Healing From Our Current Wreckage

On the evening of September 11, 2001, I listened to the death toll from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and from the plane crash in the fields of Pennsylvania.  I knew too well what the sudden death of one loved family member does to the rest of that person’s one family and thought that the grief of 2,977 families in shock about the deaths of their loved ones would crush us all. I was sure that we, as a society, could not survive so much  grief.

Grief doesn’t ever go away, but Manal Ezzat, a Muslim woman and engineer with the U.S. Army who was present at the attack on the Pentagon, took her grief and used it to connect with others in need. She was the project manager for the Army’s space in the Pentagon at the time of the attack. After the attack, she was in charge of redesigning the area where the attack had occurred. She knew immediately that the area should not return to its prior use and decided to build a chapel in the place of the former offices. Recently with the approach of the 18th anniversary of that awful day, Ezzat said that she still can’t fully understand that tragedy and also can never forget it. About the chapel, she said, ” We just wanted to make it a peaceful place that could help wipe away the tragedy.”

(Note: You can meet Manal Ezzat through a brief video, found at the end of the above linked article.)

Rebuilding the Pentagon and creating the chapel as a peaceful sanctuary was an act of love. The construction team was given three years to complete the task and completed it in less than one year.  The team members worked 24/7 and donated all of their overtime pay, about $3 million, to pay for the chapel furnishings and artwork and to support victims’ families.

Today, the chapel is used for daily Catholic Masses, Protestant services, Jewish study sessions, Buddhist prayers, Greek Orthodox services, Hindu services, and Muslim daily prayers. Ezzat commented that building a religious haven out of a wreckage was “part of the healing process.”

Manal Ezzat’s drive to do good can be a sign of hope for us with our current losses.  We are now witnessing on the national scene a wreckage of our long-held national values of personal decency, truth-telling, and kindness to those who are suffering.

What can we do about that loss? First, we can look squarely at what we are losing as a nation and see the loss for what it is. Secondly, we can deeply acknowledge to ourselves and others that there is no goodness or saving grace in losing who or what is precious to us. Thirdly, we can help one another to heal from our shared trauma.  We can, as Manal Ezzat shows us, build something new.

 

 

Integrate Schools And Improve Learning For All Kids At The Same Time

The headlines are full of the news that the School Diversity Advisory Group, appointed by Mayor DeBlasio of New York City, has recommended that the largest public school district in the country phase out its Gifted and Talented Programs in elementary schools, give up selective admissions in middle schools, and limit ability grouping in most high schools. The reason for doing all three is to eliminate segregation by race and family income in the city’s schools.

How are NYC schools segregated?

  • The New York City schools are comprised of students who are 74% economically disadvantaged, 40.5% Hispanic, 26% black, 16.1 % Asian, and 15% white.
  • There are currently two paths through the New York City schools: one path for white and Asian students, a notable percentage of whom test as gifted and talented in the early grades and qualify for select middle and high schools in the later grades, and the other path for predominately black and Hispanic students who attend schools that have no qualifying criteria and are open to all.
  • Students are selected for the Gifted and Talented Programs in elementary schools, based solely on their score on a standardized test taken when they are four years old. Affluent parents pay for expensive test prep courses and tutors so those four year olds maximize their scores. Out of 1.1 million NYC students, 16,000 are in Gifted and Talented Programs. Of those 16,000 students, 75% are white or Asian.
  • One fifth of middle schools and high schools select the students whom they admit. They screen applicants, based on their grades, standardized test scores, school attendance, punctuality, and teacher recommendations. The middle and high schools that are selective in whom they admit are 55% black and Hispanic while middle and high schools that are open to all are 72% black and Hispanic.
  • The eight premier high schools choose their students differently. They select students based solely on their score on a standardized test. In 2019, 1368 white, 316 Hispanic, 2450 Asian, and 190 black students were accepted to the eight premier high schools. Stuyvesant, the most prestigious of all, accepted 895 students and only seven of them were black.

The School Diversity Advisory Group recommendations are:

  • Eliminate Gifted and Talented Programs in elementary schools by not accepting new students into them or beginning new ones.
  • In middle schools, eliminate screening students for admission, based on grades, standardized test scores, attendance, punctuality, and teacher recommendations.
  • Establish magnet middle schools in which the curriculum focuses on topics which interest students.
  • Eliminate ability grouping in the middle schools and group students heterogeneously,
  • In high schools, diminish ability grouping and prevent tracking within schools.
  • Allow the 20% of high schools that have selective admissions to continue to base admissions on grades, standardized test scores, and teacher recommendations but delete good school attendance and punctuality as qualifications for admission.

What the School Diversity Advisory Group got right:

  • Seeking to increase educational opportunities for underserved K-12 students.
  • Recognizing that giftedness cannot be accurately determined in children as young as four years old.
  • Recognizing the inequity inherent in basing admission to Gifted and Talented Programs on one standardized test for which some children are coached.
  • Eliminating Gifted and Talented Programs in Kindergarten – Grade 3.

What the NYC School Diversity Advisory Group got wrong:

  • The curriculum that the SDAG recommends is inadequate. The proposed curriculum will not meet the needs of students labeled gifted and talented, students not labeled gifted and talented, students in selective middle and high schools, and students in open admission middle and high schools.
  • The SDAG Report refers to Gifted and Talented Programs as having enriched content and recommends that all students be exposed to similar enriched content and organized around topics of student interest. Of course, students should have topics that engage them. But that is not enough.
  • The SDAG Report proposes a curriculum in which the same content is covered for all students in heterogeneously grouped classrooms with the more proficient students receiving a larger dose of the content and less proficient students a smaller dose. That view of curriculum is outdated and will not equip students for the 21st century. Curriculum for the 21st century is about teaching students age appropriate strategies for developing as learners and thinkers.
  • The SDAG Report states says that highly proficient students “will not be harmed by mixed ability classes”. Not doing harm is settling for too little. The promise should be to challenge highly proficient students, and, indeed, all students, to go as far as they can and accomplish all that we can envision for them.
  • The SDAG Report should have stated that, as students progress through school, they go from being heterogeneously grouped to being more homogeneously grouped as the differences among students as learners and thinkers broaden.
  • The SDAG Report proposes a pedagogy in which a teacher meets the needs of each individual student in heterogeneously grouped classes. That kind of individuation is not possible in the high schools, given the broad learning differences among students at that age and the sizes of the NYC high school classes (about 26 students) and, even if possible, would eliminate for students the powerful learning environment of an interactive collaborative community which includes all the students in the class.
  • The SDAG Report leaves in place the discriminatory practice of one standardized test as the only criterion for admission to the eight premier high schools. Even though the ultimate decision regarding the admission policy for those premier schools rests with the state of New York rather than the city, the SDAG Report should take a stand against that clearly inequitable practice. A large body of research proves that standardized tests are inaccurate single predictors of student success. Currently, 29% of private  and 11% of public colleges and universities do not require standardized tests (SAT or ACT) for admission. Standardized tests have been proven to correlate most reliably with the income of parents and participation in test preparation courses – and leave the ability and potential of some students unrecognized.

What is missing from the SDAG Report is a plan to break up segregation AND, at the same time, provide all students with an excellent education. Here’s how to do that: 

  • Design a program for pre-kindergarten through high school to develop students as learners and thinkers. (The specifics to be discussed in a subsequent article.)
  • Involve teachers in professional development regarding the curriculum and its pedagogy.
  • Implement the curriculum so that students of all abilities, based on their grade level cognitive, social, and emotional development, are taught to explore their own questions, to collaborate, to problem solve, to think critically, to think creatively, to use their imagination, to express themselves, and to innovate.
  • Group students of all abilities together in the same classrooms until three differences among them become pronounced. Those differences are: 1) the students’ ability to read and understand complex materials, 2) the kind of structure and pace of learning experiences they need in order to be successful, and 3) their cognitive processing skills. When those three differences are wide, grouping students in major academic subjects with other learners similar to them is necessary for their development as learners and thinkers.
  • The goal of providing a curriculum designed to develop students as learners and thinkers is to give all students opportunities that previously were most assuredly given to only advantaged children and adolescents.

The SDAG has done an excellent job of highlighting the serious problem of segregation in New York City schools. Now it is time for the hard work of determining how to create BOTH  equity and the best possible education for all students. The curriculum proposal of the SDAG Report is too facile and would leave New York City schools to the fate H. L. Mencken described when he said:  “Every complex problem has a solution which is simple, direct, plausible — and wrong.”

 

 

 

Free Kids From 180 Days Of Stress

A recent article in The New York Times claims that our children and adolescents are under great stress because we, as a society, have given up on childhood. While economic, racial, and familial factors contribute to that stress, the education given to our children and adolescents every school day through the application of the Common Core Standards can be a major stress as well. That stress occurs because those standards were created without addressing the cognitive, psychological, and social development of children and adolescents.

We need to investigate how mandating standards that are not based on the needs of  children and adolescents contributes to their stress.

1. Could it be that making kindergarten “the new first grade” is part of the problem?

2. Could it be that focusing on teaching kindergarteners skills to make them “college and career ready” instead of helping them to learn through play and by using their imagination is part of the problem?

3. Could it be that mastering 90 discrete skills in kindergarten instead of learning through active exploration and hands-on, play-based learning is part of the problem?

4. Could it be that, after long days at school plus Before-Care and After-Care, young children come home to tutors, hired to help them with reading, writing, and arithmetic skills that were formerly taught to children a year older, or come home to do homework  to master skills for which they are not developmentally ready is part of the problem?

5. Could it be that living in the only nation in the world which limits the amount of literature read in school and replaces literature with informational texts could be part of the problem?  Could it be that limiting the kind of reading which allows for a variety of  interpretations and encourages playing with ideas is stifling for the minds of children and adolescents?

6. Could it be that not requiring children and adolescents to revise their writing in order to stimulate their thinking and, instead, instructing them to get their thinking right the first time could be part of the problem?

7.  Could it be that telling adolescents, who are primarily interested in themselves and one another, that they can’t ever write in their own personal voice, can’t ever use the pronoun “I”, can’t ever tell their own story is part of the problem?

8. Could it be that telling adolescents, who are just becoming aware of the complexity of the world and human relationships, that they must always write essays about THE ONE TRUE answer and never write essays to explore a question they have is part of the problem?

9. Could be that never teaching children and adolescents how to form their own deep questions, how to stimulate their  thinking by discussing ideas with others who think differently from them, how to use their imagination in order to innovate and problem solve, and how to tell the story of their engagement with an idea is part of the problem?

10. In summary, could it be that the Common Core Standards have simply gotten it wrong?

Of course, the Common Core Standards have gotten it wrong.

Those who know about teaching kids to be thoughtful readers and effective writers say the Common Core Standards are wrong: The National Council of Teachers of English, the professional organization of literacy educators K-college, did not endorse the Common Core Standards because NCTE stated that those standards are not developmentally appropriate, do not help students to grow as learners and thinkers, and do not prepare students for their future, explaining that the Common Core Standards could apply to the schools of 1950 but not to the realities of today.

Those who know about how little children learn say the Common Core Standards are wrong. More than 500 early childhood educators signed a joint statement opposing the Common Core Standards on the grounds that the standards are not developmentally appropriate and would lead to long hours of direct instruction, more standardized testing, and would crowd out important, active, play-based learning.

Those who know what students need to learn to have productive and meaningful lives in the 21st century say that the Common Core Standards are wrong. Children and adolescents need to be taught how to honor their own curiosity, how to collaborate with diverse thinkers in order to strengthen their own individual thinking, how to think deeply and broadly about the human condition, how to use their imagination to think up new ideas and create innovative approaches, and how to express their ideas effectively and uniquely in writing and orally. None of those skills are taught with the Common Core Standards.

The writers of the Common Core Standards were not educators and didn’t have in mind the developmental needs of children and adolescents. Their goal was to improve standardized test scores. Children and adolescents have been denied meaningful educational experiences that could have helped them to grow and as learners and thinkers in order to raise test scores, yet that has not happened. Scores on NAEP, called The Nation’s Report Card, have been flat over the years of the Common Core and still are flat almost a decade into the Common Core. The sacrifice of real learning has produced nothing.

It is time to put more life into our kids’ lives. It’s time to reduce the stress of kids having to fit into a mold which does not serve them and only produces stress in them. It’s time to engage kids in the exhilaration of learning. It’s time to help kids to be their best and happiest selves.

We know how to do that. Ask us. Ask educators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Pay If You Don’t Go

Ever wonder who those people are at the Trump rallies? Ever wonder why they attend? A recent post from Diane Ravitch tells us about one such crowd.

Guess what: They were paid to attend.

DECENCY

 

IMG_6702

A friend gave me this button to wear on my shirt. It is a plain white button with black letters. It has just one word on it: DECENCY.

I wear the button as my statement for the 2020 Presidential campaign. DECENCY is what it’s all about. Of course, the candidates have to talk about health care, immigration reform, and gun control. Those issues cry out for resolution. But Democrats in the debates and in their stump speeches must pivot back to our country’s underlying need: DECENCY.

David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, makes that point.

Brooks says, “This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children. The Democrats have not risen to the largeness of this moment. They don’t know how to speak on this level. They don’t even have the language to articulate what Trump represents and what needs to be done. Democrats believe they can win votes by offering members of different groups economic benefits and are perpetually shocked when they lose those voters.”

Brooks agrees with Marianne Williamson when she said in the last debate that “racism, bigotry, and the collectivized hatred that the current President is bringing up in this country” is the real issue in the 2020 campaign for President and the one that Democrats should focus on. Everything else follows that.

Brooks goes on to say that the Democrats are “unready” for the task of fighting for decency, but it falls to them to ” rebuild the moral infrastructure of our country and remind people of the values we share and the damage done when people are not held accountable for trampling them.”

Brooks identifies the values that comprise decency as: 

Unity: Seeing ourselves as one people.

Honesty: Respecting the truth.

Pluralism: Treasuring members of all races and faiths.

Sympathy: Being people with good hearts, who feel for those who are suffering, who are faithful friends, whose daily lives are marked by kindness.

Opportunity: Offering all children an open field and a fair chance in life.

Brooks emphatically states that Trump has put himself on the wrong side of all of these values. Brooks begs Democrats to lead an “uprising of decency”.

He concludes his piece with a hope, which sounds, actually, more like a desperate plea. He writes, “There must be one Democrat who, in word and deed, can do that.” One Democrat who can lead an uprising of decency.

But is there?

That is the question.

The survival of our republic depends on the answer.

 

 

On What Page Are The New Connecticut Commissioner of Education And The State Board Of Education?

After the embarrassing and ungracious offering of the job of  Connecticut  Commissioner of Education to one person, withdrawing the offer, and then offering the job to a second person, the reason given to the public for choosing the second person was that the State Board of Education want a Commissioner with whom it is “on the same page”. But what is that page? A good place to start looking for that page is with the goals of the new Commissioner.

Miguel  Cardona, the next Connecticut Commissioner of Education, stated that his three goals are: 

  1. Make a positive impact on graduation rates.
  2. Close the achievement gap.
  3. Ensure that all students have increased access to opportunities and advantages that they need to succeed in life.

Those goals have a familiar ring to them. The history of Connecticut trying to meet those goals is not a proud one. But maybe that “new page” that the new Commissioner and the State Board of Education are on is one of a dramatic new vision and radical new actions. What could that vision and those radical new actions look like?

First, would be to change the term “graduation rate”  to something like the graduating of well-educated high school students. Currently, graduation rates make good headlines but can mean very little in terms of student learning.

“Credit retrieval” is a common practice in public schools with low graduation rates. “Credit retrieval” allows students to make use of often dubious computer programs that, in no way, equal courses in academic subjects, yet  the students get credit for the academic courses. In doing so, students increase the graduation rate for their schools but do not have adequate learning experiences.

Charter schools have another way to increase their graduation rates. They “counsel out” students who are likely to not graduate before they get to be seniors which leaves only a pre-selected group as seniors and, unsurprisingly, they all graduate. And lo and behold, the charter school has a high graduation rate. For example, one year at Achievement First’s Amistad Academy in New Haven, 25 students out of 25 students in the senior class graduated, but 64 students had been in that class as ninth graders.

A visionary way to increase the number of students who receive a high school education is to not count the number of students who receive high school diplomas but rather count how many of the students who begin a school as ninth graders complete the coursework necessary for graduation. For example, some innovative public high schools hold Saturday classes with actual teachers instead of plugging kids into commuter programs. The applause should be given to high schools who deliver a quality education to all the students who begin their high school education in the school not to the schools who either give credits without the academic content and skills or who dismiss those who won’t make for a good statistic.

It is then that Connecticut students will have the tools for their future and the State Board of Education and the new Commissioner will have made a difference in the lives of our children and in the quality of our state. Increasing graduation rates, as it has been addressed in the past, gets us nowhere.

Also, increasing the achievement gap is a hackneyed expression that needs new vision. That vision could begin with redefining “achievement ” and redefining “gap”.  In Connecticut as well as nationally, achievement, since the publication on A Nation at Risk, has meant the attainment of good standardized test scores. Standardized test scores are always correlated with the income of the parents of the students taking the test. Therefore, we can raise test scores by getting wealthier kids into a school. The other way to raise those scores is to teach to the test. All commercial test prep courses and online free test prep courses claim that taking those prep courses will improve test scores. And they do. They do because standardized tests measure only one skill: the ability to take a standardized test. But that is not achievement.

Achievement in the 21st century means that students are engaged learners who are able to think critically, problem solve, collaborate with others, demonstrate initiative, speak and write effectively, access and analyze information, explore their own questions, and use their imagination as described in The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner of Harvard University. No standardized test has ever, or can ever, measure those skills.

So the goal of “closing the achievement gap” will serve only to highlight the disparity between the affluent and the poor. Even more importantly, the goal of “closing the achievement gap”, as measured by standardized test scores,  guarantees that the children in Connecticut who most need a quality education will be relegated to test prep in a school’s efforts to raise its standardized test scores and will continue to suffer from their lack of real teaching and real learning long after they leave our schools.

As for the “gap”, the gap that we should be addressing is not the gap between the standardized test scores of the kids in Wilton, Madison, Farmington, and Glastonbury with the standardized test scores of the kids in Hartford, Willimantic, Bridgeport, and Waterbury, but the gap between what all kids can do before we teach them with what they can do after we teach them. We should be working our brains full-time exploring how to help each kid to reach further, to know more, to try harder, and to accomplish what that kid never thought possible. That’s the gap our schools should be closing: the gap between students’ current assumptions about their possibilities as thinkers and learners and their eventual accomplishments. That is a goal with a vision that is worthy of our energy and investment as a state.

And what are those ” opportunities and advantages that children need to succeed in life”? We know exactly what they are because many of Connecticut’s children already have them. They are the opportunities and advantages of many of the children in our affluent, largely white schools. They are the opportunities and advantages denied to other children in Connecticut due to poverty, income inequality, and racism. The new Commissioner and the State Board of Education can take on these underlying problems of poverty and racism that affect children for every minute they are in school and which any school cannot prevail against without appropriate funding, personnel, academic resources, and social services. Looking at the big picture with its complex causes beyond the classrooms will take vision and strong political action. It will switch the narrative from one of “failing public schools” to one of how can we adults and taxpayers not fail our public schools.

Given the recent history of the leadership of public education in Connecticut, it probably is a vain wish that the “same page” of the Connecticut State Board of Education and the new Connecticut Commissioner of Education will be one of vision and bold action, but without dreams where are we?   As the song says: “You gotta have a dream or how you gonna have a dream come true?”

 

 

Charters and Dalios: What Do You Have To Hide?

True enough:

A Hartford Courant editorial (Sunday, July 14, 2019) strongly criticized the stipulation that the Dalio Foundation put on its offer to Connecticut public schools. The Dalio Foundation has committed 100 million dollars to Connecticut public education if we taxpayers also contribute 100 million AND agree to not being given any information about how the decisions will be made about how our 100 million will be spent. That is not a deal that we, as taxpayers, should take. It is giving our blank check to the billionaire Dalios. The Hartford Courant rightly points out that we, as taxpayers, have the right to know how 100 million of our tax dollars is being spent or we should not give the 100 million.  Our money can be misspent and do damage to our children. We have an obligation to our children to demand information about how decisions will be made about how the money is to be spent.

We have to wonder why the deal rests on exempting the Dalio and state partnership from Freedom of Information regulations and agreeing to no transparency and no accountability. As appealing as money always is, Governor Lamont should say NO to such a deal.  We don’t want Connecticut to repeat the mistakes that Newark made with the Zuckerberg money.

Also true and even scarier:

We, as taxpayers, give the same kind of blank check to charter schools. Charter schools take taxpayer funds and refuse transparency and refuse to give any accountability about how those tax dollars are spent.  Connecticut charter schools defy Brown vs. the Board of Education and Sheff vs. O’Neill by increasing racial segregation in Connecticut. Charter schools in Connecticut restrict the number of students with special education needs and students who do not have English as their first language. Charter schools in Connecticut suspend students as greater rates than public schools. Charter schools in Connecticut take money and resources from the 98.5% of Connecticut children who attend public schools. And charter schools do not have any better results than public schools, even with the questionable measure of standardized  test scores.

The Connecticut State Board of Education should join with the NAACP, which has called for a moratorium on opening any new charter schools and called for transparency and accountability for existing charter schools. Most of all, The Connecticut State Board of Education and Connecticut taxpayers should wonder what charter schools have to hide by refusing to be open and honest about their use of our money.