NHL, Middle School Graduate

NHLMiddleSchoolThree years ago, we were very nervous. Our son was about to graduate from elementary school and move to middle school. Elementary school had been one fight after another. We moved schools after our son was attacked and the principal tried sweeping it under the rug. We fought with the new school’s principal to get a 504 plan and got yelled at by him because we went above his head when he was dragged his feet. We were denied an IEP because our son’s intelligence meant that they didn’t think he was suffering academically (despite him suffering socially and emotionally – both qualifiers for IEPs). We fought to get his aide changed when the one he was assigned thought yelling at our son repeatedly was acceptable.

Even when things did seem to go NHL’s way, it never lasted. Good aides and teachers had to leave. Quiet moments were punctuated by new crises. We could never enjoy the good times because we knew that something bad was just around the corner.

Needless to say, we were afraid going into middle school. How would NHL handle the increased workload? How would he deal with changing classrooms multiple times a day? How would he deal with the different teachers and students? So much could go wrong that we braced ourselves for a disaster of epic proportions.

Then, the most amazing thing happened: Nothing.

Well, nothing bad at least. NHL’s aide, JG, met him at orientation and they quickly hit it off. JG went above and beyond, even taking it upon himself to learn about autism so he would understand NHL better. He was there by NHL’s side every day, but wasn’t overbearing. He knew when to pull NHL back and when to let him be himself. He slowly, carefully guided NHL all the while walking that all-too-thin line of friend, mentor, and teacher.

Speaking of teachers, NHL’s were incredible also. They saw the potential in him and worked to bring it out. They struck up a strong rapport with him and gained his trust – something that wasn’t easy to do. After years of struggle in elementary school, NHL’s love of learning was like a candle that was about to flicker out. All of his middle school teachers have turned that flickering candle into a raging bonfire. He loves school again so much that when he had the flu one year, he was upset that he couldn’t go to school for a week. That was the worst part of the flu to him. Not the aches and the fever, but missing out on learning more.

The multiple classes actually worked in NHL’s favor. As with many people on the autism spectrum, NHL loves his schedules. He doesn’t deal well if they aren’t strictly adhered to (at least, not without prior warning). In elementary school, though, the teacher’s schedule might say that math ends at 1pm, but since the same teacher teaches all subjects, she might go long. NHL did not like that at all. In the middle school, though, the bell rings when the class is over. The teacher might be able to shout out a homework assignment as the kids leave, but he/she can’t decide that the kids all need to stay for ten more minutes. The schedule is strictly enforced and NHL thrived with that.

He also thrived with the subject matter. In elementary school, they would often go over the same material over and over to make sure that all of the kids understood it. This left NHL bored. He understood it the first time and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t being allowed to learn more. In middle school, though, the pace was picked up which suited NHL just fine. His mind was a sponge that was finally being given the water it so desperately wanted to absorb. He also was placed in honors classes in the seventh and eighth grades which helped surround him with more students who were intent on learning and not messing around.

When it comes to the students, he found people who were willing to accept him quirks and all. I had the pleasure of going on four field trips with him during his middle school career and each time I loved seeing him interact with his peers. NHL is like me in so many ways that I feared he’d be like me socially. I was bullied and reacted by withdrawing within myself. The less I showed the outside world, the less ammunition I thought I’d give my bullies. I desperately wanted to socialize, but always felt embarrassed by my every action.

NHL, on the other hand, feels no such embarrassment. Yes, this can lead to times when he does things that are inappropriate, but it also means that he doesn’t hold back when forging friendships. I liked that the students seemed to forgive NHL his excesses and still wanted to interact with him. To give one example, during a recent trip to Montreal with his class, I was in charge of NHL and three other students at the Jean-Talon Market. There was so much to see and eat, that the kids wanted to see everything. Unfortunately, part of the stop involved completing a scavenger hunt. NHL can’t help himself when it comes to scavenger hunts. He feels compelled to speed through whatever area he’s in until he’s completed it. NHL’s classmates were getting visibly upset with his constant verbal tugs to move onto the next thing so he could fill in the next line. The one girl in the group, who’s been friendly with NHL for years, threatened to judo chop him if he didn’t stop. And yet, later that day when we went shopping in the underground market, she voluntarily joined NHL and I with another of his friends on our shopping adventure. She knew how to express her frustration with NHL without completely severing herself from him.

I could go on and on about how wonderful middle school was for NHL. Were there bumps? Sure. Still, they were so few and far between that we actually found ourselves relaxing. We didn’t react to every small speedbump as if it meant that everything was going to grind to a halt. We began to (*gasp*) trust that his teachers and aide could address it – which they did. They thought of us as all being part of a team whose job it was to make NHL excel and they worked WITH us to make that happen instead of working against us because they thought they knew better. And guess what? When we all worked together, we succeeded in making NHL succeed.

Finally, I’ve talked about everyone but NHL. Middle school would still have been a disaster had it not been for NHL. All the support mechanisms in the world won’t help someone if they don’t apply themselves. After his first marking period was over, NHL received the honor roll, but the middle of the three levels. He immediately declared that he was getting the highest level the next marking period. I tried to caution him that we just wanted him to do his best and he didn’t need to worry about grades as much. I didn’t want him to be disappointed. Silly me. Like Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield, NHL kept setting goals for himself and knocking them down. One marking period, his science grade went DOWN because he “only” got a 97 on the final exam.

NHL applied himself again and again, learning everything his teachers taught him and making it look easy. He struck up friendships and pushed himself more and more. Every time we thought “there’s no way NHL will be able to deal with this”, he not only dealt with it, but aced it. Sure, there were times when he held back his meltdowns until he came home. Times when his happy-go-lucky attitude switched to angry, at-the-end-of-his-rope teen the minute he entered B’s car. Still, we were happy to take that bullet because it meant that NHL was coping better in school itself. (We also worked with his teachers to find the sources of these delayed meltdowns and fix them in the future. Yay, team!)

So now NHL is off to high school. He’s leaving behind the familiar and facing the unknown again. We are nervous only because middle school has set such a high bar. Still, we know what NHL is capable of. He has such great potential inside of him and is am amazing young man. I can’t wait* to see him grow into an exceptional high school kid.

Congratulations, NHL!

* Well, maybe I can wait a little. Stop growing up so quickly NHL. That goes for you too, JSL.

The Opt Out Outcry – Students/Parents/Teachers Say High Stakes Testing Fails

56206100_82c8a353f4_mLast month, Governor Cuomo pushed out his fifth on-time New York State budget.  During the vote, Democrat after Democrat stood up saying how horrible the budget was, particularly the education piece, yet one after another they voted for it.  They would all temper their yes vote "with a heavy heart" – a phrase that multiple people used so much back to back that it seemed almost coached as a result of political pressure .  "We know you hate this but if you want anything for your district next year, you’ll vote yes.  You can express your disapproval by saying ‘with a heavy heart.’  That’s acceptable, but vote no and your funds will dry up until you’re voted out."  Passing the budget on time (and avoiding any embarrassment that the governor might face with a late budget) took precedent over the actual budget contents.

What was so bad about the education component of the budget?  One word:  Testing.  I’ve been pretty vocal about opposing Common Core, specifically New York State’s implementation of it and the high stakes testing that results.  This budget doesn’t address any of the issues opponents of the testing regime had.  Instead, it doubles down on testing, making it part of a teacher’s evaluations.

Before this budget, most of a teacher’s evaluations came from observations by local administrators.  You know, the people who would know that teacher and his/her students the best.  Now, 50% of the evaluations come from testing.  Students will be tested in the beginning and end of the year.  If their scores don’t improve by an amount set by State Ed (after the test scores are in, mind you), the teacher will be said to have failed this portion of the testing.  It doesn’t matter if the student gets a 94% on the beginning of the year test.  If State Ed says that the students need to improve by 6 percentage points and the student gets a 99%, the teacher is a failure.  The other 50% of the teacher’s evaluation will come from a combination of local observation and from an outside observer.  Note that this observer doesn’t need to be an educator at all.  This is akin to having a plumber rate your surgeon.  After all, the former is a licensed professional, right?  So he should be able to accurately say how well your surgeon can remove an appendix.

The teacher’s evaluation score can be "ineffective", "developing", "effective", and "highly effective."  If the students don’t do well on the exams, the teacher can’t receive an "effective" or "highly effective" rating.  Not even if both observations show that the teacher is wonderful.  Instead, they must hope to get a "developing" rating.  If a teacher gets an "ineffective" rating for two years in a row, they can be charged with incompetence within 90 days.  If they get a third ineffective rating, they MUST be charged with incompetence within 30 days.  In the latter case, a teacher’s only defense will be fraud.  A teacher of special needs students can’t bring up that his kids don’t deal well with tests but that he actually inspires the kids to learn.  Instead, he’ll be declared incompetent.  The teacher of the advanced class won’t be allowed to point out that her kids simply don’t have the room to increase their previous scores like State Ed has mandated.  She’ll be kicked out for being incompetent.  Job security for a teacher will now mean that they might be three years from being booted from the profession.  After all, what school will hire a teacher who was fired for being incompetent?  (Even if "incompetent" really means "students didn’t test as well as State Ed said they needed to test.")

At this point, you might think "at least it can’t get any worse."  If you’re thinking that, then you don’t know Andrew Cuomo too well.  In 2013, Cuomo called for a "death penalty" for public schools that failed based on test scores.  Now, he’s enacted this in the form of receivership.  If a school falls within the bottom 5 percent of state test scores for three years, they’ll be declared a "failing school."  They will then have two years to turn this situation around.  If they haven’t (to State Ed’s satisfaction), a person or company can be assigned control of the school.  This receiver can even fire teachers and administrators and declare that the school will become a charter school.

Since all of these changes seem to center around students tests, you might start to wonder what’s so wrong with the tests.  After all, teachers give tests all the time.  won’t these tests just show how much students are learning?

The answer is that they won’t.  The first problem is that the tests are completely non-transparent.  Pearson writes the tests, gags students and teachers from speaking about the tests, grades the tests, and returns the students’ scores without showing what the student got right and what he/she got wrong.  Proponents of the tests say they will give us important information about how well our students are doing but how can you measure anything without detailed information about what the kids got right and wrong?  Suppose you asked how deep a hole was and I answered "42."  Do I mean inches?  Feet?  Miles?  Kilometers?  Maybe I mean that the hole is so deep that 42 people would need to stand on each others’ shoulders to reach the top.  Perhaps I mean that a ladder would need 42 rungs to reach the top.  It’s possible that I mean that it would take 42 seconds to reach the top when travelling at a specific speed (which I refused to divulge).  Without detail, that number means nothing.

It should be noted that last year, they were forced to release half of the questions that were on the test due to public outcry.  There is no guarantee that they will release any questions this year.  Even if they do, that doesn’t tell us how a student did.  If two students have same final score, it doesn’t mean that they are lacking in the same areas.  Without detailed information (see above), the numbers are meaningless.

Despite this gag order, some have been leaking test questions on social media and blogs.  In the case of teachers, this is usually done anonymously since attaching your name to this would mean immediate termination.  Students, though, have tweeted test questions after the fact.  When they do so, Pearson has been known to contact school districts about "security breaches" sometimes overstating the events so it seems as though the students’ actions are worse than they really are.  Here’s the problem with Pearson’s "gag order" on students.  For a company to order someone not to divulge information, they will usually have you sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).  The incentive to sign might be for employment, a peek into what they are developing (e.g. so you can make something compatible with their upcoming device), or to explore joint ventures with the company.  In each case, the person signing the NDA gets something in return for their silence.  The NDA is also voluntary.  Suppose I was seeking a job and my potential employer wanted me to sign an NDA.  I could refuse to do so knowing that this meant I wouldn’t by employed by that company.  It would be my choice.

What about students, though?  Students are too young to enter into contractual agreements.  Students can’t willingly sign contracts – at least not without the approval of their parents/guardians – because they are minors.  Without their voluntary agreement, Pearson can’t claim that students are breaking an NDA by revealing test information.  I’ll agree that a student taking a camera and tweeting photos of the test during the testing is breaking the rules.  However, once the student leaves the school, Pearson can’t dictate what he/she says or does on social media.  If a student tweets out a test question purely from memory, there’s nothing Pearson can do about it.

From the test leaks, the questions on the tests are shown to be highly age inappropriate.  Questions on the third grade test were found to be on a sixth grade reading level.  Sixth grade test questions were on a college reading level.  That’s right, our kids are now failing if our 8 year olds don’t read like 11 year olds and if our 11 year olds don’t read like 18+ year olds.  And remember that teachers’ jobs are tied to these scores.  Has your third grader’s teacher only raised their reading level to that of a fourth or fifth grader?  Well, that’s "ineffective" now so let’s kick that teacher out.

With all of this testing, what happens to education?  If it were just a day of tests and done, it might not be a big waste of time.  However, a total of 8 days are being spent on this round of testing.  Before that, many days are devoted to test preparation.  If teachers actually try to educate their students instead of preparing them for the tests, they run the risk of their students doing poorly, being assigned an "ineffective" rating, and being kicked out of the teaching profession.  So teachers must gear all of their lessons around the tests.  Real education is taking a back seat to filling in bubbles.  Not that I blame the teachers, mind you.  They are caught between a love for educating their students and their desire to stay employed.  It’s the politicians who crafted these rules who are to blame.

And now, finally, we get to the reaction.  Two years ago, we opted our older child out of the high stakes tests.  We were one of a very small number who did in our district.  Last year, the numbers rose quite a bit and our older child again opted out.  This year, he opted out for a third time and the numbers have soared.  (Our youngest will hit his first high stakes tests next year and will opt out.)  Parents, students, and teachers are uniting against this testing regime and saying that they won’t allow their kids to be abused in this manner.  In some districts, notably on Long Island, over 50% of students opted out.  The totals state wide aren’t in yet, but look to top 200,000.  They might even be 300,000.  (This is out of 1.1 million students.)

Now, some principals – pressured by state ed to reduce opt out numbers – will send a letter saying that they could lose funding for their school if they fall below 95% of kids being tested.  We were warned this too.  However, this isn’t true at all.  Not one school has had funding revoked for too much opting out.  In fact, with the number of students opting out growing, state ed would need to defund way too many schools.  I’d actually like to see them try to carry out this threat.  The surge of angry parents would be something to see.

The other lie that will be told is that your child doesn’t have the option to opt out.  Or that your child must express this verbally to the test proctor on the day of the test.  Or that your child must at least write his/her name on the test booklet.  All of these are falsehoods as well.  A child who opts out is given a "score" of 999.  A child can opt out via a parental letter at any time (even on the first day of the school year – though you should remind administrators closer to testing time).  And a child should NOT write on any testing booklet given to them.  Even marking it a small bit will cause that booklet to be counted.  Other districts will threaten students who opt out with loss of ability to participate in after school activities or honors programs or will say that these kids can opt out but must "sit and stare" and cannot do other work/reading (even if they are quiet).  These are all scare tactics designed to force kids into taking the tests.  If you encounter this, contact NYSAPE.  They can put you in touch with local advocates to help counter these threats.

I can’t help but smile as I see the reports of more and more opt outs across the state.  The more parents, students, and teachers who speak up, the more the pressure will be put on politicians to do away with high stakes testing and to get some sanity back into public education.

NOTE: The image above, titled "Frustration" is by Eric and is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license via Flickr.

Common Core and Fourth Dimensional Math

I couple of weeks ago, I saw a video on Twitter.  In it, a girl tried to solve 1,568 + 1,423 + 680.  First, she tried to solve it using a Common Core tactic.  Next, she tried to solve it using the normal "stacking" method that kids have been learning for years.  Take a look:

Not only did the Common Core method take her 10 times as long, but the complexity resulted in an incorrect answer.  Meanwhile, the old-school stacking method was faster AND more accurate.  Even if she had made an error using the stacking method, it would have been easier to check and would have taken less space to write out.

However, while watching this video, I saw another problem.


Doing the common core math, 1’s were represented by dots, 10’s were lines, 100’s were squares, and 1,000’s were cubes.  Suppose the problem had been 15,680 instead of 1,568, though.  How would the child have been able to represent this?  Sure, she could draw 15 cubes, but the natural progression seems to be to add a dimension to the figure for each additional place value.  Going by this logic, we’ll have grade school children drawing hypercubes to solve math equations.


Yes, a simple math problem like 15,682 + 23,624 would require tapping into the fourth dimension to solve.  Clearly, this is yet another non-scalable Common Core method.

Why do we continue to confuse our kids when traditional math teaching methods work so much better?

In New York, sadly, the answer is that Governor Cuomo has decided that the public schools must go to clear the way for charter schools.  He attacks teachers – even going so far as to insinuate that teachers oppose high stakes test scores being tied to their jobs to protect teachers having inappropriate relations with students – and calls public schools "monopolies" while he backs the charter schools and pushes for more of them.  If Governor Cuomo has his way, all public schools would be charter schools run by private businesses.  After all, privatization fixes everything, right?

The only bright spot is his claim to support "anti-creaming" legislation which would force charter schools to not only accept ESL, low income, and special needs students, but to report on how many they have at the beginning and end of every school year.  Still, having one good idea doesn’t make me support all of the bad ideas he wants to implement.

Maybe it’s time to stop seeking overly complicated answers in the fourth dimension and when a real world simple solution is present.  Fund public schools fairly and let our teachers teach instead of forcing them to focus on how well the students can perform on multiple high stakes tests.  No hypercube is needed to solve this problem.

NOTE: The hypercube image above is by mate2code, was released into the public domain, and is available from Wikimedia Commons.

The Return of Common Core Math

Last year, I wrote about how NHL went into a full blown panic over his math homework.  I featured one of his problems and compared the Common Core method of solving it against the "Old School" method.  I concluded at the time that not only was the Common Core method more work than was necessary (drawing pictures instead of actually dealing with the numbers), but its methodology wouldn’t scale to larger problems.  I haven’t seen much of NHL’s math work this year, mainly because he finishes it all in school.  I managed to steal a glance at his homework tonight and it actually seems sane.

JSL, on the other hand, actually shed tears thanks to his homework recently.  After helping him with it for a few days, I figured I’d do another Common Core vs. Old School Math comparison.

Let’s start with a random problem from JSL’s most recent homework.  What is 52 – 7?

We’ll start with the Old School method.  First, we display the problem like so.


Next, we try to subtract 7 from 2.  Seeing this isn’t possible, we take one off of the 5 and add 10 to the 2.


Now, we can subtract 7 from 12 and get 5.


Finally, we subtract in the tens place – easy since it is 0 from 4.


And we have our answer: 45.  Not hard at all, right?


Now, let’s see how the Common Core method does it.  First you write out the problem.


So far, so good.  Now you break 10 off of the 52 like so:


Taking 10 off of 52 leaves 42 left so we’ll fill that in too.


Now we subtract the 7 from the 10 and get 3.


Finally, we add that 3 to the 42 to get 45.

So we have our answer: 45.


Looking at both methods, I understand what the Common Core authors were shooting for.  They were trying to take the "borrow 10" step from Old School math and recreate it in a more visual fashion.  The problem I have with this is that it needlessly complicates the math problem.  52 – 7 turns into three separate problems: 52 – 10 = 42, 10 – 7 = 3, and 42 + 3 = 45.  There’s also the unwritten math problem of what tens break out do you need to do. After all, if the problem was 52 – 16, breaking 10 out wouldn’t help.  Instead, you would need to pull 20 out of 52 and adjust the rest of the problem accordingly.

In the end, the Common Core method isn’t horrible.  Certainly, not as bad as last year’s math.  Still, it is needlessly complex and not developmentally appropriate for a second grader.  I’m all for progress, but everything new isn’t necessarily better.  In this case, the Old School method is easier and more direct while the Common Core method is more confusing.  The good news is that I think my son has finally figured out how to do this math.  The bad news is that he shouldn’t have had to.

Elementary School Student No More

Fifth_Grade_First_Day Almost 6 years ago, NHL began a new chapter in his life.  He was going to elementary school for the first time.  Today, he closes that chapter in his life.  Today, NHL is graduating the fifth grade.  Next year, he will begin Middle School.

It seems like only yesterday that I was easily holding baby NHL in one arm.  I still have vivid memories of dropping him off at daycare for the first time.  He’d pull at my suit jacket and scream, not wanting to leave me.  I felt like the World’s Worst Dad even when the teachers assured me that he was perfectly happy once I was gone.  Eventually, that stopped but an even worse behavior began: He’d go off to play and wouldn’t care about kissing dad goodbye.

NHL got bigger and went to kindergarten.  He learned about math and science and excelled at it.  He learned to read and began tearing through books.  The more he learned the more he loved learning.  I was (and continue to be) so proud of him.

And now he’s leaving elementary school.

I can’t help but look into the future and see middle school, Bar Mitzvah, high school, college, and more.  I’ve got to cherish every moment with NHL now because he’s growing up so quickly.

To close out this post, I figured I’d make a quick video showing NHL changing throughout the years:

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