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. 

Charter Schools: Your Time Is Up

In 1954 in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.

In 1996 in Sheff vs. O’Neill, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state had an affirmative obligation to provide Connecticut’s school children with a substantially equal educational opportunity and that this constitutionally guaranteed right encompasses the access to a public education which is not substantially and materially impaired by racial and ethnic isolation.

In 2019, the Connecticut State Board of Education allows charter schools in Connecticut to violate the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education and violate the Connecticut Supreme Court ruling in Sheff vs. O’Neill.

For shame.

Wendy Lecker and Robert Cotto, Jr. explain how the charter school industry reinforces racial segregation and provides children in Connecticut charter schools with an education that is separate and unequal.

Charter schools do not work.

We must have just one public school system in Connecticut funded by our tax dollars. We must have just one public school system in Connecticut that functions with financial transparency and is accountable to the taxpayers. We must have  just one public school system in Connecticut that educates all children in increasingly integrated settings. Charter schools take taxpayer money but have no transparency, no accountability, and no mandate to integrate their classrooms.

Charter schools must go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Achievement: The Reach Not The Gap

A Critter Cruise demonstrated to me why standardized testing will never be a way to close the achievement gap.

What has a Critter Cruise got to do with standardized testing, you may ask. In fact, what is a Critter Cruise?

A Critter Cruise is an hour long boat trip out into Nantucket Harbor during which young children become familiar with the sea life from the depths of the ocean. The college students, studying marine biology, who work on the boat put huge containers overboard into the deep and bring up all kinds of specimen: huge crabs, lobsters, snails, and welks. The children hold them and carry them over to touch tanks where they observe them as one of the marine biology students gives them details about the specimen. After the boat travels farther from the shore, the children are given fishing poles and taught how to use them. Each child on the boat catches at least one fish, and parents and grandparents take photos of them proudly holding their line with the caught fish on the end of it.

The young children on this Critter Cruise are sure to score higher on their future standardized tests than children who will never have that kind of opportunity. First of all, the information about sea life given to the children on the Critter Cruise could be topic of a reading section on a standardized test. Secondly, the conversation about biology gives children a vocabulary and a perspective about life on the planet that those children who do not have such conversations lack and are unlikely to be able to compensate for. Thirdly, to even get to Nantucket for a Critter Cruise means that the children have families with the time, money, and motivation to provide all kinds of opportunities to broaden their children’s world which all children do not have. Lastly, the enhanced confidence in themselves gained by the children on the Critter Cruise who held up huge crabs with their own fingers and reeled in fish all by themselves cannot be easily duplicated by children who do not have those kinds of experiences.

So to sit down all kids, both those who have many experiences such as the Critter Cruise and those who have had none of that kind of experience, in the same room and give them a timed standardized test in order to OBJECTIVELY assess them is ridiculous. Their acquired knowledge differs. Their vocabulary differs. Their sense of the world and their place in it differs. Their confidence in themselves differs. There is no objectivity in standardized testing.

And for what do we want to measure them against one another? To validate for ” the haves” that they have everything including good test scores and to keep “the have-nots” aspirations low?

The achievement gap can never, ever be closed by continuing to assess students with standardized tests. We can improve achievement only by giving all children similar resources for being nurtured and enriched and then by asking all children to grow and develop beyond where they are. It’s not an achievement gap that we should be trying to close but an achievement reach that we should be offering to all children, the rich and the poor alike, the haves and the have nots alike. Only then will we be talking about actual achievement rather than talking about the gap between the well-resourced children and the under-resourced children.

Now That’s What I Call Achievement!

In a recent post, I wrote about Jacob Fialkoff singing the national anthem, unrehearsed and before a large audience, as an example of an achievement that made Jacob aware of both his capabilities and possibilities. I then recommended that we replace standardized tests with that kind of opportunity for all students and, by doing so, redefine student achievement.

In this post, I want to do more than suggest; I want to offer a blueprint for redefining student achievement. The blueprint is a set of criteria to assess high school students at the conclusion of a course. It begins with setting goals for the development of the students as learners and thinkers and then giving them the strategies for developing in the ways we determined are best for them and then, at the end of the course, asking the students to pull it all together and create something new with both those strategies we have taught them and the content we have explored. A surefire result of what the students will produce is that they will amaze us, just as Jacob amazed his audience.

An excellent veteran teacher ran into my office after administering his first exams with  that set of criteria and exuberantly proclaimed, “I can’t believe my students did what they did! I didn’t know they could do it!” I have seen that same reaction from innumerable teachers.  Nothing fires teachers up more than to see their students achieve.

Here is the blueprint for redefining student achievement:

                                  CRITERIA FOR MIDTERM AND FINAL EXAMS

Exams that assess student learning require that students: 

  1. Use critical thinking to identify, examine, and analyze the controlling concepts of the course.
  2. Apply and integrate knowledge and learning strategies mqdeveloped during the semester.
  3. Collaborate to increase individual achievement by having their ideas broadened and deepened through dialogue with others.
  4. Think creatively to explore ideas or problems that pull the course together.
  5. Engage in a new challenge which is a learning experience in itself.
  6. Demonstrate individual achievement.
  7. Reflect upon and assess their own development as learners.

High school students of all abilities and in various school settings have demonstrated  achievement with this kind of exam. In a school district in which I supervised 33 high school English teachers who taught students of all abilities, from those who struggled as readers and writers to those who were in AP courses and earning college credit from the University of Connecticut, all the students took exams, based on those same criteria. I read all 99 exams every semester and responded at length to the teachers about the ways in which they required their students of differing abilities to fulfill each of the criteria.

A wonderful result of the agreed-upon exam policy was the energetic and creative discussions about teaching and learning that came about among us as we talked together about creating those exams and grading them. I have copies of those exams and am happy to sharek them with other districts eager to pursue this redefinition of student achievement.

This kind of exam has redefined student learning in both suburban schools and urban schools, even ones termed “failing schools” as determined by standardized test scores.  In one of those schools termed a “failing school”,  a veteran, highly regarded teacher, after teaching her first semester with curriculum goals of developing the students as learners and thinkers and grading her first set of exams that followed the “Criteria for Midterm and Final Exams”, said to me. “I now know what it is to teach.”

Working with teachers, talking with teachers, and respecting the professional knowledge of teachers – that’s how we can redefine student achievement. Hiring standardized testing companies that require us to teach only what a standardized test can measure  and implementing the low-level Common Core standards not written by anyone who teaches has been a short-cut, but a short-cut to nowhere. It’s now time to abandon that short-cut and engage teachers in redefining student achievement. The blueprint of the “Criteria for Midterm and Final Exams” points the way.

Redefining Student Achievement

There are all kinds of suggestions for improving student achievement – privatize public schools, increase the number of standardized tests that students take, implement national standards, and enforce no-excuses classroom discipline. None of these practices, however, have made a bit of difference. That is for two reasons. One reason is that the underlying causes of poverty and racial injustice have gone unaddressed, and the other reason is that standardized test scores can never measure achievement and, instead, reliably indicate only one thing: the income of the parents of the test taker.

So the first step in increasing student achievement is to redefine what we mean by achievement.  I recently witnessed something that crystallized for me what real achievement is.

I was at a ceremony in which community service awards were presented to three high school seniors and two adult members of the South Windsor, Connecticut community. A citation was read for each of the high school seniors and for the first of the two adult recipients, and they each gave a speech describing their impressive community service and the impact that service had on their own lives as well as the lives of others.

When it was time for the second adult recipient, Roseanne Sapula, to give her speech, she spoke about how honored she was to receive the award she regarded as prestigious and how she had tried to write a speech but gave up. It was clear that she gave up because her volunteer work with the Monday Night Social Group, a group comprised of 40 special needs individuals of high school age and older, was so close to her heart that it was hard for her to explain her interactions with those in the group in a short speech. She did tell the audience that thinking up new adventures for those young adults and new ways for them to be part of the larger community was her “calling”.

As Roseanne was talking, she looked out in the audience and spotted one of the members of the Monday Night Social Group, Jacob Fialkoff, a 20 year-old whom I later learned has cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder. She called out to him and asked him a favor. She explained to the audience that Jacob is scheduled to sing the National Anthem at the opening of the Connecticut Special Olympics and that he has a beautiful voice. She asked Jacob if he would sing it for all of us.

Jacob hesitated, probably feeling unprepared and that it was too much of a challenge at that moment. Roseanne, aware of his hesitation, asked him again, telling him that she would not be at the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics and would love to hear him sing the National Anthem. He still hesitated. Roseanne then asked him if he could do it just for her. He softly said OK.

Jacob stood up and began to sing. I have never heard a more robust and pitch-perfect singing of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Jacob has a singularly beautiful voice. As soon as he began singing, everyone in the audience stood up, faced the flag, put their hands over their hearts, and listened with rapt attention. I looked in the auditorium row behind me to see Jacob.  His face was full of confidence and pride in himself. He was standing tall and singing with all he had in him. The audience was full of people with tears in their eyes as those words, familiar to all of us, took on new meaning because of the magnificence of the singer. It was a moment I will never, ever forget.

Later, I asked Roseanne if Jacob had known that she was going to ask him to sing. She said no. She hadn’t even known he would be there. She explained that he hadn’t known about the award until a few minutes before the ceremony. He had been playing baseball in a field across from the auditorium and heard from someone at the game that Roseanne was receiving an award that night. When the game was called because of rain, he, in his rain-soaked clothes, ran across the street to see her receive her award.

The moment of Jacob singing the national anthem speaks for itself. It speaks about the love Roseanne has for Jacob and the love he has for her, about the confidence Roseanne has in Jacob and about how Jacob did what he, at first, thought he couldn’t do because of that confidence. Jacob did something new for himself. He was transformed by the experience. That is achievement.

Jacob’s singing the National Anthem, unrehearsed and on the spot out of love for the person who asked him, is what is missing in the conversation about increasing student achievement, which has been the illusive national goal since the passing of “No Child Left Behind” in 2001. We have tested and prepared kids for tests. And achievement doesn’t budge. We have declared that urban schools are “failing schools” and opened charter schools.  And achievement doesn’t budge. We have put in place Common Core standards.  And achievement doesn’t budge. We suspend and expel students at high rates, particularly in charter schools. And achievement doesn’t budge. That’s because we have been looking in the wrong places for achievement. We have been looking at standardized tests.

If, instead, we look at achievement as what Jacob did in that auditorium at the awards ceremony and ask our schools to do what Roseanne has done in her long relationship with Jacob, we would write a different story about what students can do.

Roseanne had a clear goal: to help Jacob to be all he could be and to integrate him fully into the community. She respected his gifts and had confidence in him further developing those gifts. She knew what he was capable of and asked him to do more than he asked of himself.  She asked him to show his world what he could do and, in doing that, learn more about his capabilities and more about his possibilities.

We can do the same with our students. With my work as an English teacher, as a district-level curriculum supervisor and evaluator of teachers, and as a curriculum consultant to at-risk schools, I know that it can be done across the board in our schools. Students can be asked to do something they have never done before, something that all of our work with them has prepared them to do, and, from doing it, become aware of their possibilities. Like Jacob singing unrehearsed before the people in his community, our students will be transformed by what they do. And they will delight us.

When Jacob sings “The Star Spangled Banner” at the opening of the Special Olympics, he will be a different young man than he was before Roseanne asked him to sing at the awards ceremony.  He will know for sure that he has a world full of exciting possibilities before him.

Let’s look to Roseanne and Jacob to help us, as a nation, redefine achievement. By doing that, we will give a future full of possibilities to all of our children.

(Note: Photo is of Roseanne Sapula in the middle, Jacob Fialkoff on the right, and Brenden Prattson, another member of the Monday Night Social Club, on the left.)

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Warren and K-12 Education: More Information Needed

Elizabeth Warren needs to let us know her views about K-12 education and what policies she advocates for improving education. Right now, as Steven Singer explains, it’s difficult to figure out where she stands.

At a recent rally in Oakland, CA, Warren allowed herself to be introduced by a divisive, union-opposing supporter of charter schools when, as Singer points out, “charter schools, ¬†enrolling 6% of all U.S. students, cannibalize the funding for the 90% that attend authentic public schools.”

Singer questions why Warren would want to associate herself with those who fund charter schools, the privatizers of public education who often are the hedge fund billionaires that she battles over other issues.

Singer also discusses the ambiguous message that Warren gives when she strongly opposed opening new charter schools in Massachusetts when lifting the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts was put to a vote. Yet, she also is on record as saying, ” Many charter schools in Massachusetts are producing extraordinary results for our students, and we should celebrate the hard work of those teachers and read what’s working to other schools.” I agree that we should always celebrate the hard work of teachers, but as a public official and a member of the U.S. Senate on the education committee, Elizabeth Warren must be consistent: either advocate for more charter schools or, like the NAACP, call for a moratorium on new charter schools.

Similarly, Elizabeth Warren, along with all of the other Presidential candidates, must articulate her position on standardized testing. Thus far, Warren has received an F from the Network for Public Education for her past support of standardized testing as the measure of student achievement and readiness for their future. Singer states that high stakes standardized tests, whose results always and forever have been correlated to the income of the students’ parents, “have unfairly assessed students for decades, and tests have been used as an excuse to deny poor and minority students the resources they need to succeed.”

Singer also comments that Warren’s education policy advisor is Josh Delaney whose credentials are that he took the 5-week crash course to become a Teach for America teacher, taught for two years, and then had a career as an “expert” in education. Singer seems to be alluding to the fact that there is a wealth of research about issues in K-12 education – charter schools, standardized testing, segregation, equitable funding, and class size, to name a view and many knowledgeable and experienced people who could be part of her team.

Singer’s point in his article is not to deny Elizabeth Warren the Democratic nomination or the Presidency but to urge her to research the issues confronting K-12 education and to state her positions clearly.

Hopefully, that is how a Democrat will win the White House and how the Democratic candidate will be on the forward-moving side of history as President.