsible for those fears.

JSC: Interesting. I sometimes receive blank or quizzical stares from experts who claim to be “deeply concerned” about reading and writing instruction. It can be depressing that practical experience isn’t always welcomed into the academy, especially from anyone straddling the line between K-12 and “higher” education. Hybrids, and any concerns we bring to the table, are sometimes kind of shunned. What's that all about?

DP: Academics often times think in a hierarchical mode. Once one gives in to that kind of addiction, one loses her focus on what truly benefits our children and their teachers. One's thinking narrows, and fear of change dominates.

** Read about the ongoing controversy over CBE's bus-bench campaign from ground zero in Colorado's Greeley Tribune.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Power Corrupts

As an American, I am saddened by the culture of corruption in Washington, and it's disgusting that any politician is capable of abusing his office. I'm sure no one gets elected so he can be corrupt; it's just something that happens over time, but it still happens.

Campaign finance reform can help to stop some of this, but there is still too much money in campaigns. There are too many lobbyists who are willing to spend too much money on officials in order to influence their votes. Pork barrel projects are the name of the game since politicians want to get elected by the voters back home, and to get elected, it takes money.

Of course, when was the last time you gave any money to a politician? That's the problem. Most voters are so turned off with politicians that they don't want to donate to them, so politicians have to depend on the lobbyists and special interests to finance their campaigns. Wealthy candidates who are willing to fund their own campaigns are less dependent on these groups, but they are not immune either.

So what is the answer? Perhaps the public media can provide free time for the candidates. Otherwise, they need to raise millions of dollars to pay for TV ads. Limiting the amount of money a candidate can raise, and by whom, can help, but there are too many loopholes in the system.

Several groups and organizations have PAC ( Political Action Committee ) money which they can use to support their candidates. This makes it too easy to abuse the system, and corruption is soon follows.

We will be having a primary in June for several statewide and local offices, and it's amazing the millions of dollars spent for an office that pays something over $100,000 a year. For the governor's race alone, each candidate will spend close to $40 million.

Enough is enough. The voters need to be more involved in the political process and make it clear to our elected officials and candidates that we want them to represent all of the people, and not only those who contribute to their campaigns.

The reason for term limits was to ensure that no politician stays in office too long, but, inevitably, the best tool for term limits is the ballot box on election day. If a candidate is not being fair with the people who he or she represents, then that candidate needs to be removed from office.

Maybe it's time for a change in Sacramento in November. It's obvious to me and most Californians that Arnold the Terminator has let us down over and over again.

He attacked, for no reason, the very people who put him in office--the nurses, teachers, policemen, and firemen--then he wastes our tax dollars on a stupid election. Now he wants us to believe that he cares about the people of California by proposing a budget that is irresponsible.

It's a budget that will only lead to a larger deficit. I though the Republican Party was the party of fiscal responsibility. What happened under Arnold's reign? Is it possible that he, too, has become corrupt? Here is a man who said that he was so rich that he would not have to take any money from the special interests, and then he turned around to take more money than even Gray Davis took after serving for five years!

It's time for the people to demand that our elected officials and candidates promise to do what is right, or they should plan to be out of a job at election time.

Monday, February 06, 2006

No Tooth Left Behind

Merit/demerits for teachers who "raise" or "fail to raise" student test scores invite a now familiar analogy: do we blame dentists for patient cavities? blame doctors for treating people with the most difficult cases? (If you talk with medical professionals now plagued by high malpractice insurance, the answer appears more often, unfortunately, to be "yes.")

Interestingly, this morning's Sacramento Bee (free registration required) includes an article about the increased incidence of cavities and dental pain among California's children. According to the article, out of 25 states studied, California ranks 24th--"second only to Arkansas" in rates of childhood tooth decay. Sound familiar?

Unlike examination of similar stats related to test performance and literacy levels, the discussion of dental health and hygiene (the "cavity crisis") focuses on larger socio-economic factors and solutions.

A bigger picture. Imagine that.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Opting Out--Colorado Style

Denver's education system has made the news recently, mostly because of a pending ballot measure (to be voted on in November 2006) which would create a model of merit pay for teachers. While proposed "carrots" currently include compensation for such things as earning a Master's Degree, spending money on your own education, teaching in a hard-to-serve school and earning a satisfactory evaluation (among other accomplishments), most controversial is the connection between teacher pay and student test performance.

Meanwhile, something else is going on in Colorado, state-wide. Led by Don Perl, University of Colorado professor and founder of the Coalition for Better Education, a group of parents and educators are uniting for a common purpose: To opt-out of the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) altogether. According to one report published in The Denver Post last March, more than three thousand students "just said no" to the test in 2005.

In a new awareness campaign, launched on January 16 in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, the group unveiled bus bench ads displaying the web address for official opt-out forms in Colorado.

In California, the opt-out discussion hasn't quite garnered the same national attention. Even though there aren't any "opt-outs" allowed for the High School Exit Exam (HSEE), parents may still complete forms to opt their children and young adults out of the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program.

Teachers may not "encourage" or "rally" parents to exercise this right but are legally permitted to make information available. For information on what's possible in the Golden State, visit the California Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CalCARE) website.

Monday, January 16, 2006

His Terminating Days Are Gone

What a difference a year makes! Last January he was unbeatable. He could walk on water. He was an intimidating figure. Yes, the terminator governor had it all--except common sense and good advisers. Now, we hear Arnold in his State of the State speech admitting that he had been foolish. He now understands, he says. The voters have spoken.

He's learned his lesson, he says, and now understands that the people of California want "to cut the warfare, cool the rhetoric, find common ground, and fix the problems together.

Now he wants to do what is right for the people of California, which means he has to work with the state legislature. You remember them; they were the "girlie men" of last year--now they've become his newest best friends. And what about those bad special interest folks? You know, the teachers, nurses, policemen and firemen? Well, they're okay now, too.

Are we to believe that he has had an extreme makeover since the special elections of last month? Are we to forgive him for wasting the goodwill that we had once showered upon him when he won the recall? We'll see how seriously he believes his own words.

He now wants to do all things for all of us. In fact, he proposed in his address to find the funding to provide all kinds of projects to improve the education of our children, the safety of our streets, improve the health care of our elderly, and insure that California remains the fifth-largest economy in the world.

"I say, build it!" the governor shouted several times, but what does he want to build? Is it truly our infrastructure, or is it his stature in the state? All of that without raising any taxes! If I didn't know better, I would have thought that it was he who parted the Red Sea and not Moses, and it was he who fed the people with only a fish and a loaf of bread.

He now wants to be the Collectinator instead of the Terminator governor. He thinks the federal government will come to our aid and help to fund the projects he mentioned. Well, where have the feds been since Arnold took over the reigns of power in California? Why does he think the government will come forward to help us now?

It's obvious that cutting taxes for the wealthy and funding a war based on lies have depleted the government's treasury. And California being a blue state in the last few elections won't make Bush any more sympathetic to our needs.

The problem, of course, is Arnold no longer has any credibility with the people. His true colors were out there for all to see leading up to the special election. Is he saying these things now because he realizes that he needs to be the people's governor instead of the governor of corporations and big business, or is he only thinking about his re-election in November?

Does he care about rebuilding California, or only rebuilding his own image? Is he thinking about the people, or his legacy as governor?

Only time will tell. If he's sincere, then in January, 2007, Californians will be cheering him as a true advocate for the people. If he's not, then we will be sending him back home to Hollywood. There, he can always get a role in a low-budget film portraying a governor. Once an actor, always an actor, even if he was never really a very good one.