Thursday, August 27, 2015

REPOST FROM DIANE RAVITCH'S BLOG:  Testing in Kindergarten: Too Much, Too Soon

As you read this kindergarten teacher's description of administering a "vocabulary test" to these 5-year-olds, you will cheer the children for their spontaneity, laugh at loud at some of their blurted comments, AND cringe at the tears this exercise evokes.  You will applaud the good sense of the teacher, her unwavering focus on the children and their well-being, and her extraordinary courage in speaking to her state's officials about the harm these tests are doing to children and their development.  And, once again, you will sigh or grow angry or want someone to investigate who chose these tests, who is making money on them, and whether they have ever known (or been!) a five-year-old.

What I was struck by in reading about these children is the lack of reverence for the child.  When we first hold a new baby, we are awed by the mystery of this little person -- someone new in our universe --  a being we have not known and could not have previously imagined.  How is it that a mere five years later, a child is a data point, a "classroom management" problem, a circler of frowny faces?  What would our schools be like, our decisions about those schools be like, if we took a deep breath and marveled at all that has happened in just five years since someone first held this child?  How did she develop a sense of humor so quickly? When did he learn to ask such goofy -- and insightful -- questions?  How did they learn to be a friend?  They just got here!

A reverence for the child would extend to a sense of the classroom as a sacred space where each child's mind encounters the wonders of the larger world, curiosity and respect among the other children, and a deep sense of being protected.  Of being safe.  Albert Schweitzer's slim book, The Teaching of the Reverence for Life, now long out of print, isn't just a philosophical treatise intellectually removed from the practical.  It provides a grounding for the practical, for every-day interactions in the physical and social world.

The real "test" of our vocabulary may be whether we risk using words like reverence when we make decisions about the children.  It jars the presumed inevitabilities of technicist assessments of children and intercepts the accepted wisdom of what absolutely must be measured lest the known (educational) world fall apart.    Under that current system, many children's lives are in danger of falling apart. What would it mean if, like this kindergarten teacher, we stood in awe of the children and then took from them our courage to speak on their behalf.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015


The inspiration for “messy learning” comes from a 5th grade classroom where teaching and learning could have earned a Nobel prize  (or maybe MacArthur genius award) for messiness, and from a middle school science teacher who was terrified of anything not precise, orderly and contained.

As fifth graders in a multi-racial elementary school in Houston watched a residential high-rise grow to loom over the neighborhood of one- and two-story homes, their teachers saw not a distraction, but an opportunity.    No, neither architecture nor urban planning nor even field trips were on the curriculum that semester.  But no set syllabus could compete with all those guys just across the street walking on I-beams ten stories up.   The teachers knew their students, and they knew how to use a telephone.

Soon, a hard-hat tour was arranged for the children. The tour was perfectly timed to see different floors in different stages of construction – from completely open, to outfitted with pipes and writing, to initial build-out of rooms and halls and windows.  

The kids were now fired up! They had been entrusted by experts with the inside knowledge of how to build a skyscraper! Next, a pair of architects volunteered to help the kids understand design and structure by having them sketch a building they’d like to build one day, then construct a model of its facades.  The entire classroom – the floor and every other horizontal space – was soon covered in pieces of tagboard in every shape and size. The challenge was to make 3-dimensional “bricks’ by folding tagboard (think manila folder material), then glue the bricks to a huge poster board as one might lay tile.  A wonderful assortment of original, unpredictable designs emerged from the utter messiness of tagboard fragments, errant splotches of glue, and of course much motion and chatter.   

But, in the words of George W. Bush, “Is our children learning?”  Yes, the kids used their math skills in measurement and proportion; yes, they read about famous buildings and their architects and wrote stories about the people and events that might one day in habit their buildings.  But this was not a stealth attempt to use a creative project to sneak in “basic skills.”  The messiness was the lesson.  The chaos was the learning experience.  The “outcome” was in the eagerness to do more.

To my knowledge, no children or animals were harmed in these projects.  Neither was any “data” produced.  Teaching was messy, the instructional process was messy to the point of chaos at times, and the learning was powerful and memorable.    And that was all on purpose.

The middle school science teacher, on the other hand, loved calm, order and precision. She prided herself on her professional demeanor with colleagues and with students.  She had not anticipated that signing up for an intensive year of study and professional development in the Rice Model Science Lab would disrupt that decorum and, again, do so with intent.

This elegant African American teacher loved living as a young professional in the city: in our almost-tropical climate, she was pleased to be able to go from her air conditioned apartment, to her air conditioned car, to her air conditioned classroom.  She saw no need to be outdoors, especially when outdoors could mean foul air and usually did mean a wilting humidity.  She was happy to announce “I’m an indoor girl.”   

So when she learned from Dr. Elnora Harcombe, the director of the Model Lab, that the Lab teachers would be going to Galveston for two days of exploring the estuaries of the Gulf Coast and, specifically, getting to know the critters inhabiting the murky tide pools, this teacher balked: “I do not put my hands into water I can’t see through.”  Her elegant manicure confirmed her assertion.

The Model Lab field trips were not optional. This “indoor” teacher went to the coast; she was given no choice but to put her hands into the tide pools.  She was shocked to be entranced by the variety of shapes and colors and movements of the tide pool creatures. She surprised everyone – but most of all herself – when she exclaimed, “I have to bring my students to see this!”

Until that day, her pride in her teaching had been in the careful organization of her classroom and her lessons, including diligently assigning her students the chapters in the life science book on the flora and fauna of aquatic habitats – which neither she nor her students had even seen, touched or smelled:   “school knowledge” as remote as the chapter on distant planets.

Her own curiosities were freed, and her willingness – even eagerness – to have her students explore – were unleashed when she risked some “messy” learning.   The “mess” would not just be chipped nail polish and clinging wet sand, but the unpredictability of what her kids would find when they – no doubt less squeamishly – reached for a hermit crab or tried to scare each other by running around waving wet strands of coastal goop.

“Messy learning” will not likely catch on in the writing of state curriculum standards. But what if it did?! What if “doing messy projects that don’t have predictable or measurable outcomes” became a required component of every subject and grade level? Would that kill creativity? (Imagine the whole new cottage industry of “messiness” consultants!! Oh, no!)  Does “messiness” need to stay subversive – to be inspiring for teachers and credible to kids?

I invite readers to nominate your own words that break the standardization/measurable outcomes mold and liberate our thinking about kids.  Words that capture what it means to discover and learn and grow. (Official words for creativity, multiple intelligences, etc., aren’t eligible – we have those already and need to hold onto them and build learning experiences around them. We need words that will open up our thinking in ways that enable us admit those concepts back into our classrooms.)  

The task right now is for us to find ways of discussing our kids and classrooms that are a bit, well, messier.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


Standardizing our educational system has been based on the twin pillars of fear and control: control of process and content and outcomes, and fear that the controls won’t hold (and that ‘I’ll’ be blamed).  Debbie Meier writes very persuasively in her account of the creation of the Mission Hill School that it was difficult to create a culture of trust within the school, among teachers and between the school staff and parents, when the larger school system was organized in a way that was predicated on distrust.  Her chapters on the ways a hierarchical accountability system assumes the next-lower level can’t be trusted, thus needs to be controlled, are enlightening: each level in the hierarchy is “accountable” to the level above for how well the controls on the level below are “working.”  The kinds of trust and respect essential for working together on behalf of children are antithetical to a model based on the assumption of distrust.

Standardization, then, is merely an instrument of control in a system of distrust.  It shrinks the number and types of variables.  The critique that standardization (of content, of content format, of tests) is depersonalizing, even dehumanizing misses the point:  in a system of management controls, depersonalization is a goal, not a negative side effect.   A system in which children’s curiosities and their irritatingly uneven and complex development and their variety of home languages and life experiences shape the curriculum would be chaotic – not easily managed by a central district office, much less a state department of public instruction or a centralized federal system of mandates and sanctions.  Standardization can’t in itself render all children uniform.  So what standardization has done is strip away as many variables as possible, ultimately reducing children to, at first, their standardized test scores and, as we now know, to “data points,” an even more cold, generic cipher.  (And in the name of “personalized learning!’ of which I'll say more in a later post.)

That computer-scored tests narrow the curriculum should not be a surprise, either.  How else to control a large system efficiently except to reduce course content to fragments and fact-lets that can be studied in a format conducive to being scored by computers (or by scripted hourly wage, minimally educated, scorers-for-hire)?  To prevent inventive teachers from pulling out their more complex lessons, making extended and in-depth assignments, and claiming space at the margins of the official curriculum to “really teach,” many districts have purchased (at great expense) curricular packages produced directly by the test companies themselves. Such scripts feed into the control system in two ways:  getting rid of the possibility teachers will clog up the system with topics they’re passionate about, but which have no utility in the test-score production, and reducing the chance that all the teachers in a given grade, or subject, or school will be doing something different.  “Different” as in “impossible to control,” and “not generative of the ‘data’ we need.”

If we’re going to be successful in reclaiming a vision of education that serves children well, and that posits a persuasive counter to standardized schooling, we need a new vocabulary for talking about teaching and learning and children’s development. “Achievement” has been hijacked as “getting a good test score,” and “teaching” has been in many jurisdictions transformed into information delivery.  I’m hearing from teachers that such central concepts as “learning” and “child development” have been replaced (in their faculty meetings, principals’ memos, central office directives) by “measurable outcomes.”  I have seen some pre-K and kinder teachers whisper when they talk about child development – or look over their shoulder to see if an administrator might be walking by.  They won’t give up their knowledge of the many ways children develop, but neither do they want to have to be told – again— “that’s all well and good but we’re having to be accountable for our outcomes now.”

I’ve struggled with the paucity of our educational language for a long time. I truly believe if “standardization” weren’t so close to “standards,” many thoughtful educators, researchers, and policymakers would not have confused the two and would have realized sooner that those of us documenting the harmful effects of standardization were not “against the standards movement,” which was at that time a serious collaborative attempt to enrich, update and upgrade the content and ways of knowing in the subject content fields.  “Standardization,” of course, is oppositional to and degrading of academic “standards,” but that awareness came late in the policy debates, made obvious to many only after NCLB imposed the “Texas” model of standardization on states that were otherwise making progress toward raising academic standards.  (Then those of us in Texas began getting the “why didn’t you warn us?” calls.   No joy in having seen it coming.)  But if our traditional “education” words have been co-opted, are there words that have power to re-shape the debates and bring us together on behalf of kids?

My next post will elaborate on my nomination for a new word to counter standardization:  “messy learning.”