Category Archives: Data

An Opt Out Lament – and a Deeper Lesson

It is nearing the end of March, which means that my social media feeds and the blogs that I read are full of materials pertaining to the Opt Out movement.  Contrary to years of efforts by testing advocates to portray Opt Out as wholly of phenomenon of privileged parents, I know that the efforts I witness represent the work of parents facing bullying and misinformation from administrators trying to keep their test participation levels above 95%.  It is also represents the work of brave teachers risking sanction and professional consequences for speaking out against damaging policies that distort curricula and classroom choices.  Further, it represents the work of urban education activists who have seen over and over again how annual test data is abused by politicians and policymakers and is used to rank teachers on flawed measures of their performance and to close schools instead of to help and nurture them.

The reasons to support opting out are legion.  Peter Greene provides an excellent breakdown of eight compelling reasons in this postKatie Lapham clearly articulates how test refusal is a form of people power that says “no” to a variety of practices that actively harm schools and children.  Last year, Bronx Principal Jamaal Bowman made an impassioned case for why he supports parents’ rights to refuse the state exams, asking why if the city’s most elite private schools refuse to give exams like these why do we just accept them as necessary for schools full of children in poverty?  New York State Allies for Public Education published this informative response to general misinformation and obfuscation on testing policy put into the state “information toolkit” for administrators.  I urge you to read these pieces carefully and thoughtfully and to seek out others on the subject if you are not already deeply informed on the issues regarding testing.

From where I sit, there are two fundamental reasons why parents should consider opting their children out of the annual examinations.  First, they are a failed policy.  Annual, high stakes, standardized examinations were ushered in as part of the No Child Left Behind legislation under President Bush with a promise that with an ongoing set of achievement data that could be compared against annual improvement targets and consequences for not meeting those targets that schools would improve, especially schools that serve student populations who consistently struggled.  The promise was enticing enough that a bi-partisan coalition signed up, including civil rights organizations convinced that states and cities would be forced to help schools where most students were of color.

That reality never materialized.  While states were flush with data that showed exactly what could have been predicted using other data sources, the “help” that was supposed to flow to struggling schools never measured up to the task while the threat of consequences narrowed more and more student experiences into ongoing test preparation.  Writing during the 2015 debate over the Every Student Succeeds Act, Kevin Welner and William Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder concluded that test-based accountability as practiced in the NCLB era had demonstrably failed to demonstrate real improvement in the nation’s schools:

We as a nation have devoted enormous amounts of time and money to the focused goal of increasing test scores, and we have almost nothing to show for it.  Just as importantly, there is no evidence that any test score increases represent the broader learning increases that were the true goals of the policy – goals such as critical thinking; the creation of lifelong learners; and more students graduating high school ready for college, career, and civic participation.  While testing advocates proclaim that testing drives student learning, they resist evidence-based explanations for why, after two decades of test-driven accountability, these reforms have yielded such unimpressive results.

Second, test-based accountability is monstrously unjust and racist, subjecting communities to punitive results and “solutions” that aid only a few and which disproportionately take away input into education from parents of color. While No Child Left Behind had already done significant damage to schools and learning, the Obama administration’s policies went much further.  Under the Race to the Top competition, states were incentivized to adopt common standards, to join mass testing consortia, and to use the results of test data to promote school choice and to evaluate teachers.  These are not benign policies.  Value added measures of teacher performance have been and remain highly unreliable ways to evaluate teachers, and while school choice advocates like current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her predecessors in the Obama administration like to portray school choice as empowerment for students and parents, they persistently fail to consider the nature and consequences of those choices.  Urban charter schools rarely enroll identical populations of students as their host districts, and high performing charter schools frequently use shockingly high attrition rates to enhance their overall test scores.  The idea that urban charter schools offer parents “choices” the way that suburban parents enjoy choices, as so often claimed by their proponents, is laughable – it is hardly a choice to be offered a district schools that is chronically underfunded and neglected by policy makers or a charter school that is well resourced thanks to wealthy donors but which routinely drives away its students.  And yet those are the “choices” offered to urban parents of color thanks to testing policies, choices that would cause their white, wealthy peers to oust elected leaders.

And yet, despite these reasons which I believe whole-heartedly, my family will not opt out of the tests this year.

That admission comes as a bit of a shock and leaves me with deeply conflicted feelings, perhaps even trepidation that I will lose respect among people whose advocacy and bravery I greatly respect.  However, I cannot demand that we be an opt out family this year and honor a promise we made to our children.

Last year, as testing time approached, we spoke to our oldest child about the upcoming exams and why we did not like them as a school policy. They were poorly written (they still are).  They took up far too much time just taking them and consumed way too much teaching time preparing for them (they still do).  The state and city would use the test scores to unfairly judge schools and teachers (and they still will).  Based on those reasons, we explained to our child that it was possible to refuse to take the exams and that we would be pleased to make certain the school knew not to administer the exam.  It did not take much to get a “yes” in response to this argument, and for those who think we may have pressured our child, this is a young person who, at the age of six, deduced atheism without any outside influence.  It was important to us that this be a family decision that our child participated in rather than one we insisted upon without listening. Compared to many families who opt out, we were exceedingly lucky.  The school knows what I do for a living, and we were subjected to no active campaign to get us to change our mind, even though New York state policy encourages principals to do just that.

On the other hand, our school really has no active opt out presence, and to my knowledge, our child was the ONLY student in the school to opt out and spent the better part of two different weeks helping out in a Kindergarten class.  Again, better than what happens to many students, but it also made our child stand out.

So when testing time approached again this year, we sat down for another conversation, but the result was very different.  Without being particularly upset or visibly shaken by the previous year’s experience, our child decided to NOT opt out. Part of keeping my word on our child having the right to have a say in this means that we are not an opt out family this year.  Over the weeks, I have managed to tease out my child’s reasons.  Some of it is sheer curiosity about what the other kids will be spending so much time doing.  Some of it is recalling feeling awkward in a classroom full of Kindergarten kids.  Some of it is feeling uneasy being the only student in the grade not taking the test.  Some of it is knowing that the test is part of the teachers’ evaluations and concern not taking it will be harmful – I said that the last fear was not what would happen, but the other reasons?  I don’t really have an argument there, and I strongly suspect there is no small part of this decision that is based upon not wanting to be the only kid opting out again.  I cannot find fault with that.  No matter how much I say that this is a “family decision,” at the end of the day, it is my child who has to enact it, for hours and hours at a time, and that would be a very lonely and potentially ostracizing act.

Of course, honoring my child’s participation in this decision also means recognizing that we are participating, unnecessarily in my opinion, in a policy that is both a failure and which is used to justify a racist status quo.  Just this past week, the New York City Panel on Educational Policy voted to shutter more schools that were supposed to be getting extra assistance and resources as part of a renewal program, assistance and resources that community members in the Bronx say never materialized for JHS 145 Arturo Toscanini.  Those same community members present strong arguments that their school was already slated to be taken over by a charter school before the decision on closing was finalized.  All of this is made far more possible by the abuse of testing data in decision making, testing data our family will contribute to this year.

It is hard to swallow, but perhaps it is also an opportunity for deeper and more incisive self critique.  The state tests may help to fuel failed and racist policies, but they are by no means the only examples of injustice in our school system.  I prepare college students to become teachers, but am I doing enough to teach them to confront the school to prison pipeline?  Am I doing enough to help them drop the pitfalls of “white savior complex” and really learn about their students of color?  Am I working to shine a light on how gentrification brings wealth into neighborhoods and opens trendy night spots but rarely does anything for the public schools?  What level of my own comfort within the education system that I work for and in which my children are enrolled am I willing to put at risk?

How much am I complacent in a much larger system of injustices even if I am able to identify the state tests as especially troubling?  Taking time to answer these questions is more important than ever, and my child’s decision about this year’s tests plays no small role in it.

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Filed under Activism, Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Common Core, Data, ESSA, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, Opt Out, politics, racism, schools, Success Academy, Testing, VAMs

Can Teaching Survive as a Profession?

Education reform has finally gotten around to taking direct aim at teacher preparation.  On October 4th, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan published an “open letter” at Brookings to America’s university presidents and deans of education.  In it, he used “evidence” from a report from self appointed “teacher quality” watchdog, NCTQ, which claimed that America’s future teachers get a disproportionate degrees with honors to claim that our teacher preparation programs are too easy.  The NCTQ “study,” which follows their standard method of examining available materials gleaned from websites without ever visiting a campus, claimed that few programs offer enough rigor and grade subjectively.  On October 12th, Mr. Duncan’s successor, Secretary of Education John King, released long expected federal regulations for teacher preparation, the heart of which focus on reporting of program “success” in preparing successful teachers.  The transparency rules will require states to report program by program on:

  • Placement and retention rates of graduates in their first three years of teaching, including placement and retention in high-need schools;
  • Feedback from graduates and their employers on the effectiveness of program preparation;
  • Student learning outcomes measured by novice teachers’ student growth, teacher evaluation results, and/or another state-determined measure that is relevant to students’ outcomes, including academic performance, and meaningfully differentiates amongst teachers; and
  • Other program characteristics, including assurances that the program has specialized accreditation or graduates candidates with content and pedagogical knowledge, and quality clinical preparation, who have met rigorous exit requirements.

The bolded section obviously refers to student growth measures based upon standardized examinations, essentially requiring states to utilize value added measures or student growth percentiles and then pegging that to the “value added” of various teacher preparation programs.  “Meaningful” differentiation “amongst teachers” is obviously yet another “highly effective” to “ineffective” stack ranking system beloved by the Federal DOE.

Finally, on October 14th, the editorial board of The New York Times, weighed in with an editorial that hit on all of the familiar themes of recent education reform efforts:  Other nations “eclipse” our educational outcomes, our schools of education have no real standards, and they don’t prepare the “right” teachers to fit our need.  The board accepted without question the conclusions of NCTQ about teacher preparation and embraced the reporting of “multiple measures” of teacher preparation, especially the tying of value added on standardized test scores back to the supposed quality of teacher preparation.  While the regulations leave the choice of “growth measures” up to the states, it is obvious that such language inherently means value added based on standardized test scores as those systems are the only ones actually in place.  This is not unlike how Arne Duncan did not “force” state competing for Race to to the Top grants to adopt the Core Curriculum Content Standards, but he actually did by requiring them to adopt “College and Career Readiness Standards” which, to the surprise of nobody, only existed in any form in CCSS.

Let me offer a concession at this point:  Teacher preparation in America could certainly do a better job.  It is common among teachers to express that their teacher preparation was inadequate and disconnected from their actual work teaching, and this complaint is hardly new.  Tying what is learned in university classrooms to elementary and secondary classrooms is both difficult and often tenuous.  Even programs that constantly include extensive work in classrooms throughout preparation struggle with the reality that few experiences can adequately simulate the full responsibilities of teaching day in and day out, and adapting to that reality while keeping a clear focus on what students are learning is one of the most difficult things anyone ever teaches.

And the field of teacher preparation is certainly aware of this.  I have written before that efforts to improve the quality of teacher education in the country are hardly new, and numerous reports and agencies have both proposed and implemented change over the past 30 years.  Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, we have had influential reports from the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and The Holmes Group.  Thinkers like John Goodlad have seriously challenged how we see the relationship between university based teacher preparation and practitioners in the field, and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future issued its own report highlighting innovations to more strongly connect theory and practice as well as universities and P-12 classrooms.  These ideas have been worked into influential standards and accreditation bodies such as the National Council on the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and its successor, The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) – which guide the preparation of teachers in more than 700 institutions across the country.

But can teacher preparation – and by extension, the teaching profession – survive this next round of attention from federal regulators and reform advocates?

There can be no doubt that teaching and teachers are suffering today.  A recent article in The Atlantic reviewed the various forms of stress that have had demonstrable impact upon teachers, and it tied that stress to growing concern over high attrition rates caused by on the job dissatisfaction.  Further, the pipeline of willing teachers has contracted dramatically in recent years, as much as 35% with enrollments in teacher preparation programs falling from 691,000 to 451,000 in only 5 years.  Reasons for this tightening supply at a time of high demand vary, but it cannot be disputed that it is increasingly difficult to replace qualified teachers with qualified new teachers.

The transparency portion of the federal regulations seems perfectly poised to make this worse.  Regulators and reformers insist that they want the best and the brightest to enter teaching through programs with high entry standards and a track record of graduating successful teachers.  But they wish to measure this by tracking the value added on standardized tests of program graduates, a process fraught with conceptual difficulties such as the incredible instability of such ratings, where teachers in the very top of value-added in one year can find themselves moving from one level to the next over subsequent years.  This is yet another incentive to reduce the breadth of the curriculum to tested subjects, to produce teachers who can enact scripted lessons aimed at high test performance, and to discourage graduates from serving any urban population other than those in no-excuses charter schools, schools that do not emphasize teaching as a life long commitment.

Of course, nobody openly cops to wanting to wreck teaching as a profession (with the possible exception of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who cannot seem to pick apart his ire at New Jersey’s teacher union from New Jersey’s teachers).  However, actions, regardless of intentions, have reshaped teachers’ work for the worse, and if the profession is to survive as a profession serious changes are necessary.  Some of the most obvious threats:

  1. Attrition: Experienced teachers are better at their work than rank novices.  While advocates like Teacher for America’s Wendy Kopp claim that the “best” schools can develop new teachers into very effective teachers in only a year or two, that is based heavily on a charter model of scripted lessons aimed at test performance.  Although teachers develop rapidly in their very first years in the classroom, that improvement continues far past that point not only in test-based measures, but also in areas like lower student absenteeism and improved classroom discipline.  Findings that we are losing teachers at a rate of 8% a year – and only a third of that due to retirement – should worry anyone concerned about the viability of the profession.  Teachers with little preparation leave at rates of two to three times higher than those with strong preparation, and teachers in our high poverty schools tend to leave more frequently. Loss of teachers with experience also harms novice teachers, who try to learn their work within schools that lack a depth of knowledge represented by experienced colleagues.
  2. Obsession with test based measures: It is disheartening to see that the Federal DOE remains gripped with its obsession on using standardized tests to root out ineffective teachers and, now, teacher preparation.  The reality is that these measures are poorly suited for the job.  Student Growth Percentiles are so tightly correlated to the poverty characteristics of schools that it is difficult to determine whether or not they measure teacher input at all.  Value-Added Models, although more statistically sophisticated, produce enormous error rates and simply cannot account for all of the factors that contribute to standardized test scores, leading to a recent New York State court case which called the evaluation system using VAMs “arbitrary and capricious.” Although the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act directly forbids the federal government from requiring growth measures in state evaluation rules, it is imminently clear that Secretary King intends to jump on whatever lever he can find to maintain them.  So long as this continues, teachers face continued pressure to narrow their curricula and schools face continued pressure to box teachers deeply in test preparation mode which is simply not the same thing as teaching and learning mode.
  3. Vanishing teacher autonomy: If teachers were treated as professionals, it would be self evident that they would have latitude in determining the needs of their students, designing instruction to meet those needs, implementing and adjusting that instruction, and assessing their success by a variety of means.  Such professional autonomy is at threat in the current policy environment where teachers strongly believe that testing policies have diminished their ability to make decisions.  Sadly, as Richard Ingersoll of University of Pennsylvania notes, micromanaging teaching and curriculum decisions may assist weaker teachers, but for good teachers it contributes to job dissatisfaction which contributes to turn over.  Scripted lessons and little decision making probably satisfies the teacher as young and crusading short term job model many reformers favor, but it plays havoc on our ability to retain a dedicated body of professional teachers.
  4. Attacks on teachers’ representatives: It drives education reformers nuts that teachers are represented by organizations modeled on trade unions.  The old line of attack on unions was that if teachers were professionals, they should have gradated careers like other highly educated professional workers, making unions less “necessary.”  Today, the attacks are more directly aimed at union representation itself and workplace protections, with lawsuits attacking the practice of tenure under the guise of violating students’ rights to excellent teachers.  Get rid of the due process procedures given to tenured teachers, the thinking goes, and bad teachers will be easily removed leading to better outcomes.  The flaws in this are manifest.  First, the most common arguments against tenure do not actually match what current research knows.  Second, if the existence of tenure itself were a problem for student achievement, we would expect wealthy suburban districts where teachers remain on the job longer than average to be suffering with the weight of tenured faculty failing to work hard.  Obviously, that is not the case because teacher attrition is much more detrimental to student achievement than tenure.  Finally, teachers are in an odd profession where their duties and ethical obligations require them to actually speak up against administrators who are harming students.  Peter Greene argues cogently that teachers need special protections in order to do their jobs properly: “It (lack of tenure protections) forces teachers to work under a chilling cloud where their best professional judgment, their desire to advocate for and help students, their ability to speak out and stand up are all smothered by people with the power to say, “Do as I tell you, or else.”  This is absolutely correct, and it is something the moguls and philanthropists funding much of the assault on teacher unions, who are used to work force operating in tight chains of command, simply do not grasp.
  5. Workplace struggles: Loss of autonomy and attacks on workplace protections contribute to what many in the profession see as a deteriorating situation in the workplace.  The American Federation of Teachers collaborated with the grassroots activist group Badass Teachers Association (BATs) for a first of its kind workplace survey with 30,000 teachers participating.  Although the results are not representative of a scientific sample of teachers, what was reported should give education policy makers serious pause for concern, especially from the perspective of treating teachers as professionals.  45% of respondents disagreed with the idea that they can count upon support from their supervisor, and 52% disagreed that teaching allows they to make decisions on their own.  43% of the teachers said that they rarely or never have opportunities to make decisions that impact their work, and 45% said that their job interferes with family life. Structured support for new teachers is not the norm with 62% noting that their schools have no mentoring program for novices.  Worse, nearly a third of respondents reported experiencing bullying or intimidation in the workplace, and nearly half said they had been treated for anxiety or depression at some point in their careers.  We know very well that teachers leave their jobs, especially in high poverty schools, when working conditions fail to foster collegiality among teachers and effective, supportive leadership among administrators.  Poor working conditions coupled with attacks on teachers’ existing protections can only contribute to our attrition problem
  6. A strangled supply line: While Arne Duncan is lamenting that teacher preparation programs are too easy, policy makers in various states are continuing to increase requirements for entry into such programs.  In New Jersey, for example, policy makers mandated that nobody can enter a teacher preparation program unless he or she is among the top third of standardized test takers entering college.  Once enrolled, he or she must maintain a GPA of 3.0 and complete both an education major and a major in a liberal arts subject.  In order to successfully complete teacher preparation and gain a professional license, he or she must pass both the ETS PRAXIS II exam and submit a detailed study of his or her impact as a teacher in the form of Pearson’s EdTPA performance assessment.  Whether or not these requirements are appropriate is a wider conversation, but one thing is certain: the number of students available to even contemplate teaching as a career is smaller today than it was previously.  Higher selectivity might make sense in an environment with high retention of experienced teachers and where teaching is seen as a desirable profession.  As of right now, teacher preparation programs in New Jersey at least have to try to convince honors students to consider teaching in an environment where they see their own teachers suffering and scapegoated.  This is not a situation conducive to a sustainable number of teachers entering the profession.
  7. De-professionalization: The contradictions from Washington and from education reformers are legion.  We are told that teacher preparation must become more rigorous, but then we are told that we measure teacher effectiveness using test based measures which fail to actually capture what teachers do.  We are told that teachers must be thoroughly prepared to teach students to thrive in a complex modern economy and information environment, but more and more teachers work in environments where the testing has spawned narrowly scripted curricula that have to be implemented without professional judgement.  We see a broad coalition of partners from education reform and more traditional teaching advocates joining to “nenew” the profession with better and more in depth preparation, but within that coalition, Teach for America sees “no reason” to revisit their 5 week “training” model for corps members.  It is not hard to see that the current reform environment favors de-professionalization over  truly professional teachers.  The new DOE regulations insist upon student growth being tied back to the quality of teacher preparation, an inherent call for heavy reliance of standardized test data.  This opens the door for “highly effective” ratings to be lavished upon Relay “Graduate School of Education” which is largely in the business of training teachers in the methods of no excuses urban charter schools – high levels of behavioral control, heavily scripted curricula delivered as written, a heavy emphasis on preparing for the annual accountability tests, and relatively short “careers” in teaching.  Such methods may result in high value added for Relay’s graduates, but it is not likely to result in lifelong career teachers who retain professional autonomy and a robust vision of how teachers shape curriculum.

These challenges to teaching are robust, and, by now, they possess a frightening degree of inertia.  Together, they genuinely pose a threat to teaching as a profession that individuals pursue and commit to for a lifetime.  Our future teachers are watching what goes on in school today and are either developing a commitment to become teachers – or a desire to stay far away, dispositions towards the profession that will not be easy to turn.  Further, the increasing reliance on short time teachers granted credentials that emphasize high scores on standardized tests threatens to reinvent teaching into something that enthusiastic young people do for a short time before moving on to their “adult” lives.

A profession of many millions working with many tens of millions, however, does not turn quite so easily, as reformers have discovered over the past decade.  In order to redirect our efforts so that teaching can genuinely thrive, we need better ideas competing for time and attention.  Some ideas that demand our attention:

  1. Slay the Testing Beast: This does not mean doing away with any concept of standardized testing at all (although I know many advocates who wish for that).  It does mean, however, admitting once and for all what they cannot do.  Education reform has been adamant for 15 years that test data will first identify failing schools and provide them with incentives to improve and then that test data will objectively identify ineffective teachers and let us remove them so they harm no more children.  We know now that it has done no such thing, and that test-based accountability has created more problems than it has solved.  NCLB mandated testing has not told us about failing schools that we did not already know were struggling, and Race to the Top mandated growth measures have consistently failed to create evaluation systems that fairly identify teachers who should not be in the profession.  What they have done is wreak havoc on the curriculum, especially in communities of color, and restrict teachers’ professional autonomy.  Further, the tests have been used as rationales to privatize control of public education into hands that are inherently unaccountable to the communities they operate in and which increase costs and burdens for the remaining public schools. Instead of being a single, limited, tool of accountability, the tests have become the objects in and of themselves and rationales for “creative disruption” of a core democratic institution.
  2. If we are going to measure, be clear what we are measuring and why. Of course, teachers and schools should be accountable, but large standardized tests can only measure very narrow skill bands.  That’s a snapshot of a year’s worth of teaching, and often a poorly designed one that teachers do not get to see anyway.  At its best, such data can give higher level administrators an bird’s eye view of work across a school or a district, but it will not tell them what they find if they look closer.  There are schools with low test scores that are places of warmth and support but which need specific resources they are not getting.  There are schools with high test scores that are Dickensian nightmares of behavioral control and test preparation with little else.  There are also many different ways to define school success and until we acknowledge how limited test based measures are we are not going to give those concepts the attention they deserve.  Do schools with high poverty student populations work to develop their teachers?  Do they collaborate on problem solving for their students?  Are they well connected within the surrounding community?  Do they partner with local businesses, agencies, and organizations?  Do they actively reach out to parents and guardians?  Are they seeking grants and other opportunities for their academic programming?  Are the students happy and safe in the building?  There are many other ways to assess the work of schools and teachers if we can let go of the idea that only some measures are valid.
  3. Focus on retention and growth of teachers: Federal regulators and education reformers have been obsessed with creating a system that identifies the lowest ranked teachers via growth measures and then removes them from teaching.  Their tools are inadequate to the task and thoroughly miss that retention of experienced teachers is a far greater issue in the profession.  Experienced teachers are more effective than inexperienced teachers, and they provide a core of institutional and practice knowledge that both assists novices and cannot be easily replaced.  While meaningful supervision and assessment is important for novice teachers, it is at least as important to maintain our veterans.  If policy makers aimed their efforts at retention veteran teachers and establishing environments where teachers collaborate and support each other across experience levels, we would have a more stable core of teachers and teacher development in the early years would improve.
  4. Instead of attacking unions, develop administrators: It is almost religious dogma among education reformers that unions make it impossible to remove ineffective teachers.  This is false.  Unions do make it necessary for administrators to do their jobs well before removing a teacher with tenure, and the process may involve steps.  The benefit of this, however, is that experienced teachers are able to do their jobs without fear that they may face retaliation if they end up crossing an administrator.  What schools need are administrators who are adept instructional leaders and willing to engage in the process of removing a teacher when necessary.  What they absolutely do not need are teachers who have no confidence that they can speak up on the job in defense of their students.
  5. Healthy, collaborative schools work better for all: Even before the BATs/AFT workplace survey, we knew that the environment in a school is crucial.  Schools where teachers collaborate to help their children and which are led by administrators interested in substantive work centered on real learning are positive environments for student learning and for teacher growth.  Schools typified by isolated teachers subjected to micromanagement from rigid administrators are not.  Schools under pressure to meet unmanageable expectations generally do not foster the former.  While accountability proponents may be right to expect schools to work towards improvement, it is crucial that we seek to enable the conditions that make that improvement possible.
  6. Remember the teacher pipeline: It is all well and good that many advocates want to make it harder to become a teacher, but when narrowing that pipeline they need to remember two important considerations:  First, we need about 3 million teachers in the country at any given time, so while there is merit to improving teacher’s pay as requirements go up, there is a ceiling to that due to basic labor economics.  Second, if we are not going to be able to raise teacher pay to attract college students who have other career options, we have to foster those aspects of the profession that attract people beyond fame and money.  Historically, people have been attracted to the “psychic rewards” of teaching, those aspects of the work that develop a sense of efficacy and evidence of having done good in the world.  Such rewards are evident to potential teachers in schools where their own teachers are treated well, have professional autonomy, collaborate with each other, and are valued beyond what test scores they can generate.  Unless we pay careful attention to the vision of teaching as a profession that we project, we will have a terrible time convincing a new generation to pursue it.
  7. Pay up: It hurts the ears of politicians who do not want to consider tax increases, but education is not cheap, and it remains underfunded in many ways.  For example, when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in the 1970s, it promised states that the federal government would pick up 40% of the cost of serving the children entitled to services under the act.  It has never done better than 20% of the costs, and the latest effort to fully fund education for the disabled sits in committee in the waning days of the 114th Congress.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has openly mocked increased education funding, but his state remains $3.9 billion behind promised state funding annuallyShockingly poor school conditions can be found in urban districts like Detroit, but more than half of our nation’s aging schools need repairs and capital improvements.
  8. Refocus on equity: For 33 years, education policy has focused on increasing standards and accountability with an intense focus on test based accountability since 2001.  But during this time period, we have largely forgotten one of the most historically powerful enablers of teachers’ teaching and students’ learning: equity. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, federal policy aimed opening school to more students and enabling states and municipalities to serve these student populations, but since 1980, we have demanded more results from teachers and schools while failing to accept any responsibility for the well being of the children we send to those schools.  David Berliner noted this powerfully a decade ago:  “We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.”  If we want schools and teachers to be fully capable partners in raising children up, we need to accept that we cannot kick the ladders out from under those same children and blame teachers when they do not catch them all.

It is past time to change our focus.

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, John King, Media, Pearson, politics, Shared Posts, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

The Long Arm of the PARCC?

Dr. Celia Oyler is a professor of education at Teachers College.  Recently, a teacher contacted her with an intelligent and cogent critique of the recent PARCC examination, including a few selections of content from the test itself.  Dr. Oyler published this on her blog as the critique demonstrated very deep flaws within the test, specifically that PARCC is developmentally inappropriate, requiring students to read far above grade level, and that PARCC is dubiously aligned with the Common Core State Standards it allegedly assesses, requiring students to demonstrate skills not evident in the CCSS standards for their grade levels.  As a critique, the teacher’s observations, backed with selected material from the exam, was pointed and a very valuable contribution to the discourse on the examinations.  Because of the highly secretive nature of the exams and because of the extremely restrictive confidentiality agreements those who have access to it have to sign, it has been difficult to find critiques that are actually rooted in what the exams themselves require.

So, of course, that could not stand.

Within a week, Dr. Oyler was contacted by the CEO of PARCC, Laura Slover, with official “requests” that she remove “all of the material reproduced from the PARCC assessments.”  The letter claimed ownership of all “intellectual property” for PARCC, Inc., claimed that Dr. Oyler’s blog “infringed” on PARCC’s copyright, “amplified” the breach of confidentiality the teacher committed by revealing the content to anyone, and that as an “infringer” Dr. Oyler could “be held personally liable for the damages incurred by Parcc, Inc. and those who have contributed financially to the creation and validation of the assessments, including without limitation the possible need, not only to create replacement items, but to create and revalidate new test forms.” Ms. Slover demanded that the material be taken down within 24 hours and asked Dr. Oyler to reveal the name of the teacher who contacted her with the material.  In fact, she openly stated that PARCC’s willingness to “waive claims” against Dr. Oyler hinged not only on removal of the material from her blog, but also upon her cooperation in identifying the teacher — within 24 hours.

Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University received a similar letter from Ms. Slover because of her blog post linking to Dr. Oyler’s, and Dr. Ravitch as well as a number of other Twitter users had tweets linking to Dr. Oyler’s post removed from the micro-blogging platform.

iN THE NAME OF PARCC

PARRC, Inc.’s heavy handed tactics lead me to a number of observations:

First: We should, once and for all, dispense with the tomfoolery from Common Core and testing proponents that the PARCC, SBAC, and other Common Core aligned exams are valuable for individual students and their families.  For some time now, they have gone on about an alleged “honesty gap” in education where students and families were told by the previous state assessments that they were doing well in school while proficiency levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress “proved” they were actually floundering.  According to this line of thought, it is a good thing that many more students struggle to meet proficiency levels on the new exams because it is a hard “truth” that families must know.

For multiple reasons (kindly demonstrated by Jersey Jazzman both here and here), this is a load of hooey.  But it is even a bigger load of hooey that these tests demonstrate this new “reality” in any meaningful way for individual students and their families, and PARCC’s heavy handed response to test security breaches pretty well proves it.  Ms. Slover told Dr. Oyler that she could happily “view over 800 released questions from the spring 2015 tests that show the breadth and depth of the kinds of questions on the PARCC assessments.” That’s all nice, but a selection of hand curated items from the exams is not remotely the same as being able to view, and critique, the exam itself.  Without releasing the entire exam, as it is presented to students who take it, there is no real ability for parents or teachers or researchers to critically examine it to determine if it is the kind of assessment PARCC claims it to be.

Even more to the point, without returning the entire exam to both teachers and students, the claim that we are “no longer lying” to people about their education is just air. When my children take an assessment made by their teachers at school, we get to see what items they got correct and what items they got wrong.  We can inquire with their teachers about what the assessment says about their strengths and about their weaknesses.  We can find out what is going on in the school to help support our children in their learning, and we can ask what we can do at home to help support their teachers.  We can plan based on the assessment with the guidance of the professional teachers who know our children in context.

PARCC does no such thing.  Far from their claim to Dr. Oyler that “transparency is one of the hallmarks of PARCC,” the hallmark of PARCC is to label students on their proficiency scale and to provide a simple statistical comparison of students to other students.  Knowing that your child scored below, near, at, or above school, district, state, and national averages may be slightly more informative than previous assessments, but it doesn’t tell anyone jack frat about a single student’s strengths, challenges, or what can be done to better support that child.  Of course, there are many standardized exams that sort and rank students, especially college and graduate/professional school admissions examinations, but nobody pretends that those exams are meant to help individual students get a better education or to provide teachers and schools with actionable information on how to better serve students.

Those promises were made for PARCC.  They are unadulterated bull plop, and will remain so as long as the current reporting system remains in place where nobody knows a darn thing about how they actually did.

Second: I remain utterly mystified why PARCC retains such a copyright on a deployed exam in the first place.  The two testing consortia, PARCC and SBAC, were awarded $330 million in grants from the federal Department of Education to develop the assessments.  At the time, PARCC was comprised of 26 states – this year, they are down to 8 “fully participating” states.  The grant announcement in 2010 promised that PARCC would “replace the one end-of-year high stakes accountability test with a series of assessments throughout the year that will be averaged into one score for accountability purposes, reducing the weight given to a single test administered on a single day, and providing valuable information to students and teachers throughout the year.”  What we’ve gotten are – wait for it – annual end of year examinations and a set of “instructional tools” that teachers can use “at their discretion” during the school year.  States left for a variety of reasons, but the projected ongoing costs certainly played a role.  The consortium, however, still has expensive contracts with various states — New Jersey’s four year contract with PARCC could top $100 million.  Pearson, by the way, was the only bidder for the contract to write the exam.

PARCC, Inc has taken in a lot of public money to develop and produce the tests.  So one has to wonder why they get to maintain so much control of the test built for public use and on the public dime?  An architecture firm that is contracted to design a new city hall may be able to copyright the design, but they cannot tell the town who can enter the building or block off entire wings from the public.  When Northrop Grumman designed and delivered the B2 stealth bomber for the U.S. Air Force, they certainly filed patents on the technology, but they did not tell the Air Force who can see the finished product and when it could be used.  They built it with public money, and then they had to let the government decide how to use it and who could know anything about it – they relinquished control.

But not PARCC, Inc which goes so far as to continuously monitor social media to detect students and others who know test content divulging any of it in public.  While it is certainly fair for the testing consortium to keep strict control on the test as it is under development and in current use, the refusal to generally distribute the test after it is done using the copyright system is noxious and thoroughly antithetical to the stated purposes of the exam, undermining any reason for the public and for educators to have faith in it as anything other than a means of sorting and ranking children and schools without real transparency. We’ve paid for PARCC’s development as a nation. The various states pay for PARCC to distribute and to deploy the exam in their states and to score them.  But not one person has a right to see the entire exam, and not one parent or teacher has the right to see how particular students did on the exam and to learn from it.  And Ms. Slover revealed PARCC’s real reason in her letter to Dr. Oyler when she threatened to hold her “personally liable for the damages incurred by Parcc, Inc. and those who have contributed financially to the creation and validation of the assessments, including without limitation the possible need, not only to create replacement items, but to create and revalidate new test forms.”

In other words: money.  PARCC wants to recycle as much as the exam as is practical, and holding the copyright threats over those who want to study and discuss the exams is the best way of doing that.

So PARCC may hold a legal copyright – but the fact that they were allowed to do so in their contracts is absurd.

Third: Even if PARCC’s copyright is legally valid, is Ms. Slover’s application of that copyright – threatening bloggers and having content removed from social media – valid?  Copyright does not provide a complete protection from revealing material that is under copyright, and Dr. Julian Vasquez-Heilig, Professor at California State University at Sacramento, makes a pointed observation that “fair use” allows for limited reproduction of copyrighted material for a variety of purposes such as “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.”  The fair use doctrine is not absolute and requires a careful balancing analysis in each and every case.  For example, “fair use” would not allow someone to set up a College and Career Readiness Assessment Partnership (or, CCRAP, if you will) and then just distribute the entire test under the guise of an “educational” purpose.

However, Dr. Oyler’s post was clearly a critique and designed to inform the public about the nature of the PARCC examinations.  While fair use under that category would have to be argued by people with expertise, it is hard to imagine why such an argument cannot be made.  Diane Ravitch reports that a board member of the Network for Public Education is an attorney with significant experience in intellectual property law, and his opinion was that PARCC’s claim has little merit.  Not only were most of the materials considered objectionable descriptions rather than excerpts, but also the question of fair use for actual quotations has to be considered given the purpose of of the blog.

Another potential fair use exception should be considered as well: news reporting.  While the law on this is a complex and shifting landscape, it is true that there have been court rulings that grant bloggers the status of journalists.  Critically examining the PARCC tests could not be more in the public interest regardless of the organization’s desire to wield copyright to prevent that examination from happening.  100s of millions of dollars of federal money was spent developing them.  States are contracted to spend 100s of million of dollars more using them.  While the secrecy about the tests make them utterly useless in helping teachers and schools design better instruction for students individually and collectively, the exams are being used for very high stakes purposes.  Annual testing is a requirement under federal law, including the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act that passed last year as the successor to No Child Left Behind.  While states and districts have more flexibility in the use of testing under the new law, there is no indication that states are rushing to remove growth measures based on standardized tests from teacher evaluations, so PARCC still has an impact on teachers’ careers.  Students and schools are still being ranked based largely on standardized test data, and under agreements with the Obama administration that are still in effect, states are obligated to identify their lowest performing schools using standardized test data.  What exactly will come when the new law is in full effect is unknown,  but there is no reason to believe that annual tests will cease to play high stakes roles in how students are sorted, how teachers are evaluated, and how schools and districts are ranked.

I find it very hard to entertain the notion that PARCC Inc’s interest in being able to continually dip into a pool of unreleased test items outweighs the public’s interest in knowing the content and the quality of tests we’ve already spent huge sums of money on and which are and will continue to be used for high stakes purposes.  PARCC needs to put down the copyright club and legitimately engage the public whose tax dollars fund its entire existence.

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Filed under Common Core, Data, ESSA, NCLB, PARCC, Pearson, Privacy, Testing, VAMs

New York Evaluations Lose in Court

Sheri Lederman is an experienced teacher in the Long Island district of Great Neck.  This means that she, like every other teacher in the Empire State, has been subjected to an ongoing experiment of teacher evaluation roulette with increasing focus on the “value added” of individual teachers calculated using student standardized test scores plugged into complex statistical formulas.  The method, called “Value Added Modeling,” is meant to account for the various factors that might impact a student’s score on a standardized test, isolate the teacher’s input on the student’s growth during one year of instruction, and determine whether or not the student learned as much as similarly situated students.  The difference between what the VAM predicts and how the student does – for either better or worse – is used to determine whether or not an individual teacher is effective.  VAMs promise to remove some of the subjectivity of teacher evaluation by relying solely upon tests that large numbers of students take and by calculating how well a teacher’s students did all things considered – literally.  VAM formulas claim to account for differences in students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and home life and only hold teachers accountable for students’ predicted performance.

Sounds great.  Trouble is that they don’t work.

The research base on VAMs continues to grow, but the evidence against them was strong enough that the American Statistical Association strongly cautioned against their use in individual and high stakes teacher evaluation in 2014.  So, of course, New York took its already VAM heavy evaluation system and doubled down hard on the standardized testing component because Governor Andrew Cuomo decided that the evaluations were finding too many teachers competent.  The previous system was, interestingly enough, the one that Ms. Lederman ran afoul of.  According to this New York Times article, Ms. Lederman’s  students performed very slightly lower on the English exam in the 2013-2014 school year than in the previous year, which was apparently enough to cause her test based effectiveness rating to plummet from 14 out of 20 points to 1 out of 20 points.  While her overall evaluation was still positive, the VAM based portion of her evaluation still labeled Ms. Lederman as ineffective.

So she sued.  In the court filing against then New York State Commissioner (and now U.S. Secretary of Education) John King, her argument was that the growth model used in New York “actually punishes excellence in education through a statistical black box which no rational educator or fact finder could see as fair, accurate or reliable.”  In fact, we’ve seen this before when the growth model used by New York City determined that the absolute worst 8th grade math teacher in the entire city was a teacher at a citywide gifted and talented program whose students performed exceptionally on the statewide Regents Integrated Algebra Exam, a test mostly taken by tenth graders, but who did not perform as well as “predicted” on the state 8th grade mathematics test.  It is important to remember that VAMs promise to explain the differences among student test scores by isolating the teacher’s effect on learning, but in order to do this, they have to mathematically peel away everything else.  However, according to the American Statistical Association statement, most research suggests that teacher input counts for only 1-14% of the variation among student scores, so the VAMs have to literally carve away over 85% of the influences on how students do on standardized tests to work.  No wonder, then, that the Lederman V. King filing called the models a “statistical black box” given that this is an example from New York City’s effort earlier in the decade:

NYC VAM

Not only are these models difficult to impossible for teachers and most administrators to understand, they simply do not perform as advertised.  Schochet and Chiang, in a 2010 report for Mathematica, found that in trying to classify teachers via growth models, error rates as high as 26% were possible when using three years of data, meaning one in four teachers could easily be misclassified in any given evaluation even if the evaluation used multiple years of data.   Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers wanted to test the often floated talking point that some teachers are “irreplaceable” because they demonstrate a very high value added using student test scores.  What he found, using New York City data, was an unstable mess where teachers were much more likely to ping around from the top 20% to below that and back up again over a five year stretch.  So as a tool for providing evaluators with clear and helpful information on teachers’ effectiveness, it would perhaps be better to represent that VAM formula like this:

NYC VAMreal

NYC VAMfake

The judge in Ms. Lederman’s case ruled this week, and, as the linked news articles stated, he vacated her evaluation, saying that it had been “arbitrary and capricious.”  The judge’s ruling is, by necessity, limited in scope because the evaluation system that gave Ms. Lederman her low value added rating no longer exists, having been replaced by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 push to tie HALF of teacher evaluations to test scores and then by the New York State Education Department’s somewhat frenzied efforts to implement that which has resulted in a temporary bar on using the state tests for those evaluations.  The ruling is still significant because the judge recognized the deep, and likely unsolvable, problems with the VAM system used in the Lederman case.  According to Dr. Audrey Armein-Beardsley, the judge acknowledged:

(1) the convincing and detailed evidence of VAM bias against teachers at both ends of the spectrum (e.g. those with high-performing students or those with low-performing students); (2) the disproportionate effect of petitioner’s small class size and relatively large percentage of high-performing students; (3) the functional inability of high-performing students to demonstrate growth akin to lower-performing students; (4) the wholly unexplained swing in petitioner’s growth score from 14 [i.e., her growth score the year prior] to 1, despite the presence of statistically similar scoring students in her respective classes; and, most tellingly, (5) the strict imposition of rating constraints in the form of a “bell curve” that places teachers in four categories via pre-determined percentages regardless of whether the performance of students dramatically rose or dramatically fell from the previous year.”

Equally important as the court’s recognition of arguments against value-added models in teacher evaluation, is the ground that was broken with the ruling.  Ms. Lederman’s attorney (and husband), Bruce Lederman, sent out a message reported by New York City education activist Leonie Haimson which said, in part, ” …To my knowledge, this is the first time a judge has set aside an individual teacher’s VAM rating based upon a presentation like we made.”  The significance of this cannot be overstated.  For years now, teachers have been on the defensive and largely powerless, subjected to poorly thought out policies which, nevertheless, had force of policy and law on their side.  Lederman v. King begins the process of flipping that script, giving New York teachers an effective argument to make on their behalf and challenging policy makers to find some means of defending their desire to use evaluation tools that are “capricious and arbitrary.” While this case will not overturn whatever system NYSED thinks up next, it should force Albany to think really long and hard about how many times they want to defend themselves in court from wave after wave of teachers challenging their test-based ratings.

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Filed under Data, John King, teaching, Testing, VAMs

How to Appreciate Teachers

It is the national PTA Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, and there are a number of ideas hosted on the PTA’s website for how you can #thankateacher.  If you are a teacher, you can start a GoFundMe campaign for classroom supplies or, if you are a parent, to personally thank your children’s teachers. The PTA offers a toolkit so you can plan events to honor teachers in your schools as part of a celebration that has taken place in the first week of May since 1984.

(The National Alliance for “Public” Charter Schools also decided to schedule their “National Charter Schools Week” for the same week this year in what I am sure was not a deliberate effort to steal some free publicity at all.)

Teacher Appreciation Week is, of course, a lovely idea, and when it was launched in 1984, I doubt any of its founders could envision the issues facing teachers and teaching today.  Teachers across the country are getting cards, flowers, baked good, and some very well deserved nachesHistorically, teachers always have been highly motivated by the affective rewards of teaching – seeing children learn, gaining affirmation from their successes, building relationships with children and colleagues – but who can say no a nicely concentrated dose of positivity?

Gift baskets and flowers, however, don’t address the other 175 days of the school year, and those remain, as they have for some time now, unnecessarily stressful and subject to policies and incentives that diminish teachers’ autonomy and satisfaction in their work.  Teachers remain with policies that reduce their ability to plan their own classrooms, subjected to evaluations based upon invalid statistical methods using standardized test scores, and blamed for everything from being lazy to putting the future of the nation in jeopardy.  No wonder that enrollments in teacher preparation programs have fallen steeply from a high of over 700,000 in 2009 to barely above 450,000 in 2014 – high school students have ears and eyes, after all.  If we keep appreciating teachers like this, we may not have very many of them left to appreciate.

How should we really appreciate our teachers all year long?  A few suggestions:

Actually Treat Teachers as Professionals.  Education reform has an unfortunate tendency to treat teachers as if they are hopelessly outdated, the equivalent of a quill pen and parchment in the digital age.  In that view, teachers need a constant stream of prescriptive measures to make certain that they don’t bungle the job: new standards, scripted curricula, computer delivered instruction, constant outside assessment.  I know very few teachers who do not welcome the opportunity to try and use new tools that could improve their teaching, but tools are no substitute for actual professionals who use them skillfully – or who evaluate them and decide to seek better ones.  In many respects, that’s an operable definition of professional: someone who knows her or his job, what is necessary to accomplish it skillfully, and is trusted to construct practice effectively out of a variety of available resources in order to meet local needs.

For more and more teachers that sense of agency and professional practice is fading in a mass of expectations and initiatives that have given them little participation and voice.  In the workplace survey conducted by the the Badass Teachers Association with the AFT, 40% of respondents said that lack of say in decision making was a source of stress, and a whopping 71% of respondents cited new initiatives without proper training and development as sources of stress. 35% were stressed by a mandated curriculum, 32% by standardized testing, and 27% by data gathering expectations. A staggering 73% of respondents said they were often stressed on the job, and those teachers were less likely to have actual decision making capacity or trust their administrators to support them.  79% of teachers do not believe that elected officials treat them with respect, and 77% do not believe that the media treats them with respect.

The opposite of this is not showing up with flowers once a year and crowd sourcing classroom supplies. What teachers need is a near 180 degree turn in the way policy and policymakers treat them. If teachers are professionals, then they need to be welcomed into policy discussions and their recommendations, and reservations, taken seriously.  Further, teachers need to be allowed sufficient autonomy to both construct curricula that match their specific students and circumstances and to make necessary adjustments based upon what happens during the school year.  Such professional decision making is nearly impossible in an environment that insists upon scripted lessons and that places enormous power in the hands of one time snap shot assessments that become ends unto themselves. Professional evaluation of teachers can incorporate a wide range of materials that actually reflect the meaningful work teachers do with students embedded within a system predicated on growth and support rather than upon measurement and punishment.  Imagine schools where teachers work collaboratively on how to best approach the needs of students and where administrators and policy makers endeavor to get them the tools and resources they need to implement those plans.  We can get there, but only with a  genuine sea change in our priorities and how we view teachers.

Give Teachers the Time and Resources to Do Their Jobs: Attitude and involvement are steps in the right direction, but without the time and resources needed to do their jobs well and to continuously grow within their teaching, it will have little meaning.  Grappling with new ideas and different ways of understanding subjects and pedagogy takes significant time within a community of other professionals who are given meaningful chances to grow.  It would be unthinkable in other professions for outsiders with no specific expertise in the field to sweep in and tell practitioners to change and change quickly, yet nearly every major initiative in school reform since No Child Left Behind has done exactly that, and we have almost nothing positive to show for it.  It is time to spend less time measuring teaching and more time enabling it. How might we do this?

  • Reducing class sizes: Research is pretty clear on this — smaller class sizes improve academic outcomes for students and increase student engagement overall, and they improve long term outcomes for students and retention of teachers.
  • Time for teacher collaboration: We’ve known this for ages. Teachers and students benefit when teachers are able to effectively collaborate with each other, and in order to do that, they need space and time.  While teachers are often willing to give some of their existing time for this, it is also a systemic responsibility that has to be enabled by policy and administration.
  • Fully fund mandates: Lawmakers love giving teachers responsibilities.  They usually fail to love funding those responsibilities.  Consider the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  When it was signed into law by President Ford, Congress promised to fund 40% of the costs.  Congress has never done better than 20% in 41 years.
  • Embed needed social services for our most needy children: Children who come from highly stressed communities need far greater resources than their peers in more affluent communities, and one of the best ways to address this is to embed high quality services within their schools. Early access to nutrition, health providers, social workers, and after school support programs all have positive short and long term benefits for high needs children, and they help teachers focus on a fuller education for their students.  Certainly these services are a far better investment of resources than continuing to fund the school to prison pipeline through increasingly criminalizing school discipline.
  • Repair our schools: The federal government estimates that nearly half of our nation’s schools need repairs and modernization to  the amount of $197 billion.  This number does not capture the truly decrepit situation in some of our nation’s schools, however. Public schools in Detroit, for example, have numerous cases of buildings falling apart with mold, water damage, and even mushrooms growing from the walls. It is appalling that we can expect anyone to teach or to learn in such conditions.

The teachers that I know want to do their jobs, and they want to do their jobs well.  If we truly appreciated them we would enable that work with the time and resources necessary for them to truly do it.

Fund all of this: That might sound obvious, but it is something that has apparently escaped the federal government and our nation’s governors.  Despite the economic recovery, governors across the country from both parties still have not restored education spending to pre-2008 levels and some are still cutting.  New York remains billions of dollars annually below agreed upon funding levels from nearly a decade ago (although it did spend almost 2 million dollars arguing in court that it shouldn’t have to), and Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly insisted that the money doesn’t matter.

Bollocks.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers explains:

We are being led down a destructive road to stupid – by arrogant , intellectually bankrupt, philosophically inconsistent, empirically invalid and often downright dumb ideas being swallowed whole and parroted by an increasingly inept media – all, in the end creating a massive ed reform haboob distracting us from the relatively straightforward needs of our public schools.

Many of the issues plaguing our current public education system require mundane, logical solutions – or at least first steps.

Money matters. Having more helps and yes, having less hurts, especially when those who need the most get the least.

Equitable and adequate funding are prerequisite conditions either for an improved status-quo public education system OR for a structurally reformed one.

It’s just that simple.

Everything we need to see costs more money – sometimes a lot more money – and it is well past time that we stop simply saying that teachers are “heroes” and step up as a society to fund what is necessary for them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Stop attacking teachers’ professionalism and professional unions: Another front in today’s education reform is to speak with one mouth about how important teachers are and how it is vital to make certain that every child has a “highly effective” teacher, and then to speak with another mouth attacking the very notion of teachers as lifelong professionals. Education reform seems far more interested in promoting “market disruption” in teacher preparation rather than strengthening actual professional education and providing career long, meaningful, professional development.

Across the country, there is a genuine war being waged with dark money against teachers’ workplace rights.  Hoping to build off of the initial – and now thankfully reversed – success of the Vergara lawsuit in California, former news anchor Campbell Brown has taken a pile of undisclosed money to fund similar efforts across the country for the purpose of turning all teachers into at will employees.  The fact that most of her arguments do not stand up to any kind of scrutiny does not appear to matter to her backers who continue to funnel money into her efforts. Worse, those same backers appear entirely disinterested in how incredibly complicated teachers’ workplaces are and how many competing interests intersect in their work – which Peter Greene very cogently explained is one of the most important reasons for the due process protections of tenure:

A private employee serves one master — the company.

A public school teacher serves many “bosses”. And on any given day, many of those bosses will fight for ascendency. A teacher cannot serve all of those interests — and yet that is the teacher’s mandate. Tenure is meant to shield the teacher from the political fallout of these battles:  to give the teacher the freedom to balance all these interests as she sees best.

I would add to this that a truly professional teacher must often be a thorn in the side of administration — advocating for the children in her classroom even if it means telling an administrator that he is wrong. But the attack on teachers personally and professionally really has very little to do with any realistic understanding of what it means to teach and to be a teacher.  It looks very much more like a concerted effort to turn teaching into a job that an idealistic person may do for a few years in her 20s before being replaced with a fresh, newly idealistic, candidate who will teach for a few years using a scripted curriculum and then move on as well. If we truly appreciate teachers, we need to embrace making their professional education improve through thoughtful and substantive preparation for a lifelong career, and we need to defend the hard won protections in the workplace that make truly professional teaching possible.  Rejecting efforts to turn them into lightly trained and easily replaced cogs is absolutely essential.

So it is Teacher Appreciation Week.  The teachers in your community surely thank you for the ways you made them smile the past five school days.  They will also truly thank you for appreciating them the rest of the school year if you truly recognize their work and  genuinely support what makes that work possible.

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Filed under classrooms, Common Core, Data, ESSA, Funding, Media, NCLB, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

How Far Have We Sunk? Pretty Far.

At the end of April, Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss wrote in her Answer Sheet blog that the Harley Avenue Primary School in the town of Elwood, N.Y. recently canceled its annual Kindergarten play so they could dedicate more time to making certain the children are prepared for “college and career.”  The cancelled show was to be performed in the middle of May, and a letter to parents explaining the rationale was dated April 25th of this year – so there is little chance that this is actually an elaborate April Fool’s prank.  In the text of the letter, the school told parents:

The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.

A Kindergarten play. Canceled. Because Kindergarten children need to be prepared. “For college and career.” And the play would taken too much time away from THAT.

picard

We can certainly start with the obvious – for five year olds, putting on a play DOES help them learn “valuable lifelong skills.”  Working together, learning dialogue and songs, taking direction, expressing themselves, pushing their boundaries, taking risks — in what possible universe are these not fantastic learning experiences for Kindergarten children?  If there is a better recent example of missing the forest for the trees, I haven’t seen it.

On a more serious note, this also rings horribly of how terribly awry childhood has been going in this age of standards and “rigor” and high stakes.  Not only are we pushing academic tasks to younger and younger ages where they are simply inappropriate, there is growing evidence that it actively harms children to do so:

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

Very young children need play.  This is hardly in dispute.  But in recent years, there has been increasing focus on test based performance by third grade that has created pressure to ensure children are “ready” by increasing academics in earlier and earlier grades.  While very young children are capable of learning skills and knowledge that will feed into academic performance later on, they need to learn it in ways that actually meet their needs.  By the time a Kindergarten class cannot spare the time to put on a show — which, incidentally, will teach the children a lot – because of pressure to focus on “college and career” readiness, then something is horribly, horribly wrong.

It is also bizarre that a community like Elwood would feel this kind of pressure.  According the United States Census,  47.9% of the community residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with statewide number of 33.7%.  Median household income in Elwood is $108,401 compared to a statewide median of $58,687, and only 2.7% of the population lives below the federal poverty line while the average is 15.6% statewide.  The median value of owner occupied homes in Elwood is $478,300 while the statewide median is $283,700.  Elwood also compares favorably to Suffolk County on Long Island as a whole.  In Suffolk County, 37.5% of the population has a B.A. or higher, the median household income is $88,323, and the median home value is $376,800.

Elwood’s public schools appear to be doing well also.  The New York State Education Department’s data portal shows exceptional performance on state standardized tests in Elwood.  Harley Avenue Elementary is a K-2 school which feeds into James H. Boyd Elementary’s 3-5 program. Although 25% of students opted out in 2015, the proficiency numbers between the 2014 and 2015 tests do not appear different in any appreciable way.  In the 2014 tests, 15% of students scored a level 4 in the ELA exams, and 38% scored at level 3 while statewide averages were 9% and 22% respectively.  In math, James H. Boyd students also out performed state average with 23% scoring level 4 and 34% at level 3 in 2014 while statewide those numbers were 14% and 22%.  While these numbers are not the highest in Suffolk County, they are well above the average.

So – we have a small town.  Better educated, wealthier, and performing better on state assessments than other communities in its county and state.  But they cannot spare time in Kindergarten to put on a play.  And while this example has raised many eyebrows, it goes without question that the high stakes environment has taken an even heavier toll on minority students in the form of narrowed curricula and ever increasing pressure to teach to the test.  Sadly, we knew this even before No Child Left Behind was passed as evidence from the so-called “Texas Miracle” showed diminished quality in education at all schools, but especially at Latino majority schools. Our ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged students were the canaries in the coalmine showing us how high stakes testing diminishes educational quality.  By the time towns like Elwood are figuring it out, we’ve pretty well killed every canary we have.

Something else stands out here as well.  Administrators in Elwood have taken significant flack from all sorts of critics for both canceling the show and then for justifying it on the grounds that those tiny Kindergarten kids need to be subjected to more rigor and more college and career readiness.  And yet, those administrators did not invent the policy environment they work within.  In today’s zero sum game of education as competition, perhaps Elwood’s administrators are looking around at the nearby schools that “outrank” them and figuring they need to up their game in order to look good enough.  The pressure to think like that is not exactly new, but recently it has increased dramatically, and three men bear far more responsibility for that than the public school administrators in Elwood:

Gates

Bill Gates spent 100s of millions of dollar rushing the Common Core State Standards into public schools without anyone having time to prepare schools and teachers for them or even knowing if they were actually any good.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan famously said that he thought “We should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not,’ ” – signaling how obsession with standardized testing was only going to get worse in the country.  Chief architect of the Common Core, David Coleman, expressed his disdain for writing in school that detracts from analysis and his ideas of rigor, saying that “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a s— about what you feel or what you think.”  These three men, with their impatience, their obsession with standardized testing data, and their general disdain for anything that doesn’t match their priorities have inflicted great damage on American public education, wielding influence far beyond their wisdom.

So if Kindergarten children in Elwood, New York cannot have a play because they need to be “college and career ready,” we should aim our disgust at the people who invented that phrase and made 50 million school aged children chase it without a single public debate on the issue.

Kindergarten

 

ADDENDUM: When the article from The Washington Post was forwarded to me, I failed to notice that it was dated from April of 2014. Unfortunately, as an Elwood parents affirms in the comments, the annual Kindergarten play has not been reinstated.  I hope the children of Elwood get a return to sanity in the near future.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, child development, Common Core, Data, Gates Foundation, Testing

No, You Cannot Test My Child

Dear Local Education Authority (LEA), State Education Authority (SEA), and Federal Education Bureaucrat (FEB?),

We are rapidly approaching the annual state mandated testing ritual in public school, and it has become evident that all of you are a little nervous about that.  I know this because you keep sending letters to each other about how important it is that every LEA test 95% of all children in every school and that every SEA make certain that LEAs know just how important this is.  Last Fall, FEB Ann Whalen sent a dozen SEAs letters explaining to them just how important it is that they meet their testing requirements and suggesting a range of measures, both persuasive and punitive, if LEAs did not make their testing goals.  This was followed by another letter to all states essentially reiterating the point. SEAs have been busy trying to impress upon their LEAs how seriously they take the federal requirement to test 95% of all students in all schools although with different approaches.  In Connecticut, state officials have more or less threatened LEAs, while New York, home of the largest test refusal movement in the country, has tried to woo back refusing parents to the wonderful world of testing with a series of concessions on the use of tests for teacher assessment and the timed nature of the tests and a nifty “tool kit” to explain how awesome testing can be.

So, okay, I get it: A lot of you SEAs have been nervous about what the FEBs are saying, and you are pressuring your LEAs to use both honey and vinegar to convince parents to just up and let their kids be tested already.

cat on leash

You still can’t test my kid.

I know that you are supposed to try to convince me, otherwise, and it is probably too much to ask you to save yourself the time.  However, if you do feel the need to persuade me that the testing ritual is excellent and worthwhile, you should know that I have heard most of your arguments, and, frankly, you need new ones.

To begin with, I am actually aware that my children will take tests during their lives, and it is not my intention to keep them from ever experiencing a standardized test.  The thing is that most of those tests will actually serve some purpose for their lives if and when they take them.  While standardized test measures are of questionable quality for college, graduate school, or professional school admission, where they are required to pursue those goals, my children will take them at the appropriate time.  You should also know that I expect my children to take teacher made tests throughout their education.  Tests and other assessments are part of an education, and professional teachers know how to use all kinds of tools to see how well their students are learning.

But when tests used for a state accountability system take nine hours – 6 hours LONGER than the LSAT and and an hour and half longer than the MCAT – and when the tests have to be taken every.single.year – something is seriously out of whack.  Of course, the tests themselves are not the only issue.  Because of the incentives attached to these tests, districts and schools across the country spend far more time preparing for and practicing test taking that any scheme for school accountability can justify.  Robert Pondiscio, Vice President of External Affairs for the pro-education reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute, gets this and has urged federal officials to back off the warped incentive systems that make standardized tests end unto themselves.  He’s argued that as long as punishing consequences for schools and teachers are attached to testing, we will have this problem.  So far, he hasn’t been listened to much.

So I expect that my children will taken standardized tests – possibly many over the course of their lives.  But when a state accountability test consumes so much time and is attached to stakes that warp my children’s education, well, the cart is definitely in front of the horse.

cart_before_horse

Further, I already know that it is a matter of faith at the Federal DOE that without testing we can never look a second grader in the eye and tell her ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not.’ Frankly, if that is your goal for a conversation with a 7 year old child, then I’d kindly ask you to never visit a school, thanks, but beyond that, it remains a horrible failure of imagination to think that a state accountability test is our best and essential way to check whether or not an individual child is learning.  If you really want to increase the ability of parents to understand how well their children are doing, there are tools with far greater sophistication that teachers could actually use in their classrooms than an accountability test given in April whose results don’t come back until the next school year is well underway.  In fact, considering the amount of time in the school year spent scrambling to prepare for and to administer state tests, it is entirely counter-intuitive to think these tests are really good for telling me how my children are doing.  And if we need to increase parental engagement with their children’s education in all of our communities, what makes more sense?  Investing in strategies and programs that are proven to help parents and guardians connect with school? Or a two page score report that doesn’t include the slightest hint of what kind of test questions the test taker got wrong or how to learn from them?

The question was rhetorical, by the way.

tests-human-resources-cartoon-400px

I also understand that you want me to know that without a system of annual standardized testing with full participation then there will be no accountability for my local schools and they will be free to ignore the needs of minority children at will.  This is certainly an argument that has been made with vigor, and it is one our friends the FEBs have insisted is the primary reason for testing every child in every year.  I will admit there is something to this argument – not because annual testing has been a great force for making education for all students equitable.  Fifteen years in and test-based accountability has been pretty wretched at that goal.  It is, however, true that our school system has nowhere near the distribution of opportunity that would make the promise of a democratic school system a reality.

But test-based accountability has the whole thing reversed.  We have a test-based “achievement gap” which reflects the opportunity gap that exists across communities all over the country.  To suggest that the test measured gaps result in the economic gaps ignores every bit of nuance and complexity that we know about both poverty’s impacts and how segregation by income concentrates large percentages of children from poor households into specific neighborhoods.  The connection between poverty and tested results is so tight that Dr. Christopher Tienken and colleagues of Seton Hall University were able to use census data to accurately predict student proficiency scores on state tests in different communities.  State accountability testing is telling us very little that we do not already know.

On the other hand, those same tests have been giving ammunition to policies that insist upon educational “improvement” without focusing upon the resources necessary to work successfully with high need students: smaller class sizes, wrap around services, teacher retention policies, facility improvements, extended programs and after school supervision – none of it is free and very little of it has been offered to schools and districts under threat because of lagging test scores.  Instead of genuine investment in their schools and communities, these neighborhoods are offered the “creative disruption” of school privatization that saps resources from fully public schools without accountability – all justified by test scores.  No wonder then that there is a small but significant and growing conversation among civil rights activists about whether or not annual testing is the tool it was presented to be in NCLB.

charter

My family does understand the pressure you are under, LEA.  The SEA, under a lot of heat from the FEBs, has been issuing dire warnings if 95% of all students are not tested.  Most of that is just hot air, however, and as long as you do actually test the children whose families do not opt out, you have done what you can reasonably be expected to do.  We’ve spoken as a family all together, adults and children, and we simply do not think that any of the arguments you have made or are likely to make in favor of annual testing are going to sway us.  When there is a state accountability system that is rational and used as the basis for helping schools, teachers, and students, when we accept that community and school improvement have to happen together, and when we recognize that we cannot improve schools without committing the necessary resources, then we’ll reconsider our decision.

Until then, no, you cannot test my child.

 

 

 

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, NCLB, Opt Out, schools, Testing

“Education Next” Discovers That Water is Wet

Education Next is a reliable source of pro-education reform content.  Published by Stanford University’s libertarian leaning Hoover Institution which “seeks to secure and safeguard peace, improve the human condition, and limit government intrusion into the lives of individuals,” the magazine/journal is also sponsored by Kennedy School of Government’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (affiliated with reliably pro-reform organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance for School Choice,  Center for Education Reform, and the Heartland Institute) and the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, dedicated to the premise that pretty much our entire education system is dysfunctional or dumbed down.  Education Next blends characteristics of magazine publishing and peer reviewed journals in a quarterly publication that occasionally has tastes towards provocations that few purely academic journals would attempt.  Michael Petrilli, the President of Fordham, is both a research fellow at Hoover and an editor at Education Next, and, by his own admission, loves “to mix it up” – which can put the publication in controversial spots even within the pro-reform community.

For the Summer 2016 issue, the publication is not courting controversy so much as it is stating the obvious and begging the question.  Editor-in-Chief and Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University Paul Peterson and Harvard post-doctoral candidates Samuel Barrows and Thomas Gift offer us the “good news” that in the wake of Common Core, states are setting “rigorous standards.”  I say this with a degree of tongue-in-cheek because the article’s conclusion are fairly obvious – if you start with the premise that everything education reform has been saying for the past decade and a half is pretty much entirely true.  Raise questions or complications to the exercise of standards, high stakes accountability testing, and their utility as policy levers and the entire exercise gets a lot less laudatory.

Dr. Peterson and his associates lay out their case like this:

  • Most states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core State Standards or some variation of the standards.  To their credit, the authors do not avoid the major role of the Gates Foundation in financially supporting the CCSS and of the Obama administration in creating incentives for states to adopt the standards, and they provide some insight into the opposition to the standards from both liberal and conservative sides of the issue (although they greatly oversimplify liberal concerns to union politics – even though both major national teacher unions signed on the Common Core experiment).
  • Since 2005, Education Next has used a grade scale for state proficiency standards developed by the Program on Education Policy and Governance where Dr. Peterson works (and which is a sponsor of Education Next).  According to this scale “state standards have suddenly skyrocketed.”
  • The authors also infer that if results from NCLB mandated annual proficiency examinations are close to state results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) then the state proficiency standard is as strict as the NAEP.  The authors refer to their assessment of states as “truth in advertising” about how well states tell parents how their children are actually doing.  This is another variation of the “honesty gap” argument that has was featured prominently by education reformers as states and communities got ready to receive the results of Common Core aligned testing.
  • According to the “size of the difference between the percentages of students identified as proficient by state and by NAEP exams in 4th and 8th grade math and reading,” “the last two years have witnessed the largest jump in state standards since they were established as part of the federal accountability program.”  The authors report that 36 states have “strengthened their standards,” and they further declare “the Common Core consortium has achieved one of its key policy objectives: the raising of state proficiency standards throughout much of the United States.”
  • The authors admit that the opt out rates in some states may complicate these scores; to whatever degree students who refuse the tests would have been high scorers, this would artificially lower the percentage of students scoring proficient.  Further, Massachusetts allowed districts to select between the state’s original MCAS exams or the new PARCC exams, but there is no way as of yet to know if higher performing districts kept the MCAS.
  • The authors also observe that states’ standards performance has narrowed recently with 80% of state proficiency rates being within 15 points of their NAEP results.

So to sum up: The federal government provided incentives and policy pressure for states to sign on to the Common Core State Standards.  States are now administering federally mandated accountability testing aligned with those standards (28 of them with either the PARCC or SBAC testing groups specifically chartered to write CCSS aligned exams).  The percentage of students who rank proficient in these exams is much closer to the percentage of students who rank proficient on the NAEP in those same states.  Education Next handed out a bunch of As to states because they “raised their standards.”

In other news: Water is wet.

water is wet

Dr. Peterson’s argument here is a little bit as if I took up alpaca ranching and then two years later praised myself for all of the timid, wooly, camelids on my property.  Education Next may give states enormous credit for decreasing the percentage of students who are deemed proficient in their state tests and bringing those percentages closer to the results of the NAEP, but the desirability of this is unexamined as is why doing so raises a state in the authors’ estimation.

This is no small question because it is hardly a given that a decrease in the gap between state exam proficiency percentages and those on NAEP indicates actual educational improvement or even that standards are actually “rigorous” as the Education Next headline claims.  New Jersey, for example, scored very well in the authors’ rating with 2.1% fewer students ranked as proficient in state testing compared to the last NAEP.  According to Education Next, New Jersey earned only a C in 2005 well before the Common Core State Standards, but research by Dr. Chris Tienken and Dr. Eunyoung Kim of Seton Hall University with Dr. Dario Sforza, Principal of Henry B. Pecton Regional High School, found that, using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge framework, New Jersey’s pre-Common Core Standards required more creative and strategic thinking in English Language Arts.  New Jersey may have scored higher on Education Next’s metric, but the standards being used in K-12 English arguably demand less higher order thinking.

Dr. Peterson and his associates also leave the desirability of getting state proficiency levels closer to NAEP’s entirely unexamined and simply assume that it is a good thing.  This, too, is no small question because the NAEP’s proficiency targets are deliberately set very high.  Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University sat on the NAEP Board of Governors for seven years and explains here that proficient and highly proficient in the NAEP are pegged to very high level work in the A range for most students.  Further, she explains here that this was done deliberately because Dr. Chester Finn, who chaired the NAEP Board, is not impressed with the quality of American education in general and wanted the proficiency levels in NAEP to reflect that.  The PARCC consortium consulted NAEP heavily in the creation of its test while SBAC used far less from the NAEP, but as of last May, SBAC did not expect scores to vary that much from the national program.  Even outside the consortia, states looked very deliberately to decrease the number of students labeled proficient.  New York State linked its proficiency levels to performance on the test that an ETS study said was predictive of SAT scores only a third of students obtain; lo and behold, the number of students labeled proficient dropped to about a third.  This was also roughly the same as New York’s eighth grade NAEP English results which have been 33% or 35% at proficient or above since 2003.  Just for good measure, 33.2% of New Yorkers over the age of 25 have a Bachelor’s degree or higher.

None of this, however, changes a simple fact: the setting of cut scores for different levels of proficiency is a choice independent of how the scale scores from the exams are distributed.  New Jersey teacher, Rutgers graduate student, and blogger Jersey Jazzman deftly explains that even when New York set its cut scores to a very high level, the distribution of scale scores on the state exam barely moved, and that is because the decision to place cut scores is independent of how students do on the test itself and of how schools and districts and states compare to each other.  Gaps between subgroups and communities still exist and students’ performance on the test itself remains largely unchanged whether “proficient” is set to capture 60% of all test takes or 30%.  It should be noted that based on the authors’ descriptions, a state could probably have changed nothing about their standards or their accountability exam, set their cut scores to label fewer kids as proficient, and gotten a high grade in their report.

Left undiscussed is whether or not this is remotely desirable for a state system of accountability testing.  If “proficient” and “highly proficient” are achievement labels that should be reserved for students likely to go to a four year college or university, then education reform advocates have never effectively made that case to the public, preferring instead to point to the results on state testing that have been designed with this specific result in mind and declaring themselves correct about how poor a job our nation’s schools are doing. On the other hand, even if these cut score level are correct, what is the argument that we need vastly more children scoring at these levels?  I’ve argued repeatedly on these pages that there is little economic evidence that the nation’s economy is in need of more Bachelor’s degrees and that the inability of people to get ahead with a college education or to live above a subsistence level without one is a much greater crisis needing vastly more widespread action than can be achieved by schools alone.  While it is absolutely true that educational opportunity, like economic opportunity, is unequally distributed by race and class, the solutions for that are not going to be found by rigging cut scores but rather by substantially addressing something education reformers today generally discount: inequitable and inadequate school funding.

Ultimately, a lot of education reform, this report included, is a giant exercise of begging the question where a conclusion is presumed to be true without ever having been argued:

“These test results show that states have made their proficiency standards more rigorous.”

“Why do they show that?”

“The percentages of students scoring ‘proficient’ is closer to the NAEP than on prior tests.”

“Why does that show that the state standards are more rigorous?”

“Because NAEP is a rigorous exam.”

hermione_eye_roll

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Filed under Common Core, Data, Gates Foundation, NCLB, PARCC, standards, Testing

Hillary Clinton and the School Accountability “Conversation”

When you are a leading candidate for the Presidency of the United States, slight turns of phrase carry more weight than they do for ordinary citizens.  Former Senator and Secretary of State and front runner for the Democratic Party nomination for President Hillary Clinton is no exception.  For example, charter school advocates took multiple turns on the fainting couch when Secretary Clinton made the entirely accurate observation that many of our “high flying” charter schools do not have the same student characteristics as district schools.  For a candidate who has deep and lasting ties to organizations favoring today’s education reform and personal connections to figures like Eli Broad who are advancing plans to rapidly and massively increase charter schools, it was quite an observation which did not go unnoticed by charter advocates – or by supporters of public education.

More recently, Secretary Clinton gave public education advocates pause when, on the campaign trail in Iowa and in the midst of a larger talk about schools, she said,  “Now, I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job. If a school’s not doing a good job, then, you know, that may not be good for the kids.”

Her comment set off a flurry of responses, mostly negative, from numerous sources for several reasons.  First, the question of schools doing “better than average” raised eyebrows as determining average performance means adding all schools’ together and then dividing the by the number of schools — in the case of K-12 public education, that’s well over 98,000 schools, a substantial portion of which would have to be “below average” because that’s how math works. Some have posed that her comment meant half of all schools would be open to being closed, but that would only be fully true if the target was “median.” Further, no matter how well schools do, there will, by definition, always be those who are “below average.”  Conceptually, it is entirely possible for every school in the country to be doing exceptionally well for all children, and there were still be schools that are below the average.

Also of concern is the implication that schools should be closed, which is one of the central tools of today’s education reform that seeks to label, pressure, and ultimately close schools using standardized test based metrics.  Secretary Clinton almost casually mentioned one of the core aspects of education reform as practiced in the United States,  indicative of how normalized the concept is even with the growing understanding that market disruption in education ends up hurting the children it claims to help, especially black and Latino children who bear the brunt of school closure as policy.  While the federal government has only a peripheral role in policy choices like this, it has played a significant role in encouraging, incentivizing, and funding the expansion of charter schools which can establish themselves in closed schools.  Secretary Clinton’s remarks carried the specter of this continuing during a Clinton administration.

So it is hardly surprising that her campaign was treated to swift and pointed remarks:

First, the good news:  The context of Secretary Clinton’s remarks were in a talk about supporting public schools in Iowa, specifically schools widely regarded as doing a good job but in danger because of Iowa’s particular budgeting laws.  Senior Spokesperson Jesse Ferguson explained that Secretary Clinton was speaking against Iowa’s Governor starving rural school districts with shrinking tax bases and that her career was “a commitment to fixing struggling schools, not shutting them down.”  It is undeniable that her short comment about “below average” schools came in the context of remarks that were broadly supportive of public schools struggling in the face of policies that unfairly deny them necessary resources:

And so for the life of me, I don’t understand why your state government — and I know Governor Brandstad vetoed the money that would’ve come to help this school, and it was a bipartisan agreement. Y’know those are hard to come by these days. You had a bipartisan agreement in your legislature for more one-time student funding to help deal with some of the financial challenges that districts like this one have.

And Governor Brandstad vetoed it. Yet at the same time you have these laws which require if you have a deficit you may not be able to be a school district. It doesn’t make sense to me. When you- When you- Something is not broke, don’t break it. Right?

And this school district and these schools throughout Iowa are doing a better-than-average job. Now, I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job.  If a school’s not doing a good job, then, y’know, that may not be good for the kids. But when you have a district that is doing a good job, it seems kinda counterproductive to impose financial burdens on it.

The full talk is longer than an hour if even more context is needed:

For the sake of argument, I can also accept that “below average” was meant as a clumsy proxy for “not good.”  That’s an acceptable colloquial use, and I do not personally believe that Secretary Clinton would mean below the mathematical definition of average; she’s far too intelligent to not know what it means.  Secretary Clinton absolutely did not mean that we should seek to close nearly half the schools in the country, as was almost gleefully reported in a variety of right wing media outlets (who in their normal daily business, it should be noted for irony’s sake, are all too happy to bash public schools full of unionized teachers).

Of course, there is also bad news.  Peter Greene of Curmudgucation very astutely observed that the context does not exactly absolve Secretary Clinton:

Clinton used “below average” as shorthand for low-performing, which indicates a lack of understanding of exactly how schools end up tagged low-performing, and how the stack ranking of schools is pernicious, inaccurate, and guaranteed to always result in schools labeled low-performing (and for that matter, what “below average” really means). The use of false, inaccurate and just-plain-crappy measures to label schools and teachers as successes or failures is central to what’s going on in education reform. If she doesn’t understand that, she doesn’t understand some of the most fundamental problems we’re facing.

Clinton’s glib use of “wouldn’t keep any school open” shows a limited understanding of just what is involved in “closing” a school. What happens to staff? What happens to students? What happens to the community? Clinton shows no awareness of how huge a task she’s glibly suggesting, nor does she suggest that there are other options that should be considered long before this nuclear option, which should be at the bottom of the list.

This is essentially correct in my opinion, and, as mentioned above, it indicates just how normalized the current language of accountability and threats to schools is without our political landscape.  Schools are measured as successes and failures using distant measurements that are absent any locally understood input, and then they are threatened until those measures rise – or the school is closed and frequently turned over to a private operator with absolutely no accountability to local democratic institutions.  Secretary Clinton may have been, to her credit, talking about the insanity of a state government financially starving local schools, but she signaled that the essential framework of No Child Left Behind is still alive and well in our political discourse.  Given that the new Every Student Succeeds Acts simultaneously maintains annual testing and leaves significant aspects of using that data in school accountability to the states, the tone from Washington will still matter for how the states pursue the law’s requirements.

This reflects a lasting concern among scholars and advocates for public education that in the 32 years since A Nation At Risk was published and in the almost 15 years since No Child Left Behind was enacted, the call for accountability in our education system has been entirely unidirectional – with schools and teachers called upon to lift students and communities from poverty and inequality while the rest of society is called upon to do exactly nothing.  David Berliner wrote about this issue a decade ago as NCLB was coming into full force:

All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.

It does take a whole village to raise a child, and we actually know a little bit about how to do that. What we seem not to know how to do in modern America is to raise the village, to promote communal values that insure that all our children will prosper. We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.

The severity of this problem in many of our communities cannot be overstated.  Consider Whitney Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nevada.  According to the Nevada DOE, Whitney is a “two star” school out of a possible five stars with only 40 points out of 100 on the state’s accountability scale in the academic year ending in 2012.  Data for subgroups, such as children qualifying for free and reduced price lunch, children with disabilities, and children who are learning English, show lower performance at Whitney than for similar children statewide, and Whitney’s overall test based performance and growth measured by tests is much lower than state averages.

Using these external measures we would have to concede that Whitney Elementary is “below average” for academics both in the mathematical sense and in the colloquial sense.  Is that the bottom line, however?  Is this a school that, in Secretary Clinton’s words, “may not be good for the kids”?

I ask because I learned about this school via a story on Public Radio International’s The Takeaway, where co-host Celeste Headlee investigated the trying circumstances of America’s working poor and homeless families in the run up to the 2012 election.  Her reporting took her to Las Vegas to a family whose children attend Whitney.  I recommend reading this transcript with a box of tissues nearby:

Headlee: Rick’s kids go to the Whitney School where half of the kids are homeless.  At the Whitney, the school provides meals not just for the school day but for the weekend as well.  Kim Butterfield is a teaching assistant at Whitney.  She says her students are clearly hungry and desperate.

Butterfield: I work in the cafeteria for lunch duty, and a lot of times I would see children putting ketchup packets in their pockets, lots of them, to take home for – what they do is put a little water in them to make ketchup soup.  And just noticing the kids were very hungry, all the time.

Headlee: Without those free school meals many of these kids would not have anything to eat.  Instead of talking about TV shows or music or Facebook, these kids talk about food and how it feels to be hungry.

Child: We don’t have any dinner at home. It’s already happened five times.

Headlee: How does that feel?

Child: Well, it felt kind of weird because it felt like I was kind of getting dizzy one time.

Headlee: And like Rick’s kids, the rest of the students at the Whitney also worry about their families. Eight year old Steven says he tries hard in class, but he can’t stop thinking about his pregnant mother.

Steven:  We don’t have enough money to get the food for the baby. I feel really sad for it, so that’s why mother thinks we’re going to give it to adoption.  But I’m not sure if it costs money and the good thing about it is my mother gets to choose who it is.

Headlee: Another student, Leslie, is six but without the bubbling energy we often associate with first graders. In hushed tones, Leslie describes  what appeared on her dinner table one night.

Leslie (whispering): My mom ate rats.

Headlee: Eating rats? Is that something that happens – a lot or it happened just once?

Leslie: Once.

Headlee: Once.  Was that because she ran out of food?  Yeah. How did that make you feel?

Leslie: Sad.

 

Sherrie Gahn, Principal at Whitney, explained what occupies her students’ minds that distracts from their academics:  “The dream here is that these children will be on the same level playing field as any other child in America. We know that doesn’t happen because they are in such survival mode and they can’t possibly learn because they are not thinking about learning. They are thinking about their shoes hurting or where they are going to go to sleep at night or if they are going to have a place to sleep at night or their tummies are grumbling.”

Let’s be frank:  Whitney is obviously an extreme example of the kinds of schools where students come from struggling families and communities.  However, because of our outsized child poverty rate where 45% of children live in families that are either in or near poverty and because of our high rates of income segregation, there are a staggering number of schools classified as “high poverty” by the federal government, meaning that more than 75% of students are eligible for the free and reduced price lunch program.  In the 2007-2008 school year, there were 16,122 such public elementary and secondary schools in America, 18% of all public K-12 public schools.  While the children at Whitney are in exceptionally dire straights, there many thousands of schools whose students’ families are only a few paychecks from joining them.

With that in mind, I dare anyone to look at a school that is literally all that is standing between its children and daily hunger and call it a failure – or even “below average”.  Go on.  Try.

Berliner’s concept of “two-way accountability” is absolutely essential here.  The teachers and administrators at most of our most poverty stricken schools want what is best for their children.  But for decades, they have labored in a policy environment that demands that they lift those children from poverty while the rest of society accepts zero responsibility for the policies that have ravaged their communities.  Our child poverty rate is not natural law.  In many ways it is a choice that could be addressed by policy as other nations have done.

If Secretary Clinton wants to talk about education in terms that evoke accountability, I challenge her to only do so when similarly challenging our society and our economy to be equally accountable for opportunity and for providing the resources needed for equitable opportunity to become our norm.  I challenge her to talk about fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  I challenge her to talk about the estimated $197 billion in capital improvements needed in our school facilities just to get all schools to “good” condition.  I challenge her to call for full wrap around services in all “high poverty” schools and to increase Title I funding available to schools serving poor children in general.  In short, I challenge her to change the conversation on accountability to one reflected in the title of her 1996 book, It Takes a Village.

She was right on that.  She should take up that challenge now.

 

 

 

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, Hillary Clinton, Media, NCLB, politics, Social Justice

New York Times Editorial Board on Annual Testing: “PREECCCIIOOOUUUUSSS!”

The Editorial Board of The New York Times is a reliable source of pro-education reform articles, and yesterday they published their take on the potential new testing environment that will be ushered in if the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA) is passed and signed into law.  The Board was relieved that earlier drafts which “seemed poised to weaken…its protections for impoverished children” were changed in the final legislation and urged its passage by the Senate.  What “protections” for our most vulnerable children were at stake?

Annual standardized testing of all children.

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The Board acknowledged flaws with how No Child Left Behind labeled and sanctioned schools, noting that testing well beyond federally required exams proliferated as states and school districts administered diagnostic and practice exams lest they fail to prepare students for the examination with potentially dire consequences.  They also correctly noted that the backlash against testing is justified – even if they only tangentially admit the central role of federal policy across two administrations in getting us to this point.  However, they also celebrated the preservation of annual standardized testing of all students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and they approved of maintaining the requirement that schools must test 95% of all students and called it a discouragement to the opt-out movement.

The Editorial Board treads familiar, almost entirely mythological, ground with their defense of annual testing of all students:  Once upon a time, the federal government “kept doling out education money to the states no matter how abysmally their school systems performed,” and the requirement for mass standardized testing was “to make sure that students in all districts were making progress and that poor and minority students were being educated.”  This mythology is summarized by the Board’s concern that previous ESSA drafts “would have allowed state to end annual testing altogether, which would leave the country no way of knowing whether students are learning anything or not.” (emphasis added)

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This is, as usual, a staggering lack of imagination, and an insistence upon maintaining annual tests because of properties they do not possess.  Only testing every child in every grade level lets us know if children are learning.  Only testing every child in every grade allows us to hold districts and schools and teachers accountable.  If we do not test every child in every grade, then historically disadvantaged populations will be allowed to sink even further and the promise of equal opportunity will be lost.

Such statements might have been viable in 2001 when the NCLB legislation was passed with bipartisan support, but after nearly a decade and a half, there is no evidence to be found that test based accountability is telling us anything we did not already know from other means, nor is there evidence that the children whose plights provided NCLB’s rationale are prospering. To be honest, at this point in our policy cycle, it takes a love of annual standardized testing similar to Smeagol’s love of the One Ring to be blinded as to how thoroughly it has failed to improve our schools.  Consider the latest round of data from the National Assessment of Education Progress.  NAEP, dubbed “The Nation’s Report Card,” is a set of standardized tests given to a representative sample of students in 4th grade, 8th grade, and high school from all states every other year, and it is the only consistent measurement of student knowledge across 4 decades of administration.  The 2015 results were released this Fall, and they do not speak well of test-based accountability and its impact on the “achievement gap” between majority and minority children:

NCLB Era Reading Gap

If we mark the NLCB era from the 2002 test administration, then we have to conclude that, in the 8th grade reading NAEP, the gap in scores between white and black students has closed a grand total of one point.  The 4th grade gap has closed a more generous four points in the same time.  In mathematics, the NCLB era has seen a score gap in both 4th and 8th grade close all of three points.

One might suppose, given the enormous importance of annual testing of all students imagined by The Times and other testing advocates, that we must surely see far worse in data from previous eras, and to be certain, the period from the late 1980s until the mid-1990s saw distressing increases in test measured gaps before they stabilized prior to NCLB.  However, before the late 1980s, there was another picture altogether:

NAEP Reading13 year old math NAEP

In both reading and mathematics for 8th graders, 1973 through 1988 saw sharp decreases in the measured achievement gaps, closing by 21 and 22 points respectively.  While no single factor can wholly account for this, it is hardly surprising that the substantial progress towards educational equality began to erode as our nation abandoned policies of active integration and fair housing during the Reagan administration and as courts with larger conservative majorities released school districts from oversight with integration in mind.  The reality is that integration is a key improvement strategy for our nation’s most at risk students, and national policy has largely abandoned it in favor of first the standards based accountability policies of the late 1980s and the 1990s and then the test and punish policies of the NCLB era.  With soaring inequality impacting the majority of Americans and our communities and with our collective abandonment of integrated, mixed-income housing contributing to the highest levels of income segregation in the post-War period, why do we need to test every child in every grade in every year to learn that the trends which have negatively impacted almost all Americans and their communities have also impacted our schools?

The Times‘ Editorial Board betrays a staggering lack of imagination when they insist that we must test annually to know “whether students (are) learning anything or not.”  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University argues cogently that if the purpose is to use standardized test data to monitor schools and school systems, you do not need to test every child every year at all; that can be accomplished by testing samples of students every couple of years.  Further, if your goal is to know if individual students are progressing in their learning then there are far more important tools that could be used by teachers in formative assessments without any stakes attached that could inform them and parents far more effectively than a mass standardized test whose results come back well into the following school year.

It is also entirely possible to hold schools and teachers accountable without our mass testing ritual and all of the distortions it causes to genuine learning.  Grade span testing or semi-annual of student samples would give state and federal officials sufficient data to know when a closer look at a district or school is warranted (although, just like with annual testing, it does not remotely explain what will be found when looking).  There are nearly infinite alternative measures of schools such as graduation rates, suspension rates, teacher retention and turnover, teacher qualifications, class sizes, post graduation reports, student engagement, parental engagement, parent satisfaction surveys.  Every one of these items – and many others – is a way of understanding what is happening inside of a school, and while ESSA allows states to design accountability systems that use them, the role of testing data will still remain grossly outsized.  We also have alternative models of accountability that involve both community stakeholders and teachers themselves such as the local accountability and funding formula efforts in California and peer review systems that already have substantial success where they have been employed.  Robust models of teacher accountability exist, and they emphasize the role of teachers as professionals capable of engaging in substantive understanding of their own work and the role of evaluation in supporting teachers as its primary goal.

There is a limited role that standardized test data can play in a comprehensive system of school monitoring, development, and accountability, but it must play a small role at best in coordination with a system that is premised on support and development.  However, no school accountability system, regardless of premise, is capable of turning around a 40 year long, society spanning, trend towards inequality and segregation. That requires far more than clinging to annual, mass, standardized testing as our most vital means of giving every child access to an equitable education, and if The Times and other testing advocates really cannot see past that, then they are not merely shortsighted; they are clinging to damaging and delusional policies.  A bit like our, poor, deluded Smeagol and his final cry of “Precious!”

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The last supporter of annual testing?

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Media, NCLB, Opt Out, politics, standards, Testing