Jay Matthews latest blog post in the Washington Post describes a concern raised by education policy writer Mike Petrilli about the “thin content” in his child’s first grade class in Montgomery County, MD. After recounting the somewhat contradictory response he got from two officials in the district in following up on this issue, Matthews invited early elementary teachers in Montgomery County to respond to him about the curriculum expectations. This whole post brought back memories from my career as Superintendent from 1981 through 2011.
In the late 1980s, when districts were reacting to the “rising tide of mediocrity” in public education, several books were written on the topic of curriculum in schools and several consultants made a good living offering workshops and lectures to schools. One of the books that captured the imagination of conservative thinkers and many upper middle class parents was Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch. While many books at the time were long on theories of teaching and learning, Cultural Literacy provided specifics about what students should know and read if they hoped to be culturally literate, to be able to converse with the great thinkers of the time. For the checklist minded, particularly those who favored the “Western Canon”, Hirsch’s books and essays were a Godsend. For teachers, particularly those in schools serving children raised in poverty, the lists were absurd. How could children who could not read at all in third grade be expected to complete the extensive listing of books for students at that grade level and begin to know the information about the world that Hirsch saw as foundational.
During that time, I was leading the Exeter NH School District and we were revamping our curriculum to not only respond to “the rising tide of mediocrity” charge but to also ensure that the students attending six elementary schools in six different communities were offering the content the Junior High and High School teachers believed students should know. While I didn’t know it at the time, I would walk three other districts through this same exercise in the next 25 years. And what I learned from this exercise is best summarized in the metaphor coined by education consultant Fenwick English: we built a bomb so big we can’t get the plane off the ground. That is, by developing curricula that met the expectations of content specialists at the secondary level of our schools and/or the entry level of colleges we created a curriculum that was so dense and full of objectives that no teacher could teach it an no student could learn it.
There is an aphorism that secondary teachers teach subjects and elementary teachers teach students. When secondary teachers develop the benchmarks they want to see all students entering their classrooms with “fundamental information” in their content area but the practical reality is that when TIME is a constant LEARNING will be variable… and in some cases CONTENT will be sacrificed. If the focus on learning was curriculum MASTERY instead of curriculum COVERAGE we might be able to provide content teachers with students who have the fundamental information they seek… but if we insist on schooling children the way we do now, and administering high stakes tests to age based cohorts of children, somethings got to give… and what is giving way is the content in areas that are not the subject of tests.
Valerie Strauss used her Washington Post column earlier this week to share FairTest’s proposal that we declare an indefinite moratorium on standardized testing so that districts could “…cut back their own test mandates (and) provide time and incentives for states and districts to revise their assessment and accountability programs.”
The most compelling argument for discontinuing the standardized testing regimen is offered in the concluding paragraph:
NAEP shows that overall gains in reading and math (since the advent of standardized testing) have just about halted. Progress toward closing achievement gaps has also slowed. Test-and-punish programs are wreaking havoc in many urban neighborhoods by contributing to school closures and resulting community destabilization.
A few days ago I shared a DRAFT of the ideal education platform in this blog that suggested a similar action. From my perspective the discontinuation of standardized testing with the exception of NAEP would give states the chance to use the Common Core as the basis for developing their own sets of standards and engage school leaders and parents in a dialogue about what measures are most important. This is echoed in FairTest’s proposal, which is summarized in the final sentence of the blog post:
The new (accountability0system would provide much stronger evidence of learning and progress, reveal far more about whether programs are working, and improve rather than undermine teaching and learning, for our most vulnerable children.
In closing, here is a reprint of the campaign position I would hope SOME Presidential candidate will take in the run up to 2016. Which ever candidate does so will get at least one volunteer in NH who will knock on doors and make phone calls.
- Discontinue the use of standardized tests as the primary metric for rating schools. By now parents, teachers and voters are fully aware of the misuse of standardized testing in our public schools. They realize how demoralizing this testing is for teachers, school communities, and—most dishearteningly— for students. The use of standardized achievement tests to rate schools is narrowing the curriculum by pushing out subjects that cannot be tested inexpensively. This emphasis on testing dehumanizes the school by making the preparation for tests the focal point of classroom instruction. Worst of all, the testing provides the public with misleading, meaningless, and seemingly precise data that fails to measure the true value of schooling. The test results do accomplish one thing: they help persuade the public that our public schools are failing. If elected I will suspend the testing mandated by Race To The Top and issue a waiver exempting school districts from all tests mandated by No Child Left Behind. In place of these tests, I will direct the Secretary of Education to work with practitioners, post secondary institution leaders, and business leaders to devise an accountability framework that each state will use to develop their own unique means of measuring school effectiveness. One size does not fit all in the classroom, and we’ve learned the hard way that one size does not fit all in public schools.
Diane Ravitch’s post yesterday evening describing the testing protocols or preschoolers in TN makes me wonder if universal pre-K is a good idea given our current mindset. Pre-Kindergarten programs are currently a blank slate and I despair to imagine what efficiency-minded “educators” like Arnie Duncan will write on it. Given the chance, I think Duncan will be touting privatized solutions and, as noted in earlier posts, it would not be surprising to see vouchers proposed as the best solution. Worse of all, TN’s practice introduces even younger children to the “efficient” practice of grouping by age cohorts and using standardized tests to determine their “readiness” to enter the next level at factory schools who seek “ready-to-learn” widgets. Maybe we should wait to promote Pre-K until we are disabused of the notion that the private sector can run things better than “the government” and that we can measure learning with a standardized test.
Greg Hinz, a political blogger for Crain’s Chicago Business, wrote a post outlining the findings of a study conducted by Myron Orfield of the Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School that concluded:
Chicago’s massive experiment in adding charter schools pretty much is a flop, one in which the charters do little better than conventional schools and in some ways lag behind.
The article describes the findings of the study in detail that show no significant difference in the performance of the charter schools as compared to public school despite the fact that “Pound for pound, charters should do better than typical neighborhood schools because parents, who have to go to special trouble to enroll their children, presumably are more invested in their kids’ performance…”
Hinz noted that because the report was released on Columbus Day he had received no official report from either the pro-charter or anti-charter sides of the debate, though he imagined some would be forthcoming. If he read the comment section that followed his article, he would see that the debate was already underway and each side was taking predictable positions. The “pro-charter” side offered several variations of “I told you so”. The pro-charter folks questioned the format of the research, and disputed the impartiality of the researcher, noting that the “Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School” was once called “The Institute on Rae and Poverty”.
Reading the article and the comments made me wonder if we will ever have a debate about the way our schools are organized like factories? I’m convinced that as long as we remain stuck in the politically framed “right-left” debate we’ll plod along with the same kind of schools we have now. I would suggest a different line of paradigmatic questioning: why do we group students in age-based cohorts? why do we use standardized tests as the means of measuring “school performance”? why aren’t we using technology to individualize instruction? As long as we continue these three practices we will continue to “manufacture” students the way we manufacture widgets and turn out large numbers of “defects”.
And here’s my concern: anyone who started teaching a generation ago has only known schools that focus on raising test scores. That wasn’t always the way. There was a time when teachers, Boards and administrators talked about how they could help EVERY student succeed instead of focussing on getting a large group of students to raise their performance on a test to the “satisfactory level”, a test whose definition of “satisfactory” was determined by an arbitrary “cut score” set in a State Department office. All of this is reinforcing the factory paradigm and not providing the chance for teachers to try a different approach, which was the vision many educators had when charter schools were first launched.
Finally, the testing regimen is moving us more and more into a two tier system of schooling. Affluent schools who perform well on tests are immune to the instructional regimen that matches the testing regimen and so their students get a more robust and engaging form of schooling, one that integrates technology, the arts, and personal focus. Schools serving children in poverty are slaves to the tests: if the teachers don’t raise test scores their schools are threatened with closed and their employment is threatened. This fear pervades the classrooms and children suffer as a result.
So to return to the primary theme of this post, why aren’t we asking these three paradigmatic questions:
- Why do we group students in age-based cohorts?
- Why do we use standardized tests as the means of measuring “school performance”?
- Why aren’t we using technology to individualize instruction?
Mokoto Rich’s article in today’s NYTimes includes one major factual error and one major oversight in its reporting. The factual error has to do with it’s reporting on the “history” of Race to the Top, which is presented as a recent workaround on the part of the Obama administration:
Faced with congressional gridlock, the Obama administration two years ago bypassed Congress and issued waivers to 43 states, excusing them from the requirement on the condition that they put into effect rigorous academic standards, such as the Common Core, and incorporate student test scores into performance ratings of teachers.
This is NOT the case at all. The Obama administration introduced “Race to the Top” in 2009 as a means of circumventing the inevitable consequences of No Child Left Behind and used $4,000,000,000 of ARRA funds to launch the initiative. As readers of this blog realize, I was an early and vocal opponent of Race to the Top, writing a lengthy letter and essay to NH State Superintendent Ginny Barry in October 2009 that she subsequently circulated to my colleagues in advance of a meeting held to determine if our state would seek a Race to the Top grant. My reasoning for opposing the grant was primarily its insistence that test scores be used to determine teacher effectiveness. At that writing, five years ago, there was NO evidence that value added measure (VAM) would work and in the years since NO evidence has emerged. To Dr. Barry’s credit and the credit of New Hampshires legislative and school leaders, New Hampshire held out until the very end of the Race To The Top cycle and ended up securing the waivers while minimizing the effect of testing on teacher evaluations. Rich’s oversight was the statistically questionable use of tests to evaluate teachers.
Because I find it maddening that the “newspaper of record” for much of the US made a factual error in its reporting on this issue, I sent the following letter to the editor:
Mokoto Rich’s article Washington State’s predicament regarding the ratings of its public schools attributed the issuance of waivers to a decision the President made “two years ago” to bypass a gridlocked Congress. In fact, the administration began issuing waivers to states as part of the Race To The Top (RTTT) program that was initiated in 2009 using $4 billion of ARRA funds as an incentive. These waivers were offered on the condition that States adopt the Common Core and incorporate student test scores into performance ratings of teachers. Republicans view these waivers as an example of the overreach of Presidential power. At the same time, many educators view them as a means of undercutting State and local control of curriculum. Most opponents decry the overemphasis on standardized testing, especially the statistically questionable use of tests to evaluate teachers. These underlying political and educational issues were overlooked in this report.
I will be interested to see if there is a revision to the article based on the clear and irrefutable error in reporting… but fear that history is being re-written before my very eyes.
The “Venture Capitalists are Poised to ‘Disrupt’ Everything in Education” described in an article in last week’s Nation magazine might be hitting a bump in the road in NYC where the NYTimes reports that Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina and Mayor diBlasio are changing the way schools are rated.
The Nation article shares many of the failings of on-line charter schools that Diane Ravitch has covered for months in her blog and outlined in her book published over a year ago. While it is “old news” to those who follow education policy carefully, based on conversations I’ve have with those who are not tuned in to the privatization movement, it will be a revelation to many readers… and not a minute too late!
In the meantime the Times article overlooked the potential of the new rating system to stymie the growth of for-profit charters. For the past several years Mayor Bloomberg and his Chancellors used a rating system that used test results as the primary basis for determining if schools were failing and once a school “failed” it was invariably closed and it’s empty classrooms turned over to one of the spiffy new schools operated by one of the disruptive venture capitalists. While the Times emphasized the complexity of the new system and its increased emphasis on parent feedback and diminished emphasis on test scores, the one change that caught my eye was this: it uses test results over three years instead of one. That factor alone should diminish the number of “failing schools” in the short term because the newly developed NYS Common Core tests have not been administered three times as yet. All of this will likely to lead to another showdown in Albany this fall, as this closing paragraph indicates:
Charter advocates are hoping to get legislators in Albany to raise the cap on the number of charter schools in the city, and some charter schools are seeking space in city school buildings. Mr. de Blasio and Ms. Fariña have expressed reluctance to close struggling schools, as Mr. Bloomberg often did, which means that charter schools may face difficulty in getting space.
What this article doesn’t state directly but does imply: the new rating system will make the identification of “struggling schools” more difficult… and that will limit the closures and force more battles like the one diBlasio had this past year with Eva Moskovitz and Andrew Cuomo.