Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Student Heroes Of Newark

Sometimes, in the midst of powerful interests steamrolling communities, we are reminded that silence is a choice.  One example was last November in the small city of Richmond, California where oil and gas giant Chevron put down $3 million to buy the city council election but were beaten back by a slate of candidates with only $50,000 to spend.  Another example has been unfolding in Newark, New Jersey where state appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson has wreaked havoc upon the school system with her “One Newark” plan that was put into full implementation this school year.  One Newark is the fruition of a partnership between Governor Chris Christie and the former mayor of Newark, Senator Cory Booker backed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, throws open the entire school district to school choice and expanded charter school options.  In practice, the implementation has spawned chaos and situations that would be intolerable to parents and students anywhere, but which have been forced upon the district with no recourse due to state control of the schools.

Bob Braun, the former education reporter for the New Jersey Star Ledger, has relentlessly documented Anderson’s tenure as superintendent and the series of rolling disasters One Newark has spawned.  Braun has documented schools that were slated to close under Anderson even though they were succeeding and beloved.  He has documented Anderson’s abrupt decision to stop attending board of education meetings from which she has been absent a full year.  He was there to cover the insensitive and incompetent summer enrollment where parents who had taken time away from work just to get put into the school selection pool waited for hours and were sent away with nothing.  He was a main source of information on Barringer High School where parents and students marched out to protest the deplorable conditions that persisted well past the opening of the school year.

Anderson, for her part, has remained an elusive figure in the city but has traveled widely to talk about education.  However, even outside of Newark, she has refused to face the people whose school system she runs, canceling a public talk at the American Enterprise Institute in November when Newark students and parents arrive in Washington, D.C. to demand answers from her.  Even state legislators have had to make repeated requests and wait nearly a year for Anderson to appear at the joint committee on education to answer questions about her performance in Newark.

In the face of this superintendency characterized by arrogance, silence, and disregard for community, few adults have managed to bring adequate attention to the situation.  And then there is the Newark Students Union, a collection of young activists acting as the conscience of Brick City.  The students, who have staged a number of direct action protests this school year, made national and international headlines on February 17th when they walked out of another board meeting where Anderson was absent and occupied the Superintendent’s office suite, refusing to leave until Anderson met with them and agreed to attend a school board meeting.  The district administration initially responded with hostility, calling the students trespassers and sending police to the students’ homes to “inform” parents of the situation:

The student occupiers got support from local clergy, Mayor Ras Baraka, and former talk show host Montel Williams who took to Twitter to offer encouragement and to chastise Anderson for her continued refusal to meet with them:

The Newark Students Union provides an extremely compelling case for their occupation:

The students ended their occupation after Anderson met with them for an hour, something that the state legislature took nearly a year to accomplish.  In their meeting, Anderson agreed to attend a board meeting this week.  However, that pledge was swiftly broken as the board met on the 24th with Anderson nowhere in sight:

where's cami

It may be back to business as usual in the Superintendent’s office in Newark as Cami Anderson continues to push changes and incompetent management upon the children and families of the city and ducks her legal and ethical responsibilities to meet with them.  However, in one very important way, business cannot return to usual.  These 8 student activists showed that decision making power may have been placed in the hands of those who refuse to listen, but that the Newark’s families do not have to relinquish their voices because of it.  The students drew national and international attention to an arrogant and damaging way of doing business that sees itself as a national model for urban education.  In 4 days of direct action, they got from Cami Anderson something that the school board and state legislature have failed to get: her presence.  They have gained notable advocates who have platforms capable of amplifying their message far beyond Newark.

I am immeasurably impressed with these young heroes.  We should all support them.

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Filed under Activism, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, Cory Booker, Newark Students Union, One Newark

New York Times Fails Education Reform – Again

Two weeks ago the New York Times published a guest editorial by Chad Aldeman defending keeping annual testing as a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as Congress is debating revisions and renewals to the changes made in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  I was not especially impressed.  Today, the editorial board itself has chimed in with what could have been a carbon copy of Mr. Aldeman’s position.  The board implores Congress to maintain annual testing as a key component of federal education law, and, unsurprisingly, I find the arguments less than stellar.

The board covers fairly familiar ground while acknowledging that some aspects of NCLB have been negative, such as the inability of test based accountability to distinguish between so-called “failing” schools and schools that missed certain accountability targets as measured by tests.  The board also acknowledges that testing has expanded to consume too much attention in many states and districts.

However, their recommendation that states “fix this” by “identifying and discarding unnecessary tests and, if necessary, placing explicit limits on how much time can be spent on testing” misses that it is the FEDERAL accountability requirements that spawned excessive testing and test preparation in the first place.  It is an act of fancy rhetorical footwork to blame states and municipalities for an over focus on standardized testing when FEDERAL requirements have incentivized that very focus, first with threats to label schools as failures under NCLB and then with the Obama administration pressuring states to use discredited statistical models to evaluate teachers as part of Race to the Top.  The “wave of over-testing that swept this country’s schools during the last decade” is the responsibility of the federal government, and it is up to the federal government to fix it.

The board repeats claims familiar in reform circles that annual testing is needed because if we do not test every child in every year, “parents would never know how well their children were doing.”  This claim remains staggeringly bereft of imagination every time it is written by another person or organization intent on seeing annual testing maintained.  Set aside the reality that a child whose parents or guardians need a standardized test to know how she is doing in school is a child with much bigger problems than whether or not her state administers an annual test, and consider how many, far more meaningful ways, there are to communicate how a student is doing in school.  Annual tests come late in the year, focus upon content that does not indicate creativity and problem solving, and report results far too late to be used for the benefit of individual students.  Fortunately, we have myriads of ways to help teachers assess students, use that information to improve instruction, AND communicate with parents.  There are teacher designed tests, portfolio assessment systems, project based learning, and computer delivered adaptive assessments that give immediate, formative feedback.  Every single one of these ideas will let parents know how their children are doing, and some of them could readily be pegged to provide comparisons to other students if absolutely deemed necessary (doubtful).  How a mass standardized test EVERY year would remain necessary with a collection of tools like this instead of a carefully sampled exam reported every couple of years is beyond me.  Regardless, the Obama administration invested $330 million to write new, even bigger, standardized exams for the Common Core State Standards.

The Times board also states that “national test data clearly show that since the unpopular No Child Left Behind Act was signed in 2002, academic performance for the country’s students has improved and achievement gaps between white and minority children have narrowed.”  The implication here is that we owe that to NCLB, an assumption that is made problematic by taking a wider view of achievement history as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  It is true that the gap between white and black 13 year-olds, for example, in mathematics and reading closed from 32 points to 28 points and from 29 points to 23 points respectively in between 1999 and 2012.  However, longer term trends show much more dramatic gains in the 1970s and early 1980s:

13 year old math NAEP

NAEP Reading

In between 1973 and 1986, the gap in mathematics achievement closed by 22 points, and in between 1971 and 1988, the reading gap closed by 21 points.  Modest gains in closing the gap in the early years of NCLB were statistically significant, but no significant gains were made in mathematics and in reading between 2008 and 2012.

The Times is praising an anemic record of “effectiveness” for test based accountability, and it fails to consider what might contribute to the steady and significant improvement in the 1970s and early 1980s and what might account for how those gains leveled off or decreased in the late 1980s and 1990s.  Consider that the 1970s saw the last major effort by politicians and courts to expand desegregation of our schools by placing school districts, including many in northern states, under court orders to integrate their schools systems.  This effort peaked in the 1980s and since then, schools have become re-segregated in no small part because of white flight.  Boston, Massachusetts, which had a particularly contentious relationship with court ordered integration, saw the percentage of white students in public school plummet by more than 40 points between 1970 and 1990, a change that cannot be explained by simple increases in the minority population:

boston

White flight was also a proxy for the middle class abandoning urban communities, and in the 30 years between 1980 and 2010, the percentages of people who live in housing tracts dominated by their own income levels has risen nationwide.  The change in the Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) is in the double digits for many of our most populated urban areas:

risi increase

So here is what the editorial board of the Times fails to consider:  Achievement gaps on the NAEP narrowed dramatically during the 1970s and early 1980s when the nation was still pursuing policies of deliberate integration.  However, the cumulative impact of white and middle class populations leaving cities in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s led directly to re-segregation of our communities and schools, and the trends since 1980 have been towards greater and greater income segregation.  Today, more than 50% of students attending public school qualify for free or reduced lunch programs which means that, because of the previously mentioned trends, more and more school districts have higher concentrations of poverty.  We also know from analysis of the international PISA exam, that students in United States communities with different levels of poverty scored very differently on standardized exams.

Given this, the fact that during the 90s the gap in achievement measured by NAEP increased only slightly in math and increased in reading but began to narrow again BEFORE NCLB should be celebrated as an achievement of hard working schools facing deteriorating conditions within their communities.

The Editorial Board of the Times fails to make any convincing argument that maintaining standardized testing of every child in every grade each year is necessary to address the root problems our education system faces — concentration of poverty and increased segregation in our communities. Do we need annual testing to tell us that poverty in childhood has lifelong consequences in health, education, and economic opportunity?  Do we need annual testing to tell us that communities with high concentrations of minority students from impoverished households struggle on test based measures?  Do we need annual testing to tell us that income segregation means that constituencies with political power have no personal stakes in the outcomes for disenfranchised constituencies?  Do we need annual testing to tell us that governors and state houses from Albany to Madison have cut state spending for education and maintain patently discriminatory state aid funding formulas?

We do not.  And as Kevin Welner and William Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder remind us in this policy memo, what we need is “sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright…”  That will not happen while high stakes testing is driving our education system.

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Filed under Media, NCLB, Social Justice, Testing

Chris Christie and the Common Core Two Step

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is a Tough Guy.  The New Jersey Republican revels in his reputation as a politician who says what he thinks without apology and who is willing to get into dust ups with constituents who challenge him in public.  There have been moments in his tenure in Trenton when this has had a certain bipartisan charm, such as when, with Superstorm Sandy bearing down on the Garden State, the governor told people to “get the hell off the beach.”  Unfortunately, many more examples of Christie being “authentic” are unnecessary and embarrassing examples of temper — such as the time Governor Christie, when faced with former Navy SEAL and current Rutgers Law School student William Brown in a town hall meeting ended up calling the veteran an “idiot” and had him escorted out.

Here is Governor Christie also in 2012, expressing his anger at a passerby who made negative remarks about his education policies:

Then there was the time that Governor Christie was in the Jersey Shore community of Belmar to talk on the second anniversary of Sandy and tout his record on the recovery, but when he was confronted by a former Asbury Park city council member Jim Keady over how 80% of recovery money was not yet dispersed, Mr. Keady was treated to full Chris Christie:

Mr. Keady explains himself nicely here:

Governor Christie has saved some his most “authentic” moments for New Jersey’s public school teachers and their union.  Early in his first term, he accused the union of using students as “drug mules” because of a civics lesson in Monroe Township on the eve of statewide school budget votes – after he had already proposed deep cuts to state aid.  The governor accused the NJEA of placing ads that accused him of “hating kids” and of openly praying for his death.  New Jersey teacher and blogger Jersey Jazzman makes clear just how big a pile of hooey those accusations are.  The “prayer” was little more than a joke in questionable taste, and this was the billboard in question:

NJEA billboard 2011

The Governor has also made his hostility clear in direct confrontations with New Jersey teachers.  Marie Corfield, an art teacher in the Flemington-Raritan Regional School District, went to a Christie Town Hall in 2010 to challenge his education policies and rhetoric.  Mr. Christie, not appreciating what he deemed a disrespectful look on Ms. Corfield’s face, launched into a monologue that suited him so well, it went up on his Youtube channel to help cement his Tough Guy reputation. It also inspired Marie Corfield to run for Assembly:

And there was the time, days before his reelection, that Governor Christie met elementary teacher Melissa Tomlinson at a campaign rally where she asked why he was constantly calling New Jersey public schools “failure factories“.  The result was predictable:

Christie Yells Again

Governor Christie has been on board with education reform from the beginning of his term, applying for Race to the Top funding, adopting the Common Core State Standards, joining the PARCC consortium as a governing state, crafting new teacher evaluations using student test scores, and working to expand charter schools in the state.  Nobody can likely recall any doubt about any of these initiatives from anyone within the governor’s inner circle and certainly not from Governor Christie himself.  In fact, in August 2013, Governor Christie appeared at the KIPP Schools Summit in Las Vegas and spoke positively about the Common Core initiative and the Obama Administration:

“We are doing Common Core in New Jersey and we’re going to continue. And, this is one of those areas where I have agreed more with the President than not. And with Secretary Duncan. They haven’t been perfect on this, but they’ve been better than a lot of folks have been in terms of the reform movement.”

Given Governor Christie’s reputation for being a genuine Tough Guy who sticks to his guns even if it is not popular, it was odd to find that he apparently would like what was said in Vegas to stay in Vegas and is now walking back that support for Republican audiences in Iowa:

“I’ve said this before.  I have grave concerns about the way this has been done and especially the way the Obama administration has tried to implement it through tying federal funding to these things.  And that changes the entire nature of it from what was initially supposed to be a voluntary system that states could decide on their own.”

Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post reported that Governor Christie went on in those remarks to say:

“So we’re in the midst of a re-examination of it in New Jersey. I appointed a commission a few months ago to look at it in light of these new developments from the Obama administration and they’re going to come back to me with a report in the next I think six or eight weeks, then we’re going to take some action. It is something I’ve been very concerned about, because in the end education needs to be a local issue.”

What could possibly be going on that would give the famously self confident and unapologetically “authentic” “Tough Guy” governor to start walking back from reforms he has been pursuing since 2010 with barely pausing to breath?  What could plant any seed of doubt in his generally doubt free mind?

Oh, right.

Chris Christie is running for the Republican nomination for President.  One of his main rivals will be former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who is trying to stick with his support of Common Core while not naming it too often.  Governor Christie must be mindful that Republican support for Common Core has fallen in the past year with 58% of Republican parents opposing the standards and only 19% viewing them favorably.  While most of those opponents likely object to the standards on substantive grounds, Mr. Christie must also be mindful that conservative opposition to the standards also include no small number of these people:

…who also, according to popular theory, wield outsized influence in primaries.

Will trying to two step his support for education reform to the right of Jeb Bush work for Governor Christie?  I have no idea.  Recent polling suggests that Common Core may not be so toxic in all early voting states, and primary voters may not be as extreme and polarized as commonly thought.  So Governor Christie is trying to distinguish himself from Governor Bush, but to what effect is up in the air.

What is not up in the air is what this “rethinking” means for New Jersey: Bupkas.

The New Jersey Department of Education website still contains links to the Common Core State Standards in the English Language Arts and Mathematics and links to college and career readiness and to New Jersey’s resource page for teaching Common Core.  The AchieveNJ section of the DOE site is still up, complete with links to Student Growth Percentiles for teachers in tested subjects and Student Growth Objectives for teachers in all subjects.  PARCC assessments are still being fully implemented this spring as scheduled, and the Commissioner sent “guidance” to districts that strongly suggested that districts could face consequences if too many parents opted their children out of the assessments and that there was no requirement for schools to provide those students with alternative settings. Trenton-appointed Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson is still in place and still thundering ahead with the One Newark plan to turn the district into the “charter school capital” of the nation.

There is no sign that any of that is being reconsidered in Trenton.  Governor Christie may move one foot away from his education record while in Iowa or New Hampshire, but residents of the Garden State should expect the “Tough Guy’s” other foot to stomp down with emphasis right where it already is.

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Filed under Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, Common Core, Newark, One Newark, PARCC, Testing

Saving Mr. Data

I am beginning to think that enthusiasts of standardized testing and data in education accountability are feeling nervous these days.  Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is the new chair of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and he has set about the long overdue process of renewing and/or revising the No Child Left Behind Act which required annual testing of all students in every state.  The outcome of that process and of the House’s parallel bill which left committee already and which failed to adopt a Democratic sponsored amendment to require states to adopt “college and career ready standards” and to use standardized test results in accountability systems, will play a significant role in the current policy environment that is best summarized as “test and punish”.

However, it is not just a Republican controlled Congress that is threatening federal mandates for universal and annual standardized testing.  An unusual coalition of small government conservatives and anti-testing progressives have joined with growing numbers of parents concerned with how test based accountability is consuming their children’s education.  The once unthinkable is now being thought out loud and in the open — Congress could reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act without provisions requiring that all states test all students in all grades.

This would, obviously, be a blow to a cornerstone provision of NCLB that once enjoyed bipartisan support as a necessary measure to ensure that states did not try to duck being accountable for all students.  It would also throw a huge monkey-wrench into favored policies of the Obama administration promoted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. While the Common Core State Standards might survive in some form without annual standardized testing, the testing consortia, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC), began their work with the support of federal grants almost as soon as the standards were being adopted thanks to financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and federal incentives from the Race to the Top grant program.  If annual testing requirements were scrapped by Congress, it is an open question how many states would keep Common Core and stay with the testing programs created for it.  Another policy threatened by removing annual testing requirements is the assessment of teachers by the test scores of their students.  Despite wide criticism from the research community, Secretary Duncan remains firmly committed to tying teacher evaluations to students’ annual progress on standardized examinations, and without annual examinations of all students, you cannot run their results through discredited and unstable statistical models to determine if teachers deserve their jobs.

So defenders of annual testing have work to do in public if they are going to save their baby,

One such recent effort appeared in the New York Times on February 6th. Penned by Chad Aldeman, a partner at Bellwether Education and former adviser to Secretary Duncan’s Department of Education, it is simply titled “In Defense of Annual Testing”, and it lays out what are becoming familiar efforts to shore up presumably left leaning support for keeping NCLB’s annual testing requirements.  These are not arguments that should be casually dismissed, and they have the moral authority of some of the nation’s most distinguished civil rights organizations that originally signed on for the accountability measures in NCLB when it passed and who have reiterated their support.

They are, however, arguments that don’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

Aldeman opens with a brief assertion of a now familiar claim:

But annual testing has tremendous value. It lets schools follow students’ progress closely, and it allows for measurement of how much students learn and grow over time, not just where they are in a single moment.

This claim suggests that without ANNUAL standardized testing of ALL students then we will not know how INDIVIDUAL students are progressing through school.  It has echoes in Secretary Duncan’s anecdote of how he tutored a great kid in his youth who had been tricked into thinking he was progressing towards college but who was barely reading at a third grade level.  According to Secretary Duncan’s telling, this young man was the proverbial “child left behind” for whose education nobody had ever taken any real responsibility.  Annual testing was the only effective means to catch how he was being poorly served and demand that someone do something about it, and Secretary Duncan even presented annual testing of all students as a parental tool: “Will we work together to ensure every parent’s right to know every year how much progress her child is making in school? Or is that optional?”

The problem is that this line of thinking shows a staggering lack of imagination.

As an argument, it fails to acknowledge that there are many other, and far more interesting, points of data that can be used by teachers, parents, and schools to keep far more compelling tabs on student progress throughout the year.  Locally designed and implemented ongoing assessments such as portfolios and project based learning can provide teachers with ongoing and meaningful insights into how children are learning, and report cards can be reformed to provide parents and guardians with far more nuanced information.

It is even possible to use externally designed assessments in more interesting ways that help inform teachers, students, and parents in real time.  Bruce Baker of Rutgers University notes that computer-based “adaptive assessments” given individually and with no stakes attached can be the basis of a system of formative assessment that gives immediate feedback to teachers about student progress that can be used to craft individual learning plans for those who struggle.  In coordination with portfolios and project based learning (and with full disclosure of how they use data and substantial privacy safeguards), computer based assessments could become a valuable tool based on data.  Dr. Baker further notes such data-driven and formative assessments would be vastly more useful than mass administered tests whose results are distributed months after the fact when students have already moved on to their next grade levels.

Aldeman dedicates most of his Times piece, however, on the belief that NOT testing every child in every year will allow states and localities to wiggle out from being accountable to all students all the time:

The grade-span approach would eviscerate the ability to look at particular groups of students within schools. Instead of having multiple grades over which schools could compile results, each school would be held responsible only for the performance of students in a single grade. Not only would this lower the quality of the data, but it would also raise the stakes of the tests: If you think the stakes are too high now, imagine being a fifth grader in a school where your score determines the results of the entire school.

Worst of all, under this approach, far fewer schools would be on the hook for paying attention to historically disadvantaged groups of students. A school with 10 Hispanic students in each grade would no longer be held accountable for whether those students were making sufficient progress, because the 10 fifth graders wouldn’t be enough to count as a meaningful population size.

Let me state that as a liberal with an eye for history, this argument is certainly intriguing.  We are a nation that only 12 years before my birth required the National Guard to let nine African American students attend a high school ordered to desegregate.  In 1969, the year I was born, the Supreme Court issued a ruling calling for Southern states to cease delays in desegregating their schools — a full 15 years after Brown v. Board found such arrangements unconstitutional.  Federal legislation and federal court cases were also instrumental in holding states and municipalities responsible for ending gender discrimination, for providing students with disabilities access to an education, and for providing support for students learning English.  It is no doubt this record of positive intervention at the federal level and of state delays in implementing equality of opportunity that motivated civil rights groups to endorse annual testing in NCLB and to stand with it today.

That does not change that such testing is unnecessary, is unacceptably disruptive to learning, and is narrowing curricula nationwide.

Mr. Aldeman is suggesting that eliminating annual testing will mean huge swaths of children will be hidden from the test and that the test stakes will be raised enormously with only exam being used.  The stakes argument hinges on a mistaken impression of what the exams say and what should be done with the data they produce.  For the stakes on gradespan testing to be even higher than they are today, one has to assume that such testing is used not only to monitor the education system but also to actively punish schools with low test results.  While few would argue that schools with poor results should be permitted to languish, the kinds of punitive measures embodied in NCLB are not a necessary result of monitoring student test scores.  Under the leadership of Superintendent Tony Alvarado, New York City’s Community District 2 implemented a complex and interconnect culture of reform that included standards and assessments.  However, data from the assessments were used to monitor how schools in the district were doing and to allocate resources for improvement and innovation where they were most needed and with the constant goal of instructional improvement.  Again, Dr. Baker of Rutgers makes a salient observation:

Here’s the really important part, which also relates to my thermometer example above. The testing measures themselves ARE NOT THE ACTIONABLE INFORMATION. Testing provides information on symptoms, not causes or underlying processes. It is pure folly to look at low test scores for a given institution, and follow up with an action plan to “improve test scores,” or close the school if/when test scores don’t improve, without ever taking stock of the potential causes behind the low test scores. TEST SCORES ARE SYMPTOMS, NOT CAUSES, NOT ACTIONABLE IN AND OF THEMSELVES.

Recognition of that fact and crafting policy responses to low test scores with that in mind would necessarily lower the stakes on the tests themselves.

Further, while there might be some argument for an annual test that could contribute to closer monitoring of those symptoms, there is no argument that convincingly says that such tests must be given to every student in every grade in order to get a good picture of how schools and school systems serve historically disadvantaged children.  First, a low stakes system of formative assessments, both qualitative and quantitative, could apply to all children and would conform to accommodations for children with special needs.  So there can readily be ways for teachers, schools, and parents to know how ALL students are doing during the course of the year.

Once we’ve set aside the issue of having a meaningful, formative assessment system for all students that can actually assist teachers, there’s no truly compelling argument against properly devised sampling of students for standardized testing.  Implemented correctly, sampling would not leave substantial numbers of children invisible as Mr. Aldeman fears, and we would stop spending inordinate time trying to ferret out distinctions in performance within schools when, as Dr. Baker once again notes, the greatest and most consequential differences in test measured achievement exist between schools and districts, not within them.  Insisting upon keeping annual testing of every student in every grade keeps an unnecessarily disruptive system in place as part of an accountability system that, in fifteen years, has not yielded sufficient results to justify the sacrifices in teacher autonomy over instruction and the sacrifices in non-tested subjects being shunted aside in favor of test preparation.  In fact, the only people to “benefit” from this system are private test designers like Pearson, who are being handed not just lucrative contracts but also terabytes of data to mine for new products, and advocates of firing as many teachers as possible based upon student test scores.

This is especially frustrating to me because data, when used with a clear understanding of what it can and what it cannot do, is a tool, an important tool at that.  It can help us develop broad pictures of what is happening in schools, and it can direct our attention to places that require more careful and nuanced study.  The persistent overreach and abuse of its capabilities is building a backlash that makes it much harder to successfully advocate for more judicious and appropriate use of what can be learned.  If we wish to SAVE data and its uses in school, it would be best to set aside NCLB and begin again sensibly.

I believe I see the problem, Captain.  My head's been severed.

I believe I see the problem, Captain. My head’s been severed.

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Filed under Data, NCLB, politics, teaching, Testing, VAMs

My Guest Editorial for The Record

You can read me today at NorthJersey.Com discussing the upcoming PARCC examinations in New Jersey.

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The New York Times or The Onion? “Is Your First Grader College Ready?”

Every now and again, a serious news outlet runs a story that requires multiple readings to tell that it is not someone trying deliberately to invoke Poe’s Law.  The internet axiom states that it is not possible to construct a satire of an extreme form of belief that will not be mistaken as sincere belief by a substantial portion of readers.  Poe’s Law is most often invoked to humorously highlight beliefs that are both fervently believed but so devoid of actual factual basis or a semblance of reasoning that they lampoon the person holding them.

Welcome to Poe’s Law: College and Career Readiness Edition.

“College and Career Readiness” is language that is plastered all over the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying standardized examinations offered by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).  In essence, the expression means that every student in the country should be taught a curriculum that prepares him or her with the essential mathematics and literacy skills necessary to succeed in entry level college courses or to successfully complete entry level job training in presumably desirable careers.  Proponents of the Common Core State Standards assure us that the common standards provide a proper and attainable platform from which elementary and secondary teachers can educate students to that level, and proponents of the accompanying PARRC and SBAC examinations, frequently the same people, assure us that exams will help us know that every child is on track to be college and career ready — or not.  Regardless of your assessment of those claims and the foundation that underlies (or fails to underlie) them, that’s the promise for standards beginning in Kindergarten and yearly examinations beginning in third grade.

So enter the New York Times with an article asking, and this is not a headline stolen from The Onion, “Is Your First Grader College Ready?” detailing various programs and efforts to raise preparation for college with children as young as first grade:

What is college? To Madison Comer, a confident 6-year-old, it is a very big place. “It’s tall,” she explained, outlining the head of Tuffy, the North Carolina State mascot, with a gray crayon. “It’s like high school but it’s higher.”

Elizabeth Mangan, who plans to be a veterinarian because she loves her puppy, pointed out that she, too, would attend North Carolina State. “Me and Madison are going to the same college,” she said.

And what is college? “It’s someplace where you go to get your career.”

Billy Nalls, meanwhile, was drawing curving horns and jagged teeth on Rameses the Ram on a paper pennant representing the University of North Carolina. “I’m drawing him as angry,” he said. In college, Billy wants to learn to make a Transformer (“It’s like a robot that comes from Cybertron”). And what happens at college? “You get smarter and smarter every day.”

Let me say that some of what is discussed in the article is not precisely off base.  Proponents of these approaches are correct that many students who will eventually go to college grow up in homes with college educated parents and with an underlying assumption that college is just a normal part of growing up.  When both of your parents had post-secondary education and career paths requiring that education, it is simply a background assumption in your life that college is likely compared to growing up in entire zip codes were very few of the adults have studied beyond high school.  It is also true that many first generation college students face challenges to their success that are not common among families with a history of college education, and that they often require support beyond the traditional college “bridge” programs.

So what is almost satirical about some of the approaches described in the Times?

It is one thing to talk to first grade students about what they want to be when they grow up.  For students who are growing up without many community models of post-secondary education, I can see potential in the middle school activities described that emphasize recognizing what would be needed to accomplish their ambitions.  However, the early elementary discourse transforms from surprising to comical to frustrating in very short order.  Six year-olds are not simply talking about what they want to be as grown ups; they are naming specific schools and filling out mock applications for the bulletin board.  The first grade teacher is quoted discussing that it is not enough to ask children what they want to be: “We need to ask them, ‘How will you get there?’ Even if I am teaching preschool, the word ‘college’ has to be in there.”  The approach is not simply being applied in districts with high concentrations of disadvantage; the article quotes a college planner from Westchester County, New York who compares college preparation to becoming an Olympic skater whose training begins in earnest at age 6.

A 6 year old future Olympian, however, is capable of understanding that she loves skating and perhaps that she is unusually good at it and wishes to spend a lot of time doing it.  It might not be a stretch for that 6 year old to know that the world’s best skaters can get a gold medal and to want that.  Her ability to visualize the path from being 6 to an Olympic medal?  Not there.  And it is pretty much guaranteed that future college graduates, at the age of 6, are simply incapable of envisioning something so distant and abstract.  This is the kind of “program” you get when a vaguely attentive superintendent hears the constant repetition of “college and career readiness” in reform circles and hastily writes a memo.

What is also close to farcical in the described approaches is how ways that students “prepare for college applications” in wealthier communities that first grade mock applications and middle school campus visits miss.  Those children have access to community recreation and athletic leagues.  They have schools with library/media centers that are funded and staffed.  They have community and school based arts and music education.  They have summer camps. Their homes have books and toys suitable for free play.  Their schools are often new or extremely well maintained and upgraded. Very few of them are food insecure or at risk of homelessness.

Everything I have listed is directly connected to students becoming “college and career ready,” so while I can support consciously organizing very young children to play “grown up” and following that with earlier than typical planning for certain students, that does not even qualify as a quarter of a loaf if we do not discuss the kind of cultural capital activities that have nothing to do with pinning mock college applications on a first grade bulletin board. Are we willing to embed resources in beautifully designed community centers that replicate what suburban kids have at home?  Are we willing to fully fund school and community libraries and art and music programs?  Are we going to expand recreation and summer camp opportunities?  Will we rebuild crumbling school infrastructure in our urban and rural communities?  Will we embrace, rather than cut, our obligations to keep people from being hungry and homeless?

Meanwhile I have a suggestion that would do a lot more for the first graders described in the Times article than a “cut and paste worksheet” describing the steps to get into college.  Give every kid in that class a good set of plain Legos, some dolls, and other toys that promote unstructured, creative PLAY — let them negotiate and explore their SIX YEAR OLD MINDS.  There will be plenty of time to stress them out and confuse them in only two more years when they take their third grade PARCC or SBAC examinations:

Ginger graduated high school college and career ready, and she got into Harvard University.  Her parents make too much money to qualify for needs-based financial aid, and they are underwater on their mortgage.  At $60,000 a year for tuition, room, and board, and at 8% interest, calculate for how many years SALLIE MAE will OWN Ginger if she begins her career at Starbucks.  Then recalculate how that will change if Ginger’s loans are bought by a securities bundler after five years and sold as bonds.  Show all of your work.

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Paving The Road to Hell — And Other Gates Foundation Initiatives

Towards the end of last year, the Seattle Times provided coverage of the Gates Foundation’s report on the tenth anniversary of its global health initiative. After a decade of effort and a billion dollars invested, Bill Gates admitted that despite the investment he had been “pretty naive” about how long it would take to significantly improve public health outcomes in the developing world. Most notable was Gates’ admission that the problems in his approach were not merely ones about overcoming scientific hurdles, but rather they seriously underestimated the challenges of implementing highly technological “solutions” in countries where the majority of the population lack secure access to routine infrastructure which, in the words of Dr. David McCoy of Queen Mary University in London, are “the barriers to existing solutions.”

Both Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog and Anthony Cody of Living in Dialogue have written excellent pieces on this somewhat quiet but very important admission by Bill Gates.  Greene astutely notes that Gates’ realization of his limitations does not actually lead him to understand why his approach is flawed:

Gates wants to use systems to change society, but his understanding of how humans and culture and society and communities change is faulty. It’s not surprising that Gates is naive– it’s surprising that he is always naive in the same way. It always boils down to “I really thought people would behave differently.” And although I’ve rarely seen him acknowledge it print, it also boils down to, “There were plenty of people who could have told me better, but I didn’t listen to them.”

The non-success of Grand Challenges is just like the failure of the Gates Common Core initiative. Gates did not take the time to do his homework about the pre-existing structures and systems. He did not value the expertise of people already working in the field, and so he did not consult it or listen to it. He put an unwarranted faith in his created systems, and imagined that they would prevail because everyone on the ground would be easily assimilated into the new imposed-from-outside system. He became frustrated by peoples’ insistence on seeing things through their own point-of-view rather than his. And he spent a huge amount of money attempting to impose his vision on everybody else.

This is an important observation because it shows that there is a flawed perspective rooted at the heart of the Gates Foundation, and while the man and the institution may be able to recognize failures, they are not inclined to understand why they have failed.  Anthony Cody also recognizes this observation as he lines up quotes from the central figures at the Gates Foundation that demonstrate little regard for the knowledge about teaching held by teachers and wonders if the “humility” earned in Grand Challenges project will translate to humility about the foundation’s approach to education reform.  I believe that Greene and Cody are completely on point and insightful in their observations and questions on these points, and it is important for people outside the Gates Foundation to constantly remind it that education is a complex and interconnected set of systems with knowledgeable and invested stakeholders that cannot simply be plowed over and disregarded without consequences.

A specific quote from Melinda Gates cited by Mr. Cody struck me in particular, and I believe it highlights some of the difficulties we face in enticing the Gates’ and their namesake foundation to listen.  Cody quotes Mrs. Gates from 2011:

It may surprise you–it was certainly surprising to us–but the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching. We have all known terrific teachers. You watch them at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft. But nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them so outstanding.

This ignorance has serious ramifications. We can’t give teachers the right kind of support because there’s no way to distinguish the right kind from the wrong kind. We can’t evaluate teaching because we are not consistent in what we’re looking for. We can’t spread best practices because we can’t capture them in the first place.

Asserting that “the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching” is one of those statements most frequently made by people who do not want to have to bother with how much information there is that refutes the statement.  However, if Mrs. Gates wants to fill herself in on what the “field of education” knows about effective teaching, she could begin with the 4th edition of The Handbook of Research on Teaching.  It might even be worth her while to read the third edition, see if a full version of the second edition is available, and then finish up with the original publication from 1963.  A fifth edition was supposed to published in 2014, but it seems that the editors are taking some extra time to be careful with it.

Then, for kicks, she might want to talk to some of America’s working teachers and see if they know anything as well.

Of course, knowing this field as I do, I suspect that someone who has been working in the technocratic solutions domain for this many years will still object that the multiple 1000s of pages of research on teaching to which I have referred still won’t tell us what “effective teaching” is.  Researching education is, by necessity, working with a “soft field” where you are unlikely to find absolute answers to your questions.  What we know changes as related fields like psychology build their knowledge base, and ideas can circulate in and out of favor as what schools are expected to do evolves with societal priorities.  Most importantly, research on teaching has to consider how variable the 100,000 schools and millions of classrooms across the country are and how that variability influences the teaching that is both possible and that is needed.  We are not engineering within the parameters of Newtonian physics, and that is appropriate.

Mrs. Gates’ other assertion that “you watch them (great teachers) at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they’ve mastered the craft” (but, gosh darn it, we just don’t know why they are so great!) is the kind of statement made by people who really don’t understand teaching.  Of course, there are great teachers, and, of course, you can be impressed by them fairly quickly, but to say that you KNOW someone has thoroughly “mastered the craft” in ten minutes is romantic in the style of teachers whose lives have been edited by Hollywood.  What does Mrs. Gates risk missing in her ten minute assessment?

  • The lesson that worked very well in the first period but worked far less well in the third period.
  • The day when the lesson plan was simply off base.
  • The work that teacher did outside of the classroom determining what students knew, selecting teaching and learning strategies that would help them build upon that, figuring out what would help the teacher know the students had learned.
  • ANY of the uncertainty in the previously described process and the necessity to pivot if that uncertainty disrupts the plan.
  • How the teacher self assesses and with what information.
  • The week when that teacher has sick children at home, cannot get enough sleep, and has little time to plan.
  • The week disrupted by excessive standardized testing or mandatory field tests of examinations.
  • ANYTHING, really, beyond being impressed by Razzle Dazzle without thinking about substance.

Mrs. Gates’ comment makes the most sense to me if she is unaware of the level of work that goes into lending that impressive ten minutes substance, and if she is not especially discerning about whether or not the substance exists.  In fact, in ten minutes, it is sadly easy to be taken in by weak teaching that is buoyed by personality.  I witnessed this early in my teacher education career when I supervised a student teacher who I eventually had to counsel out of the profession.  She was an intelligent young woman, but she was not up to the task of leading a classroom even on her best day and simply could not gain student attention.  What was interesting, however, was how her struggles demonstrated the weaknesses of her cooperating teacher, a 20 year veteran who, with only ten minutes to watch her, would have impressed an outside observer.  She was a dynamic personality who kept the energy level of her class high, but when her student teacher took over the lesson plans, the thinness of the teaching was painfully obvious over time.  Visit after visit, I witnessed the same teaching approach of presentation and then practice via seat work, and it was clear that the only reason the teaching I first saw SEEMED skilled was the personal energy of the cooperating teacher.  The situation became awkward as my shy and hesitant student teacher made obvious the thin planning that went into the classroom.

Mrs Gates’ ten minute observation would have, most likely, been taken in by the Razzle Dazzle:

…and missed whether or not there was substance.  For that matter, Mrs. Gates’ ten minutes would miss a lot of genuinely great teachers simply having an inevitable bad day.

The problem here is complicated and frustrating.  Melinda Gates’ comment demonstrates first, that the Gates Foundation does not really understand (or is dismissive of) the real complexities and uncertainties involved in being a “great teacher,” and second, that the foundation thinks it can ultimately identify precisely WHAT makes their teaching “great” and distribute that throughout the teaching corps.  Instead of appreciating that research on teaching is various because teaching itself is various, the foundation’s leadership seems wedded to an idea that we need singular answers scaled throughout the entire system.

It reminds me of some of the mixed-bag innovations from the Progressive era which, contrary to popular imagination, was not all trust busting, union victories, and establishment of national parks.  Consider “scientific management” that arose from the work of Frederick Taylor and which greatly influenced how factory work was conceived.  Taylor studied work flow to determine the “best” ways for laborers to perform their tasks, and much of what he determined was useful for productivity and workers themselves.  For example, he concluded that workers needed rest periods which was not an accepted practice at the time.  However, faith in “Taylorism” rapidly overstated its ability to scale up the “best” way to do certain tasks, leading to conflicts with workers themselves, such as the famous incident at the Watertown Arsenal when one molder sparked a mass walk out in response to being timed by a stop watch.  While scientific management survives in different incarnations today, Taylorism itself was more geared towards the automation of tasks since workers were not allowed to vary how they did their work once “innovations” were put into place.

I’ve come to think that the Gates Foundation suffers from a similar problem: armed with an interesting and worthwhile question – “How can we identify and support great teaching?” – they have approached it as a technocratic matter instead of as a sociological one.  In doing so, they have vastly overestimated the strength of their tools and vastly underestimated the knowledge and the agency of what they hoped to reform.  The result is rapidly devolving into a discordant mess of overlapping perverse incentives that mistake common standards with a platform for effective teaching, treat standardized test scores as strongly indicative of teacher impact, and encourage teaching narrowly to the tested curriculum. Teachers and parents are increasingly reacting much the same way that the early 20th century workers did when told their ideas mattered less than a supervisor with a stop watch.

We’ve paved roads like this before, and the destinations were not exactly what was hoped for.

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