Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Threading Cake (Part II)

Ordinarily when I get into these sorts of cyber-dialogues, I try to make each piece stand on its own. I'm making no such attempt here-- this is part of an ongoing dialogue with Nate Bowling and assorted other folks. You can find the first installments here and here. I'm responding to Bowling's latest entry in this discussion.

Bowling reflects on how cool it is that these kinds of layered and nuanced conversation can break out (I agree-- this to me remains one of the most amazing things about the internet) and then he moves on one of his bedrock assertions, in bold type.

I wholeheartedly reject the geographical determinism and “poor kids can’t” thinking

I think the "geography" issue is a real area of controversy and concern. I bristle at the "helping kids escape their zip code" rhetoric for a couple of reason. One, folks who push that are never talking about rescuing ALL students-- just a few, and in the process of rescuing those few, they make the situation worse for those left behind. That's not a solution. Two, I believe there is enormous power in community and the "social capital" that's built by community, and it worries me that so much "reform" is done in ways that erode that community-- taking away local control, dispersing children to the four corners of other communities. I believe these approaches are in the long term corrosive and destructive, and I also find it concerning that the implication is that there are certain zip codes that we should just go ahead a write off. This strikes me as an even larger, worse version of "poor kids can't"-- "that entire community can't."

At the same time, I recognize that we're on the clock, and telling parents, "Just leave your kids in that burning building while we try to fix the whole structure," isn't going to help them. Man, if we could just bring the kind of resolve we bring to wars-- whip up a few billion dollars, hire the personnel, and just drop a huge educational "surge" into our poorest communities.

As for "poor kids can't"-- I still feel that on this point people in the edu-debate are talking past each other (and some, frankly, are pretending not to understand what other folks are saying). Let's say that one set of kids is living in lower Manhattan and another is living in Sandusky, Ohio. All of them want to go to Philadelphia. Here's the conversation between their parents:

Manhattan Mom: It's easy. You just pick up the Megabus on 34th between 11th and 12th Avenue. It will take less than three hours.

Sandusky Dad: We can't get to that bus stop. But we can take the train and it will take us about fourteen hours.

Manhattan Mom: What do you mean, your kids can't possibly go to Philadelphia.

All of our students are starting from different places (actually, they're going to different places, too, but I'm trying not to over-torture the metaphor), and so they all have different requirements for the trip. Yes, there are people who write certain kids of for one reason or another. I like to call those people "Persons Who Don't Belong in Education." But the problem with most of our large-scale testing is that it checks progress toward Philadelphia by having everybody check in as they pass through Buffalo, which means that both the Manhattan and the Sandusky students have to travel far out of their way just to make the check-in (which doesn't yield any useful information anyway).

Side note on Pro Public Ed

Nate, you dislike my use of "Pro public education," and I understand why. The whole education debate is hampered by the lack of good labeling. I've resisted the use of "reform" for that same reason-- using it admits that public ed is messed up in a major way, and while I agree that constant and eternal moving and searching and growing is required, I reject the notion that public ed is infested with such a deep dysfunctional evil that it needs to be reformed. For my side of things, I've moved on from "resistance" (which seems too reactive) to "pro public education" because it at least hits what I am in favor of. I recognize that there are people who are in favor of certain reformy things who are public ed (and also many who do, in fact, want to dismantle public ed as we know it).

But in this case, I should have simply identified myself as anti-testing, which was the pertinent part of what I was talking about.

Moving toward a solution

I appreciated the comment from Bowling's student, which mirrors what many of my own students say. Testing is so focused on a small piece of the whole person, like taking a picture of their left forefinger knuckle as a way of judging their attractiveness.

As always, I recognize that I am far to one side on the testing issue-- I see no value in standardized testing to justify its use, and I would simply scrap the whole business. It's wasting our time and resources, and that is particularly damaging in communities where time and resources are already scarce and stretched.

Yet I agree that the public (all the public and not just parents) should know how schools are doing. (This is actually one of the reasons I'm also largely anti-charter-- because charter schools as currently practiced are less accountable than public schools). 

So how do we do that without standardized tests?

1) Trust classroom teachers. Bowling offers a challenge to design an EOC test for Bio, and my answer would be that I can't create that test unless I taught the class. My own classes do not unfold exactly the same year after year (Hamlet, for instance, is "about" something different every year I teach it) and my tests reflect the shape of the year. I can predict the general shape (think strange attractors in chaos theory).

But to some extent my students shape what the course does. And I create assessments based on what we learned. My instruction drives assessment. If you're going to ask, "But how can you compare students across boundaries of city, state, and time," I'm going to ask, "Why do we need to?"

2) Transparency. The best bosses do not demand that their people drop their work and create and present a report about what they're doing. To do that is to live in a Dilbertesque world in which people can't get work done because they're constantly preparing reports on why their project is behind.

No, the best bosses go and see. Any administrator, parent, elected official-- anybody at all who wants to come sit in my classroom every single day and watch is perfectly welcome. And my students quickly learn that if they ask, "Why are we doing this" I will tell them. Much of the time I tell them even when they don't ask.

Schools should be glass houses. Why did you teach that? What were the test questions? Why doesn't that teacher have enough books? Why isn't that ceiling fixed? How did you use your time today? What did you learn in class today? How much do the suppliers charge for this material? Schools should be able to answer any and all questions.

The more authetically transparent a school is, the less time it has to waste on creating "reports" that are mainly proof that somebody is good at writing reports. And the Big Standardized Tests are just reports with an extra step.

Bowling promises that his next installment will offer some solutions to the testing issues. I look forward to seeing what he has to say.


  1. The people who talk about "zip codes" as a code for "bad schools" really have no concerns about kids living in those zip codes in the first place and allowing those zip codes to be sh-- holes. In fact, they are often the ones keeping the ghettos ghetto and keeping "those people" in the ghetto. They're trying to make themselves look good by their concern for the worthy few who might not actually belong there, but their overall attitude is perfectly plain.

  2. I am not as into data as Nate is. There are too many things that I don't believe can be quantified or measured. I think data has its place. When I want to lose weight I weigh myself every once in a while, but not every day. And instead of counting calories, which to me is annoying and boring, I just try to eat more fruits and vegetables and cut down on sweets. I try to walk at least a half an hour five days a week, but I'm not going to monitor how many steps I take. I like to have information, but I prefer information that is not in numerical form. And I'm not into comparing myself or my students to others. I know whether or not they're learning, and that's enough for me.

    I am not as anti-standardized testing as Peter is, but I agree with him that instruction has to drive assessment, not the other way around, and I think what can be tested on a standadrized test is extremely limited. As Peter explains in his May 2015 post, Is There a Good Standardized Test?, the only thing a standardized test can easily test is memorized facts, and how useful is that really by itself. Even the simplest of skills is problematic, because knowing a grammar rule, for example, doesn't mean students will actually be able to apply it when they write. (Knowing about a skill in theory and using it in practice involve different parts of the brain.) And he explains very clearly in his March 2015 post, Why Critical Thinking Won't Be on The Test, why critical thinking can't be tested that way, if at all; the comment section is interesting also.

    It certainly seems in theory that teachers ought to be able to get together and come to an agreement on the most important things to be taught in a given subject. I'd be willing to try because I think it would be interesting to see what other teachers thought and see how much we could agree on. However, knowing how vast the content and skill domains are in any subject matter, in practice . . . I'm certainly not going to teach something I think is inappropriate at that level no matter how many people think otherwise, not am I going to not teach something I consider essential even if no one else does. Assessments are even dicier than standards (or guidelines, or objectives), since it's important to test in the same way something is taught. And some knowledge and skills are simply more appropriately assessed in a format other than a test.

  3. I get that it's important to have some way to try to ascertain if the needs of all students are being met. I'm not against using some kind of test for that, however limited in scope. But they have to yield specific information about the student's strengths and weaknesses, testing should take no more than three hours total, and standardized tests can't show that Mrs. Y does a better job of teaching than Mrs. Z. The American Statistical Association (ASA) has gone on record stating that VAM algorithms cannot strip out all influences on a student's learning apart from the teacher's, and that they are not a valid measure of an individual teacher's effectiveness. All studies have shown that only socio-economic status has a consistent correlation to poor test scores. This is data. That obviously doesn't mean poor kids can't learn; it means that poverty is an obstacle to learning. It doesn't mean teachers shouldn't try to do all they can to help the students overcome these obstacles, but it's unrealistic to expect them to work wonders when the AMA says that an individual teacher only contributes somewhere between 0-14% of what influences student learning.

    If the People In Charge didn't erroneously think that tests should be used to evaluate individual teachers and that schools with low test scores should be punished instead of being given equitable resources, then we wouldn't have so much instruction time wasted on testing and test prep, which is Nate's biggest problem with testing. Testing would be innocuous, and people who wanted to compare their students to others taking the same test could do so. But if testing is used for unfair punishment, it would be better to have no testing at all. And if testing isn't used for the direction of resources, to both schools and neighborhoods, I personally don't see much point in it.