Saturday, November 06, 2004

Number 2 Pencil

I often disagree with the implementation of testing in schools. But I don't disagree with the intent of most who advocate them: to ensure that students are learning. I try to not to be reflexively opposed to anything (except hatred, racism, intolerance, etc.) so I like to read the points of view of a wide spectrum of opinions. And frankly, as I wrote last week, tests won't ever go away. As long as there are schools, there will be tests.

That said, here's a link to an excellent blog by Kimberly Swygert. She's a psychometrician, or someone who designs, implements, and analyzes standardized tests. I will frequently link to her site in the continued effort to understand how testing can help to improve schools and, more specifically, how tests can be designed to maximize our understanding of students' progress and minimize the dumbing down of curriculum.

This is an important perspective often missing in the NCLB debate. I'm glad Kimberly's sharing her thoughts on Number 2 Pencil.

Possible Education Secretary in hot water in San Diego

Last week, in my post about possibilities for a Democratic Education Secretary, the name Alan Bersin appeared. The much celebrated Superintendent of San Diego Schools is now in hot water (see the San Diego Urban Tribune's article: "Removal of S.D.'s Bersin is focus of petition drive"). I'd even read some suggestions that Bush might reach across the aisle and pick a Democrat who supports NCLB for Education Secretary and that Bersin might be just the guy.

I think this could hurts his chances. According to the article, his Blueprint has been successful at raising test scores in elementary school but unsuccessful in high schools, which is just where Bush wants to expand NCLB. But maybe it won't hurt him. He's been supported by Education Secretary Rod Paige in the past and, further, it's the teachers' unions that are leading the petition drive against him. Republicans are usually anti-union so maybe it'll be seen by the Bushies as a plus.

It'll be interesting to see if he survives this and what repurcusssions it might have on his career.

Another story about the NCLB forum at UVA

Here's another excellent account of the forum at the University of Virginia this week featuring Gov. Mark Warner and Secretary Rod Paige, among others. Former Secretary of Education Richard Riley (under Clinton for both terms) had this to say: “I supported No Child Left Behind to improve what teachers are doing. We should turn it into more of an exciting challenge than a feared punitive measure."

I think this is on the mark. Rather than threaten and stigmatize, the federal government could encourage, inspire, and support.

Keep an eye on Governor Warner (D-VA), his name is being mentioned an awful lot in discussions about 2008. I've also heard talk of him running for Senate in 2006. Undoubtedly, he's a major player and a rising star in the Democratic party. And as former chairman of the Education Commission of the States, he has a lot of credibility on education issues. In my post yesterday, I mentioned his eye-raising statement that reauthorization of NCLB next year could cause "a perfect storm." He's definitely one to watch.

Friday, November 05, 2004

They did it

The Texas State Board of Education today forced publisher Holt, Rinehart, and Winston to include a passage in the book that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Oh, and by the way, they also left out virtually any mention of ways to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy other than abstinence.

From the article in the Austin Statesman, "All 10 Republicans on the board voted for the changes to the middle-school books while all four Democrats voted against them."

Rod Paige vs. Mark Warner

This article covers a debate between Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Virginia Governor Mark Warner. It's an interesting debate because, as I suggested last week, Warner was a candidate for head of a Kerry Dept. of Education.

One thing particularly caught my eye though. In the last line of the article, the reporter (Ashley Simpson-- uh, not that Ashlee Simpson) quoted Warner responding to a question about the reauthorization of NCLB up in the next year: "'2005 could be the year of the perfect storm,' Warner said."

I've written about how deadset against the Bushies Rep. George Miller (D-CA) is, but what else does Warner know? I wonder if some truly conservative Republicans oppose the greatest expansion of the federal government's power over state-run schools in the history of our country. Hmmmm... A perfect storm?

I'll try to figure out in greater detail what he meant by that in the coming days.

Texas Board of Education meeting

I went to the meeting today but arrived too late (I do teach after all) for the discussion of health textbooks I referred to last night. I'll monitor the media accounts of the vote tonight, but I'm pretty sure the anti-gay, abstinence only curricula went through without a hitch. Texas has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STD's in the country; I'm confident that teaching only about abstinence will significantly ameliorate this problem. Because, after all, if you don't tell teenagers about sex, how will they ever know about it?

Brilliant, isn't it?

Thursday, November 04, 2004

A thought provoking column on NCLB

Last week, I linked to, and commented on, a column by Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher. Here's a rebuttal by Jay Mathews. I don't agree that portfolios can't work with low income students (which he suggests) or that testing really does improve learning, but still, I think Mathews makes many relevant points. I hope he's right about Congress's ability to wisely and effectively amend NCLB in the coming session. Only time will tell and, for some reason, I'm skeptical.

(By the way, the Post -- and many other newspapers -- require registration in which you must give all sorts of personal information. To avoid this, go to when you reach a login screen. Just enter the website you want access to and it'll automatically generate a login name and password. It's a very useful service -- and no, it doesn't require registration.)

The finger pointing at the moon

The main question of NCLB is not, in my mind, whether or not testing should be conducted. It must be. If you don't like testing (and I don't) then think of it as a necessary evil. It's indispensable. The real question is not "To test or not to test" but rather "How much testing is reasonable?"

Consider this excellent post from

...[T]he Region's Science Superintendent (or whatever she's called) reminded us that in 2007-08, NCLB requires that all states begin testing students yearly in science. Immediately, questions flooded my brain:

What will the sequence of courses be? Will it be the same as the current sequence in New York City - life science in sixth grade, physical science in seventh, earth science in eighth?
Will New York State keep it's eighth grade Intermediate Level Science Exam, which is only four years old, or will that be replaced?
Will the exams include performance tasks like the ILS Exam does?

I took a few minutes later in the day to ask one of the science administrators my questions. She understood what I was getting at, but said that no one knows yet... not even the state. It seems to me that if these exams are for real, we must begin preparing teachers and students for them now. After all, this year's fifth graders will be in 8th grade in 07-08, so if the sequence of courses is going to change, it would be wise to start them on the new sequence next year.

New York State tests students in science in 4th grade and 8th grade, and then yearly in high school for the Regents courses. I happen to like the ILS Exam. I think it sets fairly reasonable expectations, it is grounded in current research on best practices in science education, and that it has begun to force/inspire more middle schools to provide the resources and time for good science education. Students must use at least a few basic scientific instruments before they leave the 8th grade, and they must have basic knowledge of experimental design. Although some schools and teachers are teaching to the test and missing the big picture, I still think in the long run it will foster positive change in how science is taught.

I am strongly against yearly testing.

People outside of education don't seem to understand the amount of time that goes into preparing for and administering a standardized test. Even if the test is only an hour long, test days are basically only about the tests. Teachers and students alike are too keyed up to get anything else done on a test day. Having yearly tests in every subject area means 5 or 6 - or more - days of testing, plus make-up days when kids are pulled from their regular classes, plus practice tests mandated by the city, region/district, or state, plus test prep mandated by the administration or the region/district, plus the teacher's own test-oriented lessons... a small part of this is worthwhile. The rest of it, I believe, is often time spent learning "test conventions" and "the genre of tests," time which ought to have been spent in learning real skills and knowledge. My strategy in preparing for the ILS Exam has been to tailor the
curriculum over three years to prepare my students, and I think they will do pretty well. Nevertheless, I will still have to take some time in the weeks before the test to familiarize my students with the format of the test and strategies specific to the types of questions they are likely to see. That's not really science, but it will make a difference in their scores. Doing that for a week or two in eighth grade is fine with me. Doing it every year would be a colossal waste of time!

In addition, I believe that test quality drops the more often tests are given, especially when they are rushed into place as most of the NCLB-mandated tests have been. The ILS Exam strikes me as a pretty high-quality test. I seriously doubt that the same quality could be achieved if the test companies had to produce a test for grade 5, a different test for grade 6, another for grade 7, and another for grade 8, update them yearly, score them accurately, include questions for calibration, pilot new items, etc. I helped score ILS Exams my first year teaching. Because of the new "constructed response" (short answer) questions, scoring the exams is a long process that cannot be done by a machine. Yet it is the constructed response and performance questions that make the exam state of the art. To grade four years' worth of science tests would require many, many hours of work by hundreds or thousands of people across the state - and the funding to pay each of us for that time. Sometimes, teachers are pulled out of their teaching assignments for a few days to score standardized tests, leaving the students with substitutes. The other option would be to revert to straight multiple choice tests which emphasize absorption of large amounts of content over understanding how to do science and explain concepts in your own words.

Finally, yearly tests would run the risk of trying to include far more content than any teacher is likely to teach in a year, which would create an incentive for "covering" material rather than really teaching it.

I don't like the prospect of yearly science testing, not one bit. But if we must have it, I sincerely hope they prepare us for it well in advance. I think we should begin to get a sense of what the new test regimen will look like at least two years before the first set of tests. That is probably wishful thinking, though.

This strikes me as eminently reasonable. Testing -- if the tests are well designed -- can be a spur for good teaching. But too much of a good thing can turn bad. Yearly testing creates a perpetual state of test preparation in classrooms and encourages teachers, as Ms. Frizzle pointed out, to cover material rather than really teach it.

One test every three or four years can show whether or not schools, teachers, and students are on the right track, and allow for educators to make adjustments when necessary. More than that can, and usually does in the many ways she describes, actually impede learning.

I think we're mistaking -- to use one of my favorite Buddhist analogies -- the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. The tests point to the learning going on, but we shouldn't confuse testing with the learning itself.

Hatred as part of the Texas curriculum

I'm embarassed for my state. As if excluding everything but abstinence as a way of preventing STD's and pregnancy from high school health textbooks wasn't bad enough, now this:

One passage in a teachers' edition says that "surveys indicate that 3 to 10 percent of the population is gay. No one knows for sure why some people are straight, some are bisexual and others are gay."

[Board member Terri] Leo (R-Spring) wanted to replace those sentences with: "Opinions vary on why homosexuals, lesbians and bisexuals as a group are more prone to self-destructive behaviors like depression, illegal drug use and suicide."

That's great. Homosexuals are deviant and suicidal. These are the facts we want our teens to understand.

I understand the need for communities to define their values and have local control over curriculum but this is ridiculous. The level of gay hating in this country is reaching a fever pitch. These are the "values" that got Dubya elected? These aren't "values," this is hatred-- plain and simple. It's one thing to have hatred in your heart but it's far worse to teach it to the next generation.

This is important everywhere, not just in Texas, because the textbooks adopted by Texas get adopted in large portions of the country. It's important that students know how to avoid STD's and unwanted pregnancies if they decide to be sexually active. As I've written before here, abstinence should be given prominence in health classes. No question about it. But to teach only abstinence is foolish at best and downright dangerous at worst. Some kids -- no matter what we teach -- are going to be sexually active. We can't help that. What we can do is make sure that threats to public health are minimized.

The TEA has its final vote tomorrow. I fear what they'll actually approve. More later...

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The important -- and the urgent

I just watched my favorite TV show, The West Wing, which was especially nice tonight. (Hey, if my guy can't win in the real thing, can't I at least pretend -- for one measly hour -- that a Dem is in the White House?) One line stuck out. To paraphrase the fictional communications director, Toby: It seems the urgent always trumps the important.

Very prescient in light of the just finished campaign. Education was definitely sidelined. There's a much needed debate on education that didn't really happen. All that was really mentioned was funding levels. I think everyone can agree that some testing is needed. But I think everyone can also agree that NCLB has some deep flaws.

Let's hope that the urgent (economy, Iraq, tax cuts, terror, etc.) doesn't crowd out the important.

Can Bush "reach out" enough to expand NCLB?

President Bush said in his acceptance speech that a second term is an "opportunity to reach out to the whole nation." He also mentioned making "public education all it can be." He's won the election, but he's got several uphill battles ahead of him. In education particularly, his efforts to build bipartisan coalitions will be difficult.

He has signalled that he would like to expand the mandatory standardized tests into high school, so that testing would be yearly from 3rd through 11th grade (it now extends through 8th). But according to associate research director Kathleen Parter-Magee of the conservative Fordham Foundation, (in an article today in Edweek) it will be more difficult than it was in 2001:

There is more resistance than there was then. There was broad bipartisan support, but now when it comes to education, things are a little more polarized.

I think she's right. And it's clearly evidenced by the call by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) for investigations into awarding of education contracts (see my post from last week for more info). Miller, the ranking Democrat on the Workforce and Education Committee and a clear winner in his race yesterday, supported NCLB in 2001. He, and many others like him, would be unlikely to be in favor of any future Bush education initiatives.

If Bush is to truly reach out, and if he wants to expand NCLB, he's got some serious and difficult bridge building work ahead of him.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

After doing the math...

According to my own county-by-county math, Kerry could pick up another 30,000 in Ohio, but he's down 130,000 and there's only 250,000 provisional votes out there. That means he'd have to win the provos (as they're called) by a count of 175,000 to 75,000. Probably ain't gonna happen. But the final count will be close. Closer than it is now. I give a lot of credit to CNN for holding out and waiting to call the election. It's now 12:30 Central and they still haven't done it. They learned their lessons from 2000. The others didn't. Bottom line, though, looks like Bush will win his second term.

It's not over

I just want it on the record that I think the networks called the election too early. When it's all done it'll be 50,000 (give or take 10,000) for Bush. There are 250,000 provisional ballots out there. IT'S NOT OVER. Yet. Just for the record.

A slight diversion

I'll be back to focusing on education issues tomorrow. I just couldn't help but to comment on the election. It's been an interesting one and -- dare I say -- will continue to be interesting for several weeks to come.

Possible Democratic Secretary of Education

The other day, I wrote about a possible replacement for Rod Paige (widely rumored to be ready to step down) if Bush wins. Today, I'll focus on the possibilities for Secretary if Kerry wins.

It seems to me that former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt is the prohibitive favorite (doesn't mean he'll get it; Dean was once a prohibitive favorite to be the Democrats' presidential candidate and we know what happened there). He runs the (aptly named) Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy which has a fairly extensive bio on him.

Here's what had to say about Kerry's possibilities:

Education Secretary -- Kerry anointed former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt as the front-runner when he referred to Hunt as "Mr. Education" at a recent campaign rally. "Jim is the consensus candidate," said one person with ties to the campaign. Hunt was one of a cadre of Southern governors in the 1980s and 1990s -- along with Bob Graham, Bill Clinton, Richard Riley, and, yes, George W. Bush -- who helped lead a reform movement to set national standards in public education.

But if Kerry wanted to send a message that he intends to continue the kinds of reforms envisioned in the No Child Left Behind Act, he might choose one of several big-city school administrators with solid Washington and Democratic credentials. They include former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, now the superintendent in Los Angeles; San Diego schools Superintendent Alan Bersin; and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Other candidates include Boston Mayor Tom Menino and his schools chief, Tom Payzant; Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who cannot succeed himself; and former West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board.

If Kerry is elected, it'll be interesting to see who he picks since that could very well signal the direction he'll head in education policy. Whoever wins, I'll look more deeply at changes in the Department of Education -- and the potential affect on local schools -- in the weeks ahead.

Please weigh in with your thoughts on the merits (or demerits as the case may be) of any of these choices. I'd be interested to read them.

An excellent summary of local and state education issues on the ballot

I'm very pleased to find a new (to me, that is) left-of-center blog focused mainly on education issues. This post from two days ago has an excellent summary of education issues on local and state ballots with lots of links to stories in the local press.

I've linked to this blog and have now made it part of my daily reading.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Election mania (and Looking ahead to possibilities for a future Secretary of Education)

It's hard to write about anything other than national electoral politics tonight. I'm an absolute political junkie and whatever happens tomorrow night, it'll be one for the ages.

I was waiting amidst the thousands in downtown Austin four years ago for an acceptance or concession for candidate Bush-- not because I wanted him to win (I didn't) but because I wanted to witness history. Instead, I waited until 3am (in the rain) for a 30-second speech by Donald Evans. I didn't think any election night could be as crazy as that-- until now. This one could get even crazier. There are currently 33 different scenarios (amongst the dozen or so battleground states still in play) that could result in a 269-269 tie (which would then result in a decision by the House of Representatives). And if it should go to the Supreme Court due to legal challenges, there's no assurance that Chief Justice Rehnquist will be physically able to show up to vote. Unbelievable.

But back to education... A quick word on future possibilities for Secretary of Education. If Bush wins, it is widely rumored that Rod Paige, who is 71 and, according to Robert Novak at least, was not at all comfortable with NCLB, will resign and be replaced by Margaret Spellings. (Ed note: In the Novak article she is referred to as Margaret LaMontagne. She was married sometime in the last year or two and took her husband's name.) So who is she? According to that editorial by Novak, she's much more moderate than Paige and may have -- wonder of wonders -- softened up NCLB a little bit as it neared passage. (I'd hate to think what it would have been like without her.)

Here's a live online chat with her from late September. There are some really bizarre, rambling questions, but here's one particularly interesting question from an NCLB supporter with some deep reservations:

Randy, from Pennsylvania writes:

I am a supporter of George Bush, and I am an educator. The one concern I have with his re-election is NCLB. The fact that he holds special education students and certain other classifications of students at the same accountability level as main stream students is disturbing.

Will he change components of NCLB to make obtaining goals more realistic? Apparently the ones making this legislation have never taught, or have never taken the tests they are requiring students to. The idea that we have to prepare special education students to be able to achieve at a four year college level is unrealistic. Some children, no matter how hard you try, want to be left behind. There is no way any school will ever meet 100 achievement, I'll bet my house on it. Every school will eventually fail, under the stipulations of NCLB, and children will be left behind. I am all for accountability, and all the teachers I work with feel the same, however I think this is more about making education a private entity.

Margaret Spellings:

The President has great faith in our schools and educators that these goals can be met and they are proving it everyday. In every state we are seeing improvement in closing the achievement gap and in reducing the number of schools needing improving -- every state is making progress under NCLB.

No Child Left Behind, while it does hold states accountable for the education of special education students, provides ways to meet this goal in a reasonable way. As you know, the assessment of special ed students is governed largely by ARD committees. NCLB recognizes that different assessment systems will need to be developed for students who are not working at grade level and are classified as special ed. Further, the law allows states to get credit for making continuous progress with these students under the safe harbor provision in the law. Finally, states proscribe the standards and assessments that are used to measure regular and special ed students. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify these points.

Doesn't look like she clarified much to me. This is still the number one problem with NCLB. Very few schools can achieve 100% passing rates. Ever. I was excited to see a high level Bush adviser asked about this, but she dodged it. Surprise, surprise.

I've searched for a while now and can't find any articles profiling Spellings. Anybody know of one?

I'll come back later and look at some of Kerry's possibilities for Education Secretary, and then, after the final election results (which should be compiled sometime around, oh, mid-December -- right?), I'll do some more analysis of other candidates for the next Secretary of Education.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

All work, no play -- in Kindergarten

I don't think this trend toward work in Kindergarten can be entirely blamed on No Child Left Behind. But there can be no doubt that the pressure on schools to have 3rd graders ready to pass their standardized tests (a key component of NCLB from its inception) has exacerbated this get-tough approach to Kindergarten.

I'm torn about this. On the one hand, if it's done right -- that is, if curriculum is presented in a way that's fun and allows the children to be active and creative -- then there's nothing wrong with increasing academics for Kindergartners. But on the other hand, the potential to do it wrong -- to pressure children to the point of neurosis and to cut PE, art, and music -- is great.

From the Detroit News:

Once focused on a child's social and emotional development, kindergarten is now a largely academic experience, sometimes with math drills and daily homework and worksheets. In many schools, time for music, art, recess and games has withered.


The main question: What should Kindergarten be? Should it be, as it was originally intended, a children's garden, relaxed and playful? Or should we get serious with 5 and 6 year olds and prepare them for the rigors of -- I can't believe I'm writing this -- 3rd grade?

A better question: Is there a middle way? How can we ensure that children are getting foundational academic skills in Kindergarten and enjoying themselves, learning to socialize, and increasing their creativity?

The two need not be mutually exclusive.

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