Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Not your Public School Anymore...

January 21 federal HELP (Heath, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee) hearings begin on the federal No Child Left Behind law, (NCLB) which has been controlling the work of public schools for twelve years.  View hearing here.
Even if you do not have a child in school, never had a child in school, or despised your own schooling, you need to pay attention to this debate.

Why?  Because your tax dollars have been funneled into a variety of boondoggles, mean-spirited rulings, and questionable educational practices that have made some private individuals very rich while impoverishing, shaming, and sidelining others.  

Meanwhile children have been submitted to the largest un-tested social experiment ever perpetrated on a helpless group of citizens and are suffering under a narrowed and constricted curriculum.

Here is an argument you are likely to hear, first from Charles Barone of the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  Barone spoke last week in support of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s decree that the law must be repealed, but not the tests.

"I don't know how else you gauge how students are progressing in reading and in math without some sort of test, some kind of evaluation," Barone said. "If you want to see a kid's vocabulary, how they write, if they can perform different math functions, the only way is to sit them down and give them a test."

In this argument, Barone presents an either/or logical fallacy that appeals to common sense.  Either you test them--as we have been doing for the past 12 years--or you have no evidence of student ability.

Most adults will accept this argument on it's face. (Of course! You have to test them.) But, in addition to its insultingly facile nature, it simply isn't true.

The facts are that teachers have always relied on a variety of forms of assessment to gauge where their students are and have reported these assessments in a variety of ways: report cards, parent conferences, remediation, specialized groupings.... (Surprise: we've always known who struggles.)

Teachers also use assessments to celebrate and encourage all students to find success in something: school plays, art shows, band and choir concerts, debates, school newspapers, spelling bees, repairing cars, wiring a house, building a tennis pavilion, welding, creating an architectural drawing, drawing blood, entering a variety of contests both athletic and academic--every one of these activities are authentic and evaluative.

Nothing provides greater feedback than a real audience, a public display, a finished product, or a scoreboard.  Nothing is more "real-world" than these activities.

A multiple-choice test is as "fake" an assessment as any devised.

Barone also ignores that since 1969 the nation has had the National Assessment for Educational Progress, also called "The Nation's Report Card," an annual, standardized test that provides reliable, valid data on the achievement of our students in all of the various reported groups, but does not punish school systems by withdrawing funds or testing every child every year.  The data from these tests is used diagnostically to look for broad areas for improvement in the delivery of education.

Ironically, this national tool has been used to measure the effectiveness of NCLB.  The verdict: a steadily rising rate of achievement among all students flattened once NCLB was put in place.  In some areas the achievement gap between sub groups has closed--but primarily because the top group dropped down, not because the bottom rose.

Against this assessment the high-stakes-testing-hold-all-schools-accountable initiative has been an abject failure.

So why would we repeat, at great expense, work that is already being done?

Barone, DFER, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been speaking for business groups who stand to gain financially from a policy designed to prove every public school a failure.  The options offered for "failed public schools" are always about shifting public dollars into private hands: charter schools run by private groups for profit, online courses run by private groups for profit, testing created by private groups for profit.

As a single example consider Pearson, the British-owned testing behemoth.  Your tax dollars have supported this outfit for years.  Hired to "hold teachers accountable" this group has been siphoning off local dollars with little oversight, shielded by the very loud "you gotta test 'em" voices.  Operating profits (that's profits, not sales) for 2012 alone were $1.4 billion.  In large part, this is money derived from taxes paid by citizens.

Current law ensures the profits will keep rolling in.  To wit: when our students test, teachers sign a legal document--every time--that stipulates they can have their license revoked if they read the test. The argument implied is that teachers cannot be trusted to teach well if they know what the kids will be tested on (huh?).

The truth is that released tests would require the creation of a new test every year.  That is expensive and would cut into the 1.4 billion in profits.  Our Virgnia legislature supports these business interests through law.

This also conveniently keeps out any oversight by experienced educators.  We can't know for certain what students are asked to do.  Additionally, these tests do not provide the valid information from tools we used to rely on to gauge student ability: The Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Stanford Achievement test.

There are more costs associated with testing: Every district must provide computers and reliable internet access ($$).  The tests must be administered to very careful guidelines, usually by someone in the building whose job is dedicated to this ($$$). Data must be collected, reported, printed, published which requires personnel and software in every district and state ($$$).  Teachers must create specific goals that can be quantified, measured, reported, described (time and $$). This, more than anything else, is driving good teachers away--and affecting the quality of teaching.

All of these local costs support the testing multiple-choice monster, but Pearson profits!  The organization is also clearly overextended, promising and profiting on products they cannot produce. For instance, they have hired freelance writers--not educators--to write test questions and seasonal employees--not educators--to score them.  Shoddy products, indeed.

Yes, kids will always have to take tests.  But they do not have to be mandated by law, shift public money into private hands, carry damaging labels, and destroy the lives of children.

Educators already know who needs support for learning. Our money would be better spent in achieving equity of resources for all of our students--well-equipped school buildings, access to books and enriching experiences, and well trained and supported teachers.

Repeal the law.  Dump the tests.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

More Joy...Less Stress

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden." Philo, 1st Century.
"I grow old.  I grow old.  I will wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."  T.S.Eliot

School is back in session tomorrow.  With one semester ended and new courses beginning, it is deja vu all over again: first day of school.

The last post described my schizophrenic existentialism.  Survival mode means focusing on the details of the day and ignoring the larger picture as much as possible--which includes ignoring the utter lack of interest and passion among the seniors.  Age?  Or 12 years of testing mania at play?

My mantra for the fall was: "If nothing else, we are going to have some fun."  So....lots of smiling, laughing.

That is an old person's prerogative: just let the little things go.  We don't care so much anymore.  The trousers will be rolled.  Your paper is late?  No sweat.  We will work on a way to git 'er done.  Fell asleep in class?  You must be uber tired.  Sleep is probably better than what is going on right now. No breakfast?  Here's a granola bar.  Screw the no food, no drink rule.

Highlights from the fall where I was completely unaccountable and did not do my job collecting data and leading from the front of the room:

  • Getting the chance to really get to know my students while wandering around the city library on a field trip.  Exploring the building, talking about favorite places to eat, laughing at the name of the old guy in the painting (it is a funny name).  You know, just talking?
  • Joining in on a technically inappropriate joke in class.  But, hey, it was hilarious.
  • Letting the kids interview me as practice before their interviews with other adults.  Talk about engagement.  Everybody sat up straight and joined in that day.  (This should tell us something about how kids want to interact with the grown-ups. They think we are kind of interesting.)  I gave honest answers. They mostly wanted to know what it was like when I was young, how I met my husband, stuff like that.  No one asked me about grammar....
  • Helping the kids develop the questions for our British literature study.  (Again, not doing my job.) They were given the topic: The Evolution of the English Language.  They came up with doozies: What is English? Why do other languages borrow from English? When and where was the English language created? How was it influenced (and how frequently)?  How old is the English language?  How long did it take to develop?  How many countries and people speak English? We hung the questions up.  They knew the answers later.
  • Putting kids in groups to read and share their own writing.  Many highlighted this as their favorite exercise.  They learned without me...
  • Dancing to a students' rap music played through his phone until he was so disturbed by my old lady, white girl moves that he put the phone away (trousers rolled).  That's another day when I can say that every student was fully engaged...and laughing.  I didn't write him up.
  • Watching kids explain their work to their parent/grandparent/guardian sometimes in Spanish or Bulgarian, on a conference night where I did not lead the conference. Don't I wish I spoke more than one language like so many of my students....?
  • Hearing a student share a poem (written in 7 minutes) and enjoying the snapping and applauding from the kids after...followed by an instant evaluation: "You need to put that in the creative writing magazine!"  Who needs a gradebook? Who needs a teacher?
  • The day we wrote about someone we were grateful to have in our lives. And then called them. And read it to them.  That assignment was never turned in.

So much of school is not kind.

We tend to rule from a deficit model:  start with 100 and take away whatever is not there.  We measure what you're missing, not what you came with.

We hold everyone to the same due date (for fairness) when what goes on outside and inside school is not really fair.

We sort kids into groups and everyone knows who the Bluebirds are.  We make the same rules that everyone must follow.  We ask everyone to pass the same (stupid) tests.

But some kids have more access than others.  Some have more support than others.  Some have more healthy food than others.  Why does school always have to have these "fair" rules when everywhere else the scales are tipped?

We'd be better off teaching and modeling some empathy or, perhaps, how to have some fun everyday.

Mantra for the spring:  "If nothing else, we are going to have some fun...."