Monday, February 8, 2016

VA: Stupid Lawmaker Tricks

Mark Obenshain is a lawyer/legislator in Virginia who has all sorts of cool ideas for laws to pass.

Back in 2009, he proposed a law that would require all women who had a miscarriage while not right near a doctor to report that miscarriage within twenty-four hours. He was reportedly trying to respond to a case in which a woman threw her dead child in a dumpster; he wanted a law that would allow her prosecution, but he came up with something so broad and ill-considered that it was untenable.

Not thinking things through seems to be an Obenshain specialty. He ran for Attorney General and lost. His "Support Team Obenshain" website hasn't had a new post since August, 2015, when he happily announced his gig as Virginia Campaign Chairman for Scott Walker. Oopsies.

Obenshain also likes to take a hard-right swing at education. Like any good conservative values politician, he would like to strip local school boards of their power, so he's proposed a charter school law that would give the state board of education the power to authorize charters. But local school districts already have that power, and the state of Virginia just isn't clamoring for charters-- it's almost as if they find their public system plenty okay. Putting authorization of charters out of local hands of course creates issues for local taxpayers-- someone else puts up a charter school in your community and you have to pay for it whether you want it there or not. And actual conservatives have a soft spot for local control. Obenshain is apparently not one of those conservatives.

But also at the top of his Haven't Really Thought This Through list is SB 737. This is a pretty straightforward bill:

Payment of public employees for time away from their official duties; employee organizations; penalty. Prohibits public employers from paying leave or benefits to any public employee to directly or indirectly work for or on behalf of an employee organization, professional association, labor union, or labor organization. A violation is a Class 5 felony.  

No doubt Obenshain was intent on stopping teachers and other public employees from drawing a paycheck while they were off cavorting with their damnable unions. And that's obnoxious enough. But Obenshain is perhaps unaware that many teachers belong to "professional associations" that are non-union in nature.

For instance, a band or choir director who was taking students to a district band or choral event sponsored by the Virginia Music Educators Association would be barred from being paid by this law. Coaches that go to training events by a coaching association. Principals and superintendents who attend training and educational sessions sponsored by any number of professional groups. Teachers and staff who attend professional gatherings of any sort at the direction of a district that might want to send a teacher to a convention to pick up new professional skills. And that's before we even get to the question of what constitutes "indirectly" working for any groups.

And it's a Class 5 felony. Which means that the possible penalties are

a term of imprisonment of not less than one year nor more than 10 years, or in the discretion of the jury or the court trying the case without a jury, confinement in jail for not more than 12 months and a fine of not more than $2,500, either or both.

It's a particularly odious law because all of those people already donate huge mountains of hours to their districts-- most teachers do.

But mostly this is just dumb law writing, so broad and sloppy that the Law of Unintended Consequences will have a field day trashing all sorts of things that not even an unreasonable faux conservative values legislator with a bad tooth would want to see trashed. If you're in Virginia, contact a legislator and explain why this is a dumb idea.

CAP: The Promise of Testing

CAP is back with another one of its "reports." This one took four whole authors to produce, and it's entitled "Praise Joyous ESSA and Let a Thousand Tests Bloom." Ha! Kidding. The actual report is "Implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act: Toward a Coherent, Aligned Assessment System."

The report is sixty-some pages of highly-polished CAP-flavored reformster baloney, and I've read it so you don't have to, but be warned-- this journey will be neither short nor sweet. But we have to take it in one shot, so you can see the entirety of it.

Who is CAP, again?

The Center for American Progress is billed as a left-leaning thinky tank, but it has also served as a holding tank for Clintonian beltway denizens. It was formed by John Podesta and run by him between his gigs as Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, and has provided food and shelter to many Clinton staffers who didn't want to have to leave DC while waiting for their next shot at the Big Show.

CAP loves the whole privatizing charterfying profiteering common core cheering reformster agenda. In fact, CAP's deep and abiding love for the Common Core has burned brighter than a thousand stars and longer than even Jeb! Bush's willingness to keep saying that name. CAP has stymied me, taxing my ability to invent new versions of the headline "CAP says something stupid in support of Common Core" (see here, here, here, and here).

If the last fifteen years have seen the building of a revolving door, education-industrial complex on par with the military and food industries, then CAP is right in the center of that culture. They have never met an ed reform idea they didn't like or promote, and they are not afraid to manufacture slick, baloney-stuffed "reports" to push the corporate agenda.

So that's who produced this big chunk of goofiness.


Like many other advocacy groups, CAP sees a golden opportunity in ESSA, and that golden opportunity is all about the testing.

States and districts must work together to seize this opportunity to design coherent, aligned assessment systems that are based on rigorous standards. These systems need to include the smart and strategic use of formative and interim tests that provide real-time feedback to inform instruction, as well as high-quality summative tests that measure critical thinking skills and student mastery of standards.

So how can states build on the research base and knowledge regarding high-quality assessments in order to design systems that do not just meet the requirements of federal law but actually drive student learning to a higher level—especially for students from marginalized communities?

And later, CAP says that this report "outlines a vision and provides specific recommendations to help federal, state and local leaders realize the promise of tests." The promise of tests? Not students, not education, not learning, not empowering communities to help their children grow into their best selves. Nope. The promise of tests. So, as is too often the case, we've skipped right the question of "should we" and will proceed directly to "how," setting out once again to do a better job of more precisely hitting the absolutely wrong target. Yay.

History Lesson from Alternate Universe

CAP will now set the stage by hanging a backdrop of Things That Are Not True.

High-quality assessments play a critical role in student learning and school improvement. No, not really. Well, maybe, in the sense that "critical" is a pretty vague word.

High-quality tests can also show how well states, districts, and schools are doing in meeting the educational needs of all students. No. At least, not any allegedly high quality tests that currently exist.

CAP is willing to acknowledge that testing is "driving the agenda" and that's Not Good. They even acknowledge that despite their "research" showing that tests only take up 2% of school time, lots of folks have noticed that standardized testing has become the focus of too many schools.

CAP wants you to know that the ESSA has many cool, shiny features. It requires states to use broader measures and afford flexibility. CAP thinks ESSA might lead to less teacher evaluation emphasis on testing, maybe. There is money available for tweaking testing, including $$ for "innovation."

There's more history, like a history of tests. CAP equates the Socratic method with testing. They also site the establishment of the Chinese testing that helped kick off centuries of conformity and non-innovation (read Yong Zhao's Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon). We work our way through the present, skipping the parts where tests were useful for eugenics and Keeping the Lessers in Their Place.

Then we insert the usual Story of Accountability, beginning in 1983 Nation at Risk, which I always think is a bold choice since Nation at Risk predicted that the country would have collapsed by now, so maybe it's such a great authority.

Then we move on to the "promise of the Common Core State Standards," and as usual, CAP is shameless in its willingness to recycle old baloney like "the Common Core Standards are comparable to the academic standards in the highest performing nations in the world" (this leads us, by a circuitous route, back to some Fordham Core promotional work) and in reference to the Core testing, "like the Common Core, these tests are more rigorous and of higher quality than what many previous states had before." It's a big word salad with baloney on top. CAP also lauds the imaginary "shifts in learning" which are supported by a footnote to the Common Core website, so you know it must be true.

The state of testing

CAP explains the three types of test (formative, interim and summative) and notes that federally mandated tests are summative, and are "used to give students, parents and educators a detailed picture of student progress toward meeting state standards over the past school year" and I wonder, do they giggle when they write this, or have they smacked themselves the brain with the PR sledgehammer so many times that they just don't feel it any more? The current Big Standardized Tests of course don't provide a detailed picture of anything at all.

CAP also wants us to know about high-quality tests, which "measure critical thinking and problem-solving skills" and why don't we also say that they measure the number of unicorns grazing in the fields of rainbow cauliflower growing behind the school, because they do both equally well. But CAP wants us to know that "good assessments are also field tested and evaluated by experts," so suddenly many of the BS Tests aren't looking too good.

CAP acknowledges the anti-test movement, but goes on to say that despite the backlash, national polling data shows that people really love the tests. Why, polls by Education Next and Education Post both found signs of the testing love! This is as surprising as a poll commissioned by the National Mustard Manufacturers that discovers a wide-spread love for mustard-- Post and Next are both unabashedly advocate, push for, and profit from the testing, reform and privatization industry. CAP also takes us on a tour of the many states that have tried to tweak the testing biz one way or another, and I would take you through those, but we still have pages and pages to go, my friends.


CAP takes this moment to share their methodology, which appears to be that they held some focus groups, talked to some people, and checked in with some parents, some rich and some poor, according to CAP. How these people were either located or selected is a mystery--they could have been random strangers from the street or CAP family members. They also made sure to talk to some other thinky tank pro-reform profiteering groups like Achieve, the Education Trust, and the College Board. They describe their sample as a "wide variety of stakeholders and experts," and we will just have to take their word for it.

What did they find out? 

So what are some of things discovered in this vaguely defined researchy sort of activity?

Parents want better tests.

Here we see a return of the classic "just misunderstood" story line; the value of tests needs to be "made more evident" to parents. The report quotes one parent as "not against standardized testing, because there is a need to understand on a national level whether our children are being educated and where different districts need to have extra resources and the like." Which is a great quote, and might be a useful purpose for testing, except that it doesn't work that way under current reformster programs. Instead of, "Hey, this school is clearly underfunded and undersupported," we hear cries of, "Hey, this school has low scores. We must rescue students from it with charters and maybe close it, too."

And while parents in the focus group seem to see global and large-scale uses for testing, they aren't getting much use out of them for their own children.

Teachers do not get the time and support they need

This section is shockingly frank, reporting teachers who got PD about the PARCC when it wasn't completed, and teachers who report essentially being told to get those test scores up, never mind the regular instruction. Shocking, huh? I wonder what created that sort of atmosphere. We will all just numbly skip over the issue of whether these reformsters ever listen to a single word that teachers say, because remember-- when you want to creatively disrupt and make over an entire field, it's important to disregard any noise fomr the trained, experienced practitioners in that field.

Communications to stakeholders is weak 

Yes, it's the PR. Common Core and BS Tests are just misunderstood. If only people could be re-educated about the tests. Maybe at a nice camp somewhere. (Bonus sidebar lauds the PARCC for their clear and colorful report card, which uses nice graphics to tell parents far less useful information than could be gleaned from a five-minute phone call to your child's teacher.)

Fun sidenote: several parents reported that they got the most useful information about testing from the John Oliver show segment on tests. That was probably not the kind of info that CAP wanted to have spread.

The Test lacks value for individual students

And that, boys and girls, is how a bureaucrat translates "The students sense that the BS Tests are a bunch of time-wasting bullshit with no connection to their actual lives." In fact, some parents and teachers said they had the impression that BS Test scores aren't even used to influence instruction. It's true. Instruction is also not very influenced by reading the warts of a grey toad under a full moon.

End-of-year summatives are not aligned to instruction

Well, no, they aren't. And as long as your plan is built around a large-scale, one-size-fits-all BS test, they never will be.

Too much test prep is occuring

Well, duh. The BS Tests have high stakes. And while CAP wants to pretend that new BS Tests are just so high quality and awesome that test prep is a waste of everyone's time score-wise, most everybody's experience is the opposite. The most authentic assessment matches the instruction and the actual task being learned. Since reformsters have fixed it so that teachers cannot change the assessment, the only way to make the BS Tests a more authentic assessment is to change what we teach. As long as schools are locked into a statewide high stakes BS Test beyond their control, there will be test prep, and lots of it.

CAP found that test prep was more prevalent among the poorer students. Again, duh. Lower socio-economic status correlates pretty directly to standardized test results. Lower SES students are the ones who need the most extra help to get up to speed on the twisty mindset needed to play the "What does the test writer want me to say here" game.

Weak logistics and testing windows and nutsy bolty things

If the test must be given on a computer and there are only thirty computers in the building, there's a problem. I'm inclined to think the problem is that you are requiring the students to take the test on a computer. Also, CAP has concerns about timing of test results and test taking allowing for accurate measures and useful feedback. I'm prepared to reassure CAP that no matter when or how my students take the BS Test, it will not provide an accurate measure or useful feedback, so y'all can just relax.

So what does CAP think we should do about all this?

So here's what CAP thinks the state, district and school authorities can do "to improve the quality of assessments, address concerns about overtesting, and make assessments more valuable for students, parents, and teachers." And if you've been reading carefully, you can guess where this is going.

Here's what states should do

Develop rules for "robust" testing. Okay, CAP says "principles," but they mean rules. Write some state-level rules about what ever test should look like. Yessirree, what I need in my classroom is some suit from the state capital to tell me how to create an assessment.

Conduct alignment pogroms. Okay, maybe that's not the word they used. But they suggest that states check all up and down the school systems and make sure that every single teacher is fully aligned to the standards (including curriculum and homework). Because thanks to the Ed-Secretary-neutering powers of ESSA, reformsters can now shoot for total instructional control of every school district without raising the Federal Overreach Alarm. Oh, and the alignment should run K-16, so don't think you're getting off so easy, Dr. College Professor.

Since districts may not have the time and resources to make sure that every single solitary assessment is aligned and high quality, states should be ready to lend a hand. Give them some money. Create all the tests and assignments for them, or, you know, just hire some willing corporation to so it.

Demand a quick turnaround on test results. Because that creates more "buy-in" at the local level. Also "a quick turnaround also creates more value, and educators and families can use the assessment results more readily in their decision-making." Oh, yeah-- everyone is just waiting on pins and needles so they can make decisions about Young Chris's future. But about that...

Increase the value of tests for parents, teachers and students. How could we do that? By making better tests! Ha! Just kidding. By offering rewards, like college credits for good performance. Or awards and prizes for high scores. Like stickers and ribbons? Yes, that will make the BS Tests so much more valuable.

Jump on the innovative assessment development grant-band wagon. And here comes the punchline:

If states move forward with performance-based or competency-based assessments, they should consider carefully whether their districts and educators have the capacity and time to create high-quality, valid, reliable, and comparable performance assessments. Instead of looking to dramatically change the content of assessments, states should consider how they can dramatically change the delivery of assessments. States should explore moving away from a single end-of-year test and toward the use of shorter, more frequent interim assessments that measure student learning throughout the year and can be combined into a single summative determination. 

Yes, all-testing, all the time. It solves all of our problems-- with one perfectly aligned system that constantly logs and records and data-crunches every canned assignment and delivers the assessments seamlessly through the computer, we can plug students in and monitor every educational step of every educational day.

Finally, states should step up their communication game with better, prettier and more explainier printouts from the uber-aligned 360 degree teaching machine system, so that parents will understand just how much their elder sibling loves them.

What should local districts do? 

Bend over and kiss their autonomy goodbye? Ha! Just kidding. CAP would never say that out loud.

Get rid of redundant tests, preferably not the ones that are created by favored vendors.

"Build local capacity to support teachers' understanding of assessment design and administration." God, sometimes I think these guys are morons, and sometimes I think they are evil geniuses. Doesn't "support" sound so much nicer than "re-educate" or "properly indoctrinate." Because I have my own pretty well-developed understanding of assessment design and administration, but if they knew it, I don't think CAP would support it.

"Create coherent systems of high-quality formative and interim assessments that are aligned with state standards." Buy your entire assessment system from a single vendor. One size will fit all.

"Better communicate with parents about tests. To build trust, districts should be more transparent around assessments. This includes posting testing calendars online, releasing sample items, and doing more to communicate about the assessments." You know what's an excellent way to build trust? Behave in a trustworthy manner. Just saying. Also, this is not transparency. Transparency would include things like, say, releasing all the test items so students and parents could see exactly where Young Pat was marked right or wrong.

Tackle logistics. Remember how hard it is for schools to test many students on few computers? Districts should tackle that. It's not clear if that should be, like, a clean ankle grab tackle or districts can go ahead an clothesline that logistic. But CAP does have concrete examples, like "Plan well in advance" with the goal of "minimizing disruption." Thanks, CAP. I bet no district leaders ever thought of planning in advance. I can't believe you gave dynamite advice like that away for free.

What should schools do?

Make testing less torturous. Let students go pee.

Hold an explain-the-test social night. Have principals announce open-office hours so that any parent can stop by at any time to chat about the tests, because I'm sure the principal's day is pretty wide open and flexible.

Tell teachers things so that when parents ask questions, the teachers know the answers.

Oh, and stop unnecessary test prep. Just keep the necessary test prep, which is as much as you need to keep your numbers up. But thanks for the tip-- lots of teachers were in their classroom saying, "This test prep is a total waste of time, but I'm going to do it anyway just for shits and giggles, because I certainly didn't have it in my mind to teach my students useful things."

I am pretty sure that the further from broad policy strokes and the closer to actual classroom issues they get, the dumber CAP becomes.

How about the feds?

Use Title I as a means of threatening states that don't do all the jobs we gave them above. Help all the states that want to build the next generation all-day all-testing regimes. Spread best practices about assessment, because man, if there's anything we have learned over the past fifteen years, it's that when you want good solid answers about how to teach and assess your students, the federal government is the place to turn.

And the final recommendation?

If you are still reading, God bless you, but we needed to travel this twisty road in one go to see where it led.

It is the reformsters oldest and most favorite trick-- X is a clear and present problem, therefore you must accept Y as a solution, and I am going to sell X so well that you will forget to notice that I never explain how Y is any sort of solution.

Overtesting is a problem. Bad testing is a problem. Testing that yields up no useful results is a problem. Bad testing as an annual exercise in time-wasting futility is a problem. Testing driving instruction is a problem. CAP has given more ground on these issues than ever, but it appears to be a ju-jitsu move in hopes of converting all that anti-testing energy into support for Performance Based Education.

Don't like testing? Well, the solution is more testing. All the time. In a one-size-fits-all canned package of an education program. And here's the final huge irony. This is CAP wrapping up with a description of the long-term goal

system leaders should develop a robust, coherent, and aligned system of standards and assessments that measures student progress toward meeting challenging state standards. This exam system should be deeply grounded in the standards as assessed by an end-of-year summative test. Formative and interim assessments administered throughout the year will routinely—at natural transition points in the instructional program, such as the end of a unit—assess student understanding and progress and provide the results to teachers, parents, and students in close to real time. This system will enable everyone involved in a student’s education to make adjustments where needed in order to support learning so that no student slips through the cracks.

You know who does this sort of thing well already? Good, trained, professional classroom teachers. We assess daily, wrap those results back into our plans for the next day, and adjust our instruction to the needs and issues of individual students. We don't give pointless tests that are redundant or disconnected. We wrap larger and more formal assessments in with the informal assessments and we do it while maintaining instruction and looking after our students as if they were actual live human beings. And we do it all in  timely manner. Of course, we don't do the things that CAP considers most critical.

For this assessment system to be as useful as possible, alignment is key. All assessments—formative, interim, and summative—must align with academic standards. 

At the end of the day, CAP loves testing very much. But the thing they love even more is broadly adopted, all-knowing, all-controlling standards. One size fits all, selected by some Wiser Higher Authority who somehow knows what all human beings must know, and unhindered by those damn classroom teachers and their professional judgment, and all of it giving up a wondrous river of data, a nectar far more valuable than the vulnerable little humans from whom it was squeezed. Jam the standards in and drag the data out. That's CAP's coherent, aligned future.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

ESSA, Teachers, and Business Models

Thomas Arnett is an

But unfortunately, despite the fair amount of consensus regarding needed reforms, schools of education seem to have done little over the last 30 years to fundamentally change their business models to align with suggested reforms.

Yup. What teacher programs need is a new business model.

Arnett's theory is that university education programs are resistant to change because their business models discourage it. And I get that to a point-- as universities and colleges have changed to business models that are based on them acting like businesses instead of institutions of higher learning, getting warm, check-writing bodies in seats has become more of a priority. On the other hand, anyone who thinks that schools of education haven't changed anything in the last several decades simply hasn't looked.  But ultimately Arnett isn't arguing a larger principle here, and he doesn't are about the content of teacher education programs-- he's arguing that teacher prep programs are refusing to adopt the policies that he thinks they should, and that's the business model he wants to fix -- the dreadful Not Listening To Reformsters business model.

Here's what Arnett wants more specifically

Although the standards set by those entities are all well intentioned, they tend to emphasize inputs (such as governance structures, credit hour requirements, and faculty credentials) rather than the quality of their outputs (effective teachers).

Well, yes. Of course, the difference between inputs and outputs like teacher effectiveness is that we have no way of measuring teacher effectiveness. So this like being put out because teacher education measures inputs instead of measuring the amount of magical fairy dust that the candidates are carrying atop their hippogryfs. Arnett wants to replace current systems with a unicorn farm.

He wants to see new schools of education built form the ground up, and he cites a list that includes the Relay Graduate School of Education, which gives you an idea just how high his standards are. He'd like to see more new business modeled schools like that, and not for the first or last time, I wonder what other profession has to put up with this. If I just rent a room or set up a website and announce that I'm now running a school of brain surgery or offering law degrees or certifying engineers, all based on my own personal ideas about how to do those things, nobody lets me get away with that baloney, and nobody argues that I ought to be able to get away with that baloney. If I'm in a terrible car accident, I don't call out, "Whatever you do, don't take me a hospital with trained doctors!"

Only in teaching do we keep having to hear allegedly serious proposals that anybody with a bright idea ought to be allowed to certify teachers. Only in teaching do we keep having to hear the suggestion that the every success in the history of American education was a fluke, because trained teachers are the last people we want in classrooms. Only in teaching do amateurs keep petitioning for the right to declare themselves experts based on nothing except a smattering of expertise in completely other fields-- and getting it!!

Arnett's "new business model" is a model built around the idea that experience and expertise in the teaching field should be thrown out. It never seems to cross his mind that old school teacher prep programs might be based on things that have an actual proven track record with actual trained practitioners of the teacher craft.

And Arnett is excited because he sees the part of ESSA that has written into law that disdain for and rejection of teaching as an actual profession. If you have the stomach for it, you can read a "case study" by Arnett from last summer in which he looks at some charter chains (including his own previous employer) that are running their own teacher prep programs. I'm not going to drag you through it now, but it worries very little about how such faux educators serve the needs of students and communities, and worries considerably more about whether they represent a "sustainable business model."

This is a manufacturing company that says, "Hey, getting certified welders is rally expensive. Why don't we just have Chris from accounting, who once watched a welder, set up our own welding certification program. It'll be faster and cheaper and the welders who come out of it will be inexpensive for us to hire." Hell, this is an urban emergency manager who says, "Yeah, we can just hook up to that other source of water over there. Should be quick and simple, and it'll be cheap! And hell-- we aren't going to drink it ourselves, so who cares."

But here's Arnett's big finish

The challenge for states will be to make sure that the policies and regulations they adopt for authorizing these new programs truly lead to the desired outcome of producing more high-quality teachers.  But if the states can get these details right, the new programs that result may finally lead to the changes in teacher preparation that reformers, public officials, and education groups from across the political spectrum have anticipated for decades.

Not that we know how to identify high quality teachers, but we're sure that amateurs motivated by the chance to make money will totally crack the code of how to churn out HQT quick, cheap, and easy.  (And that link to education groups that would think this is swell? TeachStrong.) 

Yes, it's one more reason to keep an eye on your state during the transition to Life Under ESSA-- among the many stupid ideas that the law holds the door open for is the stupid idea of deprofessionalizing teaching, to turn teachers into cheaply produced, easily replaced, undertrained widgets cranked out by amateur "businesses." Arnett and other reformsters think this is all good news. It's up to the rest of us to work to make sure it's never news, never happens, at all.

NCTQ: Terrible Teacher Prep and Headline Research

The National Council on Teacher Quality is one of the great mysteries of the education biz. They have no particular credentials and are truly the laziest "researchers" on the planet, but I think I may have cracked the code. Let me show you their latest piece of "research," and then we can talk about how they really work.

Their new report-- "Learning about Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs To Know" (which is a curious title-- do other teachers NOT need to know these things?)-- is yet another NCTQ indictment of current teacher education programs. The broad stroke of their finding is that teacher education programs are not teaching the proven strategies that work in education.

That's the broad stroke. As always with NCTQ, the devil is in the details. After all, that sounds like a huge research undertaking. First, you would have to identify teaching strategies that are clearly and widely supported by all manner of research. Then you would have to carefully examine a whooooooole lot of teacher education programs-- college visits, professor and student interviews, sit in classes, extensive study of syllabi-- it would be a huge undertaking.

Or you could just flip through a bunch of educational methods textbooks.

What Every Teacher Needs To Know

First, NCTQ had to select those methods that "every new teacher needs to know." Here's the methodology for that piece of research-based heavy lifting:

In Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning: A Practice Guide, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, identified proven practices that promote learning for all students, regardless of grade or subject, and that are especially potent with struggling students. Six practices stand out for the research behind them. There is little debate among scholars about the effectiveness of these six strategies.

Here are a few things to know about Organizing Instruction and Study To Improve Student Learning.

It was published in September of 2007. It was produced under a USED- IES contract with Optimal Solutions Group, LLC, a policy data-analysis business. It opens with a disclaimer that includes this:

The opinions and positions expressed in this practice guide are the authors’ and do not necessarily represent the opinions and positions of the Institute of Education Sciences or the U.S. Department of Education. 

The IES paper does, in fact, appear to be a group of researchers checking to see how much research basis there is for seven ideas that they think will help teaching subjects "that demand a great deal of content learning, including social studies, science, and mathematics." So, not actually "all subjects and grades" as NCTQ says. And they are based around a memory-based model of education.

More importantly, the IES paper rates the seven approaches according to strength of the research to support them. Four of the seven are rated "moderate," two are rated "low," and the seventh is rated "strong".

What Are The Must-Know Techniques?

That depends on whether you look at the original IES paper or the NCTQ "research." NCTQ drops one IES technique-- teaching students how to use time. And they convert "use quizzing to promote learning" into "assessing to boost retention." Either way, the IES paper rates the scientific basis for this technique low, with little research beyond reading instruction experiments with college students. So that whole "there is little debate" and "research-based" bullshit is, in fact, bullshit.

That is the only low-rated technique that made the list. The strong technique is "ask deep probing questions."

The other four are all moderately-rated, meaning that there is some research basis for them (back in 2007), but it's not overwhelming. Those four are "pairing graphics with words," "linking abstract concepts with concrete representations," "alternating solved problems with problems to solve," and "spread out practice over time."

These are not bad techniques, useless techniques, unwelcome techniques-- but is NCTQ suggesting that of all the educational techniques in the world, these six are the essential ones? Well, they call them "the fundamental knowledge they need to make learning 'stick.'"

NCTQ refers to these six techniques as "the field’s bedrock research as identified by IES," which is a lie. 

And they reach this scary conclusion: "If teacher candidates aren’t being taught the research-proven and workable practices that help students learn new content, they will flounder when they try to make learning last." So how do they know that teacher candidates aren't being taught these techniques. 

How Are Ed Schools Failing?

They looked in a bunch of textbooks. They looked at 48 college programs (at 28 different colleges). They selected books "assigned in educational psychology, general methods and secondary subject-specific methods courses." And because NCTQ really is the laziest research group on the planet, there's this:

We note that textbooks unique to subject-specific elementary methods courses were not reviewed in depth. What examination we did of these textbooks indicated that had we reviewed them, none would have received credit for covering the strategies.

We glanced at some books and they looked like they were fer suresies losers, so we just skipped those.

Ultimately they settled on 48 books. You can see the breakdown here. A team of four scanned through the books for signs of references to the techniques with blah blah blah I'm not sure they didn't just use [Control + F] here, but they have a complex-sounding technique for deciding if the technique was fully and accurately presented in the textbook. You can look through their methodology if you like, but the bottom line is that references to the techniques had to be absolutely on the nose.

They also claim to have done some study of programs, going back to their file folder of course syllabi, because that totally tells you exactly what goes on in classes. As with books, the requirement was to learn the technique as a general truth. It looks as if, for instance, learning all about teaching maths with manipulatives does not count as "linking abstract ideas to concrete representations" because that's only for a math class, and dopey teachers might not understand that linking abstract and concrete could be used in other classes.


There are so many other questions to ask, such as, "Do teachers actually use their methods and general ed psych books?" Is the main pathway for teaching prospective teachers through traditional lecture and textbooks? That would be an interesting question to study, but NCTQ does not go there. Heck, asking any teacher in any classroom, "Can you put your hands on your college methods textbook right now?" would be entertaining. But as always, NCTQ has more important things to do than try to find out any useful truths.

Who are these people?

NCTQ has appointed themselves the arbiters of teacher quality because reasons. Would you like to guess how many career teachers are actually involved in running NCTQ? Did you answer zero? Good for you. Would you like to guess how many former TFA temps are running the group? Did you guess many? Good for you again.

What is their research specialty?

NCTQ is the group that once declared that college teacher programs are too easy, and their research was (and I swear I am not making this up) to look through college commencement programs.

NCTQ is the group that cranked out a big report on teacher evaluation whose main point was, "It must not be right yet, because not enough teachers are failing."

NCTQ creates the college rankings list published every year by US News leading to critiques of NCTQ's crappy methodology here and here and here, to link to just a few. NCTQ's method here again focuses on syllabi and course listings, which, as one college critic noted, "is like a restaurant reviewer deciding on the quality of a restaurant based on its menu alone, without ever tasting the food." That college should count its blessings; NCTQ has been known to "rate" colleges without any direct contact at all.

NCTQ's history has been well-chronicled by both Mercedes Schneider and Diane Ravitch. It's worth remembering that She Who Must Not Be Named, the failed DC chancellor and quite possibly the least serious person to ever screw around with education policy, was also a part of NCTQ.

NCTQ depends on the reluctance of people to read past the lede. For this piece, for instance, anybody who bothered to go read the old IES paper that supposedly establishes these as "bedrock" techniques would see that the IES does no such thing. Anyone who read into the NCTQ "research" on teacher program difficulty would see it was based on reading commencement programs. The college president I spoke to was so very frustrated because anybody who walked onto her campus could see that the program NCTQ gave a low ranking was a program that did not actually exist.

But NCTQ specializes in headline research-- generate an eye-catching pro-reform headline and hope that if you follow it with a bunch of words, folks will just say, "Well, there's a lot of words there, so they must have a real research basis for what they're saying."

There are reform advocates who are, I believe, sincere and intellectually honest. But for NCTQ to, for instance, transcribe the 2007 IES report of the quizzing technique as a "bedrock" of learning when IES clearly ranks it as having little real research to back it up-- that requires either unbelievable stupidity, incredible laziness, or just flat-out lying. NCTQ might very well be the least serious outfit in the education biz, and yet they still draw press attention.

But if you run across references to this report (which is part of a broader assault on teacher education programs), rest assured that it's rubbish, and don't hesitate to encourage people to ignore it. Never has a group so justly deserved to be completely ignored.

ICYMI: Your Sunday Halftime Reading

Just kidding. At my house, the game will not even be on, and I'm pretty sure life will go on. But here are a few pieces to read today.

The Real Issue with Teacher Pay

The North Carolina 2015 Teacher of the Year has a few things to say about respect for the profession (and if you've been paying attention to North Carolina, you know why)

Alice's Adventures in Public Education

Turns out Lewis Carroll was writing about the future, and here we are. 

The Classroom Door Is Always Open

A visit to one of the few old-style schools of choice still operating out there. This is what it should be about.

Reforminess IS the Status Quo 

Jersey Jazzman continues his frustrated attempts to ground the education discussion in reality.

Why Aren't Public Schools Too Big To Fail? 

Stephen Singer wonders why our response to failing schools is to abandon them, rather than attempt a rescue.

Cook for 17 minutes at 350 degrees

Frozen pizza instructions prompt a reflection on teaching skills in the English classroom. 

George Orwell's Ed Conference 

Morna McDermott looks at the incredible, astonishing education conference coming up, courtesy our good friends at Pearson

Saturday, February 6, 2016

PA: Partial Testing Pause

This week Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed the bill that will delay using the Keystone Exams (our version of the Big Standardized Test for high school students) as a graduation requirement. Though we've been giving the test for a few years, it will now not become a grad requirement until 2019 (postponed from 2017). That's certainly not bad news, but there's no reason to put the party hats on just yet.

First, as (unfortunately) always, it's worth noting that this happens against the backdrop of our leaders' absolute inability to fulfill their most basic function- as I type this, Pennsylvania is on its 221st day without a budget. We are right on track to have the governor preparing next year's budget while this year's budget is still not fully adopted. It is entirely possible that Harrisburg is populated entirely by dopes.

Second, the idea is to have officials go back to the drawing board and come up with better ideas for BS Testing. This is akin to feeling great pain because you're hitting yourself in the head with a hammer and saying, "Hmm. Well, maybe if I turn the hammer sideways it won't hurt so much." It's akin to eating a terrible, vomit-inducing meal of liver and pineapple and rotted fish parts covered with chocolate sauce and saying, "Well, maybe if we put the chocolate sauce on first rather than last." This is about re-aranging deck chairs rather than examining the premise.

Third, while high school seniors will not be required by the state to pass the Keystones to graduate, the state still plans to use the Keystones to evaluate schools and teachers. So our professional fates are still tied to a BS Test that students have no reason to take seriously or care about. Great.

Fourth-- well, many DO have a reason to care about the test, because in anticipation of the state's BS Test grad requirement, many school districts have already made passing the Keystone a local graduation requirement. We do that in PA-- the state sets a grad requirement minimum, and local districts can require over and above that. So for many local students, the postponing of the Keystone grad requirement will make zero difference-- they still have to pass the test or an alternative assessment (known in my district as the Binder of Doom) in order to graduate.

So this is good news in the sense that it would be worse if the state had gone ahead with its original plan to require Keystones as exit tests right now. But it's bad news in the sense that we aren't really trying to fix anything or figure out what we really ought to be doing. And it's bad news because the decisions are still in the hands of the most expensive, most incompetent state government in the country.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Support Real Education Journalism

I am here to ask for your support. Not for me-- my brand of faux journalism costs little to produce. Instead, I want you to help out with Jennifer Berkshire's (Edushyster) latest project.

Berkshire is working to fill one of the gaping holes in education journalism. Well, two holes, actually. The first is the need to hear voices that have gone too long unheard. The other is to literally make those voices heard by podcast.

Podcasting journalism done right is neither cheap nor easy. You need equipment, both for gathering material and for putting it in a nice production package. And you need to travel, to go where the people are who need to be heard and who, in many cases, have gone unheard for too long. For example, the first episode of the Have You Heard series, which gives voice to the African-American opt out parents of Philadelphia.

Watch their pitch here.

I don't make this kind of pitch often, but this is a project I believe in. I believe that there is a need for this kind of journalism in this kind of format, and I believe that Berkshire is just the woman to do it. She has an incredibly deft touch with an interview, and she remains fair and open without giving up her own convictions about public education. In a fair and just world, she would be making the kind of money that the big boys in the Gates-funded thinky tanks pull down. The advantage of the reformsters remains a huge mountain of cash and people who work full time, ready to be dispatched to any corner of the world that calls for them. In this world, Berkshire and French need some help from all of us.

So if you have thought periodically that you would like to do something, something to help the cause of public education in this country, here's a chance to do something that you can accomplish without moving form where you're sitting to read my words. Click on over to the Beacon site and give her a hand.