Stress Test


At work we are facing the end of the trimester, which means report cards are going to be due and parent conferences are coming up. It’s a busy time. Additionally, we are preparing to take the PARCC test, which is the national standardized test that is supposed to cover the new common core standards. The test is just a huge ball of nonsense, which is why only ten states are giving it (I believe there were 26 signed on a few years ago.) The test makers must have thought, “Hey look, we’re giving a test on a computer! Let’s add a bazillion computer based tools that kids don’t really need, because we can! We’ll have an answer eliminator tool, we’ll have embedded videos, and a bunch of other crap that will be really hard to navigate! It will totally distract the kids from the actual content of the test, and if they accidentally click on to the next question without scrolling all the way down to the hidden content on the previous question, then they’ll get it wrong!”

It’s the equivalent of an early Geocities web page with blinking text and an embedded midi file set to autoplay.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.

But don’t worry, parents, it won’t take away from instructional time. Except for the two hours we spent “testing the network.” Oh, and the hour that we had to spend giving them a practice test. Oh, and the other hour where we showed them the myriad tools. So that’s what, four hours? Oh, and then there’s the 14 hours of actual testing. So, really, what’s 18 hours? I mean, what, are you going to teach them to think critically and prepare them to be global citizens? Like they’ll need that.

I was thinking about test anxiety because I got a note from my daughter’s second grade teacher. Apparently, Fiona has been saying that she doesn’t feel well – always around Math time. When I asked her about it, she said that she was nervous about passing Rocket Math – it’s a timed math facts program. Apparently, the teacher told the class that anybody who didn’t make it to subtraction would get a “2” on their report card for Math facts. A “2” means “Developing.” I’m sure she didn’t mean to stress any of the kids out; it’s true that if you don’t master your facts then you are still “developing” that skill. But it was enough to make her fake an illness. I don’t think that children should be comfortable all the time – a little stress can be a good thing – but if we overdo it then the returns diminish rapidly.

I told Fiona that avoiding the problem would actually make it worse, not better. And that we’d practice at home a little more. And that I didn’t really care about a “2” on her report card. A “2” would be an accurate description of where she’s at right now – she’s developing her computation skills.

I’ve noticed that this anxiety gets ramped up in a major way by middle school. I’ve marveled at the sheer number of 11-year-olds that suffer from anxiety of all types – anxiety about tests, about storms, about social interactions. I’ve taught many students with legal IEPs and 504 plans that document anxiety as disabling factor in their learning.

They’re eleven! Why are they stressed out?

In some cases I think they are over-scheduled. And some of the high-achieving students feel the pressure to perform at school, in band, and at sports. Our school counselors have had to go into the gifted classes to talk about managing anxiety. This is a great service, but these kids shouldn’t be so anxious in the first place. What are we doing to them?

I live and work in a community of high achievers. And it’s hard to avoid the rat race myself. Bromleigh and I wonder if we should be doing more programming for our children. Should we be pushing for gifted classes? We don’t want our kids to fall behind.

This is madness, of course. Fiona is in Girl Scouts and takes piano lessons once a week from a high-schooler. I think that’s about our speed. She just got done taking a sewing class, and one Monday we had to go from Girl Scouts (right after school) directly to the sewing class, and then from there we went right to piano lessons. She didn’t eat dinner until 7:30, and had no down time. That was a bit much.

Still, she had fun, and wants to sign up for more things. Fortunately our own inertia as parents will probably aid us in our goal to avoid over-scheduling her.

What else is contributing to the stress? I think the kids feel the weight of all the testing. Every year there is more and more of it. My 7-year old took a standardized test this year. And while we can tell them to “do their best” and that the results will just “provide information,” they know the real deal. These tests are used to place them into classes. Score well, and you’re “accelerated.” Have a bad day and you need an “intervention.”

And though school administrators and teachers do their best to project an aura of serene calm, the kids can pick up on their stress, too. If the scores aren’t good, the community will wonder why that North Shore district did better. If the scores aren’t good, then the school will lose funding. And coming soon, if the scores aren’t good, then a whole bunch of teachers are going to get fired.

(I know a bunch of politicians have fallen in love with charter schools – or at least the campaign contributions the corporations behind those charter schools give them – but this has been done in Chicago. They’ve done wholesale firings in CPS schools and replaced them with charters. The results? The same scores. Turns out the kids are still poor and hungry and victimized by violence.)

Yes, the kids pick up on our stress, despite our best efforts to hide it from them. They internalize it.

Kids are smart.

But how can I even know that if I don’t test them?

Sunday Was Not a Day of Rest

Painting a flower and writing about Michelle Obama.

Painting a flower and writing about Michelle Obama.

I woke up today with the hopes of finishing a writing project that I started with a friend. It’s not for school, but I’m a little ahead of the game in that regard, so I thought it would be good to knock it out.

Bromleigh was otherwise occupied presenting her thoughts on parenting to a church that is using Hopes and Fears for their Lenten study.  I wondered how much writing I could really get done with the kids around.

It turns out that I was able to write for several hours. Which was good. I thought that it would take less time, because I always think it will take less time. But the story wouldn’t end.  Eventually, I was able to end it, though there are going to have to be some major revisions to make the ending any good. You can tell I just wanted to finish it off. Regardless, I wrote 7,000 words, and they will be there later when I have to fix them. It’s always good to get that first draft done.

It was lucky that my daughters were occupied with their own creative endeavors. I have to say, they weren’t too bad today. At times, they argued with each other, but for the most part, I was able to work in peace. I was so engrossed in my work that I didn’t really eat. I had about two pots of coffee, though. That counts, right?

With that project out of the way, I can focus on cleaning up my critical paper and submitting some creative work for my first packet, which is due on March 3rd.

I finished up just as Bromleigh got home, and I was even able to get in a few games of Candy Land with the girls. As Ice Cube would say, today was a good day.

Anti-Vaxxers and American Anti-Intellectualism

Vaccinate your children.

Vaccinate your children.

The measles have come to Chicago’s suburbs. The measles. You know, that completely preventable and once eliminated disease that used to kill children every year? Anti-vaxxers are to blame, plain and simple. I’m not the first to say it, obviously. Critics of vaccines are getting sad because people are blaming them for this. Aw, that’s too bad. Are your feelings hurt? Well, thanks to you, children will die from things that are completely preventable. You should feel sad. And responsible for their deaths.

Much of this anti-vaccine nonsense goes back to a fraudulent 1998 study linking vaccines to autism. Criminally negligent doctor Andrew Wakefield, who is British, set off a wave of anti-vaccine hysteria that has led to our nation’s public health regression. We have, in some ways, become victimized by the success of the MMR vaccine – nobody in this generation has gone through a measles infection, and so we have forgotten how bad it can be.

Roald Dahl understood how terrible measles could be. His seven-year old daughter died from it:

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

“I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

He wrote that in 1988, and pointed out that in America, where immunization is compulsory, measles has been virtually wiped out. Conversely, in Britain, 20 children a year were dying of measles.

So how did we go from having compulsory immunizations to having communities in California with fewer immunized children (percentage-wise) than Ghana? Well, that all goes back to America’s hatred of all things intellectual.

Most Americans report that they respect Science, but they don’t follow up those statements by actually relying on the results of meticulous peer-reviewed studies. How else do you explain the anti-vaccine movement? It’s ironic that the parents who refuse to immunize their children rely on the discredited Wakefield study, yet refuse to acknowledge the truths of every other vaccine study ever done. When presented with evidence that refutes their position, they just go clicking away on the internet to find something that reinforces it (never mind that what they find is easily refuted with facts – and by the way, don’t click the link unless you feel like being really angry for a while.)

Let’s step back for a moment, though. How could one discredited study in a British medical journal turn so many American parents into blithering idiots? Oh, right. That study needed to be championed by someone relatively famous. Enter Jenny McCarthy. What is she famous for, you ask? She took her clothes off and posed for a magazine. Thus began her ascent into stardom.

America is great, isn’t it?

The problem is that parents are predisposed to worry. If they hear the same anti-vaccine drumbeat over and over again, then they might find themselves thinking that vaccines are great and all, but why should I risk my own child’s well-being? I mean, there’s controversy, right? Better to wait it out.

It’s hard to think rationally as a worried parent. Why should a parent elevate the concerns of society over her own child? The chances that a vaccine will harm a child is so infinitely small compared to the chances that a communicable disease will cause harm. But since there is a chance, parents assume their child will be “the one.” It’s the same rationalization that people use for playing the lottery – well, somebody has to win.

The truth of the matter is that there are some people who can’t have vaccines. Babies, for example. Immuno-compromised people. A tiny fraction of people are allergic to the vaccines. But we can protect them. It’s our duty to other people’s children to get vaccinated if we can. When we have 95% immunity, then the herd is more or less protected. We have to remember that humans have survived because they have banded together. Every man for himself is a terrible social policy.

The anti-vaccine movement joins two sides of the political spectrum in an unholy alliance against all things sensible: right wing Christians waiting for the apocalypse (any day now) and left wing all-natural tree-hugging hippies that don’t want to put any “toxins” into little Braxxxton’s arm.

Okay. For the Christians – didn’t Jesus go around healing everyone? Wasn’t that, like, one of his things? I would hazard a guess that he would be pro-vaccine, given that vaccines have prevented innumerable deaths from measles, polio, and just about everything else.

Now for the hippies – you know viruses are natural, right? Things that are natural aren’t always better. No amount of fish oil is going to prevent little Jaxon Jayden from getting measles. Vaccines will, though.

Rational people should despair. It turns out, spreading pro-vaccine messages just doesn’t work. It causes lunatics to retreat further into their own belief systems. Why assimilate new facts and make a rational decision when you can just plug your ears and say, “nuh-uh?”

Anti-intellectualism isn’t new. Isaac Asimov famously said:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. We saw a burgeoning of anti-intellectualism during George W. Bush’s administration. Voters liked him, because he wasn’t an intellectual snob (though I would contend that he is actually very smart and politically savvy.) Voters wanted to “have a beer” with that guy. It’s pretty much the only qualification you need to be the leader of the most powerful and influential nation in the world.

So, politicians have picked up that ball and run with it. Rick Santorum famously called President Obama a snob, because Obama suggested that Americans should get a post-secondary education. That was curious to me. I can’t imagine a lot of parents thinking, “Hell yeah, no college for my kid!”

More recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has proposed a $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin system (the largest in its 45-year history.) Walker suggested that professors could just “work harder” to overcome the budget cuts. Walker, himself, never earned a college degree. Meanwhile, he’s also proposing a tax kickback to the billionaire owners of the Milwaukee Bucks. Sports are more important than education. I wonder if the owners of the Bucks will contribute to Walker’s 2016 presidential run.

So, we’re off and running. The US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is all about privatizing K-12 education, so it’s not like Republicans are the only ones to blame. The anti-intellectualism leads to middle-aged school teachers being deemed union “thugs” and education dismantlers to be called “reformers.” Soon, our education system will benefit the haves even more than it already does. And cable news networks and websites will tell the have-nots how good they have it as they die from their preventable diseases.

And when someone presents the facts of the situation, the undeniable facts, somehow these people will find a website that supports their own position and disregard reality. The internet is great and all, but it has definitely led to the closing of American minds.

Slave-owners didn’t want their slaves to be literate. Likewise, if the power brokers can somehow convince the American populace that learning things if for “snobs” and then remove funding for universities so that only the richest can attend, then they will have accomplished the same thing. Anti-intellectualism, at its heart, is a tool for maintaining power and dominance over others.

There was no revolution in the Roman Republic. The citizens more or less willingly gave up their democracy. Eventually the Roman Empire crumbled under the weight of its opulence, income disparity, and corruption.

(Spoiler alert – We’re Rome.)

An Alphabetical List of Potential Baby Names for my Mother-in-Law to Peruse

Potential names for our daughter.

Potential names for our daughter.

Bromleigh and I are having a baby girl this spring (the final installment of the trilogy,) and people keep asking us what we plan on naming her. And by people, I mean, my mother-in-law.

It’s not something I usually want to talk about, but I don’t blame her for her curiosity (and her willingness to help in the naming process.) In order to bring focus and organization to those discussions, I present a list of names for her to consider:

  • A – Atrophy
  • B – Breathtakingleigh
  • C – Caamryyynn
  • D – Democracy
  • E – Explorer (not like Dora, her own thing)
  • F – Favorite
  • G – Garishleigh
  • H – Heavenspelledforwardnotbackward
  • I – Isis (too soon?)
  • J – Joshlyn
  • K – Kaiyidun
  • L – LaFawnduh
  • M – Malaise
  • N – Night
  • O – Obviousleigh
  • P – Paxxxton
  • Q – Quinndolyn
  • R – Rhythm
  • S – Salmonella
  • T – Taradactyl
  • U – Urea
  • V- Varicella
  • W – Wonderwall
  • X – Xenophobia
  • Y – Yolo (or #YOLO)
  • Z – Zarah

Special thanks to Bromleigh for her help curating this list.

Technology, Testing, and How to Make Things More Complicated Than They Have to Be

Testing solves everything.

Testing solves everything.

Thanks to Bill Gates and company, schools are increasingly being forced to adopt technology. The latest push is 1:1 devices for every student. Our district has gone to Chromebooks, which is nice for Google. They definitely need more money.

I teach middle school, so at the outset I thought, “Yes, it will be handy if every student has a computer at all times.” I assumed Chromebooks would be issued to middle school students – grades 6, 7, and 8. I’m pretty sure that is what was advertised at one point.

It turns out, though, that we’re issuing Chromebooks to third, fourth, and fifth graders as well. THIRD GRADERS!

My daughter is going into third grade next year. I am extremely ambivalent about her having her own laptop. We fight the screen time battle enough as it is, and now the school will be asking me to put my soon-to-be eight year old in front of a screen even more.

It’s for school.

Beyond that, I have yet to find any convincing evidence that one-to-one devices are the panacea they are advertised to be. The thinking seems to go like this – give everyone a computer and watch the education gap disappear! Chromebooks will cure poverty and polio! Who needs teachers when you have Wikipedia?

As someone who has experienced the implementation of them in middle school, I can say that they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  For one, they are constantly malfunctioning, which takes up an incredible amount of instructional time. Secondly, I have to constantly battle to make sure they are being used appropriately. Kids rush through their work and then try to play games on them. I sometimes wonder if they are more trouble than they are worth.

I don’t view myself as some old man shaking his fist and telling kids to get off my lawn, either. I use Google products all the time. I have created Math lesson videos and adopted the flipped classroom that everyone is so excited about (NB – the flipped classroom is no panacea either.) I think most school districts say, “Here, technology” and expect test scores to skyrocket.

Which brings us to testing. One way we sold one-to-one devices to the community was that we needed them for the new standardized test – the PARCC – which is administered on computers. Nice trick, Bill Gates. Create the Common Core and then make sure schools need computers for the test.

It’s for the children, you see.

I’m not wholly opposed to the Common Core. I think the standards are on the right track, in Math at least. We want to encourage more problem solving and less rote memorization. I am for that. Many of the standards and practices are borrowed from the countries that routinely kick our ass on the international PISA test.

But don’t let level headed thinking about education get in the way of our political mania about testing. The PARCC test is supposed to be administered three times a year.

Now, we also have the MAP test, another standardized test that is administered twice a year (three times if you’re a special-ed student, because it completely makes sense to offer those students even less instructional time.)

So, for some students that’s six high stakes standardized tests per school year. This of course says nothing of our district direct common assessments, which are also required.

You know those countries that routinely destroy us on that PISA test? Yeah, they don’t test their students nearly as often as we Americans do.

Just think of how much time is wasted.

And speaking of wasting time, we just received the PARCC test administration manual. It is 157 pages long. We are to read it on our own time.

Also, we are going to dedicate an hour of instructional time to “practicing logging in to the PARCC website.” Thanks to the test being on computers, we have to “test the network.”

Think about that. An hour of class time to log into a website.

What if we actually spent time teaching instead of testing? Crazy concept. I would be livid if my child were spending an hour of her day doing that.

So, what’s all of this testing going to prove, anyway? Well, if it’s anything like No Child Left Behind, it will falsely accuse 87% of school districts of underperforming. It will paint the teachers as lazy villains collecting a paycheck. Maybe it will pave the way for the ultimate commodification of schools, and widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Everyone in America is equal. Especially if your parents can afford the good school.

We can finally get rid of those teachers who expect a living wage in exchange for their service to the greater good.

It will be fine.

After all, we have computers now.