Thursday, August 21, 2014

Duncan Tries To Hear Teachers

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is here with some back-to-school blogging to assure folks that he is totes listening to somebody. His back-to-school conversation comes with two messages.

First, he wants to send out a big thank you to all the folks who helped create some super-duper data points last year-- specifically, the high school graduation rate and the college enrollment rate. I might be inclined to wonder about A) the reality behind those juicy stats and B) what it actually means. But Arne knows what it means:

These achievements are also indications of deeper, more successful relationships with our students. All of us who’ve worked with young people know how much they yearn for adults to care about them and know them as individuals.

Reading Duncan's words always induces an odd sort of vertiginous disorientation as one tries to take in the huge measured-in-light-years distance between the things he says and the policies he pursues. What in the four requirements of Race to the Top would possibly indicate that Duncan's administration is pursuing policies that develop these kind of relationships or satisfy these alleged yearnings? Is it the way teachers fates have a federally mandated dependency on student test scores? Is it the sweet embrace of one-size-fits-all national standards? Maybe it's the grueling program of punishing tests.

Which brings us to the second message.

Duncan says he's been having many many conversations with teachers, "often led by Teacher and Principal Ambassador Fellows" (those teachy folks who have been carefully vetted and selected by the DOE, so you know they're a real collection of widely varied viewpoints). And in those conversations, he's picked a little something something about standardized testing. Which he still thinks is basically swell.

Assessment of student progress has a fundamental place in teaching and learning – few question that teachers, schools and parents need to know what progress students are making.

Also, a bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves. Sure, classroom assessment is important. But recognizing that importance has nothing at all to do with making a case for standardized testing, particularly of the current brand. "Medicine is important" is true, but it's no justification for jamming aspirin into somebody's compound fracture.

Anyway, Arne has picked up three specific concerns:
  1. It doesn’t make sense to hold them [educators] accountable during this transition year for results on the new assessments – a test many of them have not seen before – and as many are coming up to speed with new standards.
  2. The standardized tests they have today focus too much on basic skills, not enough on critical thinking and deeper learning.
  3. Testing – and test preparation – takes up too much time.
Duncan is shocked-- shocked!!-- that anyone would think it's a good idea to make a high stakes test the measure of student achievement or teacher effectiveness.  "Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone –" And here comes the vertiginous woozies (dibs on this as a band name) again, because that would be a heartening quote if it did not come from the very same office which decreed that by order of the federal government high stakes tests must be used as a measure of student achievement and teacher effectiveness. Duncan is talking about this test-based evaluation of students and teachers as if it just spontaneously occurred, like some sort of weird virus suddenly passed around at state ed department sleepover camp, and not a rule that Duncan's office demanded everyone follow. Has Duncan forgotten that he just made the entire state of Washington declare itself a Failing School Disaster Zone precisely because they refused to use high stakes tests as a measure of student achievement and teacher effectiveness?

No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It’s simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.

You know what one might conclude from that? One might conclude that the testing is a doing an ever-so-crappy job of supporting "the work it is meant to support."

States will have the opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation during this transition. As we always have, we’ll work with them in a spirit of flexibility to develop a plan that works...

I would like to check with someone from Washington to see what it feels to be flailed with that spirit of flexibility. But Duncan is opening the door to states postponing the most painful consequences of testing for one year, because, you know, teachers' voices.

Anthony Cody has correctly pointed out that one other voice has spoken up in favor of this-- the voice of Bill Gates. Unfortunately, we'll never know for certain how this all played out. Did Duncan decide to obey the Call of Gates and try to use it to mollify teachers? Is the Voice of Gates so powerful that it blasted the wax from Arne's ears and he could hear teachers finally? Is he bending to political realities, or trying to do damage control.

I have a question I'm more interested in-- what difference will a year make?

Duncan seems to think that some time will improve the tests themselves.

Many educators, and parents, have made clear that they’re supportive of assessment that measures what matters – but that a lot of tests today don’t do that – they focus too much on basic skills rather than problem solving and critical thinking. That’s why we’ve committed a third of a billion dollars to two consortia of states working to create new assessments that get beyond the bubble test, and do a better job of measuring critical thinking and writing.

Never going to happen. National standardized test means test that can be quickly checked and graded at large scale and low cost (or else the testmakers can't profit from it). The college board has had decades to refine their craft, and their refined craft looks like-- a bubble test.

As far as Duncan's other concerns go-- a year will not matter. Much of what he decries is the direct result of making the stakes of these tests extremely high. Student success, teacher careers, school existence all ride on The Test. As long as they do, it is absurd to imagine that The Test will not dominate the school landscape. And that domination is only made worse by the many VAMtastic faux formulas in circulation.

Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.

Oh, the woozies. Duncan's office needs to do one thing, and one thing only-- remove the huge stakes from The Test. Don't use it to judge students, don't use it to judge teachers, don't use it to judge schools and districts. It's that attachment of huge stakes-- not any innate qualities of The Test itself-- that has created the test-drive joy-sucking school-deadening culture that Duncan both creates and criticizes. If the department doesn't address that, it will not matter whether we wait one year or ten-- the results will be the same.


  1. Duncan does nothing without Gates Foundation approval, so I think this belated and essentially useless call for one year delay on high stakes attached to CCSS tests comes from the Gates people.

    Do they really think one year delay will fix the downward polling trajectory for CCSS, standardized testing and teacher evaluations tied to tests?

    As you note, Peter, we'll be back here in one year.

  2. The ambivalence of what Arne says and what he actually does is called "crazy making" by psychologists since it is confusing to children and gives mixed messages. This ambivalence can be recognized in dysfunctional families and other dysfunctional systems. With Duncan, one can only look at his actions to speak for themselves and dismiss anything he says as "delusional". He actually believes the stuff he says is true. His history and behavioral symptoms indicate that he has Narcissistic PD with Bipolar/Dissociation. We have a mentally ill and incompetent Secretary of Education making policy in the US, and yet we wonder why there is an epidemic of mental illness with children?