Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The turning of the tide

Sometimes writing this blog seems like whispering into a windstorm.

There are so many loopy ideas out there that attacking them is like taking on the Hydra -- cut one down, and there are nine more lurching up to take its place.  Now, to be fair, they're not all equally destructive; my attitude is that if you'd like to believe in Bigfoot, or ghosts, or astrology, there's no real harm in it as long as you don't mind people like me laughing in your general direction sometimes.

On the other hand, there are some crackpot ideas that cause direct harm, and to me, this crosses a line.  At that point, I tend to stop poking gentle fun, and start getting hostile.  These include homeopathy, anti-vaxx, and treating mental illness as if it were demonic possession (and, of course, as if demons themselves were real).

But nothing makes my blood boil like attacks on education.  Not only are we talking about my career, here; we're talking about the children.  We're talking about the young people who will grow up to lead our country, our next generation of doctors, nurses, technicians, scientists, scholars, and lawyers.

The whole battle has become increasingly heated lately, to the point that the powers-that-be on the state and federal level are feeling a little... beleaguered.  And they should be.  They have sold out to corporate interests, to the likes of Pearson Education and the Educational Testing Service.  They have ceded our nation's future to a group of men and women who believe that only that which is quantifiable is real, who value test scores above creativity and depth of understanding, and who believe that it is fair to hook the evaluation of educators to these same meaningless streams of numbers.

But the chickens are coming home to roost.  Parents are, in increasing numbers, opting their children out of high-stakes standardized tests.  No, I'm sorry, my child won't be in school today.  He's sick.  Oh, he has a standardized test today, and it'll have to be rescheduled for three weeks from Tuesday?

I'm sorry, he's going to be sick that day, too.

Teachers, too, are fighting back, where they can.  Unfortunately, school districts' hands are often tied by capricious laws that link funding to cooperation with poorly-thought-out state mandates.  But our voices are getting louder.  Just last week, a New Jersey teacher named Melissa Tomlinson confronted New Jersey governor Chris Christie at a rally, asking him, "Why do you portray our schools as failure factories?"

He shouted at her, "Because they are!"

Tomlinson, undaunted, threw back at him his record of defunding public education, a record that included cuts of over one billion dollars in his first year in office.  At this point, Christie lost it completely, screaming at her, "I am tired of you people!  What do you want?  Just do your job!"

Another teacher, Mark Naison, had the following to say about the encounter:
What do I want? What do 'we people' want? We want to be allowed to teach. Do you know that the past two months has been spent of our time preparing and completing paperwork for the Student Growth Objectives? Assessments were created and administered to our students on material that we have not even taught yet. Can you imagine how that made us feel? The students felt like they were worthless for not having any clue how to complete the assessments. The teachers felt like horrible monsters for having to make the students endure this. How is that helping the development of a child? How will that help them see the value in their own self-worth. This futile exercise took time away from planning and preparing meaningful lessons as well as the time spent in class actually completing the assessments. The evaluations have no statistical worth and has even been recognized as such by the NJ Department of Education.
Christie's not the only one who's under siege for his support of destructive educational policy.  Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin has come under criticism from several fronts over her support of a teacher assessment model that gives each school a grade of A through F based solely upon students' performance on standardized tests.  Schools scoring in the D to F range can be closed, the entire teaching staff fired (with a maximum 50% rehire rate), and then reopened -- under state control.

This, despite a joint study by the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University found that what schools are doing is only responsible for 20-30% of student achievement -- the remainder being accounted for by factors outside of school control, such as socioeconomic status and parental support.  A spokesperson for the governor, Alex Weintz, said that he was "dismayed" to find that teachers' unions were using the report to discredit the A-F evaluation model, and that the governor "does not support" the findings of the report.

"It’s not helpful to anyone’s cause," Weintz said.  "It seems to be some opponents are absolutely bent on undermining the credibility of the entire system.  The fact of the matter is this grading system, regardless of whether or not you believe it should have been put together differently, is the law."

Regardless, apparently, of whether or not the grading system actually reflects anything real.

Then, just two days ago, Dr. Gary Johnson, Director of Special Education Advocacy and Instruction at the Early Life Child Psychology and Education Center in Utah, testified before the Wisconsin State Legislature -- and said that the tests associated with the new Common Core Learning Standards amount to "cognitive child abuse."  The exams, he said, have little in the way of norming or peer review, and no validation studies -- meaning that using the scores to evaluate anything would be questionable, but using them to draw conclusions on the success or failure of schools is downright absurd.  "The US Department of Education's testing policies are like The Wild Wild West," Johnson said.  "They are doing what they want with no accountability, no constraints, and no oversight."

Here in my home state of New York, the backlash against the people who put us in our current predicament has been so strong that there have been demands that Commissioner of Education John King resign -- the latest from the New York State Allies for Public Education.

Troubled times, these.  It's easy to lose hope, and heaven knows my morale lately has been at its lowest since I can remember.  But there are signs that the tide might be turning.  My post last week about the lack of trust in educators got hits from all over New York State, and beyond -- and responses that included support from principals, superintendents, and school board members.  As a result of what I wrote, I've been invited to be part of a regional panel that will look at the teacher evaluation model, and other current issues in education.  All around me, I see people organizing, participating in peaceful resistance, speaking their minds and refusing to be silenced.

And perhaps this will, finally, be enough to turn things around.  Maybe we can break the stranglehold on education wielded by the top-down micromanagers, the b-b stackers in the state and federal departments of education who have never taught a day in their lives, but who think they know best how to educate children and evaluate teachers.  This is not a fight against accountability, as it has been characterized by the besieged politicians who still support the current model, and who are (sadly) still in charge of crafting educational policy; this is a demand for reasonable accountability, for an approach to education that gives every child a chance to excel, for assessments that generate statistics which actually mean something.

So I'm trying to stay optimistic, here, and toward that end I keep telling myself, over and over, that wonderful quote from Mohandas Gandhi: