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It’s not standardized tests educators hate, it’s accountability

Education Week likes to frustrate me in the morning. Reading their article today about the retreat of the anti-testing suburban opt-out movement, I should have been happy, but a few word-bytes in it are restating flimsy complaints about the testing of public school students and that put vinegar in my coffee.

I despise vinegar.

There was the superintendent in Bedford, New Hampshire who said: “I would love to get away from this obsession with standardized testing.” The problem he says is how being “locked in” to doing annual assessments makes it difficult for his district to “try new forms of instruction.”


Because he says, it takes time to “prepare students for statewide tests.”

There was also the superintendent from Ohio who added that the annual tests “don’t give us much meaningful information”

Of course, there was a quote from FairTest, the anti-testing group that might as well rename itself Teachers’ Union Grantee.

This word “obsession” that anti-testing folks use trivializes the importance of giving parents and the public a way to trust and verify their schools are making forward progress. That word evokes a sense of unjustified mania and discounts the valid reasons many American populations might want to see actual numbers in addition to the happy talk about schools.

Is expecting schools to do a summative test annually so the public and lawmakers have some sense of school performance and progress so unreasonable that it rises to the level of “obsession”?

Only if you have no interest in knowing who and where education is failing.

I understand that it’s not the actual testing part that causes strife, but what people do with the test results. In my view, a big value of test scores is to give third-party verification and to shine a light on schools that are working so parents can make informed choices. The response from educators and school leaders to that might say test scores give a false sense of how good a school is, and, instead, give a clearer picture of which students are in a school and the education levels of their parents.

Fair enough, but I disagree and find the idea that poor kids with parents who aren’t white and college educated ensure a school cannot have passing test scores insulting, racist, classist, and in breach of anything approximating progressivism.

I see how educators in failing schools (or those without an Earthly clue on how to educate poor nonwhite children) might construct for themselves a rationale different than mine.

It’s one colossal reason why I distrust the middle-class white education system so much that I want annual numbers to keep them honest so long as the participation of our kids is compulsory and funded mostly in one limited system.

You demand my kids. I require your receipts. Any other arrangement is war.

Another problem for anti-testing mavens is that test scores are used to justify interventions that people within the education establishment hate, including changes to staffing, curriculum, school models, and the governance of schools.

Let me take another shot at that point: bad test scores mean people get fired (in theory), contracts get cut, and schools close are replaced with other schools if test scores suck too long. At least that’s the fear anti-testing folks want to be stoked.

If all that happens, unions shrink.

There is good research that prescriptions from the upper government do not produce the desired effect we want (or at least there is some conventional wisdom that research says that). I won’t haggle with those findings. However, I will push back on the self-satisfying critiques (if only we had a hundred gazillion billion dollars to buy violins for everyone achievement would improve) that stop responsible intervention and lead to institutional paralysis.

When things aren’t working for students, parents should expect action, not endless worshiping of the problem.

The buck should stop with the people who demand we put all our bucks in their schools.

The most hostility to testing really comes from one specific intervention: the evaluation of teachers. Tying a teacher’s standing to the test scores of her students is objectionable beyond the point of return for educators and their unions.

Teachers and their unions were not anti-testing when those results were used to sort students into easy-to-teach islands where teachers with the most seniority could teach high performing kids. That was back in the good old days before there were intrusive expectations that the other kids would do well too.

All that changed with test-based accountability which turned the heat up on equity, and in some cases overcooked the goose.

The other issues raised by anti-testers are false flags. They are tactical and duplicitous word salads meant to create enough confusion to dismantle the state testing “regimes.”

What are those other issues?

Testing makes teachers teach to the test.

Nope, sorry, if you’re teaching to the test you’re doing it wrong. You should be teaching above the test. Teaching to the standard is more like it (and yes dammit there should be standards to teach to).

Testing makes teachers narrow their curriculum.

Nah. That happens when teachers feel they can’t overcome supposed deficiencies in students so they decide instead to shoot for the minimum level of proficiency.

Testing doesn’t give teachers the information they can use.

Really? Which tests?

The weekly formative tests that they do, the end of unit tests that they do; their quizzes; their district created tests that they help create; or, just the annual tests that are meant to be benchmarks for people outside of schools that hold schools, their staff, and their leaders to account?

It’s the last one.

The only tests teachers and their defenders dislike are the ones that create external accountability, because, in their minds, their expertise and experience are above accountability even when their results suck eggs.

Al Shanker, the father of modern teacher unionism, was more moderate than today’s unions, teachers, and supporters when it came to testing. He said:

there are those who take extreme views…the National Education Association, which has taken the position that standardized tests – those which are given to a large number of children and often serve as the basis for comparison among them – should be abandoned and never used again. The arguments are that students who do poorly on these tests suffer great anguish, that the tests are inaccurate in measuring achievement, that they may be culturally biased because typical questions may be more closely related to the experiences of the white majority than to minority groups. Moreover, according to those who favor this view, standardized test results are subject to great abuse and frequently misinterpreted by the public.

Shanker’s summation of the NEA’s “extreme” anti-testing position is still their position today. Personally, I couldn’t care less about what Shanker thought. He’s not my educational ancestor. But, if we judge theologies by the rules of their own sacred texts, then anti-testing positions of teachers and their unions fail.

I’ll let you decide if that’s formative or summative.



If your presidential debate isn’t fit for kids, you’re not fit to be president

The sad presidential debate

In a time when concerns about public health are stealing precious learning time from America’s children, it’s sad that this week’s presidential debate was another dispiriting lesson in failed leadership.

As citizens, we should expect the contest for the American presidency a top civics learning opportunity, but instead, we got schoolyard rock-throwing on Tuesday that wasn’t worthy of our children’s eyes, ears, or seat time.

That’s a shameful sign of three-plus errant years of declining decorum and lost integrity at the top of the American leadership pile – mostly because a lout has led us into moral anarchy.

If a president is the nation’s exemplar of our values and virtues, a presidential debate is a test, then Donald J. Trump spells trouble. The president I saw on Tuesday was a peevish and sweating example of everything I teach my kids not to be. He was rude, accusatory, irresponsible, blame-shifting, dishonest, and, worst of all, a nasty bully.

Let’s be honest here, if Trump were a Black 6th-grader behaving this way in a Houston classroom, he might be suspended and not allowed to return until his parents met with school staff about his self-regulation challenges.

Now, this is where I’m supposed to dazzle you with my broadmindedness by pointing out ways in which Biden fell short too.

Hard pass.

That form of mindless bothsiderism is a shortcut to thinking and judgment. It’s not good for a responsible citizen and fails as an appropriate example for children.

Unlike the president, I don’t see value in teaching our children to equate white supremacists with the convenient ghost of Antifa or the political cartoon of Black Lives Matter. To overstate something moral and obvious: There are no “very fine people” who are so spitting mad about the existence of non-whites that they descend on communities with tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

If I fault Biden for anything, it’s not being assertive enough about centering these mass-media opportunities on the nation’s children. In my view, his education plan is expensively inconsequential concerning the things that matter most, but are talked about least: quality teaching, learning to standards, evidence-based educational interventions, and academic outcomes that close gaps between the haves and have-nots.

I waited for his promise to move hell and Earth, unions and bureaucrats, publics and privates, lefties and right-wingers, to ensure every American child gets a practical education that prepares her for life in the economic mainstream (a promise that every president since Lyndon Johnson has made), but instead, the former Vice President mostly shadow-boxed the patently erratic orangish gentleman to his right.

My friends, please expect more. When these two private school parents who want to lead the free world take the stage next time to present competing visions for where we should go as a people, let’s hold them to two demands.

Trump v. Biden: who will stand for children in the next presidential debate?

First, they commit to being appropriate examples for our children of how great Americans behave, think, and debate. Or, let them disqualify themselves for failing on that point.

Second, they explicitly detail how their policies will prepare the next generation to be productive members of a free country. They must articulate a plan for systems and policies that allow children to learn in ways that best suit them.

We are so far from that now. Poor academic outcomes for racial minorities, students in poverty, and students with special needs are all too enduring. For example, in most states, less than a quarter of Black students read or perform math proficiently. Non-white students get the worst prepared teachers who – as research tells us – hold implicit biases against them. Further, students of color are more often identified for negative discipline consequences than for gifted programs (even when they don’t qualify for the former and do qualify for the latter).

At the same, education bureaucracies stifle the creativity of teachers through endless standardization. Their lobbying groups fight the emergence of innovative schools and programs that come from chartering laws. Their programs too often limit the most advanced students by gearing the system to a catch-all, mediocre middle.

On top of all that, legacy debts that were born of poor financial decisions compound over time and rob our students of their full per-pupil income by paying for yesterday’s obligations at the expense of tomorrow’s promise.

All the while, we lament the mythical cuts to education funding as the bill for public miseducation and its systemic failures escalates annually.

Hopefully, when they meet again, both candidates seeking our votes in the upcoming election will have something profound to say about how we change the game for students and families. 

The candidates need to can speak to raising the expectations for results in education. We need to know how colleges can prepare better teachers for the classroom and how schools can better support them once they are there. Above all, we need to hear how these candidates can provide more resources directly to families so they can determine how, when, where, and what their children learn. We need a moonshot for things like getting all cities, towns, and rural areas wired with broadband and how we expand the educational opportunities diverse families need.

I’ll be watching the next presidential debate for all that and hoping against hope that two candidates worthy of the nation they want to lead show up with all their best faculties on display. Above all else, I hope they remember the children.

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Crisis parenting isn’t easy, and carry on

We can't help our children by living in our powerlessness

Who will ever tally the toll of mass school closings that have put many families into crisis parenting mode? I’m not sure, but the media messages we get need to be more informative.

There are too many stories about how the sky is falling, and too few about what we can do about it.

Let me use a scenario and to two people.

The scenario: you’re in an elevator in a tall Chicago building with two other people. There is a big bump that jolts the elevator, the lights flicker, and you can tell something bad could be happening.

Person numero uno in the elevator with you starts screaming “we’re going to die!

This is the end!

Person numero dos is calm. She appears to be assessing the situation and considering possibilities for escape.

Person numero uno is the media. He uses words like “disaster” to describe challenges parents face with remote learning. It’s godawful he says. Too hard. Kids hate the new normal. The technology glitches out constantly or bores or confuses them. Teachers cry online. Parents suck at teaching. It’s nearly impossible to stay on top of kids and their studies while also working (for those privileged enough to work from home).

Along those lines, columnist Peg Tyre wrote in Forbes last spring “[r]eality is dawning that parents of school-aged children can’t work and educate their children at the same time.”

I take issue with that. Parents can and must educate their children, even while balancing other demands of life. Even during a global pandemic. There is no other option. Period.

Damnit, that’s what being a parent means. You signed up for it. Now do it.

I suggest you consult with Person numero dos. She won’t tell you what you want to hear (that you’re a martyr and woe is you), but she’ll say what you need to hear (toughen up buttercup).

No, life isn’t always convenient.

Yes, you’re in possibly the toughest situation ever.

Yet, worshipping the problem won’t make it less tough. These are your kids and you were always responsible for moving mountains to get them the education they deserve. Schooling has made it easy for you to idle on autopilot, but no more.

I’m not saying Person number uno is wrong to be alarmed. Reality is on his side. There will be negative consequences of closed schools and the curtailing of daily classroom instruction. It will almost certainly stunt the academic growth of children under-resourced families.

We weren’t prepared to turn our homes into makeshift schools without warning. We quickly feel inadequate about assisting our kids. They keep asking us about concepts we haven’t studied in years. We also worry about the looming social emotional and mental health consequences of the isolation of quarantine.

Some will say I’m glossing over the wildly different financial and social situations families live in. Obviously the single parent with a job in hospitality faces far greater challenges than telecommuting professionals currently forming learning pods for their kids. And yet, no matter where you live on the economic totem wallowing won’t help you or your children. Only character will.

I see story after story about the inequities that will be widened because wealthier parents are hiring tutors or teachers and setting up their own micro-schools. Recognizing that as true doesn’t absolve anyone from having to answer the most powerful question: “what am I going to do?

Who has the information that will help us do our best for our kids wherever they are? What is our inventory of resources, connections, and skillsets?

What power do we have that we aren’t using?

Panic and pity will always be inferior to extreme ownership and stress management in my mind. The best thing we can teach children right now is how to confront adversity with a clear head and fortitude.

To that end, it’s time for Person number dos to tell Person numero uno to sit down, zip it, and speak only when spoken to. This is crisis parenting and we should aim to win.

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Children and families are hurting while you take selfies

Families are having a tough time and that’s especially hard on children. So, you’d think that would generate empathy and generosity. Instead, it looks like selfish gene has taken over.

Let me not overstate the problem. But a New York Times story about the ugly and petty clashes pitting Silicon Valley workers with children vs. the those without children is sad commentary on where we are.

Consider this:

When Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, hosted a companywide videoconference on Aug. 20, more than 2,000 employees voted to ask her what more Facebook could do to support nonparents, since its other policies had benefited parents.

The question struck a nerve. An employee wrote in comments accompanying the video feed that it was “unfair” that nonparents could not take advantage of the same leave policy afforded parents. Another wrote that while the procedure for taking leave was usually difficult, it was “easy breezy” for parents.

This problem repeated at Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google. Inter-office chats raged with childless employees expressing frustration with their co-workers who have children, and working parents firing back.


A key to understanding the conflict, at least in my mind, is this snippet from the story: “[the problem is] where workers tend to be younger and have come to expect generous perks and benefits in exchange for letting their jobs take over their lives.”

This is an indictment of the always-on self-loving generation who demand to compensated greatly for losing themselves into work (something that is killing them). 

It’s also a mark against the previous generation that parented them during the self-esteem movement which produced little more than entitlement and isolation.

We should fear repeating those detachment issues with today’s kids who are out-of-school and living through Chromebooks, iPads, and iPhones.

Isn’t it telling the Times’ story is set at tech companies? They are basically narcissism factories providing clout chasing ME-llennials digital tools to live that selfie life, why wouldn’t they attract workers who put their wants ahead of the needs of others.?

Can we really expect the generation that swipes left or right for love to demonstrate genuine empathy? Can we get them to look up from their app long enough to see 9 million of their fellow Americans have dropped out of work to care for children or an elder relative? 

These families don’t have employer-paid wading pools, bike repair shops, free meals, and doggie cafes – but, who cares?

But, they should. We all should. I’m as libertarian as the next guy, but your issues will often become “our” issues. 

Nearly one in five working adults reports not working because the pandemic shuttered childcare options. That’s crazy.

According to the federal government “Of those not working, women ages 25-44 are almost three times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands.”

I don’t know when we stopped believing that children and their parents should be a policy priority? And, no, it isn’t one generation of us suffering from an empathy deficit. America is afflicted with that as a whole.

I don’t have an answer for what workplaces do to make their childless workers feel they have benefits equal to working parents, but I know more than ever we need everyone to put kids first.

If not, we’ll all face death by selfie.

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