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: