Last evening my daughter and son-in-law were visiting and we played an old-school game called Facts in Five that my daughter recalled playing when she was in JHS in the eighties. The game requires players to fill in a 5X5 grid that has letters running down the vertical column on the outside and categories running across the horizontal column on the top. The categories are things like “American authors”, or “Colleges”, or “Adjectives with 5 syllables”. Players try to fill in the grid in a 3 minute interval. When players read out their responses, they receive credit for each unique response. As we tallied scores last night, there were dozens of instances where we needed to determine the nationality of a particular author or whether a person was alive or dead or some factual element regarding an answer. In the “old days”, many of these kinds of debates required thumbing through reference books or dictionaries…. but last night the answers came quickly through the use of my son-in-law’s cell phone which connected to our dsl.
I share this anecdote because it struck me as exemplary of the kind of ready information that is UN-available to many students and citizens as I read an article in today’s NYTimes titled “US Struggles to Keep Pace in Delivering Broadband Service”. The article featured a picture of Riga, Latvia, with a caption that read: “The capital city of Latvia, Riga, has an average Internet speed that is at least two-and-a-half times that of San Antonio“… oh… and the article report the cost is one fourth of San Antonio’s. Why? Because other countries subsidize the service, recognizing the importance of broadband to economic competitiveness. In our country, which protects the internet providers, we actually pass laws that make it difficult for consumers to acquire broadband in their homes. These two paragraphs summarize the sad state of affairs in our country.
Leticia Ozuna, a former San Antonio councilwoman who worked on the municipal broadband effort, said that in her former district in South San Antonio, some 70 percent of households had no Internet service. Often, she added, students gather at night in the parking lot of the Mission Branch Public Library to do homework using the library’s free Wi-Fi connection, long after the library itself has closed.
San Antonio’s power company has a largely unused fiber-optic network that local government offices have been using for high-speed Internet service for years, but a Texas law prevents the city from using the network to give low-cost service to consumers.
The article cites several examples of cities that have invested in broadband but kept the price prohibitively high for consumers, contrasting them to Korea where broadband is widely available. As the somewhat trivial “Fact-in-Five” incident illustrates, having even dsl provides a marked advantage in information gathering over books… and if I wanted to share information like MOOCs or Khan Academy and didn’t have broadband I would be at a complete loss.
And here’s what’s maddening: the conservative think tanks who excoriate the US education system using test data don’t see why we should use “horse race” data on band width to rank economic opportunities afforded through broadband:
“Some people like to look at it as a horse race,” said Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, “but I’m not sure that’s the right way to look at it.” He added, “We’re not at the starting gate, we’re not at the finish line. We’re somewhere in the middle of the race.”
It’s OK for us to be “in the middle of the race” when it comes to providing learning tools but completely unacceptable for us to be in the middle of race when it comes to education? What’s wrong with this picture?
I’ve written several blog posts on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) trying to strip away the contentiousness in an effort to find a common ground… but I have come to the same conclusion as blogger Bill Boyle whose recent post title, “The Myth of Neutrality and the Common Core”, describes the state of mind on the issue.
For those of us who worked in public education over the past four decades the debate over the common core echoes debates that go back to Dewey and Terman. The fundamental question is whether there are a set of facts that all children need to know by a certain point in their schooling or if schools should provide children with the tools they need to seek out information on their own. Terman, the father of standardized testing, believed there was a core set of measurable content that all children should know at a certain point in their life and he designed metrics to determine if the children were making sufficient progress. Dewey, on the other hand, felt that children had a natural inclination to learn and, given the time and opportunity and coaching, would ultimately develop the skills needed to gain the knowledge necessary to succeed in life. As noted in earlier posts, Terman’s ideology clearly won out over Dewey’s, in large measure because it mirrors the beliefs in our country that standardization and efficiency are more important than diversity and creativity.
Boyle asserts that the the CCSS was written by corporatists: people who want to privatize public education and who intend to use the inability of students to pass normative tests to buttress the claim that students are attending “failing public schools” that can only be fixed by introducing the efficiencies that exist in the private sector. And Boyle has evidence to support this contention. The folks who want to make a profit from public schools, though, are shrewd. they have got the endorsement of some professional organizations and some college professors and DID engage SOME teachers in row development and review of the standards. Moreover, the profiteers have done an outstanding job of public relations, not long because they have outright control of some media outlets but also because they are free to spend money on promotion. Public education must scrupulously account for every dollar they spend, and there isn’t a public school system in America who could budget 1% of what Exxon Mobil and the Chamber of Commerce spent to place advertisements for the Common Core in major media outlets.
What annoys Boyle, me, and the other writers whose articles are linked in his post is that there is no evidence whatsoever that the creation of a Common Core curriculum will address the greatest problems facing schools, which is the difficulties faced by the children raised in poverty. Worse, the institution of the Common Core and the testing regimen that accompanies it will only reinforce the outdated and outmoded model of schooling in place today: the model based on Terman’s premise that all children develop intellectually at the same rate and in the same fashion. This premise has been proven false for decades and is clearly wrongheaded based on the self-evident differences among children in terms of their physical growth. Instead of spending millions to reinforce the status quo it would be better to use those funds to develop a truly individualized system of education, a system that is possible now more than ever.
Here’s the irony of the effort to make education profitable by introducing more tests: we will evolve into a two or three tiered system whereby some students will attend expensive private schools, other students will be stuck in the factory model we’ve had in place for decades, but an ever expanding number of students will drop out of schooling altogether and enroll in home schooling collectives rather than have their kids subjected to the testing regimen or go needlessly into debt to pay for K-12 schooling.
Value Added Measure (VAM) is the fantasy means of measuring education’s bottom line. The theory behind VAM, that a teacher’s value can be calculated measuring student “growth” using the results of standardized achievement tests, is proving to be statistically impossible because of the large number of intervening variables and the inexactness of the tests themselves. As a result of these inherent flaws, several districts are finding it impossible to use VAM as a basis for teacher evaluation… and that poses a MAJOR problem for USDOE because they predicated their entire Race To The Top program on the theory that teacher performance needed to be tied to test results. A blog post by Diane Ravitch on the VAM mess ends with this fitting summary:
The “errors” (with VAM) cannot be corrected because the method itself is the problem. The errors and flaws are integral to the method. VAM is Junk Science, the use of numbers to intimidate the innumerate, the use of data to quantify the unmeasurable.
To use a turn of phrase that is often seen in tech publications: the flaws are not a bug in VAM, they are a feature… and as Vamboozled blogger Audrey Amrein-Beardsley explains they can’t be fixed easily.
Herewith is a synopsis of several other articles on VAM and the misuse of testing information that appeared in the past week:
Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet blog found a host of errors in the VAM statistics used to measure teacher performance. These two paragraphs (with my emphasis added) describe the flaws:
Testing experts have long warned that using test scores to evaluate teachers is a bad idea, and that these formulas are subject to error, but such evaluation has become a central part of modern school reform. In the District, the evaluation of adults in the school system by test scores included everybody in a school building; until this year, that even included custodians. In some places around the country, teachers received evaluations based on test scores of students they never had. (It sounds incredible but it’s true.)
It is believed that at least 40 teachers received faulty evaluations for the year 2012-13 year. The school district will have to recalculate their scores, and, therefore, the bonuses, firings and other actions that resulted from the faulty scores.
I do not envy the HR staff who has to explain why they are rescinding a raise or the attorney who will have to defend the wrongful dismissal or withholding of pay… but I’m sure the “reformers” will have a way to deal with that kind of “collateral damage”.
The NYTimes reports that DC is not the only urban area facing challenges with teacher evaluation. In an article titled “Bumpy Start of Teacher Evaluation Program in NY Schools” the Times describes how the systematization of classroom observations is creating stress and paperwork… but no changes in the overall ratings of teachers. While VAM is not explicitly mentioned in the article, it is referenced indirectly, as in this paragraph:
Some teachers also said they were being partially graded on subjects they had no control over. Geoffrey E. Tulloch, a chef instructor at Food and Finance High School in Manhattan, said the school’s English Regents results counted in his evaluation.
The administrations response to this was that they would be developing a test that WAS relevant to items like culinary arts and finance. A criterion referenced test would make perfect sense in those areas… but is unlikely if the goal s to grade teachers on a bell curve.
The Education Opportunity Network’s blogger Jeff Bryant questions VAM as part of its overarching questions about the efficacy of using tests to measure the overall effectiveness of schools. He writes:
While these arguments rage over the relevancy of test scores in policy making, some are now questioning, to use the operative phrase in Anderson’s sentence above, whether it’s even possible or preferable “to quantify the value” in education.
The whole idea that teaching and learning is a pursuit that can be expressed and judged by numbers and rankings, which seems to be a forgone conclusion to policy makers and economists, is increasingly an unsettled matter to most Americans. What they see instead more and more looks like a nation turning its back on the well being of students – especially those who are most in need.
His post goes on to offer compelling evidence that we ARE turing our backs on our neediest children… but ends on a hopeful note that 2014 might find us abandoning tests in light of their limitations. Here’s hoping that’s the case!