And You Thought Standardized Tests Were Bad.

Yesterday afternoon, in eighty degree heat, my fourth graders took the first of the six “NWEA MAP” assessments that they will sit for this year.

The MAP test (which stands for “Measure of Academic Progress”) is often considered to be the lesser of evils when it comes to standardized testing: scores show up immediately after a student finishes testing, and it purports to measure “growth” rather than how a child stacks up against grade-level standards.

Results often make zero sense (how does a student who worked their tail off in the classroom all year actually lose learning points, while another miraculously makes three years worth of “growth”?), but because the results have a sort of science-y feel, the test is used to place students in intervention groups, gifted and talented programs, and even to award merit pay bonuses to teachers.

Yesterday, in our steamy-hot classroom, I had to gently prod kids along – reminding them to turn their eyes back to the test when they drifted toward the window or the doorway, to put the rainbow erasers away, to pick their heads up off their desk.

The test, however, wanted me to intervene with one little girl sitting in the front of the room.

There was no question she was reading the passages in front of her, and no question that she was doing her best to do her best.

But, according to the test’s new warning feature, she was “disengaged.”

NWEA recently received an award from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional learning for this feature, which not only claims to know who is disengaged based on how quickly they are clicking through the test, but all sorts of other things about the child’s psyche.

If a student doesn’t take the test seriously enough, NWEA believes this is a sign that a child is struggling to self-regulate or self-manage in school, and could benefit from behavioral intervention.

Now, this may not seem so bad, until you realize that this “what’s wrong with kids who won’t take our test seriously and what can we do about them?” feature is actually part of a “broader research agenda” spurred by the recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to “measure” social-emotional learning using standardized tests.

Which isn’t actually about helping the kids at all.

Instead, its a data-siphoning strategy designed to fuel not only the multi-billion dollar assessment industry, but the budding “Pay For Success” investment opportunities that Wall Street is hoping will create a cash cow in a few years time.

And if what happened in my class is any sign of what’s to come, we’re in really big trouble.

The girl that the test flagged as “disengaged” actually scored the highest in the class (and she’s probably one of the sweetest, calmest kids I’ve ever worked with) meaning that the click-speed feature didn’t actually have a damn clue about what was going on in my students’ psyches as they took the test.

Just as they do with standardized tests, however, you can bet they’re going to try charging forward with these blunt, inept social-emotional assessments, wreaking whatever havoc they please.

If only they had a warning system letting them know how disengaged we are becoming with these assessments…

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Robots Replacing Teachers? Laugh at Your Own Risk.

*Disclaimer: the mother in this article requested to keep her identity anonymous for the time being. Additional details are forthcoming.

This fall, parents in a California school district discovered at a sixth grade open house that their child would no longer have a teacher.

Instead, the district had invested in an “exciting new way of learning” – a “personalized learning program” called Summit, designed by Facebook.

After listening to a presentation about the system that parents had received no prior information about (including no information about the programs data-sharing agreement, which gives Summit full authority to sell student information to third parties), they were ushered into a classroom where they told to log onto the software program.

When it became clear that no teacher was to be found, one mom went searching for an explanation.

“I went out into the  hallway and found a really young looking woman. She called herself the classroom facilitator, and told us that ‘teacher’ was just an old term.”

The mom’s jaw hit the floor.

Recently, an article has been circulating the web claiming that “inspirational robots” will begin replacing teachers in the next ten years.

Some have laughed it off, others have called it fear mongering.

One woman went so far as to call it “catastrophizing conspiracy horseshit.”

To these people I say: dismiss this at your own risk.

Those following education policy closely know that the only outrageous part of the headline is the use of the word “inspirational.”

While they may not look like this:

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robots – in the form of data-mining software programs that operate under the Orwellian term “personalized learning” – are already invading our classrooms at lightning speed.

And if you think that what happened in California isn’t about to happen nationwide, check out this document from the high-profile, well-funded Knowledgeworks Foundation, which offers a menu of career opportunities for displaced teachers.

Proponents (who stand to make a boatload off the new system) claim that machine learning is an “inevitable” wave of the future; that it will “free up” teachers to do more “projects” with kids.

But that’s hogwash.

Read their own documents, and you’ll see that they are planning to turn live, face-to-face teaching into a “premium service.”

A premium service.  

Meaning that they know face-to-face instruction is a better way to learn, and they have no intention of having their own children learn from machines.

In that sense, maybe the idea of robots teaching children is “catastrophizing conspiracy horseshit,” if – and only if – you’re among the lucky few.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moms Not Welcome.

I remember, vividly, the first time I learned that my presence wasn’t welcome in official public policy debates.

I had spent hours researching proficiency-based education, and for the first time in my life, I’d gathered enough courage to head to our state house to testify before the education committee.

My plan was to tell them what was plainly obvious: that this method of learning was devoid of evidence showing it was best for kids; that it was designed by investors and ed-tech developers rather than educators; and that by mandating we award proficiency-based diplomas, we were effectively using the children in our state as guinea pigs in a grand, unethical experiment.

I thought for certain that when I told the committee my credentials – a public school teacher with masters degrees in both special education and developmental psychology (one from Columbia, even) – that they would listen in earnest.

I thought for certain that my testimony would be met with questions from the committee members.

Perhaps I would even get some follow-up emails – maybe even a request to sit down with some legislators and share more of what I knew?

Instead, I got cut off.

Speakers before me – those wearing suits and fancy shoes, who told the committee they were from this partnership or that – were given time well beyond their allotted three minutes to speak.  Our education commissioner at that time (he only lasted a few months) spoke, incoherently, for a full fifteen minutes.

But I was told to stop speaking.

One legislator rolled his eyes at me.

And I got but one question from the committee: had I considered that maybe it wasn’t all such a conspiracy after all?

I’m not much of a crier, but I left the meeting in tears.

On Friday, a friend and fellow activist tried to attend a meeting on the “reinvention” of public education at the Union League in Philadelphia.  She’s a mom with daughter in public high school, and she – like me – has spent hours studying the current state of education reform.  She’s probably one of the most knowledgeable people in the country on education policy.

But she wasn’t allowed in, because she was wearing jeans.

Do you remember when Arne Duncan criticized “white suburban moms” for disliking Common Core because we thought it might show our kids weren’t as “brilliant” as we thought they were?

Do you remember how completely and utterly offensive, sexist, and wrong that was?

That type of attitude is endemic among education reformers.

And that’s because they have a plan that they don’t want anyone getting in the way of.

It goes like this: they set performance standards for our schools, loan us money to meet the standards, pillage us for data, and then demand money back with interest when we “meet” the standards they’ve set for us.

It’s a plan that they stand to get very, very rich of off.

When my friend was told she wasn’t allowed into the meeting because she was wearing jeans, she did something radical.

She just sat down.

Just right down.

Right in the middle of the Union League entry way.

People had to step over her on the way into the meeting.

I keep wondering what public education policy would be like today if more people had her courage. Maybe it’s time we all get up the same kind of nerve?

It’s clear that they don’t want to hear from us.

But maybe if enough of us just sat right now like she did, they wouldn’t be able to get around us?

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Why Aren’t We Talking About This?

When I was twenty-five, I interviewed at a charter school in Brooklyn.

Before I sat down to talk to the dean, I observed a kindergarten class that looked nothing like any kindergarten class I had ever seen: just shy of thirty children sitting in rows on a carpet, each with legs crossed and hands folded, all completely and utterly silent.

In my interview, the dean asked me what I noticed about the class.

“They were very well behaved,” I said.

“Yes, they were. But they sure don’t come in like that,” he answered.  With icy pride in his voice, he said: “It’s only because of the hard work of our staff that they act like that.”

I took the job – foolishly – and soon found out what this “hard work” meant: scholars, as we called them, were expected to be 100% compliant at all times. Every part of the nine-hour school day was structured to prevent any opportunity for deviance; even recess, ten-minutes long and only indoors, consisted of one game chosen for the week on Monday.

We were overseers, really.  Our lessons were scripted according to the needs of the upcoming state test, and so we spent our days “catching” scholars when they misbehaved, marking their misdeeds (talking, laughing, wiggling) on charts, and sending them to the dean when they acted their age too many times in one day.

There weren’t any white children at the school, but there I was – a white teacher, snapping at a room full of black children to get them to respond, in unison, to my demands.

Everyone in the nation is talking about our racist history, but do people know what type of racism is happening today, beneath our noses, under the banner of education reform?

With useless, commercial junk-tests as justification, we have been told, for years now, that we must serve up our low-income schools – those schools filled mostly with children of color – to profiteers, who are then free to experiment on children in whatever ways they see fit.

Have you ever seen this video?  Watch as the parents – parents who love and value their school – are told that they need a charter network to rescue them:

 

“Why come here and discombobulate our home?” one parent asks.

They are discombobulating homes everywhere, of course, but communities of color are almost always hit first – and hardest.

But who, aside from a few bloggers and academics, are talking about this?

Why aren’t more people demanding that these racist institutions and policies be taken down?

Things are about to get much worse, as profiteers are now turning their attention to the measurement and manipulation of the non-academic parts of schooling – how much “grit” a child has, or how compliant he or she is – with computers taking the place of teachers to conduct remediation.

 

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It’s modern eugenics: the molding of children’s personalities, starting from preschool, to suit the needs of our Wall Street masters.

If you aren’t sure what I mean, it’s because it isn’t happening yet in your community. Maybe, if you’re lucky, it never will.

You can be sure, however, that it is happening to other people’s children.

When will we demand that this stops too?

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The Cold Truth About Personalized Learning

In just a couple of weeks, my older son will start preschool.

Here are a couple of things, in no particular order, that I hope he learns while he is there:

  1. What finger paint smells like
  2. How to glue cotton balls onto construction paper
  3. The words to Down by the Bay
  4. That there are other cool things in the world besides trucks and washing machines
  5. That if you push someone’s block tower over, it will hurt their feelings
  6. That occasionally – just every now and then – it is okay to sit still for a little bit

It’s not an exhaustive list, but even if it went on forever, there are a few things you can be sure I wouldn’t include: “kindergarten readiness,” for example, or even his ABC’s or colors. 

 (I’m confident that, as soon as the time is right, he’ll figure out that J can’t be K just because he feels like it and that pink is actually a little bit different from purple.)

I’m sending him to the preschool down the street from us a couple times a week because I’m pretty sure he’ll really like it, and I want him to enjoy being three years old.

When I first started researching competency based education, I learned about a little native village in Alaska called Chugach, where the Gates Foundation and Apple conducted a pilot study on standards based education.

In the district’s application for a Malcolm Baldridge Award, the authors described the way they enlisted community “stakeholders” to help them develop standards:

“The leadership team sets value for all stakeholders by requiring their input and constant evaluation of the organization,” says the application.  “For example, community members helped to create standards.”

And then they listed an example of community input:

“‘We want our kids to enjoy what they are learning while they are learning, and to have a good humor in life,’ said a Tatitlek Elder attending OTE meetings.”

Yes!  Yes, me too – and how succinctly put! I remember thinking.

But then came the next sentence:

“These words are clearly reflected in CSD standards P/S Level 2.5 Demonstrates responsible use of humor.”

“Responsible use of humor”??  What??  No!  That’s not what the elders said at all!

It’s what an employer might say of their employees – you know, lest humor get in the way of their efficiency.

This – this twisting and standardizing of the hopes and dreams we have for our children, and the cruel and cold replacement of efficiency and linearity for the messy and impossible to measure qualities like good humor in life that make school memorable, joyful, and maybe even irresponsible every now and then – is precisely the danger we face right now.

This is the cold truth about the “personalized learning” they are promising us.

While they chastise us for clinging to an outdated, “one size fits all” approach to school – with kids all about the same age learning and playing and growing together – they are quietly slipping in a model that claims all children can and will fit one size, given sufficient time and technology.

It’s a ruse of epic proportions.

I am lucky that I (sort of) have the means to send my little boy to the preschool down the street: when we visited, some kids were playing dress-up, others were doing an art project, and a couple girls were just chatting with the teacher.  There was only one desktop computer, and no one was on it.

My son discovered the big wooden blocks while we were there, and when it was time to leave, I had to convince him that it was okay, we’d be back soon.

Look carefully, however, at the types of early childhood programs investors are working to develop, with their laser-like focus on all that is measurable and profitable, and it becomes clear that my son, if he is not already, will soon be among the lucky few… and who knows for how long. 

Let’s be vigilant, parents.  They will take everything, while pretending to give everything, if we let them. 

 

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(Photo above courtesy of my almost three-year-old, who uses my breast pump tube as a firetruck hose and wine stoppers as traffic cones.  #Standardizethat.)

 

 

 

How Data is Destroying Our Schools

A few weeks into my first year as a teacher, my colleagues and I met for our first “data team” meeting of the year.

Our principal had printed results from the previous year’s standardized tests and given a copy to each of us.

“Take a few minutes to look at the data, and then we’ll decide what inferences we can make from it,” he instructed.

He had a book with him – something with “data coaches” in the title – and was following a protocol laid out within.

I looked at the graphs, then – smiling – at my principal.

Surely he was joking.

At that point in the year, I had only five students – four third graders and one fifth grader – in a self-contained special ed classroom for kids with severe emotional disturbances.  They were children who had experienced extreme trauma and abuse, and who struggled to get through a day at school without an attack of panic, rage, or violence.

All five had gotten one’s – the lowest possible score – on the previous year’s math and reading tests.

“Ms. Kennedy,” our principal said flatly, “what inferences can you make from this data? This is how we will be planning our instruction for the year.”

It was my first time experiencing the absurdity of data-driven education, but far from my last.

Several years later, I made the terrible mistake of taking a position at a newly formed charter school in Brooklyn that modeled itself on the “no excuses” design of Success Academy and Achievement First.

The school was eerily silent – the kids stiff and expressionless – and this was because according to the data, there was no time for the “scholars” to talk.

We had only a few short months to get them to score 3’s and 4’s on the state test – our goal was 90%, because that’s what other charters were doing, and anything less would be excuse-making – and so we shut them up while showing them tricks to getting the problems right on the test – snapping at times to get responses and demonstrate their obedience when our superiors walked by, and “rewarding” them with chants when they were especially compliant.

The fact that there are people exposing the abuse that takes place in these schools gives me some comfort, but I still have nightmares.

A few years later, I found myself, at the school I now work at in Maine, swimming in assessment data about my students, and was so tired of looking at crude, commercial graphs from Pearson and McGraw Hill that never told me anything I didn’t already know about my students, that I decided to take the data and enter it into a statistical software program that I’d acquired during my short time as a research analyst.

I was – somehow – still under the impression that all of this data was actually meant for me.

And so I played with it for hours, searching for some kind of worthwhile insight that might actually help me in my classroom.

And – for a moment – I thought I’d found one.

There was, I discovered, an unmistakably strong correlation between my students’ performance on one of the “math probes” we gave them periodically with how they performed on the “NWEA” exam.

I showed one of my self-made graphs to a colleague and joked that I could use it to place bets on which kids would meet their “target” on the NWEA and which wouldn’t.

Maybe, I thought, I should spend more time prepping for those probes. We had a grant for merit-pay that year, and more kids meeting their NWEA target would translate into a bigger bonus for me.

The idea, of course, was foolish – a stupid and selfish way to use data that made my blood go cold with memories from my time at the charter school.

Eventually I put the statistical software away.

A few years later, after hours upon hours spent searching for answers, I know that the data was never really meant for me.

That brief aha moment, where I discovered the correlation between two assessments, is precisely the type of “insight” that our Wall Street overlords are searching for: the programs and assessments that are most likely to generate the “outcomes” that will get them paid for their investments.

Their blood doesn’t run cold at the thought of placing bets on kids, or rigging the game to generate profitable outcomes.

For whatever reason – maybe because they are too far away from actual children – investors and their policy-makers don’t seem to see the wickedness of reducing a human child in all his wonder and complexity to a matrix of skills, each rated 1, 2, 3 or 4.

And so now, we must not only be teachers, but pretend that we are trained psychologists as well – collecting not only academic data, but data on students thoughts, feelings, emotions, beliefs.

“Social-emotional” data is rapidly becoming the new holy grail – worth millions? Maybe billions?

There are teachers who will read this and think I am wrong.  They have heard the drum-beat of data-driven education since they first decided to become teachers, and they – like me, a few years back – still believe that the data is meant for them.

It isn’t.

Data is destroying education, and we need to stop it before it is too late.

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A House of Cards, Built on Kids

In 2006, in a presentation to ReadyNation marked “Strictly Private and Confidential,” Paul Sheldon of Citigroup proposed a new way to finance preschool: early childhood student loans.

Non-profit organizations could borrow from banks or student loan companies, said Sheldon, and then offer loans to government organizations or individuals. Then, the loans could be pooled and turned into asset-backed securities, and – voila! – an early childhood education market would be created, worth as much as 10 billion dollars.

The idea of preschoolers saddled with debt, however, was clearly going to be too controversial. 

Over time, Citigroup’s model was reworked into the more palatable “social impact bond,” which are now proliferating across the country.

These bonds, which are really private loans made to government or non-profit agencies with repayment contingent upon pre-determined “outcomes,” are sold under the premise that they can help tax-payers save money in the long-run by preventing the need for remedial services.

According to ReadyNation founder, Robert Dugger, however, evidence that such programs actually result in cost savings need not meet the burden of scientific proof. As long as the evidence is “strong enough to provide funders with reasonable assurance that they will get their money back,” the program can be considered a go.

One of the first social impact bonds in the U.S. was financed in 2012 by J.B. Pritzker and Goldman Sachs for a pre-K program in Utah, with investors claiming it would prevent children from requiring costly special education services down the road.

“We were able to make the sell to the Salt Lake County based on a benefit-cost analysis that we did with their staff,” explained Janis Dubno, an investment banker at Sorenson Impact, in a conference call with the “Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Working Group.”

But thus far, there has been no indication that the program has resulted in an cost savings for Salt Lake, or that the program has been beneficial for children involved.

Goldman and Pritzker, however, have gotten the full pay-out from their investments.

With the prospect of near-guaranteed return on investment and a derivatives market waiting in the wings, it should come as no shock that the same bankers that played fast and loose with subprime mortgages (Pritzker and Goldman included) are now eyeing not only early childhood education, but also K-12 programs as a chance to further line their wallets with these bonds.

And with little public scrutiny, the effort to get them off the ground has been quiet but massive, with the country’s largest and most well-endowed foundations working alongside investors to seed the market nationwide, and education policy shifting to serve up the data necessary for such investments.

In addition to wreaking havoc on teaching profession, violating children’s privacy, and drying up local school budgets, one has to wonder if the move toward social impact bonds may be setting us up for another market crash.

“Big asset bubbles,” explains Gerald Epstein of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “such as we saw in the housing market in 2004-2007…can be very dangerous because they are usually fed by massive increases in debt… which leads to dangerous interconnections and the building of a financial house of cards.”

If Epstein is right, how long until the cards topple?

And at what cost?

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