Monday, February 17, 2014

Time to cast off the testing demons and do what's right



One thing most citizens agree on is that no cost, high quality K - 12 education should be available for all children.  The benefits seem quite clear for both the individuals, and our society as a whole.  The trick is - how to you determine that a child is receiving a quality education?

Many of us would echo the famous Justice Stewart observation regarding obscenity:  “I know it when I see it”; but we live in the era of Big Data, so test scores have become a surrogate.  The belief accepted: high test scores indicate a high quality education.   

At first glance, one can see some merit to the concept.  After all, in High School and College students take a final exam at the end of a semester for each class taken.  Excluding those folks who have general test-taking issues, the results of these tests tend to give us a pretty good idea of how well a student has mastered the material.  If we believe this type of test has validity, it is because they are written and scored by the people who presented the material in the first place.

Even these tests have a drawback.  Many people think tests do their best work by informing teachers about the areas in which their student needs extra assistance.  But at this point the class is over.  There is no opportunity for feedback, no option for remediation by the teacher.

Indiana administers the ISTEP test from Third Grade onward – as mandated by federal education policy.  The design and administration is outsourced.  The tests are scored by temporary workers.  There is no connection to the classroom experience for the students.  But the results have become life and death matters for both schools and teacher’s jobs.  Due to these kind of stakes, we’ve seen cheating scandals in Washington DC, Atlanta, and elsewhere.

In the early years, only math and language skills are tested, later science is added to the mix.  It’s no surprise then, that curricula are often narrowed to focus on these areas – especially in schools with a high proportion of students from challenged backgrounds.

This has a perverse effect.  Research is clear that course enrichment: music, drama, visual art, physical education, and the like, help keep children engaged and motivated in school.  And these are the kind of students most in need of any support we can manage.  But the powers that be seem to think that narrowing the curriculum is the way to achieve optimal test scores.

So we have devised our strategies around the surrogate goal, rather than the original one.  That creates a dilemma:  There’s no guarantee that what works for one will work for the other.

In South Bend, Indiana, where we live, there are neighborhood schools and so-called magnet schools.  The “magnets” draw from the entire district by offering specialized foci.

About a year ago we sampled the menu, as our daughter was ready to move on to intermediate school.  We then saw pretty clearly the results of under funding and test mania in our public school system.

The two finalists were LaSalle Intermediate Academy and our local school, Jackson.  To enter LIA, one must pass an entrance test and succeed in a lottery.  LIA offers a much wider course selection than the alternatives (though somewhat short of my own public middle school experience).  Still, we wanted to take a careful look at Jackson, as well.

We were highly impressed by Principal Schaller, and school building itself is a duplicate of LaSalle - they were built contemporaneously.  But they are very different in terms of what it is offered inside.

Thanks to the gradual de-funding of public education, our neighborhood school no longer offers any industrial arts, home economics, or drama.  The visual arts and science facilities are dubious in quality - and foreign language (Spanish only) is a three semester proposition (grades 7 - 8).  Phys Ed is only sporadically offered.  And the only after school things available are athletic programs.

If that weren't discouraging enough, we were told all children are tested in math and English every three weeks.  The time allocated is forty-five minutes (one would assume per subject) with the class results posted on the cafeteria wall.  So, there is little in the way of enrichment, and lots of lost instructional time – all in service to the budget cutters and the testing fiends.

It is true that test scores have nudged up a bit at the school.  But that’s true almost everywhere.  And surprising as it may seem, we don’t send our daughter to school to secure a high score on once per year tests which are meaningless to her and us.  No, we send her to secure a high quality education – which she will get due to the enrichment programs and increased instructional time at LIA.  And no doubt, better test scores.

So in the end we had no choice because we had a choice.  Unfortunately for most families, they have no choice because they have no choice.

An organization’s budget is clear statement of values.  The State of Indiana needs to quit looking for scapegoats and sending public instruction funds to commercial vendors.  It should instead, reinvest in its children at levels to get the job done properly.  In other words, it should align its strategies towards the original goal, rather than the surrogate.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Common Core makes for strange bedfellows

I never anticipated a time where I would be on the same side of an issue as Tom Uebbing.

For those unfamiliar with the gentleman, he is an outspoken, crusading member of the so-called Citizens for Community Values - tireless fighter of the "homosexual agenda" and the like.  Mr. Uebbing likes to write, and this was his take on Common Core, as published recently in the South Bend Tribune.
A compelling reason to oppose Common Core is the inherent national takeover of Indiana schools. The power that controls the standards controls the tests that measure how the standards are being met. The power that controls the tests controls the content of the curriculum to be tested. Given the federal government's zeal for promoting to our youth unmarried sex, contraception, abortion and homosexuality, Common Core can be used as a strategic pipeline for selling our youth those destructive practices and an entire worldview through social studies classes.

Passing a tax of 1 percent for some alleged good cause is likely to receive little public opposition. However, once the tax law is established, incrementally hiking the tax to even oppressive levels lulls an unwary public. Similarly, the establishment of Common Core opens the door to the tyranny of destructive ideologies coming from Washington and eliminates Hoosiers' ability to govern themselves and safeguard the minds and hearts of their children.

Who knew?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

On pimping Common Core



People who carefully follow the development of and controversy surrounding the Common Core Standards could be excused if they found a recent Viewpoint piece penned by Justin Ohlemiller on the topic a bit at odds with the world they know.

It’s important to understand that the program was launched by the National Governors Association and its concept endorsed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Neither of these organizations could reasonably be characterized as “grassroots”.

The program was essentially reverse-engineered:  A desired result (at High School graduation) was determined, and various metrics adopted for the grade levels prior.  Indiana has only applied the new standards in Kindergarten and First Grade, but many educators have reported that the requirements are not age appropriate.

Andrea Neal (whose column appears in the Tribune) has characterized opposition to the standards in this way:  “The right is concerned about imposition of a “federal curriculum” and the loss of local control. The left fears “one size fits all” instruction that will turn teachers into widget makers whose primary purpose is to prepare students for testing, not learning.”

Though I think the characterization is true, it is also incomplete.  The program has many arbitrary requirements having to do with percent of time spent on (fill in the gap).  Though it claims otherwise, the program appears to favor rote memorization over critical thinking.  The curriculum would necessarily be narrowed to address the objectives.  There are other concerns as well.

But most importantly, the program is completely unproven.  It was finalized in 2012 and we have absolutely no data.

Yet it is being foisted upon the states by our national government as a replacement for the once ballyhooed, but clearly defective No Child Left Behind program.  And not only does the mandate carry the potential penalty of the loss of federal funding for non-compliance, it holds a provision even more odious: Teacher compensation and retention be tied to student test results – tests based upon the standards.

So who wins when an unproven program with extremely high stakes is implemented?  Testing companies, test preparation companies, private tutors and the like.

Mr. Ohlemiller didn’t mention any of this.  Sometimes the truth is inconvenient.

As mentioned at the end of his submission, Mr. Ohlemiller is the Executive Director of Stand for Children.  He also serves on the Board of Directors of Democrats For Education Reform.

As those who follow this topic carefully are aware, “reform” is code for a desire to replace public education with a system of for-profit and other private schools.  Dr. Diane Ravitch, former US 
Assistant Secretary of Education and renowned public education historian characterizes both groups as pro-privatization.  She has also noted that DFER was created by a group of hedge-fund managers.

And let’s not kid ourselves that Stand For Children is a “grassroots” organization.  How many grassroots organizations do you know that are sufficiently funded to be nation-wide and have paid Executive Directors in each state?

Mr Ohlemiller claims there is a groundswell of support for Common Core from citizens and organizations in Indiana, implying that the State Legislature is merely being obstructionist, rather than prudent.  Well I certainly haven’t heard any such clamor. Have you?

So his collection of odd anecdotes just represents him doing his job.  Well, me too, I guess.  I’m the father of a ten-year old public school student who wants her to be presented a well thought out curriculum.  I also want her teachers treated fairly and compensated justly.

Is it so crazy to suggest that maybe we should roll out the standards on a smaller scale and see how they work before we go all in?

Don Wheeler
Parents Across AmericaSouth Bend



Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Vicksburg Campaign - a storm attempt



by Don Wheeler, Jacob Wheeler, and Shelby Foote


The fact that the Confederate Army had held Vicksburg, Mississippi from the start of the war into 1863 had posed problems for the Union Army. Although the Union had successfully captured the Mississippi River north and south of the town, it couldn't make complete use of the river as a supply route. Vicksburg carried the nickname "The Gibraltar of the West" because of huge defensive advantages it had. Situated on a steep bluff overlooking the river, it was nearly unapproachable.

In fact, the Union Army failed in multiple attempts over more than a year's period of time to even get close. Finally, General Grant found a successful method, and it was time for the approach to the city itself. (The events described happened almost exactly 150 years ago in May of 1863).

From Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative
Their belief that they would carry the place by storm, here and now, was matched by (Ulysses S.) Grant, who issued his final orders before noon. "Corps commanders will push forward carefully, and gain as close position as possible to the enemy's works, until 2 p.m.; at (which) hour they will fire three volleys of artillery from all the pieces in position. This will be the signal for a general charge of all the army corps along the whole line." A closing sentence, intended to forestall the lapse of discipline that would attend a too-informal victory celebration, expressed the measure of his confidence that the assault would be successful, bringing the campaign to a triumphant close today: "When the works are carried, guards will be placed by all division commanders to prevent their men from straggling from their companies."

They were a confident bunch. They had some reason to be - as my great-great-grandfather, Jacob, described the approach of his unit, The Chicago Board of Trade Regiment, to the attack point:
It was said that General Grant, after Jackson was taken, and it was taken quick, telegraphed to Vicksburg to send on all the reinforcements they could spare; and signed some Secech (Confederate) General's name to it. They obeyed promptly by sending 40,000 men and a long train of ammunition, which was burnt by them to keep it falling into our hands. It was a shrewd Yankee trick and it paid off. We fell on them with nearly double their numbers - captured 72 pieces of artillery and a great number of prisoners.

We stopped the chase at
10:00 o'clock at night. They stopped about 3 miles ahead of us and built large campfires, but started on the run long before day with our folks after them. They succeeded in getting most of their troops over the Black River, but not before we captured 17 pieces of Cannon and 3000 troops, besides drowning 2000 of them. We were so close to them that they could not get all their troops over before they burned the bridge. If it was not for the river, we would have been in Vicksburg as soon as they were. During the night we built several bridges and early in the morning started for here (the rear of Vicksburg).

We have now got them surrounded. We occupy the center, the Left of our Army rests on the
Mississippi River and the Right on the Yazoo River. We are on the left of Sherman's Corps. It is the strongest point of their fortifications...
It looked like a promising situation, but as was often the case in the Civil War, things did not always go as planned.

From Shelby Foote's account:
At the appointed hour, the guns boomed, and the blue clots of troops rushed forward, shoulder to shoulder, cheering as they vied for the honor of being the first to scale the ridge; whereupon, as if in response to the same signal, a long low cloud of smoke, torn along its bottom edge by the pinkish yellow stabs of muzzle flashes, boiled up with a great clatter from the rebel works ahead. The racket was so tremendous that no man could hear his own shouts or the sudden yelps of the wounded alongside him. What was immediately apparent, however, amid a confusion of sound so uproarious that it was if the whole mad scene was played in pantomime, was that the assault had failed almost as soon as it got started...

...Emerging into the open, an Illinois captain saw "the very sticks and chips, scattered over the ground, jumping under the hot shower of rebel bullets." Startled, he and his company plunge forward, tumbled into a cane-choked ravine at the base of the enemy ridge, and hugged the earth for cover and concealment. All up and down the line it was much the same for those who had not scattered rearward at the first burst of tire; once within point blank musket range, there was little the attackers could do but try to stay out of sight until darkness gave them a chance to pull back without inviting a bullet between the shoulder blades.

This was, of course, Jacob Wheeler's outfit - and his account is even more graphic:
On the 22nd we made a charge on their works, but were repulsed. The air was literally filled with shot and shell. They had a fire on us from three different directions and it was fearful. It is a miracle to us all, how any of us escaped alive. Our Regiment had 106 killed and wounded in less than half an hour. Our Lt. Colonel lost an arm. LT. Whittle of our Company was hit in the arm - he had an artery cut. The captain of Company K lost an arm. Company G lost their Lieutenant; so did Company E lose theirs. Their Captain had a ball through his face. Our Company had five killed and nine wounded: one was Will Maugle; Joe Ebersoll was badly wounded in the left shoulder - both from our town. All the rest of the Ottawa boys were all right.

The boy that stood before me had both of his legs shot off, the boy that stood by the side of me had his head shot off, and the one who stood behind had his bowels thrown all over him.

It was a fearful scene, but I understand there will be no more charges. We intend to take the place by siege.


Which they eventually did. Confederate General Pemberton, seeking good terms, surrendered Vicksburg on July 4 of that year.
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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Remarks as presented to the SBCSC Board of Trustees re: appointment



Since I knew our time would be limited today, I previously sent you a bit about who I am and what I work on when it comes to public education.  As you’ll remember, my involvement in the school corporation is not limited to just my own child, but others I’m responsible for as their CASA as well.

I’ve spent many of my working years as a front line manager for various service industries.  My days were filled with giving direction to staff members who encountered problems, and to a lesser extent, addressing issues brought to me by customers.

Over time I learned techniques to prioritize the challenges brought to me; differentiating between what was urgent vs. important, identifying where a partial solution would mitigate the immediate problem, allowing for further study for complete resolution, and the like.  I would imagine it is a lot like that for you.

In fact, you’ve had one of those thorny issues presented to you recently. I believe that the community is going to need some better account regarding the issue of grade changing at Washington High School.  I’ve read the lengthy South Bend Tribune article multiple times and, as a community member, I don’t feel any confidence that I know what happened.  The Board cannot allow the article to stand as the public record of the matter.  There must be an investigation and there must be a report.  There also needs to be a policy adopted on whether grade changing is ever appropriate, and if so, when and how.  A proactive approach would make a repeat of this sort of issue unlikely, and could serve to reassure citizens of the school corporation.

I know that your particular challenges have been made much more difficult by injurious decisions made in state government.  Failure to restore past funding levels, instead choosing to lower taxes and making Indiana’s voucher program the most expansive in the nation certainly makes clear the lack of regard for public education by our decision makers.  I want to work with you to change these priorities.

I do think that the community needs its school board to at least challenge these policies.  And maybe this board should join with other boards in large communities to issue some joint resolutions expressing dissatisfaction with the state.  They are, after all, financing their priorities at the expense of our children’s needs.  It’s hard to calculate what the cost of that will be.

But here’s where you’ve distinguished yourselves, in my view.  We know that the two most significant indicators of student success are first, the family situation of the child, and second, class size.  You folks can’t do much about the former, but you have held the line on the latter.  I read about class sizes of thirty to forty-five kids elsewhere and wonder how teachers can possibly be effective in those situations.  I am grateful you have not allowed that to happen here, and would pledge to stand with you to keep that the case.

So I am here asking to join you.  I understand the degree of difficulty, but it is work I wish to do. And for anyone who wishes to know what I would like to accomplish as a member of the Board of School Trustees, it would be this:  Up to now, our daughter has had a fantastic experience as a student in the district.  She runs up the steps of the bus every morning – she’s that eager to get to school.  I want that for every parent’s child.

Don Wheeler

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My letter of introduction to the SBCSC Board of School Trustees



I’ve lived in the area for the past twenty-three years – first near Riley High School, now in Center Township.  I’m married to Dr. Patricia Blanchette (Paddy), Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, and together we have a ten year old daughter, Sarah.  Sarah has nearly completed her experience at Hay Primary Center and is enrolled at LaSalle Academy for the next academic year.

I’m a product of a world-class public school system.  I was born in and grew up in Evanston, IL.  Everything in my life has been made easier because of the education I got there.

My interest in the local school system naturally increased as our daughter approached Kindergarten age.  Paddy and I took the search for the best program very seriously – as any parent would.  I wrote of our experiences in a three part series:


As it turns out, we couldn’t be more pleased with our decision.  Sarah has had a fantastic experience at Hay, and is clearly ready to take the next step.

The search for the best intermediate program went a bit differently.  I wrote about that as well.

http://www.southbendprogressive.org/2013/03/we-win-lottery.html

As a Dream Team Mentor, I worked with a young boy at Eggleston (prior to my marriage).  As a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children, I’ve worked with children attending Wilson, Monroe, and Marquette – sometimes, only for a while. 
These experiences have exposed me to many, many issues.

I also devote time and study to state and national education issues.  I’m a member of the Network for Public Education, chaired by Dr. Diane Ravitch, founded the South Bend chapter of Parents Across America, and network with many other public education advocacy groups around the state.

My leadership experience dates back to High School.  At the YMCA’s Illinois State Youth & Government I won office and presided as Speaker of the Illinois House in Springfield.  At Southern Illinois University-Carbondale I was elected Senator, Senate Finance Chair, later, Senate President.  I also served on the Board of Directors of the Association of Illinois Student Governments (AISG).

I have experience working on other Boards  – and working for them.  I served several years on the Board which plans and operates the Mathew 25 Habitat for Humanity house build in South Bend.  I also served five years on the Board of Trustees of First Unitarian Church – including two terms as President.  I’m not unfamiliar with Board dynamics, nor the time investment required to serve well. 

And I really enjoy my role as a House Captain in the annual St. Joseph County Rebuilding Together (formerly Christmas In April) program.  I come from a family where service to the community is an important part of our identity.

Thank you for taking time to read this.  I look forward to answering your questions on May 28.

Don Wheeler