Category Archives: soapbox

Wishful Thinking

There seems to be quite a bit of wishful thinking at work with regard to the Smarter Balanced assessments. That aiming for minimum technology requirements and hoping for the best is enough. That we won’t need to buy anything more than we already have. That the state will find the money to pay for it all plus 4% growth plus fully fund the teacher leadership system (no need to prioritize spending, we can have it all!). That somehow, we can pretend that it’s all benefits and no costs, and in any case, it’s worth it (whatever it ends up being).


The experience in other states is that the move to statewide online assessments is a massive (and expensive!) undertaking, with many opportunities for things–large and small–to go wrong, even with the best planning.

In the next post I plan to address assessment technology issues experienced by other states (followed by a post on time and costs to administer the assessments). You can answer for yourselves whether Iowa is engaging in the best planning for a move to statewide online assessments.

Of course I’m not immune to wishful thinking myself. Surely legislators, prudent minders of the state budget, won’t vote for schools to pay more for assessments when schools could pay less for an assessment that meets all the minimum legislative requirements and covers all the required subjects. That legislators surely won’t vote to pay more without knowing exactly how much more it will be now and in the future. That legislators won’t knowingly impose unfunded mandates on our schools. And that somehow this decision on statewide assessments will be about assessments and not political sausage-making.

*Inspired by Math with Bad Drawings. I think we can all agree that Education in Iowa should stay away from both analogies and bad drawings from now on.

Online Learning

During the debate over HF 204, an act relating to open enrollment of students in online learning programs [virtual academies], on the House floor, Representative Staed tweeted:

Apparently he hasn’t heard that the future of teaching and learning is online.

Question: at what point of ed tech integration is there essentially no real difference between attending a brick and mortar school and a virtual academy? When all students are working through individualized computer-based, 21st century versions of WHIMP instead of participating in teacher-led, whole-group instruction? When a student in Iowa is more likely to be discussing a book with a student in Australia than with any of the other human beings sharing a physical space with him, because, 21st century?

I am completely aware that I am a broken record on the subject, but why can’t we aim for Montessori for all (or at least for all who want it) instead? Where kids are actually interacting with real, physical objects, and the human beings sharing space with them, rather than interacting with screens all day?

Century Labeling

I appreciate Superintendent Carver’s cheerful enthusiasm, as well as his cheerful morning Twitter greetings, so this post isn’t meant to single him out. This just happens to have caught my eye–and my ire too, I suppose–yesterday morning:

It seems century labels are only used as shorthand to denote that some things are woefully outmoded (19th and 20th century) and other things are of obvious modern goodness (21st century).

I can’t get all that worked up about whether kids get tested on 13th century arithmetic on 21st century tablets (using 19th century QWERTY keyboards and 19th century standardized spelling) or using pencil and paper answer sheets (which will be scored using 21st century computers) except for the fact that those 21st century computer-based tests aren’t all that much different than the familiar multiple-choice bubble tests, just much more expensive.

For my children, I’ll gladly stick with the 20th century testing on the right to leave time and money for, say, 16th century instructional programs like these:

And I’ll happily support local control that allows Superintendent Carver’s district to make a different choice.

Six Percent

With the legislative session underway, it is time for our annual supplemental state aid (SSA–formerly known as allowable growth) debate. Governor Branstad has proposed 1.25 percent and 2.45 percent increases for the next two years, others are calling for a six percent increase.

A reader asks, has allowable growth ever been set at six percent? The Legislative Services Agency has the answer for us.

Before we get to that, a few notes. First, with split government,negotiations are to be expected; these are just opening bargaining positions. Second, it is important to remember that the teacher leadership system is being funded at about $100 million this upcoming year and $150 million the following year. If the funds earmarked for TLC were shifted to SSA, SSA could be set at about three times the Governor’s proposal (closer to four percent) for FY2016 and more than twice the Governor’s proposal (close to six percent) for FY2017.

If I thought that I could start a Twitter meme, I might try this one: My district cut ______________, but at least we will have hundreds of teacher-leaders. #6percent #iaedfuture

My district cut elementary orchestra, but at least we will have hundreds of teacher-leaders. #6percent #iaedfuture

My district cut German language, but at least we will have hundreds of teacher-leaders. #6percent #iaedfuture

My district cut keyboarding and general music, but at least we will have hundreds of teacher-leaders. #6percent #iaedfuture

Or maybe: My district cut elementary orchestra, but at least my kid will have more time for computer-based standardized testing. #iaedfuture

But I digress. The answer from the Legislative Services Agency is that in the modern era of allowable growth, it has never been set higher than 4.21 percent.

Allowable growth was adopted in 1992, so I’m using that as the start date of the modern era of allowable growth. Here are the numbers from fiscal years 1992-2015:

  • FY 1992    4.21%
  • FY1993     4.15%
  • FY1994     2.10%
  • FY1995     2.85%
  • FY1996     3.50%
  • FY1997     3.30%
  • FY1998     3.50%
  • FY1999     3.50%
  • FY2000     3.00%
  • FY2001     4.00%
  • FY2002     4.00%
  • FY2003     1.00%
  • FY2004     2.00%
  • FY2005     2.00%
  • FY2006     4.00%
  • FY2007     4.00%
  • FY2008     4.00%
  • FY2009     4.00%
  • FY2010     4.00%
  • FY2011     2.00%
  • FY2012     0.00%
  • FY2013     2.00%
  • FY2014     2.00%
  • FY2015     4.00%
  • FY2016*   1.25%
  • FY2017*   2.45%

*As proposed by the Governor.

The Legislative Services Agency historical allowable growth summary provides data back to FY1973 (and also dollar amounts, if that is of interest). Allowable growth exceeded six percent in fiscal years 1975 to 1981 (a period of high inflation), and again in fiscal years 1983, 1984, and 1991.


I am finding #snowdaychat to be a bit depressing to the extent that they are discussing ideas for having kids stay busy with school work when winter weather requires a day off from school.

A day without school work does not necessarily mean a day without learning or a day without value (kids need to relax/take breaks from work too). For all of the talk about personalized learning and empowering students, what is wrong with allowing kids the freedom to choose their own ways to get through a snow day? And to make those choices without having to document them for school officials?

Kindergarten (and Career) Readiness Rat Race

I am conflicted about the push for universal preschool. My kids had a terrific experience with Montessori preschool, however, it seems unlikely that universal Montessori preschool is in the offing and I find it difficult to disagree with the sentiment Chris expresses here:

I can’t say that I remember much from my Kindergarten days beyond Elmer’s paste and safety scissors, but it was hardly an academic pressure cooker. So the concern about Kindergarten readiness has me wondering, just how ready could kids really need to be for the first year of formal schooling (beyond the obvious of having had a fifth birthday prior to September 15 of the year)?

A local district website offers some clues to Kindergarten expectations. There are the Iowa Core standards for Kindergarten language arts and mathematics and the district Student Learning Standards for Kindergarten language arts, mathematics, and social studies.

Once you get past the bizarre Kindergarten employability skills–honestly, would we really be all that less “globally competitive” if Iowa five-year-olds spent their Kindergarten days learning to share, take turns, stand in line, and stay on task rather than learning to “use different perspectives to increase innovation and the quality of work”, “use interpersonal skills to influence and guide others to a goal,” “use time efficiently to manage workload”, and “deliver quality job performance on time”?–it isn’t at all clear to me that kids should require much in the way of preparation to meet expectations by the end of their Kindergarten year.

The language arts standards are a bit unhelpful in some places. Note to standards writers: it doesn’t really illuminate anything to say that Kindergarten students are expected to be able to read “Kindergarten level” books or know and apply “grade-level” phonics.

In any case, most of the expectations seem pretty reasonable, though I can’t tell exactly how high the decoding expectations are. So, I suppose there is some possibility that expectations for decoding skills are higher than they used to be.

Interestingly, it just now strikes me that there are no expectations that children will learn to write their names, learn about colors, or develop any particular motor skills (cutting with scissors, holding pencils correctly for writing)–I hope I just missed them.

Again with mathematics, the standards look pretty reasonable: count to 100 by ones and by tens; write numbers from 0 to 20; compare groups of objects (greater than, less than, equal to); add and subtract within ten, with fluency expected for addition and subtraction within five; understand that the numbers 11-19 are made up of ten and some number of units; measuring and comparing objects (longer/shorter, heavier/lighter); sorting objects; and some knowledge of 2-D and 3-D shapes.

My working hypothesis is that there isn’t so much a problem of absolute readiness as there is a problem with relative readiness. Some kids arrive the first day of Kindergarten with all or many of these expectations mastered, while others have not. I suppose we could try to resolve that problem by making mastery of the Kindergarten curriculum, in a preschool setting, a prerequisite of “Kindergarten readiness”–though what the purpose of Kindergarten would be at that point, I couldn’t guess. Alternatively, I suppose we could place children prepared to benefit from first grade work in first grade, quit comparing the rest of them to each other, and stop putting increasingly higher economic competitiveness academic expectations on younger and younger children.

Bullying and Public Comment

There has been a fair bit of discussion lately, some of it heated, about proposed changes to the school board meeting public comment policy around here. (See also great discussion from Nick Johnson–including a reminder about the purposes of school board meetings–and from Mary Murphy).

I am interested in the comments I have seen in support of the policy change that seem to focus largely on the comfort of listeners, particularly listeners who are also potential speakers. Some sample Facebook comments:

Moderation is necessary and it is important to ensure an atmosphere that is free of bullying at board meeting to make sure all voices are heard.

Whether its catcalls or thunderous applause, it comes down to attempts to intimidate people with opposing views, and its gotten steadily worse over the past year.

As it happens, I think that if you are not reading Ken White over at Popehat, particularly on free speech and bullying, you are missing out. So, if you are still wondering why some people might object to at least some parts of the proposed public comment policy, I am going to link to two posts that I think are particularly good, arguably relevant, and absolutely worth clicking the links to read in full:

Ken White on what “bullying” means and doesn’t mean:

But not everything is bullying, unless we’re going to stretch that word to mean any expression we don’t like, any social pressure we disagree with, any sharp attack on a person or position. I don’t believe that fighting against social and political and legal positions we don’t like is bullying. I don’t believe that challenging and questioning and criticizing claims or stances or doctrines is bullying. I don’t believe that ridicule or satire or rough language directed at people who choose to enter a debate is (usually) bullying.

Ken White goes on to suggest we use different words for people who go too far in public debates (and seriously, click on the link and read the whole post):

Is there scary behavior we should condemn in the realm of political and social advocacy? Sure. There are some deal-breakingly-crazy stalkers out there who mindlessly pursue people who disagree with them. But a better term for them might be “crazy stalkers,” not “bullies.”

I approve of protecting the weak from the strong. I approve of calling out people who pick on strangers who are minding their own business and who didn’t enter a debate. But I don’t like the unprincipled overuse of “bullying” for several reasons. I don’t like it because it shifts focus from issues to personalities. I don’t like it because it changes our focus from substance to quarrels over substance. I don’t like it because I think it encourages the trend of feckless, unconstitutional speech codes, and encourages the state to apply those codes too broadly. (Links in original removed.)

In another post (also absolutely worth reading in full), Ken White criticizes equating criticism with bullying, among other things:

All of this silly rhetoric is itself free speech, of course. But it’s not harmless speech. It’s pernicious. Conflating speech and violence encourages citizens to think that speech should be controlled like violence. That’s not a abstract danger. It’s real.

Arguing by Analogy

I think that I can safely say that every time that I thought that I had a good analogy I was going to use in writing a post, I have ended up discarding it.

Analogies are hard to get right, and it frankly doesn’t seem productive to me to use an analogy if it results not in illumination, but instead results in arguments about whether school assessments really are or are not like packing parachutes.

One analogy I see from time to time, and saw again quite recently, is that if you would defer to a doctor during surgery, than you must defer to teachers.

I hardly think it is likely that parents are showing up in your classrooms actually interrupting lessons as you are trying to teach. However, without spending too much time on it, I also think that the culture of medicine is no longer one of absolute deference–think second opinions, informed consent, and patients showing up with articles they have printed off the internet.

So if we must have a medical analogy, here’s how I think of it: Imagine you are compelled to see a home birth specialist when you want an obstetrician, or an obstetrician (with a high c-section rate!) when you want a home birth. Imagine you are compelled to see a pill-prescribing psychiatrist when you want cognitive-behavioral therapy, or a talk therapist when you want to experience “better living through chemistry.” Imagine you are compelled to see an orthopedic surgeon when you want a chiropractor, or a chiropractor when you want an orthopedic surgeon.

All of these practitioners are experts, right? So what difference should it make to the patient? And, yet, I don’t think it is at all hard to see that the differences between patient and practitioner in those situations will not easily be resolved by a display of the practitioner’s diplomas or licenses. The differences may not even be easily resolved by research, after all, what good is research showing something “works” if the patient has a fundamental value conflict with either the ends or the means or both?

I think the same is true in education to some extent, though I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to imagine all the possible value conflicts between parents and teachers/administrators with regard to discipline, grading, acceleration, or teaching any subject you choose to consider.

In other words, though credentials may play some role in whether a parent is willing to defer to a teacher or administrator’s professional judgment, I think that it is much more important that the parent perceives that the parent and the teachers/administrators are all on the same page/same side.

Or, as Chris says:

I wish people would distinguish between questions about how to reach certain educational goals (on which I think teachers’ expertise is particularly valuable) and questions about what goals to pursue. People seem to want to reduce every debate to a contest about whose “evidence” is better, rather than confront the conflicting value questions that are often at the bottom of the disagreement.

Ultimately, I think that public school teachers, administrators, and school boards need to be able to explain their decisions and the bases for them. And, that professional judgment probably is an incomplete explanation, particularly in circumstances that are largely or entirely about values and preferences.

Have you seen analogies you particularly like (or dislike) in education debates? Please share them in the comments.

We Live in a Competency-Based World

The Competency-Based Education Task Force Final Report was released earlier this month.

If you have children who won’t graduate out of the system within the next five years–or are enrolled in one of the ten pilot districts–you may want to read this report plus review the documents available on the Iowa CBE Collaborative page at the Iowa DE website; even though much of the work is yet to be done, plans are already being made for statewide implementation.

Competency-based education may or may not be a great idea–though it seems to me to be an awful lot of effort to reinvent Montessori minus a few essential features–but I am starting to think that there is nothing the DE considers too new or untested that they won’t try to immediately, if not sooner, impose it upon the entire state; if small pilot programs are good, then aren’t Universal Pilot Programs involving every student/school/district in the State even better? See also the Common Core Standards (adopted weeks after the final draft was released), Smarter Balanced Assessments (attempted to adopt before any test items were even pilot tested–and they would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling legislators!), teacher leadership and career pathways, tying teacher evaluations to student assessments, and online classes.

The Reading Wars Explained

If you need a quick introduction to the Reading Wars, take a few minutes to read Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet post “Another blast in the reading wars.”

The post consists mostly of a letter written by Steven Dykstra, and signed by others, in response to critics of NCTQ’s review and rating of teacher preparation programs (see previous The Answer Sheet posts “Literacy experts say reformers reviving ‘reading wars’” and “How the ‘reading wars’ are being reignited“).

Here’s a taste:

The Reading Wars are an ongoing struggle between those who understand that children must be taught to use letters and sounds to decode and spell words, and those who think children should mostly or entirely eschew that method (generally known as phonics) in favor of guessing.  The first side is guided by science, the alphabetic nature of our written language, and a common sense recognition that understanding the meaning of text is predicated on accurately identifying words.  The second side believes that children should be taught to construct meaning from text based on their own meaning-based intuitions about what the words might be.  That is, rather than reading the words of a text to expand their knowledge and understanding (as well as their reading prowess), this second side encourages children to use their own existing knowledge and understanding to guess at words.

Supporters of Reading Recovery might take note of a quote from Marie Clay:

“All readers, from five year old beginners on their first books to the effective adult reader need to use: the meaning, the sentence structure, order cues, size cues, special features, special knowledge, first and last letter knowledge before they resort to left to right sounding out of chunks or letter clusters, or in the last resort, single letters.” (citations omitted)

If Marie Clay sounds right on the money to you, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this issue.  I’m opposed to causing children to become “reading failures” before we clue them in that written English is a code system that uses single letters and combinations of letters to represent the sounds used to create spoken words.