Monthly Archives: September 2016

Wow! Big Buddies Trump Testing for this Kid

September 22, 2016

For the past week, there has been one burning, exciting, riveting, absorbing question on my seven-year old daughter’s mind: Who will be my big buddy?

She goes to a K-8 school, where the older students–in this case, 5th and 6th graders–act as big buddies to little kids like her, mostly in grades K-2. As a second grader, this will be her third year of getting to know a big kid, and the thrill of this has been zinging up, down and all around her for days now. 

She had to have her picture taken at the South High School pow wow in May.

This morning she awoke at 6:30, despite having gone to bed late because of the big storm that rolled through right at bedtime. As we tried to snuggle in, get sleepy and read a chapter of our current favorite book (Super Fudge!), the rain clattered down, making it so hard to fall asleep. But she was up on time, shuffling into the kitchen with one thing on her mind: today is the day she finds out who her big buddy will be!

“I woke up early because my mind was saying, ‘wow! wow! wow!,'” she told me excitedly. She then launched into a thirty minute, off and on monologue about which older kid she would be paired with. Would it be our neighbor? Probably not, because he’s a boy. Would it be Greta, her buddy from last year? No, of course not. Greta is too old now.

Who will it be?

The anticipation of this has propelled my daughter to school on time every day this week, and that’s saying something. Her school starts at 7:30 a.m., which is a merciless hour for a kid whose natural rhythm does not allow her to easily get to sleep–no matter how tired I assume she is–before 9 p.m.

This experience is hers alone. My older three kids also had big buddies as first and second graders, and were then big buddies themselves, but I don’t recall them organizing their every thought around who their buddies were, or would be, and what they would do together as buddies. (The buddy relationship takes place during the school day, maybe once a week, with the older kids coming down to read and talk with the younger ones.)

This year, we are going to sing a song together, she told me rapturously. Music + the company of a big kid? That is the kind of equation my spirited girl can’t get enough of. Math worksheets? Not so much. If she could arrange her day, she would have music class at least twice, she told me. That’s where her heart is; that’s the kind of thing that gets her out the door.

I can’t help but contrast her bubbling joy over her big buddy with a letter that was sent home from school yesterday. Your child, the letter said, will soon get the chance to show what they know about reading and math, by taking the “MAP” test next week. The letter was signed by the school’s Reading Specialist/Testing Coordinator, a person I’ve never met.

Make sure he or she eats a good breakfast and arrives to school on time, the letter advised.

Nah, I don’t think so. Of course I do my best to make sure she eats a good breakfast every morning, even though she is often only hungry for cookies at 6:45 a.m. That’s not the issue.

The issue is the “chance to show what she knows” by sitting for a computerized, standardized test as a seven-year old. Ironically, the notice came on the day that we had her fall conference with her teacher. During that conference, which lasted close to thirty minutes, we sat with my daughter’s teacher and the student teacher who will be working in her classroom all year.

The teacher was prepared. She knows this kid. She had the standard assessments done, about where my daughter sits with her emerging–very emerging–reading skills, and her sufficient math skills. She’s “behind,” according to the reading assessment scale (called F&P) that was altered with the onset of the Common Core State Standards. It is an alphabetical scale, and the level B, where my daughter was last year, was once a perfectly respectable place to be for a first grader. 

With Common Core, though, the scale was tweaked in the name of rigor, so that a first grader at level B now raises red flags. Kindergarteners are supposed to get to level B or C; first graders are supposed to fly past it. My second grade girl is still hovering around the B-C level. 

The kids haven’t changed; the Common Core-adjusted scale has.

The point is, my daughter’s teacher has already met with us and mapped out where my kid is, socially and academically. She was her teacher last year, too, thanks to the looping structure of the school.

The MAP test will take place in the school’s Media Center, not the students’ regular classroom. That’s because–shh!–the test is top-secret and there can be no cheating! Therefore, the kids have to leave their literacy-rich classrooms, with the alphabet and words and numbers all over the place, for the more discreet confines of the library. It is in these spaces–one child, one computer screen, no help allowed–that the dominant culture of individualism and individually crafted success or failure really blossoms. (My daughter won’t be there, as I have opted her out of all standardized tests, using the district’s own Opt Out form. Simply sign and return to your child’s school.)

The MAP test results are also used by the Minneapolis Public Schools to evaluate teachers, according to the science–considered junk by most scholars–of “VAM,” or Value-Added Measures. These measures are supposed to measure growth (where a student starts, and where he or she ends up at the end of the school year), and assess how far teachers take their students, according to the test results. The MAP isn’t timed, so kids can either click through it, or spend hours agonizing over each question.

Some teachers, parents and administrators might find these test results worthwhile, for purposes of planning and diagnosing which kids are in need of intervention or more challenging work. But nothing will take the place of being able to sit for half an hour with my daughter’s teacher, asking questions, bouncing ideas off of her, and otherwise trying to learn how best to support my daughter in her process of becoming.

Becoming what? It’s too soon to tell. For today, it is all about her brain shouting “wow! wow! wow!” as she gets ready to meet her big buddy, at last.

It turns out that Americans are at the far end of the spectrum in their preference for competition over cooperation; for self-promotion over humility; for analytical over holistic thinking; for individual rather than collective success; for direct rather than indirect communication; for hierarchical rather than egalitarian conceptions of status. So in school we…control and direct and measure our children’s learning in excruciating detail, where many other societies assume children will learn at their own pace and don’t feel it necessary or appropriate to control their everyday activities and choices. In other words, what we take for granted as a “normal” learning environment is not at all normal to millions of people around the world.

–Carol Black, “A Thousand Rivers”

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!


Minneapolis School Staff Fight for “Indispensable” Employee’s Job

September 13, 2016

Another letter writing campaign has been burning along email chains in the Minneapolis Public Schools. This time, it is on behalf of Multilingual department staffer John Wolfe. His job is on the line, apparently due to the kind of “adult interests” that education reform purveyors famously love to rail against. (Until they can’t, but that’s another story.)

One-time Teach for America superstar, Michelle Rhee

One-time Teach for America superstar, Michelle Rhee

Wolfe has worked for Minneapolis’s Multilingual department for the last six years, as a compliance and data guru. He came on just as the department, which serves English language learners (ELL) and their teachers, was trying to crawl out from under a federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Complaint. That complaint found that the Minneapolis schools were not adequately meeting the needs of non-native English speakers by failing to keep track of their progress or offer the proper support services. 

Wolfe reportedly worked closely with Jana Hilleren, who lead the Multilingual department and helped resolve the civil rights complaint. Hilleren, though, has since been pushed out of the district. Those familiar with Wolfe’s work describe it in the kind of saintly terms ascribed to many outliers in the Minneapolis schools (who have often met a similar fate). Here’s a sample:

  • Before John, everything was hit or miss. It was hard to know which students were getting ELL services; it was a free for all, which led to the OCR complaint.
  • John came in 5 or 6 years ago. He was key. Very teacher-leader focused, versus a top down approach. Teachers knew they could rely on him. People felt like they were part of something bigger, and a bigger effort for these kids. He built a compliance system, and did all the data work of monitoring who was getting what services. He was at the heart of rebuilding Minneapolis’s Multilingual Department.
  • Michael Goar started an employee of the month program, and only did it once. It was John.
  • John worked nearly 80 hours per work, living and breathing ELL and MPS.
  • He held “Saturday Sessions,” that paid teachers to learn, grow, and develop materials for district, state, and national ELL students to gain access to success.
  • Brought a 24 hour interpreter service, called the “Language Line,” to the district. According to MPS’s website, “This service is to ensure effective communication between schools and families regardless of a family’s home language. This service provides live interpreters in any language at any time of the day.”
  • Provides iPads, apps, research and “fast responses” to classroom teachers.

Now, in a scene that smacks of unfortunate adult political interests, Wolfe’s status as an employee has been made shaky, as part of a general deconstruction of the Multilingual house that Hilleren built. 

Warning: This is where the adult “concerns” really rear their messy heads. From 2010 on, Wolfe worked alongside HIlleren and teachers to build the Multilingual department into something people rallied around. In 2014, however, change blew in, on the heels of a surprise $5 million funding allocation for district ELL programming. There was a catch, though: Hilleren and her team were reportedly left out of the decision-making and planning for that new money, which was diverted from other departments within MPS at the behest of then-CEO, Michael Goar. 

The $5 million in funds was put under the management of a new employee–former assistant state education commissioner, Elia Bruggeman–and a new Global Education department. By late 2015, Hilleren was gone, and the Multilingual department was placed under the purview of Bruggeman and the Global Ed division. 

Fast forward to the spring of 2016. In a shakeup, the Multilingual department staff was whittled down from fifteen to just a handful of district-level employees, leaving it in skeletal shape. Wolfe was one of the employees left without a clear position for this school year, although he reportedly has been given a part-time district job. The word swirling through district headquarters is that anyone from the Hilleren era is in danger of being swept out, while the Multilingual department itself is on the brink of being starved. There is no money for textbooks, apparently, or for staff to attend the annual state ELL conference.

The extra $5 million diverted to ELL programming in 2014 has been spent on a variety of staffing and programming whose value cannot easily be assessed by the untrained eye (district sources say there is no per-pupil cost analysis of where that money has gone). A lingering concern, apparently, is where the new Global Ed division is headed. Is there a plan? A focus? A structure in place, that will help explain the staffing and leadership changes? If so, no one seems able to articulate it.

Back to John Wolfe. Those who know him well sing his praises, while acknowledging his role as a maverick who can be tough to manage, but delivers on behalf of students and teachers. As politics threaten to upend the ELL department Wolfe helped create, his career in the district hangs in limbo. The staff who have come to value his support, however, are not letting him go quietly.

From a recent letter sent to Superintendent Ed Graff by a longtime Minneapolis teacher:

 John is the single-most responsive individual that I have ever connected with in an administrative position. He listens to us and supports us. 

John has given his heart and soul to this district.  He is passionate about helping EL teachers and students alike.  He works harder than anyone I know and may be the smartest man I have ever met.   Simply letting John walk from this district would be a travesty.  You will receive many more letters like mine from so many of the excellent EL teachers in our district saying the same things.  I would not write a letter like this for just anyone.  Please listen to all of our personal testimony. John means so much to this district and especially to the teachers of our Multilingual Department.

John Wolfe is irreplaceable.  His loss to the EL students and teachers in this district would be immense.  I am writing to ask you to retain John Wolfe in the district and renew his contract within the Multilingual Department.

So far, supporters say, there has been scant response from a district stuck in–but perhaps trying to crawl out of–damage control mode.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!