The Balkanization of American Education and the Election of Donald Trump

The charter movement may have had one great success and that is the election of Donald Trump.   His election is probably due to the balkanization of American culture through the charterization and privatization of a great chunk of our educational system over the last twenty years. The result has been the dilution of common values and beliefs that public education imbued in most Americans. Our common culture has been fragmented to the point that large groups of Americans no longer have common values—socially, economically and politically.

It is my contention that it was not only the educational level, but also the type of education people had played a large part in this election.  In an analysis of several polls, the average Trump voter has an income of about $70,000.  So there goes the idea that it was the alienated working class that put Trump into office because of their loss of good factory jobs.  Instead, there were two other key factors.  First, the lack of diversity within the community that voted for him, i.e., mostly white and second, the education level of the Trump voter.   It is my opinion, there must be an analysis of the type of education many of the Trump voters either have or support.   This goes way beyond whether key voting blocks were college educated or not. It is my feeling that the type of education one acquired played a critical role in the vote.   If you look at the mostly white communities that voted for Trump in states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, I would bet there is a large presence of Charter or nonpublic religious schools.

In March 2013, in this blog, I wrote in this blog an article “Education and Class Warfare.”   Little did I realize that I was predicting what was to come.  I wrote, “Horace Mann, Thomas Jefferson, John Dewey and others had a very simple view of public education.  To these men, public education in America would be the great equalizer.  It would create a common American culture and an educated citizenry that would make decisions that would benefit the whole nation.”  With an educated citizenry and common political culture, it was felt people would make informed decisions as to whom to elect.  People would learn to differentiate between emotional rhetoric and sound policy decisions.

Unfortunately, the charter and voucher movements over these years have created schools where there is a lack of oversight as to what is being taught.   One cannot create a common culture when one is isolated and does not interact with others who are different.   How many charters and fundamentalist religious schools in rural areas of Michigan teach about the diversity of different people that make up this nation? How many have anti-bullying programs or teach tolerance toward students who are LBGQT?  Instead, we have not only charters, but also sectarian schools run by people with certain religious notions teaching that the earth is 6000 years old, that it does not matter that we will deplete the environment because none of this will matter when the rapture comes, and that a good portion of the population is hell-bent because of their lifestyles. Even if one does not teach such religious notions, the segregated nature of many of these schools, in the end, lead to the same result—intolerance toward others.

In addition, many charters focus so much on the core skills that social studies and civics barely exist.   When your focus is on passing an ELA test, one does not learn how to interpret and analyze critically different types of writing.  One should be taught to differentiate between propaganda and objectively-based arguments.   In addition, when these schools teach social studies, there is no standard curriculum that makes sure students learn to analyze both sides of an argument.  For example, we all know that the Koch brothers are trying to create schools that teach a one sided, free market, but really crony capitalistic, economic view of the world. The good teaching of social studies involves students learning both sides of a historical issue and then debate as well as discuss the different points of view. I remember one of my social studies teachers, Mr. Lepler out of John Bowne High School.   During each lesson he gave us a handout describing both sides of every issue and we debated the pros and cons of each argument. He would never tell us his opinion and we could not get him to tell us about his politics.  Years later, when I became a teacher, I met him at a conference in my old high school.  I asked him whether he was a liberal or conservative.  His answer was that he was neither—he was a pragmatist.  He based all political decisions on two factors—ethics and reason, not emotion.

The plan of future Education Secretary DeVos is to institutionalize nationally a fragmented educational system where millions will lack an enriched education in unregulated charter schools and private religious schools paid for through vouchers.  She surely is not basing her decisions are any type of reason.  If you described to her every study in the last few years showing that overall, charters are no better than public schools and those that lack regulation are often worse, she is one who would disregard all this research because her plans are ideologically based. She sees nothing wrong with teaching religious concepts in publicly funded charters and holds that public schools are nothing less than a dead end.   I do feel she does understand one thing.  It is that history shows that when one controls the education of a society, one ends up controlling that society.  The people now coming into power want charters to create a less educated citizenry.   They want to defund public education so that fewer schools will be able to teach the type of skills where diversity is accepted and people learn to think for themselves.  Instead, DeVos and her supporters want schools that will teach students to be docile, submissive and accept the whatever the government says.  All of this is the hall mark of an authoritarian society.  The people who will now run the Department of Education may talk about school choice, but they want anything but.  It is no choice when one takes away limited resources public education and give it to unregulated private entities. It is not choice when the government favors a private system over a pubic system while, at the same time, enact policies meant to destroy the nation’s community-based schools that are truly accountable to the people through democratic processes.

I went to public school in the mid-1960s just as the civil rights movement was just reaching a crescendo.  Thus, I remember “brotherhood week” where we learned to understand others no matter their race, color, or creed.  I remember making friends with an Italian classmate and ending up at his confirmation and he at my Bar Mitzvah.   I made friends with an Afro-American peer who played classical, jazz and gospel music on a piano and who taught me more about our musical heritage than any appreciation class could every teach.  However, now I fear that America in now headed in a completely opposite direction.   Will there even be an Afro-American History Month or a Woman’s History Month in the schools?  Will there be anti-bullying programs in the schools?   I don’t know.   Without a common culture that teaches the acceptance of diversity not only of people, but ideas, I fear for the future of this nation.  There may not be choice for my 10 month grandchildren when they enter school when the only choices that exist will be mostly segregated or online schools teaching test prep or fundamentalist ideas.  It has been America’s public education that has been the fabric that has held together this nation based on law, justice and respect. Without such a system, how can our national identity survive?




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.

Pearson’s Totalitarian Test Security

It has been several months since I have posted to my blog.  It is not because I haven’t wanted to, but because the educational reforms wrought by a binding arbitration between the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers have made my job this year one of endless preparation, paperwork, and drudgery.  In my last year of teaching, I have worked harder than those Hebrew slaves that built the cities of ancient Egypt.  To finish my career as an effective teacher, I have to do well on 22 Danielson rubric points, which include 8 artifacts that will justify the generation of enough paper to cause the death of, at least, one hundred trees. 

But this is not the purpose of my little article.  Its purpose is to describe a demeaning test security system wrought by Pearson to safeguard and protect their profits.  Last week, I started testing children for New York City’s gifted and talented program.  I have been doing this activity for many years.  Originally individual districts tested students for their local gifted programs, but eventually the testing became a citywide endeavor.   Originally, children four to seven were tested using the OLSAT along with another test that measured academic readiness.  However, due to criticism that very few minority and ELL students got into the program, last year, the test was changed to just using components of the original OLSAT along with a nonverbal section.  This year, the test was changed once again—in my view—to make it even easier. 

However, our friends, or should I say enemies at Pearson, do not like adverse publicity and embarrassment whenever test flaws are revealed.  Pearson just hated when newspapers revealed that common core test questions had to be thrown out, a passage about a talking pineapple was incomprehensible, that a fourth grade passage was also used on a third grade assesment, and that the illustrations for many passages contained marketing logos that were paid for by the highest corporate bidder.  Therefore, they decided on a solution to solve these problems.  Instead of creating a valid and reliable assessment that would be subject to reviews and study by psychometricians at the university level, they would increase test security. 

Originally, in the good old days, test security was in place to prevent students from getting a hold of a test in order to cheat.  It is for this reason that tests were shrink-wrapped and placed in the Principal’s safe until the day of the test.  However, today, when a Pearson test, such as the Common Core ELA and Math assessments come in at least 75 boxes, that safe at the bottom of the Principal’s small storage closet does not work too well any longer.  Now we had the problem of having many, many tests in several supposedly secure rooms, but once the assessment started, copies ended up all over a building.  Anything could happen.  A page could be scanned into a readability program causing the discovery that a third grade passage was on an eighth grade Lexile reading level or that a passage described the nutritional benefits of a Whopper.

Therefore, Pearson concluded that the only way to prevent such errant discoveries was to collect any electronic device that could copy the test and prevent anyone from even talking about the assessment.  As a result, when I was trained at my testing site this year, I was told that if I was alone with the assessment or even the assessment’s directions for administration booklet within a classroom and had an electronic device capable of reproducing the assessment, the supervisor had the right to immediately fire me.  See, I planned to bring my Ipad to do some lesson planning and a little wifi reading between students, so I now thought all was lost.  However, there was a solution at hand.  All proctors would sit in the hall, on small classroom desks, with their electronic device. while the classroom door was locked with the tests inside.  There would be a school aid sitting on a chair at the top of the hall, watching that we would not enter the classroom to perform any misdeed with our electronic toys.  Another school aid would come with kids, unlock our door, and we would proceed to assess the student with our smart phones, Kindles and Ipads sitting quietly in the hall. 

What I described is nothing compared to the DOE’s Assessment Manual for 2013-2014.  The DOE mandated that every teacher be trained in this manual before December 20, 2013.  Not only would teachers be forbidden to even talk to each other about the tests, but also the name of every proctor would have to be sent to Pearson.  The manual lists at least 50 forbidden actions that a teacher cannot do when testing, and if discovered, the teacher would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  I guess even the slightest malfeasance would mean death by hanging, not just for the possible culprit, but for every teacher within earshot. 

And to do away with any other controversy, Pearson says on the state’s website that whatever you thought was controversial in the past is no longer controversial.  They are now doing everything on purpose.  Pearson has stated that they will use the same passage on tests at different grade levels (but with different questions).  In addition, they will use passages found within their textbooks, but again with different questions. And finally, they will use controversial pieces of text that will make certain students upset and agitated. But, according to them, students have to develop a stiff upper lip and take it like a man (or woman).

All this, of course, is for the sake of profit.  Let us prosecute and even jail any teacher who dares to analyze a test using psychometric research techniques.  What are a few careers, when billions of dollars in the hands of a few is at stake? At least J.D. Rockefeller used to give children dimes.  Pearson, on the other hand, gives our precious youth, anxiety disorder—and is definitely proud doing so. 

Interesting, during another time, the old New York City Board of Education had an office that used to review and critique different assessments from different publishers.  I know this for a fact because I used to be one of the reviewers.  We used to research tests using Buros’ Mental Measurements Handbook and the ERIC database to tell prospective buyers an assessment’s strengths, weaknesses, reliability and validity.  In this way, we helped schools and clinicians make wise and informed decisions about different diagnostic instruments.  All wiped away by the likes of Bloomberg and Klein so that their friends in the testing business could get sweetheart contracts and monopoly control.  The result is now the creation of a looking glass world in which the perpetrators make billions while those who question anything run the risk of criminal prosecution.  Let us hope for better days ahead. 

Casualties of Reform

There are no winners of war, only survivors . . .

                A war has been declared on public education and the quote above sums it up.  Nothing reveals an effect more than the lives of real people who have been hurt by the misguided ideas of an elite who has used their wealth and power to force their views upon parents, educators, and children.  To Broad, Gates, Rhee, Duncan, and the Walton family, we are viewed as sheep that can be easily controlled and manipulated.  However, we sheep are real people and many individuals have been hurt.  It is time to talk about what happens to real people because of this misguided reform.

                A good friend of mine who was a master teacher in midtown Manhattan was a year away from retirement when her principal retired.  Under this principal, she became a coach and mentor to many teachers.  She was a published author, won awards, and when she was in the classroom, countless parents requested her as a teacher.  In the 29 years she was in this school, many of her former students ended up achieving at very high levels.  Over the years, her former students would visit her.  She told me that a student she taught a quarter century ago came to the school just to see her.  When this boy was in her sixth grade class in 1980, he had great difficulty reading.  She discovered that he loved science fiction and whenever she had a free period, she would read with him short stories from Ray Bradbury.  This was just the spark to help this children read on his own.  And what did this former student bring to this teacher, but a copy of a science fiction novel that he authored and was just published along with a donation to the school.

                However, the following September a new principal came to the school from what we in New York calls the principal’s academy.  This academy trains people who have little or no educational experience to run schools based on a corporate model.   I know of one graduate from this so-called academy who went from paraprofessional to principal without passing GO.  One of the tenets of this academy is that schools should become more cost effective and efficient.  The best way to get the most bang for your buck is to dispose of those “tired, old, worn and burned out teachers.”

                As usual, this teacher/coach came in early to set up her office and plan for the year.  Instead, the new academy principal (who was never even a teacher) called her in to tell her that he decided to make a change.  He told her that the school no longer had money for a coaching position.  She would have to go into the classroom.  By the way, the building she was in had been built in the early 1930s and was five stories high without an elevator.  So obviously, the principal assigned her to a classroom on the fifth floor.    By the way, her office was on the first floor and she spent two days lugging a library of books and reference materials up the stairs to the classroom.  She also bought hundreds of dollars in supplies to set up a beautiful, attractive classroom for her new students. She completely set up a classroom when, at the end of the day, the day before the students were to arrive, the principal came to her room.  He told her that he was moving her room to a classroom on the second floor and that he expected her to be ready to teach when the students came in the next day.  When she asked why, he said it was in the best interest of the school.  When she asked him what that meant, he, without turning around as he walked out the door, and said that if she asked one more question, it would result in a disciplinary letter of insubordination.  She cried all the way home.

                Obviously, she could not get her new classroom ready the next day.  Although, she came an hour early and did the best she could moving necessary material, the class was not at all set up.  At 8:45, this monster, came into the classroom and said to her that it was obvious that she was not ready to teach and, in front of the class, said that she was expected to come to his office when she has a prep period for a disciplinary hearing, which could result in her termination.  She felt humiliated that he said this in front of her class on the first day of school.  This profligate principal set her up.  At this point, she said that this is not the way disciplinary meetings are handled and that she has right to union representation.  He said that the union is garbage and he is doing it his way.  She said she would only come to a meeting with the chapter leader of the school after a written request.  He left the room saying, “I have to consult legal.”

                Instead of consulting legal, he came back to her room during the prep period and said that he would not write her up if she put in her retirement papers tomorrow.  My friend told this administrator that he was acting in an illegal manner and had no business saying this to her.  She knew that she could not ever engage this principal in a civil conversation.  By the way, no discipline hearing was held over her classroom not being ready because he put nothing in writing. However, each day he would come into her classroom, observe informally for about ten to twenty minutes, and walk out without saying a word.  After two weeks, he stopped coming into her classroom and all seemed quiet. About a month later, she received a letter from him requesting a formal observation.  She came to his office for a pre-observation conference.  She decided to do one of her coaching lessons.  He looked it over for about a minute and said it was garbage.  She then asked for constructive criticism so she could make any improvements.  He said nothing and so she walked out (in tears).  By the way, she kept an anecdotal record of every interaction she had with this principal at this point. Yes, as she expected, she received an unsatisfactory observation during the post conference.  She asked him if he could go over this lesson point by point so she can understand what was wrong with it. He refused and said that he was assigning her to observe another teacher (one who only started last year) so she could learn how a decent lesson is done.

                When she got home, she told all this to her husband (who happened to be a lawyer).  He immediately said that she has to go to the union to file harassment charges against this principal.  However, her husband added that he would try something a little unorthodox.  What he did was wait for the principal after school the following day.  He knew from his wife that this principal often stayed late.  The next day, her husband parked across the street from the school and waited for the principal to leave the school. When he was sure no one was around, he walked over to the principal and introduced himself.  This young, arrogant man ignored him.  The teacher’s husband then said that he was a lawyer, his wife will file harassment charges through normal channels, but if she wins, he guaranteed there would be a personal lawsuit that would be outside the protection of the Department of Education.  He continued walking and said nothing.  However, all harassment suddenly ended the next day.  Not only did the principal never write up the observation, but neither looked at nor spoke to my friend for the rest of the year.  At the end of the year, she received a rating of satisfactory.  That June, she reached her 30th year, and at the age of 56 years old, she put in her papers.  Sadly, the following year, no one from the school even contacted her to honor her years of service in any way.  A great teacher was lost and no one cared.  Yes, this principal, with the full weight of a miscreant school system, declared war on a teacher and she survived, just like the quote.  She told me that when she put in her papers on the last day of school, she felt nothing.  She was numb and demoralized.  What was once a great school now had teachers that lived in constant fear and intimidation from an authoritarian principal.  This is the real face of reform in New York and the face is ugly.

Common Core and the Suspension of Child Development

It was 1977 and I was taking a child development course for my Master’s level program to become a special education teacher. The assignment was simple. Take two children of different ages and conduct some learning experiments on them. The objective was to see if Piaget’s theories were true. I needed two children, so I asked my cousin if I could borrow her two kids—David and Rachel (who still remember as adults the fun we had doing all this). David was eight-years-old at the time while Rachel just turned five. Of course, I did that famous conservation experiment of pouring water into a tall thin glass and the same amount of water into a wide narrow glass. Obviously, both thought that the tall narrow glass held more water even after both watched me pour the same amount of water into both glasses. What is the importance of this experiment? Well, young kids think very concretely and not abstractly. And how do you develop abstract thinking skills? Give them many of concrete experiences over a long period until their brains become mature enough to understand the abstract concept that no matter what the shape a container may be, if you pour the same amount of liquid into that container, it is still the same amount

This experience I had with my cousins came hauntingly back to me about a month ago when I tried to teach a bunch of fifth graders to estimate fractional sums using benchmarks. The concept appears simple. Take a number line, start at zero, make several benchmark points, such as ½ and 1, and then estimate whether a given fraction is close to these benchmarks. For example, if we add 7/8 and 3/8, we should estimate that our answer will be about 1 and ½. Obviously, 7/8 is close to one and 3/8 is close to ½. With our adult minds, this is a no brainer, but not to the fifth grade mind—especially a mind that may have a learning disability. My kids just did not get it. I used every special education, multisensory method on the books. I color coded, used fraction bars, as well as visual illustrations, etc., etc. Most just wanted to add the like denominators and did not want to estimate first using this method. I then decided to question them intently to understand why they were having such difficulty estimating. To my amazement I discovered the reason. All my concrete manipulatives and illustrations confused them even more. Each manipulative and drawing was a different size and they did not understand that no matter the size or type of fractional illustration presented that the fraction was really the same size. It was hard for these fifth graders to understand that if I cut a pizza in or a jelly bean in half, it was still a half. Therefore, I made a fatal teaching error that many new teachers make. I assumed knowledge or understanding that my students really did not have. To prove their lack of understanding, I took two jars of different sizes and poured a glass of water in each. I asked them to write on their personal white boards which cup had more water and most chose the tall, thin cup again. Piaget came hauntingly back and now I understood why these LD kids were having such difficulty with this common core concept. I realized that it was not that many wouldn’t learn it, but that many couldn’t learn it. They were just not ready.

Furthermore, I tutor several middle school students in math. I work with one learning disabled 8th grader who is, with a lot of extra help, passing within an integrated setting. Fortunately, his parents have the resources to purchase my services for three hours a week. In addition, not only does the student have a highly experienced special education co-teacher in his math class, but he also gets additional special education teacher support services three times a week within a very wealthy suburban school district on Long Island. To his benefit, the student although learning disabled has strong intellectual potential that enables him to easily learn the various strategies I and his teachers have developed to help him do the math. Yet, when tested on these concepts, he mostly gets grades in the low seventies on tests in which problems contain three or more steps and which requires him to describe using mathematical terms various math processes. One problem he got wrong had to do with the Pythagorean Theorem. Mathematically, he knows the formula and can apply it to solve problems presented algebraically. He understands that if we want to find the unknown length of one side of a right triangle, he can do so as long as he knows the length of a hypotenuse and an adjacent side. However, on a test in which a problem derived from a sample CCLS standard, he got completely lost. The problem had a right triangle containing adjacent squares for each side. The question asked what assumption the student can make about the area of the largest square. Furthermore, he was expected to explain his assumption in mathematical terms.

After looking at the problem, it appeared familiar to me. I then remembered where I saw a similar problem. I decided to take a trip to my attic and opened up an old box. Within the box, I found my high school review books. After a little skimming, I found a very similar model problem—within my 10th grade Amsco geometry review text. Then I remembered the difficulty I had with my first term of geometry in high school and all the extra help I needed to master and understand those theorems at the time. Now we expect a student to master concepts that used to be taught to 15-16 year old students thirty of so years ago. A 16 year old student is well into what Piaget calls the formal operational stage of development. Those are fancy words that mean that a student of that age can more easily understand very abstract concepts. Now we are supposed to expect a 13 year-old student to have the same capacity as a student that is very close to college age. Obviously, some 13 year-old students can understand such concepts, but most will have difficulty, again, because they may not be developmentally ready—especially if a disability is present. When I recently stated this at a meeting, I was told that I have low expectations for students. I replied that I do not have low expectations, but realistic expectations. And that these expectations are based on a good deal of scientific research.

The Common Core curriculum appears to be one that was developed by anecdote and not by research. I remember when my youngest son graduated from high school, the Valedictorian was an Asian young man who came to the United States two years previously without knowing a word of English. I recall the Principal saying to the audience that it was possible to accomplish so much when one perseveres and works hard. What he didn’t mention was that this student probably had an IQ that was through the roof! It would be unreasonable to expect other immigrant children to accomplish what this student did when research has shown it takes an older student five to seven years to learn enough academic vocabulary to perform well in an English language school. One should not build a curriculum that could only be easily mastered by above average and superior students that make up only 15% of the total population.

Interestingly, just yesterday I received an email from my school district which contained a list of math vocabulary terms students are expected to master at each grade level. When I looked at the kindergarten math vocabulary, there was the term “decompose” which means to break down complex numbers to get a better understanding of place value. To expect a kindergarten student to understand and use this concept is beyond ridiculous. When I was in Kindergarten, I am pretty sure I had no idea what this term meant and I am also sure my kindergarten teacher had no interest in teaching me its meaning when her greater concern was that I know how to write my name, address and phone number in case I got lost. I really don’t think there is any necessity for a five-year-old to use college level vocabulary to explain complex math terms when many still need to develop one-to-one correspondence. Of course, someone who supports common core would say that all they are doing is raising the bar. However, this is a bar that is twenty feet up and for a five year old impossible to master. By the way, yesterday I asked three kindergarten students to decompose the number 12 and they replied with blank stares. I have been involved with educational testing for nearly thirty years. A good part of my career involved administering diagnostic tests to determine if students had learning disabilities. I clearly remember when I was taking courses in diagnostic assessment, a professor saying to us that when most students fail a test, the problem is not with the student, but with the test. Therefore, if most students at a certain age will not be able to master these so-called common core standards, the problem is not with the kids, but with the standards. Standards that unfortunately violates every rule of child development.

For A New Political Movement

What did Thomas Jefferson once say?  He said something to the fact that if a government no longer protects your interests, it must be overthrown.  Well, we live in a democratic society and I do want to keep it that way.  Thus, to overthrow this present government, we have to defeat an entity called the Republicratic Party.  Sadly, I used to believe there was a real difference between the Democrats and Republicans.  The progressives that controlled the Democratic Party from the time of the New Deal until the 1960s had a view of government that was mainly positive.  Most really wanted to use the power of government to increase economic, social, and political equality and opportunity.  There was a social contract between average Americans, government, and even corporations that lead to ever increasing opportunity for many citizens.  However, I now believe that there is really only one political party that has two wings.  What used to be two entities are now controlled by a corporate elite controlled by old money and a new monied class that I label the Kiddy Billionaires.  This wealthy class gained their wealth by harvesting the Internet.  They are very smart when it comes to computer technology, but in terms of ethics, they are no better than the Robber Barons of the 19th century.  All you have to do is watch “The Social Network.”  As portrayed in the movie, the founder of Facebook, looks like someone suffering from Asberger’s and thus has no social conscious .

This old and new money elite are now setting the education policy for both political parties.  Unfortunately, their policy is simple:  The power of government should be used to further enrich themselves by impoverishing most Americans economically, politically and socially.  This is why they want to destroy teacher unions–one of the last strong unions left in this society, as well as public education.  Their goal is to create a two tier educational system.  One group will go to charter schools subsidized, but not regulated by what is left of the government.  Those who are chosen to go to those schools will have the privilege of getting a higher education as a ticket to enter the corporate world.  However, those who remain in defunded public schools will get an inferior education based upon passing watered-down ELA and math assessments.  They will not garner the skills to access a higher education and will become the drones who will be the minimum wage workers who must toil at two or three jobs just to survive.  And no one will want to educate the disabled or truly high needs student for fear of being fired because the poor unfortunate teacher who may want to work with such students will not be able to get them to grade level.   A shill who works for Chamber Street (Department of Education) once told me that there is no such thing as a disabled child, only disabled teachers.  This person said to me that a superior teacher can get a mentally retarded student to college.  Then I asked this person ,who works for Joel Klein, if a profoundly retarded child can get to college?  The answer this person gave was yes and then I was accused of limiting such children by having low expectations.

I read many blogs and I see mostly anger and despair among progressives and educators.  I feel that the time has come for us to turn this anger into action.  Two years ago, the Republicans created a fake Tea Party movement that has unfortunately gained legitimacy because the old media has lost its ability to truly investigate who is funding such organizations.  We must form a new political organization, a new political party.  It has to be made up of public educators, parents, and true progressives who want to use true data driven research to save public education as well as to create true economic and political reforms to benefit middle class, working class and impoverished Americans.  I believe there are many Americans who are waiting for such a movement.  They want an alternative to the Republicrats who are unable to get us out of this economic mess.  History tells us that most true reform movements in this country were started by educated middle class people.  We are teachers.  We are educated.  We are sophisticated.  We are not sheep.  We must now push back politically.  If a third party is formed and becomes a political force, American history also tells us that possibly one of the political parties may begin to incorporate the ideas of such a party.  And if they do not, it may be time for one or both of the present parties to go the way of the Federalists and Whigs.

A two prong approach will be necessary if we want to save public education.  A new political entity must go to the courts to litigate each and every aspect of this fake reform movement.  If laws are passed to remove tenure, then we have the 14th Amendment.  This is the denial of due process.    If disabled kids are not being educated by charter schools that accept public money, again, the 14th Amendment will help us.  Judicial precedent has stated that education is a property right and to deny a child the right to attend a school that takes public money is a denial of that property right.  And the second prong is to elect candidates under a different banner who will support public schools as well as other social reforms.

Charter schools should not be destroyed.  They have a place.  We have to go back to their original purpose as stated by Al Shanker.  They should be a place of experimentation so we as educators can come up with new ideas and new ways to educate those who are uneducable.  But to do this, charters have to be regulated.  If they accept public money, then their budget has to be open to public scrutiny.  If they have lotteries for limited spaces, then that lottery has to be a blind lottery.  They, as public schools must, educate all children.  Finally, those who work in such schools should have the right to unionize and due process.  Because those who presently fund and support charters oppose such reforms, it proves they are afraid of something.  If there is a charter in which teachers and administrators work collaboratively and pay these dedicated teachers handsomely for the extra time they put in to educate their children, there is nothing to worry about. There would be no need for a union.  However, we know that I did not describe the real world.

We have to take back our schools and our country.  Anyone who is interested in doing this, let me know.