I Want That School!

There are a couple of companies on TV that run commercials touting how they are different from their many competitors.  You may have seen them for both buying a car and choosing a frozen pizza.  The consumer is standing before a plethora of options, and starts identifying personal preferences.  When all is said and done, there is only one choice left.

What if we have that option with our public schools?  What is we were able to go and identify what we want from a school in a range of categories?  What if we were able to prioritize what issues are most important for us in choosing a public school for our child?
It may not be such a crazy question.  For residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (yeah, go Sox, Beard nation, yada yada) the Boston Globe has launched an online Massachusetts school calculator tool, called DreamSchool Finder.  (I know, not loving the name, but the intent is well meaning.)
At DreamSchool Finder, parents can choose the region of the state, the grade level of the child, and then get to look at five characteristics, giving them each percentages until the 100% mark is hit.  The choices include: Mathematics Growth, English Language Arts Growth, School Climate, College Readiness, School Resources, and Diversity.
So for those parents who care only about the test scores, they can be all about math and ELA growth and college readiness.  Those more concerned with the school culture can emphasize climate and resources.  
It is an interesting concept, and it is one that can significantly empower a parent or caregiver when used appropriately.  For families looking to relocate, it provides a tool for helping better understand which town may be best to lay down roots.  For others, it lets you see what schools might be doing it better, based on your percentages, and help you identify why so you can bring solutions to your own neighborhood school.
And if you had such a tool in a community that believed in complete school choice, it could be the holy grail.
Kudos to boston.com for offering up the resource.  Clearly, there is the need.  We should be working to develop more tools and providing more information so that parents are better informed on what is happening in their schools and better understand how other schools may be better suited to meet their own needs or preferences.

Is Anyone Pro-Privatization? Anyone?

Earlier this week, MSNBC posted a new video on its website.  It is from the Melissa Harris-Perry Show, with special guest Diane Ravitch touting her latest book (which in fairness, Eduflack hasn’t read).

While I don’t usually stop for such video segments, I was taken by the headline that MSNBC (the Lean Forward network) was putting on the segment.  The piece led with the screamer, “The Case Against School Privatization.”
Those who know Eduflack know that I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the education reform movement.  During that time, I got pretty immune to what folks would say about me or about reformers in general.  And over time, the repeated accusations of “privatization and profiteering” started to sound like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon to me.
But I paused when I saw it on a supposed unbiased news network.  And it leads to a very important question.
Is anyone out there actually advocating for the privatization of our public schools?
I offer this as a serious question.  Who is pro-privatization?  At least more privatization than we already have.  We have already privatized transportation (bus service) and school lunches and textbooks and professional development.  And last I checked utilities and such are still provided by private companies (many of whom actually draw a profit from it as well).
But is there anyone out there looking to turn public schools into private ones?
And please, don’t give me the charter school argument.  Whether one wants to accept it or not, charter schools are public schools.  Yes, they are an alternative to our traditional public schools.  But they are still public schools.  
So where are they?  Who are these horrible beasts that are looking to take our well-meaning public schools and turn them into private schools?  Who is seeking to take a neighborhood school and turn it into a home for J. Crew and the country club set?  Who is actually out there converting all of these public schools?  Who are these privatizers we should be so fearful of and who we are creating all of these supposed white knights to slay the privatization beasts? 
Truth be told, the only thing we have seen in recent years is private schools going public.  Look to our nation’s capital.  After the U.S. Congress pulled the plug on voucher funding, many of the Catholic schools that were serving the vast majority of voucher kids decided to convert from parochial institutions into public charter schools.  These Center City schools saw the need to continue their service to the community and to the kids they were educating, and publicized (if that is the right word) themselves.
While there is plenty in public education that we can debate and argue about, do we really need to throw privatization in the mix?  It is a cheap rhetorical trick meant to win over an uneducated population.  No one is rushing to convert public schools private.  Practically no one (at least no well-meaning reformers) are even talking about it. So why frame what should be an intelligent, well-meaning debate that way?
We need to spend more time engaging in meaningful dialogues about our schools and what we can do together to improve them.  Ad hominem attacks, fake arguments, and phony straw men works against that goal.  it may sell some books, but it does very little to help ensure that all our students receive a high-quality, meaningful public education.
 

Dream School, Seriously?

“Pregnant, neglected or bullied; the students all have one thing in common — each had a life experience that caused them to take an unexpected left turn.  Dream School’s celebrity teachers will have one mission — to excite these young minds, reignite their passions, and get them to graduate from a real, accredited high school.”
And so begins the introduction to Dream School, the latest television spectacle from the Sundance Channel, a subsidiary of the AMC Networks.  Based on the website, the show has been on for at least a month and a half (if we do the math from the six episodes up for viewing on the site now.  But dear ol’ Eduflack (a self-confessed television junkie) honestly hadn’t heard about it until this week.
The premise is fairly simple.  A team of “celebrities” decide to play teacher as they seek to change the lives of young adults in need of life changing.  For the enormity of the challenge, Sundance has turned to successful educators such as 50 Cent, David Arquette, Oliver Stone, and Jesse Jackson.  They are supported by a superintendent from California and three teachers (all from California charter schools, interestingly).
So it begs an important question.  Where is the public outrage on Dream School?  
For all of those who grow short of breath ranting about Teach for America and its lack of proper teacher preparation, where is the outrage of placing inexperienced and untrained celebrities in classrooms with the very definition of at-risk students?
For all of those who get red in the face questioning the value of charter schools, where is the outrage of only using teacher coaches who come from public charter schools?
For all of those who argue good teachers cannot overcome poverty and family situations, where is the outrage that a celebrity can step in and do the job that entire school system was supposedly unable to do?
For those who talk of overcrowded classrooms, where is the outrage that Dream School is essentially a one-to-one intervention?
For those who fear the “profiteering” on our public schools, where is the outrage over where all of the ad revenue for this new show is going?
And how can we pass up responding to a gem like, “But how will they perform as teachers to some of America’s toughest high school dropouts?”
Yes, our schools shouldn’t be test tubes.  But they also shouldn’t be the settings for reality television experiments.  Some of these students seem to have real problems.  They need knowledgeable, experienced educators who can provide them the support and attention they need.  Somehow, “no, I’m not a teacher, but I play one on TV” doesn’t quite seem to be the full answer these at-risk students need.

The NEA and the Common Core

We are living in a CCSS world.  We all know that.  As of this morning, 45 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted Common Core State Standards.  Come the next academic year, most students outside the state of Texas will be part of a CCSS-focused approach to teaching and learning.

While we can argue about the urban legends behind the creation of CCSS, the shadowy creatures who supposedly worked in back rooms to develop a comprehensive set of standards for reading and math that were publicly flogged all in some grand scheme to privatize the schools, profit off the system, move all our jobs to India, and signal the black helicopters where to land, we simply can’t argue that we are living a CCSS life.
But that hasn’t stopped some from thinking if they close their eyes real hard, click their heels together, and loudly wish for a different hand, then we might rid our schools of CCSS and all the alleged evils that will follow it.
The anti-CCSS rhetoric seems to get more heated by the day.  We have those on one extreme attacking CCSS for being a ploy of Bill Gates and part of a grand conspiracy to take over our schools.  On the other extreme, we have those who think CCSS will hand over our public schools to the United Nations, robbing our classrooms of the good ol’ local common sense they need to “succeed” as they have all these many decades.
All this seems to be squeezing out efforts to ensure that the CCSS are implemented effectively and with fidelity.  It is drowning out efforts to ensure that classroom materials and PD are truly aligned, and not merely given the lip service they were during the Reading First fights.  
So credit needs to go out to the National Education Association.  NEA represents 3 million educators, and has chapters in every state (including the 45 who adopted CCSS) and in 14,000 communities across the United States.  Any reader of Eduflack knows that the union has a very strong point of view when it comes to many policy issues.  And in a previous life, I had my own issues with NEA and its stances on needed school reforms.
At any rate, last week, NEA posted a great article on its NEA Today website.  The title?  10 Things You Should Know About the Common Core.  Written for its members, the article seeks to poke some holes in the urban legends around CCSS, while providing educators with some meaningful information as each of them prepare for CCSS implementation in their classroom.
Kudos and bouquets to NEA providing needed information.  NEA has long recognized that even if it disagrees with policy, it needs to ensure that its members are getting the supports necessary when it comes to practice.  Look back at NCLB and Reading First, two policies very unpopular with NEA. Yes, the organization advocated against those laws and continually pushed to have them changed.  But it also provided tools, guides, info, and PD to teachers to ensure that every child received the education they deserved.
And what was the response?  From the looks of the NEA Today website, nothing but a whole lot of vitriol.  Accusations about motivations and of being bought.  Disgust dripping from many a poster.  And lots and lots of anger.
What was so offensive in the original article?  Well, let’s take a look at some of the items that NEA called out:
* Because of CCSS, “drill and kill” curriculum could be history
* High-quality fiction, such as Shakespeare and American literature, should be taught under CCSS
* “Common Core promotes curricular learning”
* “Implementation is a work in progress”
* “Teacher leadership is essential”
Yes, I can see why so many educators would be angry with that.  But the most frustration is actually focused on a single bullet point — “Most NEA Members Support the Common Core.”  Here, NEA reiterated a poll conducted in July of this year by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research that “found that 75 percent of its members — teachers and education support professionals — supported the standards outright or supported ‘with reservations.'”
Yes, one could say that 100 commenters from an organization of 3 million is nothing worthy of a second thought.  It is the very definition of statistically insignificant.  And quantitatively, one would be correct.  
But qualitatively, the level of anger and vitriol is just too hard to ignore.  With some professional rabble rousers doing everything they can to turn back efforts on accountability and assessment and school improvement, too many well meaning efforts get caught in the crossfire.  Eduflack just never thought it would be NEA itself getting trapped.
Perhaps it is time for us all to take a collective breath and take some time to reflect on how we move on from here.  Instead of ranting and raving and railing, maybe, just maybe, it is time for us to pursue a new field for a meaningful dialogue on the issues that affect our schools and our kids the most.  We put the fighting words aside, instead focusing on what is working, what is promising, and how we keep focused on learning.
While not everyone in education agrees on everything (though we agree on far more than we disagree), we should all be able to recognize common sense approaches to sensitive issues.  NEA should be commended for trying to help educators navigate the herculean task of getting CCSS online and for dispelling some of the more egregious urban legends surrounding the standards.  They don’t deserve what they seem to be getting in response.
Sometimes, though, haters just gotta hate.  True in life, and definitely true in education.

Are You There God, It’s Me Eduflack?

The latest volley has been launched in the ongoing battle against the evils of testing.  Today, the folks over at No Test, sorry, meant Fair Test, released a letter they coordinated from more than 100 children’s book authors to EdSec Arne Duncan, attacking increased testing, computer adaptive testing, teacher evaluation measures, and “the narrowing of curriculum” for eliminating students’ love of reading and literature.

The full letter can be found here.   Hat tip to Stephanie Simon over at Politico PRO Education for spotlighting the letter this morning.
Lots of signatories on the list.  Some names folks know, many that they don’t.  Eduflack’s personal fave is Judy Blume.  I’ll admit, as a kid, she was one of my favorite authors.  I read everything she wrote.  I even triggered the town librarian call my mom one afternoon because she thought it was inappropriate for a young boy to be reading “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?” My mother, the high school English teacher, ignored the advice of the librarian, and I read the book many times over.
Eduflack can appreciate the concerns these authors and illustrators have.  And I might even be willing to concede that a child’s love for reading and literature has declined in recent years.  But is it because of testing, or is it because of multimedia?  Do we blame the bubble sheet, or do we blame the multitude of options now competing for a young learner’s attention?
Honestly, I’m getting a little tired of testing being blamed for all that is perceived wrong in our country.  Too many people far too often are throwing everything and anything they can in their Quixotic approach to rid our world of testing.  We ignore that testing has been a part of our public schools for as long as we’ve had public schools.  We overlook that testing data can play a meaningful role in improving both teaching and learning.  We avoid the true debate, a discussion about ensuring the value of testing and the use and application of high-quality assessments.
Instead, we rail against the system, throwing the red meat on “high-stakes testing,” “testing and reading schemes,” and “testing overuse and abuse.”  We talk in media releases, instead of engaging in dialogues.  And we turn to scare tactics and the negative, instead of exploring common ground and the positive.
We need to stop our Blubber, clear our Tiger Eyes, and Forever commit to a better way to talk about schools, school improvement, and testing.  Otherwise, there will be no more Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing because more than a third of our fourth graders still won’t be reading at grade level.  If we really want Sally J. Freedman to star as herself, can’t we shift from this vitriol to a more meaningful community engagement?
Or perhaps I should just let a few Superfudges fly, and accept this is just as it is.  Then Again, Maybe I Won’t …
 

Blame Common Core!

In the terrific movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, the Colorado town is faced with a scourge of extreme potty mouth.  The solution?  Blame Canada!  After all, Canada was responsible for serving as a home to a foul-mouthed TV show the community’s kids just loved. So of course we declare war on our neighbor to the north.  How else to deal with the cussin’?

After attending parent-teacher conferences last evening for my kids’ school, I feel a bit of a South Park moment coming on.  Only instead of Canada, we are now blaming all of our educational ills on the dreaded Common Core State Standards.
I’ll try to forget the teacher who lapsed into edu-speak, using every abbreviation in the K-12 eyechart.  Sure, Eduflack knows all of the acronyms that were used in a relatively short conversation, but how many other parents in that class do?
I’ll try to forgive the one teacher who dropped guard to tell us that first graders used to have to answer 30 simply addition and subtraction problems in three minutes, but they’ve now extended it to 50 problems because too many kids were hitting the benchmark in previous years.
And I’ll even try to overlook the exchange over parent materials.  After commending a teacher for giving us two handouts from the Council of Great City Schools’ Parent Roadmap series (and remarking that it was interesting that our small, suburban school district was using materials from CGCS, but getting no acknowledgement that the teacher even knew what CGCS was), the eduwife and I simply got a tart response to the effect that the principal shared these materials, but they really aren’t relevant because “our school doesn’t do these sorts of things.”
But dear ol’ Eduflack can’t shake one of the discussions on what is happening in the classroom.
We started our discussion on the mathematics side of the ledger.  We actually spent most of our time talking coinage.  At issue was the ability to distinguish, on a work sheet mind you, the differences between the head of a quarter and the head of a nickel.  I was told that the Common Core requires knowledge of coins and recognition of their respective fronts and backs.  It took every fiber of my being not to point out that we are moving to a paperless world (has anyone heard of bitcoin, or even the new RFID bracelets that do away with currency in Disney World?), and the future of pennies and nickels are likely limited in our society.  And I resisted asking how recognizing FDR on the dime would make a second grader college and career ready.
Imagine my surprise to go back and look at the standards and indeed see that the second grade CCSS state that a student should “solve word problems involving dollar bills, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies, using $ and ¢ symbols appropriately.” So while this educator is indeed taking it a bit far, working with money is indeed a part of the CCSS.
We then moved on to the reading side of the coin, if you will.  And here my blood began to boil.  The discussion quickly shifted again to CCSS.  Here, we were informed that the standards require students to be able to “diagram words.”  No, not the sentence diagrams I remember fondly as a child.  Diagramming a specific word.  Recognizing that a word like “scream” has eight individual or blended sounds and being able to mark each of the individual components to a given word.
So it is asking students — second graders — to diagram the digraph, blend, digraph blend, closed syllables, glued sounds and the like.  Every mark counts.  Be sure to show your work.
The rub here it is all or nothing.  A student gets no credit for IDing seven of the eight pieces.  Miss one, and you get a zero.  Get a zero, and you are SOL when it comes to meeting “the standards.”
I went back to the second grade CCSS, and I can find nothing on these supposed word diagrams.  Is it an overreaching extension of the phonics components of the standards?  Is it an interpretation based on a veteran teacher’s past experience?  Or is it just more administrative gobbledygook that helps frustrate those parents just hoping to understand what is happening in their child’s classroom?
I’m tired of CCSS now serving as an excuse for just checking the boxes and drilling students.  I’m tired of the continued focus on inputs and not the actual outcomes or the students themselves.  I’m tired of the blame game.  
And I recognize a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  It is one thing to discuss CCSS and related issues in our policy bubble.  It is something completely different to be doing it from those half-sized plastic chairs in an elementary school.  And while I know the acronyms and the dreaded standards that were thrown around, what about those parents who don’t?  Are they running home to teach the nickel?  Or to figure out for themselves home to diagram the glue sound?
For now, it seems we will all just continue to blame the Common Core.  Maybe it is time to follow Cartman’s advice and ask what Brian Boitano would do …

A Teachable Moment on Columbus Day

So Eduflack comes from a proud Italian-Amerian family (at least on my paternal side).  My paternal grandfather, the man I was named after, was born Ponzion Ricciardelli.  He was first generation American.  His family came in through Boston, instead of Ellis Island, and you can still find a slew of Ricciardellis stomping around Beantown.

He changed his name to Patrick Riccards in the 1950s, but the pride in our heritage never changed.  My father’s mother is both a Finelli and a Peron (yes, our family is partly responsible for Evita’s 15 and a half minutes of fame).  And as the genealogy goes, I am also descendent of proud Italians who fought on Garibaldi’s right hand in the liberation of Italy itself.
Over the weekend, my princesa, now in the first grade, began telling me all she learned this week about Christopher Columbus.  Typically, Columbus is another one of those pride points for an Italian-American family.  She told me about the three ships and how he sailed, and how he came to America to “discover a land for you and me.”
Those who know me know that both of my children are adopted from Guatemala.  And they know how proud we are of that, as a family.  Both my kids know they are adopted.  They both know about Guatemala  And they both fight us each week as they have to get up extra early for their weekly Spanish class before school starts.  We want them to be proud of their heritage, both that which they were born into and that into which they were adopted.
So imagine my surprise as I took this lesson as a teachable moment to remind my princesa of where she comes from.  First, I congratulated her for all that she had learned and the poem she had written about Columbus.  I then explained to her how she is descendent of the Mayan civilization, and the advances they achieved and how much they had done well before Columbus ever set foot on North America. 
We talked about what descendent meant, about what the Mayan did, and to remind he of where she came from.  She seemed to get most of it.  Asked a few additional questions, then went back to playing with her horses.
In years past, Columbus Day was always one of those great points of pride.  It is still true.  And while I am one of the last people who would ever be called “politically correct,” I found the need to explain, to make sure my kids shared the same pride about their heritage that I do, and understand that there is often more to the story than they might originally hear.
Heritage in an adopted family can be a tricky thing.  By blood, my kiddos are Guatemalan with Mayan ancestry.  On my paternal side, I have my proud Italian-American family.  On my maternal side, I am German-Irish-Scottish, with the Scots bringing a family tie to William the Bruce (of Braveheart fame) and of an alleged witch who was stoned to death in the village square.
The edu-wife offers up a paternal side of Russian Jews.  On her maternal side, she is descendent of an actual signer of the Declaration of Independence (from the Commonwealth of Virginia) and a pirate of the same era.  
We are the American melting pot.  So on this Columbus Day, I am proud of my heritage and equally proud of where my children come from.  I am proud of the Ricciardellis immigrating through Boston, and of my two kiddos immigrating through Houston as I helped them get sworn in as citizens in the bowels of Bush International Airport as they were seven and 13 months old.
Life is full of teachable moments.  I’m glad I was able to take advantage of this one and hope my kids will be able to share the same moment as they explain where they come from and what makes them who they are today, be it Mayan Guatemalan, Italian Catholic, Russian Jew, and pirate.