Four More Things To Tell President Obama

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post wrote last week that President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had a meeting with teachers over lunch.  Her column provided space for the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, Justin Minkel, to offer his insights into how the meeting went and what the President and Secretary heard from the teachers present.  Mr. Minkel, who is a member of both the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the Center for Teacher Quality and who blogs for Education Week and for CTQ, wrote cogently and intelligently about four key points:

1. There’s Nothing Wrong With the Kids

2. “Responsibility and Delight Can Co-exist”

3. It’s not about good and bad teachers.  It is about good and bad teaching.

4. If we want students to innovate, collaborate, and solve real-world problems, we need to make it possible for teachers to do the same things.

These are outstanding points, and I thank Mr. Minkel and his fellow teachers for communicating them directly at such a high level.  There are, of course, many other points that the President and his Secretary of Education need to genuinely hear and know.  I would like to offer my own four points to build upon these:

1. You are looking for teacher effectiveness in all the wrong places

Teachers matter.  Nobody should ever suggest otherwise.  But No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top both represent sustained efforts to locate how teachers matter in standardized test scores, and since Race to the Top, the strongest proxy for teacher effectiveness written into state and federal policy has been annual student progress on standardized testing. This is a flawed approach for several reasons.  To begin with, the tests that are designed to demonstrate if a student has mastered a body of knowledge or a set of skills are designed for that purpose and that purpose only.  As Dr. Nunoz of Concordia University Chicago notes, testing and measurement is a precise field and it is improper and inaccurate to use an examination for a different purpose because it would not be designed the same way.  The American Statistical Association released a statement on value added measurements earlier this year that clearly stated that the association does not believe any examination currently used to measure teacher effectiveness meets the strict criteria necessary for such a test, and they noted that most studies on VAMs find that teachers’ input only accounts for between 1-14% of the variability among student results on such tests.  Looking for teacher effectiveness in the results of standardized examinations is essentially playing dice with teachers’ futures.

Even the research that claims such models are useful is suspect.  As Dr. Jesse Rothstein of U.C. Berkeley found, even the Gates Foundation funded research on “Measures of Effective Teaching” makes claims that are poorly supported by their own data. Despite the MET study’s endorsement of VAMs, Dr. Rothstein notes that “teacher evaluations based on observed state test outcomes are only slightly better than coin tosses at identifying teachers whose students perform unusually well or badly  on assessments of conceptual understanding (p. 5),” and goes on to note that teachers whose students did well on standardized exams did far less well on measurements of critical thinking.  Using standardized examinations as a measure of teacher effectiveness can reward a weak teacher who focuses on test preparation and punish a highly skilled teacher who emphasizes higher order thinking and creative problem solving.

Teachers, of course, do make a difference for students.  And there are teachers who do not teach well, and there are teachers who excel at the work.  But the impact of that teaching is simply poorly represented in paper and pencil standardized examinations.  It can be found in student produced artifacts that explore rich content in creative and insightful ways.  It can be found in a classroom that “buzzes” with the constant hum of excited work.  It can be found in the individual lives of children who are inspired to explore a field they never knew held interest before.  It can be found in the children who find a mentor and reliable adult among the body of teachers in a school and stick with their education when nobody thought they could.  It can be found the eyes of a student whose talents and passions are affirmed for the first time in his or her young life.  This is what happens in millions of classrooms across the country on a daily basis that cannot be captured on a standardized examination.

Taylor Mali, teacher and poet, captures quite a lot of that nicely in this poetry performance:

2. It’s the poverty

You’ve been told by a lot of current reformers that talking about the extraordinary difficulties of educating children born into poverty is just “making excuses” for “bad teachers”.  I cannot say not only how much this refrain hurts  teachers who have dedicated themselves to working with our most needy students, but also how much it hurts those very same students.  It places upon the teachers a burden to, on their own, lift children of poverty to a level playing field with their more advantaged peers.  It thrusts upon those children schools that keep cutting out critical thinking and aesthetic enrichment in favor of test preparation because of draconian  layoff and reorganization threats while offering the students a brutally unlevel playing field if they graduate. I can think of few practical jokes more cruel than this.

Poverty is not an “excuse”; it is a fact that broadly impacts the earliest childhood of 22% of our young people.  It is a fact that we do much less to alleviate poverty’s deprivations than our peer democracies in the West.  And because our residential income segregation is very high and has risen by over a third since 1980, it is a fact that poverty disproportionately impacts specific schools and school systems.

And it is not a fact that is fully constrained to those meeting the federal definition of poverty.  Income, housing and food insecurity impact the lower middle class, many of whom are clinging to that status solely because of federal assistance programs and the Earned Income Tax Credit.  In 2011, only North Dakota and New Hampshire had child food insecurity rates below 15%.   The Hamilton Project report also notes that food insecurity can have potentially life long consequences in both educational outcomes and economic security, but teachers are going to be held accountable for children who will suffer lower birth weights, worse lifetime health outcomes and lower economic outcomes because Congress refuses to fund expanded SNAP benefits that amount to less than half of the cost of USS Gerald Ford.

This is not meant to “excuse” those teachers and administrators who give up on children in poverty or near poverty and do not do their utmost to educate, inspire and mentor those in their care.  However, it is intellectually and morally bankrupt to ignore that our much lamented gap in PISA can be located almost entirely within our poverty level, and to blame teachers and schools for failing to single-handedly overcome a phenomenon much larger than our schools and about which the billionaires driving today’s “reforms” refuse to discuss.

3. There is no “secret sauce” for educating our most struggling children

Former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel opined that Noble Network of charter schools in Chicago had the “secret sauce” for motivating students to perform.  An element of that recipe?  Collecting $400,000 in disciplinary “fines” from its students since 2008.  Advocates of the rapidly expanding charter sector of education like to paper over such practices, but it is vitally important to expose them because while their sponsors and leaders like to hype test performance, they often achieve those results at the expense of up to half of their students.

This should be absolutely clear: with 1000s of charter schools across the country, there must be many schools and teachers who do a genuinely great job with the students in their care.  Unfortunately, they are overshadowed by the high profile charter schools that are essentially corporate entities and that tout themselves as miracle factories based upon high test scores.  They consume public dollars, refuse public accountability, have astonishing attrition rates usually at the expense of the neediest children enrolled in them, and have formed powerful lobbies to influence politicians to continue to favor charter schools over fully public schools.

This is not to say that none of these schools do a good job of educating the students that they do accommodate and that there are not students and families who are sincerely grateful to be in those schools.  But it does mean that they cannot legitimately claim to have found any “secret sauce” for educating our neediest students when they engage in extreme cream skimming, refuse to let the public examine their finances and rely upon their extremely wealthy patrons to strong arm politicians on their behalf.  To put this in perspective:  In 2012, the NEA spent $13 million in campaign contributions total across the country, and the AFT spent $5.9 million.  Success Academy Charter’s supporters spent $3.6 million in THREE WEEKS just because Mayor de Blasio slowed down the expansion of the network.

Truly working with our neediest takes far more than advertising and cherry-picked student bodies.

4. Arts and the humanities matter

Despite very shaky evidence to back up the claim, we have been treated to nonstop rhetoric about our “crisis” in graduates with STEM degrees, and policy has pushed hard to create more pipelines for people to enter such fields regardless of the actual employment picture for them.  There is, however, evidence that in the age of test based accountability, we have marginalized endeavors that are critical to both our civic life and our general well being.  Social studies instruction has shrunk from 9.5% of instructional time to 7.6%, meaning that our students spend less time today learning history and engaging in critical thinking about their civic life.  While instruction in the English Language Arts has increased because of its status as a tested subject, there are legitimate concerns that the emphasis on reading informational texts in the Common Core State Standards and associated testing, will drive more classrooms away from reading great works of literary fiction and poetry.

And then there is the long term and precipitous decline in arts education which fell below 50% for 18 year olds in their childhood education in 2008.  That means that half of the children in America born in 1990 received no arts education in their entire education K-12.  Research is very clear that participation in the arts has a wide range of academic benefits from higher test scores to higher rates of college completion among low income students.  Eliot Eisner of Stanford University notes the lessons that the arts teach such as: making judgments about relationships, seeing multiple answers to problems, accepting multiple perspectives, complex problem solving, learning that cognition is not limited by language, seeing large effects from small differences, and thinking through materials to fruition of an idea.  It is not hard at all to see the connection between these capacities and the capacities that lead not simply to STEM competencies but also to STEM understanding and innovation.  No wonder, then, that there is a small but growing movement to “move from STEM to STEAM” and place arts at the center of our drive for more STEM education.

While this is admirable, it is also not enough to envision the importance of the arts and humanities as a partner to scientific and technological advancement because they possess their own warrants.  Eisner’s “ten lessons” also include:  teaching children how to say what “cannot be said” via “poetic capacities,” experiencing things that cannot be experienced in any other way and exploring one’s capacity for feeling, symbolizing what is important in society.  The arts and humanities, therefore, enrich us in ways that cannot be measured via test based accountability but which are part of our essential humanity.  That 50% of our young people experience no arts education means that their education was fundamentally inattentive to their humanity.  As we advocate for literature, poetry, music, visual and performing arts for all children, we must remember this — the arts and humanities cannot become yet another preserve of the wealthy and we cannot allow test based accountability to squeeze what is left of them from our public schools.

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Filed under charter schools, Common Core, DFER, politics, schools, Social Justice, Testing, Unions, VAMs

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