Category Archives: Education

Whose World Is It Anyway?

This morning I read an interesting article on OZY titled “Don’t Let Old People Vote!” I won’t go into great detail, but it did raise an interesting question for me: Whose world is it anyway?

One of my independent opponents, Rick Tyler, longs for a return to the way the U.S. was in the 1950s and 1960s, when white Christian Conservatives were in control. Tyler is extreme, certainly, but parts of his attitude are reflected in many older Americans. Opposition to gay marriage and equality, environmental protection, improved funding for education are all much greater among older Americans than younger, while older Americans are more likely to vote than younger Americans.

This is due at least in part due to the fact that voter registration isn’t automatic. The seventy-five-year-old who has lived in the same house for forty years hasn’t had to re-register, while the twenty-five-year-old recent college graduate likely had to re-register when moving from home to college, then when switching apartments, then when moving from college to the new job–possibly six or seven moves since turning eighteen. If the twenty-five-year-old is in Tennessee, that requires mailing in a new registration form for each move at least thirty days before an election, since there is no electronic voter registration. Thus, part of the reason for lower voter turnout among young Americans is systemic, rather than simply being voter apathy.

This is problematic, because older Americans are, effectively, voting to force younger Americans to live in the world they want, rather than in the world older Americans would like to return. Unfortunately, the world they want cannot return, because America is unlikely to return to a manufacturing economy, not due to moving jobs out of the country but due to increased automation–and that automation is only going to continue to allow workers to improve productivity, which will continue to decrease the number of workers needed. We need trade laws that protect intellectual property rights (although not to the extreme duration that the Trans-Pacific Partnership mandates), because these are areas where the U.S. still excels. Protecting the environment is also less important to older Americans, because they are unlikely to suffer the consequences. Their college wasn’t free, so why should it be for younger Americans–ignoring the fact that a college student in their day could pay for school, room, and board with a part-time job plus a full-time job in the summer? And, of course, many older Americans don’t think that racism and homophobia was really that bad–because LGBT people stayed closeted and minorities “knew their place.”

As anyone who has read more than one post on this blog knows, I’m not a normal politician. I don’t look forward to tomorrow, next week, or next year: I look ten, twenty, and fifty years into the future. I think we need to be planning an online voting infrastructure now, and it should be trivial for someone to change their address in the system. I think we need to continue to improve our environmental standards–but we need to make sure that while improving standards we don’t also increase the regulatory burden on American businesses. If we add a new reporting requirement, we need to remove an existing one. Civil rights protections need to cover any group subject to discrimination on any basis besides their ability to do a job–with appropriate accommodations, where needed–or to pay for the goods and services provided. I have said before that we need to move toward a single-payer health care system, both to allow U.S. manufacturers to compete on a level playing field internationally and to make part-time employment affordable for Americans and small businesses.

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(from Pinterest. Original artist unknown.)

I have argued before that we need to consider raising the age for Social Security, but given current population trends, this may not be the best route. The world population growth rate is currently about half that of the 1960s–1.13% compared to 2.2%–and falling. Depending on the rate of improvement in automation, we may have to tweak the workforce by manipulating the retirement age upward or downward. If we find that we have too many workers, it may be useful to drop the retirement age to free up those slots. We may even get to the point where a universal basic income becomes viable and desirable, in the case of automation greatly reducing the need for labor. It isn’t something that we can afford today, and much more research needs to be done, but it is something that we should consider as an option later.

I don’t fear the future. I don’t think you should either–and you shouldn’t vote for anyone who does. We need to manage the world so that we don’t irreparably damage it while we are getting there, but the world can be an incredible place. We just need politicians who won’t sabotage us on our way there.

The election is in four days. Do your research, then get out and vote. Thanks for reading!

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Filed under Education, Environment, Gay Marriage and Gender Issues, Health Care, Listening, Racism, Social Security, Technology

Democratic Party Platform – 2016 Draft (Part 3 of 6)

Part 1

Part 2

DNC Logo

Combat Climate Change, Build a Clean Energy Economy, and Secure Environmental Justice

The Democrats are far, far better on environmental issues than the Republicans. I am interested to see what the Republican platform says, but my guess is that it will be wrong on climate change. Overall, I am disappointed in this section only being a page and a half long.

Clean Energy Economy

I like what the platform says here, especially about wanting to make a huge push toward clean energy in the next decade. I would like to see something about how cutting reliance on fossil fuels will also help the trade deficit and reduce the income potential for Middle Eastern terrorist organizations, like ISIS. (That it also hurts Putin’s Russia is a bonus.)

Environmental and Climate Justice

This is an interesting section, but, like some previous sections, it does more problem definition than suggesting solutions. People responsible for water poisoning like what happened in Flint need to be held accountable with jail time. We need to make sure that communities threatened by climate change get the resources they need to lessen the effects of rising sea levels or dangerous storms. Loan guarantees to help people make their homes and businesses more resistant to storms would be a good first step.

Public Lands and Waters

I love the National Park Service. Western senators, typically Republicans, continuously push to allow for mineral and forestry exploitation of public lands. We need to carefully review such requests to make sure that the long-term environmental effects are trivial. I would have liked to see the platform call for fully funding the National Park Service, which, from an economic standpoint, makes sense, as the 10-to-1 return on investment for the economy means the government makes a profit on funds invested.

Provide Quality and Affordable Education

Higher Education

Given Clinton’s recent statements on making public four-year colleges free for families making under $125,000 per year, I expect this section to be updated, as this version only calls for making community colleges free. I would prefer that this section not only focus on college education, but a return to vocational education as well, since many jobs don’t–or shouldn’t!–require four-year degrees.

Student Debt

I would prefer to see some means here to give preferential treatment to students in majors where there’s a realistic career path, but what is here is pretty good.

For-Profit Schools

Tightening the requirements for for-profit schools is a must. We are wasting billions of dollars in federal financial aid on these schools. I know it’s anecdotal, but I have yet to know someone who has received long-term gainful employment as a result of a degree from one of these places.

Early Childhood, Pre-K, and K-12

This section hits the buzzwords, but I’m not sure it actually changes anything.

  • Early Head Start – Check
  • High academic standards – Check
  • Better balance on testing – Check
  • Mentoring – Check
  • Recruiting teachers – Check
  • STEM – Check
  • Opposed to for-profit charter schools – Check

While they stay the course, the Republicans are supporting things that actually damage the system:

Testing will still be fatally flawed, unless they can grasp the concept that the only way to measure student progress is to get a baseline at the beginning of the term, test at the end, and compare the difference. Measure improvement, not the actual final score.


For a party that is supposedly progressive, there’s very little progressive in their positions on the environment and education. I don’t expect to get to Part 4 (Healthcare and “Principled Leadership”) until Monday, so enjoy your weekend.

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Filed under Democrats, Education, Environment

Isolated Issues? There Aren’t Any.

I have an ability that is a blessing and a curse. A few years ago I developed some memory problems, which turned out to be due to low-quality sleep. During the diagnostic process, which included scanning my brain, Ritalin, and a whole battery of physical tests, I also took a variety of brain function tests. On one portion of the test, that having to do with pattern recognition, I scored the highest score the examiner had seen in twenty-five years.

I see patterns in everything. Sometimes this is very useful, because I can often see problems before anyone else. Sometimes this is quite harmful, because I see things that people would prefer to keep hidden. Often it’s just very strange, as I see things that are correlated but don’t have an obvious causal relationship. Occasionally these cause problems for me, because I have a hard time not digging to find a causal relationship. Every once in a while this pays off, because I do find a cause and effect that makes sense.

Where this becomes really interesting is that I see things in a web, where one action can cause multiple reactions, each of which can lead to additional reactions. With patience, I can come up with theories on how one low-cost plucking of a thread can lead to numerous high-value effects. One of the big nexus points on the web is the education of women, because if women are educated, many of a society’s problems decrease, often dramatically. For example, educated women in Brazil have an average of 2.5 children, while uneducated women there have six children. The reason for this is often not obvious to educated Westerners: Uneducated women often don’t know what causes pregnancy, much less how to prevent unplanned pregnancies.

In 1970 the world population growth rate was 2.08%. This year it is estimated to be 1.13%(UN Projections). In 1970 the world literacy rate was 56%. Today it is 86.3%, but for women it is 82.7% (UNESCO). As we bring population growth under control, working on solving poverty and environmental problems becomes easier.

Since the 1990s, violent crime in the U.S. has declined dramatically:

reported-violent-crime-rate-in-the-usa-since-1990

What I find really interesting about this is that I can find studies attributing this decline to three sources:

  1. Removal of lead from gasoline led to a 56% decline in violent crime.
  2. A reduction in unwanted children following Roe v. Wade led to a 29% decline in violent crime.
  3. An increase in the prison population led to a 10-20% decline in violent crime.

There are other theories, but these seem to have the most supporting evidence. What I find interesting is that only one of these fits conventional thinking–the increased prison population–and, as can be seen in the link, many people think that throwing away one percent of our population is too high of a price to pay.

Someone once told me that they liked the way I thought outside the box. My response was, “There is no box.” One of my biggest frustrations is with people who compartmentalize issues, especially those who are jingoistic xenophobes, or, to put it more simply, rabidly patriotic people who think immigrants and foreign aid are destroying the U.S.

Poppycock.

The most effective way to cut illegal immigration is to help the countries of origin grow so that their people won’t find it necessary to leave to provide for their families.

rt

No, they didn’t.

People outside the U.S. didn’t take U.S. jobs. Executives of U.S. companies took the jobs and moved them to take advantage of lower wages and, too often, minimal safety and environmental regulations. The same thing happens here, when manufacturers move from the Rust Belt to the Bible Belt to take advantage of Right to Work laws. The law of supply and demand makes such actions almost inevitable, barring protectionist laws.

There are several effective actions that reduce illegal immigration:

  1. Help poor countries with foreign aid. Educational funding, along with related food and medical aid–kids can’t learn if they are sick and hungry–are especially important. (Foreign aid is about 1% of the budget. The average American thinks it is 25%. Oops.)
  2. Encourage private investment in poor countries. Yes, this means that U.S. companies will often create jobs elsewhere, but it isn’t a zero-sum game. Creating jobs elsewhere doesn’t necessarily mean exporting jobs from here: It can mean creating some components of larger products in different places, allowing everyone to have a piece of a larger pie.
  3. Educate illegal immigrants who are already here. Most people don’t want to leave home. I see complaints from patriotic Americans about immigrants waving the Mexican flag. They aren’t doing that to antagonize Americans (usually), but rather to express their patriotism. If we can educate them or their children while they are here working and sending money home, a substantial number will return home with their knowledge to start businesses and boost their home economy.

The only walls that I know of that have worked to stop illegal immigration are the Berlin Wall and the Korean DMZ. The reason both of those walls worked is that the guards can shoot-to-kill. The U.S. Border Patrol doesn’t have–and hopefully never has–that mandate. Trump’s Folly Wall is popular because it is easy to understand, not because it has any chance of actually working. The solution here is really kindness, but some people are too angry to be kind.

I want to close with a small solution to a big problem. In many countries, girls miss a significant amount of school each month, leading to them falling behind and often dropping out. There’s a simple, cheap solution, and many aid agencies have sprung up to work on providing sanitary pads to poor students. Such a simple thing can keep girls in school, and the effects are tremendous.

Small acts can have huge results.

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Apparently, I’m a racist, classist pig

Dick Culbert from Gibsons, B.C., Canada - Sus Barbatus, the Bornean Bearded Pig

Well, not exactly.

Last night I attended a meeting held by Causeway, where they are looking for people to apply for $3,000 grants for projects to encourage parental involvement in education. Prior to the meeting there was a board where people could post “If Only…” ideas. I posted one of mine:

If only successful schools could adopt failing schools to share resources and insights.

After the meeting, I discovered that someone had left a comment, which I, unfortunately, neglected to copy exactly, but the essence was that I should leave my racist/classist ideas at home. At first, and for a while after, I was angry about this, because it was precisely to combat racism and classism in Hamilton County Schools that I made this suggestion.

Background

Zari attended a very good, but somewhat expensive, preschool. When it came time to try to figure out where to send Zari to kindergarten, we were most interested in the magnet schools. To apply for two of the magnet schools, Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences (CSAS) and Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts (CSLA), the school system created a series of hoops for parents, which required about eight hours of time to learn about the schools and their methods. After this, the lottery drawing admitted approximately 15% of the non-faculty, non-staff, non-sibling of current students applicants. We also put Zari into two other lotteries for schools that were part-magnet, part-zoned. (The school we were zoned for was also part-magnet, part-zoned, but we were in the process of moving to another zone with a poorly-rated zoned-only school.) Most of the parents of Zari’s classmates did the same thing we did.

None of us got lottery slots for our kids from the CSAS/CSLA lotteries.

At that time, I learned two things:

  1. A contact with the Hamilton County Department of Education (HCDE) told me that she estimated that there would only be a single lottery slot for one kindergarten student for Normal Park Museum Magnet.
  2. My relationship fell apart, so I needed to move.

The day of the Normal Park lottery, I signed rent papers to rent the house I currently own in the Normal Park zone. While I was signing, four other families called to inquire about the house.

None of Zari’s classmates’ parents had any inclination to move, so all of them–to the best of my knowledge–decided to send their children to private schools instead.

Over the summer between Zari’s kindergarten and first grade years, we took a long road trip to Las Vegas and back, stopping at many National Park Service sites. One site we visited was Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. It was an enlightening visit, but after that trip I decided to follow all of the sites we visited on Facebook, and the Brown v. Board of Education Facebook page is particularly good at engaging the public with articles about the current state of race and education in America. A couple of years ago, they featured a ProPublica article on the resegregation of schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. After reading that article, I concluded that similar things were happening in Chattanooga and throughout the South.

I believe that the main reason Chattanooga’s magnet schools are successful is that there is enormous parental involvement, something often missing from the schools in low-income areas. I think there are several reasons for this: A missing culture of education–I read a study a few years ago where they found one in four households with children only had one book in the house, the Bible, a feeling of resignation, and a lack of time and financial resources. Two of the speakers last night addressed these issues, but a look at the audience illustrated the problem: 90% were middle-class white parents.

At the risk of going a bit conspiracy theorist, I have a few theories on why the system is moving in the current direction:

  1. A faction of the school board is mostly concerned with keeping taxes down, often to the detriment of our schools.
  2. This same faction believes that forcing students into private schools helps keep taxes down.
  3. Having a certain number of failing or barely passing schools encourages parents to choose private over public.
  4. I hate to say it, but there are racists in Chattanooga who would prefer to send their kids to mostly white schools.

Last year, CSLA applied to the school board to expand to K-12 from K-8. The request was denied, but I thought it was obvious that it would be. There are a ton of parents of students in private schools who resent that there are a privileged few in Chattanooga who get a quality inexpensive (not free, as fees run around $300 per year) public education while they pay thousands of dollars annually for the same quality. There’s a ton of resentment out there.

So, why did I make my suggestion?

Recently, I saw a post from a fellow parent asking parents at Normal Park to donate clothes to children at a nearby school, because there were a significant number of kids who did not have appropriate school clothes. The school isn’t a failing school–it actually falls in the midrange of Chattanooga schools–but it doesn’t have the level of parental involvement that Normal Park does. I felt that getting Normal Park parents involved with this school’s parents could help boost them from a mediocre school to an exceptional one by sharing with them some of the steps Normal Park has taken during its renaissance.

For historical reasons, Normal Park is whiter than this other school (80/20 vs 50/50), and, largely because of the renaissance of Normal Park driving real estate costs upward, Normal Park does have a slightly wealthier demographic. I can’t be upset that someone read racial and class undertones into my suggestion, even though my intent was the exact opposite. I don’t want magnet school parents to go out and tell parents at other schools how to do things, but rather, I want magnet school parents–and parents from other schools with strong parental involvement–to show parents at schools lacking in parental involvement how to get more of their parents involved in improving their schools. Hopefully, in the process, Normal Park parents would bring back good ideas as well. I think my big mistake was using the word “adopt” in my suggestion. That implies a parent-child relationship instead of a partnership.

Not that I expect the parent who wrote that comment to read this, but if they do, I apologize for creating the misunderstanding. I hope that the above clarifies why I wrote what I wrote. The incident reinforces a personal guideline I try to follow: Don’t judge people by their words or their actions, but rather by their intentions.

Thanks for reading.

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Education: Who is in charge?

I attended a PTA meeting this morning where the main discussion was about the TNReady standardized testing fiasco. I’ve already touched on this before, but my correspondence with the Assistant Superintendent for Accountability and Testing at the Hamilton County Department of Education raises an interesting question: Who is ultimately in control of a child’s education?

I have mixed feelings on this, but I think the bottom line is that parents are in control. As far as testing goes, Tennessee law seems to agree:

TCA 49-2-211: Policy for student surveys, analyses or evaluations.

(a) Every LEA shall develop a policy setting forth the rights of parents and students and guidelines for teachers and principals with respect to the administration of surveys, analyses or evaluations of students.

(b) (1) The policy set forth in subsection (a) shall allow a parent or legal guardian access to review all surveys, analyses or evaluations, prior to being administered to the parent or legal guardian’s child. The policy shall enable a parent or legal guardian to opt their student out of participating in a survey, analysis, or evaluation.

(2) Notwithstanding subdivision (b)(1), the policy shall require a parent, legal guardian or student, in the case of students eighteen (18) years of age or older, to provide written consent before the collection of individual student biometric data.

(c) The LEA shall also disclose to the parent or legal guardian of the student the purpose for the survey, analysis, or evaluation materials as well as who will have access to the results.

(My emphasis)

Taking this to the big picture, do parents have the right to opt their children out of sections of the curriculum with which they disagree? Can I opt Zari out of sex education, since in Tennessee that means abstinence education, which studies have shown to be ineffective at best and harmful at worst? Can a Biblical literalist parent opt her child out of the evolution discussion in biology?

While I think the latter parent is misguided, I think that, ultimately, parents control the education of their children. If schools can accommodate reasonably, then a limited amount of opting out must be allowed. Obviously, if a parent decides that math is immoral, we may need to encourage that parent to homeschool…

What do you think?

Topher

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Dystopian Idealism

I woke this morning in a very bad mood, and I was all set to write a rant on how we have gone from putting men on the moon six days after I was born to living in William Gibson’s Neuromancer dystopia where corporations rule the world.

neuromancer_28book29

I decided to flip this completely on its head. I mostly talk about incremental changes and compromises, because people don’t like or can’t cope with systemic change. Many good big ideas fail because people like things the way they are–or at least, they think they like things the way they are.

When I had first changed majors from aerospace engineering to international relations, I quickly learned that most of my classmates–and professors–didn’t think like engineers. This gave me an advantage, and I exploited it. I could look at data and find connections that they couldn’t. My “Eureka!” moment came when I was reading the 1990 World Development Report, which focused on poverty. I did some data crunching and found one very interesting result: The single most important factor in determining the poverty level of a country was the education level of women. Educated women have fewer children, because they understand where babies come from. (I wish I was joking about that, but that is the reality in much of the world.) Fewer children means that more resources are available for everyone, so instead of being in survival mode societies can move toward improvement. As a result, most of my charitable giving goes toward organizations that have primary education as a principal objective. Most of my political positions lead back to this, just like clicking on the first link on a Wikipedia page will eventually lead to Philosophy.


 

What would my perfect education system look like? Short answer: Completely different, because there are many big picture structural problems in the way.

  1. Students are grouped by age, not by need.
  2. Teachers only have ten months with students, giving barely enough time to really know the students.
  3. Students are taught subjects for a fixed period, instead of for how long they need.
  4. Students are taught using a specific method, instead of by the method that works best for them.
  5. Teachers don’t have good baseline data on where their students stand.

I’m going to disregard the necessity for good preschool for all children and paint a picture starting at age five. When the child is ready for school, we start with an entrance interview/test to figure out what they already know. Do they read, do they know the alphabet, are they just now starting to speak in sentences? How high can they count? Can they work well with others? How well can they solve problems? Do they require constant supervision? In other words, we give the teachers good baseline data.

Once we measure the kids, education looks different. The average class size for primary school in the U.S. is twenty. I would change this…to sixty, but each class would consist of five-, six-, and seven-year-old kids and three teachers plus student teacher assistants. The real world isn’t divided by age, so exposing kids to older and younger students will help them deal with people later. The teachers would spend three years with their students, and, ideally, they would be phased in and out a few at a time–children start when they turn five, not the following autumn. Sometimes a five-year-old would come in reading very well, so she may be grouped with a group of older students, but sometimes a seven-year-old might have difficulties with math, so he may have some five-year-olds in his group. A student who moved here from Syria might be great in math but have limited English skills, so allowing her to be in an advanced math group and a remedial reading group would be a trivial matter. We would teach students to their abilities, instead of where their ages say they should be. By having three teachers per group, teachers could specialize in different methods, so if one teacher couldn’t “get through” to a particular student, switch methods and teachers and try again.

Classrooms should be more open and fluid, with frequent trips outside the school. Connect classroom learning to the outside world as often as possible, because most students do better if they understand how what they learn applies to the world. I like Normal Park’s approach as far as it goes, with frequent trips to museums, but I’d also like to see practical trips as well, taking small groups to businesses, community organizations, and government facilities. Does a teacher have a group of basketball-crazed kids who are slipping in math? Take them to a college basketball practice, where they can meet the coaching staff and see how much math they use to condition and prepare.

When the students approach age eight, I’d like to see them take a standardized test, but it would be an open-ended computerized test. By open-ended, I mean that the test would test to the highest ability levels. If an eight-year-old knows how to solve differential equations, the test would show that. If designed properly, the test should be able to pinpoint where the student is in a couple of dozen sub-subjects (wow, that’s ugly) in a few hours of testing. The student would retake the test annually to allow for recalibration, but we’d keep the groups in three-year divisions: five to seven, eight to ten, eleven to thirteen, fourteen to sixteen. Depending on the size of the school district, at each stage after the first parents, students, and teachers should be able to direct education toward a particular track. Some kids should go to college, some shouldn’t, and we should tailor their educations accordingly. We’ve lost vocational education in the U.S., and that’s unfortunate.

What I don’t want to see is a tracking based on overall ability, but rather based on a comparison of strengths and weaknesses across the board. For example, a student rated in the 95th percentile in math and the 75th percentile in music might be grouped in the same track as a student in the 40th percentile in math and the 20th percentile in music, because, despite the overall difference in ability level, they still have the same strength. We don’t need a system where kids lose faith in themselves because they get dropped into a slow track at an early age. We should have a system that builds strengths while reducing weaknesses.


 

Of course, the problem with all of this is that our system is built on summer vacations, grade levels, promotion largely based on age, and teaching everyone the same thing regardless of aptitude. The system is entrenched to the point that the very structures we use for education resist change. The result is mediocrity. I think that most people are outliers in something as children, but we lose most of them through neglect. We need a system that can identify them early and nurture them, so that they can help themselves–and society–with their particular form of genius.

We have the ability to create geniuses. We just have to try.

 

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National Parks and Education

This afternoon I will be attending Andrew Jackson – American Hero or Scoundrel? at Moccasin Bend National Archeological District.

National Parks have been called “America’s Best Idea.” I tend to agree. I have taken Zari on two epic National Park road trips, one to Las Vegas and back and the other to North Dakota and back, along with many weekend trips to National Park Service sites within easier striking distance. You can learn much about the world from books and online, but there are some things you just can’t really understand unless you actually visit.

I remember one day that we started at Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming, where we learned about life at a frontier fort and trading post. After a visit to Guernsey State Park, where we learned about the CCC and saw Oregon Trail Ruts, I took Zari to visit Wounded Knee. We listened to a Lakota man explain the Wounded Knee Massacre and looked at his album of pictures and articles about it. We could see how, over a hundred years later, that event still affected the lives of the Lakota. You don’t get that personal touch from a book.

Zari in the Oregon Trail Ruts at Guernsey State Park

Zari in the Oregon Trail Ruts at Guernsey State Park

Going out and seeing places, touching things, and talking with people is a much better way of learning than being stuck in a classroom all day. It’s probably the main reason I moved to get Zari into the zone for Normal Park Museum Magnet School. However, this past couple of weeks have not been good for Normal Park. Last week, we were notified that the big Atlanta museum trip would be cancelled because the TNReady fiasco caused the testing to be moved to that day. Yesterday, we learned that the testing would be moved again to the following week, meaning that the cancellation was for naught and, even worse, another trip will be cancelled as a result.

I’m not particularly happy with livid about TNReady right now. Testing should not detract from education, and that is precisely what it is doing. The system is failing our children, and the only reason it is failing is because politicians are more concerned with data they can use against teachers, schools, and districts than they are about actually making sure our kids get taught what they need to learn.

Thanks for reading!

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