Small Lies, Big Lies, and Statistics

            Over the past few days, I was torn whether or not to publish a letter I wrote to Michael Mulgrew.  I was hesitant for several reasons.  First, I hold a position with the United Federation of Teachers and I was in no mood for flak from those just above me because I would be publicly disagreeing with the leader of my union.  Second, I thought that if I sent the head of my union a personal letter disagreeing with him, I should at least have the courtesy to wait until he replied.  Right now, it is over three days since I sent the letter and as of yet, no reply.  What prompted the letter was an email to union members critiquing Bloomberg’s reaction to the recent results of the ELA and Math Common Core State Assessments.  In a nutshell, he made two statements that I had to disagree with.  One, that educators developed the Common Core and that the Common Core is the way to make our students college and career ready as well as develop deep higher level thinking skills.

            In the last seventy-two hours, three things convinced me that I have to publish the letter. First, I asked the opinion of several bloggers who I greatly respect.  One wrote me saying that I should not care what he thinks while the other blogger said that my letter was powerful and needed to be heard.  Next, I read a great blog from NYC  Educator critiquing Mulgrew’s email to the members that put into words many of my own feelings.  And finally, a memory from college hit me in the face.  When I was 19 year-old Queens College sophomore in the year 1973, I took my first statistics course.  When you took statistics at that time, a computer, which was the size of a room, could not help you and my $60 Casio calculator could do no more than basic operations.  Calculating complex statistical formulas had to be done by hand.  After my first test, I got a grade of 49.  I was devastated.  I went to the professor and told him of my worry about my GPA if I failed his course.  What was his reaction—laughter.  This was not what I expected.  He said, “Look, with the type of statistical calculations I gave you and the short amount of time you had to do it in, your mark was great.”  Then he pulled out a piece of paper and showed me a bell curve he developed using the grades for the test.  The curve showed how the grades would be distributed to represent A, B, C, D or F.  His bell curve revealed that my grade represented an A.  He said that thinking 49 is a failing grade is nothing more than one mathematical construct.  Then he reminded me of the scoring system for the SAT which was a different construct.  During his course, I learned that his favorite statement was that there are small lies, big lies and statistics.  One can make a statistic mean anything.

            This, my friends, is what Commissioner King and his cohorts in the state decided to do.  They, and their supporters, have created a construct—a construct with a political purpose.  Before they can destroy public education, they have to prove that it is a failure.  All we have to do is not teach students a new curriculum and invent a grading system knowing most of the questions will be so challenging that only 30% could possibly answer the requisite number of questions that they deem to represent a passing grade.  King, Bloomberg, Walcott, and their corporate reformer friends have no care about the emotional damage that anyone feels when one fails.  The way I felt entering that professors office decades ago is magnified a hundred fold in the hearts of many children today. 

            This is what I wrote to Michael Mulgrew in response to his email.

I am writing you as a loyal union member and a special education teacher in a middle class ethnically diverse neighborhood who knows a lot about testing because I spent nearly two decades assessing disabled children as part of a school assessment team until this Mayor deemed my psychometric skills to be worthless.   Nevertheless, under my belt are a lot of graduate level coursework as well as thousands of hours of field experience in administering and analyzing valid and reliable norm-referenced educational assessments.

Therefore, based upon a lot of research and reading, I have to respectfully disagree with your statement that educators developed the Common Core Standards and that these standards represent a valid instrument to determine if a student is college or career ready.  Educators did not develop the Common Core Standards.  Many of those who developed these standards are deeply involved in the corporate educational reform movement.  Many articles I have read about its development stated that the developers worked backwards and often disregarded some basic tenets of child development.  Furthermore, we are taking on faith standards that have not even been longitudinally tested.  We are taking on faith that these standards will make students college or career ready.  We all know that so many reforms in the past half a century failed because, like the Common Core, research was lacking.  Where are those “open classrooms” or the “New Math” of my childhood?  Both were just fads, just as I believe the Common Core is a fad, which led to no significant educational achievement. 

I, and many others, could only accept the efficacy of the Common Core Standards if there were real research over a number of years showing that students who learned by a curriculum derived from these standards had higher achievement than those students taught by a more traditional curriculum.  I have a sense that many of your rank and file teachers are unwilling to put their careers on the line based on standards that I feel were developed with a political agenda.  The agenda is to convince the American people that our present public school system is a failure and that only a privatized charter-based system is the way to go.  A system, that will in the end, destroy our progressive union movement.

Any assessment in which only 25% to 35% of students can pass is invalid.  A valid test is standardized in such a way that it creates a bell curve.  These assessments do not come even close to creating a bell curve.  Instead, these assessments look more like cliffs.  Many students are set to fall off such a cliff–especially students with disabilities.  Special educators are taught that to help students with learning challenges, one must start where they are.  One does not start at the bottom of an unclimbable precipice.  I work with many students who have, through no fault of their own, significant language impairments that make this curriculum impossible to master. What will become of many of these students when they reach 8th grade and modified promotional standards terminate?  How many times are we willing to leave back such students and destroy their self-esteem before we realize that what is really needed are many vocational programs that will serve the needs of a very diverse disabled population?  There is a big difference between a high IQ child with minor sensory problems and one who may have a severe language impairment that results in a borderline IQ.  Sadly, this curriculum will result in many special education teachers, like me, who are willing to work with the latter child, being punished by someday being rated ineffective because of an invalid assessment based upon invalid standards that work against the educational needs of such children.

Children need to reach their potential.  Unfortunately, I see these Common Core Standards setting up roadblocks based upon a student’s economic class, language proficiency and disability.  Those born economically advantaged will go to either private schools or charters exempt from these standards or whose parents have the resources to get them the extra tutoring needed to pass these tests.  Those children born to parents who do not have the resources will end up in schools that will not have the funds necessary to create the academic intervention services needed to compensate for their parent/guardian’s inability to afford the extra tutoring needed to pass from grade to grade. 

Our focus is completely wrong.  These standards are broken and unrepairable.  I fear, in the end, it will lead to the dismantling of our system of public education and social stratification in this great nation.  In the 18th century, our founding fathers created a flawed constitution called the Articles of Confederation that they realized was unworkable.  But they were smart.  They scraped the document and started anew.  Many of the best and brightest, at that time, got together, and through compromise and negotiation, came up with something workable.  They came up with a constitution that was flexible enough to change with the times.  These Common Core standards are unchangeable stone monoliths that block our way to creating a society and nation that has always believed in education as the great leveler as well as creator of economic opportunity and social mobility.  Let us think before we jump!

             Mulgrew’s lack of response is just a continuation of what has been happening to education during the last several years.  There has been a lack of dialog between those in power with us teachers.   They refuse to engage us, to debate with us.  I offer a challenge.  I challenge those in power—not only Mulgrew, but also Duncan, Gates, King, Rhee, and Broad to engage us in a public debate on the national media stage without moderation or commentary.   Let them engage people like Ravitch, Cody, Haimson and others who spent years doing peer reviewed educational research.  Let the American people decide who has the answers. 

            Public education is not a failure overall.  Yes, we have not been as successful educating limited English proficient, high need and disabled students.  However, look at the small number of students who graduated high school at the turn of the twentieth century and the millions who graduate college today.  These are not false statistics but head counts. Look around at your own families.  I had a grandfather who came to this country with nothing.  He had no formal schooling.  He was a baker making $14 a week.  Only one of his five children went to college.  The others had to drop out and work during the depression.  However, 70% of their children went to college in the 1960s and 70s.  Of those who were born after the mid-1950s, almost all went to college and became professionals.  And of our children, all went to college.  This is one family, multiplied by millions. This is not failure, but success beyond the wildest dreams of those 19th century pioneers who began America’s public education movement.  It is a dream worth preserving.

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