Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Ground Level Ed Reform Decade Retrospective

Yeah, it's time for everyone to do decade lists (including "Ten Reasons The New Decade Doesn't Start For Another Year") from the list of education faces that Alexander Russo is doing on Twitter to this absolutely-the-only-list-you-need-to-read from Audrey Watters, "The 100 Worst Ed Tech Debacles of the Decade."

I'm not going to try to sum up the decade in education. Or rather, I'm going to sum up my decade. Because while most of these lists will take a look-from-the-stratosphere view, balancing policies and historical nuance etc blah blah blah, I want to talk about what it all looked like on the ground. We can talk about the decade in policy all day, but from the perspective of a classroom teacher, it was ten years of worsening train wreck. So this is my story. It matters not because it happened to me, but because it's one example of what happened to many many classroom teachers.

By 2009, there was a feeling in the air, a sensed that the earth under our teacher feet was becoming wobbly.

First and foremost, there was No Child Left Behind and the testing regimen attached to it. For the first several years the growth requirement (average yearly progress) was almost attainable, but by decade's end we were looking at targeted gains that were insanely high, culminating in 2014, when all students were supposed to be proficient on the test. There was no question that we were all going to fail-- was this what our leaders wanted?

In 2009 I sat through a state workshop about PVAAS, the value-added model that was being implemented to judge us as teachers. I described it at the time for my local newspaper audience:

PVAAS uses a thousand points of data to project the test results for students. This is a highly complex model that three well-paid consultants could not clearly explain to seven college-educated adults, but there were lots of bars and graphs, so you know it’s really good. I searched for a comparison and first tried “sophisticated guess;” the consultant quickly corrected me—“sophisticated prediction.” I tried again—was it like a weather report, developed by comparing thousands of instances of similar conditions to predict the probability of what will happen next? Yes, I was told. That was exactly right. This makes me feel much better about PVAAS, because weather reports are the height of perfect prediction.

I also noted the change in tone. When the state had first started claiming that all we had to do was teach the standards and test scores would rise and we'd be fine--in other words, when we had first been told that the state was essentially using the Big Standardized Test to dictate local curriculum-- there had been an attitude of cooperation, an attempt to sweet talk us into buying in. 2009 was different. The message was, "This is going to happen, and we don't give a shit if classroom teachers like it or not."

That was the sea change of the decade's opening. There had always been people and politicians who disrespected the value of teachers and teacher insights. But now it was coming from the state department of education, from the people who were supposedly caretakers of the system (as with many trends ten years ago, we had no idea how much worse it would get).  For years, we could at least speak up and say, "This seems like a bad idea," and education leaders would try to convince us it wasn't, as if our feelings about the issue mattered. No more. Now we could try to speak up, but the response was, "Don't care what you think. This is what's happening."

And that was how the decade started. The pressure to do test prep was huge, from the state and from the district administration. "Look at those anchor standards," we were told. "Anchor standards" is the fancy term for "the standards that are going to be on the test." The ones you're supposed to teach to.

The new President, we thought, could be good news. He seems like a decent guy, a smart guy, a person who respects and values teachers. This NCLB train is clearly headed for a cliff-- I'll bet he's going to save it.

As the decade opened, I heard that state standards were on a sort of hold, that nationally there was a new set of standards rolling out. Pennsylvania adopted the Common Core standards in July of 2010, leading to some confusion-- would the state test be based on the new standards or the old ones? Were the standards any good (because the old ones were Not Great)? I heard at first that they would be great because they were written by teachers and based on research, but when I actually laid eyes on them, that seemed... hard to believe. Later we would sort-of-but-not-really change them again.

And as the Obama administration rolled out policy, I began to realize that this was not going to be the guy to help us, that he was, in fact, going to take some of the worst parts of NCLB and keep them, boost them. Keep high stakes testing, but now judge individual teachers and not just schools. States were encouraged to fight for some additional funding, which they could do by handing over control of their state department of education to the feds. But then all states were encouraged to do the same for free to escape the penalties of NCLB, which Congress seemed completely incapable of fixing, as if-- and this seemed to be a recurring theme in the early 10s-- as if they actually wanted public schools to fail.

We said it over and over-- when we peeked at test questions and saw how bad they were, when we asked for actionable results from last year's tests, when we looked at the kind of crappy materials the state sent us, when we saw the unattainable goals-- do they actually want us to fail??

And the more I dug into things, the more troubling they seemed. Most of what we had been told about the Common Core standards turned out to be a lie. Everywhere there were new groups with "student" and "education" in their names, important rich guys like Bill Gates, the guys in DC that we had voted for, all agreeing that we teachers in public schools, we who were devoting our lives to education and who, mostly, had far more training and experience than any of them-- we were stinking up the joint. Public education was failing, and it was our fault.

"We don't trust you. We don't believe you or believe in you. We are trying to fix the system that you broke." They said.

"Is this over that test? That crappy bad test?? Is that what this is about??" We asked incredulously.

"Never mind," they said. "We're not talking to you. You've done enough already. We think you're going to need some motivation, like threats or maybe free market competition to get you to stop slacking and screwing up. Don't like it? Big deal-- we can get some of this teacher-proof curriculum in a box, or hire one of those five-week wonders from Teach for America. Your job, even though you suck at it, is not so hard."

It began to sink in. The newly-required aligned texts. The computer-based practice testing. The test prep materials. The education-flavored businesses designed to make a buck from ed solutions, from charter schools to consulting groups. The data collection. All of those narratives were based on one premise-- that public schools were failing and that some combination of solutions and alternatives were needed.

Added to that shock was the feeling of isolation. Who was on the side of public schools? Not politicians-- not from either party. Not wealthy and powerful people. Not even our damned unions, which cheerfully endorsed Common Core and implicitly accepted the premise that public schools were failing.

Our own local administration? Mostly what I heard was, "Yes, this is junk and yes, this test doesn't measure important things, but, hey, that's how the game is played now." Occasionally a chirpy, "Oh, if we just align to the standards and teach to them, everything will work out" It didn't. We started getting students from the middle school who had had three periods of reading and no social studies or science. My last boss believed that spread-sheeted testing data could tell her more than her actual staff.

We learned to game the system. We learned how to beat some aspects of the tests, and we invested in drill-and-kill workbooks to practice answering multiple choice questions in response to short articles or excerpts. We used pre-tests to separate students into three groups-- those who will pass the test on their own, those who are essentially hopeless, and those we might be able to drag across the finish line through sheer brute force. (We also studied the correlation between practice test scores and Big Standardized Test scores, and the correlation was weak, but we kept doing it anyway).

Every year, I was required to commit one more act of educational malpractice, and every year, I had to figure out how to meet my students needs and my own standards for excellence with less time. My growth as a teacher had always been about, "How can I get more done with the resources I have?" By the mid-teens, I was asking, "How can I minimize the loss of time and resources this year."

I had become the staff crank. I sent out mass emails headed "COF" for "cranky old fart" outlining some of what I was learning. When I felt like too much of a noodge, I shifted that writing to a blog, and the more I wrote, the more I dug, and the more I dug, the angrier I became. You can go back to the early months of this blog (2013) and see that I was barely scratching the surface, but I was just so pissed. This was the work I loved, the work I had built my whole adult life around, and here were all these powerful and important people just dumping all over it and most of them didn't even know what the hell they were talking about-- it was just a perfect storm of powerful people who wanted to launch their own pet projects and public education was just some obstacle they wanted to clear out of their path. Yes, these people had always been around (I knew about A Nation At Risk from the beginning of my career) but now they had gotten really serious about it. Now they could really taste blood.

Most of the people I worked with were, honestly, just trying to get through their day. Like many school systems, we had plenty of day-to-day issues of our own, and by focusing on the local, you can find the chance to keep doing good work.

But I knew there were other angry teachers out there. NEA ran a piece on their website about the awesomeness of the Core and the usually empty comments filled to overflowing with nothing but negative comments. I found Diane Ravitch's blog-- I knew about the Bush era woman who had dared to change her mind about ed reform-- and that in turn opened a whole world of writers to me, and in turn a whole lot of information.

I had never believed that public education was perfect, but I could not understand why so many people in power seemed bent on destroying it. After a decade, I have a better idea why, a better sense of how complicated some of this mess is, of how many different lines cross in the public school house. In many ways, becoming a student of ed reform prepared me for a Trump presidency, because it made me really confront the degree to which many of my fellow citizens do not share values that I had somehow assumed were fundamental to being a citizen of this country.

The 2016 election was discouraging-- nobody was running as a supporter of public education, and the ultimate result was a Secretary of Education whose best feature is her ineffectiveness in selling virulantly anti-public-ed policies, but it's not like she represents a sharp break with the past.

I, of course, finished the decade by retiring. That decision, like much of the decade, was complicated. I can't say that in the absence of ed reform and the relentless drumbeat of teacher criticism and dismissal I would have stayed longer, but I can say that many of the things I miss about teaching I had already missed for a few years before I left.

What the end-of-decade lists are going to miss is how, for teachers in the classroom, the decade was a barrage of attacks from every direction, much of it hidden behind layers of baloney ("Teachers are the most important part of school" turned out not to be an appreciation, but the first half "and therefor everything that goes wrong in a school is the teachers' fault"). Our judgment was repeatedly ignored and overruled by people who didn't know us or our work. We were repeatedly blamed for everything wrong in education, and cynically saddled with tasks designed to "prove" our incompetence. It sucked.

It's by missing all of that that folks could be surprised by the troubles that states are having filling teaching jobs or uprisings like Red4Ed. Classroom teachers took a beating this decade; it is no surprise that the decade ends with them trying to get back on their feet.

I was frequently discouraged, but also discovered that I value the work even more than I thought I did, that I was willing to step further beyond my good boy team player self than I thought I could. Who knew that so many of us could make our voices so loud.

The lesson of the decade, I guess, is that you stand up for what matters. It is also that you study hard and talk to folks, because if your model is that there are two sides and one is wise and pure and the other is evil and stupid, your model is faulty (which is not to say that evil and stupid don't come into play sometimes).

The other lesson? Well, I don't know if it's a lesson so much as a re-affirmation. Inside the classroom, where the rubber meets the road and the teacher mets the students, is still the best work in the world. I had the best job in the world, and all the storm that raged outside those four walls didn't change that. That hasn't changed a bit. What has, sadly, changed, is how much harder it is to stay safely within those walls. Teaching is no longer for the meek, but it is still hugely important and rewarding work and the public education system is still one of the most important institutions we have.

1 comment:

  1. A really sad situation. And I do not see any candidate willing to give teachers their due respect for their professionalism and the hard work they do every day.