Last week NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman wrote an op-ed piece titled “Fighting the Derp“. What is Derp?
“Derp” is a term borrowed from the cartoon “South Park” that has achieved wide currency among people I talk to, because it’s useful shorthand for an all-too-obvious feature of the modern intellectual landscape: people who keep saying the same thing no matter how much evidence accumulates that it’s completely wrong.
Over the past few days I’ve accumulated examples of Derp in public education. The most obvious example came to me in an instant” the belief that standardized testing will improve schools is the derp of public education “reform”. When I started my career as a school administrator in the mid 1970s Pennsylvania administered state standardized tests to determine which schools were doing best. Since that time I witnessed the advent of state tests in NH, MD and NY and to no one’s surprise the results never changed: schools in affluent communities and neighborhoods ALWAYS outperformed schools serving children raised in poverty. Now we have derp on steroids: a Secretary of Education who— despite evidence to the contrary presented by a national professional association of statisticians— believes standardized tests can be used to measure teacher performance. After decades of testing that has not improved the results one would think another idea might be tried… but that would upset the “school reformers” who want to be reassured in their beliefs.
Other examples of Derp in public education include:
- The belief that the development of grit and resilience in children— not additional funds for schools— are the secret sauce that children raised in poverty need in order to succeed in school.
- The belief that there is some way to scale up successful charter programs that are supplemented with grant funds without increasing the public funding needed for the replicated schools.
- The notion that if parents could select schools the way they select appliances that there would be more equity in education… despite the fact that affluent districts typically do not accept out-of-district students unless they pay full-price tuitions and charter schools have admissions standards that limit their enrollments.
- The idea that since “Government is the problem” and public schools are government schools they are blocking innovations and advances that would be possible if they were run like businesses.
- The notion that unions are the primary problem with school performance, a notion that persists despite the fact that the lowest performing schools on NAEP are in the south where unions are weakest.
- Our mental models concerning the grouping of children in age cohorts is pervasive and unshakeable and, as noted frequently in this blog, is one that drives many of the misguided “reforms”.
I am confident that this list is incomplete and welcome additions and corrections….
ELizabeth Harris’ article on a judges decision regarding the racial bias could have an impact on all graduation or grade-level promotion examinations across the country if someone took this case to it’s logical conclusion. According to Harris’ summary of the case, Judge Kimba Woods decision that the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test 2 (or LAST) turned on the fact that the test’s “content objectives” were irrelevant and unimportant to teaching.
The judge found that National Evaluation Systems, now called Evaluation Systems, part of Pearson Education, went about the process backward.
“Instead of beginning with ascertaining the job tasks of New York teachers, the two LAST examinations began with the premise that all New York teachers should be required to demonstrate an understanding of the liberal arts,” Judge Wood wrote.
As Judge Kimba’s quote indicates, this isn’t the first employment test that failed to pass muster because it was discriminatory. It’s predecessor, the LAST-1 was found wanting because it, too, unfairly discriminated based on race…. and the test to replace the LAST-2, which is no longer in use, is currently under review by courts.
“Reformers” AND policy makers should take heed at these findings when they advocate the use of “high stakes tests” for two reasons. First, not all skills can be assessed using pencil and paper tests… and the job tasks associated with teaching have more to do with relating to children and peers than demonstrating an understanding of liberal arts and science. Secondly, before using any “high stakes” tests that determine the long term fate of students or teachers policy makers should be certain that the tests measure requisite skills and not cultural or ethnic background.
So while courts are reviewing the LAST and finding it wanting and as a result school districts are paying damages to roughly 3900 people who “failed” the test and took substitute jobs as a result, schools and teachers are being evaluated on tests designed by Pearson that supposedly measure the students’ mastery of the common core which supposedly indicates a student’s readiness for work or college… And the results of those tests, like the results of LAST, seem to have a racial bias. In the case of LAST,
…the pass rate for African-American and Latino candidates was between 54 percent and 75 percent of the pass rate for white candidates. Once it was established that minority applicants were failing at a disproportionately high rate, the burden shifted to education officials to prove that the skills being tested were necessary to do the job; otherwise, the test would be ruled discriminatory.
Given the results of the standardized tests administered over the past several decades it is evident that they discriminate against children raised in poverty. Here’s an interesting question for the Regents: could they prove that the new Common Core Tests assess the skills necessary to enter college or the workforce? If not, the tests they are using to evaluate students, schools and teachers would be ruled discriminatory.
Channel 10, Philadelphia’s CBS affiliate, recently broadcasted an interview with West Chester PA Superintendent Jim Scanlon, who’s letter to the newly elected governor got their attention. The broadcast was good news for three reasons:
- West Chester is one of the best districts in the state (Disclosure: I graduated from West Chester High in 1965) and, therefore, criticism brought forth by it’s Superintendent has a high level of credibility
- Dr. Scanlon did great job of answering the questions the reporter directed… despite the reporter’s efforts to make his response combative Scanlon remained composed and offered some specific examples of the ridiculous nature of the tests without using that terminology.
- Governor Wolf’s résponse was heartening. It appears that he will move away from the single test metric of his predecessor and seek feedback from a wide array of groups as opposed to relying on a small band of conservative legislators and “reformers”.
Maybe better times will be coming in PA… stay tuned!
I looked at this cartoon and thought of another caption:
The GOP’s and Neo-Liberals Favorite Branch of Statistics: VAM
To make the caption work we’d need TWO elephants: the one in the picture and a clone of the one in the picture with the word “DINO” splashed on the side in graffiti-style writing.
I wish MaryEllen Elia well… but based on the article in the NYTimes announcing her appointment, I sense that in the coming weeks I may be finding some areas of serious disagreement with her OR she may be finding herself in disagreement with the Regents and/or the Governor.
In Ms. Elia’s most recent assignment as Superintendent of Hillsborough County Superintendent in FL, she was the recipient of a $100,000,000 grant from the Gates Foundation to improve the teacher evaluation system. Under the new system she implemented, 40 percent of teachers’ evaluations were based on “…their students’ improvement on tests” (VAM), and 60 percent was based on “….observations by principals and peers“. During Ms. Elia’s ten year tenure she Hillsborough also instituted a merit pay system that “…allowed some new teachers to earn more than veteran teachers”. These “reforms” would clearly warm the hearts of the Regents and Governor Cuomo. However, Ms. Elia was also part of “…a group of Florida superintendents who asked the State Board of Education to suspend consequences for schools and students in the first year of the tests“, presumably because the transition was too fast. THAT position would contradict the previous Commissioner’s stance and would fly in the face of the Governor’s impatience. Her willingness to advocate for a phasing in DID win her the qualified support of the union leadership in NYS:
The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, offered tempered praise, saying in a statement that while the union was “opposed to high-stakes testing” and grading teachers on students’ test performance, “even when MaryEllen applied it as required under Florida law, she made collaboration her mantra.”
If past actions are the best predictor of her future, Ms. Elia is more likely to lose Randi Weingarten’s support than the Regent’s support… and VAM is likely to proceed on schedule in NYS. This paragraph in the Times article explains why:
She will make these decisions against a backdrop of low test scores, well-funded special-interest groups, angry parents and a State Legislature that has become more active on education policy and has been in conflict with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
The Times may believe that the “well funded special interest groups” are supportive of teachers… but anyone keeping a balance sheet knows that the for-profit charter lobby has much more money than the unions and much more support in the legislature than those pesky parents who want their public schools to provide something more than test preparation exercises. I hope I’m wrong about VAM… but I’m afraid money will trump common sense and the needs of children.
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.
Carol Burris, a NYS Principal who is a respected voice in the national education community, wrote a post for the Washington Post explaining how and why the opt out movement could lead to the unravelling of the “reform” movement. The bottom line is this: if enough students do not take the test the results will be invalidated and the basis for measuring school performance and teacher performance will collapse. This is why Arne Duncan and Meryl Tisch made threats to withhold funding and why Governor Cuomo is perturbed. And if you need an example of why NYS’s tests overreached, take a look at this excerpt from Burris’ post:
Here is a sample from the Grade 6 Reading test that was given in Virginia last year to measure the state’s Standards of Learning (SOL):
“Julia raced down the hallway, sliding the last few feet to her next class. The bell had already rung, so she slipped through the door and quickly sat down, hoping the teacher would not notice.
Mr. Malone turned from the piano and said, “Julia, I’m happy you could join us.” He continued teaching, explaining the new music they were preparing to learn. Julia relaxed, thinking Mr. Malone would let another tardy slide by. Unfortunately, she realized at the end of class that she was incorrect.”
That is certainly a reasonable passage to expect sixth-graders to read. You can find the complete passage and other released items from the Virginia tests here.
Contrast the above with a paragraph from a passage on the sixth-grade New York Common Core test given this spring.
The artist focuses on the ephemerality of his subject. “It’s there for a brief moment and the clouds fall apart,” he says. Since clouds are something that people tend to have strong connections to, there are a lot of preconceived notions and emotions tied to them. For him though, his work presents “a transitory moment of presence in a distinct location.”
I will let readers draw their own conclusions.
I, too, will let you draw your own conclusions…