Friday, March 6, 2015

Is Early Reading a Problem?

Robert Pondiscio appeared on US News this week to stick up for the Common Core's demand that kindergartners learn to read.

He's responding to the recent report from Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood. The report (which I covered here) makes a case that the Core ignores developmental experts.

Pondiscio engages in a subtle but significant misrepresentation of the criticism of CCSS's early reading requirement when he says "What critics seem to be saying is that Common Core is simply too hard for kindergarten."

Well, no. Not exactly.

I can't think of a single person I've encountered on any side who has said, "For the love of God, whatever you do, don't let kindergartners learn to read!! Don't even let them get ready to read!" Nor do I know of anyone in education who doesn't recognize the value of learning to read. I do look askance at statements about early reading success being predictive of "a child's academic trajectory" because it smells a great deal like one more person confusing correlation with causation. But even if I don't buy the usefulness of that observation, it doesn't make me value reading any less.

However, there is a world of difference between saying, "It's a good idea for children to proceed as quickly as they can toward reading skills" and "All students must demonstrate the ability to read emergent reader texts with purpose and understanding by the last day of kindergarten."

The development of reading skills, like the development of speech, height, weight, hair and potty training, is a developmental landmark that each child will reach on his or her own schedule.

We would like all children to grow up to be tall and strong. It does not automatically follow that we should therefor set a height standard that all children must meet by their fifth birthday-- especially if we are going to label all those who come up short as failures or slow or developmentally disabled, and then use those labels in turn to label their schools and their teachers failures as well. These standards demand that students develop at a time we've set for them. Trying to force, pressure and coerce them to mature or grow or develop sooner so that they don't "fail"-- how can that be a benefit to the child.

And these are five year olds in kindergarten. On top of the developmental differences that naturally occur among baby humans, we've also got the arbitrary age requirements of the kindergarten system itself, meaning that there can be as much as a six-month age difference (10% of their lives so far) between the students.

Saying that we want all students to grow up exposed to rich environments that promote reading-- that's a great idea. Setting an arbitrary cut-off standard and then labeling everyone who doesn't meet it a failure is a terrible idea. The Common Core does not present its reading standards (developed without input from any early childhood learning experts) as suggestions; it presents them as a list of Things Students Must Know By the End of the Grade. That's what Pondiscio tiptoes around in his piece-- that we are going to tell five year olds who aren't at the standard that they are failures (and probably on a path to be failures for life).

And I'm not even starting on how the Core encourages the use of standardized testing to show how students have met the standard. What earthly good does it do to subject a five year old to a standardized test?

Giving each child the earliest best possible shot at learning to read is an admirable and worthwhile goal, but demanding that each and every child meet a One Size Fits All standard is not, particularly when that standard has not taken into account the realities and varieties of early child development.

David Brooks Gets Everything Wrong

In an attempt to add some nuance to the positioning of Hillary Clinton, David Brooks took to the New York Times to say a series of not-very-wise things, including some deeply confused observations about education.

He sets up the idea of a main camp of Democrats who have believed for some unspecified period of time that by making American workers smarter and more productive, the country can rebuild its middle class.

He creates that notion so that he can explain its opposition--"populist progressives" who argue that education levels is not the root of all inequality. These are the folks who, Brooks observes, say that the game is rigged by the oligarchy, the workers' share is stagnant, and that corporate power has stifled worker gains.

People in this camp point out that inflation-adjusted wages for college grads has been flat for the past 14 years. Education apparently hasn't lifted wages. The implication? Don't focus on education for the bottom 99 percent. Focus on spreading wealth from the top. Don't put human capital first. Put redistribution first.

This is a leap that Evel Knevel would be impressed by. I am not sure who exactly finds that the implication of stagnant wages is that education should be a low priority.

Brooks then leaps to the idea that redistribution will appeal to Clinton because it allows her to hit Wall Street and CEO's, which is kind of like suggesting that Scott Walker is looking for a policy that allows him to strike out against hard right conservatives or Paul Ryan is looking for a good argument to use against Ayn Rand.

But mostly Brooks wants to argue for education as the miracle engine of economic justice. And to make his argument, he trots out the work of Raj Chetty, a piece of research that proves conclusively that even researchers at Harvard can become confused about the difference between correlation and causation. (Chetty, for those of you unfamiliar with the "research," asserts that a good teacher will result in greater lifetime earnings for students. What he actually proves is that people who tend to do well on standardized tests tend to grow up to be wealthier, an unexciting demonstration of correlation best explained by things we already know-- people who score well on standardized tests tend to be from a higher-income background, and people who grow up to be high-income tend to come from a high-income background.)

Brooks also cites magical researcher David Autor of MIT, who believes that if everyone graduated from college with a degree, everyone would make more money because, reasons. Because if everyone had a college degree, flipping burgers would pay more? Because if everyone had a college degree, corporations would suddenly want to hire more people? The continued belief in the astonishing notion that a more educated workforce causes higher-paying jobs to appear from somewhere is big news to a huge number of twenty-somethings who are busy trying to scrape together a living in areas other than the ones they prepared for these days.

Brooks isn't done spouting nonsense:

Focusing on human capital is not whistling past the graveyard...No redistributionist measure will have the same effect as good early-childhood education and better community colleges, or increasing the share of men capable of joining the labor force.

Because the vast number of high-paying jobs currently going unfilled is..... what?

Brooks says that redistributionists don't get it, that they believe that modern capitalism is fundamentally broken, but that their view is biased by short-term effects of the recession. I have two responses for that pair of thoughtbubbbles.

First, it's not clear whether capitalism is broken or not because we are currently tangled up in some sort of twisted fun-house mirror version of faux capitalism where the free market has been obliterated by a controlled money-sucking machine run by the government on behalf of the oligarchs. I'm actually a fan of capitalism, but what we currently have in this country is not capitalism at all.

Second, your argument about the "temporary evidence" of the recession is invalid because the recession was (and is) not the result of some mysterious serious of natural events. The economy went in the tank because the CEOs and Wall Street put it there. The economy broke because the "capitalists" broke it, and consequently the recession itself is Exhibit A in the case against modern faux capitalism and the greedheads who run it.

Throwing all this back at a magical belief in education is simply another way to blame poor people for being poor. So sorry you need food stamps and health care, but if you'd had the guts and character to go to college and get a degree, you wouldn't be in such a mess. Your poverty is just the direct result of your lack of character and quality. Well, that and your terrible teachers. But it certainly has nothing to do with how the country is being run. It's all on you, lousy poor person. And also your teachers.

FL Testing: Crash and Burn

From the Florida Time-Union comes word that computer-based testing in Florida is not running smoothly.

Yesterday Duval Public Schools called off testing for the second time this week, and reports are coming in from around the state of students who are staring are at blank screens, just trying to get logged into the testing program. This was the first week of the testing window in Florida, and as more students were added to the load, the system appeared not quite up to the task.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is quoted in the article:

Unfortunately, as I expected, with the larger districts joining the testing process this morning, along with middle schools, the system imploded. Students across the district saw white, blank screens when trying to log on. Districts throughout the state are reporting the same problem. I have directed all schools to cease testing.

Meanwhile, state ed department officials are declaring the testing a success, with Education Commissioner Pam Sewart announcing that she "feels with 100 percent certainty that everything is working as it should." Vitti had a response for that:

If the commissioner believes thousands of students staring at a blank screen for 30 minutes statewide is successful, then I am afraid that we have dramatically different levels of expectations for securing a reliable and valid testing environment.

 Florida actually followed Utah out of the testing consortium, using testing materials developed for Utah's test by AIR (the same people that developed the SBA test that Utah dropped out of in the first place). Bottom line: the same people whose test is grinding to a slow crawl in Florida are the people behind the SBAC. So good luck with that.

No word yet on what effect testing gurus think the bollixed roll-out will have on test results. How focused and test-effective is a student who just waited a half hour for the next question to come up?

FWIW, we went down this road in Pennsylvania several years ago. I've always suspected that's why we're one of the few states still sticking with paper and pencil. Of course, that doesn't generate nearly as much revenue for corporations, but no matter how bad our test is, at least our students can actually take it.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

PTA Believes in Unicorns

While local PTA's have been feisty and dedicated engines of resistance against the giant testing machine of modern education reformsterdom, the national organization has been more interested in playing ball with the Masters of Reformy Nonsense (could be the infusion of Gates-flavored money into their finances).

Witness their two-page "factsheet" that borrows its title from a speech that Arne Duncan delivered at the national PTA convention in 2010-- Moving Beyond the Bubble.

This particular Sheet O'Facts celebrates that "Improved Tests Are Finally Here!" Yes, "in 2014-15, schools will replace their old tests with new assessments built to let parents and teachers know how well students are learning the skills and knowledge they need to success in today's world." Phew. That's sure a load off my mind.

So what's new about these new tests of newly renewed newosity? Well, here's what the "new tests are trying to accomplish." (Trying? So, will students be getting points on these tests for trying? Or will the have to do, instead?)

Measure real-world skills. Those skills are, apparently, critical thinking, analytical writing, and problem solving. How do we know that these skills are required in the real world? We just do. How do we know that the test actually measures them? I'm particularly curious about a test for analytical writing, because I'm thinking that would involve doing actual analytical writing, and that can be rather a time-consuming operation, prone to a wide, world spanning variety of responses (so wide, I'd say, that judging them would be highly resistant to any sort of standardized process).

End teaching to the test. The idea here is that the tests somehow "mirror" activities that students are learning in class. The tests are supposed to be great because students have to "show and apply" instead of picking the right answer from a multiple choice question. Except that this is simply wrong. Take a look at the sample PARCC-- it is almost entirely pick an answer activities. Again-- authentic assessment would allow for far too many variables to be quickly and cheaply computer-graded.

Identify whether students are on the path to success. Only if you define "success" as "doing well on standardized tests." Show me the research that demonstrates how the tested items are related to future success.

Use technology to provide better information for teachers and parents. Oh, well, if they're using technology, it must be awesome. The speed of online scoring is supposed to be a selling point here, but so far turnaround time on test results has been unimpressive and the actual report of results looks like it will be the kind of vague generalities that wouldn't even make for a good report card. PTA touts the "heightened" security, but of course that security means that teachers, students, and parents never get to see how they did on actual questions; parents and teachers are forbidden to see the questions at all.

Provide opportunities for early intervention. Again, how does this work when teachers cannot see exactly where the students went wrong? The PTA says "when teachers have information about students' strengths and weaknesses, they can better support their learning." That's true (at least, assuming the unclear pronoun references mean what they are most likely to mean), but what does it have to do with these tests. Teachers already collect plenty of information about student strengths and weaknesses, and they collect it on a daily basis. What is the test offering that teachers do not already have better and greater supplies of?

Replace state tests in English and Math. PTA doesn't even pretend to suggest a reason that the replacements are improvements-- they just claim the tests are created by experts and educators.

Support students with special needs. Well, no. Mostly the new tests demand that students with special needs simply behave as if they have no special needs.

The factsheet includes other standard-issue baloney.

Results take time. Scores may go down as students and teachers adjust to the new standards and tests, which makes me wonder about the part where we said these tests more closely mirrored what students actually do.

They can tell what students have learned, or which students are ready to move on, or find the students who need help.

In fact they mention many swell things that the Big Standardized Test can do, which would be swell except the list is entirely composed of things that classroom teachers and schools already do outside of BS Testing. What PTA fails to explain is how BS Tests can help, what they can provide that teachers and schools don't already have.

But the PTA has found tests somewhere that work like magical unicorns carrying tiny dancing hippogryphs on their backs. It's baloney, and it's a shame that the PTA lowered themselves to peddling it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Your Granular Achievement Report

Remember how we need standardized testing so that parents can have a complete picture of just how well their child is doing in school? Well, the folks at achieve.org have whipped up a sample of what that carefully nuanced, deeply granulated report will look like. Let's check it out.

Actually, said out-checking won't take very long. The hyper-granulous ELA report for a hypothetical 11th grader of 2017 is just two pages long. It does have pretty graphics, but, well...

The first 1/3 page is a "how to read this" explanation that does an excellent job of...um...taking up space?

Then we get to David's first score. It's a 1980 out of 2400, which makes him Level 3 (there's a cool badge graphic just in case you're unsure of that number) and an explanation of Level 3 so that parents can impactfully appreciate the granulosity of this nuanced report. Here, in its entirety, is the explanation of Level 3:

Students who score in Level 3 show Moderate Understanding of the expectations for their grade and are likely to need additional support to be fully prepared for English in the next English course. They may need remediation for reading, writing, speaking and listening in college and careers after high school. These students should talk to their teachers and counselors about how to get extra help and course selection for the remainder of high school.

So, David did medium well on language and might need to get better at some stuff having to do with some sort of language use. Go to the office and ask, David's parents, because you might not be ready for college because of stuff, and things. And clearly, the only possible thing parents could ever want to know about a student is whether he's on the path to college or not.

And that's page one.

Page two tries to granulate things a bit more. We break language into five whole areas: Reading Literary Text, Reading Informational Text, Writing, Language and Speaking/Listening. For each David gets a ranking of above, at or below mastery. So, granules!

There are also some fun graphs that show how David compares within the district and within the testing consortium. Just in case you want to know whether to brag or be ashamed.

And there's a column offering strengths and weaknesses. One of David's strengths is "Demonstrating speaking and listening skills" (which leads me to really wonder what this future standardized test is going to look like). One of his weaknesses is "Understanding, interpreting and utilizing standard English, grammar and usage." If those don't seem like quite enough detail, the sheet also offers advice about what to ask your teachers or guidance counselors. What you can ask is a fancy version of, "What could we do so that David would be better." So you're welcome for that big piece of assistance, parents.

And that is it. This is somehow worth our great national testing nightmare, because parents will enjoy such massive benefits from this form that tells them "Your kid got about a C, because reasons. And stuff." Clearly this is so much deeper than what any report card or regular papers sent home or conversation with a live human teacher could ever be.

Mostly I just want to create a t-shirt that says "I paid billions of tax dollars for a deeply nuanced granulated standardized test, and all I got was this lousy two page report." But I can see one other method to the test-developers madness. With reports this vague and useless, it would not be necessary to actually score the complete tests. Hell, you could crank these reports out just plugging in student names with randomly generated results, and you would probably be close to correct most of the time. The savings and increased revenue for the testing companies would be considerable.


What Does It Take for Teachers To Lead?

Rick Hess has been trying to answer this question for a while with many pieces grouped around his concept of a Cage-Busting Teacher (soon to be a book). Here he is answering it again at EdWeek, complete with a quote from me.

Hess has been wrestling with a balanced view of teacher leadership for a while, and I don't know that he's exactly close to an answer, but I'll give him credit for spotting most of the obstacles.

He is correct in noting that one obstacle is the fault of teachers themselves. Many of us have made variations of that same observation-- teachers are so inclined to play nice, follow the rules, avoid making waves, avoid upsetting the main office, and keep their heads down in their rooms that they are often terrible advocates for what they know is right. Every single union leader can tell you the story about the teacher who wants the union to get in there and fight for her, but would you please not mention her name because she doesn't want to have anybody upset with her.

Hess suggests that teachers are also complicit in covering for our less-able colleagues. I don't agree. Most of us are in no position to either cover for or put pressure on our fellow teachers. In fact, most commonly we do the one thing we do have the power to do, which is try to help our less-able colleagues do better. That's as much a practical consideration as a compassionate one. The compassionate part is important-- every teacher has vivid memories of being a lousy teacher for at least a day. But the practical part matters too. About the only other thing I can do to another teacher who I feel is not pulling his weight is to be a dick to him-- criticize him to his face or behind his back, or I could refuse to talk to him, help him, or ever answer any of his questions. That might make me feel like a righteous warrior, but it won't help my school be any better. I can only accomplish that by trying to help. Even there, I'm limited-- he does not answer to me.

It's an interesting thought-- what would it look like to have a system set up so that teachers were accountable to each other.

Critics forever complain about how unions "protect bad teachers." This is like complaining about the existence of defense lawyers. The only alternative is a system in which people can be punished because one person with power is really sure that they deserve punishment.

Hess also notes that the system, including the various new reformster flavors of the week, does not always (or even often) support teacher input. There's a reason that teachers feel conditioned to sit down and shut up.

Some of it is very formalized. My contract with my school district is very explicit-- for me to make statements in public critical of my administrators is contractually forbidden, a fire-able offense. That makes a pretty powerful statement about who gets to decide what is discussed, and how, and when, and by whom.

Teachers are also familiar with this common school district planning approach.

Administrator: Welcome to the first meeting of the District Widget Committee. We really want to hear input from all of you, and we hope that you will feel completely empowered to develop a district widget policy that will really carry the district forward.

Committee chair (one year later): We've put in hundreds of man-hours in research and meetings, and after drafting and redrafting this policy, we think we've come up with something that will really enhance the district.

Administrator: You didn't really come up with the policy we wanted, so we're just going to throw out your work and implement the policy we always wanted.

This of course assumes that the committee wasn't simply stacked with people who were prepped and ready to come up with the "correct" answer in the first place.

When Common Core and its attendant pilot fish or reform arrived, anybody who had been in the teaching biz for a while recognized the drill from the first PD. Like NCLB and a dozen other initiatives before it, this might have been introduced in sessions that began with a large booming announcement: "We are here to tell you what to do, not to listen to you. So shut up, sit down, and do as you're told."

Hess wants teachers to speak up; he also wants them to earn the right to be listened to. But neither particularly matters if local, state or national leadership are unwilling to let either happen. We are working in an environment in which the federal government told the state of Illinois to tell Chicago Public Schools that they were not free to make local decisions about testing. In that environment, I'm not sure what sort of cage-busting any teacher can do.

It is true that some teachers are wayyyyy too sensitive about being so much as frowned at by their administration. It is true that some human beings would rather whine about a problem than try to solve it. But it is also true that some administrations take cage-busting teachers out to the front door and drop-kick them to the street. Hess says that teachers have no obligation to "turn a blind eye to goofily constructed or not-ready-for-prime time evaluation system," but the fact is that it doesn't matter what kind of eye teachers turn to or from those systems-- teachers only have as much say about the matter as their administrators allow them to have. Let me refer you again to my contract-- if I were to post in this blog that I thought my boss was pursuing an evaluation system that was poorly constructed and a threat to the quality education of students in my school district, I could be fired. My only hope would be that my administrator was willing to listen to me; if not, I would have no other recourse.

To be a teacher leader, you have to have followers (or at least collaborators), and teachers who are required to follow one master are not free to be led by somebody else. Hess suggests (not for the first time) that the ed reform wars have been about communication and trust, but they have also been about power (and money) and there is only so much power that teachers can claim before the people who have the power and insist on keeping the power simply get to building a bigger cage.

Mentors Trump Policy

In the edubloggoverse, we spend huge amounts of time debating and discussing educational policy and philosophy. And yet so few of us who work in actual classrooms are directly shaped or influenced by these sorts of discussions.

This week, I was reminded of the relative unimportance of such high-fallutin' discussions because Paul Zolbrod found me on facebook.

Dr. Zolbrod was one of my English professors when I was a student at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and he taught me a great deal about how to be a teacher. As an undergrad, I knew I wanted to teach, but I had trouble getting my act together. I particularly remember the experience of stopping by his office to pick up a paper (maybe more than once) that could justifiably have been labeled "lacking in support and development" or "more pre-occupied with getting it done than thinking it through," or even that old standard, "crap." But Dr. Zolbrod had the gift of telling you where you had gone wrong and why your paper had missed the mark, yet somehow making you leave the office feeling strong and tough and ready to Be More Awesome next time. Getting feedback on bad papers made me feel like I really had something going on; I can only imagine that had I ever written a really good paper for him, my head would have exploded.

What I learned was that you do not help people grow large by making them feel small. You do not shame people into excellence.

The other thing I remember about him was that he clearly saw strengths in me that I could not see in myself, and he found ways to push me toward those strengths. Because of him, I had the experience of teaching Beowulf to elementary gifted kids and Arthurian tales in a local high school. He helped me find paths to the material that really interested me, even though it wasn't where his own emphasis lay (he wrote the most complete and important translation of the Navajo creation story in modern times). He really inspired me to be me, not a knock-off version of anyone else.
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I was not a top student in the department, nor was I one of his top students or close mentees. He did all this for me, and as near as I could tell, I was just one more student in his class, and I think my experience of his teaching was a common one.

So from Dr. Zolbrod I learned that a good teacher is there for every student, helping each one see what is best in him, helping him grow without imposing your own vision of what he should grow to be.

Much of what I carry into a classroom comes from places like that. Joe Stewart taught me that you keep your expectations high at all times, and students will rise to them. Ed Frye taught me that you trust students to be responsible and give them room to breathe and rise and lead. Mike Eichholtz taught me that if you are passionate and excited about what you're teaching, your students will be, too, no matter what it is. Jack Ferrang taught me the value of establishing a classroom culture that values smarts. Tony Bianchi taught me the power of patience and letting students move at their own speed. And Janet O'Keefe made me want to be an English teacher in the first place, by showing just how wide and deep and rich a world an English teacher gets to play in.

The list goes on and on, and much of what I learned from the men and women who inspired me turned up in education textbooks, professional training sessions, long philosophical discussions of how a teacher should teach. But nothing in all the verbage ever impressed me in the same way that living, breathing examples did.

We can talk all day about how to develop teacher training programs (and, of course, make them super-duper rigorous). We can discuss what policies and procedures will best reshape the face of education. But at the end of the day, it's teachers in the classroom who are the face of education, and as much as we have studied and prepared and practiced and studied some more, we are shaped by the great teachers who came before us.

All the policies and programs and initiatives and legislated mandates in the world don't change that. Policies and mandates can get in the way of the shaping, but in the end, it's relationships that make the difference.

Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats