Tom Friedman—Policy by Anecdote

These days, I carry a handy little application on my Iphone and Ipad. It lists each Common Core Learning Standard by grade and its correspondence to college and career readiness. I carry it because we are mandated to put these little CCLS numbers on our lessons plans, rubrics, and even bulletin boards in an attempt to placate the DOE’s Common Core police. However, I also have an ulterior motive for carrying this application. I like to use it against those who are now wedded to the CCLS as a new type of educational religion. Now, we have several new gospels. They are the gospels according to Saints Coleman and Saint Duncan.

I have just written to the New York Times and to Mr. Tom Friedman in particular because he has violated CCLS RI.9-10.8. This standard states that ninth and tenth grade students must “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient. Students must “identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.” Oh, Mr. Friedman, how can you engage in such shoddy reasoning in your op ed piece. One must follow the Common Core. Evidence must not be based upon anecdote but on expert opinion. In addition, one must evaluate the expert opinion to make sure that the evidence is “valid.” A common core student review book I recently perused stated that valid evidence is evidence provided by “expert scientific opinion.” Only research that uses scientific methodology as taught by the hard as well as social sciences could validate a general hypothesis.

Based upon a little anecdote about a high school student who feels it is more important to answer his Facebook messages than do homework, we now paint every single American student with the same brush stroke. In addition, this little tidbit proves that the basketball player in charge of the DOE is correct in his opinion about the laziness of American students—especially middle class suburban kids. Mr. Friedman, for this one anecdote, I can offer another one in contradiction. I know this kid, who despite having ADHD and other medical issues, studied five hours a night all through high school and graduated with a 4.0 GPA as well as got an ACT score in the 99 percentile. This resulted in a complete scholarship to a top state university campus where he graduated Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. By the way, he also has about 800 Facebook friends. I can vouch for the veracity of this story because I am talking about my own son. I know of another young man that was diagnosed with a significant learning disability as a boy, who also worked hard despite having parents that had to work two to three jobs to make ends meet here in New York City. He studied hours a day on his own and made it into a four year college. And this student is a friend of my son.

Do my stories prove me right and Mr. Friedman wrong? No, these stories prove nothing. They are nothing but anecdotes that are nothing more than firsthand accounts that have no scientific or research validity. They are no better than those TFA stories about the superman teacher who worked day and night to get their kids from a quartile ranking one to four in a single year. Instead, one must look at valid and reliable data. Not the fake biased data of those fly-by-night nonprofits financed by our billionaire friends, but real research that can stand up to peer review at the university level. One can only accept research that is critiqued, analyzed as well as ripped apart at the seams to make sure that it measures what it is supposed to measure.

What the mainstream media is now giving us is propaganda and not journalism. Journalism is hard because one must look and analyze different points of view. One must determine if a particular point of view use either facts or research as its evidence. For example, Ravitch and others cite valid and reliable research that drill down into PISA scores to show there is no significant achievement gap between American and foreign students when you compare apples with apples. Suburban-middle class American students perform as well as or better than many foreign students on these challenging international assessments. The media does not report the fact that in America we do something that many foreign countries do not do. We include everyone in our score obviously depressing the total aggregate. Often, other countries exclude certain populations in order to skew their scores. Furthermore, many countries in this world still do not even attempt to educate certain students. There are nations in this world that exclude those who are disabled or those who cannot pass certain tests to acquire a secondary or post-secondary education. There are countries that divide students along academic and vocation tracks based upon a single assessment. I for one do not wish to emulate such countries. I have no interest in emulating a country in which one assessment determines the course of the rest of your life, such as Korea and some European countries. I also do not wish to emulate the educational system of a Communist totalitarian state (China) that rigidly teaches students to obey and not think.

Mr. Friedman should instead realize that this middle class student on Facebook may have been turned off by our educational system because of NCLB and RTTT, which has been national policy for over a decade. Psychological research shows that when students are frustrated, they give up. If one is given tasks that are too hard, one tries to escape. Special education has always taught that you start a child form where they are. Standard reading practice for the last century has always been that you work with a child at their instructional reading level. Students do not learn when you give them material at their frustration level. Most students will not rise to the task when the work is beyond their ability. When I was in high school, I hated Spanish. I avoided studying it like the plague because I had a lot of difficulty memorizing words. Only when a teacher showed me a bunch of mnemonic strategies did I become a more willing student. Imagine what would have happened if instead of giving me strategies, I was given more random words to memorize. If that would have happened, I may not have had a thirty-six year career as a teacher because a foreign language requirement at that time would have barred me from entering college to even become a teacher .

This has always been a nation built upon the ideal of giving people second chances. We gave millions of immigrants the second chance to start a new life during the 19th and 20th centuries. We have always tried to give students who failed second chances. Yes, I did fail one semester of Spanish in high school, but I recouped with some extra help from my teacher, a good friend (who was great with languages) and my parents. Good teachers always allow students to make up missed worked or give students a second chance to pass a test. We have high school equivalency diplomas that enable those who flunked out of high school to benefit from some type of post-secondary education.

However, what is happening now in this country is the attempt to create a privatized educational system that is stratified, segregated and intentionally violate worker rights. Now here I am making a general statement that needs evidence to back it up. By looking at the education budgets of many states and cities, public school funding is being cut in favor of unregulated charter or voucher-based schools that have no oversight and choose their students (Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina). Experienced and tenured teachers are fired or forcefully excessed in favor of TFA five week wonders (Florida, Louisiana, Illinois). Rich curriculums, music, art, and extra-curricular activities are all being cut in favor of charters for the sake of creating VAM testing using the Common Core. And yes, there is a good amount of child development research that shows that the Common Core violates how most children learn.

When only 30% of total students , 7% of disabled and 5% of ELL students in New York State can pass a Common Core assessment, there is no doubt that the vast majority of our students will feel demoralized. Children are not lazy when they are tested on items that have never been taught or are significantly above their ability level. One does not build an educational system upon a curriculum and assessments that only above average students can hope to pass, so that our public school system can be dismantled. Do not kid yourselves in thinking that the corporate reformers who have controlled educational policy this last decade have even an iota of altruism. Their goal is a charter-based, free-market educational system to primarily line their pockets and secondarily educate a few subservient managers and docile, non-thinking workers bullied into submission through schools that offer zero-tolerance. As for me, I want a curriculum that will teach students how to question and challenge those in authority. According to a recent blog by Diane Ravitch, Mr. David Coleman once said that no one really cares about what a student thinks and feels. What is important is writing and reading information text. Thus, the Common Core is an amoral curriculum. There is a Common Core module analyzing the Gettysburg Address. It is supposed to be done without referring to its historical context. It has to be analyzed based on whether Mr. Lincoln used “evidence” to support his points. If our 16th President would have been taught by the Common Core, we would not have one of the greatest pieces of oratory that epitomizes what our nation believes in. Abraham Lincoln had a sense of justice and the belief of what was right and wrong. That little speech has given our nation a moral compass. Those who want to force this nation to adapt a utilitarian curriculum appear to have no ethics or morality. I guess such a utilitarian view of the world makes it easy to fire teachers and remove students who do not fit into their cut throat view of mankind.

I told Mr. Friedman in my letter to him that the problem was not with us coddling parents or with educators who are trying to hold onto a tiny scrap of dignity. The problem is with those who have controlled educational policy since the Bush era. If our public school system is now struggling to survive, it is because those in power have given us body blows and have kicked our groins. If Mr. Friedman likes the reformers so much as well as the Common Core, it is high time he start measuring his skills and his own beliefs by their standards.

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Small Lies, Big Lies, and Statistics

            Over the past few days, I was torn whether or not to publish a letter I wrote to Michael Mulgrew.  I was hesitant for several reasons.  First, I hold a position with the United Federation of Teachers and I was in no mood for flak from those just above me because I would be publicly disagreeing with the leader of my union.  Second, I thought that if I sent the head of my union a personal letter disagreeing with him, I should at least have the courtesy to wait until he replied.  Right now, it is over three days since I sent the letter and as of yet, no reply.  What prompted the letter was an email to union members critiquing Bloomberg’s reaction to the recent results of the ELA and Math Common Core State Assessments.  In a nutshell, he made two statements that I had to disagree with.  One, that educators developed the Common Core and that the Common Core is the way to make our students college and career ready as well as develop deep higher level thinking skills.

            In the last seventy-two hours, three things convinced me that I have to publish the letter. First, I asked the opinion of several bloggers who I greatly respect.  One wrote me saying that I should not care what he thinks while the other blogger said that my letter was powerful and needed to be heard.  Next, I read a great blog from NYC  Educator critiquing Mulgrew’s email to the members that put into words many of my own feelings.  And finally, a memory from college hit me in the face.  When I was 19 year-old Queens College sophomore in the year 1973, I took my first statistics course.  When you took statistics at that time, a computer, which was the size of a room, could not help you and my $60 Casio calculator could do no more than basic operations.  Calculating complex statistical formulas had to be done by hand.  After my first test, I got a grade of 49.  I was devastated.  I went to the professor and told him of my worry about my GPA if I failed his course.  What was his reaction—laughter.  This was not what I expected.  He said, “Look, with the type of statistical calculations I gave you and the short amount of time you had to do it in, your mark was great.”  Then he pulled out a piece of paper and showed me a bell curve he developed using the grades for the test.  The curve showed how the grades would be distributed to represent A, B, C, D or F.  His bell curve revealed that my grade represented an A.  He said that thinking 49 is a failing grade is nothing more than one mathematical construct.  Then he reminded me of the scoring system for the SAT which was a different construct.  During his course, I learned that his favorite statement was that there are small lies, big lies and statistics.  One can make a statistic mean anything.

            This, my friends, is what Commissioner King and his cohorts in the state decided to do.  They, and their supporters, have created a construct—a construct with a political purpose.  Before they can destroy public education, they have to prove that it is a failure.  All we have to do is not teach students a new curriculum and invent a grading system knowing most of the questions will be so challenging that only 30% could possibly answer the requisite number of questions that they deem to represent a passing grade.  King, Bloomberg, Walcott, and their corporate reformer friends have no care about the emotional damage that anyone feels when one fails.  The way I felt entering that professors office decades ago is magnified a hundred fold in the hearts of many children today. 

            This is what I wrote to Michael Mulgrew in response to his email.

I am writing you as a loyal union member and a special education teacher in a middle class ethnically diverse neighborhood who knows a lot about testing because I spent nearly two decades assessing disabled children as part of a school assessment team until this Mayor deemed my psychometric skills to be worthless.   Nevertheless, under my belt are a lot of graduate level coursework as well as thousands of hours of field experience in administering and analyzing valid and reliable norm-referenced educational assessments.

Therefore, based upon a lot of research and reading, I have to respectfully disagree with your statement that educators developed the Common Core Standards and that these standards represent a valid instrument to determine if a student is college or career ready.  Educators did not develop the Common Core Standards.  Many of those who developed these standards are deeply involved in the corporate educational reform movement.  Many articles I have read about its development stated that the developers worked backwards and often disregarded some basic tenets of child development.  Furthermore, we are taking on faith standards that have not even been longitudinally tested.  We are taking on faith that these standards will make students college or career ready.  We all know that so many reforms in the past half a century failed because, like the Common Core, research was lacking.  Where are those “open classrooms” or the “New Math” of my childhood?  Both were just fads, just as I believe the Common Core is a fad, which led to no significant educational achievement. 

I, and many others, could only accept the efficacy of the Common Core Standards if there were real research over a number of years showing that students who learned by a curriculum derived from these standards had higher achievement than those students taught by a more traditional curriculum.  I have a sense that many of your rank and file teachers are unwilling to put their careers on the line based on standards that I feel were developed with a political agenda.  The agenda is to convince the American people that our present public school system is a failure and that only a privatized charter-based system is the way to go.  A system, that will in the end, destroy our progressive union movement.

Any assessment in which only 25% to 35% of students can pass is invalid.  A valid test is standardized in such a way that it creates a bell curve.  These assessments do not come even close to creating a bell curve.  Instead, these assessments look more like cliffs.  Many students are set to fall off such a cliff–especially students with disabilities.  Special educators are taught that to help students with learning challenges, one must start where they are.  One does not start at the bottom of an unclimbable precipice.  I work with many students who have, through no fault of their own, significant language impairments that make this curriculum impossible to master. What will become of many of these students when they reach 8th grade and modified promotional standards terminate?  How many times are we willing to leave back such students and destroy their self-esteem before we realize that what is really needed are many vocational programs that will serve the needs of a very diverse disabled population?  There is a big difference between a high IQ child with minor sensory problems and one who may have a severe language impairment that results in a borderline IQ.  Sadly, this curriculum will result in many special education teachers, like me, who are willing to work with the latter child, being punished by someday being rated ineffective because of an invalid assessment based upon invalid standards that work against the educational needs of such children.

Children need to reach their potential.  Unfortunately, I see these Common Core Standards setting up roadblocks based upon a student’s economic class, language proficiency and disability.  Those born economically advantaged will go to either private schools or charters exempt from these standards or whose parents have the resources to get them the extra tutoring needed to pass these tests.  Those children born to parents who do not have the resources will end up in schools that will not have the funds necessary to create the academic intervention services needed to compensate for their parent/guardian’s inability to afford the extra tutoring needed to pass from grade to grade. 

Our focus is completely wrong.  These standards are broken and unrepairable.  I fear, in the end, it will lead to the dismantling of our system of public education and social stratification in this great nation.  In the 18th century, our founding fathers created a flawed constitution called the Articles of Confederation that they realized was unworkable.  But they were smart.  They scraped the document and started anew.  Many of the best and brightest, at that time, got together, and through compromise and negotiation, came up with something workable.  They came up with a constitution that was flexible enough to change with the times.  These Common Core standards are unchangeable stone monoliths that block our way to creating a society and nation that has always believed in education as the great leveler as well as creator of economic opportunity and social mobility.  Let us think before we jump!

             Mulgrew’s lack of response is just a continuation of what has been happening to education during the last several years.  There has been a lack of dialog between those in power with us teachers.   They refuse to engage us, to debate with us.  I offer a challenge.  I challenge those in power—not only Mulgrew, but also Duncan, Gates, King, Rhee, and Broad to engage us in a public debate on the national media stage without moderation or commentary.   Let them engage people like Ravitch, Cody, Haimson and others who spent years doing peer reviewed educational research.  Let the American people decide who has the answers. 

            Public education is not a failure overall.  Yes, we have not been as successful educating limited English proficient, high need and disabled students.  However, look at the small number of students who graduated high school at the turn of the twentieth century and the millions who graduate college today.  These are not false statistics but head counts. Look around at your own families.  I had a grandfather who came to this country with nothing.  He had no formal schooling.  He was a baker making $14 a week.  Only one of his five children went to college.  The others had to drop out and work during the depression.  However, 70% of their children went to college in the 1960s and 70s.  Of those who were born after the mid-1950s, almost all went to college and became professionals.  And of our children, all went to college.  This is one family, multiplied by millions. This is not failure, but success beyond the wildest dreams of those 19th century pioneers who began America’s public education movement.  It is a dream worth preserving.