William Mathis: What Standardized Tests Measure and What They Can’t Tell Us

I’ve referred frequently to Jan’s work. I decided to post the entire piece that she posted this morning for those of you who might be looking for backup support as you work to bring about change and relief from the test/punish reform process.


Since 2002, when the federal No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, American public schools, and later their teachers, have been evaluated by the standardized test scores of their students.  States have been required to punish the schools with the lowest scores—firing their principals or some of their teachers, closing the schools, or turning them over to charter schools.  But the idea that we can judge schools and judge teachers by metrics—by the aggregate test scores of their students—evolved long before the passage of No Child Left Behind—even prior to the publication in 1983 of the A Nation At Risk report that is said to have begun the wave of standards-based school reform. Perhaps it has been part of growing enchantment with our society’s advancing capacity to collect and analyze data.

Today it is becoming widely acknowledged, however, that the strategy of test-and-punish didn’t improve public schools, didn’t…

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Kids These Days…

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Microcroft Word Clip Art

A while back I wrote a piece about the work being done by psychologist Dr. David Gleason.  In his book, At What Cost: Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools,Gleason describes the ways in which schooling contributes to the rise in adolescent mental health issues.  The title of Gleason’s book is misleading.  While his own work focused on interviewing students at highly competitive schools, the studies he cites in his work refer to students in middle and high school years, regardless of their school type. Additionally, the pressures associated with performance on high stakes, large scale assessments have dramatically changed the cultures of many “non-competitive” schools for both students and educators.

Gleason’s work builds on studies which indicate that the rate of anxiety, stress, and depression in our young people has risen dramatically since 2010.  For additional detail about this development (many would accurately use the term “crisis”), check out this article which appeared in the NY Times.

Gleason points to what he called “the bind”… the realization by many parents and educators that the old story of “work hard, get good grades, go to a good college, get a good job and enjoy lifetime security” is no longer applicable for many of our young people.  The “bind” occurs when we recognize that we have no consistent advice to share with our children and our students other than the “old story”.  What do we do?  We know that the old story is dead/dying, but there is no similar consensus about a new story… a new path to share with our kids and students.

In the studies cited by Gleason and detailed in the NY Times piece, the students are included as statistics.  The problem is described and viewed from the perspective of the problem it presents for adults. While certainly not Gleason’s intent, “the bind” reflects a kind a hierarchical thinking that prevails in most schools.  In most instances the employees are engaged in conversations about the students while, with few exceptions, the voices of these “customers” are largely absent.

In today’s post, I wanted to call attention to two pieces of work that offer insight into this threat to our kids as seen by the kids themselvesI was in awe of the eloquence of the student voices following Parkland. I am no less awed by the eloquence of the students as they describe the pressures and the stories of their experiences with navigating a path through an increasingly complex time.

In his new film, Eighth Grade Bo Burnham, adds texture to this complexity though the voice of the most affected by this dilemma, the students themselves. In Eighth Grade, Burnham shares the way this complex story is unfolding for those reflected in the statistics.  In a recent article from the Atlantic which includes an interview with Burnham, “In Middle School, You’re Trying To Build a Parachute While You’re Falling”, Julie Beck describes the dilemma faced by the film’s main character, Kayla.  And here’s a short trailer with Kayla’s own words.

In the film, a 13-year-old girl named Kayla is feeling her way through the dark forest of middle-school social life. On-screen, the scenery keeps changing: How should she act in the classroom? At a popular classmate’s pool party? At the mall with a new group of friends? And is she a totally different person on the internet, in the vlogs she makes in which she offers advice and pep talks? “Being yourself can be hard,” she says, “and it’s like, ‘Aren’t I always being myself?’” Kayla’s sweet and stumbling attempts to answer that question in these different scenarios—in real life and online—are the driving force of the movie.

While Burnham captures the dilemma of increasing complexity faced by kids, a piece in last week’s EdWeek by high school senior, Gabrielle Weber, calls us to action.

Let me give you a bit of a preview of Gabrielle’s insight and I like to urge you to read her piece.  It is both eloquent and touching.  Beyond its eloquence and emotional impact, however, lies a truth that we must confront.  We have allowed the efforts of educational “reformers” to drive our system of public education to a place far removed from what we know in our hearts to be a better place… a place which nurtures the unique talents and needs of each child in our care.

In Gabrielle’s words, …

Achievement is blatantly valued above health. This prioritization instills in students the feeling that we’re not good enough, making it difficult to reach out. In short, it sabotages learning. You know, the thing we go to school for?

…No one advocates for the students struggling to live up to unreasonable standards because that struggle is viewed as ideal. It’s seen as virtuous, when in reality, it’s extremely detrimental.

…In order to solve this problem, schools must prioritize well-being as the fundamental foundation of learning. It should never be a question for kids whether they’ll have someone to turn to when they need it. Expanding supportive staff in schools—including psychologists, counselors, and social workers—would provide the kind of support students both need and deserve. Students with disabilities, disorders, problems at home, and many other disadvantages are particularly affected by the current lack of support in schools. We can do better for them and for our community as a whole. We need to do better.

I urge you to read Gabrielle’ thoughts and her suggestions.  Her work begs us to reflect on some critical questions. Here are a few of mine.  I’d love to hear yours.  This is conversation that we cannot afford to avoid.  Let’s get it started.


We often read and/or talk about socio-emotional intelligence as a skill set to be developed in our students. What about the socio-emotional health of our students? Why would students think we place greater importance on academic achievement than on their well-being?  What should we do to change this perception?

Have we moved beyond the times when it is fair to demand that school guidance counselors , regardless of case load, be able to recognize and deal with the emotional needs of students presenting symptoms of significant stress, anxiety, and/or depression?

Is our continued use of chronological age grouping ignoring the research relating to the developmental readiness?   If so what fears keep us from alternative grouping approaches?

Summing it up…

From the NY Times Magazine article referenced at the beginning of this piece…

Over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t receive one or two blogs/newsletters about the importance of school culture.   While the numbers cited above are taken from surveys of college freshmen, the issues did not begin in summer between high school and college.  Last week I watched a PBS show extolling the benefits of kindergarten boot camp.  Burnham, Kayla and Gabrielle are sounding an alarm.  We have created or, at the very least, are participating in a culture of accountability, expectations of high achievement, and fear which research and our hearts are telling us is unhealthy for both adults and children.

Be well.

Living With The Results Of Trying to Do The Wrong Thing Better

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IT Knowledge Exchange – CC Geeks & Pokes

I’ve been spending some selfish learning time recently.  Today my wife and I took some time to drive over to the ocean, to walk, and to watch the beauty of the moving water in our local inlet.  A beautiful way to spend a very hot day.

As you may recall, I’ve been participating for a while now in a virtual community focusing on school change, Modern Learners.   It continues to be a fascinating and engaging learning experience for me. Recently, the group’s community manager has begun to add a monthly focus topic.  For July, the group explored the importance of devoting time to our own refreshment, health, and re-creation.  This month’s topic deals with the importance of relationship building in the learning process (for adults as well as students) and the ways in which relationships can be fostered.  This has been a topic of consistent interest to me.

Earlier today, I opened  today’s post by Jan Resseger.  She titled it, “How We Define Teaching Makes All the Difference”.  I hope you’ll read it.  It’s magnificent.  It offers a stark and disturbing picture of the costs of the culture of efficiency that has dominated the educational experiences of our educators and children since the publication of A Nation At Risk.

Jan introduces her piece with a reference to a Philip Roth novel, I Married a Communist. In the book, the main character, Mr Ringold, is by most standards a model teacher.  Ringold teaches children from his neighborhood. He understands them, He cares about them. He cares what they read and insists that they think about what they read. He is in relationship with his students.

Jan includes a brief excerpt from the book as told by Nathan, one of his students…

Mr. Ringold had stepped over to where the books had tumbled from the basket onto the pavement at the foot of the stoop and was looking at their spines to see what I was reading. Half the books were about baseball… and the other half were about American history. One is about the life of Tom Paine.

“‘You know what the genius of Paine was?’ Mr. Ringold asked me. ‘It was the genius of all those men. Jefferson. Madison. Know what it was.?’”

“‘No,’ I said.”

“‘You do know what it was,’ he said.”

“To defy the English.”

“A lot of people did that. No. It was to articulate the cause in English. The revolution was totally improvised, totally disorganized.  Isn’t that the sense you get from this book, Nathan? Well, these guys had to find a language for their revolution. To find the words for a great purpose.”…

In  Ringold, Roth offers a definition of teaching… the challenging of oneself and one’s students to develop probing intellectual habits.  No doubt Ringold hasn’t had many conversations with today’s education “reformers”.

Jan continues to expand on the notion of “defining teaching”  with the writings of Larry Cuban, professor emeritus at Stanford University.  He offers a picture quite different from that offered by Roth.  He doesn’t speak of relationships or intellectual habits.  Cuban describes instead the “wave of accountability:

The current donor and business-led resurgence of a ‘modern cult of efficiency,’ or the application of scientific management to business can be seen at a host of companies and in U.S. schools…  Turn now to schooling. The… focus on student outcomes can be seen in the standards, testing, and accountability movement launched over three decades ago…. Determining which teachers are productive, i.e., ‘effective,’ using students’ test scores has occurred in many states and big city districts. Such outcome measures should not shock anyone familiar with the spreading influence of the business model (e.g. earning profits, market share, and return on investment) upon schooling.  Policymakers’ concerns over inefficiency in sorting effective from ineffective teachers… led to an embrace of an economic model of providing incentives to increase organizational productivity and efficiency… Faster and better teaching through new technologies producing improved student outcomes in less time and money….

Jan then continues with words from Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of Education…

Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an add-on for a high-tech reproduction of current practice.  Again, we need to change the underlying processes to leverage the capabilities of technology. The military calls it a force multiplier. Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they need to be more successful—reducing wasted time, energy, and money. By far, the best strategyfor boosting productivity(italics mine) is to leverage transformational change in the educational system to improve outcomes for children. To do so, requires a fundamental rethinking of the structure and delivery of education in the United States.

A fascinating dichotomy… developing probing intellectual habits vs. boosting productivity.

To those of us engaged in rethinking learning and the ways in which a focus on learning can move us beyond the process of boosting productivity, Duncan’s educational reform is a dead story. It has cost us the development of probing intellectual habits.  It has cost teachers and students the time and intentionality needed to see the expansive possibilities of our students.  It has fostered fear. It has disrupted the kinds of caring, trusting relationships that make it possible students and teachers to take risks inherent in moving beyond the simple recall of facts.

In contrast to the standards, assessment, evaluation cycle which so clearly defines the past thirty years or so of “educational reform”, Jan offers the writing of Mike Rose, an education professor at UCLA.  She shares a quote from a piece offered by Rose…

“’ The thing I love about Ms. Marovich,’ says Helen of her technology instructor, ‘is hat she looks at you, she sees the finished product.’ What a remarkable kind of seeing Helen describes: An act of perception that envisions growth and that helps make that growth possible.

Rose continues…

Over the past several years I have been interviewing a wide range of people, from students in high school and community college to professions…about experiences in or out of school that had a transformative effect on their education, that changed the way they thought about school and what school could enable them to do with their lives… (The students noted that some) teachers seem to operate with an expansive sense of human ability and are particularly alert to signs of that ability, signs that might be faint or blurred by societal biases or by a student’s reticence or distracting behavior – or that the student him or herself might barely comprehend… We don’t hear a lot about this powerfully humane element of teaching, for so much current discussion of teacher education and development is focused elsewhere: from creating measures of effectiveness to mastering district or state curriculum frameworks.

In a new movie,  Eighth Grade, director Bo Burnham addresses an issue untouched by the reform, boost productivity, efforts…the issue of learning  how to be.  This is an issue that confronts each and every one of us as children and, even sometimes as adults. In an interview with Julie Beck for The Atlantic, Burnham discusses his exploration of how one student is feeling her way “through the dark forest of middle school social life”. For the main character, Kayla, the scenery keeps changing.  How should she act in the classroom, at a classmate’s party, at the mall with friends, on the internet?  It seems critical that we consider the possibility that the support that Kayla needs to successfully navigate this time, lies more with the connections she makes with caring, supportive adults than in the mastery of Algebra II.

In his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, Charles Eisenstein speaks about stories… Stories of Our People, Stories of Separation, and of stories that have died.  He speaks of connections, of practicing empathy, of building relationships, of writing new stories.  The story of educational reform is, for many of us, dead.  For others it is dying.  For educators, in whatever role we are at the moment, can we continue, Nero-like, to “fiddle” while the kids who need us burn in fires of ideologically-driven reform “solutions” ?

It’s time for a much better story.  Are we willing to write it?  Or will allow the next story to be written by the next version of Arne Duncan?

Be well.

Death of the Old Story

We are living on the tail end of an old story… a story that extolled the virtues of data, metrics, analytics as tools for assessing the value of our work, our schools, and, distressingly, our students.

Such stories become stories as they are repeated and gradually accepted as truth.

Old stories die hard because of how deeply ingrained they have become through repetition and our tendency toward confirmation bias – i.e., our tendency to assign greater validity to information that confirms our beliefs.

Inaccurate tales become stories because they are unchallenged and some may even have resonance with our experiences.  They grow in acceptance due to laziness and/or ineffective challenges.

The “old story”, the story of our people, extols the virtue of hard work, doing well in school, getting into a good college, obtaining a college degree, getting a good job with the accompanying secure future. That story included the myth that such opportunity was equally open to all Americans, as well as a healthy portion of blame aimed at those whose experiences contradicted the validity of that story.

Now, not only the poor and people of color are challenged to find the validity of that story. Far more of us are confronted on a regular basis with a challenge to it.  Many have watched their children work hard, do well in school, be successful in good colleges and find no jobs.  They have watched the security of pensions disappear. They have watched the promise of progress and development rape the land and threaten our continued existence.  Many have recognized the death throes of the old story.

The story of accountability has been told and retold so frequently that it has become a part of the fabric of the old story.  A chapter in that story must be devoted to human arrogance. This arrogance is filled with irony… an irony that names the flagship legislation No Child Left Behind, while designed to leave millions of poor children behind and labeled, along with their schools, as failing.

Our old story is replete with experiences in which we found ourselves trying to “fix” a problem with a new, better idea. We have many memories of failed initiatives, new ideas, new programs… each touted as being “the answer”.  Sometimes we were on the “receiving” end of such solutions. At other times we may have been the force behind the fix.  What most of us recall is the durability of the problem and the frustration of the never-ending treadmill of solutions.  Rarely, if ever, did we explore the accuracy of the problem description/definition.  In the old story we just kept trying to do things right(er)… rarely able/willing to question if we were seeking to do the right thing.

More and more people in all walks of life, in many different professions, are growing in awareness that the old story is a fable.  Accountability, as we have seen it, doesn’t improve learning.  It damages personal connection, empathy, and relationships.  It adds to separation. It hinders connectedness. Equitable access to learning doesn’t exist for all, perhaps not even for many.

We are living in a time of “interbeing”… a time between stories… sometimes torn between the convenience and comfort of our old story and the fear of the unknown that accompanies the writing of new stories.  Writing a new story need not be a continuation of our time of the separation that was/is inherent in the old story.  Our new story can be a story of connection not separation, of sustainability not accountability, of empathy not blame, relationship building not alienation.  Our new story can be a story not so much about making a specific change happen but of creating the space where change can happen… for our students, for our colleagues, for our friends, for our families.

My thanks to Charles Eisenstein for the gift of his thinking and his language of stories.  His generosity allows for the free use of his works and his gifts.  My thanks also to Russell Ackoff whose writings highlighting the differences between “Doing things Right” and “Doing the Right Thing” continue to add clarity to my reflections and Jan Resseger whose tireless work in pursuit of equitable access to learning for all children is nothing short of inspirational.

Be well

Oh No, Not Richard III Again! or How Does Richard III Still Speak to Us?

Hi again.

 There’s been no shortage of the things to write about, just a shortage of time to do it. As I put the finishing touches on a couple of pieces that I’ve been working on (remember, one of the primary reasons I write here is to help clarify my thinking and to give voice to some reflections which might profit from wider discussion), the universe intervened. This is the first of two such “interventions”.

Recently, a long time colleague and good friend, shared with me his reflections as his career working in schools seems to be ending. Bernie Josefsberg has had a very varied and successful career.  It began with his role as an English teacher in a very prestigious and high performing high school in Chicago.  After holding a series of administrative positions (supervisor, principal, assistant superintendent, superintendent) in multiple states, Bernie returned to the classroom, once again as a teacher of high school English. 

I asked if he would mind if I shared his observations and reflections here in this space.  I think Bernie has captured something very essential in the relationship between teaching and learning, something worth exploring. A growing number of us believe that we are experiencing the end of an “old story”… a story that no longer fits our reality or our needs.  As we continue to look for ways to grow learners, we recognize the need to expand student choice and student agency.  

I believe that Bernie’s reflections can help us create a space for exploration of critical how and why questions:  What is the best space for learning to occur? Can there be a  healthy blend of teacher directed, teacher guided, student self-determined learning experiences?  Is there room for a fixed curriculum? These are not theoretical questions.  They are matters of some weight.  What do Bernie’s experiences have to tell us?  Enjoy and please feel free to share your thinking.


Clearing out old files at the conclusion of a career, I recovered my circa ’73-’85 file on Shakespeare’s Richard III. In my memory, that cautionary tale of personal and political deformity served my high school sophomores well.  With Watergate and Contragate as contemporary scrims, it also suited the historical moment.

It included “Decent Is as Decent Does,” a NY Timesop ed piece in which Anthony Lewis savages Gerald Ford’s record on “Human Rights, Law, Secrecy, War, Arms, Amnesty, and Abortion.” He concludes:

It is indecent for those who care about sensitivity and humanity in politics to talk of the decency of Gerald Ford.

Also included: William Sloane Coffin’s “Not Yet a Good Man,” another NY Timesop ed describing the hollowed ethical core of Jeb Stuart Magruder — one of Richard Nixon’s very well educated, highly positioned, and subsequently convicted flacks.  At Williams College, he passed through   Coffin’s course on Ethics.   He concludes:

Teaching is at best a precarious business; the rational mind is no match for an irrational will that needs to place popularity and power above truth. Nevertheless, all of us who taught him, and American society as a whole, could have done better by Jeb. Now we have the opportunity to learn from him the ancient lesson that to do evil in this world you don’t have to be evil – just as nice guy, not yet a good man.

Additional items included original tests and essay assignments. For example,

Choose one of the following and discuss:

  1. Though Richard orchestrates his own rise to power, he relies upon the assistance of associates. Such figures as Buckingham, Tyrrel and Catesby willingly and directly contribute to the success of Richard’s “plots.” Others, such as Anne, the mayor of London, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, are manipulated to the point where they, too, factor in his triumph. Clearly, Richard could not have “bustled” through his world with such ill-effect in the absence of both witting and unwitting support.
  2. As suggested in Richmond’s concluding speech, England has suffered grievously under Richard’s rule. In keeping with his character, he outlines a vision of England under his prospective reign that contrasts sharply with Richard’s legacy – itself a reflection of character.


Discuss the validity of each following statement:

In his opening soliloquy, Richard presents himself as a bruised soul, tortured by experience. Though he really wishes to be at peace with humanity, he turns to villainy to express his need to be loved.

Richard woos Anne by repeating his “love” for her.  As the audience, we are convinced — as finally Anne is — of Richard’s passion for her which he offers to explain his conduct at Tewkesbury. He subsequently delights in Anne’s acceptance, thereby demonstrating his respect for women and, indeed, for humanity at large.

To teach my students “how to think,” the file includes a “model thesis statement.”

Among several themes, Richard III emphasizes the discrepancy between appearance and reality by highlighting the fatal consequences of foolishly equating the one with the other. Hastings’ dire fate in Act III stems from his inability to recognize the true thrust and scope of Richard’s malevolence – an inability shared by a number of equally ill-fated characters. In disregarding Stanley’s warning that Richard will kill him should his support for Richard’s corruption wane, Hastings relies upon blind faith when survival requires acute awareness. Why “make pursuit where he mean no chase?” he asks, revealing how thoroughly Richard dupes him. Conversely, Lord Stanley chooses flight, astutely gauging Richard’s villainy.  As a result, he is able to fight Richard’s tyranny and contribute to its demise. That discerning judgment – in contrast to Hastings’ smug complacency — sets the standard of conduct needed to thwart Richard’s tyranny.

The file proves that I understood much of the play and could satisfy any teacher quality standard — from then or now – based solely upon such an understanding. It does not prove that my students learned anything:  no such evidence is included.  It seems that my teaching was Hastings-like, relying upon a blind faith in how readily my students students succumbed to my wisdom.  Too bad it is too late for any survey research into how those students voted in the last election.

Many in my generation chose teaching to perform socially righteous work, to contribute to a more just society. In the context of concluding a career at a moment when malevolence is on the move, it might be useful to re-consider Richard III against that purpose.

Richard III’s portrait of “ancient lessons,” concludes with Richmond’s restoration speech proclaiming that, at last, “civil wounds are stopp’d, peace lives again.” But only after “England hath long been mad, and scarr’d herself.” Indecencies, evils, wounds, scars, and madness now run deep, as they have done historically, well before 1593 — when Shakespeare staged Richard III—  a hundred years after Richard Crookback’s bustling reign.

Today, Richard IIIis rarely taught in our high schools. Instead Romeo and Julietis taught to almost everyone because, well, Romeo and Juliethas always been taught. Also, several movie versions – including Gnomeo and Juliet– are available to lay down the plot in student minds and moderate the pain they experience confronting text that, for many, might well be Sanskrit. Nonetheless, the play’s conclusion – however adulterated in presentation – offers much to open adolescent minds. “Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things,” enjoins Prince Escalus to those gathered around the coffins.  Do so because, “Some shall be pardoned and some punishèd.”

[A note for the future: after a civic debacle, apportioning blame is necessary. For any prospective reconciliation, how it is done is essential.] 

Concluding his tragedies and histories, Shakespeare typically sends forward a chiding accountant who draws a line down the middle of the moral ledger, with the pardoned on the one side and the punished on the other — not unlike a teacher at the conclusion of a school year weighing student grades. Or not unlike a teacher concluding a career, vocationally conditioned to distinguish vice from virtue, failure from success.

All such past accounting intend to shape future individual conduct.

But who cares whether Richard IIIor Romeo and Julietis under-learned in our high schools?  As Auden writes, “Poetry [let alone teaching poetry] makes nothing happen.”  Few would draw a straight line between under-teaching Richard IIIand current indecencies, evils, wounds scars, and madness. Whatever Allan Bloom asserted in 1987, over-viewing Gnomeo and Julietdid not cause The Closing of the American Mind.

When young, teaching well requires the mastery of craft grafted upon a duty of care. At the conclusion – after experience has “drowned innocence” – teaching well requires everything learned before plus an ongoing regard for what youth encounters in their own existential go-round.  However we teach, they will naturally have their own shot at “bustling through this world.”

Which makes more good teaching even more important.

In 1992, FedericoMayor Zaragoza addressed UNESCO’s International Conference on Education and asked, “What kind of education do we need?”

It is a kind of education that will entail our learning to live together in a world of all-encompassing complexity; having a conscious remembrance of the past, of things discovered and knowledge distilled; and laying down plans for the future. It will entail ensuring the full flowering of diversity …. Instilling attitudes that pay heed to the natural environment and to the attendant human and cultural environment represented by the ‘Other’ to whom we owe our respect …. Education should teach us … how to protect our culture by adopting an open-minded outlook instead of beating the retreat and withdrawing into the prison of our identities. It should also teach us to have the courage to rise up in permanent rebellion in favour of the rights of others and ourselves alike. Learning to be is, above all, learning to relate, learning to take up our stand at the crossing of the ways instead of remaining behind the fortress walls, as well as showing concern for others. It entails learning to conjugate the verb ‘to share’ every day of our lives, so that the future will be less one-sided. This is a Utopia that is in the realm of the possible, the reality of the morrow. Education really comes into its own when it builds bridges and pushes back horizons, for its true calling is to look to the future and inform action. The Utopia of the realm of the possible -the real utopia -appears to be a major contradiction, yet it is capable of cutting a broad swathe through the narrow alleyways of necessity.


No one should doubt that “indecencies, evils, wounds, scars, and madness” are on the move.  Potentially countervailing call for “the future to inform action.”  Who more so than teachers can “go hence to have more talk of these things?”

Bernard Josefsberg


Is this another example of doing the wrong thing?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently about the problems caused by the lack of  agreement about the real purpose of education.  It’s been a bit like my experience with YouTube when I get lost in following the suggested clips related to my original search and then wonder how I lost an hour or so of my day.  In the next week or two you may (or may not) see the fruits of this exploration. In the meantime…

I’ve been occupying myself and my need for learning with participation in a group (ChangeLeaders Community) organized and facilitated by Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon, Lyn Hilt, and Missy Emler as a part of the work they do as the founders of Modern Learners. BTW. I’d recommend joining.

This week, they posted a piece written by Will that I thought should be required reading for educators.  Here it is.  I made a choice in posting this.  While Will’s links work, they do not always return you to the post here.  Rather than eliminate the links which represent a lot of learning in themselves, I decided to offer this warning about the potential clumsiness of the linking process.  My bad.  Not theirs. Be well.

EdTech is Driving Me Crazy, Too

By Will Richardson

There’s a growing sense that we’ve reached a breaking point with technologies in the classroom. France is banning all mobile devices from middle and high school next fall. Privacy concerns continue to mount around Google Classroom and other school wide “solutions” that attempt to manage the daily interactions between teachers and students. And now, as AI and VR and AR begin to attach their tentacles to education, concerns about how to marry tech and teachers are reaching new heights.

Good times.

Yet, as someone who celebrated his 17-year blogging anniversary this week, I’m still in the camp that says humans and technologies can work together in powerful ways in classroom learning contexts.

The problem, however, is that most of what ed tech is selling us isn’t really about learning; it’s about teaching. I was reminded of that once again this week when I walked up to the booth of a big name vendor at a small regional conference and asked the rep what seems to be the toughest product-related question you can ask these days: “So, since you’ve plastered the word ‘learning’ all over your booth, I’m curious, how do you define that word?” (I tend to do that a lot just for fun.) The response was typical: a few stammering sounds followed by some mumblings about “deep understanding” and “applying knowledge” and other such figuring-it-out-on-the-spot phrases. I doubt that rep had ever been asked that question before. I doubt that company every really talks about what learning really is.

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More often than not, ed tech is something done to the student rather than done in service of the student. And there’s no better example of this than a new tool called “Emote” that preys on our current fears around the socio-emotional state of our students and sets a whole new bar for “helicopter educating” (which, I’m sorry to say, is not the first time that phrase has been uttered.) John Warner in Inside Higher Ed does a great job of teasing out the insidiousness of Emote, an app which makes it easier for the adults to record any time a particular student looks depressed or sad or anxious. As Warner notes:

When a child arrives in school, if they are observed to be angry or upset by a staff member, this is logged into the app. Later, a teacher may see additional evidence, creating another alert. The goal, according to Emote CEO Juilan Golder, is to prevent “escalation.” Student behavior can also be tracked longitudinally. Maybe a student is grumpy or sleepy every Monday, suggesting something is amiss at home. The app will know.

No one will be shocked, either, to hear that the CEO says “There’s more interest than we can handle at this point.”

Warner calls this a part of the “Problem with Surveillance” which “discusses the encroachment of real-time data collection and tools of surveillance – such as ‘parent portals’ or apps like ClassDojo – into student spaces. These are part and parcel of the ‘problem of atmosphere’ as students are tracked and monitored throughout the entire school day. These technologies are already doing damage.” And he adds, “There is simply no evidence that real-time data collection or instant feedback is conducive to learning.” There ya go.

I’ll save you the discussion of FaceMetrics, which will no doubt leave you shaking your head in despair. And if you’re really into self-abuse, scan down this Twitter thread from Benjamin Herrold, a writer from EdWeek who has been diving into this explosion of tracking and monitoring apps. (Note: There are so many compelling links in that thread that I probably should just thank you for stopping by at this point and wish you well on your journey onward.) I know I should just put the tl;dr version of all of this at the top of this post, but if you’ve made it this far, here it is: Purveyors of ed tech are jumping whole hog on the socio-emotional learning bandwagon, and we in education seem more than happy to focus on clicking and collecting our way to cataloguing  the symptoms rather than searching for the cause.

Thing is, we know the cause. As Warner writes:

There is mounting evidence that school is demonstrably bad for students’ mental health. The incidence of anxiety and depression are increasing. Each year, more students report being “actively disengaged” from schools.

And this post in Mindshift this week certainly makes that case, adding that parents pushing for “success” in the traditional school sense aren’t helping either.

I’m not saying school is 100% to blame for the mental health issues so many of our kids are experiencing these days. But if you listened to my podcast interview with David Gleason from a couple of months ago, you know that we’re not helping matters much. We’re putting tons of pressure on kids to stay on an increasingly narrow path to “success” because if they don’t, our own self worth as institutions are put at risk.

Read that again. In many ways, we’re choosing ourselves over our kids.

At that same conference I referenced earlier, I listened in on a session that was about improving the mental health of students. It was standing room only, overflow crowds in the hallways craning their necks to hear. The very well-meaning and concerned superintendent talked extensively about how to bring on board more counselors and therapists, how to increase the interventions, and how to monitor students’ mental health more closely. I don’t want to in any way suggest that he didn’t care deeply for his kids. He did. We all do.

But how many therapists or prescriptions or apps could we get away without if we attacked the mental health issues our kids are experiencing through a different lens, one that starts with the premise that we’re the ones that are broken, not the kids? What if we rewrote the script and put mental health above “achievement” or “success” as measured by grade point averages, the number of AP classes we offer, college acceptances, and other “narrow path” measures?

And if you really want to get crazy, why don’t we create an app for students so they can track every time our “narrow path” narrative makes them anxious or stressed, or every time we deny them the agency to pursue learning that matters to them, or hint at their value as humans by the test scores or GPAs they get, or whenever we deny them fundamental democratic rights, or refuse to act in ways that suggest that we are the problem and not them? We could call it “Ed-mote” or some other silly Silicon Valley play on words, and the software would send DMs to superintendents and principals when an intervention is required, like an immediate two-hour play period for everyone in the school. (We could also, by the way, encourage them to track the many positives about their school experience as well.)

Who wants to build that out?

So, yeah, the current crop of ed tech “solutions” is driving me a bit mad because they’re not solutions at all. They’re masking the problem. Which unfortunately seems to be what we want. Because treating the real problem is “more than we can handle at this point.”

Five More to Read This Week:

Children, Learning, and the ‘Evaluative Gaze’ of School – A must read essay from Carol Black on the problem with assessing our kids.

Stackable Degrees Could be the Future of Higher Education, Experts Say – Keeping track of the trends in credentialing.

A Shakeup in Elite Admissions: U-Chicago Drops SAT/ACT Testing Requirement – Big news.

What Teens Really Say About Sex, Drugs, and Sadness – New research has good and bad results.

Critically Thinking About Critical Thinking – It’s not a new skill, but it’s an important skill

The Killing Fields… why not a Department of Peace?

I was in Houston last week at the time of the recent shooting in nearby Santa Fe.  In the aftermath of this event, the chief of police posted on Facebook that he had reached his point of no return… that, in spite of his upbringing and his feelings about gun ownership, he could no longer support the notion that the Second Amendment was somehow an expression of God’s permission to own a gun.  It was, in Texas, a pretty startling statement and was quickly followed by a statement by the state’s Lieutenant Governor that the problem was not guns but the lack of “hardened” schools.

Observing the aftermath of the tragedy at close quarters, having the opportunity to discuss the situation with a Texas state trooper who will soon be a member of the family, combined with a 4 hour plane ride gave me a lot of thinking time and a lot to think about.

It seems we’ve reached a point in positional thinking about guns in which each side has so refined its thinking, talking points and commitment to its deeply held beliefs, that no compromise is possible.  With each positional justification, the language gets harsher and the response by those holding the opposing position increasingly visceral. In a conclusion that will not shock regular readers of this blog, I found myself considering the Russell Ackoff theory… i.e., the difference between trying to do things right and doing the right thing.

What if the debate about who should own guns, which guns, and how many is a just a distraction from a much larger issue… one that may be more frightening than a school shooting? What if our inability to arrive at acceptable regulation of gun ownership is based on a faulty analysis of the problem? What if the problem is much deeper and much harder to accept? What if the problem is more related to our historical and persistent reliance on violence as a solution?

I recalled piece about the then recent Parkland shooting by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone.  It was entitled “If We Want Kids to Stop Killing, the Adults Have to Stop Too”.  I decided to revisit the piece and wanted to share the basic ideas offered by Taibbi and some very serious implications for education/educators. I think you will find it equally interesting and troubling.  More important, however, are the possible conclusions and implications that we might need to consider as we help our students learn how to be in their world.

In introducing his thinking, Taibbi offers

Nikolas Cruz, the 19 year-old just arrested for shooting and killing 17 people in Parkland, Florida, supposedly … There will be lots of hand-wringing in the coming days about gun control, and rightfully so – it’s probably easier to get a semi-automatic rifle in this country than it is to get some flavors of Pop Tarts – but with each of these shootings, we seem to talk less and less about where the rage-sickness causing these massacres comes from.

On the rare occasions when we do talk about it, the popular explanation now is that guns themselves cause gun violence. As the New York Times put itafter the Vegas massacre, “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.”

This makes sense. It would be interesting to see what would happen if we tried real gun control as a solution (we won’tof course).

Taibbi describes the variety of explanations for the violence that lies behind these tragic events… deep seated racism, violent video games, music lyrics, movies, etc.  While each of t hese likely plays a role in the growing acceptance of violent solutions, Taibbi notes that in offering such explanations, we continue to show off “our amazing incapacity for introspection”.  The story of our land is filled with violent conflict. So deeply ingrained is this thinking that we declare “war” on problems such as poverty, drugs, illiteracy, etc.

Taibbi continues…

OK, sure. But what about the fact that we’re an institutionally violent society whose entire economy has historically been dependent upon the production of weapons?

And how about the fact that we wantonly (and probably illegally) murder civilians in numerous countries as a matter of routine? Could that maybe be more of a problem than 50 Cent’s lyrics? No? Really?

In an era of incredible division and political polarization, military killing is the most thoroughly bipartisan of all policy initiatives. Drone murders spiked tenfold under Obama, and Trump has supposedly already upped the Obama rate by a factor of eight. The new president apparently killed more civilians in his first seven months in office than Obama did overall, making use of our growing capacity for mechanized murder.

Taibbi acknowledges that his observations about the relationship between societal endorsement of military killings and societal violence among civilians might be considered “hippie-ish whining”, but when we look for why violence is so prevalent how can we not at least entertain the possibility of a deep relationship.  Our steadfast refusal to examine such a relationship is captured in the response to a proposal by Congressman Dennis Kucinich in 2001 to create a “Department of Peace”.

Although he never said we shouldn’t have a defense department … “He just happened to believe we should make nonviolent conflict resolution a organizing principle in our society”.

The corresponding Peace Department’s goals were to be aimed at transforming the way we look at the world, and would: “…promote justice and democratic principles to expand human rights; strengthen nonmilitary means of peacemaking; promote the development of human potential; work to create peace, prevent violence, divert from armed conflict and develop new structures in nonviolent dispute resolution…”

The bill languished in “legislative purgatory” until Kucinich’s retirement in 2012.

It is here that Taibbi offers the point of entry for us as educators.

We’retrained(italics mine) to accept that early use of violence is frequently heroic and necessary…We just don’t believe in peace. We don’t believe in nonviolence. The organizing principle we’re going with instead involves using technological mastery to achieve order by killing exactly the right people.

This is despite the fact that “precision” killing turns out to be less than precisein reality, whenever anyone bothers to check. And we don’t dwell on the misses, like those millions of Indochinese men, women and children we once massacred with bombs and chemicals and evil little pellet-mines. It’s always the enemy who doesn’t value human life, who thinks “life is not important,” as General William Westmoreland – one of the early users of the term “body count” – once said about “the Oriental.”

The point of entry for us…

Do we as educators believe in violence as a problem solving strategy?  Do we believe in Kucinich’s non-violent conflict resolution as an organizing principle for our school “societies” ? What do we believe?  What policies and practices are intentional/accidental in our school cultures that reinforce our beliefs? What policies and practices should we change to focus on doing the right thing?  How might Gleason’s research on what he called “the bind”** affect our thinking, our actions?  What fears might be keeping is from creating cultures of non-violence in our schools? What experiences do our kids have in our schools that reinforce physical or emotional violence as the default response to conflict, to hurt, to disappointment?  What experiences might we provide for kids to make non-violent response their default reaction to these things?

** David Gleason’s research, based on the recent UCLA study about dramatic increases in pre-adolescent and adolescent stress, anxiety and depression, indicates that we, as parents and educators find ourselves in “the bind” – the realization that the stories we have helped to transmit to our children no longer work but our fears cause us to continue to adhere to them and, further, to continue to transmit them to our children.

Final thoughts from Taibbi…

Gun control? I’m all for it. But this madness won’t stop until we stop believing that killing makes us strong, or that we can kill without guilt or consequence just by being “precise.” What beliefs like that actually make us is insane and damaged, and it’s no surprise that our kids, too, are beginning to become collateral damage.