One Thing To Read Today

If you have time to read just one thing today, it really should be Oliver Sacks’ column in the New York Times. He learned that he has terminal liver cancer.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Parents and the Opt-Out Movement

Forgive me for coming back to the topic of parents and the PARCC exam. There is so much politics right here outside my front door. I can’t help talking about it.

Yesterday, Jonah came home with a screen shot of a hand-out that parents were distributing outside the high school, which told kids that they should not take the PARCC exam in three weeks. He said the parents were arrested, but that might be a teenager exaggeration. The cops may have simply asked the parents to leave. I’m not really sure about the reaction from law enforcement. Everything else — the handouts, the parents — is true.

School districts are preparing separate rooms for kids who arrive at school, but will not take the exam. There is a lot of confusion about whether or not federal funding for schools will be cut, if there is a large number of families that refuse to take the test. The teachers’ union is launching an ad campaign against the test.

Just fascinating politics.

How Do Urban Schools Deal with National Standards?

Last week’s Atlantic article focused on suburban parents simply because of space limitations. I couldn’t deal with ALL the controversy in one tiny magazine article.

Let’s talk for a minute about the problems in creating a system of national standards in a hugely diverse country. (I could use some feedback.)

The Common Core website has a cute video describing the ideas behind the Common Core.

The Common Core is all about kids making uniform progress and culminating at a common endpoint. It assumes that MOST kids learn at the same rate. Of course, there are outliers. Procedures can be set in place to deal with the super quick and the super slow learners, but this program assumes that most kids can handle fractions in 5th grade, for example.

What happens when a huge percentage of kids going into fifth grade in certain schools never mastered fourth grade math? The Common Core is set up like a staircase with an equal number of steps and with steps of equal height. Can we set up a model like that in a country with such huge diversity?

February’s New Yorker

The snow plow scrapes the street making an irritating metal-on-pavement sound. It’s just another inch or so of that white stuff. Steve left for work after dusting off the car. No shoveling necessary. The fluff covers the foot of ice that covers my front lawn and roof. The squirrels have made a warren of holes through the ice. Poking their heads up like gophers after they find an old acorn. The blue jays wait in trees above them grabbing their leftovers.

The boys are still in bed snuggled under five blankets. Their rooms are above the garage and never quite get warm enough. Jonah will sleep until noon, if I let him. Ian usually gets up when Steve’s knocking about the house trying to find his keys and wallet before racing to catch the train. But today, he slept through the knocking and cursing. There isn’t enough sunlight to wake the kids.

I’m working on another education article. I have some questions for the commentariat, so I’ll bother you from time to time. When I’m not wading into the radical anti-Common Core movement, I’m going to curl up with this week’s New Yorker. I hear great things about the articles by Ian Parker, Zadie Smith, and Anthony Lane.

The Common Core and the PARCC

About a year ago, things lightened up at home. My parenting responsibilities were more manageable. (She says vaguely.) So, I started getting more involved in community affairs mostly around the local schools. I attended meetings for three PTAs (Special Ed, Middle School, High School). I started going to Board of Ed meetings and attending other school informational meetings. I began working with a group of parents that helped set up social activities for special needs kids. I did a few other town activities, mostly around helping special ed kids and adults in the community. I joined Facebook groups for local parents. I talked with education and political leaders in this town and other neighboring towns about issues.

Through these activities, I met many genuinely wonderful people who give their time and their energies towards amazing programs. And you all know that I’m a huge geek for politics. I love watching people directly participate in politics. It’s been a transformational experience for me.

Over the past few months, the issue of the Common Core and the upcoming PARCC kept coming up at local school board meetings. People began talking about it on the Facebook pages. So, I started doing my homework. I read a lot and asked questions. Then I wrote about it.

I’m not a curriculum or standards expert. My PhD is in political science with a specialization in education policy. My dissertation was on the politics of school vouchers. I worked for eight years as an education policy researcher, while in grad school. I taught graduate classes at Columbia’s Teacher’s College on the Politics of Education. One of my lectures traced the history of the standards movement. I wrote scholarly papers on the politics of education. Because of certain family issues, I’m now a SAHP who writes occasional articles on education.

The Common Core was developed by a consortium of state leaders, education experts, and private organizations. It is a very broad brushwork of goals for education. It does not prescribe specific textbooks. It was intended to provide some uniform direction for education across the country. It was not developed by the federal government, though it was certainly supported and encouraged by the Department of Education. It was developed and supported by both Republicans and Democrats. In fact, it was supported by every major education association in this country, including the teachers’ union. Educators were involved in writing the goals. It was instituted in most states several years ago.

Then politics came into the picture. State legislatures, which had their own political agendas, wrote legislation that linked teacher evaluations with the test. Teachers’ unions protested and, in my opinion, these protests were valid. Teachers should not be evaluated based on these tests. But that’s another topic.

Parents haven’t had much problem with the Common Core, which has been in place for three years. Now, they began to seriously worry about the PARCC test. The PARCC is the new standardized test that accompanies the Common Core. It’s very similar to the existing standardized tests  in this state, but there are certain differences. This test will be taken on computers. It is broken up into small chunks over five days, rather than medium chunks over four days.

I attended a meeting yesterday to discuss how the test would be administered to kids with special needs. It sounded great. A lot of accommodations for our kids are built into this exam. If a special education kid needs to have directions read out loud, then can press a button on the computer which will read the directions out loud. In the past, a teacher had to hover over the kid and read directions when needed. If a kid has trouble with technology, they can take a written version of the test. My kid loves the computer and hates writing things out, so he’ll be extremely happy.

But he’ll still fail the reading test. Yes, my special ed will fail the test and I don’t care. We all know that he reads two grades below level, because he’s a hyperlexic. He’s great at decoding, but poor at language comprehension. He failed the previous standardized test and he’ll fail this one. And it won’t matter. He’ll still have the same supports in school, the same great teachers, the same everything. One hour of test taking won’t demoralize him. I won’t tell him that he failed, so there’s no harm.

These standardized tests are not supposed to tell you anything about your kid that you and his/her teachers don’t already know. If a kid who normally does well in school bombs the test, then he/she probably just had a bad day. They are designed to provide information — hard data — for educational leaders to evaluate the performance of large groups of kids. It will give me the tools to compare my town with towns of similar socio-economic demographics and size. Within a town, administrators can see whether or not an entire grade of kids does well compared to other grades. If the whole sixth grade class continues to dip in performance on the reading test, then the school district should re-examine the fifth grade curriculum. It’s a tool. That’s it.

We have standardized tests right now, but each state has its own system. So, we can’t compare performance between New Jersey and Georgia, let’s say. I kinda want to know how the schools in New Jersey stack up against schools in Georgia. I think we’ll do well, but I want to know. How do kids in urban areas of Pennsylvania compare with urban kids in Indiana? If one state is doing much better, then I want to know what the schools are doing there. Can we replicate successful models?

As I said, I’m not an expert on curriculum, so I can’t tell you whether or not this particular system is way better than other programs. I trust the experts on this one. And, as I also said, the experts came from diverse political groups and from all areas of education. I do know that studies have shown that it is very bad for kids and teachers to keep switching systems on them. Let’s keep what we have and make changes where necessary. Let’s not start from scratch.

Fifty Shades of Grey Snow

I’ve been glued to the computer for a week working on a project. There’s been the usual mom chores, too. As a result, I have neglected the blog. Boo. This morning, I went for a walk to clear the head.

It’s super hard to take a proper picture with all this white stuff around.

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Advice For Young Journalists

Felix Salmon has some pretty dire news about journalism and the prospects for young journalists.

If all you care about is the great journalism, then, well, go out and find great stories to tell, and tell those stories in a compelling manner. You’ll always be able to find somewhere willing to publish them, even if they pay little or nothing for the privilege of doing so.

On the other hand, if you’re more career-oriented, and want a good chance at a well-paid middle-class lifestyle down the road, I don’t really know what to tell you. Except that the chances of getting there, if you enter the journalism profession today, have probably never been lower.

Ezra Klein says that journalism is still a viable career choice is one works hard and specializes.

Learn things about things. Pretty much everybody in journalism can write. The fact that you can also write probably won’t set you far apart. But not everyone in journalism can understand policy, or interpret the minutes from the Fed’s most recent meeting, or use the C-SPAN archives, or make a good graph. Try to figure out what your particular interests and/or skills are. Then work to make those competitive advantages. Subject area expertise is wildly undervalued in journalism, but it’s what makes the best journalists.


Fangirls of Elizabeth Warren Have to Wait

Elizabeth Warren is definitely not running for president, but we can still appreciate her work in Congress. Her interview in Fortune is fantastic.

Some of my favorite bits in the article:

Why she liked Teddy Roosevelt’s perspective on monopolies:

You know, when I was in law school, they taught us that monopolies were wrong because they hurt price competition. They were a market failure that hurt consumers, and that of course, was true. So you needed to break them up. But if you read Teddy Roosevelt on this – his principle push for breaking up the trusts was because they had too much political power. They overwhelmed the government. It wasn’t so much that they were stronger than government, but they could persuade government to shift the rules to make themselves even more powerful. And when that happens, it’s not just a threat to the economy. It’s a threat to democracy.

On higher ed:

For instance, it is outrageous that the federal government today spends billions of dollars helping college students get an education, and asks for almost no accountability for the colleges themselves. It is a scandal.

For-profit colleges account for roughly 10% of all college students, but they account for 25% of federal student aid dollars, and almost 50% of student loan defaults. They target minorities and they target veterans. The Lowell campus of the University of Massachusetts is trying to help veterans who have been targeted by these schools. They’ve seen vets entering U-Mass with as much as $65,000 in student debt and not one single college credit that can transfer to a real school. These young people are already starting in a hole.

Three things that government should do to invest in the middle class:

First, invest far more in education.

Second, rebuild our infrastructure, both to put people to work immediately in better paying jobs, but in the long run, to help our economy because strong infrastructure is what encourages businesses to invest and grow. China is investing 9% of its GDP in infrastructure. Here in the US, we are investing about 2.5%….

Third, research. I’d invest in research. Medical, scientific, engineering and the reason for that, this is an exceptional country. The investment here would be much smaller than the other two. But it’s the great pipeline of ideas that creative people build off of to turn the research into something extraordinary.

Four Teenagers Ignoring Each Other


Four Teenagers Ignoring Each Other

This is a snapshot of the teenage world. Four kids waiting for the school bus pretending that the others don’t exist. Only one is wearing a winter coat.

I had insomnia last night. I kept myself amused by reading articles on my iPhone and tweeting under the blankets. Now, I’m wired on coffee and righteous indignation. Let’s see how many blog posts I can write before this morning’s PTA meeting.