Category Archives: public education

Why Betsy DeVos is the Perfect Metaphor for Trumpamerika

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Of course Betsy DeVos was selected and approved to be the Secretary of Education.  She donated millions of dollars to the republicans that voted for her. That is really all that matters.  Politics aside, she was the perfect pick.

She failed to turn in her paperwork.  Failed to do her homework.  Failed the interview.  And even failed to get through the door at the first public school she actually tried to enter. And while it would have been interesting to hear her explain her views on assessments and accountability and the relative value of measuring academic growth over time… it really doesn’t matter. In trumpamerika, up is down and DeVos is the ideal charlatan to jump in and privatize our public schools. Of course, she will destroy the Department of Education, but that’s the objective.

422_devos_a_630She is a product of the right-wing, evangelical Christofascists that have been percolating up through homeschool networks, school boards and community groups for decades.  She may be nuttier than hell, she may be a zealot,  but when she figures out which end of the very loud  megaphone she’s just purchased, she could be a force. And not for good. If her history is any indication, she will be the messiah of Generation Joshua and a rock star for privately-run, for-profit charters, homeschool schemes, voucher initiatives and any other vehicle to stimulate the exodus of white kids and public tax dollars out of public schools.

She will be the billionaire’s model cabinet choice. Amongst an entire team of otherwise kiss-ass, rich white men– she is simultaneously the darling of the alt right– and public enemy number 2 of the NEA.

unknownShe is inexperienced and ignorant of the office she has purchased– so she’ll fit in well with the rest of her cabinet colleagues and her boss. As the heiress to Amway, she is a symbol of unfettered greed.  She is a beneficiary of one of our nation’s most successful ponzi schemes and brings (thankfully) few transferable skills to benefit her new constituents.

Fortunately, the Constitution (like the president and his Amway heiress) is silent on education.  So most of the responsibility for our public schools falls to individual states anyway. The power for oversight, accountability, standards (including the Common Core), teacher quality, school spending are vested in them alone.   Most of the day-to-day authority to manage curriculum, instruction, student safety, professional development, school culture, organizational direction, and innovation…all fall to local schools and school districts and the real educators that actually run them.

My two schools– Mueller Charter School and Bayfront Charter High School–  are both fiscally independent organizations with our own governing body.  We sometimes ask for forgiveness but rarely ask for permission– for anything, local or otherwise. We didn’t need DeVos’s predecessors to create “El Milagro”– and we don’t need her either.

Betsy DeVos has never run any organization– let alone one with the scope and gravity of the Department of Education.  But she wasn’t selected for her business acumen or for what she actually has to offer to our schools– she’s a metaphor and she won’t have the mandate, the reach or the time to destroy our public schools.

So who will DeVos be in the short time she has before the wheels come off the trump debacle and his house of cards?

She could be a champion for children but she won’t be. In her first opportunity to stand for kids that need us the most, she already failed.

She could be an advocate for educational equity— assuring that children do not suffer in ineffective schools as a result of their zip code or their family income.  But instead of being a conduit for best practices– she will circle safely above, dropping vouchers from a helicopter.   The challenges of overcoming the effects of poverty on learning are immense.  They are well documented on this blog site.  The skills and expertise and innovation and vision and commitment required to lift achievement in low income neighborhoods do not suddenly appear simply because parents are promised a golden ticket to a private school.

She could be a trustworthy steward of federal tax dollars and ensure that they are protected for the populations for which they were intended.  Many public schools– mine included– have made huge strides in supporting children from low income communities.  But we have depended on federal funding– promised primarily through IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. While less than 9% of our school funding comes from the federal government, it is critical in our service to populations with complex needs. But DeVos hinted as far back as 2001 that her world view of public education was steeped in faith-based philanthropy and the new world order: “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”

Never mind how we might measure that advancement.

She could leverage the power of her office to seed innovation in schools across the country- but her experience in Michigan is with for-profit charters –not to be confused with organic, community-based, student-centered charter schools that grow from the collaborative efforts of parents and teachers.  President Obama was eviscerated for having the temerity to earmark $4 billion to stimulate innovation through his Race for the Top initiative. Trump bloviates about committing $20 billion for a school voucher scheme. There is nothing innovative about schemes to accelerate white flight.

She could serve as a model of competence and an absolute commitment to the power educators have in every community.  But nothing during the senate hearings suggested she knew the first thing about what it really means to teach or to run a school. In fact her responses were void of any substance at all-  as if she had been coached to nod and smile and commit to nothing.  And so she did. And for her efforts she was approved by the republican majority who evidently thought that having the ponzi lady at the helm of the Department of Education would be ok.

She could strengthen and promote the Office of Civil Rights, which enforces federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in programs that receive federal financial assistance from her Department of Education.  She could stand up for our most vulnerable children who are bullied, tormented and victimized enough that the OCR is their last line (or only line) of defense.  She could uphold the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and stand against discrimination on the basis of race or religion. Or she could stand for children protected by Title IX— especially youth from the LGBT community.  Or she could stand for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990if only she knew that that law too comes under her direction.

imagesShe could fight to preserve the office of Civil Rights in the face of so much conservative pressure to scrap the department altogether.  But she withered in her first test when trump’s new attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, raised the stars and bars over the US Capital building and struck down Obama’s protections for trans children in public schools.

DeVos should have learned from the courage of Sally Yates that advocating for children is not a hobby.  When you join the fight to protect them, you fucking fight with everything you have. You protect them with you words, your actions, your job…your very life. Or you stay out of the way. And that is Lesson #1 in school leadership.

Or maybe this newly appointed Secretary of Education could just stand there and do nothing but provide some buffer against a  president who is bat-shit crazy.  But of course, we’re not likely to see that either.

In speaking to a friendly CPAC audience this past week, DeVos said: “it’s our job to protect students and to do that to the fullest extent that we can and also to provide students, parents and teachers with more flexibility about how education is delivered and how education is experienced and to protect and preserve personal freedoms.”

Fortunately, our children aren’t actually depending on her for protection at all.  And we don’t need permission to exercise our flexibility or autonomy.

Today we can thank the Founding Fathers for leaving public education to the states.  Betsy Devos is an empty suit.  An empty chair.  A checkbook.  A diversity pick.  A lost opportunity to actually lead.  A metaphor for the dangerous path our nation is on. The perfect choice for trumpamerika.

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Power and Privilege and the Boiling Frog

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America, the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”–A Nation at Risk, 1983

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All schools have a choice. My schools have a choice. Bayfront Charter High School and Mueller are at a familiar crossroads, and the world is not waiting. On January 20, Trump will begin to govern as he promised and we can prepare our students to compete in that game or we can soldier on—business as usual.

And as usual, we ain’t taking that chance.

Inside my building are Latinos, immigrants, girls, African Americans, LGBT kids, Moslems, Jews and children of democrats. At least that describes 99% of them. And of those, 85% qualify for the free federal lunch program on the basis of their parents’ income. They are–if we falter– the next generation’s working poor. And they are all in our new government’s crosshairs to either deport or demoralize.

America’s educational system has experienced multiple defining moments during which sweeping social or political events have led to ideological and transformational change in the direction of our schools.

Think US History 101:

In the earliest days of our country’s founding, there was a clear religious motive behind teaching kids to read. As waves of Christians colonized the new world, they brought their Bibles and handed down their favorite verses to children who were expected to spread the good news. After the Revolutionary War and the subsequent ratification of the US Constitution, our Founders banked on an “informed citizenry” to nurture and grow the new experiment in democratic governance .

Fast forward 100 years and the industrial revolution churned kids out of farms and prairie schools and into factories that prepared kids for the factories.

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Then in 1958, the Russians launched a rocket into space, and the subsequent race to the heavens was on. Sputnik scared the crap out of America’s post-WWII “Greatest Generation” who realized in the span of one evening newscast—that their kids had somehow been passed up in math and science. So the education pendulum swung to math and science with a vengeance—and schoolkids paid.

Then there was the Civil Rights era. The malaise of the 70’s. Forced desegregation and bussing and waves of white flight to suburbs and private schools. And education was the medium for maintaining the sociocultural and economic advantage that was a perceived birthright of white families.
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The ominous warning of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 unleashed the pendulum again. Reagan’s ‘rising tide of mediocrity’.

Then the Apple IIe drove a whole generation of post-Viet Nam War era teachers to ask “what am I supposed to do with an Apple IIe?” And they used them as door stops on the theory that this too shall pass.

By the early 2000’s Bush had appropriated no child left behind from the Children Defense Fund and we were awash in still another pet project of Republicanism: “back to basics” and the core belief that what we really need to do in schools is just test the hell out of kids and fire the teachers and the schools that can’t produce evidence of extraordinary achievement.

Public education. America’s whipping boy. Always something.

So now what?

George Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” has given way to trump’s straight up, bold-face racism. And our students have heard every word.

ap_77642174753What is the purpose of schooling in a trumpian culture where bluster and lies and bullying and misogyny are rewarded with keys to the White House; when shadowy election schemes and gerrymandering and voter suppression and an archaic electoral “college” are intentionally designed to undermine democracy; when in 2016 it is harder for citizens to cast their ballot then it was in the era of poll taxes and literacy requirements; when it is impossible for citizens to believe that their vote is even really counted; when half our nation considers it anarchy to remind ourselves that black lives matter?

unknownRemember the parable of the boiling frog:

If you place a frog in a pan of hot water– he’ll jump right out. But if you place that same  frog in a pan of cold water, then bring it gradually to a boil—he will be oblivious to the changing temperature. Pretty soon it’s too freaken hot to jump!

Our schools move too often like the boiling frog. They wait until it is too late to jump, and for our children, even generations at a time, the results are fatal.

One thing this past election has taught us is that our students need the skills to navigate a massive sea of propaganda and misinformation that seems to routinely persuade the adults to vote against their own best interests. They need a discerning eye that separates entertainment from “the truth”; that rejects Facebook’s brand of political discourse and revives the tradition of deep critical thinking and informed debate.

They need to compete in a workforce that demands higher levels of thinking, innovation, and entrepreneurialism.

They will need to find their generation’s “true North”. And then their voice. And then a spirit of activism which is in their DNA: empathy, vigilance, authentic patriotism, and advocacy for others.

Our kids will need the armor of resiliency– in the face of an apparent national sentiment that their success, their future…their very lives may not matter at all.

So in our school at least, at Bayfront Charter high School, EVERY student will be…

  • Ready for college whether they go there or not; and they will be
  • Equipped with the real 21st Century skills: including the ability to think, create, communicate and play nice with others; and they will be
  • Masters of technologies that are befitting of digital natives; and
  • Keen and curious observers of their community– with a depth of civic literacy and   global awareness; and finally, they will be
  • Beneficiaries of learning that is confined by neither time nor space.

In defiance of who this president promises to be, we will be proactive. The water’s on the boil… but our children rise.

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EL MILAGRO GROWS

images-1Sometimes we have an idea… and we search for a pathway to bring  that idea to fruition. And sometimes we don’t.  And sometimes our ideas just roll off the edge of the keyboard like once-familiar coins that have long since lost their shine.

So that drive along Bay Blvd. last October was not one conducted with any great promise.  There was no urgency to find this building– dropped so neatly by the side of the road.  There was no expectation.  I was just driving– and sometimes that’s all it takes.

I wonder if the universe reached into the driver side window and grabbed the wheel and pulled me to the curb.  Or whether it was the building itself.  Or the magnetic force of ideas stacked for years and waiting to take wing.  Seabirds…pinned to the wind and pushed as if flying sideways would always be their lot.

But then in instant those ideas are all set free… because that is what we live for.

So I was in the moment and Bayfront Charter High School was born. By providence.

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United States University is a half mile away from El Milagro.  It is a newly renovated 30,000 square foot building with 18 colorful classrooms, and meeting spaces.  They are a small private university that caters to working adults.  75% of their students are on-line and the rest come at night.  They could have leased a double-wide storefront in the strip mall; built a one room virtual schoolhouse sandwiched between 7-11 and the beauty supplies.

But they didn’t. They rolled the dice on a business model built for agility and open to change. And that decision contributed to Bayfront Charter High School, too.

So there it sits.  A gorgeous building with exquisite functionality– architecture in search of its own meaning along an undeveloped bay front– and instantly, it became the face of a dream that had been incubating for years.

In 2007 we launched our middle school called  Mueller Charter Leadership Academy (MCLA) because it broke our hearts to graduate six graders and send them off to a two-year under-performing school that was public education’s answer to purgatory.  The traditional middle school is that two year wasteland that promises neither rigor nor relationships.  So we built our own bridge and by-passed it all together.

Then we started to take a closer look at the comprehensive high schools with nearly 3,000 students.  In those schools kids have to compete for every inch of support. They compete for attention, for opportunities, for services, for lunch, for access. They compete to get into the freaken rest rooms.

images-2Maria went to one of those neighborhood high schools and was told by a counselor that she needed to go to the community college because her grades weren’t good enough for a four year university.  She disagreed and today she is a sophomore at USC. Aldo was the class valedictorian last year but they decided not to let him deliver the valedictorian speech because it didn’t conform to their expectations.  He’s at Dartmouth.  Jose’s parents called multiple times to speak to a counselor and were consistently instructed to leave a voicemail message.  They never called back.  Alejandra wanted help in her math class– but the tutoring times she was given by her teacher were actually the teacher’s lunch time.  And he ate lunch in the faculty lounge.

We decided that if these high schools aren’t going to teach the students that we send them– if they are not going to inspire and lead and love and counsel and advocate and push and support and celebrate the children we have invested nine years in– we will take them all back.  And we will do it ourselves.

But this building had to fall out of the sky on that October morning in order for us to do that.  And then other stuff had to fall out too.  And so it did.  And now its March and we are on schedule to open the doors in July to our first 150 freshmen.  The Class of 2018.

El Milagro grows. Bayfront Charter High School.

Bayfront screenshot

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Learning From Lucero: Another Face of the Dream Act

249026_166056856898935_354667876_nIn thirty-some years as an educator, I have never seen a child quite like Lucero Chavez.  My first recollection of her is not just her dark eyes, wide open and ready to learn.  Not just her extraordinary drive– that silent motor that hummed somewhere from deep inside her.  Not just her willingness to push mountains of assignments and projects and papers and essays and school tasks faster than her teachers could assign them. Not just her manners, though she has those in abundance. Not just her excellence.

Instead, my first recollection of Lucero Chavez is of her indescribable grace. I clearly remember, mostly as she got older, that she was a presence, in any room or gathering.  A very quiet presence. Even mysterious.

At Mueller Charter School, we have had thousands of children blessed with many different gifts and talents– some discovered but most still incubating.  The longer they are with us on their journey from kindergarten through middle school, the more we become aware of them: kids that are funny, or athletic, or bright, or troubled, or loud, or musical, or demanding, or engaging. Leaders, followers, drivers, entertainers, statesmen.  Individually, they emerge from their self-imposed shadows on the strength of those unique qualities.  Indeed, the great joy of teaching is watching a young person begin to flower and evolve.  And we have had so many students who were blessed in so many different ways.

But none of those were the gift that set Lucero apart.

It was her grace; an almost-haunting presence that was part intellectual, part spiritual.  Inside any classroom, and in the hundreds of weekly assemblies in which Lucero participated over the years– even gatherings outdoors– I can still see her.  Always as close to the front as she could get, always sitting up straight—not for the sake of perfect posture—but so that she could more efficiently absorb every word that was spoken. No matter how crowded, no matter the climate of the room–wherever you stood or walked or paced, if you were speaking– her eyes were riveted.  Eerily attentive.  As if she were dependent on every syllable and teaching for her very breath—no matter how nonsensical, or vapid, or routine, or insignificant.  As if you and Lucero Chavez, were the only two people in the room.

Lucero Chavez has an extraordinary desire to learn from people and places and events around her.  Her thirst for learning is both palpable and insatiable.

It would be so easy to mistake her devotion to learning as simple compliance, or a young girl’s blind obedience to authority.  But from the moment Lucero Chavez first realized that she had a power within her to literally change the world—somewhere back in her first years at Mueller Charter School—she has been on her own remarkable journey.

In her junior year of high school, while the ever-shifting economy was grinding down so many families across America, it was grinding down Lucero’s family too.  Soon they lost their home and a place in the market.  All the while, in tragic and silent dignity, she endured.  Endured the ambiguity that poverty creates—the uncertainty of the train derailed.  Endured her parents’ pain and the loss of her room and her kitchen table and the hallway lined with her honor student certificates and photos dancing in the ballet folklorico.

But she embraced homelessness with the same dignity and attentiveness that she embraced all her other learning experiences.  She sat up straight, her dark eyes wide open and fixed on going forward, and she continued her journey.

UnknownBy midway through her senior year, she had been accepted to every college and university to which she applied.  Her first choice was Dartmouth.  And because her family was still reeling from homelessness, she would need financial assistance to go so far away.    So like thousands of other high school seniors, she began the process of applying for financial assistance. And in piecing together her life history in response to the many prying questions written to ascertain whether Lucero Chavez was diligent and deserving enough to pursue her dream of attending such a prestigious Ivy League college – she discovered something about herself she never knew.  Something her parents had never told her.  Something potentially more debilitating to a kid than sudden homelessness. Something that in the present light of divisive national politics and racism—would destroy a weaker person and all her dreams.

Lucero discovered she was not an American citizen.

She had been brought to the United States illegally as an infant.  Brought by parents who could look beyond the border walls and see Unknown-1the lights of America and know that that is where they wanted to raise their little girl.  And so they came.  Like your forbearers and mine.  Not for their own gain, but for Lucero.

And she has consistently rewarded her parents and family and teachers and friends– giving back to them through her remarkable academic and personal excellence.

In June of 2013, Lucero Chavez represented the 700 graduating seniors of Hilltop High School as their class valedictorian, and delivered her message of resilience to the world.

It was extraordinary in what she didn’t say.  She didn’t describe her struggles through poverty.  She never once mentioned her acceptance letter from Dartmouth or boast about her extraordinary academic achievements in multiple languages.  She didn’t mention that she opted to attend University of San Diego– partly out of fear that, as a result of her now-public dilemma,  her parents could be deported.  She didn’t rail on our policy makers for their inability to deliver a definitive message or compassionate safeguards through the so-called Dream Act.

Instead, she delivered a hopeful and familiar message that spoke for the common and routine experience of every high school kid in the room: the insecurities of adolescence, the joy of Friday night football and prom, the relative accomplishments of student leadership groups, and of course, the relationships.

Grace.

Beyond that, for Lucero Chavez at least, the future is less certain.

I sat at the edge of my chair and listened.  I hung on every word.  And as she spoke, I could not take my eyes her.  Could not fight back the tears of pride and regret that I was not more of a light for her– this extraordinary young woman grown before our very eyes.

Twelve years ago I wrote the vision statement that defines our school today: “Our Children Will Change the World.”  It was not meant to be a just another cheesy slogan with which to decorate school stationary.  It is our collective vision.  It means that these children– mostly Latino, mostly from high poverty homes where parents sacrificed everything for the education that they never had—these children who are easy to ignore and discount and write off and deport—will have the capacity and opportunity to literally change our world for the better if we position them to do so.  If we provide them with the caring and support.  If we maintain high expectations.  If we provide them with opportunities to fully develop their gifts and their voice.

imageIn the weeks leading up to her Valedictorian speech, Lucero was beset with media outlets requesting interviews and longing to tell her story.  Even CNN.  She is the face of homelessness.  The face of an immigration policy in desperate need of a champion.  And ironically, the face of American excellence.  She is single-handedly changing the world.

And now, after thirty some years in education, and tens of thousands of students– most now grown to adults—my own personal mission is fulfilled.  By none, more remarkable, more courageous, more resilient, more blessed… than Lucero Chavez.

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Filed under bilingual education, California charter schools, children at risk, El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gifted children, immigration, President Obama, public education, resiliency, spiritual intelligence, the Dream Act

CORKING THE BATS: WHY THE ATLANTA SCANDAL IS ONLY THE TIP OF THE NCLB ICEBERG

images-7Cheating is such an integral part of baseball culture that it is almost endearing.

Stealing bases when nobody is watching can get you into the Hall of Fame, for sure.  But I’m talking about real cheating.  Knowingly violating the rules of the game  to gain some perceived advantage– which, in baseball’s long history, takes on many forms and variations. And some are more compelling than others. Like George Brett and his pine tar bat, for example, producing one of the modern game’s most dramatic and memorable highlights.   Or the notorious spit ball.  Or Phil Niekro slipping a fingernail file into his hat so he could scratch out a better knuckleball. Or corking the bats.

images-2But then there are the extremes. Pete Rose bet on his own team.  In 1919 the Chicago White Sox accepted bribes to intentionally blow the World Series.  And more recently, there are regular accusations and suspicions about players  juicing.

Baseball is America’s game.  And so is the cheating that goes on that makes baseball baseball.

And so it was fascinating to watch the shockwaves ripple across the nation when one of our preeminent superintendents and a fistful of teachers were all indicted for their elaborate scheme to doctor their students’ test results.

The horror.  The scandal.  The betrayal. This is public education, for God’s sake.  Not baseball!

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But for those of us who work in schools everyday, it should not be surprising at all that educators went to such unethical extremes to gain an advantage.  When you threaten people with their jobs, their livelihood, their professional careers… they become resourceful.  Welcome to the legacy of No Child Left Behind. High stakes testing is when you have everything to lose and nothing to gain.  When a system that we KNOW is bad for kids is treated as if it is worthy of our outrage when it is violated.

But the real question we ought to answer is this: What exactly is “cheating” when it comes to testing our kids?  When do we cross the line from stealing the catcher’s signs or corking the bats– to intentionally losing the World Series on a bribe?

This week, for example, I discovered the extreme degree to which many of the schools in my district are engaging in test prep with only three weeks remaining until the California Standards Test.  Test prep includes practicing sample test items and drilling in the strategies for how to select a correct answer in a multiple choice item.  The entire school throws out the rest of the curriculum and locks in on a single imperative.  All day.  Every day.  It’s legal.  Even encouraged with a wink– because it can definitely inflate results.

But it’s not good teaching.  It’s not good for our kids.  It doesn’t advance learning.  It doesn’t promote thinking or collaboration or communication or entrepreneurialism or any of the other 21st century skills that will soon be treated as the coin of the realm when the Common Core is ushered in.  In fact, devoting any more time at all to the various state assessment  packages that are now all but obsolete… seems to be the worst form of cheating.  It’s cheating our students of their time for authentic learning. Wasted days and weeks and months in pursuit of a mission that has nothing to do with our children’s future.

So ok… “test prep strategies “are not quite the same as calling for pizzas as you hunker down and change all of your students’ test booklets to reflect correct answers… but it’s still a hoax to pretend high test scores mean our kids are actually  learning.

imagesProfessional baseball is intensely competitive and the rewards are great for those few who excel in it.  So great in fact, that it creates a climate where cheating is inevitable.  But the game is pure and it will survive the scandal.

Educators, on the other hand, are typically driven by an instinct for service and advocacy.  Teaching a child is its own honest reward.  But NCLB was never  designed to promote performance as much as to punish the status quo.  It wasn’t really intended for teachers to improve instruction or close the achievement gap among our children- as much as it was for politicians to quantify their competing ideologies about what they believe matters in our schools.

Atlanta reminds us that we’ve lost our soul as a profession–and as a nation– not because of cheating scandals, but because we legislated the game away.

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BULL’S EYE

I don’t know where the bickering has taken the lawmakers on Capital Hill.  I don’t know if we are closer to a bill that begins to slake American’s out-of-control thirst for guns.  But I found this photograph from Education Week to be chilling:

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These are educators in Clifton, Texas at a shooting range. The new professional development.

Does anyone honestly think armed teachers make our school safer?

I’m thinking about  the lockdown we experienced last year when some tweaker off the streets  jumped a fence and entered one of our classrooms with a knife in his hand.  I’m thinking about how many teachers I passed on my way out to confront him in the classroom.  The look in their eye.  The terror. I have no idea how many people might have been hurt if one of those panicked teachers had whipped out a gun (they would keep it locked up, right?)… managed to load it (locked in a safe, un-loaded, right?)… aimed it at the wild-eyed  intruder and commanded him to drop his weapon.  And of course he wouldn’t have complied any more than he complied with me when I offered to escort him off the campus.

So what do naive, common citizens do when they are armed to the teeth and staring down an stranger at their school and the whole episode does not seem to go according to the script from the “School Safety Plan” or the last tv show they watched that made it all look so easy and antiseptic.

What happens when a teacher kills an un-armed visitor who poses no real threat at all?

What happens when a teacher starts spraying bullets through classroom walls into areas where other kids have “ducked and covered”?

What happens when the intruder quits laughing long enough to take her weapon away from her– and now instead of being armed with a pen knife he is armed with that freaking gun?

UnknownThe NRA has figured it out.  They know how Apple Computers benefitted from their partnership with schools (considerably more than schools benefitted!) and how the endless cycle of technology upgrades has affected their stock market fortunes. They see thousands of schools, millions of educators, and an endless stream of future customers sitting in desks learning about the Second Amendment of the Constitution. They see momentum building off of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and they want to ride it all the way to Wall Street. It’s a bull market.

They see pictures of entire school districts teambuilding out on the firing range. Target practice for God and country;  improving public education in the bargain.

Not me.  I still see that terrified look in our student’s faces as they ran out of that classroom, fleeing for their lives.  And the relief when it ended so quietly and peacefully.  No one hurt.

Nothing good will come from more guns in places where they don’t belong.  Just more red dots on the HP map depicting the number of gun deaths since Sandy Hook:

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PILOT OFF THE LOW TRACK


imagesToday I watched our 6th graders participate in the statewide pilot of the new Smarter Balanced test. Fortunately it didn’t count.  It was a pilot.  The results will not show up on a letter home from the state superintendent of instruction.  They will not be in the local newspaper.  They will not be shoved like ill-fitting shoes into a clumsy calibration of school improvement or the relative deficits of assorted critical subgroups. They are neither summative nor formative.

There will be no rallies or celebrations or incantations to orchestrate.

They walked into the computer lab wholly unprepared and unfazed.

I observed our students closely because state and national assessments of academic proficiency should not be a mystery.  If we want to measure the degree to which children have mastered common core state standards, they shouldn’t get tripped up by idiosyncrasies of the testing instrument.

And that’s why we volunteered to pilot the test.  And I’m glad we did.

We’ve been taking  the computer-based MAPS test three times a year since 2006, and kids’ familiarity with the laboratory atmosphere  was evident: the ubiquitous adult proctors roaming the room, the sparsely decorated walls, the cramped workspace.  The sterility.  The humming AC.  The numbing silence.

I watched as our students struggled against the adaptive technology.  They managed their personalized 10-digit student id’s and they logged on.  They battled through computer glitches, error messages, and inexplicable re-sets that bounced them off the test network altogether.

But that was only the beginning.  Once underway, it became immediately evident that our students are woefully un-prepared for the Common Core.

The Smarter Balanced math exam is a one of the feature products known as “next generation assessments.”  While there are a handful of multiple choice questions, the bulk of the test demands critical thinking, adaptability, persistence, authentic problem solving and a cross-curricular knowledge base. They are the 21st Century skills and we’re just not good at invoking those.

images-1Our students have gotten comfortable with selecting their answer from four possible options staring back at them from a scantron sheet. The answer was always there.  They didn’t have to calculate anything. They could guess.  And better yet, they could race through a test filling in bubbles with reasonable assurance that, in the end, their answer sheet would look like everybody else’s. Just complete the page and the stress provoking  irritant will go away.

Actually the Smarter Balanced pilot test made me realize just how destructive our current accountability system called No Child Left Behind has really been.  For the past twelve years we’ve been required by state and federal laws to focus on basic skills at the expense of creative and critical thinking.  There is a gap– (more like a chasm)– across socioeconomic levels of neighborhoods.  But it’s not just an achievement gap.  It’s also a gap in what is taught and what is learned; the scope of the curriculum offered.  For schools that are compelled to squeeze every API point as if blood from  a turnip, the 21st Century skills are a luxury item.  Test prep and remediation and interventions crowd out creative writing and project based learning.

High achieving schools, on the other hand, in predominantly affluent and white neighborhoods, have continued to provide advanced students with a comprehensive curriculum; one that challenges students to think and innovate and apply their skills to authentic tasks.

Which group of students is best equipped for the most ambitious college and career pathways?

We have the results we designed for.  We’ve all contributed to a scheme that perpetuates the pernicious effects of academic tracking.

But in looking over the shoulders yesterday of otherwise frustrated and befuddled and totally unprepared twelve year olds, I saw a glimpse of a very different future.  One in which all schools, regardless of zip code, will be driven by high expectations and the pursuit of authentic, marketable skillsets that prepare kids for life beyond these lab tests.

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Filed under 21st Century Skills, California charter schools, Common Core State Standards, El Milagro, innovation and change, post-secondary education, public education, school reform, Smarter Balanced, standardized testing, tracking