In today’s NYTimes Mokoto Rich reports that Lamar Alexander intends to “…reverse the “trend towards a national school board” in federal education policy” by shifting the responsibility for setting standards and developing assessments back to the States. In doing so, Alexander said he was open to reducing the mandated annual tests and allowing states to determine how they will assess the progress of schools:
Mr. Alexander, in a conference call with reporters, said he was “open on the question” of whether the federal government should mandate testing. “Generally speaking, I want these discussions about testing, standards and accountability systems to move back to states and communities, where I think they belong,” he said.
As one who recently posted articles on the history of public education policy since Brown v. Board of Education and one who has written MANY posts opposing the use of standardized tests, Alexander’s proposal puts me (and presumably many other’s who share my convictions) in a double bind. If I were to support Alexander’s proposal on the pretext that the elimination of federally mandated annual tests to be used for the purpose of evaluating schools and teachers was the greatest good it is conceivable that I would be supporting a host of state governments where privatization and re-segregation are viewed as acceptable if not desirable. It is not hard to see that many Senators who advocate “choice” would readily trade the opportunity to introduce that concept into their states in exchange for the “nanny state” that Duncan and Obama have imposed through RTTT. Indeed, as the previous post indicates, advocates of choice have declared annual testing and choice as “the civil rights issue of our time”. Consequently if Congress declares that decisions about testing and choice can be executed more rapidly at the State level it would be difficult for Duncan and Obama to oppose legislation that does so… especially if the new NCLB legislation insists on annual testing which seems to be their “do or die” issue. The ultimate responsibility for this emerging Hobson’s choice falls on the President and his Secretary of Education. By determining that annual tests and VAM would replace NCLB and by using the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to infuse schools with substantial sums of money to create “incentives” to do so, the Obama administration has set the stage for the GOP to use the restoration of State control of education to eliminate their misbegotten legacy. Over the past two months it has become increasingly evident that the use of the federal stimulus to support VAM, testing, and privatization was a huge missed opportunity and may ultimately result in the end of public schooling as it existed in the 20th century… and the disruption Obama and Duncan achieved will result in separate but unequal schools and a hardening of the economic classes if states are permitted to introduce vouchers as part of the ESEA reauthorization.
Several political forecasters believe that the incoming congress will at long last revisit and revise NCLB as part of the overdue reauthorization of ESEA and as part of that process the annual tests that are part of NCLB will be modified in some way. The reasons for moving away from those annual tests are varied. Teachers unions oppose the way the tests are being used for student promotion and teacher retention decisions. Parents oppose them because they create undue stress in their children and deprive them of broad curricular opportunities. Rank-and-file teachers oppose them because of the lost time for classroom instruction. So… who wants them and why?
The answer is that politicians and taxpayers want some kind of “accountability” and standardized tests provide a cheap, easy, and seemingly precise means of evaluating the effectiveness of instruction. As a by-product, tests also provide newspapers with a cheap, easy, and seemingly precise way of rating and ranking schools. Finally, the tests also provide those favoring “market-based” schools with evidence that public schools are “failing” and provide data that “parent-consumers” might use to “choose” the best school for their child if only those parents received vouchers that could be redeemed at the schoolhouse door.
A recent Politico article by Caitlin Emma described the background offered in the first paragraph but avoided delving into the rationales for testing outlined in the second paragraph. Moreover, I felt Emma was too generous in giving credit to state legislatures and Governors who are pledging to limit the hours of testing each year. She misses the point that HOW the tests are used is far more important than HOW MANY HOURS the tests take.
For example, if Ohio passed a law insisting that only four hours of standardized testing be done each year but retained its policy of using test results to measure teacher performance, school effectiveness, and student retentions, nothing would change in he classrooms. In order to prepare students for the four hours of annual high stakes tests administrators and teachers will spend hours preparing for those tests and many of those hours will involve administering tests that mirror the format used in the annual standardized assessments.
Emma’s article offers an example of one politician who wants to find an even cheaper, easier and less effective means of measuring school and teacher performance while limiting the hours of testing. CT Governor Malloy wants to use the SAT for 11th graders in lieu of the current tests because “…the SAT can double as a test for school accountability and college entrance.” Given that Malloy is a proponent of VAM it follows that he would believe the SAT is a viable means of testing “school accountability”… and if he DOES pull this off I would expect the number of multiple choice tests to proliferate in grades 9-11 in CT schools.
The bottom line: changing the number of standardized tests and the length of classroom time spent on those tests will not make any difference in the classroom unless the stakes are changed dramatically…. and there is no evidence that any politician wants to make changes in the stakes.
The Rethinking Schools Facebook feed just posted Valerie Strauss’ April 2013 essay titled “Statisticians Slam Popular Teacher Evaluation Method”. In this post, which addresses a topic I’ve blogged about earlier and quite often. Strauss reports on the findings of the American Statistical Association, a bona fide, objective, longstanding professional organization, regarding VAM or Value Added Method of evaluation:
The ASA just slammed the high-stakes “value-added method” (VAM) of evaluating teachers that has been increasingly embraced in states as part of school-reform efforts. VAM purports to be able to take student standardized test scores and measure the “value” a teacher adds to student learning through complicated formulas that can supposedly factor out all of the other influences and emerge with a valid assessment of how effective a particular teacher has been.
These formulas can’t actually do this with sufficient reliability and validity, but school reformers have pushed this approach and now most states use VAM as part of teacher evaluations. Because math and English test scores are available, reformers have devised bizarre implementation methods in which teachers are assessed on the test scores of students they don’t have or subjects they don’t teach. When Michelle Rhee was chancellor of D.C. public schools (2007-10), she was so enamored with using student test scores to evaluate adults that she implemented a system in which all adults in a school building, including the custodians, were in part evaluated by test scores.
This is an 8 month old article… and Rhee’s methods are so discredited that she is persona non grata (and at this writing jobless)… yet Governors like Cuomo and Kasich STILL believe it is valid as does the “evidence based” advocate Arne Duncan… I have come to the conclusion that believing in VAM is the neoliberal equivalent of believing in intelligent design.
At first I thought it Rethinking Schools was being lazy in publishing this essay on its feed eight months later… and I was reluctant to post yet again on VAM’s flaws… but I have concluded that repetition reinforces learning and increases awareness and so I am following Rethinking Schools lead and hammering away at this issue. Until VAM is as discredited it will continue to appeal to politicians and members of the public who want to find a cheap, inexpensive, and easy solution to “fixing filing schools” and VAM gives them apparent “scientific evidence” that teachers are the problem. There’s one problem with this conclusion: it’s wrong!
Two recent articles, one on Cuomo’s dismay at the low number of “failing teachers” from the NYTimes and another provided by my daughter from blogger Carol Burris via Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post Answer Sheet blog lament NY Governor Cuomo’s insistence that the State double down on the use of value added metrics (VAM) to measure teacher performance. Why? Because he and the Regents expected the VAM tests to prove public schools were “failing” because of bad teachers. When the VAM tests were administered for two years and fewer than 1% of the teachers failed, Cuomo decided to veto a bill that would have protested those teachers from losing their jobs. Why? Because he expected 10% to lose their job! This quote from the Times article with my emphasis added provides insights into Cuomo’s arrogance:
“Given what we now know, it would make no sense to sign this bill and inflate these already inflated ratings,” Mr. Cuomo wrote in his veto message.
What did we know: the tests that were designed to identify at least 10% of the teachers as failures were not emphasized enough in the ratings. Consequently, the teachers’ ratings were inflated because of an over-emphasis on, and this is a quote from the NYTimes reporter Kate Taylor,
…subjective measures, like principals’ evaluations, which in many districts were overwhelmingly favorable to teachers.
Before Governor Cuomo, Regents Chair Tisch, and reports like Kate Taylor characterize “principals’ evaluations” as “subjective” they might want to take a look at a sampling of the methods used. And before they claim an arbitrary percentage of teachers are “deficient” they might want to compare notes with corporate leaders who long ago abandoned the idea that ridding themselves of the lowest performers was the road to success. And last but not least, they ought to check with Principals like Carol Burris who know that bad teachers cannot succeed in schools with engaged parents and, as a result, schools with engaged parents don’t need VAM tests. Here’s Burris’ description of parents’ reactions when Sheri Lederman, one of her stellar teachers, received low VAM scores:
(P)arents have been disinterested in APPR scores. Although they can request their child’s teacher’s APPR score, not one parent in my district has asked for it during the two years that APPR has been in effect. Most principals report that parents simply do not care. Teachers like Sheri have a great reputation because of the years of loving care and great instruction they have given their students. Moms don’t need a score to know that.
Unfortunately, “…loving care and great instruction” can’t be reduced to a number, displayed on a spread sheet, and ranked. And any experienced educator know that the VAM tests can’t capture “…loving care and great instruction”. That can only be evaluated by “subjective” Principals…and Moms.
Earlier this week, Andrew Cuomo stunned the natural gas industry and environmental activists with an announcement that he was going to indefinitely suspend fracking in NYS. An article in The Albany Project described the process activists used to persuade Cuomo to make this decision and, in doing so, provides a playbook to those who want to put an end to the high-stakes testing mania. And the analogy is apt given that in the end Cuomo used “scientific evidence” as the basis for his decision to deny fracking, and readers of this blog and students of statistics know that the “value added measure (VAM)” evaluations beloved by “reformers” are based on junk science and any reputable and respectable statistician or education assessment expert knows that there is NO scientific evidence supporting VAM based on standardized tests.
The Albany Project summarized the activists steps with these bullet points:
- They got organized locally.
- They got organized statewide.
- They correctly identified the significant points of leverage in the machines and applied pressure that never stopped.
- They took their case to their own city halls and made the issue real for people.
- They backed a primary candidate with a funny name and no money who won half the counties in the state while amplifying the fracktivist message.
- They changed the debate.
- They moved public opinion significantly.
- They severely restricted Cuomo’s freedom of movement on the issue.
- They completely out-maneuvered Andrew Cuomo, eventually placing him in such a tight position that his only possible option was to defer to the science.
Using the environmentalists playbook, those in NYS who oppose the over-emphasis on standardized tests might try the following:
- Begin and/or continue applying pressure to locally elected school boards to adopt resolutions refusing to use VAM as the basis for any evaluations and supporting parents who wish to opt out of the tests
- If and when the State tries to compel the local districts and/or parents to comply with the implementation of the tests needed to implement the VAM mandate, file a lawsuit emphasizing that teacher evaluation and student assessment are local decisions… and in filing the suit be prepared to go all the way to the State Supreme Court to prove your point
- Hound Governor Cuomo wherever he goes demanding an end to the overuse, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing
- Make sure that the overuse, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing is an election issue locally and especially at the State level. This will help raise the public’s awareness of this issue.
- Use Cuomo’s acknowledgment that he isn’t a scientist to compel him to also acknowledge that he isn’t a psychometrician and get him to turn over the ultimate decision on the use of VAM to an independent panel of experts.
It worked for the environmentalists because in the end politicians cannot argue against science… and science should always win when there is an argument.
The USDOE announced earlier this week that it plans to require states “…to develop rating systems for teacher preparation programs that would track a range of measures, including the job placement and retention rates of graduates and the academic performance of their students.” Unsurprisingly one of the metrics that USDOE is mandating as part of the rating system is some form of Value Added measures using standardized tests.
A NYTimes article by Mokoto Rich outlines the rationale for this mandate, and it’s full of subtle reinforcements of “reform” advocates, which are flagged in red bold italics. Early in the article Rich quotes Arne Duncan who frames this efforts as a “…nothing short of a moral issue” because when they begin their careers teachers often “…have to figure out too much on the job by themselves.” The solution to this problem is to withhold grant funds from teacher preparation programs that do not pass muster. These paragraphs from the article exemplifies the attitude of the USDOE toward teacher preparation programs, most of which are offered in state funded colleges and universities:
Education experts said the new regulations were necessary to spur change, particularly among colleges that draw most of their tuition revenue from candidates enrolled in education programs.
“I think you need to wake up the university presidents to the fact that schools of education can’t be A.T.M.s for the rest of the college or university,” said Charles Barone, policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that pushes for test-based teacher evaluations and has battled teachers’ unions. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink— the UNIONS are the problem with introducing “reform”.)
It is difficult to argue against more regulations and accountability, but there are several aspects of this proposal that are troubling:
- It reinforces the notion that teachers are the primary reason schools are “failing”: If this initiative was part of a multi-pronged comprehensive plan to increase the public’s respect for the teaching profession it would be very helpful to public education. Instead, this plan makes it sound as if State colleges that prepare students are to blame for the struggles that teachers encounter in their first year, that they are to blame for the low standardized test scores that children in poverty achieve (but presumably NOT responsible for any of the high test scores in affluent districts), and that they accept unqualified teacher candidates in order to line their pockets.
- It reinforces the notion that standardized tests can be used to measure teacher performance: VAM is a sham and the USDOE’s continued insistence that it be incorporated in accountability measures doesn’t change that reality. Oh… and Rich reinforces the “reform” meme that States CHOSE this methodology of student accountability and will therefore CHOOSE this methodology to measure teacher performance with this quote: “Although the rules do not require tests, 42 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have agreed with the Department of Education to develop teacher performance ratings that include test scores.”
- It implicitly reinforces the notion that programs like TFA are superior to “traditional” teacher training programs: One of the underreported changes that RTTT introduced was a deemphasis on districts reporting on the number of “Highly Qualified” teachers they had on the staff, a change that coincided with the promotion of programs like TFA and the expansion of deregulated for-profit charter schools. It will be interesting to see how TFA can sustain it’s standing as a quality teacher preparation program given the fact that most TFA classroom teachers leave the field after 2 years…. and even more interesting to see how USDOE takes action against State Boards who award charters to schools headed by CEOs who lack teaching credentials.
- It implies that the ultimate value of college education is employability: All of the accountability schemes I’ve read about to date imply that employability is more important than versatility: that is, learning a specific skill set is more important than learning how to learn. This is a terrible assumption to make because it assumes the entry skills required in today’s workforce are not going to change and this is clearly NOT the case in public education nor is it true in any field. USDOE and undergraduate colleges cannot predict what the workforce requirements will be in 2050 any more than my college could have foreseen that I’d be sitting at home with access to the library of congress listening to a collection of customized music selected for me by a computer algorithm sharing my views with readers across the country and (based on the information WordPress provides) across the globe. The research skills University of Pennsylvania required for my dissertation were obsolete 20 years later and the skills they require today will change in the next 20 years.
- It assumes that “market incentives” driven by the rating system will increase the number of STEM teachers. The article includes this priceless quote based on the daft logic that job placement metrics will somehow enable teacher training institutions to motivate undergraduates to change their majors:
Using metrics like job placement makes common sense, said Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which administers a program for people training to be high school teachers, because it would force programs to train people for actual job openings.
“Education schools and universities educate a lot of elementary school teachers, an area that’s glutted,” Mr. Levine said. “On the other hand, we definitely need science and math teachers, which they don’t prepare.”
Accountability is needed… but NOT the “reform” driven accountability advocated by the USDOE that will continue to demonize teachers as the cause of “failing schools” and assumes that STEM teachers will materialize if the metrics are right…