The Answer Sheet: Education chat with Valerie Strauss

Apr 16, 2014

Valerie Strauss, education writer and author of The Answer Sheet blog, led this weekly discussion on what's important and new in the world of education.

Hi everyone. Thanks for joining me today. There's a lot going on the education world so let's get started...

How can we convince local school districts to schedule healthy school hours for teens?

Good question. Sleep specialists know that teens have a different sleep cycle that everybody else. Most teens really can't go to sleep until after 10 or 11 p.m. and the National Sleep Foundation says that teenagers need on average 8 1/2 to 9 1/4 hours of sleep every night to be at their most productive.  So insisting that teenagers start school very early is counterproductive. How to persuade school districts to change start times? The way you get any public policy changed. Lobbying policy makers. So far, some local districts have changed their times, but for the first time, state lawmakers are looking at the issue. The Maryland legislature passed a law mandating that health officials conduct a study on what happened in school districts that did change start times. We'll see what happens. 

The new SAT is supposedly getting rid of all those fancy "SAT words." But what's wrong with making kids know lots of tough vocabulary? Isn't it good for their reading skills, especially as they get assigned to read tougher books in high school and college?

There's nothing wrong with making kids learn tough words. But some of the words that were on the SAT were words kids would never see again in their lives. Spending a lot of time to memorize lists of words not in common usage seems to some like a waste of time. That, incidentally, isn't the best way to learn vocabulary. The best way to learn words is to read.

Hi Valerie. My question is about education and the media. Why has it taken so long for the media to recognize the flaws in the standardized test movement that has taken over education? You have been one of the true leaders in covering education but where is the rest of the media on this issue? - Ronald Maggiano, retired FCPS teacher

That's a good question and I don't have the definitive answer. It may have something to do with the evolution of high-stakes testing. These tests became more important in the No Child Left Behind era. At the beginning of NCLB, both Democrats and Republicans backed it so it seemed like a bipartisan issue. It didn't seem particularly controversial. Teachers, I believe, came to realize early on the danger of putting so much importance on standardized tests but teachers aren't by and large rabble rousers and didn't go public with their concerns. One part of this is that as traditional newspapers began to shrink and even close, fewer reporters were assigned to cover education. There just weren't as many eyes on the subject. I also think that when the testing revolt began a few years ago, some reporters thought it wasn't serious. With so much political support for it, some reporters, I think, assumed the malcontents were misguided. In any case, more reporters are questioning the movement than ever now.

Hi Valerie, You tend to post in-depth sophisticated analyses of the policy and politics of education. The Answer Sheet certainly is not an advice column. So, is this "live chat" format appropriate for your blog? Do you enjoy it?

Good question re live chat. I'm not dispensing advice here. I don't usually take my own advice so I wouldn't expect anybody to accept it either. This is just a way of learning what is on peoples' minds and having a discussion. Hopefully I can be informative and I can learn from readers. In that way it is a fine extension of my blog. Do I enjoy it? Yup.

Why do you think so many parents, students, educators and policy-makers are protesting standardized exams this year?

The amount of high-stakes testing kids now do, and the corruption of the school day to prepare for these tests, has reached such a point that educators and parents decided they had to do something about it. This revolt started a few years ago and has exploded this spring because new Common Core-aligned tests are being used in a few states and field tested in most other states. Millions of kids are taking field tests of new Core-aligned tests so that the test companies can finalize the new versions for official use next year. (Some people have said the kids are being used as guinea pigs in this field testing season. I was one of them.)

You are fairly critical about the role of standardized tests in the college admissions process. Are there any colleges, in your mind, that do a good job of using these tests in a constructive way? Or, do you think the right answer is to eliminate the use of these tests completely?

There are more than 800 colleges and universities that don't use SAT or ACT scores to admit students. You can find a list of them at FairTest, an organization that has been fighting to end the abuse of standardized tests for a very long time. (I've been talking to the FairTest folks for many years.)  I think there are so many problems with using a single test score as an important measure of achievement or smarts that I do think colleges should give short shrift -- or no shrift -- to them in admissions decisions.

There are a number of questions/comments today about college admissions and the SAT. Today, the College Board released news details about the changes it is making in the SAT. You can learn about that here.  The revamped test will be introduced in early 2016. Why the middle of the year? I don't know. I know a lot of college admissions counselors are wondering why too.

What evidence, facts, research will help us convince the naysayers and "reformers" that what they want teachers and students to do is not fruitful, not necessary, and not warranted? -- Duane Pitts (retired teacher, Moses Lake, WA)

Thanks for writing. This is a pretty broad question. Different reformers want different things from teachers and students. If you are referring to the Common Core -- teaching it and learning material aligned to the standards -- the fact is that most states have been implementing the material for several years. There is no research base for it, but then again, there isn't a research base for much of what goes on in education. We cycle through education fads. There is solid research in some areas -- early childhood learning, for example. But in general, policy makers talk a lot about doing things that are "research-based" but wind up ignoring the research or finding research -- however badly it has been done -- to support their own beliefs.

Why is education infused with a liberal view? Was this always the case? And has it improved learning? Also, what politilcal party are you affiliated with?

I'm not sure what you mean about education being infused with a liberal bias. Do you mean subject matter? Like teaching evolution and climate change? That isn't exactly liberal; it's teaching science. As for the political party I am affiliated with, it doesn't matter. You may take comfort in knowing that I have been attacked by Republicans and Democrats and Independents and Libertarians alike.

Apparently some people are having a hard time posting questions. If you click here, you can find a place to click at the top that will allow you to post questions.

You stated "You may take comfort in knowing that I have been attacked by Republicans and Democrats and Independents and Libertarians alike." May I ask: what party has attacked you more, and how did you respond to them? Thanks.

Actually, the Reps and Dems pretty much equally. Republicans and Democrats today have  similar though not identical reform agendas. How do I respond? As politely as possible.

As a parent in the state of Florida, what can I do to stop the CCSS initiative? Also, do you foresee if, how and when this reform will die?

Well, in Florida, the CCSS is supposedly dead. Ed officials changed the name to the Florida Standards, and have made some changes to the CCSS. Of course, the standards still are pretty much the Core. Do I think the Core will die? As long as there are high-stakes standardized tests linked to the standards, it is hard to see how it will die.

I received this question by e-mail:

Should state/local taxpayers funds from one state be used or develop or underwrite charter start up costs in other states? (aka "cross-subsidization" referred to as a "ticking time bomb" for EMOs at Gates-sponsored conference) e.g. Harmony Schools from Texas developing a school in DC.  California-based Rocketship opening schools in Milwaukee, DC, with expansion plans for Texas, NOLA and other cities.

 This issue, to my knowledge, has never been addressed by national ed reporters.  It is a very significant issue.  FBI and Pa Auditor General investigating Pittsburgh area charter spending tax funds to develop a charter in Ohio. -- Karen

Some people obviously think it is okay to use local public funds to help charter startups in other states, but it certainly seems to defy the very idea of charters. Some charter networks have schools in different states, which is one thing. Using local money somewhere else is quite another. It is an issue I will research. Thanks for bringing it up.

What's the fairest solution to D.C.'s school boundary debate? It seems like there's so few "desirable" schools and so many students who want to go to them. But fixing the "undesirable" schools could take years. By then, for some students, it's too late.

This is a really good question and the answer is complicated. It is understandable that education officials want to find ways to achieve educational equity. In D.C. and other cities, one ideas has been to change or even eliminate school boundaries and have citywide lotteries where parents can ask for the schools they want their children to attend -- traditional public, charter, and in some places even private. There are problems with this too. It isn't really school "choice." Parents supposedly can list their favorite schools but most won't get them. Many families could find it hard to transport their children to a school that isn't in their neighborhood. Furthermore, many parents in the wealthiest areas of D.C. say that if their children are assigned to a school across the city, they will move. The real solution of course is to institute reforms in schools and neighborhoods that allows schools to work and students to come to school prepared to learn. If people really cared about equity, policymakers would take the steps to achieve it or fear being voted out of office.

As an employment recruiter, I can tell you why? In real life, on the job, everything is standardized regarding the respective duties of each employee and the organization as a whole. Schools, by giving standardized test, prepares young people for success in the work world. So it's good traiining...

I'm not sure who you are recruiting for. Many recruiters today say they are looking for students who can think creatively and work in teams -- and that they are finding kids who can't think their way out of and around a problem. Standardized testing doesn't actually prepare kids for success in the work world.

You mentioned last week that in one state field-testing the PARCC or SBAC tests, computers were hacked. Could you provide more specifics?

Actually it wasn't PARCC or SBAC. It was in Kansas, with annual state and math tests that were being given online. Cyberattackers managed to slow down or disable networks by flooding them with traffic so the tests couldn't be given. A form of hacking.

Wasn't the school day schedule originally set to get students out while there was some daylight to help in the fields in the agrarian days? And then with the rise of organized sports, now it seems the idea is to give students daylight hours for practice. Will that schedule change anytime do you think, given how important many (outdoor) sports practices are in schools?

Actually, the school schedule probably wasn't created for an agrarian lifestyle. Typically the big city districts were the first to organize common schools. Students were given summers off partly because it was believed students needed a break from academic work, partly because the summers were hot and the schools had no air conditioning, and partly because many of the eastern elite whose students populated the schools retreated to summer homes. Furthermore, farmers wouldn't have wanted their kids to have time off in the summer to harvest but ratherspring and fall intermissions to coincide with the heavy work of spring planting and fall harvesting.

If politics is not important, why is it known that the Teachers' Union lis controlled by Democratic strategists?

There's no secret that Republicans don't like unions. But if the unions were so powerful, you have to ask why there are so many reforms imposed on schools that unions oppose. And I didn't say politics isn't important. Of course it is.

Thanks very much for joining me today. Sorry if you had trouble getting in a question. I'll make sure the link is on my website well in advance for next Wednesday's 1 p.m. chat. If you can't make it at 1 next week, you can submit questions/comments beforehand and read the transcript later. And if you think I should change the time of the chat, let me know. Have a great week.

In This Chat
Valerie Strauss
I've been covering education for at least as long as I went to school - from kindergarten through graduate school - and The Answer Sheet gives me the opportunity to keep learning (and get paid for it).
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