Monday, August 30, 2010

Merit Pay or Team Accountability? By Kim Marshall

It’s time to admit that the idea of evaluating and paying individual teachers based on their students’ test scores is a loser. This logical-sounding strategy for improving teaching and learning sinks for multiple reasons: practical (standardized-test results arrive months after teachers are evaluated each spring); psychometric (these tests aren’t valid for one-shot assessments of individual teachers, and it takes at least three years of value-added data for reliable patterns to emerge); staff dynamics (when individuals are rewarded, collaboration suffers); curriculum quality (low-level test preparation festers in a high-stakes environment); moral (turning up the heat increases the amount of cheating); and simple fairness (how can schools divvy up credit among all the teachers who contribute to students’ success?).

So why are folks still talking about individual merit pay when it’s clear that it won’t work? Because the idea of holding teachers accountable for their students’ test scores sounds so obvious—and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a bunch of powerful politicians are enabling that gut feeling. States that didn’t include student achievement in end-of-year teacher evaluation and compensation worried that they stood very little chance of winning desperately needed Race to the Top funds.
—Gregory Ferrand

Is there some way to make a silk purse from this sow’s ear? I believe there is. Let’s start with four points:

First, those who advocate performance-based accountability are absolutely right that student achievement needs to be front and center. It’s not enough to observe teachers’ classroom performance; we need evidence that students have learned.

Second, research has clearly established that teachers and principals make a huge difference to student achievement. They shouldn’t be ducking responsibility.

Third, when people are acknowledged for a job well done, it’s affirming and energizing. That’s true even for idealistic and intrinsically motivated educators.

And finally, everyone knows that the current teacher-evaluation process is broken; raising the stakes might mobilize us to fix it.

But how can schools focus on student learning and reward effective educators without running into the problems listed above? The key is making smart choices on (a) who gets rewarded when students do well, (b) what’s measured to determine rewards, and (c) the rewards themselves.

• Who gets rewarded. Should it be individual teachers? Teacher teams? Or the entire school staff? I believe the most productive choice is teacher teams. Rewarding teams promotes collaboration where it counts—among the three or four kindergarten or Algebra 1 teachers who teach the same content to different students. Rewarding teams avoids the problems of individual rewards (idea-hoarding and silo-dwelling) and large-group rewards (freeloading by lazy and ineffective colleagues). Team rewards encourage colleagues to push all students to high achievement—and create a dynamic in which peers hold each other accountable. As University of California, Los Angeles, professor James W. Stigler has written, team accountability in Japanese schools was a key factor in the steady improvement of teaching and learning there in recent decades. ("Needed: Fresh Thinking on Teacher Accountability," June 4, 2010.)

• What’s measured. Should it be end-of-year standardized-test scores? Value-added standardized-test scores? Student gains on in-school assessments? Or teachers’ classroom skills? I believe the best choice is a combination of individual classroom performance (based on the principal’s observations) and team student achievement gains (based on in-school assessments). The good news here is that there are new ways for principals to get a much better sense of what is going on in classrooms and we have increasingly precise tools for measuring student learning during the year: scales of reading proficiency, rubrics for scoring students’ writing, open-ended math questions that uncover students’ understanding, and carefully worded multiple-choice tests that give insights into students’ mistakes and misconceptions. In-school assessments may not be psychometrically perfect, but teachers trust them more than standardized tests, and the results are far more timely and helpful.
A pat on the back isn't enough, but merit pay (for individuals, teams, or the entire staff) increases the chances of shenanigans and gaming the system.

Step one would be for principals to make frequent brief and unannounced classroom visits, with face-to-face feedback after each one; this avoids the well-known problem of seeing only glamorized lessons that aren’t representative of what students are experiencing day to day—and catches teaching problems in real time. Step two would be teacher teams’ presenting the principal with evidence of all their students’ learning gains each spring.

• The reward. Should it be a pay bonus? Positive year-end evaluations? Or praise from the principal? I think the best choice is a team score as one element in teachers’ annual evaluations. A pat on the back isn’t enough, but merit pay (for individuals, teams, or the entire staff) increases the chances of shenanigans and gaming the system. Each teacher’s final evaluation should be based on (a) the principal’s assessment of his or her classroom performance based on multiple visits and conversations, and (b) a collective score for the team’s student learning gains that year. Team accountability would create a powerful incentive for teachers to work together to solve learning problems during the year—and get all their students over the bar.

There is a role for monetary incentives in three areas: career-ladder opportunities for the most highly rated teachers to take on extra responsibilities for extra pay; incentives for the most effective teachers to work in high-need schools and subject areas; and denial of step increases to teachers with mediocre ratings (while, of course, moving to dismiss teachers with unsatisfactory ratings).

Here’s what this proposal would look like for a hypothetical 2nd grade team.

In early September, teachers conduct a baseline assessment of their students, agree on the best metrics for measuring learning, and decide on goals (for example, 85 percent of students scoring proficient and above in writing by June). The principal looks over the plan and suggests a few changes before signing off. The team then designs curriculum units, teaches them (using varied methods and materials), checks for student understanding during lessons and with gradewide interim assessments, and has follow-up team discussions at least once a week about what’s working and what isn’t. The principal makes frequent classroom visits with feedback, drops in on team meetings, and constantly chats with teachers about methods and materials.

Toward the end of the year, the team collects the most recent data and meets with the principal to present its value-added report. There’s a discussion of accomplishments, problem areas, and curriculum revisions, and the principal gives the team an overall 4-3-2-1 score on learning gains, with commendations and suggestions.

Over the next few days, the principal meets individually with each teacher, asks for input, rates classroom proficiency and outside-classroom performance, adds in the team learning score, and gets the teacher’s signature.

This approach is far more powerful than individual merit pay. It puts the focus on student learning, harnesses timely student data to boost team collaboration, and rewards teams that get results. It immerses principals in the teaching and learning process, doesn’t overwhelm them with data (a principal in an average-size school would be looking at six team reports vs. 35 individual teacher reports), and makes year-end evaluations far more robust. And it includes teachers who are left out of test-based accountability—art, music, physical education, computer, library, and the primary grades.

All teachers in the building—and administrators, too—would be using evidence of student learning to continuously fine-tune their craft—a powerful engine for improving teaching and learning and making a dent in our persistent and troubling achievement gap.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Dear President Obama...Sincerely, Parents Across America

Dear President Obama:

Several weeks ago, we wrote to you about our concern that your proposed “Blueprint for Reform” did not acknowledge the critical role parents must play in any meaningful school improvement process. We also expressed our serious reservations about some of the Blueprint's strategies.

Our goal is simple – to ensure that our children receive the best possible education. As parents, we are the first to see the positive effects of good programs, and the first line of defense when our children's well-being is threatened. Our input is unique and essential.

Recently, Secretary Duncan announced that he would require districts that receive federal school improvement grants (SIG) to involve parents and the community in planning for schools identified for intervention. We appreciate this response as a first step; however, more needs to be done.

First, leadership must come from the top. We would like to see meaningful, broad-based parent participation not just in our local districts, but at the U.S. Department of Education, where critical decisions are being made about our children's education.

Second, we need more than rhetoric to feel confident that only educationally sound strategies will be used in our children's schools. The current emphasis on more charter schools, high-stakes testing, and privatization is simply not supported by research. Disagreement on these matters is not a result of parents clinging to the “status quo,” as you have recently asserted. No one has more at stake in better schools than we do – but we disagree with you and Secretary Duncan about how to get them.

We need effective, proven, common-sense practices that will strengthen our existing schools, rather than undermine them. These include parent input into teacher evaluation systems, fairly-funded schools, smaller class sizes and experienced teachers who are respected as professionals, not seen as interchangeable cogs in a machine. We want our children to be treated as individuals, not data points. And we want a real, substantial role in all decisions that affect our children’s schools.

More specifically, and urgently, we insist on being active partners in the formulation of federal school improvement policies. The models proposed by the U.S. Department of Education are rigid and punitive, involving either closure, conversion to charters, or the firing of large portions of the teaching staff. All of these strategies disrupt children’s education and destabilize communities; none adequately addresses the challenges these schools face.

We also insist on being active partners in reforms at the school level, with the power to devise our own local solutions, using research-based methods, after a collaborative needs assessment at each individual school.

Our voices must count. If you listen, you will make real changes in your School Improvement Grant proposals as well as your “Blueprint” for education reform.

We look forward to your response and a brighter future for our children and our nation.

Sincerely, Parents Across America (signatories attached)

Natalie Beyer, Durham Allies for Responsive Education (DARE), NC

Caroline Grannan, San Francisco public school parent, volunteer and advocate, CA

Pamela Grundy, Mecklenburg Area Coming Together for Schools, NC

Leonie Haimson, Class Size Matters, New York, NY

Sharon Higgins, public school parent, Oakland, CA

Susan Magers, Parent Advocate, FL

Mark Mishler, active public school parent, former president, Albany City PTA*, NY

Bill Ring, TransParent®, Los Angeles, CA

Lisa Schiff, San Francisco public school parent, board member of Parents for Public Schools*, member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco*, "School Beat" columnist for BeyondChron, CA

Rita M. Solnet, President, CDS, Inc.; Director, Testing is Not Teaching, FL

Dora Taylor, Parent and co-editor of Seattle Education 2010, WA

Julie Woestehoff, Parents United for Responsible Education, Chicago, IL

Thursday, August 26, 2010

How ed reformers push the wrong theory of learning. By Marion Brady

In alphabetical order: Mike Bloomberg, mayor of New York City. Eli Broad, financier and philanthropist. Jeb Bush, ex-Florida governor and possible 2012 presidential contender. Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education. Bill Gates, business magnate and philanthropist. Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City schools.

In education issues, mainstream media sometimes call these gentlemen, “The New Progressives.” They’re major movers and shakers in the current reform effort.

None is, or has ever been, a teacher. Many think that’s a very good, even a necessary thing. It’s widely believed that American education is a mess, that teachers deserve most of the blame, and that they either can’t or won’t clean the mess up. What’s needed, it’s thought, are no-nonsense leaders – CEOs from business, lawyers, politicians, ex-military officers.

The New Progressives are on a roll. Their views are sought after and respected by congressional committees. They have money, and cash-starved school districts will do whatever it takes to get some of it. Their press conferences are well-attended. Most newspaper editorial boards share their perspective, so their op-eds get published. The Common Core State Standards Initiative they strongly supported -- if not helped engineer -- has already been adopted by more than half the states. Leading Democrats and Republicans are on board. Those who question their top-down approach to reform have been neutralized by labeling them “obstacles to progress,” “reactionaries,” “union shills.”

A recent press release provides an example of the New Progressives’ long reach: “NBC Universal presents ‘Education Nation,’ an unprecedented week-long event examining and redefining education in America.” The event will be held in Rockefeller Center in September, 2010. The two leaders with top billing: Bloomberg and Duncan.

The New Progressives and their fans have something else in common besides running the education reform show. They share a big idea – a theory about how humans learn.

Let’s call it “Theory T.” “T” stands for “Transfer.”

Theory T didn’t emerge from successful teaching experience, and it’s not backed by research, but it has something even more useful going for it: The Conventional Wisdom. It’s easily the New Progressives’ most powerful asset, for much of the general public (and a disturbing percentage of teachers) already subscribe to it. Because its validity is taken for granted, Theory T doesn’t even have to be explained, much less promoted.

Theory T says kids come to school with heads mostly empty. As textbooks are read, information transfers from pages to empty heads. As teachers talk, information transfers from teachers’ heads to kids’ heads. When homework and term papers are assigned, kids go to the library or the Internet, find information, and transfer it from reference works or Wikipedia. Bit by bit and byte by byte, the information in their heads piles up.

At an August conference in Lake Tahoe, California, Bill Gates clinched his Theory T credentials. “Five years from now,” he said, “on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world.”

Let the transfer process begin!

Measuring the success of Theory T learning is easy and precise – just a matter of waiting a few days or weeks after the transfer process has been attempted and asking the kid, “How much do you remember?”

No research says how much of what’s recalled at test time remains permanently in memory, nor to what practical use, if any, that information is later put, but that’s of no concern to Theory T proponents. Their interest in performance ends when the scores are posted.

There’s another, less familiar theory about how humans learn. Those who subscribe to it – mostly teachers who’ve spent many years working directly with learners – aren’t backed by big money, don’t get mainstream media attention, aren’t asked to testify before congressional committees, and can’t organize week-long affairs in Rockefeller Plaza, all of which help explain the second theory’s unfamiliarity.

Those who accept the alternative to Theory T don’t think kids come to school with empty heads, believe instead that the young, on their own, develop ideas, opinions, explanations, beliefs and values about things that matter to them. As is true of adults, kids’ ideas and beliefs become part of who they are, so attempts to change them may come across as attacks on their identity and be resisted.

Teaching, many long-time teachers know, isn’t a simple matter of transferring information into a kid’s head, but a far more complex, multi-step process. The teacher has to (a) “get inside” that head to figure out what’s thought to be true, right, or important, (b) understand the kid’s value system well enough to offer ideas sufficiently appealing to warrant taking them seriously and paying attention, (c) choose language or tasks that question old ideas and clarify new ones, (d) get feedback as necessary to decide how to proceed, (e) load the whole process up with enough emotion to carry it past short-term memory, and (f) do this for a roomful of kids, no two of whom are identical.

If that sounds really difficult, it’s because it is. If it were easy, all kids would love school because learning is its own reward. If it were easy, young teachers would be successful and stay in the profession. If it were easy, adults wouldn’t forget most of what they once supposedly learned. If it were easy, the world would be a much better place.

Most of what we know, remember, and use, we didn’t learn by way of Theory T. We learned it on our own as we discovered real-world patterns and relationships – new knowledge that caused us to constantly rethink, reorganize, reconstruct, and replace earlier knowledge.

Let’s call this relating process “Theory R.”

Theory R is why little kids learn so much so rapidly, before traditional schooling overwhelms them with Theory T. Theory R is why Socrates was famous, why project learning, internships and apprenticeships work so well, why the Progressives of a hundred years ago were so adamant about “hands on” work and “learning by doing,” why real dialogue in school is essential, why knowledge of a subject doesn’t necessarily make a teacher effective, why asking good questions is far more important than knowing right answers, why tying national standards to a 19th Century curriculum is stupid, why standardized tests are a cruel, anti-learning, Theory T joke.

The educationally naïve New Progressives have engineered an education train wreck that, if allowed to continue, will haunt America for generations. The young, beaten with the “rigor” stick, are being trained to remember old information when our very survival as a nation hinges on their ability to create new information.

Theory T and Theory R have implications for every major issue in education – building design, budgets, classroom furniture arrangements, textbooks, schedules, class size, the role of corporations, the kinds of people attracted to teaching, how kids feel about themselves – everything. Add to that list the newest Big Thing for the New Progressives – “value-added assessment.” Theory R tests look nothing like today’s machine-scored Theory T tests.

Theory R people, appalled by the current thrust of reform, have been trying for at least six presidential administrations to get Theory T people in Washington to discuss how humans really learn. No luck. So sure are the New Progressives that those who disagree with them are self-serving defenders of the educational status quo, they’re unable to see themselves as the true reactionaries.

Sooner or later it will become obvious even to Theory T true believers that their theory only works in a world in which tomorrows are exactly like yesterdays. Unfortunately, when that realization comes, it’s unlikely that any teachers who understand Theory R will still be around.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Performance Is Not Necessarily Learning By Walt Gardner

Leave it to the British to teach Americans about their common language. A report by the Institute of Education on more than 100 international studies found that obsessing on performance on standardized tests is counterproductive to learning about the subjects evaluated by these tests ("Pupils do better at school if teachers are not fixated on test results," The Guardian, Aug. 13).

Semantics comes into the picture because reformers use the words "performance" and "learning" interchangeably. But as teachers have repeatedly maintained, they are not necessarily the same. Students can score high (perform) but internalize little (learn). In my opinion, the result does not qualify as a quality education. Albert Einstein said it best: "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted."

Nevertheless, when teachers point to this explanation, they are seen as making excuses. But the Institute of Education's recent study lends support to teachers. It found that when instruction focused on learning, as opposed to performance, students not only scored better on tests, but they became more analytical and better behaved. I'd venture to say that they also enjoyed their classes more because they became more engaged. These affective outcomes are important to emphasize if the goal is to develop lifelong learners.

Instead, high-stakes tests are portrayed as the sine qua non. Not surprisingly, intellectual life is sucked out of classrooms when they are converted into test preparation factories. What is left is little more than fragmentary knowledge that quickly evaporates. Test scores will almost always improve by the adoption of this strategy, but at what price? How are students and the country served?

The usual reply to this question is that students will have shown evidence of learning at least something. Isn't this better than the present system that allows students to graduate without reaching any reasonable level of proficiency? But this retort overlooks the need for enrichment, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These students are precisely those most in need of stimulation. As the British study explained, teachers are under such pressure to boost test scores that they talk at their students, rather than talk to them. Drill has its place in the classroom, but when it constitutes the overwhelming pedagogy it is hardly the way to nurture a love of learning.

The reductio ad absurdum of this strategy is the use of scripted lessons by districts desperate to avoid sanctions. In this scenario, teachers are reduced to talking robots. It's little wonder that their students become bored and disruptive. And matters are only going to get worse as pressure mounts to provide evidence of learning. All it will do, however, is to provide evidence of performance.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Turning Children Into Data A Skeptic's Guide to Assessment Programs By Alfie Kohn

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.
—Albert Einstein

Programs with generic-sounding names that offer techniques for measuring (and raising) student achievement have been sprouting like fungi in a rainforest: “Learning-Focused Schools,” “Curriculum-Based Measurements,” “Professional Learning Communities,” and many others whose names include “data,” “progress,” or “RTI.” Perhaps you’ve seen their ads in periodicals like this one. Perhaps you’ve pondered the fact that they can afford these ads, presumably because of how much money they’ve already collected from struggling school districts.

When I’m asked about one of these programs, I have to confess that I just can’t keep up with every new stall that opens in this bazaar—and the same is true of the neighboring marketplace that’s packed with discipline and classroom-management programs. (Hint: Here, extreme skepticism is warranted whenever the name includes the word “behavior.”) Still, it is possible to sketch some criteria for judging any given program—preferably before someone requests a purchase order.
—Luis Diaz

So let’s imagine that your community is buzzing about something called ABA: “Achievement-Based Assessment”—or, perhaps, “Assessment-Based Achievement”—whose website boasts of “monitoring and improving each student’s learning with proven data-focused strategies.”

Worth a try? Well, we certainly can’t decide on the basis of how ABA markets itself. Just about any descriptor that might seem appealing, even progressive, has been co-opted by now: Every outfit claims to help teachers “collaborate” in order to focus on the “learning” (rather than just the teaching) as they look at “authentic” outcomes and “differentiate” the instruction with a “developmental” approach that emphasizes “critical (or higher-order) thinking” skills—in order to prepare your students for (drumroll) the “21st century.”

Obviously, we’re going to have to look a little deeper and ask a few pointed questions.

1. What is its basic conception of assessment? To get a sense of how well things are going and where help is needed, we ought to focus on the actual learning that students do over a period of time—ideally, deep learning that consists of more than practicing skills and memorizing facts. If you agree, then you’d be very skeptical about a program that relies on discrete, contrived, testlike assessments. You’d object to any procedure that seems mechanical, in which standardized protocols like rubrics supplant teachers’ professional judgments based on personal interaction with their students. And the only thing worse than “benchmark” tests (tests in between the tests) would be computerized monitoring tools, which the reading expert Richard Allington has succinctly characterized as “idiotic.”

2. What is its goal? Ask not only what the program does but why it exists. Lots of talk about “student achievement”—as opposed to, say, “students’ achievements”—suggests that the program’s raison d’être is not to help kids understand ideas and become thoughtful questioners, but merely to raise their scores on standardized tests. (Elsewhere, I’ve reviewed evidence showing not only that these tests are completely inadequate for assessing important intellectual proficiencies, but also that high scores are actually correlated with a superficial approach to learning.) Obviously, anyone who harbors doubts about the validity or value of standardized tests wouldn’t want to have anything to do with a program that’s designed mostly with them in mind.

3. Does it reduce everything to numbers? If all the earnest talk about “data” (in the context of educating children) doesn’t make you at least a little bit uneasy, it’s time to recharge your crap detector. Most assessment systems are based on an outdated behaviorist model that assumes nearly everything can—and should—be quantified. But the more educators allow themselves to be turned into accountants, the more trivial their teaching becomes and the more their assessments miss.

That’s why I was heartened recently to receive a note describing how some teachers on a Midwestern high school’s improvement team took a long, hard look at the Professional Learning Communities model and said no thanks. They were put off by its designers’ frank admiration of for-profit corporations as well as its “misguided premise that every subject area can be broken down into core concepts which then have to be quantified.” The teachers understood that learning doesn’t have to be measured in order to be assessed. And they feared that “true learning and engagement”—along with a commitment to be “responsive to students’ needs [and] lives”—might be lost.
The more educators allow themselves to be turned into accountants, the more trivial their teaching becomes and the more their assessments miss.

These teachers ultimately decided to reject the technocratic PLC approach in favor of an alternative they designed themselves. It focused on teachers’ personal “connection[s] with our subject area” as the basis for helping students think “like mathematicians or historians or writers or scientists, instead of drilling them in the vocabulary of those subject areas or breaking down the skills.” In a word, the teachers put kids before data.

Of course, this powerful exercise in professional development never would have happened if the school administration had simply imposed PLCs (or a similar program) on the teachers, treating them like technicians who merely carry out orders. Which brings us to …

4. Is it about “doing to” or “working with”? Steer clear of any program whose curriculum or assessments are so prescriptive and prefabricated that teachers lack any real autonomy. By now, we ought to know that systems intended to be “teacher proof” are not only disrespectful but chimerical: They are the perpetual-motion machines of education. One sure sign of disrespect is the use of incentives or sanctions to make teachers get with the program, including compensation that hinges on compliance or on some measure of student achievement.

Likewise, you’d want to make sure that students’ autonomy is respected, since kids should have a lot to say about their assessment. If they feel controlled, even a cleverly designed program is unlikely to have a constructive effect. Again, any use of carrots and sticks should set off alarms. As Jerome Bruner once said, we want to create an environment where students can “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.” That pretty much rules out grades or similar ratings.

5. Is its priority to support kids’ interest? In attempting to track and boost achievement, do we damage what’s most critical to long-term quality of learning: students’ desire to learn? It’s disturbing if a program is so preoccupied with data and narrowly defined skills that it doesn’t even bother to talk about this issue. More important, look at the real-world effects: Once a school adopts the program, are kids more excited about what they’re doing—or has learning been made to feel like drudgery?

6. Does it avoid excessive assessment? Distilling a large body of research, psychologists Martin Maehr and the late Carol Midgley reminded us that “an overemphasis on assessment can actually undermine the pursuit of excellence.” That’s true even with reasonably good assessments, let alone with those that are standardized. The more that students are led to focus on how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to become with what they’re doing. Instead of stuff they want to figure out, the curriculum just becomes stuff at which they’re required to get better. A school that’s all about achievement and performance is a school that’s not really about discovery and understanding.

Even intelligent educators can be remarkably credulous, nodding agreeably at descriptions of programs that ought to elicit fury or laughter, avidly copying down hollow phrases from a consultant’s PowerPoint presentation, awed by anything that’s borrowed from the business world or involves digital technology.

Many companies and consultants thrive on this credulity, and also on teachers’ isolation, fatalism, and fear (of demands by clueless officials to raise test scores at any cost). With a good dose of critical thinking and courage, a willingness to say, “This is bad for kids, and we won’t have any part of it,” we could drive these outfits out of business—and begin to take back our schools.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Checkbook Reform Creates Tough Choices for Teachers By Anthony Cody

Many teachers have long clamored for that precious "seat at the table" where decisions about education policy are made. Once there, we often find the experience less than satisfying, as Teacher of the Year Anthony Mullen related recently.

But we have entered the era of checkbook reform, and the Department of Education is spending our money left and right to buy as many educational leaders as possible for its dubious ventures.

Last month Stephen Sawchuk reported on several state consortia who are applying for $350 million in federal funding to develop new assessments aligned to the Common Core Standards. These are the projects that Secretary Duncan has assured us will move us away from dependence on end-of-year standardized tests.

What are we looking at?

...both consortia would combine results from performance-based tasks administered throughout the course of the school year with a more traditional end-of-the year measure for school accountability purposes.

There may be opportunities for teachers to participate in the development of such assessments. We may be invited to take a seat at this table. But should we?

I have serious reservations about the trajectory of this project. It seems to promote the idea that the answer to over-dependence on year-end tests is to introduce additional tests spread through the year, to make sure instruction is aligned to the desired outcomes. I can easily imagine monthly tests, dubbed "formative" in utter defiance of the true meaning of this term, which are used to coerce teachers to teach according to rigid timelines and scripted curricula.

Teachers may also be offered jobs as "data coaches," responsible for reviewing interim data, monitoring instruction and "supporting" teachers in more effective teaching to the test. Given other "reform" initiatives, I can also imagine that interim "formative" assessment data could even be used in evaluating and compensating teachers.

This is the brave new world of education reform, where the objective seems to be to make sure all students are learning the same thing at the same rate, and all teachers are using federally approved methods to get them there.

If this is what teacher leadership means today, I want no part of it.

As these opportunities proliferate, often with money attached, we need a real discussion among educators about the ethics of cashing in on phony reform efforts. What is the cost when teachers lend their names and expertise to such projects? Are we actually empowered enough to make a valuable difference in the assessments that are produced? Or are these projects doomed by the test-driven philosophy of their sponsor?

Is a seat at the table an end in itself? What if our students and colleagues are on the menu?

What do you think? Should we accept whatever opportunities are offered and hope we can make a difference? Or should we refrain from participating in projects where the results may be destructive?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

This is How a Tipping Point Feels By Anthony Cody

We are accustomed here on this blog, and elsewhere in education policy-land, of discussing education issues as if they were a realm of their own, with Arne Duncan (and maybe Bill Gates) as the biggest players. We debate policies like merit pay and charter schools, and sometimes reference the influence of economic and social factors, but we sometimes lose sight of the larger political context that is driving these policies.

Things are getting ready to shift.

It is said that education policy is like a pendulum. It tends to swing from one extreme to another. In the 1970s, when the progressive social movements peaked, we had the rise of desegregation, whole language instruction and constructivism, with a great emphasis on student-centered instruction. The past decade the pendulum has swung way back to the other extreme, with the rise of test-driven accountability and pre-digested curriculum.

How educational leaders have responded to this is very instructive. Diane Ravitch is a fascinating case study. She genuinely believed that we could drive improvement in our schools through tough standards and high-stakes tests, and actively promoted these methods. As the decade unfolded and evidence accumulated that this was not working as intended, the honest historian in her forced a change of stance, and she has become a sharp critic. She is a bellwether.

It is a fascinating, frustrating and exciting time, this tipping point we are approaching. The broader political setting is hugely important. We are two years into an administration that made fantastic promises to an America hungry for change. "We are the people we have been waiting for." Obama and his electioneers tapped into every hopeful beat of our hearts. We would bring the troops home from Iraq, close Guantanamo, stop the phone tapping, rein in corporate greed, and inspire the world with a more humane foreign policy.

In education, we were told we would enter a new era of "mutual responsibility," stop spending the year preparing for bubble tests, and stop blaming teachers for all the problems in our schools. We thought we would have a leader smart enough to understand that slogans and profiteers will not be our saviors, and that local leadership at the school and community level is the wellspring of school improvement.

But here we are, approaching the two year mark. At first, we were dismayed, when cruel practices of NCLB were extended. Did they not understand what they were doing? Could they not see this was not consistent with our shared vision? So we wrote, we organized on Facebook, we lobbied, and we spoke by phone with the Secretary himself. It has become clear they know exactly what they are doing, and nothing we say matters.

Teachers are not alone in this feeling. The chance to rein in corporate salaries has been squandered, and companies who received billions in bailout funds have showered their executives with billions in bonuses. The hedge fund managers - heavy investors in charter schools, by the way, have invested in politicians as well, and our system remains rigged in their favor. The war in Iraq, which Obama pledged to end this summer, drags on endlessly, and Afghanistan may well do to the American empire the same thing it did to the Soviets. A mixed blessing, perhaps, but a colossal waste of lives and resources.

Diane Ravitch is gaining company. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, not a radical by any means, just filed a column that describes the situation this way:

...if Duncan really wants to stop the biggest bully in America's schools right now, he'll have to confront his boss, President Obama. In federal education policy, the president and his education secretary have been the neighborhood toughs -- bullying teachers, civil rights groups, even Obama's revered community organizers.

Milbank points out what many of us have been saying for months.

Obama has taken the worst aspect of Bush's No Child Left Behind education law -- an obsession with testing -- and amplified it.

Obama has expanded the importance of standardized testing to determine how much teachers will be paid, which educators will be fired and which schools will be closed -- despite evidence that such practices are harmful. In the process, he's offended just about all the liberals involved in or advocating for education without gaining much support from conservatives.

One must assume that Obama has made a Clintonesque political calculation. Faced with tremendous pressure from an alliance of corporate-sponsored education reform organizations and their allies in the media, Obama chose the easy way. He appointed an education secretary who would advance their agenda, apparently assuming that this was a battle he did not need, given all his other troubles.

But those of us working in the schools are not concerned about political calculations. We are trying to make sense of a society that has abandoned those in poverty in every meaningful dimension, and dropped even the pretense of desegregating our schools, and yet expects teachers to close the achievement gap all by ourselves.

Some of us are pendulum-pushers, and some are pendulum-riders. A curious thing has happened as we approach this tipping point. Even as evidence accumulates and is documented by honest scholars such as Ravitch, the "education reformers" are becoming more desperate to shore up their collapsing project. They are very smart, and have incredible resources at their disposal. Even in the midst of an economic crisis, they have marshaled billions of dollars to purchase people's energy. The Race to the Top was ingenious, and so well-timed, as to put maximum pressure on states struggling with impossible revenue shortfalls. So now we have new projects within the education reform effort. There is money for the "new and better" assessments that will solve all the problems we had before with those "bad" assessments. There is money for teacher pay, so long as it is tied to test scores. Those who buy this (or are bought) increasingly insist this trend is irreversible, and "resistance is futile," as a certain queen once asserted.

Those of us who have a name as teacher leaders may even be offered opportunities on these projects, and may have to do some soul searching and investigation, to be sure we can live with the results that our work may yield.

We who are pendulum pushers are hanging on, holding our ground, and continuing to push back. The time has come for the pendulum to start moving the other way.

With an actual pendulum, it is gravity that eventually wins out over the momentum of the device. In the case of education policy, as with corporate banditry and endless war, we cannot wait for the laws of physics to do the job. We need to be pushing, slowing the swing, and pushing it towards a new direction. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in The Tipping Point, there are moments when ideas catch hold and begin to spread almost like a virus. There is some combination of outrage and hope that crystallizes into social change. I hope these ideas are infectious. It is about time for this pendulum to swing.

What do you think? Are we approaching a tipping point? How can we make it so?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why Common Standards Won't Work By P.L. Thomas

In 2010, with the blessing and encouragement of the nation’s president and secretary of education, we are establishing “common-core standards” to address the historical claim that our public schools are failures. In the 1890s, a similar lament was voiced by the group known as the Committee of Ten:

“When college professors endeavor to teach chemistry, physics, botany, zoology, meteorology, or geology to persons of 18 or 20 years of age, they discover that in most instances new habits of observing, reflecting, and recording have to be painfully acquired by the students—habits which they should have acquired in early childhood.”

Their solution? Almost exactly what the current common-standards pursuit offers us. In fact, the bureaucratic approach to schools—establish content, prescribe content, and measure student acquisition of that content—has been visited and revisited decade after decade for more than a century now. It has always failed, and always will.

This time around, we must use the creation of and debate about national standards to reject a failed solution for the ignored problems facing our schools—and our society.

Today’s attempt at national standards, the recently released work of the Common Core State Standards Initiative in English language arts and mathematics that is being adopted separately by states, fails first because the standards are based on two flawed assumptions: that we somehow, in 2010, don’t already know what to teach (we do and have for decades); and that somehow a standard body of learning matches what humans need and what a democracy that values human freedom wants (it doesn’t match either).

Next, the standards further deprofessionalize teaching at the K-12 level. Chemistry professors in college do not need a set of standards to teach chemistry; part of the appropriate expectations for their job is to be scholars of their field and adept at teaching that body of knowledge. (In fact, a central problem we could address is that, at the K-12 level, we trivialize the need for teachers to be knowledgeable, and at the college level, we trivialize a professor’s need to be skilled at teaching. Educators need both.)
To standardize and prescribe expectations is, in fact, to lower them.

Common standards also devolve into asking less, not more, of students, since they are invariably tied to the narrowest possible types of assessment. Some clichés have become clichés because they are true. The truism “Give a man a fish and he eats for the day; teach a man to fish and he eats forever” captures perfectly the flaw with a standards approach to education: Prescribed standards of learning are giving children fish, not teaching them to fish.

Standards-driven education removes decisions from teachers and students and renders classrooms lifeless and functional, devoid of the pleasure and personal value of learning, discovering, and coming to be.

Common standards also begin by assuming that the content is all that matters in learning. To create a standard body of knowledge is to codify that the students themselves do not matter—at least in any humane way. The standards movement envisions children as empty vessels to be filled by the prescribed knowledge chosen for them—certainly a counterproductive view of humans in a free society.

A call for “higher standards” speaks to our human quest for improvement, but that call conflates “standard” with “expectation,” and the two terms are not synonymous in the way we need for improving education. Yes, we should have high expectations for teachers and students, but those expectations can never be and will never be any more “standard” than one human to the next. To standardize and prescribe expectations is, in fact, to lower them.

Offering some type of national standards as a solution for the failure of public education implies that a lack of standards exists, and that the supposed lack is somehow the cause of our educational problems.

And that central flaw is at the heart of what is most wrong about the new common-core standards, because the creation of those standards is drawing our attention away from the actual causes of educational problems.

A call for national standards ensures that we continue doing what is most wrong with our bureaucratic schools (establish-prescribe-measure) and that we persist in looking away from the largest cause of low student achievement: childhood poverty.

A call for national standards is a political veneer, a tragic waste of time and energy that would be better spent addressing real needs in the lives of children—safe homes, adequate and plentiful food, essential health care, and neighborhood schools that are not reflections of the neighborhoods where children live through no choice of their own.

Education is in no way short of a knowledge base. And even if it were, tinkering (yet again) at a standard core of knowledge while ignoring the dehumanizing practices in our schools, and the oppressive impact of poverty on the lives of children, is simply more fiddling while the futures of our children smolder over our shoulders and we look the other way.

P.L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University, in Greenville, S.C. He was formerly a high school English teacher.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I've Worked at Schools on Both Sides Now: Rich and Poor. by Krista Calvin

The first twelve years of my career as a teacher were spent at Clear Creek Elementary School in Central Kitsap School District in Silverdale, Washington. Our school was right next to Bangor Submarine Base. Because most of our families were military, we had a very high mobility rate. Most of my students came from two-parent families, but often one or both parents were deployed. Working with students and families so affected by war was very challenging at times, but I loved what I accomplished with those students and I believe their families were grateful for the time, effort, and love I provided their children. Clear Creek had an incredibly dedicated teaching and support staff that went all out to provide students with a first rate education. During my last year at Clear Creek, I teamed with a regional state teacher of the year and I achieved my National Board Certification. Despite our school's efforts to improve, our students performed poorly on state tests. Based on those tests, one could assume that Clear Creek is an under performing school.

Last year, I moved to the Tri-Cities and got a job teaching at White Bluffs Elementary School in the Richland School District. In some respects my White Bluffs students are very similar to my Clear Creek students. They also come primarily from two-parent families, their parents are interested in their schooling, and they are eager learners. My White Bluffs students are also very different. They don't come to school crying because they are worried about their parents serving in Iraq, or Afghanistan. Their parents are doctors, dentists, and engineers. White Bluffs is located in the most affluent area of Richland, Washington and our students have the top test scores in our district. Even though I was new to White Bluffs last year, my students performed on par with the other 3rd grade classes on their MAP tests. Based on these scores, one could say that White Bluffs is a high performing school.

It is because of the two scenarios that I just outlined that I do not believe in tying teacher evaluation to test scores, or merit pay. I was the same teacher last year at White Bluffs that I was the year before at Clear Creek. Both schools even use many of the same curriculum materials, Houghton Mifflin reading, Lucy Calkins writing, and STC science. At White Bluffs and Clear Creek, my teaching partners and I also utilized many of the same teaching and learning strategies; Mosaic of Thought, guided reading, reader's/writer's workshop, district writing prompts, and hands on science. Both districts also have early release days each week for professional learning communities, professional development, educational literature studies, and curriculum planning and development. Both schools also have a clear system in place for identifying and working with students with special needs. At both schools my teaching partners and I communicated with parents on a regular basis, participated in school related activities outside of the workday and brought our students closer to their community through guest speakers and field trips. I worked just as hard at Clear Creek as I did White Bluffs, so why was I under performing at Clear Creek and high performing at White Bluffs? The only answer I can come up with is the fact that both schools serve two very different communities and the students who come to each school bring very different background experiences, beliefs, and concerns.

Again, I am the same teacher at White Bluffs that I was a Clear Creek. How I build relationships with my students and their families and teach has not changed. However, the scores that my students receive on their tests have. Lately a lot of people have placed the majority of the blame for low test scores on the teachers. These same people seem to believe that if we just fire the "bad" teachers and replace them with "good" teachers, all of our problems will be solved. My question is how do we decide who is a "good" teacher and who is a "bad" teacher? I certainly hope it is not test scores, because if that is the measure we use then I should have been fired years ago at Clear Creek and I would have never been able to demonstrate what a good teacher I am at White Bluffs.

Krista Calvin
3rd Grade Teacher
White Bluffs Elementary School
Richland, Washington

What do you think of Krista Calvin's experience? How can we make our policymakers more aware of this?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Popular Principal, Wounded by Government’s Good Intentions By MICHAEL WINERIP

BURLINGTON, Vt. — It’s hard to find anyone here who believes that Joyce Irvine should have been removed as principal of Wheeler Elementary School.

John Mudasigana, one of many recent African refugees whose children attend the high-poverty school, says he is grateful for how Ms. Irvine and her teachers have helped his five children. “Everything is so good about the school,” he said, before taking his daughter Evangeline, 11, into the school’s dental clinic.

Ms. Irvine’s most recent job evaluation began, “Joyce has successfully completed a phenomenal year.” Jeanne Collins, Burlington’s school superintendent, calls Ms. Irvine “a leader among her colleagues” and “a very good principal.”

Beth Evans, a Wheeler teacher, said, “Joyce has done a great job,” and United States Senator Bernie Sanders noted all the enrichment programs, including summer school, that Ms. Irvine had added since becoming principal six years ago.

“She should not have been removed,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview. “I’ve walked that school with her — she seemed to know the name and life history of every child.”

Ms. Irvine wasn’t removed by anyone who had seen her work (often 80-hour weeks) at a school where 37 of 39 fifth graders were either refugees or special-ed children and where, much to Mr. Mudasigana’s delight, his daughter Evangeline learned to play the violin.

Ms. Irvine was removed because the Burlington School District wanted to qualify for up to $3 million in federal stimulus money for its dozen schools.

And under the Obama administration rules, for a district to qualify, schools with very low test scores, like Wheeler, must do one of the following: close down; be replaced by a charter (Vermont does not have charters); remove the principal and half the staff; or remove the principal and transform the school.

And since Ms. Irvine had already “worked tirelessly,” as her evaluation said, to “successfully” transform the school last fall to an arts magnet, even she understood her removal was the least disruptive option.

“Joyce Irvine versus millions,” Ms. Irvine said. “You can buy a lot of help for children with that money.”

Burlington faced the difficult choice because performance evaluations for teachers and principals based on test results, as much as on local officials’ judgment, are a hallmark of the two main competitive grant programs the Obama administration developed to spur its initiatives: the stimulus and Race to the Top.

“I was distraught,” said Ms. Irvine, 57, who was removed July 1. “I loved being principal — I put my heart and soul into that school for six years.” Still, she counts herself lucky that the superintendent moved her to an administrative job — even if it will pay considerably less.

“I didn’t want to lose her, she’s too good,” Ms. Collins said, adding that the school’s low scores were the result of a testing system that’s “totally inappropriate” for Wheeler’s children.

Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the United States Department of Education, noted that districts don’t have to apply for the grants, that the rules are clear and that federal officials do not remove principals. But Burlington officials say that not applying in such hard times would have shortchanged students.

At the heart of things is whether the testing system under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 can fairly assess schools full of middle-class children, as well as a school like Wheeler, with a 97 percent poverty rate and large numbers of refugees, many with little previous education.

President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform says that “instead of a single snapshot, we will recognize progress and growth.” Ms. Collins says if a year’s progress for each student were the standard, Wheeler would score well. However, the reality is that measuring every student’s yearly growth statewide is complex, and virtually all states, including Vermont, rely on a school’s annual test scores.

Under No Child rules, a student arriving one day before the state math test must take it. Burlington is a major resettlement area, and one recent September, 28 new students — from Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan — arrived at Wheeler and took the math test in October.

Ms. Irvine said that in a room she monitored, 15 of 18 randomly filled in test bubbles. The math tests are word problems. A sample fourth-grade question: “Use Xs to draw an array for the sum of 4+4+4.” Five percent of Wheeler’s refugee students scored proficient in math.

About half the 230 students are foreign-born, collectively speaking 30 languages. Many have been traumatized; a third see one of the school’s three caseworkers. During Ms. Irvine’s tenure, suspensions were reduced to 7 last year, from 100.

Students take the reading test after one year in the country. Ms. Irvine tells a story about Mr. Mudasigana’s son Oscar and the fifth-grade test.

Oscar needed 20 minutes to read a passage on Neil Armstrong landing his Eagle spacecraft on the moon; it should have taken 5 minutes, she said, but Oscar was determined, reading out loud to himself.

The first question asked whether the passage was fact or fiction. “He said, ‘Oh, Mrs. Irvine, man don’t go on the moon, man don’t go on the back of eagles, this is not true,’ ” she recalled. “So he got the five follow-up questions wrong — penalized for a lack of experience.”

Thirteen percent of foreign-born students, 4 percent of special-ed students and 23 percent of the entire school scored proficient in reading.

Before Mr. Obama became president, Burlington officials began working to transform Wheeler to an arts magnet, in hopes of improving socioeconomic integration.

While doing her regular job, Ms. Irvine also developed a new arts curriculum. She got a grant for a staff trip to the Kennedy Center in Washington for arts training. She rented vans so teachers could visit arts magnets in nearby states. She created partnerships with local theater groups and artists. In English class, to learn characterization, children now write a one-person play and perform it at Burlington’s Very Merry Theater.

A sign of her effectiveness: an influx of new students, so that half the early grades will consist of middle-class pupils this fall.

Ms. Irvine predicts that in two years, when these new “magnet” students are old enough to take the state tests, scores will jump, not because the school is necessarily better, but because the tests are geared to the middle class.

Senator Sanders said that while the staff should be lauded for working at one of Vermont’s most challenging schools, it has been stigmatized.

“I applaud the Obama people for paying attention to low-income kids and caring,” said Mr. Sanders, a leftist independent. “But to label the school as failing and humiliate the principal and teachers is grossly unfair.”

The district has replaced Ms. Irvine with an interim principal and will conduct a search for a replacement.

And Ms. Irvine, who hoped to finish her career on the front lines, working with children, will be Burlington’s new school improvement administrator.

“Her students made so much progress,” Ms. Collins said. “What’s happened to her is not at all connected to reality.”

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Will the "right teachers" improve our schools? By Anthony Cody

President Obama last week made a major speech before the National Urban League in which he defended Race to the Top and his education reform agenda. It is rather remarkable that such a defense should be necessary. After all, should not the constituency of a progressive president embrace improvement of schools for children in poverty?

This defense was called for by the threat of open rebellion by major civil rights organizations, who have been, not to put too fine a point on it, hoodwinked by No Child Left Behind's promise that the nation would at long last attend to the debt owed to the educationally disadvantaged.

President Obama opened with the obligatory paean to teachers, then hit the cold heart of the matter:

"... even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we've got to make sure we're seeing results in the classroom. If we're not seeing results in the classroom, then let's work with teachers to help them become more effective. If that doesn't work, let's find the right teacher for that classroom."

The reason this heart is cold is two-fold. First, although the administration professes great dissatisfaction with current standardized tests, almost every form of accountability relies on these scores, and we are seeing ever-higher stakes attached to them. But the second, bigger issue, is the belief that the primary reason scores are systematically lower in low-performing schools is that we do not have the "right teachers" in place there. The solution, therefore, must be to identify and replace the "wrong" teachers with better ones.

This has led to policies such as the firing of half the staff of schools in Rhode Island, Los Angeles and elsewhere, and teacher evaluations that heavily weight student test scores.

But a fascinating study has just come out that poses some real problems for this approach. Edward Moscovitch has done a systematic comparison of the test scores of students in high and low-performing schools. His conclusion? The different outcomes are largely due to factors brought into school by the students rather than the quality of instruction. He writes:

This view--that the right incentives (positive or negative) will produce the necessary changes in teaching--may be a very common one, but there is no data to back it up. Indeed, a close look at MCAS results shows there is surprisingly little difference between the quality of teaching in so-called "good" schools (wealthy, suburban schools with high MCAS scores)and "bad" schools (inner-city schools with low scores) when the results are averaged across all teachers in the district and disaggregated by student demographics, specifically race and poverty. Put another way, a low-income white student in a "good" suburban school tests essentially the same as a low-income white student in a "bad" inner-city school.

The implications of this finding are enormous: It suggests that the policies we are pursuing are unlikely to make much of a difference, because they don't address the real problem.

What's the point of getting rid of half the teachers at an inner-city school if the ones who replace them also lack the necessary tools? Similarly, replacing a public school with a charter school won't by itself make any difference; either way, teachers need help, not blame. They need help not because they do a poor job of teaching, but because they work with very needy children.

Moscovitch carefully compares groups of students and provides detailed evidence to support his conclusions. Those who think we can improve schools by selecting the "right" teachers should take a close look.

Moscovitch goes further. He points out that the carrots and sticks that are the primary tools of the "education reformers" are useless once the logic that drives them is destroyed. But we must agree with President Obama that the status quo is indefensible. What we must do is embrace a constructive alternative to that reality. Moscovitch highlights the work the Bay State Reading Institute has done to equip teachers to build literacy among poor and minority students. I saw excellent progress at my own school when we had a chance to develop strong cross-curricular collaborative teams, and really worked together to raise academic expectations.

The crazy-making part of the whole education reform debate is that we will hear Obama and Duncan praise the sort of professional development we are advocating. The problem is that the thrust of the reforms being inspired by Race to the Top actively undermines this work. You cannot build the sort of sustained collaborative community of teachers, students and parents that is essential to turning around a struggling school by firing half the staff. In Oakland, schools that were shut down four years ago are now once again under the hammer, and effective principals and teachers are demoralized or even forced out.

President Obama will find no argument when he says our children deserve better than what they now receive. Policies that focus on building the capacity of our teachers and help them respond to the great needs of their students are the way forward.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Obama's Race to the Top Will Not Improve Education by Diane Ravitch

President Obama spoke to the National Urban League this week and defended his "Race to the Top" program, which has become increasingly controversial. Mr. Obama insisted that it was the most important thing he had done in office, and that critics were merely clinging to the status quo.

Mr. Obama was unfazed by the scathing critique of the Race by the nation's leading civil rights organizations, who insisted that access to federal funding should be based on need, not competition.

The program contains these key elements: Teachers will be evaluated in relation to their students' test scores. Schools that continue to get low test scores will be closed or turned into charter schools or handed over to private management. In low-performing schools, principals will be fired, and all or half of the staff will be fired. States are encouraged to create many more privately managed charter schools.

All of these elements are problematic. Evaluating teachers in relation to student test scores will have many adverse consequences. It will make the current standardized tests of basic skills more important than ever, and even more time and resources will be devoted to raising scores on these tests. The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind, because of the link between wages and scores. There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test. There will be more cheating, more gaming the system.

Furthermore, charter schools on average do not get better results than regular public schools, yet Obama and Duncan are pushing them hard. Duncan acknowledges that there are many mediocre or bad charter schools, but chooses to believe that in the future, the new charters will only be high performing ones. Right.

The President should re-examine his reliance on standardized testing to identify the best teachers and schools and the worst teachers and schools. The tests are simply not adequate to their expectations.

The latest example of how test results can be doctored is the New York state testing scandal, which broke open this week. The pass rates on the state tests had soared year after year, to the point where they became ridiculous to all but the credulous The whole house of cards came crashing down this week after the state raised the proficiency bar from the low point to which it had sunk. In 2009, 86.4% of the state's students were "proficient" in math, but the number in 2010 plummeted to 61%. In 2009, 77.4% were "proficient" in reading, but now it is only 53.2%.

The latest test scores were especially startling for New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg staked his reputation on their meteoric rise. He was re-elected because of the supposedly historic increase in test scores and used them to win renewal of mayoral control. But now, the city's pass rate in reading for grades 3-8 fell from 68.8% to 42.4%, and the proficiency rate in math sunk from an incredible 81.8% to a dismal 54%.

When the mayor ran for office, he said that mayoral control would mean accountability. If things went wrong, the public would know whom to blame.

But now that the truth about score inflation is out, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein steadfastly insist that the gains recorded on their watch did not go up in smoke, that progress was real, and they have reiterated this message through their intermediaries in the tabloids. In other words, they are using every possible rationalization and excuse to avoid accountability for the collapse of their "historic gains."

Meanwhile Secretary Duncan travels the country urging districts to adopt mayoral control, so they can emulate New York City. He carefully avoids mentioning Cleveland, which has had mayoral control for years and remains one of the lowest performing districts in the nation. Nor does he mention that Detroit had mayoral control and ended it. And it is hard to imagine that anyone would think of Chicago, which has been controlled by Mayor Richard Daley for many years, would serve as a national model.

President Obama and Secretary Duncan need to stop and think. They are heading in the wrong direction. On their present course, they will end up demoralizing teachers, closing schools that are struggling to improve, dismantling the teaching profession, destabilizing communities, and harming public education.

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Monday, August 2, 2010

The Importance of Affect in the Classroom By Walt Gardner

The New York Times published a front-page story about the delayed impact the best kindergarten teachers have on their students ("The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers") on the same day I wrote about the benefit in delaying evaluation of teachers until years after their students graduate ("Who's a Good Teacher").

Raj Chetty, who conducted the Project Star study reported in the Times, is an economist. As a result, he understandably placed heavy emphasis on the pecuniary benefits to students who were taught in kindergarten by an inspired teacher. He says that all else being equal, these students were making about $100 a year more at age 27 for every percentile they had moved up on standardized tests. That would come to about $1,000 more a year than a student who scored average. Projected out, the additional money that a full class of students can expect to earn over their careers totals about $320,000 - hence the headline of the article.

Although economists do not profess to know the exact reasons for this increase, it is likely due to the attitudes that successful kindergarten teachers inculcate in their students. These include such things as discipline, perseverance, patience and manners. Despite the importance of this wherewithal, reformers make no attempt to assess the ability of teachers to achieve these non-cognitive objectives. Certainly, they are aware of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook II: Affective Domain (David McKay Company Inc., 1964). But it seems that their obsession to measure only cognitive outcomes in two or three subjects has blinded them to their oversight. As Bloom wrote: "The fact that we attempt to analyze the affective area separately from the cognitive is not intended to suggest that there is a fundamental separation. There is none."

In my previous post, I pointed out that it is counterproductive to teach a subject well but to teach students to hate the subject in the process. What do we gain as a nation if students are left with such strong negative feelings about what they have studied? At best, they will be reluctant to pursue further learning in that field. And at worst, they will refuse to do so. Therefore, before patting ourselves on the back when we boost standardized test scores as the sine qua non, we should ask ourselves what price we have paid for doing so.

Defenders of the exclusive emphasis on cognitive results will argue that affective outcomes are not as easily assessed. But that doesn't mean they can't be measured. One of the ways of doing so is through use of an attitude inventory that is anonymously completed by students before and after instruction. Perhaps the best known of these is the Likert inventories that were introduced in 1932. Typically, there are five possible responses to a statement, ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. Its format is familiar to most students today because they are used to rating movies and other content.

Reformers will maintain that these results constitute "soft" data. But teaching is more than merely instilling skills and knowledge in students. It's this acknowledgement that was conspicuously absent from President Obama's speech delivered on July 29 at the centennial convention of the National Urban League. He proclaimed that "We have an obligation to lift up every child in every school in this country, especially those who are starting out furthest behind."

If Obama genuinely means what he said, then it behooves him to explain how converting classrooms into test preparation factories in order to boost standardized test scores will serve students most in need of enrichment. Drilling has its place, but when it becomes the overwhelming - perhaps sole - pedagogy used with these students, they will continue to be shortchanged. Their attitudes about learning matter more than reformers comprehend.

What Would Real School Reform Look Like? By James Farwell

Public school reform seems to boil down to closing schools; sending students to higher-achieving schools; converting a “failing” school to a charter school; replacing the principal, reforming instruction, and increasing learning time; and giving teachers monetary incentives to do better. Such “reform” seems as off the mark and ineffective as placing a Band-Aid on a melanoma. So the question that needs to be asked is what would real reform look like?

As a society, we, the “village” that it takes to raise a child, need to make a conscious commitment to ensuring that all children receive a free and high-quality public education. Without such a commitment, and without that education, our children will not be able to differentiate between sound bites, propaganda, demagogy, and the facts of a situation or position. Without an educated citizenry, our very governance by informed consent is in jeopardy, not to mention the assurance of future generations prepared for parenthood, employment, and creative efforts that enrich us all.

We need to determine how much it actually costs to educate a child for a year of schooling, including programs that children require in order to learn to their potential.

We need to create a system of funding for this education that is not compromised by the ebbs and flows of the economy or by political whims. This would mean the creation of a payment system whereby all members of the “village” share equally in the effort to have children receive a public education. A sales tax of 1 percent on all nonessential goods and services is one example of such an approach.

We need to have the federal government pay for any program it mandates states to follow. This includes the money to develop, implement, and maintain such a program.

We need a system of oversight to ensure that revenues for education are received and properly allocated for what they are intended. This could be done through an independent agency created for this purpose.

We need to view our children as the unique and special people that they are. Our schools need to become the “neighborhoods,” to use the late Fred Rogers’ term, that create the means for each child’s uniqueness and potential to be realized.

One qualification for anyone who works in schools should be a love and respect for children. Anyone lacking in these two areas should be asked to seek employment elsewhere.

We need to approach each child as a whole person, as someone who has physical, emotional, social, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual needs. Children are more than just brains to be filled and candidates for the job market.

We need to realize that not all children are developmentally ready for learning basic skills at the same time, nor do they learn in the same way. Moreover, they cannot show what they have learned by using only one means for measuring learning success.

We need to do away with a graded K-3 system. Instead, we need to provide for an ungraded learning environment during these four critical years of discovery and basic-skills development. We need to focus on meeting the needs of each child, so that at the end of this time, all children will be ready to go from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” and will have become proficient in all areas of basic-skills development.

Each child in the primary and elementary grades requires a needs assessment at the beginning of the school year. Each needs to be provided with an individualized learning program. This would be closely monitored and, at year’s end, evaluated to determine how well the teacher and the child did in meeting the goals and objectives initially established. This could be part of the teacher’s evaluation process.

Each school site reflects the community within which it is placed, and each needs to perform a needs assessment to determine how best to provide for its students. Part of this assessment should determine the impact that poverty, abuse, gangs, violence, family transience, and lack of parent support have on children’s learning and well-being.
“Professional educators need to be allowed to do what they know works for children.”

We need to focus on the development of the neighborhood school as an essential child- and family-support center within a community.

Instead of charter schools, neighborhood schools need to become the learning laboratories that provide modeling for best educational practice.

All children need to be able to understand, speak, read, and write classroom English to ensure equal opportunities for employment and to participate as informed citizens.

We need to reintroduce the teaching of civics in middle and high school, and implement a test on the U.S. Constitution that students would have to pass in order to graduate from high school.

We need to have those who are professionals in curriculum, pedagogy, school psychology, speech and language pathology, public health, educational finance, administration, and education research determine educational policy, instead of think tanks, special-interest groups, and politicians. Professional educators need to be allowed to do what they know works for children.

Within each district, we must create a consensus-building approach to problem-solving that embraces input from all sectors of the school community before the creation or implementation of any education policy.

There needs to be a conscious process of thinking through the consequences of any policy before it is implemented.

Our philosophy of education needs to be predicated on what we know works and not on the currently favored education funding fad.

Our training programs need to be based on a professional-school model for those who teach primary grades. This approach would require three years of “apprenticeship” with master teachers, as a part of a five-year credentialing program.

This professional-school model needs to be centered on current research in pedagogy and classroom management, so that graduates are taught the latest information available on the thinking in the field. Preparation programs also need to provide practitioners with a thorough grounding in educational history, so that they can learn from the successes and failures of the past.

Moreover, training programs need to weed out those credential candidates who are emotionally, temperamentally, or intellectually unsuited to work with children.

District administrators need to exercise responsibility in evaluating professional staff members. A probationary teacher should be evaluated each of his or her probationary years. If any issue presents itself during this time, steps should be taken to help the teacher to improve. If he or she is unable or unwilling to improve, termination should follow.

We need to make in-service training a priority. A minimum of 50 hours per area of focus per year should be required. And this should apply to all personnel: classroom, support-services, clerical, and service workers. The emphasis should be on best practices in all staffing areas.

New-hire and probationary classroom and support-services staff need to have hands-on mentoring for the first two years on the job.

We need to view the role of unions as a necessary check and balance, protecting staff members from managerial abuse and ensuring due-process rights.

Most of all, we need to stop the process of scapegoating and disparaging members of the education community. Negativity breeds negativity and creates the destructive impact of unnecessary stress on those who work with children. Acknowledgment and support breeds the development of team work and the heightened potential for success.