Friday, April 15, 2011

Standardization & Test-Based Accountability Makes Kids Hate School

Dana Goldstein recently published a piece of long-form journalism in the The American Prospect called "The Test Generation." It's about education reforms that have taken hold in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and it has elicited praise from most with some criticisms from others.

I know that Matt Yglesias is smart and clever and very influential, but every time I read something written by him on education, I want to break something. (I know, I know, everyone loves the guy. I'm like Elaine in this episode of Seinfeld about "The English Patient.")

In response to Goldstein's piece he says:
"The exposition is very clear and informative, and though it’s obvious Goldstein is skeptical (for basically Campbell’s Law reasons) that this is going to work out, those of us who are less worried about the Campbell’s Law phenomenon see here a very strong portrait of a school district going all-in on measuring and rewarding quality."

There's a huge assumption being made here: That standardized tests measure quality of learning and teaching. They mostly don't do that. Yet he regularly makes this assumption in his columns.

Standardized tests have important uses such as for diagnostic purposes (for example, for gauging reading proficiency levels so teachers know which books students can handle or for diagnosing disabilities) and for estimating at the school and district level where students are, but I reject the notion, especially if you look at the low quality of many of the tests themselves, that they measure quality of teaching or learning.

As a teacher and now as a parent I don't want just a measurement; I want an evaluation. I want teachers and tools that evaluate my children's achievements, what they've learned, what they know and what they can do. I want to read their writing, to listen to a podcast they've made about the life of a famous American, to view their art work, to see science experiments they've done. And I want to evaluate my children's teachers based on the climate in their classrooms, on the relationships they have with my children, and on the quality of knowledge gained and work done under their guidance. Standardized tests tell me almost nothing about this.

In the same post Yglesias says:
"The one real bone I’d pick with her characterization of what’s happening in Colorado is that I’m not sure how much sense it makes to complain that 'high-stakes testing' is being administered too often. If you have someone sit for a test 25 separate times per year then the stakes for any one test can’t be all that high. That would seem to me to be part of the point of testing frequently."
Okay. Yes, the stakes will be diluted by giving twenty-five tests. But that's twenty-five freaking tests! Students will be bored to frustration and mostly not engaging in meaningful learning during those twenty-five days. I'm okay with some testing, especially if it's teacher-generated and meant to help students remember and practice what they've learned. But I am not okay with twenty-five days of standardized testing and if that comes to my district, I will complain vigorously about it whenever I have the chance.

Alexander Russo made a similar criticism in this post about Goldstein's article, that he wasn't sure how "stressful" mid-year assessments were. Okay, granted--some kids get stressed about the tests, some don't. My sons don't, but they get really, really tired of preparing for them, of engaging in learning through the lens of a multiple choice test. They're only in second grade, mind you. In Virginia, the high-stakes standardized tests don't start until third grade, at which point I've heard that the testing mania gets much, much worse.

For now, they are constantly taking tests: multiple choice tests, benchmark assessments, passage-based reading tests. They are bored by taking so many tests. They tell me this all of the time. (For a truly disturbing tale from a teacher at a school with an abhorrent culture of standardization and testing, read this moving account from Mary Ann Reilly's blog.) Now, some things in school, and life, are boring, and there are good reasons behind some testing, and I tell my kids this, but do we have to bore them and waste their time so often and so insidiously, just for the sake of a measurement that a bunch of think tankers, oligarchs, politicians, legislators, and education reform industrialists want? Do we have to ruin the learning experiences of our children to get these people their probably-not-even-valid measurement?

When I was a teacher, I didn't get stressed about the tests themselves. As Teacher Sabrina describes here, the testing days were easy. There was nothing to plan, the kids behaved, every one knew what to do. The part that's stressful is having to constantly prepare for the tests, to give practice tests, knowing in some cases that the students must pass them to graduate. It was stressful knowing that the quality of my teaching was going to be evaluated by an assessment I had not made or seen.

What was truly stressful, though, as journalist Linda Pearlstein describes here and as teacher Amanda Sheaffer describes so poignantly in this letter to her third grade students, was knowing that I was cheating my students out of a rich and meaningful education. Now that my own children are in school, I have careful conversations with their teachers about this and they agree: the standardization, the pacing, the constant assessments, the high-stakes testing all gets in the way of what most teachers are really yearning to teach and what students, such as my children, are truly yearning to learn.

Michael Miles, the Harrison District superintendent Goldstein profiles, is wrong when he insultingly says the options for an art teacher are between narrowing standardization and "doing coloring." What an incredibly impoverished view of art education, and of the teaching and learning processes in general. How utterly depressing that these are the ideas of the people "reforming" our public schools.

Goldstein didn't interview a Colorado teacher "who didn't mind the extra testing or even thought it helped her do her job better" as Russo implored her to do because, as John Thompson comments here, she was probably hard pressed to find one. I was recently critical of journalists for "balancing" their stories for the sake of balance at the expense of truth and accuracy. However, I praise Goldstein for resisting that habit in this particular article, for relaying truth via narrative (as, to his credit, Yglesias remarks) about what the recent education reform policies enacted in places such as Colorado are doing to teaching and learning, to teachers and students, to tell the story that those who teach and those who are parents see unfold almost every school day.

To conclude, this piece in The Economist provides a brilliant historical analogy for why the standardization approach to education that Goldstein chronicles, although well-intentioned, is the wrong one.

At the dinner table a few months ago my heart sank when my son Caleb, a voracious reader and creative soul, announced, "Mommy, I love reading, but I hate reading tests." As testing takes over, I'm afraid this will simply turn into: "I hate school."

No reform, no measure of "quality" is worth that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Save Our Schools & the Future of Our Democratic Society!

Just as our country is now suffering from the effects of disaster capitalism, our public schools are suffering from the effects of disaster education reform. Although President Obama recently sounded impressive on education policy, his Secretary of Education Duncan continues to plow ahead with anti-democratic, anti-intellectual, and faith-based education reforms, which leads me to believe that Obama's recent comments were merely part of a good cop-bad cop routine. Veteran teacher and Education Week blogger Anthony Cody has a must-read series of blog posts featuring questions about the Obama administration's education policies in the context of the President's recent remarks as well as DOE's responses to the questions.

My state of Virginia did not "compete" for Race to the Top funding and has not signed on to the Commmon Core Curriculum and Standards. (In fact, Governor McDonnell said the standards were why Virginia would not enter the competition.) In theory, I am in favor of a basic national curriculum and standards. We desperately need to establish as Robert Pondiscio of the Core Knowledge Foundation says, "what it means to be a well-educated American and a realistic and nuanced concept of how to achieve it."

But I share California teacher David Cohen's skepticism of the current core curriculum and standards initiative because I believe it will come with all kinds of strings and high-stakes standardized tests attached. In fact it seems that the standards are being developed not to improve the quality of education US students would receive, but to develop corresponding, profit-making tests. Given the poor quality of so much that is coming out of DOE (Race to the Top, anyone?) and given who is behind those initiatives (oligarchs and disaster capitalists, anyone?) I have little trust that the quality of CCSA will be very good. Moreover, why should states sign on to standards before they've been finalized, before they've been shown any evidence that they'd meaningfully improve student learning, or if the national standards are inferior to what a state already has in place? (I'm thinking specifically about the debate over lowering standards in Massachusetts and, if I recall correctly, how NCLB requirements serve to undermine the quality of terrific ESOL programs such as in Fairfax and Arlington, Virginia.)

Virginia adopted their Standards of Learning even before No Child Left Behind was enacted. There are SOLs for English, mathematics, science, history/social science, technology, the fine arts, foreign language, health and physical education, and driver education with corresponding tests in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. On the one hand, this means that topics beyond reading and math skills don't get neglected, just as NCLB assures that demographic sub-groups aren't neglected. Plus, it's good to have a basic curriculum and standards in place, especially for those who need guidance (and see above), but there are two problems with the SOLs.

For one, my experience as a secondary social studies teacher was that the Social Studies Standards of Learning for each class cover so much that the teacher can not stray or go in depth. It's like travelling around the world and visiting one city per day, when it would be a far superior educational experience to spend more time in a few countries, and study them in depth. Also, all tests except for the writing one are multiple choice; there's a lot of valuable content and skills that are not tested, and hence not often taught. Now, this doesn't affect as much those students in higher level classes such as honors, IB, or AP classes since their curricula are often much more rigorous, but students who don't take those classes are getting the shaft. For an elaboration on this, I refer you to this excellent article by Richmond-based education journalist Chris Dovi and to the post I wrote about it.

Although I can't stand the anti-worker, pro-corporate, anti-woman, anti-LGBT, anti-environment mainstream politics in Virginia, this is at least one time I'm glad for pro-local control. For the most part, decisions about human resources, curricula, instruction, assessment, and school reform should be made at the state, district, and school levels, and not at the federal level (again, I am theoretically in favor of basic common core standards). The Department of Education should be there, for example, to ensure equality of funding, to ensure non-discriminatory practices, as well as to conduct research and evaluate the efficacy of federally-funded programs. Although Virginia has made some valiant efforts to shake free of NCLB's and DOE's micro-managing and disastrous policies, NCLB still lowers the quality of education in Virginia that I as a teacher was forced to offer and that now my children's teachers are forced to offer.

I am all in favor of education reform, but I want it to be thoughtfully done with its goal being to address the whole child and to bring more meaningful learning and higher quality teaching to classrooms. And this is what is so wrong with the disaster education reformers: They put ideology and politics before all else--before research-based results, before cost-efficiency, before best practices, before expertise, before communities, and before children's need for a rich and meaningful education. Certainly, we should each be allowed a modicum of ideology, and politics are part of life, but when they undermine all that is reasonable, practical, and meaningful, I say: Enough.

For that reason I am headed to the SOS March & National Call to Action taking place this July. I urge parents, educators, and concerned community members across Virginia, and America, to sign on. It's one thing for lawmakers and the Department of Education and to ruin careers, but when when they start ruining the education and future of my children and of America's children, when the existence of the vital democratic institution of public education is threatened, the line must be drawn.

I'm looking for an ethos and a philosophy of education to stand behind, not an ideology. I think people subscribing to all philosophies of governance can find common cause here. For the future of our children, we demand:

Equitable funding for all public school communities
·        Equitable funding across all public schools and school systems
·        Full public funding of family and community support services
·        Full funding for 21st century school and neighborhood libraries            
·        End to economically and racially re-segregated schools

  End to high stakes testing for student, teacher, and school evaluation
·        Multiple and varied assessments to evaluate students, teachers and schools     
·        No pay per test performance for teachers and administrators
·        End to public school closures based upon test performance

    Curriculum developed for and by local school communities
·       Support teacher and student access to a wide-range of instructional programs and technologies
·       Well-rounded education that develops every students’ intellectual, creative, and physical potential                  
·       Opportunities for multicultural/multilingual curriculum for all students
·       Small class sizes that foster caring, democratic learning communities    
Teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policies
·       Educator and civic community leadership in drafting of new ESEA legislation
·       Federal support for local school programs free of punitive and competitive funding
·       End political and corporate control of curriculum, instruction and assessment decisions

For More Information, Contact

Save Our Schools March
6470 Freetown Rd. Suite 200, # 72
Columbia, Maryland 21044

Or Visit Us At

Friday, April 1, 2011

Beyond Erase to the Top: More on Rhee's Bureaucratic Legacy

It is widely reported by those both skeptical and credulous of Michelle Rhee's education reform accomplishments that she was a solid manager. Since Rhee has a degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and founded The New Teacher Project, I can see why this might be accepted as conventional wisdom. The problem is, it's mostly not true.

In a previous post I demonstrated that the DCPS bureaucracy grew during the Rhee years, that less was done with with more. Even in the wake of Eraser-gate, people maintain that Rhee presided over improvements in the delivery of textbooks, in record keeping, and in the upkeep of school buildings.

The administration can't really be given credit for school building upkeep since, as I wrote here last November:
"Rhee has been credited with improvements to the physical conditions of school facilities, but since June 2007 all capital planning, construction, renovation, and major repairs of DCPS school buildings have been the responsibility of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization (OPEFM), which is an agency that is completely separate from DCPS. Facilities maintenance was moved from DCPS to OPEFM in 2008. One of the reasons OPEFM has been able to make so many improvements to public school facilities is that Mayor Fenty and the Council have increased the schools' capital budget to amounts unheard of prior to the mayoral takeover."
As for record keeping, Mary Levy tells me it’s somewhat hard to tell its state because the system issues very little public data (see the problems the USA Today reporters had). The personnel record keeping has definitely improved, but, again, the independent Chief Financial Officer, and not Michelle Rhee, made the move to have DCPS join the PeopleSoft system used by the rest of the city. Otherwise, there was some cleanup. DCPS spent about $2 million when Rhee first arrived reorganizing and scanning the mess that was Human Resource’s paper files, and later some cleanup in preparation for going onto PeopleSoft. Finally, this report from the Council of the Great City Schools (Michael Casserly, the executive director, has been very sympathetic to Rhee) describes a rather parlous state of record keeping. The report found that as of spring 2009--two years into Rhee's tenure--there were no guidelines for systematic collection of student withdrawals (i.e., no reliable student dropout data). There was no standard way of recording attendance, tardiness, excused absences and early dismissals, so attendance data are unreliable. Finally, there was no central control over the assignment of student numbers and so no way to verify whether a student was shown as enrolled in more than one school. The report says the system needed standardized definitions and coding procures, as well as data validation rules and statistical checks, meaning there was little data quality control.

As for textbooks, maybe that's true. I did hear the administration cleaned the warehouse up, but there have been some complaints from parents and teachers at the high schools that there weren't enough textbooks, and there were complaints, for example, that textbooks arrived late to Wilson SHS (my alma mater).

All these seem like small details, I know. And again, some things improved bureaucratically speaking, especially when money was spent. I can certainly see why such matters would get much less scrutiny than, say, the mass firings, the ideology, and now the potential cheating scandal. Those items are controversial, interesting, and galvanizing. By contrast, bureaucratic computer software systems, data collection, textbook delivery runs, and facilities maintenance (don't fall asleep on me!) aren't exactly sexy. But I still don't understand where the general conventional wisdom comes from, given what I just cited and given the lack of concrete evidence to the contrary. Are there data or are there reports that journalists have that I don't? Do the true believers repeat this stuff to pad Rhee's record of accomplishments? Do those who are more critical of her accomplishments and ideology repeat it to "balance" their coverage? Or is this simply emblematic of the current state of journalism?

I still also have to think that in this case the conventional wisdom is based in part on perception rather than reality, on bias, the perception being that Ivy League Tiger Moms dressed in J.Crew run a tight, clean ship.