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NYTimes’ Late– and Poorly Analyzed– Acknowledgement of Opt Out Movement’s Effectiveness

May 23, 2015 Leave a comment

On Thursday, the NYTimes finally acknowledged that the opt out movement was having an impact on the “reform” movement but missed the boat completely on their analysis of why it is happening. In “‘Opt Out” Becomes Anti-Test Rallying Cry in New York State“, Elizabeth Harris and Ford Fessenden admitted that the movement had gotten the attention of legislators who were “…now tripping over one another to introduce bills that guarantee the right to refuse to take tests”. But the article is full of misleading statements and erroneous conclusions. Take this paragraph for example:

…some education officials and advocacy groups fear the opt-out movement will reverse a long-term effort to identify teachers and schools — and students — who are not up to par, at least as far as their test performance goes. Of particular concern is that without reliable, consistent data, children in minority communities may be left to drift through schools that fail them, without consequences.

The “long-term effort” to identify “teachers… who are not up to par” based on test scores has just started in NY State and has only been in place in one state since 2003. The “long-term effort” to identify “schools… who are not up to par” based on test scores goes back, at most, to just over a decade when NCLB took effect, though some states have used test scores to identify districts that require intervention for 20 +/- years. And the “long-term effort” to identify “students… who are not up to par” based on standardized test scores has only been in place in NY for anything resembling a “long term”. The whole notion that test scores should be the ultimate assessment for teachers, schools and students, then, is a recent phenomenon.

The notion that children in minority communities “may be left to drift” because of failing schools is preposterous. Schools serving minority students have been allowed to drift for decades… and not even a national Supreme Court ruling overturning “separate but equal” or State Supreme Court rulings requiring funding equity have changed that one iota. The civil rights organizations promoting the use of standardized tests to provide equity should first promote the passage of legislation in their states that would provide schools serving minority students with the same services and curriculum offered to students in affluent suburbs.

And this paragraph from the article elicited many rebuttals from commenters:

The refusal movement sprouted after states instituted tougher tests in recent years aligned with the Common Core standards, which, in many districts, caused scores to plummet.

The commenters made it clear to the NYTimes that they were NOT opting out because the tests were too hard or because they created too much pressure: they were opting out because they did not want the tests to dictate the curriculum in their school and the test scores to define their kids, their school, or the teachers in the school.

The article ends with one a response from a think tank that advocated high stakes testing but has now concluded that some states may have gone overboard:

But Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy organization, said that rather than enforcing the rules, government officials might very well retreat.

“You could write a really good history of education writ large about our tendency in this country to go from one extreme to the other, and this has all the hallmarks of that,” Mr. Pondiscio said. “This is not a prediction, but it would not surprise me to see New York, or someplace else, go from testing every kid within an inch of their life to testing nobody, ever.

I doubt that the complete elimination of all standardized testing is happening any time soon… but it may come to pass in the next decade or so that formative testing and competency-based instruction will replace summative testing and norm-referenced instruction… but only if newspapers like the NYTimes help make the public aware of the promise of such an approach.

William Bennett’s Perspective on Public Education Prevails Today

May 22, 2015 Leave a comment

After reading a Forbes op ed column written by William Bennett, it dawned on me that we have gone decades without having a Secretary of Education who spoke out on behalf of the good work that public schools do in the face of adversity. Instead, from Terrell Bell forward each of the Secretaries of Education have used the theme of “failing public schools” as the basis for seeking more funding for schools and from Bennett forward each secretary has implicitly or explicitly promoted the notion that charter schools are a viable alternative. As a result, the re-branding of public education as “government schools” combined with our country’s deep faith in the marketplace has led voters to believe that the best way to fix the “failing public schools” is to replace them with deregulated for-profit charters that parents can opt into the same way they opt into buying a car.

Bennett’s column subtly plays into this notion and is full of disinformation and/or misinformation. Titled “Overcoming the Honesty Gap in Public Education” Bennett implies that States implemented watered down tests to look good but their “dishonesty” resulted in no improvement on the NAEP:

This is a serious problem, but, of course, it is not new. Intentional or not, many states have been offering less than truthful and accurate definitions of proficiency for far too long.

Of course one the reasons for that discrepancy was the fact that states were in effect permitted to develop their own standards and assessments, something that the Federal government was supposedly reversing with the implementation of NCLB Race to the Top. Ironically, one of the “reforms” in the new federal legislation is the chance for States to develop their own standards and assessments, which will exacerbate Bennett’s call for consistent definitions of proficiency.

Bennett also disingenuously misrepresents the development of the common core as a grassroots and voluntary undertaking:

Over the past five years, more than 40 states have diligently begun to implement the Common Core standards, which were conceived in mutual and voluntary agreement between the states, not under the pressure of the federal government. (Granted, the federal government has since intruded in some areas, but that is no longer the case and we must fight to ensure it doesn’t happen again.)

To paraphrase his earlier quote, Mr. Bennett is being “less than truthful and accurate” in his description of how the common core came into being. But the concluding sentences are the ones that jumped out at me because they are irreconcilable with the direction his party wants to take public education:

But the first step to addressing performance concerns is establishing a system that accurately identifies them through the implementation of higher standards and more rigorous testing requirements. American education is moving in the right direction right now. Let’s not slow or stop the progress.

Here’s my question for Mr. Bennett: if you are fighting to keep the federal government from intruding in mandatory testing how will you keep states from “offering less than truthful and accurate definitions of proficiency?”

My Grandson’s Participation in a Gates Funded Initiative

May 18, 2015 Leave a comment

A couple of days ago I got a letter from my daughter whose son attends public school in Brooklyn. The email, titled “Should Have Done My Homework”, lamented the fact that she gave permission for my Grandson to participate in the “Tripod Project“, an effort funded by Bill Gates to develop student questionnaires that can be used to help evaluate the performance of teachers. I wrote her a lengthy response, which I’ve used as the basis for this post. As indicated in previous posts, I have mixed feelings about Bill Gates. But, for reasons outlined below, I have generally positive feelings about using student feedback to help improve school and teacher performance. The opting out question is easy if your child’s test results are not going to be used to assign him or her to a magnet school or used to determine a grade in a course: you do not go to school on that day. As noted in earlier posts, the circumstances in NYC are different, making opting out in any grade level before middle school arguably harmful to a child’s future.

First my thoughts on Bill Gates, who I believe has good intentions but lacks respect for and understanding of public education. Contrary to the belief of many who oppose “reform”, I am not entirely sure that Bill Gates wants to use his philanthropy to make even more money. I know, for example, he’s matched millions of dollars Rotary Clubs across the world have raised to help eliminate polio. To the best of my knowledge, Bill Gates has no investments in the corporations that provide the polio vaccine nor has he developed any software to sell to Rotary Clubs or health agencies to track polio. In seeking to eliminate polio he has, to the best of my knowledge, deferred to public health and medical experts and spent his money how and where they advise him to. Consequently, health and medical professionals have admiration and respect for his efforts. I believe the Gates Foundation has provided grants in other fields in the same fashion, drawing on the expertise of practitioners and researchers in the fields where he believes his donations can make a difference. My problem with Bill Gates is that he DOESN’T confer with or listen to education experts. If he did, he would find that schools like Hanover High School in the district where I last worked has been doing student surveys for decades and, over that time, has developed a system that is scalable IF the teachers in school are engaged in the process the way Hanover High teachers were in the mid-1980s. What’s maddening and sad is that HAD Bill Gates sought out districts who were already doing this and championed their efforts he could have had as great an impact in public education as he’s had in fighting polio– which is virtually eliminated…. and he might have the good will of teachers and administrators across the country.

My thoughts on the use of student and parent feedback to help assess school and teacher effectiveness are positive. In the New Hampshire/Vermont district I led for seven years, we instituted parent survey across the board… and it was PAINFULLY slow and time consuming but ultimately very helpful to the faculties and Boards when we set our annual goals. In order to develop a survey, we needed to get teachers and administrators to accept the notion that the results would be helpful and not punitive; we needed to get ALL parents to see the idea as being worthwhile (to avoid having only those with axes to grind responding to the survey); we had to figure out the logistics for collecting the data and keeping the open-ended responses confidential; and, we had to develop questions that would give us actionable feedback. It took two years to get the survey right and another two years to institutionalize it… but after all was said and done the surveys accomplished their stated goals: They DID provide us with information that both confirmed our beliefs about academic disciplines that were strong (or weak) in our schools and forced us to question some some mistaken beliefs we held in the same vein. The surveys, instituted in 2008, are still in use today. Here’s a link to page on the school district’s web site that has them:

http://sau70.hanovernorwichschools.org/system/app/pages/search?scope=search-site&q=survey

The HS student surveys are especially informative! At the end of each course (which could be a quarter, a semester, or a school year) the teachers have each student complete a survey that has a bank of generic questions and the chance for specific questions the teacher is seeking feedback on. The survey results are collated electronically and shared with the teacher in advance of the teacher’s end of the year conference with their department head. At that conference the department head asks the teacher for their reaction to the surveys and, in most cases, the teachers share the detailed results. But here’s a part of the Hanover High “survey culture” that was particularly unique: when the department head or principal came in to observe the teacher in the classroom, the department head would periodically ask the teacher to leave 5-10 minutes before the end of the period. The department head then engaged the class in a free-form dialogue with to get unstructured and unvarnished feedback on the teacher’s skills. This kind of 360 degree performance evaluation permeated the environment in the school and, perhaps surprisingly to some who are reading this, engendered trust and confidence throughout the organization.  

Given the opportunity to work in a high functioning district at the end of my career provided me with the opportunity to see how having the funds to hire the right kinds of teachers and the staff needed to conduct thorough and thoughtful evaluations made a HUGE difference in the culture and climate of the school…. And this experience makes me especially frustrated with the simplistic notion that standardized tests can be used as the sole basis for determining which teachers are “successful”…. and it makes me frustrated when Bill Gates doesn’t pick up the phone or Google “student surveys” to see how high functioning public high schools are doing this right… In the end, I think he’d determine that high performing schools have higher salaries across the board for teachers; have robust middle level managers who observe, support, and coach teachers; do not put much stock in standardized tests when it comes to evaluating teachers; and introduce change slowly, methodically, and democratically  

 

Now… as to the question of opting out on this particular initiative… I think this is a MUCH tougher call than opting out on the pilot Common Core tests. If teachers and parents want to see something other than standardized tests used to evaluate teachers, SOMEONE has to come up with the money to conduct the field tests of the alternative…. and it’s clear USDOE is NOT interested in anything BUT standardized tests and its also clear they don’t have any money for research. As noted above, it took us two years to develop a set of questions that provided us with helpful information, and we did it with the use of my time and the time of some technology support staff. Assuming Bill Gates it doing these pilot surveys as a means of finding something to supplement or supplant standardized testing then any child’s participation is worthwhile. I’d be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt… but, to paraphrase a former president, I think that trust needs to be verified. Based on every NYC parents well founded skepticism, I expect this and all future pilot efforts to be closely watched. I’ll be curious to see if Mr. Gates uses the data he gathers to conclude that information gathered on surveys is far more helpful than VAM. 

Preparation for Tests is the “Work” of Schools. Everything Else is “Play”

May 17, 2015 Leave a comment

The NYTimes op ed section today features an article by David Kohn titled “Let the Kinds Learn Through Play“. In the essay, Kohn describes the recent push to make pre-school and Kindergarten more “academic” in an effort to address the (sic) failing public schools as described in this paragraph:

By many measures, American educational achievement lags behind that of other countries; at the same time, millions of American students, many of them poor and from minority backgrounds, remain far below national norms. Advocates say that starting formal education earlier will help close these dual gaps.

He then describes how this notion of “starting formal education earlier” has the opposite effect on students, citing one study that showed early academic gains are short lived and another that showed early childhood students who had “academically oriented” programs did worse than students who had “child initiated” learning experiences.

From my perspective the article’s main message was important and helpful to those of us who favor experiential student centered instruction over didactic teacher led approaches. But I felt the article had two overarching flaws: it reinforced the “failing public schools” meme (the above phrase “By many measures, American educational achievement lags behind that of other countries” is a case in point); and it underemphasized the fact that “play” is neglected at ALL levels.

The emphasis on standardization and efficiency do not support “play” of ANY kind. The authors of the Common Core assume that teachers and schools are accountable only for the development of those skills that can be measured with standardized tests. The Common Core also clings to the 1920s paradigm that the most efficient way to educate children is to batch them by age cohorts and measure their progress using standardized tests that are administered annually. To make matters worse, NCLB and Race to the Top assume that the students’ group performance on these annual tests is a reliable, valid and efficient way to measure school performance and teacher performance, and that each student’s performance on these tests is a reliable, valid and efficient means of determining their ability to learn. Because these tests have such an impact on the ratings of the school, teacher, and student, preparing for them becomes the focal point of schooling and anything else is superfluous and inefficient. The “work” in school is test preparation. Everything else is “play”.

Consequently, PE, Music, Art, libraries, and recess are all bundled together as unworthy of attention in school and, therefore, unworthy of funding. They’re not in the Common Core, they don’t have a battery of standardized tests to measure performance, and they all look like “play”. Maddeningly, the teachers who provide instruction in these “non-academic” courses are evaluated based on the student performance on standardized tests. The result? PE, Music, Art, Libraries all inject “Common Core” activities into their curricula so that students can do well on the tests. There is nothing sadder than witnessing students completing bubble tests in an empty gym, an art room with paints and clay in the cabinets, a silent music room, and a library with books on the shelves. Nothing sadder except a playground that is empty throughout the school day because the children have “work” to do.

And here’s what is especially frustrating: the tests the children are “working” to do well on are NOT valid or reliable measures nor do they measure what is IMPORTANT to learn in school… yet their importance to the lives of students, teachers and parents cannot be understated.

Standardization, tests, and efficiency are the enemy of creativity and are undercutting the future of public education. Here’s hoping that eventually the public will see the need to change our emphasis in public schools and allow us to move in a new direction.

Micro Schools Have Tremendous Promise IF……

May 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Schools, wrote an article in EducationNext describing the kind of schools I would like to see in the future for all students. Titled “The Rise of AltSchool and Other Micro-Schools“, Horn’s essay describes several new “micro-schools” that offer personalized, individualized on-line instruction  augmented by project-based learning and Socratic seminars. In Horn’s words: “Think one-room schoolhouse meets blended learning and home schooling meets private schooling.” He writes:

“Micro-schools are gaining traction among families who are dissatisfied with the quality of public schooling options and cannot afford or do not want to pay for a traditional private-school education.”

As noted in earlier posts, I believe that in the coming years that “niche” of dissatisfied families is likely to explode given the emphasis on standardized tests in today’s public schools, an emphasis that is unlikely to go away. The emphasis on standardized testing narrows the curriculum and reinforces age-based cohort groupings, both of which contradict the notion of personalization and neither of which capitalize on the potential for computer technology to individualize instruction. Worse, as engaged parents who are dissatisfied with this constraining curriculum leave public schools their children will, I believe, have a substantially richer educational background than the students left in the public schools making the economic divide even worse than it is now. A virtuous circle could replace this vicious cycle IF politicians abandoned the use of standardized tests to rate and evaluate schools. Standards-BASED tests, used as FORMATIVE assessments to measure the attainment of mastery, would help students, teachers, and parents determine if a student has mastered skills presented in the classroom or learned outside of the classroom. StandardIZED tests, used as SUMMATIVE assessments to measure the rate of mastery, will penalize immature and/or disinterested and/or disengaged learners. And when these summative assessments are used to judge schools and teachers, they become the focal point of instruction. When the curriculum is narrowed to only those topics that can be measured using a mass-produced standardized test creative and capable students become disengaged and their parents begin to look elsewhere for schooling. In the comment section, I appealed to Michael Horn and other writers who advocate the use of technology to individualize instruction, to speak out against the way tests are currently being used to judge schools, students, and teachers. If they did so, it might be possible for public schools to adapt to the kind of personalized approaches used in micro-schools… otherwise, micro-schools will expand by drawing creative and engaged students away from the public schools.

One Arizona Anecdote with Two Different Endings

May 13, 2015 Leave a comment

I read a post by Diane Ravitch describing a study conducted in AZ examining the effect of their expansive charter and choice arrangement and called to mind an encounter I had on a recent trip to Arizona. After spending an afternoon hiking with a friend in a canyon Saguaro National Forest, he invited us to join him the next morning for breakfast at a small family owned Mexican restaurant on the outskirts of Tucson.  One of the members of the breakfast group was a grandmother who was homeschooling her two grandchildren children using the AZ virtual charter school operated by K12, a for profit charter chain. She loved it for several reasons:

  • her grandkids kids weren’t in large classrooms where they were anonymous
  • her grandkids could move at their own pace and do the work when they wanted to do it;
  • her grandkids could do outdoor activities like hiking and mountain biking
  • her grandson could spend more time working on playing the fiddle.
  • the flexible schedule enabled the kids to do the work when they wanted to do it and when it was mutually convenient for everyone.

It sounded like the school her grandson had been assigned to was becoming progressively understaffed and overcrowded and— as she and her grandson described it— “all they worked on was getting ready for tests”. Generalizing from the particular can be dangerous, but from what the grandmother and her grandchild reported there are many who are abandoning bricks and mortar for virtual education.

There are two possible conclusions one could draw from this anecdote. Some would cite this as evidence that the K12 charters are giving youngsters an opportunity to spread their wings, that virtual education can work, that public education’s factory model is failing and needs to be replaced…. and I would agree with each of these conclusions. However I look at this anecdote as evidence that the ones who benefit most from AZ’s virtual education initiative are the shareholders of the virtual schools and the ones who lose the most are the children left in the overcrowded and test crazed public schools— the kids who don’t have a grandmother to help them out or the kids whose parents cannot afford to send them to one of the spiffy new private schools that operate in a parallel universe. The AZ legislature’s determination to starve the “government school” beast and emphasize test scores is having the intended result: it is forcing affluent children out of public schools and providing more evidence that “schools are failing”… The sad reality is that other legislatures across the country are using this ALEC model to accomplish the same end.

WIll the Nebraska State Board of Education Abandon the Industrial Model?

May 10, 2015 Leave a comment

An article in the Omaha World Herald by Joe Dejka describes how a home schooled student thrived by moving through the curriculum he and his mother designed at a pace that matched his learning ability. Based on the description of the young man’s studies, it is evident that he was extraordinarily gifted in mathematics, but it was also evident that one of the underlying reasons his mother removed him from public schools was their emphasis on compliance and required learning that was below her son’s ability… and the article notes that home schooling has increased from under 2% of the population to 2.5%… a small increase but significant enough to get the attention of the NE State Superintendent and State Board.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said quality home-schools do offer some lessons.

“If you don’t spend time engaging students, allowing them to engage in their own learning, they won’t learn as much,” he said.
But he said it’s not easy to introduce flexibility and personalized learning in a public education system that he describes, tongue-in-cheek, as “a good Industrial Age model.”
Members of the Nebraska State Board of Education have indicated that they believe individualized learning plans could be a way to better engage public school students. They’ve included personalized learning as a goal in their newly minted and evolving school accountability system. Just what those plans would look like is not clear at this point.

Much of what public schools currently do is, in Blomstedt’s words, “compliance driven,” meaning what happens in schools is a product of schools following laws and rules. Basic graduation requirements, academic standards and hours in school are, more or less, dictated to public schools.

The article described how the State board has been briefed on competency based education, and at least one member was enthusiastic about the possibilities:

Glen Flint, a state board member who home-schooled his children, said he’s interested in a version of individualized learning called competency-based education.

Generally, competency-
based education is designed to let students advance at their own pace, moving to the next level when they demonstrate proficiency rather than having advancement be based on age or seat time.

As I noted in a comment I left, the NE Board should think about how standardized testing reinforces the “Industrial Age” model. If they are serious about competency based education and personalized learning plans they will abandon the testing of students based on age cohorts. I, for one, would encourage them to move forward… but I doubt that they are ready to take on Arne Duncan and the billionaire boys club who want to use standardized tests as the basis for closing schools!