Monday, February 03, 2014

My Report On The State Of The Union

Front page, above the fold headline in Saturday's The Oregonian newspaper: "Kindergarten test results 'sobering'"

What did the governor find so sobering about the test results? The average 5-year-old could only name 18.5 letters from a list of 100 upper and lower case letters. The average 5-year-old could only pronounce 6.7 letter sounds from a list of 110 during a one minute period. I work with 5-year-olds every day. It's developmentally normal for literacy to have clicked for some of them and some not. Can someone please explain to me how testing children in this standardized, high stress manner, then shaming them by publicizing the results broken out school by school differs from abuse?

Recent headline in the business section of the San Francisco Chronicle: "Employees face growing pressure to relax"

The gist of this article is that for most Americans, the leading cause of stress in their lives isn't their love life or finances, but their jobs. The popular notion is that Americans have become soft and lazy, but the truth is that we take fewer vacation days and work more weekends than workers in any of the other industrialized nations. The oxymoronic headline refers to the fact that it's starting to dawn on CEOs that stressed out employees are bad for business. You think? "You're more likely to crash your car, drink too much, blow up in a meeting, divorce your spouse, and fall prey to everything from a cold to a heart attack. Just being around a stressed person, so-called secondhand stress, can leave you feeling more stressed."

Does anyone else see a connection here?

President Obama doesn't. Nor does Bill Gates or any of the other leaders of the "reformers" seeking to remake our schools in the image of American corporations.

I recently wrote about one business technique called "stacked ranking" that was all the rage at Microsoft until they discovered it made employees hate working for the company. These geniuses had the idea that they could motivate their workers by firing a certain percentage of them no matter what. Many observers blame this policy for the overall decline in Microsoft's once unassailable leadership position in the software industry. Of course, Microsoft has now quietly dropped this particular stink bomb, but not before detonating it in our public schools, where teachers across the country are now being "motivated" by the threat of being fired, a policy that continues to spread as the Obama administration withholds education funds from states that do not adopt it.

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama did what politicians always do. And I mean all of them.

"Of course, it’s not enough to train today’s workforce.  We also have to prepare tomorrow’s workforce, by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education."

That's right, he talked about schools, but only in economic terms, failing as all our leaders do, to comprehend that education is about more important things than simply training up our kids for the dog-eat-dog stress factory that is American industry. He touted his administration's "Race to the Top" initiative, which is a warmed over version of the previous administration's "No Child Left Behind," both of which are simply the "corporate reform" movement's wish list of more high stakes testing, union busting, standardized curricula, and, ultimately, the grand prize of the privatization of the entire public school system. And I will point out, as I always do, that none of this agenda -- none of it -- can be supported by research, data, facts, or experience. This entire agenda is based upon the deeply flawed idea that what works for Microsoft (or doesn't work, as the case may be) will work for schools.

(Meanwhile Bill Gates recently lost a chess match to a grand master in 80 seconds, proving yet again that his brand of "genius" doesn't translate very well into areas beyond building a giant monopolistic process machine.)

The president did demonstrate that either he or his speech writers have been listening to his critics because he said the words "problem solving" and "critical thinking," two vital aspects of education that are notoriously lacking in the drill-and-kill model being implemented right across the country. And he gave a shout out to "better support for teachers," and a rather off-handed dismissal of filling in "a bubble on a test," in an apparent attempt to diffuse the criticism he knew would be coming from, you know, actual educators, who continue to be absent from his administration's policy discussions. And speaking of actual educators, do you see anything missing from the following sentence?

"And as Congress decides what it’s going to do, I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need."

Yep, he's turning Congress and his team of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists loose on early childhood education without even a tip-of-the-hat to teachers. Once more he's putting the dilittantes in charge, the ones who have made their workplaces toxic, the ones who are failing to create prosperity for anyone but the top one percent, the ones who rob our economy of nearly a trillion dollars annually through fraud, the ones who hate the whole idea of public education. These are the brilliant minds who are "sobered" by the shocking idea that 5-year-olds can't read. These are the guys he's turning loose on your preschoolers and I guarantee that their solutions are going to look a hell of a lot like the "solutions" that are turning us into a nation of stressed-out drones, people who fear (and rightly so) that if they let up for even a week or a day, they will be one of those who are fired based upon randomly chosen percentages. This is motivation by fear. This is what they are seeking to do to our youngest citizens and their teachers. It should outrage and sicken any decent person.

Our elementary schools are already full of stressed-out kids being expected to perform, on command, things for which they simply are not developmentally ready. Our middle schools are hot houses of children angry that they are being forced to learn stupid stuff that has nothing to do with their lives. And our high schools are populated with cynical kids who have learned, if they have learned anything, that they must jump through ridiculous, meaningless hoops if they ever hope to get out there in the real world where their real education can finally begin. Now they're coming for the preschoolers, because, as The Oregonian education writer argues in reply to a commenter's assertion that these test results, rather than being "sobering," were no big deal:

You(r) assertions may have been true in the past, when academics didn't begin in earnest until first grade. Now first grade teachers expect students to walk in reading three-letter words and three-word sentences or more.

Their argument is that we must do this because we're already doing it. There was no discussion anywhere about what education experts, including most teachers, know about the developmental appropriateness of these cruel expectations. This is what is missing from the corporate reform movement as well, including the president's agenda. This is what is always missing.

If all you did was read the headlines about the State of the Union address, what you probably know is that the president ended with a rousing call out to our men and women in uniform. What you probably missed is how he lead up to that moment (emphasis added by me):

"After all, that’s the spirit that has always moved this nation forward.  It’s the spirit of citizenship – the recognition that through hard work and responsibility, we can pursue our individual dreams, but still come together as one American family to make sure the next generation can pursue its dreams as well . . . Citizenship means standing up . . . Citizenship means standing up . . . Citizenship demands a sense of common cause; participation in the hard work of self-government; an obligation to serve our communities."   

This. This is what is also glaringly missing from our nation's discussions about education: citizenship. Indeed, this is the reason our founders placed such a high value on education, not because they wanted to train their 5-year-olds for "tomorrow's workforce," but because we need educated citizens to participate in the hard work of self-government. This most important lesson will never be learned from testing, standardization, and fear.

I'm not one of those people who take a knee-jerk stand against the president on every front. I voted for him twice and support much of his agenda, but on this I'm having trouble understanding how it's not a form of child abuse. I will not stand quietly by. Those of us who work in early childhood education are the last ones standing, and "citizenship means standing up." Indeed, we are mandated by the state to report abuse when we suspect it. Consider this my report.

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CARRIE said...


Linda Gretton-Hunt said...

Well said. Unfortunately, politicians only ever see anything in terms of economic success and power. And their views are only ever short-term, their policies designed to win them the next election, rather than any deep understanding of the true value of education. If the advisers and experts they appoint have different views, they simply ignore them and rely on their own narrow-minded and limited views. We suffer the same fate in the UK. Just listen to today's speech by our own Secretary of State for Education. Heartbreaking!

Anonymous said...

How can we get this in front of the President's face to read? Would it enlighten him in any way, or not? I want to protect our children and am not sure how...

Anonymous said...

Don't you think equating publishing test results that those kids will never see, or even care about for that matter, to abuse is a bit far fetched? It's funny, because it smacks of evangelical rant, without all the Jesus and stuff.

Teacher Tom said...

Anonymous . . . If you don't think the children are impacted and shamed by the publication of their test scores, then you've not been paying attention. One of the main reasons this is done is to "motivate" parents to start training their kids at home. Why? Because the schools are motivated to achieve high test scores in order to receive funding. These tests have nothing to do with education and everything to do with money. When adults use children to make money, it's called child labor and forced child labor is recognized around the world as abusive.

On a more personal level, however, I know both children and parents who are reduced to tears over these abusive tests. Teachers directly tell parents that they must drill their kids at home. It is incredibly stressful because it is not developmentally appropriate. Brains do not develop properly in stressful environments.

Perhaps equating it with "child abuse" is a bit hyperbolic, but it is not a particularly big stretch.

Unknown said...

Great post, Tom. My daughter started kindergarten last year and all the testing and grading in the American school system is already driving me nuts. The teachers are forced to just teach to the test and I can tell it's stressing them out too. I understand that you have to assess students' ability to figure out what kind of resources they need but I just don't see how all these the multiple choice tests teach children how to be creative, problem solve and think for themselves. And those are the kind of qualities we need more of. I grew up in Sweden and we didn't even get formal grades until 8th grade. I appear to have come out OK.

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled upon this post (and this blog), and wanted to say what a well expressed opinion piece! I'm Australian, and although our government has in recent years introduced standardised testing (with published results), I don't think it is intrinsically tied to funding so people don't seem too stressed out about the results. And boy, I hope it stays that way! I feel so sorry for the kids who are having their childhoods robbed in some ways by this perceived need to get them learning 'information' as early as possible.