Thursday, May 29, 2014

More on the Common Core

Once again, the anti-Common Core crowd is trying to rally the troops in southeast Wisconsin.  A group of Catholics submitted a petition to the Archbishop, asking him to remove Common Core from Catholic Schools.  The traveling band of Common Core critics is making an appearance in Kewaskum next week.

The Common Core is a set of Standards.  Nothing about the way that the Common Core Standards were devised and implemented has been perfect.  The assessments- Smarter Balanced and PARCC- are a separate entity, but related.  The assessments give me pause.  I'm not sold on the amount of time we spend on this type of testing, I'm not sold on the quality of the assessment questions, I'm not sold on the way the results are used, and I'm not sold that there is all that much correlation between the test results (macro) and our future economic success as a nation.  I am not someone who readily accepts that the Common Core Standards and the Smarter Balanced Assessments are going to save us from whatever it is that ails us. 

I think various shades of that sentiment are shared by a lot of people within the educational establishment.  I know some who are more bullish than me on either the Common Core or the Smarter Balanced Assessments, and others with even deeper reservations.   

However, what really drives me insane are the people trying to link the Common Core to socialism, homosexuality, communism, one world government, and promiscuity.  Seriously people?  There are reasonable concerns that one can raise against the Common Core and the Accountability Movement.  Claiming that the United States is going to be a bunch of 'everybody gets a trophy' homosexuals reading pornographic literature while living under Sharia law in a secular progressive socialist communist utopia where everyone has equal access to health care and no access to guns is NOT one of those reasonable concerns.*  (And yes, I get the irony of placing these discrepant concepts altogether.  Sadly, many of the loudmouthed critics do not.  Or- they do get it, but are playing on the fears and ignorance of those they are trying to persuade.)    

*None of these are included by random accident.  I have attended several anti-Common Core events and have heard every one of these raised as a concern.  I didn't include a couple of the more carnal claims.

Assess the situation for yourself::  Compare the current Model Academic Standards with the Common Core Standards and ask yourself which one has more academic rigor.  Or, scour the Common Core standards for evidence of any of the claims made by the hyperbolic critics.  Here is a link to the Common Core English Language Arts Standards:

Here is a copy of one slide from the link above:

College and Career readiness anchor Standards for reading

The K–5 standards on the following pages define what students should understand and be able to do by

the end of each grade. They correspond to the College and Career Readiness (CCR) anchor standards

below by number. The CCR and grade-specific standards are necessary complements—the former

providing broad standards, the latter providing additional specificity—that together define the skills and

understandings that all students must demonstrate.

Key Ideas and details

1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific

textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting

details and ideas.

3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Craft and Structure

4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and

figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

5. Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g.,

a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

6. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as

well as in words.*

8. Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well

as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

9. Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the

approaches the authors take.

range of reading and Level of text Complexity

10. Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Memorial Day

I first heard Wes Moore speak a few years ago, and that led me to buy his book The Other Wes Moore.   This recent Wes Moore TEDTalk seemed like a fitting post for Memorial Day:

Thank you veterans!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Lies, Accountability, and Statistics

The following is an excerpt from a recent post at "The Becoming Radical" blog.  This article was posted by Paul Thomas.

The first paragraph is worth reading over and over and over and over again.  And again.

Throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, we have found no correlation between how U.S. students do on test comparisons (among states or internationally) and claimed goals such as international competitiveness or the robustness of the U.S economy. None. And while we are at it, over the last three decades of accountability, we have found no correlation between the existence or quality of standards and measurable student outcomes. None. Again, it is a political lie to continue to cry “crisis” over test scores. A lie.

While I remain certain that accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing is a fundamental flaw in education reform, political leadership and the media are not doing us any favors either. This latest “high school achievement crisis” based on a rush to misread NAEP data is but more of the same—lamentably so as we certainly could do a better job even within the flawed test-based culture of U.S. education, as Matthew Di Carlo has outlined.

Childhood is steeped in a series of lies—what Kurt Vonnegut has labeled “foma,” although many of these lies are not so harmless: the Easter bunny, Santa Claus, work hard and be nice.
But one truism from our youths must be accepted as fact: Action speaks louder than words.
If we apply that to the USDOE, then we are likely to recognize just who is telling lies and about what:
  1. Lie: U.S. schools, teachers, and students are failing because of low standards and expectations.
  2. Lie: New standards and new tests will save public schools.
  3. Lie: State X is worse than State Y because NAEP (or SAT) scores say so; the U.S. is falling behind Country X because PISA scores say so.
  4. Lie: Poverty is not destiny.
  5. Lie: Arne Duncan (or Bill Gates or Michelle Rhee) knows what he is talking about.
  6. Lie: Education reform is the Civil Rights issue of our time.
  7. Lie: U.S. education is struggling because of “bad” teachers who are too hard to fire.
  8. Lie: Charter school X is a “miracle” school.
Truth: The USDOE is the embodiment of “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Friday, May 2, 2014

Restructuring, Mergering, Visioning

The educational landscape has experienced unprecedented change and upheaval over the course of the last few years.  In light of all the changes, the Friess Lake Board and I share the belief that it makes sense to look at restructuring.  We believe that the timing is right- precisely because we are fiscally solvent and instructionally strong.  

We believe Friess Lake is well positioned to face the challenges as an independent school district, but we also believe it made sense to take another look at what advantages might be obtained by consolidating.  Consequently, we approached area K-8 districts to see if they were interested in pursuing a consolidation study.   At this time, the other districts were not interested in pursuing a study.  We respect that.  We will continue to do what we’ve always done- which is to work as hard as we can to provide a personal educational experience that is rich with opportunity to develop higher level thinking, problem solving, and leadership.

A slightly longer explanation:

For generations, students have come to Friess Lake School and received an excellent educational foundation.  Local residents made the decision to be an independent K-8 district in the 1950’s, and it is hard to argue with the wisdom of that decision. The status quo has served us well.  However, the model was formed in a completely different era, with a different educational landscape and a much different set of expectations for schools.

While I don’t want to claim that modern challenges are greater than those faced before, I do believe that many of our challenges are significantly different from those faced in the past.  That belief leads me to one fundamental question:  Would we set up the exact same structure for area school districts if we were starting over today? 

The Friess Lake School Board and I believed it was worth having a serious discussion with other districts to determine if the existing design was best poised to serve the future educational needs of area students.   We didn’t initiate these conversations because we believed that joining forces was our only option.   We initiated the conversations because we believed it was the responsible thing to do for our students and our taxpayers.  Business and industry must be ready and willing to adapt to changing conditions and so do schools.  Given the often glacial rate of change to government entities, it is especially important to try to see into the future.   

The Richfield and Friess Lake Boards conducted a financial study a couple of years ago.  That study showed that a merger of the two districts would’ve caused a fairly substantial tax increase for Friess Lake residents.  As a result, those talks halted pretty quickly.

There have been a lot of changes just in those last two years, and we wanted to see if the new numbers might be more favorable.   We approached Richfield and they agreed that it was worth discussing at the School Board level.  At their Board meeting, the general consensus was that the timing wasn’t right.  They are open to the idea of discussions in the future, but not right now.  Since they took no action to approve another study, we didn’t either.  Both districts will continue to work together when they can, and independently when they must.    As a frame of reference:

  • There are 449 Wisconsin School Districts.  In terms of size, Friess Lake ranks 416th, Erin is 381st, and Richfied is 344th.  We are all among the smallest districts in the state.   Many of the districts smaller than Friess Lake are either rural or specialty schools in urban areas.  In fact, there are very few smaller public school districts located in a metropolitan area anywhere in the entire country.     

  • Between 1990 and 2000, the state of Minnesota had a 20% reduction in the number of school districts.  Many merged for the first time- a few that had already merged once, merged again.  Quite a few of the mergers involved three or four districts coming together.
  • Vermont is considering a plan that would reduce the number of school districts in the state from 273 to 50 within six years.
Extended thoughts:
My wife and I are once again facing the decision of trading in one of our current vehicles.  There are lots of choices out there- and as we look at what we need our next car to do, we face the same decisions everyone does about the relative value to place on different aspects- one of those being gas mileage. That got me thinking about systems, and the relative efficiencies of systems.
In terms of cars, engineers have done quite a bit to maximize the efficiencies of gas engines- and they’ve made amazing improvements over the last 25-30 years to maximize the efficiencies and capabilities of that system- some of it through improvements to the engine, but also moving from V8s to more 4 and 6 cylinder options and lighter materials- but still, the system itself still has some inherent limitations.
The real gas mileage breakthroughs have come via alternative options. 
Those alternative fuel vehicles are still cars- they still operate virtually the same to the end user.  Drivers can seamlessly go back and forth between an alternative vehicle and a traditional gas vehicle w/o having to reorient themselves on the basic principles of driving.  While the underlying changes are pretty dramatic, they really don’t impact the end user very much.  
Between 1990 and 2000, the state of Minnesota had a 20% reduction in the number of school districts.  Many merged for the first time- a few that had already merged once, merged again.  Quite a few of the mergers involved three or four districts coming together.
These were typically rural districts spread out over many miles, each with schools that had proud traditions and years of competing against each other.  No two districts were perfect equals- each entered into the new partnership with different strengths and weaknesses. 
The process wasn’t easy or pain free or without controversy- but they’ve realized that they could survive and thrive together, or perish as enemies.  It makes for some interesting matchups- in the recent Girl’s Class 2A State Semifinal game, the New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale- Geneva Panthers beat the Howard Lake- Waverly-Winsted Lady Lakers.   Names like these might be a cheer leader’s nightmare, but the communities have figured it out and made it work.
Mark Twain once said- “It’s not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, it’s what we think we know for sure.”
As I’ve listened to people talk about possible concerns with mergers of schools in this area- I’ve heard things that MIGHT be true posited as things that ARE true.  I’ve heard a lot of concerns about operational minutia, money, and snapshot comparisons of districts.
I’d urge caution on those fronts.  The relative strength of any of these small districts has ebbed and flowed over the course of my time here.  The brutal reality is that we are all extremely vulnerable- both to disruptive internal changes, and to external threats.  Merging alone wouldn’t eliminate all vulnerabilities, but there are times where a little more size and assets can help mitigate the ups and downs that every organization faces.  Merging would allow us to eliminate some inefficiency in our current system.  In an area that prides itself on its’ fiscal conservative bona fides- that would seem to be reason enough to bring this option up for public discussion.
While some of the upcoming challenges are well known to us, we must always be mindful that some challenges come seemingly out of nowhere.   Vouchers, charters, virtual, and private schools will all pose challenges and competition in the years ahead- but so could a for profit school. 
Finally- if all some area school districts did was merge- that would be a lost opportunity.  It’s not about recreating a slighter larger version of the same system- it’s about creating a better system.  Seth Godin notes that people no longer care about an organizations history, or how many years they’ve been doing something.  They want to know- in our case- what we’re doing today and tomorrow to help children learn. 
The new F word is “Fear.” People are afraid of blame, so they play it safe- or at least, what they think is safe. 
Keeping the status quo system here might seem like the safe, prudent move, but fate has placed us in positions of leadership during an era of tremendous upheaval and change.  We need to think bolder and bigger than we’ve had to think in the past.  By engaging the community in an open conversation about that - we risk very little.  Our kids, collectively, and our communities, by extension, stand as beneficiaries.    

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dear Kill-Joy, Take a Breather

Hilarious and spot on post from the AFFECTIVELIVING blog, by Chase Mielke:

Photo accessed via

Dear Kill-Joy, Take a Breather.

Glance around your classroom, or house, or job. If you work with groups of kids, chances are you’ll notice some things.

- You will notice one kid picking his nose. Hard. If he’s older, he may be trying to hide it. Under 10 years old and he is proudly showcasing his gold. Regardless, no nose picking is truly discreet, so now notice the other two kids looking with horror at him.

- Notice the one kid who looks as if she just downed a gallon of Fun Dip — tapping her pencil, shaking her head to music no one hears, getting up - sitting down – getting up – sitting down, narrating it all with odd sound effects.

- There’s also the kid who is in the middle of the grandest of illusions right now. Spot him by the depth of focus he has on the birds outside the window. You can try to interrupt him, but he’ll just turn your reality into some futuristic battle (and you’ll be on the losing end . . . unless he has a crush on you).

- In a few minutes one of your kids is going to have an emotional crisis. The cause is not really important right yet; you’ll find out more when he or she calms down in 30.7 seconds. Just know it’s the worst crisis any human has ever experienced ever in the history of all history.

- Then, of course, there is the kid waiting to cook up some condescension. He was born with an innate mastery of ways to get class off focus or pit you in a power struggle. You can call him, “Nemesis” if you like, or “Kurt” will do.

- If your clientele is young, you’ll have your Mucus Sponges, your Sleeve Eaters, and your “Everyone-needs-to-know-what-I’m-thinking-this-very-second” Blurters.

- If you work with the pubescing ones, you’ll see your “We need a writing utensil today too?!”s, your Hall Pass Addicts, and your “Everyone-needs-to-know-what-I’m-thinking-this-very-second” Blurters.

Your class is filled with these creatures. They are unpredictable. They are needy. They are extreme. They are like cats on “the nip” in a small space. Their constant eccentricities have been dripping away your patience bucket since the moment the honeymoon phase was over.  It’s April.

You chose the situation you are in when you decided to work with kids. Now you have two other choices:

1. Get annoyed by how stupid, antsy, smelly, and forgetful these kids are. They’ve been on this freakin’ planet for at least four years; they should have figured it out by now!


2. Take a deep breath and allow yourself to laugh at how silly, energetic, fragrant, and developing these kids are. Their brains are still developing; you get to help them figure parts of life out.

We all get to make this choice every day. Every one of the 180 + “Here’s some data!” + extra required PD days. Yet, each additional month we spend in the trenches of child development leads us to forget that we can choose our outlook on our students.

Kids are either spawns of Satan’s annoying cousin, or they are hilarious. Your perspective decides.  And, in order to see beyond the demons, one must have a sense of humor for the chaos that is education.

We have to come to terms with one thing: If you have no sense of humor — or you lost your sense of humor — you have no business in the classroom. [Insert exasperated, curmudgeonly comments here].

If you cannot muster up a basic joy for the job of teaching these developing brains, do yourself and society a favor and find something else to do that does bring you joy.

Why? Because, people who cannot love the process of learning cannot keep the love of learning alive in children. If you treat teaching as a chore (and heads up: your nonverbals are screaming it to your students), your students see it as an even worse chore . . . with no pay or benefits.

Now this, of course, does not mean that one must take every situation lightly. “Devin, you’ve failed your third test in a row. Isn’t that hilarious?” Not cool. Nor does it mean we must abandon all rules and expectations or ignore holding high standards.  Believe it or not, it IS possible to hold students accountable without being a caffeine-deprived, fire-breathing dragon. And yes, there are real concerns and issues in education and society. But, Carter acting like a squirrel shouldn’t top the list.

We often let the little things — the insignificant things — consume way too much space in our minds. We let Laura’s eye rolling, and Logan’s question-we’ve-already-answered-twice, and that stupid fuzz on the side of notebook paper become the biggest issue of our day.  And, the double-whammy here: the king of our worries is the lord of our perception. In choosing to let little things stress us out, we start creating our own annoying little world.