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The End of the Line for Social Studies Tests in NYS–for now.

The NY Board of Regents on their way to chapel (just kidding)

Well, I think we found something close to closure in the social studies test saga.  It won’t be back for a while…but there’s still hope.

Since we last left the saga of the missing state social studies tests, I have been badgering the Regents to give a more intelligent response than the terse, one-line cast-off I was given.  Apparently, it must have touched a nerve to e-mail over the Jewish holiday, because today I receive a response from Dr. John King, Senior Deputy Commissioner for P-12 Education at the NYS Education Department.  Dr. King wrote:

Dear Mr. D:

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your concerns regarding the Grades 5 and 8 Social Studies Tests. They were canceled due to fiscal difficulties, not because they were inadequate assessments. Given the current fiscal climate, there are no plans to reinstate these tests in the immediate future.

States may not use Race to the Top funding to support the development and administration of summative assessments. The US Department of Education held a separate competition for assessment funding, but that was focused on the development of a new generation of ELA and mathematics tests. It is worth noting that the application of literacy skills to social studies texts will be a feature of the next generation of ELA tests.

Thank you for your interest in New York State’s testing programs and for all the work you do on behalf of our students.

Sincerely,

Dr. John B. King

This response was a whopping two-paragraphs longer than the last note I received from one of the Regents.  In spite of all the jerking around this summer, I really did appreciate Dr. King being frank with me about the reason why the tests were cancelled.  Still, I didn’t exactly want to let him off the hook.  Here was my response:

Dear Dr. King,

First of all, thank you so much for responding to my concerns. I had reached a dead end all through the summer and I appreciate your candor and forthrightness in explaining the situation and the disposition of funds re: summative assessment.

Also, I fully take into account the difficult fiscal situation we are in, and accept the fact that social studies assessments will not be reinstated in the immediate future. I had wished that social studies not be the perennial whipping-boy of austerity, unlike ELA, mathematics, and science, but such is the situation we face.

However, I do want to leave you with some words for the future. In my years of experience of teaching in the No Child Left Behind universe, I have come to one immutable conclusion: if a subject is not tested, then it is not taught. The pressure, often the terror, of failure in exams has pushed students, teachers and administrators to focus efforts on those subjects that matter most to the education establishment, namely ELA, mathematics, and science. Social studies, far too often, has been left on the backburner, either through tests that have little or no stake in promotion or in half-hearted attempts to “integrate” social studies into the more “preferred” disciplines.

I caution you, however, to not create a “holy trinity” of subject matter while leaving social studies as the mincemeat of integration. Former Harvard president Derek Bok once said that “If you think that education is expensive, try ignorance.” We cannot produce informed, intelligent citizens without a focused, intense instructional system in social studies. Integration into ELA, while useful, does not highlight the content, but rather the reading skills and strategies. The content matters. Our democracy cannot function if our citizens now little or nothing about its form, function or history. This instruction cannot be left to ELA curricula that have different priorities in mind.

To put it in more urgent words, do you trust the future of our American democracy to students that have been cheated out of a proper education about American democracy?

Please remember these words when the fiscal situation changes.

Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely,

Mr. D

I think this was an appropriate ending–albeit unwanted–for this summer’s social studies drama in New York.

However, that doesn’t mean we will give up the fight to restore social studies’ rightful status in the education of New York’s schoolchildren.  If you want to contact Dr. King and give your reasons to protect social studies in this state, here’s his contact info:

Dr. John B. King, Jr.
Senior Deputy Commissioner
for P-12 Education
Room 125 EB
89 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12234
Telephone: 518-474-3862
Fax:  518-473-2056
To give the New York Board of Regents another piece of your mind–because they appreciate your letters so much–click here for my original post on the social studies tests.  The contact information for each of the members of the board is listed.
Let’s not give up the fight.  When the economic situation improves, remind your government representatives, superintendents, the Regents and the grand poobahs in the Education Department that social studies is too important to be cast aside.

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Why Cynicism is Necessary in Education Today

“You’re an idealist, and I pity you as I would the village idiot.” ~ Stanley Kubrick

People need the swift kick in the ass just as much as the pat on the back.

I realized this when I began meandering through the turbulent seas of Twitter.  To be honest, there were selfish motives behind my entry into the Twitter-verse: mostly, to get more people to the Neighborhood.  There must be more people like me that love history, teaching, and the occasional swear word.

Along the way, I stumbled upon internal chats among educators.  It was a potential minefield; a conversation amongst teachers can range from the banal to the caustic.  This one in particular, on the surface, wasn’t too bad: teachers, parents, administrators trading articles, ideas, resources, webpages, etc.   Great stuff, I thought, exactly the thing Twitter excels at: easy transfer of ideas and information.

However, along the way some “tweets” began to sound like the following (I left out the usernames to protect the hopelessly guilty):

“An inclusive classroom is one that includes everyone in learning.”

“Teacher must use creative means to motivate students.”

“We all here know what we need to do. We’ve got to model it and share it and make it ‘the norm.’”

Students need to know what is expected of them, their effort is worthwhile & feel they will benefit from performance.”

“CREATE TEACHABLE MOMENTS with ur kids and grandkids”

“Classroom should be about freedom to learn as needed when needed”

Teachers don’t create learning, but can create effective learning environments. That’s the challenge.”

“Any book/poem/doc. can be analyzed deeper w/carefully crafted, probing questions to ‘enrich.’”

“Best teachers have engaged students because they themselves are engaged in what and who they are teaching.”

“If educators don’t like being judged by test scores, we need to devise alternate data forms. The days of teaching by feel are over.”

(The last one is particularly galling…I’ll bet an unsatisfactory rating thanks to Johnny getting a low reading score will change his tune.)

These are the people I fear and hate in education.  Every one of these statements—every one—is one that is repeated over and over in textbooks, scholarly journals and articles.  I learn nothing, absolutely nothing, from them.    These statements are banal, insipid, and pedantic.  Their authors seem to treat teachers as if they were brain-damaged children.

Worst of all, the education establishment actually leans on these balloonheads for leadership—mostly due to their perfect parroting of the party line.  All the terminology, the buzzwords from “accountable” to “verbalize” (a word I personally detest), thrown up right back at the admins to their devilish glee.

The proof is also in the packaging.  The NCLB crowd loves these yahoos because they convey a “positive” attitude.  It shows in their saccharin-sweet pep tweets on Twitter: “Way to keep it positive!”  “Good positive discussion about our practice.” “Positive attitudes to help all learners.”  The Duncan/Rhee crowd loves these idiots because they package their nonsensical theories with smiles on their faces.

Well, I’ve said this a thousand times: people who smile too much are either insane or up to no good.

Children’s education, especially as children grow older, does not need the constant ray of sunshine.  Sometimes, the dark clouds of cynicism and sarcasm can teach a child far more than the ray of hope behind them.

I’m not saying that teachers need to be loathsome misanthropes, nor should cynicism be applied uniformly: being brutally honest with a kindergarten class will leave a lot of crying eyes and soiled bottoms.  Yet cynicism does have an important place in education, especially amongst students in “disadvantaged” or “economically-depressed” areas (more terminology I loathe).

While the positive idealist (for lack of a better term) makes sure everyone feels “safe” and “involved,” the cynic “keeps it real.” – This is the problem of “candy-coating”, the need to soften the blows of everyday life in order to keep students happy.  It may work with little kids, but the older ones know better: do not try to bullshit the bullshit artists.  If there is bad news, if something happened in the community, I confront it honestly and directly.  Don’t try to placate students with the platitudes of the TFA/NCLB crowd: be honest about the obstacles that students face in this world.  The students respect you more because of it.

While the positive idealist brings out the positive contributions in the past, the cynic displays the past—warts and all. – Nowhere does this crop up most than in social studies.  I see the young go-getter types use social studies and gloss over the dirtier details to get to the points needed to pass the test (since the scores are all they care about).  What a crock.  You want to make kids engaged in history?  Describe in gory detail the lower holds of a transatlantic slave ship, the filthy streets of colonial towns, a Civil War surgery table, or a public execution.  Blood, guts, sex and bodily functions are what make the past exciting and interesting.

While the positive idealist constantly finds the bright side of the problem, the cynic points out what is clearly wrong with the situation – This ties with the need to candy-coat; the positive types who love to “look on the bright side” and see the good in the bad.  Sometimes there is no good.  Sometimes the problem is too obvious or direct that no justification will make it go away.  Cynics are painfully aware of the problems around them, and can conceive a clear diagnosis as to what is wrong.  Yet too many do-gooders see this as being insensitive and not-caring.  Would we care if we didn’t dwell on these problems?

While the positive idealist tries to find “out of the box” solutions, the cynic gets solutions that actually work – Stop reading the education journal, and put down the textbook.  Teachers have been around long before there were even schools of education to warp our minds.  If there is a problem that requires an “out of the box” solution, then it’s probably something that’s beyond your control—besides, it’s important that everyone is accountable for school problems, from Arne Duncan to the little shit in the fourth row who still doesn’t do his homework (and you won’t like my solution to that problem).

In terms of standardized testing, the positive idealist makes it something that it isn’t, while the cynic is brutally honest – Many teachers and principals would be shocked that I would share my honest opinion about standardized tests.  This is due to the unfounded notion that understanding the reality of testing will make students apathetic and not care.  I am very upfront: standardized tests measure only how well you do on a test.  They are not measures of your intelligence.  In my world, there would be no standardized tests.  But that is out of my hands, and out of yours.  The state has decided that these bubbled pieces of paper are what determine your advancement to the next grade, so it’s best for all of us to do our best and get it over with.

(Please let me know of any scoundrel who dares tell a child that a standardized test determines how smart they are.  They will be getting the thrashing of a lifetime from yours truly.  No jury would ever convict me.)

This doesn’t mean that a classroom can’t be a happy, positive place.  It also doesn’t mean that students cannot reach for their dreams and goals.  What the cynic does is place an action plan on the goals/ideas using the critical eye.  You may plan route A, but the curmudgeon in you understands the pitfalls and suggests route B is the better option.  Its realism for the classroom, and can easily coexist with the positive vibes most teachers want/need in their rooms.

In closing, I want to clear up a misconception about us, one that comes up a lot in the Twitter chats and the speeches of “reformers.”  Many people seem to think that because a teacher is cynical, they are automatically selfish and don’t care about their students.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

I love my students, every one of them.  I care deeply about their education, about their future, about their growth into adulthood.  I may not use the ho-hum terminology reformers like to throw around, but I care.

I’m not in this profession to get high test scores, to create numbers on a chart or an upward-turning graph.  All that is bullshit.  I’m not in this so that my students can do just well enough to get a high school diploma.  I’m not in this to build “lifelong learners.”  A bum on the street can be a “lifelong learner.”  I’m not in this to “activate the intelligences of each child” or to “engage every learner.”

My motives are more lofty—and to Arne Duncan and company, much more sinister.

My goal is to walk into a lecture hall in any Ivy-League university or equivalent (that’s right, Ivy League, not community college) and see my students in the class taking notes.  The lily-white and Asian students may be clutching their purses and wallets at the sight of them.  As my students are called, they dazzle the class with deep, thoughtful and cogent arguments and knowledge—so dazzling that the other students shit in their pants at their aptitude.  They will go on to positions of power and influence in our society: positions once held by children of the highest classes.

It’ll make the upper-class elites in America’s universities tremble.  It’ll give pride to communities like the South Bronx that desperately need real-life heroes.

Most importantly, it’ll finally destroy the NCLB dream of burying working-class advancement under the tyranny of standardized testing.

That is why a cynic named Mr. D is an educator.

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Mr. D is guest columnist at Parentella today and tomorrow

In between all your back-to-school madness, take time to visit the blog at Parentella, where they will be publishing a two-part series on back-to-school from the teacher’s point of view, written by yours truly.

The folks at Parentella are really nice, and they’ve been very good at re-tweeting our posts at the Neighborhood for their thousands of Twitter followers.  Thanks for letting me use their space for our ridiculous rantings ;)

I must say, I’m a bit of a neophyte at Twitter, but it seems to me that lots of people on the education forums love to pontificate and rehash tired platitudes.  Parentella, for the most part, keeps it pretty real (granted, not nearly as “adult-centered” as we are, but that’s okay ;)). 

I’ll be putting out one more post before I leave for Rehoboth Beach on Saturday.  Most likely, it’ll be on my brief experience using Twitter so far.  Stay tuned.

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