Teacher dies protecting students

A Marine veteran, Michael Landsberry survived two tours in Afghanistan with the Nevada Air National Guard. The Sparks (Nevada) middle school math teacher died trying to disarm a student yesterday. The 12-year-old shooter also wounded two boys, who are in stable condition, before killing himself.

“Mr. Landsberry’s heroic actions, by stepping toward the shooter, allowed time for other students in the playground area to flee,” said Washoe County School District Police Chief Mike Mieras.

Before opening fire, the boy said, “Why you people making fun of me, why you laughing at me?,” according to student Michelle Hernandez.

The boy used a Ruger 9 mm semiautomatic handgun that belonged to his parents, police said.

“The relentless, inflexible and unyielding focus on ‘test-taking’ and school rankings and scores” is to blame, writes Debra Feemster, a former Sparks principal, on Diane Ravitch’s blog. “If one teacher, counselor or administrator had had a few extra minutes to look into this student’s eyes and possibly connected with him in a meaningful way, maybe this catastrophe could have been averted.”

“Think of the children whose social and emotional needs are ignored in pursuit of test scores,” Ravitch writes.

Feemster and Ravitch are accusing Sparks Middle School staffers of ignoring students’ “social and emotional needs” and failing to prevent the shooting.

Let’s honor Mr. Landsberry’s courage and decency. Let’s not politicize a tragedy.

We need more tests, but what kind?

American Schools Need More Testing, Not Less, writes Ezekiel J. Emanuel in The New Republic. Students learn more when they take frequent, short tests.

A young neuroscientist named Andrew Butler has gone further, showing that testing can actually facilitate creative problem solving. In Butler’s research, undergraduates were given six prose passages of about 1,000 words each filled with facts and concepts. (Fact: There are approximately 1,000 species of bats. Concept: how bats’ echolocation works.) He had the students just study some of the passages; others, he repeatedly tested them on. Not only did his subjects demonstrate a better grasp of the tested material, but they also fared better when asked to take the concepts about which they’d been quizzed and apply them in completely new contexts—for example, by using what they’d learned about bat and bird wings to answer questions about airplane wings. When students had been tested on the passages, rather than just reading them, they got about 50 percent more of the answers correct. They were better at drawing inferences, thanks to the testing effect.

Only tests written by teachers are useful, responds Diane Ravitch. “Today’s standardized tests are useless.”

What he really admires, and appropriately so, are the regular weekly tests that he took in high school chemistry. His chemistry teacher Mr. Koontz knew what he had taught. He tested the students on what they had learned. He knew by the end of the day or over the weekend which students were keeping up and which ones were falling behind. He could act on that knowledge immediately to make sure that students understood what he thought he had taught and to explain it again to those who did not. He also learned whether to adjust his style of teaching to communicate the concepts and facts of chemistry more clearly to students. Mr. Koontz used the tests appropriately: to help his students.

Standardized exams are being used as “a ranking and rating system, one that gives carrots to teachers if their students do well but beats them with a stick (or fires them and closes their school) if they don’t,” Ravitch writes.

Most researchers say that teacher quality cannot be reliably measured by student test scores, because there are so many other variables that influence the scores, but the federal Department of Education is betting billions of dollars on it.

The job of writing, grading and analyzing tests belongs to “Mr. Koontz, not to Arne Duncan or Pearson or McGraw-Hill,” concludes Ravitch.

Core ‘exemplars’ set off controversy

In Alabama and Ohio, there are calls to remove Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from high school reading lists, even though it’s a Common Core “exemplar.” The book depicts a father raping his daughter.
bluesteye

In Arizona, the controversial exemplar is Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, which includes an explicit sex scene.

cubanThe exemplars aren’t a national reading list, writes Fordham’s Checker Finn. Appendix B of the English standards includes “examples of fiction, non-fiction, poems etc. that show the sort of thing students should be able to read with understanding at various points in the K–12 sequence.”

A short excerpt from The Bluest Eye appears along with writing by Poe, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Melville, Bronte, Shakespeare, Keats, etc., writes Finn. It’s intended for 11th graders. “I find the excerpt complex, demanding, and a bit obscure, but not offensive.” Others think the book is “pornographic, unsuitable for school kids of any age.”

It’s up to school districts to decide what students should read, concludes Finn. Don’t like the exemplars on Appendix B? Choose other works. But don’t expect to avoid offending everyone.

. . .  as Diane Ravitch showed in The Language Police, when you scrub every library, every reading list, every textbook, and every test item clean of everything that could offend anybody for any reason, you end up with the boring pablum that dominates so much of today’s curriculum. One reason American kids don’t read much is because what remains for them to read is so dull.

Noah Berlatsky has been writing textbooks and exams for two decades, he writes in The Atlantic. He’s forced to cater to a “nebulous, ill-defined fear of offending anyone.”

Obviously, when freelance writing or finding test passages for kids of whatever age, I know my work will be rejected if I mention evolution. But I’m also not allowed to mention snakes, or violent storms, or cancer, or racial discrimination, or magic. Authority figures, including teachers and Woodrow Wilson, can never be questioned. Pop culture can’t be mentioned. Living people can’t be mentioned. Death can’t be mentioned.

The Revisionaries, a 2012 documentary just released on DVD, shows how right-wing ideologues on the Texas State Board of Education pushed through changes in the standards. It’s “riveting and infuriating,” writes Berlatsky. But it ignores the fact that “idiotic, anti-intellectual regulation of content is not restricted to the far right.” The language police — he cites Ravitch too — insist on “bland colorless paste.”

Ravitch vs. reform

Comments were disabled on the previous Ravitch post by evil gremlins who I am unable to thwart.  Please feel free to comment here.

Ravitch’s alternative to reform

An “architect of school reform,” Diane Ravitch turned against it, writes Sara Mosle in The Atlantic.  Instead of leading a “mid-course correction,” she “further polarized an already strident debate” and became a leader of the anti-reformers.

Ravitch presents her new book, Reign of Error, as “an overture to dialogue with opponents, but her subtitle suggests otherwise: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools,” writes Mosle.

Her tour of the research is littered with bumper-sticker slogans—she indicts, for example, the “Walmartization of American education”—likely to put off the unconverted. The book reads like a campaign manual against “corporate reformers.” The first half challenges the claims of their movement; the second offers Ravitch’s alternative agenda. Her prescriptions include universal pre-K, smaller class sizes, better teacher training, and more measures to reduce poverty and school segregation.

These are worthy goals—and not one of them is necessarily incompatible with many reformers’ own aims. Yet Ravitch doesn’t address competing priorities or painful trade-offs. Further reducing class size in better-off suburban districts, for example, may leave less money for more urgently needed early-childhood programs in poorer communities.

In 2010, Ravitch understood that parents choose charters as a “haven.” Now she has dropped the eliminationist rhetoric for non profit charters but not for the forprofit operators.

No credential, no job for Vallas

Once superintendent in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, reformer Paul Vallas is unqualified to lead the Bridgeport, Connecticut school district, because he lacks an administrative credential, a Superior Court judge ruled. She said Vallas can’t stay in the job while appealing.

The state board of education created an independent study program for Vallas to meet the credential requirements, which normally require 13 months of study at a Connecticut college or university. The judge rejected the board’s alternative.

Like a number of urban superintendents, Vallas isn’t a professional educator. “A longtime state legislative aide and budget director for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, he took over the job of running the Chicago schools in 1997 after the state put them under Daley’s control,” notes Governing. Narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary for governor of Illinois in 2002,” he was hired to run Philadelphia schools after Pennsylvania took them over. Then he went to New Orleans to run the Recovery School District.

“I think it’s bizarre that we’d allow paper credentials from programs with lackluster reputations disqualify a candidate with an extensive track record,” writes Rick Hess. “Seems to me like it makes a lot more sense to just judge Vallas on what he’s done, his skills, and his temperament. I think Vallas is an impressive guy and that it’d be a bad thing if he were actually pushed out of office.”

Normally hostile to reformers, Diane Ravitch published a defense of Vallas by a commenter who worked for him in Chicago.

Private and public parents

Ed reformer Michelle Rhee, who described herself as a “public school parent,” is also a private school parent:  One of her two daughters, who live with her ex-husband in Tennessee, goes to private school. (When Rhee ran Washington D.C. schools, she sent her daughters to public school in the city.)

Anti-reformer Diane Ravitch criticized Rhee for not admitting that one of her kids goes to private school till she was outed, apparently by the American Federation of Teachers.

In New York City, Leonie Haimson, founder of  the NYC Public School Parents blog and Class Size Matters and a Ravitch ally, also turns out to be a private school parent, Gotham Schools revealed.

A fierce critic of education reformers, charter schools, testing and Mayor Bloomberg, Haimson chose private school for her daughter and son for the small classes she wants for all students, she wrote on the NYC Public School Parents blog.

Haimson criticized “Rhee and President Barack Obama for sending their children to private schools with small class sizes while not pushing for the same priorities for public schools,” notes the Wall Street Journal.

“Leonie has to do what is best for her kids,” said Joe Williams, who as head of advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform has often clashed with Ms. Haimson. “The only problem is that she keeps choosing to defend the same awful schools she would never allow her kids to attend.”

At Dropout Nation, RiShawn Biddle backs school choice for all parents, from   Haimson to low-income parents. Those who can’t afford private school tuition rely on “school choice — from charters to vouchers to tax credit programs to Parent Trigger laws to online learning options”  to free their children from dropout factories, writes Biddle.

If public figures choose private school for their own kids are they obliged to support school choice? If they oppose public school reforms, are they obliged to send their kids to public schools?

Ravitch launches anti-reform group

Education historian Diane Ravitch has launched the Network for Public Education to back political candidates who oppose education reforms such as high-stakes testing, school closures and “privatizing” public schools, reports Ed Week.

NPE promises to “give voice to the millions of parents, educators, and other citizens who are fed up with corporate-style reform.”

“Wealthy individuals are pouring unprecedented amounts of money into state and local school board races,” a press release charges. Ravitch told Ed Week her group will endorse candidates and urge others to donate, but won’t raise money itself to give to candidates.

“What we want to do is be the kind of glue and use the social media to create a powerful national movement.”

And while there are powerful teachers’ unions that have a similar agenda and a lot of money and influence, she said the Network for Public Education will also be a home for those who don’t belong to unions—including parents and teachers in nonunion states.

Two California school board races in Los Angeles and West Sacramento – drew large donations as reformers and anti-reformers fought it out.

Needed: More ideologues, less kumbaya

“Can’t we all just get along?” asked Rodney King. No, answers Matt Barnum on Dropout Nation. School reformers and traditionalists have different ideas on “what’s best for kids.”  Ideas matter.

A Teach for America alum, he criticizes TFA President Wendy Kopp for writing, “We have to stop thinking of ourselves as locked in an ideological battle and focus on doing everything in our power to give students today the education they deserve.”

. . . Kopp seems to create a dichotomy between ideologues –those “locked in an ideological battle” – on the one hand, and those who want to do what’s best for kids, on the other. In actuality, ideologues not only want what’s best for kids, they actually have ideas – some good, some bad – for how to achieve results. Reformers emphasize school choice, parental empowerment, and teacher quality; traditionalists focus on class size, early-childhood education, and wrap-around services.

It seems to me that part of the problem in education is not too many, but rather, too few ideologues.

Traditionalist Diane Ravitch and union leader Karen Lewis have engaged in increasingly vicious attacks, writes Barnum. Reformers have employed “harmful and distasteful rhetoric.”  He favors “discussing ideas over demeaning people.”

At times, compromise may be necessary Barnum concedes. But not always. An “uncompromising, ideological vision of change to our education system may, in fact, be what’s best for kids.”

Teachers refuse to give ‘useless’ tests

Teachers at a Seattle high school are refusing to give a district-mandated exam, saying it’s a waste of time, reports NPR. Measures of Academic Progress is given up to three times a year from kindergarten through at least ninth grade, in addition to state exams.

Garfield High’s academic dean, Kris McBride, MAP doesn’t seem to align with district or state curricula. Teachers can’t see the test, so they don’t know why their students did well or poorly. (MAP adapts to students’ performance levels, giving easier or harder questions depending on how well they do, so there is no one exam for all students.)

Portfolios of students’ work could replace MAP, writes teacher Jesse Hagopian in a Seattle Times op-ed.

Seattle’s ninth- and 10th-grade students already take five state-required standardized tests . . . Seattle Public Schools staff admitted to a Garfield teacher the MAP test is not valid at the high-school level, because the margin of error is greater than expected gains.

. . . Students don’t take the MAP seriously because they know their scores don’t factor into their grades or graduation status. They approach it less seriously each time they take it, so their scores decline. Our district uses MAP scores in teacher evaluations, even though the MAP company recommends against using it to evaluate teacher effectiveness and it’s not mandated in our union contract.

Eleven teachers at ORCA K-8, a Seattle alternative school, have joined the boycott.

More than 60 educators and researchers have signed a statement supporting the test boycott, including Jonathan Kozol, Diane Ravitch and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.