A recent Slate essay, “Welcome to Kindergarten. Take This Test… And This One”, describes the testing gauntlet imposed on NOLA students in the name of accountability. Alexandria Neason writes about the experiences of third year Kindergarten teacher Molly Mansel’s challenges in administering computerized tests to her entering kindergartners. The first challenge was teaching them to use a mouse when most of them were used to swiping screens on phones and pads. Then came the test itself:
Mansel’s students started taking tests just three weeks into the 2014–15 school year. They began with a state-required early childhood exam in August, which covered everything from basic math to letter identification. Mansel estimates that it took between four and five weeks for the teachers to test all 58 kindergarten students—and that was with the help of the prekindergarten team. The test requires an adult to sit individually with each student, reading questions and asking them to perform various tasks. The test is 11 pages long and “it’s very time-consuming,” according to Mansel, who is 24 and in her third year of teaching (her first in kindergarten).
The rest of the demanding testing schedule involves repeated administrations of two different school-mandated tests. The first, Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, is used to measure how students are doing compared with their peers nationally—and to evaluate teachers’ performance. The students take the test in both reading and math three times a year. They have about an hour to complete the test, and slower test takers are pulled from class to finish.
The second test, called Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress, or STEP, is a literacy assessment that measures and ranks children’s progress as they learn letters, words, sentences, and, eventually, how to read. Mansel gives the test individually to students four times throughout the year. It takes several days to administer as Mansel progresses through a series of tasks: asking the students to write their names, to point to uppercase and lowercase versions of letters, and to identify words that rhyme, for example.
These are pre-tests… and over the course of the year Mansel’s students will spend 95 hours taking these tests… and if Ms. Mansel’s performance rating is based on “growth” you can be certain they will spend many more hours in front of screens instead of playing with blocks or engaging in social play with classmates. All of this is being done in the name of maintaing international competitiveness with other countries. But when do other developed countries introduce reading and what does research tell us about this issue? David Elkind’s EducationNext article in 2012 addressed this question:
Evidence attesting to the importance of developmentally appropriate education in the early years comes from cross-cultural studies. Jerome Bruner reports that in French-speaking parts of Switzerland, where reading instruction is begun at the preschool level, a large percentage of children have reading problems. In German-speaking parts of Switzerland, where reading is not taught until age six or seven, there are few reading problems. In Denmark, where reading is taught late, there is almost no illiteracy. Likewise in Russia, where the literacy rate is quite high, reading is not taught until the age of six or seven.
So if research shows that premature instruction in reading increases the probability of reading difficulties, why are we introducing “academics” early? The short answer is that scientific evidence is immaterial in the politicized environment of American schooling today. The consequences on children are adverse whether or not they learn how to read earlier, for the 95+ hours they spend in front of screens are 95+ hours that could have been spent engaged in activities that would help them develop interpersonal skills and self-regulation.
Earlier this month, Kevin Carey wrote an Upshot article that, if anything, understated the value of “badges” or “verified certificates” as opposed to degrees. As noted in several earlier posts and described in Carey’s article, “badges” are earned by the completion of a series of courses or activities embedded in a course, and when these “badges” are recognized as bona fide credentials the MOOC movement will gain irreversible traction:
Free online courses won’t revolutionize education until there is a parallel system of free or low-fee credentials, not controlled by traditional colleges, that leads to jobs. Now technological innovators are working on that, too.
The Mozilla Foundation, which brought the world the Firefox web browser, has spent the last few years creating what it calls the Open Badges project. Badges are electronic credentials that any organization, collegiate or otherwise, can issue. Badges indicate specific skills and knowledge, backed by links to electronic evidence of how and why, exactly, the badge was earned.
Some of the commenters criticized Carey’s naiveté or his desire to turn higher education into a utilitarian enterprise that turns out “cogs in the machine”. From where I sit, “badges” have tremendous promise for students— especially those students who are NOT engaged in formal education past high school or those directionless students who enroll in college because it is what their parents expect. Moreover, from my perspective as a former employer and a current consumer I can think of several places where “badges” are already in place:
- Technology repairs
- Auto repairs
- Medical providers
- Real Estate
The list could be extended endlessly because we are obsessed with credentials, many of which, as Carey notes, are meaningless at worst and obtuse at best:
… H.R. departments know what a bachelor’s degree is. “Verified certificates” are something new. But employers have a powerful incentive to move in this direction: Traditional college degrees are deeply inadequate tools for communicating information.
The standard diploma has roughly the same amount of information that prisoners of war are required to divulge under the Geneva Conventions. College transcripts are a nightmare of departmental abbreviations, course numbers of indeterminate meaning, and grades whose value has been steadily eroded by their inflation.
Instead of the diploma being the coin of the realm for HR staff, a detailed summary of the skills learned at college would take it’s place… in effect a portfolio of the work completed in college would replace the numeric GPA and single sheet of course listings. Once that takes place, HR staff members will likely place a diploma bearing applicant on equal footing with a non-degrees applicant who has superior job-specific skills as evidenced by a certificate. This happens already in technology-related areas where an applicant with a specific product certification is deemed superior to someone with a generic computer technology degree when they are applying. In our school district which used Apple computers, for example, we sought “Apple Certifications” in all applicants and valued experience in a school environment over a generic technology degree. I imagine auto dealers seek the same kind of product-specific training in their applicants and trust that the phlebotomist at my doctor’s office has certification in that area.
As Carey reports, the details on “badges” are being worked out in an organic fashion… and once they are worked out and in place the MOOC revolution will happen rapidly and education at all levels will need to adapt just as quickly.
My antipathy for video surveillance is evident to most readers of this blog, and even well crafted arguments in its favor, like those found in a recent K-12 TechDecisions post by Brian Armes and Guy Bleisner cannot dissuade me from that perspective. Armes and Bleisner, in an article describing the limitations of surveillance cameras, note that a camera, unlike live human beings, provides cold, objective reportage of incidents that require adult and/or parental intervention and, in doing so, provide caring adults with “teachable moments”. The case study they cite, involving two young men engaged in a shoving match while a nearby teaching assistant tended to a minor medical problem, resonated with me. There were several instances when I worked of six years as a high school disciplinarian that having a video record could have saved hours of sorting out who-did-what-to-whom. But the thought that students are being conditioned to video surveillance during every moment that are in school is chilling… even more so when I read one of the introductory paragraphs:
Unlike commercial and industrial organizations, few K-12 schools can afford full-time monitoring of their video surveillance systems and lack an immediate response capability. Passive monitoring by a secretary with a long list of other duties is about the best schools can hope for. With this kind of limitation, video surveillance in the K-12 environment is relegated to a reactive approach at best. In most cases, it becomes an investigatory and forensic tool after the fact.
Armes and Bleisner begin with the de facto assumption that the absence of video cameras is a “limitation” and that employees in “commercial and industrial organizations” are conditioned to a work environment with total and complete video monitoring.
Socialization is part of the hidden curriculum in school, and as a classroom teacher and school administrator I felt that the discipline in the school was based on an ethos of honesty. If there was a dispute between students about who-did-what-to-whom my preference was to have students work it out face-to-face even though it would have been much easier to review a videotape. Running a school based on robotic video surveillance has a far different feel than a school based on mutual respect and honesty. A video monitoring system feels like a police state while a mutual trust system feels more like a neighborhood watch… and I prefer the moral force of neighbors over the legalistic force of police. My belief: by relying on video surveillance we are increasing our fear of our neighbors and adding to the disconnection that is emerging in our communities. To paraphrase a tired aphorism, it takes a village to raise a child… not a police state.
Audrey Watters is always thought provoking, and her brief essay with the dating title “The History of ‘Personalization” and Teaching Machines” that I just came across teased out the question that is the title of this post. In the essay Watters suggests that personalized learning may not be a liberating force that enables students to learn what they want, when they want to. Instead it is a means of feeding students what they need at a pace that enables them to master the skills as defined by those “in privilege and power”.
The distinction is an important one. If “personalized learning” is defined as allowing a student to progress through the Common Core curriculum at a rate of speed that matches their capability to learn, then personalized learning is an efficiency to the factory model, akin to Skinner’s theories. If it is defined as allowing a student to learn what they want, when they want to it is more akin to Ivan Illich’s experiential De-schooling model.
From my perspective schooling should be designed to provide students with the tools— the foundational skills— needed to learn-how-to-learn and to connect them with those who can help them expand their knowledge once they have those foundational skills. The foundational skills can be delivered using a behaviorist approach: math and reading fundamentals, fundamental writing skills, and basic analytic skills are based on hierarchical frameworks that lend themselves to various forms of asynchronous on-line instruction. A teacher in these classrooms would intervene when a student is struggling with a particular concept but would not engage in “broadcast” instruction to a group of students. Otherwise, the teacher would serve as a facilitator, helping the student gain self-awareness and self-understanding through dialogue with the teacher, with peers, and with other mentors.
We have the technological capabilities to make the mastery of foundational skills more efficient and effective than it is today and the human resources available to provide each student with a mentor to help them find answers to the questions that they want to find answers for. “Personalized learning plans” should be able to achieve both ends.
George Orwell Would Have a Field Day with “Reform” Movement’s Expropriation of Civil Rights Language
Late last month Empower blogger Denish Jones posted an essay describing how conservatives, neoliberals, and even Glenn Beck have expropriated the language of the civil rights movement to suit their own ends. One sentence in particular flagged the way the ideas of civil rights leaders of the 1960s have been twisted by politicians today:
King’s famous line “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” has led some to claim that King was promoting a color-blind society that ignores race and that he would not have supported Affirmative Action policies.
While King’s support for Affirmative Action may be arguable to some, Denish Jones is very confident that Dr. Martin Luther King would roll over in his grave if he knew that corporate education advocates were using his language to “sell” their product. She identifies three areas where “…the corporate education reform movement undermines the struggle for educational equality for all”: privatization; school choice; and alternative paths to teaching like TFA. A summary of each of the undermining that is taking place:
- Privatization: Based on the premise that in a capitalist system the best products thrive and the worst ones fail, the collateral damage in this movement is not just a failure of a particular business, it is the failure of a particular group of students: those who are raised in poverty. To quote Jones directly: “…when the business model of winners and losers is applied to public education, the losers tend to be children who struggle academically and families without the social capital needed to advocate for their children. The winners are CEO’s and stock holders who earn high salaries with public money but can use their private status to shield themselves from public accountability.”
- School Choice: Jones cites studies and provides links to relevant articles illustrating that school choice fails to deliver on its promise to offer a high quality education for ALL students and instead skims the highest performing group and dismisses those students who fail to pass muster in classwork and behavior. Despite this skimming, only 17% of the charter school students did better than their public school counterparts. Meanwhile charter operators and their shareholders did VERY well.
- Alternative Certification: Jones singles out Teach For America (TFA) for particular criticism because TFA has made the most blatant use of civil rights metaphors… As Jones notes: “…hidden behind these nice quotes is the assumption that other people’s children deserve underprepared “saviors” as their teacher… If the model of TFA is what is needed to improve teaching and learning, why are TFA recruits not sent to suburban schools or wealthy public school districts? Could it be that those parents would never allow someone with five weeks of training to experiment on their child? What the richest and most educated parent wants for their own child should be what we aspire to give all children.”
Jones conclusion: privatization, school choice, and programs like TFA are dis-equalizing… and the only ones who benefit from these purported “civil rights” issues are shareholders.
High Tech, High Stakes Testing Company “Spies” to Protect Itself Against High Tech Opportunities to Cheat
Years ago when I was in college and contemplating joining a fraternity, one of the benefits touted by some of the Greek organizations was their comprehensive files of final examinations. This trove of old examinations served as a study guide and, in some cases would give you the actual examination itself if a teacher gave the same test year-after-year. Oh… and (wink, wink) in some cases one of your resourceful fraternity brothers might even provide you with questions given earlier in the day.
Seven years ago when I was superintendent of schools in NH a group of juniors and seniors entered the school after hours, broke into a teacher’s office, took final examinations on the eve of the examination, and circulated them among their friends. Because the event happened at the close of the school year, and because the event was not brought to the attention of the principal until after the school year concluded, and because we determined that the pilfering of the examinations required breaking into locked workspaces, we involved the police in our investigation. The arrests and trials that occurred the following school year resulted in national coverage (in part because it coincided with a debate in our community as part of the NH primary election), divided the community and school board over the issue of police involvement in the case, and ultimately led the staff, parents, community, and school board to engage in a dialogue on the ethos of the school.
These two personal experiences came to mind when I read Diane Ravtich’s recent posts on the steps Pearson is taking to prevent cheating on it’s high stakes high tech tests through the use of social media…. and the whole issue raises several questions about the consequences of administering high stakes tests of any kind.
As readers of this blog realize, I am an opponent of high stakes standardized testing. But my opposition to such testing includes opposition to heavily weighted final examinations like those that drove college students in the 60s to compile filing cabinets full of tests and high school students in 2008 to break into teachers’ offices on the eve of examinations. Unfortunately our entire educational system is built on the premise that such tests are a valid measure of learning. Why? Because they are basis for measuring student performance in virtually all colleges. To make matters worse, the AP Tests reinforce this mentality as do longstanding state tests like the NY Regents and now the plethora of new exit examinations that are part of the “reform” movement. Because of this reality, high school teachers administer analogous high-stakes tests to “prepare students for college” or to “get them ready for the State tests”. In short, public education is premised on the need to prepare students for summative examinations that ultimately determine whether they pass or fail a course. When viewed through that lens, is it any wonder that students might do whatever it takes to succeed on a such a high stakes summative examination?
The advent of cell phone technology combined with the desire to do whatever it takes to pass an examination inevitably results in memos from test designers like those issued by Pearson. But those protesting Pearson’s directives should ask this question:
- Does your school district administer teacher developed high-stakes final examinations?
- Does your school district allow these tests to be open-book tests?
- Does your school district allow students to bring cell phones (or handheld devices that access social media) into class when a high-stakes examination is being administered?
If the answer to the first two questions is “yes” then having a cell phone could arguably be acceptable since it would provide access to the trove of information available on the internet… But… what if a student, instead of using the phone to access “Google” uses it to seek an answer from a classmate? What steps can a teacher take to prevent that from happening?
The easiest workaround to this dilemma from Pearson’s perspective might be to declare that all students not be allowed to bring cell phones into testing venue. If Pearson issued such a directive the howls would be equally loud and equally justified because a third party vendor would be dictating a school policy that may or may not match the ethos of a school. So instead of mandating the collection of cell phones before entering a test area, Pearson issued an excruciatingly detailed process schools can follow to determine if cheating has taken place ex post facto… and justifiably howls of protest are being evoked. So… what IS the solution?
The optimal workaround to this problem would be to completely abandon the use of high stakes summative examinations. Some progressive colleges have figured out ways of assessing performance that does not require letter grades and, consequently, does not rely on summative test scores. So here’s an idea: Instead of using 21st century high tech “spying” to make sure that 19th century assessments are not being breached why not adopt the assessment methods used in progressive colleges and universities? If high schools adopted the “grading” structures of Bennington, Hampshire, and Evergreen instead of those used in traditional colleges we wouldn’t rely on high stakes tests: we’d rely on professional insights of teachers and each students emerging self-awareness.