Category Archives: Data

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

Eva Moskowitz Cannot Help Herself

My grandfather had many folk wisdom expressions, but one that sticks with me is “When you are sitting 100 feet in the air, sawing furiously at the branch you are on, be sure to sit on the the TREE side of the cut.”  The meaning here is simple enough: perilous situations demand caution, and it is probably a good idea to check and double check what you are doing lest you end up like these guys:

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I don’t think anyone has shared this advice with Eva Moskowitz.

The Success Academy charter school CEO just had a truly horrible October, in which her suspension policies were put into an uncomfortable spotlight, she retaliated by publishing the disciplinary records of a former student who is only ten years old and by demanding an apology from PBS, a complaint about Moskowitz’s violation of privacy laws was filed with federal DOE, and The New York Times ran a blockbuster story on how one of Moskowitz’s principals kept a “got to go” list of students who he deliberately pushed out of his Success Academy, confirming what data already shows: Success Academy uses a combination of excessive punishment and direct pressure to remove students who win lottery seats at the school.

Under normal circumstances, a polarizing figure like Moskowitz might consider staying out of the spotlight for a time, let coverage find different stories, and work with her powerful backers behind the scenes.  Such thinking does not appear to be in Moskowitz’s DNA, for she took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal on November 12th to explain what Success Academy discipline is based upon.  According to Moskowitz’s telling of the story, when she founded the original school as Harlem Success Academy, she had no specific pedagogy or theory of discipline in mind, but it was the work one inspirational veteran teacher who converted her and her teachers to his particular brand of magic:

I wish I could claim that I’ve developed some revolutionary pedagogical approach at Success, but the humbling truth is this: Most of what I know about teaching I learned from one person, an educator named Paul Fucaloro who taught in New York City district schools for four decades…

…I wasn’t completely sold on Paul’s approach at first, but when one of our schools was having trouble, I’d dispatch him to help. He’d tell the teachers to give him a class full of all the kids who had the worst behavioral and academic problems. The teachers thought this was nuts but they’d do so, and then a few days later they’d drop by Paul’s classroom and find these students acting so differently that they were nearly unrecognizable. Within weeks, the students would make months’ worth of academic progress.

According to Moskowitz, Mr. Fucaloro’s technique was nothing more complicated than very high expectations and a strict insistence that students focus upon him or whoever else was talking with clear physical signs: hands clasped, eyes fixed on whoever was speaking, no fidgeting or other distractions:

Paul’s students had to sit with hands clasped and look at whomever was speaking (called “tracking”). They couldn’t stare off into space, play with objects, rest their head on their hands in boredom, or act like what Paul called “sourpusses” who brought an attitude of negativity or indifference to the classroom. Paul made students demonstrate to him that at every single moment they were focused on learning.

Readers are obviously supposed to infer that Mr. Fucaloro’s methods are so fool-proof that any sufficiently determined teacher can employ them with any group of students and achieve the same results which explains the sky high results on state examinations in her network of schools.  Moskowitz claims that she was essentially a pedagogical blank slate who was only convinced by Paul Fucaloro’s astonishing results and then perpetuated his methods so effectively that Success Academy schools can literally have almost any teacher command almost any class’ full attention all day.

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This narrative is not believable on numerous fronts.  First, it is nearly impossible to believe that Eva Moskowitz went into the development of her charter school network a complete naif with no idea how she wanted the school to operate.   Whatever criticisms she has earned over the years, not knowing her mind is hardly typical.  Daniel Bergner of The New York Times published a hagiographic portrait of Moskowitz in the summer of 2014 in which the 1982 Stuyvesant graduate could not contain her contempt for what she saw as lax standards at New York City’s most selective high school.  As a member of the New York City Council, Moskowitz was known as tough, confrontational, and an expert on education issues while her demanding managerial style led to high levels of turn over among her staff.  Moskowitz’s own impatience with other people is even evident her only published work of scholarship following her doctoral degree in history.  The book, published in 2001, is titled In Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession With Self-Fulfillment, claiming that Americans today turn to psychology and self-help experts for guidance and “excuses” as fervently as they used to seek religious guidance. Such negative assessments of most her fellow citizens’ needs probably explains why she reacted with overt derision when Mayor Bill De Blasio sought to implement restorative discipline strategies in city schools.

Suffice to say that I find it laughable that Eva Moskowitz had no idea how strict a discipline system she wished to implement from the beginning.

Another reason for doubting this narrative is that we know that Success Academy methods are hardly limited to what Moskowitz describes, and we know it from Mr. Fucaloro himself.  New York Magazine did an extensive story on the rapidly growing Success Academy chain  and Ms. Moskowitz herself in 2010, and Mr. Fucaloro is featured prominently boasting that his test preparation focus and extra work transforms children into “little test taking machines.”  Further, the type of extremely rigid behavior accepted at Success Academy is drilled early via Kindergarten “boot camps,” and Mr. Fucaloro makes what would be a shocking confession in a true public school:

At Harlem Success, disability is a dirty word. “I’m not a big believer in special ed,” Fucaloro says. For many children who arrive with individualized education programs, or IEPs, he goes on, the real issues are “maturity and undoing what the parents allow the kids to do in the house—usually mama—and I reverse that right away.” When remediation falls short, according to sources in and around the network, families are counseled out. “Eva told us that the school is not a social-service agency,” says the Harlem Success teacher. “That was an actual quote.”

Such attitudes appear foundational and durable at Success Academy given Kate Taylor’s report on the network’s “polarizing methods” for The New York Times earlier this year where public shaming of low performers is common enough that children have been known to wet themselves from the stress.  Mr. Fucaloro’s stance on disabilities is particularly shocking, however, and indicative that Success Academy’s Director of Instruction did far more than teach Moskowitz’s teachers to have high expectations for student behavior – and that his methods go far beyond anything he was allowed to do as a public school teacher.  Simply ignoring an IEP and subjecting students with disabilities to behavior modification is not an option for public school teachers (unless abetted by an unethical administration).  Nor is a Kindergarten “boot camp.”  Nor is out of school suspension for five year olds.  Nor is a 65 infraction long behavioral manual.  This list is lengthy, but the message is clear: far from simply being inspired by the high expectations Mr. Fucaloro and his singular attention to student focus, Success Academy teachers are trained in a program of extreme behavior modification backed by punitive consequences, options that are neither professionally nor morally available to truly public schools.

Finally, we know that Moskowitz is being highly selective in her story because of the data.  Let’s take her at her word that Mr. Fucaloro was a demanding but highly effective and appreciated teacher in his public school career.  Not to take anything away from that, but he is hardly unique in that regard. There are countless public school teachers who work hard to effectively establish the learning environment for their students.  Lots of teachers set high expectations for both learning and behavior, so that is hardly unique either.  However, just demonstrating and proving tracking and other techniques, as Moskowitz claims, is hardly all that happened in the early days of Success Academy.  Consider the following table, compiled from NYSED data:

SA1 Data

Two items are of note here.  First, the pattern of student attrition is curious.  Success Academy has not backfilled vacated seats after third grade until this year and still only does so through fourth grade, claiming that admitting new students unused to Success Academy methods would be detrimental.  It is therefore not surprising to see how many of the cohorts in the chart show drop offs around third and fourth grades – any students who left the school were not replaced as is required policy for fully public schools.  This pattern repeats cohort after cohort with growth in early grades, followed by sharp winnowing accumulating over time.  The third Kindergarten cohort is especially noteworthy, growing from 130 students in 2008 to 136 by third grade before shrinking to 109 two years later in fifth grade, an almost 20% change.  Remember, every student who begins at a Success Academy represents a family that went out of its way to seek out that school.

The second item is the dramatic growth in out of school suspensions.  NYSED reports the percentage of students suspended in a given school year, which does not account for single students suspended multiple time nor does it account for in school discipline.  In its first two years, Success Academy 1 suspended 8% and 2% of its students respectively. Over the next five years, however, those numbers jumped to 12%, 15%, 22%, 27%, and 23%.  These figures are eye-watering, and to compare, we can look at the same data from PS149 Sojourner Truth, the zoned K-8 public school co-located with Success Academy 1 grades Kindergarten through 4th grade:

PS149 Data

Of course, cohorts in PS149 do experience attrition as well, sometimes significant attrition, but there is no specific pattern of when students leave the school or of when cohorts shrink or grow.  However, the most striking difference is the out of school suspension rates which top out at 9% and are as low as 3% for two successive years.  Whatever else is happening at PS 149, the school is not heavily wielding out of school suspension with its students.

What does this mean?  The most obvious inference is that even if Moskowitz is being truthful and that Mr. Fucaloro is an astonishing teacher who was quickly able to establish a well disciplined and effective classroom environment where others struggled, it was far harder to scale up that level of discipline and effectiveness without massively increasing punitive disciplinary consequences, including out of school suspension rates nine times higher than a co-located school in the 2011-2012 school year.  The “secret sauce” at Success Academy’s setting of behavior for its students is not duplicating “the most gifted educator” Moskowitz has ever met – it is sending very young children home from school, sometimes until their parents give up and go away.

By the way, the out of school suspension rate for 2011-2012 at Upper West Success, a school where 29% of students qualify for free lunch and 10% for reduced price lunch?  5%.   Apparently suspension rates in the high 20s are a necessity for schools where 78% of the students are in or near poverty.

None of this is really surprising to those who have been paying attention over the years, but what is surprising is Moskowitz’s inability to resist mythologizing herself and her schools — when the people she is telling myths about are on record with the press and when the school’s use of heavy handed suspensions is not in dispute.  Then again, maybe it isn’t surprising.  Moskowitz provides a big and likely inadvertent insight into her thought process:

Some critics find our approach rigid and overbearing. I’ve got two of these critics in my own home: my kids, who attend Success. They complain when they get into trouble for not tracking the speaker. They were listening, they protest. Maybe so. But sometimes when kids look like they’re daydreaming, it’s because they are, and we can’t allow that possibility.

“Daydreaming….and we can’t allow that possibility.”  Nobody denies that a well managed environment where students are attentive is a big part of successful teaching.  Nobody even denies that some teachers have an incredible capability for that and others can learn from them.  But at the point when your desire for order and control cannot allow the “possibility” that a very young child might occasionally daydream during a long school day, you are no longer practicing classroom management.

You are engaging in a pathology.

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Filed under charter schools, classrooms, Data, teaching

Teaching: A Profession Unlike Most Others

Sarah Blaine is the author at the excellent and thoughtful Parenting the Core blog.  She recently explored the question of whether or not teaching is a profession, recounting a law professor who argued teaching was not a profession because teachers did not control entry to the profession as doctors and lawyers do.  Ms. Blaine took that observation to a very intriguing and, I think, valuable discussion of how teachers could play a bigger and, consequently, far more informed than current regulators role in how people enter teaching.  It is worth your time to read the whole piece.

It also has spurred me to ponder the ways in which teaching is a profession, but a profession unlike most others that have high status in society.  Further, I have to wonder to what degree the efforts of the late 1980s and 1990s to construct a vision of teacher professionalism that is similar to those in medicine and law has contributed, at least indirectly, to some of our current dilemmas in what passes today for education “reform.”  Beginning with the A Nation At Risk report, teacher organizations and teacher research cast for ways by which the profession can embody the elements of professionalism and professionalization that define other fields of endeavor, but in doing so, we have opened ourselves to reforms that actually debilitate teaching and learning.

The status of teaching in general and of the teaching as a discipline for study is not a new problem.  David Labaree, in his collection of essays, The Trouble With Ed Schools, traces teaching and teacher preparation’s status anxiety back to the establishment of normal schools which were under pressure to turn out large numbers of mostly working class women to teach in the growing compulsory school systems of the 1800s.  When normal schools evolved into state colleges and universities, the new education schools with their teacher training missions were marginalized by the more established and prestigious fields of classical studies who relied on education schools to bring students to the universities but who did not respect teaching as a discipline of study and who did not respect the largely female population studying it.

The public’s familiarity with teaching and with teachers also complicates questions of professional status.  Unlike most other fields with professional expertise nearly every adult in society has extensive and intensive contact with teachers practicing their profession.  Doctors and lawyers are capable of enshrouding their professions in mystery because the average citizen, thankfully, has only periodic and limited needs of their services.  The average citizen, in contrast, spends more than 13,000 hours in teachers’ classrooms during what Dan Lortie called the “apprenticeship of observation” through which most people conclude that they are entirely familiar with the work of teachers and develop very strong assumptions about what it is that teachers know and do.  However, this familiarity is facile.  Students are not privy to the preparation that goes into teaching, nor do they understand what it is like to enact teaching while maintaining attention on each and every learner in the classroom, adjusting and pivoting as necessary, and taking effective opportunities when they present themselves. The result is that despite the enormous amount of time spent with teachers, very few former students see teaching as a highly complex practice that requires expertise and substantial experience.

The search for a definition of teacher professionalism may not be new, but it  began in earnest with the devastating rhetoric of the 1983 Reagan administration report A Nation At Risk which reported:

  • Too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school and college students.

  • The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in “educational methods” at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A survey of 1,350 institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses, which reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses.

  • The average salary after 12 years of teaching is only $17,000 per year, and many teachers are required to supplement their income with part-time and summer employment. In addition, individual teachers have little influence in such critical professional decisions as, for example, textbook selection.

  • Despite widespread publicity about an overpopulation of teachers, severe shortages of certain kinds of teachers exist: in the fields of mathematics, science, and foreign languages; and among specialists in education for gifted and talented, language minority, and handicapped students.

  • The shortage of teachers in mathematics and science is particularly severe. A 1981 survey of 45 States revealed shortages of mathematics teachers in 43 States, critical shortages of earth sciences teachers in 33 States, and of physics teachers everywhere.

  • Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified to teach these subjects; fewer than one-third of U. S. high schools offer physics taught by qualified teachers.

Education leaders and policy makers rushed to respond to these criticisms. Teachers and teacher educators are familiar with the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy report A Nation Prepared, the various reports of the Holmes Group, John Goodlad’s Teachers for Our Nation’s Schools, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future report What Matters Most, the development of the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium model teaching standards, increasing influence of organizations such as the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (formerly NCATE) and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and with a growing industry of educational consultants such as Charlotte Danielson providing standards based rubrics and frameworks for teacher evaluation.

This mass body of work and effort and the attending changes in state and national policies that have flowed from them work on a vision not merely of teacher professionalism, the knowledge, skills, actions, and dispositions of professional teachers, but also of teacher professionalization, efforts to more closely align teaching and teacher preparation with the standards and technical rationales of high status professions such as medicine and law.  Such efforts appeal on two fronts.  First, they attend to concerns that teachers need more rigorous preparation for the difficult work of teaching and that teachers who complete their education with strong content knowledge, deep pedagogical knowledge, substantial understanding of learning and motivation, and who have meaningful experiences in the classroom prior to student teaching will have easier transitions into the world of full time teaching and begin their careers more able to help students learn.  Second, this reconfiguration of teacher preparation and conceptualizing of teaching as a profession akin to medicine and law attempted to instill higher status upon the profession in general.  Terms like “clinical experience” and “professional development school” and “master teacher” all convey a message that learning to teach is a rational experience with technical components that can be measured and that teachers should have ongoing and mediated entry into the professional roles much doctors who master a complex body of knowledge and then move into increasingly responsible roles within practice over time.  By adopting the preparation and learning structure of high status professions, teaching was envisioned to occupy a greater level of respect more commensurate with the importance of its mission.

There is much to recommend in this approach, and such efforts have spurred genuine innovations to improve how teachers are prepared.  It is important to acknowledge that contrary to many popular beliefs teachers possess specialized knowledge far beyond their understanding of the content that they teach.  Further, much as the technical knowledge of medicine and law must be put into practice, knowledge of content, theory, and pedagogy must be practiced in order to become skilled and it must slowly improve over time with the accumulation of experience.  Perhaps the most important aspect of the teacher professionalization discussion has been the continued focus upon moving from theory to practice in a controlled and mediated fashion, allowing prospective teachers to practice and to learn from practice long before they undertake full time teaching duties.

However, while moves to make learning to teach more clinical have opened valuable efforts to increase time teaching before licensure, it is vital that teachers, teacher educators, and policy makers understand the ways in which teaching is not like those high status professions professionalization has attempted to imitate.  To begin with, while there is an important knowledge base for teaching, it is a much softer knowledge than that held by high status professions.  Before moving into technical practice of medicine, medical students learn a tremendous amount of knowledge that is well-defined and clearly delineated.  This does not mean that medical knowledge is never changing; obviously, it is.  However, those changes take place through pain-staking research and replication before it can become part of the body of knowledge for practice.  When compared to this, teachers’ knowledge is less defined, more subject to change, and subject to particular circumstances that vary day to day and class to class.  Experienced teachers know that a “best practices” teaching strategy may not be a “best practice” for a particular bit of content or with a particular group of students, and because teaching has to be enacted authentically by individual teachers, different practitioners can find that so-called “best practices” are not “best practices” for them. Teachers are constantly experimenting and tinkering with their practice, often within the act of practice itself.

Lawyers can rely upon volumes of case law, and doctors have mountains of medical research backing their choices, but there is no laparoscopic appendectomy for teaching a room of 6 year olds how to read.

This should greatly complicate our desires to present teaching as a profession that can be mapped onto the professional education of fields that employ a more technical/rational approach.  Standards based preparation and evaluation can provide important starting points and frameworks for discussing, assessing, and improving teaching, but the rubrics and evaluation scores cannot become ends unto themselves.  Preparation and evaluation do a great disservice to teachers and teaching when rubric scores become more important than discussions about students and their learning that can be prompted by the categories on the rubric.  Too much of a focus on the technical at the expense of developmental understanding of learners and their needs reduces teachers’ teaching and students’ learning to outcomes which can be superficially inflated without substance.

It is possible that the teacher professionalization movement’s efforts, as well intentioned as they have been, are responsible for some of the mess that education “reform” has made of the teacher evaluation and testing environment.  After all, if teaching is a technical/rational activity whose practices result in observable and measurable outcomes, then it was not a big sell to policy makers for figures like Michelle Rhee and organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to suggest that teachers should be evaluated using supposedly “objective” results like standardized test scores.  Run through statistical formulas that claim to account for a vast number of variables that can impact students’ test score gains, reformers promise that test data, as a component of teacher evaluation, offers a fully objective view of teacher effectiveness. This slots nicely with the view of teacher professionalization that emphasizes measurement of teacher practice — even though the bulk of the evidence now says that such modeling does not work.

There are other reasons to question the teacher professionalization models or at least to insist that they be made more complex and nuanced.  To begin with, unlike high status professions, teaching is, by necessity, a vast field.  Doctors and lawyers maintain careful control on their supply and high skill specialties are even tighter, but the reality of compulsory, public, free education means that we need enough teachers, teaching specialists, and paraprofessionals to teach 50 million students in public elementary and secondary schools.  In any labor market, that means that teaching cannot claim a high status simply because supply has to be high compared to other professions requiring college education and certification.  We may value, or at least claim to value, teachers and the work they do for our society, but from the standpoint of scarcity, we cannot compare the field to others, and it would take a significant change in our society’s values to do so.  Further, the long history of low status associated with fields that are predominantly female is still with teaching, which remains a profession dominated by female practitioners.

Teacher professionalization is also complicated by the previously mentioned apprenticeship of observation.  While the long contact time with teachers and schools does not actually instruct the public about the fullness and the complexities of teaching, it does lend an extreme familiarity with teachers themselves and with the visible aspects of their practice that no other profession really has.  Hard knowledge professions carefully guard their knowledge within specialized preparation and language, effectively blocking outsiders from access without the mediation of the professional.  Teachers, from the public’s view, are in the business of giving knowledge away and making it more accessible.  While pedagogical knowledge is not readily available to non-teachers, the practice of it is visible in thousands of hours spent in teachers’ classrooms, the best of which result in students able to learn on their own.  The public may not really understand teaching, but there would be little value in the profession cloaking itself in the mystique conferred upon lawyers and doctors whose practice depends almost entirely upon their clients and patients being unable to practice for themselves.

The aura of mystery about knowledge and professional language in other fields is often accompanied by a general obligation to be distant and to minimize personal involvement with clients and patients.  Teachers, however, sit in an unusual place in terms of relationships with their “clients” and frequently need to cultivate professional but close relationships with individuals and groups of students that foster motivation and provide the affective support students need to succeed.  Many conceive of this as a mentoring relationship that helps students not only academically but also with social and emotional needs.  This stance both helps students and also comprises a significant portion of the “psychic rewards” that teachers historically report among the most gratifying aspects of their jobs.  Much like the deployment of pedagogy, such relationships and their attendant rewards will remain particular and impossible to measure in any rational sense, yet they remain among the core practices of teaching.

During the height of the teacher professionalization literature, David Hansen wrote cogently about teaching as a vocation and what that means to practitioners:

To describe the inclination to teach as a budding vocation also calls attention to the person’s sense of agency.  It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.

This is extremely important as we continue to discuss and debate what teaching as a profession means and what it looks like in practice.  I would not suggest abandoning all of the elements of teacher professionalization as we work to develop a rich view of teachers as professionals, but it is important to recognize the limits of standards and measurement.  Standards and rubrics for evaluation should be used as means to focus conversation on practice and its continued development rather than to focus on specific score bands on evaluations themselves.  We should flatly reject continued efforts to reduce teachers’ impact to fully rational statistical outcomes that have no proper basis in research.  And we should passionately embrace those aspects of teachers’ professionalism that is immeasurable and defend them as essential to teachers’ work.  Maybe we cannot measure inspiration and passion for children and their intellectual, social, and emotional development, but without those qualities, performances on professional standards rubrics are probably meaningless.

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Filed under Data, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing

“SGPs Are Not Test Scores” And Other Tales From Trenton

Last week, I got to attend a talk by a high level representative of the New Jersey Department of Education who explained where we are going regarding the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments administered in the Spring.  Little was said that was especially new or interesting.  We heard an enthusiastic appraisal of the computer interface and the “success” of the computer administered exams.  Next steps include how the state will disseminate and interpret data when it eventually comes back with hopes that everyone will find it very useful and very granular.  A talking point expressly did not rule out using PARCC results for grade level promotion or graduation in the future, but it was not emphasized.  Time was spent lamenting what teachers have been saying about the PARCC as if they were simply misinformed about how good the examinations are and how useful the data will be.

And at one point, the DOE representative said, in response to a question, that “SGPs (student growth percentiles) are not test scores.”

Let that sink in for a minute.  “SGPs are not test scores.”

This is one of those incredible moments in time when an actually true statement is, in fact, entirely misleading.  It is absolutely true that SGPs are not raw test scores, and it would incorrect to simply say that New Jersey teachers are evaluated using test scores.  A Student Growth Percentile is a computation that compares a student to other students with similar previous year scores and predicts how much that student should “grow” as measured on an annual standardized test.  When used in teacher evaluation, the difference between a student’s anticipated growth and the actual scores, either positive or negative, are attributed to the teacher.  Proponents of manipulating test data this way believe that these measures are more “objective” than standard administrator observations of teachers because they are tied to students’ actual performance on a measure of their learning.

So, it is technically true that “SGPs are not test scores.”  In much the same way that a houses are not trees.  However, if you want to make a house and have no idea from where you will get the lumber, you won’t get very far.  In the same vein, without standardized tests to feed into their calculations, SGPs and other related growth scores used to evaluate teachers would not exist.

Of course, planning to make your SGP out of test scores the way it has been done in New Jersey might very well be a wasted exercise.  Bruce Baker of Rutgers University and Joseph Oluwole of Montclair State University discussed the many problems underlying New Jersey Student Growth Percentiles in this 2013 NJ Education Policy Forum discussion:

…since student growth percentiles make no attempt (by design) to consider other factors that contribute to student achievement growth, the measures have significant potential for omitted variables bias.  SGPs leave the interpreter of the data to naively infer (by omission) that all growth among students in the classroom of a given teacher must be associated with that teacher. Research on VAMs indicates that even subtle changes to explanatory variables in value-added models change substantively the ratings of individual.Omitting key variables can lead to bias and including them can reduce that bias.  Excluding all potential explanatory variables, as do SGPs, takes this problem to the extreme by simply ignoring the possibility of omitted variables bias while omitting a plethora of widely used explanatory variables.

The authors explain how the state’s claim that using the same starting points for students “fully accounts” for variables such as poverty is unsupported by research or methodology. Further, there are multiple potential reasons why schools’ average proficiency scores correlate to their growth percentiles, but the SGP model makes it impossible to say which is correct.

Dr. Baker revisited this topic a year later on his personal blog.  With an additional year of data, he noted that SGPs were almost as closely correlated with the poverty characteristics of a school as they were with themselves and were also as related to prior performance as they were to themselves.  So while the SGPs were relatively “reliable,” meaning that they produced consistent results over time, there is no reason to believe that they are valid, meaning that they are actually measuring what they are said to measure.  Taking the growth percentiles as a valid measure of teaching would have you  believe that the distribution of ineffective teachers in New Jersey just happens to directly concentrate into schools with high percentages of students in poverty and low overall proficiency levels on standardized tests. You would have to believe this even though SGPs were never actually designed to statistically isolate teacher input into student test scores.

So, yes — “SGPs are not test scores.”  They are just a lousy thing to do WITH test scores and to put into teachers’ evaluations and tenure decisions.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this is not the even the sleight of hand explanation of SGPs and their relationship with test scores.  It is the wasted time and opportunity that could have been spent developing and implementing teacher evaluations that were aimed at support and improvement rather than at ranking and removing.  Linda Darling Hammond, writing for the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, proposed a comprehensive system of teacher evaluation that incorporates truly thoughtful and research supported policies.  Her proposal begins the process with standards and locally designed standards-based evaluation, incorporates genuine performance assessments, builds capacity and structures to actually support fair standards-based evaluation, and provides ongoing and meaningful learning opportunities for all teachers.  Most importantly, Dr. Darling-Hammond states that evaluation should include evidence of student learning but from sources other than standardized tests, and she rejects growth measures such as SGPs and Value-Added Models because of the ever increasing research base that says they are unreliable and create poor incentives in education.  Dedicated teachers know that they are constantly generating evidence of student learning, but to date, policy makers have only shown interest in the most broadly implemented and facile demonstrations.

Taking Darling-Hammond’s vision seriously would mean admitting failure and hitting a reset button all the way back to the drawing board in New Jersey.  Trenton would need to admit that Student Growth Percentiles cannot be fairly attributed to teacher input when they were never designed to find that in the first place, and the problems with Value-Added Models in other states mean that growth measures in general should be rejected.  Further, if the state were to become serious about teachers actually demonstrating student learning in meaningful ways, the DOE would need to reject the “Student Growth Objective” (SGO) process that it has established as a second leg of the evaluation process. While the concept of the SGO sounded promising when first proposed, the state guidebook makes it an exercise in accounting mostly.  Teachers are instructed to only select objectives that are measured by data, they are told to select a level of performance demonstrating “considerable learning” with no guidance on how to make that determination via data, they are required to determine how many students could meet that level with no explanation of how to project that based on existing data, and then they are told to set an entirely arbitrary 10-15 percent range below that for partial obtainment of the objective.

From page 16 of the SGO manual:

page 16

These are not instructions to help teachers conduct meaningful self study of their teaching effectiveness.  These are instructions designed to create easy to read tables.

Teaching, teacher evaluation, and providing meaningful support for teachers to grow in an environment that is both supportive and focused on student learning is a serious endeavor.  It requires a systemic approach, real capacity, and the development of tools sensitive to and responsive to context.  It cannot be forced by incentives that distract from the most important work teachers do with students: fostering genuine curiosity and love of learning around rich content and meaningful tasks with that content.

It certainly cannot be made out of standardized test scores.

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Filed under Common Core, Data, PARCC, Testing, VAMs

Being an Education Reformer Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

If you’ve been the least bit of attention to the growing movement against standardized testing, you’ve probably sought out, seen, or read a summary of John Oliver’s Epic Take Down of both testing policy and the testing industry.  In the odd chance that you are not among the 3.5 million to have watched it on Youtube alone, find yourself a nice spot, pour yourself a lovely beverage, and enjoy:

Mercy.

John Oliver’s tour de force went viral for a number of reasons.  A lot of participants and advocates in the growing Opt Out movement, having been insulted by our current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for being whiny suburban moms who are upset that their children are not brilliant and by the Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents Merryl Tisch who compared them to people forgoing measles vaccination, were delighted that a figure with a national audience correctly addressed their concerns about how testing is driving education and education policy.  Further, Mr. Oliver’s monologue and exegesis of pro-testing dogma hit a huge number of entirely accurate points that fully deserve the mocking he heaped upon them: the pandering promises made by candidates to ease testing burdens, the proliferation of testing at the federal and state levels, the difficulty in making an accountability system work, the shift of testing from a tool to an ends unto itself, the ridiculous lengths districts now go to make testing the raison d’etre of the school year, the use of statistical models to assess teachers that originated with the analysis of cattle breeding, the quality of the assessments themselves, and the Kraken of Educational Testing and Publishing: Pearson Education.  Mr. Oliver even highlighted Pearson’s innumerable errors, the gag orders that prevent people from discussing those errors, and their search for test scorers on Craigslist.  His closing gave voice to sentiment that is increasingly shared among parents, teachers, and researchers:

Look, we’ve had more than a decade of standardized testing now, and maybe it is time to put the test to the test. The original goal was to narrow the achievement gap and to boost our scores relative to the rest of the world. Well, a 2013 study found no support for the idea that No Child Left Behind has narrowed the achievement gap, and our schools on the international tests have not only failed to rise, they’re slightly down. And I do not want to hear what that French kid thinks of those results: Oh, all this time and all this money and your Race to the Top has been, how you say, a meandering jog on a treadmill. All of this for a little of what both Presidents asked for when selling their reforms…Right, so let’s look at that: because as far as I can see, this is a system that has enriched multiple companies and which pays and fires teachers with a cattle birthing formula, confuses children with talking pineapples, and has the same kinds of rules for transparency that Brad Pitt had for Fight Club. So for Pearson, the other companies, and all the lawmakers who have supported this system, the true test is going to be either convincing everyone that it works or accepting it doesn’t work and fixing it. Because at the risk of sounding like a standardized test scorer, your numbers are not good.  And if it seems unfair to have your fates riding on a complicated metric that failed to take institutional factors into account and might not even tell the whole story, well, you’re not wrong about that but YOU do not get to complain about it.

Mercy.

Of course, even as individual teachers and parents were making this episode go viral, proponents were sulking that the testing system that is central to the entire enterprise of measurement and punishment running reform today was being attacked so effectively.  Peter Cunningham is a former official in the Obama Department of Education who is currently running an outfit called The Education Post which was funded with over $12 million from the Eli Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, Michael Bloomberg, and an anonymous donor to create a “better conversation” about education reform.  In a recent interview with freelance journalist Jennifer Berkshire, Mr. Cunningham explained that he and fellow reform advocates felt like they were being “swarmed” whenever they went into public, and his non-profit was supposed to “rise to the defense” of people advocating for reform.  The implication here, by the way, is hilarious.  Reform outfits are richly funded by the Gates Foundation, Broad, the Waltons, Whitney Tilson, and a host of other organizations funneling huge sums of cash into promoting our current reform environment — but teacher and parents with Twitter accounts are a force that needs another multi-million dollar effort to counter, presumably because there aren’t 10s of 1000s of teachers and parents willing to band together and say, “You know, what we really need in school is even MORE pressure to make the test the curriculum.”  So Peter Cunningham, armed with millions in cash is there to “…hire bloggers and…subsidize bloggers who are already out there and who we want to support or give more lift. I think it’s fine. As you know, I have all this money. I have to spend it.”

Mercy.

Of course, the stated purpose of The Education Post is create a “better conversation,” so given that John Oliver had ripped a sizable, factually accurate, hole in one of education reform’s most important tools — mass, annual testing — how did Peter Cunningham contribute to “a better conversation”?  He called Mr. Oliver’s piece “tedious” and accused him of “throwing poor children under the bus” — because in reform circles, it is a matter of faith that only testing every child every year will force schools to close the achievement gap even though, as Mr. Oliver noted, there is scant evidence that it is working out like that.  While Mr. Cunningham was repeating a standard line in education reform about the moral imperative of standardized testing, his colleague, Valentina Korkes, took a more plaintive approach as a supposed fan of John Oliver’s whose heart was broken over his takedown of testing.  Ms. Korkes’ piece also covered familiar ground.  First, she chided John Oliver for not mentioning that the current strongest centers of test resistance are in communities that are wealthier than average and in the suburbs.  She claimed that the proliferation of testing at all levels — which reformers are recently lining up to decry — has nothing to do with federal policy that only mandates 17 tests.  And finally, she claims that No Child Left Behind has seen gains in the achievement gap on measures like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), so John Oliver could not say the tests did nobody any good.  What does Ms. Korkes leave out?  First, while she is correct that test resistance numbers are greatest in wealthier communities, there is the inconvenient fact that toeholds are showing up in the communities she and her fellow testing advocates claim to support, and there is no reason to discount the likelihood that these will grow in following years as the compelling reasons for them to do so are rooted in history and research.  Similarly, while there have been very slight gains in NAEP scores during the life of NCLB, these are dwarfed by the gains that were made when federal policy in the 1970s and early 1980s was focused on equity and integration.

In fact, Ms. Korkes’ affinity for the current testing regime in our schools is indicative of a chain of thought that is pretty well discredited by now.  Reformers claim over and over that without annual testing of all children then we will never know how individual children are doing and we will hide achievement gaps from the public as schools are alleged to have done prior to NCLB.  However, Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University lays out pretty clearly that we have much more promising tools for ongoing formative assessment of individual students, and we have far less disruptive means of doing meaningful assessment of the entire system that do not require all children to be tested each year.  Further, Dr. Julian Vazquez Heilig of California State University, Sacramento, has laid out a compelling vision of accountability for education that uses data as one of its tools but which is community based and sensitive to locally understood needs. It is simply a deliberate lack of imagination from reform advocates to profess that our current system is the only means we have available to improve education.

The simple truth of our landscape today is that our testing system is far too disruptive, and it is tied to an accountability system that warps the high stakes examinations into goals unto themselves.  Ms. Korkes, like many reform advocates, is mindful that testing has increased dramatically, but she is unwilling to entertain the role that reformers have had in bringing us to this point.  She accuses John Oliver of misleading people on the state a federal policies related to testing by not emphasizing that of the 113 standardized tests taken by the average student by 12th grade, 96 of them are not mandated by the federal government.  This is an accurate point, but it is also a point that involves significant sleight of hand, and an effort to race past the fact that it was the federal government which put such high stakes on standardized testing that states and localities followed suit to prepare their students for The Annual Big One. No Child Left Behind required that all schools in all districts in all states have 100% of their students testing as “proficient” in math and English in 2014, and NCLB required all schools to make annual yearly progress (AYP) in standardized test scores or face an increasing series of interventions leading to complete restructuring (often closing the school and turning it over to a charter operator).  With such stakes attached the end of year tests mandated by NCLB, it is beyond disingenuous for testing advocates to wash their hands of states and districts requiring additional tests to benchmark students throughout the year.

While the Obama administration promised to curb the growth of testing through NCLB, their key initiatives have made matters even worse. States may have gotten waivers from the most unrealistic expectations of 100% proficiency and AYP, but to get those waivers they had to agree to make testing a significant portion of teachers’ evaluations and to evaluate all teachers in all grades using data.  Since the federally mandated tests are only in English and mathematics, this requires the use of more tests — or states can find themselves subjected to the original provisions of NCLB.  So let’s be clear about the chain of cause and effect here:  The federal government mandated both unrealistic goals and harsh consequences based upon student scores on standardized tests, resulting in states and districts adopting more benchmarking assessments so they were not taken by surprise with the federally mandated assessments.  A new administration enters and “relieves” schools from some of those provisions, but only if states and districts agree to use data for evaluation of all teachers and the most common means of using data is value added modeling, which is shockingly unreliable but mandated anyway. This moves the dire consequences of students not doing well on the examinations directly on to the shoulders of individual teachers who are not only faced with increasing time spent testing, but also who are faced with powerful incentives to narrow their curriculum into direct test preparation.

But Ms. Korkes wants you to believe that federal requirements have nothing to do with that, which is something like a car manufacturer signalling its employees that cost is the only thing that matters and then being shocked when safety related recalls become more common. Today, over testing is not a problem because of the mandated tests but because of the incentive structure that has been tied to them which make them the most important goal in the entire system.  Claiming shock at the degree to which testing is consuming time and curriculum is a new turn for reformers, but it rings hollow when they try to foist blame for over testing on those pesky states and school districts — which are responding to incentives entirely outside of their control.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in an opinion piece in The Washington Post last year tried to acknowledge the problem while trying to distribute the blame across the entire system:

However, many have expressed concern about low-quality and redundant tests. And in some places, tests — and preparation for them — dominate the calendar and culture of schools, causing undue stress.

Policymakers at every level bear responsibility here — and that includes me and my department. We will support state and district leaders in taking on this issue and provide technical assistance to those who seek it.

Has such assistance come in the form of revisiting federal policy to decouple twisted incentives from monitoring education?  Has such assistance come in the form of listening to what research says about value added modeling and dropping it as a favored policy?  Has such assistance come as recognition that growth and support is a more viable policy for struggling schools than test and punish?  Has such assistance come even in the form of an apology from Secretary Duncan and other testing advocates for having made testing so dominant that we have lost any focus on how lack of equity in education rests with policymakers trying to make school their sole anti-poverty program?

Don’t count on it.

Arne Duncan is terribly concerned about all this over testing

Arne Duncan is terribly concerned about all this over testing

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Filed under Common Core, Data, Gates Foundation, Opt Out, Pearson, Testing

Have We Wasted Over a Decade?

A dominant narrative of the past decade and a half of education reform has been to highlight alleged persistent failures of our education system.  While this tale began long ago with the Reagan Administration report A Nation at Risk, it has been put into overdrive in the era of test based accountability that began with the No Child Left Behind Act.  That series of amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act mandated annual standardized testing of all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, set a target for 100% proficiency for all students in English and mathematics, and imposed consequences for schools and districts that either failed to reach proficiency targets or failed to test all students.  Under the Obama administration, the federal Department of Education has freed states from the most stringent requirements to meet those targets, but in return, states had to commit themselves to specific reforms such as the adoption of common standards, the use of standardized test data in the evaluation of teachers, and the expansion of charter schools.  All of these reforms are predicated on the constantly repeated belief that our citizens at all levels are falling behind international competitors, that our future workforce lacks the skills they will need in the 21st century, and that we have paid insufficient attention to the uneven distribution of equal opportunity in our nation.

But what if we’ve gotten the entire thing wrong the whole time?

Or, perhaps to be more accurate, what if the entire picture of American public education is simply far, far more complicated that the simplistic, even opportunistic, narrative of failure we’ve been hearing since 1983?  Two reports, noted in January of this year by Kay McSpadden of the Charlotte Observer, put the presumption of failure into question.   The first report was released by the National Center for Educational Statistics at the USDOE and was about the results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).  According to the PIRL Study, the United States does very well compared to other nations and international cities, ranking below 4 other territories (Hong Kong, Russian Federation, Finland, Singapore) and not being significantly different than 7 others (Northern Ireland-GBR, Denmark, Croatia, Chinese Taipei-CHN, Ireland, England-GBR).  While PIRLS does not include all of the nations we typically see cited as outperforming the United States, the study evaluates whether or not students have learned the literacy skills likely to be taught in school, and in this category, students in the USA are doing quite well, with 56% of students achieving the “high” benchmark or greater.  In fact, when poverty characteristics are taken into account, the accomplishment of US students and schools is even more impressive.  Students in schools with between 10-25% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch scored 584, which is higher than the national average for top performing Singapore, a city state where roughly 1 in 10 households earns an income below the average monthly expenditure on basic needs and whose actual poverty rate may be higher.  At the same time, United States students whose schools have 75% or more students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, scored 520, roughly the same as African American students, and “tied” with France, 18 places behind the U.S. average.

The PIRLS data tells us something that we’ve known for some time.  United States testing data, much like United States educational funding, is tightly coupled with the poverty characteristics of the community tested.  Dr. Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California, concluded that the unspectacular scores on U.S. students on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are largely attributable to our 21% child poverty rate and the impact that has on communities and individual children.  PIRLS results tell a similar story, and the persistent connection between race and poverty in America similarly explains the score gap between African American students and other ethnic groups.

The second report cited by Ms. McSpadden was released by the Horace Mann League with the National Superintendent’s Roundtable, and is titled The Iceberg Effect, An International Look at Often Overlooked Education IndicatorsThe report compared the United States, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom on indicators of economic equity, social stress, support for young families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes.  Perhaps most interesting is that the United States ranked next to last or last on economic equity, social stress, and support for young families, ranked fourth in support for schools and fifth in student outcomes, but then ranked first in system outcomes.  In support for schools, the United States was well ranked in expenditures and class sizes, but U.S. teachers enjoy far less support than their international peers, clocking over 1000 hours in the classroom compared to the Finland and G7 average of 664 hours.  Student outcomes for the United States are very high in the fourth grade assessments but are brought down overall by high school assessments, and the report notes that gaps by SES exist in all countries.  Interestingly, in system outcomes, the U.S. leads the studied nations in the number of years of schooling completed, the portion of the population with high school diplomas and BA degrees, and has the largest proportion of high performing science students.

These results are actually quite astonishing when you consider the extremely low performance for the United States in indicators of economic stability and social support.  We ranked the just above China in terms of economic inequality, and our communities are subject to shockingly high levels of social stress in the form of violence and premature death from violence and drug use, which studies show have long lasting impact on health and brain development.  These indicators are not even offset in the U.S. by generous expenditures in support of families and children or access to preschool as we ranked only above China and below the G-7 and Finland.

One has to wonder if the individual student results would be closer to matching the U.S. system results if we had spent the past 13 years focusing on the first five indicators instead of upon test based accountability.

This is no idle speculation because since NCLB, our school system has been subjected largely to a federally imposed experiment in warped behavioral economics where first school districts and then individual teachers were incentivized by high stakes attached to standardized tests to improve themselves or be targeted, by those same test scores, for dire consequences.  However, in the absence of doing much of anything else to support teachers, schools, families, or communities, the tests have ceased to be a way to monitor performance and have become an object in and of themselves.  With the dominant theme of education reform being “Test – Label – Punish” we have crafted a “reform” environment that expects targets and incentives to pressure schools and teachers to close long known achievement gaps all by themselves with literally no other aspect of our political and economic infrastructure doing a thing — except close those schools and turn them over to privately run charter school operators who like to boast about their nearly miraculous test scores, but whose practices are entirely unlike what you would expect of a public education system that is designed to serve all students.

This is not a school accountability and improvement agenda so much as it is a system operating on the kind of incentive structures endemic at Enron before its collapse.  Little wonder, therefore, that Kevin G. Welner and William J. Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder called for a sharp move away from test based accountability:

The ultimate question we should be asking isn’t whether test scores are good measures of learning, whether growth modeling captures what we want it to, or even whether test scores are increasing; it is whether the overall impact of the reform approach can improve or is improving education. Boosting test scores can, as we have all learned, be accomplished in lots of different ways, some of which focus on real learning but many of which do not. An incremental increase in reading or math scores means almost nothing, particularly if children’s engagement is decreased; if test-prep comes at a substantial cost to science, civics, and the arts; and if the focus of schooling as a whole shifts from learning to testing.

The way forward is not to tinker further with failed test-based accountability mechanisms; it is to learn from the best of our knowledge. We should not give up on reaching the Promised Land of equitable educational opportunities through substantially improved schooling, but we must study our maps and plan a wise path. This calls for a fundamental rebalancing —which requires a sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright, and an evaluation system that focuses on the quality of the educational opportunities we provide to all of our children. As a nation, we made our greatest progress when we invested in all our children and in our society.

This call is incredibly important in no small part because education “reformers” are correct in one critical observation about American education even if their solutions are poorly constructed.  Educational opportunity is not evenly distributed in America in no small part because the known impacts of poverty on children tend to concentrated in specific zip codes due to rising levels of income segregation.  The upshot of this is that a school which serves a discernible number of children in poverty will tend to serve a large percentage of children in poverty while schools with students from economic advantage will have almost none.  We do not need standardized test based accountability to tell us that outcomes are different in Mt. Vernon than in Scarsdale, but we should demand action.

If not testing, labeling, and punishing, then what?  First, we have to recognize that community conditions directly impact schools, and if we expect schools to provide access to opportunities for their students, then we, as a society, need to accept responsibility for the lack of opportunities in many of our communities. 51% of today’s school children qualify for free or reduced lunch, meaning their families subsist  185% of the Federal Poverty Level or less, so I take it as a given that economic opportunities are not as abundant as they ought to be.

Second, we should recognize the support and capacity building we have completely failed to provide for schools by placing our focus on testing as more than system monitoring.  What could have been done differently if we had taken a different focus?

  • What if we had finally fulfilled federal promises to fund the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act at 40% of average cost which has never been done?
  • What if we had taken seriously the 25% of schools with more than half of students eligible for free or reduced lunch that have physical facilities rated “fair” or “poor” and pledged to invest in school capital improvement needs across the nation estimated at $197 billion?
  • What if we had spent ten years expanding early childhood services and support for families?
  • What if we had pledged to get full wrap around services into all Title 1 schools?
  • What if we had recognized that working with high concentrations of high risk students requires a genuine commitment to resources and capacity building which has been nearly completely absent in the age of test based accountability?

By most measures, the past 14 years have been a completely wasted opportunity (except for the private charter school advocates who have been monetizing their school model and the corporations that have profited from testing).  It is time to stop.  It is time to make a commitment to education that is equal to the soaring rhetoric reformers have lavished upon testing.

Morpheus

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Filed under charter schools, Common Core, Data, Funding, NCLB, Pearson, politics, Social Justice, Testing

Saving Mr. Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arne Duncan’s Great Kid Story Problem

In his speech laying out administration priorities for the renewal or rewrite of No Child Left Behind, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan turned to a personal anecdote to explain the imperative of accountability based reform:

In between my junior and senior year at college, I took a year off to help in my mother’s after-school tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago and figure out if I really wanted to devote my life to this fight for educational opportunity.

One of the students I tutored was a basketball player at the local high school, who was studying to take his ACT.

He was a great kid who had done all the right things. In a very violent neighborhood, he had stayed away from the gangs. He didn’t drink, he didn’t use drugs. He was actually an honor roll student with a “B” average, and on track to graduate. I initially thought this was absolutely a young man who could beat the odds and defy the negative stereotypes of young black men.

But as we started to work together, I was heartbroken to quickly realize that he was basically functionally illiterate.

He was reading at maybe a 2nd or 3rd grade level, and was unable to put together a written paragraph. Tragically, he had played by all the rules, but had no idea how far behind he was. Throughout his life, he had been led to believe that he was on-track for college success.

And he was nowhere close.

The educational system had failed him, and the buck stopped nowhere.

This is the kind of personal story that makes great fodder for satirical pieces in The Onion, but I will grant Secretary Duncan a point: there are children in the system who are passed along from grade to grade without learning enough to be successful in more complex subjects later on.  And the Secretary has a point that in too many cases like these few people are willing to take responsibility.  When I talk to my education students about this, I frame this as a cycle of blame passing:  The ninth grade teacher has a student who cannot write well and blames the junior high teachers for what they didn’t teach.  The junior high teachers blame the middle school teachers, and the middle school teachers blame the elementary school teachers.  Eventually, the child is in utero and nobody has taken proper responsibility for teaching the child as he has arrived in the classroom that year.  Given that higher education institutions report that about 20% of first year students need to take at least one remedial class when they arrive (and even 12.8% of entering students at very selective 4 year schools), it is reasonable to ask if our elementary and secondary education systems can do a better job preparing more students for further schooling.

Of course, answering such questions are complex.  Critics and reformers often point to the number of college students in need of some remediation and state those students are “not ready” for college.  That’s far too broad a brush.  For starters, the numbers are variable by the type of institution reporting, by race and ethnicity, by gender, by age of student, by dependency status, and by the educational obtainment of the parents of the student receiving remediation.   Additionally, students can receive a wide variety of remediation in college from a single studies skills course to an entire plate of courses meant to “plug holes” from elementary and secondary education.  A student who dropped out of high school, got a GED at 25, and enrolled in Community College who needs math instruction to progress in a STEM program is far less worrisome than the young man in Secretary Duncan’s anecdote who is reported as laboring under the impression that his reading level being at The Magic Treehouse series is going to get him into college.

There’s just a problem.  Secretary Duncan’s priorities for the NCLB revision won’t help him either.

It isn’t that someone shouldn’t have taken responsibility for the young man’s learning (although how Secretary Duncan, at the callow age of 20 or 21 could actually tell that nobody had done so is left unexplained); it’s that forcing that responsibility by holding his teachers accountable to his standardized test scores each and every year, as favored by the Obama administration, is one of the worst paths to take to help him.

“Testing” is not a dirty word.  As part of a multiple assessment system to help teachers, students, and parents know where students stand and in what areas students need help.  Formative assessments, however they are developed and administered, are meant to provide the kind of feedback that can personalize instruction and help teachers as they create a rich and complete curriculum.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University notes for what such assessments cannot be used:

This information should NOT be used for “accountability” purposes. It should NOT be mined/aggregated/modeled to determine at high level whether institutions or individuals are “doing their jobs,” or for closing schools and firing teachers. That’s not to say, however, that there might not be some use for institutions (schools districts) mining these data to determine how student progress is being made on certain concepts/skills across schools, in order to identify, strengths and weaknesses. In other words, for thoughtful data informed management. Current annual assessments aren’t particularly useful for “data informed” leadership either. But this stuff could be, given the right modeling tools.

This is the approach we use to ensure that no child is left behind. By the time annual, uniform, standardized assessment data are returned in relatively meaningless aggregate scores to the front office 6 months down the road, those kids have already been left behind, and the information provided isn’t even sufficiently fine grained as to be helpful in helping them to catch up.

Dr. Baker differentiates testing used for individual diagnostic purposes and testing used for accountability/system monitoring purposes:

When it comes to testing for system monitoring, where we are looking at institutions and systems, rather than individuals, immediate feedback is less important. Time intervals can be longer, because institutional change occurs over the long haul, not from just this year, to next. Further, we want our sampling – our measurements – to be as minimally intrusive as possible – both in terms of the number of times we take those measurements, and in terms of the number of measurements we take at any one time. In part, we want measurement for accountability purposes to be non-intrusive so that teachers and local administrators, and the kids especially, can get on with their day – with their learning – development of knowledge and skills.

So, when it comes to “System Monitoring” the most appropriate approach is to use a sampling scheme that is minimally sufficient to capture, at point in time, achievement levels of kids in any given school or district (Institution). You don’t have to test every kid in a school to know how kids in that school are doing. You don’t have to have any one kid take an entire test, if you creatively distribute relevant test items across appropriately sampled kids. Using sampling methods like those used in the National Assessment of Educational Progress can go a long way toward reducing the intrusiveness of testing while providing potentially more valid estimates of institutional performance (how well schools and districts are doing).

The distinctions here should be obvious, and they are crucial:  accountability relies upon system wide data that is best captured via sampling, and monitoring system wide trends via data does not require that every child be tested in the same standardized test every single year.  As Dr. Baker has shown previously, trying to take this data and use it for accountability of individual teachers based upon value-added modeling does not produce results that are stable and are therefore pretty useless.

Wouldn’t you know that Secretary Duncan has it exactly backwards?

By insisting that large standardized measures be given to every child every year AND endorsing using those data for individual teacher accountability, the Secretary is calling for maintaining a standardized testing regime that is needlessly intrusive and for applying the data from those tests for the wrong purposes.  Worse, it is incentivizing the worst kind of teaching, practices to which Secretary Duncan gave a passing acknowledgement as destructive but which his insistence upon placing the highest stakes on an intrusive testing schedule will entrench into classrooms.  We’ve seen this in the years since NCLB with narrowing curricula and more focus on tested subjects that upon a full, rich curriculum.

One other rationale is possible by insisting upon annual, large scale examinations for every child, but it is one that betrays a lack of imagination.  Secretary Duncan said that:

I believe parents, and teachers, and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness. The reality of unexpected, crushing disappointments, about the actual lack of college preparedness cannot continue to happen to hard working 16- and 17-year olds – it is not fair to them, and it is simply too late. Those days must be over.

That means that all students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned to their teacher’s classroom instruction in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school.

Secretary Duncan is suggesting that mass standardized tests given annually are the tools needed by parents to monitor their children’s progress.  I suppose there may be families out there who are itching for that packet from the state DOE that comes weeks or months after the standardized exam, but I think it is far more likely that parents would like to know that teachers have access and utilize a steady stream of tools to assist their students and to communicate with families.  As it stands, Secretary Duncan insists on giving those parents a single test result that can suggest something is going on but which cannot say a blessed thing about why it is going on.

Arne Duncan is worried about that great kid he met three decades ago.  Sadly, he doesn’t have a clue about what would have helped that child not get lost in the system.

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Filed under Common Core, Data, NCLB, teaching, Testing

What I Am Thankful For: 140 Years of School Success

David Tyack and Larry Cuban, two of America’s most accomplished scholars in education, published the book “Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform” (1995) examining various efforts to reform American education and  explaining why schools tend to persist regardless of changes envisioned by reformers.  The book, arguably one of the best treatises on the subject in the past two decades, opens by noting how it is possible to portray American education as either evidence of progress or of regress depending almost entirely upon the motivations of the examiner:

Beliefs in progress or regress always convey a political message. Opinions about advance or decline in education reflect general confidence in American institutions.  Faith in the nation and its institutions was far higher in the aftermath of success in World War II than in the skeptical era of the Vietnam War and Watergate.  Expectations about education change, as do media representations of what is happening in schools. And the broader goals that education serves – the visions of possibility that animate the society – also shift in different periods, making it necessary to ask how people have judged progress, from what viewpoints, over what spans of time. (p. 14)

Tyack and Cuban take great care to demonstrate that much of our concept of progress or regress in education depends greatly upon how we frame questions and what questions we ask (or fail to ask).  For example, the great wave of educational expansion in the Progressive Era was influenced by the reformers’ beliefs that education could mold society for the better and that their progress was clearly reflected in statistics that showed greater and greater numbers of Americans obtaining more and more education.  At the same time, however, these same Progressives built a system with systemic inequalities enshrined in legally enforced segregation in some states and de facto segregation in others, with deep differences in school funding depending upon location, with limited college and career opportunities for women, and with few efforts to meet the educational needs of children with disabilities. The federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs set up a system of boarding schools for native children that were expressly racist and traumatizing.  The point here should be clear: whether or not schools are progressing is a consideration awash in choices of focus, not merely in data.

Today, Americans are in the third decade of an intense effort to convince them that the nation’s schools are failing.  Steeped in the rhetoric of existential threats in the Cold War, the Reagan administration released “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative of Education Reform” in 1983, which declared, in no uncertain terms, the belief that the education was not merely failing, but that it had already, definitively, failed:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. (p. 1)

President Reagan’s commission made such dire pronouncements at an opportune moment.  Having had confidence in the government shaken by both the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal and having had confidence in our economic future beaten by declines in heavy industry, oil crises, stagflation, and back to back recessions, Americans had already lost confidence in education generally.  As Tyack and Cuban (1995) note, in 1973 Gallup polling reported that 61% of Americans thought their children would get a better education than they had gotten, but by 1979 that number had fallen to 41%.  But the authors also note that in 1985, while Americans did not have a high opinion of the national school system, only 27% of the them rating it as an A or a B, parents  with children in school rated those schools highly, 71% of them giving a grade of A or B to the school attended by their oldest child.  That discrepancy has remained notably stable over the decades.  In the 2014 version of the same poll, 17% of Americans rated the national school system as earning an A or a B while 67% of parents gave that grade to the school attended by their oldest child.

While that second number has been trending lower recently, it is note worthy even after three decades of constant criticism of our schools that a super-majority of parents remain favorably disposed to the schools they know the best. In the past decade and a half, that criticism has become omnipresent with a bipartisan selection of politicians demanding more and more of our schools and with private foundations and billionaire financiers pushing reforms to increase test based accountability in public education and to use what they see as evidence of failure to demand market-based changes to how we deliver our educational commons.  Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates burst into a public role demanding education reform in 2005 by declaring our entire system of education “obsolete”.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan now famously opined that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” because it provided the impetus to dramatically change the schools in the city, and the result is that the New Orleans school district is the first in the nation to be comprised entirely of charter schools.  Secretary Duncan’s words, insulting to the many who lost loved ones, homes, and livelihoods in the hurricane, make it clear that he believes hugely disruptive change is an imperative in education today.

But what if that is, from a variety of perspectives, unnecessary?  What if the story of American education is one of steady and cumulative progress and success?  What if the needs of our schools and the students in them are better seen from the perspective of systemic support rather than from systemic turmoil and disruption?  What if our leaders, both in politics and in business, are choosing to see American education in terms that can only be addressed by unleashing “creative destruction” without regard to the quantifiable goods that will be unpredictably harmed or dismantled by that force?

In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement, released an omnibus report entitled “120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait“.  The report, presented in charts and graphs, demonstrates a steady progression in the reach of education from relatively small enterprise encompassing mostly a white and male population in the mid-1800s to a national enterprise available to and used by the majority of our population.  In many respects, it tracks the growth of American enfranchisement because as different populations in the country have been granted access to the right to vote and to protection from discrimination, their engagement with our educational commons has expanded as well.  So at the risk of taking a stance that Tyack and Cuban would acknowledge as political, I would like to present some of these findings as reasons to be thankful that previous generations of Americans invested meaningfully in an educational infrastructure as crucial to our economic health as our transportation, power, health, and water systems and as important to the vitality of our culture and psyches as our libraries, national parks, civic cultural institutions.

The growth of access to education and the depth of completion of education in the history of our common schools movement is evident.  In 1850, 56.2% of white children aged 5 to 19 years of age were enrolled in some form of schooling while only 1.8% of black children and children of other races were similarly enrolled.  By 1910, those numbers had climbed to 61.3% of white children and 44.8% of black children and children of other races, and by 1970, the numbers were 90.8% and 89.4% respectively, climbing to 93.1% and 93.2% in 1991.  In 1940, the percentage of males who completed 4 years of high school was 12.2% and 5.5% had 4 years or more of college for a median of 8.6 years of schooling completed, and the percentage of women who completed 4 years of high school was 16.4% and 3.8% had 4 years or more of college for a median of 8.7 years of schooling completed.  By 1991, 24.3% of males over the age of 25 had 4 years or more of college for a median of 12.8 years of schooling, and 18.8% of women over the age of 25 had 4 years or more of college for a median of 12.7 years of schooling.  Black men and men of other races only had a median of 5.4 years of formal schooling by age 25 in 1940, but that number rose to 12.6 years in 1991 with 17.8% of black men and men of other races having 4 or more years of college.  Black women and women of other races had a median of 12.5 years of completed school by 1991, and 15.8% of them had 4 or more years of college.

Over this time frame, illiteracy in the general and specific populations decreased.  In 1870, 20% of the population over the age of 14 was considered illiterate as defined by not being able to read or write in any language.  That percentage was a staggering 79.9% in the black population, but by 1910 the total illiteracy rate had decreased to 7.7%, and the rate in the black population had dropped to 30.5%.    Black illiteracy rates remained above 10% through 1952, but by 1979, they had fallen to 1.6%, and illiteracy in the total population was down to 0.6%.

Our nation’s schools were rarely accommodating places for students with disabilities with little to no recognition of specific learning disabilities until the 1970s.  In 1931, only 0.6% of children enrolled in schools were recognized as being disabled and in programs, and those were mostly speech, visual, and auditory disabilities with another large group of children recognized with cognitive impairments.  In the mid-1960s, this had grown to 4.3% of public school enrollments, but still without recognition of specific learning disabilities.  Due to litigation and legislation, this changed in the 1970s, and by 1989, 11.4% of the student population was served by special education programs with 2,050,000 children receiving accommodations for learning disabilities.

Student achievement as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has made slow but steady gains in the decades since the federal government began the program.  In 1970-71, the average 17 year-old scored 285 in reading, 304 in mathematics (1972-73 data available), and 296 in science.  These scores rose slightly by 1990 to 290 in reading and 305 in mathematics, and fell slightly to 290 in science.  Black and Hispanic students made more notable gains in the NAEP during this time.  In 1970, black 17 year-olds scored 239 in reading, 270 in mathematics (1972-73 data available), and 250 in science (1972-73 data available).  By 1989, these scores rose to 267, 289, and 253 respectively.  For Hispanic students, reading scores of 252 in 1974 rose to 275 in 1989, math scores of 277 in 1972 rose to 255 in 1989, and science scores of 262 in 1976 remained stable in 1989.  Gains in the NAEP for higher level proficiencies also occurred across racial groups.  For example, level 300 in mathematics in the NAEP at high school is defined as being able to perform elementary algebra and geometry.  In 1977, 57.6% of white students scored in this range as did 16.8% of black students.  By 1989, those percentages had risen to 63.2% and 32.8% respectively.

Pursuit of higher education has also grown dramatically in the United States.  In 1869, 1.3% of the population aged 18-24 was enrolled in higher education of any form.  This number did not rise to 10% until 1945, but in the post World War II period it grew steadily, reaching 23.6% of the population in 1961, 41% of the population in 1981, and 53.7% of the population in 1991 with public institution enrollment of over 10.7 million split between 4 and 2 year schools.  In 1910, only 20 persons out of 1000 aged 23 had a bachelor’s degree, and by 1990, that number rose to 282 out of 1000 persons aged 23 years.  In 1990, the nation conferred 454,679 associate degrees, 1,049,657 bachelor’s degrees, and 323,844 master’s degrees.  It is noteworthy that female degree recipients outnumbered men in all of these categories when they lagged behind men in both bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees as recently as 1980.

American educational progress did not end in the data for the 1993 report.  Educational attainment numbers rose between 1990 and 2013 across the board, with high school diploma acquisition rising to 94% of whites, 90% of blacks, and 76% of Hispanics.  The percentage of 25 to 29 year-olds with a bachelor’s degree rose to 34% of the total population, with white degree earners rising from 26% to 40%, black degree earners rising from 13% to 20%, and Hispanic degree earners rising from 8% to 16%, although the gap between groups in degree attainment did rise despite the nominal gains.  Women built on their previous gains, widening to a 7% difference in bachelor’s degree attainment from the 1990 data, and by 2013, 9% of women had a completed master’s degree compared to 6% of men.

Achievement results have also grown, although sometimes slowly, in this period.  According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 4th grade assessments grew between 1994 and 2010 with very slight gains in the upper percentiles of children taking the assessments, but with more dramatic gains in the lower quartile of test takers.  Children in the 25th percentile saw their average scores rise from 180 to 192, and students in the 10th percentile grew from 147 to 169.  The 2010 report notes that only a quarter of students tested rated as “proficient”, but that for 4th an 8th graders, the gains in proficiency from the 1994 data year was significant.  Further, gains in the NAEP assessments for black and Hispanic test takers in 2010 represented a narrowing of the achievement gap compared to the 1994 data.

It is important to remember that Tyack and Cuban argue that portrayals of education in progress or regress is frequently a political choice, and I have to confess that there are real and legitimate questions to ask of our schools.  Although schools have admirably followed the continuous, if slow, expansion of the American franchise with the expansion of educational opportunity, many of our schools, much like the communities in which they reside, languish with dilapidated facilities, outdated resources, inexperienced or overworked teachers, high class sizes, students who struggle, and community constituencies that are overlooked or actively disenfranchised by our political system.  And for the 31 years that we have been subjected to constant narratives of failing schools, our society has disinvested in infrastructure, seen its unionized workforce collapse, and largely accepted vastly growing income inequality as a fact of modern economics.  These trends only contribute to the deeply entrenched poverty in many of our urban and rural centers, and they highlight the now well known difficulties of getting ahead when one is born into poverty.  Worse, another growing trend in America, our rising residential segregation by income, means that those who are economically secure rarely even see the decayed streets, crumbling schools, and closed small businesses that more and more of our citizens live with routinely.

It is little wonder that schools struggle in communities with such problems.  Schools are social institutions, and when an entire community’s institutional infrastructure struggles to meet basic needs, it is tragic but hardly surprising when schools similarly struggle.  Education “reform” today, unfortunately, looks at those very schools and does not merely demand that they do better; it demands that they essentially take on the responsibility of transforming their entire communities with practically nothing demanded from society as a whole.  The great progress that we have made with our educational commons since the late 1800s did not happen by simply demanding more and layering more and more responsibility.  It came because we, as a society, invested heavily in the creation of a common school system, and then we took vigorous actions to open up access to more and more members of our society.

If we want to push through this lingering, neglected, frontier of educational opportunity in our country, we will need to become serious about everything that is necessary to rebuild our communities that suffer from inter-generational poverty by pouring in resources, and we will need to seriously demand an economy where full time work is properly rewarded, making education an obtainable means to a genuinely obtainable end.  Improved and revitalized school systems in these locales can be an critical part of revitalization — but they cannot bring that about on their own.

Our continued educational progress will not hinge on increased demands so much as it will hinge on increased support.

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Filed under Data, Funding, politics, schools, Social Justice

Wanted: A Slow Schools Movement

I invited a number of my department’s alumni back to campus this week for an informal panel discussion about our preparation program, their experiences as early career classroom teachers, and what we can do to improve the experiences of our current undergraduates.  It was a fantastic evening, largely because the young people with whom I had been impressed when they were here remain an impressive group of early career teachers.  They had many insights about knowledge, both practical and theoretical, that would have aided them even more as they began their careers, and myself and my colleagues have been similarly considering several of those ideas as we engage in our constant work of program assessment and renewal.  Beyond those ideas, however, a consistent theme seemed to emerge from our conversation:

Schools today need to slow down.

Our graduates told us of their experiences with phenomena that we know about and that we have observed in schools during field visits and from regular discussions with teachers in partner schools.  However, we have never directly experienced those changes as teachers in the classrooms effected by them.  They spoke of having to create and measure “Student Growth Outcomes” with no practice, no training in creating statistical measurements, and no release time to do analysis.  They spoke of rapid changes with little time to adapt, and they spoke about constantly shifting technology demands made upon their teaching and their record keeping/administrative tasks.  They spoke about the changing nature of the young people entering their classrooms, many of whom have grown up in a world of information that constantly streams into their hands with few opportunities to truly comprehend and analyze that information and with few adults who truly understand the technology’s strengths and pitfalls — even while they demand that teachers find ways to use them productively in the classroom.

As our alumni spoke about these issues, one overarching description of their work lives became clear to me: hurried.  It is not that teachers have ever felt entirely relaxed in the profession.  In his 1975 book, “School Teacher: A Sociological Study,” Dan Lortie (1975) notes that feeling pressed for time because of constant demands from outside of the classroom is a common complaint among teachers:

“First, we can think of time as the single most important, general resource teachers possess in their quest for productivity and psychic reward; ineffective allocations of time are costly. Second, from one perspective teaching processes are ultimately interminable; one can never strictly say that one has “finished” teaching students. At what point has one taught every student everything he might possibly learn about the curriculum?  More broadly, when can one feel that one has taught everything that any particular student should learn? The theme of concern about incompleteness ran throughout the interviews; unfortunately, it occurred in various places, making systematic collation next to impossible. Presumably teachers develop defenses against overexpectation for themselves; yet these defenses do not always seem to work. If one is inwardly pressed by a feeling of not having finished one’s work, inert time must be particularly galling.” (p. 177)

Little in the teacher education research suggests that this has changed, and quite a lot of new education policies and changes to how young people seek and consume information has layered on top of Lortie’s observations rather than replaced them.  If teachers are being required to account for the impact on students’ learning in new (and statistically questionable) ways using standards and examinations with which they have little familiarity and inadequate training and no release time, if teachers are required to utilize new tools and accounting procedures without substantial in school support, and if the students they have are used to a constant stream of unfiltered information but have never been taught discernment in the use of that information, then there is little doubt that teachers today are feeling heavily pressured and constrained in their time.

My former students’ conversation on such matters got me thinking about the “Slow Food Movement,” which began in the late 1980s to educate consumers about the benefits of food that is local, minimally processed, and diverse in both culture and biology.  As a response to the rise of fast food and factory styled agriculture, slow food emphasizes the variety of local cuisines that should be preserved and the value of food that has to be prepared and cooked rather than defrosted and heated up.  Slow food obviously takes time that fewer and fewer people believe that they have, but it also represents more knowledge about food and its preparation, and it preserves more of the inherent nutritional value in ingredients.

I want a Slow Schools Movement.

While teachers grapple with the pressures of new and unfamiliar standards whose scopes are being narrowed with the highest stakes testing in national history, it is unsurprising that the pace of everything in school is being increased.  In the history of education, it is almost always more common for duties and responsibilities to be added to what teachers are expected to do rather than to see them peeled back.  Teachers’ duties are not restricted to classroom work, but with 35 states still providing less per pupil funding than they did in 2008 and with over 324,000 jobs in K-12 education being lost, remaining teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals have even more work that they need to accomplish on a daily basis.  The number of school aged children ages 6-17 has declined slightly since 2008, from 49.9 million to 49.6 million (it is set to rise again in the near future), but with a larger proportion of people working in schools gone, each individual has more to do.  In a policy environment that provides high stakes standardized tests the power to put teachers’ jobs in the balance and with an active movement afoot to remove teachers’ workplace protections, pressures today rival those at any point since the Common School movement began in the 19th century.

How detrimental to the practices of teaching and learning.

However, the need for “slow schools” goes well beyond a simple desire to lift added and poorly thought out burdens from teachers who already had important work to do.  It goes towards fundamental aspects of what learning actually requires.  A productive school is one that hums with energy, but it is not the energy of people rushing anxiously from one obligation to another.  It is the energy of people grappling with challenging ideas and materials, working through from what they do not understand to what they do understand, and proposing and testing new hypotheses about how the world works around them.  That is a specific kind of energy that cannot happen under constant pressure to perform on command.  In order to foster it, teachers need to possess deep knowledge of their subjects and how to structure lessons that move students along in their understanding.  Jerome Bruner (1960) writes about this in “The Process of Education” where he quotes elementary mathematics teacher, David Page:

“…’When I tell mathematicians that fourth-grade students can go a long way into ‘set theory’ a few of them reply: ‘Of course.’ Most of them are startled. The latter ones are completely wrong in assuming that ‘set theory’ is intrinsically difficult. We just have to wait until the proper point of view and corresponding language for presenting it are revealed. Given particular subject matter or a particular concept, it is easy to ask trivial questions or lead the child to ask trivial questions.  It is also easy to ask impossibly difficult questions.  The trick is to find the medium questions that can be answered and can take you somewhere.  This is the big job of teachers and textbooks.’  One leads the child by the well-wrought medium questions to move rapidly through the stages of intellectual development, to a deeper understanding of mathematical, physical, and historical principles. We must know far more about the ways in which this can be done.”  (p. 40)

Of course, what Mr. Page says to Jerome Bruner is not simply a matter of finding a “trick.”  Rather, it is a complicated interplay of knowing the subject, knowing the pedagogical means of asking questions that transform children’s understanding, and of monitoring how students are developing in response to those questions, often in ways that are not precisely rapid or predictable.  Doyle (1983) explains students’ work in terms of “tasks” comprised of the products students are to produce, the operations  necessary to produce them, and the materials or models available to assist.  He further notes that tasks with the greatest learning rewards are often the most complex and difficult to establish in the classroom: “The central point is that the type of tasks which cognitive psychology suggests will have the greatest long-term consequences for improving the quality of academic work are precisely those which are the most difficult to install in classrooms.” (p. 186)

Eleanor Duckworth (1987) of Harvard University explained many of these issues eloquently in her essay collection, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas.”

“One of the teachers, Joanne Cleary, drew on the blackboard this picture of the earth in the midst of the sun’s rays and was trying to articulate her thoughts about it. Another member of the group was asking her to be more precise.  Did she mean exactly half the earth was in darkness? Did it get suddenly dark at the dividing line or was there some gray stripe? The one who was trying to articulate her thoughts grew angry, and gave up the attempt.  She said later that she knew the questions were necessary at some point, but she had not been ready to be more precise. She was struggling to make sense of a morass of observations and models, an idea was just starting to take shape, and, she said, ‘I needed time for my confusion.’

“That phrase has become a touchstone for me. There is, of course, no particular reason to build broad and deep knowledge about ramps, pendulums, or the moon.  I choose them, both in my teaching and in discussion here, to stand for any complex knowledge. Teachers are often, and understandably, impatient for the students to develop clear and adequate ideas.  But putting ideas in relationship to each other is not a simple job. It is confusing; and that confusion does take time. All of us need time for confusion if we are to build the breadth and depth that gives significance to our knowledge.” (p. 102)

Consider how important this is from the perspective of a learner.  A deep and layered understanding of complex ideas cannot be forced to happen simply through intensity, although significance and deep understanding have intensity of their own.  Students necessarily must be frustrated as they grapple with complex and unknown concepts, but they need time in order to work through that confusion, and when forced or hurried to move they not only fail to develop the desired understanding, but also they become needlessly frustrated and disengaged from the task of learning.  Taken together, Bruner, Doyle, and Duckworth denote essential truisms about classrooms and learning:  1) students are capable of better and deeper understanding of more complex ideas than we often think they can; 2) the products, processes, and materials that support the development of that understanding are often highly ambiguous and complex to enact in a classroom; 3) confusion is an important part of the learning process, and learners need time and space to be where they are in their emerging understanding without being forced to move faster than they need.

Even though I have recently criticized the Common Core State Standards in the English Language Arts for being too narrow in their reading perspectives, I would like to use an example from them to illustrate this point.  This is taken from the sixth grade writing standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1
Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.a
Introduce claim(s) and organize the reasons and evidence clearly.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.b
Support claim(s) with clear reasons and relevant evidence, using credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.c
Use words, phrases, and clauses to clarify the relationships among claim(s) and reasons.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.d
Establish and maintain a formal style.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.e
Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from the argument presented.

From Doyle’s perspective, these quoted standards denote tasks that are both high in ambiguity and high in risk (p. 183) if taken seriously.  Sixth graders are required to perform a complex series of cognitive moves in order to write arguments that are organized, supported with evidence, follow a logical order of argumentation including a conclusion, and use formal language and syntax to enhance readers’ understanding of their argument.  For accomplished college level writers, this is probably a task that appears simple, but the simplicity is entirely the product of its familiarity to those same writers.  For sixth graders, this is a complex set of cognitive moves that requires significant modeling and experimentation as well as a wealth of preexisting knowledge about how to write coherently and connectedly and an ability to adjust argument and tone depending upon the purposes for writing and the author’s sense of her or his audience.

More important than these skills, however, is that in order to accomplish what is envisioned in the standard, students will need the time and the safety to fail, possibly often.  Writing is a messy and often nonlinear endeavor, and even the most accomplished of authors revise often, change direction, and even throw out entire ideas and start over again.  For a student in the classroom open recognition of imperfect performance is often overshadowed by a fear of the consequences such imperfection often provokes.  Teachers who genuinely want their students to write in this way have to create conditions where students are willing to risk that their imperfections will be a source of improvement rather than of punishment, and students will need time to understand themselves as writers and to develop not merely the forms of analytic writing, but also an inwardly critical eye.

And this is where the increasingly hurried pace of schools and teachers’ work is more than a concern for how teachers measure their job satisfaction; it becomes a threat to children actually learning.  It is not that we have merely adopted new, complicated standards that have been pushed into classrooms far too quickly and with questionable materials for classroom use, but also it is that by tying teachers’ promotion and job retention to student performance on standardized tests that, at best, can only approximate student learning (and then only when they are well-designed), we have incentivized teaching to those tests as literal make or break decision for teachers and schools.  Teachers are most heavily pushed in the current policy environment to focus on those student skills that prepare them for performance in multiple choice, timed examinations.  Students learning to process confusion and teachers promoting classrooms where students can risk failure so that they build genuine understanding over time?  Today’s concepts of teacher accountability can make teaching for powerful and transformative purposes a career ending decision.

Consider the process by which teachers in New Jersey are held accountable for “Student Growth Outcomes” (SGOs) in addition to student annual progress in standardized exams via Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs).  SGPs are related to value-added measures of teacher effectiveness which use predicted gains on student test scores as a measure of how well teachers are teaching.  The SGO process is supposedly a professional research investigation that every teacher in New Jersey must accomplish each year by examining what students know at the beginning of the year, making predictions about student growth after a year of instruction, designing instruction to promote that growth, and then demonstrating the students’ actual growth in the classroom.  SGOs are set every year by every teacher working with an administrator and submitted to the state for verification.  While layered with external accountability, the concept had potential to help teachers see their work as a process of continuous improvement in the “teacher as researcher” mode of professionalism.

In practice, this is, charitably, far more dicey.  New Jersey insists that SGOs must be clearly measurable, so qualitative investigations are out of the question.  However, teachers are not, by trade, quantitative measurement experts, and the instructions issued the state department of education strike me as highly questionable.  Consider the following selection from page 16 of the DOE handbook:

Setting the Standard for “Full Attainment” of the Student Growth Objective
In order to develop a scoring guide based on how well you meet your SGO, determine the following:
a) a target score on the final assessment that indicates considerable learning;
b) the number of students that could reasonably meet this mark;
c) the percentage of students in the course that this represents; and
d) a 10-15 percent range around this number.
For example, you and your evaluator may decide that 80% on a challenging assessment indicates considerable learning. Based on an initial evaluation of the 65 students in your course, your evaluator agrees with the assessment that about 50 of them could reasonably make this score at the end of the year. This is 77 percent of the students. You make 70-84 percent the range around this number. This means that if between 45 and 55 of students (70-84 percent of them) score at least 80% on the final assessment, you would have fully met the objective. This is shown in Figure 4 on page 16.
Setting Other Standards of Attainment
Once a range is established for “full attainment,” subtracting 10-15 percent from the lower range of “full attainment” will produce the “partial attainment” category. Any number below this range is the “insufficient attainment” category. Above the high end of the “full attainment” range is the “exceptional attainment” range.

The problem here is that there is absolutely no indication upon what teachers will determine what represents “considerable learning” and what percentage of students can be expected to meet this target other than a cursory examination of an early year assessment. Such determinations would have to be fairly complex statistical exercises if done with any recognition of the complexity of predicting individual student outcomes, and, in fact, give the very questionable reliability of VAMs and SGPs, we should question the SGO exercise being based upon similar assumptions.  Worse, the state handbook encourages setting of ranges that are entirely arbitrary, probably favoring a neat reporting of the data rather than a valid one.  Upon what basis are predicted ranges of student performance set in 10-15 percent intervals?  What individual and group characteristics make those ranges plausible?  If the state requires ranges of performance in 10-15 percent intervals, what happens in classrooms where initial student performance falls into different ranges?

I asked these questions at a training session on SGOs last Spring, and the answer was a wan smile.  Unsurprisingly, some reports from implementation suggest that the enterprise is time consuming and confusing.  Consider this account by teacher Douglas McGuirk of Dumont High School sent in a letter to Diane Ravitch of New York University:

The next day, the SGO was rejected, and my supervisor told me that all SGOs had been done incorrectly and that our staff would need training. We held a department meeting to review SGO policies. We then held an after school training session to discuss the writing of SGOs. I attended both of these. After two weeks of writing and rewriting my SGO, complete with all of the Core Curriculum Content Standards pasted from the web site, I finally had an acceptable SGO. I managed to accomplish absolutely no lesson planning during this period of time. I graded no papers. I am a veteran teacher with nine years in the profession. I understand how to manage my workload, overcome setbacks, and complete my responsibilities. In short, I am a professional who maintains a diligent work ethic.

But nothing could prepare me for the amount of time I had just spent on a new part of my job that basically exists so that I can continue to prove that I should be entitled to do the other parts of my job. After I completed my SGO, my principal told our staff to make sure we save all of the data, paperwork, and student work relating to our SGO, just in case people from the State want to review the integrity of the data. Seriously? This is the most egregious assumption that there is an infinite amount of time.

How different this is from more empowering visions of teachers researching their own practice.  Many proposals have been made over the years to have teachers treat their classrooms as ongoing research projects, and, indeed, the best teachers already do this informally by making ongoing assessments of what their students are learning and consistently adjusting instruction based upon what they need.  However, critical components of seeing teachers as researchers are things entirely absent from the SGO process: 1) authentic teacher interest in what is being studied; 2) time, space, and resources.  Consider how Eleanor Duckworth (1987) describes her conclusions about working with teachers researching their teaching:

“I am not proposing that schoolteachers single-handedly become published researchers in the development of human learning.  Rather, I am proposing that teaching, understood as engaging learners in phenomena and working to understand the sense they are making, might be the sine qua non of such research.

“This kind of research would be a teacher in the sense of caring about a part of the world and how it works enough to want to make it accessible to others; he or she would have to be fascinated by the questions of how to engage people in it and how people make sense of it; would have time and resources to pursue these questions to the depth of his or her interest, to write what he or she learned, and to contribute to the theoretical and pedagogical discussions on the nature and development of human learning.

“And then, I wonder – why should this be a separate research profession?  There is no reason I can think of not to rearrange the resources available to education so that this description defines the job of a public school teacher.  So this essay ends with a romance.  But then, it began with a passion.” (pp. 199-200)

Imagine policy and administrators at every level of the system actually facilitating a vision of teaching like this instead of placing roadblocks to thoughtfulness, contemplation, experimentation, and craft at nearly every juncture.  Such roadblocks not only prevent teachers from the careful work of improving their teaching, but also they stand in the way of students having time to truly get deep with their content and skills.  Hurried teachers do not genuinely improve their teaching, and hurried students do not genuinely deepen their understanding.

I want Slow Schools.

References:

Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Doyle, W. (1983). Academic work. Review of Educational Research, 53, 159-199.

Duckworth, E. (1987). The Having of wonderful ideas: and other essays on teaching and learning. New York City, NY: Teachers College Press.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: a sociological study. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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