Tag Archives: Social Media

Repairing Our Civic Discourse – Teachers’ Role

When I woke up on November 9th, I had to explain to my children, aged 7 and 9, that Donald Trump is going to be the next President of the United States.  They cried.  They cried because they know, at most, a fraction of the horrible things he has said in his campaign and that was enough to convince them that he should not be President.  They cried because although they are young, they believe that America is a country for everyone and that Donald Trump has attacked that ideal.  They cried because they have friends and people they care about who are terrified that a Trump administration will break apart their families.  They cried because we have taught them to value kindness and respect and to abhor bullies.

I cried with them and told them that we would always protect them and that our job now is to make certain if our new President tries to hurt anyone that we protect them.  My children are fortunate, though – their fear quickly subsided probably because they have never personally experienced the injustices promised by the incoming administration, and because as children of white, professional parents they are inclined to believe that they have strength in our society.  Friends of mine who teach in schools with minority, immigrant, and Muslim children had much harder work trying to allay their students’ genuine apprehension about what might be coming.  And my friends are not alone in New York City or elsewhere for that matter.  A teacher in Chicago set up this message for students:

As they are almost always called upon to do, teachers this week have been seeking ways to help anxious and shocked students to cope with circumstances that are both beyond their control and threatening to their well being.  I do not need to reiterate the ways in which a Trump Presidency is poised to harm millions of our students – his campaign promises make that crystal clear as does the bigoted and inflammatory rhetoric with which he made those promises.  His enablers assure us that he intends to be the President for “all” Americans, but many of his supporters appear to have very clear ideas of what his victory means, so even if President Trump takes a softer stance than candidate Trump, he has unleashed some of the ugliest elements of our society and putting that back in the bottle will be an arduous and uncertain task:

While America’s teachers are helping students who fear President Trump, there is also another role for them and for our schools: helping to repair a civic discourse badly damaged by bull dozed norms and lack of mutual understanding typified by the President-elect’s campaign.  Something that was already evident became crystal clear on election night:  Americans do not understand each other very well.  As the returns came in, it was obvious that Donald Trump had successfully energized a demographic that wasn’t weighted properly in the polls because they are not part of most pollsters “likely voter” model — rural whites voted for him in unprecedented numbers, erasing Secretary Clinton’s strengths with urban and wealthier suburban voters.  The election was apparently as much an expression of their grievances at a political system that seeks their vote every few years and then fails to deliver very much as it was an expression of support for Mr. Trump’s most vile rhetoric.  While a discernible portion of his vote did come from genuinely horrible people, quite a lot of it came from a demographic that feels forgotten by our political system.

These voters are not exactly wrong (although I would argue that Mr. Trump is entirely the wrong vehicle – even a dangerous vehicle – for their frustration).  The trends on what has happened to the working class in America has been stark for decades.  Pundits love to talk about the “college wage premium” – the gain in lifetime earnings with a college degree, and that phenomenon is real enough.  However, since the 1980s, the “increase” in that premium has not come because of rising wages for college graduates so much as it has come from the collapse of wages for those without degrees:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

While both the rural and urban poor have suffered under these trends, Mr. Trump directly appealed to working class whites by blaming globalization and free trade pacts for their plights, an appeal that resonates far more with lower income Americans than with the middle and upper class.  It would be curious to see if Mr. Trump’s economic populism would have resonated more with the urban poor if he had not wrapped it in so many layers of racism, nativism, and other bigotry.

It is also evident that Americans do not actually see how people in different economic circumstances live.  Residential Income Segregation has been rising for decades, so not only do the urban and rural populations not live together, but also people live separately based upon their income.  Wealthy and middle class city dwellers do not live in similar neighborhoods, and wherever you live, you are increasingly likely to live in an area where most of the other people share your economic circumstances.  The consequences of this are destructive.  It is very difficult for the wealthy and upper middle class, constituencies heavily courted by typical politics, to understand much about the lives of those in urban and rural poverty.  Meanwhile, the urban and rural poor, while separated by geography, history, and a presumed cultural divide, certainly vote very differently but actually may have far more in common with each other than is often assumed.  That point is driven home by Saturday Night Live’s pre-election episode of “Black Jeopardy” where Tom Hanks played Doug, a rural Donald Trump supporter whose sentiments often aligned with the other contestants, up until the sketch ends with a deflected confrontation on “Lives that Matter” and the racism that blinds many white Americans like Doug to African American’s shared concerns about law enforcement and justice in America:

None of this is meant to excuse the willingness of Donald Trump’s voters to overlook and even excuse his abhorrent statements about women and minorities, nor is it meant to excuse the behavior of a disturbing number of his supporters who have taken his victory as a signal to unleash hate at groups singled out by his campaign.  And it certainly does not change the real evidence that Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters are animated by bigotry.  But it does complicate my understanding of this phenomenon – some of our barriers to understanding each other in America are real, created by geography and lack of shared experiences.  But some of those barriers are of our own making, created by policies that reject integration and created by a lack of willingness to consider others’ experiences as valid when we have no similar frame of reference.  The result of which is an inability to see our similarities.  Of course, this is too simple:  our mutual blindness is made far more complex by modern media that allows people to cocoon themselves in information bubbles and never hear opposing views.

What, then, is the proper role for school in these problems?  It is a tricky one to navigate because while it is not proper for school to require certain political views from students, it is absolutely within school’s historic mission to promote civics and civic-mindedness.  Almost 20 years ago, David Tyack put it this way:

Today, some people are talking about the broader democratic purposes of schooling. Deborah Meier (1991) puts the issue well: “While public education may be useful as an industrial policy, it is essential to healthy life in a democracy” (p. 270). Mike Rose (1996) shows in Possible Lives that in communities and schools across the nation, teachers, students, and parents are practicing John Dewey’s dream of democracy in education and education in democracy. Rose finds that there is a far richer sense of educational purpose than we generally hear about in policy talk on the national level.

Education as essential to Democracy and as a form of Democracy itself goes back to the origins of the common school movement.  Consider Horace Mann’s justification of common schools in the life of a democratic society:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

Mann promoted education that would inspire all not only to vote, but also to vote in a manner that promoted the common good and which reflected sound judgement.  The long festering divisions in our civic life today stand in the way of that, but schools and teachers have tools at their disposal to help students reach for a higher civic ideal.

The first obvious tool is a renewed commitment to information literacy and critical thinking – far beyond the stultifying confines of “critical thinking” curricula aimed at passing a standardized test.  Our heavy emphasis on tested subjects and on preparing students to demonstrate their competency in the narrow skill bands of standardized testing has already damaged the critical thinking skills of one generation of students.  We need to do a lot better, especially in an age where media consumption in new forms requires the sharp critical literacy skills.  Programs like “Deliberating in a Democracy” provide additional space to engage students in critical thinking around core issues in society and internationally.  We need more spaces like this in our curriculum.

Beyond critical thinking, however, is using our curricula to assist all students’ comprehension of experiences beyond their own.  We have nibbled at the edges of this for a long time.  The English curriculum, for example, is an ideal place for literature that expands students’ understanding of others, although for far too long, we’ve merely supplemented the curriculum with a few representatives of lives outside of the majority — it is past time to bring Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, and Amy Tan some company.  Beyond the book list in English, however, are opportunities to promote contact and dialog among students of many different backgrounds.  Take the premise of the “Black Jeopardy” skit with Tom Hanks and consider what might be different if students with more in common than they know could discuss and listen to each other?  In many locales, it would not be difficult to arrange face to face meetings and discussions among urban, suburban, and rural school students, and technology could facilitate “Sister Schools” arrangements where distances are more difficult.  Research suggests that fairly simple exercises in empathy can reduce racist sentiment – the possibilities of schools promoting genuine contact and discussion among students whose lives are separated by geography and experience seem very hopeful.

We have to think about this.  Promoting civic mindedness is a core function of public education, and it is clearly one that needs our attention.  Too many of our children are watching to see if we adults are interested in making things better.

1 Comment

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Drumpf, Media, politics, racism, Social Justice, teaching

Spring Valley High School Assault: When “Moderation” is Violence

On Monday afternoon, video footage showing a School Resource Officer (SRO) in Columbia, South Carolina’s Spring Valley High School flipping over a seated female student and hurling her across the room began to go viral.  The video, of which there are now several versions from different classmates, shows the officer, Ben Fields, approaching the seated student, talking to her briefly, and then flipping her backwards in her desk before hurling her across the room while classmates and a school administrator look on passively:

Officer Fields, who has been the subject of lawsuits for excessive force and discrimination, has been fired according to Sheriff Leon Lott, and the federal Department of Justice has begun its own investigation.  Initial reports that the young woman is orphaned appear to be false, but her status in the foster care system is still in question.  Classmate Niya Kenny was arrested along with the other student and told local media that she was trying to stand up for her schoolmate:

“I know this girl don’t got nobody and I couldn’t believe this was happening,” Kenny explained. “I had never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl. A big man, like 300 pounds of full muscle. I was like ‘no way, no way.’ You can’t do nothing like that to a little girl. I’m talking about she’s like 5’6″.”

The story, as we know it now, unfolded when the young woman’s teacher caught her with her cell phone out and ended up requesting that she leave class.  When she did not, an administrator was brought in who called in Officer Fields.  There is no indication that the young woman did anything other than passively remain in the classroom when asked to leave. Another classmate, who took one of the videos currently circulating, said that the girl was apologetic about having her phone out and about not leaving.  He said the situation turned violent when the girl told Officer Fields that she did not know who he was:

“I’ve never seen anything so nasty looking, so sick to the point that you know, other students are turning away, don’t know what to do, and are just scared for their lives,” Robinson said. “That’s supposed to be somebody that’s going to protect us. Not somebody that we need to be scare off, or afraid.”

“That was wrong. There was no justifiable reason for why he did that to that girl.”

I am going to start with some premises that I consider to be undeniable.  I know that some people will deny them anyway, but in my mind, as an educator, as a parent, and as a citizen, these are not up for negotiation:

  • First: The grown ups in this classroom utterly failed this child.  Regardless of her behavior (or more accurately, her lack of behavior), the adults in the room are acting in loco parentis and have legal and moral obligations to treat every child in the room with the utmost care as if they were their own.  There were tools for deescalation that both the teacher and the administrator could have used before ever calling in Officer Fields.  If those had not worked, Officer Fields’ inexcusably went almost immediately to violent assault.
  • Second:  There is no excuse, no justification, no set of circumstances, no words spoken that can ever justify the level of violence that was inflicted upon this girl and the terror she and her classmates must have experienced as a result.  She was seated.  She was passive.  There was no threat of violence or harm to anyone in the room that warranted a physical response of any kind.  Officer Fields was not placing himself between fighting students to prevent harm to themselves or to others.  He flung a child across the room solely because she did not comply with an order.
  • Third: Whether or not the young woman in question is orphaned, in foster care, or not is entirely beside the point. Our desires to find good kid versus bad kid narratives is part of our misplaced desire to sympathize with an entirely innocent, pure, victim of brutality when the fact is that we should sympathize with any victim of brutality.  It clouds our judgement and distracts from the inexcusable choices made by the adults in the classroom.  Trayvon Martin was posthumously defamed for the “sin” of not being a “perfect victim.”  Eric Garner was blamed for his own death.  Ultimately, the demand for victims of institutionalized brutality to be “perfect” is a demand to rationalize their deaths and wounds as deserved and a demand to clear our own consciences for systems that benefit us and brutalize others.

As is typical in the age of social media, there is now a steady stream of fault finders declaring that the young woman deserved her treatment and looking frame by frame at her being hauled backwards in her desk for evidence that she “caused” the assault.  I have no time or patience for that, and I readily chalk it up to racism.  But there is also a call from many that I have seen to be “cautious,” to assess the girl’s behavior, and to “wait for all the facts” as if there is some hidden information that might balance to blame assessment.

I get the temptation.  As teachers, we are frequently called upon to moderate opposing sides, and we are trained to look for multiple points of view on a range of contentious issues.  The good teacher will sometimes have to defend a point of view that he or she disagrees with if it is unpopular and is being dismissed without consideration by our students.  But this is simply not one of those cases – a seated child, passively resisting an order to leave the classroom, and who poses no threat to anyone, simply cannot be hurled across a room, and it is not “moderation” to call for more information, or to call to see both sides, or to insist that the young woman’s behavior must occupy our attention as well.  It is, intentional or not, the perpetuation of violence.  It draws our attention away from the failures of the adults in the classroom to find a peaceful solution to a peaceful problem.

Writing for The New York Times, Roxane Grey asked, pointedly, “Where Are Black Children Safe?”

Time and again, in such situations, black people are asked, why don’t we mind our place? To be black in America is to exist with the presumption of guilt, burdened by an implacable demand to prove our innocence. We are asked impossible questions by people who completely ignore a reality where so many of the rules we are supposed to follow are expressly designed to subjugate and work against our best interests. We ignore the reality that we cannot just follow the rules and find our way to acceptance, equality or justice. Respectability politics are a delusion.

Far too little attention is being given to who the young girl is, or that, according to the lawyer representing her, she is in foster care. When that officer saw her, sitting quietly, defiantly, she was not allowed to be human. She was not allowed to have a complex story. She was held to a standard of absolute obedience. She was not given the opportunity to explain the why of her defiance because she was a black body that needed to be disciplined by any means necessary.

This reality, that so many children of color cannot even find refuge in school and are subjected to detrimental policies that we have long known do not work, strikes at the very heart of our moral responsibilities as teachers.  If students in our care face institutional violence, it is a massive failure of our role as stewards, and we must resist it on their behalf.  Allowing ourselves to become distracted by calls for “moderation” of viewpoint in response to that is another failure, and it makes us accomplices in a system that makes it impossible for a young person of color to ever not be at fault when assaulted.

I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote this in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

More than half a century later, even with the tangible progress that has been made in America, that same impulse to call for “moderation” and “balance” when presented with abject injustice is still with us.  It is a call that comes most frequently from a place of comfort and privilege that apparently cannot tolerate being made uncomfortable.  It is a call that shields enfranchised people from examining their own privilege and causes them to vote for leaders and policies that subject others far from them to injustice and violence.

And it is one of the most intractable problems that we face.

6 Comments

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, racism, Social Justice

Welcome to the Class of 2015 — We Need You

This week, our teacher preparation program welcomes the graduates of the Class of 2015 as our teacher colleagues.  These accomplished young teachers are joining the profession at a time of great challenges, but it is also at a time of great opportunities, and having worked with them closely for the past four years, I am convinced that they will do well with those opportunities.  These young people are intelligent; they are dedicated; they are talented; and they are prepared.  It has been an immense pleasure to see their professional journeys.

It would be a disservice to them to downplay the challenges they face as new members of the profession.  Today’s graduates were mostly born in 1993 which means that they were in third grade when the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 mandated annual standardized testing for all children in all grades between three and eight and once again in high school.  They went through their formative elementary and secondary education as the high stakes attached to mandated testing was squeezing the curriculum into a narrower box with less art, music, social studies, and science.  While the impacts of Race to the Top, the Common Core State Standards, and PARCC and SBAC testing did not influence their education, they have done their clinical internships and student teaching within schools and with cooperating teachers who have had to grapple with these issues as well as the growing movement of parents who are denying schools the right to administer standardized tests to their children.

Now they leave their university preparation to enter teaching just as these matters are fully breaking upon our schools.  The CCSS are implemented in 43 states and the District of Columbia.  Mass standardized examinations aligned with the standards are now implemented in dozens of states, and they promise to find many fewer students proficient in mathematics and English than just a year ago.  States that won Race to the Top grants or were granted NCLB waivers from the USDOE are using growth measures based on standardized testing to evaluate teachers, despite the fact that the sum of research on growth measures demonstrates that they are unstable, unreliable, and have standard errors so large that even with 10 years of data, a teacher still has more than a 10% chance of being mislabeled.

If these challenges were not hard enough, the confluence of hastily implemented and ill-conceived policies comes amidst a rhetorical turn against teachers as the major culprits behind students whose test scores do not rise.  Today’s reform environment lavishes transformational power upon education, but it simultaneously measures that transformation via crudely designed standardized tests and then blames allegedly incompetent teachers when literally nothing else is done to improve the lives or communities of students who struggle.  A coordinated effort is underway to first assess teachers via standardized test results and then to remove any workplace protections teacher have to make it easier to fire them at will.  It is little wonder that the percentage of teachers who say they are highly satisfied on the job has dropped 30 percentage points to its lowest in a generation.

A distressing side effect of this environment are the number of more experienced teachers who appear ready to discourage our new colleagues from either entering the field altogether or from bothering to have hope on the job.  Peter Greene of Curmudgucation reminds us that this is a distressing and unethical practice, and he points out the specific work of the activists in the Young Teachers Collective who are directly asking their experienced colleagues to stop discouraging them.

I hope to G-d that my proud young graduates side with the activists at YTC.  We need them very badly.

Unlike Baby Boomers and my fellow Gen Xers who indulge in annual, graduation week denigration of the Millennials for their supposed faults, I am a fan of this generation.  Having worked closely with them for years now, I find this report on their outstanding and community oriented values to be absolutely correct.  Young adults today are more diverse than their predecessors, more open to diversity than any generation in history, better educated than anyone gives them credit for, and more desirous of being good parents and good neighbors than of the aggrandizement of self typified by generations who modeled our lives after Gordon Gekko.

So let me build on Peter’s plea for people to not be jerks to young teachers, and to add my own plea: young teachers, we need you.  We need you because you have been well-prepared.  We need you because if you do not stay we will have wasted the earned experience and skills you will gain in your first decade on the job, and that will harm future students.  We also need you because of those same values that typify your generation and which will serve as a tremendous asset to protect and preserve truly public education.

But if that is going to happen, we also need you to buck some typical trends in teaching and schooling.  It is very typical for teachers to simply keep their heads low, close the door, and wait for the current political tides to shift.  That is unlikely to work today; people are getting rich messing around with our schools, and they see our nation’s commitment to education for all as a $780 billion honeypot to monetize.  The good news in the midst of this is that the people still back our public schools, and while many have bought the relentless narrative that our schools writ large are failing, parents overwhelmingly support the schools their children attend.  You can generally count on the support of your students’ parents.

We need you, therefore, to be confident in that support and to help lend a voice, early in your careers, for certain truths that can reach the public only if they are amplified by many voices:

We need you to remind people that school and teachers cannot do it all alone.  Education is a likely component of most success stories in our country, but education did not play its role in those successes alone.  Education reform talks about education as key to overcoming poverty, but it spends very little time talking about how the advantage gap is overcome by much more than “grit” and “no excuses.”  We certainly see few reformers admit the severe funding gaps between our richest and poorest schools, and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has openly scoffed that funding has any role to play in educational inequities.

But even beyond that issue, there is a question about the central premise of education reform today; namely, if all students acquired more and better education, would they be able to leap over poverty in their careers?  The evidence for this is unclear because even though college degree holders greatly out earn non degree holders, that gap has grown because of cratering wages for less education rather than growing wages for more:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

Increasing numbers of college degree holders will not magically create more middle class households unless the number of jobs genuinely requiring college education increase as well.  Education reformers who tout the power of standards and testing to prepare students who are “college and career ready” would do well to ask their billionaire backers to support middle class economics and actually be “job creators” if they really believe education will overcome poverty.  It won’t without fundamental changes in economic opportunity on the other side of education.

We need young teachers to speak up for fundamental truths about their children in communities of poverty. Grit and no excuses make for great bumper stickers and they can produce test practice mills that result in test scores.  But truly standing up for children is more than sloganeering and shutting down schools whose children are hungry and live in communities with few genuine opportunities.  The reality is that in many of our urban communities, black and brown children go to schools with inexperienced teachers, limited services, crumbling facilities, and over crowded classrooms and then go home to neighborhoods that have been in economic decline for decades.  None of the favored reforms today are doing anything to alleviate those conditions, and many of them are making them actively worse.

We need young teachers in such communities to have the bravery of Marylin Zuniga who has lost her job teaching third graders for a series of events based on her desire to embrace both action and compassion.  Ms. Zuniga had her students read and discuss a quote about justice from Mumia Abu-Jamal who was convicted of murdering a police officer in a 1981 trial that drew strong questions about the fairness of the trial and of the appeals court from Amnesty International.  Later in the year, Ms. Zuniga allowed her students to write get well letters to Mr. Abu-Jamal when she told them he was sick and they wanted to write to him.  While Mr. Abu-Jamal’s case stirs very strong emotion, especially among law enforcement, it is important to consider what Ms. Zuniga was doing with her students, most of whom are children of color in a poor neighborhood: she asked them to consider the legitimate voice of a black man in prison whose case raises difficult questions about the justice system, and on their own, the children showed and exercised compassion.  For young people whose lives are already disrupted by family members in trouble with the criminal justice system, this is a lesson with risks that are worth exploring.  And many in her community rushed to support her even though they were unsuccessful.

If we truly care about the children in poverty in our schools, we need more teachers willing to take such risks and to affirm their students’ desires to see humanity in everyone.  We need them to assert and to affirm their values of inclusiveness and human dignity even if it means taking a risk. Many decried Ms. Zuniga’s actions, but those who knew her the best affirmed the extraordinary stewardship she exercised for children who are already struggling.

We need young teachers to stand together.  There are many forces trying to fragment teachers from working together for their students’ true interests.  There are AstroTurf groups like “Educators 4 Excellence” who take large sums of money to act like a genuine grassroots group but whose pledge includes supporting discredited teacher evaluation methods favored by union busting corporate donors.  There is the “Education Post” headed by Peter Cunningham, formerly of the Obama Administration, and funded with millions of dollars from Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation to make a “better conversation” but mostly to pay people to respond to criticisms of education reform as if they have grassroots support.

So when I plead with young teachers to “stand together” I do not just mean to join your union and be active (although, yes, I do mean that too).  I also mean to do what your generation does better than any of us — maintain close and genuine bonds across distance via technology and to forge naturally occurring and completely authentic communities to support each other and to support your students.  Talk to each other.  Share ideas.  Plan.  Respond in the public sphere.  Magnify your voices.  Make stories of public school success go viral.  You have something that corporate reformers can never replicate:  you have authenticity.  Use it.

So, Class of 2015, welcome to our profession.  I am honored that you are my colleagues.  Please stay.  Please lead.

3 Comments

Filed under Activism, Funding, Media, Opt Out, politics, Social Justice, Unions

Pearson’s Intellectual Property — Why Is This Even a Thing?

Bob Braun, a five decade veteran of the Newark Star Ledger and currently an independent blogger, blew up a portion of the internet on Friday by reporting that Pearson, the international education giant responsible for the PARCC examinations currently underway, was “spying” on students’ social media activity.  According to a letter from Watchung Hills Regional High School District Superintendent Elizabeth Jewett, the district test coordinator got a late night phone call from New Jersey DOE after Pearson initiated a “priority one alert” for a breech of test security within the district.  NJDOE informed the district that they believed Pearson’s alert was for a student who took a picture of a test item during testing and posted it to Twitter, and the state suggested that the district should discipline the offending student.  However, upon examination, the district ascertained that a student had tweeted a comment well after testing was over and included no picture at all.  The tweet has since been deleted by the student, but given the 140 character limit on Twitter, it is extremely unlikely that any significant breech of test security could have possibly occurred.  However, the incident revealed that Pearson is monitoring social media for any and all references to the testing going on and is prepared to initiate state level investigations of individual students (how else would NJDOE know the district and student involved?) over very flimsy circumstances.

The story took off very quickly as did Mr. Braun’s accusation that Pearson is “spying” on students’ social media.  The web site was loading very slowly on Friday night likely due to very high traffic, but by later that night it was completely inaccessible and Mr. Braun reported on Facebook that his web host informed him a denial of service attack was underway from an as of yet unidentified sources.  Meanwhile, outraged parents and anti-testing/anti-PARCC sentiments took off in social media:

Let me state that I am unconvinced that “spying” is exactly the correct word over “monitoring.”  The reality is that most corporations of any size are monitoring social media routinely to check on their reputations and potential scandals.  In a world where social word of mouth is genuinely a thing, it makes business sense for them to do so, and social media is not communication in the private space.  If you don’t believe me, wait until you have a bad customer experience with your cable company and then take to Twitter about it — If you don’t get a response from someone in corporate within 24 hours, I owe you a coffee.

However, even from a “monitoring” social media perspective, Pearson’s actions are troubling.  I will concede that the company — and participating PARCC states — have an interest in test security while a standardized test is being deployed (although I also agree with Peter Greene that this level of test security does not bode well for the quality of these exams), but what, exactly, causes Pearson to raise a “priority one alert” and contact a state department of education with sufficient information to locate a district and specific child in question?  What information about a minor’s social media use does Pearson consider its business to pass along to the top education officers in a state?  To what depth does Pearson consider itself able to impose a gag order on other people’s children and use state capitols to enforce it?

Remember — the child in question did not send out a photograph of the exam, merely a single tweet limited to 140 characters AFTER testing for the day was over.  For that, Pearson initiated contact with the NJDOE that sent Trenton thundering into the student’s social media account and alerting district officials when frankly, nothing should have happened at all.  Thankfully, Superintendent Jewett is reasonable and knowledgeable about social media; it could have easily gone south really quickly.

Pearson’s hyperactive attitude towards test security is disturbing not only because of how it is being enacted without concern of proportion, privacy, and the implications of initiating state level investigations into unremarkable student speech.  It is also disturbing because of its connection to Pearson’s larger perspective on its intellectual property and the allowance the public sector gives them in defense of it.  While discussing this on Twitter, I encountered a user who stated that he “applauded” Pearson “defending its intellectual property,” which led me to a single question:

Why is Pearson’s intellectual property even a thing after it delivers a exam to be used for public education?

Considering the following:

  • PARRC was seeded with part of a federal grant worth over $300 million to create examinations for the Common Core State Standards.
  • Pearson was the only bidder for the contract to write the examinations for PARCC.
  • That makes the Pearson written PARCC examinations the only CCSS examination in 12 states and the District of Columbia — Pearson writes CCSS aligned examinations for other states such as New York.
  • Pearson’s contract with New Jersey alone is worth more than $100 million over 4 years.
  • The examination is high stakes – with implications for teacher evaluation and a possible future role in graduation requirements.
  • The examination is used by the state to fulfill federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act that all students in all schools between grades 3-8 and in grade 11 be tested in English and Mathematics.  Unlike other standardized examinations students takes, these exams are mandated by state and federal laws.
  • Pearson has no intention of releasing complete copies of this year’s exams even after they have been fully deployed and assessed.

This isn’t even like copyright rules preventing photocopying textbooks — textbooks publishers rightly expect that schools will buy enough copies of their texts for students using them, and they are in direct competition with other potential text providers.  Pearson has an exclusive contract to provide examinations for millions of students (a contract it did not exactly sweat bullets to obtain).  These examinations are used for high stakes purposes.  The examinations fulfill federal mandates for testing in our public schools, and they inform personnel decisions locally, administrative decisions at the district and state levels, and federal actions nationally.  The company is providing a contracted service in our public education system which is, itself, compulsory and, for the time being at least, democratically controlled.

Once they are done writing the exams, why isn’t Pearson required to turn the entire kit and kaboodle over to the state and thus to the voters and tax payers who provide the vast majority of decision making and funding to public education?

I am unaware of a construction company that, after delivering a highway project, reserves lanes for its own use or to pull up and recycle in other projects.  Generally speaking, government buildings do not have entire floors blocked off for use of the contractors who built them.  When Northrop Grumman delivered the USS Ronald Reagan to the Navy, they did not block off sections of the ship that the Navy cannot access.  If such companies create or develop a process of construction or tool for use in construction, they can protect that via patents, but once the contracted item is finished, we generally understand it as belonging to the public who paid for it.

But when it comes to items that are not physical in nature, we accept an arrangement where the public foots enormous costs to only lease the product in question.  Think of electronic voting machines.  I can think of few things as important as protecting public confidence in the integrity of their vote, but companies are not required to make the code for voting machines open source and the public depends upon leaks to inform us of potential security holes in the devices.  Similarly, Pearson is providing a mandated service for our compulsory public education system, and the results of that service will have actual consequences not just for the individual teachers and students involved, but also for the entire system.  Confidence in what they are providing and informed decision making about whether or not what they are providing is desirable requires open and informed discussion and debate — such discussion and debate is impossible while Pearson’s intellectual property is valued more highly than the public purposes it allegedly serves.

In a small way, you cannot even blame Pearson.  They made contracts with states that allowed them to behave this way, and they are a publicly traded company with $17.75 billion in market capital.  Doing everything to maximize their revenue and return to investors is what they do and not a secret.  However, we elect governors who appoint leaders to state education departments; they represent us.  Craven obsequiousness in making contracts worth 100s of millions of taxpayers’ dollars is unnecessary and unacceptable.  It is possible, I suppose, that if our elected leaders and their appointees insisted upon reasonable contracts and the full disclosure of all test materials after the tests are over, then the cost would go up, perhaps to a level states could ill afford and leading to pulling back of the test and punish regime that is currently driving education policy and warping curriculum into test preparation.

Heavens.  That would be terrible.

18 Comments

Filed under Common Core, Corruption, PARCC, Pearson, Testing

#SupportTheCore: How Not To Do a Social Media Campaign

Michael Petrilli is not happy. The President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and leading supporter of the Common Core State Standards wanted Tuesday, August 12th to be a social media event.  With the standards becoming politically volatile, Petrilli concluded that CCSS backers needed to become “emotional” in order to shore up support:

So, backed with fresh funding from philanthropic supporters, including a $10.3 million grant awarded in May from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supporters are gearing up for a major reboot of the Common Core campaign. “We’ve been fighting emotion with talking points, and it doesn’t work,” said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, a leading supporter of the standards. “There’s got to be a way to get more emotional with our arguments if we want to win this thing. That means we have a lot more work to do.”

This, of course, implies that the only opposition to CCSS is based upon raw appeals to emotions and that there are no fact based reasons to oppose or question the standards.  To be fair to core supporters, with outfits like Breitbart, Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin agitating their followers against the CCSS, opposition to the core has a strong group of low information and high paranoia types in the fold:

I try to keep people like that at about 1000 arm lengths at all times. On every issue, not just CCSS.

Regardless of the disposition of some CCSS opponents, it is disingenuous to act as if there is no fact-based and legitimate concern about the project.  For example, it is entirely reasonable to be concerned that the project was constructed with a narrow range of interests represented, that the standards were researched, written and disseminated with unprecedented haste, that there is no known mechanism for review and revision of the standards when feedback from the classroom is generated, that the standards are being pushed into classrooms nationwide without having been tested in representative sample sites first, that materials “aligned” with the CCSS have been created so quickly that there is no time to evaluate them for actual usefulness, that the testing consortia producing tests for the CCSS are secretive and the tests themselves are of questionable quality, that the mass of data generated by those tests create privacy and legitimate use concerns that have not been addressed, that the Core aligned testing will be used for questionable teacher evaluation purposes, that — well, you get the idea.  These are legitimate points of debates that require CCSS proponents to actually discuss openly and fairly in the public sphere, a debate this new tactic still eschews.

Mr. Petrilli and supporters hoped that August 12th would be a good day on social media for CCSS proponents using #SupportTheCore in their tweets.  There was even a “social media toolkit” distributed by the group “Educators 4 Excellence” that gave suggested formats for posts on different media.  The kit has recently been taken down from their site, but this post of “top tweets” demonstrates ones that followed their suggested formats.  (Educators 4 Excellence is a Gates Foundation funded group that focuses on recruiting young educators to the “reform” agenda, and which requires all new members to sign a pledge to support, among other ideas, the use of value-added models of teacher evaluation.  These are the same VAMs which the American Statistical Association warns are not valid for the evaluation of teachers, but for which the Gates Foundation funded a major study that concluded they could be used that way.)

August 12th arrived, and as linked above, Twitter had a number of people declaring support for the Core.  And then things changed a bit.  While a fair amount of people declaring that they DO NOT #SupportTheCore came from Breitbart and Malkin’s efforts, a large number of grassroots teacher groups took to Twitter to provide their own take on the issue:

It went on like that, and after a while Mr. Petrilli could not contain his displeasure:

Now my Twitter feed is full of rank and file teachers and researchers, so I do not know exactly what the Breitbart and Malkin set did on Twitter, but Mr. Petrilli needs to understand a basic Law of Social Media: once you put it out there, it is out of your control.  CCSS may have well-funded allegedly “grassroots” groups like Educators 4 Excellence on its side, but genuine grassroots action and activists have an energy that mere funding cannot match.  Taking to Twitter and denouncing all criticism as coming from “bullies” instead of taking their criticism as an invitation to open a dialogue?  Petulant.  And not precisely sincere from someone who has been using millions of dollars and an influential position in society to wedge in “reforms” without a real debate with both teachers and communities.

Twitter, Mr. Petrilli, is not a private retreat in the woods with hedge fund managers and fellow think tankers.  It is a scrum, and everyone with Internet access is invited.  Complaining about that makes you look ill-prepared to have any form of public discussion, as was pointed out by Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, NY:

Mr. Petrilli points out that in polls, a majority of teachers support the Common Core, and based upon 2013 data, he is correct up to a point.  The National Education Association polled teachers and found that 26% support them “whole heartedly” while another 50% support them with “reservations”.  That is solid support, and some of it is no doubt based upon substance.  Deborah Lowenberg Ball of University of Michigan has written positively about the Common Core math standards as has Jo Boaler of Stanford University, and I certainly trust their judgement.  As for the English Language Arts standards?  I have personal concerns that the standards unnecessarily emphasize informational reading for upper grades based upon the framework of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  This flawed on two fronts: first, the NAEP is a no stakes assessment of the national educational landscape, and its targets for assessment are not meant to be translated into curriculum structures.  Second, David Coleman, now of the College Board, claims the 70% target was meant to be across the entire curriculum, but that was made clear nowhere in the standards themselves and since there are currently only math and ELA core standards, there is no guidance about how the task of teaching informational reading will be distributed.  Beyond the upper grade concerns, I am concerned that the early grade ELA standards rely upon an expectation that students’ skill levels will converge far too early, as if the authors wrote graduation standards for 12th grade and worked backwards from there without accounting for how early childhood development is high divergent.

But beyond this discussion (which is not happening among supporters of CCSS that I can tell) is the fact that Mr. Petrilli’s poll numbers get dicier the further down the path of education “reform” related to CCSS you get.  According to the same NEA poll, 55% of teachers say their districts are preparing to use standardized tests to evaluate them, 81% favor at least a 2-5 year long moratorium on those measures, only 26% of the 65% of teachers who have participated in CCSS training found it helpful and 67% have had to look for resources outside of school.  Among other changes teachers believe would assist students?  43% said smaller class sizes, 39% want more parental involvement and 22% said their students need up to date materials.  Reforms addressing those concerns have not been on the radar screen.

And this is the crux of the matter: Mr. Petrilli may be able to cite strong support or support with reservations from three quarters of teachers, but the reservations of 50% of those polled encompass the testing and teacher evaluations that are glued to the Common Core State Standards and have been from the beginning.  The standards were written by a group that heavily represented the testing industry, and they were adopted by states seeking grant money from the federal Race to the Top program – which required states to adopt common standards and tie teacher evaluations to student scores.  The Gates Foundation has spent heavily promoting the standards, and the foundation has a strong interest in evaluating teachers by student test scores as noted above. By now, the standards have been monetized and very well-connected interests have a stake in the testing system remaining in place, both technology entrepreneurs hoping to mine big data pools and the testing companies themselves.  At $24 dollars per student, Pearson looks to make over $20 million from New York City alone each time a Common Core aligned test is deployed.

Big interests both in private and public venues may be vested in the testing and evaluation of teachers tied to Common Core, but those reforms are driving a huge amount of the informed backlash.  While the standards themselves have flaws and controversies, the very teachers Mr. Petrilli has cited as supporting CCSS do not support either the heavy testing regimen coming with them or the flawed VAM evaluations tied to the testing.  Instead of trying to manufacture “emotion” among supporters of the standards, Mr. Petrilli would do better to try to disentangle them from the toxic mix of high stakes testing and evaluations that accompany them.  I have trouble picturing him doing so because both he and his allies are not simply supporting the standards — they are supporting the whole package the standards were designed to promote.

But until that happens, I cannot even consider saying that I #SupportTheCore — and I bet most teachers won’t either.

5 Comments

Filed under Common Core, Gates Foundation, Media, Pearson, politics, VAMs

Lessons For the Media in the Age of Social Media

Earlier this year, Bill and Emma Keller found themselves in a bit of hot water online.  The trouble began when Emma Keller published a blog in The Guardian on January 8th that was, charitably, poor received by many readers.  In it, she discussed a woman named Lisa Bonchek Adams who blogs and tweets about her experiences living with metastatic breast cancer.  What was striking about Keller’s blog were inaccuracies about how Adams discusses her disease, intimations that she is at death’s door rather than living as many women do with stage 4 cancer, and language that struck a wide range of readers as inherently disrespectful, even going so far as to ponder if Adams’ frequent tweets amounted to “deathbed selfies”. Not unexpectedly, Keller’s blog generated a massive wave of criticism, and not merely from Adams’ many readers. Shortly thereafter, it became obvious that Keller had quoted from private correspondences with Adams and did not disclose that to either her subject or her readers, and The Guardian took down the post for being out of compliance with their standards.

Oddly enough, the Kellers were not done writing about Lisa Bonchek Adams because on January 12th, Bill Keller, husband of Emma Keller and former executive editor of the New York Times, took to the opinion pages of that paper with a column pondering the propriety of so-called “heroic measures” when faced with an illness that will, ultimately, take one’s life.  His column compounded the errors in his wife’s blog by characterizing Adams’ blogging and tweeting in military terms when she had repeatedly written how much she dislikes those metaphors.  Keller apparently even contacted Sloan-Kettering to discuss the cost of a therapy dog program that Adams’ wrote about, a discussion that Sloan-Kettering quite correctly refused to have with him.  While Keller, in a response from the Times’ public editor, insisted he respects Adams’ choices for her own treatment and public persona, it was hard for many readers, myself included, to not read condescension when he compared his father in law’s death as “humane and honorable” even as he consistently portrayed Adams’ stance as military in nature, a metaphor he said contributed to make death an “expensive misery” in America.

Suffice to say that I believe the Kellers cooperatively stepped in it. But what was more instructive to me was their response to the enormous wave of criticism they received.  Bill Keller defensively declared that many readers would only accept him having said “Right on, Lisa!” and Emma Keller insisted that she had been “misread”, which is not an uncommon refrain from those who are displeased that they have been criticized precisely because people understand full well what they meant.

I find this instructive because it rather neatly demonstrates how poorly many elite media personae, who should know better, understand the world of information in which we live today.  When I was a child, people like the Kellers were likely the only way any of their readers would have ever learned of Lisa Bonchek Adams and her perspectives on living with stage 4 cancer.  The odds of any given reader encountering her would have been miniscule, and while a paper might have granted her a right to publish a few lines defending herself, that would sit in unequal weight to the writings of well respected journalists.  Further, influential people both in governance and industry would seek out leading opinion makers and court their voices.  It must have been a position both humbling and ego gratifying.

That world has changed dramatically, but the Kellers blundered into it unaware.  Lisa Bonchek Adams has 10s of thousands of readers who know full well how distorted a view of her writing was placed in venerable institutions like The Guardian and the New York Times.  Further, media itself has exploded with many more bloggers finding venues for commentary, both prominent and humble.  Simply put: the opinion page of the New York Times is not the only game in town but the paper’s recent executive editor seems unaware of how unprivileged his position has become. Worse, both Kellers seemed unwilling to process just how sloppily they had misrepresented Adams’ writings and perspectives even when they had her entire body work literally at their fingertips.

Watching that unfold helped me realize what was going on in a series of Op-Ed page pieces regarding education in the United States.  In October, Bill Keller repeated accusations from the National Council on Teacher Quality that teacher education is an “industry of mediocrity”.  Keller was followed in November by Joe Nocera repeating more NCTQ accusations on the failures of teacher education.  I found this puzzling not because there is no room in teacher education for both improvement and for innovation, but because NCTQ’s landmark “study” was not exactly without its critics.  It was conducted without a single site visit to a university based teacher preparation program and drew its conclusions about the content of programs mainly by sifting through publically available documents.  Linda Darling Hammond of Stanford University made this crystal clear in an article months before Keller and Nocera’s pieces were published.  If the gentlemen from the Times still found NCTQ’s conclusions compelling, they are certainly entitled, but what stood out was how completely unaware they appeared to be of the organization’s agenda and, by then, notorious errors.

The same lack of fundamental investigation has guided editorials relating to the Common Core State Standards.  In November, the Editorial Board published a piece on the progress of standards implementation that presented none of the concerns about tying teacher performance to the standardized examinations that are central to the enterprise.  A few days later, Frank Bruni used his personal Op-Ed column to tie concerns and opposition to the unfolding Common Core to parents who wish to “coddle” their children from all disappointment.  Bruni conflated two easily relatable phenomena, parents who do not raise their children to become sufficiently independent and able to adapt to failure and opposition to standards largely by failing to ask any questions that might make that relationship problematic.  Both Bruni and the Editorial Board treated the Core as entirely uncontroversial, and this, too, is odd given that legitimate and well founded concerns about the Core’s development, implementation and connection to high stakes testing are easily available.  I suppose it is very tempting to assume there is nothing wrong with the Common Core when patrons both influential (Bill Gates) and powerful (the Obama administration) are enthusiastic and court the press, but readers could have left both columns with no knowledge that anyone has concerns about the current reforms more meritorious than fringe conspiracy theories and “coddling” children from disappointment — or that rising test scores could ever be a sign of poor teaching.

I like to think that the journalists of my youth were more rigorous than this, and perhaps that is itself terribly naïve.  I certainly have no idea how many unresearched opinion pieces graced the pages of the Times in the 1970s.  What I do know is that I have identified a pattern of intellectual laziness that, for reasons I do not know, eschews due diligence when writing about topics that have multiple, legitimate, points of view.  Further, I see a pattern of columnists in historically influential and exclusive positions failing to effectively fact check in an age when such information is easier than ever for them to access — moreover, that information is easier than ever for their READERS to access.  It is a pattern that bodes poorly for our ability to believe that institutions like the New York Times can be trusted to set a legitimate debate on matters like public education and that means they will be subject to more and more crowd sourced skepticism.

2 Comments

Filed under Media