Public Education, Justice, Civil Disobedience and Conscientious Refusal—is there a Common Denominator?

When I was an undergraduate at Queens College in the 1970s, I took a course in political philosophy.   As part of the course, I had to write a term paper.   The 1970s was a very turbulent time in America and so I decided that my paper would be about the right of protestors to engage in civil disobedience in their opposition to the Vietnam War.   When I started to research civil disobedience, I started with two premises:  One that the protestors and draft resistors were absolutely right in their justification to take over buildings, burn their draft cards and even attack police and two that I understood what civil disobedience really meant and when it was justified.   When I was finished with my research under the guidance of a true educator, I ended up having more questions than answers.

This professor taught me that a truly educated person is one who is comfortable to walk in the shoes of those you disagree with.  Only in this way can one garner a true understanding of what various concepts really mean.    Doing this increases one depth of understanding and clarifies all the “isms” that people use—more as clichés than anything else.  It also enables one to make connections and synthesize different ideas.

Originally, I planned to write about how we educators may need to use civil disobedience in order to try to stop those who want corporatize and privatize education through charters, vouchers, and de-professionalizing teaching.   Then something happened in the last week that made me rethink everything that I planned to write about.  The event was the Supreme Court ruling making gay marriage the law of the land.   All of a sudden I started to hear the word civil disobedience coming from those opposed to the ruling.  What I did not hear was the specific type of civil disobedience those on the right planned to engage in.  Then it became clear to me why the myriad of GOP presidential candidates and fundamentalist religious preachers could not describe exactly how they planned to be civilly disobedient.   It is because they do not have a clear understanding about when civil disobedience is justified or what exactly is civil disobedience.  And obviously next I began to think about whether public educators have a justification to be civilly disobedient.

We in public education and those who oppose the Supreme Court ruling have something in common.   We both believe that laws have come into existence, which are unjust.   In addition, we both believe that we are absolutely right in our world view.  Where we differ is in how we define the philosophical concept of justice. One side views justice as coming from some ephemeral being while the other side views justice as a concept that is a human construct.

Recently, I posted an article on Facebook which elicited an angry response from a friend.   It was an article from a clergyman who had a different interpretation as to what the bible says about homosexuality.   My Facebook friend believes that what a particular bible says is immutable because he/she knows that it was written by god and anything written by god can never be changed or interpreted in a different way.   Here is someone who is unable to walk in someone else’s shoes to gain a deeper understanding of the those who see the world in a different way.   Obviously, what the bible says has been reinterpreted many, many times.   One just has to look at history and see about two thousand years of religious wars and conflicts over the nature of god and the truth in three different bibles. (By the way I am purposefully not capitalizing the words bible and god for reasons that will soon be obvious).  The fact that there are three different bibles, canon law, talmudic law and sharia law as well as a myriad of commentaries on each is the evidence that our religious and spiritual understanding of god and our relationship to a possible supreme being has changed many times over the centuries.   Even the Jewish bible or old testament to Christians and Moslems changed in its spiritual understanding of the nature of god and the universe.   Biblical research reveals that different parts of the bible were written at different times by different men.  For example, there are two stories of Adam and Eve in Genesis.  In addition, the modern conception of heaven and hell does not exist in the first five books.  Those ideas would come into Judaism and later Christianity from the Hellenistic world.   Now I know what I am saying may offend some who read this.   I bring this up to show that free and open inquiry through education and study made our understanding of how our Western religions developed and changed possible. I do not capitalize the word bible because there is more than one bible and I do not capitalize the word god because there is more than one conception of god.  If there was only one interpretation of the bible there would not be hundreds of Christian denominations, different branches of Judaism, and the Sunni and Shiite conflict within the Moslem religion. Furthermore, there are several billion people who inhabit this earth who have a completely different spiritual understanding of the world. It is unfortunate that people who believe that their view is the absolute truth and who have used some type of power relationship to enforce their truth have a lot of blood on their hands.  One needs to look no further than South Carolina to see what is wrought by any type of extremism—either religious or political.

Let us move away from religion and return to the concept justice.   Historically speaking, the modern view of justice comes not from religion but from the Enlightenment.   Originally, governments were thought of having received their authority to rule from a religious perspective.   The Chinese thought Emperors received a mandate from heaven, a thousand years ago, European feudal monarchs believed they had to be anointed by god’s earthly representative (the Pope),  and approximately five hundred years ago the absolute monarchs of Europe thought they ruled by “divine right.”   Our modern concept of governmental justice derives from a social contract between people and the political institutions that they create.  It is simply that governmental power derives from those who are governed.   People established governments to keep order, protect us from danger, and give us a measure of “liberty” and “justice”.  Ah, it is these last two concepts that have caused every political, social and economic conflict in the modern western world over the last several hundred years.

When I took political philosophy in college, I was greatly influenced by the writings of John Rawls.  In 1971, he published “A Theory of Justice.”  It was this book in that college course which gave me insight into what exactly is injustice and the role civil disobedience plays in trying to correct injustice in a given society.   Rawls defines justice to mean that people within a given society should have equal liberty and equal opportunity. In addition, he states that liberty is a reciprocal relationship between people and groups.  Basically, your liberty cannot harm someone else either socially, economically or politically. Rawls believed that injustice can only occur in a near-just society that is well ordered and has a constitutional government.  He also understood that most near-just societies often are imperfect and that the concept of justice is ever changing and usually defined by those who have power in that society in order to keep or derive some economic, political or social benefit.

This definition clearly describes the history of our country.   The founders knew they were creating an imperfect political system.   Otherwise, our constitution would not have an elastic clause or a process to amend or change it.  Also, it was created through compromise based on certain religious, social, economic and political concepts that existed at the end of the 18th century.  However, most of our founding fathers had the general conception that justice meant that a government should not deprive a person of his/her life, liberty or property without some type of due process of law that all members of the state would agree with.  Furthermore, Rawls also understood that a strong democratic process enable groups to exchange opinions and ideas without fear of intimidation. He felt that exchanging opinions checks the partiality of different groups and widens their perspectives.  However, even after long and fruitful discussion—especially in a democratic republic—it sometimes does not yield a unanimous agreement.   Therefore, we have to apply the basic principal of any democracy “majority rule” as Rawls called it, which means the majority wins.   This principle is based on the presumption that it is less likely for a majority to be mistaken. On the other hand, sometimes the majority can be mistaken because of selfish economic interests, religious beliefs or certain life-experiences.  It is for this reason that he believed that a “near just” society allows the minority to express their views.   In our society, the way we have decided to do this is through education and the social contract imbedded in our constitution that allows for dissent through a free press, the right to petition the government for redress, and the right of legislative representatives to express their varying points of view.

So what exactly is civil disobedience and when is it justified.   First, civil disobedience is political in nature.   It is used when a political law is deemed to be unjust based on evidence that the law denies equal liberty and equal opportunity to a minority.  It is a clear, serious and blatant violation of justice by denying a group economic, social or political participation in a democratic society.   Next, normal constitutional routes must have been tried and have been subverted by those who hold power.   Third, the level of disobedience must never reach a point where it threatens the rule of law within a society because those who engage in civil disobedience accept that most of the laws of the society are just.   Fourth, the action must be controlled so as not to provoke those in power to unjust violence.  Therefore, it must be peaceful.  Fifth, the exercise should be rationally framed to advance a specific objective (change of a law).  Sixth, it should be public and educational.  Seventh, those who engage in civil disobedience must accept the legal consequences of their action in a peaceful manner.  Therefore, when I began to apply this definition to those who were protesting the Vietnam War, I came to realize that many protesters were not really engaged in civil disobedience.  Instead, they were engaging in what he termed conscientious refusal.

According to Rawls, what he calls conscientious refusal or objection is a simple refusal to obey what one considers an immoral law based on a personally held and immutable moral, social or political view.  Therefore, conscientious refusal is not really appealing to a “shared” political conception of justice.  It is not necessarily seeking to convince the majority or the authorities to change the law. It is often the attempt to force someone’s will through violence and power. For example, those who burned draft cards did not object to the draft law, but to end the war based on their own point of view—moral, economic or political–and chose to create disorder to force their belief system on the government.   Often, the conscientious objector does not have a sense of justice because many objectors  use violence to resist the law that is opposed, such as anti-abortion protesters that find abortion so wrong that they will manhandle pregnant women and kill doctors that perform abortion.  And yes, it has been reported that several groups have threatened that one solution to preventing gay marriage is to inflict harm on those who acquire a legal marriage license.

Now, what has all this to do with public education?  To me, the most important purpose of public education at the school and college level is to create a common civic view of what constitutes justice in our society through open and free discussion.  Through education one develops a common civic culture through consensus.   It is to develop the conception that there are general principles of civic justice and a constitutional mechanism to resolve our differences.    It is to develop the understanding that we are a country based on law and not on threats and fear.  It is for different people to get together and try to create a common civic conception of government and justice.

The real beginning of the voucher and charter movements was based on the idea of conscientious refusal.   It began when America’s consensus of what represented justice fragmented.   That fragmentation occurred when the Supreme Court in 1954 ruled separate but equal to be unconstitutional.   There was a plurality that was unable to accept Afro-Americans having equal political, social and economic status in our society.   Therefore, by creating separate charters, home schooling, or enacted vouchers to pay for religious schools, a separate and different type of curriculum could be taught.   One could create a curriculum based on a biblical view of the world or one that would create limited opportunities for certain groups through the exclusion of disabled, noncompliant, or ELL students.   One purpose of the many no-excuses charter school is to create compliant workers and citizens who will not question authority.   By defunding public education, what remains is a shallow shell, teaching a limited curriculum in which there is no time to discuss different ideas.  In addition, common civic institutions have little control as to what is taught in many charter and voucher schools.   The Gates, Broads, Kochs and Waltons understand that when one controls education, one controls the story. They do not want students to be taught alternate viewpoints.   They want students to accept their power and authority to control the government by saying that through their schools, they will give everyone the opportunity to join them in membership while at the same time really allowing very few into the club.  The control of education is really about who will control American society.

Those who want to privatize education truly hate public school teachers because most of us are products of a liberal arts education.   A liberal arts education teaches one to think, question and become a lifelong learner.   Instead, the reformers wish to create a post-secondary educational system that is vocational and job related.   They see no purpose to teach history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy or political science.   I believe their purpose is to destroy the intellectual foundation of those who would question their right to control this nation socially, economically and politically.  It is for this reason that they are trying to destroy unions—especially public employee unions by undermining their ability to collect dues. They want to make it impossible for people to organize collectively in order to create a political balance.  It is interesting that they got the Supreme Court to rule that money represents speech for corporations in Citizens United while, at the same time, they want to destroy that same right for workers.

I fear the ultimate goal of those who want to privatize and corporatize this nation is to fragment our common civic culture.  The privatizers want to use schools to divide us and not unite us.   They want an educational system that will foster hate and mistrust among different groups.   They want Afro-Americans to distrust middle class whites.   They want different ethnic groups to be in conflict with each other.   They want Latinos and Afro-Americans to fight each other over the few crumbs thrown to them.   They surely want to foster and support schools that will try to circumvent the tolerance most Americans now feel toward LBGT people, not really because of any real religious or moral point of view, but to create enmity in order to hold onto power.  After all, when one studies history, those who rule often disregard the moral codes they impose on others (the Borgias Popes, the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, etc.).  Our present billionaire oligarchy that controls so many politiicans want to destroy Rawls conception that justice means equal liberty and equal opportunity for everyone.  When one turns people into human capital only having economic worth, it is dehumanizing and sets up one group against another.

On the other hand, people should be free to believe and teach their children whatever they want, but not on my dime.  It is for this reason public school must remain democratically run so that a consensus can be reached as to what should be the curriculum within a given community.  Yes, the politics of school boards can be messy, but that is what democracy is all about.  Strong democracies force people to compromise and moderate their ideas through open discussion.   In addition, strong democracies are able to deal with civil disobedience.  In strong democracies, civil disobedience is a stabilizing force in a well ordered society.   In this country, its use has been to offer protection to the least advantaged.   Its use has been to expand justice in our society.   However, charters, vouchers and other privatization schemes are really a form of conscientious refusal to accept an expanded view of justice.  People should be wise to learn from our history that each time people in our nation chose to limit liberty, it led to violence, conflict and dysfunction within our political system   Think about Prohibition, Jim Crow and McCarthyism.

Finally, should teachers engage in civil disobedience to save public education?  The answer is obviously yes.  Teachers feel that de-professionalization, punitive evaluation systems, denial of collective bargaining, and the closure of public schools based on circumstances where they have no control violates the consensus of what represents justice.  These acts deny equal liberty and equal opportunity afforded to others in the society.  The purpose of these laws is to deny teachers, parents and children equal liberty and equal opportunity to participate economically, socially and politically in our nation. Teachers as well as parents must engage in civil disobedience to motivate those in power to change certain laws.  Its purpose will be to educate most Americans to understand that we now have injustice. Civil disobedience often works best when those in power do not have the means to prevent it from happening. Here would be some examples.  Groups of retired teachers could follow around hedge fund billionaires that finance charters and give support to AstroTurf nonprofit organizations whose goal it is to weaken public education. We could do the same with Arne Duncan until he engages teachers in a constructive discussion.   Retired teachers could trespass and video for YouTube the private schools where the corporate reformers send their children to contrast the type of education they want for their children as opposed to everyone else.  Teachers within a collocated school could also take videos of the well-stocked charter classrooms as compared to the resources their public school classrooms have.  Teachers can picket collocated charters before the start of school and after the day ends (charters usually have longer school days) to drive home the fact that a separate and unequal school system has been created. In mass, public school teachers can educate parents about the consequences (or lack thereof) of opting out of the test culture that has been created outside of the school day.  The most extreme act of civil disobedience would obviously be to just refuse to give those invalid and unreliable common core assessments to prevent its use until those in power negotiate with all stakeholders—parents, teachers and students.

I think this country has to make a choice.  Either we want to use education to create a common civic culture that expands justice for all Americans or we want to create an educational system that will fragment and create rifts that will eventually be unbridgeable.  This happened in the past.   One just has to study how schools in the United States developed during the anti-bellum period in the North and South.   It lead to the development of two separate cultures that either could have gone their separate ways, but what often happens in history, a majority culture  that is more powerful economically and politically forces their will on the weaker.   We know the result and still live with its consequences.   On the other hand, we can build a common national civic culture, using public education as a foundation, to create a shared sense of justice, but also respect for our individual differences and beliefs. There is a place for private and religious schools in our society, but their role should be to engage with the dominant political culture and not to impose their will on others.

A Retired Teacher Reflections on His Birthday

I woke up this morning to notification beeps on my smart phone realizing for the first time that I was not a work on my birthday.  When one is retired, one has the freedom not to have to stand and teach in a 90 degree room on a late June day.  People were posting to my timeline on Facebook giving me birthday wishes.    By the early afternoon, about 40 people wished me Happy Birthday.    As I scrolled down the names of many of my friends, I soon realized that each person was important to me at different times of my life.   Besides the usual family members, there were childhood friends and many teaching colleagues.  Some were from the time I first became a teacher while others became friends with me later in my career when I was an Educational Evaluator on a child study team doing diagnostic testing of disabled students.

Then it hit me.  I began to remember another birthday—one that took place in 1978.   When I woke up that June morning, I was headed for an interview for my first real teaching job.   Instead of Facebook notifications and email messages, there were birthday cards.   Yes, I remember the time when people walked to the drug store, bought a card with thought, wrote a short message, signed their name, and mail it in time so that it would get to you either on or before your birthday.   When I look at those old cards, these signatures still keep alive the memory of my parents, aunt, uncles, and friends no longer with us.

On that day I reached my 24th birthday.  I was younger in age than both of my sons today.   To tell the truth, I was still pretty naïve and in some ways not completely grown up at that time.   I was living at home with my parents and my room still had somewhat of an adolescent quality to it.   My bookcase was lined with many college books and science fiction novels. On another shelf were some of my board games, such as Scrabble and Monopoly.  I still had a box on a table filled with old baseball cards (foolishly thrown out a week before I would get married three years later).  There was my old twelve inch black and white TV with its rabbit ear antennas and seven live stations.  There was my FM stereo radio, cassette, and turntable which endlessly played my little collection of vinyl records from the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Associations, etc.

I wore a brown suit that day with a polyester shirt and thick tie for that first real interview.  A few weeks before, I finished my Master’s Degree in special education at Queens College. Interestingly, I did my teaching internship in a school that is presently up the block from where I live right now.   I student taught in a class made up of emotionally handicapped neurologically impaired students.   The class consisted of ten boys that were in third/fourth grade.  To tell the truth, my supervising teacher probably was a little weak in terms of managing the students, but her heart was in the right place.    In this white, middle class school (now primarily Asian), the special education class I was assigned did stand out.  Not only were many of the students of color, but they were often loud while the rest of the school was quiet as a church.  I recall one teacher who constantly complained about the noise our NIEH class made.  Little did I realize that a quarter century later she would be my superintendent!   The special education class I interned in did not really interact with the school because we entered the building through a side entrance and ate lunch at a separate time.  These disabled students were not even allowed to participate in assembly or gym.   This was a very different world.

I took the bus to Forest Hills that day to take the train to an ungentrified downtown Brooklyn.  Besides a few old office buildings on Court and Livingston Streets, there were a few run-down stores and dilapidated brownstones on the side streets.  This was my first visit to 110 Livingston Street.   This building, today a luxury condominium, was thought to house what would be considered the paradigm of bureaucratic incompetence.  I passed the Great Hall of the Board of Education to the elevators and made my way to the floor (I do not recall which one) that housed all the offices in charge of special education.   At that time, special education was divided into different bureaus.  There was the Bureau of the Physical Handicapped, the Bureau of Health Conservation, the Bureau of the Emotionally Handicapped and the Bureau of Students with Retarded Mental Development.   I had to make my way to the Bureau of the Physically Handicapped.   I recall having my heart in my mouth as I opened the door.

In the office sat two older men in shirt sleeves who were probably younger than I am today.   One was standing and I told him who sent me to them.   To my surprise, after they sat me down, they talked to me very informally which calmed my nerves.   Besides the usual interview-type questions, what I most recall was pieces of the conversation that reminded me what a different world 1978 was from today.   They both told me that I was being offered a very difficult job a minority school in South Jamaica.   They told me the students would be difficult, I would not have a lot of resources and that I will probably make many mistakes.   However, they told me not to worry because all young teachers make mistakes and often have difficulty reaching these children.   They just hoped I had a little bit of a tough hide, but, at the same time, really felt something for these kids.   One said that all teachers make goofs at the beginning, but really good teachers learn from their goofs.  And great teachers learn from others.  No one asked for a demonstration lesson or a portfolio of my lessons and student work.  They gave me a job based on their own impressions of me and not data.   They were looking for a good person who did have some skills; but I sense they were looking primarily for someone with a good heart.   By the way, both these supervisors were educators who understood what I really had to face in what is today called a high need school.

Today, I probably would not have even gotten the job.   After all, I would have to prove success even before I even started in the classroom.  Expecting me to do the best I could is not good enough for the present reform crowd.   I would have to say that I expect these high need students to achieve above grade level and reach proficiency on every common core assessment. I would have to bring a 200 page portfolio showing sample lessons and data showing student growth from my internship.   My Master’s Degree would not impress them unless I passed all four state teaching examinations.  On the other hand, if I came through Teach for America and attended an Ivy, I would not have to prove anything.  Instead of encouragement, I would probably be told that if I failed with these students, my career would be short lived.  Unlike today,   in 1978, they still wanted teachers who would turn their love of children into a career and not into cogs measured by data points.  That was the world I came into as a teacher and will always believe in.   Children and teachers are people and not human capital. I retired because I measure the human and not the economic value of children and teachers.

What VAM Can Never Measure?

It does not matter how many papers are written discrediting VAM. If it was possible to shove the American Statistical Association Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment in front of Andrew Cuomo’s face, it would make no difference to him. He would toss the paper into his circular file because reason has nothing to do with his so-called reform. VAM is not a rationale, but a belief to the reformers. The basis of their belief has nothing to do with mathematics, but everything to do with the tall tales the reformers give as anecdotal evidence to justify their beliefs.

This tall tale, often told by Teach for America types go something like this. After five weeks of training, this natural born teacher who just graduated from Harvard comes to work in a high needs school and immediately he is able to motivate every student in his 7th grade class located in the most poverty stricken area of Chicago. Each lesson captures the imagination of every student in the classroom. These highly inspirational lessons are differentiated toward every student in his class. He “teaches like a champion” as he was taught in those five magical weeks. He breaks down every academic behavior happening in the classroom. His students never knew that they have to face the teacher, give him direct eye contact, and have their feet planted squarely on floor. For the first time someone told them that they must have pencil in hand ready to write. Not only that, he is at school at 7:00 AM in the morning working with students one-on-one to catch them up to grade level. He tutors individual kids during his prep, during his lunch, and after school until nine at night. On weekends, he spends Saturday and Sunday at a local library working with even more of students. When April comes around, this class now has 100% of his students at level three or four on the Common Core ELA and Math Assessments. Just think, the previous year, when these students had that lazy burned-out unionized teacher who came to school at 8:40 and left exactly at 3:00, only 4% of these students even reached a level two on the assessment. Therefore, this “superman” teacher is rated using VAM as highly effective while that shriveled up union hack next door is deservedly ineffective and must be fired. Once every teacher in America is just like this Harvard wunderkind, every student will be on grade level headed toward college. There will no longer be any poverty in this great nation.

Disney could not have come up with a better fairy tale. All we need is for this teacher to sing a happy tune and a dozen Chicago pigeons will fly through his classroom window and tidy up his classroom. No mention is made of hunger, poor health, drug abuse, neglect, violence and homelessness that such students face every day. No mention is made of the lack of books, pencils, paper, or even desks and chairs found in such schools. No mention is made of broken lights, peeling paint and rodent droppings in these classrooms. No mention is made of about the lack of support and even terror initiated by many administrators of such schools toward new teachers. No mention is made that the only piece of technology these classrooms have is maybe a single outdated computer with intermittent internet access. No mentioned is made that even the most determined teacher will burn-out working 80 hours with no social or family life. No mention is made that this teacher’s meager salary cannot afford the price of a city studio apartment, food, transportation as well as teaching supplies for himself and his students. No mention is made that his salary will not be enough to survive and he must moonlight a second or even a third job to make ends meet while, at the same time, producing pages of lesson plans and taking additional college courses. Can VAM measure the stress and exhaustion of a working teacher trying to meet the demand that every child in his/her class grow academically against such odds?

But the main thing that VAM can never measure is what is within a good teacher’s heart. Only another anecdote can describe the heart of real teacher that no algorithm can compute. In the year 1965, I was ten-year-old fifth grader at PS 186 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I was not a great student. I struggled with reading because at that time the city used what was called the look-say approach to reading instruction using those old Scott Foresman basal reading series (commonly referred to as Dick and Jane). This approach was a precursor to what would someday be called whole language. I often had difficulty pronouncing words and therefore I was not a fluent reader. My parents were concerned and I remember sitting in the principal’s office with them. His name was Mr. Gladstone and he was the epitome of the old fashioned male principal. He was tall, wore a suit, and had distinguished looking gray hair, but had a kind face. He had me read for him and my parents. I do not recall exactly what was said, but as a result of the meeting, my class was changed. My new teacher was Miss Burke. She was this older Irish woman who always wore plaid skirts and high button blouses. To me, this teacher was Mary Poppins, Maria Von Tramp, and Cinderella’s fairy godmother combined into one living, breathing person who did change my life—not by magic but through caring, determination and love.

In her classroom, no one was allowed to make fun of any student who had a learning problem. She taught her students to help one another. When we read silently a book of our choosing, she always came over to me and had me read very quietly to her. I did not realize it at the time, but she was teaching me a host of strategies that helped me to become a fluent reader. I would not realize until I became a teacher myself that she was giving me phonetic and word analysis tools to improve my fluency. I recall that each time I read a page without error, she would have a big smile on her face and say “good job.”

During that era, each class was required to put on a play. She had each student read some lines of script and then said that I had the most expression and asked the class if I should have the main part. To my surprise, the whole class agreed with her. That was the first time in my school life that a teacher and my classmates showed confidence in me. However, I was scared to death and when I got home I cried to my parents that I could not do it. My mother called her at the school the next day and told her of my fears. I was afraid that I could not remember all the lines; I was afraid of making mistakes; and I was very much afraid of making a fool of myself in that giant auditorium in front of every student, parent and teacher. That evening, Miss Burke came to my house and spoke to my parents and me. She and my parents came up with a plan how I would learn my lines and practice a little bit every day. With her encouragement, I did it. I performed the main role of silly play about eating the right type of foods. I recall that I had to perform not only in the morning, but also again in the afternoon for another group of students. At that time, many of us went home for lunch, but I recall Miss Burke saying to my mom that I should have lunch with her (she was afraid I would not come back).

Whereas today, the common core teaches fifth grade students to compare the structures of drama, poetry and prose, we lived it. I learned how hard it is to put together a play with scenery, cuing for each stage direction and the details of choreographing a single dance. I learned how to stand, project my voice and even walk on a stage. Today, students learn that scripts have italicized stage directions, but I learned why and how each of those directions was important.

Miss Burke also ran the school’s chorus (glee club in 1960s jargon) with another teacher. I auditioned and soon found myself learning a medley of songs from Mary Poppins. We worked hours memorizing those songs, learning how to breathe and how to perform on cue using various hand signals. I remember that our chorus was chosen to perform in Lafayette High School. I was amazed that we were bathed in light while the audience was in total darkness. That was fine with me because it made me less nervous. To this day, I can still sing Supercalafragalisticexpialadoshus and Chim Chimney.

In addition, at that time, the Brooklyn Museum had an orchestra. This orchestra taught school children music appreciation. Every week, the fifth grade classes of our school went to the museum and the conductor and his orchestra taught us about all the different types of musical instruments and the role each instrument played in a concert. The week we were learning about woodwinds, I remember him calling me to the stage to try to blow through a tuba. No matter how hard I tried, I could not produce a single note. At the end of four weeks, all those instruments came together and played for us all different types of classical music. That was my first introduction to Beethoven and Mozart. I would learn the complexity of such music.

During the year, we went on a trip to the New York World’s Fair in which Miss Burke would explain all the different exhibits from many different cultures. Before we entered the Vatican exhibit, she explained to us the whole history behind the Pieta. For the first time, I was introduced to the Renaissance and Michelangelo. At the end of the year, because the fifth grade was the graduating class, we took a trip to Philadelphia to Independence Hall, the Franklin Museum and Betsy Ross’ House. What I remember most form that trip was sticking my head inside the Liberty Bell and sitting, in Independence Hall, at the desk of Thomas Jefferson. That motivated me to begin reading everything I could about our third president.

In terms of learning, I improved my writing because Miss Burke got each of us a penpal from Europe. I ended up writing to a young girl in Czechoslovakia. My letters got longer and more descriptive as the year progressed as I tried to tell her everything that we American children did throughout the day. She even had us write to an author of a book we read. I wrote to the author of a children’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. I was so proud when he wrote back to me and I have that letter to this very day. By the way, I still have that old play script in an attic box. A few months ago when we were cleaning out the attic, this sixty-year-old man refused to part with it.

That script is more than a bunch of faded rexograph papers. I cannot part with it because it represents the richest educational experience I ever had. It is amazing that all this was done in an average New York City public school by a teacher who taught with love and care. Miss Burke taught in a very traditional manner. To tell the truth, I cannot recall or even visualize a single lesson, but what I do recall is the warmth every time she spoke to either me or the class. I recall her smile and her pat on my back every time I did a good job. Can VAM measure any of this? Can VAM measure the love this teacher showed me and the other students of that class? Can it measure all the wonderful experiences this woman gave to me and my classmates that year? If you notice, I have not mentioned a single test. I do not recall taking any type of formal standardized test that year. Instead of hours of test prep, I had real learning, great learning. I learned through experiences, through song, through dance, through art and through purposeful writing. After that year, I no longer had any significant academic difficulties. What this teacher did for me is really how one is made college ready. A child is made college ready when you instill in them curiosity and a love of learning. Hours of high stakes testing and days of test prep create just the opposite—a hatred of learning. As I am writing this, my eyes are very moist. My tears represent the happy memories instilled by Miss Burke as well as tears of sadness for what has been lost—the true magic of teaching. Teaching is a human act, a complex act that cannot be measured by any algorithm. The passion and complexity of a human interaction cannot be measured by a single snapshot. When reformers describe teaching, it is nothing more than a mechanical act. One cannot measure something that comes from your heart and soul. One cannot measure an act of love, for that is what teaching really is.

Louisiana’s Class of 2014 ACT Scores Are In This Post


I had to re-blog this article from Mercedes Schneider about the dismal ACT results from New Orleans Recovery School District. Here is America’s only all charter school district graduating students with ACT scores that do not even come close to college level. If anything is proof of the failure of this charter experiment, it is right before your eyes.

Originally posted on deutsch29:

Today I made a new friend. This new friend works in admissions at one of Louisiana’s institutes of higher education. My new friend informed me that the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) is not the only entity to which ACT sends score reports. It turns out that ACT sells the same score information to college and university admissions offices.

It also turns out that my new friend has connections within a Louisiana post-secondary admissions office.

The short of it is that I now have the Class of 2014 ACT composite scores for all Louisiana districts as well as the composite scores for all Recovery School District (RSD) and Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) high schools.

And now, you have them, as well, because I created the following Excel file to share with the public:

Louisiana Class of 2014 ACT Scores

In the above file, I created three sheets. The first…

View original 482 more words

NJ Governor’s Task Force: Take the PARCC, I Did

NJ Governor’s Task Force: Take the PARCC, I Did


When I saw this article, I too, who also had and still have an imagination, imagined myself taking this PARCC test. At ten, I was just beginning to overcome some learning challenges as a child. I can imagine such a test being used to prevent me from getting a high school diploma and becoming a very successful college student (which I was). I can also imagine instead of being retired with dignity after a 36 year career, I would have to work , maybe 50 to 60 hours a week, into my old age in some service job just to make ends meet. I would be working in a job that I would hate and despise because of the limited career options I would have had as a high school dropout.

Originally posted on parentingthecore:

Dear Members of Governor Christie’s PARCC Task Force:

I was one of those kids who always performed well on standardized tests. As a result of my scores, I was placed in gifted and talented programs, tracked into the honors and AP tracks (with their added boosts of inflated GPAs), and ultimately accepted to a highly selective liberal arts college. I wasn’t a particularly conscientious student, and I brought all sorts of hangups to my classwork (Carol Dweck is my hero, as I was definitely one of those kids who often didn’t complete assignments at all out of what I now believe was fear that I wouldn’t measure up to my “smart” reputation). But standardized tests saved me, and gave me a chance to “prove” my worth. You’d think I’d be the biggest cheerleader out there for our new, next-generation standardized tests. After all, standardized tests enabled me to…

View original 2,084 more words

39 Steps Backward or How Richard Hannay was Killed by the Common Core Anarchists

Back in the early 70s when I was a student, my New York City high school decided upon a unique approach to teaching English to its students. Each term was devoted to a different type of literature or what we call today genre. One term, I read three Shakespeare tragedies, another term I read four science fiction novels, and so on. By the way, there was no genre called Informational text. Why? I don’t really know, but something tells me that the administration of that school felt that all our required social studies and science classes may have already filled that void. Nevertheless, when I was a junior, I had a great teacher who introduced me to one of my most favorite types of literature—mysteries. In her class, I clearly remember reading two pieces of literature that held me spellbound. One was Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier and the other was The 39 Steps by John Buchan. Unbeknownst to me at that time was the fact that both were made into motion pictures by Alfred Hitchcock. And even though those two films are considered classics, I prefer both novels hands down.

I tutor many students and two weeks ago one of my students needed help in analyzing an excerpt from The 39 Steps. Of course it was just an excerpt because as we all know Mr. Coleman feels it is a waste of time for students to possibly read and enjoy a whole novel. But what was even more amazing was the fact that this excerpt was in a 6th grade common core workbook. Obviously, I read it in high school and remembered that many concepts had to be explained to us at that time. I recall being fascinated learning about the cultural differences between us Americans and the British in the waning days of its Empire. The book is obviously beyond the scope of an average sixth grader. But I had to confirm this for myself. I decided to use common core’s favorite readability formula on this excerpt—Lexile. Lo and behold, but not surprisingly, the Lexile score was 960. To put it in terms that we old teachers understand, the book is on the 10th-11th grade level. After all, to Arne, David and Bill, rigor is the “code word” of the day.

Before I begin to discuss the difficulty my student had with the text because of this dastardly curriculum, it is important to understand why this piece of literature is important and why it should be taught to high school students. The 39 Steps is one of the first examples of what I call the spy thriller. It is also the prototype of the man-on-the-run action adventure. From this thriller would eventually come the works of Ian Fleming, John le Carre, Robert Ludlum, Alan Furst and Daniel Silva. It also introduced some common plot devices that are so well known today that we consider them almost clichés. We have in this one book an ordinary man drawn into a secret world of intrigue and who risks his life for the good of his nation. Basically, it is first authentic spy novel.

The excerpt my student read was the first couple of pages from the book. The excerpt starts with the protagonist’s experience in visiting London from South Africa where he is mining engineer. Richard Hannay is described in this excerpt as being somewhat uncomfortable on this trip to his native land. He feels out of place and bored. All of a sudden, upon returning to his apartment, one of his neighbors barges in to his “flat” and after suspiciously checking all of the rooms say this sentence: ‘Pardon,’ he said, ‘I’m a bit rattled tonight. You see, I happen at this moment to be dead.’

What did this common core workbook want the student to do with the text? First, he had to read it twice. Of course, a close reading had to be done. His task was to circle key phrases that showed the “tone” of the passage. This was difficult for him because of two reasons. First, he had no understanding what was meant by tone and I had to explain and give him concrete examples of this common core concept. Next, the passage itself floored him because he had no background information to hook into. He had no conception that the main character was a colonial from a British African colony and that he felt out of place now in his mother country. Why should he know any of this when this curriculum forbids students from using any background information—especially in the area of social studies—when pieces of text are analyzed?

I had to figure out why this student was really having so much trouble. I spent most of my teaching career diagnosing learning problems and like the author of the above novel, I had to get a real handle on this mystery. First, I asked him about the setting. Where and when was the main character? I said what year do you think the passage is taking place in? He said that he thought the story was happening at the present time. He was surprised when I said it was about 100 years ago. He asked how I knew. I pointed out that in the passage that his mother country still had colonies. Then I had to explain what was meant by a colony and mother country. Of course, I pointed out that once we were a colony of Britain.

Next, I asked him for the exact location of the character. His first answer was Scotland. I asked why? He gave that answer because the passage said that he came from Scotland and now he was visiting. Then he started to rattle other locations mentioned in the passage. Finally, he admitted that he really does not know where exactly the character was because the story mentioned so many names that he never heard of. He did not know where London, Vancouver, New Zealand or the United Kingdom was. I then told him that the character was in Great Britain in the city of London which is its capital. I explained that Great Britain is often called the United Kingdom. I pulled out the Ipad and pointed to the UK on a world map. I tried to explain that it is called the UK because once upon a time the UK was made up of the kingdoms of Scotland, England, Wales, and part of Ireland that united into one country like our country which we call the United States. Next, I had to explain that once Great Britain had many colonies in the early 20th century. I went on to explain that once Canada where the city of Vancouver is located, New Zealand and South Africa where the main character came from was at the time the passage was written were colonies of Great Britain. I then had him reread the part that said that he went to live with his father in South Africa at the age of six and has not been back to Britain since that time.

Once I explained all this, he finally concluded that that the character was probably unhappy because he felt out of place. Now he was able to circle some phrases that showed the character’s unhappiness. As we looked for phrases showing the tone, he started to ask me the meaning of many other words. He had no clue what was meant by the word “flat” in the sentence “My ‘flat’ was in the first floor of a new block behind Langham Place.” Even though the next few sentences described what the flat looked like, he did not understand that it meant an apartment. Another word that confused him was “liftman” which, of course, was the elevator operator for the apartment. He kept asking why the passage used the wrong words to describe things. I had to explain that British English and American English often use different words to say the same thing. This could have been a lesson in and of itself.

Now, of course, he had to answer a few multiple choice common core questions. One question asked from which point of view the passage was written and another question asked which literary devices the author used within the passage. A third question asked which event represented rising action in the passage. Obviously all these questions were structural in nature and had absolutely nothing to do with the plot or ideas in the passage. The final task was for the student to write a short response in which he had to describe the theme of the passage. The teacher added this short response question by hand because the rule was that every passage needed for the student to write a short response to prepare for the test. In my view, there was no way the student would be able to figure out the theme of the passage from the excerpt because the excerpt ended too soon. Most of the passage described the character as being bored and only the last paragraph was beginning to transition into the true nature of the story. Obviously, the student felt that the theme of the passage had to do with the characters unhappiness and boredom which represented the bulk of the passage.

A week later, I asked my student what was the answer to the teacher’s short response question. When he told me, I could not believe what I was hearing. His answer that the general theme was boredom was incorrect. The answer, according to the teacher, was that the protagonist was going to embark on an unexpected and exciting adventure. The student had to infer all this from the last sentence in which the character’s neighbor said that “I happen at this moment to be dead.” According to the teacher, that last sentence represented evidence that an unexpected adventure was about to happen. Yes, that is one of the story’s themes if one knew the rest of the plot, but from that excerpt, such a conclusion represented a jump higher than vaulting over the Grand Canyon.

What the student was asked showed to me the utter ridiculous nature of the Common Core. Here is a great piece of literature that was completely destroyed by the tasks the student was expected to do. First, the passage was inappropriate for his age. Only a student who has taken high school global history would have an inkling of understanding as to the background of the story. In addition, there is no purpose giving any student an excerpt which does not show the true nature of the genre it represents. They might as well excerpt the first scene of Macbeth and asked the students to describe the setting or even the complete theme of that famous drama.

When I read The 39 Steps, I recall so many lively discussions. It was the time of the Vietnam War. One discussion I distinctly remember centered on the theme of risking your life for your country when your nation in itself was deeply flawed. We also discussed some of the political issues brought out in the novel, such as powerful industrialists profiting from wars and conflicts between nations and that it was in the interest of such people to forment war. The discussions that we had over this book represent real higher level thinking skills. It is the type of critical thinking skills that create a citizenry that questions its government. It is the type of learning that creates a true educated citizenry that is able to participate in relevant political discourse. Forcing students to read and describe the structure of a passage five years above grade level is not education, but frustration that will lead to a hatred of learning because it is purposeless. Whereas this novel gave me a life-long love of spy novels and got me thinking about wider issues, the excerpt my student read led to confusion, misunderstanding and a feeling of inadequacy.

Common Core Assessments and the New SAT—Remarketing Inequality

I have been tutoring students on a regular basis for almost 30 years. I started tutoring students for various standardized tests in order to earn some extra money. The main reason was my discovery in the mid-1980s that diapers, formula, baby clothes, and regular doctor visits cost a lot. I started tutoring for the verbal parts PSAT, SAT, ACT, SSAT, COOP and SHSAT at that time and soon discovered that every one of these tests require students mastering pretty much the same strategies. In addition, I also discovered early on that the students who do poorly on these tests have pretty much the same deficits. Either they have weaknesses in language and vocabulary or they have difficulty decoding written text.

Let us talk about language and vocabulary. Language problems are often due to a variety of factors. One factor may be that the student has a language-based learning disability which makes it difficult for such children to process written or spoken language. Many have trouble understanding vocabulary concepts as well as classifying or categorizing information. Often these students have difficulty with abstract concepts and often understand information very concretely. How this shows up on a high school level would be a student having to prove some concept using a literary quote. Recently, I tutored a student who was reading the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He had to find a quote related to “social status” issues and then come up with a discussion question related to the concept. The problem my student had is that he had no idea what was meant by “social status.” As a result, he could not find an appropriate quote or come up with a discussion question. Obviously, I had to teach him what was meant by social status—especially in regards to role expectations of women and blacks during the 1930s in the southern United States. Next, we have those students whose language problems stem from deficits in executive functioning. As states by the National Center for Learning Disabilities this problem makes

activities like planning, organizing, strategizing, remembering details and managing time and space difficult. Problems with executive function—a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action—can be seen at any age and often contribute to the challenges individuals with LD face in academic learning.

To put it more simply, it is the child whose brain is liked a turned-over filing cabinet. They are asked to retrieve and make sense of a piece of information, but they do not even know where to start to even find it. Often these children are very bright or have other conditions that impact the problem, such as ADHD.

Then we have the type of language issues related to ELL status. Imagine a student immigrating to America when they are just beginning high school age and now have to take the SAT. It is common knowledge that research shows it takes 5-7 years at that age to develop the type of rich academic English vocabulary to master any test that is vocabulary intensive. Even student who are born in the United States to parents that speak a second language—even professional parents—often have what I call language lags in English. In the last ten years, I have tutored American born children of Russian immigrants. Often these students have weaknesses in comprehension and written expression because there are gaps in their English vocabulary, grammar and spelling. Strikingly, these are students who have parents who have professional occupations, such as dentists, doctors, and engineers. The younger I start working with these students, the easier it is to get these students to achieve academically by the time they reach middle and high school age.

Next, there is the child who has difficulty decoding fluently complex text. These students have phonological deficits that interfere with their ability to break the code—especially when dealing with nonphonetic and multisyllable words. When I start working with high school students who takes a very long time reading text, I have them start to read aloud. Not surprisingly, they cannot decode 10 to 20 percent of the text. I recall one student who could not decode any words that contained silent vowel letters or digraphs. When I told the parents that he really could not decode much beyond the third grade level, they appeared surprised. Imagine this student trying to read an excerpt from some scientific text written on the college level.

Finally, we have the issue of poverty. Poverty is like placing a giant magnifying glass on all the above issues. Not only does it make each problem bigger, it creates a fire that destroys any hope of any of the above issues ever being solved. Conversely, if a student comes from a family that has means, many of the above problems I mentioned can be solved. For example, I started with one student when he was 7 years old. He had problems in language processing, pragmatic language, and executive functioning. Now he is a successful high school student who has a B+ average. Yes, he still needs some help, but he has overcome many of his problems. Another student was born with delayed speech and significant sensory integration problems. After early intervention services, he received speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and academic help from me. Two years of intensive tutoring enabled him to receive a decent score on the ACT and even receive a partial scholarship to a four year college. When a student comes from a family with money, most mild learning problems can be mitigated. The families I worked with were able to afford years private tutoring by an experienced professional in addition to any services provided by their schools. Furthermore, all these parents are sophisticated and were able to hire advocacy services to make sure that the schools gave their children all they were entitled to. By the way, these students either went to or go to suburban public schools that provide a rich education as well as interesting extra-curricular activities. Both their schools do not emphasize test prep or a narrowing of the curriculum for the sake of passing our state’s Common Core ELA and math assessments.

On the other hand, those students in poverty cannot afford the extra help that these middle class students have gotten. They cannot buy my services or the services of any credentialed tutor. Interestingly, an educational director of a charter school said to me at an IEP meeting that I was selfish because I only helped students for money. I should give away my services for free to kids in poverty. I then said that I will do that when the head of charter he worked for, no longer take a salary and that all the school’s hedge fund investors put their profits back into the school for the sake of these poor children. Obviously, there was no answer. But I digress.

The central point I am trying to make is that the Common Core is nothing more than a smoke screen hiding the real issues—poverty and the lack of real supplementary education services.. Here we have a curriculum that is vocabulary intensive, requires students to decode above their grade or developmental levels, and focuses more on the structure of text than the ideas presented in literature or informational text. At the elementary and middle school levels, the focus is whether the author presents appropriate evidence to support an idea or argument with little focus on the ideas that a particular piece of writing conveys. It is built on every weakness a student with learning challenges or children of poverty have. Its cure for students who come from homes that offer no language stimulation, no books, and no sense of security is frustration and failure. Its reward is the defunding of schools that have impoverished, disabled and immigrant children. If such a school has a music, drama, art or sports program in which some of these children may shine for a few hours, it must be taken away in favor of hours of test prep using materials significantly above the ability level of these problematic students. Money must be spent on constant testing and Common Core test prep books that only enrich corporate publishing monopolies, but not these children.

Now here comes David Coleman once again with his new Common Core based SAT. During the last few days, I have been on the Collegeboard web site reading about this new test. I read articles about its construction, purpose and planned implementation. He talks about how the test was constructed with the input of educators. The same was said for the Common Core. Nowhere did I read which educators. The material went on to say that students that do well on this test will be successful in college and in their future careers. He based this on students who have supposedly volunteered to have taken sample tests. Obviously, the samples that have already been given for standardization had to have been given recently. Yet, the Collegeboard knows already that these students are college and career ready. To really determine the validity of this claim, one needs to have given the real new SAT, not a sample, and follow the population (one that is representative of America’s real student population controlled for economic status, ethnicity, race, disability, etc.) over the next five to ten years. If one gave a sample test, let’s say last year, how on earth do you now know they will graduate four years hence and acquire a professional career!

What is even more interesting is that when I read about its structure and sample questions. I realized that instead of inventing something new, the new SAT was just a watered down version of the ACT minus the science section. He spoke how his new test will now have vocabulary in context and words that high school and college students use every day and not those esoteric vocabulary words students had to memorize in the past. First, the old SAT did have vocabulary in context questions and two, I want to know how one determines if a word is esoteric? When judging some of the samples, students with impoverished vocabularies and language problems will have just as much problem on this test as the old SAT. One sample was again the Common Core treatment of the Gettysburg Address. Students had to identify the different uses and connotations of the word “dedicated” in the speech. If a student has no idea what the word dedicated even means or has no background knowledge about the speech and its purpose, his/her answers will still be wrong. Not losing a quarter point for every incorrect answers and having four instead of five choices for each question will not really help someone who has below level vocabulary concepts or little background information. In another passage, there was what I called paired questions. If they answered the first question wrong, the second question which built on the first would also be wrong. Many questions were evidenced-based. The question would ask whether particular details supported the author’s central idea. However, if the student was unable to even determine the main point of the passage because of issues of comprehension, decoding, etc., there was no way such a question could be answered.

The new SAT invented by Mr. Coleman is nothing more than another paper and pencil bubble test that will be done either by hand or online. It is still a language intensive test that will be a challenge to poor minority, disabled and immigrant students. He talks about the fact that test prep will be unnecessary because the Khan Academy will offer free online help for all students. The Khan Academy’s support will end up being nothing more than free samples for the poor. Already the private test prep companies are beginning to prepare material for their small group classes and individual tutors. Because the New SAT is like the ACT, it is obviously that individual tutors will teach the same strategies. If students have very weak vocabularies, they will still need to learn the multiple meanings of words to be able to answer vocabulary in context questions. They will still have to learn how to utilize the context and grammar clues of surrounding sentences to figure out the appropriate meaning of a particular vocabulary word. Students will still have to learn how to identify different type of questions and the strategies one need to answer such questions. Students will still have to learn how to underline or highlight key or transitional words to identify changes in meaning and ideas in order to improve comprehension (something hard to do on an online test). Obviously, the best test prep remains human to human and not human to machine. Therefore, nothing will have changed. Students from middle class and wealthy families who come from better schools will be able to afford extra help and do better while impoverished students who come from schools with limited resources will continue to do poorly. And through its marketing the Collegeboard will convince more students to take its test which will mimic the ACT thus making a lot of profits for its investors.

Instead of sinking billions into this new test and its related test prep industry, we need to pull the curtain aside and toss out these charlatans. By the way, charlatan is a SAT word which for some reason most students have no idea as to its meaning (and it is not an esoteric word in my book). Instead, this money should be going to re-fund all public schools so they can give every student a rich education. Poverty is cured in only way—money. Only money can provide decent job with a living wage for the parents of these kids and the type of wrap around educational services that will provide health, counseling and additional tutoring services to compensate for years of neglect. Teachers who are powerless did not create the economic injustice that exists in our country. However, it is Coleman and his corporate supporters who refuse to acknowledge that they are the ones who contribute to economic inequality by their refusal to be taxed fairly in order to pay for the radical changes needed to begin to end poverty in this nation and really improve education. Therefore, I suggest that students should apply to schools that do not use the SAT or even the ACT in their application process. In addition, if they do apply to a school that requires a standardized test score, they should only take the ACT. Hopefully, if more people boycott that so-called assessment, it will die of its own accord. These tests—the Common Core and SAT—are cancers to education and the sooner we perform major surgery, the better will be our chance of survival.