A written interview with me…

A certain journalism student felt I was worthy of being interviewed about education in DC and spoke to me by phone a week or so ago. The same student then asked me some follow-up questions which I responded to in writing. Here goes:

Q1) Last year, middle and high school test scores continued their climb over the past decade as proficiency levels were 3.2% and 4.1% higher in reading and math respectively.  However, elementary scores dipped 4.4% and 4.6% in reading and math proficiency.  Is there any specific reason for this?
A:I don’t really know for sure. It could be the test itself was significantly different and produced different results, but since I am no longer in the classroom I didn’t get a chance to even peek at it while students were taking it. It also could be that instruction was worse. But the results, taken at face value, don’t seem to indicate that “IMPACT” was a rousing success, do they?

However, I think your description of the scores could be more accurate. I think you are trying to say something like this: in grade 3, in 2010, about 43% of all regular DCPS students scored proficient or advanced in reading on the DC-CAS, while in 2009 in the same grade, it was about 49% who scored proficient or advanced. And in math, the proportion of 3rd graders scoring proficient or advanced in 2010 was only 39%, when it was 47% the year before. However, in the 10th grade, the proportion of all regular DCPS students scoring proficient or advanced rose from about 31% in 2009 to 34% in 2010, and in math, the corresponding proportion rose from 41% to 44%.
Q2) Do you think that elementary schools should be doing anything differently as a result of these “poor” results?

A: I think they should STOP teaching to the test because the test is worse than useless. They should ignore IMPACT, ignore NCLB, and just teach. Of course, this will happen when pigs fly, or when Obama, Duncan, Gates, and the others who are deforming American public education come to their senses.
Q3) Do you think it was irresponsible of Michelle Rhee to leave DCPS in October in the middle of the school year, especially in light of these scores?

A: It makes a mockery of all of her claims of it all being for the children. What’s important to Michelle Rhee is her career.
Q4)  In your first interview, you mentioned some positive things about common course standards, could you elaborate more on this and give specifics?

A: I honestly don’t recall what I said when I spoke to you. Common core curricula can be good or they can be bad. I understand part of the impulse for it, especially when I can visit a pre-calculus class where many students cannot solve the equation x=3y+2 for y. However, I don’t think that’s a problem with the curriculum itself; probably, it’s because students are forced to take mathematics courses they aren’t ready for, and teachers are forced to pass students or else they will get fired or receive low evaluations, and students are not held accountable for not doing any homework, for not coming to class, for sleeping in class. And, of course, students almost never see WHY they should learn most of this stuff (especially math).

Right now, curriculum in the US seems to be written by textbook publishers, some of which do a decent job and some of which produce content that is worse than execrable. If common core standards are to be used to dictate exactly what each teacher must do and say each day and precisely what is to be the lesson that each child learns — as is happening in a number of school districts — then I think that’s horrible. If teachers and other educators who deeply understand children, how they learn, and the various disciplines and how they relate to each other, are actually asked to carefully delineate which are the important dozen or so topics that should be learned each school year, leaving the details up to the schools and the teachers, then the idea has merit. But I don’t think that’s what is happening. Last time I checked, the various states that signed off on the ‘common core’ (not common course) curricula did NOT have broad involvement by teachers and other educators or experts. And unfortunately, I haven’t looked carefully at the CCS for math, so I can’t really comment intelligently. I do know for a fact that our current math standards in DC are a joke.

I had an education that most definitely did NOT have a common core. In fact, it had a lot of breaks in it. I went to school for part of elementary school in Montgomery County, MD, most of grades K-6. But for a full year (starting in January ’59and ending in January ’60, IIRC) I went to a French school in Paris, France, where they definitely did things quite differently than we did here. Then I went to JHS in Washington, DC, followed by two years at a New Hampshire boarding school (Phillips Exeter), followed by half a year of what they call Premiere at the same French school, followed by another half year of Terminale, at the conlusion of which I took their baccalaureat exam in the mathematics section. (There, one decides on a secondary ‘major’ at around the 10th grade, kind of like they do at Hogwarts.)

All of those different schools and systems that I attended emphasized different things and de-emphasized or ignored different things. I learned math stuff in France that I still have no earthly idea why they had us learn; and I find myself being asked to teach stuff in mathematics in the US that is virtually useless as well. Which one has the best curriculum? I don’t know. What I really did NOT like abhout the French system is that it was really lock-step, with very little room for exploration of ideas. I remember asking questions in my science and math classes — classes where I really did understand what was going on (unlike in my French literature and philosophy classes where I was completely lost) — and was gently (or not) reminded that “ce n’est pas au programme” — i.e., you are bringing up a topic that is not in the prescribed national syllabus and we are not going to discuss it.
Q5) Do you have any predictions for the results of this year’s DC-CAS?
A: I have no clue. It seems to me that most of the changes in scores at any given school, from year to year, are (a) somewhat random and (b) depend a lot on how well the teachers learn how to predict what will be on the test and figure out more or less effective ways of prepping their kids. Of course, prepping for this execrable test is truly wasting the students’ time. Will the test be harder this time? Will they grade it more leniently this time? Oh, yes, they don’t include all of the questions in students’ final score! Scoring these NCLB tests is a very political decision: which questions will be included in the final score and which will be quietly omitted; where does one draw the line between “below basic” and “basic”; how many points do various answers receive to ‘brief constructed responses’ and so on. It’s all really a con game and needs to be stopped, because it’s not helping to improve the education of our youngsters. All it’s doing is demoralizing parents, students and teachers, and enriching a small group of educational profiteers.

Published in: on March 27, 2011 at 7:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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