A Modest Proposal.

Dear Administrators, Legislators, Pundits, Superintendents, Mayors, Governors, Education Policy Writers, Board Members, General Directors, Committee Members, Department Heads and other members of the Blowharding and Bloviating classes:


I hope this letter finds you well. First of all, let me thank you – truly and sincerely – for your tireless work on behalf of students everywhere. I know that we don’t always come to the same conclusion, but I do appreciate your hard work and your efforts.

I am writing to you today because I have just finished writing another letter to my son’s teacher, opting him out of the upcoming Standardized Tests. I feel – no, I know – that his time will be much better spent doing enrichment work or reading a book. There are other parents at his school who have opted to do the same, and it makes me terribly happy to know that not all of the children will be subjected to the same mindless, soulless, and, frankly, pointless drudgery of yet another standardized test. And for what? What do these tests actually accomplish?

Alas, not much, according to recent research.  It is not particular tests that are the problem, Dr. Walter Stroup’s research finds. Alas, the problem rests in the DNA of the test itself. To use a rather silly analogy – we are using a bathroom scale to measure how high a student can jump. The bathroom scale works fine. It’s just the wrong tool for the job.

(The vehemence and nastiness with which Pearson Education has attacked Dr. Stroup only indicates to me that they don’t like seeing their faces in the mirror, and are attacking the person who happens to be holding it. It is a childish move, detailed here.)

I went on a bit of a rant about the subject today.

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 11.09.30 AM

Actually, it went on from there:

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 11.38.25 AMWhich leads me to my proposal:

In this country, we spend 1.7 billion (or we did in 2012. It is higher now.) (and that number is just what we pay to the companies – it does not count the labor hours we spend to get the kids ready to take those tests, or the labor hours needed to re-test the kids who fail) on tests that do not give an accurate or clear or even coherent view into the landscape of a student’s learning. The only thing a test demonstrates is a student’s ability to take a test. That is it. Which means that we are spending a heck of a lot of money getting information on our kids that is, ultimately, useless. How often do you use your ability to do well on a test? Personally, I never do. So why are we doing it.

Now, I know that representatives from these companies have done an excellent job convincing you of their worth. And these representatives are well-spoken and well-dressed and well-heeled. They have shiny shoes and pressed suits and statement necklaces and polished teeth. Wide chins. A sharky look about the eye. I have met these people too. I have also smiled and nodded. I know that when they explain why their 35 million dollar test was riddled with errors, it sounded vaguely reasonable, and you left the room thinking that the teachers were somehow responsible or complicit.

I get it. These people are good at what they do. They just are wrong.

The best assessment tool for a child’s learning is from one source: the child’s teacher. They are the professionals. They are the experts.

So. Given that landscape, why don’t we try a different approach. We don’t have to do it forever – I’d never suggest something so hasty! Instead, we can try an experiment: let us, for a period of one year, refrain from testing. Just one year. All across the country. And let’s investigate what else we could do with that extra time and extra money.

And then let’s see, after the one year period expires, if the current testing regime continues to make sense.

Imagine what we could do with 1.7 billion extra dollars for that one year. Imagine what the kids could learn with that extra time.

We could buy 1.7 billion dollars worth of books.

We could increase spending on school nutrition programs.

We could hire more teachers and de-crowd the classrooms.

We could hire some librarians.

Hell, we could build some libraries.

We could take the kids out on a field trip to a museum or a nature area.

We could hire more counselors. Or social workers. Or nurses.

We could enrich the classrooms.

We could take the month that it takes for test prep and do a unit on Pablo Neruda. Or string theory. Or computer programming. Or robotics.

Just one year. Then we can go back to overspending on tests and getting nothing in return. But oh! Just think of what it would mean to our kids to have one year to just focus on their learning! Just think of what it would be like for the teachers to have the freedom and professional responsibility to actually teach! Just think of what we could do with that year and with that money. It warms the heart to think about it.

And that is what I am asking, ladies and gentlemen. I am asking you to think about it.

Yours in Solidarity and Learning,

Kelly Barnhill.

On Our Visit to Roosevelt High School – expectation, transformation, and super awesome kids.

My oldest daughter – math wiz, artist, DIY crafty-manx fashionista, geek princess, treasure of my beleaguered heart – is in eighth grade, which means that we, as a family are looking into high schools. My baby is going to high school. This baby:

wee ellaLook at her! So tiny! Her foot is about the size of my dang thumb! High school? Really? It simply cannot be. This is the face I make every time I think about it.

In any case, we are now looking at schools. Now, this, alas, is tricky business. She used to go to Seward Montessori – a public, wonderful school in South Minneapolis, and we were very happy there. Unfortunately, in fifth grade, while Ella was busting at the seams of every standardized test that they handed to her, we found out that her school had simply decided to stop teaching her math. “Oh,” they said. “She’s so far ahead. And she loves helping the other students. And when she reads a novel, she’s just so quiet. And, really, she’s fine.”

Note to educators everywhere: Never tell the parents of your high-testing kids that they are “fine”. No matter where they are in the spectrum of learners, every child deserves to learn every day. Every child, wherever they are, deserves to have reasonable educational goals and a guided plan to help them achieve those goals. Just because they’ve topped out of your curriculum, does not mean that they no longer need to be taught.


So she’s gone to a G&T program in the Bloomington Public Schools called Dimensions Academy, which has been a good fit for her, learning-wise, even though we did have to haul her butt deep into the suburbs every dang day. Which has been a pain. And even though she has made wonderful, dear, and life-long friends, she has never felt entirely comfortable in a suburban setting. She misses the diversity of the Minneapolis Public Schools. She misses the dynamism. And frankly, so do I.

So. High School.

My inclination is to have her go to South High, which is where I went. And my sisters. And my brother. And a gaggle of my cousins, second-cousins and so forth. In fact, my first-cousin’s son is a freshman there now. It’s a wonderful school with six bands, a fantastic art program, an incredible theater program, good academics, a deeply-involved parent base and a wicked awesome choir.

The problem is that, while we are in South’s zone, it is not our neighborhood school. And Ella might not get in. Roosevelt is our neighborhood school. And that? Well it was problematic for me. I had….expectations about what I would see at Roosevelt. Biases. And they were not kind. (Nor, let’s be honest, were they fair. More on that in a minute.)

Now, here’s the thing about Roosevelt’s reputation: it’s not entirely undeserved. At least historically. It’s been one of those schools that has struggled and struggled, for years. And things just haven’t gone right. Bad planning, extenuating forces that they could not anticipate, poor decisions by the school board, disastrous decisions by the Federal government, shifting demographics, high needs, what have you. Roosevelt couldn’t catch a break. Heck, even when I was in high school, if a teacher said that their job was moving to Roosevelt, we’d hug them and sob as if they told us they had inoperable brain cancer. During my senior year, the school board (in its perpetual wisdom) decided to transfer our principal – Dr. Andre Lewis – to Roosevelt. The students walked out and the protests lasted for days.

Now, let me say here that while I loved my experience at South, it wasn’t perfect. There were massive behavior problems back then and ….well, let’s just say it was rough around the edges. There were fights in the halls. I once found my locker splattered with blood because some guy clocked another right in the nose (with splattering) and the kid face-planted right next to my padlock. My principal got hit over the head with a crowbar when he got in the middle of a gang altercation. A kid in my music theater class got shot.

It was the early nineties in Minneapolis, the term “Murderapolis” hadn’t been coined yet, but we were on our way.

And as tough as it was, our understanding was that Roosevelt was tougher. Meaner. “Rougish” was the word we used. We didn’t know anyone who went there.

So, it was with not a little trepidation that I brought my child to Roosevelt for a visit.

And it was not without a little bit of skepticism. Sure, I had been told that they’ve been experiencing a turnaround. And sure, I had heard that they’ve got a big-ideas principal and a cadre of super-committed teachers. I had heard all of that. But I didn’t really believe it.

What I saw blew me away.

The high schools in my city in general are stronger now. They are cleaner. They are more orderly. The hallways are calm. The kids are smiling at each other.

But Roosevelt? Well, it’s something else. The kids loved each other. And they loved their teachers. Like, every kid I talked to. I’ve never seen anything like it.

We first had a meeting with Michael Bradley, the principal, who laid out for us where his school has been, how it has approached its restructuring, and what it’s plan for the future is. He talked about the middle schools in the area that have managed to turn themselves around (Sanford Middle School, for example, whose transformation is nothing short of a miracle) and what he is doing to replicate that for Roosevelt. He told us of his very personal goal to transform the school into an institution in which any student – be they high end or low end – would receive the tools and instruction they needed for a stellar education. He talked about the lasting damage of No Child Left Behind – the Bush Administration’s brilliant strategy of punishing schools into succeeding (may they rot in hell forever for the damage they did to our nation’s schools) – and how struggling schools were forced to abandon all programs except for baseline remediation. Gone went the music program. Gone went art. Gone went the choir. Gone went the debate team and the theater department and the math team. Gone went languages and upper-level math and creative writing.

“It was,” he said, “a system built to fail. And the people it hurt the most were the ones who deserved it least – the kids.”

I almost started crying.

“It’s not enough,” he said, “to put our efforts on remediation. Remediation outside of the context of a well-rounded and vigorous education – educating the whole person – is not going to work. It can’t be either/or. It has to be both/and.”

They implemented an IB program. They doubled their art program. They partnered with 3M to put in a writing center. They have a robotics program. They have a fantastic band teacher who is building an amazing band and orchestra program. They’re adding to their library.

But what’s more, they have a vigorous and deeply committed teaching staff that impressed the hell out of me. Our guide kept grabbing kids at random as we walked through the hallways, asking kids what they liked about their school.

“I really like my school a lot,” kid after kid after kid told us. “But I love my teachers.”

We grabbed another one. “The teachers here are the nicest in the world. If you’re lost, they will help you. If you are bored they will challenge you.”

And another: “The teachers here treat you like you’re one of their own. Like we belong to them.”

And another: “The teachers here are the best in the world.”

And another: “My teachers are either saving my butt or kicking my butt – sometimes in the same class period.”

And finally, we talked to a completely gorgeous senior girl – the first in her family to ever get into college. She is a singer, and had been accepted to the U of M, the conservatory at Lawrence University and NYU. And she said this: “I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for my teachers. They helped me and believed in me and made me believe in myself even when I wasn’t ready to do it. They’re the best.”

These kids at Roosevelt, they were happy, they were kind, they were silly, they were crude, they told dumb jokes, they were committed students, they played their guts out in band, they asked thoughtful questions in English, they built cool catapults in Physics and were building a robot that could play Ultimate Frisbee in Robotics. They were awesome, awesome kids.

I’m still not convinced that it is the best fit for Ella (the fact that there is no choir might be a dealbreaker for us). I do feel, though, in a way that I did not before, that if we do not get our first choice and are at Roosevelt, that Ella would be just fine. She’d make friends. She’d learn. She would really love her teachers. All of that is good.  But, mostly, as an educator and as a neighbor of the school, I found the experience profoundly thrilling. Because this is happening. This transformation. This growth. This change. It is happening right now. And it did my heart so much good to see an entire building cooperatively involved in their own transformation, and, as a community, committed to the idea that yes it is possible, and yes it is probable, and yes we can build it together.

Go Roosevelt.


Socialism in the Public School System?? OH NOES!!!!

Ladies and gentlemen, Socialism – that’s right, I said it: SOCIALISM – has reared it’s ugly face in Our Nation’s Schools and is now terrorizing the innocents. Don’t believe me? Well look at this:


(Graphic representation of Socialism, rendered by supercomputers.)

And if that wasn’t proof enough, here is what I pulled out of my son’s backpack this morning. Not only is he being indoctrinated in Socialism’s false gospel, but he’s being forced to say it after the pledge of allegiance – hand over his red blooded American heart and EVERYTHING:

The Kindness (read: Socialism) Pledge


I pledge myself on this day

To try to be kind in every way

To ever person, big or small

I will catch them if they fall.

When I love myself and others, too

That’s the best that I can do!

Leo has this memorized.

And all snarky sarcastic hyperbole aside, I kinda got weepy when I read it. I also thought it best to not show it to his die-hard-Capitalist, Ayn-Rand-quoting-and-Wild-Kingdom-watching grandpa. Because my beloved Father-in-law just wouldn’t understand.

Those of you who read this blog know that I am a pinko-commie nanny-state liberal and proud of it. You probably also know that I adhere to the Gospel of Kindness (in addition to some other Gospels, but we don’t have to get into that right now). The point is that kindness matters, but I’ve never seen it as a central core principal in a classroom before – so central, in fact, that children recite it. Daily.

And I love that.

And I think that I should write my own Kindness Pledge. And that I should recite it – hand over my heart – every day. And I think that maybe our folks in Congress, and the blowhards on the news, and the suits in the Executive Office – they should take a Kindness Pledge too.

Can you imagine if people thought that it would be better to be kind  than to be right?

Can you imagine if we valued kindness over bull-headedness? Kindness over military prowess? Kindness over money?

And honestly, I think we actually do, which is why the lack of kindness hurts us so much. But I think it would be helpful for us – as a community – to actually make explicit that which is implicit. If we put our need for kindness into words.

Because words matter.

Just ask a first grader.

More Bad News in Education

Apparently, biology teachers are afraid to teach biology. Here’s a nice little study published in the New York Times. When teachers are afraid to tackle basic principles in their field of expertise then we have a big friggin problem on our hands.

It’s one thing that I had some run-ins with parents when I had the audacity to teach Harry Potter, The Crucible, Holes, or a few different short stories by Kelly Link or Jeff Vandermeer. Literature, by its nature, is subversive. I get that. And I was prepared for it.

But this is bigger than the bible, and it sure as hell is bigger than Darwin. This is basic information about how cells work. We can see evolution happening. Right now. Kids can do experiments on algea, mold, bacteria, yeasts, and even fruit flies. Ever heard of disease-resistant bacteria? Evolution. Ever learned about the effects of industrialization on certain breeds of Eastern moths? Evolution. Or the changing flora and fauna in response to invasive species?

Organisms change. We live in a dynamic world. To deny children access to the fundamental principals upon which life operates, perpetuates and thrives is nonsense to the point of criminality. And it’s one thing to do this because of one’s own religion. I absolutely understand the difficulty in separating the religious self from the professional self – we still have to do it, but I get it that it’s hard. But to deny children the fullness of their education because you’re afraid of religious conservatives? Because you’re afraid of controversy? Or because you’re reluctant to have to bother with unpleasantness? Sorry, but that’s cowardice.

Education is no place for cowards. We need to believe in our subject matter. We need to prepare children to know more than we ever thought possible – not give them mean skimpings and hope for the best.

To you biology teachers who are avoiding talk of evolution: Knock it off. Be brave. Be thorough. Be clear. Teach.

P.S. My kid is doing a project on the Scopes Trial for National History Day right now. Have we really made THIS LITTLE PROGRESS? C’mon, people. Let’s get to work.