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schools Tag

The Alt Right Has a Friend in Common Core

  Let’s say you’re a modern-day hipster Nazi. You’re bummed out. No one wants to hang out with you because of your bald head and your red suspenders and your commitment to the ideals of a defeated and disgraced totalitarian regime. What are you to do? REBRAND, son! It’s simple. No more National Socialist German Workers Party! That sounds too pinko! Now you’re simply a member of the Alt Right! It’s not racist! You’re just committed to traditional attitudes and values — if those traditional attitudes and values come from 1945 Berlin! Heck, you don’t even have to call yourself Alt Right. You can call yourself a White Identitarian. You aren’t over-concerned with any one side of the political spectrum or other. You just strongly identify with whiteness — and by extension increasing the political power of white people at the expense of all others. That’s all. It should be obvious that this isn’t merely rebranding. It’s propaganda. In today’s fast paced information age – where every fact is merely a Google away – that can be hard to get away with – UNLESS… Unless you already have a readymade tool to protect propaganda from the kind of informed critical thought that can pop it like a bubble. Something to insolate the ignorance and keep out the enlightened analysis. I am, of course, talking about Common Core. What!? How does Common Core have anything to do with white nationalism? Common Core is just a set of academic standards for what should be taught in public schools adopted by 42 of 50 states. Academic standards aren’t political. Are they? Actually, they are. Quite political. Just take a look at how the standards came to be adopted in the first place. The Obama administration bribed and coerced the states to adopt these standards before many of them were even done being written. Hold your horses. The Obama administration!? That doesn’t sound exactly like a friend of the Third Reich. And it wasn’t. It was a friend to big business. When first created, these standards weren’t the result of a real educational need, nor were they written by classroom educators and psychologists. They were written by the standardized testing industry as a ploy to get federal, state and local governments to recommit to standardized testing through buying new tests, new text books, new software and new remediation materials. It was a bipartisan effort supported by the likes of Obama, the Clintons and Bill Gates on the left and Jeb Bush, Betsy DeVos and Bobby Jindal on the right. After Obama’s success pushing them down our collective throats, many Republicans vocally decried the standards – often while quietly supporting them. That’s why after all this time very few state legislatures have repealed them despite being controlled predominantly by Republicans. Okay, so what does this have to do with the Alt Right? People like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump are engaged in redefining the conservative movement. Instead of circulating ideas with a merely racist and...

The Lone Voice of Dissent Against Standardized Testing

Everybody wants to fight the good fight. Until the battle begins. Then many of us are all too ready to give in to what was intolerable just a moment before. To paraphrase Thomas Paine: These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in times of crisis, shrink from service, but those who stand up in time of need deserve the love and thanks of every man and woman. I see this almost every day in our schools. Ask nearly any teacher what they think about high stakes standardized testing, and they’ll complain until they’re blue in the face. They’ll give you gripes and grievances galore. The tests take too long. They’re not valid assessments. They narrow the curriculum. They’re dumbing down the teaching profession and ripping away our autonomy. To which I say – Amen, Sister! Standardized tests more accurately measure economics than academics – poor kids generally fail and rich kids pass. They’re culturally biased, poorly put together, unscientifically graded and demonstrate a gobbsmacking conflict of interest. Two conflicts of interest, actually. First, the people who make the tests, grade the tests and thus have a financial interest in failing the most students possible because that means we have to buy more remediation material which they also conveniently sell. Second, these test scores are used by the school privatization industry to unfairly label public schools failures so they can more easily sell fly-by-night charter and voucher schools. So, yeah. Almost all of us agree standardized testing sucks. But when there’s an administrator present, I too often find I’m the only one willing to speak that truth. My colleagues, who are pleased as punch to gripe in private, suddenly go quiet in the presence of their superiors. What’s worse, some of them don’t just stay quiet – they offer arguments to support whatever nonsensical test-based solution our boss has in mind today. Let’s say an administrator suggests we do something about the handful of students who opt out of standardized tests. We could just respect the rights of parents who have handed in their written intention to opt their children out under a religious exemption – the only option in Pennsylvania. Or we could do as the administrator suggests and force kids who’ve been opted out to take a standardized look-a-like assessment. I hear something like that, and I’m on my feet ready to fight. But I find myself standing there alone. “You can’t do that,” I say. “It violates state law. In particular, Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4.” (Okay, I had to look up the particulars later, but I made sure the administrator got them.) Consider subsection (d) (4). And I quote: “If upon inspection of a State assessment parents or guardians find the assessment to be in conflict with their religious belief and wish their students to be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents or guardians will not be denied…” Or how about...

Respecting Student Free Speech Was Hard for Adults During Today’s School Walkout

The kids are all right. It’s the adults you have to watch. The walkout planned nationwide to protest gun violence today on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting came to my western Pennsylvania school – and we weren’t ready for it. In fact, up until today no one had mentioned a thing about it. I had asked teachers if they wanted to do something and was told it was up to the students to lead. I had asked the high school student council if they were interested in participating, but there wasn’t much of a response. Then this morning in the middle school where I teach, there was an impromptu two minute meeting where we were told some kids might walk out and that we should just let them go. Their right to free speech would be respected and there wouldn’t be any penalty for participating. However, as a teacher, I was instructed not to bring up the subject, not to allow discussion and only to attend if all of my students decided to go. That’s a hard position to be in. It’s like being put in a metaphorical straight jacket. But I tried. When my 7th grade kids came in, they were all a buzz about something and I couldn’t really ask why. The suspense was broken with a sledge hammer during second period when one of my most rambunctious students asked if he could use the restroom at 10 am. That was over an hour away. I told him he couldn’t reserve an appointment for a bathroom break but he could go now if he wanted. Then he explained himself. At 10 am he was walking out. The room exploded. They had heard about the nationwide walkout at 10 – the time of the Parkland shooting. They knew kids all across the land were leaving class for 17 minutes – 60 seconds for each life lost in the shooting. But that was pretty much it. They didn’t know what it was that kids were protesting. They didn’t know why they were protesting. They just knew it was something being done and they wanted to do it. It was at this point I took off my metaphorical straight jacket. I couldn’t simply suppress the talk and try to move on with the lesson – on propaganda, wouldn’t you believe! We talked about the limits of gun laws – how some people wanted background checks for people wishing to purchase guns. We talked about regulating guns for people with severe mental illnesses, criminal backgrounds or suspected terrorists. We talked about how there used to be a ban on assault weapons sales and how that was the gun of choice for school shooters. We even talked about what students might do once they walked out of the building. They couldn’t just mill around for all that time. Since we were in the middle of a unit on poetry, someone suggested reading poems about guns and gun violence. Students quickly...

kids in kindergarten

What is Kindergarten Ready, Really?

Once upon a time, children walked into kindergarten as blank slates for their teachers to write upon. They might or might not know their ABC’s, how to hold a pencil and how to read. Now, though, it seems that more and more is being asked of students before they are ever even taught in school. Children are entering school already behind. So what is "kindergarten ready", really? What does it mean? Students who are kindergarten ready are more than three times as likely to be reading on grade level in third grade, thus making kindergarten readiness a huge indicator of outcomes for students. In Texas, a child is eligible to start kindergarten if they have turned five years old prior to September 1 of the school year they would be enrolling in. Other states have a later cutoff, but generally speaking, most students begin kindergarten at around five years old. It’s assumed that students will enter school with some specific skills; however, there is no specific list of kindergarten-ready standards. According to research compiled into a policy brief from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEE), teachers cite factors such as overall child health, ability to communicate thoughts and needs as well as curiosity as important factors indicating kindergarten readiness. Recently, teachers are emphasizing the importance of nonacademic readiness skills over traditional measures of readiness like knowing names of colors, recognizing the alphabet and counting. However, NIEE acknowledges that studies indicate a higher focus on academic readiness in studies focusing on perceptions of low-income children. Parent perception of skills needed to be kindergarten ready also varies based on socioeconomic status but tends to focus on academics. From 2001-2004, the School Readiness Indicators Initiative joined 17 states to try to develop a workable list of readiness factors to include in policy proposals. Maryland has created the R4K— Ready for Kindergarten, a comprehensive early childhood assessment system that builds upon the state assessment system used until 2013. In Texas, Little Texans, Big Futures drew on expertise across the state to set early learning goals. The American Federation of Teachers offers a kindergarten ready checklist online that draws on factors that some states utilize to assess incoming students. Still, without a tailored list of what skills a school is expecting, a parent is challenged with how to best prepare their child for school. Additionally, according to NIEE’s policy brief, "children from low-income or less-educated families are less likely to have the supports necessary for healthy growth and development, resulting in lower abilities at school entry.” The biggest challenge, though, is that no one system exists that defines what kindergarten readiness is. Each state may or may not define readiness; sometimes readiness is defined differently at different schools in the same city. A national standard of readiness would assist both preschools and parents in preparing students to meet the challenges they will face in today’s classrooms. Is there a written kindergarten ready standard where you live? Drop us a note in the comments, and tune back in as...

Academics v. social skills: The case of disappearing recess

Circa 1995. A kindergartener skips up to school, hangs up their jacket in their cubby. Practices reading or math with their teacher. Checks on the eggs the class is hatching. Plays in the sandbox. Has lunch. Goes to recess. Naptime. For half day students, heads home. This scenario would sound like a fairy tale to most of Dallas’s current kindergarteners and their families. While things like nap time and recess used to be a typical part of the school day, especially for younger students, they have largely gone by the wayside as schools have tried to rearrange the school day to fit in more instruction. However, recent studies (including a survey specific to Dallas ISD incoming kindergarten students) has found that students are not only lacking in academic skills, but many students come to school unprepared socially. Recess is a key time for developing social skills, and can have other impacts such as improving general school culture. In a recently published article entitled “Playing Fair: The Contribution of High-Functioning Recess to Overall School Climate in Low-income Elementary Schools” high-functioning recess is correlated with a positive school environment. The study authors define high-functioning recess as a recess that supports students by offering optional activities and and emphasizing pro-social skills development. The schools in the study were supported with a Playworks coach who assisted teachers during the recess period and students reportedly took the skills they were taught on the playground back into the classroom, improving school culture and morale. Despite the positive associations with recess and the importance of developing social skills, recess is disappearing from many school campuses across the country. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, while recess time began decreasing in the 1980s the trend accelerated with the passage of No Child Left Behind and the increasing emphasis on test scores. Some districts have a policy regarding recess, and others allow principals or teachers to make the call as to whether a class has recess. A 2003 nationwide survey of 1st through 5th grade students found that 21 percent of students did not have recess. 44 percent of students living below the poverty line did not have recess. In Dallas ISD specifically, a post by former superintendent Mike Miles in January explained that recess time is determined at each school individually. 15 minutes in the morning and 15 in the afternoon is recommended, and “the State requires at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise every day.” However, on at least one campus, teachers rarely felt they had the time to send their classes outside; a class might have gym once or twice a week and recess only in the spring once testing ended, making those recommendations seem a bit optimistic. What do you think? Is recess a valuable use of student time? Is there recess in your school district?...

It’s free childcare. So why aren’t more children in pre-K?

Pre-K enrollment is one of the hot button issues in education today. An early start can make a huge difference in educational achievement for children, whether that is reading at home with parents or organized education through Head Start or public pre-K programs. And best of all, early education programs are often free. So why aren’t more children enrolled in them? There are a variety of issues that may explain low pre-K enrollment in Dallas. The first issue is knowledge— many parents are unaware that public pre-K programs exist, and that they are free. The second issue is buy-in. Many parents simply don’t understand what the value of pre-K is, and why they should make it a priority for their child. This is especially prevalent in Texas, where even kindergarten isn’t required; first grade is the first required grade in the state. This leaves many parents confused as to the advantages of a pre-K education. Studies have shown clear differences between students who went through pre-K and students who did not, and students who had pre-K had a distinct academic advantage as they continued on in school. Valuable as these studies may be, they typically are utilized by the professional education world, rather than by parents. Finally, access can also be an issue— spots for eligible pre-K students aren’t necessarily available in the exact area or school where they are needed. There typically are not as many pre-K spots offered at a school as there are kindergarten and first-grade spots, and some schools have more pre-K spaces than others. This can be challenging for parents who already have children enrolled in other grades- since pre-K does not include busing, the parent would have to drive to two different schools, sometimes in entirely different neighborhoods. If a parent does not understand the value of pre-K this can seem too challenging, and even parents who may be planning for pre-K might not have the resources to manage two separate drop-offs. So how can we, as non-parents and perhaps even non-community members, impact pre-K enrollment? Education, education, education. Parental education is key in terms of informing parents that pre-K is an option, that it is free, and that it is valuable. This spring and summer a dedicated group of people in the South Oak Cliff community went door-to-door, knocking and distributing fliers and answering questions about pre-K. At the back to school fairs in the fall, which tend to focus on older students, pre-K fliers will be distributed. Community nonprofits and businesses have posted pre-K fliers, and pre-K enrollment in South Oak Cliff is increasing. Parental education will remain key for years into the future. It’s a sustaining loop- parents tell other parents about programs they find valuable, so getting in the door now and knocking on as many as possible is worth the time and effort. Longer term, matching spots to students will be important. Whether that means busing pre-K students to different schools until a spot opens up where their siblings attend or hiring more teachers,...

The trickle down effect of school turnover

For educators and parents alike, there can sometimes seem a great divide between what happens in an actual school building and what’s going on behind the scenes at a leadership level. School boards, superintendents- even working within a school it’s easy to forget that these levels are operating out there independently. In Dallas these worlds crash together more often than not, as for the past three years the city has had a superintendent who is very hands on and often the source of change....

typewriter

Administrators are standing up

We received this letter from a passionate and experienced superintendent in PA's award-winning West Chester Area School District. It should serve as an example of how passionate administrators all over the country are standing up for what's right and calling an end to our nation's toxic testing culture. Enjoy! May 22, 2015 Dear Parents, Many of us are quick to fault the U.S. public education system, comparing it to other small European countries, and finding deficits and gaps. The system, and the way it’s funded, are far from perfect. However we manage to educate generations of children who go on to do incredible things. Now we are asking our students to do something that’s entirely unfair: To spend weeks and weeks filling in bubbles, taking standardized tests and having their entire educational ambition directed toward passing them. This is not what public education was intended to do, nor should do. As the superintendent of the West Chester Area School District, I believe in very high standards for our students. I believe in accountability. I do believe that tests can be a good thing. But not the way we are being forced, by the government, to give them. We officially began the PSSA testing window on April 13 and we will continue to test through May 27 when we finish with the high school Keystone Exams, a new graduation requirement. Beginning with the class of 2017, even a straight ‘A’ student who doesn’t do well on these tests won’t receive a diploma, under state law. State and federally mandated testing has been around for a long time and is certainly here to stay. But it’s become a massive burden that is stifling creativity and love of teaching and learning. West Chester has consistently ranked in the top 10 percent among school districts in the state with testing data. In 2012 a new set of rules said we need to calculate how well our schools are doing using a system called School Performance Profiles (SPP). This system requires a new set of metrics but also includes a teacher/principal evaluation model tied to student achievement on state tests. Our district SPP ranks fifth among 500 school districts in PA. While our district has embraced high standards and accountability, we now spend the first seven months of the school year preparing to take three standardized tests, then we spend approximately six weeks giving tests to students. Unlike private and parochial schools, public schools are mandated to use these tests to determine graduation for students, and for teacher and administrator evaluations. It is positively stressing us – and our system – to the max. Our teachers, students, and parents all say the extreme amount of time focused on testing is causing ridiculous amounts of stress in the classroom, faculty room, and at home. The angst is palpable as you walk through our hallways. Where is there time for creativity in teaching? Where is there time for exploration and collaboration? Our talented staff do their very best to find ways to incorporate what needs to...

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