Tag Archives: Common Core

Who Was The Last “Education President”?

On September 25th, 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush, then the Republican nominee for President, was in a debate with his Democratic Party rival, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, and declared that he wanted to be “The Education President.”

I want to be the education President, because I want to see us do better. We’re putting more money per child into education, and we are not performing as we should. […] And I would like to urge the school superintendents and the others around the country to stand up now and keep us moving forward on a path towards real excellence.

Eventually, the Republican nominee would become President George H.W. Bush, and his education agenda was a continuation of the path forged under Ronald Reagan that led to the era of test-based accountability.  Presidents and Presidential aspirants have all set their sights on making an impact on our nation’s education system, whether it was Bill Clinton calling for 90% graduation rates and “meaningful” national examination standards, or George W. Bush claiming standardized test scores were stagnant and promoting new accountability for teachers and students – including a system of rewards and punishments that would become known as No Child Left Behind, or Barack Obama promising more aid to the neediest schools, touting merit pay plans, and decrying too much focus on testing.

But who was the most recent occupant of the Oval Office who deserves the title “The Education President”?  When was the last time an American President signed into law an education bill that has had a substantial, sustained,  and positive impact upon education?

Gerald Ford.

This is not sarcasm because it was President Gerald Ford who, on November 29th, 1975, signed PL94-142, also known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, into law.  President Ford issued a signing statement expressing his concern that the law would cost too much, but over its 40 year history and re-authorization as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), the legislation has improved educational opportunities and outcomes for millions upon millions of students who had previously faced neglect and discrimination within school.  While the law continuously needs reflection and improvement, especially in the realm of federal funding which has never approached the 40% promised by Congress in 1975, the legislation remains a landmark that provides the basis for a vastly expanded mission for our nation’s schools and progress towards fulfilling opportunity for all.

Ford

PL94-142 was not an isolated case of federal legislation signed by the President improving our nation’s schools.  President Richard Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that included Section 504, providing protection from discrimination based on disability when an employer or organization receives federal funding.  Section 504 meant that schools could not bar students with physical and mental impairments from receiving an education and required them to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all qualified students.   Prior to signing this legislation, President Nixon signed the Education Amendments of 1972 which included Title IX, stating, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Nixon

President Lyndon Johnson, following the landmark Civil Rights Act, signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law on April 11th, 1965.  The original law provided federal funds for research, strengthening state departments of education, and, perhaps most importantly, funding to assist the schooling of low income students, and among its earliest amendments were provisions for handicapped children and bilingual education programs.  The Title I provisions, especially, noted the inequitable ways in which schools are funded using property tax revenues that immediately place communities with high percentages of low income families at a disadvantage.  Although the ESEA has since been subsumed by the standardized test based accountability regime of the 2001 amendments known as No Child Left Behind, the original legislation was intended to help with President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” by bringing resources that only the federal government could leverage to schools serving our neediest children.

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Indeed, that focus upon using federal reach and the enforcement of civil rights to expand resources available to schools while requiring them not to discriminate upon race, gender, language spoken, or disability status marked a robust period of education legislation premised upon equity and the recognition that certain populations of students were historically marginalized and required direct action of the law aimed at states and municipalities that might have otherwise ignored them.  In many regards, these efforts were astonishingly successful.  In 1971, before the passage of Title IX, women were 3.7 million of 8.9 million college students.  In 1991, they were 7.7 million of 14.1 million.  Before the passage of PL94-142, 5.9% of students in public schools were identified as disabled with no data available on the numbers with specific learning disabilities.  In 1989, 11.4% of students were identified as disabled, including more than 2 million classified with specific learning disabilities.  These efforts were substantive, aimed at increasing access and equity, and their positive benefits have continued for decades and likely more to come.

Since then?  Not so much.

President Ronald Reagan, after campaigning on abolishing the newly minted cabinet seat of Secretary of Education, set education policy away from equity and opportunity and into standards and accountability with the harsh language of school failure that has dominated our discussion  ever since the 1983 publication of A Nation At Risk:

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.

Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them. This report, the result of 18 months of study, seeks to generate reform of our educational system in fundamental ways and to renew the Nation’s commitment to schools and colleges of high quality throughout the length and breadth of our land.

The Reagan Administration followed in 1988 with amendments to the ESEA requiring states to “document and define” academic achievement for disadvantaged students using standardized test score measures, and ESEA funds began being tied to academic performance of disadvantaged children.  President George H.W. Bush proposed his “America 2000” legislation calling for national standards and testing of students but which failed due to conservative opposition in the Senate.  Standards based education policies were similarly advanced, however, by President Bill Clinton whose “Goals 2000” agenda focused upon student achievement, tougher academic standards, application of those standards to all students, and monitoring reform efforts via standardized testing.

The stage, then, was well set by three previous administrations for the 2001 re-authorization of the ESEA which was touted as “No Child Left Behind” by President George W. Bush.  NCLB required all schools to demonstrate annual yearly progress for all students in all subgroups, and failure to meet AYP for five years in row could result in school closures, turning schools over to private charter operators, or giving school operation to private or state managers.

Upon passage, the law enjoyed support in both parties and numerous civil rights organizations, and the logic of that is not difficult to understand.  By 2001, wide gulfs in test measured achievement remained stubbornly persistent between well off, mostly white, suburban communities and their poor, most African American and Hispanic, urban counterparts, and the language of NCLB demanded that states and municipalities address that through accountability systems with little wiggle room.  Given the undeniable need for federal action in both civil rights and expansion of educational equity in the 1960s and 1970s, the federal accountability in NCLB was a logical, if ill-fated, marriage of federal standards and accountability efforts with vigorous enforcement from Washington.

The ill-fated portion of that assessment lies with what was obvious from the beginning: by tying lofty goals to punishing consequences dependent entirely upon the results of standardized testing, NCLB unleashed entirely predictable and increasingly damaging consequences to the depth and breadth of curriculum enjoyed by children, especially children in schools labeled as struggling:

In contrast, since the advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with its high stakes for schools, the traditional pattern of time allocation across subjects in elementary schools has changed markedly. Five years into NCLB, researchers found that 62 percent of a nationally representative sample of all districts in the United States—and 75 percent of districts with at least one school identified as needing improvement—increased the amount of time spent on language arts and math in elementary schools. These increases were substantial: a 47 percent increase in language arts and a 37 percent increase in math. Correspondingly, these districts decreased time allotted to other subjects and activities, including science, social studies, art, music, physical education, and recess (McMurrer, 2007).

President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 as a Presidential aspirant who was aware of these fact, deriding the test and punish focus of the law, the lack of resources given to schools and teachers working with struggling students, and the teaching to the test that was incentivized by the law:

“Math and science are not the opposite of art and music. Those things are compatible and we want kids to get a well-rounded education. Part of the problem we’ve had is that ‘No Child Left Behind,’ the law that was passed by Bush, said we want high standards, which is good, but they said we are going to measure those high standards only by a single high stakes standardized test that we are going to apply during the middle of the school year…a whole bunch of schools said we gotta teach to this test, and art and music isn’t tested… It’s a shame.”

In reality, the administration of President Barack Obama, while loosening some of the proficiency targets of NCLB, has plainly made the most problematic aspects of the law even worse, and quite likely earning President Obama the label as the worst President for education policy in the post-World War II era.  President Obama, acting through Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has made testing an even bigger focus of school by coercing states to adopt invalid and unproven measures of teacher performance using standardized tests.  Instead of merely working in a school that faces negative consequences based on test scores, teachers themselves face career sanctions if they do not “adequately” raise student test scores.  President Obama’s Department of Education has lavished money and favorable policies upon the charter school sector while thoroughly failing to oversee the money it has dispersed.   The administration was so interested in fulfilling the long held goal of national standards, that it helped the Gates Foundation push through rushed and unproven standards to almost all states by using the promise of federal grants and waivers from NCLB provisions.  These changes have been touted as voluntary and “state led,” but when Washington state did not pass legislation tying teacher evaluations to student growth measures, the Obama DOE brought down the hammer and revoked its waiver.

Today, 32 years after the beginning of the standards and accountability movement, 14 years into the test and punish era of school accountability, and almost 7 years into the Obama administration’s doubling down on standardized testing to measure teachers, teacher morale is at all time lows and the nation’s teacher preparation programs are struggling to find candidates.  Far from continuing the vital work of expanded opportunity and equity that spanned administrations from President Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas to  President Ford’s signing of PL94-142, the past five administrations have slowly tightened the grip of standardized testing on our schools until they have become a warped goal in and of themselves and have damaged the very children supposedly helped by them.  Standardized tests used to sort children have always disproportionately harmed poor children and children of color, and the frequent, high-stakes, accountability testing of NCLB has both narrowed the curriculum and slowed progress in closing the achievement gap, progress that saw its most sustained and dramatic gains in the 1970s.

So what has been missing from the education policies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama? Equity.  The educational policies that came to fruition via the original ESEA, Title IX, Section 504, and PL94-142 all were premised on the federal role of expanding resources and equity for children facing discrimination in school and society at large.  They marshaled funding and rules for schools so that they could not deny either access or equity, and they tasked the federal government with treating these as matters of civil rights.  More recent “reform” efforts are entirely about accountability without increasing the resources available to schools in order to meet those goals in a meaningful way, nor does “reform” specifically address the conditions within which schools exist, leaving them with the sole responsibility to uplift all children regardless of circumstance.  Where once federal education efforts sought to increase access to education and to increase the resources available for that education, today it demands that school increase performance in all situations without any other state actor taking responsibility for the well-being of the children in school.  David Berliner noted this in 2006:

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

We won’t have a President who deserves the title “The Education President” until we once again have a public servant in the Oval Office who sets equity of access and equity of resources as primary goals of federal education policy.  Five administrations ignoring the lessons of history and the evidence of research is enough.

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“Wait, you hated your teachers too?”

 

 

 

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Filed under Activism, Arne Duncan, charter schools, Common Core, Funding, Gates Foundation, NCLB, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, Testing, VAMs

When is a Pledge to Decrease Testing Not a Pledge to Decrease Testing?

Apparently, when President Obama makes it.

Honestly, at this point in his administration, expecting President Obama to well and truly take action to reverse the damage of the “test and punish” era of school accountability is like expecting the Bush administration to not start unnecessary wars.  That, however, did not prevent the national media from declaring that President Obama’s weekend call for reducing the burden of standardized testing in public schools a major departure from previous policies.  David Dayen of Salon gushed that the President was breaking “with twenty years of precedent,” and Mother Jones’ Julia Lurie wrote that “the announcement represents a significant change in course for the Obama administration.” Nearly every major news outlet declared the announcement a move to limit the time spent on standardized testing in school, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten hopefully declared the announcement a move towards fixing an urgent problem in education today:

People deeply informed on the issue of high stakes testing and its warping impact on our schools are far less hopeful than President Weingarten and not remotely as gushing as the national press.  Peter Greene of Curmudgucation held no punches over the weekend, flatly declaring that the Obama plan “sucks and changes nothing.”  His key points are entirely accurate and properly cut through the smoke and mirrors of the announcement to a purpose more aimed at trying to trick anti-testing advocates into complacency:

The fact that the administration noticed, again, that there’s an issue here is nice. But all they’re doing is laying down a barrage of protective PR cover. This is, once again, worse than nothing because it not only doesn’t really address the problem, but it encourages everyone to throw a victory party, put down their angry signs, and go home. Don’t go to the party, and don’t put down your signs.

Anthony Cody of Living in Dialogue noted, quite correctly, that President Obama has sounded this note before and utterly failed to follow through with anything that would diminish the punishing role of current testing policies.  The administration apparently hopes the announcement and some minor shifts will allow them to bide their time while changing very little:

First, President Obama remains unaware of the very limited educational value of standardized tests, and second, the administration remains absolutely committed to tests playing a key role in America’s classrooms. As some have pointed out, now that the PARCC and SBAC tests are here, and have plainly failed to deliver on Duncan’s 2010 promise that they would measure creativity and critical thinking so much better than any previous test, now we are looking forward to the NEXT generation of tests, which will be “competency-based.” Cue the test vendors for another multi-million dollar development project.

No matter how bad the current tests are, the new and better tests are always just around the corner. And anyone who dares to question this optimistic projection is a Luddite afraid of accountability.

Dr. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, an expert on value added measures at Arizona State University, was not impressed with the announcement either, noting that the proposed 2% limit on time spent on testing would still mean 18 hours of annual standardized test taking time for most students.  She further observed:

In addition, all of this was also based (at least in part, see also here) on new survey results recently released by the Council of the Great City Schools, in which researchers set out to determine how much time is spent on testing. They found that across their (large) district members, the average time spent testing was “surprisingly low [?!?]” at 2.34%, which study authors calculate to be approximately 4.22 total days spent on just testing (i.e., around 21 hours if one assumes, again, an average day’s instructional time = 5 hours). Again, this does not include time spent preparing for tests, nor does it include other non-standardized tests (e.g., those that teachers develop and use to assess their students’ learning).

So, really, the feds did not decrease the amount of time spent testing really at all, they literally just rounded down, losing 34 hundredths of a whole. For more information about this survey research study, click here.

Interestingly, the 2% idea apparently comes from Secretary Duncan’s slated replacement, former New York Commissioner and current senior adviser, Dr. John King Jr. who puts such a limit in place in New York in order to placate growing concerns over the dominant role of standardized testing in the state.

Well, we all know how that turned out, right?

Perhaps most damning was the scathing response penned by Robert Pondiscio for US News and Word Report.  Mr. Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that has been highly supportive of the Common Core and associated testing, an adviser to the Democracy Prep chain of no-excuses charter schools, and while he is generally well disposed to the data from standardized testing, he has also been willing to question to impact of the stakes attached to them in the current environment.  That questioning was in overdrive in his commentary:

But one would have to be cynical or naive not to understand that the moment you use tests, which are designed to measure student performance, to trigger various corrective actions and interventions effecting teachers and schools, you are fundamentally shifting tests from providing evidence of student performance to something closer to the very purpose of schooling. This is precisely what has been occurring in our schools for the last decade or more. When parents complain, rightfully so, about over-testing, what they are almost certainly responding to is not the tests themselves, which take up a vanishingly small amount of class time, but the effects of test-and-prep culture, which has fundamentally changed the experience of schooling for our children, and not always for the better.

The Obama talk on testing seeks to curry favor with parents and teachers (and their unions) while doing nearly nothing to change the fundamental role of testing and its effect on schooling. It’s all well and good to “encourage” states, districts and schools to limit testing, but as long as test-driven accountability measures, which are driven substantially by federal law, are used not to provide feedback to parents and other stakeholders but to trigger corrective measures in schools, it won’t matter if children take two tests or 2000; the effects will be the same.

While I question the degree of positives that Mr. Pondiscio lavishes upon standardized testing data (“the life-blood that courses through the arteries” – really?), I am not, myself, against limited standardized testing being part of a comprehensive system of school monitoring and being the very beginning point of school improvement efforts.  What is most striking to me is how clearly, however, that Mr. Pondsicio has identified the problem with the perverse incentives testing has placed upon our schools in the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top:  The stakes placed upon the tests have transformed their purpose from being “in the background” monitors of schools, school systems, and state performance into being objects unto themselves.  The tests and “adding value” to student performance on them have become a substantial purpose of education instead of a by product of a rich and meaningful educational program.

That’s a problem, and it is good that someone prominent in education reform circles has noted it for some time now and is willing to go on record in a major publication to call President Obama and his education team to the mat for it.  Mr. Pondiscio, who says test based measures are the most reliable and objective teacher evaluation tool, appears willing to give that up because its side effects have driven teachers away from the Common Core and from any testing whatsoever.  I disagree vigorously with the idea that test based measure are either reliable or objective (and the bulk of the research evidence is on my side on this), but I actually sympathize with Mr. Pondiscio’s predicament and his apparent frustration that the administration steadfastly refuses to get it.  I have written on this before, urging reformers who really want a chance at building support for common standards and who value the use of standardized testing at all to decouple them from high stakes before popular revulsion violently swings the pendulum out of their reach for the next two decades.  Common standards, done thoughtfully and carefully (the Common Core were not) and disseminated by genuine common interest among states entering fully voluntary partnerships (the states in Common Core did not) and offered to teachers with appropriate time for development of their own knowledge and curricula with high quality materials (teachers in Common Core states never got that) is a defensible proposition.  Comprehensive system monitoring that uses standardized test data limited to the purposes for which it can work well is also entirely defensible.

It is also swirling in the drain reserved for ideas that end up flushed out of the education system, and Mr. Pondiscio appears aware that he has many of his own allies to blame for it, and, hence, his frustration.  The problem, however, is one that his allies in Washington and various state capitols also seem unwilling to acknowledge, and unless, they do acknowledge it, they have little incentive to back off of testing policies tied to high stakes.

The problem is that they are lazy.

School accountability and improvement is difficult and often uncertain work.  When used honestly, standardized test score data can tell you where to begin, but it should never be confused with evidence of what needs to happen in a school.  Are there schools with low test scores and low value added that are Dickensian nightmares that should be closed as soon as possible?  Sure.  There are 98,000 public schools in the country.  But there are also schools with low test scores and low value added that are full of devoted teachers, strong school leaders, and committed parents, but who need resources to provide genuine educational opportunities for all learners and to do so in a way that does not cheat them of a well-rounded and holistic education.  For that matter, there are schools that boast of their great test scores and high value added, but they get there by being Victorian work houses worthy of Scrooge where children are basically beaten into submission.

The point is that you do not know until you go to the school and actually investigate.

But the Arne Duncans and the John Kings do not want to do that.  They want to sit in offices in Albany and Washington, look over spreadsheets, and make sweeping judgements about which schools are winners and which schools are losers.  They cannot really give up the high stakes attached to the standardized tests because that would mean they would have to do the hard of work of accountability and renewal, the work that actually can inform smart choices based upon community input.

And we can’t have that, now, can we?

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Filed under Arne Duncan, Common Core, John King, Testing, VAMs

Lies, Damned Lies, and PARCC Scores

In February of this year, as communities and schools in New Jersey were awaiting the arrival of PARCC testing, I wrote this opinion piece for the Bergen County Record.  In it, I said:

What can be expected? If experiences of other states that have already implemented PARCC- and CCSS-aligned exams are illustrative, New Jersey’s teachers, students and parents can expect steep declines in the percentage of students scoring in the higher levels of achievement. Neighboring New York, for example, has its own Pearson-designed CCSS-aligned exam, and the percentage of students scoring proficient or highly proficient was cut essentially in half to roughly 35 percent for both math and English….

….There is no reason to believe that 11th-graders today are any less skilled than their peers who took the HSPA last year or who took the NAEP in 2013, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that a drop in scores on PARCC will be exploited for political purposes.

It is a terrible burden being proven correct so often.

The New Jersey DOE released its report on the statewide results on PARCC this week, and immediately their meaning was thoroughly misrepresented by the media and by state Commissioner David Hespe. Writing for NJ.com, Adam Clark said that the results mean “The majority of New Jersey students in grades 3 through 11 failed to meet grade-level expectations on controversial math and English tests the state says provide the most accurate measurement of student performance yet.”  In the same article, Commissioner Hespe is cited as saying:

Overall, the results show that high school graduation requirements are not rigorous enough for most students to be successful after graduation, state Education Commissioner David Hespe said. The 2014-15 results set a new baseline for improving student achievement, he said.

“There is still much work to be done in ensuring all of our students are fully prepared for the 21st century demands of college and career,” Hespe said.

Neither claim is remotely based on a factual representation of what these test scores mean.  As my colleague Dr. Chris Tienken noted:

To begin with, the statement that the majority of students “failed to meet grade level expectations” is entirely dependent upon the “meets expectations” and “exceeds expectations” being a proper representation of “grade level” work for each year tested.  There is no basis for making this determination.  PARCC has not provided research to bolster that claim, and, more importantly, we know that reading passages in the exam were specifically several grade levels above what can be developmentally expected of different aged readers.  Russ Walsh of Rider University analyzed sample PARCC reading passages that were available in February of this year, and he found that using most agreed upon methods of determining readability that they were inappropriate for use in testing.  There is no justification for such choices in test design unless the test makers want to push the cut scores for meeting and exceeding expectations well above what the median student is even capable of developmentally.  It is therefore entirely unjustifiable to call these examination results proof that our students are not doing their work “at grade level,” and honestly, it is getting damned tiring to have to repeat that endlessly.

Commissioner Hespe’s comments were no more helpful, and certainly were not based in facts.  The Commissioner repeated the often heard claims that the PARCC exams represent a more appropriate set of skills to demonstrate that our students are “ready” for the 21st Century and to measure their “college and career readiness,” but the justifications for those claims have never been subjected to public scrutiny.  While the language of “college and career readiness” is slathered all over the Common Core State Standards and the aligned examinations written by PARCC and SBAC, repeating a slogan is a marketing tool rather than research validation.  Five years after the standards were rammed through into 43 states and the District of Columbia, we are no closer to understanding the validity of the claim that the standards embody “college and career readiness” nor are we closer to knowing that the examinations can sort out who is or is not “ready.”

Further, the Commissioner’s claim that the test results “prove” that New Jersey high school graduation requirements are “not rigorous enough for most students to be successful after graduation” rests on two unproven contentions: 1) that PARCC actually is sorting those who are “ready” for college and careers from those who are not and 2) students who do not score “at expectations” or above can blame any lack of success they have later in life on their primary and secondary education rather than on macroeconomic forces that have systematically hollowed out opportunity.

Let’s consider the first part of that claim.  PARCC claims that its Pearson written exam is a “next generation” assessment that really requires students to think rather than to respond, but does it actually achieve that end?  Julie Campbell of Dobbs Ferry, New York, has had experience with students taking the New York common core aligned examinations which are also written by Pearson, and while she is supportive of the Common Core Standards, she is highly critical of the caliber of “thinking” the exams require:

The four-point extended response question is troubling in and of itself because it instructs students to: explain how Zac Sunderland from “The Young Man and the Sea” demonstrates the ideas described in “How to be a Smart Risk-Taker.”  After reading both passages, one might find it difficult to argue that Zac Sunderland demonstrates the ideas found in “How to be a Smart Risk-Taker” because sailing solo around the world as a teenager is a pretty outrageous risk! But the question does not allow students to evaluate Zac as a risk taker and decide whether he demonstrates the ideas in the risk taker passage. Such a question, in fact, could be a good critical thinking exercise in line with the Common Core standards! Rather students are essentially given a thesis that they must defend: they MUST prove that Zac demonstrates competency in his risk/reward analysis.

So one can hardly be surprised to find an answer like this:

 One idea described in “How to be a Smart Risk-taker” is evaluating risks. It is smart to take a risk only when the potential upside outweighs the potential downside. Zac took the risk because the downside “dying” was outweighed by the upside (adventure, experience, record, and showing that young people can do way more than expected from them). (pg 87)

Do you find this to be a valid claim? Is the downside of “dying” really outweighed by the upside, “adventure”? Is this example indicative of Zac Sunderland being a “Smart Risk Taker”? I think most reasonable people would argue against this notion and surmise that the student has a flawed understanding of risk/reward based on the passage. According to Pearson and New York State, however, this response is exemplary. It gets a 4.

There may not be “one right answer” in an examination like this, but what might be actually worse is that students can be actively coached to submit “plug and play” answers which mimic a style of thinking but which have no depth and, worse, can be nonsensical just so long as they hit the correct rubric markers.

We should also question Commissioner Hespe’s contention that these exams are showing us anything new about our high school graduates and students in general.  They most decidedly are not.  Again, the New York experience is illustrative. Jersey Jazzman does an outstanding job demonstrating that in New York State, even as proficiency levels tumbled off the proverbial cliff, the actual distribution of scale scores on the different exams barely moved at all.  The reason is simple: once raw scores are converted into scale scores on a standardized exam, they, by design, reflect a normal distribution of scores, and it does not matter if the exam is “harder” or not — the distribution of scaled scores will continue to represent a bell curve, and once the previous scores and current scores are represented by a scatter plot, 85% of the new scores are explained by the old scores.  In other words: the “new” and “better” tests were not actually saying anything that was not known by the older tests.  The decision to set proficiency levels so that many fewer students are “meeting expectations” is a choice that is completely unrelated to the distribution of scores on the tests.

So let’s check if we really are concerned that New Jersey students are graduating not “ready for college and careers.”  Here are the statewide scores on PARCC according to the DOE release:

NJ ELA PARCC

NJ MATH PARCC

So this means, in the language of PARCC, that “only” 41% of New Jersey 11th graders are “on track” to be “college and career ready” in English, and “only” 36% of Algebra students are similarly situated (Again, remember that score distributions are likely almost entirely unchanged from the previous state assessments – this is about how high the cut scores are set).  Oddly enough, the DOE pretty much admits that we did not need PARCC to demonstrate this to us because New Jersey participates in the National Assessment of Educational Progress testing every several years, and, wouldn’t you know it, NAEP and PARCC results are not perfectly aligned, but they come pretty darned close (as do SAT and ACT scores):

NJ NAEP AND PARCC

The high school reading and algebra proficiency levels are almost entirely identical comparing PARCC to NAEP.  Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University sat on the NAEP Board of Governors and has repeatedly explained that both the “advanced” and “proficient” levels in NAEP represent very high level work at the “A” level for secondary students.  So not only have the PARCC scores told us things about our students in NJ that we already knew from NAEP, but also it reaffirms the NAEP findings that over 40% of New Jersey high school seniors are capable of A level work in English and over a third of those students are capable of A level work in Algebra.

If the goal is to have all of our students “college and career ready” by reading and doing algebra at the “meets” and “exceeds expectations” level on a test roughly correlated to NAEP levels indicating A level achievement, then we might as well shut down shop right now because our schools will always fail.  Moreover, we should vigorously question the implication that any student getting respectful if not outstanding grades in core subjects is doomed to failure, and we should certainly question a goal of “college and career readiness” that appears entirely limited to “ready for admission to a 4 year selective college.”  The nonsensical approach of using cut scores to identify the percentage of students likely to seek a 4 year degree and labeling them our only students who are “ready” is based more on a desire to label more schools and students as failures than any other consideration.

The reality is that there are crises relating to education and opportunity both in New Jersey and in the country as a whole.  The first crisis is related to the distribution of opportunity via our education system.  I can walk a few miles from the campus where I teach and find a community where over 70% of the adults over the age of 25 have a college degree, and I can walk a few miles in the exact opposite direction and find a community where that is only 12% of the population.  That is unacceptable and needs to change; it is also something that we knew full well before the PARCC examinations came along, and which we will not address by berating test scores while ignoring the importance of fair and equitable school funding.

The second crisis is in our economy and the simple fact that our economy has shown no signs of actually needing more people with bachelors degrees.  Since 1986, the dollar adjusted wages for people with a BA in the country have grown only by $700, but the college wage premium has grown largely because of the collapse of wages for people without those degrees:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

Far from needing many more college graduates, which would push wages even further down, we need an economy where people who work full time without a degree can survive well above subsistence level and closer to their college educated peers as they used to before 1980.  Unless Commissioner Hespe and his fellow PARCC supporters are arguing that college really is the new high school – in which case they had better get to work right away finding a way to make it free for everyone because we cannot possibly survive an economic system that both requires everyone to have a specific degree and requires them to accumulate crushing debt in pursuit of it.

(Just a side observation:  remember when PARCC promised that their “next generation assessments” would “help teachers know where to strengthen their instruction and let parents know how their children are doing”?  It is now about half a year later, and those students have been in their NEW teachers’ classrooms for almost 2 full months now. It is far too late for teachers to even use the score reports to make adjustments in their curricula that they were developing all summer long without the PARCC results. If the goal of the assessments was to give teachers actionable data in anything remotely resembling real time, they are a crashing, embarrassing failure, and given the testing schedule in late Spring, they are likely to remain so.)

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Filed under Common Core, Opt Out, PARCC, Testing

The Passion of St. Arne

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will step down at the end of this year, and President Obama has announced that he will be replaced by former New York Commissioner of Education Dr. John King, Jr. as the acting Secretary of Education through the remainder of the administration.  Praising his often embattled Secretary of Education, President Obama said, ““He’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else….America will be better off for what he has done.”

We’ll leave that judgement to history.

As is often the case when prominent Washington figures prepare to ride off into the sunset (or out of town under cover of darkness depending on your point of view) it is time for “legacy punditry” to kick into overdrive and attempt to place Secretary Duncan in history.  Most of it is premature.  Quite a lot of it is insipid. And much of it just cannot resist creating a “balanced” narrative whether it is honest or not, which is where, Secretary Arne Duncan, Martyr of the Intransigent Teacher Unions comes into play.  Michael Grunwald of Politico.com wrote just such a piece last week, explaining the the choice of John King signals that President Obama has no intention of backing off any controversial reforms and strongly emphasizing union opposition to both Secretary Duncan and his chosen successor:

Duncan has been the public face of those differences; the National Education Association called for his resignation, while the American Federation of Teachers put him on an “improvement plan” like the ones school reformers have endorsed for incompetent teachers. He is leaving with U.S. graduation rates at an all-time high and dropout rates at an all-time low, but there has been a growing bipartisan backlash over some of his favored reforms, like the Common Core math and reading standards (derided as “Obamacore” by many conservatives) or the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations (derided as “test-and-punish” by unions). I recently mentioned to Duncan that it seems like the main theme uniting his reforms has been the idea that adults in the education system should be held accountable for making sure kids learn. “Just a little bit!” he responded.

That is, shall we say, a very charitable explanation of the central themes in Secretary Duncan’s reform portfolio of Common Core standards, high stakes testing, value added measures in teacher assessment, and favoritism for charter schools despite the ongoing and shocking series of scandals coming out of the sector.  Another way of explaining the Arne Duncan is approach is to ratchet up expectations without increasing supports, mistake things that are harder with things that are better, work hand in hand with one billionaire’s vision of education reform to push through or coerce over 40 states to adopt new standards largely written in secret, and ignore growing mountains of evidence that growth measures from standardized tests are not suited for individual teacher evaluation.  So while Mr. Grunwald may be right to point out union exasperation with Mr. Duncan and concern about his successor, there is a hell of a lot of context to that exasperation that is left out as he tries to balance his piece with current critics of both men.

So let me state it very clearly:  Secretary Duncan in Washington and Commissioner King in New York absolutely were not victims of the teacher unions.  They are victims of their own bull headed insistence in backing abjectly harmful policies even as the evidence mounted that they are harmful.

But that does not make a traditional Washington narrative where if there is one side, there must be an equal and equivalent other side, so the story of President Obama’s embattled Secretary of Education and his soon to be embattled next Secretary of Education is one where the reform side faces implacable resistance from unions seeking to maintain the status quo at all costs.  It is true that the National Education Association called for Arne Duncan’s resignation, and it is true that the American Federation of Teachers put him on a metaphorical improvement plan — last year.  After years of trying to work with education reform.

Both the NEA and AFT were early supporters of the Common Core State Standards and maintain high levels of support for the standards themselves to this day.  The NEA maintains this website on the CCSS, including a “ten facts” section that could have been penned by David Coleman himself, and the AFT is equally optimistic going back to a 2011 resolution urging good implementation.  Both national unions took initially positive views of potentially using student test score data as part of a “multiple measures” approach to teacher evaluation.  Part of the AFT’s 2010 statement on teacher evaluation and labor-management relations reads:

AFT teacher eval 2010

And from the NEA’s 2011 policy statement:

NEA teacher eval 2011

While both unions have repeatedly warned Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration that the push for more and more standardized testing was risking the entire education reform agenda, both unions were cooperative early on with key elements of education reform from the Obama White House: Common Core State Standards and the use of standardized testing data aligned with those standards in teacher evaluation.  It just so happens that these were key components in the White House’s Race to the Top grant competition and were conditions that had to be met to be granted waivers from the worst consequences of No Child Left Behind.  It also just so happens that another person, outside of the Cabinet, was pushing hard to get people on board to support the Common Core standards and growth models based on standardized tests:

Bill Gates

Not for nothing, both unions and their respective leaders at the time were listed as “important partners” when the Gates Foundation in 2009 announced $290 million in grants to 4 major school districts across the country to “develop and implement new approaches, strategies, and policies, including adopting better measures of teacher effectiveness that include growth in student achievement and college readiness; using those measures to boost teacher development, training, and support; tying tenure decisions more closely to teacher effectiveness measures and rewarding highly effective teachers through new career and compensation opportunities that keep them in the classroom; strengthening school leadership; and providing incentives for the most effective teachers to work in the highest-need schools and classrooms.”  The same announcement included the plan to spend $45 million on the Measures of Effective Teaching study – more or less to buy the research saying growth measures based on test data can be used in teacher evaluation and which, well, comes to that conclusion via some seriously dubious reasoning.  President of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, eventually backtracked from the support of growth measures in teacher evaluation, saying “VAM is a sham,” but this was in 2014, long after flaws with the Measures of Effective Teaching study’s conclusion began to be obvious.

So let’s be very clear: far from being antagonists to the Obama White House on education reform, the national teacher unions were key partners in critical elements of it from early on.  If Secretary Duncan’s simply G-d awful oversight of those initiatives (thoughtfully organized for careful consumption by Jersey Jazzman here) finally turned those organizations against him by 2014, it is strange to place union opposition at the center of the story.  In fact, despite the increased criticism and despite the late support for the parental Opt Out movement, teacher unions are STILL keeping their biggest leverage at bay.  Both the NEA and the AFT have already endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for President despite her long standing connections with figures like John Podesta, who is running her campaign and was the founder of the Center for American Progress, a left of center think tank that is reliably in the pro-reform camp.  Further, with a few high visibility exceptions like the Chicago and Seattle strikes, neither union has been eager to take to the streets in opposition to the Duncan education agenda.  You don’t have to take my word for it, either.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics has an historic table of labor actions by any group of workers over 1000. The average public school teacher to pupil ratio in 2011 was 16 to 1 (this includes special education teachers and teachers of non-core classes), and there are 453 school districts in the country with more than 16,000 students – meaning if their teacher workforce went on strike, they’d be recorded in the BLM tables.  Considering how the education reforms most embraced by Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration have played out most contentiously in our large urban school systems, wouldn’t we be embroiled in job actions across the country if the AFT and NEA were the kind of opposition imagined by Michael Grunwald in his Politico piece?

I am sure that Secretary Duncan and his supporters both in the White House and in the education reform community would like to invoke the image of a martyr in a passion play, set upon by self interested forces seeking to maintain their privilege at the expense of the nation’s children.  But our national teacher unions do not fit that bill.  Far from opposing the reforms proposed from the Obama Department of Education, they embraced large portions of it and offered mainly precautions rather than opposition on other parts.  While elements of reform policies from this administration were involved in the Chicago Teacher Strike in 2012, there simply has not been labor unrest promoted by the AFT and NEA in the past 6 years.  Discontent among rank and file teachers has been growing in recent years, but union leadership did not really turn the corner on Arne Duncan until 2014. Value added measures are so poorly suited for teacher evaluation that the American Statistical Association urged policy makers not to use them, but AFT President Randi Weingarten’s opposition to VAMs preceded the ASA statement by only 3 months.

The reality is that Arne Duncan and John King did not merely run afoul of national and state level teacher unions – after years of doggedly pursuing policies that harm teaching – they ran afoul of parents and lawmakers as well.  Key aspects of Duncan and King’s favorite reforms are not favored by Americans and by parents even less so.  While charter schools enjoy public support, the Common Core standards, standardized testing, and using test data to evaluate teachers are widely viewed negatively.  67% of public school parents agree there is too much emphasis on standardized tests, and 80% of public school parents said student engagement was “very important” for measuring effectiveness compared to only 14% who said the same about test scores. 63% of public school parents disapprove of using standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

I’m not the only one noticing a theme here, right?  The problems that faced Arne Duncan and which John King faced in New York and will now face on a national level are problems born of loss of trust from parents, key stakeholders in education who turned around between 2009 and 2014 to find huge portions of their schools changing without even the least effort to include them in the conversation.  Secretary Duncan’s tin ear on these matters is almost legendary, but his successor may actually be worse, if that is possible. Dr. King could never communicate effectively with parents, leading to disastrous public meetings, and his refusal to discuss issues or entertain other viewpoints led lawmakers to bipartisan calls for his removal from office.  Mr. Grundwald’s piece in Politico suggests that Dr. King’s problem in New York were mainly with the union, but he fails to acknowledge that he left Albany just ahead of an angry mob of parents and legislators.

Sadly, it is the very background that Mr. Grunwald suggests should help Dr. King repair relationships with the nation’s teachers that actually prevents him from doing so.  Dr. King’s background story includes the loss of his teacher mother at a young age and his crediting teachers for turning around his life (Peter Greene rightly wonders if those same Brooklyn teachers, working under Dr. King’s policy environment, would have the room to set aside pacing guides and practice tests to nurture a child in need).  His allies in reform took to Twitter with #ISupportJohnKing to tout his life in education, but his particular life in education left him sorely unprepared for his role as NY Commissioner and even less prepared to be Secretary of Education.  Dr. King taught for three years, only one of them in a fully public school.  He then helped to found Roxbury Prep charter school in Boston before helping to found the Uncommon School network of no excuses charter schools, which relies heavily on out of school suspensions far in excess of local schools where they operate.  As a “no excuses” chain, Uncommon Schools can employ discipline methods disallowed by public schools and parents have no say if they disagree.  Dr. King was tapped from this sector to become Deputy Commissioner in New York and then ascended to the Commissioner’s office in 2011 at the age of 36.

Dr. King has almost no experience in his career where he was answerable to parents and the overlapping constituencies that are stakeholders in public education.  His style of charter school is almost entirely private in operation and parents unhappy with the way the school operates have no input via elected boards. He never served as principal of a fully public school or as a superintendent in a public school district where he was answerable to different people with sometimes opposing interests that needed to find compromise.  That lack of experience was evident in New York state as he increasingly avoided engaging parents and legislators, and there is no reason to believe he will change in the Secretary’s office.  While our new Secretary of Education will certainly be in for tough times from the national teacher unions, he will undoubtedly be in for equally or worse rough times from parents.

Inflexible unions versus the earnest reformers makes for good copy.  But it isn’t even half the story.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Common Core, John King, politics

Reading at Frustration Level with J.K. Rowling

One of the more esoteric and interesting debates centered around the Common Core State Standards for English centers around text complexity and the concept of reading at “frustration level.”  The general idea behind instructing children at this level of text is that in order to improve as readers, children cannot only read texts that are within their current skill level and should be instructed using materials that challenge their reading.  As this article at Education Week notes, this is hardly a new concept, and it recapitulates debates that have gone on in reading circles for some time about the “best” ways to encourage young readers to develop.

On the one hand, the idea of instruction at so-called “frustration level” should not be exceptionally controversial if done by skilled teachers using high quality materials and carefully planned instruction.  After all, education theory has long accepted the idea of a “zone of proximal development” where a learner can accomplish a particular task with guidance and scaffolding and which exists between what the learner can do comfortably and what the learner cannot do yet.  Within this concept, we accept the likelihood that a learner will experience some degree of frustration and will make mistakes which can be actually instructive.  Movement from one “side” of the zone to the other is a matter of real accomplishment for learners, and since reading is a skill where learners move from simpler tasks to ones that are far more complex, it makes sense that teachers would have to use texts that push their students.

However, what the exact balance of “frustration level” texts should exist within the curriculum is a matter of healthy debate.  Proponents of the Common Core standards have generally believed that current popular reading programs in recent decades have allowed students too much “comfort” in instructional reading and have made significant increases in the amount of time students are expected to spend with texts they cannot read entirely independent of scaffolding.  For the record, researchers who I admire both personally and professionally have voiced support for increased text complexity, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity and expertise of P. David Pearson, for example.  At the same time, I tend to agree with other critics who have rightly questioned the quality of materials aligned with Common Core for classroom teachers, the depth and quality of development for teachers expected to adapt the standards to their classrooms, and whether or not it is appropriate to TEST students at “frustration level” on the Common Core aligned PARCC examinations.  As Russ Walsh notes:

What happens when students are asked to read very difficult text? For those students who find the text challenging, but doable, they will redouble their efforts to figure it out. For the majority of children, however, who find the text at their frustration level, they may well give up. That is what frustration level in reading means. The ideal reading comprehension assessment passage will be easy for some, just right for most and challenging for some. The PARCC passages are likely to be very, very challenging for most.

But I want to set aside the testing and implementation questions and simply focus on a more fundamental question:  if we expect students to spend more time reading at levels that a truly challenging for them, what, apart from very careful and extremely skilled teaching, do they require?

This is not actually theoretical as my wife and I have been observing an exercise in this very question all summer long with our oldest child.  While a remarkably skilled and precocious verbal story teller, it has been a bit of a longer road for reading skills to develop.  Mind you, our child has had perfectly fine reading skills and is reading above most grade level assessments, but reading has not developed as visibly as spoken language skills.  What we found out a few years back after some examination was that many reading skills that we could not observe (such as segmenting and blending) were fully intact, but our child, being a perfectionist who hates displaying skills that are not completely independent, would hesitate to try them in front of others.  In fact, until our child had enough confidence to read reasonably interesting chapter books independently, reading together time was often a struggle between an adult trying to patiently coach breaking down unfamiliar words and a child stubbornly waiting for us to give up and read it ourselves.

Our child has progressed in school reading assessments using the “Fountas and Pinnell” leveled reading system. I have my suspicion that these assessments are tracking lower than our child’s actual reading level.  From reading together, I have noticed tendencies to read words that appear on the next page while trying to jump ahead when excited or having attention wander when bored.  Hardly surprising as this is not an exact science made a bit more problematic when working with a child who is easily bored by very strict academic tasks and who does not like feeling under scrutiny.  Regardless, one thing has been absolutely clear in the past year of schoolwork:  given a choice of free reading material, our child often selects books that fall into a very comfortable reading level and will sometimes opt to reread familiar books instead of branching out into new series.  This again is not especially worrisome for pleasure reading:  repetition can reinforce development of sight words and casual reading is best done by choice.

Which makes the past two months quite remarkable.

For family reading time, I often go to books above either of our children’s reading skills but with real potential interest as stories.  Our oldest child took to The Trumpet of the Swan this way and read it in bed for over a week after I finished reading it aloud.  Both of our children were rapt with attention to The Hobbit, although it did not become an adventure in self reading.  I have my eye on A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, just to really push matters a bit, The Sword and the Stone.  The reason I have some hope that one of those titles will become beloved in our home has to do with what we must only call The Summer of Harry Potter.

I tried reading the stories out loud for our children two years ago, but our oldest child, having a really empathetic nature and a difficulty with characters getting in trouble, did not want to listen past the first book.  But we began again in June, and as soon as I was done reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, both children begged to see the movie, insisted that I dive right into Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and our oldest child began taking book one to bed every night and devoured it.  The Chamber of Secrets  was quickly read, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban fell to a combination of night time reading and reading on the bus to and from camp before I could begin reading it out loud for both of our children.  I have just begun reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire aloud, and our older child is about two thirds of the way though Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Our children go to bed around 8pm, and on more than one occasion, I have found our oldest child still awake after 10p, reading by headlamp.  I have been asked to turn off the television so more Harry Potter can be read.  The entirety of the supplemental Hogwarts Library series has been read independently, and my wife and I were bombarded with Quidditch facts and informational about magical creatures.

Now while I have said I believe our child’s tested reading level is below the actual skill level, it is also true that the advertised reading level of even the first of the Harry Potter books is probably still pretty high and that our child is spending at least some time reading at the so-called “frustration level” where the mechanics of the syntax and words not yet in sight word vocabulary will trip our child up.  Yet this is not slowing things down.  In fact, our child is reading with enthusiasm books that must occasionally frustrate mechanically and in situations that are increasingly scarier and more humanly complicated than anything read before.  Our child has had an historic dislike of main characters being mad with each other, but Harry Potter and Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger spend a good portion of Goblet of Fire angry at each other and that did not deter reading in the slightest.  From conversations, I know that the stories are understood.

So what is going on?  What would propel a young reader who has been reluctant to try out new books and who has never really taken to academic tasks with books to push so hard on known boundaries and comfortable texts?

Well, love.

Our child loves these books: the world J.K. Rowling created, the characters with depth and the ability to grow, the situations that test them.  Our child loves the overall arch of the story that is becoming evident as it progresses school year by school year.  The characters are at once entirely human and understandable while simultaneously inhabiting a world of surprising wonders.  If there is a reason to keep reading even though the books stretch on both a technical level and on an emotional level, it is because of love.

I think all of us, Common Core proponents and skeptics alike, want children to grow as readers — to stretch and to challenge themselves.  And we should all want children to have comfortable spaces within which to challenge themselves and within which they can just relax with the familiar and enjoyable.

But we should also remember what it is that inspires children to really push on their boundaries.  In school, it is with highly attentive teaching that provides sufficient modeling and supports and gives children a sense of agency to understand why they do what they do.  Outside of school, it is a deeply personal combination of factors with a lot of love in the mix.

And that’s something we ought to figure out how to get more of in school reading instruction as well.  Our oldest child loves what J.K. Rowling has created so much that just about nothing can deter total immersion in that world – not even how it pushes skills to develop.  That’s a good object lesson for school too.  Do we want children to really engage with their “frustration level”?  We ought to find out what they love…and maybe “frustration level” will seem a lot more like “a challenge I enjoy”.

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Filed under child development, Common Core, standards, 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

Chester Finn and the Death of Kindergarten

Chester E. Finn, Jr. has been an influential figure in American education reform for a long time now.  President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank supporting most elements of today’s reform environment, former fellow at the Manhattan and Hudson Institutes, founding partner with the for profit school turned for profit school management organization Edison Project, former Assistant Secretary of Education for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, former Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University, and former chair of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) governing board, Dr. Finn has been a staple of the education reform landscape for decades.  According to his former colleague, Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University, Dr. Finn has long held a low opinion of the quality of achievement in American education and has long wanted Americans to realize how poorly educated our children are.

And now it is Kindergarten’s turn.

Writing for the Fordham commentary website, Dr. Finn reports on the results of Maryland’s new “Kindergarten readiness” test administered individually by teachers and now available for the general public.  Dr. Finn, recently appointed to the Maryland State Board of Education, describes the results as “revealing and sobering”:

The assessment is individually administered by kindergarten teachers and was given this year to all of the Old Line State’s sixty-seven thousand kindergartners. The results are sorted into three bands, politely labeled “demonstrating readiness,” “developing readiness,” and “emerging readiness.” But only the first of these means actually ready to succeed in kindergarten—and slightly fewer than half of Maryland’s entering kindergartners met that standard.

Which is to say that more than half are not ready. This report candidly displays the results not just for the state as a whole, but also for each of Maryland’s twenty-four local districts—and further disaggregated in all the ways we have come to expect and demand in the NCLB era.

Every which way you look, you see gaps. And often the gaps are alarmingly wide—by district, by race, by income, and more. You may not be surprised, but you ought to be alarmed and energized. Children who enter school without what they need to succeed in kindergarten are destined to have great difficulty catching up, even in schools that do their utmost. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard.

Allow me to give Dr. Finn half of a loaf here.  Early advantages matter for long term educational outcomes, although many critics have written about whether that is because of specific deficits in certain student populations or because schools systemically valorize  the cultural capital already possessed by society’s elites.  It is curious to me that Dr. Finn calls the results of the Kindergarten readiness test “revealing” because the finding of gaps between subgroups of students is entirely predictable based on what we know about poverty and its long lasting impacts.  Maryland has a total poverty rate under 10%, but 14% of its children live below the poverty line and another 17% live between the Federal Poverty Level and 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($47,700 for a family of four).  So that is 31% of the children in Maryland living either below the poverty line or within striking distance of it.  The 1997 Princeton Study, The Effects of Poverty on Children, clearly documented how poverty in early childhood has long lasting impacts on physical, cognitive, school achievement, and emotional/behavioral development, so for Dr. Finn to say the results of the new Maryland assessment are “revealing” rather “confirming what we already know” is rhetorically nonsensical.

It is also nonsensical for Dr. Finn to say that HALF of Maryland’s children are not “ready” for Kindergarten (a term that is not actually defined or defended in his article), when the scale as reported is “demonstrating readiness” – “developing readiness” – “emerging readiness”.  According to the actual state report, not provided by Dr. Finn, 47% of Kindergarten students were found to be “demonstrating readiness”, 36% were “developing readiness”, and 17% were only at “emerging readiness”.  These terms are defined in the report as follows:

Demonstrating Readiness – a child demonstrates the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Developing Readiness – a child exhibits some of the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Emerging Readiness – a child displays minimal foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

And how does a teacher giving this assessment determine that?  Maryland provides a vague and unhelpful website for the public, but there are a few sample rubrics. Here is one for an observational item:

K rubric

So, a five year-old child “requires adult guidance to select the best idea and then put it into action” and to Dr. Chester Finn, THAT is evidence that the child is “not ready” for Kindergarten – rather than just normal evidence of a 5 year-old.

Interestingly, just one year ago, 83% of Maryland Kindergarten children were found to be “ready,” the precise sum of this year’s combined “demonstrating readiness” and “developing readiness.”  I’m sure THAT wasn’t deliberate at all.

And that’s the crux of the matter.  It would be one thing to develop high quality individualized assessment instruments that Maryland Kindergarten teachers could use to get snapshots of their incoming students and to fully individualize instruction or to use targeted interventions for some students.  It is an entirely different thing to redefine “Kindergarten readiness” to mean that 5 year-olds must engage in complex problem solving with no adult assistance and select “the best idea” (note the use of a definite article which narrows the number of correct ideas down to one) and then to publicize this as “evidence” that over half of our 5 year-olds are deficient.  In the pursuit of observing “the best idea” to solve a problem, how many entirely appropriate but fanciful ideas were set aside as evidence that a child was “developing readiness” rather than “demonstrating readiness”?  How many teachers will now use the results of this assessment to take the Kindergarten curriculum and try to push children into very narrow boxes of “correct” and “incorrect” ideas that stifle the kind of play based learning and experimentation that is entirely appropriate and healthy for very young children?

Professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland Joseph Ganem took the results of the Kindergarten assessment to task in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, faulting unrealistic and narrow expectations of the Common Core State Standards for the redefinition of readiness:

However, for skills in what Bloom calls the “cognitive domain,” the school curriculum has become blind not only to the progression of normal child development but also to natural variations in the rate that children develop. It is now expected that pre-school children should be able to grasp sophisticated concepts in mathematics and written language. In addition, it is expected that all children should be at the same cognitive level when they enter kindergarten, and proceed through the entire grade-school curriculum in lock step with one another. People, who think that all children can learn in unison, have obviously never worked with special needs children or the gifted and talented.

I agree with Dr. Ganem, and I will add that Dr. Finn’s attempt to portray these results as widely dire, rather than as indicating a specific population of children in poverty may need additional services, risks a deeper erosion of Kindergarten and early childhood education into narrow and unimaginative academics.  In their 1995 history of education reform, Tinkering Toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban noted how the ideal of the “Children’s Garden” was quickly subsumed into preparation for the academic curriculum of grade school:

A much more modest bureaucratic rationale became central: that the kindergarten would prepare five year-olds for the first grade in a scientifically determined developmental way. Some of the features that had made the kindergarten exotic were slowly trimmed away or changed to fit the institutional character of the elementary school. (p. 69)

Dr. Finn proposes that we once again double down on this.  His solution to the problem created by rewriting the meaning of Kindergarten is “intensive, targeted early-childhood education for the kids who need it the most” which almost certainly means further pushing academic skills development to children as young as three. While I am a proponent of universal pre-K, I am mindful that “high quality” programs are far more than academic preparation and will often cloak such preparation in a focus upon learning via play.  In communities with high poverty, a focus on the family and whole child requires the existence of robust community-based social services that blunt the negative impacts of poverty on child development.  But if Dr. Finn believes that a 5 year-old who needs some adult guidance to select the ONE “best idea” in problem solving is not “ready” for Kindergarten, then I have little hope that an accompanying push for more early childhood education will preserve learning by play and attend to what we actually know children need.

For fifty years, we have continuously strangled the idea of free time and free play out of childhood in an academic arms race with our neighbors and other nations.  The consequences have been negative.  While we do have children who have needs that require specific interventions and resources, all of our children need time to grow and explore in their earliest education.

Turning pre-K into the new first grade the way we have already done to Kindergarten is not the answer.

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Filed under child development, Common Core, Funding, politics, teaching, Testing

Chris Christie and the Magical Mystery Standards

Back in February, I noted that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had begun to walk back his support of the Common Core State Standards.  The governor began sounding cautious notes about the implementation of the standards and about how the Obama administration has been involved in the adoption process and used funding as incentives for states to come and stay on board. These statements were directly contrary to the big, wet, sloppy kisses he gave to the standards and to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the KIPP School Summit in 2013:

Whoopsie.  How embarrassing.

Since it is now established fact that all Republican hopefuls for the nomination in 2016 who are not named “Jeb” have to be against the Common Core, Governor Christie assured Republicans in Iowa that his administration was really concerned about the federal role in the standards:

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

I suppose that commission got back to Christie as he decided to blow up the education section of most newspapers by announcing that he believed New Jersey should no longer follow the Common Core State Standards.  Speaking at Burlington County College, he declared:

It’s now been five years since Common Core was adopted and the truth is that it’s simply not working….It has brought only confusion and frustration to our parents and has brought distance between our teachers and the communities where they work. Instead of solving problems in our classrooms, it is creating new ones.

The Governor also announced he wants to form a group to develop “new standards right here in New Jersey,” and the news media went moderately crazy over the implications.  Observers closer to home and closer to classrooms were less impressed.  New Jersey parent Sarah Blaine noted that Governor Christie’s announcement took a swipe at the Common Core State Standards, but also pledged to keep New Jersey in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) whose annual Common Core aligned testing debuted in New Jersey this Spring with widespread complaints and approximately 50,000 opt outs.  Ms. Blaine correctly notes the contradiction that Governor Christie wants to set aside the standards, but will keep the PARCC examinations that are designed to assess student mastery of the standards, and he will keep using the examinations as part of the dreadful AchieveNJ teacher evaluation system, thus keeping both the standards and the aligned assessments central to teachers’ work in New Jersey.  She concludes:

Christie’s announcement changes nothing, and shame on the media for lapping it up so naively. Christie’s so-called rejection of Common Core is simply a sound bite for him to take on the road to Iowa and New Hampshire while our NJ public school kids continue to deal with a language arts curriculum that doesn’t teach them to consider texts and ideas within their broader historical context….However, as long as the Common Core-aligned PARCC test continues to be the barometer to allegedly measure our schools, teachers, and children’s efficacy, Christie’s announcement is worth even less than the paper his speech was written on. If you believe otherwise, then man, I’ve got a bridge to sell you…

Peter Greene bluntly calls Governor Christie’s move an “empty gesture”, and New Jersey
music teacher and Rutgers graduate student Mark Weber, blasted the governor for “screaming hypocrisy” in suddenly claiming to care about what teachers think and about the integrity of local control:

America, take it from those of us living in Jersey: this man doesn’t care one whit about the Common Core, or education standards, or anything having to do with school policies. Chris Christie’s sole interest in education policy is in its worth as a political tool: a tool to diminish the strength of unions, demonize public workers, and shift the focus off of his own many, many failures as governor.
My colleague, Dr. Christopher Tienken of Seton Hall University, was not impressed by how seriously the governor wants new, locally developed, standards given his short time frame, noting, “This is years and years of work that it takes to do this.”  So in all likelihood, New Jersey can expect “New Jersey College and Career Readiness Standards” that are mostly Common Core but with a few definite and indefinite articles swapped around.
I am in complete agreement with Ms. Blaine that Chris Christie’s announcement is pure politics aimed at Republican Party caucus and primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  Republican voters lead the nation in disapproval of the Common Core with perhaps three quarters having a negative opinion of the standards.  While reasons for opposing the standards are diverse, there is a strong impression that the kinds of activist voters likely to participate in the early contests represent that most extreme, and often inaccurate, ideas about what the standards do and do not do.  With Chris Christie’s public move against the standards, Jeb Bush is left alone in the Republican field.
So just to be perfectly clear, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, famed “tough guy” governor who “tells it like it is,” is throwing the Common Core brand off of his campaign bus so he can appeal to this guy:

For all of his declarations that the Common Core standards are not working and that the federal role has been too intrusive, Governor Christie still spoke the language of education reformers in his original remarks:

It’s not enough for most of our students to become proficient – we want all of our students, no matter their economic status or their race or ethnicity, to acquire the skills they need to compete in the 21st century.

And a look at the projected demands of employers in 15 years indicates that we will not be able to meet their needs unless we do a better job educating our children.

By 2030, it is projected that 55 percent of all new and replacement jobs will require people with a post-secondary degree. Yet in New Jersey today, only 42 percent of individuals over 25 have at least an associate degree.

Unless those numbers change – and they must change – that means that 15 years from now, nearly six out of every ten students will lack the basic requirement for a good job.

Where Governor Christie gets his numbers for how many college graduates will be needed by 2030 is unclear because projections vary from under 30% to the mid-40%, but with wages for college graduates basically stuck in place, there is little evidence in the labor market that we are short on graduates.  A more important question is why Governor Christie, like most reformers today, seems to attribute standards with an ability to make classrooms better prepare students for their future in the workforce:

And that’s where we must focus our attention – in every New Jersey classroom and home.  That’s where higher standards can be developed.

We do not want to be the first generation in our Nation’s history to leave our children less equipped and less prepared to build for themselves and their children a nation stronger and more prosperous than the one our parents gave to us.

We owe our kids the educational foundation they need to thrive, not just survive.

In reality, the connection between “quality” standards and classroom achievement looks tenuous at best. For example, Massachusetts is widely regarded as having had excellent standards prior to adopting the Common Core, and it basically was at the top of the country in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  Texas, meanwhile, was also recognized as having high quality standards prior to Common Core (which the Lone Star State did not adopt), but on the 2013 NAEP, it was only above 7 other states on 8th grade reading.  If quality standards were the elixir for student success, one would expect states with high quality standards to have convergent results from community to community, and yet, there is variability across communities within states as well.  Again, we can look at Massachusetts.   In 2013, Massachusetts urban communities were 32% at or above proficient in 8th grade reading compared to 28% nationally, and suburban communities were 52% at or above proficient compared to 39% nationally.  In 2005, those scores were 25% and 51% respectively.  So – 8 years with Massachusetts’ “high quality” standards, and there was no real movement in suburban achievement and some movement in urban achievement, a mixed bag still demonstrating significant variation in communities across the state even though their standards were the same.

What accounts for this?  The simple fact that standards are not magic and, on their own, do nothing to improve education.  Nor does tying school and teacher survival to standardized assessments aligned with those standards, the other favored tool of reformers.  What improves teaching and learning is often idiosyncratic, messy, and expensive.  However, general principles apply.  Writing in 1990, David Cohen presented the case of “Mrs. Oublier”, a California mathematics teacher who enthusiastically embraced the California math reforms and sincerely believed her practice was embodying them. Cohen, however, found her teaching more frequently belied a pre-reform understanding of the content of mathematics and dressed that understanding up in activities that looked like the reforms.  What held her back?  Her own insufficient education in the new ways of understanding mathematics and teaching mathematics plus the lack of a community consistently engaged in conversation and development on the standards.  Mrs. Oublier had one necessary component to reform and to improve her teaching, her own buy in and enthusiasm, but she lacked two critical other components.

This is something that modern reformers, Governor Christie included, never seem to acknowledge.  Standards, even high quality standards, mated with perverse incentives in the form of high stakes tests, do not reform or improve teaching.  Given the incentives to narrow the curriculum and to teach to the test, they can actually actively make matters worse.  When written clearly and in a developmentally appropriate manner, standards can, ideally, offer teachers end goal benchmarks from which they can “backwards design” instruction to take students from where they are to where they are going (hat tip the recently and too soon departed Grant Wiggins).

But on their own, they do not matter at all.  Teachers need to have genuine buy in, schools needs to be appropriately resourced with materials and meaningful professional development, and teachers need to work within genuinely collaborative learning communities where they and their colleagues are consistently engaged in what it means to teach and to improve teaching.  This cannot be done on the cheap by subjecting teachers and their students to stakes which make a standardized test the most important objective in the system.

And since we can pretty much guarantee that Governor Christie is not going to provide New Jersey schools with genuine respect and new resources, it will not matter if this Common Core backtrack of his results in genuinely new set of standards, a re-adoption of New Jersey’s previous standards, or simply a slap and dash rebranding of Common Core standards with a new name.  The Magical Mystery Standards that improve teaching and learning without a massive, lengthy, and expensive effort do school improvement the right way will never be written.

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Filed under Chris Christie, Common Core, Funding, PARCC, politics

Look Out, NY Opt Out: Here Comes the Pro-Testing Charm Offensive

The University of the State of New York (USNY) has a new Commissioner of Education.  By a unanimous vote, the Board of Regents selected MaryEllen Elia, the recently fired superintendent of Hillsborough County, Florida,  to head the New York State Education Department (NYSED) and serve as President of USNY which, in addition to overseeing the entire public K-12 education system of 7000 schools, oversees more than 240 public and private universities, 7000 libraries, the state archives, special schools for the hearing and visually impaired, over 750,000 licensed professionals, and over 200,000 certified public school teachers.  She replaces former Commissioner, John King, Jr., and unlike her predecessor, she brings significant experience with public education, including a decade leading the 8th largest school district in the country where she was awarded 2015 Superintendent of the Year for Florida just a few weeks before a series of conflicts with the school boiled over in her early dismissal.  Under her leadership, her district was given a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to tie teacher evaluation and compensation to student performance.  While the grant program includes mentoring, principal evaluation, and peer evaluation, the district was also tasked to “develop fair and accurate measures of effective teaching” — for the Gates Foundation, this almost always means including at least some growth measures based upon student test scores.

Ms. Elia is certainly a change from former Commissioner Dr. John King Jr. whose impressive academic credentials were never matched with an equally impressive ability to listen to stakeholders and whose lack of experience at any level of public education was painfully obvious.  From her recent statements, Commissioner Elia is aware of what undid her predecessor:

“I think it is important for us to communicate with all of those people who have the stake in what’s happening in education,” said Elia, who most recently led the nation’s eighth largest school district, Hillsborough County, Florida, a racially and socioeconomically varied area that includes the city of Tampa. “So, yes, my plan is to be out in the state, listening to various groups and getting feedback and making sure that there is a response when that feedback is brought back to the department.”

Whether or not she is genuinely capable of do so remains to be seen.  Although she ran Hillsborough for an impressive ten years and was successful in securing the Gates Foundation grant, her removal represented long standing frustration with her leadership style which critics described as consistently uninterested in communicating with people she deemed as opponents.  More pronounced criticism described a workforce under Ms. Elia that was “cowed” and afraid to speak up about concerns for fear of retaliation, and board members complained they often did not get information they needed from her — even when a 7 yearpold stopped breathing and later died during a school bus ride.  Commissioner Elia had strong and loyal defenders as well, especially among the business community, but if her primary role coming back to New York is to lead a charm offensive that Dr. King was never able to do, watchdog organizations in the Empire State will need to keep a close eye on the substance behind the style.

While our new Commissioner is preparing to go on a speaking and listening tour of the state, she would do well to try to understand exactly why New York is the current leader in the nationwide Opt Out movement against today’s standardized testing policies, having seen test refusals jump from nearly 60,000 in 2014 to 200,000 in 2015.  In comments to the New York State Council of School Superintendents, Board of Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch, lamented parents who opt their children out of standardized examinations, compared them to people refusing vaccination for their children, and pledged that “…we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.”  In April, Chancellor Tisch insinuated that the growth of the opt out movement was the fault of the dispute between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state teachers’ union, making roughly 200,000 families pawns in a labor dispute.

So let’s just say that if Commissioner Elia is going to travel the state to understand the concerns of families and teachers, she needs to genuinely listen because NYSED has had cotton stuffed in its ears for some time now.

The first thing she needs to understand is that simply explaining why we test as suggested by Dr. Tisch is not going to be sufficient.  The still growing discontent in New York is not simply because nobody has bothered to explain the vision behind education policy in the state – to the degree that such a vision exists.  The reality that nobody at NYSED appears willing to examine is that parents understand that there are very real and actually tangible costs to making standardized testing as high stakes as it has become in the No Child Left Behind era, and, worse, they are increasingly aware that those policies do not work and should be set aside.  What has happened in the past decade and a half is a classic example of ever increasing perverse incentives that have taken standardized tests and converted them from an occasional check on the system into an increasingly important end unto themselves by which entire schools and individual teachers’ lives depend.  Since little has been done concurrent with high stakes accountability to actually support and improve schools with resources and innovative services, the result has been a policy environment where the tests have consumed more and more of the curriculum.  If you do not understand that parents are increasingly fed up with these phenomena and if you do not have a reasonable set of answers for them, then it is not likely that they will be swayed by mere explanations of why NYSED does what it does.  Parents want change, not platitudes.

It is unclear to me if Ms. Elias is suited for that task.

While New York’s new commissioner is clearly far more experienced and far more understanding of how education consists of intersecting and overlapping stakeholders that policy must consider, her record is no less devoted to the core elements of “reform” — Common Core Standards, standardized testing, use of testing to rank and sort schools and teachers — than her predecessor’s or her new Chancellor’s.  In the application for the $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Hillsborough predicted they would fire at least 5% of the districts tenured teachers for “poor performance,”  and the grant work led her to develop, with collaboration from the teachers’ union, an evaluation system that uses test scores for 40% of teachers’ ratings.

All but guaranteeing the percentage of teachers you will fire in an application to revamp your teacher evaluation and reward system should raise any serious thinker’s eyebrows.  It smacks of the kind of stack ranking of employees that, ironically, the Gates founded Microsoft finally ditched after a disastrous decade of evaluating employees that way destroyed effective collaboration.   If the Hillsborough application was taken seriously in the early years, teachers with low growth scores had to be constantly concerned if they would hit that bottom 5% in combination with other measures and be in danger of losing their jobs.  While not as daft as the Microsoft system that required every employee in every unit to be placed on a normal curve, the five percent prediction amounted to over 420 teachers a year.  As it turns out, the district came nowhere near that number by 2012, but it did manage to make a significant number of employees jittery.

Of greater concern is Commissioner Elia’s comments on how to incorporate test scores into evaluations as she enters a state with a new evaluation matrix that gives those scores an entire axis:

“The research is very unclear on any weight at all,” she said, when asked about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to base evaluations 50 percent on tests. “There have not been any studies that indicate that 50 percent is better than 40 percent is better than 20 or 30. And so I think what we need to do is get out there, work together collaboratively to come up with what we believe is a reasonable approach to evaluation, and constantly be getting feedback. And when it needs to shift, we need to shift it.”

I’d like to offer a suggestion on what weight to give standardized test scores in the evaluation of teachers:

None. Zip. Nada. Bupkas.

The destructive nature of including standardized testing data in teacher evaluation is discussed above.  It narrows the curriculum.  It incentivizes schools and teachers to make the test itself the curriculum. It consumes instructional time and resources that could be better used.  It focuses learning on the least interesting skills and diminishes actual love of learning.  It serves as a disincentive for both teachers and students to take risks that might diminish test scores.  But there is an even more important reason to reduce the role of standardized testing data in teacher evaluation.

It doesn’t work.

Maybe one could have pretended otherwise in 2009-2010, but this should not even be controversial anymore.  Growth models for teacher evaluation based upon standardized testing data do not work.  In order for a growth measure to work, it has to be be able to peel away every factor that accounts for the differences among student test scores that is not attributable to the teacher, and we simply do not have statistical models that do this reliably.  Commonly used models have standard errors as high as 36% for a single year of data, and they would require a decade of data to reduce the likelihood of mislabeling a teacher to 12%.  Growth models are unstable, and ones that tend to produce stable results tend to be poorly designed. The models have a strange ability to label even teachers who are locally known to be excellent working with advanced students as ineffective because of how little room there is for students to not hit the model’s predicted scores.

No wonder then that the American Statistical Association released a statement in 2014 saying that Value Added Models should not be use for teacher evaluation.  Yet here we are in 2015 with Governor Cuomo having successfully browbeaten the state Assembly and Senate into passing a budget that makes value added measures based on test scores effectively half of the evaluation system for teachers, and with a new Commissioner who is pondering what percentage is “correct” for such measures. This all but guarantees that the tests will continue to have both a disruptive and distorting effect on schools and classrooms, threatening teachers who are good at what they do and diminishing the depth and breadth of the curriculum students experience.

It also means that the reasons for the Opt Out movement to both exist and grow remain firmly in place.

Education reformers today seem to treat any resistance to their favored policies as simple matters of marketing — throw a lot of money at consistent messaging and people will come around to realize that they actually love what you are selling.  That approach can work in the world of innovative technology where people need to learn how it can change their daily lives. Education reform is not like that, however.  First, we are pretty familiar with how standardized testing is overwhelming education as we well into the second decade of test based accountability.  Second, people do not favor using those tests to evaluate teachers; while over 60% strongly agree that evaluation should help remove ineffective teachers, 61% oppose using tests scores to do that, up from 47% in 2012. Third, in the same PDK/Gallup Poll, parents with children in school reported something they have consistently said over decades: they like the schools their children attend. For 30 years, the percentage of parents giving their children’s schools grades of A or B has hovered near or above 70%.  It has dipped lately, but that is as likely connected to the disruptive impacts of Common Core and associated testing as it is connected to parents agreeing with reformers.

So reformers may want to believe they need to sell families on a new iPhone.  In reality, they are peddling New Coke: messing fundamentally with something people like without giving them a substantial benefit in return.

This is the challenge Commissioner Elia faces as she considers how to mount a defense of New York state policy to an increasingly restive population.  If she continues to try to convince parents that they really love the taste of New Coke instead of laying the groundwork for the NYSED to walk back its disastrous policies, this will not go well.

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Filed under Gates Foundation, NCLB, New York Board of Regents, Opt Out, Testing

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