Smartie or Dum Dum?

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Did you know there is a FB page for Smarties, Nerds, and Dum Dums? Well, there is.

Did you know that some teachers give out Smarties for correct answers, and Dum Dums for incorrect ones? Well, they do.

First of all, my child psychology professor would send me a reprimand email (as he has done in the past) if he knew I was even considering giving candy for rewards. Those are extrinsic rewards that promote behaviorism. (Think Pavlov’s dogs.) But how can a Twizzler possibly hurt anyone?

We want children to learn for intrinsic reasons. But this is not the point I’m trying to make. The issue for me is that we are telling children they are Dum Dums if they get an answer wrong. I understand that not every teacher gives out name-calling candy. Although, a “Nice Try” or “Did You Study?” candy would be great for high-schoolers.

I’m referring to testing. Yes, it is that time of year again, and I’m on one of my rants. In one of my graduate classes, we learned that high test scores don’t necessarily correlate to future academic or work-force success. Did you ever make A’s in a class because you memorized the information the night before? We all did. The only reason I know anything about the Civil War is because I taught it for three years as a fifth grade teacher. I definitely don’t remember one battle from my college Civil War experience.

One advantage of NCLB is that it has provided us with a decade of  data that validates the fact that American students are below average in reading and math. I like data. So, they get a check for that. Ten states have accepted the NCLB waiver. This is as long as we implement a college and career-ready curriculum.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that current law drives down standards, weakens accountability, causes narrowing of the curriculum and labels too many schools as failing. Moreover, the law mandates unworkable remedies at the federal level instead of allowing local educators to make spending decisions.

Behind No Child Left Behind

It took ten years to figure this out. DUH.

Is there a life-size Dum Dum we can give to NCLB?  It would clench a Dum Dum in one hand, and weep into a box of waivers. Following its sloth-like gait, there are hundreds of thousands of students yelling, “Wait! You left me behind!” NCLB randomly tosses waivers in the air, without looking back, as he shuffles away.

Dramatic much? Yup. But, we experimented on a generation of students, and there is nothing we can do about it. Maybe, we can think ahead and put kids first? We should all aspire to be Smarties on this goal.

Why Megamind Should Replace No Child Left Behind

Megamind: Could this be what I was destined for? A dream life filled with luxury? 
[Metro Man’s ship lands in a mansion, while Megamind’s ship lands in a prison
Megamind: Apparently not! Even fate chooses its favourites… 

I just read a rather lengthy article describing the faults of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB

Of course, my response, “no duh” isn’t appropriate for graduate school. But, “no duh” nonetheless.

Basically, it outlines the reasons that one academic program for every student in the country isn’t feasible. The notion that all children can learn has morphed into all children can learn the same skills, in the same way. This, of course, is regardless of academic proclivities, social experiences, and cultural norms. I remember when the NCLB posters wallpapered the cinderblock walls  (back in the day). I was a paraprofessional at the time. I hadn’t even started school to become a highly qualified educator. I felt the pressure then, about all children reading-at the same exact moment in time.

I know I reflect quite a bit on movies and their unintended associations with education. But, this is how I make complicated issues reasonably applicable to our schema.

However, Megamind is clearly a movie about education. Even if no one knows it.

At the beginning of the movie, there are two babies randomly rocketed into the atmosphere. They are different ethnicities. Their final destinations are contingent on pure luck and destiny. Metro Baby lands in suburbia, and Megamind Baby lands in a prison. Megamind Baby is raised by the inmates, whereas Metrobaby has all he needs to be successful in life.   Yes, they are the extremes, but this is a kids’ movie. Right?

Flash forward to elementary school. We see both Metroman and Megamind in the same school. NCLB-all children can learn.

 Metroman boy dazzles everyone with his honed skills and super powers. Then we see Megamind boy trying to do the right thing until he is bullied and shunned. Eventually, he resumes his life of  crime, because that is what he “knows”. He pronounces school as shool.  I take this as a literacy issue since he didn’t have the same academic opportunities as Metroman. The inmates shooled him the best way they knew.

These two children landed haphazardly into their lives. They had nothing to do with it. We cannot say that we don’t “see” their differences. Megamind is inherently good. Metroman just can’t keep up the persona that he has developed. But, these revelations aren’t discovered until they are adults.

What if all students walked into the classroom baskets of life experiences on their heads? Each basket is filled with different items that represent the things they know and the things they understand. None of the baskets look alike, or contain the exact same contents. We ask them to place their “baskets” to the side. As the year progresses, some of their items become dusty or lost. Other items are overused and worn out. Then the missing items are seldom replenished. The metaphor is obvious. But by testing time, all baskets are emptied and filled with identical items. Do we perpetuate individualism, or do we encourage Stepford-like education?

I think one of the most valuable lessons I have learned as an educator is that the life experiences of a child affect the delivery of my instruction. The curriculum is not a snow covering of equity in all US schools. Picture a random classroom anywhere in the United States. That classroom will have some who speak another language at home. Others have struggled to read since they started attending school. Then there are the gifted and high achieving children. Don’t forget about the kids who have learning disabilities. But, at the end of the day, thanks to NCLB, all of these children are assessed with the same test. That test score is branded on their records for the rest of their academic careers.  A child is deemed successful (or not) based on a set of scores.

I believe data is essential for educators. We need to comprehend academic strengths and weaknesses in order to improve instruction. However, how can we know what they know, without giving assessments that meet learning styles? WHOA! What? Differentiated assessments?

Yah, I know, this would mean that each child would have a different test. It would mean that they wouldn’t be standardized. It would mean that we were giving kids a chance to succeed. Maybe, those who “fail” portions of a test could be re-tested within their learning style?  None of these ideas are viable in the hermetically sealed testing environment. I wonder how many students failed a portion of a written test, but could answer the questions in a different way?

What did we do before this type of standardized testing? Do you remember? I don’t.

I do remember getting kicked out of the gifted program because I talked too much. I remember the strawberry crunch ice cream bars. Track. Cross Country. Learning to type. Marine Biology. I remember walking around the halls before school started with my Flashdance sweatshirt, Nikes, Levis, comb in pocket, and perfectly coiffed ‘wings’.   Standardized testing?  I’m sure I took some type of test that required the infamous bubbling. But, it wasn’t on my radar.

Would Megamind had changed his ways with some acknowledgement of his experiences? And with guidance and re-direction, would he use his powers for good and not evil when he was younger?

I spent my last reading class discussing the issues of the National Reading Panel Report and NCLB. I had to discuss the positive aspects of the NCLB. Of course, I was reminded that there were some sound philosophies in the planning and intentions of the program. Just like in a character analysis, it is very rare for a villain to be pure evil, without a hint here and there of normalcy, or a history of a bad childhood.

Drop the phrase, “standardized testing” in a room of teachers, and you will find that the kind, politically correct, docile natures slough off, and dragon wings sprout violently from their backs. This isn’t just one or two people. This is everyone. So that might mean something.

I truly believe that in every school, or even classroom, there is a Megamind and Metroman story.

I can honestly say that the few children I felt unable to reach had a history that devastated me, and I was ashamed for not delving more. They are the children with the cumbersome files that take two hands to carry. They have had such horrible experiences that they couldn’t begin to trust a new person. They can be the ones who disrupt the class, making our days challenging. But it really just take a few minutes to attempt to see what they see, and to spend time acknowledging their importance in the world. This means we have to shut off the ‘auto-pilot’ of the day, and work with the humanity in our classrooms. I didn’t see that part in NCLB.

Perspectives change when we understand people. I worry that the children left behind may not have had a chance at all, depending on how they landed in the world.

Politics is to Education as _____ is to _____

The MAT is a graduate school entrance test composed of nothing but analogies. The key to this test is finding relationships among words, historical events, science, math, humanities, and social sciences.  Finding relationships among terms that otherwise have nothing in common. So, it seemed fitting to put the words politics and education in the form of an analogy. I cannot complete this analogy.  My thoughts were too metaphorical-like politics being a storm and education being the land about to be torn apart. So, I left it blank.

It took my educational politics discussions in class to get my learning mojo back.

Remember the John Travolta movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble?

Travolta plays the part of a young man whose immune system cannot be exposed to unfiltered air. He wants to live a normal life. So he wears all types of protective coverings to see the world. One day, his doctor tells him that he has built up his immunity. He steps outside, sans the bubble-and rides away on a horse. We assume he survived.

Admittedly, my plastic bubble has been my classroom. I won’t speak for other teachers, but I can safely bet that there are bubbles encapsulating classes and teachers all over the country. I keep hearing that we need to raise test scores, and that our school systems are not globally competitive. This is a direct result of the failing schools. So, like most teachers, I scramble to strengthen my craft until I’m a blubbering mess by the end of the year. Well, the blubbering usually begins in October when the first set of benchmark scores come back. This is when a colleague has to talk me out of resuming my job as a personal trainer. I believe in my bubble scenario, the politics serve as the unfiltered air. I have been impervious.

So, I’m reading my assigned chapters, like a good little graduate student.  No Child Left Behind was renamed from a section of an educational program in the 60’s-War on Poverty Program. Eisenhower thought the American school system didn’t prepare students as well as the Soviet schools. You see, they launched Sputnik first, and that was a travesty (to the U.S.) during the Cold War. Because there was a need to build better missiles and strengthen our military, our schools were failing, and the Soviets were better than us. Therefore, the onus was on the educational system in America. So if NCLB is the grandchild of a program that was created to combat the Soviet challenge (space race and arms race)  and the Cold War is over….?????  Have you filled in the blanks to my analogy yet?

The interesting issue is that there was no hard evidence that supported the claim that American schools were failing. You see, it wasn’t the students of the 50’s who were behind, it had to have been the students of the previous three decades who were to “blame”-because they were the ones in the work force at the time. Plus, the American education system was culpable for poverty during that era. But it has never been proven that a stronger educational system, will  improve the economy resulting in the alleviation of poverty. In fact, the work force doesn’t have enough jobs to support the number of college graduates as it is.

One theory is that the education crisis has been “manufactured”.  I’m still looking into this, but it is quite intriguing.  The book, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, claims that U.S. students are taking commensurate courses to that Japan and Germany. Additionally, U.S. students are faring as well if not better than the other countries.

Outrage over perceived scapegoating of educators by legislators and other voluble critics of American public schools fuels the authors’ efforts to expose what they consider the real problems. While deploring the campaign of criticism they view as “manufactured,” based on misleading data and leading to questionable reforms, they marshal impressive evidence to counter such assertions as that SAT scores have declined and other, similar charges. The real problems of our schools, they suggest, are societal and economic; they point out, for example, that “family incomes and financial support for schools are much more poorly distributed in our country than in other industrialized nations. This means that… large numbers of students who are truly disadvantaged attend public schools whose support is far below that permitted in other Western democracies.” ( The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle & Publishers Weekly)

The other influence on how we perceive American education is the media. When I graduated from high school, I wanted to be a journalist. When I began the journalism courses, I decided that I would focus on political journalism.  My first political science teacher loved Jimmy Carter, and this was the inspiration for the next ten years of my democratic political convictions. I remember an economic study that I did about why the prices at grocery stores were higher in lower socio-economic districts than in more affluent ones. I actually did the field work and visited the same chain of stores in various areas. It was true. The prices were much higher in the poorer sections of town. Why? The assumption was that there was more government assistance, so the prices could be inflated. I remember writing, “The government is charging itself more at these stores. Who is running the country and where is the logic in this?”  Then we learned about putting a “spin” on a story. Who is paying us to cover a story, and how do they want it portrayed?

Apparently, only 1.4 percent of the national news is devoted to covering education topics. Really? I know I’m in a bubble, but everyone has a connection to education. Either you have, at one point been in school, have a child or sibling in school, or you are an educator. So, only 1.4 percent? Plus, the coverage that we do get is usually negative. Which brings me to the movie, Bad Teacher.

Yes, I openly admit that I saw the movie. My 81-year-old father was even surprised. Plus, I would guess that at least half of the movie goers were teachers. We asked the people next to us and they were teachers. It is our sick sense of curiosity. What? A movie about teaching? So, here we are, in a middle school where Cameron Diaz plays a teacher who commits every possible immoral act as an educator. There is a “good teacher” across the hall who is basically the most annoying cheery teacher archetype. We see her with a captain’s hat and microphone the first day of school acting like a tour guide through the curriculum. Yikes. She eventually loses all control while Diaz comes out ahead in the end. The sick part, is that I saw a part of myself in the cheery teacher with the cute room and engaging activities. Her focus in life was to take down the “bad teacher”.  Diaz only showed movies for instruction, drank during the school day, did drugs, and stole testing materials. Seriously? No wonder the cheery teacher loses it in the end.

The public is influenced by the media. So, this influence has affected the platforms of political candidates, which in effect, begins the cyclical process of reform.  I won’t discuss Bill Gates’ influence on our school reform at this point. I will say that the ones making the reform mandates and changes are not educators, but the financially sound institutions and foundations. When the reform initiatives don’t work, then the teachers are accountable for  the failed programs for which they had no voice.

As I look at these issues from a grain of sand at the beach perspective, I feel powerless. However, the collective awareness of these issues is a start. Like Travolta, I’m stepping out of my bubble-don’t know about riding off on a horse just yet.

If you can create an analogy to complete the title to this post, send it in.

K