Tag Archives: arne duncan

The Most Miserable Time of the Year

It’s a sad scene when kids who can’t read are forced to take standardized tests they have no reasonable chance of passing.

It’s even sadder when they know it.

Here’s one who has made considerable reading improvements thus far this year but still has no clue what he’s doing. (“I’m so confused,” he said.)

Here’s one on a kindergarten reading level who this year finally learned all her letter sounds. She goes through each word sounding out every s-i-n-g-l-e letter and considers it reading. When she gets to the questions, she says in her developing English, “I no know.”

This one’s crying. That one’s been staring at the same question for ten minutes. This one’s coloring in the picture that accompanies the passage. That one’s finished almost as quickly as I am done reading the directions.

“Pointless” is not even a word that begins to come close to describing the value these tests have to me and my students. News flash: they’re all going to fail. News flash again: force me to sit for three days taking a five hour test on physics and I’ll fail, too. I can tell you this without even looking at the test.

If you need an assessment of my students’ readiness for the next grade, you might consider asking me. After all, I can tell you all the things a test can’t, such as the types of scaffolds that have enabled them to make some strides this year. Or how much greater the comprehension is when text is read to them. Or what else they need to learn to continue to move forward. Or how they’re “accessing” the grade level standards but, given all their deficits, it’s virtually impossible without a lot of support and guidance. Or who has involved parents and who pretty much fends for themselves once they get home. Or who may be being hit, or who doesn’t eat breakfast, or who brings chips and calls them “lunch.”

I could tell you plenty about these kids, and plenty about the tests.

The sorry thing, though, is that no one’s asking.

Some Try, Some Fail, and All Suffer

Over the past, literally, four days, I administered an end of unit reading and writing assessment to my class of 12 students with disabilities (11 of whom receive English as a Second Language services).

This assessment featured: two passages that were both two pages long, a bunch of multiple choice questions after each (some with two parts, where the second part built upon the first), a written constructed response for each, and a written extended response that required using both passages. Is it any wonder it took us, literally, over 4 hours to finish?

The reading was dense (regardless of me reading each passage twice). The questions were wordy. The writing prompts were confusing. Without even looking at the finished products, I’d venture that most, and probably all, of my students showed no understanding of what is expected (not by me, mind you, but by the geniuses who come up with this arbitrary and overwhelming stuff).

They all told me it was too hard. Some of them asked me what they had to do. Many of them told me they didn’t know what to write. A lot of them copied straight from the passage (regardless of how many times I said, “Make sure you put it in your own words.”)

And three of them cried.

On day one, a boy refused to even take a guess at a multiple choice question. “I’m scared,” he said. “Just put anything, it doesn’t matter,” I told him, to no avail. His eyes reddened and welled with tears, and the tears dropped onto the floor as he looked down. His neighbor leaned over and said, “Come on, just circle A, B, C, or D.” Hoping to show him that everyone was in the same boat, I told him to watch as I surveyed the class: “Who thinks this is hard?” It didn’t matter to him that all hands went up. He was crippled by anxiety.

On day three, my student who is by far the most significantly behind in reading and writing, refused to write anything. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Regardless of how many times my para and I told her or encouraged her, she wouldn’t do anything but put her head on the desk. In the end, she cried as well.

Today, I wised up and had the students highlight what they needed to do. I read the prompt to them several times and directed them how to turn back to the passages. One girl repeatedly said, “I can’t,” and “I don’t know,” and, “I need help.” I explained to her it was like a writing test, so I couldn’t help. “But it’s hard!” “Yes, it is,” I agreed. Again, I polled the class to see who thought it was hard. All hands went up. Then I said, “Put your hand up if I’m helping you.” No hands went up. It didn’t impress her. She wrote nothing and will take a zero on that part of the assessment.

What did I learn about my students from this? Nothing I don’t already know. The notion that they are asked to do work that is totally inappropriate to their current abilities was clearly reinforced.

What did my students learn? Maybe what they’re going to find out eventually anyway, as long as our education system doesn’t adapt to valuing all abilities and the differences among our students: They’re worthless.

Why do we do this to them?

It’s Okay to Be Disgusted

There’s news out of Florida on the testing front. If you haven’t yet heard or read about it, I feel obligated to warn you: it’s grotesque.

It’ll probably turn your stomach a little. It has the potential to raise your blood pressure a few ticks. It might bring a scowl to your face.

But don’t worry. It’s okay to be disgusted.

There’s a boy named Michael. He’s nine, and in Florida, that means the special time in his life has finally come when he takes Florida’s standardized test. Sounds like another anti-testing sob story, and you’re not disgusted yet? Keep reading.

Michael is your typical kid in so many ways, except for the following: he’s blind and he’s mute.

Now, I’m not by any means saying someone who can’t see or speak is incapable of deep thought, comprehension, or success. Obviously we know that isn’t true. Nor am I saying Michael himself, in his unique situation, is totally helpless or hopeless.

But here’s the thing about Michael. In addition to being blind and mute, he has a very limited mental capacity. Michael’s brain is literally incomplete. He has a brain stem, and that’s it.

Let that soak in for a minute. He has a brain stem, and that’s it.

But just because he’s at that special age where tests are the only way to show any kind of competency, Michael had to take the test.

No vision, no speech, no complete brain. Yet still, bless his heart, a test taker.

Now’s the time to be disgusted.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume Michael didn’t do too well on this test. Am I holding him to low expectations? Am I saying he can’t do certain things? Am I saying he won’t ever be college and career ready? Uh, yep, I am.

Michael has lived and will live his life on drastically different terms than most. I’m not a doctor (just a know-nothing teacher), but, barring incredible medical advancements, I imagine he’ll never bathe himself, dress himself, feed himself, write his name independently, or articulate an opinion. I’d also have to guess he could never comprehend the testing instructions or a reason for it. His life will probably never be comparable to his peers, except for the fact that he is held to the same academic standards as everyone his age.

It’s okay to be disgusted.

But it’s those who let this happen who should feel the most disgusted. For they are the most disgusting.

There’s a Problem Here

If you work in one of the 45 states that adopted the Common Core standards to start this year (and chances are you do), then you are probably aware of one major glaring issue regarding the implementation of the math standards.

That is: how can we teach this new, deeper style of math when it supposes that students have had previous years of training and learning in a similar style?

Common Core supporters will say that’s exactly the reason we needed these standards, but that misses the point. The point is that until a class of students has received Common Core instruction from Kindergarten to the end of their careers, it’s not going to make sense. So, my students, who are brand new to the Common Core way of math, are starting out way behind where Common Core supposes they should be.

This should have been a discussion before Common Core was green lighted and rushed into our classrooms. It might have gone something like this:

Logical Thinker: “Here’s the thing. If we start Common Core in every grade this year, it can’t possibly work for all students.”

Skeptic: “Of course it can.”

Logical Thinker: “No, it can’t. Think of it this way. We’re going to ask third graders, for instance, to do math based on what they would have learned in second grade. Only thing is, they didn’t learn Common Core math in second grade, so they don’t have the prerequisite skills to do the Common Core math in third grade.”

Skeptic: “You know what? That’s a good point. And that’s going to be true for all grades, except…”

Logical Thinker: “Kindergarten. If we start Common Core with them this year, then they can do Common Core in first grade because they’ll have done it for a year. It all builds on the previous year so kindergarten is the only grade we can really start with without totally demoralizing kids, teachers, parents, and administrators.”

Skeptic: “This actually makes sense.”

Logical Thinker: “Of course it does. So we start with kindergarten in 2012. Then do kindergarten and first in 2013. Then kindergarten through second in 2014, and continue implementing it in waves until the 2012 kindergarteners are at the end of their career.”

Skeptic: “Okay. I get that. But what about all the kids who don’t get Common Core? We’d just be failing them.”

Logical Thinker: “No, we wouldn’t. Implementing something like this requires logical thought, and that’s why I’m here. We will fail them only if we cause them frustration by expecting them to do math they can’t be expected to do. You can’t build a building without a foundation. Where is their foundation?”

Skeptic: “Yeah, that might be a problem.”

Dear Parents – A Principal Tells it Like it Is

Here is a phenomenal back to school e-mail sent by a principal willing to put his neck out in order to speak the truth! His courage is admirable and his honesty is necessary.

September 4, 2012

Dear Parents,

On behalf of the teachers and staff of the Wantagh Elementary School, I would like to welcome you back to school. I anticipate that the 2012-13 academic year will prove to be an exciting year.

We are all enthusiastic about the arrival of our new superintendent, Mr. D’Angelo, and the promise of a fresh vision for the academic well-being of our school district. Also, Mrs. Chowske will be joining our WES staff, functioning as our school’s Elementary Supervisor [aka, Assistant Principal]. The future is bright as we move forward with the implementation of our Writers’ Workshop program expanding into our fourth grade and kindergarten. This year we will also initiate a new K-5 math program called enVisionMATH. This program not only meets the national Common Core standards for Math but does so with enhanced technological experiences for our children.

One significant issue as we move into this new school year is that we will, at times, find it difficult if not impossible to teach authentic application of concepts and skills with an eye towards relevancy. What we will be teaching students is to be effective test takers; a skill that does not necessarily translate into critical thinking – a skill set that is necessary at the college level and beyond. This will inevitably conflict with authentic educational practice – true teaching.

Unfortunately, if educators want to survive in the new, Albany-created bureaucratic mess that is standardized assessments to measure teacher performance, paramount to anything else, we must focus on getting kids ready for the state assessments. This is what happens when non-educators like our governor and state legislators, textbook publishing companies (who create the assessments for our state and reap millions of our tax dollars by doing so), our NYS Board of Regents, and a state teachers’ union president get involved in creating what they perceive as desirable educational outcomes and decide how to achieve and measure them. Where were the opinions of teachers, principals, and superintendents? None were asked to participate in the establishment of our new state assessment parameters. Today, statisticians are making educational decisions in New York State that will impact your children for years to come.

Standardized assessment has grown exponentially. For example, last year New York State fourth graders, who are nine or ten years old, were subjected to roughly 675 minutes (over 11 hours) of state assessments which does not include state field testing. This year there will be a state mandated pre-test in September and a second mandated pre-test in January for allkindergarten through fifth grade students in school. In April, kindergarten through fifth grade students will take the last test [assessment] for the year.

Excessive testing is unhealthy. When I went to school I was never over-tested and subsequently labeled with an insidious number that ranked or placed me at a Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 or Level 4 as we do today. Do you want your child to know their assigned ‘Level’? What would the impact be on their self-esteem and self-worth at such a young age?

Of additional concern to me is the relationship between children and their teacher as we move into an era where teacher job status is based upon student assessment scores. Guess what, some children will become more desirable than others to have in class! And, conversely, others will be less desirable. There, I wrote it! That concept is blasphemy in our school where teachers live to prepare children to be productive learners and members of society. Teachers state-wide are worried that their relationship with students might change when they are evaluated based upon their students’ test scores. Teachers want to educate students, not test prep them for job security.

Additionally, what should be shocking to you as a parent is that state and national databases are being created in order to analyze and store students’ test scores – your child’s assessment results and your child’s school attendance! Do you realize that the state has mandated that classroom teachers must take attendance during every math, ELA, social studies and science lesson – everyone, every day for the entire school year! Those records are sent to the state and become statistically part of the teacher evaluation process. It will no longer be enough that your child ‘was in school.’ Rather, if he or she was at a band lesson or out of the room for extra help in reading and a math lesson was taking place in class, he or she will be noted as absent from that instruction. That will be factored into the teacher evaluation. Thinking of taking your child to Disney World for a week during the school year or leaving a day or two early for a long weekend skiing? Think again! Those absences will be recorded as illegal, missed seat time and sent to the state – as mandated by the state.

This is all part of the massive, multi-million tax-payer dollar teacher evaluation processes started by our Commissioner of Education, our governor, and our state legislators and fully supported by statisticians employed by the state and assessment-making companies. No one in Albany is selecting to see the end of the journey; that 98 percent of the students graduating from Wantagh Schools go on to two- and four-year colleges. Their myopic view is focused on the ‘parts’, not the whole. Who will eventually suffer? Your children!

The balance must now be struck between maintaining the special nature of an elementary school setting and the cold and calculating final analysis rendered by statistics. The use of assessment data to drive instruction is a tenet of good educational practices. The use of assessment data to render a yearly prognostication of teacher competency is ridiculous.

You have the greatest impact on your child’s school performance. Each teacher only has your children for 180 days per year and for less than six hours per day [minus lunch and recess times, art, music, and physical education classes]. It is our expectation that as partners in your child’s education, you will be doing your part as well. As part of any evaluation of student performance, Albany must simultaneously be asking parents the following questions:

Does your child read at home each day for at least twenty minutes?

Do you read to your child every day?

Are math facts gone over daily until they are known automatically?

Is there a quiet location in the house for homework time and do you check your child’s homework each night?

Is your child sent to school ready for the day with a good breakfast following at least eight hours of sleep?

Are after school activities monitored so that your child is not ‘overbooked’ and their stamina compromised?

Is your child in school daily [except when they are sick] and not taken out of school for any reason other than illness?

We will continue to have field trips, assemblies, and special school events but some events will be curtailed or rescheduled with an eye toward prudent times during the school year to maximize student seat time. However, it is unmistakable that we have entered into a new era of educational practice with higher stakes than ever before.

I look forward to working with you and your child as we start our new school year because….together we make a difference.

Thank you.

Don Sternberg, Ed.D.


I’m Not a Genius Like the Rest of Them

A student in your class is reluctant to do his work. He is talking loudly and defiantly refusing to attempt to answer any questions. The most likely cause of his reticence is:

A. His desire to be a class clown.
B. His preference for doing math instead of test prep.
C. His desire for attention, even if it is negative.
D. His frustration at having to do work that he knows is too hard for him.

I know the answer, because I wrote the question. I also know exactly who I am thinking of. Sadly, the answer is D.

It took me long enough, but I finally realized that I have at least one student who generally puts in a solid effort on his work but is, during test practice, simply mailing it in. It’s been a few weeks of a pattern of behavior – failure to look back in the passage, determination to provide answers out of context, and lots of staring into space.

The last couple of weeks have been marked by a terseness and attitude that befits this student not. No school-bound root of his anger was evident until I asked him about it today. His simple statement was quite powerful: “I’m not a genius like the rest of them.”

I tried – most likely in vain – to explain that I understood it was difficult and that it wasn’t my decision to have test prep or tests (nor was it even the principal’s!) During lunch, I reflected that this student is on the third highest reading level in the class, and that kids more than two years below grade level were even putting in a good effort. I pointed this out to him, and it seemed to convince him of his need to try harder.

We know what’s coming, though. It’s too painfully clear. This is a kid, like so many others with disabilities, who will internalize, through being forced to do things way too difficult for him, that he is stupid, dumb, and worthless, and that school is the same.

A student with a learning disability who tries his hardest at all subjects and learns best when tasks and activities are tailored in a way that is accessible to him and his unique needs is required to take the same standardized tests that students performing at grade level are required to take. The most likely outcome is:

A. He develops a strong distaste for school and seeks other interests of varying value.
B. He develops diminished senses of self-worth and confidence.
C. He disengages from any academic pursuits he previously considered.
D. All of the above.

The Evolution of Testing in My Career

Since my career began, here’s a sample of what I have heard from politicians, colleagues, others in school, and those joining in the discourse around the country regarding standardized testing:

As a pre-service teacher: Nothing.

I was left to assume the tests were an inconvenient nuisance at the end of the year that just had to be done – kind of like filling out a survey and receiving a prize.

As a first-year fifth grade teacher: “He took summer school because he failed the test.” “There are only __ days left until the test!” “Just do the test prep and don’t complain.” “We don’t even get the scores until July.” “The test doesn’t mean anything, they all get promoted, anyway.” “New York’s test scores are higher than ever!”

As a second-year fifth grade teacher: “This year is going to be really rough because we have one test and the next week we have the other one.” “We’re going to do a test practice passage every month so they know what’s coming.” “There are only __ days left until the test!!!” “These tests don’t show anything. It’s so easy to get a 3.” “We removed a whole class set of tests for having the exact same answer on an essay*.” “New York continues to raise test scores.”

As a third-year first/second grade teacher: Since I wasn’t in a testing grade, I’ve blocked it all out, except for me saying to colleagues, “I don’t miss the tests.” (Though this is the year I became a lot more keenly aware of the political dialogue around testing and the tremendous and unrelenting pressures of NCLB and Race to the Top.)

As a fourth-year third grade teacher: “We really have to make sure these kids do well.” “We’re doing six weeks of test prep and have to cover 50 indicators in math.” “We don’t want teachers teaching to the test.” “You know, this is important for your tenure and your job – you want to be able to show good test scores.” “Your test scores will count for at least 20% in our new teacher evaluation system.” “These test scores are so meaningless, why do they print them in the paper?” “It’s just not fair to the kids.”

*I heard this from someone who scored tests. In New York, teachers score tests from other schools.

Don’t Mess With Texas!

Deep in the heart of Texas, it seems the delicious taste of a people’s revolution is hanging in the air. Indeed, state Education Commissioner Robert Scott is firing salvos against testing that someday might earn him the distinction of being, “The Scott Heard ‘Round the World.”

His army is responding. According to the Washington Post, “more than 100 districts” have passed a resolution condemning an “over reliance” on standardized testing.

It is wonderful to imagine what adults can accomplish when they put aside their selfish greed and instead, act in the best interests of students (who are our future, after all). Let’s hope Texas becomes a model for other states – including my own – on how to stand up and demand an end to the insanity of forcing students to take tests that are essentially meaningless. Let them be the model for demanding students have rich, meaningful learning experiences that promote our country’s best possible future.

This is the kind of courageous and intelligent behavior that seems to have been eroded from the landscape, so kudos to the folks in for Texas standing up and thinking with their own brains!

I am posting the resolution here in the hopes that you read it, feel inspired, and spread it. It’s the start of a revolution!

WHEREAS, the over reliance on standardized, high stakes testing as the only assessment of learning that really matters in the state and federal accountability systems is strangling our public schools and undermining any chance that educators have to transform a traditional system of schooling into a broad range of learning experiences that better prepares our students to live successfully and be competitive on a global stage; and

WHEREAS, we commend Robert Scott, Commissioner of Education, for his concern about the overemphasis on high stakes testing that has become “a perversion of its original intent” and for his continuing support of high standards and local accountability; and

WHEREAS, we believe our state’s future prosperity relies on a high-quality education system that prepares students for college and careers, and without such a system Texas’ economic competitiveness and ability and to attract new business will falter; and

WHEREAS, the real work of designing more engaging student learning experiences requires changes in the culture and structure of the systems in which teachers and students work; and

WHEREAS, what occurs in our classrooms every day should be student-centered and result in students learning at a deep and meaningful level, as opposed to the superficial level of learning that results from the current over-emphasis on that which can be easily tested by standardized tests; and

WHEREAS, We believe in the tenets set out in Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas (TASA, 2008) and our goal is to transform this district in accordance with those tenets; and

WHEREAS, Our vision is for all students to be engaged in more meaningful learning activities that cultivate their unique individual talents, to provide for student choice in work that is designed to respect how they learn best, and to embrace the concept that students can be both consumers and creators of knowledge; and

WHEREAS, only by developing new capacities and conditions in districts and schools, and the communities in which they are embedded, will we ensure that all learning spaces foster and celebrate innovation, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, communication and critical thinking; and

WHEREAS, these are the very skills that business leaders desire in a rising workforce and the very attitudes that are essential to the survival of our democracy; and

WHEREAS, imposing relentless test preparation and boring memorization of facts to enhance test performance is doing little more than stealing the love of learning from our students and assuring that we fall short of our goals; and

WHEREAS, we do not oppose accountability in public schools and we point with pride to the performance of our students, but believe that the system of the past will not prepare our students to lead in the future and neither will the standardized tests that so dominate their instructional time and block our ability to make progress toward a world-class education system of student-centered schools and future-ready students; therefore be it

RESOLVED that the _____________ ISD Board of Trustees calls on the Texas Legislature to reexamine the public school accountability system in Texas and to develop a system that encompasses multiple assessments, reflects greater validity, uses more cost efficient sampling techniques and other external evaluation arrangements, and more accurately reflects what students know, appreciate and can do in terms of the rigorous standards essential to their success, enhances the role of teachers as designers, guides to instruction and leaders, and nurtures the sense of inquiry and love of learning in all students.

Which Side Are You On?

Today, I am reimagining Florence Reece’s classic protest song, “Which Side Are You On?” in consideration of ed reform in the United States.

They say in the U.S.A. that teachers are what ails.

They’re overpaid and underworked, they’re why our students fail.


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?


It’s oh so clear to many that this is all a game.

Political and dangerous to treat all kids the same.


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?


If you’re a billionaire then it’s obvious to me,

You’re not someone who should influence ed policy.


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?


You take away our teachers and close our public schools.

The end result of this is that the country goes to fools.


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?


What is this land we live in where teachers are the root

Of every single social ill? Why do they get the boot?


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?


It’s not about the students from your tower ivory.

You want to help the students? You must listen to me.


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?


My mother was a teacher. Now I’m a teacher, too.

There are people who know teaching, and Mister, that ain’t you.


Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?

Teacher as Coach, Student as Athlete

As it is said, the role of the teacher has evolved to that of a coach, rather than direct deliverer of knowledge. Nowhere is this truer than in the testing grades.

You doubt we teachers are like coaches training our student-athletes? Think again. We are teaching them all those nifty test-taking strategies that they need to compete with and defeat the Big Bad Test (BBT). We’re having them practice those strategies over and over until they do them automatically and have them ingrained in their muscle memory. In fact, we want them doing them so often and so well that they don’t even have to think when the BBT arrives! It’s like the World Series and Super Bowl all in one, don’tcha know.

In New York, we’re improving the stamina and endurance of third grade student-athletes by increasing the length of their test. We’re exercising their minds and bodies with marathon practice tests so that they can – get this! – sit still for the three or four or whatever hours without losing concentration!  Testing is a marathon, not a sprint, and we want our student-athletes in top form on race (to the bottom) day!

All this practice, endurance training, and coaching is designed to help our student-athletes. The common goal is victory over the test.  Only thing is, that victory is like a Mets win in spring training: utterly meaningless.