“The Vallas Manifesto”—Peddling Fear, and Weather-Beaten Ideas

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“The Vallas Manifesto”–Peddling Fear, and Weather-Beaten Ideas

In an earlier post, I wrote about the discontent brought on by Paul Vallas’ article published in the AJC telling Georgians that  Governor Nathan Deal did the right thing in proposing his Opportunity School District (OSD). I wondered out loud if Vallas is looking for a job in Atlanta as the new superintendent of the Georgia OSD.

But in this post, I want to look at ideas that he posted on Maureen Downey’s blog, Get Schooled which was a response to many comments received about his first article.  So, two posts in a row, Downey gave Vallas the pulpit to voice his ideas,  which are nothing more than talking points of the neoliberal “reformists, and frankly nothing new.

Vallas makes the claim that if five suggestions (which he outlines and I’ve listed below) are implemented then improvement will happen in failing schools, regardless of poverty and other social problems. He used these ideas in New Orleans and Bridgeport in separate failing school turn around projects. Educators are reeling in New Orleans and Bridgeport from his superintendency.

And to be sure, if he comes to Georgia, he will bring with him the debris of these failed attempts to reform schools, and in so doing, ignore educators in local districts as if they didn’t know how to do their jobs.  For more information on Vallas and his work as superintendent in Bridgeport, you should follow this link to Jonathan Pelto on Twitter or at his blog.  You should also link to Hanna Hurley on Twitter who is a voracious supporter of public education, and a voice in Georgia from whom I learn.

Vallas’ ideas are nothing more than talking points for corporate and philanthropic privateers such as himself, and a handful of others, most notable, Michelle Rhee, the former superintendent of the D.C. School District.  Their ideas are built upon the “manufactured crisis” that they have concocted about American schools.  To these peddlers, our schools are in crisis, failing, and sure to cause calamity and economic depression if they don’t come to the rescue.  That’s right, we are waiting for the arrival of superman.  These ideas represent a kind of manifesto that is carried around from one district to another, and in the end not much happens in terms of improving the lives of students and their teachers.

Lets take a look at these ideas.

Idea 1. The Proven Curriculum: A comprehensive K-12 curriculum and instructional plan that is aligned to standards and provides continuity of instruction. Critical is the selection of proven curriculum and instructional models, sufficient quality instructional time-on-task and classroom modernization.

Vallas is a standards’ supporter and believes there is such a thing as a proven curriculum. This is nonsense. Curriculum is not proven, any more than ideas in science are proven. We have curriculum theory, not a proven curriculum. If anything is true about curriculum, it is that it hasn’t changed very much in more than 100 years. Indeed, Vallas is simply telling us that we should stick with the standards and curriculum that have been around for decades.

People like Vallas actually believe that teachers should use the same standards, even though they never had a hand in designing them. Rigid standards are impediments to innovative teaching and learning. Then, when combined with aligned high-stakes tests, a perfect storm is set motion that reduces teaching and learning to mere mechanics.

Idea 2. “Effective” use of data: Simple, time-efficient formative assessments give teachers almost instant data needed to measure student progress. Such data also gives the school’s instructional leadership team information to measure teacher effectiveness, which is critical to instructional improvement. “High stakes” testing, with results delayed for months, as well as “over-testing” is an impediment to students’ educational experience and school improvement.

Collecting data on kids is another idea that privateers like. In this case Vallas relishes collecting formative data, but tells us that high-stakes testing and over testing is an impediment to learning. Formative assessments have been shown to improve student learning and here we agree. But be careful. These formative assessments will be used as part of massive data collection efforts which will be used to measure teacher effectiveness.

Furthermore, the bottom line for these reformists is student scores on summative assessments in mathematics and reading. Schools around the country are being graded on an A-F scale based on student performance on these tests. And teachers are being rated based on the value they add to student learning using a complex algorithm (Value-Added Model) that has been shown to unreliable and invalid.

3. Intervention and support. Selection and early-in-the-school year implementation of the most effective interventions based on student academic and behavioral needs. Additional teacher supports should be provided, based on teacher effectiveness.

Don’t be fooled here. Notice the terms used here. Interventions. Academic. Behavioral needs. Teacher effectiveness. The idea of intervention is linked to data collection as outlined in Idea 2. Instead of relying on professional teacher’s decision-making, Vallas tells us that student test scores (academic needs) can be used to select interventions, and also be used evaluate teachers.

4. Training: There is no substitute for ongoing teacher and support-staff training and mentoring. It must be task oriented, site-based, designed to meet the individual teacher’s needs and it must not cut into the instructional day.

I guess this means after school training. But it will be based on Vallas’ conception of a proven curriculum. This means that teachers will be on the short end the stick, and in most cases no stick at all.  Teachers are required to follow a standards-based curriculum, and are given little to no flexibility to deviate to meet the specific needs of their students.  In such a context, ongoing training and support means little, and does not promote professional leadership that is the hallmark of being an educator.  As long as we continue to hold teachers and students hostage to state mandated tests tied to an inflexible curriculum, we will see very little in the way of innovation, problem-solving and creative relationships.

5. Leadership: Local school-based instructional leadership teams to drive instruction. Led by the principal and comprised of the school’s most effective teachers the leadership teams not only provide instructional benefits, they also provide opportunities for teacher recognition, promotion, additional responsibilities and additional pay for performance.

There is little doubt that leadership is important. But the problem here in any of these reforms is context. If there is a “leadership” team as described by Vallas, it will have little impact on school improvement because it will be hamstrung by a bottom line or test score mentality. Unless targets (established as percentage increases from one year to the next) are met, the leadership team will have to disregard innovative, creative, collaborative, and interpersonal goals.

If Vallas, or another reformer of the same brand are brought to Atlanta as superintendent of the Opportunity School District, it will not be an opportunity for school improvement, but rather an opportunity for privateers and neoliberal reformers.

It will be more than one step backwards for Georgia students and their parents if the Governor goes forward with the Opportunity School District.

The General Assembly of Georgia has approved a law that is based on fear and weather-beaten ideas. It’s time they realize this.

If they don’t, we would arrange a series of seminars designed to improve legisla knowledge of teaching and learning.  It would also provide tools to help them understand the falicy of the manufactured crisis in American education.

What do you think?

Sent from my iPhone

Common Core Protest Poster by Joyce Murdock Feilke

Joyce Murdock Feilke has created and published this poster, that came about from her experiences in Austin, Texas as a Texas School Counselor.  In several earlier posts, her experiences were featured on this blog, and you can read about them here.

The powerful message of this poster is clear in these words, but more evident in her deeds and courage in standing up to school officials in the Austin Independent School District.  In her position as school counselor started speaking out about the dangers of the “high stakes testing” environment for elementary age children after she observed the signs of traumatic stress in children in her Texas school. She considers the punitive, authoritarian environment this obsession with testing has created as institutional psychological abuse.

Joyce is a strong advocate for children, and continues to give her voice to the growing resistance of Common Core. With this message, which she wrote after giving her resignation in protest of the “bullying” environment to children, Joyce advocates against the CCSS and it’s “one modality fits all” pedagogy, as well as the Pearson designed state tests and Pearson materials that are being promoted in the public schools.

Joyce is a career educator who believes that to maintain a strong democracy, our country must provide a public school environment that models democratic behavior, and not totalitarianism. Joyce believes that our nation’s children are our most precious resource, and they are being endangered in this harmful environment of CCSS.

Figure 1. Common Core Protest Poster: We Should Have Listened to the Lorax. Used with Permission of Joyce Murdock Feilke
Figure 1. Common Core Protest Poster: We Should Have Listened to the Lorax. Used with Permission of Joyce Murdock Feilke


Third Strike Against Teacher Evaluation Schemes: Brave New Parents Opt Out

Creative Commons Strike Three by rundnd Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Creative Commons Little League Strike Three by rundnd Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The headline in Thursday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution was “Parents push back on required testing.”

Could the movement to Opt Out of high-stakes testing be the third strike against using high stakes testing to rate teachers? In an earlier post, two studies were reviewed that cast doubt on the use of VAM scores  (which are based on student achievement scores) and classroom observation systems to rate teachers.

There is a movement that begins in the homes of children whose parents have had it with their children being subjected to tests that not only create high anxiety, but are a dubious snapshot of student learning.

Marietta, Georgia

In Marietta, Georgia, where I live, a courageous family decided not to allow their children in elementary school to take the state CRCT’s two weeks ago. Met by the police claiming that they would be trespassing if they entered the school and their children did not take the CRCTs, the family went home, and stood their ground against the Marietta School District.

School officials use scare tactics claiming that there is no provision for parents to opt their children out of exams. But, there is no provision preventing parents from opting out. So, in Marietta, the parents were told their kids didn’t have to take the CRCTs.

Meg Norris, on a United Opt Out website has created a quick-reference guide for Georgia parents who want to opt out or refuse to have their children take state mandated high-stakes tests.

In the article mentioned at the top of the article, Meg Norris was quoted as saying:

Georgia parents have been told they must withdraw their child from school if they do not wish them tested.  Georgia parents have been told they will brought up in front of tribunals, sent to court, referred to DFACS for keeping children at home.  Children have been left out of parties and humiliated in front of their classmates.

But as you will see as you read ahead, there is support out there for parents who are brave enough to whether the resistance they will get, as the Marietta family did.


Edy Chamness, a former teacher, and parent in Austin, Texas, and professor Julie Westerlund founded the Texas chapter of the Opt Out Movement.  I came in contact with Chamness and Westerlund when I reached out to Joyce Murdock Feilke to find out about what she called “psychological abuse” created by the state-wide obsession with high-stakes testing in an Austin elementary school where she was a school counselor.

Joyce reported her observations to authorities in the state and district and the Austin American-Statesman, but in the end her concerns were dismissed by the superintendent (Dr. Meria Carstarphen, Atlanta’s new superintendent).  You can read Joyce’s report here.

Edy Chamness and Julie Westerlund were professional colleagues of Joyce’s and provided more and compelling evidence that children are being used in an experiment, rooted in punitive classic conditioning to meet the goals of the school district, which is increase student test scores and eventually graduation rates.

Edy Chamness wrote to me that Joyce and Julie are not exaggerating when they described the horrible bullying practices using in Austin ISD.  She says:

I was banned from my kids’ elementary school for sharing information about the Opt Out Movement with parents. Our son started a new school this year and the administration seems decent. Unfortunately, everything at the school is totally geared toward test prep and practice testing. The vast majority of our son’s assignments are worksheet packets. Tons of work is assigned as nightly homework; most of it is skills-based instruction and memorization. The two elementary schools in my neighborhood, Mills & Kiker, are horrible. No enrichment programs, no literature-based reading instruction, no games for reinforcement or outdoor education. NOTHING but practice tests and worksheets. The only thing that matters is test scores.

Now, Director of Texas Parents Opt Out of State Tests, Edy Chamness is one of many leaders of the Opt Out movement.  The Texas Opt Out group is very active, and offer a great deal of support to parents and teachers who acknowledge that the testing craze needs to be stopped, and one way to do this by taking action by not participating in any high-stakes tests.

The Nation

Opting Out or refusing to have students take state standardized tests is part of larger movement of a number of groups including FairTest, Parents Across America, Save our Schools, and the Network for Public Education.

Testing has become perverse.  It doesn’t have to be.  But we’ve gone to far, and the testing that is being mandated is unnecessary.  One Georgia Department of Education official said that we needed testing to find out how schools are doing, because, after all, the state is spending a lot of money on public education.

If we want to know how our schools are doing, there are better ways to answer that question than forcing millions of American students to spend their school days either preparing for tests, or sitting in front of computer, or at a desk to answer questions written by hired guns by corporations which charge at least $30 per student to do this!

The state of Georgia has just agreed to pay McGraw-Hill $110 million to develop a new battery of tests (to called the GMAP–Georgia Measures of Academic Progress to measure the academic progress of students on the Common Core.

Maybe the students should be paid for participating in these experiments. Maybe students should unionize, much like college students are doing who happen to be athletes.

We already have “data” we need to assess the performance of schools.  In 1969, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called The Nations ReportCard was established and has been using low-stakes testing in reading, writing, math, science and other subjects to assess student achievement.

Not only do we have access to reports as they come out, but the NAEP has conducted long-term studies for us to look at, and more recently designed and carried out the Trial Urban District Assessment, bi-annual tests in reading, writing, math and science.  Using sampling and stratification, the NAEP selects a sample of students from public and private schools large enough to estimate performance by state.  Only about 60 students per school selected are tested.  No student has to sit for the entire test.  Each student takes part of the test, and scores are aggregated to set up averages.

By the way, the state of Georgia could use the same research design methods as NAEP to assess students in the state.  In fact, Georgia could use the CRCT, or the new GMAP in a low-stakes approach, thereby informing the state that it’s getting its money worth out of teachers and students, but also tell the school districts about their performance.  And there would be no need to test every kid.

If high-stakes testing is revoked, we will make one of the most important decisions in the lives of students and their families, and the educators who practice in our public schools.  Banning tests, throwing them out, eliminating them, what ever you wish to call it, will open the door to more innovative and creative teaching, and an infusion of collaborative and problem solving projects that will really prepare students for career and college.

Making kids endure adult anger is not what public education is about.  Why in the world are we so angry and willing to take it out on K-12 students?  Why do we put the blame on children and youth, and if they don’t live up to a set of unsubstantiated and unscientific standards and statistics, we take it out on teachers?

The best thing for students is throw the bums (tests) out.  The next best thing will be for teachers because without standardized test scores, there will be no way to calculate VAM scores as a method to evaluate teachers.

Strike Three!

Why Candidates for Governor and State School Superintendent of Georgia Should Oppose High-Stakes Testing?

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"Creative Commons Gravel Hill School 1950" by Erin Nekervis is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
“Creative Commons Gravel Hill School 1950” by Erin Nekervis is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

In an earlier post, I challenged candidates for state school superintendent to oppose the Common Core State Standards.  Today, I am writing to candidates for Governor and State School Superintendent of Georgia to oppose High-Stakes testing.  If they would, they’d open the door to a new paradigm of assessment that would improve education in Georgia beyond their wildest dreams.

Since 2001, the U.S. Department of Education has mandated the annual testing of children as young as 7 years old in mathematics and reading, and most states have added mandated high-stakes testing in writing, science, and social studies.

The American Education Research Association states that it is a violation of professional standards to make decisions about students’ life chances or educational opportunities on the basis of test scores alone.  Yet schools around the state of Georgia and indeed the rest of the country use end-of-the-year tests to make crucial decisions about whether students move on or not.  Additionally, these high-stakes tests have become an even greater burden on students because they know that the test results will be used to grade their teachers.

There is no easy answer to explain why we have an educational system that puts students in harm’s way by the continuous and unparalleled testing program.  When we read the newspapers soon after the release of international, national, or state tests, the emphasis is on who came in first, or who is at the top of the leader board.  No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top have perpetuated an educational model based on competition and winning.

In some cases, officials will do what ever it takes to make sure they either win, or make the cut so that they place high on the leader board.  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exposed the cheating scandal in Atlanta, and revealed that cheating (erasing wrong answers and changing to the correct answers on student test forms) was taking place in most cities and states.

Am I advocating the banning of high-stakes testing because it might lead to cheating.  No.

I am advocating banning high-stakes testing because it does not improve student learning, nor does it help teachers change their instruction to improve student learning.   Most of the those who advocate high-stakes testing believe that American education is failing, and that the fundamental goal of schools is improve achievement scores, and the only way to know if that has occurred is to use high-stakes standardized tests every year, and compare the scores from one year to the next.

But, if we do compare the test results from one year to the next, the results are quite astonishing.  First, we discover that in general, academic performance has gradually increased over time.  Secondly, we do see variation in average scores from one year to the next, but the variation is within expected statistical limits.

To give evidence that you might want to use with your constituents or potential voters, I am going to use a few graphs that were prepared by Mr. Ed Johnson, which were published on this blog earlier this year.  I am also going to use charts from the Anne E. Casey Foundation, and pull together data from various state and federal agencies.

NAEP Trial Urban District Assessments (TUDA)

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provides some of the most reliable data on student learning.  The tests given by NAEP are low-stakes, and an individual student takes only part of the test, so they don’t spend hours sitting for the exam.  NAEP has been studying American education since 1969.

About a decade ago, NAEP launched a study of urban school districts which they refer to as TUDA.  They provide telling results that I think will help you with the case of abolishing high-stakes tests.

The four graphs shown below in Figures 1 and 2 were prepared by Mr. Ed Johnson, an expert on W. Edwards Deming’s system of profound knowledge and how to transform organizations that result in continuous improvement.  He also is an expert in using facts to generate flow charts that help us understand how a system is working.

Figure 1 plots math scores for 21 cities over a ten-year period (for a list of the cities, follow this link).  Note that the scores fall within what are called upper control limits and lower control limits.  In no case do scores fall outside these predicted levels.  Yes, there is variation in the scores.  But they are within expected limits, and the variation is small.  For example, the green and red dots follow the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and the Austin Independent School District (AISD).  If you show this graph to citizens in Georgia and ask if these graphs support the idea that our schools are failing, what is the answer? The answer is No.

Figure 1. Control Charts for NAEP TUDA Math Grades 4 & 8, 2003 - 2013
Figure 1. Control Charts for NAEP TUDA Math Grades 4 & 8, 2003 – 2013. Source Ed Johnson

Figure 2 plots reading scores for the same 21 cities over 11 years. Again, note that for the most part, the scores for each district fall within the expected limits, except for five points of measurement.  Each is labeled and as you see, only Charlotte and Hillsborough fall outside on the 4th grade reading TUDA results.  Think about this.  On only these five instances can we show significant variation from what we expect on the reading test.  The obvious thing to do, is to ask, what are these two districts doing, and how might what they are doing apply in other places.  It might be worth studying their system of education.

But, the real discovery here is to look at all math and reading TUDA results.  There are roughly 408 points of measurement shown in these four graphs, and in only five instances was the variation outside the range expected.   That is 0.012 percent. The systems of teaching math and reading in these 21 cities is predictable and consistent.

We can also see that there are no major swings in the test results.  When we send kids to school, we have a very good idea what to expect.  Another way to say this is that the system is performing as expected.

Or better yet, our teachers are doing it!

But there is always a need for improvement.  In Ed Johnson’s and W. Edwards Deming’s world of human systems, there is always the expectation for improvement.  The methods of improvement do not include the outright firing of department heads, or rank and file workers, any more than would we think that firing principals and teachers and bringing in uncertified and inexperienced teachers would help the situation.   But this is exactly what the Georgia Department of Education mandates when schools “fail” to meet the standards two years in a row.  Schools in this situation are labeled “turnaround schools.”

Here is what you need to know.  The high-stakes testing model is designed to make it very difficult for some schools, especially those schools where most of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches (a statistic used to identify the poverty level of a school).  We know that students in less affluent schools will not do as well on these tests as students attending affluent schools.  It’s an unsustainable situation because these schools and their neighborhoods are punished by either closing the school or labeling it a turnaround.  But this is a sure ticket for financial rewards for charter management companies and teacher temp agencies including Teach for America and the New Teacher Project.  Follow this link to find out a better way to help these schools.

Labeling schools as failures is not sustainable.  It will not improve instruction. It represents an inaccurate interpretation of testing, and it is perverting a system that should be helping families, rather than punishing them.

Figure 2. NAEP TUDA, Reading, 4th & 8th Grade, 2002 - 2013.  Source: Ed Johnson
Figure 2. NAEP TUDA, Reading, 4th & 8th Grade, 2002 – 2013. Source: Ed Johnson

If We Were to Ban High-Stakes Tests?

Ok.  As a candidate for governor or state school superintendent in Georgia, and you were to go around the state campaigning for the banning of high-stakes tests, the odds are you would be elected.  You will be surprised who will support you, but you will need to tell the rest of the story.

Yes, you will support the idea of banning high-stakes tests.  But you need to clear that you are not suggesting that teachers and administrators all of a sudden stop assessing students.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you have been a teacher, you know that the assessment system  you use in your classroom has a major impact on student learning and classroom behavior.  Assessment is an integral aspect of teaching.  As teachers we assess students during every class session, and interaction that we have with them.  Teachers know that assessment, used as part of instruction, does indeed help student learning.  This is not an opinion.  One of the foremost researchers on assessment is Professor Paul Black, King’s College, London and he has found that formative assessment strategies do improve learning for students.  Formative, unlike the high-stakes tests that the government mandates, are embedded in instruction.  In my view, formative assessment is assessment for learning, not of learning.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment are tools and methods that teachers use to humanize learning, and give students opportunities to apply their learning, and to engage in activities that involve communication, problem solving and team work–the kinds of skills and abilities that are important today, and will be tomorrow.

As a candidate for governor or state school superintendent you should listen to your most important constituency, and this is the professional teachers in public schools.  Last year, there were more than 111,000 teachers in Georgia teaching 1.6 million students.

So, what would happen if you said to nearly 1.6 million students (and their parents) and 111,000 teachers that the state would no longer need high-stakes tests.  Would the education system crumble?  Would students all of sudden not be motivated to learn?

It would thrive.  And it would free up a lot of money that would otherwise go to corporations.

According to a Brookings Institute report, the cost of testing in the U.S. exceeds $1.7 billion.  But according to the report, that is only for payments to testing vendors who also score the tests.  But what is the cost for lost instructional time.  In Georgia, the CRCT exams and high-school end-of-course exams take three-four weeks during the year.  So for about 4 weeks or about 12% of the school year, high-stakes exams dominate the school experience.

What’s the cost of 4 weeks of testing?  Well according to the Brookings Institute, about $600 billion is spent on education in the U.S. per year.  According to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, the 2015 fiscal year budget for K-12 education is $7.95 billion.  The cost of high-stakes testing is at least $950 million.

Every school in the state already has experts on assessment, and these educators need to be supported to collaborate with colleagues to develop assessment methods that will improve student learning, and increase student’s love of learning.

We know from many research studies that the best predictor of success in college & career (college & career is the favored purpose of reformers such as Bill Gates) are grades, not test scores.   Teachers are in the best place to assess their students.  Not only are they able to create their own tests, but there are multiple resources available that teachers already use to help their students learn.

Imagine if you were a high school biology teacher, and it was announced that the state would no longer need high-stakes tests.  How would this affect your teaching, and especially your relationship with your students.  One obvious difference is that the curriculum will expand because you no longer would be forced to teach to the test.  No longer would the students in your class be required to take tests that would be used to not only to decide whether they progress to the next science course, but the tests would no longer be used to decide if you keep your job.

In the next post, I’ll go into more detail about what assessment would look like in this alternative paradigm.

In the meantime, are you willing to discuss the possibility of returning the education of students into the hands of professional teachers?


Psychological Abuse: A Springtime School Ritual?


Image(s) provided courtesy of www.all-about-psychology.com/
Image provided courtesy of www.all-about-psychology.com/ licensed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It might seem extreme to you for me to write about the psychological abuse of children in schools. However, at the end of the post, I hope you will understand why I did.

Although the content of this post might seem to some to be controversial, I believe that the content warrants being stated, and that there is more to what is discussed here than meets the eye.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 50.1 million students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools.  Except for students in kindergarten and Grades 1 & 2, about 40 million students take high-stakes tests for several days during the springtime.  This ritual is repeated every year, and has been since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001.

Imagine, nearly 40 million students sitting at their desks bubbling in or keyboarding their answers to multiple choice tests that will be used to rate them against each other, and also be used to rate their schools and teachers, who potentially could lose their jobs depending upon how the kids do on the tests.  Is this happening in a democratic society?  Yes it is.  Why in a democratic society would we put students in this place of not only determining their own fate, but the fate of their teachers.

It’s not only a dumb idea, it possibly violates child labor laws.  We are asking parents to send their students to school (work?) to sit for hours upon hours providing the state with examination results that will be used to check teachers, and their own schools.  Professor Stephanie Jones of the University of Georgia suggests that

Teachers — workers in the system controlled by bosses above — will be exploited. Students — the “producing” workers in the system whose production of test scores will decide reward for those above them — will be exploited.  Extracted from Merit Pay Could Revive Child Labor, AJC, May 3, 2014.

High-stakes testing is not a one-day or a week-long event.  Many schools have reduced the curriculum, especially at the elementary school level to mathematics and reading, and spend all year preparing their student for the high-stakes testing ritual.

Students, in many situations, are subjected to a “drill and kill” curriculum and are burdened with incessant amounts of homework, much of which is rote learning and mindless.

Are students being subjected to a curriculum that is abusive?  Have student test scores become the goal of education, and does this focus limit the range of experiences for students and teachers?  What is effect of such narrowing on student spontaneity, creativity and problem solving?  What is the effect on student’s mental health?  Feelings?  Attitudes?  Hopes? Self-worth?

There is a long history on the effects of such a narrow view of schooling on student well-being and achievement.  However, in this blog post, I want to focus on the experience of a school counselor who documented and then put forth a report on her experiences in an elementary school about student abuse.

At the heart of this story is the ends that school officials will go to raise student achievement scores.  We don’t have go any further than the Atlanta Public Schools and the cheating scandal that was caused by a culture of fear and intimidation (as documented in the Governor’s Report), and lead to the indictment of over 40 Atlanta school officials, including Beverly Hall, former superintendent of school.  Changing answer sheets, providing copies of the exams to teachers in advance, clandestine and secret meetings in administrators offices, and outright denial when a few brave teachers questioned the actions of some administrators and teachers.

As so often happens, people who ask questions, or whose views are different from those in power are often ridiculed and called lunatics or fanatics.  Is this what happens when we boil education down to a test score?  Is this what happens when we overtly champion competition among students, between schools, and use this to showcase administrators, especially superintendents.  Beverly Hall received the hight accolades available in the field of education while at the same time leading a corrupt administration.

The policy of using high-stakes test scores to measure and rate student outcomes may be one of the worst policies that we have enacted.  Because of this policy, it is always in the best interest of administrators and school boards that teachers be held responsible for raising student achievement scores, and if they don’t and if their school doesn’t measure up, then there will be severe consequences.

As John Kuhn has said in his new book, Fear and Learning in America, “it isn’t tests that are the bad guy, it’s the misuse of tests.”  Using tests as the motivator of learning will lead to failure for many of our students.  We misuse testing and in so doing, put students in harm’s way because many of the teaching strategies that seem to work are ones in which an authoritarian regime is put into place, and students end up being indoctrinated into a system of control and behavioral management.

Kuhn puts the apparatus of high-stakes testing in perspective with these comments:

Standardized testing has gone from tool to tenet. At one time, standardized tests in schools were used explicitly according to instructions. In recent years, however, no less of an authority than the federal government has called for extending student test results beyond their prescribed meaning. Others have carried this unproven new method out to yet another degree.

They want to use student scores to rate the educator preparation programs that produce the educators who teach the children who take the tests. This is akin to castigating the maiden who milked the cow that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt if there happens to be a problem with the house that Jack built.

Soon they’ll ask to use 4th-graders’ math scores to rate the institutions that granted the graduate degrees to the professors who teach in the educator preparation programs. It’s the Six Degrees of Standardized Testing game, and there seems to be no end to the extension of testing.  (Kuhn, John (2014-02-15). Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education (Teaching for Social Justice Series) (Kindle Locations 987-994). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition).

Fear and intimidation are an unfortunate result of this extreme view of the use of tests.  It can cause schools to import teaching strategies that will take advantage of students, especially students who typically have not been served well by schools or society, and ask them to carry out mindless tasks, that parents in more affluent neighborhoods would not allow to happen to their children.  And if affluent parents don’t live in neighborhoods where the schools meet their standard, then they send them to prestigious private schools.  We have many here in Atlanta.

The Courageous Counselor

There is an educator in Austin, Texas who has documented this approach to teaching, and the effects on the psychological well-being of elementary  school students.  This is an educator who was willing to use open and use democratic methods to alert the school system of the what she considered to be the abuse of students in a Title I school in Austin.  She wrote and submitted several reports to bring this abuse to the attention of the school district, a school district whose superintendent was Dr. Meria Carstarphen.  Dr. Carstarphen has been hired by the Atlanta Public Schools, and will begin her transition to becoming the superintendent this month and will begin officially in July.

Will what I am about to describe rise up in Atlanta’s elementary schools?  Will the new superintendent focus her attention on turning around so-called failing schools?  Will she come in to “fix” Atlanta’s schools?  Will she be committed to a corporate type of school reform she advocated in Austin by relying charter schools, Applied Behavioral Analysis, and hiring of uncertified and inexperienced recruits from Teach for America (TFA). Indeed, will she form a bond with the Teach for America recruits who were just elected to the Atlanta School Board, and will she hire new principals, who are in some way affiliated with TFA, or who subscribe to her turn around and fix it type of reform?

Here is the story of one Austin educator who uncovered and then revealed the kind of teaching and test-taking that led to the psychological abuse of students in at least one if not more Austin elementary schools.  Carstarpen’s footprint is revealed in her story.

In an October 2013 report that she sent to Texas State Senator Nelson and the HHS Committee, she raised the specter that psychological abuse was observed and happening in a public elementary school in the AISD.

She described a system of behavioral engineering called the New 3 R’s that was being hailed as a success story because it raised the test scores of students in a Title I school.  However, Ms. Feilke documented that punitive methods were being used to prod and prompt students to learn by rote, get the right answers on tests, and conform to a system of extreme authority.  She observed, over her 30-year tenure as a school counselor, the steady decline and deterioration of the school environment.  Her premise is that the school climate has changed because of the emphasis on state testing and corrosive school politics.

Open Letter

Her open letter which you can read in full here, is a harrowing description of how children, especially of low socio-economic and minority status, have been mistreated to reach the goals of the state, and the administration of the district.  She believes that these children are being used in an experiment, rooted in punitive classic conditioning to meet the goals of the school district, which is increase student test scores and eventually graduation rates.

She summarizes her observations of her report this way:

  • The New 3 R’s System is a rigid system of behavioral engineering that uses punitive methods of ABA which are known to cause psychological harm to young children.  Some of the methods are known to cause mental illness and criminality.  The New 3 R’s is a sophisticated system of bullying.
  • AISD administrators allowed the New 3 R’s System to be used in elementary schools for the purpose of obtaining high performance ratings on statewide tests, but without adequate oversight of mental health experts who would have recognized the potential for psychological abuse.
  • AISD has allowed administrators to use punitive methods of ABA in violation of certification requirements and with methods known to cause psychological damage to young children.
  • AISD administrators ignored the counselor’s reports of the New 3 R’s methods as being psychologically abusive to children, and retaliated against the counselor.
  • Children in Texas public elementary schools are entitled to have their mental and physical health protected by state law.  There are no agencies with adequate laws in place to protect the rights of these children.

Administration’s Investigation

After her report was filed in October, the school district sent in an Associate Superintendent to investigate [itself].  Here is what Ms. Feilke wrote about this in an email on May 1, 2014:

AISD Asst. Sup Maria Hohenstein spent a month at the school in a crisis mode doing “cover up”, and creating “fake” surveys that only included “select” staff, then AISD denied that my  allegations were true. They turned the “punitive” cafeteria punishment into an “opportunity” for any student who wanted to sit in isolation and do work during lunch.  That was after they first absolutely denied it existed, then discovered several mentors who had observed it for two years, and then tried to make it “positive”. Parents and teachers in AISD Title I schools have become well indoctrinated so now it is” beware the messenger’s head”! (Email from Joyce Murdock Feilke, May 1, 2014)

I don’t have good evidence that the school district used bullying tactics to discredit Joyce, but eventually she decided to resign in February, 2014.  Her letter of resignation is one that is written by an educator who was willing to withstand an administration that had a reputation, according to Brian R. McGiverin, Texas Civil Rights Project, of retaliating against employees who speak out against its flavor-of-the-day pet project.

Mr. McGiverin also indicated that:

Superintendent Carstarphen was probably an unfortunate choice for the top post in Austin because she didn’t seem to brook disagreement or dissent.”  Mr. McGiverin goes on to say that in 2012, in a backlash against Carstarphen’s project above, half the trustees were replaced with a slate of reform candidates. They haven’t done as much as we hoped they would, but they blocked extensions of Carstarphen’s contract beyond 2015. The next election this November was likely to add board even less likely to extend her contract, which is the reason most people think she decided to leave. (Email from Mr. Brian McGiverin, May 2, 2014).

All the more evidence that we should read Joyce Murdock Feilke’s letter of resignation as a preamble for real education change. Here it is.

Letter of Resignation

During the past twenty years that I have worked in the Austin Independent School District, I have served as counselor at Bowie HS, Reagan HS, Kealing MS, Burnet MS, Oak Springs Elementary, Lucy Read Pres Center, and most recently at Blackshear Elementary School. In my earlier years in AISD, counselors experienced administrative support when advocating for children’s mental health needs.

However, in recent years, the punitive culture of high stakes testing and test preparation has created a disturbing and unhealthy obsession with children’s performance and data, while disregarding and neglecting their most basic developmental needs. The current rigid curriculum of fragmented, mind numbing, low-level thinking, and rote memory test drill neglects real learning and healthy development that is the essence of children’s future success and well-being.

AISD administrative abuse of power and lack of empathy and understanding of children’s developmental needs indoctrinated school principals to use a management/leadership style that can be callous, self-absorbed, and dishonest. It indoctrinates enthusiastic talented teachers to become desensitized, emotionally detached, and to act like scripted robots. It indoctrinates parents to give up family time and outdoor time with their children to endure more of the same punitive work and performance anxiety at home.

AISD’s age inappropriate focus on performance has created an environment that does not confirm children or allow them freedom to develop their own individuality and independence through real learning and positive interactions with peers and healthy attachments to teachers.

Instead, children are psychologically stifled, manipulated, and exploited with performance reward/punishment/competition and chronic feelings that they can never fully measure up. The children learn to distrust adults and feel bad about themselves. It is an environment of “survive” rather than “thrive”.

My observation of AISD’s dysfunctional system and lack of protest from employees is expressed in the words of Alfie Kohn in an article called Encouraging Courage: (Education Week, September 18, 2013)

… professionals in our field often seem content to work within the constraints of traditional policies and accepted assumptions — even when they don’t make sense. Conversely, too many educators seem to have lost their capacity to be outraged by outrageous things. Handed foolish and destructive mandates, they respond only by requesting guidance on how to make them. They fail to ask “Is this really in the best interest of our students?” or to object when the answer to that question is NO.

As an elementary school counselor, I have continued to be “outraged by outrageous things.” I question if AISD administrators have the ability to recognize the difference between punitive and positive, or if they fully understand the damage caused by an invalidating environment that is observable in many AISD elementary schools, especially the Title I Schools?

While AISD administration employs a large communications staff to promote itself “Hollywood style” to the public with claims of being a model urban school district, there is a worm in that red apple logo.

Behind closed doors, the most oppressive and psychologically restraining environments in AISD are those in Title I Elementary Schools, where minority children are conditioned to become submissive to harsh authoritarian control, where they learn not to think for themselves, but only to obey commands and to fear making mistakes.

The prison like environment of “learned helplessness” called the 3 R’s that is celebrated by AISD for winning performance awards in Title I Schools is a shameful testimony to the professional disregard of children’s needs and arrogance that now prevails and is perpetuated by AISD administration. I have attempted to speak up and advocate for children in AISD who are most affected by this invalidating environment and dysfunctional administration.

It is my goal to continue speaking up. I am submitting my resignation as counselor to pursue this advocacy without retaliation from an administration that does not recognize or respect the needs of children, or the rights of professionals who work to support and help them.

For the past week or so I have been in touch with Joyce, and have also communicated with Mr. Brian McGiverins, an attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, and author of an important blog that relates to much of Joyce’s story.  I also have been in touch with Dr. Julie Westerlund, Professor of Science Education at Texas State University who has collaborated with Joyce, and written about how state testing impedes learning.

For many years, I have written about testing and how it has been misused to control teaching and learning, and the nature of the curriculum.  Testing is entwined with curriculum standards, and the fact that America is moving toward a Common Core of standards sets up a perfect storm for U.S. schools.  There are administrators, bolstered with the support of the reformers of the last ten years, who believe all student should learn the same stuff at the same time, and that we should use web/computer based high-stakes tests to keep everyone in line.

The opposition to this is growing.  I am very pleased to join with educators including Joyce Murdock Feilke, Julian Vasquez Heilig, Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody, Ed Johnson, Mercedes Schneider, Julie Westerlund and many others to give voice to the opposition, and to rebuff those that think the purpose of education is to destroy public education.

Was it extreme for me to write about the psychological abuse of children in schools. What do you think?