Friday, October 10, 2014

Thoughts on Common Core

Common Core is a hot topic and generates a lot of hoopla. However, when folks on both sides of the issue are pressed, they tend to provide simplistic explanations that do little to illuminate the debate.  
Supporters of Common Core argue that if you are against it then you must be for our children living in the “intellectual darkness” of inferior standards. Those in the opposite camp argue that Common Core is a “Big Brother” top down initiative from politicians in Washington and a gross over reach by the Federal government. Both these explanations are simplistic and ignore the reality of the situation.
The truth of how Common Core came to be is quite complex and is thoroughly documented in many well researched papers on the Internet. If you are really interested, I’ll be happy to provide links to thoughtful and generally non-hyperbolic discussions of the topic.

That said, I offer the following points:

1)      The historic education standards used in Tennessee and other states are content standards, i.e. the standards define the information or content that we want students to master.  Common Core differs markedly in that it is a “process standard” designed to teach children to “think” and “solve” problems critically.
2)      Anyone who has tried to solve a 3rd grade Common Core math problem knows  that assessing Common Core is much more complex that just grading a multiple choice test. Since we now want to assess “how” the student thinks, we must use artificial intelligence algorithms that have not been properly researched or tested for this purpose. The Common Core tests are being developed by a consortium called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). A full review of this group is beyond the scope of this brief narrative. However, representatives from the testing companies are prominent among the members. These tests are expected to raise the cost of student testing significantly (along with profits to the testing companies). The increased costs for this testing have been largely hidden from the public and legislatures. These increased test costs are highly significant in a time when most states are faced with budgetary limitations.
3)      In order to be eligible for the administration’s “Race to the Top” initiative, states had to agree to implement Common Core. In the quest to secure “Race to the Top” funding, Tennessee signed on for Common Core very quickly. So quickly in fact that the adoption was rushed and not well thought out. Many teachers feel they were inadequately prepared for the implementation. Despite the fact that it is implemented in Tennessee classrooms, we are still utilizing the previous TCAP exams. Although the test data from last year has been very slow to emerge, it appears that these tests results suffered during the last class year. Our legislature has wisely held off implementation of the PARCC testing. However, this puts our children in a very precarious position of once again being tested to the new Common Core standard with tests designed for the old state content standards.
4)      During my interface with classroom teachers in the 2013-2014 school year, I was told that Common Core “shoe horns” all the students into a prescribed “proper ways of thinking”. Most of the brightest students already develop unique problem solving paths and several teachers I have spoken to feel that the Common Core rubric adversely affects them by forcing them into “appropriate” ways of thinking that do not make sense to them. Having tried to follow the Common Core “appropriate ways of thinking” to solve problems, I can totally relate.

In summary:

·         The people pushing Common Core the hardest may be more motivated by profit or the promise of Federal funding than our children's well being.
·         Rather than blindly pushing Common Core, our state administrators might want to look at the evidence where it has been attempted. Most of the evidence I have found is either inconclusive or negative.
·         The legislature needs to take a close look at the cost impact of PARCC testing and its impact on our students and education budgets with an eye to scrapping the Common Core all together. 

·         As parents and concerned citizens we need to get the facts and be prepared to counter the loud (and well funded) forces who are pushing Common Core.
As a very respected national educator put it at the 2013 American Education Research Association (AERA) conference, “When the world's largest software company (Microsoft) and the world's largest testing company (Pearson) are the biggest proponents of Common Core, it should give one pause to wonder why.”

The Tennessee Legislature will again address the Common Core during the next session. As concerned parents, grandparents, and community leaders we need to make sure we understand the issues and share our concerns with our legislators in a respectful, informed manner.

Lastly, According to the Heritage Foundation, the federal government provides just
9%-10% of the funding for public education in the states, yet it is the source of 41% of the administrative

compliance burden for the states. Perhaps the time has come to do a cost benefit assessment on the impact of accepting Federal funding. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

PBear Goes to School


For the last year and a half I have been going to school, but not like you might think. In May of 2012 a colleague of mine at Middle TN State University, asked if I would join a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant project on which he was working. This grant, called Master Teacher Fellowships, was designed to support exceptional high school science and math teachers who teach in under served rural schools. The five year project was designed to give them additional skills to help them to become mentors and raise the competency of other teachers in their schools.


Part of the original grant proposed industry participation in the project for two reasons. The first was to explore how industry could become more involved in supporting education. The second was to provide an opportunity for an 'outsider' to observe teachers in the classroom and share these observations in a report. In other words I was sent back to school. Like many of us, I assumed that school was about like it it was when I was there. Let me be the first to tell you things have changed dramatically since I graduated from high school in 1965. But I would go on and say that if you have children in K-12 right now, things are much different than you remember them.

Most people seem to agree that education in our country is in disarray as reflected by the fact that only 37% would rank U.S. Public schools as good or excellent. At the same time, 77% would rank the school where their child attends as good or excellent. Clearly there is a huge disconnect. The truth is that by most objective measures our education system is in need of reform and the school your child attends may well have systemic issues of which you are unaware.

Many people blame the problems with the education system on the teachers unions, “non-caring, unqualified teachers”, and a tenure system that is believed to protect under performing teachers. This view has permeated the “group think” of a great number of Americans who now demand “accountability” for our teachers. This focus on teacher accountability has resulted in ignoring many other substantive problems that contribute to the overall problems within our education system.

The reality is that numerous research studies confirm that the number one strategy for improving school performance is parental and community involvement. This is true regardless of whether the school is affluent or poor, rural or urban, multicultural, etc. The first step in getting involved is to become aware of what is really happening in your school district. An ever burgeoning cadre of bureaucrats are running our schools and they need to be accountable to parents and the community. Your participation can help make that happen.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Why Graduation Rates are Suspect

On May 2nd the National Assessment of Education Progress published the 2013 results of the 2013 Mathematics and English tests for High School seniors. The test has not been given to seniors since 2009 and the hope was that the tests would show significant improvement. Alas, the test results were essentially unchanged since the last time the test was administered.

However, at the same time that student performance remained unchanged against a reliable benchmark, graduation rates reached the highest ever! That presents an obvious conundrum. If all other factors have remained the same, how can graduation rates increase if student performance is unchanged? The "educrats" have postulated all manner of reasons. 

I would like to suggest "gun decking" as the most probable cause. "Gun decking" is an old Navy term that refers to changing data after the fact to reflect a more desirable outcome. In many schools there is a process called "credit recovery". Credit recovery allows a student to take a failed course online with minimal supervision and accountability. Credit recovery allows a student to take multiple choice tests multiple times until he or she attains a passing grade. Most teachers I have spoken to have a very dim view of credit recovery. Some will go so far as to call it a joke. In order to participate in credit recovery, a student has to have achieved at least a 50% grade in the failed class. The real problem is that in many schools, teachers are not allowed to assign a student a grade any lower than 50%. Thus a student is incentivized to do nothing throughout the school year knowing full well that credit recovery will rescue them. Is it any wonder that students show up in subsequent classes unprepared or that most students reporting to college require at least one year of remediation before they can begin a post secondary course of study. They have learned little more than how to keep choosing multiple choice answers until they get it right!

If you have a student in K-12, you should be concerned as to whether this practice is prevalent in your children's schools. Even if your child is doing well, fairness would seem to dictate that the grading process have integrity.

Monday, April 28, 2014

What Has Happened to Integrity

Most of my life I have worked in situations where falsifying data was unacceptable because lives could be affected. People could die if aircraft maintenance records, bridge safety records, or flood vulnerability records were falsified. If people were to die due to the consequences of falsifying data in these cases people would probably end up in jail.

Today yet another scandal came to light as revelations surfaced that VA records had been falsified so that an administrator could get a $9000 bonus. As a consequence veterans may actually have died from lack of treatment to which they were entitled. Our President has once again expressed outrage and promised to thoroughly investigate. Even as he does that he pats himself on the back and says "my government has provided increased funding for the VA." (Actually I thought it was "our" government, but what do I know.) The truth is that more money cannot solve the ethical problems that have led to multiple recent breaches of trust in several federal government agencies! However, jail time for the guilty party in this current VA case might help civil servants get back on the right track.

I am not sure what we can or should do as responsible citizens to address the general lack of integrity in our government. I do think that being informed is a good start. A friend of mine, a retired Air Force officer has recently teamed up with retired Major General John Singlaub in an effort to get people better informed. They have recently been sharing a movie called The Agenda. The movie shed a lot of light on how we have gotten where we are and serves as a clarion call that we need to get involved. If you have time you might want to watch it.

You can watch the movie online at  http://vimeo.com/63749370 .

:-) Lonnie





Monday, March 17, 2014

A Most Unusual Retreat

The announcement for the Grace Chapel Outdoorsmen Retreat read  "bring your 4 wheelers, shotguns, pistols, ammo, bows, boats, and fishing tackle". A church men's retreat that says bring your "man toys" certainly had my attention. Oh by the way there was to be worship, prayer, and  a video series by Dennis Rainey called "Stepping Up, A Call to Courageous Manhood".

I left home at midday on Friday for the one hour drive to the Five Star Retreat in rural Hickman County TN. Arriving, I found a group of men already there, sighting in pistols and rifles, adjusting the launcher for the skeet shoot, setting up archery targets, launching kayaks, and setting up AV equipment (after all we did have a spiritual program!) One of the men had brought an industrial sized grill/smoker and was busy smoking manly man food in between sighting in an AR-15. Earplugs were handed out on arrival... a good thing since the sound of weapons firing was incessant. Most everyone was making an outdoor fashion statement with a variety of camouflage, boots, hats, etc., and everyone with a "carry permit" had a holstered pistol. All in all we would have made an NRA or survivalist meeting quite proud.

Around 6 PM we ate some of the manly food ( smoked chicken and sausage), drank sweet tea and coffee and began to settle in for the evening sessions. With all the afternoon activities as a prelude, I was very curious to see what would happen to the 35 ruffians in attendance when the session started. Three guys came up front, one with a guitar, one with a bongo drum, and the leader. Over the years I have attended many church retreats and have listened to a lot of kumbayah moments sung by men whose hearts were not really in it. Thus my incredible surprise when these gun toting believers began to sing with a passion worthy of a Sunday morning charismatic praise session. My heart was filled as I watched these grizzly guys sing "Bless The Lord Oh my soul.... Worship his Holy Name,,," with loud voices and raised hands... And when they sang of worshipping "ten thousand years and then a thousand more" you had to believe it. These guys were the real deal, authentic believers here to experience an encounter with God.

Over the next two days we watched the videos about manly, Christian courage. We had meaningful small group sessions where serious soul baring and confession took place. We prayed for one another for life struggles and freedom from long held bondages. Some of the sharing was gut wrenching but it served to underscore that these men are committed to God and serious about holiness, loving their wives and serving their families. In between we went outside to the ranges and played with our man toys competing as teams in our small groups... sort of a spiritual retreat ying and yang!

One heart warming thing was that experienced shooters, fisherman, and archers took on a mentorship role for those who were not experienced outdoorsmen.... Just as experienced prayer warriors led the way in practical spiritual warfare when we prayed together. It was a true example of 'iron sharpening iron'.

It was a time of spiritual refreshment for me and I did catch about 15 bass! However, at 66, I was the oldest guy there. Sometimes folks my age can get caught wondering if the generations behind us can handle it. Good news for all you worried old farts out there, they have it under control. I could not help but be encouraged by the passion of all those young men who have committed to making a difference in the world by living for the King. With men like these, the Gospel is in good hands... And that makes me smile!


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Gratitude

Some years ago I was blessed to go to Uganda several times. On one of my trips we stayed at the Masindi Hotel. This well respected hotel in the town of Masindi is also the oldest hotel in Uganda. Although I notice that in recent years, the menu has been greatly improved, when I was there the food was essentially bland traditional Ugandan fare. However, the menu was more than offset by the head waiter, a tall Ugandan man named Solomon. Solomon was a church elder and a well respected leader in Masindi town. His job apparently allowed him and his family to live somewhat more comfortably than others in the community and he seemed content with his lot in life.

 One evening at supper I casually asked Solomon what he did in his "spare time". Solomon looked at me as if I were a Martian and asked me what I meant by the question. I then rephrased my question and asked, "what do you do on your days off?" I wish I could somehow convey the incredulous look that Solomon gave me as he responded, "Days off? There are no days off!" Thus I was introduced to the idea that having a job that requires one to work every day can be a good thing for which to be grateful.

Fast forwarded from 2000 to 2014. A missionary couple with whom we are friends recently came home from Uganda for a few weeks. While they were here, one of the wife's friends had a get together for her and invited a number of her other friends to attend. After listening to the attendees discussing balancing the demands of life in Williamson County TN she had to go outside and catch her breath. Although she understood where they were, she was overwhelmed by the pettiness of these discussions in the context of the poverty and need that she deals with daily in Uganda.

I say all of this not to guilt evoke you, but to remind you of how blessed we are to love in this country of such abundance... And maybe remind you of Jesus words in Luke 12:48 "When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required."



Friday, December 14, 2012

Virus Software for Life

As is always the case in the final days of the year, I find myself reviewing it and mentally evaluating my "performance". One thing I always pray for is that I would be consistent in my faith and I find that I consistently fail in this area. Like St. Paul I find that the things "the things I would not do" I have done and "the things I would do" I have not done. So I now have two choices. I  can grieve over my failure or rejoice that I serve a God who can perform a reset.

I am not sure how theologically correct this might be, but I believe if we allow him to, God can do sort of a ctrl-alt-del on my failures. In so doing, he gives me a chance to enter the future without the viruses and malicious cookies of life that have crept into my "operating system". Assaults from the evil hackers of life can still be expected... but we have God's master virus protection system to protect us. Just like our computer systems, the key to staying protected is to keep our virus "software" up to date. Phillipians 4:8 gives some pretty good instruction on how to do that.

So for 2013, my prayer is that I can keep my life's virus protection up to date.