Monday, October 20, 2014

New Robes for The Testing Cult

Do you have the slightest shred of belief that the recent reformster declaration that we must get the whole testing mess under control actually meant anything good? Then right after I send you my sales pitch for buying a bridge over Florida swampland from a Nigerian prince, let me introduce you to .

There's nothing subtle here. The line on your tab will read "Let's test less but better #passthetestmn" and the first big headline says "Let's be clear: student testing matters."

Yes, the big testing cutback announcement was just snazzy new robes for the same old cult of testing. 

Without tests, we wouldn’t have the information we need to navigate our everyday lives. The same is true in our classrooms: without tests, how would parents, teachers and community members [my emphasis] know how our kids are doing, or how to help all students get on track? Just as we need trustworthy tests in our daily lives—from the doctor’s office to the mechanic—we need unbiased, quality assessments for our kids.

Got that? Human beings are incapable of navigating their daily lives without the benefit of some Wise Authority to test us and give us the results. Yes, without tests parents and teachers would not know how students were doing (because the parents and teachers who see the child every day are simply not as wise as the people who create The Test). Also, how would community members know how well the-- wait! what? When did we decide that students need to show their report cards to everybody else in town? I knew that FERPA had been weakened, but still, this seems a bit much.

So let’s test less, but better. Let’s use high-quality, relevant tests that strengthen teaching and learning, and give parents peace of mind about their children’s achievement.

See, this is what the new testing initiative means. "We have heard you," say the reformsters, "and we understand that you hate sprinkling arsenic over every part of every meal. So we have prepared these pills with the daily prescribed dose of arsenic in a capsule that you can quickly and easily give to your children." But under no circumstances are we going to discuss or even question the wisdom of giving children regular doses of arsenic.

Teachers Can Haz Robes, Too

There's also a cavalcade of educators offering their Stepfordian support. Well, some of them aren't technically offering support so much as protective cover that obscures the real issue.

Taylor Rub, a special ed teacher, says she uses standardized tests as "one data point." Says Matt Proulx, a kindergarten dual immersion teacher: "Testing and data collection, whether formal or informal, is my road map to knowing where my students are academically and what I need to do to help them succeed." Which I don't disagree with a bit-- it just doesn't in any way make a case for standardized testing as part of that picture.

Teacher of the Year Tom Rademacher uses the most words, and I believe they translate roughly as "I don't get a damn bit of use out of these tests in my classroom, but low scores on state exams are the only way to get politicians to acknowledge that there are some neighborhoods where students are being ignored." Which is an interesting point, though it would be more interesting if the typical political response to discovering these pockets of neglect were not to cry "Failing schools! Failing schools!!" in the same tones used in another era to cry "Witch!!" and then following up with "Golden charter opportunity right here!!"

But then there's Luke Winspur who says "As a teacher, I believe that eliminating criterion-referenced, standardized tests would ultimately hurt students. These tests give invaluable information that allow me to provide my students with targeted instruction on the exact skills they need to succeed." If by "succeed," Winspur means "Get good score on High Stakes Test," then yes-- standardized tests are a useful part of test prep for taking standardized tests. Otherwise, no-- this is baloney. Winspur's picture shows someone who appears young and intelligent; if he can't tell what instruction his students need then A) something is wrong with his teacher thinky parts and B) teh standardized test will not help him, anyway.

More Bad Analogies

Elsewhere on the site, the nameless authors offer this:

Kids don’t like tests, but they also don’t like visits to the doctor—yet both are important. Like annual check-ups, standardized tests tell you how your kid is doing, and how you can help them stay on track.

You know what happens when you go to the doctor? A trained professional human being uses his trained professional human judgment to determine how you're doing. When you go for your checkup, the doctor does not say, "I have some unproven, inaccurate tests here that sort of check for things loosely related to your health. Whatever they say I'm just going to go ahead and accept blindly, because I just don't know enough about this medical stuff."

In the medicine-education parallel, doctor does not equal standardized test. Doctor equals teacher.

Plus, tests aren’t going away. Whatever your child wants to be—a doctor, an accountant or a carpenter—they’ll have to pass tests along the way.

So relax and be assimilated. The sooner you and your child learn to be compliant and  unquestioning, the easier this will go for you. All that word salad we keep shoveling out about how important critical thinking is? We don't mean when we're talking. Definitely don't question the assertion that every single profession in the world requires a bad standardized test for admission.

Robes Are Also Good For Covering Gaping Holes in Your Reasoning

The facts are clear: students who do well on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments are more likely to succeed in college.

Correlation and causation, anyone? We have discovered that seventeen year olds who regularly help their parents get food off the top shelf in the kitchen go on to be successful basketball players, so let's train every kid to get stuff off the top shelf.

So let’s keep and improve the MCAs—one of the best indicators of whether or not kids are on track for success in college—and help all kids pass the test.

It's funny that the Cult of Testing never wants to discuss that these tests are also one of the best indicators of whether a student comes from a wealthy home or a poor one. You would think that all this interest in correlations would lead us back to one of the most regularly-documented correlations of all. And yet, somehow, it never comes up.

The Cult Is Still in Full Gear

My main point? If you seriously thought that last week's announcement from CCSSO and CGCS about testing actually signaled a change in the Cult of Testing, you were crazy. Almost as crazy as the cult members themselves, who continue to believe (or at least claim to believe) that these standardized tests measure anything other than the students' ability to do well on standardized tests.

Questioning the Test

Sarah Blaine blogs over at parentingthecore, and while she is not a very prolific, her posts are often thoughtful and thought-provoking (she is the same blogger who dissected the implications of the Pearson wrong answer).

Blaine has been getting ready for PARCC Family Presentation night at her daughter's school, and she has prepared a list that I think would be an entirely appropriate set of questions for anyone to ask a school board, elected official, or education department bureaucrat who started making noise about the awesomeness of the Testing Regime we now live under. You should just follow the link to read the full piece, but let me give you a taste.

Some of the questions address the nuts and bolts of testing, but hit right at the heart of testing issues. There are some obvious ones, like:

How many hours of testing for 3rd graders? 4th graders? 5th graders?

But this next one is one of my favorites, precisely because it isn't asked often enough:

What in-district adults are proctoring and reviewing the PARCC tests to ensure that the test questions are not poorly worded, ambiguous, and/or that correct answer choices are provided for multiple choice tasks? 

These are also winners:

What data do you expect to receive from PARCC that will be available to classroom teachers to guide instruction? When will PARCC scores and results be available? 

Who scores the subjective portions of the PARCC tests? What are those people’s qualifications?

What steps are you taking to ensure that our 8, 9, and 10 year old students have the typing skills necessary to compose essays with keyboards? How much time is being spent on preparing children to acquire the skills necessary to master the PARCC interface? Is the preparation process uniform throughout the district? If it is not, doesn’t this mean that we won’t be able to make apples-to-apples comparisons of student scores even across the district? 

Some of Blaine's questions are considerably more in-your-face, which is why I love them:

Will students lose points on math assessments if they do not use specific Common Core strategies to solve problems (e.g., performing multiplication the traditional way rather than drawing an array)? My child lost full credit on the following Envisions math test problem this year: “Write a multiplication sentence for 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 = 15″ because she wrote 3 x 5 = 15 instead of 5 x 3 = 15. Will children be losing points on PARCC for failure to make meaningless distinctions such as this one?

There are plenty more where these came from, including links to articles and information that help inform the area in question. And though she was aiming at the PARCC, her list works just fine for whatever big dumb high stakes test your part of the world is pushing.

The world needs more of these questions. Too many people responsible for providing some form of educational leadership keep just doing dumb things because nobody asks them any questions or challenges any of their dumb proposals. It would be fun to watch what happened if a whole group of parents attended a meeting with Blaine's questions in hand.

Weary in Wisconsin

I received the following message from one of my readers. I'm telling her story here with her permission:

I am writing to you because I don't know where else to turn. I am a veteran elementary teacher of 25 years. I am emotionally spent. Yes, it is the second month of a new school year, and I am completely burned out. To be fair, it hasn't all happened in the last month and a half. It all started about 5 years ago, and things have been rolling downhill since then. You see, because I am an elementary teacher, my life today is completely out of balance. My colleagues and I easily work 60 hours a week, and when we are not at work, are usually worrying about work--about how we are going to get everything done that needs to be done and and how we are going to get our students to the end goal that our administration expects of us, er, I mean, them.

Many of us arrive at school each day at or before 7 am, and and often do not make it home in time for supper with our families. Our lunch break is spent inhaling yogurt as we work with children, score papers, record grades or make copies. We come home exhausted to our own children who need our help with homework, piles of laundry that need to be washed or folded, and to lunches that need to be packed for the next day when this whole crazy cycle begins again. But by the time we get home, we have nothing left to give. And when the weekend finally does roll around, activities have to be scheduled around time we know that we have to spend doing yet more schoolwork. Elderly parents to visit? No time. Sick child? Hubby can you take this? This is just no way to live!

When I was in college, I studied hard and planned for my future in which I expected to one day be a successful, experienced, respected professional. Over the years as a teacher, I have continued to push myself toward greater understanding of child development, academic achievement and my role in helping children reach their potential. Yet where I am today could hardly be farther from the vision I once had for myself. Instead, I find myself in a workplace where I have had instilled in me the notion that I am not doing enough, don't know enough and am not making progress fast enough. I often look back on my college days with regret and even resentment.. I could have done anything. I could have been anything. Why did I make this stupid choice to be a teacher?

My husband tells me that my colleagues and I just need to band together to talk with our administrators, sharing our struggles with them. Surely, he says, our collective voices would be enough to make a case that the administration can't ignore. After all, any good employer cares about the physical and emotional well-being of its employees, right? And surely they would be interested in the morale in the building, right? Well, we have tried. They aren't

If I found a job in a field outside of education this afternoon that fit me, I would take it by tonight. I want out. And I want the world to know it. (Well, kind of. Not my immediate world, perhaps--after all, I do have to keep my job until I can find something else!) But until then, I want some relief. And I simply don't know where to find it. 

This teacher works in Wisconsin, and feels that following the "walk out the door at 5:00" approach would result in her being out of a job in a few months.

I don't know how people who create this kind of work environment live with themselves. I don't know what story they tell themselves at the end of the day that makes them feel as if they have done heroic, important things.

And I know that some of you will think, "Well, they just need to stand tall, stand together, and fight back hard." I don't know enough of the specifics of her situation to know if that's a real option or not. But I have to wonder what has happened-- how did we get to the place where it's usual to expect that a teacher needs to be a hard-as-nails street fighter. 

How many great people are we losing because all they have to offer is that they are gentle and kind, love children, and want to help students learn and understand--- and they know (or they learn) that that is not enough.

Do feel free to offer support to this reader in the comments. I expect she'll see your comments. As will the other readers who are in a similar place.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Forever Schools

You may well have seen some variation on this poster:

I've seen plenty of them (and we have a forever dog of our own).

This morning I cam across this piece on Buzzfeed, of all places, talking about the beginning of the end for charter profiteers in general, and K12 in particular. And it reminded me of one more quality that distinguishes between modern profiteering charter schools and true public schools.

Public schools are forever schools, not until schools.

Public schools do not serve students until the financial returns get too low.

Public schools do not serve students until those students turn out to be too challenging.

Public schools do not serve students until they can't get away with lying about staff qualifications.

Public schools do not serve students until the students reveal learning disabilities.

Public schools do not serve students until the market presents a better investment opportunity.

Public schools do not serve students until the sponsoring corporation dissolves itself and disappears.

Public schools do not serve students until they can't get sweetheart deals from politicians any more.

Public schools do not serve students until they decide to just close up overnight with no notice.

Public schools do not serve students until the people running them feel like doing something else instead.

Public schools do not serve students until those students have to be pushed out for scoring too low on The Test.

A public school is a commitment. It's a community promising, "We will build this place to help our children learn and grow, and we will never, ever, close it for capricious or self-serving reasons. Families may come and go. Businesses may rise and fall. But when you come back here in a generation or two or three, you will find this school still standing."

It is true that forever schools don't really last forever (and our dog is not immortal, either). But the commitment is a forever commitment, a commitment that goes beyond individual staff, leaders, community members. The commitment is the community, past, present and future saying to their children and their children's children, "We will be right here, just as long as children need a safe place to learn and grow."

The modern profiteering charters make no such commitment. "We'll be right here," they say, "just as long as it serves our purposes."

There are cities, increasing in number, where leaders have trampled on the promise of public schools. Shame on those leaders, and shame on our national leaders who have encouraged the destruction of the public school promise. Wouldn't it be interesting if charter school companies had to sign contracts that, say, bound them to keeping a school open for ten, fifteen, twenty years whether they were making money or not. Wouldn't it be interesting if, in places like New Orleans, politicians had said, "You can open a charter school to replace the public school that used to be here, but you can't ever close it until we say you can. You must guarantee to provide educational services to the children of New Orleans as long as there are children in New Orleans." Public schools should be as permanent as any public institution can be. It is a huge ripoff to replace them with temporary schools having no more aspiration to permanence than the pop-up tent store selling Fourth of July fireworks.

In the meantime, the modern profiteering charters are just the educational version of the people who bring home puppies and a year later have taken them to the pound or abandoned them in the country or simply neglected them to death.

All pets should be forever pets. And all schools should be forever schools.

Management By Screen

If you remember the film classic Aliens (a film classic that James Cameron made way before he decided to remake Ferngully for a gazillion dollars), you remember his nightmare vision of soldiering in the not-too-distant future. Lt. Gorman is the "leader" who expects to manage his troops from a mobile office loaded with screens that are in turn loaded with data. It is an effective narrative shorthand for leadership that is detached, impersonal, and ultimately fatally ineffective. And in 1986, it was an convincing portrayal of how things could go wrong.

Well, it's almost thirty years later, and Lt. Gorman is real.

Not so much in the military, perhaps, but Management By Screen is alive and well in the private sector.

My brother has worked in the manufacturing world most of his adult life, and he tells me hair-curling tales of the things going on out there. The hot, new, with-it manager is a data god. He is sure to live at least forty miles away from the location of the plant, because you can't make the necessary hard-nosed brutal decisions you need to make if you're personally familiar with the people and community that will be affected.

And this data god's management style looks kind of like this

Yes, you should be able to manage a facility from your desk. Just make sure you're collecting the necessary data.

The photo is from an investment firm, which helped me connect some dots. We know that lots of economists think they know how to re-organize schools. Is it any wonder that they envision a world in which data is king, and collecting and managing data is the main function of educational leaders? That's the world they know. Talking to live humans is just a distraction. It's all just data. Just manage the data.

Management By Screen has certainly been successful in some settings. Wal-Mart has managed to dominate its sector by superior interconnection of data-- the cash registers and store inventory counters and warehouse inventory and supplier and manufacturers are all linked in one big web of tightly wound, stuff-providing data. When the checker swipes your widget at the cash register, data flows all the way up the line to the widget factory. And it can all be managed by screen in an office somewhere.

That, of course, is the model that some imagine as an educational paradise. If we can somehow turn every student activity into data generation, and the collect all that data, and then use that data to tweak the data-generating activities, like adjusting the speed on a assembly-line unit or the temperature on a baking unit or the response time on supplier response-- well, that wold just be schooling heaven. We would be able to scale up, plug hundreds--thousands!-- of data generation units students into the system, and just watch those outputs and throughputs reach optimal state on the screen, eventually connecting all of it to employers and health care providers and everything would eventually be connected in the great chain of life and death and supply and labor, without us having to interact directly with any of them.

And while you may think I have phrased that in such a way as to highlight its awfulness, you should realize that there are people who would read that paragraph and not see a single thing wrong with it.

Do not ask them to explain how any of this would help. For them, it is self-evidently great to have people all plugged into a system that removes human variables and which can be run through the beautiful, elegant screen. Of course this is a terrible way to work with humans, but in some corporate settings, that just doesn't matter. But the goal of schooling is to make a better life for the human beings who pass through the schools. This does not matter to the screen management people. Their goal is not to make life better for the students. Their goal is to make the system better.

They are the bombadiers of education, flipping a switch, watching the sights line up elegantly, and existing in a small quiet space far away from the actual carnage and destruction. Flesh and blood are messy and difficult. But everything looks better on a screen.

Bad News from Minneapolis

Per yesterday's report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Minneapolis public school system is showing bad signs of advanced charteritis.

The city schools have been hit by low enrollment; they planned for 900 more students this year, but the actual number was two. That translates into a huge loss of state money. “For a long time we were the big player in town. That has created a sense of complacency,” said Robert Doty.

Doty is the Chief Operations Officer for the district, and if that sounds more corporate than educational, then you are just starting to get the picture. Here's the rest of that quote: “We haven’t focused on student retention and student recruitment as others in the market have.”

Yes, the Minneapolis public school system is not suffering from low enrollment-- they are suffering from a diminishing "market share." And they need to find ways to "recruit and retain" students.

This is free market schooling in action. It's not a contest of educational excellence-- it's a battle of marketing prowess, and it creates some tough choices for the people charged with running--well, managing, I suppose, Minneapolis's school system. And it highlights all teh things fundamentally wrong with such a system.

First, it takes focus off doing a good job of creating education and puts it on doing a good job of selling seats in a building.

You can claim that, well, of course, the best way to market schools is to make them really excellent. But at the last meeting, Doty did not call the board together to talk about education. "At Tuesday night’s meeting, Doty and other staff members gave the board an update on the grim enrollment numbers and proposed the creation of a comprehensive marketing plan."

And this isn't just a philosophical problem-- marketing plans cost money. The outrage and upset over having a band program cut because of budget slashing or shifting resources to more test prep-- that outrage is old hat at this point. But imagine finding out that your child's band program must be cut because the board needs money to buy a series of tv spots and billboards. It's alarming, but as long as charter chains like K12 can divert taxpayer dollars directly into an advertising budget, what other choice does a public school have?

Free market schooling does not demand superior schools. It demands superior marketing.

It's not all lost in Minneapolis. At that same meeting, "some" board members tried to get back to business. Board member Alberto Monserrate suggested that the board need to stop worrying about marketing and get its focus back on educating students.

“We need to stop our obsession with market share,” Monserrate said at the board meeting. “We are not a business. At some point you have to have the right product to market.”

Yes, that's right. The guy whose point was "we need to stop talking about school like it's a business" then went on to talk about schools like they are a business. Sigh.

Not that Doty heard a word Monserrate said.

Doty said he agrees on the need to improve student achievement, but said he’s confident that the district’s new strategic plan will address the issue. The plan will require schools to increase math and reading scores by 5 percent every year for the next five years. For students of color, leaders want those standards to increase by 8 percent each year.

Maybe there's more to this than the paper reported, but I bet not. If you've worked in retail, you will recognize this management approach. Set numbers for the new quarter. The institute your "plan" by pushing those numbers down the line. Some suit in the Big Boardroom says, "We will increase these numbers by 5% next quarter," and a month later, a store manager is telling a part-time, minimum wage sales person, "These are your target numbers for the quarter. Hit them, or else." It's a very popular management technique, because although it's absolutely destined for failure, it pushes blame for that failure down to the least important, most expendable people in the company.

So kudos, Mr. Doty, for bringing yet another time-tested business technique to schools.

[Update: I'm still learning about the Minneapolis situation, including the role of the Kramer family who are, it should be said, kind of amazing. My esteemed colleague edushyster profiled these folks a few years back. Dad used to own the newspaper, and the children (most of whom went the TFA-to-Master of the Universe education route) include a boss of TFA, a couple of charter honchos,and a director of a charter-promoting group in Minneapolis. Plus active roles in many reformster organizations nationally, as well as chipping in to buy support their very own school board candidate. And these days Dad runs a site that promotes the whole package. Clearly Minneapolis is a great town to be rich and committed to reformsterizing schools even as your charterfy your way to more riches. No wonder the public schools are on the ropes.]

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis public school system is being bled dry. The charters have scooped up about 20,000 students, leaving 34,000 in the public system. The dollar amounts being drained from the public schools are huge, putting the district in "triage" mode. But of course it lacks the charter power to pick and choose its students. So the money is drained, the cream is scooped off, and the public system must increasingly carry the weight of inevitable failure-- all while trying to divert some of its meager resources to marketing plans. And of course marketing becomes increasingly difficult because in this scenario, the public schools will sooner or later be largely failing-- not because they collapsed, but because they were attacked, their resources stripped, and their remaining schools charged with the task of educating all the students that the charters don't want.

I do not know how to reverse this, other than to require that charter schools function like the public schools they pretend to be (though of course that would make them far less profitable and therefor far less interesting to the hedge fund masters of the universe currently pushing them). You would also have to fix the funding system of the state, and it might be a good idea to slap some sort of legislative lid on advertising activities so that tax dollars meant for education are not being wasted on marketing.

But fundamentally you have to get back to the idea that public education is a public trust and that we have an obligation to maintain it for the benefit of all students. As long as we keep treating it like a consumer good to be marketed like breakfast cereal and automobiles, for the profit of corporate investors and for the use of those few customers who can afford the very best-- as long as we keep doing that, Minneapolis is the future for many cities.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Can Any Teacher Make a Case for CCSS?

More teacher-fans of the Common Core have been uncovered. This time they're in Bismark, North  Dakota. For instance, here's Amanda Peterson, an English teacher at Bismark High.

“They have allowed us to bring in more nonfiction selections that help us better understand, better critically analyze the literature we are reading,” she said.

The focus is no longer on recalling the plot of a story, she said, explaining that it no longer matters that students can recall the color of a car in a particular chapter of a book.

“Being able to make connections between the text and between real life and the news and the world around them and seeing how those patterns have continued over time is something I find incredibly important and valuable,” she said.

So what do you think? Was Ms. Peterson forbidden to bring in non-fiction before the state told her district they had to allow her? Who exactly had forced her to ask these car color questions in the past? Had the school district kept students and teachers walled off from the outside world so that she was connect reading to patterns? Who exactly had forbidden her to use these approaches that she finds "incredibly important and valuable"?

Or was it not a matter of permission. Was Ms. Peterson free to do all these things, but simply unaware that such pedagogical approaches existed? Did she ask questions about the color of a car because she simply couldn't think of anything else to ask?

And here comes middle school English teacher Meagan Sharp.

She said seventh-grade students in her class used to read only one novel. They now participate in book clubs, where they read four novels per year.

Sigh. Same question for Ms. Sharp. Was she restricting her students to one novel because she was forbidden to teach more, or because she didn't realize that such a thing was humanly possible.

This narrative is repeated again and again and again. A teacher breathlessly announces that her classroom has been revolutionized and revived by Common Core, because the Core made it possible for her to use techniques that have been in use for forever by reasonably competent educators. Sometimes it's even an approach that isn't actually in the Common Core (I'm still waiting for someone to show me which ELA standard calls for critical thinking).

I keep trying to explain. When you say things like this:

“The connections that they make between the characters is deeper than I have ever seen since I started teaching,” she said.

you may think you're saying "This Common Core special sauce is amazing" but what I hear is "I have never had any idea about how to do my job."

It is possible that the message here is "I just teach out of the book that the school gives me, and now the book I teach out of has cool new stuff." Again, this does not tell us nearly as much about the Common Core as it tells us about your professional skills. And if we're talking about what is embedded in the script that you read lessons from-- well, I am accepting of wide varieties of techniques, but anybody who is happy "teaching" from a script does not belong in a classroom.

Here is one of the things I find striking about the Common Core is that here we are, well into the rollout, and here I am, reading mile after mile of verbage written about it, and I have yet to read a single credible endorsement of the ELA standards by a classroom teacher. Instead we get endorsements of techniques already well-known to capable teachers; these techniques may or may not actually be in the Core, but the Core still gets credit for them. On the rare occasions that a Core enthusiast talks about a technique not already in regular use, it's because the technique was long ago discredited and abandoned.

So, to you teachers who insist that Common Core revolutionized and revitalized your classroom, I will be impressed if you can successfully answer any of the following questions--

1) What's a thing that you would have to stop doing in your classroom tomorrow if the Common Core were repealed?

2) What's a thing that Common Core made possible that had never been possible in a classroom before?

I will not hold my breath. I don't think it's possible to make a case that the Core can do a thing to help an actual classroom teacher in the daily performance of her duty. Argue the need for national standards to get everybody on the same page if you must, but don't pretend that Common Core invented the wheel.