Tag Archives: Standardized Testing

A THINK PIECE IN THE NY POST (SAY WHAT?)

It's not everyday that the New York Post gets philosoraptor thinking.

It’s not everyday that the New York Post gets philosoraptor thinking.

Proving the old adage that even a blind squirrel finds a nut from time to time, the NY Post ran an editorial last week that wasn’t complete trash.

The article is titled Race, the UFT & NYC’s Top Schools and the author, Mark Schulte, is a retired NYC public school teacher. Schulte criticizes the UFT for voting to support the NAACP’s lawsuit, which aims to scrap the specialized high school exam, against the NYC Department of Education.

New York City has three specialized high schools (what other districts might deem “magnet schools”) with a long tradition of serving some of NYC’s brightest teenagers. Over the past 10 years, 5 more specialized high schools have been added to the group. The sole basis of admission to any one of these schools is an exam.

The NAACP contends that the exam discriminates against minority students. Black and Hispanic enrollment in the original “big three” specialized high schools has fallen off since the 1990s. However, according to Schulte, the problem is not the exam itself but rather the lack of preparation many bright minority students receive. Instead of scrapping the exam, the city should provide extra tutoring for students to help them prepare.

Schulte’s article got me thinking, but not because I agree with what he says. While he might have a point about providing extra support to bright students who just need that extra little nudge, certain areas of his thesis border on the reformy “no excuses” mantra.

As a graduate of one of the “big three” high schools, I really do not know what the solution is to the problem of declining minority enrollment. Should acceptance to these schools be based on one exam? Probably not. Should minority students receive extra support to help prepare them to apply to these schools? Probably so.

The thing about this that got me thinking is the UFT’s position on the matter. They are adamantly opposed to standardized testing as the sole ticket into one of NYC’s prestigious schools. On the other hand, they are perfectly fine with allowing testing be the measure of teacher effectiveness.

If the standardized high school exams are so discriminatory against minority students that they must be scrapped, what makes the UFT think that standardized exams as a way to judge teachers is perfectly fair? This is compounded by the fact that most of the students of most the teachers who stand to be judged by these exams are Black and Hispanic.

I don’t know. It seems, how should I say, inconsistent of the UFT to take a stand against testing in one instance and totally embrace it in another.

If the NAACP files another lawsuit claiming the these “value added” exams students around the city promise to take in 2013 are discriminatory, will the UFT support that lawsuit as well? That would mean the UFT would oppose something to which it helped birth.

This is the problem with Unity’s defenders who claim that the current environment of education reform makes it difficult for the union to defend teacher rights and public education. That might be so, but that still doesn’t mean the UFT has to rush to embrace so many pieces of the ed reform movement.

At the end of the day, this is my biggest problem with Unity. While their support for the NAACP’s lawsuit might be the correct decision, it is completely out of step with their past support for reformy things like standardized testing.

Why is testing an acceptable measure of teacher effectiveness but not an effective measure of admission to one of NYC’s “big three”?

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STUPID QUESTIONS ON THE JANUARY 2013 GLOBAL HISTORY REGENTS (PART I)

The history of all humankind in 50 questions. What could possibly go wrong?

The history of all humankind in 50 questions. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s time for another round of stupid questions from the brain trust that is the New York State Board of Regents. Last time, we examined multiple choice questions from the most recent U.S. History Regents. This time we will do the same for the Global History Regents. The only difference is that the sheer volume of stupid questions on this exam defies logic so, out of mercy for the reader, the dissection of these questions will have to be divided into two or three smaller postings.

The Global History Regents is one of the killer exams that all NY State public school students have to pass in order to graduate. It almost always has much lower pass rates than the U.S. History exam. This is probably due to many factors: the fact that it tests a two-year curriculum, unlike the one-year curriculum of U.S. History; the fact that it hopscotches time periods and continents with the abandon of a drunken time traveler; and the fact that more students overall tend to take the exam in the first place.

The State of New York has been giving these Regents Exams for the better part of a century. One would think they would have gotten it right by now. Unfortunately, as we will see below, this is not the case.

They really waste little time in getting to the stupid questions, as the second one is pretty sub-par:

Which body of water is located between Southwest Asia and Southeast Asia?

(1) Pacific Ocean     (3) Indian Ocean
(2) Caribbean Sea   (4) Black Sea

The answer they want is (3). Why they want answer (3) is sort of a mystery. Here is a map of the Indian Ocean. Maybe you can see what the problem is with saying the Indian Ocean is between Southwest and Southeast Asia:

indianoceanarea

As you can see, the Indian Ocean borders no other continent outside of Asia.

Let’s take Saudi Arabia on the left side of the map as Southwest Asia and Indonesia on the right side of the map as Southeast Asia. The Indian Ocean might be described as being in between these two points. But describing it in this way leaves out that very westward sliver of the Indian Ocean, the sliver that borders Africa. Why the Regents decided to circumscribe the Indian Ocean between two opposite points of Asia is a little bizarre. They could have easily asked what body of water is between Africa and Southeast Asia and been a sliver more accurate.

The other problem with this question has to do with what one means by “Asia”. Asia has always been a problematic term. Taking a long view of the map, Europe is merely a peninsula of the Asian land mass. The border between Asia and Europe is a cultural one more than a geographic one. Just ask historians specializing in Russia who still debate the question of exactly what continent the country is on. Just ask Turkey who has been lobbying hard to be part of the European Union. Part of the reason they have yet to be accepted has to do with Europeans’ age-old view of Turks as outsiders, Orientals or, in other words, Asians. In that case, the answer to the question could also be (4), which is the Black Sea.

Is Turkey not Southwest Asia too? Why do they get shunned by both Europeans and the Board of Regents?

Is Turkey not Southwest Asia too? Why do they get shunned by both Europeans and the Board of Regents?

Now granted, even if we accept the premise that Turkey is part of Southwest Asia the Black Sea is still nowhere near Southeast Asia.  This comes down to what one means by the word between. The Black Sea borders Southwest Asia and somewhere far, far to the east, well beyond the borders of the Black Sea, is Southeast Asia. In that case, the Black Sea can be loosely described as being “between” those two points.

It may not be the greatest example of “between”, but neither is the answer for which the Regents is looking.

Speaking of not the best answer, question 7 fits that description to a tee:

Base your answer to question 7 on the photograph below and on your knowledge of social studies.

Cathedral of St. Sophia (1017-1037)st-sophia-cathedral-kiev-1 Which civilization most influenced the style of Russian architecture shown in this photograph?

(1) Umayyad  (3) French

(2) Byzantine (4) Persian

The first thing I thought when I read this question was “Hello, maybe Russia, duh”. But assuming that a civilization cannot influence itself, which might be an interesting historical question in its own right, the answer they want is (2) Byzantine.

This is a common Global Regents question. Every year they are sure to ask about how the Byzantine Empire influenced Russia. Those types of questions are usually straightforward enough, usually relegated to references to the Orthodox Church. But, this year, the Board of Regents took a bold step when asking this question, especially considering what pops up on a Google image search of Umayyad architecture:

There is absolutely no resemblance between this Umayyad mosque in Damascus and St. Sophia.

There is absolutely no resemblance between this Umayyad mosque in Damascus and St. Sophia.

To be sure, there are some key differences between this mosque and St. Sophia. The columns and archways adorning this Umayyad mosque speak to a Grecco-Roman influence. The lack thereof in St. Sophia gives it a much more Medieval feel. However, you can’t tell me there is no resemblance between the domes in both of these houses of worship.

In this case, where there is resemblance there is also influence. The Umayyads were among the earliest of the Muslim caliphates. They helped lay the foundation for what would become the Golden Age of Islam. One of the most recognizable features of the Muslim Golden Age is the dome, both an aesthetic and acoustic innovation. Islamic innovations like the dome in the centuries after Muhammad’s death would have a great influence over the Byzantines. During this time period, the Byzantines became increasingly isolated from their Christian brethren in Europe. Their fate would become much more entwined with that of the Muslims. The Muslims were the envy of the world throughout much of the Middle Ages so it was only natural for civilizations like the Byzantines to adopt from them, especially in matters of architecture.

In short, the Umayyads influenced the Byzantines who in turn influenced the Russians. The answer to the question could easily be (1) Umayyad. The question really turns on what “most influenced” means. If it means direct influence, then the answer must surely be the Byzantines. But if the originators of an idea can be said to hold the most influence, then an argument could be made for the Umayyads to be the answer.

The Board of Regents could have made this question just a wee bit stronger by inserting the word “directly” in between “most” and “influenced”.

But then I suppose that brings us back to the Regents’ vague notion of what the word “between” means. Why does this feel like Bill Clinton’s deposition in the Monica Lewinsky case?

The next stupid question also has to do with the Muslims, and question 10 truly is a bad question:

Which statement accurately describes the actions of Muslims during the Crusades

(1) Most Muslims converted to Christianity.

(2) Muslims attacked and conquered Constantinople.

(3) Muslims defended Jerusalem because it was sacred to them.

(4) Many Muslims visited Europe for the first time to obtain luxury goods.

They want answer (3). The Regents is resting their answer on the premise that the phenomenon known as “the Crusades” was strictly a war between Christians and Muslims over the Holy Land.

However, that very limited notion of the Crusades is continually being challenged by historians. There is an entire school of thought that contends the Crusades were basically a series of clashes between Christians and Muslims that took place over the course of hundreds of years. At stake in these clashes was not merely the Holy Land but control of the Levant, access to the Dardanelles and defense of Eastern Europe. Indeed, in all of these battles, Christians tended to bring a Crusading spirit to the fight. It can be argued that the Battle of Lepanto (1571), which crippled Ottoman control of the Mediterranean and helped inspire Cervantes to pen the classic novel Don Quixote,  was the final chapter of the Crusades. After this point, Europeans began to focus their Crusading efforts on “civilizing” the “savage” Americas.

Therefore, the Crusades can be interpreted well beyond the very limited bounds implied by the Regents. Their interpretation of what the Crusades were is a medieval conflict over the Holy Land. However, with the more expansive view favored by some historians, the answer could also be (2) the Muslims attacked and conquered Constantinople. Conquering Constantinople was a long-time goal of the Ottoman Turks that they finally accomplished in 1453. Indeed, the Byzantine Empire (which is where Constantinople was located) had always played a prominent role in the Crusades. It was the Byzantine Emperor Alexis Comnenus’ letter asking Pope Urban II to help him fight off the Muslims that initiated the call for a Crusade in the first place. How is the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 not part of the saga known as the Crusades?

The fall of Constantinople (1453). The Crusading spirit obviously played no role in the conflict.

The fall of Constantinople (1453). The Crusading spirit obviously played no role in the conflict.

God forbid a teacher passes along the long view of what the Crusades were to their students. They might bubble in choice (2) and end up failing the exam.

Bear in mind that we are just a 5th of the way through the multiple choice portion of the exam. If they butcher ancient history and geography this badly, I can’t wait to see what they do to more modern subjects.

Yes history teachers, these are the exams by which our students and ourselves will be judged. Are you angry yet?

ONE STUPID HISTORY TEACHER

duh

About one minute ago this comment was left on my most recent post about this past week’s U.S. History Regents:

denton | January 28, 2013 at 8:31 pm | ReplyEdit

The answer for 14 is 3 slaveholders.

Denton is absolutely correct. The question has to do with the Dred Scott decision:

Which group benefited most directly from the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford?

(1) abolitionists    (3) slave owners

(2) immigrants     (4) enslaved persons

To which I began my response:

They want answer (4) because Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that slavery was legally permitted in all of the territories. He also ruled that “a black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” How can it not be choice (4)?

If you read the rest of my response to the question you can see that I clearly meant to say choice (3), not (4). This was a simple matter of me getting the numbers mixed up.

I will admit, Denton’s simple comment mildly devastated me. Despite the fact that I know the answer to the question and have a strong opinion about why this question is stupid, I myself felt very stupid once Denton made me realize my folly. I am sure that many, if not most, people who read the post picked up on my mistake but did not say anything out of politeness.

The fact that, according to my stats, this is the most-read of my recent posts makes me feel even dumber. Hundreds of people have already read my mistake.

If someone like me who is confident in his understanding of U.S. History to the point of insufferable arrogance can be made to feel stupid for a simple mistake, imagine how a teenager must feel when something similar happens?

How many times have students simply transposed numbers and ended up bubbling in the wrong choice because of it? How many times has a student bubbled in an answer in which they had confidence only to have a machine spit it back at them as “wrong”?

My mistake and Denton’s comment I believe strengthens my point about the folly of standardized testing. As the post clearly demonstrates, even students with a strong understanding of a subject can be screwed over by simple errors, putting their graduation and the careers of their teachers in jeopardy.

For now at least, I am one dumb history teacher.

STUPID QUESTIONS ON LAST WEEK’S U.S. HISTORY REGENTS EXAM

Better fill in the right bubbles  or your teacher gets the axe.

Better fill in the right bubbles or your teacher gets the axe.

EDIT 1/28/13: SEE IF YOU CAN FIND THE STUPID MISTAKE I MADE ON ONE OF THE QUESTIONS DISCUSSED BELOW. TRY NOT TO READ THE COMMENTS UNTIL YOU CATCH MY MISTAKE. CLICK HERE TO SEE WHAT THE MISTAKE WAS.

Students across New York State sat down to take Regents exams all last week. The January Regents, for most schools, are make-ups for students who did not pass an exam the first time. For many students, last week’s U.S. History Regents could have been the difference between graduating or not.

Which is why it is upsetting to open up a Regents exam for the first time and come across patently ridiculous questions. Last week’s Global History exam was actually worse in this regard but I don’t have a copy of it on hand. The U.S. History exam was bad enough.

There are many types of bad questions on these history exams. In total they make a great case for why the testing craze sweeping this country is destructive, not to mention why judging students and teachers by the results of these exams are just plain lunacy.

Take Question # 11 from the U.S. History exam:

One result of the purchase of the Louisiana Territory (1803) was that the United States

(1) acquired California from Spain

(2) gained control of the port of New Orleans

(3) ended border conflicts with British Canada

(4) annexed Florida

The answer they are looking for is (2). Of course, as I mentioned in my recent Thomas Jefferson post, the United States had been focused on getting New Orleans for a long time. Merchants and farmers out west were constantly frustrated at not having access to New Orleans which is at the mouth of the Mississippi River and, therefore, a major port of trade. Jefferson was fulfilling a long-time American dream by purchasing it and the rest of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon.

But there were other “results” of the Louisiana Purchase. The acquisition of so much western land focused Americans on westward settlement. It continued an entire western momentum that started with the French and Indian War (1754-1761), which is when American colonists started to penetrate beyond the Appalachians into the Ohio River Valley. With the Louisiana Territory in their possession Americans began to believe that it was their “destiny”, their God-given “Manifest Destiny”, to take control of the entire continent to the Pacific Ocean. 44 years after the Purchase, President James Polk instigated a war with Mexico to fulfill this destiny, gaining California in the process. Therefore, it could be argued that one of the “results” of the Louisiana Purchase was that the U.S. “(1) acquired California from Spain”. While the U.S. never acquired California directly from Spain (as we’ve seen, they got it from Mexico), both California and Mexico were colonies of Spain during the time of the Louisiana Purchase.

As you can see in this map, getting the port of New Orleans was the only result of the Louisiana Purchase.

As you can see in this map, getting the port of New Orleans was the only result of the Louisiana Purchase.

What if a teacher had taught this to their students to give them a more complete picture of the Louisiana Purchase in the context of American History? A student could have filled in choice (1), been at least partially correct and received no credit for it. What if a teacher explained to their students that the Louisiana Purchase put the United States on a collision course with Florida  (which was owned by Spain ), necessitating a series of arguments between the two countries over the borders of East and West Florida (which included the Gulf Coast regions of modern-day Mississippi and Alabama)? What if a teacher taught their students that, after the Purchase, several American generals (including Andrew Jackson) raided Florida in attempts to conquer it? Spain was a decaying empire who did not have the stomach for a trans-Atlantic fight with an aggressive and young United States. This led to the Adams-Onis Treaty (1819 – and negotiated by my favorite American ever, John Quincy Adams) where the United States annexed Florida, which is choice (4).

It is best for a teacher not to teach these things to their students so they will not be confused and fill in the “wrong” bubble on the exam. Of course, the only cost of this is a limited, stunted, incomplete curriculum of United States history, leading to a limited, stunted and incomplete understanding of U.S. history by our students.

But that’s alright. We need to show that we “add value” as teachers which, in this case, means debasing the value of the curriculum.

Three questions later, at question 14, we have another such question:

Which group benefited most directly from the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford?

(1) abolitionists    (3) slave owners

(2) immigrants     (4) enslaved persons

They want answer (4) because Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that slavery was legally permitted in all of the territories. He also ruled that “a black man has no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” How can it not be choice (4)?

Well, it could be any of these choices. It can also be none of these choices. It is hard to say that anyone directly benefited from Taney’s decision. Even though he ruled that slave owners could bring their human chattel anywhere in the American territories, there is little evidence to suggest they did so. The country was so divided over the slavery issue in 1857 that it would be unlikely that slave owners would dare to bring slaves to any territory whose population was against slavery, lest the slave owners get a visit from John Brown and his family or similar types of crusaders.  Essentially, slave owners could only bring slaves to those territories whose people and climates were conducive to slavery, which is to say the territories in which slavery was already legal. The net direct benefit to slave owners in reality was negligible.

Remember the mass exodus of slave owners into the Oregon Territory?

Remember the mass exodus of slave owners into the Oregon Territory?

On the other hand, Taney’s decision strengthened the perception in the north that the “Slave Power”, as many abolitionists called it, dominated the federal government. It steeled their resolve to oppose slavery which became one of the big factors that pushed the nation into the Civil War. It would be the war that ended up abolishing slavery, in which case choice (1) makes sense. By extension, it also means choice (4) makes sense.

Or if you accept the premise that the Dred Scott case strengthened the institution of slavery, then choice (2) makes sense. Northern immigrants were some of the biggest supporters of slavery and the Democratic Party that defended it (indeed, immigrant support is one of the few things that have remained constant about the Democrats since the Age of Jackson). In their minds, slavery kept potential competition for their jobs chained in bondage far away in the south. One of the worst nightmares of many immigrants was an influx of freed slaves to the north undercutting their wages.

Again, heaven forbid a student has a wide-ranging mind that can take in all of these possibilities or had a teacher that taught this to them. They might fill in the wrong bubble and “prove” that their teacher did not “add value” to their understanding of Dred Scott.

Then, a mere eight questions later, we find this question:

In the early 1900s, the United States proposed the Open Door Policy to

(1) gain new colonies in the Pacific

(2) win support for building the Panama Canal

(3) improve relations with Europe

(4) secure access to markets in China

They obviously want choice (4) here. The United States’ economy exploded after the Civil War, ushering in an era of rapid expansion. The 1890 census showed that the “frontier” out on the western part of the continent was “full”, so Americans cast a covetous glance beyond towards the Pacific. Unfortunately, most of Europe had beaten them to the punch when it came to imperialism. The United States was oftentimes treated as a junior partner by the great powers in the game of geopolitical expansion. In Hawaii, Samoa and many other Pacific Islands, the U.S. asserted its growing influence in an attempt to both gain new markets and gain the respect of the great powers. Therefore, if the U.S. wanted to gain markets in China as choice (4) says, could that not also mean that they wished to “improve relations with Europe”, which is choice (3)?

C'mon Europe, let us get a piece of China. In return, you won't have to respect us or treat us well at all.

C’mon Europe, let us get a piece of China. In return, you won’t have to respect us or treat us well at all.

This, of course, all depends on what you mean by “improve”. As the U.S. expanded its influence the great powers took the growing nation more seriously, causing them to seek alliances, trade agreements and peace with the U.S. Would this not be an “improvement” by most definitions of the word? If the U.S. did not aggressively push its interests like it it did in China and other places, it would have remained a non-entity to the great powers and a country whose shipping was ripe for plunder on the high seas. In the world of geopolitics, might makes right.

An open-minded student could make a good case for choosing (3). Unfortunately, scantron machines do not care about making good cases and critical thought. No value added here Mr./Ms. Open-Minded Student. It is obvious that your teacher did not add any value to you.

A similar thing happens a mere six questions later in question 28:

After World War I, one way in which the Red Scare, the passing of the Quota Acts, and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan were similar is that they all

(1) exploited fears about people who were considered un-American

(2) encourages the assimilation of new immigrants into American society

(3) supported goals of the suffrage movement

(4) exhibited prejudice against African Americans

Granted, the answer that makes the most sense is (1). The question refers to the climate of “nativism” that swept the country after World War I. However, if the country was turning against everything foreign then would it not cause many immigrants to want to assimilate? No immigrant wanted to a visit from the KKK or to be raided by A. Mitchell Palmer in his quest to find communists. One of the best ways to avoid this was to act American, which would be choice (2). Indeed, one of the byproducts of the nativist climate was the drive to assimilate. It was in the 1920s when most children in the United States had been enrolled in public school for the first time. One of the original reasons to have public schools in the first place was to Americanize the children of immigrants. All of the things mentioned in this question certainly helped make up the minds of immigrant parents as to whether or not they wanted to send their children to public schools. Assimilate or suffer could have been a mantra of the Roaring 20s.

What better time to act all "immigranty" than when the Klan is marching on D.C.? To hell with assimilation, bring out the rosary beads and dreidels.

What better time to act all “immigranty” than when the Klan is marching on D.C.? To hell with assimilation, bring out the rosary beads and dreidels.

Too bad for the student who might see things in this way and for the teacher who taught this. There is just no value to be had in an idea that leads to the wrong bubble-in answer.

A mere two questions later it happens again with a very strange question:

As part of the New Deal, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) were created to

(1) allow for a quick recovery of stock prices

(2) provide direct loans to businesses

(3) protect individual investors from stock fraud and bank failure

(4) allow banks and companies to invest in the stock market

Choice (3) makes sense. The SEC attempted to make the stock market transparent so investors would not get fleeced. The FDIC allowed the government to insure bank deposits so that bank runs would not wipe out people’s savings. This is the answer they want.

On the other hand, the transparency that the SEC was designed to bring to the market was also designed to bring back investor confidence, in which case choice (4) makes sense. Now, yes, the FDIC did not affect the stock market but the Glass-Stegall Act, which was the law that created the FDIC, did. Not only did Glass-Stegall create the FDIC, it erected a “firewall” between consumer and investor banks. The former type of bank would only deal with savings and small loans. The latter type of bank would deal with venture capital and stocks. While choice (4) is not technically “correct” it is sort of a gotcha question. A student could read FDIC and think Glass-Stegall and bubble in the wrong choice.

So I suppose it is better for a teacher to avoid mentioning Glass-Stegall altogether. Instead, they should merely focus on the FDIC part of the law and teach it as an isolated event. Clouding a student’s mind with an unnecessarily full view of history will only lead to the wrong bubble getting filled in and a negative “value added” score. I guess the banks should be happy about this. Students would never learn that Glass-Steagall reined in some of the worst abuses of big banks, including using the money of their customers to gamble in the stock market and other risky ventures. Thanks to the Gramm-Leach-Blily Act (1999), the part of Glass-Stegall that prevented banks from doing these things was repealed. Now students will never learn that banks were once regulated in this way and instead assume that the giant casinos the banks have become is the banks’ natural, default way of doing things.

bankers

The banks themselves could not have designed a question better suited to preempt the future generations from understanding how they continue to abuse the economy and put all of us at risk, again.

These are not all of the stupid, vague, incomplete or just plain inane questions that can be found on the January 2013 U.S. History regents. However, this post is already longer than common internet decency will allow.

What these questions show us is that teachers are encouraged to teach a narrow American History curriculum. Any teacher who attempts otherwise runs the risk of “confusing” their students, leading to wrong answers, negative value added and, eventually, a pink slip.

This is the New York State’s version of newspeak. A small curriculum leads to large “value added” for the teacher. A vast curriculum leads to negative “value added”. The freedom students and teachers receive, freedom from being left back or freedom from being fired, is actually slavery in the form of a shallow, ignorant understanding of history.

WHAT RISING GRADUATION RATES TELL US

Which world is closer to the one the new graduates are inheriting?

Which world is closer to the one the new graduates are inheriting?

So the news has been flooded with headlines about how national graduation rates from public schools are up to a level not seen in nearly 40 years:

More than 3.1 million high school students received their diplomas in spring 2010, with 78.2 percent finishing in four years, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported Tuesday. The rate is a 2.7-percentage-point increase over the previous year, and those two rates are the highest since the 75 percent rate in 1975 and 1976.

This is not the cause for celebration that the media is making it out to be. If we look at the cheating scandals in D.C. and Atlanta we see the greasy underbelly of the motor driving these graduation rates.

Public schools have been bludgeoned into accepting so-called “accountability” programs that have held teachers responsible for tests scores and pass rates. We drill and kill for exams that seem to get just a tad easier every year. We overlook behavior issues and shoddy scholarship as a shortcut to getting kids to pass. Our jobs as teachers have increasingly involved getting students to fill in the correct bubbles in a certain 3-hour span, the rest of the education process be damned.

This isn’t due to anything we have done as teachers. Our educational leaders, from the Secretary of Education on down, have done everything in their power to put this system into place. With their myopic interpretation of what counts for “achievement”, they have reduced the learning process to a series of numbers and the teaching profession to a series of steps to color within these numbers. So now we focus on the “data” instead of the child; the “value” we “add” instead of what our communities teach our children to value.

Of course we would have high graduation rates in this type of environment. We have become adept at manipulating numbers because our jobs depend on it. The Secretary of Education, the governors, mayors, chancellors, superintendents and principals all need the numbers to go up. The testing companies and data-collection companies need to show that the numbers are going up. All of these entities require the numbers to go up in order to justify their influence. They have been in control of America’s education systems for so long that the numbers better have gone up by now.

The fix was in ever since the appearance of this thing called “education reform”. They came to us and said schools were not doing our jobs. They said they were taking over the schools and running them like businesses. They expected results and they were going to get them. It was foreordained that graduation rates would reach such high levels. They made all of us conspirators in their game of reform. The teachers were taken into a shotgun marriage that tied the survival of the educational leaders to the survival of teachers.

“If these test scores don’t rise, we won’t be around long. But we will make sure that you also will not be around long.” This was the Faustian bargain with which reformers presented teachers. Stand up against the system by not teaching to the test or by exercising your union rights and you go down. Play the game and get the numbers up and we will feature you as one of our success stories, as one of the “good ones”. Everyone wins. Teachers get to keep their jobs. Reformers get to say that their policies work.

And what type of graduates do we have? We have graduates who have been trained to bubble in answers. We have graduates that need an increasing amount of remedial classes once they get to college. This is exactly the type of graduate one  would expect from a school system run on the business model:  one-dimensional, unskilled and mass produced. They are light plastic cogs to be used in a giant machine, easily tossed aside and replaced when they get used up.

And what type of world are our graduates entering? One with proliferating low-wage jobs touted as “job recovery”. One where food stamp rolls, college debt and poverty are rising. This isn’t the bright open future baby-boomers saw on the horizon. Today’s graduates are inheriting a world of diminishing limits. The future is dark and small.

What more can we expect? We have concentrated on getting “achievement” as measured in “data” so much higher because the schools weren’t preparing children for “the future”. In the process, we have neglected to prepare a future for our children to inherit. The ones who would create the future for our children took over the school system and prepared them for exactly the type of future they had in store.

Blank graduates for a blank future.

Education reform is not about improving schools. It is about hollowing out the schools because the future will be hollow. These new graduation statistics are just the results of that.

So no need to be happy. It is the low tide of education reform leaving behind the effluvia they created.

Elements of Successful Teaching: I Got Nothin’

Ben Bernanke finally being honest.

Welcome back to school New York City teachers. I hope everyone had a good first day yesterday. It also marked the start of a new season of blogging for me here. I needed the time to myself over the past few months after my mother’s passing. Now I aim to update this place once daily at least. My prior clip of twice-a-day rants probably will not be reached until much later, for I might need to find a place to live in the coming weeks. Once I get my feet under me again, blogging will be much easier.

So yesterday was filled with the same first-day-of-school rituals we are used to at my humble Manhattan high school. The staff milled in between 8:00 and 8:30 and did some catching up, then we had a morning full of meetings and then we had the afternoon to prepare our rooms. Preparing my room gave me time to think about the morning meetings. I finally learned, after it was taught to me a million times throughout my life, that I know absolutely nothing about teaching.

Last year was not my best teaching year. I think most veteran teachers can look at individual school years and say “I was really on my game” or “boy, I stunk up the joint”.  For example, the 2009-2010 school year was really good for me overall. I was ahead of my workload, tried many new and successful strategies, read a ton of books and developed a great rapport with my students. That was the year 100% of my 11th graders passed the U.S. History Regents, with around 65% getting a grade of 85 or higher.

I thought it made sense that all of my students would do well on the Regents since that was really the first year I brought my decade-plus experience to bear in the classroom.

Well, fast forward to yesterday morning and it all goes out the window.

We were looking at the passing rates for the previous school year’s Regents exams. Since the end of that school year passed by in such a depressing haze for me, I never had time to marvel at the fact that 93% of my students passed the U.S. History Regents. Now, of course, if we were going by the ludicrous idea of “value-added”, that means I lost 7 percentage points over the previous two years and suck as a teacher. We all know though that value-added is a joke, a voodoo social theory backed up by nonsensical equations, much like Reaganomics was voodoo economics.

I sucked last year. The entire school year from September to June was nothing but personal turmoil. Colleagues were under investigation, a long-term relationship I was in failed around New Year’s Day and, most painfully, my mother was very sick in the days after that.

As a professional, it should be my line that “those things did not affect my work”. However, one would have to be near robotic to not have personal tragedy impact daily personal performance in some way. I did not have time to write great lessons, I fell way behind on grading and I was, at times, very uncomfortable with being in front of a room full of teenaged people. One day, I even wrote the wrong aim on the board and was around 5 minutes into the lesson before I realized it, causing me to erase and start everything over again. I felt I was stumbling towards the finish line, and the finish line was still 4 months away.

My students, for the most part, seemed understanding of my shortcomings. As every year I have ever taught, the vast majority of my students were nice people with whom I found common ground. I could make a million mistakes and laugh it off and they would not hold it against me. Last year that group of students was really tested, because I probably did literally make a million mistakes.

And, throughout it all, I was thinking to myself “darn, these kids are going to absolutely BOMB the Regents in June.” It was not their fault. It was the fault of the distracted teacher who not only wrote the wrong aim on the board, but who was also absent for the last month of the school year.

I reflected back to my 2009-2010 slam dunk year. That year, I had a group of very well-motivated students whom I considered very bright. On top of that, I was “on” most of the time. It was a perfect storm of teaching and learning. I compared that with this past school year, where my classes needed a little more guidance and I felt that I was not there to provide it. If I broke a 70% pass rate, I would be floored.

When we started grading the Regents in June, I was confirmed in my fears. When I came across an essay a student of mine wrote, I said “I should have taught them (fill in factoid or complete idea here).” It seemed that all my crummy teaching was coming home to roost.

Then, after we scanned everything and the results came back, 93% of my students passed. It was not an easy Regents, and there was no way to scrub the results even if we wanted to, but they still ended up passing at a 93% clip. Granted, this is not the 100% of two years ago, but it beat my previous year’s results when I was certainly more “on” as a teacher. Why did 93% of them pass? I have not a clue. I am glad that they did. I do not say the word “proud” since that means I would be taking some sort of credit for their success, which I certainly do not.

So, I can safely say that I have no idea of the dynamic between what I present as a teacher and what filters into my students’ brains. Furthermore, I have no idea how standardized exams measure that dynamic and highly doubt they can measure that dynamic at all. I remember when I was a student at Brooklyn Tech, there was an Advanced Placement math teacher who taught nothing all year. Instead, he regaled the class with tales of his personal life. Practically everyone in his class got 4s and 5s on the AP exam anyway.

There is a reason why no civilized nation on earth uses standardized exams to penalize or judge their students and teachers. It is because they mean nothing. They measure a narrow set of concepts in a narrow space of time. It is a snapshot of a few hours. It is the height of madness to use them to judge the quality of the students who take it and it is downright Lewis Carol trippy to use them to judge the teachers who teach those students. Yet, the president of this supposedly most civilized of nations pushes testing on us like a grand elixir, and he supposedly represents the most civilized and humane political party in this civilized nation.

Teaching is a great unknown. When it works, something happens in that classroom that cannot be expressed in numbers and can barely be expressed in words. That is why it takes professionals to teach, not automated robots or cookie-cutter fast-food workers. They cannot be trained at so-called colleges funded by charters who claim that the key to teaching is having students wave fingers of good energy at each other, or for the teacher to humiliate students by putting them on the spot for a question that requires a one-word answer.

Unfortunately, this is what testing and all of the other programs of “education reform” aim at. It is imperative for the “reformers” first to demean and then deskill the teaching force so that we will be powerless to speak out in criticism against them. They do not want professionals. Anybody arrogant enough to think they can lecture the nation on what good teaching or good learning looks like is a demagogue. Me and many other “good” teachers are good because it is in their hearts. After a decade or so, it becomes something like muscle memory. Within that category of good teachers there are all types of different people with all types of different styles and beliefs.

Why are they good? I cannot tell you that. I got nothin’. Anybody who is honest about what makes a quality teacher should make that their stock answer.

More Testing, Please

The New York State Board of Regents will decide next week what to do with the Global History Regents Exam. Judging from the data, this is the toughest of all Regents. Only 69% of the students in the state passed the test last year.

I have taught Global History every year since the start of my teaching career. The Global exam is difficult for a few reasons. First, it tests two years of content. Usually, students take Global History I and II in freshmen year and then take the Regents in sophomore year after taking Global III and IV. Second, students are required to know a little bit about every civilization. It is a very scattered curriculum no matter how a school presents it (chronologically or regionally). Third, the grading scale for the exam is usually unforgiving. Students usually have to write two decent essays because they cannot skate by on the multiple choice part. Last year, the state required us to score the exams in such a way that reduces the chance of scrubbing. All of these things explain why 2011’s pass rates were so low.

My students know my views on the Global Regents. I think the exams are stupid and should not be used to judge their knowledge of history or their high school diploma. If it was up to me, they would not have to take the Global Regents at all.

So, why am I not happy about the fact that New York State is considering reforming the exam?

There seem to be two possibilities on the table. The first involves making the exam voluntary. The second involves splitting it up into two exams: one for Global I and II and another for Global III and IV.

So, why does a person like me, who opposes standardized exams, want the Board of Regents to go with the latter option? Why do I want them to mandate more testing for my students?

Because I know what the implications are of making the exam voluntary. State Education Commissioner John King has already hinted at it:

“There’s certainly going to be a lot of jobs in the future in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and this new pathway will encourage districts and schools to create additional opportunities for their students to pursue those areas.”

Essentially, doing away with the Global Regents means doing away with Global History. See, the future economy is going to revolve around STEM careers, so that is where we need to focus our education resources. History is not STEM, therefore we do not need it.

The handwriting is on the wall. History in New York State is on the road to extinction.

It seems unlikely that the Board of Regents will chop the Global exam in two. That would require investing more resources in history. John King has already given the signal that this is not where the future lies.

First, the exam will become voluntary. Schools will still provide Global History for a few years. Then the standardized testing regime will kick in. The Board of Regents will decide that 4 semesters dedicated to a course that ends with a voluntary Regents exam is a waste of resources. It will collapse into a one-year course. Everything from the dawn of man until the end of the Cold War will have to be studied in two semesters. The second year of Global will be given over to perhaps another year of science, or maybe an engineering class.

After a few more years, people will look at this strange Global History course and ask themselves “what’s the point?” It is not a STEM subject and its Regents is voluntary. Just axe it. Fill the void with some more math or maybe extend the engineering course into a two-year curriculum. In the not too distant future, Global History will be a memory. History teachers will be laid off by the thousands.

It will not be too long after this that American History will also be gone. We can look back on the day that art and music were done away with in NYC as the beginning of the end of all humanities-related subjects in our schools.

English and Foreign Language will also probably go the same way. School systems across the country will be nothing more than training grounds for the low-wage workers and low-end consumers of tomorrow’s economy. Thanks to the elimination of the humanities, the next generation will have no idea how we got this economy of the future (which will then be the present) and no way to imagine a better alternative.