The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Campbell's Law"

I just finished the chapter on accountability in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. So many times I found myself nodding vigorously...wanting to highlight every word...It's just comforting to know there's research that supports what I've been thinking about testing all along: standardized tests are flawed and limited, they're not intended to be used as the sole measure on which important decisions are based, there are too many confounding variables that affect test scores (i.e., language background, socioeconomic status, student motivation, parental engagement, attendance...just to name a few), and test-prep is taking over classrooms across America...superseding health, physical education, the arts, literature, government, history, and science. We're producing a generation of students who can (maybe) perform well on standardized, multiple choice tests in reading and math. Period. And we're calling that an education.

Ravitch cites Campbell's Law: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social process it is intended to monitor." (italics mine) In other words, "When faced with demands to satisfy a single measure, people strive to satisfy that measure but neglect the other, perhaps more important goals of the organization." This phenomenon is known as goal-distortion...and Ravitch (drawing on the work of Harvard psychometrician Daniel Koretz) gives several examples from different disciplines...When the state of New York started issuing scorecards reporting mortality rates for surgeons, most cardiologists stopped performing surgery on critically ill patients to avoid getting a bad score. As a result some patients who might have survived were turned away. Also, when the airline industry was required to report on-time arrivals, they manipulated the expected duration of flights to compensate. As a result the on-time statistics became meaningless. Ravitch and Koretz believe this is what NCLB, testing, and "punitive accountability" are doing to education. Ravitch states, "The pressure to increase test scores is likely to produce higher scores, whether by coaching or cheating or manipulating the pool of test takers. As long as the state or district continues to report good news about student performance, the public seems satisfied, and the media usually sees no reason to investigate whether the gains are real...or meaningful." Fascinating!

Ravitch goes on to say, "Accountability as we know it now is not helping our schools. Its measures are too narrow and imprecise, and its consequences too severe." She says a good system would include other measures besides test scores...things like grades, teacher evaluations, student work, attendance, and graduation rates. A good system would also take into account what schools and districts are providing in terms of resources, class sizes, well-educated teachers, and a well-rounded curriculum. It would also include regular external inspections conducted by trained observers. In Ravitch's system, a low-scoring school would not be closed down, disrupting hundreds of lives, with the hopes that a new and improved school would spring up in its place. Instead, that school would receive additional support. Decisive and consistent steps would be taken to see it improve. Closing a school would be a worst-case epic failure on the part of not only the people who work in that building, but also on every district official.

So...I'm wondering...what do we have to do to make that a reality???

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch

This book caught my eye a couple weeks ago when I was browsing at Books-A-Million. I just started it, but there's already so much I want to share!

First, some background...Diane Ravitch has been involved in education research and policy for over 40 years. She's a scholar, an author, and Research Professor of Education at NYU. She served as the assistant secretary of education under Lamar Alexander during George H.W. Bush's presidency; and in 2001, when President George Bush, Jr. presented NCLB, his infamous plan for school reform, she was "excited and optimistic." But in the years that followed, she began to see that NCLB...and its pillars--accountability and choice--were not solving any of our problems. In fact, she writes, "I came to believe that accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools as states and districts strove to meet unrealistic targets...Over time, my doubts about accountability and choice deepened as I saw the negative consequences of their implementation." In this book, Ravitch presents the evidence that changed her mind.

She begins by explaining how "the standards movement turned into the testing movement..." In the early 1990's, the U.S. Department of Education commissioned a set of voluntary national standards in several content areas. According to Ravitch, this effort fell apart in 1994, when Lynne V. Cheney, the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, criticized the unfinished, unreleased history standards. Cheney argued that the standards were politically biased...against great white men. She felt that minority groups were over-represented...and the nation's failings were emphasized. Her critique caught the nation's attention. It was all over the news. Elected officials in D.C. didn't want to have anything to do with the controversy...or the development of any other standards. It would have been political suicide, so they passed the buck to the states. But the states had seen what happened on the national level, and they were wary. Ravitch explains that most states wrote standards that were vague and "devoid of concrete descriptions of what students should be expected to know and be able to do."

...which explains a lot! I've often marvelled at the convoluted language used in the standards I'm expected to teach. I've been frustrated by how broad and nebulous they are...stumped by the fact that the sixth grade standards look exactly like the seventh grade standards...which look exactly like the eighth grade standards. Now I understand. Being any more specific...naming pieces of literature or authors students should read, for example, would be too risky.

So...the states were allowed to write their own standards and pick their own tests to measure whether or not students were meeting those standards. And then came NCLB with its legislative command that ALL students...including those with special needs, those whose native language isn't English, those who are EVERY school across the nation must be proficient in reading and math by the year 2014. This, according to Ravitch, is the plan's "toxic flaw"...The federal government has mandated an unattainable goal. She cites data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tests student in fourth and eighth grades. In 2007, only 33% of the nation's fourth graders, and 31% of eighth graders, were proficient or advanced in reading...ONLY 1/3 of all the students in the nation...yet, in just seven years, NCLB dictates that 100% should score at that level.

Faced with the unachievable, the states did one of two things...they stalled by predicting lower gains in the first several years of NCLB's implementation followed by a sharp increase the closer they got to 2014, making it look like they were doing better than they really were...OR they lowered standards and played with the percentage of questions students had to answer correctly in order to attain "proficient" status. Mississippi, for example, claimed that 89% of it's fourth graders were at or above proficient in reading, but only 18% scored at that level on the NAEP in the same year!

Not only that, but many districts sacrificed instruction in history, geography, science, the arts, and P.E. to focus on reading and math--the two subjects that counted towards Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)...and even then test-prep was front and center.

But despite all that, in the year 2007-2008 30,000 or 35.6% of all public schools in the U.S. did not meet AYP as defined by NCLB! Wow!

So much of what Ravitch has to much of the data she mind-boggling. I'm looking forward to reading more...especially to hearing her ideas about what needs to happen to turn it around.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

I read The Awakening for the first time my senior year of high school. It was required reading, but I was completely captivated. It was the first time I ever stayed up ridiculously late with a book, unable to put it down...I remember it was snowing...we had no power. I was curled up in a chair in the living room, blankets piled on, candles flickering...but Kate Chopin swept me a million miles away...summer...1899...Grand Isle. I could smell the salt air. Hear the waves crashing. Feel the sand beneath my feet. Because I was 17...romantic and idealistic...I strongly identified with Edna Pontellier. I felt so sorry for her...trapped in a loveless marriage. Expected to act in a certain way. Entirely without options...without control. I desperately wanted her to leave her husband and run away with Robert Lebrun. I cried when Robert left her; and in the end, I admired her decision...I saw her as strong and noble.

I remembered my experience with the book fondly, and several years later, I decided to read it again, expecting to enjoy it in exactly the same way. But by that time, life had knocked some of the romance and idealism out of me. I was surprised to discover that Edna no longer seemed heroic. Throughout my second reading, I saw her as weak and selfish. In the end, I was angry with her for what she had done to her husband and children. I believed the strong thing would have been to stay and endure. She simply quit.

I still loved the book, though...just in a different way. It became a measure of how I had changed over time. My memory of the first reading was like a pencil mark on a door frame...I could look at it and see how I'd grown.

When my book club was contemplating our July selection, The Awakening immediately came to mind. I knew there would be a lot to, selfishly, I wanted to read it again. It had been about seven years since the last time, and I was curious to see how I would feel this time around. I also wanted to know how my experiences compared to the experiences of other readers.

As soon as I began to read, it felt like I was stepping into a favorite pair of jeans...the soft, worn-in pair that fits just right. The world of the story was so familiar and comfortable. I read the first few chapters tentatively, waiting to see what kinds of feelings would surface...Would I be more sympathetic now or would I still feel angry with Edna??? the book wore on...I really felt very little.

This time my reading took on more of an evaluative/analytical quality. I read without any sense of urgency or hope because I remembered the story well. I felt emotionally detached but more mindfully engaged. I considered the changes in Edna more carefully. I looked for evidence that she tried to make it work. I thought more about the context in which Kate Chopin was working. Marveled at how modern it feels. Sought to understand what she was trying to say about people and the world in which she lived.

This time, I saw the conflict on a larger scale. It's about so much more than Edna's love for Robert...her yearning for something she can't have...her passionless marriage...even the societal expectations. What she goes through in The Awakening is timeless and fundamentally HUMAN. It's something we all experience during certain least to some extent. She becomes dissatisfied with her life and seeks to change it for the better. She begins to chase after happiness and believes she can find it...IF. IF she starts painting again...IF she moves out of the big house...IF she has Robert...She quickly tries to fill herself up with one thing after another, acting on every whim, doing what feels good, but nothing works for long. Her spirit is restless and insatiable. Nothing has meaning. Chopin explains, "There was no one thing in the world she desired. There was no human being she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone." Edna comes to see the world as a harsh and lonely place...She loses hope...She can't imagine life any other way.

This time, her decision at the end of the book felt like the only option. It wasn't brave or cowardly...strong or weak. It was unfortunate but inevitable. There was no other way it could have ended. This time, I didn't judge her at all.

Next time, who knows? I'm sure I'll see it differently. That's the brilliant thing about this's complex and intricate. It can be read on different levels...held up and examined from different angles and in different lights.

I don't often re-read books the quote at the top of the page states...there are too many books out there and not enough time...but this experience has inspired me to revisit some other old favorites soon...see what's new...

Up next...Ethan Frome.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffeneger

I honestly don't know what to say about this book. It is quite possibly the strangest thing I've ever read. I was drawn into it immediately...hooked by the mystery surrounding the older set of twins, Edie and Elspeth...Why were they estranged? How was Jack involved?...And I was curious about what would happen to the younger twins in London. Would they uncover this deep, dark family secret??? Would the course of their lives be changed forever???

There was no way I could have anticipated what actually unfolded. It was far too bizarre. I feel like I was set up to expect one thing, and what I got was totally different. As far as I can tell, the climax had nothing whatsoever to do with the Edie and Elspeth situation Niffenegger set up at the beginning of the novel. Eventually, you do find out what happened between them, but it's insignificant by that point. It's been overshadowed. The characters themselves don't seem to care about it, and I was too preoccupied with the crazy, supernatural twist things had taken. It almost seems like it could have been two separate novels...or maybe even three...

I thought the ending was not only strange, but it was also unsatisfying. Strange would have been ok...but I was left with so many questions, and so much of what happened didn't add up for me. I spent the day after I finished reading trying to untangle it all in my no avail...I'm still just as perplexed as I was when I read the final page.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fahrenheit 451

I'm not sure how I made it through high school and college without reading this's one of those books people reference and I think...I should really read that...but not being a huge sci-fi person, it never made it to the top of my list. Then, Daniel read it while we were at the beach last week. He finished it, and it was just laying there waiting for me to pick it up.

Honesly, getting through it was hard work. I didn't really enjoy it while I was reading it. It felt so sparse and cold. It was hard for me to find my place in Bradbury's world. I had so many questions...which I bombarded Daniel with constantly. But I love it now...I love it more each day. I guess I needed to sit with it a while and think it through.

It was hard for me in part because I had some preconceived notions going in...I was expecting something more Orwellian...the government policing what people read and say and do. I thought "they" would be the ones banning and burning books, trying to keep people pacified and powerless. As it turns out, in Bradbury's futuristic society, the censorship started with the people. Captain Beatty explains, "It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick..." It seems the people originally began to censor books because they wanted to keep the peace...they didn't want anyone to be upset by anything. They whittled away at books...a line here...a paragraph there...then entire pages and sections...Captain Beatty goes on: "Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book..." Eventually, there was nothing of substance left.

That, plus industrialization and incredible advances in technology, led to this fast-paced, pleasure-seeking, instant gratification society where everyone is conveniently tuned out. The country is on the verge of war, and no one cares.

The characters, most notably Mildred, have a brainwashed their minds have been turned to mush...but really there's no one to blame. There's no Big Brother. Just a gradual, collective checking out. People in Bradbury's world no longer read, think, discuss, create, savor, or reflect.

Which brings me to my second misconception...Despite the title, it's not really a book about censorship and burning books. Initially Montag, the protagonist, thinks books are the answer. If society stopped burning books, if people started reading books again, they could unlock the secret to happiness...uncover the solution to all their problems. The world would be saved. Then he meets the professor who tells him, "It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books...Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of the things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us."

The professor goes on to name three things that are missing from this society: 1. Quality of information 2. Leisure to digest it 3. The right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two...and that idea of taking action is reinforced by Granger at the end of the book. Granger, one of the Book People, says, "Everyone must leave something behind when he dies...a child or a book or a painting or house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted...It doesn't matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you once you take your hands away." So lovely! And, it seems to me, that is the crux of Fahrenheit 451.

It's a cautionary tale...warning us of the dangers of becoming spectators. Perhaps even more relevant now than it was in 1953.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

I'm a sucker for boarding school novels in the same way I'm a sucker for southern lit: A Separate Peace. Looking for Alaska. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I can't get enough of them...I'm sure it's because, on some level, I wish I'd been part of that kind of world myself...strolling around campus on a fall day in my plaid skirt and fleece vest, old brick buildings, well-manicured lawns, playing tennis or field hockey...or maybe rowing...sledding down snowy hills on cafeteria trays, skiing on spring break, playing Frisbee in the circle on a warm spring day...the traditions...the prestige. Boarding school books let me live vicariously...and for a few chapters, I thought I'd enjoy trying on Lee Fiora's life as much as Frankie's or Alaska's or Gene's or Finny's.

I could absolutely relate to her longing to go to a school like Ault. The comparisons she made between the Ault campus and her public school in South Bend, Indiana. Her obsession with the glossy school catalog. The way she spent hours pouring over old yearbooks...and I admired the fact that she made it happen for herself.

I could also relate to some of the teenage least early on...On page 15 she describes the beginning of her time at Ault: "...I was exhausted all the time by both my vigilance and my wish to be inconspicuous. At soccer practice, I worried that I would miss the ball, when we boarded the bus for games at other schools, I worried that I would take a seat by someone who didn't want to sit next to me, in class I worried that I would say the wrong or foolish thing. I worried that I took too much food at meals, or that I did not disdain the food you were supposed to disdain--Tater Tots, key lime pie--and at night, I worried that Dede or Sin-Jun would hear me snore. I always worried that someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely."

But as I got to know Lee the book wore on...I became more and more frustrated with her. How can anyone be so self-absorbed? So paranoid? So horrible??? For so long? I understand that she would feel like an outsider initially...being in a new place...not knowing anyone...afraid the other kids would figure out she didn't belong...but then she had so many chances. People did reach out to her. Dede...Conchita...Cross...Darden...even Aspeth. If she had just been able to pull herself together and act "normal" for a few minutes...

I kept reading...propelled forward by the hope that things would turn out better for Lee than she expected (or frankly deserved). But in the end, she ended up more isolated than ever. And I can't help but think she wasted a wonderful opportunity.

Some critics have made the claim that Prep is about social class, race, and gender if it's the story of how the institution or the people at Ault kept Lee and others like her on the fringes; but I think Lee isolated herself. She's the one to blame. She wouldn't let anyone get close. She over-analyzed every exchange...every interaction.

I wanted her to put on a dress and go to a dance...get a cup of punch...stand around with the other girls who weren't a wallflower. After she went to the movie with Cross and his friends, I wanted her to say hi to him in the cafeteria. She didn't have to act like they were best friends...but at least smile and acknowledge him...give him some indication that she was interested. OR...if she wasn't going to make an effort to fit in...I at least wanted her to embrace life on the outside. Rebel. Dress like Conchita. Date the kitchen guy. But don't be so worried about not being popular...that you won't associate with anyone.

And the way she was with her parents. Wow! Of course...they could have made more of an effort, too. It was important to her, so you think they could have tried to be less weird.

Basically...Prep was like reliving all the worst parts of adolescence...without any of the happiest moments. It was pretty painful.