Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Language is Everything

Language is Everything

The Maryland State Department of Education has said that students cannot opt out of taking the PARCC tests or other mandated standardized tests.  The primary reason is that the federal law mandates that 95% of all students must take the test.  So it stands to reason that if MSDE were to give students and their families the opportunity to “opt” out, Maryland could run the risk of being below the 95% threshold.  Very few states have allowed for an opt out process.  However, many families oppose the testing.  These families cite the amount of time taken from classroom instruction, not just for the test itself but for the preparation that happens as a run up to the testing itself.
Frederick County has a significant number of families who are opposed to the testing.  The County requested a ruling from MSDE regarding whether or not families and their children could opt out.  MSDE responded with a relatively firm no.
Now Frederick County Public Schools has come up with a new policy.  Students still may not opt out of the testing.  But under the new policy, what students can do, is refuse to take the test.  So here is how this will work.  Families may not pre-emptively refuse to allow their children to take the test.  HOWEVER, when the test is put before the child, the student may simply refuse to participate.  From the point of view of FCPS, refusal at the time of presentation is different from a pre-emptive no.  From this perspective, the public schools are doing what they are required to do- administer the test to the students.  The students, in the words of the famous Nancy Regan, may just say no.   Students who are not capable of speaking may use whatever alternative device they use to communicate their wishes.
The Board of Education said that this policy was developed to create consistent direction throughout the county’s public school system while still respecting the rights of students and the obligations of schools.  Under the policy, school administrators may offer alternative activities for students who opt out--- oops, sorry-refuse to take the test.
The president of the State School Board has declined to comment.  Although he did say the FCPS policy seemed close to the prohibition for opting out.  The policy will be referred for legal advice.
Meanwhile, the members of the Frederick County Board of Education said they are aware there could be some push back from MSBE.  There is concern among the members who voted no that this policy could be seen as encouragement for kids not to take the test.   The spectre of losing federal funding that flows through MSDE to the local school systems is also a concern. 
The Frederick County School Board’s attorney has vetted the language and the policy passed was slightly less vigorous than the first draft.  The County Superintendent stated she thought the Board had drafted a policy that was consistent with the State Board directive. 
The Maryland State Education Association president has long pushed for an alternative route for those students who, for whatever reason, are opposed to the testing.  The union has issued a statement that this policy is a step in the right direction.
Nationally, teachers’ unions have been at the forefront of encouraging the opt out movement.  Part of that encouragement comes from the link between student performance on these tests and a teacher’s evaluation. 
The fall-out from this policy is yet to be known.  The State Board needs to weigh in on whether Frederick County is in violation of its directive.   If the number of students who refuse the test pushes Frederick county’s test participation below the 95% threshold, will that jeopardize federal funding?  If this plan provides a way for a school system to be respectful of parents’ wishes while still upholding state policy, there could be more school districts in Maryland taking this route.  Then again there is that pesky issue of federal funding.

A rose is a rose, is a rose.   Then again maybe not, all depends on if the rose refuses to be a flower.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I can do algebra but I can't figure out my taxes.

I can do algebra but I can’t figure out my taxes.

Now comes Algebra II to join the band wagon of a more rigorous education.  Pay no attention to the fact that only about 5% of the workforce uses math beyond basic arithmetic.  The addition of Algebra II to the required coursework for high school students is part of the poker game we have been playing of late with our high school students.
Education is highly political, particularly on a local level.  Governors and county officials want to claim they have the best and toughest educational programs with the highest standards.  So school district 1 requires 21 credits for a high school diploma.  Along comes school district 2 that says, I’ll see you at 21 credits and raise it to 23 credits.  On and on it goes until some school districts in Maryland are requiring 26 credits for the high school diploma. 
Now that the schools have probably reached the credit limit for a 4-year program they have needed to move to something else.  That is where math comes it.
It seems very reasonable to me that students should study math for all four years of high school.  The question is which math should that be?
Very few people in the workforce are going to need to use quadratic equations and other skills of advanced math courses.  And if they do, those courses are appropriately taught in college for those students who are going into those fields of endeavor. Or they could be taught as part of a specific vocational training program for those people studying for areas that require more advanced math.
For the remaining 95% of students, why are we not teaching financial literacy.  Fifty-two percent of Americans are invested in the stock market.  That does not count the other Americans whose pension funds are invested in the stock market.  How many of those Americans can read a corporate report so they can make an informed decision regarding purchase.  Or do they rely on a financial advisor and hope for the best.  How do Americans make budget decisions for the political entity in which they live?  Do they even understand budgets?  Do they realize that something purchased on sale is not a savings if they fail to pay off that credit card within the grace period and essentially pay an additional 20%+ of compound interest on that item?  Do they even realize how much interest long term they will be paying?

Please do not throw out that old saw, mathematics trains the mind.  Mathematics is no better at “training” the mind, whatever that is, than any other challenging academic pursuits.  In the name of increased rigor, we have created a rigor mortis that refuses to let us stare reality in the face and move on to a more useful math literacy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

When everything is equal, nothing is fair.

When Everything is Equal, Nothing is Fair

Baltimore County Public Schools have come up with their latest plan to make everyone equal.  Maryland law requires that all school districts operate programs for children who are gifted and talented.   These programs are often known simply as G&T.  State law requires that schools identify the special learning needs of these kids and tailor programs to meet those needs.  Roughly 20% of the children in Baltimore County meet the standard to qualify as gifted and talented. In the past these students were taught in separate classes by teachers with training to meet their unique needs. 
Now comes the latest great idea from the Jackass Tree.  This one hits multiple branches on its way down.  Instead of being in separate classes, gifted and talented kids would be with other kids and the teacher would move around the small groups in the classroom changing instructional method and materials as she goes.  REALLY!  First of all the average elementary teacher teaches five subjects-language arts, reading, math, science and social studies.  If the teacher needs to prepare different lessons for each of these groups, that is fifteen lesson plans per day!  How can one teacher be expected to pull this off especially given that the very bright kids should be taught a curriculum that capitalizes on their ability to think creatively and problem solve. The lower functioning kids will demand attention by their behavior and academic needs.   While the so-called average kids will suffer the disenfranchisement that every middle child in a family knows.  High school teachers usually teach a 6 period day, so that would mean 12-18 lesson preparations in a day depending on how many periods of the same subject a high school teacher teaches.  
The expectation that any teacher no matter how well-meaning could do this day in and day out for 28.5 students is totally unreasonable or realistic.  In our high schools it is also possible that the .5 student is not a statistical average but a female student about to give birth.  Bringing many social problems into the classroom along with the academic ones.
Gifted children learn differently.  They require a separate curriculum.  They need teachers with special training to address their special challenges.  Gifted kids are not just plants in fertile soil that will flourish no matter what.  They need to be guided as well as taught.

If our society does not address the learning needs of this very important group of kids, we will all suffer in the long run.  These are the nation builders right here at home.  They need, and we must demand, people trained to develop those talents so that our entire society benefits.  Equality is not equity.  Fair is not equal.