Archives For Bill Gates

The 86th Saturday Reunion (3/22/14) at Teacher’s College in NYC was decidedly political. Not political as in elections or party affiliation, but political as education is critical to “the public affairs of a country.”

The morning keynote address by Diane Ravitch set the agenda. Ravitch is an education historian and an author who served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush.  She was Adjunct Professor of History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; this Saturday, she returned to speak at Riverside Cathedral.

She began by recalling another political era, calling the cathedral the “sacred space” where William Sloan Coffin had spoken out against the Vietnam War.  This time Ravitch was speaking out against the war on public education.

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 9.48.58 AMShe began by alerting the enormous crowd of teachers about the Network for Public Education. This year-old network was established to, “Give the [us] the courage to fight; our motto is ‘We are are many, they are few, we will prevail’,” she claimed.

Screenshot 2014-03-23 19.04.39“I wrote Reign of Error for you to use as ammunition… but, for heaven’s sakes, don’t buy it,” she insisted, “borrow it from the library, but use it to fight back the efforts to undermine education.”

Ravitch has been organizing a defense that is aimed at exposing the corporate take over of education that is endemic to this country alone. She countered that other nations have “no charters and no vouchers,” adding that “charters and vouchers divide communities” in economic funding. She challenged the treatment of teachers in the USA, insisting that other nations respect teachers and do not let “amateurs become principals and superintendents.” 

She spoke of challenges in providing for the inequities in education, detailing that 25% of children today live in poverty, and she demanded to know how our public schools will survive when education reformers push to replace public schools that accept everyone with schools that are privately managed.

She recounted instances of publicly funded charter schools that teach creationism and other “17th century STEM subjects,” and she railed against a push to eliminate local school boards.
“You may want to get rid of members of your local school board,” she quipped, “but there is a democratic process for that; this is an attack on democracy itself.”

“What is the end game?” she asked after the litany of charges against education reform, and then answered her question, “Nothing less than the elimination of teaching as a profession, systematically aided and abetted by the Department of Education.”

Ravitch continued her argument claiming that, “The education reformer narrative is a hoax, and they [education reformers] cannot win if they continue to perpetrate hoaxes.” She noted several indicators that speak to current successes in public education: falling dropout rates, higher graduation rates, higher minority scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test.

“We have an incredibly successful system overwhelmed by a high test prep curriculum,” she declared. “The reformers’ passion is for firing teachers. They suggest, ‘Let’s test every child every year and we’ll see what teachers get low scores, then those are the bad teachers,’ she intoned. “They fire 5-10% of teachers when they should be coming up ways to recruit and support teachers.”

Teach for America was a particular target of her scorn as she argued, “Teach for America is not an answer,” noting that reformers who rail against university and college preparation programs for teachers, and complain that first year teachers are “poorly trained are the same reformers that encourage the placement of 10,000 TFA graduates annually into schools, despite their minimal six weeks of teacher training. “They [TFA] leave in two years,” she continued, “and we have lost so many teachers. We are reducing the status of teachers. Who will want to teach? Many are shunning the profession; they [teachers] are getting rid of themselves.”

More scorn was heaped upon teacher evaluation systems where billions of dollar have been spent. “Many states have added value added measurements (VAM) to rate teacher effectiveness,” she noted. One such VAM is the inclusion of standardized test scores in rating teachers, however, Ravitch asserted, “most teachers do not teach the tested subjects (math and English). To assign [these] scores to all teachers is totally insane.”

Even more scorn was directed towards Bill Gates, as she maintained “The Gates Foundation has paid millions to have these [tests] written.” Gates himself has been touring the country this year in support of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a tour that included an opportunity “to dine with over 80 senators” that did not escape her attention. Neither did his comment suggesting “it might take10 years to see if this stuff works.”
“You have to admit he has chutzpah,” she quipped. Her more salient point was in her statement, “One man has bought and paid for an entire nation’s education program.”

Her objections to the CCSS are rooted in its creation, and in its rapid adoption and implementation in 45 states.
She objected to the lack of educators involved in developing the standards. She reminded the crowd that only four agencies were involved in the creation: the  National Association of Governors; the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO); and two educational organizations, Achieve, devoted to improving the rigor and clarity of the process of standard-setting and testing, and Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit organization working to support teachers across the country in their efforts to realize the promise of the Common Core State Standards for all students. She  specifically called out David Coleman, a non-educator and a former treasurer to the controversial Michelle Rhee’s Student’s First enterprise,who now serves as president of the College Board. (See my previous posts on Coleman here and here)

Ravitch commented also on the language that education reformers made in promoting the CCSS, standards that force schools to”Jump into the deep end of the pool” or standards that “rip off the bandaid” asking, “Why do they use such sadistic language? These are our children!”

“This small group [CCSS writers],” she continued, “was aided by the ACT and presented the CCSS as a fait accompli.” She added that the writing process of the CCSS was not transparent, and that, in violation of the National Standards Institute protocols,“there is no appeals process for standards that are seen as incorrect.” Moreover, although teachers were invited to “review” the CCSS,  the standards themselves were implemented without a field test. Now the two federally funded testing consortiums, PARCC and SBAC, will spend the next two years testing these standards online.

“The tech sector loves the CCSS,” she insisted, “there’s new software and bandwidth” included in already tight education budgets, “along with data analysts and entrepreneurial agencies designed to help with the CCSS.” Finally she returned to her message of academic inequities where targets of 70% failure rates on rounds of standardized tests are predicted. “How is it equitable to give a test they know students will fail?” suggesting that a passing rate is fluid, determined by the test creators who choose the “cut rate.”

During the speech, I was seated only eight rows back with a colleague who echoed to me particularly strong statements made by Ravitch on the effects of educational reform. She obviously wanted these statements included in my notes, so here are a few more “Ravitch-isms”:

We must roll back what we see is a poisonous time….

I never met a child who learned to read because the schools were closed.

No other nation doing this. We are alone in taking punitive action.

They [ed reformers] call it creative disruption, but children need continuity, not churn.

As she came to the conclusion of her speech, Ravitch returned to her message on the impact of poverty on academic performance saying, “What we do know about standardized tests is that they reflect socio-economic status. The pattern is inexorable. Look at charts that align standardized test scores with income and education; they [tests] measure the achievement gap.” Ravitch then turned to Michael Young’s book,  The Rise of the Meritocracy, and cited the following quotes:

If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage. Power corrupts, and therefore one of the secrets of a good society is that power should always be open to criticism. A good society should provide sinew for revolt as well as for power.

But authority cannot be humbled unless ordinary people, however much they have been rejected by the educational system, have the confidence to assert themselves against the mighty. If they think themselves inferior, if they think they deserve on merit to have less worldly goods and less worldly power than a select minority, they can be damaged in their own self-esteem, and generally demoralized.

Even if it could be demonstrated that ordinary people had less native ability than those selected for high position, that would not mean that they deserved to get less. Being a member of the “lucky sperm club” confers no moral right or advantage. What one is born with, or without, is not of one’s own doing.

She concluded her address with a list of suggestions, of next steps:

  1.  Salvage the standards to make standards better. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) should review and revise the standards. “Fix what is wrong”and “damn the copyright.”
  2. Decouple the Common Core from the tests;
  3. Teachers: Teach what you love and enrich instruction;
  4. Remember that a decent democracy equals values. 
  5. Do nothing to stigmatize those who have the least.

It should be noted that throughout the speech, Ravitch referred to “children” instead of using the word “students.” Her linguistic choice was noted by a later speaker, Kathy Collins. In refusing to use “students,” Ravitch put the focus back on the purpose for public education, to prepare the nation’s children, and she relayed a critical difference between her pedagogy and the philosophy of the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. “Arne Duncan thinks children as young as five should be on track to be college and career ready. He has said, ‘I want to walk in, look in their eyes, and know they are college and career ready’.”

She paused as if to respond to him, “I see a child. Leave him alone.”

The cathedral reverberated with applause.

English teachers, defend literature in the classroom!

I teach English, and I am feeling a little defensive lately. In the past week, I have had two separate “literature-threatening” incidents.

The first came from a reader to an opinion piece I wrote that was featured in Education Weekly, 21st Century Students Need Books, Not Textbooks. The responder was repeating the myth that English classrooms need to abandon teaching literature in favor of teaching math and science texts:

“You need to look at the Common Core ELA [English Language Arts] standards and realize you now have a responsibility to teach reading and writing for STEM subjects. That is why this discussion is so wrong. Start reading math and science textbooks and start teaching what your students need, not what you love. I learned early on: the most boring subject is the world is another person’s hobby. Your hobby is reading “literature.” Your students need to learn to read and write STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] topics, and those are found in textbooks. PERIOD!!”-Ebasco

This kind of response comes from the mistaken interpretation that the 70% of informational texts suggested by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) need to be taught in English class; even the CCSS devotes a clarification to this on page 5 of their document in a footnote. Instead, reading is to be a critical part of all disciplines, generally 70% informational texts in all subjects and 30% fiction in English classrooms. However, English teachers can assign informational texts just as history/social studies can assign historical fiction; the genre assignment is fluid. An entire section of the ELA CCSS titled “Reading in History/Social Studies, Science, Math and the Technical Areas” is a guide devoted to improving the reading and writing standards in all disciplines. The push for reading informational texts is certainly a result of STEM, but literature is not being jettisoned out of the curriculum because it is a “hobby”.

Indeed, the benefits of reading literature is rooted in the second of the “literature threatening” incidents, in a WNYC Schoolbook blog post a piece titled Never Mind Algebra, Is Literature Necessary?  In this post, Tim Clifford made a compelling case regarding the stripping of literature from English classrooms in favor of Common Core, and again, the roots of this anti-literature movement are found in mistaken interpretations of the CCSS.

Clifford began his post with a multiple choice quiz based on the following quote:

“Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root everything else out.”

Clifford posed the question “Who said the above?” and then offered three responses:

a. Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and educational gadfly
b. Michelle Rhee, staunch proponent of standardized testing
c. David Coleman, author of the Common Core standards

Then he offered the real answer,
d. Thomas Gradgrind, a fictional character created by Charles Dickens in the 1854 novel Hard Times.

The quote expressed the publicized sentiment of standardized testing advocates David Coleman, Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee. (I had chosen David Coleman as my answer). In discussing the correct answer, Gradgrind, Clifford explained that Dickens’s character was an attempt to skewer those utilitarian values in the mid 19th Century. Like today, there was a push for informational facts and statistics at the expense of creativity and imagination in public education.

Dickens’s novel Hard Times expressed his belief that an over-emphasis on facts over creativity promoted contempt between mill owners and workers.  Gradgrind’s name, like other Dickens creations, immediately expresses to the reader that he is an altogether unpleasant man, espousing that all one needs is “facts and statistics.” His daughter Louisa’s breakdown towards the conclusion of the novel brings him to the realization that fiction, poetry and other pursuits are not “destructive nonsense.”   Oh, if only Gates, Rhee, and Coleman were characters that could be similarly convinced.

In his post, Clifford described how his 6th grade curriculum has been altered to fit the ELA CCSS. He bemoaned the earlier loss of vocabulary and grammar in context and the most recent loss of creative writing which, “has been chopped clean away, to be replaced with unending persuasive essays that are the darlings of the Common Core standards.” He continues:

“Even reading has not been left unscathed. Many schools teach reading as a set of skills to be mastered rather than as a journey to be embarked upon. Children are taught how to predict, to connect, to draw inferences, and so forth, but they are rarely allowed the leisure to savor what they read or to reflect on the art of good writing.”

Clifford wrote about a successful novel writing project that, “engaged students on many levels and taught them story structure, characterization, use of dialogue, and exposition.” Unfortunately the project, “was jettisoned last year because of the national shift to the Common Core. It was replaced with an eight-page (for sixth graders!) research project.” He sadly noted, “The results were predictably dull and uninspired, but Gradgrind certainly would have approved. The papers were filled with facts but devoid of imagination.” In Clifford’s scenario, a successful unit of reading and writing was eliminated to favor lesson plans that do not have the evidence to prove success.

Where is the evidence that eliminating writing literature in favor of writing research papers will serve a mission statement of educating  “productive problem solvers and decision makers” who are “personally fulfilled, interdependent, socially responsible adults” ? Why are so many interpretations of the ELA CCSS rigidly eliminating what does work in favor of what might work? More to the point, why is there even a 70% vs. 30% split in reading genres, and why do stakeholders keep missing the point that the increase in informational texts must come by increasing reading in other content areas?

The positive impact of reading literature was discussed in the NYTimes article by Annie Paul Murray, “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction”. Reading fiction, “is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.” To summarize, the data using neuroscience proves that reading fiction is good for you.

I teach literature, and my students make connections to the real word (Macbeth to Afghan Warlords; Frankenstein to the science of cloning) in my class everyday. Literature helps my students make sense of the world; they do not need to suffer under a despot, but they can experience a corrupt political system in Orwell’s  Animal Farm. They do not need to crash on a deserted island to understand how quickly very civilized young people can tun into savages when they read William Golding’s  Lord of the Flies. They can contemplate how precious is the relationship between a father and son who cling to decency and humanity without having to survive an apocalyptic nightmare  from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  They  can better understand the historical context of Jim Crow laws from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and in Kathryn Stockett’s more recent novel The Help.

And they can also learn about the utilitarian movement in England during the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the middle class, the frightening system of government-run workhouses, and the dangers of child labor in another Dicken’s novel,  Oliver Twist. Dickens’s literature demonstrates the power of fiction as a means of providing background information. Read a textbook of facts and statistics explaining the Industrial Revolution, and then read Oliver Twist. Which version will you vividly remember?