Diane Ravitch wrote a post on Monday posing a set of questions raised in a Washington Post op ed essay on benchmarking by Boston College professor Andy Hargreaves. In the essay Hargreaves describes his perspective on the rationale behind benchmarking, which came to the public’s attention in the 1990s as part of the response to the fallout from A Nation at Risk. Hargreaves rightfully points out that benchmarking– especially international benchmarking— has been used by “reformers” as a means of “proving” that US schools are deficient and, therefore, should be overhauled. But, as I noted in a comment to both posts, benchmarking is nothing new in public education.
For decades individual student performance has been based on benchmarks. Teacher-made tests served as the de facto benchmark for determining whether a student passed or failed. The aggregated set of grades a student earned (i.e. their transcript) served as a benchmark for determining whether a student gained entry to particular colleges or not. Students were disciplined based on standards set forth in student handbooks and or standards set by a classroom teacher.
In most cases these standards were normative and not formative: a student was not compared to a set standard but rather compared to his or her cohorts. One of the reasons for setting benchmarks was to devise standardized tests like the SAT that provided a means for colleges to determine if a student with all A’s at East Podunk HS was as prepared as a student from an elite private school. Another reason to move away from this normative comparison of cohort groups was to avoid using it as a basis for homogeneous grouping that identified some students as “high perfuming” and others as “slow”. An important reason was to establish a means of implementing a mastery learning model whereby students progressed individually instead of as a cohort.
Before decrying benchmarking I think it is important to realize it’s been in place— and not necessarily to good effect.
An anecdote from my experience as a HS Principal in rural ME illustrates two approaches to the “benchmarking” teachers used to grade students.
In November of the first year I was Principal I reviewed the computer print-out listing the grades each teacher assigned to students and discovered that every student in one of the science teachers’ classes received an “A”. I asked my secretary (this was 1977— we didn’t have “administrative assistants” at that time) to schedule an appointment with this teacher after school. My intention was to make certain he understood that we wanted to have higher standards in the school and that “giving all A’s” was unacceptable. When I asked the teacher to explain why he had “given” all of his students an A, he replied that he hadn’t “given” them anything, they earned it. He believed it was imperative that all his students master the information presented in order for them to understand the information he would be presenting in the coming units and so he insisted that they re-take tests until they earned an “A”. That meeting in my office stayed with me for years to come…. and was on my mind later that year.
At the end of every school year, there is invariably a student who falls short of a passing grade… and invariably a case where a teacher can decide whether a 64.5 is an “F” or a “D”. One young woman had started the year off badly because of issues she was dealing with at home and done very poorly academically as a result. As the year progressed, a combination of her emerging maturity and the amelioration of her problems at home resulted in an upward trajectory in her grades. Several of her teachers were sympathetic to her problems and recognized that the improvement was genuine. Her social studies teacher, however, who was skeptical of my “higher standards” mantra, threw it back in my face when the student fell .75 short of his “high standard”.
Both teachers had benchmarks, but each was using them for different ends. As readers of this blog realize, I’ve come to realize that the science teacher’s benchmarks are the ones we SHOULD be using when we grade schools and students. Unfortunately, it’s the social studies standard that is in place thanks to NCLB, RTTT, and “education reform”.
Vermont ROCKS! Here’s what’s distressing, though… the Burlington Free Press had to add this editorial “insight” to it’s reportage:
However, the state’s high graduation rate has not translated to significant gains in college graduation rates. Many Vermont teens graduate and find they must pay to take non-credit bearing remedial courses even at open-admission community colleges.
Sometimes I think people look too hard for conspiracies. Diane Ravitch’s recent blog post on LAUSD is a case in point. Titled “Breaking News: LA Officials Met with Apple, Pearson a Year Before Taking Bids”, the post insinuates that these meetings constitute evidence of collusion. I’m not sure at all. A more likely explanation is that LAUSD was doing due diligence. Here’s my comment on the post:
This is NOT intended to defend LAUSD because I do not know the extent to which they wrote their bids to proscribe other offers… but… as a Superintendent who was interested in integrating technology into the schools my staff and I often met with software and hardware vendors to gain a better understanding of their products and to gain a better understanding of what was possible… When we chose to specify Apple operating systems over DOS (an unpopular decision in an IBM town) it was because we determined that there was more application software available… when we explored data warehousing we met with a vendor who was connected with a college professor I knew and learned a great deal about what was feasible at that time and what we could incorporate into a bid specification… A prudent administrative team will take a lot of time deliberating on what kind of hardware and software they need for a school system before committing resources. It’s POSSIBLE that LAUSD administrators were doing due diligence in convening extended meetings with Apple and Pearson… and those letters from Pearson are unsurprising and, from my perspective, unpersuasive “evidence” of collusion. Education salespersons use the same approach and same language as every good salesperson: they want to strike up a personal relationship with the purchaser and enter into a “partnership”… Have you looked at buying a car lately? You’ll get the same kind of email from a car salesman.
When I was superintendent in NYS there was an audience member who had his own public access TV show and who was convinced that every action we took as administrators was somehow part of a shady deal and/or part of our effort to promote “constructivist” education theories. His show was creepy. It included grainy footage of my home and the church I attended where he thought folks should picket to protest whatever scheme he imagined I was involved with. He would receive copies of our board packets and highlight memos flagging evidence of administrative misconduct. While no one ever picketed my home or my church and no one gave much credence to his rants and analyses, the show did make me look at all allegations of administrative misbehavior with a more jaundiced eye. It’s possible the LAUSD administrators engaged in misconduct— but it’s more plausible that he and his staff were doing their due diligence in gaining an understanding of the best way to match their technology purchases with their education needs…. and from Deasy’s perspective having a robust technology-based standardized testing program is an “education need”.
“States Given and Reprieve on Testing”, Mokoto Rich’s article in yesterday’s NYTimes, reports on Arne Duncan’s announcement that states could wait another year before using test results as the basis for teacher evaluations. Like most reports in the mainstream media, Rich gets the sequence of events backwards:
Over the past four years, close to 40 states have adopted laws that tie teacher evaluations in part to the performance of their students on standardized tests. Many districts have said they will use these performance reviews to decide how teachers are granted tenure, promoted or fired. These laws were adopted in response to conditions set by the Education Department in the waivers it granted from the No Child Left Behind law, which governs what states must do to receive federal education dollars. The test-based teacher evaluations were also included as conditions of Race to the Top grants that have been given to states by the Obama administration.
The lead sentence of this paragraph implies that the adoption of these laws was motivated by a grassroots came from the STATES. This is clearly NOT the case. The last sentence of the paragraph describes the real motivation: this linkage was mandated by Race to the Top.
While some may think that the pushback from local school boards and teachers might have caused this reconsideration, I think the real motivation for the delay can be found here:
Even those who originally pushed for the adoption of teacher ratings based on test scores have advocated a slower timetable. In June, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the country’s largest donors to education causes, called for a two-year moratorium on states or districts making any personnel decisions based on tests aligned to the Common Core.
If Fairtest, the NEA, the AFT, and scores of education researchers claim VAM are flawed they are dismissed as naysayers…. Bill Gates’ voice, on the other hand, is respectfully heeded.
I am not surprised that Bill Gates is backing off on the timetable. I think at his core Bill Gates is an engineer and as such will ultimately be persuaded by evidence. The notion that standardized tests could serve as a proxy for school and teacher quality makes sense intuitively and is especially appealing to those who seek a means of making schools more focussed (i.e. more efficient). The appeal is even greater to politicians and businesspeople who want to believe there is a cheap, easy, and fast way to “fix” public schools— one that won’t require more spending or more taxes. HOPEFULLY, the Obama administrations complete embrace of test-driven schooling will disabuse the public of these agreeable fantasies.
Schadenfreude is the pleasure one derives from seeing the misfortunes of another person. For example, as a Boston Red Sox fan, it is the tingle we feel when the Yankees lose…. and as one who opposes the use of standardized tests as the primary means of measuring student performance it is the frisson I experienced when I read in an Education Week article that President Obama’s education policy is one of the areas Republicans targeted in their otherwise ill-conceived lawsuit against his use of presidential power… or read a Fair Test press release in Diane Ravitch’s blog announcing that despite over a decade of mandated standardized testing ACT scores remain flat… or read about the many disgraceful abuses of deregulated privatized charter schools in Florida… or read about a “miracle school” championed by a pro-privatization Governor closes because of low test scores… or read about the eroding support for the Common Core in the NYTimes and Education Next, a conservative mouthpiece. All of these articles indicate that the top-down and outside-in reforms are resulting in adverse unintended consequences that are eroding public support for the reforms themselves… BUT
The major findings of the survey are unsettling:
1) While Americans asked to evaluate the quality of teachers’ work think, on average, that about half of the teachers in their local schools deserve a grade of A or B, they think that more than one-fifth deserve a D or F; even teachers give these low marks to more than 1 in 10 of their peers, on average.
2) More than one-fourth of all families with school-age children have educated a child in a setting other than a traditional public school.
3) The public thinks less money should be spent on class-size reduction relative to the amount spent on teacher salaries or new books and technologies, if they are told the relative price of each intervention.
If 25% of children in this country are no longer educated in a “traditional public school” we may be approaching a tipping point, especially given that those surveyed believe that 20% of the teachers warrant a D or F grade and the public is unwilling to spend more money to provide small classes for children in public schools. Those who support public education may be winning the battle against the “government imposed” NCLB, RTTT, and CCSS but we may also be losing the battle to gain support for “government schools”. In the end, it may be that Fox News followers are the ones who will experience schadenfreude as overall support for public schools erodes.
Frank Bruni’s column, “The Trouble with Tenure” is based on a false premise. Namely, he continues the canard that teachers have “tenure” and that “tenure” is a bad thing. Having read the comments in the “NYTimes’ Picks” section it is clear that many readers eloquently explained why “tenure” is needed: school boards, administrators, and the public CAN be unfair. Because no one in that group addressed the misuse of the term “tenure”, I offered the following comment:
Teachers do not have “tenure” and an experienced teacher can be dismissed. Teachers are afforded DUE PROCESS after receiving a CONTINUING CONTRACT following a PROBATIONARY PERIOD. The “due process” can be a complex procedure dictated by pages of detailed language that teachers’ unions negotiated or it might be a short description of how a hearing would be held before a school board or impartial labor board. The protections provided by the “continuing contract” are either defined by state law or state or local board policy. The length of the “probation” for teachers is either defined by law or negotiated by teachers and the school board. If a teacher is performing poorly, the administration is required to document the poor performance in accordance with the rules outlined above. Having worked as a school administrator for 35 years I know it can be done. I also know protections for teachers are needed for all reasons cited in other comments. Finally, having worked as an administrator for 35 years it rankles me to see “tenure” being used incorrectly as a way to avoid addressing the effects of poverty and to avoid the truth about public education: the VAST majority of teachers work hard for too little money and deserve the public’s wholehearted support.
In my 35 years as an administrator I spent more time working with underachieving teachers and administrators than I spent more time dealing with poor performing teachers than I spent celebrating the hard work of the many high performing teachers. I could fill MANY blog posts with anecdotes that would explain why teachers need the protections they are afforded with a continuing contract. Like so many of the “solutions” the school reform movement comes up with, “eliminating tenure” is fast, cheap, and easy. Any “solution” that doesn’t include those three ingredients is snake oil.
David Kirp’s op ed essay, “Teaching is Not a Business“, echoes many posts on this blog. In addition to the pithy aphorism that serves as the title, Kirp’s essay touches on a host of topics that I’ve blogged on in detail, including:
- the need for teachers to be champions for their students
- the failed idea of using standardized tests as the ultimate measure of education, teacher performance, and school performance
- the demonstrable failure of the “turnaround” idea
- the shortcomings and pitfalls of merit pay plans
- the lack of evidence that charter schools are any better than public schools
- the reality that organizational change is superior to the quick fix inherent in “disruption” and the application of traditional business practices
- the reality that organizational change takes time
- the inherent messiness of any enterprise that provides human services
- the failed promise of technology
A look back at blog posts will show that the number of Times articles championing market-based solutions to education, the use of business practices in public education, charters, vouchers, disruptive technology, and “turnaround schools” FAR outnumber the articles like Kirp’s that are based on practical, realistic solutions. I’m glad the Times is giving its readers “the rest of the story”…. but expect to see several counter arguments in letters to the editor characterizing Kirp as a defender of the status quo, a union apologist, and an academic promoting failed ideas. I hope I’m wrong.