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The World in the Absence of Freedom

Free Speech Part 3

The World in the Absence of Freedom

Free Speech Part 3

free speechThe last two posts on the YesPhonics blog have both been about freedom of speech; first, we explored at first amendment rights in American schools, and then we dove into the contentious realm of book banning.

In this final installment of our free speech trilogy, we will take a close look at the people who live without these rights. Click to Tweet

Throughout history and across continents, people have and still do live without the basic freedoms that those of us who are more fortunate often take for granted. Some have had their rights stripped from them by changes in governmental, religious or social powers. Others have never gone a day in their lives knowing what it means to be free.

What countries are the least free, in terms of speech?

Freedom House is a U.S. government-funded but independent watchdog organization that researches, reports on, and advocates for democracy and human rights. They annually publish a report on the levels of freedom in countries across the world, and gives them an aggregate score out of 100. The higher the score, the higher the freedom the country enjoys. For a sense of scale, the United States is currently graded at 86, while Canada is at 99 and Uruguay and Australia are at 98. (Which means we’re doing okay, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.)

In 2018, Freedom House scored the following as the least free countries in the world:

Syria: -1

Syria is the only one on this list with a negative score, with should tell us something in itself. The “president,” Bashar free speechal-Assad, took over from his father in 2000, and runs his unitary republic as a true dictatorship. Between him and his father, the Assads have maintained control over the country for the past 47 years. Arbitrary kidnapping, imprisonment, torture and disappearances of citizens is common, and the government frequently censors websites, detains journalists and democracy/human rights activists, and imposes stiff travel bans on its citizens trying to leave.

To make matters worse, the country has suffered at the hands of numerous armed conflicts in the past decade. The Global Peace Index from the international Institute for Economics and Peace ranks the Syria dead last, making it the most violent, war-torn country in the world. Several militant terrorist groups have sprouted up in Syria and attempted to either prop up the existing regime or start their own sovereign state, including ISIS, al-Qaeda, Tahrir al-Sham, Rojava and the Syrian Opposition. With a population of about 18 million, approximately 13 million are internally displaced or war refugees, and another 470,000 are estimated to have died from the most recent conflict.

South Sudan: 2

South Sudan is a young country, having only gained their independence from Sudan in 2011. It’s fight for independence, which lasted 22 years, is Africa’s longest-running civil war, and the people are still dealing with the effects of such prolonged violence.

The former Information Minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, initially promised freedom of the press would be respected in the country when he took office in 2013. However, there aren’t many laws on the books ensuring that freedom, and the few that do exist aren’t strictly adhered to by police. Blogs and websites that are deemed defamatory toward the government are blocked without notice. Journalists for The Citizen, the country’s largest newspaper, have stated that authorities often take reporters in for questioning, and accuse them of defamation and “anti-patriotism.”

free speech
Members of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) arrive at the rally in Juba, as South Sudan prepares for its independence.

In 2014, Benjamin seemed to go back on his initial promise, and warned journalists to not report on the ongoing civil war conflict from opposition areas. If they didn’t report on the battle from the government’s controlled area, Benjamin threatened reporters could face arrest for “disseminating poison.” In 2017, British-American freelance journalist Christopher Allen was killed while reporting in one such forbidden zone. The South Sudanese government claimed he was not targeted, but rather caught in the skirmish, and said they “regretted” his death. Freedom of speech proponents are still calling for an investigation into the matter.

Eritrea and North Korea: 3

Eritrea and North Korea are tied for the infamous title of the third least free country in the world, each with a score of 3 from Freedom House. And they each earned this title for the same reason: being a “hermetic police state.” For freedom of speech rights specifically, the Press Freedom Index ranks North Korea worst in the world, with Eritrea second-worst.

Eritrea almost borders South Sudan to the southeast, and like its neighbor, it is another relatively young and volatile country. The country gained full independence in 1991, and is made up of almost a dozen old kingdoms and sultanates that eventually died out and got sucked into one conglomerate state. As a result, infighting among old powers is common.

Since it’s limited independence in 1942, Eritrea has never once held a national legislative election. Cabinet members are arrested for promoting democracy, and citizens who try to leave the country or follow an un-approved religion are thrown in prison. Military service is mandatory, and with indefinite conscription periods. According to BBC, Eritrea is the only African country to have absolutely no media outlets outside of state control, and the New York Times reported that the country has imprisoned the fourth-highest number of journalists, after Turkey, China and Egypt.

North Korea is infamous for its human rights violations against its own citizens, so much that many people would’ve free speech guessed it to be first on the list. Any aspect of a person’s daily life may be subject to government control or supervision. All employment is managed by the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). WPK is the only ruling party, and all politicians are required to belong to it.

Robert Collins, a 37-year U.S. Army veteran who served in Korea for 35 years who now devotes his work to highlighting human rights violations in the country, uncovered official government documents and first-hand refugee testimony explaining how North Korean citizens are ranked in a “Songbun” status system according to how loyal to the government they and their relatives are. One’s songbun status can affect whether or not one go to a good school or job, or receives adequate housing, healthcare and food.

Amnesty International reports several instances of citizens being arbitrarily arrested, detained, deported, imprisoned or tortured based on suspicions of criticism, doubts or disloyalty to the government. Satellite images suggest that the country operates at least six large political prisons.

North Korean defector Sungju Lee was arrested with his parents because his father was heard saying there “was no hope” in North Korea. In an interview for NPR in June of this year, Lee told the story of his eventual escape. His father left for China in an attempt to find food, and didn’t return. His mother then did the same thing, and also hasn’t been heard from since. As a young boy on his own, Lee joined a gang of homeless boys. They lived in a train station, and police officers would pay them in bread to move dead bodies on and off train cars. Then, in 1999, it turned out that his father was in South Korea, and had paid the equivalent of $25,000 to have a broker “buy” his son back and take him to South Korea for a reunion. Lee concluded the interview by saying that Kim Jong Un “doesn’t love his people. He love his power. His interest is in maintaining his power forever.”

What effect does a lack of freedom have on education?

It’s difficult to find any academic studies done on these countries because they’re simply too dangerous for foreign researchers to visit, and the academics within those countries risk their lives if they say anything negative about the government. Still, can glean some information on the education levels of each country by rough statistical estimates and what we see in the news.

free speechFirst, we can look at literacy rates for citizens above age 15. Syria’s is 86.3% for men and 73.6% for women (this rate is self-reported by the Syrian government, so it’s hard to know if it is true). Women often complete less schooling than men, as they are expected to become mothers and raise families shortly after they hit puberty.

South Sudan has one of the worst literacy rates in the world, with UNESCO reporting that 70% of the adult population is unable to read or write. Many classes are held in open-air “classrooms” without desks, writing implements and very few books or visual resources, and most schools only teach up to the primary level. Girls and children living in rural areas are highly unreached, and are likely to not attend school at all.

Eritrea is actually doing well, with about 67.8% population literate. This is a major improvement from 2002, when it was 52%. The government’s Ministry of Education claimed they intend to build a university in every province (currently, they have two, and several smaller colleges and technical schools). UNICEF has provided the country several grants to strengthen their educational infrastructure.

North Korea’s literacy rate is self-reported at 100%. All education is state-sponsored and controlled, with schools varying widely in quality. Students with high levels of athletic or musical talent are honored at elite showcases, while average and below-average children are often tucked into the shadows. The North Korean government is very fond of advertising classrooms and homes with computers running on their version of Windows, Res Star OS. Some students are highly trained and recruited into hacking groups to spy on citizens and perform cyber-attacks on the government’s enemies, while others may be completely computer illiterate. French photographer Eric Lafforgue visited the secretive state a half-dozen times, claiming he was a tourist, before eventually being banned for publishing too many disagreeable photos of its citizens; one of his most infamous shows a woman pretending to type on her home computer without electricity. Schools also focus heavily on “social education,” where students are taught about their proper role in their families, society and government.

Students can have the most advanced reading and writing skills of their generation, but none of that matters if they can only read government propaganda, or only write messages approved by the government. A child with an empty belly can’t focus on his studies. You can build all the new universities, museums and libraries you want, but it won’t stop your people dying from civil war and torture at the hands of police. You can have a team of brilliant violin child prodigies, but if your students with disabilities are ignored, the education system has failed. Freedom and equality is the only environment in which the human mind can truly prosper.

YesPhonics writes about everything education-related, from parental advice to the latest issues facing schools today. To learn more check out our blog or Youtube channel, and feel free to request topics for us to cover in the future!

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Free Speech Part 2: Book Banning

Free Speech Part 2: Book Banning

Free Speech Part 2: Book Banning

Free Speech Part 2: Book BanningPart 1 of this series dealt with what free speech looks like in America. In this post, we’ll look at book banning, and its impact on literature and education.

Book banning is nothing new. Before the invention of the printing press, books were rare and expensive. They took a long time to write, stamp, assemble and bind by hand — and unfortunately took very little time to destroy. If someone didn’t agree with what was written in the book, burning a few copies was a reasonably efficient way to ensure the vast majority of the population would never encounter the those offensive ideas contained within.

Today, in the age of mass printing and electronic copies, it’s almost impossible to erase a book from existence. Book burning still occurs, but it’s primarily a symbolic act of condemnation now. The modern method to limit a book from being read is to convince as many libraries as possible to ban it.

How are books banned?

According to the American Library Association (ALA), publicly funded libraries cannot legally discriminate what resources they provide based on a patron’s age, sex or race, but they can encourage parents of minors to keep an eye on what their children read. New titles added to a library’s collection are often pre-approved by the library board or a discussion group, or specifically requested by patrons.

For a book to be banned, it must first be formally challenged by a group or individual. Materials are commonly cited for having sexually explicit, racist, offensive or otherwise inappropriate content, for youth or all readers alike. Still, only a small number of challenges actually result in bans.

The ALA doesn’t encourage challenging books. In fact, the association operates an Office for Intellectual Freedom, which reports on and book challenges/bans and actively discourages censorship. Still, in 2017, 491 materials (mostly books, but also other media such as databases, magazines, films, games, etc.) were challenged or censored.

In America, the first amendment makes it so government agencies can almost never ban a book, unless it falls under very specific categories of hate speech and obscenity. There are legal tests for both hate speech and obscenity. The Supreme Court has repeatedly protected hate speech against an individual or group on the basis of race, sex or religion as long as it doesn’t incite imminent violence or harm against the subject.

For obscenity, there is the three-part “Miller Test” from Miller v. California:

  • Would “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” find the work, taken as a whole, appealing to the prurient (excessively sexual) interest?
  • Does the work depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law?
  • Does the work, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value?

The Miller Test is applied in different courts differently, as it also depends on state law, but it is most often applied tobook banning pornography. If a work doesn’t fit all three parts of the test, then it likely will be protected from government censorship.

The majority of challenges don’t come from the government, anyways. According to ALA, three out of every four challenges come instead from patrons and parents. Knowing that, one would think the majority of these challenges would be to ban books from school libraries, which children have access to when their parents aren’t there to monitor what they read. Yet that’s not the case. Only 16 percent of those challenges reported in 2017 were issued from school libraries, with the majority of challenges coming from public libraries. Which brings us to our next question…

What are the ethical considerations of book banning?

Just because something is legal doesn’t always make it right. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled school officials couldn’t remove books from the school library with the sole reason being they disagreed with it. On the other hand, in 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier said school newspapers were not a form of public expression, and schools could therefore limit what student journalists say. How can both these things be ethical? School papers are available to students, teachers, staff and parents — basically anyone who asks for a copy. If you can’t limit what students read, shouldn’t that apply to the readers of the school paper?

Journalists often follow set standards for writing style and policies on confidential sources and other research tactics, but there’s no specific test or certification to be considered a journalist. And, like most journalists, students have an “editor” who can assign them topics and adjust their language. So, for all intents and purposes, high school students should be considered true journalists just as much as paid professionals.

That’s not the only, or the most pressing, ethical question when it comes to book banning. Should children grow up never learning about perspectives outside those of their parents?  Should one group of patrons be able to dictate what everybody else in a public library can read? Click to Tweet

What does book banning do to the mind of a child?

book banning First, it strains the child/guardian relationship. Reading with children from a young age has proven benefits, and can be a bonding activity with parent and child. (For more on this, see our post, “The Effects of Reading to Infants.”) If children learn that their parents are intentionally “hiding” certain material from them, it can lead to distrust.

Famous Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget specialized in studying children’s ideas of morality, fairness and justice. In his article, “The Moral Judgment of the Child,” published by the International Library of Psychology, Piaget uses the pretext of playing a game with children to study their beliefs. In the game, rules are changed by the child or the adult, and the child is asked to say whether or not he thinks it’s a fair rule. From this, Piaget concluded that moral judgment changes as children grow. When they’re young, their primary trust figure is their parent, so they will “tell on” others to the parent when they perceive an injustice. Justice, or “fairness,” is synonymous with equality in their minds; if a child understands that a parent is allowed to “hide” books from them, he or she will likely assume it’s okay to hide things from their parents in return.

Second, the theory of dissonance tells us that forbidding a person from having something only makes that person want the thing more. In a study for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology titled “Change in attractiveness of forbidden toys as a function of severity of threat,” researchers had boys rank five toys based on how much they wanted each, then gave the boys either threats of punishment if they played with a certain toy. None of the boys played with the forbidden toy while the researchers were out of the room, but the boys who received mild threats later ranked the same toy as more attractive than they first thought it to be.

Thirdly, banning books and differing viewpoints harms a child’s theory of mind (the concept that other people have different experiences, thoughts and feelings than you do). Developing a strong theory of mind is a crucial skill; without it, people generally lack empathy for other human beings, and have trouble making friends and interact poorly in complex social situations (“Not in Front of the Children: Indecency, Cencorship and the Innocence of Youth,” M. Heins, 2007). These traits related to a weak theory of mind can then in turn lead to violence, isolation, depression and sometimes crime later in life.

In the third and final part of this series, we will look at what free speech and education look like in countries around the world and throughout time, with a special emphasis on despotic regimes.

YesPhonics writes about everything education-related, from parental advice to the latest issues facing schools today. To learn more check out our blog or Youtube channel, and feel free to request topics for us to cover in the future!

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Free Speech in School

Free Speech in School

The Importance of Speech and Objectivity: Part 1

By Courtney Duke Graves

Since the ratification of the Constitution, America has enjoyed a level of free speech unseen in many parts of the world. Laws and movements threatening to stifle this right crop up from time to time, but we rely on our court system to protect us from such trespasses on our liberty.

Unfortunately, this system isn’t always perfect. Very rarely do we see free speech hit by a blanket law from Congress. More often than not, it’s hit by smaller government agencies closer to home: public schools.

It’s up to us as parents, educators and students to know our first amendment rights when it comes to school. Click to Tweet

What does free speech look like in American schools?

This is by no means trying to paint all public schools as tyrants; school boards are made of concerned parents and teachers, and I believe most, if not all, have the children’s best interest at heart.

The McCollum v. Board of Education Supreme Court case set precedent when it decided a public school board violated the 1st Amendment’s Establishment Clause when it allowed a private group to offer voluntary religious classes on school property, and during school hours.

Teachers aren’t allowed to “proselytize” students to their personal religious/political/ideological views, and schools cannot officially sponsor any religious/political activity. However, this rule sometimes goes so far as to wrongfully ban teachers from participating in speech and activities they have a right to.

Schools limit the speech of students while they’re on campus, too. Almost every school in the U.S. has a dress code that disallows expressions of profanity, violence, sex and drugs on clothing. Furthermore, all 50 states have laws mandating children attend some form of school, so public schools can legally discipline students for participating in walk-out protests.

In English and literature classes, the issue of free speech gets even stickier, for both teachers and students.

Teachers can’t pass out Bibles, Qurans or other religious texts, but they can assign passages of religious texts to study literary devices, ancient history records, or to explain religious symbolism and references in other texts.

How should teachers and students exercise their first amendment rights in school?

1. Express beliefs in the appropriate situations.

If a student asks a teacher outside of school about what they believe, the teacher is free to express his or her beliefs to the student, so long as he/she doesn’t use their authority position over the student to influence the student’s opinions.

2. Promote civic and religious activity of all kinds, without discrimination, outside of school-sponsored functions.

Schools may offer their grounds after-hours to host churches, political meetings, and other functions, so long as school employees aren’t directly involved in administering it, and the grounds are equally available for other similar groups to use.

3. Know your rights, and bring a case to court if you feel your rights have been infringed upon.

Schools don’t have a right to limit or punish student, staff or faculty speech outside of school. This has serious impacts for our increasingly technological world. Under certain situations, principals may search a student’s private property, such as a coat or backpack. Does that mean they can search a cell phone? Can schools punish students for cyber-bullying another student at the school? These questions have come up in court systems, but decisions have been varied and conflicting, so there’s no straight answer as of yet. The only thing that will give us a clearer answer in the future is to continue using the court system to protect individual liberties.

For the most part, students are allowed to bring and/or pass out whatever books they want to school, as long as it doesn’t interfere with instruction time and it’s not obscene. That will bring us to our next post: “Free Speech in School, Part 2: Book Banning.”

YesPhonics writes about everything education-related, from homeschool advice to the latest issues facing schools today. To learn more subscribe to our blog or Youtube channel, and feel free to request topics for us to cover in the future!

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Navigating the “Phonics Versus Whole Language” Debate

Navigating the “Phonics Versus Whole Language” Debate

Did you know the way you teach a child to read could incite people to label you as an ideological extremist? It may sound too ridiculous to be true, but there is a politically driven and very real “reading war” among educators that has lasted over half a century. The two sides: phonics-based and meaning-based approaches to learning language.

What’s the big deal?

Phonics methods break words into sounds, and correlate those sounds with a letter or a combination of letters. Once a student associates sounds with certain letters, they can “sound out” recognizable parts to form a word. With a phonics-based approach, spelling and pronunciation are often the first language skills to develop.

“Whole language” approaches have students focus on the meaning of words first. Students use sight words and context clues to find meaning in what they read, and focus on spelling and grammar later. With this approach, reading comprehension and critical thinking are often the first language skills to develop.

Instead of simply being two ways to teach children how to read, these camps have turned into hotbeds of political mudslinging. If children learn spelling before critical thinking, they’re portrayed as pawns being indoctrinated to never question authority. If they do the opposite, they’re portrayed as victims of whack-job learning experiments. Andrew Davis, a research fellow at Durham University, published a pamphlet in 2014 in which he argued requiring students who already have some reading ability to practice phonics “is almost a form of abuse.” On the other side, child psychologist and psychiatry professor Carl Kline and language disability consultant Carolyn Kline published an essay accusing whole language teachers of “destroying the innocent” by “killing the hopes, and the potential, and the mental health of the children who are victims of the reading disability epidemic.” And here parents are stuck in the middle, just wanting to teach their kid the ABC’s.

Don’t feel as if you have to pick a side in the reading war’s political stage. Click to Tweet

How do you know what’s best for your student?

Phonics-based literacy programs have been in use for centuries, and have scores of research to back them up. WholeNavigating the “Phonics Versus Whole Language” Debate language programs are newer, having gained popularity after Noam Chomsky proposed his language acquisition theory in the 1960’s, but may be a more “natural” learning process, similar to how a child learns to speak. Elements of both phonics and whole language methods can be combined to form a strategy tailored to fit a student’s unique learning style.

A 2016 study by the London School of Economics and Political Science found that phonics methods seem to give an advantage to students at ages five and seven. This advantage, however, disappeared by the time the students were 11. The researchers explained this by saying, “most children learned to read eventually, regardless of teaching method.” And that’s the main goal: teaching children to read. How you get there is up to you.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to teach the 72 sounds of English.


Davis, Andrew. “To read or not to read: Decoding synthetic phonics.”

Weale, Sally. “Phonics method helps close attainment gap, study finds.” The Guardian. 24 April 2016.

Kucirkova, Natalia, et. al. “The Routledge International Handbook of Early Literacy Education.” pp. 373-375. Taylor & Francis, 2017.

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How to Get Out from under Standardized Testing

Campbell's law

How to Get Out from under Standardized Testing

Campbell's lawA Guide for Parents

I have a Princeton Review study guide in my living room right now that has this to say about the new edition of the Graduate Record Examination:

“…It’s safe to say that neither GRE—new or old—is a realistic measure of how well you’ll do in grad school, or even how intelligent you are. The GRE provides a valid assessment of only one thing: The GRE assesses how well you take the GRE.”

It would be fair to accuse the Princeton Review of cynicism for publishing something so weaselly—after all, they’re about to spend 400 pages under the assumption that the GRE is important. It would not be fair, however, to single them out, because everybody else in the American education system is doing the exact same thing as they are: teaching to the test.

How Teaching to the Test Took Over

High-stakes standardized testing in the United States was a well-intentioned idea: make all students take a single test every year, and you’ll be able to measure educational achievement without having to account for the way tests vary from classroom to classroom. You will, hypothetically, arrive at a single impartial set of data by which all students can be measured. This data would be El Dorado for educational administrators, so it’s not surprising that standardized testing became a federal mandate under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program in the early 2000’s.

Standardized tests were the only measures of achievement in No Child Left Behind, though, and if a school district tested poorly the results could be catastrophic: missed testing targets three years in a row, for instance, would force a school to provide extra instruction to its students while those students were allowed to transfer to other schools. In other words, every time a school failed to hit an arbitrary goal, it was forced to work with fewer resources, which made it harder for the school to recover. The only way for a school to get out of this death spiral, in many cases, was to focus all of its curricular efforts on nailing its test targets every year.

Campbell's lawThe type of instruction this leads to is, to put it mildly, ineffective. In an Educational Leadership article from 2001 (the dawn of the NCLB era), W. James Popham lays out a distinction between curriculum-teaching and item-teaching. Curriculum-teaching works like this: a teacher learns that a standardized test will measure her students’ ability to solve algebraic equations with two variables, and decides to teach multivariable equations this semester instead of geometry. In item-teaching, though, another teacher might look at this year’s standardized test, clone all of the multivariable equations, and drill her students on them until test day.

The first teacher’s students, obviously, are going to be better at math. They’ll know how to solve multivariable equations, while the second teacher’s students will only know how to solve one type of problem, over and over. The problem is that the second teacher’s students will score higher on the standardized test, because they’ve essentially been taking it, bit by bit, all semester. And since the standardized test is the only way to measure students, the second teacher will look better than the first one. Now imagine that the school district has just missed its test targets for the second year in a row, and it’s easy to extrapolate that the first teacher will be under a lot of pressure to change the way she teaches. This is a special case of a principle called Campbell’s Law, which the education historian Diane Ravitch sums up in a blog post.

Apply Campbell’s Law all over the country and you have American education today. Even though the last provisions of No Child Left Behind were washed away in 2015, the fundamental problems of standardized testing persist in the form of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program (which we’ve written about before). In some ways they’ve gotten worse. Education reformers around the country are quixotically focused on firing teachers when their students test poorly—in other words, when the teachers won’t teach to the test—and in the worst cases, poor standardized test scores are an excuse for closing schools in droves.

If it becomes clear that all your kids are learning is how to take a test, then they’re being shortchanged, and you have a problem. Click to tweet

So What Can You Do as a Parent?

Campbell's lawThe American education system has such a big, diffuse problem that it’s hard to tell where to start solving it. If you feel comfortable homeschooling your child, that’s an obvious solution: taking them out of traditional school means you can forget about item-teaching and standardized testing and the whole mess. If your kids are in public school, though, try to hold your school district accountable. Ask your child what they learned in school every night. Work on homework with them. If it becomes clear that all they’re learning is how to take a standardized test, then they’re being shortchanged, and you have a problem.

My advice is to bring your concerns to your child’s teachers first, but bear in mind that they’re rarely any freer than their students. Whether it’s pressure from the school district or the culture of the school in general (or their unions, teachers’ hands are often tied, even if they know it’s not helping their students. If you can, try to organize other parents and speak to the administration. If that doesn’t work, another solution is to opt out of the test entirely.

Taking your students out of standardized tests is legal under 2015 education law, according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and the secret of standardized testing is that public opinion is turning against it. Fewer and fewer colleges require SAT or ACT scores, and students are starting to walk out of tests all over the country. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing offers a guide for parents who are interested in organizing opt-outs in their school districts. Even teachers’ unions, formerly strong advocates of standardized testing, have started to come out in favor of opting out. Opting out might seem like the nuclear option for parents worried about teaching to the test, but if your local school district is unresponsive or immobile, it might be the best choice.

Whatever you choose to do, remember that you don’t need to let the educational system fail your children. There’s a growing consensus that high-stakes standardized testing is a dead end, and you can be part of it.

Subscribe to the YesPhonics blog and YouTube channel for more classroom advice—and try our Mnemonic Phonic Technique for free to learn the 72 sounds of English.

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Common Core and Reading

common core

Common Core and Reading

Since 2009 there has been a lot of passionate discussion and debate in the public common core and readingarena about something referred to as Common Core (CC). It is the newest education initiative in a long history of initiatives for what is supposed to be best for America’s children in learning. Kathleen Porter-Magee in the National Review says:

“Here’s what the Common Core State Standards do: They simply delineate what children should know at each grade level and describe the skills that they must acquire to stay on course toward college or career readiness. They are not a curriculum; it’s up to school districts to choose curricula that comply with the standards. The Fordham Institute has carefully examined Common Core and compared it with existing state standards: It found that for most states, Common Core is a great improvement with regard to rigor and cohesiveness.”

Read more at:

As listed by Pauline Hawkins in the Huffington Post, an accomplished English teacher, the four standards for reading and language arts of Common Core are:

Standard 1: Oral Expression and Listening

Standard 2: Reading for All Purposes

Standard 3: Writing and Composition

Standard 4: Research and Reasoning

common core and reading These standards seem reasonable and straightforward. Ms. Hawkins says that,

“These four are titles more than they are standards, but the Common Core Standards document for reading, writing, and communicating includes detailed benchmarks or “evidence outcomes” for all grade levels; this document is 173 pages long.”

Upon further research there are separate evidence outcomes written for math. Within Common Core literature there are no standards written or mentioned for other subjects such as science and history.

Common Core initiatives have put even more emphasis on testing, and it still causes problems in the learning environment. @yesphonics Click to tweet

For the first several years of Common Core in operation, teachers and their principals spent an inordinate amount of time delving into the benchmarks to figure out how to implement them. School districts scrambled to purchase curricula written that specifically earmarked the outcomes. This is messy business, and knowing teachers like I do, many had their own ideas about what to do and in which order to do it. The states are free to choose their own curricula and ways to do this. I’m glad for that, but I imagine this undoes a little of what Common Core had in mind from the beginning: to have students across the country on the same page of ideas at the same time.

Getting Common Core in gear for the classroom took a lot of work and still does. From Ms. Hawkins:

“What has been difficult the past few years is having to unpack the Common Core Standards. We have spent countless hours reading through the document for each level we teach, lining up our curriculum to what the standards deemed as critical skills and looking at the skills students would be tested on in the spring (which will now be a battery of tests instead of just one). We’ve had to switch our curriculum around so our students will be ready.”

Ready for What?

The students need to be made ready for the battery of tests that are now required. The initiative before common core and readingCommon Core was referred to as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). It was considered a dismal failure and put American students even further behind in their reading and other subjects. When reading fails everything else is effected, which makes sense because the ability to read IS nearly everything. One of the biggest criticisms of NCLB was that it relied heavily on testing and test results. Teachers felt compelled to teach to the test, something that was nearly hush-hush in the NCLB days (not that long ago). However, that climate has changed. It is no longer a taboo topic to speak aloud about teaching to the test.

Common Core initiatives have put even more emphasis on testing, and it still causes problems in the learning environment, to say the least. Precious teaching time is taken away from students and teachers so that they can be prepared for the battery of tests. These tests have their own language to them, and students must understand it or they won’t know what is expected on the test.

The Good and the Bad

The people who write or speak positively about Common Core initiatives say that it has great benefits to students. On paper it does sound wonderful: students will learn fewer things but go deeper into the subject matter, learn critical thinking skills, and be able to move across the country, drop into any classroom and know what’s going on. Common Core is also supposed to be leveling the playing field so that children who live in poverty have the same advantages as children who don’t.

Often the answer to the question of, “Why Johnny cannot read, still?” is poverty. Poverty is also the common core and readinganswer given for why prisons are full of people raised in lower socio-economic situations, and why high school dropout rates continue to climb. I do believe too much poverty exits. I do not believe that poverty is the answer to why we have these particular problems. A teacher from Pennsylvania told me that she was required to read a book on poverty in America to understand that her lower socio-economic kids should not be required to do their homework, and that she shouldn’t expect it of them.

Not requiring things like home work because of poverty makes no sense to me. If you think this through what would you conclude? One thing that occurs to me is that someone somewhere does not WANT certain people to succeed. But how can this be proven? I don’t think I can prove it here, but if we want to eradicate illiteracy and poverty (they go hand in hand) we must encourage and allow people to be educated, not necessarily with free college, but long before that with basic tools that will help them get to anywhere they want in life whether it’s college or endless entrepreneurship.

When Will We Learn

When will we learn from our mistakes in education, and why can’t we teach children the most basic foundational things to help them get ahead — READING? Of all things: reading. It should be a simple thing to teach reading and thinking skills, yet it’s difficult and political. However, study after study has been done and has shown that systematic phonics approaches (widely known as explicit phonics) to reading far out-play the prevailing look-say, sight word, whole-language methods, yet educators turn a blind eye time and time again with uneducated, unpracticed, and unproven opinions on the subject.

Whenever a systematic explicit phonics approach to reading is brought into a school whether private or common core and reading in the lowest of socio-economic school districts their scores always go up, first in reading, then in every other subject as the reading improves.

There is a lot of proof that systematic phonics approaches to reading are effective, but educators do not want to hear it. Try to discuss this with a school board member, superintendent, principal or 2nd grade reading teacher. The discussion will not be coherent, and it will be frustrating to you. Some analysis by the National Reading Panel on why systematic phonics instruction helps students learn to read well sheds a lot of light on the subject.

Other proofs to the effectiveness of explicit phonics programs are in private schools, classical schools, Christian schools, and home schools. Those who use explicit phonics instruction to teach reading and language arts to their students are having tremendous successes.

Extreme misunderstandings and misinformation abound around the ideas related to explicit phonics methods of reading instruction. At an annual conference of the New England Reading Association held in October 2015, nationally recognized reading experts, Regie Routman, Richard Allington, and P. David Pearson were trying to rally teachers against phonics. P. David Pearson is quoted as saying,

“The phonics troops are gaining ground. They’ve already made inroads in states such as California, where legislation mandating a phonetic approach to teaching reading has been passed. Join me in the Radical Middle! If not, the voices from the far sides will be the voices that will be heard — and ONE side will win!”

See more of their rhetoric at

Consistency is Key

common core and readingThis argument is annoying. The frustration lies in what they say about their own whole language methods: that they work, they do use phonics, and people just are too ignorant to know. But that’s what I think about their criticisms toward phonics approaches to reading. A systematic explicit phonics approach to reading WHEN USED CORRECTLY, CONSISTENTLY, and HOW IT’S INTENDED far better teaches children how to think, how to decode and encode words, builds a strong vocabulary, fixes fluency problems, helps dyslexic tendencies, gives systematic tools for spelling, and sets a solid foundation for reading comprehension and coherent thoughtful writing.

Bringing it Altogether

Children need the proper tools to learn to read and think well, and they aren’t getting them from schools that are constantly changing programs to make things better only to make them worse.

Common Core is supposed to teach less and get deeper into fewer ideas with students while spending more time teaching critical thinking skills. Does anyone think that American school kids in 2016 should be learning less? The statistics are dismal with how we are doing in math, science, and the most basic of needs to function in society: READING! This is a complicated issue. Schools blame parents. Parents blame teachers or schools, and government blames poverty and other influences.

I would like to end with an intriguing idea, however. Education initiatives like Common Core are not necessarily the main crux of the problems in education and reading in our schools today, but the methods indeed need fixed. Changing the methods in how reading and other subjects are taught would mean a major overhaul in thinking, training, and teaching from the university level down to the classroom teacher.

The study cited in is from the National Reading Panel, Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction–Reports of the Subgroups.

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The Evolution of Public Education

The Evolution of Public Education

A Case for Parents to Start Homeschooling?

Many teachers, students, and parents don’t have a positive outlook on programs such as No Child Left Evolution of education Behind, despite its catchy, encouraging name. Even more clearly, the science and data has shown that standardized testing isn’t necessarily the best thing for our students; in fact we could say it’s detrimental. If our government programs designed to helping students clearly isn’t doing their job, and arguably is counterproductive, how did we let such programs come in existence in the first place? What can we do about it now? Let’s take a look.

Back in 1965 the Elementary and Secondary Education act of 1965, or the ESEA, was passed under president Lyndon B. Johnson. It was a 32 page law (pretty slim compared to today’s standards), and it was a central part to LBJ’s War on Poverty declaration. The main goal of the ESEA was to distribute money to schools who enrolled a large number of poor children. Fortunately, for teachers of that era, testing and accountability were not a part of the original bill. You can see how testing and accountability has failed in my last blog.

As the federal government became increasingly involved in Education, the original bill (ESEA) changed in 1994 under the Clinton administration. The major change that took effect was that schools were offered grants to develop their own standards and assessments

In 2002 things changed. It was the year that would go down in infamy for educators in public school sector. This is the year where George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act. This may seem mundane, almost innocuous, but the problem was that it changed the the federal law’s directive from equity to accountability and testing–a nightmare scenario for teachers and educators. Let me elaborate. The problem with transitioning to testing and accountability (as opposed to an equity view towards teachers) is that it stripped the power and individuation from the hands of teachers and handed it over to an entity that could enforce, indiscriminately, any changes or directives that it wanted. This new law centralized more power into the wide net of government and left teachers powerless–not to mention children who couldn’t read.

A new paradigm has to occur. Teachers need to be able to be flexible to the needs of their very individualistic [email protected] Click to Tweet

The Big Lie

evolution of education The lie at the heart of No Child Left Behind was the assumption that testing and accountability would usher in equity. It did the exact opposite. NCLB failed to close the gap between racial and ethnic minorities, it also failed to stimulate the brighter children. As I’ve argued before, if a federal directive is mandated (in this case test scores), the ‘place’ that children have to ‘arrive’ to is common.

Common places are usually boring and not very satisfying to bright children. So, in the end, not only did it not help the original demographic that the ESEA originally intended on helping (poor and ethnic minorities) but it also held back the brighter children by limiting the amount of success that they could attain. The same kids who were struggling before NCLB was implemented were the same ones who were struggling a decade later


Principals and Teachers Predict Failure

Before the implementation of NCLB (and more recently the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015) educators could see, before the implementation even occurred, that students would fail with these artificial standards in place. They could see, plain as day, that every child was unique and individualistic, I mean, they’re in the classroom EVERY single day, this isn’t news to them–hence the madness that national standards could be achieved. As with most bureaucrats, though, they didn’t listen to the feedback that was given to them.

These ghouls that we call our politicians became radical and die hard in their belief of reform through assessments and testing and punishment for teachers who didn’t achieve the scores that standardized tests called for. Instead of having NCLB repealed in 2007, which it should have been as it had became increasingly clear that it was unpopular and ineffective, they did what all bureaucrats do when faced with data and facts–they re-branded it under another name so that they could retain the power structure. Welcome “Every Student Succeeds Act,” the same awful standards and whimsical ideals that are impossible now with a new name!

Congress Fails Again

I feel like I’m starting to repeat myself here, but it is important to note that the new aforementioned law made hardly ANY changes. It certainly didn’t eliminate the failed practice of assessments, tests and punishment routine–which is what teachers were dying to see happen most. To be fair, though, and to give credit where credit is due, it did restrict meddling in local affairs by secretaries of education (*cough* Arne Duncan). It didn’t fix the fundamental issue of testing and accountability, but, as the old saying goes, “You have start somewhere.” It also reduced the role of the federal government in state education–it gave testing and accountability over to the states. So props to the bureaucrats for that. But, as you’ll soon see, it wasn’t enough.

Evolution of education

Well, it’s time to play that game again– the Congress fails game. I’m not surprised that Congress’ approval rating is sitting somewhere around thirteen percent (at the moment). Instead of identifying and addressing the root causes of poor academic performance they kept plodding along with the ole’ testing and accountability idea. As we’ve talked about before, there can be no measurable changes made when every single teacher is asked to move a mountain. There will be no progress for students.

What is Needed?

A new paradigm shift needs to occur. As I’ve argued before, teachers need autonomy–they need to be able to be flexible to the needs of their very individualistic students. A few things that could be done to make this idea work look something like this:


  • Minimize testing and accountability
  • Respect and value teachers who choose the field of teaching by treating them as professionals
  • Pay them as professionals (does that mean that teachers have to work summers then, though? That’s a blog for another time.)
  • Higher standards for entry into teaching positions
  • Teachers should be knowledgeable about the subject that they’re teaching
  • They should be capable (and demonstrate this on a regular basis) of running a classroom.
  • Teachers should be concerned with communicating in the most effective ways with their students.
  • Paying special attention to how students learn and develop on an individual basis would be very helpful for both teachers and students.
  • Teachers should be given the training on how to teach children with disabilities; psychometrics and strengths as well as weaknesses and ways of testing what students have learned.
  • They should be aware of the ethical and legal responsibilities that are required of them.
  • Teachers might do well with being versed in economics, history and politics of the American systems and society. This is especially important considering the fact that we have a large swath of non-native English speakers. These students (and their parents) need to adopt the American way of life; adherence to freedom of speech, limited government, sound money and liberty, freedom, and equality of opportunity for all.
  • And lastly, a reduction in the size of classrooms, and more one-on-one time being made available to students.

What About Principals and Superintendents?

Evolution of Education Oh yeah, baby, I’ve got a few suggestions that would help principals and superintendents as well. Here is a list, most of it’s pretty straightforward and simplistic:


  • Superintendents and principals should ALSO be educators–this means being wise in the needs of their students and their teachers and being respondent to these needs.
  • They should ensure that their school/district is staffed with professionals and be active in the classroom from time to time.
  • Superintendents and principals should adopt a phonics based approach to learning. The evidence of success is overwhelming.
  • Principals and superintendents need to foster the value of collaboration between teachers. Competition is fantastic, and has it’s place, but collaboration is more in line when trying to educate students in a cohesive fashion.
  • The goal of principals and superintendents shouldn’t be to raise test scores but rather pay diligent attention to the intellectual, social and emotional development of their students.
  • And lastly, superintendents and principals need to recognize that their are no silver bullets or quick fix schemes or overnight cures. The only road to improvement lies in hard work and attention to the well being of students.

The Question of the Decade

One of the most frequent questions I hear is, “What has actually happened after fifteen years of government programs designed to help children?” Well, after fifteen years of “reform,” what we’re essentially left with is experienced teachers that are retiring early. Simultaneously, teacher preparatory programs have declined sharply. Many states are facing teacher shortages–and, really, why does that surprise anyone? What sane person would want to enter the teaching field when they’re set up for failure? They have long hours with low pay, along with the fact that society, corporate executives, billionaires, and the media have been adding fuel to the fire in the form of abuse, making their jobs lackluster at best and a dreadful at worst.

The question of decade remains to be answered: can public education along with the teaching profession survive the systematic efforts to dismantle them? I have hope. In 2015 more than 220,000 students (with the support of their parents, of course) living in New York refused to take the state standardized tests, despite threats of federal sanctions on the purse strings of school districts. Another 500,000 students across the nation have opted out of standardized tests as well. These brave individuals have acted in the long held and cherished tradition of civil disobedience: no taxation without representation! Not only that, but states are already adopting legislation that allows parents to opt their children out of standardized tests. Good job bureaucrats, you’re finally getting something right.Evolution of education

Students in cities such as Newark, Rhode Island and Providence have created high school student unions to reduce the high stakes testing which helps their school from the dreaded “reforms.” That’s pretty impressive. A Nationally created organization by teachers called the Badass TEachers Association (BATs) have been quick to mobilize, protest and testify against federal/state injustice as well, and they’ve been promoting positive improvement in their districts ever since.

Hope for the Future

Like I said, there is hope. We just have to realize that the federal government is less and less of trustworthy entity. They don’t have the best interests of the people at heart. Their only motivation is for more power, more control. This may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. They’ve literally measured the effects that power has on people. The more power one seeks and attains, the more addicted they become–as I’ve mentioned before, seeking state power is as powerful as a drug addiction. Like all addicts, they don’t want to relinquish the drug, and they’ll do anything to retain it. Including selling the monetary future of the unborn to Chinese banksters. Let’s take back our freedom, let’s send a message loud and clear to DC that we don’t want their stinkin’ standardized tests anymore.If all else fails, let’s just start homeschooling more.

explicit phonics

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Race to The Abyss

Race to The Abyss

Race to The Top is A Failed Program

Well, as with most government programs, Race to the Top has failed– and not just in terms of helping Race to the abysschildren succeed in their educational endeavors, but it has also failed taxpayers and teachers.

I should probably start by explaining what Race to the Top is, and where it metamorphosed from. In 2009 the Obama administration offered 5 billion dollars to schools who adopted what is known as ‘Common Core Standards.’ This was an effort by the federal government to double down on it’s previous failed program known as ‘No Child Left Behind,’ or NCLB which was enacted by the George W. Bush administration in the early 2000’s. Essentially Race to the Top is NCLB on steroids. The same tired, old tactics being pushed: evaluate teachers based on student test scores with impossible standards to reach and if they don’t meet those standards, come in and fire all the teachers.

The major difference between Race to the Top and NCLB is that Race to the Top ushered in more federalized control and more punitive punishments. It promoted the theory that teachers needed harsher punishments and children needed more tests. Instead of states designing their own curriculum and making their own tests and being subject to the penalties of the federal government, they lost all control (save for fifteen percent, which we’ll get to in second) of how they design their curriculum and they STILL are subject to harsh penalties if they do not meet one hundred percent of the federal mandated guidelines. Sounds pretty great, right?! Oh, and Race to the Top also required more funding, LOTS more. They have one thing in common, though–the federal government can still come in and fire (or as they like to put it in ingsoc: “turn around”) every last teacher who doesn’t meet the artificially mandated results. My question is: how is this not Orwellian?

One thing that really bothers me about Common Core standards that Race to the Top includes is the program has created a longitudinal database of all students and their test scores. Now, this seems like a great idea on paper (not really, but for the sake of the argument), but the stark reality is that, 1.) it’s not effective at all, and 2.) this data base isn’t actually measuring any metrics that would actually be helpful. On the contrary, it’s measuring teachers based on students that they’ve never taught in subjects that teachers aren’t specializing in. It’s also measuring teachers on which students attend their classes rather Race to the Abyssthan which teacher was there actively teaching and doing a good job.

Race to the Top has also mandated that states adopt “college and career ready standards,” whatever that means. But I think important questions need to be asked when ushering in something as complex as a national curriculum.



Race to the Top ushered in more federalized control, less teacher autonomy, and more punitive punishments. @yesphonics Click to tweet

What Is The Race?

Some of those questions might go as such: 1.) What is the race? 2.) Where is the top? 3.) Who will get there? And 4.) Who will be left behind? Of course, most of these questions are rhetorical, especially when you start from a common sense position that holds that not every child is exactly the same, as I stated in my last blog. This is another instance where the federal government is meddling in affairs that they have no business in (cue cranky old man image). The bottom line is that education isn’t a race, that’s doing education a disservice. Indeed, where is the top? I’m suspecting that the ‘top’ is subjective at best. Most of the students will not get to the ‘top,’ many factors influence this including: IQ, diet, home life, unshared experiences (experiences outside the home life) and their cultural environment–to bet that all (or most) students will succeed in attaining this artificial standard is impossible. And lastly, a good majority of the children will be left behind, that’s just what happens when you have central planning.

I’m sure some of you will say, “Ah see, this blogger is just another anti-government nut who hates the thought of the government improving education,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I’m actively helping children everyday. Parents, teachers, educators and students alike love our Mnemonic Phonic Technique which teaches the 72 Orton phonograms. Now, let me use an appeal to authority as well; Diane Ravitch has made a similar argument that I’m making right now. She’s one of the top authorities on Race to the Top and NCLB because she was instrumental in in getting the legislation to pass, and now she regrets it wholeheartedly.Race to the Abyss

Equality of Opportunity Not Equality of Outcome

Ultimately, Race to the Top is promoting a hyper egalitarian approach to education, and there isn’t anything wrong with egalitarianism inherently, but when your stated goal is to have every child succeed and the exact opposite is happening, perhaps you should rethink your approach.

Race to the Top is importing a corporate culture into education. It’s promoting competition, bottom line, profits and losses, and bankruptcy for those that fail to show profits. Now, the only caveat I have here is that I think competition is a good thing, especially for young kids. It helps them integrate into the free market as successful humans. Competition is also a huge factor in products becoming better. However, all of the other things that Race to the Top is importing via it’s semi fascistic corporate culture is horrendous. This includes abrupt firing of employees (teachers) that fail to meet ‘targets,’ and bonuses for those that do.

Test Scores Are Not Profits

Look, the bottom line is we need to educate all students, not just the ones that win the lottery of standardized tests. Education is about learning and questioning. It’s about discovering what’s around you and inquiring into things you’re not very knowledgeable in. Ultimately, it’s about development and growth, and to become a better person who can serve their local community in the most effective and joyful way possible. This includes learning to become a good citizen. Teachers need to have the freedom to foster good habits in their students, and this includes instilling a sense of personal responsibility in students for their actions. Ideally, children should be getting this from home, but unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world.

Awakening a Love for Learning

Unruly kids love learning to read!If you were to ask most teachers what their goals are as a teacher, most teachers would tell you that they want their students to succeed in every way possible. Part of this dream includes awakening a love for learning in their students and to promote self discipline and ethical behavior as desired habits that their students can carry with them for a lifetime.

Race to the Top acts as if test scores are the be-all-end-all and inculcates the idea that these standards can’t be questioned. It’s totally one sided: Race to the Top only measures test scores, but it fails to measure originality, creativity, kindness, persistence, diligence, and courage. Most importantly, it fails to measure the ability for students to critically think for themselves. But then again, I’m not so sure the government wants students to have this trait. IF they did, why are the promoting such an outrageous ideology when an overwhelming majority of the data is showing that their half baked plan is failing? I would guess it’s because of their addiction to power, which, coincidentally, they’ve found is the same level of addiction that cocaine addicts experience.

The Problem With More Federal Funding

Obviously, the answer to this headline is debt. The U.S. is currently in the hole to the tune of 19 trillion dollars–along with 100-200 trillion in unfunded liabilities, figures vary from source to source. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that more funding isn’t the answer. We’ve been doing this for a long time in many areas of education and it’s failing to garner legitimate results. Not to mention the moral issue of forcing tax payers at the point of a gun to pay for things that they can see isn’t working and having no say in the matter.

The other (and more direct) problem with more funding is that it opens up education to a long line of vendors selling stuff that schools supposedly need (which usually they don’t, old fashioned paper and pencil is really what they need, but I digress), and schools go along with this to meet the new federal guidelines and to escape the sanctions that may be imposed upon them.

A list of new things that schools supposedly need are as follows: turnaround specialists, learning coaches,race to the abyss rubrics to measure performance, data analysts, professional development workshops, experts in teacher evaluation, curriculum specialists, leadership trainers, new software and hardware, new programs, and textbooks aligned with Common Core Standards. All of this is a costly waste of time. Are you starting to see a trend, though? If the federal government mandates these artificial test scores and then requires teachers and schools to purchase all or some of the aforementioned things, doesn’t it seem like it’s a huge transfer of wealth to those who have vested interests in seeing Common Core succeed? All of these things are not aligned in the interests of children, much less teachers.

A Look Back At History

All of this nonsense (Common Core) was the byproduct of the close collaboration of the US Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In order for states to get funding, they had to adopt the principle of teacher evaluations. Dozens of States went for the bait, and almost all of the states changed their laws to be in accordance with Common Core standards.

Meanwhile, there was absolutely NO evidence to support evaluations for teachers. But, the Gates foundation promoted this approach by offering multi-million dollar grants to a few districts to demonstrate test based accountability. Test based accountability failed everywhere it was tried, kinda reminds me of communism. Researchers pointed out time and time again that this approach was ineffective. Teachers who taught ESL, challenged/disabled, troubled and gifted students were less likely to see their scores rise. Compared to those teachers who taught in affluent suburbs. Again, that is why artificial mandates always fail, they never take into account the complex inter-workings of individuals.

Going From Bad to Worse

Race to the abyssAs if the whole program couldn’t get any worse, it does. Race to the Top mandated the rating of teachers for students they had never taught in subjects they had never taught as well. Let that sink in for a second. Seventy percent of teachers didn’t teach reading or mathematics grades three through eight. What’s even more stunning is the fact that hardly anybody knew whether or not teachers who were fired or given bonuses were deserving in either respect. This made test scores even more God like in the eyes of bureaucrats than they were in NCLB.

I’m sure some of you are wondering how the US dept of Education could be so moronic. I’m wondering the same thing, but as it turns out, there is an answer. A coalition of Inside-the-beltway groups decided that national standards and national tests would create a ‘dynamic and coherent re-alignment of public education.’ They thought that national standards and tests would bring about better everything, including: technology, teacher education, professional development, teacher evaluations, promotional and graduation standards, and better text books. It didn’t happen. As a matter of fact, the exact opposite happened–a hodge podge of nightmares.

This wasn’t a new idea, nor novel, though. In the early 1990’s it was called “systemic reform.” The theory held that the American system was too fragmented and decentralized to be effective (I’m pretty sure I heard almost the same thing from the thought police in George Orwell’s 1984). George H. W. Bush’s administration funded voluntary national standards–hoping other parts of the model would align. They didn’t, and for good reason; states were still smart and weren’t quite as desperate for cash at that time. Then came the Bill Clinton administration who promised a ‘national system of standards and assessments.’ That never happened, another bullet dodged. But ultimately, freedom would have it’s day in court when George W. Bush came along and used NCLB to persuade states to write their own standards and tests. He also used it to penalize schools who didn’t meet the standards.

Long story short, the Obama administration announced Race to the Top, but states were ineligible to compete for a share of the 4.5 billion dollars unless they adopted the aforementioned “college and career ready standards.” States understood that it meant adopting Common Core standards even though the standards hadn’t even been finished yet and they would be sight unseen until they had already signed the dotted line! The 2008 financial crisis left most states in dire financial straights. All but five states adopted the Common Core standards sight unseen; they got greedy for that cash-money. Eighteen states received funding.

Where’s the Autonomy?

Race to the abyssStates were allowed to add a meager 15 percent of additional content to the Common Core standards, but in order to do that, they had to agree to not change the standards in any way, shape, or form. The US department of Education awarded three hundred and sixty million dollars to two consortia of states to write tests that were aligned with Common Core standards. This was unprecedented in American history. Previously, markets operated on a state-by-state basis, often by district-by-district–even more local, more autonomous, more transparent. A quote by Joanne Weiss, Executive officer of New Schools Venture Fund and close confidant of the Obama administration had this to say in the Harvard Business Review about the new Common Core standards:

“The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.” Now all of this doesn’t sound terrible, I’m all for more entrepreneurship and innovation. But this isn’t true entrepreneurship. This is stacking the deck for your friends and calling it a fair competition.

The Pesky Question of Legality

The promotion of Common Core by the US department of Education and funding of national tests was legally questionable, as it turns out. Federal Laws prohibits federal officials from attempting to direct or control curriculum. Ironically, Arne Duncan insisted that he had no role in directing, assisting or promoting the direction of curricula. But, that’s exactly what he did. The Obama administration and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation thought they had pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, but, it backfired almost immediately. There was a huge outcry over how the Common Core standards were devised. The Common Core standards were deliberated behind closed doors, lacked transparency and lacked inclusion of stakeholders and most damning of all, no revisions allowed.

Solutions for The End of The Day

Race to the abyssUltimately, what schools really needed wasn’t more testing and more punishment, they needed smaller classes, more experienced teachers and health clinics; instead they were mandated more testing. The Obama administration and the DOE’s Arne Duncan built on the cracked foundation of NCLB by transforming schools from humanistic, child centered and community oriented to shaped by ideas and interests of statisticians, economists and entrepreneurs. We need to get back to a common sense place when it comes to education. The way things are being implemented and ran right now are a total disaster. The illiteracy rate is just as high as it ever was (and, actually, it’s getting higher), we need solutions, and we need them fast.

One place we could start, as I’ve advocated for before, is the abolition of the Department of Education, nowhere in the Constitution does it call for such an entity. After we disbanded that trainwreck, we can proceed by giving back freedom to states by letting them choose which curriculum they want to use. They can choose a curricula that has actually been proven to work, not some pie-in-the-sky, bureaucrat’s wet dream. After we have given the freedom of choice back to the states and districts, the final thing we need to do is abolish national tests and standards and repeal Common Core.

I really don’t care about ‘looking’ like I’m helping children, I ACTUALLY care about helping children. Even more so, I don’t care about ‘looking’ (read: virtue signaling) like I’m helping teachers, I actually want to help teachers. If the American school system is to recover from this death spiral she’s in, we’ll need to take swift, comprehensive measures to ensure her recovery. Time to give teachers back their autonomy. Time to tell bureaucrats to back up and step down. We don’t have any time to waste. In order for America to be innovative we need to have innovative, critcal thinking students, and the simple fact of the matter is that is slowly coming to an end. We need action, and we need it now.

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Standardized Testing Vs Teacher Autonomy

The Rise of Bureaucratic Control

Standardized testing vs teacher autonomyI’ve been reading a book every teacher, homeschooler and educator should read. It’s Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System and it’ makes a compelling case for more teacher autonomy and less Standardized testing. At first, I threw it down upon hearing that idea that competition doesn’t bolster innovation. Competition is the one of the most integral things that stimulates production/innovation and quality while simultaneously decreasing price (economics 101), you can check out Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s ‘Top Dog,’ for more evidence on how competition is not only necessary in our everyday lives, but without it, we’d still be living in the stone ages. Not only is competition importnat in the adult world, but it’s especially important for developing children. I also don’t necessarily agree that privatization is a bad thing if it’s in the hands of competent individuals.

OK, enough preamble.

However, after getting over my ego tantrum, I picked up the book again and continued reading. And to my amazement, Ravitch succinctly diagnoses the problem that teachers face on a daily basis: too much bureaucratic nonsense and control and WAY too many standardized tests.

Just to be clear, I’m not getting a commission or being paid in any way to recommend Ravitch’s book or ‘Top Dog’–I just like to recommend fantastic books when I get the chance. Ravitch outlines a clear and concise plan of action: give teachers control of tests (and how they administer them), and give them more autonomy in their classrooms so they can do what they do best: teach.

The idea that teachers should be confined to a National curriculum like No Child Left Behind or Common Core is ludicrous. @yesphonics Click to Tweet

The Inherent Flaw of A National Curriculum

The idea that teachers should be confined to a National curriculum like No Child Left Behind or CommonStandardized testing vs teacher autonomy Core is ludicrous. It’s ridiculous in more than one way, but let’s start with the biggest and most glaring inconsistency first, which is: to assume that a one size fits all curriculum is going to be a success for every single (and very individualistic) child.

Children are very unique in that they have very different needs and standards: one child’s need is going to be vastly different than the next. Ravitch uses and excellent metaphor: one child might run a mile in 5 minutes and another child might run a mile in 10 minutes–both children have very different needs. Unfortunately, those that are proponents of Common Core or national curriculums often overlook common sense; that children aren’t the same–and a one-size-fits-all approach can’t possibly work. On this premise alone, it’s easy to see why Standardized testing (and mandating that schools “get to this level of scores or you’re funding is cut and we fire everyone”) is falling short. Just to be clear, that IS what is happening. Teachers are forced to comply with federally mandated test scores and if their district doesn’t meet those standards then they’ll be met with funding cuts and teacher firings.

The Importance of Letting Teachers Have the Reigns

Another even more important reason why teachers should have autonomy in the classroom is the simple fact that when resources are focused on actually training teachers extensively in their field of study, instead of training them on ideology (insert Dept. of Education), they’re competent individuals who can then teach their students to the highest degree. Which in turn, produces well rounded, highly educated, critical thinking enabled individuals. If teachers don’t have flexibility to teach in a way that not only helps students, but also suits their very individualistic needs (some students need more help than others and vice versa), well, we don’t have much of a functioning education system.

The biggest complaint I hear from teachers is that the standards that the state or the Federal government is putting forward are unrealistic. If the standards (and when I say standards I mean test scores) are Utopian, obviously the results will fall short. But, if standards are realistic, teachers and students will have a much better chance of success.

This brings up the issue of certain students who do exceedingly well vs. students who are failing. If we Standardized testing vs teacher autonomy have a one size fits all curriculum that is mandated by the State or the Federal government, the students who are bright will be held back by the students who are struggling. It’s really that simple. The problem with having a common standard is that the standard has to low. This is just another example of how having a federalized one-size-fits-all curriculum doesn’t help teachers (or students) at all. It de-incentivizes teachers because they’re not able to teach in a way that is flexible. The very nature of teaching relies on flexibility. Teachers have to be flexible to address the differing needs of their students. It amazes me that bureaucrats still don’t understand this.

If You Can’t Beat Em’, Cheat Em’

A case-in-point example of a national/federal mandated curriculum going awry was in 2012 with Beverly Hall in Atlanta. She was the superintendent of all schools in Atlanta. She was having incredible (or seemingly so) success with her students even with the NCLB act–which, was the earlier version of Common Core. However, it was discovered that widespread cheating had infiltrated the standardized tests. But not from the students! It came from none other than Beverly Hall herself.

In order to get those utopian test scores, she instructed her staff of teachers to mark answers right that were actually wrong. This is what happens when you try to mandate something that is impossible from the onset. Essentially the only ones who profit from all of this are the billionaires and mega millionaires in the Standardized testing industry. They simply don’t care about the success of students or teachers, only their own coffers.

Even Tom Loveless, a former sixth-grade teacher and Harvard policy professor, who’s an expert on student achievement, education policy, and reform in K-12 schools said that standards (mandated by the federal government) don’t matter that much and that essentially Common Core was going to be a failure. It’s a disaster. I’m not using this as an authority fallacy argument, but the fact remains that someone with the authority to speak on this subject is telling the bureaucrats in Washington that this garbage isn’t working. They should listen.

Homeschoolers Have It Made In The Shade

Now, I realize that I have a lot of homeschoolers who read this blog, and I’m so happy to say that thisStandardized testing vs teacher autonomy affects you hardly at all–other than the fact that your children have to interact with other children who are being robbed of a good education, but I digress.. Keep on homeschooling and fighting the good fight. And, as it turns out, a recent study came out proving what most homeschoolers secretly suspected: that homeschooled children are actually smarter than children educated by the state.  and of course there are all the caveats, I’m not saying that this is cut and dry rule across the board, but it stands to reason. Homeschoolers can provide the detailed, tailored curriculum that other public school parents can’t…Just another reason to consider going the homeschool route.

Positive Vision of Accountability In Action

I know some people out there might be skeptical about all of this. The government knows best, right? Well, there is an entity out there who is actually walking the walk and talking the talk (besides homeschoolers), and that’s the New York Performance Standards Consortium. A great example of a waiver purchase (exempting them from ‘National standards’ or Common Core) is this group. They’ve administered their own assessments in the form of portfolios, essays and research projects instead of using Standardized tests.

They enroll the same number of impoverished students as other public schools do, but they have a much higher graduation rate. And to top that off, suspension rate and teacher turnover rate are much lower. In essence these twenty eight schools demonstrate accountability by long term results NOT by annual testing. This is so important to understand, they’re doing the exact OPPOSITE of what the mainstream public education system is doing and it’s working fabulously.

Accountability Vs. Responsibility

To put this into perspective, Ravitch met Finnish Educator Pasi Sahlberg and discussed the idea of ‘accountability.’ As it turns out, The Finnish education system doesn’t even have that language or ideology in their teaching system at all. Instead, Sahlberg stated that they have a word that comes close: Responsibility. Sahlberg went on to say that, “All of our teachers take responsibility for their work.” Those two ideologies are worlds apart. One suggests punishment, while the other suggests freedom. Ravitch then visited Finland the next year and witnessed first hand the marvels of the Finnish education system.

standardized testing vs teacher autonomy Children received fifteen minutes of recess between each class (see our article on the importance of exercise and diet for children). Ravitch also witnessed children participating in jazz bands, film classes where they learned to make their own videos. She saw first hand what the Finnish were doing. Test scores held absolutely no sway whatsoever, but students were engaged and eager to learn. She witnessed something entirely different, and arguably superior.

Something even more important than ‘how’ they operate in Finnish education is ‘why’ they operate. The Finns have an attitude of building and sustaining competent and well educated teachers that society at large respects. They also have the children’s wellbeing in mind–something so important, but yet, somehow very hollow in American education, even though we routinely say, “It’s all for the children.”.

The Power of Solutions

What are some of the solutions to the problem of Standardized tests and teacher autonomy? A step in the right direction would be to scrap the idea (and the government program) of making everything about test scores. That’s obviously failed.

Yes, testing has it’s place. But it’s gotten to the point now that standardized testing is the be-all- end-all, and that’s simply fallacious. States should have curriculum “guide lines” but not mandated guidelines. Teachers should have a general idea on what subjects to teach in which grade. This will ensure that teachers everywhere have flexibility and autonomy, but they’ll have a general guideline as well. This will also ensure that students who move from state to state won’t repeat courses they’ve already taken.

We have to trust teachers to use their skills and their knowledge in their areas of their expertise. We also have to trust them to know their students and understand them as professionals. Punishing teachers with “accountability” is foolish and has been proven not to work.

Let’s get back to the good ole’ days of allowing teachers to actually do their job. Let’s let teachers actually teach their students without being hampered by red tape. Let’s say no to Common Core. Let’s say no to more bureaucratic control. Let’s say yes to more teacher autonomy. Teachers need autonomy.explicit phonics

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