Friday, September 16, 2011

Shanghai Adventures

Hello all,

As I noted in the previous post, Peter, Parker and I are spending the fall in Shanghai, China, where Peter is a visiting professor of architecture at Tongji University and Parker and I are homeschooling and exploring. I'm taking a break from this blog, but you can check out Parker's (to which I occasionally contribute).

Have a great fall, everyone!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Parent Involvement

I wrote this post for the Mom Congress Back-to-School Blog-a-thon (I was the North Carolina delegate to the 2011 Mom Congress, sponsored by Parenting Magazine). You can read more Mom Congress blogs here.

As the letter notes, Peter and Parker and I will be spending the fall in Shanghai. Peter will be a visiting professor of architecture at Tongji University, and Parker and I will be learning and exploring. It should be quite an adventure.

Dear Parker,

Only three more days before we head for Shanghai. Four months to explore one of the world's great cities! I've already got a long list of places to visit together: museums, markets, neighborhoods, gardens. I'm so excited.

But I'm nervous as well. Not of a temporary move to a city with 23 million residents, terrible drivers, some of the world's worst air pollution and a language I don't read or speak. I'm nervous about this homeschooling thing.

Every summer, I joke that I can't wait for school to start again, so I can return you to the capable hands of trained professionals. I laugh, but I mean every word.

I've got a list of fancy degrees that show I'm pretty good at learning. But they don't mean I can teach. Although I pick up concepts fast, I don't have the patience or dedication to devise four or five ways to teach them to someone else, much less to design lessons engaging enough to draw in restless ten-year-olds.

As you well know, if we were here this fall I wouldn't spend much time in your classroom. Other parents would do the hands-on work of tutoring, helping with class projects and organizing parties. I'd be crunching numbers, writing articles, speaking at school board meetings and sending countless e-mails.

I'd be working to get our teachers the resources they need to succeed, such as small classes and decent libraries. I'd be doing my best to shield them from policies that get in their way – most recently the flood of enervating standardized tests that our school board has unleashed on our classrooms. I'd be spending quality cybertime with my friends at Parents Across America, as we work to engage parents around the country in national education issues.

You might ask why parents need to be doing this work. Don't teachers have the right to free speech? Aren't they the ones who're always telling you to speak out, to confront bullies, to stand up for yourself? And aren't they the ones who really know what's happening in schools and classrooms? If policies like testing or inflated class size aren't helping students learn, why don't teachers lead the fight against them?

Welcome, son, to the worlds of work and politics.

When you get older, you'll understand how much it means to have a job that pays the bills and perhaps supports a family. And when you do, you'll understand how hard it is to publicly criticize your employer. Some teachers have the courage to speak out. Many are too afraid – afraid of losing jobs or of having dissatisfied administrators make their lives miserable.

As you learn more about politics, you'll also learn about the attacks launched when people stand up against powerful interests. Many of the policies I and my friends have challenged are marketed as corporate-style "efficiencies." Essentially, they promise to get more bang for educational bucks by using tests and other measures to make the educational workforce more "productive." They're backed not only by the federal government, but by a lot of major private-sector players, including wealthy private foundations.

When teachers challenge these policies, they're quickly accused of being lazy, of not wanting to be held "accountable" for their performance, of caring more about themselves than about the children they teach every day. It can get very ugly very fast.

We parents are in a stronger position. No one can fire us. If we work together, in fact, we have the power to deprive elected officials of their jobs. And no one has a greater stake that we do in good schools and good teaching. No one can accuse us of placing the interests of adults over those of children. We're in it for our kids.

Given these political dynamics, as well as our hard economic times, if we parents want our children to get the kind of education they deserve, we have to look beyond what's happening in our individual schools and classrooms. We have to be the ones who stand up and speak out.

I'm starting to run long here, and I can almost feel you tugging on my arm, the way you do when I get into one of what you call my "endless chats." Your pleas echo faintly in my head. "Mom, Mom! No more chats! We have to go!" And it's true that we're not nearly finished packing.

So one last thing. Please bear with me on this homeschooling business. I won't be able to "deliver" the material with anything like the competence, creativity or patience you've grown used to at Shamrock. But I promise that if you'll do your best to focus, we'll get through what we need to do as quickly as we can. Then we'll go out exploring. I can't wait.



Thursday, August 18, 2011

Democracy Revisited

I'm standing on Washington's Ellipse, at the Save Our Schools march, when the chant starts from the crowd.

"This is what democracy looks like!"

"This is what democracy looks like!"

From where I'm standing, democracy looks like the backs of a lot of people's heads, punctuated here and there by an umbrella raised against the relentless sun. But I get the point. There's a lot more to democracy than election day.

Textbooks teach kids that we elect officials who pass laws. But that's only the beginning. The SOS march is a great example. Many of the parents, teachers and scholars at the march worked hard to make Barack Obama our nation's 44th president. But we've been deeply frustrated with his education policies. So we're here to press for changes. And we are indeed a marvelous mosaic.

As we depart the Ellipse and head for the White House, democracy looks like 74-year-old Jonathan Kozol, marching in suit and tie despite the 100-degree heat.

It looks like the purple-clad member of Omega Psi Phi, in town to celebrate his fraternity's centennial, who breaks into a few impromptu dance steps in support of the marchers.

It looks like our Parents Across America group, whose members came from communities all across the country.

As the march proceeds down Pennsylvania Avenue, the sights and sounds around me summon up other images from a long year of democratic engagement.

I remember the November evening I spent on the second floor of Charlotte's government center, surrounded by high school students fighting to keep their school. The Board of Education had targeted nine schools for closure, and anxious citizens had filled the chamber hall to overflowing, sending many of us to an auxiliary room upstairs. The room was dominated by supporters of Waddell High, a school with low test scores and a problematic reputation, but where students had found a home, and friends, and teachers who cared deeply about them.

One by one the students who had signed up to speak were called to tell the board why Waddell should be spared. The room filled with smiles and high fives as their classmates wished them well, applause when they appeared on the closed-circuit television screen, and warm welcomes as they returned, beaming from the rush of standing up in front of a packed house and saying what they wanted to say.

I remember a sunny, windswept afternoon outside that same government center, spent with a motley but enthusiastic group of people willing to look like fools to make a point.

CMS had launched a massive expansion of standardized testing that disrupted learning and angered parents across the system. In an effort to get the school board to pull back, a group of us had organized protests, petitions and letter-writing campaigns.

Although the school board was scheduled to take a crucial vote that evening, the public wouldn't be allowed to speak. So we had decided to dance in protest, stepping to Greg Gower's marvelous "Test Teacher Anthem." The wind scattered our posters and buffeted our sound, but we had fun anyway.

Most of all, though, I remember the May morning when several dozen Shamrock fourth graders, clutching backpacks and pillows, climbed aboard two chartered buses to head to Raleigh, our state capital.

Although a fourth grade Raleigh trip has been a North Carolina institution for generations, no one at the school could remember a time when Shamrock's students had gone. It takes time and effort to plan the trip, as well as a good bit of cash, and no one had been able to muster the energy or the funds – until this year.

The students had been looking forward to the trip for months – the bus ride, the nature museum, the planned stop at a Golden Corral restaurant on the way home. They knew they would have fun. They also had a purpose. It was budget-cutting season, and we had just learned that our beloved media center specialist, Margaret Hollar, had been handed a pink slip. Along with cameras, snacks and cash for souvenirs, the students carried letters to our state representative, calling for more funds for schools.

Once we reached the capital, the students made their way over to the old Capitol building, fronted by statues of the three Presidents North Carolina claims as native sons.

They trooped up the marble stairs of the current legislative building to see the chambers where members of the House and Senate make the laws.

They marveled at tarantulas and dinosaur bones and photographs of children who had worked in textile mills a hundred years before.

But for me, the highlight came when they met Becky Carney, our state representative, and crowded eagerly around to hand her their letters, their first foray into the democratic fray.

Democracy, of course has never been easy. It's full of combat and compromise, winners and losers, and fighting hard can make losing that much more painful. And these days it seems the deck is often stacked against folks at the grassroots, stacked by cash from billionaires and corporations, by a reeling economy and by a powerful federal government that seems more interested in rhetoric than reality.

In that regard, it's been a tough year.

As the long night of November 8 faded into the early morning of November 9, the satisfaction of speaking out gave way to weary despair when a grim-faced school board voted to close every school on its list, including Waddell High. When school opens next week, Waddell's building will be occupied by the students of a language immersion magnet. Waddell's students will be scattered across several schools. Eight other schools will have closed for good.

Although our testing fight helped stall a crucial piece of test-related state legislation, and brought the issue to the forefront of public debate, we lost two crucial school board votes, each by a one-vote margin. In June, when the superintendent who had pushed the testing suddenly left for a plush job with Rupert Murdoch, we hoped that his departure would slow what we had come to call testing madness. But we were disappointed. The interim superintendent is pressing doggedly forward, an approach backed by our Chamber of Commerce, the Gates Foundation, the federal Department of Education, and many companies that stand to benefit from a testing expansion. So there's a long haul ahead.

We did have one bright spot, though. A campaign to raise education funding at both state and county levels helped lift budget allocations high enough to restore a number of proposed cuts. So just before school let out, our school board voted to restore the jobs of all the pink-slipped media center specialists – including Ms. Hollar's.

On the last day of school, one of the fourth graders who had carried a letter up to Raleigh ran over to Ms. Hollar, grabbed her in a hug, and happily exclaimed: "We saved your job!"

That's what democracy ought to look like. A fourth grader lit up with the joy of having stepped into the democratic fray and made a difference. It's a faith that can be hard to hold onto. But it's the faith we need.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Is This Democracy?

The first clue came when the phone rang at the house of my friend Carol Sawyer. At the other end was a pleasant woman who said she was conducting a survey on education in our school district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Carol doesn't much care for phone surveys, but she's interested in anything that has to do with CMS. She said yes.

A few minutes in, she realized that this was no ordinary survey. Question after question sought her opinions on key aspects of CMS policy: strategic staffing, weighted student funding, pay for performance and more. She could give free responses, which the surveyor typed up. Someone had spent a lot of money.

When she asked who had commissioned the survey, the woman wouldn't say, beyond a vague reference to a "foundation."

A survey about CMS wasn't really a surprise. Knowing what members of the public think about CMS policies definitely matters these days.

It's been a rocky year, with a set of school closings that deeply angered the affected communities and a massive expansion of standardized testing that disrupted learning, infuriated parents and teachers, and drew national attention.

On the heels of this turmoil, our superintendent left to go work for Rupert Murdoch. Now, we're about to elect three new school board members. The new board will pick the new superintendent, who will then set the course for the next few years. It's a crucial time. The survey made sense.

The question was: who wanted to know?

Her curiosity piqued, Carol phoned our school board representative to see if he knew anything. The survey was news to him, he said, but he'd ask around. One thing led to another, and we turned our attention elsewhere.

Until yesterday. The headline said it all: "Bill Gates funds CMS PR Blitz." Turns out that Gates money had funded the survey as part of a $200,000 PR campaign – being handled by Charlotte's Chamber of Commerce – to "inform" the public about district policies.

"Although change can be intimidating," the endeavor's website reads, "reform in the classroom means continuous improvement to better students, teachers and the community at-large." It defines "reform" as "to put or change into an improved condition."

(Don't guess Bill got his money's worth on those ungrammatical mouthfuls but that's his problem.)

Of course, we looked first for a statement about CMS's standardized testing expansion – the 52 new tests that packed school board meetings, sparked countless letters and e-mails, and barely survived two 5-4 school board votes.

Unsurprisingly, the Chamber's spokesperson denied that the effort, which bears the unwieldy name of "Educating Change Now," was designed to change people's minds about testing. "This is not an advocacy campaign," she stated, adding that all they were trying to do was inform the public about CMS's current operating blueprint, known as Strategic Plan 2014.

But the educatingchangenow website clearly states that "effective teaching can be defined as more than a year’s worth of content in a year’s time," and that a key strategy for strengthening teacher effectiveness is to "develop a measure for a year’s worth of growth for every subject and grade level." If it smells like a test (or actually a whole lot of tests) . . .

My thoughts immediately turned to the news stories back in March that detailed a Gates Foundation effort to spend more than $3 million to "win over the public and the media to its market-driven approach to school reform" by seeking to create “strong ties to local journalists, opinion elites, and local/state policymakers and their staffs,” as well as supporting local groups willing to advocate for the test-driven "value added" calculations of teacher effectiveness.

Is this democracy?

Clearly, in this country, people and organizations are free to state their opinions. But as a friend of mine frequently reminds me, while we are all entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts.

The educatingchangenow website and its in-your-face video urge folks to "take a closer look at the facts." But they don't direct them to any of the many studies of districts where high-stakes standardized tests and pay-for-performance schemes have failed to produce any growth in student achievement. They don't even suggest that a debate exists. They make their statements about "effective teaching" as though they were gospel truths, and offer links to CMS and Gates Foundation sites.

This campaign is being funded by private money given to a private entity which didn't seem to feel the need to inform all members of the school board that the campaign was about to launch. What should we make of that? Should the future of our public schools be heavily influenced by the actions of wealthy private organizations, acting independently of our elected representatives?

The 2014 plan includes a range of endeavors, some of which I agree with. But I don't think a slick, privately-funded publicity campaign is the best way to go about building support for them. For one thing, I don't think it will work. But more important, it doesn't foster the debate and honesty needed to move a divided community forward.

A couple of weeks ago, I met Chamber of Commerce president Bob Morgan for the first time. We were at the grand opening of a Plaza-Midwood branch of Rita's Italian Ice. He cut the ribbon and I accepted a much-appreciated donation to the Shamrock PTA. We talked about our kids. We toasted each other with paper cups of mango-flavored ice. We didn't mention testing.

I don't think Morgan or the other Chamber folks wish our schools ill. But like Peter Gorman, Arne Duncan and plenty of other would-be "reformers," they haven't chosen a path – educational or political – that will take us where we want to go.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


As I lean over to fill the butterfly garden fountain, I hear rustling and voices. I put down the watering can and pick my way around towers of ironweed and sunflower, emerging to see the wheat bed full of students. Harvest time at last. The golden bed has become a blur of color and movement as the students examine the ripened heads, pull them with quick, sharp tugs, and then move to the next group, half a dozen conversations going on at once. It's great to see them there, working so happily together.

It's been a tough year. The slack economy has taken its toll on everyone at Shamrock, cutting into family incomes, fraying nerves, threatening the jobs of some of the school's most beloved staff members. Death and illness have struck unusually hard at our staff's extended families, depleting the condolence fund for cards and flowers. For several years we've celebrated rising test scores, but this year we're fighting just to hang on to past year's gains.

And in the middle of it all, Parker's teacher Ms. Bonasera, departed for two months of pregnancy leave.

Until Ms. Bonasera left, I had no idea how much a teacher mattered to her students. For the past four years, from kindergarten through third grade, Parker's class had been the students who could do no wrong. All their teachers had raved about how close they were, how much they cared about each other.

But once Ms. Bonasera left, as Parker put it, "everybody started to go crazy." The substitute could not get the class to settle down. The first two weeks, they sat through silent lunches and cancelled recess. Then even model students began to misbehave. Students talked back. They walked out of class. Worst of all, they started fighting among themselves, sparking shoves, tears, insults and suspensions. Staff members tried class discussions, group-determined norms, individual conversations. Nothing worked.

After four weeks of trying to get the class on track, the substitute gave up. Three more weeks of substitutes followed, until Ms. Bonasera decided to come back from leave a week early. By then, the class was far behind where they should have been, and the next few weeks saw a mad rush to catch up before state tests. It wasn't the year that anyone planned for.

Still, through all that turmoil, the wheat kids sowed back in the fall kept on growing, unhindered by pests, outstripping all the weeds that, in the chaos that followed Ms. Bonasera's departure, no one thought to pull. They can see this project through to completion.

On a small scale, I feel the way I did in the months after 9/11. Parker was a baby then, and even a tragedy of such monumental proportions made no difference in his life. It was tremendously comforting to watch him grow and develop like any other child, untouched by the event that had shaken everyone around him. Babies, wheat. Things happen. Life goes on.

Tops done, the students start to pull the stalks, faces clenched as they heave, laughing as the roots give way. The heat from earlier in the week has broken and the sun feels good. "I think this is the best teamwork we've used all year," one of them remarks. They'll put the husks in a pillowcase, beat out the grain and, if all goes well, end the year with bread, just like they planned.

As always with kids, you don't know what all these experiences will mean. You'd like to see them in terms of the neat lessons so often found in books, to think that because they came through a troubled time together, they'll value each other more. But in real life, that's hard to describe or to explain. You just don't know.

Summer is upon us, and will pull all of them in different directions. There's a lot of uncertainty ahead – a new principal, a new superintendent. A year closer to the turbulant seas of middle school and adolescence. But for now, they are together, playing, laughing. They have weathered this particular storm. I can't wait to taste the bread.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Ms. Hollar

I have never met anyone who loves books and reading more than Margaret Hollar, our Shamrock media specialist. That love shows in her face whenever she picks a book up from her desk, looks at the cover, then pages intently through, searching for a favorite passage. It fills her voice as she expounds on characters or turns of phrase or the many different lessons she believes stories can teach. And it is shining at full force this morning, as she sits at one end of our media center and describes the "Gift of Reading" program she's created. Each year Shamrock staff and volunteers gather several hundred books, enough for every student to give one to a classmate as a gift. Books are wonderful, Ms. Hollar explains, but they're even better when they're shared.

The visitors arrayed around the table smile with her. They've come from the Target Corporation and the Heart of America Foundation to consider Shamrock for an extraordinary gift – a full-scale makeover that would turn our beloved but shabby media center into the showplace of our school.

They're here because they believe that both libraries and community matter. The Heart of America READesgin initiative gathers groups of volunteers to create beautiful libraries at high-poverty schools. The foundation has two goals, to "teach the values at the heart of America," and to remind participants "that they help themselves when they help others."

I can't think of a better place to pursue both those goals than Shamrock's media center. It's the crossroads of our school, where staff and students meet to seek information, share ideas, help one another learn. It's a place where caring staff inspire children to fish for knowledge, then teach them how to go about it, both on the shelves and in the frequently treacherous waters of the World Wide Web. Like all the other school libraries across the nation, it plays a crucial role in our democracy – creating independent citizens who can think for themselves.

The center buzzes with activity from the time the school doors open until well after the last bell rings. Each morning, while the news team prepares its daily broadcast, streams of students come to return finished books and check out new ones. After school, following a day of class activities, you're likely to run into a group of teachers discussing books and projects, or a handful of students who've stayed late to work on PowerPoints, edit videos, participate in book clubs or research science projects.

Ms. Hollar knits all these activities together with a voice that carries, a laugh that booms, and that love of books and stories that spills out almost every time she speaks. She's full of great suggestions for students who want something new to read, and she always has the best costumes for reading dress-up day, from Pippi Longstocking to Pete the Cat to a can of reading spinach.

Anyone who works with children will tell you that learning depends on relationships. Kids don't just imbibe knowledge from books, computer screens or standardized tests. They learn because skilled and dedicated individuals inspire and guide them. We are lucky to have so many of those people at our school.

It's great to sit at that media center table and tell our visitors about what goes on in the space around us. We could rhapsodize all day about books and projects and the dreams we have for all of Shamrock's students. But the representatives can only stay so long. There are three finalists for the award, and they have to move on to the next school on their list. They thank us, and take their leave.

A few hours later, the phone rings. We've won.

It's hard to describe the feeling. Our staff members work so hard for Shamrock's kids. They do so much with our ragged building, our limited supplies, the little help that we can give them. Finally, they and the kids will have one room marked by the grandeur that their endeavors deserve – a room outfitted to help them all sail even further.

* * *

If you've been following the education budget cuts in Charlotte – or anywhere else in the country – you know what's coming next.

Last Friday, May 13, Ms. Hollar got a pink slip.

North Carolina's state legislators, steadfast in their zeal to slash every tax in sight, had cut state funds for support staff. On the ground in CMS, this cut translated into a requirement that every school eliminate one of three positions: counselor, literary facilitator or media center specialist. Principals were forced to make an agonizing decision. Would they cut support for students' physical and emotional needs (the counselor, who often doubles as a social worker), for basic skills (the literacy facilitator), or for a rich curriculum (the media specialist)?

The principals at half of CMS's schools – 80 of 164 – chose to cut a media center specialist. Shamrock was one of those.

North Carolina legislators are not alone in considering school librarians expendable. A brief Web foray turned up articles about librarians laid off and libraries shuttered in California, Michigan, Indiana, Washington, and many other states. I found a Google Map littered with tags that marked communities where school librarians had lost their jobs.

I read a chilling description of the way that the Los Angeles district "prosecuted" of many of its laid-off librarians during a Kafkaesque procedure in which school system lawyers did their best to prove that someone who had served as a school librarian was incapable of teaching children in a classroom.

We have come to a sad place if our country's elected leaders have become so pinched and parsimonious that they can't see their way to provide all our schools with well-staffed libraries, to keep in place the dedicated individuals who teach our children how to effectively embark upon a search for knowledge. To become well-informed citizens. To fish for themselves.

* * *

Monday I picked lillies from my garden to take to the staff members who got pink slips. Parker asked me why we were taking flowers to school. I explained. He stopped in his tracks, and his eyes went wide.

"Not Ms. Hollar!" he exclaimed.

He thought a minute.

"Does this mean I'll never see her again?" he asked.

It was the morning of the first day of EOG testing. Not the best time for a discussion of the painful realities of life. I told him we'd be fighting for Ms. Hollar's job, and that he should focus on his test. We'd talk more about it later.

Next week, our principal will accept our makeover award in the grand atrium of the Library of Congress, surrounded by stained glass skylights, gilded vaults and towering marble columns that proclaim the value of libraries and the knowledge they contain.

If any of our public institutions deserve such grandeur, it's our libraries, those places where members of a democratic society come to seek out knowledge.

I'm delighted that our media center will be transformed into the gorgeous space that it deserves to occupy. It's heartening to know there are still people and institutions who understand how much libraries mean to kids and to our nation.

But I would trade it all to get Ms. Hollar back.

Note: A few weeks after I wrote this, the Mecklenburg County Commission came up with enough additional money to bring back all the media specialists who had been laid off. So Ms. Hollar will get to run the library she dreamed of after all. We are all so happy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

White House Dreaming

The night before Barack Obama was elected President, I shook his hand. How that happened is a long and somewhat complicated story, but I won't go into it now.

What I remember best is the moment itself. I grasped his hand and said something like "It's nice to meet you, Senator." He smiled the most charming smile. Then he asked, "What's your name?"

And I couldn't remember.

I did eventually recover, and managed to offer up "Pam Grundy." But it was the strangest feeling. Already, the weight of the office that he was about to win was descending over him, troubling the air, throwing everything around off kilter.

Obama's victory meant a lot to kids at Shamrock. They stayed up late watching the returns, soaking in the excitement of friends and family around them. The day after the election, the school's mood was jubilant. Finally, a president looked like them. Somehow, the grand confines of Washington, D.C., seemed a little closer.

Just after the inauguration, the whole school wrote letters to Obama, congratulating him on his accomplishments, and inviting him to come and visit.

The connection that they felt to him, and their pride in our school, shone through every sentence. If he came, he could try out our smart boards, they informed him. He could meet the best teachers in Charlotte. Perhaps he would like to eat some of the peas that they were growing in our gardens.

When we mailed the package off, we thought that was the end of it. It's a big country, and we're just one small school.

And yet here I am, two years later, standing at the White House gates. Through a quirk of fate, I've been invited to come talk to White House staff about education. I'm here with a group of other women who've been dubbed "Champions of Change" – part of a new initiative to highlight folks working in communities around the country. We've spent the past three days as delegates to "Mom Congress," a three-day education conference of women from across the country. This is our final stop.

As we approach the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the Second Empire wedding cake extravaganza that houses most of the White House offices, I catch a bit of that out-of-balance sensation I felt that night at campaign headquarters.

I'm not the only one affected. Bren Martin, who's with us from Kentucky, is stopped at the gate because she's left her picture ID in her other purse. The guards won't let her in without it. Dazzled by our surroundings, none of us notices she's been left behind. Not when we pose for a group picture in front of the building. Not while we wait impatiently in line to collect our green "A" (for "Appointment") badges. Not as we lift our cameras, and start snapping away.

The building's grandeur only heightens our bedazzlement. "In bold contrast to many of the somber classical revival buildings in Washington," the White House website notes, "the EEOB's flamboyant style epitomizes the optimism and exuberance of the post-Civil War period." They're not kidding.

Staircases sweep up in imposing curves and white-columned corridors stretch into the distance. Seemingly endless rows of doors bear tantalizing labels like "White House Counsel," "Office of the Vice President," and "Executive Gym." It feels a bit like Willie Wonka's chocolate factory, promising secrets behind every door.

Slowly, we regain some equilibrium. The surroundings may be grand, but the people seem like ordinary folks. The Secret Service officers wear nameplates that announce their home states. Beaming twentysomething interns escort us from place to place, clearly giddy at their own good fortune. The green plastic badges show plenty of wear around the edges.

As we come down to earth, someone finally realizes that Bren isn't with us, setting off a frantic search (she does eventually manage to retrieve her ID from the hotel and make it through the gate).

The hunt for Bren isn't our only worry. There's so little time, and so much we all want to say. So many thoughts running through all our heads.

For me, it's a dilemma. I've spent the past five years working to build up Shamrock Gardens, to bring together people from different backgrounds to fashion a school as good as any in the city. But in the past two months I've turned to fighting a massive expansion of standardized testing here in Charlotte – an expansion directly driven by federal policy. My blog, which generally focuses on Shamrock and its students, is rapidly filling with rants against these tests. I have maybe five minutes. What should I say? How can I find the words that would make some kind of difference?

In the end, though, my heart is with our kids, and with the hopeful letters that they wrote a newly elected president. Being invited to this meeting is an unexpected gift, and I’m not going to waste it. When my turn comes, I talk about Shamrock, about what we've accomplished, and about how strongly I believe in integrated schools.

The discussion swings around the table and the topics come thick and fast: science education, preschool, national standards, poverty, bullying. It's impressive. Everyone speaks with passion, and you can tell from the details in their descriptions that they all have their feet firmly planted on the ground. It feels as though we could solve the world's problems, if they'd only let us at them.

The meeting draws to a close, and discussion leader Russlyn Ali smiles. The idea of Champions of Change sounded hokey at first, she says. But now it seems to make more sense. She notes that while policies and leaders are always changing, it's people like us who stick around. For real change to take hold, we have to make it work ourselves. We nod our heads. It's quite the responsibility, but we all know it's true.

After we leave the room, a photographer beckons us aside to take official pictures. Each week's Champions of Change are featured on the White House website: a photograph, a brief description, and a short video about our efforts to "win the future."

We pose in a corridor, staffers walking up and down behind us, columns receding into the distance. The whole thing feels a little odd. With this entire grand edifice to choose from, they take our pictures the middle of a hall? But the photos come out looking far more elegant than the process feels.

The filming disorients in its own way. A door opens on a room that looks like it's made of solid gold, the kind of place you see in a museum or on a movie set. But they film each of us against a stark white background. People watching the videos will have no inkling of the extravagance that surrounds us. I can't help but think about the photographer's backdrops that make a plain-walled studio seem glamorous and exotic. What is real? What isn't? At the moment, it's a little hard to tell.

As we wait for everyone to finish, we take a few more photos. Texas delegate Darlene Shue wants a picture with a Secret Service officer to show her son, so we track one down. The battery in her camera has run out, so I use mine. I photograph the system that controls our exit. It's almost as challenging to get out as it was to get in – the Secret Service folks have to help almost everyone who goes through. Maybe there's a message there. Or perhaps it's just a bad set of directions.

It's hard to know what to make of this kind of experience. The issues education faces are so huge. I've felt the excitement of Obama's election dissipate, buried beneath budget cuts and economic troubles. I've been sorely disappointed by his administration's education policies – too much emphasis on test scores and charter schools, not enough on the day-to-day efforts of teachers, students and parents at public schools like Shamrock.

If there was one thing more that I could have said while at the Eisenhower building, it would have been that I'd like to see President Obama celebrate this kind of effort, an effort that builds schools by working with neighborhoods and communities, by bringing different kinds of people together, by focusing on slower but I think more lasting change.

Still, we didn't need a Presidential visit to move forward. When our students wrote their letters to Obama, we were hoping to emerge from the NCLB sanctions that had plagued the school for years. Now we've met those goals three years running. Our four small garden beds have grown to more than two dozen, filled with vegetables and flowers and butterflies. We've brought in more new programs than I can count. Although we're still a work in progress, we've come a long way. For real change to take hold, we have to make it work ourselves. A couple of hours on the White House grounds won't do it for us.

The photos and the videos, as promised, are up on the White House site. Not a bad address. That visit may not make much difference in the long run. But I do know that I was in that building with a great group of people. I also know that the staff and kids at Shamrock deserve all the attention they can get. I'm glad that I was there.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Test Season, Continued

In a town built around a coal mine, which is most likely to be true?

a) All women work in the mine.
b) Most men work in the mine.
c) The mine never lays people off.
d) The mine is the safest place to work.

This question showed up on CMS's third grade social studies field test the other month. It was a solid question, said CMS testing director Chris Cobitz, and would have made it to the final test if it hadn't been made public as part of the ongoing debate over the tests.

I'm glad to see the question "outed." One of the problems I have with standardized tests is the mystery that surrounds them. The numbers they create are sliced and diced and published and compared and used to determine the fate of children, teachers and schools. But very rarely do discussions focus on the questions that elicit the bubble patterns that are turned into these numbers. This question, this escaped artifact of a twentieth-century obsession, offers a chance to do that.

At first glance, it makes some sense. Few CMS third graders have any experience with coal mines, since there aren't any here in Charlotte – or in North Carolina for that matter (in West Virginia, on the other hand, any child of any age would know the answer in a heartbeat). Anything our third graders know about coal mining, they've probably learned in school, although in my mind they're as likely – if not more likely – to have learned it from a novel or a first-grade picture book than from third grade social studies. You can imagine how a child might think the question through.

But of course you don't actually have to know anything about economics or coal mines or American communities to answer the question correctly. All three of the wrong answers involve absolute statements: "all," "never," and "safest." The correct answer -- "most men" -- is clearly the one best suited to a guess, to the question "which is most likely to be true?"

Getting the answer that way definitely requires reasoning, but I don't think it has anything to do with social studies.

The question got me thinking about last year, and Parker's third grade social studies work.

Parker's third-grade teacher, Terry Carter, happened to be the highest-paid elementary school teacher in CMS. She was paid the old-fashioned way, so she reached that lofty peak by amassing more than 30 years of experience, two masters' degrees and National Board certification. She gained a little extra by teaching in a high-poverty school with a pilot bonus plan.

She was worth every penny – for reasons that had nothing to do with testing.

For Parker, the most meaningful part of social studies class involved heroes. The North Carolina Standard Course of Study Third Grade Social Studies Competency Goal 7 calls for students to "analyze the role of real and fictional heroes in shaping the culture of communities." Ms. Carter put her own twist on that assignment.

Together, the students learned about many different kinds of heroes: explorers, doctors, soldiers, caregivers, political leaders, etc. Then, for Black History Month, Ms. Carter gave them a list of African Americans and told them to pick one for a research paper. One of the questions they had to answer was whether or not the person they had chosen was a hero.

Like many third grade boys, Parker was obsessed with battles and warfare. He also hated the idea of slavery. So the figure that caught his eye was Nat Turner, the prophetic Virginia slave who in 1831 led the deadliest slave revolt in American history.

I was a little surprised to see Nat Turner turn up on a list of third grade research topics. But Ms. Carter had put him there deliberately. "I wanted them to think," she later told me.

At first Parker was excited by the idea of Nat Turner and his rebellion. But as he began to learn more about what really happened on those bloody August days, he grew less enthusiastic. Turner and his rebels had a goal that he wholeheartedly embraced -- ending slavery. But they had killed a lot of innocent people. Was Nat Turner a hero?

Parker talked about this question a lot, turning fact, ideal and contradiction over and over in his mind. We had several discussions about it at home. The kids in his class debated it, and ended up divided. Some thought Turner was a hero. Others didn't.

Near the end of the year, Parker wrote a poem.

Life and Death

Death, blood, killing, Nat Turner
I see a field of people
for a drop of water.

These images of death
make me sad
make me angry
frustrate me.

I want to think he's a hero
he did some heroic things
like free slaves
I think he killed too many people
innocent people.

I see a field of people
for a drop of water.
Nat Turner a cold blooded killer.

We spend enough time testing. I want my son doing more projects like this.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Where Does Medicine Come From?

The attention given to this spring's standardized tests has given many of us a glimpse into the world of standardized testing, and into the kinds of questions our children are being asked. It hasn't been a pretty sight.

I was especially intrigued by one parent's ruminations about one of the questions from CMS's new kindergarten test. Her observations get at the heart of the problems with standardized tests, and speak to why we as parents do not want "data" from such tests to "drive" our children's education.

Try to answer this question yourself, before seeing what she has to say.

Test Question: "Where does medicine come from?"

To answer this question accurately requires a basic understanding of science, manufacturing, and law. Medicine can be developed with synthetic or natural ingredients in a lab, produced in a factory, sold by the drug company to a pharmacy, sometimes requires a prescription written by a doctor, and is dispensed via the pharmacy to the patient (or parent in the case of a minor). And this is the simple answer, don’t get me started on explaining insurance coverage, R&D, clinical trials, etc.

Where along the supply chain should this question be answered?


My children answered "plants" and "a Doctor." They are both correct.

My neighbor answered "the rainforests." She is correct.

Most frequent answer from kindergarten students in this class: "My Mom." They are also correct.

Other answers might be: a laboratory, a factory

However, according to the test – these answers are all WRONG. The test answer is "a pharmacist."

Do you really want to pinhole our children into an education that condenses this type of question into a one word response? I certainly don’t. Do you really want to reward the teachers that drill test answers in? You might overhear this next year in the classroom: “No Sam, drugs do not come from plants, they come from pharmacists. You have to answer it this way or I could get fired.” I certainly don’t want this. I want my children to be critical thinkers that enjoy learning and understand the bigger picture of the world around them. I think our teachers were doing an excellent job of this thing called learning, until testing, testing and more testing came along.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Test Season

This spring, along with the dogwoods and the pollen, Mecklenburg County has been hit by waves of standardized tests. It's the season of pay for performance, the latest fad in a long line of efforts to change American education from the top down.

State standardized tests already consume a good chunk of the school year, when you count the weeks of focused preparation, the drawn-out process of making sure that every child is tested and possibly retested, and then the time it takes for teachers, students and schools to recover from the frenzy.

And testing affects the entire school, not just the tested grade. Art teachers, music teachers, ESL teachers, EC teachers are pulled from their classes to proctor. Media centers close. Volunteer tutors take the week off. The whole school tiptoes around, in order not to disturb the testing students. It's the most frustrating part of teaching in a public school these days, or sending your child to one.

Now, CMS is ramping up this process, adding dozens of new local tests. At one CMS elementary, of the thirteen school weeks between March 7 and June 10, precisely five will be free of state or district mandated tests. How many times can you weigh a pig?

How did this happen? Let's take it step by step.

In national debates over how to improve American schools, a number of powerful players, most notably private entities such as the Gates and Broad Foundations, have argued that raising "teacher quality" should be the central focus of education policy. The U.S. Department of Education, alas, has gone along with them (for a pithy account of how this came to be, see Diane Ravitch's recent Newsweek column).

How do you raise teacher quality? The Department of Education has decreed, in typically soaring federal prose, that districts should assess teachers "using multiple rating categories that take into account data on student growth as a significant factor."

How do you get "data on student growth?" You measure how well students do on standardized tests from one year to another, or one term to another, and then calculate the effect in a variety of complicated ways. This means you have to give a lot of tests.

Pay for performance, another favorite of the foundation world, takes this idea one step further – making growth scores part of a salary scale. On the surface, the idea of pay for performance doesn't seem so bad. But if every teacher's pay depends, even in part, on "data on student growth," then every student, in every subject, has to take standardized tests.

At this point the educational value of the tests becomes a secondary concern.

It does not matter that standardized tests are more effective at measuring science than art; more suited to high school students than kindergartners.

It does not matter that teachers seem to have considerable influence over math test scores, and very little over English test scores.

It does not matter that testing pulls a first grade teacher out of her classroom for more than 25 hours a year, or forces an ESL teacher to spend a full month administering and proctoring tests rather than teaching his students English.

It does not matter that standardized tests, by nature, can only measure a small part of what parents want their kids to learn at school.

Pay for performance requires that every teacher have a growth score, so there must be a test for every subject at every grade, and all those scores must carry equal weight. As with Procrustes' bed, any piece that doesn't fit the system must be either stretched or chopped off, regardless of the consequences.

In addition, these are high-stakes tests. Because a teacher's rating – and thus salary – depends on student scores, the tests must be given under controlled conditions, and they must be proctored (hence the ESL teacher who has to stop teaching his students so he can watch other students take a test).

Elaborate systems must also be designed to ensure that student scores are credited to the "right" teachers – an especially complicated matter when students are moved from school to school, or from one classroom to another, or in any other situation that doesn't fit the standard one-teacher-to-a-single-set-of-students model.

All this time and expense is justified, we parents are told, because it will get us better teachers. And better teachers will mean higher achievement.

But we parents know better. It's not just that we know research shows that pay for performance isn't fair or effective. We know that a school is not a collection of graphs, statistics and fully aligned, thoughtfully integrated, optimally balanced learning progressions. It's a group of parents, teachers and children exploring a messy world that can't be compressed into a neat set of multiple-choice bubbles, where learning doesn't move along straight, upward lines, and where a test that on paper takes two hours in reality consumes far more time and effort.

We're not opposed to tests per se – there's material our children need to master, and that needs to be monitored. But we're opposed to blowing testing so far out of proportion that real children and real classrooms and real learning fade from view.

We know what happened with the last round of high-stakes testing: a narrowed curriculum, more teaching to the test, and lowered standards overall.

We also know that increasing high-stakes testing is far more likely to lose us our best teachers than to gain us better ones.

As parents, we want our children to have the best teachers possible. We want them to achieve all that they can. But we know that this growth in testing is not the way to reach these goals.

For a research-based account of why tying teacher pay to test scores will not improve either teacher quality or student achievement, please visit the website of Parents Across America:

Friday, March 18, 2011


The music spills out from the Ovens Auditorium stage and washes over the seated students in classic, staccato waves. Dum Dum Dum Dummmmmmmm. Dum Dum Dum Dummmmmmmm. Beethoven's Fifth.

A full-fledged symphony orchestra feasts eyes as well as ears. Stringed instruments, reflecting the stage lights, glow deep reddish-brown. Bows move back and forth in perfect time, while harmonies dance from place to place within the space the sound creates – first here, then over there, then back again.

The students, clapping with the beat, become a joyful blur of sound and movement.

True to the concert's theme – "Rhythm Around the World" – conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos is guiding his audience through a landscape of waltzes, marches and classical tunes, illustrating beat and rhythm with pieces by Stravinsky, Grieg and Sousa, as well as Beethoven. The students moved cautiously at first, leaning forward to catch the unfamiliar rhythmic patterns. But confidence built quickly, and they now stomp and clap with gusto.

Bairos drops his hands and brings the music to a stop. Then he lifts his baton again, and the sounds pour out once more – still Beethoven's composition, but patterned to a hip-hop beat. The students quickly catch this more familiar rhythm, and began to move with even greater zeal, throwing hips, shoulders, heads and arms into their response.

When at last the music stops, the audience heads for the exits – all but the Shamrock students. All our students play in Shamrock's orchestra, and organizers have arranged some special treats.

Before the concert, the students got to meet Joy Payton-Stevens, a cellist who visited Shamrock back in the fall. Now, as the students from other schools reach the doors, Bairos appears in front of us, smiling and high-fiving and ready to answer questions. The kids beam, and shoot their hands into the air. When did he start playing music? Is it scary to be up in front of all those people? They learn he started out when he was just their age, and there is nothing he loves better.

Gerald Turner, a longtime member of orchestra sponsor St. Luke Methodist Church, happily photographs the scene. He's been to plenty of musical events over the years, he says, but he's never seen a symphony orchestra before. He can't get over how wonderful it was, how perfectly all the musicians played together. Amazing.

Back outside, the students chat and pose for pictures as they wait for the bus. It's been one of those school days that you don't forget – your friends, the sun's warmth, the way you clapped and swayed in the embrace of extraordinary music. What a great day to be young. What a sense of possibility. What an achievement to aspire to.

But as the glowing kids line up to board the bus, I think about the testing season that will soon be upon them, how pinched and sad those lists of carefully vetted questions will seem next to the marvel of Beethoven's Fifth. What slice of this experience could be mechanical enough to reduce to a multiple-choice answer?

How many beats per measure are in a waltz?

a. 4
b. 3
c. 7
d. 10

In what year was Ludwig van Beethoven born?

a. 1740
b. 1760
c. 1865
d. 1770

Is this achievement?

If some children mark more of these answers right than others, what does that tell you about them? And in this era of pay-for-performance, what does it say about their teacher?

Later, I try to imagine the kind of question a good teacher would ask her students.

Which word best describes the way you felt while listening to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony?

a. Exuberant
b. Tempestuous
c. Funky
d. Wakazoo! (this last courtesy of Parker)

In the standardized test world, of course, a question like this would never make the grade. Sadly, none of these marvelous words is the one right answer. It depends on the person, on the performance, on a hundred other variables. It calls on students to discuss, explain, weigh different points of view. Just like in literature. Just like in life.

But these days, when achievement has become an educational obsession, standardized test scores seem to be the only thing that matters. They determine which students pass, which schools are closed, which teachers are rewarded. When someone talks about achievement, they are almost always referring strictly to test scores. We seem to have forgotten how remarkably limited they are, what a small slice of education they represent.

Of course, these tests have one, powerful advantage that fits them to the Darwinian conditions of today's educational surroundings – an advantage has allowed them not merely to survive, but to thrive and multiply.

Unlike a great symphony, or a marvelous piece of writing, the bubble patterns test-takers create can be turned into numbers.

Once you have a set of numbers, they take on a life of their own. You can line them up in impressive columns, top to bottom. You can extend them out to multiple decimal places, creating the illusion of ultimate precision. You can set numeric goals for schools to reach – or face the consequences. You can create salary scales that slice your teaching staff into neat quartiles of "effectiveness."

And after a while you can forget that at the heart of this quantitative extravaganza lies a child sitting in a classroom, penciling circles in answer to the limited range of questions that can be pressed to serve the multiple-choice format. You learn something from the scores those patterned circles generate, but not as much as everyone around you imagines that they signify. Lost in the chase for just the right array of calculations, the magic matrix of accurate assessment, you have ceased to notice just how little this mathematical emperor is wearing.

It's time to stop and take a closer look.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Shakespeare and Standardized Tests

"Can you give us a quote from Shakespeare?" the girl asks.

Her classmates crowd around, notebooks and pencils in hand, eyes expectant.

Ms. Pavelecky's third grade class is on a quest. They've been reading The Green Book, a science fiction novel about a group of people who have fled a dying Earth for a new planet. One of the travelers has brought along the collected works of Shakespeare.

Ms. Pavelecky wants her students to understand why this old dead white guy means so much. So they're traipsing through the school, asking everyone they meet to give them a quote. They've cornered me in the butterfly garden. Their pencils hover. I'm on the spot.

A quote from Shakespeare.

I think first of the four great words with which Lady Macbeth laid bare her unhinged mind. They have possibilities. Strong, single-syllable Anglo-Saxon words. A swell example of a grammatical "command." The kids would love to hear me say it.

But . . . maybe not.

I shake my head. "I'm thinking of something, but I don't think I can say it."

Ms. Pavelecky laughs. Ms. Bunting thought of that one too, she says, but settled for "Romeo, Romeo."

As my mind's gears keep turning, complications pop up everywhere. A phrase that contemplates suicide? One that pegs life as "a tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing?" Hmmm.

As the students grow restless, I latch onto Julius Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." This one will do. I love its call to self-reliance, despite the less-than-admirable motivation. I say it slowly, spelling out "fault," "Brutus" and "underlings."

As I say the words, they seem to call for explanation. So I start with something I figure will be easy –stars and destiny.

What zodiac signs are you? I ask.

The kids look blank. I feel suddenly old. Has astrology become a relic of the past? Do kids no longer know that crucial piece of information – the sign that they were born under? I look at Ms. Pavelecky. She shakes her head. I don't want to think about how long the Age of Aquarius has been over.

I feel little more successful with explaining "underlings." The idea of a social system placing some people beneath others is unlikely to go out of fashion any time soon.

The kids walk away, and I think about how what they've just done will never show up on a standardized test. They're learning about people, about culture, about the world around them. My halting explanations may have left them with only murky inklings about astrology and underlings, but they've seen someone they know get excited about Shakespeare and the words he wrote. And they have a couple of new ideas they might explore.

Her students have really taken to Shakespeare, Ms. Pavelecky says later. They love his stories, so full of drama, humor and humanity. She's worked hard to help them understand how the power of words can turn tragedy into a thing of beauty.

When they sit down to take that test, in contrast, it will ask them to draw painfully narrow sets of conclusions from badly written stories full of tired clich├ęs.

I'm glad that teachers like Ms. Pavelecky don't spend all – or even most – of their time teaching to those tests. But I can't help worrying about what's ahead, given CMS's current pay for performance obsession. Officials claim that standardized tests won't be at the center of teacher evaluations, but I don't believe it. And if teachers' pay depends on how many test sheet bubbles children can fill in correctly, the pressure to dispense with Shakespeare and focus on test-taking skills will grow.

It seems time to stand up. Perhaps Cassius wasn't so wrong after all.